Ramblings about what I encounter within the realm of the geosciences, as well as the occasional rant about nonsense.

31 March 2008

The "Machine"

I find this rather funny:

[edit: 21-4-2008 3:19pm]This was apparently made by Michael Edmondson. He is a producer for eXpelled. Ugggh.

Oh well, I think it is hilarious that they can't even make fun of science properly.

The story is here.

30 March 2008

Taking out the trash

Every now and then I start writing a post (collect an article(s) to focus on, make notes to myself about what I should add later, and so on). However, at some point between starting it and publishing it, I decide that either I am beating a dead horse or I just get too busy to follow through then I lose all momentum to finish.

Looking back through my blog posts, I have several draft posts. Rather than finish them, I will just "take out the garbage", and post what I have. I may come back and finish them later, but I just want to feel like I am making progress.

Another one "bites" the dust

Extinctions galore. Some researchers out at Oregon State are arguing that the end-K extinction was the result of a rise of insects.

Click here for the story

Of course this doesn't explain what happened in the marine realm. Or why animals in a lacustrine, fluvial, or marsh setting seemed to for the most part be spared. References and rants are forthcoming.

Sometimes it's hard to breathe

This is an interesting idea, they are proposing the evolution of the avian respiratory system was not as a result of them needing to breathe as they fly at altitude, but a result of dropping O2 concentrations prior to the Permian extinction. They argue that early dinosaurs developed this respiratory system (passing it on to birds) and this is what allowed dinosaurs to flourish and take the top niches in the mesozoic.

Click here for the story

I am unfamiliar with the latest on paleobiology, but is there any evidence of this?

It's like deja vu all over again

I will admit, I do love how the one thing all these Permian extinction papers seem to have in common is that scientists have "nailed" the end-K extinction. Despite nobody being able to solve for the Signor-Lipps effect.

click here to read about volcanism as the cause of the Permian extinction

click here to read about global warming as the cause

a bit old (2004, but hey I cite things from the 80s at times), but click here to read about another bolide impact.

27 March 2008


While perusing science daily, I stumbled upon this little release about early life and molybdenum.

All this talk of molybdenum led me on a quick stroll down memory lane. My undergrad was completed in the same department as the AIRIE group. They were working on developing the Re-Os chronometer for use with molybdenite.

One of the benefits of using molybdenite for geochronolgy is that Re is readily taken into the crystalline structure of molybdenite (Stein et al. point out it is commonly in the high ppm range!). At the same time, Os is excluded from the crystalline structure. This makes it easy to compare the parent and the daughter product.

This paper also points out the possibility that the amount of Re present in the molybdenite is directly related to the genetic conditions of the molybdenite formation. While they don't go into much detail on this, I would be interested in finding out more about this aspect.

I'm not much of an igneous or metamorphic person, but I found this paper a fun read anyway.

H. J Stein, R. J Markey, J. W Morgan, J. L Hannah, A Scherstén (2001) The remarkable Re-Os chronometer in molybdenite: how and why it works
Terra Nova 13 (6) , 479–486 doi:10.1046/j.1365-3121.2001.00395.x

21 March 2008

This is too great not to share

Most of you have probably already heard, but if you haven't read this post from Pharyngula. Don't scroll down or it will ruin the surprise ending.

18 March 2008

I'm just along for the ride... and the beer (the ride is thirsty work).

The National Academy of Sciences has released a report on "Ten Questions Shaping 21st-Century Earth Science". The good news: we have a future (if you didn't already know that). The bad news: my proposed line of research isn't a question (funding will be hard this century...).

Seriously though some of these questions seem intractable or outside the realm of earth science. For instance "How did life Begin?" strikes me as more of a biological question. Sure, portions of geology can help inform the question, but that doesn't mean it is a central theme to the earth sciences. Imagine a biologist giving a talk about mantle plumes, or a physicist giving a presentation about the Ordovician extinction. And the whole looking at mars and other solar systems for life's origin seems a bit of a reach, unless it can be determined we started there. Analogies are useful and all, but surely there is a limit to how far you can drag one out.

I also like the reasoning behind "Earth's dark Age (the first 500 Ma)". It is among the 10 questions to shape earth sciences because "scientists have little information because few rocks from this age are preserved". I mean c'mon, we have hardly touched the surface of what we have PLENTY of data from. It is like saying "we kinda have a fuzzy image for the most recent 500 Ma, now lets get down to some serious arm-waving!"

I would address the extinctions one in more detail, but honestly everyone should know where I stand on that utterly INTRACTABLE question. Instead I will point out there may be some room for improvement in almost all these areas, but I don't think that is enough to state what the questions shaping the future of geology are.

Looking back at the early 20th century, who would have been willing to predict what the next big wave in geology would be ~70 years later? A "crazy" guy named Wegener, even though he had no mechanism, and that is really about it. I don't think it is possible to predict where the paradigm will lead, or when a shift will occur. Which is why things like this perplex me. Thanks DOE, NSF, NASA, and USGS. I assume we have validated our existence for the next 100 years

Bureaucracy, what a trip.

