Geology


 

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I have always found geology somewhat of a strange science. In many ways it is more art than physics, which all sciences trace back to.

A practitioner of geology without an eye for art will have a very hard time communicating his findings to others.

Mapping in geology is beyond an art form and as basic to the trade as a rock hammer.

Those who would claim to be geologists must possess the ability to handle spatial and temporal problems far, far beyond the average.

When a geologist speaks of time they commonly mean to within the nearest million years, and often their temporal resolution isn't even that good.

A geologist working on a structure must fathom not only the present position of the rocks from scant and obscure observations, but also decipher where the rocks were in the past, under what conditions did they lithify (become rocks) and deform to arrive at their present shape and position, as well as whether the rocks are locally formed (autochthonous) or have been carried to their present location by vast forces over geologic time (allochthonous).

The geologist must also know a great deal about biology in order to decipher the odd skeletons and molds found in the rocks as fossils. Even pollen can be used to decipher the rock history.

Chemistry plays a major role in the formation and deformation of rocks and the geochemistry cannot be ignored.

Everywhere you turn you will be faced with the role of water in mineral solubility and its transport properties. For sedimentary rocks a common problem involves fluid dynamics and hydraulic transport.

Many relationships are only evident from statistical analysis of multiple variables. Your first ideas are always wrong. Often a decade goes by before what you see makes sense. By then you have uncovered a thousand more questions for which you have scant answers.

The upshot is the geologist working in the field never knows enough about what formed the rock he is seeing. Nor is it likely that he alone has all the requisite skills to understand what he is looking at even if he could know what formed the rock.

In my experience, individuals with the very high levels of spatial and temporal skills required of geologists are rarer than those with mathematical skills, and the two skills seem to be somewhat mutually exclusive. Physicists and mathematicians very rarely make good geologists, and geologists seldom have advanced mathematical skills. The branch of earth science that attempts to bridge the two mental abilities, geophysics, has few graduates.

Despite these formidable barriers, I am in awe of how far geology has come in the past 150 years. I am amazed at the patience and ability of paleontologists in deciphering the fossil record and how much they have done with so little. The work of geologists and geophysicists underlies modern civilization as all the daily energy and minerals we consume are ours because of the efforts of these few individuals. If you like stories of remote places, primitive conditions, and pristine territories, talk to a field geologist.

Deciphering the story the rocks tell is very near a mystical journey through time. John McPhee probably describes the science best. His book "Basin and Range" is my favorite. Perhaps my Utah heritage is showing through, though.

It was my great good fortune to have worked at Scripps Institution of Oceanography during the late 1960's when sea floor spreading and plate tectonics was being formulated by my associates. I will always remember, and be grateful for, the mentoring of Professor Victor Vacquier. John Sclater and I both learned a great deal from him. I also had the pleasure of virtually daily contact with Bob Parker, Harmon Craig, Seiya Uyeda, Tanya Atwater, and Bill Menard, among many other outstanding individuals. I worked and went to sea with them there, as well as at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Texas A&M University where I ran into Seiya Uyeda yet again after having been to sea with him on several expeditions.

I hope that my more modest contributions to the science will, in turn, help someone down the line understand some process or phenomenon that they discover.

Since I first posted these Web pages, the Geological Society of America elected me a Fellow in May of 1999. I would like to thank them, particularly their editors and publishing section for their help in preparing the following two books, and for all the other help they have given me over the years.

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Book Summaries

 

Geology of the Solitario, Trans-Pecos Texas

Laccoliths: Mechanics of Emplacement and Growth