Accretionary Wedge #52

Been a while since I had a chance to get in on the Accretionary Wedge, which – for those of you who are perhaps not familiar – is something of a geoscience blog carnival. Once a month, someone hosts a new topic for the rest of us geobloggers to wax lyrical about.  This month Vi-Carius is hosting, with a topic broadly about ‘geoscience courses you wish existed’

Now, it’s been a while since I was an undergraduate. In fact, I was away from geoscience for several years before coming back to do my PhD.  And that’s really where my dream course would have fitted in.

Rather than Geoscience 101, I’m thinking more a ‘Geoscience 999’. A short sharp kick-up-the-rocks for people who could do with a refresher. Maybe 5 or 6 hours of lectures, one each recapping the key details (and last 10 years developments in) each of half a dozen key subject (plate tectonics, palaeo, geochem, geophys, sedimetology and volcanology?). Broad strokes coverage, with updates of key concepts where necessary, each followed by 3-4 hours practical work getting back up to speed with stuff like microscopy, map drawing, strat logging, etc. That would really have made my life easier.

That said, I can understand that actually it’s only marginally useful for a lot of people. So that gets me wondering what would be most useful for the most people. And by most people, I’m extending the remit slightly to mean everyone. Not just geologists. Not even just university students. The whole bloody lot of you. The answer I have come to is informed by the experience I’ve had teaching, lecturing and demonstrating, and remembering one of the most useful lectures I’ve ever had.

That lecture was given by Dave Waltham – who ended up as my future PhD and eventual postdoc supervisor. His qualifications are in Physics, but he has diligently spent most of his career at the Earth Sciences department at Royal Holloway  University of London ensuring – among many other things – that there was a friendly face and a clear explanation awaiting any geologist who was at a mathematical or conceptual roadblock.

And the lecture was this: Ballparking. At its simplest, how to calculate a rough first-order approximation for any given calculation.  As professional researchers I think it is something that we get good at doing, and the ability to quickly estimate whether something is ‘about right’ or not is phenomenally useful in a vast array of situations. Eyeballing a recipe when you’ve only got 2 eggs instead of 3? Ballpark it. Trying to calculate how to split a restaurant bill? Ballpark it. Trying to work out how many cricket balls you can fit in a stadium?…. You get the idea.

The interesting thing is that it is a skill that I certainly find is absolutely lacking in many people. Knowing how to simplify what would otherwise be a complex calculation into a first-order accurate approximation you can do in your head – or at least in 20 seconds on the back of an envelope – is something that everyone would benefit from. Imagine the time that could be saved!  Everything from working out whether a cheap but high mpg car is better value than expensive low mpg one, to arguing about how many whales you could fit in the oceans.

Ballparking is not necessarily an intuitive skill, and there’s plenty of shortcuts and tricks that a taught course should pass on. When you can and can’t round numbers, and by how much, what are reasonable simplifications, and which are not. Giving everybody the confidence to look at a number presented to them in context and the ability to judge whether the data are good would – I think – be a huge boon to society.

So that’s my wish. Quick and dirty maths for the masses.

About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
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