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Depeopling Peaks?

Probably one of the oddities of the western U.S. is the way that peaks acquired their names. While in the east some Native names survived and others were named by American locals for a shape or some local dignitary, in the west an awful lot of the names were thrown on by government surveyors. Some of these names are now insulting, some were borderline obscene at the time, and some record some pretty minor events (Disaster Peak in the Sierra is not where the Donner Party met a gruesome end, nor is it the site of a massacre. It is where a surveyor’s legs were smashed by a dislodged boulder). A fair number of those survey parties were staffed by scientists, so there are a lot of names of scientists out there–including no small numbers of members of the survey parties.

This is troublesome on many levels. Most of these people had no connection to these landscapes at all. And sometimes their connection hasn’t survived the test of time well: Mt. Evans memorializes a territorial governor of Colorado who now is best known for being associated with the Sand Creek Massacre. A proposal is out to rename the peak to Mt. Blue Sky. Other names have been proposed, and Colorado’s governor has acted to create an advisory board to consider a whole host of names across the state.

While the initial focus will be on names that insult people and names of individuals who are no longer viewed in a positive way, there are a lot of other peak names out there with names of scientists. Should these survive?

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The Curious History of Counties

Apparently some folks are thinking that Biden lost the election because he won so few counties. Which, of course, is silly because counties don’t elect presidents in any way shape or form. And the Census Bureau pointed out awhile back that most Americans live in just a few counties. But just how is it that the counties look this way? A trip through the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can provide some insight.

GG has an exercise he’s used in a class to examine how counties have changed in western states over time. It is interesting to compare, say, Kansas and Colorado. In Kansas, the size of counties is unimodal: they are all about the same size. Pretty much as soon as an area was occupied by settlers, they broke a previously large county into smaller ones. The result, early on, was that counties tended to have the same population (with the exception of Kansas City, Kansas). Whether the county size was dictated by how far away a county seat could be considered accessible or by a count of people per county, the effect was pretty obvious: Kansas counties were all about the same by the early twentieth century. As of 1960 (and essentially the same as 1880), Kansas counties had an average area of 784 ± 218 (1 sigma) square miles.

Since then, of course, western Kansas was decimated by the Dust Bowl and has further suffered by the consolidation of farms into megafarms. Aside from communities along the main highway (I-70), most have plenty of empty store fronts. Meanwhile, the cities in Kansas have grown, so the population per county has become bimodal despite the uniform size of the counties.

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History (Ab)Use?

A big read in The Atlantic about Peter Turchin, an entomologist turned historian. The hook is that Turchin is forecasting societal chaos in the coming decade and had done so about 10 years ago. The article basically lays out Turchin as a rarity, a historian who is using quantitative tools to use history to predict the future. “Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies” is a rather sizable claim.

And this now very grumpy scientist working in a semi-historical science finds the presentation (and probably the “cliodynamics” being profiled) misleading and lacking and is here to tell you why.

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A Penny for Your…Equality?

A tremendous amount has been written about removing statues and renaming things from streets to military bases in the interests of racial fairness; to GG the amazing thing is that this hadn’t been done decades ago. Discussions about the checkered history of many American Presidents have lit up the internet. Anyways, it seems something has gone under the radar (amazingly enough), and that would be the coins in pockets and purses.

2020 Proof Set of U.S. coins. Obverses all ex-Presidents save for the “golden” dollar coin, with representation of Sacagawea, who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Today we have Lincoln (one cent/penny), Jefferson (five cent/nickel), Franklin Roosevelt (ten cent/dime), George Washington (25 cent/quarter), John F. Kennedy (50 cent/half dollar) and (an idealized) Sacagawea (dollar) on the obverse of our coins. Of these, the Kennedy half dollar and Sacagawea dollar are in limited use. Yet for most of the history of the republic the images on our coins were to represent lady liberty:

19th century U.S. coins, in chronological order (roughly left to right): 1810 Classic (Turban head) half cent, 1818/7 Capped Bust (Turban Head) half dollar, 1838 Seated Liberty half dime, 1854 Coronet-type Liberty Head cent, 1861 Seated Liberty half dollar, and 1904 “Indian head” cent.

And while the imagery used and artistry employed varied, the idea was that a republic should not echo the practices of monarchies. Now maybe the details of some designs might be kind of iffy (a seeming Caucasian woman modeling a feathered war bonnet, for instance), but the idea was that we don’t revere our leaders, we revere our ideals.

While there were a few attempts to diverge from this pattern (the Flying Eagle cents of 1857-1858, the shield of the 2 cent piece and first nickels), a man didn’t appear on a U.S. coin until 1909, when Lincoln took over the one cent piece in honor of the centennial of his birth. This was shortly followed by one of the more iconic designs, the Buffalo nickel in 1913, which had a Native American on the obverse and a bison on the reverse. In short order Liberty was evicted from coins in the twentieth century: banished from the quarter in 1932, the dime in 1946, the half dollar in 1948, and the dollar in 1971 (though no dollars were minted from 1935 to 1971). Liberty remained on gold coins until production ceased in 1933.

If we are troubled by Washington and Jefferson owning slaves, or Lincoln pushing for and signing legislation that transferred Indian land into private ownership, maybe we should consider returning to our past. The tradition of actually honoring our ideals could well be enhanced by seeing different visions of Lady Liberty on our coins, from African-American to Asian-American to Latina to European-American to Native American. Frankly, such coins would almost certainly be more interesting artistically while reaffirming the national ideals whose pursuit bears renewing.

Shadowed by St. Helens

Today news reporters are almost happily diverting from COVID-19 to recount another disaster, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 on this date. As at least one news account notes, in a way the eruption was a great success for the efforts of the scientists who urged evacuations of areas around the volcano (there is a clear undercurrent of, “are we listening to the scientists today?”). Although there were deaths, there were far fewer than if there had been no evacuated red zone.

