Thursday, April 07, 2016

Playhouse Creatures, the Q

It has been a long time since I was active in the Canberra theatre scene. This is a shame, because there is some amazing stage talent in this town, and since becoming a father I’ve have hardly any time to even go to shows, much less have any involvement. But I’m hoping to turn over a new leaf this year, and Mrs. Lemming and I finally managed to organize a babysitter and get out to the Q to catch Playhouse Creatures last weekend.

April de Angelis’s play is a historical fiction set during the English restoration, when women were first allowed to perform in the Theatre. Historical accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of getting many of the era’s iconic performers on the stage together. This works very well.  Not many modern Australians care that the Bettertons and Nell Gwynn worked for rival companies (although both performed with the Marshall sisters). But anyone who goes to the show will appreciate having them sparring on the same stage.

The play tells a story of Ms. Gwynn’s drive to break into the theatrical profession, and follows her and her contemporaries through the various challenges that faced women working in the field at that time. There is a strong feminist element to this, as the actresses navigate the fickle tastes of theatre patrons, recriminations of spurned ex-lovers, witch hunts and fires. The similarities between these struggles and the challenges facing modern working women were effective, and added another of many layers to the performance. Anyone interested in feminist takes on these pioneers of the stage should definitely catch the show this week before it closes.

But even for those who are not drawn to the stage by feminism, the play has a lot to offer. The roles are deep and challenging and diverse, with the actresses playing historical actresses both back-stage, practicing their craft, going about their lives in and around the theatre, and in something like half a dozen plays within the play, as excerpts of various period performances which the characters performed. Fortunately for the audience, the roles were performed by some of Canberra’s finest actresses, with expert direction from Jordan Best. As a result the show is worth the price of admission simply to see great performers bringing challenging roles to life with humor, yearning, and passion. Anyone wishing to see great performers rise to the challenge of complex roles should enjoy this show.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Geosonnet 37

A micromole of photons, moonshine bright

Illuminates anoxic microbe mat
Bacteria, archaea use the light
The autotrophs of relict habitat.
Three thousand million years ago they rule
Methanogenic empires of brine
But oxidative phytoplankton’s cruel
Conquistador of oceanic shrine.
The madness of Antarctic mountain vale
Left dry but for this saline alpine lake
The hibernating old ones can prevail
Extremophiles long dormant, now awake.
   A benthic mat with whiffs of oxygen
   ‘twas once their planet; now they’ve come again.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

An Arrogant Anthropocene

An excellent article recently appeared in GSA Today explaining how stratigraphy is defined, and how the proposal to rename a recent portion of the late Holocene as the Anthropocene needs to stay within the rules.  Anyone interested in the Anthropocene should read this description of how stratigraphic definition applies to this case.

As a personal note, one thing I have noticed is that stratigraphic time is usually (but not always) defined on the basis of the first appearance of an index fossil, usually a common, widespread microfossil which appears shortly after the boundary.  From this point of view, calling the next epoch the Anthropocene seems arrogant. After all, we don’t know what the next index fossil is going to be yet, since we don’t know who or what will survive our current industrial climatic perturbation.

If Presidents Cruz (Or Trump, or Clinton) and Putin blow each other up, then the next epoch probably ought to be the cockroachecene. If we kill off everything that evolved since the Ediacaran, it would be the Jellyfishecene*   Calling the Anthropocene implies that we are in control, that we know what we are doing, and that we know we are going to survive. This strikes me as overconfident. Our current situation is probably best described as an “End-Holocene Multi Proxy Anomaly," or EHMPA. But we have a lot of work to do if we want to be in control of whatever comes next. Calling it the Anthropocene seems premature.
* Jellyfish would make terrible index fossils.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Nickel and timed

