Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Geologist who Preferred to be called a Prospector

In contrast to what I said in a recent aside about prospectors v. geologists, at least one well-known ore finder, John Livermore, preferred to be called a prospector, according to Andy Wallace, his longtime partner at Cordex, and also according to himself (see this oral history).

Exploration geologists who are successful at finding ore deposits are often referred to as ore finders, a distinction I often reserve for those who find more than one ore deposit. I've known several geologists who have made one significant discovery in their lifetimes (so far); some of these geologists have not necessarily, for whatever reason, gone on to find another (so far). Many (several?) of us have found a small to sizable geologic resource or a small ore deposit. (An ore deposit is, by definition, a mineral resource that is economically viable and therefore minable. Some deposits or resources will become economic in the future; some never will be.) Some of us have found ore deposits that then went sub-economic due to changing prices, costs, requirements, or demands; these resources may still be sitting out there waiting to be mined in future (I know of at least one).

According to Andy, many exploration geologists like to think of themselves as prospectors, whereas I usually think of prospectors as the original oldtimer with a burro (a 4WD pickup or jeep these days): a man or woman who is usually non-geology educated, who you find out and about banging around on rocks, crushing chunks of suspected ore to pan for gold, black-lighting in the night for tungsten, always out in the field looking for the next find. Most of the prospectors I've known have been men, but as I've mentioned before, I've known at least two prospecting women (non–geo-types).

Andy also describes a true prospector as having a different mindset from the average exploration geologist. He ends up describing a quality I've also heard referred to as "eternal optimism." An eternal optimist gets up every day sure that today they are going to find "the big one", today they are going to strike it rich: today is the day. This optimism, when I've seen it, is maintained constantly despite all previous indications that maybe today will not only not be the day, but maybe the goal won't be reached at all, the goal being to find that next big ore deposit — find a mine, as we often say. Andy is right in asserting that most exploration geologists do not believe that "over the next hill, they’re going to find the next big one." We do, however, have to maintain hope (or we would have given up on the business a long time ago); but for the most part, we maintain a hope seasoned by a dose of reality. The prospector mindset Andy describes, or the mindset of the eternal optimist as I'm describing it, is a mindset that is sure in face of setbacks. Fact is, the only eternal optimist I've worked closely with did not even see setbacks and was always sure that this current prospect or property would be the one, that this current drill hole only needed to go just a little deeper, or that the next drill hole would strike ore.

As John Livermore has said:
"Something about the prospecting instinct is different from the geological ability. A lot of geologists are not really very good prospectors . They get very interested in the rocks, and sometimes they don't have the one-track mind of finding mineralization. And prospectors, without a college degree, can often be in some ways better than geologists, because they are very persistent, and they get interested in an area, and they'll go over it with a fine-tooth comb."
There may be a difference between what we used to call eternal optimism and what John Livermore exhibited. The eternally optimistic viewpoint we watched in action daily, trip after trip, year after year, was not entirely based in reality. What Livermore went out and did, repeatedly, was turn unknown and unlikely prospects into active mines, and if not into mines, at least into known resources that became mines within his lifetime.

I'm not sure how to spot the difference in the two highly optimistic, highly positive and hopeful outlooks. I do know that the one is grounded in economic reality, the other may not be. Both mindsets have the persistence of the true prospector.

Read more about John Livermore, who died last month, here. Thanks to him for helping to sponsor my thesis and many others.

No comments: