The science of geology may be considerably older than once thought.
- Modern geology has much deeper roots than is generally taught in schools.
- Copernicus pushed Earth out of the center of the universe and recognized it as a planet.
- Earth science can be mistakenly seen as a secondary science.
The modern science of the Earth has long been thought of as starting about 300 years ago, at most. But two geologists now argue that Copernicus, the renown Polish astronomer, set the stage for the modern science more than 500 years ago when he recognized that Earth was not only not the center of the universe, but a planet.
If so, they say, then geology deserves a little more respect as a basic science with deep roots.
"Everybody has heard of the Copernican Revolution," said Walter Alvarez, lead author on a paper addressing the matter in the latest issue of the journal Geology and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. But that revolution has always been associated with physics and astronomy, he said. "Geology is almost an afterthought."
As a result, geology -- at least in the English and American histories of it -- is thought of as commencing with Scottish geologist James Hutton and the "Geological Revolution" of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. That's when scientists recognized that rocks and fossils told the story of a very old Earth with a complicated history.
But in other traditions around the world, Earth science, which includes geology as well as marine and atmospheric sciences, started much earlier, and even includes voyages of discovery by the Portuguese in the 1500s, said Alvarez, whose co-author on the paper is science historian Henrique Leitao of the Universidade de Lisboa in Portugal.
"Physicists and geologists are both first class scientists. They just deal with different things," said Alvarez. "Physics is a high-prestige science and geology, at this point, is not."
And that's a problem, said Alvarez, because Earth science needs to be taken very seriously if we are going to continue to have a habitable planet.
It's also a problem that has led to fewer Earth science classes being offered in high schools -- and even then as secondary science classes. So there are fewer opportunities for young people to be exposed to it. That means fewer chances for students to discover if they have a special interest in studying the Earth.
That eventually also leads to fewer adults who have good grasp of how the planet works, which becomes a real problem when critical Earth science issues like global warming need to be understood by the public and policymakers.
"This whole (high school) system dates from 1894," explained University of California at Davis geologist Eldridge Moores. That's when a panel of 10 scholars, including only one scientist, created the ideas of a fixed set of year-by-year subjects to teach that did not include geology. "It went into eclipse at that time."
Moores has been trying to get the University of California to recognize high school Earth science courses as just as important and useful for admittance as biology, physics and chemistry. In fact, he said, Earth sciences are particularly useful for teaching all the other sciences because they integrate all the other sciences.
"Kids are naturally fascinated by the world around them," Moores said.
Instead of Earth science being an afterthought, why not make it the portal into physics, chemistry and biology?
"It is a change in the mode of thought," Moores said.