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In search of Cumberlandite

Geology Dept.
By VICTOR PAUL ALVAREZ  |  March 6, 2013

ROCK STAR Vaughan.
Rhode Islanders are fond of saying "only in Rhode Island," even when it's not true. This isn't the only state teeming with corruption, long-toothed palookas, or landmarks that "used to be" something else.

Come on, everything "used to be" something else.

Cumberlandite, however, is a uniquely Rhode Island object. Dense, prone to rust, and capable of holding a magnet, it is our state rock. All the Cumberlandite in the world comes from, you guessed it, Cumberland.

I recently went hunting for the intrusive, igneous rock. My guide: Will Vaughan, 23, a Brown University planetary geology grad student who looks like a young, less menacing Willem Defoe.

Slight and soft spoken, he considers questions carefully before answering, is quick to admit when he doesn't have the answer, and is not at all surprised that a reporter is interested in a man who studies rocks. "Who wouldn't be?" he says.

I pick him up on Thayer Street and we head out for the source of all Cumberlandite. Vaughan has been to the spot before on his bicycle; he does not own a car. From his backpack he pulls printed turn-by-turn directions. It occurs to me that I haven't seen directions on paper in years.

"Why not use your phone?"

"I don't have that kind of phone," he says.

Our man Vaughan admits he is a bit of a contrarian. No smartphone, no car, no designs on using his geology prowess to make big bucks in the fracking business. Even among his peers, he is the exception. Geologists are typically outdoors types. Vaughan, the only child of two Chicago librarians, is an indoors guy.

But he manages well when we get to the snow-covered rocks of Iron Mine Hill. He is wearing what appear to be hospital slippers, or knockoff Vans, and yet he ascends the rocks as if floating. On our hunt we find empty domestic beer cans on the ground. Someone has assembled wood for a fire that wasn't lit. Small pieces of our state rock are underfoot, but Vaughan calls them poor specimens.

He has a beauty tucked away in his backpack. I call the rock a "stunt fish." He doesn't know the term. I explain that a stunt fish is one you keep in the cooler in case you don't catch anything.

A stunt fish, though, will not be necessary today. Huge boulders of Cumberlandite wait for us at the top of the hill. They're impressive, as boulders go, and Vaughan plays a neat little trick: taking a magnetized ID badge that reads "William Vaughan, Graduate Student" and sticking it to the rock.

"People say Cumberlandite is weird," Vaughan says. "It's sort of like salad dressing, how the oil separates from the vinegar. It's the chemistry. You've got this white rock that basically separated from the black rock and when you put the rocks together you get Cumberlandite. It's unique from a geology standpoint."

Only in Rhode Island. Really.

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