Field of Science

How Mount Etna Helped Geologists Understand The Birth Of Volcanoes

Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe. The size, location (Italy is worth visiting for a lot of reason) and constant volcanic activity have made Mount Etna an important destination for early traveling geologists Read On..

Damned Souls and Fiery Oceans - Early Views Of Earth`s Core

"We know more about the stars high above our heads, than about earth just below our feet."
Leonardo da Vinci
There is some truth in da Vinci´s words, as for a long time the interior of earth was a mysterious place, supposedly the reign of demons and place of eternal damnation. Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) imagined a core of ice, an allegoric image, far away from the sun and divine light where the damned souls are entrapped in eternal ice

German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) imagined earth´s section in his "Mundus Subterraneus" (1664-1665) as crossed by veins of water and fire. The water would feed springs and rivers, the fire the volcanic mountains – but apart practical observations Kircher´s worldview was influenced also by religious-philosophical considerations, the two opposite elements water and fire united in a perfect creation.
Fig.1. from "Mundus Subterraneus", first edition published in 1664-1665.

Leonardo da Vinci´s (1452-1519) approach was more rational, even if inspired by the idea that earth worked a bit like a human body, just blood replaced by water. Water, so da Vinci, eroded, transported and deposited sediments, connecting mountains with the sea. He imagined earth filled by an immense underground ocean, sections of the superficial crust sinking into it would explain the formation of mountains.

Fig.2. Leonardo da Vinci´s speculative section of planet earth, from his private notes (Codex Leicester, 1510).
James Hutton (1726-1797) recognized the importance of magmatic rocks on earth. To explain the large quantities of volcanic rocks on earth´s surface and the energy needed to melt rocks, Plutonists proposed a molten interior, even if it is was not clear if molten rocks form most of earth or were to be found in only large magmatic chambers, distributed in the upper layers of earth.
Fig.3. Section of earth from Erasmus Darwin´s poetic-naturalistic work (1791), note the "unknown region supposed to consist of Lava kept in semifluid state by heat...[]".

French science-fiction author Jules Gabriel Verne (1828 - 1905) based his novel "A Journey to the Center of the Earth" (1864) on the science of his time. In his novel Verne uses the hollow conduit of the Icelandic volcano Snæfellsjökull to venture inside earth, an idea supported by the geologic models of volcanoes proposed at the time - a single or a series of magma chamber(s) with conduits connecting them to the surface. Geologists assumed that during an eruption the magma reservoir becomes empty and large voids and caverns were left behind.
Fig.4. Geological section, published in the book "Einführung in die Erdbeben- und Vulkankunde Süditaliens" (1914), shows the anatomy of a stratovolcano, with a main conduit, various lateral dikes and a large sill connected to the magma reservoir. 

The Spanish adaptation of Verne´s novel "The Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth"/ Where Time Began" (1976) summarizes best the problems geologists faced all this time:

"-Gentleman, the truth is that all our theories are just that, theories. None of us has the least idea of how the earth was really formed. Because the distance between the earths crust and its core is over 6.500 kilometres, and no men has ever descended to a depth of more than 3 miles. So it's obvious, we will never have a glimmer of true knowledge, until we are able to reach a depth of at least a 100 leagues.
- What's your opinion Professor Lindenbrook?
- Well gentlemen, at one point at least I agree with Professor Christophe, the materials of the geologists are not charts, chalk and chatter, but the earth itself. We should never know the truth, until we are able to make that journey, and see for ourselves."

To be continued...

PARCELL, W.C. (2009): Signs and symbols in Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus. In Rosenberg, G.D., ed., The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: Geological Society of America Memoir 203: 63-74

Caves Are Unique (And Spooky) Treasure Chests Of Prehistoric Life

Caves have always fascinated people. Tales of strange or extraordinary large bones found in them may have also inspired legends that referred to caves as gateways to an underground world of fear, perhaps still inhabited by monsters and demons...Read On

Of Dragons and Geology

Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733) was a Swiss physician, but also quite interested in travels and natural sciences. He published his observations on the culture and natural world of the Alps as “Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis 1702-1711“.

In the introduction by the editor we read:

The name of Scheuchzer will be famous …[] The author was in the best conditions to make valid discoveries during his explorations. He worked with incredible determination.., [] no danger, no costs, no difficulty were too large for this great man.

Despite the work was intended to dispel of myths and superstitions so common in the Alps, Scheuchzer, like many other naturalists of his time, did not see a contradiction in publishing own and exact observation and rumors... Read On

The Geology Of Star Trek: From Extraterrestrial Minerals To Alien Life-Forms

August 19, 1921: Happy Birthday to Eugene Wesley „Gene“ Roddenberry - creator of Star-Trek Universe, where you can find some fascinating geology, from extraterrestrial minerals to silicon life-forms !! Read on...

What's in a name? - Mineralogy

It may seems strange, but Romans didn´t know minerals, despite crystals of quartz were well known and various famous mines of gold, silver and lead date back to these times, but so they didn´t know "mines". Roman naturalist used the term "metallum", derived from the Greek language, to describe both real metals as non-metallic minerals like salt, sulphur or gemstones. “Ad metallum damnare” was therefore the punishment to work in mines to extract rocks and metals. Only in medieval times the term “metalliarum” or “metallum”/“metullum” refers in specific to real metallic elements, like gold and iron, as mines where such ores are found.
The modern term and use of the word "mine" derives probably from the celtic word “meini”, may referring to both the ore as the mine, as still in medieval Latin the word “minera/minora” can be used to describe the metal as the galleries where it´s found. For sure the word “minae” referring to mining activities, can be found in documents dating back to 1143.
From medieval mines the word will later give to "the minerals" their name and finally to the "study of minerals" - mineralogy.

Fig.1. Lecture in mineralogy, from Bartholomäus Anglicus "Über die Eigenschaften der Dinge" (1390-1400) - "On the Properties of Things".


