Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Ore Themed Western Musical

Has everyone else been loving Mike Stoklasa (aka Mr. Plinkett's) savage reviews of the prequels? I sure have, but he also did some other really cool stuff like this fun rock and geology themed musical. The main character is a Geologist.

Overall good fun, but a few geology nitpicks...gypsum is mentioned as a hard mineral, but actually it's a 2 on the Mohr hardness scale - your fingernails are about 2.5! Diamonds are a 10. A good mnemonic device for remembering Mohr's scale is "The Green Clawed Ferocious Aardvark Ordered Quick Tasty Chinese Dinners."

Also, Quartzite actually isn't related to good old SiO2 at all, but is just a metamorphic sandstone.

Cobalt is an element and lucite is clear white stuff used instead of glass that's not found in the earth at all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Like black diamonds? You’ve been bamboozled, sucker!

Never underestimate the power of a slick marketing campaign to hornswaggle and bamboozle people into thinking a worthless product is attractive and valuable. Black diamonds, or carbonados, have historically been viewed as ugly and cheap and not of gem quality, for a very simple reason: they don’t have much clarity so they lose the optical properties and luster we associate with diamond gems.

However, thanks to aggressive salesmanship and advertising, black diamonds are now selling at prices equal to those of “white” diamonds, despite the fact, in all honesty, close up they’re pretty ugly: they typically have the consistency and color of dark sunglasses lenses, a smoky, oily near-transparent gray-black.

I could be wrong, though: here’s Carmen Electra sporting a tasteful and not gaudy at all black diamond engagement ring, and as we all know, Carmen’s both a supergenius and armed with so much taste she’s like the reincarnation of Jacqueline Onassis.

First things first, my lovelies: there’s no such thing as a “black” diamond.

Diamonds are typically single crystals of carbon atoms that are arranged, at the atomic level, into a tetrahedronal (four-sided) crystalline lattice – an arrangement that is called an allotrope, and graphite is another allotrope of carbon atoms. In crystallography, it’s important to remember that something maintains the exact same shape, proportions and series of angles no matter its actual volume or size. That is, a diamond crystal, if not broken, will have these exact same proportions and geometry if it’s an eighth of a centimeter or as big as a fist.

This is called the law of constancy of interfacial angles, or Steno’s law, or, if you prefer, the first law of crystallography, and was discovered in the 17th Century by the great Danish scientist Nicolaus Steno, who helped create the field of modern geology by his discovery of the properties of natural crystals, not to mention other stellar achievements like the idea fossils are the remains of long-dead organisms.

Diamonds are naturally clear, but often when they form, there are occasionally impurities on the level of one part per million – for instance, superheated titanium gas, when caught inside a diamond, forms what’s called an inclusion and often turns the diamond a vivid and unusual color. Boron gases are the source of blue diamonds like the Hope Diamond, for instance.

Colored diamonds are all the rage these days, and have increased in price five-fold: a colored diamond that cost $50,000 in 1970 would be worth several million today. As a result of this, various processes have been created to turn diamonds unusual colors as a result of heat and irradiation. This ends in hilarity and tragedy when a supposedly colored diamond is superheated as a part of repairs only to have it lose its color! The lure of colored diamonds is a relatively recent phenomenon, though! For the majority of history non-colored diamonds were viewed as deficient and cheap.

Black diamonds are not like that, though. Black isn’t a color diamonds come in. Black diamonds are created not by unusual impurities...but by the fact they’re not single crystals, but a polycrystalline aggregate, or more simply, a combination of many individual crystals. Many metals are polycrystalline aggregate, including steel. As a result of this combination, they look an oily black because all the crystals in front of each other prevent the light from going through.

While carbonados may be ugly, the theory about their formation is pretty interesting stuff. They may form in supernovas that compress and expel carbon into polycrystalline aggregates and arrive on earth as meteorites.

In fact, because of their structure and how they form, the largest diamond ever discovered was a black carbonado at 3,147 carats. For comparison, the Hope diamond is 45 carats.

In other words, black diamonds are just repackaged carbonados of dubious non-gem quality that marketing makes you think are cool, sold at high prices because of the demand among the tacky, newly rich demographic, which includes Carmen Electra and most reality show contestants.

The thing that bothers me about marketing is how it can sometimes create an Ouroboros of non-logic and non-causality that could make a time-travelers’ head spin. Black diamonds are viewed as valuable because of aggressive salesmanship, yet their high price is due to demand caused by that aggressive salesmanship. It’s like a paradox used by Captain Kirk to destroy an evil supercomputer.

I don’t get the point of colored diamonds and I particularly don’t care for black diamonds. After all, isn’t the greatest and most beautiful thing about a diamond its clarity and luster and shimmer?

