Commencement 2020

SO a couple years back, GG made up a fake commencement address for scientists, thinking he was safely insulated from such tasks. Apparently these are desperate times as he was asked to give the address to his department’s virtual commencement. (Why we blew the chance to get some big name to Skype in for cheap remains a mystery).

Anyways, the old draft wasn’t really going to work given our situation, and so GG went a different direction when push came to shove. What do you say when lives have been so disrupted? Here for your amusement is the address as written (note it was prerecorded so campus could put in subtitles)…

Like so much of life these past few months, this address is unusual. For one thing, it is morning here for me and afternoon for you, unless, I guess, you are in Hawaii. Anyways, this isn’t the way these addresses usually work. Every year, of course, we celebrate the accomplishments of our students as we send them out into a broader world. Each year there is a mix of elation and trepidation for both students and families.  This year, much is uncertain. Where you are going may be unclear. What you will do with your knowledge and skills may be in question. Sometimes a look at our past, both as a nation and as geoscientists, can throw light on this murky future. I should like to talk a bit about another student who graduated in dark times, and about a different challenge that faced part of the nation not long after.

So our university graduate of the past left college in the midst of one of the nation’s darkest hours: the Civil War. Back then, in 1862, this gangly, clean-shaven 19 year old student celebrated his graduation from his hometown university in Rochester New York. His background was mainly in mathematics and the classical languages with a smattering of zoology and logic and the barest hint of geology. This fresh graduate moved on to try a career as a school teacher. He failed to control his classroom and resigned before the school year was out. Facing debt incurred from his university education, he returned home, where he found employment as an intern at a place called Cosmos Hall run by his old zoology teacher.

Cosmos Hall was an odd sort of place; it was kind of a museum supply depot, with materials coming in from across America to be identified and cataloged before possibly heading out to a college or museum. Our young apprentice spent the last couple years of the Civil War here and another couple afterwards. While the position didn’t involve any formal training, learning was there to be had and professional connections to be made. Among other duties, employees of Cosmos Hall could and did assist in some paleontological excavations in the region.  One such dig was to recover a mastodon fossil from a large pothole along the Mohawk River. Our young Mr. Gilbert ended up taking much of the responsibility for the dig when noted geologist James Hall wrenched his hip during the work.

All this may seem quaint and mildly distracting, but what followed changed this fellow’s life. Our Mr. Gilbert, while thorough in examining the mastodon, was more fascinated by the pothole. He found uses for his mathematics and logic in exploring just how such potholes could form; he also explored the speed at which a nearby waterfall on the Mohawk River was migrating. He had found geology as a field that interested him and was amenable to his special talents, for unlike most geologists of the day who were trained in chemistry, Gilbert was more at home with logic and mathematics. The techniques he applied and mathematics he employed were a bit unorthodox at the time but might feel right at home here at CU today.

And so began the geologic career of Grove Karl Gilbert, one of the most celebrated and honored of American geologists. And yet his path remained rocky. Having found his calling, he managed to come out of his retiring shell enough to talk his way onto the recently reconstituted Ohio Geological Survey, where he served a form of apprenticeship to John Newberry. After a few years, Gilbert was schooled enough in fieldwork to be a member in 1871 of the team surveying the southwestern U.S. under Lt. George Wheeler. This was the fourth of the great surveys of the American West, but it was Gilbert’s fate to be working within the only survey run by an army officer instead of a scientist. Dragged across a landscape by Wheeler’s demands to survey the area as rapidly as possible, Gilbert later apologized for weaknesses in his reports in a note attached to copies of his report that he distributed that read in part:  “all plans and routes were . . . shaped to give the topographer the best opportunities consistent with rapidity of movement, while the geologist gleaned what he could by the way. To study the structure of a region under such circumstances was to read a book while its pages were quickly turned by another, and the result was a larger collection of impressions than of facts.” Despite these challenges, Gilbert gained familiarity with a region that would provide him with ample fodder for later work.

Even with all these disadvantages, he soon found his way into the more geological Powell survey and then the U.S. Geological Survey. He identified, named, and came to understand the cause of the deformation of the shorelines of an Ice-age lake, pluvial Lake Bonneville (which he named). He identified and named laccoliths, a style of igneous intrusion first recognized by Gilbert in the Henry Mountains of Utah. He would make the first scientific earthquake forecast in 1883 based on his observations near Salt Lake City and the earthquake scarps left from the great 1872 Owens Valley earthquake. 

For a scrawny kid from Rochester who failed as a school teacher, he did pretty well for himself. 