One of the problems with studying the origin and evolution of life is that our mother Earth has a shady memory.  The farther back in time we go, the rarer and more fragmented the rock record becomes. What this basically means is that for most of the first third of Earth’s history, we run out of rock record before we get back far enough it time to discover the origin of various fundamental early steps in our own evolution. Even for more recent developments, like the oxygenation of the atmosphere and the recent great extinction events, the rock record is frustratingly incomplete. This has several effects.
On the observational side, it requires scientists to draw bigger and bigger conclusions from slimmer and slimmer data. Was there life in the Hadean? If all you have is a pinhead pile of ground up zircons, there is only so much evidence you can put forth.
On the theoretical side, there is of course even more speculation and unconstrained hypothesizing. With older rocks more common on smaller, deader worlds, and hypotheses like Panspermia positing that space is no barrier to the spread of life, there is literally a universe of possibilities. As a result, many theorists have lapsed into quasimystical approaches to the framework for how life has evolved from very early primitive micro-organisms to space age simians who none-the-less waste their time reading this blog. The approaches generally fall into two broad categories.
The first is the “Manifest Destiny” approach. This school of though believes that life is an unstoppable, inexorable force that will climb every mountain, contaminate every spacecraft, and spread in an inexorable evolving wave throughout the universe. Most astrobiologists subscribe to this belief, as it is easier to justify your life’s work if you think that there is actually something out there to find.
The second is the “There but for the Grace of God” approach, which envisages life as a blind, reactive encrustation to grand events and processes far beyond its control. Proponents tend to be hard rock geologists and extinction researchers.
It is important to note that these are hypothetical endmembers- most researchers lie on a solid solution between them, albeit generally closer to one end than the other. It is also important to note that although I have deliberately used non-scientific labels, as these leanings are often manifestations of inclination rather than deduction, an inclination towards one camp or another is in no way an indication that a particular research is not a great scientist. Rather, it is an attempt to colorfully illustrate two diametric approaches taken to thinking about the early history of life.
Tonight, however, I’d like to draw attention to a paper that combines these approaches in a fascinating way. Konhauser et al. 2007 posit an Archean Earth where Nickel-dependent methanogens had evolved to become the dominant life form on the planet. The oxygenation of the Earth’s atmosphere was not a result of oxidative photosynthesis evolving and outcompeting the methanogens. Rather, the decrease in high-temperature, nickel-rich komatiitic volcanism at the end of the Archean weakened the methanogens by creating a shortage of the nickel they needed to survive, reducing methane production and allowing oxygen producers to take over.
            Scientifically, this idea is appealing because increasing lines of evidence, such as that summarized in Geosonnet 21, indicate that oxygen production was going on long before the great oxygenation at a limited local level. But for hundreds of millions of years, it was never more than a transient, small scale local phenomenon.  This hypothesis is also nice in that it ties the large scale tectonic and igneous changes between the Archean and the Proterozoic with the change in atmosphere. Linking those two fundamental shifts in the Earth’s history is always nice, as having them coincidentally synchronous seems somewhat implausible.
            On a purely personal level, however, the proposed narrative reminds me of the H. P. Lovecraft novel, “At the Mountains of Madness” The difference is that the Archean overlords who ruled the hostile ancient Earth were not 3 meters tall. They were 3 microns tall instead. And it was mantle convection, not decadence in intergalactic civilizations, that allowed our distant aerobic forbearers to liberate their planet.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Geosonnet 36

When sand dunes, glac'ers spread across the farm
Migration to a sanctuary's best.
We need an Eden, Oregon lest harm
Befall environments which are distressed.
Six hundred fifty million years ago
The glac'ers covered every continent
Yet benthic evolution did not slow.
How'd life the frozen ocean circumvent?
A diamictite sandwich of black shale
With fossil seaweed as the veg'table.
In open water haven, they prevail
Suggesting snowball Earth was just a fable.
   This promised land of cryogenic times.
   Requires small, locally mild climes.

Geology 43 507

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens SPOILERS

So, I finally saw the new Star Wars movie today.  The good news is that it didn’t suck.  My thoughts will continue, with increasingly annoying spoilers as I go. 

On the science point of view, they had some interesting X-wing fly-byes of a ringed planet’s rings.  I’m hoping that sometime in 2017, the Cassini mission’s actual ring flybys actually work without destroying the spacecraft, and produce images which we can compare to the Star Wars artist’s impression. I suspect that once again, reality will show how limited the human imagination really is.

My other beef is that planets seemed to be less climactically diverse than Earth.  We had all-green planets, all desert planets, all ice planets, but nothing like Earth, will al of those regions easily visible from space.

As for the cinematic experience, the great thing about the new Star Wars movies is that all the little stuff is done really well.  The dialogue is lively, the effects are awesome, the tension in the scenes is well tuned. The new young leads both hold up their parts of the story, and Han Solo is old, but still has it.  The story is very fast-paced, and there is always something happening. Despite the speed of the plot, there are relatively few glaring plot holes.

