It’s Moving Day!

Time to close up the sweet summer cabin and move to our forever home. Rosetta Stones will be living on my sparkly new site, the Unconformity.

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It’s the beginning of a new era for Rosetta Stones, and also the 482nd anniversary of the birth of Monte Nuovo. Come join me for the launch of our Mediterranean Geology series! We’ve got some truly magnificent geology ahead of us.

Behind the Curve: A Trip Down the Flat-Earth Rabbit Hole

From time to time, I like to have a snerk at the flat earth crowd. People who refuse to believe thousands of years’ worth of collected evidence, including ships dipping below horizons and airplane flight paths, fascinate and amuse me. It’s amazing to watch grown human beings flatly* deny that the planet is a globe, when there are many simple experiments they could do their own selves to prove that their flat earth hypothesis is pining for the fjords.

We’ve learned from Alfred Russell Wallace that you shouldn’t try to wager with a flat earth fanatic, because they’ll never accept plain scientific evidence. We watched a flat earth enthusiast attempt to prove the world is a pancake by launching himself in a steam-powered rocket ship. And we read a surprisingly good book on the history of flat earth beliefs.

So of course, when the documentary Behind the Curve popped up on Netflix, I had to watch it. That title! That subject matter! I’d heard it went too easy on flat earth beliefs, but I wanted to give it a fair chance.

I’m glad that I did. And if you want to see a master course in subtle digs, I commend it to your attention. I promise you’ll never see a green button the same way again after watching this documentary.

If you want to come at the experience fresh, put this review down and go watch Behind the Curve on Netflix right now (you can also rent or buy it on Amazon Prime if you haven’t got Netflix). If you’re okay with spoilers, proceed!

Continue reading “Behind the Curve: A Trip Down the Flat-Earth Rabbit Hole”

Chasing Lava: A Fun and Fascinating Memoir of Hawaiian Volcanology

Cover of Chasing Lava, showing a lava fountain
Chasing Lava: A Geologist’s Adventures at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory by Wendell Duffield

If you’re looking for a light, breezy, but informative book about volcanoes from a genuine volcanologist, I’ve got it right here for you. Chasing Lava: A Geologist’s Adventures at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory by Wendell Duffield is a delightful memoir of his years working at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. There’s a wonderful sense of adventure infusing the whole book, and he gets us up close and personal with Madame Pele’s handiwork.

Newly-hatched USGS geologist Wendell, his wife Anne, and their pets were stationed on the Big Island from 1969-1972. He worked on Kilauea Volcano at a time when the theory of plate tectonics was still brand new, our instruments were still bulky and somewhat primative, and volcanoes were much less understood than they are now.

He travels back in time with us to 1912, and traces the origin of HVO. Wendell’s personal experience on Kilauea helps us better understand how difficult the early work on Kilauea was. If you’re in to gadgets, you’ll extra love this chapter, because it has plenty of details about rigging volcano monitoring equipment from scratch. And you’ll gain a new appreciation for the work Thomas Jagger and his team did. Our knowledge of how volcanoes work grew in leaps and bounds thanks to them.

Wendell takes us through HVO’s history all the way up to the present, showing the eruptions and innovations that have allowed us to understand the behavior and hazards of hotspot volcanoes like the Hawaiian Islands. There’s a lot of good detail, but it’s all perfectly friendly for non-experts.

Then we go back to 1969 and move to Hawaii with Wendell, Anne, and their young kitty Mingo. This is where personal life joins the science life. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to move to an island for a job with the USGS, you’ll have your curiosity satisfied here. It’s certainly an adventure! Especially since moving to HVO with a cat at that time was a nightmare of bureaucracy. Thank Mingo for blazing the trail!

Living on a volcano certainly isn’t boring. The Duffields’ house is on short stilts, which magnifies the shaking from Kilauea’s frequent earthquakes. They could even feel the harmonic tremor from the Mauna Ulu lava fountains. And when atmospheric conditions were right, they could see the glow of lava on the clouds. It might not have been relaxing, but at least it was cool!

