The Accidental Geologist

It may surprise you to learn that I came late to the joys of Geology. Ten years ago, as I was preparing to start University, I had decided that life as a physicist was my scientific destiny, and I hadn’t given much thought to earth sciences since I dropped Geography at the age of 14; I had a fatal allergy to urban growth models and surveys of supermarket parking, which seemed to take up most of the syllabus.
However, my undergraduate degree was in Natural Sciences, which meant that it my first year, in addition to Physics and Maths, I had to take courses in two other experimental sciences, and in addition to Cell Biology, I opted to complete my set with Geology. I’d like to say that this was a decision made after long nights of serious deliberation, but I must confess that – not for the first or last time – what turned out to be one of the more important decisions in my life was pretty random and spur-of-the-moment. I thought that learning a bit more about earthquakes and volcanoes would be quite cool, and there was the additional attraction of field trips to satisfy my wanderlust.


So how did a random choice to fill my timetable become a consuming passion – so much so that I ended up specialising in it as an undergraduate, allowed 4 years of my life to be eaten by a PhD, and seem to spend most of my off-hours to be consumed by writing about it? The answer to that lies in the fact that the scientific enterprise is not a great monolith of uniformity. The underlying philosophy of seeing how your ideas about how the world works hold up against its reality remains the same, but the actual experience of practising science can differ greatly between fields. Physics is all about boiling the world down to its essence: taking a system and reducing it to an ideal case which can be more easily modelled, and then seeing how well the behaviour of that model describes the phenomenon you’re investigating. As it turned out, my somewhat practical* turn of mind, and my need to grapple with real-world examples** before I could get physical concepts straight in my head, was ill-suited to the very theoretical and maths-oriented physics courses at Cambridge, which meant that I struggled. This is clearly not a problem in Geology: you don’t struggle for real-world examples in a subject in which the world is the object of study! Flippancy aside, I’ve lost count of the number of times that equations which caused my brain to crash when I first encountered them in isolation in Physics lectures made a lot more sense when they cropped up accompanied by a demonstration of their application in Geophysics. I’m not sure how or why, but I can manipulate physical things in my head much more easily than I can manipulate equations, and in Geology that’s an asset rather than a problem.
Geology is also much more messy than Physics, because you can’t generally simplify things; it’s often all the little quirks and details that you’re interested in. A geological problem resembles a complicated jigsaw puzzle: you’re trying to reconstruct an accurate picture of the geological past from the clues left behind in the rock record. These clues are diverse in nature – you can find yourself using the tools of physics, chemistry or biology, or even all three in unison – and, because you almost never have all of the pieces, fitting the ones you do have together in a consistent way is very challenging, and very rewarding. Best of all, rather than an incomprehensible set of equations, the end result of your intellectual struggle is usually a story: how that mountain range was built, how that dinosaur lived, how that ice sheet has waxed and waned. I like teasing out those stories, and I like telling them.
The other appealing difference between Physics and Geology is that Geology has only really matured as a science in the last half century or so, as we finally got to grips with the concepts of plate tectonics and deep geological time (although, of course, the roots of both ideas stretch further back) and the framework they provide for understanding much of the history recorded in the rocks we study. There are therefore many more fundamental questions which remain unanswered, and many parts of geological history which are still poorly understood. Physicists are of course also pursuing answers to deep and important questions, but in geology it seems much easier to not only find yourself at the cutting edge, but also in a position to make an important contribution. I liked the fact that in my geology lectures we would often find ourselves hearing about modern questions to which there was no agreed answer – where, with a bit of reading and thinking, you could come to your own conclusions, which were just as valid as anyone else’s. Getting involved in a good argument makes you feel like you’re a scientist much more than learning about an argument which was done and dusted 150 years ago does.
Before I inadvertently start a flame war, I should point out that I am only arguing that Geology is better in Physics in personally subjective terms – in other words, it is better for me. The differences which I’ve highlighted above are things which fit my own temperament: I prefer messy reality to the purity of simple equations; I like puzzling together often contradictory evidence from a wide range of sources; I like spirited arguments. However, I can be quite stubborn at times, so it took me considerably longer than it should have for me to admit that the future I had set out for myself almost a decade previously was the wrong one for me, even after I started freaking out my friends by spending a scary amount of time looking down at the rocks rather than up at the scenery when out walking. It took a particularly incomprehensible lecture on thermodynamics in the spring of my second year to finally make me think the previously unthinkable thought: “why don’t I just specialise in Geology next year instead?”
So I did, and I’ve never looked back.
*Translation: I’m not great at maths.
**As above, just with a few reallys added.

Categories: academic life

Comments (9)

  1. Ben D says:

    Heh. That’s exactly how I came to do Geology for my undergrad – I came up to Cambridge planning to do Physics, and picked Physics, Geology, Chemistry and Maths in the first year, with Geology picked at random to fill out the set. Then I realised what I was really interested in was evolution, and so by the second year the only way to follow that was Geology and focus on the palaeo aspect. That’s the huge advantage of the Natural Sciences system – university degrees are so different to school, you can’t tell that just because you liked something at school you’ll like it at university, and picking four (well, three) subjects gives you the flexibility to dip into them further before narrowing your focus.

