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Improving the Geologic Conversation

The Century in Review


Wm Logan, antique geologist

William Logan, state-of-the-art geologist before 1900 . . .

Geological Survey Canada
The 20th century didn't just change geology, it changed the way geologists do their work by making it easier to talk.

Geology the Old Way

Back in 1900, most science was done the way you still see in cartoons—the solo researcher toiling in a cluttered lab. Electronics hadn't been invented, and "computer" was the job title of people who worked mechanical adding machines.

In geology, fieldwork—banging hammers on outcrops—reigned supreme. There was no unified theory about the positions and histories of the continents, no firm idea of the Earth's age, no understanding of how minerals are organized at the molecular level. Seismometers were a crude curiosity, and the deep Earth was a total blank. But mainly, geology was a slow-paced conversation among a small number of general practitioners, a few thousand people in the whole world.

The advances of the 1900s completely transformed the field. Now geologists, in their millions, are all Earth science specialists. But the 20th-century revolution in geology I want to talk about was in communication.

How Things Have Changed

A hundred years ago, the fastest means of travel was rail on land and steamships on the ocean. If you wanted to attend a meeting overseas, it took a month out of your calendar, maybe more. Nowadays, you can get to almost anywhere important in a single day.

A hundred years ago, the fastest way to send someone a message was by telegraph, using the bleeding-edge transoceanic cable network. You could reach almost anywhere important in a single day, if you paid enough. Locally, the telephone was faster, but not everyone had a phone. Today, you can phone or email almost anyone from almost anywhere for almost nothing.

Given those factors a hundred years ago, the primary means geologists used to communicate with each other were scientific journals, books and private letters. All of those are much faster today, but professionals exchange the really important news electronically, in formal and informal email lists and on preprint sites such as arXiv.org. And more and more, they carry out business with Twitter, blogs, texting and other new applications.

The Rise of Teams

With all of these developments, face-to-face meetings and worldwide collaborations are easy today. To see what that means, consider a small example, an issue of Geology. Of 23 articles, only 2 have one author, and of the other 21 papers only 3 have authors from the same institution.

Here's what it means: the normal research project in the twenty-first century is a team effort involving more than one organization. Team science is better science because no one person has to know it all. And different ways of thinking and styles of working, many of which stem from cultural and gender differences, often get around the failures of insight that can affect a single researcher.

New Ways of Meeting

Email, Internet databases, and the phone help this scientific work proceed. But to make the work truly succeed, only getting together in person will do. A century of advances in transportation has made this most basic form of communication—talking to a roomful of colleagues, banging on the same outcrop, poring over the same sediment core together or simply musing over a pint—easier and more fruitful than ever.

Nowadays, with the right budget, you could probably spend the whole year on the road attending meetings. These range from the huge annual meetings of the Geological Society of America and the AGU to small, intensive workshops of specialists, such as the groundbreaking Penrose Conferences.

Some large meetings are recording talks for streaming on the Web. Now you don't have to be there to witness a presentation—but to ask a question, you must be. While there are more ways than ever for geoscientists to meet remotely, at the moment there is still no substitute for being face to face and seeing eye to eye.

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