In Pursuit of Dead Squishy Things

T-rex at the T-rel Museum, Drumheller, Alberta

T-rex at the T-rel Museum in Drumheller,
Alberta, Canada   (photo: Miksha)

If you spend a little time at your favourite dinosaur museum, you are sure to hear parents explain to their child that the T-rex about to swallow the kid’s head is just a bunch of dead bones. “Quit bawling, Johnny. It won’t eat you, it’s just bones. Now settle down while I take your picture.” I always delight in telling such folks that these are not bones, they are stones. They have as much relationship to bones as Rodin’s Thinker has to a contemplative Richard Dawkins. Similar shape. One is the original; the other was made from a mold.

Fossils are rocks. They may start out as bones. Some might argue that bones are rocks even when they are still covered with flesh, but that’s not quite true. Bones are mostly made of flexible strings of proteins called collagen. Attached to that pliable framework are the rocky minerals calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate. Calcium gives bones their strength. It also builds reefs, which create limestone and marble. Bones are not quite rock hard, but close enough. However,  fossils are not bones.

After a boney creature shuffles off its mortal coil, it quickly disintegrates, though its calcium-rich bones may linger in the soil for hundreds of years. If mineralized water seeps through the bone bed, precipitate will replace gaps and spongy holes once occupied by fluids and collagen. Eventually, in the right environment, the bone becomes stone. Some day I will post a blog filled with words like rot, decay, microbes and bacteria – I will then decompose the entire fossilization process in painful detail. Until then, just remember that when palaeontologists uncover dinosaur bones, they are actually digging up dinosaur stones. (There are very rare exceptions. Even in stone bones that are a hundred million years old, there are occasionally bits of organic original dinosaur. Such discoveries are hugely important, but hugely rare.)

Fossil bones are actually stones. At least for those dead animals that once had bones. But for most of its existence, the Earth hosted non-boney lifeforms. Scientists crave details about the lives and habits of those early boneless creatures. These animals existed for hundreds of millions of years, predating dinosaurs and humans by eons. They were around for a ridiculously long interval. The amount of time from the last dinosaur to the first human is far less than the time that pre-boned animals filled the Earth’s environment.

A Burgess Shale Cambrian Arthropod

A Burgess Shale Cambrian arthropod fossil

For two billion years, nothing more complicated than tedious uninteresting unicellular life existed on the Earth. Then, about five hundred million years ago, an incredible transformation erupted. Everything changed. In under ten million years, our planet’s life went from single-celled biochemical slime to a full spectrum of diverse, complicated creatures. The trigger for the sudden unprecedented evolution of arthropods, worms, and figmentasias from microbes is unknown. Until we figure out the mechanism, we have a gap in our knowledge. Suffice to say, the event known as the Cambrian Explosion (an eruption of living diversity) represents a gap being bridged by intense research and speculation. The paucity of fossils of Cambrian animals makes the mystery difficult to resolve. In a geological blink, life evolved from gooey simpleness to puppy-sized carnivorous arthropods. But we don’t have enough fossils to piece together the entire transition.

    Hallucigenia, a squishy Cambrian animal     (Image Credit: Apokryltaros)

Hallucigenia, a squishy Cambrian animal
(Image Credit: Apokryltaros)

They were bigger than algae and much more complex, but the new pre-vertebrates had juicy bodies that melted away upon death, rarely leaving evidence of their existence. It takes extremely unusual circumstances to preserve the outlines of dead, squishy creatures. Soft animal fossils are found in just a few places. The soft tissues need to be gently enveloped by mud and clay. The mud is then overlain with more mud or heavier sediments, erecting a shale tomb for our beloved ancestors. Inside the tomb, there has been no mineralized replacement of the gelatinous organs, but there are occasionally impressed patterns, much as your fingers might make by squeezing Play-Doh. In the case of Cambrianites, the envelope is made of very old rocks. Not only are the conditions of proper entombment rare, but because of the age of the rocks, they have had a much greater opportunity to tectonically lift above sea level and erode, leaving dust in place of marvelous imprints of animals such as Polychaete worms, Molaria, and the exquisite Marella.

The tectonic forces that lift Cambrian rocks to sunlight are still active today in Canada’s Rockies where  shale containing the rare fossil imprints of soft animals are exposed to the destructive vigor of wind, rain, and geologists. Until two years ago, the last truly great discovery of a Cambrian-age fossil assemblage was found by Charles Walcott in 1909, at a place we call the Burgess Shale.  The fine-grained rocks of the Burgess preserve the world’s best Cambrian fossils. About 505 million years ago,  when these particular creatures lived, North America was visiting the equator, the sea was warm, and marine plants and animals thrived. (By the way, the continents were completely lifeless, all the planet’s biology was in the oceans.) At the time, competing to capture prey, while avoiding becoming a dinner snack, while racing away from mud slides, while looking for suitable mates were likely the stresses that helped evolve the conservative life forms into creatures which could eventually blog about their ancestors. But what was the trigger? What started all this in motion?

