If we’re to believe Dr. Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory” notoriety, geology isn’t a real science. Questionable jokes from this early 2000s sitcom aside, this fascinating area of study and research within the Earth sciences does have a bit of a public relations problem. That's because few people understand what exactly it is that geologists do.
Expectation Versus Reality
Stephen M. Rowins, chief geologist and executive director of the British Columbia Geological Survey, highlighted the public perception issue in a 2012 address. Speaking before members of the Geological Association of Canada, Rowins quipped that comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s famous schtick best describes public opinion of geologists: “We don’t get any respect!” Indeed, the American Institute of Professional Geologists notes that most people associate geologists with rocks, dinosaurs and earthquakes. Those notions aren’t too far from the truth, though geological careers run a wider gamut and are much more nuanced. In addition to private sector companies that hire and consult geologists, the United States Geological Survey is the federal agency that employs bioscientists who undertake critical research in dozens of areas that intersect geology, including energy and minerals, environmental health and natural hazards.
Oil and Natural Resources
Money makes the world go round -- or are geologists driving the global economy? Geologists locate and plan the extraction of valuable natural resources like petroleum, which is still a major energy source in the United States and in most nations. Petroleum geologist Lisa Griffith likens the process to a never-ending treasure hunt. By surveying the land, geologists within the oil industry piece together clues about what lies beneath Earth’s surface to guide successful drilling operations. And it’s not just “black gold” that geologists are after. These Earth scientists understand the conditions that produce all naturally occurring minerals and deposits that can be extracted and put to good use.
Hazards of the Job
In regions of the country where earthquakes loom large -- hello, Southern California -- the key role of geologists is even more immediately obvious. It’s not just a matter of studying how earthquakes happen. More important, agencies like the USGS are working to prevent losses of property and human life and to develop early warning systems that can guide people to safety in the event of a major quake or triggered tsunami. Geologists are also called in to study issues that impact the building and maintenance of man-made structures and, again, the safety of populations. In this way, geoscientists help architects and construction engineers know if an area at risk for flooding, landslides or other dangers.
The purview of geologists spans space and time -- literally. Some geologists specialize in discovering the historical movements of land masses and glaciers, while others examine species preserved forever as fossilized remains. Depending on their area of expertise, many geologists are not limited to investigating the outer surface of the earth, or even to this planet. Some Earth scientists, known as marine geologists, study and map the ocean’s underwater terrain. Others cast their scientific eyes toward space to study formations that reveal clues about planetary history. In fact, a handful of NASA astronauts, like Harrison Schmitt, boasted backgrounds in geology.
- American Geophysical Union: Do You Know What’s Interesting About Caves, Sheldon? Everything.
- Geoscience Canada: Presidential Address: Geoscientists and Rodney Dangerfield: Neither Gets Any Respect (PDF)
- American Institute of Professional Geologists: What Is Geology and What Do Geologists Do? (PDF)
- The Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists: The Role of ‘Geologist’ in the Oil Industry: Facts and Fantasy (PDF)
- The Geological Society of America: Expanding and Improving Geoscience in Higher Education
- Geological Survey of Ireland: What Geologists Do
Based in Los Angeles, Monica Stevens has been a professional writer since 2005. She covers topics such as health, education, arts and culture, for a variety of local magazines and newspapers. Stevens holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, with a concentration in film studies, from Pepperdine University.