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

27 August 2008

Off to Siccar Point!

I will be taking a respite for a short time. I am taking advantage of the fact that my dad (also a geologist) is going to two conferences in quick succession over in Europe (he asked if I wanted to go too, who am I to say no).

So, I don't know how the posting will go over the next few weeks. If I find internet access (which I should be able to), I may be doing a post or so from the road. But I am uncertain of when they will be

The itinerary is approximately as follows:

-Visiting Nottingham for the first conference (including a visit to the BGS, I am going to try and spend some time perusing their stacks, as well as a visit to the museum).

-Heading north to Edinburgh to visit relatives (hopefully the weather will be decent enough to visit Siccar Point, with some good photos as well).

-Then a quick jaunt over to Madrid (we don't have any specific plans yet around Madrid, but we have scheduled a day or so for exploring).

-After that, back to the real world. When all of a sudden I realize it isn't the norm for a lowly masters candidate to go globe trekking.

22 August 2008

Wherein I have finished a house of cards


I finished a draft of that damnable tome!!!!

After developing a sleep problem (of the not variety), a couple of bizarre rants on teacups, and not making anything that would qualify as "contact" with another living being for extended periods of time, I have managed to send a draft of my thesis to the advisor.

I only had to teach Word a bunch of terms (that is how you know good science). And it only killed my last laptop in a most grueling fashion. But now, I win! Sure, it will come back in a few weeks looking worse than before, but I can live in blissful anticipation of my house of cards being knocked down.

This sums up how I felt while writing:
Now to await the inevitable sequel.

08 August 2008

Dispatches from Quarry 10

Well, I have told a few geobloggers about it. And it seems Matt is getting the groundwork in place for a paleo-blog of his own.

So welcome to the fold Matt.

Dispatches from Quarry 10 :
observations of assorted phenomena with random musings circulating around the Morrison Natural History Museum. And old dead stuff

You can get to know a little bit more about what is going on at the MNHM by going to their site (preferably visit if you are in the area). Or you can pester Matt by leaving him a comment in his "coming soon" thread. I favor the latter, but then again he has apparently been excessively busy at the museum (which I view as an excellent thing).

07 August 2008

What we need more of is Science!

The immortal rhyming of M.C. Hawking (seriously, if you haven't heard "nerdcore" you haven't experienced true geek-dom) nails a problem with American society on the head. I am certain that everyone reading this blog thinks the current level of scientific literacy in this country is a joke, but it is still being talked about in the media (at least the media can pull itself away from which "Canton" Stephen Colbert is insulting now).

However, nobody can agree on what should be done to improve science standards in this country. This article, by Peter Wood, recently hit the web (from an issue dated 8-8-08, the temporal flux of the internet is truly something to goggle at). It laments a growing disinterest in science by American youth. While I agree that this is tragic, it doesn't propose how we fix this problem (rather it seems to say science isn't at fault, so leave us be).

Wood starts off explaining how the problem is affecting society, specifically it mentions the dilemma of maintaining America's high tech industries if we don't produce quality science literate citizens. Good point. It boggles the mind how this problem developed in the first place. The government has attempted to foster an appreciation for science:
Back in 2003, the National Science Board issued a report that noted steep declines in "graduate enrollments of U.S. citizens and permanent residents" in the sciences. The explanation? "Declining federal support for research sends negative signals to interested students." That seems unlikely, in that the alleged decline hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of students from all around the world for our country's graduate programs.

The precipitous drop in American science students has been visible for years. In 1998 the House released a national science-policy report, "Unlocking Our Future," that fussily described "a serious incongruity between the perceived utility of a degree in science and engineering by potential students and the present and future need for those with training."

Wood disagrees with this assessment. I concede he probably has a point, but when I became a science major all my friends' first comment to me was "What are you going to do with that?". And they continued to give me grief about it until I pointed out starting salaries for oil companies. So while I agree that market forces aren't the only thing keeping students out of science, in my experience it is a component.

