Many of you are aware that I have made a television show. We call the show “Get Your Rocks Off With Houston” and it is of the science/adventure/travel sort. Imagine if you took Dirty Jobs, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, and Bill Nye the Science Guy and smooshed it all together, that is what I am offering.
In each week’s episode I introduce a new gemstone, I explain where it came from, how the Earth made it, what cool examples of it are out there, what you can do with it, and then we go and get it! In the process of our hunt we explore old ghost towns and abandoned mines, party down with locals, and see what this particular slice of the world has to offer for unique entertainment. Depending on what we find, we may do something awesome with the stone(s); like carve it into a beautiful sculpture, make a piece of fine jewelry out of it for a Hollywood star, donate it to a museum, etc…
Anyway, after raising over $27,000 on Kickstarter, and spending another $40,000 of my own we have a pilot episode that I am taking to the Banff World Medial Festival to shop around to network executives and international distributors. I am going to sell this show. To whom? Well, that is up to the networks and their bid offers 😉
It’s time for shows with fat, stupid rednecks breaking things and yelling at each other to step aside for funny, enlightening adventure television.
Congress want to sell off all the land owned by the federal government. Up yours, Congress!
The largest landholder in the United States are the very citizens of the United States. We own, at last check, 28% of all the landmass of the entire nation. That’s about 636 million acres or just shy of 1 million square miles of land. If you look at a map of the United States showing federally owned and controlled lands you will see that said ownership is disproportionally distributed to the Western states starting at the Rockies on over to the Pacific. There are some big reasons for this:
1) None of this land was originally granted to individuals via the King of England. Most of the borders of East Coast states are the way they are because they were originally land grants to individuals from the King of England.
2) Mountains are hard to settle. Mountains have resources but it also sucks to try and live there if all the technology you have at the time is a mule and a shovel. When the original homesteading was taking place during the Western expansion of the mid 19th century people didn’t homestead the mountains simply because its hard to farm a mountain.
3) The desert doesn’t grow crops. Try as we might, salty soils with no rain don’t grow food. So, like the mountains, the deserts of the Southwest were not homesteaded.
This is OK, though. Thanks to the 1872 Mining Act citizens of the United States are allowed access to federal lands. It is here where we fish, hunt, hike, camp, rock hound/prospect, hold music festivals, and just enjoy the splendor of nature. This is why camping and hiking in the west is so much better than camping and hiking in the East. Unlike the East coast we aren’t trespassing anywhere to get to all the good spots.
As America moved West people staked mining claims, temporary renewable rights to minerals found in a particular location. As these mining claims grew into operational mines we would see temporary, tough-to-live-in, boom towns pop up around them. As the mineral resources waned so did the towns (leaving behind my beloved ghost towns). Only in the rare instance, when a mine may produce valuable ore for years to come, could the claim owner petition the US government for a deed to the land and assume ownership of said real property. The US government would then charge the company or person a nominal fee to buy the land from the Feds. This was known as a “patented mining claim”.
This system of obtaining real property was allowed up until 1994 when the Brush Wellman Corporation (now known as Materion), submitted a land patent application to assume somewhere near 4 square miles of land. This chunk of real estate contained somewhere in the neighborhood of (in today’s dollars) $50-150 billion dollars in beryllium. Essentially 90% of the of the world’s supply of this extremely rare, extremely useful, and extremely valuable metal. How much did Brush Wellman pay for tens of billions of dollars in minerals owned by you and me? About $41,000 (in today’s dollars). When the American people found out about how hosed we got on the land deal a roar echoed through Congress and a moratorium was established. Since 1994 no one has been allowed to patent a mining claim staked on federal lands.
Fast forward twenty years and I give the you 114th Congress. These people truly suck. The Republicans enjoy a large majority in the House and control the Senate. They accomplished this thanks to the gerrymandering of districts by Republican controlled state legislatures. Thus, Republicans control the House despite losing the general election by 1.37 million votes. What is one of the major things the 114th Congress want to do with their ill-gotten majority? Sell everything we own.
It is starting small. Essentially, Congress thinks that by turning all control of current Federal lands over to the states in which these lands are found then it will be easier for oil and gas, mining, and logging companies to then grease the palms of state legislatures to purchase vast quantities of state lands. The states do not have the resources to manage these lands as evidence by my own state (Washington) relinquishing control of dozens of state parks to city governments. If states do not have the budgets to manage the lands they have now, how are they going to manage the tens of millions of acres of new land they suddenly have thrust upon them by the federal government?
The ploy is simple, Congress wants to sell your lands to corporations who donate heavily to their campaigns. if we allow them to do this, we’re screwed. Why?
Here is why: The 1872 Mining Act allows us access to federal lands. If the lands are no longer federal our outdoor activities will no longer be protected by this Act. There is a moratorium on selling federal lands, but there is no moratorium on selling state lands. Congress is out to screw us over, and the moment we have a president in the White House who agrees with them and refuses to veto their sly moves, we boned.
I am both cynical and skeptical by nature. I think it is healthy for the brain to demand evidence when someone states something as fact. I always keep my face incredulous when presented with a “fact” that smells like bullshit. What is not healthy is to have your own world view you hold to be concrete and immovable that runs counter to the evidence. The job of science in our civilization is formulate working theories of the natural world. These theories are then often applied to different aspects of civilization by entrepreneurs, corporations, and governmental agencies.
Absolutism is not science. Science does not care about your faith or beliefs. It keeps on keeping on regardless of what you believe to be “true”. When one believes in an absolute they may say things like, “God made the Earth in six days 6,000 years ago and God is perfect with no flaws.” So when someone shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the world was born some 4.55 billion years ago, the absolutist has two options:
1) Accept that their belief system is wrong, or
1) Accuse the evidence of being a lie.
Some people just cannot accept evidence even if they witnessed it themselves. There are millions of Americans who still think missiles and not airplanes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 despite the millions of witnesses and the hours of recorded video of the events as they happened. These people choose to cherry pick evidence to support their claim rather than engage those who offer refutation of their beliefs. Many of these “911-Truthers” state that World Trade Center Tower 7 was intentionally imploded as it hadn’t suffered much damage and proceed to show an image of the building without much damage as evidence that it was fine and not in danger of collapse.
Then if I show them an image of WTC7 from another point of view where almost half the building face is destroyed with a raging inferno inside that is impossible for the already decimated NYFD to contain, the absolutist “Truther” ignores my evidence. They ignore it because they know deep down inside that they have tied part of their identity to the belief that 9/11 was a vast inter-agency conspiracy and if one piece of evidence eviscerates that belief then they are at a crossroads: either they are wrong about their beliefs, or the evidence is a lie! Thus, they believe the lie out of a fear that their pride will be crushed.
Science does not ignore evidence!
If one thing can poke a hole in your hypothesis then the hypothesis is wrong! Most Americans have little understanding of how science actually works; so here is a recap for those of you who are little fuzzy on the details:
Step one: Ask a specific question like, “Why is the sky blue?”
Step two: Do your research and see if anyone else has asked and/or answered that question. Compile existing data and see if you can’t formulate a possible solution to your question.
Step three: Make a hypothesis. This is where you state a possible answer to your question like, “The sky is blue because the Oceans are blue.”
Step four: Create an experiment to settle the matter. “I am going to travel to the most remote region of land on the planet where no point of sky above me has access to light reflected from the Ocean, like Siberia or something, and see if the sky is still blue!”
Step five: Conduct your experiment. Get your ass to Siberia and look up. Is the sky still blue? Yup.
Step six: Admit you were wrong (or in the rare instance where your hypothesis was right, cheer loudly and rub it in everyone’s face).
Step seven: Publish your results and share your findings with the rest of the world and invite other scientists to replicate your experiment, or modify it if necessary.
Step eight: Argue constantly, get drunk at conventions and argue, write letters to journals, comment on websites and feel the wrath of nerds all over the globe.
Step nine: Start over from the beginning and ask a new question, state a different hypothesis, or try a different experiment…
One day my (at the time) very religious sister got into a debate about the age of the Earth and possibility of the existence of evolution with two of my best friends at our local pub. One of my friends was an Evolutionary Biologist, the other a Geologist and (at the time) a candidate for a PhD Paleontology from Yale. She was about to lose this debate badly.
Every time one of my friends pointed out some fact like the age of the Sun, how radio carbon dating works, fossil evidence, geologic processes, etc… My sister would reply with, “But the Bible says… yadda, yadda.” Finally, my Paleontologist friend frustratingly gave the most beautiful reply I have ever heard, and I will keep this quote close to my heart for the rest of my life, he said, “Ashley, I can sit around and smoke doobies, listen to Pink Floyd albums, and think of stuff all day, but that’s not science!” Sitting around reading the Bible, listening to Jars of Clay albums, and thinking of stuff is not science!
Sitting around and thinking of stuff is the easy part. Aristotle did it constantly and became famous for it; although most the stuff he thought up was fucking wrong. The hard part is finding out if you are right or not. That is science. Developing experiments to see if we are right or wrong is where life gets hard and this is where most people stop. They are content to just keep thinking about more shit and never bother to see if what they thought up even passes a single trial. The dangers of thinking of stuff and not checking to see if you are right:
Astrology is not a science!
