UCL Earth Sciences


Kathleen Lonsdale reopening with Sir David Attenborough

#AttenboroughatUCL: showcasing our research discoveries, rocks & minerals collections, touring the new state-of-the art facilities, attending audience with Sir David Q&A.

The new home to our UCL, Earth Sciences department, was re-opened by Sir David Attenborough on Tuesday 17 April 2018 following a £27.5 million refurbishment. As part of the celebrations, Prof Paul Bown and Dr Jeremy Young named a newly discovered ocean plankton species in honour of the BBC's Blue Planet series production team.

"The faculty and UCL Earth Sciences warmly thanks Sir David for relaunching the KLB building and the Earth Sciences department.  Sir David is very much a geologist at heart and was able to keep the academics on their toes by asking some very deep technical questions.  We also thank him for his warmth, generosity and enthusiasm.  The students and staff were so thrilled that he came along - to most he is our scientific hero, and one of the reasons we study natural sciences." said Professor Ivan Parkin, Dean of Faculty.

Agatha Detanger

The day of the reopening of the Kathleen Lonsdale Building in presence of Sir David Attenborough is one I will never forget.

Prof. Bown

Prof. Paul Bown and Dr Jeremy Young, recently named a new species of oceanic plankton in honour of the BBC Blue Planet series.

Charlotte Brocklehurst

My favourite part of the day was the Q&A with Sir David talking about the origins of his love and passion collecting fossils and other specimens, something which I can relate with.

Kiran Chotalia

His enthusiasm was infectious! Sir David has an energy like no one else and he reminded us all why we became scientists.

Isra Ezad

He effortlessly navigated challenging questions on climate change, growing population and the meat trade as well as sharing personal stories about his many wonderful adventures.

Gurnum Grewal

I was not sure what to expect from Sir David in person. Would he be different from his T.V personality? What was he really like? Truthfully, he is even more an endearing character.

Simran Johal

The KBL building is a monument of the effort of all of the academic and non-academic staff of the Earth Sciences department and UCL

Tresta Mansfield 

New incoming students will get to experience the amazing new facilities and really feel a part of the Earth Sciences department.

Martha Pamato 

From a personal point of view, I truly enjoyed the speech of Stephen Lonsdale during lunch, when he shared the story of his mother, Kathleen Lonsdale.

Prof Paul Upchurch 

David Attenborough's landmark television documentary series Life on Earth was first shown in 1979, and had a huge impact on my thinking.

Dr Pieter Vermeesch

Sir David was introduced to four different aspects of geochronology: Mineral separation, Uranium-lead geochronlogy, U-Th-He thermochronology, K-Ar geochronology.


Agathe Detanger

Reopening of the Kathleen Lonsdale Building

The day of the reopening of the Kathleen Lonsdale Building in presence of Sir David Attenborough is one I will never forget. As a second year in Environmental Geosience, it was truly an honor and a dream come true to spend a total of eight hours in the presence of Sir David Attenborough.

The energy Sir David dispersed throughout the day was like no other. From the moment he stepped into the department's infamous rock room, to the audience, the lunch and finally the unveiling of the plaque, the rooms vibrated with excitement and awe. He is a truly humble and humoristic man, with a passion for our environment! I was honored to have had a picture taken with my idol on that day. 

The ceremony was very well conducted and I feel closer than ever to the department of Earth Sciences. It was a true statement to what UCL represents! During the lunch, I had the honor to be sitting between the son and grandson of Kathleen Lonsdale, two personalities that made the day even brighter! An unforgettable ceremony.

Prof.  Paul  Bown

The  new  Blue  Planet plankton  species  –S.  azureaplaneta

Prof. Paul Bown and Dr Jeremy Young from the Department of Earth Sciences, recently named a new species of oceanic plankton in honour of the BBC Blue Planet series, coinciding with the re-opening of the Kathleen Lonsdale Building by Sir David Attenborough in April. 

Syracosphaera azureaplaneta
Research in the UCL Nannoplankton Lab focuses on the palaeobiology and geological applications of marine plankton, known as coccolithophores or more broadly calcareous nannofossils. These miniscule single-celled algae (~10µm) produce exquisite armoured exoskeletons of calcite plates (coccoliths) and the range of architectures they produce is shown in a new KLB supergraphic showing the modern diversity all at the same scale (see supergraphic figure). Coccolithophores live in the photic zone of the oceans and after death the coccoliths are exported to the sea-floor to form marine sedimentary oozes and an inconceivably abundant fossil record stretching back 220 million years (Triassic). These fossils are used to reconstruct ocean-climate history and to provide precise age dates for sedimentary rocks.

