Friday, December 21, 2012

The world has ended, but this blog rambles on.

In this timezone, it’s the 21st of December already, and the world has been destroyed.

Sorry guys, but the Mayans were right.  At 12:01 am, Eastern Australian Daylight time, this section of the world was destroyed.  The planet is disintegrating along the time-zone lines like the segments of an orange getting peeled off and tossed into a juicer.  Sorry folks, it’s all over.  And they didn’t even use my method for destroying the planet.

Fortunately, the super expensive Australian National Broadband Network is extensive and robust enough to survive this catastrophe, so I am still able to blog from the cosmic void.  It is getting cold and hard to breathe out here, but there are some benefits.  For example, without a globe there is no global warming.  And, in space, no-one can hear your neighbor throw up in the front lawn after a big night out.  And the big night will last forever.  Unfortunately, the nearest place to grab a drink is now the Saturnian moon Titan.  No word from the Mayans yet on when that baby is due to go.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Odd-shaped lakes in Google Earth

I was goofing around in Google Earth this evening, performing an activity that started out as meaningful and quickly degenerated into a Game of "Ooh what's that", when I came across the following:
Note the very strange shoreline on this lake, with numerous straight line borders. The first time I saw this, I thought I was looking at some dams I didn't know about, but I quickly realized that such an interpretation made no sense.

 Instead, what I believe this image is showing is a mosaic from pictures acquired several years apart. One of those years was a wet year, while another must have been after a period of extended drought. As a result, the lake is ~90% full in some of the images, but almost empty in others. And the straight-line lakeshores are just the tile borders, which Google's new color autocorrect makes less obvious.

 I have no idea where WoGE is up to these days, but I left the co-ordinates off in case anyone wants to chase up the Reservoir.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Pre-Proterozoic Political Proletariat

For those not familiar with old Earth geology, the conglomerates of the Jack Hills contain detrital zircons, and the 1% of those zircons which are older than 4 billion years consume 95% of the resources used to study these mineral grains. Clearly, this is the longest-running example of economic inequality on this planet.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The trouble with climate models

For the past 20 years or so, people who have not wanted to consider the possible issues relating to increasing the atmospheric load of carbon dioxide and other IR-adsorbing gasses have tried to play down the dangers of potential climate change by pointing out that the computer models used to predict it were not very accurate.

The implication behind this argument is that the uncertainty in these models will overestimate potential changes. What will happen in a future where the models underestimate climate changes in generally unmentioned.

Luckily, we don't need to look to the future to investigate that possibility anymore. The above graph (from Neven's excellent Sea Ice Blog) shows the actual decline in summer arctic sea ice, relative to various computer model predictions. As this graph shows, ice is now melting much faster than any of the models had predicted.


Of course, the most persistent pro-pollution propagandists tell us that this proves that the computer models are useless, which means that climate change can't be real, which means that any effects we see must be caused by the warming fairies instead of exhaust gasses.


What we, as scientists, would really like is this: We would like to be able to predict the effects of pollution on the climate before they happen. That's why we get into science. The whole purpose of the field is to make predictions about the natural world and then test them. So if y'all cook the Earth faster than we can make decent predictions about the warming, then we get very disappointed. Not as disappointed as all the retirees on the Jersey Shore who just lost their houses, but still not real happy. So folks, here is a request.

Could y'all please slow down the warming of the planet just enough so that we, the research community, can actually catch up and figure out who is happening to this atmosphere?We would much rather predict doom and gloom for the future than look at last week's disaster and shrug , "Yeah. We should have thought of that."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

It has been a year since the solar panels on our house were installed. In that year, we consumed about 2750 kWh of electricity, and produced about 3370 kWh.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

If only politicians led by example

How great would it be if all the politicians running for office cancelled any new TV ad buys, and donated the money to hurricane relief instead?  With an estimated 6 billion dollar price tag for this year's elections, a the damages inflicted by Frankenstorm Sandy will still need additional funding, but it would certainly make a dent in the enormous damages that stretch across half the eastern seaboard and west through the Appalachians.  And putting that money into building new homes, fixing infrastructure and preparing the nation for the next superstorm would be a far better use than 2000 more hours of cheezy attack ads being beamed into space.  Sure, some of those ad buys have been paid for already- but visionary candidates, parties, and PACS can choose to run public service ads in that time.

