A field found in the bush

January 29, 1999

There are broadly two ways of doing science: you can be an experimentalist or a theorist. The theoretician needs a library, a pencil and these days a computer, too. The experimentalist, on the other hand, needs a laboratory, which can range in size from a workbench in a broom cupboard to a suite of "clean labs", and rooms for keeping and growing subjects (such as cultures of bacteria or animals), to the extreme case of the scientist who needs to do "fieldwork". This can be done on a variety of scales. "The field" to scientists is a local pond, a windy, damp moor in the south-west of England, the banks of Loch Ness, inside the crater of an active volcano, the Himalayas or even the Kalahari desert.

Christopher Scholz's Fieldwork: a Geologist's Memoir of the Kalahari is about the process of field science and about living in the bush. The purpose of field science is to discover something new - to answer an important question in your branch of study that cannot be answered in any other way and that will provide a piece of the jigsaw that you and your colleagues are trying to put together. However, to receive the funding needed for fieldwork, scientists write numerous research proposals, many of which are unsuccessful. Even when they get the funding, the results they obtain may not be those anticipated in the original grant proposal. A certain flexibility is needed on the part of both the scientists and the grant-giving bodies. This book illustrates the way in which a project may grow and develop into a research programme.

Scholz was invited to act as an "earthquake consultant" in the Okavango region of the Kalahari. This was a small part of a large project investigating the effects of developing the Okavango swamps and exploiting the mineral wealth of the region. Once he had checked on a map where exactly this was, he was interested in going. He did a bit of research on the region's earthquake history and found that as well as a consulting job, this could turn into a very interesting scientific problem. The problem was: "how do continents rift?" Tectonic plates are known to move around, sometimes moving past one another, sometime colliding and sometimes pulling apart. Most of the pull-apart zones are located on oceanic lithosphere (such as the mid-Atlantic ridge system and the east Pacific rise), but there are some on land. The best example of old continental lithosphere being rifted apart is along the east African rift system. This system is splitting the African continent apart and is most prominent in Ethiopia, where it is opening fastest.

The block containing Somalia is moving east relative to the rest of Africa. The split is marked by a series of deep rift valleys and active volcanoes, and it runs from the Red Sea through the Ethiopian highlands. In northern Kenya, the rift divides into two branches, but these join again and continue down to Malawi, where they apparently peter out. By analysing all of the recorded earthquakes in the Kalahari area, Scholz began to suspect that there was a continuation of the east African rift as far south as Botswana.

He agreed to take the consultancy job, which sounded interesting in its own right, knowing that he would also have the chance to investigate the propagation of rifting in continental lithosphere at the same time. As he points out, whether research is applied or basic is often a matter of point of view and manner of execution; the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

This book is a good read for anyone who has done or has even thought of doing fieldwork, or who wonders how the mind of a field scientist works. Indeed, it reads like an extended diary or field notes. The author's interesting and sometimes exciting adventures - from being robbed in Italy on his way to the Kalahari and being arrested for swearing, to hiding from a herd of elephants - are relived by the reader on every page. The science that emerged may not have been as profound as Scholz hoped at the time, but the experience he recounts is one that many will envy.

Hazel Rymer is Royal Society university research fellow, Open University.

Fieldwork: A Geologist's Memoir of the Kalahari

Author - Christopher Scholz
ISBN - 0 691 01226
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 190

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