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Ancient Artifacts, Modern Jobs

This is just a quick post, but if you’ve got time you should check out Rebecca Onion’s latest piece on Slate. She’s got beautiful images from the exhibit “Our Work: Modern Jobs—Ancient Origins,” at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.

People from a Richard Scarry assortment of professions (taxi driver, police officer, realtor, etc) are posed with ancient artifacts that represent or have some connection to their job. I think my favorite is the nail technician posing with an 4,444 year old Egyptian relief from the tomb of the Overseer of the Palace Manicurists.

I wish I was going to be in Chicago sometime between now and February 23, when the show closes. If you’re there, take some time to check it out for me!

Mineral Monday: Trona

Trona(small) It’s just another Mineral Monday! This week our mineral is trona, which sounds more like a video game character than a mineral. This is one of those minerals that isn’t much to look at, but it makes up for it’s general lack of sparkle and color with it’s usefulness.

Trona is the more common name for trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate. You can understand why they’ve shortened that-it’s a mouthful. It’s an evaporite mineral, which means it forms as water evaporates. The largest trona deposit in the world is located in Wyoming, and it formed 50 million years ago, in Lake Gosiute, which covered an area of 15,000 square miles (that’s smaller than Lake Michigan, but larger than Lake Tanganyika). Volcanoes were erupting very close to the lake, and the ash from those eruptions was rich in sodium. When the ash landed in the lake, it reacted with other minerals in solution in the water, and some of it was eventually deposited as trona as the lake dried up.

Trona’s special talents include being soluble in water, and fluorescing under UV light, but it is most useful as a source of sodium carbonate, or soda ash. Soda ash is one of those unsung heroes of industry. Not many people have heard of it, but it is critical to glass manufacturing, detergents and other chemical processes. It lowers the melting point of silica, making it easier to melt glass at lower temperatures, something the Egyptians figured out about 3,500 years ago. There are synthetic ways to produce soda ash, but here in the US, over 90% of soda ash  comes from Wyoming trona mines.

There’s even a town in California named Trona, which is where parts of Star Trek and Planet of the Apes were filmed. Unfortunately the town has seen better days with a 2006 Los Angeles Times article saying:

Even die-hard Trona boosters agree that it has seen better days. They concede that streets lined with torched houses, combined with the pungent odor from the chemical plant, add up to a poor first impression.

Pastor Larry Cox of the First Baptist Church said his first words on entering Trona were “People live here?”

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has offered deputies willing to work in Trona free housing and less jail duty. Most prefer jail.

The Bornite Identity

Image Credit: Sam Droeg

Image Credit: Sam Droege

Movie puns are obviously the best way to start the week. Well, second best. The best way to kick off this week is Mineral Monday.

Bornite is commonly known as Peacock ore, for obvious reasons.

See the resemblance? Image Credit: Vidhya Narayanan via Wikipedia

See the resemblance? Image Credit: Vidhya Narayanan via Wikipedia

The bright iridescence of Bornite (Cu5FeS4) is actually a tarnish on the surface of the mineral. If you cut into it, it would look brown or red, similar to the color of copper. That makes sense, because as you can see from the chemical formula, Bornite is a copper sulfide mineral. And a valuable one too. At about 63% copper, bornite is useful to humanity as a copper ore. It’s useful to the rest of the world as another beautiful shiny thing deep in the earth.

It was first described scientifically in 1725, but it had most assuredly been observed before that by copper miners throughout history. But they were too busy mining to write out a detailed scientific treatise on the shiny things they were digging out of the ground. Once mineralogists got their hands on it though, it started getting a lot of different names, starting with a string of latin names assigned to it in 1747 by Johan Gottschalk Wallerius (For the record, I am not making these names up), then shifting to the more practical ‘purple copper ore’ and ‘variegated copper ore’ by 1803. At one point in the 1790s it was also called buntkupfererz (bless you) by someone named Abraham Gottlieb Werner. Needless to say, that particular tongue twister didn’t catch on. In 1832 it was named “phillipsite” by Wilhelm Sulpice Beudant, presumably in honor of someone named Phillip. But poor Phillip didn’t get to keep his mineral for long.

Bornite didn’t get it’s current name until 1845, when the geological powers that be (apparently someone named Wilhelm Karl von Haidinger) decided to name the mineral after famed 18th-century mineralogist Ignaz von Born.




Can we all take a moment to appreciate that his name was Ignaz? Ok. Good.

Iggy von Born was born in a small corner of Transylvania in 1742, and managed to rise above his unfortunate name and became one of the leading lights of the Enlightenment (sorry, I can’t help myself.) He established the first Natural History museum in Vienna, at the behest of Maria Theresa, and studied minerals and invertebrates among other things. In his spare time Ignaz wrote satires that weren’t all that well received, at least according to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

Thanks to Francie for suggesting this mineral! Is there a mineral you would like to know more about? Let me know in the comments, or on twitter @MaryBethGriggs


State Secret Saturday: NC’s State Fossil

Megalodon Tooth From North Carolina

2013 is drawing to a close, but there’s still time for some great fossils. I’m visiting my family in North Carolina for the holidays, and I recently learned that North Carolina has a new state fossil as of this year*!

The new North Carolina state fossil is a megalodon shark tooth, which can apparently be found on the beaches of North Carolina. I never found one when I visited the beach as a kid, but maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place. You’ve heard of megalodons before — they were the subject of an utterly fake Discovery Channel ‘documentary’ earlier this year. Megalodons were awesomely giant sharks with up to 276 of their razor sharp 6-inch-long teeth in their jaws at any time, but they don’t still exist today.

Eighth graders in Newport, North Carolina came up with the idea as part of a science project. Their teacher then contacted the representative of their district, and the rest is history.

I loved reading the part of the bill that pertains to why megalodon teeth should be the state fossil. Apparently, it’s because the Megalodon was really big, with really big teeth. From the bill that made it into law:

Excerpt from Session Law 2013-189, House Bill 830:

Whereas, the megalodon shark is an extinct shark species that lived over 1.5 million years ago; and
Whereas, the megalodon shark may have reached over 40 feet in length and weighed up to 100 tons; and
Whereas, the megalodon shark had serrated, heart‑shaped teeth that may have grown to over seven inches in length; and
Whereas, fossilized teeth of the megalodon shark have been found in North Carolina and throughout the world…

§ 145-41.  State fossil.
The fossilized teeth of the megalodon shark is adopted as the official fossil of the State of North Carolina.

*Along with a new state art medium, state folk art, and a state marsupial** among others. NC General Assembly, while I enjoy state symbols a lot, you have better things to do with your time <glares at Raleigh>.

**It’s a possum. You know, that magnificent beast which is annually dropped (gently) from a pole at New Years in Brassville, North Carolina.

I…I don’t understand this state sometimes.

Want to Visit Stonehenge?


Want a dawn visit for two to the famous stone circle next spring? English Heritage has a new publicity contest to promote their brand new visitor center at Stonehenge.  Using cardboard cutouts or a silhouette app  folks just like you are invited to post a a picture of what you think a new dawn at Stonehenge looks like.

The ‘app’ as they call it is actually a website, and while cropping the silhouette onto the picture took a few tries with my iPhone, I found it pretty easy to use.  As you can see, I went the meta route, taking a picture of a model of Stonehenge I just happened to have lying around my desk. Of course, there are innumerable sunrise/sunset/astronomy pictures. But other people have been more creative, including The Doctor, Shrek and Machu Picchu in their entries. Also, because it’s the internet, cheese and aliens. Naturally.