Archive | May 2014

Scientists talking to scientists…a 19th century behavior in need of a 21st century update

The past thirty years or so has seen an explosion in the ways scientists try to communicate with the public.  Blogs, planetarium shows, movie consulting, making promotional videos, testifying to school boards, running teacher workshops, writing popular books, making museum displays all have been gaining popularity, not to mention the rather explosive growth in ‘educational’ cable channel science shows. We can save for another day a discussion on whether any of this works, but how about communication between scientists?

Arguably this has been going downhill.  In the 18th century, individuals wrote each other letters and would publish books. In the 19th century, journals got going (which really began as writing a letter to a group).  In the 20th century we largely added the review process to journals.  And in the 21st century we have…tweets? Actually, we have a strangely dysfunctional system.  You can contact nearly any scientist via email in minutes.  You can read most research papers from your computer (provided you have access to the journals in question). The one thing we do have are data centers which, presently, focus on primary data.  These are a wonderful advance, but these are not the means by which scientists convey their discoveries.  No, we still use journals (or, if you are feeling more cutting edge, you post a preprint on ResearchGate or some similar platform).

Here’s the funny thing.  As we’ve moved to electronic journals (GSA’s Geosphere and AGU’s G-cubed are just two examples of journals envisioned from the start as e-journals) the striking thing is that these papers look almost precisely like the old papers in the old journals.  With one notable exception: journal articles increasingly fail to provide intermediate results or sufficient detail on how they got their results. In the olden days papers would have tables with results of analysis: for instance, seismic refraction survey might show the seismograms, would have a set of picked arrival times, and would have a set of inferred apparent velocities, all of which might be written down in the table.  From this, the author would infer some seismic velocity structure. If you wanted to check the author’s work, you could look at the seismograms to see if you agreed with the picks, you could plot the picks yourself and see if you agreed with the set of apparent velocities, and you could calculate the velocity model that should be consistent with the apparent velocities.

The same kind of work today, with lots more seismograms, lots fancier tools for identifying arrivals, usually produces a paper with figures of the seismograms overlain by the arrivals predicted by the seismic model and a cross section of the seismic model. Usually there are some aspects of the study that will merit detailed mention (perhaps trying to see how sensitive the final model is to assumptions of gradients or something like that), but if you want to reproduce this work, um, good luck. You probably can get the waveforms from a database, but then you are off to reproduce the whole study on your own.  Even if you want to just use the final wave speed model, you probably are going to have to pick off the values from an image (and, yes, GG has done this).

This sucks. We’ve crippled the ability to build on others’ work.

One solution is to encourage all the intermediate stuff to be put into supplemental materials, and this is a help (especially if the code used to fit the picks is there).  But can we imagine something better?

Imagine reading the article and thinking “you know, they don’t see this high wavespeed body that should be here”. So you go into the model figure and grab a line bounding a body and move it.  You can then see on the figure of the seismograms where arrivals should be and whether or not this works.  Or flip it around and change an arrival you don’t believe and see how that changes the model.

Impossible? Not today.  You could probably build this into a Flash animation; you could certainly do this with a Java application. (The nice thing about the Flash animation is that it can be embedded in a pdf). Something similar could be made for gravity and magnetics interpretations, and if you really want to have fun, having the ability to change assumed parameters in numerical inversions would be most enlightening.  Obviously there would be limits (else the publication would be a full-featured modeling program), but why not do something like this?

There are baby steps we can take today.  GG has a paper just out that has three dynamic figures embedded in the pdf version of the paper.  These are not as fancy as our goal above, but what they do do is allow the reader to consider a number of alternatives the author has explored, with a couple of tools to make it easier for the reader to consider these.  For instance, a cross-section tool allows presentation of many more cross sections than would be feasible otherwise, allowing the reader to see more than just the few most essential sections for the arguments in the paper and to sketch on the sections to compare between different alternatives.  This is a trivial tool to make (in essence, it combines a multilayer setup with a layer for sketching–easily adapted from suggestions on the web–and a simple calculation for converting x-y positions on a section to latitude and longitude).

