John Delano Oral History Interview
Bethlehem Central High School, Mr. Reed’s AP Chemistry Class
Gleason: We’re good? Alright. Good morning, this is Gleason Judd conducting the interview for the Dudley Observatory with Professor Delano. And here we have Ken, Ali, Mr. Reed, Warren, Kristen, Jesse, Professor Delano, and Mrs. Schwab, and the date is May 30th. So first off, getting started Professor, we just wanted to sort of start from the beginning, maybe any childhood experiences that got you interested in the you know, sciences, stuff like that. Your early childhood schooling, whether your family had any sort of impact; we’d just like you to sort of, you know, talk about however that might have affected your career path.
John: Well I had some great parents. I grew up in the countryside of New Hampshire. We were the last house on the road with electricity. My father was a combat marine in World War II, a superb, superb individual. My mom, well worked, was away in World War II working in the Pentagon with classified documents. They were very influential with me. There was one epiphany that I had as a kid; I was about nine years old. And this dates me of course, you already know I’m older than dirt. (Laughter). But the-the epiphany came when one evening my mom and dad said, we’re going outside to see Sputnik. And I knew nothing, perhaps you have seen this on the web, but I, I knew nothing. What-what? We’re going to go out and do what? We’re going to go out and see Sputnik. I said, what-what’s a Sputnik? And as they’re going outside, it’s a beautiful, crisp October night in the deep woods of New Hampshire. There are no lights, there are no lights. We’re the last house on the road with lights. So it’s dark skies, beautiful night. And I’m protesting this with my mom saying, ‘No we must go outside, it’s only going to take a few minutes, we’ve got to show you this.’ So, my dad’s inside. He says he has to find the compass because he wants to know exactly where in the sky this is going to be and my mom is out there with my brother and I, and she suddenly says, ‘There it is.’ And she yells to my dad ‘Come on out, forget the compass, we already see it, come on out.’ And I was transfixed… as I watched this satellite. Now you all know what satellites look like, but put yourself back in 1957; there were no satellites. None. The first one in human history was October ’57. So, we’ve all seen shooting stars; we’ve all seen fireflies, lightning bugs, but here was, here was a point of light, moving not fast, not a (quick flying sound) across the sky like a shooting star. ‘Did you see me? (Mocking laughter) You didn’t see me!’ (More flying sounds) (Students laughing), and there goes another one. Here was, here was something that said, ‘Watch me. Watch me.’ And it moved across the sky over the course of about five minutes. It said, ‘Watch me. I am the product of great engineering in science. I am proud to be here. Watch me.’… And I watched this go across the sky. And I know that I was not the same individual going back in the house five minutes later that I was coming out, protesting. Ah, that represented as I started to say, an epiphany, where you can, as you will, all of you will, you will point at times, moments in your lives, that have, that have changed you. And that was one moment that changed me.
Gleason: Ok, and you said you lived in the backwoods of New Hampshire, so I’m sure that gave you plenty of time to get out with nature and sort of dig up dirt, and look at bugs and stuff.
Gleason: Did that sort of, you do some work with like oxidation states and like the earth’s upper mantle and stuff…
Gleason: And, so I mean, I’m sure that you know that was sort of the early stages, of, you know, working with that sort of thing, but, could you explain to us, sort of what that entails, looking at the oxidation states, upper mantle and stuff, because we’d read about that and were sort of curious about that.
John: Yes, the oxidation state of planetary interiors controls the valence state of transition elements. For example, on the periodic table—and you know, Iron can occur as a, in a metallic form, as a Iron 2+ and an Iron 3+, and Chromium can occur in a couple of valence states, and so forth—and depending on what valence state an element is in, when it’s in the planets interior, it will behave differently, during planetary processes- Volcanism for example. So they’re trying to understand the deep interior of the earth. None of us will ever visit the deep interior of the earth, any more than we will visit the deep interior of the moon or Mars. But scientists study samples that have come from there and say, you know, you pick up this sample, and you say, ‘I’m going to find out what you know,’ and you interrogate samples, and they tell you things. They talk to you, in much the same way as an astronomer interrogates light, and said ‘I can’t go to that star, but I’m going to interrogate the photons of light that have come from that star, and learn about the chemical composition of that star, the temperature of that star, the age of that star,’ and a whole bunch of other things. So you interrogate samples, because, they have been there, and you haven’t. But they contain a memory that allows you to extract information. So, for the interior of the earth we’ve sampled down perhaps close to a thousand kilometers below the surface. For the moon, we’ve sampled down to depths at least of 400 kilometers. That’s about 250 miles below the surface. And Mars, we’re quite sure; we have about 30 samples from Mars, but we’re not sure exactly how deep we have gone into Mars. We have already constrained the first order history of the moon, and of Mars, as to when it turned itself inside out, or when its atmosphere formed, and a variety of other things. It’s still an enormous amount to know, to learn about, but just a single sample. As I suggest to my colleagues, when we get to Mars, and get a sample returned, my plan—and that’s what we’ve just submitted to NASA—is you bring back a gram a dirt, a gram, just, no you have to land in a certain place on Mars, you know, no you don’t! Just get down safely, go (hits table), pack it away, rocket off, and with a gram of dirt, we would be able to tell you pretty much the second order history of the entire planet, with a gram of dirt, because we would be analyzing every single grain. With modern technology, with micro-beam technology, isotopes, elements, the whole nine yards. Every crystal will have a story, so the oxidation state is important for a number of reasons. It controls the behavior of elements, and samples tell you how elements behaved, and those elements then tell you what the oxidation state is. And the oxidation state is important for a number of reasons, but it gives you some idea of the atmosphere, the stuff that blew out of the earth’s interior or Mars’s interior, that contributes to the atmosphere.
Ken: I have a question. This is Ken speaking. How do you get that deep into the moon and the earth?
