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

25 April 2008

Widgets and what-not

Well there isn't anything to this post except for me pointing out a cool widget I found.

It shows a world map that updates where seismic events occur. It is more or less in real time, which is to say they update the database fairly regularly. So you can't watch earthquakes popping up all over the world, but it will load the most recent data when you start the widget.

I mention it because the only place it would properly fit was at the very bottom of the page. Not convenient to look at down there, but I like it anyway.

24 April 2008

Quarry 10

Click for the Smithsonian article

The Morrison Natural History Museum is a small museum located in the foothills. It is well worth a visit if you find yourself in Denver area, specifically the Golden and Morrison areas. I admit, however, that I am biased. When I was an undergrad, I interned with the museum for a little bit. I still stop by and volunteer when I am in the area.

This article is talking about some of the recent discoveries the museum has been making, as well as the area's historical significance to paleontology. The baby stegosaur tracks are really amazing to look at. I happen to have an image of one of them:

You can make out the manus (the small oval in front of the middle toe) and the pes in the above photo. You can really see the weight distribution of these guys. Stegs had a unique pes morphology, with three squared off toes, so they are easy to distinguish. The best thing is, the museum has found tracks of many different sizes, all belonging to stegosaurs. There is even some examples of larger tracks being overprinted with the smaller tracks and vice versa. This can be used as evidence of herds, with young (about the size of the shot above) and old (well, full grown) moving together.

Unfortunately, all the prints that have been found were in blocks that were used as a make-shift barrier along a nearby road-cut of I-70. The director is confident that he knows which layer they came from, but we haven't had the opportunity yet to prospect for some in situ track ways.

09 April 2008

An email from a friend....

I got this email today. It has apparently been jumping around the intertubes, so I don't know how factual it is, but I think they were on to something.

Reminds me of a show that was on PBS back when Survivor started in the US. Basically, the point of the show was that a group of ~7 scientists, of various backgrounds, would work together to accomplish some "sciency" tasks with only what they could find on a deserted island. One week they had to develop a barometer, concoct sunscreen, make a microscope, and build a working light bulb (that could work underwater!) all under primitive conditions working with what they had on hand. Nobody got voted off, no rewards for accomplishing the above tasks (which, amazingly, they all were accomplished), no punishments handed down for failure (the barometer was supposed to be part of a complete weather station, it just took more than a week to calibrate everything else). It was just good fun to watch science (and engineering) at work.

[edit: ah I see that after a bit more digging, this is on the Uncyclopedia, which almost certainly means this is a hoax. I found this bit of info from Looking for Detachment (updated at 9:10pm, 09 April 2008) ]
-start of email-
While the media rarely represents geologists to the general population, (excluding sound bytes on Discovery Channel volcano specials), there was one recent attempt to integrate geologists into a television program.

According to various blog sources, CBS was looking to produce a new reality TV show for 2008, after correctly predicting that the writers’ strike would cut down on their ability to create blue-toned dramatic shows centering around corpses. One of their production managers happened to see a documentary on a volcanologist researching lava in Hawaii, and seeing the danger and excitement inherent in people smashing molten hot ‘magma’ with rock hammers, pitched the idea of a ‘geologist survivor-type’ show.

In December of 2007, CBS hired a production crew to pull the show together; the scenario was that nine geologists would be placed in the field, where they would vote each other off based on their willingness to do dangerous geologist type feats common to the field; like researching active volcanoes, earthquakes,
landslides, and landing in bush planes on glaciers. Geologists that weren’t up to the task would be voted off, and the last remaining “Hard-core geologist” would win a prize.

The production was plagued from the beginning. They were successful in finding nine geologists, 6 males and three females, between 25 and 50 years of age, and they quickly set up the first challenge; researching an active volcano in the Phillipines. The geologists and camera crew set up camp near the bottom of the volcano. The camera crew filmed the nine geologists bonding. The geologists were supplied with alchohol (a common strategy to loosen up the cast in reality TV), but the camera crew was surprised to notice that even after drinking gallons of the liquid, the geologists did not change their behavior, and continued talking in an obscure jargonized language about ‘bombs’, ‘breccia,’ and ‘lahars,’ none of which made for good reality TV.