GRUBER, F. (2004): Einige Ausdrücke des Montanwesens in etymologischer - sprachgeschichtlicher Sicht. Res Montanarum. Nr. 34: 101-112

How Charles Darwin Classified His Minerals And Rocks

In an autobiographic note Charles Darwin remembers a childhood wish:

It was soon after I began collecting stones, i.e., when 9 or 10, that I distinctly recollect the desire I had of being able to know something about every pebble in front of the hall door–it was my earliest and only geological aspiration at that time.“

Also during later school years Darwin remains interested in chemistry and minerals, however he laments that “I continued to collecting minerals with much zeal, but quite unscientifically – all that I cared was a new named mineral, and I hardly attempted to classify them.” As a medicine student at Edinburgh University (1825-1827) Darwin frequented various courses on natural sciences, also lectured by mineralogist Professor Robert Jameson, however he considered Jameson´s lectures as „incredibly dull“. Nevertheless Darwin seems to have used frequently Jameson´s „Manual of Mineralogy“ for his private studies, as it is one of the most heavily annotated books in his library. Jameson´s manual uses physical properies, like color and especially the degree of hardness, introduced by German mineralogist Carl Friedrich Christian Mohs in 1822-1824, for mineral identification. Darwin adopts this “visual characterization” approach, so he often describes rocks based on the well visible physical properties, referring to mineral texture or colors, using terms like “porphyry”, for rocks with large, well visible, crystals, "greystone" or “greenstone”, a general name for greenish-dark magmatic rocks (today classified as dolerite-basalt).

In summer of 1831 Darwin joined a field trip of professor Adam Sedgwick, geologizing in Wales. Darwin was interested in acquiring the basics of geological field work, structural geology and rock classification. Twenty pages of notes made by Darwin during this tour are still today preserved – in his autobiography he will later remember: “This tour was of decided use in teaching me a little how to make out the geology of a country...

When Darwin returned to Shrewsbury, August 29th, a letter from Captain Robert FitzRoy was offering him a position as gentlemen companion on board of the brig Beagle, ready to set sail from Plymouth in December 1831. 
Darwin used the remaining time to exercise mineral identification with the blowpipe (heating a mineral you then observe the chemical redactions and modifications of the specimen to identify it or its composing elements) and muriatic (hydrochloric) acid, useful to distinguish between carbonatic and siliceous rocks

On board of the Beagle Darwin could rely on a complete library for mineral identification, like "A selection of the Geological Memoirs" (1824), including a mineral chart by French geologist A. Brongniart. These manuals use properties like color, hardness, form, but also taste and odour for mineral identification. Darwin got for himself a goniometer, to measure angles of crystal-faces, a not easy to use tool in the field but Darwin proudly remarks "Hornblende determined by myself with goniometer".
Especially interesting are classification charts based on the color of a specimen. "Werner's nomenclature of colors”, published in 1821 by Patrick Syme (1774-1845), is a book displaying a chart and description of various colors to be compared with the colors of minerals, animals and plants. Darwin used this book to describe snakes, rocks and even the "beryl blue" glaciers.

Fig.1. Page from "Werner's nomenclature of colors”, the book was brought on board of the Beagle by Darwin himself.

It is curious to note that Darwin not only used a mineral classification scheme based on the work of German mineralogist Mohs. He adopted also the geological terms used mostly by German geologists, like Alexander von Humboldt, to describe the rocks observed in the field. Darwin will become especially interested in volcanic rocks.

Darwin´s final advice published in 1839 for collecting rocks has value still today (even if Darwin himself admitted he didn´t follow it always):

"Put a number on every specimen, and every fragment of a specimen; and during the very same minute let it be entered in the catalogue, so that if hereafter its locality be doubted, the collector may say in good truth, “Every specimen of mine was ticketed on the spot." Any thing which is folded up in paper, or put into a separate box, ought to have a number on the outside (with the exception perhaps of geological specimens), but more especially a duplicate number on the inside attached to the specimen itself."

Fig.2. Page with rock-classification from Jameson 1821 (influenced strongly by the work of German geologists), Darwin will himself adopt "German" terms like "Amygdaloid" to describe basaltic lava flows observed on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of the Beagle.


HERBERT, S. (2005): Charles Darwin, Geologist. Cornell University Press: 485
ROBERTS, M. (2001): Just before the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s geological fieldwork in Wales, summer 1831. Endeavour Vol. 25(1): 33-37

Ancient Stories Provided An Early Warning About Potential Seattle Earthquakes

Oral tradition played – and still plays – an important role in many societies. The subjects of these stories range from fantastic fairy tales to myths, tales based on real persons, places or historic events. But interestingly enough, these stories may also represent attempts to record and transfer knowledge of past geological catastrophes as a warning from generation to generation. Read On...

How Volcanic Eruptions Inspired Artists

As diplomat in France, from 1776-1785, Benjamin Franklin noted in 1783 a strange, grey-bluish mist covering the sky above Europe. Franklin speculated that the cloud was some sort of volcanic dust, may transported from the wind from the Katla, famous Icelandic volcano,  to the European mainland. In fact in June 1783 the Laki on Iceland had erupted, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in historic times with worldwide effects on earth´s atmosphere, climate and history. 

But volcanic dust also influenced art and poetry.

A surprisingly colourful sunset inspired Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) to his famous painting “The Scream”. A distorted figure seems to be petrified screaming in pain, the red background reinforces the despair and agony. Munch himself noted:

"I was walking along the road with two friends - then the Sun set - all at once the sky became  blood red - and I felt overcome with melancholy.  I stood still and leaned against the railing,  dead tired - clouds like blood and tongues of  fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature."

Exceptional sunsets were observed above Oslo and in many other cities worldwide in the years 1885-92. The New York Times reports on November 28, 1883:

"Soon after 5 o’clock the western horizon suddenly flamed into a brilliant scarlet, which crimsoned sky and clouds. People in
the streets were startled at the unwonted sight and gathered in little groups on all the corners to gaze into the west.  Many thought that a great fire was in progress
....People were standing on their steps and gazing from their windows as well as from the streets to wonder at the unusual sight. The clouds gradually deepened to a bloody red hue,  and a sanguinary flush was on the sea…

Fig.1. Sunset seen in London in the year 1883, from SYMONS, G.J. (1888): The Eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena.

