Field of Science

Artist M.C. Escher and his Crystal-inspired Artwork

There is something breathtaking about the basic laws of crystals. They are in no sense a discovery of the human mind; they just “are” – they exist quite independently of us. The most that man can do is become aware, in a moment of clarity, that they are there, and take them into account. Long before there were people on the earth, crystals were already growing in the earth's crust. On one day or another, a human being first came across such a sparkling morsel of regularity lying on the ground or hit one with his stone tool and it broke off and fell at his feet, and he picked it up and regarded it in his open hand, and he was amazed.” 
- M. C. Escher (1898-1972)

Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher was fascinated, or maybe even obsessed by "the systematic compartimentalization of space." Many of his illustrations show symmetrical shapes repeated into infinity, completely occupying all the available space. It is not a coincidence that Escher's work reseambles the molecular lattice structure and resulting crystal structure of minerals. Some of his surreal illustrations are even clearly based on crystals.

Spessartine-Garnet on Feldspar, Shigar Valley, Pakistan, and artwork by Escher.

Escher's half brother Berend Escher (1885-1967) was a professor of geology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, whose specialization was crystallography, mineralogy and vulcanology. It is likely that the artist Escher was introduced into the world of crystals by the mineralogist Escher.

Atomic Bomb Dropped Over Japan Created A New Kind Of Minerals - Hiroshimaites

The nuclear fire above Hiroshima in the early morning of August 6, 1945, not only vaporized parts of the city but also created new minerals. In 2015 geologist Mario Wannier discovered small particles of metal and glass in the sand collected along the shores of Miyajima Island and Motoujina Peninsula, located south of the hypocenter of the explosion.

Hiroshima city and bay area with location of the A-bomb hypocenter and sampling sites at Motoujina Peninsula and Miyajima Island. Optical microscopy image with a collection of glass spherules, cemented fragments and metallic spherules. From WANNIER et al. 2019.

Chemical analysis showed a layered structure of unknown minerals, mostly combinations of aluminum, silica, iron and calcium. The researchers argue that the particles formed by condensation from the mushroom cloud after the nuclear blast. As the mushroom cloud, containing traces of vaporized materials like stone, steel, concrete and rubber, cooled along its borders, small particles of glass-like material formed and rained down. Currents and the movement of the waves later accumulated the particles in the sand along the shores around the hypocenter of the explosion. Based on the unique chemical composition and the site of the discovery, the researcher named the new minerals Hiroshimaites, as they are artificial "tectites" (droplets of molten material formed by the heat of a meteorite impact). The studied sand samples contained up to 2% of particles, so along the shores of Hiroshima estimated 2,000 to 3,000 tons of Hiroshimaites may still lay in the ground.

Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon - A Women Geoscientist In The Dolomites

The Scottish Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939), or May as she was called, was the oldest daughter of a pastoral family composed of eight children, five boys and three girls. Maria Ogilvie entered Merchant Company Schools' Ladies College in Edinburgh at the age of nine. Already in these early years, she showed a profound interest in nature. During holidays she enjoyed exploring the landscape of the Scottish Highlands accompanied by her elder brother, the later geologist Sir Francis Ogilvie. Maria Ogilvie aspired to become a musician and at age of eighteen she went to London to study music, becoming a promising pianist, but already in the first year her interests into the natural world prevailed and she went for a career in science.
Studying both in London and Edinburgh she obtained her degree in geology, botany and zoology in 1890. Maria Ogilvie hoped to follow-up their studies in Germany, but in 1891, despite a recommendation even by the famous geologist Baron Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen (pioneer geologist of the Dolomites), she was rejected at the University of Berlin - women were still not permitted to enroll for higher education in England and Germany. She went to Munich, where she was welcomed friendly by eminent paleontologist Karl von Zittel (1839-1904) and zoologist Richard von Hertwig (1850-1927). However, she was not allowed to join male students. Sitting in a separate room she listened through the half-open doors to the lectures.

