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  Geotimes - April 2008 - Geologic Column

A false report, a rumor, a hoax
Lisa A. Rossbacher

Geologists have always taken safety seriously. Whether planning for field trips, handling chemicals or using equipment, safety is ingrained in geologists from their first experiences as students.

In an introductory physical geology class, for example, students learn how to use rock hammers safely, how to test mineral hardness by scratching a glass plate safely and how to properly use hydrochloric acid in rock and mineral identification. More advanced students learn about field techniques, using cutting saws and refractive index oils, as well as how to avoid exposure to radiation when using advanced machinery.

Geologists are continually asked to evaluate the dangers of the natural world as well. In an environment filled with hazards, we focus on earthquake safety, mine safety, outcrop safety, slope safety. The human element, however, cannot be assessed, understood, measured or predicted. There is no way to prepare for violence as random as the tragic shootings at Northern Illinois University in mid-February. We can prepare for the hazards we know. But we can only react to the ones that are unpredictable.

The Northern Illinois shootings occurred, inexplicably, in a geology class: Geology 104, Introduction to Ocean Sciences. The details of the incident have been reported, repeatedly, by the media. The chair of the geology department, Jonathan Berg, offers a personal perspective that reflects the inherent improbability of a safety issue within a lecture hall. He has given permission to quote his description, and I have edited it slightly:

Thursday afternoon, a geology student walked into the main office and told us that a friend had called and told him there had been a shooting at Cole Hall. I instinctively knew it could not be true. I told him and my secretaries, confidently, that it was almost certainly a false report, a rumor, a hoax. Nevertheless, I looked up at the clock. It was 3:07 p.m. I looked at my schedule of geology classes and saw that Joe Peterson’s GEOL 104 would be over in eight minutes. I knew the phone call had to be wrong, but I threw on my jacket and took off running to Cole Hall. I remember thinking that even though there could not have been a shooting, perhaps there was some type of awkward issue, and … maybe [Joe] could use my assistance.

Thirty seconds into my one-minute jog, my confident world began to change. I could see some emergency vehicles beyond Cole Hall. Then I saw the yellow tape …

I heard a student say there was a shooting in a geology class. I saw a student with a bloodied head sitting on the pavement.

I started asking students what they had seen and what they knew about the fate of the instructor and TA. I didn’t press too hard because they were visibly shaken and fragile. A few thought both were dead, but the consensus opinion [that they had survived] proved eventually to be accurate. However, at the time, I really didn’t know what to believe, and I felt completely helpless and powerless.

By 4 p.m., I felt that I could be of more use back in the department … faculty and students were crowding the main office wanting to know about the instructor, TA and students. I could offer them nothing except some of the more hopeful reports I had heard. About then, the media onslaught began…

The concept of “six degrees of separation” may apply to the general population, but the linkages are much closer for the geological community. We are all closer to Northern Illinois University than we might realize. Many people have already extended their sympathy and concern to colleagues there. Jonathan Berg has noted that these messages have been “… a source of great comfort to me. [My e-mail in-box showed] the names of old friends, alumni, colleagues, students in my own class, fellow Kaneland School Board Members, fellow geology department chairs, faculty and students, and especially the Virginia Tech people, many of whom have no obvious connection to me except for the obvious.”

We all send our sympathy and best wishes to our colleagues at Northern Illinois University, as we did to Virginia Tech last year and to the family of the geology graduate student who was murdered while field mapping in Colorado last summer.

Many of us chose the geosciences because our discipline makes the world more understandable. Our contribution — and our solace — is to continue that effort, with an eye toward safety, realizing, of course, that there are still things we cannot understand, explain or control.

Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga. E-mail:

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