Thursday, September 30, 2010

Accretionary Wedge #27: Important Geological Experiences

NOTE: If you submitted a post for this AW, and don't see it here (or know of one that I didn't include) please leave a comment and a link.  I'm almost certain I lost at least one in writing this up, maybe more, and it's quite possible I simply missed others.  Thanks for your help. I'll leave this note up for a while, then clip it off when I cross post to the AW blog in a few weeks.

A few weeks back I suggested a topic for the next AW, important geological experiences:
It may (or may not) be something that led you to the discipline , or a class, or a work experience, or a field experience. It might have been a puzzle or problem solved, or job landed, a degree completed. Perhaps it was something else entirely. It could have been an awful, disastrous experience from which you learned an important lesson. Maybe it's still in your future- something you're looking forward to. Additionally, explain why it was important.
The response has been nothing short of overwhelming.

It has left me with something of a problem- how to organize it?  After reading the posts, I went back though and loosely organized them into somewhat arbitrary themes that stuck out in my mind: "New faces, New places," "Thinking it through, Working it out," "The Real World," "Limitations," and "Field Camp." Many people's experiences included aspects of two or more of these themes, so I have pigeon-holed mercilessly. Without further ado, here are the submissions.

 New faces, New places
This theme developed around the pattern of people engaging with landscapes, people and cultures that were formerly new or even alien to them, and finding wonder.
(From here- link #1 under "Photographs-" inspired by Coconino's post)

The first submission was from a high school friend, Steve, who is not a blogger or a geologist, but whose geological future looks somewhat ominous:
I have a candidate, a twofer: a young French friend of ours was in Chile with her boyfriend (now husband) when the recent big earthquake struck, staying in the same beach resort where some of the most dramatic photos were taken, and then, a couple weeks later, she was in Paris when the volcano in Iceland blew its top,and as a result she was one of many left stranded, unable to return home, because of the volcanic ash. Personally, it makes me a little nervous that she's now living in Albuquerque, close to me and mine, and close to the Valles Caldera...
Michael Welland at Through the Sandglass had the experience of getting gnashed between the grinding plates of geology's great paradigm shift in Innocent Abroad.
For my presentation I brought out several plate reconstruction graphics that I had hauled across the Atlantic; I put these up on the wall of the seminar room, and launched into the story – the Cambridge (UK) edition, that is. And then it happened. The imposing voice of Bernie Kummel interrupted my narration – and he was coming down on me like a proverbial ton of bricks. A sense of shock and horror came over me: Bernie Kummel, the Bernie Kummel, didn’t believe a word I was saying.
Ian Stimpson of Hypo-theses fame relates a (mostly) solitary adventure in a foreign land, and brings to our attention another emergent theme among geologists: the stress of feeling alone, but in some way obligated to find "the answer."
Prior to this our mapping training was done as buddy pairs but here I was on my own. We wouldn’t be allowed by health and safety regulations to do this today, which is a real shame because it was a wonderful experience. It was just me against the rock. I had to sort things out for myself. It took me about four weeks to work out why in one part of the area the bedding/cleavage relationship was telling me that the beds were upside-down where as I knew from the stratigraphy that they were the right-way up. It was a struggle, but I cracked it – myself.
The next couple of entries highlight the disproportional influence just one or two mentors who care can have on a young geologist's life path. History of Geology's Dave Bressan discusses how getting away from the dry structure of a discipline, and focusing on enthusiasm can make a world of difference.
This changed suddenly; the next lecture was hold by a new visiting lecturer - with a complete different approach. Even if the step by step procedure of plant determination was inevitable, the mood was noticeably better, there was an introduction at the beginning of the lessons about the characteristics of the plants we should observe, and inevitable errors perpetuated by us beginners were not ridiculed, but explained and resolved.
And in what I nominate as one of the most deeply moving geologic experiences of all time (of all time!) Matri describes her transition into geology under the guidance of a professor who truly understands what it means to be a mentor, in "Of Honest Teachers and Precious Rock Hammers." My sniffles and watery eyes are just allergies.  Seriously.
...through the course of the semester, Professor Chen noticed this curiosity and indecision on my part, and went out of his way to convince me to enroll in UIUC’s geoscience program of study. During office hours, he would honestly and tirelessly list all of the degree’s challenges and, like every good Asian parent, none of its rewards. That mineralogy required chemistry and optics, being able to identify thousands of minerals and late hours in the lab. That the geology curriculum required geophysics which in turn needed linear algebra and differential equations and three physics classes including electricity & magnetism. That structural geology was difficult for many but I should take it the following semester when it was offered. That much field and lab work was required on weekends. That distinction and honors in the program (and he expected no less) came only with undergraduate research and a thesis. That beyond here were graduate school, more graduate school and, maybe some day, a postdoctoral position and then the tenure track. Was this man insane?
Coconino of Ordinary High Water Mark discusses a youthful memory from another land and a shocking realization that "impossible" landscapes do exist- an experience I know I've had, and which I suspect most of us share.
It blew my mind that day, that mountains did "grow" that way, that the art I had seen was not all wrong. I looked at those slides with wonder and awe. And they inspired a love of landforms and earth processes I've never lost.
Kyle House and I share this much: we moved to the Pacific Northwest, and if not overwhelmed by what we found, we were certainly whelmed, fair and square.
...when you are a typical kid growing up in Texas and Oklahoma, you think the only mountains in the country are in Colorado. Then, if you take a trip to Seattle on a clear day and see the unthinkably huge, ice-laden edifice of Mt. Ranier looming over the city like no mountain you have ever seen in your short life, all bets are off. Everything changes. The Cascades blew my mind. Surprisingly (or not), I was such a slacker in 1980 that Mt. St. Helens never registered for me (even though I was 15 at the time). But once I got to western Washington only three years later, my life changed forever. I was completely enthralled by the scenery and the juxtaposition of ice-clad volcanoes and the ocean.
Anne of Highly Allochthonous describes a flood in the middle of the Australian desert.  Desert downpours and flooding have fascinated me since my first visit to the Grand Canyon, and I'm a little jealous: I still haven't witnessed a good rainstorm in the desert.  On the other hand, I have to admit some of her description gives me a case of the willies.
But while the floodwaters had passed in Alice, there was still LOTS of water in the desert. As desert roads aren’t always equipped with bridges, there were several places where the vehicles had to ford slow-moving or ponded water. Even in college, I was enough of a river rat to know that driving across a flooded roadway is a great way to get yourself killed and I remember lots of consternation at the prospect of the water crossing pictured below. But we were literally in the middle of nowhere so my options for abandoning the trip were limited and after watching at least a dozen other vehicles ford the water, my friends and I got back on our bus and safely made it across the remnants of Rosita’s rain.
Thinking it through, Working it out

