Paleontology News for Aug 2017

The very word Dinosaur means terrible lizard and ever since human science realized that huge reptiles once dominated the Earth the search has been on for paleontologists to find the biggest, the most awe inspiring dinosaur of them all. The first specimens of Brontosaurus stunned the public with their size but they soon gave way to the Diplodocus who in its turn was outclassed and outmassed by the Seimosaurus. These huge long necked, long tailed sauropod dinosaurs have even been given the group name of Titanosaurs to convey their immensity.

Now a new contender for the title of world’s largest animal has been announced and named. Based on fossils discovered in the Patagonian region of Argentina, Patagotitan mayorum is believed to have measured more than 35 meters in length and to have possessed a mass of greater than 60,000 kilos, about 12 times the mass of the current largest land animal the African Elephant. The picture below shows the assembled skeleton of Patagotitan mayorum in a warehouse.

Patagotitan mayorum skeleton (Credit: Museo Egidio Feruglio)


The bones of Patagotitan Mayorum were first discovered in 2014 by the Argentinean paleontologists Jose Luis Carballido and Diego Pol of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council. The two scientists have spent the last three years carefully digging up and analyzing the bones before officially naming their prize. In addition to its extreme size the fossils of Patagotitan discovered are also an unusually complete skeleton and researchers hope this specimen will enable us to learn more about how the sauropod dinosaurs evolved into such behemoths.

As exciting as the announcement of Patagotitan Mayorum is I have to wonder why three different news stories insisted on proclaiming the find as “New Dinosaur bigger than T-rex”! That’s a bit like saying a new species of Elephant has been discovered and it’s huge “Bigger than a lion!” Yes, plant eaters are often considerably larger than their predators (Think Bison and Wolves) and T-rex is not the standard against which every dinosaur has to be measured.

Another important fossil discovery announced this past week concerns our own species and our closest relatives the great apes. Now to remind you, in the world today there are four species of great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and ourselves, along with one species of lesser ape the gibbons. That’s all that are left in the world today but 10 to 20 million years ago there were dozens of other now extinct species of ape in the world.

Recently a nearly complete 13 million year old skull of a baby ape was discovered in Kenya. Nicknamed ‘Alesi’ by its discoverer John Ekusi the creature was likely a fruit eating, climbing primate that resembled a gibbon. The image below shows the fossil skull of Alesi.

Alesi Skull (Credit: Fred Spoor)

According to the study’s co-author Craig Feibel, chair of the anthropology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the age and location of this fossil make it very important. “The…locality offers us a rare glimpse of an African landscape 13 million years ago.” It is hoped that Alesi will tell scientists a great deal about how the great apes, including our ancestors, split off from the many species of lesser apes.

An examination of the unerupted adult teeth indicates that Alesi belonged to an already established genus of apes called Nyanzapithecus but to a new species that has been named Nyanzapithecus alesi.

The authors of the study are unsure how Alesi died but a layer of volcanic ash from a huge eruption that occurred in eastern Africa 13 million years ago covered the skull and it is possible that Alesi died in that eruption.

If you’d like to read more about the discovery of Alesi click on the link below to be taken to the Scientific American article.








Technology has finally given us the ultimate Mad-Scientist Weapon; Humans can now CAUSE Earthquakes!

Back when I was young I liked to watch all of the spy shows. The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission Impossible, The Wild, Wild West, and Get Smart, I watched them all. Now sooner or later every one of those shows would broadcast an episode where a mad scientist or criminal organization would invent an Earthquake Machine with which they could threaten civilization. In fact season three of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. actually had two episodes where the bad guys were causing earthquakes.

(A quick aside about the way scientists measure the strength of earthquakes for those who aren’t familiar with the Richter scale. Each increase by +1, say from a 3 to a 4, means 10 times the amount of energy in the earthquake. So therefore a Magnitude 4 earthquake has 10 times the energy of a magnitude 3. A magnitude 5 has 10 times the energy of a magnitude 4 and therefore 100 times the energy in a 3. Now a magnitude 3 earthquake might actually be felt by someone right at the epicenter but most people would notice nothing. At the other end of the scale I lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake that killed several hundred people in the San Francisco area. That earthquake was a magnitude 8, or 100,000 times as powerful as a magnitude 3.)

