Going on Four (Billion)

A paper published last week in Nature, claims that life began at 3.7 (billion years ago). This is the latest in a rather faltering progression of our best guesses of the date life started on Earth. Biblical literalists are still OK with something close to Irish Archbishop James Ussher’s calculation of 6,000 years, which he famously produced around 1650. Creation occurred shortly after dinner on October 22, 4004 BCE.  Life began a day or two later.

Bishop Ussher

Bishop Ussher

It occurred to Bishop Ussher and his contemporaries that God intended to end the world on a mathematically appropriate date, likely 6,000 years after starting his experiment. Then there would be 1,000 years of struggle or bliss or something, and the world would end, 7,000 years after it began. This was especially tidy and convincing as there are 7 days in the week, said Biblical scholars of the time.

Other theologians agreed in general, but squabbled about the exact date of Creation. However, enlightened scientists of geology saw signs of an older Earth. Observations of erosion and fossils suggested hundreds of thousands of years. And thus began a faith vs science debate that continues today.

Enter the geologists

James Hutton

James Hutton, without vestige.

Among geologists, Earth-age quickly receded into depths unfathomable. Or, to quote Scottish geologist/physician/farmer James Hutton (c. 1800), the Earth is “without vestige of a beginning, without prospect of an end.” Hutton is credited with the notion of ‘deep time’ – at least in western culture:  in Meso-America and parts of Asia, the concept of old is very, very old. But, for the western tradition, Hutton opened the way for millions – rather than thousands – of years of Earth history.

Charles Darwin was one of the first to put a number on the very old. A meticulous geologist before he was renowned as a naturalist, Darwin calculated the age of Earth as older than 300 million years. This number came from Darwin’s detailed study of the erosion rate of England’s Weald Mountains. Erosion, he said, had been at work for 300 million years, so the Earth was at least that age.

By 1910, Arthur Holmes, another English  geologist, used radioactive decay in rock samples to surmise that uranium had been transforming into lead for a billion years. Physicists took over the calculations, stretching Earth’s history ever further into the vestige of time, finally surmising that the Earth has been a planet for 4 billion, 543 million years. But what of life itself? We can presume that life on Earth is younger than the Earth itself.  Younger than 4,543,000,000 years.

The stroms have it

fossil stromsMost of the evidence of Earth’s oldest life has focused on metamorphosed sedimentary structures built by sea creatures about 3.5 billion years ago. Those structures are Stromatolites, matted humps of sediment trapped in layers by colonies of cyanobacterial microbes. The microbial fossils appear as distinctive mounds, like those seen here. But similar mounds aren’t uniquely created by ancient bacteria – they may be the result of shallow marine wave action or variations in overlying load pressure. The geologists know what they’re doing and usually have enough circumstantial and corroborative evidence to convince themselves that their rock anomalies are indeed stromatolites. But not all geologists concur.

The most recent ancient (3.7 Gya) stromatolites that were found in southwest Greenland do not convince everyone. Instead, the oldest generally-accepted creature skeletons are those found in Australia – a convincing (albeit tiny) fossilized mat of sulphur-eating slime that represents a 3.48-billion-year-old society of single-celled microbes. These suggest that the first life was sulphur-based and possessed hollow cellular lumens and carbonaceous cell walls.

Australia has another potential sign of very ancient life. Again, not every scientist in the room agrees, but a thin sliver of 4.1 billion-year-old zircon revealed biogenic carbon. This piece has been greeted with some skepticism – Is it necessarily biogenic? Was it inadvertently contaminated? But the zircon inclusion has its adherents.

Greenland is vying once again for the oldest-evidence title. A paper in Nature tells us that newly discovered stromatolites, freshly exposed (i.e., bared of their centuries-old ice) and analyzed by fossil hunters, are significantly older than Greenland’s previously oldest confirmed stroms.  The ancient life is seen in a 3.7-billion-year-old outcrop that may contain stromatolites that are 1 to 4 centimetres high. Disregarding the Australian zircon, these stromatolites push life on Earth back another 220 million years.

A 3.7-billion-year-old rock with signs of associated life: Analysis of ancient rocks shows evidence of conical stromatolite-like structures (outlines indicated by dotted black lines) that are possible hallmarks of bacterial activity. Scale bar equals four centimeters. (Allen Nutman)

3.7-billion-year-old rock with signs of associated life: Analysis shows evidence of stromatolite-like structures (outlines indicated by dotted black lines) as possible hallmarks of bacterial activity. Scale bar = 4 cm.
(credit: Nutman, A.P. et al. doi:10.1038/nature)

Who cares?

