Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dog Star

If you go outside after 9:00 pm this week, there will be a bright star, twinkling wildly as it rises in the southeastern sky.  Sirius (pronounced like the word “serious”) is actually the brightest star in the sky, only eclipsed by planets like Venus and Jupiter at their brightest.  It's a harbinger of cold, winter nights for Northern Hemisphere skywatchers.

One of the ways to distinguish planets from stars is that stars tend to twinkle more that planets. This difference is most pronounced on cold nights when the air is relatively calm. The twinkling of stars, technically known as stellar scintillation, is due to small packets of air moving around in our atmosphere. These packets of air act like little lenses bending, or refracting, the light from stars in different random directions making them appear to jump around. Planets, which are closer to Earth, are actually small orbs of light rather than pinpoints of light like stars and will not appear to jump around as much as stars do from this atmospheric turbulence.

Different colors of light are actually bent by different amounts as they pass through these lens-like packets of air and this adds colors to the twinkling of bright stars like Sirius – especially when it’s low on the horizon and we’re viewing it through more of the atmosphere. Sirius sometimes twinkles so much and so colorfully that it’s hard to tell from a distant airplane (I’ve even been fooled myself when it’s low on the horizon). When the supposed “airplane” doesn’t move, some people have been know to report it as a UFO.

File:Sirius A and B Hubble photo.jpgSirius is so bright because it’s a fairly bright star, some 23 times brighter than our Sun, and it’s also relatively close to us, a mere 8.7 light years or 50 trillion miles (only astronomers can use the word “mere” with “trillion miles” in the same sentence!). That sounds far, but only a handful of stars (eight at last count) are closer to our own solar system. One thing you don’t see when looking at Sirius is its tiny companion star, Sirius B (Sirius is technically known as Sirius A). Sirius B can only be detected by large telescopes and is a type of star known as a white dwarf (small white dot below and to the left of Sirius A in image at left from Hubble space telescope). White dwarfs are stars nearing the end of the life (Sirius B was once a star larger and brighter than Sirius A is today) and are typically small and dim but also quite hot and dense. So small and dense that Sirius B is thought to be about the same size as the Earth but weigh as much as our Sun. A sugar-cube-sized piece of Sirius B would tip the scales at over a ton. Our Sun will eventually end its life as a white dwarf but that’s another story.

Sirius is part of a constellation called Canis Major, the Great Dog. In ancient Greek mythology, Canis Major is one of the two dogs belonging to Orion the hunter (the other is Canis Minor) and Sirius is often called the Dog Star for this reason. Like many constellations, it’s difficult to see a dog when looking at Canis Major. I’ve always thought that ancient people had a little more imagination than we do today (probably due to not having television to waste away their evenings). If you’d like to try and see a dog in Canis Major, Sirius forms his snout and the triangle of stars two fist-widths (about 20°) below Sirius represent the dog’s tail and back legs.

The name of Sirius comes from a Greek word meaning “scorching” (Σείριος = Seirios). An obvious conclusion is that this is due to the fact that Sirius shines so brightly in the winter sky but that’s not the case. In ancient times, Sirius was associated with the hottest days of summer, not the freezing nights of winter.

In the Iliad, Homer writes:

Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.

The ancient Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago began their new year in mid-summer when Sirius was seen rising in the eastern sky just before dawn (called a heliacal rising). This was following by the hottest part of summer and it was believed that Sirius added its heat to that of the Sun. The appearance of Sirius just before dawn in the mid-summer sky marked the time of the annual flooding of the river Nile – the most important event of the Egyptian year. This association of the Dog Star Sirius with the hot months of summer is why we still speak of the “dog days” of summer. Something to look forward to as we stand freezing on a cold winter’s night gazing at its twinkling beauty.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Christmas Gift Idea

Wife or girlfriend hard to buy for?  Want to give the gift of one-of-a-kind, unique, hand-made jewelry.  How about these?

The one on the left is plasticized horse penis and the one on the right is plasticized bull testes.  Order now while supplies last!  Guaranteed unique.  Won't my wife be surprised on Christmas morning!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Montana Thunderstorm

Would think it was photoshopped but it's a National Geographic photograph.  A supercell thunderstorm moving across the Montana grasslands at sunset.   It's like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Click image to embiggen

Run a college like a business?

Dean Dad, in the Confessions of a Community College Dean blog, discussed the "run a college like a business" canard in a recent post.  I completely agree, most community colleges are, and should be, run more like a town or municipal government than like a business.

I was going to write more, but I'd probably get in trouble.  I've been at my present place of employment since 1999 and have seen a number of academic and administrative deans come and go - some better than others.  I worked a semester as an acting associate dean of academic affairs myself (and am currently a department chair with supervisory duties over a dozen faculty and two staff members). 