Wood argues "cultural imperatives" are what is keeping people out of the sciences. By this, he means it is the science teachers (and the text books) fault for destroying an interest in science. Leaving behind only individuals who feel "a calling" to do science.
...they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren't very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, "Why bother?"
Around this point Wood gives scientists a good long ego-stroke about how awesome we are. We are diligent, highly intelligent, and we can control space-time (wait, I think the last one is about Tom Cruise). While, I'll take the compliment, I don't think he is correct in this stance. The whole point of people studying ANY field is because it doesn't feel like work.
"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
Wood then places the blame squarely on individuals who think children should be praised for learning things (i.e. teachers). And this leads to an exaggerated self esteem on the part of students. I don't agree that this is a problem. Rather, in my experience, I have found most individuals feel insufficient to take on science. Ever since I started college I have met many people (too many to count in my head) who, upon finding out I study science, feel the need to tell me "I am not very good at science" (this is assuredly because they have an inflated sense of accomplishment). I even tutored most of the people who would tell me that (hey, we were undergrads and met in class, I wasn't going to say: "screw you peon, you don't deserve to know the secrets"). With a bit of encouragement, they found that they can do just fine (and usually excel) in science. Here lies my point: The people who undertake science tend to be the conceited ass-holes that Wood is decrying. While the people who don't have this self-assurance tend to leave science alone.

While still in undergrad, I was double-majoring in geology and science education. I got on well with everyone in the education classes, except the science education students. They would belittle the other student teachers, and comments like "well that might work for you, but I teach science" were almost the norm. Now, I know, this can't be the norm for people who make it through the program (my professional teacher partnerships were always loads of fun, with no stuck-up attitude) I am just pointing out how the science education students would come off. And how, once again in my experience, it is the science-oriented students who are brimming with an undeserved sense of accomplishment.

Wood follows this point with a follow-up that scientists are modest, even humble. Continued ego-stoking aside, I don't find that the case. One of my profs. told us that it takes a good deal of hubris to publish any scientific paper. He didn't mean it in a negative context; rather it was a cautionary warning that if we don't keep ourselves in check, we will develop an over-sized ego. I have worked with several scientists who maintain this position, the most notable of which refuses to call himself anything other than a "glorified janitor" and will even clean the toilets at the end of a workday if he feels his ego is getting too big.

Wood also states that it is America's drive for diversity that is hurting the advancement of science. I can see where he is coming from on this one, though I don't necessarily buy the argument. If we have to cater to showing a multi-cultural view of science, that will hinder science. This is because, with a few notable exceptions, science was performed by men of sufficient financial means to support their endeavors. So students, who aren't rich white guys, don't see themselves reflected in science.

I have seen this argument elsewhere, notably in the chess world. At one point, the chess federation was trying to attract more women to chess. One solution they tried was to use dolls to replace the pieces (I kid you not). Surprisingly such a solution didn't work (I mean, what woman doesn't like being condescended to?). Such a solution to the science problem won't work either. Don't water down science, don't condescend to students. They will pick up on it and it won't work.

Around this point is where Wood jumps off the wagon. He argues that it isn't a problem that women and minorities aren't represented in science, because it isn't science's fault.
A society that worries itself about which chromosomes scientists have isn't a society that takes science education seriously.
Well, I'll be frank. The more people from different backgrounds involved in science, the more perspectives a phenomenon receives. The more perspectives a problem receives, the quicker science can address the phenomenon. The quicker science can address a phenomenon, the quicker science advances... and the loop repeats. Just because the NSF is concerned about the gender gap, doesn't mean we have stopped doing science. Papers are still being published, and classes are being taught. Organizations like the NSF, are only trying to reach a broader group of potential scientists. Let me reiterate: This is a good thing.

