Friday, 29 April 2011


Riley found this image on the net the other day. Sadly it was without context. Would be nice to know how extensive the publication is; whether it goes on to explain why it thinks the planet is only thousands of years old.

I get asked about the dating of fossils frequently, and it's a logical question. How do we know? People ask if they get a certificate of authenticity with their fossil and I have to explain that there is no world authority on everything fossily that supplies a thumbs-up sticker with every sale. With all sales in the shop the customer takes away a label with the basic details. Age, locality, name, etc. The fossils I sell do come with tags on them that tell us how old they are. There's a degree of trust involved here. The label I write then becomes a de facto certificate. It legitimizes the fossil somehow, and I sometimes feel a bit guilty about that. Why should people suddenly take what I write on a card as truth? I do not work out the ages myself. I don't do the tests personally. However - I have an understanding of how the dating processes work, and I know that the tests are repeatable, empirical, objective. Facts are objective. Truth is subjective. I feel comfortable that I'm passing on the best information I have when I sell something - it's important to me that I get as much right as I can. It's very much in the interests of the wholesalers to know as much about their stock as possible, and most do. When they provide detailed information, I'm happy with that. When there is some doubt or missing data, I'll try to look into it; try to find out more by spending a little time on the internet reading about the fossil or the site it came from. It's as 'true' as it can be.

Which takes me back to the original question - why believe the ages involved? My answer is - why not? For a long time I had a regular visitor to the shop who would ask me about my lack of religious belief and he told me he didn't believe the age of the Earth was 4.55 billion years old. He said that just 'felt wrong'. That he couldn't really comprehend that scale of time and that the biblically derived estimations of age as a few thousands of years were far more likely. In reply I'd tell him I didn't think that was justification enough to disregard the scientific view and embrace one based on far more dubious principles. The calculations involved, I mean. To get to be a scientist working in a specialised field takes years of study and a deep understanding of their subject. Why would I not put more store in what they say about that topic than someone who knows nothing about it? I'd far rather put my trust in tried and tested scientific processes than take the religious line without asking why. How can blind faith be regarded as more worthy than reason and critical thinking?

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Where it all went wrong

I need a healing stone.
What sort of stone - do you know the name?
A healing stone - so my friend can take the next step.
Well I can give you this book to look through and you can...
Nah, nah, I don't need that. I'll just look... right - there it is. No, dinnae wrap it up, just give us it here.
You don't want to know what it is? 
It's £3.50.
But a label with the name, I mean?
Nah, nah. Nae disrespect man, but that's where it all went wrong.
Where did it all go wrong?
Naming things.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Time of our lives

Our planet is about 4.55 billion years old. Billion. That's four and a half thousand million, or 4,550,000,000. That's a really long time. We humans have only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years as we are now. We've really only been aware of these things for a relatively short time.

You've heard the metaphors before - if the history of the Earth were a 24hr period, etc. This site lets you work out your own metaphor. An easy one being that if the planet's history were laid out as a metre, recorded human history would be the last .002174mm. We just haven't been around that long. It seems like it to us, but we haven't. Until recently we were more concerned with where our next meal was coming from than the bigger questions - why we're here, how we got here. Where are we going? Who's that crouching behind the bushes? We're not geared up for thinking in geological time - we've not had any need to and it remains largely beyond our comprehension.

So. Why am I dribbling on about time and human insignificance again? Well - earthquakes have been in the news a great deal of late. Horribly tragic headlines from a number of countries. It seems to us, amidst the turmoil and disaster, that there have been an unusual number of big quakes in a short period of time, and the natural reaction is to look for a reason behind this. Is there a pattern? Where is it leading? We know a lot more about what causes earthquakes now, and roughly where they are more likely to occur. We can even have a stab at predicting events based on gaseous emissions, small tremors and so on, and seismologists are getting better at it. But as for discerning a pattern within a broader setting, that's just not possible. We view things from our own understanding of time. Geological time is another thing altogether, and current seismic happenings can only really be given their true context with proper hindsight. Not now, and not in the near future. Statistics based on so little information are next to meaningless, and there is no point scaring everyone with warnings of megaquakes, supervolcanoes, Godzilla attacks and so on. In the backs of our minds we know they can happen, but there's not much we can do about it. In a few billion years another galaxy will probably crash into ours, or the sun will turn into a red giant and eat us up. Gather ye roses.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Mother Earth

