Friday, October 25, 2013

Geological Photography Field Trip

Today I'm at the Geological Society of America annual meeting, and attended the short course/field trip on Geophotography.  It was led by +Ellen Bishop , +Marli Miller , and +Stephen Weaver , all of whom are talented photographers specializing in geological work.  Look them up, their work is really fantastic.

I first got interested in photographing geologic subjects when I began teaching a decade ago and found it was really difficult to find good quality photographs of the various features I was trying to teach my students.  Most upper-level geoscience textbooks only provide black & white images, and of course they don't provide multiple images of all the various features one might want to view.  Finding good photos of all the geology things is really, really challenging, and students need to see lots of examples.  Lots!  Fortunately there are websites like the Earth Science World Image Bank, the Earth Science Picture of the Day, and the EGU Imageo site, but there are still lots of holes to fill for good quality photos of geologic subjects.  So my passion for geoscience education has led me to try to contribute.

I've put out a number of Geology Field Photos on my Google+ page (search Carrigan #geopic) in the past couple of years.  It's been rewarding to share these with my followers.  I've also blogged about that effort in the past, so no need to say more here.  I will continue to primarily share my geophotos in that manner.  Don't get me wrong - I don't have some overinflated ego about the quality of my photographs.  I enjoy doing it, but I've got a lot to learn and a lot of room for improvement.  

Geological Photography essentially blends aspects of the art of photography with the science of geology - how do we make visually appealing, high-quality photographs of geological features.  Although I've been interested in this for a few years now, it's only been in the past year that I've wanted to push my photography skills beyond shooting with automatic settings and little to no editing.  The fact is that with a good camera and a decent eye, you can take a lot of decent shots that will be beneficial for student learning.  That will only get you so far, so this past year I've been learning how to take photographs manually, to control all the various settings - aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, etc.  OK, I take that back - I still let my camera control the focus.  My few attempts at manual focus have been disastrous.

I'll tell you one truth: when you go from fully automatic to fully manual, the quality of your photos will decline at first!  My wife can attest to this, as the pictures of our kids from this past year were sometimes, well, not so good.  It takes time and practice to learn new skills, and I'm definitely still on that journey.  I've taken a lot of shots over the past year where the exposure was just all wrong.  Sure, you can adjust some of those things in software afterward, but the best thing is to get it right when you first take the shot.  Today I was in full manual mode; no more training wheels.  We left in the morning and headed out to Roxborough State Park, the geology of which is a lot like other areas of the CO Front Range - upended Pennsylvanian Red Sandstone Fountain Fm., followed by various other units until you get to the Dakota hogback.  Lots of good scenery to photograph, and I purposefully did a lot of experimenting with various settings.  Definitely some real buggers, like the times when I adjusted the aperture but not the shutter speed - oops.  I still need to look through the bunch and pick out the good ones and do some editing, but it feels obligatory to include some photos in a blog post about geophotography, so here are a couple of shots from today that aren't too bad:  

Tomorrow we head to the convention center with laptops and our RAW files and are learning about post-processing of digital photos.  Here's an area where I know next to nothing, so I'm really excited about this.  Hopefully I'll have more & better photos to share in the future.

Anyone out there care to share their experience photographing geologic subjects?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Radioactive Decay of Candium

Last week, I posted on G+ a brief preview about an in-class learning activity that I do in my geochemistry course, which I refer to as the "Radioactive Decay of Candium".  The idea is to use a student-centered activity in class that is enjoyable & interesting in order to learn about how radioactive decay works.  I didn't originate the idea, rather I've taken the main idea from an activity on the SERC geoscience education website & modified it a bit.

The activity begins with a very short discussion about how radioactive decay works, but really I want to get them going quickly, so we talk about the fact that each m&m has a 50/50 chance of landing m-side up or m-side down, a lot like flipping a coin.  So I give them each a couple hundred pieces, a bag, and a couple of pieces of clean, white paper, and a handout.  Their job is to count the pieces, place them in the bag, shake them up, pour them out, remove those showing m-side up, and count the ones that remain.

Fig 1. Science in progress!

