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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Not "Eureka!" but "That's Funny. . ."

Not "Eureka!" but "That's Funny. . ."


     "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but "That's funny. . ."

        Isaac Asimov's words resonate for me partly because of the humor but also because of the ellipsis at the end of his quote. It is in that space of wondering, of trailing off, of inviting discourse that is so appealing. Growing up I learned to search for the "Aha!" moment. . . when, really, leaving the space to find new discoveries in the . . . is more inviting and collaborative.

         Asimov also wrote that: "It pays to be obvious, especially if you have a reputation for subtlety." I took those words to heart in making this segue to Clarke Knight, Smith College Class of 2014 and newest Rhodes Scholar:

         Ms. Knight (Clarke Knight of the Soul :-) ), a chemistry major, crew member, and book author is pictured above in the infamous Lyman Conservatory of banana plant glass pushing fame. Ms. Knight is from Henderson, Nevada, south of the Golden E Triangle of Ely-Elko-Eureka(!), Nevada:

          It is an area of the Basin and Range where I did follow-up field-checking after photogeologic-geomorphic mapping and space imagery analysis. Tromping around in the horsts and grabens of the extensional (or pull-apart) geologic features of central and northern Nevada was a true treat. Amazing fossils and fascinating geology surrounded us. Clarence Dutton wrote of the Great Basin in 1886:
Whoever has examined, even cursorily, the map of Western America must have noticed the following arrangement of the mountain masses: The great belt of cordilleras coming up through Mexico and crossing into United States territory is depicted as being composed of many short, abrupt ranges or ridges, looking upon the map like an army of caterpillars crawling northward.

     Another Asimov quote: "I write for the same reason I breathe--because if I didn't, I would die." I am not sure of Ms. Knight's thoughts on writing but I share Dr. Asimov's thoughts. His personal papers take up 464 boxes or 71 meters of shelf space. He wrote over 500 books and over 90,000 letters and postcards. His books are in 9/10 of the categories of the Dewey Decimal System (just call Isaac Iceberg Writer. . . )

      Dr. Asimov's first quote above has made me quite conscious of using the exclamation point versus the ellipsis. . .I welcome your comments from New Jersey to California and Germany to Yemen (Partial Ellipsis of the Sun Blog Reader Data: That's Funny. . .")


Word Woman (Scientific Steph)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Cheese Imitates Geology: Thin Vegetable Ash Layer and Thin Iridium-rich Clay Layer

Cheese Imitates Geology: Thin Vegetable Ash Layer and Thin Iridium-Rich Clay Layer


      There is a small, wicker cheese basket at my local grocery store filled with little snippets of cheeses--the ends of various imported wheels and logs. This one caught my eye:


          I unwrapped it last night and found this written on the wrapper (just so you know I'm not making this up):

     A hairline layer of vegetable ash?! Oh my. 

     Of course, the iridium-rich clay layer found at the boundary of the Cretaceous period (about 65 million years ago) with the overlying Paleogene sediments first documented by Luis and Walter Alvarez (shown below) in Italy, sprang to mind. The limestone layers beneath the red clay are full of numerous species of foraminifera (forams) and the thick limestone beds above contain only one foram species. In between is this iridium-rich later of clay. In Italy. In Germany. In the Netherlands. In the U.S. All over the world.

      Iridium is a rare, silvery, white transition metal of the platinum family found in meteorites. It was named for the Greek goddess Iris after the rainbow colors in its salts and less than 3 tons a year are mined world-wide:

     Iridium is associated with the massive K-Pg extinction including the non-flying dinosaurs and a huge, diverse, plant population. (The boundary was called the K-T boundary for Cretaceous-Tertiary when the Alvarezes discovered it. The International Stratigraphic Nomenclature Committee has recently deprecated the Tertiary Period though; it now must be called Paleogene.) [First Pluto is no longer a planet; now we can't call it the K-T boundary any more. Sigh...]  And the likely location of the meteorite hitting the earth in the Gulf of Mexico is also well documented.

       What strikes me (no pun intended, okay, maybe...) about naming conventions in geology and in all areas, actually, is the creativity and force in coming up with these descriptive terms. As Clementine says to Joel when talking about her newest hair color in the film Eternal Sunshine Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, "Naming hair colors. Somebody has that job. I want that job!"