This Saturday I'll have a stall at a pagan conference. A gathering of witches and druids and so on. It's the third year in a row and it's been enjoyable enough so far - I don't take a great deal on the day, but it costs very little to set up and I think I get a bit of business from it afterwards. I'm not a pagan. I'm very firmly atheist and don't hold any religion or spiritual belief in any great regard. On the whole they're a very friendly bunch - and I'd have to say I can understand the underpinning of spiritual belief with all things natural. Just seems more accessible to me than the more - what? - human-centred religions. An embracing of the natural world rather than some historic prophetic figure.

The world of science has a religion of its own, of sorts, and at its core it has some resemblance to many of the tenets of paganism. In the 60s, James Lovelock, an environmental scientist working for NASA on the possibility of life on Mars. developed an idea that became the Gaia Hypothesis. He worked on it through the 60s and 70s before publishing Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth in 1979. Gaia was the Greek goddess of the Earth. The Earth Mother: a central figure in many belief systems. The central idea of Gaia, very simply put, is that the planet is some sort of self-regulating entity, reacting to constantly changing conditions to maintain some sort of balanced environment suitable for life. A range of interpretations have emerged and broadly the hypothesis can be split into Hard and Soft Gaia, which in turn cover a spectrum of more specific definitions.

I don't have the time, the space or the ability to give an in-depth explanation of the full hypothesis. However - I'll give a brief summary a go.... Soft Gaia holds that most of the processes of life on Earth are connected and influence each other and their surrounding environment directly. That living beings have changed their habitat by their very presence. It's hard to deny there's some truth to this and science will always be learning more about how the natural world fits together and operates as it does. Soft Gaia does not claim the planet has an active part to play in this, though. Hard Gaia goes further, though again along a sliding scale of immersion. It suggests the Earth is more actively self-regulating, and to this way of thinking the extreme is a living entity in itself. Mother Earth watching out for herself, taking steps to redress damage inflicted by her wards. Within this, some believe that all life is intrinsically connected to the point of it all being part of one living whole, a being of beings. You can see how this begins to become quasi-religious.

The concept wasn't exactly universally embraced - Lovelock came in for a bit of stick from the scientific world. Nonetheless, it's stuck around and Lovelock has had a long and very successful career. He's a formidably bright guy, and has been an active environmental campaigner, turning to his hypothesis from time to time to reflect contemporary understanding of green issues. The increasing awareness of global climate change and the unfortunate effect humanity has had on pretty much everything around us has ensured Gaia has stayed firmly in the consciousness. Soft Gaia's highlighting of interconnectivity is a productive outcome - we have become better at anticipating the potential implications of actions we may have previously thought of in isolation.

To me, while a nice idea, Hard Gaia is almost a shrugging of responsibility; a dereliction of duty. Like most religions, I see it as a reassurance - someone, something is taking care of stuff. Taking care of us. It doesn't really matter what we do to the planet, because it can look after itself. I see the appeal, but we need to accept that there are consequences for what mess we humans make.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Wee things big

I got a new toy - a USB microscope. It's not quite as effective as a proper microscope but it's fun to play around with, wasn't too expensive and is easy to use. Plug it into the computer, load a bit of software and muck around. I'm not entirely sure why I got it.

So now I need something to do with it. I think I might have a monthly competition on the Facebook page - name the mineral/fossil win a prize. Actually, monthly sounds like a lot of work. Perhaps annual.

When I stumbled into studying geology I was surprised at just how big a field it was. Maths, physics, chemistry, statistics, biology, etc. A large chunk of time was spent staring down a microscope at thin sections of minerals, learning to identify crystal shapes, growth patterns, associations and so on. I got there, eventually, but I never learned to love the microscope. Maybe that will change.

As you can see, I've had a play around with it now and these images are the results of two or three minutes fiddling. Haven't had to tinker with the images, though, and I'm pretty impressed with the quality given the price. Amber with bugs seemed the obvious choice and it looks like it's going to be quite useful for that alone.