Astrology is pure, unadulterated bullshit. Yet millions of people live everyday of their lives gripped with what their horoscope reading tells them. Many of these people love to argue with me as to the merits of whether astrology is a science or not and spend many hours trying to convince me that it is. If in one case a repeatable experiment pokes a whole into a theory, the theory must be reworked. Case in point: “Gravity is always attractive.” If you conducted an experiment where you threw a ball into the air one million times, and just one of those times, rather than falling back to the Earth, the ball just floated away never to return, the theory of gravity would be wrong. Forever. If you are a Gemini and your horoscope says you are going to “have a 5 star day” and you have a five star day then astrology is right, yes? Well, what if another Gemini halfway around the world just got his head chopped off in Syria that same day? Then guess what, astrology is bullshit. If it is wrong once, then the entire theory must be reworked.
Astrology is wrong so much, that instead of reworking the theory, most “readings” tend to be vague and connotative (this means that the wording is so subjective that it can take on different meanings to different people). If astrology was a “science” then why has no one studied the mysterious force that the heavens obviously (to them) play upon human beings to apply their fate? Wouldn’t one of these “scientists” have bothered developing at least one experiment to try and discern the mysteries of the stars and planets?
As far as science knows there are four forces: Gravity, Electromagnetic, Weak Nuclear, and the Strong Nuclear. The later two are incredibly strong but only at infinitesimally small distances. So, if it is not those two, how are Gravity and Electromagnetism acting upon humans in a way that can determine how their day is going to go via a bunch of planets and stars that are at unimaginably great distances? Taking these four known forces into account, how can astrologer keep track of the quadrillions (or more) variables at play when the most powerful computer systems and the smartest minds in the world can only give a probability as to if it will rain tomorrow or not? Why are astrologers not predicting the stock market or betting on sporting events? That’s because it is because astrology is bullshit. What they are betting on is your ignorance and gullibility.
Gravity is the force that acts the strongest over great distances. If a glass of water one meter from you has more gravitational effect upon your body than the largest planet in our solar system (Jupiter) does at 800 million kilometers, then how is a star hundreds or thousands of light years away going to have any effect upon you? It doesn’t. Astrology is not science.
String “Theory” is not a science!
I fight my own uphill battle every day in Astrophysics. One of these is with regards to String “Theory”. You’ll note that I put theory in quotation marks. This is because it is not a theory, it is a hypothesis, and a disproven one at that. The idea behind String Hypothesis is novel, basically that all particles are made up of the same constituent parts, little sub-atomic strings that vibrate at different frequencies to inform a particle what kind of particle it should be. They created some fantastic math explaining all of this back in the sixties and made some grand predictions. Every experiment ever conducted has only disproved the predictions of String Hypothesis such that the ardent supporters of this hypothesis keep changing their math to make it fit with current physical phenomena.
Renowned astronomer Alexei Filippenko tells a tale of a major talk he gave shortly after he and his team at UC Berkeley made their discover of Dark Energy. Filippenko and his team proved that there was a mysterious force that is pulling/tearing the Universe apart. What we now know is that the Universe is not just expanding, but accelerating in its expansion. At this talk a prominent String Hypothesist stood up and accused Filippenko of conducting shoddy work because String “Theory” was not compatible with an expanding Universe.
Think about that a moment… Filippenko and his team conducted an observational experiment. An Experiment that has since been repeated and verified thousands of times. These scientists literally watched the Universe accelerate through telescopes observations over time; and this String “Theory” knob stands up and tells Filippenko that he has to be wrong because t dipshit’s “math” don’t jive with what the physical realities of the Universe are actually doing. The String “Theorist” was wrong then, and instead of scrapping the entire hypothesis and starting over, he just conveniently changed the math. String “Theorists” are not too different than astrologists, they just ignore the evidence against them and move the goal posts.
It gets even worse than that. To my knowledge I do not know of a single experiment proposed by a String “Theorist” to test their underlying hypothesis. Sting “Theory” is no different that sitting around, smoking a bunch of doobies, listening to Pink Floyd, and thinking of stuff. String “Theory” is not science.
Climate skepticism is not Science!
One of my favorite pastimes is arguing with those who militantly doubt man-made climate change. I honestly do not understand the psychology of the average climate change denier. What I do understand is that their data is terrible and their logic fatally flawed, but I don’t get why they cannot see (or, better yet, refuse to believe) that humans inherently change our environment and planet through our actions. My company is called “Noosphere” for a reason.
Climate deniers will make a whole litany of arguments as to why there is no climate change. Then when I show them that the climate is changing, the glaciers are melting, the oceans rising… they will change their argument to, “Well, yeah, the climate changes, but that is from natural causes.” So, then I show them that the current warming does not fit any trend of previous interglacial periods in the Earth’s history; that we should be cooling and headed toward glaciation, but instead we are warming while glaciers shrink. They will then say that we had warming in the past that wasn’t caused by increased CO2 content in our atmosphere, and then I show them that, thanks to air bubbles trapped for millions of years in the ice of glaciers, warming and cooling of our planet coincides exactly with the level of CO2 content in our atmosphere…
When it is exposed that a “scientist” like Harvard’s Willie Soon omitted that he received well over a $1 million in funding from the fossil fuel lobby to specifically deliver academic papers “disproving” anthropogenic climate change the climate deniers then try to turn the tables. They will then accuse the over 97% of scientists who demonstrate through experimentation that the climate is changing and that this is the cause of human activity of only being I the work for the money. Sure, these PhDs who earn a whopping $42,000 a year to live in expensive cities like London, Boston, and Seattle are in it for the money. Climate skeptics are not scientists.
Creationism is not science!
Evolution is real. We see it happen every day, we see examples of it in ourselves, we see it in the fossil record, it is the entire basis of biology and medical science.
As stated earlier, many religions are centered around an infallible God and his texts are also infallible works of his word. The fear that if one statement made by God, as interpreted by his most ardent followers, is wrong (thus, the God is indeed fallible) then everything they believe would have to be reevaluated and is wrong. If God is fallible then maybe the God they believe is does not exist. They cannot face the possibility that there is no God (or at least not the version of God they believe in) and that they would have to admit to wasting their entire lives in the pursuit of a false deity. This prospect scares the shit out of a lot of people. Billions of them in fact.
I’ve got news for you: all religion is wrong. The Universe is at least 13.8 billion years old. The solar system is at least 4.55 billion years old. The oldest currently practiced religions date to about 3000 BCE, or about 5,000 years ago. There is evidence of much older religious practices performed by early humans and Neanderthals up to 300,000 years ago… either way, no one saw the Universe pop into existence so we are all speculating at this juncture. Also, God only seems to talk to schizophrenics anyway, and you can’t trust those assholes.
Back to creationists. These people find the idea of an ancient Earth whose history differs from that of the scriptures of Genesis as being an intentional affront to their beliefs. They believe that God made the heavens and the Earth, the Sun and the Moon, Adam and Eve, all the animals and plants, and the entire Universe in six days. That we, and everything else on our planet, are no different now than what we were like 6,000 years ago when God made us in his image. That the giraffe is no different than how God created them when he snapped his fingers and they blinked in to existence that long ago as well.
How theologians of the Bible determined that Earth is only 6,000 years old has to do with the “begats”. Throughout the Bible there is a fairly consistent genealogy going from Adam all the way to Jesus. Many of the people mentioned also have their ages mentioned as well. From this they do a rough calculation and find that the Earth “must be” about this old.
The basis for this way of thinking involves the suspension of critical thinking skills. Many of these people in the Bible have stated lifespans that are not found in reality. Abraham lived to 175, Job (despite all his misfortune) live to be 210, Adam himself lived to be 930, Noah 950, and Methuselah all the way to 969 years old. These people are willing to believe that these men lived hundreds of years, but not that over the course of billions of years simple organisms can face hardships that would favor one trait over another. Sigh.
Also, all of these people who subscribe to the inflexible tenants of creationism do not even know their religious texts. God didn’t first create Adam and then Eve from his rib; he created Adam and Lilith at the same time. Lilith didn’t like Adam having authority over her (and didn’t like the missionary position all that much because she saw women as an equal and didn’t want to be placed beneath men) so she bailed on their marriage (the very first divorce) and hooked up with the archangel Samael. God was then forced to create Eve from Adam’s rib (kind of like using the spare tire in the trunk of your car). In other words Lilith was too much of a free spirit and chose her own path and God was forced to make another woman for Adam (who was also eventually corrupt). Way to go, God, fallible much?
So, if they can’t even get their religion right, who are they to tell biologists, geologists, paleontologists, and astrophysicists the age of the Earth? These scientists have conducted hundreds of thousands, even possibly millions of experiments that all point to an ancient Earth and an even older Universe.
Creationists will say things like, “We have never seen evolution happen.” Then a scientist explains to them that the cold virus evolves every year and becomes a genetically different virus which is why we all get a cold every year. Then they will say, “Well, we have never seen something evolve into a different species.” To which a scientist informs them that yes, we have. The goatsbeard flower of my own Washington State evolved from their native lineage that originated in Europe and now cannot reproduce with their ancestral flowers just 50 short years later. The Washington goatsbeards can now be considered a new species. “You see, it didn’t sprout wings and fly away!” eschews the creationist, to which the scientist just slaps their forehead and explains that this is not how any of this works. Creationism is not science.
Anti-vaxxers do not science!
“Vaccinations cause Autism!” those against vaccinations cry. Sigh, say the scientists. “Vaccinations made my kid a vegetable!” accuse the anti-vaxxers. That has never happened in the history of vaccinations assure the scientists.
