On Friendship, Superstition, and Madness

So I’ve been back in the UK from Suriname for around two weeks now, and had been struggling to think of something to write about. Fortunately, that’s now changed.

I was talking to a friend of a friend recently, who I’d only just met, and they were very interested in the fact that I studied geology.  We spoke for a while about rocks, in particular crystals, until they said something that I wasn’t expecting, viz. “gemstones bring out different energies in humans”, and that “white crystal” is “good for thinking and the brain”.  Needless to say, that brought the geological conversation to a rather abrupt halt, and the subject was promptly changed.  As with everything in this life, there’s a relevant scene from Peep Show.

Fast forward a few days, and we find I’ve mentioned this particular discourse, and how it’s clearly a ridiculous concept, to my good friend TKC.  She said that from her neck of the woods, a lot of people believe the same thing, and that lots of her course mates wear crystal bracelets in an attempt to “improve love and relationships”. The ensuing discussion was interesting and thought provoking.

She compared it to other harmless superstitions, such as making a wish when one cuts a birthday cake, which was a fair point. However, it still bothered me.  The bring out “energies” in humans point, it seemed almost identical to homeopathy.  This nebulous and indistinct mechanism that’s not tangible in any fashion which affects one’s health (or magic for want of a better word).  It goes without saying that having studied minerals to a masters degree level, I’m less than convinced by the ability of crystals to have such health effects on humans.  Indeed, the only heath effects from “white crystal” I can think of off the top of my head would be the rather unpleasant ones that will eventually kill you from having a lots of chrysotile/tremolite knocking about.  In all likelihood, this “white crystal” is probably quartz, mainly because it’s cheap and very abundant (i.e. it’s sand).

This was where revelation the first came in.  Are different superstitions more “legitimate” depending on your cultural origin? The answer of course has to be yes.  While in the UK crystal energy fields aren’t widely subscribed to as a concept, things like walking under ladders being unlucky, black cats being lucky, and Friday the 13th being bad are quite commonly believed.  I can think of examples in my own family where superstitions are closely held beliefs (or at least appear to be).  One relative is convinced that water divining is real, while another strongly disapproved when I brought a peacock feather into the house (I was unaware that they were unlucky) – said feather was promptly destroyed in case you were wondering!  Indeed, quite a few warn me not to “tempt fate”, and a part of me agrees with them, even though there’s clearly no reason to, giving rise to an interesting internal argument between the rational and irrational.

Considering the crystal energy superstition more carefully, there does appear to be a purpose to it.  While the crystal itself is clearly inert (good luck getting quartz to react with most things), one could argue that the psychological effect of having the belief could be positive, a sort of placebo if you will.  If the belief that the crystal can help improve one’s life is able to effect a subconscious improvement in for example, someone’s confidence, then that would be a positive outcome.

Obviously this whole analysis is rocky territory (geological pun very much intended), as organised religion is a small step away from superstitious beliefs.  My argument would be that crystals are just crystals, and peacock feathers are just peacock feathers.  Given that they are tangible and examinable, one can prove there’s no “energy” etc. (four years studying pretty much every aspect of crystals imaginable is enough to last a lifetime – kudos to my geologist friends reading this who are doing Ph.Ds, you guys are properly hardcore!), whereas the beliefs behind organised religion aren’t tangible, and therefore cannot be examined in the same fashion.  I admit this leaves me wide open to accusations of hypocrisy, but so be it (for those of you who don’t know me personally, this is where I point out that I am a Christian)!

However, the point remained, and that is why did I care?  It’s a good question, just why do I care?  After all, I’m a great believer in not poking one’s nose into other people’s business when it comes to beliefs, so long as they aren’t detrimental to others.  The answer to that is of course rather simple, and that is because I’m a scientist. On a brief aside, one of my earliest memories of being interested in science was when I was around four years old.  My mother had purchased an encyclopædia (this one) for a family friend’s daughter a couple of years younger than me.  I had a quick flick through, and found the pages on electricity particularly interesting.  I promptly begged for a copy of my own, which I eventually got when Christmas came around – I still have it somewhere in fact.  Anyway, I digress.

