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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

The Scale of Things Public lecture series - Atomic to Global Scale: on your knees to manganese

6th March 2017, 18:15 to 19:15, Change of Venue from Ken Wade Theatre (2nd Floor) to Kingsley Barrett Room (4th Floor), Calman Learning Centre, Dr Karen Johnson (Durham University) and Stephen Livingstone

From playing a critical role in oxygen production and shaping the soil we grow our food in, manganese is a giver of life. And yet how many of you have heard of manganese? Manganese, atomic number 25, not magnesium (atomic number 12). Manganese is ephemeral, like art and culture. It is not preserved in one place like many other metals in rocks. Manganese is too useful for life to be locked away in the geosphere. Globally, it is transformed between aqueous and solid forms innumerable times throughout geological history. At the atomic scale, it is also elusive. Manganese is hard to study because unlike other important metals like iron, it doesn’t have a user-friendly radioactive isotope to help trace its path.

This talk outlines a journey taken via science and art about manganese and the things we have learnt along the way. We now know that manganese is intimately linked with the carbon cycle but we speculate that it is also influential in keeping oxygen concentrations at 21% which they have been for much of geological history. We travel through time from the very first photosynthetic processes on Earth by Mn atoms to global carbon sequestration in the world’s oceans and soils today, explaining manganese’s potential role in fine-tuning the global cycles of carbon, oxygen and water. This talk will have you on your knees to manganese.


Dr Karen Johnson

Karen’s research has a strong emphasis on using ‘wastes’ as resources. To date, much of her research has focussed on the passive treatment of contaminated waters and soils using ‘wastes’ and industry byproducts in place of primary aggregates. She is also working on carbon stabilization in common soil minerals and enhancing urban flood resilience by using soil amendments. Karen has a track record of multi-disciplinary projects collaborating both with industry, regulatory authorities, policy-makers, science and social science departments and artists. More details about Dr Johnson's research can be found at:

Dr Johnson is passionate about soil protection and in 2016 gave oral evidence to the Government's Environmental Audit Committee's Inquiry into Soil Health. She stated that urban soils are currently unprotected and that engineers should lead the way in the sustainable management of urban soils since soils have an important role to play both in climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation ‪ …‪

Stephen Livingstone

Artist Stephen Livingstone collaborates with museums and institutions in the production of work which deals with human impact upon landscapes and habitats. His art can take a number of forms including drawing, construction, installation and digital printing and he has developed projects for the British Library, the National Trust, Oxford University Museum and the Museum of Art and Design in NewYork.

In 2015 Stephen was Leverhulme Artist in Residence at Durham University's School of Engineering and Computing Sciences where he worked under the direction of Dr. Karen Johnson exploring the properties of mineral pigments as drawing media. The 12 month residency resulted in a number of series of drawings, some on a very large scale, made using ferric oxide, coal dust, galena and lead compounds. “Atmospheric Monitoring” was made in response to Karen's research into manganese.