Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Of Glass and Bones

Two fascinating pieces in today's NYT science section, one on glass as a construction material, the other on the paleontological opportunity afforded by an expansion project underway at the Panama Canal.

Glass fascinates me at a number of levels. I have mentioned before that what drew me so firmly into science is the aesthetic appeal; glass is a perfect example of that appeal. Natural glass, obsidian, comes in a wide variety of forms, some of which show extraordinary plays of light and optical effects- rainbow sheen, silver sheen, and fire mahogany are some examples (these are rockhounder's terms, not geological terms). Man-made glass is more predictable but still has a mesmerizing beauty to me. Art glass can hold me entranced for hours.

All that said, and even though I comprehend the engineering and margin of safety that goes into a work such as the Grand Canyon Skywalk or the newly opened glass observation boxes at the Sears Tower, I don't think I could actually go out onto either of those structures. I get queasy just thinking about it. Nevertheless, I found the discussion of the materials science regarding the use of glass as a structural material in the first article quite fascinating. The graphics and slide show were quite engaging as well. I just don't think I would tolerate the first hand experience of the results very well.

The second article explains that paleontology is the wet tropics is difficult. One of my frequent complaints in western Oregon is "there's 30 freakin' feet of dirt on top of all the rocks." Decent exposures are not easy to find in our mild, moist climate, and roadcuts and quarries are my best friends. I can only imagine the problem is magnitudes worse in a tropical rain forest setting. So when Panama decided to increase the canal's cargo capacity from 65,000 ton ships to 300,000 tons, geologists and paleontologists jumped to attention. It's humorous, frustrating and fascinating, to think about the result. I can only describe it as "guerrilla geology," as scientists race into the newly exposed rocks, collecting as much information and as many samples as they can, before rain, heavy equipment, or the next round of blasting wipes out their opportunity. I expect this will result in a glut of fossils and data that won't get analyzed for years or decades, but will pay off with fascinating and amazing science for years to come.

I like science.

No comments: