The Deep-Time Data Infrastructure

For centuries, mineralogists have attempted to understand the diversity and distribution of natural crystals on Earth and other worlds. Large and growing data resources catalog more than 5,400 mineral “species,” each defined by a unique combination of chemical composition and crystal structure, as well as more than 300,000 localities at which minerals have been discovered and described. Yet comprehending complex patterns of distribution, much less predicting undiscovered localities and new species, has proven elusive.

With support from the W. M. Keck Foundation, a diverse team of researchers from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, RPI, Rutgers, and the University of Arizona, led by principal investigator, Robert M. Hazen of the Carnegie Institution for Science, have explored new ways to analyze and visualize the evolution of minerals, fossils, rocks, proteins, and planetary systems through billions of years of Earth history.

Of special significance is the introduction of network analysis, widely applied to social interactions, to mineralogy. Network graphs can display simultaneously the connections among hundreds of mineral species and their attributes. These mathematical constructs can be analyzed to reveal previously hidden patterns in mineral distributions and associations, to explore the changing mineralogical landscape through deep time, and even to predict new species and their probable localities.

These results, incorporated into more than 60 peer-reviewed publications and scores of invited presentations in more than a dozen countries, are revolutionizing the study of planetary evolution. These advances have captured the attention of government and corporate scientists, for example in the exploration for critical resources. They have also captured the imagination of a broader public, with more than 1000 print, web, and video news stories garnering an estimated 1 billion “reads.”


Figures. Mineral network diagrams reveal the distribution, diversity, and other attributes of complex mineral systems on Earth and other worlds. Left: A force-directed network diagram of chromium-bearing minerals, in which circles represent mineral species (colors represent different modes of origins; sizes represent relative abundances) and links indicate co-existing minerals.  Right: A bipartite network diagram of 400 carbon-bearing mineral species (colored circles; colors reveal relative ages of earliest occurrence; sizes indicate the relative abundances of species), linked to 300 regional localities worldwide (black circles; sizes represent relative numbers of carbon-bearing minerals at each locality). Vast amounts of information are represented in this interactive visualization.


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