My Wonder List

There are things that puzzle GG and this is a partial list that will be updated from time to time.

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Mountains that Remade America

Jones_comp proof

For those who come hoping to see material related to the Grumpy Geophysicist’s trade book on the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains that Remade America, here are a few quick pointers. The paperback version came out in February 2020.

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Dawn at Mineral King Valley (book review)

Having written about Mineral King in GG’s book (Mountains that Remade America), GG wishes that this book (along with Golden Rules and Ghosts of Gold Mountain) had been available before writing his own book. The preexisting narratives about the conflict in Mineral King were largely written from the perspective of the environmental movement; a lot of what was going on within the Forest Service and Disney was opaque or derived from the impressions of the Sierra Club’s team. Daniel Selmi’s book Dawn at Mineral King Valley helps to remedy the situation.

The bare bones of the story remain: Disney wanted to make a ski area and so he won the bidding to build one in Mineral King. The Park Service objected to the necessary changes to the road crossing the park but was eventually brought on board. The Sierra Club, reversing earlier positions, filed suit. This stalled the development and led to a famous Supreme Court dissenting opinion about the need for physical environments–mountains, lakes, rivers–to have standing without the need for people to demonstrate suffering. The case more concretely provided firm guidelines for environmental lawsuits and so has been a key part of environmental lawsuits ever since. The ski development was only killed by political action, moving Mineral King valley into Sequoia National Park; the lawsuit effectively amounted to a delaying action.

GG’s recounting focused strongly on the road and its role in providing cause for the lawsuit; as such, GG’s retelling of the lawsuit itself was compressed into a few pages with little about the lawyers involved. Some details were in error (the Sierra Club, for instance, did not withdraw its lawsuit so much as argue to get it dismissed without prejudice when the judge decided to kill it. And Disney’s shift from wanting a road to a railroad was unmentioned despite its relevance to the road issue). Selmi fleshes out the players and shows that the lawsuit had dimensions beyond the road, and, as you’d hope in a book dedicated to the lawsuit, a lot more subtlety was present. He also shows that the Supreme Court decision came perilously close to not providing the guidelines for such suits or the invitation for the club to refile its lawsuit. The appeals court decision that preceded this had thrown out all of the substantive challenges made by the club; had the Supreme Court addressed those or simply let the appeals court ruling stand, the club might not have had a chance to refile and the Mineral King ski resort might well have been built. But the court did avoid the substantive issues, and the trial court then demanded an environmental impact statement, which a chastened Forest Service took as need to oversee the project more closely, eventually leading to a falling out with Disney that seemed to sap energy from the project.

It is worth mentioning that the book is not a history of Mineral King. It is a history of Sierra Club vs. Morton and the impact that case has had on environmental law, and a thorough and needed book for that. In choosing to focus so tightly on the Sierra Club, other players are sidelined, like the holders of the summer leases in Mineral King as well as the private landowners in Silver City, make no appearance at all. Save for one sentence when a judicial question seemed to presume there were no land claims, these people are invisible. There is, for instance, a dispute about the way the final park bill was written, which would end the summer leases: residents argue they were blindsided, while others argue that this was made clear at the time and leaseholders were willing to suffer the loss. The resulting efforts of the leaseholders to get protection for their cabins led to new legislation that has dictated how the valley looks today and will continue to look in the future. The broader history may be found in Louise Jackson’s Mineral King; The Story of Beulah with some material also in Dilsaver and Tweed’s Challenge of the Big Trees, though the full story of the valley’s geology and its post-Forest Service history remain to be written. A major resource for those interested in Mineral King and the lawsuit is the collection of materials now held by the Three Rivers Historical museum in their Mineral King room.