Charles Walcott, his wife and son, working the Burgess.

Charles Walcott, his wife, and son, digging M. walcotti from the Burgess Shale’s Walcott Quarry, 1913.

We are not likely to solve the Cambrian explosion mystery with just the soft-tissue patterns pressed into the original Burgess Shale Walcott Quarry. Although many diverse species have been described since this discovery a hundred years ago, the UNESCO World Heritage site has likely yielded the bulk of its astonishments. We now know much about the ecology and habits of the Burgess denizens. They have been examined and re-examined, especially during the last thirty years. But just when the work was drifting towards monotony, an amazing thing happened. A whole new fossil field was discovered about forty kilometres away.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon, Photo by Miksha

Marble Canyon, with a hiking trail connected to the Kootenay Highway that links Calgary and Radium Hot Springs, would not seem the place to find a whole new batch of enigmatic Cambrian creatures. I have tramped the trail around the fake marble cliffs several times. (Marble Canyon is made of shiny limestone.) While oohing at the dramatic narrow canyon (a few metres wide at top, plunging 20 metres to the stream below), I missed noticing Cambrian fossils. Nothing to feel too embarrassed about – for a hundred years, everyone missed seeing the fossils. They were discovered in 2012. And to be even more fair to myself, the location of the new Cambrian fossils is not in the canyon. Instead, the fossils are being sliced out of shale somewhere a couple of kilometres from the lovely gorge, at a secret location on a mountain cliff.

The Marble Canyon fossils are important. Their host rock is a continuation of the same Burgess Shale formation found to the northwest. But the new discovery is far enough from the early fossil bed to have fostered a local, unique microenvironment with somewhat different creatures than those at the 100-year-old Burgess Shale discovery. Here, near Marble Canyon Trail, cousins of the older Burgess Shale site also thrived. But 22% of the species just unearthed at Marble Canyon had never before been known to science.

Metaspriggina walcotti

Metaspriggina walcotti

Although arthropods are well-represented, along with some animals that look like nothing now living on the planet, there was also an experimental fish. A proto-fish called Metaspriggina. The minnow-sized ichthys is one of the oldest fish ever found and is particularly notable because of signs that it had a jaw. Perhaps the first jaw ever found anywhere, filling a missing link in the evolution of vertebrates. Until the Marble Canyon fossils were found, the only two other samples of this cartilaginous fish were not complete enough to reveal the jaw. With Marble Canyon, 44 more samples are now known and the simple jaw is definitely present. Not only were the Cambrian dwellers of Marble Canyon exercising their right to evolve past primordial slime, they were on their way to becoming creatures with jaws and backbones.

Gabriela Mangano U of Sask

The Marble Canyon shale – site of the century’s greatest Cambrian fossil discovery. (Photo by G Mangano)

Fittingly, the team included Gabriela Mángano, a geology professor and ichthyologist from my own alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan. It is her picture of the dig that I’ve included here, to your right Dr Mángano is also an author of the first important paper to come out of this new site.

The team that unearthed the Marble Canyon Cambrian creatures was led by University of Cambridge geologist Simon Conway Morris and by palaeontologist Jean-Bernard Caron of the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto. They worked the shale along with at least seven others, all of whom were heli-lifted to the undisclosed location. 2014 was their first full year of excavating the 10-meter long, 3-meter high strip of exposed cliff – they found samples of 60 different species, 14 never before identified. Their paper on the Marble Canyon discoveries, published in Nature last year, is just the beginning of years and years of study that will continue to unveil the mystery of how life evolved.

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Rare Earths in Rare Places

China FlagSome of our favourite toys – including cells phones and computers - function through the kind benevolence of the People’s Republic of China. OK, it’s a business deal with the Communists, it’s not benevolence. China has a near monopoly on materials called rare earths. Without those ‘earths’ (which are indeed rare) our electronics would fail. By an accident of nature and the whims of geology, mainland China finds itself custodian to at least 90% of the world’s essential rare earth supply. The scarce metals are mined and refined there through companies that either work closely with the government in Beijing, or are branches of the government.

