Thursday, July 31, 2014


The US Geological Survey does not employ gemologists – while there have been several within our ranks historically, they have been amateur gemologists who have pursued their interest on their own time. Nevertheless, gems DO come from the ground, and could reasonably be construed to be an ultimate product of geology. The following question is typical of the kind we receive about gems.

Q:           Is there somewhere in California near Modesto that I can have a rock collection looked at? We are almost positive that we may have found some raw rubies! They have passed the scratch test and are very heavy and hexagonal shaped. 209-xxx-xxxx
- James

A:            We can't do gemology for you - the US Geological Survey is tightly constrained to work on only particular national objectives that Congress sets, including mineral resource assessments, volcano hazards, etc. 

My recommendation to you is that you contact a local gemological society and ask for guidance. I would NOT recommend going to any jewelry store, as they only focus and specialize on the end products. 

You might try: ... but keep in mind that this is a trade association of retail jewelers, independent appraisers, suppliers, and selective industry members, and only incidentally will they have any component that might be of help to you. 

           You would probably do better with:

...or even better with a local society of educated amateurs, like the San Diego Mineral and Gem Society:

Finally, please keep in mind that there are beryls and other igneous minerals like garnet and eudialyte that can easily be mistaken for rubies by inexperienced people. A true ruby is a pink to blood-red (so-called “pigeon blood”) colored gemstone, a form of the mineral corundum (aluminum oxide). Ruby has a hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale, and is considered one of the four precious stones, along with sapphire, emerald, and diamonds. The red color in a ruby is caused mainly by the presence of the element chromium in the crystal lattice.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Dust Bowl, King Solomon, and Country Western Music

Sometimes – even after all these years – I am amazed to learn of yet another series of cultural connections all tied together by geology. The following Q&A is just one of many examples of this. Another example is how modern Venezuelan politics and its history are underlain both literally and figuratively by its ancient Archaean geology. This Venezuelan example would take too long to share here, but it can be found in a book my wife and I have written titled “2 Worlds, The Real Venezuela: Living on the Edge of the Jungle and the Rise of Hugo Chavez” ( By the way, the girl holding the monkey in the cover photo is our youngest daughter.

Q: I just watched a show on the history channel. Part of the show covered the "Dirty 30's" and how the "Dust Bowl" helped shape human kind today. My question is, of the possible millions of tons of top soil blown away. Where did it go? Did the eastern sea board states get a foot taller during those years or what? Thank you for taking the time to answer my question.  Sincerely,
- Bart A

A: The Dust Bowl was caused by improper farming practices that destroyed the native prairie vegetation and their root systems - and didn't replace them. The US Soil Conservation Service (Now the Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS) was created to first understand, then mitigate the consequences of plowing fields in prairies. In 1933, its original incarnation the Soil Erosion Service was created within the Department of the Interior, with Hugh Bennett as chief. Bennett was a visionary soil expert who had been publishing scientific papers on the subject since the beginning of the 20th Century. He practically invented soil science.

       To answer your specific question, yes: the soil goes elsewhere, and other places grow “taller”, though you might not be able to easily recognize this. Winds tend to scour certain localized areas, and then distribute the soil and dust outside these areas - but much more widely. Thus it may not seem like parts of the rest of the country developed deeper soils, but they did - though very marginally. The airborne distribution process drops out the heavier particles at shorter distances, while the finest dust can theoretically blow around the world. You might speculate where some of the dust that always seems to find its way into your house originally came from.

Two anecdotes may help you understand this better.
1. Satellites can see dust from the western Sahara blow thousands of kilometers out into the central Atlantic Ocean. Ultimately it collects in the abyssal ocean depths, where coring has actually measured it and its growth rate. It may even have a part in the Atlantic Hurricane development process.

2. While I was working in central Saudi Arabia two decades ago, I was asked to provide geophysical assistance to a geologist trying to evaluate a small ancient mine (SAM) named an-Najadi. This mine was one of at least 852 small artisanal gold mines found in Saudi Arabia today, and apparently formed the major source of gold reported in King Solomon's treasury.

     While visiting the site I saw that the geologist had used a backhoe to dig trenches. His objective was to get down through the soil to the bedrock, to figure out what the bedrock structure was - so he would know which direction to point or orient his evaluation drilling program. At the bottom of one trench I saw two round stones - they turned out to be grindstones used by the ancient miners to crush the quartz grains holding the tiny fragments of gold that the miners were after. I am looking at those two stones in my office as I write this.

     On the sides of the trench I saw three white lines, and asked the geologist about them. They turned out to be slaked-lime floors of ancient dwellings. I could see the oldest one, then one a meter higher stratigraphically above it - that therefore had to be at least a thousand years younger - and then one above that. The trench was 14 feet (4+ meters) deep. The lowest level was occupied by miners in Solomon's time - 3,500 years ago. The 14 feet of soil above the lowest dwelling level arrived since that time and is called "loess", a German word for blown-in soil. Most of this soil had been blown in from the west. It had come from the eastern Sahara, and crossed the Red Sea to get there. I have personally experienced sand storms in that area that kept aircraft from landing - because pilots could not see the ground for up to three days at a time. Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91 was rushed forward in time to beat these seasonal wind storms called the Shamal. These storms happen during the period of monsoon storms that lash the Arabian Sea for several months in the Spring every year.

     This all tells us that over-grazing in the proto-Sahara, starting thousands of years ago, had already stripped most of North Africa of its protective vegetation, leading to the ever-expanding "desertification" process we see that continues today... and which Oklahoma experienced for a short period in the 1930's.

