Comment: Understanding Earth in the wider sense of science

by Rasoul Sorkhabi
Thursday, October 20, 2016

A view of most of North America taken from a low orbit of about 826 km altitude on January 4, 2012 from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's Earth-observing satellite - Suomi NPP. Credit: NASA, public domain.

“It isn’t easy being an organism. In the whole universe, as far as we yet know, there is only one place, an inconspicuous outpost of the Milky Way called Earth, that will sustain you, and even it can be pretty grudging,” Bill Bryson wrote in his 2003 tome, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” This brilliant and humorous book is not about geology per se, but it is one of the best general science books I’ve read. Like many other scientists, I have read quite a few books about science written for the general public over the years and have kept my favorite ones. Recently, I browsed through these books, “A Short History” included, with this question in mind: How well are these general science books able to educate the public about Earth? And the short answer is, “Quite well.”

Geoscience is the science of Earth. But what does that mean? An academic answer to this question comes from the names of university departments: “geology and geophysics” or “earth and environmental science.” In this sense, geoscience is set apart from bioscience, astronomy, physics and chemistry (although astronomy and planetary science are often included in earth science departments as well). Moreover, geoscience is divided into at least a hundred branches and disciplines, some very large such as geochemistry and geology, some medium-size such as paleontology and structural geology, and many smaller ones such as radiocarbon dating or speleology (cave science). This academic approach is, of course, necessary for educational and research purposes; we need specific courses, textbooks and technical journals for the various branches of geoscience. However, even the most specialized geoscientist should remember that our view of Earth must also take in a wider perspective.

Our knowledge of Earth is embedded in the natural sciences, including physics, chemistry and biology. Rock-forming minerals are made of elements, the domain of chemists. Fossils as remnants of past life are also of vital interest to biologists, who want to understand the evolution of life forms. Geochronology, the dating of Earth’s rocks, involves nuclear physics of certain radioactive elements such as uranium and potassium. And geoscience uses methods and tools based on mathematics, physics and chemistry, from geophysical prospecting for mineral resources relying on the physics and mathematical expressions of gravity, magnetism and seismic (acoustic) waves, to seismology using the principles of acoustic wave propagation described and quantified in physics, to analyzing rock and mineral composition relying on chemical methods and instruments.

Therefore, it is appropriate to educate the public about Earth in a wider sense of science. A book about Earth does not have to be called or categorized a “geology” book. Earth science permeates my three favorite science books, even if each takes a different approach in the writing of science.

First published as “The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science” in 1960, “Asimov’s New Guide to Science” (1984) is a massive book of 940 pages written by the legendary science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. The “New Guide” consists of two parts: the physical sciences and the biological sciences. I read this book on bus rides over a period of two years in the late 1980s and still consult it because not only is it comprehensive, it also presents subjects in the context of science history.

Three of the book’s 17 chapters can be easily recognized as “geoscience,” but in fact many other chapters — such as those on the universe, solar system, elements, waves, cells and microorganisms — also shed light on Earth’s origin, materials and processes. “Most of the elements in the periodic table,” Asimov wrote, “are metals. As a matter of fact, only about 20 of the 102 elements can be considered definitely nonmetallic.” Asimov goes on to say that the long Stone Age of humankind was successively replaced by the Copper, Bronze and Iron ages relatively late in history partly because the metallic elements are not easy to extract from their compounds in rocks. Nevertheless, our ancestors managed to accomplish this feat just as they had mastered the making and using of stone tools.

Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy” (1991, 2009 second edition) by Robert M. Hazen (a geologist) and James Trefil (a physicist) reads like a well-written textbook in plain language. Nearly 40 percent of the book (chapters 13–18) covers geoscience: Restless Earth, Earth Cycles, Ladder of Life, Code of Life, Evolution and Ecosystems. The first 12 chapters also provide a scientific background in chemistry, physics and astronomy to help the reader better understand earth science. In other words, science literacy is largely Earth literacy.

Finally, the 500-page “A Short History of Nearly Everything” offers a lucid narrative of the story of the world from the Big Bang to Homo sapiens, but much of the history in between these two is the story of Earth itself. The book was so widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of science that it won the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books and the European Union’s Descartes Prize; Bryson was also given an honorary doctorate from King’s College London. An illustrated edition has also been published.

Compared with the other sciences, geoscience is underrated in formal education. But here is some good news: Earth science is a large part and parcel of science in general. Geoscience is indeed an integrative science. And we as geologists can use Earth as a pivotal subject to explain science itself to the general public and students. To do so, we also need to place our own knowledge in a larger context from time to time. The three books mentioned above can, therefore, serve as some suggestions for fun reading — and learning — about Earth.

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