Sunday, December 21, 2008

Merry Christmas

It's the longest day of the year, so I'm off to holiday on the oceanic crust for two weeks.

I hope you all have wonderful holidays, and a great new year. Here's a picture of LLLL testing the stability of our home-grown Christmas tree and $8 DIY stand:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The zircon who knew too much: Retrenchment blogging, day 42

I have just been offered a 6 month geochronology contract with Geoscience Australia. The aim is to help them work through their backlog of U/Pb ion probe zircon dating. The contract says that a security clearance is required. Now, I don’t know what state secrets these mineral grains hold, or how bombarding them with 10KeV O2- ions will reveal this information, much less endanger the operations of the Australian government. But you won’t find out from me. Loose lips sink ships. And they wreak havoc on high vacuum systems when you try to pump them down. So mine are sealed.

Wrong target?

Evidently the new “The Day the Earth Stood Still” remake features hyperadvanced aliens who come to Earth to get humans to stop damaging the planet, or else.

At Cosmic Variance, Sean discusses the philosophical implications of intergalactic ecoterrorists such as these. While at Systemic, Greg points out the futility of beaming a signal to a star that set two hours before the transmission begins. I have a different angle.

I reckon these aliens have picked a soft target.

As CV’s commenters have pointed out, paleontologists have identified 6 mass extinctions which exceed a threshold value to qualify as ‘great’. The sixth extinction is allegedly being caused by us. Which means that exterminating humans is at best a 17% solution. It does nothing to address the other five extinctions. Our current best guess is that those other five were primarily caused by flood basalt volcanism (with an accessory role for bolides). Which means that humans are merely a biocidal sidekick, compared to this:

Therefore, if aliens with superpowers want to properly protect diversified marcofaunal ecosystems, they shouldn’t kill us. We may be messy, but our common enemy is the mantle plume. Aliens serious about reducing the risk of ecological catastrophe should instead eliminate thermal instabilities at the core-mantle boundary. To do anything else would be a 1/6 measure. And they can even ask these guys for technical tips.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Spot the geologists

Back when the minerals boom was booming, I and many other geologists had stories of being approached for employment in unusual circumstances. For example, in July of 2007, my Managing Director and I were buying groceries for a field expedition in a Mt. Isa supermarket. A random guy walking down the aisle greeted us, allowed us to introduce ourselves, and then asked me if I wanted to come work for him. This was despite the fact that I had just introduced the MD as my boss, and he was standing right there.

I don’t know how he identified me as a geologist. A theoretician might be able to derive a geologist spotting formula (GSF) from the laws of thermodynamics, but I’m an experimentalist. So I will experiment. The following link is my public facebook page.

Note! Updated methodology!

If you, the reader, are on facebook, you will be able to click through to my friend list. Don't do this! Friend lists can contain information that may bias your picture analysis.
Instead, view the selection of 8 random friends of mine who will be apparent in the public page. In order to participate in this geologist spotting experiment, all you have to do is the following:

1. Look at the sidebar of this blog to determine my blogular email address, and compose an email to me.
2. Look at the pictures of some of my friends.
3. Cut and paste their names into your email, followed by a YES if you think they are a geologist, or a NO if you think they are not.
4. If you know the person, please say KNOWN instead of typing yes or no.

If you're really bored you can go through my whole friend list, but a few dozen per person ought to be plenty. Clicking the reload/refresh button on your browser will change the 8 people shown on the public page. So just reload a few times until you feel you've sampled a representative number of people, or until you get bored.

In order to give some vague semblance of privacy to all the friends of mine whom I have just turned into an online viewing gallery, please don’t post any names in comments. Use email instead (comment moderation is now on, just in case). I’ll post statistical spotting results devoid of personal identifiers as data come in.

So don’t be shy, don’t lurk, and please participate in this geologist spotting experiment. Otherwise, we’ll have to defer to the theorists for possible explanations. Statistics on how many of my friends I piss off by doing this may or may not be collected.

Space is so big...

That is can host dozens and dozens of carnivals.

Carnival of space #81.

Carnival of space #82.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rio to slash 1.4x104 jobs

Rio Tinto is letting go 14,000 people in an attempt to reduce debt and react to rapidly deteriorating market conditions. This is:
-60% of the population of Alice Springs.
-20% more than the entire attendance of next week's AGU meeting.
-One person per month since the reign of Charlemagne.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Math for geologists

Because ultimately, everything in our science comes down to beer.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Lead in plastic

A few weeks back, shortly before my job with Uramet terminated, the chief geo and I were doing some work out at the Geoscience Australia core library. I took the opportunity to grab the portable XRF analyzer, and check the old, peeling paint on out railings for lead. The good news is that they were not Pb paint- the Pb content was measured in ppm, not percent.

