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The Double Edged Sword of Science

Well, it is that time of year when we send off freshly minted graduates off into the real world.  They have sat through speeches imploring them to go out and make the world a better place from their elders and others reminiscing on their times in college before marching to a podium, getting a piece of paper, and discovering that the alumni association is really interested in them.

While the speeches heard quickly fade from memory, GG would like to take a stab at some advice for science graduates….without the need to sit under a hot sun wearing a giant trash bag and the most ill-fitting and unflattering hat on earth.

Congratulations New Scientists! You have completed a degree program viewed as Important by Important People like politicians (very few of whom have completed such a degree) and placement officers (ditto) and your professors (who generally do have such degrees). So you must have done something significant.

Why might this be so significant?  It is because you are now armed with a powerful weapon, a sword of science, if you will.  With this, you can cut through bias to find truth, you can drop superstition in its tracks, drive rumor into retreat and determine how the world really works.  You have encountered and hopefully mastered a mode of thinking that helps you to penetrate thickets of ignorance.

Others will defer to your better judgement because you wield this weapon. Some of you will even command comfortable salaries. Having passed through the travails of an academic program in science, you may find the way forward easier for having suffered to this point.

But don’t pat yourself on the back just yet–remember you are holding that sword of science. It might hurt.

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Entering year four…

Three years ago the Grumpy Geophysicist made his debut, enticing 447 visitors over the remainder of 2014 into this odd collection of rants. That was about 4 visitors per post (yes, things are better now).  As noted in the “About” page, though, this has never been about getting lots of likes, it is rather a combination of therapy and writing practice. Nevertheless, on occasion GG has accidentally stumbled into something others found interesting (well, a few, not like anything here has gone viral), and so was curious just what those interesting posts were. So without further ado, a few of the most viewed posts from the first three years of the Grumpy Geophysicist (giving many of you a chance to see what you missed…which, perhaps, will confirm why you weren’t looking here earlier). (Small posts don’t get counted so thoroughly).

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Interring the Good

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.- Wm. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

We are all human and recognize in others strengths and weaknesses.  Generally we choose to amplify those: those whose accomplishments seem notable are heroes, those whose failings seem pronounced become villains. What has become more common in the past few decades is to revise evaluations using present standards of conduct. So, for instance, you might think of Columbus, who was lauded for centuries for opening the New World to the Old, but in recent years that accomplishment has come to be viewed as a mixed blessing or an outright calamity, leading to fewer places recognizing this as a holiday.

But Columbus’s loss of stature is in large part a change in our view of the accomplishment and less a revision of how we view Columbus the man (though he has taken hits there, too). A more pertinent example might be Thomas Jefferson, whose accomplishments as a statesman and president retain their luster, but whose personal behavior (most notably being a slave owner) has caused many to deride him. Is Thomas Jefferson now more villain than hero?

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Tyson v. Abrams


Can somebody please introduce Neil deGrasse Tyson to J. J. Abrams?

The last Star Wars movie, this planet killing weapon destroys a bunch of planets that are across the sky as viewed from another planet.  Apparently orbiting another star. Far away. Hello? Seen any planets orbiting other stars when you look up at the night sky lately? And, um, seeing this would involve light which, you know, travels at light speed. Hard to imagine this taking less than a year.  Kind of muddles up the plot if the Republic was demolished for a year and nobody noticed.

Fire from one solar system to another in a couple of minutes? Yes, they did say it was a hyperspace weapon, but that fast? That far?

Sucking hot gas off a star won’t just turn the star off. Or be a wonder fuel for destroying other planets. Or fit inside your little planet killer. Unless this all goes into Hermione Granger’s magic bag.

Wonder what atmospheric pressure is like at the bottom of a pit hundreds of kilometers deep. Or the temperature for that matter.

Wonder what they use to keep such a pit from collapsing gravitationally. Deviatoric stresses are truly incredible at that scale.

For all his failings, George Lucas did have a sense of cosmic scale that Abrams lacks.

While Star Wars is really fantasy rather than science fiction and so maybe can absorb this silliness, Star Trek was more mainstream science fiction in the pre-Abrams universe. Trekkers had the scales for how fast warp speeds and how far things were, etc. This all went by the boards (along with a lot of other stuff).

