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.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Curiosity Round-Up

Tonight, we humans are attempting to land the biggest & most amazing space robot ever on Mars.  If landing goes well, this will be a tremendous achievement.

For starters, Curiosity is GIANT compared to previous Mars rovers.

It was 15 years ago that the first rover, Sojourner, landed, and 8 years ago that Spirit and Opportunity landed.  Opportunity has just finished up another Martian winter and is revving up for another great season of discovery.  Curiosity will have more tools, cooler tech, & bigger guns.  Spirit & Oppy were like geologists with hammers & hand lenses.  Curiosity is more like a geochemist, a mobile analytical laboratory.  More on the 3 generations of Mars rovers here.

The descent down to the surface is the part where problems might occur, which is why so many are talking about it and paying attention tonight.  It should land within the next half an hour!  If you haven't seen it yet, watch this NASA JPL video to see what it takes to land a robot the size of a dune buggy on another planet.

Today, CNN ran a story on Scott Maxwell, a guy who drives these rovers around.  What a cool job!

Even a couple of celebrities from Star Trek fame have gotten in on the fun.  Watch William Shatner & Wil Wheaton welcome Curiosity to the surface of Mars.

Finally, get your own Curiosity at 1:64 scale.

We're about 15 minutes to touchdown, so I'd better post this and get to watching the show!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

New EarthCache Developed: Hill City Fold, Black Hills, SD

I've mentioned a couple of times previously that I spent the month of June out in the Black Hills of South Dakota, teaching field camp for Wheaton College at their Science Station.  It was a great experience and hopefully I'll get to give it a go again in the future.  I've also written recently about EarthCaches, a program between the Geological Society of America and  While in the Black Hills, I logged a number of EarthCaches and also recorded information about a couple of places in order to place some new ones.

The first one I've set up is a roadcut on Highway 16/385 near Hill City, SD, within the Black Hills.  The roadcut exposes a fantastic example of a fold.  EarthCaches must have an educational component, and for this one I ask the geocacher to identify whether the fold is a syncline, anticline, inclined, or recumbent, so the geocacher has to learn something about the axial plane of a fold and be able to recognize it in the rocks.  So, forgive me if I don't post a picture of it!  The cache description contains enough information for geocachers to know what these terms mean, so by observing the fold in the field this ought to be easy to answer this question.

I also ask the cacher to measure the horizontal length of the fold as exposed in the roadcut.  One of the easiest ways to measure distance over land is with a GPS, which every cacher ought to have with them in the field.  In order to navigate toward a point of interest, geocachers often enter the coordinates of a location into their GPS to set a waypoint, tell the GPS to "GoTo" the point, and the GPS will then tell them how far away the point is.  This obviously makes it easy to see your distance to the point decreasing as you get closer.  I have cachers use this technology in reverse - establish a waypoint (POI) at one end of the roadcut, tell the GPS to "GoTo" that point, and then they themselves physically walk away from it to the other end of the roadcut.  When they reach the other end of the roadcut, the GPS will tell them how far they've gone.  This exercise hopefully helps cachers to learn to use GPS technology in a way they might not have thought of before.  After all, why would I tell the GPS to "GoTo" a point, but then I myself "GoAway" from it?  It isn't an intuitive use of a GPS but works really well.

The new EarthCache was just approved, so we'll see how long it takes someone to visit the site and log it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

New Animated Landscape Cover Photo for my Google+ Profile

When a lot of people hear the term "animated gif" they shudder.  Unless it has cats in it, then a lot of people squeal with delight.  On Google+, I've seen a few people use animated gifs in some really cool ways, so I decided I'd take a crack at it with the cover photo.  

The cover photo is a very wide shot, 940 by 180 pixels, so landscape panoramas work well.  While I was out west teaching field camp earlier this summer, I got to visit a number of cool geological sites, and I took a number of photos of places like the Black Hills, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the Beartooth Mountains, & others.  Of course, a regular camera doesn't take pictures with such wide dimensions, so at several locations, I took overlapping shots so I could stitch them together.  I stitched the photos together in Photoshop to create each individual panorama image.  This is fairly easy through the photomerge function.  

The first one is from Badlands National Park, in an overlook area where these colored rocks are located.  The Badlands are notoriously white and shades of gray and lacking in much color, but here a couple of Fe-rich layers stand out nicely as yellow & red layers.   

The second is from Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone National Park, a short walk from Old Faithful.  The colors here are fantastic; I didn't really capture the deep blue in the center of the pool, unfortunately.  

The next is a shot of the Grand Tetons.  Here I really liked the various shades of blue and green in the sagebrush and other vegetation in the foreground paired with the blues of the mountains and the sky in the distance.

The next is within Grand Teton National Park, along Cascade Canyon Trail, looking up and to the North.  My goal with this one was to capture the height of the peaks in the distance in contrast to the talus pile in the foreground.  Sometimes it can be tricky to keep the trees all upright in an image like this one, but a "cylindrical" stitching usually works to keep the trees upright.  I've found that different stitching options in Photoshop work for different situations, so many times I'll stitch a set of photos together in a couple of different ways and choose the one I prefer.  

The last is from the Beartooth Mountains, a view of an enormous glacier-carved valley.  A number of glacial features, such as cirques & hanging valleys, can be seen in the image.  

To overlay them and animate them, I must give credit to Scott Horwath, who has a fantastic cover photo; I modeled mine after his.  Back when Google+ had "Scrapbook photos" (5 small images instead of one large one), he wrote up a great tutorial on how to created animated scrapbook photos, including a video he posted on youtube, and a .tiff template file that you can download.  I originally put something together for the scrapbook photos, but those are now gone and it was time for an update.  The template file Scott has created has guidelines showing what the image will look like in Google+.  The panoramas that I took and stitched together were much, much larger than the size of the Google+ cover photo, so shrunk them down and imported each one into a layer.  Then it was a matter of tweaking the size and position of each one to fit in the template.  The simplest animation would be to simply flip through the pics, but that's a bit boring.  To get this thing into awesome mode requires just a bit more in my view, so I went with a simple fade between shots.  This is fairly easy to do in Photoshop.  The animation consists of each photo being displayed for 3 seconds, followed by 0.1 second steps where the photo becomes more & more transparent (10% each step) until it is completely gone.  As the photo becomes more and more transparent, the image below comes into view.  The animation ends with the original photo showing up under the last one, and then the animation loops & repeats the sequence over again.  If you haven't seen the final product, check it out on my Google+ Profile.

Beyond just showing some pretty pictures, animated photos could be used could be used to highlight one's areas of expertise, or show off places from a recent trip as mine does.  But to make this a bit more scientific, an animated photo could also be used to demonstrate a process, such as the rock cycle, or the development of a structure or feature.  To understand materials that form over millennia, geologists look at similar features that are in various stages of formation, and try to connect the dots between them to understand the underlying process.  Also, I didn't include anything this time around of considerably smaller scale.  I'm thinking the next one I create might include some thin sections images.  

What say you, geos?  What other kinds of photos would work well here?  How could this type of thing be used to do something cool?  

Friday, July 20, 2012

More on "fracking"

Building on my post from yesterday, today Forbes posted an article where a prominent natural gas industry leader has spoken out for more regulation over the industry.  This article high-lights one of the points I was making yesterday - "fracking" and "irresponsible fracking" are not the same thing.  It is the latter that we need to eliminate.  The article gives some good background on the development of modern hydraulic fracturing of shale to release natural gas, which is informative.  It follows the work of George Mitchell, who established some of the modern techniques that are leading to a boom in natural gas across the U.S.  He's quoted in the article as saying "The administration is trying to tighten up controls.  I think it's a good idea.  They should have very strict controls.  The Department of Energy should do it."  He goes on to say "Because if they don't do it right, there could be trouble.  There are good techniques to make it safe that should be followed properly."  In other words, it is not "fracking" itself that is a problem, but rather irresponsible fracking.  I completely agree.

Some of the comments suggest that this big-money corporate guy is just saying this to stomp out some competition, and that increased regulations will hurt the smaller drilling companies.  I don't see any reason why small drilling companies should be able to cause pollution problems just so they can compete with the larger firms.  We need to have laws in our lands that clearly make it a crime to cause pollution, and we need to have agencies that are equipped with the tools they need to adequately enforce the law.  That's where proper regulations come in.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

natural gas, energy, "fracking", & climate change

Two webblurbs last week caught my eye.  In the first one from Boulder Weekly entitled "Fracking out of a recession", the author makes the case that the natural gas boom has the chance of bringing a number of U.S. states out of recession.  "Fracking" is a term that's stirred up a lot of controversy over the past year, but I think much of that is overblown.  Hydraulic fracturing of rocks deep underground through pressurized wells is a process that's been used for a number of decades to release more oil & gas from rocks than is otherwise possible.  Hydraulic fracturing also occurs naturally when fluid pressure in small cracks in rocks increases high enough to overcome the stresses holding rocks together.  To be sure there are some ways that this process could cause environmental problems.  The fluids used in the process are no longer as benign as they used to be, and care must be made that they aren't dumped or spilled at the surface & cause contamination.  That is a problem that can be solved by having 1) political will to make good laws against polluting, i.e., requiring corporations to take care of their messes; and 2) having an oversight agency that has the resources necessary to enforce the law.  There is also the concern that the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing could contaminate ground water sources.  I don't want to go into this in detail, but I think this is not likely to be a major issue in most places.  It certainly could be in some areas, but overall the layers of rock that are intended to be fractured to release resources are not usually close-by to fresh-water aquifers.  But again, that's an issue that could be solved by appropriate laws and appropriate enforcement of those laws.  In short, I'm definitely not "against fracking".  I'm against irresponsible fracking.  I generally agree with the main points of the BW article, but the article I'm referring to makes too little of the need for responsibility and proper oversight in this business.  I think the tone & attitude toward the environmental problems is too dismissive.  Pollution problems need to be taken seriously, but all too often in our society the positions are polarizing: fracking is the solution to our economic problems, or fracking is the worst attack on the environment.  The truth is somewhere in between, & always more nuanced.

I know a lot of people would still oppose an increase in extraction of natural gas because of the problem of climate change.  I would argue that the increase in the use of natural gas as a fuel source for electricity is a much better option for the environment than coal.  Coal produces a lot more CO2 per unit energy released, and it also released all sorts of heavy metal toxins like mercury.  Natural gas is, in my opinion, a great transition fuel to move away from coal and toward fuels that are more environmentally friendly.  I would love it for us as a society to move more toward renewable fuels, and I think we will, but that process of societal change is going to take a long time.  Moving away from coal and toward natural gas will be better for the environment.

I'm something of a pragmatist when it comes to these issues, and I also enjoyed a recent post at the DotEarth blog about how a ski resort has entered into an agreement with a coal mine of all things in order to reduce carbon output.  This is another example of a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Call for Posts: Accretionary Wedge 48: Geoscience & Technology #AW48

This month, July 2012, I'm hosting The Accretionary Wedge, and the topic that I've chosen is "Geoscience & Technology".  There is no question that technology has played an enormous role in the furthering of geoscience, and I'd like to assemble a series of posts from the geoblogosphere that describes the relationship.  So, fellow geobloggers, how do you perceive technology impacting the work you do?

What to blog about?
I can think of a number of different directions that this topic can go.  For example, if you're a geophysicist, you might discuss how some of the equipment you use works.  If you're a geochemist, maybe you would like to explain how your fancy new ICP-MS measures those super cool isotope ratios.  Maybe you'd like to post about GIS, GPS, Google Earth, or mobile technology.  An epic post on how GPS receivers use billion dollar satellites to determine spatial location would be a welcome addition.  Someone could use this opportunity to give some press to their favorite istuffs or Android apps.  Perhaps you could highlight how a technological development in the past lead to new data that were not previously possible.  Maybe someone will go uber-meta and post about the technology of social media and it's importance to the future of geoscience (any takers?).  Whatever it is, feel free to discuss how you see technology making an impact on geoscience.  Let's put together a great collection of posts!

How this works (mainly for new folks!):  
The Accretionary Wedge is a geology blog carnival; in other words, about once a month a topic is sent out (like this post) and geobloggers write up their contribution to the topic at hand on their blogs.  Anyone in geoscience is welcome to participate.  Especially if you've never contributed before to geoscience blogging, don't be afraid to dip in a toe and test out the waters.  You're welcome to join and add your voice to this conversation.  The deadline for this event is the end of the month, July 31, 2012.  Before that deadline, write up your post & publish it on your blog - start up a blog if necessary! :-).  I recommend including references & links to The Accretionary Wedge blog and this Call for Posts.  Not sure how your post will fit in?  It's called the "Accretionary Wedge" for a reason!  All rock types are allowed in this rock garden.  Sometime in August, I'll read through all of the posts (that I know about!), write up a summary, and post it here on my blog.  In other words, I need to know about your post, so please leave a link to your post in the comments below.  You can also tag me in a post on Google+ or mention me in a tweet (@EarthlikePlanet) if you post a link to your contribution on those social networks (but the more that post links here, the easier it will be on me to corral them all).  Let's go with hashtag #AW48.  As to the deadline: if I haven't posted the summary blog post yet, then you might consider the deadline as more of a "guideline".  Questions?  

Monday, July 9, 2012

A slight cringe at a Yellowstone National Park sign

I've been back from my month long trip to South Dakota & surrounding areas for a couple of weeks now.  There's lots of great geology to talk about, so a lot more will come as I get around to it.  But for now, just a post about a sign at Yellowstone that reads:
"Deep within the Earth, heated water dissolves and then transports silica, the same mineral found in sand and glass, to the surface.  During geyser eruptions, silica is deposited around narrow 'vents' or openings.  Over time this mineral, called geyserite or sinter, forms mounds of varying sizes and shapes."
The sign that's wrong about minerals.
EEeeeeeessssshh!!  If you zoom in on that photo above, you might be able to make out the text under the central picture of Castle geyser.  As to the science on the sign, the basic idea that hydrothermal fluids dissolve & reprecipitate silica is fine, and this sign probably communicates correct information to the reader for the most part.  However, it perpetuates a misconception in the understanding of what a mineral is.  "Silica", "geyserite", and "sinter" are NOT minerals.  At least, not in the geologic sense, and since this sign is communicated geoscience information, it ought to use geologic terms correctly.  

Silica is a chemical compound, with the formula SiO2.  All minerals are chemical compounds, but chemical compounds are not necessarily minerals.  For one thing, minerals have to be solid.  So if silica is dissolved in water, it's not a solid, it's now a component of a liquid.  Using the term "mineral" in this fashion is a bit like the way the term is often used in nutrition, where various elements like calcium & iron are often referred to as "minerals".  They are sometimes referred to as "mineral nutrients" or "dietary minerals", but neither of these terms are very satisfying either.  I'm not sure why the term mineral ever got used in this fashion, since none of the "minerals" referred to in nutrition are minerals, they are simply elements.  But again, this sign is attempting to communicate geoscience, and in geoscience if something is dissolved in a liquid, it is most definitely not a mineral.  

Now suppose our silica is in a solid form, does that make it a mineral?  Not necessarily.  Several minerals are made of silica (quartz & its many polymorphs), but silica itself is not a mineral, it is a chemical compound.  The reason silica is not a mineral is because minerals are defined not only by their chemical composition but also by their atomic structure.  Quartz & all those other silica polymorphs each have a distinct atomic structure.  Silica can also form solid materials that are not minerals, such as opal.  Opal is a solid that does not have a crystalline atomic structure.  Glass is another solid material that also does not have a crystalline atomic structure.  A crystalline atomic structure means that the atoms are all lined up and bonded together in an orderly fashion that repeats itself in three dimensions thousands and millions and billions of times, depending on the size of the grain.  Non-crystalline solids are solids where the atoms are a bit more jumbled up & irregular.  So minerals are defined by their chemical composition AND their atomic structure.  Silica is a more general term that only means chemical composition, but doesn't specify the atomic structure.  

