Field of Science

Scrooge McDuck and his geological treasures

Scrooge McDuck, today famous as the richest duck in the world, was born into a poor family of 19th century Glasgow and during a lifetime of adventures he found many geological treasures and made his first fortune with copper and gold – or so imagines Keno Don Hugo Rosa, American comic book author, in a successful series of 12 comic book stories published in 1992-96.  Don Rosa did quite some background research for the series. Scrooge meets real-life based characters or witnessed historic events, like the eruption of the Krakatoa in 1883, and there is also some geology or references to precious gemstones to be found.

In the story “Dreamtime Duck of the Never-Never” Scrooge, yet at the beginning of his career, finds a dreamtime opal in Australia but decides to leave the for the Aborigines holy relict untouched. Australia is indeed famous for its opals, a noble variety of quartz.
However a crystal reveals to Scrooge that he should travel into the north, there he will finally make a fortune.
During his travels Scrooge is taught some basic geology by the former prospector Howard Rockerduck when searching for copper in Montana and he temporarily becomes owner of the Anaconda copper mine.

In July 1897 the Seattle Post newspaper had just one headline - GOLD! - discovered in Alaska. The news will trigger the last great gold-rush in Klondike. In the stories "King of the Klondike", "The Prisoner of White Agony Creek" and "Hearts of the Yukon" we meet Scrooge, after leaving Australia, as a prospector participating to the gold-rush of 1896-97. The gold of the Yukon is found as dust in ancient fluvial sediments – referred as muck by the miners -  as correctly depicted in the comic. Scrooge this time is successful, even finding a goose-egg big gold nugget.

In search of more gold, diamonds and other valuable gemstones he travels the world for years to come -

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold
(“The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert W. Service)

In Russia he is informed of the existence of a gigantic striped ruby, finally finding the lost gemstone. 

There are indeed rubies with a phenomenon called asterism. Such star stones display a luminous star-like figure or stripes when seen in light. This optical effects happens due twinning in crystals, small tubular cavities or when fine fibers of another mineral grow into a larger crystal. It´s a very rare effect in rubies and for a time this gemstone is the most precious thing Scrooge possesses.

In one of the last comic stripes finally Scrooge McDuck achieves the goal of a lifetime – he is the richest duck in the world!!! - proving the ancient prophecy of the clan McDuck as true - "Fortuna favet fortibus".

How The Geology Of Mountains Made America Great

The story of the Appalachians started almost half a billion years ago. The first British colonialists arrived to North America just 400 years ago and yet both events are connected and shaped the history of the United States. Without a series of orogenic cycles 490-300 million years ago, caused by the continental collision assembling the super-continent Pangaea and forming the geological roots of the Appalachians, maybe today there would be the United States of Canada, bordering to the south with the Spanish-American Empire.

The first British colonialists arrived to America in 1607 and were confined by the mountains to the Atlantic coastal plains. The parallel north-south trending ridges of the Appalachians, formed by tilted and folded layers, were a difficult terrain, not suited for permanent settlements and of no use to the first farmers. 

Fig.1. Geological Map of Pennsylvania, published in 1858, showing the north-south trending ridges of the Appalachians mountains (source).

Only the French, settling from the North (territory later to become Canada), claimed the Appalachians, establishing a network of outposts for trading fur in the mountains. In the south Florida and the Great Plains were claimed by the Spanish crown as New Spain. 

It seemed that the British were surrounded by both natural as political opponents. However the isolation soon provided decisive. The plains in the Great Appalachian Valley in eastern Pennsylvania provided fertile ground and the population of the colonies grow over time, unnoticed by the French and Spanish. Soon the British expanded westwards in search of new land. This led to a conflict between England and France above the control of the few gaps and mountain passes in the Appalachians. The English colonists were far more numerous and better supplied than the French, having direct access to the sea. The rugged, poorly accessible terrain of the Appalachians proved difficult to defend by the French and allied Indians and were eventually lost to the expanding British colonies.
After the end of the French-American War the English crown wanted to limit the colonization and new settlements to the area of the Appalachians, hoping so to avoid further conflicts with the remaining French and Spanish territories. However the unexpected result was a resentment among the British settlers in America. Colonialists became convinced that the crown didn´t care for the political future of the successful expanding colonies. Among other factors, this resentment will contribute to the later Revolutionary War, where the American colonies will declare their independence, leading in the end to the foundation of the United States of America.
ALESHIRE, P. (2008): The Extreme Earth - Mountains. Chelsea House Publishers: 144

