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GeoPoll: Who do you think most deserves the title “Father of Geology?”

It’s been a while since the last geopoll/post. Too long. Life has been busy for me though. I am just concluding an extremely short post-doc at Health Canada’s Canadian Radiological Monitoring Network and am starting a new job at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission next week. Suffice to say blogging has sadly slipped a bit lower on my list than I’d like. Plus it’s hockey and nordic season here in Ottawa.

At any rate, I though it high time to dust off one of my saved up poll ideas. Throughout my geological education the title “Father of Geology” has been bandied about in reference to several different founders of the science. When you google “Father of Geology” James Hutton is featured prominently. But is he really the true “Father of Geology”? I have heard the term applied to many others including: Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, William Smith and more. Each of these men has made huge contributions to geosciences, but which do you think deserves to be recognized as the sole founder? By the way, when you google “Mother of Geology” you get James Hutton as the top result, sadly.

In no particular order, here are your choices.

James Hutton

Google’s choice for the title but not necessarily yours. James Hutton certainly does deserve a top spot in the “most important contributions to geoscience” power rankings, but just how high is up for discussion. The mind behind the principle of uniformitarianism, which despite its annoying name, is a crucial concept underpinning almost every aspect of geology. Hutton’s theory, simplistically put, states that processes in the present operated in the past. This gave early geologists great insight into the processes that formed the rocks, minerals and fossils they were discovering. It also opened the door to our understanding of geologic time, which is a central tenet of geology and underlies every aspect of the science.

Siccars Point, UK. The place where James Hutton found proof of uniformitariansm in the visible angular unconformity representing the missing time between the two formations. Source

Charles Lyell

Author of the famed text “Principles of Geology” in 1830 is a strong contender for the title without question. Lyell built upon the work of Hutton and greatly furthered the burgeoning science of geology. His key contributions include expanding on Hutton’s concept of uniformitarinism/geologic time as well as dabbling in volcanology, paleontology, and glaciology. He also traveled widely, even to North America where he made observations about geology in the colonies. He was also a friend and colleague of Charles Darwin and is believed to have contributed to the publication of On the Origin of the Species. I should add that many mountains have been named in his honour just in case that little tidbit sways your vote at all.

Charles Darwin

Darwin is without question the “Father of Evolution” but does this also qualify him to be the Father of Geology? Evolution is a central aspect of understanding deep time and how Earth’s biota has changed from the Hadean to now and why. Darwin also worked extensively on paleontology and in addition to On the Origin of the Species wrote several geology books about marine invertebrates, atoll formation by coral reefs and his observations during his travels on the Beagle.

Nicolas Steno

In addition to being the namesake of an entire profession, stenographer (kidding), the contributions Nicolas Steno made to the science of geology cannot be overstated. Especially by sedimentologists. His conception of the laws of superposition, original horizontality, cross relationships and lateral continuity are all central to the ideas of deep time, stratigraphy and how formations relate to one another in the field. Furthermore, his principles inspired the work of Hutton.

An illustration from Steno’s 1669 book Source

Pliny the Elder

Certainly the oldest member of this list, although this doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the most important. As one of the earliest recorded observers of the natural world a few notes about geology made it into his magnum opus, Naturalis Historia in which he discussed Roman mining techniques, prospecting for gold, mineralogy and crystallography, and how to detect a fake gemstone. He also covered geography, astronomy, agriculture, art and medicine. Not too shabby!

Worth an honourable mention is that he actually died in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. There is some controversy over how since none of his companions suffered the same fate but he either died trying to rescue some friends trapped near Herculaneum or because he wanted a closer look at Vesuvius and ordered a slave to kill him to avoid cooking to death.

Alfred Wegener

Mr. Jigsaw, Alfred Wegener, deserves to be on the list even though he was not technically a geologist. However, as the recognized originator of the idea of contintental drift he certainly deserves recognition especially now because he was ridiculed for his ideas at the time. It was not really until 1965 when J. Tuzo Wilson developed the supercontinent cycle and other evidence was incorporated that theory of plate tectonics became really proven and Wegener’s ideas fully accepted.

William Smith

In addition to having the most generic name on the list, William Smith is the originator of the geological map and known as the “Father of English Geology”. However, as geological maps are not the sole province of the UK maybe he gets your vote as the Father of all geology? A canal builder and coal miner, like James Hutton, smith noticed the strata he was digging through repeated predictably throughout England and was the first to map their outcrops. He also originated the idea of faunal succession in rock formations which today is still regularly applied in the concept of relative age dating.

Smith's beautiful map delineating the strata of England and Wales (sorry Scotland) Source

Smith’s beautiful map delineating the strata of England and Wales (sorry Scotland) Source

Mary Horner Lyell

This poll is about the Father of Geology, but here is my vote for the Mother of Geology title: Mary Horner Lyell. Mary Horner Lyell, in addition to being the wife of nominee Charles Lyell was a very accomplished geoscience researcher in her own right and her contributions were critical to the writing and field work of Charles Lyell. They were quite a dynamic duo! She also contributed to Darwin’s work on barnacles and the study of glaciology with fellow female scientist Elizabeth Agassiz.

