September 4, 2011
Geology Word of the Week: N is for Nummulite
Posted by Evelyn Mervine
1. A fossil or living foraminiferan of the Nummulites genus (or a related genus) that has a disc-like, spiral, calcareous skeleton. Fossil nummulites range up to several inches in size, making them quite impressive protozoa (single-celled, eukaryotic organisms). Nummulite fossils are common in Tertiary rocks, particularly in the Mediterranean area. The term nummulite originates from the Latin word “nummulus,” which means coin.
2. The unwitting star of a very strange and scientifically bunk, yet somehow delightful, book titled “The Nummulosphere: An Account of the Organic Origin of So-called Igneous Rocks and Abyssal Red Clays” by Randolph Kirkpatrick.
Nummulites are beautiful and very distinctive fossils that are relatively easy to recognize in the field– they look like little coins set into the rocks. Because nummulites have calcium carbonate skeletons, they are generally found in limestone rocks. Nummulite fossils are even found in some of the limestone blocks used to construct Egyptian pyramids!
Ian Stimpson of the blog Hypo-theses sent me this beautiful photograph of nummulite fossils in limestone:
Nummulites can be very small (microfossils) but can also range up to several inches (or centimeters, to use the more-scientific metric system) in size, such as the ~2 cm example in the top image. What is impressive about the size of these macro-nummulites is that all nummulites are protozoa, which means that they are single-celled organisms. I’m not much of a biologist, but those large nummulite fossils look like pretty big cells to me!
Lorraine Casazza of the University of California Museum of Paleontology does know a thing or two (or many things!) about biology and also about nummulites, which she studies. I highly recommend reading Casazza’s description of her research on Egyptian nummulites. Casazza has some great discussion on how and why single-celled nummulites became so large. One reason that nummulites may have become so large is because of an interesting symbiosis with algae. Again, I’m not much of a biologist, but according to this abstract (thanks to Lockwood DeWitt for finding it), all modern nummulites house symbiotic algae.
Nummulites are fascinating and important foraminifera, but they aren’t quite as important as indicated by Randolph Kirkpatrick in his self-published 1912 book “The Nummulosphere: An Account of the Organic Origin of So-called Igneous Rocks and Abyssal Red Clays.” In this book, Kirkpatrick claims that all rocks– including the “so-called igneous rocks”– actually formed through the accumulation of foraminifera such as nummulites. The book has a catchy and clever title, but alas the book is mostly pseudoscience and, fortunately, was not taken seriously by many scientists when it was published. In fact, Kirkpatrick’s crazy ideas about “The Nummulosphere” tarnished his scientific reputation. Kirkpatrick actually was a good scientist when it came to certain aspects of his work. Kirkpatrick had kooky– and very wrong– ideas about how rocks formed, but he was very good at studying the biology of sponges. However, much of his good scientific work on sponges was probably overlooked by his contemporaries because of his crazy ideas about how rocks formed. Not until a decade or so after his death was his work on sponges truly recognized.
Kirkpatrick is an intriguing example of a smart and capable scientist who fell victim to pseudoscience. Many scientists– myself included at times– fall victim to pseudoscience. Just because scientists are smart and educated doesn’t mean that they can’t fool themselves, even in their own research. For example, Linus Pauling won not one but two Nobel prizes but had some very strange (and now largely discredited) ideas about how taking large quantities of vitamins could make you live longer. Physicists Russell Targ and Harold Putoff convinced themselves that Uri Geller has “genuine” paranormal powers, even though it has been demonstrated repeatedly that Geller is likely using simple magic tricks. In my own family there is an excellent example of a very smart person believing in pseudoscience. Upton Sinclair (I was named after Upton’s cousin, my great-grandmother Evelyn Sinclair) wasn’t a scientist, but he was a brilliant writer, journalist, and political activist. However, my Uncle Upton (as I like to call him) also wrote a book called “Mental Radio” in which he described his belief that his second wife had telepathic abilities. I’m sorry, Uncle Upton, but your psychic experiments were not carried out in a proper scientific environment and, really, most long-married husband-wife pairs develop non-verbal communication that may seem telepathic at times. In my own scientific encounters, I’ve met many a scientist who is mostly rational and reasonable but who also believes in one or more flavors of pseudoscience: homeopathic medicine, talking to the dead, chiropractics, and so on.
