Some of you probably know “The Big Bang Theory” sitcom and if not I strongly suggest it. One of the characters in this funny American sitcom is a physicist and he firmly believes that geology cannot be considered as a real science. This is a pretty strong statement and it makes us think …..So let’s borrow this exclamation “Geology isn’t a real science!” and reflect about what geology is.
You probably know the stereotype of a geologist: shorts with a thousand pockets, a hammer, a compass and a magnifying glass. But what is this sort of David Attenborough looking for? Why is this research fascinating? And most importantly: why can a geologist be considered a scientist? Let’s find out!
What is Science?
We will start with answering this question. Let us use the Oxford English Dictionary definition of Science: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”.
“Observation and experiment”…
“Observation” is without a doubt the first step. You have probably heard about it many times, but think about Newton’s apple. From a small observation sprang a great discovery, one of the most important in the history of Science. Another example is how the shape of the continents led Alfred Wegener to propose continental drift, which about 50 years later led to the modern theory of plate tectonics.
“Experiment” is no less important, and this holds true for all sciences; think of the human desire for flight. Numerous experiments were made before the Wright brothers invented and built the world’s first successful airplane. Or think about the age of the Earth; many studies were carried out prior to radiometric dating which has allowed us to estimate its age.
Now that we have defined science it is time to ask….
What is geology?
As the Greek origin of the name suggests geology deals with the Earth, γῆ (geo) meaning Earth. It is in fact the study of Earth and its processes. Geology is the study of the rocks which compose our planet and sometimes even extraterrestrial pieces of rocks. A piece of rock can provide a large variety of information. You can examine its microscopic features to understand its composition, or even to examine the processes that have changed it over time.
So what is a main geological contribution to science?
Science, in its entirety evolves as each new idea builds upon those that came before. There are many ideas that become key contributions to the sum of human knowledge: gravity, algebra, evolution to name a few. Another such idea is plate tectonics; the theory that Earth’s surface is composed of rocky plates which are created all along the ocean ridges, move, and disappear within the mantle. This theory is a key contribution to our present-day understanding of planet Earth. It is emblematic for how dynamic our planet is, and it is firmly rooted in scientific research made by Earth scientists. What would happen without this theory?
Without the theory of plate tectonics it would be much more difficult to understand some of the driving forces behind Earth’s dynamic nature. If you look at the ocean, you will observe a large expanse of water that looks undisturbed. It appears as a large pool with some currents here and there. Deep below this deceptively flat surface is the abyss of our oceans. In the abyss we find the stately mountain chains that form mid ocean ridges. Ridges, where two tectonic plates form and move apart from one another, are one of the most dynamical loci on Earth and one of the most important areas of study in modern geology. Mid ocean ridges, which we can observe today with our very eyes would have been something unimaginable several centuries ago. Now, thanks in part to our understanding of plate tectonics we now know that the shape and size of Earth’s oceans and continents are determined by the movement of these large puzzle pieces over the mantle. New crust is formed at spreading zones, while old crust is recycled in subduction zones. What are the consequences of these processes? With no plate tectonic perhaps our planet would be still covered by water. It is this activity that drove the life from the ocean to the land. On the plus size, there would be no earthquakes, no volcanic eruptions. However life as we know it probably would not exist.
Now that we have established that geology is most certainly important, I would like to go back to our geologist armed with a compass and a hammer.
How do geologists understand geology and what do they study?
Through making hypotheses, then using observation and experimentation! Geologists rely on their observational and analytical skills. These skills make it possible to investigate and explain the natural phenomena that shape our planet. Geologists study all of these Earth processes using a large variety of methods, such as field surveys, numerical modeling, laboratory experiments, and tools, as advanced microscopes, along with complex analytical devices. Like every field of science specialized skills are required. However nowadays a geologist is often more than just a geologist. Many geologists start in chemistry, physics, mathematics or biology and bring an interdisciplinary approach to studying Earth.
If we look at our planet from space, it looks like a peaceful and undisturbed sphere but let us jump into the past (in fact this skill is a very important concept in geology). Imagine you have a camera that is able to look back in time. This camera would show you old continents and oceans disappearing, and new ones arising and then changing size and geometry. Using your camera to observe the billions of years of Earth’s history you will see that it has changed, it is still changing and as far as we know it will continue to change in the future.
Now imagine you have a second camera that allows you to look below your feet into the deep Earth. You would observe the continental crust beneath your feet, then the upper mantle, the lower mantle, and below that the outer and then inner core. How Earth has changed through time, and the processes that go on within Earth are both of strong geological interest. Geology is also used to understand how our planet’s climate has warmed and cooled through the study of ice and rock records, informing our understanding of glaciations and melt cycles. Rocks can in addition be used to examine the fossil imprints left by past flora and fauna and to investigate the evolution and origin of life. Geologists even study how Earth itself came to be the habitable planet we know today and to which extend Mars could be.
The imaginary cameras would have shown you that our planet is very dynamic, as is every process that built, and continuously reshapes it. These dynamics are very important for life on Earth and all of these topics are fascinating lines of inquiry for scientists .We can clearly notice when an earthquake shakes the ground below our feet, or can observe when lava flows on the surface, or can feel when snow falls on our coat but a lot of processes are still hidden and not understood. All in all, geologists are looking to enhance our fundamental understanding of Earth.
Why is it so important to collect rock samples in relevant areas and what kind of information do we get from them?
These sometimes colorful pieces of “stone” are our witnesses of past geological processes. Rock samples can tell us about things that happened billions of years ago and sometimes km below the surface of Earth. They are our cameras to the past, and they help us understanding the processes which shaped and continue to shape our planet. Beyond that, looking at physical rocks allows a geologist to know what it is composed of. Nowadays mineral resources are a big topic in the news; geology contributes there as well. Without rock samples and a strong understanding of geology it is impossible to find mineral resources, understand what happened during our planet’s past, and how it might affect our planet’s future. Geology and more in general the Earth Sciences allow increasing awareness of resources, and provide us information of how they form. Geology also contributes towards of knowledge of how such resources should be managed, and how to best maintain our environment in a sustainable fashion. Further, geology is used in the identification of high risk areas such as flood, earthquake, or rock-slide danger zones. Understanding the physical dynamics, identifying and monitoring high risk areas, and creating models all serve as an important risk management tool. It is really important to study geological processes, such research and the knowledge it provides is an important driver of science, and of mankind’s innovation.
Hopefully I convinced you that geology is a real science! All sciences require specialist skills, and geologist skills can be used to develop strong links with many other disciplines like chemistry, physics, mathematics, or biology. But do not forget there is one primary indispensable tool for research that every geologist or scientist should have, and that is curiosity!