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Of giant leaps and mankind

TedViagraResized.jpgI am writing on the 47th anniversary of the first Moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin - a day I remember well, because the great event fell happily into a physics period, and our dour physics master could hardly refuse our request to listen to it live on someone’s transistor radio.  It was one small step for man, one giant improvement on the equations of motion: though Newtonian physics got us to the Moon in the first place - a fact that Mr Mort might have done well to point out.

Great feats of yore quickly come to look ‘impossible’ as technological progress advances.  We know that somehow, the Apollo missions managed with computer capacities vastly inferior to those now available on any smartphone.  We use more computing power to find Pokemon than Apollo 11 needed to find its way to another world.  How was this possible?

The acceleration of technological progress has speeded up our estrangement from the ways of the past, previously familiar from contemplating more ancient wonders.  How did the Greeks conceive, design and build their temples without CAD software?  How did the Egyptians fashion their obelisks without the benefit of complex tools?  We constantly underestimate what can be achieved by hand and mind - given sufficient time, and now-inconceivable levels of oppression, poverty and cruelty.

We also forget a lesson that geologists learn, which is the selectiveness of the fossil record.  Ancient machinery may not preserve well, but that does not mean it did not exist – as the Antikythera Mechanism, now thought to date from 100-200BC, demonstrates.

In this month’s issue, Sam Cornish (who won a Society Research Grant for his doctoral fieldwork) describes using drone photography and special software packages to resolve structural complexities in the Oman Ophiolite.  This is a neat and timely demonstration of how old and new can work together: true fieldwork with all its joys, augmented by new tools inconceivable only a few years ago.  Sooner than we expect, people will be wondering how it was ever possible to resolve complex 3D geology without the aid of such tools. 

Yet, when I did fieldwork in Oman over 30 years ago, the situation was not quite hopeless.  Even then, a few geologists I knew – the late Mike Coward foremost among them - had an uncanny ability to do all this in their heads.  But this is precisely what technology chiefly does.  What once only a genius could do, many now can.


[email protected], @TedNield @geoscientistmag