“Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

About three years ago I read the book The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. In it, the author describes the life of Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian scientist and explorer who strongly influenced a young Charles Darwin. During this time, I was seriously contemplating pursuing geology for my life’s work but had yet to delve into the subject fully. I found solace in the storied history of Humboldt, a man I viewed to possess traits of being that I someday wished to emulate.

A master of myriad disciplines, Humboldt characterized what I believe was the paragon life of the natural scientist unbound. Not only did he engineer his own instruments and culminate varied and complex – yet complete – datasets on some of the most magnificent but previously undocumented features of the natural world, he also excelled at public relations and scientific policy. Humboldt’s arduous push to explore the Americas and connect with its peoples inspired generations of civil development and social and environmental progress which to this day continues to be colorful and complex.


Alexander von Humboldt Monument, El Ejido, Quito, Ecuador

I came to regard Humboldt as a being by which I felt inspired. I’ve recognized my tendency to identify esteemed individuals after which to model my actions as a trend which has followed me through my life. In fact, in my earlier years of self-reflection, I often deemed myself too impressionable: a quality I didn’t always embrace as beneficial to my development. I have since learned that seeking role models to guide me through first absorbing desirable traits and then incorporating habits into my own identity has helped me grow into a better scientist.

One of the journeys of Humboldt that I found particularly striking was when he climbed Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador. The volcano’s great height historically placed its peak as the highest in the world; however, modern instrumentation and exploration led to the discontinuation of that idea. Chimborazo is unique; though, in that its summit is the farthest point from the center of the Earth. Interestingly, our home planet takes the shape of an oblate spheroid: not a perfect sphere. The equator is slightly “fatter” and because of that, features on the surface near the so-called equatorial bulge extend to greater distances from the center. Thus, the summit of Chimborazo – which is at the equator – juts out from the center even farther than that of the majestic Mount Everest.



It is for this reason I seek to one day climb to the top of Chimborazo. With this goal in mind, a little over one year ago I journeyed to Ecuador to set my sights on the volcano. I’m still learning the techniques of climbing big mountains, so I did not attempt to summit on this trip. I did wish to get a “feel” for the environment; however, which I achieved. I took a trip to climb to what was at the time the highest accessible point on neighboring Cotopaxi. On my way, I saw Chimborazo in-person for the time and was overwhelmed with awe. From that moment I knew that my actions going forward would be in pursuit of the ultimate goal of standing atop that peak.


Cotopaxi at dawn from Parque Metropolitano, Quito, Ecuador

I now leave you with a short poem I wrote to culminate the themes of my story here. I also hope that you too can find something worth “[looking] well to each step; and from the beginning [thinking] what may be the end”.


Note: quote (and title) are by Edward Whymper, the English mountaineer who is credited with the first ascent of Chimborazo.

A View from Thirty Thousand Feet

One of the things I enjoy about geology is the utility found in drawing upon seemingly disparate pieces of information to better understand the interconnected processes at work on the Earth. In the business world, this is often described as the “30,000-foot view”. Thirty thousand feet is chosen because that is close to the approximate altitude at which most commercial jet aircraft cruise. Just imagine yourself in an airplane, looking at the landscapes passing beneath you, and forming ideas about what you are seeing with this unique perspective. Those ideas are certain to integrate a great deal of information. This approach to forming ideas is particularly useful in geology – which some refer to as “the ultimate interdisciplinary science” – because one gains a level of understanding consistent with the Earth as a complex system.

This sort of thinking sometimes permeates into other aspects of my life. For example a couple of weeks ago I read an article about how scientists for the first time created three-dimensional images of certain quasiparticles (phenomena that occur when particles are affected by interactions in a system such that those particles behave as if they are different types of particles in a vacuum). What they imaged are known as skyrmions, which have been proposed as a model for particles that make up the nuclei of atoms (like protons and neutrons). It is useful to understand skyrmions because they have implications for electronic materials like semiconductors that we use in computers. I hadn’t previously heard of skyrmions and I found myself intent on learning more about them. This could be because my first thought was, “Skyrmion? That’s a strange name that reminds me of Iceland”.



Icelandic cows are necessary for excellent quark.

Iceland is a popular destination for geologists because so many geological phenomena are on display in such a small area. I suppose one could say Iceland gives the geo-tourist a lot of “bang for the buck”. I’m a pretty typical geologist, so I myself vacationed to Iceland this past summer. While I was there I took a liking to a dairy product known as skyr. I later learned that although skyr reminds me of yogurt, it is technically a cheese. It is classified as such because it is made from coagulated milk solids (cheese) rather than thickened milk (yogurt). The proteins in milk normally repel each other and stay suspended in liquid but when certain bacteria are introduced it makes the milk more acidic which causes the proteins to clump together into curds which are used to make cheese. In yogurt, the elevated temperature that the milk is subjected to during production breaks up the proteins which results in thickening.

When I was researching this for myself I also learned that skyr is a particular type of cheese known as a quark because it is made using bacteria that thrive in moderate-temperature environments. The word quark reminded me of the subatomic particles that combine to make composite particles like protons and neutrons. Thus, I arrived back at my initial subject of investigation: particle physics.

Also, in case you are wondering if skyrmions are named after a dairy product, they are not. The person that first proposed them as a model was a British physicist and mathematician named Tony Skyrme.

“It matters that you don’t just give up”

Those who know me well know that I come from somewhat humble beginnings. That’s not to say that my upbringing didn’t serve me well in terms of observing first-hand the value of a strong work ethic. My parents slaved tirelessly working multiple full-time blue-collar jobs to afford to live in a relatively affluent area so that their children might realize a better future, which we now gratefully enjoy. Most significantly, this impressed upon me a system of values to which I can attribute much of my more recent accolades.

As a result, however, when I was growing up it was difficult for me to relate to peers much more fortunate in terms of financial security. My worldview was somewhat removed from those with ample time for more scholarly pursuits. However, in my teen years, I met a young man who introduced me to poetry, high art, music, and literature. This man – who I ended up marrying several years later – taught me the value of using the resource of one’s mind as a tool to gain new perspectives. Exemplary of this was when he lent to me his copy of “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking.

In my coming-of-age, I was constantly trying new things out. I was seeking an identity that felt genuine. One matter upon which I was often ruminating was that of my faith. Further, I was uncertain how my religious beliefs – or lack thereof – fit into the context of a flourishing interest in subjects based on pure reason. It was therefore timely for me to delve into Professor Hawking’s book. In “A Brief History of Time”, he provides not only an excellent review of how we understand the physical universe but also comments on the implications of making connections between faith and science. It is this part that helped me come to terms with my own definition of God. Professor Hawking, in short, inspired me to generate a unique meaning for faith – one much broader than what I had learned from traditional religious practice and one based on my experience as a student of logic.

To better understand the connection upon which I landed, I quote the philosopher Alan Watts:

“[Faith] is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

In the wake of Hawking’s death, I remember this as one of the more impactful experiences of my youth. I also look to the future with further inspiration to share my science in ways that a greater number of citizens can relate. Stephen Hawking excelled at this, and I can only hope to be a fraction as successful in my own pursuit to become a scientist and science communicator.

As the great physicist said,

“Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Source for Featured Image