And so we can see success emerge from societal chaos, and we can also see that the path to success might not be obvious or linear. But a solid education, a willingness to learn what lessons are available and an inquisitive mind can work wonders.

So that is my one student’s path; let us now consider a challenge from that same century that faced society in California. It may not have the scope of challenges facing us today, but it is instructive, particularly for us earth scientists.

Gold in the Sierra Nevada was in three places: in the streams where 49ers found it, in the bedrock in veins, and in ancient riverbeds high above the modern rivers. This last home of gold was only economically mined through the use of hydraulic mining.  This style of mining was accomplished by redirecting rivers and streams into pipes and then nozzles that blasted hillsides apart into gravel and sand that was run through sluices to recover the gold. Advances in this kind of mining led to its growth in the early 1870s. Of course, while the miners took the gold, they dumped the sand and gravel (termed tailings) into the streams and rivers, where it started to make its way downstream towards cities and farms in the valley below. 

This produced one of the earliest environmental conflicts in the U.S. as those downstream farmers and cities tried to sue the miners. A brief attempt to corral the tailings in some dams failed; it seemed that the only way to prevent more damage was to shut down the mines—yet the miners had the legal right to the gold in these deposits. Many lawsuits faltered: one mine couldn’t be the sole cause of a flood, but neither could you show that any particular mine actually contributed. And yet, as implausible as it might seem during the Gilded Age, in early 1884, the farmers prevailed when federal Judge Lorenzo Sawyer ordered that hydraulic mining end, in effect forcing miners to leave tons of gold in the ground, where it remains to this day. Sawyer saw that all had contributed to the harm and so all would share in the responsibility.

While many Gold Rush histories end at that point, it’s not like that pursuit of gold stopped. With millions of ounces of gold remaining in these deposits, the mining companies sought to find a way to return to mining. In 1904 they petitioned President Theodore Roosevelt to find a way to solve the tailings problem. This landed on the desk of none other than our former Cosmos Hall intern, G. K. Gilbert. It took him a decade to work through this problem (though to be fair, he was sidetracked by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake). Along the way he quantified how sediment is moved by rivers and he measured where and how much of the tailings were.  He found that the equivalent of 8 Panama-canal’s worth of debris was in the mountains, the rivers, and even San Francisco Bay. He made quite clear the scope of this problem and made sure that the scientific underpinnings were solid.

His task was not to say whether such mining was intrinsically good or bad, it was to say where tailings could be put to avoid destroying farms and navigation. And so he presented a possible option: build a set of very expensive dams in the Sierra to capture all the debris. He said it seemed prohibitively expensive, but there it was should others decide such an effort was worthwhile.

What lessons are there from this little saga? For society, we face today a problem every bit as vexing as the hydraulic mining debris. Global levels of carbon dioxide rise as we burn fossil fuels, causing sea levels to rise and changes to our climate. Science tells us that putting all the identified reserves of oil and gas into the atmosphere will produce dramatic climatic changes; the most obvious solution is to leave these valuable deposits in the ground.  This sounds implausible until you recall that we did exactly that with the gold deposits in the Sierra Nevada over 130 years ago.

For us as scientists, how Gilbert dealt with this problem instructs us on our role going forward. While earth science is pretty irrelevant to our current medical crisis, it is pretty central to the slower crisis of climate change. We will be asked, what happens if we as a society pursue policy X or policy Y? We need to do solid science before laying out the implications on any particular line of inquiry. Earth scientists are being asked about the possibility of storing carbon dioxide in the ground or mitigating its effects in the atmosphere. We will be asked about locating the minerals needed to build a green energy economy and the environmental implications of such mining. We should expect to have to do the hard work of seeing if various proposals will actually work; we can then report back on what is and is not possible. We will also need informed and public-spirited geoscientists to participate in the inevitable discussions about creating policy. 

For you graduates, I hope you see a little of G. K. Gilbert in yourselves. He too left college at a challenging time.  Things didn’t go as planned when he left school, but he learned from all his experiences as he worked. He ended up entering a career where his training was atypical, but the field he found stirred a passion and was more than amenable to his talents. So after an unsteady start, Gilbert found his groove and went on to excel in geology. 

I only hope that we have provided you graduates with a solid background and at least a little inspiration that you will find useful in your future.

And so, class of 2020, I hope you find some strength in these stories of the past to help you as you go forward to make the worlds of 2021 and beyond.

Tags: ,

One response to “Commencement 2020”

  1. Shemin Ge says :



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: