Thursday, July 30, 2009

Italy (Part I)

I'm finally in one place for a couple of weeks this summer, and that means it's time to start posting photos while I delay writing real blog entries. (There's some cool stuff I saw on both my Italy and Utah trips that I definitely want to discuss, but my brain is still adjusting to the DC-area sauna, so they'll have to wait until I"m feeling more creative.)

Anyway, here are a few of the best photos from my trip to Italy in June. (I've also discovered that, while the heat and humidity are nasty in Italy in June, they're nothing like the heat and humidity we have around DC at the same time. I can't speak for August, though.)

Some of the beautiful marbles used to decorate the Vatican (which is, by the way, big and elaborate and overdecorated enough to make your head explode). A lot of the churches in Rome look like this, but the Vatican takes the cake. (This is the tomb of one of the Pope Alexanders, but I was too distracted by the inlay to notice which.)

A medieval street in Rome near the Vatican. All those cobblestones are basalt!

The first Roman mile marker on the Via Appia (which is not only made of basalt, but built on a lava flow).

Ruts in Via Appia basalt.

The amphitheater at Sutri, which is excavated out of volcanic tuff (and right next to even older Etruscan tombs that were dug out of the same unit).

Probably the most spectacular columnar jointing I've ever seen in my life, in a Vulsini District trachyte. (The bush at the top of the cliff is roughly four meters tall.)
The pines of Rome and part of the Palantine Hill. This explains why Pliny the Younger's comparison of eruption columns to pine trees always confused me - Roman pines don't look like American ones!

The Fossa cone on Vulcano. Vulcano is a lovely island, but not if you can't stand the smell of sulfur vents!

Strombolicchio, a volcanic neck off the coast of Stromboli, where an early calc-alkaline volcanic center existed about 200 ka.

One obligatory cute cat photo from a bookstore on Stromboli.

And an obligatory Strombolian eruption photo. If you look closely through the spatter, you can see the lights of the boats watching from about 850 meters below. (Next time, I'm parking myself on a boat for the light show - much more relaxing than the climb!)

Monday, July 20, 2009

When do I get to go?

A proper geologist's photo, with foot for scale. (According to NASA's Apollo 11 Image Library, "Second photo of Buzz's second soil-mechanics bootprint.") I like this one almost as much as the iconic solo bootprint.

I haven't spent much time today listening to interviews or news reports about the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, but I did get a chance to watch
For All Mankind (1989), which just showed on Turner Classic Movies. And even though it was a movie, and edited for dramatic effect and impact, it really floored me.

I'm too young to have experienced any of the age of the Apollo missions firsthand, but watching the videos and listening to the astronauts who were walking on another world is really humbling. As a geologist I've had the craving to go there myself, every once in a while; and as a human, I can understand what the astronauts were talking about when they said that mankind was meant to explore, no matter where. One thing that really struck me was one of the Apollo 17 astronauts saying that, even though the Moon was so far from Earth and home, and should have been totally alien, it felt like home, familiar.

I wonder, if I ever had the chance to visit, whether it would feel the same to me. Maybe the geology would make it feel that way - there are volcanoes on the Moon, after all. The video from the Apollo 17 mission showed the astronauts collecting rock samples - and they were having a wonderful time of it, joking and clowning just like we all do in the field. But to do that on the Moon!

It's hard not to look at it romantically, especially since I grew up watching From the Earth to the Moon and The Right Stuff. And it's a pity that we probably won't go back there anytime soon, if we decide to focus on Mars. But I honestly can't understand how people can see those photos and videos and listen to the men who've been there, and still say that it's wasteful and unnecessary to want to go back. How could anyone say that when we've barely even taken a few steps toward exploring it? That's an attitude I'll never comprehend.

I'm glad that there were people who dedicated their lives to sending humans to the Moon, and that there still are. And as a geologist, I'd like to think I share a little bit of their drive to explore and discover new things - even if I never get to leave the Earth. (And there's still a lot of Earth to see...)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A geology geek to the core (Accretionary Wedge #18)

Sitting here in Zion National Park, one of the last spots I visited on my first geology field course, I feel like I'm coming full circle to some of the reasons that I'm still doing geology. (I also feel like I could receive wifi through my teeth. Twenty plus wifi points? Really?) Anyway, it's a perfect chance for me to answer Volcanista's question:
So July’s topic is about your inspiration to enter geosciences. Was it a fantastic mentor? Watching your geologist parents growing up? A great teacher, or an exciting intro field trip? How did it happen?
I first became interested in geology as a little kid - that rock and dinosaur phase that so many of us go through. Fortunately, living in the DC area meant that I could go see the Smithsonian Natural History Museum pretty much any time I wanted to, and I did. I remember my dad lifting me up over the rail so I could pet the fake tyrannosaur skull, and driving the video camera that looked in on the fossil prep lab, and peering at the fluorescent minerals in the gem and mineral exhibit. My parents let me dig giant holes in the backyard, and the one time I found a fossil (a shell mold), I remember asking if the Smithsonian might want it for their collection.

I pretty much knew I wanted to do geology all through primary and secondary school, and especially volcanology. Some Saturdays I would watch tapes of the old Planet Earth series (the one narrated by an Attenborough, not this Sigourney Weaver stuff they redid recently), and I would always skip to the plate tectonics and volcanoes episode. (Yes, I was pretty much an uber-geek from the start.) When I got to high school, the "geosystems" class was mostly meant for non-AP-track students, so I took AP Chemistry and, somehow, found out about a volunteer position at the Smithsonian instead, helping edit the Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network . Two summers of that and I was hooked on volcanoes for good; I literally couldn't imagine having any career other than geology, and volcanoes were especially fascinating.

When I went looking at colleges, the geology program was a big factor, and I pretty much knew that I was going to go to William & Mary the moment I set foot on campus. When I started classes, I was so excited to be taking intro geology that I sat front and center the whole semester (although the instructor, who was a visiting prof, didn't even recognize me when I met him at GSA a year or so later). I was lucky enough that my freshman advisor turned into my permanent advisor, and that he took a chance on letting me into his Regional Field Geology course with nothing more than Intro and Historical Geology under my belt.

And that's how I ended up in Zion, and a lot of other places on and around the Colorado Plateau, after my freshman year. I didn't know much about minerals, or field mapping, or structures, or petrology, or pretty much anything at the start of that trip - but boy, did I learn. After three and a half weeks in the field I was pretty much hooked for life, even though I spent a good chunk of it being sweaty and tired and sleeping on rocks and generally being upset with my own lack of experience.

I was also hooked on the field work, which turned out to be a good thing - my senior research project, and some mapping I've been helping with the last couple of years, grew out of one stop on that first long field course. My advisor played a huge part (and I've written about it before), and the fact that he pushed me to work hard and take risks is one of the reasons I'm still in the field. It's invaluable to have someone who believes in you, after all. (He's also one of the reasons I became a better writer, and boy, has that paid off!)

I think the moment that I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a volcanologist was when I scooped a blob of molten rock out of a Kilauea lava flow and watched it cool. My field notes for that hike say "BEST DAY EVER!" even though I know I was tired and hot and had a twisted ankle at the end of the hike. Handling the lava - seeing it up close for the first time - was just addictive, and every time I see a volcano I get the same sort of rush, to varying degrees.

So, I guess my answer is a mixture of things. I feel like to some extent the geology just got hardwired in there, although I have no idea how. But experiences and mentors were a huge part of it as well - and now that I'm in grad school for volcanology, and have even more great mentors to work with, I hope I'll want to stick with it for a long time to come.