Earth sciences

I’m grouping geology with geochemistry and geophysics, as these were all subjects I studied at the Open University in the early 1970s. Indeed I got the job as librarian at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh in 1973 on the strength of getting a distinction in the subjects. They formed my ‘science major’ if you like, and thereafter I spent 15 happy years at BGS, and I think I can still call myself a geologist.

Geology went through a revolution in the 1960s, through the development of the ideas on seafloor spreading which led to plate tectonics. It was a very exciting time, with new discoveries being made at frequent intervals. It was definitely a period which Thomas Kuhn would characterise as revolutionary, and I proved it later by mapping the paradigm shift through word co-citation analysis (but that’s a story for the Information Science chapter). The Open University’s course came along at just the right time to make these developments exciting to new students, and I was very excited, and remain so. We suddenly learned that we are living on a dynamic Earth, not a static or slowly changing one. For the first time we could look at a whole planet in terms of processes, not just collections of objects.

Of course a large part of geology is concerned with rocks, and I quickly learned techniques for identifying different rock types by the minerals they contain, using hammer, hand lens and polarising microscope. I also learned that different rocks produce different landscapes and landforms, and that gives geologists a different and distinctive way of looking at the world. I can look at a hill and make a pretty good guess as to how it was formed, and from what.

Certain landforms are iconic to geologists. For me, the Lewisian gneiss of the Northwest Highlands and the Hebrides are highly evocative, emotionally even, as they are the oldest rocks in Europe. Iceland is mega, because here you’re astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. I recall standing on the edge of the American plate looking across at the edge of the European plate. Volcanoes are fantastic too. I’ve climbed Vesuvius and seen the fumaroles in its summit crater. I’ve walked on the Phlegraean Fields (entrance to Dante’s Inferno), and been conscious of the caldera beneath my feet. I’ve seen the geothermal energy in Owadakune (the Valley of Great Boiling) in Japan.

I never tire of Scotland’s geology, however, from the Assynt window which exposes rocks of the Cambrian and Ordovician on the ancient basement, to the Carboniferous oil shales of West Lothian, where I lived for so long. And I’m adamant that knowing how Suilven got there doesn’t diminish the wonder of seeing Suilven. If anything it accentuates it.

With geochemistry you’re in the area of the composition of rocks, elemental abundances and so on. It’s chemistry that identified the anomalous iridium-rich layer at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, making the case for an enormous impact by an asteroid, many of which have raised levels of iridium in them. And the bulk composition of moon rock being the same as Earth’s suggests that it was created from our planet as the result of a much larger impact in the early days of the solar system.

And geophysics taught me about earthquakes and the Earth’s magnetic field, and the deep structure of the planet, the Mohorovičić Discontinuity, the floating continents and subducting plates which are in constant motion. So when today I hear about a major earthquake in New Zealand, or a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, I know the mechanisms, although I’m as moved as anyone else by their human impacts. As John Donne said (and I love the original orthography):

No man is an Iland, intire of it self; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes mee, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefor never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne: Meditation 17: 1624

There’s a free e-book of some of my earth science related poems called Mementoliths 2. Read and/or download if you wish.

Rift, Iceland


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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2 Responses to Earth sciences

  1. BarbaraS says:

    That’s an enthusiastic article, and I enjoyed the ebook too – I love the way they look and the explanations sound like you talking to me. It’s like being at a reading, without being there. The one I like best is the one about acting and the breast(s). 🙂

  2. sunnydunny says:

    Thanks Barbara. I’m dipping a toe in the water on e-books. There’s another one on called Recycled Cards you might like.


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