Friday, 24 December 2010
I ought to be better at things like that - seasonal window displays, themed cabinets and so on. I will use the feeble excuse that I'm far too busy with lots of very important things. Anyway. I'll be open on the 28th again and hoping that there's no more snow. I have the VAT return to look forward to. One of the very important things.
Wednesday, 22 December 2010
What remains the big question for science - and where those of a religious nature may still look for the hand of a god - is the very origin of life on Earth in the first instance. At what stage can something be called 'living'? It's not an easy question, really. We're comfortable with thinking of single-celled forms as living - though it's not much of a life - but at what point does chemistry become biology? Genetic replication? It's a field of science that sees a great deal of research, naturally, and there are a number of lines of thinking - hypotheses with evidential support which should eventually produce a single dominant theory. This, in turn, will gradually gain acceptance outwith the scientific world and act as a platform for further research. It takes a while for an idea to be suggested, tested, embraced, reach the textbooks and become... general knowledge.
At the moment, areas of work that may provide a solution include oceanic hydrothermal vents (black smokers), ribonucleaic acid (RNA) storing information and developing to DNA, and iron and sulphur layers in areas of volcanism. Another possibility suggested is that material from elsewhere provided the initial source material for life on Earth. Of course, that doesn't solve the problem of the origins of life, merely shifts it elsewhere, but it could deliver an answer to what happened on our planet. Meteorites found in Sudan in 2008 contain amino acids, and other examples with these proto-proteins have been found in the past. It does seem very possible we may all be aliens.
Friday, 17 December 2010
More and more people are relying heavily on online shopping, and that's understandable. It's easy and convenient. It's warm and you can sit down. I'm very glad I got my site up this year after too long spent thinking about it. The website's first December has helped balance a little of the drop in walk-in trade, and I'm very grateful for that. I'm careful to get things in first class post the next day, but then it's in the hands of the professionals. And this month, that's not been looking like much of a safe bet. Royal Mail hasn't been too bad, have to say. A little slower perhaps, but even without the weather that can happen in the Christmas run-up anyway.
I have felt badly let down by my courier, though. I have a contract with them by way of pre-paid consignment notes - far cheaper than just arranging a delivery as and when. I had a decent sale from a customer in London, who had called the shop on a Saturday. It was packed and ready for collection on the Monday morning, due for pickup later that day. Nothing happened. I phoned the next day and they were apologetic, but expected collection within a few hours. Again, nothing. On the Wednesday, on phoning, I was told no collections were possible across all of Scotland until the following Monday. The customer was okay with this - as long as they made it by Christmas. On Wednesday the following week I finally gave in and phoned around other firms. I gave up on two as I couldn't get through on the phone. Eventually I found an alternative, promised the customer they would have it tomorrow and waited. And waited. The guy showed up 20 minutes after I was supposed to close, but I was very grateful to see him. Cost me an arm and a leg, but I felt the customer's patience had been tried enough.
It's great when a parcel you've been waiting for arrives, but it's also a nice feeling to walk out of a shop with your purchase.
[EDIT] Turns out the parcel, which should have been delivered on Wednesday, is still in a London depot on Saturday morning. Looking like Monday now - two weeks after it was supposed to be collected for next day delivery. Two weeks, two companies and outright failure. Still waiting for the second firm to call me and explain.
Tuesday, 7 December 2010
Anyway - some bones have been found in a cave on the island that seem to have belonged to a giant form of marabou stork, Leptoptilus robustus. Scaling up, it was probably about 180cm tall, which would have been nearly twice the height of the hobbits. Marabous are scary looking enough at their current size, so I expect they were given a wide berth. Not quite a terror bird, but I'd bet it made the hobbits uneasy. The article touches on the possibility of the storks eating babies, but that's purely speculative. Turns the usual stork/baby thing on its head.
The island must have been a strange place - dwarf elephants and humans, giant rats, storks and lizards. Islands are often a source of unusual forms of well-known animals. Cut off from the rest of their population, new species gradually develop, and often change in size. Dwarf forms and giant forms. Without the same predators, food sources and so on, the pressures are different and form eventually reflects that. Hence Darwin's finches and tortoises on the Galapagos, for example. Lilliput and Blefuscu as well, of course.
Thursday, 2 December 2010
Most commonly, the site produces Cleoniceras cleon, Phylloceras inflatum and Douvilleiceras mammillatum, but there are also nautilus - Cymatoceras sakalavus - found there, like the one on the front page of the shop site. I've seen some huge examples, over a metre across, but mostly those have been cobbled together from pieces of a number of specimens. Usually, the biggest I have in stock are around 22cm across, and those are impressive enough.
Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Find meteorites? Do you mean geological hammers? We have those - just over there in the corner.
No, I mean ones that detect meteorites in the ground, so you can find them and dig them up.
Do you mean a metal detector? Not all meteorites are made of iron, but lots are and many others have high iron content. So that's how a lot are found. I don't have metal detectors, though. Sorry.
No, I mean a hammer that attracts meteorites and finds them for you. Then you dig them up.
Attracts them? Like a magnet? A magnetic hammer? You'd have to be very close to the meteorite for that to be much use.
I just want to find a meteorite.
Friday, 19 November 2010
At the end of yesterday afternoon I had three big bills and three big heaps of new stock to plough through. As much as I love getting new things in, I do sometimes procrastinate when it comes to pricing it. Well - when it comes to everything. I started today with the best of intentions, but have strayed from the task somewhat. Next week will be better. And I must tidy up the basement a bit, too.
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
The essay, by a geologist at New York University, points out that Matthew placed greater importance on the effect of extinction events and the spates of rapid evolution that followed them, suggesting Darwin was inclined to stress a more linear evolutionary process. This seems a little like a tip to the old punctuated equilibrium versus gradualism argument. Well - okay - a lot like that. I find the insistence on divisions like these an oversimplification and helpful only in the very limited sense of understanding the processes that take place. As we know, evolution is far too complicated to state that one method is the one true way and that the others are wrong. Undoubtedly the blank canvas of a post-extinction event world offers the opportunities for speedy adaptation to new roles and habitats, but the continuous reaction to constant environmental change is always there in the background.
Essentially, Darwin produced a fully developed theory and while Matthew got there first (as Darwin later acknowledged, though he had been unaware of the work while he was working on his own theory) it was not the thorough examination the idea merited. That aside, Matthew was not the only one to have put forward the notion before Darwin. What it comes down to, ultimately, is that Darwin was the one to fully explore and expand on the concept of natural selection, and that's why his place in the history of science is entirely justified.
Friday, 5 November 2010
Anyway. I mention the book because a group of scientists at Imperial College London and Purdue University in Indiana have, since 2004, been producing a Impact Events Calculator, designed to force meteorophobes into their custom-built underground bunkers for the rest of their lives. Cans of tuna, beans and sweetcorn in dimly lit concrete vaults and a wobbly iron-spring military bed. For ever. I'm not speaking from experience. I'm resigned to my fate; if the meteorite comes, I'm ready to embrace it. I'm getting away from the point a little. What it does is work out what would happen when a meteorite of specific size hits Earth. You type in the dimensions, where you want it to land and at what angle, etc. Then click the button and check the results. I've just wiped out a large part of the Eastern Seaboard of North America. It was an accident.
They have recently updated it to tweak the user interface, but also to include additional effects such as wave height from ocean impact, and a couple of others. The next upgrade will allow you to pick your impact site. Virtual revenge at the click of a button. It's fun to play around with, but then you realise that... You know. It might happen. Look out!
Friday, 29 October 2010
A friend is currently in Mongolia and had a trip through the Gobi desert for a few days. Whilst there he saw bactrian camels, and more than he was expecting to. He met a number of the local nomadic people, and each told him numbers had been increasing significantly for two decades and the spreading desert meant this was likely to continue. Bactrians have the IUCN status of Critically Endangered and they state that the population is declining. There are Non-Governmental Organisations being well paid to ensure their protection. This could be viewed in a number of ways. Firstly that the NGOs work has been successful and the recent growth in numbers pointed to by anecdotal evidence is the result. Secondly that population levels in different areas of their habitat are moving in different directions with an overall downward trend. Thirdly - and cynically - that there is a possibility some organisations are exaggerating the plight of the camel and still taking funding. This most likely happens on some scale, but I'd expect the IUCN's monitoring process is robust enough to have a decent grasp on the bigger picture.
Sadly, there's no doubt the number of species close to extinction is higher now that it's been since we started keeping track and it's definitely exacerbated by human activity. Global warming aside, the main problem has been habitat loss through logging and land cultivation for farming, but pollution, hunting and over-fishing have also had heavy tolls. Palaeontologists know very well that there have been far more dramatic drops in biodiversity in the past - the fossil record shows this clearly. The difference is that this time we have a level of responsibility. We can do something about it. There are some positives here. Conservation efforts such as hunting restrictions and captive breeding have prevented the loss of a few species, and an increased global awareness should help slow down the growth of the red list at the very least. There's a story today on the work of The Frozen Ark, in Nottingham, where DNA samples of thousands of endangered animals are stored. In case. The point of being able to resurrect 'lost' species is not too far away, and while there is an ethical debate surrounding the field of cloning and the like, it would be completely irresponsible not to act now to preserve what we have; to give the animals we have affected so badly just a touch more hope.