The Department of Earth Sciences has been at the forefront of coccolithophore research since the 1960s, when the earliest scanning electron microscopes first revealed the elaborate form of the fossil coccoliths. Since then, UCL researchers have described over 400 new fossil species – a significant proportion of the total diversity – and now provide access to this research through a web database resource called Nannotax, which includes images of the entire ancient and modern diversity (~4500 species).

The extensive fossil record of this plankton group allows us to examine relationships between environmental change, ecosystem function and evolution across timescales ranging from annual events to millions of years. We have recently focussed on ancient global warming events in order to evaluate the potential threats posed by current climate change and ocean acidification. The fossil evidence from a warming event 56 million years ago, the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), shows that these plankton are resilient to warming and acidification but that growth-rates and overall production may be impaired, with the scale of disruption proportional to the magnitude of carbon release. The PETM carbon emission rates were far lower than those of the present-day but, even so, the Earth system took over 150 thousand years to return to background state.

To return to the new species, Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, it was a great privilege to honour the Blue Planet Series and to present Sir David Attenborough with a porcelain sculpture of the new species (at 12, 000 times actual size!) made in collaboration with the artist and scientist Dr Samantha Gibbs (University of Southampton). The day celebrating the re-opening of the Kathleen Lonsdale Building was a fantastic success, heralding a new chapter for the UCL MAPS Faculty, the Earth Sciences Department and future ocean and plankton research at UCL!

Charlotte Brocklehurst

Re-Opening of KLB

It was an honour to be invited along to the re-opening of the Kathleen Londsdale Building. As a first year student who has recently joined the department, it was very welcoming. The day started out with tea and coffee in the new rock room which holds lots of stunning displays of rocks, minerals and fossils. There was an excited buzz around the room as we were waiting for Sir David Attenborough, an inspiration of mine, to arrive.  Once he had arrived, there was a talk about how the Kathleen Londsdale Building was transformed and how one of its aim was to co-locate the Earth Sciences department.

My favourite part of the day was the Q&A with Sir David talking about the origins of his love and passion of natural science through collecting fossils and other specimens, something which I can relate with. He also talked about his career with the BBC and the work and effort put in by the crew of the Planet Earth and Blue Planet series. We then had a lovely lunch which came with a beautiful ammonite cookie with our names on, and there were closing remarks by Stephen Lonsdale who was talking about his mother and how she became to be the great scientist she was. This was followed by a tour of the building where we were given an insight to the wide variety of research by the department and looked at the new laboratories. The building is bright, modern and communal, perfect for the department. The day concluded with the plague unveiling and the cutting of the cake to officially re-open the building which was greeted with a large applause. Later in the evening, I was suddenly bombarded with messages from my friends and family as they had seen me on BBC 6 o’clock news which featured the event. It was a lovely celebration which I will forever treasure in my memory and it was also very inspiring for me to look forward to the years ahead with the department and the new building. 

Kiran Chotalia 

His enthusiasm was infectious! Sir David has an energy like no one else and he reminded us all why we became scientists. It was a fantastic way to reopen the department and  celebrate the work that goes on here. The unveiling of the plaque was a unique moment. We had everyone there from undergraduates to professors and it was a true celebration of years worth of hard work to get to this stage. The tours were a great way to see all the research going on in the department and talking to the scientists involved about their work.

Isra Ezad

Sir David was as inspiring in real life as his documentaries are, the question and answer session showed his passion for protecting the natural world and encouraging a new generation of eager scientists. He effortlessly navigated challenging questions on climate change, growing population and the meat trade as well as sharing personal stories about his many wonderful adventures. The room was captivated throughout the session and once again showed the incredible gift of communication Sir David Attenborough has.

Gurnum Grewal

Sir Davids visit had the whole department buzzing with excitement; and for good reason. I was not sure what to expect from Sir David in person. Would he be different from his T.V personality? What was he really like? Truthfully, he is even more an endearing character. His ability to make everyone (even the professors!) revert to excited school children was something to behold. His every word took us all back to our favourite memories from his multitude of documentaries and let us remember why we chose to study Earth Sciences. For many (me included) it was his enthusiasm and charisma which initially set me on my current field of study. Having him open our new department was an inspiring experience and is one I will not forget.   

