Earthrise: the Movie. Plus, Earth Day at Rosetta Stones

LRO Recreates Astronaut View of 'Earthrise'. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC

I’ve spent the majority of today spelunking NASA for nifty satellite images, then writing up an Earth Day post for Rosetta Stones. Whilst looking for inspiring images of Earth, I discovered NASA did a video for Earthrise.

Delights like this make me immensely glad to be alive at this time, in this place.

Sunday Song: Scandinavian Black

Lockwood found this simply awesome map of metal. I knew, from the instant I saw his tweet, what it was mapping.

Disappointed to find "World Map of Heavy Metal Mensity" not about ores. Also, what is with Scandinavia?
Lockwood DeWitt

The majority of my favorite metal comes from the Scandinavian countries. So, of course, all I have to see in proximity are the words “heavy metal” and “Scandinavia” and I’m happily singing in the dark.

Right. So the article says Finland leads. Let’s have some Finnish metal, then, shall we? Dear fuck, this is hard – lots of my favorites hail from Helsinki or, y’know, other Finnish cities. But I think we’ll go with Nightwish this time round, as they’ve been a favorite for years. Until Tarja left, anyway.

One of my favorite songs ever. And a celebration of sin seems suitable for a Sunday, eh?

Right. On to Sweden, coming in a close second… There’s a few I could’ve gone with, but we’ll do Draconian. I bloody love Draconian. Perfect for when I want moody, atmospheric, dark-as-hell music. And while you get the song immediately, I just spent twenty minutes agonizing before deciding it absolutely must be “Seasons Apart.”

Shivers. Veritable shivers. Indubitably.

Norway’s next. Oh, Norway. The vast majority of my metal comes from Norway. How in hell do I choose between them all? (Cue agonized death-metal scream.) Emperor, which was my gateway drug? Dimmu Borgir, my favorite-ever black metal band in the entire universe? About a billion others… No. No, it has to be Dismal Euphony, because I don’t think they get half the credit they deserve.

That, my darlings, is one of those black metal songs that leaves me so in love with life, because it reminds me how very fragile life is. I think it’s one of their best, but it’s not their most technically complex song. Don’t let me forget to put “Carven” up as one of our Sunday Songs someday.

And then, Iceland. I looked over the Iceland list and realized I haven’t heard a single band from Iceland. How sad is that? I sampled a few. None of them tickled my fancy, until I came across XIII‘s “Cat.” Dude. That’s my cat they’re singing about!

Sweet! And kinda catchy. Or is that “cat-chy.” Ahaha.

We have barely scratched the surface that is the dark awesomeness that is Scandinavia. We must do this again sometime. And for those of you who went, “Meh. Not my cup of tea,” do not be so hasty. I used to hate black metal. But my roommate played Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk three times on three different occasions, and on the third, I was kneeling beside his desk scribbling down the band’s name and the album and resolving to buy it forthwith. It could happen to you, too.

And yeah, not all of this was black metal, admittedly. But still. Awesome.

The Doctor

Okay, people, this is cool beyond words. Not only has my cherished friend Evelyn Mervine become Doctor Evelyn Mervine, she’s regenerated her Geology Word of the Week. And what’s the first word she chose?


Dude. Doctor. Time. She’s an honorary Time Lord, and with apologies to Doctor Who, she’s way cooler (although I love the show dearly, mind you, and always will). The following, I think, demonstrates why I have an inordinate fondness for calling her The Doctor:

Although I considered other T words such as tafoni and tektite and tourmaline, after some musing I eventually decided that “time” is a fitting word for the resurrection of The Geology Word of the Week. Time seems an appropriate word because significant time has passed (on a human timescale, anyway) since I last posted a geology word. Also, I have spent much of the last few months thinking about time. Indeed, my PhD thesis even contains the word time. The title of my thesis is: Determining timescales of natural carbonation of Peridotite in the Samail ophiolite, Sultanate of Oman. My PhD is technically in Marine Geology, but if I were to describe my expertise in geology, I would probably describe myself as a geochronologist and geochemist who enjoys using isotopes and other geochemical tools to constrain ages of rocks and rates for various geologic processes.

Yeah, she’s practically a Time Lord. All she needs now is a TARDIS.

So, go read her post, which explains time in a bit more detail than this:

But does it just as brilliantly.

