Goodbye from Vulcan

In the transporter room with Spock. I believe he has left the planet.

In the transporter room with Spock. I believe he has left the planet.

I think we were all inspired by Leonard Nimoy. With all the tributes for this iconic figure of our collective culture, there is little I can add. Except this one story few of you have ever heard.

Here in Alberta, we have a small town called Vulcan. It is was named by the Canadian Pacific Railway when they laid track across the prairie over a hundred years ago. The CPR selected the name because it was hot and dry on the prairie and because Vulcan is the patron spaghetti monster of blacksmiths, hence railroad people.

A decade ago, the town was looking for some kitsch to attach to their community, maybe a chance to draw a few tourists in from Calgary (an hour away) or even beyond. With the name Vulcan, someone thought of building a space station tourist centre and constructing an Enterprise model out along the highway. It worked.

vulcan enterprise

The Vulcan Enterprise

Ron and SpockIn 2010, at the age of 78, Leonard Nimoy came to the small rural town of wheat farmers and cattle ranchers. He led the annual Vulcan Days Parade. He was humble, gracious, and thoroughly enjoyed his visit. He seemed to mean it when he said to the other Vulcanites, “I am home.”

Unfortunately, I was not among the thousands who lined the street that day, but last year while I was in Vulcan, I dropped by to salute his statue and try to match my hand against the mold made of Nimoy gesturing the Hebrew letter shin, a symbolic blessing that became his Vulcan salute for long life and prosperity.

Vulcan means more than blacksmithery, of course. From the Roman god of that name we derive our word volcano. The Romans – at least the more religious of the lot – believed that Vulcan himself lived within Sicily’s Mount Etna. Throughout the Empire, the holiday Vulcanalia was a sports and festival day, though the more pious folks lit a candle of remembrance in the morning, then finished the day at the annual Vulcanalia bonfire where they tossed live fish onto the flames to honour their god.

spock handThe theme of heat, flame, fire, and vulcanization lives on. I am guessing that Star Trek borrowed the name when they needed a home planet for the stark logical character with pointy ears. So they created a place deviled by other long ears and they planted active volcanoes on the fabled landscape.

As for Leonard Nimoy, we will all miss him as we miss other symbols of our younger lives. We can not wish him to live long and prosper, but he had a good run of both in his lifetime.

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The Eternal Fires of Coal

Rustbelt America

Rustbelt America

Long after America’s rust belt buildings have eroded to grass-lands, it’s possible that a sign of her once great industrial power will linger. Coal bed fires, it seems, are nearly impossible to extinguish – and there are many underground fires along coal seams in the states. Australia’s Mount Wingen shows us a possible persistence record – Wingen, as Burning Mountain is called in the local aboriginal language, has been afire for almost 6,000 years. That fire likely began after a lightning strike. Or, perhaps it spontaneously combusted. Then the fire burned along a coal bed, following it like a wick through the ground.

In 1828, when a white Australian first saw the burning mountain, he thought he’d discovered a volcano. The natives knew better, they had been keeping an eye on the fire for centuries and occasionally used its heat to prepare dinners. In 1829, a geologist arrived and realized the smoke came from a burning vein of coal, about 30 metres (100 feet) below surface and moving southward at a rate of a meter or so each year. It would take 300,000 years to reach Sydney (which is 300 kilometres away) but that won’t happen – the coal seam isn’t that long. The fire site itself is fairly innocuous, releasing a bit of natural pollution (carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and a pinch of mercury and other naturally occurring elements). But this fire is not bothering too many people. In fact, it adds a couple of dollars to the New South Wales economy when tourists stop at the Wingen Craft Centre in nearby scenic Wingen to select a bit of Australiana art.

Chinese coal bed fire

Chinese coal seam fire (Credit Dr.Horst Rüter)

But coal seam fires are not just tourist hooks. Most are downright nasty. There are a lot of these fires, almost all of them due to human activities – mistakes made in or around coal mining operations. In addition to emitting poisonous gases and heavy metals, coal seam fires add an enormous amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Each year, Chinese coal seam fires consume between 20 and 200 million tonnes of coal. (I know that’s a broad range, but consider it a good estimate for industrial information coming out of China.) Those millions of tonnes of burnt coal add 1% to the anthropo carbon dioxide spewed into the air. That’s an ugly statistic.

Coal fires correlate well with industrialization. China, the biggest coal producer in the world (3.5 billion tonnes/year) has the most, though other countries are also internally combusting – especially India, Indonesia, Turkmenistan. The United States is the  second most prolific conflagrationary nation, with 180 known coal seam fires burning at the moment. They range from Utah and Colorado to Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Twenty-one states likely have underground coal fires going, but Pennsylvania has the most, with at least forty-five.

Centralia, Pennsylvania. An urban hotspot.

Smoke rising through fissures from coal seam fires beneath Centralia, Pennsylvania.
An urban hotspot
. (Credit: JohnDS)

Pennsylvania’s Centralia coal fire has pretty much consumed the entire town. Not much of the surface has ignited, but after sanitation workers lit a pile of garbage near a mine entrance in 1962, the coal mine caught fire and mining was abandoned. Economic depression and sulphuric smoke has a way of driving people away. At its peak, Centralia had over a thousand people. Now, with just ten inhabitants, Centralia is Pennsylvania’s least populated town. Not much to do there, except smoke frankfurters, I suppose. The municipality’s ten folks have a firetruck, making it the most fire-truck-per-capita-rich place in the world. With the major fires burning less than 50 metres below surface, you would think that the fire truck is essential. But apparently nothing ever burns on the surface. But as the coal burns below, sinkholes open up (some have collapsed streets) and deadly carbon monoxide rises through cracks and fissures, entering some of the 600 homes and buildings that have been abandoned.

There were a number of attempts to quench the 50-year-old Centralia fire. They all failed. A trench was dug deeply to bisect the coal seam, but the fire had unexpectedly anticipated the effort and had already burned past the trench. The digging may have actually helped fan the flames. In another attack, engineers poured gravel and dust into boreholes, hoping to snuff the fire. But the fire was too hot. It ignited the dust and the cavity expanded. Geologists figure there is not enough water in Pennsylvania to drown the fire (the fire is too hot and the rocks are too porous – any flood of water would just drain away). Another idea – untested – would have isolated the entire mine and coal seam by digging away all its edges. That would have cost over half a billion dollars. So, the current plan is to let it burn and hope it dies on its own. It will. Probably in less than 6,000 years.

Afterthought and lagniappe. I grew up in the rustbelt, not far from Youngstown, Ohio. Some of my uncles (WWII vets) toiled at the coal-fired furnaces there. Here is Bruce Springsteen, paying tribute to my folks:

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Heresy without Redemption

BrunoToday’s date, February 17, coincides with the day they killed Giordano Bruno. For years, he had been imprisoned for blasphemy, for practising magic, and for heresy.  Execution was recommended, though he could have had a less tortuous death had he confessed to those charges. “I neither ought to recant, nor will I,” Bruno said.(1)  So on this February day in 1600, they tortured the former priest, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer. Iron spikes were driven through his jaw, tongue, and palate. Bruno was pulled through the streets by a hooded, chanting group known as the Company of Mercy and Pity. He was stripped of his clothes, tied to a stake, and burned to death.

Born Filippo Bruno, he adopted the name Giordano when he entered the Dominican Order at a monastery in Naples, thirty kilometres from his family’s village near Italy’s western coast. Bruno was 17 when he began his studies in theology and metaphysics, and he became an ordained priest at 24. He was remarkably intelligent and gained considerable fame for his tricks of memory. His mnemonic gymnastics were rewarded with an audience before the pope where he performed well and ingratiated himself with the pontiff.

ark noahHis early friendship with Pius V wasn’t enough to prevent Bruno’s eventual  execution by the Church, accused of heresy for promoting the notion that Christ was different and separate from God, thus questioning the doctrinal definition of the Trinity. His main crime, however, was his incessant free-thinking independence. Even during his years at the monastery, Bruno committed a host of insubordinate transgressions – from reading the banned works of Erasmus (he kept a copy hidden beside the toilet) to removing images of saints from his monastic cell. At the monastery, Bruno wrote an allegory he called Ark of Noah in which donkeys, representing monks, brayed their displeasure at their seating assignment on the ark. It was meant to symbolize the pettiness and lack of serious aspirations among his brother friars. (Much later, at his inquisition, Bruno said the then current Pope Pius V had rather liked the tale.)  After eleven years as a monk in Naples, Bruno fled when warned charges of heresy were being drafted against him.

renaissance peasantBruno dressed as a peasant rather than a monk when he left Naples, travelled to Rome, then Genoa and Turin. He stayed in Venice long enough to publish a book on the innocuous subject of memory, written simply to earn a bit of money. But by age 30, he felt Italy was unsafe, so he moved north. Over the next 14 years, Bruno lived in Geneva, Paris, Prague, London, and Frankfurt.

He tried his hand as a playwright in Paris, creating The Candlemaker, a comic satire, which exposed prevailing superstitions. But mostly he wrote philosophical tracts and made studies on the nature of memory. King Henry III was a patron, especially appreciating Bruno’s lectures on tricks of memory. This led to Bruno’s 1582 book, The Art of Memory, a somewhat scholarly treatise. It was published in Paris with the king’s encouragement. Through court connections, Bruno lived in London for two years, staying at the home of the French ambassador. Renowned  as a  philosopher of nature, he was invited to lecture at Oxford, but his defense of Copernicus and his opposition to Aristotelian philosophy kept him from receiving the teaching post he anticipated. (2) But perhaps it was more than his vision of science – Bruno’s religious ruminations were unpalatable everywhere in Europe, even in relatively liberal England.

For Bruno, our planet was one of many worlds and doomed to eventually disappear.  In De Immenso, Bruno wrote: “The earth, which is of the same species as the moon, is of creatable and destructible substance, therefore the worlds are able to be created and destroyed, and it is not possible that they have been eternal, since they are alterable and consisting of changing parts.”(3)  Bruno thought that our planet had formed out of hot mass, then cooled and shrunk according to laws that act the same everywhere in the universe. According to Bruno, the mountains formed as the Earth’s surface cooled. This concept of a cooling, contracting Earth would return again and again among geologists over the next three centuries. It was an important insight into the understanding of the evolution of the world. Bruno turned out to be wrong – it’s plate tectonics, not a shrinking, cooling crust that makes mountains, but the idea represented good 16th century logic.

