Category Archives: Science

Planet Oil

I recently watched part one of the BBC Scotland documentary Planet Oil, presented by geologist Professor Iain Stewart. The programme considers the story of how oil completely changed our world. It created riches on a previously unimaginable scale. It led to technology that revolutionised our lives. It changed the outcome of wars, and sent the balance of global power into a tailspin. The programme covered so many great stories that I thought I’d share a few.

Up until the mid-19th century the world’s lamps were lit by whale oil. But collapsing whale populations meant the industry, and the whales, were under serious threat. A new source of oil was urgently needed. In 1853 an industrialist named George Bissell took a trip to Pennsylvania. He’d heard stories of the region’s strange oily puddles and wondered if they might provide a solution.

The oily puddles bubbled up from deep underground. Bissell realised he needed to drill down to reach the source. This wasn’t something anyone had attempted before, so new technology was required. He partnered up with a former railway conductor, Colonel Edward Drake, who possessed the necessary engineering skills. By 1859 they were ready, and on 27th August Drake struck oil. Being the first to person to do so, he was taken by surprise when the oil erupted with such ferocity that it sprayed high into the air. Not wanting to waste the precious material he frantically grabbed some old whiskey barrels he had lying around and began filling them with the oil. This chance action is the reason we still trade oil in barrels today.

Bissell and Drake refined the oil into kerosene, which could be used to light lamps. This new type of oil was rapidly adopted, making the men extremely wealthy. Their wealth soon attracted the keen interest of others. Within twelve months over seventy-five drilling rigs were operating in the area. Within another year the area was generating around one million barrels a year. The shocking speed with which this new industry grew couldn’t be better illustrated than by the story of the town Pithole.

The discovery of oil in one particular location resulted in people flocking there to drill it. Within six months a prosperous town had grown from nothing. The town, named Pithole, was replete with ten hotels and numerous saloons, but the oil quickly dried up and the town disappeared. The rise and subsequent demise of Pithole occurred so quickly that it never appeared on the US census. A census is taken every ten years. At the time of the 1860 census the town didn’t exist. Oil was discovered in 1865. But by the time of the next census, 1870, the oil had dried up and the town was deserted.

These rapid changes were owed to the huge wealth this new mineral could bring. And there’s no finer example of this than the story of John T Rockefeller. He’s known as an infamous philanthropist, but he was also a ruthless businessman. He nickname was the anaconda.

Rockefeller originally worked as a greengrocer, but he soon saw the attraction of oil. It was hard not to. Every dollar invested in oil drilling returned a thousand. In 1865 he invested all his savings in an oil refinery. He used the profits to build a second. With so many people drilling for oil there was a risk of oversupply, so Rockefeller decided to distinguish his product by going for quality. To underline this commitment he opted to name his oil Standard.

Rockefeller’s business grew quickly. He soon became the country’s biggest supplier, but he still wasn’t satisfied. To further tighten his grip on the industry he focused upon the supply chain. Oil was transported via the railways. The size of his company afforded him great power, which he used to entice railway operators into extremely biased deals. The deals meant the more oil a supplier shipped, the cheaper the shipping became. As he was the largest shipper, the deal favoured his company. He then went a step further and arranged a deal that actively penalised smaller distributors. This killed off competition allowing him to monopolise the industry. The result? Never before in the course of history had one man become so rich so quickly from a single resource. He became the richest man that had ever lived, amassing a fortune equivalent to ten times that of Bill Gates.

In the 1870s a British military industrialist named Robert Nobel arrived in Baku on the Caspian Sea. He was seeking wood to make rifles. But instead he found a black, barren landscape. Gas would belch from underground vents. Volcanoes of mud spluttered into the air while rivers of oil oozed along the sun-baked sand. In this strange alien landscape he saw rocks on fire. He also saw an opportunity.

With his brother he formed the Nobel Petroleum company. They knew there was a ready waiting market, eastwards. The problem was getting their oil there.

The journey over land was long and arduous. The sea option was quicker, but required access to the newly opened Suez Canal (which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea). But there was a problem, the clipper ships used to transport oil were deemed unsafe by the canal owners. They viewed wooden ships with thousands of oil barrels rolling around a dangerous prospect. The Nobel brothers needed a new design of ship.

The solution was found by the son of an English shell merchant, Marcus Samuel. His design is still in use today. It’s become one of the world’s most recognisable ships: the super tanker. Samuel then created his own oil company, Shell. Its name and logo was inspired by the shells his dad would sell. It soon became one of the world’s most recognisable brands.

