Category Archives: Interpreting ancient environments

The origin of life: Panspermia, meteorites, and a bit of luck

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In the opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey (1968), Neanderthal-like folk are scrounging for food, squabbling with a neighbouring tribe who are intent on competing for the meagre lickings (a reactionary condition that would not bode well for future humanity). One of them picks up a large bone.   There’s instant recognition, seemingly influenced by a black obelisk that appears mysteriously, that it can be used for something else. His neighbour lies in a crumpled heap. In what has become an enduring Sci-fi image, he triumphantly hurls his weapon into the air, whereupon Kubrick transforms it into an orbiting space station. Continue reading

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In praise of field work

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The class field trip is underway.  Teacher hands out the rap-around, virtual imaging glasses, and you are transported to a green horizon. In the background, there is an annoying kind of buzz, as teacher relates the topic of enquiry, asks questions, provides comments. Fellow students may even be projected into your virtual reality, their essence reduced to pixels. There’s a resounding crash – one student, suffering from vertigo, has fallen off their chair. Another has just thrown up from motion sickness.  All in a day’s field study. Off come the glasses. The green horizon vanishes. All except one of your classmates are still in their chairs, surrounded by the same four classroom walls. What was learned? Continue reading

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Life on Mars; what are we searching for?

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I believe alien life is quite common in the universe, although intelligent life is less so. Some say it has yet to appear on planet Earth. Stephen Hawking

I can only imagine H.G. Wells bitter disappointment if he were to learn that Martians were little more than primitive microbes.  All that hype and scare-mongering for nothing. Because that, it seems, is all we are ever likely to find on Mars. They may be intelligent microbes, but microbes nonetheless.

Present conditions on Mars are not conducive to thriving populations of anything living – at least in any life form we are familiar with. Incident UV and other solar radiation, low atmospheric pressure, an atmosphere almost devoid of oxygen, and the presence in soils of oxidizing molecular compounds such as perchlorates and hydrogen peroxide (think bleached hair), all contribute to rather inclement living conditions. It is possible that some life forms have survived these ravages, in sheltered enclaves or buried beneath the scorched earth, but it is more likely that, if life did exist on Mars, we will find the evidence written into ancient sedimentary rocks, or perhaps as chemical signatures.  It is these attributes that current exploration programs, both landed rover expeditions and orbiting satellites, tend to focus on. Continue reading

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Sliced thin; an unfolding story of sandstone

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What do you think of this analogy; sandstone, and a pile of garbage? I jest, of course. Garbage is no laughing matter – it has become a defining environmental issue of global import. Sandstones too are not to be sneered at.

Your pile of refuse will consist of the flotsam and jetsam of a lifestyle – things you no longer need or want, things acquired over time, from any number of localities, some of which may be very far away. Garbage anthropology is a thing. Enlightened folk examine piles of old rubbish because they provide data that allows them to decipher lifestyles and cultural norms.

Sandstone is a sedimentary rock made up of a collection of grains; these too accumulated over time and could have been derived from sources close by or very far afield. Grains of sand Continue reading

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Sliced thin; time and process recorded in igneous rocks

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This is the second in a series on the geological world under a microscope

Geologists, it seems, are never satisfied with just looking at rocks from a distance; there is some innate need to wield their pointy geological hammer. Break that rock; give it a good bash! To the uninitiated, this may seem a bit pugilistic, a kind of primal wonton destruction. But a good geo won’t hit rocks just for the hell-of it; a good Geo will be selective. Most of my field assistants and post-graduate candidates needed to be reminded of this. Find something of interest? Before you do anything else, sketch and photograph it; no one will be interested in looking at photos of rubble.

Looking ‘inside’ rocks serves a unique purpose; it allows you to travel back in time, to picture the ancient world, ancient events, outcomes of processes that involve the benign and the brutal, terrifyingly beautiful. Rocks contain memories of all these. And that is why we sometimes break them apart. The optical, or polarizing microscope allows us to unlock these rock memories in a uniquely visual way.  Continue reading

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Sliced thin; kaleidoscopes with a geological purpose

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This is the first post in a series on the geological world under a microscope

As a kid visiting my Scottish grandparents, I would make a bee-line for two delights in their house (after the hugs); the kitchen (following my nose) to the inevitable trays of homemade donuts and shortbread, and the living room credenza wherein was kept an old kaleidoscope. It was a triangular prism (most modern forms are tubes), filled with glitter, two mirrors at one end, and a peep-hole at the other. This simple toy introduced me to the world of symmetrical, kaleidoscopic, never-repeated patterns.  Years later, as a geology student, I was introduced to optical mineralogy, the science and art of identifying minerals under a polarizing microscope – flashbacks to my childhood. Continue reading

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The brutality of Surtsey’s laboratory

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I recently came across a local newspaper article describing a new volcanic island, rising from its own ashes above the sea floor, off the coast of Tonga.  The subtlety of memory returned me to 1963, and an announcement over our morning radio, of the birth… of a volcanic island off the coast of Iceland. Images, arriving a couple of days later (this was 1963 after all), gave witness to a natural brutality I had not seen before; the sea in boiling turmoil, torn by erupting columns of rock and steam. Beautiful, in an awe-filled way.

It has been fifty years since the cessation of volcanic activity. Surtsey has become home to plants and birds, a laboratory for the adaptable, the dispersible, and the colonial.  The only sounds that resonate now are noisy gulls and pounding North Atlantic waves. Continue reading

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