I guess the main point I want to make is that scientists are smart, but they aren’t smart about everything. Just because someone is a smart and accomplished scientist does not mean that that person is always right. PhD or not, Nobel Prize or not, scientists are not always right. The great thing about science, though, is that (eventually) data and evidence always trump scientific reputation. For example, just because Linus Pauling had a PhD and two Nobel Prizes didn’t mean other scientists weren’t critical of views on vitamins. Perhaps his scientific prestige helped him push the vitamin idea at first, but eventually concrete data largely dismissed his pseudoscientific idea. Similarly, just because a scientist has one crazy or scientifically wrong idea does not mean that the scientist’s entire body of work should be dismissed. For example, Kirkpatrick’s work on sponges should not have been dismissed just because he didn’t understand rocks very well. Kirkpatrick is an extreme example. However, too often a scientist publishes a paper with an idea that is later dismissed, and then this scientist receives a “bad reputation,” and other scientists become critical of all of this scientist’s ideas. The whole point of science is putting ideas– hypotheses– out there. Just because one of a scientist’s hypotheses turns out to be wrong does not mean that all of this scientist’s hypotheses will be incorrect. We must remember that science is a process, not a popularity contest. Reputations should not matter where evidence and good (or bad) data abound. Of course, I do simplify. Some scientists have good (or bad) reputations for good reasons. Regardless, we must never let prestige or reputation blind our science– we scientists must strive to be as neutral as possible.
A final thought: be cautious when listening to a scientist talk about something that is clearly outside of that scientist’s field. For instance, I’m a geologist with specialties in marine geology, geochronology, and isotope geology. When I’m talking about one of those three specialties, you can probably trust what I say. However, if I’m talking about something else, you better make sure I’ve done my homework and actually know what I’m talking about. When I step outside of my scientific specialties, it is very important for me to talk to other scientists and develop collaborations. As I mentioned above, I don’t know very much about biology. So, if I were to take on a research project involving some biology (for example, a study of biological influences on rock weathering), it would be important for me to work with some biologists. Kirkpatrick was a biologist, not a geologist. Perhaps if he had worked with some geologists and had better understood geology, he would never have written his Nummulosphere book. That would have been a shame, though. Nummulosphere is such a wonderful-yet-terrible little volume.
“nummulite, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 September 2011.
***Thanks to Etienne Médard for suggesting this week’s word. Thanks to Callan Bentley and Ian Stimpson for providing pictures. Thanks to Lockwood DeWitt and Callan Bentley for some information and interesting discussion of nummulites on twitter.***
Two excellent examples of pseudoscientific scientists are Nikola Tesla and Fred Hoyle. Tesla was central to the development of AC electricity, but he had weird ideas about wirelessly transmitting energy.
Fred Hoyle was an astrophysicist who’s greatest work was probably on nucleosynthesis in stars. He’s probably best known for the ‘steady state’ theory of the universe which for a long time was an alternative to the Big Bang (a name he invented, intending it to be derogatory.) Although the steady state hypothesis was wrong, and arguably driven more by philosophical considerations than evidence, it wasn’t bad science. Where Hoyle really departs from science was his ideas on extraterrestrial origin of life, such as that new viral strains came from comets. Again, the problem comes when a scientist dabbles in a field not their own. Hoyle also wrote SF books. “The Black Cloud” is in my opinion the best of them and is worth a look. Most of the characters are astronomers, and the events driving the plot are astronomical in nature, so it is a fine example of scientists as heroes (for doing science.)
There’s no such thing as a “pseudoscientific scientist” – there’s only a pseudoscientist, the likes of which are creationists; Tesla & Hoyle most certainly don’t belong to that group.
That they had ideas that turned to be dead end is nothing unusual – it’s called hypothesizing. Theories get established by being confirmed via multiple experiments by multiple, independent teams, scrutinized by the scientific community to the last tiny bit, not by taking a word of some authority.
The SI system has a unit for magnetic flux density called tesla (T) – it’s maybe the greatest honor a scientist can receive. The unit is there side-by-side with the unit of force: the newton (N).
All that said, Tesla didn’t like to think of himself as of a scientist, as he didn’t like such categorizations. But – that’s what he was.