        Calling the thin layer of vegetables in the Humboldt Fog Cheese "Vegetable Ash" is truly inspired to this geologist and cheese eater.

         Last week: puddingstones that look like pudding. This week: Cheese that looks like limestone layers with a hairline layer of ash. It doesn't get much better than that full circle.

        Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments, thoughts, and cheesy ideas.

Until then, "say cheese!" (And mean it).

Humboldtly yours,
Word Woman (aka Scientific "Vegetable Ash Layer" Steph) 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Puddingstones: Plum Wonderful!

Puddingstones: Plum Wonderful Stones filled with "Berries & Currants" of Jasper & other Pebbles


     For some reason, all sorts of stones have been on my mind the past few weeks, including the wonderful Michigan puddingstones pictured above. Their name comes from the resemblance to English suet or pudding filled with berries and currants, and, well, they do look good enough to eat!

      Puddingstone, or  plum-pudding stone, is the name given to conglomerates (of different origins, compositions, and locations) that consists of distinctly rounded pebbles whose colors (in this case, Jasper chalcedony red) contrast greatly with the color of the finer-grained matrix (or cement) surrounding the pebbles. The Michigan puddingstones pictured above are likely associated with glacial activity of fairly recent origin.

     In contrast, I cut my geologic teeth in the Northampton and Boston, Massachusetts, area where we drove miles and miles from little scraps of outcrops to other little scraps of outcrops to look at the Roxsbury Conglomerate of the Boston Basin:

     Originally thought to be associated with shallow river and lake basins, the prevailing hypothesis is that these puddingstones or conglomerates are associated with very deep marine basins in a suite of rocks known as turbidites, associated with deep-sea submarine fans. They are also much, much older (and they look it!), dating from 570 to 595 million years ago.

      There are other puddingstones, such as the Hertfordshire Conglomerate in merry old England :

     And the Jelly Bean Conglomerate of Arizona and the western United States:

      I had the good fortune of attending geologic field camp in Arizona where we could see the Jelly Bean comglomerate stretching out for long distances (no driving needed, it was strictly a walk in the geologic park).

      Naming stones or rock formations based on their similarities to foods we eat is decidedly more fun than the geologic convention of naming formations based on the locale where they were first discovered. It is a sense of whimsy I shared with Robert W. Hickman, my first geologist boss, amazing teacher, and good friend. I am also writing Bob's eulogy today. Bob would have enjoyed this:


     Thanks for all you comments and suggestions. I look forward to a bit of puddingstone discussion with you. If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding (Pink Floyd), but you may surely have some puddingstones.


Word Woman (aka Scientific Steph)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Life Imitates Metaphor: Banana Plant Pushes Through Glass Ceiling at Smith College

Life imitates Metaphor: Banana Plant Pushes Through Glass Ceiling at Smith College

        A banana plant busted through one of the ceiling panes at the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College over the weekend. Smith College has witnessed many women pushing through glass ceilings over the past 100 plus years. Now, we have actual evidence that a pane of glass can be broken through, literally overnight, in this article featured in today's Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, Massachusetts.

     In this bizarre case of life imitating metaphor, Smith College has a most fitting symbol (living mascot?) of breaking through those clear barriers. A banana plant at Smith has many commonalities with Julia Child, Gloria Steinem, Otelia Cromwell (Otelia Cromwell Day at Smith is today!) and many other Smith College graduates. And, in so many cases, the women broke through the ceilings almost overnight...but it did take over 100 years of growth to get to the point where the pane could be shattered. The push came in the middle of the night with no witnesses. And yet, the push came. . .

     And, in an odd presaging, Marshall Schalk, professor emeritus of geology at Smith College, and I had a conversation standing near the very same banana plant in 1978 (it has been at the conservatory since at least 1904). He told me that banana plants were remarkably strong and forceful and that he would not be surprised if, one day, the plant pushed through the glass ceiling! "Just like a Smith!" he said (He called us Smiths, not Smithies).

     So, today, Marshall, life imitates metaphor. This photograph is for YOU!


       As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments on glass ceilings, Smith College or...,

       Word Woman (aka Scientific Smithie Steph)