I have a challenge for those against vaccinations: Find me one verifiable case of encephalopathy as a result of a vaccination, just one, and I will show you someone with Dravet syndrome, a genetic disorder. Anti-vaxxers are idiots, and if someone I know with a compromised immune system (from cancer, autoimmune disorders, because they are an infant, etc…) dies from a primitive disease that should have been eradicated fifty years ago that was passed on by someone who refused a vaccination due to their own ignorance of science, then said anti-vaxxer better hide and hope I never find them. Anti-vaxxers do not science.
Dark Matter is not science!
The majority of astronomers, physicists, and cosmologists attribute the weird gravitational things they see in the Universe to 90% of all matter being “dark”. Dark mater (a different thing entirely from “Dark Energy”) is assumed to be present as unseen little particles that are spread throughout the Universe. The only property of these particles is that they have mass, thus exert a gravitational force, but we cannot see dark matter (hence the “dark” part of it) as it does not react via any of the other three forces (electromagnetic, weak nuclear, or strong nuclear).
Scientists are lead to believe that dark matter is even in our own galaxy because stars in the galaxy rotate faster about the galactic center than expected when calculated using Newton’s classical mechanics. According to Newton, how fast an object orbits about a center of mass is dependent upon the total mass acting upon the center. The more mass, the faster it has to orbit to keep from falling into the center.
Years ago, this missing mass that makes stars orbit galaxies faster than they should was originally thought to be a result of countless black holes, black dwarf and brown dwarf stars known as MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects). These hard to see dense balls of matter were thought to float around a galaxy at its furthest reaches lending their unseen mass to the common center of gravity for the galaxy as a whole. When surveys were conducted to find as many of these objects as possible it was concluded that there were not enough MACHOs to make up for the “missing mass”.
Then came along the hypothesis of the aptly named WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles). These are the particles described above; they are thought to float throughout the galaxies of the Universe in wafting clouds, even in our own solar system (even in the very room you are in right now!). Because these particles are not seeable, painstakingly and intricately designed detectors have been constructed and placed deep inside the Earth to measure these particles as they flow through our planet on their way about the Universe.
The depths of the massive Homestake Mine in Lead, SD is home to the most robust dark matter detectors (three by my last count). In the ten or fifteen years that these detectors have been online in various capacities scientists have found exactly zero particles of dark matter. Zero. Fucking nada. Nothing. Zilch. Zip. Bupkis…
Tens of millions of dollars spent. Instead they could have just slapped that pile of cash into my hand and I could tell them that they wouldn’t find shit instead. Here’s why:
Dark matter fails the most simple gedanken (thought experiment; a favorite process of Einstein’s). Gravity is always attractive. There is no such thing as anti-gravity. If these particles were 90% of the mass of the Universe, and if these particles are distributed either evenly throughout our own galaxy, or even in vast clouds, then we should be able to easily measure these particles on a local or observational scale. If these particles are passing through our solar system, and their only property is mass (gravity), then any time they encounter a gravity well (a planet like our own, or the Sun) then these particles should be slowly amassing at the centers of such gravity wells. Our Sun’s mass should constantly be in flux as these invisible particles find themselves trapped in the solar core. Our own orbit would need to be in flux as a result as well as the rest of the planets orbiting the Sun.
If WIMPs existed as clouds of invisible matter floating about our galaxy (and that of every galaxy in the known Universe), then why have we not seen any objects in the Universe react locally to such a mass? Stars are categorized according to the mass and temperature. The hotter the star, the more massive it is. If a star is more massive the increased gravitational pressure pulling all of the particles of said star in toward the center of the star’s mass forces more interactions and collisions of individual atoms resulting in more collisions that end in nuclear fusion. Big stars fuse more hydrogen into helium than small stars (more nuclear explosions make the star hotter).
If these clouds of WIMPs were floating about the galaxy (and remember, these WIMPs consist of 90% of the mass, supposedly), then we should have seen at least once where an existing star (or stars) floated through one of these clouds somewhere, somehow. If a star floated through one of these presumed clouds of massive particles we would expect to see at least one star somewhere eventually change in mass by going from a mundane star to a hot one as gravitational pressure increased and it sped up the nuclear burning of hydrogen.
It has never happened, just like dark matter detectors have never found one particle of dark matter, we have never seen a star spontaneously change mass. It is because it dark matter doesn’t exist.
Here is another forehead slapper: adding more mass to the galactic halo does not increase the gravitational effect of any object inside of that halo. If I dig a deep hole thousands of miles deep inside the Earth and calculate how much gravity is acting upon me I can immediately discount the matter outside the radius of where I am standing inside the Earth. The same thing happens inside of a galaxy. The stars are gravitationally attracted to the mass within the radius of their orbit and nothing more. Stars, clusters, clouds of gas, and supposed dark matter outside that radius will have no effect upon the orbits of the stars closer to the center of mass. Period.
Now, if we apply Einstein’s General Relativity (something that was designed for massive bodies like galaxies) instead of Newtonian mechanics (something meant for much smaller interactions) we find that dark matter vanishes. Why don’t more scientists calculate orbits of stars in galaxies using General Relativity? They don’t do it because it is fucking hard. They are bad, lazy scientists, that’s why. It’s easier to put all of one’s faith into the fantastic and physically impossible “dark matter” than it is to do a butt load of tensor equations. See how good scientists do it. Dark matter is not science.
The moral of the story.
Question everything; even established science. Argue, debate, get red in the face, just don’t let pride and fear be the only reasons you believe what you believe. Make sure your beliefs follow some sort of logical test. If someone can poke a hole in your logic, reevaluate your beliefs. In the end, even smart people can be stubborn idiots. Strive to be better, to do better, and to live better. Be a good human and practice proper science. Misplaced pride is not science!
Our last installment I learned y’all about where the existence of everything came from. This time around you get to know how rocks condense out of clouds of gas spiriting around outer space, how they get stuck together, what they are made of, and how they made the Earth!
After gigantic, spectacular, awe-inspiring, neighborhood-killing supernovae explosions, the blast waves can expand from the epicenter at rates of speed close to 40% the speed of light. This is really, really fast! When these insanely speedy blast waves bonk into the aimless clouds of hydrogen and helium in the galaxy the clouds get compressed. This compression can be the catalyst for the formation of a new star. If you remember last post (http://noospheregeologic.com/blog/2013/02/16/the-rare-gem-series-meteorites-part-one-the-big-bang-to-supernovae/), when a large interstellar cloud is compressed it can begin to collapse thanks to its new, denser center of gravity. The cloud contracts even further as it begins its journey to becoming a star.
For the first few million years after the star inside the cloud begins to fuse hydrogen and enter the main sequence of its life cycle, it’s not very bright thanks to all the dust and debris obscuring the light of the young star. Both the cloud and the star inside are rotating much like a figure skater who pulls in their arms to spin faster. As the cloud collapses it begins to spin faster and faster (when the core of a supernova collapses into a black hole or a neutron star it can be spinning at several (hundred? thousand?) times a second!). This orbiting debris around the dim new star can crash and smash into each other on the atomic and molecular level sticking together thanks to static electricity. Think of the atoms like a bunch of socks and fleece pullovers in the dryer colliding and sticking while continuing their orbit of the star. When enough bits get stuck together (well, a lot of bits) they can begin to have enough mass to attract other atoms, molecules, and bits of matter. These hunks of matter are what we call ‘asteroids’ and if they got big enough, ‘protoplanets’.
Protoplanets are like Rumba robot vacuum cleaners blindly going around the solar system sucking up debris. These protoplanets were originally comets and asteroids as they clear a swath around the stars cloud and eventually the biggest chuck of rock in a particular orbit monopolized gravity and started to absorb anything in it’s reach. One of the definitions of a planet is an object that “sweeps its orbit” of all the dust and debris and incorporates it into its planet (the other two main rules for a planet: must be rounded, and must orbit in the plane of the solar system). The Earth began dominating its region of the solar system and clearing its orbit somewhere around 4.4 billion years ago
When an interstellar cloud collapses, and begins to spin, the big blobby cloud will flatten out, like a disk of pizza dough spinning through the air, condensing the cloud adding to the material being swept clean by the protoplanets.
As the protoplanets clear the area around the new star more light begins to shine throughout the star system. The hot and energetic solar winds begin to blow the lighter material into the further reaches of the solar system concentrating large swaths of hydrogen and helium far away. This is why we have the gas giants like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all 500 million or more miles from the Sun. Out at these distances the light particles lose much of their energy and find themselves trapped gravitationally much more easily to nearby objects.
Closer to a newborn star we find rocks condensing where it is too hot for ice or gas to still exist. Rocks are made of heavy things like silica, iron, aluminum, zinc, and other metals (astronomers refer to anything heavier than helium as “metals”… I think it’s just to piss of chemists), stuff that is too heavy for solar winds to push out into the far reaches of the star system. We all know that it can take a few thousand degrees to melt metal or a rock, and only a couple hundred degrees to melt something like water or to sublimate carbon dioxide, right? Well, space knows this too, and while it may be completely inhospitable only a few million miles from a star, it is cool enough that things like iron, nickel, silica, and aluminum will no longer be gas (even though it may be 1000 degrees or more). This is why we find rocky planets near the sun like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. It’s so warm that most of the lighter particles energetically vibrate away from the strong pull of gravity generated by these small planets and then get blown far away by the solar winds.