John: Yes, the question about how can we get that deep into planets is allow the planets to bring the samples to you, and principally through volcanism. As you know, lava is molten rock, comes from deep inside the planet, and contained within that molten rock is the memory of how deep, where in the planet did it come from. There’s literally a memory. Literally a memory. The sample says you know, ‘tell me where you came from.’ Put the rock right up to your head or something and say tell me where you came from. It won’t do that. But you can subject it to specific experiments. And the physical chemistry of the results from those experiments will tell you, within plus or minus a couple of kilometers, where that sample came from inside the planet. So- for samples from the moon, we have been consistently finding that many of the volcanic samples collected by the Apollo astronauts started the melting which produced those lavas, originated at about 400 kilometers below the surface. And then that stuff rose to the surface and spread out over the surface, and then the astronauts collected that. They didn’t know at the time what they were collecting, they knew it was volcanic, but they didn’t know. They left the history to the scientists to work out when the samples were brought back. So the short answer to your questions is- samples have memory. Whether it be bugs, bugs have memory; air has memory. Gosh, does air have memory. Rocks have memory, just as all sets of stars have memory. You just have to be clever enough to know what questions to ask to tease that information out of them.
Ken: What sort of questions might, for example, would those be, like maybe one or two ques- like I dunno, I mean…
John: One of the things that have guided my current research is uh origin of life. (Gleason: Yeah, okay..) Life is teaming on this planet, and astronomers are providing us with an enormous wealth of information about planets around other stars, which is setting the stage for how does earth compare, and our solar system in general compare, with other solar systems. Ten years ago we knew of no solar systems, so we didn’t know whether our solar system is special, or whether it’s a dime a dozen. We now know it’s quite special. So, in terms of the origin of life, I’ve been curious, as probably all- everyone has, as to whether life on earth is common or rare. Life in general, whether it be bacteria or more complex is common or rare in the universe. We will know that shortly.
Ken: How would able, how would you be able to figure that out?
John: Astronomers will figure it out in conjunction with geochemists like myself. NASA has already set its sights on several experiments and several spacecrafts which are currently being designed to interrogate, again that word ‘interrogate,’ information coming from planets around other stars. Next year, NASA will launch a spacecraft know as Kepler, named after one of the foremost astronomers in human history, that will monitor several tens of thousands of stars for the presence of planets, and some of those planets may turn out to have orbits and masses that are particularly interesting.
Ken: And conducive to light? Or…
John: And that, that’s exactly the question. Yeah, do they have orbits, distances from their parent stars, and a regular enough orbit close to circulate and a mass of the planet that’s within a couple of factors of earth, such that liquid water can exist. And if it does- ding-ding. Then the next generation of spacecraft will literally sample the atmosphere of those planets. Literally determine, not because they go there, these are hundreds of light years away, but they will use photons, again, photons, photons coming from those atmospheres will say ‘I’ve been there, you haven’t.’ Ok, tell me what you know. (Laughter). You capture those photons and you ask them ‘What’s it like there?’ And they will give you a spectrum. And the spectrum will determine, will allow you to determine what the principal molecular components in those atmospheres are. And, the particular aspect is that that technology, in order to do it, to actually do it, is about anywhere from around ten years away, about ten years. Might be closer, but ten years. And if there’s anybody else out there with a curiosity and opposable thumbs, you know, that has the technology ten years better than ours, what are the chances? Ten years better than ours, well you know, that’s pretty modest—I mean, they already know this place is crawling. They don’t have to visit here in flying saucers to know this place is crawling with- because the composition of our atmosphere today reeks life. Again, because the chemistry of our atmosphere could be detected, a remote civilization, thousands of light years away, now already knows. That is an atmosphere which no self-respect, lifeless planet could ever manufacture. That atmosphere is a product of life. So we’ll be doing the same thing. Out of a repertoire of thousands of planets, there are currently 300 now, a subset of those thousands of planets will be looked at. Atmospheres measured. And there will be headlines, believe me. Holy mackerel, wow, you can imagine what the headlines will be. Atmospheric composition around star something found to be conclusive evidence for the presence of life. I suspect that you will witness that day.
Jesse: I have a question. This is Jesse. In the search for life and other planets we have always been looking for water as the main factor because here, you know, water is the solvent of life, and we, to the best of our knowledge, all animals and all organisms need it to survive. But to think, maybe in another far off galaxy or universe somewhere, that there could be a planet that doesn’t need water to survive, that they’d develop organisms that don’t need water- that they use another molecule, another fluid, or gas besides water, to live and survive.
John: The answer to that is that’s an imaginative question, and one which we cannot reply to at the present time. Here are the constraints however. Because my bias is, and I try not to be an earth chauvinist, as Carl Sagan used to say, but keep in mind the following perspective- 1. All galaxies have the same periodic table as we do… 2. The abundances of the atoms of the different elements in the universe all indicate that hydrogen and oxygen are two of the top ten most abundant elements in the universe; not just this galaxy, not just this solar system, but hydrogen and oxygen are among the most abundant elements in the universe. And that is true throughout the whole universe.
Jesse: Do they determine that through looking at the light coming from those planets?
John: That’s exactly right Jesse. Again, the astronomers have interrogated light, and found the abundances of atoms. The elements throughout the universe resemble what the sun is, not exactly, but darn close. 3. What then do you do with those different abundances of atoms? Well, you could be hard pressed not to form water. And water has that magic hydrogen bond, holy mackerel. Boy does that create a story. And then, 4th, Carbon. Carbon has one of the most remarkable propensities for forming as Charles, your teacher, can explain to you very well. Carbon has the most remarkable propensity to form bonds, unlike any other atom that I know of. So, does that mean that all life would be carbon based and require water? No. But what I think it does, is suggest that most life—it is so easy, we are made of the most common stuff in the universe. Will it be DNA? There, I don’t think so. I think DNA need not be the only way that you contain biological information. Biochemists have been able to build molecules that, in some respects, resemble DNA but are not DNA, and may be able to be the architecture of different kinds of life. But I think it will involve water. I think it will involve carbon. Because all of those things are dirt-cheap and dirt common in the universe.
