Archive | November 2014

Geoscience in Movies: Interstellar

OK, now Interstellar has taken a lot of hits for gaping plot holes, wooden dialogue, and some of the most annoying sound mixing since home movies of a wedding were run over by a loud DJ’s choice of heavy metal favorites. But there is some earth science hiding in there and as a public service, GG felt like wondering aloud about that.  (Note that GG has not read The Science of Interstellar, but given that only 15 pages of a 260+ page book are dedicated to the two planets shown, he suspects there isn’t going to be a lot of justification). There are apt to be some spoilers (but, realistically, not very spoiler-y if you have seen the previews), so be forewarned.

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What is worrisome about oil and gas development

GG has long been annoyed with the focus of anti-oil-and-gas groups on fracking.  It simply isn’t the biggest problem.

Want to see the biggest problem (well, aside from putting all that carbon in the air)?  We here in Colorado have been bombarded with ads claiming that massive oil and gas development in North Dakota is environmentally sound.  This has always been obvious nonsense, but a New York Times investigation has really torn the cover off just exactly how much damage the Bakken Shale boom has created. Is it pollution of groundwater from fracking fluids?  No, it is the far more pedestrian failure of pipelines, valves and other means of moving fluids around at the earth’s surface. The report also shines a bright light on the industry-friendly “regulation” (in quotes because, well, in a lot of places we’d call it turning a blind eye) in place in North Dakota and how it has failed to slow spills per drill pad (1 in 6 drill sites has had spills) and containment to the drill sites.

North Dakota’s commission overseeing oil and gas spills worries about scaring companies away.  Yeah, if you are a company making $1.8 billion in net profits, you’re going to run away if you are fined $100,000.  Wouldn’t it be a good idea to scare away operators who cannot properly monitor their pipelines? Maybe you’d be left with responsible players.

It is perfectly fair for people to demand that oil and gas operations be as clean as the industry likes to advertise, and it is appropriate for them to demand meaningful oversight and regulation to ensure that is what happens.

And to those in the oil and gas industry: you are playing Russian Roulette if you think that hiding and denying and foot-dragging are good ethics to follow.  You may have subsurface rights, but those are not absolute and can be curtailed by legislative action.  Piss off enough people and see how well it goes.

Thanksgiving chit-chat

We are about a week away from that time of year when you go to relatives to be asked (if you are a scientist or studying to be one):

“So what is it you do anyways?”

Perhaps you explain you learn how a mountain was formed, or how rapidly erosion acts, or how the feeding habits of trilobites is in dispute or some such and then you might get from that cranky Uncle Ned who seems to have left his manners in a shoebox under his cot in the dungeon he apparently occupies when not at family affairs:

“Yeah?  So what use is that, anyways? You seem to be a bright person, why not do something useful?”

Perhaps you stammer out some lame excuse right up there with “Landing on the Moon was important so we could get Tang and astronaut ice cream packs.” Ewww. Or maybe you pretend to faint or change the conversation. You can do better.

Now, admittedly, some of us get to say something acceptable like “why, I try to prevent earthquakes” (yes, there is one GG knows who can make the claim as she got an injection well altered such that we seem now to have fewer earthquakes), but most of us in academia are studying more obscure things. So let’s review some strategies before Uncle Ned has you wishing you had gone to law school just like he did:

  1. Passion.  If you can talk about your topic and make it exciting, relevance can drop out. Presumably you are studying something nobody has ever done before; use that to your advantage: most people never get the chance to be the first to learn something new about the natural world.  Make it a story, an adventure where the trek to the goal is more exciting than the goal itself. Feel free to gesticulate wildly as you demonstrate the feeding process of a trilobite there at the dinner table–if it puts off some others from eating, well, more leftovers for you!
  2. Hook.  Ever deconstruct one of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion monologues?  There are simply bizarre connections that show up that simply take terrifically bland and commonplace events and elevate them.  So, for instance, GG has been working on understanding the geologic history of the Sierra (-yawn-). But, say, somebody is a skier: “Hey, do you know why there are so many nifty ski town in Colorado and not California? It’s because there were all these old high altitude mining camps in Colorado but nearly none in California. But why did people come to own the land in these camps?  It’s because of the Gold Rush, where mining laws were rewritten in the absence of enforcement of the previously existing laws. Why was there a Gold Rush? Largely because there was erosion in the past three million years that exposed and concentrated the gold.  Why was there erosion? Possibly because the Sierra went up recently…” [this is highly condensed from the more detailed route GG would actually follow].  Neat thing about hooks is that you can occasionally find they work within other, more normal conversations, thus preempting the “what do you do” questions…
  3. Application. You may be studying isotopic evolution of a volcanic center in South America, but you are probably learning a whole lot of other stuff.  For instance, something important in understanding electrical resistivity measurements is covariance: in many situations, the resistivity and the thickness of a layer can vary a lot if you change them in lockstep even though it would seem that one by itself is tightly constrained.  This concept applies in the broader world: for instance, bundled mortgage securities were viewed as safe because, while any individual mortgage might be risky, the failure of that one wouldn’t affect the others.  But in fact the risks covaried and one going down could mean a lot of others going down; not understanding that such covariance was out there led to a gross underestimate of the risks.  If you understood covariance from your esoteric earth science work, you could have anticipated one of the great economic shocks of the century.
  4. Travel. Not all of us go to exotic places, but a lot do, and usually geologic travel is a whole lot more interesting than the cruise that Aunt Marge and her daughter took to that Disney island in the Caribbean. Bring your smartphone with some photos you can pass around from that time the wheel fell off the carryall you were on and you had to rappel down the cliff to rescue it….maybe nobody thinks what you do is important, but they’ll wish they had that chance.