Peter Wood has commented that it is society's fault that students aren't interested in science. It is that we engender students to have confidence in their abilities, when they deserve none (or at least significantly less than we impart). I cannot agree with this statement. Science students display a tendency towards arrogance. Non-science students tend to be intimidated by science (thus the over-whelming success of pseudo-science and new age quackery prevalent in this culture). And it is easy to see why. I have already gotten into arguments with individuals who vehemently disagree with my thesis. It is intimidating when another, more experienced, scientist starts trying to tear you an academic new one. I took his criticisms in stride and did my best to respond to them, but after 30 minutes of being harangued, I would much rather have just walked away. It got worse when one of his regular collaborators wandered over to watch the show. As it was, I only got him to leave by shaking his hand and thanking him for his input (which, to this day, I find mostly useless).

Here is the honest truth; society isn't solely to blame for science's woes. The diversity of departments is not solely to blame for it either. These may contribute to be sure, but I don't think they are the major component. The problem lies with the fact that not enough scientists find the encouragement to continue, and they end up falling between the cracks. This problem cannot be solved by throwing money at it. It cannot be solved by making science "pink" (or any other color for that matter). It can only be solved by departments hiring individuals with a true passion for teaching. If students receive an education from a competent, compassionate source they are most likely to not give up.

This is not only for universities (though they should probably take the lead in this). High schools and middle schools need more, qualified teachers (and this is only made more difficult by schools losing funding if they don't pass exams). An odd disconnect happens somewhere between grade school and high school where science isn't "fun" anymore. This would be solved by the presence of more, qualified teachers. To get these teachers in place, the universities need to have the passionate, patient professors helping to get students through what, the students perceive, they cannot do.

My sister recently started a stint as a professor (not in science, but that is okay). She asked me for some advice on how to teach students. I told her the best thing that all teachers need, to convey their subject, is summed up in one word: patience. Don't rush a student (harder in the large lectures, but do your best), don't belittle a student or their efforts (trust me, if they are anything like me, they belittle themselves enough), just let the students know you are in their corner and are always willing to help.

Another prof. of mine once explained that being a professor is an odd job. You are part coach, part athlete, and part cheerleader (he also coached little league, so sports analogies were common). Coach, because you had to tell them what they did wrong. Athlete, because you are showing them how it is done. And cheerleader, because you have to always root for them no matter how bleak they perceive the situation to be.

The way to solve this problem is not to tackle it from the top (institution wide), rather the problem must be solved from the bottom (profs. have to take it upon themselves to do this properly). And to do this, we only need to inform future generations of academics that they can make a difference, albeit a small one, if they encourage their students (and develop their students' confidence). The problem won't be solved overnight (maybe not in my lifetime) but small steps can be made in the right direction.

And now, some geeksta rap. Take it MC Hawking!

06 August 2008

For the love of Lyell!!!

Hey, I was wondering around AiG. Why? I guess I felt like punishing myself and I didn't want to drive to Denny's.

I found this though:

Is the Present the Key to the Past?


What follows is a diatribe discussing the differences between uniformity and uniformitarianism. One YEC (herein called YEC A) frames this post as a response to another YEC (herein called YEC 1). YEC 1 argues that they are one and the same. While YEC A takes the stance that: uniformity is fine and kosher with the bible (but not with evolution, thus showing how foolish we scientists are), whereas uniformitarianism is stupid and contradicted by the bible.

First and foremost some actual Lyell:

"As the present condition of nations is the result of many antecedent changes, some extrememly remote and others recent, some gradual, others sudden and violent, so the state of the natural world is the result of a long succession of events, and if we would enlarge our experience of the present economy of nature, we must investigate the effects of her operations in former epochs".
-Charles Lyell

Bolding was done by me to emphasize my point. This is what Lyell was arguing for. Now it is true, I only have the abridged version published by Penguin Classics. But this is the 2nd paragraph of chapter 1!!!

Now that we have a very brief intro to Lyell, let's move on to YEC A and his definition of uniformitarianism:

As an example, consider canyon formation. Today, in most cases, canyons are gradually deepening as water slowly erodes the surrounding rock layers. A person holding to uniformitarianism would assume that this has always been the case; he would believe that a canyon has formed by water slowly eroding the surrounding rock layers since “the present is the key to the past.”

