Saturday, July 29, 2006

Real Geologists...

...don't make maps. Maps are for novices, the forgetful, managers and pansies who like to play with coloured pencils.

Thanks to Sabine for this one.

Bizarre search requests

Yami over at Green Gabbro probably didn’t mean to start a meme, but I reckon this is way more fun than asking the entire blogosphere to tell four things about their first lover’s goldfish. So, in hopes that this list will incline some of you folks to show me yours, here are some search queries that have directed people to the lounge:

Are oysters intelligent?
Pizza Cambrian
Lithium calibration problems
Academic advisor
Most intelligent archaea
Elemental chart memorization
geology career prospects geologist
men who have been to the moon

Don’t worry oysters; your secret is safe with me.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Yay for Admin

I’m generally not one to have a kind word for administrators or powers that be, but today they actually did a good thing. As you can see from our scholarships page, the school has offered all the domestic students a 2000 buck scholarship top-up. That's basically a 10% pay rise.

This is a good thing. I suppose I could come up with some sort of statistical analysis to demonstrate the value of students, but this is a blog, not a spreadsheet, so I’ll go with an anecdotal example instead.

Last year, all the PhD students organized a field trip out to South Australia, and spent a week checking out the Ediacaran fauna, salt lakes, and Cryogenian sediments. Normally, the ICP machine that I mind in the mornings is booked out about 9 weeks in advance, but one of the students accidentally booked a day during the field trip, so there was an opening. Usually, free days are snapped up by students before I even notice that they were available, but in this case, that obviously didn’t happen. So, I actually had to go out and pimp my machine.

LL: Hey Prof, do you need any mass spec time?
Professor 1: Have you asked (student)-
LL: No students this week.
P1: Oh. Well, we have a lot of samples to run. Talk to my technician to see what needs to be done.
LL: She’s in Sydney this week.
P1: Oh. Well, I guess we’ll have to let this one go.

P2: ICP-MS time? No, I don’t have anything that is appropriate for that machine. The students are away this week, aren’t they?
LL: Yup.
P2: Sorry, I’ll have to pass.

P3: Free time? Great. I need samples XYZ run. Can you find them and-
LL: Actually, once I get the machine set up I’ll be spending the rest of the day in lab W.
P3: Oh. You want ME to operate the machine.
LL: I can get you all set up, so…
P3: Never mind, I’ve got to finish this grant proposal. I think I’ve got a day coming up next month anyway.

So, for the first weekday in 4 months, the machine was idle.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how far $2000 will go towards actually attracting new students. With the commodities boom, mining companies are showering money on anyone with a pulse. One of the undergrads last year- average kid, nothing special- got offered a starting salary in excess of $80,000 straight out of uni. No work experience, no advanced degree, just a university diploma and a very friendly handshake.

As someone whom students occasionally ask for advice, it is hard to tell students not to go work in industry when offers like that are being made. It is a boom and bust business, so these opportunities generally only happen for a few years each decade. Grad school will always be there. And a student who can pay off his loans and put some cash in the bank with a few years in the mines will be much more secure if s/he does eventually go back to research. And returning students interested in minerals-related research can sometimes get their employers to bankroll their PhD’s.

Read the hand

When my other organizational schemes break down, I still sometimes resort to writing on the back of my hand. Currently, there are four items on my list

  • Milk

  • Nitric

  • HCl

  • Cheese

Unfortunately, the HCl business ended up keeping me in lab to the point where Mrs. Lemming ended up picking up the Milk and Cheese on her way home. On a completely unrelated point, Dr. Free-Ride has been blogging about work / life and work / family balance. But I don’t see how that relates to this post in any way.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Murphy’s law still rules.

A cantankerous mass spectrometer outlasted the patience of the Geologic Survey today, causing them to reluctantly retreat in frustration after lunch. I grabbed the vacated machine, and slowly convinced it to come back to the land of the living, gradually finding the beam, finding the peaks, and getting the focus. I wish I could say that it was my technological savvy that allowed me to do this, but truthfully? I just waited the thing out. Anyway, finally leaving it running the calibration, I ducked back to the office to confirm with the boss what I should program it to run over night. As we are talking, the hallway lights flicker. The computer screen in a nearby office wobbles. And we feel, rather than hear, all the gate valves in the nearby ion probe slam shut, as the electrical interruption sends all the instrumentation in the school into self-protect shutdown mode...

Thanks to some great technicians and that rarest of gems- a professor who actually understands his equipment- we got the machine back up and running by five. But the computer had crashed, so I had to find all the peaks and focus points all over again. And if I had saved them before running the calibration, the blackout never would have happened.

