ARTICLE № 001  |  august 2014

BENJAMIN THOMAS MOSS


Geologist

I always liked science.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a paleontologist. It was the whole dinosaur thing, really. My dad and I would go to the Natural History Museum and spend all day in the dinosaur exhibit. He always tells this story about a time at La Brea Tar Pits when I was correcting the docent at six years old.

Steadily climbing Hwy 2 into Angeles National Forest, gradual curves evolve into folds as our view of the horizon is obstructed by the rugged San Gabriel Mountains. Benjamin Thomas Moss needs more space, and to see more green, and to see living things, and to touch rock. He begins to open up while looking out the window and over the canyons and peaks. His attention is at once on the beauty of the vista, the detail of passing outcrops, and recounting moments in his life where he allowed himself to change, as the weight of our bodies shift in response to the winding mountain road. It’s true: a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless external force is applied.

In community college, I kicked around the idea of becoming a paleontologist again. I went back to what I wanted to do—study dinosaurs. I started taking biology and chemistry. I loved taxonomy, but hated learning about the cell. I hated biology (laughing). That made me think, “If I don’t like biology, then I probably shouldn't be a paleontologist.”

Aside from dinosaurs and a hatred for biology, was there anything or anyone that influenced your path?

My dad would ask me all the time, “What do you want to be?” I would say things like, “Something where I wear a suit and work in an office. I like math, so I'll be an accountant.” He would say, “That’s fine. How about becoming an actuary?” They're basically statisticians that work for insurance companies and figure out what the payoffs should be based on accidents rates. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to work at a desk. Can you believe that? That’s funny. My dad was always helping me and making sure that I did well in math and science. He's an aerospace engineer with a master’s in engineering. When I was in middle school, he was always having me solve things with Taylor Series. I didn't even know what a Taylor Series was yet. The natural log e? Oh my god, Taylor Series every line. He’s very technical and very methodical. He read age-inappropriate fantasy and sci-fi to me when I was around six. I was sitting and listening to the Fellowship trudge through the marsh in Lord of the Rings. Are you familiar with the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov? It's a staple of science fiction, really. My dad read those to me when I was much too young and couldn’t understand it; but, it sparked an interest in the genre.

Would you call yourself an avid reader?

I was an avid reader up until grad school. My favorite author is probably Michael Crichton. Aside from three or four books that were published after he died, I’ve read everything he wrote, for sure. He writes good, easy, pop science fiction. It's fun. I tend to gravitate toward subjects that I’m not really an expert in; and the Andromeda Strain is about biology and aliens, so I believe the characters when they're talking a little high-level biology and say to myself, “Sure, that makes sense.” He covers a wide range of subjects, but Jurassic Park is probably why he’s my favorite. The first time I read Jurassic I was probably fourteen and saw it seven times with my dad, which means he bought fourteen movie tickets to that film. That's stupid (laughing).
 

I liked physics more than math at this point, so I said, “You know what, I'm going to try and be an astrophysicist. I can do this.


I loved science fiction and studying space. When I was younger, we'd always go to the Air and Space Museum and the IMAX theater to watch things like ‘the quark’ and ‘breaking the speed of sound’ and ‘the physics behind the Blue Angels.’ You know—the IMAX physics boom of the nineties. Remember that? I fell in love with math and physics and really loved astronomy. I wanted to be a scientist for sure.

So then, was this basically your entry into geology, by way of science fiction, space, and physics?

Well, I was curious about a lot of stuff. I always took a wide variety of classes. I took everything and anything that interested me and was on the honors track for everything. I took drafting classes and math classes and physics classes. I loved the physics classes, but boy did I love my math. I took eleven math classes during undergrad. I tested into Algebra II and worked my way up to linear algebra, so I said, “I'm going to be an engineer.” Then it was time to apply to "big boy" college. I applied to UCLA, UC Irvine, and UC Merced as a mechanical engineer. I would have been Merced’s second mechanical engineering class ever. I also applied to UC Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz didn’t have mechanical engineering so I applied for astrophysics, just for fun.

I was accepted to Santa Cruz and decided to go because that's what I really wanted to do. I really liked astronomy. I liked physics more than math at this point, so I said, “You know what, I'm going to try and be an astrophysicist. I can do this.” Every single astronomy class that they offered I took. I took a cosmology class where we were studying the whole universe as one thing—a lot of strange mathematical concepts, a lot of energy, and a lot of big distances. Very interesting. Then, I got into this set of classes called math methods for physicists and engineers and it hit me like a ton of bricks: I’d been occupying my time worrying about stupid amounts of time and stupid amounts of energy—it was too abstract. It’s interesting and exciting, but it’s not what I wanted to do. I loved astronomy so much, but I did not want to finish the astrophysics program. I was done. I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life.