It’s also true that the closer a planet is to the Sun, the larger the percentage of it will be comprised of iron and nickel, and don’t have much in the way of water, methane, CO2, or ammonia (which are largely made up of lighter elements than the stuff of rocks). Planets like Earth most likely got most of its atmosphere and water from the impacts of comets.
The solar winds are constant. As long as there is fabulous radiation produced by the nuclear reactions inside a star (or in our case, the Sun), small particles will have a constant force acting upon them trying to push them further and further way from the star. Into the farthest reaches of the solar system they go. Since all the dense atoms are solidifying not too far from the star itself they begin to randomly bonk into each other. Many of these particles have been stripped of electrons and when they clumsily run into a counter part they can stick statically like a sock to a sweater in the drier. If enough of these particles being to stick to each other the begin to actually draw in other atoms and small clumps of matter to them via gravity. The solar system has just made it’s first asteroids and proto-planets!
As for all the light bits of matter that are kicked out of the inner circle and sent to the great beyond, they too begin to cool off once they reach a zone where the light from the star is too weak. Water, ammonia, and CO2 will begin to freeze and form their own chucks of ice balls. These too can become large enough to start to attract wayward particles via gravity. Out at this distance from the star, loose atoms of hydrogen and helium do not have the energy to escape anything that is large in mass. As these balls of ice smash into more balls of ice they too begin to form proto-planets. When the proto-planets are big enough an ever-thickening atmosphere comprised of hydrogen and helium begins to form. These are the gas giant planets with Jupiter as their king. Any planets that formed beyond the asteroid belt were formed beyond what scientists call the “Frost Line”. Any closer and their constituent materials melt.
The early solar system is a violent, violent place. Rocks hurtling in random vectors at speeds beyond 100,000 MPH can obliviously smash into each other in outrageous explosions; their obliterated remnants quickly coalescing into a new celestial body drawn into the center of their collective mass. Soon, at varying distances out from the star, alpha proto-planets begin to appear. These large rocky or icy bodies begin to “sweep” their orbits clean; meaning, anything smaller than the proto-planet gets “sucked” in via immense gravitational pull.
When the proto-planet is about 500 kilometers across (~300 miles) gravity begins to round it into a sphere. For an early solar system this period of violence can last billions of years. In our own solar system the Sun started out with maybe only 2% of the gas cloud it formed from comprised of something other than hydrogen or helium. This means that the heavy elements that condensed near the Sun to form the rocky inner planets didn’t really have that much material to work with. For the outer planets this means the opposite was true as there is way more volatile material rich with hydrogen and bits of helium that got blown to the outer solar system by solar winds. Thus, the inner planets are rocky and small while the outer planets are gassy and ginormous.
Early Earth was hell. Literally hell on Earth. Imagine a barren sphere whose surface is comprised entirely of hundreds of millions of square miles of boiling lava. There is no discernible atmosphere beyond the thin wisps of fart-smelling vapor pooped out by bubbles of gas of the churning oceans of lava. This is the Earth of about 4.55 billion years ago. Every few hours a new rock from space the size of a city smashes into the surface at tens of thousands of miles per hour with enough force to vaporize solid rock into gas creating yet another reason the surface is molten.
This goo-ball Earth is just a big jiggly mess, its gravity constantly inviting trouble upon its surface. There is one advantage to being a hellacious ball of goo: differentiation.
Differentiation is when heavy stuff sinks and light stuff floats. We have all see it work with a rock and piece of wood in some water, but what about with lava? Here is a fun experiment to try: If you have two ping pong balls and you place them at the bottom of a jar, then pour sand over them they will stay at the bottom of the pile of sand, right? Same thing if you then place two steel balls on the top of the sand, those balls aren’t going to go anywhere. What if you added energy to the jar? Say you could put a vibrator to the jar and make the sand jiggle much like how atoms in a liquid would jiggle. Two things will happen; the steel balls will vanish into the sand and the ping pong balls will suddenly appear at the surface! The early Earth was in a constant state of fluidization since it was a giant ball of liquid. The heavy metals began sinking toward the Earth’s core and the lighter materials began to float toward the surface. This is why today the surface of the Earth is rocky and about 3.5 grams per cubic centimeter in density, while the Earth’s core is metal and about 12.5 grams per cubic centimeter.
Differentiation also meant that light fluffy volatiles like CO2, oxygen, nitrogen, water, etc… that somehow found themselves weirdly trapped inside of early Earth, and not blasted into the deeper reaches of the solar system, rose to the surface. Earth began building a very crappy atmosphere. Way to go, Earth.
Oops, I spoke too soon. Somewhere between 4.5 billion and 4.25 billion years ago the Earth got into an accident. A planetoid (a fellow proto-planet) got thrown off course, probably by a larger body like Jupiter acting like a gravitational slingshot, and crossed the Earth’s path. This planetoid is likely to have been about the size of Mars (about 10% of the Mass of today’s Earth) and the two decided to engage in a hostile merger. The collision was so large as to be essentially unexplainable in comprehendible magnitude. Both planets (if there was any solid features between them) instantly vaporized most of their constituent material. Much of the Earth’s crustal material splattered into space resulting in billions of new pieces of rock that would rain back down on the Earth’s surface further liquefying the young injured planet. About 1/80th of the mass of Earth stayed in orbit above the Earth and eventually coalesced into what we know as the Moon. The Moon is not very dense and is about 3.5 grams per cubic centimeter; meaning it has about the same density as the Earth’s surface. This is the largest telltale sign that the Moon was born of the Earth. All rocky bodies in the inner solar system are denser than the Moon. If the Moon had been a captured body that wandered near the Earth’s gravitational field, it would more than likely be denser with a larger metallic core.
Many of these early proto-planets and planetoids that were quickly maturing throughout the solar system also differentiated. Many of these objects were blasted apart by collisions. This leaves us with four basic kinds of materials that smash into objects in the solar system today (I am being very hand-wavy and leaving out lots of details that will be explained in Part III):
1) Ancient “first” rocks. These are the asteroids that first condensed out of the cloud from which our Sun and solar system was born (scientists refer to them as “chondrites”.
2) Differentiated rocky material. These are rocks of igneous nature that are the bits of surface of near by moons and planets, or the blasted apart surface material of obliterated planetoids.
3) Differentiated metallic material (more commonly referred to as “iron-nickel” asteroids. When a differentiated planetoid is blasted apart due to a collision this is the remaining core material.
4) Comets. Balls of ice from much deeper out in the solar system. The most common prevailing hypothesis ties comet impacts to the source of most of the Earth’s water and atmosphere. Since the European Space Agency’s successful landing of the Rosetta probe on the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko this hypothesis has been turned on its head. Rosetta drilled into the comet and discovered that the ice material is different isotopically from the majority of the material found on Earth. Oh, science!
The odds of the Earth experiencing another mass extinction via a comet of meteor impact is 100%. What we cannot predict with any statistical certainty is if this will occur while humans are still alive. In lieu of significance in our probabilities we instead turn to hard data by mapping our solar system and charting the orbits of every object we have ever seen. At the moment astronomers are aware of, and are mapping, about half a million objects that are known to cross the Earth’s orbit. These objects are important for two reasons: One, they have the potential of ending our species; and two, they could be worth trillions of dollars.
Remember those iron-nickel asteroids? Yeah, just one of those little guys can potentially be worth more than all of the human productivity in our entire history. Here is how it works: A planetoid is at one time a bubbling, boiling mass of magma and lava. All the heavy metallic elements are sinking toward the core, and all of the light rocky material is floating toward the surface. Then some other asshole jerk-of-an-asteroid/planetoid collides with our differentiating body and explodes the whole thing to kingdom come. Now chunks of differentiated core is floating around space just chock full of base metals like iron, nickel, copper, zinc, etc… as well as really heavy precious metals like gold, platinum, uranium, rhodium, palladium, and so on…
One iron-nickel asteroid a mile in diameter has, in just precious metal, $4-5 trillion dollars in material. Why are we wasting our time planning missions to stupid fucking useless Mars when there are trillions of dollars to be made off of space rocks? I have no clue. Fortunately there are a few eccentric billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson who see things my way, and they are investing large portions of their fortunes into space exploration companies like SpaceX and Planetary Resources.
Mining space has a couple of benefits. Chief among these is that we would have no need to ever mine the Earth for metals ever again. A huge source of pollution and environmental degradation gone! The drawback? How do we do it? Do we capture an asteroid into our orbit and mine it from there utilizing something like a space elevator? If so, how do we capture it without accidently killing everything on Earth when we make a wrong calculation and miss our target and instead hit the Earth’s surface?
Every thing has a risk and reward, I suppose.
Next time join me for Part III and learn about how often meteors hit us, where we can find them, how we can find them, what you can sell them for, and why they love Russian dash cameras so much!
I try to keep this blog about the science of the Earth, and the adventure of discovery, but sometimes something just chaps my hide so much I have to get a little preachy. That ‘something’? A grand selfish asshole name Cliven Bundy. A greedy Rancher who has been stealing from the taxpayers for decades while pocketing millions in profits.
As an economic geologist I must follow certain laws when prospecting and staking claims on federal land. These laws require enforcement, and the lands require maintenance. For both myself and the public who owns the land to benefit, I am charged nominal fees to preserve the mineral rights to the claims I stake. My incentive to pay for these fees is that the government will protect my rights to the minerals, and if I don’t pay the fees my rights to the land are revoked and someone else then has the right to stake a claim where mine once was.
