Sunday, 31 January 2010

Eek - they found me!

Dear all,

Cataclysmic times are apon us! My peace and quiet has been shattered! There I was, thinking it was just mice running around in the pipes (or perhaps my pet rocks - they've been escaping again lately, the clever little things), and suddenly they come crashing through the wall! Worse still, the whole thing was caught on security cameras, and now they're putting it up on YouTube! Can you believe the impudence?

I don't mind telling you, it was quite a shock. For them, I mean. I like to think that they were all over-awed by the sheer splendour of the gallery before them... but that's doesn't quite explain the expressions of horror, so perhaps that's not it.

Anyhow, over the past week, they've been taping over the edges, sticking things over the shelves to keep my hands off, and making all sorts of ridiculous pictures of me. Some of them were even videos, which was quite fun - perhaps I should become a film star instead? I bet I could set box office records... but perhaps not the ones they're hoping for.

After all the excitement, the good news is that they're letting you all in to see the place. At least, I think it's good news. I really wasn't ready yet - a few more months of experiments, and perhaps there would have been all sorts of wonders... but still, I do have lots to show you. We'll have to see how the crystal gardens develop, and I'll need help with my cave painting project. Believe it or not, it's free as well, so you can come back as often as you like. I suppose they thought it wouldn't really be fair to charge entry for something like this... although if we get lots of donations, then I might be able to add extra experiments - and you'd like that, wouldn't you? You can make suggestions on the feedback forms as well - I promise I'll read them, and if it's a good idea I might even try it.

You may well see me running in and out of the gallery to check on things, so please feel free to say hello if you do. Actually, if you could remind me about fixing my rock cage, that would be really helpful. And please do keep an eye out for escapees - I know there are loads of them scuttling around the exhibition, and I fear that some of them are getting even further afield.
Two lucky victims - sorry, recipients - of Dr. Sock's hat-making. At least one of them seems happy...

Enough for now. I'm off to recover from the experience of meeting the press. Abnormal service will be resumed shortly. Please come visit me at the Leeds City Museum, and let me know of any requests for strange subjects that I can write about (yes, I'm working on the dissolution one, anonymous!)


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

In the bleak mid-winter...

Hello all,
There's one type of crystal that's been at the forefront of everyone's mind over recent weeks - at least in the UK. I am, of course, talking about the glorious hexdendritic dihydrogen monoxide. Crystals are normally things you have to go out looking for to find, but not at the moment. You could hardly avoid them, whizzing over your head in powdery ballistic spheroids, or joining forces in a bold attempt to stop the trains going anywhere.
Of course, I'm talking about that delightful thing called snow. When you see satellite photographs showing the entire country covered by a white blanket, you get a sense of the scale of it. Crystals, crystals, everywhere...
So does ice count as a mineral? It seems like a tricky one, at first. According to the International Mineralogical Association's official definition, a mineral is a solid, chemically homogeneous and normally crystalline substance that formed geologically. Well, ice is certainly solid (when it's not melted, of course), and it's certainly a homogeneous crystal... in fact, ice does fit all the criteria.
It turns out that ice is indeed defined as a mineral by the IMA. It could hardly not be, really. If it melted at a couple of hundred degrees, instead of zero, then you'd never think to question it (it wouldn't rain either, of course, and there wouldn't be any oceans, tea, or indeed living things; so you'd probably have better things to not worry about). Where was I? Oh yes: ice. It even forms familiar types of crystal growth... here are some stalactites, for example:

Ok, so snowflakes are a bit weird, though. It's said that every snowflake is unique, and it's probably true... but the shape still follows simple rules. Like apatite, beryl and wurtzite (I like that one!), ice has hexagonal crystal symmetry. It tends to grow more quickly at the tips of the hexagon, though. Each spine often branches repeatedly, leading to the typical snowflake shape:
You can see immediately it's not a random branching pattern, because it's the same on each spine. So what controls it, and why is each one unique? It's all down to the conditions it forms in. When atoms join onto the tip of a crystal, the place they attach to depends on the exact humidity and temperature. Under some conditions, the crystals will form almost perfect hexagons (although I've never seen these myself):
If the temperature is quite cold where they form (-3 to -8C), it's common for all except one or two rays of the crystal to not form at all. I was a bit surprised to find little snowy needles falling on me the other day, so I'm very glad to find out what was happening.
The normal pattern that we see is called a dendrite, from the greek word for tree - it branches. (People often think scientific words are really high-brow, but it's really not true; you just need to look at species names, like Horridonia horridus... scientists really do know how to have a bit of fun when they can get it!) Dendrites are common structures in crystals, whenever it grows mostly in one direction, and occasionally branches. Here's some pyrolusite (manganese dioxide) I found earlier.
Anyway, back to ice. It would be much more obvious that we should think of it as a mineral if we had, say, pebbles of ice in our rivers. Well, if you go to Titan, the moon of Saturn, that's exactly what you get - pebbles and boulders of water ice, in ethane or methane rivers. Water can even form the solid surface of some planetary bodies, and I must confess I'd really like to visit some of them...