There are plenty of other low-hanging fruit out there.  Simple x-y plots where points can be identified by clicking on them, or the regressions can be changed by excluding some points. Zoomable maps with navigation and legend tools (hover over the pastel green unit between the lime green and forest green to learn that it is the Pierre Shale and not the Lewis Shale, say). 3-D volume exploration tools.

Why do this in journals?  Because the journals are more long-lived than a professional’s personal website; one of the responsibilities they now have is to archive material (this is the cost that replaces the old cost of printing lots of paper).

So it is time to quit publishing 19th century papers and move forward. If you agree, agitate with your favorite journal.  Over time, GG will make some how-to web pages for the simplest of these tools….

Is science suffering from ADD?

GG is beyond grumpy, having been nixed on an NSF proposal.  This happens (all too often), but one sentence in the panel summary and a mail review is the main cause of grumpiness.  This sentence said that the single published paper from a previous grant was unacceptably poor production.

Since when was one paper (in this case, a rather thick paper that took more than three years to assemble) on a grant unacceptable? Zero is certainly unhappy, but one? Now if the reviewer or panel had read the paper and said that it was not worth the grant money, that would be fine (well, GG would argue with them, but at least there was a true evaluation of merit and not a lazy accounting a second grader could manage).

It seems that science is going the way of newspapers, TV shows and interpersonal communication: we are headed for byte-sized fragments. Papers have gone to stories that can be read aloud in a minute.  TV shows, especially some reality shows, like to show you what is coming up, have a commercial, show you what you just saw, show you a little new stuff, and then show you what is coming up again.  Interpersonal communications used to be lengthy letters, then it became phone calls or shorter emails, and of course now we are down to texts and tweets.  Does science benefit from this?

In a word, no. If anything, most scientific advances require more explanation because the stuff that might have fit into a short paper has been done. GG could illustrate how transform faults fit into plate tectonics in a couple minutes with a napkin and pen (an advance that was a significant milestone in the 1960s), but explaining the relationship between supercontinent cycles and reversals of the earth’s magnetic field might take a bit longer.  Science is an intellectual operation requiring logic, analysis and data.  Omitting some of that makes the product more an op-ed piece than a scientific contribution. This isn’t to deny that there are instances where short papers make a lot of sense, and some fields generate a fair number of papers in short time periods (e.g., earthquake seismology often has a spurt after some charismatic earthquake, like Tohuku or Sumatra as new data is rapidly collected, analyzed and shared), but by and large it takes some noticeable space to really show what new advances really are made of.

So GG bridles at the “one grant = multiple papers” sensibility.  To keep a ‘normal’ earth science research program going, we might expect to have about 3 students, and usually we are funding those students off of grants.  Usually a grant might support a single student; two years is a pretty typical number.  Right now the batting average is about .250 for NSF grants in earth science (younger PIs are favored, as are PIs from states with a poor research record (EPSCoR states), so the average must be lower for senior scientists from states with healthy research programs), so figure that to have 3 grants in place it took writing 12 grant applications over 2 years, or 6/year.  Now, if each grant is to have multiple publications, it seems you’d have to have 3 papers/year.  So you’ve now spent your year writing 9 rather significant items; that is a lot (especially if you are teaching and doing normal service activities, which, in theory, take up at least half of the year and often manage more than that).  How significant are these papers going to be? It is worth noting that most earth science is not done the way a lot of biology currently does: the researchers writing the grants are deeply involved in doing the research and writing the papers [in many biology labs but few U.S. earth science labs, there is a more severe pecking order, with the PI getting grants, the postdocs supervising the research being done by the grad students].

While scientific papers have always been progress reports in the sense that they don’t usually end all discussion on a topic, they hadn’t usually been progress reports in the sense of students telling teachers how many pages of a book they’ve read so far. Why should a research grant be producing multiple papers?  Wasn’t there some strong motivating question behind the grant application that was to be addressed? Do we need separate papers saying data was collected, and then another on its analysis, and another on its interpretation?  GG thinks not, but our short attention span culture seems to be pushing us to this tiny papers with little individual significance.