Dawn at Mineral King alludes to the dawn of environmental lawsuits. In a way, there is an irony in the timing of this book’s publication. Increasingly, states and cities are recognizing that the sheer number of ways that projects get stopped and reexamined and blocked–all strategies evident in Mineral King–has come to enshrine NIMBYism and appears a key element in driving up housing prices. This was a fear within the Supreme Court in considering the question of standing: might this not be an open invitation for anybody to sue over just about anything? While Selmi notes that some subsequent rulings have tightened the rules on standing somewhat, the pressure to revise the ability to sue to block developments is increasing.

So in Selmi’s book we get a readable history of the start of the age of activist environmental lawsuits. It also carries a reminder of why getting standing was important. In challenging the Forest Service, the Sierra Club also illuminated a process that fundamentally ceded responsibility for public lands to a private developer. This was also a process that ended trust between the environmental movement and land use agencies; going forward they would tend to be opponents. If indeed courts and legislatures move to curtail such lawsuits, it is well to remember what good they allow and how and why they emerged.

Passing Thoughts

Recently, Peter Molnar passed away of pancreatic cancer. There are already several solid obituaries and reminiscences of him, and more are on the way. In short, Peter was a leader (if not the leader) in understanding mountain building and its impact on the climate system. He started with seismology, pushed to collect data from some of the most remote and difficult places to work, while also making contributions to plate reconstructions (some of the first with actual uncertainties came from him and Joann Stock). As he recognized the importance of gravitational potential energy in mountain evolution (in part through working with people like Phil England and Greg Houseman) and the continuum nature of deformation within large orogens (in part from work with Paul Tapponnier) he recognized the significance of paleoelevation and began scouting what others were doing in this regard. This led to working with climate scientists and paleontologists to find robust ways of getting around numerous problems in estimating the elevation of ancient mountain belts. This also led to a couple of papers (with Phil England) challenging the inference of surface uplift from erosion. Even as he plunged into unfamiliar regions like paleontology and climate science, he continued to work on instability of mantle lithosphere and its role in continental deformation. As the world of climate science became more familiar, he got interested in some largely climate science type questions such as the cause of northern hemisphere’s Ice Ages (Pleistocene). He was a prolific author with several hundred papers and an h-index over 100. Beyond that, he had an encyclopedic memory for authors and papers, a characteristic that was a huge help in developing personal connections within the field.

I am not here to talk about his contributions (and the many omissions in my summary above should be in indication of that); I list the above to make clear just how successful a scientist Peter was and to provide a hint of the breadth of his interests. I want to talk about how he felt about the scientific enterprise.

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Insignificant?

One of the common reactions to the Webb telescope’s debut images is, “wow, makes me feel insignificant.” As an earth scientist, GG is kind of familiar with this concept, as we deal with huge amounts of time but can only participate in a very tiny part of Earth’s history.

On Earth, arguably we are the first species to be aware of deep time; to know something of the different climates Earth has seen, the different biomes, the different landscapes. All that stuff that happened was unappreciated until we came along and started to recognize it. In a way, our appreciation of, say, dinosaurs and trilobites makes their existence somehow less futile and more meaningful. That we can appreciate this vast storehouse of experience is itself a wonder.

So when we look out on galaxies unimaginably distant and in numbers that boggle the mind, the temptation is to say “we are so small.” But so far as we know to this point, we are also the only ones who are aware of all those stars. That a galaxy some 13 billion years ago threw off light we are only now seeing, and that might have gone unrecognized by the entire universe until now, makes our observing of it somehow a confirmation of its existence. How sterile a universe if there was nobody to appreciate it? In a way, you could imagine this whole show of billions of stars in billions of galaxies exists for us to wonder at. Which makes us far from insignificant.

Maybe one day we will learn of other sentient species out there and will have to share the glory in observing the universe. But until then, we’re it, sole spectators to a universal show. Which seems rather more special than insignificant.

The End of the “Student-Athlete” Fantasy?

