Gordon Lister: Telling the history of rock

Professor Gordon Lister is a tectonicist and structural geologist.

In other words, a rock-whisperer.

“When people ask me how old a rock is, I just laugh,” he says.

“The mistake most people make is they think a rock has an age. But a rock has a history.”

Professor Lister can pick up a rock from his collection in his office at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, and tell you not only the history of that rock, but of the planet.

“This one was on an ancient beach 1.74 billion years ago.  It reached about 450-500 degrees centigrade deep in the Earth and it was stretched, like chewing gum.

“Then having suffered that degree of ignominy, it was squashed when the Australian tectonic plate was whacked by the United States.

“This rock was there when the USA was right next door to us.

“The fact we can link this rock to the collision of ancient continents, well, I find that entrancing.”

The rock has a more recent history too, of how it came to be on Professor Lister’s shelf.

It’s from the Mount Isa desert where Professor Lister takes students from the Master of Earth Sciences to teach the Advanced Structural Geology course.

“For students who’ve never been into the desert, never seen wild camels, and never slept in the sand, it’s an amazing experience,” he says.

Professor Lister’s rock-watching is not just about telling histories. It’s also about telling the future, and hopefully saving thousands of lives, by predicting earthquakes.

“We can see there are structures in the tectonic plates that actually control where an earthquake starts.

“We can put instruments there to read signals and, over time, we hope they would tell us an earthquake is going to happen.

“So we use the mass spectrometer to tell us what happened in deeper times, seismometers to tell us about what’s happening now, and satellites to tell the future.

“And our Masters students get to be immersed in all of that.”


The ANU Research School of Earth Sciences is Australia’s leading academic research institution for earth sciences and home to the largest concentration of earth scientists in Australia.

We take a broad view in addressing the big challenges of earth sciences, seeking to answer questions ranging from the origins of the Earth, to understanding climate change. We have a reputation for international leadership and innovation, focused on developing new methods, whether experimental, analytical or computational.