Monday Night at the Museum

When I was hired in 2012 to teach geology at St. Peter’s College in Muenster, Saskatchewan, I inherited their rock, mineral, and fossil collection. It consisted of several cardboard boxes filled with samples in Ziploc bags, most of which had labels.

I’ve never learned the identity of the mystery someone who assembled the collection. This is a shame, because it’s a remarkable collection and I have so many questions. Either the collector had a lot of geologist friends who hit myriad classic locales (there’s aragonite from Molina de Aragon, for goodness’ sake), or they were themselves extremely well travelled. I envision a sort of geological Indiana Jones, but ideally without the colonialism. Most likely Geo Indy was one of the monks at St. Peter’s Abbey.

I can hear the typewriter, see the yellow glow of a 1950s-era desk lamp that will still be in use 40 years later, and feel the neck strain.

My respect for Geo Indy only grew after finding a crystal of fluor-buergerite, a tourmaline-group mineral that was, for a time, known only from a single location in Mexico.  

After rummaging through samples for several weeks, I also discovered five different uranium minerals, cinnabar (yay, mercury!), and realgar (for your daily dose of arsenic). I started to pay special attention to where I set my coffee, and how thoroughly I washed my hands after playing in the minerals. I learned to expect the (very random) unexpected.

Oh. Wow. Huh. That’s…um…something.

Some of the minerals needed extra attention because they were fragile, and occasionally I had to prevent a hygroscopic mineral from happily slurping up atmospheric moisture and getting all powdery.

Slowly—very slowly—order emerged amongst the minerals. I looked up each to find its chemical formula and its Nickel-Strunz classification. I checked the name on the label against online images to verify that the label was correct. Some of the minerals have been renamed since they were first collected, or subsequently recognized as a mineral group rather than a single mineral, so I sorted out the synonyms and official names as well. (Based on this the collection is 1960s-ish at youngest. The oldest item with a date on its label was collected in 1868.) I made new colour-coded labels, and placed each sample in a plastic tray or a jar, depending on how much protecting it needed from the environment, and how much the environment needed protecting from it.

I wonder what Geo Indy would have thought of this.

Those specimens without labels, or with the wrong labels, had to be identified. Sometimes that was easy, but in other cases not so much. It took me several years and some close-up photography to finally decide that the bright green crust on an unidentified sample was the mineral of interest, not lichen, and then to connect it to an orphaned label for the uranium-bearing mineral andersonite. Fortunately, I hadn’t employed a taste test for purposes of mineral identification. (This a test we teach undergrad students—a for-real test, not a hazing-type “test.”)

Then in 2016, a student needed a place to store his rock collection to prevent it from being a victim of downsizing during a move. He was set up at the College with a room, table, and chair, and spent the remainder of the term diligently organizing his collection and identifying the rocks and minerals within it. Up to this point, the St. Peter’s collection didn’t have an official home, so this—finally—was my opportunity to do something more with it than cover every horizontal surface in my home office. I did not return the key for that room at the end of the term.

Now that I had a space, I began the long process of moving the collection in and displaying it in a way that would be beneficial to students. The first thing to do was get some shelves and display cases. The monks of St. Peter’s Abbey have decades worth of furniture stashed away, and they took me “shopping.”

I started with a plopping-things-on-shelves approach just to have items to look at should someone wander by, but my ultimate goal was to select particularly interesting specimens to display, and then provide just the right amount of information for visitors to understand why the specimens were interesting. The invertebrate fossil collection was the easiest place to start.

I made good use of my new USB microscope…

…a tube of kitchen and bath silicone, and some dollar-store picture frames.

After securing professional development funds from the St. Peter’s College Faculty Association, I upgraded to fancy plastic displays from Staples, and suspending samples from wires anchored by beads and E6000 glue. (That glue is amazing stuff.)

Some of my efforts required prolonged negotiations with gravity.

The displays I’ve built thus far only scratch the surface of what can be done to manage and show the collection, not to mention the things you can do with tools like augmented reality software. Ever wonder how the geological timescale maps onto a 24-hour clock?

Someone could be kept busy indefinitely, but it’s time to pass that task on to someone else. This is unpaid time-consuming work outside of the teaching I’m hired to do on short-term contracts, and I need to start allocating that time in a more sustainable way. There are no funds from the College for this task, so out-of-pocket costs are an issue. There’s also the matter of whether or not I get hired to teach again.

