Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin! An Occasion to Celebrate the Teaching of Evolution

February 12th, 2011

Portrait of Charles Darwin (with an editorial addition).

It is now a tradition among scientists to celebrate the birthday of the great English naturalist Charles Darwin.  He was born on February 12, 1809 — the very same day Abraham Lincoln entered the world.  (I have images of both men in my office as historical touchstones for the best of science and citizenship.)

Geologists like to remind the world that Darwin was one of their own.  He studied geology at Cambridge under the famous Adam Sedgwick and helped him map rock units in Wales one summer.  One of the primary influences on Darwin’s evolutionary ideas was the work of the uber-geologist Charles Lyell.  In fact, in an 1838 notebook, Darwin wrote:

“Pleasure of imagination. . . . I a geologist have illdefined notion of land covered with ocean, former animals, slow force cracking surface &c truly poetical.” [Maybe not so grammatical, but any geologist recognizes the sentiments!]

Charles Darwin, Geologist by Sandra Herbert is an excellent book on this topic (Cornell University Press, 2005, ISBN: 978-0-8014-4348-0).  I mention more of Darwin’s geological work and ideas in a recent podcast produced by The Wilderness Center. (The interview starts about 24 minutes into the program.)

The College of Wooster has a rich history of grappling with the tensions between its Presbyterian foundation and the new Darwinian evolution.  In the late 19th Century when evolution was mentioned in Wooster publications, it was always negative.  In The Post-Graduate and Wooster Quarterly of October 1890, for example, Professors Jonas O. Notestein and Elias Compton wrote in a review: “The whole essay is well calculated to wake up evolutionists to see either that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in their philosophy, or else that it had been better if they had never been born.”  (I walk by a large portrait of stern Professor Compton every time I enter our second floor Scovel Hall lecture room … to teach evolution!)

In 1894, the astronomer Samuel Phelps Leland gave a talk at Wooster in which he said, “Your great, great, great, great, great grandfather was never a pollywog, and your great, great, great, great grandfather was never a ring tailed monkey.  No relative of yours was ever anything but a man; there is no connecting link between the mortal and the immortal.”  The Wooster Voice campus newspaper writers at the time thought it was a fine speech.  I find some pleasure in another famously wrong quote from Dr. Leland three years later: “… it will be possible to see cities on Mars, to detect navies in his harbors, and the smoke of great manufacturing cities and towns… Is Mars inhabited? There can be little doubt of it … conditions are all favorable for life, and life, too, of a high order. It is not improbable that there are beings there with a civilization as high, if not higher, than our own. Is it possible to know this of a certainty? Certainly.” (From World Making, p. 68-69; Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association, Chicago, 1898.)

Just a year after Samuel Phelps Leland dismissed Darwin at Wooster, a young biology professor named Horace N. Mateer began to teach a course on campus titled “Organic Descent”.  In his Wooster Catalogue description, Dr. Mateer wrote that “the doctrine of development by descent has come to be regarded as the basic factor in the study of organic life”.  With careful language and judicious politics, he broke through the resistance and taught evolution openly at Wooster for the first time.  He was very cautious indeed: he did not write the word “evolution” itself into any course description (it did not appear in a Wooster Catalogue until 1963!), and he repeatedly gave a popular talk on campus called “Evolution and Christianity” in which he essentially avoided Darwinian natural selection in favor of a kind of progressive creationism that correlated with biological and geological evidence.  Nevertheless, Professor Mateer laid the foundations for secular evolutionary science at Wooster.

(The story of evolution at Wooster is told in more detail in an article I wrote for the Fall 2002 issue of Wooster magazine.)

Meteorites Observed on the College of Wooster Campus!

February 8th, 2011

WOOSTER, OH – So the meteorites didn’t exactly fall from the sky today, but our GeoClub speaker let us see some samples from his own meteorite collection. Dr. Ed Young, UCLA Cosmochemist and Wooster Geology Alum (’81), gave a fascinating talk today on his research, which uses oxygen isotopes in meteorites to understand the origin and evolution of the solar system. He took us through the complicated taxonomy of meteorite classification and gave us a primer on oxygen isotopes before blowing our minds with supernova explosions, star formation, and uniqueness of our own solar system. I think the talk is best summarized by a quote from one of our current majors, “Now all I want to do is be a grad student and go to Antarctica and collect meteorites.”

Dr. Ed Young ('81, on the right) with his favorite TA and fellow Wooster alum, Dr. Mark Wilson (left).

Because ice is a mineral …

February 1st, 2011

… we should record this morning’s ice storm in Wooster. You can read about the surprising properties of water ice as well on Wikipedia.

Ice on the holly tree near the back door of Scovel Hall in Wooster, Ohio.

The view from Scovel Hall across the College Mall to Severance Chemistry.

This makes me long for hot desert days.

In praise of the humble Ro-Tap

January 25th, 2011

While we celebrate our new XRF and XRD equipment in Dr. Meagen Pollock’s petrology lab (which has already produced actual results), I thought we should also recognize our oldest piece of continuously-operated equipment in the department, the Ro-Tap Sieve Shaker:

This simple device was invented in the early 1900s by W.S. Tyler, and the company he founded still produces them today. The new versions are considerably sleeker than our massive machine. The Ro-Tap is designed to shake a series of nested sieves to sort granular materials into various size fractions. “Ro” refers to “rotate” and “Tap” to hammering at the top. You can imagine the noise that results. My Sedimentology & Stratigraphy class is using our ancient Ro-Tap (which was old when I was a student) to sort sediment samples. Each student was given a vial of an unknown sediment to describe by size distribution, mineralogy, grain shape and other characteristics. They will produce descriptive and statistical reports with conclusions about the possible environmental origins of the samples.

