Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
How sad that the WSJ and CNBC have so little conception of what science really is, especially since scientific advances drive so much of the economy. If that's what Jenkins thinks science is, one would assume he is equally skeptical of flossing, antibiotics and even boarding an airplane.
(Note to WSJ: One reason science works is that a lot of scientists devote their whole lives to overturning whatever is the current hypothesis -- if it can be overturned. That's how you become famous and remembered by history, like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein.)
In fact, science doesn't work by consensus of opinion. Science is in many respects the exact opposite of decision by consensus. General opinion at one point might have been that the sun goes around the Earth, or that time was an absolute quantity, but scientific theory supported by observations overturned that flawed worldview.
Kudos to Salon and Dr. Romm...
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Today's photo was taken moments after take-off from Calgary on our way home from a great visit to Banff, Jasper, and the Burgess Shale in 2005. It is in part of the Overthrust Belt of the Canadian Rockies although I am not sure of the precise location. I found this photo striking primarily for the powerful contrast between the aerial view and what it must look like from the ground. The rocks are probably Paleozoic carbonates which have obviously been deformed to nearly vertical dips. My jaw dropped as the ridge became visible (and was I ever thankful for the nice weather...it had been socked in and raining the day we flew in).
Friday, February 22, 2008
I teach at a community college, and I encounter students from a great diversity of backgrounds, and almost without fail, they wait until the last semester to take a science course because they are afraid that the class will be "hard" and "boring". Andy they almost always say "I'm just not a science person". Their image of scientists is worse; they are white old men in lab coats (and no, I never wear a lab coat; and I'm only sort of old and white). It has literally become my mission to try and shake them out of these stereotypes; the first week of class is a celebration of how lucky we are to be living in these times when we have access to more knowledge than any other humans who have ever lived. We are seeing pictures of planetary surfaces that no one has ever seen before. We are discovering new species of dinosaurs and other weird strange creatures every day, and the roster of newly discovered living species continually surprises us.
It seems like every child goes nuts at some point over dinosaurs at the very least, but kids just hunger for information about volcanoes and crystals and earthquakes. But somewhere, I think just past 5th or 6th grade, that sense of wonder disappears. It takes a lot of work to bring it back. I have to literally drag some of them into the wilds, and in a few precious instances, that spark returns and after a few minutes they are crawling and searching for an elusive trilobite. They have forgotten for a few moments that they are grown-ups and all past getting excited about seeing a fossil on the ground, a fossil that no human has ever before seen until that moment. And the moment of discovery is something that stays with them for a long time.
So why do the kids lose interest? Is it hormones? Is it the peer pressure? I don't know. But I do know that one of the greatest benefits of teaching is that I am somehow involved in getting that sense of wonder back; it's not what I do, it is the earth itself that fascinates.
Update: not only do people willfully ignore the wonders of geology, they actively search out fringe ideas and conspiracy "theories", and are depressingly open to "believing" just about anything. Check out Expanding Earth and the Conspiracy of Science at Dynamic Earth (http://dynamic-earth.blogspot.com/) for a great example and discussion.
Update #2: Oh, and also I go hmmm when I wonder what exactly the story was with the formation of the Grand Canyon: check out http://www.gsajournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-abstract&doi=10.1130%2FGSAT01803A.1&ct=1
Update #3: The Accretionary Wedge is now posted! Check it out at http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/2008/02/geohmms-accretionary-wedge-6.html
Thursday, February 21, 2008
California State University, Stanislaus will be hosting Cal Paleo, a state-wide Paleontology conference this semester. The conference will be on Saturday April 19 in Naraghi Hall of Science from 9-5.
Since paleontology is by nature interdisciplinary, expect talks and posters on topics ranging from paleoecology, evolution, geology, paleclimates, dinosaurs, anatomy, and on fossils ranging from China to California (such as the Pleistocene mammals and salvage efforts at Fairmead Landfill near Fresno, etc).
There will be a full day of talks, posters, an invited plenary speaker (world-famous dinosaur paleontologist and public educator, Dr. Scott Sampson), and a published abstract volume.
