Archive | March 2015

Ted Cruz, The Science Guy!

OK, so GG is busy with a day job (go figure) and doesn’t have the time or the stomach for perusing the background of the latest kids running the Congressional science committees, but over at The Mountain Mystery you can see how earth science is, well, being viewed as earth non-science.

The Mountain Mystery

Ted Cruz, the science guy! Those are five words that tickle your tongue when spoken together. But it’s true, the senator is now America’s science guy. Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX) is the new chair of the science and space panel, a Senate commerce sub-committee. On Thursday, March 12, Cruz bugged geophysicists everywhere when he sat at a committee hearing and stated that earth sciences are not “hard science.”  They are not core, he added. Apparently that makes them ‘soft science.’ I suppose some geologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, and geophysicists would disagree, but what would they know about their profession?

Cruz knows the difference between hard and soft. He is head of the committee that oversees most of the federal government’s science expenditures. It’s a powerful role, but the unofficial presidential candidate may soon be in an even more powerful office.  The Texas senator made the claim about the ‘softness’ of earth sciences…

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Is it too early to hate “San Andreas”?

[Update: GG’s comments here.]

We’ve somehow had a drought in the earth science subclass of disaster movies, but that looks to end in May with the release of San Andreas. Judging from the previews, the San Andreas will cause skyscrapers to crumble, a tsunami far larger than that that clobbered Japan a few years ago, and have a giant chasm open along the fault. All while destroying both LA and San Francisco.  Somehow this seems unlikely to make any geologic sense at all….

[busy with things, if anybody wondered]

Continued College Myopia

Yet another piece in the NY Times predicting the imminent demise of universities.  Honestly, you’d think the failure of books, correspondence courses, video courses and other such remote learning environments to displace colleges might have made the author more cautious about predicting that just adding some proof of completion of a course of electronically-completed study would be the magic bullet to slay the academic beast. (And this from some think tank guy who wrote a whole book?  Wow). We don’t need to rehash the problems with MOOCs and other such creatures, but this piece does bring up an interesting question.

The argument is that employers use a college degree as a substitute for more substantive proof of education on a specific topic.  So if you need to know, say, statistics, you could pass some online statistics program and get your proof of completion, and off you go to be a statistician somewhere. (There is also the argument that such programs will be cheap; you may end up not paying the prof that much–don’t count on MIT supplying these things for free for very long–but there will be a need for other support staff; the most promising use of MOOCs involves having local support staff that can meet with students and help them engage with the material).

Frankly, if this is all students are going to college for, then we can all hope that something like this emerges.  Disinterested students, indebted alums, angry parents, unhappy employers–none of these are going to benefit higher education. So best to push such students out into some other way of getting that minimal badge of honor they want.

Unfortunately for this concept, students do learn a lot more than just some specific skills. Many gain contacts that will serve them well through their lives (arguably the benefit of going to Stanford or Harvard isn’t the education, which realistically is not much superior to many other schools, it is getting to know classmates who will be the movers and shakers of their generation). Many will learn to be adults despite their best efforts; college, despite colleges’ withdrawal from being the stand-in parent, is still a relatively safe place to screw up without destroying your whole life (be a drunk late to work every week and see how long it takes to get out from under those bad recommendation letters; be a crappy student for a term because you kept partying too much and you can write it off as “personal issues”). More than a few will discover where their true passions lie: most college freshman have less than a clear idea of what major they want to pursue, let alone what kind of career they want. Most will become better writers and clearer thinkers in spite of their dislike of those courses. None of this would happen in the world of skill-specific MOOCs (and if you think graduation rates from college are bad now, look into the success rate of MOOCs in students completing a single course, let alone a suite of them).

Does this excuse the terrible financial burden many assume? No. Does it mean we should stop trying things like proof-of-competence in a MOOC? No, though this is probably more of a threat to professional Master’s programs than regular 4 year colleges. It means we just have to understand what the full value of college is before we pretend we can strip away much of that value and solve our problems.

