Thursday, April 06, 2006

Why I became a geologist

Occasionally, I have to do a little science to remind my boss why he pays me. The science I do is geology. It’s a good science- all about the science, not the egos or the cult of personality. Disciplines like physics or biology are filled with great men, and lofty ideas. Earth science is not lofty. Not even when dealing with atmospheres. We don’t go for lofty. We go for interesting, pretty, or cool.

Geology doesn’t have great men, either. There are historically important geologists. But they are men that only other geologists have heard of. And some of them, like Inge Lehmann and Mary Anning, are not actually men at all.

This is not to say that the great men of other disciplines haven’t had any impact on geology. Charles Darwin made important observations in the field of igneous petrology, and Ernest Rutherford was involved in some of the earliest geochronology attempts. But the practice of geology requires a certain amount of perspective; this tends to put the egotists and their self-importance in their properly insignificant place. Everyone in Earth science knows that, no matter how grand their theories or widely applicable their methods, Mother Earth is smarter than they are. Lest we forget, there is always the story of Lord Kelvin to remind us of the dangers of brash predictions.

Lord Kelvin is, of course, the big man of 19th century physics and thermodynamics. He was smart, he was proud, he was arrogant, and he decided that he would use his mighty intellect to determine the age of the earth. So, he measured and calculated, deduced and deducted, and came up with an age of 100 million years.

All the mud-digging, fossil picking geologists scratched their heads and said, “Look, buddy. No disrespect or nuthin’, but that number seems to be a bit on the small side. You know, `no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’?” But Lord Kelvin would have none of it. He did the calculations, he did the maths, he solved the fundamental physics, and it was simply beyond rational comprehension that he could be wrong.

Only he was. Kelvin’s age was too young. 4,460 million years too young. Even the sedimentary rocks that underlie most of England are generally older than his estimate. Because, while he thought he had all the answers, the reality was that he didn’t know as much as he thought he did. And the unknown kicked his ass.

In geology, arrogance isn’t just an obnoxious personal trait. It is a professional hazard, and those who practice it invariably end up making themselves look monumentally stupid, on scales that boggle the mind. That is the main reason I like this profession.

The other, minor reasons are almost inconsequential. Obviously I don’t mind the fact that major meetings serve free beer at morning and afternoon tea. Sure, it’s great, but that is a minor perk, really. I could do better by tending bar for a living.

Geology also often involves a lot of travel. I don’t mind travelling. In fact, I rather enjoy it. But was this a major factor in my professional career? Absolutely not. In fact, I vehemently deny any suggestions that such a base motivation as tourism influenced my choice of an Australian PhD, with field work in Brazil. The meetings in Sydney, Cape Town, and Washington DC were a chore, not a perk. It was tough, serious science, and this is demonstrated by my forthcoming papers, “Porites point break: the impact of intensive surfing on the coral reef ecosystem”, and “The variable effect of sunscreen accumulation on cosmogenic nuclide production in beach sands: Gold Coast vs. Copa Cabana.”


yami mcmoots said...

Fascinating research. Do you think sunscreen accumulation on coral microatolls could affect their use as indicators of paleoseismicity? And what about Mai Tai spillage?

C W Magee said...

Dear Dr. McMoots:
I suspect that attempting to postulate without basis on this topic is fraught with danger. Microatolls are complex systems, and there are many non-linear feedbacks that need to be considered. Instead, I would suggest a statistical approach to this problem.

First, visit a statistically significant number of tropical islands and set up your instrumentation. Remember that counting precision is proportional to 1/the square root of the total number of stations. So if you are looking for a 1% effect, you need to sunbathe- I mean study- on a minimum of 10,000 sunscreen-effected atolls in order to discern the effect. And then, of course, you need a control set. Pristine tropical hide-aways, which are untouched by UV absorbing skin lotions.

If you need a technician to help you set up these experiments, drop me a line.

"Mai Tai" is not in my dictionary of geological terms.