Geyserite is also not a mineral.  "Geyserite" is something of a generic term referring to the solid silica that is deposited around geysers.  So this is at least solid, but it still isn't a mineral.  Most of geyserite is the material known as opal, and as I already explained above, opal is not a mineral because it does not have a crystalline structure at the atomic level.  

Sinter is another term that really refers to the porous nature of the geyserite, so this is a term that's really about the physical attribute of the aggregation of the various grains of opal.  So really, this is a rock term.  

So what is a mineral?  That I'll save for another post.  

But why write this post?  Who cares?  I teach a course in minerals to undergraduate geology majors.  One of the most important concepts of the course is "what is a mineral?" and what is not.  Definitions, especially in science, are extremely important.  A geologist's understanding of the term "mineral" can't be gray & fuzzy; it needs to be precise & accurate.  Many geology majors grow up with an interest in natural phenomena & are likely to see signs like this one at Yellowstone, and they get these confused definitions in their heads.  In education, misconceptions (things we think we know but are actually wrong) are really, really hard to get out & get corrected.  

On the first day of my mineralogy class, I ask my students to simply list the name of every mineral they can think of.  When they took their introductory geology course, they learned about 20 or so minerals, so this exercise is intended to require them to recall that information.  But the answers given often include things that are not minerals.  Answers like "quartz, feldspar, granite, calcium" sometimes show up.  The first two are fine minerals, but #3 is a rock and #4 is an element and neither of them are minerals.  This shows that the students don't have a clear & precise grasp of what a mineral even is or is not.  In my experience, this is pretty typical for students at this stage of learning; hopefully at the end of the course they've got the concept mastered!  

But beyond the students in a mineralogy course, confusion about science abounds in our society.  A basic knowledge of the differences between minerals, elements, & chemical compounds is junior high level science.  So I cringe when these differences are misrepresented on a sign in a national park that's intended to communicate scientific information to the public.  The problem basically boils down to this: there's a precise, careful definition of the term that's used by those who know, and there's the loose, flimsy definition of the term that's used more in the general public.  A sign communicating geoscience to the public I think ought to be a bit better.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


I've long been a fan of one of the lesser known types of geocaching, the EarthCache.  Unlike their more well known counterparts, there is no container of tupperware hiding in the woods.  Instead, the cacher must visit a location for its geological significance and answer a few questions in order to log the cache as a find.  I've logged a bunch of them and set up three of them myself at some of my favorite geological spots.  I guess they bring together two things I'm passionate about:  Earth science and education. 
Last week I returned home from being gone for a month, where I was teaching geology field camp for Wheaton College at their science station in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  While out there, I was able to find several EarthCaches.  So far I've only logged a few of them, and I've got about a dozen or so more to go.  It can take a bit of effort to finish them all up, which is why a couple of other geocachers I know have said they hardly ever log them.  But I find them much more rewarding than the regular geocache. 
I found two locations while out there that will make for excellent EarthCaches.  I don't want to give too much of them away before I submit them, but one is an unconformity in the Black Hills and the other is a fault in the Bighorns.  More to come maybe after I get them submitted. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Success with Authorship in Google Search Results

Over on Google+, I have linked to articles on Google Authorship a couple of times, but the time has come for a full blog post.  This new feature, announced last year, is I think going to be one of the biggest changes to the internet, in that it will change the way people expect to search for content.

So what is it?  When you run a Google search, you expect to see a series of links to content that is relevant to your search.  Google's Authorship initiative is their attempt to connect content on the internet to the creators of that content.  What it looks like is that underneath a link in search results, the picture & name of the content creator will show up.  The identity shown for the author is from the author's profile on Google+.  In other words, a Google search returns not only the links to content you are looking for, but it connects to those links a direct way to the person who wrote the content.

I think it is incredibly valuable to content creators to get in on this early, and start connecting your Google+ profile to the content that you create on the internet.  Blogs are an obvious starting point.  On the user/content creator end, you have to link to the sites you write in your G+ profile by inserting links into your "Contributor To" section.  On the other side of the coin, websites that host your content must do the necessary work to make sure your content is connected back to your G+ profile.  When you have control of both, the connection is fairly easy to make.  There are a number of articles on this topic out there with specifics on how to set this up, and this one is the best I've seen.

I've connected the content I write for this blog to my profile as well as the content I write for our department blog.  It took a little while to start seeing changes in search results, but as of a couple of days ago I'm now seeing my author profile under the links to these two sites when they show up in search results.  Here's an example of how the links to a couple of fairly recent posts I made on this blog now show up in search results:

I really hope this doesn't come across as egotistical!  Rather, imagine what this can do for science - if search results for science content were connected to the creators of that content.  What if author profiles would come connected with search results in Google Scholar.  Search results could not only turn up science links, but connections to the people who created that content.  The problem currently is that many sites don't have the proper set up to connect content to a G+ profile.  I would love to see abstracts from professional meetings, such as the Geological Society of America, to be able to be linked in this fashion, as well as full journal articles.  This could be tremendous for science & science education.  Why?  Because the connection becomes more personal, more human.

If you're interested & want to see what more results for my stuff looks like, type in "Appalachian Field Trip" into a Google Search.  Since Google search is user specific, you may need to force Google search to find my stuff on this topic by adding "Carrigan" to the search terms.

Well, what do you think?  Could this be good for science?  Going to set yours up now?  :-)  I'd love to hear about others' success stories!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mt. LeConte Hike & Website

Last summer, June 2011, I climbed Mt. LeConte with my two brothers-in-law.  We were on our annual big family vacation, that year in Gatlinburg, TN.  It was something I had wanted to do for a while.  I love mountains (always have as long as I can remember) but I've never climbed very many of them.  So at some point, I decided this trip was the one to register this peak.

Mt. LeConte (~6600') is one of the highest peaks in Great Smoky Mtn. Natl. Park, and it is the tallest in eastern TN from immediate base to top.

We decided to go big - there are several trails one can take to get to the top, and we picked one of the longer routes.  One of the longer trails takes you past Rainbow Falls, which is the highest single drop waterfall in the park, and that sounded like a good spot to see.  The Rainbow Falls trail starts out at a small parking area and is about 7.5 miles long at ~10% grade, so it's no small walk in the park.

Hike up Mt. LeConte via Rainbow Falls Trail

We hit the trail at ~8:30 AM.  Rainbow Falls was a bit of a disappointment because there was very little water flowing over it, and it doesn't seem that you can get very close to it.  I'm sure it would be a whole lot nicer if there had been more water.  Near the top of Mt. LeConte there is a lodge, basically a set of very rustic cabins that you can stay in for an arm & a leg for a night (no electricity & no running water).  At ~$120/night, I guess you pay for the experience (and not the service!).  Maybe someday when I've got more money.  Once at the lodge, we ate our lunch & checked out the main general building, which has some old frontier days stuff around that's neat to look at.  But the lodge is not at the peak, so after a bit of rest & food, we headed on up the trail to get to the top.  Just before getting to the peak, there is a spectacular overlook facing to the South.  The peak itself is kind of unusual - there are no great views at this point, it is just a spot off the trail to the right where there is a huge pile of rocks.  I guess you're supposed to bring a small rock with you up the mountain and make it a bit taller.

But other than relaying that story, I also am writing this blog post because I've recently discovered, a website that is designed for hiking & other outdoor adventure.  EveryTrail lets you set up an account, fill out a profile, and then start loading up your trips.  Trips basically include a GPS path and a set of geotagged photos, as you can see in the map/slideshow above.  If you don't have a GPS track to upload, you can draw it on a map or just use photos, but obviously the GPS track is the way to go.  While on the hike up LeConte, I had my at the time brand new Droid2Global with me, so I used it to record the track & take pictures as we went.  I recorded the track using the MyTracks app by Google.  The track isn't bad, especially when you consider the amount of tree cover and the fact that the phone was in my pocket much of the time.  However, the track recorded is way too long, over 10 miles supposedly on a 7.5 mi trail.  It overestimates the distance traveled when it doesn't have good GPS signal and the calculated location is not known really precisely.  EveryTrail requires that you upload a "GPS file", which of course is not a specific real thing; I assume it can read most any type of file recorded by the various GPSr makers.  I saved MyTracks data on my phone as a .GPX file format, emailed it to myself, & it loaded up very easily on my home PC.  EveryTrail also offers mobile apps for Android & iPhone, but I've not used it much yet.  I had previously already loaded up the pictures I had taken into a PicasaWeb photo album.  That was fortuitous, because EveryTrail allows you to use your Google login to access your PicasaWeb folders, so importing my photos into the trip was super easy.  It will also allow you to use Flickr or YouTube or direct uploads.  One issue, however, was that when EveryTrail puts together a slideshow of your photos, it determines the order of the photos based on the timestamp.  Since some of my photos I took on the way down, that didn't produce a good slideshow.  There is no easy, obvious way to edit the order of photos in EveryTrail, but the workaround is to open up your photos on the website after you've imported them and change the timestamp to force them into the order that you want.  Supposedly you can add video files too, but it didn't seem to recognize mine as anything other than still shots, so I baleeted them from the final trip. Overall, I think it's a decent site and I'll probably continue to use it to record hiking trips.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Geology with First Graders

Last week, based on an invite from the teacher, I paid a visit to my oldest daughter's first grade class to talk about geology.  I knew they had been learning about sand, so my job was to take it up to 11.  I also knew, based on what my daughter brings home, that they had previously talked about solids, liquids, & gases, but otherwise they don't get a whole lot of science in first grade.

I brought with me some samples; the ONU Geology program has lots of samples of rocks & sands (obviously), so I took some especially relevant ones to show the kids.

The main point I tried to get across to them is this: different kinds of sand come from different kinds of rocks.  I figured for first graders that wasn't a bad place to start.  The idea is to have them connect in their minds that rocks, when eroded, will form sand, and that there is a direct connection between these two kinds of materials. This is, really, their first introduction to the rock cycle.

I took with me 4 samples of sand.  The first one is a typical quartz sand in a jar that had a couple of nice shells in it.  That one I passed around first and had each student rotate the jar of sand until they found the secret prize inside.  Lots of wide eyes and careful looking at this point!

After I had their interest, I then showed them three other sands and three related rocks.  The white sand here is loaded with calcareous material, and the white "rocks" are pieces of some kind of coral from the same beach.

