Friday, December 27, 2013

Monday, December 16, 2013

Coal Cares

This is the most fantastically over-the-top pro-coal website I have ever seen.  Pure genius.  I have no idea who is actually behind, but I hereby declare them a legend of the internet.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Alien beyond comprehension

When an astronomer says a far-off planetary system is like ours, what he means is that it is completely different.  For example, see the recent press releases about the seven planet system KOI-135 (aka Kepler 90). 

This system has a planet the size of Jupiter in an orbit almost the same as our Earth’s.  Since the star is a little bigger (and hotter) than the sun, the orbit takes less time, but the orbital radius is just like ours.

Inside of that, in an orbit about the size of Venus’s orbit, is a Saturn sized gas giant planet.

Inboard of the Saturn-sized planet are three mini-Neptunes.  Our solar system doesn’t have any planets of this type, but they seem to be fairly common in the rest of the galaxy.  These are gas rich planets smaller than Neptune and Uranus, but still much larger than Earth. One of them has an orbit substantially larger than that of Mercury, one substantially smaller, and one about the same radius, but much more circular (Mercury has quite an elliptical orbit).

Finally, inside of that, are two earth-sized planets that orbit screamingly close to the planet.  The inner planet is more than five times closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun, and its orbit (e.g. its year) is only a week long.  The other planet is only slightly farther out, in a 9 day orbit.

It is not known if there are more planets farther out- Kepler’s detection method would not pick them up.

So you gotta wonder, if that is Earthlike, then what are the strange ones like?

In fact, the whole framing of exoplanetary research as “counting up the Galaxy’s Earths” is a bit disingenuous.  By presenting a scientific study as having a foregone conclusion (e.g. there are Earths everywhere), NASA takes a lot of the suspense and excitement out of the search.  Furthermore, it makes trying to fit otherwise interesting discoveries into the Earthcount box awkward, and it diminishes the wonder and diversity of just what is out there.

In fact, the NASA exo-Earth search program is a lot like going to China to find a person just like your mother.  After all, China has billions of people, and they were all born more or less the same way as your mother, so odds are, the place must be crawling with women just like mom.

Imagine how tedious a travel documentary of China would be when viewed in this way. “Our way south to Beijing to look for mom-analogs was blocked by some kind of wall- fortunately we managed to avoid it).” You would have progress press releases, “Some people in China confirmed to be women.”  “New mission shows some Chinese women to be mothers.”  Newly discovered Chinese woman likes fried rice, just like your mom.”

This narcissistic approach misses the whole point of travel and exploration.  We investigate far-off places because they are foreign, because they expose the assumptions on which our beliefs are based, and because the let us discover new and wondrous things that were beyond the scope of our imaginations.

This is what exoplanetary research does.  Everything we have discovered in planetary science, from the first Moon probes to the discovery of planets 2500 light years away, has been wonderful and new and different to expectations and awe-inspiring.  But the current framing of the science does not allow this amazement to be conveyed to the public who fund the research.  And this is a terrible shame.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The planets xkcd forgot

 A recent cartoon/poster on xkcd tries to estimate what the population of habitable zone planets in our stellar neighborhood looks like. Unfortunately, despite labeling the poster as “all habitable zone planets”, there are a couple of very important omissions.  The center of the picture should look like this:

When discussing the habitable zone, and how it applies to exoplanets, one needs to remember that the definition of habitable zone is sufficiently wide that it covers both Mars and Venus, the closest planets to Earth.  In fact, despite discovering thousands of exoplanets and exoplanet candidates, we still do not have any planets as earthlike as Venus. It is hard to say much about exo-Mars equivalents, as exoplanet detection technology has trouble finding a planet that small and far from its host star.

Most of the planets shown in the chart have not been discovered yet.  Even among those which have, very little data about the planets is available.  It will be years, perhaps even decades, before we have the technology to pick an exo-Earth from an exo-Venus. But framing the exo-planet debate as an Earth versus Venus relative distribution would be a mistake.  Chances are, the vast majority of these planets are completely unlike either planet.

Our solar system is strange.  It is missing the most abundant type of planet in our galaxy- those which are larger than Earth, but smaller than Uranus.  These worlds are often, albeit deceptively, referred to as “super-earths”.  But as Systemic has shown, those which we have data for are not only completely different to anything in our solar system, they are often quite different from each other. 

The omission of Venus and Mars is therefore important, because it gives the false impression that planets in the habitable zone are going to be Earthlike.  Neither of the habitable zone planets in our solar system are particularly Earthlike, and everything we know about exoplanets so far suggests that they will be far stranger still.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

At the risk of igniting a spelling war in the middle east...

I give you this:
Note that I don't have a horse in this race; I just wanted to arm all sides of the conflict with silly graphics.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

2 years of solar

Note the decreased sampling rate in year two due to decreasing novelty and increased travel. Here they are stacked:

After 2 years: 6700 kwh produced, 5230 kwh used.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Twenty years...

Twenty years ago, in the early afternoon, I stomped up a small mountain in the cool Georgia autumn, and stopped walking.  It had been a long walk, a bit over five months, and the trail I was walking on ended there.  As I was twenty years old at the time, this was almost half a lifetime ago.  When I started the Appalachian Trail, the main question in my mind was, “Can I get to the other end.”  When I got there, my main concerns, judging from the notes in my Journal, seemed involve food.  I guess I’m not really the philosophical sort. 

I started walking because it was the only thing I really wanted to do.  I didn’t like college, the alternatives weren’t very appealing, and ever since my uncle pointed out that the trail in the Virginia mountains was the same trail as the one my folks took me to in New Jersey, I wanted t osee for myself if these familiar paths in the disconnected lands of home and summer holiday land could really be connected ,simply by walking a lot.