I think of those old shows every time I hear about another earthquake occurring in the state of Oklahoma. You see up until some ten years ago Oklahoma was just about the most geologically stable place on Earth. Really, the nearest fault line is over 500 kilometers away and every since the United States Geological Survey (USGS) began monitoring Oklahoma the state had averaged about 2 tremors of magnitude 3 or more each year and the strongest earthquake ever measured in the state was a magnitude 5.5 way back in 1952!

No more, in the year 2015 there were over a thousand, that’s 1,000 earthquakes, 500 times as many as were recorded in the average year between 1972 and 2008! The quakes are getting stronger as well. In 2016, just one year there were 4 earthquakes of magnitude 5 or more including a magnitude 5.8 quake. The map below shows the levels of seismic activity in Oklahoma and surrounding areas.

Distribution of Recent Oklahoma Earthquakes (Credit: USGA, Public Domain)


So what happened? Where did all of this sudden increase in seismic activity come from? Well we’re doing it. That’s right human beings now possess the technology to cause earthquakes!

The technology is called hydraulic fracturing, or more commonly ‘fracking’ and fracking is used by the oil and natural gas industry as a means of rejuvenating oil wells and fields and that are no longer producing.

The technique involves the injection of large quantities of pressurized water, with various chemicals, deep into the ground that frees up trapped pockets of oil and gas enabling them to be economically pumped out. The US petroleum industry considers fracking to be nothing less than a miracle, vastly increasing domestic production and making the US once again energy independent.

But earthquakes are only one of the problems associated with fracking. Here in Pennsylvania the problems have included natural gas escaping into people’s homes along with the chemical laden water getting into the ground water. If you’d like to watch a YouTube video of a homeowner lighting her kitchen faucet on fire thanks to fracking click on the link below.

So here we have another case of a technology with great economic promise that also has definite drawbacks and again we have people taking a stand rather than trying to find a workable compromise. One major issue is the possibility of taxing the gas and oil companies so that everyone shares in the wealth being brought out of the ground. There also have to laws however that require petroleum companies to deposit a certain amount of money for the cleanup of their sites before they start fracking. Like mining companies, oil companies have a nasty habit of taking everything they can out of the Earth and then declaring bankruptcy so they don’t have to clean up anything.

So long as we continue the process of fracking the number and intensity of the earthquakes in Oklahoma will only increase. Of course we cannot even consider a reasonable solution where fracking is safely employed with monitoring and regulatory oversight. That would kill our economy or destroy the environment.

Anyone who has read a few of the posts on this blog knows that I am pro technology but I think it has to be used wisely. After all, we’re not just mad scientists in some stupid 1960s TV show are we?



Space News for August 2017

There were some interesting news stories related to the exploration of space over the last month reaching from right here on Earth to the very limits of the observable Universe. I’ll start with some news that is both shocking and saddening about the legacy of the first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong.

In Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio there is the Neil Armstrong Air and Space museum. The museum was built by the State of Ohio as a place to honor Armstrong’s achievements and display for the public some of artifacts and tributes that were bestowed on the astronaut during his career. I’ve been there, it’s a wonderful little museum where you can learn about, or remember as the case may be, the early days of space exploration. I highly recommend it if you’re anywhere near northwestern Ohio.

Now on the night of Friday the 31st of July the museum was broken into and robbed by what authorities believe were three or four men. A number of exhibits were stolen including rare medals and coins but the most valuable item that was taken was a solid gold miniature model of the Lunar Module Eagle presented to Armstrong upon his return to Earth after his Moon landing.

Local police hope to recover the stolen items but right now they have no idea who the burglars were. The scariest thing is that the gold LM model could be melted down for the gold so that no one would ever know what it once was. Anyway it’s a sorry comment on our time that money and greed should in any degree tarnish the legacy of the greatest achievement in human history. The photo below shows Michael Collins’s model of the stolen LM replica.

LEM Replica (Credit: Nick Welsh)

My second story concerns our picture of the entire observable Universe and how much we’ve learned about it. A new study called the ‘Dark Energy Survey’ (DES) has released some very detailed results of the structure and distribution of matter in the Universe along with how the structure and distribution have changed over the past seven billion years.

The DES team employed a technique called gravitational lensing, a phenomenon first predicted in Einstein’s General Theory where the light from a distant object can be bent by the gravitational field of a closer object. This technique can be used to measure the mass of the closer object by how much it bends the light of the distant object. Using this technique 26 million galaxies, that’s right 26 million galaxies, had their mass measured allowing a map to be made of the mass distribution in a large section of the Universe, see photo below.

