Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: The Political Value of Time, by Elizabeth Cohen

I study geologic time for a living. That’s my job, and my day to day work involves making sure that the scientific instruments we use to figure out how many billions of years old various rocks are haven’t started to malfunction in ways that can generate millions of years of errors.


Apparently, though, most people don’t live their lives across the spans of eons and millions of years.  It’s good to remind myself of this every now and then, preferably before our fridge runs out of milk. One way to do this, and to gain some perspective on other ways of contemplating time, is by reading books of academic experts who study human interaction, instead of billion years old rocks. One such study is The Political Value of Time, by Professor Elizabeth Cohen (Syracuse University, USA).

Geosciences have a variety of ways to measure time. Of course, the fundamental unit of scientific time is the second- defined by atomic oscillations, from which minutes and hours are derived. But there is also astronomical time- days, months, years, and Milankovic cycles derived from the movement of rotating or orbiting moons and planets. And there are the various radioactive decay schemes, which give us 238U time 40K time, and other lesser used decay schemes, which are generally tied to one of those two systems. Comparing and cross-calibrating these various schemes is a lot of what geochronologists have been doing over the last 20 years.

The Political Value of Time combines all of these in to scientific time- e.g. the time measured by clocks and calendars. It discusses this, as opposed to other qualitative types of time used by social scientists, such as leisure time, overtime, and quiet time. Oddly, political researchers seem to have spent less time thinking about scientific time than some of these other fuzzy sorts, and this book tries to redress this situation.

The book shows that governments appropriate the time of their citizens in a way that constitutes a political economy of time. It then shows that there are several philosophical, practical, and technical reasons for this to be so. However, it points out that, because this area is understudied and the ramifications are not thought through, many of the unconscious and structural biases that burden other economies also make the economy of time less fair than it ought to be.

As it is outside my area of expertise, I don’t have the background to critically appraise the interpretations of French revolutionary philosophers and other cited works. Taking their referenced statements as given, however, yields a book with a clear, compelling, and straightforward argument. The vocabulary is specialized, and I reached for the dictionary many times in the introduction. However, the terms are used consistently and precisely through the entire book, so once the introduction is finished, the vocabulary becomes less intimidating.

As someone who used to travel extensively internationally for work, the queuing section struck all sorts of chords on the intersection of time, money, duty, efficiency, and information technology in the area of airport customs queues.

Over all, it is a good book, clearly argued. It looks like there are lots of opportunities for future research.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Where on Google Earth are the dearly departed?


Callan Bentley of the Mountain Beltway has announced, via Twitter and Facebook, that Ron Schott has passed away. Ron was a long time of internet advocacy for Geology, both through his blog, his twitter account, his gigapan advocacy, and other activities which I haven't kept up with. He was an enthusiastic, good-natured, and helpful geologist, and though I only met him once, in 2009, his passion for explaining the stories of geology at all scales and structures was memorable. And just as fantastic geologic events leave their stories imprinted in the rock record, so too can the traces of Ron's digital Earth Science outreach be found buried and the blogs and feeds of social media. However, like the paleontological records left behind by vanished creatures, these digital fossils serve mostly to remind us of the sense of loss that we have in knowing that we can no longer meet their creator. Rest in Peace, Ron. We miss you.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Nomination language note


This is a brief update to last week’s post on nominating for society prizes.  There has been some discussion on twitter about biased language in letters of recommendation, particularly for junior women. This was an issue I was vaguely aware of, but didn’t especially delve into deeply at the time.
Our basic approach was to mostly focus on the science, which of course doesn’t have a gender, and explain why the science she did was so exciting. You can see my citation in the previous post. I’m not posting anyone else’s letter on this blog, but I will put the combined word cloud here, along with a list of high frequency words:

 
Words used ten or more times:
53                                                                                      Jenner
33                                                                                      elements
28                                                                                      data
25                                                                                      paper
23                                                                                      magma
20                                                                                      Frances
19                                                                                      element
18                                                                                      trace
16                                                                                      analytical
16                                                                                      MORB
15                                                                                      O’Neill
15                                                                                      glasses
15                                                                                      work
15                                                                                      new
14                                                                                      analysis
14                                                                                      chalcophile
13                                                                                      quality
12                                                                                      geochemistry
12                                                                                      published
12                                                                                      volcanic
12                                                                                      Carnegie
11                                                                                      differentiation
11                                                                                      magmatic
10                                                                                      papers
10                                                                                      years
10                                                                                      young
10                                                                                      many

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Nominating for society prizes



One of the great things about being a geochronologist is that you can delve back in time to when unfinished blog posts were abandoned, and drag them screaming into the present to be finished.

