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Andrew Alden

Geologists Should Expose Themselves to Art

By November 23, 2012

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Geoscience is a hard field, starting with its central topic, rocks. Scientific work at its cutting edge calls upon the most advanced chemistry, solid-matter physics, biology and biochemistry. It requires excellent computer skills, rigorous thinking, a lawyer's grasp of argument, a philosopher's judgment in assessing the relation of evidence to reality. It requires a mastery of sophisticated equipment, decisiveness in the field, a knack for improvising effective tools and experiments. And on top of that, geology thrives on imagination, visualization and a visceral feeling for dynamics.

The same is true for the arts. To make fresh, sound new work on a consistent basis takes a will of flint, the delicacy of fossilization, the equilibrium of a talus pile, the persistence of a glacier and sometimes the abandon of a landslide. Artists have a lot in common with geoscientists—indeed, I know some outstanding geologists who started out with degrees in the arts.

One of those who I don't personally know is Johanna Kieniewicz, the writer of the PLOS blog At the Interface. In her most recent post, "Why scientists should care about art," she argues that actual collaborations between artists and scientists, even to the point of spending institutional funds on them, are valuable to scientists in four ways: they bring out the cultural penumbra of scientific problems, improve communication skills, recalibrate visualization habits and are fun.

I would go a little farther. There's a widespread idea among the public that scientists are enemies of wonder, while the truth is that scientists are expert wonderers. Wonder is the very engine of science, and all the skills and talents I mentioned earlier serve to harness it to good scientific ends. That is true of artists in the same way, and I think the two communities can have mutually fruitful exchanges.

Earth art and Earth science
A geologist's life in "Another Year"
Geology poetry
Geology songs and music


November 26, 2012 at 10:47 am
(1) Wayne says:

So glad to see this published on About Geology! Both art and science can mutually benefit from each other. We added artwork to my book, “Carving Grand Canyon” and thus exposed artists to some wonderful aspects of science. Scientists loved the attention they received from the artists.

Thank you for speaking out on this and here’s to more collaborations between science and art!

November 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm
(2) Tom Salzer says:

In writing about my first significant gold discovery, I noted at the time that I was pondering Goethe’s theory of colors. That perspective helped me. Quote from my blog: “About this time I was also thinking about Goethe and his theory of colors. He believed it was the contrast between light and dark that created colors. I had a flash of intuition that looking at the actual metal values was masking the contrast between families of metals. Analogy: it is not the elevation of a mountain that makes it stand out, but how high it is compared to the land around it. It is the contrast between the mountain and the landscape that lets us see it as a mountain.”

November 26, 2012 at 12:49 pm
(3) Barb says:

If artists and scientists can’t get together, have them look at “Earth As Art” from USGS, or watch a lava-lamp, or better yet, watch a volcano in action. Or examine rocks with lots of crystals. Or watch Sheldon pick on “dirt people” (earth science people) on Big Bag Theory!! Or the wind blowing a tree, or snow into a drift. Geez….ART IS EVERYWHERE!!!

November 26, 2012 at 7:28 pm
(4) GVonRudenborg says:

OK so maybe that explains why I as an architect find geology and the sciences so interesting. However I’d run into a solid rock wall with basic chemistry let alone advanced chemistry, solid matter physics unless it applies to structural design in buildings, and forget about biology and biochemistry!! I do love to wonder abut the rocks I scrounge and I appreciate their aesthetics and geometry. I do have the imagination, visualization, and visceral feel for dynamics though would not be good at putting numbers to the last item. I’ll stick to architecture and still maintain my wonder and appreciation for the sciences. Carl aka GVonRudenborg

November 27, 2012 at 4:05 pm
(5) Bill Pullar says:

Dear Mr. Alden
Your article about geologists and artists immediately brought to my mind a recent article in “The Edinburgh Geologist” , Issue 52, Autumn 2012. It is entitled “Geology in the Pre-Raphalite Landscape: William Dyce’s ‘Pegwell Bay’ “, by Alexis Drahos and Christine Thompson.
(www.edinburghgeolsoc.org) for copy

November 28, 2012 at 1:04 pm
(6) T.Devitt says:

There is great collaberation between physics buffs and artists now on display …it’s amazing!!! As an artist it was always important to me to know at least some of the science..understanding something allows me to capture the feeling / imagery of the subject to a greater degree than otherwise…and besides its fun and interesting to:)

here’s the link to msn article about it http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/49971707/ns/technology_and_science-science/

cheers everyone have a safe and happy holiday season….

February 26, 2013 at 5:51 am
(7) M. Ellefsen says:

Very interesting. I’m a geologist who always wanted to be an artist – or maybe I was always an artist who accedentally became a geologist? I have have always felt split between the two. Never felt enough like one nor the other – and therefore lingering somewhere in the middle. In no-mans land. But maybe it is time for me to accept that I am both – and can be both.

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