Big Holes

Get Your Mind Out The Gutter!

Whoever coined the title of this video is a genius: the second I clapped eyes on it, the inner depraved version of myself immediately demanded that I click on the link to find out more about Earth’s biggest and most mysterious holes. As it turned out, the video is quite interesting, albeit well-behaved. So, if you’re desperately trying to look busy and important while waiting for a date, or want to avoid that annoying dude from accounting during your lunch break, here’s a fabulous and educational 10 minutes well spent.

P.S. Donald Trump was accidentally omitted, but should have been featured as Earth’s biggest A-hole.

Video Source: “15 Strangest Holes On Earth” Uploaded by Planet Dolan to YouTube channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxSkbBXpMjo

How To Bake a Diamond

Beautiful diamond gem

Diamonds have been getting men out of trouble for hundreds of years. They have also been getting men into trouble for hundreds of years. So, what’s so special about diamonds? They’re really pretty, they’re really strong, they have a great pair of tits…

Sorry, that’s Lara Croft.

DIAMONDS are really pretty, they’re really strong and they’re really RARE. They are also the gemstone of choice when it comes to getting hitched because, just like Shirley Bassey sang, diamonds are forever.

Diamonds are Forever… No, Really, They Are!

Aside from their unparalleled resilience and durability, diamonds are spectacular-looking rock minerals. Cut into a complex and intricate array of facets and planes, their refractive light properties send out a kaleidoscope of colour which spans the visible light spectrum, even though the gem itself appears totally translucent and colourless.

What are diamonds? What are they made of? How are they formed?

Yeah, yeah… what you REALLY want to know is what it takes to bake your own diamond so that you can become super rich and super lazy just like Paris Hilton. Well, just like everything else on this planet and in our universe really, diamonds are made of tiny, tiny building blocks. A closer look into their crystal structure tells us just how these highly coveted stones are formed.

Diamond, which is derived from the ancient Greek word adámas, meaning ‘unbreakable,’ is made from one of the most common elements here on planet Earth. It’s in the soil we walk on, in the air we breathe and in the food we eat. Here’s another clue: you’re made from it.

Carbon!

Diamonds from black carbon

It’s the same black crap your science teacher created from burning sugar, the same black crap the graphite in your pencil is made of and the same black crap shown in the picture above. Oh, how unromantic!

Surely such a rare and highly prized stone would be constructed from something equally as exotic and just as rare? Alas, my friends. It is not the building blocks of diamonds that make these stones so special, but rather the conditions under which they are forged. It’s like baking a cake: at the right temperature and with the right cooking time, the cake will come out beautiful, spongy, moist and delicious. At the wrong temperature and cooking time, the same batter will come out black, bitter, inedible and more appropriately used as a bludgeoning weapon.

Carbon + Contaminant = Colour!

Colorful diamond array

We’ve established that diamonds are made from carbon. Actually, they’re made from a carbon allotrope, just so that you geology geeks don’t get a kick out of correcting me. But for all intents and purposes, diamonds are essentially made out of carbon. And carbon is abundant. So, theoretically, you should be able to make your own diamonds! Just don’t tell anybody about it or you could throw a major spanner in the traditional works and symbolism of marriage, just like those pesky homosexuals who want equal rights. I mean, who do they think they are?

Hold on a minute! All it takes is carbon? Then what gives some diamonds their colour? Well noted, my avaricious rapscallions! Diamonds don’t ONLY come as colourless, expensive globules of carbon. Interestingly enough, the unique and very rigid arrangement of carbon atoms in the crystal structure of a diamond (cubic to be exact) makes it difficult for other chemical elements to infiltrate it, causing impurities. This explains why the insides of most diamonds look so beautifully pure and translucent.

Most, but not all.

Diamond, actually, is quite snobby. It only allows very particular elements into its crystal lattice and then again, it only does this on the rare occasion. To give you an idea of just how fussy diamond is, it is estimated that for every million atoms of well-behaved carbon, there is a single alien atom infiltrator. The result: a fantastic analogy for opening your heart to different races, creeds, genders and nationalities.

And colour!

The colour of a diamond can have a huge influence on the amount wealthy housewives get their husbands to pay for them. Blues and greens are exceptionally rare, so they will fetch a high price. Yellows and browns are more common. And there’s nothing like a brown diamond to make you feel REAL special.

Now, gather your cooking implements and turn the oven on… HOT.

