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Jul 30 2012

Geoscience and Technology: The Internets Made Me a Geoblogger

I missed the last Accretionary Wedge because, let’s face it, I take utterly awful field notes. Of course, it doesn’t seem like the actual round-up was posted. And I almost missed this one because busy with field tripping and Mount St. Helens. Also, what would a total amateur have to say about all the nifty technology that’s doing great things for geology?

Well, lots, actually, considering the fact that without technology, I wouldn’t be doing geology.

The path that took me from rank-amateur-casually-interested-in-geology to becoming one of two Scientific American geobloggers led right through the internet. Without the internet and social media, there’s no way I’d be doing this. So I want to talk a bit about how technology led this ordinary person into geology, because it’s a path any citizen can follow, in whole or in part, as far as they like. Some of them will move in directions I’ve not dreamt of. And it’s all good for geology, which deserves some fame, damn it.

I started writing back in the days before the internet was a household thing. My research was done through books. I didn’t have access to journals once I left college, and I had no idea how to read them anyway. There’s only so much you can learn from the popular science books that are available and within a poor person’s budget. And books are one-way. You can’t ask questions. If you don’t personally know any scientists, you don’t have anyone to grab while you wail, “But I don’t understand!!!

There weren’t that many books on geology then, and there aren’t now. For a depressing exercise, go in to Barnes and Noble. Unless yours is different than mine, the science section is overwhelmingly physics and cosmology, with a considerable chunk of general science, some biology, and maybe maths. You can find chemistry if you have a high-powered microscope. Geology isn’t there. Not a single bloody book on the subject. Some idiot decided it belongs back in the Nature section, so that people looking for Science won’t stumble across geology by mistake.

Bastards.

For geology, I had a book or two on earthquakes and volcanoes, a geology textbook I’d picked up used, and my old physical geography text. There were some popular books out: ones on the Grand Canyon and other famous places. When I moved up here to the Pacific Northwest, I discovered that there’s a fuck of a lot of geology around, and that people were proud enough of it to write guidebooks. I found several – you can see a list of some of them here.

There was also, now, Amazon. Amazon has sooo much geology.

As you can tell, I was still in book-learning mode, but the internet had already begun to change things. I’d started a blog, did a bit of science, used the internet to write up the Juan de Fuca Plate. I’d started reading some geoblogs, and discovered that wow, there’s actually quite a lot of information an aspiring SF writer who wants to build a world can get their hands on. Awesomesauce.

Also, with all those books telling me about the delights our local subduction zone was offering up, I figured it was time to get visiting. My intrepid companion and I took a trip to Oregon. I wrote it up for the enjoyment of my few readers. I didn’t think anything of it. But the geoblogosphere noticed what I was up to, and laid claim. I had, without intending to, become a geoblogger.

This is when that little incident where Erik Klemetti of Eruptions decided he was leaving ScienceBlogs but didn’t yet know where he was going to land became important, because before then, I’d sneered at Twitter. But it was the only place he was going to be. Couldn’t live without Eruptions, so I followed him there. I got swept up into conversations with and between professional geologists there. Just watching them talk, reading their blogs, discovering new geobloggers, being able to ask questions and get encouragement, transformed everything. I wasn’t researching alone anymore, trying to understand something I’d never been trained in with nothing more than words on a page and a few photographs. I had a plethora of geologic mentors. I had help. This, more than anything else, encouraged me to follow that passion for geology that had waxed and waned since I was a child. They told me I had something to contribute. They gave me the ability to figure this stuff out.

They introduced me to Google Scholar. And between those conversations I’d eavesdropped on, the questions they’d answered, the posts they’d written, and the books I’d read, I learned enough to feel confident tackling actual papers. Not stuff written with a lay audience in mind, but stuff written by professionals, for professionals. And I discovered it was exciting.

Lockwood, who is the best resource for geology the Pacific Northwest has, takes me out in the field two or three times a year now. The internet is all well and good, but sometimes, you’ve gotta get out there and pound rocks with a professional. That, really, was what tipped me over from someone barely treading water to someone who could paddle out just past the shallow end and not drown. But he’d never have been there, these adventures would never have happened, if we hadn’t met online. And it doesn’t stop with him! I got the opportunity to explore some of New England’s geology with Dr. Evelyn Mervine, right after she’d gotten her PhD. Together, we did some ground-breaking research. (Humor, of course, is a very important component of popularizing science. Also, it’s fun.)

I’ve met up in meatspace with Silver Fox, Ryan Brown, Helena Mallonee, Michael Klass, and Aaron Barth, all of whom are brilliant geologists, amazing writers, and fantastic companions. I’ve hung out in Ron Schott’s G+ Geology Office Hours and been a part, even if usually just a listening part, of a lot of fascinating conversations with geologists.

And because all of this was taking place in a very public setting, my writing was out there for folks to notice. Bora, when looking for another blogger for Scientific American, decided I would do. This was only because my fellow geobloggers, especially Anne Jefferson and Christ Rowan, had assured him I could do the job. Without the support of my friends in the geoblogosphere, never would have happened. But they got me there.

This is all pretty astonishing stuff for someone without a science degree, lemme tell ya. And I’m not special. I’m not some super-genius. I just got lucky. That luck wouldn’t have happened without the internet and the social media is spawned.

Ordinary folk can read the blogs geologists write, and learn some geology in the process.

Ordinary folk can watch geologists discuss geology amongst themselves. And we may not understand everything that’s being said, but we’re on the internet – we can look it up.

Ordinary folk can access scientific papers, a surprising number of them for free, and while they can be heavy going at first, understanding them gets much easier with time. Not to mention, they can tell outstanding stories (pdf) if you know a little bit going in. (Seriously. Go read that paper I linked. It’s fascinating – if you know just a bit about geology, it’s like reading a detective novel and adventure story all in one.)

Ordinary folk can even find themselves making friends with working geologists, and sometimes getting opportunities to get out in the field with them. Fantastic!

And if ordinary folk can research and write and have quite a lot of passion for it, they can become science writers without having to get fancy degrees. All the resources they need are freely available right here on the internet.

This is outstanding for geology. We don’t have to worry about people getting round to writing popular books, and trying to get B&N to acknowledge those books as, y’know, science. We can take geology directly to the public. We can use Twitter to ask and answer questions, either between professionals or between professionals and interested members of the public. We can react quickly to geological news, correct errors in mass media, and babble about our beautiful rocks, thus getting people interested who have never even looked twice at a rock, much less wonder how all this stuff works. We can do our own damned PR, and we can do it brilliantly. I mean, c’mon, who has the beer? We haz the beer!

And our science rocks.

Moi with ripple marks at the dinosaur trackway near Holyoke, MA. Image courtesy Dr. Evelyn Mervine.

This post is dedicated to my friends and mentors in the geoblogosphere. ¡Muchas gracias, y salud!

2 comments

  1. 1
    Squiddhartha

    Well, to be fair, isn’t a lot of geological research “groundbreaking?”

  2. 2
    rq

    Terrivle, Squiddhartha. Just terrible. :)

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