Courtesy CestomanoA rare opportunity for many of us astrogeeks takes place this Sunday (May 20, 2012) when a good portion of North America will experience an annular solar eclipse. The celestial mechanics start around 7pm CDT when the Moon begins to cross in front of the face of the Sun. Because the Moon's orbit is near its apogee with the Earth (that is at its farthest distance) it will appear smaller and won’t cover the entire solar disk (as it does in a total eclipse), but instead, a ring of sunlight will remain exposed at maximum eclipse. Here in Minnesota we won’t get that effect as only 80-90 of the sun will be covered from our vantage point, but since it starts so late in the day we should be able to watch the sun set in partial eclipse, which should look kind of cool. Let’s hope the weather cooperates. The East Coast of the US won’t see the eclipse because it will start there after sunset.
It’s best not to look directly at the Sun with the naked eye during this type of eclipse as even a sliver of sunlight can cause damage, but there are ways of viewing a solar eclipse safely.
My favorite phenomena during the partial phases of a solar eclipse are the odd shadows created by the leaves of trees and bushes. Each dappled shadow is an image of the crescent sun.
Courtesy Public domainImagine you’ve been transported back in time to the Late Jurassic and you’re sitting on a gently sloping hillside watching a large herd of the gigantic sauropod dinosaurs chowing down on tons of vegetation in the valley below. What’s the one thing you might need to worry about? The herd of sauropods suddenly stampeding the hillside? A truck-sized carnivore eyeing you from the shadows? Tiny burrowing mammals gnawing at your ankles? While all these scenarios would have been possible, the most likely worry would probably be (if you’re downwind anyway) getting inundated by a warm blast of dinosaur farts.
That’s right, dinosaur flatulence - tons of it - wafting over you like a huge, stinky old blanket. Ewww.
Researchers from Liverpool John Moore's University, the University of London, and the University of Glasgow have calculated that herds of sauropods, those tiny-headed ,long-necked, long-tailed herbivorous dinosaurs that populated the Jurassic landscape about 150 million years ago, would have been eating a lot of vegetation during their lifetimes and in the process releasing a tremendous amount of methane gas from their guts and into the Earth’s atmosphere. That's a lot of cheese-cutting.
In fact, writing in the journal Current Biology, Dr. David Wilkinson and his colleagues claimed that the amount of emission of methane just from the herbivorous dinosaur gassers would have been about the same amount being emitted from all sources today - 500-520 million tons each year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that can absorb the sun’s infrared energy, and heat up the atmosphere. The producers of methane today range from ruminant species such as cows, goats, and sheep, and from human activities such as natural gas drilling, but the effects on the environment could be similar – a warming of the atmosphere. Back in the Mesozoic, average temperatures were about 18 °F higher than today. Wilkinson and his colleagues suggest the dinosaur backfires could have been a big factor in the warming of the prehistoric environment, but admit it wouldn't have been the only source of the gas back then.
"There were other sources of methane in the Mesozoic so total methane level would probably have been much higher than now," Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson’s research interest lays not so much in the sauropods themselves but in the microscopic bacteria that once lined their guts. It was these microbes that converted the vegetable matter into energy and waste, including methane. Could that vast SBD Mesozoic methane source, as the researchers suggest, have been a big contributor to the warmer temperatures back then? Possibly. Or maybe it's just a lot of hot air.
BBC Nature News
Courtesy Blue MarbleIt isn’t good to confuse great-grandparents. For one, they’re often dead, and confusing them involves meddling in forces that are best be left alone. Or, in the case that they aren’t dead, they’ve had a busy life parenting, grand-parenting, and great-grand-parenting, and they deserve a little more from you than a bunch of confusing jibber-jabber about meteorites, or whatever you just said.
So if your great-grandparents are still alive (not dead), please do them a favor, and just make something up as you pretend to read the rest of this post out loud to them. Their side of the 20th century probably did not equip them for this sort of thing:
Asteroid mining! After thousands of years of scratching through the dirt, wearing our finger bones to stumps in near-futile attempts to uncover the shiniest bits of gravel, humanity will finally ascend to the stars, and scratch through the dirt of asteroids in the noble effort to find the shiniest astro-gravel. And it will make us richer than our wildest dreams!
Or it will make the billionaires behind the project as rich as their everyday dreams.
Here’s the story: a bunch of billionaires and their spunky sidekick, James Cameron (who is a film director, and worth only about 700 million dollars—practically destitute), looked out over their Earth and wept, because there was nowhere left to conquer. It was maybe the worst Unicorn Polo Sunday ever. But then James Cameron, lying on his back after slipping on a banana peel (that’s sort of his role in the group), looked up at the sky and said, “Hey, gang! I have an idea! Maybe there’s more up there for us!”
