Why I love Geology II

There are two huge scales in geology, one is Distance and the other is Time

When I was following a geology course with the Open University, one of the course modules was called “Quarks to Quasars” which discussed the scale of distance.


The purpose of this was to demonstrate the size and distances that science covers.

Quarks are the fundaments constituents of matter and are smaller then 10-19 m in size, while quasars represent the most distant astronomical objects it is possible to observe and are up to 1026 m away. So the obvious question is, ‘How much bigger is the distance to a quasar than the size of a quark?

This needs a little maths – only a little:

Divide the distance away of a quasar by the size of a quark

1026 +19  =  10 45

So the distance to a quasar is 45 orders of magnitude greater than the size of a quark.

These two length scales – separated by a factor of a billion, billion, billion, billion, billion. represent the extremes of human comprehension of the Universe so quarks and quasars therefore serve as convenient limits between which we might attempt to understand the Universe as a whole. 

So if we start with…

A quark which is a billion times smaller than an atom

An atom is a billion times smaller than an apple

An apple is a billion times smaller than Jupiter

Jupiter is a billion times smaller than the distance to the nearest stars

The nearest stars are a billion times nearer than quasars.

These extremes of length of scale are what geologists play with. Talk about,”The world is your lobster” !


The other scale is time. The first question is: “How old is the Earth?”

There are two wildly divergent answers.

One is ‘calculated’ from material in the Bible that says the Earth is about 6,000 years old and the other, from science is that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old.

I suppose you could choose either but, as a geologist, I can see just by looking at rocks and thinking about the processes that made them that the Earth cannot possible be as young as 6,000 years. Believing that is equivalent to believing that man and dinosaurs used to live on the Earth together until ‘recently’.

The age of the Earth is 4.54 x 109. or 4.54 billion years  +/- 500 million

There are many strange names for the different divisions in geological or “deep” time. It is hard to remember these so I wrote a mnemonic poem a while ago”

Earth Song


I was in hell boing bombed in the Hadean.
I was just alive in the Archean.
I was long present in the Proterozoic


I was changed b y life in the Cambrian
I brought order to the Ordovician and
I just survived the Silurian.
I nearly drowned in the Devonian, all those fish!
I made coal in the Carboniferous, delta, changes.
I was probably in the Permian desert dust storms


I was a playa in the triple, arid Triassic,
I evolved with many ‘ites in the Jurassic,
I chalked the Cretaceous, fashioning forams and flints.


I nearly perished in the Paleogene
I number all in the Neogene
I quaked in the sometimes chilly Quaternary.

I have lived so long, it may seem perverse, but
I want to live to the end of the universe.

I am the worse for wear and war weary,
I am your home, your Earth, cherish me dearly.

The history of the Earth is written in the  rocks for all who wish to read it.

We find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.” James Hutton 1726 – 1797

So geologists are free to play in a huge Universe and within an enormous timescale.

One problem apart from an overwhelming feeling of awe for the natural world is that the more you find out, the more you realise that your existence within all these wonders is incidental and you are insignificant and irrelevant to everything that is going on.

Take the white cliffs of Dover as an example. They are made of the coccolith calcite plates that are formed by coccolithophores, which are aquatic, single-celled algae. They are marine and live as phytoplankton in the photic zone of the open ocean, where they are a major source of food and a significant producer of oxygen. They are very small, about 2-5 micron in diameter. These plates form the majority of the chalk.

Now some more simple maths. 

The chalk cliffs of Dover are some 80M high

The chalk was laid down during the Cretaceous period which lasted 80 million years.

So a simple calculation shows that, on average it took one thousand years to deposit 1 mm of chalk.

So, if you lived in the Cretaceous, you wouldn’t even notice that chalk was being deposited. It goes to show one of the principles of geology – most processes happen very slowly and so require a great deal of time – luckily, there is plenty.

So we now have some idea of the distance and time we are dealing with, even if we cannot directly relate to them.

One of the problems with geology and dealing with these scales is that it makes you realise how insignificant humans are.

Here are some facts that might bring this home to you.

Humans have existed on Earth for a short time- about 200,000 years

Dinosaurs existed on Earth for a little longer time – about 135 million years

Maths again!

This means that dinosaurs lived on the Earth some 270 times as long as modern humans have.

Do you think humans will be around 135 million years in the future? No, me neither!

