Robert Hazen: Geology’s Renaissance Man

Last Friday, I had a chance to see a talk by Dr. Robert Hazen, a researcher at Washington’s Carnegie Institution for Science and professor at George Mason University. He is currently the principal investigator for the Deep Carbon Observatory, a 10-year international project that studies the role carbon plays in biological and chemical processes deep inside the Earth. His presentation focused on mineral evolution, looking at how and when different minerals formed over Earth’s 4.5 billion year lifespan.

Despite boasting a CV that would make Einstein blush, Dr. Hazen comes across as genuine and down to earth. His academic journey has taken him from Harvard to MIT to Cambridge, with over 350 articles and 20 books to his name. He has won numerous prestigious teaching and research awards, given talks at universities across the world, and even had a mineral, hazenite, named after him. He admits that hazenite only forms through phosphorus excretion by certain organisms, which has garnered the catchphrase ‘hazenite happens’.

Personally, mineralogy has never really appealed to me; like any geologist, I can spent countless hours ogling display cases at the Natural History Museum, but I’ve found that I could never quite grasp the ‘story’ they were telling. Part of the beauty of earth science is that every rock, landscape, and feature has its own story to tell, from the colliding plates that created the Rocky Mountains to the glaciers that carved the boulders in Central Park. Understanding this storyline not only makes the science come alive, but also serves as a framework for anchoring new observations and hypotheses.

While Dr. Hazen’s research is at once interdisciplinary and groundbreaking, what struck me most is his talent as a storyteller. And indeed, with the eclectic nature of his research, this is probably a skill that is absolutely necessary. From astrobiology to paleontology to mineralogy to the origins of life, Dr. Hazen’s interests range across billions of years and multiple planets. Yet as he tells his story, the connections seem perfectly clear and intuitive. What was the first mineral in the solar system? How have minerals on Earth evolved over time? How is the composition of other planets different from Earth? What role has life played in this evolution?

Dr. Hazen also recognizes the importance of abductive science as a powerful emerging tool. Unlike conventional science, which either builds hypotheses and collects data to test them or forms theories based on observatons, abductive science uses advanced computing and statistical methods to look for patterns in huge databases of data – connections that may never have been seen or imagined otherwise.

Dr. Hazen’s role does not end there. For decades, he has been bringing  science to the general public, writing for various magazines including the New York Times, Scientific American, and Newsweek. He has written numerous popular science books including Why Aren’t Black Holes Black, The Diamond Makers, and most recently The Story of EarthHe is also to my knowledge the only scientist to have published an anthology of poetry about his discipline. (If anyone ever finds a copy of The Poetry of Geology, I warn you, it may go missing.) Finally, Dr. Hazen is a renowned musician; he has played trumpet with prestigious orchestras across the globe, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Ballet, and the National Philharmonic Orchestra to name a few.

Cover photo courtesy of Clay Larsen, Flickr Creative Commons

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