If you look at the paper in Nature, or at least read the abstract, you can see that most of the excitement deals with the geological implications of the start of life on Earth. Geologists are interested in this because biology alters the planet’s chemical systems – especially the atmosphere. As the paper’s authors (Nutman, Bennett, Van Kranendonk, Friend, and Chivas) say:

“Biological activity is a major factor in Earth’s chemical cycles, including facilitating CO2 sequestration and providing climate feedbacks. Thus a key question in Earth’s evolution is when did life arise and impact hydrosphere–atmosphere–lithosphere chemical cycles?”

Meanwhile, evolutionary biologists follow the lengthening of Earth’s biological clock with equal  attention. This latest discovery, if true, pushes the start of organized lifeforms capable of creating fossil structures closer to the time the Earth’s surface cooled after the bolide, meteor, comet, asteroid, and planetary attacks of its formative years. It also brings us closer to the time anticipated by genetic molecular clock studies which place life’s origin older than 4 billion years.

But there is a corollary to pushing life’s origin further back, something I haven’t seen noted elsewhere. With every hundred million years of extended pre-history for slimy mats, we gain a hundred million years where nothing much (apparently) happened to life on Earth. Two billion years in which stromatolites are the highest lifeform is startling. What were our slimy ancestors doing all that time?


The most recent presumed stromatolite discovery was in Greenland’s Isua Supracrustal Belt, recently bared by the retreat of glacial ice and snow. The lead scientist on the project says that the exposure is likely due to global warming. If true – and if the planet sees further ice melt – many more rocks will be revealed. Just to give you a sense for the enormity of potential for similar discoveries, here is a gif which I made. It starts at the spot where the geologists made their most recent find:


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Tunguska’s Kulik

Kulik's 1929 photo of Tunguska

Kulik’s 1929 photo of Tunguska

Leonid Kulik is probably another geologist you’ve never heard of. Well, it’s his birthday anyway, and here’s your chance to add a new name to your fact file, just in case you get that call from Jeopardy and the Remarkable Russians category for $200 says, “He was the first to scientifically investigate Tunguska.”

You have surely already encountered stories about The Tunguska Event at the supermarket where you stared at that tabloid headline about proven alien encounters. Every few years, rumours surface that Siberia was spoilt by nuclear radiation when a spaceship exploded there in 1908. You can read the full story at the UFO Evidence website. At the History Channel, it was called the Siberian Apocalypse.

Tunguska trees

Surely the work of dragons?

Strange, puzzling phenomena often attract unnatural explanations. For Tunguska, speculations include Thor tossing a thunderbolt, microscopic black holes passing through the Earth, and little green men in flying machines. The nuclear-powered spaceship idea was first proposed in 1946 by Russian sci-fi author Alex Kazantsev. He explained that a spacecraft was making a hard right turn to fetch “sweet water from Lake Baikal” which at the time probably still held water that could be used without causing blisters. The pilot lost control and the ship’s nuclear generator went ka-boom.  These are all clever notions for an event that lit the sky and leveled trees within a 30-kilometre radius. But it’s the duty of science folk to look beyond the weird and wonderful to see if some dull natural explanation can be found.

The ‘event’ was in central Siberia, about 1,000 kilometres north of Lake Baikal and 3,500 kilometres east of Moscow. It’s swampy and remote. No train leads to any Tunguska Station. It took years before news of the great Tunguska explosion reached St Petersburg, where Leonid Kulik was collecting meteorites for a Soviet museum. The stories that passed from embellisher to embellisher still carried vestiges of meteorite dust when they reached Kulik. It had been 20 years since the explosion, but he found support at the Soviet Academy of Sciences and took a team to Russia’s outback. His first mission failed. The taiga had turned into summer slush and mosquito ponds, forcing the group to turn back without pocketing any meteorite shards. But on that trip, Kulik interviewed peasants in the area who told him that they had heard from people who knew people who had seen the sky light up, cabins collapse, people tossed by shock waves, and cats living with dogs.