If the College were to support this project officially, whoever takes it on will need to change how it’s hosted. At the moment it’s squirreled away in a small out-of-the-way room, and not really on anyone’s radar. Moreover, the displays aren’t secured, so the space can’t be opened to students or the public except when someone is around to supervise. In the past, I was that someone for the duration of my office hours on Monday evenings.

The simplest way to make the collection available for viewing would be to hang lit locking glass-fronted cabinets on the wall in a frequently travelled area. Ideally, someone who likes to play in rocks and fossils and make pretty pictures would be hired to put it all together.

This is pretty much ready for a glass case. Just saying.

Historical Geology Timeline Activity

Some time ago I dreamed about the perfect tool for teaching historical geology. It would be an interactive timeline that students could update with events, and it would even have the ability to allow students to quiz themselves.

While that tool has yet to materialize, I did come up with a low-tech solution that permits the plotting of geological events that occur over widely varying timescales. I created four timeline forms to fit 8.5” x 11” paper. The forms cover different intervals and scales of geological time. They are:

  • Timeline 1: The Precambrian (4.5 billion years to 0.5 billion years ago
  • Timeline 2: The Paleozoic Era (540 million years to 250 million years ago)
  • Timeline 3: The Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras (250 million years ago to present)
  • Timeline 4: The Cenozoic Era (last 10 million years of the Cenozoic Era)

The forms have divisions of the geological timescale along the bottom, and a numerical timescale across the top.


Click here to download timeline forms.

So here you go, but you should probably know…

Plotting geological events on the forms can be tricky. Some events have well-known dates, but some don’t. Events may occur in a geological instant, or take hundreds of millions of years. I provided a sample timeline to give students an idea of what to do in different cases, and how to express uncertainty.


An example of how to plot events

Even with those considerations handled, the students who used this exercise were looking up dates for themselves, and that added another layer of complexity. I prepared a handout to guide them through some additional challenges.

Challenge 1: Different sources or different pages in the textbook give more than one date for an event.

Expect that this will happen. Sometimes a source will be general (akin to saying World War 2 happened in the twentieth century), and sometimes it will have more specific information (it began in 1939). Ideally, the interval on the timeline should reflect the most specific information available (i.e., the most specific date or the narrowest range of dates). This makes it much easier to see how the timing of one event compares to the timing of another. We could plot the appearance of both the Ford Model A and the Ford Mustang as single bars covering the twentieth century. But if someone who had never seen or heard of an automobile before looked at our timeline, they would lack the context to understand that some evolution had taken place.

Keep in mind that geologists themselves may not know the exact dates of a particular event. The boundaries of the timescale can also shift if new information comes to light, so an older source might put the same event at a slightly different time than a new one.

In the end, students shouldn’t get hung up on finding exact dates (because mostly they won’t be able to), but they should be trying to get the dates in the right ballpark, and trying to make that ballpark as small as possible.

Challenge 2: The textbook or other source mentions a geological time interval that isn’t at the bottom of the form.

The forms have increments of the geologic timescale (eras, periods, and epochs in some cases) at the bottom, but these intervals are in fact subdivided into smaller ones. For example, the Devonian period is divided into Early, Middle, and Late epochs. The Late Devonian is divided into the Frasnian and Famennian ages. To figure out where a division belongs, consult the Geological Society of America’s Geologic Time Scale.

Challenge 3: The source says an event happened in the “upper” or “lower” of some interval.

When talking about the timescale, periods are sometimes divided into Early, Middle, and Late. These are official designations for the timescale. In contrast, when talking about the rocks themselves, a layer may be referred to as “Upper Devonian.” “Upper” and “Lower” refer to the position of a bed in a stack of rock layers. Older beds are lower down, and younger beds are higher up. While careful decisions have been made about the ways in which uppers and lowers fit into the timescale, a rough approximation for this exercise would be to treat “Upper” the same  as “Late,” and “Lower” the same way as “Early.” A less-rough approximation would be to look up the ages of the units in question.


Ways to use the timelines

My students used the timelines to plot events listed in assignments. Some students printed the sheets and wrote directly on them. Some students added to the timelines using drawing software, or using the mark-up tools within Adobe Acrobat. But if you wanted to go all out, you could print the forms out in mega-huge format, post them on the classroom wall, and stick on images or text to mark events.

Or you could turn them into PowerPoint backgrounds and have students build presentations on top of them.

Or you could make them SUPER-mega-huge in drawing software, decorate them all up with whats and whens, then print a poster.

