Category Archives: Have Science Will Travel

Music of the Burgess Shale

This is the second of two posts about the Burgess Shale. The first went up last week.

Last week I took you on a virtual trip to the Burgess Shale. This area of Cambrian-era fossils didn’t just inspire paleontologists, geologists and climate scientists, but musicians as well.

In 1994, composer Rand Steiger wrote an orchestral piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic called “Burgess Shale”, inspired by Stephen Jay Gould’s book about the fossils. Each movement is named after a different organism.

Of the movement “Anomalocaris”, Steiger writes:

“This was by far the largest and fiercest creature found in the shale, and it was also the most disfigured by the calamity (probably a mud slide) that instantly snatched the life of these creatures and preserved them. The most interesting thing is that parts of anomalocaris were thought to be four individual creatures; it wasn’t until recently that it was discovered that they were component parts of the same animal. SO the music for this section became a monstrous concoction featuring tuba, along with contrabass clarinet, horn, and lower strings.”

I can’t manage to find any working clips of the Burgess Shale piece online [UPDATE: See comments section – the audio links on Steiger’s site have been fixed], but in this video Steiger talks about his inspiration for the work.

The Burgess Shale

This is the first of two posts about the Burgess Shale. The second one will go up next week.

In 1909, paleontologist Charles Walcott discovered fossils of the strangest organisms anyone had ever seen in the Canadian Rockies. Some had five eyes, some had strange shapes or protrusions. Over the next years he went back many times with his family, in an attempt to collect and describe the organisms.


Charles Walcott and members of his family at the Burgess Shale

The organisms were all from the Cambrian era, and this fossil field, the Burgess Shale, is a treasure trove of fossils. Wolcott found over 65 thousand, and the area is still being studied. Many of the fossils are on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and at Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum, and affiliated researchers of these and other institutes are working on the fossils and discovering new species all the time.

Why is there such a wealth of Cambrian fossils in the Burgess Shale? These were creatures living in the oceans after the “Cambrian Explosion” – a period of time over 500 million years ago when lots of new creatures evolved. These diverse organisms swam around the prehistoric oceans, but were concentrated here in a mudslide. When the continents moved, this area ended up high in the Rockies.

You can visit the fossil fields only on a guided hiking tour. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover a new fossil while you’re there!

Image in the public domain, via the Smithsonian Institution archives.

The zero meridian, or something like it

CIMG1443This weekend I took my parents to visit the Greenwich Meridian – or did I?

The marked meridian on the site of Greenwich Observatory, where tourists line up to pose for silly pictures with one foot in the East and one foot in the West, has claimed to be zero degrees longtidude since 1884, but if you check your smart phone GPS on that spot, you’re NOT at exactly 0.000 degrees.

According to GPS, the zero meridian appears to be in a park adjacent to the observatory, and not in the section behind the fence that charges admission so you can “visit the meridian”.

2015-08-29 14.06.58

What’s going on here?

Earlier this month, an article by Stephen Malys and others in the Journal of Geodesy revealed the reason behind the discrepancy. The technology used in the 19th century to determine the location of the zero meridian was subject to local distortions from the Earth’s gravity and shape of the local terrain. GPS technology uses measurements from satellites, which aren’t affected in the same way as technology located on Earth.

Screen Shot 2015-08-31 at 21.00.00

The dotted line is the much photographed meridian established in 1884. The solid line is where the GPS says it should be.

So the meridian really is in the wrong place. What does that mean for maps or for time? Well, the Ordnance Maps used in the UK were already using a slightly different zero meridian as reference point, because they were established before the 1884 meridian convention. And the effect of the new meridian location on Greenwich Mean Time, which determines Universal Time, is unnoticably small, so nothing much has changed.

Except, for a shorter line and a cheaper visit, you could technically skip the museum and the crowd of tourists and find the true GPS meridian about a hundred meters to the East of the Observatory in Greenwich Park. It’s probably not as fun a place for a family visit, though.

Aerial photo is Figure 1 from the article by Malys et al. (CC-BY). Photos taken from the ground are by me and by the man who was behind us in line at the almost-but-not-quite meridian line. I previously wrote about the history of the Greenwich Observatory on this site.

The Chevin

I visited the area around Leeds recently, and came across this sign [pdf] by the Leeds Geological Association, on the Chevin.


The Chevin is a ridge in the West Yorkshire landscape, formed over thousands of years. The surrounding area is mostly a valley (one of the “dales” of the Yorkshire Dales) formed by prehistoric rivers and glaciers.


The view

I wasn’t expecting to encounter any science on this trip, so the geology sign was a surprise. Fittingly, I found it at “Surprise View”, the highest point of the Chevin.

Black Rock Observatory

Unlike most observatories, Black Rock Observatory has no fixed location. It’s not permanently fixed on top of a hill or on an island. Instead, it is about to make its way from Los Angeles to the Nevada desert, where it will be installed for the Burning Man festival that starts at the end of this month. In September, it will all be packed up again and removed.


Black Rock City, the location of Burning Man, is a place that only exists for one week every year. It runs entirely on a sharing economy, and it’s out of range of mobile phone providers and internet. For the entire week, the participants of Burning Man are part of a community with no ties to the outside world.

BlackRockObservatoryIt’s the perfect place to look up at the stars together, so last year a group of scientists, artists and engineers created the first Black Rock Observatory. The domes, designed by Gregg Fleishman, are relatively easy to transport and the creators have since visited several other events with the mobile observatory, bringing astronomy to an even wider audience. Besides looking through the telescopes, visitors can hold a meteor, and learn more about space.

This year Black Rock Observatory will be back at Burning Man with a second telescope, to give even more people a chance to visit the impromptu observatory.

telescopeThe theme of Burning Man this year is “Carnival of Mirrors”, which is a very fitting theme! As the creators, the “Desert Wizards of Mars”, said on their (successfully funded) Kickstarter page: “There will be a lot of mirrors at Burning Man this year, but our very special mirror will show you wonders that are light years away in perfect focus from the comfort of our Macro Dome. (…) Our telescope’s precision, hand-crafted, parabolic mirror cradles light to allow you to see through space and time. It has a silicon dioxide coating and will transmit millions of travel-wary photons into your pupils every minute.”

All images from the Black Rock Observatory website. Many more on there!