Monday, September 29, 2008


If I've been a little sparse on posting lately, it's not for lack of material - I just went on a nice tour yesterday of the geology of Western NY, including the stratigraphic sequence from the top to the bottom of Niagara Falls, glacial deposits and striations, and the coolest stromatolites I've ever seen. (It was even worth putting up with the whiny students, who I was TAing for. "Why do we have to climb this hill?" "Are we staying on the bus for this stop?" "I wasn't paying attention to what the professor just said THREE SECONDS AGO. Can you answer all the questions he just covered?" Not to mention the hung-over ones.)

It's not even because I spent both days this weekend TAing for the trip and basically had an hour or two each evening to eat, do chores, complete all my homework assignments, read papers, outline papers, etc.

No, it's because last night, thanks to Microsoft's oh-so-necessary Service Pack 3, my computer decided to crash completely and display the Blue Screen of Death - which it is still doing. So instead of being at home, getting ready for a long day of classes, I am at school, where I have been since 6 AM, trying to recreate all the work that I did last night that's due today. Fortunately I could get into the building and find a computer to use, but I now have no computer of my own, and likely won't for several days, if the IT people are able to help me with it at all. If not...well, I'll only have lost the files from this past week or so, but I'll be stuck with no computer and a very expensive doorstop.

Screw technology. At this point, I'd be perfectly happy to be out on a horse in the middle of the desert, writing about an outcrop in a NOTEBOOK with a PENCIL that I have to trim with a knife. (More specifically, screw Microsoft, for being so useless and because I'm stuck with them, since I can't afford a Mac.)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rocks in from space: Accretionary Wedge #13

Unfortunately, my experience with extraterrestrial geology is limited - I haven't taken a planetary geo course yet, although there's a planetary volcanology expert not twenty yards away, and I intend to take advantage of that next semester. So I'm going to take a little nostalgia trip and talk about one of my favorite places in the world, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. (Don't worry, this will connect to the space theme eventually!)

When I was very young, I used to visit the museum all the time. It wasn't unusual for me to insist on going to visit more than once a month, and sometimes during the summer I'd spend even more time there. (My father worked in DC, and was usually the one to escort me.) I remember that the old Gems & Minerals exhibit, while cool to me because I was crazy about that sort of thing, was not exactly the most exciting place in the world. A lot of the displays looked like this:

(This is actually from the NMNH's Research Training Program tour of "behind the scenes", but it's approximately the same as the old exhibit.)

Pretty traditional stuff. But then, for a couple of years, the exhibit underwent a major renovation. And when it reopened in 1997, it looked like this:

The new exhibit so completely exceeded the old one in awesomeness that I still grin like a little kid whenever I walk in there. And the first thing you see? (Or, in my case, the second thing after I've rushed to the volcano/earthquake section to jump around next to the seismograph...) Space rocks! (I actually don't have any of my own photos of the meteorites - I'm always way too busy reading things to take pictures, and besides, it's not like I can't go back.)

Anyway, spending so much time at the museum - around the meteorites, among other things - was one of the reasons I became a geologist. And when I was in high school, I was so annoyed that I couldn't take geology classes yet that I spent two summers as a volunteer for the Global Volcanism Program at NMNH. It was mostly helping edit the Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, which was fun, but the volunteers also got some perks - among them, behind-the-scenes tours of all the neat stuff that the public doesn't get to see. And one of those tours was in the National Meteorite Collection.

It's hard to describe how amazing it is to stand in a room holding a rock and knowing that it's totally alien, had little to do with the Earth until it impacted, and that it could have come from millions of miles away. And hey, if the rock just happens to be this one...

Well, let's just say that I considered holding this rock (or, at least, its spiffy "don't touch" bubble) one of the highlights of my geologic career. In case you don't recognize it, this is ALH 84001, the little Mars rock that caused such a stir a few years back when someone thought they saw critters in it. The Smithsonian keeps it under lock and key in its own secret-agent-style locked metal suitcase, and brings it out for visiting dignitaries (and rock-crazy highschoolers, apparently). Here's a close-up:

(From here.)

