Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Who the computer thinks I should vote for

Via A K8, a Cat, a mission, Select smart.
What we have here is a C- from the fruitcake parties, a D and a D- from the Republicans, and a D- who isn't even running from the Dems. Then there's a whole bunch of failures. I'm looking forward to this election.

Apologies for formatting snafus.

Your Results:

1. Theoretical Ideal Candidate   (100%)
2. Kent McManigal   (71%)  Click here for info
3. John McCain   (66%)  Click here for info
4. Ron Paul   (62%)  Click here for info
5. Al Gore   (60%)  Click here for info
6. Bill Richardson   (55%)  Click here for info
7. Joseph Biden   (55%)  Click here for info
8. Mitt Romney   (55%)  Click here for info
9. Rudolph Giuliani   (52%)  Click here for info
10. Wesley Clark   (52%)  Click here for info
11. Newt Gingrich   (51%)  Click here for info
12. Tom Tancredo   (51%)  Click here for info
13. Barack Obama   (50%)  Click here for info
14. Chuck Hagel   (50%)  Click here for info
15. Hillary Clinton   (50%)  Click here for info
16. Dennis Kucinich   (49%)  Click here for info
17. Fred Thompson   (48%)  Click here for info
18. Tommy Thompson   (48%)  Click here for info
19. Christopher Dodd   (47%)  Click here for info
20. Sam Brownback   (44%)  Click here for info
21. Duncan Hunter   (43%)  Click here for info
22. John Edwards   (39%)  Click here for info
23. Mike Huckabee   (37%)  Click here for info
24. Mike Gravel   (36%)  Click here for info
25. Jim Gilmore   (32%)  Click here for info
26. Alan Augustson   (31%)  Click here for info
27. Elaine Brown   (8%)  Click here for info

Why sanding back is a bad idea

One project I was sort of interested but never really had time to tackle was the quantitative analysis of the metal content of paint. The following is a depth profile of a paint chip from our home renovations last year. As time progresses, the back ground gives way to the signal from the surface layer, and the next two coats of paint beneath.

Figuring out how to standardize is a royal pain, but a qualitative glance at the measurement shows that the various highly toxic metals have much higher concentrations in the older paint layers than the most recent layer. This is why health professionals recommend that home renovators simply paint over old paint, instead of sanding it. Sanding the paint off releases all these goodies into the air, where they can be breathed, eaten, or otherwise ingested.

Our house was built in the early 70’s. I don’t know how many times it was painted since then, but even without rigorous standardization, it is obvious that paint has become a whole lot less toxic over the lifetime of the building.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Lounge of the Field Lemming

I have accepted a job with an exploration company, and will be flying out on Thursday for three weeks in the Northern Territory. I’ve approached a couple of guest bloggers for that period, but don’t hold your breath.

The short story is that I started applying for industry jobs when the university kept delaying my transition from contract to permanent work. When I asked my PhD supervisor (who has been in exploration since I graduated) if he’s write me a reference, he asked me to come work for him. So that is what I’m doing.

I’m not sure how much presenting the long story about deciding between the relative merits of the two offers would add, so I won’t.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Where on (Google) Earth #18

Sagan has no blog, so I'll post 18. Next one is somebody else, though. No hints. Please also list the order in which the various features cross-cut.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Where on (Google) Earth? #17

This one might look a bit intimidating at first, but applying geologic principles instead of pattern recognition should make it easier than it appears.

A world geologic map might help too.

If former winners could give the public a 24 hour head start, that would be great. As always, an explanation of the method used and the geology featured is a welcome bonus. And everyone is welcome to talk to each other in comments to get on the right track.

Original Where on (Google) Earth series here.

Homeland Security bans reality

Today, the Department of Homeland Security is expected to announce a total ban on the use of, possession of, or residence in reality. Following on their prohibition of liquids in air travel and chemicals in chemistry sets, this ban is designed to ensure that the dangerous, unpredictable universe does not fall into the wrong hands.

Says DHS spokesman Norman Tonguesgroove, “In today’s modern world, there is really no valid reason for private citizens to inhabit reality. There are a variety of safer, more sensible alternatives freely or commercially available to the American public. We expect this prohibition to only impact on those radical realists who cling to outmoded ideals.”

The spokesman was quick to add that, where valid research purposes necessitated its use, university and government labs could be licensed to use reality under carefully controlled conditions. All relevant staff would require security clearance before any such work could proceed.

