Friday, February 29, 2008

Funny numbers

I was asking stupid questions over at Cosmic Variance today, trying to learn a thing or two about dark matter, when I had to look up the ratio between an astronomical unit and a light year in order to prevent myself from seeming even stupider than I usually do. The number, according to the internet, is 63,240. This struck me as familiar, somehow. I’d seen something very similar in my distant American past, so I did a double check, just to make sure. And yes indeed, it was very similar to the number of inches in a mile- 63,360. They differ by less than 0.2%

If you’re a numerology-worshipping monarchist, then this is proof positive that the British monarchy is endowed with the divine right of Kings, as Elizabeth I put her official stamp on the English mile and inch specifically to make sure they had astronomically meaningful ratios.

For the rest of us, it is a good excuse to teach Americans the relative distances for planetary and astronomical objects.

For example, since a scale of one inch=1au means that 1 mile is pretty damn close to 1 light year, you can construct the galaxy like so:

Go to the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington DC. Put the sun on the tip your nose.
Mercury is across your nostril.
Purse your lips, and Earth is in the corner of your mouth.
Smile, and Mars is.
Jupiter in in your voice box.
Saturn is in your heart.
Neptune is in your pants.
The Voyager 1 spacecraft is about 9 feet away.
The farthest known dwarf planet, Sedna, circles around your feet and out to the top of the steps.
The Oort cloud starts at your knees, and stretches out to the Washington Monument.
The closest star, Alpha Centauri, is in the parking lot behind RFK stadium
The brightest star, Sirius, is on the college park campus of UMD, just over the NE border of the district.
The brightest northern hemisphere star, Arcturus, is in Baltimore.
The bright red star in Orion, Betelguese, is in Boston.
The bright blue star in Orion, Rigel, is in Memphis.
The bright star in Cygnus, Deneb, is in southwest Ireland.
The Milky Way galaxy is 12 times the diameter of Earth, or a bit larger than Jupiter
The Small Magellanic Cloud is as far away as the moon.
The Andromeda galaxy is 10 times as far.

And the best part? Metric Nazis can’t do this trick.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Arrr, that be my warning buoy

Meteorologists are concerned that automatic tsunami warning buoys might be nicked by pirates.

From the article:

we've found [one of our] automatic weather stations for sale in Hong Kong.

Hopefully the Australian plate will have the good manners to stay still while the Australian government gets its act together.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Forget the worm...

At the moment, the early bird gets the inner solar system.


Here's a picture of Earth in the foreground (5 km), Mercury in the middle distance (130,000,000 km) and Venus in the background (220,000,000 km).

The exposure is too short for any stars to show up, but they were certainly out- dawn was still 20 minutes away, sunrise an hour. Mercury is currently brighter than both Mars and Saturn, which means that the three brightest planets are all visible in the early morning sky.

Mercury can be quite difficult to spot, as it moves quickly and is usually washed out in the glare of the sun. But for the next few weeks it will be high in the sky and close to Venus, so anyone with limited astronomical skills (like me) should be able to find it without too much trouble.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Science is not in Australia’s future

The Australian Prime Minister announced today that it had picked the steering committee for its “Australia 2020” meeting- a long term brainstorming meeting to be held here in Canberra later this year. Having caught bits and pieces of it (mostly criticisms of the 10-1 gender imbalance) on the radio, I started to compose in my head an entry on how to mount a blog-based populist campaign to get at least some young researchers into the conference. Australian academia in general, and geology in particular, is shockingly inbred, so from the snippets I heard on the radio, it appeared that the conference was shaping up to be an establishment, closed shop sort of thing. I figured that there would be one, possibly several crusty old scientists designated with the responsibility of guiding the country’s research goals for the next 12 years. The reality was far grimmer, though.

Science is not even on the agenda. None of the focus areas address Australia’s brain drain, stagnant research funding, inbred university system, or educational deficiencies. There is no mention at all of primary research. And the areas for which applied science is relevant are run by non-scientists. There is a sustainability area, but it is headed by a former public servant. The head of the technology area is politician.

There is only one scientist in the selection committee. Professor Michael Good is a malaria specialist who now heads the Queensland Institute of Medical Research. But his area of scientific expertise has little to do with his focus area, which is, “A long-term national health strategy.” Neither are there public figures who happened to study science in college before becoming famous for unrelated reasons (e.g. Colin Powell).