Well, the members of the Billionaires’ Club would like to say that they took lil’ Jim’s suggestion there and then, but, frankly, they had heard a lot of nonsense out of his pinched little mouth over the years, and they had long ago learned to tune him out. (Xenomorph this, Titanic that, look at my submarine, what about another killer robot, what has my ex wife done that’s so special?—they had heard it all before.)
But at some point Cameron’s seemingly childish remark filtered its way through the buzz of billionaire preoccupations (stocking up on mansion wax, plans to swim Scrooge McDuck style through gold coins, and which would be the best ocean to buy) and lodged itself in the billionaires’ minds, where it incubated, hatched, and chewed its way deeper into their brain tissue.
And thus Planetary Resources was born. With a group of billionaires behind it (including Larry Page, CEO of Google, power of earth; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, power of fire; Charles Simonyi, Microsoft guy, power of water; and Ross Perot Junior, son of diminutive former presidential candidate, power of heart) and James Cameron as an advisor (because he has made at least two movies about space, and has been in a submarine), Planetary Resources plans to scan thousands of near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and water, and then send robotic probes to pull the asteroids into a convenient location, and then smash them up for their goods.
Why? For a few reasons. Partly because it’s awesome, and you need to be super rich to do it, and they’re exactly that rich. But also because lots of these asteroids are full of precious, useful metals—billions and billions of dollars worth in even small asteroids. And asteroids with lots of ice in them could basically be turned into gas stations for spaceships. Water is pretty easily split into hydrogen and oxygen, which we can use for rocket fuel, and having fuel waiting in space is way, way, way cheaper than bringing it there from Earth. So making fuel available in space could potentially lower the cost of exploring our solar system quite a bit.
The plan is to launch a fleet of (relatively) cheap asteroid-scanning telescopes some time in the next two or three years to identify near-Earth objects that both contain enough valuable materials, and are near enough to Earth (the hope being that they would be as easy or easier to reach than the moon). In the next decade, or somewhere in that neighborhood anyway, larger spacecraft would be launched that could capture the asteroids. Harvested materials could then be processed in space, or sent back to the planet. All operations would be unmanned, as having human pilots or minors would make everything significantly more expensive and risky.
In the week or so since the Planetary Resources made their announcement, it seems like most of the professional reactions I’ve read have treated the plan pretty seriously—while it requires a large investment, it’s not unrealistic.
I have to admit, it’s kind of an exciting plan. And it will keep the billionaires occupied for a little bit, which is good. Because we all know what happens when a billionaire gets bored.
(It didn’t make sense to me either. You think your great-grandparents are going to get it?)
Courtesy National Center for Ecological Analysis and SynthesisOne of the great extinctions in Earth history occurred 252 million years ago when about 95 percent of all marine species went extinct. The cause or causes of the Great Dying have long been a subject of much scientific interest.
Now careful analyses of fossils by scientists at Stanford and the University of California, Santa Crux offer evidence that marine animals throughout the ocean died from a combination of factors – a lack of dissolved oxygen, increased ocean acidity and higher water temperatures. What happened to so dramatically stress marine life everywhere?
Geochemical and fossil evidence points to a dramatic rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which in caused a rapid warming of the planet and resulted in large amounts of carbon dioxide dissolving into the ocean and reacting with water to produce carbonic acid, increasing ocean acidity. The top candidate for all this carbon dioxide? – huge volcanic eruptions over thousands of years in what is now northern Russia.
Why should the Great Dying be of more than just academic interest? Humans currently release far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than volcanoes and we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate that greatly exceeds that believed to have occurred 252 million years ago. The future of Earth’s oceans will be determined by human decision making, either by default or by design. What do we want our future ocean to be?
Courtesy Science Museum of MinnesotaA few weeks ago I attended the Beaker & Brush Discussion in St. Paul, a public event about the intersection of science and art put on by the Science Museum of Minnesota the second Tuesday of each month. April’s topic was titled "Why We Collect", a discussion about why we as a society and as individuals like to collect things. Museum staff members were on hand to relate the museum's and their personal perspectives on the nuts and bolts of collecting. The subject particularly interested me because ever since I was a kid, I’ve collected stuff. Things like rocks and fossils, silent movie posters, space memorabilia, historic Duluth material, and early paleontology ephemera – I’ve collected them all. Lately it’s been dinosaur-related postcards. I got interested in collecting those because I designed some dinosaur postcards sold here at the museum gift shop, which, you know, I think is kind of cool. I like how it connects me to the long history of dinosaur postcards, which goes back quite a while. The two oldest cards in my collection date back before 1910. Both are related to industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s namesake dinosaur, Diplodocus carnegiei, which he had spared no expense extracting from the High Plains of Wyoming for his museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie was so proud of his collection of bones that he had several mounted casts of the great sauropod created that he presented to heads of state in many countries around the world.
