19 October 2015

The Martian, by Andy Weir

weirThere’s a lot of talk about this book lately, since they just made it into what I’m told is a very good movie. I heard the scuttlebutt and watched the preview for the film, and when the protagonist/narrator said “I’m going to have to science the shit out of this,” I knew this was probably a story for me. I was lucky to score a copy of the audiobook from my county library, and really enjoyed listening to it over the past two weeks. So kudos to the narrator, R.C. Bray.

There’s a lot to love about this book: the premise that NASA (as opposed to private companies) are sending astronauts to Mars, the profanity and humor of the protagonist, Mark Watney, and the paean to science and engineering throughout his numerous adventures. It is a secular book with no aliens, monsters or gods. Actually, “gods” (plural) do get mentioned, as the NASA head of Mars missions is a Hindu, and apparently believes in (his words) “a bunch of them.” But nowhere else is anything supernatural invoked. One of the things I love about the story is that it features a depiction of straight-up physical reality, fixing tangible problems like “not enough water” and “spacesuit leaking air” through clever applications of chemistry and physics. This makes it feel authentic – so much so that apparently there’s a significant number of people who think it’s a true story! I love the fact that it is both possible and insightful to plot Watney’s path over the Martian surface on a dynamic Google Mars map!

Watney has to MacGyver his way out of dozens of jams using only his brain and the tools on hand. Doing this time and again, he manages to survive a year and a half alone on Mars. It’s a beautiful tale because it emphasizes the bounty our planet provides to us free of charge and free of effort, and reminds us to be thankful for that. Watney has to calculate how many potatoes he needs to grow in order to not starve, and therefore how much water he needs, and how much viable soil he needs, and then he makes more water (from jet fuel!) and more soil (from poop mixed with regolith). Later in the story, at a different location, more rocket fuel is needed, and so the water from Watney’s pee is put under electrolysis to make hydrogen, which a machine can combine with CO2 from the Martian atmosphere to make rocket fuel.

I guess Watney’s domain (the “Hab” and two rovers, plus his EVA suits) would not quite officially meet the criteria to count as a closed system, but it comes close. The same can be said for the ship that transports the astronauts to and from Mars, the Hermes. There, in one minor plot twist, it’s revealed that NASA has calculated how many calories are on board the ship to sustain a person, and included in the count are the calories in the bodies of all of her crewmates. I find it refreshing to read this sort of straight-forward recognition of the fundamental nature of our bodies – they are made of atoms, bonded to other atoms, and if we understand that, we can do unexpected things with them. It’s thinking outside the box, for sure – and Weir, like MacGyver, excels at pushing the envelope in surprising directions. This “closed system” perspective is illuminating in another regard, I think – it reminds us that Earth itself is just a bigger version of the same thing – While it may be harder for us to see the edges of the big planet-sized “Hab” we live on, it possesses discrete boundaries just the same. There is a finite amount of matter aboard. If Watney’s system for scrubbing CO2 from the Hab air breaks down, he’s in trouble. If our planet’s capacity for scrubbing CO2 from our atmosphere can’t match anthropogenic inputs, then we’re in trouble. There are, in short, environmental lessons to be learned from the system perspective, and Watney’s fictional case is a fun, exciting place to start learning.

A top notch adventure, in short. I really enjoyed it, and to me, it lived up to the hype. Check it out.

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16 October 2015

Friday fold: recumbent folds in metapelites and metalimestones, Apennines, Italy

Anotehr one from Samuele Jæger Papeschi:
Recumbent SW verging folds in alternating metalimestones and phyllites in the Metacalcari e Filladi formation, seen at Anisian, Punta Bianca, La Spezia, N. Apennines, Italy

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13 October 2015

Summer 2016 European GigaPan expedition: Sites wanted

Great news – I have been awarded a great professorship for the next two years. The Chancellor’s Commonwealth Professorship is a great honor and a major investment by the Virginia Community College System in me and my GigaPan project. I get course release time, a summer stipend, and reimbursable expenses of around $7500. I intend to use that money and that time to do a major GigaPan expedition in Europe next summer. But I’m a European newbie, so I could use the help of geoscientist colleagues who are more experienced than me. So: will you help me plan out where I should go and aim my robot camera?

I’ve initiated some planning, and got some major help via Twitter friends about a month ago. But now I’d like to kick my planning into high gear. Where should I GigaPan instructive sites in Europe?

Here is a “viewable only” copy of my planning map:

However, if you want to add sites to the map, I will gladly extend editing rights to you. Just shoot me an email and I’ll add you to the list of map authors.

Here are some other maps and resources I’ve found or been alerted to in the past couple months of researching… Some of the sites they depict will need to be transferred over to my map…

U.K. map of 100 great geo-sites

Scotland’s geological sites

Two maps for Spain

Geologic sites in the Pyrenees

Virtual tour of outcrops in the Pyrenees foreland basin and fold & thrust belt

Geological guide to Cap de Creus (easternmost point of Spain), an exemplary place to look at ductile shear zones

I’m eager to hear from you if you have sites to recommend. I want as precise location information as possible – hence the use of the Google Map as the means of information sharing. But you’re also welcome to just leave a comment here and I’ll attempt to figure it out from there.

