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Ashley Davies
Picture of Ashley Davies
Ashley Davies
Volcanologist
On Sat., April 17, 2010, the Advanced Land Imager instrument onboard NASA's Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) spacecraft obtained this false-color infrared image of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Image credit: NASA /JPL/EO-1 Mission/GSFC/Ashley Davies

Where are you from?
I'm from London, England.

Describe the first time you made a personal connection with outer space.
I was a little boy when Neil Armstrong made his "giant leap for mankind" and became the first man to set foot on the Moon in 1969. I was just crazy about the Apollo program -- even at the age of seven, I was the school expert!

"The first thing that fired my imagination
regarding planetary science was in 1979,
when the NASA Voyager spacecraft
discovered active volcanoes on Io."
Ashley Davies

How did you end up working in the space program?
I got interested in planetary science and volcanoes in particular, when I was in high school in England. Two events took place that had a great effect on me. At the time, I had no idea how these would shape my life and lead me to where I am today. I had always been a real space enthusiast, since the early days of the manned Apollo program when I was a little boy, but the first thing that fired my imagination regarding planetary science was in 1979, when the NASA Voyager spacecraft discovered active volcanoes on Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. I knew about Io, I'd seen it through my telescope, but the fact that it had active, erupting volcanoes was wonderful to me -- the conventional wisdom of the time said all of these outer solar system moons were inert, dead ice balls. The second interesting event was the following year, when Mount St. Helens erupted -- and showed how even the mainland United States was vulnerable to volcanic eruptions. My love of astronomy has stayed with me all my life, and kept me focused on my studies through high school. I worked hard as an undergraduate, and focused more on geology, which was new to me, but which I found fascinating. My final year project examined volcanoes on Earth and Mars. I moved on to a Ph.D. at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, where I studied volcanoes on Io and how they might erupt. I was lucky to be mentored by Professors Lionel Wilson and Harry Pinkerton. Lionel, especially was (and still is) at the forefront of mathematical volcanology, uncovering the secrets of volcanic eruptions through an understanding of the underlying physics. I finally ended up at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1994 as a post-doctoral associate, studying Io's volcanoes, and then I was on the Galileo science team. I'm still at it, studying the extraordinary volcanoes on Io and also those on Earth. I now consider myself to be an Io expert -- I have even written the definitive book on Io's volcanoes.

Who inspired you?
A particular hero of mine is the British Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who was an extraordinary man and a great leader. He never asked his men to do something that he wasn't capable or willing to do himself. He led by example. He strived with all of his might to achieve his goals. So much for historical figures. Growing up, I was lucky to have some great teachers and mentors. In high school, my mathematics tutor inspired me. While in college, a wonderful man (sadly deceased) named Lou Marsh inspired me because he loved to share his boundless enthusiasm for astronomy with his students. And I still work with my Ph.D. advisor, Lionel Wilson at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom.

What is a volcanologist?
I study volcanoes -- how they erupt, and why -- and what they tell us about the interior not only of the Earth, but other planets and satellites across the solar system. Volcanoes have had a tremendous effect on the evolution of all the solid planets and many of the moons in the solar system. Volcanoes are windows into the interior of a planet -- we see what the interior is made of because volcanoes erupt this stuff onto the surface where spacecraft can see it. So there are two main reasons why studying volcanoes is important -- first, studying them here (on Earth) helps us understand how they work out there (the physics of volcanic eruptions does not change from body to body, but results are just modified by local conditions); and second, eruptions on Earth can affect the lives of literally millions of people with little notice (for example, the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull in April 2010) and so it is vitally important to know how a particular volcano might behave to assess how hazardous an eruption might be, in order to respond accordingly.

Tell us about a favorite moment so far in your career?
There have been so many! Every year seems to contain a new adventure. In 2009 I traveled to the hottest place on Earth, the Afar region of Ethiopia. In August the temperature was over 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). And in the Afar is the volcano Erta'Ale. This volcano has a very rare volcanic feature, an active lava lake, which in 2009 was about 55 m in diameter. This is a churning, spitting, cauldron of molten rock. I was amazed to hear the whooshing as the lava lake churned away, to smell and taste the acrid gases escaping from the lava, and to feel the blast of heat from the molten rock. I was there filming a sequence about Io for a television series called "Wonders of the Solar System," created by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and it was an amazing experience standing above this extraordinary lava lake discussing volcanoes on Io. The lava lake somehow reminded me of a tiger -- beautiful to look at, a creature of immense power that was barely restrained, that if you got too close or were unlucky ... well, it could take your arm off.

A few years ago I went to Antarctica to another lava lake at the summit of Mount Erebus, the world's most southerly erupting volcano. There the temperature was typically -58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 degrees Celsius). So my job has taken me to the absolute extreme places on Earth, as well as to Io (via spacecraft, at least!)

What advice would you give to someone who wants to take the same career path as you?
A foundation in physics and mathematics is a great help. From an early age I was interested in astronomy. As I grew older and my understanding of physics improved, I learned that I could understand more and more sophisticated concepts and processes. The process never ends -- I'm still learning. Most simply put, a lot of my job concerns heat. I think about how heat is lost from an object to its surroundings, and how heat loss affects the body losing heat. The object in question could be a planet, or a moon or an individual lava flow or lake. A lot of the job is identifying the processes taking place and using physics to understand them under conditions on different planets. To do my job you really need a Ph.D. It is a lot of work, but it is immensely rewarding.

What do you do for fun?
It sounds trite, but my work is really fun. I enjoy it so much that it is difficult to separate it from out of work activities as I am constantly thinking about what to do next with volcanoes. My very understanding wife cuts me a lot of slack! But I read voraciously -- military history, thrillers, mysteries, science fiction -- a lot of science fiction -- and books on the history of science. I adore movies, and think that "The Big Bang Theory" is not only the funniest thing on TV but reminds me of some of the people I work with. Really.

If you were talking to a student interested in science and math or engineering, what advice would you give them?
We are living in a new golden age of planetary exploration -- there are spacecraft exploring the solar system from one end to the other, and now JPL is engaged in planning the next big mission to the Jupiter system. It won't arrive for many years, and a lot of scientists and engineers will be needed -- to work on communications, propulsion, instrument design, project management, spacecraft design, scientists to establish the science goals of the mission, the observations that need to be made to meet those goals, the instruments needed to make the observations, and finally to analyze the data collected. So to get to JPL, work hard in school. Find a subject that you enjoy and stick with it. When you hit a rough patch (yes, I certainly hit a few), remember how much you love this subject and use that to regain your footing. I have always had a great deal of self-motivation, and that was a great help. Once you set your mind to do something, keep at it to achieve your goals. Be disciplined in your approach to work. Don't accept compromises regarding the quality of your work. Strive to be the best in your chosen field.


Read More

Also by Ashley Davies: "Volcanism on Io," Cambridge University Press:
The most powerful volcanoes in the Solar System are not on Earth, but on Io, a tiny moon of Jupiter. Whilst Earth and Io are the only bodies in the Solar System to have active, high-temperature volcanoes, those found on Io are larger, hotter, and more violent. This, the first book dedicated to volcanism on Io, contains the latest results from Galileo mission data analysis. As well as investigating the different styles and scales of volcanic activity on Io, it compares these volcanoes to their contemporaries on Earth. The book also provides a background to how volcanoes form and how they erupt, and explains quantitatively how remote-sensing data from spacecraft and telescopes are analyzed to reveal the underlying volcanic processes.

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Last Updated: 3 January 2013


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