More accurately, I’m a geologist, and since embarking on my geological studies just over four years ago, geology has become rather a central tenet of my life.  As a result, I care about it quite a lot, and want people to learn about it and understand it too, meaning that when things like this crystal energy stuff pop up, ideally I’d be able to dispel that, stick to SCIENCE and show them how things really are (presumably this is how my militant atheist friends feel a lot of the time). At this point, revelation the second rears its ugly head.  If I was so disparaging about “crystal energy” because I know it to be total nonsense and care about geology, then that flags up an unfortunate parallel. There’s someone else who’s disparaging about beliefs, because they care about biology.  Yep, that’d be Richard Dawkins. Personally I’m not a fan of his.  Yes he’s a good scientist, but also comes across as intolerant, insensitive, and patronising. Certainly not someone I’d desire to emulate, even remotely.

The question of how to sensibly discuss mineralogy and crystallography with subscribers to the crystal energy idea remains unanswered.  In fact, there isn’t an answer.  Similar problems of course arise when discussing evolution with creationists, the authenticity of the moon landings with conspiracy theorists, and the concept of horoscopes with adherents to astrology.  While it may be difficult to reconcile the fact that some people think different crystals can influence wealth/love/relationships/health/etc. with scientific mineralogical observations proving there’s no such influence, the implication is that there is not a lot that can be done.

So what have we learned here?  Several things in fact. Firstly that superstitions vary from culture to culture, what seems totally normal for one can appear totally ridiculous in another.  Secondly that science isn’t always the answer (or sensu stricto in this case, it’s the psychological element that needs consideration rather than the mineralogical one if an attempt rationalise this superstition is to be made).  Finally we learn that superstitions, while irrational, are actually quite interesting to consider in their cultural and historical contexts from an anthropological perspective.

In that respect, (i.e. the act of believing in the crystal itself provides a subconscious change in one’s confidence/attitude) it is infinitely more legitimate than many common superstitions in this country (black cats/magpies/peacock feathers/horseshoes anyone?).  However, a fair few of these have to be taken in their historical context.  One such example would be the “smashing a mirror gives seven years’ bad luck” idea, which stems from the time when wages were low, and mirrors were obnoxiously expensive (and could cost seven years’ wages).  Perhaps the finding of a four leaf clover may be considered good luck as finding one itself is rare, implying that one is lucky?

As with many things, the matter is substantially more complex than it first appears, and thinking it through as above, I feel a bit more open minded and enlightened.  Having said that, there’s clearly no merit to these crystal superstitions from any scientific point of view (aside from the potential placebo related psychological side effects).  I still (obviously) disagree with it, but it makes more sense to me now.

I know that’s quite a heavy post for a Friday, particularly the one before Christmas, so here’s a video of Gandalf teaching the Cookie Monster self control to take the edge off.  You’re welcome.

Travel Concept #1 – The Islands of Western Scotland

Right, so this blog has a lot of travel stuff on it, and I’m back in that procrastinatorial mindset.  The result is that I’ve created a new category of posts – ooooo, exciting!  Basically I’ll just write down ideas I have for journeys I’d like to do at some point.  So, what’s the first one I hear you ask?  Well, read on and find out.

I’ve long had a love of islands.  I’m not sure why, but they always fascinate me.  Their close relationship to the sea, and the communities that live on them.  I guess it’s not a particular surprise, given that I’ve lived on an (admittedly fairly large) island my whole life, and the UK is by definition, and island nation.  A few years ago, Martin Clunes did a series of three documentaries about the smaller islands around the UK (watch them on YouTube here, they are excellent).