In July 1891, Richthofen invited her to join a five-week trip to the nearby Dolomites Mountains, visiting the Gröden-Valley. From the very first day, Maria Ogilvie was immensely impressed by the landscape and learned rock climbing to better explore the mountains. Richthofen introduced Maria Ogilvie to alpine geology and they visited the pastures of Stuores in the Gader-Valley. At the time Maria Ogilvie was studying modern corals to become a zoologist, but Richthofen, showing her the beautifully preserved fossil corals found here in the Triassic sediments, convinced her to become rather a geologist.
The pastures of Stuores in the Gader-Valley with outcrops of Triassic marl.

Richthofen was over sixty years old and therefore he couldn't provide much support in the field. Maria Ogilvie remembers later the challenge and danger of field work, sometimes accompanied by a local rock climber named Josef Kostner:

"When I began my fieldwork, I was not under the eye of any Professor. There was no one to include me in his official round of visits among the young geologists in the field, and to subject my maps and sections to tough criticism on the ground. The lack of supervision at the outset was undoubtedly a serious handicap."

For two summers she hiked, climbed and studied various areas in the Dolomites and instructed local collectors to carefully record and describe their fossil sites. In 1893 she published "Contributions to the geology of the Wengen and St. Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol". In the paper she included detailed figures of the landscape, geological maps and stratigraphic charts of the Dolomites, establishing fossil marker horizons and describing the ecology of various fossil corals associations. She described 345 species from the today 1,400 known species of mollusks and corals of the local Wengen- and St. Cassian-Formations.
The published paper, a summary of her thesis "The geology of the Wengen and Saint Cassian Strata in southern Tyrol", finally earned her respect by the scientific community. In 1893 she became the first female doctor of science in the United Kingdom. The same year she returned into the Dolomites to continue with her geological and paleontological research. In 1894 she published the important "Coral in the Dolomites of South Tyrol." Maria Ogilvie argued that the systematic classification of corals must be based on microscopic examination and characteristics, not as usually done at the time, on superficial similarities.


Fossil corals from the pastures of Stuores, plate from LAUBE (1865).

In 1895 she returned to Aberdeen, where she married a longstanding admirer. Dr. John Gordon respected and encouraged her passion for the Dolomites. He and their four children accompanied Maria Ogilvie on various excursions into the Dolomites.

In 1900 she returned to Munich, becoming the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. She helped her old mentor, paleontologist von Zittel, to translate his extensive German research on the "Geschichte der Geologie und Palaeontologie" - "The History of Geology and Palaeontology."

Maria Ogilvie continued her studies and continued to publish. In 1913 she was preparing another important work about the geology and geomorphology of the Dolomites, to be published in Germany, but in 1914 with the onset of World War I. and the death of the publisher, the finished maps, plates and manuscripts were lost in the general chaos.
In 1922 she returned into the Dolomites, where she encountered the young paleontologist Julius Pia, who, during the war, had carried out research in the Dolomites. Together they explored many times the Dolomites.


Landscape profile of the Langkofel-massif after GORDON & PIA (1939): Zur Geologie der Langkofelgruppe in den Südtiroler Dolomiten. Maria Matilda included hand-drawn sketches in her research.

Apart from scientific papers, Maria Matilda published also one of the first examples of geological guide books for the Dolomites. To honor her contributions to earth sciences in 2000 a new fossil fern genus, discovered in Triassic sediments, was named Gordonopteris lorigae.

Interested in reading more? Try:

WACHTLER, M. & BUREK, C.V. (2007): Maria Matilda Ogilvie Gordon (1864-1939): a Scottish researcher in the Alps. In BUREK, C. V. & HIGGS, B. (eds): The Role of Women in the History of Geology. Geological Society: 305-317

The Earth-shattering Monster of Loch Ness

The first purported photo of Nessie was published in The Daily Mail" on April 21, 1934.  The image, taken by a London surgeon named Kenneth Wilson, was touted for decades as the best evidence for Nessie — until it was admitted as a hoax decades later.

In 2001 Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi presented at the Earth Systems Processes meeting in Edinburgh a hypothesis, explaining the supposed appearance of the lake monster in Loch Ness as a result of the local geology. According to Piccardi, the historical description of the monster - appearing on the surface with great (earth)shakes and waves - could be based on seismic activity along the Great Glen fault. The Great Glen fault is a transcurrent fault where two bits of Earth - the Grampian Highlands, composed of early Paleozoic plutonic rocks, and the Northern Highlands, composed mostly of Neoproterozoic rocks with Palozoic sedimentary covers - are sliding sideways against each other.