You can't be an autocrat like you can in some businesses, you have to have the people skills to get everyone (or at least most people) to buy into your ideas.  Deans need to realize that most of the faculty were there before they arrived and will be there long after the dean has moved on.  You also need to lead by example (something I see lacking sometimes when extra duties are shoved down onto us by people who leave work at 4:30 every day and I'm often doing work at 10 pm on my couch at home and on weekends - see, now I'm complaining and I didn't want to do that!).

Anyway, most people have no clue how colleges are actually run but it's certainly not the same as a business which is why I'm always astounded that they put almost all business people onto our Board of Trustees.  That's another story for another time.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Science Journalism

Random post-Thanksgiving thoughts...

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Everything you were taught about Thanksgiving in school was wrong (at least for people my age, I have no idea what they teach today).  Pilgrims didn't wear black with gold buckles, Wampanoag certainly didn't have feathered bonnets (as shown above), and the early white settlers preferred killing Indians to eating dinner with them.  The traditional turkey dinner we eat today was quite unlike any meal they would have eaten at the time (venison and waterfowl were the main dishes).

I really enjoy the traditional dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, etc.  Too much, in fact.  Like a dog, I have no self-control (I'm a weak man) and always end up eating way too much and feeling bad the next day (as I write this).  Just what I needed, 7,000 calories of food.  The only saving grace is that I was working outside all day Wednesday and Thursday.

Worked outside all day Wednesday and Thursday (winterizing my yard, shed, and gardens) and now I have a half-dozen little fluid-filled bumps that itch like crazy all over my torso and arms.  They look like bad mosquito bites.  I have no idea what kind of bug was biting me - it was too cold out for most things.

My family is nuts.  They were watching Ancient Aliens on the so-called "History" channel and think it's very convincing.  Sigh.  One of these days I'll deconstruct one of their episodes and show why it's complete bullshit (it's a rehash of Erich von Däniken's Chariot of the Gods book that was debunked 40 freakin' years ago when it was first published in 1968!).  The crazy-haired guy who appears in these shows really pisses me off because he confidently states things that are factually false (he's either intentionally lying or just dumb, I'm not sure which).

Tried to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with the kids yesterday.  NBCs coverage was unwatchable.  They spent more time interviewing NBC sitcom actors and featuring their two talking heads than covering the parade.  It was literally 5 minutes of coverage and 5 minutes of commercials also (I timed it).  Since I don't ever watch network TV, I'm not sure if that's normal or not but it was annoying.  CBS was a little better, but not much.  We have 100+ tv channels and not one could just plant a camera somewhere and just show the damn parade without a constant stream of advertisements (which is what all the interviews were - advertisements for the network's shows).

Christmas season apparently now begins after Halloween instead of Thanksgiving (I first started seeing Christmas decorations in late October).  Black Friday now begins on Thursday (I feel sorry for all the retail workers who have to work on holidays).  I stopped for coffee the other day at Dunkin Donuts and they were playing Christmas music - damn them to the deepest pits of hell (it's bad enough to have it playing in every retail store in America, do they really have to play it in Dunkin Donuts - are they hoping I'll get in the holiday spirit and buy a dozen of their crappy donuts for someone special?).  It's completely absurd that as a culture we celebrate the birth of a religious savior by an orgy of greed.  I'd like to set up a creche display in the mall and fill the manger with dollar bills - that's what we worship in this country.  Bah, humbug!

Put up our bird feeder yesterday but no seeds since there are still black bears prowling the woods (we've had them in our yard in the past).  I'm watching the poor birds (titmouses, titmice?) landing there and flying off disappointed.

Typical November weather today.  Cold drizzly rain, steel gray skies, dead-looking trees.  Every winter I think I'd like to live elsewhere - the Hudson Valley has too many cloudy days.  Unfortunately, academic jobs are very difficult to come by these days.  It would take a lot to make me give up a job as a tenured full professor.  Of course I'd probably earn more money if I could land a good job like WalMart manager or similar (seriously, probably pays better than being a professor).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lakota - Prisoners of War?

Interesting TED talk by photographer Aaron Huey on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota which he likens to a prisoner of war camp.

I've been to Pine Ridge and the surrounding area.  The poverty is evident (as it is on all Indian reservations I've been through) and disturbing (drive through Whiteclay, Nebraska sometime, a mile south of the town of Pine Ridge.  The only business in this town of a dozen or so people are four liquor stores with walk-up windows that sell booze to alcoholic Indians who stumble over from Pine Ridge).  It's like visiting a 3rd world country and I didn't really feel safe there by myself.

