6 December 2013
Turtle Mountain is a mountain in the Canadian Rockies that had a terrible landslide occur, half-burying the coal-mining town of Frank.
The mountain’s structure is an eastward-verging anticline, floored by a fault, like just about everything in the Front Ranges of the Canadian Rockies. Here’s a model made of felt in the Frank Slide Visitor Center:
The black layer represents the coal that the town was founded to extract. Miners trapped underground by the slide miraculously survived and tunneled their way out again!
It’s an awesome place to contemplate the relationship between ancient tectonics and modern risks. I’ll be taking students back to Frank in July. I’m looking forward to it.
5 December 2013
Some time ago, when I reviewed some books here, Thomas Hodgson left the suggestion that I might enjoy The Snoring Bird, by Bernd Heinrich. So I asked the library to order it, and they did, and as soon as it arrived, someone else checked it out. Then I got my turn, and today, when I returned it, it instantly got whisked off to another eager reader! Wow – a popular tome.
The book is a memoir / autobiography of the author, a noted wildlife ecologist, and his father, an entomologist specializing in ichneumon wasps. Heinrich’s female relatives get some mention, too, but they are clearly not his focus. His multiple marriages and children are dealt with in a matter of mere pages, while his father’s war-time travails in Europe dominate page-space. In fact, I’d guesstimate that about 3/5ths of the book are about his father, Gerd, and only 2/5ths are about the author himself. It’s a little odd that way.
I think Heinrich (the younger) is at his best when he is describing his thought processes in experimenting with animal behavior in the wild. He designs clever tests to figure out why bumblebee thoraxes are warm, for instance, and gains real insights into the biology of our nonhuman neighbors. But most of this book is not like that. It’s mostly about his family luckily getting through one harrowing World War II escape after another, or in more halcyon times, exploring the jungles of Borneo or Tanzania in search of new species, such as the titular rail.
I enjoyed the portion of the book that dealt with Heinrich’s travails and adventures growing up in rural Maine, and attending a private school, and learning the joy of running in the woods. And it was worthwhile to read how his father, who fought as a patriotic German in World War I only reluctantly served under Hitler in World War II, more out of fear than anything positive. That’s a perspective I haven’t personally explored before. But the relationship between father and son was strained and awkward, and it’s dismaying to read of that disconnect. And I found the maleness of the whole volume (with only peripheral examination of the female perspective) to be stark and off-putting.
So, all told, I didn’t love it, and would recommend Mind of the Raven over it for readers new to exploring Heinrich’s oeuvre.
4 December 2013
The Smithsonian Castle is one of the most striking buildings on the National Mall in Washington, DC. One reason for this is its distinctive architecture, but a second reason is its color: a bright, deep red. This color comes from the rock from which the Castle constructed: the Triassic-aged “Seneca Sandstone,” a part of the formation technically known as the Manassas Sandstone. It is overlain by the Balls Bluff Siltstone, the most extensive geologic unit within the Culpeper Basin. The Culpeper Basin is part of the Newark Supergroup basins – extensional, normal-fault-bounded grabens and half-grabens that opened up in the early Mesozoic when the supercontinent Pangea was breaking up and the Atlantic Ocean was first forming.
The new book The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry, by local historian Garrett Peck, tells the history of the extraction, use, and historical tie-ins associated with this rock. The History Press kindly provided me with a review copy of the book. I enjoyed reading it, but mostly it’s written about things I wouldn’t ordinarily pursue – economics, political scandals, the machinations of landowners and family members. The book features some beautiful color plates which showcase the stone’s unique color very nicely. It’s a gorgeous rock.
There is very little geology in the book. It’s mainly a historical study of the “stone” (stone being “rock you pay money for”) rather than the rock itself. There is a small 2-page spread on the geological origins of the Seneca Sandstone, but it’s pretty paltry stuff if you already speak geology. This was a disappointment to me as a geologically-inclined reader. It’s a shame to gloss over the story of this rock, because it’s actually pretty doggone epic. The breakup of Pangea, the birth of the Atlantic, the role of contingency in geologic history with regard to DC’s Piedmont rocks – in the Triassic, there was a rift valley on each side: one to the east, and one to the west. As it turns out, the one to the east kept opening, and became the Atlantic Ocean, while the one to the west “failed” and filled in with sediment and mafic lavas – the Culpeper Basin. I think it’s worth a paragraph of speculation to imagine what would have happened if it had gone the other way… the Culpeper Ocean would have its western shore in Leesburg, Virginia, and the Piedmont rocks would be part of the Western Sahara province of Morocco instead of the site of the US capital city. Somewhere deep in the Sahara, there would be a rift basin full of arkose and siltstone and diabase called the Atlantic Basin.
And what about the great animals (dinosaurs, lake fish) we find fossilized in the Culpeper Basin? They have great stories to tell, too.
