Field of Science

The Early Exploration and Geology of the Chamois Mountains

Su le dentate scintillanti vette, 
salta il camoscio, 
tuona la valanga da' ghiacci immani
rotolando per le selve scroscianti; 

ma da i silenzi de l'effuso azzurro esce nel sole l'aquila,
e distende in tarde ruote digradanti il nero volo solenne.

Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907)

In medieval times the Alps, especially the alpine regions above the tree line, were simply referred as Gamsgebirg - the chamois mountains.

Fig.1. The Livre de chasse is a medieval book on hunting, written between 1387 and 1391 by Gaston III, Count of Foix and dedicated to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. One figure shows an alpine hunt with ibex and chamois hiding between the peaks.

Only, as a guide from 1917 describes, fools would venture there. However the Alps since ancient times were a traveled region. Shepherds, merchants, collectors of plants and minerals and hunters populated the valleys, high-altitude pastures and maybe sometimes also climbed a peak.
The first person to climb a mountain just "because it´s there" was supposedly Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), as he describes an ascent on Mount Ventoux in France. 

Italian author Valerius Faventies in 1561 publishes “De montium origine”, wherein he collects all the contemporary theories explaining the formation of mountains. An important role was given to celestial influences. But only later authors like cartographer Sebastian Münster (1489-1552), cartographer Johannes Stumpf (1500-1566),  naturalist Konrad Gessner (1516-1565)  and especially naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733) describe mountains in great details, including plants, animals and the geology.

Fig.2. The chamois in Konrad Gessner´s „Allgemeines Thierbuch“ (1565).

Scheuchzer used examples of large-scale folds observed in the Swiss Alps as evidence for the veracity of the Biblical account of a flood in remote times. Only a large flood, a deluge, could twist, break and fold the sedimentary rocks.

Fig.3. "Views of Chamonix, as seen [during the expedition] in 1742", apart glaciers the drawing shows also typical animals, like the ibex, the chamois and the marmot. Figure from a report to the Royal Society in London by William Windham.

Also English theologian and naturalist Thomas Burnet in his book “The Sacred Theory of the Earth“, published in 1684, tries to explain the mountains and shapes of the continents by the biblical flood. The homogenous primordial crust of earth was shattered, releasing water from the underground. The water covers the entire planet and finally flows back in the fissures, leaving behind fragments of the crust that now forms the modern islands and continents. Mountains, so Burnet, were fragments of the primordial crust of earth stacked atop, ruins of the former perfect paradisic world.

Fig.4. The chamois hunter's hunting ground, by Johann Baptist Zwecker (1814–1876).

Still for a long time the Alps were seen as haunted, dangerous and most important unholy territory. One there was "in company of the devil,..." as Swiss naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) refers to the chamois when writing about the Alps. De Saussure was also the first naturalist to describe the geology of one of the highest peaks in the Alps (mostly composed of granite), the 4,808.73m high Mont Blanc, climbed by his expedition in July 1789.

Interested in reading more? Try: 

BEATTIE, A. (2006): The Alps: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press: 246
BRIDLE, B. (2011): Mountaineers. Royal Geographical Society,The Alpine Club: 359
MacFARLANE, R. (2003): Mountains of the Mind - Adevntures in Reaching the Summit. Random House Publishing, New York: 324

The true Geology behind The X-Files: Darkness Falls

Many of the threats encountered on the X-Files are not of this world, but even aliens seem normal when compared to some of our world´s insect species. 

In the episode "Darkness Falls" (season 1, episode 20) special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are called in to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a team of loggers somewhere in the Cascade Range. Initially suspecting bigfoot (Mulder´s suspect) and eco-terrorists (Scully´s favourite), soon the agents find themselves isolated and trapped by a seemingly ancient menace lurking in the dark of the woods. Filming was done in the Seymour Demonstration Forest, north of Vancouver, a difficult to reach location even for the real film-crew.  

