Rock Stars

Why geologists deserve their own Nobel Prize. 


Alfred Nobel intended his prizes to honor those who had "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." But on top of choosing militarist peace laureates, and overlooking giants like Tolstoy, Joyce, and Ibsen in literature, the awards have another weakness. They are missing a science that has shaped our economy and society so profoundly that we are not even aware of its contribution. It’s the reason we have unprecedented mobility, nutrition and comfort; can have some warning of volcanoes and tsunamis; can contemplate "deep time" on a planet 4 billion years old; and have some inkling of our own origins.

Alongside economics, chemistry, physics, and medicine, there should be a Nobel prize in geology. With any luck, a Russian metal magnate or Texan oil tycoon will step up to endow it.

Every fourth year, the Nobel committee does award the Crafoord Prize for geosciences (taking turns with mathematics, astronomy, and biology). Though worth $500,000, it doesn’t draw anything like the attention the Nobels do. The Vetlesen Prize was created by a Norwegian shipping baron as a kind of geology Nobel, but though it comes with prestige and a big check, it is not awarded annually.

The absence of a geology Nobel is surely an oversight, given how Alfred Nobel’s older brother Robert made his fortune. Working grudgingly for his younger brother Ludvig, he was sent in 1873 to the Caucasus to find walnut wood for the Russian government. Instead, arriving in Baku, he caught oil fever and spent the twenty-five thousand roubles of "walnut money" on a small refinery.

With gushers such as "The Devil’s Bazaar" and "The Wet Nurse," Robert and Ludvig developed the oil tanker, became the oil kings of Baku, and broke Standard Oil’s monopoly on international trade. Russia briefly became the world’s largest producer, a position it would regain in the 1970s, then in the twenty-first century. A young Stalin cut his revolutionary teeth organizing strikes among the workers.

Exhausted by his labors, Ludvig suffered a heart attack at 57; confusion with his better-known brother gave rise to the famous "Merchant of Death" obituary that inspired Alfred to endow his prizes.

Had history worked out a little differently, who might have won the geology prize? Given more than a century’s injustice towards geologists, we will have to relax the restriction on posthumous awards. But the great 19th-century pioneers do not qualify — only work since the first Nobels in 1901 is eligible. So, with apologies to many other great geologists, here is my shortlist.

This year is the centenary of Alfred Wegener’s Continental Drift hypothesis. Wegener, a German meteorologist, noticed that the coasts of Africa and South America fit together, as do Antarctica, Australia, India, and Madagascar. What is more, distinct ancient plants, the fern Glossopteris, and traces of glaciations are found across the southern continents. He proposed that the continents had once been combined into Pangaea — Latin for "All Earth"– and that the Atlantic and other oceans had then opened between them.

A scientific outsider, Wegener was scorned by geologists and physicists alike. He died in 1931 during an expedition to Greenland. His body, not found for six months, was reburied where it lay and now lies under 100 meters of ice and snow.

Wegener’s ideas were kept alive by a few converts until a new generation of brilliant geologists took them up in the 1950s and 60s. Their discovery, plate tectonics, explains how Wegener’s continental drift operates, and ties together earthquakes, volcanoes, mountains, ocean trenches, fossil lineages, petroleum basins, and mineral belts into a paradigm as intellectually satisfying as relativity or genetics.

In 1926, a director of what was then Anglo-Persian (now BP) declared that Saudi Arabia appeared "devoid of all prospects" for oil, and found Albania more promising. Oregon native and Stanford graduate Max Steineke thought differently. Arriving in the kingdom for the first time in 1934 as chief geologist of what is now Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, he grew a beard and donned robes to make himself less strange to the local people.

