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Happy Birthday to Mary Anning (21 May 1799 – 9 March 1847).  Mary’s life was a difficult one.  Her father was a poor cabinet-maker in Lyme Regis (a coastal town in Dorset, England) who supplemented his income by selling strange petrified shells and stone bullets which he pried out of a nearby sea cliff.  Mary’s parents had ten children, but only Mary and her brother survived past early childhood.  Her name was a hand-me-down from an older sister who had burned to death at the age of four.  When Mary was 15 months old, she and three neighbors were under a tree when it was struck by lightning and only Mary survived.  Her father died while Mary and her brother were young and they kept the family afloat by selling curiosities pried from the sea cliffs.  This was dangerous business: Mary’s beloved terrier Tray was crushed in a rockslide (he’s up there sleeping with the ammonites in the painting) and Mary narrowly avoided this fate herself on multiple occasions.  Additionally, living so close to the sea carried further perils: the family nearly drowned from a flood during a great storm.  Mary Anning died of breast cancer at the age of 47.  Her final years were marked by agonizing pain from the condition which she self-treated with laudanum (which caused the community to gossip about her morals).

This is a pretty bleak biography (although in no way atypical for a working-class woman from early industrial Great Britain).  So why are we writing about Mary 172 years after her death anyway? Mary Anning was a great pioneer of paleontology, geology, ichthyology, ecology, and invertebrate zoology.  The luminaries of the English geology community relied on her indomitable fieldwork to frame their conclusions about the history of living things and to stock their museums with specimens. Mary was a religious dissenter and the daughter of a cabinet-maker in an age when geology was the near-exclusive preserve of well-to-do Anglican gentlefolk (the Geological Society of London did not even allow women to attend meetings as guests).  Yet she kept informed of the scientific literature of her day and she dissected fish and invertebrates as to better understand the nature of her excavations and discoveries. Above all, Mary Anning actually discovered the fossils which others wrote about–so she had insights and knowledge which were occluded from armchair scholars. Charles Lyell (the father of geology) wrote to her asking her opinions about cliff erosion.  Mary proposed a theory to William Buckland that some of the fossils she discovered were ingested by ichthyosaurs and the remains excreted (a concept which fascinated Buckland and became the central focus of his work). In a fair world she would have an alphabet of letters after her name and be immortalized as a statue on a plinth beside the statues of Darwin and Lyell.  Even in our fallen world, she is revered as one of the founders of the natural history and life science disciplines (although many biographies about her concentrate on the sad exigencies of her life rather than on the extraordinary discoveries she made, a tradition which I have somewhat followed).

The cliffs which Mary relied on for specimens were part of a geological formation known as the Blue Lias. These layers of limestone and shale were a shallow seabed of the Tethys Ocean during the Jurassic period (about 210–195 million years ago).  The curlicues and stone bullets were fossil ammonites and belemnites, but Mary had a knack for finding the much rarer remains of hitherto unknown creatures such as ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and other ancient marine fauna.

In the early 19th century a debate was raging between learned churchmen who knew for certain that God’s perfect creation could never be diminished and gentlemen geologists who believed that there had once been animals which were gone from earth…”extinct” as they called this new concept.   Mary’s fossils of bizarre giant sea crocodiles and lizard dolphins gave concrete evidence to the ur-paleontologists (who were indeed proven right).  Her discoveries were seminal for the discovery of paleontology itself and paved the way to the understanding that the world’s ecosystems were once very different indeed from what they are like now.   These pieces of knowledge helped towards an understanding of the true age of the Earth and ultimately made Darwin’s discoveries possible.

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Here is another painting of Mary, by the greatest living fish-artist, Ray Troll.  Troll shows Mary with fleshed-out versions of the creatures she discovered (note the ichthyosaur swallowing an ammonite).  We owe an enormous debt to Mary Anning.  Her contributions were under-appreciated in her day (when only the most learned gentleman scientists…and Mary… had inklings of the real nature of natural history and what her super sea-monsters connoted ), but those discoveries undergird our understanding the nature of the planet and of life itself.

