Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Geological Society of America announces a new early career award



The Geological Society of America’s (GSA) Mineralogy, Geochemistry, Petrology, and Volcanology (MGPV) division has announced a new Early Career award.  Details are available here. Any GSA member can nominate a contender, using the process described in the announcement.  Any geoblogger who has bemoaned the unrepresentativeness of nominees for previous awards in various Earth Science organizations can use this opportunity to create a more representative pool of candidates.  As, indeed, can any other GSA members.

Nominations Deadline: midnight (EDT) 15 July 2014

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Don’t weaponize space

On the Planetary Society  website, the normally responsible and pro-science Planetary Society has posted an opinion piece by Louis Freedman and Tom Jones asking NASA to reconsider its refusal to fund the Asteroid Redirect Mission.  In short, this is a mission to kidnap a small asteroid from elsewhere in the inner solar system, and redirect it towards the earth, hopefully parking it in the most stable lunar orbit they can find (the Moon’s uneven gravity, and the tidal interactions between the Earth and Sun, tend to make most lunar orbits unstable).  Once there, the asteroid can do three things:
1. Fall into the Moon.
2. Fall into the Earth.
3. Be ejected into an Earth-crossing orbit around the sun.

One of the goals of this project is to give manned space missions a target that is easier to get to and from than either a wild inner solar system asteroid, or the Moon.  Because this will give them a stepping stone to Mars. 

The prospect of asteroid redirection technology being used to crash asteroids into the Earth doesn’t seem to faze Drs. Freedman and Jones; they don’t lay our any risk assessment or amelioration plans.    But an asteroid strike on Earth, especially a targeted asteroid strike, could be extremely damaging, as only nuclear weapons are capable of putting as much energy into the atmosphere in a comparable amount of time. And any asteroid-fetching spacecraft could be communicated with by a dish pretty much anywhere on Earth at some points during its flight. 


Amateurs often build radio receivers, point them at the sky, and listed to NASA spacecraft.  To date, nobody has managed to hack one, but there has been very little incentive to do so.  Putting a asteroid redirecting spacecraft into the inner solar system that is a computer hack away from becoming a weapon of mass destruction seems like a pretty rash thing to do, so I am surprised that the Planetary Society is advocating this.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Glaciers are all individuals!

Between 16 and 11 thousand years ago, the Fennoscandian Ice sheet, which once covered the greater Scandinavia area, collapsed. When coastal ice sheets disappear, they don’t just melt in place.  Rather, the outflow glaciers carry the ice to the sea, where it breaks off and floats away as icebergs, faster than snow in the interior of the ice sheets falls and gets compressed into new ice.  But the details of this process are not understood. As one of the more serious potential consequences of global warming is the collapse of one or more current ice sheets (which would result in several meters of sea level rise), figuring out exactly how ice sheets collapse is kinda important.
Stokes et al. (2014) look at the rate of glacial retreat on the glaciers the carried Fennoscandian ice into the Atlantic Ocean.  Specifically, they looked at eight outflow glaciers in Northern Norway.  These outflow glaciers (not fjords, because the ice is all gone) are all close together, so experienced similar climactic conditions.  What the study found was that despite similar forcing, the glaciers experienced very different responses, and all retreated at different speeds and times. This shows that glacial dynamics cannot be predicted based on local climactic conditions, without also accounting for local topography, bathymetry, and ice flow. 

The reason this is important is that many current glaciers in Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula are retreating even faster than these glaciers did at the end of the last ice age.  And this paper shows that our current predictive tools are inadequate to tell us how fast outflow glaciers retreat, even when subjected to similar conditions. Individual glaciers, it seems, all react in their own peculiar way.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

That word doesn't mean what you think it means

Dear American advertising industry:
English is a wide and diverse language.  It has many different dialects, which have evolved their own vocabulary, spelling, and slang over the centuries.  However, with the invention of the internet, any of these strains of our language can be instantly be linked to each other.  This can be a benefit, but it can also be embarrassing. For example, I am guessing that whomever wrote this ad did not realize that in some forms of English, "root" is a synonym for "fuck" (especially the verb, but also the noun).


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tourmaline lemonade



crystallographic sector zoning is a phenomenon that causes all sorts of headaches for geochemists and petrologists.  Basically, as different crystallographic faces grow in a medium (e.g. magma), they have different selectivities for different elements.  If you want to measure how much of a particular element a growing crystal scavenges from its surrounding, and you don’t measure all sectors, or don’t know their true relative volume, this can cause errors.

However, at least two scientists have turned this around, and used the zoning as a feature, not a problem.  Hinsberg and Schumacher (2007) treat the different sectors as co-existing minerals, calculate D values between them, and note that the D values are temperature dependent. Ta da!  They now have a single crystal geothermometer that records T over the growth of the mineral.  If life hands you lemons, compare the sections and build a new tool.


Saturday, May 03, 2014

A dumb gun is not a smart gun

There has been a minor brouhaha in the American media this week about the refusal for gunshops to sell the  Armatix “smart” gun.  These revolve around fears that the sale of this weapon will restrict consumer choice in other, non-adjacent states.