There is also nobody from the resource industry represented, despite the fact that mining constitutes about 6% of the economy and 35% of the country’s export market. But that is not such a huge problem. We know how to find and dig stuff up already. The question is how the government thinks it can transition from a resource-based economy to a modern one, while ignoring science. When the conference was announced, Kevin Rudd said he wanted the "best and brightest". Obviously people who unlock the secrets of the universe for a living don't fall into that category.

The committee members, and their focus areas, are listed here:

• Professor Glyn Davis - Chair
• Dr David Morgan - Future directions for the Australian economy
• Warwick Smith - Economic infrastructure, the digital economy and the future of our cities
• Roger Beale AO - Population, sustainability, climate change, and water
• Tim Fischer AC - Future directions for rural industries and rural communities
• Professor Michael Good - A long-term national health strategy
• Tim Costello AO - Strengthening communities, supporting families and social inclusion
• Dr Kelvin Kong - Options for the future of indigenous Australia
• Cate Blanchett - Towards a creative Australia
• John Hartigan - The future of Australian governance
• Professor Michael Wesley - Australia's future security and prosperity in a rapidly changing region and world

And if you wanted to know what they studied in college, it is:

• Professor Glyn Davis – Political Science
• Dr David Morgan - Economics
• Warwick Smith - Law
• Roger Beale AO – History and Law
• Tim Fischer AC – none (Vietnam campus of Hard Knocks)
• Professor Michael Good - Medicine
• Tim Costello AO - Law
• Dr Kelvin Kong - Medicine
• Cate Blanchett - Drama
• John Hartigan - ?Journalism? (no web biography, AFAIK-WTF)
• Professor Michael Wesley – International Relations

Twenty20 summit web page

Monday, February 25, 2008

Geohmms (Accretionary Wedge 6)

Welcome to the 6th thrust-repeated section of the Accretionary Wedge. The theme this time was “Hmm.” Things about our planet that intrigue y’all. Geologists have a tendency to work on all sorts of scales, and this is reflected in this month’s entries. Sadly, though, the smaller scales were conspicuously underrepresented. Nobody is dying to know about crystal defects, space groups, or microinclusions. We are, apparently, macroscale thinkers or larger.

In fact, the smallest scale object that interesting people this month was a word. A recent GSA Today article made a new case for the Anthropocene, and the digital cuttlefish, not merely satisfied with a hmm, wrote an entire poem.

Despite the lack of comments there, the rest of the GBS had plenty to say, and none of it was hmm.
Callan offered a detailed explanation of the paper. BrianS calls it “more of a PR stunt than a rigorous scientific idea.” Andrew quotes Walt Whitman. Greg Laden says no. Chris gives some background and perspective on subdividing geologic time before suggesting that renaming might be premature. Maria calls the Anthropocene unbearably narcissistic, shortly before claiming to be partial to the term. BrianR expressed exasperation that semantics can get everyone is such a tiff. And Tom simply notes the news without comment. Note that Apparent Dip and I, both isotope geochemists, made no comment. After all, ages are properly measured in numbers, not names.

For all the hubbub, you’d think it was a four letter word, not a four syllable one.

Moving on, we scale up from the word to the student. Sciencewoman wonders- and expresses concern (more of a HMm that a hmMm) about the lack of racial diversity in her upper level classes.

Looking at the population as a whole rather than in his class, MJC Rocks wonders why people in general are not fascinated by geology. His post in accompanied by a classic field photo.

And that is it for the language/ people / culture scale hmms. From here, we step back down to the mineral.

Silver Fox wonders about some blue quartz that she remembers from her youth. Unfortunately, her favorite outcrop seems to have been covered by a leach pit.

On the laboratory scale, Maria is curious what, if anything, a neutral buoyancy experiment tells her about real systems.

Now, step up to the outcrop.

Sandstone, Interrupted! has Hypocentre puzzled by the discontinuity of his favorite bed.

Ron is wondering if his fault might swing both ways, but only preserve the medial sandstone on one side.

And the bigger faults are also intriguing. Harmonic Tremors is interested in the pre-periodic period of the Parkwood section of the San Andreas fault. He’s even lucky enough to have gotten a reference in the comments.