I also have a good memory of attending a pow-wow dance in Pine Ridge.  It was a community thing, not a show for the public, in honor of Father's Day and Lakota veterans.  People were friendly and a couple of kids asked where I was from and looked amazed when I said New York.  Earlier that day I drove by the Wounded Knee massacre site and had hiked in the beautiful but desolate Badlands within the reservation (Stronghold Unit) and saw numerous Oligocene mammal teeth and bones (geologists get excited about such things!).

It's a place of stunning contrasts.

While the Black Hills were stolen from the Lakota I can't ever imagine the area being returned and I have a hard time imagining how the Lakota can ever claw their way, as a people, out of their crushing poverty on the reservation.  It's sad and depressing.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Ochre is a term used to describe natural mineral pigments - commonly red (red ochre) and yellow (yellow ochre).  This is related to yesterday's discussion because both are iron oxide minerals.

Red ochre is derived from hematite (Fe2O3) which is oxidized iron and rusty red in color (rust and hematite are essentially the same thing).  The name hematite comes from αἷμα (haima) the Greek word for blood (same root as hemoglobin) because of the color.

Cultures around the world have used hematite to make red ochre pigment since the Paleolithic (Stone Age).  Below is a red ochre (and carbon black) wisent (European bison) in Altamira Cave, Spain.

The neat thing about ochre is that geochemical analysis can often identify the provenance (where it was mined) of the pigment - for example: Iriate, E., et al. 2009. The Origin and Geochemical Characterization of Red Ochres from the Tito Bustillo and Monte Castillo Caves (Northern Spain). Archaeometry 51: 231-251.

Lion Cave, in Swaziland, southern Africa, is one of the oldest hematite ochre mines we know of having been dated back to 43,000 years old.  Women is southern Africa still use ochre to beautify themselves (the woman below is from the Himba tribe of Namibia).

Ochre pigment is common in the New World as well.  The red sandstones of the Colorado Plateau region are red because of hematite and were used as pigment by the Anasazi and other Native Americans.  The pictograph below is from the Grand Gallery deep in Canyonlands National Park of Utah (I love this picture - what are they?  Ghosts?  Shamans? Kachina-like gods?).

I still have a few pair of formerly white socks stained red from Utah red dirt from hiking around Moab in Arches National Park.

Yellow ochre, on the other hand, is a form on hydrated iron(III) hydroxide (FeO(OH) • nH2O).  It's usually called limonite but limonite is not a true mineral name (although it's commonly used by geologists).  Limonite is actually a mixture of different iron hydroxide minerals which typically form when iron-rich water encounters atmospheric oxygen (and typically helped along by Fe-fixing bacteria) - hence the name "bog iron" for sedimentary deposits of this mineral.

Bog iron was once an important ore of iron in Northern Europe for people like the Vikings (here's an interesting web site about this).  It was also used as a paint pigment.  Below is a yellow and red ochre turtle from Kakadu National Park, Australia.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Someone asked me some questions the other day about magnetite.  He knew it was a magnetic mineral but wondered about why it was magnetic (it came up because I had mentioned that I led students to some old magnetite mines that day).

I didn't really know exactly why magnetite was magnetic (I had some vague memory that it might have something to do with the different oxidation states of iron in the mineral, but didn't remember beyond that).  So I did some research.

Before we talk about magnetite, let's discuss another oxide of iron called hematite (Fe2O3).  Hematite is a common rusty-red mineral and we've all seen it in the form of rusted iron.

Iron can occur in two oxidation states - iron(II) or ferrous iron (Fe2+) and iron(III) or ferric iron (Fe3+).  The iron atoms in hematite occur as ferric iron (oxygen has an oxidation state of -2 so two Fe3+ and three O2- balance each other out).

Now it gets more complicated.  Iron, number 26 on the periodic table, has 26 protons (positively charged particles in the nucleus) and is orbited by 26 negatively charged electrons (when the atom is electrically neutral).  The electrons occupy specific orbitals and, in iron, they fill up in the following way:

Fe: 1s22s22p63s23p63d64s2

where 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, 2p, 3p, and 3d all represent specific orbitals for the electrons and the superscripts represent the number of electrons in each (a bit more complicated than the very simple Bohr model of the atom most of you are probably familiar with unless you've had some chemistry).  Note there are 26 electrons in all 7 orbitals (s, p, & d orbitals have the following shapes):

Electrons have a property called spin which describes their angular momentum.  Electron spin is described as either up or down and as electrons fill orbitals, they do so in pairs where one electron spins upward and the other spins downward.  One interesting thing about iron, however, is that it has four unpaired electrons in its 3d orbital.