This trend continued through the entire first challenge; the geologists were seemingly oblivious to the camera, and the only interpersonal drama occurred when the seismologist and structural geologist got into a yelling match over the best recipe for chili. When the camera-crew and geologists went up to do research on the volcano, instead of sticking together, the geologists scattered into the landscape, and the camera-crew found themselves unable to find more than two at a time.

Also, after listening to the volcanologist eagerly predict just how soon the volcano would blow, the camera-crew became extremely nervous and returned to the camp. The final result was almost no footage, and the editors were unable to make sense of what footage there was because they had no idea what the hell the geologists were talking about. Finally, few of the scientists seemed to understand the concept of ‘voting off’ another member. After consulting a nearby university, the crew finally explained that the geologists were ‘competing for a GSA research grant.’

This didn’t go well either, as the geologists pointed out that they didn’t have the time to write a research paper. Finally, they were simply told to get rid of someone on some sort of criteria. After a council, the geologists decided that whoever had the worst aim with a rock hammer would be told to leave.

The second event, landing in a bush plane in upper Alaska, was a complete failure. None of the geologists were nervous at the idea, which destroyed the drama the crew was hoping for, and worse yet, no-one in the production crew was willing to accompany the geologists to the site, out of sheer terror. The result was that small cameras were given to two of the geologists to film themselves. When the footage and geologists returned, the editors found tapes filled with footage and commentary about mountains and ‘glacial erratics’. Only ten percent of the footage featured humans, and most of that footage was simply the petrologist standing by outcrops for scale.

By the time the production reached Hawaii, most of the camera-crew had quit (because of the steady diet of chili and the dangerous situations), and only five of the geologists were left; not because they had been voted off, but because they had been over-excited by rock formations at various locations and had refused to leave. Moreover, paying for an almost-constant supply of beer and transportation of the geologists’ luggage (which mainly consisted of rock samples and unmentionably dilapidated field clothing), had almost exhausted the budget. CBS finally pulled the plug on the project in January of 2008, despite their fear that they might be sued for withdrawing the promise of a prize; however, none of the geologists sued, as they were still under the impression that they needed to publish a research paper to receive the money.

07 April 2008

Establishment Clause Anyone?!?!

I read this on Pharyngula this morning. Made me pretty angry, so I thought I would repost the link, with the story attached, on my blog.

There is audio available here.

Kinda makes the blood boil.

Davis (D!!!) is a disgrace. Rob Sherman was only testifying about the governor of Illinois transferring $ 1 million to a church instead of a "troubled private school" (emphasis mine). First, what is the state doing transferring money to a private school? I can look past that seeing as how it is a school (Okay, so the school rents space from the church in question, still willing to give the benefit of the doubt that it isn't a religious school). The real kicker comes when the state criticizes the Deputy Governor for not giving the money to a church as the Governor intended!

is a piece that puts the whole thing in perspective.

[edit: Davis has apparently apologized 11 April 2008 7:00pm-ish]

06 April 2008

It's about the context

I was perusing my back-logged Google reader account when I stumbled on this gem. This was a commentary published in the most recent Nature Geoscience.

It breaks down why blogging may become an essential part of the scientific community. To summarize (not that it is a long article or anything, I just like to make my posts seem more than a quick blurb), the commentary argues that there is a disconnect between the layperson and the expert. And even in areas where the layperson is interested, information is restricted. This isn't due to any malevolence by the expert, it just happens.

The disconnect is caused in 2 primary ways:

1. The layperson doesn't have access to all the information. The construction of a pay-wall to gain access to most journals for example. (Even as a student, you can still feel the icy grip of this one. If it weren't for the fact that I can use a school account to gain access to articles, I would not be doing this very summary... ironic no?).

