Thursday, 26 August 2010

Nice to be nice

I have heard a number of times from religious people that their ethics are either informed by or totally derived from their faith. It happened again recently. At times, this is meant to imply my lack of faith leads automatically to a lack of moral code. Which, naturally, I find more than a little offensive. Personally, I feel if you need to learn what's right and wrong from a book written a very long time ago, then there's something amiss. I believe myself to be a moral person and have always thought that people have an innate sense of ethics, that it is a beneficial attribute for both society and the individual. Ultimately, if it is innate and broadly beneficial, then 'niceness' is likely to be a trait passed on.

I was pleased to find this article on Nature's website suggesting a broader effect of the benefits of altruism, outwith the family structure. The evolution of morality has been accepted for some time, but these findings from mathematical analysis show that the general process of natural selection can result in inherited altruism and that no specific set of circumstances is necessary. Maybe all those ants carrying bits of leaf everywhere are going to parties.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Hot stuff

A woman was looking through the tumblestones and picked up a piece of man-made silicon. It's unused stuff from silicon chip manufacture and looks great polished - silvery and strange. She held it up and asked me:

'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?'
'Um. You could, I suppose. Why?'

I wasn't really expecting that question. Turned out she made brooches by baking stuff. We talked about melting points. She didn't buy any.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Goodnight Moon

The moon is shrinking. According to astronomers looking at data from a NASA orbiter, it has lost about 200 metres of its diameter. It's all wrinkly. This isn't unusual - like planets, the moon had a hot core when it was formed and as the core cools, the surface contracts. So if the moon is still contracting, it might still have a bit of heat left in its middle. Maybe there's a dragon or something in there. I hope so.

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


There's a television programme called Cold Case, where unsolved crimes are re-examined in the light of new evidence. I think. I haven't seen it. What was I going to say? Oh, yes. The case of the dead elephants. There are a number of ideas as to the demise of the mammoths, mastodons and other exciting megafauna of North America about 13,000 years back. You know - when all this was fields. At the same time, a paleo-Indian people known as Clovis, famous for their stone spear points, seem to die out. The demise of the big, hairy animals and the spear-toting man would appear closely linked.

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

Spoils of war

This week Zimbabwe put some blood diamonds on sale, after a ban had been lifted by the regulatory body. The trade watchdog, under the eye of the UN, has a system called The Kimberley Process to ensure every diamond-producing nation can show its diamonds are from legitimate mining sources. Zimbabwe, as you'll probably know, is a bit of a mess of a country and their army took diamond mines by force some time ago.

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

Pennies from heaven

I realise it was only last week I wrote about the awkward relationship between the commercial and academic geological worlds but another article - this time about meteorites, in New Scientist - caught my attention today. It centres around the Gebel Kamil crater in Egypt, found last year by some Italian scientists but also by others - to the dismay of the research team. Now, of course my inclination is going to be to defend attacks on open-market trading in geological material. I'm a fossil dealer. However, I did a post-grad course in Museum Studies, and worked in museums for a while, too. I understand where the academics are coming from to a degree and I do try to keep a balanced view. Honest.

The main thrust of my argument last week was the enormous provision of material from the commercial sector and how it would be detrimental to science to cut that off. This stands for meteorites as well. I have three or four friends who are meteorite hunters - that's what they do for a living. Anyone wishing to study the material they find can do so easily enough - buying a few small pieces will be far, far cheaper than going out to collect their own samples. The New Scientist article suggests at one point that material in the hands of commercial collectors is forever lost to science. I think that's both partially untrue and potentially damaging. Most collectors I know will happily make their stuff available for study on request. I know that someone has to know it's there in the first place, though, and I can see that as a problem. Lots of collections are offered to museums eventually, but that doesn't solve the issue. Again, pro-actively fostering relationships between collectors and the academic establishment can only be of benefit.

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.

The use of UNESCO as a safeguard for specimens and sites of vital importance to science could be more effective if properly applied and enforced, but there aren't many instances where this is the case. As an example, China have a blanket ban on the export of vertebrate fossil material. This seemed brought in essentially to protect their feathered dinosaur stuff - and rightly so. Very important palaeontological specimens that academics should be able to access. It's a sledgehammer to crack a nut, though. Also banned for export are two types of fossil fish, Jianghanichthys and Lycoptera, that had provided a steady income stream for very poor parts of China. They are of no scientific interest. Australia is pretty much the only place where customs will take an interest if you go through the border with a Chinese fossil fish. The approach mentioned towards the end of the New Scientist piece is a good one, I think, but essentially is simply exploiting the existing situation. Academic bodies sponsoring local collectors to provide material for them instead of buying from dealers. But - doesn't that just make these sponsored local collectors... meteorite dealers?

Ahhh. I'll write about something else next time, I promise.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A week to themselves

Mothers get a day. Fathers get a day. Sharks get a whole week. So greedy. But anyway - it's Shark Week this week. Right now. So go and hug a shark. Well - okay - go and... Go and... How do you celebrate Shark Week? It's been running since 1987, the brainchild of the Discovery Channel who pack their schedule with relevant programming.

Sharks get a rough time of it from us lot. Some of us are afraid of them, others fascinated, but we're all at least impressed. Some of the best-sellers in the shop are fossil shark teeth, so I owe them a great deal. Sharks are the lions of the sea. Or to avoid any letters of complaint from sealions, maybe sharks are the tigers of the sea. They have been around for a long time and proved themselves thoroughly effective predators but seem to have met their match in humans. Most species of shark face some level of extinction threat - and may be lost within the next few decades at current rates of decline. The process of collecting shark fins for a stupid soup is revolting. I'd suggest that anyone wanting shark fin soup should collect the ingredients themselves, by hand. So - all power to Shark Week if it at least raises awareness a little.