Kulik used the local folk’s stories to focus his search for the fallen meteor. He returned to Siberia two years later.  In 1929, Kulik found the place that had been destroyed in 1908. The devastation is huge – it covers 2,200 square kilometres.  When he found the immense cleared forest with its trees felled in an immense ring, Kulik said that the site’s “examination exceeded all the tales of eyewitnesses and my wildest expectations.” And this would be significant because eyewitnesses told of “a light greater than the sun” followed by “pillars of fire”, “exploding trees”,  and “rocks falling from the sky”.

Landsat image of Tunguska site today: still isolated and unpopulated.

Landsat image of Tunguska site today: still isolated and unpopulated.

Meteor bits were never found. Nor was any crater from the meteorite’s impact. Instead, it seems likely that a 30 to 50 metre (100 to 150 ft) chunk of space rock, traveling at 60 km/second (130,000 mph) generated a 16 million ºC heat wave when the rock incinerated about 8 kilometres (5 miles) above the surface, releasing megatonnes of energy. That’s more powerful than anything that could have been done by little green men looking for sweet water.

KulikThink about Leonid Kulik today, on this anniversary of his birth. He had an amazing kick at the can. He was a loyal soldier in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) and World War I (1914-1917), yet the Czar put him in prison for revolutionary thinking. So, he joined Lenin.

As a scientist, he taught rocks and he worked at the Mineralogical Museum in St. Petersburg, where he curated and catalogued most of Russia’s fallen stars.

Today marks the 133rd anniversary of Leonid Kulik’s birth. He didn’t live half that long. At age 58, he served in one more war. He died as many Russian soldiers died during World War II, in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. But we’ll remember him today for his pioneering attempt to discover the scientific truth behind the Tunguska explosion.

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Oceans of magma, Moon formation and Earth’s ‘Year Zero’

Interesting piece by Steve Drury on the attempts to define Earth’s Year Zero. Accuracy of a new model narrows the date to a rather narrow window. Reblogged on The Mountain Mystery site.

That the Moon formed and Earth’s geochemistry was reset by our planet’s collision with another, now vanished world, has become pretty much part of the geoscientific canon. It was but one of some unimaginably catastrophic events that possibly characterised the early Solar System and those around other stars. Since the mantle geochemistry of the Earth’s precursor was fundamentally transformed to that which underpinned all later geological events, notwithstanding the formation of the protoEarth about 4.57 Ga ago, I now think of the Moon-forming event as our homeworld’s ‘Year Zero’. It was the ‘beginning’ of which James Hutton reckoned there was ‘no vestige’. Any modern geochemist might comment, ‘Well, there must be some kind of signature!’, but what that might be and when it happened are elusive, to say the least. One way of looking for answers is, as with so many thorny issues these days, to make a

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Into Big Valley

Two flavours of Alberta, Canada oil

Two flavours of oil in Alberta, Canada: Canola and Devonian

A few days ago, I lamented that the lovely town of Big Valley is blessed with a Creation Science Museum. The museum is a single-room curio shop with a fossilized Teddy Bear and not much more. It’s a disappointing destination for anyone seeking answers from either Genesis or science. And it’s a sad addition to Big Valley’s community.

big valley - rr1

“Archeological” ruins in Big Valley, Alberta: Train repair shop from 1920.

Aerial of abandoned roundhouse

Aerial of abandoned roundhouse

I don’t want to paint the town with the same brush I used on my Creation Science essay. Rural Alberta is more than funky anti-science museums. For example, long before there was the museum, there was the train. The town of Big Valley is a terminal for a steam engine and its passenger cars. They will take you across prairie hills and vales and return you a few hours later. I didn’t ride the train, but instead I hobbled around an archeological ruins of sorts. Big Valley once housed a large commercial train hub with roundhouse and repair shops for grain, coal, and passenger trains. The remains – acres of concrete slabs and the walls of warehouses – are a delight to see. My sons and I spent more time among the roundhouse ruins that inside the Creation Science Museum, and we’re not even rail buffs.

Big Valley Roundhouse

Big Valley Roundhouse

There’s a boardwalk along Big Valley’s main drag. It’s got gift shops which we didn’t try out and a fine ice creamery, which we did sample from. Most people likely miss the fact that the Jimmie Jock Boardwalk was built in memory of the owner of the town’s Chinese restaurant. Like many (if not most) small towns on Canada’s western prairies, Big Valley was home to a Chinese family that ran the town’s main diner for a few generations. These places – and their Asian restaurateur – have mostly disappeared now, but I remember enjoying Chinese food and hospitality during the 1970s and 1980s when I was young and Canada’s small towns were new to me.