Iron atom and unpaired electrons

Why?  I have no idea - ask a chemist.  What happens in iron is that the unpaired electrons can all have the same spin (up, for example) in a small region of the iron which forms what's called a magnetic domain.  If you could isolate that domain from the rest of the iron, it would be a magnet.  In a macroscopic chunk of iron, however, you have many domains all of which have random orientations which cancel each other out.  This is shown diagrammatically below for unmagnetized Fe where the arrows show domain directions for magnetic north poles (a dot means the arrow is coming out of the block and an x means it's going into the block).

Materials, like iron, which exhibit this property are called ferromagnetic.  Wrap a coil of copper wire around this block of iron, run an electrical current through it, and the electrical current will form a magnetic field (that's why it's called electromagnetism) and all the domains in the iron will line up and turn it into a magnet (an electromagnet).  When the current is turned off, however, the domains go back to random orientation and the iron demagnetizes.  This also explains why magnets stick to iron and not, for example, to aluminum.  The magnetic field of the magnet lines up the domains in the iron and it sticks.  Below shows magnetized Fe.

Ferrric iron found in hematite, however, has the following electron configuration:

Fe3+: 1s22s22p63s23p63d54s0

Given its charge of +3, it's going to be short 3 electrons which come out of the 3d and 4s orbitals.  Now all 5 of the electrons in the 3d orbital are unpaired. Hematite crystallizes in a hexagonal structure (at left) such that atoms in one plane are aligned and in the next plane they're aligned but in an opposite direction.  These spins cancel each other out making hematite antiferromagnetic.

A magnet will not stick to a chunk of pure hematite.

Two asides...  In reality, above -10° C, Fe atoms in hematite are slightly tilted making it weakly ferromagnetic but below -10° C the Fe lines up better and it becomes truly antiferromagnetic.  Also note there is some stuff sold as "magnetic hematite" but that's an advertising term for a synthetic material, it's not the natural mineral hematite.

Now we can discuss magnetite.  Magnetite (Fe3O4) is also a common ore of iron but, unlike hematite, it contains both oxidation states of iron so can be called iron(II,III) oxide or ferrous-ferric oxide and the formula can also be written as FeO • Fe2O3. where the FeO is ferrous iron (Fe2+) and the Fe2O3 is ferric iron (Fe3+).

We've already discussed electron configuration in ferric iron (Fe3+).  What about ferrous iron (Fe2+)?

Fe2+: 1s22s22p63s23p63d64s0

Given its charge of +2, it is obviously going to be short 2 electrons from Fe.  As you can see, they come out of the 4s orbitals and, like regular Fe, it still has 4 unpaired electrons in the 3d orbital (meaning it's also ferromagnetic). 

What makes magnetite different from hematite, and strongly magnetic like regular iron, is that it has a different crystalline structure.  The ferric iron domains cancel each other out but the ferrous iron domains can be lined up with a magnet making the mineral magnetic (I'm pretty sure that's correct, but don't cite me in a paper if you're a student!).

Magnetite iron ore (with magnet) from Hudson Highlands, NY

Magnetite's easy to recognize in the field typically occurring as a black, fairly-dense, crystalline mineral that's strongly magnetic.

Some varieties of magnetite act as a permanent magnet and can pick up paper clips and even nails.  These are called lodestone which meant 'course stone' or 'leading stone' in Middle English because they were used to construct the earliest compasses.

So why is lodestone permanently magnetized?  One idea is that it's the result of near-surface iron ore deposits being struck by lightning and lining up the magnetic domains (see this paper for technical details).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Colors in culture

I thought this was cool. Someone put together a circular graph of what different colors represent to people in different cultures (click to embiggen or visit the original website).

The cultures are, from outer ring to inner ring, Western/American, Japanese, Hindu, Native American, Chinese, Asian, Eastern European, Muslim, African, and South American.  I know we could argue about what exactly a "South American" culture is, and I wasn't able to read about how they collected this data, so we do have to take this with a grain of salt.  It is, however, still an interesting concept.

Some of the "cultures" are consistent in their view of color.  For example, most agree that purity is white, evil is black, and passion is red.  Heat is red and cold is blue (for us light-skinned peoples, those are the colors our skin turns when exposed to these temperatures!).  Death, however, can be viewed as black or white (or even blue or green).

Color identifications with concepts are culturally dependent. 

