Monday, March 16, 2009

10 Things a Geology Major Should Know (An Alternate View)

Callan Bentley at NOVA Geoblog ordered us into a meme on the topic of ten things we think geology majors should know. His rule was that we couldn't use any items already mentioned. Since I'm coming late to the meme and all the good answers are taken (So far Mel at Ripples in Sand, Chris at GoodSchist, Eric at The Dynamic Earth , Lockwood at Outside the Interzone, Bryan at In Terra Veritas, and Kim have added their top ten already), and because people played fast and loose with the rules on my wedge contribution last month, I'm probably gonna break some rules now, primarily because I haven't had time to read all of them yet.

OK, actually it is because I am coming with a different point of view about what geologists should know. It's not the job skills and technical expertise, which of course are necessary and desired, but the face we geologists present to the world as teachers and interpreters of earth science and geology. At one time or another, a person will find out you are a geologist, and they will want to know something from you. It'll be a rock, a fossil, a question about something happening in the news. We are the ambassadors of our science. We all need to be ready for these questions!

If anything seems sarcastic in the list that follows, it is not really meant that way. It's just that some questions come up SO often. I really do feel it is a privilege to be educating the public about our science. So in no particular order, here they are:

1) Know your dinosaurs: Better even than the average eight-year old. Don't just learn the classic plastic toy-in-a-kit types. Go beyond even the Jurassic Park dinosaurs. You need to communicate to people that the world of the dinosaurs was an ecosystem with hundreds of species already discovered, with more being found every year. Even better, know about the mammal-like reptiles, who were almost diverse as the dinos. And know the Cenozoic mammals, better than the kids who've seen "Ice Age".

2)Know the important fossil finds in your region: make people aware of the rich history of your region. My home in the Central Valley is kind of boring on the surface, but we have an incredible array of fossils that have been found nearby. A complete Pleistocene fauna is being dug up from one of our garbage dumps (excuse me, sanitary waste facility), and mosasaurs and plesiosaurs used to swim in the shallow sea that once existed here. The first dinosaur ever discovered in California was found in my county (Stanislaus) a 13-year-old kid! Which brings up the next necessity:

3) Be able to identify pseudo-fossils: make yourself familiar with dendrites, concretions and the other things people will find in your region. And learn the fine art of diplomacy as you explain how this feature is not a petrified alien brain or dinosaur egg, but actually an unusual pattern of cementation in the rock. I was once visited by a man who had what he was just sure was a dinosaur egg. I gently explained to him how it was actually a piece of sandstone in the shape of an egg. He was disappointed, but thanked me and left. The next morning I found an article about me and dinosaur eggs in the newspaper. The man had called a reporter before he talked to me, and the reporter was waiting for the verdict outside. I was really glad I was polite...

On the other hand, sometimes there are surprises. I got a series of calls from a person who had found what she called some petrified wood along our local river. I didn't take her seriously, of course, because there just isn't any petrified wood there, but she persisted and finally brought it by. It wasn't petrified wood at all, it was a section of a wooly mammoth tusk!

4) Learn to say why "this piece of (slag, vesicular basalt, magnetite) is not a meteorite": this is the closest I am going to come to sarcasm, but this is the most common reason for an unsolicited visit to my office. And people will seriously say "Are you sure? Who else can I talk to who will tell me the truth?".

5. More seriously, be able to explain clearly and concisely the geological hazards that threaten your region. Without exaggeration. One fine day, an earthquake, a flood, an eruption, a landslide will take place near by, and you will be the one who gets the phone call from an anxious reporter who has already written an overwrought story, and just needs you to confirm his or her misconceptions. I once tried to explain the concept of earthquake magnitude, and how there was only one magnitude of a quake, but that intensity was different depending on the damage and people's perception of the shaking. The article the next day said the quake had an "intensity of magnitude 4.5".

6. Be able to explain science and the scientific method: people often do not understand how science works, and there is a frustrating tendency to confuse the meaning of "theory". They may know how an auto technician may follow a process to narrow down the cause of a leak in the AC system of your car, and they know how a doctor uses symptons to be led to the possible cause of a disease, but they don't realize that scientic research follows the same process. We often don't know what we will find, and we don't know a truth and then try to gather evidence to prove it.

7. Be able to explain the theory of evolution, and to do it in soundbites. The creation-science people have been successful in the society at large because they boil huge and complex controversies into short and sometimes sarcastic bits. Don't be sarcastic, and don't be long-winded. And do not be arrogant; it feeds into the wrong stereotype.

8. Be able to explain how we know the age of the earth and the timing of significant events in the history of the earth. This is a huge necessity because the person asking about this and evolution is probably concerned about some aspect of their religious beliefs. To be honest, when faith is involved, you cannot expect to change someone's mind, but if you treat someone with respect and patience, there will be more room for understanding.

9. Be able to identify and explain the origin of the rocks found in your area. People want to know how their treasures formed.

10. Understand how the political process operates in your region: politicians know very little about geology, and sometimes there are proposals that sound good to most people, but would be foolish from a geological point of view: building on river floodplains or on unstable slopes would be an example. There will be times when a lone voice of reason will need to speak up. Be ready to present complex geological topics in a straightforward manner.


220mya said...

Don't forget the great Neogene record of marine fossils (invertebrate and vertebrate) in the Central Valley!

A great resource for how science works is the Understanding Science website. See also Understanding Evolution.

Aquanautix said...

Great post, thanks. I'm not a geologist, but it appears to be sound advice to majors.