Gleason: So I mean, we’ve been talking a lot about space and stuff, so clearly, you’ve done a lot of work with astronomy, and things like that, and also you know, with environmental science and the origins of life, how did you get involved in all of these different sort of topics?
Gleason: …And bring them together?
John: It is very easy, when you’re as old as I am, to look back and try to draw a line from where I started to where I am now; it’s called retrospective linearity. It’s easy to look back and say ‘well, it’s very obvious what was going to happen in the future.’ It isn’t obvious to you what is going to happen in the future any more than it was obvious to me what was going to happen in the future. So what you do, you have a few guiding principles. And they will be tugged from time to time by events, by epiphanies… So, I’m in college, majoring in physics, to become an astronomer. John Kennedy, President John Kennedy, makes his famous speech that we will go to the moon. I say, and that was a Scooby Doo moment, you know (makes Scooby Doo noise) (student laughter). (In Scooby Doo voice) “Oh? Oh, well we’re going to the moon, well that sounds cool!” You know, and he says we’re going to do it before the end of the decade. (Another Scooby Doo noise). Well, boy, do I want to be part of NASA or what! You know? And that sounds, that was just something that said, Oh! Well maybe I should look at geology as a major, because physics was something very exciting, but geology turned out to be in tandem with physics. I didn’t double-major; I did major in geology as an undergraduate. If we’re going to the moon, they’re going to be bringing stuff back, and I want to be able to analyze that stuff. I’m an undergraduate, when the heck am I ever going to get the chance to work with the stuff that’s coming back, if those missions are even possible? We haven’t even orbited an American yet. We, keep in mind, John F. Kennedy gave his “We’re going to the moon” speech before we had orbited a human being. So, you say, (In Scooby Doo voice) “Huh? We’re going to the moon and we haven’t demonstrated we can orbit a human being?”- the Americans hadn’t, the Russians already had. Gagarin has already flown, but we’re going to the moon before the end of the decade, but we haven’t even orbited a human astronaut yet (chuckling). Check. You know, we’re ambitious and exciting, and whoa, really? We’re gonna what? We’re gonna do that in ten years? Let me check my watch here…ten years. Let’s see. Whoa… whooooa. You mean by the time I’m a first year graduate student if this thing actually works. I could- Wow, really? I could, maybe position myself in four years into thinking that, you know…
Student: So you took Kennedy’s word for it?
John: Oh, yeah, I said ‘Wow, you know. Whoa… if this is going to happen, I want to be a part of it. So how do I become a part of it?’ So you project, you plan six, seven, eight years in advance. What do you study? Why do you study it? (In lowered voice) Because I want to do it, holy mackerel. And you just work your brains out. You work your brains out. So it was an epiphany. Again, and you say, and many students would say, ‘What the hell are you working so hard for?’ (Whispered) Let me tell you why I’m working so hard, because I’m going places. So, I was a first year, first year graduate student at Cornell. Guess what?
Student: ___ to the moon..
John: I’m working with samples from the moon. And then eventually I did my Ph. D dissertation on samples from the moon when I was doing my Ph. D at Stonybrook. But that was a trajectory that I plotted out in some way, you know, years in advance because this sounded cool.
Gleason: It seemed like you definitely followed your passion because your first epiphany was Sputnik and your second one was Kennedy’s speech for the moon, so definitely, definitely seems like you’ve uh followed your dream.
John: That, you know that, that’s right Gleason, but all of us have dreams. And I would suggest that you be alert to epiphanies. All of you need to be alert to your dreams, your ambitions, and to events which are going on around you every day. And there is an axiom, and as I get very old and my RAM shrinks to something the size of a walnut, I, try to distill major axioms down to single phrases, so I’m always collecting axioms. Because they are the quintessence of people who have gone before us, who have made connections, (whispered) axioms, and one of them is ‘Chance favors the prepared man.’… We could all be in the same room and something will happen, and you will say ‘click.’ And everyone else around you will say, ‘what?…what? what..’ That doesn’t make them any less than you are, but what it meant was, that the something that occurred was something that you were open to, and they were choosing other paths, and were not- just didn’t see it. So follow your heart and your head, follow your heart and your head. Passion comes from your heart, and intellect comes from your head. And they are magnificent elements- heart and head. So do what you want to do, and do it with fervor. Fervor. Because my dad once said, again I’ll tell you a quick story. A very quick story. Again, another epiphany.