Courtesy Mark Ryan collectionThis brings me to a recent postcard I saw on eBay from the Field Museum of Natural History. The card showed a sepia-toned reproduction of one of paleo-artist Charles R. Knight’s murals. Knight was (and still is) a highly regarded natural history artist known for his exceptional talent at bringing long-extinct animals to life in his fantastic paintings. This one showed flying and swimming reptiles in the Cretaceous sea that once extended across the middle of the North American continent. Knight created the original painting (along with 28 others) between 1926 and 1930 for the Field Museum exhibits in Chicago, where they can still be seen today. A color reproduction of the same painting portrayed in the postcard also sets beneath the mosasaur skeleton seen at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Knight, by the way, was my grandmother’s maiden name. She was born in London, as was Charles Knight’s father, so I like to think that somewhere in the past, we might share a family connection.
Courtesy Mark Ryan CollectionBut beyond that, I like Knight’s images and have several in my collection, so even though this postcard wasn’t actually of dinosaurs per se (dinosaurs didn’t fly or live in water), I considered bidding on it. But what clinched it for me was the address on back of the postcard. The reverse side, which the seller included in his listing, displayed a 1932 postmark and was addressed to Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt at 640 Fifth Avenue in New York City, an address with which I happened to be familiar.
Let me explain the connection.
Courtesy Mark RyanA couple summers ago, we went to visit my son, who at the time was living in upstate New York. He and his girlfriend were living in Barryville, a small hamlet in the Catskills on the Delaware River about 100 miles northwest of New York City. They were renting a place for the summer with another couple on an old farm and quarry once owned by a man named Hickok. The site contained three residences, two for rental and another used by the property owners. It was a very quaint and idyllic setting, surrounded by woods, with the three buildings close together on the property and set before a steep wall of quarry rock where a small waterfall tumbled over one corner.
The rock in the quarry, I discovered, was primarily sandstone (or more precisely a feldspathic greywacke) of Devonian age, and the largest bedrock unit of the Catskill formation. Deposited in a delta environment during the Acadian orogeny (ancestral Appalachians Mountains) about 360 million years ago, it’s essentially the same rock that underlies the Pocono Mountains to the south in Pennsylvania. The rock unit was first quarried in Ulster County, New York and became known as bluestone because of its color at that location but the stone can come in several hues – in Barryville it’s red. Over the years, the rock has been heavily quarried as an architectural and building stone because of its durability, resistance to weathering, and how easily it splits into slabs. Today, the term “bluestone” is a commercial designation rather than geological and can include many kinds of rock used for building.
One evening the owners related to me how some of the rock quarried behind their house had been used to pave the sidewalks of New York City, and in fact back in the late 19th century, the house they lived in had been moved several yards toward the river so quarrymen could get at one very large, continuous slab of rock. Once removed, the single slab was shipped by barge over the Delaware & Hudson Canal and down to NYC for placement in front of the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue. The Vanderbilt name is practically synonymous with “filthy rich”, at least back then during the Gilded Age. I enjoy history and geology so the story intrigued me, and later that evening I went online to see what I could find out about the story.
Courtesy Public domainIt didn’t take long at all to come across this 1881 clipping in the New York Times archives that describes, in detail, getting the massive 25-foot rock from Barryville to NYC and placed in front of the William H. Vanderbilt mansion being built on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets in Manhattan. If by now you guessed that the address was 640 Fifth Avenue, you’d be right (actually William H. Vanderbilt built two identical mansions at the same time on the block, one for himself - the 640 address - and another at 642 Fifth Avenue that was divided into two residences for his two daughters and their families).
Courtesy Public domain via WikipediaWilliam Vanderbilt’s father, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, had amassed the family fortune via shipping and railroad interests in the mid-1800s, rocketing the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts to the very stratospheric top layer of the socio-economic heap. To put their vast wealth in perspective compare the Commodore’s $100,000,000 (an inheritance that William Vanderbilt doubled) to the guys who led the mules that pulled the canal barge transporting William’s monster sidewalk slab. They’d have to walk 15-20 miles a day, tend to the mules, and pump out the barges – all for about $3 a month! Even the other wealthy families of the time (i.e. Astors and Carnegies) paled in comparison to the House of Vanderbilt. The extended Vanderbilt clan owned several properties along Fifth Avenue but William Vanderbilt’s Triple Palaces, as they were also known, would be the finest along Vanderbilt Row.