This has traditionally been a small, informal, friendly conference, and it is a great forum for graduate and undergraduates to present their research in, as well as for professionals.For more information, see the Cal Paleo website:
I offer best wishes for a quick recovery and rebuilding for those in the affected region. It is one of my favorite parts of the world as far as geology is concerned. The picture below is from our 2006 Pacific Northwest field trip, showing the Ruby Range just south of Wells, and not far from the epicenter of the quake. It was considered for inclusion into Great Basin National Park in the 1980's.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
There is no place in the world quite like DV...the oldest rocks in California, evidence of the Proterozoic snowball earth, 36,000 feet of Proterozoic and Paleozoic sedimentary rocks, detachment faults, strike-slip faults, turtleback faults, thrust faults, a two mile deep fault graben, the hottest and driest place in North America, the lowest place in North America, four species of fish (?!), and that is only scratching the surface.
Blogging will be slow for a few days...they haven't installed wi-fi in the campgrounds just yet...
Monday, February 11, 2008
I am not sure, but I think I see some of the giant ripple marks just below the center of the picture in the widest part of the channel. Normally just inches high in a river, some of the ripples on the Scablands are 30 feet (9 meters) high. Their size is related in part to the volume and velocity of the flowing water. I will try to confirm on Google-Earth when I get a chance.
I can hardly begin to imagine what it would have been like to witness one of these floods...I live on a massive floodplain, and we had an estimated 250-year flood in 1997, and as terrifying as it was, it didn't even come close to a small fraction of a percent of the volume of water on the Scablands. Imagine if you can a flood that equaled the flow of all the rivers in the world...times 10. In some places the water was hundreds of feet deep, even more in narrow canyons, and backflow alone flooded practically the entire Willamette River Valley in Oregon. Giganitic chunks of glacial ice floated along in the flood, leaving huge dropstones here and there.
Saturday, February 9, 2008
Friday, February 8, 2008
Thursday, February 7, 2008
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Consider that in politics, blogs pretty much didn't exist in the public conciousness prior to the presidential elections in 2004, but they have grown in influence to the point that many people get their news there instead of the mainstream media, because of a perceived corporate bias (take your choice, left or right). These blogs have been able to influence the direction and intensity of public discussion on a number of important political issues, and have even successfully changed the expected results of a number of elections (just ask Joe Lieberman in Connecticut). The blogs have become a sort of ultimate democracy, and sort of an ultimate anarchy at the same time. You have to be able to filter out the accurate information from the garbage.
I have been watching the fledgling geoblogosphere from the margins for the last year or so, and was disappointed that it didn't seem to include much of anyone at first beyond Andrew Alden's About Geology (apologies to everyone I missed...), and I sort of wandered away during a very busy spring and summer, and when I came back, I found that the number of interesting and active geoblogs had vastly increased.
What is the role of the geoblogosphere?
At conferences and in the journals, our science is presented in a very formal way, and there are the very appropriate guidelines and buffers and peer reviews that promote an intellectual honesty that our science disciplines must maintain at all costs. I love going to conferences when I have the chance, but I also note the some of the best parts of the attending these gatherings is the chance to meet other teachers and other geologists over coffee or beer, and getting to know them as individuals and friends. We can toss out our opinions and jokes, and trade teaching ideas, all in an informal atmosphere of give and take.
As I observe the Accretionary Wedge carnival, and the Where on (Google) Earth contests float through the geoblogosphere, I realize that I am participating in the same kind of friendly communication that I previously did during the off-moments of conferences. It is a chance to find out something else about our colleagues that doesn't emerge in a formal paper or session. Sometimes just plain fun, but I also see great potential for a rapid mobilization when major issues arise. I am remind, for instance, of attempts to shut down the USGS to save a small, small portion of the federal budget. I can recall a few times when very famous geologic outcrops were threatened by short-sighted road beautification projects. It is good to know that if such problems arise, a concerted effort by geobloggers can make a significant difference in resolving the problem.