The red-glowing sunsets were caused by volcanic ash, dispersed in the higher atmospheric layers the fine particles scattered the sunlight especially effective during sunset.

August 1883 the volcanic island of Krakatoa in Indonesia had annihilated itself in a gigantic eruption. Ash, volcanic dust and gases were send in the higher atmospheric layers, high above clouds and rain the particles would stay for years there, inspiring artists and poets, like English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892):

"Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurl’d so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve...
The wrathful sunset glared..."

Munch however was not the first painter to be inspired by the range of sky-colors caused by a volcanic eruption. Famous English landscape painter William S. Turner (1775-1851) was so impressed by the sunsets in the years 1815-16 that he produced an entire series of paintings, showing the changes observed in the sky for almost one year (Turner will also go on painting more volcano-related paintings). 
In April 1815 the Tambora, also on Indonesia, had erupted, the largest volcanic eruptions in modern times. Also here volcanic particles and dust were injected in the stable stratosphere, scattering for years to come the sunlight and painting the sky in wonderful reddish, orange, bluish-violett colors, an inspiring and haunting view.


OLSON, D.; DOESCHER, R. & OLSON, M. (2004): When The Sky Ran Red - The Story Behind The Scream. Sky & Telescope, February: 28-35

This 1783 Volcanic Eruption Changed The Course Of History

The sun fades away, the land sinks into the sea,the bright stars  disappear from the sky,
as smoke and  fire  destroy  the world,
and the flames reach the sky.
The End of the World according to the “Völuspa“, a collection of Icelandic myths compiled in the 13th century.

June 8, 1783 marks the beginning of a volcanic eruption that will change history…

The true treasure of the North

GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! found in the Klondike river in the Yukon territory, Alaska. The news spread like wildfire, fueling the last great gold-rush of the United States in 1896-99.

Also French businessman Loicq de Lobel decided in 1898 to try his luck in the new world. Even if not directly interested in searching for gold, he hoped to make a living by selling equipment to the prospectors. So the family de Lobel, his wife and four children, following the famous Chilkoot Trail ventured into the northern wilderness, first by feet and later by boat. To distract herself from the perils of the voyage, de Loicq´s wife, which name is not recorded, botanized along the way. She collected for the very first time specimens of the endemic lady's-slipper orchid, Astralagus, bearberry, Epilobium, arnica and a blue-flowering bellflower.

 “… everywhere there were nice flowers, at our arrival at Glenora we found lots of flowering plants...”
The de Lobel family lived for a time in the Yukon territory, then moved to the Aleuten Islands, to finally return to France. The Klondike Gold Rush ended as suddenly as it began, only few found great riches and fortune. However the collected plants by the de Lobel became known as “Klondike River Herbarium” and represents still today a unique botanic treasure.


THINARD, F. (2013): Das Herbarium der Entdecker - Humboldt, Darwin & Co. - botanische Forscher und ihre Reisen. Haupt-Verlag: 168

April 18, 1906: San Francisco´s Wicked Ground

O, promised land
O, wicked ground
Build a dream
Tear it down
O, promised land
What a wicked ground
Build a dream
Watch it all fall down
San Andreas Fault

Maybe the first persons to note something unusual in early morning of April 18, 1906 were the sailors on board of the “Wellington“, just entering the bay of San Francisco. The captain reported later that the ship “shivered and shook like a springless wagon on a corduroy road” even if the sea was as “smooth as glass“.
At the shores of Ocean Beach the worker Clarence Judson was swimming in the sea, when he was grabbed by a strong current and sucked into the deep – only with great effort he reached the safe shore.

I tried to run to where my shoes, hat and bathrobe lay, but I guess I must have described all kinds of figures in the sand. I thought I was paralyzed. ...[]... I jumped on my bathrobe to save me.

In Washington Street the police sergeant Jesse Cook observed a terrifying spectacle:

The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me, billowing as they came ...[]...Davis Street split right open in front of me, []… A gaping trench. . . about six feet deep and half full of water. Suddenly ...[]... sprang up on the sidewalk at the southeast corner while the walls of the building I had marked for my asylum began tottering. Before I could get into the shelter of the doorway the walls had actually fallen inward..

George Davidson, professor for Geography, woke up from the tumult coming from the streets. He grabbed his watch on the desk and noted the length of a first quake – 60 seconds – followed by a second – again 20 to 40 seconds long . His observations – 5:12 a.m. in the morning – will later be used to determinate the official time of the great earthquake of San Francisco in 1906. 

So early in the morning, many people were still asleep and killed in their beds, those who escaped gathered in the streets. Despite the earthquake most of the city seemed still intact and surprisingly quiet.

