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The Rocky Ethics of Geological Sampling


Rock coring is an important means of analysis for certain disciplines within geoscience. Unfortunately, it also destroys part of the very record it enables geologists to study. For this reason, geoscientists need a code of ethics to preserve the geological record as much as possible while conducting research. These codes do exist, but Sophia Gaulkin ’17 believes that they are insufficient. This summer, she is using an Emerson Grant to research the current state of the ethics of geological sampling and propose a new code of conduct.

Gaulkin, a philosophy and French double major, was first exposed to this issue last summer. Professor of Philosophy Marianne Janack, Gaulkin’s Emerson advisor, led a small group of philosophy students on a trip to Iceland, accompanying a group of geoscientists led by Professor of Geosciences Barbara Tewksbury. Gaulkin and the other philosophers observed the geology students at work while discussing philosophical issues. “I was most affected by how people at the sites (not Hamilton students) were treating the rocks,” Gaulkin said, “I saw a lot of indiscriminate hammering and needless destruction which upset me after realizing the extent to which geoscience relies on physical evidence.”

about Sophie Gaulkin '17

Majors: French and Philosophy

Hometown: Kennebunk, Maine

High School: Kennebunk High School (Maine)

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That insight is inspiring her research this summer. Gaulkin began by researching rock coring and the current state of sampling ethics and legal codes. She explained that codes do exist, but “these old codes of conduct have eroded over time and are insufficient for any ethical progress now.” In the second half of the summer, she is working on developing possible plans of action, which she hopes “will culminate in a comprehensive and explicit geoethical proposal.”

Gaulkin emphasized the importance of preserving geological resources, because the rock and sediment records are our only sources for reconstructing Earth’s ancient history. About rock sampling, she said, “Every piece destroyed also destroys potential information. It’s a non-renewable resource, and maybe the piece that’s gone was the key that would have given geoscientists much-needed answers.” Gaulkin observed that there are strict ethical codes for disciplines such as archaeology and art, which ensure that research doesn’t destroy the artwork or the fossil record. She commented, “Society doesn’t have the same respect for rocks because they seem so separated from humanity. . . But that’s really not the case.”

A new code of ethics can help to preserve the geological record while enabling the important research that takes place through rock coring.

Gaulkin is a graduate of Kennebunk High School (Maine).

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