Philosophy and Culture Talking Points

The Importance of Amateur Science

Discussing our role as scientists in a world where urban areas feel disconnected from nature.

I recently came across a classic ternary diagram that just about every Geologist can relate to. It depicted each subfield of Geology based upon three categories: Lab rat, computer nerd, and people who like to camp. This ternary diagram felt pretty raw considering how simple and truthful it was. Geochemists seem to be more comfortable in the lab than they are at home and geophysicists love talking about computers just as much as rocks themselves. Sedimentologists like to camp a bit more than their cousins in petrology. One corner that was left unoccupied was “people who like to camp”. Perhaps this is because all geologists like to camp– I certainly do. Maybe the author got lazy and didn’t finish the diagram; where is the love for our environmental geologists in this diagram– likely somewhere outside of the ternary diagram that is allocated to people who like to talk a lot.

For many people, geology was something that found them; the rigor of classrooms and test-taking was broken apart by a class where most weeks involved outdoor labs and every year involved going on a camping trip. Experiencing the outdoors and learning about the world around us is life-changing. People have even written papers on why Geology majors are the happiest people on campus and it usually has something to do with how often we are outside. When we inevitably fell in love with geology, we also fell in love with exploring the outdoors.

Now that you’re back in the lab or working for a hazardous waste site, geology is less about exploring the outdoors and more about crunching data and sending emails. That budding taste of experiencing the wilderness seems like a distant past (unless you’re in academics, a park ranger, or John Muir in which case you live the geologists dream life). That is exactly why I created Local Terrane: geology should be an amateur pastime just as much as it should be a profession. Most amateur geology seems to be evolved around rock collecting. Amateur geology is like vegan trophy hunting where the only thing getting hurt is your wallet. 

On the opposite side of the community is another story. There are prospective geologists across the globe who are busy studying the fundamentals of geology and eager to make themselves known in the community. Not everyone with a passion for geology gets a career in the field straight of college and many people aren’t given an opportunity to get the degree itself. For them, geology and exploring the outdoors seems more like something constantly out of reach than the touch of a past lover. For so many people passionate in geology, a career seems unrealistic and a mile away. Just as amateur geology ought to be a hobby of every professional, every passionate prospect of geology should participate in amateur geology as well. I won’t begin to explain how important amateur geology is for rock healers –we already know the answer.

Photo by Deena on

If Amateur Geology isn’t rock collecting and it isn’t being a non-professional then what is it?

Amateur geology is about exploring the outdoors and learning new things about the Earth. Taking the discovery of Earth Scientists into your own hands is a transcendent experience. We all have dreams of what geolog research will be after school and for many of us, research turns out to be something more sober than we had expected. Its similar to how many paleontologists dream of digging up dinosaur bones but end up counting ostracods in lake cores: enticing and fulfilling but lackluster and repetitive. This is where amateur geology can allow you to take those valuable skills in the field your pursued and carve a part of the Earth’s crust for your own writing. Amateur Geology is your opportunity to start answering those questions that intrigue you. 

Conducting your own study may seem impossible except that’s just self doubt and timidness.

Of course, we can’t all afford to send water samples to a lab with a mass spec so answering the questions we have will take some creativity. Compiling primary journals to build a case for your research can shed light on where the gaps in our knowledge may be. Mapping an uncharted part of nearby BLM land (for non-americans this is essentially public land where nobody lives and few people know what’s out there). Applying your modeling skills on datasets you found from a foreign database may uncover an unlocked anomaly. Conducting your own study may seem impossible except that’s just self doubt and timidness.

Amateur geology has helped keep my love for geology fresh and helped make my learning in a direction that always keeps me engaged. I had seen amateur astronomers taking the research into their own hands by building their own telescopes and searching the skies themselves and wanted to do the same with the Earth. Amteur astronemers have discovered supernova and anomlies without the assistance of big institutions. If they can make progress like that while looking at the stars, what is to stop us from making similar discoveries for our own planet? 

Discussing Nature Over a Cup of Tea

Beyond the connection we have with science learning there’s a much deeper desire we have to simply go out into nature. Three years ago, I used to work at a tea shop. When I wasn’t  helping old ladies and eclectic thirty-something-year-olds with deciphering the convoluted– but actually quite simple– world of tea, I had a lot of time to think. Working at a local tea shop, you soon learn there’s a lot of big bags of tea that need to be separated into little bags of tea and the process will consume most of your time. This gave me plenty of time for inner thought.

One particularly slow evening the conversation of “going into Nature” came up and there was a lot of interesting points made. We love nature; everyone loves nature. Even the man in the three-piece suit hiring men to drill holes into the Earth to reap it of oil will agree that he or she loves nature. Why then, must we bicker over whether to protect it? That’s where the phrase “going into nature” stung me.

We live our whole lives in a world molded and shaped into something we can use. Architecture is simply altering your surroundings to attend your needs, whether for aesthetic or function. We encompass ourselves with our own creation everyday. On rare occasions, we decide to void ourselves of urbanity and go into nature. We thrive for something more rustic; we thrive for the wilderness. Many people have written about the beauty of nature and the outdoors– as well as pursuing the adventures Nature contains– so I won’t waste breath with explaining our purposes. All there is to know is we seek nature to get away from concrete and noise. The only problem is the concrete and noise isn’t in a giant glass dome or encased with some sort of magic blockade. The environment we create within our cities is created in what was once and always will be: nature.

Learning to Respect the Nature Around Us

When we pollute our yards with fertilizer or dump detergents down our drains or litter our streets or pave our parks we aren’t simply degrading the city but degrading nature. We are so interconnected with the wilderness we so dearly admire yet neglect it nearly every day. Cities are humble guests to the systems and functions of nature. Saint Paul, for example, is a temporary home nestled among old giants from forests that have been here before white people.

We live in nature and affect her ebb and flow with every action we make. Communities and individuals need to start taking responsibility and strengthen the wilderness nature lends us rather than abolish it from our daily lives. Going into nature is an opportunity to see where us humans came from, and with those experiences we should work to connect with it rather than lose it.

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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