Geology: Definitely NOT a Boring Science!!

I recently shifted my major in college to geoscience so that I could finally pursue a long-time, childhood interest of mine: paleontology. I love paleontology. I absolutely adore the idea of studying ancient creatures that are long-extinct, and yet are the precursors of life on Earth today. I think our knowledge of evolution is truthfully amazing, and the thought that there is a field of science that studies evolution in a broad context is awesome to me. Paleontology has strong (and obvious) ties to geology (because you have to dig the damned fossils out of the dirt to get to them), and so there is quite a lot to learn about the rocks you’ll be digging in before you can get to the “goods”, so to speak. What’s actually the most surprising is that there is a rather staggering amount one can learn from studying geology; there’s more to it than just rocks!

With that thought in mind, it always interested me that most people think of geology as being one of the more “boring” sciences. I really have no way of relating to the idea that any field of science is boring, and so this line of thought really intrigues me from a sort of interpersonal academic kind of direction. Whenever I hear the words “geology is boring” I am always the first to jump up and ask: “How could volcanoes, continental drift, catastrophic disasters and mountain building be boring? It’s awesome!” Usually when I say that sort of thing, the response of “well yeah, those things are cool, but geology itself is really boring” is usually what I get in return. I’m always a little dumbfounded by that response. In essence, all of those things are what make geology REALLY awesome and fun to study, making it worthy of serious research as one of the hard sciences, but people usually don’t think of those things when they think of geology, and there are a few reasons for that (that I will get to later). For this blog posting, I want to begin by covering what geology is and why it is an important science (also illustrating along the way why it is that geology is awesome), and then I want to wrap this up with my thoughts on why many people don’t share my enthusiasm for it.
 Do you know what this is? Do you know why it looks that way?
Understanding geological processes is interesting for many reasons. The academic interest of just wanting to know more about the world is one of the big attractions for many people to get into the field, as studying geology can give a researcher a lot of insight into the processes that have built the geography of the planet we live on in a very interesting deep time perspective. Geology gives a certain amount of deep context and meaning to things that we might just normally look at as, let’s say, interesting formations on a streambed, or something. Studying the rocks of the Earth might seem like a pretty basic and almost boring science, but it gives deep insight into things such as volcanism or erosion, forces that shape the world around us even today.
On fire: Kawika Singson was shooting in the volcanoes of Hawaii, which was so hot his tripod and shoes caught alight
The science of geology also allows scientists to study more outwardly exciting topics such as volcanism, making those oh-so-awesome lava flows we see on National Geographic every now and again that much more exciting for a very simple reason: we can not only know, but inform people as to why that happens. It changed your perspective on your home planet when you realize that there are oceans of molten rock beneath your feet, heated by immense pressure, blasting through the surface from time to time. In understanding volcanism, one also begins to understand plate tectonics. Think about the idea of plate tectonics for a minute; the surface of the Earth being broken up into multiple gigantic plates of rock is still a new idea (comparatively speaking), and continental drift is fascinating in its own right. Just knowing a little about the theory of plate tectonics really takes your mind into a sort of psychological time-warp, because you suddenly realize that your world is dynamic, and has been changing for hundreds of millions, even BILLIONS of years. That kind of perspective on time is brought to you courtesy of your friendly neighborhood geologist.

Figuring out the ages of rocks also falls under the blanket of geological science. This is one of the places where geology crosses over into two other fields, these being physics and chemistry. To know the age of a rock, one needs to take a sample of the rock and vaporize it in a mass spectrometer so that one can read the spectral lines to determine its chemical content. The kind of understanding required to comprehend those lines of color (or lack thereof in terms of absorption lines) requires an understanding of physics with direct reference to atomic structure and electron orbitals; this also requires knowledge of chemistry to really grasp exactly what that sample was made of. The dating of rocks usually falls into one of two columns: absolute dating and relative dating. Absolute dating relies on the ratio of original to what are usually called “daughter” isotopes within a given sample of rock as unstable isotopes of many elements decay over time. The understanding of why those atoms decay the way they do requires another venture into physics to understand quantum tunneling and the Weak Nuclear Force, fields of research that are fascinating in their own right. Erosion, which is another phenomenon that geologists study, is often influenced not only by mechanical factors such as landslides, rushing rivers, etc. (which have gravity involved in their processes, which requires another aside into physics) but also by chemical factors, which requires a geologist to more fully delve into chemistry. In this way we can see geology as being a science that is fundamentally intertwined with other major sciences, creating a blend of knowledge that many might not imagine was originally there.

But physics and chemistry are not the only sciences contributing to greater geological knowledge; astronomy has something to say, as well. Some geological processes, like the erosion of a coastal cliff-face due to the pounding of the waves, have astronomical machinery at work. The tides are driven by the gravitational attraction of the Moon on the Earth’s oceans, causing large bodies of water to oscillate in tides that help shape and/or destroy different features on coastlines everywhere. The noticeable gravitational tug on our tiny world from both the Sun and Moon may also play a role in how tectonic plates move and help further shape the planet we live on. Many geologists also study climate, both ancient and modern, which requires at least some understanding of things like the solar wind, atmospheric chemical composition, etc. Though astronomy may seem far away from everyday geologic study, it sometimes stands at the forefront.

The study of geology also yields clues as to how and why certain organisms evolve the way they did. We have to keep in mind here that biological evolution is not only driven by things like predation and sex, but also by climate, weather, erosion, uplift, deposition, ocean currents (which can be changed due to the movement of tectonic plates) and many other factors that have their roots in geology. While the slow uplift of a mountain range might not seem like it would effect such a plastic and adaptable thing such as life, that mountain range may one day splinter a single population of organisms into two, three, or four different groups, giving evolution lots to work with and do its magic on. Paleontology, with these thoughts in mind, is sort of where geology and biology collide and create a science that is both and neither at the same time. In my own opinion, it is the interrelatedness of geology with all the other sciences that makes it so interesting and magnificent as its own study.

Geology also has a ton of subfields, such as:

So why don’t more people get really excited about geology shows on TV, geology lectures, or anything else related to such a fascinating science? I think the author of the “For Dummies” edition on Geology said it best. The author mentioned that rocks are everyday things, and so we don’t really think about them as being important, because they are essentially everywhere. A geologist might tell you something truly amazing, but because of that association with the mundane it might not be paid attention to, whereas an astronomer can say something relatively mundane about their own field and be thought of as sharing truthfully groundbreaking information simply because stars are far outside our everyday experience (other than twinkling in the night sky, that is). We associate geology with the mundane, and so, to us, it is immensely boring. I think we have also built a cultural picture of what a geologist is, as well. We picture geologists as boring, verbose little men that say a lot of big words, and to us that is unappealing. In a way, we’ve done that with all the sciences by constantly depicting scientists as often short-sighted and socially inept people wearing labcoats and stinking of Firefly fandom. In a way, interest in geology suffers from social conceptions of what geology is and what geologists are, but it also suffers because rocks are freakin’ everywhere, and looking at a rock is almost never fun.
 Sure isn’t boring to me.

Just a thought.
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