Courtesy Public domainFor nearly two years, six hundred laborers (including 60 sculptors and artisans from Europe) toiled on William H. Vanderbilt’s 640 residence, creating a brownstone behemoth which he filled with extreme opulence, including over 200 original pieces of art now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to a book about the mansion published privately by Vanderbilt, everything inside "sparkles and flashes with gold and color...with mother-of-pearl, with marble, with jewel effects in glass...and every surface is covered, one might say weighted, with ornament." The gigantic five-story oblong pile of stone and marble contained seventy rooms - “most of them huge” - and 33 bathrooms. Many of the dozens of servants lived on site, maids on the 5th floor and attic, manservants in the sub-basement. One employee’s only job was to keep the building’s furnaces stoked with coal.
Courtesy Public domainWhen he died in 1885, William H. Vanderbilt was the richest man in the world (at a time when the US had no income tax!). The mansion at 640 was willed to his brother, George Vanderbilt (who also built a giant 125,000 acre estate in Ashville, North Carolina, called Biltmore), and when George died in 1914, the huge house with the pavement stone from Barryville passed down to Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, the postcard’s addressee.
Courtesy Public domainGrace Wilson Vanderbilt was the darling of European royalty, and for many years New York’s leading socialite. Her marriage to Cornelius III caused him to be disinherited by his father (Cornelius II) and ostracized by many of the other Vanderbilts. (When his father died, rather than getting $60-$70 million, Cornelius III (nicknamed Neily), inherited only half a million dollars plus income from a million dollar trust fund. His brother Alfred threw another $7 million his way to somewhat even the score). Grace’s own father, Richard T. Wilson, was a New York banker of great wealth and close friends with Andrew Carnegie, but the Vanderbilts, for whatever reason, considered her a social climber. Despite the family animosity, Grace managed to make herself the Mrs. Vanderbilt, the family’s last grand dame of the social set. (An article in the November, 1905 Munsey’s Magazine stated Grace had attained her social status by learning “the art of success scientifically, from approved models” – meaning all the European royalty she met as a young girl). During her reign, Grace hosted huge dinner parties, usually twice a week, and even larger, lavish balls for a thousand guests (I guess this is when having 33 bathrooms comes in handy). She once claimed to have entertained 37,000 guests in a single year. Neily wasn’t as interested in his wife’s social activities. As a boy he longed to be a scientist, and graduated from Yale a mechanical engineer. He was also an expert sailor and career military man. When he wasn’t yachting or soldiering he’d spend his time creating various railroad improvement devices for which he owned several patents, or co-founding businesses like the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), New York’s very first subway system.
Courtesy Mark Ryan CollectionSo back to the postcard. The fact it had been addressed to the Vanderbilt mansion where the big sidewalk slab from the Barryville quarry ended up was enough to make it desirable to me, so I bid on it and won it. While waiting for its arrival in the mail, I looked more closely to the card’s inscription: a social regret and thank you for a box of candy to Grace signed simply “Eleanor”. This intrigued me, and investigating it further, I eventually came to the realization that the writer was Eleanor Roosevelt.
Courtesy LIbrary of Congress At the time her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt (we share birthdays!) would have been governor of New York, and within 8 months become the president-elect of the United States. Now that was something. The card was cancelled with a St. Paul & Williston RPO postmark (railroad post office – my grandfather worked the Chicago-St. Paul leg). Eleanor could very well have been west visiting her nephew, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. at the Field Museum. Like his father, TR - the former president - Teddy Jr. was a naturalist and explorer. Perhaps Eleanor was in Chicago to attend a memorial service for William V. Kelley who had fully financed her nephew’s 1929 Asian expeditions (Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition) for the natural history museum. Kelley had just died days before the postmark date.