 

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Astrophysicists have long speculated about the creation of the moon.  Since the late twentieth century, the dominant theory has been “the giant impact hypothesis” which posits that a huge object about the size of Mars smashed into the newly coalesced Earth 4.5 billion years ago.  Astronomers name this mysterious proto-planet “Theia” after the titan who was the mother of the moon is ancient Greek mythology.  They speculate that the Earth and Theia melded together and the iron/heavy metal core of Theia sank into the molten Earth.  A great deal of the light material was thrown into orbit around Earth where it coalesced into two moons (the smaller of which was unstable and pancaked into the dark side of the moon a few million years after formation).

These are pretty intense ideas, however they explain many of the features of the moon and Earth (you can look at a comprehensive list on Wikipedia if you like).  Yet astrophysicists have not been completely satisfied by the current model of the giant impact hypothesis.  The composition of the moon is suspiciously identical to that of Earth (whereas, computer models seem to indicate that it should contain more of Theia).

This week, a scientific paper suggests that the collision was somewhat different than envisioned in the giant impact hypothesis.  The paper’s main author is Natsuki Hosono, and he has a revised version of how Theia hit Earth.  According to this new hypothesis, the freshly formed Earth was still piping hot and its surface was covered with a lava ocean.  Theia banged into Earth and careened off into space like a pool ball but the impact knocked the liquid ocean of lava into space, where it coalesced into one or two moons (which then ultimately amalgamated together).  The new hypothesis answers critical questions about lunar composition (and about the ratios of volatile elements on the moon).  Yet it does tend to beg questions such as what happened to Theia and what the nature of the Earth’s lava ocean was.

I guess we’ll keep watching the sky and the news to see how the world astronomy community reacts to the revised hypothesis.  In the mean time I will see what I can dig up concerning Theia (the goddess or the proto-planet).  That seems like the most intriguing part of the story yet details are weirdly exiguous.

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There is an exciting new development in the world of aerospace!  This weekend, the world’s largest plane flew for the first time.  The plane is a colossal megajet with six engines and a 117 meter wingspan longer than a football field (or a soccer pitch).  For years the start-up aerospace firm Stratolaunch has been out in the Mojave Desert working on a giant plane to use as an orbital launch platform.  On Saturday (April 13, 2019), the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft successfully left the ground and cruised up to an altitude of 4500 meters (15000 feet) before returning safely to the ground and back to its immense hangar.

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The plane is designed to serve as a flying launchpad for firing satellites into low Earth orbit.  By carrying the satellites and their rockets to the edge of the atmosphere, the Stratolaunch will eliminate costly and resource-hungry rocket stages.  The company was founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.  It is one of the few examples I have seen of billionaires squandering their money in an appropriate fashion (come to think of it, Bill Gates’ humanitarian foundation is another of those rare examples…maybe those guys did know something).

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When I was growing up, every picture of a newly developed airplane filled me with covetous awe; yet, for the last decade, that feeling has been missing.  Every new plane has looked like a blander (albeit more fuel efficient) version of a previous model.  Even the budget-devouring F35 looks kind of like an uninspired GIJoe toy and lacks the hot lines of an F14 or even an F111 (although, admittedly, the F35 has thoroughly demonstrated its awe-inspiring ability to destroy money more quickly and effectively than any other warplane).  Yet the Stratolaunch changes all of that.  For the first ime in a long time, this plane is weird and exciting.  Just look at the tiny twin cockpits like angry little prairie falcon heads, or cast your eye on the hunched up fuselage and the sequential rows of landing gear.  I would be proud to run through the neighborhood waving a plastic model of this plane over my head and screaming until I tripped on my shoelace.   Additionally, the plane finally shattered an aerospace record which has stood since 1947.  The wings of the Stratolaunch are longer than the wings of the Spruce Goose, the magnificent flying white elephant which Howard Hughes built out of wood (in order to work around a wartime aluminum shortage).