     Soil conservation is an important lesson we learned from the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. Some of the Oklahoma economic refugees migrated to California, and a country western band leader named Cousin Herb Henson brought his musical tradition from there - and lived across the street from me when I was a child in Bakersfield, California. I still remember Bakersfield being one of two major Country Western music centers in the country after Memphis... and I can still remember the disparaging name of "Okies" being used for these poor migrants decades after they arrived.

     I hope this answers your question, and perhaps puts it in a wider context.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jeff Wynn's Special Crash Diets

I plan to patent these things. Consider this the Public Notice in the Federal Register - I have 12 months to initiate contact with the US Patent and Trademark Office. These Jeff Wynn's Special Crash Diets (patents pending) will be useful for anyone desiring to lose 5-24 pounds VERY quickly. That summer bikini bod? Just 7 - 10 days away, thanks to Dr. Wynn. The oldest of the three Drs. Wynn.

You will not find these diets in O magazine. Oprah Winfrey is a sissy and won't try them.

1. The Duodenal Ulcer Diet - good for 24 lbs in 3 weeks. You will need to chew aspirin without water when feeling a lot of pain for this one. If you have a German grandmother, she will teach you how to do this. The taste is bitter, but it can become an acquired taste that is not unpleasant if you work at it. The consequences manifest as a feeling of light-headedness, a rapid loss of your tan, and soon you will also notice black, tarry stools. Don't let this go on too long, however, or you will literally bleed out. Stay hydrated with Kool-Aid or you will face congestive heart failure.
Ancillary: You won't feel like eating at all, but you should probably force yourself to start on soft stuff (like white bread and bananas) and stop eating the aspirin after 10 days.

2. The Shigella Diet - good for 14 lbs in 10 days. You may have to travel to the deep southern Venezuelan jungle for this one. It requires a cook who never washes his hands, or anything else, and who butchers chickens - and leaves the offal - on the edge of your jungle encampment. They do this because everyone is fearful of El Tigre, also known as a Jaguar, and of course no self respecting Jaguar would THINK to follow its nose to the scent of rotten chicken guts and thus into your hammock. I WILL note that in three years in the deep jungle I MAY have seen just one pug mark from a small cat, but the psychological fear runs rampant among Venezuelans. Everyone carries a machete with them, even to venture 10 meters into the forest to relieve themselves. The microbe donated by the filthy cook first manifests as light-headedness with a ringing in the ears. It probably also involves a high fever, but you won't likely have a thermometer with you to prove it. Within a day it turns to nausea and diarrhea, and within a day after that the diarrhea begins to show significant blood. LOTS of blood. Most people living in southern Venezuela are immune to this microbe, or else they are dead (Natural Selection - Darwin was right). Delicious additional details can be found at
Believe me, you WILL run out of available un-besmirched jungle, and be sure to have at least 10 extra batteries for your flashlight. You never know what you will step in otherwise.
Ancillary: You can stop the weight-loss at your leisure by drinking an entire bottle of Kaopectate with Neomycin. You don't want to fritter around with any teaspoons here.

3. The Ruptured Colon Diet - good for about 10 lbs in 7 days. This one requires taking some very hard falls to initiate. You must try to strangle at least 10 people up against a wall. They will then hold on to your shirt, ears, or chest hair, lift their legs, and drop straight down. If you are not quick with your hands, your face will then hit the wall VERY hard (that's the intent, anyway). Next, the "victim" will cup hands behind your heel and shove a shoulder hard against your knee, forcing you to fall backwards in what is technically called an Ura Nage or simply just a "Tree Fall". You can't roll out of this one because your leg is locked out. This little exercise works better if you are older, as diverticula increase with age (40% at 40 years, 60% at 60 years, etc.).
Ancillary: The doctors don't want to carve on you, despite what you may hear about fees-for-service (I suspect they don't like the smell), so they will put you on a Dextrose-and-Morphine diet. I didn't name it this, because the diet also requires taking a highly toxic antibiotic, such as Flagyl. In fact, the Flagyl itself will probably do the job, because (a) the doctors INSIST that you take a cycle of antibiotic to the Bitter End, and (b) the metallic taste in your mouth makes any food taste like a carburetor.

4. The Extracted Tooth/Teeth Diet - good for 7 lbs in 7 days. You simply need to have a tooth extracted for this one. Two teeth, if the dentist accidentally fractures a neighboring one, will serve even better. Ignore the instructions to avoid spitting and eating any solid foods after two days and the clots will come out, exposing your jaw or your skull in what is euphemistically called a "dry socket". It's not at all dry, because food and saliva quickly pack the openings and the pain rapidly ramps up to a 5 - 6 level. However, this provides an excellent incentive to stop doing anything with your mouth, including talking, eating, etc.
Ancillary: The sockets will heal (close) in about a month. You can temper this diet with liquid protein drinks, but you will need to eat a sheet of newspaper a day to provide adequate fiber. Legal liability issues prevent me from explaining what happens otherwise.

5. The Vitamin "O" Diet - good for about 5 pounds in 7 days. I can't take credit for the name - my kids came up with that. To do this right you will need to work in an environment - say a ship - where you are nauseous from 5-meter seas for several days. It works best if your work window is always at night when everyone else wants to sleep (there are some people who actually insist on sleeping at night). You can keep your brain fueled by eating a three-column sack of Oreos every 12 hours. Don't worry, your system throws it off quickly, and any sugar that doesn't just run straight through you will keep EVERYTHING humming. This particular diet involves virtually no pain, by the way.
Ancillary: This one is easy to turn on or off. The boat driver can simply turn into the wind, which will reduce the pitch, roll, and yaw to just cyclic forward-back pitches. You can also go to bed and kiss off about half of your data.

Several other possibilities come to mind, but they generally require surgery. I will keep them to myself until time for Public Notice in the Federal Register. You're welcome.