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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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Precise Opposition

GG has previously been frustrated with the combination of imprecise speech of anti-fracking groups as well as the double speak of industry. The reason you might want to be precise might be well illustrated by a recent home explosion in Colorado.

The exploding house killed two men working on a hot water heater in the basement; usually when you hear these things, it turns out there is a gas leak or something like that in play. The startling news has been the move by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to shut down 3000 wells they are operating while the wells are checked out (that is more than 5% of the active wells in the state). The exploded house was 170 feet from a 1993 well reactivated this past January. Although a new well can not be drilled there, houses can be built that close to existing wells (these houses are only a couple years old).

Oil companies are loathe to shut down operations (see opposition to claims of induced earthquakes, for instance). Shutting down this number of wells even as investigators are saying that they still don’t know what happened strongly suggests something may have gone wrong. Given that the oil company feels that shutting down wells is likely to reduce a risk, they are presumably not thinking that any gas leaked up around a bad casing job in the well but instead are concerned there might be leaks in the underground lines connecting wells to pipelines or storage facilities.

And here’s the thing.  This is not a modern, horizontally-drilled heavily fracked well. This is one of those older-style vertical wells. So when anti-fracking groups say they don’t want to stop oil and gas development but do want to stop fracking (as was the case in Longmont, Colorado a couple years back), this is the kind of well they think is OK. So once again a reminder: fracking is very rarely a cause of problems, but all the other stuff with oil and gas development is the real problem people are complaining about.

The irony might well be that if Anadarko’s infrastructure was the cause of the blast, there is likely to be enough of an outcry to allow far more stringent rules on any new oil and gas development–even though a blast caused by a leak of a subdivision gas supply line would probably not shut down the use of natural gas in houses. So “anti-fracking” groups might get their wish not because of fracking problems per se but because houses were built in the vicinity of active oil and gas operations.

(Equally ironic is the request from the Boulder County Board of Supervisors for companies to shut down all their vertical wells in the county–apparently unaware that it is the near-surface infrastructure that could be the problem, which can exist at both directional and vertical well pads).

It should be interesting to see what happens. Almost certainly it points to a need to check up on the older oil and gas infrastructure in the state. Whether it changes the politics of new oil and gas operations remains to be seen.

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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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.

Boys Clubhouse, 2017 edition

Update 2/11/17 (International Women in Science Day). The Atlantic has a dispiriting piece on how scientists of color are not gaining ground in academia.  The causes sound a lot like like the story below. Apparently we white male scientists like what we see in the mirror far too much.

Years ago (um, 1980s), there was a conversation between a young female geoscientist and a prestigious professor from a Major Research School.  Prestigious Prof said that they really wanted to hire a woman but there weren’t any who measured up scientifically.  The female geoscientist immediately ticked off the names of five or six women scientists who would have been fine hires. Several are now American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fellows. Who was right?

It would be easy to write off Prestigious Prof as a sexist pig, but he really wasn’t; it was more being blinded by his own landmarks for excellence in his field.  The effect, though, was to engage in de facto sexual discrimination. It was many more years before the Major Research School hired a female faculty member, all the more surprising because all through this time their graduate students were nearly 1:1 female to male.

The lesson is that thinking you are open minded doesn’t mean you are.  And while female participation in the sciences continues to grow, there are still corners of possible discrimination. One of the more surprising showed up in an Ars Technica report today: For AGU journals, women are asked to review papers less often than would be expected from their representation in the field. The conclusion of the study cited was that this was mainly because women were asked less often to review papers, although they were turning requests down at a slightly higher rate than men.

Now this is talking relatively small percentage differences, not the giant goose egg of female faculty back at ol’ MRS in the 80s. And the assumption that this is an important part of developing as a scientist that the Ars piece accepts is debatable (for most of us, reviewing is a chore, especially if it is a poor paper and really especially if it is a poor paper outside our immediate sphere of interest, but it does force you to look at some literature closely).  But let’s accept the premise and ask, why are women asked less often? Could be bias from the editors (or, more typically for the AGU journals, the associate editors) but it can also be bias from authors, who will usually suggest reviewers and editors will often take one of those suggestions. All of which amounts to a subtler discrimination than what women endured in years past.  There can be a feedback amplifying the slightly higher percentage of review requests turned down by women: many journals will show the reviewing history of a reviewer to an editor, and if you see somebody has been turning down review requests, you think twice before asking them to review your paper. But there might be something more in play, and so it would be interesting to know if female editors engage in this too.  Why? Because as the most prominent underrepresented group in earth science, women are far more frequently asked to serve on a dizzying array of committees in order to be sure the committees are representative of diversity (GG has observed this up close). Now this can be a good thing if a high-profile committee, but an awful lot are busywork. So it is also possible that editors are sometimes choosing to protect female faculty from even more demands on their time (recall, most of us view reviewing a service burden and not the highlight of our days); if female editors do this as much or more than male editors, maybe this is the real reason. Even so, such paternalism is explicit discrimination, even if well-intentioned–even if done by women editors with the thought of helping other women scientists.

Frankly, GG would be happy to share the load. And so he’ll be trying to suggest female scientists as reviewers of papers he declines.