In my own case, it really boils down to the fact that I have a whole bunch of pictures that I want to share, and I enjoy discussing geological/educational stuff in a setting that allows for informality and the occasional stupid comment (NOVAblog, I was kidding about the coal-burning power plant). I've been enjoying it so far, and hope to continue making contributions. And I would really like to see more people make the plunge and start their own geoblogs. There should be more of you participating, both students, teachers and researchers. I found it to be a very straight-forward process starting and adding to the blog, and truly a lot less hassle then maintaining my formal website. It actually is a great deal of fun. I am living proof that you don't have to be particularly smart or sophistocated to do it.
Monday, February 4, 2008
Saturday, February 2, 2008
I was reminded of this when I saw this article in National Geographic News (Ancient Lion With "Bolt Cutter" Jaws: Best Killer Ever?) about the Australian marsupial version of a lion(Thylacoleo carnifex). Apparently, the creature had one of the strongest bites of any carnivore, and those cuddly kangaroos once had a most fearsome predator in their midst. In fact, they had more than just one.
Generally, when students are presented with the biographical evidence for plate tectonics and continental drift, it involves a discussion of mammal-like reptiles, and the distribution of the glossopteris flora across the southern hemisphere. This makes sense, given the role they played in Alfred Wegener's fight to have continental drift accepted as a plausible scientific hypothesis.
On the other hand, the story of the marsupials is a fascinating tale of journeys across vast continents, incredible adventures in successful adaptation, and horrific tragedies of extinction in unlikely places and times, as well as the on-going extinction event that is seeing the probable disappearance of koalas, tasmanian devils, and others. After a discussion of which continent has been isolated the longest, most students guess Australia, on the basis that the continent hosts the most unique mammal ecosystem, the marsupials. I am then able to point out that the ecosystem was once much richer. For nearly every animal filling an environmental niche in the more familiar climes of Europe and North America, there was an equivalent creature in Australia. For the antelope and deer, there are kangaroos and wallabies. For mice and rats, there are opossums and marsupial mice. For cats there are quolls. A stretch, perhaps, but for pigs, there are wombats. For foxes, we find the Tasmanian Devil. Less than a century ago there were Tasmanian wolves (hunted to extinction by 1930). In the paleontological record, we find a 3-ton marsupial buffalo or cow equivalent (diprotodon), and the subject of the linked article, the Marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex. There was even a carnivorous species of kangaroo (Ekaltadema ima)!
The next obvious assumption is that marsupials originated in Australia. Why not? It makes sense that the most complex ecosystem of marsupials on earth must have arisen on the continent where they are found today. But they did not originate there, and were in fact relative late-comers to Australia.
The oldest marsupials known are reported from China, from Mesozoic time. My students immediately assume these marsupials got to Australia via the Indonesian Islands, which brings up the Wallace Line, which is a clear demarcation between many kinds of animals that exist on either side. The concept dates from the 1800's, and is in fact the work of Alfred Wallace, of evolutionary theory fame. The reason is tectonic. The continents are currently moving closer, and have been much further apart, making island-hopping essentially impossible.
Instead, the fossil records chronicles the successive arrival of later marsupials in North America, South America, Antarctica, and finally Australia. The distribution of these creatures makes no sense if the continents are stationary: they couldn't and wouldn't swim such distances. Instead, the journey of the marsupials is a fascinating line of evidence that supports the one-time existence of Pangea, Laurasia and Gondwana. And the story doesn't end there...
South America once supported a thriving marsupial ecosystem, including a marvelous example of convergent evolution in the existence of a sabertooth marsupial cat. It survived until around 4 million years ago, when the isthmus of Panama linked north and south America, allowing predators, especially the big cats, to move south, and treat South America like a giant buffet. The marsupials were decimated for the most part. On the other hand, the marsupial rat (the Virginia opossum) thrived in competition with North American placental species, and expanded its range into the United States.
It is a privilege and a joy to be a teacher. I've been thinking about this month's geoblogosphere carnival (subject, "what things make us go hmmm?"; see http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/2008/01/accretionary-wedge-5-and-6.html). I may end up with wondering what it is we do to destroy a student's sense of wonder about all things scientific. More to come....