Is there a downside to a lot of little papers instead of longer comprehensive papers?  Well, yes.  Each tiny paper will need peer review, which means an associate editor (AE) and two mail reviewers will look at each one.  Say that we have three papers instead of one, this means that 9 people are being asked to look over this body of work instead of 3.  And, quite frequently, those nine will need to see the other papers in order to make sense of the fragment that they have to review.  But the number of reviewers is finite, so what happens is that it gets harder to get reviews, so those AEs will have to beat the bushes for reviewers.  And some times, the additional papers are not available to the mail reviewers, so their reviews are incomplete and flaws that could be corrected are left to fester in the literature.  What is more, usually of necessity there will be a lot of repetition of material between the papers (background, motivation, often even data collection approaches) so for somebody to really comprehend what was done, they will have to read significantly more in the little paper milieu.

So, dear NSF project managers, please rebuke your panels and mail reviewers for equating numbers with quality or success. Other than zero, numbers could be misleading….

Whence professional integrity?

Over the past several years there have been claims that a group of climate scientists–most of whom are federal employees with NOAA–have been hyping global warming as a way to get more grant money. Aside from ignoring the way scientists think (and the fact is, a lot of scientists enjoy showing that the current group think on anything is wrong), this questions the integrity of these scientists.  And in the earth sciences, at least, scientists are pretty good about avoiding conflicts of interest or material gain from their sponsored research.  In GG’s field, if you really want to make money, you just go into the oil industry.  Working as an academic or government scientist is not nearly as financially beneficial–there are other perks, but money isn’t one of them. And even if scientists were doing this, on the professional integrity scale, this is small potatoes.  It isn’t steering a contract to a friend’s company in order to get a kickback equal to a few years’ salary or doing insider trading.

As a rule, professional earth scientists are surprisingly free of questionable conduct. Rumble through the Retraction Watch website and it is hard to find an earth science entry (the latest you could construe as such as of this post was, ironically, a paper claiming that global warming would produce economic gains, which is really an economics paper and a search of the site turned up three hits on “geology”, two from overseas researchers and one hydrologist from the Kansas Geological Survey). Biology is right now the big hotspot for unethical science, but even fields like physics and chemistry have a lot more bad behavior going on.

Now maybe a lot of this is that earth science is a smaller group or that it is less cutting edge, but part of this seems to be the culture.  And where did that culture come from?

Arguably it comes from one of the easily ridiculed geologists of the 19th century: Josiah Dwight Whitney, he for whom Mt. Whitney was named. Whitney was taken in by Calaveras Man (a hoax that produced a sly Brett Harte poem), got into a name-calling argument with John Muir over glaciers creating Yosemite Valley (though the origin of the widespread attribution to him calling Muir an ignorant shepherd is hard to locate), managed to miss the significance of the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake while simultaneously alienating the local populace, and managed to demonstrate perhaps the most tone-deaf relationship with a political body that was funding him of any scientist in U.S. history (Whitney called the Legislature lots of names while they were considering whether to continue funding his survey of the state).

And yet the reason Whitney’s name was advanced for position as State Geologist of California is that he was recognized as the most incorruptible geologist of the time.  Around the 1860s, mines were booming all across the west, making fortunes for many.  A chief geologist could in many ways leverage his knowledge and connections to gain favor with mining magnates. Whitney had made the unusual choice of distancing himself from any appearance of self-interest prior to gaining the position of State Geologist; this allowed him to access many mining areas in the east, making his volume on the Metallic Wealth of the United States far more authoritative than other similar works.  When he created the survey, he insisted that knowledge gained on the public’s payroll belonged to the public and not to these individuals. This extended to Whitney’s relations with other members of the government; Whitney bridled publicly at a request of the governor, saying that the survey would not be the personal prospecting party for the governor (a politically unwise utterance).  There was never any indication that the survey members engaged in personal enrichment from their work.