An advice for the prospecting geologist from 1731 - observe the water

The miner needs in his art to have the most experience, so that he knows the place, the mountain or the hill, the valley or the field, that can be mined with success, and to avoid to dig were nothing can be gained.
from Agricola, "Zwölf Bücher vom Berg- und Hüttenwesen", I. Buch (1549)

Georg Grandtegger was a mine inspector in the Prettauer mine (Tyrol) who published in 1731 a field guide to find ore. Some of his suggestions may be useful even today, so he writes:
"The water of a spring must be tasted for the dissolved substances in it"
It is true that minerals like salt, sulfur and some metallic ores are water-soluble and can alter the taste and smell of water. Water saturated with metals can also precipitate new minerals (mostly oxides and hydroxides) in a river, like reddish-brown sediments when saturated with iron or greenish crusts when saturated with copper.
So Grandtegger continues:

"The brand [a term referring to color-alteration of the rock] comes from an ore along the creek. Follow it as long as you see it, then you will find the ore.”
"If you find in fountains [read springs], feed by the mountain, many reddish, bluish or black stones, or even colored green, even if the rocks itself have no ore, so flows the water out from veins of ore."
Fig.1. A spring, the mud around is colored by iron-oxides and -hydroxides, a clue that in the underground there is ore-rich schist to be found.

Grandtegger correctly suggest that a prospecting geologist should observe carefully if rocks are colored by precipitations of metals in a river. If so the geologist can follow the river until the spring. The source of the dissolved metals will likely to be found here in the underground. 

Fig.2. The reddish colors of the pebbles in this creek suggest the presence of iron and copper. Sometimes even the name of certain localities can help the prospecting geologist, like here, as this small creek is found in the “red valley”.

A last important observation, as dissolved copper is poisonous for animals and plants, rivers flowing in copper-rich rocks will likely show a diminished presence of insects and fish – so it may be a good idea to ask local fishermen about spots were they don´t get to catch anything, it may be the right spot for the geologist.

How 19th Century Climbing Books Reveal Clues About Climate Change

For the stone from the top for geologists…” answered mountaineer George Mallory once when asked why he’d climb Mount Everest (he and his friend Sandy Irvine perished there on June 6, 1924). 
Geologists nowadays study how climate change weakens the mountains based on observations made by such pioneering mountaineers. Continue reading...

Dante´s Inferno - The Geology of Hell

"Through me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.
Before me there were no created things,
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!
Canto III

"The Gates of Hell", by Jehan Froissart, 15th century.

For a long time the inner earth was a mysterious place, supposedly the reign of demons and place of eternal damnation. Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) imagined an especially elaborate version of hell in the “Divine Comedy”. Like later authors he used in part his contemporary knowledge as inspiration and included in the description of the nine circles of hell, with Lucifer residing in the lowest, real landscapes. Dante mentions earthquakes, rivers, the shape of mountains and landslides, a desert of hot sand and some types of rocks (like the marble of Carrara).
The circles gradually become smaller with less circumference, as hell is depicted like an inverted cone in a sphere, protruding towards earth´s core. This image is based on calculations of Greek philosophers (like Eratosthenes of Cyrene, 276-194BC or Claudius Ptolemy, 100-170AD), Dante even gives an exact value of earth´s radius of 3.250 miles (5.230km, actual radius is 6.371km). 

Dante´s Inferno by Jan van der Straet, 1587.

The cone formed when Lucifer, the fallen angel, fell on earth, the impact was so great that it even shaped earth´s surface, with continents formed on the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere covered by the sea (Dante didn't know of the existence of the southern continents of Australia and Antarctica). 

"The fallen angels" by Vincent of Beauvais (1463).