2. The background experience of the experts allows them to properly sift through papers and pull out the nuggets of wisdom. Whereas the layperson will either get bogged down in the jargon, or attach undue emphasis upon easy to understand throw-away statements. This can also give the false appearance that science isn't "lively" (to use the author's words).

The commentary correctly argues that blogs can be used as a way to bridge this gap. First, access to blogs is (as far as I know) free. I haven't found any that charge you to look at them. Secondly, the nature of blogs is far more casual. Which means experts can easily show their enthusiasm for their own field of interest. They don't have to always use jargon to stay below word/character counts. Experts can also directly engage readers in the comments section of blogs (either the original author, or just other individuals who follow a blog).

The take home message of this essay is that whether blogs will even be accepted by science or not (IMHO, we can use them, but they won't become the primary conveyance of knowledge), people will still find blogs when they are looking for information. When they do, would you rather the layperson see this, or this (Straw man, I know. But do you honestly think they will stop if we do?).

Schmidt, G., 2008, To blog or not to blog?: Nature Geosci, v. 1, no. 4, p. 208-208.

04 April 2008

Is the Red Planet Mercury like the Crimson Eye of Cerberus?

The Planet debate seems to be ongoing (subscription required). While I agree with the IAU that Pluto should not be considered a planet, I find myself in disagreement with their current guidelines for a planet.

Right now the requirements include:

1. For an object to be defined as a planet, it must be restricted to this solar system.

This unfortunately would invalidate all the research behind extra-solar planets, including the proto-planet that was announced on Science Daily a few days ago. This proto-planet is only 100,000 years old!!! This requirement would also remove planetary status from this planet. This is the “earth-like” planet that was discovered approximately a year ago.

2. The object must have cleared its own orbit.

This is perhaps the most galling of the requirements, seeing as how several planets within this solar system haven’t cleared their orbits. The article uses Jupiter as an example of a planet that hasn’t cleared its own orbit. However, the example that jumps first and foremost to my mine is THE EARTH! Every year we cross paths with extra-terrestrial debris which results in meteor showers. If we seriously consider this to be a requirement for an object to be a planet, do we really have ANY planets?

I understand the spirit of the definition, but there are better ways to go about it. Other proposals have included an object that has enough gravity to pull itself into a “spherical shape”. Unfortunately as things bounce around, they break. When they break enough, they begin to take on spherical shapes. I don’t think this is a useful definition. For a while, I thought any object that has enough gravity to initiate differentiation within its own composition could be considered a planet, but apparently certain large asteroids can do this as well.

Maybe we are beating around the bush. The IAS is just trying to set up guidelines to identify the “objects that are gravitationally dominant in [a] solar system”. Perhaps, it should just be defined as some threshold of gravitational pull. Mercury is the smallest non-contentious planet. It is 0.38 Earth’s gravity. Anything with gravity greater than that could be considered a planet. Alternatively, we could even make it a requirement that would include the mass of the parent star and the distance to the star. We could then just use our solar system as a template.

Whatever we do, all these definitions are subjective. They don’t reflect any meaning of the universe. They are merely a human construct to facilitate science. Pluto doesn’t give a rat’s ass if it is a planet or not, neither do any other celestial bodies. I have stated my opinion on the subject (for what it is worth) and many others will do the same. However, while it is easy to talk about your opinions (I notice I do that… A LOT) it is important not to get bogged down in them and get on with science.

As far as the debate itself is concerned, it will continue in August 2008 at an IAS convention. So stay tuned.

PLANETARY SCIENCE: The Planet Debate Continues Mark V. Sykes (28 March 2008) Science 319 (5871), 1765. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1155743]

Royal Astronomical Society (2008, April 2). Youngest Planet Ever Discovered Offers Unique View Of Planet Formation. ScienceDaily.


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