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Posts Tagged ‘geology

“Dust to dust”*…

Back in 2016, we visited Jay Owens and his fascinating newsletter on dust… which went silent a couple of years later. Those of us who missed it, and were worried about its author were relieved to learn that he’d pulled back in order to turn his thinking into a book. That book is now here: Dust: The Modern World in a Trillion Particles, and The Guardian is here with an excerpt…

… Nobody normally thinks about dust, what it might be doing or where it should go: it is so tiny, so totally, absolutely, mundane, that it slips beneath the limits of vision. But if we pay attention, we can see the world within it.

Before we go any further, I should define my terms. What do I mean by dust? I want to say everything: almost everything can become dust, given time. The orange haze in the sky over Europe in the spring, the pale fur that accumulates on my writing desk and the black grime I wipe from my face in the evening after a day traversing the city. Dust gains its identity not from a singular material origin, but instead through its form (tiny solid particles), its mode of transport (airborne) and, perhaps, a certain loss of context, an inherent formlessness. If we knew precisely what it was made of, we might not call it dust, but instead dander or cement or pollen. “Tiny flying particles,” though, might suffice as a practical starting definition…

Dust is simultaneously a symbol of time, decay and death – and also the residue of life. Its meaning is never black or white, but grey and somewhat fuzzy. Living with dust – as we must – is a slow lesson in embracing contradiction: to clean, but not identify with cleanliness; to respect the material need for hygiene while distrusting it profoundly as a social metaphor…

A fascinating sample of a fascinating book: “Empire of dust: what the tiniest specks reveal about the world,” from @hautepop in @guardian.

Pair with: “Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand” and “In every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.”

* from the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer


As we examine the elemental, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt; he was born on this date in 1769.  The younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander was a geographer, geologist, archaeologist, naturalist, explorer, and champion of Romantic philosophy.  Among many other contributions to human knowledge, his quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography; he surveyed and collected geological, zoological, botanical, and ethnographic specimens, including over 60,000 rare or new tropical plants.

As a geologist, Humboldt made pioneering observations of geological stratigraphy, structure (he named the Jurassic System), and geomorphology; and he understood the connections between volcanism and earthquakes. His advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.

For more, see: The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World.


“Hurricane season brings a humbling reminder that, despite our technologies, most of nature remains unpredictable”*…

Still, as Katarina Zimmer explains, an emerging science can help us improve our forecasts…

…  contemporary simulations suggest the Great Colonial Hurricane was a Category 3.5 storm, probably the strongest in recorded eastern New England history. (For reference, Sandy, which killed nearly 150 people and caused some $65 billion in damage in the United States, was technically no longer even a hurricane when it made landfall in the New York metro area in 2012.)

Scientists know about the Great Colonial Hurricane’s impact not only from written reports but curiously, also from hidden, physical impressions the long-ago storm left on the landscape.

At the bottom of a pond, Jeffrey Donnelly, a hurricane scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and his colleagues found subtle, buried evidence of the storm that almost felled the Mather line. The researchers were collecting sediment cores from a lakebed on Cape Cod. The spot, known as Salt Pond, lies about a third of a mile from the ocean and has long been a place of mud. But in their core samples, they found a pinky finger-thick layer of pure ocean sand in layers that dated back to roughly 1635. The only thing that could have pulled that much beach material over the sand barrier and that far inland was a truly massive storm.

The cores revealed other clues, too. Although written accounts suggest the 1635 tempest was the strongest of its time, the exhumed samples showed it wasn’t the only intense storm in the area. Donnelly found evidence for 10 major storms in the area between 1400 and 1675—a surprising toll, given that major hurricanes are virtually unheard of this far north today. The fact that hurricanes were much more frequent in the past begs the question of why, and whether these levels of storm activity could someday return.

Which is why researchers like Donnelly are traipsing along coastlines and digging in the muck. They hope their relatively new branch of science, paleotempestology (the study of old storms), can use these buried traces of long-gone winds to augur ancient patterns. Patterns that might also help us predict the weather that lies ahead…

Paleotempestology promises to uncover patterns of historical hurricanes—to better predict destructive weather of the future. More at: “The Secret Messages in Ancient Storms,” (or here) from @katarinazimmer in @NautilusMag.

* Diane Ackerman


As we muse on the meteorological, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to Bernard Brunhes; he was born on this date in 1867. A geophysicist, he is known for his pioneering work in paleomagnetism, in particular, his 1906 discovery of geomagnetic reversal [see here]. The current period of normal polarity, Brunhes Chron, and the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal are named for him.

Brunes made his discovery in a way that presaged the work of paleotempestologists: he found volcanic lava and clay samples that recorded the Earth’s inversion of its magnetic field.


“Over the long term, symbiosis is more useful than parasitism. More fun, too.”*…

Blue-green formations of malachite form in copper deposits near the surface as they weather. But they could only arise after life raised atmospheric oxygen levels, starting about 2.5 billion years ago.