 A central theme of geology- one I sometimes wonder if we spend enough time discussing explicitly- is developing stories, narratives and explanations for how something came to be.  It can be stressful when facing this imperative the first few times, though as we'll see in a later section, geologists learn to cope.
(The Far Side, by Gary Larson; picture from here, inspired by the coincidences and others that can lead us to the conclusions we claim as our own)

Geology Happens reminded me of a post from early summer of 2009, when he realized that landscaping gravel was full of familiar rocks, leading him to recall how
...with some simple tools I could interpret a rock, a outcrop, a road cut and even a mountain range. This idea shook me up. Here is something that happened a long time ago and with a few rules of physics I could construct a story about the origins of a landform...I was hooked.
...or a truckload of river gravel, for that matter!

The experience I chose also involved the stress of feeling under pressure to come up with a plausible, hopefully convincing, story for how some rocks that seemed out of place came to be where they were.
In our soil pits, from which we collected samples and water that had leached through the top meter of the soil, we kept finding these clusters of basalt cobbles, about fist-sized. They too were deeply weathered, but under a centimeter or two of clay, quite fresh.  Judging by the weathered surface, they were pretty angular; if they had been transported, it wasn't far.  Without thinking much about it, I simply assumed they had moved in by soil creep. It turned out later that creep wasn't a tenable mechanism, because there wasn't enough uphill uphill from our site, and no basalt outcrop either.
At Mountain Beltway, Callan presents a reminder of something those of us with years doing geology sometimes forget: what seems simple to the experienced can be troublesome and/or profound to those just getting started. Even something as straight-forward as a first anticline.
Bam! It hit me: I got the idea of an anticline at that point — the idea that a structure like an anticline could be so large that I couldn’t actually see it from my earthbound human-sized perspective, and I could only infer it from detailed measurements of the rock structures. It was a revelation to me: this valley and its surrounding ridges were part of a massive fold. The anticline must have breached in the middle, with the shale eroding away faster than the sandstone, producing a valley flanked by two ridges.
Matt Kuchta, who blogs at Research at a Snail's Pace, not only contributes to this month's wedge, but also foreshadows the next, in a post I summarized in my organizational notes as "slickensided lightbulb."
One of the instructors put me on the spot, asking me to speculate on how one might get Ordovician rock sitting next to Precambrian basement rock (skipping all those Cambrian rocks in-between). The outcrop was nothing special - in fact, much of it was covered by talus and vegetation. But, being a minting geologist, I thought for a moment, then looked at the rocks by my feet. There was a chunk of beautifully polished dolomite. "A fault" I said, holding up the sample. I managed to earn "field-trip-brownie-points" not only by providing a reasonable answer, but also a piece of material evidence for my idea.
The Real World