Those that remain are placed back in the bag & the process is repeated.  Each time, they record their results on the board.  After they reach zero m&ms, I give them a second handful of pieces, they count those & then add them to their first pile and do it all over again with a larger sample.  At this point, they might have ~300 pieces.  This time, however, those that "decay" each turn might get eaten.  After all of the groups (I usually have them do this in pairs) have finished, everyone records all of the data.  We then walk through the graphs they have to create with the numbers, now working on their own.  So here's a graph of all the trial runs, including the "class total", which is just a sum of all pieces on each step.
Fig. 2.  Decay curves of Candium for all experimental runs.  

This obviously shows the number of pieces that remain on each turn after they shake them out & separate out the "decayed atoms".  Then I have them calculate the percent of the total number of "atoms" that have remained on each turn, which looks like the figure below.
Fig. 3.  Percentage of total atoms that remain on each turn for all experimental runs.
I like the comparison of the two graphs, in that it shows that no matter how many atoms you start with, the decay in each case is the same percentage.  It's a fun activity that helps students really connect to the idea of radioactive decay, and a tasty one too!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Google+ at ScienceOnline

In my last post, I introduced the new Geoscience Community on Google+.  Here, I'd like to point folks to a recent talk by Fraser Cain about Google+ at the ScienceOnline Conference.  +Fraser Cain is an astronomy enthusiast, blogger, publisher of Universe Today, and almost any scientist who's been involved with Google+ over the past year & a half is probably familiar with his name.  If anyone has taken science on G+ into awesome mode, it's him.  He's done some really cool things with G+ and astronomy, such as hosting hangouts as Virtual Star Parties, getting people from all over to stream the views through their telescopes over the web.  He & others who've joined him have given more people the opportunity to see something amazing in the night sky live through a telescope than anyone else in the world.  Tens of thousands have viewed the Hangouts he's hosted.  He has been so successful that Google decided a while back to make a short documentary/advertisement about what the way they use the technology.  And this past year was full of fantastic events, from the transit of Venus to Curiosity landing on Mars and others.  

The video for his talk includes others as well; he begins to speak about 12 minutes in, and lasts until ~33 minutes.  If you are interested in science & social media, it is well worth taking a look at, especially if you've not used G+ before.  What he's accomplished in the past year & a half with this new technology is pretty special.  

I would love to see what could come of geosocial activity through G+.  It is still very much in the beginning stages.  There are a few geos who are using G+ regularly, but there's so much room for so many more, especially those who've not yet connected with fellow professionals.  The Geoscience Community has drawn in some new folks this past week, which is excellent, and they've made some great contributions.  One feature that geoscientists aren't using much yet are the hangouts.  We've used them some in the past, driven largely by +Ron Schott 's geology office hours, but they've not yet really caught on.  I'd love to see geos use them as effectively for Earth Science as Fraser has for Space.  Geoscience is right at the heart of many of the major problems facing the world today; capturing people's imagination shouldn't be an issue when you've got volcanoes & earthquakes & velociraptors on your team.  That could be really fun.  

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Geoscience Community on Google+

Back in early December, Google+ unveiled a new way of interacting online called "Communities".  The primary idea is to connect with others who share a common interest.  They are similar to a lot of various internet groups, but being designed with the G+ platform they allow for a lot of useful & interesting ways to share content.

Shortly after they were introduced, I started up a Geoscience Community.  I quickly added +Michael Klaas,  geoblogger at The Cascadia Blog (formerly Uncovered Earth), as a fellow moderator based on our history of curating a shared geoscience circle.  The community is public, meaning anyone with a Google+ account can join and the posts can also be found in Google search.  It is my hope that this community will draw in more geoscientists to join the conversation about all things geoscience.

The community has grown steadily, with new geoscientists contributing daily.  The community has attracted a wide following with currently over 4000 members, but the value of the community is in the quality of the content shared.  Because of the very large numbers, I have been working to help the community have quality posts.  We've put together a list of sub-topics to help keep the posts organized into categories, such as Geoblogs, Volcanology, Structure-Tectonics, Oceanography, and Planetary Geology, for example.  I've also put together a post in the community on "Posting Guidelines" that should assist folks in sharing relevant content.  The posts therefore are curated & filtered - unrelated posts are removed as soon as we see them.  The group is intended for all content that is geoscience related, and we define geoscience broadly to include not just geology, but also relevant content from astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, & geography.