Tuesday, 26 October 2010
'It's a marble that has the shells of early relatives of the ammonites all through it. These are the shells here... Most fossils are found in limestones, and marble is a limestone that's been metamorphosed under high temperatures and pressures. Usually the rock's deformed by this process and any structures it contained, like fossils or bedding planes are lost. In this case, though, it's probably only been heated and the fossil shapes are still intact. They're called orthocone nautiloids. The orthocone part means straight-shelled and the black and white stripy parts - here, here and here - through the stone are the chambered shells filled with white calcite crystals. When the animals were alive these chambers would have been filled with a mixture of liquid and gas and the nautiloids could regulate their buoyancy by adjusting the mix. They had tentacles that protruded from the front of their shell and their body, which would have been fairly soft and flexible, was protected by the extended first chamber. Its later relatives, ammonites, mostly had spiral shells instead of straight and looked very similar to today's nautilus. They now think octopuses are the most closely linked, though.'
'But - what are they? Are they fish?'
'A squid in a cone.'
'Oh, riiiight. Cool.'
Thursday, 21 October 2010
The reverse has a simplified logo above the address, phone number and website. You probably aren't quite as excited about the new bags as I am; I realise that. That's okay. The whole re-branding exercise was an interesting process - getting the logo restyled, the new website, business cards and so on. I think all that's left really is the front of the shop. It's looking pretty tired, so it will need to be done fairly soon. People like the stencilled fossils on the front and it would be nice to keep them, so perhaps I'll go for the orange-copper colour with darker fossils over the top.
I tried some t-shirts once, but there was a mistake with the order and none came that were my size. I wasn't really sure why I had ordered them and without one for me to wear it all felt a bit pointless. I gave most away to staff and friends within the fossil trade, and they indulge me by wearing them in Tucson and Sainte Marie each year. Maybe I'll try again and make sure I get a couple my size this time.
I'm a bit scattergun with my marketing approach. I'm never sure which adverts are effective, and due to the unusual nature of the business, I'm called all the time by people wanting me to advertise with them. I'm trying a couple of new ways to push the website in the lead up to Christmas this year and hopefully one of them at least will prove useful. Not many people think immediately of fossils as gift ideas, but they are usually well received and I get a lot of repeat customers at Christmas. It'd be good if I can extend the range to the whole of the UK through the website. And maybe - this year - the bags will catch the eyes of a few more shoppers.
Wednesday, 20 October 2010
The author, Keith Bennett of Queens University in Belfast, likens the traditional symbol of the evolutionary process - the tree of life - to a fractal. The cumulative effect of iterative changes creating branching structures repeated at different scales throughout the whole. The relationship between microevolution and macroevolution is a controversial one, with a history of great scientific debate. Microevolution is the change of genetic traits within a species or population - perhaps a colour change in a group of birds' plumage for example - and macroevolution is the actual change from one species to another. For the most part I see one as a natural extension of the other, occurring over longer periods of time and having a more dramatic effect. Macroevolution can only come about through continual small changes.
Bennett is a palaeoecologist and suggests there are slightly different groups of driving factors behind the two scales of evolution, which may be the case to a point. If they are part and parcel of the same overall process, however, I'm not sure of the benefits of separating the two so distinctly, which he seems keen to do. The research behind the article points to a steady stream of speciation, reducing the influence of environmental change. He thinks macroevolution may be primarily driven by internally generated genetic alterations, rather than external influences such as climactic or habitat changes. To me, this slightly misses the point that the success or otherwise of any genetic changes are very often a result of how that modification affects an individual organism within its environment. If it brings it any advantage in terms of camouflage, feeding, breeding, survival in general, then that trait will be more likely be passed on to subsequent generations and gradually becoming widespread. If the environment is changing, then the efficacy of any mutation will be reflected in that to some extent. Environment may not be the main driving force, but it certainly plays a big role.
The main point of the article, I think, is that evolution is not predictable and any pattern we may see within developments are only discernible with the benefit of hindsight. It's a wonderful thing.
