Archive | November 2017

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In looking at the little advertisements (“press releases”) for newsworthy new science that is the website SciTechDaily, GG found this stunning assertion:

First-of-Its Kind Seismic Study Challenges Concepts of Geology

Wow!  A first-of-its-kind study and challenging some unnamed concepts of geology. Not every day that happens. What was more, the study was authored by well-respected scientists like Vadim Levin, who was quoted in the puff piece saying “The upwelling we detected is like a hot air balloon, and we infer that something is rising up through the deeper part of our planet under New England.”

Frankly, this is a case of university promotion run amok, and Vadim has to take at least partial ownership.

First, the study is hardly the first of its kind.  It compares tomographic wave speeds with measurements of shear-wave splitting, stuff that has been done now for decades. What is new are some SKS splitting measurements from some sites that hadn’t been included in previous regional studies. The splitting magnitudes were small, suggesting that the regionally present transverse [horizontal] anisotropy was damped or reoriented in this region.  Yet we get quotes from Vadim (who certainly should know better) like this: “Our study challenges the established notion of how the continents on which we live behave.”

Oh, be real. This study is not about to rewrite the textbooks despite Levin’s statement that “It challenges the textbook concepts taught in introductory geology classes.”

Look, the paper is perfectly fine. But it was not the work that originated the idea that this body under New England was a convective upwelling; in fact, those papers don’t challenge any notion about continents, instead suggesting that the trailing edges of continents might generate convective motions in the mantle. (Vadim was a coauthor on at least one of these papers published a year ago).

Clearly the hype with the press release is way out of proportion to the significance of the paper.  This is not how we should be promoting science; in fact, it is just the kind of press release that can torque other workers in the field. GG’s view is that scientists need to control their message–not only in their papers but in the press releases they contribute to.

As an aside, how believable is this interpretation? Read More…


It is time here in the U.S. to have our national Thanksgiving Day, a day when ahistorical school reenactments, football games, and visits with overstuffed relatives vie with travel headaches, political arguments and Black Friday sales that start, um, on Thanksgiving to challenge the fortitude of Americans from coast to coast. And while trite, giving thanks for friends and family is worth at least a moment of our time.  But GG would like to suggest taking a giant step back and contemplate others deserving thanks.

We can give thanks that we have a voice in how our country is run, thanks to those who founded, nurtured, and protected our country.

Enjoyed time in a national park? Give thanks to those who fought to preserve those lands for your enjoyment.

Enjoyed watching the migration of birds? Give thanks that some lands, private and public, still exist in a state allowing these animals to continue to survive.

Enjoyed clear blue skies lately? Fishing in a clean river? Give thanks for those who fought for the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, for associated limits on pollution that made the air cleaner and the waters better able to support fish.

GG has more personal thanks, for a nation that has (generally) been willing to support the pursuit of science without the certainty of a specific reward. For colleagues willing to share time and resources, for students willing and eager to try something new.

You get the idea, and the list can go on and on–freedom to worship as you please, freedom to travel, freedom for most reading this blog from hunger.

But the last is thanks for the opportunity to pay it forward, to commit to doing the right thing even when it is hard. For it is well to reflect that tasks that today might be described as thankless might be the ones those in the future will thank us for.

Another Reason to Hate the Tabloid Journals…

GG has complained about the letter journals like Science and Nature, sometimes for things they do (like take real articles and smash them down into an extended abstract disguised as an article with a real article lurking in the supplementary information) and sometimes for how they are used (impact factors for salary bonuses or promotion). There is yet another wrinkle out there that had escaped his notice, namely a chilling of communication at meetings.

A piece in The Open Notebook (seen via Retraction Watch) discusses how scientists clam up at meetings and even threaten to blacklist reporters who, um, report on materials presented at meetings journalists are encouraged to attend. Why? Because they fear that the prestige tabloids will reject their work as already published if this work shows up in a newspaper somewhere. And given the rather arcane rules Science and Nature  put out (you can only clarify what you said in public, you can’t seek out news coverage, etc.) it is easy to feel like you had better discourage coverage if you have designs on those journals.

This is awful on so many levels.   Read More…


The latest white paper on the future of tectonics is out. The product of a workshop and months of work, this is a document meant to help NSF figure out what to fund. A lot of proposals in the next few years will cite one or more of the “Grand Challenges” put forward in this document.

Will this lead to more impactful science?

Frankly, GG isn’t sure one way or another. Presumably all the folks who participated tried to get their research interests represented in this document. So the challenges advertised represent some umbrella of ongoing research programs. This sounds more like a current summary than a truly forward looking document.

However what the document might do is point out to researchers places that are stumping current research efforts, perhaps encouraging those not yet participating in those efforts to develop a different angle on these problems.

Presumably NSF likes these documents to help them winnow out proposals that aren’t addressing major problems. But that risks choking off more iconoclastic work that might truly open up new avenues of research or solve issues not currently under study but important.

You’d really want to see if such visioning documents from, say, 20 years ago captured what we now see as the big advances. Did Earthscope really envision ambient noise tomography? No, though it did enable its widespread application and rescued Earthscope from a promise it would have failed to deliver.

Did visioning in 1960 emphasize marine magnetics or testing mobilist concepts? You have to worry that groupthink might discourage innovation.

War on Education?