Working out in the yard, age, I think, seven. Working out in the yard on the weekend. I’m cleaning out, again in this deep New Hampshire rural environment, working in a culvert, you know, a drainage ditch, along the side of the road, just cleaning it out, so when the rain comes it would drain away nicely. And I had, boy I had worked, I had worked all day on that, and I was cleaning up brush and I was raking it out, I was just eating my brains out and really enjoying it, and when my dad came home from work, on that Saturday, I heard his car driving in the driveway and I ran over to the car and said, ‘Dad, dad, dad, come on over and see what I did!’ So I dragged him over before he could change, he’d just had a very difficult day, but was very generous and followed me over. And I start telling him, showing him the great pile of stuff I had done and all this cleaning and stuff, along the side of the road, and he listened patiently without a word! As I just showed him what I had done, and then he said, ‘Did you have fun?’… And I said, ‘yeah (chuckling). This is great, this is great!’ And then he said something that puzzled me, he said, ‘And it wasn’t work.’ … And he walked away. And I’m, ya know.. it was another Scooby Doo moment, ‘Huh? Wha- wasn’t work? Look! Look it wasn’t work.’ But of course, what he meant, what he meant of course, and it took me, I mean I was probably about 28 before I realized what it was that, if you enjoy what you are doing, it doesn’t feel like work… So enjoy what you’re doing. Find what you enjoy doing, because then you will do very well at it because you will spend a lot of time and invest a lot of yourself into it. And everyone else will say, ‘My god you’re working so hard!’ And you’ll look up at them at say ‘Really,? You know- What? It doesn’t feel like work to me (in Scooby Doo voice)’ Well to anybody else who didn’t like doing that kind of thing, it would be work. Work at that level is not sustainable unless you really, really like it. So find what you, find what you enjoy. And that is important. Find what you enjoy because if you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to really, really invest yourself in doing it. And if you don’t like it, you will burn out for sure. My parents have told me many times, ‘you’re going to burn out. Don’t work so hard, you’re gonna burn out.’ I was working 100 hours a week, in graduate school. 100 hours a week as a post-doctoral research assistant. And almost 100 hours a week as an assistant professor. And I did that for a decade and a half. Before that I was just cruising along at 80. (Student laughter) But, ‘be careful, you’re gonna burn out.’ (In lowered voice) Do I look like I’m burned out? (Gleason: (chuckling) I don’t think so- you’ve brought some rocks here..) No, you know what, you’re gonna burn out if you don’t like it. That’s a recipe for burn out, just burn, but enjoy it…
Tape 2 Side 1
Male Student: On that note we will switch tapes… (Various voices, classroom noises)… This is the beginning of Tape 2.
Gleason: We are continuing our interview with Professor Delano. It’s still May 30th, and we still have Ken, Ali, Mr. Reed, Warren, Kristen, Jesse, Professor Delano, Mrs. Schwab, and I’m Gleason Judd. So you were talking about following your passion and stuff like that, and from what we’ve gathered, you are pretty enthusiastic when you’re teaching your students at UAlbany, and they seem to enjoy your class a lot. I was just, I was wondering, what sort of classes you teach and also, how you got stuck teaching Introductory Chem I think it was one year… (Chuckling)
John: Mmhmm. Yes, I’ve taught introductory chemistry several times, because I’m joint appointed to the department of chemistry at the State University of New York. And I think chemistry, as a geochemist, someone who has specialized in geochemistry, I think chemistry is just magnificent, just, gosh, it is just great. And especially introductory chemistry. Whether it be Chem I or Chem II, I think it’s spectacular. And I would like students, in you know, a 200 seat lecture center, I want students to also see that this guy really likes chemistry. There must be something about chemistry to like, because many students will be skeptical that there is anything in chemistry to like. I think there is so much in chemistry to like. As there is in so much of other things in life to enjoy. So, I want to unabashedly make fun of myself whenever possible, to engage students in the class. In a class of 200, nobody is anonymous, and I can reach out and touch them at any time. And I’m not merely a dancing hologram in front of them, but actually someone who will, as we run a class experiment, in calorimetry, for example, I will take an insulated, you know, you know something very modest, but, in which we’re going to try to determine the delta-h of a chemical reaction involving water, and if it’s exothermic, for example, you stick a thermometer in, and you put in a certain mass of the reactant, and the water, and you watch the temperature rise, and you run around the room bringing it to row 15. Row 15, what’s the temperature? Speak into the microphone, what is it? Ok, well, let’s run down to row 3 and see what is it now? No! It’s not the same temperature; the temperature is still going up! Ah the reaction is still going! Wow that’s exciting! Ok, boom. Well we put the numbers in and we write in, and we write quickly do a delta-h calculation in class. But again, it’s important, I think, for all of us to understand that it’s difficult to fake enthusiasm. It is difficult to fake sincerity routinely. So I want students, whether they be in Chem I, or in my environmental classes, or in my geochemistry classes, to realize that I think there’s something worth listening to here; that we can have an awful lot of fun.
Gleason: That’s great.
John: And by fun, of course, please understand, fun, work, fun, work, you know, they’re all the same.
Gleason: Not just screwing around.
John: Not just screwing around, that’s right (student laughter). Fun is work.
Gleason: Yeah, also in our research about, we learned that you had spent some time in Australia. And we were sort of curious as to what maybe brought you there and maybe what different sort of things you had done and what sort of work you had, or fun, you had carried out when you were there.
John: Yes, I was hired to work with one of the top- probably one of the top three planetary scientists in the world, who was a member of the US National Academy of Science, the Royal Academy of Science; he just had every accolade short of a Nobel Prize. And he interviewed me when I was at a NASA conference in Houston one afternoon, still remember the interview. I didn’t realize it was an interview, but it was an interview. And he hired me, as his post-doctoral research colleague. So for three and a half years I worked with him in Australia. And my principal work with him was again working with A-Apollo moon samples, doing chemical analyses and interpretations, and running lots of experiments on the Apollo moon samples. Principally from Apollo 15.
Gleason: And what sort of um samples, what was sort of, what is that that you were dealing with?
John: The kinds of samples particularly that we were interested in working with were volcanic samples, and ones that specifically had come from about 400 kilometers down. They were in the form of missed-sized glass spheres. Volcanism can occur in kind of a violent revulsing, violent volcanic eruptions on earth, ha-huh, there are some real- there were some real corkers on the moon around 3.5 billion years ago. The composition of melts on the moon are so different than the compositions of lavas on the earth that they form. They have a viscosity just a bit greater than that of glycerin at room temperature. So about roughly the viscosity of motor oil, as opposed to the viscosity of terrestrial lavas, which are really very—you know you were to have your hands properly protected and run up to lava, and reached into this red hot glowing molten stuff in Hawaii. You could (sound effect) reach in, (sound effect) try to stretch it out like taffy, but it would be very tough. The lunar lavas, when they came up, were-were about the viscosity of motor oil. So they- when they erupted in fire fountains, they would break into droplets of mist-mist-mist! If you-next time you walk into fog…that’s the size of the spherules that were deposited during volcanic eruptions. Spherules of glass. So the melt comes up at 1500 centigrade, and hits the lunar vacuum in this plume, and it (smack noise) freezes in the lunar vacuum and then falls to the lunar surface as solid glass spherules. And we found those at all of the Apollo landing sites, of various compositions, and we analyzed them chemically and run experiments. And ultimately what he and I were interested in doing was constraining the origin of the moon. How did the moon form..
