Photograph by Stu Jenks.
Meteorite specialist Geoff Notkin at Meteor Crater in Arizona.
Dos Equis might claim to have The Most Interesting Man in the World, but Geoff Notkin could easily compete for the title. His Instagram bio describes him as a “TV host, producer, Emmy Award winner, author, columnist, adventurer, meteorite specialist, TEDx speaker, Ed Fringe performer, and Asteroid 132904.” Yes, he has an asteroid as a namesake. But even that impressive list does not begin to encompass Notkin’s countless talents, interests and accomplishments.
In an extended interview with Inspiring Figures, Notkin was generously insightful, charmingly witty, and more than a little self-deprecating. Who else could mention the Ramones, potato salad, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the same sentence and have it make perfect sense?
Due to its length, the interview will be presented in parts, culminating with a fascinating look at his childhood idols (you will be surprised), who continues to inspire him today, and breaking news on his latest endeavor, which may be his most ambitious ever.
In Part Three, read about the diverse figures from science, music, literature and other fields who influenced Geoff's life and work, and how an episode involving a rock hammer and a volcano at age 12 foreshadowed his career as an Action Scientist.
Click here to read Part Two
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You provided several examples of how you have inspired others through your work. On the flip side of that, who inspired you growing up and who continues to inspire you today?
It’s a pretty long list, but I’ll try and do it in order. Going back to early childhood, a major figure for me was Jacques Cousteau. Talk about action scientists! He just had it all. He was a brilliant, charming, eccentric Frenchman. He invented scuba diving. Every kid in my generation, growing up in Europe and watching his shows, wanted to be a marine biologist. Forget astronomy, forget wanting to be an astronaut. There’s nothing up there. Look at marine biology. You get to wear a suit and go under water and see wildlife.
Everything about it was amazing. He was not just an adventurer. He was a real trailblazer for ecology and environmental awareness, and one of the first people to show us the underwater world in all its grandeur and beauty and mystery. His love for the oceans and his caring for our planet shone through in everything he did. He had this fantastic ship, the Calypso, which was a World War II minesweeper converted into an oceanography vessel. I love that because I’m a military history fanatic. What could be cooler than a French marine biologist who invents scuba diving, has a World War II ship that he’s converted into this mobile palace of adventure and he sails around the world making documentaries about the octopus and sunken treasure and sharks and everything else fascinating.
I just thought he was the greatest person who ever lived. It illuminated and colorized my childhood. I never missed The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I read all his books. I became a scuba diver. I first went diving when I was 10 and remained a very keen scuba diver for decades. I really credit Jacques Cousteau with that.
That was an example of somebody who was not only out there doing it, but he was doing it for good. He was not exploiting natural resources. He was trying to draw attention to the glories of the undersea world. He was a superhero, using his powers only for good – an international superhero. To me, he is the ultimate action scientist.
Another person is Haroun Tazieff, who was also a Frenchman. He was a volcanologist and he was absolutely fearless. I was mesmerized by his documentary work. He would travel around the world going to active volcanoes and film there. If you’ve ever seen closeup footage of Etna erupting or Surtsey or any of these volcanoes, and it’s from the ‘60s or ‘70s, there’s probably a 99.5% chance that it is Haroun Tazieff who took the video. Sometimes you’d see a shot that somebody else took and there’s this giant volcano at night and it’s just erupting and looks like something out of one of the Star Wars episodes. Then, you see this tiny little silhouette and there’s a guy right at the edge of the crater, like an absolute madman, getting the close-up footage – and that was him.
I used to watch these things in wonder and I became fascinated by volcanoes. I actually convinced my parents to take me to Iceland when I was 12, very shortly after Heimaey had erupted on the Westman Islands off the coast. My parents – what were they thinking? We chartered this little plane and we flew out – the island had been almost obliterated. It was covered with volcanic cinder and there was no runway. We just landed on the cinder that had been bulldozed. The volcano was still smoking and I climbed up to the rim of the volcano and lost my footing and fell into it. It’s lucky I had a rock hammer with me, because I dug the rock hammer into the side of the crater as I was sliding down and I saved myself. I climbed up over the rim pretty shaken, but trying to look cool. My parents witnessed the whole thing and I tried to play it off like nothing happened, but my mom was looking at me incredulously and she said, “Did you fall into the crater?” and I said, “No, not really, I was just leaning over to collect these rocks.” And my dad said, “Don’t lie to us. We saw you fall into that crater.” Then my mom said, “Who do you think you are, Haroun Tazieff?” and that was one of the greatest compliments ever paid to me. But my parents kept me on a short leash after that for a long time.
A little later, a writer whose humor and vision inspired me more than almost anything in the history of time and space is Douglas Adams, who wrote Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was once on a date with a woman and she asked me, “What do you think are the three greatest things in the world – what are the three greatest achievements of humanity?” Without hesitation, I said, “The Ramones, potato salad, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Her face sank because I think she was disappointed and was hoping I would say, “Well, you, honey, of course.” But what could be better than those three things?
