On My Rocky Affair With Geology
Once when I was like nine years old a kid from my neighborhood gave me a rock, littered with yellow crystals, that he’d found in his granny’s backyard. He said it was a geode. I didn’t know what that meant, but I thought crystals were cool; I’d only ever seen them in the trinket shops at the mall. I showed the gift to my aunt who then gave me a book on rocks that my cousin had outgrown. She explained how there were all sorts of different rocks out there, and how there was a whole science — called geology — devoted to collecting and studying them.
Because it was summer, and because I was sure I’d make an even better geologist than my cousin or the neighbor kid, I decided to give it a try. Using one of the little hand-shovels from my pop’s garden, I probed the banks of the shallow brook that ran along the edge of our backyard and poked around in the meager little forest down the street. But all I ever turned up was the same old blue slate that we already had in spades on the side of our house. The rock book was a tease; it contained many pretty things, but none of them were to be found within the few-mile-radius through which I was allowed to ride my bike unsupervised.
After a few weeks, I gave up and moved on to botany. We had awesome flower and vegetable gardens in our yard and it was far more satisfying to plant and grow and harvest (and eat!) our little crop of tomatoes and zucchini and corn than it was to search for things that might be pretty but were near impossible to find and had no practical value anyway. My failed attempt at geology had embarrassed me. And in my embarrassment, I had concluded that all of geology was foolish (I think I even threw the book away).
Of course, there was much more to it than my aunt had let on. But I didn’t know that yet.
Geology is a science of unfathomable proportions: continents colliding, glaciers advancing and retreating, mountain ranges being pushed up, up, up or worn down, down, down. Time scales that defy human comprehension. It’s a lot to get one’s head around. If most people never even try, well, who can blame them? Unlike say, our own genomes or the latest coming plague, mountains and glaciers aren’t acting for or against us humans in any obvious way. Sure, geologic forces are violent and epic on the time scale of geology. But on the human time scale those forces are nearly imperceptible. On the human time scale, you see mountains, you think permanence and immovability.
In reality, of course, mountains are neither; the face of the planet is in constant flux, down to its very bones. Geology is the mapping of that flux. The director of my graduate program liked to say that its true power – its beauty, even – lie not in the answers it provided, but rather in the questions it asked. In the idea that one could ask such questions as why a mountain was where it was, or why a stream, or why a rolling hill.
As a graduate student in environmental science – that is, when I first started to really consider such things – I found this particular perspective appealing. Because, think about it: whose idea was that? Who was the first person to survey the natural landscape – mountain range here, riverbed there – and wonder if it had always been thus, and if it hadn’t been then what it had been like before, and how and why it had changed? And then, instead of accepting the stock answer – that God or Zeus or whomever had ordered it so – took up her own search for clues and began piecing things together for herself from what she found?
I suppose you could say the same thing about any science, or about all of science for that matter: that the power and beauty are in the questions, in the act of questioning itself. But I’d studied molecular biology in college, and had just come off a two-year stint in an immunology lab. The questions I’d been trained to ask there felt far more practical than poetic; and the answers seemed absolutely paramount.
I’d landed in an environmental science program as part of a planned segue into journalism. I wanted to spend my career thinking, talking and writing about science, as opposed to actually doing it. But first, I wanted to broaden my horizons, learn to look beyond the microscope, and at least try to see the bigger picture.
The way my advisor described it, nothing was bigger than geology.
So ok, I thought. Let’s give it a try.
Our geology professor Mark Anders was descended from a great intellectual lineage. He’d studied at Berkeley under Walter Alvarez, son of Luis Alvarez. Luis Alvarez had won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the bubble chamber, a device that enabled him and other physicists to find previously unknown families of particles.
He also helped his son Walter figure out how the dinosaurs went extinct.
The father and son duo had discovered a layer of clay that was highly enriched in iridium and that separated the rock layers containing any and all dinosaur fossils from the successive rock layers which were conspicuously dinosaur-free. Because iridium enrichment is common in asteroids but very rare on Earth, the Alvarezes postulated that a tremendous meteor had struck our planet at that point and had triggered a mass extinction. At first their hypothesis was met with skepticism. But eventually other geologists found similar iridium deposits scattered across the globe, all at the same juncture in the rock layers. And then one guy found the impact crater itself, along the coast of Yucatan.
The Alvarez men were brilliant. And so was their guy Anders. Anders was a geologist and a storyteller and most importantly, an animated blackboard diagram maker. He had this habit of using his whole body to chalk images of mountains and oceans and planets. He would spin 180 degrees as he drew, and he would talk as he spun. We loved him because he was unintentionally funny and because he often directed his lectures at the non-geologists in the room, especially when he got into epistemology.