This is not surprising.  The tactic of making a product that nobody wants to buy, and them compelling its purchase through legislation is not new.  Nor is it unique to liberals; rather is practiced by all sides of politics on everything from health insurance to self-propelled artillery to NASA rockets. And this is where the smart gun falls down.

Compared to every other smart product to hit the market in the last ten years, the smart gun is really, really fucking stupid. It make no attempt at all to leverage the information revolution to its core utility, in the way that smart phones, smart glasses, smart cars, and smart everything else do.  So unsurprisingly, not even people who like guns want to but a smart gun.

It doesn't have to be that way.  There is no reason a well-designed actual smart gun can’t be so compelling, useful, and clever that everyone with even a remote interest in physics would want to have one. A gun with integrated display/user interface/ cameras/ standard hand-held computer sensors could to all sorts of amazing things not currently available to current weapons. 

Just off the top of my dome, these include:
  • Integrated tiltmeter/ compass/ gps system that shows you (on a map), where rounds are expected to fall when the gun is pointed into the air.
  • Breathalayzer interlocks.
  • Hunting and firearm regulation and helpful hints relevant to your GPS position.
  • High precision integrated camera/gunsight that records a pic every shot, automatically scores targets based on image analysis, uses image recognition to identify targets.
  • Digital map record of hunting sites, game seen, missed, taken, time spent.
  • Programmable trigger lockouts from image recognition to block unwanted targets, such as:
  • -children.
  • -birds and beasts not in season.
  • -cops.
  • -unsafe elevation (see above).
  • -people who have turned their back/ are retreating.
  • -recognized “do not shoot” faces.
  • -and any other targets where the shooter wants an extra layer of protection against accidents. 

There are all sorts of totally awesome things you could do with a computer-integrated, geospatially aware weapon.  And the fact that guns are exempt from consumer protection laws should only increase innovation in this area.  Done properly, a genuinely smart gun could make uncomputerized guns as obsolete as flip phones.

I don’t know who would make them, but perhaps a hugecomputer company in a gun-loving state desperate for a new product would be interested.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Shakespeare’s other tragedies

In popular culture one particular tragic play by William Shakespeare is vastly over-represented.  This is, of course, Romeo and Juliet.  Every generation, artists from all over the English speaking world channel the Bard through these characters, a process that gives short shrift to all of his other tragic figures, such as King Lear.


It doesn't have to be this way, though.  After all, each of the singer-songwriters who most closely associate with the love story is herself in part a product of her surroundings and upbringing; in another time and place, they could have other interests, and different narratives to tell.  For example, if Taylor Swift had been born the youngest of three British princesses 2800 years earlier, she might have reflected on her life experiences like this:

I was still young when I first lost you
I knot my tongue- And the nightmare starts
I’m standing there
In the throne room with other heirs.

You begot
Me, bred me, loved me;
Honor, obey, yes I most loved you
But that’s all, little did I know

That truth would be my dower, my land digested
And my daddy said Burgundy or France it is
I refused the glib and oily art,
Begging you please don’t go. No, I said

Goneril, take my castle and we’re all done
Don’t scheme with Regan, put me on the run
Lear is the king and I’ll be the heiress
My love is earnest, daddy will say yes.

So my sisters can’t stand to see you
Disquantity your crown retinue.
Sumpter and slave,
Walk the moors for a little while.

But I still have France, spies and speculation
And daddy said stay away from British Isles
But they were everything to me
I was begging him please to war. And I said

Goneril, take my castle and we’re all done
Don’t scheme with Regan, put me on the run
Lear is the king and I’ll be the heiress
My love is earnest, daddy will say yes.

Goneril has my castle but we’re not done
Regan’s a coward, my French will never run
France is the king and I am his princess
My love is earnest, baby just fight best.

Oh Oh

Daddy, do you know me?
I’m no spirit, I’m still far and wide.
I do not mock thee
If France wins I will take you inside. Except…

Goneril took my castle and I’m all done
She schemed with Regan, put France on the run
Lear is in prison and I’m going in next
My love is earnest, daddy can’t fix this.

Butterflies gilded
Singing like birds in a cage
Wipe thine eyes; the good-years will devour your
Sisters’ young beauty, ere they make us weep; We’ll
See ‘em all starve we’re… together at last.

Oh oh
Oh oh
I may die young but I will die true.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Editors ask the wrong questions

Attached is a screen pic from the summary sheet of a review I did for an academic journal a while back.  Note the phrasing of the middle question, and how the poor wording on the summary sheet required an out-of-the-box answer.


Table and figures are a good thing.  The tables, in particular, contain all the data that everything else in the paper is based on (I don't review pure theory papers.  Theorists should be thankful). Frankly, I don't understand the trend towards depositing data and methods, rather than publishing them.  Depositing a machine readable version of datasets IN ADDITION to publishing them (or a representative sample of data, for really large sets) is a sensible thing to do, but in general we would all be better off if papers contained data and results, and the speculative waffling, overly broad impacts, and long bows stretched to make the paper seem to appeal to fields it doesn't really effect were all banished to the online supplementary material.