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12 October 2015

Bedding/cleavage GigaPans at Harpers Ferry, WV

I’ve been thinking lately about Harpers Ferry, the spot where West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland meet, at the confluence of the Potomac River and the Shenandoah River. I’ve noted small outcrops of its overturned beddding here previously, and also described a book I read about the man who made the place infamous: John Brown.

I went out there again last week with my NOVA colleague Beth Doyle, and we explored some of the geology of the Harpers Formation (early Cambrian on the basis of Olenellus fossils). I made three GigaPan images that day. Here they are:

Link (5.3 Gpx)

The key feature of the first two images is the overprinting relationship of cleavage relative to bedding. Cleavage dips more shallowly to the southeast / right of the photos (~20°) than does bedding (~47°), and this comparison of their orientations may be used to deduce that the bedding has been tectonically overturned during late Paleozoic Alleghanian mountain-building.

Link (3.1 Gpx)

There’s also a spot called Jefferson Rock there, which shows the cleavage very well, and has a fine view (Thomas Jefferson quipped it was “worth crossing the Atlantic” in order to view it), but doesn’t provide as clear a view of the structural relations:
Link (1.9 Gpx)

There were four or five other share-worthy sites that Beth and I saw last week, but the lighting wasn’t perfect for imaging them, or we decided it would be better to wait until some of the foliage dies back in the coming cold season. So I’ll have to go back for those.

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9 October 2015

Friday fold: Apennine crenulation cleavage

My new social media buddy Samuele Jæger Papeschi and I collaborated on some goofy maps in August, but then he noticed my Friday folds, and like the very best human beings anywhere, Samuele offered to pitch in with a few folds of his own. (Other readers are encouraged to do the same!) Today, I’ll feature the first of them – though others will follow in weeks to come.


That is crenulation cleavage in calcschists from the Anisian Calcescisti e Filladi fm. in Punta Bianca – La Spezia, Northern Apennines, Italy.

Thanks for sharing this awesome image, Samuele!

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8 October 2015

Mirage, by Nina Burleigh

mirageMy latest audiobook consumed during my commute was the story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s (why do we always call him by his first name?) ill-fated expedition to Egypt in 1798. Napoleon brought with him a corps of “savants,” natural historians, engineers, artists, and musicians, charged with documenting the history and natural history of Egypt, and helping built structures and solve problems to make the colony work well. This was the expedition that found the Rosetta Stone, and laid down the foundations of what would become the science of archaeology, as well as its faddish subdiscipline, Egyptology. The book is about the men in this Egyptian version of the famed Parisian predecessor Institut de France, and their trials, travails, and discoveries while in the Nile Valley. Some were killed, some caught plague, but many survived and returned to France to author a 24 volume book on Egypt, copies of which survive to this day. Their story is full of zeal, patriotism, intrigue, spite, depression, and ingenuity – plenty of character elements and emotions to create a dramatic story. Burleigh tells it well. I was delighted to “make the acquaintance” of a bunch of important scientists of whom I was previously ignorant. The man who figured out the composition of ammonia was among their ranks, as was Joseph Fourier, the first person to propose a greenhouse effect for the Earth as well as a mathematician of great fame. The inventor of descriptive geometry (which makes technical drawing possible) was one of their leaders, indeed almost a lapdog of Napoleon.

Another of the savants was Dieudonné Dolomieu, a geologist and Knight of Malta. It is for Dolomieu that dolomite is named. As Napoleon’s expedition stopped and annexed Malta en route to Egypt, Dolomieu was pressed into service as a negotiator, and essentially sold out his fellow Knights as Napoleon’s inside man, a position he resented. Later, on his attempt to return to France, he was recaptured by the Knights and put into prison, where he used his forced downtime to write Sur la Philosophie Minéralogique (“The Philosophy of Mineralogy”), published in 1801 after his return to France and coincident within months with his death.

Another was Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a naturalist who presaged Darwin’s insight into natural selection driving evolution. He came very close, it sounds like. In one portion of the book, Burleigh describes Saint-Hilaire’s dissection of a fish from the Nile, and observation that it has bronchii similar to air-breathing organisms. From this, Saint-Hilaire hypothesized an “Ur” form of life behind all of modern species. He formulated this idea as the Unity of Life, later dialed back to a more palatable Unity of Composition. He put in front of his colleagues the question of why an ostrich should have wings, considering it wasn’t obviously able to fly. Could it really fly after all? The French Army laughed at this ludicrous question, but Saint-Hilaire was on to something – what Darwin would later formalize as the idea of imperfections and vestigial structures. Nature never advances by leaps, Saint-Hilaire quipped – a statement that would be fully at home between the covers of On The Origin of Species.

