Jack Hills Zircon: Evidence of a Very Old Earth

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In a report published in Nature Geoscience, a scientific team studying rocks in Australia, used Australian zircons in the Jack Hills that are embedded in the rocks to decide the age and history of these rocks.

They found evidence that the Earth’s crust first formed at least 4.4 billion years ago.  They analyzed the atoms in zircons and used them like a clock to decide when they were formed.  The clock inside the zircon is the radioactive element uranium, and over time it becomes lead.  Follow this to how zircon is used to date rocks.

Figure 1. 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal which is used to determine the age of the Earth.  Credit: John W. Valley/University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Figure 1. 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal which is used to determine the age of the Earth. Credit: John W. Valley/University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Zircon, a silicate mineral, is like a buried clock that has ticked from the time it formed or crystallized in molten magma.  Zircon crystals are tiny, but very resistant to geological process, including erosion and metamorphism.  Zircons can survive these processes, and the clock keeps ticking.

According to the researchers:

The Earth was assembled from a lot of heterogeneous material from the solar system,” Valley explains, noting that the early Earth experienced intense bombardment by meteors, including a collision with a Mars-sized object about 4.5 billion years ago “that formed our moon, and melted and homogenized the Earth. Our samples formed after the magma oceans cooled and prove that these events were very early.

Figure 2.  Time Line for a Very Old Earth showing the relationship of the Australian Jack Hills Zircon and the geological timeline of Earth. Photo: Andree Valley/University of Wisonsin-Madison.
Figure 2. Time Line for a Very Old Earth showing the relationship of the Australian Jack Hills Zircon and the geological timeline of Earth. Photo: Andree Valley/University of Wisonsin-Madison.

Although zircons were not mentioned in the recent Bill Nye and Ken Ham Debate on evolution, this research study surely adds to Bill Nye’s idea that the record in layers of rocks, ice cores, tree rings, and fossils provides evidence that the earth is very old.  On the other hand, Ken Ham would dispute the findings in the research study on Australian zircons because this is historical science, and we were not there to see this.

According to the researchers, the zircon data “confirms their view of how the Earth cooled very early“, and became habitable, pushing back even further when life began on earth.

Whether we like or not, the debate on the age of the Earth still goes on.  Nye’s ideas are supported, while Ham will continue to resist agreeing with the findings because his ideology is so strong that he will hold on to his “young earth conception.”

What are your views on the value of the Jack Hills’ zircon findings in discussions of the age of the Earth?



Teach Like Vladimir Vernadsky: Education as a Holistic & Dynamic System

I started going to the Soviet Union when it was the USSR in 1981, and for the next 20 years collaborated  with teachers and researchers, particularly Julie Weisberg, Phil Gang and Jennie Springer in the US, Sergey Tolstikov, Galina Manke, and Anatoly Zaklebny in Russia in a mutually designed and developed program, the Global Thinking Project (GTP).  The GTP is about how citizen diplomacy among American and Russian educators and psychologists emerged into a youth and teacher activism project.  During nearly 20 years of work, educators, primarily from Georgia, forged a hands-across the globe program with colleagues and students in Russia, and then partnered with teachers in other countries including Australia, Czech Republic, Singapore, and Spain.

The citizen diplomacy activity that emerged between American and Russian students, and between students in other countries as mentioned above, integrates Vladimir Vernadsky’s (1926) conception of the Biosphere and environmental education, the humanistic psychology and philosophy of Rogers (1961), John Dewey’s conception of experiential learning (1938), and Track II Diplomacy (Montville and Davidson 1981).

In this post I want to write about Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945), a Russian scientist, whose ideas really never made it into the west until the time of Mikhail Gorbachev.  The Biosphere, a book written by Vernadsky in 1926 was not published in English until 1998.  It’s available on Kindle here.  Vernadsky’s 150th birthday was celebrated in March 2013.

What does Vernadsky have to do with teaching?  That’s the question I’d like to explore in this post.  I am going to argue that the fundamental concepts underpinning Vernadsky’s view of the biosphere give the rationale for a holistic and dynamic conception of teaching and learning.

Dr. Anatoly Zakleny, Professor of Ecology and Science Education, Russian Academy of Education
Dr. Anatoly Zakleny, Professor of Ecology and Science Education, Russian Academy of Education

Anatoly Zaklebny, professor of ecological studies at the Russian Academy of Education introduced  us to Vernadsky’s work.  Anatoly is an ecological educator, author of ecological and environmental education teaching materials for Russian schools, and ecological teacher educator.  Anatoly understood and applied Vernadsky’s conception of the biosphere, and used the concept of Biosphere to design teaching materials for Russian ecological education.

