There is only one Geological Society, the one in London that was founded in 1807. Its highest award is the Wollaston Medal, which goes to "geologists who have had a significant influence by means of a substantial body of excellent research in either or both 'pure' and 'applied' aspects of the science." Willliam Hyde Wollaston (17661828) is also honored in the name of the pyroxene mineral wollastonite; he was also the discoverer of the precious metal palladium, the same metal that composes the medal.
The Wollaston Medal has been awarded since 1831, and its recipients are an honor roll of geology. Just in this young century, it has gone to people whose names I readily recognize: Rudolph Trümpy, Ted Irving, James Lovelock, Norm Sleep, Paul Hofmann, Steve Sparks, Christopher Hawkesworth and Kurt Lambeck, plus several more. The 2014 Medalist will be its first female recipient, Maureen Raymo. She richly deserves it. Her home institution, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, summarizes her work and also notes that she's getting the European Geosciences Union's Milankovitch Medal this year. Well done!
This week's Geo-Whiz Quiz is the third of four no-holds-barred, mixed-martial-arts General Geology Quizzes, one that only the most polymathic of geophiles will master! Show us your wide intellectual range and your imperturbable aplomb as you take this challenging quiz. Do your worstI'll bet you will.
We're all taught about the water cycle: that lovely diagram with the sun and the clouds and the rain and the rivers, all carrying water around in a nice loop. I'm happy to tell you that the diagram is still good sound science! However, lately we've learned about a second, tectonic water cycle that goes deep into the mantle. News stories have said there are great pools of water in the mantle that exceed the oceans! That is not good sound science. The water in the mantle is actually "water," and I can tell you more about both water cycles in my latest article, "The Earth's Two Water Cycles."
Earth Magazine asked its followers on Twitter yesterday, "what is the collective noun for a group of geologists?" You know, a flock of birds, a pack of dogs, a of geologists. That led to a fun morning. My first candidate is a formation of geologists, but Tony Martin (@Ichnologist) suggested a mélange. That word, which means a jumble of mixed sedimentary rocks, is an apt reference to the variety of opinions you'll get in front of any outcrop. Along the same lines, the geologist known as @reticulite proposed an argument. That seems a little confrontatory; I think that geologists generally have passionate discussionswhich is the intended meaning of "argument," I'm sure, but "argument" has other connotations I'd rather avoid. James Burnes (@LifeThruTime) added, "From my experiences, an 'intoxication' of geologists sounds about right." To which I responded by proposing a crawl of geologists, which also suggests our nose-to-the-ground attitude.
What about some of geology's many specialties? Here's what I came up with yesterday:
- A clade or assemblage of paleontologists
- A pod or shoal of oceanographers
- A scattergram or facies of geochemists
- A plume of volcanologists
- A flurry of glaciologists
- A scatter of explorationists
- A suite of modelers
- A belt of planetologists (after the asteroid belt, but @cirquelar, a planetologist himself, cleverly suggested "belt" for explorationists)
- A cloud of aeronomists (those are the folks who study near-outer space)
- A flood of hydrologists
- A swarm of seismologists
- A sequence of stratigraphers
- A shower of meteoriticists
I'll bet you have some good ones too.
The 3-billion-year-old sandstone of the Jack Hills area, in Australia, is renowned among geologists for the microscopic grains of zircon it contains. Zircon is a highly resistant mineral that can be recycled many times, in one sedimentary rock after another, for billions of years. A few of the Jack Hills zircons are the oldest Earthly objects known, even older than the world's oldest rocks, the Acasta Gneiss from northern Canada. A paper published yesterday in Nature Geoscience features one particular zircon grain less than half a millimeter long with the laboratory name 01JH36-69. It was previously shown to be almost 4.4 billion years old, a record age.
But this paper is really about the reliability of the ages we've been determining in these extremely small and ancient objects. Crystal 01JH36-69 was painstakingly analyzed by atom-probe tomography: needles of zircon just 1 micron long and one-tenth as thick were cut out and then mapped with nanometer precision by essentially picking them apart, atom by atom. (The supplementary information to the paper has 3D files you can view to see the results.) Inside those needles are even tinier blobs in which the mix of elements differs from their surroundings. The authors show, essentially, that these blobs are too small to cast doubt on the age of the zircon, which makes it possible to confirm that Jack Hills zircons are truly the record-holding ages they appear to be. In turn, that means the first crustal rocks typical of continents, and oceans to go with themwhich means conditions capable of supporting lifeexisted very soon indeed after our planet's fiery birth.
You know your rocks, your minerals, your fossils. Igneous petrology? Bring it on, right? But maybe a million-imaginary-dollar quiz centered around seismology makes you shake a little in your shoes. Do your hands acquire a tremor? Does the prospect make you tremble? Well, this quiz should. Get over those foreshock qualms and take the quiz now.
I don't use hair dryers, just my fingers, so I've missed out on the latest development in the technology: ionic dryers that employ tourmaline.
Dryers that add negative ions to their output are said to help prevent static and associated frizziness. This makes sense to me, and Julyne Derrick, my colleague the Beauty Guide, testifies to its truth. She ranks ionic dryers among her top choices. But what about the tourmaline? That makes sense to me too, because tourmaline is well known for its electrical trick called pyroelectricity.
Pyroelectricity has been known since ancient times and is well known among mineralogists. You can heat a tourmaline crystal and watch it start picking up small things, like lint and paper scraps, as it cools. Pyroelectricity is not a bogus technology, but it can set off the woo-woo detectors in many people who are wary of anything crystal-related. (Cambridge University has a good tutorial on pyroelectricity.)
In this case tourmaline passes my strong woo-woo detectors. I can't say the same for using tourmaline in hair irons. I may be wrong, but the idea that tourmaline works its wonders in those conditions may be an instance of crystal-magic marketing.
I get email all the time from people who have trouble seeing how humans are causing global warming. In many cases it's a matter of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing: they know that volcanoes and other natural sources emit large amounts of greenhouse gases; they know that Earth's climate has fluctuated over geologic time. Why isn't that enough to know?
The quick answer is that natural factors like those generally change very slowly, whereas the human input of greenhouse gases is extremely abrupt in geological terms. My emailers love millions of years and ignore decades.
The subject of Abraham Lincoln came up in conversation today. He was born two centuries ago, in 1809. Like most families in America and elsewhere in the world, his household had to maintain its own cow, flock of chickens, and farm. His household's energy source was local wood, its water came from a local well and its night-time lighting was an expensive candle or two. Electricity was a scientific curiosity; coal was something used by blacksmiths. This lifestyle, unimaginable to most of us, was only three human lifetimes ago. The United States had less than eight million people then. Today 40 times as many Americans enjoy a standard of living better than the wealthiest person of 1809. Today, billions of people are achieving that lifestyle. Don't you think that makes a difference?
Earth is a very slow-motion planet, and its climate is an equilibrium between ponderous geologic changes that act over thousands and millions of years. The changes that modern civilization has brought about in just three lifetimes are a thunderclap in comparison, and their effect is a shove toward global warming.
Basics of global warming