Seriously, folks.  If takes just one candidate to tell all his supporters to fund the red cross instead of him, and suddenly his opponent is turned into the Grinch if he buys attack ads instead of charity appeals.  So which American leader is going to step up first?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Vote Geology in Ginninderra

Here in the Australian Capital Territory, there is a geologist on the Belconnen area ballot for next week's local elections.  Ms. Nash studied Geology at the ANU following her police and small business careers, and I had the luck to teach her intro geology when I was organizing practicals (labs) as a grad student in 1999-2000.  She was a great student, a successful businesswoman, and I'm sure she will make a great MLA.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Isaac Asimov describes uranium-lead geochronology

Cleaning out some old filing cabinets here at work, I found some old newspaper clippings of a science article by Science Fiction and popular science writer Isaac Asimov, describing uranium-lead geochronology of zircon.

As it turns out, the article still exists in the on-line archive of the LA times.  It can be found here.  Although the article is 22 years old, neither the fundamental physics, nor the billion-year-old rocks, have changed much during that time.  So it is still a useful reference for anyone wanting to know the basics of uranium-lead geochronology, and early earth history.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

AGU journal commercialization deal announced

Via Ron Schott:

The American Geophysical Union, the world's leading society of Earth and space science, and Wiley-Blackwell, the scientific, medical, technical and scholarly business of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (NYSE: JWa and JWb), a global provider of content and content-enabled services in research, professional development, and education, announced today that the AGU has selected Wiley-Blackwell as its publishing partner for its portfolio of journals and books. The new partnership will be effective January 2013, subject to completion of a publishing agreement in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding signed last week.
Full story here: I haven't actually cited (or even read) an AGU journal for a decade (unless EOS counts), but anyone who knows about geophysics is welcome to recommend alternative journals in comments.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Additional AGU publication update

The following additional information regarding the AGU journal publication process. It is an email from Dr. Chris McEntee, CEO. I would like to than Dr. McEntee and the AGU board for making this information available to the public, and for choosing this blog, instead of their own blog network, for these announcements. This was actually sent to me on Wednesday. However, I have been travelling and not checking the blog email. I apologize for the delay.

From: Chris McEntee Sent: Monday, July 02, 2012 2:33 PM Subject: Board Decision on Journal Publishing Partnership Earlier this afternoon the Board of Directors concluded its meeting during which recommendations from the working group evaluating publisher proposals were presented and discussed. The working group utilized the criteria developed by Council along with financial and operational criteria in arriving at their recommendations. Their deliberations included an evaluation of AGU’s internal journal publication capabilities compared to the publisher proposals. The working group appreciated and recognized the substantial effort that AGU editors and staff have made in improving AGU publications over the past several years and their solid and sustained commitment to journal quality. At the same time, the working group concluded that a partner would bring additional capabilities and expertise in publication strategy, processes, global reach, and ease of use and discovery by authors, editors, and readers that would significantly benefit AGU. The working group recommended that AGU partner on journal production, distribution, sales and marketing, and subscription management They also recommended a publisher with whom to partner. After thorough discussion, a motion to accept both recommendations was passed by the Board. The Board passed a second motion acknowledging and thanking AGU publications staff for their contributions and dedication to the high quality of the journals program over the years. The next step in the process is to draft a letter of agreement with the publisher selected. Once it is signed, we will be able to announce the name of the publisher and discuss why they were selected. We expect the letter will be signed within a week to 10 days. Once the letter is signed, we will begin determining the impacts on staffing. The results will be shared with staff affected as quickly as possible. We will also form a staff transition team to work with the publisher’s transition team. A revised AGU publications staff structure will be established and will include modified editor and author support for submission and peer review. The specifics of this structure will be shared with the AGU staff and editors once it is complete and determinations are made as to which current AGU staff will fulfill these roles. GEMS will remain the submission manuscript system for authors and editors. We know how difficult the past month has been for staff and that hearing the Board’s decision is not easy. as it will result in significant change for all staff at AGU. I am extremely proud of the excellent work of our publications staff. They consistently demonstrate a strong commitment to quality and fulfilling AGU’s mission. This decision is no way reflects upon their work. The reality is this: the global world of science and scholarly publishing today is vastly different than even 10 years ago. AGU simply cannot match the resources required to meet the needs of a 24/7 global science community of authors and readers. A partner publisher will bring these resources, assuring that AGU scholarly and scientific information maintains its high standard of quality and is readily accessible worldwide. Chris _______________________________________________ Chris McEntee Executive Director/CEO Ext: 510 Office: 5-A

