Frithjof Voss

I’ve been awarded the inaugural Internationalen Wissenschaftspreis der Deutschen Geographie (International Science Award of German Geography) by the Frithjof Voss Stiftung, and the Prize was presented at the Closing Ceremony of the IGC in Cologne yesterday (30 August).  The award is to be made every four years and ‘honours the lifetime achievements of foreign scientists whose merit lies in their applied research and contribution towards building links between international geography and German-speaking geography.’

I’m really, really honoured by this.  I’ve valued my exchanges with German-speaking geographers for several decades now.  Before I left Cambridge for Vancouver in 1989 I had already come to know Benno Werlen, Dagmar Reichert and others, and in 1997 I was invited to give the first Hettner Lecture at Heidelberg.  I shall never forget that first visit.  I was staying in a hotel in the Old Town, in a large room tucked underneath the eaves, and I’d left the text of my lecture open on a bed while I was taken on a field excursion.  It rained solidly all day, and when I climbed the stairs to my room I was wet through; as I opened the door a hole appeared in the ceiling – it was a very old hotel – and water cascaded down onto the bed.  As I watched, the text of my lecture literally dissolved before my eyes.  (Probably the first time I thought that physical geography might have an impact on human geography).  I dashed downstairs and said in my best but rather frantic schoolboy German, “The rain is inside my room”, to which the gracious woman behind the desk – who had patiently been correcting my grammar and vocabulary ever since I arrived – replied (in German) “No, it is raining outside…”  I half-dragged her up the stairs,threw the door open, and she said – to my horrified satisfaction – “The rain is inside your room!!” Fortunately I had another copy of the lecture (Rule No. 1: always have a back-up).

That visit opened the door to a continuing series of conversations with colleagues at Heidelberg, and to a lasting friendship with Peter Meusburger – whose boundless energy, enthusiasm and intellectual insight I shall always treasure.  I’ve been back many times since, especially for Peter’s international seminar series on Knowledge & Space (like the ten Hettner lectures, these have been supported by the Klaus Tschira Foundation and held at the beautiful Villa Bosch just outside the city), and in 2007 – just ten years after my first visit – I was thrilled to be awarded an honorary degree by the university.  In 2011 I gave a Keynote lecture on “War in the borderlands” at the conference on New Cultural Geography at Nürnberg-Erlangen, and made more new friends; this past year I’ve been to Cologne to help plan the IGC – and made yet more new friends – and returned this week to give another Keynote  (a sawn-off version of “Deadly embrace: war, distance and intimacy”).

The subject of those last two lectures supplies a second reason for my pleasure at this Award.  It’s really heartening to discover that “applied research” is not interpreted in a narrowly instrumental way, and that the Foundation encourages a critical engagement with matters of public moment: ‘The main concern of the foundation is to demonstrate the practical value of geography when dealing with manifold social problems.’

Frithjof Voss (1936-2004) was an expert on satellite imaging and mapping at the Institute of Geography at the Technical University of Berlin, and he was determined ‘”to rally high technology to offer something that materially benefits ordinary people.”  In 1991 he started using satellite imagery and remote sensing to identify the breeding grounds of locusts in the Tokar Delta in Sudan.  “Locusts do not recognise national borders,” he explained, “and neither does my system.” Ground studies confirmed the accuracy of his biotope mapping, and Voss then set about building his own satellite and linking it to GPS satellites so that real-time intelligence could be transmitted to eradication crews on the ground.

I am, of course, aware of the parallels between this aerial sensor/ground response system and other, different and deadly systems that are the focus of much of my own research on late modern war (drones, in case you’re not following this).  But Voss’s approach was a profoundly ameliorative one.   ‘Considering how quickly locusts breed, and the relative inaccessibility of many locust biotopes, Voss’s “smoke alarm” approach can literally mean the difference between life and death for many people.’ He was named an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 1996, and went on to extend his work to Asia.  As his work in China was drawing to a close, Voss noted that “huge locust swarms began infesting Kazakhstan and were heading to Russia. If our system had been in place in Central Asia, this could have been prevented.” Instead, as the Rolex website puts it, ‘crops were destroyed in an area the size of France, tensions between Russia and Kazakhstan were exacerbated and states of emergencies were declared across the region.’

Something else that captures my imagination – the website makes it plain that his work not only affected people far beyond the academy: it also sought audiences beyond the academy.  Long before most of us had realised the importance of ‘public geographies’, Voss was emphatically clear:

“We know nothing about public relations or how to interest the world in what we are doing… How do we reach those in positions of responsibility who have the imagination to see how great an impact such a system could have on millions around the world? Who do we see to help fund implementation?” Asked whether his remarks were a plea for an expert on such worldly matters to join his crusade, he replied, “Certainly I’m asking. It’s the business of scientists to ask.”

I wish I’d known him.