Samuel’s new design of ship could carry twice as much oil and move it safely through the Suez Canal. This allowed the Nobel brothers to dominate the Asian market, much to Rockefeller’s frustration.

Drawn by the astonishing levels of potential riches many wells opened up across the world. But in their clamour to enrich themselves the new oil barons failed to notice the massive threat looming on the horizon: electricity.

In 1882 Edison flipped a switch. The switch sent electricity through wires which lit a series of streetlights across a London bridge. The world would never be the same again.

Towns and cities across the globe soon embraced this new technology. It wasn’t long before it was busy banishing darkness from inside people’s homes as well. Oil was made redundant almost overnight.

At that time oil only really had one use, and once that use had been supplanted the industry was obsolete. The oil barons needed a new use for their product. Conveniently, a German engineer was working on exactly that. Much like electric lights, his invention also completely revolutionised the world.

Oil reaches the surface in the form of crude oil. This is a mixture of numerous hydrocarbons (compounds of hydrogen and carbon). Only one molecule, kerosene, was used for lamps. By heating the raw oil the various types of hydrocarbons can be separated. This process, called distillation, causes the lighter molecules (such as propane) to evaporate first. As the temperature is increased the heavier molecules (such as kerosene) are separated out. This process generates many different products. One particular molecule was originally thrown away as a waste product. This made it the only fuel the German engineer, Carl Benz, could afford. So he designed his new internal combustion engine to run on it. The product was gasoline. Despite being initially considered worthless, a mere thimble full could perform the work of twenty horses. It wasn’t long before the world embraced Benz’s invention. And it wasn’t long before gasoline became oil’s most prized product.

Often the military is the first to embrace new technology. As was the case for gasoline. In 1911 Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. One of his immediate concerns was the German navy. Their ships ran on oil, whereas the British fleet ran on coal. Coal ships travelled at ten knots; oil ships travelled at twenty-five knots – clearly a massive advantage in a battle situation. Churchill soon set about converting Britain’s ships to oil. Fortunately his work was well underway when war broke out in 1914.

A month after war broke out an event took place that’s largely unknown outside of France. Paris was on the verge of being taken by the Kaiser. His forces were amassed only thirty miles from the city. Many considered the city’s fall inevitable. Most people, including the entire government, had already fled. But the city’s military general, Joseph Gallieni, was determined to save the city. Frontline troops were heavily outnumbered. Reinforcements were available, but stranded in Paris. The story goes that Gallieni was standing on a Parisian street when he saw a taxi go by, then another, then another. A thought occurred to him. What if he used these new, fast, gasoline-powered vehicles to take his troops to the frontline?

The call went out to all Parisian cab drivers to abandon their passengers and come to the army’s aid. What resulted is now referred to as the Taxi Armada. Six hundred taxis answered the call. Within twenty-four hours six thousand troops had been delivered to the frontline. Never in world history had so many people been transported so far so quickly. The Germans were pushed back; the city was saved. The age of motorised warfare had arrived, and the world was in no doubt as to where the future of transportation lay. Although, as an amusing side note, it’s claimed the taxis’ meters were still running during the mass exodus. Well, we’ve all got to earn a living…


(Dino) Footprints in the Sand

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

– Sir Isaac Newton

Warning: This blog post is about rocks. As I’m sure you can imagine, blog posts about rocks feature an extreme degree of adrenalin-fuelled drama that often proves too excessive for many readers. Those with a nervous predisposition or known heart condition should proceed with caution.

This is the fifth post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here. It’s also my third post about rocks. I’ll save the links to the other rock posts until the end. You need to pace yourself. If you can survive the below then feel free to tackle the others.

As I crunched my way over the pebbly beach one particular pebble amongst the thousands of others caught my attention. I stopped. “Hmm…now that is interesting,” I thought to myself. I bent down. Picked it up. Inspected it. Turned it over in my hand. “Interesting,” I thought again. I slipped it in my pocket and continued on my journey.

Many thousands of years ago our Neolithic ancestors undoubtedly walked along similar such beaches looking for similar such rocks. Admittedly, their vision was far keener than mine and their attention was focused far more on survival.

