Saturday, January 20, 2007
Sandia Labs Scientist Shines Light on Mystery Glass in Egypt
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
Driving across the Great Sand Sea of Egypt last year, Mark Boslough's guides stopped to show him and his traveling companions a small, nondescript clump of shrubs.
Anywhere else, the plants would not have merited a mention, let alone a side trip. But in the vast, seemingly trackless desert, they were the only landmark of their kind for miles.
Such is the dry desolation that has contributed to the aura of mystery that surrounds the "desert glass" of southwestern Egypt.
The "desert glass," a beautiful pale green gem, was first "discovered" in the 1930s by British explorers traveling the sand sea of the Sahara.
It was the mystery of how it was made that drew Boslough, a Sandia National Laboratories scientist, to the remote desert last year.
Boslough, an expert in what happens when asteroids collide with Earth, thinks he knows the mystery's answer. But in a recent interview, he frankly acknowledged that his peers are not yet convinced nor should they be, he said.
That might be the case, but in the court of media opinion, Boslough's work has been declared a winner of sorts, named one of the 100 most important and interesting science stories of the year, a listing published in the current issue of Discover magazine.
The desert glass had always been a bit of mystery, but it was not until Italian scientist Vincenzo del Michele noticed a carved scarab of the gem in King Tutankhamen's jeweled breastplate that the mystery was vaulted into public attention.
The standard scientific explanation for the desert glass was that an asteroid slammed into what is now Egypt and Libya 30 million years ago, turning sand or sandstone into the eerie pale yellowish green gem.
Boslough, who does computer simulations of asteroid impacts, has a different idea. Using Sandia's new Red Storm supercomputer, Boslough concluded that the asteroid did not have to slam into the sand or sandstone to create the desert glass.
Instead, the asteroid could have detonated high in Earth's atmosphere, sending out a fireball hot enough to melt the sand or sandstone into a carpet of the beautiful stones.
Camping Bedouin-style in the desert as a British documentary crew filmed them, Boslough and a group of other scientists puzzled through the mystery of the desert glass.
They did not settle the argument. But they did have the trip of a lifetime in the remote desert. "It was awesome," Boslough said.