Guest video: J. William Dawson, Time Traveler


J. William Dawson and the plants and animals of the Carboniferous age.

J. William Dawson and the plants and animals of the Carboniferous age.

Believe it or not, Steven Spielberg did not invent the word “paleobotany.” People have made a science out of the study of fossilized plants since the 19th century, thanks in part to Canadian John William Dawson.

He had studied under the famous British geologist Charles Lyell, who sometimes accompanied Dawson into the field. In fact, Lyell was with him when Dawson found fossils of the earliest known reptile, which Dawson christened Hylonomus lyelli.

Like many early geologists, Dawson’s first “day job” (in his case, as an educator) gave him an excuse for traveling and geologizing. He eventually became a geology professor and principal at McGill University and also did paleobotanical research for Canada’s geological survey. His reputation grew. First a fellow of the British Royal Society, he was appointed the first president of the brand-new Royal Society of Canada.

Sir William Dawson was human and so wasn’t always right. He didn’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance. And he stirred up one of the biggest controversies of 19th century earth science when he mistakenly identified a structure in metamorphic rock as a fossil.

On the whole, though, we owe thanks to this man, whom the Dictionary of Canadian Biography calls a “geologist, palaeontologist, author, educator, office holder, publisher, and editor,” for opening our eyes to the wonders of the Carboniferous world during the Age of Coal, some 300-400 million years ago.

The Gold and Emeralds of Ancient Egypt

Some 5,000 years ago, ancient Egypt civilization began to take shape in the Nile River’s floodplain. These natural geologists and artisans not only made massive structures. They also fashioned intricate jewelry to wear both here and in the afterworld.

They especially loved gold. It was plentiful in the eastern desert, and archaeologists have discovered many entombed treasures.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Cleopatra’s emerald mines are also famous, but diggers have unearthed relatively little ancient Egyptian emerald jewelry.

Emeralds are abundant in Egypt, again, in the eastern desert, but it was mostly the Romans and Byzantines who mined them, not the pharaohs.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So why are there gold and emeralds in the desert east of the Nile? It’s a very violent, action-packed tale, believe it or not.
Continue reading

The Sun



Never we know but in sleet and in snow,

The place where the great fires are,

That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth

And the heart of the earth a star.

— G. K. Chesterton, “A Child of the Snows”

Well, it is pretty hot in the Earth’s core, but there is a real star in our skies every day.

Mankind’s names for it vary across the inhabited lands of Earth.

In Mandarin, it’s called Tàiyáng, and in Japanese Taiyō. In Arabic, they call this star Al-Shams, while in Swahili it is Jua.

In the West, ancient Romans called it Sol. The Germanic tribes who fought them called it a name that has come down to us in English as the Sun.

We take the Sun – a G-type main-sequence star – for granted.

What if it disappeared?

Yeah, bad news for you and me.

That video explores a little bit of the Sun-Earth connection, but what exactly is the Sun? What’s going to happen to it, and us, in the future?
Continue reading

Luna Leopold


Luna Leopold doing field work in Idaho.  USGS

Luna Leopold doing field work in Idaho. USGS

Water shapes the desert landscape. This seems strange until you’ve stood in a New Mexico downpour, watching the impact of big raindrops on boulders and cliffs and getting out of the way as muddy floodwaters rage through the nearest arroyo.

Luna Leopold probably recognized the power and importance of water early on, during his childhood in Albquerque, New Mexico, early in the 20th century. As a meteorologist, engineer, and geologist, he went on to pioneer the scientific study of water’s effects on landscapes everywhere and became a champion of the movement to protect rivers and other bodies of water.
Continue reading

Guest video: Iceland’s Laki Volcano 1783

Today, volcanic eruptions are spectator sports…whee!

The volume of lava poured out by Bardarbunga volcano’s ongoing eruption just surpassed that of all other effusive eruptions in Iceland since the eruption of Laki Volcano in 1783-1784. Bardarbunga is tiny in comparison to Laki, though.

It’s difficult for us to understand just how huge and how devastating that eruption was for Iceland and the rest of the world.

Fortunately, we aren’t facing the same risk today from Bardarbunga.

Here are two short videos the BBC posted from its Timewatch episode on Laki. Check out this source for more details on that eruption, too.