Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Hammer of the gods

Hi. Do you have any of those hammers that find meteorites?

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

Cardboard, bubblewrap and rocks

Yesterday morning I had four big boxes of fossils and minerals delivered from a friend down in England. They sat in the corner staring at me while I had some customers. Then mid-morning I picked out some jewellery lines for the website from a supplier who was driving around Scotland in a van. Not quite as much, but small, shiny things that need weighed and priced with fiddly labels. Finally, just after lunch another friend arrived with a carload of stuff for me to look through. I bought a lot - mostly replenishing standard lines.

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

Factual selection

I read an article this morning calling for a reappraisal of the work of Patrick Matthew, a Scottish farmer who is credited with the initial idea of evolution through natural selection, some 27 years earlier than Darwin's famous work was published. Matthew addressed the subject in an appendix to his 1831 book 'Naval Timber and Arboriculture'. Not surprisingly perhaps, his revelation flew under the radar somewhat while Darwin and Wallace went on to greater fame.

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

We're doomed

A few years ago I read Bill Bryson's book 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', which I thoroughly recommend. It's a broad oversight of the planet's history, which obviously covers a lot of geological ground. Bryson comes to the subject as an enthusiastic layman and his explanations are entertaining and easy to follow. However - a large proportion of the book is about the numerous very bad things which are likely to happen to us at any given time. He points out that we face painful and terrifying deaths in the microscopic form of a supervirus, in the ginormous, rocky shape of an incoming asteroid, in the hot, nasty lava of a supervolcano and so on. Great stuff, though it might have you looking over your shoulder a little.

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!