In the academic study  of science education, there is a substantial body of literature on the phenomenon of "classroom science," the perception in students' minds that what they're being asked to learn is how the classroom world works... which may have little or no bearing on how the rest of the world works.  Though field experiences have already made a number of appearances thus far, some of the cases seemed to warrant an independent category, of simply witnessing and confronting "the real world" as an experience in and of itself, with the pressure to learn and/or perform fading to inconsequential.
Above, the youngest geoblogger, Sam, who writes with her dad at Geology Blues, posts a delightful photo of herself at Devil's Tower, Wyoming. From one geoblogger to another, a high compliment: you rock, Sam!
My Dad asked me to write what my most interesting experience in geology was. It was when we still lived in Montana, we went to Devils Tower. I thought of it as a big rock that was not a mountain. I liked camping there and waking up to see the sunrise. We took a walk around the base and we saw a huge Pine Snake!
Ron Schott at his Geology Home Companion takes an interesting slant on the theme: What is his most important experience, not from a personal perspective, but from the perspective of the earth and its processes?  I like his choice.
So many geological processes that we witness at Earth’s surface are destructive (e.g., weathering, erosion, mass wasting, etc.) but how often do we experience Mother Earth renewing herself? I submit that it is not often, yet when considered in the context of the rock cycle, it is of fundamental importance. How much less exciting would geology be on a planet that had long since ceased to be active? Thus I choose for my most “important” geological experience being present at the birth of a rock.
I can relate to Planelight's choice of important experience, at Life in Plane Light, since far and away the bulk of the time I've spent in the field has been with learners, not for research or formal purposes, but to try to develop excitement and appreciation (which can only very rarely be assessed afterwards) in students who have chosen to be there.
I enjoy teaching in the classroom and lab, but my favorite part of my job is taking students into the field. Whether it's just down the road or halfway across the country, watching students learn how to look at the ground beneath their feet and the landscape around them to backtrack the geological history of an area is worth the headaches of renting vehicles, planning food that can be cooked over a campstove, and wondering if its going to downpour or snow. To me, going into the field is the reason why I love being a geologist.
Why am I not surprised that the choice by Dana, at En Tequila Es Verdad, lyrically captures the sheer awe and wonder that geologists feel in the field?  Yes, learning to figure out the story is important, but it's the amazement we experience as we do so that drives us to do it again and again. (Dang, Dana, it's tough to pick just one passage!)
That, my darlings, was the day my young world ended forever, and my old one began.  Continental drift went out the window: no more vague images in my mind of stately continents floating slowly about to fetch up gently against one another before drifting apart again like guests at a soiree.  The rolling hills around Dewey ceased to be the least-interesting part of the drive between old home and new: I never could pass that way again without thinking of continents going bang up against each other, crushing and transforming rock as they collided.  Rocks meant something: they weren't just pretty baubles, but storytellers with a rich store of history to draw on.  The world changed fundamentally from era to era, and the past dictated the present.  Landscapes weren't just scenery anymore.  They were portals to other worlds. 

I really doubt that geology is unique in the way that its students confront "fail" on such a regular basis, but there does seem to be an unusual acceptance among its practitioners that we are, at the very least, occasionally not going to find an answer that stands up to testing, or even that satisfies us in the short term.  If this category seems derogatory, you probably haven't spent much time doing geology.
(Found here, with the comment "Truer words were never spoken..." Except in geology, a better caption might be "It's better to know and accept your limitations than to be eulogized.")

CB Dawson of Point Source gets at a perennial problem in many disciplines: techniques and technologies have been developed to simplify doing whatever it is you want to do, but the devil is in the details.  If you don't know what's happening in the process of simplification, can you say you know what's happening at all?
After the initial glow of “wow, that was easy!” I realized I was far from done. I had so many questions:
  • How did the model correspond with other geophysical data and local stratigraphy?
  • Was the model meaningful?
  • Was the model equally valid and reliable in all areas?
  • How does the software get from the initial data I provide to the inverse model?
I had so many questions, but not enough answers! I dug into the software. I learned more about the modeling algorithm. I learned about the variety of settings you could use when running the model. I learned about sensitivity analyses and maximum/minimum versions of the model values.
Jessica (AKA Tuff Cookie) at Magma Cum Laude offers a personal, poignant, and very wise bit of insight for anyone practicing a complex technical skill... especially for the first time:
As a freshman, I may have been bright enough that my advisor invited me to come on a trip that was normally restricted to upperclassmen, but I should also have been bright enough to realize my own limitations. That was one of the best things I learned on that trip, and one that's helped me immensely since. If I can take a step back from whatever frustrating problem I'm dealing with at the moment, I can figure out what I tools and knowledge I need to acquire to solve it. That process may be slow and frustrating itself, but it's much better than thinking I know everything (and then finding out, usually in embarrassing ways, that I'm wrong). Come to think of it, this is a great way to look at life in general, not just geology.
Julia at Stages of Succession reminds me of a very similar experience I had- though for better or for worse (the outcome was fine in both cases), no one would have had any idea how far afield I was. I'll recount my own story another time, but for now, here's Julia's "Great Cock-up on Great Cockup."
About an hour before our rendezvous point, I was on the saddle between Knott and Great Calva, with Hause Gill and Wiley Gill either side of me. I had intended to go down Wiley Gill, meet up with the track along the Caldew, and stroll back to the car. To this day, I have no idea why I did this, as I was perfectly capable of reading a compass.

