President’s Column – March 2006

Title: It’s Alive! IT’S ALIVE!
Author: Robert Cluff
Publication: The Outcrop, March 2006, p. 3, 16

Often times I marvel at the public perception of science and what we do as scientists. I read it in the papers everyday; I see it on the editorial page, or in the comics, often on the tube, everywhere. At some point the American public came to the conclusion that scientists can probably invent pretty much anything we want to, and if we don’t deliver the goods, we must be holding back for some reason. Most likely, it’s not for any good reason.

“Say Brain, what do you want to do today?” “Same thing we do every night, Pinky, try to take over the world!”

I’ve decided it has to be the movies. The image of the mad scientist, laboring alone at night in the laboratory until he or she “discovers” the secret to some useful superpower, is so persuasive and ingrained into our culture that people actually think this is what we do! They view us as a cult in possession of a body of secret knowledge that we dole out in a miserly manner as it suits our purpose, whatever that may be. Cut to our scientist sitting over his morning coffee, hair askew and talking out loud to himself: “Hmmmm, what should I discover today? Really big ants could be useful. They’re strong, they could carry stuff, and they can find their own way home. The Army might be interested in buying big ants from me. Yeah, big ants, really, really big ones, that’s the ticket, I’ll work on big ants today.” Of course, being simultaneously brilliant yet incredibly short sighted, he never pauses to think about what might happen if ten-foot tall ants ran amok in his suburban neighborhood, devouring shrubbery and all varieties of small pets, so it will be left up to the local television news anchor with his beautiful (if slightly ditzy) weather gal to save the day and put things back in their proper places.

pres-column_2It sounds absurd, but the late physicist Richard Feynman was actually asked at some multi-disciplinary conference—and I am not making this up—why didn’t he go home and invent anti-gravity? Patiently explaining that anti-gravity was not possible considering what we understand about physics and how the universe works was not sufficient; the questioner persisted by pointing out Feynman was a very bright guy, and anti-gravity could be very useful (just in case that wasn’t obvious), and he would probably make a lot of money by inventing it! Which, speaking of money, brings me around to the oil and gas business.

pres-column_3Of course we know this isn’t at all like the movies. Our science is actually a long, drawn out, often times tedious process of collecting data, organizing and analyzing the same, all to test (or just develop) the particular variety of hypothesis that we call a drilling prospect. Although some of our mad prospectors do indeed labor alone deep in the dark bowels of the DERL library, more commonly it takes a lot of people, computers, and a substantial investment in high tech gadgetry (here comes the part about an electrical storm) to do all this. Then we have the temerity to propose that the oil or gas we think lies hidden in the earth might exist in some terribly inconvenient location, like Kazakhstan, or under some deep ocean basin, or in western Colorado near all those very nice retirement homes they’ve been building. But at the end of the day, if we are not finding enough oil and gas to hold prices down at the level the public wants to pay, it’s certainly not because we are not trying hard or we’re somehow holding back. It’s because oil and gas are becoming increasingly difficult to extract, what remains tends to be located in rather challenging geography, and it takes a lot more than just deciding what you want to discover on that particular day of the week.

So what is the point to all this? It’s all about communication to our fellow citizens. They get conflicting signals, and it’s hard for them to break out of the mental model they have developed from years of movies and pop culture. Sometimes one of the big energy companies will run an advertising campaign about the challenges of finding new hydrocarbon resources; currently Chevron is running one that I like, and that does help in some ways to soften public opinions. The Discovery Channel runs a worthwhile show about the science and engineering that goes into the hunt on occasion, but they are not widely noticed. Museums like DMNS are one of the most effective modes of public outreach – next time you are in Houston visit the Weiss Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science for an outstanding example of what I think needs to be seen all over the country. ExxonMobil sponsors, if memory serves me correctly, a good exhibit at Disney World in Orlando that reaches literally millions of people. Locally, RMAG has a Popular Geology committee that sponsors various outreach activities, we always need more volunteers to help with the events, and of course we can always do more if we have interested and committed people willing to get involved. Finally, we all need to be a little more vocal on a personal level about what it is we do and how we go about it. We need to communicate with our friends and neighbors outside the industry, to the children in our schools, to our politicians, to the business community at large, that this isn’t as easy as it may look and it gets harder all the time.

We return to our scientist friend standing slightly dazed, glasses askew, muttering to himself in the smoldering rubble of his formerly quiet Denver neighborhood. “Humph, who would have thought ants could be so much trouble. Oh well, never look back I always say. What should I discover next? How about giant cockroaches? No, too much like those pesky ants. What about a TCF of gas, now that could be useful. I’d probably make a lot of money finding a TCF of gas. OK, a giant gas field it is, now what’s for supper?”