One Hundred and One Years of Asthenosphere

We like to talk about the plate tectonics revolution and how that overturned static views of the deformation of the earth.  But there was a pretty substantial overturn that dates back to a long series of papers in 1914 to 1915 as World War I was raging in Europe that kind of gets lost in the shuffle and it seems appropriate to celebrate the sort-of hundredth anniversary of this work. Joseph Barrell published what is probably the longest serial publication in the earth sciences, an eleven part paper emerging over all of 1914 and well into 1915 in the Journal of Geology (he actually labeled it as being in 8 parts, but three of those were published in two parts). [One wonders if the bean counters of the day felt he had published but one paper or 11]. It was in part 6, late in 1914, that Barrell finally proposed that there had to be a zone of weakness under the stronger crust and uppermost mantle which he named the asthenosphere (he had presented the terms somewhat earlier in a presentation in April of 1914). Unlike concepts like the crust and mantle that emerged and evolved over time, the asthenosphere emerges full-blown in these papers:

The theory of isostasy shows that below the lithosphere there exists in contradistinction a thick earth-shell marked by a capacity to yield readily to long-enduring strains of limited magnitude. But if such a zone exists it must exercise a fundamental control in terrestrial mechanics, in deformations of both vertical and tangential nature. It is a real zone between the lithosphere above and the centrosphere below, both of which possess the strength to bear, without yielding, large and long-enduring strains. Its reality is not lessened because it blends on the limits into these neighboring spheres,nor because its limits will vary to some degree with the nature of the stresses brought upon it and to a large degree by the awakening and ascent of regional igneous activity. To give proper emphasis and avoid the repetition of descriptive clauses it needs a distinctive name. It may be the generating zone of the pyrosphere; it may be a sphere of unstable state, but this to a larger extent is hypothesis and the reason for choosing a name rests upon the definite part it seems to play in crustal dynamics. Its comparative weakness is in that connection its distinctive feature. It may then be called the sphere of weakness-the asthenosphere…

This massive paper, in addition to naming the asthenosphere, reviewed evidence of many sorts, including early seismological observations, to reconcile the apparent strength of the shallow crust and the transmission of shear waves to the geodetic evidence for isostasy.

Just why was this so important?

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Bad Week for Oklahoma

First, there was Oklahoma’s Senator Inhofe throwing snowballs in Congress to attempt to show that climate change wasn’t happening (the Daily Show slugged it Grumpy Cold Men). (“Embarrassing” shows up in many headlines on this antic).

Then there was the revelation by Environment and Energy Publishing that strong arm tactics from the oil industry kept the Oklahoma Geological Survey from openly identifying wastewater disposal wells as the cause of earthquakes in Oklahoma for many years. Doesn’t exactly make the OGS look good (and frankly, at the time many seismologists outside the state were wondering what the OGS was doing). A Tulsa World article covers this as well.

The good news is that the largest earthquake in Oklahoma this past week was only a 3.4. (California actually managed a 3.7, though Kansas was in the lead with a 3.8. Oklahoma did retain a lead in number of earthquakes larger than 2.5).

What gets left out…and why (High Plains hydration paper)

So again dipping into the shameless self-promotion file, GG is lead on a new paper in Geology (sorry, it lives behind a paywall but we’ll figure something out; the GSA press release blurb can be found here).  The paper argues for the possibility that large parts of North America–most obviously the High Plains–were elevated by water reaching the lower crust, reacting with garnet to produce a new mineral assemblage lower in density. (You can see a little animation summarizing this idea here and the CU press release is here).

Some of you might recall GG complaining about letter journals a few times (like here and here and here).  So why publish in such a place?

In this case, we have a new and different idea for how continental elevations can be changed and we want to share it with the broadest possible audience.  Why is that important? Geoscientists only develop their experiments and tests with a specific set of hypotheses in mind.  Although we hope to pursue this further ourselves, we’d like to see this notion be part of what other scientists consider as possible when they go about making new measurements.  Somebody else might well have a toolkit that can test this better than we can. A short paper, where we can air the idea enough to make it a plausible hypothesis, is one that is far more inviting than a 20 page pulse-deadener in JGR or GJI. So if we could make the paper fit without dropping large chunks into supplemental material, publishing in a letter journal made sense.

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