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Evolution and Uplift

Evolution and Uplift
U of U geologists find harmony and insight in both personal and professional discovery.

by John Blodgett

String theory, in a nutshell, posits that the tiniest elemental particle is a string that vibrates at different frequencies to produce various particles, such as protons, in much the same way as a guitar string emits a range of musical notes. The idea is that these vibrations are the source of all being.

Photo by Roger Tuttle
Photo by Roger Tuttle

The concept can be more quickly and easily grasped by viewing Royhan and Nahid Gani’s oil-on-canvas painting depicting the theory. Brushed in wispy gray tones, the vague form of a woman—perhaps one of the Muses—gently embraces an acoustic guitar. The sky behind her is pale yellow, as if lit by the rising sun. She straddles a vortex in red and black, a whirlpool in reverse that emanates from a star-filled black hole. Musical notes and gold stars burst forth on each concentric ring—whence the song of creation.

Royhan and Nahid, both of the Energy & Geoscience Institute (EGI) at the University of Utah, signed the painting “Ganis, July 22, 2006.” Neither can recall who painted which part, and it doesn’t matter. This sharing of work in support of a greater, common goal is intrinsic to the pair. They work in concert, each one’s contribution complementing the other’s, and the result could exist no other way—which is precisely how their groundbreaking research into the relationship between geology and human evolution came about.

As with string theory, summing up their hypothesis in just a few words provides only a fleeting glimpse of the larger picture, but the gist of it is this: geological forces shaped eastern Africa in such a way as to change the local climate, which in turn caused some apes to leave the forests, begin to walk upright, and evolve into the earliest humans.

The rest is human history.

The Evolution of a Scientific Team

Royhan and Nahid both grew up in Bangladesh, spending their formative years in markedly dissimilar ways. Royhan’s boyhood was spent outside, swimming in rivers, climbing trees, picking mangoes. Looking back, he notes that his scientific aspirations evolved from a desire to learn about nature by being in it rather than reading about it. When he did read, often it was about physics, and by the time he was ready to enter the University of Dhaka (in the capital of Bangladesh), he decided to become a physicist.

Royhan was interested in what he refers to as “pure,” or theoretical, physics as opposed to applied, or practical, physics—owing to his father’s influence as a philosophy professor, a theorist at heart who often talked philosophy with his son. “In college [equivalent to grades 10-12 in the U. S.] I developed an inner feeling that physics links almost everything in the galaxy,” Royhan says. “I wanted to know the basics of life. Just putting a simple equation on a piece of paper—it was so mind-boggling that you could change the world by writing something like E=mc2.” Einstein, he notes, was as much philosopher as physicist.

Royhan’s intended topic of study soon changed, however. Demand for “pure” physicists in Bangladesh was low, and for all his theoretical leanings, Royhan did have a practical bent. In search of a different path through academia, he considered various possibilities. Biotechnology intrigued him for the way it combined nature with physics, but the university did not offer it as a degree program. Moving along, he considered psychology and philosophy and was on the waiting list to get into biochemistry when he spent a week exploring the geology department. It was here he decided to stay, for the study of geology—out in the field, out in the heart of the earth—would satisfy his desire to remain in nature while making a living.

Growing up, Nahid was less adventurous. She was an obedient child whose parents never had to tell her to study, her behavior very much a reflection of the cultural norms placed upon Bangladeshi women. Her father was a chemist who taught at the college level, her mother a teacher (like Royhan’s mother) who taught general studies in grade school. At an early age, Nahid decided she wanted to be a medical doctor. “I don’t know why,” she says. “I just liked the idea.”

Ethiopian Highlands
Ethiopian Highlands

Nahid is a reflective person. Her voice is gentle but belies a stubborn, sometimes fierce, determination that had developed by the time she graduated from college. Although disappointed when she didn’t get into medical school—she passed her oral and written exams, but a complicated quota system prevented her admission—Nahid simply moved on.

Much like Royhan, whom she had yet to meet, Nahid happened upon the geology department at the University of Dhaka, and after talking to teachers and students, decided to enroll. The science classes she had taken in high school in preparation for medical studies served her well: by the end of her first year, she was at the top of her class and remained there throughout her undergraduate years.

Royhan and Nahid started dating in 1999. He was 25 and in his final year of graduate study; she was 24 with one year to go. They hadn’t shared any classes—a tiered class structure kept students of different years separate—but had met at a cultural center on campus, drinking tea, reading poetry, and singing with friends. “My first impression was that Nahid and I would spend our life together in search of truth and knowledge,” Royhan recalls.