On the volcano scale, Chris wonders why Mt. Taranaki is so far west, relative to the rest of New Zealand’s volcanoes. I’ve only seen Taranaki from the plane, and my reaction was more of an Oooo than a Hmm, but I see his point, and suggest that he read up on Japanese volcano locations, as I seem to recall northern Honshu has two rows of volcanoes, and many run-on sentences. While the distance from the subduction zone will in part explain the increased alkalinity (deeper melting zone), it doesn’t explain why there is only one such volcano, nor why it is so pretty.

But I’m not the only one to look out a plane window. Mel said hmm all the way to her ski holiday, while traversing the snow-covered NW United States and SW Canada.

And anonymous Chris wondered about “rivers of stone” reported by Darwin in the Falklands.

Moving up to the plateau scale, Andrew presents new research on the Colorado River prior to the grand canyon formation.

And Chris Rowan wonders about the crinkly microplate style tectonics that happens where plated are grinding past or under each other.

On the hemispherical climate scale, Kim wants to know why an excessively sinuous jet stream is bringing her so much snow, while Callan wonders about global climactic and chemical implications of the hypothetical snowball Earth.

Dropping back down in size by a factor of 2 to a smaller planet, Jeannette is curious about magnetic anomalies on Mars, and what the tectonic implications are. Luckily for her, Chris Rowan blogged about this very topic, back before hmm was a fashionable thing to say.

Finally, on the galactic* scale, I’m curious about what makes our home planet the way it is. And how different planetary formation can be before it produces something completely unrecognizable.

So, there’s the list. Several people have already been lucky enough to get replies in their blogs. So if you are also intrigued by any of these things, wander on over, and see if you can help out a fellow geoblogospheroid.

I think the next installment of this carnival is Geology in the Movies by Magma cum Laude, but we should probably get her to confirm that before we bury her in rants.

[edit: two new late entries added]

*e.g. data-poor.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What makes Earth Earthlike?

As astronomers get ever more precise in their measurements of stellar wobbles and light curves, the date of terrestrial exoplanetary discovery is slowly creeping up on us. There will no doubt be a big to do when the first one is found, and the press will undoubtedly make a huge deal of it’s Earthlike nature. But as a surface dweller, I have to wonder. Sure, an iron core and a magnesiosilicate mantle will give a bulk composition broadly similar to Earth. But will the planetary surface be anything like the one we have here? And how similar does it have to be to be considered Earthlike?

Do we need an ocean? A moon? A magnetic field? A thin crust that can be easily subducted? A carbonate silicate cycle? And what about the more subtle things?

If the Earth had a composition that produced dominantly alkali basalt instead of tholeiite, would we still have sialic crust and quartz beaches? If star formation was triggered by something other than a supernova, would there be sufficient heat-producing elements to melt planetesimals and allow for early differentiation? What happens to the inner solar system if your gas giants aren’t as gentle as ours are?

I’m ignoring the question of life on purpose, because there are lots of people already obsessing over that. It may be that there are billions of inhabited planets that are completely unearthlike in any meaningful way. It may be that there are millions of terrestrial planets indistinguishable from the Archean Earth except that they’re dead. What I want to know is how much variation there can be in an iron-silicate ball of 1024-1025 kg in mass, and what are the important factors in determining that variation.

Because ultimately, the question, “Is there anywhere else much like this place?” is an obvious corollary to the fundamental one of, “Why are we here?”

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Planet Party, 5:30 am


For those of you who don’t often see the morning sky, there are a whole bevy of planets to observe there at the moment.

Jupiter and Venus are both bright in the morning sky (Jupiter high, mag ~-1.5 Venus low, mag ~-3.7), and for the next few weeks, Mercury is joining them (mag ~0). As the innermost planet is currently near aphelion, the sky is still pretty dark when it first rises, so it is easy to spot. Mercury and Venus will be getting closer together until the 28th or so, and they’ll still be close when the crescent moon swings past on the 6th of March. If you care to grab a pair of binoculars or a small telescope to ogle Jupiter’s moons, just remember that the outer two of them are about the same diameter as Mercury.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Don't get subducted!

There is still time to scrape into the accretionary wedge. But hurry. If you don't underplate your entry by midnight of Feb 23 your time, you may find yourself on the slow train to the mantle, holding a one-way ticket to the CMB. Post links here, in any of the other carnival announcements on this site, or email me using the address described in the sidebar (note that you need to read and think, instead of just copying and pasting the email address).