The assignment of the coveted title of Father of Geology is now in your hands. Choose wisely!

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By the way, feel free to write another name and justification in the comments if you don’t like my options. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I strongly considered adding William Logan and J. Tuzo Wilson to get some Canadian content in there.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who the Father of Geology is (sorry voters). As Newton eloquently said, “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This sentiment applies well here as it is irrelevant who really started it all. Rather, it is more important to realize that as the science of geology expands and grows in divergent and convergent directions we are all standing on one another’s shoulders through the sharing of ideas and knowledge. There is no single base to this pyramid just as there is no distinguishable pinnacle.

GeoPoll #3 – What got you interested in geology?

After a bit of an opinion hiatus I am back with the third geopoll. Every day I go to work at a university department filled with geologists. All of us are tackling different questions, but in the beginning we all started at the same place. Namely, not knowing anything about geoscience. In my conversations with colleagues over the years it appears that there is no single way to get into geology. We all entered the field from different avenues. For example, some people found it through a first year course, others, like me, started out as mineral and fossil collectors when they were kids or teenagers and still others only started in geology for graduate school and have a degree in chemistry or physics. Furthermore, geoscientists and professional geologists do not have a monopoly on enjoying and studying the Earth. In fact, geology is one of the few sciences that it is easy for anyone to practice at home and there are many amateur geologists out there that this poll also applies to as well. As I say, there is no single access point, but the passion unites us all. So, I have to ask: what got you interested in geology?

A gratuitous photo of the mineral Stibnite (SbS) from China. It is currently for sale here…if you happen to have a spare $23,500.

The serious side of this poll is perhaps it will hopefully inform how we can be better at geoscience outreach. If we have a better idea of how the current group of geologists got hooked perhaps we can target our outreach to a particular audience in the hopes of attracting a new generation of geoscientists. Or, as I suspect is the case, many people got hooked in university. Is this too late? Should we be trying to get geology courses into high school and elementary school curricula like chemistry and physics in order to get young people interested or at least educated about the earth? Perhaps us geoscience communicators need to work on attracting a younger audience?

Finally it is tough to think of good poll questions so if you have a good idea for a question(s) please post in the comments! As usual, click the view results button on the bottom of the poll to see how things are shaking out.

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GeoPoll # 2 – What geologic attraction would you like to see most?

The first geopoll was a huge success!! I was completely floored by the overwhelming number of responses and the time and care people took to give their opinion. The results of the last poll showed, overwhelmingly, that field work is of paramount importance to a good geology education. In fact, the top two choices with 160 and 157 votes apiece both involved taking students to the field. The third place choice was: an exposure to a wide variety of geologic disciplines. Clearly, the geoscience community is very aware of the integrated nature of our science and the importance of universities producing well rounded geoscientists that take a holistic view of problems. Finally, beer got 76 votes as an indispensable part of geology.

Sad, but true. (Glacial Till Blog)

For poll number two we enter the field. When I travel I always love to go places that offer attractions of the geologic kind as well. I have been lucky to have visited several places on this list and I think going to places and understanding how they formed and their unique geologic history is a very enriching experience and makes the trip even better. Most geoscientists that I speak to have a list of places that they want to go. So that is the question for this poll. Which geologic attraction is highest on your list to visit.

The Grand Canyon from the South Rim (Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Roger Bolsius)

Obviously, I can’t include them all so feel free to add yours in the comment box and I’ll do my best to add it as an option in the poll. Or, if you’d like to debate the merits of your choice back it up in the comments. To see the way the winds of choice are blowing click the view results link at the bottom of the poll. By the way, you only get to vote once on this one so make it count!

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GeoPoll # 1 – What does a geology education need?

I’d like to inaugurate a new series of posts, that will pop up on a semi-regular basis, namely, whenever I feel like it. Since day 1 of this blog, even way back in my pre-EGU days, I have tried to encourage participation from readers. To date, the only way for you to engage with me is to comment. However, in reality, not that many people are  so moved that they feel like responding directly. Certainly, the proportion of readers to commenters is easily around 100:1, if not more when you take comments from family members out (haha, kidding).

Picard Engage - IT's TIME TO ENGAGE!

Therefore, to try and encourage involvement and hopefully even spur some discussion from time to time I’ll be posting a poll every so often. The plan is that I’ll write the question. It could be serious or humorous or even a bit of both. Question and answer suggestions are very welcome. I’ll also post a variety of answers that ideally will cover a range of opinions. Hopefully, with these informal opinion polls we can generate some interesting discussions and see how people feel about issues that geologists care about. The first test of the poll system a few weeks ago in my post about vadose zone modelling generated over 30 responses, so I am going to call that a success and continue polling.

This weeks poll to kick things off concerns a topic that every geoscientist should have an opinion on. Namely, what key items are necessary for a good geology education? My personal undergrad geology experience included almost all of these things and certainly lots of number 3. However, that does not mean they are truly integral to producing a geologist. Indeed, what could be dropped from a geoscience education without compromising the quality of education and what could not?

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Just a minor note, click the “view results” button on the poll to see how everyone is voting, and if you would like to add a response you can do so in the “other” box or in the comment section to start some more in depth discussion on the topic.

Happy opining!