I get email: looking for a geophysicist

I got a strange phone call today, from a fellow who was very polite, so I was polite in return, but it was weird — he kept asking me strange questions about the energy involved in breaking up supercontinents, and how much water could be stored under a supercontinent (which had me suspicious right there), and he was also complaining about how none of the geologists anywhere ever seemed to study this stuff. I told him repeatedly that what he needed to do was talk to a geophysicist, which I wasn't, and that I really couldn't help him. He had a few very basic question about plate tectonics that I could answer, but otherwise…this is not my field.

He seemed like a somewhat confused layman trying to get rationalizations for some preconceptions. And then he wrote to me.

He claims to be a Ph.D. student, and he's getting these questions from Walt Brown. The creationist Walt Brown. Hydroplate theory. Flood creationist. Etc.

Dear Dr. PZ Meyers [sigh],

I've been reading your book and enjoying it. I know you aren't a geophysics professor, but mentioned Walt Brown stating a coalescing of hydrogens and oxygens above perhaps a single, vast continent brought on 40 days and 40 nights of rain, but having taken a look at his website he seems more emphasizing that our colleges and labs take no interest at all in delving into the most size and strength of a Supercontinent planet Earth could (possibly) have broken up above where it lifted up its mid-ocean range by way of the most water it which could have had under pressure below it. Volcano interiors sometimes generate inner lightnings. Earthquaked continent sometimes do. Perhaps our planet made its record inner lightning intensities dividing a Supercontinent into its seven continents. I find it hard to believe, from what a few of my Earth science professors pointed out to me, that anyone is in possession of the absolute truth about how the Earth went from not having to having its mid-ocean range.

Thank you for being friendly to me on the phone. Please tell me if you were aware of this information on how the Earth's heavy radioactive elements are distributed?

"The Earth's continental crust occupies 41.2% of the surface area but represents only 0.35% of the total mass of our planet."

(Hugh Richard Rollinson, Ph.D.[geochemistry], Early Earth Systems [Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007], p. 134)

"90% of uranium and thorium are concentrated in the continents."*

*Dan F. C. Pribnow, Ph.D.(geophysics), “Radiogenic Heat Production in the Upper Third of Continental Crust from KTB,” Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 24, 1 February 1997, p. 349.

“Earth’s radioactivity was confined to the crust, a few tens of kilometers thick.”

(John D. Stacey, Physics of the Earth, 3rd edition (1992), p. 45)

“Uranium, thorium and potassium are the main elements contributing to natural terrestrial radioactivity.. All three of the radioactive elements are strongly partitioned into the continental crust.”

(J. A. Plant and A. D. Saunders, Oxford Journals, Vol. 68, p. 25)

“The molten rock oozing from midocean ridges lacks much of the uranium, thorium, and other trace elements that spew from some aboveground volcanoes.”

(Sid Perkins, “New Mantle Model Gets the Water Out,” Science News, Vol. 164, 13 September 2003, p. 174.

Continental crust is roughly a hundredfold more concentrated with radioactivity than ocean-floor crust is.

“Surface rocks show traces of radioactive materials, and while the quantities thus found are very minute, the aggregate amount is sufficient, if scattered with this density throughout the earth, to suppy, many times over, the present yearly loss of heat. In fact, so much heat could be developed in this way that it has been practically necessary to make the assumption that the radioactive materials are limited in occurence to a surface shell only a few kilometers in thickness”

(Leonard R. Ingersoll, et al., Heat Conduction : With Engineering, Geological and Other Applications, revised edition [University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, 1954], p. 102)

“Heat production rate is well correlated to lithology; no significant variation with depth, neither strictly linear nor exponential, is observed over the entire depths of the [two German holes].”

(Christoph Clauser, et al., "The Thermal Regime of the Crystalline Continental Crust: Implications from the KTB, Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 102, No. B8, 10 August 1007, p. 18,418)

Germany's Deep Drilling Project discovered variations in heat-exuding radioactivity related to the rock types, not to depths.