Rare Earths. (Photo: Wikipedia)

These rare earths have rare properties. In tiny amounts, they are essential for computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, magnets for wind power generation, fluorescent lighting, and other devices that keep the electronic age beeping and humming. If it wanted to, China could   price       Neodymium, Scandium, Cerium, Lath- anum,  Europium, and Yttrium out of the consumer’s reach. But Chinese producers don’t inflate prices too much – that would result in the pursuit of substitute sources.

New sources are indeed sought. Generally they are uneconomical and simply can’t be mined cheaply enough to compete against Chinese supplies. In December, RioSol, an American-Peruvian company,  announced the discovery of a potentially huge reserve of rare earths near Machu Pichu. The geologists working the new claim think it is Peru’s largest discovery. Now they need “litho-magmatic studies, petro-mineralogical and additional geophysical study of the main Capacscaya claim,” and perhaps diamond-bit drilling to recover core samples, according to local geologist Rildo Oscar Rodriguez. In a January 2015 report, the company and its geologists gave evidence that seems to support an assay of total Rare Earth Oxides at 3 percent or greater within part of their claim.


Peru’s idyllic Altiplano. Awaiting paved roads and health care.  (Photo by author)

I have little doubt that RioSol, a company with 14 years experience in Peru, has found something. It will take months to delineate the size of the discovery and to consider the best way to develop it. The prospect is about 95 kilometres northwest of Cusco, a regional capital that sits 3,400 metres above sea level. I’ve been there, and made the train trip from Cusco up to Machu Pichu – a beautiful but tortuous route through the Altiplano. I remember viewing those gentle high prairies. I was especially intrigued by the small farms which included dairies and potato fields. It seemed idyllic, with its year-round spring weather and wispy atmosphere. But I realized life on a stoney equatorial farm 11,000 feet above sea level could also be brutally difficult. A new mine in the area – if properly developed – might bring decent benefits, including local health care and paved roads. And maybe a few jobs for farmers’ sons and daughters, too.

Ron and friends at Machu Pichu

That’s me in the chair, with Peruvian friends.

Ron at Machu Pichu I squeezed my trip to Machu Pichu into a single weekend, slipping away to the mountains while I was working in Lima. My job in Peru involved teaching seismic geophysics through a project sponsored by CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency.  Lima,  in 2010 at least, was an optimistic (albeit poor and crowded) city. The country had beaten back corruption and had won a decades-long battle against drug lords and against the Shining Path, a revolutionary communist league that controlled parts of the Altiplano just beyond the Andes.

When I was in the country, things were stable and relatively safe.  (Although I had to submit a sample of my hand writing to the Canadian International Development Agency – just in case I was kidnapped and CIDA needed to confirm my identity.) I rode to work in old unmarked taxis (sometimes had to stop and buy fuel for the driver) but usually it was enough to hand five dollars to the driver. I tried to be inconspicuous – not easy for a tall North American who needs to use a wheelchair to walk more than a few metres.  This leads to another aspect of the Peruvian culture that I found encouraging. I have a motor neuron disorder that puts me in my wheelchair fairly often. I was apprehensive about the reception my titanium hubcaps might incite in Peru. But the people I met were unfazed. (Machu Pichu would have been impossible, except for a small Cusco-based company specializing in excursions for folks like me.)  It was all good and I’d love to go back sometime.

The stability and prosperity that result from the rule of law and the reduction of corruption can not be overstated. Peru is certainly not perfect. Transparency International ranks Peru just behind Italy, China, and Serbia in vulnerability to corruption – that puts it exactly mid-point in the world and it means a certain amount of cash may sometimes lubricate the wheels of bureaucracy. Personally, I’d rather run a company in Peru than Italy, China, or Serbia because it seemed everyone was trying to improve the system. Good governance may move Peru ahead of its rivals. Others in its neighbourhood, Chile and Uruguay, actually tie with the USA, UK, and Japan on the same scale, indicating Latin America can be an honest place to do business.

Will Peru open a significant rare earth mine? Will the new mine bring an economic boost to the people of the Cusco district? Will the production help reduce dependency on single-sourced rare earths? The people closest to the project seem to think so. “It proves that the potential for rare earth elements exists outside of China with significant opportunity for development of new production in a mining-friendly country,” says Peruvian geologist Rildo Oscar Rodriguez. That’s a good start.

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Ted Cruz, The Science Guy!

Ted Cruz, the science guy! Those are five words that tickle your tongue when spoken together. But it’s true, the senator is now America’s science guy. Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX) is the new chair of the science and space panel, a Senate commerce sub-committee. On Thursday, March 12, Cruz bugged geophysicists everywhere when he sat at a committee hearing and stated that earth sciences are not “hard science.”  They are not core, he added. Apparently that makes them ‘soft science.’ I suppose some geologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, and geophysicists would disagree, but what would they know about their profession?

