Friday, 6 March 2009

Hey! Do you speak Geology?


After my sharing my thoughts last week regarding the ability or otherwise, of geologists to embrace the fact that they can actually be wrong sometimes, my thoughts this week have turned to that other strange tendency that geologists seem to have - the need to speak in gobbledy-gook!?!

As you're probably aware by now, I went to Grand Canyon last year. (No, really?) Following my return I have had an insatiable thirst for knowledge of anything 'Grand Canyon', but particularly anything that will shed some light on how this magnificent place came to be. I downloaded every single one of the papers from the 2000 symposium on the 'Evolution of the Colorado River' - Click here if you would like to do the same!

Now, I know I should perhaps wait a few years before trying to read academic papers, but the language used in some of them is absolutely unintelligible to anyone other than geological academics. Okay, perhaps little ol' me wasn't part of the target audience when these guys wrote their papers. But back in 1945, Donald L. Babenroth and Arthur N. Strahler wrote a paper on the Geomorphology and Structure of the East Kaibab Monocline . The interesting thing about this paper is the language it is written in! Even for the relative layman like me, it is very readable and understandable. Another paper by Chester Longwell in 1946 entitled 'How Old is the Colorado River?' was similar - straight forward and readable. Surely this is how it should be isn't it? Why should this fascinating subject be submerged in complex, ludicrously long worded, technical terminology, only understandable to a small minority? What on earth has happened in the last 50 years to turn geology into some sort of foreign language?

Two geologists that have inspired me greatly over the last year or so are Dr Iain Stewart of Plymouth University in England and Wayne Ranney of Flagstaff, Arizona. Wayne, as you'll know by now is author of 'Carving Grand Canyon' and co-author with Dr Ron Blakey of 'Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau'. Iain is the presenter of the excellent recent TV series 'Earth: The Power of the Planet' and other superb geology and environmental television series. What these gentlemen have in common is that they both recognise that geology is a fantastically exciting subject that stirs the imagination of a great many people. They realise that while some people might go to Grand Canyon and say "ooh, isn't that lovely" and then hop on a helicopter back to Vegas, rather more people actually stop and wonder "how the heck did this place come to be"? That's exactly what I did and I went in search of a book that might tell me. A book full of long words and technical jargon would've been of little use to me. What I needed was exactly what Wayne's book provides - a detailed explanation of the theories and mysteries in a language understandable to the interested layman. The end result is a thirst for more! Job done Wayne!

Similarly, Iain Stewart inspired me with his series and book mentioned above. I think it was New Year's Day 2007, when I was hopping round the TV channels while staying at my mother-in-law's, that I stumbled upon ironically, the last in the series of 'Earth: The Power of the Planet'. This was basically rounding up the series with a look at the future of planet Earth. The straight forward, enthusiastic presentation style and above all, non-technical language was a sheer delight. Iain presents geology on television with a passion I can relate to. Surely this is how geology should be presented?

Yes, I know, technical papers are not directed at layman. We're talking about different audiences and I appreciate that. But, it seems to me that so often these days, scientific news is regularly misinterpreted in the media, often to an embarrassing degree. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it is because scientific journalists simply don't fully understand the message of a particular paper after getting bogged down by the jargon! Okay, once I get my MGeol degree (how's that for positivity?) I will need to be submitting papers to peer review journals and these will need to be liberally sprinkled with technical language. But I hope there will always be room for a more thorough explanation within my text, in an accessible language that will make it understandable to a wider audience.

Any thoughts? Post 'em up if you like!

Before I go, Iain Stewart makes the point at the end of 'Earth: The Power of the Planet', that the our world doesn't need saving at all! Outraged? Well, there's no need to be! Our dear planet is quite capable of coping with whatever us clumsy, destructive humans can throw at it and is looking after itself quite well, thank you! What actually needs saving is the human being! More on this next time!

Cheers for now,