Thank you, Rick Keane


I'm working toward getting a Ph.D. in geophysics with respect to how lightnings can synthesize and disintegrate (e.g. via building up free neutron density and interactions) heavy atomic weight radioactive elements. It is known to science: the magnetic forces between electrons associated with a billion volt; million amp lightning channel are extremely significant relative to their electrostatic forces so their magnetic pinch effects are consequential when they are shooting between, through and around certain light and medium weight nuclei as far as pulling and pushing them together into proximities wherein their strong nuclear forces interact and overcome their Coulombic barriers. The channel radius decreases with larger lightning currents, e.g., 1 billion volts or more.

"A lightning bolt is an example of a Z-pinch discharge. . . A Z-pinch operating at 600 kV and I = 100 kA in hydrogen at 500 Pa pinched from an initial radius of 5mm down to a pinch radius of a = 1.5 mm, and remained stable for 100 nanoseconds.*"

*P. Choi, et al., IAEA Conference, 1978.

(Thomas J. Dolan, Ph.D.[nuclear engineering], Fusion Research [Pergamon: Oxford, UK, 1982], p. 312)

"It is possible for the magnetic pinch effect to occur if the lightning current is high enough while the channel radius is small. For example, for a channel radius of 1 cm, a current of 8 x 104 amp must flow before the magnetic pressure at the surface of the channel exceeds 10 atm. For a channel radius of 0.1 cm, the current must exceed 8 × 103 amp."

(Martin A. Uman, Ph.D.[electrical engineering], Lightning [McGraw-Hill: New York, NY, 1969], p. 241)

The electrons' negative charges repel each other. When close

So, with respect to the magnetic fields encircling electrons in a counterclockwise direction, they're velocity-dependent magnetic forces. They depend not only on the positions of the particles through the value of the magnetic field, but also on the velocities of the particles. The magnetic (Lorentz) force on a charged particle involves the velocity vector of the particle and the speed of light. It's perpendicular to the velocity and the magnetic field.

An electron emits a velocity-dependent magnetic field akin to the magnetic field encircling a current carrying wire (a magnetic force vector perpendicular to the direction of the field). Its magnetic force exerts on any other electrons traveling near to it in the same direction (directed radially inward to the first electron by which a a bunching up of the outer electrons occurs).

"In 1895 he [Hendrik Lorentz] demonstrated that a moving charged particle would experience a force in a background magnetic field, because moving charges produce magnetic fields, and are therefore magnets and so also experience forces due to other magnets."

(Lawrence M. Krauss, Ph.D.[physics], Hiding in the Mirror [Penguin: New York, NY, 2005], p. 30)

". .a magnetic field generates a force at right angles to the field's direction. Also, unlike electric forces, magnetic forces depend on the charges' velocities."

(Paul Halpern, Ph.D.[physics], Collider [John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2009], p. 57)

"More current means a stronger magnetic field."

(Don Lincoln, Ph.D.[physics], The Quantum Frontier [John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD, 2009], p. 76)

The Lorentz forces/ampere/magnetic-pinch effects/self-focusing of the electrons in extraordinarily intense lightnings keeps their electrostatic repulsive forces from blowing up their beams. The electrons' Lorentz forces attract each other with Ampere effects strong enough to overcome their Coulombic repulsive forces and thermal expansions.

One might wonder the most atomic weights of nuclides that can be magnetically pinched into 2 femtometer proximities by the most densities; velocities of beams of electrons that a 1 billion amp; 1 million volt lightning might be able to shoot between, through and around nuclides which are shooting through it in the opposite direction coming from the side of it that has a condensation of positively charged ions. (Two nickel nuclei; for instance, have a 99 MeV Coulombic repulsion.)

