The 366 daily episodes in 2014 were chronological snapshots of earth history, beginning with the Precambrian in January and on to the Cenozoic in December. You can find them all in the index in the right sidebar. In 2015, the daily episodes for each month were assembled into monthly packages, and a few new episodes were posted. Now, the blog/podcast is on an occasional schedule with diverse topics, and the Facebook Page showcases photos on Mineral Monday and Fossil Friday. Thanks for your interest!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Oily Episodes from 2014

My friend Larry Smith, a geology professor at Montana Tech here in Butte, Montana, suggested that I assemble the podcasts from 2014 into thematic packages as well as the month by month packages, which is ongoing. I thought that was a good enough idea to buy Larry a beer, and here’s the first of these packages.

This group contains all the 2014 episodes tagged with oil or oil shale keywords. There are 15 of them, including two that are mostly about oil shale deposits. Running time is about an hour and twenty minutes.

Thanks very much for your interest.
—Richard I. Gibson

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Episode 368: Alaska, 1898

Today’s episode is from my book, What Things Are Made Of and the chapter that includes gold.

THE LAST GREAT GOLD RUSH began in August 1896, when prospector George Washington Carmack and his two Indian companions, Skookum Jim and Tagish Charlie, found gold in the Klondike River basin in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Two years later, thousands of the gold seekers who had climbed the perilous slopes of Chilkoot Pass were gone, either back to the states or on to other diggings in Alaska. But that summer of 1898 saw a rush of another sort: the rush to understand Alaska’s resources.

The 19-year-old United States Geological Survey dispatched four parties that spring, and the War Department sent two more teams accompanied by geologists. Among other things, they were to “observe and note all occurrences of valuable minerals, giving special attention to the presence or absence of gold, whether in placers or veins.” These early scientific expeditions guided later exploitation of Alaska’s mineral wealth, and established the careers of several USGS geologists.

Spurr's 1898 geologic map of southwestern Alaska

Josiah Spurr was just 28 years old when he led a reconnaissance in southwestern Alaska, but he knew what he was looking for: his previous geological experience in the Yukon gold fields prepared him for any exploration dealing with gold. Spurr’s 1425-mile Alaskan journey with a handful of other scientists in three lightweight cedar canoes resulted in new geologic and topographic maps covering a vast territory. Spurr’s report reflects the dangers of exploration as the 19th Century came to a close. The team arrived at Tyonek on Cook Inlet, on April 26, 1898, but could not head upriver until the ice began to break up on May 4. After reaching the Susitna River mouth, their intended portal to the interior, the weather forced a delay until May 20 when the river became sufficiently ice-free for them to travel. Even then, after they “had gone several miles, we were surprised by a solid wall of ice bearing swiftly down upon us, and we had only time to throw our load upon the banks and drag the boats out of the water before the ice jam swept past, piling over upon the banks in places and grinding off trees.” Spurr’s narrative reads more like an adventure story than a scientific document.

The Spurr Expedition coined the term alaskite, a word for a particular light-colored granitic rock. The scientists observed considerable mineralization associated with southwestern Alaska’s granites, though gold occurred only sparingly. Nonetheless, in 2007 Alaska was the second-leading gold producing state in the U.S., with more than 700,000 ounces, mostly from mines near Fairbanks and Juneau. Alaska’s production is a distant second to Nevada, the heavyweight in the U.S. gold-mining industry with around 5,000,000 to 7,000,000 ounces per year. The United States exports gold, in a virtual three-way tie with Australia and South Africa for second, third and fourth place in the world after China.