Grace Vanderbilt was close friends with Alice Roosevelt, TR’s daughter, and Teddy, Jr’s half-sister, and obviously knew Eleanor, although, later, she and Neily would be vocal opponents of FDR and his New Deal recovery program, which they thought were socialistic. Sounds familiar, does it not? (Neily even called the president a traitor to his class). Of course the Great Depression had little effect on the Vanderbilts or their friends. The House of Vanderbilt’s range was widespread. Besides the Fifth Avenue mansions (and a boatload of private yachts), family members owned several summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island (e.g The Breakers, Marble House, and Grace and Neily’s Beaulieu. At Hyde Park, New York, a Vanderbilt mansion combines withFDR’s birthplace, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s getaway Val-Kill, to form the National Park Service’s Vanderbilt-Roosevelt National Historic sites. .
So, why do people collect things? According to this informative site, it can be for a number of reasons. Personally, I think I do it for several of the reasons listed: it connects me with memories of my youth or to some place I’ve visited, or just hooks me in with something that fascinates me. I know when I’m in the heat of my obsession - whatever that may be at the time, I find it difficult to part with any of my collection. Sometimes I’ll sell a lesser item to acquire something better, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. At some point my interest flags and I sell or give away most of the collection and move on to something else. But I find no matter what I collect, it often triggers an intense desire in me to find out as much as I can about it. Like this Vanderbilt postcard. Because of one silly postcard and a giant slab of sandstone, all these odd historical, geological, architectural, political, and socioeconomic connections have been brought together here. It makes for a good story anyway.
Courtesy Public domain via WikipediaI’ll end with one last anecdote. With all the interest this month with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, there’s a Vanderbilt connection to it. In April of 1912, George Vanderbilt and his wife – the second owners of the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion - were in Europe and had booked passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. But George’s mother-in-law expressed a very strong premonition and convinced them to make other plans. Lots can go wrong on maiden voyages, she said. Lucky for them, they followed her advice and removed their luggage from the doomed liner and made the trip back on its sister ship RMS Olympic instead. George’s footman, Frederic Wheeler, however wasn’t as lucky. Wheeler remained on the Titanic and perished in the disaster.
Queen of the Golden Age by Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, McGraw-Hill, 1956
Beetlehead’s 640 Fifth Avenue (excellent blog)
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Munsey’s Magazine, Nov. 1905
Vanderbilt home and info on Flickr
Courtesy NASAI am adding a’s to the end of words to make them sound a little like “NASA.” Try it. It’s funa.
Anywaya, I thought I’d run a little idea I had by y’all.
I got trash. Who doesn’t? You use stuff, you make trash, and it just piles up. Under your couch, in the freezer, on top of the cat … what are you supposed to do with it? Put it on the curb? I guess, but what’s exciting and easy about that? So, my idea—which I got from the world’s various space agencies—is to take my trasha up to the roofa of my apartment building (three stories!!) and just drop it. If I’m at all accurate in my understanding of acceleration and atmospheric friction, all those Sears catalogues, plastic cups, and mouse skeletons should burn up before they hit the ground.
I mean, it’s what NASA, the European Space Agency and all of their ilk do, and it seems to work for them. Take the ESA’s recently launched ATV-3 (Automated Transfer Vehicle-3). The large, unmanned space capsule will deliver about 7 tons of cargo to the International Space Station (a few hundred pounds of food, water and oxygen, and about 6.5 tons of candy), stay docked for 4 to 6 month while the astronauts use it like a missing roommate’s walk-in closet, and then, once it’s completely full of trash, it will detach, fall towards Earth, and incinerate in the atmosphere. Easy peasy. Easya peasya.
Despite it being what I think is an elegant solutiona to waste accumulationa, there are plenty of folks out there, who may or may not be smarter than hundreds of NASA systems engineers, that believe this proves that astronauts are the worst recyclers ever. To this, I have three things to say:
1) You’re no fun.
2) Think about the fuel it takes to get those tons of junk into space. You’re worried about the waste that happens after that?
3) Wrong! In a lot of respects, astronauts on the ISS are the best recyclers in the histories of re and cycling.
See, here’s the thing about #3: astronauts may dump their candy wrappers, dead pets, banana peels and old undies (JK, they wear those undies for months) into a fiery and unforgiving atmosphere, but there’s a lot of stuff that they re-use again and again that you’d never even think of. Air, for one. And water.
When you’re breathing, farting, sweating and peeing for months on end in an airtight box floating in space, and a fresh glass of water costs between $10,000 and $15,000 for delivery, you have to be clever.
And the engineers of the ISS are clever! Consider the Environmental Control and Life Support System. Astronauts, like most of us, breath out poisonous carbon dioxide, fart out poisonous methane and sweat out poisonous ammonia. ECLSS filters out all of that to produce fresh air again. The system also splits water molecules apart to create breathable oxygen, and reclaims moisture from urine and other waist to produce more water for drinking (or ultimately breathing). I don’t know about you, but I rarely save my farts, sweat, breath and urine, much less reuse them.