While in London, in 1584, Bruno published On the Infinite Universe. This was likely the first book to describe an endless universe, with innumerable worlds populated by intelligent beings. The stars are like our sun, around each revolved a planet like our own. Bruno, incorporating his philosophical description of existence into his concept of the universe, claimed all matter has intelligence – every part of the universe, every rock, drop of water, plant, and animal, has a soul or is part of an all-encompassing soul. By publishing this philosophy, he committed the heresy of pantheism.

Without the Oxford appointment in England, he returned to Paris, but it had swung against him and his liberal interpretation of religion, so Bruno travelled to Germany where he taught for two years. Then Prague. He was running out of places and people to trust. But during all his wandering, Bruno continued to writeTheses on Magic; Composition of Images and Ideas; A General Account of Bonding. These were largely concerned with thought processes and psychology – his book on bonding, for example, related to the interconnectedness (the bonds) of society. Then he returned to Italy, to die.

witchtortureThe execution of Bruno, on February 17, 1600, was but one example of hundreds of attempts by the church to coerce scientific and philosophical harmony with theological dogma. Historian Andrea Del Col estimates that between 50,000 and 75,000 cases were judged by the Inquisition in Italy alone, resulting in 1250 death sentences.(4) This was in addition to hundreds of thousands of accusations of witchcraft where children and women were the principal victims.(5) Undoubtedly,  many allegations arose from civil disputes and grudges, but the stifling atmosphere of rigid church-sanctioned scientific doctrine prevented much genuine unbiased inquiry into the nature of the universe. The martyrdom of Giordano Bruno, immolated at age 51, set an example which stifled free-thinking scientists and philosophers for generations. Galileo, forced to utter words of obedience to the church and recant his belief in the motion of the Earth and planets around the Sun, was fully aware of Bruno’s fate.  In fact, Robert Bellarmine – the chief inquisitor who had directed the torture of Bruno 16 years earlier – was now Cardinal Bellarmine and had become the pope’s intellectual adviser. The cardinal spoke with Galileo, offering leniency in exchange for obedience.

Giordano Bruno envisioned a universe far larger than the Aristotle model. Bruno suggested the sun was a mere star – and the universe contained an infinite number of stars and an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings. For this, and other unorthodox views, the Roman Inquisition found him guilty of heresy and ultimately murdered him in a disturbingly cruel way.  The death of the first martyr for modern science served its purpose. Free-thinking and inquiry were stifled. But unlike Bruno, they were not burned to ashes.

Most of the preceding is an excerpt from The Mountain Mystery.
(1)  Mercati (1943). Il sommario del processo di Giordano Bruno, con appendice di documenti sull’eresia e l’inquisizione a Modena nel secolo XVI.
(2) In 1583, when Bruno lectured at Oxford, the school had on its statutes that “Bachelors and Masters who did not follow Aristotle faithfully were liable to a fine of five shillings for every point of divergence.” Bruno was not in any way a follower of Aristotle.
(3) Bruno, Giordano (1591). De Immenso Book IV, x, pp 56-57. Described by Paterson in the 1973 “Giordano Bruno’s View on the Earth without a Moon,” Pensee Vol. 3.
(4) Del Col, Andrea (2010). L’Inquisizione in Italia. Oscar Mondadori, Milan. pp 779-780.
(5)  Sagan, Carl and Ann Druyan (1997). Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Ballantine Books.


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Geology President’s Day

Americans get a day off today. It’s an occasion to remember the American presidents, especially Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, two of the February-birthday presidents. (The other two were William Harrison and Ronald Reagan.) On this day, Washington, Lincoln, and the other 41 people (mostly men) who were president of the USA are remembered by saluting flags and by sleeping in late.

JeffersonMy favourite president was Thomas Jefferson. Not just because he was an agnostic and a beekeeper. But rather, because when he was being sworn in (as Adam’s vice president), Jefferson carried fossils in his pocket. Seems he knew an eminent geologist would be at the little get-together (the Inaugural Ball) planned for later that evening. (*) I don’t know what bone bits  were in his pocket, possibly they were pieces from a wooly mammoth.

Wooly mammoths were special friends of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson heard about gigantic elephant bones discovered in Kentucky. While president, he hired George Rogers Clark to go to Boone County to collect the largest of those bones for examination at the White House. Meanwhile, Jefferson sent Clark’s brother and Meriwether Lewis to explore the rest of the continent and catalogue all the animals found along the way. Looking for a living specimen of a giant elephant was not Jefferson’s main motivation in commissioning the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but Jefferson knew it would be grand to drag an elephant back east, and perhaps ship it off to Europe to showcase the mammoth animals of the Americas.

