July Accretionary Wedge: Inspiration

It’s time for the Accretionary Wedge! If you recall, this month’s topic is your inspiration to study geoscience.

It was really fun to read these. A lot of you guys started out loving science and even geology in particular as kids, and you just stuck with it. I admire that! Lots of others just fell into it, like I did.


Lockwood tells about his lifelong fascination with science, starting with a great book as a kid and continuing through school, with some encouragement by great teachers. He ended up in geology by process of elimination after some lousy biology and chemistry classes, and stayed there because of a great and engaging teacher. Bob Jamieson talks about his experiences with exposure to geoscience over the years — by seeing great local geology growing up, by taking science classes in high school, and by just little bits and pieces that added up to an interest in the subject.

Ian Stimson can’t sing, so he had the opportunity to sample some geology instead of singing in the choir. His coursework steered him into taking geology, which at first he thought was all right. And later realized was completely awesome, of course. John at Karmasotra says he just knew he wanted a job outside. He decided to add geology to his coursework after reading a book that made it sound cool, and took a class from a teacher who was a little out of date and still teaching continental drift! crazy!

Michael Welland at Through the Sandglass says he had an early interest in geology, found through family trips and great books. And he acknowledges that after being discouraged for a while, connections with the right people helped him get inspired again. Geology Happens reports that “in high school… I found that the landscapes I had been walking, climbing. biking and canoeing through had stories that could be teased out of the rock. It seemed that by following a few simple rules anyone could piece together this tale. I was hooked. What other field allowed me to be outside all the time and to do real science?”

Silver Fox at Looking for Detachment has a geologist for a father, which exposed her to the topic, but it wasn’t until that awesome intro class that she decided to give up on the history major and try out geology herself. Apparently Silver Fox and I are twins (except for the geologist father part).

Short Geologist planned to study archaeology, but decided after that terrific intro class that geology was an exciting alternative that actually might lead to a job. And Jim Lehane followed that childhood dream of digging up dinosaurs all the way through grad school! That’s almost up there with planning to be an astronaut and actually doing it. A Life-Long Scholar didn’t want to work, but enjoyed school, so she took classes at multiple universities without ever declaring a major. Once she learned that grad students get paid to continue in school, though, she found some direction, and wound up in geology because there wasn’t a single required class she didn’t want to take. “Six years of being a full-time University student, and I’d finally found the course I wished to study! Very little time elapsed from that moment until I’d applied and transferred to another University, in another state, and became a Geology Major.”

Anne Jefferson says in her guest post at Highly Allochthonous that she was first inspired to study geology for her high school science fair project because it was not related to the science her parents studied, and she was a little rebellious! Her project was about fracturing in a Wisconsin sandstone. Tuff Cookie always wanted to be a geologist, and the more she learned, the more she was sure about that. And playing with lava at Kilauea cemented her resolve to be a volcanologist.

Jim Repka realized he wanted his professor’s job on a great intro field trip, after years of trying to study geology without a lot of luck. It took a long time to get through school, but with luck and determination and good teachers along the way, he’s gotten to where he wants to be. Garry Hayes had interests in geologic things but little exposure to academic earth science before going to college. As he says, “It worked something like natural selection: I had the interest (crystals and fossils), and I had some of the basic skills (maps and compasses), I just hadn’t found the field in which the skills and interests would be useful. Once I entered the correct situation, those pre-adaptations allowed me to survive!”

Thanks for all of your submissions! Check in at the Accretionary Wedge for next month’s topic!


My inspiration

Time for me to answer my own question: how did I end up here?

I think I have followed a more or less classic geologist path. I had the little kid inspiration, the stage of forgetting about it because barely any earth science is taught in high schools, and then the fabulous intro teacher in college that sucked me back in, and the rest is history.

in the field

So there was this guy who would come to our elementary school to give presentations for the kids. They would book him for an “assembly,” which would last about an hour, and he would give big slide shows for the whole school in the gym/auditorium/cafeteria. They were the fanciest slide shows I had ever seen: two big projector screens with two slide projectors running simultaneously. He would get one student to work each projector and cue the slides by waving his arms. And the talks were always really well put-together. He was a reptile biologist by training (the one exception to the slide show assembly format was the reptiles one, when he would bring in his reptiles and show us some awesome snakes), but he had enough knowledge of general science to be able to teach on other topics. And one assembly he gave was about geology.

This was the mid- to late 80s, so right around the start of plate tectonics. None of us had ever heard any of that before, and he used slides and these great foam models to demonstrate subduction and volcanism at plate boundaries. He also had fabulous earthquake offset and volcano eruption pictures. I was so excited. I loved how logical the theory was, and how exciting it was to think about volcanoes and earthquakes.

