Decoding Earth's History

Williams geosciences professor Ronadh Cox
Geosciences professor Ronadh Cox. Photo by Kris Qua.

Geosciences professor Rónadh Cox has spent her life deciphering rocks in faraway places—from gullies in Madagascar to reef sediments in the Caribbean and even as far away as Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Since arriving at Williams in 1996 she’s taught courses as varied as “The Test-Tube Earth,” “Oceanography” and “Climates through Time” and has helped launch many budding geologists’ careers, leading scores of Williams students in research expeditions across the U.S. and around the globe.

Working with student co-authors, she recently made a breakthrough in understanding boulder movements atop the cliffs of Ireland’s Aran Islands. By painstakingly comparing current ridge lines with British ordnance survey maps of 1839, Cox and her students proved unequivocally that storm waves (not tsunamis, as some experts thought) are shifting rocks as heavy as 78 tons several tens of meters above high water, permanently changing the landscape.

Though Cox’s research involves paying attention to even the tiniest of details, she explored some really big ideas with the Williams Alumni Review:

1. Earth is unbelievably old, while human history is extraordinarily new.
2. Deep time can be understood in a more visual way.
3. Early Earth was Hell…
4. …maybe even a living Hell.
5. Geologists have learned a lot in a very short time.
6. And Earth is shifting before our eyes.

Read the in-depth discussion with Cox in the March 2012 Williams Alumni Review. (For the text-only version, click here.)

You can learn more about her work here.