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Cliven Bundy is an Idiot and Anyone who Supports him is an Asshole.

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!

Assholes that like to wear pretend uniforms.
Cliven Bundy speaks to a bunch of fat, racist idiots in camouflage. America!

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.

Soon we will have millions of you captivated!

The Kickstarter was a resounding success!  We raised over $27,000 and are set to begin filming episode 1 of “Get Your Rocks Off With Houston” September 5th!

In celebration, I figured it was high-time to set up a fancy Facebook page for everyone to “like” and “follow” here: https://www.facebook.com/get.your.rocks.off.with.Houston

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.

The Rare Gem Series: Meteorites (Part One: The Big Bang to Supernovae)

Timeline of the Universe. (National Geographic)
Timeline of the Universe. (National Geographic)

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.

Matter/Antimatter collision (NASA)
Matter/Antimatter collision (NASA)

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…

Atoms melt?

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.

Inside a star (UC Berkeley)
Inside a star (UC Berkeley)

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.

Hydrogen burning leads to helium burning (University of Manitoba)
Hydrogen burning leads to helium burning (University of Manitoba)

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.

Crab Nebula
The supernovae remnant known as the Crab Nebula

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).

Stars die and make more stars (NASA/JPL)
Stars die and make more stars (NASA/JPL)

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!

The Rare Gem Series: Black Opal

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?”

"What the fuck is that?" image from goldnuggetwebs.com
“What the fuck is that?” image from goldnuggetwebs.com

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.

A beautiful full-spectrum harlequin black opal from Richard W. Wise at rwwise.com
A beautiful full-spectrum harlequin black opal from Richard W. Wise at rwwise.com

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.

What’s that?

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.

A Virgin Valley black opal being preserved in water. nevada-outback-gems.com
A Virgin Valley black opal being preserved in water. nevada-outback-gems.com

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.

Some helpful guides from OpalAuctions.com:

Black Opal Grading Chart from opalauctions.com
Black Opal Grading Chart from opalauctions.com
Types of black opal from opalauctions.com
Types of black opal from opalauctions.com

The Rare Gem Series: Demantoid Garnet

Demantoid?  That’s kind of a satanic sounding name.  The guy who named that stone must have been color blind because they’re green, not red.  Oh well, the Russians named it and used the Dutch word for diamond, “demant”, and the Greek word for alike, “eidos” and mated them together to get “demantoid”.  Discovered on the banks of the Bobrovka river in the central Western Ural Mountains in 1868 the stone quickly became popular among Russia’s elite due to its high indices of refraction and superior color dispersion to that of even diamonds.

Jeffrey Mine Specimen
A rich specimen of demantoid in wollastonite from the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine in Quebec, Canada (minfind.com)

Demantoids are the green version of andradite garnets, a calcium and iron rich silicate mineral.  Garnets are defined in a weird way; they are called “solid solutions”, meaning that the stones will always have a the structure of (SiO4)3 contained with in it, but will be bundled with a different series of atoms to form the particular molecule of the different garnets.  In the case of Demantoids, the molecule looks like this: Ca3Fe2(siO4)3.  I know it is a bit technical, but bear with me.

The Urals are a mountain range born of collision.  They form the seam where the continents of Europe and Asia bonded and made the super continent of Eurasia.  When two continents collide everything gets all orogenous.  As the two massive hunks of Earth merge they have two options: 1) if they are of different densities the denser of the two will subduct (like what happens off the coast of Washington and Oregon between the dense Juan de Fuca Plate and the lighter North American Plate; or 2) if the are the same density (like two chunks of continent) they collide and start to push up as they attempt to override the other equally-matched mass of rock.  We can see this happening today in the Himalayas where the Indian Sub Continent has slammed into South Asia.

The big collision that formed the Urals was about 250-300 million years ago making these mountains among the oldest on the planet.  At one time, when they were a young whipper-snapper, the Urals may have approached 30,000ft in altitude like that of the greenhorn Himalayas.  Time, combined with weather, has reduced the Urals to but a 1,500 mile ridge of hills today ranging from 1,100ft to about 6,000ft at its highest.

