Putnisite, a new mineral

Geologists in Australia have discovered a new mineral, putnisite (photo above by P. Elliott, G. Giester, R. Rowe, and A. Pring).

Putnisite has the chemical formula SrCa4Cr8(CO3)8SO4(OH)16·25H2O. The chromium in the mineral is trivalent, so that’s 2 + 2×4 + 3×8 = 34 for cations and 2×8 + 2 + 16 = 34 for anions. See here for the crystal structure. Putnisite is quite soft, with a hardness of 1½–2 on the Mohs scale.

Related minerals include strontianite: SrCO3, celestine: SrSO4, and the purple stichtite: Mg6Cr2CO3(OH)16·4H2O, which was also discovered in Australia (photo below by Didier Descouens).

Putnisite was found at Lake Cowan, near Norseman, Western Australia, and was named after Münster-based mineralogists Andrew and Christine Putnis. The discovery was published earlier this year. Peter Elliott, the lead author of the paper, is a visiting research fellow in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Adelaide, as well as a research associate with the South Australian Museum.

I’m sure that the Museum would love a specimen for their collection (photo below), although the crystals of putnisite found so far are in fact almost microscopically small.

Evolution as a Religion: a book review


Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears by Mary Midgley (1985, revised edition 2002)

I recently read the classic Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears by English philosopher Mary Midgley. In the introduction to the revised (2002) edition, Midgley explains the motivation for the book as follows: “I had been struck for some time by certain remarkable prophetic and metaphysical passages that appeared suddenly in scientific books about evolution, often in their last chapters. Though these passages were detached from the official reasoning of the books, they seemed still to be presented as science. But they made startling suggestions about vast themes such as immortality, human destiny and the meaning of life.” (p. viii). As an example, she quotes the molecular biologist William Day: “He [man] will splinter into types of humans with differing mental faculties that will lead to diversification and separate species. From among these types, a new species, Omega man, will emerge … as much beyond our imagination as our world was to the emerging eucaryotes.” (p. 36).


Mary Midgley

Such “prophetic and metaphysical passages” are also familiar from the fictional works of Olaf Stapledon and H. G. Wells. Midgley argues that they represent bad science, twisted to have characteristics of a religion, such as assigning meaning to life (pp. 15, 71). The myth of the “Evolutionary Escalator,” extrapolated to some glorious imaginary future, is one example. Nothing in evolutionary science justifies this view, comforting though it may seem (p. 38). Furthermore, past attempts to accelerate the process by breeding an “Übermensch” have not ended at all well (p. 9), and more recent proposals are also disturbing (pp. 48–49).


The “Evolutionary Escalator” or “March of Progress”

Midgley claims that prophecies based on the “Evolutionary Escalator” myth “are quite simply exaltations of particular ideals within human life at their own epoch, projected on to the screen of a vague and vast ‘future’ – a term which, since Nietzsche and Wells, is not a name for what is particularly likely to happen, but for a fantasy realm devoted to the staging of visionary dramas. In their content, these dramas plainly depend on the moral convictions of their author and of his age, not on scientific theories of any kind.” (pp. 81–82).

In contrast, Midgley quotes a more pessimistic perspective from the physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desk for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” (pp. 86–87). This perspective is very different from that of the evolutionary optimists, but it does share a certain scientist-centric bias.

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravin, shriek’d against his creed, –

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.’

(from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H., LIV and LV)

Midgley is particularly negative about the “red in tooth and claw” view of evolution, which emphasises competition as against cooperation. She sees the “selfish gene” concept popularised by Richard Dawkins as an example of this. In a 2007 interview with The Independent, she claimed “The ideology Dawkins is selling is the worship of competition. It is projecting a Thatcherite take on economics on to evolution. It’s not an impartial scientific view; it’s a political drama.


Honeybees are great cooperators (photo: Todd Huffman), and symbiosis is common in nature

Indeed, when an organism succeeds by occupying a new ecological niche (as, for example, urban coyotes do), there need not be any competition at all (at least, not initially).