The next day I pulled into a car park besides a different beach. After grabbing my coat and rucksack I joined the gathering crowd of strangers assembling at the meeting point. There were parents struggling to herd their excited children, young couples hugging each other in protection against the building breeze and well-equipped older enthusiasts patiently waiting in earnest. As the scheduled time of our meeting passed our guide, Oliver, concluded that everyone who intended to join had likely done so; it was time to begin. Over his shoulder was a well-worn satchel. He dug in deep and retrieved a small collection of rocks. He then began passing them around amongst the eager audience. They were like the clothing of a missing person to rescue dogs. They were the examples to train our eyes upon before departing on our quest. The rocks were fossils. And we were on a fossil hunt.

The Isle of Wight constitutes one of the richest fossil hunting sites in Europe. Over twenty-five different species of dinosaur have been identified on the island. The connection to dinosaurs is so strong that it’s become a major tourist draw. This point is illustrated by a fun walking tour created along the south coast. This ‘Dinosaur Island Trail’ has a series of ‘meteorites’ (rocks) which you can locate. There’s an associated phone app. When you reach the meteorite you open the app and point the phone’s camera at the meteorite. It then super-imposes an animated dinosaur, complete with sound effects, on the scene allowing you to take a photo. Each location has a different dinosaur to discover. Here’s a photo I took at one location:

viow_635638518378227000

Besides the walking tour there are also opportunities to go on fossil hunts. Having been fascinated by dinosaurs since I was a kid (as mentioned here) I opted to take a tour and learn some more.

My first discovery came less than a minute into the hunt. I was standing on a raised ridge when I heard a panicked lady asking if anyone had seen a young boy in a red coat. From my vantage point I could see a lone child playing on the other side of the ridge. He was wearing a red coat and appeared too young to be safely playing on his own. From my elevated position I was able to direct the appreciative lady to the missing child. He wasn’t quite a dinosaur fossil, but I guess it was a good find nonetheless. His mum seemed rather relieved anyway.

As we made our way along the beach, armed with our new know how of what to look for, we scoured the ground. Oliver was a local professor of palaeontology and, along with a fellow expert, was on-hand to identify the various finds. He was a jovial fellow and seemed more than accommodating to the relentless queue of budding-fossil hunters hoping for confirmation of having found something special. “That’s a good find, but unfortunately it’s just a bit of wood…” “They look a bit like that, but unfortunately that just some flint…” “Umm…that’s some glass…”*

I was determined to find a fossil. I forensically scrutinised the scene at my feet as I slowly made my way along the beach. Every slightly unusual rock or oddly coloured example was plucked from the sand, excitedly examined , before disappointedly discarded.

We’d been searching a lot longer than I realised when Oliver called out to announce we’d reached as far as we were to go. I was initially disheartened to have progressed so far through the hunt without success. That was until Oliver drew out attention to this:

DSC_0150

140 million years ago the Isle of Wight was a floodplain with a monsoonal climate of long dry summers punctuated by flash floods. It was also home to a great many Iguanodons. It seems that a whole herd of these 3.5 ton herbivores had made their way across the muddy terrain that eventually became the Isle of Wight’s coast. It seems likely that a flood struck causing a river to burst its bank filling the footprints with sand. Over millions of years the mud turned to mudstone and the sand turned to sandstone. Sandstone is tougher than mudstone so as the relentless waves erode the soft mudstone cliff the perfectly formed sandstone casts fall out onto the beach.

There was a time when people would collect the footprints. This was fine until some budding entrepreneurs began selling them. This kick-started a lucrative business creating great demand for the footprints. Unsurprisingly, demand soon out-stripped supply. The unsustainable situation came to a head when a footprint was destroyed by someone trying to cut it from the rocks. In desperation the National Trust, who owns the stretch of coastline, sought legal advice. It was recommended that a by-law should be introduced making removal of footprints illegal. The law was introduced in 1984. Since then, any unusual or scientifically important footprints have been removed and taken to the local museum. All others are left on the beach for the public to enjoy. Here, enjoy some yourself:

DSC_0152

DSC_0159

And here’s another of the Dinosaur Trail photos:

viow_635638545319320730

It’s a Pelorosaurus. It’s one of the rarest types of sauropods and grew up to 20 metres in length.

