Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bring the hair

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I want a mammoth. The Japanese team at Osaka's Kinki University made the news again this week. They hope to 'make' a mammoth within the next few years. They started the project a while ago, but had to abandon the work they had done on skin samples as they found the cell damage from ice was too advanced. Scientists at another Japanese university recently had success in cloning a mouse from frozen cells giving the Kinki team fresh hope. That aside, cloning techniques with other animals have advanced since then and the group hope a new find on their summer trip to Siberia will provide material in viable condition. Global warming has resulted in more mammoth finds in Siberia and the problem in finding one is mostly one of time and transportation.

The process involves the insertion of mammoth cells into elephant eggs with their own nucleus removed, to produce an embryo which is then implanted into an elephant to carry to birth. The optimism of the Kinki bunch is all very well, but significant problems lie ahead. Even if they find their material (and they may yet turn to previous finds in the hands of Russian academic bodies) and it's in decent shape, the percentage of prepared elephant eggs that turn out to be usable is still very low. While the numbers involved still make the project look like something of a long shot, it's a step along the way. I think at some point in the near future a mammoth will be born for the first time in nearly four thousand years.

There are some ethical considerations. Let's leave aside the negligibly weak 'playing god' argument and focus on the fuzzy little bundle of joy itself. If and when it's born, it'll be all alone. That's a fairly bleak thought, and brings to mind the footage of the last thylacine from the Australian zoo in the 30s. So if it's to be done, I think there should be more than one - and it's pretty safe to assume there will be. Having sunk so much time and effort into the campaign so far, it would be weird to stop at one, barring disaster. Another concern that has been raised is the spectre of commercialism. Is this being done for scientific or financial reasons? Let's be generous and say primarily the former, but it's unrealistic to discount the pull and potential of the latter. Make the most of it, I'd say - go the whole hog and make a Jurassic Park equivalent. Seems to be their ultimate intention, after looking into a bit more - Pleistocene Park. Mammoths and mastodons, woolly rhinos, cave bears, aurochs, smilodons, Irish elk - the works. Revenues can fund further research. And I get to see the hairy beasts.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Dinosaur mad, he is

A slow March day. Maybe even summon up the energy to dust some stuff. Glance at the clock. 2.34.

Guy comes in, and up to the counter.
'You got any dinosaur stuff?'
'Yes - there are a few teeth to choose from - Spinosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, Edmontosaurus, Triceratops... There's some eggshell, bone, coproli...'
(Interrupting) 'Any T.rex teeth? See, what it is... My boy, right, he loves dinosaurs. It's all dinosaurs at the moment. Dinosaurs, dinosaurs, dinosaurs. T. rex is his favourite. Got any T. rex teeth?'
'No, afraid not. They're really expensive - I don't see very many and I couldn't afford to buy and sell them anyway. Have a look at these, though. Carcharodontosaurus were very similar to Tyrannosaurus in size and shape - they filled the same role in Northern Africa as T. rex in North America. Quite a range of prices - got some at £32 and the biggest is this one at £330. They look a lot like T. rex teeth.'
'Hmm. What about Velociraptor claws? Got any of those?'
'No, sorry. Claws are far, far more expensive than teeth. Dinosaurs grew and shed teeth constantly, so for every one dinosaur there could be thousands of teeth over its lifetime. The last claw I had was this size and £300 I think, but I haven't got one at the moment. There are plenty teeth to choose from though. I sell a lot of these Spinosaurus ones at £5 and £16.'
'He loves T. rex. Dinosaur mad, he is. Knows all the names and everything.'
'Well what about a bit of dinosaur eggshell?'
'What are these things? Snails?'
'They're ammonites. Sort of like an octopus that lived in a spiral shell.'
'I'll take one of these. And one of those things, there.'
'That's a brachiopod.'
'And one of these, too, please. What's this?'
'An oyster.'
'That's £15, please. Thanks. Bye.'

Glance at the clock. 2.41. Reach for the glass polish and the cloth.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Here comes the sea

On the shelf at the back of the shop there are some Mesosaurus brasiliensis fossils. Mesosaurs were long-necked reptiles that lived in freshwater lakes in the Early Permian. Big deal? The important thing about mesosaurs is exactly where they were found. Finds of the same age in Southern Africa and Eastern South America were one of the first signs of continental drift and plate tectonics in general. They had been swimming in lakes which had formed in rift valleys as the supercontinent of Gondwanaland began to pull apart.

Plate tectonics has been big news of late, sadly, with earthquakes causing horrendous destruction and tens of thousands of deaths in Japan and New Zealand. It may not make the news all the time, but it is happening all the time. The Earth's surface is comprised of a group of plates which are moved around by the convection currents created in the molten rock of the core beneath them. The relationship between the plates is complicated but their constant movement has shaped the face of the planet - the atlas would look very different were it not for continental drift. Far more is known about the processes involved now than even a few decades ago. David Attenborough remembers a skeptical geology lecturer dismissing the idea when he was at university. There is still a lot to be learned about how the plates interact, though. A fuller understanding may help seismologists predict earthquakes over the longer term, so it's an area that deserves to see a lot of research.

