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What is a geologist?

Well, what is a geologist? I recall — and like — a definition I read once, something like: a geologist is ‘one who studies the earth.’ It’s an all-encompassing definition, but it brings to mind the key aspect of what we do as geologists or geoscientists: we observe, we study the earth.

I like that this definition does not constrain who a geologist must be — there is no mention of university degrees, accreditations, experience, and so on. It does not specify the exact discipline within the field of geology — one could be a geophysicist, an engineer, a hydrologist, a geotechnical practitioner, and so on. One could be working in any field such as oil and gas, mining, water, aggregates, construction, archeology, or a world of others. The definition does not dictate very much in fact, other than the necessity of studying the earth.

The early geologists

The definition reminds me of the early naturalists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. I think of people like William Smith (1769–1839), the canal builder, who developed the concept of stratigraphy from looking at rocks all over Britain. The results of Smith’s work — his 1815 Strata map — is shown below. And Nicolas Steno (1638–1686), a geologist turned Catholic bishop, who compared modern shark teeth to objects found in rocks and considered the objects to be ancient shark teeth. What unified such early geologists was their abundant curiosity, their use of keen observation, and their development of insightful interpretations. And they did so, remarkably, without the rich heritage of scientific context that we enjoy today. Indeed many did so against formidable cultural obstacles.

My theme here is to point out that geology is an unusual science, a visually driven observational science. For the most part, it is not dominated by mathematics, calculations, experiments, and such. Geologists do collaborate with many disciplines, however, and some geo-work falls fully within other areas. The geosciences are distinguished from other sciences by the level of interpretation required to deal with limited data and the fourth dimension of time.

Art or science?

Does this level of interpretation make geology an art? Not really, but it perhaps inhabits a space somewhere between art and rigorous, hard science. It is the combination of observed data and an artful interpretation of typically incomplete data and an inability to be sure of what exactly happened in geological history.

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What is a great geologist?

You are a geologist

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