Personal life and scientific endeavours intermingle delightfully throughout the book. You’ll learn about Hawaii’s geological history, and its human history. Field work on the volcano could be solo, done with colleagues, or a beautiful day out with wife and new pupper. We get an intimate glimpse of island life, and a thorough look at Pele’s firey handiwork.

While Wendell was there, Kilauea put on a nearly continuous show, and he provides us a front row seat to it. We meet the geologists working hard in sometimes perilous conditions to understand how active volcanoes work, and mitigate their hazards. We learn how the island’s volcanoes function, and how they affect everything from the weather to groundwater. We get to see eruptions in action, and the USGS’s response to them.

Wendell recounts pulse-pounding moments that inevitably arise, like feeling solid lava wobble on a trail and realizing you’re actually standing on a thin crust above molten rock. He’s seen steam and methane explosions when lava buries vegetation, and recounts how people barbecue hot dogs from the charcoal left in tree molds in lava flows. And he describes how a colleague demonstrated that you can step into molten lava but keep your leg as long as you have colleagues there to pull you out! Somewhere on Kilauea, there is a leg mold, which may delight the geologists who rediscover it in the future.

He’s also survived deadly concentrations of volcanic gasses, which sometimes invisibly concentrate along low areas of the trails volcanologists use around the volcano. And he describes the day a temporary change in vent shape caused their normally safe viewpoint to be showered in cinders and molten blobs by a lava fountain. Being a geologist on an active volcano is often exciting and really, really dangerous!

Another danger was ordinance, some unexploded, left over from WWII. But most of it was safe, and Wendell describes how artillery shell casings and other bits were repurposed for use as scientific instruments. When no company is manufacturing the specialized instruments you need, you make do.

Wendell describes many scientific adventures: trying to influence the behavior of an eruption, studying plate tectonics in the dance of crust on a lava lake, mapping of extensive fault systems, and many other investigations.

Fans of Mount St. Helens will be delighted by the conclusion of the book, where Wendell ties the HVO’s work into the response to the 1980 eruptions.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. It’s a thorougly enjoyable, remarkably informative read, and while experts will appreciate it, amateurs will find it practically painless. Anyone from precocious preteens to lively centenarians should love it. This is an easy choice for your next volcano read.

Soundings: A Richly Detailed Prose Map of Marie Tharp’s Life and Legacy

Cover of Soundings
Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor by Hali Felt


History dislikes remembering science’s founding mothers. So you may have never heard of the mother of the mid-ocean ridge. She was one of the parents of plate tectonics. Her 100th birthday is today. And Hali Felt’s Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor is the book you need to read about her.

Hali isn’t an earth scientist, but after immersing herself in Marie’s life and work, you’d never know it. She draws the birth of plate tectonics with as much skill and assurance as Marie drew her remarkable maps. But she doesn’t just tell a science story.

She tells the story of a little girl whose family migrated constantly due to her father’s soil science job. She shows Marie spending days tromping through fields with her daddy, helping him take sample and sometimes acting as scale for his photos. She traces Marie’s erratic journey through nearly two dozen schools, and how that constant change caused her to rely on herself because friends were always fleeting. She shows the close bonds Marie formed with her mother and father, and how they encouraged her to imagine and explore. The details are so carefully, vividly drawn you’re almost right there.

We’re there for the loss of her mother at fifteen, just after they’ve finally settled into a permanent home, and the subsequent return of her half brother, who also lost his mother young. They didn’t grow up together due to his living with his mother’s parents, but he becomes one of the anchors of her life. No matter where in the world Marie ends up, her father and brother are there for her to return to.

Hali takes us through Marie’s erratic college career, where she chooses a new major every semester. She doesn’t accept the careers offered to women of her era: secretary, nurse, or teacher. WWII offers her a different path: the men are away, so women are needed to become geologists. She leaps at the chance. But those other majors, like art, become an integral part of her future success, Hali shows. Marie didn’t follow any well-worn grooves, and thus was able to visualize what no one else could.

She picks up math and drafting before moving to New York, and parleys those skills into a job at Columbia University. It’s there where she meets her partner, Bruce Heegan, and begins the work that will eventually see her play a central role in revolutionizing geology.