However, this need not be so. A number of geologists believe that many canyons (such as the Grand Canyon) were not formed (entirely) by the slow and gradual erosion from the river they now contain. Rather, some canyons were formed quickly under catastrophic conditions. So, the present is not the key to the past in these cases. Yet, the laws of nature presumably have been the same. Therefore, this is an example of uniformity, but not uniformitarianism.


Here lies his first major problem, he doesn't know what uniformitarianism is stating. In the analogy that Lyell has provided, he takes into account that the uniformity of rate is not necessarily true (the bolded portion of the Lyell's quote). The bolded portion of YEC A's statement is uniformitarianism AND uniformity. Uniformity implies a non-changing universe. Uniformitarianism allows for the conditions of the universe to change, but not the underlying laws.

However, I will credit that at least he understands that geologists use modern processes to explain past events (i.e. no mystical beings allowed for science).

YEC A then lays the groundwork for a common argument in creationist nonsense:
Chemical reactions in nature, for example, may have happened at different temperatures and pressures than today, leading to different results. So, we have uniformity, but not uniformitarianism.
I call bullshit on that. YEC A is blatantly misrepresenting science (though what else would you expect from a YEC who never understood science). If a chemical reaction can occur today at (for arguments sake) STP, then it will always have been able to occur under the same conditions (this is an example of uniformitarianism, but not uniformity). However, just because present conditions allow for it now, doesn't imply that those conditions were always present (this is the uniformity nonsense again).

This doesn't mean (as YEC A is implying) that universal constants were different in the past. The speed of light was what it is now (300,000 m/s) 4.6 Gaa. 2 hydrogens would combine with 1 oxygen to form water. And gravity has always been proportional to mass and proximity. Just because the Earth has undergone changes in the past, doesn't mean the laws of the universe (such as: at what temperatures and pressures a reaction can occur) have changed. I will use the "Oxygen Catastrophe" as an example here. Just because the Earth has a decent amount of oxygen present today, doesn't mean it always had the same oxygen concentration. In fact, science has demonstrated that oxygen wasn't a significant component of an early Earth atmosphere.

After this, the topic goes away from science and well into the realm of poor reasoning. Though, I find the fact that YEC A is blind to the implications of his own stance hilarious.
A belief must be justified if it is to be considered rational. Otherwise, it is merely an arbitrary “blind” assumption. Children believe things without good reasons; they are convinced that there is a monster in the closet. And they feel no need to justify their belief; it is enough that they act on it (by pulling the sheets over their head).
What is it about believing the bib-le to be an accurate telling of the formation of the universe that allows anyone to make the claim it is "justified"? There are two creation myths at the very beginning. And they disagree with each other! There are two chronologies of how we went from Adam on down the line (this is how YECs arrive at the 6000 year age of the Earth). And they don't agree either! The "inerrant" word of god contradicts itself again and again. In fact, here is a way of re-writing the bib-le so it would have agreed with modern science

The bib-le, at best, is allegorical (at worst, it is a field manual on how to prepare a goat for sacrifice). It should be granted the same veracity that we impart Aesop's fables. This isn't to say it is all wrong (though some of it is very wrong, unless you agree that I can kill people who aren't exactly like me with god's blessing). Take home message from the bib-le. Don't be an ass. Oh, but wait, YEC A argues that even if I accept a belief, in my argument: the bib-le, as allegorical, it must still be justified (otherwise, according to YEC A, the whole thing is stupid).
Even if we accept it as an axiom, a belief still requires some sort of justification if it is to be considered rational and not arbitrary. If it is arbitrary, then why not assume the exact opposite?
Well, I could take the low road and say that YEC A has shown the bib-le to be a completely illogical set of assumptions with no basis in reality (which, c'mon, it kinda is). But I won't (well, any more than I just did), There are a few issues it raises that are okay with me. Essentially summed up in my "Don't be an ass" bit. Love your neighbor (in a biblical sense if you want), but don't set locusts upon their living rooms. Learn to forgive people who piss you off, but don't wait until you kill everyone on the planet except for the party boat crew. Things like tolerance are fine to teach, but not the "divine retribution" crap. But, if we take YEC A's point to heart, all of that is irrational and should be ignored. Not his intention, but blam, it is there.