 I stopped walking because my feet hurt.  The end of the trail helped too, of course, but there are people who simply turn around and walk back the way they came.  There are people who walk because they have nothing else left in life.  I called them trail zombies, and they terrified be because I could see myself becoming one of them. It would be so easy, to lose touch with everyone, sell anything that didn’t fit in my pack, and walk until the end of my days. Instead, I stopped walking.  I went home, looked up people who I’d lost touch with in college, went back to school in ’94.  It wasn’t easy, as I’ve always been a bit of an introvert and a misfit, but somehow, 20 years later, here I am with a house, a wife, a job and a couple of kids. I still love bushwalking, and get out whenever my commitments to the above listed allow, but these days, every walk has an end, and a return to civilization. Hopefully the next 20 years will go as nicely.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Carbonado, the diamond that looks like pizza.

I like to horrify current and recent students by telling them that I spent a month of my PhD figuring out what sort of film to use for best capturing the colors produced by the cathodoluminescence centres in carbonado diamond.  Of course, by the time it came to submit my thesis, I then had to spend days scanning all those slides.  Although, I still have a poster somewhere that is made from big glossy 8x10 prints, all glued to cardboard backing.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to chase some kids off my psilphytopsid lawn...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Argon-Argon Dating: The Simple Version

  Sciency Thoughts has a post up on recent high-precision 39Ar/40Ar dating of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia.  Unfortunately he seems a bit confused about the technique.

Argon has three naturally occurring isotopes: 36Ar, 38Ar, and 40Ar. Potassium also has three isotopes, 39K, 40K, and 41K.  One of these isotopes, 40K, is radioactive, with a half life of about 1248 million years, and one of its stable decay products is 40Ar.

 In the universe, and in Jupiter and the Sun locally, 36Ar is the most abundant argon isotope, followed by 38Ar.  In the cosmic scheme of things, 40Ar is so rare that we don’t even know what its overall abundance is.

However, Earth is a rocky planet.  It was not able to hold onto much gas during its formation, so there is very little 36Ar and 38Ar here.  Earth has lots of potassium though, so almost all the Ar in the atmosphere is 40Ar, which is the decay product of 40K.

In a potassium-bearing mineral, the 40K decays into 40Ar, so you can measure the ratio of these two isotopes to figure out how old the mineral is.

The problem is that it is technically very difficult to measure a potassium argon ration accurately, because one is a reactive solid, and the other is an inert gas.  They require different sorts of ion sources, different mass spectrometers, and there are all sorts of chemical effects that complicate the measurement.

If you want an accurate ratio, it is much easier to measure isotopes of the same element.

So for 39Ar-40Ar dating, what happens is that the mineral of interest is put into a nuclear reactor and bombarded by neutrons.  Some of the 39K (the most abundant stable potassium isotope) absorbs a neutron, ejects a proton, and transmutes into radioactive 39Ar.  39Ar has a half-life of a few hundred years, and is virtually non-existent in nature.   So as long as you know your nuclear 39K to 39Ar conversion ration well, this method allows you to use the 39Ar as a proxy for 39K.  The handy thing is that because it is argon, not potassium, it behaves chemically just like the other naturally occurring argon isotopes, so you can measure it in a gas source mass spectrometer much more accurately than you can measure the chemically different 39K and 40Ar.

The initial 39K-40K ratio doesn’t very much in nature, and is taken as constant (I think- I’ve never actually done Ar-Ar). But the take-home point is that 39Ar-40Ar dating is not its own decay system.  It is the 40K-40Ar decay system, but using a nuclear reactor to change some of the potassium into an unstable argon isotope to make the nuts and bolts of measuring it easier. 

A few brief words on sexual harassment in academia

 It appears to be sexual harassment revelations week here in the science blogosphere, so I figured I’d share a brief story.

In the year 2000, when I was a PhD student, I talked to the student counseling unit about making a formal complaint about sexual harassment by a senior member of staff.

They made it clear to me that taking this course of action would result in revocation of my student visa and deportation from Australia.

I chickened out and kept my mouth shut.

I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I was able to put my head down, write up, and finish my degree by making this choice.  Since that time, I have learned of other international students at other universities who did the right thing, and were deported for reporting. 

I tell myself that had I gone through with reporting, I would have been disappeared long before having the opportunity to make an official statement (way back before blogs, shipping someone halfway around the world was an effective way of shutting them up). And I thought that the incidents which I wished to report were not severe or well documented enough to bring to the police.  But while this is true, here I am, 13 years later, still awake at one in the morning second-guessing myself.

The recent round of revelations has focused heavily on the perpetrators of sexual harassment. Which is good.  But reporting wrongdoing is much more difficult than it should be, due to  the institutional coercion that universities use to protect their reputations at the expense of their students.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Not much going on here

I realize that for the last few years, this blog has been sputtering along with a low level of volume and quality. I can offer neither explanation nor remediation at this stage.  But I have listed a few of my old favorites below, for anyone looking for straightforward explanations of how geology explains, among other things, sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll.

Phase Equilibria of Pie Crust
Thermodynamics of Hot Chicks
Cetacean Liposuction
Relativistic Obesity
Geologic Lifespan of Jon Bon Jovi
Stars get Lonely Too
Testing the Earthquake-Modesty Connection
Dear Hypothesis

Harry Connolly new series Kickstarter

In "The best book you've never read", I mentioned that Author Harry Connolly, fantastic Urban fantasy "Circle of Enemies", which was an amazing novel that hardly anyone has managed to get a hold of.  It turns out that the Author is launching his next series on Kickstarter.  The appeal finishes tomorrow, but anyone interested in getting in on this can still do so, if you read this blog post in the next 12 hours.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Jailbait zircons

As the company SHRIMP driver, I do a fair bit of demonstration analyses for potential customers.  One thing that has become increasingly common over the past two years is demonstration of the ability to successfully date jailbait zircons.  For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a jailbait zircon is a zircon so young that dating it while making all the usual assumptions will get you into all sorts of trouble. 

