The Accretionary Wedge #12: Geology as a ‘connector’ science


The August 2008 edition of The Accretionary Wedge geoscience blog carnival is was hosted at NOVA Geoblog. Go there to check out the original post and comment thread.

When I look back on my four years of undergraduate geology education, the one thing that strikes me as the most important thing I learned is the age of the Earth. It sent my mind reeling to recognize what a huge old planet I was on, and how ephemeral was my own species’ time on it. I was a blip, a temporary arrangement of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a handful of other elements that would last a while, and then disassociate. Material and energy passed into me, and out. This kinetic chemical phenomenon known as me would soon pass, and the Earth would keep turning. The human species would reach its zenith, then collapse (or evolve into something else), and the Earth would keep turning. The continents would rift and crash and the map of the Earth would soon be obselete, and the Earth would keep on turning. Climates change, meteors hit, “rivers shift, oceans fall, and mountains drift” (REM, 1985), and still the planet keeps on spinning, keeps on orbiting, keeps on keeping on.

The day I really realized the age of the Earth wasn’t the day I heard “4.6 billion” in lecture. It was the day I sat there studying and grasped it internally — it clicked that it was immensely, unimaginably old. My temporary human mind was a short-time-scale phenomenon, and it was impossible for this small cerebral system to get a grip on the true scale of the planet’s age. While I would never really know (comprehend/appreciate) the age of my planet, I tapped into something fundamental that day. Looking back on it now, I’m reminded of John Playfair’s words when his pal James Hutton took him to Siccar Point for the first time: “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time” (1805).

When I made that cognitive leap (by essentially realizing it was impossible for me to fully make the cognitive leap), I got stuck on geology. I connected to the study in a way I hadn’t done before. Suddenly I was subject to a dizzying temporal vertigo, as if a layer of flooring had crumbled away leaving me gazing into a bottomless pit. The realization gave a whole new perspective on things, and it was exhilarating. It felt like one of the conversations when you’re getting to know someone, and realizing that they are both intriguing and yet never completely knowable. It draws you in, connects you. Without getting too gushy, it’s kind of like falling in love. I’ve been a geologist ever since.

As I learned more, both in school and on later peregrinations around the world, I found that geology was a great traveling companion. No matter where I went, geology was there with me, showing me new things, giving me insightful perspective. I was looking at the world through geology-colored glasses, and finding that it had a lot to show me. The world made more sense on an elemental level. Hills made sense; rivers made sense; mountains made sense. While I couldn’t claim to fully understand any of these phenomena, I could claim a connection to them now that wasn’t there before. They were no longer random in my mind; they had a place in the overall system, and it took geology to make me realize it.

So this perspective has stuck with me, and it’s what inspired me to pitch “geology as a connector” as this month’s Accretionary Wedge theme. (Newbies: the Wedge is a semi-monthly geoblogosphere carnival wherein different geobloggers contribute posts organized around a central theme.) I was curious about what I would get, and I didn’t want to restrict my peers’ submissions by specifying what kind of connections should be written about.

Sure enough, different people interpreted connection differently. Tromping around in the mountains doing geologic mapping yields more than insights into local structure and stratigraphy, as BrianR of Clastic Detritus discusses how his field work has connected him to the messy reality that is nature.

Jess at Magma Cum Laude is starting her first semester as a graduate T.A., and is going to employ a teaching technique that connected her to the pervasive nature of geology: everything that the Earth puts out for the purpose of assembling Oreo cookies. Something as simple as an Oreo can be the vehicle through which students realize the manifold ways they depend on the Earth every day.

Where are the boundaries between sciences? Is geology a subset of environmental science, or physics? Or both? How do we define the different parts of Nature that we study? Using a Venn diagram, Hypocentre at Hypo-theses explores the connections between geology and other sciences, particularly in the environmental realm.

Similarly, Mel uses a diagram to explore connections in her post at Ripples in Sand. How does geology connect to paleontology? Join Mel in looking at the taphonomic bridge. (And wish her congratulations on her wedding while you’re at it!)

Joining the crowd in her first Accretionary Wedge post, A Life Long Scholar (at The Musings of a Life-Long Scholar) makes a connection between the very small and the very large. In trying to answer questions about massive tectonic plates, sometimes geologists must turn to little bundles of mass a few micrometers across. Check out her post to see how garnets can reveal the secret histories of the continents.

And then there are the personal connections. In Looking for Detachment, Silver Fox was the first one to submit a post on the “connection” theme with her description of how different members of the mining and exploration community connect to one another over time and space (Nevada, of course). How do Charles Manson, Kevin Bacon, and exploration geologists all fit together? Read her post to find out.

MJC Rocks of the Geotripper blog has contributed a real treat: an exploration of the connection of geologists teaching geologists through time. It turns out that his academic lineage goes all the way back to Agassiz and Cuvier! A pretty impressive consideration which will surely inspire the rest of us to investigate our own geologic pedigrees.

Finally, over at Harmonic Tremors, Julian shares a story of how his knowledge of geology led him to make a personal connection with one of his cinematic idols, director Brad Bird. If you’ve seen the Incredibles, you’re familiar with Bird’s high quality entertainment. When Julian heard that Bird was working on a movie called 1906 about the great San Francisco Earthquake, he wrote a letter to clear up some inconsistencies in the book upon which the movie is based. The talented director took the time to write back to Julian, thanking him for the “seismic tutorial.”

Enjoy the various and sundry posts — follow these digital connections to other geologists in other parts of the world, and feel connected to the larger community of earth scientists. Thanks to everyone who contributed. If I’ve missed anyone or if anyone wants to submit a late post, give me a shout or post a link in the comments.
Playfair, John (1805). Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. V, pt. III.
REM, (1985). “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” Fables Of The Reconstruction, IRS records.

One Response to “The Accretionary Wedge #12: Geology as a ‘connector’ science”

  1. Cassie Says:

    I have very little education in geology, well okay one class in undergrad, I’m actually currently going to school for graphic design and was looking for a blog I could use in an article of a magazine (EARTH) which I am redesigning for a school assignment. Anyhow, I was expecting my search for a geology blog to be dry but your blog lured me right in and made me stop to reflect on how magnificent this planet is, and even inspired me to check out some of the other bloggers you listed –thanks.

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