I began teaching physical geology in Fall 1982. Like all other instructors of this type of course, I would discuss a wide variety of landforms and show textbook provided slides (you know, pieces of film in a cardboard mount) of them. But in nearly all cases, I had never seen them with my own eyes. The following summer, my wife and I drove from Chicago to San Juan Island, Washington. For the first time I walked on a glacier, saw alpine topography and stream terraces. I turned to my wife and said, “I wasn’t lying.”
I had the same feeling just last month, during a field trip prior to the North American Paleontological Convention in Riverside, California. Wonderfully led by Lidya Tarhan (Yale) and Emily Smith (Johns Hopkins), we spent four days looking at the classic exposures of the Ediacaran and Cambrian in the White-Inyo Mountains and the Death Valley region. It was some of most grueling hiking I had done in years (or ever), but the fossils and the rocks were worth it. After years of teaching paleontology and Earth system history, here were things I had taught about, read about, but had never before seen in place. There were small shelly fossils, stromatolites; archaeocyathid reefs, and Cloudina (look ’em up!). As an added bonus, there were glacial dropstones of the Cryogenian, the even older age of the Snowball Earth. I have specimens and photos to show my classes; and I will know that I’m not lying to them.
There is absolutely nothing to replace direct and preferably hands-on contact with the world of nature. That is one of the best things about geology and paleontology; most of our subjects of study are both visual and tactile; they have a direct and immediate sensory impact. This kind of experience cannot be adequately replaced by seeing an image on the internet.
The importance of direct experience is also critical to science education and outreach. I bring a telescope outside during block parties and show my neighbors the Moon and planets. When they see the craters on the Moon, the rings of Saturn or the moons of Jupiter with their own eyes, the inevitable expression is “Wow!” You cannot replace this personal encounter with the natural world with a photo from a space probe, no matter how much more detailed and beautiful they are. Seeing a dinosaur in a museum has orders-of-magnitude more impact than seeing a picture online. Stop reading this, get away from the computer or phone, and go outside! Nature is best experienced first-hand. I’m not lying!