More details on AGU publication privatization

The following email, dated 14 June 2012, has been forwarded to the Lounge. It contains several details on the plan for AGU publications:

From: AGU President To: (recipients' email addresses redacted) CC: AGU-Directors Subject: Update on Publications Partnership Evaluation To: Board, Council, Publications Committee, and Editors Our thanks to all of you who have emailed, commented on the secure web site, and participated in phone-in sessions regarding AGU's exploration of a publishing partnership. We wanted to share with you common themes in several of the concerns raised as well as our responses to them. Before getting into specifics of the issues raised, we'd first like to acknowledge that several people posed questions about roles, responsibilities, transparency, and participation in process. The elected leadership of AGU - Board of Directors and Council - continues to break new ground and chart new territory with the authority matrix and decision tree that were adopted as part of AGU's change in governance. We recognize this new structure is still unfamiliar to many members and that this has led to some confusion about the process. However, the decision to seek a publishing partner and the subsequent solicitation of input to guide criteria for selection are consistent with how our governance structure is intended to function. Many of the comments built upon the criteria noted in the online criteria discussion forum. Overall, there is significant concern surrounding conflicting goals of AGU and any potential partner publisher. This is a key concern of the members of the working group, as well. They will assess this issue thoroughly both through the publishers' responses to the RFP, their presentations, and their personal commitments, as well as through contract language if a partnering approach is chosen. Drilling down one level deeper, following are the major common threads we have seen and heard in the forum, conference calls, and emails received and our responses to them. 1. Cultural Fit: AGU's focus is on collaboratively advancing and communicating science. Publishers may not share these same values and support initiatives such as journal access for scientists in economically challenged nations. Response: Cultural fit, and even the personal relationship fit with key partner staff, is of the utmost importance. Keeping confidentiality agreements in mind, all finalist publishers have mission statements which are very similar to AGU's. Assessing the degree to which each publisher lives that mission is a key responsibility of the working group. Contractually, AGU will have decision rights for key publisher staff interfaces with AGU volunteers and staff. All finalist publishers participate in HINARI and AGORA - initiatives focused on supplying low-cost or free journal content access to scientists in economically challenged nations. 1. Ongoing Quality: While the publisher may promise and initially deliver high quality production and support processes including copy editing, once the contract is signed, these services will degrade to the lowest cost model for the publisher in order to maximize profit. Response: The finalist publishers all have decades-long experience producing many of the world's foremost journals including several in Earth and Space science fields - positions earned through high quality, high and growing impact factors, and strong relationships with their editorial teams. Revenue growth, which drives profitability far more than expense reduction, is directly driven by journal quality and impact. So it is fundamentally in the publisher's best interest to continually bring the highest quality science and journals to market. Contractually, publishers will be committed to minimum guaranteed returns to AGU, further reinforcing the need to maintain high quality and resulting revenues. 1. Open Access and Pricing: Dissemination of science is at the core of AGU's mission. Exploration and support for Open Access (OA) models and ensuring fair pricing of the current institutional subscription model must be continued by AGU. Pursuit of these goals would be compromised through a third party publisher relationship. Response: AGU will continue to pursue ways to support OA in a manner that ensures access to the science while balancing the financial aspects of the business model. All finalist publishers have existing programs for OA, publish full OA journals, and provide options for AGU to experiment further with OA through new journal titles and other concepts. At the same time, given the uncertainty over OA government mandates, a third party partnership mitigates the financial risk to AGU. Accessibility can also be impacted by pricing schemes which bundle AGU products into "mega-deals" or dramatically increases the pricing of our publications. In any agreement, AGU publications would remain a stand-alone product suite, with any bundling with other publications strictly optional and subject to AGU approval. Price increases are subject to joint decision making between the partner and AGU and are informed by market data on the institutional and publishing environment. 1. Editorial and Author Support: Significant progress has been made between the partnership of the editorial teams and AGU staff over the last few years including stabilization of staffing support provided, streamlined processes, and system improvements. Changes to third party support for these functions may cause this interface to regress. Response: Any assessment of changes to this area will be focused on a clear demonstration of superior service, support, and technologies by a partner publisher. Ensuring a high level of continuing support for our editors is critical to the success of this venture. 1. Transition / Exit Strategies: If quality, responsiveness, financial results, or technological proficiency decline over the life of the contract, AGU must be protected and able to continue the important work of the journals. Response: We recognize that despite best efforts and planning, sometimes results do not meet expectations, and it is prudent to ensure that clauses exist in the contract to protect AGU under such circumstances. These types of clauses are routine in third party publisher contracts and often have mutual components, which means that AGU has to deliver on its commitments also. Furthermore, all finalist publishers have signed the Transfer Code of Practice adopted by UKSG, a standards group for the scholarly publishing community. This code sets expectations and standards for orderly transfers of scholarly works such as journals from one publisher to another. Please continue to send in any additional thoughts and comments. Our intention with the responses above is to provide recognition that your input is being received, that it impacts the decision making process, and, if we are to move forward with a third party, the input will be woven into the fabric of any agreement. Based on all input received, a criteria matrix is being developed for endorsement by the Council at their upcoming 21 June 2012 call. Thank you again for your comments and for your commitment to the excellence of AGU journals. We will keep you apprised of the evaluation process as the working group completes its evaluation. Best regards, Michael J. McPhaden President Carol Finn President-elect ____________________________________________________________ AGU galvanizes a community of Earth and space scientists that collaboratively advances and communicates science and its power to ensure a sustainable future.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