So, in spite of “dinosaur” being used as an insult for an out of date person, they did quite well and have been one of the most successful species on Earth.

Another problem when you are dealing with geology is that you can become a little blasé about these scales. In there area where I live there are several limestone ridges that were deposited in the Carboniferous ( 359 – 297  million years ). It is simple to find fossils in these rocks so when you break a lump open and see a fossil coral there you realise that this fossil has been waiting there for over 300 mya – just waiting for you. Then you might come across some Triassic ( 250 – 201 million years ) and you start thinking that these rocks are fairly young. But when you see and archeologist on TV going on about “very old Roman finds that are two thousand years old”, you start to realise what deep time is. 

Then you might go to North West Scotland and place your hand on some Lewisean Gneiss and realise that it is over 3 Billion years old – two thirds of the age of the Earth. What a privilege to be able to see and touch these ancient rocks!


Geology is an international science so there are some lovely words to play with. Here are a few of my favourites.


As a writer, I often use some of these words in stories, sometimes as the names of characters.

Is it any wonder that I love geology?

©  Eorðdraca 2018 My books are  here Richard

Why I love Geology – I

I was born in Brighton and grew up on the South Coast at Lancing, so I thought all rocks were white, soft and had flints buried in them. I saw this on trips to the beach when I saw the chalk cliffs of the Sussex coast towering above me. I saw this in rural chalk pits on the South Downs and the great quarries supplying chalk for the huge, linear cement kilns.

I was happy with this although I was a little bemused and unsatisfied that everyone answered my query, ‘how did the flints get there?’ with a careless, ‘Oh, they just growed there.’ This seemed to me to be both unscientific and unsatisfactory.

One day my Dad took me on a trip to the science museum in London. This was very exiting for me because, as we didn’t have a car, we went by train to London, Victoria from Brighton and then took the underground to South Kensington. I really enjoyed the day at the museum and I still remember several exhibits from there, the huge pendulum in the foyer, the ‘difference engine’ and the many working exhibits that had buttons to press and handles to turn.

What made the biggest impression on me was the train journey. We left Brighton and soon entered a tunnel that debouched us on to the Weald – that magic land between the South and North Downs. It was so different to the South coast littoral. Different trees, different vegetation. The whole countryside looked different. Then we went into another tunnel to burrow under the North Downs. I quickly noticed that the North and South Downs faced each other. I asked my Dad why of course – he must have answered many, many questions from me that day. He then spent a good half an hour explaining, with the aid of several sketches that there was once a vast chalk dome over the Weald, connecting the North and South Downs. All the chalk in the middle had been eroded away to expose the different rocks of the Weald. This was obviously wrong. How could such a huge dome exist and then get worn away, where was all that material now? I didn’t argue but determined that, one day, I would research all this and find out the true story for myself.

The one day my Dad asked if I would like to go to the science museum again. It was a chance for another day out so I said yes but I knew by now that there was a Natural History Museum nearby so, ‘could we go there instead?’

We did the journey, train and underground and started into the NH Museum. I’ll never forget that moment, walking up the few steps up under that fabulous multi coloured arch to see the famous round table made from so many different rocks.

We spent the day dashing from cabinet to display to mineral specimen – and back again until my Dad had had enough and I was exhausted but exhilarated. A day in Aladdin’s cave. A day to remember. Looking back over the years, I realise now that it changed my life.

On our annual holiday we went to a different place each year, Whitby, Oban, Largs, Weymouth and I slowly started to recognise different rocks. This was a revelation – not all rocks were as white and soft as chalk.

So the obvious thing to do now was to work hard at school, get three good ‘A’ levels and then choose a University such as Durham which is known for teaching Earth Sciences and is surrounded by interesting geology.

I took my GCEs, left school without knowing the results and joined the Royal Navy – against all advice and ‘insistence’ from the school and my parents. I had always wanted to join the Royal Navy since I was about ten and I wasn’t going to give up me dream for a few rocks was I?

I served on various ships as an Artificer – Engineering Technician –  and visited a lot of places around the world but left after 13 years because they wanted me to go into submarines – and I didn’t want to. What was the point of travelling the world if you didn’t know where you had been and got no chance to see anywhere except Faslane in Scotland? I did a few different civilian jobs until I found one that suited me. This was a job with Bowater / Rexam / SIG – the same company but taken over several times. I ended up as project manager for UK, Ireland, Benelux and Scandinavia. I stayed there for 30 years until I was made redundant. I was then asked to come back and do the same job on a self employed basis. This I did! As I was now 62 I started thinking about preparing for retirement. The children had left home, I now had less responsibilities so I thought about going to University to see if I could manage a degree and obviously chose Earth Sciences.

