Humberside Geologist No. 13

Humberside Geologist Online

The Internet, a useful tool for geologists?

By Nigel P Whittington.

 

The Internet is a global communication system whereby suitably equipped computers can transfer information to one another. This enables services such as Electronic Mail (E-mail), Newsgroups, and Web Pages (often termed ‘the World Wide Web’) to be accessed by anyone with a suitable computer and internet connection. Despite the hyperbole of its proponents and critics it has immense potential for serious scientific use. This article reviews some of the possibilities and assesses the usefulness of the Internet to those with an interest in the earth sciences.

The Internet is fundamentally a communications system, but it differs from systems such as conventional mail, telephones or scientific journals not just in its speed but in the way that access to people and information can be organised. Newsgroups and mailing lists enable people and organisations to be contacted on the basis of their interests almost as easily as you can find a company by what it provides in the ‘Yellow Pages’. Powerful but easy to use automated indexes called ‘Search Engines’ also enable information to be located using keyword, name or subject searches. Many World Wide Web sites also compile their own specialist indexes or ‘Links pages’ gleaned from their own trawling of the web. Sites with similar interests are sometimes organised into ‘web-rings’ such as the paleo-ring association of sites with palaeontological interests. [This does not seem to be working at present –Nov. 2000] As many academic libraries have internet accessible catalogues these can be searched as well as other academic databases, though some such as the invaluable BIDS database limit access to registered academic users.

As the earth sciences make increasing use of computers, from Geographic Information Systems for mapping to computerised analysis of structural geological data large data-sets are becoming available and programs for carrying out their analysis are needed. Many of these data-sets are available commercially over the internet at a cost, including digital geological mapping but a number of useful programs are available free, or on the ‘shareware’ principle. (A ‘free trial’ system.)

The Internet is largely unregulated meaning anyone and everyone can both read information on it and contribute to it. The advantage of this is that you can reach a potentially huge and world-wide audience, the disadvantage is that ‘crank’ viewpoints masquerading as science can do the same. This can have unexpected consequences, the flood of creationist material originating from self styled "creation scientists" (surely a contradiction in terms) reminds us both that debates long dead in the scientific community still have often powerful proponents that influence both public understanding of science and educational policy in science teaching. The mainstream response to creationist material has triggered some of the best technical material on geological dating methods, and on evolution (both its biological and palaeontological aspects) on the net and much of this is archived at <www.ediacara.org/>

Services available through the Internet of relevance to scientists fall into three broad categories: Newsgroups, Mailing lists and the World Wide Web.

Newsgroups:

Newsgroups are a little like international noticeboards arranged thematically, they are openly distributed world-wide and messages sent to a newsgroup can be read by anyone choosing to read that newsgroup. The open nature of newsgroups often attract people with fanatical views but they are also an ideal way of making contact with someone with a specialist interest or as a place to ask a relevant question or put out a request for information. Their ‘broadcast’ nature also makes them ideal for making announcements such as publicising meetings, websites (see below) or publications. Perhaps the most useful aspect of newsgroups is the chance to ‘broadcast’ reasonably specific questions or requests for information. There is an increasing chance that this will be seen by someone who has the answer you require and brief, specific questions or requests are more likely to be answered by someone with a genuine knowledge of the subject. Previous postings can also be automatically searched to see if the subject you are interested in has been discussed in the past using services such as DejaNews. <www.dejanews.com> Newsgroups also give an opportunity to advertise your interest in a particular subject and to trawl for others who have a similar interest, this can eventually lead to the formation of a mailing list or web community(see below).

Since most articles on the Internet give little attention to newsgroups. I review the main earth science related groups.

sci.geo.geology

The main geological newsgroup. Sadly this newsgroup is often clogged up by postings from proponents of expanding earth theories, creationists and similar non-scientific viewpoints, usually with great passion but little real knowledge. In among this are potentially useful discussions on just about any aspect of geology. Levels of debate vary from school age children posting their homework questions to scholarly debates in geophysics. As anyone can chime in on a debate one problem is to identify the person who knows what they are talking about as opposed to the person who is merely voicing an opinion.

The group is regularly read by a number of knowledgeable people, many of whom only infrequently post but will offer assistance on anything within their field of knowledge. A posting on shell damage and regrowth for example generated several replies with valuable references and enabled contact to be made with several people working on this rather specialised topic.

There are also regular news and information postings by the US geological survey, information from commercial organisations involved in geology, mining, petrochemicals etc. as well as advertisements for new web sites.

sci.bio.paleontology

Mostly discussion on dinosaurs but other palaeontological subjects covered.

Useful to cross-post questions about fossils to this group as well as sci.geo.geology.

sci.bio.evolution

This could equally be titled hate.stephen.gould as much of the discussion on this group attacks (and occasionally defends) Professor Gould’s views though occasionally there are scholarly discussions of the evolutionary context of palaeontological problems.

sci.geo.earthquakes - Often knowledgable seismolology, mostly U.S.

sci.geo.hydrology - Quiet, reasonably academic newsgroup.

sci.geo.mineralogy - Mostly american ‘rockhounds’.

