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March-April 2013

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Media Reviews

Stories in Stone: Travels through Urban Geology by David B. Williams. Walker & Co., New York, NY. 212 pages; 2009; $26 (hardbound).

We live in the Stone Age. In this delightful book David Williams points out that one needn't travel to wild places such as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon to see geology—geology is in our cities in the stones used to construct our homes, schools, government buildings, and other structures.

I detected a kindred spirit when, in the book's preface, he wrote, “I can't walk by a beautiful stone building, or even an ugly one, without touching it and trying to figure out where the stones came from …” and “I see evidence of continents splitting apart, crashing into each other, and diving deep into the planet; of rivers washing into dinosaur-rich valleys, seas teeming with invertebrates, and hot springs bubbling with bacterial stews; of magma baking limestone into marble, granite carried thousands of miles by plate tectonic movement.”

Each chapter deals with a specific stone. Some are important only locally, such as Florida coquina, whereas others, such as Salem Limestone, can be found in many places. Chapter 1 is about brownstone, a rock I became familiar with (and fond of) when I lived in eastern Pennsylvania. Deposited in the deep valleys created along the East Coast of North America by the breakup of Pangaea 210 million years ago, the sandstone was used for everything from tenements to the mansions of J. P. Morgan and William Vanderbilt.

From there Williams moves on to Quincy Granite, used to build major portions of Boston; the custom houses in New Orleans, Boston, and Mobile; and the Navy dry docks in South Carolina, Massachusetts, and Virginia. Much of the chapter deals with construction of the Bunker Hill Monument, impetus for the first commercial railroad in the United States. Begun as early as 1650, the quarries eventually reached depths equivalent to twenty stories, but the geologic story of the granite goes much deeper. It formed when Avalonia (a microcontinent, similar to modern Madagascar) broke off Rodinia (the supercontinent that preceded Pangaea) and traveled over a hot spot. The rising magma intruded older rocks and then cooled to form the Quincy Granite.

Williams also discusses the Morton Gneiss, a 3.5-billion-year-old rock that he describes as looking like pulled taffy or a mixture of bubble gum and fudge. The rock was used extensively in the 1920s and '30s for art deco–style buildings; its immense age gives Williams a forum for a good explanation of how radiometric dating is done. He also tells us that one of the first geologists to study the stone was the London-born George William Featherstonhaugh (pronounced Fanshaw).

Other rock units discussed include the Anastasia Formation (coquina used to build the fort in St. Augustine, Florida), Carrara Marble (used by Michelangelo), and Indiana Limestone (used in everything from the Empire State Building to more than 750 post offices, 200 courthouses, and 27 state capitols).

I sometimes felt that a bit too much print was given to cultural aspects (for example Chapter 3, devoted to the construction of a stone house by the poet Robinson Jeffers), but then I'm a geologist. I can't vouch for the historical accuracy or cultural aspects, but Williams gets the geology right.

I enjoyed this book both times I read it—first when it came out and then for this review. I think you'll like it, too.


Das Uran von Menzenschwand: Geschichte, Lagerstätte, Mineralien (The Uranium of Menzenschwand: History, Deposit, Minerals), by Gregor Markl and Stephan Wolfsried. Christian Weise Verlag, Munich. 143 pages (in German); 2011; €22.80 (hardbound). 

Even if it were an English translation, the German origins of this book would be clear: the first sentence of the history section contains seventy-two words, and the following sentences are all cast from the same mold. As Mark Twain said: “Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him until he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”

Menzenschwand itself, barely a dot on the map in the state of Baden-Württemberg, some 24 kilometers southeast of Freiburg in the Black Forest, was the biggest uranium deposit in West Germany, which isn't saying a great deal. During the three decades of the existence of the Grube Krunkelbach (Krunkel Creek mine), some three kilometers northwest of the village, it produced 100,000 tonnes of ore with an average grade of 0.72 percent. That's 720 tonnes of recovered uranium, versus something like the Olympic Dam area in Australia, which produced 4,045 tonnes of uranium oxide in 2011 alone and has estimated reserves of 1,280,000 tonnes of U3O8.

The book is divided into three basic sections—history, deposit, and minerals—each of which is further divided into appropriate topics. The life of the mine was fairly short, lasting only from the search for uranium post-World War II, to the mine's opening in the early 1960s and its closure in 1991. The authors refer to the initial search and to the development of the mine as schizophrenic because of the intensity of the feelings and “raging controversy” generated by its presence. Not only did some people consider it undesirable in the period following the war, but there were also the questions of which interest had precedence (homeland security, commercial interests, or stockpiling of raw material), which political unit was in charge (district, state, or nation), and whether anyone ever obtained a formal mining permit.

The last load of ore left the mine in 1991. The site was rehabilitated immediately afterward at government expense (4.5 million Deutsche Marks [DM], of which 2.5 million DM were recovered through the sale of 500 tonnes of ore recovered in the operation). Interestingly, the loading point for the ore, the nearby small town of Seebrugg, was temporarily “forgotten” and was not decontaminated until 1992. Even more interestingly, Seebrugg now has a reputation as a radon health spa!

In the deposit section, the authors describe the location of the mine and its development, as well as the factors leading to the concentration of the uranium ore. The primary shaft reached a depth of 250 meters, with nine drifts at various levels having a total length of about 4,300 meters. The orebody developed near the contact of a gneiss and migmatite body with a formation known as the Bärhalde Granite, and concentration of the ore was a function of both reducing waters from depth and oxidizing rainwaters from above, leading to the development of pitchblende veins and various secondary minerals. This section introduces a range of chemical, pressure, and stability factors unlikely to concern the average collector, then segues into the mineral section, the largest and, of course, most interesting part of the book.

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