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Congratulations to the Stratolaunch team and to the late Paul Allen.  Ferrebeekeeper will be watching the skies over the Mojave with our fingers crossed to see how the next test missions go.

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Messier 87 (M87) Galaxy

Messier 87 is a strange and extraordinary galaxy.  For one thing it was discovered and named in 1781…even though the nature of galaxies (and the fact that there are more than one such “island universes” was not understood until 1923).  Messier 87 was discovered by the great Charles Messier who was cataloging weird celestial blobs that could confuse comet hunters.   The galaxy lies near the center of the Virgo supercluster of which our own lovely (albeit provincial) galaxy, the Milky Way, is a part. Formed by the merger of multiple galaxies, M87 is huge and contains more than a trillion stars–4 times the number of stars in the Milky Way.  Additionally M87 is surrounded by more than 12,000 globular clusters (the Milky Way has perhaps 200 of these miniature satellite galaxies).  Whereas the spiral Milky Way is “blue and new” with ample quantities of hydrogen to form new stars, the globular Messier 87 is “red and dead”: new star formation has slowed and the great elipsoid mass of stars is slowly dying (insomuch as galaxies can be said to live to begin with).  The stars visible now are mostly middle aged main sequence stars or tiny long-lived red dwarves (tiny for stars…still not something you could pick up and put in your hatchback).

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47 million year old Adapidae fossil from Germany

Messier87 is approximately 53 million light years away.  The light that we can observe from it today originated during the Eocene, when the first little primates evolved on Earth and those photons have been streaking toward us through the great emptiness at 300,000 kilometers per second since when our direct ancestors were anxious lemur-squirrel guys staring pensively up at the stars.

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A artist’s conception of such a black hole

The center of this monstrous astronomical entity is a  supermassive black hole 6.5 billion times the mass of the sun (for reference, the sun is 333,000 times the mass of Earth–so this black hole has the mass of 2,164,500,000,000,000 Earths). A horrifying & beautiful relativistic jet of ionised matter 1.5 kiloparsecs (5000 light years) long is emerging from the black hole.

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Why do I bring this up?  Because we photographed the black hole!  This is the first time we have accomplished such a feat.  You can read about the esoteric details of how astronomers achieved such a thing by clicking on today’s Google Doodle (so I guess today’s blog post will not be a completely original/unique subject),  I suspect you have seen the picture already. Yet even the eye-of-Sauron glory of this image (which was taken by a pan-global network of radio telescopes) does not exactly capture the scale of the black hole.  My imagination is equiped for may things, but is not really much good for processing numbers bigger than a few thousand.  The diameter of this black hole is roughly approximate to the orbit of Uranus and it has the mass of a small galaxy.  So I guess keep that in mind when looking at the little orange eye. Now I am going to go lie down and hold my pet cat.

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Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

Longtime readers of this blog probably think that my favorite order of fish are the catfish (siluriformes), a vast order of fascinating freshwater fish which have based their success on mastering sensory perception, or possibly the flatfish (pleuronectiformes) whose predator/prey dichotomy and tragicomic frowns are featured heavily in my elegiac artwork about the decline of the oceans.  Readers who have really read closely might suspect the lungfish or the ghost knife fish.  Yet, actually, I haven’t written a great deal about my personal favorite order of fishes because they are so eclectic and eccentric that they are hard to write about.  The Tetraodontiformes are an ancient order of teleosts (rayfin fish) which apparently originated on the reefs of the mid to late Cretaceous (during the age of dinosaurs).   There are currently 10 extant families in the order, but the Tetradontiformes are not closely related to other bony fish.

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The Yellow Boxfish (Ostracion cubicus)

So what are these ten families of exciting weirdo fish? Wikipedia lists them alphabetically for us!

