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Campus Now

Autumn Issue (Nov.)

A WASEDA Miscellany

FAGAN, Timothy Jay

Stories in Rocks from Earth and Other Places

FAGAN, Timothy Jay
Associate Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences

In the first semester of my second year in college, I took a course that changed my life. The course was Introduction to Geology. It was an introduction to looking at rocks, landscapes, photographs and maps, and using these observations to interpret the natural history and natural processes of our home planet. In other words, it was an introduction to reading rocks to understand stories about nature.

The course was taught by Dr. Donald Potter at Hamilton College, which is located in a rural area of upstate New York and has on its campus a couple of small streams that cut down into bedrock. I remember walking out into the woods to find stations that were labeled on a map, and at each station there were questions to guide students through specific observations at each outcrop. The streams cut down through many shales, or mudstones, and a few limestones. The rocks were of Silurian agea little over 400 million years old, which sounds old, but is less than one-tenth of the age of the Earth. Then there were summary questions: "Were the Silurian seas in upstate New York muddy or clear?"I remember thinking, "with all of this shale, the seas must have been muddy". It was the beginning of my realization that the rocks contained clues about the history of the Earth, and that I could use my eyes and hands to read the clues to understand the formation of mountains and volcanoes and ocean basins and the movements of tectonic plates across the Earth's surface and the structure of the Earth's interior. I began to realize that geology combines simple observations with scientific principles to understand how the Earth works as a system and to understand the stories in rocks that, when combined together, make up the story of the Earth.

Now, over thirty years later, I am still looking at rocks and there always seems to be something interesting to see. My samples come from different parts of North American and Japan, and have even extended to the Moon, Mars, asteroids and a comet. I use electron microscopes and mass spectrometers; images from airplanes, telescopes and satellites; images that extend beyond the visible range of the human eye to gamma rays, x-rays and infrared light. I had no inkling of these techniques back in the day when I was standing in a stream in upstate New York, swatting mosquitoes and looking at Silurian shales. But the process of being a careful observer and connecting the observations to make a coherent story about nature is still the same.

So, that introductory course set me on a path that would lead to work in applied geology, followed by a transition to research in planetary science. This path would also lead, even more unpredictably, to Waseda University and Japan, and the experience of living in a culture that is different from the one I was born into. People ask me how I like living in Japan, and I feel quite fortunate in my day-to-day life here. Many aspects of life here are much the same as they would be in the US, but of course, with the differences in language and culture, life is dramatically different, too. Logically, these two statements appear to contradict each other: how can day-to-day life in two different places be both the same and different? Yet, they are both true. How the two statements can be true is a mystery, but the mystery does not detract from the truth. I do not think this really can be explained, but I have faith that it can be lived, and that the differences and "samenesses" both can be respected.

Here at Waseda, we are in day-to-day contact with students. Who knows where they will go from here? We owe them the opportunity to find passion in their lives. Again, who knows? That passion may come from books or bugs or music or math, or maybe even rocks.