I also had the opportunity to hold a piece of a pallasite (a stony-iron meteorite with lots of olivine) like this one:

And, as a special treat, the curator thought it would be fun to hand me the core of a nickel-iron meteorite. Those meteorites have densities of between 7 and 8 g/cm3, and the cores have even higher densities, which means that something the size of a football weighs a hell of a lot more than a football (or even a normal rock the size of a football). Let's just say that I barely managed not to drop the thing and crush all my toes.

So, there you have it. My intense fascination with the Smithsonian's collections led to a summer volunteer position which led to my first intimate contact with rocks from space, which in turn stoked the fires of geological ambition even higher. That tour was one of the neatest things I've every had the opportunity to do, and I highly recommend exploiting any Smithsonian contacts to get yourself in there the next time you have a chance to visit Washington DC.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Don't fall in! Field trip to Niagara Gorge

Thanks for all the comments on the last entry...I'm working out my problems, really! And you've all been very helpful. (And thanks to Silver Fox for the "Arte y Pico" award! I've always wanted a cool swoopy angel trophy. Now I'll have to start thinking about who to pass it on to...) However, I feel I've slacked off long enough and it's time to start writing about geology again. I went on a great field trip to Niagara Gorge on Thursday, and, naturally, I have lots of photos.

Niagara Gorge (the area above the Falls) is around 12,000 years old, cut into Ordovician and Silurian rocks (mainly dolomites, shales, sandstones, and limestones) as well as (in the Upper Gorge) Wisconsin glacial deposits. The Falls have eroded back 7 miles toward Lake Erie in the last 12,500 years, although because of decreased flow the erosion rate is now only about 1 ft/year. On a normal day, the power plants in the Gorge above the Falls restrict the flow of water through the Gorge to about 75% during the day in peak tourist season, and 25% at night and off-peak. (This actually reminded me of something that I commented on when I first visited Niagara Falls at about age 10 - I told my parents that it seemed strange that the Falls were "on all the time" and didn't get turned off at night, like other tourist attractions I'd been to. Ironically enough, the Falls can be turned off at night - and almost are!)

Our field trip began at Whirlpool State Park on the American side, overlooking Niagara Glen (a great place for bouldering, if you're into that and have a passport). We spent a little time discussing the history of the Falls (including how the bend in the river occurs because the river hit the buried gorge and started cutting into glacial deposits that had filled a paleo-Niagara River system, formed >45,000 years ago). Then we climbed down a lot of stairs and switchbacks to get to the trail, which runs along the river to the Whirlpool. Along the trail, you can see lots of talus from the cliffs, the jetboats on the river (which are the only boats allowed in that part of the Gorge), and a place where the water is flowing in two directions at once, thanks to the Whirlpool. (Here's some more cool trivia: under natural conditions, the Whirlpool circulates counterclockwise, but when the power plants take the river down to 1/4 flow rate, the Whirlpool reverses and flows clockwise.) The river is about 160 feet deep in that part of the Gorge, possibly 200 feet deep in the Whirlpool (although this is unconfirmed as of yet).

Now for the photos! I was using my cheap, "I won't be devastated if this accidentally gets dropped in the dangerous and unswimmable river" digital camera, so they're not as good a quality as I'd like, but they shouldn't be too bad.

Here's the group at the first overlook, looking roughly to the north at the Niagara Glen and one of the two power plants.

Looking south along the river at the Whirlpool.

The spot on the river where the (surface, at least) water appears to be flowing in two directions at once. It's hard to see in this photo, but I believe the water on the near side of the river is flowing to the left (downstream), and the water on the far side is flowing to the right (upstream).

Looking out over the Whirlpool, with the lines of the Canadian gondola service overhead.

Silurian shales and limestones in the cliffs above the bend in the river.

The rapids leading into the Whirlpool. These are Class VI - the most dangerous kind. More than 2800 cubic m of water/second go through these at peak flow, compared with 1700 cubic m/second on the Colorado River's Lava Falls Rapids. You'd have to be pretty stupid to try and navigate these, because not only is it incredibly dangerous, it's illegal for any boat to be on this part of the river. There was, at one time, a rafting company that planned on taking people down this stretch of the river; on their maiden voyage, their boats capsized and three people were killed. This is also the location of North America's largest series of standing waves. This is an awesome place to be in, but also quite humbling - one misstep on a slippery rock, and you're toast, because there are no rescue boats on this part of the Niagara River.