Take Europa, for example - a fabulous place. The crust is made of water ice, probably with a deep ocean underneath. Where the crust has cracked, more water has frozen in the gaps, and some of this is coloured brown. What does that mean? Probably that there are minerals dissolved in the ocean, and circulating around with it. And where there are minerals and water, there might be life. A pet rock from Europa would really be something... I wonder if I could keep it in my freezer?
Thanks to NASA for putting these pictures in the public domain. I must go and do some more about putting my exhibition in the public domain too, now. I've just got hold of some flint to try my hand at knapping now... which reminds me, I must go and buy some plasters. Toodle-pip!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Dear Readers,
It's been a busy week! I've been working on my captions (how many bad puns do you think I can get into one exhibition?), and even got our conservator in Leeds to clean up some wonderful Burmantofts pots, without needing too much of a reason. The dragon one is gorgeous. Somehow, I've even persuaded the Temple Newsam curator to lend me a magnificent Chinese jade sculpture - had to be careful not to let on what I was up to, though. I'm getting worried that some of them might be on to me, though. It's the vanishing for weeks on end that's making them suspicious, I reckon. Must work faster, just in case!
Well, what became of the sheep, I hear you ask? I must confess that the vets are not optimistic the poor thing will survive the winter. It appears to have been cruelly treated by callous owners more used to the lucrative sheep showing circuit; worse still, they must have been entering it into the "poodle-sheep" category. Sadly, it wouldn't even have won - I fear that the hairdresser had been at some of my concoctions, and the result is... well, disappointing. Dr. Sock, I hasten to add, is entirely blameless in this case. She told me so, so I suppose I'd better believe her.
Moving swiftly on, I promised an update on the green gloop, and that at least is living up to its billing! Indeed, it's turning more gloopy by the minute, and a delightful brown sludge has appeared at the bottom of the cup. There are definite flakes of copper in it, but beyond that I'm baffled. For a few hours, some more mirabilite crystals appeared on the string, but they took a quick look around and decided that they needed to be somewhere else... I really am intrigued by what is going to happen next!

Soup, anyone?

The string itself is going a bit strange. Normally, string hangs down vertically, like the one in the copper sulphate +boric acid + what used to be aluminium (more of that in a mo) mixture. The one on the right has been in the green gloop, and has opted for a different strategy. It seems to be turning into a copper wire, and I fear it may have plans to plug itself into the mains before taking over the world. Honestly, it was muttering to itself the other day. Or perhaps that was just me.

Ah yes, the copper. Remember that bit of aluminium I was dunking at the beginning? I was getting worried by the buildup of hydrogen in the kitchen, so I transferred it over to the boring old copper sulphate + borax experiment. Much to my relief, it became much more relaxed, but the strange brown colouring still carried on growing. Of course, as some of you have no doubt worked out, the brown stuff is metallic copper. Yep, pure copper metal. I could use it to make a kettle, if I was mad enough. But I'd need quite a bit more. Presumably the dissolved aluminium ions are now swimming around in their nice blue sea...
Copper metal that replaced the aluminium foil - really rather neat!
Since you asked so nicely, I'll let you know what's going on in the pther beakers too. Suagr's in one - but it's boring at the moment - nothing going on at all. The salt is much better - nice little crystals growing happily, but they're probably the easiest of the lot. It would be nice to get some big ones, though. The others are just plain copper sulphate (doing very nicely indeed, thank you!), alum (something is finally starting to happen... but very slowly) and borax (lots of stuff, but it's really not thrilling, even when you zoom in really close. I'm sure I'll get some good crystals one day, though.
Boring old copper sulphate. It is blue, though.
Salt. Nice, eh?
Oh yes, and the mirabilite - it's been drying out well, and is now rather lurid green crust. This should, with any luck, be thenardite - and therefore fluorescent! We'll know soon enough, I promise...

That'll do for now - lots to do still, and there's something else I want to tell you about soon as well!