Mailing Lists:

Mailing lists differ from newsgroups in that they are subscribed to and only sent out (by E-mail) to subscribers. Debate on these tends to be more serious and academic and closely linked to the subject area of the group. Mailing lists are generally fairly low volume, reflecting the specialist nature of their content. The best place to look for these are Liszt <www.liszt.com> and Mailbase <www.mailbase.ac.uk>. Over a dozen earth science mailing lists exist, some with wide interests such as rocks and fossils, others with quite narrow specialisms within the field. Since these mailing lists rely on the enthusiasm of those who run them to remain active you may often find that the list has become defunct or inactive but it is easy to set up your own mailing list or newsletter to keep in contact with others who share your specialist interest.

The following Earth Science lists are administered by Mailbase <http://www.mailbase.ac.uk> These groups are primarily academic with an emphasis on the U.K.

geo-computer-models: Discussion of computer modelling in all aspects of earth sciences.

geo-env: Publicised and debates activities of the Geological Society Environment Group.

geo-metamorphism: Set up by the Metamorphic Studies Group to discuss all aspects of metamorphic

geology.

geo-mineralisation: Set up by the Mineral Deposits Studies Group, an affiliate of the Geological Society (London). Its main focus is economic geology.

geo-tectonics: Set up by the Tectonic Studies Group of the Geological Society of London to discuss tectonics, structural geology and related issues.

Web Communities are an idea sharing some of the features of mailing lists and newsgroups. They are privately run, usually by an individual, who can control who subscribes (and is entitled to make postings) and what is posted to the community site. Unlike mailing lists communities can be read by anyone using the World Wide Web. As yet web communities have been little used by Earth Scientists.

Web Sites:

Websites can contain text, photos and other graphics, animations and even sounds. The ease of producing an attractive multimedia presentation means web-sites have become one of the main ways of making information available over the internet.

Websites use a technology called "hypertext". Hypertext may be thought of as a sophisticated and automated cross referencing and indexing system that means that you can automatically ‘jump’ from place to place in a document or even jump to and from a completely different page held on a different computer with ease. This means that, for example an introduction to The Chalk could, when noting that it consists mainly of coccoliths enable the reader to jump almost seamlessly to items about coccoliths on museum or university web pages before returning to the original article.

While relatively few earth science subjects give scope for the full potential of multimedia sites exist with excellent animations of plate tectonics, paleogeography and even "virtual Jurassic reefs", major palaeontological excavations have even been broadcast on ‘web-cam’s.

A huge number of earth science related websites exist, produced by a variety of sources and this paper can only give an overview rather than recommend individual sites. Many earth science websites are maintained by geology departments in universities world-wide. Such sites often contain not just information about the departments and their activities (useful if you are searching for someone with specialist knowledge) but teaching materials. These teaching materials can range from basic papers on aspects of geology to fully illustrated "virtual field trips" complete with assessment questions to be answered. Other sites are maintained by national geological surveys, the U.S. Geological survey site being particularly extensive and frequently updated. Commercial organisations with websites containing earth science information range from those of multinational oil and mineral concerns to individuals selling fossils or mineral specimens. Individuals and small groups also run sites, usually focusing on a specific area of interest. These amateur sites can often contain very worthwhile information reflecting individual passions and also serve as a point where it is possible to contact a person with similar specialist interests to your own anywhere on the globe.

With many companies on the web offering free webspace (usually in exchange for placing adverts on the page) there is a huge potential for self publishing. The Hull Geological Society maintain a website with information about its activities and Humberside Geologist is available in a web edition. This has lead to a number of enquiries about the Society and its activities and to people joining fieldtrips who originate as far away as Canada! (They were on holiday in Yorkshire). Several new members have joined after seeing the Society website. The Society also operates a free e-mail newsletter enabling interested persons to keep in touch with the societiy's activities across the globe. The society webpages have also generated a number of queries about local geology from people who have made contact after viewing the site.

Many modern word-processing programs and web-browser programs such as Netscape and Internet Explorer have the capability to produce documents in versions suitable for the web and most of the providers of free sites offer simple interfaces to publish your own pages. Your research work or photos of your fossil collection can be made available to a potential world-wide audience of millions and producing a web page on your own specialist interest is a good way of attracting contacts from others who share this interest.

The Internet represents a significant international information resource with the main problems being the vast volume of information and evaluating the validity of the source. Importantly it provides a means of identifying people and organisations by area of interest worldwide. Any information that can be converted into a digital form can be rapidly exchanged though perhaps the full extent of this capability has not been exploited yet in the earth sciences. The World Wide Web is an ideal way for individuals or groups to publicise information about local geology, research interests or specialisms. While it will never replace the hammer and handlens as geological tools it has the potential to become an important extension of the notebook and library. Perhaps the greatest benefit however is the ability of the Internet to connect people with similar interests or specialist knowledge and to enable them to easily and swiftly exchange information.

 

(c) Hull Geological Society 1999 + 2007