The highest concentration of the footprints can be found around Hanover Point. It’s a geologically interesting location. The underlying rock is being pushed north. This has caused it to rise and at Hanover Point it has cracked and given way. As such, it features the oldest layers of the beach. This can be explained by imagining several layers of paper stacked upon one another. If you push the stack from each end then the middle will rise, creating a peak (Hanover Point). Wind, rain and glaciers has since eroded the top few layers leaving the older layers (the lowest layers of paper) exposed. It’s Africa’s gradual movement northwards which, alongside creating the Alps, has caused this phenomenon.**

While walking back Oliver stopped to point out an apparently incongruous anomaly in the rock strata. Near the top of the cliff was a 128 million-year-old layer. Sat directly on top of it was a layer only 6,800 years old. He asked us if we could explain the odd feature. Can you? (Answer at the end of the post)

Naturally, I assumed I’d discover a completely new species of dinosaur that would totally revolutionise our whole understanding of them. Surprisingly, this didn’t occur. I found a few interesting things, but sadly no dinosaur fossils. As we neared the car park and the end of the hunt I excitedly approached Oliver with my latest find. I was convinced that it must be something. It looked nothing like else I’d seen. The fossils are very, very dark black. And, despite having been subjected to unimaginable heats and pressures for millions of years, their surface still looks remarkably like bone. This was the darkest, blackest thing I’d seen. It also had a slight bone-like surface. Sadly, it was nothing of interest. It was just an odd, dark rock. I think Oliver must have taken pity on me though. He offered me a small fossil that he’d found. He thought it was likely a turtle bone or something. He said I could keep it, which was very good of him. Maybe I didn’t find my new species of dinosaur (The Lanceasaurus), but at least I got my own fossil. I found a few other interesting things as well:

DSC_0724

On the left is a 115 million-year-old lobster burrow. The top-right is a piece of fossilised wood (you can see the grain), and the sample at the bottom-right has white shells and fish bones.

I also got the chance to ask Oliver if the stone I’d found the previous day was anything of interest. I was pleased to be informed that it was a 90 million-year-old fossilised sponge that he considered a good find:

DSC_0726

The fossil is made from flint. Flint is made from silica. It turns out that the majority of silica comprising flint comes from the remains of ancient creatures (such as sea sponges or various microorganisms). That’s something to bear in mind next time you see some flint. You’re looking at fossils. It’s also interesting to note that our ancestors found flint to be a great source of cutting blades. As they combed beaches in search of cutting tool material they were undoubtedly unaware that they were in fact searching for the remains of ancient creatures. Ancient creatures that had lived and died lived long before our ancient ancestors could possibly have imagined.

DSC_0725

My fossil

 

Incongruous Rock Strata

The reason for the disparate layers being so close is that the ancient layers were pushed up and eroded. This resulted in the 128 million-year-old layer being near the surface. During the Ice Age glaciers carved away the remaining layers. When the glaciers melted, 6,800 years ago, the ancient layer was left exposed. Subsequent layers then began to be laid down.

 

*To be honest, I was the one who excitedly showed him the piece of glass. It had been smoothed by the sea and severely scuffed up, so it looked peculiar and unlike anything else around.

 

**As an interesting side note, a documentary I watched a few years ago explained that Africa’s northward migration will eventually result in Morocco and Spain meeting, making the Mediterranean the world’s largest inland sea. With the water not being replenished it will eventually evaporate creating the world’s largest salt bed (something to consider next time someone offers you an investment in a beachside property on the Med).

 

If you managed to make it all the way through this rip-roaring rock post without requiring hospitalisation, feel free to see if you can survive the excitement of my other rock-based posts here and here.

 


Trampling on the Shoulders of Giants

This is my fourth post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here.

It’s quite obvious to anyone that casts a cursory glance around the world today that the future will be dominated by those nations who excel in science and technology. Only the most foolish and short-sighted leaders would fail to invest in such a lucrative field. As for those who invest, succeed, but subsequently abandon that success, for such nations only the most serious of scorn should be reserved. I’m talking, of course, about the UK. As, after all, the UK is the only nation to have successfully developed a satellite launch capability and then idiotically abandoned it.

Hidden from the mainland by the one of the Isle of Wight’s most famous landmarks is an isolated, wind-swept, concrete husk that was once a thriving, ground breaking facility.

DSC_0184

It may seem surprising today but during the 1950s the UK’s place in the space race was on par with both the US and the USSR. In fact, by the early 60s the UK was actually ahead of the US. A sobering thought in light of this being the same decade when the first American steps were taken upon the moon.

During the 1950s a rocket testing site was built at High Down on the Isle of Wight (just above the Needles). A rocket named Black Knight was designed, developed and tested there as a means of delivering a nuclear bomb. Despite the incredibly tight budget, Black Knight performed exceptionally well. In fact, it experienced no failures whatsoever. It was this success that led to the decision of adapting the technology into a low-cost satellite launch system. This became known as the Black Arrow satellite launcher. Much like the Black Knight the Black Arrow was chronically under-funded. Also much like the Black Knight project, it was astoundingly successful.