But events that started a week later, and went pretty much under the radar for years, provide the flip side to the “confident scientists save people” storyline: it was more “pretty worried scientists deal economic blow to town.” And given where we are in the COVID-19 story, it is worth remembering both the success of St. Helens and the failure(?) that started a week later.

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Commencement 2020

SO a couple years back, GG made up a fake commencement address for scientists, thinking he was safely insulated from such tasks. Apparently these are desperate times as he was asked to give the address to his department’s virtual commencement. (Why we blew the chance to get some big name to Skype in for cheap remains a mystery).

Anyways, the old draft wasn’t really going to work given our situation, and so GG went a different direction when push came to shove. What do you say when lives have been so disrupted? Here for your amusement is the address as written (note it was prerecorded so campus could put in subtitles)…

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History only Rhymes…

GG has already pointed out how the Spanish flu pandemic suggests that times will be getting kind of rough ahead, and it is no surprise that articles about the Spanish flu and its lessons are widespread.  For instance, a number of writings have noticed that social distancing, when enforced, worked well in the 1918 pandemic.  Probably most specific is an article by Tomas Pueyo in, which included this figure:


Poor social distancing in Philadelphia vs. better in St. Louis, from Pueyo in

A very strong local example (from a Boulder perspective) was in Denver (and Boulder more or less followed suit):


The Denver two-step, shutdown, reopen, shutdown again. From Pueyo,

Seems open and shut, particularly when looking at the experiences in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

There is potentially a really important difference, one that may play a big role in coming weeks: the Spanish flu killed young adults while COVID-19 doesn’t: Read More…

Oldest Parks

Sometimes the question arises, what was the first (or second or third) national park in the United States? In GG’s book, Sequoia is named the second federally-administered park and the first created in a state. But the chronology is kind of complex and there is another solid contender for the title. Here is a summary of some of the dealings with federal lands that became or were named National Parks:

  • 1832. Congress reserves from entry (meaning nobody can purchase the land) sections around the hot springs in Arkansas Territory that now are within Hot Springs National Park.
  • 1864. Congress turns over Yosemite Valley to the State of California for the purpose of public use, resort and recreation (Whitney terms this a national park in his 1869 guidebook).
  • 1872. Congress reserves Yellowstone as a public park (the phrase “national park” is not in the legislation.)
  • 1877. Mackinac National Park is created in Michigan by act of Congress (p517); here there is the phrase “national park”.
  • September 25, 1890. Bill creating Sequoia National Park signed by President Harrison. Very similar to the Yellowstone legislation and uses the phrase “public park” and not “national park.”
  • October 1, 1890. Bill creating Yosemite National Park (around Yosemite Valley), General Grant National Park, and expanding Sequoia National Park is signed. This legislation is more specific in what is to be protected and how, but terms these forest reserves and not parks.
  • 1895. Mackinac National Park is handed over to the state of Michigan along with the military reservation.
  • 1916. The National Park Service is created. In addition to the lands designated as national parks, the service oversees Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas.
  • 1921. Hot Springs National Park is officially created, replacing the Hot Springs Reservation.

Is Sequoia number 2? 3? 4? 5? Let’s review…

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A personal history of portable seismology

Back when I was looking into graduate schools in early 1981, I was told rather firmly by several eminent seismologists that there was no future in field seismology.  The future of the field was in the lab, using recordings from permanent stations around the world. Now I wasn’t convinced of that and ended up at MIT and part of my PhD thesis was helping to run a field deployment of seismometers.  Since then I’ve helped or run many other experiments, and it has been interesting to see just how the equipment and the beliefs of the community have evolved over time. [This does get rather long–just so you are warned].

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Whither Monuments

Its been awhile since President Trump signed orders to reduce the size of both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; GG passes through those lands from time to time and was curious where things stand.  The answer, not too shockingly, is that this revision is still in the courts.  Bears Ears lawsuits have been merged into one and a request from the administration to dismiss the suits failed in early October.  Meanwhile, a trove of Triassic fossils has been found in part of Bears Ears that was removed from the national monument. Meanwhile, and rather to everybody’s surprise, oil and gas leases adjacent to the monument were snapped up at auction despite an NPS official’s concerns. Whether these leases go anywhere remains to be seen…

Grand Staircase-Escalante is in much the same boat. Excluded lands have indications of major fossil localities as well.

Odds are that this battle will not end soon.  Probably the soonest possible end would be if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020 and, shortly after inauguration, redesignates the two monuments at their original scale. This might end the court cases, depriving us of learning what rules govern presidents in changing these areas. While redrawing the boundaries of a national monument are somewhere in the range of rare to unprecedented, what in general is the fate of controversial national monuments?

Pretty good, actually. Grand Canyon National Monument came about after efforts to make it a park failed repeatedly due to vocal opposition. Jackson Hole National Monument resulted from Rockefeller’s subterfuge in purchasing land for a park as locals were opposed to transfer of lands in the valley to the government. In fact, some 27 national parks were originally national monuments, several of which were locally quite unpopular at the time they were created. Among these are such well-known parks as Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Petrified Forest, and Bryce Canyon.

Whether or not the president can reduce a monument on his own remains to be seen (National monuments have been deauthorized by Congress). Obviously the ultimate protection is a national park (though those, too, can be changed or even eliminated); in a way, it is a bit of a surprise that there hasn’t been more of a push on that front to make these two controversial units into parks. (The closest seems to be bills introduced by Utah legislators formalizing the smaller monuments as parks, though neither bill went anywhere despite concerns that increased visitation has elevated risks to archeological and fossil resources in the area).