Hot temperature oven

Diamond Recipe

What You’ll Need:

  1. Carbon
  2. A choice of chemical impurity or radioactive element (for colour)
  3. Titanium metal
  4. A shovel
  5. Patience
  6. A degree in town planning

Step 1: Take carbon and mix in desired chemical impurity, or pilfer local science laboratory for radioactive element*.

* If you want to bake a blue diamond like the one Rose threw into the ocean at the end, you need to add boron to your mix of carbon. If you want to bake a yellow diamond, you’ll need nitrogen. If you want your diamond to turn a more exotic shade of purple, pink, red or orange, then make sure you bury it close to a radioactive element, such as plutonium or uranium. Other colours, such as black, brown and sometimes even red and pink are caused by structural flaws that harbour dark impurities that only make them appear the colour they are.

Step 2: Put ingredients into an air-tight and incredibly durable box.

Step 3: Phone NASA for left-over titanium to build said box. If you struggle to get past some power-tripping secretary, you can always melt down your brother’s professional tennis racquet; a legacy from the days he actually thought he’d be a professional at anything. If THAT fails, dental implants are made from titanium, but whatever you do, don’t get caught at the morgue.

Step 4: Bury carbon-filled box at a depth of between 140 and 190 kilometres, or 85 to 120 miles, where there exist conditions of immense pressure and temperature. An ambient temperature of at least 1,050 deg Celsius is what you’re aiming for.

Step 5: Bake for at least one billion years, but it could take as long as three billion years. This is where patience comes in handy.

Step 6: Wait for a super-deep volcanic eruption to bring the box of crystallized carbon to the near-surface of the Earth.

Step 7: Plant a flag at the location, build a town, exploit the native inhabitants as your labour force and dig a big hole in the ground to retrieve your creation.

Step 8: Allow to cool before eating.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Beautiful gem diamonds

It’s probably better to buy a diamond than make your own.

This aside, the next time you walk past a jewellery store or stare lovingly at your own engagement/wedding ring, you should look – really look – at the diamond. Know that the real beauty of these radiant gems transcends the price tag affixed to them. Diamonds are approximately half the age of the Earth, they will last your lifetime and millions more like yours and they’re composed of carbon, the very same building blocks as you and me.

The very same material that is forged in the hearts of dying stars.

Fire and Brimstone – the Story of Volcanoes

eruzione Etna volcano
Mount Etna eruption, Nicolosi Catania, Italy

There’s something beautiful about a woman’s rage (not counting the tarts from Geordie Shore) and in no better way is this sentiment illustrated than by Mother Nature’s ire. As terrifying as it is to be at ground zero, from a safe distance, natural disasters are incredibly awe-inspiring and angry volcanoes deserve a top spot for making people go “ooooh” and “aaaaah” and “oh shit…”

Volcanoes are literal pathways from the Earth’s fiery guts to its crusty exterior. But the channels available for the molten rock and gas that spew forth are far too narrow to satisfy the sheer volume of indigestion within and the result is an immense build-up of pressure. The release of this pressure includes, but is not limited to, violent sprays of lava, devastating pyroclastic flows, stratospheric columns of volcanic ash, electrical storms, scalding gas and dust and Hiroshima-type explosions that not only dislocate millions of tonnes of solid rock, but have been reported to be audible many thousands of kilometres away from the point of origin.

Vesuivio_Eruzione eruption volcano
Source: “Vesuivio Eruzione April 26th, 1872” by Giorgio Sommer – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Volcanoes have the potential to send species to extinction, yet at the very same time, they nourish the biosphere in an appreciable radius around them (volcanic ash is highly fertile). Volcanoes are magnificent and a wonderful example of how the surface of our planet is in a constant state of dynamism.

Where Not To Go On Summer Vacation

Planet tectonics plate diagram

Volcanoes typically form at the convergent and divergent boundaries between the enormous shifting tectonic plates that comprise the Earth’s crust (see gorgeous image above). It is here that the seams of the Earth permit plumes of its molten interior to travel towards the surface. But as it was mentioned, the surface-bound transport of this material is anything but a six-lane highway. It’s more like a gravelly, pothole-ridden country road. The gas and molten rock that are trying to get from A to B encounter rigid rock and the cracks they exploit along their journey are incredibly narrow. A build-up of pressure results in a potentially explosive situation, so that when something finally gives, the results are disastrous for the local biology: human habitation included.

Volcanoes also form over features called “hot spots”, which don’t necessarily occur near plate tectonic boundaries (see diagram below). The Hawaiian Islands – all of them formed by volcanic activity in the middle of the Pacific Plate – are a prime example of this.

volcanic-hot-spots

There are several scientific theories that seek to explain what hot spots are and a popular one is that they are upwelling intrusions of molten material (mantle plumes) that originate at the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle. The exact depth of this varies, but the Hawaiian hot spot is estimated to be 3,000 km deep. That’s 9,842,520 ft. for those of you in ‘Merica.

