Broken Glass

sample chamber and detectors

sample chamber and detectors

If you reduce a problem to the clarity of its simplest form the next steps go in one of two directions, nasty impassable or hopefully, easier to solve. When a Parks Canada archeologist came to the Canadian Museum of Nature with a problem, he was hoping for easier to solve. He was trying to add to his evidence about the age of a shipwreck on the east coast of Canada. Even rough clues can help to identify such discoveries, eliminate wrong scenarios and help tell the story of the unfortunate end. The evidence to be analyzed was a piece of blue glass, and was presented to one of the mineralogists at the museum.

Mineralogists have discovered and described over 4,500 minerals, adding more than 50 each year. The describing is done by taking pure mineral crystals, bombarding them with high energy to identify each of the elements and understand how they are arranged into shapes; pretty much as simple as a science problem can be dissected. Those were useful skills for the shipwreck investigation because the color of glass is caused by specific elements. Blue glass uses copper, iron or cobalt and can be analyzed the same way as a mineral crystal.

Cobalt was discovered in 1735 by the Swedish chemistry professor Georg Brandt, and its extraction, refining, production and use became more popular thereafter, including as a pigment for blue glass. When a museum scientist analyzed the blue glass from the shipwreck it contained 400 parts per million of cobalt. Based on that data, the glass was likely made after the mid-1700s a date that was also useful in the investigation about the loss of the ship.

Our ability to explore and understand the mineral world is sometimes useful in solving cultural questions like this one, and also has a myriad of applications in furthering industry and how we make things.

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