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – little known fact – was originally written as a BBC radio show in the 1970s. It was produced by Geoffrey Perkins on a tiny budget and starred Mark Wing-Davey, who is a brilliant British character actor, as Zaphod Beeblebrox. Later, it was a television show, and books, and much later a movie and a play – it was everything. The original incarnation of Hitchhiker’s was a radio show, which you can get on BBC CD. If you like Hitchhiker’s, and you think you know Hitchhiker’s, you’ve got to hear the radio show, because it was written as a radio show and those 30-minute scripts are some of the funniest, tightest, most well-written, most imaginative, visionary things ever produced in literature, as far as I’m concerned, no contest.
The humor in them and the little throw-away lines, the concepts that he came up with – you could write a whole science fiction movie based around just the little concepts that he mentions. For example, he’s talking about one planet where all the robots that have misbehaved have all been sent away to this planet to make continent toupees. Arthur, the earthman who goes on these crazy adventures in time and space says, “Continent toupees? What’s that?” and the alien who is explaining this story to him says, “Oh, they’re toupees for planets that have used up all their forests.” There’s no other mention of that in the whole thing and I go back to that again and again: Would those be actual trees? Is it like AstroTurf? Or is it terraforming? Is it ecologically based and they have found some way to put back millions of trees? The reason it’s fascinating to me is I wish we could do that. We need that. We’ve got to take that to Indonesia where they’re burning down the forests to grow those stupid date palm oil plants that they put in your tortilla chips.
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You’ve talked about Jacques Cousteau, Haroun Tazieff and Douglas Adams. Who else would you add to the list?
I could go on all day, but there are probably two more really key figures for me. One is Joe Strummer, singer for The Clash. In my opinion, he is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songwriter of all time, even surpassing Dylan and Lach. What a master lyricist! If you listen to The Clash, there are virtually no love songs. There’s “Train in Vain,” which is sort of a love song, but it’s very original, and “1-2 Crush on You,” which is a B-side. Their great songs, like “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” “Complete Control,” and “Safe European Home” – these are stories. These are political stories. They’re social commentary.
“White Man in Hammersmith Palais” is about Joe, who loved reggae, and England was not very integrated, or as integrated as it would become, in the ‘70s. Joe had gone to this all-night reggae concert in London and he was – or felt like he was – the only white person there. It’s not a racist thing; it’s an observation. He’s a very multicultural guy. In his later band, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, he became a great proponent of world music, so he is as far away from a racist as you could get. He is also very courageous, because society was more segregated then than it is now and to go to what was considered to be a ‘black’ venue to see ‘black’ bands as a white guy – he obviously really stood out. The song is a commentary on his experiences and I find that type of songwriting to be very difficult.
It’s very easy to write love songs; everyone has been in love and has had a broken heart, and you go to that because there are strong emotional feelings. But it’s been done a million times. What has not been done is a song like “Safe European Home,” which talks about when he went to Jamaica for the first time and was very disillusioned by his experiences; or “Complete Control,” which is one of their great songs. It’s about being mistreated by their record label. It’s a commentary about corporate politics in rock ‘n’ roll. These are fantastic slice-of-life stories.
Joe Strummer was a great lyricist, a humanitarian, an intellectual, and I consider him the best interviewee I have ever seen. If you want to know what I’m talking about, there is a great film called Westway to the World, which is the official documentary about The Clash. It was filmed slightly before Joe died – he died almost at the same time as Douglas Adams and Joey Ramone, lead singer of the Ramones – so three of my heroes died pretty much at the same time. That was a terrible year. But Joe was an amazing speaker. He had great compassion, conviction and insight.
One of my favorite things he said was when he was being interviewed about “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” – and it was when The Clash were at the height of their power; they’d had one punk anthem after another. It was the late ‘70s and everyone was expecting another blistering punk rock two-and-a-half-minute barnstormer from them. Instead, they bring out this mid-tempo, kind of pop/reggae beautiful song called “White Man in Hammersmith Palais.” The interviewer said, “What were you thinking?” and Joe said, “These are the greatest moments of any career, when you do something that’s unexpected.” And that has always been a model for me. If I ever feel like I’m treading water, doing the same thing, stuck in a rut, I think, “What would Joe do?” Joe would stand the whole thing on its ear and put out a mid-tempo reggae single. That is a blueprint for me for creativity and being original.
I admire Joe so much. I met him a couple of times briefly and he was a person with a golden heart. He was so great to the fans and that inspired me also, because I saw how he treated his fans with unlimited kindness and patience. He spoke with them like they were real people – not someone who was just buying his record – real people that he cared about. I saw him draw cartoons on people’s T-shirts and write long messages in books and on photos. He had such a big heart and was such a caring person, yet he was the standard bearer for punk rock. He was a massive anti-establishment figure – let’s not miss the point here. He terrified the authorities. He was a voice for change. He was a radical political commentator and he was the frontman of the greatest band of all time. He was an astonishing powerhouse on stage, but he was an extremely kind and real person. I try always to model my behavior on him and to be as good an interviewee as Joe was and to be as kind to my fans as he was.