[edit] I've dropped the security on comments so that anyone can plug their entry here. Please don't post any shameless adverts during this lull.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What I really want to know is...

the age of the youngest dolomite here on Earth.

It may not be the most profound or deepest yearning for knowledge, but it is what I want to know right now...

Truth:Truthiness::Action:Activism

See the chimp refuge for details.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Darwin and the Kitchen Sink

Last Thursday was Darwin day, and various people have been celebrating his contribution to the understanding of biology. But Darwin was not merely a life scientist. He was also an igneous petrologist. And he made several observations that are crucial to the understanding of basic igneous processes that are important for everything from the moon to the kitchen sink.

In his 1844 publication “Geological Observations on Volcanic Islands”, Darwin observed:

One side of Fresh-water Bay, in James Island, is formed by the wreck of a large crater, mentioned in the last chapter, of which the interior has been filled up by a pool of basalt, about two hundred feet in thickness. This basalt is of a grey colour, and contains many crystals of glassy albite, which become much more numerous in the lower, scoriaceous part. This is contrary to what might have been expected, for if the crystals had been originally disseminated in equal numbers, the greater intumescence of this lower scoriaceous part would have made them appear fewer in number.

He then combines this observation with known experimental petrology:
The sinking of crystals through a viscid substance like molten rock, as is unequivocally shown to have been the case in the experiments of M. Dree, is worthy of further consideration, as throwing light on the separation of the trachytic and basaltic series of lavas.

To deduce that:
In a body of liquified volcanic rock, left for some time without any violent disturbance, we might expect, in accordance with the above facts, that if one of the constituent minerals became aggregated into crystals or granules, or had been enveloped in this state from some previously existing mass, such crystals or granules would rise or sink, according to their specific gravity. Now we have plain evidence of crystals being embedded in many lavas, whilst the paste or basis has continued fluid. I need only refer, as instances, to the several, great, pseudo-porphyritic streams at the Galapagos Islands, and to the trachytic streams in many parts of the world, in which we find crystals of feldspar bent and broken by the movement of the surrounding, semi-fluid matter.


Why is this important? Well, evolution, while useful for explaining the existence and progression of life on Earth, has very little to do with dead planets or kitchen appliances. On the other hand, crystal settling does.

The rock samples brought back from the moon by the Apollo space program show that the Moon formed with a global magma ocean, this ocean, as it cooled, produced a feldspathic crust as a result of the anorthosite crystals floating on the Fe-rich magma. The light colored lunar highlands are composed of this primary anorthositic crust. But more important than the moon is a fine collection of kitchen utensils.

When large basaltic magma chambers cool, the iron and chromium oxides, which are much denser than the magma, settle out to the bottom of the magma chamber when the magmatic evolution allows them to crystallize. An example is shown by Highly Allochthonous here. Where this process concentrates the oxide mineral chromite (FeCr2O4) is where the element chromium is generally mined from. And Chromium is a key ingredient in stainless steel, the material from which so many great kitchen utensils and appliances are formed.

So Charles Darwin isn’t just responsible for describing our relationship to monkeys, the spread of anti-biotic resistant TB, and the evolution of the fossil record. He is also responsible for discovering the process that forms chromite deposits, without which fine kitchen appliances, swiss army knives, and fancy car accessories would be much more expensive.

Monday, February 11, 2008

How to Destroy the Earth- Isotope Geochemist’s Method

Written a few years ago, the internet guide How to destroy the Earth catalogues a series of increasingly improbable methods for terminating the existence of our planet. Southern Exposure has recently reignited interest in the subject. The guide has its moments, but as a geochemist I find it to be sadly lacking in the area of geology-based Earth destruction procedures. So without further ado, here is the isotope geochemist’s preferred way of obliterating this pale blue dot upon which we live:

Fuse the mantle.



One of the most fundamental concepts in high resolution mass spectrometry is binding energy. Simply put, some of the mass of the individual nucleons in a nucleus is converted into energy, so that the total mass of the nucleus is less than that of its components. The greater the binding energy, the larger the mass deficit, so tightly bound nuclei have measurably less mass than loosely bound ones. This difference in mass can be detected with a high resolution mass spectrometer, and is used to distinguish between ions with similar mass, such as 176Hf16O2 and 208Pb.