Its fourth and final launch succeeded in its goal of successfully placing a satellite into orbit – thus proving itself to be viable and low-cost means of launching satellites. It also made the UK one of only six nations to have successfully sent a home-made satellite into orbit.

As the UK had no suitable launching sites the rocket was launched from Woomera in Australia. Sadly, despite the projects ongoing success, short-sighted politicians of the time cancelled the project. The cancellation was confirmed while the team were on their way to Woomera. “Officially” word of the cancellation never reached them, so they continued with the launch, although some believe they were indeed aware of the order but chose to ignore it. I hope that’s true. I like the idea of them shaking their head in disgust at their superior’s foolhardy ignorance but deciding to bloody-mindedly go ahead anyway just to prove a point.

The subsequent successful launch proved a political embarrassment for the UK government. Equally embarrassing are the views of the minister who made the decision. By his own admission, he could see no commercial value to launching satellites. Now there’s a man with some remarkable foresight.

After cancellation the only real means of commercial satellite launch was through the American Scout rocket. To a large extent the Scout held a monopoly on the lucrative market. It went on to launch over a hundred satellites and continued operating until 1996. This included various British satellites. The fact that the Scout was more expensive and arguably less capable than the Black Arrow only adds to the foolishness of the Arrow’s premature cancellation. To add salt to the wound, prior to the cancellation of Black Arrow, NASA had offered to launch British payloads for free. After the cancellation the offer was withdrawn.

According to the National Space Society every $1 spent on basic research today is thought to generate $40 worth of economic growth (ref: www.nss.org). Granted, the National Space Society is unlikely to be unbiased, but it still indicates the huge economic benefit of investing in science and technology. It also indicates how dangerous to future prosperity it can be when the political class fails to grasp this concept. The Black Arrow story clearly demonstrates the pitfalls of having a political class possessing a dangerous combination of too much power and too little foresight. Still, I’m sure they’d never do anything that stupid again…

There is perhaps one humorous footnote to this sad tale. The successfully launched satellite was originally meant to be named “Puck” (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). After the cancellation it was renamed by one of the engineers. Its new name, Prospero, was taken from the Shakespeare play The Tempest. The character Prospero was a great wizard who spent many years mastering his mystical art. At the end of the play Prospero abandons magic and loses his abilities. The renaming took place after the cancellation, clearly demonstrating the engineer’s dim view of the cancellation. And the sore reminder of this foolish abandonment will certainly continue for some time. Prospero remains in orbit. It passes over our heads twice every day, and it’s believed that it will continue to do so for the next 220 years. Yep, there’s clearly no future in such technology.


Life on the Ocean Wave

The control room’s atmosphere was suffocatingly tense. The command was sent. The room feel silent. Anxious glances and hopeful smiles were traded as several excruciating minutes slowly passed. The tension was finally broken by a gasp drawing the attention of the room’s nervous eyes. A reading began to scan across the large central screen. The news was good. The submarine’s engines had successfully fired. The room erupted with relieved cheers, whoops of joy and punches of the air.

Hugs were exchanged, and tears were wiped from disbelieving eyes. All those years of gruelling hard work had hinged upon this one moment. And now, the meticulous planning and endless testing, had proved its worth.

A second reading began to appear upon the central screen. Preliminary checks indicated that the submarine had survived its perilous journey. It was ready for its mission. Engine power was increased. The ballast tanks were opened. The hydroplanes were adjusted and the craft began to disappear beneath the icy waves.

Back in the command centre eager eyes studied the murky images sent back by the on-board cameras. The army of eyes stared intently as ghostly shapes and shadows loomed in and out of view.

The images depicted a bizarre, alien world unfamiliar to human eyes. No one could predict what these images might reveal. The submarine’s radar indicated the ocean floor was approaching. If there was life to be found, this was most likely where.

As the ocean floor rose up to greet the craft, the propellers began kicking up mud and silt that had lain undisturbed for millennia. As the clouds dissipated the crowded room stood silent and motionless. From the fading clouds shapes began to emerge. Gasps of shock accompanied sharp intakes of breath. As the image cleared it revealed a field of plant-like creatures attached to the ocean floor. The control room once again erupted into ecstatic cheers and excited screams. The unbridled jubilation was well-placed. The room, and the world watching, had just witnessed the most incredible discovery in human history: life, found by NASA, using a remotely controlled submarine a billion miles from earth exploring the freezing oceans of Saturn’s largest moon: Titan.