Volcano Classification

There’s more to volcanology than your stock standard angry Earth pimple. Volcanoes come in many shapes, sizes and compositions. What happens at the surface – what we see and experience when volcanoes awake from their slumber – is dependent on a suite of factors and an especially important one is the composition of the magma that is trying to escape the lithified constraints of the crust.

Lava Composition

Lava flow in Hawaii

Rock that is rich in silicates tends to form chunky, viscous slow-moving magma. This subset of liquid rock is in no hurry to go anywhere and tends to contribute to terrible congestion. It also has the particularly nasty habit of trapping gas, which is why things can get explosive. Since Hawaii is no stranger to seismic activity, its inhabitants have coined a word for this particular magma and it’s pāhoehoe.

At the other end of the spectrum, you get magma that doesn’t contain a lot of silicates, but is rather rich in ferrous (iron) compounds. This magma – ʻAʻa, pronounced “ah ah” – get’s extremely hot and tends to flow hard and fast. If you’ll excuse the crass analogy, the difference between pāhoehoe and ʻAʻa is much like the difference between constipation and Delhi belly.

Both, however, are extremely uncomfortable.

Magma isn’t, of course, one or the other. There is a vast spectrum of mineral compositions between, but by understanding the difference between one extreme and the other, we can begin to understand how different kinds of volcanoes are formed.

Cone, Shield and Stratovolcanoes

If there’s one thing to be said for geologists, it’s that they don’t mess around with terminology. The name bestowed upon a volcano is as transparent as a wet T-shirt.

Cone (Cinder) Volcanoes

Bromo volcano in Indonesia
Mount Gunung Bromo (Indonesian island of Java): A classic cinder or cone volcano

Cone volcanoes, also known as cinder cones, generally consist of a hill that can be anywhere from 30 meters (98 ft.) to 400 (1,312 ft.) meters in height. Formed from the eruption of materials that are riddled with gas, crystals and a hodgepodge of fragmented rock. To see an example of this kind of volcano, put on your sombrero, crack open the tequila and get on a plane to New Mexico. There, you will find a spectacular volcanic field called Caja Del Rio, which comprises more than 60 cone volcanoes. If the prospect of New Mexico doesn’t appeal, you can always bum a lift on the next scientific mission to Mars or the moon, both of which are believed to feature this type of volcano.

Shield Volcanoes

Kohala-Landsat Hawaii shield volcano
Kohala Mountain, the oldest of Hawaii’s five volcanoes. The entire island is a massive shield volcano. Source: By USGS (source usage) via Wikimedia Commons

Shield volcanoes have a much broader profile than cone volcanoes and, as the name suggests, are shaped like shields. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. These beasts are formed from the eruption of very runny lava that tends to escape the Earth’s crust before causing too much mayhem as a result of a build-up of pressure. Shield volcanoes are, by comparison, the placid elderly aunt of volcanoes and are most commonly found at oceanic tectonic boundaries. Oceanic plates aren’t usually rich in silicates, which explains why the magma produced here is more felsic in composition, hence its lower viscosity. Skjaldbreiður in Iceland (say that three times fast) is an example of a shield volcano. The Hawaiian Islands, which have formed almost smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Plate over a “hot spot,” are also shield volcanoes.

Pyroclastic_flows_at_Mayon_Volcano
In June of 2013, the Mayon stratovolcano in Albay, Philippines, reached Level 1 alert level due to what the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology refers to as “abnormal behavior”.

Stratovolcanoes 

Stratovolcanoes, or composite volcanoes, are the tri-polar member of the volcanic family. They look like your typical volcano but actually consist of alternating layers of different kinds of erupted material as the above diagram depicts. Stratovolcanoes produce a range of eruptions depending upon their mood and these include chunky cinders, choking ash and molten rock (lava). One of the best known (and least loved) of these volcanoes is Mount Vesuvius, which is located in Stromboli, Italy. This one was responsible for the notorious levelling of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79, killing 16,000 people. It is estimated that Mount Vesuvius released 100,000 times the energy liberated by the Hiroshima bomb.

Volcanic Hazards

Mount Pinatubo Explodes
Run? Source: “Point of View Photos” Huffington Post

When volcanoes become active, a number of things can happen, none of them good if you’re fond of life. One of the most devastating of these consequences is ash. You wouldn’t think so… ash is soft and white. How on Earth could it possibly inconvenience you the way a searing hot lake of lava might? Stratovolcanoes are especially fond of explosive eruptions, which send voluminous clouds of ash into the atmosphere and cascading down their slopes.

