George F. Kunz, Gentleman Explorer

It’s a Golden Oldies weekend, with a Geoscientist of the Week I first described back in 2014.

The US Geological Survey has said almost everything that needs to be said about this man: “George F. Kunz (1856-1932) [was] a mineralogist and gemologist, gentleman explorer, and employee of the USGS and Tiffany & Co.”

That’s pretty awesome.

The great dramas of money, power, history, and beauty all figured in Dr. Kunz’s life.

And until reading this, unless you happen to be a specialist or know a certain kind of New Yorker, you have probably never heard of him.
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George Gaylord Simpson

One day, someone who had dropped by saw me reading a book and asked what it was about.

“Evolution,” I replied.

“Oh, Darwin!”

“No, Simpson.”

” . . . ”

We moved on to other topics. It’s hard for a layperson like me to explain who Simpson was and why evolutionists do rank him, and a few other 20th-century researchers, right up there with Charles Darwin.

Nevertheless, I must describe how Simpson made it possible for me to start work on this ebook series.

Like everyone else, I had the general picture linking Charles Darwin with evolution. We don’t often think about the details, but I had the idea a few years ago of writing an ebook about how cats evolved.

To do this, I first had to check up on how evolution has progressed since Darwin’s time. Gah!


Evolution, apparently. (Source)

That’s one of the more extreme examples, and I don’t know how widely this particular paper is accepted. Reportedly, it was a breakthrough.

Nevertheless, most papers I checked to learn more about the evolutionary mechanisms that shaped today’s cat family did involve math as well as a mysterious concept called an “adaptive landscape.”

Whatever happened to natural selection and the survival of the fittest?

The short answer is, genetics.

Darwin came before this 20th-century scientific field existed. All of his discoveries had to be reinterpreted through newly discovered genetic insights. The details of this work, and Simpson’s role in it, are described here.

If you visited that link, you saw that it was the preface to a collection of papers honoring the 50th anniversary of a book you have probably never heard of called Tempo and Mode in Evolution.

Simpson published it in the 1940s, with the help of family and friends, while he was off somewhere fighting WWII.

It’s a literary masterwork for its concise and clear presentation of complex information, especially if you know the background, which I didn’t at that point beyond noting as I read that, while the writer respected some people named Wright and Dobzhansky, he had his own take on things.

Scientifically, it rocked the world.

G. G. Simpson described in easy-to-read and ordinary English a way to use genetics and math to graph out evolutionary processes. The way he described it, for example, it was clear to me how and why prehistoric horses switched over from browsing on leaves to grazing grass, because it was just a matter of two graphs overlapping, sort of.


Simpson used a couple of simply U-graphs on an X-Y axis. Things have progressed over the years. (Source, CC BY 2.0)

All this sounded like what little I had found thus far on adaptive landscapes, but I never saw the term in that book. I did not realize then that Simpson basically invented the concept with Tempo and Mode in Evolution.

He was among the very few people in human history to use math to model the real world successfully, enabling lots of progress. And he did it without computers, during World War II, using short, simple words and sentences that even a layperson can follow.

Thanks to Simpson, I can now understand the evolution of cats a little bit better.

G. G. Simpson biography (Wikipedia)

George Gaylord Simpson: Natural Selection and the Fossil Record. (PBS)

Featured image: Source.

Guest Videos: William Smith

Back in the 1980s, one of our undergrad geology teachers took us out on a field trip to a local park one day. He gave us enough time to enjoy being out of the classroom and among beautiful limestone cliff scenery. Then he gave us long measuring poles and sent us down to the bottom of a steep hill topped by said cliffs.


It was the tree-covered, roughly 45-degree hillside that goes out of the frame, lower left, and down about a hundred vertical feet. We had to work our way back up to this path. (J. Bret Bennington. Public domain)

From there, we had to slowly work our way up to the top, measuring as we went, observing rocks, noting them in field books and describing them to identify the formation.

It was hard physical work and it was also the first real test that separates geologists from mere mortals. Some students, by the time they reached the top, had decided to go into a different major. Others were hooked.

