Guest Videos: The Winds of Mars

The hardest part of space exploration, at least for laypeople trying to keep up to date, is getting used to familiar things, like wind, in unfamiliar settings.

Mars is smaller than the Earth, but it has enough wind to support the currently ongoing planetwide dust storm that has shut down Opportunity (hopefully, temporarily). And we have seen its twisters, though they don’t look as powerful as ours.

Martian winds must be pretty powerful, though, right? After all, the planet’s surface looks like it has been scoured in places:

There are some awesome wind-made features on the Red Planet, including yardangs. To really appreciate them, we need to understand just how weak the winds of Mars actually are.

Spoiler: Not quite as strong as they are depicted in The Martian.

Those beautiful Martian dunes and streamlined rocky features must have taken way longer than it took to sculpt similar structures on Earth. But then, according to a new study, Mars may have gotten a hundred-million-year jump on the Earth in terms of this whole solid planetary crust thing.

All told, over billions of years even weak winds can have impressive effects.

Featured image: NASA/JPL.

Guest Video: M’Goun Geopark

You don’t have to be a mountaineer to enjoy UNESCO’s M’Goun Geopark, in Morocco, but all that effort to reach Mount M’Goun’s 13,400-foot-high summit does earn you an incredibly beautiful overview of this rugged region.

While this is no place to build a Jurassic Park today, dinosaurs once thrived here, according to UNESCO:

The geological history of the territory of the M’Goun UNESCO Global Geopark fits into the geological evolution of the central High Atlas dating back to the Triassic period, 250 million years ago, while the main stages took place during the Jurassic period, about 180 million years ago. The UNESCO Global Geopark includes geological structures in a NE-SW intra-continental chain resulting from a structural reversal of a Jurassic basin tied to the collision of the African and European plates. It includes famous and spectacular footprints of sauropod and theropod dinosaurs and many deposits of bones. The territory contains numerous minerals: Copper, zinc, barite, iron, basalt, limestone and dolomitic Triassic red clays. The M’Goun UNESCO Global Geopark consists of a large number of geosites and geological sites showing several large tectonic structures of the Atlas Mountains that sculpt the landscape.

Today, the land is nourished and shaped by Mediterranean and Atlantic sea breezes. People live there, and others frequently come to visit

–wonderful, wonderful people:

By the way, here’s a recipe for that couscous.

Featured image: ::ErWin, CC BY-SA 2.0

No One Agrees On The Domestic Cat’s Scientific Name

Scientific names for cats have varied ever since Swedish zoologist Karl Linnaeus, back in 1758, first named the whole cat family Felis, giving each species second and third names. Lions, for example, were Felis leo, while common cats were Felis catus.

But even Linnaeus had trouble sorting out those small cats, which do all look very much alike.

House cats were fairly easy–Felis catus domesticus. And their Old-World wild relatives, which are virtually untameable in Europe, seemed distinct, too–Felis catus ferus.

But Linnaeus also made what we would call errors today. For instance, he thought that Angoras and tortoiseshell cats were separate subspecies–F. catus angorensis and F. catus hispanicus, respectively. We know that they’re the same species with two different looks that cat fanciers sometimes combine together.

Angora tortie threefer

A silly Angora (left, by lylejk, CC BY 2.0); a sensible tortoiseshell cat (right, by Mariamichelle, at Pixabay, public domain); and a black smoked tortie Angora that would have blown Linnaeus’ mind (Daly69, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Once the taxonomy ball started rolling, more zoologists went back over the cat family. Again and again, they rearranged it into various logical groupings according to the theories of the day. After the start of the 20th century, this process was improved with insights gained from genetics.

Today, according to one of the most recent taxonomic arrangements (see this 2017 PDF for details), the cat family Felidae now has 14 genus names, not just the single Felis.

Lions are Panthera leo, and according to this source, the domestic cat is Felis catus, per Opinion 2027 of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in 2003.

However, that opinion can also be taken to mean that house cats are “domestic derivatives” of the wildcat–Felis silvestris–and indeed they were wildcats until just after the last ice age, when they met us.

So you’ll see some zoologists refer to them as Felis silvestris catus in highly-cited papers like this one.

Why should laypeople care about this academic tempest in a teacup? Because its outcome might undercut every conservation law that now protects wildcats, which are endangered species.

Continue reading

What is natural ruby?

This post, based on something I wrote for Helium back in 2011, was first blogged here in 2013. However, it’s a natural tie-in to yesterday’s post about chromium.

The loose gemstone that Alfred the butler described to Master Bruce in The Dark Knight as “a ruby the size of a tangerine” would have been much less interesting had he been talking about “a lump of aluminum oxide with some chromium in it.”

English: Ruby and Kyanite Locality: Winza, Mpw...

Ruby and Kyanite Locality: Winza, Mpwapwa, Mpwapwa District, Dodoma region, Tanzania Exquisite, lustrous and gemmy ruby crystals in matrix, measuring up to 2 cm, together with small, blue crystals of kyanite. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continue reading

Guest Videos: Chromium, A Critical Mineral

Most people think of one or more of the following when they hear the word “chromium”:

  • Shiny, shiny chrome
  • The open-source platform underlying Google’s browser
  • Health supplements
  • The “stainless” part of stainless steel
  • Chemistry class

These are all common enough (plus the software has nothing to do with the physical element). So why does the United States call chromium a strategic mineral?

Continue reading

Guest Video: Discoverers of Earth’s Deep Layering

At the end of June, researchers suggested adding some new details to the present scientific model of Earth’s outer central core; it’s rather arcane, but the news is a good reminder for us all to honor those who accurately imagined the Earth’s structure without the aid of supercomputers or other modern tools.

These thinkers were among those who first drew the correct images of our planet’s inner structure, using math, logic, basic seismological tools (in some cases), and physics:

Guest Video: The Ocean

I never cared all that much about the ocean until researching the book on how cats evolved. Their story goes back–well, it goes back to the general time of the K/T (K/Pg) extinction if you want to also include the evolution of carnivorans (and I do).

Over the last 66 million years, this planet has had some dramatic changes, and my key to realizing that was this paper. (Don’t feel that you must read that, though the origin story of sequoias is pretty interesting. I’ll include parts of it in the ebook series.)

Think of that as the most basic approach to the ocean and climate – reading what has happened by studying drill cores of abyssal Pacific Ocean mud.

But it’s a good introduction to recent news from the world of science that they have made computer models detailed enough to measure the interaction between ocean eddies and the atmosphere. That’s the ultra-high-definition approach that is shaping meteorology and climate science now and in the immediate future.

Most of us, though, just want a general overview of the ocean and how it affects the planet’s weather and climate.

Featured image: Gabi Agu, CC BY 2.0.