Field of Science

Does praying help prevent natural disasters?

Saint Januarius is the patron of Naples and annually a flask of his (supposedly) blood is presented during a public procession in the city. If, so the legend goes, the dry blood becomes liquid again the city will be spared of any disaster and misfortune. It must be said that the supposed premonitory miracle and its interpretation is very complicated. Factors like timing, how much and how the blood liquefies, color and density of the resulting liquid play a role in the outcome.

Fig.1. The eruption of Vesuvius in1631, Saint Januarius is shown above the vulcano. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector.... most of the times.

The first supposed miracle happened in 1389 and in 1924 geologists Giovanni Battista Alfano (1878-1955) and Antonio Amitrano compiled a list, looking on how well the premonitory signs correlates with disasters or the lack of such. In years where the miracle failed to happen Mount Vesuvius erupted eleven times and nineteen earthquakes hit the city. In years when the miracle happened Vesuvius erupted just five times. So it seems that divine protection works half the times. Also whenever Vesuvius seems to erupt a procession with the relics of the saint is organized. These processions helped diplomat and amateur vulcanologist Sir William Douglas Hamilton (1730-1803) to reconstruct the activity of Vesuvius in recent history.

Fig.2. The recent eruption of Vesuvius: scenes of terror and piety in the face of the eruption, by Achille Beltrame (1871-1956), cover of the newspaper "La Domenica del Corriere" April 1906.

Naples is not the only city with a holy protector. In Catania it´s Saint Agata. According to local folklore a veil of the saint has the power to stop a lava-flow. During the disastrous eruption of Mount Etna in 1669 Saint Agata was invoked. For a time the lava flows could be diverted by a group of brave men, building dams of lava rocks in front of the advancing flow and digging alternative paths, also the walls of the city of Catania resisted. But finally the lava entered in a breach of the walls, claiming 15.000 victims.

Fig.3. Fresco by painter Giacinto Platania (1612-1691) of the eruption of Mount Etna in 1669, Platania witnessed the eruption himself and the painting is quite realistic, showing the lava-flows stopped by the city walls.

Still in 1971 divine protection was claimed for the city of Sant'Alfio, near Catania, and it apparently worked this time. 

As why those inconsistent results over time - the lord works in mysterious ways.

Charles Darwin in Rio de Janeiro and the Geology Of Sugarloaf Mountain

The Sugarloaf Mountain (aka: Pão de Açúcar) rising almost 400m above Rio de Janeiro is composed of granitoid rock – a plutonic rock formed by the slow cooling from magma and composed mostly of the minerals quartz, feldspar and mica.
Charles Darwin, visiting Rio de Janeiro in 1832, describes in details this rock- This whole district is almost exclusively formed of gneiss, abounding with garnets, and porphyritic with large crystals, even three and four inches in length, of orthoclase feldspar: in these crystals, mica and garnets are often enclosed.
Fig.1. View of Rio de Janeiro with Sugarloaf Mountain as seen from the Corcovado by HMS Beagle artist Augustus Earle. 

Granite shows commonly no preferred orientation of the minerals, however Darwin noted that the granite of Rio de Janeiro seems to be more of a gneiss with a weak developed “stratification and foliation” of minerals, as he continues “The mountains of gneiss-granite are to a remarkable degree abruptly conical, which seems caused by the rock tending to exfoliate in thick, conically concentric layers: ...”
Indeed the Sugarloaf is, as correctly described by Darwin, composed mostly of augen-gneiss, a metamorphic rock with single large, often elongated, crystals, resembling eyes in a finer matrix of smaller crystals, therefore the name as auge means eye in German.

Fig.2. Simplified geological map of the Sugarloaf and surrounding bornhardts, from MIGON 2010.

The Sugorloaf is also evidence for plate tectonics. 560 million years ago, when the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana started slowly to break apart, large magmatic bodies intruded into the weakened crust, feed from below by the Tristan da Cunha hotspot. 

Fig.3. Large Igneous Provinces (LIP) and correlated hotspots. Magmatic rocks of the same type can be found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, showing that South America and Africa once were one single continent.

Slowly cooling in the upper crust these magmatic bodies formed a large granitic pluton. During the movement of the continents parts of the pluton broke apart, as we find the same type of rock along the coasts of South-America and of Africa, also some metamorphism and deformation of the rocks occurred and the cleavage of the gneiss formed. Later finally the metamorphic pluton was pushed upwards and erosion started to form the modern landscape of Rio with the hard augen-gneiss towering above weaker and more erodible rocks.

The Dog´s Cave, Animal Cruelty and an unseen Volcanic Killer

The Grotta del Cane (the Dog´s Cave) is a short, 9m deep, artificial gallery located on the rim or the basin of Agnano near Naples. The basin is in reality the remains of an 8.000-4.000 year old collapsed volcano, just one smaller caldera of the Phlegraean Fields.

Fig.1. The Phlegraean Fields with the caldera of Agnano located almost at the center, from SUESS, E. "Das Antlitz der Erde" (1892).

Since antiquity the area is known for it´s volcanic activity, like hot springs and fumaroles, called mofettes.
It´s also famous because inside the dog´s cave small animals like dogs and bird will slowly suffocate. Already the Roman poet Vergil (70-19 BC) writes of the nearby lake of Averno:

"There was a deep stony cave, huge and gaping wide,
sheltered by a dark lake and shadowy woods,
over which nothing could extend its wings in safe flight,
since such a breath flowed from those black jaws,
and was carried to the over-arching sky, that the Greeks
called it by the name Aornos, that is Avernus, or the Bird-less

Naturalists from Antiquity until the Renaissance know of the strange phenomenon and speculated about toxic vapors coming from the underground, killing smaller animals. German polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) suggested that “Ochre, Sandrak*, Orpiment and Arsenic” compounds, known at the time to be toxic (and very popular as pigments to paint), were to blame.

