Friday, January 28, 2011

A Vestige of a Beginning

So it has been a week into my sixth semester of college and third as an official geology major and I am excited for the first time I have two junior level classes-Stratigraphy and Sedimentology as well as Structural Geology; this semester should be fun and interesting. After this week I feel pretty well acquainted with my classes, so I thought I might talk a bit about these classes and geosciences in general.
                I haven’t really had a chance to delve into my Structural Geology class, but my Strat/Sed class has been really interesting so far. Mostly we have discussed the foundation for this science; we stared with Steno and then going through the numerous missteps ending with Werner. What was really amazing to me was how these men, who did add quite a bit of knowledge to other geologic fields such as mineralogy, were so off the mark in how the layers of rocks were laid down.
                Werner in particular is a fascinating man.  His strong arm tactics probably held back geology for several decades, his students were completely indoctrinated into his field of geognosis which completely disregarded field observation and research, and his students were told that Werner knew everything there was to know and not to ask questions. This of course runs against the idea of an open dialogue which is necessary for science to flourish.

                To me what was truly amazing was learning about James Hutton and John Playfair; Hutton’s insistence on field research and use of the scientific method revolutionized the field. Hutton is one of those great historical characters who at first failed at everything he tried, but then ended up revolutionizing the world. Hutton bounced around from program to program in academia and eventually all over Europe. Hutton’s extensive education gave him the background to understand the processes at work, and his extensive travels allowed him to see numerous and varied landscapes which in turned allowed him to make connections between widely different lands and helped him understand that the Earth has been shaped by a myriad of processes.

                There is a cautionary tale to Hutton’s story, though.  Scientists have to be able to communicate their ideas; apparently of the numerous university courses Hutton took, English wasn’t one of them. This prevented his ideas from being communicated to the general public. Just listen to this piece on volcanoes and volcanic mountains: “a volcano should be considered as a spiracle to the subterranean furnace, in order to prevent the unnecessary elevation of land, and fatal effects of earthquakes; and we may rest assured that they, in general, wisely answer the end of their intention, without being in themselves an end, for which nature has exerted such amazing power and excellent contrivance.” The man liked to ramble and was not an enjoyable read; luckily for us and for the field of geology, Hutton had a close friend and traveling companion in John Playfair. Playfair had taken an English class and could write, so he basically translated Hutton’s work into understandable English.

                My professor is a strong proponent of teaching the historical foundation of the geosciences (this is my third class with him and he has started off every semester teaching at least some history), and while most of my classmates seemed bored by these lessons, I am fascinated by them and think they provide valuable insight. The failings of Werner and his contemporaries demonstrate the importance of the scientific method. These men assumed their Earth to be as unchanging as it appeared to be; however, had they put their conclusions to the test they would have found it lacking in proof and hopefully would have revised them to be more in keeping with the evidence at hand. These historical lessons teach us not to assume and to stay observant and keep our minds open which is a very important lesson for students just beginning their scientific careers.

                So maybe starting off a geosciences blog with a history lesson isn’t the brightest idea ever, but I really wanted to talk about this subject, and my friends and family just look at me like I’m crazy. My next post will be about some geologic feature in Southeastern New Mexico which I should have it up in a week and a half or so.

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