This often surprises people, but not all diamonds are of gem quality – in fact, fewer than half are not used for jewelry at all: most have flaws or problems with clarity and imperfection. In fact, diamonds are a downright miraculous material because of their resistance to heat and hardness used for things like industrial diamond drills and even computers, as any reader of Michael Crichton’s Congo would know.

Here’s another diamond misconception: diamonds form from the compression of coal under intense pressures. Superstrong superheroes like the Thing and the Incredible Hulk regularly squeeze coal hard enough diamonds form. Actually, coal is a type of sedimentary rock left by dead plant matter that was super-compressed, whereas diamonds typically form deep, deep within the earth, in the mantle at depths of several hundred miles in the interior.

The formation of coal is actually extremely unique and interesting. Most people believe that coal is remains of dead dinosaurs. Actually, coal is just compressed peat material from 360 million years, the aptly and descriptively named Carboniferous era, where swamp algae was compressed through a process of lithification, the process by which sedimentary material turns into rock. People know about the supercontinent of Pangea, but Pangea was only the last of several epic supercontinents in the incredible history of the earth. In the carboniferous, most land on earth was at the equator in a supercontinent called Gondwanaland, where it was constantly wet and swampy. Dense, stagnant swamps of non-moving water are typically stripped of oxygen by living things and bacteria, creating anoxic, sulfuric wastes that kill off the bacteteria that result in decomposition, so peat built up in layer after layer for hundreds of feet before it began to lithify.

By the way, no matter how big a nerd you think you are, I know for a fact I'm a bigger one: while cleaning up I found an old "Reunite Gondwanaland" t-shirt.

Also, coal is not entirely carbon at all, which is why it can’t turn into diamond. The composition of bituminous coal (a soft version that leaves an ash residue behind), for instance, is 75% carbon but also includes sulfur, hydrogen and nitrogen, and can also include benzene-like compounds. There are so many different classes of coal that labeling them into categories was a bone of contention among anal retentive petroleum scientists. In fact, burning coals can result in sulfur dioxide, which is the source of “acid rain.”

While I’m at it, let me clear up a common misconception right here: diamonds are not totally indestructible, and they can be broken by enough force and pressure. It is true that only a diamond can cut or scratch another diamond, but given enough pressure diamond can shatter like any other stone. In fact, diamonds, like any carbon allotrope, can even burn at enough temperature. Lavousier, the chemist best known for the discovery of oxygen, discovered that diamonds were principally carbon by measuring what was released from a burning diamond.

In fact, scientists have, under conditions of immense pressure (over ten million pounds per square inch), caused diamond to liquefy. Indeed, there is some speculation that part of the composition of Uranus and Neptune are oceans of liquid diamond. I practically had an orgasm when I heard about that!

You know who would make a good science teacher? Yoda, because he put it best when he said that in science, knowledge is unlearning a lot of what you have learned.

What’s the point of all this? Well, it just goes to show how an understanding of Geology can help people navigate through important purchases and important decisions, because many things we think we know are actually untrue or wrong. One big problem is how many garnets, a pinkish and cheaper stone, are often mislabeled as rubies. This was especially common in the past, where there was no x-ray crystallography and other methods to definitively identify gemstones. Just like diamond is a crystalline form of carbon, rubies are a typical form of the silicate mineral corundum, which incidentally, also is the source of amethysts.

Finally…what’s my favorite gemstone, you may ask?

Well, ask any rockhound that and you’ll get a hundred that come to mind, but that depends if you mean precious gemstone or not.

My favorite non-precious stones are a variety of crystalline quartz found in upstate New York called Herkimer County Diamonds. The reason I like these the best is that they’re photogenic, huge and clear and terminate at either end in points, and also because I had the good fortune of finding one on my first rockhound trip to upstate NYC. It’s not a protected resource so you can just pluck ‘em off the ground if you like, and they’re super-photogenic; when I show people my rock collection eyes immediately migrate to them. Also, they are found by just cracking open rocks, just like in the movies!

As for my favorite precious gemstone, I would have to say a beautiful, rare and unusual variety of burnt-orange garnet called spessartine, a manganese aluminum silicate that was mostly unknown until deposits were found between Nairobi and Angola. Even today it’s as hard to find as it is gorgeous.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Some Great Video Debunkings

One of my personal heroes, James Randi, debunks a mineral dowser.

The thing I find the most disappointing about mineral dowsing is that it doesn't work, actually. For a rockhound like me, I'd be the first to sign up for classes if it did! I've been rockhunting for some time and I've yet to find some natural New York State gemstones like flourite and sphalerite.

The depressing part here is that despite the fact that it was all well and truly debunked, this English fellow nonetheless finds work to this day as a mineral dowser despite being told his power just doesn't work. He seems like a nice older English "chappie." I strongly suspect he actually believes he has a power and isn't aware of the "ideomotor effect."

