Philosophy and Culture Talking Points Uncategorized

Opinion: Why All Geologists Should Take an Art Class

An Op-ed on the unseen hurdle facing many of today's young geologists.

Setting the scene

You’re on the fifth day of a long trip into the Nevada desert and standing in front of you is a behemoth of ancient rocks All of them thousands of years apart in age. Mingling among them is what you think might be a fossil bed. You’ve seen Stromatolites in textbooks before and these formations look, kind of, like those formations but you just can’t be sure. Large swaths of stone spiral outward into a cleanly sorted bed of limestone. The lines of shadow mimic the horns of an elderly ram. You can vividly picture a marine environment rich in nutrients where a budding bed of bacteria had created a metropolis. Now they sit before you, set in stone like a statue for you to admire. That’s when you realize your camera is dead; though, a full two-page spread in your field notes ought to do the trick. Just make sure you draw a circle in the corner to represent a quarter for scale (all good geologists use one for their scale).

Stromatolite Bed
An example of a stromatolite bed in situ.

For most of us, these drawings are crude. They lack from and definitely lack composition. There’s little room for shading despite owning the nicest mechanical pencil available on the market and it doesn’t matter because shading is kind of “over doing it” anyways. Instead, you draw simple outlines of where you think the rock bedding flow and call it good. A couple of annotations and a scale for good measure. Unfortunately, the scale is the most detailed component of your latest art piece.

Two years later and another geologist is working the same project and has a xerox of your sketches for reference. They think they have found your little discovery but have mistook some cross-bedding twenty feet over for the greatest discovery of your trip. An edit is made to your notes “Stromatolite bed #jp376 is, in fact, cross bedding. Pages 34 through 40 are null.” All of your hard work and observation is for nothing. All the science world has from your trip is that four letter word none of us like: NULL.

Introducing the dilemma

So what could have changed this outcome? Sure you could have brought extra batteries or maybe using a gps point to record its location would have been helpful but nobody has foresight that responsible. If only your art class in high school was less focused on painting by numbers and a little more focused on the fundamentals of drawing. Your field notes aren’t the only place an earth scientist could have benefited from knowing some basic art concepts. All earth science could benefit from learning some basic art theory.

One of the largest obstacles the science community is facing today is understanding how to communicate with the general public. One of the pillars of art is communicating things we cannot say otherwise. Science may be the perfect place to apply those centuries of theory.

“Few people outside the scientific community consume scientific information regularly (Boczkowski and Mitchelstein, 2013), although they encounter and benefit from science often in their everyday lives. Many people profess interest in science news, yet only 16 percent of the public say they follow news about science and technology “very closely” (Mitchell et al., 2016), a percentage that has remained below 18 percent since 2000 (National Science Board, 2014).”

https://www.nap.edu/read/23674/chapter/4

“The National Academies report suggests that three factors are critical to effective science communication:

Exposure: Planning how to use various methods of communication to reach a variety of audiences can increase public awareness of a particular topic.

Timing: Providing information before people form strong opinions on a topic can overcome the influence of ill-informed opinions based on experience and beliefs.

Duration: Employing a long-term approach to science communication can help overturn personal beliefs and opinions and can convince the public that scientists are generally in agreement on a finding.”

https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.3.20171208a/full/

Ground-breaking discoveries seem to be made at a faster rate every week and the public eye has little insight on it all. In the same breath, science education seems to be falling flat with students retaining what they learn (flat earthers must have taken at least some science courses after all). How do we remedy this situation? Maybe our Geology department should get a twitter account or perhaps we could have a guest hydrologist talk about his experience with sewer systems! We already do both of those things and students– and the public– are still left with a faint image of what earth sciences have to offer.

Introducing the solution

Long before James Hutton theorized the history of rocks in Scotland, someone else had made observations on rocks nearly two hundred years before Hutton was even born. That person was the beloved Leonardo Da Vinci. Immortalized through his works as a painter, he was also an expert among many other fields. The original Renaissance man was also an engineer, inventor, and scientist. His discoveries and creations have been preserved as part of a narrative so rich that many people thrive to live a life as bountiful as he once did. Da Vinci was a self-educated painter and took his observations in painting to the next level by developing rigorous scientific study to propel himself further.

Leonardo Da Vinci Rock Study

Not only did Da Vinci paint but he also brought valuable insight into the world of proto-geology and geoengineering. His early studies involved observing rock bedding and tiptoed into theorizing how these beds may have come to be. Later on in life, he designed methods, alongside Machiavelli, on how to divert the flow of the Arno river.

Without realizing it, the world of art had already made a dent in geology: study of the Earth. Likewise, our journey of geologic inquiry is heavily involved with visualization and dimension today. Thinking in abstract visuals is an essential skill for every Earth scientist. Being able to perceive what lies beyond a 2d plane based off of color and composition is a skill exercised by artists and geologists alike. Being the best geologist you can requires thinking like an artist.