This ash, however, isn’t the kind you find in your barbeque pit after a night of camping, beer and sing-a-longs. It’s mixed with gas that is hot enough to disassociate your atoms. These eruptions send roiling clouds of gas, dust, ash and other debris down the mountain, which devastate anything organic in their path, leaving behind a scene that looks like a bomb went off in a cocaine factory.

Extinct, Dormant and Active Volcanoes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Stromboli volcanic eruption3

Volcanoes are dangerous creatures. So an apt analogy for the popular classifications of these geological features would be your mother. When she has a gin and tonic in her hand (dormant), you may want to make plans for the evening. When she’s 10 G&T’s down (active), it’s time to execute those plans and get the hell out of the house. When she’s passed out on the couch (extinct), it’s safe to come home, although my recommendation to you would be to move out your childhood home and get yourself an education.

Extinct volcanoes, such as the Netherland’s Zuidwal and Shiprock volcanoes, are no longer considered to be active at all because they don’t have a supply of magma. They also have no documented history of indigestion. Dormant volcanoes, on the other hand, are known to have erupted at some stage in recent history. They may be quiet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly awaken. Mount Vesuvius (Gulf of Naples) was a purring kitten before it went psycho in AD 79, as was Mount Pinatubo (Philippines) prior to its epic tantrum in 1991. The latter is now considered an active volcano, which is one that has exhibited recent activity and is therefore a potential hazard to all within its vicinity.

Krakatoa

krakatoa-volcano-1883-eruption

If you’ve ever had a fight with Mexican food and lost (who hasn’t?) then integrating “Krakatoa” into your vocabulary is a wonderful idea if you need help explaining exactly what just happened to you to the flat mate who is next in line for the bathroom. You may not be absolved for your sins, but it’ll get you a laugh or two.

Krakatoa is a first class example of what happens when Mother Nature gets really cross and decides to let off a bomb that makes Hiroshima look like a fart. In 1883, the build-up of pressure under the Earth’s crust between the islands of Sumatra and Java in the Sunda Strait was so immense that it caused an apocalyptic-sized explosion, sending a once much bigger island into the stratosphere.

The Krakatoa eruption was reported to have been heard almost 5,000 km away (the loudest sound ever made in recorded history) and the resultant shock waves sent barograph needles oscillating violently off the page. Over 36,000 people were killed by the eruption: if not by the devastating pyroclastic flows and falling debris, then by the tsunamis that followed. The dust catapulted into the atmosphere caused stunning sunsets around the world for months after the eruption.

Too bad colour photography wasn’t in vogue in the 19th Century.

krakatoa - krakatau volcano map
Source: Krakatau Tour Website: A map of ex-Krakatoa and the now much smaller island of Anak Krakatau, which means “son of Krakatoa”. The dotted line represents the size of the island before it went nuclear.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

If you ever needed to respect the fact that we are just not in control of our natural environment, then stand next to an active volcano. From lakes of lava and earthquakes that shake the foundations of your stick hut to falling debris and scalding hot pyroclastic flows that choke the biosphere, volcanoes are creatures to be respected, studied and understood. If ever there were an item to put on your bucket list, it would be to stand next to an active volcano and feel the heat of Earth’s exterior lap at your cheeks. Just make sure you’ve ticked off the rest of those bucket list items before you do so…

Mount Redoubt Eruption
“Mount Redoubt Eruption” by R. Clucas – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Mount Redoubt is a stratovolcano and is part of the very seismically active Aleutian Range in Alaska.

World's LARGEST Cave Revealed

As awe-inspiring videos go, this is about as spell-binding as it gets. On the back of a drone, you weave your way through the world’s very largest cave, Hang Son Doong, which means “Mountain River Cave” in Vietnamese. This gorgeous cave is a yawning chasm within solid rock and, owing to the constant seepage of life-giving water into its belly, offers the local biology the most wonderful respite from the elements. As such and as you will see in this beautiful footage, life flourishes within the shelter of Hang Son Doong.

Keep an eye out for the people on the ground as the drone sweeps over the vast interior of the cave and you will develop a true appreciation of just how immense Hang Son Doong really is. If you want to see it for yourself, hop on a plane to Vietnam: Tân Trạch, Bố Trạch, Quảng Bình to be more precise.

Amazing Science Video Source: Photographer Ryan Deboodt as published by MSNBC on YouTube channel youtu.be/nzoLZoTqQa8

How Was It Formed?

