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Geology in “The High Sierra: A Love Story”

OK, no way for a grumpy geophysicist who has also written a book on the Sierra to dodge this volume. But, wow, just exactly what is this? GG sees four main threads: an autobiography, a set of mini-biographies, a trail/travel/gear guide, and musings on geology. A miscellany, as one reviewer suggested. These are scrambled together in relatively short chapters. In a way, this echoes the multiple threads running through Ministry for the Future, so perhaps this reflects the evolution of Robinson’s writing style overall. Most reviewers seem to like this approach; GG is no savant on the subject, so moves on to things he does have some understanding of.

This might be one of the more popular books to consider geology from the viewpoint of a non-geologist since John McPhee’s series that was eventually published as Annals of the Former World. Sadly, while McPhee somehow navigated the nuances of geologic terminology fairly successfully, Robinson struggles when he ventures in that direction. For GG this was kind of off-putting as so much of the remainder of the book was really interesting. (GG was a bit surprised that Robinson loved Jim Moore’s book enough to call it out in the text; while it is a good book, GG’s review was a bit less flattering, and the subsequent quarter century has seen some relevant work done on the range).

Before diving into the geology in the volume, it is worth contemplating Robinson’s fascination with placenames. Several chapters are devoted to names that should be removed, names that are good, etc. At first this puzzled GG, but then the realization hit that place names are a bit of a crutch here. If you don’t know Dusy Basin from a washbasin, a lot of this book will leave you either searching for an atlas or just letting all those names wash over you. But if you know the range, these names will evoke mental pictures and a framework of the travels the author is presenting, and it is hard not to think that this was in fact true for the author as well. Certainly many of the stories would be just as interesting without the place names, but Robinson is pretty consistent in putting those names in. In fact, you could almost wish for an index to be able to find specific descriptions of certain places. Descriptions of a couple of the travels in some areas GG isn’t so familiar with were frustrating in trying to mentally assemble the landscape from a gazetteer’s worth of names, but areas where he was familiar the text seemed to flow smoothly. Does that make it a book really only for Sierra-philes? Whatever the answer, it does make clear why place names are so central to the book.

Anyways, let’s start with the geological low points and move upward from there.

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Wilderness in “High Sierra: A Love Story”

Elsewhere GG will discuss the geological speculations in Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book, “The High Sierra: A Love Story” but here he wants to consider wilderness (and Wilderness) as discussed in the penultimate chapter in the book. [GG has discussed wilderness a lot; just search on wilderness and you can sample some of that].

Robinson seeks to defend the protection of the range by advancing a simple argument. Complaining about wilderness never having been empty of people (and therefore without merit) is trivial compared to the fact that the most valuable lands to Native Americans were lowlands that have been thoroughly privatized. Besides, people weren’t actually living in the high country of the Sierra anyways. And as we now face a need to preserve wild ecosystems, these wildernesses that were preserved are an essential part of any rewilding program.

There is a lot to unpack. Yes, the most damaging land withdrawals were from lowlands and not the alpine scenery so beloved by Robinson. But the myth of virgin landscapes didn’t come from those privatized lowlands, it came from the writings of Muir and his followers, reveling in the lands they described as free of human impurity. And that myth has done real damage, from the massive suppression of forest fires to wholesale changes in ecosystems previously managed by Native peoples. So yes, damage to Native peoples was a lot worse in other places, but the erasure of them from lands nearly everywhere was greatly aided by their erasure from these “wild” places.