In the south we will find only the mountain of Purgatory. Purgatory, together with the holy city of Jerusalem, forms an axis passing earth, with Lucifer´s belly as center of earth. An allegoric image, as Lucifer is damned as far as possible away from the sun and divine light.
Illustration to Dante's "The Divine Comedy" from the "Codice Urbinate Latino 365" (1480) showing the frozen center of earth with Lucifer trapped in eternal ice. Dante imagined this part of hell as frozen wasteland, as it was as farest away from the warm sun as possible in his geocentric universe (earth as center of the cosmos, with sun, moon and stars around it).

Dante when entering hell is guided by the shadow of ancient Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19BC), better known as Virgil. During his pilgrimage from hell to purgatory and paradise, the way is obstructed by ruins, destroyed, as one demon reveals to Virgil, by an ancient earthquake.

Like the ruins this side of Trent left by the landslide/
an earthquake or erosion must have caused it/
that hit the Adige on its left bank,/
when, form the mountain’s top where the slide began/
to the plain below, the shattered rocks slipped down,/
shaping a path for a difficult descent/
so was the slope of our ravine’s formation.

Dante describes in these verses the sight of a 3.000 years old landslide near the Italian city of Trento, even arguing that the cause of this ancient landslide was erosion or an earthquake. Dante maybe visited this site, as he lived for a time in the nearby city of Verona. For sure he used German naturalist Albertus Magnus (1200-1280) as reference, who argued that by the river eroding the base of the mountain it collapsed, forming the ruined landscape of the landslide. Dante also experiences an earthquake at the shores of the river Acheron, caused by winds or vapors blowing inside the caverns of earth and igniting from time to time.

It´s curios to note that Dante didn't describe hell filled by fire, despite Mount Etna and Vesuvius were regarded in ancient times as gates to hell and both mountains seem to be filled by the liquid “lava-fire”.... not to mention hellish volcanic eruptions. However Etna is mentioned when referring to the island of Sicily, as site with sulfur vapors. The Phlegethon and some minor rivers are described as rivers of boiling blood with "lithified" margins, like - so Dante writes - the hot springs of Bullicame near the city of Viterbo in the Lazio region.

The Icelandic volcano Hekla as gateway to hell, from "Historiae de gentibus septentrionalibus" by Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), Archbishop of Uppsala.

There is may a simple explanation why Dante didn't include volcanoes more prominent in his work. Both Etna and Vesuvius were at the time relatively calm (Vesuvius erupted only in 1321-1323) and so of no real interest to the poet.

Geology plays even a role in the punishment of the sinners. In the third circle the simonists (people who sold holy artifacts for profit) are driven upside down into the ground and "squeezed tightly in the fissures of the rock".
 The robbers are punished in a circle filled with poisonous snakes. Dante describes looking down into the pit was he sees:

“Within this cruel and bitterest abundance/
people ran terrified and naked, hopeless/
of finding hiding-holes or heliotrope./
Their hands were tied behind their backs with serpents.”

Heliotrope (a chalcedony variety) was since ancient times a gemstone much valued for its magical properties, like to protect from the venom of snakes. 

After Inferno Dante finally reaches the slopes of Mount Purgatory, leaving hell behind:

"The climb had sapped my last strength when I cried:
“Sweet Father, turn to me: unless you pause/
I shall be left here on the mountainside!”/

He pointed to a ledge a little ahead/
that wound around the whole face of the slope./
“Pull yourself that much higher, my son,” he said./

His words so spurred me that I forced myself/
to push on after him on hands and knees/
until at last my feet were on that shelf."

The poets begin their laborious climb up the Mount of Purgatory, illustration by Gustave Doré (1861).

The Divine Comedy is nowadays appreciated for it´s role in the development of literature and Italian language, but it is also valuable source to better understand the natural sciences and the understanding of earth in the 14th century. 

KROONENBERG, S. (2013): Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld. University of Chicago Press: 352
ROMANO, M. (2016): Per tremoto o per sostegno manco”: The Geology of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Italian Journal of Geosciences, 135(1): 95-108

Darwin´s first botanizing steps followed the 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."
Darwin in a letter to Henslow, 1836
Darwin´s interests in the natural world were widespread. He enjoyed hunting, later also taxidermy. With his cousin William Darwin Fox he hunted for bugs. He collected rocks and minerals and later geologized around the world during the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836). His mentor and friend John Stevens Henslow was professor of Mineralogy and later for Botany, introducing the student Darwin in both disciplines. Darwin attended Henslow´s botany lectures, labs and field trips each year during his three years at Cambridge, visiting also private science meetings at Henslow´s home. During the geological field trip in summer of 1831 with Adam Sedgwick he also collected and preserved some plant specimens.

