Thursday, September 28, 2006

Tsunami info

There was an earthquake-generated tsunami in between Samoa and Tonga on the Tonga trench this afternoon. No local damage has been reported to date, and the low amplitude (0.08m) should prevent any distal destruction.

Information on the earthquake can be found here:

The tsunami bulletin can be found here:

Women in pseudoscience

I should add an explanatory note to the argument presented as “option 1” in “A zircon that predates the universe”. I mentioned that in order to be taken seriously by the scientific community, it is necessary to explain previously existing data, as well as one’s own.

The alternative, which I will designate 1a, is to ignore the judgment of the scientific community by joining the lunatic fringe.

The issues and challenges surrounding a career in quackology are no different than those of any other profession. I do not intend to discuss them all, so for this post I will focus on a relatively basic problem: gender representation.

Why are there so few women pseudoscientists?

There are numerous blogs devoted to the issues of women representation in mainstream science. Whether you are looking for a witty, reasoned, or angry approach, this topic is extensively discussed online. Not so with women in the fringe. Despite career prospects that in some cases may rival that of academic scientists, this remains a male dominated profession. So at the very least, a quick review of some possible explanations is in order.

1. Pipeline problem. This hypothesis suggests that there are few women shysters because they never take the basic high school training that is required. Women who take college preparatory courses and do independent research are in danger of missing the opportunities created by spending one’s afternoons selling used cars, real estate, and standards-approved laboratory equipment.

2. Hostile work environment. There is no doubt that extreme nut jobs can create a difficult work environment. The social acclimation of people who belive the face on Mars is watching them can be marginal, at best. The cultivation of cults, harems, cloned teenage heartthrobs, and blockheaded arguments can also dissuade women from a career in quackery.

3. Systemic bias. In my travels as a wild youth, I met several women who had a basic misunderstanding of the Earth sciences. However, they do not seem to have ever made the career jump from uninformed housewife to corporate shill. A widespread, subconscious reluctance to give female applicants the same benefit of the doubt (even where the doubt is a fiction designed to distract and deceive) as males could potentially be an explanation.

4. Biological differences. Some people, including Harvard administrators, may suggest that there is an innate biological difference that makes fakery easier for men than for women. The unspoken corollary to this law is that there is no point trying to recruit women into the pseudoscientific disciplines, because they have neither the inclination nor the ability to succeed there. I suspect that the proponents of this particular hypothesis have all led sheltered, ivory tower lives that have never involved being wrapped around the finger of one of these professional manipulators. That, or they’re too up themselves to admit it.

Anyway, there are a few important take-home points here. First of all, this is a completely theoretical exercise. There is no possible relationship between the factors that govern bias in science and pseudoscience. The reason for this is obvious. Selection committees in the sciences are immune to charisma, charm, the hard sell, the flashy diversion, or any other pseudoscientific techniques. They only consider quantitative, verifiable factors when filling appointments. Always.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A zircon that predates the universe

I have on my desk a rather curious geochronology result. It is a SHRIMP analysis that I ran a month or two ago on a zircon- a very routine analysis. However, the result is somewhat surprising.

According to this summary sheet, the 206Pb/238U age of the zircon is 160 million years. Jurassic. No big deal.

The 207Pb/206Pb age, however, is a bit older- 3362 million years, or early Archean. That is a bit odd, but not completely implausible. A severe Pb-loss event caused by metamictization could, in theory, create such extreme discordance. The real problem is the thorium age.

The 208Pb/232Th age for this sample came out at 15,223 million years. 15.2 billion. That’s really old. It is more than three times the accepted age of the Earth and solar system (4.56 Ga), and considerably older than the best estimate that astronomers give us for the age of the universe: 13.7 Ga. Such an age is a bit counter-intuitive for a zircon from a Phanerozoic orogeny.

When trying to interpret such a result, the extreme value gives us only two possibilities:

1. The arcane disciplines of cosmochemistry, geochronology, isotopic analysis, and astronomy are all conspiratorial hoaxes perpetrated by godless, soul-destroying, ivory tower elitists, whose evil scheme is to avenge their social ostracism by polluting our precious bodily fluids.

2. I fucked up the analysis.

Obviously, choice one is more appealing to my sense of self-worth. It allows me to stroke my ego to sleep at night with the belief that I have single-handedly exposed the academic fraudsters. It fills me with the warm glow of knowing that humanity owes me for bringing justice, light, and honesty into the realm of physical science. It excites me that this selfless discovery will undoubtedly arouse the thousands of nubile young damsels who found zirconology fan clubs and fantasize about thorium decay.