In 1906 San Francisco was already considered a great and ambitious, but also corrupt and infamous, city with more than 400.000 inhabitants; it had experienced an incredible growth since 1848 thanks to the discovery of gold in the rivers of California. Now it was an important harbour to the Pacific Ocean and a modern trade place, many shops sold the newest technologies in film equipment. The earthquake of San Francisco will become the first natural disaster of this magnitude to be so well documented by photographs and film footage (even in colour).
This growth and achievements were however possible only by cheap and fast construction methods and so most buildings in San Francisco were made of wood and not exceptionally stable. San Francisco had burned to the ground six times in the past century and experienced stronger earthquakes in 1865 and 1868, when 30 people were killed. However the modern fire equipment – horse driven and steam powered water pumps – was believed to be capable to fight every fire.
Fig.1.Earthquakey Times“, a caricature by Ed Jump of the October 8, 1865 earthquake in San Francisco. While he was working as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain experienced the earthquake which he describes in his 1872 book “Roughing It.” – “It was just after noon, on a bright October day. I was coming down Third Street. The only objects in motion anywhere . . . were a man in a buggy behind me, and a [horse-drawn] streetcar wending slowly up the cross street. . . . As I turned the corner, around a frame house, there was a great rattle and jar. . . . Before I could turn and seek the door, there came a terrific shock; the ground seemed to roll under me in waves, interrupted by a violent joggling up and down, and there was a heavy grinding noise as of brick houses rubbing together. I fell up against the frame house and hurt my elbow. . . A third and still severer shock came, and as I reeled about on the pavement trying to keep my footing, I saw a sight! The entire front of a tall fourstory brick building on Third Street sprung outward like a door and fell sprawling across the street, raising a great dust-like volume of smoke! And here came the buggy-overboard went the man, and in less time than I can tell it the vehicle was distributed in small fragments along three hundred yards of street. . . . The streetcar had stopped, the horses were rearing and plunging, the passengers were pouring out at both ends. . . . Every door, of every house, as far as the eye could reach, was vomiting a stream of human beings; and almost before one could execute a wink and begin another, there was a massed multitude of people stretching in endless procession down every street my position commanded. . . . For some days afterward, groups of eyeing and pointing men stood about many a building, looking at long zig-zag cracks that extended from the eaves to the ground…

Police sergeant Jesse Cook was the first person to report a fire in a grocery in Clay Street, some hours later there where already fifty in the entire city. The fire fighters realized horrified that the water pipers in the underground were broken and the hydrants in the city useless. The firestorm rages in the city for three days and will be responsible for 90 percent of the 28.000 destroyed buildings.

The journalist Arnold Genthe is thrilled by the scenery and the devastation caused by the approaching fire, unfortunately he discovers that his camera was damaged during the quake. “I found that my hand cameras had been so damaged by the falling plaster as to be rendered useless. I went to Montgomery Street to the shop of George Kahn, my dealer, and asked him to lend me a camera. “Take anything you want. This place is going to burn up anyway.” I selected the best small camera, a 3A Kodak Special. I stuffed my pockets with films and started out….
He will take some of the most famous photos in history.
Fig.2.Looking Down Sacramento Street, San Francisco, April 18. 1906“, photography by Arnold Genthe.

In Jackson Street the owner of the “Hotaling´s Whiskey” distillery decides to remain and fight the flames . He pays 80 men to sprinkle 5.000 barrels of whisky with water pumped out from the sewer system. Later he will mock all those who claim that the earthquake was send by god by coining a new advertising slogan for his products:

If, as some say, God spanked the town, for being over frisky – why did He burn the churches down an save Hotaling´s Whiskey?

Army troops were soon ordered into the city to help the firefighters and prevent panic and looting. Despite the fact that martial law was never proclaimed, the major authorized policeman and soldiers to shoot looting persons – “Obey orders or get shot” was the grim warning on some improvised signboards.
Guion Dewey, a businessman from Virginia, wandering onto the streets of downtown San Francisco minutes after the quake, experienced the best and worst of human behaviour, as he later reported in a letter to his mother:

I saw innocent men shot down by the irresponsible militia. I walked four miles to have my jaw set. A stranger tried to make me accept a $10 gold piece. I was threatened with death for trying to help a small girl drag a trunk from a burning house, where her father and mother had been killed. A strange man gave me raw eggs and milk . . . (the first food I had had for twenty-two hours). I saw a soldier shoot a horse because its driver allowed it to drink at a fire hose which had burst. I had a Catholic priest kneel by me in the park as I lay on a bed of alfalfa hay, covered with a piece of carpet, and pray to the Holy Father for relief for my pain. . . . I saw a poor woman, barefoot, told to “Go to Hell and be glad for it” for asking for a glass of milk at a dairyman’s wagon; she had in her arms a baby with its legs broken. I gave her a dollar and walked with her to the hospital. . . .I was pressed into service by an officer, who made me help to strike tents in front of the St. Francis Hotel, when the order was issued to dynamite all buildings in the vicinity to save the hotel. I like him, and hope to meet him again. When he saw I was hurt, which I had not told him, not yet having been bandaged, he took me to his own tent and gave me water and brandy and a clean handkerchief.

The earthquake and the firestorms killed estimated 3.000 to 4.000 people, destroyed 28.000 buildings and the infrastructure of the entire city – but in a surprising rush people rebuild their homes and life, and just three year later most of San Francisco looked as if the earthquake never happened.

Seismology was still a young scientific discipline at the time of the earthquake in San Francisco, in part as a result of the lack of appropriate equipment like sensible tools to measure the tremors of earth. Worldwide there were only 96 seismographs operating, none of these in California. In the aftermath of the disaster, only three days later, the Governor of California announced the formation of the State Earthquake Investigation Commission, led by geologist Andrew C. Lawson of the University of California.
The commission concentrated its work on the San Andreas Rift, a nearby valley until then considered of minor interest and mapped geologically only in short sections. For two years Lawson and his team followed the rift along ponds, streams and hills on foot and horseback. They recognized that the rift follows almost the entire coastline of California for more than 1.000 kilometers (620 miles). During the April 18, earthquake almost 480 kilometers (300 miles) of this rupture were displaced horizontally, not vertically, as geologists had previously believed to be the source of earthquakes. The commission had discovered that earthquakes can be generated also along so called strike-slip faults.
The epicenter of the earthquake was at first located at the point with the largest observed displacement on land – however today the epicenter is believed to be situated below the Pacific Ocean, in accordance to the seismic waves coming from the sea as observed by the first eyewitnesses.
The results of the scientific investigation of the San Francisco earthquake led Henry Fielding Reid, a geology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, to propose a new theory regarding the origin of earthquakes, later dubbed the “theory of elastic rebound“. Reid’s hypothesis will have a revolutionary impact on the young science of seismology.