In Abrams’s version of Trek, there is a planet with a breathable atmosphere so close to Vulcan than that planet is moon sized in its sky. And yet all that is on this planet is a piddly Federation base. Um, this would have to be orbiting Vulcan…and they didn’t colonize it to some degree? Or is there just a big magnifying glass in the sky?

Vulcan is a few minutes at warp from Earth. The Klingon home world is only a bit farther (seemed a lot closer when coming home than heading out–did they take the scenic route?). Quite the cozy neighborhood.

This all bled into the latest Trek where a nebula suddenly becomes a goofy dreamscape of colliding rock-like things that again only required a few minutes to pass through. Super challenging going in, piece of cake going out.

Look, space is really, really, really big.  Distances are equally big.  Is it really that impossible to develop dramatic tension without ignoring that?

If Tyson can help us to come to terms with an unpleasant election outcome, maybe he can convince Abrams that keeping space big is OK?


(Yes, those long drives do end up inducing odd wandering thoughts…)

Interstate driving

Trivia from a long drive. Just saying….

California drivers prefer to pass on the right instead of the left.  Wonder what they do if they visit Britain?

Most places the leftmost lane is fastest.  In California, it is the number 2 lane. In Utah, it seems they all want to go the same speed.

California drivers know what the number two lane is.

Colorado drivers have their own version of the “3 second rule” (you know, the one usually applied to food hitting the floor).  A red light isn’t really red if you get to the intersection in the first three seconds after it turns red.

Colorado drivers are slow to go on a green light. This has nothing to do with legal cannabis.

Some California drivers will use any and all lanes to go 1% faster than the rest of traffic.

Massachusetts drivers will use any and all lanes AND the shoulder AND, if necessary, lanes usually reserved for opposing traffic.

Texas drivers are some of the fastest around on flat, straight roads–and some of the slowest on mountain roads.

Kansas drivers confuse merge signs with stop signs when entering freeways.

Wyoming drivers outside their state keep ending up on the shoulders because they expect to be blown back on course by the wind.

California drivers can be in traffic thicker than a Walmart parking lot on Black Friday traveling at 65 mph without batting an eyelash.

Las Vegas drivers have never seen three miles of freeway without road construction detours, barriers or lane closures.

Utah drivers pretend their freeways are roller coasters: slow on the uphill, fast on the downhill.

Oldest Rocks…Pffft

There is some kind of disease where people want to go around and call some rock formation one of the oldest rocks.  Lone Pine once called the Alabama Hills the Oldest Rocks on Earth, which was ridiculous (they are not even the oldest rocks you can see from Lone Pine). The BBC recently jumped on this bandwagon, claiming Ayers Rocks/Uluru “is one of the oldest rocks on Earth“. Nope.  Unh-uh. Sorry. Not even in the ballpark (its sandstone is latest Precambrian). This is most absurd given the continent–Australia is loaded with really really old rock.

Anyways, just stumbled on that and well, you don’t see the BBC engaging in misleading promotion like that too often.

GG thinks he has seen many other examples of “oldest rocks” promotions–if you know of one, please note it in the comments.

Quick notes 1/30/17

A couple things to check out.

Ars Technica caught up with some research GG (and the BBC) pointed out awhile back on how scientifically curious people are the ones who might change their minds about things they initially disagree with; their story provides a nice overview of the research and its significance.

FiveThirtyEight says out loud what GG has been pondering: Trump’s actions mirror what he said he would do. Recall the mantra after the election was that Trump supporters took him seriously but not literally while the media did the opposite.  While its been clear the media should have been taking him seriously (if they did not), Trump’s initial actions in office suggest they were right to take him literally. Now the question is, did his supporters take him literally too? The answer may well determine how the next four years play out.

And who is really hurt by the travel ban? Surprise, it is researchers and universities (as we’ve noted before)–and not uniformly but engineering programs in particular. You can see some of the people we aren’t letting into the country at Nature‘s website and a historical piece at Popular Science on when we deported some scientists and thus increased the threats facing the U.S.. Also, the ban has infuriated tech companies (who might be about to get a second bout of bad news).

Separately, National Geographic has a story about chaos in science agencies that includes discussing the development of the rogue twitter streams and the science march on Washington.

If nothing else, the first days of the Trump administration should be improving the mood of lots of protesters