The department downplayed any suggestions that this new regulation was overly broad. “The federal government is expressly charged with providing for a common defense, so there are no constitutional or jurisdictional issues. Reality is simply too hazardous and erratic, even here on Earth. And the rest of the universe is downright lethal,” Tonguesgroove stated. “The only responsible course of action is to simply bar people from interacting with it.” The spokesman also assured key interest groups that their rights to fictional guns, speech, religion, and abortions would not be infringed.

The department expects only minor objection to this plan, as most ideological, religious, and political leaders have only tenuous connections to reality anyway. If anything, they find it more inconvenient than does the department.

This announcement will be made simultaneously on the DHS website and the Second Life Secret Police command center. There will be no physical press conference.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

SPOILERS for Where on (Google) Earth #16

The original post is here.

If you are still working on it, stop reading now.

I recommend going to Ron's site, and having a go yourself before reading the spoilers.

If you know geology, it is actually fairly easy to deduce where the answer has to be.

Go ahead. Have a look.

I will talk you guys through the process below.

My first gut feeling was the Tarim Basin, but before running off to Asia, I decided to look at the pic analytically.

Ron's fatal mistake was adding the oblique view. While this looks mostly like a gimmick, it gave crucial information- namely the presence of snow-capped mountains to the East of the view area.

Also, there are no folded strata visible. Finally, the mountain looks like an eroded volcano. The obvious place to look for arid volcanic landscapes with higher mountains to the East is the Atacama desert. So, I started around 24 deg south, and worked my way up the coast into southern Peru, where the shore starts getting much less arid.

I had no joy, but I was confident in my reasoning, so I came back down along the dividing range, and look what I found...

22o54'S 67o13' West

I have no idea what the groundwater eroding ash canyons are called, but the meandering thing is a river.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Where on (Google)Earth #15?

Brian has kindly offerend to share the joy of his "Where on Google Earth?" series, so I figured I would step up to the plate. This entrant is dedicated to billabongs*:

Veterans of the series will note that I added a scale bar. I did so for three reasons:
1. It is good practice.
2. It will hopefully level the playing field for mortals against GoogleEarth gods like Ron, who can asertain the scale through diabolical means.
3. It might even help the educational value of these pictures, by giving people a feel for the size of the features shown.

* Known to Americans as ox-bow lakes

Carbon sequestration in mine tailings

Attention Grist and Wikipedia readers:

Please see this comment on the linking of this post from those websites (update Jan 2 2008).

We had a cool talk on Friday about carbon sequestration in mine tailings.

First, the background:
For the past couple billion years, the primary planetary thermostat is generally thought to have been the carbonate-silicate geochemical cycle. Weathering processes remove CO2 from the atmosphere with the following reaction (using diopside as an example mineral): CaMgSi2O6 + 2CO2 -> CaMg(CO3)2 + 2 SiO2. subduction and continental metamorphism reverse the reaction: CaMg(CO3)2 + 2 SiO2 -> CaMgSi2O6 + 2CO2. This works for all calcium and magnesium silicates, not just diopside. The metamorphic part is assumed to proceed at a constant rate. The weathering part is dependent on temperature and p CO2. So when CO2 and temperature are high, the reaction proceeds faster. As CO2 is removed from the atmosphere, the planet cools, and the reaction slows down. Without human interference, this cycle is expected to correct the current anthropogenic CO2 increase in about 0.1 Ma.

Now, the observation:
Scientists studying mine tailings in abandoned asbestos mines in Canada found that the tailings (which are primarily serpentine: Mg3Si2O5(OH)4) were covered in white crusts- various hydrated magnesium carbonate species. Detailed study ensued.

The details (which I’m skipping since it’s after midnight and I’m only up because the baby is) are in themselves pretty awesome, as they show how the scientists sourced the carbon and investigated the relative importance of biotic and abiotic processes in reacting the tailings. Their conclusions are that in the 20 years since the mines closed, the tailings had sequestered as much CO2 as the mining operations originally produced, making the mines carbon-neutral. Even better, the potential sequestration capacity of the unreacted serpentine in the tailings was substantially higher. Now they are trying to figure out how to accelerate the process, in the hopes that all mantle or mafic cumulate-based mines can sink carbon as a byproduct of production. In true lab style, they’ve evidently got labs full of tailings-packed tupperware reacting at all sorts of temperature, pH, and fluid activities.

We don’t currently mine enough nickel, chromite, or asbestos for this to be a stand-alone solution for all emissions, but in theory it could sequester up to about 0.1 Gt of carbon per year- substantially more than is used to operate the mines.

