Sunday, October 12, 2008

Geology Popularization

As an Interdisciplinary Sciences (IS) major, I am not-infrequently derided by students with more narrowly focused majors as being something of a scientific voyeur whenever it comes to their specific disciplines. As I am primarily concerned with science literacy and the public understanding of science, I never fail to point out that I am at least better informed about a far greater array of disciplines than they are and am thus able to integrate findings from a diverse range of disciplines into my understanding of the cosmos and communicate that understanding to folks that might have trouble finding the roots of a quadratic equation.

In this, my final semester, I am taking a 300-level Geology (GEOL) course, called “Search for Our Past.” The course consists of studying the geology of North America and how the landforms we encounter in our daily lives have been shaped in the past. As the main project for the course, we are looking at the various geologic provinces of the United States (e.g. Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range, etc.). Probably better than half of the students in the class are GEOL majors, of one sort or another, with the rest being IS majors of one sort or another; which can include pre-med and pre-law students. This has so far been an interesting and challenging class.

As an aspiring “public intellectual” that hopes to, in my own small way, take up the mantle of such giants as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, I can easily, either starting from my extensive personal library of science books, or from the internet, follow the trail of references from a popular work of science, whether it is about physics, cosmology, biology (including evolution), astronomy, the psychology of belief, or history, to the original academic research that underlies the more “popular” works. This does not appear to be the case in geology.

Why is it that I can readily find the “by scientists, for scientists” material to reference when writing a popular piece about neutrino astronomy, but finding equally “meaty” references when putting together a piece on the geologic history of the Pacific Northwest is so much harder? I am not sure exactly why this is, but I do have a hypothesis. Unlike physics or cosmology, for instance, geology, and perhaps chemistry, is not only a science, but an industry, with the requisite “trade secrets,” “proprietary information,” and the like. They are areas that, with the exception of geology in the context of evolution, are not being popularized to the extent of other scientific disciplines. This is something that professional geologists need to work to correct.