So if you're a geoscientist or a geoscience enthusiast, you're welcome to join the group!  I encourage people to click on the topics on the left side and see the great content that's been shared in the past 2 months.  I'd also love for some professional geoscience organizations to join the community, share with it, participate in the management of it, and promote it to their members.

Why Google+?
My desire is to see more geoscientists connect through social media.  Many use facebook and twitter accounts.  Facebook works well for family & friends, but it doesn't work well for professional contacts or connecting with others around a shared common interest.  Google+ makes managing all kinds of personal connections simple through circles, removing the awkwardness of "friend requests" from people you may not know on a personal level.  Like Twitter, you can follow someone without them following you back (or vice-versa), but you can also easily share with a limited audience by using circles.  Twitter works well for quick, short links & comments, and many geoscientists have combined using twitter with geoblogs in order to establish online connections.  Clearly, the majority of geoscientists who participate in social media are using twitter, and many enjoy it; that's great for those for whom it works.  Personally, I've found twitter to be very useful for some things, but for the most part I'm frustrated by the limiting nature of it.  Obviously tweets are short, and there have been a number of times where I've wished for more characters than 140.  But additionally there are other limiting factors.  Conversations, for example, are challenging to maintain since the comments aren't collected in a single place.  To compensate, some geotweeps use Storify as a way to document & save these conversations, which works well if you are willing to use another website service necessary to record & keep these conversations.  Furthermore, tagging other geotweeps in the tweet further reduces the number of allowed characters for content.  Photo sharing is also possible, but many resort to storing their photos on another site, such as Flickr, adding yet another website service for many uses.  Links are also easily shared, but the content that one might expect to find at the link is often cryptic, because there is no preview except what the user adds in text.  Google+ is able to do all of these things very well, making it a one-stop social media site.  Those who are happy with twitter are not likely to switch over to a new network.  I'm more interesting in bringing more geoscientists into the geosocial world, perhaps those who have used facebook to connect with friends, family, & maybe students, but haven't yet established a way to connect with fellow professionals and aren't interested in using twitter.  In other words, I hope to drawn in a larger number of geoscientists into participating with one another online, not just appeal to those that are already using other social media tools.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mineral Fail in Stargate Universe

I've blogged previously about how a sign in Yellowstone Natl. Park used the term mineral incorrectly.  Minerals, for those who don't know, are simply this: crystalline phases that are naturally occurring.  That's it.  Pretty simple, really.  A sign depicting geoscience in a national park ought to be able to use the term correctly.

But a TV show about science fiction ought to be able to get this right as well, and be able to discuss minerals & other basic chemical compounds correctly.  

Enter Stargate Universe, a spin off of the Stargate series.  In the final part of the series opening, the crew needs to obtain a material from a planet to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere of their ship.  The offending dialog:

"Looks like gypsum."
"That would be good."
"We're looking for calcium carbonate..."
"Gypsum is calcium sulfate, which is 36% calcium carbonate."

Calcium sulfate is 36% calcium carbonate??  Yeah.... no... not to mention the confusions in the episode about lime, calcite, calcium carbonate, and how any of that might be used to remove CO2 from the atmosphere of the planet.  They had a reasonable idea, since lime (CaO) plus CO2 can react to form calcite (CaCO3), but it just wasn't executed quite correctly.  Bu, there's at least some mention of minerals and their usefulness, even with the errors; in most shows they don't even seem to exist!

More dialog: 

"For the sake of portability & efficiency, I'm hoping to find high concentration granular limestone.  We are looking for the dry lake bed or salt-water body all the sand came from."
"It's a desert...."
"Lime is formed mostly from the remains of marine organisms." 
"Are you saying there's life here?"
"Not likely."
"The water may be gone now, but this desert was formed by H2O evaporating on a playa floor causing gypsum to be deposited in a fine crystalline form called selenite."  

Some of the sand is placed in a beaker with a liquid & swirled around, and the solution turns red.

