Quartz Discredited

by Lilac A. Rugg
(Mineral Information Network; 4/1/94)

Lithosphere (April 1994); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

In an announcement that continues to send shock waves through the international mineralogical community, researchers at Pine Ridge National Laboratory have discredited quartz as a mineral species. The news, which was delivered to a stunned audience of mineralogists, crystallographers, and geoscientists, was the result of two years of work by Drs. Philip and Rhoda Zirkle, a husband and wife team who perform cryocrystallographic research at the lab. Cryocrystallography deals with the study of low temperature crystal formation.

The researchers, who made their discovery while studying the crystalline phase transitions that occur in ice when it is subjected to varying pressure and extreme low temperature, were initially puzzled by the presence of a gritty residue found in the growth chamber of their experimental apparatus. When the residue was identified as quartz, the Zirkles began an investigation to determine how it got there. After a two-year series of experiments, they conclusively determined that quartz is an ultrastable crystalline form of water in which the individual atoms are locked in place so tightly that the compound survives the transition to normal and high temperatures.

As part of the crystallographers' research, Dr. Rhoda Zirkle examined the scientific record of the early analysis of quartz and discovered that, due to a calibration error in the original experiment, the two atoms of hydrogen in quartz were misidentified as oxygen, and the one atom of oxygen was misidentified as silicon. Thus, instead of SiO2, quartz should have been OH2 or, written in conventional notation, H2O. She explained that apparently no one had ever thought to confirm the original analysis. The error persisted until the Zirkles' research.

Scientists at Bell Laboratories, where quartz crystals are grown for use in the electronics industry, said the recent discovery explained a longstanding mystery. At the lab, quartz crystals are grown by "cooking" scrap quartz fragments in a hydrothermal solution under high pressure. The scientists observed that even though the process produced large, high-quality quartz crystals, the size and number of the scrap quartz pieces did not diminish. "Clearly, something was going on that we just did not understand," said a Bell Labs spokesperson. He added that the Zirkles' results "explained everything." The synthetic quartz is formed from the water in the hydrothermal solution while the scrap quartz acts as a catalyst.

In response to the announcement from Pine Ridge, the International Mineral Names Organization immediately discredited "quartz" as a distinct mineral species. Museum curators around the world have already begun the process of relabelling the quartz specimens in their collections as "Ice, variety Quartz" and have advised serious amateur mineral collectors to do the same.

"Ironically," said Dr. Philip Zirkle in an interview after the public announcement, "the ancient Greeks believed that quartz was water that had frozen so solidly that it wouldn't thaw. It looks like the ancient Greeks were right all along."

[Ed. Note: In case you haven't already figured it out for yourself, Quartz Discredited is a hoax. The article was written as a April Fool's prank by Richard Busch, the Editor of Lithosphere, for the April 1994 issue of the bulletin. Unfortunately, when the article was originally published not everyone recognized as it a hoax. The editors of several other amateur gem and mineral bulletins reprinted the article as fact in their own publications. It was apparently (temporarily) believed by more than one mineral collector of serious stature, and the "merits" of the article were reportedly debated in the offices of several state geological surveys. (Yikes!)

It took two years of phone calls and letters; and printed retractions in the AFMS Newsletter, Rock and Gem magazine, and The Mineralogical Record to get the article under control. By the time it was stopped, Quartz Discredited had been published in at least four continents. But to everyone's credit, and to the real author's relief, those who were "taken-in" by the article were ultimate good sports about it.]

Copyright © 1994 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the April 1994 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002