Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Blog hiatus

So, I broke my ankle back in October, and after surgery and as a result, work and parenting has sucked up pretty much all of my time. And the geosonnet backlog has finally run its course. Also, although the "moon boot" is marketed as bing for walking, it doesn't seem to be particularly good for walking on lava. I'm guessing it was designed by a non-geologist.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Geosonnet 23

On Mars and Venus air is CO two,
While on the Earth it is but a trace gas.
Our rocks and water scrub the gas into
The stable carbonates, which won’t degas.
In torrid climates, weathering is fast.
Cold rivers transport unreacted grains
Fluvial temperature in eons past
Can be deduced with XRF and brains.
The elements in sediments explain
An early Permian heats up and thaws.
Jokulhlaups warm up more than the jungle rain
Digesting rocks chewed up by glacial jaws.
   This weathering drew down the CO two
   But not enough for ice to grow anew.

Geology 42 835

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Geosonnet 22

From flood basalt hot sulfur will exhale,
Across the dying planet, smog bank draped
The genie left the bottle, empty grail,
No evidence what long ago escaped.
The lava flows forget what they degassed
A fleeting daydream, lost with time’s progress
But though a hundred million years have passed
The clinopyroxene preserves the S.
Partitioning experiments defined!
A synchrotron or ion probe can see
The sulfur clouds to which we once were blind
Are quantified now, analytically.
   Sulfurous magma wrecked the biosphere
   While clean eruptions let life persevere.

Geology 42 895

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Geosonnet 21

Our early atmosphere was quite anoxic
‘till early algae terraformed the Earth.
One grand event, replacing gasses toxic?
Or did O oscillate since life’s first birth?
Did evolution make fate manifest?
Inexorable progress of the gene?
Or was the early oxygen repressed?
Methanogenic dominance was seen.
These visions of our past yearn to be fact.
Hypotheses distinct yet plausible.
The dawn of life’s mysterious, abstract,
Lest ancient rocks reveal what’s causable.
   Archean soil lets us know the way.
   Oxygen came, but then it went away.

Geology 42 923

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Geosonnet 20

The cratered lunar face preserves the song
Of bolide roller derbies eons past
But while the cold dead moon remembers long
The rains of Earth reshape the surface fast.
Did impacts peak four billion years ago?
Or taper off through geologic time?
Archean rocks are analysed to know
micaceous balls were hot glass in their prime.
This impact melt was blasted into space
By comets larger than the dino's doom.
Thus diminution models must replace
The cut-off LHB has us presume.
   Can cratering effect how cratons grow?
   Tectonic orogens changed status quo.

Geology 42 747

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

The wrong kind of Bang

In science education and popularization, there is a delicate balance that must be struck between overcomplicating and oversimplifying. Insufficient simplification can result in overly obtuse deviation into secondary details, which confuse and distract the readers and derail the flow of the prose.  Excess simplification can be wrong.  And this is where the Medium article by Ethan Siegel of “Starts with a Bang” fame has ended up. 

Dr. Siegel argues that the recent Philae comet lander would have more successful if it had been powered with a 238Pu RTG device instead of solar panels.  However, his simplified argument ignores the reality of 238Pu fuel production, the definition of “we”, and the nature of comets.

238Pu is a byproduct of the nuclear arms race between the USA and the USSR. It is created by neutron activation of 237Np, which in turn is a byproduct of 239Pu production for nuclear weapons. With the nuclear arms deals of the 1980’s the superpowers stopped building nuclear weapons by the tens of thousands, and the cheap source of 237Np disappeared.  The USA stopped 238Pu production in 1988, all subsequent material has come from Russia, which has almost depleted its stockpiles.

This brings us to the definition of “we”.  As the battleground over which the USA and the USSR fought, Europe never developed its own mass nuclear warhead production facilities; the UK and French arms supplies are only a tiny fraction of the size of the 20th century superpowers.  As a result, Europe has never had its own large scale 238Pu production facilities. 