As explained previously, Hf and O are both more tightly bound than Pb, so the HfO2 molecule is 45 millimass units lighter than Pb, allowing us to separate them.

Binding energy is greatest at around 58 amu, so fusing lighter elements into elements in that mass range releases energy. This is the source of energy that powers the stars, and it is what I wish to use to destroy our planet.

To a first approximation, the Earth’s mantle is made of Mg and Si oxide. MgO and SiO2 comprise 87% of the mass of the mantle, with the remainder being mostly oxides of Fe, Ca, Al, and Na.
Mg, Si, and O are all substantially lighter than Fe, so considerable energy should be produced by fusing them into iron or nickel. If this energy is greater than the gravitational binding energy of the Earth, then fusing the mantle could potentially destroy the planet.

For simplicity, we will consider only two basic fusion reactions, ignoring minor isotopes and trace elements.

1. 28Si + 2 16O -> 60Ni
2. 3 24Mg+ 3 16O -> 2 60Ni

Equation 1 results in a mass loss of 35.9mAMU/60Ni, while equation 2 results in a loss of 39.1 mAMU/60Ni. Multiplying by the respective mass of SiO2 and MgO in the mantle, we react a total mass of 3.4 x1024 kg, making the total mass converted to energy 2.13 x1021kg- a mass similar to the Saturnian moon Rhea. Converting this mass to energy via E=mc2, we get a respectable energy release of 1.9x1038 joules. Note that slightly better yields can be achieved by ending the fusion reactions at 56Fe or 58Fe, instead of 60Ni. As shown below, this is quite irrelevant.

According to the International Earth Destruction Advisory Board, the gravitational binding energy of the Earth is only 2.24 x1032 Joules. So fusing the mantle into nickel provides approximately one million times more energy than is required to blow it up.

Of course, there are a few problems with this scheme. Firstly, it will probably be necessary to compress the mantle in order to trigger fusion, and the more the Earth is compressed, the greater the binding energy. However, our rather large energy excess means that we can compress the Earth to a radius of 7 meters (3/5 GM2/r, assuming a homogenous Earth) before the binding energy becomes too great to exceed with fusion. This density would be greater than that of a white dwarf or neutron star, so chances are pretty good that fusion would be initiated before that density was reached.

The second problem is that, unless the energy is somehow transferred into the core, the mantle could just blow itself into space, leaving the mars-diameter iron core behind. This core would still meet the IAU definition of a planet, so we would have failed to destroy the Earth according to the IEDAB guidelines. While the core is mostly iron and nickel already, there should be enough light elements to do the job. After all, with a million times more energy than we need, a 1% light element composition should still give us several orders of magnitude more energy than is required.

So, if you want to blow this here planet out of existence, don’t worry about antimatter guns or black holes. Just compress the planet until the mantle fuses, and that should do the job. How does one squeeze the mantle that hard? I recommend burying it under 7 x1025 sperm whales. Alternative methods are left as an exercise for the reader.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Accretionary wedge delay and other news

1. Accretionary wedge is delayed for a week, as I will be out of town for work. New due date is the end of Feb 23, of your local timezone. Theme is still [Geologic] Things that make you go "hmmm".

2. Links: A variety of interesting science-related pages not in the usual geo feed:


3: New Tag: Lest people forget that I work in the hard rock exploration industry, I’ve added the Superficial Shilling tag to posts that address mining related matters, including the superiority of uranium over coal (for which none of our rocks are prospective).

4: 300 posts! If only I had been writing papers instead…

5: Search engine term of the week: summer jobs on whale boats

6: Baby is awake. Bye.

Friday, February 08, 2008

A Couple of anti-Liberal Rants

I have a couple of anti-liberal tirades for this lovely Friday morning, one of which actually has to do with analytical science. So we’ll get the completely off-topic one out of the way first. Paul Krugman of the New York Times has written a particularly arrogant opinion column for the New York Times. Comparing the Clinton and Obama health plans, he argues that the Clinton plan is superior because it uses mandatory coverage to cover twice as many people for only slightly more cost. I can’t knock the economics of it; from a statistical point of view it makes perfect sense. What pisses me off, though, is that he doesn’t even consider the possibility that there could be non-economic reasons to avoid forcing 20 million people to pay for something that they wouldn’t buy if they had a choice. Now, there may be arguments, economic or otherwise, that show that the benefits of mandatory cover outweigh the loss of self-determination. But he doesn’t bother to restate, or even refer to them. Because the idea that the ignorant American underclass should actually have control over their own livelihoods is completely foreign to this arrogant liberal’s mindset.

