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Apr 04 2012

The Answer to the “Why Do You Study Rocks?” Question

I love it when I don’t have to answer such questions. Southern Geologist took care of it. I’m not going to attempt an excerpt. Just go read it. It’s funny, and it’s true. And now I have a place to send people when they ask me a variant on the “Why would anyone want to study rocks?” question.

People are often stymied when they discover my geology obsession. And you should really see the looks on their faces when I whip out some little brown rock and start burbling about how beautiful it is. They look at it, and what they see is a small, plain, brown, boring bit of rock. They see the kind of thing they’d flick out of their garden, or kick into a gutter, without a second thought.

Their faces change when I tell them the story that little brown rock tells.

Sometimes, it’s a massive molten flood of basalt that covered hundreds of square miles, sat there weathering for nearly fifteen million years, and then got scoured by gigantic Ice Age floods.

Sometimes, it’s a tale of submarine landslides.

Sometimes, it’s all about advancing ice sheets.

Or it began as a great big volcanic eruption before being swept into the sea by rivers and deposited to quietly consolidate.

I point to a wee little cliff, barely noticeable behind the local foliage, and I’m telling a story of a thousand year-old earthquake that sent trees slip-sliding upright into Lake Washington and tsunamis washing ashore.

That’s the thing geology does. It doesn’t just make the obviously beautiful utterly captivating: it turns the ordinary, the unregarded, and even the borderline-ugly stuff into fascinating, gorgeous storytellers. Oh, the sparkly and dramatic stuff still turns my head, yes, but I spare quite a lot of time for the stuff that looks dull on the surface, because it’s never dull once you start digging.

There’s all sorts of practical reasons for studying geology. I mostly do it because I’m fascinated by what we can learn from rocks. It also satisfies that human need for a context: learning how these bits of the Earth came to be allows me to slot right in, a little blip on a very long timeline. Some folks think that would make me feel small, but I don’t. I know I’m just a tiny little thing, inconsequential in all this vast universe. But the fact that I can understand what these rocks say, the fact that humans were clever enough to figure it out, gives me quite the little ego boost. We may be mere specks, but we’re smart little specks, and we link up in a long chain of smart little specks. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Also, it’s a damned lot of fun to whack away at things with a rock hammer and reveal nifty interiors that belie the ordinary exterior.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    angelina

    I was intent on doing a MSc in Geology when I started my final year of my BSc. Unfortunately the uni I am at only did geography as a bachelor subject, so I thought that as I really enjoyed the physical geography course I had done in the 2 years up to the bachelor, I would take geography, then go onto do Geology.

    Unfortunately, I have had some of the excitement I felt about Geology knocked out of me by spending 4/5 of the bachelor course doing social, cultural and human geography.
    Reading your post reminded me why I liked geology so much, so I am going to see about my original plan to take geology & environmental biology as my MSc.

    Especially the whacking at rocks / digging up fields..after all isn’t that why everyone goes into natural sciences? To go and get all muddy and wet in wierd places?

  2. 2
    Southern Geologist

    Thank you very much for referencing my post. (And I’m glad to see that someone appreciated the plant joke!) In case anyone is curious, I should be completing the series over the next week to week and a half.

  3. 3
    Rod

    Off-topic, but can you help me out? Is there a spot in eastern Ontario where there is access to the K-T boundary? I like showing interesting stuff to my grandkids, and they are already familiar with Royal Tyrell…. but I am hoping there might be something closer to home.
    Thanks

    1. 3.1
      Lyle

      If one looks at a map of Ontario geology, south of the shield the youngest rocks are Devonian, so it would appear from the map that there is no Cretaceous rock in this area, let alone any tertiary rock, other than the glacial drift. Recall that Ontario is the heart of the Craton. So you would have to go elsewhere to find the K-T boundry.

  4. 4
    Crudely Wrott

    My mother studied geology in college for a year. She showed me my first piece of schist when I was about four or five. I can still hear her giggling as she explained the need to enunciate!

    I do so enjoy your writing, Dana, and I always learn something. Please keep telling us the stories of the rocks and of the lay of the land, the very ground underfoot, and how it came to be displayed to us just now.

    Surely the story of the rocks is the story of all of us. We are, when you think about it, kindred. All life, including ourselves, are direct descendants of the earth itself.

    Wow. That makes me Crudely, Son of Stone!

  5. 5
    Southern Geologist

    In case people need another reason to study geology, part two (of four) is up!

    http://omnivorousintellectual.blogspot.com/2012/04/why-would-you-want-to-study-rocks-part.html

    (Please forgive the shameless plug…)

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