Hali does a phenomenal job here, explaining why advocating for continental drift was a career killer in the geosciences in America then. She shows Marie mapping the ocean floor, sounding by sounding, interpolating and extrapolating from existing data. She shows how Marie was able to visualize something humans had never been able to see as a whole. She takes us data point by point as Marie determines that the ridge others had merely glimpsed tiny portions of runs all down the center of the Atlantic. And she builds masterfully to Marie’s unanticipated discovery of the rift valley running down the center of the entire thing.

This is what made continental drift undeniable. And Marie recognized it for what it was, before any of the man she worked with dared accept it.

So we get to experience that revolution, right with the people who were there, who couldn’t have gotten there nearly so quickly or decisively without Marie’s maps showing them the undeniable truth. And then we get to experience the discovery that the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is just a segment of a globe-spanning ridge that runs through all the world’s oceans. We get to feel the awe and wonder of having it revealed for the first time.

There are details of how a scientific map is painted that will have you enthralled. The panoramic maps of the ocean floor that Marie and Bruce worked on with National Geographic were complex, enormous, and took years to complete. All while they were also fighting their institution for their autonomy (nothing quite like a dictatorial boss who decides that you didn’t give him enough credit and deference. Although there are ways of handling such bosses, but Marie and Bruce didn’t opt for the effective ways!).

Hali will nearly break your heart with Bruce’s untimely death and its effect on Marie. And she’ll break it again as the scientific world decides that Marie without Bruce can’t do groundbreaking work anymore, and rips their unfinished work from her hands without giving her a chance to prove that she’s eminently capable on her own.

The end of her life was spent securing their legacy. She wasn’t alone: she always had a devoted group of Tharpophiles there to work for and with her. Their interactions are delightful. And though, in the end, she dies alone, it’s clear that was by her choice. She was independent even when stuck in a hospital bed. And her Tharpophiles were there until the last night, then carried on, ensuring her maps and her papers were given the place in history they deserved. Hali draws them all so vividly that you almost feel you’re one of them.

This intensely researched, lovingly written book is a remarkable tribute to a remarkable woman, her partner, her people, and her critical contribution to the most important theory in geology. It’s the biography that Marie deserved. If you want to know who the mother of plate tectonics was, this is the book you need.

Happy birthday, Marie!

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A Hero On Mount St. Helens: Remembering David Johnston

Cover of A Hero on Mount St. Helens by Melanie Holmes
Cover of A Hero on Mount St. Helens by Melanie Holmes
A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston by Melanie Holmes

Dr. David A. Johnston is a person I’ve looked up to for most of my life. I first learned about him when I was a child, reading Marian T. Place’s book about the eruption of Mount St. Helens. He watched an active volcano. He warned a lot of people that she was going to violently erupt. He saved countless lives, but lost his own. He became a personal hero of mine, especially as I grew up and learned more about the work he did and the risks he took.

So I was super excited when I saw a whole book was being published about him. I bought a copy as soon as I could. Then… I didn’t read it for a year. Because what if it got him wrong? What if it was over-dramatized? It’s by someone who’s neither a geologist nor a science writer – what if she got the volcanology all wrong? What if she didn’t do him justice?

And, also, I have a thing about reading about the deaths of people I really like and respect. I chicken out. (I mean, I didn’t finish a really good biography of Alexander Hamilton because I didn’t want to see him get killed in that bloody awful duel.) So I wasn’t looking forward to that bit.

Finally, I screwed my courage to the sticking-place, stocked upon ultrasoft tissues, and picked up Melanie Holmes’s A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston at last.

People, precisely none of my fears came true. Melanie is actually friends with Dave’s sister Pat, and wrote the book at her behest. She researched his life and the eruption in exacting detail. She had several geologists who were with Dave on Mount St. Helens review the manuscript. She toured the Cascades Volcano Observatory. And she absolutely did Dave justice.

Dave, a blond bearded man in a yellow sweater, standing in front of a yellow station wagon with its door open, standing behind a gas detection instrument that looks a bit like a boxy telescope.
Dave Johnston with a monitoring device at Mount St. Helens, 1980. Credit: USGS

In this book, we learn that Nature had it out for Dave for a long time. He came within a whisker of being murdered by a tornado in his teens. Augustine Volcano came thisclose to claiming his life in his twenties. I don’t actually believe in fate or predestination or that Mother Nature can commit premeditated murder, but the events of Dave’s short life sure wouldn’t disprove the idea.