Not content to turn the machine off with my peace of mind intact, I decided to move on to the windows. When we bought the house, we replaces all the old, leaky, single-pane aluminum windows with swish double-glazed uPVC windows. I’d head something about metals such as lead being used in some plastics, so I figured I’d take a look. A spectra is shown below:

The dominant peak is the chlorine peak. Since PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride, this is not surprising. The Ti is probably related to the white pigment. And there is also substantial calcium and lead. I don’t have a standard to compare this to, but the instrument’s built-in, assume-it’s-a-crustal-rock firmware estimates 1-2% Pb.

So from now on, LLLL is not allowed to chew on the windows. Aside from that, though, I don’t really know what to make of this. I know fuck all about plastic stabilization, much less how it is regulated. So I don’t have the environmental knowledge required to calibrate my level of parental worry. If anyone better educated than I wants to pitch in, that would be great.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Retrenchment blogging, day 30

I'm unemployed!

Also, a bit tipsy.

And yesterday, I got an official job rejection letter. It was from a government agency, and they can only hire permanent residents if no qualified Australians apply. So that was pretty much expected. Still. Anyway.

I had a good chat wth everyone else who got sacked today- the board stopped operations, so everyone from the managing director down to the fieldies is looking for work. Maybe if we'd driven a prius to Washington they would have bailed us out. Oh well. The chairman has a point, which is that if good results don't raise the shareprice or atract investment, there isn't much point spending the money needed to get the results. Still, it is a bit frustrating to have to walk away from half finished projects. Oh well. Welcome to the real world. I leave it to a junior geo 10 years from now to dig up our reports and ask his boss, "Why didn't the drill this one out?"

In the mean time, anyone with 5 cents in their pocket can pick up not one, but two shares of uramet stock. It floated at 20 cents.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A tip for science writers

Currently, a story about the Hadean Earth is the banner article in the science section of the New York Times. This is good. As the article explains, the Hadean- formally the time from Earth’s formation to 4 billion years ago, and informally the time for which we have no rocks- is traditionally underconstrained (no rocks, no data). But in the last few decades, rocks and individual minerals have been found, and the picture that is emerging is that the Hadean may have been more similar to the modern Earth than originally thought.

This is all well and good, and I have no argument with the science or the presentation of it. People in the know have known about evidence for a wet early Earth for years, and the New York Times is a good place to get that knowledge out into the wider human community. However, I have a complaint about the way the reporting was done, which could prove problematic with a more contentious topic.

The writer of the Times piece writes:

“The picture that’s emerging is a watery world with normal rock recycling processes,” said Stephen J. Mojzsis, a professor of geology at the University of Colorado who was not involved with the U.C.L.A. research.

Mojzsis’s name is not on the paper, and he may have been unaffiliated with this particular project. However, a quick Google scholar search will show that he and Harrison have co-authored a dozen papers over the last decade or so on early earth evolution. Several of these papers include work done on Jack Hills zircon, which is the topic of the Nature paper at the heart of the article. So presenting his opinion as that of an uninvolved, detached scientist is probably a bit of a stretch.

I don’t know how much training or education science journalists get with regards to the culture of scientific collaboration, but simple tests like reading the names on a publication list will at least give a hint as to how connected or independent various scientists are.

As an aside, Harrison and Valley did not discover Hadean zircons. That was done in the early eighties. What happened in 2001 was that both groups developed (independently) the ability to measure oxygen isotopes on single zircon grains to the precision needed to make inferences about the source magma of the zircon.

And anyone wishing to know more about the state of research into the Early earth should get to San Francisco in the next week and a half. There are several sessions at the annual fall AGU meeting.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Are they looking back?

Thus far, science has discovered planets around more than 250 stars. Most of these are too faint to see without a telescope, but a couple are quite bright, and several others can be found if you know where to look. Currently, a couple of these are high in the Southern sky. Fomalhaut, with a recently imaged planet that has been blogged everywhere, was just about directly overhead in November at sunset, and is now just a bit west. Click the image to see the stars in question.

Also visible is Epsilon Eridani, which is the closest star with a known planet. It is fairly dim, so despite being only 10 light years away, it is an inconspicuous star, the second in a line of four stretching away from Rigel up and to the north. So far, only huge gas giants have been detected. But these systems almost certainly have rocky planets or moons with outcrops waiting to be mapped.