May 2020 - Letter from the Directors

May 2020 - Letter from the Directors.gif
Monday, May 04, 2020 

As the Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL) enters its 8th week of mostly remote operation, there is still news to report. Perhaps most uplifting is the contribution that EPL staff are making to local health care workers, from the donation of the gear we normally use to protect ourselves from some laboratory procedures (and vice-versa) to the production and donation of face masks and shields. 

We are particularly pleased to be a participant, headed by staff scientist Tim Strobel, in the “Print to Protect” project that has brought together makers and 3-D printers from across the Washington area to produce and distribute upwards of 3000 face masks to local health care facilities. Our campus has a history of refocusing its efforts in times of natural crisis, from the Geophysical Laboratory’s (GL) efforts to develop new optical glass in WW1 to DTM’s creation of the proximity fuse in WW2, so we are happy to see that history continue, at least in a small way, with a focus on humanitarian aid in this instance.

Remembering Neil Irvine

Neil Irvine collects samples in British Columbia in 1973. 

With our sympathies to so many families that have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, we also note a loss from the EPL family with the passing of former GL staff scientist Neil Irvine. Neil spent a career at GL devoted to intricate, painstaking, and exquisite investigations aimed at explaining the causes of compositional diversity in igneous rocks and how they evolved to be that way - in every way Neil exemplified the long GL petrological tradition established by staff scientists like Norman Bowen and many others.  

Neil’s targets were “layered mafic intrusions” the source of most of Earth’s platinum group elements and chrome. Layered mafic intrusions are thought to be large magma chambers formed deep in the crust, which are now uplifted and exposed at Earth’s surface. These bodies provide natural laboratories for observing how minerals crystallize from magma – liquid rock – as it cools, thereby changing its composition into the diverse kinds of rocks and minerals that make up much of our planet today. Neil’s studies unraveled the complex crystallization sequence of these minerals and the various gravitational and dynamic processes that cause the crystals to separate from the remaining magma.   

This hand-drawn illustration depicts the mineral synthesis processes occurring in the western half of the Skaergaard magma chamber from Neil Irvine's, "Included blocks (and blocks within blocks) in the Skaergaard intrusion: Geologic relations and the origins of rhythmic modally graded layers."

His work was distinguished by remarkable artistry. His hand-drawn recreations of what he saw in the field beautifully illustrated the processes driving the evolution of these magma chambers. Neil also served as editor of a major geoscience journal, the Journal of Petrology, an experience that led him, his wife Lorna, and GL colleague Doug Rumble to produce “A Writing Guide of Petrological (and Other Geological) Manuscripts” which served as the writing style reference for many a geoscientist, including the authors of this letter. Neil passed away on March 10 at the age of 87.

From Sailing the Seas to Laboratories

Hand-tinted lantern slide of the Galilee, 1907

We’ve come a long way since our founding in 1904. Two publications appearing in April provided interesting markers for the continually evolving nature of our science.  Earlier this month, an article published in WIRED about modern efforts to monitor Earth’s magnetic field highlighted the important contributions of the DTM’s research vessels Galilee and Carnegie in mapping Earth’s magnetic field globally in the early 20th century.

The first publication to include DTM and GL scientists under the Earth and Planets Laboratory was published on April 21, 2020.

The second is a new paper that explores how organic molecules contained within interplanetary dust particles are modified by heating as they enter and fall through the atmosphere to Earth’s surface.The paper’s author list is evenly split between scientists from the former DTM and GL and is the first interdepartmental paper to carry only the new Earth and Planets Laboratory affiliation for all authors. The EPL authors include three cosmochemists, two experimental geochemists, an organic chemist, and an astrobiologist, a diversity in expertise that reflects the increasingly multidisciplinary approaches needed to address the questions being pursued in the natural sciences today, and exemplifies the strength of the Earth and Planets Laboratory. 

Sending a Virtual Goodbye

Janice Dunlap (left) embraces astronomer Vera Rubin (right) on the Carnegie Science Broad Branch Road campus. 

Although most of the group meetings at EPL continue satisfactorily in virtual formats, saying goodbye to a long-time colleague proves less satisfying to do remotely. Janice Dunlap retired in April after 36 years at DTM.  Janice was hired as a temporary assistant to former DTM Staff Scientist David James.  David summarizes the interview as follows, “I asked her to type out a page of text on my office IBM Selectric typewriter, just to confirm that she really could type well enough for the job.  I had to ask her to stop almost immediately after she began typing, warning her that my Selectric was not capable of sustaining that speed and I was quite concerned that it might catch on fire.  When the interview concluded, I asked her when she could start.”  

David was not the only one to recognize Janice’s many talents as she soon moved from this position to serve through the years as Assistant to four DTM Directors.  Although she served this official role with great expertise, her contribution to the department was much broader.  As summarized by Lara Wagner, “Jan was clearly the department Mom – the one who was always there for you, the one you could talk to about anything in confidence and who always gave great advice. I remember Jan being there for me and for other postdocs, during both the good times and the not-so-good times. It’s not hyperbole for me to say that I’m not sure what I would have done without her back then.”  Similarly, it’s not hyperbole to say that DTM, and now EPL, won’t be the same without her.  We wish her the very best in this next phase of her life.

Richard Carlson

Director, Earth and Planets Laboratory

Mike Walter

Deputy Director, Earth and Planets Laboratory