Another YouTube poster devotes himself to explaining the truth behind so-called "true" supernatural tales like the Bell Witch of Tennessee and the Philadelphia Experiment, stories that have long since been shown to be false but still remain in circulation for whatever reason. They're fun to watch.

This one is my personal favorite, the story of the Bell Witch:

In general, stories of this type don't do any harm (unlike, say, creationism, which is poisonous to scientific understanding). However, while fantasy and ghost stories are normal, healthy and lots of fun, it is vital to distinguish between the real world and fantasy and not confuse the two.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Wizard Did It: Creationism's Trojan Horse

If you're at all curious about the discussions of Intelligent Design vs. Creationism, check out "Creationism's Trojan Horse" by Barbara Forrest.

The main points of the book are as follows:

  1. "Intelligent Design" is a public relations movement as opposed to a scientific one.
  2. "Intelligent Design" is a fundamentally religious and philisophical position, not a scientific one;
  3. ...and that's the point. It is aimed at bamboozling and convincing non-specialists, designed to sabotage the teaching of evolution for religious reasons.
  4. The research isn't enough to change the mind or convince a single scientist or create new fields of research or testable hypothesis, but rather, is all designed to use public relations to sabotage and subvert the normal process of science.
  5. When having a dialogue with science, creationists and IDers create a "heads-I-win/tails-you-lose" scenario. If they are ignored by scientists, they yell about how science is unable to respond to their "A Wizard Did It" claims, and when scientists give their books criticism, they trumpet that science is finally giving them some attention.

The book often trotted out as Intelligent Design playing science with the big boys, their heaviest hitter, would be Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box. For those that haven't read it, the jist of his book is that there are some biological structures so complicated that if you remove one part, it stops working and thus, according to Behe, couldn't have evolved, like the bacterial flagellum "motor." It's essentially a rehash of the old rejected creationist argument that something like the eye couldn't have evolved on its own because it needs to be in its current form to work.

Behe in particular I always found especially silly. Consider that his book was written in 1996. I entered college in 2004, where I took Molecular Biology and Organic Chemistry. Since 1996, Genomics (the science of protein structure) has made wild contributions to evolutionary biology. Almost all the points Behe brings up in his 1996 book have since been explained (with satisfactory and more importantly, testable explanations), like the development of blood clotting and yes, even the flagellum motor.

That seems to be the Creationist/ID response to science: seize on an area that nobody knows much about and then say "A Wizard Did It." This is what happened when Creationists seized on the so-called "Cambrian Fossil Explosion," about the "sudden" and "unexplained" development of life in the early Cambrian. Since very few fossils exist from that period, there were a lot of gaps in our knowledge. Since the Creationists made that claim, new fossils have revealed what truly happened: slow leaps instead of a sudden explosion. But that's no big deal to these guys: move on to the next gap, which can easily be explained by A Wizard Did It. The genius here is that there will always be huge gaps in knowledge, which is the whole point of science. Let's be honest here: these folk don't really care about science. Not really.

The point of the book is this: "Intelligent Design" is creationism rebranded and not a true scientific position. There is zero real scientific controversy about evolution and natural selection, and the aim of the Intelligent Design movement is an end-run around science to directly influence public opinion among non-scientists and non-specialists by creating an ambiguity as to which theory is correct among laymen, an ambiguity that just doesn't exist. This, incidentally, is the tactic of choice among global warming deniers: insist that scientists aren't sure so you can just pick any theory you like. Tragically, it takes some extra type of self-deleusion to deny physical reality.

Incidentally, here's Kenneth Miller, a deeply religious Christian as well as a cellular biologist, and his instructive lecture that takes down Intelligent Design. The video is a little long but worth watching in its entirety as a companion to the book.

Politicians telling scientists what to do: the Deutsche Physik movement

My favorite moment in the entire tragicomic saga of the Nazi-era "Deutsche Physik" movement was this: Heinrich Himmler was a grade school friend of Germany's greatest quantum and particle physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Yes, that Heisenberg.

So, Heisenberg's Mom called Himmler's Mom on the telephone and politely but firmly asked if she would please tell her son to leave Heisenberg alone! Not bad from someone that, because of his concern for his nation's loss of talented scientists, was labeled a "White Jew" that ought to be made to "disappear."

"Aryan Physics" was a movement in Germany to create a muscular breed of physics that eliminated the "Jewish" influence of Albert Einstein and his paradigm-shifting work with relativity. The thing I find shocking about all this is that it began with old-guard, reactionary old scientists that were outraged by Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics (in other words, what today we'd call modern physics), paradigm shifters that did away with many darling and pet theories, like the Luminferous Aether, that many old-guard scientists were outraged by in a way that mirrors old geologists of the 1960s opposed to plate tectonics and continental drift. Quantum Mechanics, in particular, was a theory less than a decade old that explained that within an atom, the laws of classical physics don't apply but their behavior can only be described with probabilities.