 BRETON; COBBOLODY & ZANELLA (2013).

Loch Ness is a 36 km long lake, located just above the fault zone. As the fault moves, earthquakes happen and cause bubbles and waves on the lake's surface. In an interview published in the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" Piccardi explains:

"There are various effects on the surface of the water that can be related to the activity of the fault ...[]... the beast appears and disappears with great shakes. I think it's an obvious description of what really happened…[] We know that there was a period [1920-1930, a period characterized by many reported sightings of Nessie] with increased activity of the fault, in reality, people have seen the effects of the earthquakes on the water."


According to the biography of St. Columba, the scene described by Piccardi happened in the year 565. Trying to cross the river Ness the missionary is attacked by a beast. However, Columba implores the protection of god and the monster promptly disappears. The original text, however, is very vague and gives no detailed description of the event, stating only that it was an "unknown beast" and it approached with the mouth wide open and a loud roar. In the myth, the supposed lake monster is of much less importance than the ability of St. Columba to tame beasts and demons and doing so
to impress the local pagans. It is quite possible that the supposed encounter with the monster was added to make Colomba´s legend bigger than real life. The vague description presented doesn't really support any proposed scenario, neither seismic activity nor a presumed surviving plesiosaur, living in a lake formed by glaciers during the last ice age some 18,000 years ago. Modern sightings in Loch Ness can more reasonably be explained by a combination of hoaxes, misidentification of common animals or waves and the local tourist industry, keeping the myth alive to attract tourists. Research done in the lake has never produced any clue for the possible existence of a population of larger animals in the Loch.

Also, historic seismicity doesn't seem to support the existence of an earth-shaking monster in the Loch. Earthquakes along the Great Glen fault range between a magnitude of 3 to 4, too weak to cause any observable effects on the lake. Stronger events are exceptionally rare and were recorded only in 1816, 1888, 1890 and 1901. These earthquakes don't coincide with the years of supposed increased activity of Nessie, like in the decade around 1933.

Darwin's First Botanizing Steps Followed His Geological Ones

 “I collected every plant, which I could see in flower, & as it was the flowering season I hope my collection may be of some interest to you." - Charles Darwin in a letter to his friend and mentor John Stevens Henslow, 1836.

Charles Robert Darwin's interest in the natural world was widespread. As a student, he loved to hunt animals and collected bugs and minerals. His mentor and friend John Stevens Henslow, mineralogist and professor of botany, introduced the young Darwin to both disciplines. Darwin attended Henslow's botany lectures and field trips each year during his three years at Cambridge, visiting also private meetings at Henslow's home. Here he met with Adam Sedgwick, president of the newly formed Geological Society of London. During a geological field trip in the summer of 1831 with Sedgwick, Darwin collected and preserved also some plant specimens.

Herbarium sheet by J. S. Henslow with three plants collected by Charles Darwin in 1831 at Barmouth, North Wales. This is the earliest-known herbarium specimen collected by Darwin.

During the five-year-long voyage of the Beagle Darwin collected plants or seeds on the Cape Verde Islands, in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Chile, in Brazil and some of the visited islands, like the Falkland, Galápagos and Cocos islands. As Darwin had limited space on the Beagle, most occupied by rocks and animals, he limited himself to remote or poorly studied localities.

Darwin had prepared several thousand labels in different colors before the voyage to be applied to every dried plant (the labels including species, locality, date and his signature). Wet specimens, conserved in "spirits of wine", were tagged with a small, metallic plate. Henslow, who back in England managed Darwin's collection, however, removed most labels when including Darwin's specimens into the herbarium. Unlike the collected rocks and animals Darwin didn't number the plant specimens, so it seems a bit confusion sneaked into the collection. Another friend of Darwin, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, lamented to Darwin that not all notes could be attributed to the preserved plants.

Darwin's plant collection is especially interesting as it includes many species from less visited islands of the Galápagos and the Cocos archipelago. Darwin was intrigued about the relationship of the isolated species found on the islands to the species found on nearby continents. Later Darwin conducted experiments with seeds, showing that some can survive salty water for months and so be dispersed by marine currents. Despite Darwin's plans, he didn't publish the collected plants in “The Voyage of the Beagle” (published in 1839), as a very busy Henslow didn't meet the deadlines for publication.