And for those with no clue what I’m talking about…


Atheism for Believers: Do We Need a Book?

Some interesting comments on JT’s “Happy Ask an Atheist Day!” post got me to pondering that question. Do we need a book about atheism which we can comfortably hand to believers?

I’ve not really thought about it before. I’ve got close friends who are believers, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable recommending books like The God Delusion to them when they express interest in learning more about atheism. The conversations we’ve had haven’t swerved into completely uncomfortable directions, like the whole “But you’re going to hell!” trope. We’ve had sticking points, and we’ve had to talk things over, but they’re strong people who can handle strong ideas. Their faith doesn’t leave them flummoxed when confronted by the fact that someone they love is godless.

I’ve been lucky. But others haven’t. Chantalwallace says,

I recently deconverted (yay!) but my family is not taking it well. They think i’m being influenced by the devil. How do I explain to them that freethought is a good thing, atheism isn’t evil and that i’m not turning my back on them, just their belief system?

That can be tough. And when the people you need to explain this to are family members or close friends, that conversation can get very, very uncomfortable. But still, it’s a conversation that can be had. You don’t necessarily need a book or several for it.

Then I came across this comment by Wren, a Tru Hoppist:

My mom is Catholic. However, we’ve done a lot of talking since I came out as an atheist to her. She says she doesn’t understand, but loves me anyway. I don’t feel like I’m good at explaining myself in regards to my atheism. Do you know of any books that aren’t confrontational (like the God Delusion) that I could give her?

And Doctorburger’s response:

I’m in the same boat actually. I don’t know that I have any book I’d want to hand to my mom.

In the few conversations I’ve had with my parents about my atheism, it’s not that explaining atheism was difficult, rather it’s helping her know I’m the same child she’s always known and loved.

The question’s been bothering me ever since: do we need the kind of book you could hand to your mom? JT says it’s more important to read the books and put the arguments into our own words, and that’s true – to an extent. But it could also be quite helpful to have a handy little tome to hand to a family member who genuinely wants and needs to understand their loved one’s atheism. Sometimes, these conversations are most fruitful after people have had a chance to ponder in solitude. It can be hard to speak extensively face-to-face. Just to take an example from science: I’m perfectly comfortable talking to people about geology. I could do it until they pass out from sheer exhaustion. But it’s easier for both of us when I can tell someone who’s vaguely interested but overwhelmed by the difficulty of concepts they may be encountering for the first time, “Here’s this wonderful book. It’s an easy read, and the concepts are clearly explained in non-scientist language. Read it at your leisure, if you’d like, now I’ve got you interested. And feel free to come to me with any questions, confusions or concerns.”

A lot of times, people want that book. Books can do things conversations can’t do. It gives folks a chance to go at their own pace. They can re-read the stuff that they’re not quite absorbing on the first go. They can put the things in the book together with the conversations they’re having, and possibly understand more than they would with either just a book or a talk alone. And in this case, it gives some much-needed distance. There are some things that are too emotional at first to discuss face-to-face.

So I think we may just need that sort of book about atheism, one we can hand to the believers in our lives, that will help facilitate the conversation. My question is, what do you atheists who need such a book need it to do? Because it’s just possible I could write such a book. Not one that soft-sells atheism so much, of course – I’m Gnu – but at least does the job of explaining some things about atheists, freethought, and what it’s like to live a life without gods. Maybe there are common tropes you’re running in to that you need to have addressed, gently but firmly. Maybe you need a way of saying, “I’m an atheist, but I’m still me, and it’s a grand old life.”

I’ve actually got a book written that I think could be retasked to do the job. But before I rip it apart and rebuild, I want to know what you’re looking for, so I can make sure it would meet your needs, and I’m not just wasting everybody’s time. With two blogs (and occasionally a third and fourth), a busy field season ahead, and other writing jobs to do, I haven’t got any of my time to waste, much less yours! But if this is a necessary thing, and you’d like me to give it a whirl, tell me what you’d like. What’s in that book you wish you could hand to your loved ones? What about it is different from books like The God Delusion?

And in case there are any believers in the audience, what sorts of things help you understand and accept where atheists are coming from, even if you don’t agree with us? What helped you make peace with the heathens in your life?

Let me know.

Weapons-Grade Cute: The Ultimate

This is it. There is no fighting back against something like this. Skirmishes may continue, but the war is over.


