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CAKE: In memory of Dr Caroline Williams

Image credit: Archivo General de Indias
It all started with a picture.

A picture of a 1773 eruption of Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador. Caroline, the historian, was fascinated by the writing. Alison and Kathy were interested in the details of the eruption: the two vents, the distribution of the lava bombs, the flow that blocked the river. Erica, the paleoclimatologist, was the conduit between us, receiving the image from Caroline and passing it along to Alison and Kathy. And thus CAKE (Caroline-Alison-Kathy-Erica) was established.

Over the intervening years, we pursued several academic collaborations with students (one PhD and two MSc) that not only brought us together on questions of science and historical records, but also grew into a deep CAKE friendship, with shared dinners and social events in addition to a shared Dropbox folder and co-authored publications. Caroline taught us (the scientists) that the methodologies employed by data-driven historians are very similar to those used by scientists - find more than one source for an event, understand the perspective of that source and their reason for recording a story - and that historical archives are a vast and under-utilised source of information about past natural disasters and their impacts on local populations.

At the same time, we taught Caroline the value of accounts of the weather, or earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions, which she laughingly said that she had previously passed over in search of the real history, that related to the interactions of indigenous people and the Spanish.

Together we became increasingly committed to exploring and encouraging cross-disciplinary work between the humanities and the sciences, including not only shared methodology but also finding common ground in the questions that we were asking.

We saw it as a measure of achievement that by our first joint CAKE publication we had extended so far beyond any of our previous research that we were unable to self-cite (Observations of a stratospheric aerosol veil from a tropical volcanic eruption in December 1808: is this the Unknown ~1809 eruption? Guevara A. Williams C. A. Hendy E. Rust A. C. & Cashman K. V. (2014) In : Climate of the Past. 10 5 p.1707-1722;

With a ratio of 3:1 scientists:historian, however, we recognise that Caroline travelled farther, academically, into our territory than we did into hers… we regret that we don’t have the time now to complete that voyage. We do note that she was starting to become well known among social-minded volcanologists in the UK, and that more than one scientist reached out to her to establish collaborations on volcano-related research. Similarly, with the climate modelling and meteorology data rescue communities in the UK and US.

We miss her greatly.

This blog has been written in memory of Dr Caroline Williams who passed away recently. It was written by Dr Erica Hendy, Dr Alison Rust and Professor Kathy Cashman.

Caroline’s funeral will be held on Wednesday 2 October and a prize fund set up in her name. Further details are available on the tribute site:

Donations: ‘The Caroline Williams Prize in Latin American Studies’ has been set up and this leaflet indicates the various ways in which you can contribute to this. Please note the collection plate that will pass during the service is for donations to the Cathedral only.

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