A UCLA quarterback got in some hot water a couple years back for pointing out the obvious: Being a Division I football player was incompatible with being a degree-seeking student. While the degree to which there was a disconnect between student and athlete has varied from sport to sport and program to program, the latest conference reorganizations makes it abundantly clear that the “student” side of “student-athlete” is no longer a serious thing for many division I athletes. Joining a league that will require frequent cross-country trips is hardly the mark of an organization that prizes academic achievement; it is the mark of an organization that seeks every dollar it can get its grubby little hands on. It is time to quite pretending and be proactive. Athletes in revenue-generating sports are increasingly getting to see the money that their activities generate. Athletes in non-revenue generating sports–which includes nearly all women’s teams–are going to see hits in their budgets unless athletic departments figure this out and fast. And the reality is that this is probably out of their hands anyways. When you see sportswriters recognizing how insane this is, you know something needs to break…

Realistically football and men’s basketball are development leagues for the NFL and NBA with pretty strange rules. Sure, there are the feel-good stories of some walk-on getting to be a hero or a student who excels scholastically despite the demands of athletics, but they are peripheral to the main storyline. While these athletes were only getting a free ride in college (which, um, is worth some serious change–a five year scholarship for an out-of-state student could approach a quarter million dollars), their coaches were the ones who got rather wealthy; that dynamic is rapidly changing. Boosters might decide to funnel money to athletes directly rather than pad the salaries of coaches (e.g., the near $1M the Alabama QB is supposedly raking on on Name Image and Likeness). And if judicial trends continue to question the NCAA’s vision of amateurism, odds are good that actually paying the athletes will not be far in the future. It is past time to recognize that what is good for athletes is not good for students and so the artificial bond there should be broken.

A lot of folks point to the big television dollars as important to the universities. Really? Sure, a $50M payday is huge for an athletic department, but a school the size of UCLA or CU or Michigan? It is down in the noise when your annual budget is well north of a billion dollars. And there are some universities that seem to do just fine with lousy athletic programs (some places on the Charles River in Cambridge come to mind, for instance). Universities could walk away from athletic payouts with little or no fiscal damage if they also walk away from expensive coaches and premier athletic facilities that only benefit a tiny number of students. Frankly, it is time to do just that. License the school’s name and logos to some independent group that runs the football program; charge them for use of the stadium and campus facilities but otherwise let them run their program however they like. If it makes administrators feel better, make free tuition for athletes part of the package, but allow the athletes to decide when they want to use that benefit. After all, the travel and practice demands of college ball exclude many possible majors from being pursued; why should the athletes that want to pursue those options only get the chance while they are playing? Use the money that comes in to support, probably at a lower level than at present, the students who still are student-athletes in non-revenue sports.

Frankly GG has no interest in trying to teach a student who is only present less than half the time and who has to wedge in study time between practices, mandatory outreach efforts, and travel. Let the club sports teams represent the actual student body; let the semi-pro athletes be semi-pro athletes and compensate them accordingly.

Some Au Gravel Thoughts

So having survived a few too many vehicle adventures on the recent field forum, GG is trying to consolidate some thoughts. Many of which are still in flux, so this is a snapshot of thinking and not necessarily a final product…. Some of this is kind of trivial but some has some major implications. Others are rehashes of older thoughts that haven’t yet been banished.

First up, the age of the gravels and the meaning of Eocene zircon grains. Reexamining the detrital zircons from the Malakoff-Alpha system, it seems this was entirely an intra-Sierra drainage and the Eocene zircons are airfall. The still-unpublished bigger samples of Tye and Niemi at Malakoff seem to make this pretty clear as we are now seeing 8 and 10 Eocene zircons in two samples instead of the 1 or 2 from older work, and those two samples seem to have very distinct and separate peaks, which is probably hard to do with fluvial grains but perfectly understandable from airfall. Toss in the very robust results from Haskell Peak of a lot of Cretaceous grains no matter where you sample in the section and the previously drawn connection of Haskell Peak and its eastern tributaries to the Alpha-Malakoff drainage is clearly wrong.