Jimmy JockThe other major cultural site in Big Valley, Alberta, is the blue church on the hill. The Anglican church was built in 1916 with a gift of $500 from Caroline Leffler who raised the funds by making selling children’s clothing. Ms Leffler probably never saw the church. She lived in England but sent her gift to Calgary, which was then on the Empire’s frontier. She suggested that the local diocese select any needy town to build a church. Big Valley wasn’t especially needy – it had prosperous ranches and a huge coal and rail business, but it was booming, lacked an Anglican church, and was perhaps more seedy than needy.

blue churchBig Valley was cattle, then farming, then coal, then oil and gas. Coal fueled the rails and energized Canada’s west. By the time the easy coal had been dug and depleted, oil was discovered. In 1949, seismic records suggested a nice anomaly 6 kilometres south of Big Valley. In September 1950,  Big Valley No. 7 discovery well was completed. It produced 350,000 barrels of oil and led to a field that produced 321 million more – plus 85 billion cubic feet of gas. Now, 65 years later, the oil is waning and most of the pump jacks are idle. The area has returned to its agrarian roots.

However, oil is having an unexpected renaissance in the Big Valley area. An oilseed plant called canola (bred from rapus, or rapeseed) covers the region like a yellow carpet. Canola grows on 20 million acres of western Canadian cropland and yields three barrels of oil from each acre. That’s 60 million barrels of farmed oil each year. Meanwhile, conventional oil production in western Canada has fallen to around 250 million barrels. Most canola is used for cooking, but it’s also an ingredient in biofuel production.  In the future, the volume of oil grown on farms will exceed the oil lifted by nodding donkey heads from under the farms around Big Valley.

Oh, I almost forgot. Those rocks that made all the oil in the last century? They are buried 1660 metres (about one mile) inside the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. The shale that generated the hydrocarbons was deposited over several million years in a warm tropical sea when plate tectonics positioned Big Valley close to the equator. Later, with millions more years of heat and pressure, the oils migrated into reservoir rocks – porous limestone created during millions of years of reef growth in equatorial sea water. All of this happened during the late Devonian, about 400 million years ago. But for a simpler explanation, drop by the Creation Science Museum for their take on the formation of oil deposits.

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Creation Science Museum, Part 2

BVCSM admissionsIf you ever wanted to visit a museum unencumbered by crowds and undistracted by children’s laughter, come to the Canadian Creation Science Museum in Big Valley, Alberta, Canada. It’s as quiet as a tomb.  I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude and highly recommend the museum as a place where you can take your time, take lots of pictures (I asked permission and was told, “Of course!”), and you may appreciate the gallant efforts that twist pseudo-scientific curios into biblical proofs.

The town of Big Valley is lovely. I liked it a lot. In a day or two, I’ll write about this small rural Canadian community with its steam passenger train and archeological ruins.  But today, I’m focusing on the town’s unfortunate Creation Science Museum. Unfortunate for the town, that is.

When my two sons and I entered, we paid $13 to look around. I didn’t ask for the Family Discount, which the museum’s website says is for “A Father, Mother, and children” and obviously not for miscreant family arrangements. We gave our money to the nice lady at the cash register by the door.

Descent from AdamObviously bored, the nice lady was quick to run to us whenever we had questions. My first question regarded the first thing I saw as we entered. It was a genealogy chart that stretched from the ceiling almost to the floor.

“What on Earth does that have to do with Creationism?” The nice lady wasn’t sure. The chart mapped the direct descendants of Adam (Eve, too, I guess – though she wasn’t mentioned). Did you know that about 1,500 years after Adam, Noah was born? Did you know that Noah is the direct linear ancestor of all the English kings and Prince Charles? Well, that should surprise none of the Anglo-Saxon fans of the museum, but the guide in the museum was shocked when I told her that Osama bin Laden would also be a direct linear descendant of Noah. I suggested that she think about it for a moment.  Then she remembered the story of how all the people except Noah and his kids were killed by the angry god in the flood. In her world, British kings have to be Noah’s spawn, as is everyone – they have no other choice.

