A march for science

6 February 2017

On Earth Day this year, April 22, an unknown but large number of scientists will be gathering together, in Washington and other cities, in a March for Science. I’ll be joining them somewhere in or near Oakland. Not only is science central to my being, it’s also central to our civilization.

As the March for Science site puts it, “At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers. It can and should influence policy and guide our long-term decision-making.”

While Earth Day lately has devolved into a day for innocuous tasks, this year it’s the best possible occasion for this march, because Earth science is the central science for the vital tasks ahead — breaking free of the destabilizing carbon economy, fostering a civilization that’s as sustainable as a forest, protecting and repairing the natural systems that provide our resources. Those tasks will require people who are experts at approaching the unknown, ninjas of curiosity.

curiousbarite

Curiosity is an undervalued skill. You won’t see it in job requirements. Yet without our intense curiosity, we would still be bands of hairless apes huddled in the African savanna, if not entirely extinct. And when new questions need answers, no one is better equipped to find them than scientists.

Consider what happened during the terrible Deepwater Horizon oil-well blowout in 2010. When standard procedures failed, a panel of scientists was called in to seek answers. When the Challenger spacecraft exploded in 1986, a panel of scientists was called in to seek answers.

These were not experts in drilling or spacefaring technologies; they were experts in handling the unknown. We support jobs for such people not just to keep them busy with their pet problems — what many call “pure research” or “curiosity-driven research” as a put-down — but to ensure a supply of curiosity ninjas. Everyone understands the need for top skills in the performing arts, athletics, law and war. It’s the same with science.

curiosity

I don’t know exactly what is driving so many powerful people to fear and downplay and deride and defund scientific research, but I know they need to be opposed and replaced by people who prize science. We have tremendous questions about our future on Earth. Who will seek their answers?

Museum-quality rocks from Oakland

30 January 2017

I keep saying that Oakland has geological features worthy of being put in textbooks. Today I’m here to show you that Oakland has rocks worthy of being in museums, and I’ve put them there.

In 2012, I was asked to put together a set of teaching rocks for the Chabot Space and Science Center. After all, other planets are made of rocks, right? It took some doing, but some of the rocks were easily available within Oakland’s borders in roadside exposures. The conglomerate of the Orinda Formation was one.

museumrocks-1

The red chert from the Franciscan Complex was another.

museumrocks-2

And of course there was our serpentinite.

museumrocks-3

All told, I made five sets of 15 rock types for the kids.

The next year I got a request from Las Positas College, in Livermore, for a boulder of blueschist. Turns out this little college teaches geology, because every citizen will benefit from a course, and students can get a head start on a 4-year degree there. I struggled one out of this streambed, where it wouldn’t be missed.

museumrocks-4

They installed it in their teaching garden as Rock J, on the left. It’s small compared to its mates, but that thing weighs a ton because high-grade blueschist is pretty dense.

museumrocks-5

My reward included a visit backstage to see their cool collections.

museumrocks-6

Then last year, I got a note out of the blue from the under-construction Maine Mineral and Gem Museum asking my help in building their collection. Maine is well known for its gemstone and mineral mines, but the state has no blueschist. I went to a quiet outcrop where it’s just lying around.

museumrocks-f

Got two nice boulders and couldn’t choose between them, so I sent them both. They told me one will go on display and the other will go in their teaching collection.

museumrocks-e

None of these are precious collectibles or gemstones. They’re just cool and educational.

I’ve pretty much stopped collecting rocks for myself because I’m not important enough. But museums are important enough.

The Pinehurst Shale

23 January 2017

Much of Oakland’s high hills consists of our local piece of the Great Valley Group, the colossal set of sedimentary rocks that runs the length of the Central Valley along its western wall. (How our piece got over here is, as they say, poorly constrained.) The group is well exposed in Shepherd Canyon and points south, and it continues on the far side of the hills as far as the Upper San Leandro Reservoir. There the Redwood Canyon Formation, the upper unit of the group, is overlain by a little rock unit called the Pinehurst Shale. On the geologic map, it’s the slices of darker green nestled amid the Redwood Canyon Formation (labeled Kr).

pinehurstshalemap

It’s named for Pinehurst Road, naturally, and its type locality is at the Pinehurst Staging Area on the far side of Redwood Regional Park. You know the place if you’ve ever driven out there.

pinehurstshale1

This exposure shows strong bedding, but it’s all shale — rock with little material coarser than clay size. Some of it’s soft claystone that crumbles and erodes easily. Here it is in a rain-carved rut in the fire road that leads into the park.

pinehurstshale2

Other parts of the Pinehurst Shale are very hard and resistant because they contain a goodly share of silica. Here’s what that siliceous shale looks like in outcrops along the trail . . .

pinehurstshale3

. . . and here it is in hand specimen. (For display only; I put it back.)

pinehurstshale4

Farther up the trail, the shale gives way to siltstone of the Redwood Canyon Formation. It’s quite a dramatic change.

pinehurstshale5

Both of these rock units contain microfossils from the Campanian Age, making them somewhere around 75 million years old. Whatever once lay above them has been removed by faulting, leaving a gap of maybe 60 million years between them and a little ribbon of Sobrante Formation across the reservoir on EBMUD land.

There’s another cool thing here. Here’s the rock just to the right of the top photo. See that big chunk of rock by the right edge, sticking out crosswise against the bedding?

pinehurstshale6

That is a sedimentary dike. It marks a place where once upon a time, before this rock was fully solidified, an imbalance in fluid pressures caused the one layer to force a crack upward through the overlying layers and squirt into it. Usually dikes are something you expect to see in lava beds, or producing “sand blows” on the ground after large earthquakes. This next shot is taken from the right side, looking at the top of the dike.

pinehurstshale7

An exposure like this, on a roadcut, is usually fair game for grooming by pulling out the shrubs and sweeping away some of the rubble. I do that here and there during my outings, but this spot looked a bit chancy.

I contented myself with pulling up some young French broom plants. Now’s the best time of year to do that, when the soil is saturated. If we all did a little of that, it would help fight the invasive problem. The land is worth the effort.

pinehurstshale8

Visiting our parklands can take you very far away.