And there was a series of very elementary science books in my school library. I forget what they were called, but the title of the series was a question (how does it work? what is it? something like that). I read all of them, but after the earth science assembly I went back and checked out the geology one again, even though by then it was way below my reading level. Except that the book probably pre-dated plate tectonics, which I didn’t know at the time, and I was disappointed that it was just a catalog of rocks and minerals and didn’t talk about tectonics. Still, I totally wanted a rock collection, and if the book hadn’t said that rock specimens needed to be at least 3″ in length I would have started one right then. (After all, where was I going to find a rock that big around my parents’ house? They were all little 1-2″ glacial cobbles. Of quartz. Every rock I ever found there was quartz. boring!)

Fast forward to high school. There had been a bit of earth science exposure during the science survey class we took eighth grade (we did a fun project with testing “well samples” for “contamination” using chemical indicators, and then mapping the path of a fictional groundwater contaminating plume — it’s the only thing I remember from that whole class), but otherwise science in my town focused on the usuals: chemistry, biology, and physics. I liked those subjects but didn’t love them. And the Earth Science class in my high school was not on an honors track, so I had no room for it in my high-achiever schedule. I basically forgot that I liked geology.

I did like history, though. The history classes taught in more than half of my public school years were American history, which was very recent, and usually that started with colonialism and made it about as far as the Civil War. One year they started at the Civil War and made it all the way to the Depression, but except for AP American History, none of my classes got farther than that. Meaning almost all of the history I took in school was on the same exact subject, over and over, with almost no context. In 7th grade they jumped back to Ancient Civilizations, and in I think 10th grade there was some world history in there. But until AP American and AP Euro there was nothing connecting those things: a bit of ancient civilizations, a little bit of late European history, a whole lot of American history from colonialism until maybe the 1890s or so, and then nothing to connect it to my life here and now. Frankly, it drove me crazy. And when I finally had teachers and those AP subjects that connected the dots even a little bit, I was so happy to know what had happened beforewhy things were the way they were at, say, the start of the American Revolution. Or even now! I also loved languages. I started French in 6th grade and stuck with it through college, and I was also blown away by seeing Old and Middle English in my English classes (not that we read any Old English, but I saw what it looked like). So I decided I would study those things in college. I wanted to study history because I wanted to know why things are the way they are, including linguistics and etymology.

Okay, so after that long intro, the fact is that I never took a history class in college. I’m putting that right out there. And geology is to blame. I did sign up for a year of latin, figuring I might declare my major in Medieval Studies so I could study history + medieval linguistics. But at my alma mater we were encouraged to take chances and branch out our first year, to get that liberal arts education and try new things. When I saw that they offered an introductory class in Geology, remembering how much I liked it as a 9-year-old, I decided to try it. And before I knew it I was reading my entire textbook for fun in my room when no one was looking. I had planned to study history because I wanted to know what came before, and why things are the way they are — and that’s what geology is. Except it goes just a little bit further back, so it’s even better! (sorry, historians.) Plus scientific critical thinking was like a set of logic problems from a puzzle book, and I always loved those. For some reason that didn’t click in high school, but with geology it clicked.

So there was pretty much no looking back. I was stuck with that year of latin, of which I remember nothing, and I did later pick up some archaeology and art history on the side, but geology was it, and I knew it by the end of that first weekly field trip. I mean, hello, dinosaur footprints down the road? seriously?? To be fair to my professors, that class was designed explicitly to suck in new majors (as all good intros should), and later classes were just as exciting and engaging, and so I owe so much of my enthusiasm not just to the subject itself but to them. And later, when I had to start thinking about possible career paths, I realized that what I wanted to do most of all was be my advisor. I wanted to give other people that moment of realizing this is it omgomg, just like he and the other faculty there had done for me. And as a teacher, that’s the rush for me — when it clicks and a student suddenly gets it. Is there anything better than that?

Oh, I also liked the field trips. Getting to visit some of the most spectacular places in the world — for work — that’s not bad, either.


Just a reminder that the deadline for Accretionary Wedge submissions for July is today! I’ll accept them until midnight. Thanks for all of the submissions so far! I’ll put the carnival up by the end of next week.

Accretionary Wedge: Time Warp

This month’s Accretionary Wedge is the time warp! What time in geologic history would I like to visit (no livable conditions required) with this magical new technology? There are so many! How can I choose??

This fancy moon picture was on Wikipedia!

This fancy moon picture was on Wikipedia!

With the space warp component included, this is especially difficult. Do I want to see if a plume starts at the core-mantle boundary? (yes!) Do I want to see what happens to plumes and/or subducted slabs at the transition zone? (yes!) What about the production of a LIP, or a major caldera-forming eruption? (yes! yes!) But although I’m really a volcanophile, I think I feel a little more traditionally geologic about this. I want to see a mass extinction — a big, catastrophic, geologic-record-punctuating event. The formation of the moon would be really fun, too, but it’s not as controversial anymore (to most people). There are still poorly-understood mass extinctions — in particular, the biggest one of them all: the P-T. I want to see who’s right and who’s wrong, and I want to see what happened, all for myself.

Though I suppose it would be damn depressing to watch all that death. Maybe I should stick with the moon?