Gleason: Oh, so it seems like most of the stuff you’ve done is sort of space-related. Do you do much earth-related work? Or is that…
John: Yes, I do earth-related work. I have to admit to you that one of the luxuries of being a professor is 1. You’re expected to be externally funded for your research, so I’ve been nicely funded externally by NASA and the National Science Foundation. That is a requirement of research universities, it’s a requirement. If you’re not, then you could be sacked. So that’s not good. So you’re constantly coming up with a new ideas that have to be competitive and reviewed and reviewed and reviewed before they can be funded. So, typically the success rate of proposals is 1 in 5. So you’re competing with everyone in the nation, competing with everyone. So, yes, what do we do, what am I doing now? There are a number of things that I’m doing now and I’m having so much fun. So then, don’t do trivial things. Never do trivial things. Find things that are really you think important, and that you really enjoy, and then go like hell. So, here’s one thing I’m doing, I’m working with honors students to interpret dinosaur footprints in Connecticut—200 million year old dinosaur footprints—and doing the geochemistry of the dirt that they walked in, to determine something about what their behavior was, and also the geochemistry tells you something about the environment, that they were existing 200 million years ago. Footprints- I- oh wow, don’t get me started- footprints can tell you an awful lot. They, you know, bones are the record of something dead, footprints are the record of something alive. And so, were they social? Did they care for their young? If they cared for their young, for how long? Did they roam in packs? How fast did they move? Did they appear to be anxious at the time they left the footprints- did they appear to be anxious?
Gleason: How can you tell if they appear to be anxious?
John: It’s great. The biomechanics, there are some simple algebraic expressions for quantitatively teasing out information about any animal, human, that leaves a footprint. If you see a set of human footprints, ha-ha, there are some, there are for example, there are, if you look, if you go on the web, and look for the Tanzania gorge, there is a pair of footprints, human, 3.5 million year old footprints, human! A set of two human, two human sets of footprints, perhaps some of you have seen them- have you ever seen the pictures of? Oh wow- oh wow, have you? And they are not dragging your knuckles, they are upright, and one is a small set of footprints, and the other is a larger set of footprints.. (Slowly, dramatically) Take a look at those footprints and do they tell a story. Wow, wow, such a, let me see if, this will not show up on tape Janie, but imagine a larger person. I’m sorry, this will be the smaller person, this will be the larger person, (student laughter) so imagine you’re walking along like this, and the footprints of the smaller individual are doing, let me see if I can do this, … the foot falls, the foot falls, where they each plant their feet, are exactly in the same place. They’re not tramping on each other, but whenever one puts its foot down, the other one puts its foot down. You do the equations, and you find out what kind of energy was going into their walking. It was, if you were to try- if anyone of us- were to simply say get up and walk casually from this side of the room to the other, you would find, based on your footprints, that you were walking with greater anxiety now than they were walking then. They were relaxed. (Gleason: they were relaxed). They were relaxed. And again, that comes from the equations; those were relaxed people. They were walking in lockstep, and they were a uniform distance from each other. They never crossed paths; they walked at the same distance from each other, in lock step. Relaxed. Three and a half million years ago, and I suspect that if you were to run experiments on campus you would find that that kind of trail of footprints would be consistent with—this is speculative—but this is them holding hands. (Gleason: oh really). (Pause) And if that is true, I would suggest, that the 30 or 40 or 50 seconds represented by those footprints, represents them, us, communicating across a gulf of time, three and a half million years in length. (Getting choked up) And I say, I almost get tears as I look at those footprints. I think, you know, I don’t know them; they don’t know me. They hadn’t probably had knowledge that on the day or the night that they were leaving those footprints, that someone three and a half million years later would be looking at them and saying we are kindred spirits across a gulf of three and a half million years. You are so touching. I don’t know you and I never will, but I think in some way I know you.
Kristen: This is Kristen. I just have a question. How do you preserve footprints that are three and a half million years old?
John: Yes, you’re absolutely right Kristen; the preservation of footprints is rare. And these required a special environment to allow that to happen. And the special environment was volcanic eruptions, air-fall deposits. This was a volcanically active area; it’s the East African Rift. (Student: Yeah, I can tell.) So they, that’s right, the rift valley. So what happens, is that there was an air-fall deposit-a volcanic eruption, air-fall deposit, apparently moist, and they walked across this moist volcanic ash, leaving their beautiful trail of footprints, and then there was another one. So, they got covered over quickly. Because if they were left exposed, just as your question implies, if those footprints had been left exposed to the elements they’d be erased. So you were absolutely right. And that’s why footprints are quite rare. It’s because those conditions don’t happen often. Good, good question. And one of them walked with a limp. The older one had a slight limp. Whether it was arthritis or an injury, again, a story. So, they’re just a number of- I find that kind of fascinating. (Student: (laughing) me too.) So you can also do that with dinosaurs. So we’re doing it with dinosaurs. The top meat-eater, two hundred million years ago. (Student: Which was…?) A dilophosaurus. And if you’ve seen- if you’ve seen dilophosaurus on what was it.. Jurassic Park. Remember the guy on the jeep? He’s stealing embryos, and it’s raining, and it’s dark, and he’s gonna (Gleason: yeah that one scarred me for life (laughter).) Yes! He goes off in the woods, you know, he skids off the road, and now he’s going to winch the jeep back up, and then there’s this (dinosaur sound) you know, dilophosaurus, these things here, these little things, you know, the little things, ha-ha. (Student laughter). (Gleason: He didn’t make it. (Student laughter)) He didn’t make it. But, dilophosaurus. When they were adults they were about a half a metric ton, so they were about twenty feet long and stood at the head about eight feet tall. And they had some really good choppers (Student chuckling). So they would have taken the jeep as well as him. (Laughter). And those are presumed to be the kind of species that left the dinosaur footprints in Rocky Hill Connecticut. So if you ever get a chance, just about 20 minutes south of Hartford is a place called Rocky Hill Dinosaur State Park. Just go in there- geodesic dome covered it; it’s a state park. Go in there and you’ll look at this outcrop, a couple hundred square feet, no, I’m sorry, a couple thousand square feet, and you look at it and you say (in disbelief) now come on, those footprints- those footprints, come on, those are two hundred million years old? They look like they were made last Saturday. No…curious environment for two hundred million year old dinosaur footprints. And again you ask, ‘Hello? What were you thinking? What were you doing here? Why were you here?’ So, geochemistry and footprints engage undergraduate students in imaginative efforts. (Student: Mmhm.)
