Notre Dame professor reflects on career in lunar geology
Annie Brown | Thursday, February 9, 2023
Deep in the labyrinthine corridors of Cushing Hall, among engineering labs and dusty lockers, one can find the office of professor Clive R. Neal. Instead of the typical plain, weathered oak of the nearby doors, Neal’s is covered in “Doctor Who” posters and crayon-drawn pictures torn from coloring books.
Given the chance to look, visitors would notice science puns and graduation photos, license plates and a tiny Union Jack. Not many visitors are offered that chance, however, because Neal’s rescued English springer spaniel, Harry, comes bounding and barking at the first scent of company. His eager yelps beckon guests into the warm lamplight of room 106D, where every available space of wall, desk, table, floor and filing cabinet is covered in books, samples and models.
“I used to have three filing cabinets in here,” Neal said, gesturing to a small piece of open floor space. “My wife converted all of them into PDFs.”
Neal, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and Earth sciences, says his office in Cushing Hall is a far cry from where his geology passions began on the east coast of England, where instead of stacks of books and samples from Apollo missions, a young Neal was surrounded by vast fields, wide horizons and, of course, fossils.
“I knew I wanted to be a geologist when I was five years old. We didn’t have video games, so I was outside a lot,” he explained.
“I used to spend hours just walking across the fields, finding rocks. I’d find all sorts of fossils there; it’s in the right area, and the right geologic time period. I was just fascinated, trying to think how the landscape changed so much.”
Eventually receiving his B.S. in geology from the University of Leicester in 1982, Neal decided to complete his PhD at the University of Leeds, which sent him to the Solomon Islands off the coast of Australia.
For his postdoctoral work, Neal spent four years with the University of Tennessee, a job that he “never applied for,” arriving in the U.S. by chance. He never left.
“I came over to this country with two suitcases of clothes and a trunk full of books, all of which are still here,” Neal said, indicating a handful of volumes among the hundreds on his shelves — testaments to a long career in geological research.
This career was furthered in 1990 with Neal’s first position at Notre Dame. Now, in addition to teaching the undergraduate course “Living and Working on the Moon,” Neal conducts research and helps devise policy involving various geological phenomena, among which the moon is paramount.
“I have two lives,” Neal said. “First, I look at super-volcanoes and scientific ocean drilling. My other life is exploring the moon, either robotically or with humans. I’ve gotten more involved with NASA and now the National Science Foundation, with more policy things than anything else. You have to pay attention to the big picture.”
The “big picture” is something that occupies Neal’s mind often, since his work with lunar geology forces him to grapple with time periods greater than the average human life span.
“I’m going to live until 70, 80, 90, hopefully 100, who knows? But it’s nothing when you look at the big picture. Nothing,” he said.
“The rocks I’m looking at from the moon are anywhere between three and 4.3 billion years old. The Bible is right: we are a mist. A very poisonous mist sometimes.”
Neal said that to understand humanity’s impact on issues like climate change and space exploration, we must first understand how vast the timescale of the universe is. With growing concerns of climate change, the topic of manned missions to space has become more relevant, and with it a growing number of private companies interested in space exploration.
Just last month, the University of Notre Dame partnered with Sierra Space, a space research and exploration company. In his tenure leading NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG), Neal saw this growth firsthand.
“There’s so many companies devoted to space and so many companies for the moon,” he said. “We started off with about seven or eight companies in 2017; it’s over 40 now.”
Neal eventually left the LEAG in favor of returning to teaching and researching full-time. When asked about retirement, he maintained that there is still work to be done.
“When I do my research, I do what excites me,” Neal explained. “Why would I stop having fun? When I start working — when this becomes work — I’ll quit.”
Indeed, there seem to be no signs Neal is slowing down. He has recently added “The Ancient Sun” to his bookshelves — which are already full. As Harry noses through the models and samples within his reach, Neal reflects on the career that has brought him to room 106D.
“I’m enjoying my journey,” he said. “It was all just serendipity, and it’s been fun. I’ve been lucky. Very lucky.”