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The Q? Blog

A Tale of Two Mineral Sleuths

by Casey -- Sep 25, 2015
Q?Crew Volunteer Casey

Hello! My name is Casey and I am a rising senior in high school. I have volunteered in Q?rius for two summers and have loved every moment. My favorite part...

Q?Crew volunteer Casey poses in the Collections Zone, where she helps visitors play the Rock Game. One visitor’s approach to the game taught Casey a new way to identify minerals. Photo by Melissa Cannon, Smithsonian.
Q?Crew volunteer Casey poses in the Collections Zone, where she helps visitors play the Rock Game. One visitor’s approach to the game taught Casey a new way to identify minerals. Photo by Melissa Cannon, Smithsonian.

A boy named Cody came into Q?rius, The Coralyn W. Whitney Science Education Center, with his father. Cody engaged in the usual activities offered at Q?rius, whether hands-on identification exercises like distinguishing the shiniest mineral (is it rutile or pyrite?) or using the microscope to view minerals through gigantic desktop displays. As always, I played around with my loosely configured script, letting Cody and other kids rub and scratch and grind the specimens as I engaged them in a conglomeration – pun intended – of fun facts and geological information.

Cody’s father, however, joined him in our last exercise, the aptly named Rock Game, setting him apart from the hundreds of excited kid-sized visitors who have filed through. The Rock Game makes sure that every up-and-coming geologist knows that rocks, like soup, are comprised of different ingredients – and those ingredients are minerals. Cody and his father tackled the compositions of granite and schist.

Using microscope and intuition, the boy contrasted the opaque plagioclase with the quartz to determine the translucence of the white fragments in the granite. Essentially, Cody matched color A with color B. I inserted the guiding questions (What colors do you still need in the granite? What differentiates the two black minerals?) when appropriate.

Cody’s father took a contrarian route to answering the questions. As it turns out, the Cody method, or the high caliber chromatic paralleling process (read as: color matching), is not entirely comprehensive. The common mineral fluorite, for instance, occurs in all colors. The dad reasoned through the puzzles using the minerals’ structures – the pyrite’s cubic crystals, the kyanite’s elongated structures, the microcline’s triclinic system – rather than adopt a method of color identification. Intrigued by his novel perspective, I discovered that he had specialized in geochemistry in his undergraduate studies.

Fascinated by his expertise, in a Sherlockian twist I learned he was colorblind. The father’s colorblindness, a conventional “disability,” actually augmented his perception because of the unique perspective it provided. In Q?rius, he completed the Rock Game in the same way he had achieved the equally difficult color-heavy geochemistry degree: he created an inventive approach to overcome curveballs and pitfalls he confronted.

Needless to say, the father and son got all the answers correct. Their work inspired me, as an aspiring researcher, to pioneer unconventional approaches to a problem.