May 17, 2006
The title of this post says it all—I simply adore maps. They come in all shapes and colors, detailing so many different places, at so many different scales. They’re essential on road trips, handy on local trips, and can even be fun on dates. (Ever try strip geography? It beats poker, any day, unless your date is a war history buff, in which case, watch out for those islands in the South Pacific.)
There are really old maps, like this one:
Or there are new, bizarre maps, which I’ll get to in a bit. What got me started on maps? Earlier this week, I shared my paper on the Fremont culture, but the one thing it really lacked was a map. I couldn’t find a decent one, anywhere, so I went ahead and made one. (We’ll get to that in a bit, too.) Anyways, now, I have an excuse to talk about maps.
It seems like the perfect week for map love… scientists have been charting an astonishing variety of things, ranging in size from the internal paths within microbes to the distances between galaxies in the universe. They’ve been mapping just about everything in between, too.
First, the very small. Researchers at Penn State have described what they believe to be the earliest type of metabolic pathway. They have been studying an ocean-dwelling microbe (Methanosarcina acetivorans) which thrives on methane, using the gas to produce acetate, better known to your fish and chips as vinegar:
Ferry and House, in collaboration with Barry Karger at Northeastern University, showed how carbon monoxide is converted to acetate in a biochemical pathway that includes a well-known pair of enzymes, called Pta (“phosphotransacetylase”) and Ack (“acetate kinase”). The two researchers realized that, in the presence of minerals containing iron sulfides, acetate could have been catalytically converted to a sulfur-containing derivative called an acetate thioester. Attached to the mineral surface, a “protocell” containing primitive forms of these two enzymes could then have generated biochemical energy by converting this derivative back to acetate. Excreting acetate would have completed the cycle. “Our paper,” House suggests, “contains a very sensible early metabolism.” “It is quite possible,” Ferry says reverently, “that this could be the first metabolic cycle.” (via Brightsurf)
While I haven’t yet found the paper to see if they made an actual “map” of the pathway, it seemed quite fitting. A map can show the details of any network; the links which connect the parts. You can have a road map, showing the connections between cities, a brain map, showing the connections between neurons, or in this case, connections between metabolizing enzymes in a simple organism.
Too small? How about something more planet-sized, like a map of the earth’s crust? Far off the coast of Costa Rica, scientists have pulled out the most complete section of the crust ever found. Examining the magnetic orientation of each layer, they were able to map out how quickly the Earth’s crust can form:
Using a device called a magnetometer, Dr. Wilson was essentially able to see stripes of north and south magnetization on the seafloor near Hole 1256D. Because scientists have an established record of when the earth’s polarity flipped, they can use these magnetic stripes to help figure out the age of the seafloor and how quickly it formed.
Dr. Wilson calculated that the crust around Hole 1256D was formed some 15 million years ago. Lava erupted from the East Pacific Rise, a long narrow volcanic ridge, and spread out onto the seafloor to harden and form new crust at a rate close to 8.5 inches a year, much faster than at any place on earth today.
The New York Times article on the subject captures the excitement of discovery, but also hints at unexplored terrain:
Dr. Purdy, who is now director of Lamont-Doherty, called Dr. Wilson’s achievement “extremely important and fundamental” to understanding the earth’s structure. But he said it also demonstrated how little scientists knew about the planet.
“Right now if we’re getting excited about knowing only what’s 1.4 kilometers beneath the surface, then that’s telling you that we don’t know much about the deep earth structure,” Dr. Purdy said in an interview.
The next thing you know, we’ll have a map to the center of the Earth. If you don’t feel like waiting for that, you might be able to check out a map of the universe while you wait:
For centuries, humans have looked to the heavens for their gods and goddesses and clues for finding the nature of the universe.
Now, the largest ever-produced map of the universe gives those lost in the dark some direction, but is also confirms that the universe is full of dark energy, a strange force pushing galaxies apart at ever faster speeds.
An article by Space.com writer Sara Goudarzi, published in USA Today earlier this week, describes the creation:
The new cosmic map is a three-dimensional atlas of more than one million galaxies reaching a distance greater than 5 billion light-years. The most distant galaxies in the universe are more than 13 billion light-years away, and not all of them have been catalogued or even discovered.
The map could never have been possible without a computer, which used an algorithm to distinguish differences from two-dimensional photographs:
To make such a map, astronomers have to find the distance between galaxies. Conventionally, this is done by taking a full spectrum of every galaxy and measuring how the light emitted by each one stretches as the universe expands. But this method is tedious and time consuming because it involves observing each galaxy and splitting the observed light into individual components to measure the light stretch.
However, with the new technique, researchers measured the amount of color distortion of a small sample of galaxies whose colors are well known and therefore avoided the need to obtain a full spectrum of every galaxy.
They then approximated the distance of a galaxy by looking at digital images of the sky and created a map of more than a million galaxies.
The article mentions that the map will soon be available on the internet. I’ll try to report back then.
Now, if you’ve made it through this much map love, you’re probably still waiting for the map I made of the Great Basin/Colorado Plateau. I won’t make you wait any longer:
In this map, I tried to include the areas I discussed in the paper posted here, the other day. I also marked the Meadow/Kanosh area, as I’ve been working on a long story, set there. (There’s some interesting geothermal activity in the area… quite inspiring.) I have a few other stories set throughout this region. One, a screenplay set in the uninhabited stretch between Green River and Salina, has been waiting for an ending. Another is set in an unnamed canyon, but I had the San Rafael Swell in mind during my descriptions. I plan to post the latter tale, a myth I wrote for my mother, tomorrow. So, keep thinking desert, ‘till then.
Image credits: Old map from Ross Maps (was for sale, since sold.) Galaxy map via Space.com.