Some of the students have English as a second language, so while many of the students may have known some of these definitions of terms, the fact that others of the students wrote them down as questions means they deserve to be answered.

  1. What is a strata?

The word ‘strata’ is the plural of the word ‘stratum,’ which simply means ‘layer.’  In geology it means a layer of rock or dirt which is distinct from the other layers around it.  It might be a different color or have a different kind of rock in it, or it might be at a different angle.



2. Are ‘eras’ like a time period? What is Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic?

Yes.  An era is a long time period.  It is usually defined by some big event that marks the beginning of it and another big event that marks the end of it. 

As you can see on the chart, there are two main divisions of time geologically:  the Phanerozoic and the Precambrian.  The Precambrian is often referred to as the Archaeozoic, or Ancient Life time. 

The Phanerozoic Eon is divided up into three eras: the Paleozoic, or Early Life; the Mesozoic, or Middle Life; and the Cenozoic, or Recent Life.  The Precambrian is often considered an era by itself, as well.

Eras are divided up into Periods and Periods are also divided up into Epochs.

Even Epochs are divided up into a lot of smaller sections when geologists see a lot of tiny strata making them up.


3. What is the geologic column?

The “geologic column” is the term used for the succession of layers shown in the chart above.


4. What is a quasar?  What are their jets?

A quasar is an extremely bright object in the middle of a galaxy.  The farther out we look, the brighter the quasars are.  Very far out, they are so bright we cannot even see the stars in their galaxies because of their brightness.

As you will read in your text, gravitational astronomers do not know what quasars are. But we can form them in labs here on earth (in miniature) when we work with plasma filaments. 

When two filaments start interacting, as they come closer together, they form a very, very bright central core that shoots out positive ions from one side and negative electrons from the other.  These are the jets that we see coming out of the quasars.  The illustration at the right is what a quasar looks like in outer space.


5. What is an atomic year?

Things happen on an atomic level at a certain speed.  Electrons go around the nuclei of atoms at a certain speed.  Heavy elements shoot out parts of their nuclei at a certain speed.  These speeds of the different atomic actions are known.  The amount of them that take place right now, in our time, in one year, would make an atomic year.  Right now an atomic year is the same as an orbital year – the amount of time it takes the earth to go around the sun. 

But let’s use a picture of something.  Suppose an electron could go around the middle of its atom a million times a second in our time right now.  We would define a million rotations of an electron as an atomic second.

Now suppose that that electron was able to go twice as fast a hundred years ago, so it was going around its nuclei two million times a second.  Then an atomic second would only take one-half of a clock second.

The same thing has happened with atomic time.  We know the speed of atomic processes today, and however many of them happen in a year – that is an atomic year, too.

But in the past, atomic processes were faster, so an “atomic year” could speed by before a regular year was finished.  Very early in our earth’s history, an atomic year could speed by in an hour, or even less.  That is how fast atomic processes could be then.  The mistake many scientists make today is to think that atomic years have always been the same as our regular years.  They think atomic actions have always been at the same speed.  But we can see they haven’t, so we have to remember that an ‘atomic year’ is not always the same as an orbital year.


6. What are black holes?

Black holes are what gravitational astronomers think are in the middle of galaxies.  Because they believe gravity formed the galaxies, they think that there must be a very, very strong gravitational field in the middle of each galaxy which sucks everything, including light, in.


7. What do the words “formless” and “vacuous” mean?

“Formless” means something has no form, or no shape.  “Vacuous” means there is nothing in the middle of it – it is empty.


8.  What are magnetic pinches?

Every electric current is surrounded by a circling magnetic field.


Electric currents and their circling magnetic fields do not go in straight lines, but they can be disturbed by all kinds of things and so they tend to jerk around.  Lightning is a good example of this.  Moving air, other electric currents, sound – all kinds of things can disturb the path of an electric current (that is one reason why we insulate our wires, so we can control where the electric current is going!).  When both sides are disturbed at once, the current will pinch in on itself.

When we do it in the lab, it looks like this:

lab pinch

When it happens to a plasma filament in space, it looks like this:

filament pinch


9. What are miniature galaxies?

When we work with plasma filaments in the laboratory and let them start to come close to each other and interact with each other, what we see is a formation that looks exactly like a pinwheel galaxy in outer space, so it is called a ‘miniature galaxy.’

plasma filaments


10. What is Marklund Convection?

“Marklund Convection” is the term used for the way plasma filaments will sort elements.  The elements that are the most easily ionized (can get electrons stripped off them) end up in the center and the other elements are layered toward the outside so that the hardest ones to ionize are on the outside.

Marklund convection

Iron (Fe) is a heavy element and so it is relatively easy to strip an electron off of it.  It ends up in the center.  Outside is helium (He).  It is a very light, small, stable element.  It’s really hard to get an electron stripped off, so it is the farthest out from the center of a plasma filament.