Many pagan religious practices, for example, identify the cardinal directions with specific colors but different traditions assign different colors to the same directions.  For example, in neopagan Wicca, north is green, east is yellow, south is red, and west is blue (identified with Earth, air, fire, and water respectively).  Amongst the Laktota (Sioux) Indians, north is red, east is yellow, south is white, and west is black.  In some Tibetan mandalas, north is green, east is white, south is yellow, and west is red.  The Diné (Navajo) believe north is black, east is white, south is blue, and west is yellow.

Personally, I see east as yellow for the early morning Sun, west as red for the setting Sun, south as green since it's the direction of warmth, and north as blue, the cold winds.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

SUNY Albany cuts

SUNY Albany recently eliminated the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts.  I really like this open letter to University President George M Philip from Professor Gregory A Petsko.  It pretty much speaks for itself.

By the way, I'm a graduate of SUNY Albany myself.  I earned a Master's degree in geology there - a department which was once one of the best in the country but was also eliminated a few years ago after years of crippling budget cuts.  Then the University has the nerve to send me requests for financial contributions.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Blind Descent

Just finished reading an interesting book called Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth by James M. Tabor (2010 Random House).

It's the story of two elite cavers - American Bill Stone and Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk who were each competitively searching for the world's deepest cave.

Stone placed his bets on Chevé, a cave in the Sierra Juárez mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico.  Chevé is almost, but not quite, 5,000 feet deep making it the deepest cave in the Americas.  But it sits in a 9,000 foot thick limestone plateau and fluorescein dye tracing shows it has to potential to be as deeper than 8,000 feet (the dye emerged 13 miles away at the base of the plateau).  The trick is linking up Chevé with caves at the base of the limestone plateau - it's finding your way through a three-dimensional maze.

Extreme caving like this is often compared to climbing Mount Everest in reverse.  Cavers sometimes spend weeks in the cave, dealing with hazards like 500 foot deep pits.  Rappelling down isn't too bad but imagine climbing back up on a single rope!  Sometimes those pits have freezing cold waterfalls pouring down them and you're typically exhausted and muddy when on the ropes (one unfortunate caver hooked his rappel rack incorrectly and fell to his death).  Supercaves like Chevé require dozens of rappels (and climbs back up).  In between the pits are tight squeezes through narrow passages, crawls, and sometimes, when they're lucky, strolls through passages the size of subway tunnels.

The worst obstacle confronting these cavers are sumps.  Water filled passages that require specialized scuba equipment to pass through.  It's bad enough to get hurt deep in a supercave like Chevé where it may be impossible to get you back to the surface (and certainly no quicker than days later), but get in trouble in a sump with scuba gear and you will die an unpleasant death (as did another young caver mentioned in the book).

While some sumps had cave beyond that continued, Chevé ended in a terminal sump (one that went no further).  There are, however, miles of passages yet to explore that may well lead deeper and cavers like Bill Stone obsessively return year after year to find and map them.

The Ukrainian caver Alexander Klimchouk placed his bets on Krubera, located on the Arabika Massif in the Western Caucuses of Georgia.  He won - Krubera is officially the deepest cave on Earth (the only cave deeper than 2,000 meters) at 2,191 ± 20 m (7,188 ± 66 ft).  Krubera is described as a nasty cave with many long, deep drops interspersed with muddy, meandering, tight crawls between them.  It's also very cold and very wet.

When reading the book, it does seem a bit over melodramatic at times repeatedly reiterating all the dangers faced by these extreme cavers and how physically and mentally fit they have to be to survive the stresses encountered.

Then, sitting comfortably on your couch at home, you try to visualize being 2,000 feet below the surface of the Earth, 2 miles and 20+ climbs up 100+ foot pits from the cave entrance, in water up to your neck preparing to go under and explore a flooded cave passage where no one on Earth has been before, and where one little problem can spiral out of control leading to a painful, horrifying death, you realize that these guys (and a few women) are completely fucking nuts. 

I would definitely suffer what Tabor calls the "Rapture", compared to being like a panic attack on meth, that sometimes strikes cavers who think too hard about where they are and what they're doing.
The modest entrance to Krubera, the deepest cave on Earth

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lapidary medicine

I saw an interesting talk last week (November 10) by a colleague where I teach.  Dr. Nichola Harris, a historian, discussed lapidary medicine - a topic on which she'll soon be publishing a book.  It was a great talk and I look forward to buying the book when it's out.

Lapidary medicine is using "stones" as either preventative or curative medicine. "Stones" can refer to a number of different things (it's not a scientific term) such as minerals, gemstones (typically, but not always, minerals), rocks, fossils, and even various types of organic material (coral, pearls, and amber, for example).