Wooly mammoth

Wooly mammoth. (Photo Credit)

Fossilized elephant bones – but no live samples – were sent east from Big Bone Lick, Kentucky. Jefferson and the other scientists who examined the huge bones quickly realized these differed somewhat from the remains of modern elephants. They were more like the mastodon fossils recently dis- covered in Siberia. Meanwhile, George Cuvier, in France, identified similar specimens in a private European fossil collection. Cuvier and the Americans recognized their respective animals as the same creature, now extinct. The theory of extinction led to speculation that dramatic changes had been occurring on a rather long-lived planet. Although the idea of extinction was contrary to contemporary interpretations of biblical scripture, in 1803, the president of the United States held the proof of mastodon extinction in his own hands.

Before leaving you to go off and celebrate this important American holiday, one more geology-thing to know about Thomas Jefferson. In 1807, the president established the country’s first scientific agency, the United States Coast Survey. A few decades later, it split into the United States Geological Survey and the National Geodetic Survey. These have grown and morphed into groups that keep an eye on the Earth. Among other things, they monitor earthquakes, operate streamflow gauges, measure the planet’s magnetic field, chart the country’s resources, provide location coordinates used in map making, and archive some of the best wooly mammoth fossils. Perhaps some of those fossils spent time in the president’s pocket.

(*)  Halpern, Joel Martin (1951). “Thomas Jefferson and the Geological Sciences,”  Rocks and Minerals, Nov-Dec 1951, p 601.

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Charles Darwin, the Geologist

Ridiculing Darwin, Hornet magazine 1871

Darwin as imagined by Hornet magazine 1871

It’s his birthday. It seems Charles Darwin’s legacy is experiencing a renaissance. Sure, some 60% of Americans vilify the man and hope he is roasting in hell. Or undergoing reincarnation as a toad, or is still awaiting release from purgatory. I guess that the eternal damnable punishment for writing a pretty good book depends on one’s own vision of a just and loving supreme being. Darwin has somehow caught the heat and hate of a lot of people who have trouble with scientific inquiry – and where such inquiry may lead.

Nevertheless, few scientists were as meticulous, thoughtful, and cautious as Charles Darwin. Though we celebrate his ideas of natural selection, survival of the fittest, and the origin of species, the idea that biology continually sorts and rearranges itself evolved slowly in the years before Darwin. The notion of evolution became evident to other natural philosophers in the early 1800s. Before Darwin boarded the Beagle in 1831, he had already been exposed to the uniformitarian ideas of Lyell, Lamarckian evolution, and perhaps the works of Townsend, Wells, Matthew, and Adams – proponents of various schemes of natural selection, the effects of tooth and claw, and the malleability of species.

Although Origin of Species appeared 156 years ago, one could argue that the gospel of evolution is actually over 200 years old. Charles Darwin was the last of the first great apostles. He was expected to become a rural pastor, but like the man from Tarsus, he experienced unexpected insight and then wrote letters and books that became part of the greatest story ever told. But the analogy ends there. The theory of evolution is not a religion of inflexible dogma; it is an element of science – a  restless collection of ever-changing observations and thoughtful interpretations. It is fraught with errors and flaws. What we believe to be true about science may be an illusion. Scientists accept this. They relish it, actually. The greatest joy and biggest impact any scientist may achieve comes in disproving something that everyone else holds dear. New observations sometimes markedly transform the truths revealed by earlier generations of scientists. We’ve seen this in plate tectonics, germ theory,  subatomic physics, climate science, public health, and cosmology. We’ve seen corrections to theories again and again.

young Darwin

Portrait of 31-year-old Charles Darwin
by George Richmond in 1840

Amazingly, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as presented in his book  On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (That’s the full title.) has changed little in 150 years. Subsequent discoveries have reinforced Darwin’s hypothesis. For example, Darwin wrote Origins almost 50 years before Mendel’s ideas of particulate inheritance were employed by de Vries and Correns. Mutations to alleles, caused by environmental damage from radiation and chemicals, was not imagined by anyone in Darwin’s day. Nor were genes and chromosomes, the helix of codes, DNA sequencing, recombination, RNA transfer, and instructions for protein production controlled by the order of just four chemical bases abbreviated as A, C, G, and T. Yet all of these new discoveries continually validate the basic theories that Darwin published in 1859. Any scientist who could prove Darwin’s take on evolution is fundamentally wrong will be hailed as the greatest scientist since Darwin. But so far, evidence just keeps piling up to support Darwin’s original idea.

Pretty good work for a Victorian-era geologist. Darwin was first noted as an accomplished rocks guy – biology came later. It might be more fair to describe him as a natural philosopher, as generalists were called in his day. He fell in love with geology on the third week of his 5-year voyage aboard the Beagle. Here is what he said about the Cape Verde islands when he first saw them:

The geology of St. Iago is very striking yet simple: a stream of lava formerly flowed over the bed of the sea, formed of triturated recent shells and corals, which it baked into a hard white rock. Since then the whole island has been upheaved. But the  line of white rock revealed to me a new and important fact, namely that there had been afterwards subsidence round the craters, which had since been in action, and had poured forth lava. It then first dawned on me that I might write a book on the geology of the countries visited, and this made me thrill with delight.
– Darwin’s Autobiography, p. 81.