Now, that periodic table:

1.Harpies Heal
2. Little Bed Bugs Can Not Ovulate For Neophytes
3. Naked Mongols Always Slide Past Scantily Clad Argonauts.
4. Kilt-Clad Scandinavians Tickle Very Cruel Men; “Feel Cold Nipples!” Cursed Zen-Grappling Germans, As Swedes Bribed Kraken.
5. Rub Strongly, You Zebra Nabbing Monkey Teacher! Ruthless Rhyming Paladins Agree: Cuddling Indian Snipers Snubs Tempestuous Irate Xena.
6. Cassandra Babbles. Lazy Cesar Praised Nude Prometheus, Smooching Europe’s Gaudiest Tubercular Dykes Hopelessly. Eros Tempted Yobbos Luridly. Halftime Tackles Weren’t Recorded. Osama Irritated Patriotic Aunt Hildegard, Titillating Pablo Bitterly. (everything from here on is radioactive) Polls At Random...
7. ...Frowned Radiantly, Accepting The Patriachy Utterly.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Geologic Mnemomics

Before I get stuck in, I’d like to interrupt this blog to plug a women in science survey promoted here. It would be a great place to complain about the inappropriateness, in a gender-neutral discipline, of the lewd and irreverent memory tricks that are described below.

Back to mnemomics.
For a scientist, I have the world’s leakiest memory. So I get a kick out of these things. After all, if I read enough stupid sentences, then maybe, possibly, one or two of them will sink in.

So, starting with the big picture, there is the spectral sequence for stars.


For the past 50 years, this has been immortalized by various science fiction writers. I think Larry Niven is one of them, but please correct me if I'm wrong. Their classic line is, of course,

Oh, Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me.

That was fine for the 50’s, but a Canadian academic has suggested that in this day and age, on most university campuses, the phrase should probably be supplanted with

Only Boys Accepting Feminism Get Kissed Meaningfully.

For my brain, the less tasteful phrases are generally more memorable. Which is why I appreciate the universally offensive:

Oedipus, Basically A Friendly Guy, Knew Mother.

Scaling down, there is a famous mnemonic for the 9 planets, but my perverse brain can only recall,

My Very Endearing Mother Just Shot Up Near Prison.

I might have misremembered that one.

But enough astronomy. On my first ever geology field trip, the departmental trip to Lake Champlain in fall of 1991, we had a very long van trip from Rhode Island. I remember only two things about that trip. The first is that Katie Stanbury was in my van. The second is that we, including everyone else whose identity now eludes me, made up a mnemonic for the geologic time scale. Starting with the Precambrian, and using the old-fashioned American system, we decided that

Polonius Called Ophelia Stupid Daily. Meanwhile, Peter Pan Told Jesus Christ To Quit.

Subdividing the Precambrian into the Archean and the Proterozoic allows one to lead with Angry Polonius...

Two years later, Gayle Gleason, one of the best geology teachers I’ve ever had, subdivided the Cenozoic by teaching us that:

Pigeon Egg Omelettes Make People Puke.

Of course, an ideal mnemonic would allow the memorization of the entire periodic table. The first three rows are easy:
Harpies Heal
Little Bed Bugs Can Not Ovulate For Neophytes
Naked Mongols Always Slide Past Scantily Clad Argonauts.
But once you hit the transition elements, the 18 elements per line gets rather complicated. Nobody will ever remember:

Kilt-Clad Scandinavians Tickle Very Cruel Men; “Feel Cold Nipples!” Cursed Zen-Grappling Germans, As Swedes Bribed Kraken.

I tried to go on, but ran out of gas at Antimony, after realizing that I would have no chance at getting anything for Xenon, three elements later.

Fortunately, we don’t need to. Since the table is in fact a table, and not just a list, all we really need to do is remember which column things are in (usually discernable from their charge), and then just remember those columns. The only tricky bits are the Group VIIIa elements (Feel Cold Nipples, Rude Rhyming Paladins, Oswald Irked Patrick), and the rare earth elements. But the latter are easy, given a suitably crass Lanthanide mnemonic:

Lazy Cesar Praised Nude Prometheus, Smooching Europe’s Gaudiest Tubercular Dykes Hopelessly. Eros Tempted Yobbos Luridly.

Lame, I know. But what else can be done with Yb? At least the REE’s aren’t boring anymore.

If any of you folks have a favorite or useful geologic mnemonic, please post it in comments.

edit: The entire periodic table is here.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Plausible deniability

In the interest of transparency and self-preservation, I should mention that the purpose for which I am trying to procure some gallium is NOT the one explained here. So, if the guy with the earpiece camped outside my back fence is reading this, relax, dude. All of my nuclear weapons use uranium; the gallium is just for checking for oxide interferences on rubidium.

Speaking of uranium, back when I was in grad school, my officemate discovered the hard way that the elemental U in standards made by the US government is depleted. As every geochronologist knows, the natural 238U/235U ratio is 137.88/1. Mr. Mouse* was trying to measure U isotopes in something- corals or fish ears or calcite veins, I suspect- and all his natural samples were coming out enriched in 235U - almost to the point where they could (if it wasn’t for the ppm concentrations) be used for fuel.