All things considered, I think the ISS has a pretty sweet setup figured out. A two hundred and fifty mile trash drop-n-burn (awesome), and a system that can recycle pretty much anything that comes out of your body (also awesome). The rest of us should be so luckya.
Courtesy Wikipedia CommonsSkeptics of human-induced climate change have long pointed to a lag between an increase in temperature and a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide at the end of the last Ice Age as suggesting that carbon dioxide is an effect of rising temperatures, not a cause. This lag, however, was based on evidence from only one place on Earth - ice core records from Antarctica.
A much more extensive study of paleo-temperature records from 80 sites around the world just published in Nature reveals that global temperature increases followed rises in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas that can drive climate change. This study greatly substantiates climate scientists who point out that the enormous quantities of carbon dioxide that human activities are putting into the atmosphere will result in dramatic changes in global climate if they are not curtailed.
Courtesy Photo by Zang Hailong (via Nature)A huge one-and-a-half ton theropod discovered recently in China is further shaking up our old ideas of dinosaurs being oversized scaly lizards. The fossilized remains of Yutyrannus huali, a 130 million year-old tyrannosaur uncovered in the Liaoning fossil beds show evidence of a fuzzy coating of feathers on several areas, e.g. the tail, hip, foot, neck and arm. Yutyrannus huali is a distant relative of Tyrannosaurus rex(there is some contention about this) which didn’t evolve until much later in the Cretaceous period. Evidence of feathers has been found on smaller dinosaurs including the basal tyrannosauroid Dilong but these are the first clues that larger dinosaurs had feathers. Three nearly complete and well-articulated skeletons of Y. huali - an adult and two juveniles were found in the Lower Cretaceous Yixian Formation of Liaoning Province in northeast China. The adult is quite large, being nearly 30 feet in length and estimated to have weighed in life around 3000 pounds! The two juveniles weighed around 1200 pounds. All show evidence of having filamentous feather. Large animals today, such as elephants, rhinos, and hippos are somewhat hairless and tend not to need insulation for retaining heat because of their size and the ratio of surface area of skin to their masses. Whether Yutyrannus huali’s well-known descendent Tyrannosaurus rex had any plumage remains a mystery. T. rex was six times as massive as its ancestor, and arrived on the scene 60 million years later in the Late Cretaceous when the climate was warmer. But all it takes to change that is some new fossil to come to light. Generally, it’s thought that feathers first appeared as a means of insulation, species identification, or for attracting mates long before they evolved for use in flight. Today, birds are considered the descendents of small theropods dinosaurs called dromeosaurids. The discovery of Yutyrannus huali adds new clues and additional mystery to our conception of how dinosaurs appeared in life. The new study by Chinese vertebrate paleontologist Xu Xing and his co-researchers appears in the science journal Nature.
Courtesy CECAR - Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation R (adapted by Mark Ryan)Several months back there was a lot of hoopla revolving around the so-called "Climategate" scandal. Climate scientists' emails were hacked, posted online and taken out of context as they were disseminated around the internet and through the news channels. Some researchers were charged with manipulating climate data to bolster their own point of view, and indignant investigations were launched against them. As the story fermented in the media, the blogosphere, and political circles, it grew into an over-inflated bag of hot-air. But, eventually, the truth prevailed, and those accused were exonerated by the facts. Michael Mann, a climate change researcher at Pennsylvania State University, was one of key figures in the "scandal", and has written (both here and in a new book) about his experience dealing with the kind of smear campaign that was hurled his way. He terms it the "scientization" of politics. It's involves some of same anti-science tactics used by the tobacco industry and creationists: mainly to cast doubt on the facts, and fabricate controversy where there is none.
Courtesy Mark RyanLast October, I attended the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting held here in Minneapolis. The convention presented plenty of opportunities to hear the latest ideas in geology, paleontology, and planetary science but the highlight for me was being able to join a GSA field trip on Lake Superior aboard the research vessel, the Blue Heron.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe 86-foot vessel is owned by the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) and operated by the Large Lakes Observatory (LLO), an organization created in 1994 for investigating the geochemical and geophysical properties of large lakes, and their global impact. To accomplish this research, the LLO required a worthy vessel for limnological research, and the Blue Heron was purchased just three years later.
