Carved in Stone


January 7, 2012

Seeking the Philosopher’s Stone

From the father of soil mechanics to a fictional young wizard, many have sought mythical solutions to complex problems.

Alchemists reasoned that the transmutation of cheap metals into gold could be affected by a dry powder made from a mythical stone — the “philosopher’s stone.” Metaphorically, seeking the philosopher’s stone means looking for a solution to an inextricable problem.

In 1936, Karl Terzaghi, the father of soil mechanics, wrote, “I came to the United States and hoped to discover the philosopher’s stone by accumulating and coordinating geological information… It took me two years of strenuous work to discover that geological information must be supplemented by numerical data which can only be obtained by physical tests carried out in a laboratory.”

Alchemy workshop illustration from Opus medico-chymicum: continens tres tractatus sive baslicas.

I emphasized the text in italics. I did so because 35 years later, when I started my career as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, engineering data did not supplement geological data, it supplanted it.

I learned this the hard way. I started my USGS career as part of a project that had two main goals: (1) to figure out how to apply geology to real life situations, and (2) to communicate those results to the appropriate users. My work involved the geologic mapping and classification of the surficial materials (primarily sand, gravel, silt, and clay), which required me to apply geologic logic to what I observed in the field. I quickly learned that applying geology to real life situations also required me to consider the engineering properties of the materials. I carried the goals and methodologies of that project with me throughout my 41-year career with the USGS.

During the late 1980s, I began to focus my work on construction materials — primarily aggregates. I knew that geology had much to offer, and like Terzaghi, I sought the philosopher’s stone “by accumulating and coordinating geological information” on how the aggregate industry benefits by the use of geology.

But seeking the philosopher’s stone was a long, hard process. Success stories from the industry are few and far between. This is not because there are not many success stories; there are. I suspect it is because many producers are reluctant to share their successes. After all, shining a light on an operation, even if it is a good light, has its risks. Nevertheless, there are some producers who have been willing to open their doors to geologic research and publish accounts of their success stories. The works of those people, combined with research from organizations such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S Bureau of Mines (which is no longer a funded agency), have added to the knowledge base.

I have been fortunate to work for an agency that appreciated the value of aggregates and supported my research on geology as it relates to the aggregate industry. I have concluded that the results of sound, unbiased, scientific studies culminate with the release of vital data that can be used throughout the life of an aggregate operation, including:

• The permitting processes to facilitate informed land use and resource management decisions;

• The identification and characterization of potential sources of aggregate resources to meet society’s demand for consumer products and a durable infrastructure;

• The selection of mining and processing methods to maximize production efficiency and minimize environmental impacts; and

• Planning and implementing the reclamation of mined-out areas.

Throughout the coming year, I will share some of what I have learned while seeking the philosopher’s stone. And if you have stories about turning cheap metal into gold (i.e., how you use geology in your aggregate operations), I would be delighted to hear them.

Bill Langer is a research geologist who spent 41 years with the U.S. Geological Survey. He can be reached at

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