I was trawling through Twitter during my lunch hour the other day and came across a random blog on fossils by an amateur palaeontologist (I forget which blog, apologies) and it suddenly occurred me: in how many other sciences can you have people who call themselves amateurs?
In geology, amateur collectors, fossil hunters, palaeontologists, mineralogists, petrologists (probably not volcanologists though) are commonplace, and it is perfectly acceptable to be a respected member of the geological community as an amateur – provided you get your facts right. The amateur community is very influential in geology, as collectors often have important specimens that would be extremely useful to professionals or museums. And yet, I had never really thought about how in other sciences you don’t generally find amateur physicists, biologists, chemists and so on.Being an amateur in these professions is regarded less highly than an amateur geologist and generally classed as more of an interest rather than ‘amateur’.
It may seem like a pretty minor observation but I think it hints at something bigger, an accessibility associated with geoscience that doesn’t exist so much in other sciences. Not because other sciences are less interesting or fun but because of the nature of the work involved in becoming part of the profession is more difficult: its easy to go rock collecting in your spare time using a notebook, rock hammer and hand lens (even a microscope if you happen to have one) to find out about the geological history of an area but accessing chemicals, a hadron collider (OK, a bit excessive) or dissecting animals are not household activities.
Geology is easy to pick up and get excited about. You really can’t get away from it no matter where you look, buildings made of stone (or derived from rock materials), landforms defined by the rocks and structures under your feet – even the vegetation you see is defined by the type of soils that it grows on, influenced by the rock’s chemistry. And of course there are fossils. Nothing is more exciting than finding your own little piece of preserved life from millions of years ago – especially if you are under 15! Getting kids into geology and becoming amateurs is incredibly easy because it can be a DIY discipline in many ways (not to understate geological research – which is essential and best left to the professionals!). Dinosaurs, volcanoes and life on Mars are pretty much some of the coolest things to study and geology covers all of them! Even once you may have retired from the profession it is tempting to keep those collections you have had for so long and remain a collector who actively uses and researchers their collection.
The problem with geology however is that it is not well enough known in the science arena. Not enough (high impact) science communication and public engagement connects broad audiences with geology, even with its fascinating hooks for many people. Although many kids will go through a stage of dinosaur-mania this does not always seem to last. Once you get older, I find that the engagement with geological sciences seems to trail off but pick up again when you become retired and like to go on ramblers walks or special interest groups.
Why is this? I really don’t know, but it may be to do with the fact that geology is an amalgamation of lots of other sciences that have been applied to earth problems so when it comes to science communication it seems to get left out because it is not necessarily a science in its own right. Silly, when the fact that you have a set of sciences that are already applied to awesome situations like volcanoes and mass extinctions you could use this to teach about chemistry and physics as well as geology. Maybe also unfortunately the demographic is ageing when it comes to geological societies. I know of a few clubs/societies for young geologists (below 18) and many for adults (comprising mostly over 60′s) but there is little in the way of societies or public engagement for anything in between specifically aimed at geology - not including university societies as involvement tends to cease after graduation.
Maybe the nature of the discipline in working for industry influences the amount of science communication in this area. Many who do a geology degree go on either to academia or industry meaning a high percentage of young graduates will be in commercial companies whose primary goal is to make money and not produce and disseminate knowledge like universities or other organisations.
I definitely think there is more room for high impact (i.e. large scale multidisciplinary publications such as Scientific American, Nature Blogs, the Guardian etc.) geology communication, and would love to know if anyone does know of groups that are led by a large cohort of young geology professionals, and why there appears to be less exciting high impact geology communication out there.