According to the Flood narrative, in the past 4,350 years,  7 billion of us descended from Noah and his wife Gertrude (or whatever).  “But you have English ancestry, don’t you?” she asked me.  “No, I do not,” I said. Somehow race and English ancestry are tangled up in this Creation Science Museum. Then I saw the book with Hitler on the cover. (To be fair, Hitler was just selling a book that equated Darwin to Nazis. They weren’t openly selling Mein Kampf.)

I should have left, but I’d already spent $13. And there were another 15 minutes of displays to take in. There was evidence of creationism everywhere. Signs proclaimed Evidence from Fossils; Evidence from Geology; Evidence from Plants; DNA by Design; and, there were lovely photographs of Dinosaurs and Humans being cozy pals.  We saw the Fossilized Teddy Bear, the Iron Pot Found in Coal, and, of course, the human leg fossilized in a cowboy boot. By the time we’d reached the proof that horses didn’t grow in size and “peppered moths” didn’t change colour, we had traveled about 30 metres in a loop that brought us back to the cash register.

fossilized human legWas that too fast for you? Then let us go back about 10 metres and take another look at the fossilized leg in the cowboy boot. It’s just an old boot with a rock stuck in it, but here’s how it’s described:

“It is commonly believed that it takes thousands to millions of years to form a fossil. In fact it is well known that fossilization can occur rapidly. [Wait a minute: one fact is “commonly believed” while its opposite is well known? How’s that work?]  Above [behind the glass] is a cast of a modern cowboy boot that was found with a fossilized human leg inside… The flesh has apparently become petrified and the bones partially permineralized. The boot was manufactured around 1950 … and found in 1980. The leg was fossilized in less than 30 years!”

Cooper State park rocksIt’s just a rock in an old boot. There are two rocks at West Virginia’s Cooper’s Rock State Park which look like gigantic stone people kissing. Other rocks look like Bugs Bunny or fossilized legs in cowboy boots. Trust me, I’m a geophysicist. Rocks can take a lot of fascinating shapes.

The boot, manufactured by the M.L. Leddy Company, was found in Iraan, Texas, which abounds in light-coloured rocks. Mud may have leeched into the boot and hardened. Or maybe someone stuck the stone in the boot and sold it to the Creation Science Museum. We may never know.

On one poster near the exit, we are told that in matters of science, biologists and paleontologists “argue violently among themselves.” Violently? Really? – in the fashion of Irish Catholics and Protestants or perhaps Malaysian Buddhists and Muslims? Or maybe the biologists find heretical paleontologists guilty of witchery and burn them?  I’ll be charitable and assume that the poster meant to say that scientists argue vigorously, not violently, and the poster was mistaken about this and nearly everything else printed on it.

argue violentlyAnother recurring anti-science theme printed on the museum displays is the statement that scientists are constantly changing their minds about things, and that’s considered a bad thing by the Creation Science Museum curators.  They imply that since science is dynamic, whatever we think today must be wrong.  On the other hand, the Bible is set in King James’ English, unchanging, and therefore obviously true. Science is dismissed as faulty because it hasn’t come to final answers about everything. This lies at the troubled heart of many Creationists. Rather than thinking, reasoning, and evaluating, it’s much easier to believe that 3,000-year-old pronouncements made by a nomadic desert tribe are true. And then populate a one-room museum with dubious or fraudulent supporting curios.

A curio shop of evidence

A curio shop of evidence

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Creation Science Museum, Part 1


Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, by Simon de Myle, 1570

Ken Ham’s latest monument to his beliefs has opened in Kentucky. The Ark Encounter is about an hour from his Creation Museum. Both are operated by Answers in Genesis, which is operated by the Australian immigrant. They both seek to cash in on a small subgroup’s faith in the early 17th-century translation of a 1,700-year-old collection of tales inscribed from 3,000-year-old legends recited for generations by a nomadic desert tribe. These tales explain cosmology and the origin of the universe. Got a modern scientific query? Look for the Answers in Genesis.  Is King James too ponderous to read? Come see the Creation Museum where dinosaurs and humans frolic in dioramas – or take a thrill ride beside the freshly painted 510-foot Ark of Noah at the Ark Encounter.