Darwin's drawing of a Pacific atoll, 1842

Darwin’s drawing of a Pacific atoll, 1842

Darwin wrote that geology book, and several others. His major study on the Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842) upset existing coral theory. Darwin believed that since coral can’t grow in deep water, reefs must grow on slowly subsiding rocks. Coral continues to grow as the mountain supporting it sinks, leaving a fringing barrier reef and eventually an atoll. As a result, he said, the coral limestone could become miles thick, building on itself at the pace that the supporting mountain subsides. For over a century, there was debate about his theory. Darwin’s ideas was verified in 1951 when US geologists, checking out islands for atomic hydrogen bomb tests, drilled two holes in the Enewetak Atoll test site in the Pacific. They drilled through a kilometre of old coral and then reached a mountain of volcanic rock. The kilometre of old coral had originated in shallow water, demonstrating the subsidence of the volcanic mountain and continual growth of coral upon coral –  proving Darwin was right.

Closer to his home in England, Darwin became a proponent of the unpopular idea that the Earth is very, very old. His study of the geology of the Weald Mountains resulted in his estimate that the range was at least 300 million years old. At the time, Lord Kelvin used the physics of thermodynamics to insist the Earth could not be more than 20 million years in age. Darwin was adamant – he had measured the rate of erosion of the Weald highlands and it would take 300 million years to reduce them to their present height. For this, and his many other geological studies, Darwin was awarded the Geological Society of London’s Wollaston Medal, Britain’s highest recognition for a geologist.

There is much more to say about Darwin and geology. For that, I have a lagniappe for you. Here is a Darwin’s Day gift, of sorts. What follows is pilfered directly from my book, The Mountain Mystery. It is a tale that recounts Charles Darwin’s gentlemanly skirmish with America’s greatest geologist of the time, James Dana. And it includes interesting correspondence written by Darwin which you have probably never seen before. And it traces the first stages of the reluctant acceptance of Darwin’s theory in America.

James Dana, at age 71

James Dana, at age 71

Here we go:  James Dana was head of geology at Yale for 42 years. He married his Yale chemistry professor’s daughter, Henrietta Silliman. Dana was a respected gentleman who played piano at church, led Bible studies, and prayed over meals with his family. In his early 40s, he wrote Science and the Bible which attempted to reconcile geology with religion. But he kept his religious sentiments peripheral to his science. Unlike most of the earlier geologists, he didn’t try to distort his geological discoveries to match his spiritual beliefs. Dana worked in the opposite direction – he found biblical passages that confirmed what science was telling him. He fully accepted the Bible as God’s revelation, “But there are also revelations below the surface, open to those who will earnestly look for them.” (1)

There was one exception to Dana’s practice of finding biblical scriptures to justify scientific discoveries. He refused to reconcile evolution with his faith, even though he maintained a cordial correspondence with Charles Darwin. And Darwin with Dana. However, it seems neither one found it necessary to read the other’s books before criticizing them. You can see how this unfolded with the following exchange of letters in 1863. First, we find Dana writing to Darwin:

“The arrival of your photograph has given me great pleasure, and I thank you warmly for it. I value it all the more that it was made by your son. He must be a proficient in the photographic art, for I have never seen a finer black tint on such a picture.

“I hope that ere this you have the copy of Geology (and without any charge of expense, as this was my intention). I have still to report your book [The Origin of Species] unread; for my head has all it can now do in my college duties. I have thought that I ought to state to you the ground for my assertion that geology has not afforded facts that sustain the view that the system of life has evolved through a method of development from species to species. . .” (2)

In his letter, Dana then proceeds to list some basic errors in Darwin’s logic. Dana finds there are “missing links” between many species (though he readily adds that he knows that not all the world’s fossils have been discovered). Some species, according to Dana’s understanding of Darwin, developed from “higher  groups of species instead of  the lower,” implying a reverse evolution that would suggest Darwin’s basic theory was wrong. And some species seemed to go extinct in the rock record, but then somehow “started again as new species.” All of these criticisms from America’s greatest geologist were valid at the time. They were all subsequently resolved when the fossil record became more complete.

Darwin wrote back to his colleague:

“I received a few days ago your book and your kind letter. I am heartily sorry that your head is not yet strong, and whatever you do, do not again overwork yourself. Your book [Manual of Geology] is a monument of labour, though I have as yet only just turned over the pages.” (3)

It is interesting that two of the greatest geologists of the century couldn’t find time to read each other’s most important works. Darwin goes on:

“With respect to the change of species, I fully admit your objections are perfectly valid. I have noticed them. . .  Nevertheless I grow yearly more convinced of the general (with much incidental error) truth of my views. . . As my book has been lately somewhat attended to, perhaps it would have been better if, when you condemned all such views [regarding evolution], you had stated that you had not been able yet to read it.” (4)

Prehistoric Man, from Dana's Manual of Geology

Prehistoric Man, from Dana’s Manual of Geology

Darwin’s irritation with his friend at last surfaced. Dana had been publicly attacking Darwin for months without actually reading On the Origin of Species. It would take years, but incredibly, the book which sat unopened on Dana’s shelf was eventually read, appreciated, and accepted as fact by North America’s foremost geologist. In Dana’s 1896 edition of Manual of Geology, Dana completed his long treatise on geology with an unequivocal acceptance of Charles Darwin’s science – with one notable exception. In his final textbook, James Dana virtually gushed with admiration for the theory of natural selection and he admited that in the thirty years between his first rejection and his whole-hearted acceptance, science had found the missing fossils that had caused him concern. He listed the evidence: progress from aquatic to terrestrial life; progress from simple to more specialized; modern embryos, with “part of the early life of the globe” (5) represented in their development; “unity in the system of life” regarding how creatures are organically related (all are carbon-based life-forms); and, the increasing levels of cephalization, or brain complexity, as a function of time.