I love this kind of science, for several reasons. Firstly, it is one of those things that is bleeding obvious once observed, but still quite unexpected. If mine tailings weren’t reactive, we wouldn’t have mine pollution issues. So how could hundreds of millions of tons of powdered mafics fail to react with the atmosphere?

Secondly, it makes absolutists’ brains explode. Just when the left wing fruitcake faction of environmentalists thought that bird-killing windmills and nuclear power plants were the worst thing to come out of global warming, along comes this new discovery: What we really need to do to save the planet is to dig up more asbestos, nickel, and chromium.

More info:
The UBC mineral carbonation group
AGU abstract
American Mineralogist abstract (full article available for fee)

Friday, June 15, 2007

New geology blog

All of my Faults are Stress Related is a new geology blog which, in my humble and understated opinion, leaves the rest of us in the dust. Imagine the passion and writing skill of John McPhee, wielded by a geologist who actually knows what they are talking about. Based on the first three entries, that is exactly what one will find at:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bringing home the bacon

So, with the end of my contract coming up, I find myself in the awkward position of having to reapply to keep my job. Naturally, I have been applying to a number of other places as well, including industry jobs. On the off chance that I actually get a choice, what should I do?

Benefit of bailing transitioning into the mining&exploration sector:
Better pay
More opportunities for advancement
More field work
Steep learning curve
More versatile long-term employability
Less bureaucracy

Market volatility
Potentially long (multi-week) shifts away from home
Steep learning curve

Am I missing anything? I’ve been a bit busy with applications this week…

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Best. Abstract. Ever.

The first-order Raman spectrum of diamond has been measured in a diamond anvil cell up to 27 GPa. The fundamental phonon line varies linearly in pressure with a shift of 2.87 cm-1/GPa. This line appears to be an excellent pressure-calibration standard as an alternate to the ruby pressure scale.

H. Boppart, J. van Straaten, I. F. Silvera. 1985. Raman spectra of diamond at high pressures. Phys. Rev. B, 32, 1423-1425.

This is what we did; this is what we got; this is what it’s good for. Three sentences. Efficient scientific writing at its best.

I signed off on a paper I’m et al. on, and finished and sent off my review today, in addition to the usual lab grind. And I didn’t even cite-nap the authors. It has been a good day.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nuclear sea breeze

Eli the climate bunny has gotten up my goat by suggesting that this study using fancy-pants shiny new climate models is the bees knees in nuclear winter prediction. Although I am not a climatologist, lemmings are nothing if not reckless individualistic animals willing to stick their necks out, so here I go. I reckon the paper is incomplete at best, and badly underconstrained at worst.

What they do:
-Get a newfangled climate model.
-Test the aerosol portion of the model using volcanic aerosols.
-Extrapolate volcanic aerosol performance to smoke
-Plug in smoke from nuclear winter

They do not test the model’s handling of smoke from real megafires, whether temperate, such as Canadian and Australian fires, or tropical, like the Brazilian or Indonesian fires. The result is that their model suggests particles can stay in the stratosphere for over 4 years, while actual fire research suggests that the residence time is 15-20 days (Ferrare et al. 1990)

The 3 order of magnitude difference between these results seems to be a result of the model lofting smoke particles into the stratosphere, a result seemingly at odds with observations of pyrocumulus clouds, which often show particulate stagnation at thermoclines penetrated by convecting water vapor.

Of course, their references suggest that megafires such as the 2003 Australian fire can directly inject smoke into the stratosphere. If their residence times are correct, that smoke should still be aloft. Evidence of its existence is not provided.

The mean annual fuel load of Australian wildfires is equal to their smoke injection mass (assuming 1 Mt = 1 Tg). Yet chronic catastrophic global cooling is not observed. As for the applicability of forest fire studies to urban fires, those of us in Canberra have recently conducted that experiment, finding the western suburbs to be slightly less flammable that the surrounding bush.

In short, the paper extrapolates volcanic aerosol response performance to smoke without performing any of the obvious tests of this extrapolation, then builds a model result on top of that unconfirmed hypothesis. While this may be dinky-di science in the bunny labs, here in the lemmingopolis, it is the research equivalent of playing fantasy computer games instead of doing homework.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Messenger Venus flyby

Tomorrow, the MESSENGER probe will fly by Venus en route to Mercury. The aim of the mission is to orbit Mercury, but this is a difficult task. If you just try to shoot straight for it, your probe will pick up speed as it falls towards the sun, so by the time you get to Mercury you will be going so fast that you’ll need a whopping great big engine to slow the spacecraft down enough to go into orbit, instead of just shooting on past.