Sometime around about 0.0000035 Ma*, there was a push by Dr. Ball over at Magma cum Laude bemoaning the gender disparityin society prize nominations. The argument, seen here and other places in early 2014, goes something along the lines of:
-When nominated, women are about as likely as men to win society awards.
-However, nominations skew more male than the general population of scientists
-Nominators are mostly crusty old farts, and young scientists (young meaning anyone under 50) are not stepping up and nominating people.

I forgot all about this pressing issue until June (still 2014), when the MGPV division of the Geological Society of America announced that they would be awarding a new early career scientist prize. At that point, I suddenly recalled the issue, and thought, “Might this be a testable hypothesis? What happens when some random industrial scientist barely 40 years old tries nominating?”

I’d sat through a few award ceremonies before, and seen these sorts of things handed out to a wide variety of scientists, from really cool people I’d never heard of to the banal big names who had spent a quarter of a century cruising on achievements from when I was in high school. But in most cases, the nominees were very senior, old, respected scientists. And they nominated other, slightly less old but otherwise very similar scientists. I suppose their point of view is that if they’re great, other great people ought to be pretty similar.

I am not a great scientist. I’m a disorganized industry hack whose H-index can be tallied on the fingers of Count Rugen’s hand. So the way I see it, anyone I nominate for a prize should be as unlike me as possible. So from there it was an easy step to revisit the nomination gap studies, and think, “Might there be, perhaps, any women who would be appropriate for this award?” Luckily, our nominee came to mind almost immediately.

As someone who went through college loathing political correctness, my first thought was therefore, “OK, now am I cutting any more deserving nominees out here by nominating her?” As it turns out, when I was still working at the ANU (see the first three years of this blog) we had many really good grad students. However, none of them really took ownership of their favorite field of science and made it their own the way our nominee did, so I was satisfied that I had made a good choice.

The GSA Junk Mail that announced the creation of a new award came out in June 20 of 2014, I probably read it and connected it back to the earlier exhortations to nominate about a week or two later, around the end of the month. The trouble was, the deadline for nominations was the 15th of July. And I didn’t start approaching people for supporting letters until the second.

My strategy was simple: Here in Canberra, cruise the ANU hallways to figure out who was actually in town and able to put something together on zero notice. I threw the Japanese postdoc into the too-hard basket, as I didn’t personally know any of the people she worked with there, and also language barrier, and concentrated on her colleagues at DTM. I also approached some big names in the field with whom she hadn’t collaborated, to see if they thought it was a sensible nomination and would be willing to write something supportive from more of a peer review perspective.

I was pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastic most of the people I approached were. I guess the good thing about picking a good candidate, however, is that people really do get excited and are willing to get on board and turn letters around in remarkably quick timescales. I had my three supporters lines up by the seventh, and three letters in hand within hours of the deadline. In responsible, organized nominator fashion, I had my nomination letter done a whallopping three days before the deadline, and circulated it to the rest of the team for a science check and general feedback (as I had never done this before).

Around the time of the deadline, a potential referee who had been out of contact emailed me saying that he really wanted to write a fourth letter, and could the deadline be extended? So I asked the coordinator, and he said that as long as a complete submission package was in on time, we could have a week or two to get additional bonus letters in. One such letter was submitted.

Fast forward nine months:
There’s an email in my inbox from our nominee:
Hi Chuck,
Here is the letter that I woke up to today!!!! Thanks so much!!!”

And that is how Dr. Frances Elaine Jenner won the Geological Society of America’s inaugural MGPV early career award. The only sad part of the story was that I was not able to go to the GSA meeting where the award was presented, so one of the guys who wrote a letter of support gave the citation. He’s a proper academic scientist anyway, so probably had the gravitas that I lack. The citation and acceptance are on page 8-10 of thisnewsletter.

The point of all this story is this: It is possible for mid career non-academic scientists to throw together a nomination at the last minute, and get support from respected scientists, and construct a nomination package sufficient to win the prize. Don’t die wondering, folks.

Now, I should point out that I did have a few things tilted in my favor:
Firstly I attended a number of top institutions during my academic career, which put me in contact with top scientists like Dr. Jenner. Having a great candidate goes a long way towards making a case.

 Secondly, I’ve been kicking around science in one capacity or another to know her referees, several of whom were quite respected scientists. I was reasonably acquainted with three of the four supporters I got letters from, and had at least been to the fourth guy’s lab.

