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62771.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 9:08 am Reply with quote

Question: Now, a picture round. What would you do with these? (Drawing their attention to some pretty diatoms.)

Forfeit: Nothing.

Answer: Well, you can clean your teeth, kill insect pests, drive your car with them, make a necklace out of them, and blow up bridges with them.

Notes: Diatoms are microscopic plant organisms (algae) that have intricate and beautiful two-part silicate shells (hence the name, from the Greek 'cut in two') called frustrules. They are found in just about every drop of water you can find on the Earth, and come in a colossal variety of shapes.

When they cease to be, they sink to the bottom of oceans and form 'diatomic ooze' and solidified kieselguhr, which has been gathered from the sea bed and fossilised rock strata for decades and is used in a variety of interesting applications including filters, paints, insecticides, toothpaste, opals, and many other industrial manufacturing processes.

The carbon from fossilised diatoms makes up a large proportion of the fossil fuels we burn. In 1867, Alfred Nobel discovered that nitroglycerin could be made much more stable if absorbed in diatomaceous earth. He patented this mixture as dynamite.

It is said, although somewhat hard to confirm, than when Antony van Leeuwenhoek had perfected his microscopes for sale to the curious young English lords, they would gather after an evening's eating and drinking, after the ladies had been ushered away, and have tremendous fun watching the little spermatozoa of some obliging guest. In 1677, van Leeuwenhoek himself was the discoverer of sperm, and insisted that he could see a little homunculus inside its head, just waiting to grow. The mother must therefore play only a 'warming role'. (Source: Lord Winston of the Fertile Crescent)

Pictures: A suitable colourful array of diatom shapes. Alfred Nobel.

Links to: Dynamite.


Last edited by Gray on Thu Mar 30, 2006 10:06 am; edited 1 time in total

Frederick The Monk
62780.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 9:41 am Reply with quote

kieselguhr is also used in special effects as the fine dust produces a bigger cloud plume from a given explosion.

62783.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 9:45 am Reply with quote

Well, I think we need no more excuse to make the question What plant makes this noise? and then let off a medium-sized kieselguhr-rich explosion.

Frederick The Monk
62785.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 9:47 am Reply with quote

Gray wrote:

The carbon from fossilised diatoms makes up a large proportion of the fossil fuels we burn.

Hold on - how do you work out how much of an oil well is made up of diatom ooze and how much is trees and stuff? And wouldn't the silica dust that's also a bi-product of the decay of diatoms soak up the oil anyway? Kieselguhr is used to mop up oil spills.

Last edited by Frederick The Monk on Thu Mar 30, 2006 9:51 am; edited 1 time in total

62788.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 9:50 am Reply with quote

Hmm, I didn't think of that - just copied it down and thought - sounds reasonable, as there have been (probably) a lot more diatoms than there have been plants.

I'll have a closer look...

Frederick The Monk
62789.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 9:50 am Reply with quote

Love the idea of van Leeuwenhoek's microscopy parties. Link to Minor Planet 5762, also known as 'Wanke'.

62796.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 9:59 am Reply with quote

Yes, it seems to be 'generally believed by scientists', which I take to mean that it's the best theory they have. How they analytically distinguish between sources for coal and oil is beyond me, but I suppose they have to make a guess as to the likely biomasses available at the different times in the Carbonaceaous.

Algae have been around a lot longer than the larger plants.

62797.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 10:00 am Reply with quote

Gosh, opals are also made from diatomaceous earth, so bling goes in there as well... There goes my forfeit.

Frederick The Monk
62801.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 10:07 am Reply with quote

I love that piece of copy from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens:

Many people think that fossil fuelsóoil, coal, and natural gasócome from the bodies of dinosaurs that ruled the earth during the mid to late Mesozoic era, 213 to 65 million years ago.

Do they? How wonderful. So the reason that the planet is heating up is because we're burning too many dinosaurs! What will we do when the dinosaurs run out?

62812.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 10:33 am Reply with quote

Burn the heretics?

Frederick The Monk
62847.  Thu Mar 30, 2006 11:17 am Reply with quote

The perfect answer.

63323.  Sat Apr 01, 2006 8:17 pm Reply with quote

The question needs bit of work here, Chris, I think.

Fabulous subject, of course.

Have you cleaned your teeth with something like dynamite?

Well. Y'know what I'm driving at...


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