Monday, May 06, 2013

On the inertia of a geologist's trappings.

Garry Hayes' post about moving a geology prof plus all of the rocks, minerals, and ephemera of a department reminds me of my experiences with geology departments as a student and as faculty (well, technically I'm in a physics department, but there's enough earth science to justify some comparisons).

As an undergraduate, I spent the summer after my freshman year cleaning out some of the collections storage areas. I waded through several hundred drawers of rocks, minerals, sand, fossils, and I-don't-know-what-that-is-but-I'm-sure-it's-radioactive-so-I'll-just-put-that-there.

Well, I exaggerate a little bit. But only a little bit. You quickly learn to identify uranium-bearing minerals like Autunite and Uraninite in a geology department storage cabinet that hasn't been cleaned out since Khrushchev banged his shoe on the podium at the UN. Autunite has kind of a flaky chartreuse crystal habit that says "you really want to wash your hands thoroughly after picking me up - no seriously don't eat lunch until you've finished reciting 'Charge of the Light Brigade' while scrubbing under your nails." It's a lovely mineral and it fluoresces a brilliant green under UV light. Uraninite on the other hand forms a sort of nondescript yellow powdery coating on sandstone. It's as though the sandstone started getting moldy: the old, forgotten cheese in the back of the fridge.

As an intern with the Milwaukee Public Museum the next summer: the absolute best summer job for a young geology major is working in a museum. It happened that while I was there, a gentleman who had recently passed away donated his entire rock collection to the museum. So one of the collections managers and I drove a pickup and some packing materials over to take a look. For three days, we filled two shipping pallets with boxes upon boxes of rocks and minerals (which, unlike some rock collections, included some very lovely show-piece minerals). Going through those hoarded rocks and minerals, my experiences with uranium minerals came in handy. Because there were some of the loveliest and flakiest Autunite crystals I had ever seen crammed into a box with nearly 20 pounds of some of the finest Uraninite I had ever seen.

Towards the end of the first day, I picked up a small box - not much bigger than my hand. But that box was heavy - as though it was filled with lead. But the contents of the box sloshed. I carefully peeled back the taped lid to find a five pound glass vial of mercury. We found another five-pound vial the next day. We set those aside carefully and recommended to the executors of the late rock hound's effects that the fire department's hazmat team should come back and pick those up. This particular fire department was well-acquainted with this house, since they had cleared out the chemical "collection" this guy had also amassed over the years. It was one of those don't-trip-on-the-stairs-while-carrying-this-because-it-might-explode-BOOM type collections.

As a graduate student, there was the teaching collection - or rather collections. The introductory labs might have been taught by a different set of teaching assistants each semester and continuity of lab activities wasn't the first thing on our minds while we were all busy writing and taking classes of our own. Still, most of the minerals were in the mineral drawers, and most of the rocks were in the rock drawers. But this was an R1 school - each faculty member had their teams of graduate students doing research. And this research was based on data. Some of the data was easily-stored, like microfossils on slides, or geochemistry powders in sealed ampules. One of the geochemists kept the world's oldest zircon (glued to a glass slide) in his desk for a while.

But the bulk of this data came from rocks. Lots of heavy rocks. There are powered, collapsable storage shelving units in the basement. And each faculty member has a set of drawers in which to store the material they had, are, or were eventually going to study. And while I was there, some of those "eventual projects" were heavy enough to either burn out the motors, or more spectacularly shear apart the gears linking the drive chain to the rollers at the base of the units. Not sheared as in breaking-individual-teeth, but as in the-entire-gear-wheel-is-no-in-two-halves.

And now I am working in a Physics Department. UW-Stout's small enough that we don't have a geology department, but there are faculty who have experience teaching meteorology and soil mechanics/introductory geology. Plus, I get to teach physics discussions and labs a few times each year, so I enjoy the practice and the opportunity to broaden my expertise. In a sense, to borrow a phrase that Kelly McCullough has used to great story-telling effect, I have come to identify with my captors.

We moved our department a few years ago when they renovated the science building. While physicists win prizes for having some of the oddest and most rube-goldbergian electro-mechanical devices in their keep, geologists win the bulk density & volume competition with any other academic department. Except, perhaps, the 3D sculpture/metalwork faculty who specialize in iron and bronze.

I've got a respectable teaching collection in my set of collapsible storage units - but I tend to avoid over-loading any one set of shelves based on past experiences. My personal rock and mineral collection is fairly small. Maybe it's because most of the rocks that are worth picking up I'll want to use in class or lab sometime. Maybe because after almost 20 years of dealing with other people's rocks, I'm hesitant to leave that kind of bulk chaos for someone else...

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Blog lives up to its name: we've got a paper (finally) out!

I've mentioned that we've been doing snail population surveys in western Wisconsin as part of a DNR grant before, but I haven't provided much in the way of detail because I wanted to get some of the data published before I really got into some of the details.

Well, the first paper as a result of our work is out in the journal "Checklist." You can download the .pdf here.

Hendersonia occulta (Say, 1831), the Cherrystone drop snail (Gastropoda: Helicinidae), extended geographic distribution, Wisconsin, USA.
Lynum C.A.; R. Amundson; M. Kuchta; A.M. Little; T. Hyde; K.E. Perez.
Check List 9(2):472-474

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Snow Thanks: Enabling denial with some slow-mo bird videos

We're forecast to receive another 3-6" of snow tonight through friday. Sigh. We just melted our Snow Dragon. At least the snow will help insulate the plants that are finally starting to come up.

screencap from

I'm going to cheer myself up with some high speed videos of birds that I took last year:
HummingbirdMontage from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.

Bluebird Toughness from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
Eastern Bluebird comes up to the window to say "boo!" 1,000 fps, memrecam gx-8

Bluebird Motion Study from Matt Kuchta on Vimeo.
A brief compilation of some of my recently shot bluebird footage. Canon 7D (60 fps), Casio Exlim (240 fps), and Memrecam gx-8 (1,000 fps).