Of course, this should not surprise me. Krugman is the hypocrite who spent most of 2004 belitttling Republicans for voting against their economic interest, despite the fact that as a Princeton Professor, best-selling Author, and NYT columnist, he was almost certainly campaigning against his own economic interest by not supporting Bush. Evidently, it is a noble thing for a ivory tower professor to do, but idiocy when practiced by a bunch of rednecks*.

Anyway, enough economic paternalism. This is nominally a geology/analytical science blog, so let’s talk about analytical paternalism instead. These clowns have come up with a interesting, if not somewhat na├»ve idea for the war on terror. What they propose to do is put gamma-ray detectors into everybody’s mobile phone, with a link back to a central super computer that will process the data and determine whether or not the detections on one or more instrument is a dirty bomb.

First, let us look at the radiological issues associated with this suggestion. While this approach may or may not pick up radiological terrorists, it would be a really good way to catch people who forget to turn off their phones on airplanes. This is because the cosmic ray-related radiation on airplanes is an order of magnitude or two higher than it is on the surface, so any moderately sensitive detector designed for use at sea level would go off at 39,000 feet. What this means is that, were you to forget to turn off the phone, it would have its radiation detector triggered at altitude, and then automatically dob you in to the authorities without even notifying you that it has done so. But you’d probably still get charged for the transmitting from an airplane that the phone did for you.

Of course, before you get to the plane, the phone would have to go thru the X-ray machine. And in order to penetrate the steel laptop cases and huge suitcases that people insist on bringing as carry-on, the X-ray machines generally run at fairly high energy (greater than 100KeV, I think). Which is an energy range that overlaps with some of the lower energy gamma rays from many potential radiological weapons. Finally, I know of at least one Monazitite outcrop, which probably contains several percent ThO2, that is on a roadcut for an east coast freeway. It was originally discovered by a geologist who left his scintillometer on driving home from the field, but I’m sure that phone detectors could find it too. Over and over and over again.

Analytical issues aside, there is also the matter of cost. Even if a phone detector was only 1% of the cost of a Gamma-Ray Spectrometer designed for security-related use, it would still be so expensive that you’d have to put a lowercase vowel prefix in front of it to get anyone to buy it.

But one again, the thing that really pisses me off is the top-down approach that these people assume when suggesting uses for their idea. At no point do they consider the living, thinking person in possession of the phone to have any value other than moving their detector around (and paying for it). I’m all for a phone with a built-in radiation detector, provided that the phone owner can actually view the output and exercise some sort of control over how the phone that he owns is used. The level of fear and ignorance surrounding ionizing radiation is quite considerable in western society. And educated, informed humans can do a lot of the cognitive processing that would otherwise require vast computing networks, if they are given the chance. But the idea of co-opting private communication devices for a centralized communication network is both scary and counterproductive. After all, it was private citizens, and not the centralized government using mobile phone that stopped the UA 93 attack. So they should be given more power, not less, when it comes to organizing their own defense.

* As an ivy-league educated redneck, I’m not sure which category I fall into. So I’ll cover my butt by telling y’all to vote for whomever you want, for your own reasons.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ancient Egyptian Cement

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
Barsoum et al., in their paper “Microstructural Evidence of Reconstituted Limestone Blocks in the Great Pyramids of Egypt” provide microstructural evidence that some of the blocks used to build the pyramids were made from a type of cement.

It should be noted that by “cement”, I am not talking about the modern cement that we all know and love. That sort of cement is called Portland Cement, as it was invented in an English town named after the capital of Oregon. It is made by first decarbonating calcite, in the reaction CaCO3 to CaO + CO2. As basic thermodynamics dictates, the side of the equation with higher entropy is stable at higher pressures, and gasses have higher entropy than crystals do. So all carbonate minerals will eventually disassociate into CO2 plus oxide. As explained at the Green Gabbro protolith, this reaction releases carbon dioxide, and any volatile toxic elements, into the surrounding atmosphere.