A close-up of the wave. (Standing waves are constantly in motion - in this case, always crashing in the same spot. )

Here's a video of the waves crashing.

There is more to look at than just the water, however. The bench we stood on is made up of Whirlpool Sandstone, which is possibly Ordovician or Lower Silurian in age (there are no fossils in the sandstone to date it with, although the rocks above are Middle Silurian and the rocks below are Ordovician). It does, however, contain some neat cross-stratification, shown below (hand lens for scale). The cross-stratification is small in scale (a few cm or tens of cm) and unidirectional, and in some places ripple marks are also preserved.

Ripple marks!

Looking downstream at more cliffs and rapids (and the first of the oversized hotels). These are perhaps slightly more navigable, although again very stupid and illegal. (I don't really know which country would send someone down there to arrest you, though - maybe they fish you out later, if you survive.)

And that's it for now. Next weekend I'll be TAing a trip to the Falls themselves, where we'll likely get to see some very cool fossils. (I'm starting to turn into a paleontologist up here - limestone everywhere!)

Monday, September 15, 2008


One of the things I least like about myself is my habit of getting very anxious and upset over odd things. Strangely enough, this doesn't happen for big events - I've defended an undergrad thesis, presented a poster at a conference (and not in the undergrad section, either), started teaching intro geo labs, walked on hot lava, and (totally unrelated to geology), performed a Tchaikovsky symphony in a concert with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

Oh, I get nervous, sure. But somehow the nerves don't really screw me up for the big things. It's other things - buying a piece of furniture that I turn out to hate (actually, a lot of impulse buys do this to me), or hearing people talk about what great deals they have on their rent and feeling like I'm an idiot because I didn't find the same, or not wanting to turn on the heat because I'm afraid I won't be able to afford the bill, or spending that extra money on sushi because I can't stand to eat ham and cheese again. I get upset about stupid things. I have the feeling that I would be perfectly fine if I had to deal with, say, an earthquake, or a volcano suddenly sprouting up in my backyard (unlikely), or some other natural disaster; but something that I could possibly feel guilty about really screws up my day.

I guess this means I have the opposite of performance anxiety. I don't think it's bad enough that I need to get medication for it, but it's certainly not helping me get through the day.

I do remember feeling like this when I was starting undergrad - not this bad, actually, because they kept us really busy and I ended up going home early in the fall because of a hurricane. But this time I think it's worse - I've moved several states away from home, I live alone, I have no family nearby, I'm just starting to make friends and I'm starting grad school, which is a major undertaking in itself. Not to mention I'm constantly worrying about money and classes and teaching and research.

I think I need more people around. My decision not to try and find people to live with was, I think, because four years of dorm living has turned me off sharing small spaces with people all the time, and because I didn't want to rush into a living situation that I might not be able to stand later. Unfortunately, that means once I leave school, my human contact for the day is over with, unless I call home. The entire situation stinks, and I'm going to have to start doing something about it before I convince myself that this whole thing was a bad idea.

On the upside, so you all don't think I'm really starting to get depressed, I'm getting a lot of reading done for my research. At the moment I'm delving into autofragmentation and mechanisms for pyroclastic flow formation, as well as lava dome structure and collapse triggers. Cool stuff - I'm glad I really get to dive into it, because I'm learning a lot.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Close encounters

A few days ago, in the process of selling some unwanted furniture (Craigslist is my new best friend), I found myself in an interesting situation. The gentleman who came to buy my chair and I were making polite conversation; he noticed that I had an out-of-state license plate on my car and I told him that I'd moved here for graduate school. He asked what I was studying, and I told him geology - specifically volcanology - and then gave him the short version of why I think erupting volcanoes are awesome.

He paused. Then, in a slightly different tone of voice, he said, "There's something I'd like to give to you." After digging around in a bag for a moment, he turned around and handed me a paper booklet. "I'm sure that as a geologist, you've come up against a lot of different ideas about creation and the world," he went on, and I could feel my face freezing into a rictus smile. "This is just a Gospel tract for you to read and think over."

