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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.

Life on Mars: Relocation, Relocation, Relocation!

Planet Mars with Rising Sun

Every single morning, when my alarm drops a hydrogen bomb into the middle of my sexy dreams, I lie in bed entertaining fantasies of further sleep. What would I do to be able to sink back into the cotton wool comfiness of my sub-consciousness for another half hour? In my irrational sleep-addled state, a lot! So, sign me up for the first commercial flight to Mars because with days that are not 30 minutes, but 40 minutes longer than on Earth, my desperate desire for extra sleep would be granted!

Curiosity Weighs 899 kg

Luckily There Aren’t Any Cats on Mars

On the 5th August of 2012, the Mars rover ‘Curiosity’ made a successful landing on the powdery, rock-strewn surface of the Red Planet. A part of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, Curiosity’s primary objective is to explore the real estate on Mars and the possibility of humans inhabiting it at some time in the not-so-distant future.

Curiosity Mars Rover self-portraitA self-portrait of the Mars rover, Curiosity. #Selfie.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems. Derivative work including grading, distortion correction, minor local adjustments and rendering from tiff-file: Julian Herzog – http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA16239

This sophisticated piece of machinery (see above image) cost NASA $2.5 billion to build and is designed to investigate features of Mars’ geology and climate during the course of its two-year long investigation. More specifically, the aptly-named ‘Curiosity’ will be looking for “ancient organic compounds,” according to NASA Ames Research Centre’s planetary scientist, Carol Stoker. This would help us understand the history of Mars, Earth’s sister planet,’ as a previous or even current supporter of life

All of the high tech gadgetry aboard the ‘Curiosity’ is essentially geared to measure the presence, nature and concentration of organic compounds that are possibly locked within the planet’s dry soils. After two years of exploration, ‘Curiosity’ will hopefully have answered our many pressing questions about the habitability of Mars. This could bring us closer, much closer, to planning an alternate future on the Red Planet… just in case we gas ourselves out of our own home in the solar system.

Or, you know, Bruce Willis chickens out of his mission to blow up an Earth-bound asteroid.

Meet The Red Planet! 

Planet Mars

Hey, hi, how are ya?

Astute academics such as Dr. Richard Zurek, Chief Scientist in the Mars Program Office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), have strong reason to suspect that Mars was once home to living organisms and that the Curiosity mission will indeed yield fruit. The presence of frozen water at the poles, an atmosphere that consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide, geological features that appear to have been carved and shaped by running water and a climate that is not wholly intolerable, indicate that out of all other known planets and moons in our solar system, Mars is or at least was the most accommodating of life.

What we want to know is whether we too could one day inhabit this arid red landscape… and if so, what would life on Mars be like?

Planet Profile: Mars

Mars planet

Etymology: Thanks to its blood-red colour, Mars was named by ancient civilizations after the Roman God of War.

Diameter: 6,787 kilometres

Average distance from Sun: 227,936,640 kilometres.

Rotation period (length of day): 1.026 Earth days

Orbital period (length of year): 686.98 Earth days

Menstrual period: huh?

Tilt of axis: 25° (Earth’s is approximately 23.4°)

Maximum surface temperature (tanning weather): 37°C

Minimum surface temperature (cuddle weather): -123°C

Best view from Mars: Olympus Mons, which is 27 kilometres higher than surrounding lava plains.

Atmospheric constituents: (1) 95% carbon dioxide, (2) 3% nitrogen, (3) 1.6% argon and (4) other trace gases. Methane was recently discovered there, too.

Your Martian Calendar and Climate

Because of Mars’ distance from the sun, 227,936,640 km on average, it takes quite a bit longer for it to bumble its way around the fiery focal point of our solar system. This means that a Martian year is much longer than an Earth year; approximately twice as long, in fact. There are 687 days in a year on Mars. Thanks to the planet’s tilted axis, however, there are still two primary seasons: summer and winter. This doesn’t really matter though. With average year-round temperatures of -60°C (-80°F) you’re still going to need to take a very warm jacket and maybe a pair of mittens, too. There are a few balmy days to look forward to… in summer, the mercury in Mars’ equatorial regions can actually hit 20°C (70°F), punctuated by days of a roasty toasty 37°C (98°F).

In spite of the cold, Mars is a desert planet, much like Tatooine, the one Star Wars’ Anakin Skywalker comes from… wait, hold on… did I just say that out loud? It never rains on Mars’ rust-red landscape and the only break you get in the distant and diluted sunshine is high level, coruscating congregations of ice-crystals; similar in fact to the cirrus clouds we get here on Earth. Bitterly cold winters aside, Mars would seem to be a rather affable place to settle.