We are greater for having known him

Arthur C. Clarke has passed away today. Click here for the AP article

Rendezvous with Rama was one of my favorite books when I was younger. He was definitely one of the giants of science fiction. It is an understatement but he will be missed.

15 March 2008

Back from Hiatus

Well, my laptop bit the dust (in a truly spectacularly soul-crushing way). I learned a few things from the experience: 1. Always back-up not only your thesis in multiple locations, but your grade book as well (fortunately I was able to recover all my necessary information), 2. Laptops will always die when you are too busy to allow for the inconvenience, and 3. The department laptop runs Windows 98! and as such, cannot use USB drives easily. This calamity (to me at least) coinciding with Spring Break and interviewing grad schools led me to think (again) about extinctions while I was on my somewhat forced hiatus.

Speaking of a hiatus, I recently read this article on the potential of a depositional hiatus to mimic the appearance of a catastrophic (in this usage I mean rapid [by rapid, I have no idea how fast that actually would be. But faster than gradual, which again I have no idea how fast that would be]) extinction event.

Norman MacLeod and Gerta Keller (of Chicuxlub is too early fame) got this article published back in 1991. This is basically a study that applies the Signor-Lipps effect on real-world data, rather than on the initial "thought" experiment (Signor and Lipps didn't really have an experiment so much as just no data, but they had plenty of reasoning skills. Hence why I am dubbing it a thought experiment). MacLeod and Keller have decided to use deposition in the oceans spanning the end Cretaceous (end-K) event. They are examining the appearance and extinction of the foraminifera that have been used in deep-marine settings to infer a cataclysmic extinction event in the marine realm which coincides (approximately) with the demise of the dinosaurs.

Their findings are quite interesting. Basically when you have more constant deposition, the extinction of index forams that supposedly mark the end-K event continue much further into the Tertiary. They are using the Haq curve from Haq et al. 1987. Which states that the lowstands ends just before the end-K event and a sea-level rise was beginning. This would cause a hiatus in deep-sea sedimentation. And while I find this a good application of Signor-Lipps, I am always cautious of global sea-level curves (but that may just be me).

It is also interesting to note that when we discussed this as a part of our journal club, we spent most of the time trying to understand figure 2. Near as we could figure, they used time on the x-axis (by using rock as a measure of time, there are problems with this idea) and the amount of time an individual taxa has existed on the y-axis. We were not at all convinced of this interpretation, but after turning the diagram over in our heads for almost the entire club meeting, we moved on. I am curious what anyone else can make of it.

MacLeod, Norman, and Keller, Gerta, Hiatus distributions and mass extinctions at the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary: Geology, 1991 19:497-501 (via geoscienceworld.org subscription required)

Haq, B.U., Hardenbol, J., and Vail, P.R., 1987 Chronology of fluctuating sea levels since the Trassic: Science v. 235, p.1156-1166.
(subscription required)

05 March 2008

The Importance of Desert Varnish

Apparently, it may be possible to use desert varnish as an indicator of former life. While the varnish can form abiotically, it will incorporate biologic material into its structure. The authors claim this mechanism can preserve this evidence in multi-billion year old deposits, I find that claim a bit of a reach. Genetic material tends to break down after a couple thousand years. Other indicators, like amino acids, may last longer but I am unsure of that.

The big difference between the press release and the actual article is the focus. The press release focuses entirely upon the Martian applications that the desert varnish has. Whereas the journal article's key point is that the formation of silica gels is more important to desert varnish formation than manganese. The article also makes the argument that organic material can enhance and accelerate the processes through which desert varnish forms (it can also slow it down, if there is too much water though). It also makes ties between silica gel deposits worldwide and those that are currently considered separate phenomena (lumped together as desert varnish).

I guess I understand the reason why the press release emphasizes a facet of the study that was covered in less than 2 sentences, but I still find the whole occurrence bizarre.

Click here for the press release

Click here for the pdf (via geoscienceworld, subscription required)
Click here for the pdf (via geology, subscription required)

Baking black opal in the desert sun: The importance of silica in desert varnish Geology Volume 34, Number 7, July 2006
Randall S. Perry (1),(6), Bridget Y. Lynne (2), Mark A. Sephton (1), Vera M. Kolb (3), Carole C. Perry (4), James T. Staley (5)

(1) Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, UK
(2) Department of Geology, University of Auckland, New Zealand
(3) Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin-Parkside, USA
(4) Chemistry Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK
(5) Department of Microbiology, University of Washington, USA
(6) Planetary Science Institute, Washington, USA

03 March 2008

Lyell meets Lincoln-Douglas

Some of you who follow the Dynamic Earth blog have probably already taken notice of this, but I figured I would add a post here as well. Science Debate 2008 is a grassroots program designed to get the presidential candidates of 2008 to debate scientific issues. You can sign the online petition (as I have done) if you want. However, in last months Nature, there was an editorial, a column, and a few letters all addressing this issue.

