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[Disclaimer: Bina Venkataraman is a close relative and, in my opinion, an excellent science journalist.]

It is no coincidence that The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age came out a) just as I have begun giving talks about the future of geoscience and its applications in a world powered by more than fossil fuels, and b) at the same time as the formation of a Society of Exploration Geophysicists strategy group dedicated to innovation in capabilities and opportunities for early-career applied geophysicists. The new normal of volatile economies, demographic changes, increasing globalization, climate change and shifting priorities in governance obviously have many more than future-focused geoscientists like me concerned. And not just for ourselves but also and especially for those to whom we leave this world. What will our legacy be? Leaving problems for the kids to work out or searching for and starting solutions?

My talks vary according to the audience, but adhere to and are constructed around the three main components of the future: People, Practice, and Philosophy. First come the People. Who’s We? Who are the individuals and societies we consider in our collective future? Next, Practice. What tools do we have, and which ones need creating? How and why are they used? Finally, Philosophy. Are we mentally and emotionally mature and philosophically capable to talk about the future? Can we change? The philosophy of the futurist must involve an acknowledgement of human interdependencies as well as deep introspection and more open conversation, and is what Optimist’s Telescope opens with. Bina cites the contemplation of human myopia by early Western philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato to modern psychologists: Why this bias for the present when we know it is fleeting and is the future’s past? In truth, thinking about the future isn’t even that profound or ponderous for, as the book says early on, “What appears our doomed fate is, in reality, a choice.” Help yourself and others make good choices that will help us all down the road. Even when boiled down to this simple, accessible problem, the question remains: Can we change?

Yes, we can change, Bina argues, because we have. As I sit in an industry founded on long-term vision but is increasingly funded by impatient stockholders and constrained by their attendant quarterly demands, I read tales of finance houses that gave up short-term earnings statements and annual bonuses as measures of success. I learn of fishermen who curbed their unnecessary practice of resource over-extraction and instead put a plan in place to grow sustainable populations for the future. And I smile at cities that have banned urban development and suburban sprawl hastily constructed on flood plains, subsidence zones and natural coastal barriers. Beyond provoking thought, it is in each chapter being a concrete example of an implementable solution, sustainable practice or failure analysis where The Optimist’s Telescope excels. Furthermore, Bina’s reporting skills helped her put together each of these examples as case studies but first as stories. Empathizing with the story and people of the matter and to the tick of the long clock versus embracing or rejecting it with respect to momentary political ideology may be a better way of enacting longer-lasting and much-needed change. 

New problems need new solutions but there is also wisdom to be had from histories and cultures we refuse to consider in our increasingly “global” scape. Bina goes into this in some detail with takeaways that we can use today and in our seemingly varied communities. We in the 21st-century west are not smarter than ancient Pompeiians or more advanced than the inhabitants of rural Cameroon. In fact, hiding our primitive and failing institutional practices behind the veneer of flashy technology, language-bending buzzwords and crisp suits is so much worse.

Overall, The Optimist’s Telescope is a well-researched and practical yet impassioned plea for a futures-based approach to solving the problem of our continued co-existence on this planet. As I imagine geoscience curricula for schools and universities, we must start with what needs addressing before we routinely pick items for students’ toolbelts. I greatly recommend this book or select chapters to accompany science, philosophy and science communication classes at all levels of education so that it may help students in creating their own future, asking the right questions on its behalf, and designing their own tools to make that future real and good. And, speaking of growing respect for delayed gratification, I can’t wait for the sequel to this book containing more stories and visions of the future.

Further Reading


This Week In Reading 2019-08-23

[Short Story] Neal Stephenson’s Atmosphaera Incognita – A story by Stephenson I read in … wait for it … under 45 minutes (with some flips back to earlier pages for context). What hasn’t changed is the somewhat outlandish renaissance protagonist who goes from being a religious studies major and real estate agent to structural engineering and coding expert in the span of 50 pages. Or I need new friends.

[Fiction] Red Rising by Pierce Brown. A friend (one I will keep) has been pestering me to read this book going on four years now. Fine, fine.

[Essay] Cory Doctorow on science-fiction fandom, John W Campbell’s legacy, and the price paid for sweeping bad conduct under the rug. Goes double for our scientific societies.

[Opinion] Should we make AI more human? by Center for Science and the Imagination’s Nina Miller

[Audiobook] The Conception of Terror: Tales inspired by M. R. James – Volume 1 – Not so terrifying given I listened to the roughly hour-long stories in peak Houston traffic. I recognized Pearl Mackie’s narration immediately – she is such a delight with her perky self-assurance. Overall better voice acting than stories.

[Non-fiction] Slowly straggling my way through Confederates In The Attic, Appomattox not yet in sight. Tony Horwitz tries so hard to report the modern (well, late 1990s) Confederate South such that the words and feelings of its people stand on their own, without judgment. I find it equally difficult on my part to find any common ground with that ethos from the vantage point of America In 2019, and without judgment.


