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Minik Rosing keeps on finding new stories beyond the horizon

Portrait — Geologist Minik Rosing won the Rungstedlund award in April, an honour normally reserved for authors. But then again: Rosing has been telling stories all his life.

Not many minutes pass in the course of our conversation, before Professor Minik Rosing leaving his chair and sets his sights on the window in his office at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. He fiddles with some stones on the windowsill and mumbles with his round glasses firmly directed towards the rocks. He selects two, and takes them back.

His index finger grazes the lines on one of the stones, while he leaves the rest on his palm.

“One like this is layered, and has once been a sediment. But when we look closely, we can see that it has grown relatively large crystals.”

He holds the stone in front of my eyes and makes sure that I see it.

“And this shows right away that it has been a sediment,” he says about the other rock, before he explains that it contains a lot of iron, as it is heavy. And that it has been warmed up to 4-500 degrees. This is what the minerals tell us.

“It’s like learning to read,” he says as he makes himself comfortable in front of the long table again.

Most of his colleagues probably think that the Danish-Greenlandic professor is one of those geologists that is the best ‘reader’ in Denmark. This is how he has won a forest of prizes from the Danish Geology Prize to the Hans Christian Ørsted Prize.

But the latest addition to the trophy cabinet was something special.

Auster, Rifbjerg, Rosing

In April, Minik Rosing received the Rungstedlund prize, awarded by the Foundation behind the Karen Blixen Museum, and that pays tribute to one person who “merits it, preferably within a field that interested Karen Blixen”. Normally, this prize goes to authors. Danish writer Suzanne Brøgger has won it, Klaus Rifbjerg has, just as the American writer Paul Auster, the man behind the New York Trilogy.

I find it difficult not to communicate my research in stories. Then you just have to see if it catches on.

Minik Rosing

So why give it to a geologist? The historian and former chief editor of the newspaper Politiken Bo Lidegaard put it this way when he presented the award to Rosing:

“Minik’s field is neither a voyage of discovery nor an authorship. But art and science are both ways to understand and explain the wonderful world we live in. For Minik there are no sharp distinctions between the two…“

Minik Rosing recognises himself in the description:

“I have always been interested in the relationship between art and science. Both activities are an attempt to understand the world we live in, and our own role in it. And to communicate this knowledge so as many people as possible benefit from it. In a wider sense, it helps a lot if research is something that can be retold instead of something that just involves numbers.”

Pushed the beginnings of life 200 million years backwards

Rosing not only reads the rocks he finds in nature, and that lie around his corner office. He also retells the stories he finds in them. He just can’t help it, he says.

“It is quite natural for me. My father constantly told stories like crazy. In Greenlandic culture, storytelling is very central, so I grew up with it. “

After nearly two decades as a professor of geology at the University of Copenhagen Minik Rosing has told a multitude of stories. About rocks and sediments, the world’s oceans, and the solar system. But the greatest of them all is probably the story of the origins of life.

Already in the early 2000s Rosing found traces of photosynthesis in 3.7 billion year-old rocks from Isua in southern Greenland. When he and Robert Frei, also from UCPH, made their findings public in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, he actually pushed the date of the origins of life back 200 million years.

The findings were discussed widely and immediately made Rosing world famous. Perhaps because it was a good story.

“It’s a fantastic story. It is the most dramatic event that has ever taken place on Earth. If you can’t turn this into a good story, then I do not know what you can do with it,” he explains with the soft, measured voice and a gaze that looks down at the table, but with the contours of a smile in the corners of his mouth.

“It’s all about how the world we live in became what it is. Violent things happened during the development of the Earth and of life. Dramatic things. They happen very slowly, but when you see it from a distance you can turn it into a good story. I do not know whether I am successful, but when I work with it, I find it hard not to retell it as a story. Then you just have to see if it catches on.

Since the breakthrough in the early 2000s, Rosing continued to study the Greenlandic rock. Together with his colleague Tue Hassenkam he has developed new scientific methods. Just last year, the two researchers reported that they had found the remains of single-celled organisms in the pockets of small gemstones. Also from Isua – and also 3.7 billion years old.

Get up off the chair, and out into the wilderness

The studies of the Greenlandic rocks are not just at the heart of Rosing’s research, they are also an excuse to leave the office on Øster Voldgade street and spend three or four weeks in Greenland’s endless icy waste.

Rosing goes back to his home country every year, and he has done this for the last 30 or 40 years. Here he sets up camp together with his colleagues on the inhospitable expanses, raises a kitchen tent and builds up the interior with old boxes. For a month he calls this his home.

Occasionally the camp gets blown away in a snowstorm, and you have to go into hibernation until it is over. And then set up camp again.

If you just keep on feeding your own prejudices, you have not learned anything new. Then you have just got some more articles on the reference list. It is extremely exciting to discover that you're wrong.
Professor Minik Rosing, the Natural History Museum of Denmark

This is not an escape, he says. But he admits that the original intention of him making a career in geology was to unite the two sides of himself, outdoor life and academic work.

“I have always had an urge to get out and feel the freedom. When you get out, there are no other people within 3-400 kilometres. You feel good, you are moving all day, you don’t just sit on a chair for several weeks. It is very simple.”

