Acute Recognition

Photograph by Tim Jordan

It is 1:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday. I am in a second-floor classroom of Cascade Hall staring blankly at the chalkboard. Rain is pouring down the windows. Similarly, sweat is pouring down the face of our professor, then department head Dana Johnston. He is tall and thin, and capable of drawing almost anything in three dimensions, which he has done, all over the board. He is also very excited. He has been trying for the last 60 minutes, and in fact the last five weeks, to get us to understand how light is reflected and refracted against and through the molecular framework of minerals. He is trying to get us to visualize this. He is getting a lot of blank stares. Not just mine, and not all just due to lack of understanding—the material is, regardless of one's passion for the field, unbearably tedious, and despite his energetic cheerleading and the true usefulness of the information, incredibly boring.

There are 20 of us here, trying to survive the weeder year of the geology major. We are smack in the middle of it, trapped with one another in almost all of our classes: chemistry, calculus, and here, in optical mineralogy. Optical mineralogy is the grim follow-up to the lesser intro to mineralogy, the geological equivalent of gross anatomy, in which the name, chemical formula, and 10 most distinguishing features of some 150-odd minerals are memorized. Our mastery of this information was tested with the dark humor typical of the fifth-year graduate students who taught the class: a lab exam consisting of the identification of 20 nearly identical green and black minerals in hand sample. Optical mineralogy involves exactly the same task, though now the goal is to identify said minerals in thin sections using microscopes with polarized light. For us, it means hours and hours in the student lab and countless treks from the Science Library, through the Cascade courtyard with its odd rock art and cryptic concrete engravings, and into Columbia.

I usually locked my bike outside the main office, one of the few covered bike racks not always full, the Cascade breezeway being unnoticed and underutilized. It was a shortcut to the other science buildings and a gathering place where we would meet before heading to lunch or to study, or after exams. We would stand out of the rain on the little patch of decorated concrete, which looked more like an afterthought than any kind of real public art.

Professor Johnston's voice cuts back through my thoughts. "This is the acute bisectrix." What did he just say? A cute bi what? What is he talking about? On the chalkboard he has drawn an ellipse with a series of lines tracing through and around it. His voice is reaching a fevered pitch, and he is explaining that this thing both exists and does not exist inside of every mineral. That this imaginary thing is what allows us to use light to differentiate one mineral from another under the microscope. That without this imaginary thing we would not understand much of what we understand about rocks. My brain shuts down for a couple more moments. We had started the year in a full classroom and had already lost nearly half our ranks. The professors warned this was a trend that would continue until graduation day—a warning that proved true when I walked with only one other undergraduate two years later. On this day, with graduation still far off, I can feel myself beginning to slip, slowly sliding under the weight of this barrage of information. I start to think that I might not get through it.

Five weeks later, we are preparing for the final exam. We live in the geology lab, only leaving to cross under the breezeway and through the courtyard for another cup of coffee. Today, I am heading for the chemistry lab, late, because my GTF, again, has been generously tutoring me outside of office hours. I am still struggling. It is still raining, and I am running at full speed. I take the stairs leading down into the breezeway in a single jump and land, one-footed, looking down at the engraved concrete. The same engraving I have walked across hundreds of times. But this time, I look down and, with a shock of recognition, say out loud, "Acute bisectrix." It stops me in my tracks.

There it was, as it had been all along. Carved right into the ground outside the geology building: the acute bisectrix. It was a subtle tribute to one of the fundamental concepts of the science. In that moment, it was proof that it was working, that I was learning, that this was becoming my science. I was going to be one of the ones who made it.

—By Ruby McConnell

Ruby McConnell '01 completed her BS in geological science with a minor in environmental studies at the UO and is a registered geologist with the state of Oregon. She went on to study dance as a postbaccalaureate student at the UO from 2009 to 2012. She lives in Eugene, where she dances and writes.