Soon it is discovered that an unknown species of insects was freed when the loggers illegally cut down old-grown trees. Mulder speculates that the insects, forming a sort of green-glowing swarm in the night, are a mutation caused by radioactive gases released from the underground, but extinct in the wild. However a swarm of the creatures, in close-up stock-footage of mites was used (mites are not insects, but related to spiders and can´t fly), survived hiding in the pores of a tree-ring, but now the swarm is free, very, very hungry and ready to build a nest. X-Files producer Chris Carter was inspired to write this episode based on his interest in dendrochronology – the study of tree-rings. 

Fig.1. The truth is in the tree-rings of this Douglas-fir - dendrology is used to reconstruct climate change in the past and was used in 1937 by R.H. Finch for the first time to date the activity of the Cinder Cones volcanic field in California.

But what about strange behavior of the supposed insects, are there similar real cases to be found? 

Ants are a common insect group, forming swarms with a complicated social structure and are successfully used as bioindicators - maybe even for gases coming from the underground.

 Fig.2. Alien ants...

Faults can be pathways for liquids and gases and some research tries to map faults by measuring the concentration of gases like radon. The permeability of a fault is also influenced by its activity, anomalous gas concentration could be signs of increased tectonic activity. During investigations in 2002 of the structural geology of the Rhenish Massif in Germany, it was noted that anthills of the species Formica rufa, F. polyctena and F. sanguinea display a peculiar linear trend. The locations coincided with active, gas-permeable fault zones. That ants could choose a site for their nest based on the bedrock is not impossible and was noted already 70 years ago, as the bedrock can influence if the soil is wet or dry and ants prefer dry conditions. However no correlation with faults or nests was known. In the 2002 research more than 1000 anthills were mapped, almost 700 of them running parallel to vertical fault lines. It´s not clear what effects the ants, as faults can imply a sudden change of bedrock, topography and gases. The case remains unsolved at the moment...

Fig.3. Ant may take some advantages by building their nests on gas-permeable faults, as the warm gases from the underground can act as sort of natural heating, figure from BERBERICH et al. 2013.

Interested in reading more? Try: 

BERBERICH, G. et al. (2013): Early Results of Three-Year Monitoring of Red Wood Ants’Behavioral Changes and Their Possible Correlation with Earthquake Events. Animals, 3: 63-84
BRENNHOLT, N. (2008): Geologische Störungszonen als Kriterium der Standortwahl Hügel bauender Waldameisen unter Berücksichtigung spezieller mikrobieller Gemeinschaften. Dissertation Universität Duisburg-Essen: 239
SCHREIBER, U.; BRENNHOLT, N. & SIMON, J. (2009): Gas permeable deep reaching fracure zones encourage site selection of ants. Ecological Indicators, 9: 508-517

The true Geology behind The X-Files: The Jersey Devil

Mulder: "But, but what if through some fluke of nature, a human was born, who reverted to it's most animal instincts, a kind of carnivorous neanderthal. Wouldn't he occupy a space above us on the food chain?"

In the X-Files episode "The Jersey Devil" (season 1, episode 5) special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate a supposed serial killer with cannibalistic tendencies hiding in the woods of New Jersey. Strange drawings let Mulder speculate about a surviving population of prehistoric man-beasts..
The idea of the missing link, an intermediary creature between apes and man, was introduced by Victorian geologist Charles Lyell in 1837 but still it´s very popular in our imagination.

On a cold morning in 1969 local residents of Colville  (Washington, U.S.A.) found more than 1.000 tracks of an unknown creature in the snow. Strangely the tracks resembled a gigantic human foot, one track showed even a malformation, caused supposedly by a severe injury. Casts were made of the more unusual tracks and send to anthropologist Grover Sanders Krantz (1931-2002), who soon was convinced that no trickster could fake such tracks – the creature was surely bigfoot, a supposed giant ape living in the forests of North America.
Fig.1. Reconstruction of Neanderthal man as ape-man for a newspaper, art by Frantisek Kupka (1909).

