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.

I’m on TV!!

I’m on TV!!

About a year ago I was asked to appear as a guest on a kids television show about rocks and minerals called Finding Stuff Out. I was asked to come an talk about rocks, minerals, geology in general and how I got interested in geology. The show is for 8-10 year olds and it is truly fantastic! It has a really interesting format where kids actually ask questions and the host, Harrison, answers them with the help of experts (me), goes to places to find the answers or does experiments. In the end the show concludes with an answer to the question that started it all. In the case of my episode it was about diamonds.

I was fortunate enough to be involved in a significant amount of the show including the “gold” panning challenge and the final wrap up at the end of the show, which has a bit of a humorous slant to it!

This was my first experience filming anything let alone a full out TV show so I was not sure what to expect when I arrived at the studio in Montreal. The first thing I was given was a terrific lunch, so that was a nice way to start the afternoon off.

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Next I was shown to the set, which is incredible. See the pics below. It is truly amazing what the set designers and prop people can accomplish and I was pretty impressed. I was then given a script that had a few talking points. The actual dialog and what I say in the video is me speaking in my own words and basically making it up on the spot. This was pretty difficult so we would usually do a couple of takes as I polished my delivery a bit. All in all the 10 minutes of video that you see below took about 5-6 hours to shoot. The challenge section was by far the longest as we had to keep re-doing sections of the panning.

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There is also a lot of people watching as we would shoot each scene including sound people, script editors, prop people, cameramen…..and more. This was kind of a weird feeling since it felt like I was performing some sort of live show but I was supposed to be speaking directly to Harrison. I had to keep reminding myself not to worry about everyone else. Harrison, who looks younger than he actually is, was also fantastic. The guy is crazy talented and is a big part of making the show so interesting and popular. I had a great day shooting the episode and hopefully it won’t be my last experience with this sort of thing! Maybe I’ll do a video blog here or two when I finally finish my PhD!??

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I’ve edited the video above so it only includes parts of the show that I was in. There is lots more.

Hope you enjoy it!!

The Most Epic Unboxing Ever

The Most Epic Unboxing Ever

There is a strange phenomenon on the internet called unboxing. Unboxing is when a person receives a new package of something and takes a video or pictures of the process of opening it for the first time and posts it online.  Mostly, from what I can see, people “unbox” electronics or hockey cards or things of that nature. However, what I have today could be called the granddaddy of all unboxings; I have a series of photos of the unboxing and, initial stages of set-up of the University of Ottawa’s new, 3 million volt, accelerator mass spectrometer (AMS), which cost 5 million dollars. This takes opening your new laptop or that Sidney Crosby rookie card to a whole new level!!! The AMS will be housed in uOttawa’s new Advanced Research Complex.

The accelerator portion in its shipping container being transferred into our new building. (Photo: Dr. Liam Kieser)

The accelerator portion in its shipping container being transferred into our new building. (Photo: Dr. Liam Kieser)


Easy does it. Now pivot!!! (Photo: Dr. Liam Kieser

Since I am showing pictures of this incredible piece of equipment being installed I’ll explain a bit about what it is an how it is used as well. I use the AMS in my own work to analyze iodine-129, chlorine-36 and once or twice carbon-14. In short, tools that can be used for groundwater dating. However, the AMS is capable of analyzing for a huge range of isotopes and this allows its use a wide variety of disciplines from health science to homeland security.

The AMS works on the same principles and a regular mass spectrometer, but it has a few key differences that make it extremely powerful.



Lots of boxes to open. (Photo: Dr. Liam Kieser)


Once the boxes have been unloaded the building begins. It is like building an IKEA desk, but somehow more… (Photo: Dr. Liam Kieser)

The process of AMS analysis begins with the preparation of the samples, which involves large amounts of lab time in extremely clean conditions. Contamination of samples with unwanted isotopes is a real problem in AMS so great care has to be taken to prepare good samples. The sample is then mixed with niobium powder and pressed into a steel cartridge. The cartridge then gets loaded into the ion source where cesium ions get fired at the sample like shooting a gun. The Cs ions physically break bits of the sample off the cartridge and these get negatively ionized and accelerated out of the ion source towards the first magnet. 


Xiao-lei carefully taking the glass rings that are in the accelerator. These are to kill any free electrons that could escape from the stripper canal as well as keep the ions on a stable flight path. X-rays charged to 3 million volts are very bad! (Photo: Dr. Liam Kieser)


The glass rings all put together with the stripper canal in the centre. The stripper canal is where electron get stripped off the negative ions turning them into positive ions as well as keeping the ions on a straight and even flight path. (Photo: Dr. Liam Kieser)

This is what the ion source looks like. Up to 200 samples sit in the big wheel waiting their turn. The AMS control room is those windows in the background.

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Our fancy new SO-110 ion source. (Photo: Matt Herod)

Once the samples leave the ion source they are accelerated to the first bending magnet which can bend an incredible range of masses. From tritium to plutonium tri-fluoride.

