Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Plate tectonics with Tartan Totty!

Let me introduce you to the geologist Dr Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth, UK.

It was Dr Stewart who first introduced me to stromatolites (among other things, see below) through an excellent TV series he made with the BBC, called Earth:the Power of the Planet.  If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend you buy the dvd and the book (published by National Geographic).  Together they make a superb introduction to Geology and the Earth’s physical evolution. 

If you find the mere mention of geology a turn-off, think again – you are turning away from your own history, your place in the universe and the potential contained in that knowledge.  Traditional religion provides ready, if puerile, answers; but a god that allows earthquakes, famines, mass rape and disabilities has no business telling me what is right and wrong and how to lead my life, much less expect my subservience or obeisance. 

As I have grown older, I have become more conscious of my own mortality and the passing away of my parents has served to heighten this feeling.  Of course, we know everyone is going to die, but when you’re younger it all seems so far away and something that happens to other people.  But then – one day you wake up and you realise: you’re on that conveyor belt too and there’s nothing, NOTHING you can do to stop it.  You only hope you won’t be plucked before you fall off the end! 

The changes that each season brings begin to take on a special significance and you realise: this is the way of Nature, this is the Way and you are part of it.  You look at trees and marvel at their resilience.  Some were there before you were even conceived!  And the mountains and rivers – the very land, the moon, the planets … there’s no stopping the thought, and there’s no stopping the world to get off – you're part of it and there’s nowhere to get off to.  And you wonder – why?  I do, and if you haven’t, perhaps you should!

At school, I found geography boring and dropped it at the first opportunity, preferring to study biology instead.  I have never regretted my decision, but now I was keen to learn about something equally valuable and interesting - why is the earth the way it is.  And quite by chance I came across Dr Stewart’s programme.  As they say: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  I was certainly ready, and geology teachers don’t come much better or better looking than Professor Stewart!  (Take note, Professor Brian Cox)

Professor Stewart begins the series by standing at the edge of a volcano in Ethiopia: the heat, the bubbling and splitting, the subsiding and the rising again of the shifting lava serves as a suitable microcosm for the earth's inner core; and an apt metaphor for how the earth’s surface behaves and why.  The key word there is behaves.  The earth is not dead, formed in the distant past – by a single act of divine creation and left hanging.  It is alive, heaving, its surface scratched with ‘cracks’ in much the same way as the surface of molten lava (the mantle).  Dr Stewart likens it to “the seams of a giant baseball” that divide the earth’s surface into plates.  The heat within the planet causes these immense plates to shift, rub and press against each other.  It’s called tectonics – like two giant sumo wrestlers weighing down on each other, the plates lock in a seeming stalemate, until one succumbs to the pressure of the other.  The rupture is what we call an earthquake. 


Simple isn’t it? No need for divine vengeance or anger - in fact no need for divine anything - just the natural outcome of a process driven by heat and pressure.  It was first suggested by the German geophysicist Alfred Wegener (among others, I believe) in around 1912 and was called continental drift at the time.  Advances in technology and knowledge have proven it to be correct and, more to the point, an on-going process that is driven by convection.  Perhaps the pictures below will help you appreciate what this means:

You see, there will always be earthquakes.  All of us are living on giant floating slabs that long, long ago were all huddled together.  People have called this land mass a large continent and given it the name of Pangaea or Gondwana at different times.  These slabs or plates have been drifting and will continue to drift - colliding against each other in their travels.  These travels contain within them another fascinating story about the evolution of life - and so us, but that is another post!  

Of course, there are other factors that contribute to shaping our earth, for example water – as rain, river and ice.  The whole process unfolds over many, many years that make our own lifespan seem fleeting in comparison.  It's a humbling thought and perhaps one that should be borne in mind more often.  It's the process that will continue long, long after we've gone and been reclaimed by that process.  We're little more than blips thrown up, only to fall back into the shifting cauldron that is the earth. 

And earthquakes are part of that cauldron, part of the earth's very fabric - they have happened, continue to happen and will continue to happen, no matter how good we all are!  Being good has nothing to do with it.  We are all vulnerable, regardless.  And it is this shared vulnerability that binds us.   As Phil Ochs said so eloquently: There but for Fortune go you and I. 

If there is a god, that god is within each of us and it is there - in ourselves and in each other - that we must seek any benevolence, kindness and even mercy.  There is only each other.  If there is a heaven, that is where we'll find it.  I shall allow the full significance of this to sink in - and if I have aroused your interest to learn more and numbed your vanity so that you reflect on Life and your life, I would have succeeded in my first objective in writing this post.

My second objective will be the topic of my next post.  'Till then, I leave you with another picture of the delicious Dr Stewart!


ps: I shall be away for the Easter break, so the next post will not be for a while (sighs of relief).

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