Sleeping clouded leopard cub being tickled. That quivering spotted tummy, that twitching leg! It’s over.

Well, barring the celebratory drug-fest, anyway (pump up the volume).

This is why working with Starspider is so hazardous. She finds these things and sends them to me, and I’m either a pile of goo or laughing too hard to answer the phone with a straight voice afterward.

My supervisor is not immune. We sent her this one.

Poor woman. The things she puts up with from us…

No Outing is Complete Without Geology, Featuring the Coolest Trilobite Ever

So, you remember how I mentioned Heritage Park is within walking distance of downtown Kirkland? There’s one thing certain to happen when I’m within walking distance of downtown Kirkland: I’ll end up pulled in to Earthlight Gems and Minerals like a planet that’s passed the event horizon of a very large black hole. “You have enough rocks,” I tell myself sternly as my feet turn in that direction. “It’s more fun to find your own in the field,” I protest as I pick up speed. “You’re only going to look this time!” I holler as I’m drawn inexorably in the door.


It wasn’t so bad this time. I went in with a very small wishlist: I’d pick up a piece of corundum if they had an inexpensive one, because after writing “The Real Heart of the Ocean,” I really kinda wanted a bit of my own. And guess what they had?


Mah very own corundum!

Exactly what I wanted: uncut, unpolished, about as raw as it gets. But utterly beautiful. I mean, look at it from this angle:

I love my corundum!

Okay. So that’s all right, then. Got me corundum, good to go. It’s just that, y’know, when Jack was alive he always had something interesting in the fossil department, and his daughter Kim’s kept up the tradition, so I stopped by. And I have never in my entire life seen an ammonite I’ve wanted more.

Ammonite, hematite replacement

I know, I know, it looks dull. But hematite, people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one replaced by hematite before. Nicely oxidized, too! And if you flip this little bit of yum over…

Ammonite, hematite replacement, gorgeous!

How beautiful is that? Hematite and chalcedony, unless I miss my guess on that second bit. You see why it jumped off the shelf and said, “You are taking me home. You have not got a choice in the matter.” It’s tiny, a little smaller than a quarter, but utterly delicious.

Well, there were those two. And I was trying to convince myself to get the hell out of there before it got any worse. But I’d seen some trilobites, and decided I’d pick one up, and I’d just have a quick look round the other minerals to round things out. Why not? And this tiny little epidote crystal sparkled in the dim light of the far shelves, plaintively. “You need to learn your green minerals,” part of me said, whilst another said, “You know Lockwood can probably show you where to get some.”

Epidote, back view

And I was all like, “He could, yeah, he could do that, but…”

Epidote, front view, with magnificent sparkles

…It’s just when they stare up at you with those deep, glistening crystal faces like that….

And speaking of staring, I went through the container of wee little trilobites with half a mind to give ‘em a miss. I’ve got a trilobite, and he’s very nice. But these are adorable pea-sized ones that are completely free of their matrix, and they were dirt cheap, so I figured I’d see if any caught my – holy compound eye, Batman!

Trilobite, with enough eye left to stare with

Okay, a wee little half-curled up trilobite fossil’s one thing, but a wee little half-curled up trilobite fossil with part of its compound eye preserved – do you really think I could’ve walked out of the store without it?

Trilobite with compound eye preserved - exquisite!

The best moment was when I showed the clerk. Her face lit up with that glorious glow of awe and wonder, and she whipped out a hand lens with a light, and sucked in her breath in delight. I love it when fossils and rocks do that to people. I love the wonder of this natural world.

So why’s he curled up? It’s a defensive mechanism called enrolment: like pill bugs, trilobites could roll into a tight little ball when in danger. Richard Fortey covers that quite well in his delicious book Trilobite, which I’m feeling inspired to read again.

This little gentleman (or gentlelady – I don’t know how to sex a trilobite, alas) was only half-enroled when disaster struck. Perhaps, like Fortey’s fortuitous trilobites, this one was in the midst of a large group of trilobites entombed in a rapid influx of sediment, whether caused by a storm or some other catastrophe: it was able to partly enrol, able to anticipate danger, but unable to escape. And that suffocating mud preserved it for millions of years, compound eye and all. Then it ends up on some chica’s rock shelf. But at least it’s loved.