Fig.1. 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 (image source).
During the voyage of the Beagle Darwin collected plants or seeds on the Cape Verde Islands (the first stop of the Beagle), then Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, later also on 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 concentrated on remote or less well studied localities.
Darwin had prepared several thousand labels in different colors before the voyage to be applied to every dried plant (the labels including plant name, locality, date and his signature). Wet specimens, conserved in "spirits of wine", were tagged with a metal tag. Henslow, who back in England managed Darwin´s collection, removed however most labels when putting Darwin´s specimens into the herbarium. Unlike the collected rocks and animals Darwin didn´t number the plants, 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 plant specimens.
Darwin´s plant collection is especially interesting as it includes many species from the – at the time – less visited islands of Galápagos and Cocos islands. Darwin was intrigued about the relationship of the island species to nearby continents, he will do some experiments with seeds showing that some can survive salt water for months and so be dispersed over the sea. Despite Darwin´s first plans he didn't publish the collected plants in his description of “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 voyage around the world, 220 species were new to science. Darwin was especially surprised by the variability of plants, one collected grass species was divided by Henslow into 15 different groups! This was an intriguing observation, important for his later theory of evolution, as variability is where natural selection acts on. 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 could disperse with marine currents and islands be colonized by plants from nearby continents, couldn't they also evolve there in new species?
PORTER, D.M. (2010): Darwin: the Botanist on the Beagle. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, Vol.61(4): 117-156

Bone and blood is the price of coal - Animals in Mines

"Humanity’s genius is to have always had a sense of its weakness. The physical energy and strength, with which nature insufficiently endowed humans, is found in animals that help them to discover new territories."
From the movie "Home" (2009)
Since prehistoric times humans searched for rocks and minerals hidden deep inside earth. First for silex and quartz, used for stone tools, later for metals and finally for coal and oil to fuel the industrial revolution.
In antiquity the work in mines was done by prisoners or slaves. In the middle ages miners became professional workers. The demand was so high that miners were members of a privileged social class, often freed from direct taxes, living in villages with own independent jurisdiction. The price for the privileges was nevertheless high. The work in the mines was dangerous, rock-fall and sudden flooding of the tunnels, wet and cold conditions for hours, poisoned air and dust causing sickness and death.

But not only humans, also animals had to suffer. In the middle ages animals, like horses, were not yet used directly in the mines, but to move large machines, like pumps, cranes and conveyor belts. Only after 1750 pit ponies were introduced for the first time in coal mines to pull mine tubs.

Fig.1. & 2. A horse as engine, image from Georgius Agricola "De re metallica libri XII" (1556). Apart horses or mules, in alpine regions also dogs were used to help in the transport of the ore, here carrying empty bags up the mountain.

Fig.3. A pit pony in a subterranean railway tunnel.

Apart infrastructure, animals played also a role in the security and hygiene of a mine. To detect poisonous and highly explosive methane-gas, called also grisú, miners relied on canary birds. As birds however have a poorly developed sense of smell they were more useful to detect carbon monoxide, as this gas would suffocate first the birds, warning so the miners.

Fig.4. Miners using a canary.

To control rats and mice in the Yorkshire mines terrier dogs were used, the Yorkshire was breed for size and agility, to catch rats even in the narrowest of tunnels and galleries.
Cats were used as living detectors. Able to see in near darkness and thanks to their keen hearing, entrapped miners could be more quickly found and may rescued in time.
Modern mines nowadays use powerful machinery and sensors have replaced the cats, but it´s still hard work. Also still in many less developed countries, working in small mines, humans and animals risk their health and lives to extract the precious metals, essential to run our modern electronic gadgets.
Famous physician Philippus Theophrastus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), better known as Paracelsus, interested both in mines and diseases, once wrote:

...nothing good can be acquired without a price.“