First tales of strange creatures living in the woods were collected by schoolteacher and amateur mythologist John W. Burns in the 1920s, who however described a myth of a giant race of Indians, not apes.  
However the modern story of bigfoot started not in America but in Asia. In 1951 with the discovery by Alpinist  (with a strange sense of humour) Eric Shipton of large tracks in the Himalayas. Eminent zoologist Wladimir Tschernezky was sure that the tracks were made by a large, bipedal and unknown hominid, maybe a descendent of the extinct gigantic ape Gigantopithecus, living during the Pleistocene in Asia. Journalist John W. Green (1927-2016) published in 1968 “On the Track of Sasquatch”, a book where he, even if not claiming that bigfoot is in fact Gigantopithecus, made the argument that if in the past large apes existed it´s not impossible that such animals still exist.
Fig.2. The famous Patterson-Gimli film, showing a supposed encounter with a female bigfoot in California, from 1967 shows bigfoot suspiciously ape-man and Mulder´s supposed culprit in the X-file:

The direct connection between Giganto and anomalous primates was made first by zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans in 1952, based on reconstructions of Gigantophitecus by German palaeontologist Franz Weidenreich (1873-1948) and Ralph Von Koenigswald (1902-1982) as primitive man. Heuvelman writes “this theory, which is utterly hypothetical, provides the only entirely acceptable explanation of the mystery of the Abominable Snowman.” Krantz after reading Green´s book popularized this idea in TV. Krantz argued that migrating groups of Giganto evolved into local populations of anomalous primates, in Asia into the Yeti and in America into the Bigfoot. In 1955 a certain William Roe claimed to have encountered bigfoot, describing it appropriately now as a “giant ape” (Roe´s story was however never verified) - the idea of humans living hidden in the woods was replaced by apes and suddenly people started to talk about strange encounters with hairy ape-man beasts. 
Bigfoot got its name finally in 1958, with an article about alleged bigfoot tracks found at Bluff Creek (California), revealed later to be in fact only fakes.


However the entire Gigntopithecus-hypothesis is based on an outdated reconstructions of the species, as is the idea of a linear evolution of humans.
Franz Weidenreich reconstructed Gigantopithecus, known only from a fragmentary fossil record, as a sort missing link between apes and man - with the appearance of a hairy ape but bipedal locomotion as humans do. However modern reconstructions see it as related more closely to the orangutan than any other large apes or humans. Bigfoot is however rarely (make it never) described as large orangutan.

Mulder muses that his idea of surviving large hominids is highly unlikely, but not outside the realm of extreme possibilities. However as primatologist John Napier (1817-1987) explains, the existence of past species in an entire different ecosystem doesn´t give veracity to modern sightings and misidentifications with no unequivocal physical evidence to back them:

By postulating that a monster is a relic form -  a hangover from the past – monster fans feel absolved from the necessity of explaining how such an outrageous unsuitable creature has evolved in the light of present-day ecology.”

*As for the tracks of Colville. Amateur bigfoot hunter Renè Dahinden (1930-2001) considered the tracks more than suspicious, as no creature was spotted despite thousands of tracks and the first discovery was made by Ivan Marx, a known hoaxer of bigfoot encounters.

Interested in reading more? Try: 

DELISLE, R.G. (2012): Welcome to the Twilight Zone: a forgotten early phase of human evolutionary studies. Endaevour Vol.36 (2): 55- 64
KJAERGAARD, P.C. (2011): 'Hurrah for the missing link!': a history of apes, ancestors and a crucial piece of evidence. Notes Rec. R. Soc. 65: 83-98
LOZIER, J.D.; ANIELLO, P. & HICKERSON, M.J. (2009): Predicting the distribution of Sasquatch in western North America: anything goes with ecological niche modelling. Journal of Biogeography: 1- 5
MELDRUM, J. (2007): Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. Forge-Publishing: 297
REGAL, B. (2008): Amateur versus professional: the search for Bigfoot. Endaevour Vol.32 (2): 1- 5
REGAL, B. (2009): Entering dubious realms: Grover Krantz, science, and Sasquatch. Ann. Sci. Vol.66(1): 83-102
REGAL, B. (2011): Searching for Sasquatch – Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. Palgrave Macmillian Publisher: 249

The true Geology behind The X-Files: Firewalker

Mulder:" ... I found several references to a subterranean organism."
Scully: "What are you talking about?"
Mulder: "An unknown organism, existing within the volcano. I haven't found anything yet that describes it in specific terms but ..."
Scully: "Mulder, nothing can live in a volcanic interior, not only because of the intense heat but the gases would be toxic to any organism."

In the X-Files episode "Firewalker" (season 2, episode 9) special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate the death and the disappearance of another member of a team of scientists, busy monitoring Mount Avalon in Oregon, an active volcano ready to erupt. Mount Avalon is a fictional place, supposedly part of the Cascade Range, but in the episode real footage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens (Washington) was used. In the episode the geologists also mention Sherman Crater, found at Mt. Baker.

Soon it is discovered that a parasitic lifeform uses humans as a host, nesting into the victim´s lungs. Terrestrial in origin and the result of a parallel evolutionary process, this lifeform bases its metabolism on silicon. As it produces as waste simple silicon-dioxide or sand, the lungs will eventually fill with sand and the host suffocate.
The parasite is first discovered when spores are released from rock samples collected by a robot - named "Firewalker" - from inside the crater of Mount Avalon. The idea of Firewalker is based on a real robotic probe, a joint project between NASA and Carnegie Mellon's Field Robotics Center. In 1992 "Dante", as the real eight-legged robot was named, was scheduled to explore an Antarctic volcano.
Later the parasite is revealed to be a sort of sponge/mushroom-like organism, growing inside and finally bursting out of its host to release its spores.

Fig.1. The full-grown silicon-based organism as seen in the X-Files.

In first production sketches the parasite resembled more a worm than a fungus, like previously seen in the episode Ice” (season 1, episode 8). The writing of the episode is indeed very similar to this episode, as an isolated team of scientists is threatened by an unseen killer, paranoia spreads fast (anyway both episodes are very similar to the “The Thing” from 1982 and “Alien” from 1979). In the final version the fungus appear to be inspired by specimens of Cordyceps, a genus of endoparasitic fungi of small animals. 

In life as we know it only ten elements play a mayor role: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and sulphur. Strangely carbon is among the rarest elements on earth, so why is it so important in the biosphere? 

Carbon can form stable and complex macromolecules within the temperature range found on earth. Atomic bounds between the carbon-carbon, carbon-oxygen and carbon-hydrogen atoms are very stable and the formed molecules are soluble and stable in water, important property for terrestrial biochemistry. Silicon is very common in earth´s rocks but rarely used by earth´s life, even if it´s popular in aliens (according to science-fiction tropes). Microorganisms like radiolarians and diatoms use silaffins, a unique type of peptides, and silica-hydrogels Under higher organisms only siliceous sponges are known to use silicon. However all those organisms use silicon only to build their shells or skeletal structures, not directly in their metabolism.

Fig.2. Drawing by biologist Ernst Haeckel of the silicon-skeleton as seen in the group radiolaria. Charles Darwin even remarks in "Origin of Species (1866) that "Few objects are more beautiful than the minute siliceous cases of the diatomaceæ: were these created that they might be examined and admired under the higher powers of the microscope?"

Under terrestrial environmental conditions silicon-based life is highly improbable and anyway not competitive with carbon-based life. However as silicon is found in the periodic table near carbon it displays some similar properties, suitable for life in general.
Silicon forms stable
(however not as stable as carbon) bounds with itself and other elements like carbon, germanium, nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen, sulphur and many metals. Those silanes can form complex and flexible macromolecules, forming sheets, chains and tubes needed to form parts of a living cell.

However silicon shows a very strong affinity to oxygen, as shown by the very common minerals-group of the silicates, composed mostly of silicon and oxygen. Earth´s atmosphere is composed of 21 percent of oxygen and silicon lifeforms would probably have troubles as the oxygen would slowly corrode their bodies. Also water would do more harm than good to the relatively delicate silicate molecules.

A silicon-lifeform would need therefore a reducing atmosphere, scarcity of water, low temperatures to stabilize the silicon-silicon bounds and an alternative solvent for the silicon-molecules, like liquid methane (highly unlikely idea but not outside the realm of extreme possibilities, as lakes of methane are found on the moon Titan).

In “Firewalker” the science is in part plausible. The silicon lifeform is found in (presumably) anoxic conditions and it is stated in the episode that oxygen will kill the organism by destroying its molecules. However temperatures are very high inside an active volcano (
strangely also in one scene they try to kill the parasite with fire... it survives a volcano but can´t stand a fire?! :/), so that may be implausible for a silicon-based organism. To be fair geneticist J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) proposed that silicon-lifeforms could survive inside a planet feeding on partially molten rocks.
Another contradiction seems to be the parasitic nature of this hypothetical organism. It´s not clear from the episode if the organism is an obligatory parasite or the spores simply and by accident grow inside the infected researchers. Scully discovers that the spores don´t react with any carbon-based tissue and have no preferred range of temperatures for growth. However, as Scully speculates, the spores die so quickly in the superficial environment that maybe she wasn't able to collect some living specimens. The interior of a carbon-based organism also mostly composed of water (on average, the body of an adult human being contains 60% water), would probably be anyway hostile to a silicon-based parasite.

The episode ends with a devastating eruption of Mount Avalon, pyroclastic flows destroy the research station and any evidence of the unknown organism. Only Mulder and Scully escape and the government covers up any information about this X-file:

Mulder: "[]...The data it collected from the earth's interior will never be known. And of the events that occurred at Mount Avalon between the 11th and 13th of November, 1994, mine stands as the only record."

Interested in reading more? Try:

SCHULZ-MAKUCH, D. & IRWIN, L.N. (2006): The prospect of alien life in exotic forms on other worlds. Naturwissenschaften. Vol.93: 155-172
SIMON, A. (1999): Monsters, Mutants & Missing Links: The Real Science Behind the X-Files. Ebury Digital Publisher: 256

Geological Field Sketches - The Eruption of Mount Asama

The eruption of Mount Asama in Japan in the year 1783 was among the strongest in recent history. It is rarely mentioned, however there survives plenty of contemporary documentation, most hosted nowadays in the collection of the Asama Volcanological Observatory and Mount Asama is also one of the best monitored volcanoes since 1934.

Already after May 9, 1783 some smaller explosions announced the awakening of the volcano. July 26, a large eruption column above the summit crater marks the beginning of the main eruption phase, lasting until August. August 4, a pyroclastic flow destroys 18 square kilometer of forest. August 5, another pyroclastic flows destroys four villages, killing thousands. The very same day the eruption starts to lose power.

The various eruption phases of Asama, from from the collection of historian Kenichi Maruyama (photo by volcanologist Maurice Krafft).

Another drawing shows the eruption column, lapilli-ash-fall and volcanic lightning, from the collection of the Asama Volcanological Observatory (photo by Maurice Krafft).

Map showing the extent of the destruction caused by the pyroclastic flows and lahars coming from Mount Asama, from the collection of the Asama Volcanological Observatory
(photo by Maurice Krafft).

Art and Geology: The Crystal Searcher

"We can affirm as for sure, that it [the crystal] can be found in rocks of the Alps, often on so inaccessible sites, that only by climbing [on a rope] one can recover it."
Pliny the Elder (23-79 BC)

Fig.1. Painting by Henry Lévèque with the title Crystal searcher Jacques Balmat” (first to ascend Mont Blanc in 1786).