One member of the survey was a young Yale graduate, Clarence King.  King left to create his own survey, the Survey of the Fortieth Parallel, that followed the new railroad across Nevada and Utah.  King too insisted on a level of professional integrity not widely found in the early days of the Gilded Age. This was underscored by efforts he and his staff made in uncovering a major diamond hoax (and King’s insistence that this be made public in a manner where some of the misguided investors could not pass off their shares to the unsuspecting public). Not long afterward, when the various western geology surveys were consolidated into the U.S. Geological Survey, King was made chief of the new survey. And, no doubt, he again insisted on professional detachment from any personal gain.  He showed how he expected his staff to behave when he resigned so that he could honestly pursue personal gain as a mining geologist (unfortunately for his story, this didn’t prove to yield the windfall he hoped for).  And so the credo for the U.S.G.S. was established and largely continues to this day.  The various state geological surveys mainly modeled themselves after the U.S.G.S. and so, for the most part, government scientists have been expected to be free of conflicts of interest, a code of conduct that has served the profession well.  And, arguably, we have Whitney to thank for that.

More PhDs? Graduation Edition

Yes, it is that time of year when oddly frocked academics flock to stage the annual ritual of sending their now former students out into the world. And so perhaps this is a good time to consider just how much education society needs…and why we have as many PhDs as we do.

This past year an article showed up in Chemistry World basically saying that the research education complex in universities was a big pyramid scheme. We produce too many PhDs for the jobs out there. We should have more pure research people and fewer training programs, in essence, is the argument. And I think in some fields that may well be true (but at the moment, the oil and gas industry is absorbing anything with a pulse and a geology degree). But in earth science, we have had these pure research people in certain places (think Scripps and Lamont); the jobs are called soft money because there is no continuing support: fail to get some grants in time and you can’t pay the mortgage. Such positions used to be much more common than now; why would that be?

Fail to get funded as soft money and you are on the street: it is hard to write more proposals from the homeless shelter. Worse, these grants are always more expensive than regular university grants. Years ago, when GG was on soft money, an NSF program manager was questioned about the difficulty of getting funded as soft money because the overall cost was higher than a typical university proposal. He simply said, you have to be twice as good in what you are doing because you cost twice as much.

One problem is that research is no longer really regarded as the justification for programs like the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF proposals have to have a “broader impacts” section, and unless you are saving humanity from a plague or a meteorite impact, that is most likely going to be in the form of educating somebody, which usually means supporting a student.

Why might this be? Well, it is really easy to go to Congress and say “we need to train more scientists because, well, there are all the science-y problems out there.” It is almost Mom and apple pie kind of stuff. But go in and discuss, say, the need to study clinoforms in subglacial lakes or the variation of Poisson’s ratio with melt and temperature and watch eyes roll to the back of heads in the process of slamming forward into desks. Or, heaven help you in today’s Congress, go in with why we need to do work with evolution or climate change. This isn’t a new phenomenon: in the mid to late 1860s, as J.D. Whitney was at loggerheads with the California State Legislature, Whitney’s California Geological Survey published its first volume ever: the Paleontology volume. Some of its contents on some Mesozoic reptiles were read on the floor of the Legislature as an argument to end funding for the survey (and, in fact, the Legislature chose not to fund the survey that year). So the odds of increasing the research side of the “research education complex” seem remote.

So if scientists believe they have a pyramid scheme and want to end it, it will take going to Congress and suffering the blows of ignorance as, for instance, politicians rail against studying fruit flies (which has of course been a seminal source of investigation into genetics). Or, of course, we can return to the pre-WW II model of research either being done on summer break by university faculty or in R&D labs for industry.

So maybe before we end the pyramid scheme, we need to redirect a bunch of those excess PhDs into politics….[this link, BTW, is a fun read]

GG recalls a faculty member who, years ago, said that once he trained a single PhD, he was essentially done training PhDs: he had trained his replacement, and since numbers of faculty were now relatively stagnant, that was all that was needed.  This sentiment captures the whole issue: the decline in growth of higher education from its meteoric rise after WWII restricting the traditional academic career path and the sense that this is what PhDs are for. So are PhDs just good for being university professors?