  2. cope says:

    Well, I came to my career in geology differently. My step-father was a petroleum geologist and I grew up under his influence. Nothing pleased (or still pleases) me more than wandering around an outcrop looking for fossils or crystals or minerals or cool rocks or clues to ancient events, the more extreme the better. I also like the “arm waving” nature, the vaguery of geology. I was a TA on a field course in the British Isles for several summers and remember my advisor, who ran the camp, asking me one year as we gazed out upon some spectacular Scottish mountains, “How did I explain this last year?”
    Being 57, I lived through the time when plate tectonic theory finally was nailed down. When I was in college, it was us young, whippersnapper bucks taking on the old fogey professors, resistant to change in their quaint ideas about eugeosynclines and such. I found that extremely stimulating. Gene Shoemaker was a visiting lecturer my freshman year and his ideas, along with those of Robert Dietz, about catastrophic events were another compelling challenge to the prevailing wisdom.
    I did, though, have to make a choice sophomore year. I have always loved literature and writing and took as many english classes in college as science. When it came time to declare majors, I did spend time thinking about it. The crux of the matter: what were my job prospects with each subject? Figuring a degree in english was good for not much more than a high school teaching job, I went with geology.
    My graduate studies evaporated when I went west to do oilfield work one summer and never went back. I rode the oil boom of the ’70s (Motto: “God, please let there be one more oil boom, I promise I won’t piss it all away this time”) as a wellsite geologist. I got to work where other people came on vacation (Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana) and on my days off, there was all that empty landscape, waiting to be trod.
    By the time the boom ended, so had my days as a single man. With a wife and daughter, I had to make a change. Being gone from home 275 days a year was no longer an option. So it was back to graduate school where I finished with an MA in earth science and credentials to become a secondary science teacher. Lo, how the mighty are fallen….
    This is my 19th year teaching earth/space science to teenagers. I still consider myself a geologist by inclination, upbringing and interest. You are so right about the story telling and the unraveling of mysteries, the joys of field trips, the finding and collecting of objects that get lugged back home to become tangible parts of my collection. Those are the aspects of science I emphasize to my students, however reluctant they may be to hear them. That is what is most likely to turn them in that direction.

  3. bigTom says:

    I suspect that there but for me not taking any geology at an early enough age go I. Your description of how your brain struggled with the too abstract math in physics is similar to mine. Unfortunately I didn’t get there until grad school (when my brain-allergy against advanced abstract math became impossible to ignore). Instead I ended up with a career in computing, supporting (but not doing) science and engineering.

  4. PhysioProf says:

    Nice post. The reasons you preferred Geology to Physics–which I think boil down to its historically contingent essence–are exactly analogous to why I preferred biology to chemistry.

  5. Kim says:

    I’ve often wondered what proportion of geologists meant to be something else, but got hooked. I know my graduate advisor wanted to be an anthropologist (?) originally, and has always felt the urge to be an artist, as well. (For me, it was chemistry. And it wasn’t that chemistry was difficult… it was that the labs smelled bad and I didn’t like to wear goggles. I did fine in the classes, but I couldn’t imagine spending my life doing it. Geology, on the other hand, felt right for me.)

  6. flounder says:

    I transferred from a big university to a community college and went from being a chemical engineering student to a “physical sciences undeclared” student. I took geology my first semester at the cc, and geology started showing up on my paperwork as my major. I liked geology, plus I was too lazy to go correct the error, so now I am a geologist.

  7. NJ says:

    Count me as one of the, uh, ‘born to rock’ types.
    Grew up on drumlins and always came home with pockets full of interesting rocks. Specimens moved to near home from Canada by kindly ice sheets.
    2nd grade school records noted interests in science, “especially geology” (direct quote).
    Spent all available cash on mineral specimens at local rock shop – some of which still find their way on to my exams!
    Best friend in school got fed up and demanded that I quit showing him rocks, because I had done it all our lives.
    Wheedled some chemicals out of elementary school teacher so I could grow my own crystals.
    Told guidance counselor I wanted to be X miles away from home for college and was going to be a geologist.

  8. Ken Clark says:

    I must say, I found it shocking to find a story that so paralled my rebirth into geology from physics (I didnt like/enjoy/cope with the math either(field dynamics was the last straw), at the same time I was imploding from poor calculus skills, I was taking Historical Geology with Dr Stanley Fagerlin to fulfill an alternate science credit, and wow, the class rocked (no pun), the fieldtrips were real, and the beer, cigars, and campfire stories just rounded things out nicely, now ten years later I wish I had gone to grad school just to continue that life style. (troll warning) And geology arguments are fun too, I personally favor the Gravity Spreading model for the Hart Mountain Detachment ;)

  9. dmonte says:

    I don’t know many geologist who actually went to university with that major in mind. I, too, went as Natural Science with the idea of oceanography at an eastern US school. A civil engineer set me straight that oceanography was not a major but that one picks a basic science and brings it into the ocean. Picked geology as I was tired of the other sciences and never had a geology course.
    Never looked back (except when I either doubted my field interpretation or needed a night to sleep before returning to an exceptionally deformed crop). I have worked combined for ~26 years in various locales and jobs. I take more photos of outcrops than people. When I sell my house I will leave all my rock samples in the garden to really screw the mind of some future surficial geologist.