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

25 March 2011

I liked his books...

A few days ago, I heard that Simon Winchester (he of "The Map that Changed the World", "Krakatoa", and "Crack in the Edge of the Word" fame) had published an editorial in Newsweek regarding the recent Japan Earthquake. The tweet that brought it to my attention was not the most glowing review of an editorial I have ever seen, so I was curious about what Winchester was saying.

At the end, I was not overly impressed. The primary thesis of Winchester's editorial deals with earthquake clustering. Earthquake clustering is the concept that a large earthquake associated with one tectonic plate will cause other large earthquakes on the same plate (or elsewhere on the planet). However, he provides no data to back up this assertion. He only uses cherry-picked anecdotal evidence (which is not data, it may be the start of a hypothesis, but it isn't data). With nothing else to support his argument, it is just unconvincing.

If that is all the essay said, that would be fine. However, Winchester uses this concept to argue that this means there will be an earthquake along the West Coast of North America in the very near future. This is just sensationalism, and it has been covered thoroughly by several other geoblogs (notably Highly Allocthonous and Geotripper) and CNN. I recommend looking through them, since I won't be going into much analysis about this.

Last night, Winchester responded to his critics. The Daily Beast article is rather weak in my opinion. It just presents more cherry picked anecdotes and then claims it is obvious to everybody except for geophysicists (and I'd assume geologists too). However, this is a foolish argument to make. Science is not necessarily intuitive.

If science was always intuitive, Aristotle and Plato would still be the top dogs as far as understanding the natural world go. Heavy objects will fall proportionally faster than light objects. There would only be four elements (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) and a fifth "essence" making up the celestial spheres (the origin of the word "quintessential"). The Earth would also be the center of the universe and the continents would not be moving about the planet.

These were all blatantly obvious to the majority of our population, but when people actually started to collect evidence, it was realized that a counter intuitive explanation is what made sense in light of the data collected. This is why scientists go to great lengths to collect data and build massive datasets to demonstrate the validity of a hypothesis.

He also justifies his argument by saying "All that can be said with certainty is that they are more likely to break tomorrow than yesterday". This justification is meaningless as it is true of any natural phenomenon given enough time. With the same confidence as Winchester is displaying with regards to earthquake prediction, I can claim that a giant asteroid is going to collide with Earth. I wish I could take credit for this concept, but it was already advocated by Hsu and his paper "Catastrophic Extinctions and the Inevitability of the Improbable (1989)" (a brilliant, must-read paper).

I will conclude by saying one thing that has bothered me about this from the start. Where is the data to support this? That is an easy one. There are large stores of data available to individuals who wish to study earthquakes. Hell you can follow earthquakes as they happen via twitter (@quakenotices) and practically any mobile device these days. More to the point, it is all aggregated within the USGS and freely available to the public. So why did Winchester not provide any data supporting his point?

We have amassed plenty of data, all of it begging to be analyzed. There is no reason to think that Winchester is wrong advocating earthquake clustering (unless somebody has done the analysis and I just don't know about it). However, without the data to back up his hypothesis, he is not going to convince anybody within the scientific community.

I still like his books, but this is just sloppy thinking. Even worse, it is irresponsible.

Works Cited
Hsu, K. J., 1989, Catastrophic Extinctions and the Inevitability of the Improbable: Journal of the Geological Society, v. 146, no. 5, p. 749-754.

Edit: Even Better, just read this note on Facebook by Dr. Rowe which is the emails sent back and forth between herself and Simon Winchester regarding his articles. It is very good stuff. She also clarified a few things I had questions about myself (most notably, hadn't this already been thought of?). Thanks to Callan and Brian for tweeting this.

12 February 2011

Happy Darwin Day!!!

It is that time again. This clip from Dana Carvey crossing "Sherlock Holmes (2009)" with "Creation (2009)" has been floating around the internet for a bit. I found it funny. After showing it to my museum's director, you can now catch us reciting some of the more memorable lines from the clip at each other. Enjoy!!!

Also, there is a resolution in the House of Representatives concerning acknowledging Darwin Day (H.R. 81). The Center for Inquiry has a petition and a form letter you can send to your representative advocating support for the resolution (which you are encouraged to personalize for added significance to your congressional district). And GovTrack.us shows the status of all legislation currently under consideration by congress, including H.R. 81.

12 January 2011

There's an App for That

In keeping with my one post a month schedule for the blog, I decided that what better thing to talk about in January than applications for a geologist's new iPhone or iPad. Assuming you got one over the holiday season.

