Your World, Rocked

A good introduction to geology course is actually a course in time.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

Let me start by defending geology’s honor. Is there any other discipline that a rhyme so easily reduces to ridicule? Nearly every campus has some version of “rocks for jocks,” the intro geology course touted as the easiest way for granite-brained humanities majors to fulfill their science requirements without significant intrusion on their time or erosion of their GPAs.

But you shouldn’t take geology because it’s easy. (It isn’t necessarily easy—the geology class I took, from a bright-eyed elfin woman with the pleasing, rocklike name of Jan Tullis, certainly wasn’t.) You should take geology because it will fundamentally transform the way you see the world.

I mean this literally. Understanding geology gives you a new way to interpret the visual data of the planet. Sometimes this can feel like X-ray vision or a sixth sense. The color of the soil can tell you what it’s made of. The lightning bolts of white across that cliff the highway blasted through? Quartz veins, a sign of metamorphic activity, way back, when fissures opened up in bending, cracking stone, and mineral-laden water coursed through. Looking out of a plane window at the contours of a mountain range, you can tell from shape alone whether the peaks are old or new—or rather, which are very very old and which are just old. (It’s the opposite of human aging: cragginess is a sign of relative youth, and smoothness comes only with time.) And the words! Schist. Nickeliferous. Gneiss. Each one with its own dense poetry.

Geology helps the land tell you stories. I remember flying once and noticing funny little slab-like mountains, each one distinct from the next, lying in parallel rows. Where once I would have seen only mystery, now I could imagine how those mountains came to be—a sedimentary bed, layer upon flat layer of different types of rock, broken and thrust upward by the movement of the plates, revealing a cross section in which the softer rocks had eventually eroded away, leaving only these orderly little slubs.

But geology does more than give you something to think about when you examine pebbles on a beach or go swimming in a quarry. You should also take geology because there is no better way to gain perspective on the fleetingness of life. Any good intro geology course is actually a course in time. You’ve heard the statistic: If the whole planet has been around for a single 24-hour day, the dinosaurs showed up at 10:56 p.m. and we just before 11:59. But imagine spending hours holding that thought in your mind, learning what happened during all the time that preceded us. Understanding, in a real way, how long the planet has been around; how slow, patient, and indifferent the movement of the rocks beneath us has been; how insignificant in the scheme of things our fervid civilizations and wars and inventions really are—this is a head trip better than any you’ll experience during the concert at Spring Fling.

Taking geology actually had a funny side effect for me. I came into the class an avid environmentalist. I was a child of the ’90s. I cared about whales. I recycled. I spent a semester on a farm. I wanted to keep humans from changing and destroying the planet. But geology complicated my understanding of this desire. The planet has been changing for millennia. It’s been destroyed and remade again and again. The temperature used to be different. The continents were in different places. Different creatures roamed the land. The environmentalist instinct to preserve the planet exactly as it is began to seem not altruistic, but selfish. The planet is a tough cookie. This pile of rocks doesn’t need saving. What we were trying to save, it seemed, was the version of the planet that works best for ourselves. And, sure, future generations and all the other species that currently live here. Still a worthy goal, of course. Perhaps an even worthier one, when you consider how unusual and unlikely Earth’s menagerie is. But geology made me think about it in a new way.

College students often enter university with an outsized view of their own significance. It’s good to study things that make you realize how unimportant you are. As a history major, I took a lot of classes that helped me understand how small my life is in the span of human existence. But there are a few courses—geology, astronomy, perhaps particle physics—that force students to confront true vastness, that make you consider the insignificance not just of your life, but of your entire species. Geology is a gorgeous way to contemplate the abyss.

This is valuable, in the end, because it both helps you care less and makes you care more. What’s a bad day in the scheme of things? But then again, why not make each one count? Something to consider, next time you contemplate the contours of the land.

Read more of Slate’s collection of classes you should take