Mass Distribution in the Universe (Credit: Chihway Chang, DES Collaboration)

In previous posts (25Sept16 and 3Dec16) I have mentioned the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the leftover heat of the Big Bang which gives us a ‘baby picture’ of our Universe about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. So with the addition of the new DES study we can now test our theoretical models of cosmic evolution. In other words, taking the CMB measurements as the initial conditions do our models give us the kind of Universe we see in the DES?

It turns out that the simplest model; known as Lambda-Cold Dark Matter (λ-CDM) is still an excellent fit. In the model the Dark Energy accelerating the expansion of the Universe is just a constant term (Einstein used the Greek letter λ in his equations) and the Dark Matter we can measure only by its gravity it composed of heavy particles of some kind.

This is a rather strange state of affairs. We don’t know what 95% of the Universe is (Dark Energy, Dark Matter) but when it comes to predicting how it behaves we’re spot on!

Finally, you may have heard that NASA has a job opening for a new Planetary Protection Officer. No, we’re not talking about fighting off the aliens, at least not with a ray gun. NASA has had a Planetary Protection Officer ever since the days of Apollo when there was a very real concern that Lunar microbes might be able to hitch a ride to Earth with our astronauts.

Today most of the Planetary Protection Officer’s job actually deals with protecting other planets, such as making certain that Earth bacteria don’t use one of our Mars Rovers to contaminate the planet before we can discover whether or not life originated there. (Imagine the first astronauts on Mars discover life!!!! Oh wait; it’s just a staphylococcus infection.)

Now if you think Planetary Protection Officer sounds like a fun job, well nine-year-old Jack Davis of New Jersey thought so to. He applied for the job in a hand written note which includes as a qualification “My sister thinks I’m an alien”. Anyway, Jack got a nice reply from NASA’s Director of Planetary Science Doctor James Green telling him to study hard and one day he can work for NASA. Hopefully one day he will.


Gene Editing in Humans: The Promise and the Peril

A collaboration of researchers at Oregon’s Health and Science University and the Salk Institute have carried out the first successful attempt at modifying the DNA inside human embryos. The team, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov removed a genetic ‘mistake’ that causes a heart defect in humans from 42 out of 58 fertilized egg cells.

Doctor Mitalipov and his team used a gene editing technique known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to cut the DNA of the fertilized egg, remove the disease causing gene section and replace it with a healthy one. Chinese scientists had already attempted this technique several times but the CRISPR editing always resulted in a small number of editing ‘mistakes’ know as mosaicism and that when the fertilized cells began to divide to form an embryo not all of the cells received the edited correction. The picture below shows the CRISPR process being carried out on a fertilized human egg cell.

Gene Editing (Credit: Oregon Health and Science University)

In the paper Mitalipov and his team have published in the journal Nature their results indicate that they have succeeded in avoiding the errors in previous experiments. This is obviously of critical importance since any ‘off target’ results could easily cause more harm than good and the ethical controversy around gene editing is already a hot topic.

In order to avoid any such ethical concerns Mitalipov and his team only allowed the embryos in their study to develop for five days and there was never any intention of implanting the embryos into a womb. In fact any attempt to implant a gene edited human embryo into a womb is illegal in the US, Congress having forbidden the US Food and Drug administration from approving any such clinical trials.

When it comes to the technology of gene editing let’s face it, it’s only a matter of time before we can directly modify the DNA structure to suit our pleasure. If you think about it, we’ve been modifying the DNA of living creatures ever since we brought wolves into our caves and turned them into dogs but gene editing is a big leap forward and great harm could result from any carelessness.

Now anyone who has read some of my posts on this blogsite knows that I am pro-science and pro-technology. Also, the possible good that could be achieved by eliminating genetic disorders such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Huntington’s disease, the blood condition beta-thalassemia or Down’s syndrome or many others is just so great that we cannot simply refuse to try.

On the other hand, the possible harm that could occur to the children of gene editing experiments that resulted in ‘off target’ effects is simply horrible to consider. Any gene editing technique that we even consider employing on ourselves must be as perfect as is humanly possible before any clinical trials are attempted. In other words we have to do this slowly and carefully, making certain that the good will far outweigh any harm before proceeding.