Cruz knows the difference between hard and soft. He is head of the committee that oversees most of the federal government’s science expenditures. It’s a powerful role, but the unofficial presidential candidate may soon be in an even more powerful office.  The Texas senator made the claim about the ‘softness’ of earth sciences at his first-ever Q&A session as the chairman of the science and space subcommittee. You can see his comments in this 10-minute video clip. His purpose may be to denigrate the people who would like to study the planet. Cruz is fed up with launching satellites that track hurricanes and with wasteful projects that investigate earthquakes. He figures the money would be better spent sending people into space. Cruz is staunchly libertarian and has no use for pork-belly politics, so it is unlikely that his position is related to the fact that he represents Houston, home of the manned space program.

The panel chaired by Cruz is a funding committee. You don’t need to know anything about science to be on the senate science committee, apparently you just need an overwhelming desire to fix the way science is done in America. Others in the group include Senator Cory Gardner (R–CO), who strongly supports his new boss. But Gardner  has never had a non-political job. He graduated with a political science degree (perhaps poli-sci is one of the ‘hard sciences’ that Cruz finds more endearing). Gardner became a lawyer, though he has been a congressman and senator nearly  all his working life.

Other members of the science committee include Marco Rubio (R-FL), also educated as a lawyer and also a life-long politician; Jerry Moran (R-KS), a lawyer and career politician; Dan Sullivan (R-AK), a lawyer and politician (but was once a Marine); and Steve Daines (R-MT) who is not a lawyer. Daines actually has a chemistry degree and worked for years for Procter & Gamble, opening new factories in Asia for the company. So, the Republicans controlling science consist of 5 lawyers and a businessman with a science degree. The minority Democrats are not outfitted much better, but their top guy is the only former astronaut now in Congress – Bill Nelson (D-FL). He was an astronaut, but has spent most of his life as a lawyer and politician. I am not sure how the lawyer became a Payload Specialist, but I’m impressed – as I was when Howard Wolowitz went to space. Regardless the presence of a token astronaut on the funding committee, science is in for a bumpy trajectory for the next several years.

Over at the House of Representatives, the new chair of their science spending panel is John Culberson (R–TX). In recent weeks, he has declared that the earth sciences don’t meet his definition of “the pure sciences.” That, I guess makes geophysics both an impure and a soft science. Who is Rep. John Culberson and what is his definition of pure science? He’s a lawyer. I don’t know how he defines purity. Culberson was elected to the Texas House in 1987, while he was still a law student. He has been a professional politician for 28 years and is a leader of the Tea Party caucus. American science is in the good hands of Tea Party lawyers.

Since Ted Cruz is head of the Senate science funding committee, I’d like to focus on him and his qualifications for the job. What gave him the wisdom to decide Earth Science is not hard science? Was it a political science degree? Well, Ted Cruz is a lawyer, of course. For years, he was the governor’s chief lawyer in Texas, then he became a senator.

About Ted Cruz. Cruz told the Dallas Morning News, “I’m Cuban, Irish and Italian” – but he is not. His parents were. Instead, Ted Cruz is a native-born Canadian. As late as 2014, he still held Canadian citizenship. The well-educated lawyer says he didn’t realize he held Canadian citizenship until just over a year ago, though he knew he lived the first four years of his life in Canada. Surprising statement from someone who presumably could make laws affecting other people’s immigration. And Cruz is one of the strongest critics of immigration reform. You’d think he would have been aware he was Canadian, especially whenever he dug out his Canadian birth certificate to apply for passports and the like.

His parents lived here in my hometown, Calgary.* The senior Cruz ran an oil patch company from 1968 to 1974. The younger Cruz was born at the same Canadian hospital as two of my kids. (I assume his folks got the same excellent government health care, too, which paid for Teddy’s delivery.) But Rafael Cruz did not stay in Canada. He left the oil business, moved to the USA, divorced his wife, dropped his Catholic faith, and became a fundamentalist pastor. His church, a branch of Purifying Fire Ministries (of which the elder Cruz is a director) is run by Suzanne Hinn, who was/is married, divorced, remarried to the ex-Canadian (now American) faith-healer Benny Hinn. (The Hinns advocated “Holy Spirit enemas” at their Orlando-based church. One can only imagine the sacred rites involved with that.) All of this is to say that Rafael Cruz is involved with some pretty weird people.