Communication brings us a step further than simply observing nature in three dimensions. To be an articulate geologist, your ideas and concepts also need to be relayed accurately. I’ve fallen victim to far too many bad drawings in lectures. To fully convey abstract  concepts such as those faced in sedimentology and tectonics, drawing out what you’re thinking is very valuable. A well drawn sediment core communicates far more than meek scribbles.

The Relationship Between Art and Science

For many people, the thought of mixing Art and Science is sinful. A big concern in science communication is whether the information provided introduces bias or subjectivity. Afterall, objectivity is a pillar of the scientific method (even if observation and experimentation relies on unproven assumptions). Because of this, the human component and involvement related to art is seen as a divergence from reality. Just as  you don’t want human error in your data, you certainly don’t want human error in your interpretation of the data.

On the other side of the aisle, the art community distinguishes itself from Science in more ways than one:

“Important among the things that art is being distinguished from here are practices directed towards the accumulation and deployment of knowledge (science and technology)… Art is not inherently about the systematic exploration of natural things, the use of knowledge… Its character must be sought elsewhere, especially in things peculiar to it as a social world.” (pg. 23, Social Theories of Art. Ian Heywood)

Heywood has completely deconstructed how we interact with art and in the statement above, declares its separation from science and the social world of knowledge. He develops this thought further to explain how art has no motives or bias– the entire book is chock full of thought provoking arguments of Art’s social role.


Most science papers and journals look the same: a wall of text accompanied with colorless, body-less diagrams and graphs. If you were to throw the ten most influential journals of the past four centuries on a table you’d have ten journals that look identical from a distance. In contrast, the ten most influential paintings from the last four centuries would be easily distinguishable. In fact, briefly seeing those ten paintings would provoke memories and thoughts you’ve had regarding the paintings since the first time you saw them. A glance of Klimt’s A Kiss may provoke memories of a past lover and of shared memories from years ago. A-ha! Did we just discover a hack for memory recall?

the kiss

The spheres of Art and Science don’t mingle often. Or do they? Science writers use suggestive vocabulary all the time. Otherwise, we would be stuck shelling out dry statements that sound more like computer code than a journal. Journals also include diagrams drawn by illustrators and graphs involving many artistic elements such as color (to distinguish various elements) and composition (for a reference to scale). It appears like art already has a role in the science community and that role is as stagehand. I’m not here to critique the works of very talented science writers and illustrators. Instead, I am proposing that these writers and illustrators need a seat at the directors table. Not only that, the other people sat at the director’s table need to value what the artist has to say. The best way to accomplish this is for scientists to learn something about art, so they can understand how it will benefit them.

“Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.”~ Wassily Kandinsky

Art plays a role in our lives everyday. It influences how we dress, what we eat, and how we feel. Even the most “no bullshit” scientist has a style. Learning the fundamentals behind art and understanding how they are applied will broaden how scientists observe color and space. A geologist who understands perspective and composition will have an easier time visualizing an accurate depiction of a terrane than a geologist without a concept of perspective.

Similarly, scientists using photography and imagery may learn how the colors and light values in an image impact the way we interpret the data. Science teachers who have dipped their toes in art will be able to draw diagrams confidently and tell a more memorable story. Science is a conversation and learning art’s elements of story telling will help that conversation move along smoother. For the general public, science research that is presented in an aesthetically pleasing story (because art tells a story and science is a story) will be easier to remember.

How the New Yorker (Almost) Got it Right

Recently, the New Yorker wrote an article about a paleontology student who may have discovered a dinosaur graveyard in North Dakota. Not only that, this graveyard may be the missing link to prove the K-T extinction was triggered by the Chicxulub impact. They displayed the researcher as an indiana Jones type character on the edge of civilization. The story was a hit and caught a lot of traction in the general public. The New Yorker got something right about science writing: they built a story and characters people care about. Unfortunately thats the only thing they got right. The New Yorker perpetuated a white-centric narrative of science (that topic is for another day) and the paleontology community hadn’t tested the reliability of his data.

The New Yorker had taken the paleontologist’s hypothesis as proven fact and announced it as a discovery that the science world had not confirmed yet (and likely won’t considering a lack of supporting evidence). This could be taken as an omen to keep creative writing and art out of the science world but what we got was the general public excited about paleontology for once. Not just Jurassic Park paleontology either but real paleontological research. Perhaps if the science community had presented the story instead, caution of false claims and supporting research would have been adopted. If creative storytelling and compelling visuals was already a part of science, the New Yorker wouldn’t have to be telling a good story inaccurately.

Regardless of whether the New Yorker did a good job with their attempt at science journalism they taught us a good story can go a long way. Maybe science students won’t be purchasing a watercolor set and a new sketchbook. That being said, maybe teaching students how important art can be will finally provide legible sketches in field journals and we can get rid of the human error involved in interpreting those abstract lines that were supposed to represent a stromatolite.

Being a Jack of all trades and Master of none is a true curse. I find myself diving head first in a new hobby or interest just about every other week. Through my writing and my online projects, I have been trying to hone this thirst for new activities to create something worthwhile. I have a degree in Geology and Environmental Science. I also spend a large amount of my time sketching and animating. To get myself outdoors, I love to play rugby and go hiking.

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