Philae was a European mission, not a USA or Russian one, so the ESA (European Space Agency) did not have access to 238Pu needed for RTG production.  NASA (USA) and the ESA (Europe) are separate space exploration entities, a point that was very unclear from this article’s frequent discussion of NASA and Philae.

Finally, RTG’s are hot, and comets are cold. The Philae lander was a very risky mission- there was a significant chance that it would not succeed at all, and in the end the lander ended up bounding off an unexpectedly hard surface several times before ending up on its side in a crater.

Comets, by definition, evaporate at low temperatures- this one is jetting out gasses despite being way out beyond the asteroid belt. So landing a heat-producing source on it, especially on a lander that ended up tipping over, would end up in a situation where the lander could drastically alter the local environment of the comet through thermal contact.  The whole point of the mission is to sample a comet in as pristine condition as possible, so potentially cooking the comet due to a landing mishap is not really a sensible design choice.

Dr. Siegel is correct that 238Pu is crucial for missions that operate beyond the orbit of Jupiter.  But the fuel used on previous missions was subsidized by the nuclear arms race.  It, and all the wondrous outer solar system exploration it allows, was an unintended byproduct of Mutually Assured Destruction, and the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons that policy produced.  Since the arms race ended, production of this isotope for the sole purpose of planetary exploration has been deemed too expensive to pursue by all the world’s governments.  Until we collectively decide to blow ourselves up again, this barrier to outer solar system exploration will continue.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Geosonnet 19

The Permian extinction was severe,
though only callous geos call it "great."
Sulfur and carbon choked the atmosphere
Siberian eruption exhalate.
A lava-coal explosion, it’s surmised
Spread fly ash all around the sickly Earth,
But if this ash is made by wildfire,
The evidence for coal fly ash is dearth.
A sulfate drought could set the world aflame,
The brimstone vapors choking off the rain.
The lava’s murder weapon’s not the same,
But "Lip" can improvise to kill again.
   If carbon, sulfur cycles stop their flow
   The ecosystem has nowhere to go.

Geology 42 879

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

This is how I like to eat slugs

Slugs are full of protein, but it is dangerous to eat them raw.  So I process them by using a pack of domesticated dinosaurs to turn the slimy molluscs into slimy egg yolk.  This has the added bonus of keeping them off of the vegetables. Everybody wins.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Geosonnet 18

The Vikings lived in Greenland 'till in cooled.
Ten thousand years before, as glac'ers thawed,
Melt water in the North Atlantic pooled,
The Younger Dryas cold snap shocked and awed.
In Norway, glaciers reappeared on high,
Above the fjords where stoic Norse rule lapsed.
Then Carolina icebergs floated by,
As Greenland outlet glaciers collapsed.
Why would cold make this icecap melt, not grow?
Emotionless wind froze the Baffin Bay.
Warm currents thawed the ice tongues from below;
Without a shelf, the glac'er sped away.
  Today such currents threaten the Antarctic
  An outburst would be deluge, not cathartic.

Geology 42 759

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Geosonnet 17

The ozone and peroxide in the air,
enriched in isotope O seventeen,
Pass on the spike reaction products bear;
This stratospheric label’s not marine.
If limestone sulphate bears this airy mark
deceitful proxy! geosaboteur!
Thus reconstructed oceans fade to dark,
Eliminating tales that never were.
A lithologic memory withdrawn,
Built on assumptions hereby disallowed
The dreams of times hypothesized are gone
Mere fanciful illusions, disavowed.
  A lab revealed the havoc smog did wreak
  Perhaps they need a microbeam technique.

Geology 42 815

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Geosonnet 16

The strontium which weathers from the land
Is held by teeth and shells beneath the waves
Their creatures live, then die, interred in sand
with isotopes in stratigraphic graves.
The greatest dying Earth has ever seen
Initiated the Triassic time
Before the ants evolved, rock weathering
Was temperature dependent, leaching lime.
Warm mud in post-apocalyptic waste
Bereft of vegetation, washed away.
And Gaia, both hungover and disgraced,
Left complex biomes for another day.
  She sobered up in five or six epochs
  But those hard times forever changed the rocks.