The green sand is olivine rich, with black chunks of basalt and white pieces of crushed coral.   The green rock is dunite.

The black sand is eroded basalt cinder for the most part, and the black rocks is a basalt with obvious pahoehoe texture on the top surface.

I talked about the three different rocks as representing the three major rock types: the dunite as a metamorphic rock, the basalt as igneous, & the corals as sedimentary.  They didn't quite pick up on the differences or the words well (and I didn't expect them to), but they were at least exposed to the terms.  They liked the basalt the best - it is a pahoehoe sample from Hawaii, so we talked about lava & how it is a hot, liquid rock that cooled to form this solid material.  They were really impressed with that!

Granted the olivine rich sand didn't come from the erosion of dunite, but the samples allowed them to see that there are connections between rocks and sediments.

After we looked at those, we ended with this question: what might happen if you took a sand, and squeezed it really really really hard?  You can't do this with your hands, but the Earth is able to squeeze sands hard enough that they turn back into rocks!  At this point I pulled out a couple of sandstones that are easily seen as grains of sand that are all stuck together.  Minds blown!  That was another moment where their eye-brows were all raised.  Again, here they were exposed to another idea from the bigger concept of the rock cycle.

It was a really fun experience.  These students are considerably younger than the ones I'm used to teaching!  And, if I'm totally honest, they are in general a lot more enthusiastic about learning than some college students!  :-)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Absurd Attack on College Professors in Wash. Post

An article in the Washington Post has one of the most ridiculous attacks on college professors I've ever seen.  The argument basically says us college professors don't work hard enough for the money we make.  Which is infuriatingly obtuse.  So let's take a closer look, starting with this quote below:

"An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation."

First off, I don't get the same compensation as people with my same credentials get in the non-academic world.  I could make twice the money I do if I went to work for an oil company, like some of my friends from grad school did.  Good for them!  They made a choice for their life that they wanted, and so did I.  I choose my career as a professor at a small, liberal arts college because I love it, and it is worth more to me personally than the money I would otherwise make.  But let's not pretend there isn't a huge financial difference.  In fact, my first year as a professor I made about ~35-40% of the money that my friends from grad school who went to work for Shell & Exxon/Mobile did.  Yeah, that's right, a bit more than a third.  So this whole "they receive the same compensation" business is simply false, grotesquely false.  

Secondly, suggesting that it is "unlikely" that professors spend an hour prepping & grading for every hour they spend in the classroom is absurd, grotesquely absurd.  This shows a mind-boggling ignorance of what the job requires.  Writing a really good 1 hour lecture can take literally days.  Some of my lectures I've spent literally 20+ hours preparing, and that's just for the first time I give it.  What takes so much time?  To write a good lecture, you must consider the following: 1) What do my students need to know, and how can I boil that down concisely into a few learning goals?  One of the first steps of good teaching is to be able to clearly communicate what the student should expect to learn.  2) What do my students already know, which will serve as knowledge & skills from which to build?  No one learns anything that they cannot connect to something they already know.  This is one of the foundational principals of education theory, that knowledge is constructed by being built upon itself.  In other words, to learn something new, you have to connect it to things you already know.  3) What are the details of everything they need to learn?  If you are going to teach it, you've got to know it really, really well.  It isn't enough to state what they need to know (i.e., the ending point) and know what they already know (the starting point), you have to now fill it all the details of the knowledge & skills you are trying to instill.  4) How should I best organize the main ideas so that the lecture has a logical flow?  In a way, this is like building up a wall.  You have to start with the bottom layer, and work your way up.  You can't add the 5th row of bricks until rows 1-4 are already done.  With the world of ideas, the order of the bricks isn't always obvious - as the instructor, it is your job to figure out in what order the concepts should go.  5) Which figures, tables, images, pictures, graphs, videos, & other multimedia should I use to best convey the concepts visually?  Visual aids are probably the most important part of any lecture.  The pictures must convey the same things that you are going to verbalize.  And not all figures are of equal value, especially in science education.  Are the images clear, in color, labeled correctly?  6) What examples would best clearly communicate the overall ideas?  7) What physical objects might be useful to bring to class as learning aids, and where will I obtain & store these items?  8) What activities could the students do that will ask them to apply their new knowledge in order to solve some problem?  I could go on, but the point I hope is clear: writing a good lecture is a long process!  Now, the good thing is that I can store that lecture material on my computer & bring it out again the next time I teach the course - which in my case, is typically every 2 years.  So let's say I spent 20 hours on a lecture, and then the next time I teach it, I spend zero hours prepping it - that still means it will take 40 years of my life before the total time I spent giving the lecture will equal the time spent prepping it.  And a good teacher doesn't do that - a good teacher reviews his/her own work at a later time with fresh eyes, finds things to change, new information to add, better examples/visuals/activities, etc., that will increase the time spent in the classroom.  A good educator not only get an assessment of how well the students are doing, a good educator also gets an assessment on how well he/she is doing, and based on that makes changes that will improve the experience in the future.  And all of this is just for preparing a lecture - shall we talk about grading now?  :-)  Grading is another experience that takes lots & lots of time if it is going to be done well.  Why?  Because in order for students to learn from their mistakes, they need rich feedback on their performance.  They need more than a score or a percentage, they need explanation & clarification.