The chief problem is that for deep geologic time, we assume that the 238U to 206Pb decay is a simple process. In actuality, there are eight alpha decays and more beta decays than I can remember in this process, but most of the intermediate daughter products are short-lived relative to the age of the analyst, much less the Earth.

However, if you are dating a phase that is much, much younger than the Earth, then these intermediate decay products can become important.  Corrections need to be made relating to whether or not now-extinct intermediate species were incorporated into the target mineral more or less efficiently than uranium. 

For minerals which are a few hundred thousand years old, or younger, you can abandon the uranium-lead system entirely, and use uranium-thorium dating instead.  This simply looks at how close to secular equilibrium 230Th and 234U have grown after their initial incorporation into the target mineral in a unequilibrated ratio.  The linked wikipedia explanation is good (at least qualitatively).  Check it out.

Of course, even for targets old enough for uranium-lead dating, in addition to the theoretical problems above, there is the practical problem of measuring a statistically significant amount of very low levels of radiogenic lead, while somehow keeping common Pb contamination to an absurdly low level.  Because one of the nasty things about the disequilibrium species is that they disrupt many of the assumptions that are needed to accurately and precisely correct for common lead.  Which means that if you can’t keep the blank down, you’re screwed. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Who actually shuts down in a shutdown

So the government has been shut down for over a week now.  What does this mean?  NASA is shut down.  If you want to learn about the International Space Station, you'll need to learn Russian. The USGS is mostly shut down, except for hazards programs that are on skeleton staffs. On the other hand, the spy agencies are operating as normal. Taxes are still being collected. And you can still register as a congressional lobbyist. So all the unpleasant aspects of government are still business as usual. I guess that's what essential means. The main people suffering are those off work, and small business owners and employees and their suppliers.  See the Riprarian Rap to see how non-federal employees get screwed because contracts and grants get delayed or cancelled.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

How the shutdown plays in SE Asia

I have been flying home from Korea via SE asia the last couple of days, and reading a few local newspapers.  What is happening here is that while the US Government remains shut down, the premier and PM of China have been engaging on a major goodwill tour, offering things like a billion dollars towards a new monorail project in Indonesia, or 40 billion dollars in increased trade with Malaysia over the next four years.  In contrast, the US has cancelled the Presidents trip, sending John Kerry in his place.
The local take on this, from the Persian Gulf to Japan and everywhere in between, is that it makes America look weak and unreliable, and that it is a serious blow to the new "Asian Pivot" strategy. China's rivals are worried that this inability of America to project soft power will tip the regional balance too far in China's favor.  Whether the bickering factions in Washington are too myopic to see or too shortsighted to care is not entirely clear.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The wood between the worlds

I’m typing this blog post on the airport wifi, while sitting in a lounge chair with full AC power.  Behind me, the waterfalls of the koi pond water gently tinkles, while to my left, the butterfly garden gently sleeps in the pre-dawn darkness.  I’m in Singapore airport, the long-haul air travel version of Narnia’s wood between the worlds.  

Singapore airport is everything LAX isn’t.  Spacious, relaxing, and accommodating to visitors, be they on the ground for half an hour or half a day.  As a long-haul transfer point, they know that people will need to stop somewhere, so they try to make themselves as attractive as possible to travelers.  It works, more than 50 million people came through here last year, most bound for somewhere else.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Never complain about your stove again

Geologist have it pretty easy, in terms of lab safety.  Compared to chemists and biologists, we have to deal with a relatively low number of lethal chemicals, and our habits confirm this.  It is not coincidence the people call us rock-lickers.  But there are still some reagents which are genuinely dangerous, and command respect.

For most rock knockers, the chief among these is hydrofluoric acid, or HF.  HF is a volatile (evaporates easily) acid which is notorious for being a contact poison.  You don’t have to drink it for you to kill you, as it will diffuse through skin, and attack muscle tissue and bone inside your body.  If the muscle it attacks is your heart, then you die.  As a result, geologists are taught from a young age to observe strict safety protocols with HF: gloves, face shields, aprons, appropriate supervision and fume cupboards are all part of the drill.

But not all fluorine health effects are as dramatic.  excess fluorine consumption can often cause dental fluorinosis, a condition in which excess fluorine is deposited in the teeth, discoloring them.  In more severe cases, fluorine deposition in the bones can lead to osteofluorosis, which can cause disfigurement, deformity, and chronic pain.

One area in which osteofluorosis is distressingly common is Guizhou, China.  Over the past decade, this disease here was linked to the combustion of high Fluorine coal.  Studies showed tha the clay that was intermixed wit hthe coal was high in F, and a steady stream of recommendations has come along describing how this must be getting aerosolized in smoke ,and adhering to food, particularly corn and chilies hung up in houses to dry.

But something didn’t add up.  People were educated to wash their vegetables, to not breathe coal smoke, and still the disease persisted.  Finally, recent studies showed that the F was not adhering to the food products.  TOF SIMS showed that  it appeared inside uncut chilies, and sometimes was associated with silica- particulate matter which should not be able to penetrate food and is biologically inactive.

This was the key to a renewed investigation into the coal.  Which, as it turns out, was not just rich in fluorine, but also rich in pyrite- fools gold.  And all of a sudden, everything fell into place.

When burned, pyrite reacts exothermically with oxygen and water to form iron oxide and sulfuric acid:

2FeS2 + 8.5O2 + 4H2O -> Fe2O3 + 4H2SO4.

