The Well Written Geologist part 2 – Walter Alvarez

I’ll being by stating the obvious, that I want to learn the old Italian songs that the geologists like to sing in the evening.

My first GSA was in 1997, I was an undergraduate and it was my first time in Salt Lake City. I remember little, likely a combination of my nerves and the overwhelming nature of a national meeting, especially for a student coming from a department with only 4 faculty and 15 majors (In particular I remember good mexican food and sitting in the speaker ready room checking that both of my slide carousels were synched). Since then I’ve been to half a dozen or so GSAs, a bunch of AGUs, and a few other smaller meetings. The things that stand out from every meeting differ: I’ve seen some great talks and some terrible talks, watched some loud and argumentative people ask odd questions, got food poisoning, scored some free schwag, caught up with friends, and even saw a weird musical number.

There is one thing though that has stood out clearly in my thoughts since the 2002 meeting in Denver. (Full disclaimer, in my brain this happened in Seattle, but based on information I learned today it was likely Denver….I may be wrong about the facts, but my spirit is true). My entry for today’s Well Written Geologist should technically be called the Well Spoken Geologist. That year, John McPhee was receiving an award from GSA, and I decided to attend the ceremony to hear his acceptance speech. But John McPhee wasn’t what stuck in my head that year, instead it was the acceptance speech that Walter Alvarez gave for the Penrose Medal. The speech wasn’t long, but I’ve thought about it often, and in some ways it expresses why I decided to practice non-work writing (i.e. blog). This passage resonates with me because it sums up some of the reasons I love field work, field trips, and why I enjoy being a part of the geologic community (I am amazed at how few of my colleagues I dislike).

So some background. Obviously, Alvarez is best known for his work on the K-T boundary (K-Pg be damned even if that does sound like one of my favorite radio stations). Specifically, he and his co-workers discovered that a layer of clay corresponding to the K-T boundary was brimming with Iridium. He details the discovery and it’s implications in T. Rex and the Crater of Doom, one of my favorite popular science books and the winner of the best title ever award. The field work he describes was in the Apenines of Italy, and I just today discovered a transcript of his speech. So here it is, entry number two in my series.

But now it is autumn. The days are shorter, the air is a little chilly, and the leaves are turning to colors on the misty slopes of the Apennines.

Of the two dogmas I learned as a student, I have watched as one was demolished, and participated in correcting the other. Their demise has made it possible for geologists and paleontologists to acquire a deep, rich understanding of Earth history, inconceivable when I was a student.

And although new challenges await, perhaps it is a good time to pause and breathe in the fresh, cool air of October, to thank you all for the honor of the Penrose Medal, and then perhaps to gather up Milly and a few old friends, and go and find the Italian geologists in a little trattoria, in some village way back in the Apennines. The day’s field work is done. The local wine is waiting, the pasta sauce with the freshly gathered fall mushrooms fills the air with its irresistible aroma, and sausages are sizzling on a grill in the fireplace.

And if you listen, you can hear the soft, sweet harmonies of an old Italian song the geologists like to sing, in the evening.

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