Jesse: I have a question; this is Jesse. How do you go about, when you find a fossil or footprint or something, how do you go about analyzing that without destroying it or changing it at all?
John: Yes, yes, with respect to the footprints, we measure them in place. We do not cut them; we don’t do anything destructive to them. So what we do is measure some of the most obvious things. I think all of us, even just starting out would say, I think I’ll measure the length. I think, I’m not sure why, but I think I’ll also measure the width. I’m not sure why but I think these are three toed animals. I think I’ll measure the angle between the outer and inner toes. I don’t know why, but it looks like something I could do. (Student: Mmhm) Well, it turns out that there are reasons to do that. I think I’ll measure the, or I’ll try this- to find the next step and, see, there are five hundred footprints in this several thousand square foot area. Five hundred footprints. They’re all stomping on each other and wow! Ok, can I find this one- this was a right. How can you tell it was a right foot? How do you know it was a right foot, not a left foot. You just- you learn to see. It’s clearly a right foot. So if you’re looking at a right foot, then you’re probably gonna look for a left foot. Let’s look around among this maze of other footprints-there’s the left foot, yup. Yup, ok, what’s the pace length? What’s the stride length? What was the size of the animal? Size of the animal based on the footprint. Hm, you think there’s a correlation between size of animal and size of footprint? Yeah, yeah. (Student: (chuckling) I guess, yeah) Click. Yes there is. So, there are just a lot of things. Is it absolutely, absolutely accurate? No. But it’s good to probably plus or minus ten percent. And then you ask the questions- were they anxious? Were the dinosaurs anxious? When they left these footprints were they anxious? What a stupid question to ask of a dinosaur- were you anxious? Well, were they on guard, were they, did they fight each other? So that they had to be looking over their shoulder all the time, and saying (In lowered voice) ‘Just stay away from me.’ (Student laughter). Were they fleeing? Were they anxious? Footprints say: they were cool. (Students: They were cool (laughing)). They were cool. They were not stressed in any discernable way on the day that they left their footprints. (Student: Good for them!) Yes! (Laughter). Appears to have been a good day. So the psychological nature of dilophosaurus is again, something that is not something that would immediately occur to anyone looking at footprints. But it is when you start delving into any topic, the damndest, sorry, you’re going to have to remove that one. (Laughter) The darnest- the fun thing about science, again, I think—there are so many fun things about science—is coming up with questions that presumably no one else has ever come up with, and yet being quite confident that the question is significant, because it has arisen as a result of insight that no one ever quite had before on a particular topic. (Student: Mmhmm, interesting).
Ken: I have a question; this is Ken. Is this kind of footprint analysis ever used in like police work, or anything?
John: Yes, you bet! You bet, you’re right Ken! Determining the nature of footprints for human beings, dilophosaurs or others, provides a lot of information about the state of mind of someone, whether they were jogging, running, walking casually, skulking, around yes, that’s right. I wonder, how big was the person who left that footprint. How big were they? Well, we can estimate the size of the individual who left that footprint. (Gleason: Based on like the size of the foot and stride length?) Yes, that’s right. And there are other things you could use depending on the setting that the footprints were made in. Yes, forensic work is possible. With someone athletic, if someone was really athletic, they might run quantitatively. In a graphical sense, you could plot up things that you measure in a set of footprints, and say, ‘this is clearly a human being, but this is not an ordinary human being.’ Or, this is a person who is injured, their right foot. (Gleason: ‘cause of the different impact ways that their foot hits the ground?) Yes, the way that their foot hits the ground, but most easily, the pace length, if you’re injured, your left to right pace length is going to be different than the right to left pace length. (Gleason: Yeah.) So if you limp, you know that you don’t have a smooth pace; it’s choppy. (Gleason: Yeah. That’s interesting.) So again, teasing out information when others would say I don’t know what – I don’t what could possibly be available in that. I mean, it’s a stupid rock. This stupid dirt. I mean what could possibly, what’s? There’s a footprint. Stupid footprint. What could possibly be in that stupid light coming from the star? You know? What could possibly be in it? Well… (Gleason: It’s for curious people like you to ask those questions.) Well, for curiosity in general, it’s one of the things I think that makes human beings so special.
mp3(Gleason: Mmhm. Could I ask you about those samples?)
John: Yes, this is a vial containing, well, how would you describe it Jesse? What would you… (Student laughter) how would you describe it?
Jesse: Brown, small…
John: It’s a small, glass vial containing small brown rocks,
Jesse: Small, brown rocks. You can’t really tell…what. It says clay on the label
John: The label says clay…
Jesse: But I wouldn’t be able to determine that just by looking at it.
John: I agree. Now I’ll give you the context of that silly looking glass vial with that silly looking brownish red clay in it. That represents a short interval of time, possibly six months in length, possibly less. 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs went extinct, all rocks below that sample contain dinosaur fossils; dinosaurs were thriving across the whole planet. Dinosaurs of hundreds of species are-are thriving. They reach that layer, no dinosaurs get across that layer, and that could be six months.