Obviously that made no sense. The problem, as it turned out, was that he was assuming the natural ratio for the standard, when the actual, depleted, ratio was about 450/1. so the observed enrichment was just the result of propagating the assumption of the standard into his unknowns. Somewhere out there is a paper that actually lists the depletion factors for a variety of synthetic geologic standards. But it hadn’t even occurred to him that the US military-industrial complex would have screwed with the normally immutable isotopic compositions on which geochemistry can usually rely. So he didn’t look for it. Fortunately, gentle readers, none of you have to repeat Mr. Mouse’s mistake. The first person who can post the reference to that paper here wins a clod of soggy permafrost.

In the meantime, spare a thought for the isotope that we under-measured, because it had been removed from our sample. Somewhere in a dark Montana bunker, or silent undersea vessel, those missing 235U atoms are carefully stowed away. Aside from the occasional alpha decay, they are completely passive. They are merely waiting; waiting for a fast neutron to break their hearts, so that they can destroy civilization with the energy released by that fragmentation.

*Not his real name.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

So close, and yet so far.

I thought I found an on-line periodic table with ionic radii today. It was really good, yet simple; you click on the element you want, and it gives all sorts of useful facts, including the radii. It even had bonus features, like biological activity and safety information. There was just one problem that I saw.

Samarium. I clicked Samarium just to check a standard, everyday, working class rare earth element. What do I find?
Ionic radius: unknown.
That’s odd. REE ionic radii are probably the best known and most often studied of the trace elements. What would it say this? I read on…

Samarium is most often found in the +2 state, like Europium.


Ladies and gentlemen, here is a tip. There in no point putting up a beautiful, comprehensive, and well-organized webpage if the information it contains is not correct.

Maybe the reason they stated that the Samarium ionic radius is unknown is that they were scouring the literature for the radius of Sm+2. And there aren’t likely to be a whole lot of papers out there containing that data. Eu can be +2. And Ce can be +4. But aside from those two, all Lanthanides are +3 in nature. Including Samarium. And the ionic radius is 1.098 Ǻ.*

* According to this website-
I don’t have journal access at home. Additionally, I like angstroms, so all of you picometer lovers can shove your SI units into an area of low solar luminosity.

Cambrian Complaining part 2

Just a brief note to link an illustration of exactly how variable the age correlations for the Cambrian have been over the past 80 years.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Professional Whinging

Firstly: The Goldschmidt conference registration costs more than 900 bucks. What is the point of holding a major conference in this country, if the registration costs as much as a plane ticket to Tokyo, Hong Kong, or Singapore? What can they possibly spend a grand per head on? We’d better be getting free AFL tickets, commemorative broaches with ¼ carrot Argyle diamonds, and a silo of free beer for that price. As is it, I’ll probably hitch down and crash on friends’ floors for the week in order to make up for the cost. Yay, 800 km hitchhike in the dead of winter!

Secondly: The journal Geostandards and Geoanalytical Research might as will be written in cuneiform on Sumerian tablets, such is its technological savvy. The whole point of publishing articles about standards is to create uniformity, so that everyone uses the same values for the same standards, allowing comparison of results from different labs. If you can’t access the journal, you can’t use the published values. So for a journal that deals mainly with standards not to be available online is idiotic. What’s the point of providing abstracts only if the only reason people look at the articles is for the methods and data tables? The whole thing is organized so poorly that in order to find the article I needed, I had to google the first author’s institution, click through to his staff web page, get the reference, plug in the journal into the library index, write the call, volume, and page numbers down on a dead tree, and pull the damn thing off the shelf. It was so 1990’s that I got the urge to join a grunge band, make an IPO on an IT company with no products or business strategy, and pick up a brunette intern with a low-cut blue dress.

Thirdly: Why is it that our chemical store has compounds containing every element on the periodic table… except gallium, which I happened to need for an experiment this week. What are the chances? 1/92? OK, more like 1/83, since 9 of those elements are not stable, but still. The whole problem with elements is that they are elemental; you can’t just whip them up from some other compound or chemical. So that experiment will just have to wait.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Under construction

Mrs. Lemming and I are having our new, energy efficient windows installed this week, so all our worldly posessions, including this computer, are constantly migrating away from the area of greatest construction. Hopefully things will settle down next week, and I'll think of something clever to say by then.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Hafnium is for lovers

Geologists who are passionate about their analytical methods will have a hard time passing up the laser-MC-ICP-MS method of hafnium isotopic analysis in zircon. All too often, geochemistry is a struggle against the inexorable drag of entropy, as columns and calibrated solutions strain to withstand the natural inclinations of the elements they seek to constrain.

Not so with Hf-La-MC-ICP-MS. The natural inclination of zircon melds perfectly with the strengths of the machine. The embrace of distribution co-efficients and analytical processes is so picturesque that the raw data from a Monastery zircon can agree with that of the most popular pulp journals to within one digit in the fifth decimal place.

Even without accommodation for aging amplifiers or the crass interference of the heavy rare-earth elements, this conjoining of HFSE enrichment and pervasive ionic excitation allows transcendent analyses of this highly evolved phase. Primitive mantle petrologists are positively molten with jealousy at the ease of working with such a refined, but compositionally dependent mineral. If only all mass spectrometry was as satisfying.