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"Continental Drift - Colliding Continents, Converging Cultures"


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Preface by
John F. Dewey, FRS. FGS

Foreword by

Prof. Sherban Veliciu

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Chapter 4 (PDF Format)


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Geologica Belgica


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Book Details

ISBN # - 0750306866
Author - Constantin Roman
Publisher - Institute of Physics
Year - June 1, 2000

Review: Geologica Belgica - November 2006

Constantin ROMAN, 2000. Continental Drift: colliding continents, converging cultures. Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol and Philadelphia, ISBN 0 7503 0686 6, 210 p., Price EUR 18.

This is an extraordinary book. Despite its title it is not a treatise on plate tectonics, although its author is a well-known geophysicist, who has made fundamental contributions to the study of the collision of continental plates, by means of seismology. His PhD thesis, “Seismotectonics of the Carpathians and Central Asia”, (submitted in 1974, at Cambridge University, where he was the last PhD student of Sir Edward Bullard), sent shock-waves through the scientific community. He put forward solutions and models on the sub-crustal earthquakes of the Carpathian arc of Romania and presented the first focal mechanism solutions to the Himalayan earthquakes (delineating the newly-defined Sinkiang and Tibetan plates). He invented as early as 1972 the notion of “non-rigid plates”, or “buffer plates”, before the notion of continuums was adopted in geology. After graduating from Cambridge he worked as a Consultant for Shell, BP, Exxon, Petrofina, Total and all other oil majors, to become a world expert in basin analysis, and to contribute to the discovery of many oil fields in the North Sea, Barents Seas and elsewhere. So much for his scientific career.

As a refugee from Ceaucescu’s dictatorship, he metaphorically performed, in a sense, a “continental drift”, from his native Romania to England and Western scientific and human society, because one must not forget that on the British Isles, all Europeans are referred to as “continentals”, hence the title in his book being fully justified, in the best tradition of British pun of double-entendre.

Constantin Roman was born in 1941, in Bucharest, into an intellectual family, who never kow-towed to the communist régime: this was for him a source of difficulties both to get out of his country to study abroad, as much as during his stay in England, as a student on a Romanian passport, but without his country’s blessing.

The first chapter, “The DNA Signature”, explores the author’s Romanian roots on the paternal side, and Moldavian Czech and Transylvanian ancestry on the maternal side. He got a Master’s degree in Geophysics from the Bucharest University, in 1966, with a dissertation on Palaeomagnetism. His story of the curriculum and teaching methods of University studies in Romania and the relationships between students and professors is truly superb.
Chapter 2, “NATO Secret”, tells us about his escape from Romania and his arrival at the University of Newcastle, in England, in April 1968. This visit was made possible through a NATO travel grant, which he kept secret from the Romanian authorities, which otherwise might have found a convenient excuse to deny him a passport to travel to the West. In this way he applied for and got a passport with a one-month visa to travel to England. He left Romania with five guineas in his pocket (£5.05) and two icons he hoped to sell, on the last day of the meeting on Palaeomagnetism, where he was scheduled to present the results of his Romanian research. The Head of the School of Physics, who had organised the meeting was Prof. Keith Runcorn, F.R.S., famous in the fifties for his pioneering work on the geophysical interpretation of palaeomagnetic data, proving the polar wandering paths, which remains to date a corner stone of the continental drift theory. In search of a thesis subject, Constantin visited also the Oxford Laboratory of Archaeometry, where palaeomagnetism was used to dating archaeological clay artefacts.

Chapter 3, “Paris Students Riots”, relates the story of his transit through Paris, on his way back to Romania, during the fateful May 1968. Here he witnessed and describes the extraordinary events which, incidentally, made him figure out the hitherto unbeknown to him practice of  “Vivre à droite et penser à gauche”.  But the general strike in France causes Roman’s French transit visa and the Romanian re-entry visa to expire and he fears being sent back to Ceausescu’s Romania, as an “illegal”, and thus jeopardise any future chance of travel to the West. Thanks to the Governor of the Banque de France his French visa is extended to three months, whilst the Romanians refuse the extension of his re-entry visa. Selling his icons allows him to pay his return ticket to Newcastle, where he is invited for the summer by Prof. Ken Creer.