The one geological insight I got from reading the book was viewing this picture of the Seneca Quarry, taken in the 1890s:
Seneca Stone Quarry c.1890s (Photo source: Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission)
This site is now incredibly overgrown with trees and vines. But just over a century ago, you can see a beautiful stack of river channel sands and interleaved floodplain shales. It’s gorgeous. The photo is presented as evidence of the segregation of the quarry workforce, but to my eyes, it’s one of the most insightful images as to the origins of this rock that I’ve ever seen. It strikes me as a critical document of the past condition of this site, and it reinforces my decision to spend time documenting geology in the present day with photos and GigaPans, so that the information fossilized in these outcrops may be preserved for future generations.
3 December 2013
This spring, I traveled to west Texas to assist Joshua Villalobos of El Paso Community College in capturing a series of GigaPan images, in hopes of creating a comprehensive virtual field experience revealing that area’s spectacular geology. Since then, my student Robin Rohrback-Schiavone has been using our GIGAmacro photographic imaging system to make a series of hand-sample GigaPans to accompany the outcrop-scale images that Joshua and I made. The whole collection is online here: http://www.gigapan.com/galleries/10948/gigapans
…but it’s even cooler if you can place it into the context of its home volcano…
…but there you see that the blocks and bombs are mixed in with finer pyroclastics. So check out the ash and lapilli from this site, instead:
Or you might opt to see the Campus Andesite in outcrop at Cristo Rey…
…and then examine a hand-sample of the rock for petrographic analysis:
Or how about the contact between the Red Bluff Granite and the Mundy “Breccia” (Basalt)?
Here, you can take a look at it close up:
Elsewhere, this same granite intrudes the Castner Marble:
Further up the road is an instructive outcrop of this metamorphosed limestone:
In places it shows remnant sedimentary structures:
…and even stromatolites survive:
There’s one spot where a clastic dike cuts through.
Here’s a piece of it:
There are plenty of other pairings possible. Soon we’ll have a website put together to explore the whole scene. In the meantime, this GigaPan gallery of “El Paso geology” is the place to go: http://www.gigapan.com/galleries/10948/gigapans
Doubtless this will be an important resource for our students in the joint EPCC-NOVA field exchange this coming spring semester.
2 December 2013
Today, a few spiders that live in cylindrical webs of their own construction…
Exhibit A, the grass spider, although this one’s not in the grass:
Exhibit B, an unidentified spider on one of my exterior lights:
Creepy! Crawly! Tubular!
27 November 2013
Another week, another audio book. In this case, it didn’t even take a day – the two and a half hours of philosophizing lectures from celebrated physicist and oddball Richard Feynman make excellent listening.
One of the reasons it works so well, I think, is that the material was originally delivered as a series of three lectures by Feynman. These were then transcribed into book form, and then read aloud by a narrator with a voice not unlike Feynman’s own. Full circle!
A second reason is Feynman’s fine style. He speaks precisely about simple, general things, offering in most cases just the right amount of elaboration or examples to make his point clear. He does have a few verbal tics which become obvious if you listen to all three lectures back to back, as I did. But so do we all – most of them are endearing and charming.
In the first lecture, Feynman talks in plain terms about what science is, and what it isn’t. He conveys how it works, how it cannot work, and what it yields, and how fun he finds it all. In the second lecture, he discusses the implications of science on two matters of non-science: politics and religion. In the third, he applies the implications of sciences to matters of pseudoscience (UFOs, mind readers, conspiracy theories, astrology, etc.). It’s about skepticism in matters less emotionally-charged than the topics of his second lecture. The lovely thing to my ears is how this juxtaposition reveals how science can dispatch the claims of theists or Lysenkoists with equal ease as it does spoon-benders, though with far less societal acceptance. The third lecture isn’t as tight as the first two, and it goes on longer than it really should. Feynman acknowledges this both at the outset of that final installment and also as he stares at the clock, trying to cram in all of the final things he wants to say – so that’s a bit on the lame side. On the other hand, it’s totally understandable and relate-able – I feel that way sometime in lectures at work, and so hearing Feynman, a “genius” struggling with the same issue, makes me feel better about it.
Feynman speaks as a creature of his time (which I’ll just call “the 1950s and 60s,” in spite of the fact that he lived until 1988). All of his examples are men, including hypothetical students and hypothetical professors and hypothetical politicians. The lack of a single reference to any woman in three hours of audiobook, save for (a) his first, deceased wife and (b) a hypothetical paranoid wife character, is a roaring silence to modern ears. Furthermore, many of the political situations to which he refers in lecture #2 are relics of the Cold War. These Soviet concerns illustrate his general points wonderfully, but don’t hold up as particularly relevant in the year 2013. Finally, I would note that I noted his trepidation in discussing the zone of overlapping claims between religion and science. You can tell he’s treading carefully, hoping to elucidate that overlap for his 1950′s audience without offending the more devout members of the audience. The mollifying caveats he drops (“everybody has their own opinion, of course”) in stand in stark contrast to the more direct language of modern writers who advocate a naturalist worldview such as PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, or Richard Dawkins.