The vessel docks at the Corps of Engineers Vessel Yard on Park Point (aka Minnesota Point), a natural sand bar separating Duluth’s harbor basin from Lake Superior. The ten-mile spit was created by the lake’s wave action on material deposited by the St. Louis river, and is supposedly the largest freshwater sand bar in the world. Field trip leaders Doug Ricketts, the marine superintendent at LLO, and Charlie Matsch, professor emeritus of geology at UMD, greeted arriving participants and divided us into two groups. While one group spent the morning on Lake Superior, the other visited geological highlights in the Duluth area with professor Matsch. In the afternoon the groups switched places.
I joined the morning shift on the lake with a dozen geologists made up of GSA attendees from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and City University of New York. Besides Doug Ricketts and the ship’s five crew members, regents professor Tom Johnson, and the director of the LLO, professor Steve Colman, were also on hand to help demonstrate and explain the Blue Heron’s research capabilities.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
Courtesy Mark RyanWe shoved off right on schedule, heading across the harbor toward the Superior entrance on the Wisconsin end of the sand bar. The crew spent this time going over the ship’s safety rules - how to descend ladders, which alarms meant what, how to communicate with the bridge - that sort of thing. We then made a quick tour of the facilities. The Blue Heron is equipped with a wet lab on the open deck and two dry labs inside, and all sorts of data gathering equipment for geophysical, geochemical, and biological sampling. These include multibeam sonar for profiling the lake bottom and sub-bottom, several coring instruments for collecting sediment samples, and water samplers able to collect at various depth levels in the water column while also measuring such things as temperature, depth, pH levels, and conductivity. There’s gear for tracking lake currents, and plankton nets and a trawl for gathering biological data. Inside, both above and below deck, computers record, display and analyze the gathered data. Many of the off-ship instruments can be monitored and controlled on-board from computer consoles.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe R/V Blue Heron is outfitted to carry five crew members and six researchers and can stay on the lake, around the clock, for 21 days between port calls. It’s used mainly on Lake Superior, the largest and least studied of the Great Lakes. Shipboard amenities are sparse (there’s no television or DVD) but include eleven bunks, a full galley for food preparation, dining table, shower, and of course, the "head", or as you landlubbers like to call it, the toilet. Internet service is sometimes available when the vessel is near shore.
Courtesy Mark RyanUpon entering Lake Superior, the crew set to work demonstrating some of the vessel’s science gear, which is pretty much the same kind of instrumentation used in oceanographic research. Just beyond the Superior entrance, the EchoTech CHIRP/sidescan sonar tow fish was lowered from the Blue Heron’s stern. This bright yellow instrument is towed underwater behind the vessel as it makes several passes over the lake bed, and able to gather hydrographic and bathymetric data. One function is to send out an intermittent, low frequency “chirp” pulse that can penetrate the sub-bottom and record changes in its geophysical properties. The sonar data is processed using on-deck computers.The first demonstration was a scan of the underwater channel of the Nemadji River, a Wisconsin tributary to the lake. The mouth of the Nemadji has been drowned by a process called post-glacial rebound or more scientifically, differential isostatic rebound. During the last ice age, a mile thick sheet of ice covered the region and placed enormous pressure on the earth’s crust, depressing it downward. As the glaciers retreated, that enormous weight was gradually removed, and the lake basin began to rebound (a process still going on today). But the northern and eastern ends of Lake Superior basin are rebounding at a faster rate, tilting the water southward and to the west and subsequently flooding those areas of the shoreline.
Courtesy Mark RyanAs the submerged tow fish was doing its stuff, we all gathered at a couple workstations in the lower deck dry lab to watch as images appeared on the computer screens. In one, you could plainly see the distinct profile of the Nemadji’s drowned riverbanks.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe other monitor displayed bathymetric information being picked up by the duel frequency sidescan sonar. Printouts of the lakebed topography, created from a mosaic of stitched-together scans, were laid out on a worktable with several charts and maps.
Courtesy Mark RyanFor the next demonstrations, the Blue Heron moved out several miles onto the big lake. We’d all been warned of the lake’s fickle weather, and told to bring proper attire, just in case. Having been raised in Duluth, I was well acquainted with Superior’s moodiness, especially in autumn, so I brought along rain gear, a jacket, and an extra sweatshirt, expecting the worst. But I was most comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt. Cloud cover was sporadic, and while the water temperature was only around 49 degrees, the air temperature hovered in the mid to upper 70s during the entire excursion. We couldn’t have hoped for a nicer day; a perfect Duluth day, as we used to call them.