This little diatribe of his has nothing to do with uniformitarianism either. Despite YEC A's insistence to YEC 1 that it is important.
A scientist (evolutionist or creationist) deals with the way the universe operates; he is not concerned with why it is the way it is. This does not make him inconsistent.
-YEC 1
YEC 1 makes a good point here (almost, creationists aren't scientists). Science doesn't really deal with anything outside of the natural world. And even though Naturalistic Materialism is a threatening concept to people who wish to go back to a time of nostalgia that never was, it is the best way of viewing the world. Actually, it is the only responsible way of viewing the world. Though I will also point out that science is actually concerned with both questions (how it operates, and why), so long as both can actually be answered in a scientific way (i.e. no moon dragons, water gnomes, space manatees, etc. allowed).

YEC A counters YEC 1 by, essentially, saying if we don't understand god we can't understand science. I think the fact that god is a super-natural being (and can, apparently, do whatever the fuck he wants), that puts him beyond the purview of science. That said, by YEC A's argument, all science is irrational.

Sorry to put anybody reading this through that, but misery loves company.

02 August 2008

But.... I like the Bill of Rights

This is bouncing around the blogs. It makes me angry so I am posting it here. The Washington Post is reporting that the federal government can take your laptop (or any device that can store data: Including such cutting edge technology as Books and scraps of Paper!) for detailed examination without so much as a shred of evidence that you did anything wrong. I can see why, protecting freedom is so much trickier when freedom is involved.
Federal agents may take a traveler's laptop computer or other electronic device to an off-site location for an unspecified period of time without any suspicion of wrongdoing, as part of border search policies the Department of Homeland Security recently disclosed.

The policies cover "any device capable of storing information in digital or analog form," including hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, and video and audio tapes. They also cover "all papers and other written documentation," including books, pamphlets and "written materials commonly referred to as 'pocket trash' or 'pocket litter.' "
Hopefully, nobody is planning on leaving the country any time soon. That could be interpreted as "running". running from what? Your guilt! Technically, my brain can store information, guess it's time for that lobotomy I've been putting off.

Reasonable measures must be taken to protect business information and attorney-client privileged material, the policies say, but there is no specific mention of the handling of personal data such as medical and financial records.

When a review is completed and no probable cause exists to keep the information, any copies of the data must be destroyed. Copies sent to non-federal entities must be returned to DHS. But the documents specify that there is no limitation on authorities keeping written notes or reports about the materials.


Customs Deputy Commissioner Jayson P. Ahern said the efforts "do not infringe on Americans' privacy." In a statement submitted to Feingold for a June hearing on the issue, he noted that the executive branch has long had "plenary authority to conduct routine searches and seizures at the border without probable cause or a warrant" to prevent drugs and other contraband from entering the country.
But wait, oh you almost got me, my laptop isn't made of drugs. neither is my iPod, any books I have, etc.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wrote in an opinion piece published last month in USA Today that "the most dangerous contraband is often contained in laptop computers or other electronic devices."Searches have uncovered "violent jihadist materials" as well as images of child pornography, he wrote.
On a side note: nobody should carry a bible on a plane. That thing is violent in places. I wonder how many bibles they confiscate.

Scarily enough, this has already reach the 9th circuit court of appeals:
In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco upheld the government's power to conduct searches of an international traveler's laptop without suspicion of wrongdoing.
Fortunately, there are plans in action to correct this "oversight".
"The policies . . . are truly alarming," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who is probing the government's border search practices. He said he intends to introduce legislation soon that would require reasonable suspicion for border searches, as well as prohibit profiling on race, religion or national origin.
Frankly, I am in favor of this new "education" plan. Our schools are failing because they don't know the material (like what are the "Bill of Rights"). But if we remove the Bill of Rights from existence, then the kids don't need to know about things like unlawful search and seizure. Same thing with the ID, YE, other stupid mythos here. These are hard topics. if you just say jebus did it, we all get A's!