The Resurgence of Seismic Inversion

This spring, I chaired the Geophysical Society of Houston spring symposium, in which the Society honored Dan Hampson and Brian Russell for their tremendous contributions to seismic inversion and applied geophysics. My wrap-up article on the symposium is in this month’s issue of the GSH Journal. Here is a direct link to the article itself: PDF. (Non-geos, there’s a simple explanation in there of what seismic inversion is and why it’s important.)

I’d like to take this opportunity to say that Dan and Brian are complete mensches as are the speakers who honored them. Cheers to them all!

With Brian Russell (left) and Dan Hampson (right). Also proof that Dan Hampson exists outside of complex space.


I spent the last weekend of April in Madison for the University of Wisconsin Geoscience Department alumni reunion weekend. There is no feeling like entering Weeks Hall, that squat and escheresque monolith dedicated to Earth and its study. It’s not just the building that defies spatial-temporal relations, but also the very rocks and memories it contains. So different and yet home. It was nice to visit the geology museum, watch new students work where we worked, and to be inside it all again, even if for a short while. On Wisconsin. On.

This year, the Department had the good sense to give the Distinguished Alum award to Marcia Bjornerud, professor of geology at Lawrence University and author of two remarkable and remarkably relevant books which you may have read or, at least, heard of: Reading The Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth and Timefulness: How Thinking Like A Geologist Can Help Save The World. Marcia is also a contributor of essays to Wired, The New Yorker and The New York Times. A full-time professor and researcher and acclaimed author, Marcia does what all geoscientists should strive for – good science and good writing about science.

Many were unable to attend the alumni gathering. For them and for those who love Marcia’s writing and asked to read her acceptance speech, here it is. Thank you, Professor Bjornerud, for generously sharing your words here and elsewhere, and for being one of the greatest ambassadors of our planet. As you say, “Now those of us who have been fortunate enough to learn the language of the Earth need to be more deliberate about sharing its messages with others.”

Thank you Laurel [Goodwin], I’m honored and grateful to receive this recognition.

I feel so lucky to have found my way into the geosciences and in particular the department here at Wisconsin.

I’d like to share briefly my reflections on how profoundly my four years in Weeks Hall affected the subsequent course of my life – an account that is probably parallel to stories many others here could tell.

In retrospect, I realize that my path to UW Madison geosciences began with an early fascination with Svalbard, an archipelago in the high arctic.

I remember first learning of its existence when in the 8th grade. It was a snow day and I was paging idly through our family’s world atlas. I came to a map of time zones around the world, with the world divided into mostly longitudinal stripes of alternating pastel colors. But there were several places – Antarctica, outer Mongolia, and a place I’d never heard of – Svalbard, in the high arctic – that were colored grey. The legend said that these places had ‘No official time.’

I was captivated by the idea of places that had resisted being shackled by measures of time. Years later I would learn that the ‘no official time’ designation was the result of a long-running spat between the Norwegians and Russians about whether to set the clocks there to the hour in Oslo or Moscow, but the place stuck in my head as somehow exempt from time.

That impression was underscored when, as an undergrad in geophysics at the University of Minnesota I happened to go to an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art on Scandinavian photography. The exhibit included haunting images of the ill-fated Eagle expedition, an 1897 attempt to fly over the North Pole in a hot air balloon.

The balloon crashed on one of the most bleak and remote islands in the Svalbard archipelago and no one knew what happened to the expedition until more than 30 years later when the wreckage was discovered and film that was in the cameras at the site was developed, silently documenting the crash and the slow demise of the explorers.

For me, this only deepened the mystery and allure of Svalbard, the place outside time.

So when I was in the process of applying to graduate schools, and I learned that a structural geologist named Cam Craddock at UW-Madison had a NSF grant that was sending students to Svalbard, it felt like it was my destiny to come here.

It’s hard to overstate how much my graduate fieldwork in Svalbard influenced me scientifically and personally.

First, Cam gave us the opportunity and then stepped back and let us define our own research. This was of course terrifying – but in the process we learned how to work independently and teach ourselves what we needed to know, a skill that has been essential for me as a professor at a small college in a department of only three, in which each of us must teach a wide range of courses, many well outside our specialties.

And the experience of organizing logistics for a 2-month field season in the high arctic later proved invaluable to me as a single parent of 3 boys.

I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to make some of the first geologic maps of one of the last places on Earth to be mapped and to define for subsequent workers what the scientific agenda for that place would be. I developed deep friendships with those who shared the wild beauty of that place, at a time when it was beyond the reach of the outside world. Even though they were often not people who in everyday life I might have chosen as my friends, they became soulmates. We trusted our lives to each other.

I want to mention in particular Jay Nania, who went to Svalbard the fist year I did as our field assistant and then again the next year for his own masters work. Many of you here will know him as a tireless champion for the department as a member of the Board of Visitors. His ebullience and big Italian heart warmed everyone around him.