Physical Review paper by the pioneer in magnetic pinch effect research, Dr. Will Bennett: http://astrophysics.fic.uni.lodz.pl/100yrs/pdf/10/002.pdf

LIGHTNINGS (even average voltages and amperages--not even close to 1 billion volts and 1 million amperes--have been observed and measured making nuclear reactions, e.g. inverse beta decays, build ups of free neutron densities; interactions with magnetic pinch effects):

"It will be shown that the observations of near-ground AGR [atmospheric gamma radiation] following lightning are consistent with the production and subsequent decay of a combination of atmospheric radioisotopes with 10-100 minute half-lives produced via nuclear reactions on the more abundant elements in the atmosphere."

(Mark B. Greenfield et al., “Near-Ground Detection of Atmospheric Rays Associated with Lightning,” Journal of Applied Physics, Vol. 93, 1 February 2003, p. 1840)

"Immediately after lightning crackled through the atmosphere, the detectors would register a burst of gamma rays, followed by about 15 minutes later by an extended shower of gamma rays that peaked after 70 minutes and then tapered off with a distinctive 50-minute half-life."

(Kim Krieger, “Lightning Strikes and Gammas Follow?” Science, Vol. 304, 2 April 2004, p. 43)

"Observations of > 10 MeV gamma rays observed in NaI detectors within 10s of meters from and coincident with rocket-triggered lightning at the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing suggest that charged particles accelerated in intense electric fields associated with lightning give rise to photons with sufficient energy to initiate nuclear reactions."*

*Joseph W. Dwyer, Ph.D.(physics), et al. "Energetic Radiation Produced During Rocket-Triggered Lightning," Science 31 January 2003, Vol. 299, no. 5607, pp. 694-697.

(Greenfield, M.B.; Sakuma, K.; Ikeda, Y; Kubo, K., "Delayed gamma radiation from lightning induced nuclear reactions," American Physical Society, March Meeting 2004, March 22-26, 2004, Palais des Congres de Montreal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, MEETING ID: MAR04, abstract #D39.003)

"The generation of neutrons in thunderstorm electric fields is related to photonuclear reactions in gigantic upward atmospheric discharges caused by relativistic runaway electron bremsstrahlung."

(Leonid P. Babich, Sc.D.[physics], "Neutron generation mechanism correlated with lightning discharges," Geomagnetism and Aeronomy, Springer, 1 January 2007. Dr. Babich is the head of the Plasma Physics Laboratory at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center All Russian Institute of Experimental Physics, Sarov, Russia)

"Nuclear transmutations and fast neutrons have been observed to emerge from large electrical current pulses through wire filaments which are induced to explode. The nuclear reactions may be explained as inverse beta transitions of energetic electrons absorbed either directly by single protons in Hydrogen or by protons embedded in other more massive nuclei."

(A.Widom, Y.N. Srivastava, L. Larsen, "Energetic Electrons and Nuclear Transmutations in Exploding Wires," Physics Faculty Publications, Vol. 174, January 01, 2007)

"In 1992 Gurevich et al. [1992] described how a relativistic avalanche mechanism that they termed relativistic runaway breakdown would work in the electric field of a thunderstorm and it became clear that the lightning discharge could take on an entirely different character than previously envisioned [Dwyer, 2005]. Subsequent theoretical and observational work has supported the notion that relativistic runaway breakdown plays a significant role in the lightnings process. As will be shown in this paper the measurements of enhanced neutron fluxes in association with lightning can only serve to further confirm this notion."

(Leonid P. Babich, Sc.D.[physics], Robert A. Roussel-Dupre, "Origin of neutron flux increases observed in correlation with lightning," Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 112, 6 July 2007)


"Quite analogouse correlation of the neutron enhancements with electric discharges is seen in other events. Taking into account that the atmospheric discharge lasts for a few hundred milliseconds while the neutron detectors have a 1-min time resolution we see that the additional neutron flux generated in every discharge should be really giant!"

