Friday, November 28, 2008

The Sea Going Monster

Moving building stone has long taxed humanity.  For instance, last summer’s attempt at ice age revisionist history, the movie 10,000 B.C., showed that mastodons were the primary movers of stone 

at the pyramids.  Okay, maybe the movie makers made a mistake but transporting tons of rock is not easy.  For example, Michelangelo narrowly escaped death twice when great columns of marble he was moving fell and almost crushed him.  Stone movement was so important that it led to what many consider the world’s first patent, granted on June 19, 1421 to Fillippo Brunelleschi.

I learned of Brunelleschi’s patent while reading Robert Clark’s new book Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, which tells the story of the 1966 flood that devastated Florence.  Clark begins by tracing the history of art and artists in Florence before preceding to details of the flood and its aftermath.  One of the artists he features is Brunelleschi, best known as the architect of the dome of the Duomo in Florence.

Brunelleschi’s patent covered a boat that would be used to “bring in any merchandise and load on the river Arno and any other river or water, for less money than usual.”  Not merely content with ensuring Brunelleschi’s intellectual property rights, the patent noted that if anyone attempted to build their own vessel it would be destroyed by fire.  And you can be sure it would have been; Brunelleschi was notoriously secretive and vindictive.

Known as “Il Badalone,” or the sea-going monster, the vessel wasn’t completed until 1428, when it was scheduled to carry 100 tons of marble from Pisa, 55 miles up the Arno River to Florence.  That marble had been quarried in Carrara, another 30 miles north of Pisa.  Famous as the material that allowed Augustus to boast “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble,” Carrara marble achieved even greater fame when Michelangelo used it for his David, Pieta, and Moses.  The brilliant white marble is still widely used for sculptures and as building stone.

(Drawing by Mariano Taccola of Il Badalone)

We do not know exactly how the boat was made because no detailed accounts exist.  The one drawing, by Brunelleschi’s contemporary Mariano Taccola, shows a flat-bottomed vessel getting towed upriver by another boat.  Oxen could also have been used to pull Il Badalone up the Arno.

Unfortunately for Brunelleschi, his monster boat made it only about halfway to Florence before sinking, for unknown reasons. Brunelleschi not only lost all of his marbles but also lost one-third of his wealth in the Badalone fiasco. Its failure, however, did save one life. His rival Giovanni di Prato, who had called Brunelleschi a "pit of ignorance" and a "miserable beast and imbecile," had vowed to commit  suicide if Badalone had succeeded.  Brunelleschi eventually recovered his fortune and other boats eventually brought Carrara marble to Florence for use in the Duomo. 

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Natural History of King Kong

The other night I watched a movie about Megaprimatus kong, better known by his non-scientific sobriquet, King Kong. And I thought he was just a rather large representative of the species Gorilla gorilla. Did you know that Kong was the last surviving member of his species? Did you even know he had a scientific name? He wasn't alone. The nasty, toothy worms that ate some of the film crew were Carnictis and the dinosaur gang of three that battled M. kong were Vastatosaurus rex. At least that's what the gang who made the 2005 version of King Kong tell us in their mockumentary about the natural history of Skull Island. The extra film footage is included in the DVD version of the movie.

While I cannot recommend the main feature, the mockumentary makes a fine addition to the geomovie oeuvre discussed earlier this year at Magma Cum Laude and Geotripper. Skull Island: A Natural History includes "historic footage" of expeditions to the island, talking heads, and material from King Kong. We learn that the island is a "perversion of evolution," where dinosaurs survived because underground vents kept the island temperate during the prolonged cooling following the asteroid that hit 65  million years ago. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the geologic instability that led to the survival of the dinosaurs ultimate doomed Skull Island, as a 9.2 magnitude earthquake led to the island's disappearance into the sea, coincidentally just after the original King Kong movie crew finished shooting in the 1930s.

I have to hand it to the movie makers because much of what they discuss is based on plausible science, even if applied to a made up world.  This does not necessarily mean that the movie is believable and it's too bad that none of this science comes across in King Kong but at least the mockumentarians did take the time to research the facts. Another plus for the mockumentary is its length, an easy-to-watch 17 minutes versus the butt numbing three hours of the film. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Of Bees and Building Stone

Our modern pollinator crisis may have unseen consequences. For example, few people will now be born surrounded by bees. This may not seem to be a bad thing but consider the birth of Ethiopian king Lalibela in the 12th century. Legend holds that at his birth bees swarmed the child, which many regarded as a propitious omen. His older brother Habray, like a few notorious older brothers, was not pleased, and figured that the best way to deal with his chosen brother was to kill him.  Unfortunately for Habray, Lalibela didn't die but ascended to Heaven, where God told Lalibela that his destiny was to build 11 great churches as a "New Jerusalem."

I learned of Lalibela and his churches at the Lucy's Legacy exhibit at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. In addition to showcasing perhaps the second most famous female in early human history, the show provides a fascinating account of Ethiopia and its importance to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Lalibela was part of the Zagwe dynasty, which promoted a reemergence of Christianity.