Zaklebny was the chief scientist on the GTP, and participated in all aspects of the project.  We embraced Vernadsky’s holistic view of the Biosphere, which resists the mechanistic reductionist nature of Western science.  Vernadsky’s ideas were late in arriving in the west, and it was only in the 70s and 80s, that his ideas gained prominence in Western science.

Vernadsky’s Ideas

Lynn Margulis, biologist at the University of Massachusetts, and co-creator of the GAIA Hypothesis, in the introduction to the English translation of Vernadsky’s (1926) book The Biosphere, explained that Vernadsky was a great teacher.  According to Margulis, who discovered that interdependence and cooperation were the underlying themes in endosymbiosis theory (one organism engulfed another, yet both survived and eventually evolved over millions of years into eukaryotic cells), Vernadsky teaches that life has transformed the planet over eons.  She put it this way in her introduction to The Biosphere:

What Charles Darwin did for all life through time, Vernadsky did for all life through space.  Just as we are all connected in time through evolution to common ancestors, so we are all—through the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and these days even the ionosphere–connected in space.  We are tied through Vernadskian space to Darwinian time. (Forward, L. Margulis in V.I. Vernadsky, 1998, The Biosphere. New York: Copernicus.)

Russian Google Doodle for Vladimir Vernadsky's 150th year anniversary, 2013.
Russian Google Doodle for Vladimir Vernadsky’s 150th year anniversary, 2013.  Doodle posted by googlescribbles


Vernadsky explained that life, including human life, using energy from visible light from the Sun, has transformed the planet Earth for billions of years. To Vernadsky life makes geology. To him, life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force. At the Earth’s surface, just about all geological features are “bio-influenced.” Although Vernadsky did not coin the word “biosphere,” his understanding and views are what are accepted today.
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky
Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky

Vernadsky’s contributions and scientific contributions, especially the idea of “biosphere” are metaphors for thinking in wholes, and the connections that exist within any system that we study. This is especially true for the curriculum.

To Vernadsky, the biosphere is a biogeochemical evolving system. And according to Jacques Grinvald, the ideas was not welcomed by mainstream science. Vernadsky’s idea is the biosphere should be conceived from a geochemical point of view, and the Earth as a “dynamic energy-matter organization, like a thermodynamic engine” (Grinvald, p. 26). Conceptually here is the biogeochemical Earth is powered by sun.

Here we see the initial stage of the “earth system” concept, and again, Vernadsky is ahead of the game. To many earth science teachers, this is beginning of the earth system education approach, an approach that is holistic science education (see Nir Orion’s article on holistic science). Holistic science education is still NOT mainstream. Most curriculum standards are still written splitting science into compartments that are based on traditional college science departments. But that’s another story. But in this discussion, the main point is that Vernadsky was trying to integrate the disparate fields of biology, chemical and geology in his synthesis of the biosphere, while at the same time these fields were going their separate ways.

For teachers, Vernadsky’s ideas provide empirical support for interdisciplinary teaching and curriculum development.

The current standards based system of education is just the opposite of the kind of thinking that Vernadsky’s mind set out to discover.  Our current curriculum (math, reading, science, you name it) splits everything into little components and thinks that students at different ages and stages should accumulate these bits of information, and of course be tested to see if they have retained the bits.  Not in Vernadsky’s scheme.
Vernadsky was always combining fields of science.  Biology, chemistry, geology became biogeochemistry. He also founded fields including geochemistry and radiogeology.  Vernadsky’s thinking is literacy in synthesis, building wholes, construction, integrating, structure, and  cooperation.