Joe would never say, “I don’t have time for an autograph,” or, “Don’t bother me.” It never happened. He was always there. I saw him in clubs in New York and backstage and he was hanging out with fans and talking to them like real people – a one-on-one conversation about real things, not when the next album is coming out. You see that caring about things of substance in all of his lyrics and all of his work.
The last person I will mention – although there are many – is Theodore Roosevelt. He is a giant. I said Jacques Cousteau was a superhero; Theodore Roosevelt was the superhero of superheroes. He was a scholar, an environmentalist, an action politician, a linguist, a visionary, a family man, a great dad, an adventurer, a Rough Rider, a war hero – he was everything! There is a marvelous bit in the documentary TR: An American Lion that says he was the first American president to win the Nobel Prize and is the only American president to win the Medal of Honor.
He was the first president to leave the United States while in office. Fair is fair: he was also an imperialist and he wanted to establish American might in the world. America was changing and his presidency was a pivotal time in American history and world history, and he wanted America to be seen as a world power, not a funny little collection of states that did not get on with each other. But he only had one fleet and he had been Secretary of the Navy, so he understood the might of sea power and he wanted another fleet, but there wasn’t another fleet. He said, “What am I going to do if my fleet is in the Atlantic and I need to get it to the Pacific?” Well, he cut a canal right through the continent. He forced the Panama Canal to be built. He was an engineering visionary.
His greatest legacy and the most important thing about Theodore Roosevelt was he was the greatest conservationist of all time. He defied Congress to save the Grand Canyon and declared hundreds of thousands of acres of land to be national parks. While he was a hunter and an imperialist and wanted America to be mighty and powerful, he also understood the critical importance of the natural world and the animals that we share this planet with. If it wasn’t for Roosevelt, the Grand Canyon would be nothing but million-dollar condos on all sides.
The whole thing started when he became upset with the fact that beautiful rare birds were being killed in Florida just to take their feathers to put in ladies’ fashion hats. He said to his cabinet, “Is there anything I can do about this?” and they said, “Yes, you’re the president – you can declare that as a national wildlife preserve.” So, he said, “Let’s do that right now,” and he never stopped.
He was a larger-than-life person and he cared about the little person, the American people and their welfare. He broke up the big monopolies and went to war with the trusts. But, for me, his greatest legacy is always that he saved the most beautiful parts of our country for generations to enjoy for all time. I think that is perhaps the greatest legacy that anyone could ever leave.
Photo © Desert Owl Productions.
Adventurer Geoff Notkin on the rim of the Upheaval Dome, Alamo Breccia Expedition, 2001.
(End, Part 3)
Click here to read Part Four
About Geoffrey Notkin: A television host, professional meteorite hunter, author and photographer, Notkin is president of Aerolite Meteorites, Inc., the world’s largest commercial meteorite company. He starred for three seasons on Science Channel's award-winning TV show Meteorite Men, and hosted the Emmy-winning educational TV series STEM Journals for Cox Media. He has also made documentaries for National Geographic, Discovery, PBS, BBC, History Channel, A&E, and Travel Channel. Notkin has written more than 150 published articles on meteoritics, paleontology, adventure travel, history, and the arts, and is the author of three books. The minor planet 132904, discovered at Mount Palomar, was named "Notkin" and approved by the Minor Planet Center in recognition of Geoff's contributions to science and education.
"METEORITES ARE THE MOST REMARKABLE THINGS on our planet and they are the only things we can own that are not originally from this planet. Meteorites are rocks that have fallen to Earth from outer space, and survived a fiery passage through our atmosphere. They are the remnants of long-dead planets and asteroids, and most originated in the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter. Others may have traveled even further, their origins lying in distant, unknown points outside our own solar system. Some meteorites may be all that has survived from the nucleus of an ancient comet. Others, such as carbonaceous chondrites, are believed to contain materials that pre-date our own planet and even the Solar System itself! As such, they are the oldest things any human has ever touched and carry within whispers of an existence so ancient we can barely comprehend it. And now, I invite you to explore our website, and begin your own adventures in the world of meteorites."
— Geoffrey Notkin - President, Aerolite Meteorites, Inc.
If you are interested in learning more about Aerolite Meteorites, click here.
"We did this. We took a stand for science and education, for learning and critical thought, and we altered the experiment. We invite you to be one of the first to become a member and join us in building a great Science, Arts and Space learning institute in Tucson, Arizona. Our mission is to share our passion for science, the arts and space by providing exceptional educational programs, exhibits and resources that are accessible to everyone."
— Geoffrey Notkin - Founder, Science, Arts and Space Institute
If you are interested in learning more about the Science, Arts and Space Institute, click here.