Ah, yes, Rafael Cruz is not Senator Ted Cruz, he’s just the dad and he can be as weird as he likes. That would be true, and I do not mention a politician’s family unless the politician keeps them in the spotlight. Rafael was paid $20,000 last year to assist, lecture, and consult in his son’s various campaigns. So Ted Cruz himself brought the man into the fray. Among Rafael’s notable pronouncements is this one:

“I’ve met so many Christians that tell me, ‘Evolution is a scientific fact.’ Baloney!  I am a scientist, there is nothing scientific about evolution.”  – Rafael Cruz

I guess we can debate whether Rafael Cruz was once a scientist. He did earn a maths degree, so maybe he has a “hard science” degree, but he is a preacher now and he recently said, “It takes more faith to believe in evolution than to believe in the first two chapters of Genesis.” No, it takes logic and reasoning, not faith – Holy Spirit enemas do not figure into studying genetics and biology. But this is enough about Cruz, Senior. The son, Ted Cruz, does not bear the intellectual sins of the father. (Although there is that issue about paying the old man to stump the trail.)

It must have been difficult – divorced parents, uncertain citizenship, and a father with an odd and evolving spirituality. But it is Ted Cruz’s science that concerns us. As head of a powerful  group that could potentially stop science expenditures for ‘non-core, impure, non-hard’ sciences like geophysics, we have to hope his pre-law education included a few basic science lectures. We do know this about the senator – he says he is keen on keeping US astronauts in space. He would like to reduce NASA’s earth-studies budget, but he has repeatedly said he will keep funding manned space exploration.

Ted Cruz may not realize that NASA’s first satellite, Explorer I, launched in 1958, was part of the International Geophysical Year. While the Russian Sputnik aimlessly circled the Earth and simply beeped its presence, the American Explorer was a real scientific earth-explorer. It proved the existence of the speculated Van Allen radiation belt. (Explorer carried a Geiger counter; Sputnik carried a beeping radio transmitter.) Yes, NASA’s first step into space was scientific, not a macho statement of physical conquest. Hopefully the bright new chairman of science will keep this in mind. Without using NASA’s geophysics to understand the Earth’s enveloping radiation and magnetic fields back in 1958, it would have been irresponsible to send humans aloft. If Ted Cruz, America’s new science guy, wants to safely send astronauts to space, he must also fund NASA’s earth studies so that all the potential risks can be understood.

* (Incidentally, some readers may rightfully wonder about my concern for US science: Even in Canada, where I now live, American science impacts us. But there is also this: I moved to Canada from the USA, where I was born. I was 20 when I arrived in 1974, the same year Ted Cruz moved his parents south to the States. I’m think I saw him screaming from the back seat of his family’s station wagon while my ’61 Chevy pickup and I crossed the opposite direction, at the inland border port of Monchy. We were ships passing in the prairie night.)

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Yummy. Buffon’s Pi.

um piAs I write this, pi day is happening. On our local (Mountain Savings Time) clocks, it will soon be 3.14.15 (month-day-year) then 9:26:53. We use the American month-day-year for this event (rather than day-month-year as the rest of the world uses, or the computer-friendly year-month-day used to organize file/folder names). Without the peculiar system from the USA, there would be no pi day. Finding π – the actual number (3.141592653…) – has been a source of great fun for humanity.

One of the oldest known declarations of pi is given in the Bible. I Kings 7:23:

And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.

Yes, the Bible tells us the value of pi. It is equal to 30 divided by 10. Three, the trinity number. Am I the first to notice that there might be a mistake in the Bible? That could change everything – though I suppose there are people who will insist that it is the mathematicians who have got it wrong.

Archimedes inscribes pi.

Archimedes inscribes pi.

Over the years, others refined the divine, adding a dreadful decimal point and an apparently infinite line of integers after it. About 2,000 years ago, Archimedes calculated π to 3.146 by inscribing an endless series of triangles inside a circle and doing the arithmetic, making him the first to get close to the right value. Darn close.

Until Archimedes, the value used to calculate the volume of spheres and the brims of molten seas was either measured by rolling something round (like an antique can of coke) and then comparing the length revolved against the can’s diameter, or it was found by reading the Bible. With Archimedes, and then calculus a quick sixteen centuries later, this changed.

Louis-George LeClerke, the Count of Buffon

Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Count of Buffon

The most enjoyable calculation of pi came from Count Buffon (Georges-Louis Leclerc) around the year 1800. Buffon was a real count. He bought his title when he inherited 20 million dollars (today’s value) from his uncle. (Uncle Georges had been a French tax-farmer who robbed the island of Sicily into poverty. If he didn’t lose his head in revolutionary France’s guillotine, he should have.)