I think most people can agree on such a policy. The possible rewards of gene editing are so great that we have to try, but slowly and carefully to avoid as many errors as we can. The real thorny ethical questions arise when we begin talking about using gene editing to ‘improve’ human beings, to create ‘designer babies’ rather than just to eliminate birth defects.

The problem is in finding any consensus on just what an ‘improvement’ might be, let alone on whose children will be ‘improved’. Now I’ve never been any good at telling people what is ethically right or wrong. However I will say this; each of us, wherever we live in this world, needs to consider this issue and make up our own mind!

Gene editing could very well become the most contentious issue of the 21st century and only an informed and thoughtful people can even hope to make the right choices. If you’d like to read more on the work at Oregon Health and Science University, the link below will take you to MIT’s Technology Review’s story.

The US Navy’s Space age weapons development, Lasers and the Electromagnetic Rail Gun.

Over the past 5-10 years there’s been a lot of research and development into new weapons systems that can only be described as space age. These weapons include powerful lasers and projectiles launched by huge electromagnetic (EM) fields. If you think these weapons seem like something straight out of Star Trek or Star Wars you’re not alone.

For the past fifty years or so the state of the art in naval weaponry has been the guided missile. Whether launched from a ship or fired from a plane the increased range and deadly accuracy of a modern missile has almost made the old time naval gun a relic of history. Ships no longer fire their cannon in broadsides and planes no longer dogfight with machine guns, in today’s battle its launch a ‘fire and forget’ missile.

While missiles clearly have distinct advantages, they also certainly have disadvantages. One of these is the fact that being so much larger than shells or bullets a ship or plane can carry far fewer of them. Even more of a disadvantage is the far greater cost of a missile versus a shell or bullet.

The new technologies under development are intended to remedy those problems with systems whose launchers may be large and expensive but the projectiles they fire are much smaller and far cheaper than a guided missile.

The first system we’ll discuss is a ‘Laser Weapon System’ or LaWS in military speak. Now militaries have been trying to weaponize lasers almost since the laser was invented but have never quite managed to make them ‘battle ready’. In the 1980s the United States Navy (USN) tried very hard to develop an anti-aircraft system using chemical lasers but the system was never quite powerful enough to shoot down aircraft and the chemicals in the lasers made them almost as deadly to the seamen firing them as to their targets.

Modern solid-state lasers have changed that. In fact the Navy’s latest version of it’s LaWS system consists of an array of six high power solid state lasers that can deliver a total of 33kW of power. This prototype was fitted unto the U.S.S. Ponce (a amphibious transport type ship) for testing under operational conditions and deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2014.

During the past two years of testing LaWS has successfully destroyed airborne drones, detonated a rocket propelled grenade while in flight and disabled the motor of a rigid-hulled inflatable boat. One special ability of LaWS is that the system can reduce its output power, even down to the point of just dazzling the eyes of attackers without doing any permanent damage. Best of all, the ‘bullets’ for LaWS are literally limitless and cost less than a dollar per shot!

The system has performed so well that the Navy has declared it to be an operational asset allowing the captain of the Ponce to actually use it in combat at his discretion. An upgraded LaWS system, with a maximum power of 60-100kW that would allow it to shoot down helicopters and some aircraft is being readied. Over the next several years this new system will begin to be deployed on the Navy’s destroyers and Littoral Combat Ships. The picture below shows the current LaWS as mounted on the U.S.S. Ponce.

LaWS aboard the USS Ponce (Credit: Public Domain)

The second, and even more powerful weapons system being developed by the Navy is the electromagnet railgun. This weapon uses a short but tremendously powerful magnetic pulse to accelerate a metal projectile to seven times the speed of sound (Mach 7 as its know), or about 2.5km per second, and hurl it over 160km.

Now undergoing testing at the Navy’s Dahlgren Surface Warfare Center the Navy’s prototype railgun uses 32MJ (that’s 32 million Joules of energy) in the form of over a million amps of electrical current to fire its 3.2kg projectile. As with LaWS, the small size of the projectile, and the fact that only electricity is needed to fire it, are enormous advantages for the railgun. The link below will take you to some Youtube videos of the railgun firing.

