Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Science education’s next frontier

It has been interesting to see the nucleation, aggregation, and subsequent metamorphism of the science blogosphere over the past 7 years. In general, I suspect that it has been good for science education, and there has been a concerted effort by many to reach out to women, atheists, and minorities who generally have more trouble leading successful scientific careers in the white English speaking world.  This is good, although the fact that this outreach has intensified after the deprofessionalization of science makes it a less effective tool for lifting people out of poverty.

There is one group, however, that has by-and-large been excluded from the recent wave of on-line science educators, commentators, and promoters.  The are conservatives.  There are very few outreach programs aimed at making science interesting and accessible to conservatives in English speaking countries. 

Back in the good old days of the cold war, this was not a problem.  The great mass of conservative scientists and engineers who designed and built the weapons of the cold war know that science and technology were crucial to beating the Soviets, so there was no need to reach out to them.  But times have changed.  Military engineers no longer keep California a reliably Republican state, the cold war is long over, and the prominent, respectable suburban private research parks of the 20th century have mostly closed their doors.

Why does this matter?  Because conservatives are numerous and influential.  In the white English speaking world, they control the House of Representatives in the USA, and the Canadian, British, Australian, and New Zealand governments.  The flight of scientific research out of the suburbs and into universities has had the effect of alienating scientists from conservatives, and vice versa.  This is not good for either group.

Conservative who don’t have access to sound scientific advice are likely to make policy mistakes.  At the same time, Scientists who engage conservative in an adversarial manner are less likely to be funded by these governments.  So it is in everyone’s interest to stop taking cheap shots at each other and find a way of effectively communicating.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mapping while black

Happy Martin Luther King Day.  Dr. King, of course, was a pivotal leader of the civil rights movement, and was crucial in organizing African Americans to claim their rightful places in American society.   And while the civil rights struggle has continued in the decades after his untimely death at age 39, the progress of integration in geological sciences has been slower than in other areas.  So it seems that today is as good a day as any to discuss some of the potential barriers to racial integration in geology.

One little known problem is the issue of Mapping While Black.  Most people know what driving while black is, but a Google search for “Mapping while Black” reveals a bit less information.  However, in many parts of the world, including the US and Australia, rural land owners often have a tendency to be whiter, more racist and better armed than the urban population.  And this can put black field geologists into uncomfortable positions which their white colleagues never even conceive of. 

While I am not black, and did not experience any such events as an undergrad in the USA, my PhD research brought me to Brazil, where I collaborated with predominately African-Brazilian colleagues.    And while the most memorable event we had was not actually mapping, it does serve to illustrate the hairy end of what can happen if one tries to do geology with (or in the company of those with) low albedo skin.

My PhD research focused on an obscure type of diamond called carbonado.  Carbonado is found primarily in East-central Brazil and the Central African Republic, but a month after my PhD started the fall of Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zaire destabilized the CAR, making it off limits to my project.  So Brazil it was, chiefly the poor, black eastern part of Bahia state known as the “Chapada diamantina” (diamond plateau).

One of the elder statesmen of the (small) field of carbonado research suggested to me, at beers in a conference, to drop in on a man called “Oswaldo”, who owned a saloon in the town of Lençios. Oswaldo was a mid-level diamond trader; someone who bought raw stones off of garimpeiros, and then up sold the better material into exporters for cutting, while retaining the weird stuff in his collection.  I was interested in the weird stuff.

So, after three days of field work with and dealing directly with the local garimpeiros, in we went to Oswaldo’s.  Me, the very white foreign guy, a black Brazilian geologist, and our black Brazilian driver.  We sit down at a table.  A waiter comes over.  We say we would like to talk to Oswaldo about diamonds. No Oswaldo appears. Our driver starts looking nervous. “blah blah something something vamos,” says the driver. (I only had about 5 months Portuguese lessons before the field work, and they didn’t include the Bahian dialect or accent). 

My geologist colleague say to me, “we have to go now.” And gesture towards the rest of the room as he gets up.  Three of the four exits to the room are now blocked by tough looking Brazilian roughnecks.  My memory is blurry, but I think one of them has a gun.  The people at the table next to us start to move away.  And then everything was a blur, until I was in the cab of our truck and we were gunning the engine to get the fuck outta there. As we do, there is a yelp.  A dog (Oswaldo’s  we were never properly introduced, so I can’t say) had crawled under the ute to get out of the harsh November sun, and we had clipped its leg tearing up the street.  I feel bad about the dog, but we lived with that, and didn’t stop.  In fact, we didn’t stop until we were over the mountains, and then we hid the truck at a roadhouse where my colleague knew the patrons, and watched for pursuit for 20 minutes, before turning north and heading for Morro do Chapeu, 200 km away.

Years later, I related this story to the guy who recommended Oswaldo to me. He, a gruff, no-nonsense senior professor, was shocked, and appalled. He and his (white) Brazilian colleagues had been treated very generously by Oswaldo.  And it never even occurred to him that anything different would happen to us.

And therein lies the problem.  There isn’t much on the internet about this phenomena.  Many white geologists simply have no idea that you can get a gun pulled on you in the pursuit of knowledge simply by having the wrong skin tint.  If the field of geology wants to integrate at the speed of the rest of our society, we need to think of tactful and effective ways of identifying, discussing, and solving the extra hurdles raised by mapping while black.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Isotope guru starts blogging.

Hope Jahren, the stable isotope guru who studies everything from Paleogene ecosystems to french fries, now has a blog. This is, as far as I know, the first time a scientist who I know from the literature (and have cited) has started blogging.  I'm still busy building mass spectrometers and juggling kids, so don't expect too much here.