Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Rinky dink

The Pink Panther was a diamond, first of all. In the original 1963 film, with Peter Sellars and David Niven, a famous diamond was stolen and Inspector Clouseau had to track down the thief and recover the stone. It was called the Pink Panther because it was a rare pink diamond and it had a flaw that supposedly looked a bit like a panther. Over the opening credits, to Mancini's brilliant theme, a dancing cartoon Pink Panther got his big break. The cartoons followed when the film company executives loved the intro and commissioned an animated short The Pink Phink, which in turn won an Oscar in 1964. More followed, thankfully.

I've moved away from the subject of diamonds a little here. Point was that there was a pink diamond up for auction today, by Christie's in Hong Kong. It's called Martian Pink, named by an American jeweller, Harry Winston, in the 70s, who cut it in honour of a Martian satellite being launched at the time. Pink isn't the rarest colour for diamonds, but along with blue they are among the most valuable gemstones in the world. The pink colour is caused by flaws in the crystal structure, rather than in some cases where the presence of trace amounts of other elements  - blue is due to boron, yellow to nitrogen.

Estimates for today's sale varied between $8-12million, but a pink diamond about twice the size sold in 2010 for £29m, so it might go a little higher than the estimate. I don't have any pink diamonds.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Live forever

Good news! We've been given a reprieve. All those predictions of the world ending later this year because one particular Mayan calendar ran out of space will have to be revised. A Mayan city in Guatemala has thrown up a new calendar. stretching a few thousand years into the future, so we're going to be alright.  For quite some time. No need to sell all your furniture and finally tell your boss what you think of his wacky ties.

Perhaps 'new' calendar isn't quite right. Let's go with 'another' calendar. There were a lot of Mayans over a very long time. Lots of houses with calendar space on the wall. Lots of birthdays to remember. Maybe we have just been unlucky with the order in which we’ve found the calendars. If we’d found this guy’s calendar first, we’d have saved a lot of worry and lunatic internet dribble.

However - to cheer up the presumably disappointed doomsayers - an idea. Why not predict the End of the World every year? Most of our calendars finish in December, so let’s have a Doomsday confidently scrawled on the calendar, in red marker pen, each and every December. Then, eventually, somebody may get it right, and we can all be pleased for them in what little time we have left, as the lava rolls menacingly towards our doorstep, the frogs shower from the sky and people start to tire of tedious reality tv shows.

I do understand the fascination with armageddon and all things apocalyptic. It's exciting. It's like being interested in dinosaurs and monsters. But there are always people predicting the end of the world. Always. I may as well make my own guess. I'm going to go for... 5 billion years, when the sun is supposed to go Red Giant. If there is some form of sentient being around at that point, they can check my Facebook timeline and nod sagely to each other. 'That fossil guy was right. Let's sell our furniture.'

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Mini mammoths

In 1904, a famous Natural History Museum collector, Dorothea Bate, collected some teeth from a site in Crete. They were thought to be from a dwarf species of the straight-tusked dwarf elephant genus Palaeoloxodon. The ancestor of the genus, P.antiquus, was a monster, twelve feet tall, but spawned a number of dwarf species dotted around Mediterranean islands. Fossils have been found on Sardinia, Malta, Corsica and Cyprus. The teeth were looked at again recently and a team went out to Crete in search of new material.

It was a successful trip - more fossils were found and the researchers discovered the teeth had belonged to a mammoth rather than its elephant cousin. Mammuthus creticus, a dwarf mammoth - the dwarf bit was correct -  is thought to have evolved from Mammuthus meridionalis, which was trampling around Europe between 2.5 and 0.8 million years ago, or even M.rumanus, an earlier beast. This means the animals might have reached Crete as early as 3.5 million years ago. Maybe on a pedalo.

Island dwarfism is a common phenomenon. Animals have frequently found themselves an isolated new home and shrunk to fit their surroundings. Elephant families have made a habit of it. Aside from all the Mediterranean Palaeoloxodons, dwarf mammoths have been found on the Californian Channel Islands, and Saint Paul Island, while mini-Stegodons have been found on Timor and Flores. The last of the mammoths thought to have lived were not quite a dwarf species, but had shrunk somewhat. They were living on the Siberian Wrangel Island as recently as 4,000 years ago. The island became separated from the mainland around 12,000 years ago, and the native Mammuthus primigenius population gradually got all midgety.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


A very long time ago, when our planet was young, it was hammered by rocks. Lots of huge rocks, for ages. Not a particularly enjoyable experience, you'd imagine, but character-forming, like camping. This prolonged period of galactic stoning has a name - The Late Heavy Bombardment. Seems a very long time ago for something to be called 'late', but it's considered late in the time frame of the formation of the solar system's planets. The Heavy Bombardment part you get, I'm sure.

Until recently, the bulk of the evidence for this event (if you can call something that lasted hundreds of millions of years an event - cricket seems to last hundreds of millions of years and that's called a game. Oh no. I've ended a sentence within parentheses. What's the correct way to get back into the sentence outside? Let's just ignore all this bit and carry on.) has come from collected lunar material. Rocks sampled on Apollo missions show a huge number of big impacts happened beginning about 4.1 billion years ago - some 427 million years after it was knocked from Earth and 'born'. If the moon was getting pounded, then Earth, Mars, Venus and Mercury were most likely getting the same treatment. It had been thought the bombardment continued until 3.7 billion years ago, but new clues have been found in terrestrial rocks which would suggest the brutality went on for as much as a couple of billion years.

Impactite horizons with tiny glassy beads - impact spherules - from large scale landings have been found from as 'recently' as 1.8 billion years ago. Large scale landings meaning really large in some cases - perhaps up to 70km across. Researchers think these show there's a case for an extension of the Late Heavy Bombardment, perhaps with a gradual decline in falls rather than a (relatively) sudden end. A complicating factor here, certainly with the earlier model, is the nature of the sampling. Although there were a few lunar landings, and a total of 380kg of rocks returned, the sample area isn't really a large percentage of the moon's surface area. We can't claim to have extensively explored the moon. Maybe other areas would/will show a different pattern of impact dates. In any case, we can be glad it's over. For now.