This version of the railgun is now ready to undergo shipboard testing, probably on the USS Millinocket one of the Navy’s Expeditionary Fast Transport ships. Deployment of a 64MJ railgun onto the new Zumwalt class destroyers is planned to begin around 2020.

There are still problems are be solved before the railgun is completely battle ready however. The biggest problem is without doubt the tremendous wear and tear on the rails that the projectile slides down. Although the details are secret it appears that the Navy has managed to make considerable progress on solving this problem. They have informed congress of a successful firing of 400 shots with a single set of rails and expect to increase that to 1000 shots.

Another problem is guidance for the projectile. Any system to guide the projectile during flight will first have to survive the great heat, high magnetic field and gargantuan forces generated when it’s fired.

Still, I can remember when I made my first little coilgun (a relative of the railgun) in my basement and wondered if anybody would ever make a successful EM weapon.

The Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) and why are Neutrinos so Important Anyway.

Over the past month or so I’ve published a series of posts describing what I see as the decline of science in America (28June to 12July2017). Well today I have some good news. Just this week construction has begun on the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment or DUNE.

DUNE is a collaboration between two already existing physics labouratories. The Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) which is buried 2km deep in the old Homestake gold mine outside of Lead, South Dakota along with Fermilab outside of Chicago, the site of America’s most powerful particle accelerator, second only to the LHC at CERN in Europe.

By the way the Homestake mine first became a physics labouratory back in the 1960s when the first Neutrino telescope was build there to measure the flux of neutrinos coming from the Sun. An experiment that provided the first direct evidence that the Sun gets its energy from hydrogen fusion reactions.

The idea behind the DUNE experiment is that Fermilab will use its accelerator to generate an intense beam of the sub-atomic particles called Neutrinos, a particle that has been called the ghost particle because they only interact very rarely with other particles. To give you an idea of how rarely an interaction occurs, every second thousands of Neutrinos are going right through your body but over your entire lifespan only a handful will interact with a particle inside you.

That beam of Neutrinos from Fermilab will be aimed very precisely at SURF where the world’s largest Neutrino Detectors are now being installed. The 2000km trip underground will mean almost nothing to the Neutrinos; a few may be absorbed but only very a few. There will also be an identical detector array right at the output of Fermilab’s accelerator so that scientists can study what happens to the Neutrinos during their 2000km journey. The picture below shows a diagram of the planned setup of the DUNE experiment.

DUNE Experimental Layout (Credit: Fermilab)

You may ask, if only a few Neutrinos are absorbed in 2000km of rock won’t even fewer be captured by the detectors in South Dakota. Yes, absolutely, but the scientists will be able to measure precisely every characteristic of every single Neutrino that is detected.

So, what do the scientists hope to learn from DUNE, why are Neutrinos so important anyway? Well, first of all there is increasingly strong evidence that Neutrinos are actually far more numerous than the electrons and quarks that make up what we think of as matter. In a sense scientists simply don’t enjoy knowing so little about such an important particle.

There are some more well defined problems that we hope DUNE can help to solve. For one, the there’s the question why the Universe, or at least our part of it, is so dominated by matter with so little anti-matter. From all of our experiments at places like Fermilab the Universe should be composed of equal parts matter and anti-matter and Neutrinos may hold the key to understanding the imbalance.

Physicists also hope that a greater understanding of Neutrinos will give us greater insight into fundamental forces, gravity, electromagnetism and the nuclear forces. Understanding Neutrinos is also important because they play a large role in some of the most energetic events in the Universe, everything from supernova to black hole formation.

Despite the recent lack of support for science from our government it’s still true that America’s scientists are second to none and the DUNE project demonstrates how they will always find a way to do new and important work. If you’d like to read more about the DUNE experiment the links below will take you to the SURF and Fermilab WebPages for DUNE.

New Studies give a more accurate picture of T-Rex, and the fossil in your backyard

Two new studies by two separate teams of paleontologists have been published recently giving new details into the appearance and behavior of everybody’s favourite extinct predator, Tyrannosaurus-rex, better know simply as T-rex.

The first study dealt with the question of whether or not T-rex may have sported a colourful coating of feathers on at least portions of its body. After all T-rex is a member of the line of dinosaurs that paleontologists are convinced are closest to, maybe even ancestors of the birds. There is also growing evidence that T-rex’s smaller relatives were in fact covered in insulating feathers, not flight feathers, insulating feathers to help keep the animal warm. (See my post of 16Dec2016 about a feathered dino tail encased in amber!)