SLAVICEK, L.C. (2008): The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Great Historic Disasters. Chelsea House Publishers: 128
STARR, J.D. (1907): The California Earthquake of 1906. A.M. Robertson, San Francisco

Clash of the Titans: The Science behind the Iceberg that sank the Titanic

The tragedy of the “unsinkable” Titanic – lost in the cold water of the Atlantic – became part of history and pop culture, but the story of the main culprit that caused the disaster is mostly forgotten and only vague descriptions and some photos exists of the supposed iceberg(s). One famous photography taken from board of the cable ship “Minia, one of the first ships to reach the area in search for debris and bodies, shows a tabular iceberg, an unusual shape for icebergs in the northern Atlantic. The crew found debris and bodies floating in the vicinity and the captain assured that this was the only iceberg near the point of the collision. However most surviving Titanic testimonies described later the infamous iceberg with a prominent peak or even two.

Fig.1. The moment of the collision according to the sailor Frederick Fleet - one of the two men on duty as lookout in the night of the disaster (after EATON & HAAS 1986).

Fig.2. Journalist Colin Campbell, a passenger of the "Carpathia" - the first ship to approach the scene of the disaster the next morning and save the surviving passengers of the Titanic - described the iceberg for the "New York Tribune" (after EATON & HAAS 1986).

Fig.3. One of the many icebergs photographed in the morning of April 15, 1912. The passengers on the ship “Prinz Adalbert”, still unaware of the disaster of the previous night, reported later to have noted a “red smear” at the waterline of the white iceberg.

Fig.4. Photography of an iceberg from the cable ship "Minia", one of the first ships to reach the area in search for debris and bodies. The crew found debris and bodies floating in the vicinity of the depicted iceberg and the captain assured that this was the only iceberg near the scene of the collision (after Titanic & Nautical Resource Center).

Fig.5. Another iceberg, photographed five days later from board of the German ship “Bremen”, claimed to be the Titanic iceberg based on the vicinity to the location of the disaster and the description of the iceberg according to survivors. An "authentic" photography of the iceberg that sank theTitanic was worth a lot of money for the eager press, this also explain why so many photographs of icebergs were taken at the time.

Fig.6. Photography taken from board of the ship “Birma” of the same iceberg as seen by the passengers of the “Carpathia” (see also Fig.2.) – the first ship to approach the scene of the disaster and save the surviving passengers of the Titanic – and published at the time in the “Daily Sketch”. This iceberg has in fact some remarkable similarities to the iceberg as described by survivors of the disaster.  
Despite the question if one of the photos shows really the culprit iceberg, the remarkably number of spotted icebergs emphasizes the notion that in 1912 a quite impressive number of these white titans reached such southern latitudes.

The icebergs encountered in the North Atlantic originate mainly from the western coasts of Greenland, where ice streams deliver large quantities of ice in the fjords which lead to the Baffin Bay. Every year ten-thousand of small and large pieces of ice drop from the front of the glaciers and are pushed by the West Greenland Current slowly to northern latitudes, far away from ship routes. Following first the coast of Greenland this current is diverted by the Canadian coast to the south, forming the Labrador Current that circumnavigates Newfoundland and delivers the iceberg to the warm Gulf Stream. A more than 5.000km long journey full of obstacles and incessant erosion by the sun, the water and the waves. Only estimated 1 to 2% of large icebergs will, after a period of 1-3 years, reach latitude 45°N, crossing one of the most important route for ships of the entire Atlantic Ocean.

Fig.7. Schematic map of marine currents (blue= cold; red = hot) around Greenland, probable region of origin (West Greenland) and hypothetical route of the iceberg that hit the Titanic.

Apparently in 1912 icebergs were spotted remarkably often in this region and various hypotheses tried to explain this “anomaly”.  The years before 1912 were characterized by mild winters in Europe and possibly the northern Atlantic. It was therefore speculated that the (relative) warm temperatures increased the melting rate and activity of the calving glaciers on Greenland. 
Also a strengthened Labrador Current, pushing cold water and icebergs much more to the south, was proposed to explain the ice field that in the cold night 100 years ago forced various ships to stop along the Atlantic route. 
Both  hypotheses are based on the recorded values of Sea Surface Temperature (see this diagram by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), which show an alternation of a warm and cold period  in 1900-1920.
A recent hypothesis – promoted by NG – proposes that an exceptional high tide prevented much of the larger icebergs to run, as normally would happen, on ground along the coasts of Baffin Bay. However considering that this tide occurred just some months before (January 1912) and the average velocity of an iceberg is low (0,7km/h~0,6mph), the Titanic iceberg had to take a straight course to arrive in time for his rendezvous with history – April 14, 1912.

Based on iceberg counts along the shores of Labrador and later in the Atlantic, also the year 1912 don’t seem to be necessarily such an anomalous event, but the disaster raised considerably the interest (and maybe perception) of the public for icebergs.

Fig.8. Iceberg counts (estimated before 1912) at 48°N, data compiled from the International Ice Patrol Iceberg Database.

In the days after the disaster bypassing ships encountered and photographed various icebergs. Some eyewitnesses claim to have noted red paint on some of them; however there is no conclusive evidence that one of these spotted white giants is really the iceberg that sank the Titanic. At least some weeks later the culprit iceberg, captured by the warm water of the Gulf Stream, melted and disappeared forever into the Atlantic Ocean.


EATON, J.P. & HAAS, C.A. (1986): Titanic Triumph and Tragedy. Haynes Publishing: 352
SOUTH, C. et al. (2006): The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic. The Natural World documentary film – BBC

April 10, 1815: The Eruption that Shook the World

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.  
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars  
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,  
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth  
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went – and came, and brought no day
Darkness” (1816) by Lord Bryon (1788-1824)

In the year 1816 Europe was slowly recovering from the Napoleonic wars, ended just one year earlier. After years of desperation and destruction people hoped for better times – but the summer that came was rainy and cold and on the fields the crops did not mature or rotted away, famine and diseases were the consequences. Also the north-eastern states of the US experienced snowstorms and frost in the middle of summer. The year 1816 has come to be known as the “year without a summer.

