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”.
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.