The same can be said for federal range land. Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution states:
The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
Basically, the feds reserve the right to tell us what we are, and are not, allowed to do on federal land. This dates back to when the original thirteen colonies ceded the Western expanse of their territories to the federal government all the way to the Mississippi River. This is further supported by the fact that the 5th and 14th Amendments outlay how the government can even tell you what you can and can’t do on your own land (think “due process”, “zoning regulations”, and “eminent domain”).
In 1909 the National Forest started charging ranchers grazing fees. Later in 1934 the Bureau of Land Management followed suit. The purpose was two fold: To stop the rapid degradation of federally owned lands, and to stop the perpetual anguish of range wars. Without federal involvement ranchers were killing each other over who could graze their cattle where. When the feds started charging for grazing that established a regulatory process that controlled whose cattle could graze when and where. The federal lands improved in quality, and cowboys stopped dying stupid deaths.
For those of you unfamiliar with Cliven Bundy, he is an itchy little butthole who has become the selfish, greedy hero of Neo-Nazi affiliated militia assholes all over America. When Bundy asked a bunch of them to show up in camouflage and jackboots to threaten federal officers who were mandated by the courts to confiscate Bundy’s cattle, the militia fools were glad to carpool for the first time in their lives. You see, Bundy has been grazing his cattle on Federal land for decades and not paying his legally required grazing fees. Fees that amount to $1.35 per head of cattle per month. In essence Bundy is supposed to pay the Bureau of Land Management about $18.90 to feed each one of his head of cattle over the lifespan of said cattle. $18.90 to feed an entire 1500lbs animal over the course of its life; an animal that Bundy will then sell for more than $2,000. Bundy has never paid for grazing. He refuses. He owes the government at least $300,000 in back fees and another $1 million in taxes (over which a time Bundy has sold some $30,000,000+ in cattle all fattened on taxpayer-owned land).
Add to this, Bundy has been grazing his cattle on protected land illegally. Land that is supposed to be free from cattle in order to protect the endangered desert tortoise. What an asshole!
Bundy claims that his family has been grazing on the land for 140 years and has a special right to the range, but in the last 115 years there is no record of the Bundy clan ever paying a damned cent to the feds for grazing on our land. People lose the rights to mineral claims all the time even though a mine may have been in the family for generations. If they haven’t paid the BLM the $140 a year per claim it costs to maintain their rights to the minerals they will be shit out of luck when someone else poaches their claim out from under them. Cliven Bundy has no legal precedent, the federal government does.
The feds have managed to repossess some of Bundy’s illegal herd, but have run into a problem when a bunch of fat dip shits in camo carrying assault rifles impeded federal agents from carting away the rest of the lawbreaker’s herd. At this point in time the feds have backed down not wanting any bloodshed. I say screw them. Establish the Rule of Law and have the FBI go full Waco on this greedy piece of shit and his idiot followers. I have no problem with a bunch of racist militia members losing at a game of war with the federal government. Cliven Bundy is stealing from the American tax payers and making millions off of it. If these morons want to lay their lives down for him then so be it. Let them stand as an example of what happens when you steal from the taxpayers.
Grazing fees are no different than property taxes, or paying the license tabs on your car. If you aren’t willing to pay, you don’t get to play. It just pisses me off to no end when some greedy sack of crap breaks the law and a bunch of jerks with machine guns jump to his defense. I hope they all end up in prison.
Starting the on the 5th (September 5th that is) the trip reports begin anew. So, bring your eyeballs back to this here blog for all the latest and greatest from your lovable cast of party animals desanctifying nature at every turn. There are big, big things on our horizon, and I am ready to shamelessly exploit every one of those things for personal profit and gratification.
I have launched a Kickstarter to fund a pilot for a new television program “Get Your Rocks Off With Houston”!
The concept for the show is different from any other mining show on television. It is an educational program that highlights the adventure of prospecting for gemstones. Each episode will focus on a particular gemstone found in North America. It will begin with the science of the stone itself; how the Earth created, what its’ properties are, where it is found, and what famous ones exist. Then we travel to wherever I think we can find it and go looking. In the process we’ll explore old ghost towns and abandoned mines, and party down with the locals. Upon finding the stone(s) we’ll then show you how to cut and polish it, or make it into a sculpture or jewelry.
I will be setting world records with some of the stones we find!
It’s going to be fun and hilarious, and you just might learn something!
We need so much more on television than fat stupid people breaking equipment and yelling at each other, while simultaneously raping the Earth and polluting our environment with mercury. Just say “no” to stupid television, and “yes” to smart, fun TV. Lowest common denominator be damned!
About 13.8 billion ago the lights turned on. Or more accurately: THE Light turned on. That is when scientists have estimated the Big Bang occurred; the singularity that began it all. As an astronomer as well as a geologist I can go on for days about the fractions of a second in which our story began. Instead, I will only go on for a few minutes… Or more, depending on your reading skills. (Please note: if you really don’t want the literal History of the Universe, too bad, because I can’t talk about what meteorites are and where we can find them when I haven’t explained what asteroids are and where they came from, and to explain where asteroids came from I have to explain what they’re made of, and to explain what asteroids are made of I have to explain where matter came from, and to explain where matter came from I have to explain how stars formed and the extent of their lifecycles, and to explain how stars formed and how they die I have to take you back to the beginning of it all. Thus, when you are finished with these articles, you will essentially have the equivalent of an Astronomy degree without the ability to do the math and physics that makes such a degree useful. Satisfied? Didn’t think so.)
For starters, all around us, matter and antimatter are going to war. It’s an ancient war, the most ancient of wars. It has been waged since the beginning of time, and possibly, since always. It is a useless war, one that only ends in photons (nerd joke). Basically, every second of every day, out of fucking nowhere, a piece of matter appears, and at that same moment, its antimatter counterpart appears as well. The particles scratch their hooves like angry bulls and make a go at their nemesis. They violently collide and as instantly and randomly as they appeared, they disappear. Nothing to show for it but a single gamma photon thrust into the Universe as an orphan with random vector. Why? Beats the hell out me. It just does, and that is as good an answer as you will get from anybody.
So, this instant where the singularity, this infinitely dense, infinitely small point in an infinite Universe that did not even exist yet went *blamo*, the very moment when it all began, nothing but a hot mess could exist. The amount of energy that was released was so unbelievably unfathomable that nothing bigger than a quark, gluon, or a lepton could exist. In other words, atoms, the building blocks of matter, did not exist because the infant Universe was hotter than the melting point of atoms themselves. Run that through your brain for a minute or two. Hotter than the melting point of atoms themselves…
Well, when there is more energy present than either the strong or weak nuclear forces that holds the constituent particles together that form constituent nucleons of an atom the glue is melted and quarks run free!
OK, what’s a quark?
Fuck you. You figure it out.
Back to the message at hand: This beginning, when the Universe was only 10^-37 seconds old (or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds), the greatest matter/antimatter war that will ever exist raged. We are the only survivors. Well, us and the 250 billion other galaxies in the known Universe (and the countless billions in the unknown Universe). For some reason, yet to be explained by some supernerd (who is more than likely not to have even been born yet), there was more matter than anti matter that farted out of the singularity. Something on the order of one extra quark or lepton in every thirty million particles. Think about that. All the matter that exists in the Universe is impressive, but at the moment of the Big Bang there was not thirty million, but SIXTY million times more matter in the Universe that just obliterated each other out of existence in just a few seconds. *POOF*
We have no clue as to why there was more matter than antimatter. There just is. Maybe on the other side of the Universe there is nothing but entire reaches of space made up of antimatter with antipeople pondering why there is more antimatter than matter. I don’t know, I am an not an interdimensional space traveler who can answer that for you.
As the nanosecond war of existence raged, the Universe became instantly less dense. Combine this with the huuuuuge expansion of the nearly instant expansion of the fabric of space with the explosion of the Big Bang and things began to cool down. At about 10^-6 seconds ( or 0.000001 seconds) temperatures dropped to a mere several billion degrees and the quarks, gluons, leptons, antiquarks, antigluons, and antileptons were allowed to combine into baryons to form things like protons and neutrons, and antiprotons and antineutrons who continued the war for survival even more violently. By about 1 second (or 1.0 seconds) electrons and positrons sprang from the womb with their fists clenched and swinging.
A few seconds in and the war was over. Matter won and temperatures continued to drop. A few minutes later with the Universe at a balmy one billion degrees the first hydrogen and deuterium atoms formed out of the protons and neutrons that were basking in the glory of their victory over their anti-selves (it was still too hot for the electrons to join in on the fun). It took close to 400,000 years for things to cool off enough for electrons to happily orbit the nucleus of an atom, then we started really cooking with fire… er fusion.
Think of this early Universe as a giant, billion light year-wide cloud of particles. Where the matter was more dense, the pull of gravity brought giant swarming clouds of particles into spinning giant clouds of particles and thus the earliest galaxies began to form. Even denser regions of clouds inside these galaxies condensed into the first protostars. At this time the Universe was about 75% hydrogen and 25% helium with no heavier elements. As the clouds within the clouds began to collapse they got really warm from pressure forcing the particles of helium and hydrogen to bounce off of each other with ever more vigor. As more particles were attracted to the growing center of mass of this cloud, the pressure became greater and things heated up even more. Soon so much matter was inside these clouds that they began to glow from the pressure oven they had created giving off a bunch of infrared radiation. The Universe was on the verge of is second light turning on.
