‘Structural geology is one of these feared subjects’

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Rene Sterk (left) with Jun Cowan
Software author Jun Cowan eyes new leap into online teaching

He doesn’t have Joe Rogan or Louis Theroux’s following (yet) but Rene Sterk’s podcast numbers are building and will probably grow even faster if he gets more guests like Jun Cowan – “your career has been a little bit off the charts” – to join him in his Dunedin den.

Sterk, managing director of trans-Tasman geology consultancy RSC Consulting, has already had some industry luminaries in for a chat on his Measured podcast, a longform conversation piece that can be as entertaining as it is sometimes dry and even has the odd profanity (a la Rogan and Theroux).

It’s insightful, raw and provides plenty of runway for some deep thinkers to muse about the past, and the future. It’s exactly the sort of platform mining needs to engage more meaningfully with ‘society’.

The “King of Geology”, Nick Tate, and mineral exploration industry legend, Dr Jon Hronsky (OAM) have dropped in via easel.

Geologize CEO Dr Haydon Mort, who’s had a lot to say about industry engagement, was a guest.

Sterk and mineral economist, geophysicist, business management consultant, author, professor (you get the picture), Allan Trench, managed to “veer off topic … if there is one to begin with” several times in a 90-minute chat that covered a LOT of ground.

Sterk said he didn’t really know how to introduce Cowan: “I find you a trailblazer in many ways and as much as we might disagree on a number of things and … people throw shit at each other on social media all day, without people like yourself we’re not moving. And I fundamentally think that that needs to be appreciated more by people.”

Cowan is a renowned and sometimes, dare we say, controversial structural geologist whose latest co-authored homage to his passion and profession has drawn the usual range of feedback from deference to discord.

He’s also known as the guy who conceived of a geological modelling software program that was snapped up two years ago for more than one billion US dollars.

Cowan typed “3D multi-quadratic interpolation … or something like that” into a new thing called Google around 2000 to find an obscure little Christchurch outfit, ARANZ (Applied Research Associates New Zealand), that seemed to be doing some advanced computing back in the day.

A lot of things “didn’t make sense” to Cowan when he moved from academia and research into commercial consulting with Etheridge Henley Williams – which merged with SRK in 1997 and became the world’s biggest geological consultancy – but ARANZ’s “little sort of DOS thing that you could play around with on their website” did make sense. “I knew that that was going to be the answer.”

To say structural geology mapping was in its infancy at the time would be something of an understatement. Cowan thought he knew a better way to manually project, or map, structural geology data, but he also believed it should be computer modelled three-dimensionally.

“I knew that the limitation of it was you just couldn’t use a lot of data,” he said.

“I bribed a geophysicist that coded for me while I was doing my PhD … I could only use 89 data points or something like that. It was something ridiculously small. When I went to SRK I noticed they were drawing loops around high grade to sort of domain it out, and I said what you’re doing is contouring, in section. And I said, why don’t you do this in 3D?

“They said, what do you mean? This is how we do it.

“And I said, who else does this sort of loop drawing thing?”

The answer to that was that “every geologist in the world does it this way!”

Not for the first time Cowan’s reaction was: “This is crazy.”

Crazier still, ventured Sterk, was that “we still do a lot of loop drawing out there” today.

ARANZ was a company that could “actually do thousands of data points”. So Cowan left a message.

And didn’t hear back. The initial email exchange was “quite interesting”. He eventually got on a plane to Christchurch to meet his co-conspirators.

“These guys were like characters from The Lord of the Rings [we assume he was talking about the dress code] … Sort of in the basement, eating pizzas, drinking Coca-Cola and coding like mad.

“I taught them the basics – things that were important in the process.

“I made sure that they didn’t talk to other geologists, because I knew that they’d be derailed. I knew that what was being done [interpolation, or estimation, method] was not the right path.”

The Leapfrog software’s unique implicit modelling engine was, 22 years later, “the key tool that every other software has picked up”, Sterk said.

