Twelve Questions: Hamish Campbell

By Jennifer Dann

Popular geologist and palaeontologist Hamish Campbell has co-written two of the definitive books on how New Zealand was formed. He co-curated Te Papa's Awesome Forces exhibition and is a guest presenter on TV1's new series Coast New Zealand.
Hamish Campbell says he fields a constant procession of people with objects they think might be significant. Photo / Supplied
Hamish Campbell says he fields a constant procession of people with objects they think might be significant. Photo / Supplied

1 You are Te Papa's official geologist. What does that role involve?

As a GNS scientist I'm available on demand for all of Te Papa's earth science expertise. I spend a day or two each week developing exhibitions like Awesome Forces and answering queries. There's a constant procession of people with objects they think might be dinosaur bones, meteorites or Maori artefacts. None has ever proven to be dinosaur bones or meteorites. A lot turn out to be clinker, basically coal slag from steam engines. Lots of people bring rocks with holes through them that they think must've been carved by Maori but they're actually dolomite chimneys, cements that form around natural gas vents on the sea floor.

2 Did New Zealand have dinosaurs?

Dinosaur fossils have only been found in four places in New Zealand. The first was found in the Hawkes Bay in 1975 by retired school teacher Joan Wiffen. The second find was part of a finger or toe of a theropod at Port Waikato.

The third site is in the Chatham Islands and the fourth is footprints found south of Farewell Spit. So we know they're down there but we've never tried to dig them up. Joan Wiffen has since found vertebrae relating to at least six different dinosaurs including theropods, pterosaurs, ankylosaurs and a titanosaur, one of the largest dinosaurs that ever existed. I took Professor Phil Manning of Walking with Dinosaurs fame to that site last year. We found mosasaur bones but people are less interested in the marine reptiles.

3 Why don't we dig up our dinosaur fossils?

I'm not aware of any funded research project to look for dinosaurs, ever. The Government only invests in research that's of direct economic relevance. If we could open up a dinosaur site it would be a great tourist attraction. The Hawkes Bay site is inside a commercial forest so you can only get there by special request. It's incredibly remote and treacherous going.

4 Have the dinosaur footprints been left where they were found?

Yes. We've had significant discussions at GNS Science worrying about how to preserve them. They're being eroded by the sea but we've decided there will be more so as the sea takes some, others will be revealed. We've made silicone peels and thorough monitoring should get a better result than cutting out a lump of rock to put in a museum. We do worry about human damage so we're relatively unforthcoming about where they are. Some are on DoC land and some on private land. We're exploring how best to manage something of this significance but have yet to get all the parties in a room together.

5 You caused a furore with your 2008 paper on New Zealand's geological history - why?

Zealandia was a long belt of land on the edge of the Gondwana super-continent which broke away about 85 million years ago. Our paper raised the idea that after breaking away, Zealandia slowly sank and by 23 million years ago may have been completely underwater. Since then two independent groups of geologists have come to the same conclusion. So it's a theory that has yet to be refuted. If correct, it means that the ancestors of all our native plants and animals got here within the last 23 million years - so anything that could fly or float or be blown here. Lizards can float on driftwood for months. They're on every rock in the ocean. The tuatara, dare I say it, is just a type of lizard.

6 But aren't tuatara our closest living relative of the dinosaurs?

You could argue that about any lizard. Tuatara are unusual lizards because they have a dinosaur-like skull, so they're kind of a missing link in that respect but skeletally we humans are almost as closely related to the dinosaurs. Our legs are underneath us and we've got five digits.

7 As a child, did you show early leanings towards geology?

No. Dad was a geology lecturer at Otago University but he was strangely non-communicative. I think I chose geology just to find out what Dad did. Most of my early knowledge of the world came from Tintin. I was stunned to find when I went to Bolivia with my University of Oxford colleagues that Prisoners of the Sun is actually incredibly accurate.

8 You were made a companion of the Royal Society of New Zealand for your work in science communication. Have you always been a good communicator?

No, I was terribly shy as a child which I've had to overcome. My mother, who headed Otago University's debating team before she married, gave me some fantastic advice; write some bullet points and then screw them up and just go for it. We scientists always have the fear that what we're going to say isn't perfectly accurate but Mum said so long as you have a clear intro and conclusion it really doesn't matter what happens in the middle. It's so true.

9 Do you believe in God?

Professor Lloyd Geering invited me to launch his book From The Big Bang To God a few years ago in which he asserts that God didn't make us - it's the other way around. I'm a complete convert to his concept of why nearly every culture has invented a god. It's a brilliant read.

10 Do you have a partner or children?

I've been married twice. I have two adult children with my first wife, Helen Anderson, who was chief scientist of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology. Our eldest child has partial Down syndrome and epilepsy. We both wanted careers and had this difficult child that effectively drove us apart. But we've both remarried and he's ended up with two extended families. He's 30 now and has just moved to assisted living. He has a wonderful life, really. I have two teenage children with my second wife Dinah. We parted company a few years ago so I see the children in the school holidays.

11 What do you know about this new TV show you're co-presenting?

They've done Coast UK and Coast Australia. This is the New Zealand version. I'm a guest presenter in three episodes. One's based in Coal Island which has the oldest fossils on the New Zealand coastline. Another story relates to the uplift of the North Island's East Coast. The last is about black sand mining on the North Island's West Coast. We're the only country in the world transforming black sand into steel so it's a Kiwi success story.

12 Do you have any concerns about mining in New Zealand?

My main concern is that mining might die in New Zealand. I'm involved in research which has recently discovered that gold-bearing schist has a particular age range - very useful information for miners. But the costs of compliance for health and safety and the environment are making mining uneconomic. Kiwis are fooling themselves if they ignore the fact that as a society we're utterly dependent on mining. Humans essentially only do two things - growing and mining.

• Coast New Zealand premieres at 8.30pm on April 19, TV ONE.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 30 Sep 2016 07:08:05 Processing Time: 375ms