The more mass one of these protostars had, the more gravitational pressure there was within the protostar. If enough material gathered the hydrogen and helium atoms stopped having enough elbow room to really bounce around and they started smashing into each other, fusing their nucleuses of protons and neutrons into each other forming newer, denser matter. This is how we got things like lithium (hydrogen + helium), beryllium (helium + helium), and boron (lithium + helium, or beryllium + hydrogen), and so on. Whenever two atoms smashed together and fused, an insane amount of radiation was emitted. Once fusion reactions began in the very dense core the protostar ceased to exist, for now it had become a man–I mean a STAR.
This star wasn’t that bright, literally; there was still a lot of gas blocking the light being emitted. Inside the baby star as more and more nuclear reactions were taking place the high-energy photons being released from these reactions began to push the star out against the pull from gravity. Gravitational pressure wants it to be a nice dense sphere, while radiation pressure wants everything to explode and scatter. Eventually, the stellar winds of light being emitted by the new star blow away the remaining loitering cloud of gas lingering around, and the light is now able to broadcast the star’s existence to the Universe. It is during this time when the star finally gets the hang of the battling pressures and finds itself perfectly balanced between the squeeze of gravity and the push of radiation it enters a state known as “hydrostatic equilibrium.” The star has now begun the “main sequence” of its life. Just learning the words “hydrostatic equilibrium” has now given you half of a bachelors of science in Astrophysics, by the way. Good job!
Oh, how these were the halcyon days for our new star. Happily smashing hydrogen atoms into helium, emitting light into the Universe, having no cares… until that fateful day. That unforgettable, fateful day. The day the hydrogen-fusion died. After tens of millions, or even possibly billions of years of carefree atom smashing our star found itself old and not able to get it up like it used to all of a sudden. “I swear, this has literally never happened to me before!” Exclaimed the star to no one, because stars can’t talk and there wasn’t anything that existed yet who could listen to its cries.
You see, as the star was fusing all these hydrogen atoms into helium, at the very center of the star, the core, the newly formed helium began to pack into a dense degenerate ball of non-fusion. As the star made more and more helium, this degenerate core got bigger and bigger. Hydrogen is easy to fuse; it doesn’t take much energy (relatively speaking) to do it and you get a whole bunch of energy out of the reaction to do it some more. Helium, on the other hand, takes a lot more energy to make them fuse together, and you are not going to get as much energy out of the reaction as you do with the hydrogen. When the core gets bigger and bigger, with more and more helium that refuses to fuse into anything, then the hydrogen fusion zone gets smaller and smaller. Gravitational pressure is its greatest at the center of the star. If the center of the star is full of a bunch of stupid helium then the only hydrogen fusion that is going on is at the outside of the degenerate core where gravitational pressure is weaker. Soon, the number of hydrogen fusions that occur become less and less, and the radiation pressure gets lower and lower, and the star gets all limp and tiny as it begins to collapse in on itself.
There is a silver lining to this rather doomed state; as the star collapses in on itself the gravitational pressure starts to climb like it did when the start first burst onto the scene. The degenerate helium core starts to feel the squeeze, starts to feel the pressure, and just can’t hold out any longer and *squish*. A whole bunch of helium just fused into Boron, the star just experienced what is known as a “helium flash” as the core begins to switch to burning helium. This causes the start to inflate and as it gets bigger it grows redder in color because the envelope of gas surrounding the star is cooler with more surface area.
If our star is really big, much bigger than our own Sun, then the core starts to fill up with carbon that was created out of fusing all sorts of combos of helium, hydrogen, and other light elements. Just like before, the radiation pressure is weaker on the outside of the core where the helium is being smushed together, blah, blah, blah… Eventually *squish* we have a carbon flash. Now the star is a geezer burning carbon. If the star is really, really big, like nine times or more larger than our Sun, it will go through oxygen, neon, and silicon flashes.
Stars are born, they get old, and like all things, they die. Sit down, clutch your security blanket, and steady your heart; it’s time to talk about death. Stellar death can range from the most pitiful whimper to the greatest party in the Universe. A teeny tiny star, like a red dwarf star, will never die. The smaller the star, the more efficiently it burns its hydrogen and can last anywhere from 10 trillion to 100 trillion years or more! A star like our sun will last about 10 billion years before it withers and does not have the mass necessary to fuse anything above carbon. The star contracts under its own gravitational pressure, gets really hot, and the remaining gas inside the star either becomes part of a dense core or gets blasted away by the heat. The star is dead. This is death by white dwarf.
The exciting death, the only one anyone really cares about, is the death of big mutherfukkers. Stars that are anywhere from nine to twenty five times larger than our own sun. These guys know how to party. A nine solar mass star might live 100 million years. A twenty-five solar mass star may only last as little as 5 million years. These idiots burn everything they’ve got as fast as they can. They’ll spend about four million years burning hydrogen, one million burning helium, 500 years burning carbon, six months burning oxygen, a week burning neon, and maybe one day burning silicon. The size of the degenerate core at this point is gigantic. The moment the core itself is more than 1.44 times the mass of our own Sun it can’t handle it, and everything collapses like a house of cards.
Imagine the core. It’s dense, it’s hot. There is no room to wiggle. It’s basically the nuclei of atoms stacked on the nuclei of other atoms. Just protons, electrons and neutrons chillin’ with nowhere to go. Nothing but the weak nuclear force to keep them separated, and the strong nuclear force to keep them what they are. Things are about to change. The moment the core reaches 1.44 solar masses, known as the “Chandrasekhar Limit”, gravity has now become stronger than the weak nuclear force and the protons and electrons fuse to become neutrons (positive + negative = neutral). This sudden collapse of the core draws in the remaining envelope surrounding it. The instant and sudden gravitational pressure squeezes everything together and causes the star to burn upwards of 10% of it’s entire mass in one instant. The star has gone supernovae.
When the star is just being a star, the heaviest element it can make through fusion is iron (26 protons), in a supernovae everything else is made. Anything heavier than iron comes from a supernovae; radium, iridium, lead, gold, silver, krypton, everything else all the way up to uranium get blasted into existence by the intense explosion of a supernovae. When a supernovae explodes it outshines the other 100 billion stars in its galaxy combined for an entire month!
This explosion can leave behind one of two things, if the star is big, but not freakishly so, a neutron star will be all that is left. A dense dark ball of nothing but neutrons a few kilometers wide spinning really fast. One spoonful of a neutron star would weigh hundreds of millions of pounds… If you could get yourself and a spoon close enough to the surface without somehow become nothing but neutrons yourself, of course. The second option is the one that overwhelms the strong nuclear force that keeps quarks in their shape of something like a neutron. If the envelope around the star is really massive when the core collapses at the moment of supernovae, an excess of material can be added to the core that overwhelms the neutrons and forces them to become an infinitely dense singularity, like the point of space from which the Big Bang began. A black hole.
I’m not going to go into the physics of a black hole. That would require another few months of writing to describe the mind fucks that go on inside one. Another time, maybe (but probably not).
The explosion of a supernovae is tremendous. If one occurred within 30 light years of Earth everything would die. Everything. Dead. Forever. Sanitized. Even miniscule things like bacteria. Gone. EVERYTHING! The blast wave from a supernovae will travel as fast as 40% the speed of light. This wall of newly formed elements find themselves slamming into previously content clouds of gas in the galaxy and generate new bouts of star formation. This time instead of the clouds only being made up of 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, they’re composed of 74% hydrogen, 25% helium, and 1% other things heavier than that.
After about 1300 generations of super giant stars going supernovae we find ourselves in the present where newly formed stars have as much as 5-10% elements heavier than helium. It is these heavier elements that comprise the elements that make every rock you have ever held, every planet in existence, and every comet that has streaked through the cosmos. Carl Sagan was right, we are nothing but stardust.
The next installment I will learn you on how the planets formed and just what the hell meteorites are made of. Until then, revel in the fact that you just became an expert cosmologist. You’re welcome!
Imagination time! Put yourself in the stirrups of a Pony Express rider galloping across the Northern Nevada high desert. You stop at a creek in a pristine oasis known as Virgin Valley to give your horse a drink when you glance down to see an iridescent, magical, alien stone that must have come from space laying on the ground. Curious, and somewhat confused and scared, you pick it up and feel the weight of it in your hands. The stone is dark and smooth, and as you turn it in your hand it plays with the light. Fires of bright colors flash and disappear. Entire rainbows sear their spectrum into your brain. You lose track of your objective and why you’re here. This amazing stone has hypnotized you. You are lost with out it. Your past no longer exits. You cannot envision a future without it. It’s possession is your everything. It is your precious.
This is was how the black opal was discovered.
That’s a lie. This is the myth created by the Nevada Tourism Board of how the black opal was discovered. The truth is that the Pony Express followed the routes of the Oregon trail far to the North and the California Trail far to the South. Also, the Pony Express only lasted 18 months, from April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861. In reality it was probably some ranch hand, or ranch rider that discovered the first black opal about forty years later in 1900, and his response was probably more along the lines of, “What the fuck is that?”
Lightning Ridge, Australia has a more gruesome beginning. The town in New South Wales near the border with Queensland got its name in the 1870s when some passersby discovered the bodies of a rancher, his dog, and some 600 sheep all of whose hearts had basically exploded from being struck by lighting. That’s something to put on the old “move here” brochure to promote your town; except that is also probably a lie, but a badass one at least.