Monday, 18 October 2010
Benoit Mandelbrot, probably the man most associated with chaos theory, died in Massachusetts the other day, aged 85. In the late '70s and early '80s he published breakthrough work which looked at breaking down apparently chaotic natural forms into sets of scaled repeating patterns which built to larger, self-similar forms. The maths of fractals is a little scary, but the patterns are nice... An early form used triangles with three Koch Curves to produce what's called the Koch Snowflake, there's the brilliantly-named Menger Sponge and almost certainly the best-known, the Mandelbrot Set. I recommend spending a few minutes looking through the gallery links from the Wikipedia entry for fractals. Beauty in mathematics. Fractals have since been used to develop techniques of measuring things previously considered unmeasurable - coastlines, mountain ranges, clouds and so on. The parent science of chaos theory will have a huge range of influence - there is a great deal of fruit still to be picked from these strange trees.
Wednesday, 13 October 2010
One of the presentations was by Michael Habib of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and concerned the impressively huge species of azhdarchid pterosaurs that have been found in recent years. Quetzalcoatlus, the best known of these giants, had a wingspan of between 10-11m, and Habib reckons they could probably fly 10,000 miles at a go. It's quite a claim, and his calculations necessarily involve a little speculation - on body mass, wing size and shape, etc. - but as Habib himself points out, 'what's important is that the numbers are all big'. My kind of science. These things didn't fly like a madly flapping pigeon, but would have soared like a stork, spiralling over thermals to gain height and winds to provide lift. Quite why they'd want to be travelling such distances is another matter. Sometimes I can't even be bothered to go to the shops. Recent studies looking at their probable feeding methods seemed to rule out continuous flight as a way of life, favouring a land-based heron-style approach; wading in shallow water and stalking in short vegetation. Big as they were, I doubt they could sneak in a quick 10,000 miles between snacks.
Interestingly, not very long ago it was being suggested these things may not have flown at all. A paper last year looked at flap rates and weights of modern birds and thought these giraffe-sized pterosaurs just wouldn't be able to get off the ground. Reaction to this suggestion was fairly dismissive, it has to be said. On a very basic level - why else would they have massive great wings?
Friday, 8 October 2010
Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Thursday, 23 September 2010
Thursday, 16 September 2010
Tuesday, 14 September 2010
Monday, 6 September 2010
A group of four women are outside the door peering in. Three are keen to have a look around. One is not. Her friend attempts to persuade her.
‘No I don’t.’
She points at the amethyst geode near the door.
‘What about that one? Don’t you think that’s beautiful?’
‘No I don’t. I think it’s disgusting. I hate it.’
‘But what about the smaller ones?’
‘The smaller ones are alright. I’m going to the hat shop. Come on.’
A man looking around couldn't help but laugh and I was a little lost for words. One of the four bravely stayed to have a look around, and I was very tempted to ask if her friend was always so... rude. I didn't, though. It was a strange over-reaction. The big geode is the one thing that people tend to love most, and this was the first time I'd heard anyone express their dislike at all, let alone so vehemently.
Friday, 3 September 2010
Wednesday, 1 September 2010
Thursday, 26 August 2010
Monday, 23 August 2010
'Is this stuff artificial? It says so on the label here.'
'Yes, it's man-made.'
'Does that mean it can't be baked in an oven?'
Friday, 20 August 2010
The moon is very popular. With werewolves, lunatics, astronomers and everyday people like Craig. It was 'born' around 4.527 billion years ago, when something very big and heavy smashed into the newly formed Earth. The big lump knocked off became our moon, so it's not made of cheese, but of the same stuff Earth is made of. Rock and dust and all that. Don't be sad that's it's getting smaller. It'll be a long time before it disappears. By the way - ASTRONOMERS = MOONSTARERS.
Tuesday, 17 August 2010
Well, three years ago a nuclear scientist, Richard Firestone, and geologist Allen West published a paper suggesting a supernova explosion some 41,000 years ago fired out a series of comet-like missiles, one of which piled into North America around 28,000 years later (that's about 13,000 years ago, to save you the maths). Aha - a suspect. The story went that initially there had been an early shockwave, 34,000 years ago, of tiny, hot, radioactive, magnetic iron-rich lumps from the supernova which had hit earth and caused considerable misery. Famously, three mammoth tusks found in Siberia and Alaska were pitted with flecks of what's thought to be this early supernova grit. Secondly, the impact of the comet at the 13,000 year-ago point had an immediate and severe effect on the wildlife, particularly anything right underneath. Then thirdly the landing created a series of wildfires that spread across the continent burning up all the vegetation and generally roasting stuff. Firestone and West proposed the extent of these fires was sufficient to eventually result in the extinction of the missing North American megafauna and the Clovis culture.