Thirdly, once the decision was made to go, I went all out. This isn't the sort of thing to be half-assed. I read all her papers, and tried to put together a passionate yet logical case for why they made our nominee a prizeworthy scientist.

I’m sure the greybeards who get together at annual meetings to sip nasty scotch plan out their conventional safe picks way in advance, but with a little passion, some broad thinking, and a genuine enthusiasm for science, anyone can nominate for their respective society’s awards, and win. And there’s a month and a half to go before the deadline forthe 2019 award, so don’t be shy, y’all.

* True calendar years; -0.000064 using the 1950 zero year favoured by 14C weirdos.

And in case anyone wants the really nitty gritty details, here’s the nomination I wrote in a sleep deprived haze during the first week of July 2014. Typos and all:



Nomination for Frances Jenner

Dear Division Secretary,
I would like to nominate Frances Elaine Jenner for the GSA’s MGPV division early career award for 2015.  Dr. Jenner is an outstanding young analytical geochemist who has pioneered several novel analytical techniques and applied them to igneous rocks from a wide temporal and geographical range.  Her ability to generate novel, high quality data has allowed her and her colleagues to overturn previous assumptions or hypotheses about a variety of igneous processes, giving us a better understanding of mafic volcanism over the last 3.8 billion years of Earth history.

Upon the completion of her PhD on the nature of Eoarchean rocks (Jenner et al., 2009; Jenner et al., 2013), Dr. Jenner immediately branched out into a new field of study, namely the quantification of “less commonly analyzed elements” in volcanic glasses. One such element is selenium.  In theory, selenium should be a useful proxy for sulfur in systems (such as volcanic glasses) which may have undergone partial degassing, but in practice, there was no standard analytical protocol for measuring this low abundance chalcogenide in silicate materials.  Using the electron microprobe, laser ablation inductively coupled mass spectrometry (LA-ICPMS), and the Sensitive high-resolution ion microprobe (SHRIMP), Dr. Jenner characterized a suite of commonly used reference materials (Jenner et al., 2009). This study remains the only case where the SHRIMP has been used as a negative ion trace element quantification tool.  However, despite developing this novel SIMS technique, she and her colleagues used the SIMS data to devise an analytical protocol to routinely measure selenium using LA-ICPMS. The use of the cheaper, more versatile LA-ICPMS equipment meant that selenium contents of target glasses and minerals could be determined along with other elements of interest in a wholescale manner much more economically than the use of the SHRIMP would allow.

While an analytical specialist may have been content to run this application without too much thought to the geologic implications, Dr. Jenner and her colleagues immediately put it to use in investigating the enrichment of Cu, Ag, and Au in arc-related magmas.  Their “magnetite crisis” paper (Jenner et al., 2010) uses this selenium analytical technique to generate compelling data relating to the trends of these elements with magma evolution.  This dispels the earlier, intellectually unsatisfying notion of a fugitive fluid or vapor phase, clearly showing that magnetite crystallization triggers sulfide saturation by changing the magmatic fO2.

The use of more, higher quality data to reject a long held but data-poor assumption is a hallmark of Dr. Jenner’s research.  Although she has continued to analyze selenium for the purpose of constraining sulfide saturation and chalcogenide behavior (Jenner et al., 2012; Patten et al., 2013), her next major achievement was to roll out the same approach to the rest of the periodic table, and a wider variety of sea floor volcanic glasses.

Jenner and O’Neill (2012b) is a primer for how to analyze most of the periodic table in mafic glasses, with corrections for interfered elements and methods for how to minimize analytical difficulties.  While the analysis of volcanic glasses by LA-ICPMS is not new, this study is remarkable in its thorough examination of issues of normalization and reproducibility which have not necessarily been presented in a single unified study before.

Jenner and O’Neill (2012a) then apply these techniques to hundreds of ocean floor volcanic glasses, yielding a rich, high quality dataset that allows them to realize (O’Neill and Jenner, 2012) that the mid-ocean ridge fractional crystallization model that we were all taught as undergraduates decades ago cannot explain their new, higher quality data, and needs refinement.

Once again, Dr. Jenner and her colleagues develop new tools illuminate a previously underconstrained system, yielding a novel explanation with greater predictive power. This changes the way we think about the main type of magma generation on Earth.