Despite Anders’s skills, though, I found the transition from molecules to mountains daunting. The Krebs cycle (that infinitesimal churning of food into energy, mapped out in every introductory biology course) is completed in the space of a breath. The orogenic cycle (by which mountains are made and unmade) takes tens of millions of years, at least. I couldn’t fathom the gap in scales. I still can’t, really.
How does one track the movement of whole continents across geologic time, when the minutes of a single day are too much to measure? Or guess what secrets the Earth’s burning liquid heart holds, just by reading the rocks that dot her vast surfaces? How can one possibly grasp the journey of those rocks through time and space and flood and fire? Where should one even begin? With the rock or with the whole mountain, or with the entire planet?
Once, Anders took us on a field trip to examine road cuts along I-80. It was a Saturday morning in October, and my classmate (and future BFF) Andrea and I were beset with apathy. We stood off to the side, nursing hangovers with Starbucks, while the real geologists in our group picked over every glimmering fleck. At some point, Anders came stomping over, wide-eyed and incredulous at our lack of enthusiasm. He told us, in no uncertain terms, to GET IN THE ROCK. He actually said that.
For the record, I tried to. I understood that there was a narrative in that road cut. And I got from Anders’s unbridled urgency that that narrative was literally awesome. But for the life of me I could not make out the language. Not at first, anyway.
That summer, as part of the same graduate program, I landed in the northern foothills of Alaska’s northern-most mountain range. I’d gone there to study the plants, mind you. I spent hours everyday collecting leaf samples from transects of tundra, bringing them back to the field station, and analyzing their respiration rates as part of the research for my dissertation. But the mountains proved irresistible (for the prettiest pictures, see here), and on weekends I’d go exploring them with a few of the other scientists.
It was on one of those expeditions that geology finally clicked for me. We were at the midway point of an eight-hour hike, at the end of a long v-shaped canyon where two mountains met and made a waterfall. We were set to take some pictures, and maybe a dip in the icy pool, before heading back the way we came when my companions got the idea to scale one of the cliffs that were lining our path.
We did, and once up top found ourselves standing on a giant bed of crinoid fossils. My companions (boys!) were tipped into giddy revelry by this discovery. They danced and hooted and stuffed their sacks with rocks for their collections. Not me. I was too awestruck to dance or hoot. I crouched low to the ground, and turned one fossil then another and another over in my hand, fingering the circular imprints. Then I stood up and looked down into the lower valleys; then out to the horizon as far as my eyes would take me. I wanted wrap my memory around as much of it as I could.
Our find was not an uncommon one, to be sure; marine fossils atop high mountains is one of the first and most oft-cited proofs of plate tectonics. Anders had explained it in lecture, and I could still see his chalkboard diagrams clearly in my head. But standing atop an actual mountain, covered in deep ocean fossils, accomplished for me what no diagram or lecture ever could: I could see it from up here. Hundreds of millions of years ago, these very rocks had been minding their business down at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, when an island, carried southward on a tectonic plate, crashed into the northern edge of Alaska, overrunning it by a few hundred miles and lifting the sea floor — lifting these very rocks — up up up in the process.*
The Earth had pulled one side of itself apart and in so doing had smashed the other side together; and we were now crawling over the results of that upheaval like hungry ants picking over the fallout from a ruptured picnic basket. We had found what nine-year-old me was looking for, and what I think all of science is a quest to find: tangible proof of the incredible.
So. I’m trying to recapture that sense of awe as I dive into John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, which the author conceptualized as a sort-of geological biography of North America. He spent two decades or so traveling back and forth across the country with an eclectic assortment of geologists. His goal, as he states in the introduction, was to “present [the geologist’s] science and its practitioners in a form and manner that was meant to arrest the attention of other people while achieving acceptability in the geologic community.”
How well he succeeded depends on who you ask. The Pulitzer committee awarded him the prize for general nonfiction in 1999, calling the book “our finest popular survey of geology, and a masterpiece of modern nonfiction writing.”
But the New York Times Book Review was far less impressed:
“Though it’s full of wonderful expository prose, it’s virtually bereft of anything else. There’s no argument, no urgency, no passion, no sense of larger purpose or emergent meaning, no point to the whole — beyond the bland point that geology is interesting. (There’s no bibliography, either, an inexplicable discourtesy both to readers and to the many scientists upon whose published papers and books this volume draws.) McPhee is an elegant stylist, but to say that his authorial voice is muffled and reticent would be an understatement. His work is full of ideas, though scarcely ever one of his own. He seems to stroll the world’s landscape, alert but undemonstrative, keeping his hands in his pockets and his thoughts to himself.”
We’ll see in the next few weeks.
*the exact mechanisms by which the Brooks Range was made are still a matter of some debate and uncertainty. This is the hypothesis that we’re going with for now.