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Why Geology Matters: Decoding the Past, Anticipating the Future
Why Geology Matters: Decoding the Past, Anticipating the Future
Douglas Macdougall
University of California Press, 2011
304 pp., $57.95

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Science in Focus: Jeffrey Greenberg


Why Geology Matters, Part 4

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Geology as a scientific field does metaphorically have an axe to grind and lost ground to possess. It is commonly misunderstood, out of ignorance or disciplinary pride, by the more dominant fields. Consider Rutherford's famous statement that "all science is either physics or it's stamp collecting". A more modern version was expressed by the nerdy genius star of TV's Big Bang Theory when he acknowledged a certain fellow faculty member at his university as Professor of Geology, whose discipline "I don't respect." Perhaps even more telling is an actual workbook assigned in another science course with a question asking students which of several disciplines is NOT a science. The correct answer, included among Economics and Psychology, is supposed to be Geology.

What Geology needs is not revenge but a good apologetic for its central place as essential, applied science. MacDougall's book does a pretty nice job describing geoscience in a positive framework. Geologists over the last several decades have felt a sense of rejection from our fellow disciplines. A perceived disdain for qualitative observation (a stereotype of Geology) has provoked a trend to put forward a more quantitative façade and to emphasize that "we" are really just chemists, physicists, and biologists who take the entire Earth (as well as the Moon and other planets) as our subject. My own master's degree was in Geology-Geophysics and my doctorate in Geochemistry. The sense of inferiority is sad but understandable. A fine article in the GSA Bulletin by Frodeman (1995), "Geological Reasoning: Geology as an interpretive and historical science," explains geological knowledge and investigations with a philosopher's analysis. He and Duke University geologist Orin Pilkey specifically emphasize that over-quantification in Geology can be a dangerous and misapplied exercise. The ability to make keen observations and synthesize diverse data into working hypotheses with or without mathematical precision is a vital talent for geological investigation. Consider a Rwandan bishop hoping to provide adequate (inexpensive) building materials for poor people who would otherwise be unable to afford housing. Undergraduate geology majors with a good class in rocks-and-minerals should be capable of producing a map of locally available resources, and be able to test the materials for their utility. No differential equations, calculus, quantum experimentation, or even spectrometric analyses are necessary. (Of course, this does not diminish the great value of these elements in other geological research.)

Kane Barker from Chemistry and Heather Whitney from Physics provide enlightened commentary on MacDougall's apologia. Either they already recognized the key role of geoscience or the book nicely achieved the author's purpose in affirming why Geology matters. I suspect a bit of both. In my experience, it is generally rare that academic scientists outside Geology really know very much about it in the modern context. At Wheaton College, as in the vast majority of colleges and universities, geology majors must have at least a year each of chemistry, physics, and math at the calculus level. Often biological classes are also required. The reciprocal with required geology classes for the other disciplines is unheard of. That situation may never change. A related problem, possibly capable of reform, is the inordinate fixation on health sciences, that is human-health sciences. The entire undergraduate science curriculum, along with allocated resources at Christian and other institutions, is often organized around preparation for the health professions. Reading MacDougall's final chapter in particular should help others realize that geological study is also clearly a matter of life and death.

Geology's interdisciplinary purview is well recognized among the three brief reviews preceding me in this series. Of course, it is the geologist, Davis Young, who states that everyone (academic or not) needs "far more exposure to the Earth sciences." In my darker moments, I tend to think that undergrad science majors, without access to the Big Picture issues of our times, may be better equipped as technicians than as project leaders, managers, and circumspect supervisors guiding the solution of complex problems at the interface between our lives and our habitat. Professor Barker shares that apprehension. Graduate school opportunities are likely to narrow perspectives even further. Christians in particular should be challenged to undertake applied scientific enterprise as a vocation of the Kingdom. As MacDougall and the three reviewers clearly indicate, a litany of global issues demand geological understanding to guide policy and, hopefully, positive action.

A final comment: I appreciate MacDougall's style and the 2011 publication as current, but other literature might be more effective in fulfilling the promise of the book's title. John McPhee is a master at making geological knowledge accessible. I highly recommend his best-selling series of geo-travelogues.

Jeffrey Greenberg is professor of geology at Wheaton College.

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