Coming to Terms with Time and Mystery

Geosciences in the Media Award

This might be the first story in the history of the EXPLORER where you’ll see mention of Dr. Seuss, Thomas Paine and longtime Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda.

But Wayne Ranney, this year’s AAPG Geosciences in Media Award winner, is motivated and moved by more than just those in and around the profession. There’s a vast world beyond, literally and figuratively, and he knows some of them are Dodgers fans. His proficiency in contributing to the public understanding of the profession, which he sees as filled with magic and metaphor, begins with knowing to whom he’s speaking.

“I make people feel comfortable about time,” said Ranney, who signed off one of his emails with a Paine quote (“The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren and to do good is my religion.”), another with one from Theodor Seuss Geisel (“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”), and one from Lasorda (“My responsibility is to get my twenty-five guys playing for the name on the front of their uniform and not the one on the back.”).

Before he makes them comfortable about time, however, he deconstructs why they’re not.

Ranney, an award-winning author, lecturer and host of outdoor adventures and worldwide expeditions, said about the movement of time through the ages, “I have found that for most people, time can be divided in only two parts: ‘now and ‘then.’ The entire past to them is just one big thing.”

It is the geoscientist, apparently, who makes time complicated.

“To a geologist however, there are millions of ‘thens,’” said Ranney.

Ranney’s strength, and why, in large measure, he received the award, is his work over the years recognizing the different worldviews of those who read his books, attend his lectures and hike up and down trails with him.

Image Caption

Working with a Japanese film crew on the geology of Grand Canyon.

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This might be the first story in the history of the EXPLORER where you’ll see mention of Dr. Seuss, Thomas Paine and longtime Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda.

But Wayne Ranney, this year’s AAPG Geosciences in Media Award winner, is motivated and moved by more than just those in and around the profession. There’s a vast world beyond, literally and figuratively, and he knows some of them are Dodgers fans. His proficiency in contributing to the public understanding of the profession, which he sees as filled with magic and metaphor, begins with knowing to whom he’s speaking.

“I make people feel comfortable about time,” said Ranney, who signed off one of his emails with a Paine quote (“The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren and to do good is my religion.”), another with one from Theodor Seuss Geisel (“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”), and one from Lasorda (“My responsibility is to get my twenty-five guys playing for the name on the front of their uniform and not the one on the back.”).

Before he makes them comfortable about time, however, he deconstructs why they’re not.

Ranney, an award-winning author, lecturer and host of outdoor adventures and worldwide expeditions, said about the movement of time through the ages, “I have found that for most people, time can be divided in only two parts: ‘now and ‘then.’ The entire past to them is just one big thing.”

It is the geoscientist, apparently, who makes time complicated.

“To a geologist however, there are millions of ‘thens,’” said Ranney.

Ranney’s strength, and why, in large measure, he received the award, is his work over the years recognizing the different worldviews of those who read his books, attend his lectures and hike up and down trails with him.

“I have had a lot of success in helping people overcome the daunting nature of deep time by just pointing out to them that there are literally unlimited ‘thens’ to know about and enjoy,” he said.

The Place with the Most Magic

For Ranney, even though he’s visited Antarctica 34 times, the grail, the wellspring of his work, can be found in the Grand Canyon. Three of his books are dedicated to it: “Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories, Mysteries,” “Canyon Country,” and “The Grand Canyon. Monument to an Ancient Earth. Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon” (spoiler alert: No, it cannot.) – and he said it is where the questions of earth’s mysteries, while perhaps not revealed, are most easily posed.

It is also place that holds the most magic.

“The Grand Canyon has to rank at the very top for me because it reveals the most earth history in a single sweep and it is where my passion first came to fruition,” said Ranney.

His love affair with the place began pretty much how you’d expect it to, and he’s never lost the connection.

“In the mid-1970s, I wandered into the Grand Canyon and never came out!” he said. “It was just so huge! It was 1973 and I was traveling on my first adventure away from home. I was like a kid in a candy store.”

He remembers one day in particular.

“At the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, while enjoying a sunny vista, we watched as a huge thunderstorm moved through the canyon, seemingly below me in the canyon. The sky turned suddenly into a violent and very powerful crash of thunder and lightning. As soon as it had come, it was gone and the canyon walls sparkled in sunlight, appearing as millions of brilliant gems. In southern California where I grew up, we did not have storms like that. I was hooked!”

Don’t Dumb It Down

So, imagine being in one of his seminars when he’s retelling that story, hearing him explain the inexplicable. It’s infectious to hear and see someone thread that kind of needle. It’s how geosciences in the media get done.

And, maybe, the less you know, scientifically speaking, the better the experience.

“I love speaking to novices about geology, so I would have to say it is the scientists who are the most difficult for me,” Ranney said.

Call it the law of accessibility.

“In giving public lectures I’ve developed the habit of not overusing geology jargon, and some geologists who hear me may assume I am not all that literate in it. I think that some geologists assume that if you have to give a public lecture, all you have to do is ‘dumb it down’ so the audience will understand,” he explained.

Ranney, who said, “Education is my passion, Landscape is my home, and Earth is my playground,” thinks nothing could be further from the truth.

“In fact, if you dumb it down, the audience will know that you’re talking down to them and you may lose a bit of respect or credibility with them. Actually, what you have to do is work harder to understand what the audience can hear in assuring that they can walk away from it having learned something tantalizing and useful,” he added.

The Journey

The Geosciences in Media Award validates not only what Ranney does, but what he believes the industry must continue doing.

“It shows that we as a discipline are beginning to recognize the importance of sharing our passion for Earth history with a wider audience,” he said.

In thanking his professors at Northern Arizona University, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well his many clients on the hikes, river trips and excursions for the award, he, admittedly, is surprised by it.

“I had no idea that anyone, let alone those at the AAPG, were paying attention to what I was doing with my career. It is so gratifying to know that someone out there recognizes what I do is beneficial to our science and worthy of respect,” he said.

He knows the message, whether it’s for a geoscientist or a weekend hiker, can be both simple and complex. He was quoted once as saying, “Life is good, if we’d take the time to understand that,” but he knows there’s no end-point in that discussion.

“I hardly ever give a lecture where I don’t say at some point, ‘We don’t know.’ And to me, that is the point of science – that we know very little about our world and even though we chip away at that inexplicableness, it is the stuff still residing on the other side that makes the journey compelling.

“No other animal that we know of thinks of the past or the future. To them, there is only now. We should honor and embrace our ability to see and experience time.”

“Science,” he reminds us, “is a journey, not a destination.”

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