UA expert gets own mineral: Anyone for ... Bobdownsite?

2011-11-14T00:00:00Z UA expert gets own mineral: Anyone for ... Bobdownsite?Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 14, 2011 12:00 am  • 

A mineral found in the Yukon has been named for University of Arizona geologist Bob Downs by his former graduate students.

The mineral is colorless, transparent and brittle - nothing like her former professor, said Kimberly Tait of the Royal Ontario Museum. Downs is "larger than life," she said, but also a "really, really nice guy, a great mentor and somebody I consider a friend."

Tait is the lead author of a paper proclaiming the discovery of Bobdownsite in the August 2011 edition of The Canadian Mineralogist.

Downs is tickled by the honor. There are only 4,500 or so known minerals on Earth, and only 1,500 or so are named for people.

This particular mineral was collected in Downs' old stomping grounds in the wilds of the Yukon. It has also been found on a Martian meteorite and can be present biologically. "If your teeth or bones get any fluorine in them, they'll turn into Bobdownsite," he said. "I got it all."

The Mars connection is appropriate. Downs was involved in previous Mars missions and is on the science team for an instrument that will examine the mineralogy of Gale Crater on Mars when NASA lands its Mars Science Laboratory there in August.

Downs said his two sons are especially excited by that mission. He is taking Gordie, 14, and Clay, 12, to Cape Canaveral to watch the blastoff, scheduled for the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Downs has been involved in preparation for space missions for more than a decade. He and UA chemistry professor Bonner Denton have worked together to perfect and miniaturize a Raman spectroscope, which can identify the signature of a mineral that has been excited by a laser beam.

Downs' role has been the characterization and cataloging of those signatures, through a project called Rruff in which he has employed a succession of graduate students over the past decade.

Downs now has signatures for nearly half the known minerals in his database, and his familiarity with them landed him a place with the Mars Science Laboratory mission.

Reading the digital information transmitted from Mars won't be a daunting task, he said. "I've had a lot of experience looking at things that aren't normal."

NASA hopes to find clues to Mars' past with its latest rover, which is about the size of a sedan - longer, taller, more mobile and better equipped than others that have explored the red planet.

Mineral characterization will allow planetary scientists to reconstruct a geological history, which might prove especially interesting in areas that appear to have had water flowing over the surface.

They are seeking to discover conditions that may have been amenable to life on the planet 3 billion years ago, NASA scientists said in a Thursday video briefing.

Downs will be splitting time between his UA classes and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., once the rover Curiosity lands and begins transmitting data.

He isn't the only UA scientist with a connection to the mission.

Images from the UA's HiRISE camera helped NASA choose a landing site and will be used to map out a safe and productive course for the rover's two-year crater tour.

Downs, 56, is curator of the UA's Mineral Museum at Flandrau Science Center. He took a circuitous course to formal study of mineralogy. Until age 30, he worked as a surveyor on construction crews that built roads to the Arctic Circle and dams and bridges across his home province of British Columbia.

He received his Ph.D. in mineralogy from Virginia Tech at age 36, then worked at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

"I did a lot of high-pressure work. I made diamonds out of peanut butter," he said.

"The real trick is to reverse that: make something edible from rock," he said.

He's not predicting that breakthrough, but he does predict easier detection methods for identifying minerals on future space missions and forays around your house.

He said his colleague Denton has already miniaturized Raman detectors and could soon produce one small enough and cheap enough to put into your cellphone.

He points to his own cellphone at a desk in his lab. "What's that made of? Now you know."

Did you know?

Rruff, the project to characterize the spectral signature of all the Earth's minerals, was initially supported by a $4 million grant from Michael Scott, first CEO of Apple Computer. Scott is a physicist and amateur mineralogist. Rruff was the name of his cat.

Name that rock

Seven University of Arizona mineralogists have minerals named for them.

An eighth, Charles Prewitt, had the mineral Prewittite named for him in 2002. It has never been officially recognized, Prewitt said, because the Russian team that conferred the honor never published a paper on the mineral's characterization.

Prewitt, who works with Robert Downs at the UA, is the retired director of the Geophysical Lab of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Minerals named after UA scientists

• Guildite - 1928, Frank Nelson Guild, professor of optical mineralogy, head of the Department of Geology.

• Butlerite - 1928, Gurdon Montague Butler, dean of the College of Mines and Engineering.

• Ransomite - 1928, Frederick Leslie Ransome, professor of economic geology.

• Shortite - 1939, Maxwell N. Short, professor of optical mineralogy.

• Blakeite - 1944, William Phipps Blake, professor of geology.

• Anthonyite - 1963, John Williams Anthony, professor of geology.

• Bobdownsite - 2008, Robert Terrance Downs, professor of geosciences; curator of UA Flandrau Mineral Museum.

Source: UA Mineral Museum

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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