They focused on both sides of the concept of politicians debating sciences. Some of the benefits are obvious. Science is better represented in political circles which could mean easier funding and less restrictive legislation. Not to mention it would be nice to not have a president who "hasn't made up [his] mind" on the whole evolution thing. They also raise some concerns. Most notable is that science is not a democracy and having politicians debate science could perpetuate this misconception. They also discuss how claiming that science and technology "may be the most important social issue of our time" is a bit disingenuous. Primarily because science itself is not a social issue. It can be a defining factor to inform political debate, but by itself it isn't a social issue.

One of the pieces rightly asks "what will this debate change?" The answer most likely is not much, it will be fun to watch, but it would most likely not be a major factor of consideration for most of the populace. The key factor to look at here is scientific literacy. One of my profs. once informed our lecture hall that maybe 2% of his students will continue on to become scientists or engineers. While the optimist in me thinks that is low, and I don't know where he got the statistic, I have to concede the point that most Americans remain blissfully ignorant of the scientific happenings around them. As reported by the New York Times and the Public Library of Science, a large majority (80-83%) of the population are scientifically illiterate. These reports were published in 2005 and 2006. This statistic is evidenced in the constant repetition of the "only a theory" argument of fundamentalists.

The best way to combat this problem of the publics lack of understanding would be to educate them. Unfortunately, speaking from experience, most people when they reach college do not need to take many science courses. A freshman level introduction to a science may very well be the
last course of science that a student is exposed to. After that, any interest in science might be fulfilled by whatever the discovery channel decides to show (which for some reason keeps airing programs about ghosts, sasquatch, cloning dinosaurs [to study behavior], and other pseudo-scientific shows). I understand the purpose of these programs is to entertain, but the harm they are doing is immense.

People who think like this should not have an input into what goes into science. They need to be educated as to what is science first and foremost. This job falls on faculty at universities. There are two problems with this though. First, introductory level science classes come at a part of a students life when they are distracted by recent changes (ie they are free to do what they wish, getting ready for their "real" lives, study what they want). This leads students to find a lot of introductory classes outside their subject areas to be boring, or a waste of time. (I once had construction technology students complain that they don't need to know geology to build a dam! I explained case histories to show them the error of their ways, but a week later they were complaining about not needing to know about landslides... needless to say I failed to show them the importance of geology to building things on earth). Which leads to the second problem, a lot of the faculty (at least here) have odd ideas about teaching introductory level courses. I have seen the whole gamut of craziness, from profs. who try and condense a 4 yr program of study into 16 weeks (complete with final exam questions involving constructing structural cross sections through the Basin and Range) to demonstrate "Rocks for Jocks" is a misnomer, all the way to profs who just teach about shale (most boring labs ever... don't get me wrong shale is neat, but 16 weeks where that is the underlying focus of lab wears a bit thin).

What there needs to be, is a science class for non-scientists. There have been programs that have done this on a small scale (class size ~30 students), and it seems to work. The whole point is not to feed students facts and theories about a particular science, but to show them how science operates. Beyond that, specialization in a particular science may be in order (like a friend and I have discussed what an ideal curriculum would be for the aforementioned construction technology students. Labs and problems directly related to those fields, like: I would like to build a dam and here is a stratigraphic profile of the area, where should I build it?) An added benefit to this would be to integrate the earth sciences with other departments. This could be critical in keeping earth sciences programs intact (ie relevant to the university), especially considering typically small student populations majoring in earth science.

In the end, a scientific debate would (in my opinion) not necessarily enhance the scientific literacy in the country (on the contrary it may hurt it). But I think raising the issue is the more important objective of Science Debate 2008. If politicians become aware of this problem, it could be a first step in addressing the overall problem of scientific illiteracy in this country.

Nature article: Best Tests for candidates (subscription required)
Nature column: A Debatable Proposition (subscription required)
Nature letters: Both letters are on the page (subscription required)

02 March 2008

Signor & Lipps, we meet again

Well, I couldn't find the article online. Those of you with a reasonable library, it is in GSA Special Publication 190, pgs 291-296, 1982. Really this is an excellent article, I have tried to get this volume several times, but GSA isn't selling it anymore.

So I scanned in the copy I had access to, and turned it into a pdf. I then wandered about cyberspace trying to find a way to upload the file where people could access it (while at the same time not having to pay $10/month to keep it there collecting cyber-dust). After way too long, I think I may have succeeded.

Click here to see if this experiment has worked and enjoy the magic of Signor and Lipps.

I don't know if you need to be me to access this link, so if someone who has the benefit of not being me (who also is interested in this paper) could check and see if this works and send me a comment. I would appreciate it. Thanks!

note: after signing out of both blogger and the yahoo! briefcase (~30Mb free storage. A great bargain considering the low price), it still let me read the article with no problems. I am taking this as an indication that it works.

note again: okay now it is hosted through Mel's site. Thanks Mel. This should alleviate any previous problems. lesson learned: while you can host a .pdf on yahoo!, you can only access it if you are the one that put it there. (edited: March 3rd, 2008 11:16am MST)


All the Latin on this page is from my vague recollections from High School. There are mistakes in the text. I just was trying to get the point across

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM
The photo of the travertine spring was taken in the small opening in the center of the image.

Lectio Liber