On this same topic, Feynman makes an excellent point about how the ethical aspects of religious doctrine don’t change much over time, even as the religions adapt to scientific discovery. He has a very cogent bit in there that concludes with a statement about how the revelation that the Earth is a planet orbiting a star doesn’t influence the question of whether we should “turn the other cheek” or not. The revelations of the age of the Earth have no bearing on the Golden Rule. So religious people shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific revelations about the natural world, in Feynman’s view, since the physical science carries zero ethical or moral implications. He makes a strong case that science can’t “do” ethics in any direct way – though it can certainly inform ethical decisions, it cannot supply the value judgements that drive ethics. This was thought-provoking and interesting. I like Feynman’s out-of-the-box thinking, and am so pleased that he spent time doing things other than quantum physics with his intellect.
26 November 2013
Last month, I led a fun new tour for the Smithsonian Associates: an all-day tour of the geology of Virginia wine country. Wine-making is a bigger-and-bigger business in Virginia these days, and I’ve been exploring it on and off over the past few years, ever since participating on a wine-themed geology field trip through the Geological Society of Washington. So we got a bus, and I waxed on about the Grenville Orogeny and the rifting of Rodinia, and before you knew it, we were in Paris, Virginia. Our first stop was a vineyard on a hill, and the elegant winery building seen here:
This is “RdV” – and it’s a lovely place to visit. Very impressive in almost every detail.
My concept for the tour was this: visit three different wineries, each in a distinctly different geologic setting that tells the story of the Mid-Atlantic region over the past billion years of geologic time. The rock at the RdVsite is an alkali syenite – the Cobbler Mountain alkali feldspar quartz syenite, according to the state’s online geologic map. They have pieces of it at the tasting tables! Check it out:
Not only that, but there’s a neat display downstairs showing the core that was drilled into the hill:
This plutonic rock crystallized during the Neoproterozoic, about 722 (±3) million years ago. It’s part of the Robertson River Igneous Suite, a collection of a dozen or so plutons* of “anorogenic granites” that were emplaced during the first phase of the breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia, and the opening of the Iapetus Ocean.
* Some members of the RRIS are volcanic, it should be noted.
We toured the winery, and admired their classic barrels of French oak…
…as well as their very modern-looking stainless steel fermentation vessels:
One of the very cool things about RdV is that they have a curving underground tunnel that acts as a cellar:
In one spot, they left the wall as undecorated raw bedrock: a nice touch for the geology aficianados on the tour…
A close up of the plutonic rock exposed there…
There were lots of bottles of wine close at hand…
Soon we re-emerged above-ground and sampled the wares. We each had a glass of their $75/bottle “Rendezvous“.
I found it quite palatable! …And the scenery was pretty good, too!
25 November 2013
We were out on the deck the other day when Baxter spotted a wheel bug. He can say “bug” now, and this was such an occasion.
The kid’s a chip off the ol’ block! He has a good eye for the bugs.
22 November 2013
Here’s a sample that my Physical Geology students see on their field trip to the Billy Goat Trail:
21 November 2013
Spring break field course: GOL 295 Regional Field Geology of west Texas: March 8 to 15, 2014, and Appalachian Geology: May 19-24, 2014. West Texas and southern New Mexico showcase tectonic, sedimentary, geomorphic, and volcanic features which provide world-class examples of geologic processes. Students in this course will travel to El Paso, TX, and complete field studies of locations in Carlsbad Caverns, the Rio Grande Rift, the Franklin and Guadalupe Mountains, and Kilbourne Hole volcano, as well as complete a geophysics training exercise at the University of Texas, El Paso. The course will be co-taught by Callan Bentley (NOVA) Joshua Villalobos of El Paso Community College and will involve collaboration between geology students at EPCC and NOVA.
Airfare, lodging, and transportation are covered for approved students by a grant. The National Science Foundation is fully funding this “field exchange” in hopes of increasing the proportion of geologists from under-represented groups (women and ethnic minorities). In other words, accepted students will pay for their tuition and food, but everything else is free.
In mid-May 2014, EPCC students will visit Northern Virginia in the second half of the course, and NOVA students will play a role in hosting them and introducing them to Mid-Atlantic geology. Students who go to Texas will also commit to the NOVA-focused 2nd half of the course.
The course will involve STRENUOUS outdoor physical activity: Students are expected to hike several miles at high elevations in mountainous desert terrain in order to accomplish course objectives. Enrollment is competitive, and by permission of the instructors only. For up-to-date information, an application, and a complete itinerary, see the course website, http://www.nvcc.edu/home/cbentley/texas or contact Callan, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 323-3276. His office is CS 248A on the Annandale campus of NOVA.