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The Dark Art of regional geology

A friend and mentor of mine delights in telling me, ‘Tony, make no mistake: geology is a Dark Art!’ He should know I guess, since this dubious practice has taken him to the upper echelons of the oil industry. Furthermore, many of you reading this will know immediately what he means. There’s something a bit suspect, a bit smoke and mirrors about geology. It’s far too imprecise to be a real science, right?

But what’s so dark about it? Well, perhaps it’s because you sometimes have to conjure something out of almost nothing. Perhaps it’s because what you conjure up is kind of counterfeit, a bit suspicious, and very seldom the product you were expecting. Or perhaps it’s because not everyone approves of the results of our art, which includes the black stuff that — for a lot of us — pays our wages. And let’s not forget, we are the Dirt People, as theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper haughtily declared in The Big Bang Theory.

Why an art? Well, geology wasn’t originally a recognizable science at all, more the preserve of leisured aristocrats and clergymen who saw geology as an extension of theology. Even now, a disproportionate number of geologists seem to moonlight as painters, poets, or musicians. More than most sciences, geology is about imagination and creativity. It uses diverse media and initially unpromising materials to create a credible picture — pretty much the way an artist does. So yes, it’s a bona fide Dark Art. And it’s my contention that regional geology is the darkest art of all.

But wait, you say. Geology’s not like that anymore. The solitary visionary trying to reconstruct ancient worlds with a hammer and a grubby map — that doesn’t represent geology now. Our discipline has entered a new domain where it’s far more precise, more analytical, more experimental. Or as I read somewhere a few years back, ‘Geology has now moved out of the field and into the laboratory’.

Well, if that’s true, I for one am going back to playing my guitar. But I suppose I know what they mean. Things have changed unrecognizably over the last few decades. Laboratory analyses, 3D seismic volumes, limitless processing power, and infinitely flexible workstation techniques have given us unprecedented scope for analysis and precision. That kind of precision is pretty important in the petroleum industry when it comes to pinpointing the remaining oil in a field, or guiding a horizontal well along a thin sandstone layer. A new breed of geologist has even arisen to ride this wave. I think of them as the Detail People.

I truly respect the Detail People. ‘God is in the details,’ we’re often told. And how can you not admire someone who knows how to focus the technology on the tiniest forensic points, relentlessly interrogating them until they beg for mercy and finally yield their story? Not least, I love the Detail People because they can do something I can’t. Maybe due to a chronic lack of patience, my own grasp of detail has never been wonderful.

However, there’s one thing that many of the Detail People can’t do, and that’s envisage the big picture. In my current company role of roaming advisor and busybody I see this often. I might, for example, find myself sitting with an interpreter who is coaxing beautiful 3D renderings of depositional systems from a seismic volume, but who doesn’t know — or particularly care — what happens just outside the block, let alone what the tectonic setting in the Late Cretaceous was.

This isn’t a rare occurrence — it’s almost the norm. Furthermore, it’s not unreasonable. As you spread your net wider things get fuzzier, more hypothetical, the unique solutions disappear, and that makes people more reluctant to commit. It’s time to summon a devotee of the Dark Art. This is their domain. It’s a murky, uncertain place, but it’s also where many big discoveries are made.

This essay continues in The Dark Art’s great payoff.


Acknowledgments
Sheldon Cooper is quoted from The Big Bang Theory season 4, episode 15. “The Benefactor Factor” aired on 10 February 2011.

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