Simran Johal

As an undergraduate student, I’ve been in the Kathleen Lonsdale building since the beginning of this year, 2018. The KBL is the remarkable product of work that has been going on since before myself and many of my peers had joined UCL. Having the KBL has meant that the whole Earth Sciences department is for the first time together in one building, and I feel that as a result of this we have integrated fully as undergraduates, postgraduates and academic staff. I feel privileged to have access to state of the art teaching laboratories, microscope equipment, and to the undergraduate common area (including a fridge and microwave) which has enhanced my experience at UCL!
The grand opening of the KBL was a day that we were honoured to have Sir David Attenborough as well as Dame Kathleen Lonsdale’s son Stephen Lonsdale attend. It was a great way to discuss how Earth Science is so relevant in finding and confirming the problems around the environment that we face, but also in how we can use our knowledge to find solutions at present and for the future. Personally, I took the opportunity to thank Sir David for the incredible Blue Planet II documentary which gave me inspiration for some great extant examples of teleost fish, to include within my 2nd year vertebrate palaeontology essay.
It felt as if the whole department was in high spirits to be able to celebrate the opening, with many of my peers attending the interview event with Sir David Attenborough. Most importantly, the KBL is a monument of the effort of all of the academic and non-academic staff of the Earth Sciences department and UCL, who’ve work over years to restore this amazing space which will last for many years to come.

Tresta Mansfield

KLB Re-opening

Sir David has always been an inspiration of mine and seeing him speak in person about issues I really care about was incredible. He captivated the audience and it was so interesting to learn about how his passion for science and discovery began and how it led him through the journey of his career. He interacted with the students and showed a real interest in the next generation of scientists. Following his talk there was a lunch which ended with Stephen Lonsdale talking about his mother, Kathleen Lonsdale, after whom the building is named. She was the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first female tenured professor at UCL. It was inspiring to hear about her life and work. There was also a tour of the building which was a great way to see the range of research going on in the department. The whole day was a brilliant way to open the new department and showcase all of the hard work that has been put in. Already it has been great to see how the new building has brought the department together, giving more opportunities to interact with other students and staff. New incoming students will get to experience the amazing new facilities and really feel a part of the Earth Sciences department.

Martha Pamato

The re-opening of the Kathleen Lonsdale Building and the audience with Sir David Attenborough was a truly inspiring day for me. It was a privilege to be invited to attend such an important event. 
The private audience, an arm-chair style discussion, followed by a Q&A, was one of the best parts of the event. Listening to him share his enthusiasm and love for the natural sciences he has cultivated since he was a child, like many of us doing research in these fields, made me feel even more passionate and lucky to do what I do. Another exciting moment was when Prof. Paul Bown presented Sir David Attenborough the model of the newly discovered species of ocean plankton, named ‘Syracosphaera azureaplaneta’, after his critically acclaimed BBC show ‘Blue Planet’.
From a personal point of view, I truly enjoyed the speech of Stephen Lonsdale during lunch, when he shared the story of his mother, Kathleen Lonsdale. Kathleen Lonsdale was a remarkable scientist, the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945 and the first female President of the British Association. After her, it was decided that the term ‘Fellow’ could encompass both women and men. Her story is a very inspiring lesson that makes me feel privileged to be a female scientist in the same field as her, and that motivates me every day.

Prof Paul Upchurch

When I heard that Sir David Attenborough had been invited to Open the refurbished Kathleen Lonsdale Building, and had excepted, I was delighted for both professional and personal reasons. I could not think of a more appropriate and interesting person to fill this role. As the incoming head of department for Earth Sciences, I was lucky enough to be able to participate in all of the key events during the day, including the ‘Audience with Sir David Attenborough’ in the morning, lunch(where I was able to talk to Sir David for the first time), the tours of the lab facilities, and some informal exchanges later when Sir David unveiled the plaque in the lobby of the KLB. As a very young child I became interested in dinosaurs, but unlike most of my contemporaries my passion for these creatures did not disappear later to be replaced by fast cars and loud music! One of the pivotal moments in my early career is closely associated with David Attenborough. His landmark television documentary series Life on Earth was first shown in 1979, and had a huge impact on my thinking. Moreover, it was possible to watch this program and then changed channels to see a dramatized Account of Charles Darwin’s Life and discovery of natural selection. Together, these programs gave me an additional fascination with the history of the earth as a whole and evolutionary patterns and processes in particular. Combined with my existing enthusiasm for dinosaurs, these programs helped me realise that I wanted to become a vertebrate palaeontologist and to discover new things about evolution itself. Towards the end of Sir David’s visit, I was able to explain this to him and express my appreciation. During this conversation, I was also able to show him the brain case of a 70 million-year-old sauropod dinosaur from Romania. Sir David thought the specimen was fascinating and pretended that I was giving it to him as a present! All in all, I enjoyed the day immensely and was not at all surprised to find that Sir David proved to be a very entertaining and insightful guest.

Dr Pieter Vermeesch

Growing up on Belgium's North Sea coast, I always was able to watch the BBC, even before the arrival of cable TV.  So I saw many of David Attenborough's documentaries as a child. I also enjoyed reading his amazing autobiography 'Life on Air' a few years ago. All this to say that I was very excited to meet Sir David in person and give him a 20-minute tour of the London Geochronology Centre (LGC).

