As a geologist, I often take for granted the years of practice I’ve had comprehending geologic processes and time. Earth is not the same as it was 4.54 billion years ago (birth of Earth), 65 million years ago (Dino extinction) or even 21,000 years ago (the Last Glacial Maximum), and it’s not easy for humans to grasp changes that occur on timescales much, much longer than our lifespans. Things have changed: oceans once existed where there is now land; strange animals, like t-rex, [giant] megafauna beaver, and my personal favorite, the terrifyingly large megalodon, once prowled the planet; and Antarctica once played home to tropical plants and animals. And things will continue to change.
My mind was blown when my Geology 101 “rocks for jocks” professor stretched a piece of string across the 200-seat lecture hall with ticks for important events in Earth’s history illustrating that earthly human habitation barely stretched one cm at the end of the string. While not exactly the same, the clock below may serve to similarly blow all your minds (or not, if you live and breathe this stuff everyday). But if you react anything like me, this kind of analogy is a strong eye-opener for how little our species has experienced on earth.
But geologists don’t shrink away from that realization–we thrive in it. Geology is a science because, well, humans simply don’t understand very much about Earth’s history. We know a hell of a lot more than we did 100 years ago… For example, scientists once believed a great flood was responsible for the appearance of marine fossils and rocks on the summits of the world’s highest mountains, but we now know that these rocks and fossils were deposited in ancient oceans and then uplifted through plate tectonics… But there is always another piece to the puzzle to sink our crazy geologist teeth into, and we can’t wait to see what we find next.
I think we all have an innate curiosity about the world around us (geologist or no), and John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World is a perfect example of geologic curiosity spilling over into the non-geology world. Annals of the Former World is a non-fiction masterpiece about the geologic history of North America. When I first picked up this book, per the requirements of an undergraduate course, I was admittedly a bit grumbly. But McPhee’s writing was incredible and, while not a geologist, his ability to write about geology in an extremely approachable way astonished me. I was already a geology major, but McPhee’s writing would have sent me running to geology faster than a One Direction fan running to a meet-and-greet.
“When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” --John McPhee, Annals of the Former World
The passage above is one of my favorite’s from McPhee. After spending a paragraph explaining, in great detail, how the summit of Mt. Everest evolved through time, he very bluntly [and humorously] sums it up: “The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.” McPhee does this throughout Annals of the Former World, and I love him for it. Geology is serious business, but we do like to have some fun.