Under the Nazis, old guard physicists found an ally, because science could play into the sort of political tropes the Nazis liked. The effect was astounding: out of the 26 known German nuclear physicists, almost half left Germany and defected. Many were Jewish, as under Nazi laws Jews were forbidden from holding posts in Higher Education, a position that echoes the paranoid, conspiratorial fears of anti-intellectuals on the right, who see centers of learning as hives of indoctrination. At the risk of Godwinning myself and thus failing the internet, the parallels just write themselves.

The American Operation: Paperclip, as well as the Soviet efforts to recruit disenfranchised German scientists, meant that Germany's loss was ultimately the Manhattan Project's gain. Otto Robert Frisch, for instance, was a Jewish refugee that after leaving Germany calculated the exact amount of Uranium needed to reach critical mass.

In the end of course, the Nazis eventually came around and realized they scared away an entire generation by putting political loyalty and ideology over the independent conclusions of science, but the damage was done: they suffered a colossal brain drain that cost them the atomic bomb.

Suddenly, the necessity for tenure becomes clearer: part of the reason it exists is that the only environment that honest science can be practiced is one with academic freedom and the ability to reach conclusions that are occasionally inconvenient to government and industry alike.

PAHs and the development of life

If you've ever been curious about the origin of life and how it arose from nonliving molecules, for the past few years there's a mindblowing new scenario on how that could have happened centered around Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons as an intermediate "starter" stage that leads to life. Not because of PAH's complexity, but because of how durable they are, how simple they are.

PAHs, in short, are polycyclic because they are typically carbon atoms that form into extremely durable ring structures, connected to each other. As anyone that's ever played with a molecular model kit knows, carbon atoms connect at angles that result in a cyclic shape. Because the carbon atoms double-bond to each other over and over, they have a real toughness by sharing bonds, a property in chemistry known as "aromatic."

PAHs are found over and over on earth, and in fact are even one polycyclic aromatic molecule (though not a hydrocarbon), C60, was the first soccer-ball shaped buckminsterfullerine ever discovered in nature, a sexy kind of molecule that gets a lot of attention because of unique properties. Flatten a buckyball out into a sheet of graphene (well, more or less), curl it up and you get carbon nanotubes, a molecule with the primary property of creating tons and tons of work for sensationalist science writers prone to jumping the gun.

Amusingly enough, one PAH is Naphthaline, C10H8, which is the primary ingredient of mothballs.

Not only is C60 as well as PAHs found in interstellar space where the primary components of life are believed to be found, the strong bonded structure means it can tolerate resistance and survive untouched in space, surrounded by UV light that would break up and destroy more fragile components of organic chemistry, like amino acids. Likewise, they're far simpler, just basic ring-shaped hydrocarbons that because the cyclic shape repeats over and over, it remains intact even if blown apart. It is believed they could have formed primitive membranes that protected life, helped in metabolism, and can even hold genetic information...the only material known in the interstellar medium that meets all three criteria for life.

Because of their stability and resistance to temperature and radiation, if PAHs played a role in the development of life on earth, it would change the conditions that are required for life to form, which may mean that life can develop in environments more deadly and dangerous than previously thought.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Futurama's Math Jokes

Those that love math will probably get a kick out of Futurama and their blink and you miss it math jokes.

Aleph-Null Plex as a theater name instead of a "multiplex." Now that's good. For those that don't know, Aleph-Null is a part of Set Theory, a mathematical concept described in the 1870s by Georg Cantor, a concept that is taught even at simple levels by the use of Venn diagrams (remember those?). According to him there are various types of infinities, and because Cantor was Jewish, he described by the Hebrew letter Aleph.

Aleph-Null (or Aleph-Zero) is used to describe the set with the smallest cardinality (or size of the elements in a set). It measures an infinity according to natural, ordinary counting numbers (excluding zero, negative numbers, and irrational numbers). Cantor made a distinction between transfinite and absolute infinity, in the sense that transfinite numbers are sets bigger than any finite set, yet they fall far short of absolute infinity. In fact, it's been demonstrated at least in classical cardinal mathematics that the sum of all ordinal numbers can't possibly exist, something called the Burali-Forti Paradox.

Think of the Burali-Forti Paradox like this. Take something that is meant to represent the sum of all ordinal numbers. Cantor was partial to the Omega symbol for religious reasons. Now, the concept you just created has all the properties of a number that can be listed in a set! There are some interesting ways to resolve this paradox, notably through use of different principles of set theory.