One thing she mentioned that I found interesting, and should have known if I had only thought about it, was that "crystal healing", so popular in New Age circles today, has nothing to do with lapidary medicine.  Lapidary medicine is really early pharamcology in Europe (coming from Greek and Roman times), while crystal healing is derived from Indian metaphysics and is intertwined with ideas about auras and chakras and such.

I wish crystal healing worked since, as a geologist, I am surrounded by crystals as I sit here typing in my office.  Maybe I just need to place them on my head, or perhaps sit on them to energize my root chakra (which would be uncomfortable, especially with the quartz clusters).

Anyway, while lapidary medicine did sometimes work and lead to home remedies still around today, it was often tied up with magical thinking as well (e.g. hematite, or iron oxide, is dark red so it's good for blood problems). 

One specific example she mentioned was calamine which is an obsolete mineral name found in lists of inventory in old apothecary shop records.  The name comes from a Belgian town (Kelmis) which had a zinc mine and was known by the French as "la Calamine".  Geologists don't use the term calamine anymore, it was really a mixture of two two attractive blue-green minerals - smithsonite (ZnCO3) and hemimorphite (Zn4Si2O7(OH)2 • H2O).

Both are ore minerals of zinc.  Now why would old apothecary shops carry this mineral?  Dr. Harris suggests that it was used for skin irritations - today we can go into drugstores and purchase a bottle of calamine lotion which has the active ingredient of zinc oxide (ZnO).  She didn't go into how those raw minerals were converted into something you'd want to spread on irritated smallpox sores, for example, but I would have to imagine it was powdered and then mixed with lard or some similar cream-like material.

She also mentioned pearl juleps.  People would drink powdered pearls.  She speculated this was for acid reflux since pearls are primarily made of calcium carbonate - the same active ingredient in Tums.
This I found a bit puzzling since pearls are typically much smaller than a typical 750 mg tablet of Tums (I have a bottle in my desk and looked) and most people would take 2 Tums for reflux.  In addition, Europe has plenty of chalk deposits - also calcium carbonate - which would have been much easier and cheaper to obtain.  Hell, ground up oyster shells would have been just as effective and easier to obtain.  I'm not sure why they would have used the less effective pearls (unless it was some sort of conspicuous consumption status symbol).

Anyway, I look forward to her book.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I think my students feel this way about me...


Tuesday, November 16, 2010


It's time for the Leonids meteor shower.  This meteor shower, occurring every year in mid-November, is due to a cloud of debris left in the Earth's orbit by the periodic comet Tempel-Tuttle (55P/Tempel-Tuttle).  This comet was discovered in 1865 and last appeared in our solar system in 1998.  It has a period of 33 years so won't reappear until 2031.  With each pass through our inner solar system, however, it leaves a trail of primarily dust-sized particles that we intersect.  These particle burn up in our atmosphere in spectacular streaks of light we call "shooting stars" or meteors.

The best time to observe the Leonids is after midnight in the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 17 or Thursday, November 18.  Why are meteor showers best after midnight? 

If you examine the diagram above, you'll see that position A is just after sunset on the trailing side of the Earth while position B is just before sunrise (after midnight) on the leading side of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. At position B, we're plowing right into the debris field left by comet Swift-Tuttle and the meteor shower will be at its best.

The Leonids are so-named because they appear to emanate from the constellation of Leo the lion.  Leo rises after midnight in the eastern sky and is actually quite easy to recognize - it looks like a backwards question mark and triangle.

Two problems with viewing the Leonids.  This first is that a waxing gibbous moon will be out (it's full on the 21st).  It doesn't set until around 2 am Wednesday morning and 3 am Thursday morning.  The moon will wash out many of the fainter meteors when it's out.  The second problem is significant and sadly typical for Ulster County.  It will likely be raining early Wednesday morning and mostly cloudy early Thursday morning.  The weather in this area absolutely sucks for doing astronomy.

Woodcut showing 1833 Leonid storm
This year, the Leonids might appear at a rate of 20 meteors or so per hour but there have been times when it's been dramatically higher - these are called meteor storms.  On November 12 in 1883, the Leonids produced over 25,000 meteors per hour!  People gathered on the streets and were convinced the world was coming to an end.

On November 17, 1996, another Leonids storm produced an estimated 144,000 meteors an hour - that's 40 per second!  Here are some eyewitness accounts of the 1966 Leonids meteor storm.

The best Leonids shower I observed was in 2001 when the rate was one every few seconds (and some leaving spectacularly long trails).

If you'd like to read more about the history of the Leonids, there's a nice article at Space.com.

