Geology classroom

This page is a work in progress. You comments are welcome, given that proviso.    GDT

In this part of this website my aim is to create a virtual classroom for teaching geology. It will be my classroom, not within the structure or authority of any school or other institution. I will then be free to teach what I think and feel is important, and you will be free to take it or leave it as you see fit.

This page, and the ones that will follow will be on-going works in progress. I will take up the work in serendipitous order, while trying to keep it within a framework.

This page will be a kind of Preface, to be followed by sections I am tentatively calling Introduction, External Processes, Internal Processes, and Conclusions. Wow! That’s really creative.

In the following Preface, which I have already written, I advance a rationale for doing this.

There are two kinds of people who need to understand how science works: people who are scientists and people who are not. That pretty well covers it.

I believe it would be a “good thing” if these two classes of people held the same view of what science is and does. Failing that, it is best to strive for the closest similarities we can achieve, understanding that professionals in any field will always hold and express a more elaborate, if not actually more sophisticated view of their life-time work than the non-professional looking on from the sidelines. The same is true in sports or art or the law or plumbing, for that matter.

My 40+ year career as a scientist has been spent at the frontier between scientist and non-scientist. More precisely, at the point of departure from each other of the aspiring scientist and aspiring non-scientist. That is to say, in a college classroom, a place where you have no business being if you don’t aspire to something, teaching classes that were required for geology majors but were mainly aimed at satisfying general education requirements for non-majors. Many people feel that this is an impossible thing to do!

To me, the most important thing to teach anyone about any science is how it works. History has proven that the product knowledge of science is changeable to the extent that managing that change has become a defining characteristic of science.

This is important both science majors and the non-majors. For the science majors, the basic “how it works” question  frequently comes so easily at such an early stage that they may not even remember learning it. The introductory course is the point of departure into “what to do” with “how it works”.  Here is a personal example.

I never had to learn about contour lines and contour maps. I understood the first one I ever saw. Immediately! (At least, that is my recollection now.) It came as a total surprise to me that many of my students just couldn’t grasp what the maps were showing. I saw hills and valleys. They saw a bowl of spaghetti. Learning how to teach about contour lines, I was forced to confront the whole problem of how lines on a sheet of paper that the eye sees can become a three dimensional image in the mind. Sitting in a beginning geology lab, drawing a profile of the Grand Canyon, it was easy for me to think of myself as “smart” compared to those around me who were puzzled. But who was smarter? The students who saw actual sheets of paper with lines or the student who saw a virtual image in his mind that was not actually there? The same question could be asked of students in a physics lab, some of whom see the equations as mapping the physical motions of a ball rolling down the plane,  while other are completely befuddled by trying to imagine a square second.

It is also the last common experience they have with people for whom “how it works” is a mystery.

For the non-majors, from this same common experience they need to acquire direct knowledge of the nuts and bolts of this very important activity that they will, in fact, be supporting through taxes, profits or contributions, for the balance of their productive live. Professional scientists need always to bear in mind that in addition to being enormously productive and beneficial to society, in a day-to-day survival frame of reference, science is a luxury that somebody else pays for. I suppose it would be contradictory to refer to science as a vitally necessary luxury, but I think the contradiction captures the dilemma.

Elsewhere on this website I have discussed the basic nature of science as I understand it. Quoting myself, “Science is an organized activity for going about the business of changing your mind about what you think you already know!” Here, I will be elaborating on how we apply this statement to the defining question of geology “How did the Earth get to be the way that it is?”

We are all born onto the Earth and learn to live here. In that process, consciously and unconsciously, we necessarily develop ideas about the way the Earth is and how it got to be that way. Sometimes these ideas are well articulated and expressed through the culture, particularly in the religious dimension. But even for people who do not have such a well articulated view, there is still a set of ideas about the place we all live. You could not walk down the street, or make a date for tomorrow afternoon unless you made some assumptions about the stability of the ground under your feet and the regularity of the day/night cycle.

Since the invention of the written word, it has been possible for humans to read what other humans living in a previous time have thought about things like the Earth. You have to be cautious while doing this, because words change meaning and new words get invented over the centuries. But even with these problems, it becomes clear as the human community acquires new experience and knowledge that many things that people said about the Earth in earlier times were simply not true.

A parallel thing happens in the life of each individual. You learn from your experience, and what you thought about the world and how it works needs to be revised, edited, corrected and updated. So changing your mind about what you think you already know is, in fact, a common experience. It amounts to learning from experience itself. The only thing odd about science is that we do this on purpose. When we are doing our best work, we are arranging to have experiences that will possibly contradict our ideas. That is called the doctrine of falsifiability.

Here is a list of core ideas about the Earth that seem to me to held in common by many people.

The Earth is now the way it always has been, and that is the way it should be.

If something has changed, it is because somebody changed it and it should be changed back.

To change it back, find the persons who changed it, and punish them.

Change, however, was happening at an ever accelerating rate with human cultures themselves. Writing and reading, then printing, exploration of other lands, gunpowder and steam engines. With so much change going on it became easier to think of changes in the Earth itself. Some scholarly people began to think of the Earth as a book from which we could glean a history that preceded written history, if we could learn to read it.

My goal in teaching, in my professional life that I am now retired from, and now on this website, is to pass along to you the skills of reading the Earth’s history.

Introduction follows.


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