Friday
10 August
2:47pm

Wars of the Rock Doctors

I'm the son of a geologist, so while I've never studied the science to any useful degree I have an innate sense of geological time and the importance of rocks. It's a strange sense to have, really, because while geology is everywhere, literally the planet we live on, and stretches back to the beginning of time, what we know about it is relatively piecemeal and disputed, possibly precisely because it covers everything that ever was, and that's a lot.

A couple of nice examples of feuding geologists have appeared in The Atlantic recently.

Geology’s Timekeepers Are Feuding looks at how Stratigraphers, those who name geological eras, associating each rock layer with a specific stretch of time, are dealing with the widespread acceptance of the Anthropocene, marking the epoc of significant human impact on the Earth, while we are still living in the Holocene, marked in part by the rise of humans. Does the Holocene have to end in order for the Anthropocene to begin? It might seem irrelevant to you, but you're not a geologist.

The Nastiest Feud in Science shows how a science exploring geological timescales can shift and change dizzyingly fast and never really be agreed upon. Things we take for granted now were quite recently unknown, such as plate tectonics, only fully accepted in the 1960s. Dinosaur extinction by giant asteroid, formally known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, is another strangely recent idea, only proposed in the 1980s though very quickly accepted. It surprised me to learn there are eminent geologists who see the asteroid theory as a flawed rush to judgement, and who have been bitterly attacked for doing so.

It seems if you need a case-study for Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions which, briefly, states that the practice of science, being undertaken by humans, is affected by social structures and dynamics, geology would be perfect. Because unlike those scientific disciplines where evidence is abundant in the moment, geology is building from the barest of scraps. You cannot observe changes over geological time, you can only see the effects of those changes, and while you can make some pretty solid inferences from those observations there's going to be a significant amount missing. And that can lead to feuds.


Previous post
Are You Satisfied? August 8, 2018
Next post
Hedgehog! August 16, 2018