Anusha Banerjee is an aspiring geologist and a budding digital artist from Kolkata, India. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Geology from Calcutta University and then a master’s degree in Applied Geology from Presidency University, Kolkata. The “art-science-ness” of geology continually intrigues Anusha and in the future, she wants to be able to reach out to anyone interested in art and/or science, and make geology a tad bit more accessible. Anusha also loves to play the ukulele and the keyboard and sing, read random stories from history, browse r/etymology on Reddit, or explore her hometown, Kolkata.
In the third installment of the In Conversation series, Anusha and I talk about her love of geology and e(art)h science and the very prominent artistic element of the science of rocks.
When and how were you inspired to study geology? Could you elaborate on your experience studying geology?
This one is an interesting story. As a child, I loved the arts and sciences equally. In school, we were made to believe that they are both vastly different and can never become one. But over time, I began to find that they converged very often, and sometimes very evidently- like the colourful salts in chemistry lab, and fractals in mathematics. Back then, I was very interested in astrophysics and astronomy, and its least to mention that the images of space are enough to make anyone gasp in awe. So, I thought “Great! I am going to study astronomy.” At such a time, I began to realise that I’m going to have to dedicate a lot of time and energy to math, which sounded very intimidating to me. I started having second thoughts about the subject. One of my seniors from school told me about geology. Even though I had heard of the subject before, I didn’t know much about it. But, I was intrigued!
It was fascinating- like being a forensic scientist of the Earth. The final blow came when I saw pictures of thin sections of rocks. To think that rocks could look like…that just did it for me. Then onward, it was just one beautiful journey.
What is your fondest memory of your time as a geology student?
There’s too many to start with, honestly. A lot of small moments make up my favourite memories as a geology student. The first time I held a real fossil in my hands (it was an ammonite), the first time I used a rock hammer to obtain a rock sample, the first time my classmates and I made a structural map of an area. Most of my fond memories go back to the field trips of five years, and practical classes- I can’t mention one by not mentioning the other. So I’d like to share a different, yet fond memory. This is from August 2019, when we were in Tokyo, Japan for the 23rd India-Japan Student Conference (IJSC) organised by Nihongo Kaiwa Kyookai Society. On a day off, I travelled to Tsukuba, and visited the Geological Museum in AIST. This is the biggest and only museum of its type in Japan, and has always been on my bucket list. It was my first time in a foreign country and travelling on my own to a place I have always wanted to visit was an emotional moment for me. There’s a replica of a fold from Jurrasic Age, in front of which I always wanted to take a picture of. And I did!
In the television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”, Sheldon Cooper is famous (or infamous) for saying geology is not a real science. How would you refute him?
Oh, right. This one. I don’t think it’s advisable to go into an argument with Sheldon Cooper, but if I had to anyway, I’d like to remind him what “science” means- an endeavour to understand. There’s no such thing as “real” science, in my opinion. Something is either science, or it isn’t- in which case, it might be pseudoscience. It’s least to say that geological phenomena exist- we wouldn’t even be here if tectonism didn’t operate! Geology is indeed interdisciplinary, but it is also a science in itself. I might have overused the word “science” too many times, but I hope it explains the point.
How would you say art and science combines in the field of geology? What do you think of this combination?
I like to call my subject e(art)h science, because there’s so much art in it! I can never imagine geology without all the visual art there is in it- from the thin sections, to the stratigraphy, from crystallography and mineral structures, to palaeontology (macro- and micro-). You can see fractals in real life when looking at the Digital Elevation Models of mountain ranges, or the sutures of an extinct ammonite fossil, or the Fibonacci spiral structural of the Nautilus. I don’t have to mention how beautiful and exquisite the geodes and crystals look. Rock outcrops have a beauty of their own. However, thin sections are my favourite. Rocks are made of minerals, and minerals have different optical properties. What this essentially means, is that light interacts very differently with them. Fun fact! A rock is sliced to as thin as 0.035 mm to be able to study their mineral composition under a microscope.
(With jargon: Most minerals are anisotriopic- meaning they have different refractive indices along different directions- and in order to differentiate them, a regular transmitted-light microscope is usually not enough. For this, geologists use a special “polarising” microscope. First the light passes through a “polariser”, which allows light to vibrate only in one specific direction. An “analyser”, or second polariser changes the quality and direction of this light wave. With the help of a rotating stage, minerals are seen to have various “interference” colours- which very simply are the wavelengths of light they intercept.)
(Without jargon: Most minerals have a complicated crystal structure and can’t be differentiated using a regular microscope. Geologists use special “polarising” microscopes to identify the various minerals of a thin section. Under a polarising microscope, a special filter (called “analyser”) reveals the hidden colours of these minerals).
It’s truly magical.
Would you say the mundane world around you has changed since you began studying geology?
Entry into the world of geology is a one-way ticket. Once you are in love with the subject, you start seeing it everywhere. You start seeing it in the mineral grains of the “granite” tabletops of your kitchen- spoiler alert! These “granites” are not always granites – or the marble flooring of your house. Trips to the beach mean looking at the shape of ripples and understanding how the currents led to their formation. Travelling to the mountains mean understanding what rock type they might be made of and understanding the tectonism which led to their formation.
My gallery is often full of pictures of the rock slabs which make up an ancient temple complex, or polished slabs on Metro pillars. But most importantly, geology is more than just rocks, petroleum, or coal. Geology is a way of life. Once you start viewing how the Earth works and realise our place in it- you start to understand things on a deeper level, especially the greatest ongoing crisis at hand- climate change, and what it means for our species. In short: it’s not good news.
What form of artistic expression fits best in showcasing the beauty of geology?
Photography and painting! We’ve all become natural history illustrators (of rocks, fossils, and thin sections) in class some or the other time. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here. My favourite e(art)h science pages are @drrhcmadden (rock samples), @alexstrekeisen (rock microscopy) and @linajakaite (3D geologic artwork) on Instagram.
Finally, what’s your favourite rock? Why?
I had to think about this for the longest time. There are quite a lot of interesting rocks out there, but I guess my favourite would be basalt. This rock is formed by the solidification of lava on the surface, and is abundant on the Earth, Mars and the Moon. At places, it forms a particularly interesting hexagonal-column-like structure- these are called columnar joints and I think they’re very cool! Another reason I love this rock is because even though it looks dull and uninteresting on the surface, the thin sections reveal their beautiful colours!
For more on Anusha, visit her Instagram account. And stay tuned for a secret project she is working on!