So: this book is worth reading as an example of what a failed colonization attempt looks like, and how the egos of political leaders result directly in the deaths of thousands of lower-class people (French troops, Egyptian citizens), and also as an introduction to some accomplished intellectuals and erstwhile adventurers who you might not be familiar with (as I wasn’t). I enjoyed it.

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7 October 2015

The New Market / Lincolnshire contact

Yesterday, I put a photo up here on the blog, and asked you to figure out where the formational contact was in that image. Here’s the image I showed you:


It turns out that my plan to have readers upload their copies of the image didn’t work as well as I had planned – apparently you all don’t have as complete a suite of control options as I do. Shocker! Oh well, the persistent folks got their guesses to me regardless:

Here are some guesses:

…from Bob Goodday via Twitter:
bob goodday

…from Mark Shore via e-mail — the same horizon! —

One other guess came in from Nick Rossi on Facebook:

I want to say it is just up section from that really thick block.

That seems to agree with what Bob and Mark have indicated…

The odd man out is Howard Allen, who sent this image via email:


…Okay, guys, thanks for playing. Now brace yourselves…

Here’s the actual contact, between the lower (older) New Market Formation and the overlying (younger) Lincolnshire Formation:


Ta-da!!! Howard Allen wins the grand prize. Congratulations, Howard!

Zooming in:



I had been placing this contact in the wrong place for years, and I’m grateful to have had my wrong impressions corrected. This alone was worth the “price of admission” for Rick Diecchio’s sedimentology field trip for GMU last spring. I climbed up on the outcrop to get a better look…





It’s an erosional contact (some portion of the upper New Market was abraded away prior to deposition of the oldest Lincolnshire), and because the layers above and below are more or less parallel, that implies it’s a disconformity of some unknown magnitude. Some amount of time went by between the deposition of the last-surviving New Market and the deposition of the oldest Lincolnshire… but not too much. They are both Ordovician in age.

For years, I had misplaced this contact to exactly where Mark, Bob, and Nick guessed it should be – at the switch between massive bedding and thinner, more easily weathered bedding at the top of the massive block. It wasn’t until this spring’s GMU sedimentology field trip that Rick Diecchio was able to set me straight. Now here’s the thing about the GigaPan: I made that image more than four years ago, and the real contact is plainly obvious in it, but I had completely overlooked it (a) while shooting the image and (b) every time I looked at the image on the computer.

So the take-home lessons are two:

  1. It’s so, so, so useful to go into the field with people who know what they are talking about. Field time with colleagues is irreplaceable and of infinite value. I look at these strata differently now as a result of going there with Rick.
  2. GigaPan images contain data of which the photographers themselves are ignorant. The imagery offers an opportunity for authentic research experiences – chances for students to discover things their professors don’t know about.

Thanks to everyone who submitted a guess (or tried to!).

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6 October 2015

Can you spot the contact?

There’s a formational contact in this photo, and for many years, I misplaced it completely. Let’s see how well you do: can you spot it?


Submit your answers by downloading the photo (right click; ‘save as’), drawing on the contact, saving your annotated copy, and then posting your version in the comments.

Need more data? Try exploring this GigaPan of the site:

Answers tomorrow.

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5 October 2015

Trace fossils in the Juniata and Tuscarora Formations

Route 33 in Pendleton County, West Virginia cuts across the lower Paleozoic stratigraphic section. I went there this past spring on a sedimentology and stratigraphy field trip with the GMU sed/strat class. The trip was orchestrated by professor Rick Diecchio.

Here are some scenes from two of the stops – the upper Ordovician Juniata formation (red sandstones and shale intepreted as Taconian molasse) and the overlying Silurian Tuscarora Formation (thick quartz arenite equivalent to the Massanutten Sandstone).


The conformable contact between the two units is discernible at one point along the road, but what I would like to call your attention to today are some trace fossils from the two formations. In the Juniata, the planar bedding is cross-cut by deep Skolithos tubes, which Rick interpreted as an indication that the critters which lived in this area really needed to retreat from the high flow regime which deposited the planar bedding.


Same sample, with the contrast dialed up a bit, so the bedding and Skolithos stand out better:


In the Tuscarora, there were more bedding plane parallel traces, such as these Arthophycus:


Because of the relatively coarse substrate (sand, not mud), the fine details of the Arthrophycus (bumps and ridges) weren’t preserved especially well, but if held at the right angle to the light, a few of them emerged as discernible:


This will be the penultimate post from that field trip… I’m almost out of photos!

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2 October 2015

Friday fold: cherts at Mount Diablo, California

My former student James O’Brien recently moved out to the left coast, and posted some photos earlier this week of a hike he took at Mount Diablo State Park in the mountains east of the San Francisco Bay area of California.

There are some classic-looking Franciscan cherts exposed there, as these folded examples show:



Seeing these pictures reminded me of the “GoSF” series I wrote last time I went to the AGU Fall Meeting (in 2010). I’m planning to attend the meeting again this year, and look forward to spending some time reacquainting myself with some of these rocks while in San Francisco.

Thanks for sharing the photos, James! Happy Friday, everyone.

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