Application of Vernadsky’s Ideas to Teaching

If we accept the Vernadskian view, teaching ought to be holistic and dynamic.  The curriculum for our students ought to be constructed into wholes, not parts, and we need to use a dynamic view of knowledge, and one that brings the students in touch with the world around them.
If you consider the following ideas of Vernadsky, then one can begin to conceptualize curriculum and teaching as fundamentally a holistic process.  Take a look at these ideas (see Vernadsky’s book, The Biosphere for more details):
  • Life occurs on a spherical planet.
  • Life makes geology—that is life is not merely a geological force, it is the geological force, and to him nearly all geological features at the Earth’s surface are influenced by life.
  • The influence of living matter on the Earth becomes more extensive with time. Increasingly more parts of the Earth are incorporated into the biosphere.
As teachers, I believe that Vernadsky’s work is essential, particularly to those teachers who work hard to help students become involved in learning from an interdisciplinary standpoint. Of course, in my view, Vernadsky’s views are deeper than the traditional approach to interdisciplinary education. Vernadsky believed scientists (especially Earth scientists) should explore the relationship between the development of life on Earth and the formation of the biosphere. To him living phenomena are at the center of geological formations. Vernadsky encouraged scientists to consider a holistic mechanism that unifies biology and geology.
It seems to be that his ideas should encourage us to think differently about our work with students.  I don’t believe  that thinking holistically, or in wholes are clichés, but instead they are based on empirical studies not only in science, but other fields as well.

One More Thing

Fritjof Capra, in his book The Science of Leonardo, argues that the true founder of Western science was Leonardo (1452-1519), not Galileo (1564-1642). However, it was the science of Galileo that influenced later scientists (Newton, 1643-1727) who stood on Galileo’s shoulders. Capra wonders what would have happened if these 16th – 18th century scientists had discovered Leonardo’s manuscripts, which were “gathering dust in ancient European libraries. You see, Capra shows that Leonardo’s view was a synthesis of art and science, and indeed science was alive, and indeed science was “whole.” Leonardo was ahead of his time in understanding life: he conceived life in terms of metabolic processes and their patterns or organization. Capra suggests that Leonardo, instead of being simply an analytic thinker, was actually a systemic thinker preceding the lineage established by scientists and philosophers including Wolfgang von Goethe, Georges Cuvier, Charles Darwin, and Vladimir Vernadsky.

What do you think are the applications of Vladimir Vernadsky’s ideas for teaching and learning?

2011 Science Education E-Books from the Art of Teaching Science

This blog was begun in 2005 with the publication of the first edition of The Art of Teaching Science.  Six hundred or so posts later, we find ourselves in at the end of 2011.

This year, we published four eBooks based on blog posts made during 2011.  More eBooks will be published in 2012.  The eBooks that were published are free, and available by simply clicking on the links of the titles shown below.  All are in PDF format, except the Enigma of High Stakes Testing, which is in Word.

I have become increasingly concerned about the effects of the corporate reform movement not only on science education, but the whole of our public schools as we know them.  The teaching profession is weathering and eroding in the midst of the detached and impersonal reform efforts primarily being led by a group of corporate billionaires, and their minions.  For profit schools, and the fraudulent assumption that a market based solution to school choice will result in better education, higher test scores, and a robust economy is hogwash.  The high-stakes mania has driven teachers and administrators in schools throughout the country to cheat, and for state departments of education to fall into step with the corporate commanders.  There is little criticism of the present state of reform, and when teachers do raise questions, they are usually ignored, or reminded that they are simply union works looking for more.  None of this is true.

In science education, we are faced with the onset to a New Generation of Science Standards.  Last summer, the National Research Council (NRC) released A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Core Ideas.  The Framework is being used by Achieve, Inc., to develop the Next Generation of Science Standards for American schools.  It will be published sometime in 2012.  According to the developers, many states have joined the effort to develop the standards, and also working with Achieve is NSTA and AAAS.  There is a Website that you can visit to find out about the Next Generation Standards, but I am suspicious of all of the fanfare being given to announcements about this state and that state “joining” the effort.  Only 41 teachers have been selected to write the standards and it is not clear how this is being done.

The rationale for the new standards is based on the belief that American science education is inferior to science education in many other countries.  Too much attention is given to test scores comparing one country to another, especially when there is little basis for such comparisons.  We have been stuck in the mud with an inferiority complex which does not connect with science in American society.  We are one of the most progressive in innovation and development of new ideas, and scientists in the U.S. publish more papers than their peers from other countries.  How can our schools be so bad as to end up with a result like this?

I’ve written many blog posts on these ideas, and have put them together into four different E-Books that I hope you will download for your use.  The eBooks are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike license, so you are free to use, change, and distribute them in any manner you choose.

Here are links to download the eBooks, and brief descriptions of each.

Why Do We Teach Science?

In the new science education documents that I have referenced above, there is no discussion of the question Why do we teach science?  There is a wealth of information about what to teach, and how to teach.  But little investigation into why we teach science.  In this eBook, based on philosophical work by R. Steven Turner, and Robin Millar, four arguments are used to try and find out why we teach science.  These arguments include: The Economic Argument, The Democratic Argument, The Skills Argument, and The Cultural Argument.

