Paper No. 14
Presentation Time: 4:45 PM
SERENDIPITY AND A TAO OF GEOCHEMISTRY
My career benefited from several ‘aha’ moments, or serendipity, the occurrence of unexpected surprises. Part of success comes from recognizing serendipity and making the most of it. Minerals and mineral collecting was a major source of inspiration for me as a kid. Next was learning chemistry from an outstanding high school teacher. A major ‘aha’ moment came when I discovered three geochemistry books at the SIU library (by Vernadsky, Fersman, and Garrels and Christ). As soon as I saw this subject called geochemistry, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. On the first Earth Day (1970) at CU, I made a conscious decision to dedicate my studies to environmental geochemistry, i.e., as something beneficial to society. At Stanford I was looking for a PhD thesis that combined field work, lab work, and theoretical calculations. I almost quit before Iron Mountain came along but I knew a good thesis when I saw it, plus it was fully funded by the USGS. It provided the opportunity to improve computerized speciation calculations (a very new research tool in 1974) by adding Fe(II/III) and trace elements and by calculating Eh. I also determined the rate of ferrous iron oxidation in a flowing stream; and I documented one of the world’s worst mine effluents. In 1979 Peter Fritz invited me on the International Stripa Project: another ‘aha’ moment because I set out to disprove the hypothesis that salinity from fluid inclusions could influence granitic groundwater chemistry but found that the evidence showed otherwise. We also showed that heaters, simulating stored nuclear waste canisters, could rapidly change groundwater chemistry. I learned that nuclear waste agencies too easily relied on models to predict ‘accurately’ repository conditions for millennia. During litigation and remediation of Iron Mountain the USEPA asked us difficult questions. The next ‘aha’ moment came when, with my first post-doc, Charles Alpers, we described negative pH waters at Iron Mountain and predicted alarming consequences to a mine plugging scenario. Our work at Yellowstone and Questa had similar moments. Final thoughts: 1. A successful geochemist integrates theory, field observations, and lab experiments. 2. Serendipity only works for those who prepare for it. How? Gain essential knowledge, consider multiple working hypotheses, be creative, and be honest.