I remember sitting up at the top, resting after that exertion. My glance fell on a large rock that had been set up near the parking area because it was a nice shade of gray with lots of little details in it. For the first time ever, I could read those details a little, thanks to my newly awakened observational skills, and I saw in there, believe it or not, a cascade of mud off a coastal plain down into the abyssal depths of a long-vanished ocean, and one ancient stromatolite, turned topsy-turvy in the disaster. It was like reading a book–that, rather than whether or not I was correct, hooked me forever on geoscience.

Others, who did focus on getting things right became professional geologists (which I am not). They learned how to make geological maps, which are amazing.

But who made the first maps, before there was modern equipment or any earlier to work to study?

William Smith did.

And he will explain to you in a typically understated British way that makes our 21st-century eyes glass over until we think about it and realize the incredible progress this geoscientist’s work made possible.

Featured image: William Smith’s map of England and Wales. Source.

Marie Morisawa

There are many paths into a geology career, especially if you are a woman born in the early to mid-twentieth century, when most of the traditional ways in were closed. For me, it was trees–trees are rooted in dirt, which comes from ground-up/weathered rock.

Not that I have had a geology career. My degree is in forestry, earned at a small college in the Adirondack Mountains where Precambrian rock outcrops are common and the soil that conifers and northern hardwoods depend on has been scraped thin by passing continental glaciers during each ice age.

It is impossible to ignore geology there, and after a botanist introduced me to the wonders of the rocky world, I switched majors and went for a geology degree.

That didn’t work out for me the way it did for Marie Morisawa in the 1940s and 1950s. She advanced the whole field of geomorphology–the study of landforms–by switching her focus of interest.


Born in 1919 to an Asian father and white mother in Toledo, Ohio, Morisawa first earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Hunter College; her minor was chemistry.

That was in 1941. None of the online information I have found mentions what job opportunities and the social scene were like for a single, 22-year-old, Japanese-American female math whiz/chemist in the 1940s– especially after December 7, 1941–but it must have been difficult.

Unsurprisingly, Morisawa went back to school, graduating with an MA in theology and an MS in geology in 1952. Yes, theology. There is also no information about why she switched over to geology; perhaps she attended Samuel Knight’s Science Camp in the Medicine Bow Mountains and it made a difference.


Sugar Loaf Mountain in the Medicine Bow range. (Mike Coghlan. CC BY 2.0)

This scenic part of the world clearly shows how geologic processes shape the land:

Whatever stirred her interest in Earth’s landforms, throughout her long career Marie Morisawa also remained sensitive to the social, as well as the scientific value, of this planet’s landscapes.

That is, she always kept the big picture in mind even when her work focused on something very small, like a creek trickling through a meadow, hidden by long grasses but not unheard.

Geomorphology and Marie Morisawa

The 1950s were a good time to be an American graduate student interested in landforms and how they evolved. The science of geomorphology was rapidly progressing thanks to recent technological advances.

Morisawa went back east and studied streams in Pennsylvania to earn a PhD from Columbia University in 1960. Her adviser, Arthur Strahler, is credited with being the one most responsible for this scientific field’s change in emphasis from “there is a creek running through that meadow” to “water flow in this creek (detailed data) is incising down through the dirt at a rate of X inches per year and here’s how it fits into the overall drainage system, with more data on how that system and each of its units affects human property, lives, and esthetic appreciation of this natural resource.”

You can imagine how detailed Morisawa’s thesis had to be satisfy Arthur Strahler. It turned out she was very very good at this new approach to geomorphology.

There is no single scientific breakthrough I can find attributed to Marie Morisawa, just a long list of papers, books, and other references on Google Scholar online that all have high numbers of citations. You don’t see such an impressive wall of cites very often.


Morisawa also studied landslides and other effects of the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake in Yellowstone. (I. J. Witkind, U. S. Geological Survey. Public domain)


Besides teaching and mentoring students, she researched a number of areas, like the effects of earthquakes or plate tectonics on the landscape, but her first love was always streams.

Marie Morisawa affected geoscience much like that little creek affects the meadow and hillside it’s flowing through–in a big way, but quietly, slowly, efficiently over the years, drop by drop, paper by paper, student by student.

It was a pleasure to be around Marie Morisawa and share her love for life, for geomorphology, for the natural world, and for people. She was greatly beloved by all who knew her, and she took special pride in her teaching and in her students . . .Geomorphology was her life, and she lived it to the fullest. It is difficult to describe what she meant to the profession and people in general with anything less than superlatives. She was dignified but not presumptuous; humble but not meek; brilliant but not braggy; gracious but not showy; warm but not gushy. Indeed the memory of Marie Morisawa is indelibly imprinted on those of us who knew her, and her writings will live on as one of the true legacies of her life.