However, at the same time, there wasn’t a lot of momentum, and much of the movie was emotionally flat. The movie was running full speed from the very beginning of the film.  But unlike the previous movies, there was not a lot of emotional B-story to make us care. The chemistry between Han and Leia from the earlier movies was sadly lacking. Furthermore, all of the main plot points were telegraphed, or otherwise made absurdly obvious, way in advance.  There were no jaw dropping surprises here. And the reveals didn’t have much impact. Any many plot points in the latter third of the movie were transparently about setting up later films.

Similarly, the villains were weak.  One of the few things the prequels did well was to show just what a complete badass the Emperor was; in contrast, the bad guy in the new movie is a cartoon villain. And the Kylo Ren is so shallow that his personality is perfectly captured by a spoof twitter account. Mrs. Lemming described him like a Harry Potter villain- a half blood with a disappointing muggle father. And at several points, I felt the Jedi battles degenerated into yet another live action comic.

Still, the movie kept my attention all the way through, and the special effects were fantastic, both in their spectacle and their integration into the plot. Definitely worth a viewing, but I doubt I will go back unless it is to take the kids.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Twenty-one protons

The David Guetta / Sia hit Titanium has been floating around the internet and our airwaves for about five years now; the first adio broadcasts are just now passing Alpha Centauri. Despite the popularity of the song, its lesser known prequel is hardly ever heard. This may be an accident of economics; not everything can be a hit, especially if it is odd. Or it might just be a sign of the times; unlike Titanium, the prequel came out before Youtube or streaming, and was released on a rather more old-fashioned musical medium known as the 45.  Or, to be more precise, the 44.9559…

You leave it out
And ekaboron holds the space
Nilsen cooked my oxide up
I’m purified, but molten salts are such a waste
Reduced fluorite makes me up

Mendeleev proved nothing removed
Fire assay fire assay
Trivalent, but not the same
As lanthanum or gallium.

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the yttrium
I am the Scandium

Cut me with
Aluminum increase the strength
Rare earth, the lightest one
Take your choice of ore min’rals to soak me up
Phosphates and uranium.

Mendeleev proved nothing removed
Fire assay fire assay
Trivalent, but not the same
As lanthanum or gallium.

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the yttrium
I am the Scandium

I am the Scandium
I am the Scandium

One chart, calcium
takes a proton on the run
Scandium oxide makes glass!

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the Yttrium
I am the Scandium

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the Yttrium
I am the Scandium

I am the Scandium!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

RIP Marco Beltrando

A quick search of the term “RIP” in this blog will show that it has been used over the years to mark the passing of senior scientists, mentors, and explorers who have an influence on me, whether personally or by reputation. I never imagined that I would have to write one for a student several years my junior. So it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to Marco Beltrando.

Marco did his PhD at the Australian National University when I was a technician there. In fact, he would have graduated a few years after I started this blog. He was a big friendly guy, full of energy, lighting up the hallway with the excitement of science. He studied the formation of the Alps, the journey of the various alpine thrust sheets down deep into the Earth and back to the surface again, prying apart their precollisional history, their tectonic wanderings, and their speed, one accessory mineral at a time.

Marco’s geochronological tool of choice was the argon-argon system, not uranium-lead, so we didn’t interact directly in lab on a regular basis. But he certainly had an excellent understanding of geologic time.

As geochronologists, we need to work on a very large span of time. The nanoseconds that we use to define the dead time in our counting systems are 24 orders of magnitude shorter than the duration of time since the Alpine rocks Marco studied were deformed. And the Alps are considered young by geologic standards.  When we throw around millions of years of uncertainty in our professional lives, it can be easy to miss the individual moments that make up our day to day existence. And since the most we can hope for is a lifetime that spans 20 billionths of the history of this planet, it behooves us to treat our time more valuably. After all, Marco only got eight and a half billionths.

To put it another way, the 31 million year age of the Alps is also a thousand trillion seconds. Millions of years are easy to get lost in- ice ages, extinction events, and the evolution of modern humans all happened in a fraction of a million years.  But we can all relate to seconds. We waste them all the time: By the hundreds waiting for the bus, by the dozens looking at random crap on the internet, by the score looking for things we ought never to have lost.

And yet, it only takes a single second to wave someone down at a conference, to greet a long lost friend, to offer a cup of coffee and the prospect of devoting a thousand seconds to catching up on years of life. It is a professional hazard of geology to think that places, things, and people will always be there, as they always have, with no vestige of an end. And it’s not until we lose someone that we realize how fleeting life can be.

Good-bye Marco, and rest in peace. You’ve left us some mighty big shoes to fill, in education, in motivation, and in research. But the best we can do is to try to make the time.