Sulfuric acid is not great to breathe, but it doesn’t cause fluorine poisoning.  It will, however, react with fluorite (the most common fluorine mineral like this:
H2SO4 + CaF2 -> CaSO4 + 2 HF

And there is the chemical that terrifies geochemists even in controlled lab spaces, HF, being generated in the household stove. It, in turn reacts with coal ash to form the toxic gas SiF4, which permeates plant and animal tissues and deposits silicon inside of vegetables. In short, domestic cooking stoves are generating incredibly toxic F-bearing gases inside the home. Not even your brother-in-law’s cooking is as hazardous as this.  This was the coolest talk from the session I was fortunate enough to chair this afternoon; there is a paper here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

There’s no such thing as a climate scientist

     Here in Australia, the new Coalition government, which won office on a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change, is busy dismantling all of the federal early warning and advisory bodies on climate.  There are snide gloating remarks floating around the internet to the effect that the climate scientists have been exposed, and that the conservatives need to cut the dole before these fake scientists can get any more government money. However, these ungracious comments also suffer from factual deficits.  There are no climate scientists; there are only earth scientists who study climate.
     A person who understands the physical and chemical tools that allow us to understand the Earth system can apply those tools to whatever knowledge suits their fancy.  I know el Niño experts who started out on gold mines, and frakkers who stared out studying el Niño.  I know isotope specialists and paleontologists who have applied their skills to both ocean heat uptake and oil & gas exploration.  Even Tim Flannery, the recently sacked chief of the climate commission, had a career in vertebrate paleontology. 
       So you don’t need to worry- or gloat- that the end of climate funding will mean these climate scientists will have nowhere else to go.  Sure, they will be disruptions, but the same skills that make them good at climate will let them pursue other Earth Science goals, or other careers that value the ability to constrain complex systems with limited and unusual data.  Many of these folks may even stay in climate, generating predictions that inform insurance companies who to raise rates on, or hedge funds who to divest out of.

    So the recent shuttering of government climate organizations will not mean the end of climate scientists, or even of climate science.  It simply means that Australians as a whole will no longer be the beneficiaries of their immense talents.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

You had me at “citation”

I recently attended the 2013 Goldschmidt conference in Florence Italy.  This is the largest geochemistry conference in the world.  It migrates between Europe and North America every year, with occasional forays into the Asia-Pacific region.  It is a big conference, with attendance in the mid thousands.
Unlike workshops, symposia, and little topical conferences, big conferences serve more as social and professional networking events than scientific problem solving sessions.
Senior scientists present the direction of their big projects.
Grad students show what they are capable of.
Junior scientists make sure they get widely known enough to pass their tenure review.
For young scientists looking for their next career move, it is important to meet people in their field.  Having been asked for advice on this topic, I thought I’d present the basics:

It is important to match those names that block out half a page of your thesis references with a face. These people will probably evaluate your proposals, work with you or your colleagues, and review your papers. 

The best way to do this is just to introduce yourself.

Try not to be nervous.  Or at least strive to be nervous gracefully.  And if you are nervous, don’t cover it up by trying too hard to show how smart you are.

The basic point is that if you see the name of a paper you like on a nametag, say hello.  Let the person know you liked their work.  There are very few scientists who don’t like being told that their research is interesting and useful.  Tell them you’re basing your work on theirs, and you’ll have them at “citation”

Saturday, August 31, 2013

It’s not a symposium until somebody dangles their ‘nads

Scholarly debate can warm things up, but it isn’t until the pants come off that the logical arguments really start to fly.  At least, that was my impression on seeing Peitro Testa’s drawing “The Symposium” at the Uffizi gallery in Italy.  I am not an art person.  Nor am I a cultural person.  But a went to the Uffizi anyway because I had a day to kill in Florence, and even thought the subject isn’t my thing, I appreciate just about anything done well, and I try to do activities while traveling that I can’t do at home.  As a premier collection of Renaissance art, the Uffizi fulfills both requirements.

I did not take a tablet, speaking tours, or other digital media for simultaneous information gathering as I went through.  I did get a guidebook just so that I knew what was where, and I took a paper notebook and a pen, on the off chance I would have a thought or two and put a few sentences down.  My notes ran to five pages, and are typed up here for the amusement of those of my dear friends and family who are art people.

The Roman copy of a (presumably lost) Greek Herucles and the centaur Nessus statue is astounding- the look of concentration on his face is gripping, and the detail is such that you can see the veins bulging out of his forearms.

The whole gold leaf fad of the 1300’s could not have ended too soon.

I think this Botticelli guy could have spent a bit more time and effort depicting the water around the shell. 

Pallas and the Centaur is good- I need to read up on whichever myth puts them together.

One subtle but interesting feature of the Botticelli room is that if you glaze out- or even (in my case) take off glasses to totally defocus- and cast eyes around the room, The religious paintings that dominate the west and north walls are noticeable darker than the mythological ones on the south and east.  Part of this could just be contrast- there is shiny gold leaf on some of the religious ones (I thought you were above that, big B).  But I think there is more than that.  The religious paintings are dominated (in terms of fractional surface area) by people in dark or deep red robes.  The buildings are also dark, and the skies are generally dusky.

In contract, the classical paintings have brighter skies (forest excluded), fewer dark buildings, and more bright water.  Most importantly, perhaps, the people who dominate these paintings are wearing far fewer clothes than their religious counterparts.  So pale white skin replaces drab dark robes.  Also, the west wall isn’t actually Botticelli (glasses back on now so I can read the tags), so maybe it is just a personal style thing.

I like the lizard in the skull of Signorelli’s crucifixion.