Josiah Spurr’s work on western U.S. mineral deposits gained him considerable fame, and he wrote a book on economic geology. In the 1940s his work focused on the moon – earning him a crater named Spurr to go with Spurr Volcano in Alaska and the mineral spurrite, a complex calcium silicate. Another 1898 Alaska explorer, Walter Mendenhall, became the fifth Director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1930 and gave his name to a glacier near Juneau. Alfred Hulse Brooks, chief Alaska geologist for the USGS from 1903 until he died in 1924, explored Alaska’s interior Tanana River valley in 1898 when he was just 27 years old, and was honored by the naming of the Brooks Range in 1925. The rare mineral hulsite, an iron-magnesium-tin borate, discovered at Brooks Mountain on the Seward Peninsula, also bears his name. George Eldridge and Robert Muldrow led an 1898 expedition that accurately pegged the height of Mt. McKinley, or Denali, at 20,464 feet – remarkably close to today’s value, 20,306 feet. Glaciers descending from Denali’s flanks recall their names. In this way, gold set the stage for Alaskan geological investigations that continue into the 21st Century, and pointed ultimately to the United States’ largest oil field, Prudhoe Bay, and the world’s largest known zinc deposit, at Red Dog, in the western Brooks Range of northern Alaska.
—Richard I. Gibson

Spurr's complete report: Spurr, J.E., 1900, A reconnaissance in southwestern Alaska, 1898, in Walcott, C.D., Twentieth annual report of the United States Geological Survey, 1898-1899: Part VII - explorations in Alaska in 1898: U.S. Geological Survey Annual Report 20-VII, p. 31-264.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Episode 367 – Kidney stones

Today I want to talk about some of the youngest minerals on earth – kidney stones. Some might argue whether these should be considered minerals at all, since part of the definition of a mineral is other than man-made, but that’s usually phrased as “naturally occurring” and these mineral deposits really are natural, even if they are not welcome.

My first professional job was analyzing kidney stones. My mineralogy professor, Carl Beck at Indiana University, had died, and his wife asked me, his only grad student, if I would continue the analytical business he had been operating. I said yes, setting out on a four-year, 20,000-kidney-stone start to my geological career.

First, please accept this disclaimer. I am not a medical doctor. I’m not even a geological doctor. So don’t take anything I say as medical advice.

Apatite is a common mineral in nature. Chemically it is a complex calcium phosphate with attached molecules of hydroxyl (OH), fluorine (F), and sometimes other elements. Apatite is the fundamental mineral component in bones and teeth, and when apatite has fluorine in its crystal structure, it is stronger. This is why fluorine is added to water and toothpaste. In kidney stones, carbonate (CO3) substitutes for some of the phosphate, making a mineral that is relatively poorly crystallized. Its formula in kidney stones is usually given as Ca5(PO4,CO3)3(F, OH, Cl). Well-crystallized or not, apatite often forms the nucleus upon which other urinary minerals are deposited. It usually occurs as a white powdery mineral deposit, one of the most common components of kidney stones.

Two minerals that are really common in human urinary stones but that are exceedingly rare in nature are whewellite and weddellite, calcium oxalates. Oxalate is C2O4, not too different chemically from carbonate, CO3, the common constituent of limestone.

Whewellite (CaC2O4.H2O) is known to occur in septarian nodules from marine shale near Havre, Montana, with golden calcite at Custer, South Dakota, and as a fault filling with celestite near Moab, Utah. It is found in hydrothermal veins with calcite and silver in Europe, and it often occurs in association with carbonaceous materials like coal, particularly in Saxony, the former Czechoslovakia, and Alsace. Whewellite was named for William Whewell, an English poet, mathematician, and naturalist who is credited with the first use of the word ‘scientist,’ in 1833.

It is one of the most common kidney stone minerals, where it typically occurs as small, smooth, botryoidal – which means like a mass of grapes –  to globular yellow-green to brown, radially fibrous crystals. Whewellite stones larger than ½ inch across are quite unusual. Often whewellite is deposited upon a tiny nucleus of apatite, which may form as build-ups on the tips of tiny papillae in the kidney. Those papillae are little points where ducts convey the urine produced by the kidney into the open part of the kidney.

Weddellite, CaC2O4.2H2O, was named for occurrences of millimeter-sized crystals found in bottom sediments of the Weddell Sea, off Antarctica. Unfortunately the sharp yellow crystals that urinary weddellite forms are often much larger than that, and they are frequently the cause of the pain experienced in passing a kidney stone. Rarely, weddellite crystals may occur that are nearly a half inch on an edge, but most are somewhat smaller. The yellow crystals are commonly deposited upon the outer surface of a smooth whewellite stone. Like whewellite, weddellite is a calcium oxalate. They differ in the amount of water that is included in their crystal structures, and this gives them very different crystal habits. Occasionally, weddellite partially dehydrates to whewellite, forming excellent pseudomorphs of grainy whewellite after weddellite's short tetragonal dipyramids. Together, apatite, whewellite, and weddellite are probably the most common urinary stones.

