About the blog: What Things Are Made Of


The United States relies on imports for dozens of commodities in everyday use. Often enough, that reliance is 100%. In this book I aim to provide awareness of the hidden geology and mineralogy behind common things, and to develop an appreciation for the global resource distribution that underpins our society. While concerns about oil import reliance are in the news every day, our needs for other minerals are comparable and are typically unknown even to technologically aware Americans.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Today I take my text from Charles B. Hunt, US Geological Survey geologist mapping the Henry Mountains in southern Utah in the 1950s.

"A cactolith is a quasihorizontal chonolith composed of anastomosing ductoliths whose distal ends curl like a harpolith, thin like a sphenolith, or bulge discordantly like an akmolith or ethmolith."

In the 1950s US Geological Survey publications were intensively reviewed for style and accuracy, so it’s a minor miracle that the definition got published. This was Hunt’s way of poking fun at the proliferation of –lith words for various rock bodies (the suffix derives from Greek lithos, stone). The definition has a cult following among geologists – I love to roll it off my tongue at parties, where people then stare at me with more than the usual concerned look – so much so that when it was removed from the Glossary of Geology, the hue and cry was such that it returned to future editions, where it remains to this day.

All scientists, all specialists, have their own argot, jargon, and particular terminology that tends to exclude the uninitiated from their secret club. At this stage in my career, one important motivation for me to write What Things Are Made Of is to try to open those secret doors to give non-scientists a look at geoscience. Whether I succeed or not can be argued, but I am trying. Will I be the next Simon Winchester (The Map that Changed the World, Krakatoa) or John McPhee (Annals of the Former World)? I’d be the last to compare myself to them, but they give me a clear target for lucid writing to which I aspire.


David Schultz said...

Nice post Dick and so very true. I was in a conference call the other day and an engineer pompously referred to the "flux" instead of just calling it the "flow rate." It was a nationwide training call and I'm certain many non-technical attendees were lost at that moment. Your idea to strip unneeded jargon from technical discussions is a good one. We should want people to understand us, shouldn't we?

Richard Gibson said...

Yes indeed. As Mark Twain wrote, "Eschew obfuscation."