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Dick Fiske: Basic research yields big finds

The rock wasn’t supposed to be there. In fact, colleagues on a field trip with Dick Fiske accused him of salting Kilauea’s black basaltic outcrop with a very coarse-grained piece of gabbro from the Sierra Nevada. “I didn’t bring the rock,” he cried in defense after picking it up for them to see it. They didn’t believe him. Fiske, a past director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, isn’t known for his practical jokes, but, like most geologists, he does have a tendency to pocket rocks. And this looked exactly like something picked up from the Sierra Nevada, where Fiske obtained a permit to collect rocks for the museum’s geology, gems and minerals exhibit now on display.

Reluctantly, Fiske returned the suspicious rock to its perch on top of a tilted pahoehoe slab, a rather unnatural place for this odd rock. That was five years ago.

Dick Fiske stands in front of the research vessel Kairei in Yokosuka, Japan, headquarters for the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center. Photo courtesy of Dick Fiske.

“Two years later, we realized what we had found and rushed back to retrieve it,” Fiske says. Still sitting on its perch, the rock is evidence that Kilauea once had a violently explosive past. The coarse minerals (plagioclase and pyroxene) were formed deep underground as basalt magma slowly cooled. But an explosion that fired this and other rocks out of the belly of Kilauea like an old-fashioned cannon interrupted the rocks’ slow-cooling process. Vesicles and glassy shards pepper the rocks’ surface. Fiske and his colleague Tim Rose are planning to present the details of their discoveries in upcoming papers. In the meantime Fiske has recognized the importance of keeping a lookout for anomalies. He considers basic research critical for such discoveries.

In Kilauea, his team had the luxury of a long-term study, and after finding scattered pieces of similar gabbro elsewhere they realized Fiske had told the truth. The rock itself had been chipped by a previous geologist, who then put the rock down on the lava perch and walked away. “There’s a danger with scientists focusing on a problem; abnormalities appear and often you don’t pay attention to them,” Fiske says.

He encourages others to investigate the world of gems and minerals at the museum, fueling the same type of general curiosity about Earth that is a foundation for basic research. Fiske is fond of taking visitors through the exhibit when he is not visiting Japan, his other favorite volcanologic setting.

Recognizing Fiske’s commitment to public education, the American Geological Institute presented Fiske its 2002 award for Outstanding Contribution to Public Understanding of the Geosciences in January during a meeting of the Geological Society of Washington. After overseeing a vast amount of geological contributions to the National Museum of Natural History as director from 1980 to 1985, Fiske continued to encourage public understanding of volcanism through collaborative efforts with his colleagues. In 1986, he helped arrange to have the late volcano cinematographer Maurice Kraft produce the motion picture Inside Hawaiian Volcanoes. Fiske then had the film cut to a 24-minute video version, accompanied by a teacher’s guide he and colleague Wendall Duffield wrote.

One of the aspects of Fiske’s work in Japan that perplexes him is an apparent lack of appreciation for potentially valuable new discoveries. He notes that little is said about a 1999 discovery of a potentially recoverable gold deposit on the floor of a submarine caldera 400 kilometers south of Tokyo. Fiske co-authored the Feb. 12, 1999, Science report under the guidance of marine geologist Kokichi Iizasa, who discovered the gold deposit more than 1,200 meters underwater. “This extraordinary find could be valued between $1 and $2 billion if the samples collected from its surface are representative of what is inside the deposit,” Fiske estimates. “You can bet if the U.S. Geological Survey found something like this, they would be waving flags informing Congress and the Office of Management and Budget of how basic research can pay off.”

Christina Reed


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