Should Science March On or Stand Pat?

Reported gag orders, statements that scientific claims were invented and a general dismissal of science have encouraged a number of scientists to coordinate a march on Washington sometime in the near future [Update: March is set for Earth Day, April 22, 2017]. But as an op-ed in the New York Times argues, is this a good idea?

The simplest answer might well be, if this is partisan, it probably is a bad idea. If it is not, it may well be a good one. At the moment, it is clearly reacting to dismissal of science on the right, but in fact parts of the political left have been just as eager at times to promote scare stories over scientific analysis (See vaccine-autism scares, genetic engineering scares, homeopathic medicine, some of the scares over fracking). There is a growing tendency to discount science that challenges your personal beliefs on both ends of the political spectrum.

Perhaps the march could include panels or marching sections like “why I believe in climate change even though I voted for Donald Trump” along side “why I believe genetical engineered food is safe despite supporting politicians who don’t.”Scientists who do research on these topics generally cease to toe their party’s line, and that should be the point. Science is a mechanism to try and overcome our own biases and predispositions.

There is not, as yet, a war on science as a whole in the U.S. Science has been far too useful in general to discard. Would the right really want to end all scientific research, including research that helps find natural resources, or makes cheaper airplanes, or faster computers? No. We will need scientific expertise more and more over time within legislative and judicial chambers as life gets more complex. We need as a society for science to be as respected as it continues to be, otherwise we risk being led astray by charlatans and biases.

The op-ed does suggest one form of marching: being involved in a community so that people know a scientist and don’t simply assume scientists are political animals. Although GG’s home community is swarming with scientists, when doing fieldwork, GG has been in corners of the country that don’t see scientists very often. Once, for instance, GG wanted to place a seismometer on a property and met with the owner, a spry elderly woman. She was initially very guarded, railing against the government, despising the IRS who, she said, was trying to take her property from her. “Are you from the government?” “No, ma’am, I am from a university.”  GG left a flyer for her to study, and a week later she grudgingly agreed to allow the seismometer to be installed. A week after the install, she decided to come up and see the instrument with us and was intrigued.  A few weeks later, she stopped us on our way to check on the instrument and insisted we come inside to help celebrate her husband’s birthday. Her politics were probably different than GG’s, but we understood each other in better ways than that.

So, patience and manners can be rewarded.

Patterns

Just can’t pass this up in the wake of dozens of news stories trying to make sense of the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, though this is way off topic for this blog. You see, there is a more trivial explanation….

Here’s the thing: Trump’s victory fits a simple pattern present in all but one open Presidential election since Vietnam (and arguably since the 1920s).  Americans consistently pick the less established, arguably less qualified candidate when there is not an incumbent running. This was really obvious this time out, with Trump having never having served in public office, but this was true too in 2008 when the junior senator from Illinois beat out a far more senior senator from Arizona.  And in 2000 when the sitting Vice President and former senator was beaten by a relatively poorly known governor from Texas. You have to go back to 1988, when Vice President Bush beat back a challenge from Massachusetts Governor Micheal Dukakis to find a more experienced candidate winning the Presidency. Arguably the Presidency was open in 1976 when unelected President Gerald Ford was beaten by unheralded Governor Jimmy Carter.

If we go back further, this trend is a bit murkier as Presidential candidates generally had to have had considerable government service to gain their party’s nomination (i.e., the era of the “smoke-filled rooms” at conventions producing the candidates). The 1968 election between Nixon and Humphrey kind of fits this pattern, though in many ways it was between near equals. Former Vice President Nixon was out of politics for a few years while Humphrey was the sitting Vice President after a long stint as senator. But the previous two open elections fit this pattern. In 1960, Kennedy, a relatively young senator, beat out Vice President Nixon.  And in 1952 Eisenhower, a well-known general but not a man who had held elective office, beat Senator Adlai Stevenson. (And before that, the last open election was 1928, when Herbert Hoover was elected as the last of a very long line of GOP Presidents stretching back to the Civil War with only three interruptions).

Overall you get the sense that the American public is increasingly unimpressed with experience in government.  Whether this reflects an overall disgust with government or wishful projection of what voters want on less well-defined candidates is unclear. The first suggests disenchantment, the second hopefulness. It is a little unsettling in some ways: in many walks of life, you might tend to prefer the more experienced or better trained candidate for being your doctor or lawyer or roofer or even repairman. Running a government that has the world’s strongest military, to say nothing of a nuclear arsenal that can end civilization? Pick the guy who knows less about the job….

[Here’s hoping one other trend isn’t continued.  Each of the past three Republican Presidents has initiated foreign military actions (Reagan in Grenada, George H. W. Bush in Iraq, George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq).]

Will this reverse at some point or continue? We’ll see if the Democrats can find an even less qualified candidate than Trump in 2020 (or 2024 if we want to wait for an open Presidency)–presumably somebody with no government or business experience.  Hmm…could we see George Clooney or Angelina Jolie as the Democratic nominee in 2020 or 2024? (Even well-known actor Ronald Reagan served as California’s governor before becoming President). Or maybe it really will be Lisa Simpson