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The universe in stone: An interview with Mark Wilson

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(for Patriarch)

This is how professor Mark Wilson describes the specimen pictured above: “The platform is the wavy outer layer of a bivalve shell. Attached to it are encrusting organisms (sclerobionts). The long, gorgeous tube is a rugose coral. At its base is a ribbed athyrid brachiopod. Also in this vignette are bryozoans, additional corals and some really tiny productid brachiopods. Beautiful.”

He is, of course, talking about something that can risk seeming a bit dull: fossils. But for Wilson, they aren’t just fossils, or rocks. They are something more, something vastly important. He believes that, given the right introduction, we can learn to see in these rocks exactly what he does: beauty, intrigue, and an endless source of inspiration.

Wilson is a professor of geology and Lewis M. and Marian Senter Nixon Professor of Natural Sciences at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. He teaches “History of Life,” Semimentology and Stratigraphy” and a first year seminar in “Nonsense (and why it’s so popular).” I reached him where he teaches, at Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio.

PM: What was it that inspired in you a fascination with geology?

I grew up in the Mojave Desert and had an idyllic childhood of nature activities in the dry wilderness around my hometown. My parents were remarkably tolerant and allowed me to have all sorts of adventures with like-minded friends. In high school I was part of an innovative federally-funded program on desert research for high school students, which gave me a scientific framework for what I was seeing and experiencing in the countryside. I considered myself a junior biologist, being fascinated with desert animals and their evolution.

It was in college that I first met geology. I took an introductory course from an energetic and enthusiastic professor named Fred Cropp. Until I then I hardly thought of the rocky bones of the Earth I’d been exploring in the desert, nor had I considered the implications of the fossil horse bones and teeth we used to collect. Immediately I found what I wanted to be: a geologist with a speciality in paleontology. I could thereby study rocks, fossil life and evolution as an integrated, historical narrative. What could be better?

PM: Why should people be interested in rocks? Maybe “should” is too strong a word, but it seems clear that you feel that rocks are worthy of our attention, and not just because, say, we’re looking for fossil fuels or precious gems or metals.

“Should” is a good word here! Besides the practical value of Earth materials (as the saying goes, if it isn’t grown, it’s mined) there is a philosophical reason to find rocks endlessly fascinating. They show us that the Earth has a history — a long, long history. They are immediate reminders that humans have been around for a brief instant compared to the immensity of geological time. Our planet was formed billions of years ago. Continents grew and broke apart, moving like puzzle pieces across the globe. Oceans came and went. Life blossomed from bacteria to us in completely unpredictable ways. There were catastrophes and mass killings, extraordinary times of evolutionary innovation, and landscapes we can scarcely imagine. All of this is recorded in the rocks beneath us. On top of this, the human story of how we recover information from these stony books is in itself inspiring.

PM: When you describe various specimens you use, really wonderfully I should say, the language of art: gorgeous, vignette, beautiful. Is it purely an aesthetic judgement, or does a perception of beauty come from what the specimen means to you, such as the moment in geologic history that it describes, or what it says about our biological heritage?

It is difficult to sort out emotions from rationality with such a topic. In part I feel a strong sense of natural order and consequence with fossils. Maybe a good word for this is “elegance” in the way a physicist describes a particularly fertile equation. Each fossil shows exquisite adaptations over countless generations, showing what extended time and biology can create. Yet no organism is perfectly adapted. Every type of life is trying to catch up with changing circumstances, staying just ahead of extinction. These fossils thus represent survivors of immense struggles in their circumscribed worlds. It is the beauty of the weathered tree still standing on the windswept hill from which so many others were removed. And on the other hand, as you suggest, the fossils simply ARE beautiful regardless of their historical implications. The symmetry of a coral, the repeated patterns of a bryozoan, the smiling commissure of a brachiopod. It is a joy to surround myself with these objects of natural art.

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PM: Are there any moments in your working life when you think, “this is exactly what I was meant to be doing!”

My moments of exhilaration are so frequent in this job that I can no longer list them.
I’m a geologist who is a teacher. I can’t imagine being anything else. Not only can I indulge my enthusiasms in the field and lab, I’m actually required to talk about them! And as we all know, teaching something is the best way to learn it, or at least to continually add to my understanding (and subtract, I hope, my misunderstandings.) My moments of exhilaration are so frequent in this job that I can no longer list them. They go from watching a student’s face light up with an idea in class to seeing a student accomplish a complicated procedure in the field with pride and satisfaction. There is nothing better than to meet my former students having their own such intellectual joys. I don’t take credit for their accomplishments, of course, but I’m proud to have been on the team that nurtured their growth. When I need to imagine a “happy place” (like when I’m deep in an endless committee meeting), I can literally feel the crunch of gravel under my boots as I hike up some desert wash looking for something new as the rocks unfold beside me.

PM: You offer a course in Nonsense. What’s that about?

My Nonsense course is a First-Year Seminar at Wooster. These are courses, required of all incoming students, that emphasize critical thinking and writing for students beginning their college careers. The faculty members can choose how they wish to frame their courses. I teach a course on critical thinking by exploring ideas beyond the fringe of rationality. It thus reveals modes of inquiry by outlining the boundaries between sense and nonsense. Why is it that some people persist in beliefs about ghosts, UFOs, astrology, numerology and the like in spite of so much evidence against them? We first outline what the issues are (and there are always new issues to choose) and then study the social patterns and arguments used in their discussion. The central question in the end is what motivates people to believe in the face of such scientific skepticism. The answers are complex, of course, and involve traditions, social stigmas, faulty educations, and so on. The course grew from my experiences teaching evolution and seeing so much resistance to it that went far beyond the science itself.

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PM: If you could tell everyone, anyone, one thing about geology, what would it be?

It is that geology shows us the Earth has a history. Once we take full account of that history and our place in it, our actions and philosophies change. We become characters in a long play that started without us and will not have us at the end. Our actions towards ourselves and nature then have profound effects on our short existence. Stewardship of resources becomes an obvious priority when we see how quickly circumstances can change on Earth. Organizing ourselves as a species with strong social ties and concern for each other is critical to our survival in a place that doesn’t owe us any favors.

For the post mentioned above, see: http://woostergeologists.scotblogs.wooster.edu/2012/10/21/woosters-fossils-of-the-week-silicified-sclerobionts-middle-permian-of-southwestern-texas/

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