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.

GG will be giving a talk at the Rocky Mountain Map Society on January 22, 2019, at the Denver Public Library, fifth floor, Gates Room, 5:30 pm and open to the public.

Read More…

Slow Learning

A couple of news/opinion items the past week kind of coalesce around a peculiar notion: higher educational institutions are slow learners. This may not be obvious when you learn that the two items are an op-ed about how college isn’t for everyone, and the second about the use of student evaluations of teaching potentially being discriminatory.

Let’s take the last one first. The Boulder Faculty Assembly has now twice prompted the administration to revise how student evaluations are used in determining the teaching ability of professors. These assessments are made by students in the penultimate week of the term; in most cases only a fraction of the class actually completes the evaluation. At greatest issue are two questions on the questionnaire: rating the course, and rating the instructor–the two which are most commonly considered both by students considering which course to take and by promotion and tenure committees considering whether to promote a faculty member. For students, this is one of the few summary pieces of information available to them; for faculty committees though, this is a temptingly quantitative piece of information.

It has been patently obvious for decades (yes, literally decades) that these questionnaire results have little correlation with how much students learned. Read More…

Postdoc Workshop

In the movie Elf, the initial voiceover from “Papa Elf” (Bob Newhart) says that there are three main jobs for elves: baking cookies in an old hollow tree, making boots at night, and Santa’s workshop. When Will Ferrell’s human-adult-but-raised-an-elf character Buddy hits New York, his lack of useful skills outside the elf world becomes pretty apparent.

A report in Nature says that postdocs are kind of like elves, but without quite so many career options. The studies underlying this reporting basically find that employers are not so interested in the skills postdocs pick up, with the deadly quote from an employer being that postdocs “have all the academic science skills you don’t need, and none of the organizational skills that you do”. A solution mentioned is mentoring postdocs as entrepreneurs.

If not that, what are these postdocs doing?

By this GG means that postdocs should be writing grant applications supporting the science they wish to pursue (whether they get to be PI is a different matter). Plenty of businesses revolve around responding to proposal requests; this isn’t helpful?

Some postdocs are brought in to work on big projects, which is often to oversee work being done by grad students and undergraduates. Does this administrative responsibility have no use in the private sector?

Other postdocs work independently, which means to be successful they must be self-starters and persevere through challenges. Many times too they have to write up reports on what they have done and what progress they are making. This too has no use in the outside world?

GG is stuck; one of two things is happening: either “real world” recruiters are oblivious to the skills being picked up  by postdocs (and postdocs are at a loss to express those skills), or postdoc advisors are treating their postdocs like graduate students, not sharing any of the responsibilities and freedom that such positions should include. Either way, tremendous intellectual capital is being squandered.

Any Adults in the Room?

Many of those who find President Trump’s instincts on foreign policy misguided frequently state that they are relieved that there are “adults in the room” that prevent rash military action by the President. At times, Congress has even stepped in to override the President’s dismissal of intelligence findings from the CIA or FBI. Those relieved “there are adults in the room” point to episodes described in various books on the administration where the President demanded action and others either dissuaded him or simply ignored his wishes; the most dramatic (and hotly debated) version of this was in an anonymous New York Times op-ed earlier this year. Whether such actions are honorable or not continues to be debated, but that is not our topic today.

GG would like to know where the adults in the room are when it comes to science.  Frankly, the answer would seem to be, nowhere. This was underscored this past week by what followed President Trump’s dismissal of a major climate report that the administration tried to bury by releasing it weeks ahead of time on Black Friday.  Basically, nobody stood up and said, you misunderstand what this in.  No, instead we had the EPA misrepresent instructions given to the group assembling the report, we had claims that this was a way for climate scientists to get rich, we had claims that lots of scientists disagree with the report.  All of which is wrong.

What is closer to reality is the necessity of the Climate Scientists Legal Defense Fund, or the  Silencing Science tracker, which is a sobering list of efforts made to ignore, obfuscate, blockade, defund, demean, ridicule or prevent scientific research.  The intense harassment Michael Mann faced, the time lost by two Arizona climate researchers ordered to hand over nearly all their emails–this is the reality of many climate scientists.  There is no big money in doing this work. Most are utterly anonymous and so don’t even get some perk from being quoted in the newspaper. A life of fame and fortune it is not.

While there might be adults in the room to mitigate President Trump’s evident distrust of experts in foreign policy, they are notably absent when it comes to using information from the experts on scientific matters.  And in the long run, that might prove to be more harmful to both the nation and the world than any reckless military adventures.

Mistaking Desire for Solution

As many may have noticed, there has been a big recall of romaine lettuce in the U.S., and this has affected the local school district’s lunch menu.  But there was an interesting quote at the end of the local story about this:

She [Food Services Director Ann Cooper] said this most recent recall is a symptom of a much larger problem of a global and national food system.

“If it was summer, we could get everything locally,” she said. “It’s because we have a broken, un-localized food system that causes these huge problems. If we had a regional system, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Probably true.  If we had a localized food system, the kids would be eating potatoes, because lettuce doesn’t grow outdoors in the snow so very well. Or there would be a lot of greenhouses with a lot of energy being expended to grow a crop that, well, just grows all by itself in other climates.

Of course if there was any contamination here, we wouldn’t know it until there was quite a bit of illness locally–and by then you’d have no other options for food as well as a pretty severe local outbreak. Sure, you’d be able to go back to the grower and bop them on the head right away, which is undoubtably a big plus, but there are a lot of other costs that would get in the way of replacing our current system.

The food system is broken, but not quite in how Director Cooper is saying. We can’t track back food to its source, and that is indeed hard to understand in this day and age. This means that most of the lettuce that was pitched was perfectly fine, and the disruptions to the marketplace are way out of balance. But it is not because food is transported across the country from places where it is (ahem) dirt cheap to grow to places where it is not. While there is a lot to like about locally sourced produce, cheap and abundant and year-round is not often what is on the table.