Dana summarized, “According to the principle of natural selection, an animal or plant that varies in a manner profitable to itself will have, thereby, a better chance of surviving, and of contributing its qualities and progressive tendency to the race, while others, not so favoured, or varying disadvantageously, disappear.” Dana conceded that the origin of the variations was unknown, but expected science to discover this, too. His book was published in 1896, the same year as the discovery of radiation, a key environmental cause now known to contribute to genetic variation.  In his final book, Dana backed up his support for Darwin’s discoveries with dozens of specific examples. Years ahead of evolutionary biologists, Dana even correctly speculated that dinosaurs had evolved into birds. But James Dana never accepted that humans had evolved from earlier creatures.

Dana concluded his magnificent Manual of Geology with a lengthy discussion of Man’s pinnacle position in the biological order of life on Earth. “Man’s origin has thus far no sufficient explanation from science. His close relations in structure to the Man-Apes are unquestionable. They have the same number of bones with two exceptions, and the bones are the same kind and structure. The muscles are mostly the same. Both carry their young in their arms.” (6) And yet, James Dana, the piano-player at the church where he was a leader, cautioned against carrying the similarities too far, inviting the reader to crawl around on all fours like a great ape and see that humans don’t have the massive neck muscles required to keep the head level. He ended with “. . .the intervention of a Power above Nature was at the basis of Man’s development. Nature exists through the will and ever-lasting power of the Divine Being, and all its great truths, its beauties, its harmonies, are manifestations of His wisdom and power.” (7)

Over a lifetime of research, teaching, and writing, Dana had published two million words in his scientific books and papers. His influence was phenomenal not just in the role evolution plays – or does not play – in man’s ascent, but also in his approach to science. He was able to reverse his earlier instincts and accept most of the idea of evolution when the mass of evidence was finally clear. And, in his own mind at least, he was able to reconcile two dichotomous forms of revelation – stones from the Earth and messages from God.

In the end, James Dana was very nearly a Darwinian evolutionist. He stopped short of fully endorsing all aspects of evolution, namely man’s ascent from earlier forms, but his scientific mind could not reject the fundamental elements of life’s evolving nature. Charles Darwin’s patience and polite reception of his erstwhile adversary had everything to do with James Dana’s awakening and the subsequent arrival of evolutionary theory in America.

(1)  Dana, James Dwight (1856). Science and the Bible, p 81. Warren F. Draper, Andover.
(2)  Dana, James Dwight (1863). Dana’s letter to Darwin, from New Haven, Connecticut, February 5, 1863.
(3) Darwin, Charles (1862). Darwin’s letter to Dana, from Bromley, Kent, February 20, 1863
(4) Ibid.
(5) Dana, James Dwight (1896). Manual of Geology, pp 1028-1035.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ibid.

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World’s Biggest Fracking Quake?

“Did Alberta Just Break a Fracking Earthquake World Record?” This is the headline in The Tyee, an online independent magazine focused on western Canada, and it seems the paper thinks so. The Tyee’s coverage of a big fracking earthquake in northern Alberta is mostly accurate, although a larger quake was reported in Oklahoma in September 2014. The Canadian shake measured 4.4 while the Sooner State’s quake was 4.5. An even larger one is alleged and implicated in an injury lawsuit in Oklahoma. I’ll have more about that in a moment.

Readers of this blog are aware of fracking. Hydraulic fracturing forces reluctant oil and gas out of the ground. The technology was invented half a century ago (1947, actually) but grew out of much earlier fracturing schemes, dating back to at least 1865 when nitroglycerin torpedoes were dropped into shallow Pennsylvania wells to “loosen up” the rocks, encouraging oil to flow. Recently a refined system of hydraulic fracturing became widespread.  The big leap in modern fracking is that it is not limited to enhancing existing conventional wells. Instead, it is used to extract petroleum from previously worthless shale. This is a really big deal.

Marcellus Shale - Photo credit: PD by Lvklook

Previously worthless Marcellus Shale:   Photo credit to Lvklook

Shale is black sedimentary rock that forms in slowly moving or stationary water, in lakes, lagoons, river deltas, sedimentary basins or the deep quiet water sometimes edging continents. Fine particles – mostly muddy clay with specks of quartz – remain suspended in water long after sand and gravel have deposited. Eventually they also sink, compact, and solidify. This makes shale. Bits of organic material are often mixed in with the mud. Those bits of former life then decay, generating oil and natural gas. In the past, oil rigs drilled through the shale, scorning it as an expensive delay; hydrocarbons were too solidly locked within the impermeable shale. All that changed around 2008 when oil patch tricks enabled ways of fracturing the shale and releasing its oil and gas. At the right price and with the right technology, the USA may recover 5 trillion barrels of shale oil. That’s enough to outlast the human species.