Wouldn’t it?

Not always! When the horizon darkens and the wind picks up, it’s time to hit to road, Jack. Mars’ raging dust storms are the most tempestuous in the entire solar system.

Mars 2001 sandstorm NASA

In 2001, the Hubble Space Telescope captured the complete transformation of Mars as an enormous dust storm swept over the entire globe’s surface. These storms are driven by winds of up to 160 km/hr and can last weeks or even months. On the up-side, with nothing else to do other than stay inside, this would hurry along the population of Mars…

Martian Tourist Attractions

Once you get bored of admiring endless vistas of red nothingness and of tripping over the legions of sharp rocks that are ubiquitous to Mar’s dusty, empty landscape, you will need to take in a few of the planet’s more redeeming features. Thankfully, there are plenty of those. Mars offers some spectacular natural attractions that make the Grand Canyon look like a butt crack and Earth’s biggest volcano, Mauna Loa, look like a bug bite. Albeit a bad one.

Olympus Mons is Mars’ largest mountain/volcano/OMG-look-at-THAT!! At a lofty 27 kilometres (17 miles) high and an expansive 600 kilometres (372 miles) across, this megalith is three times as tall as Mount Everest, Earth’s largest mountain. It’s also the largest known volcano in the solar system.

Olympus Mons on Mars

What was once a suppurating abscess of death is now a brooding blackhead on the face of Mars’ blood-red landscape. Olympus Mons sits conspicuously in the top-right hand quadrant of this colorised topographical map of The Red Planet, from the MOLA instrument of Mars Global Surveyor.

Hasta la Vista Hangover!

Beautiful blonde in a bar

It’s happened to the best of us. You wake up in a room you don’t recognize, next to a person you don’t recognize, wearing pink floral shorts you DEFINITELY don’t recognize. Your head feels like it has an iron cannonball rolling around in it, thumping against the delicate pink tissue that lines the inside of your skull. And it tastes like a large animal – a carnivorous animal – relieved itself inside your mouth at some stage while you were asleep. If your tongue didn’t belong to you, you would spit it out.

Oh alcohol! Such a bitter-sweet, love-hate relationship we have with this hydrocarbon.

Booze gives you the gumption to chat up all the pretty birds in the bar. It makes you feel indestructible, sexy and powerful. It gives you the energy to dance for hours, with the occasional push-up set right there in the middle of the club. It sharpens your conversational skills, sense of humour, wit (pre-tequila) and confidence. Alcohol is awesome!

So then why did you wake up next to Jabba the Hutt? What is that massive red welt down the side of your face? WHY IS THAT DAMN ANT MAKING SO MUCH NOISE?! And why do you have to refer to the bottle of pills next to Jabba the Hutt’s bed to remember her name?

Lithium? What kind of name is that, anyway?

Prevent a hangover

Hangovers are NO fun. So, what can science tell us about them? Is there a way that we can enjoy our booze without the morning after banging headache, breath that could melt cement, crippling nausea, stiff joints and signed marriage papers to your cousin?

Yes! Sort of…

“I’ll Just Have One Glass and then Head Home”

two drunk friends with a bottle

Not even the prospect of the Harvard bar exam has prevented law students from uttering these famous last words. So you can be forgiven for your weakness. What we all would like to know is what you can do to prevent the hangover you KNOW you’re going to have tomorrow. Well, the best way would be to abstain from alcohol altogether.

Hahahahahaha!! Relax, I’m just kidding!

The best way to prevent a hangover is to understand what alcohol does to your body and to then mitigate this damage as best as you possibly can. Let’s examine the anatomy of a hangover, starting with this very scientific question… why does alcohol make you feel so sh*t?

The Morning After the Night Before

young drunk woman with curlers crying next to a bottle of wine

It Dehydrates

Alcohol blocks the production of anti-diuretic hormones in your kidneys. A diuretic is something that makes you want to pee. This – in addition to that entire keg of beer you just drank – is why you can’t stop going to the loo. This causes your body to dehydrate and dehydration is the root of all hangover evil. It makes you feel lethargic and gives you a banging headache.

It Skull-bashes

Alcohol expands the blood vessels in your head, while dehydration causes your brain tissue to shrink and pull away from the sides of the skull. This makes you feel like you stopped an earth-bound asteroid with your noggin.