There's a little black spot on the sun today

Just the same old thing as 1769....

There are lots of good pictures of the current transit of Venus streaming in from people with actual skill in photography, astronomy, or both.  The purpose of this post is to point out that with a set of binoculars, you can project the sun (and Venus) onto just about anything.  For example, a toy box:

So you really can see it anywhere, as long as the sun is still up where you are right now. The key thing is that you need to hurry! If you don't catch it in the next hour, you'll have to wait another 105 years before you can try again.

Monday, June 04, 2012

AGU to outsource journals to commercial publishers??

Does anyone know about the decision by AGU to outsource the publication of its journals to a commercial publisher?  Do any folks actually in America and active in AGUing know what is going on? This is all I know :
(exerpt from AGU spam)
“There continue to be major changes in AGU. For the last few years, publications have been discussed extensively by Council and the transformation of AGU’s publications was identified as a high priority objective in the Strategic Plan. Recently, the AGU board reached a decision to evaluate partnering with a third party publisher for production, sales and marketing aspects of AGU’s publications. This decision followed a third party external review by Rising Tide of AGU’s publications, which involved widespread consultation with Council, editors and the Publications Committee. The decision is based on both scientific and organizational considerations. In order to ensure that the scientific criteria for evaluating potential partners is well developed, the leadership of all sections and focus groups have been invited to share their input and to provide comment on initial criteria as developed by the Board and Publications Committee.”
This decision will herald a new era of progress in AGU publications, as well as bring considerable benefits to AGU in terms of finances and reduction of risk at a time when there are major changes and uncertainties about the future of scientific publishing. AGU will retain ownership of copyrights and content, responsibility for all editorial control and oversight through its journal editors and Publications Committee. The decision also brings many opportunities for innovation. The outsourcing organization will be the platform for production, distribution and marketing, so will only handle the more mechanistic aspects of publication. There will be joint decision-making for journal strategies, including pricing and the business model. AGU and its members will benefit from advanced technologies, worldwide sales and distribution, mitigation of risks in an uncertain publishing environment, reduced capital investments by AGU and improved financial performance of journals through economies of scale.
AGU expects to make a decision on outsourcing and identify the commercial organization in July. Over the next few weeks AGU seeks views of members through Council on the key criteria that should inform the contractual arrangement with an outsourcing organization.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Crowd-sourcing the Googlefail

Ok folks.  I'm looking for a favour.  I am trying to find a pre-Thermo-merger logo for Finnigan Instruments.  Google came up empty.  If anyone can find one, either on the net or by taking a picture of their old manual, I would greatly appreciate it if you could send it to me.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The real cause of global warming

There is an inordinate amount of conjecture, commotion and crap spread about global warming on the internet.  If you read the duller corners of the internet, you might find a bunch of boring old scientists droning on about CO2 equivalents, and radiative forcing, and statistical gibberish.  But in the more colorful parts of the web, there are at least as many conspiracy nutter web-narcissists claiming that it is the sun shining out of Al Gore’s ass that is to blame.  Well, to save you a lot of web surfing and wondering about this issue, let me fill you all in.  Global warming isn’t caused by burning coal, or farting cows, or fuzzy little seals insulating the arctic ice floes.  Global warming is caused by me.