GG isn’t on that bandwagon.  The problem is obvious in some ways: when you go to study under a university professor, you are working with someone who made the choice, long ago, to be a university professor and accept all the perks and drawbacks of such a position (“drawbacks?”-GG hears you mutter-“what drawbacks?”–well, right now our current BS students have in many instances walked directly into jobs with higher salaries than those of professors with 30 years of experience). So professors as guidance counselors are really a pathetic lot. Is there really room for PhDs elsewhere?

Yes. What really do you learn in getting a PhD?  Well, to get a BS or BA, you learn how to carry out some kind of analysis.  Nobody seems to have a problem with a BA in Fine Arts becoming an accountant with some training. With an MS, you should be able to decide which available analysis is suitable for a particular problem. Also a skill set that can translate between fields. But a PhD is often viewed as somebody who knows everything about nothing, which seems like a useless skill set unless that fractional bit of knowledge is central to something more important.  This, in GG’s view, is a misreading of a PhD.  What a STEM PhD should be able to do is to recognize which problems can be solved and are worth solving, because in doing the research necessary (at least in earth science) to get the PhD, the student should be learning why they are doing what they are doing, and they should be learning through the very old-fashioned school of hard knocks to recognize what approaches will and will not advance a research program. And this is a skill very much in demand in the real world–if the real world would recognize the need.

GG is aware of examples; Wall Street, for instance, often raided Lamont-Doherty for talented employees despite the fact they were hiring them to do financial work and not, say, seismology.  And given the glut of science-related challenges facing the body politic ranging from global warming to determining the origin of a body of pollutants to evaluating the safety of oil and gas exploration, there is a pressing need for individuals with the skills and background to not only study these issues but to be able to question advocates carefully about the facts and assumptions in their work and make sensible conclusions about courses of action to take.

So are there too many PhDs?  For the academic job market, certainly.  For society as a whole? No, but we need the word to get out that a PhD is a lot more flexible than folks like to think.

Bad Movies, Earth Science Edition

With the release of Godzilla, we are in the summer movie season.  And we already have some of the fun chuckles for GG like monsters that can suck the radiation out of things and hearing that they used to get the radiation coming from the core. [And why did they set a railroad scene in Lone Pine, when there hasn’t been a rail line there for a really long time, where lots of filmmakers have actually been, but of course this time they didn’t film in Lone Pine, so it doesn’t look anything like the place? They could have said Mojave or Tehachapi, or if they really wanted some interesting scenery never on the screen before they could have chosen Caliente, NV, and its classic rail station.  But GG digresses….]. So this brings to mind the occasionally fabulously bad geoscience that shows up in the movies.

For how little earth science shows up in standard K-12 curricula or, for that matter, most college requirements, it is surprising how many times you see it appear in movies. Maybe the earth isn’t worth study, but it makes a decent movie star. Anyways, with any of these movies there is an accompanying outcry from scientists that “it just isn’t that way.” [Kind of like lawyers complaining about law movies and doctors about medical shows]. We won’t try to list all the offenders here (others have done that); instead, what makes a bad geology movie bad? 

It is funny how movie makers go to huge lengths to reproduce some things while utterly disregarding others. You will hear a costume designer brag about studying vintage photographs to reproduce exactly the right look, or a production designer getting the precisely correct telephone in a room. The whole idea is to make the viewer buy in to what is being seen. If a character tried to use a 1920s telephone as a telegraph, banging the ear piece against the microphone, everybody might laugh as we’d know that was wrong, but show a character using, say, a Betsy seismic source with a GPR imaging setup (Jurassic Park is where you find that) and the audience, save for a few geophysicists, raptly watches as this impossible setup yields an impossible image. Does this alone make a movie a bad geology movie? Well, it depends.