Anyway, I’ve been told that the islands off the west coast of Scotland are beautiful (and I’ve visited Skye and Arran already.  They were simply stunning, so it’s safe to assume that the others are equally great, and it’d be marvellous to go back to those two islands anyway). But all the best trips need a purpose.  Fortunately, whilst in the depths of procrastination, it struck me.  What’s Scotland famous for? Whisky.  Obviously.  So, why not merge a trip to the Scottish islands with a tour of all their respective distilleries?  A quick search online later, and I had the complete list of distilleries.  13 in total, spread over six islands (Arran, Islay, Jura, Lewis/Harris, Mull, and Skye).  A few minutes after that, and the route was planned, with the ferries all worked out.

A trip to Harris and Lewis would give me the chance to visit the Callanish Standing Stones, which is something I’ve wanted to do for quite a long time.  They’re essentially similar to Stonehenge, but far less touristy and in a much more picturesque location!  The geology of this part of the world is amazing too.  I had a trip to Arran in Part IA, Skye in Part II, and have also studied Mull extensively in Part IB. Lewis is home to the oldest rocks in the UK – the Lewisian Gneiss (at a whopping 2.7 billion years old).  A sample of the Lewisian Gneiss also happens to be my favourite one in my rock collection (admittedly I collected it from Skye, but the rock type is the same)!

Now all I need are nine days free and a car with a decent sized boot!

So, without further ado, here’s the concept:

Island Distillery Itinerary (click to enlarge)

Island Distillery Itinerary (click to enlarge) – ferry prices include two people and a car

A Cheeky Ramble

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a long time, and after graduation seemed like the perfect time to start ticking off fun travel things.  I mentioned it to AW, and he seemed very keen, so we’ll be going together.  What is it I hear you ask?  Well, it’s a walk to the most remote pub on the island of Great Britain.  Called the Old Forge, it is situated on the remote Knoydart Peninsula in the highlands (just opposite the Isle of Skye).  It’ll take three days to walk there from the nearest town (Glenfinnan), camping for two nights along the way (one wild camping in a tent, the other, if it’s not full, in a bothy). You’ll definitely recognise Glenfinnan, or rather, its railway viaduct. It’s this bridge from the Harry Potter film series, and is where scenes like this were filmed.  As me and AW will be getting the train to the start of the walk, we’ll get to travel over it, which will be great!

One of the benefits of walking in the Scottish Highlands in the summer is the long days.  Owing to its high latitude, in the summer, sunrise is around 04:30, with sunset taking place well past 22:00, so there’s a lot of time for walking!  The maps are faultless in the UK, courtesy of the Ordnance Survey, founded in 1791 to make detailed maps of the whole country.  The remoteness of the Highlands means that you’re almost always alone in beautiful mountains.  The only downside is that it usually rains, and there is a rather significant population of midges, ticks, and other delightful insects that enjoy eating you.

Once me and AW make it to the town of Inverie, and have enjoyed a celebratory pint and pub supper, the next morning, we’ll have to head back.  We won’t be walking out though, but instead getting a boat across the sea loch to Mallaig, before getting the train back to the Home Counties.

All that remains now is to finalise the details and book everything up!

(If you’re interested in the route we’re planning to follow, the route described on this excellent blog here is what we’ll be aiming to emulate).

PS:  The geology is pretty interesting around here too, so that’s an added bonus!

A Sigh of Relief

Yesterday I had the face to face interview and written test for the company that gave me a phone interview (see my earlier post “The End of Term“), and was told that they’d let me know by the end of next week.  I’m extremely lucky, as they called me this morning to offer me a position as a geophysicist, starting at the end of July.  It’s a huge weight off my mind, as I’ve been rather worried that I’d be one of those many unemployed graduates, desperately finding some work, any work, but now it’s no longer a problem!

I’m really looking forward to starting in three and a bit months’ time, especially as it looks like such an interesting job.  Before then though, it’s only the small matter of the degree, the final bout of the Tripos, as well as all the fun that’ll be coming afterwards to deal with!