When Europe and Asia collided and formed the Urals a lot of rock cooking happened.  When  continents collide and form a mountain range, a bunch of earth is uplifted and piled upon more earth like wrinkles in a bed sheet.  When rocks are buried miles deep they come under great pressure (how long do you think you would last as the bag full of water that is your human form if you had five to twenty miles of rock piled on top of you?), and fantastic temperatures.  Sometimes the temperatures can be in the thousands of degrees!  This heat and pressure metamorphizes rock; essentially there is enough heat and pressure to change the chemical structure of the material, thus creating new minerals in the process.

Metamorphosis is how andradite garnets appear into being.  When the limestones that formed the seafloor between the two colliding continents merged and squished, the added heat and pressure caused mineral leaching.  In Russia, this just happened to occur with some squishing serpentinites (soapstone).  The calcium and iron from these two stones bonded to form the solid solution with the oxygen and silica, that is the basis for all garnets, creating the demantoid.  The special thing about the Russian demantoids is that the serpentinite cased the garnets to form around this stuff called chrysotile which is a form of asbestos.  The thin, long strands of chrysotile make wispy curved inclusions in the stones that look like horsetails.  The demantoids with these inclusions are simply known as horsetail garnets; and they are worth a lot of money.

Microscopic image of a horsetail inclusions in a Russian specimen (Emporia State University, Kansas and the Gemological Institute of America)

From the time demantoids were discovered in 1868, up to the Communist Revolution in 1919, Demantoids were wildly popular.  Even famed jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé (of Fabergé Egg fame) regularly incorporated demantoids into his pieces.  After the revolution jewels were not much of a concern for Soviet population.  Mine production in the Urals started once again in the 1970s when it was realized that outside markets were demanding this extremely rare stone.  Some mining in the Urals carries on today, and rarely some Russian stones can be purchased at auction.

More recent discoveries in Namibia (1996), Madagascar (2009), Italy, Iran, and Afghanistan have come on to the market.  The Jeffrey Mine in Quebec, Canada is producing some of the largest, most beautiful demantoids ever seen.  The Jeffrey is the largest asbestos mine in the world and a big source of contention among Quebecois.

Jeffrey Asbestos Mine Quebec, Canada
The Jeffrey Asbestos Mine is the largest open pit asbestos mine in the Western Hemisphere. It is a fantastic source of mesothelioma and garnets!

Most Demantoids are incredibly small with most gem-quality cut stones being under 1ct.  Stones over 2cts are rare, and stones over 3cts are incredibly rare.  Noosphere Geologic has in its private collection a 5.4ct round-brilliant cut Russian horsetail, as well as a 1.32 oval cut Russian demantoid.  We also have several larger uncut stones in matrix from the Jeffrey Mine, and from Madagascar and Namibia.

The value of demantoids are generally very high.  Eye-clean Russian stones larger than one carat can easily fetch $25,000 to $50,000 per carat, while stones with visible inclusions will get between $1,000 to $5,000 per carat.  The largest eye-clean Russian demantoid is only 8cts and worth upwards of one million dollars.  The largest single stone ever found was a Russian 252.5ct ugly green blob.

5.4ct Russian demantoid
This is a 5.4ct Russian horsetail demantoid specimen (Noosphere Geologic)

In the United States there are several potential locations in the Southeast, Montana, California, and even my home state of Washington where old asbestos mines exist.  If you are going to look, be careful.  Wear masks if recommended, and if you see the long fibrous strands of serpentine (different that serpentinite or soapstone) get out!

The Rare Gem Series: Spinel (The Balas Ruby)

Spinel?  Really, that cheap fake crap that you can get at Forever 21? Rare?  You bet.  To explain why, I have to take you time travelling; going back maybe a thousand years to the domains of some lost civilizations in Central Asia and the Middle East.

Spinel used to not exist; way back when, there were only rubies and sapphires. If it was red, it was a ruby.  If it was a color other than red it was a sapphire.  That was a pretty simple classification, the type of classification that drives my birding roommate up the wall.  To me there are six kinds of birds:  crows, seagulls, not-crows, and not-seagulls, chickens, not-chickens.  I know I’m wrong, but it’s too much fun to watch him pop a vessel when I play the moron.