While some of the group watched the crew prepare for the next presentation, others enjoyed lunch (sandwich, chips, fruit and a cookie) at the galley dining table. During my lunch break Tom Johnson told me the story of how the university came to own the research vessel. In her previous life, the Blue Heron was known as the Fairtry a commercial fishing trawler that fished the Grand Banks in the northwest Atlantic (like the Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm). UMD purchased it in 1997 and Tom sailed it from Portland, Maine, through the St. Lawrence Seaway and across the Great Lakes to Duluth. Despite some minor engine problems at the start, he said it was a fantastic two-and-a-half week trip. Over the next winter, the Fairtry was converted into a limnological research vessel and re-christened the Blue Heron.
Courtesy Mark RyanMeanwhile, out on the back deck, the crew was ready to launch the next instrument, a carousel of canisters called Niskin bottles used for sampling the water column.
Courtesy Mark RyanThis device is lowered into the lake and controlled remotely from the deck, and can collect samples at various depths into any one of its dozen canisters. It can also measure temperature, conductivity, pH balance, transparency, dissolved oxygen levels and other tests. After deployment, marine technician, Jason Agnich, sat at a computer workstation just inside the hatch, and easily controlled the carousel with a joystick while monitoring its progress on a couple electronic displays.
Courtesy Mark RyanWe moved a little farther down lake where two coring instruments, a spider-framed multi-corer, and an arrow-like gravity corer were put into action. The first can collect several shallow core samples by lowering it by winch to the lakebed, while the latter is dropped like a giant dart deep into the sub-bottom sediment for one large core.
Courtesy Mark RyanAfter each was raised back to the surface, the collected core samples were removed from their tubing and laid out on the wet lab table for study. We all huddled around the workbench as each core was cut open with a knife so participants could take a closer look. The sediment cores were composed of a densely packed fine-grained mucky silt as brown as milk chocolate, and appeared more appropriate for a scatological study than a geological one, to me anyway. But that didn’t stop some of us from taking home a small plastic bag of it as a souvenir.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
Courtesy Mark RyanAs we made our way back toward the harbor, I stood at the starboard rail and took in the beautiful autumn colors lighting up the lake’s distant North Shore. We were three, maybe four miles offshore but I was able to pick out my old stomping grounds in Duluth’s east end. The old neighborhood – like much of the city - was built up on terraces formed by past shoreline configurations of prehistoric Lake Superior. Duluth’s Skyline Parkway, a boulevard that skirts the hilltop across the length of the city was built on an old gravel beach line of Glacial Lake Duluth when the water surface was nearly five hundred feet above its present level. The bridge over the mouth of the Lester River was just barely discernible from where I stood but it was easy to spot the large swath of dark pine forest that encompassed Lester Park and Amity creek (the western branch of Lester river) where my friends and I used to hang out. It’s also where Charlie Matsch would guide our group later in the afternoon. He brought us there to examine the Deeps, my favorite old swimming hole carved out of the massive basalt flows that extruded from what’s now the center of Lake Superior during the Mid-continental rifting event that took place nearly a billion years ago.
Courtesy Mark RyanWe returned to port through the Duluth entrance, and as we entered the canal captain Mike King announced our arrival with a blast of the Blue Heron’s air horn. Duluth’s landmark Aerial-Lift Bridge, already raised for our return entry, responded in kind with a shrill loud blast of its own. Tourists lining the pier called out and waved as we passed the old lighthouse and rolled toward the harbor. We all waved back and I have to say it was kind of a thrill, for me anyway, after having participated in the same ritual, oh probably a hundred times in the past but always from the pier not from a vessel.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe Blue Heron swung in through the harbor, and soon we were back at port where we started at the Corps of Engineers Vessel Yard. Charlie Matsch was there to greet us and take for the second leg of the field trip.
Charlie took us first up the hillside to the rocky knob near the landmark memorial Enger Tower where he showed us some interesting exposures of gabbro, an intrusive rock common to the geological formation known as the Duluth Complex. Much of the bluffs west of downtown Duluth are composed of this dark, course-grained mafic rock. Now, I admit I enjoy a geological outcrop as much as the next guy (especially when a real geologist is explaining it), but it was the sweeping view from the hilltop that drew my attention.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe lake and harbor and much of the St. Louis river bay stretched out below us in an array of vivid blues contrasting with the bright reds and golds of autumn. On one side of the harbor, bridges, railroads, and structures of industry jutted out on Rice's Point toward Wisconsin, paralleled on the other side by the slender ribbon of Park Point. As I took in this grand vista, a small, barely discernible bluish blur of movement caught my eye. There, cutting through the harbor, the Blue Heron headed southward toward the Superior entrance for another run on the great lake.