Joe Wilch preparing the sieve stack for the Ro-Tap.

The simple balance we use for weighing the size fractions, along with weighing trays and a datasheet.

Will Cary examining his unknown sediment sample with a photomicroscope. He is processing images through the computer on the right.

The beauty of science, especially Earth science, is that we blend the sophisticated and the simple as we describe and try to understand patterns in nature. You can stand in the basement of Scovel on some afternoons and hear the quiet purring of the X-Ray equipment as the steadfast old Ro-Tap bangs away in the background as it has for decades.

Dr. Stan Totten (’58) receives a Hall of Fame award from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

January 25th, 2011

Ston Totten (on the left) receiving the Hall of Fame award last month (image from the ODNR website).

Wooster has always been proud of its distinguished alumnus Stan Totten (’58), a retired professor of geology at Hanover College. We are now pleased to see that the state of Ohio has recognized him for his many contributions to understanding Ohio’s geology, from checking topographic maps in his early days to producing his own glacial geology and soil maps. He even provided geological expertise for the construction of Interstates 71 and 77. This nice citation from the ODNR describes Stan’s career in more detail, and as a special touch there is an embedded video of his acceptance comments.

Well done, Stan. We should mention that Stan is also in the Hanover College Athletic Hall of Fame. And in the Wayne County Sports Hall of Fame!

The Very First Analysis Goes To…

January 20th, 2011

WOOSTER, OH – The XRF and XRD are officially installed! We learned the basics about how to operate and maintain the XRF this afternoon. We even ran our first official sample using the EZScan. It was a difficult choice, but the honor of the first sample goes to an Icelandic basalt from Todd Spillman’s I.S. Congratulations, Todd! You’ve just made history at the College of Wooster.

I absolutely love the animation that shows the inner workings of the XRF! The cartoon shows how the x-ray tube (on the left) aims x-rays at the sample (in the middle). The resulting fluorescent x-rays (red line) travel through the slits to the crystal and finally to the detector.

Tomorrow, we’ll learn to operate the XRD. I wonder who will be the lucky owner of the first XRD sample?

New Geology X-Ray Lab

January 18th, 2011

WOOSTER, OH – Big news in the Geology Department: our new X-ray lab is being installed this week! Early last year, the Geology Department was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation to acquire X-ray instruments to enhance our robust undergraduate research program. Installation has been long awaited, highly anticipated, and wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of many people on campus. We have Ron, Patrice, Tracy, and the electricians and plumbers to thank for making it happen. The installation will probably take all week, but so far (knock on wood), things are going smoothly.

It's as if the space was designed especially for the X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (XRF).

The XRF will allow us to measure the compositions of Earth materials right here on campus. No longer will we need to send our samples (or our students) to other labs for major element analyses! Not pictured (and still wrapped in plastic) is the benchtop X-ray diffractometer (XRD), which will enable us to analyze the mineralogy of samples.

We hope our lab serves as a regional center for X-ray analyses and encourages collaborations with physicists, chemists, archeologists, and geologists. Stay tuned for updates!

Memories of warmer days…

December 2nd, 2010

Now that the semester is winding down and the cold weather has set in, I find my mind wandering back to the beginning of the academic year. It seems like it was years ago, not months, that our Mineralogy class visited Zollinger’s quarry.

2010 Mineralogy class at Zollinger's Quarry in late September.

It didn’t take long for students to discover the beautifully formed gypsum crystals that littered the ground.

From left to right, Will Cary, Matt Peppers, and Kevin Silver caught in the act of discovering the gypsum.

Truly, these are beautiful gypsum crystals.

In fact, next week  we’re using some of the crystals that we collected in our discussion of the thermodynamics of crystal nucleation and growth.

Of course, the minerals weren’t the only stars of the show. The students were excited to find these incredible mud cracks with preserved rain drops -  comparable to these mud cracks that a fellow geologist at Mountain Beltway observed in Turkey.

Mud cracks and preserved rain drops in Zollinger's Quarry.

Trays of trilobites, buckets of belemnites ….

November 26th, 2010

WOOSTER, OHIO — Last weekend we picked up another load of rocks, minerals and fossils donated by the family of one of our loyal alumni. We will be sorting through them for months getting them ready for displays and our teaching collections. Among the treasures are large numbers of particular items, especially fossils. I want to highlight two of many such sets. The trilobites are Phacops bufo from the Silica Shale (Devonian) of northeastern Ohio; the belemnites below are from the Jurassic of Wyoming. (Belemnites from the Upper Cretaceous of Germany and the Jurassic of Israel have been featured in this blog, as have beautiful trilobites from the Middle Cambrian of British Columbia, Canada.) Numerous nearly-identical fossils such as these play an important role in our teaching. We can, for example, have a fossil in front of each student during lectures for immediate reference (and quizzing!). It is also possible to have biometric measuring exercises in our labs with these fossil “populations” of particular species. Gifts again put to work in education!

An Afternoon of Rocks and Minerals at Cornerstone Elementary

November 16th, 2010

Tuesday we had the pleasure to work with Mrs. Gaut’s and Ms Long’s (standing) third grade classes. Wooster Geology seniors Stephanie Jarvis and LaShawna Weeks taught 32 well-prepared students mineral and rock identification.

LaShawna shows the group the fine art of using the streak plate in mineral identification.

Steph explains the characteristics of metamorphism. The fellow in the lower left is eager to share his view of the processes associated with metamorphic rocks.

LaShawna discusses the formation of sandstone and quizzes the group on the depositional environment.

Steph explains the nuances of the rates of mineral crystallization.

It was clear that the group was ready to take their new knowledge of 14 minerals and 10 rocks to the next level.

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