Struvite is a hydrous magnesium ammonium phosphate, Mg(NH4)(PO4).6H2O, that forms distinctive coffin-shaped crystals. Often masses of tiny crystals grow together with powdery apatite to form huge branching stones called "staghorns," which may be several inches long. They may even fill up the entire open area of a kidney. Struvite stones are sometimes associated with bacterial infections of the urinary system. They also require non-acid systems to form, as indicated by the presence of ammonium (a basic, non-acidic compound) in the crystalline structure. The only common occurrence of struvite outside the urinary system is in bat guano. Certain dogs (especially Dalmatians) can produce remarkable large, smooth, milky-white tetrahedrons of well-crystallized struvite.

Brushite is a calcium phosphate compound, CaHPO4.2H2O that is very similar to the common mineral gypsum (calcium sulfate, CaSO4.2H2O). Gypsum finds its greatest use in sheetrock and other wallboards used in home construction. Brushite is a rare mineral outside the urinary tract, and even there it probably occurs in fewer than 10% of all stones. It is a soft, silky mineral, usually honey-brown and showing a fine radial fibrous structure. It can only crystallize in a limited range of pH (acidity), so treatment may include changing the acid-base balance of people who make brushite kidney stones.

Whitlockite is very rarely found in the urinary system, but it is the most common mineral found in prostate stones. It is a calcium phosphate with small amounts of magnesium, Ca9(Mg,Fe)H(PO4)7, or Ca9(Mg Fe)(PO4)6(PO3)OH and its occurrence may be stabilized by trace amounts of zinc. Prostate fluid has a very high zinc content. The mineral is a resinous, brown, hackly-fracturing material, and it commonly forms multiple small stones in the prostate. It also sometimes precipitates as deposits on teeth in cases of periodontal disease. In nature, it’s pretty rare – it wasn’t formally described until 1941. It occurs in pegmatites, igneous bodies that often contain complex and unusual minerals, and in lunar samples and meteorites, where it is known as merrillite. Whitlockite also forms in bat guano.

The other moderately common crystalline compound in kidney stones is cystine, the amino acid. It forms maybe 1% of the total spectrum, and crystallizes as beautiful, soft, honey-colored hexagonal masses. It is the least soluble of all the amino acids which is probably why it can form kidney stones. So far as I know it never occurs outside of biological systems.

There are a handful of really uncommon kidney-stone minerals, including newberyite and hannayite, both magnesium phosphates, monetite, a calcium phosphate, and calcite and aragonite – calcium carbonate, really common in nature but really rare in kidney stones. Chemical analysis sometimes reports calcium carbonate in kidney stones, but that’s probably wrong. The analysis picks up the CO3, carbonate, that is incorporated in the apatite crystal structure. The chemicals are there, but not the minerals. And that can make a big difference in treatment.

If you have kidney stones, you have my sympathy! Drink lots of water.

My kidney stone web page (source of most of the text here, and more photos)
—Richard I. Gibson

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Precambrian - the daily episodes from 2014 combined

For 2014, the podcast consisted of daily productions averaging about 5 minutes each. The individual episodes for each month are now being assembled into packages for each month, representing various spans of time in the history of the earth.

This episode is the first package, which combines the 31 daily episodes for January, covering the Precambrian – the time from the origin of planet earth up to about 543 million years ago. This episode is an hour and 15 minutes long and includes all the individual daily episodes from January 2014.

If you listened to last year’s daily episodes, you’ll find that I’ve re-recorded some of them. Especially in early January, when I was just getting started, some of the episodes were technically lacking. I hope I have improved on that for this assembly of 31 episodes covering the Precambrian. Thanks very much for your interest in this project. As the year continues, there will be new episodes, maybe every week or two, in addition to these monthly assemblies.

If you have questions or comments, please let me know, either here on the blog – there’s a page for Question of the Week – or contact me by email at rigibson at I’ll try to respond.
—Richard I. Gibson