Darwin collected 756 different species, subspecies or varieties of vascular plants during his five years long voyage around the world, 220 species were new to science. Darwin was especially surprised by the variability displayed by plants. A collected grass species was divided by Henslow into fifteen different varieties! This was an intriguing observation, important for his later formulated theory of evolution, how one species can split over time in various new ones. Also, the relationship of plant species on islands to nearby continents was an important observation. The plants from the Galápagos islands showed, according to Hooker, a remarkable variability between the single islands, however some even more remarkable similarities to species from North America and Brazil. Would a divine creator not be able to create distinct, unique species on remote islands as he pleased? However, if seeds can be dispersed with marine currents and islands be colonized by plants from nearby continents, couldn't they also evolve there in new species?

Radioactivity and Earth's Age

In the 19th century, the discrepancy between the age of Earth and the age of the cosmos posed a great problem to scientists. Geologists had calculated, using methods like erosion or sedimentation rates, ages for Earth spanning from three million to fifteen billion years. Physicists and astronomers, based mostly on the energy output of stars, calculated an age for the universe spanning from twenty million to ten billion years - so in many models of the cosmos, Earth seemed to be too young or too old to fit in. In August 1893, during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, geologist Charles D. Walcott (1850-1927) summarized the debate as follows:

"Of all subjects of speculative geology, few are more attractive or more uncertain in positive results than geological time. The physicists have drawn the lines closer and closer until the geologist is told that he must bring his estimates of the age of the earth within a limit of from ten to thirty millions of years. The geologist masses his observations and replies that more time is required, and suggests to the physicist that there may be an error somewhere in his data or the method of his treatment."


In 1896 the French physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), based on Conrad Röntgen's (1845-1923) research, discovered that naturally occurring elements, like uranium, also emit X-rays and in 1897 Polish physicist Marie Curie (1867-1934) coined the term radioactivity to describe this energy of unknown origin. Her husband, Pierre Curie (1859-1906), realized that this energy from radioactive decay must be considered when calculating the age of Earth. Physicists supporting a young Earth based their calculations on a quickly cooling Earth. However, radioactive decay in Earth's interior provided a continuous source of energy and heat, therefore Earth was cooling slowly and so could be quite old.

Radioactive decay or another similar long-lasting and high-energy source (nuclear fusion was discovered later) could also explain how stars could produce light and heat for very long periods of time. The notion that stars or the sun had to be young (in most calculations younger than Earth) could also be dismissed.

But even better - the discovery of radioactivity provided not only indirect evidence of an old Earth but by measuring the constant decay it was also possible to calculate the exact age of a mineral, a rock and even of Earth.

High-energy rays, derived from radioactive decay, form a halo of alteration around a mineral grain in the larger biotite-crystal, image from J. JOYLE (1909): Radioactivity and geology, an account of the influence of radioactive energy on terrestrial history.

The British Diplomat Who Studied Volcanoes

When, in 1631, Vesuvius erupted violently after having been dormant for more than 300 years, it aroused great interest among Europe's elite. German Jesuit and naturalist Athanasius Kircher traveled to Southern Italy to study Vesuvius, descending even in the crater. The volcano was almost continuously active, especially after 1750 and Naples became part of the cities traveler should visit when in Italy.

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803) was a British diplomat in Naples from 1764 to 1798, He got so interested in the nearby Mount Vesuvius that in 1776 he published a monograph on the mountain, illustrated with stunning artwork by local painter Peter Fabris. Hamilton's "Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies" is considered a pioneering work of early volcanology.
 The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in August 1779.
The eruption of May 1771. An Aa lava flow (recognized by the broken surface texture) passes the observer's location and reaches the sea at Resina. Note the steep, slowly advancing front of the flow. Pietro Fabris is amongst the spectators (below left) as is William Hamilton, who explains the view to other onlookers.
Inside the crater of Mount Vesuvius.

Lava samples from Mount Vesuvius.

Another view of the August 1779 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The excavation of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii.
 Hamilton at the crater of Forum Vulcani (Solfatara near Pozzuoli), examining the sulphur and arsenic deposits near the hot springs.