“Everything is big in Greenland, clean and quiet. There are many who think these expeditions are very dramatic, and sometimes there is indeed drama, but daily life is mostly peaceful. Nothing really happens. The funny thing is that when you have put your tent up and come home from a trip on the first day, you already think: ‘now I’m home’.”

Low grades in primary school

He often says he should have been a caveman. And that if he had not become a geologist, he would have become a goldsmith.

In primary school in Greenland, he got the lowest grades. It was as if his attention flew out the classroom windows. What the teachers said did not interest him. It was only when he started in high school and started to take in everything from the skilled teachers of the natural sciences, that he realised that he had to study science. And with his curiosity, so his grades were elevated to the high heavens.

“I can recognize a lot of things from the person I was back then. The curiosity, the desire to see what’s on the other side of the next hilltop – both figuratively and in the real world. I think this is the same today. I quickly get seduced into going for something,” says Rosing.

“I have a craving for poking my nose into something I don’t know anything about once in a while. Something that is however close enough to what I know about, to be able to contribute with relevant insights. It is extremely exciting to go down one of the parallel paths in your field and find out that there are 100 people working on it and that are publishing three articles a year on the subject. You think “Oh my gosh, there is a whole world there that I did not know existed’. It’s wonderful!”

Researchers don’t understand everything

The best geologist is the one who has seen the most. This is a saying among geologists according to Minik Rosing.

If this is correct, then it is the curiosity, and the eagerness to explore the landscape and read the Earth’s stories, that is invaluable. But that you have seen so much does not mean that you understand everything.

When Rosing was recently on the radio programme P1 Kulturen, he quoted the geologist, theologian and anatomist Niels Stensen (1638-1686), who during a lecture at Nørregade in central Copenhagen about 1683 said: “Beautiful is what we see, more beautiful is what we understand. Yet the most beautiful is what we cannot comprehend.”

Rosing repeats the words eagerly.

“There are some people who believe that research can explain everything. I believe that it can isolate a tiny part of the world and study it so carefully that you can gain an insight that is relevant for the understanding of the big picture. But you can only grasp the smallest parts of the world at a time. And the more you know, the further will be the horiozon of the unknown. You get a kind of reverence towards the complexity.”

“The most beautiful is what we cannot comprehend.” You try, precisely, to comprehend as much as possible as a researcher?

“Yes, and as you gain a deeper knowledge of the small areas, you also gain wider understanding of the big system. But it’s naive to think that you get to understand it all. And it is arrogant to believe that what you do as a researcher, cannot be challenged.”

You say, you have an urge to look beyond the next hilltop. Is this not frustrating, if behind the top of the hill was not what you hoped for?

“No, I actually think not. There where research is really rewarding, is where you are convinced that something is linked in a certain way, and you go through all kinds of hardships only to discover that this was not the way it was. This is where you really get something out of it. If you just keep on feeding your own prejudices, you have not learned anything new. Then you have just got some more articles on the reference list. It is extremely exciting to discover that you’re wrong.

“Minik’s field is neither a voyage of discovery nor an authorship. But art and science are both ways to understand and explain the wonderful world we live in. For Minik there are no sharp distinctions between the two…“

Bo Lidegaard, historian and a former Chief Editor, Politiken

If anything, it takes courage,” says Rosing. To have the courage to go out there, where research really matters. Where it challenges the existing order and potentially makes itself the target of indignation.

The geologist once co-authored an article that was torn apart in the review phase by furious colleagues. “This verges on heresy,” wrote one. “It will damage our reputation,” wrote another. But Rosing and his colleagues stood fast, not because they were sure of themselves, but because they believed that the findings were important for science. If they were wrong, it would be interesting for the critics to prove it. If they could not prove it, they might be on to something.

Rosing also encountered resistance in connection with his finds on Isua – finds that shook up everything we thought we knew about the first life on Earth. The American geochemist Elizabeth Bell is one of those who has challenged the report on the gemstones last year in an article on Videnskab.dk.

Do you often doubt yourself?

“Absolutely, I am often enormously constantly in doubt about everything. But the objective is not to achieve certainty. If you suddenly one day thought that you had understood all of it, then you should probably sign yourself out. The question is whether what you’re doing can contribute to a discussion, and help foster understanding with others. It is very rare that the motive for writing an article is to solve global problems once and for all. It is to contribute to an ongoing discussion. There is no doubt that the worst that could happen to you as a researcher, is that you no longer are in doubt.”

An insane idea?

Rosing is also in doubt about his next project.

We’ll see whether it is an insane idea, or whether it is a good idea.

Minik Rosing

Together with a number of colleagues, he is examining whether it is possible to re-mineralize tropical soil with the mineral powder that is produced on the Greenland ice sheet. It is fine grained and reactive and contains the nutrients that plants need. It could, therefore, perhaps, improve soil quality in the tropics.

The project places Rosing where he wants to be the most. In a field, he does not know much about, in agriculture, but where what he knows, is extremely useful.

We’ll see whether it is an insane idea, or whether it is a good idea,” he says. “I don’t know yet. But I find it fun.”

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