Research, and a little P.R., from Iceland

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Richard Lewis is used to New England’s rapidly changing weather. But when he traveled to Iceland with three Brown geology professors in late August, he began to appreciate New England’s relative consistency.

“In Iceland, if you don’t like the weather, wait 30 seconds,” Lewis said, alluding to Mark Twain’s quotation about the weather in New England.

Lewis, science media specialist for Public Affairs and University Relations, accompanied Professors of Geological Sciences Jim Head PhD’69 and Jack Mustard and Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences Michael Wyatt to Iceland. The professors researched Iceland’s geology to compare it to the surface of Mars, and Lewis posted regular updates to the University’s Web site about their progress.

Iceland’s surface has “hydrated minerals” that show that water has interacted with rock, much like Mars has, and researchers can use Iceland to enhance their understanding of the history of water’s presence on Mars, Mustard said.

Over time, as the water flows over rock, it can leave a precipitate on the surface, Mustard said. Using a spectrometer, scientists can compare Icelandic rocks with Martian rocks to see if they have similar precipitates so they can draw conclusions about whether there has been water on Mars.

Head called these similarities Mars’ “terrestrial analogues,” adding that volcanic eruptions underneath ice in Iceland have created ice and liquid water adjacent to each other – much like what the researchers believe may have happened on Mars.

Water is one of the three essential ingredients for life, along with heat and organic material, Head said, explaining the importance of proving water’s presence on Mars.

Though the professors didn’t discover anything revolutionary – no “smoking gun,” Head said – their trip did help build their understanding about Mars’ history.

“It totally transforms your perspective to sit among the processes while they’re active,” Mustard said. “We could really nail it,” he added, referring to the presence of the same minerals on Earth and Mars.

Their research could also help build the case for a specific landing site for a future Mars expedition, Mustard said, because scientists could now point to certain features of the Martian landscape that could yield more helpful information.

“We were very encouraged,” he said.

Lewis said he accompanied the expedition after hearing from Wyatt about the trip and asking if he could go along. The trip already had enough equipment to accommodate another traveler, so the only additional cost was his airline ticket, he said.

Lewis proposed the trip to Public Affairs and University Relations to “help showcase what Brown faculty are doing around the world,” he said. “Brown is an international institution. What better way to show that?”

After an initial post to the Today at Brown Web page from Providence, Lewis posted from Iceland six times about the researcher’s progress, trying to “chronicle every aspect of the trip.”

At one point during the trip, the Icelandic equivalent of a nor’easter swept through their camp, which was buffered by a V-like formation of their all-terrain vehicles, he said.

“As soon as the food came off the stove, it was already turning cold,” Lewis said. Eventually the group had to spend the night at a ranger hut. They later found out that the storm fell into the strongest category of Icelandic storm – a 12 on a 1-to-12 scale.

It was “apocalyptic,” Lewis said.

Lewis said his writing will allow the geological sciences department to show off its work to prospective students. It could “make it a more personal thing,” he said.

The professors agreed. The writing showed how scientists approach research, Head said. “That’s great for the education,” he added.

Head also said that the project exemplifies Brown’s university-college model because undergraduates will be involved in analyzing the data he and his colleagues collected.

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