Africa and South America parted ways some 200 million years ago, but in Eastern Africa a similar process is happening right now. The Rift Valley in Ethiopia is a depression caused by the pulling apart of the continental crust as - very slowly - a new ocean is formed. It's not like you need worry about having to buy a new map or anything; it's going to take quite some time. In geological terms, though, the separation is happening pretty quickly, and the volcanoes and earthquakes are a sign of what's happening not far below the surface.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Internet Business Database Company Online Directory

Most of the calls I get are not people wanting to buy things, but people wanting to sell things. Advertising. Electricity. Phone line rental. Most weeks I will get a call from someone from a company with a name made up from a small group of words. Internet, business, online, directory, marketing, database, company, and pages.

I'm not the best at remembering company names, really, but I do tend to have a vague idea of adverts I've paid for through the year. The first time I got one of these calls I was a little confused. Who? Internet Business Database? Hmm. You're checking to see if I want to make any changes to my listing this year? At first there's no mention of any cost, so as the guy runs through his checklist of contact details and keywords I nod to myself, make the right noises. Then it comes to the part about how much I need to pay for this year's listing. Good news, though - they can offer me an extra six months free as I'm an existing customer. I'm worried that I don't remember becoming a customer in the first place and tell the guy I need to check first. I tell him to call me back another day as I have a customer.

I run back through the books for a year, two years. No mention of Internet Business Database. I haven't paid them anything. The guy never calls back, but a few weeks later - a call from Business Directory Online. Similar spiel. This time I'm suspicious, so I ask how long ago I took out the advert. A pause, then 'Eighteen months'. Okay. I know fine well this time that I didn't. How much did it cost me last time? '£120 plus VAT'. I tell him I don't remember ever dealing with his company and that I don't want to continue the listing in any case. His reply was something along the lines of 'Oh - sorry - must be some mistake in our system. Bye'.

In the case of bigger companies with larger advertising budgets and more staff, I'm sure it's easy to lose track of which ads have been taken out in the year and assume the call is genuine. These scams must be effective enough to be worth pursuing because the calls, with small variations in company name, brilliant offer and small details, are frequent now. The last time I cut him off straight away with 'Don't bother' and hung up. Next time I'm going to string them along, though. Ask them why I still haven't received payment for the fossil they bought from me 18 months ago. I'll be happy to continue my listing if they send me the cheque for the balance of £314.

I have had a couple of slightly more sinister ones, telling me not that my listing is about to run out, but that I owe money for an advert campaign which has already been running. Those seem far more obvious to spot, though - not many internet marketing companies would do the work first and call later about payment. The people in this instances are aggressive to the point of threatening and I got incredibly angry with one woman who said I should expect to be taken to court by their legal department. I'm not really sure about what the proper thing to do in these circumstances. I should probably find out, really. Scum.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Earn your stripes

One of the things I was glad to get at the show in Arizona was Zebra Rock. I'd seen it around for a few years and while I'd bought a piece for myself, I'd thought it too expensive to work in the shop. Last year I noticed some at a far more reasonable price and gave it a go - lots of little tumblestone-sized pieces and a few larger lumps. It went very well. This year I couldn't find exactly the same stuff, but the seller told me he had a lot of rough material at another venue. A couple of days later I found it, and picked out a few kilos from a huge barrel. I'll need to wash it and sand it down a little, but the extra effort will be well worth it.

It's unusual stuff, and there has been a lot of discussion on exactly how it formed. It was first found in Argyle Station, in East Kimberley, Western Australia in the 1920s by a geologist visiting from New York. This locality is now under reservoir water and more sources have been found nearby - the stuff I have is from Kununurra, a little further North.

It's a silicious argillite - that's clay or siltstone with quartz and is pre-Cambrian in age; over 600 million years old. What makes it special, though, is its amazing banding pattern. It varies from spots to (more frequently) stripes but usually surprisingly regular. It looks like it has been hand-painted. These bands and how they were formed is the subject for debate. Originally it had been thought that it was the result of deformation of original sedimentary layers, or possibly the introduction of an iron-rich mineral into a pale clay. The grain-size and texture is consistent across the pattern, though, which would suggest the first of these is unlikely and the structure of the patterning provides difficulties for the second. What seems the most plausible explanation is that hematite-rich bands are the result of a hydrothermal precipitation of sorts - mineral-saturated water moving through the body of rock distributing iron-rich patches as it built sufficient concentration. This paper provides a better explanation than I can, and looks at the part magnetism may have played. Be warned - it's complimacated and has far more words than pictures. It's enough for me - and most others - that it looks nice.