— D. R. Coates

Featured image: A stream landscape in Pennsylvania. Nicholas A. Tonelli. CC BY-2.0.


Coates, D. R. October, 1995. Marie Morisawa, 1919-1994. Geological Society of America Memorials. 26:15-18. n.d. Morisawa, Marie (earth scientist). Last accessed March 29, 2018.

Wikipedia. 2018. Marie Morisawa. Last accessed March 29, 2018.

Jacobus Van’t Hoff: Imagination and Science

The name of this blog was taken from Einstein’s famous quote, “The process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.”

The general idea here is to convey some of the basic wonders inherent in Earth science discoveries as best this layperson can.

Of course scientists also know that they’re living in a wonderland, but their enjoyment of it is more complex. More than any member of the general public, a field expert knows the problems and challenges that have to be overcome in order to understand things.

Take the mantle and metamorphic gems we’ve looked at recently. They form deep inside a planet–there’s no way anyone can watch the process. So how do we know what happens?


This is very detailed information about such an inaccessible place. (Tim Evanson. CC BY-SA 2.0)

The seismic waves that enabled Inge Lehmann to discover Earth’s inner core can’t help. Change in chemical composition is usually invisible to them.

Enter Jacobus Van’t Hoff, a Dutch scientist from around the turn of the 20th century and the first recipient of the Nobel chemistry prize.

To answer our question in brief, Van’t Hoff’s work is one of the pillars of a new scientific field–physical chemistry, which includes geochemical ways to visualize the Earth’s interior.

But this isn’t the reason Van’t Hoff is today’s geoscientist of the week. He earns that place because of his answer to a smackdown a fellow scientist gave him.

The role of imagination in science

Jacobus Van’t Hoff (biographical details here) had his own unique take on life, the universe, and everything.

His creative way of looking at things clashed with some late 19th-century scientists. At first he struggled to find work, and during this difficult time a chemist named Hermann Kolbe mocked him.

A few years later, a much better established Van’t Hoff – now Full Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy, and Geology at the University of Amsterdam – replied to Kolbe in an inaugural address called “Imagination in Science.” (Dutch, plus a little German, French, and English)

Now Hermann Kolbe is still remembered and respected today for his work in organic chemistry, but Van’t Hoff’s “Imagination in Science” lecture is legendary. It transcends all fields to discuss the scientific method itself and the role imagination plays in that.

Van’t Hoff, 26 years old at the time, pointed out that this method of observation of the environment and investigation of cause and effect is, in itself, sterile. The human mind brings in first enthusiasm and then perseverance–two signs of imaginative creativity that many scientists also show outside their research fields.

He noted, for instance, that Isaac Newton was into painting and poetry, as well as math, while Poisson skipped dinner every fifth and tenth day so he could afford theater tickets.

Imagination in scientific minds is sometimes unhealthy, too. Kepler apparently believed that Earth was a reptile and that the planets made musical chords, with Jupiter and Saturn being bases while Mars was a tenor. Nevertheless, he did good science.

The ideas expressed by Jacobus Van’t Hoff in his 1878 lecture (and total ownership of Hermann Kolbe), “Imagination in Science,” hold up well today.

For most of us, applied scientific imagination looks something like this:


Elliott Brown CC BY-SA 3.0.

And that is wonderful.

But scientists go farther into the actual wonders of life, the universe, and everything by using their imagination as well as training their minds to observe and understand the most minute details of everything around them, even when it doesn’t contain action figures.


Jay Erickson CC BY 2.0.

We have Jacobus Van’t Hoff and others like him to thank for that.

Featured image: Wikimedia. Public domain.

Guest Video: The 4-Ton Steel Ball of Göttingen

Have you ever been so angry you punched the Earth?

Ludger Mintrop was clever, not angry.

He designed equipment to test the geophysical theories of his teacher, Emil Wiechert and incidentally founded the field of seismic reflection profiling.

Also he punched the Earth. Real hard.

h/t to Mental Floss.

Featured image: Ludger Mintrop with two others. Source. (German language)