Charting the Uncharted: The Path to Hypotheses

Both graduated with bachelor of science degrees in geology, with honors; both stayed on to earn master’s degrees in the same subject, focusing their studies on sedimentology. While Nahid was wrapping up her master’s work, Royhan found a doctoral program in sedimentology at the University of Texas at Dallas. They married in April 2001, the timing chosen in part to fulfill visa requirements. Nahid graduated soon thereafter, and the newlyweds moved to Texas in August.

Nahid had hoped to study sedimentology under Royhan’s advisor, but he had no space for another student. Instead, she settled upon the study of remote image sensing under Mohamed Abdelsalam, now at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, who encouraged her to study the region of the Blue Nile River in Africa—in particular, the Ethiopian Plateau, situated at the northern end of the 3,700-mile-long, so-called Wall of Africa that extends from Ethiopia to South Africa.

At 250,000 square miles, the Ethiopian Plateau is roughly twice the size of the Colorado Plateau; its Gorge of the Nile is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. In fact, much of the African plateau would not look out of place if it were part of the arid Intermountain West.

Unlike the Colorado Plateau, however, the Ethiopian Plateau, from a scientific perspective, was largely uncharted—until Nahid, using GPS technology, revealed it data point by data point as she correlated what was on the ground with what was captured in satellite images, a process called “ground truthing.”

Since no one had yet studied the area geologically, Nahid was responsible for creating and acquiring funding for her project. “She was really fascinated by the Gorge of the Nile,” says Abdelsalam. “I was impressed by how determined she was and how she was able to take leadership and coordinate the field trip.”

The office
Photo by Roger Tuttle

Nahid made two separate trips to the region after accompanying Royhan as a field assistant in Wyoming during his own doctoral studies. In return, Royhan was Nahid’s field assistant for her first visit. Abdelsalam soon discovered how well the Ganis worked together. “They complement each other very nicely,” he says. “They produce very good science when they collaborate. It was a fantastic thing to see.”

Nahid focused her research on the incision of the Blue Nile on the Ethiopian Plateau. This essentially meant examining how tectonics, or the movement of the earth’s crust, uplifted the Ethiopian Plateau and caused the Blue Nile to carve ever-deeper gorges. She and Royhan found that most of the uplift occurred around 6 million years ago—very different from original estimates of 30 million years in the distant past, and roughly identical to the time when scientists believe the ancient ancestors of humans started to evolve from African apes.

As Nahid continued to collect data, and as Royhan continued to follow other anthropological and geological research in and around the Wall of Africa, they gradually formed a hypothesis based upon a handful of observations. Given that the land east of the Wall of Africa is mostly savannah and the lands to the west are forest, they surmised that this topological difference indicated how the Wall of Africa affected the local climate. Then, after relating the uplift of the Ethiopian Plateau (and by extension the Wall of Africa) to the appearance of early humans, they supported the idea that some of the forest apes began to walk upright in order to traverse the plains in search of food. The Ganis finally hypothesized that human evolution ultimately may have come about due to local climate change brought about by geological forces.

The Next Phase: Baby Steps

It usually takes many steps to form a hypothesis, but often that end is just the beginning of a life’s work. Hypotheses can be proved or disproved, and sometimes they lead to new theories. The Ganis’ research has generated interest in the scientific community and from the local and international media. Their work was the cover story of the September 2007 issue of GSA Today, a publication of the Geological Society of America, and they published a lay version of their findings in the January 2008 issue of Geotimes. The Ganis now want to collaborate with other researchers of Africa to further quantify their initial findings and expand the overall body of knowledge. They await the outcome of a funding proposal sent to the National Science Foundation, and are reaching out to other scientists.

As they readied their work for publication, Royhan and Nahid were also collaborating on another side project of sorts—their first child. In January 2006, a few weeks from the expected delivery date, Nahid rushed to finish her dissertation. She completed the final paper on January 19, leaving her a few weeks to prepare for the birth—or so she thought. “I finished writing the last paper,” she recalls, “and that night I went into labor.” Their daughter, Ariti, was born on January 20.

The Ganis still talk geology over morning tea or coffee, these days in the kitchen of their home south of the U of U campus. They also often discuss it as they retire for the evening, or as they stroll with Ariti. “We haven’t reached the saturation point,” Royhan says. “We have embarked on a big project for the rest of our lives. We put out a hypothesis; time will tell if it’s right or wrong. There is so much data locked into that Wall of Africa.”

Data awaiting release, like so many musical notes, to influence our continued evolution.

— John Blodgett is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer.

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