Sunday Sensational Science

Starring Geology

It’s teevee week at the Hunter household, and it ain’t all about House, either. We’ve been indulging in some educational programming, too. There’s some good stuff out there which makes good supplemental viewing. In this edition of Sunday Sensational Science, I’ll introduce you to two of my favorite geology programs.

Television does one thing a book can’t: video. Reading about geology is quite a different experience from seeing it in action. While I always recommend books over boob tube, television helps bring that information roaring to life. Watching geology in action worldwide makes it easier to understand what the books explain. It also gives you plenty of ideas for further reading, introducing you to concepts and geologically fascinating places you haven’t encountered before. Some programs are better at it than others, of course, and among the best is Hot Rocks.

Iain Stewart, the adorable Scottish host, takes us all over the world digging into rocks, the way they’re formed, and the impact geologic activity has on civilization. His PhD in geology and his infectious enthusiasm, combined with breathtaking visuals, fascinating historical tidbits, and his propensity for using the nearest food items to illustrate geological concepts, make this show a can’t-miss. Think of him as a cross between James Burke and Carl Sagan, and you’ll have a good idea what he’s like.

Allow Iain to introduce himself:

I guess that even as a university academic, I was a frustrated TV host. As a former child actor, I dodged the precarious glare of the footlights, turning instead to academia on the grounds that lecturing was just performing, but with a steady income.

[snip]

In 2003 I was the first geologist (and Scot!) to be invited to join the science team of the popular BBC2 program, Rough Science. Around the same time, my own geological research had been featured in two BBC Horizon specials — Helike: The Real Atlantis and Earthquake Storms.

My research is focused on a broad area of Earth hazards and natural disasters, specifically identifying major earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions that have occurred in the recent past (the last 10,000 years). I do most of my fieldwork in the Mediterranean region, and many of my studies are linked with those being done in geography, archaeology and ancient history.

Out of this mishmash emerged the idea of a series based on the geology of the ancient Mediterranean world. It would be a combination of rough travel, rough history and rough rocks. For me, the key element was making it as lively and accessible as possible — a geology series for those who didn’t know they liked geology!

It truly is.

Iain’s usual stomping grounds are the Mediterranean, but the show’s taken him to places like Japan and Indonesia as well. The photo above is a volcanic beach on Krakatoa, Indonesia, where Iain’s showing off the wonders of pumice as an ingredient for those rafts that bring hapless animals to repopulate a wasteland after eruptions. This episode also taught us a little something about nutmeg’s role in the discovery of America.

You’ll also learn about a supervolcano that may be responsible for a population bottleneck in the human population. Lake Toba in Indonesia erupted 75,000 years ago, leaving a crater over 60 miles long and 19 miles wide. Tambora’s eruption, the largest in recorded history, left the world without a summer in 1815 – and it was rather small compared to Toba. Toba left India buried six inches deep in ash, with the depth reaching 20 feet. India, for reference, is over 3,000 miles away. Daamn.

Hot Rocks is full of information like that, along with stunning visuals and easy-to-understand explanations of how geology works. It’s a holistic program, showing how geology is tied to everything from landscapes to art to food and politics. Alas, it’s not available on DVD yet, and no clips on YouTube, but it’s still airing on the Science Channel. And I’ve got a clip of Iain talking about global warming, and the day he realized that it’s a very, very real threat.

I can’t get you Hot Rocks on DVD, but I can get you Faces of Earth. For cheap. And it’s spectacular. From the formation of the Earth from interstellar dust particles to humankind’s reshaping of the planet, it travels a broad swath of geological history. I’ve only seen the first two episodes so far, but just those two were enough to convince me I must own it.

It’s all science, having been produced by the American Geological Institute and supported by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Don’t worry – it’s not an advert for Big Energy. In fact, if they meant it as an advertisement for more drilling, it’s probably going to do quite the opposite. Once you’ve experienced several hours of Earth’s geological majesty, you’re a little less inclined to destroy it.

The series uses some incredible CGI to illustrate how plate tectonics work. But the most fascinating aspect to me was watching geologists use things like sand on a table and a vat full of sugar
syrup to model geological processes. And CERN’s in there, too – bet you didn’t know they’re using seismic data monitoring to make music. Would you like to hear Mt. Etna in piano or guitar? The clip I’ve included below will show you what they’re up to.

They also show the dramatic birth of an ocean basin in Ethiopia’s Afar Depression. That crevice you see to the right appeared virtually overnight. The continents move apart on the order of a few centimeters per year, on average. What that average hides is the fact that sometimes that slow movement happens in the blink of an eye:

In September 2005, a series of fissures opened along the Afar Depression. Over about a week, the rift pulled apart by eight metres and dropped down by up to one metre. Local people told of a series of earthquakes and how ash darkened the air for three days. At the same time, satellites tracking the region showed that the surface about nearby volcanoes subsided by as much as three metres, as magma was injected along the fissure.

This process of ocean formation is normally hidden deep beneath the seas, but in Afar we can walk across the region as the Earth’s surface splits apart.

Utterly awesome stuff, my darlings. Geology on the teevee isn’t quite as fantastic as geology in the field, but seeing as how none of us are quite rich enough to jet all over the world exploring these dramatically interesting places, it’s good to know we can get there by flipping the channel. Geology becomes the star of the show in these programs. I think it’s going to be a hit.

Comments

  1. says

    Rough Science was a fun program to watch. The ingenuity of the participants was astounding, even given that most of them were scientists.