This is part of the series of blog articles called “A Writer’s Guide…”, check out this article by writer L.B.Carter on being a Geologist.
(and do they really stare at and lick rocks?)
Short answer: yes. But there’s oh-so-much more.
Describe a geologist
Most people think of geologists as falling into two major categories:
- Rock-obsessed, hiking-book-and-safari-hat-wearing, outdoorsy nerds who stare at the ground all day, traipsing around the wilderness, bagging up soil samples, scooping water into a test tube or pocketing rocks for later inspection, analysis, or simply adding to a shelf collection;
- Oil and gas workers who spend weeks on an oil rig either offshore or in the middle of cattle-country, wearing coveralls coated in muck (or alternately, stuffy, rich Texans in cowboy boots, Stetsons and suits with bolo ties who stare at maps pointing out locations to drill or mine).
While I can’t deny that both certainly do exist, neither represent the majority—and I am myself a petrologist (petra=rock) and live in Houston (the oil and gas capital of the US).
Hikers but also office-dwellers
Granted, we are certainly down-to-Earth (pun intended) nerds with rock collections who love hiking.
However, most scientific work takes place in an office, like most every other job these days—even you as an author probably has some sort of “office” whether it be the couch, a coffee shop or a physical room with desk.
In some instances, field work is required—environmental consultants, even oil and gas can sometimes involve exploration, mining companies still hire modern-day prospectors to scope out new locations where ore might be abundant.
Types of geologists—like subgenres
As far as researchers go:
- sedimentologists (who study the strata—or layers—deposited by past or present processes like rivers, deltas oceans, mountain erosion, beach formation),
- paleontologists (who study fossils in strata to learn about Earth’s past biota and their living environments),
- geochemists (both low-temperature, such as soil scientists and those studying river or ocean composition; and high-temperature, such as petrologists who study igneous—magmatic in origin—and metamorphic—formed deep underground from heat and pressure—rocks),
- and even petrologists and volcanologists (see my other Writer’s Guide to Volcanology)
all go on field trips (“go into the field”) to collect samples.
But this occurs about once every few years for a few weeks during a summer, and doesn’t have to involve camping or roughing it at all. It may be as close as an old, abandoned mine, or a road cut on the side of a highway.
The samples are then subject to study in various lab types for many years to come, sometimes even passed between researchers and universities or companies to be studied for different aspects.
The lab work can include “wet lab” analysis, such as chemical reactions in beakers, physical analysis, such as testing for grain size using sieves and microscopes, and geochemical analysis such as using lasers to identify their chemical makeup.
What’s the point?
All of these analyses are intended to learn about the rock’s history: it’s formation; its evolution/modification and alteration over time; its age; etc.
Since we can’t SEE what Earth was like in the past, we use ancient rocks to identify past environments. This can help us better anticipate what the future might be like.
Computer Bunnies (is that a thing? Now it’s a thing)
Other fields are wholly computer-based, using existing material or data collected from instruments placed in certain sites, like seismometers on volcanic flanks, or satellites.
This includes geophysics and its subsets, like;
- planetary dynamics (a planet’s interior),
- plate tectonics (movement of the plates on which the continents and oceans sit, which leads to most of the geologic processes at the surface like volcanism, mountains, rivers, oceans, etc.—a topic for another article),
- seismology, even oil and gas exploration often uses seismic imaging, like a bat’s sonar, which is also used by oceanographers to map out seafloor bathymetry.
Gathering seismic data can be done via:
- remote devices,
- and “cruises”, which are often weeks to months long on a research vessel, working 12-hour shifts to collect data that is processed by a team after the cruise ends. Glaciologists use cruises to keep an eye on Antarctica.
Show me the money! Oh… there isn’t much and we have to compete for it?
And by the way, to get funding for research, you must submit a proposal to a major funding agency, like the National Science Foundation, which has a TINY percent chance of being chosen to receive an award… kind of like querying agents.
The proposal includes your suggested project’s intention, purpose—why should they fund this?—methods, budget, and so on.
Data processing—the boring part, like editing
At the data processing stage, whether you’re:
- experimental (using analogues to model natural processes, such as smashing rocks to see where and how they fracture, melting others to learn about magma generation, or watching how corn syrup flows to anticipate lava flow characteristics. Experimentalists see on average some 50% failure of each experiment, let alone negative results which contrast the hypothesis),
- or computer-modelling (including making theoretical planets via computer simulation to see how they might form),
scientists will spend hours categorizing and pouring over data in Excel or MatLab or other specialized programs like GIS which is for mapping.
Then, it’s statistical analysis.
Then identifying the implications of the results.
And the last step is publication, like your book.
Like making sure your book isn’t repeating what someone else has already written or getting inspiration, scientists read too… but it’s more boring
A scientist will spend hours checking previous publications on similar topics (which they had to do for the proposal as well to ensure their idea has not been done before, to check past methods).
They must comment on many of them in the write-up, comparing their new results with past or explaining how the work is novel and of interest to readers.
Betas and Editors
Then it’s peer-reviewed by other scientists to check validity and whether the publisher should agree to publish the work (is it relevant, interesting, accurate, etc.?). And most of the time these papers are collaborations with multiple authors who all have to agree.
How many publications? How many readers?
So, how do scientists measure success?
Not simply by the number of publications they put out, again like fiction authors, by the number of readers.
In this case, that’s measured by the number of citations a paper gets—references back to it in other publications—which can be improved upon by being well-known, by how novel the work is, by its impact, by how well-known the publication is that agrees to publish it (like getting Random House or Harper Collins or Penguin so sign you).
Rock-lovers ain’t so weird… Right?
So, the life of a geologist is no more exciting than a scientist in any other field really as far as research or academia goes.
But that said, geologists can be useful in many obtuse careers like science communication (museums, journalism), astronauts, forensics (crime scene determination by looking at soil types for instance), volcano observatories, and so much more.
In my case, it’s science communication and… fiction author with books about the future of climate change and natural disasters.
Having said all that, I still do love to geek out over rocks and volcanoes, so don’t hesitate to talk to me about my rock collection or field trips, too.
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About L.B. Carter
L.B. Carter is a Freelance Editor and Indie Author of the 2018 Best Indie Sci-Fi Nominee upper YA/NA Climatic Climacteric Series, Adult Suspense/Thriller and Dark Urban Fantasy who daylights as a scientist with a Ph.D. in Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences from Rice University with a specialty in geochemistry, petrology and volcanology.
She’s also a cat-mom and lover of spiced hot chocolate, polka dots and fairy lights.
I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have any questions for L.B, drop them in the comments below.
Do you have knowledge of a skill or occupation you could write about?
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