Chris Turney probes past times to cast light on the present

Christian Turney is fascinated by the fertile interactions of disciplines and sectors in the overlapping fringes of academic fields and specialties where ideas are born. An earth scientist by training and a leader in the field of archeology, Turney has turned his hand to wildly different projects: from carbon dating the fossil ‘hobbits’ of Indonesia’s Flores, to founding a New Zealand-based company that turns biowaste into the graphite used in lithium ion batteries, to researching ice-sheet dynamics in Antarctica.

Now a pro-vice chancellor (research) at the University of Technology, Sydney, Turney’s favourite book is the Medici Effect by Frans Johanson. “Inspired by the Medici family in Florence, the idea is that when you get together different disciplines, different cultures, different genders, a whole range of backgrounds, then things start to spark,” he says. “If you have engineers talking to historians talking to biologists, suddenly they just have a different approach to the way of thinking. That’s where those huge innovations happen. When you bring those disciplines together all sorts of things start flying around.”

Turney collaborated with colleagues from a range of scientific disciplines on a paper named to honour Douglas Adams, the late, great author of the science-fiction novel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adams famously wrote that the answer to life, the universe and everything was 42. Turney and his biologist, archeologist and climate scientist collaborators investigated a time when the Earth switched poles 42,000 years ago, a seminal moment in history.

North became south and south became north and the earth’s magnetic field effectively collapsed to close to zero, Turney says, exposing the planet to a barrage of high-energy cosmic rays. This bombardment drove extreme climate impacts, probably leading to megafaunal extinctions, the growth of ice sheets in North America and an explosion of rock art in caves where it was protected from the elements.

Turney is keen to foster inter-disciplinary and inter-sector collaborations in order to find solutions to the manifest problems the world is now facing, particularly the multi-faceted disaster of climate change repercussions. “The world is in such an extraordinary period of disruption and universities have such an important role to play in helping to get ideas out, or problem solve,” he says. “We don’t have time now to wait ten, twenty years for these ideas to get from the lab out into society, we need to accelerate it, rapidly, in the next couple of years.”

Decarbonising the economy to slow global warming will require a Herculaen effort of cooperation and hard work, Turney says. “We don’t have any time; industry and government see that. Internationally other nations are ahead; we have a lot of catching up to do.”

He firmly believes cross-discipline university partnerships with government and the private sector are the way to tackle climate change.

“Industry is saying you have to get this sorted, otherwise the economy will fall off a cliff,” he adds. “Some studies show that for every one degree of warming you knock one per cent off GDP. So anything beyond two degrees is basically permanent recession. That focuses the mind.”

The Australian