So then we face the issue with the K-absent samples from Malakoff and the K-present samples from adjacent North Columbia. There are three options GG can see: they are different ages (North Columbia being older), Malakoff’s river did not flow into North Columbia’s, and Malakoff’s zircons were overwhelmed by whatever else was flowing into North Columbia. It seems hard to make these significantly different in age, in part because there is some overlap in elevation and in part because of one miserable zircon in the Cecil et al. measurement at North Columbia. While it is quite plausible that the lower parts of North Columbia are older than the accessible gravels at Malakoff, it does seem that the upper North Columbia and lower Malakoff gravels are nearly coeval.

Because there are so many gravels hanging out in this area, you can steer Malakoff’s channel around some, probably most plausible to the southwest towards Nevada City. But you have to cross the Blue Tent-Enterprise-Spring Creek exposures, and even if you get to the Manzanita channel, you still see that large change in zircons. So GG’s guess is that the most likely scenario is that Malakoff was a relatively minor stream while the main river that fed into North Columbia dominated the sediment volume. The absence of early Paleozoic Bowman Lake batholith zircons at North Columbia from existing samples would speak to the kind of dilution of the Malakoff material; presumably larger samples of North Columbia would yield a few of these zircons. Such samples might also yield better age control. Finding a downstream deposit with the early Pz grains could be quite helpful.

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Science Court

Bailiff: “Hear ye, hear ye, court is now in session, the honorable Leonardo da Vinci presiding”.

LdV: “You may sit. The case of Common Sense vs. Newton shall now be heard. The court notes that Galileo was unavailable to hear this case due to a conflict of interest. Prosecution, your case, please.”

Prosecution: “If it may please the court, we call Sir Isaac Newton to the stand.”

LdV: “Very well. As a reminder, in science court, there is no swearing in nor right to avoid self-incrimination. It is ideas on trial, not individuals.”

Sir Isaac Newton enters the witness box.

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So…We’re the problem?

Ben Sasse, Republican Senator from Nebraska, has written a lengthy essay for The Atlantic on higher education, mainly railing against debt forgiveness and accreditation while contending universities are not meeting student needs. Much of what he says is fair–for instance, relieving doctors and lawyers of debt makes little sense. But then he calls for more profound change:

Debt forgiveness would pour gasoline on the bonfire of education costs. According to the Education Data Initiative, “the average cost of college tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions has climbed 179.2% over the last 20 years for an average annual increase of 9.0%.” (For comparison, personal health-care costs—another disproportionately inflationary sector—have increased 58 percent over the same period.) The universities that take in federal dollars without useful tools to measure student outcomes have had too little motivation to resist price hikes. 

Ben Sasse, The Atlantic, June 2022

This is profoundly dishonest, and Sasse is smart enough to know it, too. So tuition has shot up because of the greed of public four-year schools? And just exactly what “federal dollars” are we talking about? GG hasn’t noticed “payment from federal government” in the pie charts showing where university educational funds are coming from. And why are we using that specific subset of colleges? Oh right, it’s because the main force behind the rise of tuition at public four year colleges has been state legislators deciding to cease supporting their four year colleges, which means schools turn to the only other funding source available, namely student tuition. A lot of that increase came in the Great Recession. Perhaps a good question might be, why put out lots of money for loans–maybe this would make more sense by directly supporting the public universities? Just how did that transition occur from olden days of cheap public schools and no loans to where we sit today? Who thinks that it is better to make loans to students to pay higher tuitions than to fund the education directly? And, just wondering, how much of that student debt is owed because of private, predatory schools? Exactly why are we picking on public schools?

So what does Sasse want to do, seeing as the current system is broken?

Most colleges today underinvest in student advising and mentoring, and in intensive internships and career development. Our standard testing practices encourage mindless cramming and dumping, rather than critical engagement. All students would benefit from more frequent, low-stakes, real-time, individualized assessments….Why can’t we have more travel options, more service options, more intensive internships, more work opportunities? 