With these facts in mind Professor Phil R. Bell of the University of New England in Australia led a team of researchers to examine all of the available fossil evidence to find an answer. Now because skin impressions of dinosaurs are very rare, especially T-rex, Professor Bell and his colleagues also examined the fossils of T-rex’s close and large relatives such as Albertosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Tarbousaurus.

Based on the evidence they found Professor Bell and his fellow paleontologists have concluded that T-rex and the other large Theropod predators did not possess feathers, not even over portions of their bodies. Like any reptile today, T-rex was covered in scales. Professor Bell theorizes that since large, active animals have more problems with overheating than keeping warm T-rex shed whatever insulation its smaller ancestors may have had. The picture below shows a fossilized impression of the skin of a T-rex.

Impression of neck skin from a T-rex (Credit: Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research)

The second study was conducted at the University of Manchester in England and led by Professor William Sellers. Professor Sellers and his team used biometric and biomechanical software programs to study how T-rex would have walked and whether or not T-rex could have run at all as depicted in all those recent Jurassic Park movies. (By the way I hope everyone is aware that T-rex actually lived in the Cretaceous not the Jurassic period!)

Now it a plain fact of nature that as an animal grows larger its weight increases much faster than the strength of its legs. This is why, relatively speaking, the legs of an elephant are considerably thicker than the legs of your dog or cat. Now a T-rex is even heavier than an elephant, and remember T-rex only has two legs on spread its weight on! The possibility that T-rex might have difficulty walking let alone running has to be considered.

Professor Sellers and his colleagues used the latest software biomechanical modeling programs to do just that. Earlier studies had suggested that T-rex might have been capable of speeds as high as 50kph but the new research provided strong evidence that even half that speed would cause ‘unacceptably high skeletal loads’ on the bones in T-rex’s legs.

It appears then that these two recent studies reinforce the picture we had when I was a child of T-rex being a big lumbering reptile. I’m going to try to imbed a short video provided by Professor Sellers and his team showing some of the modeling that they used in their analysis. The link below that will take you to the University of Manchester’s official announcement of the research.

Now, it was just a week ago (15 July 2017) that I posted about my first fossil collecting trip of the year and I’d like to close with a nice little story about keeping your eyes open and maybe you too can make an important fossil discovery.

Jude Sparks, a 10-year old boy who lives in Las Curces, New Mexico was recently playing in his own backyard when he spotted something eroding out of the ground that he thought was the skull of a cow. Doing a little digging Jude quickly realized his skull was too large to be a cow’s. While it was still in the ground, Jude showed what he found to his parents who contacted paleontologists at New Mexico State University.

What Jude had actually discovered was the 1.2 million year old skull of a Stegomastadon, a relative of the more famous Mastodon. The scientists have excavated the skull and hope that more of the animal’s remains may be buried nearby. The picture below shows Jude with his find.

Jude Sparks with his Stegomastadon (Credit: Peter Houde)

A big part of science is really nothing more than keeping your eyes open and knowing enough to be able to say, ‘Hey, that looks different. I wonder what it is?”

Eclipse of 2017

There’s only another month to go before the United States is treated to a total solar eclipse that will stretch across the entire continent beginning in Oregon and ending in South Carolina. Occurring on Monday the 21st of August this eclipse will be the grandest astronomical event to take place in our skies for over a hundred years and I hope that many of you will be able to enjoy at least some of the show.

Solar Eclipse (Credit: Justin Ng)

If you are planning on taking part in the fun please heed this warning:


Every time a good solar eclipse occurs hundreds of people injure their eyes by not taking the necessary precautions. And it is so easy to get glasses that will give you all the protection you need. Seriously, Wal-Mart has them, Amazon has them, dozens of retailers are selling eclipse glasses for prices starting at $10 so please get a pair!!!

Now everybody knows that a solar eclipse is caused by the Moon passing in front of the Sun from our point of view here on Earth. (A lunar eclipse on the other hand is caused when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon) However many people are unsure of some of the details, such as the difference between the Umbra, where you get a total eclipse, and the Penumbra where you only get a partial eclipse.