And was nobody living in the mountains? Really? This from an author who rhapsodizes about the vast piles of obsidian flakes he finds at scenic spots in the high mountains? Go back and read the accounts of the Bartleson-Bidwell party’s crossing of the Sierra. There were native folks all over the place that this party kept trying to maneuver around. Or even the encounters that Fremont’s famed winter crossing of the Sierra had; they were constantly seeking information from local Indians. Or the requests from the Whitney survey (which included Robinson hero Clarence King) for an armed military detachment to accompany their field party into the mountains just a couple years before Muir’s appearance. Or maybe sit with a park archeologist and discuss the number of archeological sites in the high country. No, people did not live in this landscape all year long…but they did live in it in the summers, burning the edges of meadows, harvesting onions and other plants, hunting game. That part of the lives of those people was ripped away, and while, as Robinson notes, this was mostly by the actions of miners and hunters and timber barons and railroad builders, it was further justified by claiming these people simply weren’t ever here. Pretending their presence was utterly ephemeral and immaterial is disregarding reality.

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“The Ministry for the Future” review

OK, well judging from the book’s cover, another review is utterly unnecessary, but here we are and GG can’t resist.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction writings have had an interesting trajectory. His Mars trilogy was in many ways treading a path through areas where much science fiction has roamed, though his view was not to take some moment from some terraforming of the planet as a setting for a story, his was the story of how the Red Planet might be made blue and green. You kind of wonder if Elon Musk read this (though the politics are wildly different). The next grand solar system level novel, 2312, saw humanity spread through the system, though in this case Robinson returned to a more traditional narrative framework. But Earth made something of an appearance here, hinting at books to come. Seemingly wanting to tamp down enthusiasm bred from the previous expansive books, especially the terraforming of Mars, came Aurora, whose interstellar journey ended with disaster. The optimism in Robinson’s works came through again, as rather than the more likely end of the mission in the deaths of all, he engineers the return of the craft with some of the crew’s descendants, allowing them to decry the decay of Earth and seek its restoration. The focus finally shifts to Earth in New York 2140, which seems quite bleak as global warming has wreaked havoc and New York City is partially flooded. And yet people persist in seeking solutions and making life better. In this novel, interludes from an omniscient observer of the general situation puncture the narrative, providing backdrop, context, and political commentary damning the authors of this calamity. We’ll pass over Red Moon, which in many ways is an investigation of how China works in some future, and come up to The Ministry for the Future, which carries Robinson into that most fraught time frame for science fiction: tomorrow’s headlines. This is perilously close to being a non-fiction book…

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Understanding numbers

One of the frustrating things during this pandemic has been watching public officials and media commentators utterly misunderstand the numbers they are repeating. In essence, some numbers are really reflecting an apples to oranges comparison. So, as a public service, let’s tear apart one such example. Over at the New York Times, Bret Stephens (who has caught a breakthrough case of COVID-19) said this:

“The scary news is the abrupt rise in cases in New Mexico, where nearly a quarter of recent hospitalizations involve fully vaccinated patients. Seems to me like a pretty good argument for making booster shots immediately available for the entire adult population, nationwide. “

NY Times “The Conversation” for Nov. 15, 2021

OK, so “nearly a quarter” is 23%. Which is a touch higher than Colorado’s 18%. But we need to do a few corrections, one that is easy and others that are hard. At the end of that, this maybe isn’t quite the argument it seems; in fact, it seems the vaccines continue to provide roughly 94% protection against hospitalization.

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“Go Educate Yourself”

How many Twitter exchanges, comment threads or even over the fence arguments ended with this phrase? There is something essentially American about this; somehow GG suspects that in some other parts of the world the response might be “you need to have a better education.” The difference between those two phrases represents a yawning chasm in understanding, one we need to bridge before we are so entombed in our comfy bubbles that no amount of reality can shake us to better know the world around us. Educating yourself means that you are intrinsically capable of identifying materials suitable for overcoming personal ignorance. Being educated implies the presence of an educator trained in getting people past their ignorance.

Right now, America stands naked to the world as a society utterly incapable of addressing a pandemic. Government officials often seem hellbent on ignoring public health experts. Armed crowds demand the elimination of public health orders even as sickness increases. In fact, it often seems like Americans are dedicated to seeing how rapidly they can spread the coronavirus, joining up by the tens of thousands in Sturgis or having massive house parties in Los Angeles. All while the U.S. has seen cases grow to 10 times that of the more populous European Union. So just where are folks educating themselves?