In the early 19th century naturalists in self-experiments determined that below a certain level in the cave they experienced a strange dizziness and started to lose feelings in their legs. Those were recognized as symptoms of a carbon-dioxide intoxication. The invisible and odorless carbon-dioxide is heavier than normal air and tends to flow to the bottom of wells and caves. 
The gas emanates from the volcanic underground and accumulates in the dog´s cave. At the entrance the layer of carbon-dioxide is just sufficiently thick to suffocate smaller animals, deeper in the cave it can become dangerous also for humans. 

The dog´s cave became a popular and somehow macabre tourist attraction in the 18th-19th century. Visitors could buy a dog from a nearby shelter and observe how it would become unconsciousness and suffocate inside the cave – when not saved in the last moment by throwing it in the nearby lake of Agnano (today dried up). The cold water would revive the poor dog in most of the cases...

Fig.2. Demonstrating the deadly effects of the dog´s cave, from “The book of curiosities: containing ten thousand wonders and curiosities of nature and art” (1822). 

*Sandrak is actually a resin used to fix pigments


KROONENBERG, S. (2013): Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld. University of Chicago Press: 352

Gotta Catch 'Em All - A history of collecting rocks and minerals

 – Part I.: Minerals as Medicine

The discovery of fossils in graves and at archaeological digs suggest that humans already in prehistoric times collected unusual shaped rocks or minerals. The why of such a behavior is unknown, maybe the rocks were seen as talisman or simply appreciated for their beauty.

The first written descriptions or minerals and rocks and why collect them date back to Ancient Egypt. Minerals were used for cosmetic purpose but also for medical use and therefore collected in the field. To pass the knowledge from one scholar to the next also the first catalogs of minerals were compiled. 

In Egypt metal-sulfide minerals like galena, pyrolusite, magnetite and stibnite were pulverized and used to create "kohl" or “kajal”, a black color used as makeup for the eyes. The black maybe also sheltered the eye from the blinding desert sun. Green makeup was made from minerals like malachite and chrysocolla. Malachite was also a popular ingredient for medicine, believed to cure - as some preserved medical scrolls describe - diseases of the abdomen and dental problems. The name malachite was given by the Greek to this mineral, as its color resembles the color of the malva-fruit or „malache“. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder describes in his „Naturalis historia“ the powder „molochotis“ used to clean wounds. As malachite contains copper and copper acts as disinfectant the described curative property maybe is based on real observations.
Fig.1. Even today minerals play an important role in alternative medicine. Some minerals derive also the name from supposed similarities to human organs or curative powers, so is hematite known also as blood stone, after its red streak. Hematite rose from Minas Gerais, Brazil.
Also, or maybe especially, Assyrian and Babylonian texts contain description of the magic-medical powers of minerals. At the times it was believed that diseases were caused by ghosts and spirits. Minerals, like lapis-lazuli, hematite and native copper were used as talismans to fend off the evil influences, along many other minerals which old names are nowadays forgotten. More rarely minerals were pulverized and used in lotions to be applied on the body.
According to Indian sources dating to the thirteenth century, but based on far older believes, diamonds were used as pulverized medicine against impotence and to increase longevity, aquamarine cured fever and topaz was used against skin diseases. Some of the supposed powers of minerals still play in the modern Ayurveda medicine a role.
Fig.2. The beauty of diversity - blue aquamarine, black tourmaline, white feldspar and colorless quartz, Pakistan.

According to traditional Chinese medicine diseases were caused by an imbalance of energy in the body. Geologic materials could help to restore the balance by controlling the flow of the supposed life-force. Mud and clay was used to cure skin diseases (there is some truth in this, as peat or fango baths are still popular), as were used minerals, rocks, metals and salts. Most famous is the use of “dragon bones” in Chinese remedies - pulverized bones of real, even if extinct animals - many fossil species were described from such material recovered in traditional apothecaries.
Islamic medical texts show a great influence of Greek medicine. Fossils and precious gemstones were used for tonics to cure or strengthen the inner organs. The Islamic scholars will preserve the knowledge after the demise of the Roman empire and medieval physician will later adopt many of the cures as described in islamic texts. 

During the middle ages many books dedicated to rocks and minerals will be written and many names used for the minerals could be recognized also by a modern mineralogist. However still minerals are classified by their supposed curative and magic properties and still for a long time there are no real mineral-collections created for the purpose to study the crystals. This will dramatically change in the late middle ages with the creation of the first Wunderkammern – the chambers of wonders.

To be continued...
DUFFIN, C.J. (2013): Lithotherapeutical research sources from antiquity to the mid-eighteenth century. In: Duffin, C. J., Moody, R. T. J. & Gardner-Thorpe, C. (eds): A History of Geology and Medicine. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 375: 7–43

Forensic Geology Provides Tantalizing Clues About The Fate Of Skyjacker D.B. Cooper

It was the first “successful” crime of its kind in the U.S. – hijacking an airplane for ransom – and after more than 45 years it is still unsolved. But forensic geology has provided some clues as to what may happened to the hijacker known only as D.B.Cooper. Read more...

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