King Lalibela carved the churches in a red tuff, which interbeds with thick basalts produced by the east Africa rift system.  This rift setting is similar to other areas of plate breakup, which produced stone such as the diabase of Gettysburg and the brownstones of New York. In each of these rift valleys, volcanics also erupted, though no one on North America had the inspiration to carve churches in the rock.

According to the Lucy exhibit, to accomplish the task of hewing the buildings, human masons worked during the day with angels taking over the night shift. Archaeologists, however, say it took at least 150  years and not 24 years, as tradition claims. Starting at the top on arches, vaults, and ceilings and continuing without scaffolding down to the floor and doors, masons worked with picks and levers to remove the soft, porous rock.

The eleven buildings are found in the town of Lalibela, about 600 kilometers north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. They form two groups divided by the River Jordan, though the most remarkable structure, Bete Giyorgis (the House of St. George), sits a few hundred yards away from the northern group. Shaped like a Greek cross, it is freestanding in the center of a square shaft measuring 22 by 23 meters. South of the river, Bete Amannuel is also a single monolith, 18 meters tall and 12 meters wide on each side. Inside many of the churches were elaborate paintings of geometrical patterns, animals, and Bibilical scenes.

Despite having been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, the buildings and paintings have suffered in the harsh climate and unfavorable geologic conditions (easily weathered clay minerals and weak layers in the tuff). To slow the deterioration, temporary shelters have been built, though they are neither handsome nor completely protective. Perhaps we need another swarm of bees to inspire new shelters. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Stones of Duke City

My wife is in Albuquerque for a few days. We drove through Duke City this summer and I can recommend two things to do in town. One, go to the legendary Frontier Restaurant, and two pick up a copy of George Austin's guide to the geology of the downtown area.  Written with both geologists and non-geologists in mind, the booklet contains a two-hour long, self-guided tour of Albuquerque's building stone. It also includes sections on local geology, quarrying, and milling. 

Austin, who has worked for the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources for over three decades, ably weaves history, architecture, and geology into a fun expedition.  We discover clam, snail, and crinoid fossils, Albuquerque's first skyscraper (built in 1922), and billion-year-old granite called Fred Red. We also learn about Route 66 and Pueblo Deco architecture.  As in most cities, the building stone spans the globe and geologic time, from as young as a few hundred thousand years to as old as 2.6 billion years. 

The book is available on line or in Albuquerque for $8.50. The title is Scenic Trips to the Geologic Past #17, Albuquerque Downtown from a Geologic Point of View--A Walking Tour of the City Center. 

And if you are interested in reading more about Albuquerque, two fine books are Rudolfo Anaya's Alburquerque, a novel of politics, family, and boxing, and Edward Abbey's brilliant Brave Cowboy, which was made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas. Douglas, by the way, called it his favorite film. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Geology of War

"The whole battle is about trying to take an igneous intrusion away from another army," says Robert Whisonant, a geologist at Radford University in Virginia.  Whisonant is quoted in Erin Wayman's fascinating article about geology and the Civil War, which appears in the November issue of Earth magazine (formerly Geotimes.)

Wayman focuses on two of the most important battles in the war: Antietam and Gettysburg. Whisonant and his fellow researcher, Judy Ehlen, observe that one of the deadliest battlefields at Antietam was the Cornfield, where three times more solders died than at the adjacent Burnside Bridge.  They attribute the totals in part to the Cornfield's underlying limestone, which has weathered flat, whereas the more resistant dolomite and shale of Burnside had eroded into a safer terrain of hills and ridges, allowing soldiers to hide and maneuver unseen.

Whisonant's quote refers to Gettysburg where a diabase (dark igneous rock) had intruded into softer sediments and formed a boulder-rich, hilly terrain.  The Union army held the 25-meter-high Cemetery Ridge and the Confederates were on the lower Seminary Ridge. Between the two was a plain, formed by the erosion of the soft sediments.  More than 12,000 Confederate soldiers died when they tried to cross the unprotected plain during the infamous Pickett's Charge. With that loss the South retreated.

For me, the other interesting story of Gettysburg is the stone itself.  The battle-influencing diabase formed around 200 million years ago, as North America and Africa separated during the breakup of Pangaea. The split produced a series of rift valleys that stretch up the Atlantic Coast, including one now found in Connecticut and Massachusetts where dinosaurs left behind thousands of tracks. Collected in the middle 1800s by Edward Hitchcock, the tracks can be seen at the Amherst College Museum of Natural History.  The area is also famous for producing a brown sandstone used in the building trade throughout the east.  The rock is better known as the material covering hundreds of brownstone rowhouses. 

If you are interested in more information, the Pennsylvania Geological Survey has two publications on line. The first is a reprint of a 1962 report on Gettysburg and the second is 2008 field guide to the battlefield. The National Humanities Council also has a great reference spot with more articles by Whisonant. 

General Robert E. Lee may have been a brilliant tactician but he appears to not have been a good geologist. But in his defense, geology was still a young science and most of what we know now could not have even been imagined in the 1860s.