Last weekend, I turned 30. I suspect that this circumstance has more than a little to do with the strange mood that has both distracted my thoughts and stilled my keyboard in recent weeks; I usually tend towards the introspective around this time of year anyway, and I am as good as the next person at attaching unwarranted importance to arbitrary milestones. The fact that I’m reasonably satisfied with how my third decade on the planet went – even if, or perhaps because, it didn’t exactly go according to plan – and I have a number of good reasons to be optimistic about decade number 4, doesn’t seem to have prevented my contemplations from tending towards the morbid side of the spectrum, but such is the way of things with me. However, in my attempts to cheer myself up a bit, it has occurred to me that in many ways, age genuinely holds no fear for a geologist – and not just because by geological standards, even if I live past four score and ten I’m never going to be able to describe myself as ‘old’.
In science, as in any intellectual pursuit, a sharp and agile mind is obviously a useful asset. But when it comes to being a good geologist, it’s not just a matter of raw brainpower. Take me, when I’m teaching on field trips. I’ve been in many situations where as a teacher, I’m expected to be able to help my students understand what’s going on at a particular outcrop – the type of rock present, the processes that formed it, how it fits into the regional geology – even if I’m only seeing it for the first time at exactly the same time as they do. Somewhat remarkably, most of the time I at least partially manage to do so. How? Because at most outcrops, you’re never going to run out of observations you can potentially make; its more a matter of knowing what the most important observations are – the ones that allow you to distinguish an ancient beach from an ancient river bed, or a lava flow deposited underwater to one deposited on land. That is the sort of knowledge that only comes with experience; time in the field looking at different deposits; time discussing various interpretations with colleagues ; time reading papers and text books. I’m able to help my students not because I’m smarter than them (although I can still remember how it seems that way sometimes from the other side – how I laugh now), but because my more extensive geological experience has provided me with tools that they don’t yet have – little short-cuts which, in a subject as complex as geology, help immensely in coming to an understanding of what I see.
You might think that there’s a risk of becoming too inflexible, and relying too much on such short-cuts; it might lead to you not paying proper attention to something unusual, but important, at a particular locality. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily true. In fact, the opposite is often the case; with more experience, the odd and unusual things stand out more, because you’re actually in a position to recognise them as out-of-the-ordinary.
For an even more cheering example, I only have to consider that the best field geologist that I’ve ever met is more than twice my age. Not only does he still power up hills at a pace which leaves most of his students gasping (thus showing that geology can keep you healthy in body and mind), but his ability to ‘read’ the rocks is second to none. By the time I’ve tentatively worked out the bare bones of what’s going on geologically at a new outcrop, he’s got a whole, complicated story straight in his head, can give a little lecture on how it all works, and how it compares to similar systems, or rocks of similar ages, elsewhere, and probably come up with one or two interesting research ideas into the bargain.
If you’re in a more theoretical field like maths or physics, there may be some truth behind the old adage that by the time you reach my age, you’re either at or already past your peak. But as a geologist, I think – well, hope – that my best years are still yet to come.