Unfortunately, there is one small problem. There is a conceit among scientists- an unspoken rule of the laboratory code. It says that science should have predictive value. In order for my ground-breaking pre-universal zircon to overturn science, destroy the paradigm, and score me some hot chicks, I need to put it in a meaningful context. I can do this by either developing a new theorem, that will explain my data while reinterpreting the last 40 years of research in a new light, or I need to show that all the previous studies were flawed. Before I can do either, I need to understand the body of knowledge which I wish to overturn. This will require attending a library.

Thing is, I’m not real fond of libraries. The stacks smell musty, the babes give me dirty looks, and there is nothing to do other than sit and read. So instead of reviewing all the crusty old theories that my new data will disprove, I will procrastinate by testing hypothesis two, the outlandish possibility that the analysis is not completely perfect.

To be continued...

p.s. Note to the ANU students who read blogs instead of working on their mid-terms: Please don’t give the punch line away.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A few quick notes:

On Friday, the last day of winter, we had a total fire ban. This does not bode well for summer.

I hope to write up a cool talk I went to see on the dating of Ethiopian hominid fossils, but this blog explains why they are interesting way more eloquently than anything I could write.

The Atlantic Hurricane season may be winding down, but you can still find updates here.

From the Bad Astronomer, a great update on Brown dwarfs, and a link to the homepage of Thierry Legault, who takes amazing astronomical pictures.

And finally, a search engine roundup:

Recently, I’ve been getting a statistically meaningful number (around 20-25%) of search requests for “Pluto conspiracy”.

Geologic mnemonics and various Bunsen burner queries are also represented more than once. As for the singletons, here are some highlights:

Donate a testicle to science
Australian nuclear weapons
Plausible deniability standard
Salt dough cockatoo
Duck egg cookies
Nitrogen trifecta system
what does it mean by when “only boys accepting feminism get kissed meaningfully”
steve irwin jfk diana
How intelligent are oysters?
steve irwin jfk diana
give me a catchy title for a science si unit lab

Saturday, September 23, 2006

What is a Lab Lemming?

A Lab Lemming is a creature which mindlessly follows its protocols over the precipice of understanding, to drown in the frigid sea of uncertainty. Everyone who has ever fallen into research over their head, and gulped down the icy brine of confusion is welcome here. Grab a couch by the fire, dry off, warm up, and tell the tale of how your scientific hubris led you astray.

To proclaim a purpose or theme for The Lounge would be to deny its empirical nature. This blog is basically a collection of thoughts about working in a scientific lab, with a focus on the nitty gritty details of collecting data that is scientifically useful.

In my opinion, mainstream scientific education and commentary often fall into a number of pitfalls that reduce their effectiveness. These include, but are not limited to: solemnity, condescension, formalism, frigidity, politeness, hero-worship, and generalization. Thus, I will try to make this blog as silly, challenging, relaxed, visceral, rude, irreverent, and specific as possible.

It may be that my jokes are so esoteric that only ten people on the planet understand them (and only two find them amusing). It may be that semi-erotic descriptions of the large ion lithophiles are not the most appropriate way to teach analytical techniques. But the heart of the scientific endeavour is experimentation. And if I don’t worship oysters and Bunsen burners, ponder mutant rats, defend Pluto, or collect rude mnemonics, who will?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Blogular hiatus

It has been a year since Mrs. Lemming and I bought our house. Our rate of renovating appears to resemble exponential decay, as the longer the work goes on, the slower the rate of progress. So I really need to put in some extra time to finish it off.

In addition, I recently had a look around the blogosphere, and found it fairly depressing. According to The Truth Laid Bear, most of the huge blog sites are partisan political propaganda. I kinda don’t really see the point of making esoteric jokes and explaining how stuff works to ten people a day, when a million times that number wolf down deliberate misinformation.

Finally, spring has sprung, and the number of pleasant outdoor hours has increased from three to 12.

So I’m taking a working holiday. I’m going to put my living room back together, paint it, and then put in a garden so that el Nino can desiccate it. This is not the end; I still have posts about paying for open access, zircons that predate the universe, and the terminology of lab culture in the works. I just don’t have the time or the interest in finishing them off right now.

Later, dudes.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Soft rock cat fight

According to RealClimate, The American Association of Petroleum Geologists and the American Quaternary Association have gotten their knickers in a twist about the recent decision by the AAPG to grant a journalism award to the novelist Michael Crichton.

Some random thoughts:

If writing novels about cloned dinosaurs and global warming hoaxery is an example of what the AAPG considers to be good science journalism, is it any surprise that oil costs $70 a barrel? How can anyone expect to keep exploration costs down when tarot cards and divining sticks cost so much these days?