Looking at the figure below from NASA you can see that while the Sun is much larger than the Moon (its diameter is about 4000 times larger) it is also much farther away from Earth (about 4000 times further). That’s why they look almost exactly the same size in our sky. Following the lines of the Sun’s outer edges you can see how the Moon blocks some of the light from the Sun over a large swath of the Earth’s surface (this is the Penumbra) but only completely blocks the Sun over a small region (this is the Umbra) and only for a very short period of time.

Geometry of Solar Eclipse (Credit: NASA)

To see a total eclipse, to see the stars and planets come out in the daytime and to see the Sun’s corona you must be within the narrow band of the Umbra. The map below shows the path of the Umbra across the US with the local times that totality will occur. If you’d like to get a more detailed map of your area click on the link below the map to be taken to NASA’s special website for this eclipse.

Eclipse Times (Credit: NASA)

Now my hometown of Philadelphia is nowhere close to the path of totality so I’m heading to Nashville, Tennessee, which is one of several major cities within the path of totality, and only a few miles from the point of maximum duration. Now I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that the weather is clear on eclipse day. There’s actually a long history of astronomers and other scientists making long journeys to witness and study total eclipses only to wind up see nothing but clouds.

There’s another big total eclipse coming seven years from now in 2024. That one will be closer to me, crossing Ohio, western Pennsylvania and much of New York so hopefully I’ll get another chance if this year’s eclipse doesn’t work out. So wish me luck, and I’ll do the same for you. If things go well I’ll be able to share some great pictures with you in just a few weeks.

Space News for July 2017

The biggest news in space exploration this month has to come from the Juno spacecraft now in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Last Wednesday night Juno made a close approach to Jupiter flying only 3500 kilometers above the planet’s ‘Great Red Spot’ and giving scientists their best look ever at this mysterious object. See the amazing picture below.

Great Red Spot (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major)

The Great Red Spot was first discovered by the British Scientist Robert Hooke around 1650 and has been studied now for over 350 years. Despite all those years of observation the spot’s exact nature is still being debated.

The most popular explanation for the Great Red Spot is that it is a powerful storm, a hurricane larger than the Earth. In fact hurricanes here on Earth can last a very long time so long as they stay over water, only losing their strength when they pass over land.

Still 350 years is a very long time for a storm to last and hurricanes move with the wind patterns while the Great Red Spot appears to be in the same place it was when Hooke first saw it. To me the storm model cannot be a complete description.

Another theory is that the Great Red Spot is something like Jupiter’s version of a volcano, a massive upwelling of gas from deep within the planet. Like the Mona Kea volcano on Hawaii’s big island something inside Jupiter could be continuously erupting and forming the Red Spot around it.

To me it seems that a combination of the two models may be the best solution but in any case hopefully all the data we get back from Juno will give us a greater insight into the nature of The Great Red Spot. If you’d like to read more about Juno, and see some breathtaking images the link below will take you to NASA’s Juno site.

Another interesting space news item concerned an experiment by Chinese scientists to teleport a photon, a particle of light, from Earth’s surface to a satellite in orbit. Team leader Ji-Gang Ren of the Department of modern physics at the University of Science and Technology of China along with his colleagues sent the teleported particles from a ground station in Nagari Tibet to the Micius satellite in an orbit 500km above the Earth’s surface. Although not the first successful teleportation experiment this is by far the greatest distance a particle has been teleported.

Recent experiments in teleportation use the phenomenon of ‘Quantum Entanglement’ in order to teleport not so much the actual particle as all the information about it, it’s quantum state in technical terms. For the photons used in the Chinese experiment this information was the polarization of the photons. (I’ll discuss quantum entanglement in another post quite soon)

Now it’s going to be a long time before we are able to transmit the quantum states of Kirk, Spock and Bones so that they can be reassembled on the planet’s surface. However the polarization of a photon can be used as either a 1 or a 0 for the purposes of digitizing information. This is the physics behind the idea of quantum computing that’s getting a lot of talk nowadays.

If you’d like to read more about the Chinese teleportation experiment click on the link below to go to an MIT Technology Review article on it.

One last item of space news before I go. This past week NASA has kinda, sorta finally admitted that with their current level of funding there is no real chance of a manned mission to Mars by the official target date of 2033. This is hardly a surprise, a manned mission will be hugely expensive and NASA really hasn’t even begun to develop the systems needed.