Halfway across the world from Virgin Valley, in 1902, Charles Waterhouse Nettleton, a struggling opal miner from White Cliffs in Eastern New South Wales, migrated North into Queensland in search of his own strike. He struck out. Pretty much like he had every other time he tried his hand at prospecting. Nettleton, defeated but ever the optimist, and since he was a stoic, kept on chuggin’ along. He decided to walk the 400 miles back to White Cliffs, and on his way back Nettleton stopped off in Lightning Ridge and camped with the Ryan family . The family showed him some freaky black stones that flashed color. Nettleton recognized them as opals, but like nothing he had ever seen.
With nothing else to do (or lose) Nettleton gave a shrug and dug a big hole. He set up camp and sunk his first shaft on October 15th, 1902. Yeah, Nettle didn’t find shit. Again. Not to be deterred, Nettleton moved his camp and sunk a second shaft in 1903 and struck pay dirt. Tens of pounds of the crazy black stones ranging from a carat to a hundred carats in size came tumbling out of the walls of Nettleton’s mine. The hill where he made his strike is known as Nettleton Hill today. Excited from his success Nettleton made his way to Sydney (over 350 miles by foot!) to show the stones to a jewel dealer who was not as impressed with them as Nettleton was, and only offered $1 for the lot. “Well, fuck that,” said Nettleton, and in November 1903 Nettleton walked back to White Cliffs (remember, this is another 503 miles BY FOOT) where he knew there were people who where knowledgeable and could give a good price for his opals; unlike that dickweed, suit-and-tie pissant in Sydney. On November 11th, 1903 an opal merchant in town offered him $30 bucks for his lot. “Oh hells yeah!” said Nettleton (or whatever the backwoods, Australian-hick equivalent would be) and sold them right there. Think about this, Nettleton was a brute; he had dug several giant mine shafts (by hand), walked over 1,800 miles, and for his two years worth pain and struggle was psyched to be given $30 for his life’s work. Stoics, what would this world be without them?
The connection had been made. The opal dealer started sending his partners to Lightning Ridge to purchase large quantities of the stones. The rush was on. Nettleton was a hero.
By this time Australia had already become the opal capitol of the world with strikes in White Cliffs, and the boulder opals of Queensland. It didn’t hurt that Queen Victoria loved the stone, and soon after Nettleton’s first rich strike in Lightning Ridge opals were discovered in Andamooka, and Coober Pedy, Koroit, and Minitabie. While these stones are beautiful, nothing except the stones from Virgin Valley, NV and Lightning Ridge were truly black bodied.
The first big mines opened in Virgin Valley in 1905. The first big mines opened in Lightning Ridge in 1905. The rock that forms the area around Lightning Ridge is sandstone from the early Cretaceous Period that formed a shallow sea. Not only are there opals there but important fossils dating back some 110 million years… Then again, the opals are fossils themselves.
Oh yes, opals are fossils. What happened was that there was a volcanic eruption from somewhere nearby that coated the area in silica-rich ash. If a creature or a plant kicked the bucket while in a puddle of water and got coated with ash, the water and ash worked together to preserve the dead critter/plant. Over millions of years (likely) the silica combined with the water to replace the cellular structure of the organism with opal. Opal is just a combination of water and silica creatively known as “hydrated silica”. SiO2 is quartz, SiO2nH2O is opal. Volcanoes pump out silica during an explosive eruption, if that silica ash buries something wet there is a good chance opal may form. The water content of the black opals from Lightning Ridge is about 5% making them not likely to craze or crack when unearthed from drying out.
In Virgin Valley it is a different story. Around 16 million years ago there was a series of volcanic eruptions of rhyolite that lasted for darn near two million years. These eruptions spit out all sorts of silica-rich ash and the volcanic rock formed a series of hills that encircled an ancient basin that geologists named Canyon Rhyolite. These volcanic eruptions are no joke. Once the mountain goes *boom* a superheated blast of air and ash can travel across the region at hundreds of miles per hour killing everything in its path. Combine this with a few hundred feet of ash covering the Earth around the volcano, and nothing survives. Nothing.
Canyon Rhyolite, since it was a basin, held a series of lakes and ponds where critters flourished in a rich forest dense with ginkgo, sequoia, spruce, hemlock, birch, cedar, larch and chestnut. The region was spared from major volcanic events for about four million years when a jerk of a hotspot decided to flood almost the entire region of what is today the Northwestern United States with flood basalt. This buried Canyon Rhyolite under a dense, solid layer of lava that solidified above it. Over the course of the last ten million years hot springs began to bubble up through the Earth yearning to break free. With the hot trickles of water came bits of that silica-rich ash that permeated the buried remains of the lush forests of the now vanished canyon. What did we just learn about the combination of silica and water? You guessed it; opals!
The hot spring squirted through the basalt and started dribbling downhill. Today that hot spring has carved quite the path and formed what is we know today as Virgin Valley. Along the Valley’s walls, at about the 5090ft level you will find a layer of moist gray clay. This marks the floor of the ancient forest. The clay layer may vary from a few inches to a few feet thick, but here is where you will find your opals. Petrified wood, opalized tree limbs, even the teeth and skeletons of forest creatures preserved forever as majestic hunks of gemstone. A pretty noble way to go if you ask me.
When I die, I want someone to lay my carcass down in a bog next to an erupting volcano so that maybe, someday, several million years from now I can be dug up and brutally bandsawed and then ground down and polished into ornamental pieces of jewelry for some rich housewife. A boy can dream can’t he?
The problem faced with many of these Virgin Valley opals is their extremely high water content of 20%; much higher than that of their Australian counterparts. This makes many opals gorgeous but notoriously unstable. When these opals are unearthed the majority are placed into containers of water to keep them from drying out. When an opal dries out it crazes (forms cracks), will loose it’s dark color, and quite often will explode! Some apply sealants to the stones to retain their water content, some just roll the dice and dry them out and hope for the best, but most just keep them submerged. While it would be awesome to have a nice large, dry Virgin Valley opal, putting a $100,000 stone in the sun in hopes of it not exploding or just fading into a $10 rock takes some serious balls.
Throughout Ethiopia new opal fields are being discovered almost every year. These precious opals may have white or blue bodies, and some even chocolate, but the black bodied opals resembling those of Virgin Valley or Lightning Ridge haven’t materialized in the numbers hoped for, or possibly at all! That doesn’t mean they haven’t been sold. A process known as “smoking” is putting lower quality crystal opals into the market and trying to pass them off as the elite black opals. Essentially, the tricksters are taking normal light bodied stones and “smoking” them until the soot permeates the interior of the stone’s matrix. To the common eye they look amazing, but in the long run, the stones are more likely to crack, pit and fade than the real deal. Just don’t pay a bunch of money for a black Ethiopian opal just yet.
Other black opals discoveries have reportedly been make in Indonesia (but some of those stones have been “smoked”); with two recent discoveries in central Wyoming, and along the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River in Washington State! With the incredible ash fallout that originates from hotspot volcanoes like the Yellowstone Caldera and the Long Valley Complex in California I would surmise that there are thousands of undiscovered sites for precious and black opal from Wyoming through Colorado and Nebraska; and in California, Arizona, and Mexico. Get hunting!
I know, you just read a ton of words and all you want to know is, “what are they worth?” Fine. A precious black opal with small blue/green shifts in color covering about 50% of the stone will get you about $200 per carat. The more of the stone that is iridescent, and the larger the color flashes are, and the more of a red/green shift those stones have the more money they are worth. A stone that is 90-100% covered in red/green flashes, with a black body, can expect to sell for upwards of $5,000 to $10,000 per carat. These are among the rarest fine quality stones in the world, so keep your eyes out for fakes! Fakes may include treated or smoked stones; doublets and triplets (stones that have a thin veneer of actual opal glued to the outside of an otherwise boring stone); as well a created matrix opals (stones that are the shavings and cuttings of larger opals that are then glued together using resin); and synthetic stones that are made of weird space-aged polymers and shit. Just don’t get screwed.
Once upon a time in Russia… Some dudes found a rock and named it after the crown prince since it was his birthday.
No wait, I mean: The Beginning.
One day in the Summer of 1830 Finnish mineralogist Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld (1792–1866) was sitting in his office at the Mining Board in Helsingfors when he received a parcel to examine. Nils was pretty much the most renowned mineralogist of his day so shiny hunks of dirt got sent to him all the time. No biggie.
Upon opening the contents of the parcel Nils said, “Green, transparent, shiny… Emerald” (or more accurately: “vihreä, tranparant, kiiltävä … smaragdi“), and almost didn’t conduct any further tests; but something just wasn’t sitting right with him. He began to poke, scratch, smash, and do all the things a good mineralogist does with Earthly byproducts, and he couldn’t get over the fact that the stone was just too hard and not brittle enough to be an emerald. Weird.
After fussing with it for a while Nils lost the sunlight so he grabbed some dinner and pondered this strange stone while he pushed peas around his plate. Being a good scientist he abandoned his meal and returned to the lab to inspect the stone under candlelight. “Mitä vittua?!” Nils half exclaimed/half asked. The stone, which a few hours earlier had been deep green, was now a rich red! The next morning the stone was no longer red and had returned to its former deep green! “Voi Luoja!”
This was no emerald.
The package with the strange stone had come from Count Lev Aleksevich von Perovski (1792-1856) who at the time was trying to climb the social ladder as the royal mineralogist for Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. Perovski had also identified the stone as an emerald, but the problem was that he kind of sucked at his job, so he sent a specimen to Nils to double check his “work”.
