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Mineralogist Enlightened by the Integrative Nature of Science

Robert Hazen at the Western Shore of Maryland
Robert Hazen in the Western Shore of
Maryland. Credit: Margaret Hazen.

At least once a week, Carnegie Institution mineralogist and AAAS Fellow Robert Hazen finds himself surrounded by eagles and ospreys in the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. He travels to this pristine landscape in Maryland to collect minerals that wash ashore on its golden sand beaches. Only an hour-long drive from his laboratory in the nation’s capital, it’s not just a spot for bird watching—it’s also an ideal place to study how minerals have evolved throughout Earth’s history.

“I’ve been all over the world, but I don’t know any place where the geology is more, just, jaw dropping…People have been collecting on the cliffs shark teeth and other fossils for 200 years, and no one’s ever described the minerals, which are truly world-class,” Hazen said.

Besides his weekly trips to Maryland, Hazen has conducted fieldwork around the globe. His most recent trip abroad took him to the Kola Peninsula of the Russian Arctic where he visited the largest phosphate mine in Europe. He’s voyaged to the Sahara Desert where he experienced a sandstorm mixed with a thunderstorm, resulting in mud raining from the sky, and in South Africa, he saw famous gold and diamond mines. He even trekked to a geological wonder of the world, the North Pole Dome in Western Australia, where the rocks have remained unaltered for the past 3.5 million years to film a PBS NOVA episode.

One of Hazen’s most unique experiences occurred in Morocco. Not only was his travel group’s translator able to speak multiple languages, he also happened to be a meteorite dealer—someone who can make a great deal of money selling the “big black rocks on the top of the sand” that people find in the desert to museums and collectors. So, the translator was constantly receiving meteor-related phone calls.

Robert Hazen in Morocco
Robert Hazen in Morocco.
Credit: Margaret Hazen.

Hazen recalled roadside meetings where a car would pull up with someone holding a rock, sometimes accompanied by a person with a gun. “Everything is done in cash, and we’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars. It’s like a drug deal by the side of the road, but it’s meteorites. You have to basically look at the rock and decide ‘Is this a moon rock or is this just an ordinary basalt from some volcano nearby?’”

Fortunately, he never saw a deal go badly, but he said the experiences were very strange. “It feels like something out of a movie,” Hazen stated. “It reflects the kind of culture that is quite different.”

During his travels around the globe or simply at the Western Shore, Hazen finds minerals and records their type, locality and age. His research goal is to build a timeline of how minerals have changed throughout Earth’s history, a field he named “mineral evolution.” According to him, this field represents a shift in the framing of mineralogy. Previously, minerals were taken out of their geological form and studied as distinct from other processes in nature, but Hazen approaches mineralogy as an interdisciplinary field.

For the past 4.5 billion years, as the planet evolved, so did mineral diversity, distribution, size, shape, trace elements and other characteristics. “If you want to understand how planets evolve and change, you want to understand the coevolution of rocks and life. And that’s so important because life changes the rocks, rocks change the life,” Hazen said. Since other pieces of earth’s history, such as ancient oceans and atmospheres, cannot be preserved, scientists rely on rocks to “paint a picture of what the earth was like a long time ago.” 

This integrative approach is also how Hazen taught the course “Great Ideas in Science” at George Mason University for the past 30 years until his retirement in June 2019. As the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science, a position that emphasizes bringing broadly innovative teaching techniques to the classroom, Hazen devoted his time to engaging non-science majors with STEM. This meant connecting students with science relevant to their everyday lives rather than enforcing memorization or complex equations.

Robert Hazen at Driftwood Beach, Maryland.
Robert Hazen at Driftwood Beach,
Maryland. Credit: Matt Scott.

“We have a problem with our education system in this country, especially when it comes to science education…So often, especially in college, professors are teaching a class as if everyone in the class should become what [they] are teaching…instead of trying to give scientific literacy, so that they…feel confident they understand something about the scientific context in their lives…I want people to recognize how much science is part of their lives.”

Hazen’s passion for imparting science is also reflected in the numerous books he has written for lay audiences throughout his career. He likes to tell stories, and his most recent book, Symphony in C, which was published in June 2019, details carbon as the most important element in our lives. Hazen is especially privy to the significance of carbon as the Deep Carbon Observatory's Executive Director and first Principal Investigator.

“Many of our hopes and fears are tied up with carbon,” Hazen said. “It was fun writing a book that explored the richness of carbon and brought together many of the discoveries of the Deep Carbon Observatory as a popular book.”

When pondering why he enjoys writing science-themed books for non-scientists, Hazen stated, “It’s just a way of reaching out and getting a broader audience engaged in what we [scientists] do. Each of [my] books gives a vivid picture of what it’s like to be in the laboratory or making the discoveries.”

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