These claims were received with a degree of scepticism and recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lays out a number of concerns. There is evidence enough to support the meteorite impact, and there are certainly signs of large-scale fires at around the right time. What's dubious is the sweeping nature of the hypothesis. It seems very unlikely to me that such wildfires would be quite so all-pervasive and apocalyptic. I'm sure populations took a big hit but people, plants and animals usually find a way through things one way or another. So - was the death of the mammoths down to a big space explosion? Verdict - not guilty. Not completely. Aren't I decisive?
Friday, 13 August 2010
Other countries under close scrutiny include Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. Hard to miss the horribly inconvenienced Naomi Campbell in the news this week after she had been given some dodgy rocks by Liberian dictator and all-round-unpleasant man Charles Taylor at a party thirteen years ago. She was disappointed because they were all grubby, but did she know their history? Best to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she's as slow-witted as her public pronouncements and behaviour suggest.
So what are blood diamonds? Are they red? Does Leonardo DiCaprio have some? Basically, they are diamonds mined in war zones and sold to finance insurgency or other conflict. Very often there is forced labour involved in their collection, and - as in the case of Zimbabwe - the mines are often taken violently from their commercial owners in the first place. So - all in all - they are not something that should be encouraged. The Kimberley Process has helped, though, and the World Diamond Council now estimates that around 1% of the stones on the world market are suspiciously obtained. Still too many, but at least the worst of it is under control.
Thursday, 12 August 2010
Feldspars are a group of minerals that constitute around 60% of the rocks on the Earth's crust. The pink and white bits in most granites are feldspars. They are found in igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks and have a complicated triangular composition diagram to confuse students of geology. They are alumino-silicate minerals with a balance of either sodium, calcium or potassium filling slots in the molecular structure. The presence of these last three determine the type of feldspar the mineral is. There are also some rare barium feldspars, the wicked uncle of the family. Nobody talks about barium feldspars. They were even booted out of the triangle diagram for insubordination. There are lots of different sub-groups, and further divisions within those. Maybe you can see why I specialised in palaeontology towards the end of my degree.
So far, so what, right? Well, some of these many minerals can be very pretty... See how I bring it down to my level? Bottom left here is moonstone, which is a variety of orthoclase. Up to the right is the colourful labradorite, from the plagioclase group. Sunstone is an oligoclase variety which has tiny plates of hematite that give it a golden shimmer. Amazonite is a pretty green microcline and there are gem varieties of 'normal' orthoclase and albite. I suppose the point is that - brain-eroding chemical shenanigans aside - feldspars are a big group of the most common minerals on the surface of the planet. You'd think they'd be pretty drab, dull things with an inferiority complex. Most of them are, I suppose, but they also have their gems. Even the most ordinary minerals can be beautiful. It's like the ugly duckling or something, isn't it? Don't cry now.
Friday, 6 August 2010
Coming back to the Gebel Kamil site - to me the piece misses a number of points. The Italian team's lost bottle? Who is to say they were the first people there? That seems a remarkable claim. Secondly, why should science have automatic rights to all the material? It's fair to say a better estimate of total fall weight can be attempted with more of the meteorite in situ, but who knows how much of it has been collected in the 5000 years since it fell? Ultimately, what has happened is that the scientific community has found the site of a meteorite fall and given it an official name. It will undertake a full analysis of the rocks and crater and we will learn a bit more about meteorites. This is still happening, commercial collecting or not. It is of no real use to the researchers to possess all of the meteorite, but I'd argue it's of some value to science as a whole to have the background interest in the subject raised by the commercial market.
Wednesday, 4 August 2010
Friday, 30 July 2010
Thursday, 29 July 2010
Monday, 26 July 2010
Saturday, 24 July 2010
Thursday, 22 July 2010
Thursday, 15 July 2010
Wednesday, 14 July 2010
Thursday, 1 July 2010
Monday, 21 June 2010
Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Friday, 11 June 2010
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
A couple of months ago I commissioned a painting of the shop logo shark, Akmonistion zangerli, from the palaeontological artist Bob Nicholls. He sent me this preliminary sketch (left) before starting work in the middle of May. He finished last week and sent me a picture of the completed work, which should arrive in a couple of days. You can see the picture below. The little fish are Acanthodes, a foot-long spiny shark abundant in the Early Carboniferous.
Friday, 4 June 2010
The brand new all-singing, all-dancing Mr Wood's Fossils site is now live. It's been a long time coming, but it looks great and I'm really pleased with it. Still a couple of little tweaks to be made, but it's up and running.