Leonardo’s landscapes are more impressive, relative to his contemporaries, than his people.

Perspective must have been the 15th century equivalent of computer graphics.  Crazy math changing the way we render images of the world we see.

Nice floor in the classical sculpture room.

Grotesque hallway ceilings more interesting than the classical busts. 

The porphyry she-wolf could be ground up for zircons!

Ceilings have changed from grotesque cartoons to perspective heavens.  I like the one with the soldier falling back to Earth.

The mom in Michaelangelo’s Holy trinity reminds me of one of those WWII working women posters.  Must be the biceps.

Ariadne get a new head every 200 years!?

The murder of innocents is as horrible as it sounds.  Horrible, but masterful in its depiction of evil and the effect on society.  The expressions on the mother’s faces are heart-rending.

Montegna’s circumcision is fun to look at.  I like the composition, the style, the fantastical landscapes.  Not sure the foreskin ascending to Heaven adds much, tohugh.

Vecchio’s Adam and Eve:
Adam has bedroom eyes, and Eve is like, “The apple?  Are you kidding me?”

The boy with the thorn sculpture- random awesomeness.

“Rooms of foreign painters” Because all those masterpieces you’ve been looking at so far?  Those are just the local talent, bitches.

Allegory of Vanity.
I doubt Pereda meant it this way, but the Angel comes across as a passive-aggressive minion of evil.  I see no salvation in his dark lurking figure or slack-faces, cold-eyed stance. 

The hopeless decadence of the skulls, weapons, wealth, and trinkets is palpable, but the unsympathetic angel and fiery Armageddon suggest that the ministry of angels offers nothing but the perpetration of European destruction.

The brightest thing in the painting is the globe, centered on “America si ne India Nova”.  This suggests that the only hope of salvation lies in the New World.  Or maybe that’s just my American eyes interpreting it all.

Is Saint Jerome penitent or shocked? “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

Was there an obesity epidemic in the 1600’s?  Potatoes coming back from the new world?

The landscape with dead birds ain’t all that, but I like the turtle.

“Ships in a storm” by Plattenberg.  Now that is a seascape.  Send notes ro Mr. Botticelli.  Seriously, though, the Dutch landscapers are pretty good. I’m guessing they inspired the Hudson River school north of New Amsterdam a few centuries later.

Every American should see Reuben’s Bacchanalia

Stella’s painting looks more like Christ scolded by angels.  The angels go from adoring to stroppy from back to front.  Did he use the same model and keep deferring her payment?

Gabbiani’s Ganymede looks like he’s about to be dumped.  The expressions are fantastic.  The boy is blushing, “Is this love?” and the eagle’s cold predatory eye is utterly remorseless.

So was Mazzola one of those folks who thinks kids should breastfeed until four?

Zimbo’s corruption of time is gruesomely graphic.  Rich people with sick taste commissioning horrors evidently ain’t a new trend.

I want to see the original Perseus and Medusa by Foggini.

Carvaggio’s Bacchus is suitable jaded, but his Medusa shield is cheesy and shallow.

The expressions in Stormer’s Annunciation are fabulous. “Who, me?”

Spardino’s banquet of the Gods is oddly portentous of a not-too-distant future where the powerful look down on earth, half in a stupor, from their windowless server farms and wreak havoc on those who displease them, or dare threaten their carnal bacchanalia.

And just when my brain filled up, there was the end.

You know you’re in an art museum when you aren’t sure if it is a urinal or a watersculpture.  Sometimes, all you have is context.  So if you need to go, and it’s just across from the stalls…

Monday, August 12, 2013

The best book you've never read...

My current job involves a fair amount of long haul air travel. This isn't great, but it does mean that I get to read a bit more than I used to. I generally chew through a paperpack per long haul flight.  So I've knocked off the usual suspects- Hunger games, Game of Thrones, various offerings, cultural and otherwise, from the late Iain M. Banks.  But I've also been lucky enough to catch some lesser known books.

The Woodenman series by Harry Connolly is a prime example.  A rare example of navel-gazeless urban fantasy, these books combine the velocity of a page-turning action story with the twists and turns of a whodunnit against the backdrop of unimaginable Lovecraftian horror. Refreshingly free of pretense and unapologetically relentless in their depiction of the corruption of power, the series balances accessibility and heft with style. The final book in the series is particularly gripping and poignant.  But just as Ray, the protagonist, is relentlessly drawn into battles between forces crueler and greater than himself, so went the books themselves.  "Circle of Enemies" was released just as the bookselling giant Borders was demolished, and failed to sell enough copies to extend the series.  Which makes is a very good book with a tiny circulation- a rare treasure in the ponderous landscape of pulp.
Ironically, though the loss of a bookstore chain doomed this story, its ghost lives on in the purgatory of the online retailer that slew it.  The e-books can still be conjured up via the internet, and even some paperbacks seem to still be in stock.
I'm don't know if the novelist will be publishing anything else- for all I know he's just a well constructed pseudonym of J. K. Rowling- but I hope he gets another chance, as his first three books were quite enjoyable.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Since the end of WW II, English has been the dominant language of science.  This was not always the case.  The late 19th century industrial and scientific explosion in Germany made German a potential contender before geopolitical events depopulated Germany of its scientists.  And earlier in the 19th century French, and originally Latin, were the languages of the day.

The reasons for this are simple.  England has long been a leader in scientific inquiry, and the post-war assimilation of European scientists by the USA and subsequent technological revolution there during the space race and information revolution has kept English on the forefront.

None-the-less, many scientists do still publish in their native languages.  And even when they do publish in English, there are many Journals, such as the Journal of South American Geology Earth Sciences, which offer abstracts in other languages, such as Portuguese and Spanish, the dominant languages of that continent.  Similarly, Geostandards and Geoanalytical Research publishes French Abstract, since is is based in France and published by a French research organisation.