Fig.1. Development of costs in the years 1816-17 of important articles of food in Europe. Especially crops and bread, essential for the large and poor populations on the continent, experienced a massive increase in costs due the failed harvests. Meat was still a precious resource available only to a limited group of persons at the time; the reduced livestock therefore could still satisfy the demand (modified after ABEL 1974).

The strange behaviour of the weather was unexplainable at the time. Nobody could imagine that the origins of the strange phenomena were to be found on the opposite side of earth, where an entire mountain had annihilated itself in the largest volcanic eruption of modern history.
The estimated 4.000m high volcano of Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia erupted with an intensity of VEI 7 – 100x stronger than Mount St. Helens. During the peak of eruption April 10, 1815 the mountain lost 1.300m height and catapulted estimated two million tons of debris, particles and sulphur components into the higher layers of the atmosphere. These aerosols reduced the solar radiation on earth’s surface and influenced worldwide weather patterns for years to come.
Thousands of people died by the direct effects of the four month lasting eruption, like poisonous clouds and gas, large pyroclastic flows and tsunamis. In the surrounding area of the volcano the vegetation was killed and the soil poisoned for years. Many more suffered from the climatic effects and the aftermath of the eruption. Almost the entire northern hemisphere, in a period with already cool climate, experienced an ulterior drop of temperatures, famine and diseases spread over the world.

Fig.2. "Volcano and fishing proas near Passoeroean, on the Java coast, Indonesia" by Thomas Baines (1820-1875).

Only one year later a detailed account of the catastrophe was published first in the “History of Java” (1817) by the English governor of Indonesia and naturalist Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (1781-1826) and later incorporated in Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” (1850):

Island of Sumbawa, 1815. – In April, 1815, one of the most frightful eruptions recorded in history occurred in the province of Tomboro, in the island of Sumbawa, about 200 miles from the eastern extremity of Java.
In the April of the year preceding the volcano had been observed in a state of considerable activity, ashes having fallen upon the decks of vessels which sailed past the coast. The eruption of 1815 began on the 5th of April, but was most violent on the 11th and 12th, and did not entirely cease till July. The sound of the explosions was heard in Sumatra, at the distance of 970 geographical miles in a direct line; and at Ternate, in an opposite direction, at the distance of 720 miles. 

Out of a population of 12,000, in the province of Tomboro, only twenty-six individuals survived. Violent whirlwinds carried up men, horses, cattle, and whatever else came within their influence, into the air; tore up the largest trees by the roots, and covered the whole sea with floating timber. Great tracts of land were covered by lava, several streams of which, issuing from the crater of the Tomboro mountain, reached the sea. So heavy was the fall of ashes, that they broke into the Resident’s house at Bima, forty miles east of the volcano, and rendered it, as well as many other dwellings in the town, uninhabitable. 

On the side of Java the ashes were carried to the distance of 300 miles, and 217 towards Celebes, in sufficient quantity to darken the air. The floating cinders to the westward of Sumatra formed, on the 12th of April, a mass two feet thick, and several miles in extent, through which ships with difficulty forced their way. The darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night. 
Although this volcanic dust when it fell was an impalpable powder, it was of considerable weight when compressed, a pint of it weighing twelve ounces and three quarters. “Some of the finest particles,” says Mr. Crawfurd, “were transported to the islands of Amboyna and Banda, which last is about 800 miles east from the site of the volcano, although the south-east monsoon was then at its height.” They must have been projected, therefore, into the upper regions of the atmosphere, where a counter current prevailed.  

Along the sea-coast of Sumbawa, and the adjacent isles, the sea rose suddenly to the height of from two to twelve feet, a great wave rushing up the estuaries, and then suddenly subsiding. Although the wind at Bima was still during the whole time, the sea rolled in upon the shore, and filled the lower parts of the houses with water a foot deep. Every prow and boat was forced from the anchorage, and driven on shore.  
The town called Tomboro, on the west side of Sumbawa, was overflowed by the sea, which encroached upon the shore so that the water remained permanently eighteen feet deep in places where there was land before. Here we may observe, that the amount of subsidence of land was apparent, in spite of the ashes, which would naturally have caused the limits of the coast to be extended.  

The area over which tremulous noises and other volcanic effects extended, was 1000 English miles in circumference, including the whole of the Molucca Islands, Java, a considerable portion of Celebes, Sumatra, and Borneo. In the island of Amboyna, in the same month and year, the ground opened, threw out water, and then closed again.

In conclusion, I may remind the reader, that but for the accidental presence of Sir Stamford Raffles, then governor of Java, we should scarcely have heard in Europe of this tremendous catastrophe. He required all the residents in the various districts under his authority to send in a statement of the circumstances which occurred within their own knowledge; but, valuable as were their communications, they are often calculated to excite rather than to satisfy the curiosity of the geologist. They mention, that similar effects, though in a less degree, had, about seven years before, accompanied an eruption of Carang Assam, a volcano in the island of Bali, west of Sumatra; but no particulars of that great catastrophe are recorded.


ABEL, W. (1974): Massenarmut und Hungerkrisen im vorindustriellen Europa. Versuch einer Synopsis. Hamburg-Berlin: 427
BOER, de J.Z. & SANDERS, D.T. (2002): Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions. Princeton University Press: 295
OPPENHEIMER, C. (2011): Eruptions that Shook the World. Cambridge University Press: 392

Frauds, Fakes and Fossils

What are they?
Creations of mind?- The mind can make Substance,
and people planets of its own
With beings brighter than have been, and give
A breath to forms which can outlive all flesh
The Dream“, Lord Bryon (1788-1824)

In the year 1725 the professor of medicine and personal physician of the bishop of the German town of Würzburg, Dr. Johann Bartholomäus Adam Beringer (1667-1738), was approached by three chaps, who offered him the possibility to purchase some strange stones they had found in the fields.