There have been a couple of pretty nifty applications that have an Earth Science theme to them. Below are some of the ones that I have had an opportunity to play around with myself.

The first is called "iSeismo" (yes the little "i" is becoming disturbingly common these days). iSeismo turns your iPhone, iPod, or iPad into a makeshift seismometer (as the name would imply). Here are some screen shots of the application I took while messing around with the software:

just a couple of wobbles from pressing the buttons to take a screen shot, but if I bump the table it is resting on... well the result is rather predictable:
If you're curious about what the three lines represent, they each measure the acceleration along one of the devices axes. Diagrammed below:
The best part about this application is it is free to download. So go ahead, shake the hell out of your device... for science!

The next application was all the rage at the last GSA meeting in Denver. Several members of the British Geological Survey announced the release of another free geology application called iGeology.

I imagine I would have more fun with this application if I lived in the UK, but I still downloaded it and play with it. What I really like about this application is that it highlights the geology of wherever I happen to be (provided I happen to be in the UK). However, it also lets me do a search for any location I want to look at.

For example I do a basic search for "Siccar Point" and it takes me to the scottish border.

What if you don't know much about the color codes on the map? No worries, just tap on the screen and a little information window pops open. If you want additional information, just tap on the blue arrow.
You can also tap "further detail" to send you to the BGS website where you can order geologic maps or additional information. Like I said, I would use this more if it wasn't only about the UK, but I still like the application. I can't fault the British Geological Survey for focusing on their own turf after all.

But what if I really wanted to look into getting an application that is relevant to the location where I live. We can't all be fortunate enough to have the BGS as our national survey after all. Well you might be interested in learning about an application called "Earth Observatory Observer" (look no "i" at all!).

While it doesn't have the ability to use your present location to display information on the local geology (a feature I really like in iGeology), you can run around the entire planet. Just tap the little blue arrow in the lower right corner.
There is a wide variety of different types of maps you can load on top of the basemap, including arctic and antarctic specific maps. But since I am talking about the Geology, lets load the Worldwide Geology map.
Look at that nice image of sea-floor spreading and subduction. However, you can only view so much geology at a 1:50,000,000 scale map. No worries. You can load up more detailed maps for various regions. Here is a zoom in on the US (left is the world map, middle is the US Age and Formation map, and the rightis the US rock type map).
All in all, it is pretty nifty. It's also free!

However, interactive geologic maps are only one of the things that has been turned into an app. Wouldn't it be nice to have a handy-dandy resource concisely summarizing vast swaths of literature regarding climate change? There is yet another FREE application for that as well. I vaguely remember talking about Skeptical Science at one point, but that was before I could download the application. Fortunately, their website offers a complete list of the arguments and the science.

The setup for this application is a list of common claims made by climate change deniers (they use the term "skeptic" when they mean denier, but that doesn't really detract from the value of this software). You just tap on the claim listed in the application and the application summarizes both the denier's claim, the scientific standing, and a detailed explanation about the science. For example I just tapped the "It's not happening" heading and the "2009-2010 saw record cold spells" claim (below are a series of screen shots that should stitch together):

This is a phenomenal app that is bound to make denialists squirm. And to reiterate, it is free! Plus, unlike the geologic map apps, you don't need access to the internet while using it. It only requires periodic connections to update the database, but other than that, you can browse it wherever you happen to be.

One final application that I have seen out there turns your iPhone or iPad into a Brunton compass. I know what name you are thinking of, but somehow the developers resisted the urge to name it "iBrunton" or "iCompass". There are two versions available. One is called Lambert, the other is called GeolCompass. I can't say much about either at this time, because I haven't downloaded them (though it looks like Lambert lets you make stereonets on your device). Mainly I have put off downloading them because I can't think of a worse thing to do to my iPad than drag it into the field with me (or my iPhone if I had one). Maybe one day, but not right now.

Hell, I wouldn't even drag my old decrepit laptop into the field, and it was held together by duct tape and good intentions. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind technology in the field (My digital camera is a regular piece of equipment that I bring and I use a GPS device more regularly these days).

I just don't want to spend ~$400 on a device that might not work properly if I drop it in the field (or it gets dust into its case, or it gets wet), especially when other options are available that work just as well. That said, a decent Brunton Transit will run a couple hundred bucks as well, but you can drop it, get it wet, etc, and it will still work. Same for the durability of my field book and pencil.

Technological preferences aside, I highly recommend every geologist with a device that works with the apple app store download the free software:


-iGeology (even if you aren't in the UK. It might encourage other surveys to follow suit)

-Earth Observatory

-Skeptical Science

They are all phenomenal.


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