By accusing the AAPG of self-interest, the AQA is totally and completely hypocritical. After all, the only possible reason to study the Quaternary is self-interest, since that is the period in which we happen to live.

So much love lost so quickly. It was only last century that Pleistocene paleontologists (and I don’t mean Neanderthals with doctorates in trilobitology; I mean mammoth-lovers) and petroleum geologists alike were swooning, hand-in-hand, at the richness of the California tar pits for both of their respective professions.

Given that this debate is between rival factions of soft rockers, I’m surprised that it has been so civilized. After all, they are actually using words. Correctly. Given the usual level of debate between environmental and ore geologists, I would have expected them to bare teeth, hurl feces, and howl at each other from opposing tree-tops.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The morning after

This is an addendum to last night’s post.

I should let everyone know that I was using an unusual definition of “my”. Usually, my is the first person possessive pronoun. But occasionally, it has other meanings. In the case on yesterday’s title, for example, I used the little known definitions of “my”, such as: my=a; my=an uncontrollable; or my = a scheming foxy, willing-to-let-me-think-I-actually-figured-her-out.

For the better part of a week, everything was perfect, blissful, the Cs barely twice the instrumental background and Rb only a few times larger. I’m still not sure exactly what happened. Perhaps I got complacent, and started taking my cps for granted. Or maybe the alkali wild spirit can never really be tamed by a lab coated man, and resumed its contaminated machine on its own schedule, without regard to the wants and desires of the laboratory staff.

Whatever the reason, in the cold light of dawn, it became evident that the Friday morning backgrounds were an order of magnitude higher than the rest of the week. I was back to square one, with no consolation or explanation to ease my loss.

Fortunately, by that time the moon people had finished their analyses. In fact, I eventually tracked down the source of the contamination. A couple of Germans from Edinburgh* had been using the machine to looks at refactory glass and carbonates. That was fine, but what ended it for me and my alkali backgrounds was their decision, late in the day, to run just a couple of volcanic sanidines (is there any other kind?). The ablation of trace element-enriched K-spar must be what brought on the contamination.

I’m not really sure what to do now. Staring at the wiggly signal lines, it feels like I’ve lost something special, something irreplaceable. The calculating pert of my mind tells me that I’ll solve the problem of getting the low backgrounds soon enough, and I think I know how to keep them, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying.

A more interesting question, however, is why the Germans are in Edinburgh. I suspect it is a result of natural selection. Researchers from Mexico, China, or Italy would not be able to survive in Edinburgh. They would starve to death. So only it is reasonable to suspect that any scientists who can thrive there must come from countries with a cuisine sufficiently bland that Scottish food is not too painful an adaptation.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Rubidium is my Bee-otch

The Alkalis are the most tempestuous of elements. Willing to drop their unfilled S shell at the drop of a hat, they shamelessly lure anions away from more respectable metals, giving up their unpaired electron like a thermal ionization source in heat.

They are also filthy little atoms, dissolving into almost any aqueous solution, and easily evaporating under fairly reducing conditions. This, along with their ubiquity, makes them infamous contaminants in ICP mass spectrometry, and their background concentrations under standard conditions can be equivalent to thousands of ppm.

Special analytical techniques, such as soft extraction, have been developed to get around the pernicious easy-going electron-induced ionization of alkali caused by premature charge separation. But these techniques lead to reduced sensitivity, uneven backgrounds, and higher detection limits.

An alternative method, which has kept me out of trouble for the past six months, is to prevent these ionic Jezebels from getting into the cones in the first place. Although this “absence-based” protocol sounds easy, actually quarantining the gas expansion region of our machine from the alkali has been a bit of a chore, and only last month (and just in time for the conference) have I had any luck getting results from this technique.

On Tuesday, I finally managed to kick some group one ass. For some planetary post-Goldschmidt visitors, I let them open fire on lunar minerals with a 15 ppb detection limit for Rb on a 70 micron spot and minimal laser power. Now, the moon isn’t exactly alkali heaven. A dry, degassed, volatile-depleted wasteland, it has one of the lowest assumed mantle K/Th ratios of any known planetary body. So even in the compatible phases Rb is going to be low. But thanks to my trusty new tuning glass, half a year of assiduous record keeping, and a bit of good old-fashioned luck, these guys have a chance at getting something other than “bdl” to put in their papers when they’re done.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Playing the name game

Tonight, I bring you the tale of two papers. The first paper, Zr budgets for metamorphic reactions, and the formation of zircon from garnet breakdown, is by H. Degeling, S. Eggins, and D. J. Ellis. The second paper, In situ U–Pb dating of zircon formed from retrograde garnet breakdown during decompression in Rogaland, SW Norway, is by H. S. Tomkins, I. S. Williams, and D. J. Ellis. Aside from the third author (and really, who cares about third authors?), the subject matter, the methodology, the samples, and the overall geologic framework, these two papers have something else in common. Something rather important, that neither Web of Science nor Google Scholar can discern (I also tried Georef, but it crashed my work comp, and I don’t have a home subscription).