Beringer recognized the unique value of the discovery and paid a rich reward for these and further specimens. After a short time he possessed the greatest collection of stones displaying on the surface various bugs, molluscs, plants, birds, mammals, stars, suns and even Hebraic letters.
One year later, in 1726, Beringer published a monographic work with 14 sections and 21 plates depicting 204 specimens of his collection: the “Lithographia Wirceburgensis, assuring the veracity of the stones as a divine miracle.

But then the scandal was revealed – the chaps admitted that the stones were artificially carved, incited by two peers of Beringer, the mathematician Jean Ignace Roderique (1697-1756) and the theologian Johann Georg von Eckhardt (1664-1730). The two scholars admitted that the fraud was their revenge for the presumptuous behaviour of Beringer and intended to expose his credulity and incompetence. The public was not amused by the childish behaviour of all the involved persons: The reputation of all the three scholars was ruined, Roderique and Eckhardt were forced to leave the city and Beringer tried to minimize the damage by destroying almost all of the printed copies and the printing plates of his book. He never recovered from the humiliation and died embittered years later.
Almost every student of earth sciences knows this or a similar version of the myth, often told in textbooks as warning of blind faith and argument from authority. The beautiful carved stones of limestone are today remembered as “Würzburger Lügensteine” – the infamous “lying stones of Würzburg“.

However careful study of the still existing stones and the preserved historic documents of the lawsuit that investigated the claims of fraud at Beringer´s time depict a much more complicated “criminal case.”

Today 434 lying stones survive, 494 are depicted in the Lithographia Wirceburgensis and Beringer himself claims that he possessed more than 2.000. However considering the short period in which the “discoveries” took place (less than one year) it seems more reasonable to assume that this number is deliberately exaggerated. Estimated 600 to 1.100 true lying stones seem a more plausible number.

Beringer affirms that he received or discovered the first stones in May of the year 1725. Between June and November he hired the two brothers Hehn, the chap Zänger and later a fourth person, which name is not recorded, to collect further stones on the presumed site of the first discovery.

Beringer began almost immediately to describe the various stones and ordered the printing plates for his book; he also published a preview of his work in October of 1725. Already then first doubts were cast on the veracity of the stones, but Beringer presented various witnesses that could testify that indeed the stones were found during the excavations on a hill near Würzburg. Johann Georg von Eckhardt, and later Jean Ignace Roderique, were send to investigate the site but couldn’t find any stone there. However they also couldn’t provide evidence to dismiss Beringer´s claims.

It is important to note that Beringer never affirmed that the stones were true petrifactions (as the petrified remains of organisms killed by the biblical flood) and he even states that the stones differ from the true petrifactions found in the hills near Würzburg. He discusses in great detail the various explanations proposed for the origin of petrifactions in the first chapters of “his” Lithographia (as a matter of fact the book is published as doctoral thesis under the name of one of Beringer´s students – Georg Ludwig Hueber – but his contribution is limited to an introduction of nine pages) and examines the various hypotheses, but dismiss all in favour of a literally “miracle”. God himself created these stones and the recognizable carving spurs (!) on the stones are only a trace of the power of god creating these figures.

In spring of 1726 Beringer received some rocks from the fourth chap, this time in fact fabricated by Roderique to reveal the artificial nature of the stones. The fraud is revealed, even in the presence of the bishop (the Lithographia is dedicated to him), but Beringer simply modifies some chapters of the Lithographia, still in press, claiming that it is now only proven that the last stones are fakes and the first generation is still evidence for (literally) god’s hand carving the rocks. Beringer is apparently so self-confident in his position that he initiates a process against the claims of fraud regarding his persona. In the process, that will last until after the publication of the Lithographia, the incriminated chaps will only admit to have sold the stones to Beringer, but not to have carved the figures. Considering the depictions of exotic animals and even Hebraic letters on the lying stones it is in fact difficult to image that people from a rural area with no naturalistic background would be able to execute such an elaborate hoax.

There is no doubt that the scholar Roderique manufactured some of the stones, however he arrived to Würzburg only in the winter 1725-1726, so he can not be responsible for the first generations of stones described by Beringer already in October of 1725. Roderique left Würzburg voluntarily in 1730, the revealed “scandal” had no influence on his career and he died as respected scholar and publisher years later. There is no evidence that Eckhart played a major role in the entire story, apart the first investigation of the supposed excavation site. Both Roderique and Eckhart had no need for revenge versus Beringer and were relatively unsuccessful in the attempt to discredit the lying stones, as they – or others, could never demonstrate that that the first stones were fakes.

But who then faked the first lying stones?

Beringer didn’t suffer too much from the supposed scandal, not only didn’t he even try to prevent the publication of the Lithographia after the first claims of fraud (there was still plenty of time left), but he retained his position and reputation. In 1767 even a second edition of the Lithographia was published with the original plates (not even touched by Beringer) of the first edition.
His hypothesis of divine intervention on the rocks was never ridiculed in a time when fossils were anyway considered the vestiges of a biblical flood. However it is true that after the newspapers revealed that it was possible to fake the stones (like done by Roderique) the lying stones could no longer be used to support uncritically the "divine crafted" hypothesis.

Only after Beringer´s death his strange behaviour, he remained unimpressed by all the claims of fraud, was interpreted by many authors as simple ignorance or even criminal stubbornness. But maybe he remained calm because he was sure that nobody could definitely prove that the first generations of stones were fakes, simply because he knew who carved the figures in the stones. Beringer had the naturalistic knowledge and probably also the contacts to professional craftsmen to perpetuate such an elaborate hoax – even if we never will know the entire truth, one fact is clear, the modern myth of the lying stones is itself a lie…


BEHRINGER, J.B.A. & HUEBER, G.L. (1726): Litographiae Wirceburgensis, ducentis lapidum figuratorum, a potiori insectiformium, prodigiosis imaginibus exornatae specimen. Würzburg 1726. Scan by
NIEBUHR, B. & GEYER, G. (2005): Beringers Lügensteine: 493 Corpora Delicti zwischen Dichtung und Wahrheit. Beringeria Sonderheft 5, Teil II: 188

The Four Layers of Earth

In a letter dated to March 30, 1759 the Italian mining engineer Giovanni Arduino (1714-1795) proposed to the physician and fossil collector Prof. Antonio Vallisnieri the subdivision of earth’s crust in various types, or layers, of rocks.