The Final Field Trip

Last week marked the end of my final field trip with my university.  Like all field trips, it was as usual, enormous fun, with a lot of hard work thrown in.  Typically, we were working between 09:00-18:00 every day, with a one hour talk at 19:30, but in true student fashion, we partied at night too.

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We were staying in a small town called Carboneras about an hour or two south of Murcia, to the east of Almería, right on the coast of the Mediterranean.  The weather all week was in the mid 20s and sunny, which was a huge change to the normal conditions in Britain! Unfortunately my very pale complexion took a bit of a beating from the sun, but I tried to cover myself completely everyday, so only the side of my face and my hands got burned.  Yes that’s right, you can have sunburned hands…

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Anyway, the geology was great, and there was a huge variety, with everything from metamorphic petrology (which was my favourite), to palæontology.

Oooo!  Pretty!  Metamorphic petrology in action.  This is a crystal of kyanite.

Oooo! Pretty! Metamorphic petrology in action. This is a crystal of kyanite.

On the met pet front, in addition to the kyanite we found (see photo above), on the last day, we went to visit an unusual volcano.  Due to some peculiarities about its formation, it erupted a large number of garnet crystals, which were now just lying around on the inside of the crater.  (I’m a massive garnet fan, especially as my master’s research project was all about garnet).

Garnets just lying around

Garnets just lying around

Something cool that was pointed out to us was that a lot of the third Indiana Jones film was filmed around where we were, such as this beach scene to name but one.

On the final night, our lecturers took us out to a local restaurant for a traditional paella.  It was amazing!!  Pretty much every type of seafood you could possibly imagine was thrown in, along with various meats like chicken/rabbit/etc.

Paella!

Paella!

Overall, it was a lovely way to finish my university geological field career.  It’s been pretty good for field trips (this was the ninth one), and they’ll be sorely missed after I graduate.

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The End of Term

Well, that’s it.  My final lecture ever has been and gone, and now it’s the end of term, and I return home on Sunday afternoon.  Only one more term remains, most of which will be taken up with revision (AJ, you know you miss the UL times we had, don’t deny it)!  In other news, various things have been going on!

Yesterday was the Sedgwick Club conference, which is a new thing this year, I guess inspired by the Imperial one that was on in February. It was a lot of fun, and we had a lot of interesting talks, as well as being able to catch up with the Oxford geologists (some of whom I met when they came down for the annual Geology varsity football match a couple of weeks ago), as well as meeting some Imperial geologists.

Job hunting still isn’t going especially well.  A graduate geologist job with a company in Cambridge that I was really hopeful for rejected me this morning which was a bit of a pain, but on the upside, I’ve got a phone interview early next week for a job in Woking, so hopefully that’ll go well!  It’d be so handy to have an interesting job already lined up before I graduate, and I’d be able to have a delightfully smooth transition to the real world (where the fun of council tax, mortgages, utility bills and TV licences awaits).  This job looks really interesting too, so fingers crossed that I’m lucky!

I’m off to Spain next week for the ninth and final geology field trip of my degree which should be a lot of fun.  The rocks are pretty diverse, with everything from metamorphic petrology to palæontology being represented.  I’ll bung up some photos of it when I’m back.

This Is The Life

Another peaceful and fun day today, I could get used to this.  After a morning in bed with some easy to watch TV (i.e. Friends), I got up for lunch with my friends which was enjoyable as always.  I then popped to the UL for a couple of hours in the early afternoon to do some digging around of Easter Island material, and I was not disappointed.  I spent a while perusing a detailed map of the island, to get a sense of the scale and the layout of the place before I visit in September, and then read a book about it.  After that, I played Uno in the gardens with JT and HB which was a lot of fun.

Tonight is composed of a formal at Homerton, with TI (who I shall be meeting in an hour at the bus stop to get the Uni 4 there), along with native Homertonians SP (big shout out to you SP as I know you follow this blog) and JA, thereby making the group sometimes known as Team Dalradian (after the banter filled summer of mapping we shared). It looks like it’ll be enormous fun, and I’m looking forward to it greatly!