There are many more varieties of minerals on earth than previously believed– and about half of them formed as parts or byproducts of living things…

The impact of Earth’s geology on life is easy to see, with organisms adapting to environments as different as deserts, mountains, forests, and oceans. The full impact of life on geology, however, can be easy to miss.

A comprehensive new survey of our planet’s minerals now corrects that omission. Among its findings is evidence that about half of all mineral diversity is the direct or indirect result of living things and their byproducts. It’s a discovery that could provide valuable insights to scientists piecing together Earth’s complex geological history—and also to those searching for evidence of life beyond this world.

In a pair of papers published on July 1, 2022 in American Mineralogist, researchers Robert HazenShaunna Morrison and their collaborators outline a new taxonomic system for classifying minerals, one that places importance on precisely how minerals form, not just how they look. In so doing, their system acknowledges how Earth’s geological development and the evolution of life influence each other.

Their new taxonomy, based on an algorithmic analysis of thousands of scientific papers, recognizes more than 10,500 different types of minerals. That’s almost twice as many as the roughly 5,800 mineral “species” in the classic taxonomy of the International Mineralogical Association, which focuses strictly on a mineral’s crystalline structure and chemical makeup.

Morrison and Hazen also identified 57 processes that individually or in combination created all known minerals. These processes included various types of weathering, chemical precipitations, metamorphic transformation inside the mantle, lightning strikes, radiation, oxidation, massive impacts during Earth’s formation, and even condensations in interstellar space before the planet formed. They confirmed that the biggest single factor in mineral diversity on Earth is water, which through a variety of chemical and physical processes helps to generate more than 80 percent of minerals.

But they also found that life is a key player: One-third of all mineral kinds form exclusively as parts or byproducts of living things—such as bits of bones, teeth, coral, and kidney stones (which are all rich in mineral content) or feces, wood, microbial mats, and other organic materials that over geologic time can absorb elements from their surroundings and transform into something more like rock. Thousands of minerals are shaped by life’s activity in other ways, such as germanium compounds that form in industrial coal fires. Including substances created through interactions with byproducts of life, such as the oxygen produced in photosynthesis, life’s fingerprints are on about half of all minerals.

But they also found that life is a key player: One-third of all mineral kinds form exclusively as parts or byproducts of living things—such as bits of bones, teeth, coral, and kidney stones (which are all rich in mineral content) or feces, wood, microbial mats, and other organic materials that over geologic time can absorb elements from their surroundings and transform into something more like rock. Thousands of minerals are shaped by life’s activity in other ways, such as germanium compounds that form in industrial coal fires. Including substances created through interactions with byproducts of life, such as the oxygen produced in photosynthesis, life’s fingerprints are on about half of all minerals.

Historically, scientists “have artificially drawn a line between what is geochemistry and what is biochemistry,” said Nita Sahai, a biomineralization specialist at the University of Akron in Ohio who was not involved in the new research. In reality, the boundary between animal, vegetable, and mineral is much more fluid.

A new origins-based system for classifying minerals reveals the huge geochemical imprint that life has left on Earth. It could help us identify other worlds with life too: “Life Helps Make Almost Half of All Minerals on Earth,” from @jojofoshosho0 in @QuantaMagazine.

Larry Wall


As we muse on minerals, we might send systemic birthday greetings to Thomas Samuel Kuhn; he was born on this date in 1922.  A physicist, historian, and philosopher of science, Kuhn believed that scientific knowledge didn’t advance in a linear, continuous way, but via periodic “paradigm shifts.”  Karl Popper had approached the same territory in his development of the principle of “falsification” (to paraphrase, a theory isn’t false until it’s proven true; it’s true until it’s proven false).  But while Popper worked as a logician, Kuhn worked as a historian.  His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made his case; and while he had– and has— his detractors, Kuhn’s work has been deeply influential in both academic and popular circles (indeed, the phrase “paradigm shift” has become an English-language staple).

“What man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conception experience has taught him to see.”

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


“The commonality between science and art is in trying to see profoundly – to develop strategies of seeing and showing”*…

Working with her scientist husband, Orra Hitchcock produced illustrations on bolts of linen that manifest original knowledge about extinction, stratigraphy, and their evidentiary features in the surrounding landscape– and trained eager young students to recognize and describe geological and natural-historical phenomena…

After meeting and falling in love with Edward Hitchcock, her employer at Massachusetts’ Deerfield Academy, Orra (née White) married him in 1821, beginning a lifetime of professional collaboration while raising a family amid piles of rocks and research tomes. Highly trained, white, and wealthy, she was far from an oddity in nineteenth-century education. Like many other women of her class, Hitchcock received extensive instruction in the arts and sciences, making a name by working alongside, not beneath, a man who had easier access to academic opportunities. Variously lauded as “an anomaly” and “the most remarkable” of their era, her scientific illustrations have rarely been considered on their own terms — admired for the natural historical and religious knowledge they contain — without being made an exemplar of the broader category of “women’s work”.