None-the-less, I was surprised to see that the Australian Journal of Earth Sciences is now publishing abstracts in Chinese for its English articles.  Australia is an English speaking country, and although there are small but locally important groups of immigrants who speak various Chinese languages, they are not over-represented in the Earth Sciences.  And while Chinese geologists compete internationally better than their scientists on other fields, and Chinese investment is important in the Australian mineral export industry, it is still a bold move by the AJES editors to pick Chinese as the next language of science.

p.s. If you can't read the title, check that your operating system has Asian characters enabled.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Grains of sand

How many grains of sand are there on earth?  That is a good question.  But a ball-park estimate is fairly simple.

We will look at fine sand (grain size = 100 microns), and coarse sand (grain size = 1 mm).

So a cubic mm can hold 1000 grains of fine sand, or 1 grain of course sand.  Obviously grain size is important.

There are 1x1018 cubic millimeters in a cubic km.

How many cubic km of sand, sandstone, etc we have Is a tricky question.  But if we say the average thickness of all sand for the globe is 200m (a thin number in any sedimentary basin, but most of the Earth is not a basin in the traditional sense.  The surface area of earth is 5x10 8 km2, so a 0.2 km layer gives 10 8 cubic km of sand.

This brings the total grain count to somewhere between 103 x 10 18 x 10 8 = 10 29 for the fine sand, and a thousand times less than that, or 10 26 grains of the coarse sand.  If you want to know how that compares to the number of stars in the sky, ask an astronomer.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How many of your co-authors have you actually met?

In my meandering career from academia to government to private sector, and back into all the grey areas in between, I've been an author on a few journal articles, government reports, and other publications. Usually, these are collaborations between groups of separated people, not all of whom interact with every other member of the team.  For example, in the academic literature, I have a total of 21 co-authors, of whom I have met 9.  If we include government reports as well as papers, then I have 42 co-authors, of whom I have met 17.  I find it interesting that this ratio is so similar between the two types of reporting (about 40%).  So I was wondering: for those of you who read this blog and publish, is your ratio about the same?

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Universities Australia sticks it to the Australian high technology industry

Universities Australia has launched a recent ad campaign decrying proposed funding cuts to university research.  This ad showcases the products of off-shore corporate giants which are trying to destroy the Australian high tech industry. 

The complicated scientific instrument pictured in the ad from 0:12 to 0:17 is something called a IMS-1280, manufactured by the American technology amalgamation Ametek under the brand name of Cameca, a European tech company which Ametek took over last decade. Ametek is perhaps the most aggressive corporate giant around in trying to leverage the recent high Australian dollar to destroy the Australian technology industry. 

Obviously, Australia is only a mid-size country, and most instrumentation in Australian universities is sourced from off-shore suppliers.  But many of these suppliers are good corporate citizens, who set up Australian subsidiaries, employ Australian graduates, and work closely with Australian agents, subcontractors, and scientists to sustain the high technology industries that define advanced economies in the 21st century.  Indeed, one of these companies, the Japanese technology group JEOL, has an electron probe installed just across the hall from where the picture in the ad was taken.

Ametek is not a good corporate citizens.  Instead of collaborating with Australian manufacturers, they hire foreign lawyers to block sales around the globe.  While other companies reinvest in Australian research they hire slick Morden-like spokespeople to belittle the achievements of Australian academics.  And instead of helping Australian universities improve productivity and reduce costs through co-developed hardware and software modifications, they lock their customers into exorbitant service contracts, the proceeds of which allow them to underbid Australian companies whose instruments are generally preferred by researchers all over the world.

Every time one of the instruments pictured in this ad is purchased instead of an Australian equivalent, Australian universities lose hundreds of thousands dollars in direct payments from Australian companies and their international customers. It also means that Australian companies cannot create jobs for university graduates, such as those pictured in the first part of the ad.

The government is proposing cuts to university funding because of a revenue shortfall.  Revenue is down because aggressive corporate tactics by companies like Ametek are denying work to Australian companies, resulting in fewer hours worked, reduced income for the employees, and reduced income tax payment to the government.  So the approach of Universities Australia to showcase one of the most aggressive job-killers in their ad asking for government money is incredibly callous to all Australian trying to earn a living outside of the Ivory tower.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Wool Sock’s Carbon Footprint

Four years ago, I blogged about the cognitive disconnect between the ecological perceptions of wearing wool and eating beef.  However, I did not actually calculate out exactly what the carbon footprint of a wool sock is.  Here it goes:
According to Wikipedia’s wool bale article, a bale contains about 60 fleeces, and weights 150 ± 50 kg.  This gives a fleece weight of about 2.5 kg.

This wool sock weighs about 100g, meaning that you can get about 25 socks per fleece.  A sheep produces one fleece per year.

A ballpark estimate from the NSW department of primary industries suggests that a medium sized (45 kg) adult sheep in warm weather needs about 500g of dry feed per day to survive.  If this feed is mostly cellulose, it will metabolize to produce about 800g of CO2 per day, or 297 kg/ year. Assuming 25 socks per year, that gives about 12 kg of respired CO2 per sock.

