November 12, 2014

Backtrack to… Who is our big name in geology, and where’s our show?

Posted by Laura Guertin

Alton Brown and his Mega Bake Oven, during the Alton Brown Live! show in Philadelphia on 11/08/14,

Alton Brown and his Mega Bake Oven, during the Alton Brown Live! show in Philadelphia on 11/08/14,

Every once in awhile, I come across something (a tweet, an email, etc.) that reminds me of an article I read or a past conference presentation.  In this case, it was an evening out that triggered a memory of a flurry of tweets looking for a geology “rock star” to represent our discipline in the popular media and the desire for a geology television mini-series.

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to see the Alton Brown Live! Edible Inevitable Tour in Philadelphia.  Fans of Food Network are familiar with Alton’s series Good Eats, where he is known for breaking down kitchen chemistry with comedy.  For my husband (a chemist), this was his second time seeing Alton Brown, as Alton was a speaker at the American Chemical Society (ACS)’s Fall National Meeting last year.  Alton is incredibly popular among chemists, with the line to see him stretching down the hallway of the Convention Center and conference attendees asking anyone for a spare ticket to get in and see his event.  Alton Brown does not have a degree in chemistry, but if you are looking for a keynote speaker that can make chemistry popular and fun, I agree that he is quite effective.

And there are plenty of other science “personalities” past and present that have made a connection with the public – Mr. Wizard, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Robert Ballard, Jane Goodall, and even Grace Hopper (check out her appearance on David Letterman), just to name a few.  TV shows such as MythBusters (with science demonstrations) and Big Bang Theory (a comedy series) make science and scientists exciting and appealing even to nonscientists.  And then we have the return earlier this year of the documentary television series COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Even President Obama recorded an introduction (now on YouTube) to the celebrated return of Carl Sagan’s series that first aired in 1980.

But then, the geoscience community started getting restless.  It is bad enough we have to listen to Sheldon constantly state that “geology isn’t a real science” on Big Bang Theory, but who is the “celebrity” spokesperson for our discipline?  And where is our television series on geology?

I think each and every one of us can share a story about a conversation we have had with a complete stranger about geology – and his/her complete misunderstanding of the discipline.  If we are not viewed as “rocks for jocks” (thanks to this season’s NCIS LA for bringing this one up again), the general public is unsure who and what we are.  For example, after a long day of traveling, I was waiting in a line to check in at my hotel.  Someone walked up to me and asked why so many people were in town, and I explained there was a geology conference about to start.  She then shared how she thought Indiana Jones was “so cool” and how she wants to be like him.  All I could do was sigh.  Movies such as Jurassic Park have certainly called attention to paleontology, but it is now time for geologists to step in to the popular media and share our fascinating world of geology! 

Here’s an idea from another tweet I saw in reference to a #GeologyCosmos – how about it, AGU?

Yes, we like the idea! But we are still left with the question… who would be part of the cast of geology characters?  How would your students respond if you asked them which geologists should be featured in a television series (let’s hope they would not say Indiana Jones…)?