"...oil is first found ... in the minds of men"

Kim Kastens
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published Aug 4, 2009

Wallace Pratt
Wallace Pratt[link http://serc.carleton.edu/details/images/16971.html '']
The first sentence of the first paper coming out from the Synthesis of Research on Thinking & Learning in the Geosciences says: "Decades ago, pioneering petroleum geologist Wallace Pratt pointed out that oil is first found in the human mind" (Kastens, et al, p. 265.) We use Pratt as a jumping off point to introduce the idea that the human mind is an important geoscience tool, the tool with which geoscientists construct causal and predictive models.

In fact, Pratt's exact words were: "Where oil is first found, in the final analysis, is in the minds of men" (Pratt, 1952). I can't tell you how many edits and revisions and discussions it took, among co-authors, reviewers and editors, to arrive at wording that captures Pratt's prescient insight while avoiding the 1950's vintage phrasing, which sounds sexist to the 21st century ear. Pratt nearly landed on the cutting room floor several times.

I'm glad that Pratt's idea is in the paper. Reflecting on Pratt brings home several important points:

  • First, thinking about the relationship between Earth and mind is not newfangled. Pratt published his idea in December of 1952, more than a half century ago.
  • Second, thinking about the relationship between Earth and mind is not effete or girlish or unscientific. Pratt inhabited one of the more hard-nosed subdisciplines of geosciences, and is described as a "geologist's geologist."
  • Finally, thinking about the relationship between Earth and mind is of great practical importance. Pratt published his famous line in the Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, in a paper about how to be more successful at finding oil.


  • Kastens, K. A., Manduca, C. A., Cervato, C., Frodeman, R., Goodwin, C., Liben, L. S., Mogk, D. W., Spangler, T. C., Stillings, N. A., and Titus, S., 2009, How geoscientists think and learn: EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union (subscription required), v. 90, no. 31, p. 265-266.
  • Pratt, W., 1952, Towards a philosophy of oil finding: Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, v. 36, no. 12, p. 2231-2236.

[Revision note: This post was revised on September 12, 2009 to include the photograph of Wallace Pratt. KK]

"...oil is first found ... in the minds of men" --Discussion  

In followup to our EOS article, a reader sent me some reflections on Wallace Pratt and a copy of a 1976 article reporting an interview with the 91 year old Pratt at his home in Tuscon. Pratt is quoted as saying: "In 1940, composing the text of my book, 'Oil in the Earth,' I recorded my conviction that invariably new oil fields were first discovered 'in the minds of men.' Probably I should now update that assertion to "the minds of men and women'."

A minor point is that the 1952 AAPG article we cited in the EOS article isn't the oldest citation for this idea. A more substantive point is that by the time women were entering the geology workforce in non-trivial numbers, Pratt had revised his famous assertion to include both male and female minds.

Dedera, Don, 1976, Finding Sermons in Stone, in ExxonUSA magazine, 4th quarter, p.27-31.
Pratt, W., 1943, Oil in the Earth, Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 110 pp.


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I never took the original statement by Pratt as being "sexist" at all. Much like the old English literature where "men" is used as "mankind" or the human race.

When Pratt stated "the minds of men" I had no doubt he was speaking to the entire community be they male or female. So to me his original statement is much more potent due simply to it's brevity in point. Generally the fewer words spoken provide more intellectual punch.


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