Geodiversity and A Sense of ‘Place’

Maybe it’s why I have such an attachment to Turner and van Dyck. Maybe it’s why I did geology. But it’s certainly why I want to work with natural heritage and the outdoors.
I have always had a strong sense of ‘place’ in the landscape. I was raised in a town in East Lothian, a beautiful area of Scotland with rolling hills, great Carboniferous geology and a strong sense of history in the archaeology of the area. I also spent a lot of time across Scotland looking at rocks in various place as well as visiting many castles and historic houses and gardens as a child with my mum. Later when studying geology at university we had at least one long field trip a year, many of which were to Scotland and all of which were to stunning areas of natural beauty. I think this helped develop a strong sense of ‘place’ in me, in completely natural and ‘untouched’ environments of which you find many in Scotland, and therefore remains somewhere I think I will always want to return to.
So it is no surprise that artists who paint landscapes make me feel so happy when I look at them. I can stare for ages at the scenes, a moment captured in time, which encapsulates parts of the natural and human landscape at the time, and implies that the people working the land are as intrinsic to it as the trees and the rivers that run through them. Interestingly enough, Geoscientist (the fellowship magazine of the Geological Society) also had an article this month that touched on the subject of painting the dynamic and geological landscapes of the 19th century. The article focuses on Thomas Moran, who was different from Turner or van Dyck in that he painted landscapes generally devoid of human interactions, focusing on the natural forces that shaped the landscape such as water and wind. It was also due to his personal interest in geology that made him delve into the realms of his artistic subject, and I think that oddly enough the interpretation of the natural forces in his paintings make the environments almost more surreal, and some have compared his paintings to Dante’s Inferno and his journey through hell. But don’t let this put anyone off who fancies a quick jaunt into the geological countryside! I think that in communicating the actions of natural forces in creating the landscape at that time – and still probably today – it gives the onlooker a sense of wonder and awe.

Geodiversity is extremely important. It describes the diversity within abiotic nature and gives it a name with which people can relate to the idea that it is important. Biodiversity is a ‘buzz’ word and wherever it is used people will automatically feel that this ‘place’ is to be conserved. What about the geology of the area? Not only the geology but the records of the geomorphological processes that have created the landscape we see today on top of which the archaeology produced by our ancestors has barely scraped the surface. Without this diversity we would not be able to live on this planet. It describes the beginning of the Earth and life on the planet; the massive processes that have formed our continents and oceans; the minerals, rocks and fossils that hold out mineral wealth in the form of ore and fossil fuel resources; the climates the planet endures many of which we have learned to thrive in such as rivers, coastal environments, glaciation, deserts and finally the record of continual processes like weathering and formation of soils.

We value these diverse materials, landforms and processes in many ways as the resources that the Earth’s geodiversity gives us is used in every aspect of life from manufacturing almost everything to art materials (and inspiration) to household goods like toothpaste, plaster and of course fuel. We therefore value these resources for their economic and functional purposes, and in tune with this for their research purposes – without research into these materials we would not have these resources to exploit and use in out daily lives. With research also comes education, we need to pass on our knowledge of these resources to future generations and hope that they can get even more information out of these than we previously have. We have already discussed how artists have used landscapes as inspiration for many works of art, but  the aesthetics of geodiversity can extend to tourism – many people travel from all over the world to climb mountains in Scotland and other areas across the world – but the landscape is also of importance to the people who live there all year round. As I began this piece, the landscape and ‘place’ of my area of Scotland is very important to me and holds lots of great memories of which the geology is an intrinsic part of them. Therefore we also associate with these areas cultural values, across the world there are geologically important sites that attract spiritual value to landscapes or forms such as Uluru in Australia or the North American Indians to areas of Central North America. This links with the history of the people who have been associated with the landscape through time, recorded in our history books as well as archaeological remains (as I mentioned are present in my local area too). People interact directly with the landscapes they are attached to and many like to collect pieces of their ‘place’ to keep with them at all times. I think all humans have minor cases of kleptomania, but some definitely more than others. People who collect part of our geodiversity do not have to assign meaning to the objects, and definitely do not have to alter the object in any way from the original state in which it was found. This makes geological collections very different from other collections in that they are still very much part of the landscape they came from when they have been in a collection for 100 years or 2.