Right, one group photo of the new kiddos, and then I’ll stop salivating in public.

Mah new bebbies

Aren’t they precious? And oh, the stories they can tell!

Mystery Flora: Las Princesas

The wildflowers haven’t really popped yet, but the domesticated ones certainly have. We’ve got trees putting on spectacular shows all over the city. When I headed down to Kirkland after visiting North Creek Park, driving the city streets was an exercise in enchantment. Kirkland’s beautiful anyway, but with tulips and daffodils and great big flowering trees lining the roads, it’s utterly gorgeous right now.

These mystery trees are particular favorites of mine. They seem to come in both white and pink, and the enormous blooms are spectacular. They make me feel like I’m in some fairytale setting.

Mystery Flower I

Ya’ll know these mystery flora posts are just an excuse for me to post pretty pictures, right? I thought so. Also, it’s a bragging right: I tell people all the time that my readers are up to any challenge and have a fine aesthetic sense. I like bragging about you guys. I also like taking pictures of flowers. I’m happy these two interests coincide so beautifully.

Speaking of beautiful:

Mystery Flower II

This is Heritage Park, which stands above Lake Washington near Kirkland’s adorable little downtown area. It’s just a short walk up from the shops on Market Street, actually. The views of the lake are pretty much obscured by the trees, but that doesn’t matter much. Especially right now, when the trees are putting on such a lovely show.

Mystery Flower III

I don’t actually know with certainty that the white and the pink flowering trees are just different varieties of the same species. I suppose it’s possible they’re just very closely related. I’d make a horrible botanist. I get so wrapped up in how gorgeous the flowers look against the sky that I forget to look at the minutiae.

Mystery Flower IV

I can, however, report that both trees are smooth-barked. The flowers have elongate petals, and – oooo, pretty!

Mystery Flower V

You know, it’s pathetic. Show me a tree, just your basic tree, and I can concentrate. I can look at things like whether it has leaves or needles, make some assessments of leaf structure, wax philosophical about photosynthesis, and possibly even identify a species or two based on observed characteristics. This, of course, is granted I’m not cursing them out for blocking my geology. And I’m not really good at it yet, but I do try.

Show me a tree with flowers, and I lose my shit.

Mystery Flower VI

Can you blame me? It’s like sticking shiny minerals right next to plain brown rocks and asking a person with only a minimal interest in geology not to get distracted by the shimmery stuff.

Mystery Flower VII

Judging by the immature leaves, though, I can make a prediction that you flora identification experts will come back with a tree that isn’t tropical. The leaves are on the thin side, and don’t have that lush, thick, waxy appearance we see on trees that evolved in the tropics. But I suspect, from the lack of serration on the edges and the well-defined drip-tip, that these beauties evolved in warm, wet temperate areas. Probably warmer, if not wetter, than Seattle.

And that’s about all the science I can manage before melting into a puddle of goo.

Mystery Flower VIII

Too beautiful for words. And yet, how much more beautiful would it be if I understood the science behind it?

Unidentified Flying Dinosaur: LBB Wetlands Edition

This is the effect you’ve had: when I decided, rather spur-of-the-moment, that I should take Saturday off and go play in the sun for a while, but didn’t want to go far from home, I didn’t go looking for geology. That’s mostly because I know that the areas within a few miles of the house are all about glacial landforms utterly covered in vegetation. So I opted for birds instead. I began the day bound and determined to add to my paltry collection of UFD photos. My readers want UFDs; UFDs they shall have.

So I looked for local parks on the map, and chose North Creek Park, because while the scenery isn’t spectacular, it’s got birds. Also, I plan to do up a piece on wetlands someday. And it’s close.

What happens when I get there, anticipating lots and lots of birds? Bupkis. Oh, I could hear the little fuckers. The air was veritably filled with birdsong. But the bastards were hiding in the bushes. I despaired.

And then came the magical moment when I walked the floating boardwalk toward the Peat Bog Pond, and there, in the middle of the walk, was a Little Brown Bird.


Just a wee little thing, pecking away at the wood. I would’ve jumped for joy if I hadn’t been so terrified of frightening it away.

Picture me, many yards away, putting the camera on maximum zoom and snapping furiously as it pecked at the planks. I knew the photos wouldn’t be great, but just in case, y’know? Then I crept a few steps forward, crooning, “Nice little birdie. Stay right there. Don’t fly away, baby, Dana needs you!”

