Sunday, December 25, 2011

Let's Start

There are about 60 individual scientists who work for the US Geological Survey who volunteer to answer geology-related questions on their own time. Typically every week I receive a series of questions, some of them spam, and respond to them. The time I spend on answering these questions I then make up for by staying at work longer that day.

There are some general rules:

  • Don't do someone's homework for them,
  • Copy your replies into a large database for other volunteers to tap into,
  • If you can't answer a question - it's not something you are an expert in - then forward the question to someone who CAN, and 
  • Do your best to answer real questions.
That last one is because some people are not really asking questions, but using the AAG link to stand on a soap-box and expound on a pet theory.

About 40% of real questioners identify themselves as belonging to Mrs. So-and-So's 5th Grade class in Hoo-Funkie, Louisiana. About 40% of questioners are adults - like a majority of living human beings, they are interested in the world around them and are seeking answers to questions. About 10% of questioners send a blurry photo (typically) of a rock and want us to tell them what it is. The last 10% fit none of these categories and from among those I get some of the greatest mental stimulation - I take time to learn more about the subject and then take care to craft a helpful answer.

I had a roommate at Berkeley who one day in a conversation described himself as "onmi-sexual." When I looked quizzically at him, he elaborated that this meant boys and girls, dogs and ducks. Though I was somewhat grossed-out (Ron did most things weird simply to offend his thoracic-surgeon father; he also declared that he didn't believe in the "germ theory"), I had no problems with that as long as he stayed on his side of the bedroom and stopped peeing on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night. 

However, along a similar vein I would classify myself as an "omni-scientist" - perhaps an "omnivorous scientist" would be better, as I'm interested in everything to do with science. I actually got to a MS degree in high-pressure solid-state physics before I decided I would go nuts working in a lab for the rest of my life. Don't get me wrong: I do lab work and even enjoy it (if I have my iPod with me) - but I also love working in the deep jungle and in the deep desert.

By happenstance, I was visiting at my in-laws house in California one Christmas and picked up my wife's brother's introductory geology book. I was fascinated, and read it all the way through. Not long afterwards I switched schools to one that had not two, not three, but FOUR off-shoots of traditional physics. In those days, to get a PhD you had to specialize in some recognized field of study; the multidisciplinary college had not really been invented yet. Though I read most everything I can lay my hands on about astrophysics, cosmology, and archaeology among others (I have even published peer-reviewed scientific papers in these subjects), I more or less settled on geophysics for a life-path. Technically, my PhD is in "Geosciences" - the theory being that with a PhD you should know more or less every subject in the general field of Earth science. 

To that end, I have a habit of answering virtually all of the questions in Ask a Geologist that come to me (I'm weakest in geochemistry and optical microscopy). Over the years I collected a large number of these replies, and queried our AAG coordinator and other participants about joining me in writing a book on the subject. Our coordinator, Rex Sanford, demurred, saying that he was mainly an IT specialist - and thank heavens, because he has built a nearly automatic system to collect queries, filter much of the spam, and parse out the questions that come in to respondents like me. I contacted others who Rex said had handled a lot of questions, but they all said they didn't have the time to work on a book. 

I guess that means you're stuck with me. I hope I won't disappoint you.

For the Ask-a-Geologist website, go here:

For more on my background, you can get a summary at my Wikipedia page:

For the Full Monty, you can churn through my USGS Professional Page:

As a community service, I also teach women's self defense and advanced Jujitsu:

Now let's see what I can tell you about the fascinating and virtually endless world of Geoscience!


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