Professor Neville J. Price

Distinguished London University geologist
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Neville J. Price worked mainly on what sounds a mixed bag of unprepossessing topics: the analysis of deformation in brittle rocks, the mechanics of meteorite cratering, and the interaction between lithospheric plates. But the outcome was extraordinarily enlightening in all three, and his last book, Major Impacts and Plate Tectonics, published in 2001, demonstrated how their fusion could yield challenging solutions to some long-standing puzzles in Earth history.

Price's heritage is not confined to the written word. He was a talented teacher, and during his years at Imperial College London he helped to develop a celebrated MSc course in structural geology and rock mechanics. His students and collaborators have gone on to develop and complement his ideas in many parts of the world, and his quantitative modes of structural analysis now appear almost routine, when once they seemed out of place in field geology.

Neville Price was born in Ebbw Vale, Monmouthshire, and attended the local county grammar school. In 1943 he volunteered for the Royal Navy and joined the RNVR, and in 1945 he was posted to the Pacific Fleet. After demobilisation in 1947 he read for a BSc (Honours) in Geology at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.

As Price later wrote, the degree course, which was heavily biased towards taxonomy, was not especially exciting. Fortunately, Aberystwyth is on Cardigan Bay, where a thick series of folded grits and shales is exposed; and even more fortunately, the structural geologist Gilbert Wilson was visiting the university. Fired by Wilson's lectures and field excursions, Price began a PhD thesis devoted to those structures which he completed at Imperial College, London, in 1953.

He spent the next 10 years at the Mining Research Establishment in Isleworth (in Middlesex), where he became Head of Geology and Strata Control and where he worked on the elasticity and strength of sedimentary rocks. Some of his early ideas were lucidly presented in his first book, the deceptively modest Fault and Joint Development in Brittle and Semi-brittle Rocks (1966). He joined Imperial College in 1964 and became Head of Structural Geology in 1974, and was awarded a DSc by London University in 1975.

Between 1984 and 1989 he was at University College London, and also acted as a consultant to Shell, BP and Clyde Oil and to the US government on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository. Price was awarded the Lyell Fund by the Geological Society of London and, with John Norman and Eric Peters, the Consolidated Goldfields Medal of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy.

One of Price's colleagues at the Mining Research Establishment, Gareth Jones, was an explosives expert, and Price soon grasped the connection between bomb and impact craters. There were many other productive collaborations, notably the experiments by his student P.K. Blay on rock folding under the influence of gravity that Price supervised at IC. The work with Jones encouraged Price to consider the role of impacts in geological history, which he included in a pioneering study of geological strain rates (published as "Rates of Deformation" in the Journal of the Geological Society of London in 1975), and to evaluate the force required to create impact craters of different sizes under a wide range of conditions; and towards the end of his career he promoted at UCL the computer modelling of pressure-release melting triggered by meteorite impact.

The folding studies encouraged him to revive the concept of gravity glide as a major driving force in plate tectonics. Price also investigated plate interaction on a grand scale in his work on Indonesian tectonics with M.G. Audley-Charles (with articles published in various journals), and in 1981 he co-edited with K.R. McClay a special volume for the Geological Society, Thrust and Nappe Tectonics.

The textbook Analysis of Geological Structures Price co-authored with John Cosgrove in 1990 determinedly places the search for the processes that modify the Earth's crust at all scales as the primary aim of what they termed the mechanistic approach to structural geology: once again a misleadingly leaden label for a lively mix of disciplines that extends to the other rocky planets and that now happily combines field study, laboratory analysis and the kind of computer modelling Price might half-mockingly have dismissed as merely entertaining.

Claudio VitaFinzi