Whatever you do, send pictures!

Why Open Science Daily?

In February of this year I started a new project: a Twitter account called Open Science Daily (@journal_365). I started after reading about Sci Hub, a project of systematic piracy of research articles from behind journal paywalls. This matters because such articles are the lifeblood of academic work, but the cost of journal subscriptions is keeping them locked away. You might not think it’s a big deal whether or not a scientist has access to the Antarctic Journal of Annelid Research but what about journals publishing the latest findings on cancer?

Contemplating a Life Without Truth

I had the jarring experience myself of discovering that one of the universities I work for had forgotten I existed (at least for staff computing privileges) and cut off my access to electronic journals. It felt like I’d lost a limb or a smartphone. I wondered how anyone could possibly survive without being able to find out stuff whenever the out of stuff needed finding. What do you do without access to truth as filtered through the peer-review process? Those were dark days indeed.

After reading about Sci Hub I thought that it should be doable to establish some sort of framework where a journal could offer content freely by using on the fact that its input (research) comes to it for free, its reviewers are free, editors may be unpaid, and there is no longer the overhead of producing materials in hard copy. As I contemplated how this might work, I suddenly remembered that it already existed, and was called open-access publishing.

Now I’m not the most up on my open-access resources, but I’d like to think that I have at least a little more knowledge than the average Jane. Yet I forgot these things even existed! Free peer-reviewed knowledge, and I forgot! It occurred to me that if I didn’t remember these things existed, then (barring explanations including but not restricted to teaching-related stress, lack of sleep, and lack of caffeine), how many other people don’t know or forgot? And so Open Science Daily was born.

So What, Exactly, Are You Doing?

Using the OSD account, I’ve been tweeting about one open-access science journal a day (more or less- but my track record is pretty good). I include the name, the url, and some key hashtags, but my strategy for maximum attention-getting is to use images. Initially I started off doing this sort of thing:

Earth System Dynamics

But then it got a little fancier,

Paleo Electr

and fancier (this one makes my eyes happy),


and now they’re mini art projects. (Note the superposition of the semi-transparent storm clouds over the melting glacier to give the whole thing an ominous feel.)


While making pretty pictures is fun, I’m cognizant that my images might be the first thing someone sees of a given journal. In other words, I’m making the first impression, and I don’t take that lightly. That means I try to make the images look clean and professional, and take cues from the journal’s homepage about what might be appropriate, or what those running the journal might like to see. Sometimes they make it easy, such as by putting a tiny Mars rover at the top of their page, so I can do this:


The descriptive text in my images comes verbatim from the journal’s homepage whenever that is possible. This is primarily because I’m dealing with many topics that are new to me, and I don’t want to make paraphrasing errors. It’s also much faster. If I had to go through each journal to come up with my own succinct descriptions I simply wouldn’t be able to do this project. It seems reasonable that the journals should speak for themselves in this way.

Which science journals?

I’m working from the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), and it’s likely this will keep me busy for a while. I’ve covered the journals they’ve filed under “Geology” and am working through categories which are also related to the Earth system and space. I choose journals which use English to describe themselves, so I can avoid cutting and pasting information in a language I don’t understand. The journal must also have a clear description of its focus and scope. Many do, and helpfully label this information “Focus and Scope.” But others have thwarted by best attempts to find a snippet of description that is pithy enough for my images.

Who is this for?

Awareness of open access journals matters for people who are not affiliated with an institution having deep enough pockets to afford journal subscriptions. That could mean people who are members of the general public, who work independently of an institution, or who belong to an organization that simply doesn’t have the cash. It also matters for the researchers and academics whose work is being published, because they might not otherwise consider whether their journal of choice is open access. It matters because institutions can begin to consider open-access publishing in their policy-making, and take steps to encourage it.

This is also for me, because I love the brain rush accompanying the sudden realization that yet another universe of ideas exists, of which I had been completely unaware. It’s like feeling your way around a dark room and encountering an unexpected doorway. Looking at a new journal each day has made me aware of new fields, and allowed me to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts. I sometimes wonder if my little band of followers will become bored if I stray too far from their areas of interest. But I find myself exclaiming, “That’s actually a thing?!” at least once a week, and having that opportunity must appeal to at least a few of them.


After a run of 8 months or so I have deactivated Open Science Daily. I still think it’s a worthy project, but I have other projects right now that need more focus than I was giving them. In the end I evaluated 177 open-access journals for this project, and tweeted about 137 of them.