Fossil Butte


This is not one of Michele’s snaps from Finland, but rather a picture of Fossil Butte National Park in Wyoming. Fifty million years ago, this area looked VERY different. It was a lot warmer, and there was a lake. We know this because this particular lake has left behind some extremely well conserved fossils.

Prehistoric horse found at Fossil Lake.
Prehistoric horse found at Fossil Lake.

When railroad workers in the 19th century visited the area, they noticed so many fossils that they named the nearby settlement “Fossil”.

Fish from Fossil Lake
Fish from Fossil Lake

The fossils from this region are so well conserved because the ancient lake was rich in calcium carbonate. Layers of calcium carbonate would settle on newly dead animals that had sunk to the bottom of the lake, and over the years this created well-preserved fossils set in limestone.


The species found in the limestone are familiar – similar to many creatures alive today – but unexpected for Wyoming. There are crocodiles and palm trees, for example. It suggests that back then, the climate in Wyoming would have been more like that of Florida today.


To see the fossils from Fossil Lake, you can visit Fossil Butte National Park in Wyoming, or see a large collection of the fossils at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Crocodile and palm tree photos are both CC-BY-SA (according to Field Museum usage terms) taken by Eva Amsen.  Other photos are public domain, via National Park Service.

Action Potential Lab

Imagine a cross between 826 stores, the Wellcome Collection, makerspaces and the best birthday parties you remember from your childhood. That’s Action Potential Lab. Located in a century-old pharmacy building in Toronto, Action Potential Lab welcomes kids and adults to explore the intersection of art and science.


Lisa Carrie Goldberg started Action Potential Lab when she returned to Toronto after eight years studying in Boston and Perth. When I visited Toronto recently, I dropped by the lab to meet her. Even though I was there after hours, Lisa’s day was far from over, and she had to briefly interrupt our conversation to receive some samples for an upcoming thermochromatic dye screenprinting workshop. She had a few minutes for an interview, though:

Continue reading “Action Potential Lab”

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”.

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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.

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