A coyote in an urban niche (photo: Dru Bloomfield)

Extreme forms of sociobiology comes in for particular criticism from Midgley. They produce, she claims, bad science: “Environmental causes are neglected without any justification being given, and so are causes which flow from an individual itself during its lifetime … In human affairs, both these areas are of course of the first importance, since they cover the whole range of culture and individual action.” (p. 151). She is far from being the only scholar to make such criticisms.

Less common is the way in which she blames the growth of creationism on the rhetoric of sociobiologists themselves: “The project of treating the time scale of the Genesis story literally, as a piece of history, is an amazing one, which serious biblical scholars at least as far back as Origen (AD 200) have seen to be unworkable and unnecessary. The reason why people turn to it now seems to be that the only obvious alternative story – evolution – has become linked with a view of human psychology which they rightly think both false and immoral.” (p. 172).

See also this talk by Midgley, related to a more recent book on a similar topic:

In essence, Mary Midgley strongly supports scientists when they do science, but does not always accept the results of scientists doing philosophy (and especially moral philosophy). This little book sounds a helpful note of caution for those scientists who have become interested in philosophical speculation.

* * * *
Evolution as a Religion, by Mary Midgley: 4 stars

LADEE bites the dust

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) completed its mission about a week ago, and NASA crash-landed it into the far side of the Moon. LADEE appears to have been a successful use of the low-cost Modular Common Spacecraft Bus concept, so we can perhaps expect more missions with spacecraft of this design, as the scientific community attempts to do “more with less.”

See the NASA page for more information. Well done, LADEE!

Kitchen chemistry: soap in action

Our previous kitchen chemistry post discussed soap. Soap consists of sodium salts (or potassium salts) of fatty acids. For example, sodium stearate soap consists of sodium (Na+) and stearate C17H35COO) ions:

These ions do their soapy job because the charged oxygen end of the molecule is attracted to water (since the hydrogen side of a water molecule has a slight positive charge). The long hydrocarbon tail, on the other hand, is attracted to oil and grease. Mixing soap and water with oil or grease therefore produces little grease droplets surrounded by many, many stearate (or other fatty acid) ions, with their tails embedded in the grease droplet, and their oxygen heads poking out into the water. I’ve only had the patience to draw eight for this droplet:

Because these little droplets are surrounded by negative charges (on the oxygen atoms), the droplets repel each other. This means the droplets stay separate from each other, and cannot combine into larger oily blobs. Because the negatively charged oxygen atoms are attracted to water molecules, the droplets also remain dispersed within the water (so that they can later be rinsed away). In fact, what we have here is an emulsion (or sol) of oil or grease in water, stabilised by the soap. Recall the image with which we began this post series:

Other kinds of emulsion will likewise need some kind of molecule that keeps the droplets separate – usually also a molecule with a distinct head and tail. In mayonnaise, for example, the emulsion of oil in water is stabilised by phospholipid molecules from egg yolks. These molecules also have a “head” attracted to water and a “tail” attracted to oil.

This post brings our kitchen chemistry series to a close, at least for now.

The Great Lakes, unfrozen

The NASA image above (click to zoom) shows the Great Lakes in Autumn 2011. The image is again from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite. Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are coloured light blue from sediment brought to the surface by winds, while Lake Erie is coloured green by a severe algal bloom. Autumn colours are also visible in some of the forests surrounding the lakes.

Given that it’s autumn here in Australia right now, the image seems vaguely appropriate.

Mars gets closer and brighter…

On April 8, the planet Mars was in opposition. That is, Mars was on the opposite side of the sky to the Sun. Also, on April 14, Mars will be at the closest point to Earth in its orbit (92 million km). A great time to observe the “red planet”!

This video from Slooh explains various aspects of the planet at length:

For the current distance to Mars, see Wolfram’s calculator or the live diagram of the solar system at Fourmilab, which includes images (green lines show orbits below the plane of the ecliptic):

Live Solar System image