Or come to the Canadian Creation Science Museum in Big Valley, Alberta, Canada (as I did!). There you can wonder about and wander among the assorted relics that prove evolution never happened. Marvel at the huge genealogy tree that shows all 6,000 years of human history – from Adam’s creation to his direct descendants – King James and Prince Charles! Gaze at the fossilized leg in a cowboy boot and the iron pot discovered in coal. See books with Hitler on the cover. Marvel at DNA models.  It’s all there – and not much more – at the Creation Science Museum.

Big Valley Creation Science Museum Entrance

Big Valley Creation Science Museum Entrance (photo: Miksha)
The museum is in the little house to the left, not the quonset behind us.

Admission is just $5. (I think Ham charges more.) Only $3 per kid. And there’s a special family discount – available to families that the museum’s website describe as “A Father, Mother and children”. No pesky gay couples with kids shall be given the family discount at Big Valley’s wonder-filled Creation Science Museum. The discrimination isn’t legal, but it certainly reflects the above-the-law sentiments of these faith-driven sorts.

Before you head off to the Creation Science Museum, you may want to take a look at Trip Advisor. Only 7 reviews, but they are dandy. Two reviewers gave the place top marks – they write in glowing terms about the depth of science presented. The other five reviewers graded the place as “Terrible”, the lowest mark possible. There are no in-between scores. If you aren’t visiting the tiny museum seeking validation for the stories you heard as a child, if your common sense and critical evaluation skills have matured, then you’ll see the museum as a one-room curio shop of dubious merit designed to shimmy up a crumbling shanty of religiosity. Here are some of Trip Advisor’s warnings:

This is basically a small room full of nonsense… “behold, these dinosaur track fossils all go in the same direction so they MUST have been running away from a global flood, right?”

Unfortunately, this is a curio shop of archaic biblical nonsense. Visit only if you are interested in seeing how those who refuse to educate themselves on true science operate.

It’s basically a shack full of crazy proofs for creationism.

I am sorry they put this [museum] here – does not reflect how good the rest of the town is. What a bunch of nonsense.

royal tyrrell

Creation Museum’s competition

The Canadian province of Alberta is rich in fossils. We have 45 major dinosaur groups (including Ankylosaurus, Stegoceras, Triceratops, Ichthyosaurus,  and various close relatives of the T-rex), mostly unearthed in Mesozoic-age rocks exposed in Alberta’s badlands. A world-class research station at Dinosaur Provincial Park and a major showcase museum at Drumheller draw millions of visitors. Undoubtedly, the people who built the Creation Science Museum in nearby Big Valley expected thousands of truth-seeking guests, folks looking for the non-mainstream-science explanation for dinosaur fossils. I’ll bet that they thought their tiny one-room museum would soon occupy a quonset or two to hold the capacity crowds. The day I showed up with my two sons, we were the only customers for the day.

It was a pathetic little museum. I imagine that there were high hopes at the planning stage. Western Canada has ten million souls. If just one-percent would visit every year, the place would quickly expand. The instigators likely believed that people visiting the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, just a few dozen kilometres down the road, would feel compelled to get the facts about evolution right. If one in a hundred cars headed north from the devil’s museum to the one built upon the Bible, this would be a success. But alas, the lonely woman taking our money at the door had hosted only us – just three people the entire Saturday that we visited. When we left, she put our $13 in the till and locked the door. Her day was over.

Meanwhile in Kentucky, Ken Ham’s new $100 milion Noah adventure opened with just 8,000 visitors. That will probably be their best day of the year. The Creation Museum had 450,000 guests the first year but is down to half the number now.  Their daily take is about $25,000 – but they have a big property to maintain and 300 employees to pay.  Part of Kentucky Ham’s problem relates to the quality of the museum and the fact that Creationists unfortunately correlate with poor education which correlates with poverty. Not many believers can afford over $100 (plus fuel, lodging, food) to visit the museum. It would go bankrupt and close, but Answers in Genesis is adapt at sucking taxpayers money out of the Kentucky government coffers. Fortunately for Canadians, the Alberta Creation Science Museum isn’t likely to receive tax breaks and subsidies. But its overhead is nearly zero, so it will limp along, like a cowpoke with a single fossilized leg in a boot.

Tomorrow I’ll write more about the museum and that fossilized cowboy boot. And we’ll enter the one-room curio cabinet and look around.

Come back tomorrow and see what else is on display!