Buffon was a rich spoiled brat until mathematics entered his life and saved him from ruinous debauchery. He also became a noted geologist and nature writer, composing a huge science encyclopedia. He wrote well. For example, volcanoes were all the rage back in the early 19th century and Buffon had this to say about them:

“a volcano is an immense cannon, from its wide mouth are vomited torrents of smoke and flames, sulphur, and melted metals, clouds of cinders and stones, the conflagration is so terrible, and the quantity of burnt and melted matters so great that they destroy cities and forests.”

Buffon continues spewing his volcanic description, then attributes it all to an act of nature, even though the volcano’s throat was mistaken by “ignorant people for the mouth of Hell. Astonishment produces fear, and fear is the mother of superstition. The natives of Iceland imagine the roarings of the volcano are the cries of the damned, and its eruptions the rage of devils and the despair of the wretched.” Buffon would have none of this superstition: “all its effects, however, arise from fire and smoke.”

"Needles" on the floor

“Needles” on the floor

Buffon was an especially gifted mathematician. Quite by accident, he brilliantly stumbled upon a calculation of pi using probability.  A popular pub-night game in 1800 involved dropping needles on the floor after guessing how many would intersect the floor’s wooden splices.

Although he was already fabulously wealthy, Buffon thought he could rig the game using probability. Intuitively, we know the answer has something to do with the length of the needle and the distance between floor splices. Buffon invented a whole system to tie together those various lengths and the infinite range of angles the needle might encounter. He solved this, and other problems, by merging calculus with probability theory.

Buffon’s solution for pi is fairly easy to follow, but is best shown using a blackboard – as I did last year when I led my son’s 6th grade class through the calculation. (Not every kid suffers through having his dad in the classroom for a day, teaching fun stuff like calculus.) Buffon’s needle can be shown with the simplest of integral calculus, which the kids followed fairly well. Since I don’t have a blackboard attached to this computer, here is a professional presentation –  a great little video by the folks at Numberphile.

The actual test of Buffon was the fun part for the 12-year-olds. We simply tossed toothpicks on a lined sheet of paper, counted the number that intersects (yielding the probability of intersection) and solved for pi. We dropped 100 needles and got 53 intersects. The ‘needles’ were 2.5 inches long and the spacing of the lines on the paper was 3 inches. The formula is π = (2*needle length/spacing) divided by the rate of success. (See this link for a derivation.) Using Buffon’s, our probability (actual rate) of success (53/100), and the lengths we measured, the final calculation was 3.144. Easy as pi!

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Creationism and the Grand Conjectural Canyon


I don’t reblog very often, but I like the quality of the following piece. It is written by someone who describes himself this way: “As a scientist, I am fascinated by the world and the research that elucidates it for us. As a Christian, I believe that truth matters and it is meant to be shared.”

The blog (Age of Rocks) tries to explain how a Christian can be faithful to his belief and still realize the Earth is more than 6,000 years old. Through the many pages of his blog (it has been around for 5 years), he presents a highly readable account of thought processes some of us find contradictory, but can not fail to appreciate. Following is one sample of his work, an examination of the Young-Earth take on the Grand Canyon. I offer it as a teaser, representative of the quality of the writing over at the Age of Rocks blog:

Originally posted on Age of Rocks:

“The writing on the wall”

It was a Friday afternoon like any other. Katrina pulled into the driveway promptly at 4:30 PM upon returning from her weekly exercise class and a much needed shopping run. For Katrina, it was a three-hour sanctuary in which she could recuperate from the constant demands of Molly, her energetic toddler. That role was temporarily assigned to Sarah, a young neighborhood girl with comparable creative energies.

“How was she?” asked Katrina, while struggling to close the door through a web of heavy shopping bags. “Did she cause you any trouble?”

“Not at all,” replied Sarah, “I think she finally fell asleep.”

Carefully nudged against the cracked door, however, Katrina’s motherly peer was immediately stolen by an unfamiliar disarray. “That’s not wallpaper…”, she thought silently to herself. With a slight rush of adrenaline, she nervously flipped on the light to find the new ‘Ivory White’ paint job ruined by chaotic swaths of…

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The Painfully Seated Camel

Sitting CamelCamels often sit down mighty painfully. Perhaps their joints creak. Perhaps early oiling might prevent permanently hazardous aging. Or perhaps these sentences are just simple mnemonics and we are trying to remember the names of the geological periods.  Here they are: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Mississippian, Pennsylvanian. Each represented by the initial letter of each word in the first sentence. That brings us to 300 million years ago and our camel is seated, painfully. From the sentence “Perhaps their joints creak” we get Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous. We have just killed off the dinosaurs and seen the rise of mammals. The last part of the mnemonic (oiling to prevent aging) gives us the epochs Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, Holocene, Anthropocene.

