Beginnings: Where will you begin?

You can’t always see where things began. For instance, where did geology begin? In Greece, with Theophrastus and his On Stones? In Rome, with Pliny the Elder? He’s got some claim to it, with his work Natural History and his death by volcano whilst observing the eruption of Vesuvius.

Did it begin in the Islamic empire, with Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, who studied the geology of India? Or Avicenna (Ibn Sina), famous for other things, but who also speculated on mountains, earthquakes and other topics of geological interest?

Or China, with Shen Kuo and his ideas on land formation? He was a careful observer. He’d seen the seashells on mountaintops, and had natural explanations for them.

Did geology begin in Italy with the word, coined by Ulisse Aldrovandi in 1603? Or did it begin with Nicolas Steno, when, during his studies of the Italian countryside, he formulated the principles of stratigraphy: superposition, original horizontality, and lateral continuity?

Arguments can be made for geology beginning with them all. But most geologists stick the pin in the timeline by James Hutton‘s name. He developed the Theory of the Earth. He found that famous uncomformity at Siccar Point. He gave us deep time, one of the most critical insights, the one that allowed us to begin thinking in the millions of years necessary to understand how the Earth has come to be the way it is. Modern geology owes something to all of its grandparents, but Hutton can make an excellent claim to be its father.

Then again, so can Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology were profoundly important: to Darwin, who may never have come up with evolution had it not been for his love of geology and the thoughts spurred by Lyell, and to all the geologists down through the years who found Lyell’s uniformitarianism to be the key to unlocking the geologic past. His principle, that the processes acting today were also the ones acting in the past, is one of the most important. It has helped us gaze into deep time, and understand what we see there.

There are many beginnings in geology, many places where you can stab your finger down and say, “Here! Here’s where it began.” It has many possible beginnings.

Out in the field, I often pause to consider those first geologists, the ones whose names we remember and the ones we’ll never know. Stand in front of an outcrop, and think back to the beginning, before anything was known.

Sandstone sea cliffs at Shore Acres, Oregon. Can you spot the unconformity?

In the beginning, before anything is known, how do you explain that? How do you even begin to piece it together, from the type of rock to how it formed, got tilted, eroded… so many pieces, pieced together with infinite patience and curiosity by many geologists over hundreds of years, allow me to say it’s marine sandstone, raised and tilted by the antics of the subduction zone offshore, now being reclaimed by the relentless waves of the sea. Countless geologists, making sense of the confusion of countless rock types and geologic processes, allow me to tell the stories of stones.

Thing is, I never intended to. What I meant to be doing was writing SF, and I chose fantasy originally because (don’t laugh), I hated doing research. Fantasy’s easy – you just make stuff up! Then I realized the best fantasy doesn’t make stuff up from whole cloth, but bases it on careful research. Sigh. Then I discovered research is fun. Then, I discovered science is awesomely interesting. Then, I started digging into geology in order to build better worlds…

But did my path as a geoblogger begin there? Or in childhood, with the first-prize rock collection I pieced together while surrounded by world-class geology? Did it begin with Jim Bennett, the outstanding geography professor who reignited my passion for rocks, took it to whole new levels, and showed me how to figure out how the world works? Did it begin with PZ Myers, who prompted me to start science blogging?

All of those things were beginnings, necessary steps along the way. But I think I know where this began: with reading an outstanding book by Ellen Morris Bishop that sent me on a geotrip down the Oregon Coast, the subsequent series I wrote on it, and that series getting discovered by the geoblogosphere, which chanted “One of us!” and immediately assimilated me. Here. Here is where I began as a geoblogger, and I haven’t looked back.

Someday, I hope to be someone else’s beginning. I doubt that I’ll discover something new in geology, not unless something freakishly lucky happens to this amateur, which possibility one can never discount in science. But I know what I can do. I can place a rock in a child’s hand and tell a story. That will be a beginning. That may be the moment a geologist traces their origin as a scientist to: the moment they discovered stones tell stories, and a long line of geologists have spent thousands of years figuring out what those stories are.

But the story isn’t finished. We’re still in medias res, and there are far more stories to tell. Stories that will begin with new scientists, long after we are gone. Stories that may begin with you, holding a new rock, wondering what it says.

Where will you begin?


Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

Beginnings: Where will you begin?

5 thoughts on “Beginnings: Where will you begin?

  1. rq

    This is a very thoughtful and beautiful and thought-provoking post. A beautiful tour of the Big Names in geology and its foundations, very inclusive and educational all on its own (heh, a nice list of reading for a history-of-geology buff).
    But the question at the end makes it depressing on a personal level. :)

    It doesn’t, however, change the fact that you are an amazing person and blogger and amateur scientist!

  2. 2

    I’m no geologist by any stretch of the imagination but have long been interested and fascinated by it all, and it started for me in my childhood when I picked up a beautiful, black and white banded pebble and wondered how it was made. It was also getting an understanding of geological time that helped clarify evolution for me.
    As it happens, I still have the interest, and even still have the pebble.

  3. 4

    Actually modern Geology started with the controversy between the neptunists, lead by Abraham Gottlieb Werner,
    that held that rocks came from the crystialization of minerals in the earths oceans. Hutton followed the other course, Plutonism, where the original rocks came from fire, and then some weathered away and sediments were deposited on the sea floor. Here are links to wikipedia articles on the two systems:
    Neptunism: and Plutonism: The neptunists did not endorse the idea that processes today worked in the past when the plutonists did. (Of course there is an issue of the time constant of processes, no one says you should see effects of the processes in a human life span, witness the folks that took pictures along the route of John Wesly Powell 100 years later, many were unchanged, but a few side canyons had had major flash floods. Or the work of Bretz, which was again a matter of the time constant of what is a current process.

  4. 5

    Total geology amateur, but I know enough to cover Cub Scout geology and I have a killer portable rock collection after working underground and traveling the world. Don’t live in the suburbs with the scouts anymore but for a while there I was in demand as a geology lecturer… :-)

    We can do more than we think.

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