Come back tomorrow and see what else is on display!

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The Bees’ Sixth Sense

I write a beekeeping and society blog called “Bad Beekeeping” and I posted this piece there a few weeks ago. I thought readers of Mountain Mystery might find it interesting.

Bad Beekeeping Blog

bee's eye close-up

Bees sense the environment differently than humans. For example,  bees can see ultra-violet colour and distinguish it from violet and white, yet they see red as if it were black. They sense the orientation of polarized light. Their massive compound eyes give them an image made of hexagonal images, similar (but not quite) to the picture I made below, to the right. The honey bee’s eyes are good at sensing thin structures (like flowers on stems) and motion but, for a bee, a person pressed flat against a wall has disappeared from sight.

Bees see in mosaic hexagons, similar (but not quite the same) to what you is shown here.Bees see mosaic hexagons, similar (but not quite the same) to what’s shown here.

Bees taste with the tips of their antennae, sampling sweet, bitter, sour, and salt. They can taste salts better than humans can, but are less sensitive to the bitter flavour of coffee. Their antennae also give them a sense of touch which monitors bee…

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Tectonic Plates at 913,000 Kilometres per Hour

long nails

Growth that crawls.

The Earth’s plates move at the same blazing speed as fingernails grow. On average, 2 centimetres in a year. Blink and you won’t miss much. The ox may be slow, but the Earth is patient. In 650 million years, the Earth’s crust moved 13,000 kilometres. Planet-scale wrinkles, rifts, twists, collisions, and mountain ranges are possible with the vastness of time. But the only signs we might witness are some volcanoes and the occasional earthquake. We really can’t appreciate North America’s westward drift – the continent barely budges a meter or two in a lifetime.

To help us grasp the ungraspable, various analogies and visual tricks help us appreciate that plate tectonics happens. One of my favourites is an ever-widening space between some stakes in the ground at the Ontario Science Centre, where one of the leaders of tectonics theory (Tuzo Wilson) worked. One marker shows the continent’s location in 1908, when Wilson was born, the other – displaced a couple metres – shows us how much the marker has moved since then.

Without travelling to Toronto, here is another way to experience the reality of plate tectonics. This video gives us 3,300 million years of motion in 260 seconds. If we assume the rate of motion has always averaged 2 cm/year (not a likely assumption), then the various plates have meandered 66,000 kilometres. We’ll see that happen in about four minutes, with the crust racing around at almost a million kilometres an hour. So hang on:


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Rocks within rocks, and rocks within rocks within rocks

This is a great post of complicated and interesting geology. It points to the very long and very dynamic nature of Earth’s evolution.

Primate's Progress

Benalmadena, Costa del Sol, Spain, some 20 miles West of Malaga, and perhaps readers can enlighten me about what I’m seeing:

Rocks within rocks within rocks; red sandstone matrix (no stratification or bedding apparent), containing fragments of varied origin and degree of processing; some examples include fragments of chert-veined basalt. Note at far left, and also beneath scaling coin, pebbles of chert-containing cnglomerate.


How did any of this happen and in what kind of environment? The diversity of the pebbles in composition and processing suggests rapid river transport, but what process would leave so much sand between them? I haven’t seen an outcrop of this kind of rock, but there are chunks of it all along the coastline, and some examples (e.g. those to left and right in this picture) are far poorer in pebbles.

Rocks within rocks: chert vein within a very strange looking rock indeed; dark, micaceous, bands…

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The Mountain Mystery (Book Review)

Many thanks to GG at The Grumpy Geophysicist blog for this review of The Mountain Mystery book!

The Grumpy Geophysicist

Many months ago, Ron Miksha was kind enough to send a copy of his book, The Mountain Mystery, to GG (Ron writes a blog under the book’s name).  Although the book was mostly read long ago, other things kept getting in the way of condensing GG’s scattered thoughts. The quickest summary of this book might be to compare it to visiting caverns.  While most visits are on nice paths that lead you in a very direct way to the highlights, often avoiding the original historical paths into the caves, Miksha’s book is more like a discovery tour, poking into every side chamber and crevice, sometimes revealing rarely visited gems and sometimes just getting all dirty for little payoff.

Most histories of plate tectonics tend to start with Wegener or even later, but The Mountain Mystery starts far earlier, invoking the ghosts of such lesser known men as Anaximander…

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