Earlier that Summer Perovski’s team had been poking around in the Izumrudnye Kopi (Emerald mines) in the Ural Mountains (you remember the Urals, that is where Demantoid Garnets were discovered as told via the previous Rare Gem Series post: http://noospheregeologic.com/blog/2012/10/11/the-rare-gem-series-demantoid-garnet/) when they discovered the stones in an alluvial deposit (think gravel river bed) along the Tokovaya River. By 1831 Perovski had opened his new “emerald” mine and was in full whipping peasants mode to dig faster when Nils sent him a message:
“This ain’t no emerald, genius. It’s a color-change chrysoberyl and I am calling it ‘diaphanite‘ which is Greek for ‘something your small brain cannot comprehend’.”
I paraphrase, of course.
Perovski, ever the ladder climber, had other plans in mind. He wanted to ingratiate himself further with the royal family, Perovski spun a tale that he had discovered it April 17, 1834, the sixteenth birthday of the crown prince and heir to the throne Alexander II, and named it “Alexandrite” in his honor.
Perovski didn’t know how to be a very good scientist, but he knew how to play the game like a champ. His ploy was well received and he got his ass ingratiated into the royal family like no body’s business; creating the Russian Geographical Society in 1845 and being named the Minister of Internal Affairs, and later the Vice President of the Appanage Department by Tsar Nicholas I (basically, he became the dude in charge of the imperial family’s estates, investments, personal property, and income). This fancy post also meant that Perovski was in charge of the jeweled trinkets and souvenirs the imperial lapists and jewelers created as rewards for the Tsar’s subjects.
Perovski was a greedy piece of crap. He used his position of power to threaten, bribe and steal the best stones for the Appanage collection which often found their ways into his own personal collection. One of Perovski’s underlings, Yakov Kokovin, the director of the Ekaterinburg lapidary, stole an amazing Ural emerald and was caught by Perovski and was braought to trail and later was “compelled” to commit suicide in the dreadful Ekaterinburg Prison. When Perovski finally kicked the bucket in 1856, the stone, which had now become known as the “Kokovin Emerald”, was found in Perovski’s personal collection. Dick.
Alexandrite quickly became one of the most desirable gem stones in the world. Many sources I have read claim that this is because red and green were the primary colors on the Russian Imperial Flag. Well, considering that the Imperial Flag was red white and blue, this “fact” is bullshit. It became popular because it is a rad stone that CHANGES FREAKING COLOR! Imagine yourself a rich asshole living in Feudal Europe: you have a fancy house, you have some books, you have a really comfy chair, you have candelabras, you have… well, that is pretty much it. Some other rich asshole comes along and shows you his new ring that is green during the day and red at night. “Holy shit!” You’d yell out, “I’ve got to get me one of those, especially since the invention of television won’t happen for another 90 years!”
By the beginning of the 20th century Russia had pretty much gobbled up all of the Alexandrites in the Urals. There has been no significant deposits of Alexandrite discovered in Mother Russia since the 1917 revolution. To this day the best red/green specimens are Russian stones. They are also the most valuable.
As mentioned above, Alexandrites are a form of chrysoberyl. While chrysoberyls contain beryllium, they are not related to beryls (emeralds, aquamarine, Bixbite, Morganite, etc…)… Only sort of-ish, I guess. Here’s how I would describe the stone as if I were the beaten, over-qualified interpretive guide of the hypothetical “Chrysoberyl Museum” leading a group of tourists in flip flops and aloha shirts:
Leading the tour group into the great hall of the museum: “Chrysoberyls are different from beryls mainly because of their crystal structure. Beryls are silicates that have big molecules and chrysoberyls only have one beryllium atom so there is less crap glommed onto the beryl atom. Chrysoberyls only form in pegmatites–“
“But so do Beryls!” Says some interrupting know it all eight year old.
“Shut up, not all of them do!” Says the pissed off tour guide, “Some beryls form in rhyolites. Ha! Now shut your yap and let me do my damned job!”
“What’s a pegmatite?” Asks some oafish dad dragging his bored children along (noses buried in their cell phones).
“Well, that’s a stupid question,” replies the guide (the know it all eight year old nods his head in agreement), “Especially considering that there isn’t a geologist alive that can accurately describe it to you without sounding like a child explaining the story line to “Syriana”. The facts: a pegmatite is an igneous rock (meaning that it was once molten magma goo that formed far beneath the crust); it created big crystals in its matrix as it cooled; the stuff inside those crystals is similar to that of granite (you know, the kitchen counters in the homes of yuppies); and for geologists it’s like porn, you know it when you see it. Does that help?”
“Whatever. Moving on. When this magma comes oozing up deep from the mantle, it can begin to gather up a bunch of ground water as it moves higher through the Earth’s crust. The magma is too hot to allow the now super-heated water to join into the formation of any crystals inside the magma. By the time the magma had mostly cooled, the trapped water formed chrysoberyl in the cracks and crevices out of bits of beryllium and aluminum. Basically, if it wasn’t for the water being present in the magma, the oxide that is chrysoberyl could not find the oxygen needed to form in the first place! All you need to make Alexandrite from here is some chromium and your set! Pretty bitchin’, right? Does that help?”
The eight year old nods because he already knew that.
*Sigh* “OK, beryls are a silicates that have the basic chemical composition of Be3Al2(SiO3)6, meaning the crystalline molecule forms an asymmetrical spur on one side of the molecule leading to a hexagonal crystal when the molecules are stacked, like parallelograms. While chrysoberyls are tinier than beryls and only have one beryllium atom to form around, so their crystal structure is much more symmetrical and forms an orthorhombic arrangements, sort of like cubes with dips in the middle. Does that help?”
Eight year old roles his eyes because everyone should know that by now.
Considering that none of you have learned anything from the prolonged inside joke above, I digress… To find Chrysoberyls one essentially needs to find pegmatites with beryllium and that also look like they had a lot of water in them when they formed. To find Alexandrites you find those same pegmatites but also look for evidence of there being chromium too.
The great things about gemstones is that there is always a new discovery to be found somewhere. Once the Ural source for these groovy stones played out, other deposits began to be discovered. Also, these pegmatites don’t just form chrysoberyls, they will have also have formed fantastic crystals of quartz, garnets, tourmaline, spinel, and corundum to boot. So, where there are chrysoberyls there are a shit load of other stuff to make some overlord really rich.
Most significant mineral discoveries come from alluvial deposits along some river or stream. In early 20th century discoveries of Alexandrite were made in Sri Lanka and India where the stones were nothing more than weathered pebbles found in streams. The stones are not of the most vivid color; with color changes going from brownish-orange to yellowish-brown. Other discoveries of Alexandrites have been made in Tanzania, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, and Brazil with most of the today’s production coming from mines in India and Brazil.
In Brazil, Alexandrites and other forms of chrysoberyls are found in the states of Espento Santos, Bahia, and Minas Gerais. Minas Gerais means “general mines” and was settled by prospectors looking for gold. Later, discoveries of diamonds, rhodonite, tourmalines, garnets, and everything else one would expect made it one of the great gem centers of the world. Miners in Minas Gerais work at the earth in the most primitive fashion imaginable. Modern mining technology isn’t really needed in an area where one can unearth a million dollar stone while digging a latrine, or putting a fence post in the ground! Noosphere Geologic has a near flawless 8.53 carat oval cut Brazilian Alexandrite as the flagship stone in our collection.
There have been several places in North America where one can find chrysoberyls: Pend Orielle County, Washington (also home to some GIGANTIC green beryls); the Black Hills of South Dakota; the border region of Nevada and Arizona in Northwestern Arizona; in North Central Colorado in the Front Range; and all along the Appalachian Mountains (basically the same age and type of mountains as the Urals) from North Carolina, Virginia, and all throughout New England. The only place so far, that I know of, where Alexandrites have been found in the United States is at the La Madera Mountain mine in Rio Arriba County, in central New Mexico, which is reported to produce occasional small chrysoberyl crystals with weak color change. I have yet to see any of these stones first hand, but I plan on getting me some!
Natural Alexandrites are among the most valuable stones in the world. True, clean red/green stones sell for more than $10,000 per carat. When the stones have more of a brownish or orange tint to the colors they sell for about $2,000 per carat; with raspberry/blue stones (common to the Brazilian variety) selling for about$8,000-$10,000 per carat. If the stone is Russian then expect to pay $50,000 per carat. If the stone is Russian, with red/green color change, is over ten carats, and is inclusion-free, just put a million dollar minimum on it from the get-go.
You can find a bunch of beautiful examples of lab-created synthetic Alexandrites out there, as well as imitation stones that are usually lab-created colorchange spinel or colorchange sapphire that are made with vanadium. Sometimes you can find “crown” or “doublet” Alexandrites that have thin, real sheets of Alexandrite glued to a different stone and sold as the real thing. If you are going to purchase an Alexandrite, take it to someone who knows what they are doing. Look for bubbles or curved striations inside of the stone with a microscope; this is a sign that it is lab-created and should only sell for a few dollars per carat. Also, having a certification from a reputable gemological laboratory is a good idea (like the GIA, EGL, AGL, Swiss Lab, IGTL, etc…), this will give you confidence that what you are purchasing is the real deal. You don’t want to drop $40,000 on that engagement ring to find out that you just bought a $5 stone that was made at a lab in an office park in Bangkok!