Fieldwork in Svalbard also opened up a world of connections for me to geologists from around the world. I have to mention that against Cam Craddock’s objections, I took both Norwegian and Russian language courses here at Madison. The connections I made through Svalbard work led to a postdoc at the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State – a place with many UW geoscience connections – and two field seasons with the Canadian Geological Survey in northernmost Ellesmere Island, then back to Svalbard with the Norwegian Polarinstitutt, then to a sabbatical in mainland Norway and indirectly to the South Island of New Zealand.

But the austere high arctic landscapes burrowed deepest into my psyche – forever changing my perception of being a human on Earth and profoundly influencing my teaching and writing.

Some other lasting imprints of graduate school days here include the extended field trips faculty ran – Cam Craddock’s trips to Wyoming and around the shores of Lake Superior; Lloyd Pray’s to the Ouachita Mountains and Guadalupes. It wasn’t until I was a faculty member that I understood what great effort and stress goes into running those trips.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that at that time there was some tension in the department between the old guard, who were largely field oriented, and new faculty who were bringing modern quantitative methods and analytical instrumentation to the geosciences. But in retrospect, being at the cusp between these generations was an optimal moment – and enabled me to define a distinctive niche between field-based investigations and modeling and quantitative analysis.

Faculty who shaped my thinking include
John Valley – who arrived from a faculty position at Rice the same fall I entered grad school here. His metamorphic petrology course was a transformative intellectual experience for many of us.
Herb Wang’s Finite Element modeling course was similarly foundational.
Carl Bowser taught a biogeochemical cycling seminar that was far ahead of its time.
Bob Dott, was of the older generation but continuously embraced new ways of thinking, and who instilled in me and many others an appetite for learning the history of geology – which I turn share with my own students.
And Gordon Medaris was – and continues to be – a beloved mentor to me and my own students – through our shared interests in the rich and complicated Proterozoic rock record in Wisconsin.

I still regret that I never had the chance to take courses from Dave Mickelson – or from Mary Anderson, then the only woman on the faculty.

I won’t pretend there weren’t difficulties for women students then, given the dearth of female mentors. But I was lucky to be in a cohort of strong sister students: Judy LaKind, who now runs her own environmental consulting firm in DC area, Amy Cheng, who worked for Chevron, then GoCad, writing software all oil companies use, Claudia Mora, recent past President of GSA, Jean Morrison, associate provost at USC now Provost at Boston University. And I want to remember administrative assistant Ruth Dresser, who was like a protective aunt to us.

They gave me the courage to take a faculty position at Miami of Ohio, where I was the only woman in a department of 13 and earned tenure but left because the call of Wisconsin’s rocks and landscapes was too great.

Now, interestingly, two of Cam Craddock’s granddaughters, Annie and Erica, have been geology majors and my academic advisees at Lawrence.

I feel so lucky to be in a field that nourishes both my mind and soul. Geology is unique in how it brings people together at a very human level across generations and cultures. There is something intimate about sharing both the physical experience of specific places and the intellectual intensity of interpreting them – that’s what all of us here share, whether we overlapped on campus or not.

Now those of us who have been fortunate enough to learn the language of the Earth need to be more deliberate about sharing its messages with others.

Thank you.

Marcia Bjornerud | University of Wisconsin Department of Geoscience Distinguished Alumna Award acceptance speech | 25 April 2019

Compelling. Representative. Relevant. Useful. These are words used to describe what geoscientists want from their scientific society and that are only now beginning to be uttered by those in charge of these long-standing institutions. Now throw these words against the context of diminishing funds for science from government and industry, the changing nature of the university education, a quickly disappearing social safety net, and the emergence of non-western global competitors. A message emerges: Most geoscientific societies are no longer useful in their current incarnation. Each one of these societies is spread too thin and cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road. But, what should they do? Here are some ideas to get us talking.

  • Reformulate the Society less as a collection of like-minded geoscientists, but as a community of humans who practice geoscience. Neither is science as clinical as some people pretend it is nor is it done in a vacuum by automatons.
  • Furthermore, the work of all geoscientists has an immediate link to life and living on earth and related policy. Consider charging a governing body like American Geosciences Institute with taking on a bigger role in corralling the various societies and forcing them to examine redundancies. As physical and monetary resources diminish all around, this is almost a no-brainer.
  • Geophysicist vs. Geologist vs. Engineer is a thing of the past. You are a geoscientist with strong quantitative skills and a clear understanding of the socioeconomic implications of your work or you are not. Merge like-minded geoscience societies and some engineering and economic aspects into mission-guided, feasible and attractive wholes. The Academia vs. Industry beef also needs to be resolved in a similar fashion. We are ALL in this together.
  • If the previous suggestion is unacceptable, allow for free flow of people, thought and practice among these societies, and figure out a way to deal with the qualification and fee barriers.

Why a society at all? As human bodies, social units and organizational collectives, we are in deficit spending. We are tired, overworked, underfunded, stressed, uncertain, foggy. We need spaces in which to commiserate and support each other, much less build and uplift. Let’s build them together, and as communities, not as clubs.

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