Twenty-five years ago, my geology professor taught us to remember “Careful! Old sexy devils can play ’til Jericho crumbles.” That helped most of us memorize the periods, Cambrian through Cretaceous. But some in the classroom inverted old and sexy, putting Silurian too early, while others had no clue who Jericho was. (“An old man on a TV show,” I told one.)  I like the story about the arthritic camel better. I heard a version of it recently, then rewrote a small part of it.  I can picture the camel in my mind while a devil that plays just leaves me cold. There is no image. The camel mnemonic is better. It replaces Carboniferous with Mississippian and Pennsylvanian – giving a bit of relevance to North Americans; while the last sentence (“Perhaps early oiling might prevent permanently hazardous aging.”) breaks up the Cenozoic into its epochs. And by replacing Recent (a term still found in some geology textbooks) with Holocene and Anthropocene, I was able to bring it up to the latest thoughts in geological nomenclature.

Jura Creux du Van, SwitzerlandJurassic rocks by birthdate and birth place

Jura’s Creux du Van, in Switzerland
Jurassic limestone by birth date and birth place

Wondering where outlandish names like Silurian and Devonian originate? Did they arrive fully formed in some geologist’s mind? Are they disturbingly difficult words in order to discourage youngsters from becoming geologists? I know that some eight-year-olds would argue the Jurassic Period was named for a park on an island along the Pacific coast of Central America, but they would be wrong, as children often are. Jurassic comes from Jura, the name of a lowly range of mountains (the highest is only 1,720 metres, or 5,640 ft). The Jura are mostly in Switzerland and France. Jurassic rocks can be found over much of the Earth, especially if one is willing to dig below the surface. Geologists felt they had to call such similar formations something, so they used the name Jurassic. This created the Jurassic Period, a time when the rocks of the Jura Mountains formed and dinosaurs roamed lush humid rainforests.

Similarly, the Permian is named for the ancient Russian Kingdom of Permia, Cretaceous for chalk (creta) found in the Paris Basin, Devonian for rocks exposed near Devon, England and Silurian for the Silures, a Celtic tribe from Wales, which is where the first Silurian rocks were identified. A common feature to all these names is that their representative rocks poke through the surface at places throughout Europe where geologists could see fossils, chip off samples of the chalks or limestones or marls, and borrow names originating from nearby localities.

Charles Lyell in 1840.

Charles Lyell in 1840.

When these rock groups were tagged, the world of geology largely belonged to English and Scottish gentlemen. Around 1840, Charles Lyell (eldest of ten children in a Scots family and a former lawyer) was turning the hobby of geology into a scientific pursuit, moving it from the armchairs of the leisure class and pushing it out into the field where rocks are actually found. Geology began as the activity of collecting  pretty stones and became a fundamental science with great economic interest. (Britain was becoming a coal-burning nation.) Geology also sought to understand how the Earth formed and evolved.

geological time scale 2Lyell recognized that rock formations stack one atop the other as they form in seas, with older layers below younger ones. He knew that the rocks exposed near the town of Devon (Devonian rocks) are younger than those in the Silurian from the south Wales highlands. But it was no easy task, putting all those discontinuous and sometimes tilted or overturned layers in order. It must have been somewhat like assembling a gigantic jig-saw puzzle – without a guiding picture. Charles Lyell, by the way, did not name the Jurassic, Devonian, or Silurian. However, he did name some key divisions. His charting of stratigraphy resulted in splitting the recent Tertiary period into three parts which he called Pliocene, Miocene, and Eocene, epochs which saw the rise of mammals as well as the rise of the Himalayas. Lyell also named the more expansive Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic periods. All six terms are still used daily by geologists worldwide. Lyell’s enthusiasm for national geological surveys helped establish stratigraphic databases and tied discoveries around the world together within the new common nomenclature.

If you are wondering how important it is to know stories about hump-backed mammals, it’s essential. Without knowing the names of periods and epochs, you can get lost wandering around the world of geology. Books intended for general audiences often jump right in with the big words. Without knowing Triassic from Permian, you won’t know which side of the Great Dying (the Permian-Triassic extinction event) the author is talking about. Worse, you might not know which epoch had giant camels roaming around Canada’s arctic circle.