Chapter 4, “Pet on One Pound a Day”, relates his stay at the Laboratory of Palaeomagnetism, in Newcastle, where he comes as a Visiting Research student, but also tells us about the people and the academic atmosphere, in England of the late 1960’s.  Unable to find a scholarship at Newcastle to pursue his PhD, beyond the summer, he is encouraged to apply to other universities, in the UK, Canada, the US and Australia, as all along he is haunted by the deadline of his visas, but he has no alternative option, as returning to Romania would jeopardize any future plans in academia. He learns by accident that a research scholarship is available from Peterhouse, the oldest Cambridge College (founded in 1284). From an unexpected quarter, Tuzo Wilson, the inventor of the “hot spots” offers him the position of  a teaching scholarship at Toronto. But as he is short-listed and interviewed at Cambridge by Sir Edward Bullard, a geophysicist of world repute, Roman finally chooses Cambridge.  Sir Edward Bullard, FRS distinguished himself during WWII in using magnetic methods for demagnetising the ships of the Royal navy, detecting the mines at sea, as well as the German submarines. In peace time, Bullard is also remembered as the inventor of the dynamo theory at the origin of the terrestrial magnetic field, through convection in the Earth’s core and also for his contribution to continental drift by proposing a mathematical algorithm to model the reconstruction of the Atlantic, known today as the “Bullard’s best fit”.  Bullard was at the time Head of the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics at Cambridge. Constantin is welcome to the Common Room, around a table where staff and researchers of the department mingle informally and where conversation is vibrant and inspiring, whether on scientific or non-scientific topics. Here he meets Dan McKenzie, who is interested in Romanian earthquakes and wants to see him work on the subject. A little before the 1969 summer vacation Roman is granted the Research scholarship from Peterhouse, which enables him to start in earnest his PhD. His status is now settled for 3 years and this marks provisionally the end of his struggle with the Romanian, French and British bureaucrats. At Cambridge he has an active life outside the subject of his research, due to his joie de vivre and his efforts to make his country better known to his colleagues and friends, some of whom thinking that Hungarian was the national language of Romania!

Chapter 5, “the Rat Race”, relates about the huge academic competition and pressure in producing quick and meaningful results and especially securing their paternity through publication. Prompted by McKenzie, his supervisor in the first year of study, he embarks on his research on the Seismo-tectonics of the continental crust and in particular the sub-crustal earthquakes. By the end of the second  term he gets his first results on the Carpathians: “one could find, for the first time, the shape of the sinking lithosphere under the Carpathian arc, in the form of a vertical parallelipiped”.  The results are a world’s first and considered significant enough to be accepted for publication in Nature (December 1970). For a first-year Romanian student, who just arrived, this is an auspicious start. Soon McKenzie is replaced as a supervisor by Edward Bullard (who insists on being addressed as “Teddy” by his students). This switch allows Roman to continue his work on Central Asia. The pages on Teddy Bullard’s career are enchanting. They show the Cavendish Laboratory founded by Maxwell and animated by his successors, one of whom was Rutherford, whose pupil was Bullard. They were familiarly known as the “Rutherford boys”, eminent specialists in atomic physics. It was the golden age of the Cavendish Laboratory, which produced the most Nobel prize winners per square foot in Cambridge… It was in this tradition of freedom of research that Bullard founded his own department of Geodesy and Geophysics, especially seminal in the 60’s and early ‘70s, when Roman was there. How different from Romania! “More often than not researchers would reach the age of wisdom without, as such, reaching the wisdom of age, like an endemic perpetuation of mediocrity”.

Roman goes on to gather his seismic data from Central Asia, through the world-wide seismic Station Network (WWSSN), intended for monitoring nuclear explosions and earthquakes as a by-product. This information is collated from the microfiche library of Professor Hans Berckhemmer’s, at the University of Frankfurt/Main and is processed at Edinburgh International Seismological Centre and at Aldermaston Atomic Physics Laboratory. This entire saga might be rather dull should it not be related with such great gusto about people, places and situations he encountered as well as how he was able to relocate more accurately the Central Asia epicentres and come out with “iconoclastic” models of the “non-rigid plates”. In order to test his new ideas against his rather conservative geologist contemporaries, Roman goes on a lecture tour through England (Oxford, Norwich, Newcastle, Imperial College) and on the continent (Luxemburg, Liège and Frankfurt). At Luxemburg’s European Symposium of Seismology he meets his former Bucharest professors, who are jealous and tell him he is  “too young to deal with plate tectonics”. At Liège, invited by J.C. Duchesne, who knew him from a stay in Cambridge, he presented his novel ideas, in impeccable French, during a lecture entitled “Sur la limite des plaques lithosphériques dans la croûte continentale”, which was the centre piece of his thesis.