  • Aracanidae — deepwater boxfishes
  • Balistidae — triggerfishes
  • Diodontidae — porcupinefishes
  • Molidae — ocean sunfishes
  • Monacanthidae — filefishes
  • Ostraciidae — boxfishes
  • Tetraodontidae — pufferfishes
  • Triacanthidae — triplespines
  • Triacanthodidae — spikefishes
  • Triodontidae — Threetooth puffer

Triggerfish, pufferfish, boxfish, filefish, cowfish, enormous weird sunfish…there is such a realm of wonder, beauty, and ichthyological fascination among these groups that it is hard to know where to start (although the Mola mola, which I have written about, is a pretty good headliner).  The intelligent, colorful, and truculent triggerfish (Balistidae), in particular, are the source of endless delight.

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Clown triggerfish (Balistoides conspicillum)

I will write more about all of these in turn, but, before we get into that, it is worth highlighting some shared features of the Tetraodontiformes.  These fish tend to have extremely rigid bodies which means they move differently from the quicksilver darting which other fish employ.   They rely on fluttering their pectoral, dorsal, anal, and caudal fins to move (comparatively) slowly, albeit with extreme precision. Most Tetraodontiformes are masters of armor or other defensive mechanisms (toxins, spines, pop-up bone locks, and, um, self-inflation). Because of their tropical reef lifestyle and the nature of their defenses these fish often tend to be extraordinarily colorful.

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Snipefish (Halimochirugus centriscoides)

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(tetradon nirgoviridis)

Now is not the time to get into the details of all of these fish.  Today’s post is mostly a teaser of things to come…but believe me, it will be worth it.  The Tetraodontiformes are truly astonishing.  Their colors and patterns do not just put most artists to shame, they put most 1980s artists to shame.  And their vivid beauty and astonishing appearance isn’t even the most amazing thing about them.  Stay tuned!

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The Ornate Boxfish (Aracana ornata)

 

 

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I haven’t written very much about the current state of politics lately, not just because President Trump makes me angry & unhappy, but also because the deadlock in Washington (and precipitous national decline) make me sad and anxious.  I would like to continue this precedent:  paying breathless attention to all of Trump’s stunts and bullying just make him stronger (although I do think it is worth noting that he has been signing Bibles as though he were the author–and his devout Christian followers absolutely love it!). However, the latest enormities fall in the realm of policy and planning, so let’s take a look at the proposed 2020 Discretionary budget which was released by the White House yesterday. Predictably, this budget delivers slight funding increases to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, while stripping safety net and environmental programs fairly drastically.  I suppose this is not unexpected under any Republican president, even one such as this one, (although it raises eyebrows after the colossal tax giveaway to the rich).  However, what truly raises eyebrows in the budget are the appalling cuts to scientific and medical research.  Here are the actual numbers:

Proposed Discretionary Budget Changes

All dollar amounts are in billions.

Department Or Agency
2019 Budget (Estimate)
2020 Request
$ change
% change
Defense1 $685.0 $718.3 $33.4 +5%
Veterans Affairs $86.6 $93.1 $6.5 +8%
Health and Human Services $101.7 $89.6 -$12.1 -12%
Education $70.5 $62.0 -$8.5 -12%
Homeland Security $48.1 $51.7 $3.6 +7%
Housing and Urban Development
HUD gross total (excluding receipts) $52.7 $44.1 -$8.6 -16%
HUD receipts -$9.3 -$6.5 $2.8 -30%
State Department and other international programs2 $55.8 $42.8 -$13.0 -23%
Energy $35.5 $31.7 -$3.8 -11%
National Nuclear Security Administration $15.1 $16.5 $1.3 9%
Other Energy $20.4 $15.2 -$5.2 -25%
NASA $20.7 $21.0 $0.3 +1%
Justice $29.9 $29.2 -$0.7 -2%
Agriculture $24.4 $20.8 -$3.6 -15%
Interior $14.0 $12.5 -$1.5 -11%
Commerce3 $12.3 $12.3 * <1%
Labor $12.1 $10.9 -$1.2 -10%
Transportation $27.3 $21.4 -$5.9 -22%
Treasury $12.9 $13.1 $0.2 +2%
National Science Foundation $7.8 $7.1 -$0.7 -9%
Environmental Protection Agency $8.8 $6.1 -$2.8 -31%
Army Corps of Engineers $7.0 $4.8 -$2.2 -31%
Small Business Administration $0.7 $0.7 * -5%
Other agencies $21.3 $19.1 -$2.1 -10%

Notes

* $50 million or less
1. Includes $9.2 billion for emergency border security and hurricane recovery funding
2. Includes funding for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury international programs and 12 international agencies
3. Appropriations for 2019 are incomplete.