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The first magnet looking towards the accelerator. (Photo: Matt Herod)

The next step is firing the ion into the particle accelerator that carries a charge of 3 million volts! Inside the accelerator is a passage called a stripper canal that pulls electrons off the ions turning them from negative into positive ions. The reason for this is that this allows us to get rid of interferences that normal mass spectrometers face. For example, chlorine-36 has an interference with sulphur-36 making it impossible to analyse using normal mass specs. Actually, our AMS has another modification that makes 36Cl analysis possible on a 3MV machine, which is generally considered too small for this isotope. Usually, 36Cl needs a much larger accelerator however, our isobar separator for anions (ISA) allows this. Once the ion leaves the stripper canal it is accelerated at very great speed into the next magnet.

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Dunh, dunh, dunh. This is the A in AMS! (Photo: Matt Herod)

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This is the biggest magnet I have ever seen!! It is over 3m long and weighs 18 tonnes! This is why the room needs an overhead crane. (Photo: Matt Herod)

Once the ions are redirected and isotopes are further separated by the magnet they are ready to be analyzed in either the Faraday cups for the common isotopes or the gas ionization detector for rare isotopes.

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Me, touching the Faraday cups. (Photo: Laurianne Bouchard)

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The gas ionization detector. This bad boy literally counts atoms as they come around yet another magnet and through a silicon nitride window. Once they enter the detector which is filled with gas they ionize it which leads to pulses of electricity that are counted. This is the end of the AMS!!! (Photo: Matt Herod)

Once the atoms are counted in the gas ionization detector their trip around the AMS is over! It is quite a journey and full of positives and negatives (haha, a little pun there). Seriously, though this gigantic instrument is used to quantify the smallest of small quantities and can very literally count atoms. The AMS has a massive number of possible uses and I’ll likely be posting about these as this new facility starts to ramp up in the next few months. In addition to the AMS we also have an SEM, microprobe, stable isotope equipment, two noble gas mass spectrometers, ICP-MS, LA-ICP-MS, ICP-AES and a host of other MS’s as well. There will be very few types of isotopes that we cannot analyze for and this facility will be one of the best in the world for this type of geological research. Stay tuned for further developments as we start to move in soon!



Some 2014 Ph.D Goal Setting

For my first post of the new year I thought it might be a good idea to make some resolutions, especially since everyone else is doing it. Part of doing graduate work is setting goals, ignoring those goals until the week before, and then working 22 hour days to achieve them. Ian, (my supervisor), if you’re reading this I swear that is just a joke!

Source –  “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham.

In all seriousness though I am hoping that 2014 will be a big year for me. My ultimate goal is to have hopefully defended by this time next year or at the very least submitted my thesis. Of course, I am falling into the obvious trap pictured below by publicly announcing my intent to finish within a year.

Source – “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham.

However, I think that if I set reasonable goals and work really damn hard I can get this thesis done. Hopefully, no major issues occur in the lab or elsewhere that delay things. The easiest way to accomplish this Herculean task is to break it down into somewhat more bite-sized chunks and tackle those one at a time. Trying to think of this as a whole will not help me accomplish anything. Luckily for me uOttawa accepts thesis’s? theses? that are composed of a collection of separate articles, which is the format that I’ll be using.

2014 Goals

– Finish paper on combustion technique – this is nearly done, just have to respond to the journal reviewer comments.

– Continue writing Fukushima paper. Getting there…..this one is not writing itself at the moment, but I am making slow progress every day. If you were at Goldschmidt 2013 you heard this talk.

– Finish all lab work related to iodine and 129I transfer in the Wolf Creek watershed and synthesize data – this is also nearly done, just a few more samples to run on the AMS. Of course the data synthesis and some statistical analysis will take some time.

– Write paper on Wolf creek watershed, make figures, etc.

– Data synthesis and writing of large scale Yukon watersheds project. Got a paper to write here now that I have all the data. Of course there is lots of work to do still on figure making and data analysis as well.

– Learn about noble gas extraction and fissionogenic xenon isotopes…also learn more about stats.

– Start combustion extractions of iodine in Bruce deep geologic repository site core and analyze on AMS and ICP-MS.

– Go to England and analyze xenon isotopes in Lancaster???? Not sure if this is happening yet. Fingers crossed!

–  Synthesise data and write paper on fissionogenic isotopes in ancient groundwater.

– Go to a conference, be it AMS13 in France, GSA in Vancouver, etc….or maybe go to two.

– Get some writing done at the cottage this summer!!!! Very important.

– Staple all this crap together and turn it in.

– Defend! Oh god, I hope this one happens in 2014!

I am flip-flopping between the last two panels at the moment! (Source) – “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham.

Wish me luck, oh yeah, I have to do some blogging here and there as well. On that vein, I would love to have a few more guest posts, since as you can see I am going to be busy this coming year. So if you read this, and are interested in sharing your research, please contact me in the comments or on twitter and we can arrange something.