We can throw out a few obvious chestnuts as irrelevant. Movies are notorious for hopping all over the real world and pretending that this is a simple linear journey; geologists are probably more familiar with landscapes than most and so can be distracted (or amused) at, for instance, the real world path that Maverick takes in the movie of the same name from the early 1990s. Or be puzzled (along with history buffs) that the Transcontinental Railroad was realigned through a relocated Monument Valley, now moved to Texas (wouldn’t do to have the Lone Ranger not be a Texas Ranger) and adjacent to (nonexistent) mines in 2013’s The Lone Ranger. Or that Afghanistan looks precisely like the Alabama Hills and the Sierra Nevada in Iron Man. You get the idea. So this isn’t enough to make a bad geology movie.

Turning professional lingo into bafflegab? You know, like doing the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs? Lazy and unnecessarily annoying, but usually innocent.

Can a fantasy movie be bad geology? Hmm. Superman is clearly fantasy but is placed otherwise in our real world (as much as a real world exists in escapist movies), so complaining about him flying or defying bullets and all that is pointless, but if he misunderstand the San Andreas Fault, say, then maybe it becomes bad geology. But a wholly fantastic world? Are we going to knock Lord of the Rings for an improbably located active volcano? No.

How about science fiction? This depends on how hard the science fiction wants to be; nearly every movie with science in it is some form of science fiction. So you could say that things like Volcano, Dante’s Peak, Jurassic Park, The Day After Tomorrow, etc., are all trying to be set in the “real world” and so if the geology is bad, it is a bad geology movie. How far do you go? Do you knock Revenge of the Sith for a volcanic planet that has no hope of having a breathable atmosphere? Can you challenge Pandora as geologically implausible in Avatar?

Making a terrifically dull movie about geology? No, that is making a bad movie, not a bad geology movie. We need to separate the dramatic success from the intellectual failings.

How about showing something that violates geology as we understand it? So, for instance, at the time Jurassic Park was filmed, the largest Velociraptor was the size of a medium dog and some felt that making them bigger was cheating. Of course, shortly after that Utahraptor was found and we were all good as far as big raptor-ish dinosaurs were concerned. Or the big explosive eruption in Dante’s Peak coinciding with eruption of nice fluid (basaltic) lava flows? Well, this is one of those gimmes to drama; they just couldn’t resist having characters chased by lava. (Does anybody recognize that lava is molten rock and not just hot red water? When Gollum falls into the lava in Mt. Doom in Return of the King, he shouldn’t have sunk in—he is less dense; more likely he would writhe in pain from burns before he burst into flames on top of the lava).

No, the thing that transforms a movie with some earth science into a truly bad earth science movie is when the premise relies on science and screws it up, sometimes so horribly that people walk away from the movie knowing less than when they walked in. The scariest example of this might well be The Day After Tomorrow, which left European audiences believing less in climate change than before they saw the movie because, well, they knew enough to know that what they were seeing made no sense. (Americans were on the opposite side, as they believed in climate change more after seeing the movie, but Americans probably also feared sharks more after Sharknado).

For laughably bad, though, it is hard to exceed The Core, which screws up so many things so intensely and in such an essential manner that no earth scientist can really get involved in the movie. The list is so long—gaps in the magnetic field allowing the Sun to kill things instantly and demolish structures on the ground? Really? Wow, those space probes and astronauts must be made of something really incredible. Flow in the core just stops? You can restart it with explosions? Varying fields cause birds to collide with things? Hello, they have eyes for a reason. Stopping pacemakers? Really? In a tiny area? Giant geodes at nice cold temperatures in the mantle? Mega diamonds? Erupting from the core to a volcano in Italy—no wait, that was another movie journeying to the center of the earth. The problem with The Core isn’t that it promises an impossible trek to the core—that silliness is simply the addition of a miracle machine—it is that it so destroys any resemblance to reality that anything goes. 

So when a movie depends on earth science and just absolutely mangles it so that a geologically literate viewer cannot suspend disbelief, it is a really bad geology movie.  When a movie shows science being done wrong or gratuitously mangles some science that could be correct without damaging the story arc, that makes GG get more grumpy, but the magnitude of ‘badness’ depends on how much of this goes on. 