In the mountains of what is now the border region between Afghanistan and Tajikistan shiny, gemmy red stones were discovered and a very primitive mining began.

The Black Prince Ruby
Queen Elizabeth the Second’s crown is adorned with the Black Prince Ruby, that is actually a spinel.

Who commissioned the mine? When were they opened?  The first known historical reference to these “rubies” was by the Central Asian Divinci of his day, Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973-1048):

Ruby mines are situated near the village of Warzqanj which is situated in the direction of Kharukhan while going from Badakhshan at three days’ journey. It is a part of an emperor’s domain, the capital of which is Shakasim, which is close to the mines producing this stone. The approach to the mines via this route is easier, and it passes between Shakkasmi and Shaknan. This is why the governor of Wakhan keeps the most precious jewels for himself, and precious jewels pass this way clandestinely. Jewels weighing beyond a certain size are prohibited from being carried outside the mine, and only stones weighing up to the sizes he has fixed or specified are permitted to be taken out.

It is said that the mine was located when there was an earthquake in the area and the mountain was cloven. Big rocks fell down and everything was destroyed. Rubies were disgorged in the process. Women thought the stone was something with which clothes could be dyed. They ground the stones, but no colour came out. Women showed the rubies to men and the matter was publicised. The king ordered the miners to locate the mine. When they found it they began to excavate it.

al-Bīrūnī 11th Century

al-Bīrūnī was an amazing person, by the way.  A true polymath (renaissance man, genius, righteous dude), al-Bīrūnī spoke Persian, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Syriac, and probably others.  He was a master of physics, astronomy, mathematics, linguistics, is known as the “the world’s first anthropologist”, and the founder of geodesy (the science of accurately measuring the surface, shape, and features of the Earth).  This article isn’t about al-Bīrūnī, but maybe a future one will be, until then read up on the dude, he was amazing.

 Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī
The Divinci of his day… I guess Divinci should be called the Biruni of his day since he came afterwards.

I digress… In the early 1970s, Dr. Mira Alekseyevna Bubnova,  an anthropologist from the Tajik Academy of Sciences, found evidence that mining operations may have began as early as the 7th century.  The empire of Shakasim funded and controlled the mining operations for the “rubies” and the local governor of Wakhan managed to keep the best stones for himself.  There were also problems of miners “high-grading”  the nicer stones for themselves (“high-grading”: that act of sneaking big, fancy stones or gold nuggets, etc, out of a mine) and then smuggling them out of the realm.  The laws were fairly strict, only a stone smaller than a certain size was allowed to be removed from the mines, leaving many of the greatest stones right where they were found.

Some of the most famous rubies in the world came from these mines; the Timur Ruby, the Samarian Spinel, and the Black Prince Ruby.  Wars were fought over various crown jewels; the majority of which managed to be coalesced by the Mughal Empire.  The Mughals were a mix of Persian and Mongolian ancestry that were direct descendants of the Genghis Khan.  These warrior lords invaded and ruled much of the Indian subcontinent from the 16th to the 19th centuries.  The wealth of the maharajahs who ruled the empire were legendary.  Portuguese and English sailors who were presented to the courts of these men told the world of the piles of jewels that surrounded them in the throne rooms and of the elaborate, ornate jewelry that adorned the monarchs and their family.  Much of the gold that was discovered in the gold rushes of the Yukon, California, and Colorado went to the maharajahs to create their jewelry; where they traded their lesser stones for the gold.  One particular tradition that began with the Mughal Maharajahs was to inscribe their names on the grand stones.  Some saw this as vandalism while others, like Emperor Jehangir, saw it as a way for their name to live on forever.  In his case, it has.

Rubies and Sapphires were so important to the world’s powers that England overthrew Burma to take theirs.  It was not until gemological sciences started to become more refined by the 19th century, as did all sciences with the Industrial Revolution, that was realized that what we had been calling rubies and sapphires were not really exactly what we thought they were, but different stones that were basically named wrong.  It turns out that there were two stones involved, just not he distinction of rubies and sapphires like everyone thought, but of corundum and spinel.

