We’re finishing up our rollicking interview with Stephen Moorbath, gadabout geochemist, irrepressible punster, world-class archaeological grunt, and—as we discover—a connoiseur of volcanoes worldwide.
Q: I’m a big armchair fan of the showier aspects of geology, eg volcanic activity. My family used to take us trout-fishing at Spirit Lake, a pristine body of water which sat below Mount St. Helens before the major eruption in 1980. Ever visited St. Helens or any of the Cascades?
A: I’ve worked a lot with volcanoes, which are my second major geological interest. And in fact, I visited Mount St. Helens not long after it erupted! Volcanoes are the bowels of the Earth, and they emit its waste products (which is why some people refer to them as lava-tories).
Q: Stephen, have you done any investigation on the vulcanology of the Mediterranean, especially active sites like Mount Etna? I am very taken with Etna. Until I flew around it last fall, I had no idea it was such a tall (11,000 feet) handsome chocolate-colored cone. And that snow around the top, with a bit of cherry-red lava! Reminded me of my favorite icecream dish—with marshmallow topping and a cherry on top. Until I saw what a wretched climb it would be, I had fantasies (armchair, of course) about doing a farewell dive into its crater, as the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles was said to have done.
A: I have worked mainly on the volcanoes of Iceland and Chile. I’m particularly interested in the chemical compositions of the lavas and what they can tell us about the nature and composition of the depths of the Earth. In Iceland I witnessed at close quarters an eruption on the island of Surtsey. Truly awe-inspiring. The heavens were on fire, the Earth trembled continuously, and the sea emitted vast columns of steam. Surtsey sits on the present-day mid-Atlantic ridge, which is the suture of the split between Europe and America. That occurred about 55 million years ago; since then, Europe and America have drifted apart at about 2 centimeters per year. (Maybe it was better that way!)
Q: Stephen, you are a man of many interests. What are your favorite leisure activities? Are you busy traveling to places you’ve not yet seen, natural wonders you’ve not yet ogled?
A: My favorite pastimes are classical music, photography, archaeology, palaeoanthropology (human evolution), philately (love of stamps, not television!) and cycling. I love travel. Scenically, the most beautiful countries I’ve visited are Chile, Norway, Yemen, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, and Greenland. As for towns and cities, too many to mention!
• My best scenic memory is our honeymoon; Pauline and myself, touring round the western USA in 1962 with a small car and a tent. We went to Bryce Canyon, Arches Monument, Goblin Valley, the Arizona desert, the Rockies, etc—you lucky people! The Grand Canyon was a real favorite—but I would never want to experience again the agony of heat cramp in my legs at 120 degrees F. at the bottom of the canyon!
Q: You’re also a linguistics buff, aren’t you? And some while ago, you had the kindness to correct a linguistic misstep of mine, having to do with the ancient Etruscans. Tell us more about them. Mystery folks, weren’t they?
A: Yes, I’ve studied them a bit. They lived side by side with the ancient Romans for hundreds of years BC, but they had their own culture and language, unrelated to any other. Eventually they merged with the Romans.
Q: Or were conquered or assimilated by the Romans.
Q: Can you teach us a deathless phrase or two in ancient Etruscan?
A: Judging by the amount of Spanish wine you took on board at the dig in Spain, you’re fond of the grape. Here’s an Etruscan phrase you’ll like. This sentence dates to about 400 BC, and refers to Fufluns, the Etruscan god of wine.
“Mi Fuflunusram, mi mathcva.”
Q; Which means?
A: “I am of Flufluns, and I am full of inebriating drink.”
Q: Well, cheers! Or bottoms up, as you must say in jolly old Oxford.
Thanks, Stephen, for a fascinating globe-spanning ride!