Jesse: So do you think that that has, whatever’s in that rock sample, can lead you to discover what made the dinosaurs go extinct?
John. Click. Click. That’s right Jesse. So, apparently there’s a story in here that scientists wondered about. There seems to be no dinosaurs above it, plenty of dinosaurs below it. Also, the life in the global oceans was just running, and then just annihilated above it, and it took thousands of years for the oceanic ecosystems globally to recover after whatever formed this clay. So, about thirty years ago, someone said, you know, no one has ever geochemically analyzed this stuff clearly. The paleontologists say this clay lies at this very interesting place, and someone, a geochemist asks exactly what Jesse just did, ‘ I wonder if there is a memory in here that might tell us about before dinosaurs ended and after dinosaurs ended?’ So they analyzed it. Cha-ching. What came out of this? There’s fragments of meteorite in that. Meteorite. This thing is contaminated to the dickens by about a factor of a hundred thousand times in platinum group elements and the question was whoa, what’s that all about? And the answer came back quickly from the investigators, my gosh, this sample from Italy is contaminated with meteoritic stuff. Gee whiz, that’s clearly meteoritic. It is clearly from meteorite. Gosh, I wonder if we were to sample the same layer off the coast of New Zealand, on the other side of the planet, I wonder, and dozens of other places, I wonder if we would find the same story. Click. Every place that this is found: meteorite. And you say, how much meteorite is in here? And then integrate that over the whole planet. Integrate that. If there is a certain amount of Iridium in here, and that concentration is pretty much uniform throughout a dust layer—that’s original dust—integrate that over a two inch thick dust layer over the whole earth’s surface, with that abundance of Iridium, and let’s estimate what a typical meteorite size would have to be. How big was the meteorite? Apparently it was a meteorite, really how big was it?! Ten kilometers across. (Students in awe) Ten kilometers- the size of Mount Everest came streaking out of the sky. (Gleason: is that when it reached the surface?) Correct. That’s exactly right. This was the stuff. Wherever that thing hit, there was a meteorite. Ten kilometer asteroid hit us, plus or minus two kilometers. Ten plus or minus two kilometers in size, you know, that’s a Mount Everest coming out of the sky (asteroid sound) in about four seconds, hitting the top of the atmosphere then hitting the surface of the earth in about four seconds. Wow, look at that! (Crashing and exploding sound) You know? (Student laughter) And that dust there is some of the debris that was hurled into the atmosphere from the crater.
Jesse: Did the asteroid, when it got into the atmosphere, is there any way of telling where it actually landed? (Gleason: like an impact crater?) Maybe analyzing the thickness of the debris in different parts of the earth and finding…
John: Good job. Exactly what was done, and it was, it was inferred that it probably happened somewhere in the western hemisphere, and ultimately was targeted and found to have occurred; we now know where the crater was. (Gleason: Wasn’t it the gulf of Mexico?) The Yucatan peninsula. Yeah, that’s where it slammed. That’s where it hit, yup. It hit around Belize. And the crater is over 100 kilometers across. A hundred kilometers across. That would have meant instantaneously, instantaneously, it would have quickly adjusted itself within minutes, but the instantaneous depth of that crater was approaching 10 to 15 kilometers depth. That is six to ten miles deep, and the crater was formed because it just exploded; all the stuff that was there was exploded into the atmosphere, and rained down as dust all over the whole planet.
Gleason: And when it hit that at that impact zone, was it covered by water as it is today or was it dry land?
John: There was water there. The sea levels at that time were about a hundred meters higher then than they are now. So it was a shallow sea. So there was a splash, there was a splash. And as soon as the crater was found, a number of pieces of disjointed information came in. Geologists in Texas said, you know there are some strange deposits, about 65 million years old, strange deposits in Texas. People always wondered about… Oh gosh, sorry to be rattling on too much.
Janie: No, they’re short tapes.
Janie: Sorry did I not wind that one ahead?
Student: No, it’s fine, thanks.
John: So, deposits in Texas that are unusual; they’re sedimentary deposits. But they are unlike any sedimentary deposits that have been seen anywhere else on the planet. And they have boulders the sizes of houses just tumbled, beaten up, just everything. Just a real jumble. And it’s now known that that deposit happened at the same time as this impact, and it was the splash. When you throw a pebble into a lake, what happens? The ripples go out? (Students agreeing). This made ripples (Whispered). (Student laughter). Can you imagine something the size of Mount Everest streaking out of the sky, slamming into the ocean? Talk about ripples. So that ripple rolled ashore in, what’s not Galvaston, and the current estimates are how much water do you need coming in as a wave to move something the size of a house that’s solid rock. They’re estimating it was probably half to one kilometer high when the surf was up (Students shocked.. remarks and laughter). And then, then others started looking for another set of reasons, again, interrogating this: what else might be in here? And they inferred something in all these layers. And there was the darndest stuff. Smoke. There’s smoke in there. Smoke. Smoke! There’s smoke. Smoke is unburned particulates. So it’s stuff, you know? But there’s smoke in there. And there’s smoke in all deposits found around the world at that time. Fires broke out. Fires broke out anywhere near where the crater was, but on the other side of the planet. Fires broke out, within days of this major impact on the Yucatan Peninsula. Fires! And the isotopic composition of carbon in there indicates estimates at least a quarter of the earth’s surface biomass, let that sink in, was incinerated. (Pause) That was a bad day. (Students: yeah! (Laughter)) Seen better days. That’s even worse than most Mondays. So, it was really massive, and then someone says, ‘Really?’ The geochemists are saying, ‘There’s smoke in this? And fires? Everywhere?’ Not just within visual sight of where the crater happened—there would have been a flash, you know (sound effect), which would have incinerated stuff (Student: yeah, yeah). Flash of this thing hitting, but fires? How do you do that? What’s the physics that would allow you to do fires on the other side of the planet from where the impact occurred?