In Portland cement, this CaO is mixed with SiO2. CaO is a fairly unstable oxide, so when water is added, it reacts with the SiO2 to form an amorphous hydrated calcium silicate, which is what cement is. That is not what the Egyptians used.

The Egyptian cement is more of a synthetic caliche. It is made mostly of calcite and dolomite, and not calcium silicates. And the grain boundary cements appear to be precipitates, mostly carbonates So there was little, if any lime involved.

But in many ways the papers was very frustrating. The authors appeared to have no geologic or mineralogical background. As a result, the spent lots of time describing methods that are standard in microanalysis, and their descriptions of mineralogical associations were maddening in that what they chose to describe was sometimes extraneous, while standard textural information was not presented. The complete absence of jargon was also surprisingly annoying. Usually, I’m not a fan of jargon, but discipline specific language means that you have to actually look for the things that people expect you to find.

In the end, I have no problem with their conclusions, but the way in which they arrived at them seemed to be maddeningly circuitous. It is a shame they didn’t have a carbonate sedimentologist on the paper, who could have described the natural stone textures as well as the artificial ones.

Also, their quoted excitation volume seems to be suspiciously small, especially for a carbonate.

Reference:
M. W. Barsoum, A. Ganguly, and G. Hug. 2006 Microstructural Evidence of Reconstituted Limestone Blocks in the Great Pyramids of Egypt. J. Am. Ceram. Soc. 89 (12) 3788-3796.

Is a vote for Ron Paul a vote for Mitt Romney?

For me, the most surprising thing about last night’s election results was the dependence of Romney on Ron Paul to siphon votes away from other candidates. Romney won his home state (MA), and Utah (so much for the idea that his religion is irrelevant). Aside from those states, every other state he has so far except Colorado and Wyoming (MT, ND, MN, ME, NV) has had a double digit Ron Paul vote. Wyoming was an uncontested caucus, while in Colorado, Paul had 8%. In contrast, the Iowa caucus was the only double digit Paul vote (10%) that Romney did not win. In all primaries won by either McCain or Huckabee except New Hampshire (8%), the Ron Paul vote was 6% or less. So it appears that Ron Paul has the ability so siphon voters away from McCain and Huckabee, but not Romney. Anyone wanna guess why?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Scientific Inbreeding

One of the oft repeated refrains of the moonbat fora is that peer review creates scientific inbreeding, stifling new and interesting research that challenges old orthodoxy. Some folks respond to this accusation with denial, suggesting that scientists, as pure acolytes of the temple of pristine knowledge, are above such things. To these people, I present a former (special) issue of the Australian Journal of Earth Sciences.

First, the guest editors: Crawford, Glen, Cooke & Percival

And now, the authors of the papers in the special issue:
A. J. Crawford; R. A. Glen; D. R. Cooke; I. G. Percival Guest Editors
I. G. Percival; R. A. Glen
R. A. Glen; A. J. Crawford; I. G. Percival; L. M. Barron
A. J. Crawford; S. Meffre; R. J. Squire; L. M. Barron; T. J. Falloon
R. A. Glen; R. Spencer; A. Willmore; V. David; R. J. Scott
A. J. Crawford; D. R. Cooke; C. M. Fanning
R. J. Squire; J. McPhie
R. J. Squire; A. J. Crawford
C. J. Simpson; R. J. Scott; A. J. Crawford; S. Meffre
L. M. Barron; S. Meffre; R. A. Glen
S. Meffre; R. J. Scott; R. A. Glen; R. J. Squire
R. A. Glen; S. Meffre; R. J. Scott
V. Lickfold; D. R. Cooke; A. J. Crawford; C. M. Fanning
D. R. Cooke; A. J. Wilson; M. J. House; R. C. Wolfe; J. L. Walshe; V. Lickfold; A. J. Crawford
R. A. Glen; A. J. Crawford; D. R. Cooke

Number of papers: 14
Total Authors: 54
Unique Authors: 21
Number of papers without at least one guest editor as author: 1
Percentage of authors who are also a guest editor: 46

Now, I’m not saying that this necessarily make the science suspect. I haven’t actually read any of this stuff. But it doesn’t exactly look too terribly open.

