By Nick

Do images like this reinforce the perception that a geologist is someone who just studies rocks?

Perhaps the most frequent comment I saw/was told about regarding my previous post, an interview with star orienteer Lizzie, was an apparent typo in the title. I had referred to Lizzie as a geologist, instead of a geophysicist, a sacrilege to the gods of geophysics (praise be to James Forbes). It got me thinking about the disciplines in the earth sciences and the issue of identity. In my eyes at least, saying you’re not a geologist but a geophysicist is like saying, “I’m not human, I’m a New Zealander*” (insert your own joke here).

Let’s start with a trip to the dictionary:

geology /jēˈäləjē/

Noun: The science that deals with the earth’s physical structure and substance, its history, and the processes that act on it.


Noun: a specialist in geology

So why do Earth Scientists** not identify themselves as geologists?

Like many things, it comes down to a nature versus nurture debate. Let’s start with nurture. Earth Scientists come from many different backgrounds, studying many different subjects at school, and most crucially, many different undergraduate degrees. It doesn’t take a degree with geology in the name to become an Earth Scientist. But those without the geology background don’t like to call themselves geologists. It is understandable, but when our subject is a really friendly and welcoming one, why don’t the more relative newcomers to the field consider themselves geologists when they contribute so much to the field? Is the ability to recognise plagioclase feldspar under a microscope in cross-polarised light a condition of calling yourself a geologist?

Some might also consider themselves as lacking the true nature of geology in their work. The word geology tends to bring certain things up in people’s minds, mainly rocks. Which (in my opinion at least) is silly, studying rocks is petrology (definition: the study of rocks). As the Earth Sciences has become so broad, many don’t even consider rocks at any point during their studies, those that might work on oceans for example.

So it would seem that many people in our field feel as though they lack the nature or nurture to call themselves geologists. Which I think is a shame. I believe that geology is a broad reaching term meaning the same thing as earth scientists, but using a far less clunky term.

I would consider geologist not as a term that replaces the subdivision into which people might classify their field***, but as an all encompassing umbrella name to which we can all identify with. After-all, I am a speleologist, paleoclimatologist, low-temperature geochemist, geochemist and a geologist. It all depends on how much I want to specialise my field. I don’t mind people using whatever specialised term they feel is most relevant to their field, but it doesn’t make sense to me to deny being a geologist if you study the workings of our planet (or indeed other planets these days), in the past or using proxies that relate to the past****.

I want geology to be an inclusive term, because geologists are fun people, smart people, nice people. Let’s all have a party and celebrate our geologyness – together!


* using the word Kiwi would just confuse the issue in this example.

** the politically correct name for geologists.

*** geochemist, geophysicist, seismologist, paleoclimatologist, paleoceanographer, petrologist, experimental petrologist, biogeochemist, geobiologist, geomicrobiologist, paleontologist, volcanologist, structural geologist, sedimentologist, hydrogeologist, limnologist, climate modeller, paleomagnetist, mineralogist, geodesist, etc. etc. etc.

**** Those who deal purely in the present, using direct measurements rather than proxies would be those that I think are exempt for the name geologist, meterologists for example, is part of the earth sciences but maybe not geology – there are grey areas in everything.