Hang Son Doong is a solutional cave formed in the calcium-rich limestone of the Phone Nka-Ke Bang National Park. Over the eons, a weak acid formed from the mixture of water and carbon dioxide gas released by plants (carbonic acid) has slowly eaten away at the alkaline rock, carving out this gigantic chamber beneath the mountainside. Hang Son Doong now houses its own rushing river, some of the biggest stalagmites in the world (70 meters tall) and a natural inner chamber that is in excess of five kilometres (or 3.1 miles) in length!

vietnams-Hang-Son-Doong-cave...Giant_Stalagmites_in_Carlsbad_Big_Room

The Six Most Awesome Rock Minerals (For Various Reasons), PART 2

Cristales_cueva_de_Naica

“Cristales cueva de Naica” by Alexander Van Driessche. This picture shows the Naica Mine in Chihuahua, Mexico, which is home to some of the largest selenite crystals (a variety of gypsum) in the world.

 Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to the second instalment of this two-part blog series on the six most awesome rock minerals (for various reasons and in no particular order.) In the first instalment, Part 1, we looked at iron pyrite for its wonderfully geometric crystals and diamond for its many different traits, not least of all its hardness and beauty. Lastly, the limelight was cast on fluorspar for its property of thermoluminescence, which is science speak for “going disco when thrown into a camp fire.”

We have three most awesome minerals yet to examine, but before I get cracking, I need to state that this selection doesn’t even scratch the surface of the sheer diversity of rock minerals, crystals and gems that are forged within the hot and pressurized interior of our planet. There are really so many rock minerals that are awesome:

  • Mica forms incredible flat sheets of translucent monoclinic crystals.
  • Amethyst derives its name from its ancient medicinal use as protection against poisoning and drunkenness (look how that turned out for the ancient Romans).
  • Calcite is special because it double refracts light and its crystals are perfectly-shaped 3D parallelograms.
  • Halite is special because it actually tastes like salt – it’s made from sodium chloride – and, if left undisturbed for many, many years, can form giant columns of glittering crystals, as we saw in that picture of the Chandelier Ballroom in Part 1.
  • Corundum is awesome because it’s the second hardest substance on the planet, but contrary to its ‘tough as nails’ character, is formed in cute little pink hexagonal tubes. Like miniature pool noodles.

Then, there are all those minerals and elements we covet as rare, beautiful and valuable. My choice has been restricted to those that – while commonly found, as many of them are – are still very special and frequently overlooked. The ones I have selected here are but a mere sampling, which has been done subjectively. Why? Because science. Oh and also this is my blog and I’m the boss.

So… with that administration out the way, let’s don our hard hats, grab our picks and get excavating!

Awesome Rock Mineral # 4: Obsidian

Volcanic glass (obsidian) with a conchoidal fracture

Chemical Composition: Silicon, magnesium, iron and oxygen

Why it makes this list: Its formation process is cool

Name Origin: “Obsius” after the Roman who apparently discovered this rock in Ethiopia.

Star Sign: Haha, just kidding!

Obsidian is a jet black stone with a vitreous (glassy) lustre. Just like glass, obsidian tends to shatter into sharp fragments when hit hard, although it is much stronger than the glass your beer bottle is made of. So, smashing a block of obsidian against your head wouldn’t be advisable, unless you’re the kind of person who would actually smash a beer bottle against your head, in which case knock yourself out.

I call that natural selection.

Obsidian’s strength and brittleness have resulted in its use as sharp cutting implements and weapons, such as spear and arrowheads, some of which date back as much as six million years. Ancient Egyptians found obsidian to offer a suitable artistic representation of the iris. As such, they would use it together with a variety of other coloured gemstones to recreate their dead or dying* pharaoh’s countenance on the front of their solid gold sarcophagi.

* Pharaohs spent more time, resources and effort planning their death than they did enjoying life. They believed that one’s mortal life was but mere preparation for the afterlife. Millions of years later – post science and technology – the majority of the world’s population still believes exactly the same thing.

Tutankhamun´s Golden Mask

King Tutankhamen was a tenderly young Egyptian pharaoh (he was 9 or 10 when he became king) who ruled during the 18th dynasty (1332 BC – 1323 BC). This mask was used to cover his mummified remains and contains inlays of, amongst other gemstones, serpentine, lapis lazuli, malachite, garnet and obsidian.