Its hard to remember sometimes that humanity moved from everyone collecting their own food to specialization, allowing most of us to do something other than farm.  And so farmers specializing in what they can grow more cheaply than others is no surprise either. Is that why people get sick and it takes weeks to figure out why? No. Let’s try to recognize the actual problem and solve it, not impose our personal desires on top.

A Fortnight In A Day

We are all such creatures of the indoors that there are some simple and obvious things about the sky above us that we don’t really get. Most Americans would not know the phase of the Moon unless they were looking at it, and a lot of folks don’t realize you can see the moon in daylight just fine (let alone Venus, under the right conditions). GG likes poking around in such little oddities as the offset from the earliest sunset to the shortest day. Here’s another one: you can kind of see the whole year of sunshine play out in a month of watching the Moon.

If you look for the Moon at moonrise on successive days, you will notice it moves around. A lot. As the Moon is pretty close to the ecliptic, you are in fact seeing the same motion that sunrise makes over the course of a year, though the phase varies with the season. Right now (Nov. 25th) the Moon rose nearly at the same place the Sun will rise on the summer solstice–the longest day of the year. In a couple of weeks, it will rise near the place the sun will rise a few days later, on the winter solstice. Of course, you might not notice that as it will only be a narrow waxing crescent just two days after being new.

How long can you see the Moon on a given day? Most people might think 12 hours (maybe even less). If you recognize that the lunar month means that the Moon has to make a circuit of the sky in about 28 days, you might guess 12 and a half hours–and on average you’d be close (if you guessed 11.5 hours, you just had the Moon in a retrograde orbit). But here is the difference between moonrise and moonset for Denver this November:

LunarDay

The average is a bit less than 12 1/2 hours (about 12:24 here), but you can see that some days you can see the Moon a long time, and other days you don’t see it for long at all.  Near the winter solstice (either hemisphere), the full moon is high in the sky a long time (full moon above is on the 22nd)–just like the Sun near the summer solstice. But in the summer, the full moon is low in the sky and not up nearly as long.

This can drive photographers batty. First, the Moon will rise in a different spot nearly every night–the exceptions are when it is near the northernmost or southernmost positions. The second is that the timing of moonrise will vary–and not just by that 48 minute average difference between a full lunar “day” and a solar day. When the lunar day lengthens the most, the moonrise will come only about 30 minutes later each night–around the 18th day in the plot above. And then when the lunar day shortens the most, as near day 3 above, it will take over an hour. These extremes are when the north-south position of moonrise changes the most.

All this is because the Moon traverses the ecliptic in just under a month while the Sun takes a whole year on the same journey. One night for the Moon is 12 days for the Sun. So when it seem like it will take forever to get through winter, go look for the moonrise and see it change day to day. It might help the long winter nights pass more quickly…

One has to wonder how often archeologists look for lunar alignments in ancient constructions.  There is often considerable attention paid to solar alignments, and for good reason, but don’t you think that sometimes ancient peoples might have marked lunar positions as well?

Cordilleran Contradictions, 2018 edition

Spent many hours in November sitting in on sessions and perusing posters at the Geological Society of America annual meeting; one goal was to see what’s up with the evolution of elevation of the U.S. Cordillera.

First a quick recap. There are two camps, more or less, on each side of the Cordillera.  The old mountains camp on both sides points mainly to oxygen and hydrogen isotope variations in proxies for precipitation. There are also attempts to retrodeform the lithosphere resulting in thick crust and high elevations. The dominant counterargument is that the paleometeorology used to interpret the isotopic values is flawed. On the young mountain side, classical geologic observations are invoked, including apparent tilting of river channels and the recent incision events in many places. The counterargument to this is that the appearance of a tilted channel may be biased by the depositional environment and that changes in climate can drive incision as easily as uplift. In between in some ways are geophysical observations of the lithosphere; recent changes in the lithosphere seem likely in much of the region, supporting younger mountains, but seem older east of the Southern Rockies.

Well, a meeting in Indianapolis isn’t one to bring out all the western geologists (next year’s meeting in Phoenix is a whole different matter), but a couple of things popped up. Did anything look to change the landscape, either by opening up new vistas or overturning old results? Not that GG discerned.  Below are some notes probably only of interest to the most interested….

Read More…

Parks: Love Them and Leave Them?

Well, another story about the national parks breaking down. Another story lamenting that “tourists are loving nature to death,” as the headline puts it. The article (published in multiple papers) documents a stream of thoughtless tourist actions, from literally leaving their shit on the ground to engaging in fistfights over parking spots. As such stories are wont to do, this one reminds us of the estimated $11B backlog in upkeep in the parks.

While nearly none of this is new, this article does tab a couple of new culprits. One is Snapchat and Instagram, where people now can find from geotags where scenic spots are and trek to them. Another, related, problem is the selfie, which has led to deaths and injuries as people scramble closer to cliff edges or wildlife.

But if you look closely, you’ll see that, once again, the reporters missed (ahem) the forest for the trees. The tone of the reporting repeats the mantra, too many people.  But a graph in the piece reveals that this is misleading: in 1987, 287 million visited the 305 units in the national park system. This capped a near exponential rise in visitation the previous 3 or 4 decades. That number was only exceeded in 2014, 27 years later and after 65 new units were added to the park system. The article talks about how challenging traffic is in Estes Park.  GG drives through there lots virtually every year in the past 25 years, and frankly, it has always been bad. Although there is no doubt that the starvation diet that the Park Service has been on for about 50 years has led to decay of services and facilities, the reality is that most of the current problems are not simply numbers. So what might be behind the concerns voiced in the article?

Read More…