However, even bad geology movies are kind of cool in that it means somebody is noticing some science being done.  Obvious ones like Dante’s Peak and Volcano and Earthquake come from earth science disasters, though they gain dramatic tension from the possibility that scientists can provide meaningful warnings, while Armageddon and Deep Impact owe their origins directly to research on the extinction at the end of the Cretaceous.  The Day After Tomorrow is kind of a misreading of a 1989 hypothesis by Wally Broecker and others on how the Younger Dryas episode (when Northern Hemisphere temperatures briefly returned to Ice Age cold) was spawned.  Maybe Hollywood should be funding some science; they had nearly a billion dollars on receipts from Armageddon and Deep Impact, but the original research that turned up this meteorite-wiping-out-the-dinosaurs cost under $24,000. Or, maybe, the next time the NSF Director testifies on the reason why NSF should get more money, he should ask to move to a movie theater and just show some movies that were inspired by research NSF funded…


High Old Times, the Plains Edition

One of the big challenges in tectonics (the study of mountain building, more or less) is figuring out what elevations were in the geologic past. This is highly entertaining when contemplating the High Plains.  The reason is that this region sat near sea level for millions of years (prior to about 65 million years ago) before rising up to about 2 km above sea level at the western edge of the plains. This rise was unaccompanied by any surgical faulting or volcanism, which is even more peculiar. Some have argued that the uplift is relatively recent and some that it occurred tens of millions of years ago.

A new paper by Majie Fan and others in Geology seems to suggest that this elevation was acquired in the Eocene (prior to about 35 million years ago), saying in their abstract “…our work suggests that along our transect, the central Rockies and adjacent Great Plains underwent uplift during the late Eocene, and have not undergone any large-magnitude (>~500 m) uplift since that time. ” GG kind of likes this inference, but does this paper really support this conclusion?

The new observations here are of the isotopic ratios of hydrogen in some shards of volcanic glass from sedimentary rocks in Wyoming and western Nebraska. These ratios are thought to have reflected the ratios in rainfall; these in turn reflect the original water source and the amount of rainout before these rainclouds reached this area (when you generate rain, the heavier isotopes rain out first). This in turn is thought to reflect topography as rainout is often driven by storms moving upslope and cooling. And basically what is seen is that the difference in the isotopic ratio between the mountains in Wyoming and the plains in Nebraska hasn’t changed in the past 35 million years. During this time, the amount of heavy hydrogen (deuterium)  in both places gradually increased. And so if precipitation patterns haven’t changed, you’d think the relative elevations would be the same.

That last “if” is really quite questionable, which is maybe a discussion for another day (the meteorology behind these variations is a bugaboo common to many modern studies). But even if we accept this, why would this mean that the region reached its modern elevations some 35 million years ago?  The logic isn’t entirely clear to GG, but seems to be that the difference in hydrogen isotopes between the mountains and western plains is so high that you need a rain shadow effect like the modern one, and the authors seem to presume that the rain shadow effect scales with the height of the mountains. (The reason they think this happened just before 35 Ma is because of older work by some of these authors arguing that the basins near these mountains were near sea level nearly 50 million years ago).

Does GG buy this?  Well, it would be nice to have this settled, but there is work suggesting that the rain shadow effect is not this straightforward. And there is that bugaboo of changing climate through this time, both in a global sense (the Hadley cell might have extended to higher latitude) and locally (the monsoonal effect of high elevation in the western U.S. might have varied with time). So although this work provides a few more data points with which to try to nail the history of the High Plains, it isn’t the final word on this topic.

Why we need more scientists in politics, part 1

An unending series, I expect, leads off with Oklahoma’s elected officials demonstrating a fear of science within science standards….

I’m sure you can find others… When legislators start by supposing how standards can be bent into an “agenda-driven curriculum”, you kind of wonder if they think education standards should be agenda driven, but their agenda needs to be in the driver’s seat…