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Blowing Up Planets

OK, shouldn’t be news that the latest (last?) Star Wars film once again has given bad guys the means to blow up planets. While this is a very Star-Warsy thing to do, the notion kicks around from time to time (for instance, the Doomsday Machine of TOS Star Trek destroyed planets).  What would it take to blow up a planet?

Well, a quick approximation for the total potential energy of a uniform Earth is about – 2 x 10³² J (that is relative to everything being out at an infinite distance). To blow it up so all the pieces go far, far away would require roughly that amount of  energy (maybe more as you’d lose energy to phase transitions in the rock, lost energy to radiated light and heat, etc.). One way to do this might be to park a package of antimatter at the center and use E= mc², so m= 1.25 x 10^15 kg, or 1.25 teratons of antimatter (about 2 x 10^-8 percent of the mass of the Earth, or about 0.05% of the mass of the Death Star). That is a boat load of antimatter! Even allowing for just shattering the planet enough to make a pile of asteroids, you would need a whole lot of antimatter…

The Sun puts out about 3.8×10^26 watts continuously or about 1.4×10^30 J per hour, so to get to 2 x 10³² J of total energy we need to capture all the Sun’s output for about 100 hours. Hey, that feels more doable! Though tossing that blanket around the Sun would be a big ask…

While Star Trek went the antimatter route with its doomsday machine, Star Wars prefers big bright laser blasts.  But how does this work? The Physics of Star Wars took this pretty literally and imagined the laser igniting large oil deposits or, in the absence of that, melting the planet.  Frankly, neither of these seem likely (though some good news: melting the planet probably easier than blowing it up). As the book noted, to blow things up you’d need a mix of oxygen and volatile fuel, but such fuels are embedded in a reducing environment in the subsurface. So your odds of getting these to react in a proper ratio are about nil–you’d need space-based hydrofracking extraordinaire. And of course you’d have to hit such deposits where they are (most of the Earth’s crust lacks oil deposits). If Earth had perhaps 10,000 billion barrels of oil, burning it all might buy you about 6 x 10^22 J of energy–a mere factor of 10 billion too small to properly blow up our planet. So tossing in natural gas as well probably isn’t going to get us where we need to go.

Is there a way to make anything deeper become explosive? Frankly, it seems hard.  Our giant laser would bore a hole into the planet, probably vaporizing rock. The deeper this goes, the more pressure the rock is under and so volatilization could generate some pretty good forces, kind of like diatremes that erupt from the mantle at supersonic speeds. But that is mostly like opening a shaken can of soda: the forces developed are unlikely to really do much damage. Eventually the giant laser might go all the way through the planet. Conduction of heat from the big hole would be relatively slow, so even getting the planet to melt would probably not work well from this mode of attack; the greatest efficiency might well be flow of core material into the path of the laser. It seems implausible that this gas (well, plasma more likely) could exert an even greater force than the original metal core (more than likely, material would shoot back up the hole bored by the laser). Whether you could get stuff at those pressures to expand much at all (let alone go to gas) is problematic. So even if you hit the levels of being able to sink that kind of energy into a beam of energy, it is really hard to get your desired explosion.

And really, why blow up the planet?  Even if you want to remove all life on the surface, it is a lot easier to fling huge quantities of dust or gravel into the atmosphere to produce a global microwave environment or toss a big boulder into oceans to create monster tsunamis and the like. You can come back later and reuse the planet for something else.  Wasting all your effort on a galactic firecracker seems unwise, not to mention undoable.

The Pessimists Have It

Story in the New York Times on how climate scientists blew it–that climate change is already much worse than expected.