If you’ve been reading my posts on the subject (Feb 22, 2017) you know that I advocate a return to the Moon with the systems we are currently developing. The Space Launch System and Orion space capsule that will soon be available are perfect for Lunar missions, all that’s needed is a lander module which could be ready in 5-6 years. NASA is not likely to get a large increase in funding anytime soon and really needs to commit itself to a realistic program for manned space exploration!

Fossil Hunting

It’s been a pretty busy year so far and only just last week did I finally get the chance to do a little fossil hunting. I’ve been especially anxious to pay a quick visit to my favourite fossil site because the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has spent the last two years doing major renovations to the highway that goes right past the site and I was afraid that all the fossils may have been paved over.

I needn’t have worried. The site, which is an old abandoned quarry, was mostly intact and PennDOT had even paved a small, 4-5 meter long entrance where you can park your car. There were still tons of rocks containing fossils, and it doesn’t take long to find some that are literally covered in them, see picture below.

Fossil Rock (Credit: Self)

Now I live in Philadelphia, and the city itself is totally barren of fossils. This is because bedrock upon which Philly sits is completely composed of igneous rock, cooled and solidified lava and magma and you don’t find fossils in what was once molten rock!

However, if you drive an hour and a half or more in any direction from Philly you can find many fossil sites, some that are very well know to both professional and amateur paleontologists. To the east and south, in New Jersey and Delaware you have a number of locations where fossils from the Cretaceous period can be found. The cretaceous period was the last period when dinosaurs walked the Earth. I have over a hundred fossils from sites in New Jersey and Delaware but unfortunately no dinosaurs.

My favourite site however is in the opposite direction, north and a bit to the west in Schuylkill County. Now the fossils you find north and west of Philadelphia are much older than the cretaceous period, older than any dinosaur. In my collection I have fossils from the Ordovician period (about 450 million years ago) through to the Pennsylvania period (around 300 million years ago). In Schuylkill County alone I know of a dozen places to find fossils and the nearby counties of Carbon, Monroe, Lebanon and so on are filled with fossil sites.

So how does someone go about finding fossils? Where should you look? What equipment do you need?

Let’s start with equipment because to start you really don’t need very much. In fact your clothing is probably more important than any equipment. Fossil sites are obviously outdoors, usually in wild, overgrown areas. Here in Pennsylvania the greatest danger in fossil hunting is actually ticks! Lyme disease is a real threat so I always wear long pants, a long sleeved shirt and practically pour insect repellant over my exposed areas. Sunscreen is also very useful even on partially sunny days. Also, even if you think the temperature is fairly cool when you start, let’s say 20ºC, once you get working you’ll find yourself getting quite hot so make certain you have a nice cool drink with you.

As far as equipment is concerned a good 10x magnifier is probably more useful than a geologist’s hammer and some stone chisels. Another very important piece of equipment is just some wood glue; at least 10% of my fossils are being held together by glue.

Now, the most important thing, let me say that again, the most important thing is to keep the fossils you collect from one site completely separate from fossils collected at other sites. At the same time you must record the location of each site from which you collect fossils.

Each site from which you collect fossils has its own age; and it had its own environment when those animals lived there. If your collection is to have any scientific value you must keep fossils from different places segregated and identified as to exactly where they were found. I have fossils from over seventy-five locations across the U.S. and keep a record of every single fossil, where it was found and what I think it is.

As far as identifying your fossils is concerned that can require a considerable amount of study and effort. However there are plenty of books available to aid you. Just go to Amazon and look up books on fossils, you’ll find dozens. Identifying fossils is a skill that can take quite a while to acquire but once you start recognizing your fossils the moment you pick them up you’ll be happy you put the effort into it.

Now this blog is about science in general, not specifically fossils. If you’d like to learn more about fossil collecting however, especially fossils near where you live, I recommend contacting you state’s department of natural resources or state geologist. Every state, and most countries have information on fossil collecting within their borders. Of course there are also plenty of Internet sites dedicated to fossil collecting so I’m going to provide a link to some of what I consider the better sites.

Fossil Guy is a private site like mine but totally devoted to fossils. Lots of good information and a great place to start. Follow the link below.

For people who want to visit fossil sites that have been turned into museums, that is no collecting here but great fossils to see.

Here’s some information on a site not far from my favourite site.

I have quite a few fossils from Texas, a great state for fossils. Here’s a site with some info for Texas.

Finally let’s go overseas and see what fossils can be found in the UK.

Good Luck and have Fun!