Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Obituary: Professor Paul L. Hancock

PAUL L. HANCOCK was a geologist who latterly added the analysis of classical ruins to the repertoire of stratagems he amassed during a bustling life in order to trace the fracture and buckling of the Earth's crust.

He was mindful of the danger of reading too much into toppled columns and cracked architraves, but did not therefore dismiss archaeological evidence as ambiguous nor cite it merely for decoration. Instead he characteristically embarked, not many months ago, on a programme of research with colleagues in civil engineering and computer science to determine the kind of damage which was unambiguously seismic. A blunt, undiscriminating weapon would thereby become a sensitive and revealing probe with which to extend the lamentably short instrumental and documentary earthquake record, and thus make possible the assessment of seismic risk in locations where major earthquakes are spaced millennia apart.

A search for ever greater refinement marked the studies of more conventional structural geology that occupied the bulk of Hancock's career, starting with a PhD thesis entitled "A Structural Analysis of the Orielton Anticline, Pembrokeshire", through the many publications and lectures that were to follow, but always set against the grander regional setting: in the Alps, the Pyrenees, Arabia, the Aegean, Taiwan and the United States, as well as in Scotland, Wales and the West Country.

Hancock was born in 1937, in London. Educated at Sheen Grammar School and at Durham University, he was awarded a first class degree in geology. He gained his PhD in 1963. Following two years as DSIR (Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) Research Fellow in Cambridge he was appointed assistant lecturer in geology at Nottingham College of Technology and as lecturer in geology at Strathclyde and (in 1967) at Bristol, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Hancock was awarded the Lyell Fund of the Geological Society of London in 1978. He was promoted to Reader in 1981 and was elected to a personal Chair in 1995.

Hancock's own view of his scientific progress emphasised an early interest in brittle rock deformation when its study was not yet fashionable, and his later switch from ancient structures to those currently deforming during earthquakes, which took him to an area where his studies were to become classics - the Aegean. And it was here that the research into historical earthquakes gained chronological precision from his fascination with travertine, the spring-laid calcareous deposits which sometimes permit the extent and age of later faults to be established.

A further development, which fruitfully fused his experience of rock fracturing and active deformation, was to use such fractures as clues to the pattern of stresses that prevails in a specified area. This work was of evident importance not just to seismologists but also to geologists engaged in evaluating petroleum reservoirs.

Hancock combined great dignity with affability, and dedication to his work with a generosity of spirit which doubtless helped him endure, and perhaps even enjoy, the countless international commissions, editorial boards and committees on which he selflessly sat.

He was an invited or keynote speaker at a dozen scientific conferences and gave papers at some 40 others. He attended a similar number of research colloquia round the world. He edited and rewrote countless manuscripts so that the ideas of others could blossom and be heard.

One might wish he had done less for his subject in this tangential way so that he could have profited it more lastingly by setting down his ideas in greater detail. But his own assessment reveals that to damn conferences and commissions as the enemies of academic promise is a mean and short- sighted perspective; Hancock proudly listed in his CV some of the devices by which he had promoted international scientific collaboration and exchange, his contribution to an annual Erasmus advanced school in Italy, and his successful collaboration with archaeological colleagues at Bristol. Indeed, he lists yet more chores and responsibilities among his honours and rewards.

A fine teacher, Hancock filled visiting professorships at Al Ain, Bahia Blanca, Istanbul, Florence, Alberta and Reno. A lasting monument to his industry is the Journal of Structural Geology, which he founded in 1978. (Not content with this, he later co-founded Annales Tectonicae, an English- language journal devoted to the countries bordering the Mediterranean.) There are also eight books which he co-edited and two, including Continental Deformation (1994), which he edited solo.

His 59 research articles include important studies of strain analysis, earthquake prediction, the North Anatolian fault, and travertine at Pamukkale in Turkey. The proceedings of a conference on Volcanoes, Earthquakes and Archaeology that he helped to convene in 1997 are in the press. His ideas will be developed and his ideals cherished by the research students from the UK and Turkey, Arabia, Greece, Spain and Lebanon who were to become Hancock's collaborators and champions.

Claudio Vita-Finzi

Paul Lewis Hancock, geologist: born London 26 March 1937; Lecturer in Geology, Bristol University 1967-81, Reader 1981-95, Professor of Neotectonics, 1995-98; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Bristol 9 December 1998.