Based on his observations along the foothills of the Alps, Arduino recognized a stratigraphic column with four rock-layers: unstratified or poorly stratified crystalline rocks (or “Primary Rocks“, survived into the 20th century as “Paleozoic“ epoch), stratified rocks (“Secondary Rocks“, or “Mesozoic“), more recent, as yet unconsolidated, sediments (“Tertiary Rocks“) and finally all volcanic rocks.

Arduino used a section of rocks exposed in the Val d´Agno to explain his classification scheme. The numbers refer to the thickness of the strata, the letters to the description in the accompanying text. The extremely tattered state of the original drawing suggests that Arduino demonstrated it repeatedly to the many naturalists who visited him.


VAI, G.B. (2007): A history of chronostratigraphy. Stratigraphy Vol.4 No. 2/3: 83-97

A History of Geological Maps: I. From Outcrop to the first Map

March 23, 1769 marks the birthday of pioneering stratigrapher William Smith, who is also credited as author of the first modern geological map, however like many other great accomplishments also Smith’s idea of depicting the distribution of rocks on a topographic map didn’t materialize out of nowhere.

The German mining engineer Georgius Agricola (1494-1555) dedicated in his “De re metallica” (1556) -  an early  textbook on mining technologies – an entire chapter to the distribution of valuable rocks in earth’s crust. The written description is correlated with various figures, showing in a sort of combined landscape – section the distribution, thickness and direction inside the mountain of the mineralized veins.

Fig.1. Veins and mineral seams, figure from “De re metallica”, not a real map, however directions are given on the borders.

The idea of a real map of rock-distribution was proposed first in 1684 by the British physician and naturalist Martin Lister (1639-1712). Lister suggested that the distribution of the different soil types of the British landscape could accurately be represented on a topographic map.

The Soil might either be coloured, by variety of Lines, or Etchings; but the great care must be, very exactly to note upon the Map, where such and such Soiles are bounded…Now if it were noted, how far these extended, and the limits of each Soil appeared on a Map, something more might be comprehended from the whole, and from every part, then I can possibly foresee, which would make such a labour very well worth the pains.“
As – so Lister continues – the soil types correlate with the underlying bedrock, by mapping the soils one could also map the rocks hidden in the underground.

However Lister never realized a real map based on this theoretical premise. It was the Italian Count Luigi Ferdinando Marsili (1658-1730) who made the next important step. As military engineer Marsigli traveled widely in Italy, France, Germany, the Balkans and Turkey, creating topographic maps for military use of the visited countries. An exact representation of the landscape was essential to plan movements of an army or identify the best locations for fortifications. Marsigli became a keen observer
and a skilled cartographer of the landscape, sketching rock outcrops or  prominent features of the landscape. After an unfortunate military campaign in Germany, Marsigli was accused of cowardice, his military career ruined he used his acquired skills to create maps for more peaceful applications.

Fig.2. Section combined with a map of a silvermine, published in - "Mappa metalographica…[]" by Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, he added also some geological information (lower right corner) with a detailed rock-section - "Upper rock", "Vein" with mined "Ore" and "Lower Quartz".

In 1726 he published a map of the mining districts in Hungary and sketched the distribution of gypsum and sulfur deposits near his hometown Bologna (1717). In his sketch he connected the single gypsum quarries and outcrops along rivers with a shaded area, delimiting so the folded gypsum-bearing rocks. This map is important as it displays a first approach to the problem all geologists must face – not only documenting the visible outcrop of a rock or the position of a mine or quarry (such maps existed already), but interpolating the distribution of the not accessible part of  a geological formation.

Fig.3. The map from “Atlas et Description Minéralogiques de la France” (1780), by French pharmacist and botanist Jean-Étienne Guettard, shows the distribution of outcrops with minerals, fossils or rocks. Such mineralogical maps predate true geological maps, showing sites of geological interest, however lacking the interpolation between the single “data points” (image in public domain, originally posted by BibliOdyssey).

It may surprises that despite many naturalist had already produced very detailed descriptions and maps of single outcrops, almost nobody made a connection between sites with similar rocks. But not only was the unequivocal identification of geologic formations at the time still very difficult, many naturalists considered connecting single outcrops by a presumed (not visible at the surface) extension of the rocks as unscientific speculation. This aversion of early geognosts to geological maps is exemplified by the strange behavior of naturalist Jean-Étienne Guettard (1715-1786), famous for his detailed mineralogical and volcanological maps. Guettard in 1777, after eleven years of  hard work, abandoned the prestigious project by the French minister of Mining to produce a series of geological maps of France. He simply couldn’t overcome the idea that a map should represent only facts (in this case outcrops) – but a blank map with just some isolated spots of color wasn’t exactly what the French authorities wanted.

Maybe the first true geological map was drawn by an anonymous naval cartographer in 1757. In the outlines of the German island of Heligoland he added boundaries between four different rock types: Kreide (chalk), Muschelkalkstein (limestone), Bunter Sandstein (sandstone) and Kohle (coal beds). The map depicts the boundaries of the various geological formations even below the sea.

As the author, also the intended use of this map is unknown. The historian of geology  – David. R. Oldroyd – speculates that the map maybe could be used as aid to navigation, as sailors could determine their position by evaluating the rocks and sediments dredged from the seafloor.

To be continued…


FRANCESCHELLI, C. & MARABINI, S. (2006): Luigi Ferdinando Marsili (1658-1730): A pioneer in geomorphological and archaeological surveying. In VAI, G.B. ed, The origins of geology in Italy: Geological Society of America Special Paper 411: 129-139
OLDROYD, D. (2013): Maps as pictures or diagrams: The early development of geological maps. In BAKER, V.R. ed, Rethinking the fabric of geology: Geological Society of America Special Paper 502: 41-101