"That supposed to happen?"
"If this sand was high enough in calcite concentration, the solution would absorb the acid."
"The liquid would turn clear."

Hey, an acid-base reaction that's reasonable!  Calcite definitely neutralizes acid, while gypsum does not.  Unfortunately, the character who seems to know the most about the minerals (a geologist perhaps?), dies at the end of this episode.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Get it right on gas

This link is a couple of days old now - but that's OK, because this came out the same day that Curiosity landed on Mars.  So it was a bit overshadowed, you might say.

Friedman wrote an op-ed in the NY Times about the importance of the natural gas boom, and the need to get it right.  In it he argues points that I've put forward before, that is that a natural gas boom, as is currently happening in the U.S., is good for the economy and the environment - but only if done right.

Good for the economy because this is "home grown" energy, mined from U.S. lands, and it will create jobs in the gas industry as well as other industries that could make the switch from coal or oil, such as the automotive industry.  Switching away from oil is also beneficial for our national security, since many of the nations that benefit from huge oil prices are also ones that don't care for the U.S. very much.

Good for the environment is a bit of a harder sell, because natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and therefore CO2 is released as a product of combustion.  CO2 being the leading cause of climate change, the continued release of CO2 is still problematic.  However, natural gas releases much less CO2 than coal, and so therefore represents a reduction in the amount of CO2 we emit.  Combining that reduction with other reductions, such as increased energy efficiency and more reliance on non-fossil fuel energy sources, really gets us headed in the right direction of emitting less CO2.  One problem is that methane itself, the principal constituent of natural gas, is a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2.  Leaky gas pipes, therefore, could potentially offset the gain by reduce CO2.  Therefore we need to continue to build a culture of good stewardship of our natural resources, and reduce waste by fixing things like leaky pipes.  It isn't just regulations and laws and infrastructure that we need to change; we need to continue to change hearts & minds as well toward stewardship of our planet.  Again, however, the point that Friedman makes is that the gas boom is a good thing if we do it right.  If we don't, then problems like leaky gas pipes could possibly offset the gains.
Another perspective on the environment is the amount of other toxic materials often released with the burning of coal.  Toxic metals such as mercury are released when coal is burned, but they are not found in natural gas.  Switching from coal to natural gas therefore reduces the amount of these pollutants.  It also reduces the mining of coal, which is the cause of mountain top removal in my beloved Appalachia.
Another con argument for the natural gas boom is the process of fracking - again, the point being made by Friedman that this gas boom is only beneficial if we do it right.  We need proper procedures, good engineering practices, sound regulations, and proper enforcement.  These are all problems of political will and of engineering, and they are not at all problems that we should not be able to overcome.  After all, we just dropped a mini-cooper sized mobile chemistry laboratory on Mars - this problem should be relatively easy in comparison!
Lastly, I want to again stress that natural gas should be seen as a transition fuel from the dirtier fossil fuels toward cleaner sources of energy, eventually eliminating our use of them in favor of fully renewable sources.  But that process is going to take a long time.  In the mean time, we can make some positive gains.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity Stuck the Landing!

After posting the Curiosity Round-Up last night, it was amazing to watch the events of the landing unfold.  We landed a mini-cooper sized robot on Mars by lowering it down by a rocket-propelled Sky Crane, and then it started sending back images!  It was an amazing feat.

Someone posted this today on about a billion websites:
'Merica FTW

I enjoyed watching the Virtual Landing Party, a Hangout on Air, hosted by Fraser Cain of Universe Today, which featured a number of astronomers discussing the events.

This stunning image is IMO the best so far returned from Curiosity, as it shows 2 of the rover's wheels, its shadow, and Mt. Sharp, Curiosity's target area, in the background.

One of my favorites, however, is this one sent back by the Mars Reconassaince Orbiter, which has been in orbit around Mars for the past 6 years, taking images of the Martian surface.  Here it captured Curiosity on the way down with the parachute deployed, as well as Curiosity's heat shield, still in descent, after it was shed from the space craft.

And finally, can't miss today's xkcd:

Way to stick the landing, NASA!  There ought to be a dozen gold medals for this one.