That’s right, I did it.  Hurricane Katrina?  Easy.  I don’t like jazz.  The melting arctic ice?  Well how else are we supposed to kill seal pups now that we can’t club them any more?  The droughts and floods and bathwater oceans?  I did those as well. Want to know why it started taking off in the mid-80’s?  That was me growing up and hitting puberty.  You see, it is all my fault.  Every last thousandth of a degree.

Back in college, a friend of mine, who is now a prominent environmentalist, showed me that the easiest way to defuse an argument- any argument- is to take personal responsibility for the problem.  It’s a great strategy.  Cuts off all sorts of kvetching at the heels.  So that’s where I’m going with climate change. I did it.  So stop arguing.  Take down all those websites "debating the unsettled issues" and use the server space for videos of anthropogenicized cats instead.  Because the debate is now over.  The global warming is mine.

And now that I have taken ownership of the problem, please don’t call it “anthropogenic” any more.  Call it “Lemmingogenic” instead.  But since LGW doesn’t spell anything, let’s all call it “Lemmingogenic Atmospheric Baking”.  LAB.  Because I am the LAB Lemming.

Of course, if there is one common theme from humanity’s response over the past decade to the problem I caused, it is that all the effort involved in mitigating the damage must be bourne by someone other that the person at fault.  So go ahead, folks.  Clean up my mess, while I lounge around and start sinking Pacific atolls between sixpacks. Lounging is what I do.  Especially here.  Sure, it’s my fault.  But it’s Bangladesh’s problem.  Tough luck guys.  Or as the googlefish says:
  আপনার ক্ষতি

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Deprofessionalization of Science

About a year ago, before Chris Mooney left science blogging for politics, he and his guest bloggers were framing the rift between scientists and conservatives as a rejection of science by conservative leaders.  Even if one accepts his thesis, that there is a disconnect between modern mainstream conservatives and the scientific community, his interpretation assumes that it is the conservative movement that has moved.  An alternative explanation is that science has moved to the left, and abandoned conservatives.

At the risk of disappointing and conspiracy nutters out there, I am not going to suggest that this is some fiendish plot.  Rather, I will suggest three unrelated factors that have had the side effect of moving the practice of science from a mainstream all-American profession to an ivory tower extravagance.  40 years ago, conservatives could mingle with scientists and understands their views simply by talking down the pew, or chatting at the school fete.  But in the last 30 years, scientists have, in many cases, disappeared from suburban middle class life, allowing a disconnect to form.

The first, and most direct effect was the Bayh-Dole act, passed by congress in 1980.  This law basically allowed non-profit organizations who received federal funding to patent the results of research funded by the government.  In practice, it meant that scientific research could be outsourced to universities, which could then subsidize it with federal funding and achieve greater productivity by employing grad students and technicians for salaries much lower than were found in the private sector.  As a result, R&D started moving out of the (generally conservative) private sector and into (liberal) academia.

The second effect was the financial deregulation and associated wave of mergers and acquisitions that characterized the 1980’s.  When two companies, each with a professional R&D lab,, merged, more often than not one of the labs was closed- or drastically downsized- resulting in job losses at that site. Once again, middle-class, professional scientist positions disappeared.

The third effect was the end of the cold war around 1990.  The cold war employed thousands of engineers, scientists, and technicians to conceptualize, design, and build the weapons necessary to keep the USSR at bay.  It was these educated, technological conservatives who kept California reliably republican throughout the cold war.  But when the Soviet Union fell apart, the USA also demilitarized, and conservative, military-related science and technology jobs were hardest hit.

Note that none of these events was designed to sever the link between science and conservatism.  It was an unintended consequence.  But the growth of academic science at the expense of professional science has resulted in the problem of scientists being less available outside the liberal enclaves of research universities and federal research labs. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

NIMBY’s just might get what they deserve

A story here, that I first picked up in the paper version of the Canberra Times, states that a number of farmers are outraged- OUTRAGED!- that their land has had an exploration license taken out on it. One might think that, perhaps, these people are environmentalists who oppose the extraction on non-renewable resources. Except that, just 6 years ago, they were fighting tooth-and-nail to stop wind turbines from being installed.