Instead of drilling through the shale, a well’s bit is directed to snake inside the shale layer. Pressurized water (along with caustic chemicals) are shot through the pipes and blasted into the previously impermeable shale, fracturing it and connecting all the morsels of hydrocarbon so they can be pumped to the surface. Heat, pressure, caustic chemicals, morsels of hydrocarbons – what’s not to like?

Some day, the United States may again be independent of imported fuel. If petroleum production from shale (and conventional and offshore sources) continues as it has in the past, America will eventually be liberated of its dependency on the whims of tin-pot dictators and the various caliphs feeding the American oil habit. It would be better if the country would simply use less of the stuff, but since that doesn’t look likely, home-grown fuel is the next best option. This has huge global political implications. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times evinced,  human rights are at stake.

Thomas Friedman’s First Law of Petropolitics limned that as the price of oil increases, so does repression in Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia. It was, in part, the lofty price of oil that encouraged Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine. It is oil wealth that funds the religious fervor and terror that is ISIS. Oleaginous money in non-democratic states placates powerless citizens while their leaders strut about in military exercises and bolster domestic secret police, tyranny, oppression, and ethnic and religious extremism. On the other hand, weaker oil prices weakens the oppressors. Friedman points out that rogue nations may attempt brutal misbehaviour without oil wealth, but the pressure on them to reform is greater when they are confronted by soft oil prices. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up,says Friedman.  Brutality is linked to the price of oil. When an energy hog like the USA imports monstrous quantities of petroleum, the price of oil goes up.

Increased energy production in North American has a positive impact on liberty, freedom, and democratic stability around the world, simply by lowering the price of oil. Meanwhile, domestic production leads to domestic jobs. American and Canadian oil workers buy local tofu (produced from North American soy beans) and send their daughters to piano lessons taught by retired school teachers in their home towns. The money stays home – those petrodollars line the pockets of neither oligarch nor theocrat.  Human rights and domestic prosperity. What’s not to like?

The downside is environmental, of course. Even Alberta’s conservative premier, Jim Prentice, readily acknowledges that production of oil and gas – things that make western Canada wealthy – contributes to global warming. Here, verbatim, is part of a February 1, 2015, nationally televised interview between CBC’s lead anchor, Peter Mansbridge, and Alberta’s Jim Prentice, head of the Conservative Party:

“You believe that climate change is caused, in some part, by human use of fossil fuels?” asked the TV newsman.
“Correct, anthropogenic carbon,” said the Alberta premier.
“You don’t challenge that?” The news anchor pushed.
“I don’t challenge that. I never have,” said Premier Prentice.

The leader of Alberta agrees that consumption of Albertan, Texan, Saudi, and Russian oil contributes to global warming. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, another conservative, has demurringly concurred on various occasions. Global warming, pollution, earthquakes. We have already seen that oil riches correlate disturbingly to terrorism in undemocratic regimes.  Yet, we need oil. Perhaps it’s the unbridled use of the stuff that’s causing the trouble. As George W Bush famously professed, the problem is oil addiction.

rolling coal

Mind if I smoke?

Rather than shutting down North American production while continuing to consume oil at an increasing level, efforts should be directed at reducing consumption and encouraging alternative sources of energy. Legislation can help diminish the environmental impact of production and consumption. The goal is not to reverse progress or impoverish people but instead to enforce clean operating practices at oil projects – as well as at the tail pipes of pickup trucks. As much as I hate to admit it, that requires government involvement.

Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the Commons: The Community Pasture (Source: UN Food and Agriculture Organisation)

When it comes to the community pasture, people and business seldom do the right thing without prompting. Invariably, sheep gnaw the grass to the ground. Although it might seem anti-business to strictly prescribe ethical practices, progressive companies welcome such regulation. In a non-corrupt regime, laws are equally enforced. Corporations with a conscience (and there are many) appreciate a level playing field: it requires their competitors to clean up spills, messes, and exhaust in the same way that a good corporate citizen would.

Nixon, pointing out the advantages of an Evironmental Protection Agency.

Nixon, pointing out the advantages of an Environmental Protection Agency.

Unfortunately, appropriate regulation is trailing the booming fracking business. During the Bush administration, public sentiment encouraged removing the teeth from environmental protection policies. (Surprisingly, it was Republican President Richard Nixon who established an environmental protection agency to clean up the air and water. The EPA did an amazing job. Smog disappeared over L.A. Chemical sewers such as the Monongahela could be fished and swam again, just as in pioneer days.)  Today, however, the EPA and its sister agencies are weak. Public protection fell to the private-sector, using the mechanism of lawsuits.  In other words, companies may make a mess, but if someone is injured or bothered, legal claims are filed. There was some merit to this policy – until recent legislation put ceilings on settlements. With limits to payouts for injuries and punitive damages, the fangs were removed from this new, alternative system of self-regulation. A slap on the wrists does not reform a serial polluter, whether that slap comes from a fine when a law was violated or from proscriptively reduced court settlements.