He was going to follow his mom, Alice, into the newspaper business, and was already making strides as a photojournalist when geology turned his head in college. It was a much better fit for him: he got to be outdoors, and he didn’t have to invade people’s space with a camera.

Those of us who didn’t personally know Dave will be surprised by the person Melanie introduces us to. He seemed so confident and rugged on Mount St. Helens, giving interviews to the media and going down into the crater to retrieve samples despite the incredible danger. We see him with his beard and his plaid, and we don’t think of a person with frailties and insecurities.

The most valuable thing about this book is how it shows us a complete human being. Dave was a small kid who was painfully aware of his lack of brawn. He was continually pushing himself to be better physically, even though he was objectively fine as he was. He fought anxiety throughout his life. He beat himself up over imperfections. He was painfully shy, to the point that he would sometimes pass out when giving presentations – even fainting multiple times during a Geological Society of America talk. He wasn’t tough and fearless and immediately good at everything he did.

Melanie presents those aspects of him with great empathy. She shows how he overcame those obstacles to become a well-respected volcanologist by his late twenties. She shows how he used determination, ingenuity, a dinosaur toy,* and humor to compensate, and how his friends and colleagues accepted him, vasovagal syncopes and all. And she shows how he often didn’t succeed despite his perceived weaknesses, but because of them. It’s a refreshing change from biographies that make their subjects look almost superhuman by papering over any flaws. It reminds us that we can have all sorts of illnesses and limitations and insecurities, and still be fantastic at difficult jobs.

We get to see Dave’s career take off at the USGS, and then comes Mount St. Helens’s awakening. He’s worked on a dangerous active volcano. He knows how deadly Mount St. Helens could be. His healthy fear of her power saves countless lives. He personally sends people out of the danger zone. He stays behind because he knows his work there is critically important.

He recognized the similarities Mount St. Helens had to Russia’s Bezymianny. He was one of the first to recognize that, like Bezy, she might blow laterally. He knew the risks. And he didn’t want to die. But he did his job.

One of his last acts was to save the lives of two young USGS geologists who had planned to camp out near Coldwater II on the night of May 17th, but Dave told them it wasn’t safe and talked them into returning to town. The women joined Dave and his graduate student assistant Harry Glicken on the ridge for a while before heading back. Dave’s last night on earth was filled with camaraderie and laughter. At the end of it, he waved goodbye, and returned to monitoring the volcano for the last time.

Dave, wearing a navy and blue striped long sleeved shirt and blue jeans, sits on a camp chair, looking down at the notebook in his lap. Trees stand in the background. Behind him, a small portion of the USGS camper is visible.
Dave writing up notes while visiting with other geologists on the last night of his life. Credit: Harry Glicken/USGS

One of Dave’s last exchanges with his colleagues was a quip. Asked about the SO2 readings early on the morning of May 18th, Dave said there wasn’t any detected, but there was an internal build-up of H2S. He’d probably find it hilarious that possibly his last joke on earth was a fart joke.

And then, too soon, there’s the eruption. I was terrified to reach this point, but Melanie handles it beautifully. She uses a crisp, almost clinical brevity to narrate the events of that day. She handles the horror of losing a beloved son, brother, and colleague with grace and empathy. We’re not spared detail, but she doesn’t deliver the sensationalism that too many other authors have.

The rest of the book details Dave’s legacy. We see how much impact his short life had on volcano science. We see the memorials to him, and to other victims of the volcano. And the ending strikes a pitch-perfect note.

I can’t think of a better tribute to Dave’s life and work. There’s literally only one caveat I have about this book: the print is pretty tiny, so if small type bothers you, get the ebook version instead of the paperback. Otherwise, this is a necessary book for anyone who wants to know more about Dave Johnston, Mount St. Helens, and volcanology. Just. Make sure you have tissues, because there are a few places that are going to hit you right in the feels. And that’s just as it should be.