This was inevitable for a couple of reasons.  First, it was obvious almost from the very start that the biggest effects were going to be in the high latitudes (when GG taught historical geology, this point was made by looking at paleotemperature in the Cretaceous, which were much higher at high latitudes while perhaps only slightly higher in the tropics). Most of the IPCC reports did not attempt to include increased melting of ice or releases from permafrost, in large part because efforts to include these elements were viewed as too speculative.  And this then points to the main reason why thing seem to be unravelling fast: there was (and is) tremendous pressure to focus on the minimal impacts of climate change, which we discussed once before.

So what were these forces for moderation? Start with the science itself. Science is astonishingly conservative. If you are showing that something will occur, you have to show that the low-end assumptions will yield a significant change compared to the status quo. So the focus is not on the worst case, it is on the best case.

Then there is science building on science. This is the same problem: if you are working on, say, glacial melting, you are taking results from some other studies (which, as noted above, are likely already conservative) and again, you are looking to show what the minimum impact might be. So if we were working at, say, the 95% limit in the first study, we could be at the 99.75% level if the second study.

Now, the scientists working on this were well aware that the published literature was decidedly focused on the most conservative possibilities; there was plenty of concern that things could be a lot worse than those papers were showing.  After all, forecasting has large uncertainties–if the conservative results were showing melting glaciers and acidifying oceans, the most radical results were daunting in the extreme.

This leads to the next pressure to minimize impacts: wanting to appear reasonable to policy makers. These scientists were very sensitive to assaults on them as being alarmists. The result was that the already conservative published literature was then presented as more likely than it probably was. This is especially true for the more derivative impacts of climate change: the amount of warming hasn’t been horribly misanticipated, but ice melting has.

Finally, of course, we have “both-side-ism,” which was rather cleverly attacked by John Oliver a few years back. Because media managers decided that this was something that was controversial, they would bring on “pro” and “con” speakers, disregarding expertise in the field. The result is that there remains a steady stream of op-eds and editorial cartoons that question whether the globe is warming–a stance that is clearly, uncontrovertibly wrong.

So, you might think, things like that NY Times piece mean this is all behind us, right? Wrong.  As the story mentions, we’ve discovered that there are some unanticipatedly large feedbacks. Surface melting on glaciers can accelerate their flow into the ocean. The Antarctic ice sheet has proven vulnerable in ways unanticipated two decades ago. Loss of sea ice might also reduce clouds, enhancing the albedo problems that the loss of sea ice alone represents. Marine clathrates are still not on the agenda for IPCC but could be a huge problem later in the century. And, of course, we have the most anti-science administration probably ever in the U.S. There are few encouraging signs: some species are proving somewhat more resilient than expected, for instance, but on balance the pessimists are proving to be more prescient.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered; the report at the time claimed that more than 30 New Yorkers failed to call the police. The line that stood out in the story was from one witness who said “I didn’t want to get involved”. For decades this story was used to encourage people to act instead of turn away when witnessing .

Today it is the planet itself under attack. We are all part of the attack, and we are all witnesses who can try to prevent it from being fatal. The victims are those young enough to bear the full brunt of our inaction. When we die, will we be apologizing to our heirs by uttering the line “I didn’t want to get involved?”

Unprepared…or uninterested?

Recently an interview with NASA chief scientist Jim Green by The Sunday Telegraph led to a number of stories with titles like “the world may not be ready for the discovery” or “world is ‘not prepared’” or “Humans aren’t ready to accept there’s life on Mars“.

Um, really? Exactly what preparation do these folks think we need? I mean, will there be panic in the streets? “OMG, there are MICROBES in ROCKS on another planet MILLIONS of miles away! Let’s riot!” Do we need to take remedial biology classes? Will the Pope abandon Christianity? Is it time to upgrade our planetary defense systems? Should Trump’s Space Force be put on high alert? What exactly does Dr. Green fear?

(Frankly, GG is not remotely as optimistic as Dr. Green; to say “where there is water there is life” is not even accurate on earth–there is water in magma, gang, and not much in the way of life in that molten rock–and previously optimistic outlooks such as accompanied the original Viking lander proved to be misplaced. But whatever, could happen).

