The Earth is Beautiful in Our Mind’s Eye

Different views of the Geology Museum in NUIG
The Victorian display cases with their quietly fascinating objects…and someone’s skull.
I made up the writing along the top, that’s not really what’s written there.

It was the 1990s. I’d just completed my first year in the university of Galway. It was time to choose the subjects for the next year: I was in a hall full of students milling about, choosing the subjects they wanted to pursue, and then joining queues at tables with someone from each department at the top, waiting to sign them up. I really didn’t know which subjects I wanted to choose.

When you do a science degree in Ireland, you have to take the four basic subjects of chemistry, biology, physics and maths for the first year, and then you can drop whichever ones you don’t want to continue with and take three other science subjects during your second year. In the end I settled on microbiology and botany, but I still couldn’t decide on my third. Then I saw two of my friends from first year in the queue for geology.

“Well, I don’t know anything about the earth,” I said to myself, “and Dee and Maura are doing geology, so I think I will too.”

That’s the kind of impetuous thinking that has been behind many decisions I’ve made. It sounds great, but actually it’s a really terrible way to live. I have regretted so many decisions – important ones with lifelong consequences – because I haven’t thought them through.

Choosing to study geology wasn’t one of them. I won’t pretend I loved it from the very start: everything about it was completely new to me, and at times I was a bit lost, but I got to grips with everything in the end. In fact I finished with a (scant) first class honour at the end of my first year in geology, and continued to get top marks until I graduated three years later, coming second in the year with a decent First. The reason I did well in it is simple: I fell in love with the subject. Luckily, others have too, and have written great books on the subject, which helped in my studies immeasurably.

Geology is a bit unusual in that you can’t really see it happening for the most part. Apart from volcanoes and earthquakes, most of geology happened aeons ago. When you study geology, you are in one of two places: in your mind, as you imagine the processes happening deep under the surface of the earth; and in the field, where the bedrock that’s poking out of the ground has the scars of its history described all over its surface, waiting for you to trot over in your sturdy boots, compass in hand, to try to unravel its secrets.

And so, in a lecture, say, about magma chambers, you can hear a pin drop. The brains in the room, perched on top of scruffy students, are picturing vast vats of molten rock, convecting and churning at truly terrifying temperatures. I ask my classmates what colour they imagine the magma chamber to be. “Pink and gold,” says one. “Silver,” says another, “with glittering crystals.” The molten rock is a swirling mass of chemicals and the process of crystallisation of different elements is like a beautiful but never-to-be-witnessed choreography.

The other place where geology happens is in fields, on mountainsides and on beaches, anywhere where erosion has exposed bedrock. That’s rock that’s still attached to the very ground that makes up the world, as opposed to loose boulders, pebbles, whatever. The reason why you trust information from bedrock more than boulders is that if it’s still attached, so to speak, then anything you can say about it is reliable: the rock is the same now as when it was frozen in time.  A rock in situ will tell you any amount of things about the world as it was at that point, at that time. But if it’s a loose boulder it’ll tell you nothing. It may have as its parent rock something very nearby, or it may not. It could even have been dropped or carried there by a glacier…or a human. And so, deposited into a field or let loose on a beach, a class of geology students clamber over every bit of rock they can find, looking for answers in the rock surface to questions like, how old is it? Is it from a volcano, or did it solidify before it ever made it to the surface? Or was it broken down over millennia and re-deposited by riverbeds? Perhaps it was half-melted by some nearby volcano or earthquake and now looks like some superhuman hand has swirled it about with a giant spoon, like chocolate and vanilla ice cream? In the field, you have your thinking cap pulled firmly on, and your brain is whirring with possibilities.

There are so many elegant and beautiful things to discover in geology. One day I’d like to tell the story of how human minds worked it all out, because to me that’s a story that’s almost more incredible than the beautiful science itself. It’s a dramatic story for other reasons: because we’re human, we hold our beliefs very dear, and some of the rivalries between scientists have been passionate. Less refined men would have come to blows over many scientific disagreements, for sure.

The Geology Department in NUIG has a museum full of objects that tell a story. Each rock sample studded with colourful crystals or inlaid with the bodies of fossilised animals, or even just bearing the marks of the glacier that flowed over it, is a little piece of a jigsaw, one that intrigues, tempts, frustrates.

I left the world of geology behind for two reasons: one was that I chose my PhD subject in one of those rash decision-making moments I mentioned earlier. It was the wrong topic for me, and it fried my poor mind, and my eyes, as it involved a lot of peering down a microscope. It was agonising and in the end I dropped it and finished with a master’s degree. The other reason was that I fell in love, got married and had two babies within a three-year period, and geology just wasn’t as interesting (nor as all-consuming and exhausting) as being a new mother.

And, if truth be told, I always knew that art was waiting for me, patiently, while I flirted with science. Art wasn’t just my true love, it was part of me, and I was always going to claim it as my own skin, and so I did.

But I wanted to commemorate such a huge piece of my life in the book I’m publishing in a couple of months. A fusty old classroom wouldn’t have cut the mustard, and I hope these few sketches from the Geology Museum will do the trick.

One sense that stays with you as a geologist is the vastness of time. We’re talking well over five hundred million years since the first (interesting-looking) animals arrived, the trilobites. And yet I admit that the twenty-odd years that have elapsed since I was a geologist feel like rather a while.

It must be because those twenty years represent probably a quarter of my life, if I make it to eighty. A quarter of geological time (since the Cambrian, when the trilobites scuttled hither and thither) is more than 125 million years…

Hurray! I suddenly feel quite young…

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