Sunday 20 February 2011

Looking Closely

The importance of practical geosciences to the public tends to focus in on petroleum or engineering. Base metals and REE (Rare Earth Elements) tend not to get a look in, until their shortage threatens society. Price hikes combined with increased demand have raised the media profile of a variety of minerals, from the important copper to the ever growing in importance REE in the electrical industry.  

The only real aspect of mining people see is either the end product, the huge holes in the earth dug to extract the material, or the people who extract the ore (and then get stuck). Economic geology, the field that deals with the economic potential of areas of rock tends not to get a great deal of press coverage - fewer than 1000 articles on Google-News discuss economic geology, with only 4000 articles tied to ‘mineral exploration’, compared with ‘oil exploration’ that generates over 11,000 articles. Even though, metal prices are at all time highs. ‘Mainstream’ press appears to completely ignore mineral exploration;
The Daily Mail, although only utilised by myself as something to get annoyed with has only a handful (10!) stories on mineral exploration, while oil exploration generates 450 odd, looking to a more educated paper, the Independent, mineral exploration yields just over 100 results, while petroleum exploration strikes around 1500 articles (oil exploration; 340). The UK’s most read paper, the Sun finds 45 articles under the search ‘oil exploration’ (although most seem to be on BP or the Falklands) while looking for minerals  provides 2 results – one of which is on Mars.

So, why the public dis-interest in  the mineral industry when it is the backbone of virtually everything we use everyday; from the laptop I type on, to the knife I butter my toast with? Well, the UK doesn’t really have much of a mineral exploration industry because of cheap imports and exhaustion few people see the effects of mining; with the majority of mines operation in countries far beyond our borders.

When an oil spill occurs, be it Deepwater horizon, Exxon Valdeez or the Esso Portsmouth off Milford Haven it’s all over the news, black gold coating seabrids, stones and beaches, the idea of striking oil in a romantic vision of derricks and desert. While few people (bar myself) get excited by the prospect of discovering copper. On the surface oil is a lot more visible as a commodity, cars are ubiquitous, we all require petrol/diesel for our daily lives, whether it gets us to work, delivers our food to the supermarket or provides us with a livelihood. While the usage of minerals isn’t immediately obvious – we are all in constant contact with something derived from the earth (be it the dye in our clothes or jewellery).

So how can the economic area of the geosciences and the importance to society are broadcast? There is the usual manner of showing people a bit of ore and the pointing to something nice and shiny. But there is so much more to an ore than that; from my limited (at present) experience of ores I feel that simply showing a hand specimen isn’t all that; remembering the first time I looked at a thin section, I was captivated (seriously, not kidding!) by the beautify of the slide, learning more about them what can be seen from a sliver of rock is amazing;  why not bring this subtle beauty to the public? A rock is a rock, but people love to look at close up images of hair, dust and plants – a close up image of an ore shows so much more, a story almost!

The public rarely see this, I have been fortunate enough to volunteer at events where the public have had an opportunity to observe what every geology student either loves or hates. Generally they are interested – the chance to make granite more than that grey rock or to see every grain in a sandstone seems to interest people. Yet most of the public never have the chance to be captivated.

Can one blend the subtleties of economic geology, the need for minerals in our society and a new way for people to look at rocks? Well, I’ve already discussed how myth’s and stories brought the geosciences to peoples before modern science and today are still used in popular science books – why not use the same approach to bringing the components of today’s society to the public? Illustrate how an ore forms, from (depending on the type) a gentle crystallization, with hydrothermal alteration via miscropacy.

Now, wait, I know miscropacy needs some skill to interpret, but as does a hand specimen; and an image of a rock is a novelty, anytime someone can pick up a rock, but few can slice it into a slither and see what it really looks like.  

What other ways are there to get the public interacting with the minerals that make their society? Short of visiting a mine there are few; the story of how an ore forms is just that a story; one that should be told – and looking closely is, in my mind the best way to do it.