A brief history of the Geosciences
Recently at a major German Research facility a talk relating to the micro-, meso- and macro- scales of research in Earth Science was delivered. It was interesting to note how we, as geoscientists, are integrating multiple tools in order to better understand the world around us and thus in turn improve society as a whole. Possible future projects were also outlined and these delved into the unknown. The real personal question which arose is: Where did all of this thinking originate?
In order to properly understand geoscience one has to delve into the past and see where the thinking originates from, how it has developed and consequently what has molded our thinking. It is critical to note that great geoscientists of the past were not necessarily geoscientists by classification and looked at problems from a holistic viewpoint. These great minds were keen observers, thinkers and in many cases philosophers and mathematicians with an interest in the world around them.
The Pyramids at Giza, in Egypt, are a prime example of the applied geosciences. The stones were sourced from another location, due to the fact that the designers knew of the ability of the material to withstand the elements. Furthermore the exact design, orientation and location of these ancient wonders allows one to believe that applied geological science was in existence some 3000 years before Christ, but nobody had the nomenclature in order to classify it. When standing in the presence of these structures, armed with this knowledge, one can only stare in awe and only imagine how, when and where the idea for these magnificent structures came about. Everything about these three large pyramids is amazing. This leads you to question whether the deeper understanding of the magnificent history of science could guide our future applications.
When one looks into the annals of history we find that as early as 300 BC in Ancient Greece Theophrastus, who was a student of Aristotle and Plato, was examining concepts relating to geological science. He was a philosopher and deep in thought about processes on the earth. His ideas were guided by those of Aristotle who made critical observations of the slow rate of geological change. Furthermore his teacher also hypothesised what happens to water below the subsurface. It is interesting to note that the basis for earth science as we know it was deep thought observation and critical analysis.
Approximately 1300 years later Ibn Sina commented on the work of Aristotle and further delved into these surface processes, mountain formation, sources of water, formation of minerals and the origin of earthquakes. Thereafter Shen Kou, who was also a naturalist, proposed the modern theories of Geomorphology. This Chinese scientist, who dabbled in many fields, observed surface processes and the erosion of mountains as well as the consequent deposition of materials in the ocean. From a better understanding of these processes we have learnt to understand the formation of offshore mineral resources and thus extract them.
The initial applied use of geological science related to the extraction of resources, as previously mentioned. This can be seen from the oldest gold mine in the world in Georgia, which supposedly dates back to the third millennium B.C. This application in turn affected where we situate our dwellings, the materials used to construct these dwellings, as well as the relationship/impact we had with/on the immediate (surrounding) environment. It is a known fact that settlements were located along rivers in order to minimise the amount of time spent on collecting water. This life source also caused destruction when flooding occurred, yet we persisted to reside on the floodplain.
More recently and closer to home, due to the groundwater resources supplying the majority of the country’s freshwater, Henry Darcy became the father of hydrogeology in 1856. He examined flow in saturated porous media in the water supply of Dijon, France and then announced a law named after him.
Thus heralded an era of French Mathematics, particularly applied to the earth sciences, which we have never seen before. Charles Matheron, Benoit Mandelbrot and Pierre Gy all looked at problems related to understanding the earth. Thus it is clearly evident that a rich history of geoscience has lead to the point whereby we are at the cutting edge of great discoveries and intergration of knowledge. The future is so bright I have to wear shades!