“Hall district beef producers Phil and Jan Peelgrane, who farm just over the northern border of the ACT, said they would ''lock the gate'' to keep out the mineral explorers, saying they didn't have the energy to mount another campaign against another company. The pair were among those who successfully fought against wind turbines proposed for the area by ActewAGL and later Japanese interests.”

I hope they do lock the gate. Science would provide their comeuppance.

When exploring for gold and copper in a new area, the first step is generally to look for electrically conductive minerals. Chalopyrite (CuFeS2, the main copper ore) and pyrite (FeS2, which is often associated with gold mineralization) are both electrical conductors (if you don’t believe this, take a multi-meter to your nearest museum gift shop or gem&mineral show and check for yourself on any ‘fool’s gold” on offer). While gold is, of course, an even better conductor, there is generally only a few parts-per-million of gold in gold ore, so the gold itself is hard to detect. But the sulfides can be quite abundant- several percent. And there are a variety of electromagnetic techniques that can be used to detect the presence of conductive minerals in the subsurface.

There are two main classes of electromagnetic surveys. Ground-based, and air-based. If these NIMBY farmers “lock the gates”, then instead of driving around in their paddocks and hammering electrodes into the ground, the exploration team will have to use an airborne survey instead.

And this is where karma comes into it. You can’t fly EM surveys through wind turbines (think gigantic propellers vs. helicopter-borne spiderweb-shaped antennae- not to mention the electromagnetic interference). So if the NIMBYs had embraced wind energy 6 years ago, then they would have been able to keep their skies free now. Instead, by locking the gates to this company, all they can guarantee themselves is having parallel 200 meter-spaced lines flown by really large, slow, low-flying helicopters. Not in their backyard, of course. Just a very small distance above it.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Geologist defeats incumbent in Indiana Senate primary

Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who worked as a professional coal, oil, and environmental geologist for 30 years before entering politics, has defeated incumbent Richard Lugar as the Republican nominee for Indiana’s Senate seat.  He will face the current democratic representative for Indiana’s 2nd congressional district, former lawyer and small businessman Joe Donnelly, in the general election in November.

What are isotopes, and how do we measure them?

Over at Highly Allochthonous, Anne has posted a wonderful interview with a former mentor.  While it was enjoyable to read, they did manage to slip into technical isotope nerd jargon speech at one point, with the question:

I’ve got a new-fangled cavity ringdown spectrometer (CRDS) for analyzing water isotopes, and it is so much cheaper and easier to use than a traditional mass spectrometer. But I’m also limited to a just hydrogen and oxygen in water, unlike the versatility of a mass spec, so that’s a big downside. Do you care to say what you think the future of stable isotope spectrometry will be? Will the CRDS systems displace the old-school mass spec or am I buying into a passing fad?

Let me translate that for humans:

Isotopes are atom or ions with the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons.  Because they have the same proton number, they are all the same element, so they have similar chemical behavior.  However, because they have different neutron numbers, processes which are mass dependent can treat them differently. 

Figure 1.  Isotopes of hydrogen.  Note that the heavy isotopes of hydrogen are the only isotopes which regularly use gang affiliations instead of standard chemical notation (“D” and “T”, instead of 2H and 3H)

Geology is all about deciphering the past story of the natural world.  In order to pin down the story, we like to find modern clues that are affected by just one process.  That way, if we see the clue, we know the process occurred. In reality, there is generally more than one possible process, but the nice thing about isotopes is that because they have similar chemical behavior, we can generally rule out a lot of processes that rely on chemical differences in the ancient earth, so that the isotopic signal suggest only a few (or if we are lucky, one) process was at work in the past.

Figure 2.  Isotopes of helium.  Helium, being a noble gas, is too prideful for ganster symbols.

An additional benefit of isotopes is that because they have similar chemical behaviors, their chemistry doesn’t separate them in our measurement device.  As a result, isotopic ratios can be measured much more precisely than chemical ratios can be measured.

So how do we measure them?

Traditionally, we use a mass spectrometer.  This is a device that turns the atoms (or molecules) of interest into ions by either removing or adding electrons.  The ions are then accelerated (using an electric field) through a magnet, which deflects them based on their mass (assuming a constant energy).  The individual ions (or the electrical current generated by their arrival) are then measured on collectors positioned where the magnet deflects the ions.

Figure 3.  Sketch of hydrogen isotopes being separated in a mass spectrometer.

