Field of Science

Strange New Worlds: The Geology Of Star Trek's Planets

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!
As with any good science-fiction, our fascination with Star Trek comes from the combination of real science with fantastic possibilities. When you think of science in the show, disciplines like engineering, astronomy, physics and biology probably spring to mind first. However, the show actually features also a lot of geology.

Historic Mineral Collection Destroyed in Brazil's National Museum Fire

German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner was born in 1749 in Wehrau, at the time a city in the Prussian kingdom.
Werner was educated at Freiberg and Leipzig, where he studied law and mining. In 1775 he was appointed as inspector and teacher of mining and mineralogy at the small, but influential, Freiberg Mining Academy in Saxony. Here he catalogized the collection by mining inspector Carl Eugenius Pabst von Ohain (1718-1784) consisting of 7,500 mineral and rock samples. The collection was also used to teach mineralogy and petrology at the
academy. After the death of Ohain in 1785 the collection was sold to the Portuguese statesman, author and amateur botanist António de Araújo e Azevedo, 1. conde da Barca. In 1807 the mineralogical samples were shipped to Rio de Janeiro, where they were incorporated in the collections of the newly founded National Museum of Brazil. Werner started a new collection, still hosted today at the University of Freiberg. In 1787, based on the studied collections, he published “Kurze Klassifikation und Beschreibung der verschiedenen Gesteinsarten” (Short classification and description of the various rock types), a classification guide using - unusual at a time when most rocks were classified based on the complex rock-chemistry - easily recognizable features (like color, shape, even odor) to identify minerals and rocks. Werner's works play a very important role in the history of geology and mineralogy. He named many common and less common minerals, like Kyanite and Vesuvianite in his writings. His books on minerals and rocks-identification influenced an entire generation of German geologists, including Alexander von Humboldt. Charles Darwin used "Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours" published in 1814 and based in part on A.G. Werner's work, to describe his rock and mineral samples collected during the famous voyage of the Beagle.

Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the National Museum just a few days ago. The extent of the fire's damage won't be fully known until salvage efforts are completed, but it is feared that also Ohain's mineral collection is lost.

After an enormous fire destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 2, 2018, the Bendegó meteorite was one of the few artifacts left relatively intact. The meteorite is the largest space rock ever discovered in Brazil. 

Geology and the Genoa bridge collapse

In Genoa, part of the important A10-highway bridge 'Polcevera' (locally known as 'Morandi', so named after the engineer who planned the bridge) collapsed Tuesday during a thunderstorm. Today 39 victims are confirmed, 16 survivors were saved from the debris, 9 are severely injured, and 10-20 people are still reported missing.
The bridge was built between 1963 and 1967 and planned by Italian engineer Riccardo Morandi, who planned bridges also in Venezuela and Lybia.

Newspaper issue from 1964 showing the project for the Polcevera viaduct.

At this time the cause of the collapse is unclear. Speculations range from thunderstorm damage, material fatigue of the 50 years old bridge to a very unlikely case of terroristic act.

Geology can play a role in statics and dynamics of a bridge. The A10 connects Italy to France and follows the coastline between the Ligurian Sea and the Alps.  The limited space and rugged terrain demands the construction of many tunnels and bridges. The Morandi bridge crosses the  Polcevera river bed and an industrial zone and connects the city of Genoa with its harbor and Nizza/France, making it one of the most important routes in the region. 

Unconfirmed are claims of a landslip on the base of one of the bridge's pylons, triggered by the heavy rain, causing the collapse. A published video seem to show the pylon collapsing only after the highway deck. Photos of the ongoing rescue attempts also don't seem to show damage on the base of the collapsed pylon.

Also unconfirmed are claims of possible subsidence movements of the underground, destabilizing one of the pylons. According to the geological map the underground is composed of marine and alluvial sand and conglomerates, filling a river vally incised in siltstone-formations.

Geological map extract of Genoa showing the A10 crossing the river , blue: alluvial sediments, green: siltstone.

Such terrain can be problematic for a bridge's foundations. A changing water table can cause erosion and resulting underground cavities, followed by collapse and locale subsidence movements on the surface over time. However, many other factors, like construction type of the foundations, play a role in case of a collapse. At the moment there is no evidence to support this scenario.

 Photo from 2016 showing the collapsed pylon and also renovation works at the Polcevera viaduct and river.

A rupture of the highway deck caused by material fatigue, the bridge was constructed in a time when traffic was less intense as today, is favored by most interpelled experts, but only forensic investigations in the coming months may reveal the true cause of the collapse. On Friday it was speculated, that one of the suspension ropes broke. Reinforced concrete is vulnerable, especially near the sea, as water and salt accelerates the corrosion of the iron parts.

The Most Famous Last Stand In History And How Geology Played A Role In It

The Thermopylae, the hot gates or also gates of fire, is a mountain pass at the foot of Mount Kallidromo in modern Greece where legend tells that King Leonidas and 300 of his Spartan warriors fought millions of Persians, during Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. They were able to hold the mountain pass for three days, when they were betrayed and finally defeated.

"Greece and Rome: Builders of Our World (The Story of Man)", 1977

Marie Tharp, The Woman Who Discovered The Backbone Of Earth

July 30, 1920, birthday of Marie Tharp, The Woman Who Discovered The Backbone Of Earth. She was among the first women to get a degree and work as professional geologist in the US. Later she worked also on a map of the seafloor that changed geology.

Alternative Model For Formation Of Devils Tower Explains Its Geological Oddities

Devils Tower in Wyoming is surrounded by myths and mysteries. To the Sioux people, this site was sacred and some of their stories tell how this mountain formed: A long time ago a giant bear chased a group of children onto the flat top of the mountain. Out of reach of the animal, the bear started to scratch the rocks with its claws, forming the characteristic joints in the rock. Reportedly, Devils Tower got its name from this legend, as "bear" was erroneously translated as "bad god" - later becoming the "devil".

Today, this 1,267-foot-high pinnacle of phonolite (a silica-poor fine-grained igneous rock) is described in many textbooks as an intrusion of igneous rock that never reached the surface to form a volcano. However, there are a number of issues with this idea.