Cowan’s biography indicates he has used Leapfrog to interpret and model more than 600 mineral deposits worldwide. He says he continues to research new ways of processing and interpreting 3D geological data. Yet he distances himself from the Leapfrog software now being sold.

“Leapfrog now is different. It’s not the one I helped to design,” Cowan said.

Asked about his latest paper, Cowan said he had problems with “today’s expert geological modelling advice” and the way software companies trained geologists to use their software. He maintains many geologists now struggle to differentiate between good and bad models, and the latter, “with their geologically unrealistic geometries”, often appeared in technical reports, so the “clues for future financial hardships or even mine failures are hidden in plain sight”.

He told Sterk: “The whole purpose of coming up with the Leapfrog concept was to make the resource estimation process faster and more accurate. Now one of those things has happened, which is the speed. The accuracy part of it has actually gone downhill.

“We see some horrendous models and to think that using Leapfrog will produce an accurate model is a complete myth.

“When I taught Leapfrog, more than 10 years ago now, it wasn’t a software tutorial it was a structural analysis tutorial.

“It wasn’t concentrating on the software itself.

“The software was really simple to use. It was like a tool – a hammer.

“[Now] the design of the software, at least Leapfrog Geo, is just wrong.”

Leapfrog user Sterk didn’t agree with Cowan’s point on the design but suggested “there’s actually a massive value proposition in teaching it properly”.

“I think software companies are missing that value proposition. I don’t think it’s their responsibility, but a missed opportunity if anything.”

Cowan thinks the software is still just the tool and the real opportunity is a new way of teaching structural geology.

“Structural geology is one of these feared subjects. As soon as you mention structural geology in a classroom people freak out,” he said.

“Economic geology split off from structural geology in the 1950s.

“Prior to that structural geology was really big.

“For some reason when geochemical analysis of rocks became cheap, geochemistry became the dominant force in economic geology. And people have forgotten about structural geology since the 1950s. We need to bring that back because structural geology is really the control of … mineral deposits; like chemical alterations of rocks. But people don’t look at it that way.

“That doesn’t make sense to me.

“The number of structural geologists in … the mining geology space you could count on one hand.

“They need to come back together more.

“The traditional way of teaching structural geology isn’t the way to go.

“No one is going to pay to be to be listening to an old fogey like me pointing at the whiteboard. It’s just too old-fashioned.

“My way of teaching I believe will bring in people completely outside of the geological sphere. What I want to do is transfer my skills that I’ve learned over the last 20-plus years to the next generation. That’s my aim.”

Sterk said he had people on their way to work at a mine in Sweden sending him emails while listening to his podcast. There were powerful new media available to get messages across to large audiences: “That’s where education might go. How do you monetise that?

“What needs to happen?”

Cowan said: “I can tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”

Sterk said the naysayers would be saying teaching structural geology via YouTube channel can’t work: “You need to be out in the field licking rocks and all the rest of it. Maybe that’s not a hurdle.

“You’ll get the haters.

“Your VMS [volcanogenic massive sulphide] deposit origins piece; people very strongly disagreed with that one.

“You put some things out there and there’s always the detractors and I don’t want to focus on the negativity but I am interested in how you deal with it because you’re quite good at not giving a **** about what you put out there, to put it bluntly …”

“It’s because I don’t work for BHP.

“I wrote an article about – I can’t remember what it was called – about why [most] geological models might be wrong. A lot of people refer to that when they reach out to me because that means a lot to them. Because they see a lot of models that their colleagues make that just don’t make any geological sense.”

Cowan said he didn’t see himself as a crusader, but, “I guess I’m passionate about expressing what I want to say because that’s one of the things people at their deathbeds – that’s the number one – they say, I wish I could have said what I really meant to say. I won’t have that regret at all.”

Sterk saw an opportunity to press for answers on Cowan’s online teaching course.

“I know a way,” was all that came back.

“I can’t tell you. I’ll have to …”

Rene Sterk’s latest Measured podcast with Jun Cowan is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-2QPbG-3wg


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