01 August 2008

Correlation = Extinction

While people hopefully enjoyed a trip up to Nunavut, I figured I'd get back to talking about something tangential to my thesis. Extinctions.

I have talked about my almost school-girl like crush on the Signor-Lipps 1982 paper a lot, so I figure I will address another problem I view as systemic in extinction studies. The logical fallacy that correlations infer causations.

Perusing over Science Daily can show you how often a new study will shed light on an extinction claim. The problem with practically all of these studies is that they don't study an extinction themselves. Rather, they just study whether a possible trigger happened at about the right time.
Examples of this include:

Volcanic Eruptions May Have Wiped Out Ocean Life 94 Maa

Is This What Killed the Dinosaurs? New Evidence Supports Volcanic Eruption Theory

Asteroid or Comet Triggered Death of Most Species 250 Maa

Cosmic Impacts Implicated in Both Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs

When Earth Turned Bad: New Evidence Supports Terrestrial Cause of End-Permian Mass Extinction

These are just the press releases (sorry) so I am certain some of the claims are exaggerated. I am just trying to convey how often a new claim is made that ties an event to an extinction. Upon reading what the study actually covers, it presents no evidence that shows it is the trigger.

The closest you will ever see is something akin to this:
According to their research, the eruptions preceded the mass extinction by a geological blink of the eye.
In other words, this event happened at approximately the same time as we think the extinction happened. It is within the realm of possibility that something like this could cause an extinction. Therefore, the extinction was caused by this event.

Extinctions are the result of complex interactions within the ecosystem (among the biota, climate, landscape, etc.). Mass Extinctions kick it up a notch. Instead of worrying about a single ecosystem, you now are addressing all ecosystems. And any study that claims to show how an extinction happened needs to address how the perceived cause affected the entire ecosystem. To top it all off, evidence is a must. If I were to claim that a bolide caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, here is a (rudimentary and incomplete) grocery list of what I need to demonstrate:

  • An impact occurred at the approximately the right time
    • Alvarez et al, 1980 show this nicely.
  • No comparable impacts preceded it during the reign of the dinosaurs (otherwise, why did they survive the first one and not the last one?)
    • There is a problem with this, Keller's recent work raises this very question.
  • The dinosaurs went extinct after the impact, not before.
    • The problem here is the Signor-Lipps effect (sigh, it's dreamy) and the limits of biostratigraphy.
  • The effect of the extinction has to be consistent with the biota
    • More or less shown, large animals seem to have all been hit hard, but.....
  • The effects of the impact must also be accounted for on other aspects of the ecosystem
    • Possible results include: global fires, decreased primary productivity (photosynthesis), and acid rain. Why is acid rain important? Amphibians don't do so well with acid rain, yet they made it through the KP relatively intact. This hasn't been explained.
  • Potential other causes/inputs must be eliminated or accounted for.
    • Unfortunately, other mechanisms propose similar results. The Deccan Traps, for instance. But what about the lowering of sea-level and the mixing of formerly separated populations? (no geologic evidence would be preserved that would shed light on this, but this would have some influence on population dynamics).
  • Needs to explain why not everything died.
    • with the exception of the acid rain and the phibs, people have studied this one alright. Mammals are small, birds are small, ecosystems based on decay of vegetation provide a buffer.... (Though, in all honesty, these studies can basically be plugged into any of the potential causes. Meaning, these don't add weight to the bolide hypothesis).
  • Needs to explain the limits of this event.
    • did this event have anything to do with the marine extinction at the same time? Or is that an unrelated event? Here's a head-scratcher, did the two extinctions even happen at the same time or did the marine extinction start before the terrestrial one?

5/8 problems still need to be addressed before a tentative conclusion of the KP extinction can be reached. But extinction hypotheses routinely are treated like a done deal. I don't know what the reason is, but scientists really need to re-evaluate the utility of jumping the gun in terms of extinction studies. It is just bad science.


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.

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