Extreme Earth: The Importance of the Geosciences in Science Teaching.

Extreme Earth raises questions about the nature of science, especially as it relates to climate change and plate tectonics. Global warming has been in thepublic eye for years now, as scientific panels and independent scientific research studies have suggested that the changes in earth’s weather and climate  might, to some degree, be due to human activity, especially fossil fuel extraction and the burning of fuels resulting in a 25 – 30% increase in CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Unfortunately the science of climate change has become politicized, and resulted in the what some say is a “head in the sand” approach to doing something about the changes going on all around us.

Extreme Earth is also about natural disasters, but because of the spread of human habitats into paths of hurricanes, and along well-known fault zones, millions of people experience horrendous disasters, as we have witnessed in the recent past.

Extreme Earth explores these issues, raises questions for science teachers, and points to ways to involve students in these tumultuous events.

Achieving a New Generation of Common Science Standards.

In this eBook, we will explore the science standard’s movement by presenting posts on these topics:

• The Race to the Top
• Frameworks and Standards
• Using Tests to Assess Performance
• Reform

Questions are raised about why common standards, and misconceptions surrounding the use of international and high-stakes tests continue to be connected with the reform education in the United States.

We will look at the Framework for K-12 Science Education, and discuss the underlying purpose of using common standards in American schools. We will also examine the results of international tests such as PISA and TIMSS and question the interpretation of critics that these results show that the “sky is falling” or that we have on our hands another “Sputnik moment.”

Finally, in a letter to the President, I integrate the President’s personal views of education with the humanistic science paradigm as a way to reform education.

The Enigma of High-Stakes Testing in Science

The content of this eBook is based on the position that high-­stakes testing, which are used to make life-­changing decisions about students, teachers, and schools, should be banned from use in making life-changing decisions affecting students, teachers, or schools.

Research evidence is provided in 21 articles that are presented here,

and organized into five parts. The intent is to provide information that others can use to raise questions about why we continue this practice of bringing such pressure to bear on the entire education system, the collateral effects on science teaching.  As I show in the pages that follow, there is little evidence that continuing to use high-­?stakes testing will improve student achievement, or improve America’s economy.

Multiple Major Quakes in Eastern Turkey

Over the past two days there have been five major earthquakes in the Eastern Turkey region.  The first was a 7.2 earthquake on Sunday, October 23 at 1:41 PM at the epicenter, followed by four quakes (often called aftershocks) ranging from 6.1 to 6.0.  Each of these quakes, (and many more aftershocks registering less than 5.0) was located in the Eastern Turkey region of Van, which is about 577 miles east of Ankara, the capital of Turkey.  As you can see on the Google map, Van, (A on the map) which is a town next to Lake Van is located in the Eastern part of Turkey.

Google Map showing the epicenter (A) of the earthquakes in relationship to the region.


A good article to read to find out why Turkey has so much in the way of seismic activity is this one in the Christian Science Monitor.  Here is one quote from the article:

“Everything that is happening to Turkey is the result of the Arabian Peninsula smashing its way into Turkey, Iran, and Iraq,” explains Russ Stein, a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey inMenlo ParkCalif., who has worked in the region.

Hundreds of building have collapsed, and hundreds of people have died as rescuers continue a search and rescue mission.

Turkey: One of the Most Active Earthquake Zones

Turkey is one of the most active earthquake zones because it is located in an area where several tectonic plates are converging, and actively in motion.  According to geologists, Turkey consists of the Anatolian Tectonic Plate which is surrounded by the Arabian Plate, The Eurasian Plate, and the African Plate.  The movement of these plates, which are still active today, results in hundreds of earthquakes each month, as shown in the seismic map of Turkey.

Earthquakes occurring in the past 30 days. Source: Turkey Department of Earthquakes

The earthquake that occurred in the Eastern part of Turkey was a 7.2 magnitude quake that happened near the city of Van, Turkey. After shocks, some as high as 6.0, are continuing to sffect the region. The map below shows the location of the earthquake near Van in relationship to the capitol city of Ankara.

Earthquake Location Map: Source: USGS

According to researchers at the Kandilli Observatory, this earthquake was the strongest earthquake in Turkey since 1999. Reports indicated that hundreds of buildings collapsed, and there may be hundreds of deaths attributed to this quake. Our hearts go out to the people affected by this earthquake.