It’s astounding to think that the scene described above may actually take place within the next decade or so. There are several locations within our solar system, over than Earth, where liquid oceans exists. Any of these may contain life. These worlds, and their potential exploration, was the focus of the latest episode of the BBC’s flagship science programme, Horizon.

Titan is fifty percent larger than Earth’s moon. At -180C it’s clearly too cold to host liquid water, but there are still oceans. Oceans of liquid methane.

In 2005 a probe named Huygens descended through the dense, cloudy atmosphere to provide our first ever glimpse of Titan’s landscape. Previously, the moon had been shrouded in a dense, hazy atmosphere. Huygens revealed a landscape more Earth-like than had ever been seen before. The surface was covered in large bodies of open liquid oceans. There were rivers, coastlines, lakes and seas. The revelations inspired speculations that life may well inhabit those frigid oceans.

It would be life completely distinct from that on Earth, with a completely different chemistry. It would be an example of a second genesis, featuring lifeforms occupying branches of a second tree of life.

But it wasn’t just the landscape that revealed tantalising clues to Titan’s potential for life.

Life on Earth produces seasonal changes in carbon dioxide levels. It’s absorbed by plants during the summer and released again during winter. It was predicted that life on Titan might produce a similar seasonal pattern in hydrogen. If so, hydrogen levels would be significantly lower near the surface than higher in the atmosphere.

As Huygens descended it sent back some intriguing readings. Hydrogen levels remained steady until close to the surface, where they dropped abruptly. Could this be owed to the behaviour predicted? Or could there be another, more prosaic, reason?

The intriguing readings convinced NASA to assemble a team tasked with designing a craft capable of exploring Titan’s alien oceans. After much experimentation and exploration of computer models, they settled upon a submarine design capable of plumbing the frozen depths. If ongoing tests are successful, launch may be only a decade or so away. If life exists elsewhere in the Solar System, it’s thought this is our best chance of finding it.

Horizon also discussed Enceladus. Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon. The Cassini craft that carried the Huygens probe captured photographed of giant jets of water spraying out from between large cracks in the moon’s icy crust. We now know that, beneath this thick layer of ice, is a briny, water ocean 10km deep. It would be too dark for photosynthesis to take place. But evidence of geysers raises the possibility of life eking out an existence around hydrothermal vents, just like on Earth. There are several proposals vying for funding to investigate, with a scheduled launch date of 2021. Will they detect the tell-tale chemical signature of life?

Lastly, Horizon considered Ganymede. Ganymede is Jupiter’s, and indeed the Solar System’s, largest moon. Beneath its icy crust exists a vast, salty ocean containing more water than all of Earth’s oceans. Beneath the 150km of ice exists an ocean reaching down 100km. Ten times the depth of Earth’s oceans. A probe tasked with exploring Ganymede is scheduled to launch in 2022.

It’s astounding to consider the very real possibility that life could inhabit these alien worlds, lurking beneath those thick icy crusts or frigid methane seas. And it’s even more awe-inspiring to acknowledge that, if such life exists, it may be discovered within only a decade or so. What a time to live – whether on Earth or elsewhere.

Horizon: Oceans of the Solar System is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.


The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Brussels Post V) 

This is the fifth post on my Brussels trip. The first can be found here 

For this post I decided to share the story behind the centrepiece of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (or Museum of Natural Sciences). Like many young boys, I became enthralled by dinosaurs as a kid. Gigantic, ferocious lizards? What’s not to like? So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of seeing Europe’s largest dinosaur collection. The museum’s most prized exhibit is one of the world’s best group displays of dinosaurs: the Bernissart Iguanodons. 

Iguanodons were first discovered in England in 1825, making them one of the earliest known dinosaurs. The name Iguanodon is owed to their teeth, which resemble those of modern-day iguanas (‘don’ means tooth in Greek). This made Iguanodon only the second dinosaur to be named (after Megalosaurus). Today there are seven recognised species of these large herbivores. They existed through the late Jurassic to the late Cretaceous (161-65 million years ago).  