Geology 42 779

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Geosonnet 15

The ants which scuttle by between our toes
Dissolve the min’rals of the Earth we tread
The calcic feldspar, slipped under their nose
Ten trillion insects weather, pit, and shred.
The Himalayan mountains cool the Earth
Though mangroves and the grasses do their part,
But ants may do what was the work of turf
By min’ralizing CO2, they start
Evaporating seas in Neogene
Drying the Earth to suit their sandy hives
Anthropocene becomes the Formicene
The terraformic swarm constructs, connives.
  No human teamwork makes emissions slow
  Yet toiling ants sequester far below.

Geology 42 771

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Gender representation in Geology

A week and a half ago, I pointed out the gender imbalance apparent in the September issue of Geology.  My particular gripe was that it would be hard to achieve gender balance in my ongoing geopoetry series if issues (like the September one) had three or fewer papers by women authors.  With encouragements from commenters and the geotwitter rock stars, I had a slightly deeper look into what is going on with gender in geology, by recording the given name-assumed gender and author order for a year’s worth of Geology articles.  

In total, this included 239 papers with a total of 1164 authors.  The number of authors per paper ranged from 1 to 19. Of these authors, 64% were male, 19% were female, and 16% were initials. Initial authors excluded from the analysis; Most (57%) of them were on papers with six or more authors, so I assume that initialization was generally a space-saving exercise.

Looking only at uninitiated papers, the M/F ratio is 76.9% to 23.1%.  This is not too different to the professional gender balance quoted here (76% M) and is slightly better than the decade-old numbers on assistant professor hires (23% F), but is substantially worse than the (similar era) graduating PhD student ratio (38% F). So the implication is that the Geology gender ratio mostly reflects post-grad school anti-female filtering.

As for author order, the observed vs expected ratios (given the gender ratio) are shown in the figure below.  Due to the small size of the data set and the large number of individual categories, none of these deviations are statistically significant; the probability of sole author papers being seven M to zero F is about 14%- not high, but not enough to convict either.  The M/F of first authors, second authors, etc. was generally within a few percentage points of the mean ratio, and always within counting stats.

And a quick Monte Carlo* suggests that the probability of getting three or fewer female first authors in any particular issue is about 28% (see below), based on 10,000 random author list generations for 20-paper issues.

This is only a simulation, of course. It will take the Geological Society of America just shy of 800 years to put out their 10,000th issue.  Let’s hope that gender equity in academia has been achieved by then.

* Yes, I know there is an analytical solution, but simulations are more fun and quicker.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A brief word on Earthquakes and fracking.

Since the Keranen et al. paper a few months ago, there has been much discussion on the relationship between earthquakes and wastewater disposal wells from unconventional hydrocarbon extraction (a.k.a. fracking).

Most of this discussion related to earthquake swarms on Oklahoma, where seismicity has dramatically increased in recent years.   However, it is worth pointing out that Oklahoma is by no means the biggest fracking state.  That is Texas, with almost ten times the oil production of Oklahoma.  The USGS produces earthquake maps of every state, ad Texas (and Oklahoma) can be seen here

What is immediately apparent is that despite the much larger size and production, Texas has slightly fewer quakes.  The next biggest fracking state, after Texas, is North Dakota, which has recently surpassed Alaska and California to be the USA’s second biggest oil producer (three times more than Oklahoma).  Its earthquake map looks like this:

Even the Keranen et al. paper stresses that many injection wells are aseismic, and that a mere four wells account for the majority of earthquakes. This sort of attention to detail is important to consider when evaluating this technology.  Understanding facts and details is the first step in uncovering processes which we can then use to improve our use and stewardship of natural resources.

