JSPS Quarterly
No.16 2006 Summer Topics
Siries Message

Message from Former JSPS Fellow (4)

Earthquakes & Volcanoes: Research in Japan


Prof. Peter Sammonds
Postdoc JSPS Fellow 1991-1992
Professor of Geophysics, University College
London, University of London
Chair, UK JSPS Alumni Association

I am a geophysicist. But unlike most geophysicists I build "bottom-up" models of the Earth based on laboratory experiments, rather than data-driven "top-down" models based on say earthquake seismograms or satellite data. I did my PhD on arctic sea ice mechanics. For my postdoc, I worked on earthquake mechanics, which is a fascinating subject if rather esoteric in England. The things that attracted me to the subject were the societal impact of earthquakes, the new physics of fractals and complexity that were being applied to earthquakes and the sophisticated laboratory experiments that could be built to simulate earthquakes. A move to Japan was an obvious choice if I were to continue in earthquake research.

Japan obviously has pre-eminence in geophysics with a research track record that goes back to the Meiji restoration, groundbreaking research and Nobel laureates, and is itself a natural laboratory. There have been strong links between Japan and England in earthquake research dating back to the time when John Milne, often regarded as the father of modern seismology, in 1875 at the age of 25, took a position as professor of Geology and Mining at the new Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo. He worked there for 20 years, married a Japanese woman and founded the first seismological society in the world. The relationship between my university, UCL, and Japan goes back to 1863 when five young noblemen of the Choshu clan in feudal Japan secretly came to England, at a time when travel abroad was still strictly forbidden. One of these, Shunsuke Ito, later Prince Hirobumi Ito, became the first and four-times Prime Minister of modern Japan.

As a JSPS postdoc fellow I went to work with Prof. Mitiyasu Ohnaka at the Earthquake Research Institute of The University of Tokyo. Prof. Ohnaka had himself been a JSPS postdoc fellow at my home laboratory at UCL. But more than this I was interested by his approach to earthquake mechanics and the unique experimental facilities in his laboratory for simulating earthquakes. It was also great working in an institute dedicated to earthquake research, and especially in a country where there is such strong interest in earthquake research. I had the opportunity to present my research at the Seismological Society of Japan, visit geophysicists at other Japanese universities and travel about Japan as a tourist. I formed many friendships which last to this day. I returned to England to a Royal Society research fellowship and following that became professor of geophysics at UCL.


At alumni association's evening lecture

I have visited Japan many times since, including as visiting professor at The University of Tokyo in 1999. I have hosted a JSPS postdoc fellow in my laboratory and many of my students have spent time researching in Japan. My research has shifted again and volcanology has become a new research interest of mine in the last few years. (I am also back to doing research on arctic sea ice.) I have visited a number of volcanological observatories in Japan with my students. Japan again is a natural laboratory for volcanoes and some of the monitoring and modelling research is highly advanced.

A few years ago I was approached by the JSPS London Office to help set up a UK Alumni Association. I was delighted to do this as a way of strengthening UK-Japan research collaboration and facilitating the exchange of young scientists. For both UK and Japanese young researchers there is always going to be the pull of the USA as the first choice country for working as a postdoc or for research collaboration. However, for me there is no doubt that working in Japan was at a formative time for my own research ideas, important for my career, and a key part of my life with the deep friendships I formed there.



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JSPS Quarterly No.16 2006