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It's not all about rocks...

orange roughy

Geology can take you wherever you want to go, according to Dr Clive Trueman, speaking at the Earth Science Teacher’s Association conference in Southampton.

18 September 2009

‘I thought you said you were a geologist’ is apparently a question Clive Trueman hears a lot when he talks about his work. And no wonder – his research covers areas as diverse as archaeological settlements, conservation of fisheries and isotopic analysis. All of these subjects and more, he told the Earth Science Teacher’s Association this morning, come under the more general heading of ‘Earth Sciences’, and are an important way to demonstrate to students and the public just how diverse the subject can be.

Truman began his talk by pointing out a popular, but flawed, way of teaching fossilization, by describing the process as burial, followed by mineralisation, without going into the chemical details.

‘That doesn’t really tell us very much about what turns a bone into a fossil. I started thinking about this - what I thought to be quite a geological question’.

This led to the study of microscopic bone crystals, and how they become fossilised by the breakdown of collagen fibres - a mixture of biology, chemistry and geology that gives a much greater understanding of the process of fossilisation than simply drawing diagrams of buried skeletons.

It’s even possible to use data about the speed with which trace elements enter the bone to create a system for direct radiometric dating of fossil bones – something which would be hugely useful to geologists used to relying on stratigraphic methods of dating.

This integrative way of working isn’t only useful to geologists. Trueman has taken his Earth science expertise to archaeologists and anthropologists, and used it to help them understand human activity in places like Kenya and Israel.

‘A big question in archaeology, particularly in human evolution, is if you find a distribution of stone tools or bones that are unevenly distributed across the ancient soil, can you interpret that distribution as evidence of how the land was used? This is a geological question’.

Earth scientists can help to provide answers, in Trueman's case by using similar techniques to those applied to fossils – looking at trace elements within the soil and finding out whether artefacts have been found where they were originally deposited.

His definition of the Earth sciences doesn’t stop here. ‘All of these subjects have the possibility of having a common tool box. You should be able to take the same sorts of ideas and approaches and do something in, say, ecology’.

This is exactly what he has done - using his expertise in biominerals to find out more about how animals behave in their environment. By studying the bones of fish like the much over-fished Orange Roughy, he has provided information about their movements based on their isotopic signature which has been vital to ecologists’ efforts to preserve them.

'It's incredibly rewarding', he told the conference. 'You make a geological prediction and tell the ecologists where their fish should be, and they find them'.

All of which suggests that, for students considering becoming geologists, or for anyone wondering what geology is all about, to assume that it’s all about rocks would be a big mistake. The skills that the study of geology requires can take scientists in all sorts of directions, depending on their interests.

‘Geologists have this amazing ability to be integrative scientists’, says Trueman. ‘And that makes geology the best possible training to be an Earth scientist of any kind…to be prepared to answer these really big connected questions about the Earth’.