11. What is a canyon system?

Here is an aerial view of Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon


You can see it is not one canyon, but there are a lot of side canyons, too.  So it is called a canyon system when we see a lot of side canyons connected to a main canyon.


12. Does ‘eroded’ mean water carved it out?

To ‘erode’ something is to wear it away.  Wind can do this as well as water.

windstorm erosion

On the left is a windstorm in Kansas.  On the right is some land in Oklahoma which has been eroded away by a windstorm.  All the topsoil is gone and nothing will grow on it now.

Below is a "tree" rock in the Atacama desert. This is the result of wind erosion. This rock is about almost 20 feet tall and the lower portion is exposed to wind-blown sand which has eroded the base faster than the top.


You can see the effects of water erosion in the pictures below.

water erosion


13.  What are gamma rays?

A gamma ray is one of the three types of radiation that an atom can give off.


Very heavy atoms are unstable and they tend to lose parts of themselves.  This is called radio decay.  A big bit that gets shot out is the alpha particle – it is actually a whole helium nucleus (without any of the electrons – it’s just two protons and two neutrons stuck together).  The small (yellow in the picture) bit that gets shot out is a beta particle – which is actually an electron.  But when these guys escape, so does a bit of energy – pure energy – and that is a gamma ray.  Alpha radiation is easy to stop, even with a piece of paper.  Beta radiation is harder to stop, but still pretty easy – your house’s wall will do it.  But gamma radiation is pure energy of very short wavelengths and it can go through all kinds of things, so we use lead to stop it, or very thick concrete.

ray penetration

14.  What is static electricity?

When we think of electricity, we think of the wires in our houses and lights.  That electricity is moving.  But the word ‘static’ means ‘still’ – not moving.  Static electricity happens when two things rub together enough to pull electrons from one to the other – then there is an attraction between them that is electric as they try to pull the electrons back again, but the electricity isn’t really doing anything or moving anywhere.

In the picture below, a young lady has rubbed a balloon on her hair and the balloon has grabbed some electrons from her hair. What you see is the hair trying to grab the electrons back so all the charges will be neutral again. This is static electricity.

static electricity


15. What is uranium?  What is Xenon?

Uranium and Xenon are both elements.  Elements make up everything in the physical world.  Hydrogen is an element.  Oxygen is an element.  Carbon is an element.  Neon is an element.  Here is a table that shows all the elements we know about:

periodic table

Uranium is number 92.  It is the heaviest natural element.  All the elements heavier than it (the ones with bigger numbers) have been made by scientists in laboratories.  Most of them are the results of atomic bits being forced together for a few seconds and “Hey! We have a new element!” – but it flies apart pretty fast after that).  Xenon is on the far right hand side, the fifth row down.


16.  What are black smokers?

Black smokers are eruptions of boiling hot water on the ocean floor.  Because they carry up so many minerals from underneath the surface, they look like black smoke.  But they really aren’t smoke at all.  Black smokers come up because the earth is still very hot in the middle and still putting pressure on the water under the crust. That is also the reason we get geysers.

black smokers


17.  What is a biologist?

A biologist is someone who studies different life forms.  “Bio” means “life” and “logos” means “word.”  So Biology is “the word about life” and a biologist is someone who studies and works with it for money.


18. What is olivine?

olivine serpentine

Olivine is a mineral which is very common under the earth’s crust.  I looks like this.

Olivine is what happens when serpentine is heated and the water is driven out of it.  Here is the mineral serpentine.


19. What is the MAPCIS structure?

First of all, to give you an idea of what a crater looks like after a meteor or asteroid hits the ground, look at the picture below (this first picture is NOT the MAPCIS structure, but just to show you a crater). The letters in MAPCIS stand for “Massive Australian PreCambrian Impact Structure.”


Now, here is how big the MAPCIS feature is – the crater formation takes up most of Australia!

M1 M2


20.  What is an electric discharge?

An electric discharge is basically a zap of electricity.  Lightning is an electric discharge.  They can also happen in space, but those are very much bigger.


21.  What was Pangea?

Pangea is the name given to the first single original continent on earth.  “Pan” means “all” and “gea” is from “geo” which means “earth.”


22.  What does “Absolute Zero” mean?

The colder something is, the slower the atoms and molecules are moving in it.  “Absolute Zero” means that temperature at which they cannot move at all because it is so cold.  They can only jitter a little bit.  We have not been able to force anything down to that low a temperature, but we have gotten very, very close. 

Absolute Zero is about -460 degrees Farenheit (the way we read our thermometers here in the United States).  For us, 32 degrees is freezing water.  0 degrees is 32 degrees below that.  – 460 degrees is 460 degrees below 0. 

Please put on your jacket.