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History of a Science Historian

I.B. Cohen, Harvard Press release

I.B. Cohen, Harvard Press release

It’s the birth date of the first American to receive a Ph.D. in science history. I’m surprised how recently he lived. I figured science historians have been around almost as long as science and history – but I. B. Cohen, born March 1, 1914, died in 2003.

His start at science history sputtered around unfocused for a few years. From Long Island, at age fifteen, Cohen entered New York University but dropped out after one semester. A brief attempt at veterinary medicine at an agricultural institute followed, then a stint at the Valley Forge Military Academy. He was 19 when he entered Harvard as a freshman in 1933 to concentrate in mathematics. He moved into Harvard’s newly formed History of Science and Learning program as a graduate student in 1937, getting his doctorate ten years later, in 1947. Long before his thesis was complete, he published his first book, Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1941), which grew out of his interest in Ben Franklin’s experiments.  Cohen’s second book (Some Early Tools of American Science) came three years after his doctorate. Then it was back to Franklin again, with Franklin and Newton in 1956.

I. Bernard Cohen’s amazing publication pace lasted his entire life. But he was also a teacher and, in his habitual checked sports jacket, was considered a somewhat flamboyant showman in the courses he taught. For two decades he also chaired Harvard’s History of Science department. Active in historical societies, Cohen received a lifetime achievement medal from the History of Science Society in 1974.

Although his 60 years of publishing focused largely on Franklin and Newton, his browsing interests ranged from the history of numbers to industrial age lab equipment. Not all his interests were locked in earlier centuries – he understood Einstein and relativity and, in fact, Cohen’s April 1955 interview with Albert Einstein was the last Einstein gave before his death that same month. While writing and teaching, Cohen also consulted to IBM on their history of computers project for a few years. That work eventually led to a popular book about computer pioneer Howard Aiken, released in 1999.

Cohen Rev in ScienceA year after retiring from Harvard in 1984, he released Revolution in Science, one of the two I.B. Cohen books which I have read and studied. My own history of science background is weak – I took a single (fascinating) undergraduate course while working on my geophysics degree. I have tried to fill some of the cracks in my education with books such as Cohen’s treatise. I strongly recommend Revolution in Science, one of the most lucid I’ve encountered from a science historian. Revolution in Science begins with a brief overview of Cohen’s position that scientific revolutions are more transformational than revolutionary, then works through major discoveries and their impacts, beginning with Copernicus and ending with plate tectonics. The book was written in 1985, so genomes, computers, the internet, and some other recent themes are absent. But this does not detract from the books message regarding the (sometimes slow) cultural transformations evinced by scientific “revolutions” and the simultaneous role played by society and culture upon scientific investigation.

Cohen's greatest contribution

Cohen’s greatest achievement

Cohen stayed busy to his final days. His manuscript of The Triumph of Numbers, a history of mathematics, numbers, and their impact on society, was sent off to his publisher one week before Cohen died at age 89. It was the last of 20 books. Many were intended for an educated general audience, but Cohen felt his greatest contribution was his modern English translation of Newton’s Principia, which he worked on for 14 years with Anne Whitman, a Latinist. Their 974-page book was the first English translation of Principia since 1729. Cohen published it in 1999, four years before his death at age 89. He felt that the Principia translation was his greatest achievement and believed it would be valuable long after his popular books and renowned utterances were forgotten. Lest we forget those utternaces, a few quotes from the famed science historian follow:

Although few expressions are more commonly used in writing about science than ‘science revolution,’ there is a continuing debate as to the propriety of applying the concept and term ‘revolution’ to scientific change. There is, furthermore, a wide difference of opinion as to what may constitute a revolution. And although almost all historians would agree that a genuine alteration of an exceptionally radical nature (the Scientific Revolution) occurred in the sciences at some time between the late fifteenth (or early sixteenth) century and the end of the seventeenth century, the question of exactly when this revolution occurred arouses as much scholarly disagreement as the cognate question of precisely what it was. (I.B. Cohen, 1980)

 All revolutionary advances in science may consist less of sudden and dramatic revelations than a series of transformations, of which the revolutionary significance may not be seen (except afterwards, by historians) until the last great step. In many cases the full potentiality and force of a most radical step in such a sequence of transformations may not even be manifest to its author. (I.B. Cohen, 1980)

Although Newton clearly sympathized with Galileo, he wrote virtually nothing critical of the Aristotelian tradition in philosophy, and the immense effort he devoted to theology was aimed not at challenging its epistemic authority, but largely at putting it on a firmer footing. Newton made no direct contributions to philosophy of a similar magnitude [to Galileo’s]. Indeed, from his extant writings alone Newton has more claim to being a major theologian than a major philosopher. (I.B. Cohen, 2002)

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