Mind you, it is possible that there are many valid reasons for this. For example, it may be that of the six-and-a-half billion living, breathing, sentient people on this planet, less than two dozen are actually interested in the Ordovician Macquarie Arc. It may be that these guest editors are the goto guys in this subfield, or that they are the only people who can actually find any of the outcrops. I is actually quite likely that a lot of people, especially in the exploration industry, wanted the area summarized, but couldn’t be bothered to do the gruntwork themselves. Or it could be some sort of territorial or gentlemanly agreement to try to restrict the teeming masses desperate for a piece of Ordovician active margin action. I really don’t know. And strangely, as tempting as reading an entire special issue on the structure and components of the Narromine-Junee volcanic belt may be, I can’t see myself delving into the special issue in search of an ulterior motive.

But let’s assume the worst. Let’s assume that this is a brutal and vindictive ploy by Crawford et al. to squelch the true scientific progress of the early Paleozoic Australian arc. The Macquarie Arc isn’t exactly the cutting edge of scientific progress today, and small, forgotten fields are less difficult to mess with. I mean come on. It’s the AJES. What self-respecting scientist would publish there?

More generally, does this mean that all science is corrupted and inbred? Consider a similar argument:

Hicksville, Kentucky is inbred. It is in America. New York is in America. Therefore, New York is inbred.

Leaving aside the special case of Staten Island, we would say that anyone with the slightest clue about NYC would find this argument silly. And so it is with science. In order to look for literature manipulation in this, you have to look at all the pre-existing literature on the areas in question, familiarize yourself with the special issue, and then go searching for models and interpretations in the pre-existing literature that are systematically overlooked, without actually being disproven. Sure, the repetition in the Authors list may look bad. But in order to show any dodgy dealings, you really gotta do a lot of work. I reckon it is better to assume that the guest authors were above board and fair, because finding contrary evidence is simply too much work.

Needless to say, the much larger field of climate science will require a much larger knowledge base to determine whether peer review is stifling innovation, or just correcting errors. I don’t care to do that- it would probably take several years of my life to do. So my request to people who do claim that climate science is bent is this: Get yourself a PhD scholarship, spend 5 years of your life learning what does and doesn’t work in the field, and then make your determination on the fairness of the editors at most of the major journals.

p.s. In the interest of disclosure, I should mention that my former boss is an author on one or more of the AGES papers. He was not a guest editor.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Blogroll Orgy

It seems to be the season for gratuitous linking and blogroll updates. Some of my links have been left in the veggie crisper for far too long. So if you have a blog that is fun to read, and you want some linky love, post here before the end of the weekend, and I’ll try to get y’all hooked up in time for Valentine’s Day.

Hydrology tip of the day


When zooming down country lanes in the new family car, trying to blast through puddles like the one below at maximum splash speed is not recommended.

In addition, wading out into it to make a depth determination is also not a good idea unless one thinks very carefully about what happens if you take a step forward only to find a dropoff where the road has been washed away.

photo by Mrs. Lemming

Monday, February 04, 2008

Global warming skeptics claim Patriots win Superbowl

I don’t want to call attention to skeptical web sites by actually linking them from this site, but the usual suspects in global warming denialism have homed in on a new target- the Superbowl champions.

The gang of 397.5 is now claiming that the Giants didn’t actually win. And to support this stance, they have trotted out all of their tired old canards:

  • By truncating the data at 2 minute warning, a Patriots win is obvious.
  • Satellite measurements suggest that the 4th down rush failed to exceed the space-based error margins for a first down.
  • Increased, undetectable solar irradiance dazzled Tom Brady, and the Giants’ D had nothing to do with his performance.
  • The Giants victory is a conspiracy perpetrated by rent-seeking sports journalists who are selfishly trying to increase interest in the dullest Superbowl of all time in order to justify their hegemony of the sports infotainment industry.
  • The Manning brothers score regularly on Mars, Titan, Pluto, and many other planetary bodies, so game winning passes here on Earth must be caused by some mysterious exotic power which should constitute interference with the football game.
  • Millions of years ago, football scores were both much higher and much lower than in tonight’s game.
  • Common sense demands that a team which makes up less than 0.05% of the population of Hudson County can’t possibly be responsible for upsetting the greatest sports franchise on Earth.
  • In-con-ceEEEEEI-vable.*
  • The consensus view that the team with the most points wins is a self-fulfilling delusion perpetrated by the opaque fraternity of peer review.
  • By cherrypicking away all of the Giants’ scoring plays, the game becomes a Patriots shutout.


* I don’t think this word means what they think it means.