Above all, don’t dodge.  This is your chance to make science sing and alive for folks who probably don’t come into contact with actual scientists (and hey, even if you have scientific relatives, how many are geo-types?).

When you do, see what works. You might want to file that away for some time if you teach or have to talk at Toastmasters or are stuck in an elevator with a used car salesman. Being able to make science sound worth doing is a useful skill in a world increasingly dubious of the value of supporting scientists.  So put on your game face and get ready to give it to Uncle Ned….

Hydraulic fracturing fluids: A Closer Look

Earlier GG noted that making a huge fuss about some things with the sole point of getting folks riled up can be counterproductive if, in fact, those things turn out not to be so bad. The example was a recent study showing that surfactants in samples of fracking fluid were not in fact noxious. It was pointed out in letter to the editor that this study did not address all the chemicals in the fracking fluid.  This is quite correct, but then the letter writer engages in the same kind of certainty (and a certain amount of misdirection) that can cause trouble later in stating, for instance, that there “are known to be up to 750 chemicals and compounds used in hydraulic fracturing, and that the list includes 29 chemicals that are either known or possible carcinogens.” Pretty specific stuff (apparently lifted from Wikipedia) and kind of implies that all fracking fluids have these carcinogens, which are then detailed in the rest of the letter. The origin of this information is from the Democratic Staff Report to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which was prepared in 2011 from lists of fluids used in hydraulic fracturing from 2005 to 2009. (It is a very interesting report, by the ways, providing a rare view into what is really going into the ground).

Sounds pretty nasty, no? Let’s dig in and see what is there….

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Is the NSF Lottery Getting to be too High Risk?

Consider that currently the EAR directorate at NSF reports a 23% success rate for proposals submitted to GEO programs. Within GEO, the rate is variable within individual programs, with some approaching 10%.  As the reported success rate considers partial support a success, the fraction of money awarded to money requested is lower. NSF does not separate facilities from investigator-driven proposals, but few facility proposals are outright turned down (SAFOD is about as close to a failed facility as anything), so success of investigator-driven research is probably lower.  Toss in various effective earmarks (things like historically research underperforming states, etc.) and the rates for core investigator-driven science are probably down in the 1 in 6 to 1 in 10 range.

Now figure how long a proposal takes to be made.  Sloppy, ill-prepared proposals from 30 or 40 years ago are noncompetitive; you can’t just write out a neat idea and expect to see some bucks.  Writing a proposal within a week is a challenge; 2-4 weeks is probably more in line with common experience (no doubt there are some PIs out there chuckling that they can crank these out in a day or two–well, congratulations.  Not GG’s experience). Say you write proposals to fund a student for three years and yourself for a month or so in those three years, and say that your program is expected to support 3 students a year.  These are not atypical numbers. If success is 1 in 6 and you need one successful proposal/year, you have to write 6 proposals a year.  You cannot work on them while being supported by NSF, so no summer work on proposals if you actually have NSF summer funding. Your six proposals will eat up 1.5 months if you are efficient up to 6 months if you are really careful. If you are teaching faculty, that about uses up your time to do science.

(From this math it is easy to see how the biologists have ended up with their pyramid structure: the faculty only write grants and put their names on papers, postdocs write papers based on research conducted by grad students.  The potential in this system for cheating, plagiarism and other misbehavior is high).

Why refer to NSF as a lottery?  Nearly every researcher can recount a panel summary that unfairly misread a proposal, or a mail review that shot down a proposal because of some competitive issue.  Anticipating such problems is somewhere between hard and impossible; toss in the fact that attacking truly controversial (in a scientific sense) issues is more likely to elicit such responses and you learn the hard way that good proposals (in the sense of attacking worthwhile problems with appropriate or novel techniques) often get shot down.  Pedestrian proposals with well-established techniques, while not generating excitement from reviewers, have a better shot at running the gauntlet.

