If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too is utility. As Iain Stewart from Plymouth University
(UK) observed last February at the 40th anniversary of the International Geoscience Programme
(IGCP) at UNESCO in Paris, show a piece of coal to an industrialist and they will see a source of
fuel; show it to an ecologist and they will see a source of carbon emissions; show it to a geologist
and they will see a climate which existed more than 300 million years ago (Ma).
Geoscientists help us to travel through time. The IGCP was founded in 1972 to confirm the
existence of Gondwana, one of two megacontinents with Laurasia which formed about 145 Ma,
by correlating the geology of modern continents. As time went by and supporting evidence for
Gondwana became overwhelming, IGCP research teams turned to questions of special societal
relevance. New disciplines emerged like archaeoseismology, which draws on both the geological
and archaeological record to identify past earthquakes. One IGCP project in 2000 was even at
the origin of a new field: medical geology, the science dealing with the impact of our natural
environment on human and animal health. Arsenic, for example, is a natural chemical which poisons
millions of people worldwide who absorb it unwittingly through groundwater.
Given the concern over climate change and the looming shortage of fossil fuels and uranium
which overshadows our industrial future, geoscientists are focusing more on renewable energy these
days. Kenyan geoscientists, for instance, are currently employed on a government project to develop
geothermal energy in the Great Rift Valley.