Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Geological Heroes

This month's Accretionary Wedge is all about "Heroes."

I think I'll treat this as a sort of stream of consciousness post:

The first people who come to my mind when I try to think of the people who are my geology heroes would be my parents. It was they who bought me my first dinosaur book when I was about three or four years old. I was hooked ever since. My parents are both teachers - as were my grandparents. So teaching has always been a big part of how I interact with the world. This blog is just an extension of the idea of "teaching." When I was about five years old, I drew a picture of a dinosaur skull and a school bus. Above it, I wrote: "I want to be a scientist or a bus driver." Well, the bus driving thing didn't pan out - but here I am, some thirty years after the fact, researching, teaching, and sharing with the larger community all things geological.

I toyed with the idea of aerospace engineering for a while, because the Challenger disaster piqued my interest in rockets and airplanes. Then came "The Dinosaur Heresies" by Robert Bakker - I read that book cover to cover at least twice between the ages of 13 and 15. My high school earth science class also renewed my interest in geology. It was my high school biology teachers, however, that really motivated me. Mike and Sara Clough were quite the team. They were very good teachers - both in terms of pedagogical style, but also in terms of content. Evolution was not tip-toed around. It was in-your-face change in gene frequency. They gave me the basic framework of how evolution works - I still have some of those lessons in my head today. But it wasn't just evolution - it was science in general. The notion that "the nature of science" wasn't just some set methodology, but rather a rich and iterative process was something that I had "felt," but it wasn't until my time with Mr. and Ms. Clough that I really "got it." It was there I got my first taste of works by the late Stephen Jay Gould and Thomas Kuhn (yes, I read "The Nature of Scientific Revolutions" as a 10th grader: big geek, I know).

College was my introduction to the richness of geology - not just rocks and fossils, but volcanoes, and rivers, and glaciers and soils. My school had a small geology department - just three tenure-track faculty. But we took trips to Wyoming, Iowa, and all over Wisconsin. My advisor did not get tenure (it's a long story, don't get me started). I gained an appreciation for the politics of academia (to quote James Earl Jones: "watch your back, Jack"). But I'm glad to say the department survived the turmoil, and my former advisor is in a much better situation now.

Grad school was the usual milieu of fellow students, faculty and advisors. My own advisor was a student of S.J. Gould. The deeper I got into paleobiology and evolution, the more I learned to appreciate Gould's writing in small bits. His wasn't the only voice, nor the most accurate at times. There are too many names in the field to go through them all. Suffice to say they made me realize not only how to look at the rocks, but also to be very careful about acknowledging that which I did not know. Eschew interpretation, when observation will suffice. Interpretations are vital, but must be built on solid observations.

My dissertation project grew out of conversations I had with the director of the UW-Geology Museum. Again, his guidance and support has kept my trains of thought on schedule, and from derailing to often.

My wife has been a major source of inspiration. I owe her a great deal, since it was her patience and editorial eye that helped me finish my Ph.D. I find having another mind to bounce an idea off of, or pair of eyes to look at a sketch is wonderful. Especially if that mind is independent enough to look at me like I've gone bananas and bring me back to reality. I've been kicking around in the post-dissertation world for almost a year now. Since then I've had to revisit and teach a lot of physics. You don't realize how vital the works by Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, Bohr, and others are sometimes. But every single aspect of our modern society depends on the fundamental properties of gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces. That's both the technology that we use, but also the founding theories upon which fields like climatology, remote sensing, and radiometric dating are built.

So I can't name one "hero" out of everyone who influenced me over the past few decades. But they all left me with something very important. An understanding of how the world works (idealized at times, but useful) and how to apply that knowledge to pick things apart further. Although I can't leave without another salute to my mom and dad. It's probably all their fault...

No comments:

Post a Comment