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Did you know it has been 30 years since a spacecraft swung by Neptune?  Voyager II was the first and last spacecraft to visit the strange ice world which (with the demotion of Pluto) is the outermost planet of our solar system.  A ball of gas, ice, rock and iron 17 times the size of Earth, Neptune is the third most massive planet and is the most dense of all the giant planets. However we know surprisingly little about this distant neighbor–a fact which was vividly demonstrated this week when astronomers discovered an unexpected new moon orbiting the planet.  This new moon brings the tally of Neptune’s moons to 14. Mark Showalter, a researcher at the SETI institute in California, discovered the little satellite accidentally, while working on another project and the new body was confirmed with the Hubble Space telescope (which is also still out there, by the way).

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Neptune’s largest moon is the retrograde Triton.  The second largest moon is Proteus, an irregular polyhedron with a diameter of 420 kilometers, named after the shape-shifting old man of the sea.  The new moon, which is named “Hippocamp”, after a seahorse like Greek sea monster (above) has a diameter of about 20 kilometers (about the length of Manhattan) and seems to have been formed from ejecta left over from when some primordial body slammed into Proteus.

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Astronomers have spent comparatively little time studying Uranus and Neptune compared to the other planets of the solar system–which is somewhat ironic since most of the exoplanets we are finding are ice giants.  It seems like they might be noticing this gap in their knowledge.  A new mission to the ice giants is the third top mission priority in a vote-based ranking of proposed probe missions (by astrophysicists…nobody asked me what I want *cough*  balloon mission to Venus’ atmosphere).  Hopefully we will get our act together and launch a modern robot out to the big blue ice worlds in the not-too-distant future.

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Today’s post takes us back, once more, to Ultima Thule/2014 MU69, the distant snowman shaped planetoid at the edge of the solar system which was visited by the New Horizons space probe as it flies through the Kuiper Belt on its way out of the solar system (since that time, we also blogged about the color Thulian pink–which is based on the fantasy land at the northern edge of the medieval map).  Well, space can be a confusing place, and, even with digital cameras, the way we see objects tumbling through the void can be misleading.  As New Horizons flew away from Ultima Thule, it turned its cameras around and took the following shot (which hopefully shows up in all of its glory as an animated gif below).

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Holy hemispheres! What is with that bright edge?  Spheres certainly don’t have those! It turns out that Ultima Thule may not be a snowman as originally billed.  Instead it seems more like a double pancake.

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This news will please flat earthers (on the off chance they believe that New Horizons actually exists), but they shouldn’t read too much into it.  Planets are spherical because they are so massive that the force of gravity causes them to collapse into the most efficient shape – a sphere. This is broadly true for objects with a diameter greater than 1000 kilometers (621 miles) and Ultima Thule was not even remotely that big (indeed we didn’t think it was a sphere before).  I do wonder how these two smushed snowballs formed and came together though.

Enthusiasts of Kuiper Belt objects will have to discard the snowman analogy and look for an object which is a lumpy disk stuck to a smaller lumpy disk.  It sounds like a hogchoker to me (see a picture of the flatfish below), but this may merely be a shallow pretext to link to my flounder art on Instagram.  It might be a while before we discover anything even remotely shaped like a flatfish in space though so I am going to take what the universe offers.  If you have better topological analogies feel free to share in the comments (after you follow my Instagram).

