Tuesday, December 2, 2014

It Only Adds: The Deep History of the Molly Brown House

The physicist Richard Feynman once gave an off-the-cuff monologue in which he challenged the view of an artist friend who claimed that science keeps people from seeing the beauty of things. It's a short, brilliant little speech, which was later turned into a nice little cartoon I urge you to watch.

Feynman concludes that science "only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts."

I agree completely. Science adds enormous depth to our appreciation of the world; both in aesthetic and intellectual terms. It lets us see beyond surface appearances. As Feynman says, you appreciate the flower at smaller scales, and larger ones as well. You see how it's connected to other things in nature, and how it's connected to the evolutionary history of the earth. 

Click for credits.
This isn't only true with flowers, of course. It's true of pretty much everything. Here's my example. I just moved to downtown Denver, and I live a block from the mansion once occupied by the famously unsinkable Molly Brown--socialite, philanthropist, and Titanic survivor. The mansion is a museum now. I haven't taken the tour yet, but I intend to, because Ms. Brown seems to have been a fascinating person. But what I want to focus on here is her house. Most people who look at that house appreciate it as an impressive architectural and historical site. And so do I, though I'll appreciate it more when I learn more.

But I can also appreciate it at a totally different level, and on a far deeper timescale. That's because it's made from a particular kind of rock with a very interesting history, and geologists have worked out this history and explained it to laypeople like me. 

Molly Brown's house is built with blocks of Castle Rock Rhyolite, so called because it was quarried near Castle Rock, Colorado, which is just south of Denver. It's a handsome grayish-pinkish stone you can see in buildings all around Colorado. What's interesting about it is how it came to be. Most layers of rock were laid down over time periods that are, to humans, very long--hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. The rocks in Molly Brown's house were laid down in a less than a day--an extremely violent day, 37 million years ago.

What happened was that a volcano erupted about 100 miles to the west, sending a red-hot cloud of debris, ash, and gas called a pyroclastic flow racing across the landscape, obliterating any living thing in its path. It reached the Castle Rock area within an hour or two. If it had been cooler, it would have settled into a layer of loose ash and rubble, but it was so hot that it fused together into a new layer of rock called welded tuff. It was an eruption that dwarfs anything in recorded history. When Mount St. Helens erupted in Oregon in 1980, it ejected nearly 3 cubic kilometers of material across the landscape. That's certainly impressive, but the volcano we're talking about here was over three hundred times that big. Kaboom.

Luckily, this sort of thing is extremely infrequent--occurring maybe every few hundred thousand years. Still, it's a little disconcerting to read about Colorado geology, and to keep reading about layers of rock--covering a good chunk of the state--that were laid down in similar circumstances. I don't want to be around when the next one happens. Chances are I won't be, but if I am, the best I can hope for is that I make a nice fossil.

Anyway, life went on in Colorado after the eruption. Plants and animals started recolonizing the volcanic wastelands as soon as they cooled down, and life went on for hundreds of thousands of centuries. Eventually, somebody decided to start quarrying the Castle Rock Rhyolite to build fancy houses in the new gold rush town of Denver. One of those houses would be bought by Molly and J.J. Brown, who had struck it rich in the Leadville gold mines. The unsinkable Ms. Brown knew a thing or two about disasters, but I don't know if she had any idea about the one that created the rocks in her house. Her fortune came from rocks and minerals, so I like to think she did.

The Molly Brown house is an interesting place, and Molly herself seems to have been a fascinating woman. Knowing about the deep history of the rocks in her house adds an extra layer of fascination to the whole story; connecting stories on the scale of recent human history with stories from the remote geologic past. As Richard Feyman said, "It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts."


The Rockies Explode. Denver Museum of Nature and Science