I went the wrong way.
BTW, I suspect anyone who doesn't have a story similar to Julia's simply hasn't been at it long enough.  Yet.

Field Camp

The final category for this month's wedge is "Field Camp." As I said at the outset, there is a lot of overlap in the themes I picked out to organize these posts, and a number of others already written up might fit here as well.  These are ones that struck me as really getting at the essence of the field camp experience.
John Wesley Powell's first camp at Green River, Wyoming, from the US National Archives (entry #11, here).

Silver Fox of Looking For Detachment describes the events that fortuitously allowed her to return to her beloved west, instead of "a sentence term in an overgrown, kudzu-infested, hot and humid field camp."
Yes! Bright, brilliant geology everywhere, just the way I had always — after growing up near the Sierra Nevada — thought it should be. And rocks besides limestones! And volcanic rocks that weren't old and decrepit greenstones of nearly unimaginable age!
In addition to being a classic field camp story, Brian Romans at Clastic Detritus again captures that deer-in-the-headlights, dichotomous feeling of "is that really all there is to it?" combined with "I have no clue what I'm doing; do you really expect me to believe I got this right?"
Using my mechanical pencil to point on the topographic map, I said: “We think the contact runs right through here”.

He looked at me with a grin, saying “Well, you should go ahead and draw the contact there”. I remember looking at the map, looking out at the landscape again, looking back down at the map with my head cocked to the side. I simply wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was correct. My professor must have seen the lack of confidence in my body language. He took my hand with the pencil in it and, with his hand over mine, drew a small line on the map where I said the contact was. I looked up at him saying “That’s it?” and he smiled saying “Yep … now keep going”.
Last, but most certainly not least, Geotripper Garry Hayes' story isn't of the typical undergrad field camp, which generally comes near the end of a four-year degree, but an intensive and grueling field experience nonetheless: hiking to the bottom, and back out, of the Grand Canyon.
We were going in, spending 4 or 5 days below the rim, checking out each and every one of the layers from top to bottom (and back to the top again).

The trip involved a hike along some of the semi-maintained trails that are not usually a part of the tourist experience. The route down was along the New Hance Trail to the Colorado River, then along the Tonto Platform to Horseshoe Mesa, and then up the steep trail to Grandview Point. The entire journey was a revelation, as we saw the Paleozoic and Proterozoic sedimentary formations up close and personal (miles are meaningless in the canyon; when climbing out, you note what layer you've reached, not a mileage post), explored a copper mine, climbed through two limestone caverns (with ropes and helmets, no less), and even of all things, saw the aurora borealis from our camp on Horseshoe Mesa. I walked out of the canyon a geology major.
So that winds up this edition of the Accretionary Wedge.  It's been both more work and more rewarding than I expected. More work in the sense that I hadn't really thought about how difficult it would be to both organize and give fair play to the tremendously wide set of experiences- a great many shared by most of us, and some almost unique- and the overlapping nature of those experiences.  More rewarding than I expected in the sense that working through these recollections has triggered memories of a large number of other geological stories I should tell at some point, picking up on the themes so wonderfully expressed in these entries: sometimes a little self-deprecatingly humorous, sometimes reeking of frustration- or spitting in the face of frustration- but always, always, always anticipating that next moment of awe and wonder, the feelings that drew us to this sublime discipline in the first place.

I just realized a bit ago that I haven't actually put up a notification of the next Accretionary Wedge at the AW Blog (Now remedied), though I have here at OTI and on Twitter.  But just as a reminder, Matt has kindly offered to host October's AW, with the theme of "Deskcrops."  See the link for full details, and leave comments and links to your submissions at Matt's call for posts.


Garry Hayes said...

Thanks for hosting! You did a great job.

Silver Fox said...

Thanks for this great Wedge!

Anonymous said...

Surprise, Surprise, my comment is missing yet once again. Isn't it amazing that everyone else comments stay on but mine disappears. I wonder why that is?
Well here I try once more. I sent you my submission for the Accretionary Wedge 27. You say you are having technical difficulties. And to let you if you submitted something, well I did. Did you get it?
Ann O'Brien Willis

Brian Romans said...

Fantastic wrap-up ... and thanks for hosting