THEO PANAYIDES meets an academic and popular scientist spreading the gospel about volcanoes
Jacques-Marie Bardintzeff is blissfully happy. It’s 8.30 on a wet Sunday morning, and – just as soon as he’s done with the business of being interviewed by the Sunday Mail – he’s going to Troodos. “I have written many papers on Troodos, I have teached [sic] Troodos, but I’ve never seen Troodos,” he explains in his French-accented English. “And for me it’s a dream to be here, because Cyprus, for a geologist –” he shakes his head in wonder – “it’s impossible, for a geologist, not to go to Cyprus before he dies”.
He nods eagerly, his lively blue-grey eyes shining beneath his greying, frizzy Brillo pad of hair: “I am 60 years old since two weeks [ago],” he says, “but I am like a young geologist that will be discovering a new thing”.
You may wonder what’s so special about Troodos – but in that case you’re obviously not a geologist, and indeed a volcanologist, like Jacques-Marie. He’s in Cyprus for a few days (it’s his first visit), giving two lectures – one for students at the University of Cyprus, titled ‘Volcanoes: explosive eruptions, climatic effects, hot spots and plumes’, the other at the Hellenic Bank lecture hall for a general audience – which itself is typical of his double role as academic and popular scientist; but today it’s Sunday, so his friend and colleague Dr Michel Morisseau is taking him to Troodos. Dr Morisseau is a French geologist who’s lived in Cyprus for years (he’s the curator of a Nicosia exhibition called ‘Volcanoes, the life of the Earth’). He’s an old student of Jacques-Marie’s, but the two men haven’t seen each other since 1987 – so today is a reunion with an old friend as well as a first-ever visit to the wondrous geology of Troodos. It’s going to be a good day.
Every day would appear to be a good day for Jacques-Marie Bardintzeff. I’m sure he has his dark side, but it doesn’t come through in conversation – especially (though not only) when the conversation concerns his beloved volcanoes. His life, if not necessarily charmed, has been straightforward – “a straight line”, as he puts it, from a good school into academia, growing up during what the French call ‘Les Trente Glorieuses’ or ‘The Glorious Thirty’, the three decades between the end of WWII and the oil crisis of 1973. Those were the years, as he puts it, when “all was increasing: the salaries of people, the productivity”. Those were the years when jobs were plentiful, and any graduate of an Ecole normale supérieure (the rigorous schools that produce France’s elite) could pretty much take his pick.
For Jacques-Marie, the choice was obvious: ever since he was about four years old, growing up in the mountains around Grenoble in the heart of the French Alps, he’d always known that he wanted to be a geologist – and, from about 10 years old, had narrowed that down to becoming a volcanologist. “For me, it’s the best part of geology,” he asserts, “because volcanology is both science and adventure, and it’s a good witness of the active Earth. Because, in the minds of many people, geology is an old science. It’s for old people”. He shakes his head vehemently. He’s often asked to speak in schools, he explains, and when he meets young children “I explain to them that today, in Etna, or in Hawaii, volcanoes are active today – today! this Sunday! – and rocks are formed, and these rocks are younger than you!” So much for an old person’s science.
I assume he enjoys speaking to schoolchildren; in fact, he’s exactly like the madly enthusiastic teacher all of us had at some point – the one who looked a bit eccentric, bounded into class and started talking nineteen to the dozen, so excited he might trip over his own words and elicit affectionate giggles. He’s excited about being in Cyprus, asks if I’m Cypriot (I am) and looks most intrigued: “So you are a typical Cypriot?” he enquires, looking like he might take a sample to ship back to the lab for analysis. He’s excited about dangerous volcanoes, and explains that today, this week, Mt. Sinabung in Sumatra – “I can write ‘Sinabung’,” he says, grabbing my pad and scribbling it down – is erupting: cattle have died, rice fields are covered in ash, 20,000 people have been evacuated. There are 50 eruptions a year, give or take. Mt. Etna was active just a couple of days ago, soon it might be Popocatepetl in Mexico. “The Earth is more active than you can imagine”.
He’s excited about our interview too: “For me it’s a pleasure, and important, to meet you,” he says earnestly (early on, apropos of nothing, he’s concerned about his accent: “You understand what I say or not?”). Spreading the gospel about volcanoes is part of his mission. Jacques-Marie is a professor at two universities, the University of Cergy-Pontoise and the University of Paris-Sud Orsay, but he also writes what the French refer to – with charming, and very French, snobbery – as ‘ouvrages de vulgarisation’ (‘works of vulgarisation’) on volcanoes, popular tomes with titles like The ABCs of Volcanoes for the vulgar masses. His most recent book was actually aimed at eight-year-olds.
“It’s a pleasure for me to explain to maximum of people,” he declares. “Sometimes I have students – it’s a pleasure – but since I begin to teach, for me it was important to meet maximum of people, [whether] directly or by media, radio or TV, or by books”. He’s appeared on TV talk-shows and written a book every year, on average, since the late 80s; his motto is the same as Pliny the Elder’s, “Nulla dies sine linea” or ‘Not a day without a line’. He tries to write something every single day, even on weekends. “I have a family,” he concedes with a wry shrug, “I have a wife and daughter – but the Saturday morning, Sunday morning, I cannot imagine not writing a book”.
