[Paleopsych] CHE: Geology Course Gives Students a Down-to-Earth Understanding of Sherlock Holmes's Worke
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Geology Course Gives Students a Down-to-Earth Understanding of Sherlock
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.7
By DANIEL ENGBER
In the Sherlock Holmes tale A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson jots down a
list of Holmes's various areas of expertise. The sixth item on the
list: "knowledge of geology -- practical, but limited."
Students at Smith College who take Lawrence D. Meinert's class on the
fictional detective, "Sherlock Holmes and the Scientific Method," can
add some geology to their own lists of proficiencies. Mr. Meinert, a
geologist specializing in the detection of gold deposits, hopes that
his first-year seminar can serve as both a writing workshop and an
introductory science course.
"This is my subversive effort to get everyone to think about
scientific reasoning," he explains. "When a student says, 'You tricked
us. I learned some science,' that obviously makes me quite thrilled."
As part of the course, students read a number of Sherlock Holmes
stories and discuss how the detective uses the scientific method to
solve mysteries. By making observations, gathering evidence, and then
proposing a testable hypothesis, "Sherlock uses scientific reasoning
in a romantic and entertaining fashion," says Mr. Meinert. Some
stories, like "The Blue Carbuncle," involve minerals or gems as
central plot elements.
The Hound of the Baskervilles takes place on the moors, amid a variety
of interesting geological features. In one writing exercise, students
develop what Mr. Meinert calls "a geologic augmentation" of that
story, taking its central plot and tying in the geology of the
Other exercises build toward a final paper, for which members of the
class devise their own mysteries starring Sherlock Holmes. The story
must illustrate the use of the scientific method to solve a mystery,
and must incorporate a geologic phenomenon as a central plot element.
Mr. Meinert asks each student to read his or her assignment out loud,
which "has an amazing effect," he says. "The effect of my grading, or
of their internal motivation, doesn't hold a candle to the
mortification of reading your own work aloud in front of your peers."
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volumes I and II, by
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Bantam Classics, 1986); Understanding Earth,
by Frank Press, Raymond Siever, John Grotzinger, and Tom Jordan (W.H.
Freeman & Company, 2003).
In addition to writing an original Holmes story, each student writes a
short paper on dinosaurs. They go on several field trips throughout
the semester, including a behind-the-scenes tour of a jewelry store
and visits to dinosaur footprints, a local cemetery, and a quarry.
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