Six wells had been drilled, unsuccessfully, at Dammam on Saudi Arabia’s Gulf coast. Steineke wanted to drill deeper at Dammam-7 in 1936, but the well encountered a series of problems and he had to fly back to head office in San Francisco in early 1938 to urge perseverance. In March, the drill bit struck a large oil reservoir, the first of the Saudi giants. Shortly before Steineke’s death in 1952, Ghawar, the world’s biggest field, was identified. As the American Association of Petroleum Geologists puts it, "The methods [Steineke] developed probably resulted in the discovery of greater reserves than any other geologist."

Iran and Iraq were already important oil producers. But the enormous volumes of cheap Saudi oil fuelled the postwar economic boom. They made possible mass-market motoring, suburbia, globalized trade, and routine air travel. The West was able to out-compete the Soviet Union; Japan, without fossil fuels of its own, became the world’s second-largest economy. Modern medicine may tend to 7 billion people, but it is mechanized agriculture and chemical fertilisers that feed them. Now, China and India are adopting the same lifestyle, with powerful impacts on global energy markets and the environment.

Steineke was one in a line of geologists whose discoveries have powered our civilization with coal, oil, gas, and uranium. We could also mention the Soviet greats, or the visionary scientists who discovered North Sea oil in the 1970s, uncovered the giant Brazilian "pre-salt" oil fields in 2006, and created the U.S. shale gas revolution. Their efforts have kept the "peak oil" wolf away.

Yet the extraordinary concentration of petroleum in the Middle East distorted the region’s societies. It unleashed the long struggle between companies and governments for control of this unique prize, a battle that led to the formation of OPEC in 1960. And it fuelled a series of wars and embargoes, throwing the world into economic crises, tarnishing oil as geopolitically risky, and furnishing opportunities for several peace prizes.

But geology isn’t just about resources. It also promises answers to some of the most profound questions we have, on the origins of life and of human beings. British palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, a brilliant lecturer, made his name studying Canada’s Burgess Shale. Its immaculately preserved fossils are a unique window into the emergence of complex life 500 million years ago, including familiar animals such as molluscs and sponges, but others that are mysterious, including Hallucigenia, a spiny-backed worm with legs.

It is humbling to reflect that the tiny eel-like Pikaia in the Smithsonian museum may be the ancestor of all vertebrates — FP readers as well as our pet cats and goldfish, the crows cawing outside, and Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Yet in contrast to the aggressive atheism of Richard Dawkins, Conway Morris has sought to reconcile evolution with his Christian faith, speaking out against both creationism and reductionist genetics. "Of all the possible examples of evolution can there be a more glorious accident … than human intelligence? But is this correct?" he has said. "Rather than trudging across the arid landscapes skimpily sketched by the materialists, we need to accept the invitation and accompany the Artist that brought Creation into being."

The final nominee, geologist of ancient climates Wallace Broecker of Columbia University, created the expression "Global Warming" in 1975 upon realizing that burning coal, oil, and gas was leading to rapid accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Broecker made fundamental discoveries about global oceanic circulation and the carbon cycle.

One of his most important observations: "The climate system is an angry beast, and we are poking at it with sticks." He has documented severe, persistent dry periods in California during medieval times, suggesting the state’s modern climate is unusually wet. This summer’s droughts, and the unexpectedly rapid disappearance of Arctic ice, remind us of the possibility of sharp tipping points in climate as we continue our unintentional and perilous experiment with the atmosphere.

Broecker, who is still going strong at 80 years old, advocates carbon sequestration — taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and disposing of it safely in rocks underground — as one way of tackling the problem, but is not optimistic. As one of his colleagues puts it, "Whenever we sit around over beers at one of these conferences, we talk about where we think we’ll be 50 years from now. To a man, the answer is: carbon dioxide will still be rising. Climate will have changed. We’ll have developed sequestration technologies — and maybe they’ll be doing 3 percent of what’s needed."

For the profound importance of his work to the future of humanity as much as its past, Broecker is my choice for inaugural winner of the geology Nobel. Geologists have been too successful: having "conferred the greatest benefits" on 20th-century humanity, now they are turning to saving it in the 21st.

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