There are times when real life imitates fiction. That might be the case with mineralogy and vampires. Vampires are undead fiction, even though volumes of popular media try to convince us otherwise. Mineralogy is the real-life version of the undead. The cold, eternal, cryptic species exist all around us, neither alive nor dead . . . just inanimate, yet influencing our lives in ways we seldom know of. The Canadian Museum of Nature has a long history of discovering minerals, beginning with our founder, Sir William Logan, the first Dominion Geologist. Logan showed off the discoveries he was making throughout this new frontier in public displays, and at the same time kept records of everything he found (they are still safely kept by the Geological Survey of Canada). In the same spirit of public engagement and pride in natural history, a very upscale version of public display will come to light on May 22nd in Ottawa when the Canadian Museum of Nature opens a new Earth Gallery.
There are about 4,100 mineral species, with 100 new candidates considered each year. The experts at the Museum of Nature, like Joel Grice, Scott Ercit, Paula Piilonen, Ralph Rowe and Glenn Poirier, discover and describe new species each year. In life sciences new species descriptions are often based on observation of form and function, and most recently on molecular structures such as DNA. In mineralogy there are equivalent general observations that can be used to describe new species, but there is a strictly marshaled processes that must be followed by all experts. Since the 1960s, that process has been monitored faithfully by the International Mineralogical Association; all new names gain acceptance by the scientific community only after their approval.
New species descriptions involve a mineral that is usually large enough to be seen by the eye and kept in an accessible collection. It also involves a description with a unique chemical formula (the elemental building blocks of the mineral), and the crystal structure (the 3-D picture of how the building blocks are oriented). There are other important descriptions like shape, brightness, cleavage, colour, etc., along with information about where it can be found in nature. Being able to find the mineral in nature, to verify its existence to other scientists, or in Mr. Logan’s case to rationalize the economy for a new country, seems fundamental. Most minerals found in nature can be produced in the laboratory. This level of technical capability is important to industry, but can challenge this rigorous system if manufactured species are presented fraudulently; made uniquely in the lab but given a false location, therefore impossible to find in the natural world.
This undead part of the world is a huge part of our life, and usually much less dangerous than vampires (some care needs to be taken with minerals that contain asbestos, lead, and uranium, for example). To learn more about Canada’s minerals visit the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, nature.ca or turn a few pages of the newest book on the subject, Rocks and Minerals of Canada.