Um, simple answer: it costs a lot of money. Who is taking weeks of the school year to give those frequent individualized assessments? What are they getting paid? Or do you think that magic computer software fills that needs? You think travel is cheap? Maybe Sasse hasn’t noticed, but the widespread replacement of teaching faculty by instructors is in large part an attempt to save money–which, you know, seemed to matter to Sasse a lot a few sentences back. (The curious want to know: was there an increase in instructors when Sasse headed a small religious college in financial turmoil?) This is right up there with teaching small classes (which is another way to give individualized feedback). Yes, absolutely, it would be better for students…but there is a price tag. And as for work and internships…er, they exist but are created by, um, employers, not the schools. Are we suggesting that schools need to come up with make-work opportunities? Or is this a call to action by the private sector to make more internships? If so, it was cleverly camouflaged.

Certainly some of the suggestions Sen. Sasse makes are worthy of consideration, but to frame this first as “college is too expensive” (but don’t throw money at it!) and then prescribe far more expensive changes as a solution is dishonest. And the appeal to technology as the magic way to reduce costs just begs for some real experience with such systems–one thing we’ve learned the past two years is that sitting in front of a computer (aka, the magic technology that allows students to learn at their own pace) is not something that appeals to most students. MOOCs have a niche, but it is becoming clearer that a niche is probably their limit. They work really well for things like professional advancement, but not so well for the typical undergraduate.

Some of what he promotes is actually already there. He decries “sage on the stage” without seeming to recognize that lots of large courses utilize means other than the big lecture to help students learn. And he encourages flexibility but then decries the 5.5 years an average student might take to get a degree–not seeming to recognize that that is as often a measure of flexibility as students take a semester or year off or take a lower load while working, or as students discover that the original major they thought they wanted was not the one they really want to pursue (we in earth science see this frequently). Travel and study? Yeah, those programs are there and are pretty popular.

Sasse asks for colleges to have skin in the game. Presumably this means that he’d like to see universities act as guarantors for student loans. Which, universities being pretty conservative places, would probably result in them declining to take a chance on non-traditional or lower class students. Is this the desired outcome?

Look, there is a lot of room for improvement in higher ed, and it is nice that a US Senator is giving it some thought. GG agrees that we need to shift the post-high school focus from “you must go to college” to something much broader. All faculty see students in college who really don’t belong–that kind of education isn’t their cup of tea, but other models (including some Sasse promotes) are ones that can appeal to such individuals at a far lower cost. Too many schools are trying to build themselves as tier I research universities while marginalizing their teaching missions. (Senator, perhaps you’d like to examine the programs like EPSCORE that reward building research schools in states that historically have lacked them? States like…Nebraska? Think that might be playing a role in more expensive undergraduate instruction?). GG is an absolute luddite when it comes to new educational philosophies, but even he was engaged with the Science Education Initiative that sought to improve student success in science classes, so it isn’t like there has been no efforts from faculty.

So here’s the challenge Senator: you’ve been a college president and you have access to lots of skilled budget crunchers. Show us a university budget that recognizes the smaller funds from a state’s general fund, the lower tuition you think is reasonable, that has all the kinds of flexibility you envision with the personal individualized feedback, that can hire the accountants to help with the means testing you propose, and we’ll talk.

