Geology is a Murder Mystery

Research is all about investigating mysteries, trying to understand the What, When, Where, and How of the universe (not the Why — motivation is a question for philosophy). My very first research project was observing and writing an orbital determination for the asteroid 4 Flora as part of the Summer Science Program (then in Ojai, California). Although I hadn’t then learned enough about orbital dynamics to be truly enthralled, I appreciated observing an active process, connecting the dots, and drawing a line predicting what would happen next. This was the one and only research project I ever worked on that was straight-forward.

As an undergraduate, I attended departmental seminars where graduate students presented their thesis research. I attended seminars in Physics, my home department, but also regularly crossed the courtyard to sit in on the Earth Sciences talks. The physics talks were typical research talks: give contextual background for a problem, lay out methods, discuss data, analyze the results, and form conclusions. In sharp contrast, the earth sciences talks uniformly presented geology as a murder mystery. Each talk started by describing the victim: the final geologic setting, next presenting a list of suspects in the form of all the possible processes that could create that setting.  The researcher/detective constrained the processes by sorting through alibis (this process could not happen in conjunction with the understood global geologic timeline) and evidence (from the setting and surrounding regions) until finally determining the guilty process. The call for questions even fit theme, placing the audience as judge and jury for the arguments.

This isn’t a universal mindset for approaching geoscience (I never saw it at my next university), but it’s stuck with me. In geoscience, we have rocks, and it’s up to us to figure out the story of how they became the way they are. Did a rock melt? Was a rock eroded and squished together to form new rocks? Was a rock transported far from where it was created? Geophysicists try to unravel these mysteries without even getting to look at the rocks. A geophysicist looks at the signals at the surface — how the gravity, electrical, and magnetic signals change as they pass through the rock — and try to figure out what the structures and rocks causes changes in the signals. Mathematically, this means a whole lot of inversions and working with potential fields. Philosophically, it means constantly looking at the answer while trying to figure out the question to go with it.

All of science is investigating mysteries, and all of science requires learning to ask the right questions. But the reason I love geoscience is the delightful contradiction of having all the answers laid out in front of me (literally, a rock I can pick up) and spending my time contemplating the perfect question. That, and when dressing up as a scientist, I have a choice between lab coat, field gear, and Sherlock-Holmes style tweed with a deerstalker.

Related Reading

Astrobites The Zen & Art of (Astronomy) Research
Matt Might’s The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.
Nature Q&A on PhDs

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