His lifestyle is simple enough: he teaches, writes, works in the lab – and sometimes, maybe three or four times a year, he goes out in the field, visiting volcanoes and hopefully witnessing eruptions (he’s only seen 10 to 20 “nice big” eruptions in a 30-year career). His only real passion, apart from volcanoes, is sports: he cycles and skis and also follows the Tour de France, quite obsessively by the sound of it. Two months ago, just in time for his 60th birthday, Jacques-Marie was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration (albeit only at the first, lowest level) – and the Dean of his university, bestowing the award at a smallish, convivial ceremony, surprised him by asking five trivia questions about the Tour, all of which he answered correctly.
‘Of course, the Tour de France has been hit by scandals recently…’ I note, letting the question hang in the air – but Jacques-Marie, to his credit, refuses to get judgmental and self-righteous when it comes to ‘l’affaire Lance Armstrong’. Yes of course, doping is wrong, he replies briskly – but “I am with the runners, not against them”. He knows how incredibly hard it is to be a top cyclist; he’s gone up the same Alpine mountains at half their speed, and respects their achievements. It’s a similar response when I ask about France in general. Isn’t the economy stagnant? Isn’t the country malfunctioning? – but again, he refuses to be negative. Yes, there are problems, unemployment, what-have-you – “but there is some good news too”. For all its faults, “France may be the best country in the world to life [sic]. If you ask the French people ‘For you, where is best to life?’ they will answer ‘France!’.”
Is that true? I don’t know – but it doesn’t matter, the point is Jacques-Marie’s unshakeable optimism, bubbling as naturally as lava from an angry volcano. He’s an enthusiast; you can’t keep him down. He’s also a scientist, convinced by the power of Science to solve the world’s problems – and he’s also a man who takes the long view, dealing (by definition) in forces that transcend paltry human endeavour, and could change our world in a heartbeat.
Let’s talk, for instance, of the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park in the US. The caldera, or collapsed crater (“I can write ‘caldera’,” he offers), is 85 kilometres by 45; inside the caldera there are 300 geysers and 10 hot springs. The supervolcano erupted in prehistory, about 600,000 years ago, with an intensity that was 100 times more powerful than Krakatoa, the biggest eruption in modern times. Such huge eruptions are rare, he admits, but if one were to happen now, “maybe in one year – next year, we don’t know – all United States will be destroyed”.
Well, first of all everything within a 100-kilometre radius of the eruption would be simply vaporised, as in a nuclear explosion – but the whole country would also be covered in volcanic ash, ranging in depth from maybe a metre near Yellowstone to maybe 1cm in New York City. “I don’t say that all Americans will die,” he clarifies – but the dust would immobilise everything, effectively stopping the economy in its tracks. What’s more, such an eruption, which is almost impossible to foresee (we can tell when an eruption is imminent, but there’s no way of knowing how big it’ll be) would also have severe climatic effects, bringing temperatures 10-15 degrees down in the entire Northern Hemisphere due to all the ash and gas in the atmosphere. Admittedly, the Southern Hemisphere would be unaffected – but the Southern Hemisphere has its own supervolcano which could also erupt at any time, Mt. Taupo in New Zealand. “I can write ‘Taupo’,” offers Jacques-Marie helpfully, grabbing my pad again.
Later on, he tells a story of having gone to Hawaii last summer, acting as volcanic tour guide for a party of 16, including his wife and teenage daughter. They got in a boat and sailed close to a volcano that was spitting lava. There was lava in the sea and the boat was very close, maybe five metres from the lava; it was all so thrilling. “I could not stop saying ‘Jade’ – the name of my daughter – ‘Jade, you are living historic minutes! Enjoy, because it will be very short’. And I don’t stop. During 15 minutes maybe [that] we were close to the lava, I say maybe 20 times: ‘Jade, enjoy, it is historic minute!’.” There’s a lot of Jacques-Marie Bardintzeff in that story – his work as a “witness of the active Earth” (a witness, you might say, to History) but also his bubbly energy, the almost manic, overwhelming enthusiasm. Presumably, after 16 years, Jade is used to it.
And what of Troodos? Why is Cyprus so important to geologists? First of all, “it is the capital of copper,” he explains – but Troodos is also well-known because there are outcrops of “oceanic crust” in the mountain, from the days when Cyprus was under the sea.
“You can see submarine volcanic lava that is maybe 92 million years old. It’s maybe one of the best in the world for geology,” enthuses Jacques-Marie. You can see “pillow lava”, lava that took on a spherical shape from being underwater. If we’re talking “submarine volcanism”, Cyprus offers one of the two top locations in the world (the other being Oman). “It’s old, but it’s very interesting,” says this lively volcanologist, darting the occasional glance at a nearby armchair where Dr Morisseau is waiting patiently to escort his old friend to the rock formations – no doubt dodging noisy tourists and souvla-eating families, all of them oblivious to the prehistoric remnants in their midst. It’s going to be a good day.