In my personal collection, a lot of the specimens are from places I have been and collected them from in Scotland, making the majority of the collection Scottish and attached to that ‘place’. Some of the material has been bought or given to me by other collectors, but the main value to me is that I have personally found many of the specimens. Other famous collections and collectors have specific interests that can sometimes be related to a specific ‘place’ such as Arthur Russell’s collection held at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM). His collection represents Britain’s mineralogy and holds many of the best examples of British minerals. I am currently working with this collection and I always get more excited and awed when I remember that these amazing minerals are from where I live, or better still from somewhere I know and have been in Scotland. I recently got very over excited when I found a (not even particularly visually stunning) specimen that was from the area of my geology dissertation on the Isle of Skye and part of the metasomatic zone around the large granite intrusion of Beinn an Dubhaich at the centre of my area. Funnily enough, of all the visually stunning and historically important specimens I have held and worked with in his collection so far, that is the one I remember the most.

Some museums do capitalise on local collections, such as Wanlockhead Museum of Lead Mining in the Leadhills, Scotland which not only helps you discover the geology of the surrounding area (including getting down to do a bit of gold panning) but it also has the mine and the old miners homes open to the public to help visitors understand and connect to the entire history and culture of the area. As a child I visited Wanlockhead many times and always thoroughly enjoyed it. The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh houses a vast mineral collection, not much of which is now on display since the renovation and opening last summer. I know from discussion with the research curator of mineralogy there that the collections held, studied and continually collected are focused on Scottish material but this is not reflected well in the public displays of the museum. The museum’s public display focuses on educating the public about the formation of the Earth and the geological processes that have shaped it since then. The gallery is very good in my opinion and has some great specimens on display, but personally I feel that the museum is missing out on a fantastic opportunity to get people involved in what’s out in their back yards! Edinburgh especially has fantastic geology on its doorstep (Arthur’s Seat) and by simply connecting visitors with what’s right there in front of them could easily give them more inspiration to go out and learn more about it. I know from Russell’s collection at the NHM that Scotland has a wealth of beautiful and fascinating minerals and rocks out there – so why don’t we see them?

I can’t answer the question now, but I can’t help but feel that we could learn a lot from understanding the links between ‘place’ and geological collections better – and even between other ‘places’ and heritage collections. Is there anything to gain from better linking together collections with localities to benefit collection’s management, educational and scientific point of view? Lets hope someone finds out soon!

Who Is My Favourite Science Writer?

This piece was featured in The Science World Daily on the 26th April 2012.

One day I was thinking about a quote in Terry Pratchett’s novel Lords and Ladies describing elves:

“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.

Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.

Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.

Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.

Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.

Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning. No one ever said elves are nice. Elves are bad.” 

My initial reaction when reading this was a feeling of miniature revelation. I love the way in which a writer can look at not just the world but the English language in a way that others can’t.

This past month the Wellcome Trust were holding a science writing prize, for which I entered, but this is not what this story is about. As food for thought they posted lots of blogs written by well known science writers talking about their favourite piece of science writing. One post was the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis not actually a piece of science writing at all: 

Although Pratchett is not a science writer but instead a fantasy novelist, he manages to tackle the subject of science particularly well in his books. The way he portrays attitudes about science in society brings a well needed element of humour into science.

He has discussed geology and palaeontology:

“The entire universe has been neatly divided into things to (a) mate with, (b) eat, (c) run away from, and (d) rocks.”
Terry Pratchett

“You’re not allowed to call them dinosaurs any more,” said Yo-less. “It’s speciesist. You have to call them pre-petroleum persons.”
Terry Pratchett, Johnny and the Bomb

Personally, I love when geology crops up in his novels, because it is a common perception that rocks are, well, rocks.  They are not associated with many interesting features (a definite misconception!). Pratchett manages to not only express the common opinion of ‘all rocks are boring’ but effectively contends this with the fact that they contribute so much to our knowledge of life, the Earth and many of the things in it. He actively challenges your own ignorance in many facts or opinions, making you laugh along the way. A particular favourite quote of mine was where he talked about species’ innate love of iron:

“And that’s what the stones contained. The love of iron. A love so strong that it drew all iron things to itself. the three dwarfs who found the first of the rocks only got free by struggling out of their chain mail trousers.