So if you find youself up around 4 am during the next two days, poke your head out and look up - you might be treated to a celestial show.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Diving between the continents

File:Iceland Mid-Atlantic Ridge Fig16.gifSilfra is a rift in the Earth's crust located within Þingvellir National Park, Iceland (the odd letter Þ is pronounced like a "th" so you will also see it spelled "Thingvellir"). 

This rift is actually the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates because the island of Iceland sits smack dab atop of the Mid-Atlantic ridge where these two plates are rifting apart from each other by a few centimeters each year (which is why Iceland is seismically and volcanically active).

The rift has filled with clear, cold glacial meltwater a couple of degrees above freezing.  Sounds like a great place to go scuba diving, doesn't it?  Here's one picture of the rift from someone who dove down into it.

Looks like a lovely place for a swim, doesn't it?  Below is another picture under the water.  I found it in a list of "The World's Best Underwater Photographs 2010" and thought it was pretty cool.

Magnus Lundgren/Barcroft Media

The left wall of the rift is North America, the right wall is Europe.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


There's a flu remedy showing up in local stores as we enter cold and flu season.  It's called Oscillococcinum and it's advertised as a natural, homeopathic medicine.  It's been popular in France for decades and is, unfortunately, becoming more popular in the U.S.

I said unfortunately because this "remedy" is based on pseudoscience.  It was developed by a French physician, Joseph Roy, around 1925.  During the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1917, Roy claimed to have observed oscillating bacteria in the the blood of flu victims which he named oscillococci.  Roy later claimed he found this bacterium in the blood of patients with other viral diseases as well such as herpes, shingles, and chicken pox.  He later included rheumatism, measles, and even cancer.

These claims are all nonsense by the way.  Most of these are all viral diseases (and viruses are too small for Roy to have observed in his microscope) and no one today even knows what Roy was observing (in other words, it's not a bacterium modern bacteriologists recognize!).

Anyway, Roy searched for this oscillococcus in other animals and supposedly found it in the liver of a duck that the French know as Canard de Barbarie.  Now I fully confess to not understanding the reasoning for this (most like because it's complete bullshit), but homeopathy believes you can start with a source of this bacteria, dilute it down, and then use it to treat the disease.

So what is modern Oscillococcinum you can purchase today?  The active ingredients are listed as "200 CK Anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum" (obtained from Drugs.com).  Inactive ingredients are simply sucrose and lactose (i.e. sugars).  I'll explain the 200 CK in a minute, that's the "dosage" (you'll see why I put that in parentheses as well).  Anas barbariae is not a species name, anas is simply the Latin word for duck so it's Latin for the French term Canard de Barbarie which is really the Muscovy duck or Cairina moschata.  What's hepatis et cordis extractum?  It's simply Latin for "extract of liver and heart."  So you kill a duck, extract the heart and liver, toss them into a sterile flask with some pancreatic juice and glucose, and let it autolyse (disintigrate into goop) for 40 days.  Then you dilute it to 200 CK.

So what's a CK?  It's not a standard notation seen in science, it's specific to homeopathy.  C stands for centesimal and means a 1:100 dilution and K stands for the Korsakovian method.  The Korsakovian method was developed by Semen Nikolaevich Korsakov (no, I didn't misspell his first name!), a Russian bureaucrat in the early 19th century (no medical or scientific training). 

Let's imagine we start with a 1 liter flask.  In the Korsakovian method, you fill a flask with 99 parts (990 ml) of a diluent (might be water, alcohol, sugar water, etc) and 1 part of your active ingredient (10 ml - about 2 eyedroppers worth).  That's a concentration of 1CK.  Shake it up good (homeopaths call it "succussion" and sometimes specify 100 shakes).  Pour out 99% of the liquid (990 ml) and then refill with your diluent.  Now you have a 2CK concentration.  Repeat 200 times for a 200CK dosage as found in Oscillococcinum.

At those dilutions, the final product will contain 1 part in 100200!  That's a 1 followed by 400 zeros!  The number of particles in the known universe is only 1100 or so!  Mathematically, there are NO original atoms of the active ingredient in your solution - ZERO.  The only way for this to work, and what homeopaths claim, is that the active ingredient somehow magically imprints its "essence" on the diluent.  Sheer, utter, unequivocal nonsense.

Thousands of Americans die from influenza each year.  Many of these deaths can be prevented by a simple immunization (the flu shot).  This "all natural" remedy is EXACTLY as effective as drinking a glass of sugar water.

By the way, did you hear about the guy who missed his homeopathic remedy dose?  He died of an overdose. Get it?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hike today

Beautiful weather here in the Hudson Valley.  I had scheduled a field trip for today way back in August and really lucked out with the date.  Every fall I teach a Physical Geology lab course with a Saturday field trip (there are also two local field trips during the three-hour lab time).  I really don't think some of the college administrators realize the importance of field trips in geology but I'm sure all my geology teaching colleagues would agree with me that they're essential.