The Messenger mission is instead using gravitational assists to slow down in stages. So far, it has done an Earth fly-by and a Venus fly-by, and after tomorrow’s Venus flyby there will be three Mercury fly-bys before it slows down enough for orbital insertion. Fortunately, there will be ample opportunities to take pictures during each of these fly bys, which is a good thing. Because we only actually have pictures from one half of the planet so far.

The figure shows a very simplified diagram of this gradual decrease in orbit. Venus is top right, Mercury is bottom left, and a very schematic orbital path is shown in yellow. Of course, by the time the spacecraft gets to Mercury, it will have done more than two orbits around the sun, so all the planets will be in different positions than they are now. And the spacecraft will not have a fly by every orbit- it doesn’t actually get to Mercury orbit until 2011, although the first fly by is next year.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

More on the climate change report

Take a look at the cover photo:

Being scientists, we can appreciate the beauty of our home planet, while also taking a more analytical view of its climate:

It appears that this picture was taken around August or so- note the northern position of the ITCZ, the tropical cyclone in the Western Pacific (see original for better pic), the open water in the Arctic ocean, and the northerly position of the Southern Ocean cold fronts. These cold fronts are responsible for all of Australia's snow, and most of its winter rain. Most global warming predictions suggest that these will become weaker as the planet warms, and that is the primary mechanism thought to cause reductions in Australian winter precipitation. So the report cover illustrates the exact features which an ineffective climate change program would fail to preserve.

Any weather nerds out there able to tell me the date of this photo?

Climate change con job

This week, the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, released the “Prime Ministerial Task Group on Emissions Trading”. The report is available here. The purported goal of this report is to outline a carbon trading system that will minimize the economic impact anthropogenic global warming. However, the proposed plan will do nothing of the sort.

The report correctly states:

Environmental damage from greenhouse gas emissions represents a case of market failure – a negative externality – associated with the production of goods and services. This means that while emissions impose a cost on society through environmental degradation, this cost is not currently reflected in the price of production.

However, the report then tries to calculate a way of regulating carbon emissions that imposes the lowest possible regulatory cost, without considering any other costs. By only addressing the regulatory cost, it completely fails to take the economic cost of climate change itself into account. The result is therefore ludicrous.

For example, look at electricity generation, a greenhouse gas generating activity. The report claims that a carbon trading system could increase the price of electricity by 5-25% over the next 13 years, due to the cost of buying the credits needed to produce electricity. However, the wholesale price of electricity has doubled in the last 5 months. This is not due to regulation; rather, it is caused by the drought, which has left coal-burning stations with insufficient water to operate their cooling towers and threatened the snowy mountain hydro scheme. While we can argue about the relative contributions of natural cycles and global warming to the current water shortage, it is obvious that compared to the price volatility caused by actual physical effects of extreme climate events (90% in 5 months), the price increase from regulation (5-25% in 13 years) is one or two orders of magnitude lower.

The Prime Minister claims that his main goal is to minimize economic hardship caused by climate change. But if Snowy Hydro runs out of water, Australia will not be able to meet peak summer demand, and rolling blackouts will be necessary. Because peak air conditioner loads in Sydney and Melbourne occur when hot north-westerlies suppress the sea breeze, causing inner city temperatures to rise, wind power in the NSW and Victorian highlands is an ideal way to meet peak demand at relatively low cost.

In the early part of this decade, there were numerous wind farms planned. If those generators had been built then, they would be economically profitable now, even without green subsidies, due to the spike in wholesale prices. But the lack of forward planning five years ago means that now only a strong La Nina can save us from exactly the sort of economic disruptions the prime minister was hoping to avoid- disruptions that, in the absence of snow, will begin 2-6 months after the next election.

The PM had a chance to use this report as an opportunity to slash local council and NIMBY opposition to energy diversification, thus driving a wedge between hard green activists and climactic pragmatists. By issuing a report that addresses only the cost of regulation, and not the actual cost of climate change, he has missed this opportunity.

Note to commenters:
This entire post is based on the premise that global warming is happening, and that something should be done about it. If you disagree, please post your reasons here, so as not to confuse the subject of this thread. Inappropriate comments will be deleted or moved.

Anti-global warming open thread

Here's a thread for anyone out there who thinks that either:
a) Anthropogenic global warming does not exist.
b) It isn't worth doing anything about.
Post your best arguments here, in a blog that actual scientists* actually read!

*Soft rockers, too.