We’ve already seen disturbing signs that science is being sidelined in parts of the current administration, but the latest tax bills in Congress seem to carry this to a broader extreme.  Now GG does recognize that any tax bill that actually shuts down deductions will get attacked by those who stand to pay more, but this feels a bit more specific in the overall intent.  If so, it is quite worrying, for the U.S. used to believe that it was in the national interest to have an educated populace.

As can be seen in an AAU statement on the House and on the Senate bills, and a statement from the CU Chancellor, several different provisions of this legislation hurt higher education.  Some of these are a big deal (making support of graduate students taxable, or taxing endowments of private universities) and some are rather petty (ending a tax break for purchasing season tickets).  But it is somewhat striking that an opinion columnist’s view of the tax plans as a whole has a large portion devoted to the impacts on higher education. Yes, the big ticket items are in ending deductions for state and local taxes and in cutting the mortgage interest deduction, but it seems a lot of attention has been paid to crimping Americans’ ability to get a college education or a higher degree. Even here, though some provisions can hurt higher ed, such as removing the deduction for state taxes, which contribute to supporting state colleges.

So, is this a war on education? It certainly feels like it.

Update 11/16.  Some more discussion of the potential damage of these tax plans: A New York Times On Campus piece written by a graduate student, a Washington Post perspective on this, a story about how a threatened tuition benefit for a janitor let his five children go to college.  A more local angle is in an opinion piece in the Boulder Daily Camera. 

Kaikoura A Year Later

A year ago GG posted on the Kaikoura M7.8 earthquake with the title “Single quake slip partitioning”. With a year past, it seems a quick look at the literature that has appeared is in order.  Was this diagnosis correct?  In some work, it seems the answer is yes; in others, it seems no.

The most comprehensive overview is probably a paper by Kaiser et al. in Seismological Research Letters. This paper summarizes geologic, seismologic, geodetic, and engineering observations from this quake. They note that 13 separate mapped faults all ruptured together, more than was anticipated prior to the quake.  It took about two minutes for things to unwind from south to north along this collection of faults, with substantial step-overs was one strand to the next. Most of the energy released came in two distinct jumps, one 20 seconds into the quake, the next about 70 seconds in.


Faults ruptures in the Kaikoura earthquake, from Kaiser et al, SRL, 2017.

But as to GG’s hypothesis of slip-partitioning during the quake, the interpretation of the slip history from high-frequency seismic data is no; the faulting was dominantly strike-slip to oblique-slip on land, though the authors do note a period during the rupture when they don’t really locate the source of seismic energy very well.

A second paper comes at this from a different angle.   Read More…

Veterans Day

“Thank you for your service.”

This (or various permutations) is the phrase many letters to the editor, blog posts, editorials and social media messages are encouraging today (even a crossword puzzle!). But let GG tell a story…

Last summer, GG and his daughter hiked the John Muir Trail and met another hiker from Colorado named Nick.  Nick had a large American flag and Marine Corps flag hanging off his pack. He was on a personal mission to improve the lot of his fellow marines and other service members.  Each day he and a buddy would stop and do the “22 pushup challenge” to raise awareness of the prevalence of suicide among veterans, on a pass if they crossed one that day. We crossed paths a few more times, notably catching him and his buddy enlisting a Boy Scout troop in their pushups at Silver Pass. (Nick was a much faster hiker, but he and his buddy would head out for a day or so, giving us a chance to get ahead).

After the push-ups were done (Nick did 24, adding two for personal reasons), several of the adults came up and said to Nick “thank you for your service” before heading down the trail. And while GG chatted with Nick several times on that trip, not once did he utter that phrase.

Here’s why.

Nick was not there to call attention to himself. In fact it is unlikely many of those who spoke to him knew what he was doing.  He was advocating for connecting veterans with the outdoors as a means of healing them and cutting down on the number of suicides. He was showing what was important to him.

In fact, none of the veterans GG has ever known have sought recognition for their own service. For most, it was a phase of life and not what defined them.  Some, like the WWI veteran GG met in doing a field deployment, buried their service as an evil to be lost forever (he had burned his uniform and papers upon returning from that war). An uncle with a Purple Heart would never talk about his army days. They all knew they had done their part and answered their country’s call, voluntarily or through the draft. What they did often desire was support from the country to make up for the time or opportunities they lost or the injuries they suffered.

In an era of idolization of the military and empty but noisy patriotic tributes ranging from giant flags to camo sports jerseys, lapel flag pins to, yes, easy platitudes like “thank you for your service,” the men and women who have served deserve something better. So the next time you meet a veteran, after you say “thank you for your service,” ask what we can do to help make up for her or his sacrifice. Maybe it is helping at a retirement home, maybe it is helping a campaign to get VA services closer to a community, maybe it is writing Congressional representatives to urge an end to the disgraceful delays in providing medical help to many vets, maybe it is supporting programs to reintegrate vets into civilian society. Maybe it is even just asking how they are doing.

Sometimes you don’t have to ask.  GG has a pretty good idea what Nick might want and so needs to get busy…

P.S.  If you want to give to charities supporting veterans, be careful. Consumer Reports has some guidelines and pointers to resources, but there are a number of charities claiming to support vets that mainly support telemarketing and administration. (For instance, see CharityWatch’s discussion of the accounting at the popular Wounded Warrior Project)