When the little bugger turned round toward the heavier vegetation to the left, I nearly had a heart attack. But then it stopped.


I have no idea what was so tasty in that spot, but whatever it was finding seems to have convinced it that letting some crazy lady advance on it with a camera was worth the risk.


It even gave me several views from different angles. Here we have a nice profile:


And a fantastic ass-shot, which shows off the tail feathers a treat:


And an action pose:


Then, having found all it wanted, and possibly quite tired of the weird woman goggling at it, it hopped up on the side of the walk for one last photo op before flying off into the bushes.


I actually think I know what this is. But I’m not positive, and considering how few birds I actually manage to photograph, I figured I’d give you lot an opportunity to strut your ornithological stuff.

And, for lovers of wetlands in the audience:

North Creek Park Wetland

The ridge behind the wetland is very likely a drumlin. We’re coated in drumlins up here. And birds that like to sing, dance and avoid the camera at all costs. So a special thank you to this LBB, which was kind enough to pose.

Um… Happy Anniversary, Titanic?

Just before midnight on April 14th, 1912, the Titanic hit an iceberg. Yes, this really happened. No, it wasn’t just James Cameron making shit up. I thought I should state that for the record, because it seems some folks these days aren’t aware of that fact. I know you already know this, my darlings, but in case you encounter someone who doesn’t realize the Titanic actually existed, and in fact still does, only at the bottom of the sea, you can point them this way for some loving correction and some science. Also, a book recommendation: A Night to Remember is a great book on the disaster. I read it when I was still in single digits and never forgot it. The author did a magnificent job bringing the whole sad story to life.

So that’s one purpose of this post: to ensure that, on the anniversary of its sinking (it broke up and went under just after two on the morning of the 15th), in case there are any lingering doubts, the fact is stated: Yes, Virginia, there was a Titanic. 1,517 people died aboard it. And it’s important to remember what happened and why, because those folks didn’t have to die. We learn from disasters like this, even ones that are a century old.

But it’s not just about hubris and the necessity of safety regulations that mandate things like enough lifeboats for all souls onboard, although those things are critically important. The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is also a prime excuse opportunity to explore some truly fascinating science, which is the second reason for this post.

You already know about my post, “The Real Heart of the Ocean,” which explores the geology of the necklace that inspired that monstrosity lovely piece worn by Kate Winslet in the movie. Of course you do. And you’ve read it, right? Right?

But you may not have read David Bressan’s post on the iceberg that took down an ocean liner. That’s right, my darlings: two posts on geology related to the Titanic! And you knew we weren’t going to neglect the iceberg. Of course not.

Iceberg photographed on April 15th, 1912. It's an iceberg, possibly the iceberg. For more info, see David's post, which I filched this from.

And there’s more science where that comes from: a whole page on Scientific American dedicated to the science of the Titanic, complete with contemporary articles from the archives.

It doesn’t feel right saying “Happy anniversary!” But taking this moment to remember those who lost their lives and those who survived does. And the science of the Titanic is fascinating. There’s a lot more to the story than the movie could portray. If just one person who saw the 3D release lands here looking for more information and leaves with a whole new appreciation for science (and safety regulations), I’ll be well pleased.

Sunday Song: Magna Canta

Right, I don’t care if you hate this song our not. If you do, just turn the sound off and put the video on full screen anyway, because the video flies over some spectacular geology and it’s well worth seeing just for that.

Still drooling.

I quite like Magna Canta. I’m something of a sucker for that electronica/Benedictine/like Enigma only better sort o’ thing. This song hasn’t got a video with lots of delicious geology, but it’s one of their best songs, so why the hell not?

Some of you lot are going to accuse me of hating on Enigma, aren’t you? Sigh. I love Enigma, actually, I just happen to love Magna Canta slightly more. Still, Magna Canta hasn’t got this song. The official video’s kind of silly, but the sound’s good, so here it is.

I love that traditional Taiwanese song woven through the whole thing. There’s a whole saga behind that, which you can find here, and here’s the song known variously as the “Jubilant Drinking Song,” “Elders’ Drinking Song,” and “Weeding and Paddyfield Song No. 1.”

Suppose that’s enough music for one Sunday, then. Enjoy!