And finally, just for comparison, here is the seismic map for Alaska, which I’m putting up here because of the beautiful Benioff zone which has nothing to do with petroleum at all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Geosonnet 14

New biostratigraphic data may
Help Cryogenian stratigraphy
The timing’s known from rhenium decay
The vase shaped fossils match from every sea.
Were they amoebas wearing armor plate?
Or protist tanks, cilia on the brink?
Eukaryotic arms race tempted fate
Destabilizing carbon source and sink.
Darwinian selection did not give
Thoughtful reflection, cool restraint, or mirth.
Organics buried, still they strove to live,
Turned pale blue dot into a snowball Earth.
  Three quarters of a billion years ago
  The first nuclear winter: “Let it go…”

Geology 42 659

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

A conservative response to climate change

Climate change is in the news again, with the liberals renewing their call for collectivist action, and the anti-science branch of conservative practicing various forms of do-nothingness.  As a goal-oriented, pro science conservative, I am not really comfortable with either of these approaches. And the lack of a broad tent conservative response irks me, so I suggest we go with the following, simple yet powerful principle as a sensible, potentially unifying response to climate change:

No climate bailouts.

This is a good conservative approach for the following reasons:

1. It is uniting.  Under this approach, it doesn't matter if you believe in climate change or not.  Those who do not can oppose climate bailouts with the same principles which impel them to oppose bailouts for unicorn farmers.  So we can all stop arguing about climate science and respect each other’s differences.

2. It differentiates us from the liberals.  Al Gore and his ideological descendants basically push the following line: “Global Warming means we have to all turn into collectivists”  Needless to say, this upsets a lot of people.  By denying bailouts, we are placing the costs and risk assessment firmly in the hands of the polluters.  The market is the best way to determine the probability of climate change, and the associated cost.  Let the polluters deal with insurance and risk assessment and lawsuits associated with potential damages. While any costs will of course be passed on to consumers, if those costs are too high, then we can buy our energy from a non-polluting source.  That’s how free markets work.  The important thing is that it does not commit us to open ended government spending to bail out polluters.

3. It is flexible.  Drawing a line in the sand on bailouts does not prevent public or private action. There are many creative ways in which governments, companies, and people can tackle climate change and save money instead of spending it.  Whether it is streamlining approval processes or increasing government energy efficiency or requiring utilities to compete for the lowest energy price available, the list of potential actions goes on.  Similarly, this approach allows principled, can-do compromise on climate action, provided that the core principle remains intact.

There are several other proposals for how conservatives should react to the climate change issue.  While they are sensible, none are this simple.  Polluters have known about the possibility of climate change ever since Al Gore was thin and dark haired.  They’ve had plenty of time to study the issue and prepare based on the most likely outcomes.  If they are not competent to do that, then they don’t deserve to be propped up with our hard-earned money.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Total eclipse of the train

Tokyo is a busy city.  Thirty-six million people go call the region home, and go about their industrious, detailed lives with an energy and rigor unique on this planet. It is hard to know exactly what they are thinking; Japanese culture creates an aura or privacy and personal space that the geography tries to deny.  And for an outsider accustomed to wide open spaces, the locals here can sometimes seem hard to connect with.  But tonight was different.  While 8 o’clock is still the tail end of rush-hour in the hard working town, and Wednesday is hump day here as surely as it is everywhere else, this did not change the alignment of the sun and planets. 400,000 kilometers away, the full moon crossed the ecliptic, and the Earth, for an hour, blotted out the light of the sun on its airless surface.

And in that hour, the residents of Tokyo, and Melbourne, and Fiji, and Denver and Mt. Isa and countless other countries ‘round the Pacific stopped what they were doing, looked up at the sky, and watched the white light of the moon grow red and dim. The electricity and data kept flowing, the trains kept leaving, the advertisements kept flashing, the mechanical metabolism of the metropolis rumbled on unchecked, but for a brief moment, a short while, or a lazy hour, the inhabitants put aside the clockwork of their lives, looked up, and saw a distant world pass through our collective shadow.

Geosonnet 13

The rhyolite of Huckleberry Ridge
Discharged a hundred cubic miles yield
The timing of this eruption did bridge
Reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field.
We measure timing of this ancient blast
With argon from potassium decay
This cataclysm from the recent past
might warn us should another come today.
The crystals froze, then thawed, then froze again.
The magma chamber did not slowly stew
chronology of xenocrysts explain
What to expect, should this begin anew.
  The warning won’t be twenty thousand years
  to outburst, from when magma first appears.

Geology 42 643

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