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Why Alabama Matters

A week ago on Sept. 1, President Trump tweeted out what seemed, on the face of it, to be a pretty innocuous message: “In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!” Later, in a briefing on Dorian, he said “It may get a little piece of a great place — it’s called Alabama. And Alabama could even be in for at least some very strong winds and something more than that, it could be. This just came up, unfortunately.”

The National Weather Service in Birmingham 20 minutes after the tweet put out their own tweet that Alabama would not be seeing significant impacts of the storm–which proved to be correct. And here is the National Hurricane Center’s map from their 5 am 1 Sept. update on Dorian:


(You can see the full collection of graphics at the National Hurricane Center’s site). Now such plots are routinely misread (winds extend out tens of miles from the storm’s center, for instance, and tracks in days 4 and 5 are often missed about a third of the time), but the forecast probability for tropical storm force winds barely nicked Alabama, while showing a greater threat to Virginia, Maryland and Delaware:


What followed bordered on slap-stick comedy that echoed many other times when the administration’s message was misaligned with reality, such as his first encounter with misbehaving weather when he said it wasn’t raining at his inauguration when it was. But this time some things were different: Trump had potentially panicked people in Alabama, and his defense utterly muddled the ongoing warnings of the actual impact of Dorian on the southeast coast.

While this administration’s many U-turns in public pronouncements along with over the top grandstanding and “what-aboutisms” have long been fodder for political pundits, few if any of those pronouncements carried the weight of “this affects what you should be doing right now.” Of course the weather service in Alabama had to react when Trump said that emerging information indicated that Alabama was at risk when it wasn’t. People in Alabama needed the best information so they might prepare–or, in this case, not.

Had Trump simply said “sorry, misspoke thinking of some graphs I saw four days ago” nobody really would have thought much about this; the storm’s post-Bahamas track had been very troubling for forecasters and some confusion was understandable, if regrettable. But by instead insisting he had spoken correctly and showing a fairly old (and doctored) map of Dorian’s path just as Dorian was turning to chew up the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the President risked confusing residents of coastal areas about when and where the storm would strike.

The last straw for many was the attempt by NOAA to appease the President, claiming that graphics like those above that show he was right even though they rather clearly show he was wrong.

There can be a lot of disagreement about how a President should behave and what policies he should advocate, but inflicting worry and possible chaos in potentially life-threatening situations is outside those bounds. In a way, this seems like a continuation of the administration’s war on science. We need a President to help warning those who should be warned–or just staying out of the way–not bickering over an errant tweet. Especially when the sole purpose is to pretend that the President is always right.

Is J.J. Abrams Saving Science?

Its taken GG quite awhile to figure out the game J.J. Abrams is playing, but with the last Star Wars trailer release, things are finally starting to clear up.  You see, he is really trying to save science from the clutches of the movies.

Now, GG has been a tad critical once or twice but now sees the light. All that disregard of, oh, time or space or energy or light speed or aerodynamics or, well, physics in general wasn’t ignorance.  No, seeing in the preview the wreckage of a Death Star plopped out at sea reminded GG of the big spaceships in The Force Awakens that somehow landed on a planet in more or less one piece–clearly implausible, but now, having dropped a bigger piece of Death Star structure into an ocean now clearly challenges basic engineering, both as the craft had become nothing more than little sparkles when last we saw it and also because in plummeting to ground it would have broken apart even further and then ended up facing real gravity in a strange direction that would have surely collapsed the thing. (Not to mention it probably would have rusted profoundly sitting in water).

No, this ever-increasing incredulity is Abrams clearly saying to us all: these are total and complete fantasies.  Nothing would ever look anything like this, not TIE fighters skimming along the ground, not energy blasts instantly visible from distant star systems, not blasters or laser swords or Force ghosts…. No matter how real filmmakers can make the impossible look, it remains impossible. Don’t learn your science here, young ones!

So J.J., we applaud your efforts to free the public from any illusion that fancy special effects reproduce reality in any way shape or form.  Bravo!