There are quite a few talented young geoscientists who develop new analytical techniques.  And many of them apply them to known areas of scientific debate, to build up or tear down evidence for one or more prevailing hypotheses.  But Dr. Jenner is unusual in having both the analytical skills to devise new approaches and the intellectual agility to find entirely new geological interpretations, which were not even part of the debate before her studies were carried out.

And although Dr. Jenner is very much an analytical geochemist, it is her ability to find the natural rocks to use her procedures on which underpins her success.  While she collaborates extensively with experimental petrologists, she mostly analyses natural samples of diverse provenance.  Working from the Greenland Eoarchean to modern submarine volcanics, her areas of study span more than 95% of the terrestrial rock record in geologic time.  Her onshore field areas range from the periglacial west coast of Greenland to tropical Samoa.  While ocean drilling programs do not fit the stereotypical mold of outcrop hammering and rock licking, they are none-the-less the only way we currently have of accessing the ~70% of our planet’s surface that is under water. And it is her ability to choose the right sample or samples for her new analytical methods which allows her to discover novel petrologic processes.

Finally, it is worth noting that in a competitive field like academic geology, there is an element of luck which is often a contributor to success.  Whether it is happening on just the right rock, or simply having jobs appear in a manner that allows a stable, productive workflow, simple good fortune can often be the difference between a discovery and a confirmation. Dr. Jenner has had, by far, the worst luck of anyone I know with an advanced geology degree.

I have worked in industry and government for the past seven years, so I know many of the situations which result in a person leaking out of the academic pipeline.  Dr. Jenner has experienced a large number of these “career-terminal” events.  But unlike the rest of us, she has forced her way back into the pipeline with a combination of intellectual firepower, gritty determination, and the most dedicated work eithic of anyone I have met in any field. This has allowed her to not just stay employed, but maintain control of her career trajectory, despite her three postdocs and her faculty job being on four different continents.  And despite her hardships, she is one of the most enthusiastic, positive, energetic scientists I know.  This, as much as her academic record, makes her a role model for all young scientists. Frances Jenner would be an inspirational choice for the GSA committee as the inaugural MGPV division Early Career scientist.

References:

Jenner, F.E., Arculus, R.J., Mavrogenes, J.A., Dyriw, N.J., Nebel, O., and Hauri, E.H., 2012, Chalcophile element systematics in volcanic glasses from the northwestern Lau Basin: Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, v. 13, no. 6, p. Q06014.
Jenner, F.E., Bennett, V.C., Nutman, A.P., Friend, C.R.L., Norman, M.D., and Yaxley, G., 2009, Evidence for subduction at 3.8 Ga: Geochemistry of arc-like metabasalts from the southern edge of the Isua Supracrustal Belt: Chemical Geology, v. 261, no. 1-2, p. 83–98.
Jenner, F.E., Bennett, V.C., Yaxley, G., Friend, C.R.L., and Nebel, O., 2013, Eoarchean within-plate basalts from southwest Greenland: Geology, v. 41, no. 3, p. 327–330.
Jenner, F.E., Holden, P., Mavrogenes, J.A., O’Neill, H.S.C., and Allen, C., 2009, Determination of Selenium Concentrations in NIST SRM 610, 612, 614 and Geological Glass Reference Materials Using the Electron Probe, LA-ICP-MS and SHRIMP II: Geostandards and Geoanalytical Research, v. 33, no. 3, p. 309–317.
Jenner, F.E., and O’Neill, H.S.C., 2012a, Analysis of 60 elements in 616 ocean floor basaltic glasses: Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, v. 13, no. 2, p. Q02005.
Jenner, F.E., and O’Neill, H.S.C., 2012b, Major and trace analysis of basaltic glasses by laser-ablation ICP-MS: Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, v. 13, no. 3, p. Q03003.
Jenner, F.E., O’Neill, H.S.C., Arculus, R.J., and Mavrogenes, J.A., 2010, The Magnetite Crisis in the Evolution of Arc-related Magmas and the Initial Concentration of Au, Ag and Cu: Journal of Petrology, v. 51, no. 12, p. 2445–2464.
O’Neill, H.S.C., and Jenner, F.E., 2012, The global pattern of trace-element distributions in ocean floor basalts: Nature, v. 491, no. 7426, p. 698–704.
Patten, C., Barnes, S.-J., Mathez, E.A., and Jenner, F.E., 2013, Partition coefficients of chalcophile elements between sulfide and silicate melts and the early crystallization history of sulfide liquid: LA-ICP-MS analysis of MORB sulfide droplets: Chemical Geology, v. 358, p. 170–188.