Wednesday, September 20, 2006


A geyser (pronounced gy-zuhr) is a geothermal feature. Geysers occur where there is an opening or fracture in the surface of the Earth. The opening contains superheated water that periodically erupts in a shower of water and steam. The word geyser is the only Icelandic word in the English language. It stems from the name of a particular geyser in southwest Iceland, the great Geysir (an Icelandic word meaning to gush or rush forth).

Steamboat Geyser in steam phase on May 2, 2000 at 10:00 AM (5:00 AM eruption); Norris Geyser Basin; NPS photo (Tom Cawley)
Steamboat Geyser in steam phase on May 2, 2000 at 10:00 AM (5:00 AM eruption); Norris Geyser Basin; NPS photo (Tom Cawley)

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Geysers are rare. According to Geyser World there are approximately 1000 active geysers in the world, with about 500 of them being in Yellowstone National Park. For a listing of active, dormant and exinct geyser one should visit Johnston's Archive Geyser Resources.

In order for a geyser to form, three conditions must be met:

1. an abundant supply of water

2. a heat source

3. special plumbing

The problem is the special plumbing. Most geysers are found in the volcanic rock rhyolite, a high silica rock. Fields of rhyolite are rare hence geysers are rare. The site, “Geyser World”, goes on to give a readable explanation of what happens before and during an eruption. Geysers and the Earth's Plumbing System also explains what factors are needed for a geyser to exist and how a geyser erupts. Some of the links on this page do not work but it is well worth a visit. A cross-sectional diagram illustrates the three conditions that must be met to get geyser activity - heat, water and a reservoir. There are pictures of six basic type of plumbing systems that a geyser might have. The discussion after that gets more scientific in nature.

I have seen WyoJones' Geyser site referred to as the best geyser site on the web. There is a lot of useful information, most notably a section on the continuing survival of geysers. Geysers are temporary geological features. Many factors (either natural or man made) can alter or destroy them. Here, one can find out what dangers geysers have faced and what the greatest threat to their existence is right now. There is a list of geyser that have been damaged or destroyed. It is really a shame.

Is it possible to visit a geyser online? Sure! And where else would one go but to Yellowstone National Park. This is a great site. The tour starts with a visit to the various basins. A geyser basin is just an area that contains a group of geysers. After having finished strolling around the basins, it continues on stopping at each geyser individually. There are movies showing each geyser erupting. Or, one can visit National Park Service's Yellowstone National Park and take in the online nature tours.

Old Faithful Geyser; Upper Geyser Basin; NPS Photo (Jim Peaco)
Old Faithful Geyser; Upper Geyser Basin; NPS Photo (Jim Peaco)
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The underlying geological feature of Yellowstone National Park is a caldera. For a definition of the word caldera visit USGS’s Photo Glossary of Volcanic Terms . For more information on calderas, not only in Yellowstone Park but around the world, one can visit USGS site Calderas and Caldera Formation.

Yellowstone Caldera map
Yellowstone Caldera map Posted by Picasa

A great site for kids is Making Better Sense of the Planet Earth and Beyond. Here, one can learn how to make his/her own geyser.

Lastly, the site Inside Old Faithful gives an account of what scientists saw when they lowered a camera down inside. Unfortunately, one thing they did discover was that the hot water was depositing silica on the walls of the vent. Old Faithful will eventually become clogged and will die. Let's hope that fate is a long ways in the future.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Standard Model

What are the smallest constituents or basic building blocks of all matter? Or, in scientific terms, what are the elementary or fundamental particles of matter? The words "elementary" and "fundamental" mean that the particle has no substructure. It cannot be broken down further into its constituent parts. Originally, it was thought that the atom was a fundamental particle, but it was discovered that atoms are made up of electrons and a nucleus. And, the nucleus is made up of protons and neutrons. So is that it? Can protons, electrons and neutrons be broken down further? The electron is still considered an elementary particle. Protons and neutrons were found to have substructure. Presently, there are 12 fundamental particles divided into two classes - leptons and quarks.

Within the lepton class, there are 6 fundamental particles - electron, muon, tau, electron neutrino, muon neutrino, tau neutrino.

Within the quark class, there are 6 fundamental particles - up quark (u), down quark (d), charm (c), strange (s), top quark (t), bottom quark (b).

The Fermilab's site, "Searching for the Building Blocks of Nature", relates how they discovered the top and bottom quark. The site talks about the accelerators and detectors needed, other technologies such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) developed as a result of this research and their ongoing search for fundamental particles and forces.

All matter within the world is made up of three of these particles - the electron, up quark and down quark. Electrons, protons (u,u,d quark triplet) and neutrons (d,d,u quark triplet) combine to form atoms and molecules. The siteAtom builder illustrates how electrons, up quarks, and down quarks combine to make an atom, in this case a carbon atom. Building an atom is not easy.

So, what holds it all together? There are four elementary forces or interactions between particles - strong (hold the quarks together to form neutrons and protons), weak (help heavy particles to decay), electromagnetic (holds electrons to atomic nucleus) and gravitational. The particles interact with one another via "force carrying particles" called bosons. There are 4 bosons.

1. Gluons (nuclear force)

2. Photons (electromagnetic force)

3. W and Z bosons (weak force)

This is the "Standard Model of Particle Interaction" (or Standard Model - as it stands) - 6 quarks, 6 leptons and 4 bosons. Particle Physics Timeline (or Timeline ) illustrates the development of ideas from 624 B.C. to the present that led to the Standard Model. But it is not the end of the story. The quest goes on.