The problem: Scientists had to decide on their definitions.  Which stone would remain a “ruby”, which stone would remain a “sapphire”, and which stone would get the new moniker of “spinel”.  Well, 150 years later we have our answer.  If it was corundum and red, it was called a “ruby”.  If it was corundum and any other color, science henceforth dubbed thee “sapphire”.  Everything else then became “spinel”.  The downside to this was that the largest red stones in the crown jewels of Iran, Russia, England, France, and India were all ignored as useless because they were no longer “rubies” as previously thought.  Spinel’s problem was that rubies had 4,000 years of marketing behind them, and spinel had none.  If the scientists had decided the other way around and called what are now known as rubies and sapphires “spinels” instead things would have turned out different indeed.

Only recently (in the last decade or so), have spinels started to get noticed in their own right. Jewelers and collectors started seeing the inherent beauty in the wide array of colors of spinels.  Those in the know have also realized how rare these stones actually are.  Historically, gem-quality spinel was only found in three places around the world: Badakshan (Afghanistan/Tajikistan); the gravels of Sri Lanka; and Mogok (Burma/Myanmar).  Two recent discoveries in Luc Yen, Vietnam and in Mahenge, Tanzania have come to the forefront as of late.  Mahenge is the real reason for spinel’s revival.  The discovery of the neon orange/red/pink stones there have driven up prices world-wide with stones larger than 5 carats fetching $10,000 to $20,000 per carat, now rivaling the finest rubies of the same quality and size.

Spinels are usually found in metamorphic rock, marble mostly, all over the world.  There are deposits on every continent, including North America.  It is the discovery of gem-quality stones that evade us here in the “New World”.  You can find examples of ugly, brown cubic crystals of spinel in New York and New Jersey, and Ontario.  There are reports of gem-quality stones in East Fresno County, CA of various colors and sizes–I haven’t seen any yet, nor can I find any photographs of these supposed spinels.

I listed a couple famous spinels from the mines of Central Asia a little earlier.  The current world record holder is the Samarian Spinel at 500cts.  The stone is heavily included, brownish red in color, “polished in the rough”, and worth tens of millions of dollars.  In ancient times spinels, and most stones in general, were polished in their rough form as exact faceting methods where not necessarily invented yet.  In the 18th century, the Persian King Nader Shah captured the stone and its 270ct cousin in an invasion and conquest of India.  There is a hole drilled in the Samarian that was supposedly used to affix it

Pink Mahenge Spinels
Spinels from Tanzania that are famous for their neon characteristics. From Swala gem Traders

around the neck of the Biblical Golden Calf that the Israelites created while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments.  The problem is that the Samarian was most likely from the mines of Northern Afghanistan and was mined a couple thousand years after Moses yelled at the idol worshipers in Sinai.

The most valuable spinels are as follows: Balas rubies (the stones that were originally thought to be rubies from Afghanistan/Tajikistan); neon Mehenge spinels (a 10ct stone will cost you about $200k!); pigeon blood spinels, usually from Mogok, Sri Lanka, or Vietnam; and cobalt spinels (often from Sri Lanka or Tanzania, they are a steely blue hue and color come from, you guessed it, cobalt!) which can be valued upwards of $5,000 per carat.

Cobalt Spinels
Tanzanian Cobalt Spinels from Pala Gems

This brings us to my big announcement:

I proudly present the new record holding polished spinel:  I am the proud owner of the The Sinful Red Spinel (named such because it is sinfully ugly).  The original stone was 2000cts and was found embedded in white marble in Mahenge, Tanzania.  I received the stone in the rough and polished it myself.  Keeping with the tradition of the great Mughal emperors the Sinful Red is polished in the rough and weighs in at a hefty 689cts crushing the old world record holder!

I have a large collection of Tanzanian and Vietnamese spinels that I will be polishing in the coming months and I look forward to sharing them with you.

10.24ct Ceylon raspberry spinel from Sri Lanka
10.24ct Ceylon raspberry spinel from Sri Lanka. Owned by Noosphere Geologic.

7ct Mogok spinel.
7ct Mogok, Burma spinel. Extremely rare, owned by Noosphere Geologic.