of course, remember that "ancient history" is reserved for the times
of the Greeks and the Romans and their classical languages, before the fall
of the Roman Empire in A.D. 475. A spooky thought hit me as I was preparing
my letter for this issue: Geology is an especially ancient history and our language
is super-classical and super-arcane.
Perhaps this classification has something to do with the fact that at an all-time high, scarcely more than 15 percent of school children in this country received even a brush with the subject. Could there be more significance than we realize to the fact that, when asked about geology, most people respond with "dinosaur," if they respond with anything at all? At the same time, there is also ample evidence that a new style of geology has been evolving. It is examples of the new relevance of geology, with growing social applications and imbedded new science, that we highlight in this issue.
Visions of a lahar, surging toward a schoolhouse filled with children, roil up from our feature, "Paths of Destruction: The Hidden Threat at Mount Rainier," by Geotimes Managing Editor Lisa Pinsker. Research over the past 20 years has shown that lahars have been geologically common in the Puyallup River valley and that they may arrive swiftly and silently, without the announcement of a volcanic eruption. This knowledge has led to development of a lahar warning system and a school evacuation plan that requires construction of a bridge over a tributary river. What a good example of relevant geology (including new science) supporting science-based community action. This is the transformation that our very ancient-history and classical-language science is undergoing in order to achieve new relevance and escape "dinosaurism.
In another example of evidence-based community service, in "In Harm's Way: Population and Volcanic Risk," John Ewert and Christopher Harpel discuss risks of volcanic eruptions in Central America, where approximately 2.7 million people are at risk from volcanic hazards. Only Indonesia has more people at risk. The authors attempt to quantify risk, rank volcanoes by risk and arrange priorities for development of mitigation (evacuation) plans.
David Hastings gives us rare insight into the history of geologists in the "Camelot" of all government programs in his piece, "Geoscientists in the Peace Corps: A Strategic Revisit." He summarizes ways in which the contributions of volunteer geologists could be significantly enhanced for the benefit of host countries. The problem of how to use geologists in a volunteer program is one of implementing science-based community service. The Peace Corps should be an elegant vehicle for doing so, but transforming geologists and bureaucracies to successfully pull it off is nothing we have been prepared to do. The potential, nonetheless, is a characteristic of what a transformed geological science will look like.
Transformation of the science and escape from "dinosaurism" requires that we apply a social outcome template. The Political Scene this month, by Eloise Kendy and Kevin Vranes, emphasizes the need that legislators have for solid information on significant issues, whether they are high-profile or obscure. When geologists can fill the need, they provide a public service and develop an opportunity to influence the right thing being done. This is yet another example of the new relevance of geology; it is no longer enough to practice the science, to learn and to understand.
Finally, Geologic Column authors Lisa Rossbacher and Dallas Rhodes focus on the trials and tribulations of university geology departments. They identify a "second culture" of university disciplines, including classical studies and, yes, geology, that academic administrators tend to believe are of too little value to keep around. The administrators are seeing us as dinosaurs because we missed the signs that times are changing.
"What don't we know?" has been joined by "What do we need to know?" as a driver of geologic research. Once we get over the sting of accountability, the joy of simultaneous outcomes of both discovery and service become exhilarating. Isn't it inevitable that our science evolve over time through the sequence: description > process interpretation > prediction > mitigation? Each successive stage accumulates new responsibilities and the need for new science becomes more critical. Sounds like a bright future to me.
Thanks to our authors, whose works came together in such a play of colors.
Believe your compass,
Samuel S. Adams