in memoriam - P.H.T. Beckett (1928-2014)

Philip Beckett, who died in July 2014, was formerly lecturer in soil science at Oxford University and fellow of St Cross College there. He had wide interests, and in one respect sparked a revolution in pedological thought and application.

Philip read chemistry at Oxford, but his principal enthusiasm as an undergraduate was for exploration. In 1947 he was chemist on a University expedition to Iceland. By his account this experience taught him that the expedition chemist’s life was one of drudgery: analysing samples while colleagues from other disciplines monopolized exploration of the landscape and also expected the chemist to do the cooking. For this reason he equipped himself with a copy of The Study of Soil in the Field by G.R. Clarke, then University Reader in Soil Science, and led the next expedition as a soil surveyor.

That expedition was to Kerman, Iran, and is documented by Anthony Smith in the book Blind White Fish in Persia (1952). Smith wrote: ‘Philip dug holes wide and deep, made a cloud of dust and wrote lengthy notes in his book.’ In due course Philip’s findings on the soil were published in the Journal of Soil Science. Other papers described the historical geography of the region, its climate, agriculture, the distribution of blood groups among the population and the qanats (underground tunnels built to channel water from upland aquifers).

After graduation Philip began research under Walter Russell’s supervision. On Russell’s departure to East Africa, however, he was left without a supervisor and was called up for national service in the army’s Intelligence Corps. One of his tasks was to investigate the bogging of British armour in North Germany towards the end of the second World War: why had tanks sunk into what was expected to be firm ground? The reason was that commanders were relying on inference drawn from geological maps without knowing what lay on top of the rocks; they did not know in advance what the soil was like.

Philip returned to Oxford to continue research, but now supervised by R.K. Schofield and on a fresh topic, namely the thermodynamics of exchange reactions of potassium in soil. His papers on that work in the Journal of Soil Science brought him world-wide recognition. He was also appointed to the university staff.
In an article in New Scientist magazine1 Philip wrote ‘In research, as in life, the most seminal ideas often arise before the mind and imagination have settled into a rut’. He took this principle seriously, resisting narrow specialization. So, while he continued research on exchange processes he was ready to apply himself as a scientist to any interesting problem.
One such came to light because of his ongoing attachment as a Territorial officer to a unit of the British Army’s Royal Engineers in which he rose to the rank of major.

Philip Beckett, left, with geologists of the Royal Engineers

Soft going on the Oxford Clay

Philip down below taking a monolith in the Oxford Clay at Wytham

Taking the monolith

That unit identified the need for information on the soil to predict going conditions for vehicles and for makeshift roads and airfields, and it persuaded the government to fund research into the matter for both military and civil purposes. The received wisdom at the time was that all could be achieved with conventional soil maps. Philip was unconvinced, and for two reasons: (a) conventional mapping was too slow, and (b) it did not and almost certainly could not represent all the variation present. The first problem could be addressed by physiographic mapping from air photography, which Philip and his team demonstrated with land-system atlases of Uganda, Swaziland and western Kenya. The second could be placed on a statistical footing so that predictions could be accompanied by assessments of uncertainty. That was the revolutionary spark, and it led to what we now know as pedometrics.

This new branch of research was developed by a series of doctoral students, who examined multivariate methods for soil classification and survey, logistics of soil survey procedures, remote sensing and soil information systems. Philip was also editor in chief of a series of twelve books, Monographs on Soil Survey, which was published by Ox¬ford University Press between 1977 and 1986 and in which an international authorship wrote authoritatively about, inter alia, statistics, soil classification, land evaluation, soil description, geographical information systems and soil survey for forestry and engineering.

In the mid 1970s Philip turned his attention to the problems created when sewage sludge containing heavy metals is applied to land. He realized that the regulations then in place in different countries implied different mathematical forms for the joint effects of metals on the soil system: a set of ready-made hypotheses. Along with his students he also examined the critical concentrations of heavy metals in plant and animal tissue, and the chemistry of heavy metals in digesters, soil organic matter and the soil solution. A characteristic innovation, when computer graphics were still rudimentary, was a cube formed of layers of perspex, on which it was possible to plot a joint response surface to two variables for examination in three dimensions.

Although exchange processes, soil variability and heavy metals were the three prin¬cipal themes of Philip’s research they by no means exhaust his output. An article on Walther Penck’s Aufbereitung concept, given a pedological interpretation, hints at ideas for developing a basic theory of soil in the landscape which has yet to be realized. He also wrote about the logistics of agricultural extension, yield variation, land values and the aesthetic appreciation of landscapes.

Philip Beckett retired in 1995. He was the last of the soil scientists sensu stricto in the university, and to mark the occasion he held in his college a wake attended by many of his former students and colleagues. We remember him with affection for his guidance early in our careers, his good humour, stimulating discussions and care for our well-being.

Murray Lark and Richard Webster


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Page created: 15.10.2016 | Page updated: 15.10.2016

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