The founder of the ‘get down into that crater and kiss the lava’ school of vulcanology led an extraordinary life. Born in Warsaw (then part of the Tsar’s Russian empire) months before the first world war broke out, he became the French speaking world’s most famous vulcanologist and achieved worldwide fame for his popularising books and films. His life journey is similar to that of Jacques Yves Cousteau (with whom he sometimes worked, see our past biopic at http://tinyurl.com/ohcv4bt), growing alongside his science and bringing it to the world’s attention as the 20th century rolled by.
His parents were a Tajjik doctor (the true spelling of the name is Tajieyev) and a Russian chemist/ political scientist. His father died in the opening battles of the great war, and after the Russian revolution his mother fled the Bolsheviks and moved to Belgium in 1920. He grew up on a Nansen passport, the document created by the polar explorer of Fram fame to regularise the status of the many displaced people starting lives in new countries after the war’s end. He became Belgian in 1936 and later French.
He was an avid mountaineer (useful for climbing volcanoes) and speleologist, as well as a competent boxer (Belgian University league champion), cyclist and a near world-class rugby player. He was selected for the 1936 Berlin Olympics boxing team, but his mother forbade him to attend, due to her opposition to Fascism. He carried on with these activities despite blowing half his foot off in a hunting accident, and climbed Mont Blanc for the 3rd time a year afterwards.
He started off as an agronomist, but switched to geology by chance: it started as a cover for his work with the Belgian resistance, with whom he served until most of his network was rolled up by the Gestapo in 1943. After the war, he worked in the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, currently Democratic Republic of Congo) in the copper mines of Katanga and later joined the colonial geological survey, where he first met active volcanoes, fostering what was to be his life’s fascination. His love of popularising his subject also dates from this early time, with the first of about 40 films coming out in 1948 and his first of a similar number of books (Craters of Fire) in 1951, both to worldwide acclaim. He kept up both these activities well into the 1990’s.
After a stint at Paris University, he was named in 1958 director of the vulcanological institute at the Institute for Global Physics, and started a long series of research expeditions worldwide, focussing on the phenomenology of eruptions (then still little documented) and specialised in the study of the gases that propel eruptions in order to try and predict them. Each expedition resulted in a further book or film, covering areas such as the Afar depression in Ethiopia, the African rift volcanoes, Etna and Antarctica’s Mt. Erebus.
To this day monitoring of volcanic gases remains a major tool in the hazard specialist’s arsenal. He won respect for his courage (or foolhardyness, but none of the modern infrared remote monitoring equipment then existed), sampling many lavas and gases directly in erupting craters. He viewed volcanoes as something to be bested, survived, predicted and avoided, and his fascination was always directed towards prediction and mitigation of their devastating effects.
His team performed the best temperature and gas analyses then known. Some of the equipment (both analytical and protective) his team developed is still standard kit in the field. They also started the practise of interdisciplinary teams studying erupting volcanoes from the perspective of varied specialisations. This concept now underlies the modern practise of the discipline. He was also a pioneer of underwater vulcanology, ranging widely from the new island of Surtsey off Iceland, the study of Guyots (undersea volcanoes) uplifted onto land, to the Azores. Some of this work was carried out in collaboration with Cousteau and the Calypso. Introduced to Wegener’s work in the 1940’s (when mainstream Anglo-Saxon geoscience still derided it), his work in the Afar (one of the few exposed mid ocean ridge plate boundaries) in the 60’s and 70’s helped establish the ruling paradigm of plate tectonics. He was the first to thoroughly document a spreading rift, showing that it expanded in fits and starts, rather than steadily.
In 1972 he joined the CNRS’s vulcanological laboratory as research director and became France’s main volcanic hazards assessor. He also helped found the International Institute for Vulcanological studies, based under Etna’s shadow in Catania. He came from a Social Revolutionary background, and was a lifelong Communist, and after the Socialist victory at the 1981 elections and the entry of Communists into the government, president Francois Mitterand made him first commissioner for the study and prevention of natural catastrophes, and later, in 1984, secretary of state for natural hazards. He fulfilled similar functions until his health started worsening in 1995.
He was embroiled in controversy in 1976 over a decision to evacuate Guadeloupe when its volcano showed signs of restiveness. His boss, Claude Allegre (France’s Mr. isotopes in geoscience) believed that fresh magma was being erupted, though the analyses showing this were later discredited. He made a similar mistake himself some years later, announcing Mt. St. Helens was not likely to erupt, shortly before the lateral blast.
His films were dubbed and shown worldwide to great acclaim, with National Geographic’s Violent Earth series being his most famous. It traces visits to Etna in Sicily and Nyiragongo, in what was then called Zaire. His breathtaking footage of descents into exploding craters stimulated the sense of adventure in many, bringing the intensity of a phenomenon few of us ever experience personally into our living rooms.
Many a current vulcanologist owes both their inspiration, and the form the practise of their discipline takes to his work. He was as famous in France as any actor, a rare distinction for any scientist, and made an obscure branch of the Earth sciences a subject of fascination for millions, no doubt some TES fans, myself included, amongst them.