Accretionary Wedge #12: Geology as a connector science

This month’s Accretionary Wedge is being hosted by Callan Bentley at Nova Geoblog with the subject of geology as a connector science. He asks as part of his post …

Geologists utilize chemistry, physics, biology, meteorology, and astronomy to get a better handle on our chosen planet of study… how do those connections play out? What are some examples?

This immediately put in mind the following Venn diagram…

This is taken from the benchmarking statement for Earth Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies (ES3) written by the UK universities’ Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). The role of the QAA is to ensure quality of UK degrees and each subject has a benchmarking statement setting out guidelines on the ground that the various degrees should cover. Geology has been lumped in with the Environment and in the benchmarking statement the positions of the various components have been illustrated by the Venn diagram in the section on “Mapping the Territory”. The authors state that this diagram is “heuristic rather than definitive” so here is my take on their diagram.

My impression, looking at this from the geology perspective, is that many of the related disciplines are spread too far away from the centre. Mining, for example, needs to be down by Applied Geology and Minerals Surveying. Geotechnics should at least be within Earth Sciences with Engineering much closer. Why is Geophysics on the edge of Earth Sciences where as Geochemisty is positioned on the edge of Geology? Again Physics and Chemistry are too far out from their geo-cousins. Surely Earth and Planetary Sciences should sit on the edge of Earth Sciences rather than Environmental Sciences.

Then there are those areas that a situated in Environmental Studies, far away from Geology, but should be much closer, things like Conservation and Social Values. Geodiversity isn’t even mentioned where as Biodiversity is. Similarly, Renewable Energy appears in the Environmental Studies area but Non-renewables don’t appear anywhere (unless they are counted as ‘resources’). Perhaps most bizarre is the position of Geography, stuck on the outer rim of Environmental Studies, about as far away from Geology as it can get. This might be true for some aspects of Human Geography, but I maintain that Physical Geography is just geology that hasn’t yet solidified. There are really close links here in studying modern environments and linking them to ancient ones and Physical Geography at least should appear on the boundary of Earth Sciences if not Geology.

The longer I look at the diagram, the more I’m convinced that there is a fundamental flaw here. Is it right that, although Geology can be a complete subset of Earth Sciences, is Earth Sciences a complete subset of Environmental Sciences? Environmental Sciences on the diagram appears a buffer between the Earth Sciences and the other allied Physical Sciences that is not there in reality. I think that in order to justify a single benchmarking statement and lump geology in with environmental disciplines the authors have created a relationship that doesn’t really exist.

I haven’t got time just now to redraw the diagram as how I’d see it, but I’d not have a complete overlap of Geology and Earth Sciences by Environmental Sciences. Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Engineering, Mining, Mathematics, Astronomy, Oceanography, Meteorology, Computing and, of course, Geography would all be sitting very close to the boundary of Earth Sciences.