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To follow up on the Chinese New Year’s Post, here is a drawing I made with ink and colored pencil to celebrate the Year of the Earth Pig.  In this context, the meaning of the pig should be self-evident: this is the 2019 Earth Pig, the symbolic avatar of the present moment.  We are fortunate that this is a lithe and good-natured piggy:  I have seen some fearsome and intimidating hogs which are all shaggy and grim, but this little porker looks almost like a pet. The pig is carrying a giant doughnut with pink icing as a special treat for the Lunar New Year festival.  Additionally, the pastry (which I drew “from life” from a Dunkin’ Donut which I then ate) is a reminder of the endless appetite and desire which is a part of life.  Existence may be mass-produced and filled with empty calories, but, even so, it is SOOO sweet. Perhaps the torus-shaped pastry also represents the topology of the universe.

As ever, the flounder is my symbolic avatar for life on Earth (I promise I will write a post about why, out of all the organisms on Earth, I chose the flounder to represent us).  Imbued with special spring festival felicity, this flatfish seems less tragic (and maybe also less ridiculous) than most of the other ones I have drawn.   Considering its aquamarine hue, the fish also represent the life-giving element of water. A satellite suggests that humanity’s future (if we have one) lies in space and there, at the bottom right, is our beloved home world!  It is such a good-looking planet, but it looks dwarfed by the great allegorical animals which are hovering in proximity to it.  Perhaps the pig represents the continents and the flounder represents the seas….

My sassy anti-establishment friend Moira suggested that this artwork was somehow about the constabulary (she lives in fear that America is becoming a police state) but I see no evidence of such meaning in the work (although I do wonder if she is right about the nation).  Yet the picture is not all rosy.  If this picture is about having an appetite for life, it might also whisper sad and disturbing things about what that entails.  Humankind’s principal relationship with pigs, flounder, and doughnuts is all too voracious.  Is that also our relationship with our home planet? Only religious fundamentalists and Davos man (aka the planet’s super rich oligarchs) believe that humans are currently acting as responsible stewards of our home world.  Both these categories of people seemingly believe that God gave them dominion over the Earth so that they could ruin, despoil, and kill it.

Whatever the case, both creatures are watching our world to see what happens next.  I have always believed that humans can escape the curse of our insatiable nature only by directing our rapacity away from the finite planet and towards the infinite heavens (coincidentally this is the not-very-subtle meaning of every single one of my artworks for the last 15 years).  Can we make any upward progress in the year of the Earth Pig? or are we just going to continue to pig out at a diminishing trough while destiny passes us by?

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Two days ago, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about Earth’s magnetic field, an underappreciated invisible force-field which keeps the planet habitable by preventing solar wind from blowing away our atmosphere and oceans (we need those!).  Long ago, Venus and Mars seemingly had liquid oceans and nice atmospheres, but something went wrong (?) with their magnetic fields a billion or so years ago, and just look at them now (tuts censoriously). But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge our neighbors…Five hundred and sixty-five million years ago, the Earth underwent a magnetic crisis too.

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Geologists have been studying fragments of  plagioclase and clinopyroxene from the ancient continental shield of Canada to learn about the state of the planet’s magnetic fields in the ancient past.  As they form, these crystals trap tiny magnetized iron fragments in place like the needles of little compasses.  Scientists can thus study the deep history of the magnetosphere.  As they studied magnetic crystals that were formed 565 million years ago, they found some troubling things: half a billion years ago, the Earth’s magnetic field was over 10 times weaker than what it is today.  Additionally the poles were rapidly fluctuating between north and south at an unexpected rate.

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A closer reading of all of this suggests that 550 million years ago the Earth’s magnetic field nearly collapsed! (for a look at what that means, just walk around Mars).  Life was saved because the solid nickel iron core of Earth nucleated from the molten core at that time.  Instead of a field collapse, our magnetic field became much stronger as the spinning solid inner core and the convection cycles of the molten outer core worked together to form a super geodynamo.  Coincidentally, 541 million years ago is familiar to paleontologists as the inception of the Cambrian explosion, when multitudinous animal life forms appeared on Earth. It is such an important point that it divides the Phanerozoic (filled with mushrooms, megafauna, liverworts, and Roman centurions) from the Proterozoic (billions of years of bacterial soup).   Just a coincidence?

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