Tesla had some interesting ideas, utterly unworkable and potentially hazardous to the health of the community and terribly inefficient, but some DID actually work for power transmission.
Were we to use that technology today, our modern electronics would not be happy though.
High voltage, high frequency, spark gap stuff. It’d be like trying to use an EMP weapon for powering one’s electronics. 🙂
Uncle Upton also believed in exercises that could improve eyesight. Today many people still believe this. One person said “well my eyesight hasn’t become any worse”. Oddy, I don’t do those exercises and my poor eyesight hasn’t become any worse in the past 5 years…He did do remarkable work with exposing the dangerous practices of the meat industry. His book about big oil also was a wonderful example of an expose as novel. He also ran for governor of California on the Communist ticket and once said he was glad he didn’t win as he’d probably have been shot! People that are smart and do good things…can also believe dumb things.
Well, exercise HAS been proved to be beneficial to the cardiovascular system, hence protects the retina, if not the lens. As one with one trauma induced cataract removed and at the time of replacement, diagnosed with lattice degeneration of the retina, I can say that it DOES bear fruit, on some occasions.
But then, the degeneration started after I retired from the military in a rather, umm, strenuous field of endeavor. Hence, the trauma induced cataracts.
BEFORE, I could LITERALLY see WELL down to 100 microns. No joke, that clearly. My vision was at 20-05.
But, age, injuries, an interesting life of other risks to vision and other things and a heat stroke took their toll, hence the lattice degeneration and assorted other dings and dents.
And the laugh is, I’ll be 50 in the beginning of November.
I’ve read a few of Upton’s books. Never researched HIM, so I never knew that he was a communist. Pity, if I had a time machine, I’d talk him out of it on evolutionary terms and the immaturity of the species. 🙂
I’ll have to look into his book on big oil. It sounds interesting, as big oil THEN was in its nascent stages of development, compared to the mega-corporations of big oil of today.
BUT, based upon MY personal experience, people are NOT very smart in groups, only as individuals, as GROUPS, they believe in dumb things, as individuals, they believe and DO dumb things.
Such as an ideal commune, when humans genetically want MORE than their neighbor, which dooms the perfect system of a socialistic system. Works great for ants and bees, lousy with humans.
Such as fascism, which is now alive and will in this nation.
Such as all of the nonsense of the cold war. A war I joined when Reagan just took office and warmed it WAY up.
As individuals, people are smart. I’ve negotiated with village elders for peace and to warn us if a certain enemy were to appear. They warned us and we handled it for them.
As GROUPS, they’re complete pack hunting idiots, see that enemy…
So, I’ll respect Upton as one who was ill informed, due to the nature of philosophy at the time, which was also well known to be fundamentally flawed. It was the following generation that began to become enlightened.
Then, it seems, that SOMEONE decided that George Orwell’s warning book was a good instruction manual…
Thanks for this – I came here by a circuitous route. I’d somehow never come across Nummulites before, I admit I’ve never bothered much with foraminifera, but now I’m going to take more notice. Apparently Nummulites can house a variety of symbiotic algae – Dinoflagellates, Diatoms and Chlorophytes. Which might have something to do with their size, I’m not sure. Some green algae (like Caulerpa) can grow to several metres across with no cellular divisions – just lots of nuclei, so I wonder if Nummulites is multi-nucleate?
But what brought me to this site was Tove Jansson’s childrens book “Moominvalley in November” in which a character called Toft finds and starts to read an old book which discusses an unusual Nummulite, that lives among the radiolarians but has “something of Noctiluca about him” (Noctiluca is an unusually large, often biolumniescent, Dinoflagellate). In the Jansson’s story Toft imagines the creature becoming gigantic and confused, before returning to his proper place in the microscopic world.
The passages of Toft’s book have something of the style of Kirkpatrick’s Nummulosphere book about them, so I wonder if Jansson was satirizing it?
I’m found of bizarre science books, so thanks for drawing my attention to the Nummulosphere, it does look quite wonderful, in a mad sort of way…
New editions of The Nummulosphere Part 3 and Part 4 have been published on Archive.org:
Part 3: https://archive.org/details/kirkpatrick_nummulosphere_part3_english
Part 4: https://archive.org/details/kirkpatrick_nummulosphere_part_4_english