As a result, the whole field of environmental safeguards in hydraulic fracturing is badly fractured. Government regulations are often weak or nonexistent. Inspectors are sometimes powerless. Legal actions are beginning to be filed against companies alleged to cause injury or damage. You can read one such statement of claim, the first I’ve seen, filed August 3, 2014, in District Court in Oklahoma. Here is some of that claim, and it does not appear captious nor does is seem splenetic:

On or about November 5, 2011, Ms Ladra was at home watching television in her living room with her family. Suddenly, her home began to shake causing rock facing on the fireplace and chimney to fall down and into the living room. Some of the falling rocks struck Ms. Ladra in her lap and onto her legs, and caused her significant injury. She was rushed to an emergency room and was immediately treated for her injuries…

…injection wells have caused and contributed to numerous earthquakes occurring in Oklahoma, and have specifically caused the damages sustained by Ms. Ladra…

The 5.0, 5.7. and 5.0 Prague [Oklahoma] earthquakes destroyed many homes, damaged many buildings, and injured many people. These earthquakes buckled pavement on the streets and highways…

Ms Ladra is seeking at least $75,000 in compensation plus punitive damages. The suit is brief, just 7 pages, and is worth reading. It succinctly outlines the allegations against the resource companies involved and their injection wells. It cites that the US Geological Survey has issued a statistical analysis showing the recent increase in Oklahoma’s earthquakes is not the result of natural seismic changes, but rather is most likely caused by wastewater injection wells. The lawsuit states that the USGS has warned that the rise in seismic activity “has significantly raised the chance of a damaging magnitude 5.5 earthquake or greater in the state [Oklahoma].”  The statement of claim also points out that  “So far this year, Oklahoma has had more than twice the number of earthquakes as California, making it the most seismically active state in the continental United States.”

The lawsuit brought by Ms Ladra in Lincoln County District Court was dismissed by the local judge. He cited lack of jurisdiction. What he probably meant was that the jurisdiction is much bigger than a single county in east central Oklahoma. The state’s Supreme Court is taking the case instead. This obviously points to the significance of the issue for the entire state, and indeed, the country.

Readers of this blog may recall the piece I assembled last year about the increase in seismic activity in Oklahoma. It recounted the USGS warnings that the rumbles were unusual, were man-made, and would continue. The chart below says more than anything I could write about the increase in Oklahoma earthquakes. The numbers began to jump in 2009, just as fracking in the state began to expand. Until then, only one or two earthquakes over 3.0 Magnitude occurred in the state. This chart’s stats end in May 2014, but the earthquakes continued and the year ended with over 400.

Oklahoma quake graphI am not one to put undue reliance on correlations. But both the Oklahoma and US Geological Surveys have been pinpointing the sources of these earthquakes – most are shallow and can be traced by triangulation to injection wells. Cracked concrete in basements, pictures knocked from walls, and fireplaces landing atop ladies are not necessarily the activities of man-made earthquakes, however few natural earthquakes misbehave like this in Oklahoma. The earthquakes in question could conceivably be due to God’s malevolence and not man’s ignorance, but most likely they are fracking disasters. It will be left to the judicious wisdom of a jury to determine whether specific companies should be held accountable.

Meanwhile, in a state with 3,200 active injection wells that smashed over a billion barrels of water into subsurface fractures, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission directed that one such injection well be shut down Tuesday, due to continuing earthquakes. This is only the second of the 3,200 Oklahoma wells to be stopped, but it does indicate awakening concern for quakes caused by these injectors.

Here in Alberta – a place where the world’s largest fracking earthquake did not occur – oil companies and government agencies are expanding networks of seismic monitors so they can precisely locate the sources of the increased earthquake activity. Others are working on a mechanical remedy, some system or technique that will allow fracking to continue without damage to homes and home dwellers. While they are at it, they might as well find ways to mitigate the damage done when these small earthquakes rupture subsurface seals and allow caustic injection fluids to leak into fresh-water aquifers.

As I tried to show earlier, North America needs to produce its own fuel, not import the stuff from corrupt undemocratic regimes a hemisphere away. Fracking will continue, but rather than accept insouciance and parsimonious behaviour from the developers, fracking will need to continue with greater oversight. The real battle for this will be courtrooms in the USA. It may be true that Alberta almost tied Oklahoma in producing the largest fracking earthquake, but my instinct tells me that the hardy Americans will continue to hold the trophy for the noisiest cracking of rock and shaking of soil.

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The Geoscientists’ Blind Spot


The Grumpy Geophysicist‘s blog has an insightful piece today. He relates the slow acceptance of continental drift (later morphed into plate tectonics) to an inherent nature in the way humans look at new ideas. It’s a good read…

Originally posted on The Grumpy Geophysicist:

One advantage of looking back at the history of earth science is to recognize patterns that suggest certain biases.

Consider, for instance, continental drift.  Now this is often portrayed as Wegener right, others stupid dunderheads, but obviously that is too simple. First off, Wegener had a mix of good and bad observations.  Aside from fitting continents (a somewhat old parlor game by then), he noted common terrestrial species, ice deposits far from the pole, and the fundamental division between continental crust and oceanic crust.  But he also put a lot of weight on his own grossly inaccurate geodetic surveys and so concluded that Pleistocene deposits on either side of the Atlantic predated the separation of the continents.  But the big objection to continental drift was simply: how would it occur?

Here’s the funny thing: this is common to any number of ideas based off of observation in earth science.  If…

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