Moving to Amherst when Edward was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, the couple embarked on a decades-long exploration of the Connecticut River Valley’s botany and geology. While Edward lectured to eager young students about the principles of nature, from the depths of oceans to the granite veins of the earth, Orra produced more than sixty hand-colored scientific illustrations on poster-sized linen swaths designed to be hung on classroom walls.

Ranging from extinct mammals like Megatherium (a genus of giant ground sloth [below]) through lithic strata to fossilized footprints, the collection is striking for its modern abstraction, anticipating the later works of George Maw. Although some of Hitchcock’s geological illustrations seem far from “accurate” in their specificity (or lack thereof), her devotion to clear and concise visual communication bespeaks a deep-seated understanding of complex scientific principles…

An appreciation: “Orra White Hitchcock’s Scientific Illustrations for the Classroom (1828–40),” from @PublicDomainRev.

* Edward Tufte


As we picture it, we might send sharply-observant birthday greetings to Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin; she was born on this date in 1900.  An astrophysicist and astronomer, she was the first– in her Radcliffe (Harvard) PhD thesis in 1927– to apply the laws of atomic physics to the study of the temperature and density of stellar bodies: the first to conclude that hydrogen and helium are the two most common elements in the universe and the first to suggest that the Sun is primarily (99%) composed of hydrogen.  During the 1920s, the accepted explanation of the Sun’s composition was a calculation of around 65% iron and 35% hydrogen.  Her thesis adviser, astronomer Henry Norris Russell, reached a similar conclusion via his own observations several years later, and (while he made brief mention of Payne’s work) was for a time credited with the discovery.  But in 1947, astronomer Fred Hoyle confirmed her original claim.

She spent her entire career at Harvard.  In 1956 she became the first woman to be promoted to full professor from within the faculty at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Later, with her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she also became the first woman to head a department at Harvard.

Her students included Helen Sawyer Hogg, Joseph AshbrookPaul W. Hodge, and Frank Drake (the creator of the Drake Equation)– all of whom made important contributions to astronomy.


“For himself (and only for a short time) a man may postpone enlightenment in what he ought to know, but to renounce it for posterity is to injure and trample on the rights of mankind”*…

A (small) part of the mechanism of The Clock of the Long Now [source]

The 10,000-year clock is neither a ‘frightening’ ‘distraction,’ as its critics scorn, nor the ‘admirable objective’ its fans claim. It’s something else — a monument to long-term thinking that can unlock a deeper and more thoughtful spirit of interpretive patience. Vincent Ialenti considers The Clock of the Long Now

… Stonehenge was not (to our knowledge) created with the intent of drawing people to think about the far future. However, like the clock, it can also relay a few relatively coherent messages across time. Its monolithic slabs were designed to align with the summer solstice’s sunrise and the winter solstice’s sunset. The clock was likewise designed to synchronize each day at solar noon.

As a result, the architectures of both can exhibit, for future societies, evidence of deliberate human-astronomical calibration. These features could, when encountered by successive generations, foster an ongoing awareness of humanity’s enduring attunement to the heavens. This could serve as a transgenerational reminder that, in the deeper time horizons of the universe, all of us humans are, ultimately, contemporaries — living and dying by the same star.

Long Now’s atmosphere of unhinged creativity and unapologetic eco-pragmatism provided a near-constant drip of bold, stimulating, outside-the-box ideas. There is, to my knowledge, no better setting for pondering the planetary challenges of climate adaptation, nuclear weapons risk and sociopolitical division we will all need to face in the years ahead.

If [Clock designer Danny] Hillis’ clock is a monument to this, then surely it stands for something important. Yet to appreciate why, one must first commit to approaching all timebound commentaries on the clock — including this one — with a patient, non-tempocentric, interpretive ambivalence. Five thousand years from now, after all, it may well be captivating millions, just as Stonehenge does today. What’s certain is that neither its designers nor its critics will live to find out.

The Long Now Foundation (@longnow) and its monumental incitement to take the long view: “Keeping Time Into The Great Beyond,” from @vincent_ialenti in @NoemaMag.

* Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?


As we resolve to be good ancestors, we might spare a thought for another long-term thinker, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin; he died on this date in 1955.  A Jesuit theologian, philosopher, geologist, and paleontologist, he conceived the idea of the Omega Point (a maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which he believed the universe was evolving) and developed Vladimir Vernadsky‘s concept of noosphere.  Teilhard took part in the discovery of Peking Man, and wrote on the reconciliation of faith and evolutionary theory.  His thinking on both these fronts was censored during his lifetime by the Catholic Church (in particular for its implications for “original sin”); but in 2009, they lifted their ban.


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