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Cheap Thoughts on Science


Archaeology, Geology, and Paleontology


The history of any one part of the Earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror.
     Derek V. Ager


Wait a thousand years and even the garbage left behind by a vanished civilization becomes precious to us.
     Isaac Asimov


Geology, n. The science of the earth's crust — to which, doubtless, will be added that of its interior whenever a man shall come up garrulous out of a well.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


An archeologist is the best husband a woman can have; the older she gets, the more interested he is in her.
     Agatha Christie


We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.
     Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life (1860)


Once an artist who worked for Scientific American told me that he had a curious difficulty with drawing dinosaurs: from the carnivorous Tyrannosaurus Rex to the herbivorous Brontosaurus, they always seemed to be smiling. I think I know why they are smiling. They realized that their successors would have a terrible time explaining how they became Lords of the Earth and then vanished.
     Dennis Flanagan, Flanagan's View: A Spectator's Guide
     to Science on the Eve of the 21st Century (1988)


There are two possible reactions to the tectonic history of the world. Either you might despair at the apparent randomness of it all, at our insignificance in the face of gigantic forces that are as indifferent to our species as is a torrent to the fate of a mayfly that rides upon it; or you might wonder at the extraordinary richness of history, and feel privileged to be able to understand some part of it. Were it not for a thousand connections made through the web of time, the outcome might have been different, and there may have been no observer to marvel and understand. We are all blessed with minds that can find beauty in explanation, yet revel in the richness of our irreducibly complex world, geology and all.
     Richard Fortey, Earth: An Intimate History (2004)


Does the fact that Mount Everest can be rationally explained diminish its splendour? Would it be more impressive if we still believed it to be the outcome of a battle royal among the gods? Quite the contrary, I believe. Our high prospect over the “roof of the world” is enough to prove that the majesty of mountains endures even when its crags and folds have been rationalized. Far from whittling it away, understanding only increases our awe. As John Ruskin wrote in 1856: “Mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery.”
     Richard Fortey, Earth: An Intimate History (2004)


If the succession of worlds ["cycles of uplift and erosion"] is established in the system of nature, it is vain to look for anything higher [i.e., a "cause or event that would start the cycles off"] in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning — no prospect of an end.
     James Hutton, The Theory of the Earth (1795)