Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

'Rockstar' earthquake scientist's efforts earn top prize

Geologist Mark Quigley woked hard to reassure and educate the public after the Canterbury earthquakes. Photo / Greg Bowker
Geologist Mark Quigley woked hard to reassure and educate the public after the Canterbury earthquakes. Photo / Greg Bowker

In the hours after the first major earthquake hit Christchurch, geologist Mark Quigley rushed to a stranger's house and began publishing his photographs and analysis of the tremor online.

The University of Canterbury lecturer's Avonside home had been swamped by sludge, and he had no power or internet.

But a Darlington resident had heard Dr Quigley's calm, reassuring report on the 7.1-scale quake on radio on the morning of September 4 last year and wanted it put out to a bewildered public.

Dr Quigley has barely stopped writing since. In the past 15 months he has published seven peer-reviewed articles on the Darfield quake, given 40 lectures on the events, published his running commentary on his popular website and fronted countless media interviews.

His tireless efforts to inform and reassure a shaken public were recognised yesterday as the Canadian-born geologist, 34, was awarded the Prime Minister's Science Media Communication Prize in Auckland.

Dr Quigley said the key to his communication on the aftershock sequence was respecting his audience, whether it was a primary school class or post-graduate students.

"When you have to teach at all levels, communication's your game. I always pretend I'm my audience, and say, 'What do they want to hear, what do they want to learn about?"'

After the Darfield fault-line unravelled in an unexpected spot, the public thirst for education was enormous. A lecture by Dr Quigley sold out the 2400-seat town hall, an achievement that earned him the title of "rockstar scientist".

But after the second, deadly tremor in February, quake scientists felt the scorn from some people who thought seismologists should have been able to predict the earthquake.

Cantabrians were further rattled by the pseudo-science of "Moon Man" Ken Ring, of Auckland, who predicted more large quakes.

In response to Mr Ring's claims, Dr Quigley published a comprehensive, step-by-step article on why the timing or location of quakes could not be predicted with accuracy.

"I was quite angry ... because the truth is that we did a very good job as a scientific community addressing most of the issues."

Judges for the $100,000 science prize noted that Dr Quigley carried out his work while facing considerable personal challenges.

His property was so swamped by silt in the February quake that he carried out some of his liquefaction research in his back garden. He also persisted with his lectures, teaching his students in tents at the university's temporary campus while the ground continued to shake.

Dr Quigley will use the award to give himself a break from lecturing. He plans a popular science book and a children's book on the quakes.

The award winners

Prime Minister's Science Prize, $500,000 - team of scientists from Niwa and the University of Otago, led by Professor Philip Boyd.

Prime Minister's MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize, $200,000 - Dr Rob McKay, Victoria University glacial sedimentologist.

Prime Minister's Future Scientist Prize, $50,000 - Nuan-Ting (Nina) Huang, Year 13 student at Auckland Diocesan School for Girls.

Prime Minister's Science Teacher Prize, $50,000 + $100,000 for the school - Dr Angela Sharples, Head of Biology at Rotorua Boys' High School.

Prime Minister's Science Media Communication Prize, $100,000 - Dr Mark Quigley, senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury.

- NZ Herald

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