Mass spectrometry is useful because there are lots of different ways to create ions.  With SIMS, TIMS, ICPMS, SSMS, the letters preceding MS all refer to the type of source.  Depending on the source type, isotopes of just about any element can be analysed, and the different sources allow a wide variety of types of materials to be sampled: solids, liquids, gasses, solutes in liquids, etc.  The trouble is that mass spectrometers are expensive, and generally need very secure, stable operating conditions.

Mass spectrometers have been around for 100 years.   More recently, isotope measurements have been done using optical adsorption spectrometry.  As is shown in figure 4, gas molecules (in this case hydrogen gas) contain covalent bonds, and these bonds vibrate at a specific frequency.  Photons (light) with a similar frequency are easily adsorbed by these bonds.  However, the vibrational frequency is, in part, dependent on the mass of the atoms in the bonds.  So a change in the isotope at one (or both) ends of a bond will change the frequency of the bond, and that in turn will change the frequency of the light (usually infra-red) that the bond absorbs.

Figure 4. Vibrational frequencies are dependent on isotopes.

This technique was originally used by astronomers to determine isotopic abundances of gas clouds and galaxies and other far away stuff.  However, in recent decades, advances is solid state technology has allowed for the production of cheap, flexible lasers.  These are used in a variety of optical systems which use some sort of resonator to amplify the absorption signal, and CRDS (Cavity RingDown Spectroscopy) is one such system that is commercially available.

Optical systems like this are limited, in that they can only measure polyatomic gas molecules.  They can’t measure rocks, or helium, as neither has covalent bonds in gas molecules.  They do have some advantages, though.  They are generally cheaper than mass spectrometers, and they can measure differences in molecular structure.  For example, in the molecule N2O, 14N15N16O and 15N14N16O have identical masses, so can’t be distinguished in mass spectrometry.  But their adsorption spectra are different, so spectroscopic system can differentiate them.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Who still believes in global warming?

So I was blissfully snoozing away in my ex-blogging slumber, when a sudden ruckus on the internet woke me up. Evidently some anti-science thinktank in the US has been putting billboards up featuring pictures of people who refuse to reject reality. I don’t really see why anyone would want to do this, other than perhaps an open invitation to be mocked by the entire internet, but I’m not complaining. After all, it is a free country.
What I don’t understand, however, is the associated backlash. What is is about the following billboard that everyone finds so offensive?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Repost: Global warming skeptics claim Patriots win Superbowl

I realize that I quit blogging two week's ago, but with the superbowl set to be a rematch of the game 4 years ago, I thought a repost of my post-game analysis would be appropriate. Let's hope that the Giants once again prove the denialists wrong. And reposting isn't really blogging, so I'm still not here.


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.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Good night

I will be halting my blogging activities for the foreseeable future.

There are other more important areas of my life which are suffering from insufficient attention to detail. And until I become more more efficient (I had a book on organization and effectiveness once, but lost it), the best way to improve key activities like staying employed or raising children is to devote more time to them. And let's be honest: I probably only post one or two really worthwhile things here anyway. I don't earn any money from the blog, and it isn't really tied into work at all, and nobody's bought a SHRIMP based on my posts here, so it's a fairly obvious thing to scale back. If I become an efficient, organized, time manager, maybe I'll start it up again, But don't hold your breath.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Solar energy summary

As I mentioned previously, we recently had a 2 kilowatt photovoltaic solar power system installed on the NW-facing roof of our house. Below is plotted the daily household use and solar generation for the first two weeks or so after we turned it on:

I should point out that we have a family of 4 living in a typical Canberra "ex-govvie" house, which has been extended to a still-modest size of ~145 square meters of single story, basement-free living space.

I would also like to point out that in the southern hemisphere, November is late spring, with lots of daylight- all that sunshine that the NH readers don't have right now.

There are a few interesting points here. Firstly, the increase in usage around day 11 for several days is a result of several days of stormy weather, which led us to use the electric dryer instead of the clothes line. Evidently the clothesline is worth about 2-3 kWh of power- a substantial portion of our usage.

Thanksgiving Dinner stands out like a sore thumb, with double the power usage. I was surprized at this, because I have a gas oven. However, the glowplug that keeps the flames lit obviously consumes a lot of power. I will keep my eyes open for a electricity-efficient gas fired oven when the time for replacement comes.

I also noticed that running high temperature dishwasher loads eats a lot of power as well. Does anyone else have any handy power saving tips? I'll use the most obvious one, and go to bed inst3ead of surfing the web. Good night.