In Memoriam – Maarten de Wit

On 15 April 2020, one of the most inspiring people that I have known in person passed away in his sleep. That was Prof Maarten de Wit.

Maarten standing on some of his beloved Dwyka Diamictite. Photo courtesy Tjaart de Wit‘s album.

I have known him for the last few years, since I started doing postgraduate work at Nelson Mandela University. Ironically enough, he first came to my attention in 2010, about five years earlier, when I was looking at attempting a MSc. It was with a project involving a singularly large-scale vision: look at a cone from the Earth’s core out to into space, centred on Southern Africa, encompassing the geology, ecology, sociology, atmospheric science of everything in that cone.

From what I knew of him, this was typical of Maarten. Everything was connected, and science could only be done properly by looking at everything in the area, and by talking to everyone involved. That sense of transdisciplanarity was one that he hammered on constantly, and is possibly his greatest impact on me.

The man was stubborn, and I know that many people did not like his sometimes aggressive approach. At the same time, he strongly backed his students, while also expecting the best of them. His M students always seemed to do far more than needed, and his PhDs always covered a wide range of methods and techniques. He was always keen to send students to use the best equipment with the best people he could arrange, whether locally or overseas. His habit of doing review of someone’s latest draft in the AEON Commons sometimes made me glad that I was not at the receiving end of what seemed like harsh criticism. This criticism was always done with the intention of making the science better, and following the science where it led.

He is one of relatively few scientists I have interacted with who seemed determined to demolish the silos in which research takes place. His best example of this being the AEON Commons itself: a group intended to look at a wide range of things of interest to Earth and the place of humans in and on it. Taking people from a range of geological disciplines (geology, geophysics, geohydrology, geochemistry) and then putting them in contact with social scientists, economists, botanists, and zoologists.

This was often frustrating to him, because of how other fields (especially the social sciences) approached research, but it is almost certainly one of the things that he was most invested in fostering, and for most of the students who were regularly in the Commons was probably one of the most enduring legacies he will leave behind. That and him wandering into the Commons with a new book for someone, or a newspaper article that he wanted everyone to read or similar.

He also had a deep and abiding belief that Africa’s problems needed African solutions. He hammered on that point to the first years at NMU in the last few years: solutions needed to come from them, and might be very different to those of the past. And those solutions need to do right by the people affected by the problems being solved. Attending the lectures while helping with first year coursework was inspiring to me, and hopefully to them as well.

For all his achievements, he shied away from the limelight. He was recently awarded a lifetime achievement award from the Council for Geoscience. I remember how uncomfortable he looked accepting it, downplaying what was a long list of contributions to the geological knowledge of southern Africa.

There is not much more that I can say, expect that it was an honour to meet him, attend his lectures (which I think were very different to what most of the first year students were expecting, and probably did them a lot of good), and be a small part of making his integrated Earth Stewardship Science a reality.

Farewell, and thank you.