The opinions expressed here are well-reasoned and insightful -- needless to say they are not the opinions of my employers

10 July 2009

A late starter...

When someone asks me how I got inspired to study geology I usually reference a field trip to the Mojave desert during my first intro class. I can point to a moment, still clear in my mind's eye, where the group was sitting around the campfire after dinner on Saturday night. We were drinking tea and hot chocolate (yeah, I know, but it was junior college and most of the students were underage), the professor was playing some Neil Young tunes on his guitar, and I looked over at him and said "I want his job." I still can't play guitar worth a damn, which is a good thing since it would only encourage me to sing, but I do have his job (or a reasonable facsimile). But if I'm honest the decision about geology had been made bit-by-bit, and in some ways it seems like a boulder accelerating downhill...

About a month
after my 14th birthday I experienced my first big earthquake (San Fernando, M6.6). We actually lived in the North Long Beach area about 60 miles south of the epicenter, but the earthquake happened at 6 AM while I was lying in bed. I distinctly remember rolling over and putting a pillow over my head, sure that I was going to die... I read everything I could find about earthquakes over the next few months but my high school barely had science classes, much less earth science. At our school most of the young men were pushed toward shop classes, and most of the young women toward home economics or, if they really were ambitious, secretarial classes. Our valedictorian decided not to go to college.

I started at Cerritos College as an art major but dropped out after a year. In '78 my girlfriend's family invited me on their annual camping extravaganza to the eastern Sierra, my first camping experience at the age of 21. I loved it! I picked up books on identifying trees and plants, rocks and minerals, clouds and stars. In 1980 I enrolled at Saddleback College intending to major in environmental science, but the classes were more about issues and I was more and more interested in process.

Mount Saint Helens and the volcano alert issued at Mammoth Lakes got me to thinking about geology again. I took a class but the instructor (who on day 1 wore a yellow suit) seemed disinterested or distracted or both -- he canceled class three times in the first month -- so I got bored and dropped out.

The next semeste
r I signed up for a survey class, introduction to Earth Science. It seemed like it would give me the kind of background I wanted for environmental science. On the third day Dr. Borella gave this stupid lecture -- one that everyone has either given or sat through (or both) at some point in their career: the one explaining what an atom is, how electron shells are organized, and how trading or sharing of valence electrons leads to chemical bonds between different atoms and voila! The silica tetrahedron and the water molecule! I know now from experience that most of my students have heard all of this stuff before, but to me that lecture was an introduction to how the whole world is put together. From that morning all I could think was, I need to know more about this stuff!

I spent the next few years slogging through remedial math classes, college algebra, inorganic chemistry, calculus and physics, periodically surfacing long enough to go on all of the geology field courses that Saddleback offered at the time. All in all, I spent 7 years finishing my first two years of college. Then I transferred and finished my last two years in just three years (is there a record for the longest time ever spent completing a BA with no time taken off to backpack through Europe or to climb a Himalaya?)...

Dr. Warren Hirt was the TA for my first class at Berkeley, Introduction to Mineralogy. At the end of lab one day, after everyone else had left, I was trying to figure out what optical interference figures were, how they worked, what information I could glean from them, why the hell I had quit my job to move 400 miles north when I was clearly too stupid to be there, and if my parents would let me crash on their couch for a while, when Warren came over to me and spent the next hour carefully explaining all of the key points of the lab and got me up to speed.

Dr. Bill Dietrich made geomorphology a dynamic, quantitative science by having me spend weeks doing slope/area measurements on first-order streams on an alluvial fan outside of Lovelock NV. He also pointed me in the direction of UC Santa Cruz and to Dr. Robert Anderson (now at CU Boulder), who shepherded, advised, pushed and dragged me through my thesis.

Peter Borella is the man. He inspired me from the beginning and has remained a great friend. I almost got his job, too -- I was hired to fill the position vacated by the infamous man in the banana suit, so I work with Peter now. I don't know how many butterflies in the past had to flap like mad to get me where I am today, but I wish I could thank them all. I'll settle for thanking Peter and Bob and Bill and Warren as representatives of the village it took to get me pointed in the right direction, to get me focused, and to get me moving...


Rod said...

Please forgive the completely off-topic comment!

WoGE#167 has been languishing for so long on Ron Schott's site that the Google imagery has actually changed. I think it's probably just escaped the attention of the geoblogosphere because the momentum was lost back in early spring, but it's time to get things rolling again. Ron tried to give a big hint recently, but he did it through Twitter. I thought I'd take the more drastic measure of posting a hint on some previous WoGE winners' sites: Windley and Allen, 1993.

Srewop Einnoc said...

I love this, Jim. It brings back into razor-sharpness my own memories of first discovering geology.

Peter Borella IS the man! He and his family continue to inspire me to this day.

And I love you both dearly.


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