Many worlds are iron at the core. But the Discworld is as coreless as a pancake. On the disc, if you enchant a needle it will point to the Hub…Elsewhere, on worlds designed with less imagination, the needle turns because of the love of iron.”  – Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

The reason I feel this is so poignant is that I for one took for granted our utter dependency on metal – particularly the oldest of all metallic discoveries – iron.  Our ‘love’ of iron has led us to discover the world by navigating across the seas and much later, to be used in computer screens, electric motors and much more. Pratchett has a gift for taking the ‘overlooked’ parts of our society and rebuilding them from scratch, making you go back to basics in your understanding of the world. Partly, I think, this works as Discworld is set in their present, but in our past. This allows Pratchett to address science and society from a fresh perspective, talking in ‘real time’ for the Discworld and allowing you to see the science, traditions and opinions that we take for granted unravel in the course of the series.

Pratchett also talks about the basics of physics, which from a personal point of view makes a subject that can be pretty tricky, much, much easier to understand:

“In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.”

– Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

“Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order, because it is better organized.”
Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

“In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.
— Schrodinger’s Moggy explained”

Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies

“The only things known to go faster than ordinary light is monarchy, according to the philosopher Ly Tin Weedle. He reasoned like this: you can’t have more than one king, and tradition demands that there is no gap between kings, so when a king dies the succession must therefore pass to the heir *instantaneously*. Presumably, he said, there must be some elementary particles — kingons, or possibly queons — that do this job, but of course succession sometimes fails if, in mid-flight, they strike an anti-particle, or republicon. His ambitious plans to use his discovery to send messages, involving the careful torturing of a small king in order to modulate the signal, were never fully expanded because, at that point, the bar closed.”
Terry Pratchett, Mort

His quotes are based on facts, and a core understanding of the subject area he is dealing with. This means that it is all the more entertaining to read, you get the impression that this is a man who has done his homework, and is able to then break this down and re-invent it in another world, from a different perspective. For me, the worst case scenario is an author who doesn’t understand the scientific (or societal) matter they are trying to discuss. This only leads to confusion and misrepresentation in the wider public reader community.

What he also manages to get spot on is the ‘science’ of people. The causal nature of events and attitudes in the world are mirrored spectacularly in the Discworld:

“There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.
The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass! Who’s been pinching my beer?
And at the other end of the bar the world is full of the other type of person, who has a broken glass, or a glass that has been carelessly knocked over (usually by one of the people calling for a larger glass) or who had no glass at all, because he was at the back of the crowd and had failed to catch the barman’s eye. ”

Terry Pratchett, The Truth

“Cutangle: While I’m still confused and uncertain, it’s on a much higher plane, d’you see, and at least I know I’m bewildered about the really fundamental and important facts of the universe.
Treatle: I hadn’t looked at it like that, but you’re absolutely right. He’s really pushed back the boundaries of ignorance.
They both savoured the strange warm glow of being much more ignorant than ordinary people, who were only ignorant of ordinary things.”

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites

“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”
Terry Pratchett

Although none of these quotes are technically dealing with science, Pratchett has given me the chance to rethink a few fundamentals of science and achieve a new insight into the way the universe works. In a way, it highlights the ridiculousness of the universe and the people in it (including your own possibly ignorant views) and makes you question any previous scintific/societal assumptions. But this just makes our world all the more fascinating to be part of. When reading his books, I feel I am being educated about our own society and world events, as well as being captivated by an engaging storyline and believable characters.

There are hundreds more quotes I would like to be able to put in this short post…but if you are intrigued, you might as well be better just reading the books yourself.

So to conclude this (rather shabby) evaluation of an author’s work, I would have to say my favourite science writer is Terry Pratchett, although not in a conventional sense, and his engaging prose has led me to read his complete Discworld series.