Uses aside, what I find to be most special about obsidian is the way it is formed and it is here that we encounter a very interesting geological pearl of wisdom. The longer magma or molten rock is allowed to cool for, the larger the crystal size of the resultant igneous rock. Makes sense doesn’t it? On the one end of the spectrum, we have granite, which is formed from the ultra slow cooling of magma over many millions of years. The next time you’re bonking your partner on the kitchen counter, take a brief look at the size of the crystals within its polished surface. Big, huh? Well, incidentally, so is the size of the crystals.

Granite texture background

In this picture, we can quite easily discern between the three composite rock minerals that make up granite. The pink crystals are feldspar, the white are quartzite and the black is mica.

At the other end of the spectrum, magma that is shock-cooled, in other words cooled really quickly, doesn’t have any time to form crystals and the resultant rock is an amorphous lump of dark brittle glass. So, essentially, what you have just learned is that coarse granite is composed of exactly the same material as glassy obsidian. Yet they look completely different! It’s like Kim and Khloe Kardashian!

So… how can you shock-cool magma? The usual method employed by Mother Nature is ejecting it at a few hundred kilometres an hour out of an erupting volcano, at which stage it theoretically becomes known as lava. The molten rock cools from approximately 1000°C (1800°F) to a little over ambient air temperature in a matter of minutes. The result is obsidian.

The truth is, obsidian is not strictly speaking a rock mineral, just as granite cannot be considered a rock mineral. Remember our Spice Girl analogy in part 1? Well obsidian is a complex blend of all the rock minerals that make up granite (feldspar, quartz and mica). As such, obsidian is more correctly termed a “mineraloid.” If I was submitting this blog to my geology lecturer for marks, I would be penalized for lumping obsidian in the same category as iron pyrite, which is a true mineral.

Awesome Rock Mineral # 5: Opal

Opal boulder

Chemical Composition: Silicon, oxygen and water.

Why it makes this list: Cos it’s so damn beautiful.

Name Origin: From the Latin word opalus: “to see a change of colour”

If I was a Neanderthal (my mother will argue that I am) and you placed an uncut diamond and a stone of opal in front of me and asked me to choose one based solely upon its aesthetic appeal, I would point at the opal and say: “ug.”

You may snigger at my seemingly ignorant selection, but in addition to its superior aesthetics, high quality opal fetches as much as $20,000 a carat. This, my friends, beats the Chuck Norris of gem stones by a fair margin.

If you have ever closely scrutinized a piece of opal, you will know just how special it is and how very hard it is to explain its unique brand of beauty. Opal is composed of tiny spheres of silica (sand, essentially) which are packed into tight water-bound layers. Water does all sorts of strange things to light. Combine that with the near-translucent silica spheres and the incoming light gets so damn confused that is splits into all seven of its personalities. These bounce back and forth between the layers and eventually exit the stone to be perceived by our eyes. The larger the size of the silica spheres, the more colours we see, while smaller silica spheres tend to refract darker blues and violet.

I could bumble on about opal, but the truth is, this amorphous gem stone is just so pretty, only a picture could do it true justice:

62cts_Brazilian_Crystal_Opal

“62cts Brazilian Crystal Opal” by Daniel Mekis. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 Is it a kaleidoscope? Is it a laser light show? Am I on acid? I couldn’t say; are you? It’s opal!

Awesome Rock Mineral # 6: Magnetite

Druse of Magnetite crystals and apatite

Chemical Composition: Iron and oxygen

Why it makes this list: It’s bipolar.

Name Origin: From the name of a Greek shepherd, Magnes, who discovered magnetite on Mount Ida when he noticed his metal-tipped staff sticking stubbornly to the ground under his feet.

We tend to think of magnets as man-made things, when in fact nature is simply bursting at the seams with examples of bi-polar oddities. Magnetite, as its name suggests, is a black metallic rock mineral composed predominantly of iron and it is the most magnetic of all the naturally occurring rock minerals on our planet. Geologists frequently keep a lump of magnetite on their desks as a paper clip dispenser.

Magnetite does, of course, have greater claims to fame: its various properties provide scientists with an insight into fancy-sounding things such as plate tectonics, paleomagnetism and magnetohydrodynamics. I have chosen magnetite for this list because it blows my mind that a seemingly unremarkable rock dug up from the ground can make metal move of its own accord. Of course, it’s not really moving of its own accord, but everyone fantasizes about having telekinetic powers every now and then, even if the object you’re manipulating is a paper clip.

Magneto, eat your heart out!

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

chalcopyrite mineral texture as background

No, this is not the work of a super talented graphic designer. It’s Chalcopyrite up close and personal.

