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Sunday, December 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Learn to love minerals at the UW Geology Museum
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The Planet Earth welcomes visitors to the UW-Madison Geology Museum.
Credit:Kenneth Burns

You may think you've been around a while because you remember when music television featured music. But there is a place on the UW-Madison campus where you can look at stuff from 300 million years ago, a time long before the heyday of the Thompson Twins.

That place is the UW-Madison Geology Museum in Weeks Hall, home of the department of geology and geophysics and a stone's throw from Union South. On a hot summer day, the museum's cool confines are a haven for fans of asteroids, dinosaurs and pink rocks.

Whoops, make that pink minerals. The museum's self-guided tour book (download a copy here) is at pains to point out that minerals are not the same as rocks.

That explanation comes by way of introducing visitors to the museum's first and loveliest section, which is given over to display cases of luminous minerals. These are breathtaking, their colors vivid. A chunk of malachite from the Urals is bright green, and a piece of erythrite is indeed pink. One case holds specimens that are various shades of yellow, including a piece of California gold, as well as a big hunk of pyrite, also known as fool's gold. (I was fooled.)

There also is a display documenting Wisconsin's mining history, and a small case holds delicate gems (topaz, amethyst). And then comes the mineral section's pièce de résistance, a tiny room where minerals under ultraviolet lights glow in unearthly colors that will take you back to the roller-disco rink.

If all those sterile rocks -- I mean minerals -- have you yearning for evidence of life, you need only stroll around the corner to the next section, which features all kinds of fossils, those humbling remnants of life ancient beyond comprehension. One stone bears the outline of a fern frond dating to the Pennsylvanian period, which ended some 299 million years ago, and nearby are cases holding relics of various corals, clams and sponges. It is strange to contemplate that some of the museum's fossils of ancient sea life came from places like Montana and Kentucky, where now the only beaches are at water parks.

But the museum's most impressive holding is near the end of tour: the Boaz mastodon, which bears the name of the Wisconsin town near Richland Center where its bones were found by farm boys in 1897. The reconstructed skeleton of the mastodon, whose kind became extinct some 9,000 years ago, looms over a room that also features the remains of a 30-foot-high "duck-billed" dinosaur.

In case those mineral and fossil exhibits don't have you sufficiently awed at the infinitude of time, the last part of the tour invites visitors to contemplate the vastness of the cosmos, as represented by a collection of asteroids and moon rocks. Sadly, the moon rocks are only replicas. But then on earth, for now, there are only so many moon rocks.


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