However, in addition to respiration, sheep also produce a fair amount of methane, which is generally considered to be 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.   This paper estimates a methane yield of about 20 grams / day/ sheep, or about 7.3 kg of methane per year.  Using the 25 times multiplier, we get a CO2 equivalence for that methane of about 180 kg / sheep/ year, which is a bit over half the direct respiration emissions.  Dividing by 25 socks/sheep gives is a CO2 equivalent of 7.3 kg per sock (300 grams methane).  In total, our CO2 equivalent emissions from the sheep are about 19 kg of CO2 per wool sock- 12 from respiration, and 7 from methane.  This figure only includes the CO2 footprint for growing the wool.  It does not include additional emissions from shearing, transporting the wool, spinning it into yard, and manufacturing the sock.  This is the same amount of CO2 released by burning about 8 liters of gasoline (which is enough to drive a mid-size car 100 km), or one sixth the emissions of a top fuel drag race (with 2 cars in it).  So a hackey sack game with more than three pairs of new socks in it is worse for the atmosphere than this.

In contrast, a 50 gram synthetic sock (synthetics weigh less than wool) probably has a carbon footprint of 10-25 grams*.  It production is one THOUSAND times less carbon intensive than a wool sock.  So the next time some green evangelists starts looking down their noses at your car or your plate, check out their feet.

* In both the case of the plastic sock and the wool sock, the carbon in the sock itself is sequestered in the sock drawer for the lifetime of the sock, and in a landfill for several decades afterwards.  Unless you burn your old socks, which smells, or recycle your used synthetic socks into drink bottles, which is disgusting.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Why deflecting asteroids is a really bad idea

In the aftermath of the Chelyabinsk fireball last month, there have been increasing calls to identify asteroids on a collision course with Earth and develop technologies to deflect them.  This would be a very stupid thing to do.

The reason for this can be seen in figure 1, below.  In part A, this figure shows the minimum deflection necessary to make an asteroid on a collision course with  Earth to miss.  The deflection angle depends on how far from Earth this deflection occurs; the farther away, the smaller the angle.  In practice, very small angles from very far away would be used. 

The green line shows the minimum translational distance an asteroid must be deflected in order to miss the Earth.

Figure 1. An illustration for how the deflection needed to make an asteroid miss can be used to make many more hit.

The problem with such a system is shown in part B of the figure.  Here, an identical deflection is applied to a harmless asteroid that never would have hit Earth.  However, by deflecting it towards the Earth, this harmless rock ends up exploding in the atmosphere.  For a rock the size of the Chelyabinsk bolide, this is similar in force to a large nuclear weapon.

The area of the red circle- the smallest radius necessary to protect the earth- is three times the cross section of the earth.  So for every rock you deflect, there will be at least three harmless rocks that can be turned into weapons of mass destruction.  By definition, a “planetary defense system” turns every rock that passes close to the Earth into a potential weapon of mass destruction. 

Who would actually crash a space rock into a populated area of the Earth?  The same people who crash airplanes into skyscrapers of course.  And while only a few rouge countries can launch satellites, any spacecraft in radio contact with Earth can potentially be hijacked by a hacker on Earth with enough chicken wire to erect a makeshift dish in a desert.  Amateurs already pick up signals from our most distant space probes; an asteroid deflection mission would be a magnet for every doomsday cult, terrorist fanatic, delusional hacker, and other misanthropes whose imagination had previously been limited to shooting up schools.  Obviously nobody is going to design a space deflector to be hackable, but then the drone the Iranians hijacked wasn’t supposed to be vulnerable to those sorts of attacks either. 

The threat of an asteroid impact is miniscule.  More people were killed in floods this week than were killed by impacts in the known history of the human race.  A quick glance at the morphology of our planet will explain why.    Even the giant extinction-causing impacts are less common than large flood basalt eruptions of similar ecological lethality.  But developing the technology to deflect asteroids potentially gives all the wrong people access to a weapon the size of a large hydrogen bomb for a fraction of the development cost.  This is not a smart thing to do.

Friday, March 22, 2013

High mass resolution mass spectrometry

Mass spectrometry is the dark art of separating objects by mass.  The name comes from the alchemal days of photographic plate detectors; just like a prism separates white light into a spectrum of colors, a magnet can separate a beam of ions into their component masses, which will then form an image on a plate.

These days, electronic counting systems have replaced chemical emulsion ion detectors, but the name lives on.  In the case of atomic and molecular charged particles, the masses are not continuously distributed, like the energy distribution of white light.  Rather, different ions have discrete masses.  To a first approximation, the nominal mass of an atom (or an atomic ion, if the atom is charged) is simply the sum of its protons and neutrons.  Thus, an atom with 26 protons and 30 neutrons (Iron fifty-six, abbreviated by scientists as “56Fe”) has a nominal mass of 56. 

The whole point of mass spectrometry is to separate things with different masses.  So, for example, most mass spectrometers can separate 56Fe, with 26 protons 30 neutrons, from 54Fe, which also has 26 protons, but only has 28 neutrons. The ability to distinguish atoms of the same element with different mass- isotopes- is one of the main uses of mass spectrometers.  In this case, separating 54Fe from 56Fe requires a mass resolution of 1 part in 28.  The mass resolution, defined by IUPAC as M/ΔM = 56/2 = 28.  This is quite low. It is about nine times worse than what is needed to separate 240Pu from 239Pu, for example. And even then, a mass resolution of 240 is still generally considered low.  There is no formal definition of high and low mass resolution.  However, as a general rule, mass spectrometers which can only measure the nominal masses of inorganic ions are generally known as low mass resolution instruments.

Note the use of the word ‘nominal’ when describing ionic masses so far.  As it turns out, exact masses are not the same was nominal masses.  For one thing, protons and neutrons do not have the same mass; their mass differs by about one part in a thousand.  More importantly, combining them into nuclei changes some of their mass into energy via Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2.  This ‘binding energy’ makes the nucleus lighter than its component protons and neutrons, and different nuclei have different binding energies, and therefore different exact masses.  So, for example, the mass resolution required to resolve a molecule of hydrogen, 1H2, from deuterium (2H) atom (a hydrogen atom with a neutron in its nucleus) is about 1350.  As a good working definition, high mass resolution is mass resolution high enough to resolve ions with the same nominal mass (called “isobaric interferences” by mass spectrometrists) as a result of the small differences in real mass caused by their binding energy.