* I have a feeling Dave would thoroughly enjoy this modern version of his spark-spewing dinosaur toy. If I ever give another geology talk, I’m bringing this guy.

Rosetta Stones and Dana Hunter’s Unconformity wouldn’t be possible without you! If you like my content, there are many ways to show your support.

Buy Me A Book

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This website is a member of the Amazon Affiliates program. I get a small commission when you use my affiliate link to make a purchase.

Thank you so much for your support!

5 Favorite Facts about Mary Anning

This post first appeared on Patreon. For early access, exclusives, and other spiffy stuff, become an Unconformist today!

You know, I liked Mary Anning even before I read Shelley Emling’s book about her, but now I frankly adore her. Here’s five of the reasons why:

1. Everything male naturalists could do, she did in heavy skirts and pattens.

You know how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire could do, only backwards and in high heels? That was basically Mary. She not only was a supremely talented fossil hunter, she had impediments the men didn’t have. She scrambled over incredibly challenging terrain in bulky skirts, wearing metal and wood contraptions over her shoes that, while handy for keeping one from sinking into mud, must have been a nightmare as far as balance and traction are concerned. She outran rogue waves, sudden storm tides, and actual bloody landslides in that gear.

The dudes would have died.

Watercolor showing a woman in bulky dark coat and skirts, wearing a top hat, and carrying a rock hammer. She is bent over inspecting the limestone she is walking across.
Portrait of Mary Anning by her friend and colleague Henry De la Beche

2. Mary performed numerous dissections of modern creatures in order to understand the fossils she was finding.

Continue reading “5 Favorite Facts about Mary Anning”

Earthquakes in the Time of COVID-19

Puerto Ricans are facing a multitude of tough challenges right now. 2020 has been far from kind to the island and its residents, throwing challenge after disaster after threat at them.

Puerto Rico’s earthquake sequence rumbles on. For a few weeks, it seemed things were quieting down. I’d begun to wonder if it was finally petering out, but then came July 3rd, and two substantial earthquakes that let us know that the southwestern region of the island isn’t going to see an end to the shaking any time soon. And that’s just the start of the troubles plaguing the island.

Many of us are struggling in the face of this pandemic (especially those of us living in countries whose leadership didn’t take effective measures to contain the novel coronavirus, and are now facing ever-increasing rates of infection and death). But being hit with a murderous virus while the earth is nearly constantly shaking, and you’ve lost your home just when you most need to shelter in place, is extra horrible.

Continue reading “Earthquakes in the Time of COVID-19”

Oxaca Earthquake: Another Shaky Tuesday on the Middle America Trench

President Enrique Peña Nieto views earthquake damage after the September 2017 earthquake in Oaxaca, Mexico. Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana (CC BY 2.0)

The state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico suffered another very large earthquake on Tuesday. Fortunately, the M7.4 quake didn’t cause catastrophic damage and extensive loss of life, but at least ten people are dead, dozens injured, and there’s been quite a bit of damage to buildings and infrastructure. It will take a while to learn the full scale of the disaster.

I know, it seems like we were just talking about this, at least geologically speaking. Continue reading “Oxaca Earthquake: Another Shaky Tuesday on the Middle America Trench”

We’re Back, Baby, Yeah!

An artistic winter photo of Mount St. Helens when she was a perfect, snow-covered cone, framed by bare branches

Welcome to the temporary worldwide headquarters of Rosetta Stones! This lovely little summer cottage will be our base of operations while our new permanent HQ is built.

We had a good run at Scientific American, and I’ll always be proud to have been a part of their network. Alas, all good things have a lifespan, and when it comes to digital media that lifespan is pretty short. Independent blogging, however, can last pretty much indefinitely, so Rosetta Stones will continue on in one form or another for as long as I can put one word coherently in front of another. Expect that to be a fair bit, because I suspect I’ll still be talking rocks when I’m stuffed in a nursing home. (Don’t be surprised if I pop up from my coffin shouting about the amazing strata in the graveyard.)

If you’re new to Rosetta Stones, you can pop on over to the Scientific American Blog Network to have a look at her previous incarnation. If you’re a long-time reader, settle in, and let me show you some of the plans!

Continue reading “We’re Back, Baby, Yeah!”