(A.V. Gurevich, et al., "Strong Flux of Low-Energy Neutrons Produced by Thunderstorms," Physical Review Letters , Vol. 108, 19 March 2012)

"Photonuclear reactions are capable of accounting for the possible amplifications of neutron flux in thunderstorm atmosphere since in correlation with thunderstorms gamma ray flashes were repeatedly observed with spectra extending high above the threshold of photonuclear reactions in air. By numerical simulations, it was demonstrated that gamma ray pulses detected in thunderstorm atmosphere are capable of generating photonuclear neutrons in numbers sufficient to be detected even at sea level. . . It would seem that, for neutron generation, in thunderstorm atmosphere, strong nuclear interaction is responsible."

(L.P. Babich, E.I. Bochkov, I.M. Kutsyk, and A.N. Zalyalov, "On Amplifications of Photonuclear Flux in Thunderstorm Atmosphere and Possibility of Detecting Them," Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, Vol. 97, May 2013, p. 291)

Thank you,

Rick Keane

Just another tip here, Mr Keane: real scholars and students don't simply concatenate a whole bunch of quote fragments and say, "explain this". You've cited a bunch of geology texts; have you read them to get clarification on those scattered quotes? That's where you start. Not by phoning up biologists and asking them to explain geophysics to you.

But maybe there are some readers here who know that field better than I do (which is not a high hurdle to cross) and they can address a few of the points. Given that they're from Brown and the Center for Scientific Creation, though, I don't think you're going to find any answers here to fit your presuppositions.


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"I’m working toward getting a Ph.D. in geophysics"

Oh, I'll bet you are. Isn't it a good idea to graduate high school first?

Not a geophysicist, but a Geologist who did a fair amount of tectonics. Pretty much everything here falls under the category of "not even sensible enough to be wrong". As expected.

I did geology a long, long, long time ago and even I can spot several major flaws in what he seems to be implying.
First, the continental crust is mostly pretty close to the surface. So it's not remotely surprising that it's a large component of the Earth's surface area but a small component of its mass.
Secondly, continental rock is generally lighter than ocean-floor rock. Those aren't perfect names because some land masses (Iceland, Hawai'i) are ocean-floor rock whereas a lot of continental rock is covered by shallow sea, but the distinction is real. Because of the density difference, continental rock tends not to be subducted at destructive plate margins. Hence there are much older rocks on the continents than you will ever find on the ocean floor.
Now assuming the stuff about continental rock containing ocean-floor rock to be real -- which it might be; granite (continental) certainly contains more uranium than basalt (ocean-floor), I'd guess that recycling of the ocean-floor has a lot to do with it. We don't know what happens to plates once they've been subducted because we don't have enough very deep earthquake data to figure it out, but it's a reasonable guess that it becomes more fluid and plastic, and there's a chance for the denser bits to settle out and sink down through the mantle. Whereas, even though the continental rocks are lighter overall, they don't sink and get recycled through the earth (they do get recycled over the top, as sediment) and so such radioactive elements as are in them stay up near the top, decaying but not sinking.
That's only a guess but it strikes me as considerably more sensible than lightning blowing continents apart or whatever he's on about.

By Daniel Copeland (not verified) on 05 Sep 2013 #permalink

So... continental crust is 100 % more concentrated in radioactive elements than oceanic crust is (quote above); but continental crust makes up much less than 1 % of the planet (quote above), and oceanic crust even less (dead obvious).

I conclude that the vast majority of heat production from radioactivity still happens in the core and the mantle, and that this heat drives plate tectonics exactly as I'm sure all those quoted textbooks say.

And what is this creationist waffling about hydrogen and oxygen lying around as free elements in huge amounts? That would be a miracle.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 05 Sep 2013 #permalink

I AM a geophysicist, but I can barely start to dissect this incoherent request. The subject is complex and requires a hell of a lot of basic training in geology and fundamental physics. Send this guy back to a legit school in earth sciences for a few years first. But for comedic relief on a Friday it's a great start!

By Chris Jauer (not verified) on 06 Sep 2013 #permalink

He seems overqualified" to get a PhD in geophysics" from Oral Roberts, and Liberty U. frowns on Neptunist revisionism.

Could he be a homeschool PhD candidate?