The trouble with this definition, of course, is that the mass resolution required to separate isobaric interferences, depends on what they are. For example, see the isobaric interferences in figure 1.

Figure 1. SHRIMP mass spectrum of atomic and molecular peaks at mass 56 in San Carlos Olivine (Mg2SiO4 with Fe and Ca substituting for Mg). Green and purple: nominal M/dM = 5000; orange and blue: nominal M/DM = 15000; green and orange: Faraday cup; blue and purple, electron multiplier.

This figure contains mass scans taken on both high (~5000) and higher (~15000) mass resolution.  The mass resolution required depends on the interference.  For example, the resolution required to resolve 28Si2 from 40Ca16O is more than ten times higher (~15000) than the mass resolution required to resolve 56Fe from 24Mg16O2 (~1500). Note that increasing mass resolution also decreases signal intensity.

The easiest way to avoid interferences is to not create them in the first place.  This can be done by chemists who purify the element whose isotopes they wish to measure, or by material scientists who make pure compounds without trace elements (such as Ca in the above figure).

Another technique is to use an ionization source that doesn’t produce many molecular ions.  So high mass resolution is most useful when a compositionally complex material is ionized using a method that creates all sorts of complex species.

This is why high mass resolution mass spectrometry is popular in geological SIMS analyses.  Minerals generally contain a wide variety of minor and trace elements, and the SIMS ionization produces all sorts of molecular fragments.  So being able to resolve species based on their mass defects is extremely useful.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Do you really need a Nobel prize to know...

that heat is most easily lost from the head on cold January mornings...

Friday, February 22, 2013

Putting the Russian meteorite in perspective

Friday morning, a large meteor entered the atmosphere over the southern Ural area of Russia, detonating with enough force to shatter windows in nearby towns and injure over 1000 people.  Preliminary estimates suggest an impactor traveling at 15 to 20 km/s, and weighing 8000 to 10,000 tons, exploding at an altitude of 20-30 km with the force of a nuclear weapon.

These are hard numbers to wrap one’s head around.

Let’s start with the size. There are numerous reports around on the bolide being “bus sized.”  But buses are not made of solid rock, so this is deceptive. In this situation, mass is more important than dimensions. A bus weighs about 15-20 tons. That’s a lot less than 8000-10,000.  For example, 8000-10,000 tons is the approximate size of the naval destroyer USS Cole, which was famously attacked by Al Qaeda in Yemen in 2000. It’s a lot bigger than a bus. Of course, that ship doesn't fly in space.  Rather, it sails in the ocean at about 50 km/ hour, thousands of times slower than 20 km/ second. The International Space Station is about 450 tons.

Orbital velocity for a low earth orbit is about 8 km/second, and reentry speeds returning from low earth orbit are similar.  So this meteor was traveling at about twice orbital speed when it hit the atmosphere.  This is substantially faster than the 11 km/s reentry of the Apollo missions returning from the moon, and about twice as fast as the space shuttles (and other low earth orbit spacecraft) re-enter.  It is about 50 times faster than a handgun bullet.

The total energy released, between a quarter and a half a megaton, was similar to a modern H-bomb.  However, it was more dispersed, and released high in the atmosphere. Because the impactor was traveling at twice orbital speed, the energy would be equivalent to an orbital object of four times the mass re-entering.  32,000 to 40,000 tons is about the size of the Titanic, or a WWII battleship. 

Something similar to this has been imagined.  Below is a model of CV-6, the famous 20,000 ton WWII aircraft carrier Enterprise.
Compare that to the fictional NCC 1701 spaceship enterprise, at the same scale.
The internet gives a spaceship mass of 10 times the aircraft carrier, which seems way to heavy to be sensible. 
If we say the spaceship is twice the mass of the aircraft carrier (it is bigger, after all, even if it is also probably made from a lighter & stronger material than steel), then it would have about the same energy on re-entry as the Chelyabinsk bolide.

We can compare the videos:

Star Trek III

Chelyabinsk Friday morning:

Reality is still far more gripping than imagination. 

Finally, here is what the Earth looked like from the asteroid’s point of view an hour before impact.  A few things to note:
First, the Earth is almost full.  As a result, the side of Earth facing the asteroid was in day, so it would have been hard to spot, as the sun was behind it.  However, the US space junk tracking radars in Hawaii should have been able to pick it up.  I wonder if they did, if they passed any sort of a warning on, or even are they allowed to?  It would be a shame if the 1200 injuries that occurred were preventable, but for American government red tape.

Friday, January 18, 2013

I build huge cans of learning named after a small pink water animal with lots of legs.

I build huge cans of learning named after a small pink water animal with lots of legs. The can of learning fires the tiniest bits of air, hurried up by a field, at rocks to break them into the tiniest bits of matter. We suck all of the air out of the box, leaving only empty space. That way the bits of the rock don't hit bits of air that are in the way.

Another field sucks these bits off of the face of the rock, and into a big box filled with empty space and more fields.  The fields in the box sort the bits by exactly how heavy they are. The force that holds the bits together makes them a little bit lighter, so knowing exactly how heavy they are lets us tell tiny bits holding on to each other from single other tiny bits that are slightly lighter or heavier.
The very heavy bits are actually too big to hold themselves together. So they fall into pieces over time.  We look at how many pieces there are. This tells us the age of the rock.
People wonder how old rocks are.  My business builds cans of learning to tell them.
Brief: Explain your technical job using only the 1000 most common words #upgoerfive

Thanks to Anne and Chris for the brief.