Our guest of honour arrived at 14:50, four hours into the KLB reopening activities, and 20 minutes behind schedule. Aged 92, Attenborough happily accepted a seat right in the middle of our new lab space. From this vantage point, he could see all three of our mass spectrometers: the LA-ICP-MS, the helium line, and the Noblesse multi-collector noble gas instrument. Together, these machines allow us (Prof. Andy Carter, Dr. Matt Fox, Dr. James Schwanethal and myself) to date a variety of rocks and minerals. This is important because Geology is, in essence, a historical science. Geochronology places fundamental constraints on plate tectonic processes and the rate of biological evolution.

During the 20 minute visit, Sir David was introduced to four different aspects of geochronology:

1. Mineral separation.

Only a small subset of the rock-forming minerals are amenable to absolute dating. They are those minerals that contain sufficient amounts of radioactive elements such as uranium and potassium, which decay to radiogenic lead, helium and argon at precisely known rates forming the basis of several geological 'clocks'. The first step in any geochronological venture is to separate these datable minerals from the non-datable ones.  I briefly summarised the laborious process of mineral separation, which uses jaw crushers, disk mills, sieves, heavy liquids and magnets.  Incidentally, we are always happy for students to help with this work!

2. Uranium-lead geochronology

Zircon (ZrSiO4) is arguably the most important of the datable minerals.  It is commonly found in igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks and incorporates up to 0.1% of uranium into its crystal lattice. This uranium decays to two isotopes of lead, allowing geochronologists to date the crystallisation age of the zircon.  At the LGC, zircon U-Pb ages are measured by laser ablation inductively coupled mass spectrometery (LA-ICP-MS). This is a very rapid procedure that allows us to date up to 1000 grains of zircon per day.

3. U-Th-He thermochronology

The radioactive decay of uranium (and thorium) not only produces lead but also helium. Being a noble gas, helium is not 'happy' being trapped inside the crystal lattice of a uranium-bearing silicate or phosphate mineral. Instead, at high temperatures, radiogenic helium diffuses out of the crystal. It first escapes to the atmosphere and then to space. It is only when a rock cools below 60 degrees (for apatite) or 180 degrees (for zircon) that the helium gets locked into the crystal lattice and that the metaphorical 'clock' starts 'ticking'. So whereas lead isotopes constrain the crystallisation age of uranium-bearing minerals, the helium yields cooling ages. For example, the helium age of the summit of Mount Everest is older than its base. This is because the summit cooled before the base.  The age difference tells us how rapidly the mountain is rising. 'thermochronology' is an important branch of geochronology, many aspects of which were developed (and continue to be developed) at UCL.

The LGC owns a bespoke noble gas extraction line and mass spectrometer that is unique in England. This machine was built by LGC lab manager Dr. James Schwanethal who, incidentally, had already met David Attenborough once before. When James was 12 years old, Sir David presented him with an award for cleaning up a pond with his school. When I mentioned this anecdote to Sir David, he said that he remembered that event "vividly"!

4. K-Ar geochronology

The third and final mass spectrometer in the lab is our biggest and most expensive instrument. Acquired 10 years ago by my predecessor Prof. Tony Hurford, the "Noblesse" multicollector noble gas mass spectrometer is a very power machine. It is not only capable of measuring helium very precisely, but also the other noble gases neon, argon, krypton and xenon. All of which were discovered by Prof. William Ramsay at UCL, winning him the 1904 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Noblesse is primarily used for methodological research.  For example, it allows us to measure U-Th-He ages by laser ablation, which is 100 times faster than conventional helium dating.  We also use it to measure argon in potassium-bearing minerals such as biotite or feldspar. Argon, like helium, is a noble gas that can be used to date the cooling of rocks.

The key strength of the LGC is the availability of all these techniques in one place. By combining them all together, it is possible to paint a detailed picture of petrogenesis and to track vertical motions in the crust. This in turn places valuable constraints on plate tectonic processes. At the end of my presentation, David Attenborough asked if and how the different geochronometers can be compared to each other. This is a very pertinent question indeed. In fact, it goes right to the heart of my current research. In order to achieve the highest possible accuracy in geochronology, it is crucially important that the aforementioned clocks are synchronised. This can be achieved by analysing standard reference materials of independently known age. It also requires the
development of rigorous data reduction and error propagation protocols to process mass spectrometer data. Both of these are the LGC's top priorities for the years to come.

David Attenborough's much anticipated visit did not disappoint. As everyone who met the man on April 17 can attest, Sir David is a most witty and clever yet humble person. It was a real privilege to have met him and reminded me what a privilege it is to be an Earth Scientist and study our fascinating blue planet.


December 2018
March 2018

Department history
Geology at UCL - a brief history.

Connect with us: