Friday, 23 January 2009

Time to go

The annual US buying trip is nearly here. I leave on Sunday morning, with the shop in capable hands. I stop over in New York to stay with friends every year, which has a few benefits - I see friends, get over the jet lag, and get to buy a few clothes and the like. And I can also time my arrival in Arizona a little better.

Usually I can get off the plane, check into the hotel and still have a couple of hours of time to see the most important suppliers. A good number of dealers will sell the bulk of their stock before the show officially opens. It's very annoying when this happens, so I try to get in as early as possible. Not always easy, and I'll often miss out on something.

I've been going for 10 years now, I think, and it has gradually become more of a chore, but it's always good to see the people. And I'll always be able to find some new and interesting stock lines.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

King of the bugs

Trilobites are fantastically important fossils. They appear, already fairly complex animals, in the earliest Cambrian and their evolutions can be seen throughout the entire Palaeozoic era. They suffered a knock in extinction event that closed the Cambrian, and were dwindling through the Silurian and Devonian, before reaching exctinction at the end of the Permian.

So they were around for a very long time, about 300 million years, were very widespread, abundant in life and in the fossil record, and were constantly changing as they moved into a wide variety of lifestyle niches. These all help the trilobite to become a very important date marker for stratigraphy. If you find an identifiable species of trilobite, there's a good chance you'll be able to have a reasonable stab at the age of the rocks you found it in. They are also good indicators of plate tectonic movements. I studied the cladistics of a family of trilobites for my final year university project. Basically, a tool to try to establish a 'family tree'. Their migratory trends helped provide information on the closure of the Iapetus Ocean.

One of the best known trilobites is the one shown above - Elrathia kingi. It's found in such numbers and in such great condition in the Wheeler Shale deposits of Utah that it has become a fossil shop staple across the world. I buy them in Tucson, and in a couple of different sizes on matrix as well as bagged loose examples. They are carefully graded and sorted according to size - saves me a lot of trouble...

They are relatively easy to collect. The shale is quite soft and the fossils weather out of the stone. In the right places, they can often be found lying on the surface. Mostly, though, splitting the shale in a quarry will provide a decent number of good examples in a short space of time. Elrathia were used for jewellery by Native Americans living in the area, and it's easy to see why. Their size, shape and detail mean they lend themselves perfectly to this use. I've also heard they had been used as a form of currency at one point.

They're a great example of their kind, and likely the starting point for many a collection. They aren't very big, maybe up to 4cm commonly, and are so abundant as to be inexpensive. There are plenty of collectors that collect only trilobites, and I'll bet almost every one of them has an Elrathia in their collection.

Monday, 19 January 2009

A light dusting

On Saturday Ryan had a discussion about the age of the Earth with a Creationist. This doesn't happen very often, and I was sorry to have missed it. Creationism is essentially an adherance to a literal interpretation of the bible's description of the formation of the Earth.

At some point, somebody sat down and counted any mention of periods of time in the old testament and added them together, coming up with a figure of some 6,000 years. I've heard variations on this, but 6-10 thousand years seems to be the norm. So - the thinking is that it took god seven days to make the Earth, and everything in it, and that was about 6,000 years ago.

This is contrary to SO much empirical evidence that it's barely worth going into it, but as a palaeontologist, fossils are a pretty good clue. Many Creationists argue that all the fossils to be found on Earth were deposited during the flood that put Noah and his ark into action. But that's silly.

In any case, the age of the Earth is a subject that has fascinated science for a l-o-n-g time. It's likely people have been thinking about how old the planet is for a lot longer than 6,000 years, at the very least. Dogs were domesticated more than 6,000 years ago. Decidedly human - Homo sapiens - fossils have been dated at over 100,000 years old, and it's thought the divergence from our closest relative would have occurred at around the 200,000 year mark.

There were a couple of documented musings on the age the Earth in the early 11th Century, and a good number of stabs at finding an age scattered through history - with some ingenious but inaccurate experiments - but it wasn't until the principle of radiometric dating was established that things began to come together. This is the measurement of time by studying the radioactive decay of elements from one form to another. Carbon dating is a form of this, though only accurate to about 40,000 years.

Current thinking puts the Earth at around 4.55 billion years old. Difficult to out this into context, as we don't really have an average lifespan to look to, but with a bit of luck we're not quite into the retirement years yet. At the very least it should last until I've managed to watch the fifth series of The Wire.

As a footnote, our visitor on Saturday provided his coup de grace to put poor scientist Ryan's risible fact-based arguments to the sword:

'When you see footage of the astronauts landing on the moon, the dust on the surface isn't deep enough for it to be any older than 6,000 years old.'

Well, as everybody knows, this is entirely due to diligent hoovering.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Comeback Kids

There was a bit in the paper last week about to ongoing discussion about the possibilities of 'bringing back' mammoths, using intact dna samples and elephant surrogacy over a series of generations. I love this subject, but it is a little divisive.

My view is that I'd love to see a living mammoth, or woolly rhino, or giant ground sloth, or glyptodont. A safari park of them. Obviously, Jurassic Park has kind of covered this ground, but while the quality of any dino dna so far discovered is far from the quality needed to make the film a possible reality, there have been samples from relatively recent extinctions that might allow their emergence from extinction's recycle bin.

So - it's a possibility. Maybe not right at the moment, but it could happen. Soonish. Then we come to the ethical arguments, for and against.

Some are appalled at the idea and say that's it's playing god. Meddling where we shouldn't. Aside from being profoundly atheist, I'd say that we have been 'playing god' ever since we began lighting fires, shaping tools, using medicines. Where is the line drawn? Genetically modified food crops? Organ transplants? Stem cell research?

Where science and scientists can do something of benefit, I think they should. And seeing a mammoth would benefit me. I realise this sounds flippant, but there is a little more to it. What happens when an extant animal we love becomes extinct? With captive breeding programs and global awareness of the threat of exticition far more advanced than a few decades ago, it may seem a remote possibility that we'll lose tigers, gorillas, pandas or manatees from the planet, but it's not that unlikely. What about thylacines? Wasn't very long ago. Would bringing them back be playing god?

Introducing alien animals and plants to new environments can ahve some drastic consequences for the current inhabitants. Ask an Australian. I'm talking about rabbits and cane toads here... So there might be a call for caution before unleashing a bunch of cave bears in Manchester city centre, but this is a relatively small point.

I say bring back the giant hairy beasts of the recent past. Please?

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Space rock

I sell a fair bit of meteorite material. Mostly it comes from a relatively small number of well-known sites. At the moment, I have examples from six meteorites localities, which is more than I would usually.

Briefly, a meteorite is a lump of stone or metal, or both, that has come from Outer Space. Where aliens live. Most meteorites that fall, over 90%, are stony ones - chondrites and further subdivisions - that are mostly composed of silicate minerals, similar to many terrestrial rocks.

Most meteorites that are found are iron, with about 6% nickel. The reason for this discrepancy is that iron meteorites are easier to detect (with metal detectors) and easier to identify. Chondrites are stones, and look like other stones with a slight sheen. There are a small percentage that are a combination of metal and mineral, too. Some pallasites contain beautiful green olivine crystals.

It's easier to find meteorites in places where anything different sticks out. A desert, an icy plain, or a small country pub, for example. In the desert, anything that's not sand is worth a second look. If I spent any amount of time in the desert, I'd be very keen to look at something that wasn't sand, and would consider walking a few hundred yards to do so. You get the idea.

When a meteorite falls - and a few hundred do each year, at least - it often breaks up before hitting the surface, and doesn't usually do as much damage as you'd think. A lot of the more commerically available material comes from sites where there was a relatively big fall, and a large scattering of material. Meteorites are usually named after the places they are found - Campo del Cielo in Argentina and Sikhote Alin in Russia provide a lot of nice iron meteorites, while a lot of chondrite stuff comes from North West Africa (and is called NWA).

The majority of meteorites are thought to date to the time of formation of the planets of this solar system, which puts them around 4.55 billion years old. They had been lazily floating around for a long time before crashing to Earth. In the film Armageddon, Bruce Willis selfishly prevents a huge lump of rock from landing on the Earth. Think what we could have done with all that rock! We could have build a nice castle.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

How old?

It's late on Monday afternoon, and guy walks in from the cold, rubbing his hands.

'I just found £20 in the street. I think when you find money like that, the person didn't lose it. They could afford it. And I needed it. There's something more to it, isn't there?'

'I can see why that's a good view for you to take, certainly.'

'Well, there would be no point in handing it in to the police, would there?'


He looks around.

'I've never been in here before - walked past a fair few times. You must be into crystals and all that.'

'Well, I'm from a geological background. Get a lot of customers for crystal healing reasons, if that's what you mean.'

'Mmm. Yes.
It's amazing, the timescales here, isn't it? Millions of years.'

'It is, but I'm kind of used to thinking in those terms. Puts us in our place, a little. Makes us seem a little more insignificant.'

'Ah, but everything is significant, isn't it? The smallest ant, every leaf on every tree is significant. Just think - everything is supposed to be expanding. Since the Big Bang, everything is supposed to be moving apart. Yet our Milky Way is moving towards the Andromeda system. What does that mean? It's like a magnet, isn't it? Two poles move together, then suddenly - bang - they pull towards each other, don't they?

'Well... Not quite...'

'And how long has the universe been expanding - how long has it been around? Nobody knows!'

'Well, actually...'

'And how long did it take the Earth to form, from molten rock? Millions of years? But what's millions of years compared to billions of years? Eh? It's like seven days. So it took seven days to create the Earth, didn't it? Think about that!'
He turns and leaves.


Monday, 5 January 2009

Tap tap tap tap

January. And the beginning of the longest quiet spell in the shop. It's never totally predictable, but every January sees the beginning of a three month period with a dramatic drop in footfall and accompanying trade. It's welcome in a way, after the relative bustle of the Christmas run-in, but also it's the time of year I can no longer put off the things I have been avoiding. I am a very good procrastinator.

Paperwork, tidying the stock room, breaking rough rock and other delights await. I can also have a much better idea of how much money I'll be able to take to America to spend on stock, so I can start making a more detailed shopping list. It's going to be an expensive trip this year, with the way the pound has fallen against the dollar. At least it's a few months until the Euro buying trip. Some time for the pound to crawl out of its corner after a little wound-licking.

The money I take over December dictates what I can spend in Tucson. I need to spend a fairly large amount to financially justify the trip, but it's very important for the business that I go. There are a few stock lines that I only buy there, once a year, and while I could proabbly get them through a UK based dealer, I would be paying far more and not getting to hand pick each specimen. So - quality and price would suffer.

Usually, I have a list of essentials that I need to buy first, then see what's left afterwards for anything new and interesting. I always come back with something different for the more regular customers.

So. Time to make the list. Well - tomorrow maybe.