I contacted the admissions tutor at Bristol and asked if they would accept an old fogy like me as an undergraduate student. Dr Mary Benton said that my age wasn’t a problem but as I hadn’t studied intensively for many years, she suggested that I take an introductory course with the Open University to see if I could cope with the intellectual rigour required. 

I contacted the OU, looked at the different pathways to the degree I wanted and started a course called “Science starts here”. This was a short course and would contribute 10 points towards the 300 I needed. Well it was a start. I found I could cope very well with the science and maths and ended up with a mark of 94%. I took this as a sign that I could do it! I also found that I really enjoyed the OU style of distance learning so I planned to stay with the OU and not go back to Bristol Uni. I carried on with the Earth science route until there was a hiatus so I thought I would do a short course to fill the gap. This was a course called “start writing fiction”. I absolutely loved it. This what I was born for, “Tell lies and write them down”. So now I had a problem. I could carry on with the earth science and get a geology degree or switch to creative writing and get an arts degree. The OU is made for people like me as I could now switch to an “Open” degree get a minimum of 150 ‘science’ points and the get the other 150 from Arts courses and still end up with BSc. So this is what I did. Half geology and half creative writing.

This took me six years but I achieved my objective of a BSc. I now had some knowledge of the two subjects I wanted and had learned how to learn. I now knew what I didn’t know and I could teach myself that with a lot of research. 

I graduated at a ceremony at Poole at the age of 68, a lifetime’s ambition fulfilled and no, I wasn’t the oldest one there! I am a great fan of the OU – I think it is a wonderful institution. Harold Wilson said that it was his proudest achievement. The OU now teaches 75% of the Geology undergraduates in the country.

I now had the tools I needed to do exactly what I wanted in my retirement.

I write geology books about my local area. I lead geology trips for Bristol Naturalists and the Bristol U3A geology group and go for long walk in the countryside – looking at the landscape and working out how the underlying geology has shaped the landforms and decided on the most suitable vegetation for the type of soil produced by the rocks.

A couple of local examples;

1 – Tyntesfield estate.

A huge estate with a gothic mansion built by the Gibbs family. These are several disused quarries on the estate. In one there is a clear unconformity – Triassic rocks are lying on carboniferous rock so that with two hands you can bridge 90 million years of geological history and deduce what the climate and other conditions were at the time.

2 – West Tanpit Wood.

Here there is a range of rocks from the Devonian to the Carboniferous. There are fossils and a growing Tufa dam in the wood.

All this can be easily seen and understood without any expeditions to exotic places.

3 – Boreholes

At anytime over the last 150 years or so, if someone drills a borehole to find water or coal etc, the British Geology Society ( BGS ) keeps a record of the bore log and all the information therein about the strata the bore passes through. All this information is then publicly available on the BGS web site.

An example:


Depth – 490 ft.

This borehole was drilled in 1903 to attempt to find a ready supply of water for the Tyntesfield Estate owned by the Gibbs family.

It was drilled to a depth of 490 feet and records the different strata – including coal seams – that was seen in the recovered cores.

There are records of borings from all over the country so the history of any particular area can be deduced. It purely depends on where the holes were bored and to what depth.

After I left school, the theory of continental drift, then onto plate tectonics was refined and now you can track the movement of eg the UK across the globe. It was South of the equator in Devonian ( 419 – 358 million years ago to todays location – at the moment as the continents are still wandering about the planet. So much to learn about and understand, all underpinned by science.

So you can see that geology is a combination of field work and research that can be carried out indoors.  I spend a lot of my time outdoors happily trudging up and down hills while observing and measuring. I also spend a lot of time at home putting all these results together and writing out a report on the results. I have a great time!

I write books, stories for my grandchildren and short stories for the U3A writing groups I attend. Three of us have formed a blogging and publishing group for our output – novels, poetry, short stories and geology books. 

I found out my Dad was right about the chalk dome in Sussex and I have a rough idea of how the flints got where they are.

I love geology!

©Richard Kefford          2018           Eorðdraca.

My books are for sale here:   Richard