Both papers are written by the same first author, who for the purposes of this blog will referred to as either Dr. Tomkins, or Helen*. As you might be able to surmise from the publication dates, Helen got married in 2003 +/-2 AD (1 permil precision is good enough for geochronologists), and changed her name. But as far as the system is concerned, she is no longer the same person. And neither index seems to list both of her papers as being written by the same person. Why is this?

I offer three hypotheses:

1. Computers are stupid, and a single person with more than one name is more than they can handle.
2. Married women aren’t worth listing because...
2a. Once they’re hitched, women have no future in scientific research.
2b. Real, hard-core science chicks are all feminist zealots who would never consider a name change.
3. The scientific indices are run by a bunch of lazy dumbasses.

Test of hypothesis 1:
Go to, a large on-line database. Search for “Jamie-Lynn Siegler”. Then try “Jamie-Lynn DaScala”. If television database is smart enough to recognize that both names refer to the actress who plays Tony’s daughter in The Sopranos, is it really too much to ask for a scientific database to display the same level of competence? After all, the Web of Science certainly charges more for subscriptions.

Test of Hypothesis 2:
Consider the career of Marie Sklodowska. Married at the age of 28, she took her husband’s name, and first published under it three years later, with “Rayons emis par les composes de l'uranium et du thorium”. Over the next 37 years, she added to her scientific credentials with
-The discovery of polonium and radium.
-The Nobel Prize for physics, in 1903
-The Davy Medal of the Royal Society in 1903
-The Nobel Prize for chemistry, in 1911
All in all, Marie Curie didn’t do too badly.

Test of hypothesis 3:
The best way to test this is to see how long it takes the various indices to get their acts together.

Now, I’m a rogue, not a feminist, so I ain’t gonna campaign for any sort of systemic change. I will simply offer two bits of advice to Dr. Tomkins:
1. If future editors ask you for the name of a referee for future papers, why not suggest Dr. Degeling?
2. Make sure you reference her work many times, as the citation indices probably think you two are independent researchers.

* ‘cause that’s her name.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Melbourne III

Some more highlights (more general, less scientific):

-Seeing old friends who have been overseas for 3, 5 sometimes even 7 or 8 years. It is kinda scary how easy it is to lose touch with people for half a decade or more when living on the bottom of the world.

-The quality of the science presented. The vast majority of talks were well thought out, and presented significant, interesting research results. My only complaint was that with so much good science, there were a lot of simultaneous sessions for talks I really wanted to go to.

-Dragging a bunch of lily-white geologists out to Footscray for real Ethiopian food. It is interesting how the whole corporate hospitality industry brags about how many dollars it brings into the city, and then does everything possible to make sure that all of those dollars are spent on it. So it’s fun to actually pry people away from their grip on city centre and actually go to establishments owned and operated by humans.

-Lab visitors. People on their way to or from the conference have been floating into lab with interesting samples, methodologies, or ideas. Also, some of the geochemical community’s analytical hot shots- people who generally aren’t let out of their own labs for substantial periods of time, have been wandering through, and it is great to learn from the masters, and trade ideas, protocols, and general lab talk.

Anyway, that’s about it for Goldschmidt thoughts. Hopefully I’ll have some nitty-gritty analytical posts ready sometime next week, but for now, good night all.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Iridium anomaly as historical artifact

Everybody knows that way back in 1980, Alvarez et al. showed that Italian sediments deposited on the Cretaceous / Tertiary boundary (and NOT the Cretaceous / Paleogene boundary, I might add) are enriched in the element iridium. The term “Iridium anomaly” was thus coined as a quick and dirty way to identify extra-terrestrial impactors.

The idea is simple: when the Earth differentiated into core and mantle, the PGE elements (Ru, Rh, Pd, Os, Ir, and Pt) partitioned into the core, since they are soluble in metallic iron, but excluded from silicates. Thus, undifferentiated material has a much higher PGE content than the silicate Earth, allowing anomalously high concentrations of these elements to be used as an indicator of undifferentiated material.

What this idea does not explain, though, is the following:

Why Iridium? Why don’t we all learn about a platinum anomaly or a ruthenium anomaly in first-year geology?