Back in Cambridge Bullard tells him, to his amazement, that a group at the MIT (Peter Molnar) is working on the same subject and that an article had already been submitted to an international journal and accepted for publication, which was to be printed imminently: exactly the same region of Central Asia, the same earthquakes, the same focal mechanism solutions! Bullard advises him to limit himself to the Carpathians, for a Master’s degree, as a consolation prize, as all his research efforts would have been in vain if Molnar’s paper was published before Roman’s Cambridge thesis was submitted as an original piece of work. This  to Constantin is simply unacceptable! In such tight corner as he suddenly finds himself, his resourcefulness comes to the fore, as he contacts the editor of the “New Scientist”, a well-known weekly journal in London. The Editor accepts a paper of 6,000 words with two diagrams summarizing Roman’s three years of research. It is published several weeks before the American paper appears: the miracle is performed just in time to save Roman’s hard work. Such is the academic rat race which Constantin describes so vividly.  Bullard is very pleased indeed and finds him funds for a 4th year at Peterhouse. He must now finish his thesis and try to find a job in England and permission for permanent residency in the UK, as his future wife is refusing to leave the country and settle elsewhere. He files hundreds of job applications with the recommendation of his supervisor. An interview at the Hague with Shell, is recounted with great humour. Shell has no job offer for him, but true to his fighting spirit he soldiers on. He marries in 1973, in Cambridge, in the absence of his parents, who are systematically denied a visa by the Romanian authorities and eventually died before Ceaucescu’s demise. In his desperate search for jobs Constantin is offered a research position as journalist for the Daily Telegraph, but finally, as the 1974 oil crisis develops, geologists and geophysicists are again in demand, the oil exploration in the North Sea and elsewhere takes off and Constantin gets his real positive answer from a Midwest American company, the Continental Oil Company, which has exploration licences in the North Sea. He has now the status of permanent resident in the UK and passes his PhD in the Spring of 1974. By this time his Romanian passport had expired, on April 5 1974, exactly five years after he left Romania behind. At long last Constantin is now out of the tunnel!

In the last chapter, “Lotus Eater”, the story is meant to counterbalance the trials and tribulations of the previous chapters, when Roman grappled with the horns of the bureaucracy and was confronted by unseeming hardships. This end chapter shows the “lighter” side of the memoir, as he meets illustrious contemporaries of the world of Art, Science and Politics, indulging his extra-geophysical passions: Architecture (his first vocation), Art and Poetry. He translates many Romanian poems into English, a sample of which is given in the book. His innumerable walks through Cambridge colleges and gardens are a boon to the reader: “Cambridge was almost like a mythical mistress, whose eroticism would excite my resolve against obstacles put in the way by sundry bureaucratic tormentors and moral dwarfs”.
This is an exhilarating book and I can fully subscribe to Professor J. F. Dewey’s view (Oxford), who wrote the Foreword of the book: “Continental Drift offered me a relaxing excellent read full of humour, wisdom and good science, way beyond the History of Science”.
The book ends with the return to Romania, where he is asked to come, after 25 years, as Visiting Professor to give the “The Roman Lectures”. During Ceausescu’s dictatorship all scientific publications of Romanian exiles were banned, even from bibliography and finally, in 1998, Roman’s Cambridge thesis is published by the Geological Survey of Romania, to prove his claim to being the first Romanian scientist, in 1970, to present a Plate Tectonics model for the evolution of the Carpathian arc. His work is recognised, as he is made Professor Honoris Causa of the University of Bucharest. Also, after the election, in 1996, of Professor Emil Constantinescu, geologist and mineralogist, as President of Romania, Constantin Roman is appointed Personal Adviser to the President of Romania (Energy and Natural Resources) and also Honorary Consul of Romania in Cambridge.

Université Catholique de Louvain et Université de Liège.

Pour citer cet article :
« BOOK REVIEWS». Geologica Belgica, volume 8 (2005)  number 8/3 : 113-118


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