Archive | October 2015

Crank Letters

Imagine that you toil and make a scientific paper that gets published.  You lean back and breathe a sigh of relief; all that toil and effort is now part of the scientific literature.

Then you go to your mailbox and find a letter. “What baloney! How could you say that! Show me the data that you claim supports your ideas!” Right there most of us have dropped the letter in the trash can, but maybe you are kind hearted and send a reply pointing out the online repository where all the data resides.

You get another letter. “I’m pretty sure you’ve committed some kind of fraud because there is no way the data should look like that.  Send me all the correspondence you’ve written about this and I will prove that you are an idiot!”

Certainly by now the letter is in the trash, right? Or maybe you write back, “hey if you’re so smart, you redo the study and show where I messed up.” You are ready to get back to work on something new.

How about if the letter is from the Chair of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology?

Read More…

The Good Lecture…

G. K. Gilbert was arguably the best geologist America has produced.  He received a classical education rich in languages and math and physics but poorer in other sciences.  Much later, in advocating a particular style of intellectual attack suitable for geology, he reflected on college courses. “Gilbert [said] in an address, 20 years [after he graduated], that the important thing is to train scientists rather than to teach science, and that the ‘practical questions for the teacher are, whether it is possible by training to improve the guessing faculty, and if so, how it is to be done;’ thus implying not so much that, in his own experience, accurate observation is easy, but that successful guessing is difficult. It must also have been not his professor’s idea but Gilbert’s, prompted perhaps by a remembrance of an over-insistence on the names of things, that the content of a subject is often presented so abundantly in college teaching as to obstruct the communication of its essence, and that the teacher ‘might do better to contract the phenomenal and to enlarge the logical side of his subject, so as to dwell on the philosophy of the science rather than on its material.'” (Wm. Morris Davis, National Academy Memoir on Gilbert, 1928).

This comes up in part because of a recent New York Times op-ed in favor of lecturing that rather unfortunately seems to pit student-centered learning as practiced in the sciences against lecture-based learning in the humanities.  Molly Worthen, in this column, argues that “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.” One has to wonder, are these skills limited to the humanities?  Shouldn’t scientists also be learning how to comprehend and reason thoroughly?

Read More…

Who was the great 19th century western American geologist?

Drop in to a bookstore and browse their American history area, or maybe biography or possibly even science or nature and look for books about geologists.  Odds are you can find some biographies on John Wesley Powell and Clarence King.  Wander anywhere near Yellowstone and you are sure to encounter the Hayden survey, run by Ferdinand V. Hayden, and you are likely to  see Clarence Dutton appearing in tomes on the Grand Canyon.  And these were names that were prominent at the time, too.

But professional geologists see it differently.  Consider this: works authored by John Wesley Powell were cited 310 times since the start of 2000. Ferdinand Hayden? 44 times. Clarence Dutton? 140 times. Really, not bad for guys whose work is mostly or entirely well over 100 years old.

There’s this other fellow, Grove Karl Gilbert, who died in 1918; his last publication, drawn from his notes, was published in 1928.  He never led a survey of his own or ran the USGS. There is one real biography available through Amazon (and probably not your local bookseller). Yet his work has been cited 1,544 times since the beginning of 2000, according to Science Citation Index. That is more than three times the sum of those other guys. Even established international geologists fade against Gilbert’s record: for instance, Louis Agassiz, the developer of ice ages, only merited 393 citations since 2000 despite the rapid growth of interest in climates and paleoclimate.

Now part of this, you could argue, is that Gilbert wrote a lot–except he wasn’t prone to writing a large number of short papers, as we are today.  He wrote some hefty tomes–Monograph #1 of the USGS might easily outweigh the complete production of many modern geologists (arguably both in volume and impact).  Because he did stay in geology and didn’t, for instance, wander into public policy and ethnology as did Powell, there was a greater focus in his work.  But Gilbert also lost a lot of time to administration work in the USGS; he was also very generous with his time.

What makes Gilbert so widely cited was the degree to which he was outside his time.  In 1883, he offered the first earthquake forecast at the very same time he was asserting that earthquakes were caused by slip on faults that could in many instances be seen to slip at the surface. In many ways, he defined geomorphology as it is understood today; he provided the basic observational and experimental work to understand transport of sediment. He made one of the first clear demonstrations of isostasy, carrying it even farther to make clear the concept, if not the terminology, of elastic plates. He described one major form of deltas so well that they are called Gilbert deltas. He largely advocated for the use of multiple working hypotheses (again anticipating several others in this). By seeking to understand the basic physics or process underlying phenomena, he made contributions that can continue to be applied to phenomena today; many of his contemporaries, though, were too mired in specifics or tangled in trying to make a preferred hypothesis fit observations.

So, if any historians of science are out there looking for somebody worth studying, have at G.K. Gilbert. It seems like his profile in bookstores should be elevated some….

Place the quote

“…the proposition is, that the man who is entirely ignorant of a multifarious subject, is more competent to form a just and correct judgment concerning it, than the man who has made it the business of his life to comprehend it in theory and understand it in its minute and practical details.”

Sound familiar?  Can you guess the context?

Read More…

Fact Check: 19th Century Sierra Nevada

In writing a book on the Sierra Nevada juxtaposing the geologic and human histories of the region, GG keeps stumbling over little things that make for really fun stories but seem to have no basis in fact.  So let’s air out a few and see if anybody can figure out what is really going on…

Story: A fine source for these chestnuts is the life of John Charles Frémont. In some ways it seems as though he might have viewed the term “manifest destiny” as applying to his own life and not the mythical sense Americans carried in conquering the lands from sea to shining sea. Drama was his forte. Perhaps the most dramatic moment was his telling of the exploits of his second expedition, one that would be forced to cross the Sierra in the dead of winter.  After following the Oregon Trail to Oregon, Fremont turned south; one of his goals, he said, was to find the San Buenaventura River, a river shown on some maps going from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean across modern Utah and Nevada and across the Sierra Nevada. His report tells of Kit Carson scouting ahead, looking for beaver sign that would show that they were in the drainage of the Buenaventura. But finally he gives up, realizing there is no such river and he turns west to cross the range in dramatic fashion. As they cross the range, he notes that the Sierra prevents the waters of the Great Basin from making it to the Pacific.

Fact check: Except there is little likelihood that Frémont was seeking the Buenaventura at all.  First, he had met with Joseph Walker, who had circumnavigated the Sierra before and knew there was no such river.  Second, his cartographer, Charles Preuss kept a diary, and while he mentions the other targets of the expedition, nowhere does the Buenaventura make an appearance.  Given this knowledge, why was Fremont muddling about on the east side of the Sierra in the dead of winter?  Was he just looking for a good excuse to go into California?

There is another Frémont chestnut… Read More…