There’s really only one message I want you to take home from today’s sciencey musings. And that is that even the merest glimpse beneath the surface of any scientific discipline reveals a fathomless volume of absolutely fascinating information about the world around us and, in the context of this article, beneath our feet. Every single gem stone scattered on the floor of your local “Scratch Patch” or “Geology World” is special for many reasons that extend beyond their appearances, just like every single human being is. Unless you’re Paris Hilton.

Now, THAT’S hot.

The 6 Most Awesome Rock Minerals (For Various Reasons), PART 1

Blue stone lapis lazuli macro

Geology is just one of the many scientific disciplines that have fascinated me over the years. As a teenager, I became fanatical about collecting rocks, rock minerals, crystals and fossils, every specimen of which I arranged fastidiously along the wall shelf that overlooked my desk (see photo below). I am proud to say that this extensive collection has been lovingly preserved in its original arrangement by my mother, starting with translucent colourless quartzite crystals, ranging right through the colours of the rainbow and ending with opaque, jet black fragments of obsidian. Dust and the occasional long-dead beetle aside, not a single rock has been discarded. They’re all there and they’re all special. I would like to extend a thank you to my mom for preserving my collection, although it wouldn’t hurt you to dust once in a while…

rock mineral collectionMy personal collection of rocks, rock minerals, crystals, coral and fossils.

Collecting Rocks is Not Just for Boring People

Why on Earth would anyone collect rocks? Well, rocks tell us about the history of the ground underneath our feet and you don’t need to be terribly nerdy to appreciate that! Unfortunately, too large a percentage of that ground has been covered in concrete, ceramic tile, plush carpets, hardwood or laminate (if you’re a cheapskate.) But beneath the man-made veneer of our planet lies a fabulous variety of rock types, minerals and crystals, each with a history, each with a unique set of properties, each comprising a piece of the puzzle that, once put together, tells the story of the formation of the Earth and how the land came to be shaped the way it is.

My deep interest in mineralogy and geology was and is about more than just the pretty appearance of certain rock minerals and crystals. It’s about their unique properties, characteristics and traits, a handful of which you will come to learn about in this two-part blog. Of the many rock minerals I have collected over the years and encountered during my University geology classes, there are some that have remained firmly lodged in my memory, just like pyroclasts in a volcanic breccia. These are the rock minerals that, in my mind, are true testaments to the sheer awesomeness of the natural world.

And the Nominees Are…

Firstly, in the interests of scientific rigor, let me stipulate the following: this list is totally subjective, so forget the part about “scientific rigor.” The facts I present, however, are true! Secondly, my choice is restricted to rock minerals or gemstones. Not rock types, such as marble, granite and shale. Minerals are the building blocks of rocks, just like desperate and marginally talented 20-something year old girls are the building blocks of girl groups.

Granite, for example, generally consists of three different rock minerals: Scary Spice, Baby Spice, Fanta Pants and one that looks like a lesbian. Hold on… I’m getting confused. That’s four spices.

Anyway, you get the point, so now that you know what a rock mineral is, let’s get to it! Get your De Beers on ‘cos we’re going digging!

Awesome Rock Mineral # 1: Iron Pyrite

gold (iron pyrite mineral)

AKA: Fool’s Gold

Chemical Composition: Iron and sulphur

Why it makes this list: Iron pyrite crystals are one of the most incredible demonstrations of symmetry in nature.

Name Origin: Pyrite originates from the Greek word for “fire”

We tend to think of nature as being random and chaotic, but rock crystals are a beautiful example of how there is more flawless pattern and symmetry in nature than there is entropy and disorder. Iron pyrite is one of my favourite examples, with its brassy yellow crystals that are seemingly impossibly square in shape. Pyrite frequently grows in great tangles of inter-grown geometric shapes, most commonly cubic and octahedral. The result is both incredibly beautiful and intriguing: something that could pass as the work of an abstract artist on acid.

Iron pyrite has been dubbed “fool’s gold” owing to its glistening metallic yellow colour, which makes it look quite similar to gold; one of the most coveted elements on Earth. There are many differences between pyrite and gold, of course, but the most important to mankind is that iron pyrite is appallingly common and is likely to get an icy reception from your wife or girlfriend if given as a gift.

Then again, Jessica Simpson is living proof that you can be appallingly common AND rich at the same time.

Awesome Rock Mineral # 2: Diamond

Beautiful diamond gem copy

AKA: A girl’s best friend.

Chemical Composition: Carbon and sometimes trace elements

Why it makes this list: Diamond doesn’t need an excuse to make this list.