“The Ministry for the Future” review

OK, well judging from the book’s cover, another review is utterly unnecessary, but here we are and GG can’t resist.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction writings have had an interesting trajectory. His Mars trilogy was in many ways treading a path through areas where much science fiction has roamed, though his view was not to take some moment from some terraforming of the planet as a setting for a story, his was the story of how the Red Planet might be made blue and green. You kind of wonder if Elon Musk read this (though the politics are wildly different). The next grand solar system level novel, 2312, saw humanity spread through the system, though in this case Robinson returned to a more traditional narrative framework. But Earth made something of an appearance here, hinting at books to come. Seemingly wanting to tamp down enthusiasm bred from the previous expansive books, especially the terraforming of Mars, came Aurora, whose interstellar journey ended with disaster. The optimism in Robinson’s works came through again, as rather than the more likely end of the mission in the deaths of all, he engineers the return of the craft with some of the crew’s descendants, allowing them to decry the decay of Earth and seek its restoration. The focus finally shifts to Earth in New York 2140, which seems quite bleak as global warming has wreaked havoc and New York City is partially flooded. And yet people persist in seeking solutions and making life better. In this novel, interludes from an omniscient observer of the general situation puncture the narrative, providing backdrop, context, and political commentary damning the authors of this calamity. We’ll pass over Red Moon, which in many ways is an investigation of how China works in some future, and come up to The Ministry for the Future, which carries Robinson into that most fraught time frame for science fiction: tomorrow’s headlines. This is perilously close to being a non-fiction book…

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Why so emotional?

GG’s spouse made an interesting observation the other day. She noted that a lot of problems in tectonics have a couple of features: they don’t seem to be getting solved, and they produce a lot of raised voices. In other words, lots of heat, little light. In contrast, she finds that the development of new techniques does not seem to produce the emotional outpourings seen in tectonics, so she has been more focused in that area. In pondering this, GG thinks it is in general about right. Why might this be?

Let’s start with the easier end, the development of new techniques. In seismology, for instance, we have seen the creation of ambient noise tomography. GG can still recall seeing one of the early posters at an AGU meeting and thinking, wow, pretty cool. In subsequent years different groups worked on improving and extending the technique. While they differed in some respects on the details of processing, these were never make-or-break disagreements. The technique has continued to be refined and applied widely.

Now some other fields might see a bit more controversy. The origination of U-Th/He dating of apatites had a lot of friction as there were disagreements about the physics of helium loss. And the use of clumped isotopes as a means of getting paleotemperatures and the oxygen isotope ratio of ancient waters has had a bumpy ride as the origin of the carbonates that are the source of measurements has proven to be a challenge. But in these cases too, while different groups emphasize different problems, they are seeking to overcome those problems and so these techniques are very much in the mainstream. No doubt somebody got hot under the collar once or twice about whether their carbonate was pedogenic or lacustrine, but that had a lot more to do with interpreting the measurement than making it.

Which brings us to tectonics. At times it just seems like tong wars erupt with regularity. In the 1980s there was the conflict between “pure shear” and “simple shear” interpretations of metamorphic core complexes that resulted in some fairly heated exchanges both in person and in print. The Baja-BC hypothesis has been around the block so many times it has worn a rut down so deep it isn’t clear anybody can escape it. It isn’t hard to find others (when did plate tectonics start? How high was the Sevier hinterland? Age of the uplift of the Rockies?). Why is this field so stalled out while producing so much controversy?

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Science and the GOP

GG would rather that there be no politics in science, but it is getting hard to see how we can view science as a nonpartisan field of work. Consider, for instance, this concluding paragraph on working with groups of Trump supporters from The Atlantic:

Now we are at the point where to be a Republican means to believe the Big Lie. And as long as Republicans leading the party keep promoting and indulging the Big Lie, that will continue to be the case. If I’ve learned anything from my focus groups, it’s that something doesn’t have to make sense for voters to believe it’s true.

Sarah Longwell, “Trump Supporters Explain Why They Believe the Big Lie”, The Atlantic, April 2022.

That last sentence is spooky: something doesn’t have to make sense for voters to believe it’s true. Now the Big Lie referred to in the piece is that Trump didn’t legitimately lose the 2020 election, but frankly it could reflect a number of other things. Disputing that COVID-19 is a real disease, that vaccines work, that masks work, that ventilation works in reducing incidence of the disease. That climate change is real, that it is caused by human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide and methane. Hell, potentially even that the Earth is spherical. To the degree that anti-science beliefs join the Big Lie in the pantheon of GOP entrance requirements, we risk science as we know it.

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