Finally, let's also dispel this myth that class prep & grading are the only things that professors do.  Students ask questions, want to spend time with you individually to help them on assignments, ask you for recommendation letters, ask you for advice on jobs, careers, & graduate school, attend their senior exhibition/presentation, and ask you for an opportunity to take an exam or work on a lab at another time.  Suppose you catch some students who have clearly cheated on an assignment.  Clearing that up is going to take some time, if you want to do it the right way, a way that will help the student recognize their mistake, acknowledge it, make it right, and become a better person that this world desperately needs.  You can't do that in an hour.  You also attend faculty meetings where you consider new courses & programs, listen to guest speakers or fellow faculty discuss a topic, and serve on committees for hiring, promotions, academic integrity issues, & policy making.  I could go on, but I think I've made my point.  There is more that could be said about this opinion piece - the part I quoted above is only one small portion of it.  But I've got to get back to grading.

I love my job.  I love working with my students.  I'm right where I want to be in my career.  But it takes a lot of work, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong, grotesquely wrong.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Teaching Climate Change II - What effect?

So I've yet to return to this topic after my first opening post, but eventually I'll get back there.  This evening, I came across an article on the USA today website that basically says that politicians drive what Americans think about climate change.  The article is based on a sociological study that looked at various public opinion polls over the last decade on climate science, and then tried to test to see what kinds of things might have caused any shifts in the polls.  The disturbing conclusion of the study is that science journals, science bloggers, science educators, or anything else science related, has little impact on what the U.S. public thinks about climate science.  Instead, the things that drives U.S. public opinion about climate science are the words of politicians.

Sorry I made you shudder there.

It really has me wondering if I should even bother continuing this series of blog postings.  Seriously.  Not that I ever expected to have any sort of national sway with what I write here, but it does seem to minimize the importance of science education on all sorts of levels.  Yikes.  I'll of course keep pressing on & keep believing that being a science educator is a pretty important and good cause to dedicate one's life work to, because I think its the right thing to do, but I guess it makes one wonder how much effect one's work is really going to accomplish.

I'm not so sure what to think about this study (is it valid? biased? carefully done?), but unfortunately my gut is telling me that the conclusion is probably true.  I think a lot of folks have their political associations, and let those societal associations drive a lot of their thinking.  Maybe I should change "their" to "our" and include myself.... Our culture, our surroundings, the messages we get every day, from all the inputs, all the signals, all the noise, it's all in many ways telling us what's right & wrong, what's good & bad, what should be or should not be, what's normal, what's acceptable, and even what's reasonable.  And I tend to think that we humans are pretty highly influenced by those surroundings.

One has to wonder if the same is also true for other issues - how often do we let our opinions on a subject be essentially determined by political affiliation?  Instead of saying you're a Democrat because you're pro-choice, for example, maybe it's the other way around - maybe you're pro-choice because you're a Democrat.  or vice-versa, maybe you're pro-life because you're a Republican, and not the other way around.  I can't imagine anyone would be likely to agree with that, but my social-psychology friends have blown my mind a few times in the past with things I'd have never thought were true.  That is to say, that maybe we take on the values of the group we self-identify with, without even realizing that's what we're doing.  That's a pretty scary thought.  I do doubt it applies really strongly to people who've learned the art of critical thinking, but if you're an educator you know that a whole lot of folks don't do that whole critical thinking thing terribly well.  I bet this is more important in our society that people might initially assume.  And here I am blabbing on about psychology, as if I know something... sheesh...

Glad to be a moderate independent voter.  That means something here, right?  I can only hope.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Accretionary Wedge #42: Countertop Geology

This time around it's volcanoclast sending out the call for posts for this round of the Accretionary Wedge, asking geobloggers about countertop geology.  Because pretty much everyone knows that the best countertops in a kitchen or bathroom are made of granite... or are they?

Although natural stone as countertop or tile is sold as either "granite" or "marble", they are often neither of those.  The divisions "granite" and "marble" generally mean two kinds, the first being hard countertops made of silicate minerals and softer ones made of carbonate minerals.  The term 'granite' is applied very loosely!

And that's the case with mine.  A few years ago, my wife and I bought a house and the kitchen needed a total gutting.  So before we moved in, we spent about a month tearing out the old kitchen and building the new one.  While searching for something to use as a countertop, we came across a pile of "granite" tiles that I HAD TO HAVE.  The stone was a black & white gneiss, a metamorphic rock.  They were on a deep discount so we took home enough to cover the area we had planned for the counter.  I then got to cut the tiles with a tile saw to fit, glued them down to the base we had built, and filled it in with grout.  Cutting the stone tiles was good fun, of course!

The gneiss had large white feldspar clasts and tiny little folds in the foliation, and consequently was loaded with shear sense indicators - and yes, I did have them all going the same direction  :-).  I had my students in structural geology over a time or two for "lab" where they had to find & sketch some of them... and then we made home-made ice cream... you know, for the thermodynamics lesson about enthalpy with mixtures of ice & halite, or something...

We sold that house and moved to another a couple years back, and unfortunately we lost a lot of pictures that I had taken of the countertop.  But, fortunately, some of the pictures of the kids had been backed-up, and I managed to find one of B that shows the countertop in the background.  So if you can manage to look past this adorable blue-eyed blondie who doesn't have all her teeth yet, you'll see the gneiss in the background.

