Popping the Geosciences’ Bubble of Limited Diversity

One of the pleasures of serving as a principal editor of Elements is working with people from across the whole Earth science community, many from places, subjects and institutions who I wouldn’t encounter in the rest of my professorial life. This issue is a good example: its contributing authors and editors include men and women from four continents and seven countries, studying everything from isotope geochemistry to mining to advanced batteries to medical biochemistry, while working in universities, national labs, technology and mining companies, consulting agencies, and a medical center. This breadth reflects the efforts Elements makes to assure that the words in our pages capture the full range of insights and experiences of the diverse minds that are engaged in the Earth sciences. We are proud that many issues of Elements have authors and editors that almost represent a cross section of the world.

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A Symphony of Electrons

The concept of oxidation as the process that turns iron metal into rust is familiar to all of us. We might be equally familiar with reduction, the “reverse” of oxidation, by which iron metal is produced by heating iron ore with coke in a blast furnace. Rusting and smelting of iron are just two examples of reduction–oxidation (“redox”) reactions. As one species (e.g., the iron ore) becomes reduced, so the other (e.g., the coke) becomes oxidised. In redox, there is always something being oxidised and something else being reduced; it’s the yin and the yang of geochemistry, as the guest editors of this issue of Elements refer to it (cover).

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Our Academic Family

This past year has seen the departure of many of our great colleagues who shaped the fields of mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry. They were part of our extended academic family and will be greatly missed. Although their academic contributions can be found in their curriculum vitae and scientific publications, their personal histories, the things that shaped their lives and careers, are more elusive. However, personal histories, where published, can capture the “human” aspect behind the scientist and include stories filled with happiness and humor, hardship and perseverance, and, above all, serendipity.

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The Once and Future Hydrogen Economy

I would like to know, now that we’ve reached the year 2020, where is the hydrogen economy I was promised? Hydrogen fuel cell cars lurk at the margins of the marketplace, and several governments and corporations continue to make large bets on hydrogen’s future, but as I look out the window at my battery assisted, hybrid car, I’m still left wondering “what went wrong”?

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Carbon — Beautiful, Essential, Deadly

The unique physical chemistry of carbon confers an extraordinary ability to form molecules that are variously beautiful (think diamond), essential (think living cells), and toxic (think greenhouse gas). Nowhere is this split personality more evident than in the enigmatic igneous clan of kimberlites, the topic for this issue of Elements. No one who has set eyes on a cut diamond, especially the delicate pink stones from soon-to-close Argyle Mine in Western Australia (see photo to the right), can fail to be awestruck at Nature’s capacity for beauty. Kimberlite magmas that bring diamonds to the surface are carbon-fuelled, whether by methane through a complex series of redox melting reactions (see Foley et al. 2019 this issue p. 393), or by carbon dioxide exsolving from kimberlite melt at sub-crustal depths and propelling it explosively to the surface (see Russell et al. 2019 this issue p. 405). We have yet to witness a kimberlite erupt – the last known eruption, in Tanzania, was ten thousand years ago – but we can be fairly sure that the greenhouse gas delivery of a single kimberlite pipe in full flow was pretty substantial. For kimberlites, carbon is both passenger and propellant.

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Celebration of the Periodic Table

The periodic table of chemical elements is one of the most significant achievements in science because it arranges the 118 known elements in a deceptively simple pattern that reveals their properties. So how did this “Rosetta Stone of Nature” originate?

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Weathering: Earth’s Inexorable Millstone

Mere centuries from now, almost every physical object you’ve bought or wrought will have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Nature’s forces will conspire to erase your archeological record. Unless you live in a stone manor, the foundations of your home will gradually crumble due to carbonic acid seeping into hairline cracks. Soil will migrate and turn over, shifting and consuming whatever objets d’art now grace your yard. Oxidation and sunlight will yellow and crack exposed plastic and paper. And everywhere, always, a teeming horde of plant roots, invertebrates, moles, and their microbial friends and relations will disaggregate and eat whatever they can. In the blink of a geological eye, almost your entire archaeological record will very likely be buried, broken down, and swept away.

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Hail Hephaestus, Interdisciplinary Deity!

The Aegean region of the Eastern Mediterranean can claim, with good reason, to be a cradle of modern civilisation and scholarship. As we learn in this issue of Elements, the Aegean is also home to some extraordinary geology, including Santorini Volcano whose Late Bronze Age eruption presaged (but did not actually cause, we learn on p. 185) the demise of the mighty Minoan dynasty on Crete. The so-called Minoan eruption was one of many eruptions from Aegean volcanoes that took place under the watchful eye of the Ancient Greek gods, not least Hephaestus, god of fire and son of Zeus.

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Does Earth Still Offer Discoveries?

Imagine a geoscientist who begins his career as a mine surveyor but who quickly realizes that this was too small a field for him. So, he decides to take field trips, which last many years, to remote parts of the Earth. What our geoscientist discovers includes nothing less than the interactions between topography and climate, the alignment of volcanoes along zones of earthquake activity and at great depth, and three-quarters of all known plant species. Returning home, our geoscientist does not rest. Instead, he lets the world know of his spectacular discoveries. He becomes a prolific writer who publishes an immense number of articles and books, all the while discussing the implications of his findings in a dozen or more detailed letters a day with colleagues around the world.

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Mineralogical Revelations From Space Odysseys

Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008), perhaps best known for the 1968 book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey, once stated that “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” As you enjoy this issue of Elements on planet Mercury, think about the remarkable achievement of sending a spacecraft to Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun.

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