Monday, July 6, 2015

Getting Started in Mineralogy by Gemma Burns

Publisher's note:
Mineral Bliss always been receptive to posts written by guest writers who have something to say that's pertinent.  Gemma Burns, a freelance writer, submitted the first such article that we have received and chosen to publish.  We were impressed as to how she managed to compact the essentials to getting started in our hobby into an article of appropriate for a Mineral Bliss post. 

Mineralogy is a fascinating and rewarding area of interest. Not only is it very good for you in general [1] to have a hobby, but the study of mineralogy can vastly improve your general knowledge and view of the world [2]. However, if you’re just getting started up, it’s easy to make pitfalls, to head in the wrong direction, and to make ill-judged decisions through want of better knowledge. Here, therefore, is a short guide to getting started in mineralogy. There is of course no single surefire route to this, and lots of people get into this in lots of different ways, but these tips might help if you’re a bit uncertain!

A lot of mineralogy can be (and is) learned ‘on the job’ – plenty of people got into mineralogy by finding an interesting rock and experimenting with it. However, if you’re really serious about this science, you’d do well to familiarize yourself with the theoretical basics. There are a wealth of books, magazines, journals [3] and websites out there which can help you to increase your store of rock-based knowledge (including our own website!). If you’re just getting started, it would probably be wise to grab yourself a nuts-and-bolts handbook [4] rather than leaping in at the deep end with the more involved academic stuff.

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with some basic mineralogical theory, it’s time to get down to the real business of learning about rocks on a practical level. A great way of doing this is to get a starter kit which contains samples of rocks all the way up the Mohs Scale of Hardness (well, perhaps not quite all the way up – you’d be hard-pressed to find a kit-maker who’ll put a diamond in a practice kit!). Play around with the samples, learning about what they can and cannot tolerate. Not only will this allow you to get close to the object of your hobby – the rocks themselves – it will also aid your understanding of them on a practical level, and give you some valuable experience which will help you to know how to handle various minerals in the field.

Mineralogy isn’t dangerous if done correctly, but it isn’t always the safest of hobbies either. This is part of what makes it so much fun! Your life as a mineralogist may see you heading for some precipitous rockfaces, or putting yourself in the path of falling rocks. If you’re careful and you know what you’re doing, then you’re unlikely to get into any trouble. But it’s worth brushing up on rock safety procedures and ensuring that you and your kit are ready for all eventualities [5] just in case. Get yourself some steel toe-capped boots, some goggles to protect your eyes when chipping out rocks, a helmet, some tough gloves, a first aid kit, and some hi-viz in order to let workers see you if you’re collecting in a quarry. If you’re really serious about safety, you might also want to grab a Geiger counter in order to monitor the minerals you’re working on. Some rocks can emit surprisingly high levels of radiation [6]!

Apart from safety concerns, you’d also be advised to prepare well for any collecting expedition. Get a good geologists hammer, a chisel, a magnifier, and a bag to put your kit and specimens in. Make sure that you’ve got everything you need before setting out – there’s nothing more irritating than finding a really promising specimen, and being unable to get it out for want of a chisel. It’s also really important to get the permission of any relevant landowner whose land you may wish to work on. Not only will they be able to tell you if you’re likely to be disrupting anything of import with your activities, mineralogists who trespass [7] bring the whole field into disrepute. Finally, you’re advised to obtain things like polish and microscopes to aid you in cleaning up and examining your specimens. Other than that, there’s little else you can do apart from get down to the rockface and learn!

[1] Cynthia Ramnarace, “Why You Need To Have A Hobby”, Business Insider, Mar 2014
[2] R Detrosier, "The benefits of general knowledge; more especially, the sciences of mineralogy, geology, botany, and entomology, being an address delivered at the opening of the Banksian Society, Manchester. On Monday, January 5th, 1829", Hathi Trust
[3] Mineralogical Society Of America, "Select Publications"
[4] Sarah Garlick, “National Geographic Pocket Guide to Rocks and Minerals of North America”, National Geographic
[5] Compare "Looking after your collections"
[6] Thomas Harding, “Museum’s rock collection was highly radioactive”, The Telegraph, Feb 2001

[7] Cornell University Law School, “Trespass”

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