To my immense relief, he didn't go any further than that, and I was able to thank him politely, tell him I hoped he enjoyed the chair, and go back inside. The booklet, as I expected, was heavily emblazoned with patriotic imagery (a really angry looking eagle plastered on top of the American flag), and filled with a bunch of gloom-and-doom Bible quotes about sin and some really poor-quality comics (Jack Chick tracts, anyone?). I relegated it to the recycling pile, and then got to thinking about the whole experience.

This actually isn't the first time I've encountered that kind of a response as a geologist. Once was on my first long field trip, where an elderly lady cornered the professor in a grocery store parking lot and wanted to know if we were looking at rocks formed in "The Flood", which she assured us were very common in the area (somewhere in Utah, I think). The second time was during a "Geology Day" that our department held every year; one of the seniors was running a demonstration about dinosaur bones, and became very upset when two young children began berating her about the ages of the bones and insisting that the Earth couldn't be older than 6,000 years. (The other senior in the room actually had to leave for a few minutes to keep herself from attempting to strangle said small children, that sort of thing being frowned upon in community events.)

In the first instance, as I remember, my professor made some vague comments about the rocks probably having been deposited in water, and made his escape. In the second case, the senior had to stop her discussion and ask that the children be considerate of everyone else and wait until she was finished to get into an argument with her (which they may have done, although I wasn't there).

What is it about geologists that makes some people want to convince us of the validity of their worldview, as opposed to practicing tolerance and acceptance of others? The man I encountered was polite, and didn't go farther than handing over the pamphlet, but he was still making assumptions about me - and he had no way of knowing whether they were true. (I have, in fact, taken and enjoyed a number of classes about world religions, and they did cover different creation stories. I was also raised with a theistic worldview, although it's been modified somewhat as I've aged, and been better able to examine my religion and my feelings about it.)

I think what offends me the most is the assumption that because I'm a scientist, I must automatically need saving, pulling back into some sort of protective cloud of religion which is the only safe haven of morality and virtue. I have no problem reconciling my religious beliefs and my profession, and I don't believe that it makes me an immoral or unkind or a bad influence on impressionable young people. Not all scientists are atheists, and being an atheist doesn't automatically make you lose all sense of morality.

Another thing that I found distasteful about the encounter was that to me, religion is a very private thing, in contrast to being a scientist (which I'm happy to proclaim loudly to the world at every opportunity). I'm happy with my religious viewpoints; whatever works for other people is fine with me - as long as it doesn't involve trying to change my beliefs. I realize that a major part of some religions, especially evangelical Christianity, is proselytizing, and that these people genuinely feel that they're helping me. Not to be rude, but here's a news flash:

You are not going to convince me that your system of belief, or worldview, or whatever, is better than mine by telling me that I'm wrong. You might get me thinking about it by demonstrating through the way you behave toward others that it's a good idea, but it's not likely. And you certainly aren't going to make a good impression on me by treating me like a misguided child.

In the meantime, I'm going to go on being fascinated and amazed and awed by the concept of deep time, and the Earth and the universe being billions of years old, and how cool it is that life could have evolved from a few teeny little cells way back when. And I'm sure I'll come up against this question of conflict between religion and science again, whether in conversation or in class, and I'll handle it the best way I know. And hopefully, someday, some people will stop thinking that I'm a godless heathen just because I like to play with rocks.

(Wow, that was rambling and philosophical. I've definitely got to finish up some of my literature review for this thesis thing so I can start writing about volcanoes again soon.)

Ooh, look! A bandwagon!

I love bandwagons. (What the hell is a bandwagon, anyway? Wikipedia says that the phrase was first used in 1848 during a political campaign, but we all know how reliable Wikis are...) Anyway, back to the important stuff.

Instructions from Chuck: Use bold to indicate minerals you’ve seen in the wild. Italics is for those seen in laboratories, museums, stores, or other non field locations.

Silver (native)
Sulphur (native)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008

NOVA Geoblog has a new survey...

...and everyone should go take it. It's about the geoblogosphere - how it got started, where is it going, and what's happening right now, and more. Callan's collecting data for a talk at the Geological Society of Washington meeting (which I can't go to now, on account of being in Buffalo. Darn it.)

So go take the survey! It's quick, and the data will make for a great talk - and might even get you some more readers.

PS - I promise I'll start blogging more, really. I've just been flattened by the beginning of grad school and the latest head cold. As soon as I can stop taking cold drugs and start thinking straight again...