Bobdownsite; an honour to honour

Posted: March 12, 2012 - 16:41 , by Kim Tait
Natural History, Mineralogy, Research | Comments (0) | Comment

A close up of the mineral on a black background.


I was lead author on a manuscript recently describing a new mineral called bobdownsite, ideally Ca9Mg(PO4)6(PO3F), from the Big Fish River, Yukon Territory. The ROM has been very involved in describing rare minerals from this region for over 40 years.

Al Kulan and associate Gunar Penikis discovered this area in 1974 while exploring the region for iron. When they first arrived at this area they were unable to identify many of the beautiful and unique looking minerals, so they were sent to the University of Toronto for identification to Dr. Donald “Digger” Gorman, Professor of Mineralogy in the Geology Department, who in turn contacted curators at the ROM for help in identifying the minerals.

Eventually all of these samples were donated to the ROM and are now in the permanent collection. This locality is known as the source of the world’s finest crystal specimens of lazulite (Yukon’s official gem mineral now), wardite, augelite, arrojadite and several other phosphate minerals, and is especially known for the seven minerals first described from here (including wicksite named after Curator Emeritus Fred Wicks and gormanite named after “Digger” Gorman, professor of Mineralogy at the University of Toronto.

Watch for future blogs on all of these minerals and one specifically on the region. The other seven found at a related mineral locality called Rapid Creek make this one of the most important mineral localities in Canada. Most of these studies were carried out in the late 1970s and early 1980s and many publications came out of this work. We are now re-investigating minerals from this region with new analytical techniques and several new discoveries have been made. There are just over 4,600 minerals known to exist, with about 60-80 described each year, so any time a new mineral is found it is quite an exciting discovery.

The ROM Mineralogy section recently purchased a raman spectrometer, a powder diffractometer and a single-crystal diffractometer three instruments that can analyze minerals, made possible by generous donations from several people, notably Bob and Brenda Beckett, Keith Barron, companies and mineral clubs in the region. Such instruments are fundamental in our work since it is usually not possible, especially when dealing with microscopic amounts of material, to visually tell one mineral from another. We use these instruments to identify subtle differences in the atomic make-up of minerals. They tell us what elements the mineral is composed of and how those elements join together to form a minerals crystalline structure. Together these two aspects of a mineral – its chemistry and its structure – define any given minerals characteristics. In the process of studying minerals, or accurately identifying them so that we may add them to the collection, we occasionally run across a mineral whose chemistry and structure do not exactly – or in some cases even remotely – match those of any other known mineral. This is always an exciting time since it indicates that we may be on the trail of something new! The wonderful thing about working on minerals from a locality such as those from the Big Fish River in the Yukon is that such new discoveries are not that uncommon (we currently have 3, possibly 4, other intriguing minerals that we are working on from this area) although they can involve a great deal of very detailed, exacting work that may, in some cases, take years to complete. This is normal however for defining any new species. You do want to be careful after all! This was certainly the case with bobdownsite.

A picture of Bob Downs with his children.

Dr. Bob Downs, Professor of mineralogy in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona

What is particularly fun about this mineral is that we named it after Dr. Robert “Bob” T. Downs, a professor of mineralogy in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona. One of the rewards a researcher receives for finding something new – besides the sheer thrill of discovery – is the opportunity to name a new species. In many instances the discoverer will take this chance to honour someone who was influential in their careers or who have made important contributions to their discipline. Bob was my PhD advisor and has been an important person in my career, so it was my distinct honour to be able to name a mineral after him. News from the Arizona Daily Star.