Consider the old rule that Eldridge Moores is said to have had in editing Geology: he wanted papers that got one excellent review and one reject review.  He apparently felt that such contentious papers were the ones worth highlighting for the community. There is an argument to be made that something similar might be appropriate for grants, but if program directors fear that funded proposals that had one or two highly negative reviews will be second guessed by politicians, how likely are we to see such a system?

Finally ask, does this system encourage solid science? Arguably it encourages solid grantsmanship, which is hardly the same thing.  This means rapid publication of whatever, it means proposals designed to minimize friction with reviewers, it means an ability to generate lots of proposals over short time windows–it basically means that groupthink is to be rewarded. Consider too the increasing lack of flexibility within grants.  Walter Alvarez came up with the dinosaur extinction hypothesis while working on a paleomagnetics project. GG doubts he asked permission for this diversion; today, in theory and increasingly in practice, such a substantial shift in focus of research would require approval of the program manager.  The message?  Keep your head down, do what you said you would do, don’t rock the boat too much. [There is an irony on the other side: science that turns out to confirm what we guessed we knew is harder to publish than speculative or erroneous results that seem to conflict with current knowledge, leading to a literature that is prone to oscillate from one extreme to another].

Its not clear that there is a solution.  The easy money of 50 years ago won’t recur. The growth in numbers of schools wanting to be research schools and not merely teaching schools is unlikely to reverse. Political considerations would discourage if not formally outlaw concentrating funding in a few places with strong histories of success. So success rates aren’t going to increase. Perhaps relaxing the standards of research funding in some universities might slow the flood of proposals (but this isn’t likely either as research funding is helping to keep some places afloat: although research moneys are not paying for academic year salaries, they are paying for graduate and occasionally even some undergraduate tuition, which does pay for salaries). The best hope lies in reviewers and panelists and program managers really reexamining how they look at proposals: are trivialities distorting the view of the whole? Is the perfect the enemy of the good?

Congressional grant inquisition moves into GEO

If you hadn’t heard, the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has been investigating a bunch of individual awards NSF has made.  The investigation has included examination of the peer reviews and internal memoranda within NSF on these grants. An updated list of the grants being examined now includes three in the GEO directorate:

  • Collaborative Research: Turbulence and Suspension Feeding – a New Approach using the Lobate Ctenophore Mnemiopsis Leidyi, John Dabiri, Caltech
  • Participant Support for the Zero Emissions Category of the Clean Snowmobile Challenge, Jay Meldrum, Michigan Tech
  • Geoinformatics: Leveraging the Paleobiology Database for Research, Education, Mentorship, and Interoperability, Shanan Peters, Univ. Wisconsin Madison

Now maybe the committee is picking names out of a hat, but two of the three hint at some conservative hot button items (global climate change and evolution). (Maybe the third was one where they all looked at each other and asked “what is a Lobate Ctenophore Mnemiopsis Leidyi? Sounds kind of kinky.” Bet they are disappointed now).

As Grumpy here said before, there are plenty of things you could go after in government funding of science that might improve things.  Cherry picking some grants doesn’t seem to be one of them.

Why you should oppose things for the right reasons…

It almost seems like one of the givens these days is that folks who oppose something will latch on to virtually anything they can to bolster their case regardless of its truth or relevance.  This is true on the right and left.  One thing that has come up a few times in this blog is fracking.  There is a tremendous uproar over fracking that, realistically, has almost nothing to do with fracking per se (the caveats are, nationally, minor: there are issues with water use, there have been a very small number of small earthquakes triggered by fracking, and some specialty sand mines in the upper Midwest are really cranking up operations). The real uproar is over enhanced oil and gas operations, which are springing up around the nation at an amazing (or alarming) rate. You could oppose these because increased oil and gas production will make it far harder to combat global warming; you can fight it because it mars the landscape; you could argue that until wells are properly cased and drinking water aquifers made safe that drilling should be suspended; same argument about methane leaks from gas wellheads and pipelines; you could argue that the increased seismicity from injection disposal of wastewater needs to be addressed.  Some of these concerns could arguably be addressed by improved regulation, oversight, or better industry practices; some are intrinsic to drilling and represent fundamentally opposing views on the use and preservation of natural resources.

But no, many folks are drawn into this by the suggestion that poisonous chemicals are being pumped into the ground as part of fracking fluid. Now probably 10 or 20 years ago there could have been some truth to this, but realistically the industry was sort of casting about for stuff that would work back then.  Having identified the main elements that they needed, they could (and apparently did) address the toxicity of the fluids used. (Of course, while they were claiming that the fluids were safe, they didn’t provide the details on the contents, opening the door to all sorts of plausible skepticism). Recently a study here at the University of Colorado examined fluids used in several wells and found that there really wasn’t anything of great concern in the fracking fluids (however, fracking fluids vary greatly from place to place and operator to operator, so in the long run you’d want a lot more of the fluid studied–if you thought that was a huge concern).

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