It Irritates

Then there’s the effect alcohol has on your digestive system. Your stomach can quite easily manage a few cocktails or beers. But ten Kamikazes later, you’ll be going Kamikaze out the open window of your friend’s car. Alcohol irritates your stomach lining. To top it off, most alcoholic beverages are acidic, which combines with your own stomach acid to produce a seriously potent brew. That’s when the little gremlins in your belly hit the ‘emergency eject’ button.

It Lowers Blood Sugar

Alcohol screws around with your body’s glucose levels. Glucose is blood sugar, which is the energy your body needs to move and grows. This is why you so desperately hope you win that game of rock-scissors-paper against your flatmate so that HE is the one who has to walk to McDonalds for emergency hangover breakfast.

Pot Smoker with the Munchies

That’s what alcohol does to your body on a regular day in the office. Now… how can we STOP it?

Your Essential Hangover Kit

Every dedicated drinker should own a hangover kit. You qualify as ‘dedicated’ if you’ve done one or more of the following:

  1. Taken pictures of people you couldn’t remember meeting.
  2. Taken your shirt off in the middle of a crowded bar.
  3. Made out with your best guy friend. And you’re a dude.
  4. Had a good boo because that song the DJ played was just so beautiful!
  5. Woken up next to someone whose name you couldn’t remember.
  6. Woken up and couldn’t remember your own name.
  7. Pledged that you’re going to stop drinking for a month
  8. Reconsidered # 7 and pledged that you’re going to stop drinking for a week.
  9. Ended up congratulating yourself on not drinking for TWO WHOLE DAYS.
  10. Didn’t go to rehab when they tried to make you to. Noooo, noooo, NO!

Now that we’ve established your status, your hangover kit should consist of:

Water: A good two litre bottle of mineral water will help you rehydrate.

Electrolytes: It’s not good enough to drown your body in water. You will need to replenish all the essential minerals, salts and other goodies your body loses every time you go to the loo, which, when you’re hanging like a bat, is a lot. Stock your hangover kit with a few sachets of electrolytes and/or some sports energy drinks.

Vitamin B (or Thiamine) tablets: Trust me on this one. I have performed repeated controlled scientific experiments involving alcohol and Vitamin B. Take a tablet before you start drinking and then another one in the morning. Vitamin B helps your body to metabolize alcohol, expands your blood vessels (preventing headaches) and restores your energy levels. In other words, it’s your best friend.

Opioid painkillers or aspirinIf you can’t readily get your hands on some morphine and the caterpillar in your garden is all out of “that good shit”, then take an aspirin. It’s a big hangover no-no to take acetaminophen or paracetamol. The combination of this common subset of painkillers and alcohol is a cocktail that can do extensive liver damage. If you’re only finding this out now, don’t worry. Me too, buddy. Me too.

Catepillar Alice in Wonderland

Feed the Hangover! You won’t want to eat, but you must. Food is your divine saviour and one of the most effective ways to combat a hangover. It replaces all the goodness you spent relentlessly banging out of yourself the night before. If you’re feeling too nauseous to tolerate food, take an anti-emetic (anti-nausea) pill like Valoid or Motilium. Ginger is a natural anti-nausea remedy if you’re not keen on polluting your body with chemicals, which is an idiot way to think: where was that philosophy last night when you were hammering back the Jagermeister?

Get Up and Get Moving! You’re going to hate this one, but it’s true. There have been times I’ve been forced to get up in the moist grips of a crippling hangover and go out, usually to try find my scooter and retrieve it (God, I miss Thailand). Or to play tour guide to a visiting friend who’s too excited to see Table Mountain to nurse their hangover. Once I’ve gotten moving, however, I actually don’t feel that bad! Exercise elevates your metabolic rate and this helps your body to process alcohol and all the crap that comes in those huge cocktails you drink quicker. The injection of oxygen into your body also puts you on the fast(er) track to feeling better.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Two drunk girls making out

Scientific diagram illustrating the awesomeness of alcohol

Alcohol is an excellent social lubricant (although Durex has a pretty decent line too). But your body pretty much sees it as a poison, so you have to be careful. If you drink booze like a camel, you’re going to end up in the hospital ER, or immortalized on YouTube doing something really stupid and really embarrassing.

By understanding how alcohol affects your body’s organs and functions, we can see with greater clarity what we need to do to offset the symptoms of a hangover, or at least to alleviate their severity. Put together a hangover kit and nurse your body back to good health. You will not feel 100% – you don’t deserve to – but you may be able to scrape together a sufficient number of brain cells to write your exam without blowing chunks over the back of the student in front of you; which, when you’re really hung over, is good enough!

I’ll drink to that!

President Barack Obama enjoying beer

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Copyright © Thea Beckman 2015