Chairman’s Message

Welcome to the Department of Geology, Northwest University.
My name is Shaocong Lai and I’m the Chairman of our department. No doubt most of you reading this message are here because you’re interested in pursuing study in Earth science in some form or another. So, since I have your attention, I’ll be presumptuous and answer two questions that you maybe haven’t asked yet, but should. First, why study Earth science? And second, why study Earth science at Northwest University?
The question “why study Earth science?” is easy to address since it has two very profound answers. First, the many fields of Earth science cover some of the most fundamental and relevant topics of our time. On the one hand Earth scientists address deep issues such as the origin of the Earth and planets and entire solar system, the cause for continental drift (aka plate tectonics), and the origin and evolution of life on our planet. On the other hand, we also study problems of enormous societal, political and historical relevance, such as climate change and global warming, earthquakes, volcanoes, extreme weather and hurricanes.
Second, Earth science is one of the last of the truly general sciences. Sure, many people might take the view that other fields such as physics, chemistry, biology are the general core sciences, and ones like Earth science or Astronomy are applications and specializations. But in fact Earth science is uniquely general in that it involves and integrates all scientific disciplines, much in the same way that the early “natural philosophers” worked before so much specialization occurred over primarily the last century. In Earth science, if, for example, you wish to study climate and global warming, you must not only know the physics of the atmosphere and oceans, but understand chemical cycles through the Earth (especially of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane), the geologic record of climate change, and the biological feedbacks, i.e., how organisms affect and are affected by climate variations. To understand how the Earth’s interior cools to space and causes the massive solid mantle (the layer of rock between the crust and core) to turn itself inside out by convection (hot stuff rises, cold stuff falls) and thus drive plate tectonics, you must not only know fluid dynamics, but also a host of other fields such as the physics of minerals at extreme pressures and temperatures (to know how deep rocks deform and respond to being heated and cooled); isotope chemistry (which inform us, for example, how the mantle segregates and evolves and also how well it is mixed); and earthquake seismology (which provides “ultrasound” images of the Earth’s interior and snapshots of hot and cold thermals). Studying the evolution and the origin of life requires not only knowledge of evolutionary theory but also molecular biology and genetics, geochemistry and radiometric dating (i.e., finding ages through radioactive decay of certain isotopes), and the physics of plate tectonics and paleomagnetism (the study of the Earth’s past magnetic field which is recorded in many rocks and microfossils). Thus, an Earth scientist is inevitably well-versed in all scientific disciplines, not just one.

Why study Earth science at Northwest University? Our department is diverse in its areas of study, like all Earth science departments. However, not all such departments concentrate in exactly the same fields.
Since 1950s’, Northwest University’s geoscience, led by Prof. Zhang Bosheng, and Prof. Zhang Guo Wei, fellows of China’s Academy of Sciences, has made a series of breakthrough in con
ental dynamics and tectonics. Our scholars have accumulated a large amount of first-hand data on the studies of the China Central Orogenic Belt including south China Precambrian tectonics, the Qinling central orogenic belts as well as the southern intracontinental orogenic belts, and made prominent discoveries and proposed innovative notions.
Northwest University’s paleontological team, led by Prof. Shu Degan, has also scored outstanding achievement in the area of life evolution, Cambrian Explosion and synchronized evolution of life and earth. Their research has attracted world-wide attention.
Our Geology Department consists of 90 active faculty, support personnel, and most importantly over 1000 enthusiastic and talented undergraduate and graduate students. Because of the university’s size, location in the renown Qinling Mountain north, and opportunities to work personally with internationally recognized faculty, our students are getting service at the state’s flagship institution.
Our Campus located in the famous ancient Chinese capital Xi’an. Xi’an was the first Chinese city to open up its doors to the Ancient world, not in 1980 under the “Open Door” policy but in fact during the Tang dynasty when Xian blossomed as the first stop on the Silk Road. Over a period of more than 2000 years, Xi’an was the capital for eleven dynasties. Along with Rome and Constantinople, this city was a world leader in culture and trade and played a vital role in bridging the gap between east and west,
Well, there you have it: my sincerely unbiased opinion! But I welcome you to explore our website and learn for yourself what goes on in our department and to explore our university’s general website to find out more about northwest University as a whole. You won’t be disappointed!

Shaocong Lai
Professor and Chair
May 11, 2012

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