The answer to that question is actually quite simple, but it involves nuclear physics, not geology. Iridium was the PGE detected by the Alvarez study because it is the only PGE that can be identified in sub-ppb concentrations using neutron activation. Prior to the refinement of ICP mass spectrometry in the 90’s, neutron activation analysis was the most sensitive analytical technique available to geologists. But because it is a nuclear, and not a chemical or ionic technique, its applicability depends on whether or not any isotopes of a given element happen to have high cross-sections that capture neutrons to form unstable, gamma-emitting products.

It just so happens that the two naturally occurring iridium isotopes have relatively large cross sections, and form short-lived, gamma-emitting products. The other PGE’s do not. So the iridium anomaly was detected simply because it was the most detectable, using the technology available at the time.

Here in the 21st century, it is generally cheaper, easier, and safer to dissolve a sample and run solution ICPMS to get all six PGE’s. Unless, of course, you give yourself osmium poisoning from mishandling your spike.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Melbourne (II)

Highlights from Goldschmidt:

Watching A. Hoffman erupt, strombolian style, when C. Spandler presented his new olivine diffusion data, cutting orders of magnitude off the re-equilibration time of melt inclusions.

E. Hendy’s description of what happens to coral during a bleaching event, as determined by synchrotron tomography, personalized the pain of losing one’s autotrophic symbiotes in a way I’ve never experienced before. I don’t know how I’ll ever calcify without them.

S. Ader’s fifteen extra minutes of fame- due to a scheduling mishap, she got 20 minutes of question time instead of three, and the discussion and back-and-forth between her and other researchers working on correlated strata was awesome in its earnestness and spirit of co-operation and learning.

Names on papers are actually people: It turns out that Prof. Kirschvink, the guy who first introduced the snowball Earth hypothesis back in 1992, is a feisty Californian named Joe, who seems to suspect that we are all actually Martians. It can be kinda odd when a name that exists only in bibliographies suddenly turns into a human being.

Sponges! In the Cryogenian! If G. Love’s paper is as detailed as his talk, it will be a classic.

Xenon isotope people are seriously smart. I had no idea how S. Crowther transformed her isotopic ratios the way that she did, but it all made sense in the end.

There is such a thing as a stupid question. I should know. I asked far too many of them.

Monday, September 04, 2006

RIP Steve Irwin

The crocodile hunter Steve Irwin was killed while filming a nature documentary today. Mr. Irwin was better known outside of Australia than here in his home country, where his success has often been greeted with embarrassment and derision. But his impact on the promotion and education of the natural sciences should not be underestimated.

Academics, like many professionals in demanding careers, seem to automatically assume that the skill set needed for their work is something that the entire population must enjoy. For researchers, the most basic skill set is learning. Thus the vast majority of science media and education material produced starts with the assumption that learning is fun. For vast numbers of people, this is simply not the case.

What made Steve Irwin a great educator is that he was able to reach beyond the narrow subset of people who learn for kicks, and appeal to those people who aren’t interested in books, or study, or arcane facts that have no relevance to their own immediate experience. This is a skill very rarely seen in natural science education, but it is very important.

The planetary system does not affect people differentially, based on their willingness to go to school. The Love and Rayleigh waves produced by the next major quake will not bob and weave to avoid the houses of people who are scared of math. Global warming will not only cook that small segment of humanity which appreciates radiative energy balance. We all live on the same planet. So an Earth scientist who says that the incurious deserve what they get is just as narrow-minded and callous as a plumber who thinks that homeowners ignorant of a good Teflon winding deserve to have their toilet overflow.

On a personal level, have to admit, I was stunned. In the lead-up to the 5 o’clock news, the teaser went something along the lines of “A famous naturalist dies doing what he loves.” I automatically assumed that David Attenborough had passed on, so when the full story played 20 seconds later, I was completely shocked. My parents hadn’t even met when JFK was shot, and I can barely remember when Diana died, but this afternoon I was turning around the east corner of parliament drive after picking up my wife from work when I heard the bitter news.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

New uses for grad students. . .

. . . as seen at the Melbourne Goldschmidt.

1. Babysitter.
I saw one mid-career academic telling the kids to behave, be quiet, and ask her grad student if they needed anything, shortly before the professor walked into a session. The poor grad student was just trying to sink into her laptop in a dark corner behind the kids. Imagine having to sort out crayons during your first chance at meeting the experts in your field and lining up a post-doc.

2. Session chair.
Obviously, you have to wonder why a session is being put together if nobody actually wants to convene it. But if you get stuck with the job, skyving and leaving your first year student at the helm is a bit rude to the presenters who submitted to the conference wit the expectation that someone would care. Especially if the student hasn’t yet learned how to successfully disguise boredom.