Since we're in Ulster County, the local field trips look at deformed sedimentary rocks in the local area as well as a number of geomorphic features (e.g. floodplains, local karst features, etc).  I use the Saturday fieldtrip, however, to go a little further afield and we drive down to the Hudson Highlands (Bear Mountain and Harriman State Park) to view igneous and metamorphic rocks.  Since today was such a beautiful day, I decided to change things around a bit and we took a several mile hike out to some old magnetite iron mines (Hogancamp and Pine Swamp mines specifically).  They're an interesting story because you can talk about the Grenville Orogeny over a billion years ago, gneiss, veins of magnetite iron, granitic intrusions, and modern glacial features (striations, chatter marks, erratics), as well as the history of iron mining in the area and the importance of local iron ore to the Revolutionary War effort.

One thing that made the hike a little hazardous were the dead leaves all over the trail.  On the steeper slopes, it was very slippery in places and a few people slipped onto their butts.  Fortunately, no one was hurt (always a concern when you're a couple of miles from a road with a group of students).  So, even though I worked on a Saturday with no extra compensation (the life of a geology professor), I did get to go on a nice hike in the woods which is what I might have done anyway.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Blog stats

On the left side of my blog, under the "Blogs I Follow", there's a stat counter.  As of this morning, I've had 8,521 unique visitors since I started the blog back back on December 29 of last year. 

I didn't really do any advertising so it took a while for readership to pick up and each month I have more and more hits.  The stat counter shows about 60-70 unique hits a day now.  Here's a recent visitor's map.

 Here are the top ten "popular" pages.

So, what should I write more about?  I'll discount "Earth at Night" because that's recent and this list will reflect the most recent post as popular.  Right Ascension and Declination and the Lunar Phases posts were popular so maybe I'll write more about observational astronomy.  Moh's Scale of Hardness shows up, I'll probably write about mineral cleavage, color, and other things from introductory geology.  When I wrote about Magical Mecca, there were a lot of hits from the Middle East at the time.  Dildos are always popular but I have the feeling people Googling "dildo" were highly disappointed to see a picture of me.

Want me to write about something?  Let me know, you can leave anonymous comments (I have to approve them but that's only to keep out the #*@! low-life spammers (I despise spammers).

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Speaking of energy...

Illinois Republican Congressional Representative John Shimkus has the following to say about climate change:

Shimkus is on the House Energy Subcommittee on Energy and Environment and hopes to become chair of the House Energy Committee.

I'm not sure where to start.

I love the comment "There is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet."  What the hell do theologians know about climate science?  There's no debate among people with PhDs in atmospheric chemistry and other relevant disciplines who've been researching this for decades (no carbon "starvation").

I also like the comment about higher carbon dioxide values in the "Age of the Dinosaurs."  Of course, Shimkus thinks the age of the dinosaurs occurred between the divine creation on October 23, 4004 BC and extended to just after Noah's Flood (since Noah evidently took baby dinosaurs on the ark according to most young-Earth creationists).  I'm sure Shimkus doesn't believe what climatologists also claim about the Cretaceous Period (the time when dinos like T. rex were tromping around).  Global temperatures were several degrees higher and large parts of midcontinent North America were flooded under the Western Interior Seaway (marine fossils in Kansas)!

Anyway, there's no debating people like this - they do not believe what they do because of any evidence, they believe because that's what their hyperliteral view of the Bible tells them.  Personally, I think "batshit crazy" is an appropriate label for this moron but then I'm not feeling very charitable today.

Save Energy

Saw this at M Thru F Fail Blog and thought it was amusing:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Earth at Night

This image has been around quite a while and I even have a poster of it in my office.  But I did see it again today and thought it was neat.

The Earth at night. Looking at the U.S., we can easily see many of the major cities and the Interstate system.  Lots and lots of lights.

When we look at East Asia, we see that Japan, China, and South Korea are well-lit.  North Korea has a few lights in Pyongyang - nothing anywhere else. 

Say what you will about India, it's very well-lit.  The lights stop at the Himalaya.

In North Africa, the Nile River shows up very well in Egypt surrounded by the mostly unlit Sahara Desert.

In Australia, the East Coast, Perth, and a few dots in the Outback.  Good place to do astronomy - lots of dark areas.

What on Earth are those bright lights east of Madagascar?

Google Earth shows them as Mauritius and Reunion.

I'd love to see a very high resolution image of the Earth at night.  I'm sure a lot of interesting things could be seen.