I sat on the idea of changing to planetary sciences. I said, “You know what, I don't want to do astro anymore. I’m changing to planetary,” and went to the undergraduate advisor for earth sciences. I was told that I had to pass Earth 101 before I would even be considered a major. I was like, “I’m a junior astrophysics major—I can do science. I want to change because I'm unhappy, not because I'm failing” (everyone laughs). So, I took Earth 101, and Earth Science in Cinema, and he built me a program that I could finish in a year—I just had to take these classes and boom, boom, boom.
 

You're like a cowboy, when you're a geologist. You're out there with your tools and it's you against nature. It's rugged. It's tough.


The following semester, I took Planetary Sciences and Field Geology. Planetary Sciences was super fun and physics-like, but I just fell in love with Field. Oh my god, I couldn’t get enough of it. The camping gear and going out in nature. Measuring. Our field professor was so badass and cool—Hilde Schwartz. When we’d go out in the field she would yell, “Hurry up! Come on! I'm an old lady and I can do this! Keep up with me!” To me, she knew everything about this vast subject and was so full of energy. Every single Friday, Saturday, and Sunday we were out and about. If you open up my field notebook and look at the first and last day, there’s a thirty-two-day span with eighteen different entries for field trips. That’s how many field trips we took in just over a month. Toward the end, we did a six-day mapping project over two weekends. I loved the planetary science course; it was a lot of fun. But, the field stuff was for me. I just loved working in the field.

I pretty much mapped in my underwear one day during summer field camp in the Poleta Fold Belt. It was dress up day and I had on a big floppy hat, my field pack, belt and hammer, aquamarine pants, and this tankini that I bought at a Bishop thrift store. The carbonate destroyed the pants throughout the day, and the tankini was super constricting because it was made for a seven year old, so I took it off. By the end of the day, I was pretty much in my underwear and my field pack and a big floppy hat. It’s very cowboy-like, isn't it? You're like a cowboy, when you're a geologist. You’re out there with your tools and it’s you against nature. It's rugged. It's tough. There’s all this stuff in nature to study, so why not study this?  I realized that I wanted to put my hands on rock. It’s this very idea that cemented my choice in geology.

So then would you say that you chose geology or that geology chose you?

Geology chose me. When I was young, I used to go on long hikes after school wearing my Dad’s old commando pants, tromping through everything. I was exploring. I like exploring and understanding how things work and the biggest and most complicated thing that we can look at and actually touch is the earth. That's what draws me to it. I think you're definitely predisposed to wanting to do it, but you have to be lucky enough to be exposed to it. You have to have a mind that wants to accept this kind of information because it completely adjusts the way you look at almost everything. I won't comment on the quality of the adjustment, but there are adjustments to be made and I can’t imagine going back to interacting with nature without it. So, I think the real answer is: both.

Are you still planning a cross-country bicycle trip?

Oh yeah. I realized that my original plan to loop around the U.S. is a little too grandiose. I calculated it to be about twelve thousand miles, which was fine, but it would take nine months to a year to complete. I don't have enough free time to do it because life and civilization is going to happen around me whether I want it to or not (laughing). In order to stay on track with everything I’m probably going to have to do a shorter ride. I think I can devote two months, so I’ll probably do the Lewis and Clark trail from Missouri to Oregon. I’m excited to explore the Rocky Mountains and Middle America by bicycle and just camp. The Adventure Cycling Association has maps of all bike friendly campsites for the entire country.

Are you doing any geology along the way?

No, I'll have my loop and Brunton, but I’m not taking any field notes (laughing). I'll be damned if I am going to move myself across the country and not carry my Brunton.

Any future plans outside of a bicycle tour?

Yeah, retire to Hawaii. You know what I would love to do? I used to manage a family-run juice bar; it wasn't my family, but I ran everything about it from top to bottom. I want to retire to Hawaii, have a food truck that serves smoothies, and chill out with John Winter. Absolutely.

Next Article


Current Status & Academics

Benjamin Thomas Moss holds a Master of Science degree in geology from California State University, Northridge, and a Bachelor of Science degree in geology from University of California, Santa Cruz.