And here's a cropped, zoomed in version.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Teaching About Climate Change, Part 1: Framing the Discussion

Every year, I teach a geoscience course on natural resources & the environment.  It is a general education course that any student can take so long as they've already taken a college science course.  Students come in from a wide variety of backgrounds & interests.  I've had students who are majoring in elementary education, engineering, business, math, geology, chemistry, geography, sociology, exercise science, and many others.  I love teaching this course.

One of the biggest challenges, however, is teaching the subject of climate change.  This subject is so big, broad, integrated, and so complex that it is probably the most difficult subject to teach in the geosciences in my opinion.  Further, the subject isn't just about science, because the issue has become such a hot topic in our society.  Another challenge here in my case is that I'm not a climate scientist in terms of area of specialization.  As a geochemist I can easily relate to a lot of the chemical data in climate science, but my expertise lies in other fields.  These challenges mean that a careful, thoughtful approach to teaching the subject is all the more necessary.

So I'd like to talk about how I teach this subject in the hopes of hearing from others who also teach it.  I plan to share a couple of posts on the topic.  In this first one, I'd like to talk about how I frame the discussion.  I think there is nothing more important than this when teaching a controversial subject.  I pose this in my course as "Asking the right questions about climate change", with four questions:
1) Is the Earth's mean annual surface temperature rising?
2) If so, what is the cause?
3) If so, what effects will it have?
4) What should be done about it?
The first three questions are science questions; they can be answered by data.  The first three questions also gradually increase in uncertainty.  The first question brings with it the least amount of uncertainty because it is the least complex.  It simply involves measuring the same thing, over and over again, in different ways and over long periods of time, and then seeing what the trends are in the data.  The answer to the first question is obviously "yes", since the rest would be moot otherwise.  The second question brings more uncertainty, since it is looking for a cause.  Causation is, as any scientist knows, often difficult to prove.  Often we look for correlations that have strong theoretical reasons to indicate causation, but there is always uncertainty in this.  The third question brings even more uncertainty, because it brings an added dimension of prediction of the future.  Creating models that will correctly predict the future is hard work!  Especially in this field, where the models have so many variables and feedback loops.  But there is good, rational uncertainty, and then there are the smear campaigns that attempt to insert uncertainty into places where it really doesn't exist.

The fourth question is not a question that can be answered by science alone.  Science can and should inform decisions here, and it does so by clearly answering the first three questions.  But this last question is broader than the natural sciences.  That tricky word "should" in question four brings the trouble.  How we answer this last question depends also on perspectives from economics, cost/benefit analysis, morals/values, public policy, political theory, social science, behavioral science, and other fields.  The question cannot be answered by natural science alone, and I think it intellectually prudent to be upfront about this.

I think this framework allows students to begin to separate the science from the politics in their minds, and they need to do that in order to understand the issues.  In our culture, complex issues often get boiled down to bite-sized bumper sticker position statements, and people are generally divided into two general camps - the pros and the cons.  That is, the science and the politics get conflated, and before students can begin to think clearly about the issue and come to an informed opinion, the science and politics need to be distinguished as separate entities in our minds.  I think the absolute wrong question is "are you for or against global warming?"  That's just too vague & too convoluted to be useful in education.

So that's how I approach it.  How do others who teach this subject frame it?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Accretionary Wedge #41: Most Memorable Geologic Event I've Directly Experienced: The Eruption of Mt. St. Helens

In the latest call for posts for the Accretionary Wedge, Ron Schott asked geoscience bloggers to relate "the story of the most memorable or significant geologic event that you've directly experienced".

For me that's easy, and yet also difficult.  Easy because there's really only one significant geologic event that I've directly experienced that I'd call memorable & significant, but difficult because I had just turned 6 years old and don't recall a lot of it.  

On the 18th day of the month of May, 1980, the lower 48 states of the U.S. experienced the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.  Obviously when the mountain starts shakin' in a serious way, you don't live to tell about it from up close.  Over 50 people died from the eruption, including one USGS geologist David Johnston who was monitoring the volcano at the time.  He sent word via radio just as the eruption began "This is it!", and gave his life in the study of this mountain.  I lived about 100 miles north of the volcano in a small town called Bremerton, WA.  I don't recall a whole lot about the event, but I do remember watching some of the news reports on TV.  Reports showed video of the ash-clogged & log-jammed streams, snow plows being used to remove the ash from roads, and pictures of entire forests flattened in one direction like matchsticks.  It was amazing.

The mountain had been building up prior to this, with a large bulge on the north flank.  The catastrophic blast of the mountain that day occurred after the bulge over-steepened the hillside and a huge landslide removed material down the mountain, lowering the pressure on the magma below and releasing the main blast.  The blast mainly came out of one side of the summit, the north face of the mountain.

The ash therefore mainly blew northward, but it didn't reach Bremerton.  Instead, the winds took it eastward.  So we never saw any ash where I lived, but one day after the blast my dad decided to drive south.  He collected a small bottle of the ash, which has sat on my shelf for a number of years now and is pictured in these two photographs.

The experiences of geologists from the USGS and the University of Washington monitoring the mountain at the time are documented very well in a CNN video on youtube that unfortunately I can't embed here, but here's the link:  The video is about 7 minutes long and well worth viewing to get a bigger idea of the impact of this eruption.  Also for more info on the blast itself, check out this USGS eruption fact sheet.