Name Origin: Diamond comes from the Greek word adamas meaning “unconquerable” or “invincible.”

Diamond is the Chuck Norris of gemstones. It’s hard, it’s tough and it’ll charm the pants off any lady. Formed deep in the Earth’s crust under conditions of bone-pulverizing pressure and temperature, diamond is the hardest known substance in existence and it wins this title by a very, very, very large margin.

When cut correctly, diamond’s reflective and refractive properties emit a kaleidoscopic disco of light, coruscating with every colour of the rainbow. Uncut, diamonds are translucent and have an almost greasy or soapy lustre; certainly not something one might describe as breathtakingly beautiful. Most ladies prefer it cut. Their diamonds too.

A rough, uncut, brown diamond.

An uncut diamond, which just goes to show how important cut is to the aesthetic appeal of this gemstone.

In addition to their aesthetic appeal, which has been adored and worshipped by cultures and civilizations across the world for centuries, diamonds also have rather useful modern applications. Actually, 80% of all the diamonds unearthed are exploited for their incredible strength as blades, grinders, bearings and drill bits. The other 20% are considered too pretty to be used for drilling open rotten teeth and so they are square-cut and pear-shaped, these rocks don’t lose their shape DIAAAAMOOOOOONDS…

*ahem* sorry.

There are many things that make diamonds exceptionally awesome: they’re the only gemstone composed of a single element (carbon), they’re the hardest substance known to humankind, they’re incredibly beautiful and they’re incredibly expensive. But the bottom line really is that diamond’s awesomeness transcends time, culture, civilization and class. Diamond is king (and a giiiiiiiiiiiiirl’s beeeeeeeeest frieeeeeeeeeeend!)

Awesome Rock Mineral # 3: Fluorspar

natural fluorite stones

AKA: Fluorite

Chemical Composition: Calcium and Fluorine

Why it makes this list: For its, like, totally insane property known as thermoluminescence.

Name Origin: “Fluo” is the Latin word for “to flow.”

I first came across Fluorspar on a seven-day canoe trip down the Orange River, which is the natural border between South Africa and Namibia. On our fourth or fifth day, the guides pulled the canoes off the river onto Namibian shores and took the younger whipper-snappier of us on a gruelling 45-minute hike up the steep, boulder-strewn slopes. At the summit, we found an old abandoned fluorspar mine. There were just piles of this translucent green and purple mineral lying everywhere. So, we all filled our pockets and headed back down towards the camp.

That night, our chief guide showed us just why fluorspar was so damn cool. Onto the searing-hot coals that were the remainder of our nightly camp fire, he cast a handful of broken fluorspar shards and dust. After a few seconds, these rocks started to glow bright electric blue and green before shattering like popcorn into smaller fragments. In spite of the burning-hot bits of shrapnel that were sent whistling past our heads, we were enraptured by the performance and I have used fluorspar to impress girls ever since.

Unfortunately, I have run out of fluorspar.

Fortunately, I have my personality to fall back on.

Fluorescent Fluorite

Fluorite is the trance party-goer of the mineral world

Fluorspar or fluorite most commonly comes in cubic crystals, although the one’s we found on the Orange River had all been shattered or broken at some stage and so ranged in amorphous size. “Fluo” is the Latin word for “to flow” and this name was given to this rock mineral for its applications in iron smelting. In a peanut shell, fluorite decreases the viscosity of molten iron, helping it to flow better.

It was only after the discovery and naming of fluorite that its awesome physical properties of fluorescence and thermoluminescence were discovered, which is incidentally where the word “fluorescence” comes from. Fluorescence – the emittance of that strange otherworldly light – is caused by the dancing of electrons within the mineral’s atomic structure. As they stomp around to the doef-doef music in their heads, they emit quanta of visible light that is most frequently blue in colour, but can be green, white, red, purple or yellow.

Stay Tuned for Part 2…

You may be bored at work, but you still have to look busy or else your boss will give you the boot. To accommodate this, I have taken the liberty of dividing this post in two. Stay tuned for the second instalment in which we shall intrepidly explore the remaining three most awesome rock minerals!

In the meantime, your homework is to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at this picture…

Lechuguilla_Chandelier_Ballroom

“Lechuguilla Chandelier Ballroom” (New Mexico) by Dave Bunnell. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons. Giant otherworldly fingers of glittering gypsum crystal formations reach down from the cave ceiling.

Today's Sciencey LOL

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Diamonds are forged deep in the Earth’s mantle, where conditions of immense temperature and pressure exist. This forces Carbon atoms to arrange into a different crystal lattice and the result is a girl’s best friend!

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