The museum’s Iguanodons were discovered by miners in the town of Bernissart in 1878. While digging for coal, the miners encountered a vast pocket of clay. These geological features, known as ‘crans’, are ancient sinkholes. The miners began digging through the sinkhole to reach the coal seam on the other side. As they made their way through they encountered dark, crumbly objects which they initially took for wood. The colliery’s doctor, however, recognised them as bones. They were soon identified as Iguanodon remains belonging to the Lower Cretaceous (140-120 million years).  

During the Lower Cretaceous Bernissart was most likely a marshy valley surrounded by conifer-covered hills. The valley contained enormous ferns (likely the Iguanodons main food source). The climate was hot and humid and alternated between dry and rainy seasons. Sharing the landscape with the Iguanodons were numerous crocodiles, turtles, salamander-like amphibians, insects and fish. A small number of mammals also existed at that time, but were most likely only small, shrew-like insectivores that hunted at night to avoid becoming the food of the mighty dinosaurs. 

Sinkholes are natural shafts that occur when soluble rock deep underground dissolves, in this case due to underground water. This causes the higher rocks to collapse. At Bernissart, the surface sand and clay was gradually drawn into the shaft creating a marsh on the surface. Sometime later the hapless Iguanodon got trapped in the marsh. This happened in a single event meaning the individuals likely belonged to a single herd. There were thirty-eight individuals in total, the largest Iguanodon discovery ever.  

As the sand and clay was slowly sucked into the sinkhole the corpses were carried with it, taking them 321 metres below ground. Eventually the shaft filled and became covered over by other types of soil.  

The Bernissart site was excavated over a period of three years under the supervision of palaeontologist Louis Dollo. Afterwards he began studying the fossils to determine their original form.  

There was initially a great deal of confusion about Iguanodon’s shape, posture and movement. An early reconstruction even had the creature perched on a tree branch. This seems a little overly optimistic as we now know that they would have weighed around three tonnes. 

The idea of Iguanodon being a lightweight, tree-dwelling creature was first challenged by the eminent scientist Sir Richard Owen. He argued that Iguanodon were heavy creatures with a crocodile-like head and a body similar to an elephant or rhinoceros (although scaly). He also argued that they walked on all fours using their short, heavy legs with big claws. This posture was challenged by another palaeontologist, Joseph Leidy, who believed the front limbs were too short for quadrupedal motion. The later discovery of the Bernissart fossils strongly supported Leidy’s case. The exceptionally well-preserved specimens clearly showed that Iguanodon had powerful hind legs, allowing it to stand upright, and use its arms for grasping food.  

But Dollo’s work on the fossils didn’t just answer old questions. It also created new ones. During his reconstruction he used a kangaroo for reference. But he used it for a little more than just reference. It was later shown that Dollo had actually broken the tail bones to allow the skeleton to sit upright. Clearly, he tried to model the dinosaur’s posture on a kangaroo. We now know that Iguanodon tails couldn’t have flexed in this way. The confusion he created dominated for over a century.  

It’s still debated whether they walked on all fours, the general view is that there were quadrupeds for walking and running and would have stood on their hind legs for grazing or defence.  

This particular species of Iguanodon was dubbed Iguanodon bernissartensis, after the discovery. They’ve since been found throughout Europe, Asia, South American and North Africa (at the time the continents were connected together in a super-continent called Pangea).  

It was fascinating to take a look at the remains. I’d never seen such a large collection of one species before. The museum had even recreated the scene chanced upon by the miners. In the basement they’d recreated the fossil collection as they were in the mineshaft: twisted and in disarray with the disaster befallen their herd frozen in time for us to discover. 


And The Award For Most Bizarre Microorganism Life Cycle Goes To… 

Today I thought I’d focus on a fascinating lifeform that you might not have encountered before. It’s the lifeform thought to have inspired the classic 1950s film The Blob. There are several variants, one of which possesses a life cycle considered the most bizarre of any microorganism. They display traits similar to both animals and fungi, but in fact are neither. They’re single-celled organisms called slime moulds. Ever heard of them? They sound delightful don’t they? 

Slime moulds live in leaf litter and feed upon other microorganisms. What’s remarkable is how they respond when food is scarce. In desperation they release a chemical signal which encourages them to clump together. As they come together they form a slug-like structure which crawls to the top of the leaf litter. How astounding is that? This is a huge mass of independent single-celled organisms behaving as if they’re one single creature. But it gets weirder. Upon reaching the top of the leaf litter they reorganise themselves again. This time they take the form of a mushroom-like object which releases spores into the wind. The spores then create new colonies elsewhere. We don’t yet understand how they organise themselves in such sophisticated ways, but we know that this is only the start of their organising abilities. 

