Monthly Archives: July 2017

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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Which satellite is that? What does it measure?

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Space may well be the final frontier (there are one or two on earth that still require some work), but the space around our own planet is decidedly crowded. Folk at NASA’s Goddard Space Center (Maryland) estimate about 2300 satellites now orbit Earth; vehicles in various states of repair, use or disuse, of which a little more than 1400 are operational Continue reading

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The earth moved; GPS, earthquakes, and slow-slip

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It is often useful to know where you are, in a spatial sense. In the old days (LOL), field geologists, the kind that make maps of rocks and earth structures would, armed with topography maps and compass, determine their location from some vantage point using line-of-sight and triangulation.  I don’t hanker for a return to these days. I’m grateful for the kind of location data instantly available on my smart phone – the little blue dot that seems to follow my course across some digital representation of the universe. But I acknowledge a kind of smugness, in the event the digital world nosedives, knowing that I can still find my way; no General Panic Stations (GPS) if the satellite-based Global Positioning System (the other GPS) fails.

GPS devices can also be attached to bits of the earth’s crust.  This is useful because the crust, whether continent, sea floor, or volcanic island, is always on the move. Continue reading

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Beringer’s Lying Stones; fraud and absurdity in science

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My second-year university Geology wasn’t particularly notable except for a bit of academic trickery. A group of us near-do-well students created a fictitious student and added his name to exam lists, penning grades that were middle of the road, to avoid catching the attention of academic staff. The charade ended when a lecturer asked to meet this person. Our creation quietly disappeared, having, in the interim, amused us and annoyed a few teachers; but no crime had been committed, no careers jeopardised. 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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