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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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.

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: What Drives Plate Tectonics?

This image is related to Caledonian mountain building, which is only an effect of plate tectonics. I just like it for the scale.

It’s a nice reminder of how big and complex the world really is as we look at the computer graphics in this IRIS Earthquake Science video.

They are talking about what was a hot topic when I took undergraduate geology courses 30 years ago: Are plates pushed around by the seafloor spreading or pulled down by the cold slab (see video for terminology – it’s pretty simple).

Field work alone couldn’t answer the question, but many advanced geoscientific techniques today are clearing things up. Here is where they are at this moment:

Featured image: Anne Burgess. CC BY-SA 2.O.

Note: Right now I have geology on the back burner because of the cat books, but I’m still interested in it and will try to make some related posts here whenever possible. Thanks for your interest!

Sir William Hamilton – Lava Walker


Let’s be upfront about the most awesome thing (in modern eyes) this apparent fop ever did: He walked on lava.

Look at his eyes. You know he did.

Lava walking is something that occasionally can but shouldn’t be done unless you have a compelling reason (hits on your YouTube video don’t count; death does).

Sir William did it to save his life, according to William Herschel:
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