Here’s a video of them working out the most efficient way to route the Tokyo rail system: 

And here’s one about them finding their way around mazes: 

Bizarre, eh? 


Erratic Behaviour 

Regular readers will be well-versed in the action-packed, adrenalin-fuelled, rip-roaring, white-knuckle, rollercoaster rides that comprise my posts. Today, dear reader, is no exception. Today’s post is about this large rock: 

Erratic

It’s unusual in that it’s positioned upon a strange platform. It’s also unusual in that it doesn’t belong in the surrounding landscape. It’s a completely different type of rock. So how did it get there? Well, for a long time people believed its anomalous predicament was evidence of an infamous Biblical tale. 

There are many such rocks scattered throughout the world. They are called erratics – rocks larger than a pebble which differ from the surrounding rocks. Some religious people have argued that erratics were deposited after a great flood, serving as evidence for the Noah myth.  

During the 19th century scientists began to realise that erratics did indeed owe their existence a great geological phenomenon, but it wasn’t liquid water that did the work. The rocks were deposited by glaciers. As ice sheets expand across the land they envelop the rocks they encounter encasing them within the ice. The rocks are then transported away inside the moving ice sheets. When the ice later melts the rocks are deposited many miles from their place of origin. 

This action can have odd results, such as with a group of erratics in the Yorkshire Dales called the Norber erratics. They’re made of sandstone and were deposited upon softer limestone. Over time wind and rain and eroded the limestone, not the tougher sandstone. The result is that the erratics have been left perched, seemingly precariously, upon little limestone platforms, such as in one photographed above.  

Some erratics are much larger than the one in my photo. The largest one in the UK is thought to be the Merton Stone, located in a field in Norfolk. It weighs an estimated twenty to thirty tonnes. Big as that may be, it’s a mere midge compared to some found across the globe. Most of the biggest examples can be found in North America, along with what’s thought to be the world’s largest. It’s known officially as the Okotoks Erratic but is colloquially, and aptly, known as the ‘Big Rock’. It is situated just west of Okotoks, Alebrta, Canada. It’s thought to weigh 15,000 metric tons, which is certainly a little on the portly side.  

Every school child learns the famous story of Noah and the great flood. What they’re rarely taught is that such flood myths were common amongst ancient civilisations. Interestingly, many of the myths share striking similarities. 

An ancient Greek myth describes Zeus sending a great flood to destroy all humanity. A man, named Deucalion, survived the flood by building an ark. In one version of the story he and his wife survived when their ark came to rest on Mount Parnassus. Sound familiar? 

A Hindu story describes a man named Manu who was warned of an impending great flood by a giant fish. The fish instructed him to build a boat, which he did. The fish then guided him to another mountaintop. A Native American legend describes a flood that killed everyone except an old man who sailed around rescuing animals in his canoe.  

The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh exhibits even more elements from the Noah story. Incidentally, it dates back almost 5,000 years and is considered by some to be the world’s oldest written story. In it a sage named Utnapishtim builds a huge boat to protect his family and animals from a storm caused by the gods. After the rains have passed he releases a bird in search of dry land, just like Noah. 

Around 10,000 years ago the world was beginning to recover from the ice age which had dominated for millennia. But leaving rocks in odd places wasn’t the only consequence. As the great glaciers began to melt they created huge lakes of melt-water. These lakes became dammed by giant walls of ice. As the melt continued the pressure on the walls grew making the dramatic events that followed inevitable.  

As the walls of ice collapsed they released walls of water that carved their way across landscapes devastating everything in their path. It’s unknown how many such catastrophic floods surged across North America and Eurasia. It is known, however, that it was one such flood that rendered Britain an island, but some floods were much, much bigger. 

One famous example occurred when glaciers damming an ancient lake in western Montana collapsed. The lake was 2,000 foot deep and the collapsing dam released 600 cubic miles of water. The result was a wall of water hundreds of feet high that flooded across eastern Washington.  

It’s tantalising to think that perhaps the Mesolithic humans who witnessed these great floods passed their tales onto their children and grandchildren, who later passed the stories on to their descendants. And perhaps it was these stories, orally passed down through the generations over millennia, that entered folklore and became the basis of the many flood myths told by ancient civilisations, such as the one concerning Noah. So, in a way, perhaps the strange erratic rocks are indeed linked to giant ancient floods after all.