Gleason: Wouldn’t it create volcanic eruptions because it jarred the earth, or- is that not the reason?
John: That doesn’t appear to be the reason. Earth is a pretty robust place. It takes a lot to generate volcanoes. And there’s no current indication that there was enhanced volcanism following…Here’s what would have happened; here’s what the current guess is. It comes from people familiar with hydrogen weapons and that sort of stuff. Here it is. If you were to watch-we’ve all seen shooting stars? Alright, all’ve seen shooting stars, so if you have a very sensitive radiometer, which is something you measure energy with, and you were out at night sometime with a sensitive radiometer, and you do (sound effect) there goes a meteor. There’s energy coming down from the sky, which, with a very sensitive radiometer, you can detect that there was a burst of energy that your radiometer detected. Increase that by about a factor of 10^8th. (Student laughter). As you have now excavated the crater in the Yucatan, some of that debris now, trillions of tons of debris has now gone into sub-orbital flight, and is now going to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere everywhere. Everywhere. So now, all of a sudden, it isn’t (Sound effect). It isn’t those kind of shooting stars, it is ‘Oh My God’ you know? The entire sky now just lights up as debris comes in for 30 minutes to an hour. The entire the sky is now aflame with reentering debris. And now take your radiometer, and your radiometer melts. (Student laughter) And that starts forest fires. Starts forest fires.
Gleason: So is like the one meteor came in a sort of started another meteor shower?
John: The reentry created a meteor shower, which was so intense that the sky now was just filled with material falling in, and blazing, like a meteor does. But now the entire sky is blazing. And that is so intense that it could have burned right through the clouds. So, anyway, so that’s some of the information contained in there.
Gleason: What about this other rock?
John: This other rock is a-s meteorite. It’s the oldest thing you’ll probably ever hold. The white stuff, the white pebbles in there are, that’s-that stuff comes from the birth of the solar system, 4 billion, 560 million years ago. (Students shocked). Then that white stuff is a couple thousand years even older than that. That’s the original stuff that came out of the solar nebula.
Ali: Hi, this is Ali speaking, and we know you’re from the Dudley Observatory, but could you elaborate on how you became involved, and what brought you to the Dudley Observatory?
John: Oh some great people. We have some great people at Dudley Observatory. The history of Dudley is rich with brilliant people in the past, brilliant people now doing some very impressive things. So, you know, you just try to hang out with great people. Don’t hang around with stupid people. (Student laughter) Hang around with bright people. (Pause) Ralph Alpher was one of the champions of the Dudley Observatory, not the only one; there’s been a long string of them, but I would urge you to read some of Ralph Alpher’s papers. He is the one, for example, I believe who coined the phrase ‘Big Bang’ to describe the origin of the universe. He was in contention for the Nobel Prize in astrophysics. Brilliant guy.
Gleason: That was the guy who died about a year ago?
John: That’s right, that’s right. Ralph Alpher was the President of Dudley Observatory among other things; he had a long history as a scientist, as well as a supporter and leader of Dudley Observatory. And Dudley has had many, many such leaders.
Jesse: So I think we’re going to wrap up soon.
Ken: I have a question. If say, a meteorite of the same size came hurling towards earth now, do you think we’d be able to stop it?
John: If we were to see a meteorite decades away from hitting earth, we might have a chance of changing its course slightly. But, (clears throat) short of many years prior to the impact, no.
Gleason: Well we can chart meteorite’s courses a lot easier than comets right? Comets would be a lot rarer; those are a lot harder to change because they would come. You’d only be able to discuss it coming towards earth like 4 months or 5 months in advance..so, yeah.
John: There’s a population of asteroids known as near-earth asteroids, and they’re called near-earth asteroids for exactly that reason. They do not orbit in the asteroid belt between mars and earth, but rather, have been knocked out of their orbits. They originally started in the earth, in the Mars-Jupiter-asteroid belt, but bumped and changed their orbits so now they cross earth’s orbit. There are thousands of them. And they have short life-spans, short geological life spans. Anything that is going to be crossing earth’s orbit will eventually find earth. And bumps continue to happen in the asteroid belt, so this near-earth asteroid population is being diminished by collisions with earth, but then being replenished by the same process- by bumps in the asteroid belt. So, if you take a look at the- just Google something the near-earth asteroid orbit sometime, and have it overlaid with earth’s orbit. You’ll just say (chuckling), ‘Oh my gosh we’re going to die and get eaten by rats, you know, it’s just awful.’ But you know, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. Certainly it is an inevitable process. Inevitable. We have been hit by near-earth asteroids for all of earth’s history. We will continue to be, because the physical processes continue to make them. And that’s why there’s a modest effort by NASA to do an inventory of such asteroids, so that we aren’t surprised some day.
Jesse: So any final questions or comments…? Any final thoughts to leave us with?
John: Just thank you very much to Dudley Observatory and to Mr. Reed for inviting me to be here. Thanks for all your questions; great meeting all of you. I would urge you, if I had to look back on my career, and speak to you as if I were speaking to myself, I would say-be hungry and impatient with finding something you really love. Settle for nothing less. Either for your careers or for your spouses; don’t settle. Be alert for epiphanies. They are great. Don’t be afraid of them, but be open to them. Be bold; you will make mistakes. You will turn one way when you ultimately find you could have done better by turning another. But always make the most of what you’ve got. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do the best you can with what you’ve got at the time. And that will keep you busy for the rest of your life.”
Janie: And now you see why they call him Professor.
Student: And that’s the bell.
Gleason: Thank you for your time Mr. Delano
John: Thank you very much; it was a pleasure. Great questions! Thanks a bunch.
Student: You’re talking to the right crowd
John: Yes, I suspected I was preaching to the choir anyway.