Thursday, December 10, 2009

Geology in the News

When a geologist tells you to get out of the way, do it. This stunning landslide footage shows a roadcrew working to clear debris from a previous slide. They got out of the way when state geologist Vanessa Bateman warned them that they were in danger.

As Geographile points out, learning geology can save your life. So can feminism. What if the roadcrew had refused to listen to a female expert?

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Very Top Five: Very Top Five... Ways to name a chemical element

Fun with Science

Very Top Five: Very Top Five... Ways to name a chemical element.

This fun article goes well with the deliciously different Periodic Table of Cupcakes. Note the snide reference to an element named after Stanford University. There isn't one. Berkeley has four.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Great Moments in Science

The Royal Society, entering its 350th anniversary year, is celebrating with a new website of 60 groundbreaking science articles. (Naturally, they published them all in the first place.) The first few articles may seem ridiculously obvious to the modern reader; the fact that dogs need air to breathe comes as no shock to us. But then, we've had the benefit of 350 years of science, instead of more than a thousand years of appealing to theology or ancient philosophers for explanations of the natural world.

The Royal Society was formed in 1660, just after the accession of Charles II. He became the society's official patron, and his backing offered them powerful protection. In those days the scientific method of experimentation was not widely accepted. Instead, physicians and scientists appealed to authority. If Aristotle said something, it must be true, even if it was demonstrably false. His claim that males have more teeth than females could have been readily disproven merely by looking into a few mouths.

But opening a mouth requires an open mind, and the few people possessing those found them dangerous. Only a few years earlier Galileo had been tried by the Inquisition for spreading the heretical idea that the earth was not the center of the solar system. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest. He was lucky not to suffer the fate of Giordano Bruno, a scientist who was burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy.

Over the decades and centuries, the Royal Society published papers on every branch of science, from physics to medicine to astronomy. Some of the papers on the web site include Isaac Newton on the physics of white light, discussions of inoculation against smallpox, and an inquiry into whether the youthful Mozart was a true prodigy or a short adult. (Prodigy.) Every article is represented by a red dot placed on a timeline that also shows other important events in western history. Mouse over the red dots to get a brief commentary and images. The silver dots show contemporary events.

The final article linked on the site has an ironic ring. It's James Lovelock's paper on fighting global warming--a scourge resulting from heedless use of advances in science. There is no question that scientists have been incredibly wrong at times; a glance into the history of medicine makes that instantly clear. Yet if there is hope for humanity, it lies in science and the willingness to keep thinking, testing, experimenting, finding new ways to do things.

It might conceivably be possible to care about science without revering the Royal Society, just as a baseball fan may not care about Cooperstown, but it's unlikely. I take my hat off to the men and women of the Royal Society and to the merry monarch, Charles II, who could so easily have driven it underground. May the Royal Society continue to flourish for centuries more.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from schoolteachers.
St. Bernard

How do you convey the essence of a redwood tree? No words, no pictures, can capture the experience of walking through a grove of them.

Redwoods lack the graceful stance of elms, the glorious color of sugar maples in autumn, the picturesquely twisted branches of oak trees. They don't even have the shapeliness of a blue spruce or a Douglas fir. In fact, they resemble extremely tall bottle-brushes.

Moreover, a hiker can see the whole only from a distance. Up close, you don't see much of the branches; they start above eye level. What you see is the reddish bark, the vast trunk, perhaps a few needles dipping low enough for your notice. They stand, calm and strong, alone or in great goosepens or in ranks on steep ridges. They carpet the woods with their shredding bark and their rusty, fragrant needles. But the simplicity of the great trunks has grace, and the fibrous bark -- the color of tea in sunlight -- has a subtle auburn glow.

And they are huge. The vast specimens in Muir Woods are among the greatest of the Coast Redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, which aren't even the most massive of the redwood family. The Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron gigantea, are thicker-trunked. But even a comparatively adolescent Coast Redwood tree can be magnificent long before it reaches its full growth of 350+ feet in height and as much as 26 feet in diameter. (Not circumference. Diameter.) They're big enough to camp out in when hollowed by fire or age. They grow taller than the Statue of Liberty on her pedestal. And they have a natural lifespan of as much as 2,000 years. Trees of 600 or 700 years old are common -- well, common in places where they haven't been clear-cut.

Walking among them is like walking in a great cathedral, or Stonehenge. They carry a sense of holiness, of calm contemplation. It's more than the effect of great size; I've been in buildings where humans were puny without feeling the upwelling of joy these forests give me.

Words can't do it. Pictures fail. But maybe this video will help. It shows the making of this large-scale photograph.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

BASEBALL: World Series, Game 1

6-1 Phillies! Robin Roberts, thou art avenged!

The Phillies made more runs in this game than they did against the Yankees in the whole four-game series in 1950. No game in that series was this kind of blowout -- all but one were decided by a single run. And although the Yankees swept that Series, it was, in the words of one Yankee, "closer than it looked." The games were tough, tense pitching duels.

A few of the Whiz Kids are still alive. Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts is taking part in the festivities. Curt Simmons, who wasn't permitted to play in the 1950 Series, having been taken by the military, is also still around.

I'm glad some of the Whiz Kids survived to see this. It is very, very sweet.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Science Fun, California Style

You can't accuse California scientists of making their work mysterious and inaccessible. They're much more likely to throw open the doors for a science party. Last week we had Impact Night, an all-night bash at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View to watch the LCROSS satellite smash into the moon. This cross between a slumber party and the iPhone's midnight product release allowed as many as a thousand curious people to watch the impact on a vast outdoor screen. They also watched movies and listened to guest speakers.

Today at 10:15AM, science will strike again when millions of Californians participate in the Great California ShakeOut, the largest earthquake drill in history. (I'll be at the DMV. I wonder if I'll need to drop, cover, and hold on.) Many schools and museums will have special activities as well as participating in the drill.

On Saturday, October 17, we're celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Loma Prieta, the earthquake that struck during the World Series.San Francisco will hold "Where Were You in 89?" neighborhood block parties as well as resource fairs for disaster preparedness. You can also play Beat the Quake online.

All this frivolity over a serious subject—is it appropriate? People have died in quakes—at least 3000 in the great 1906 earthquake, 62 in Loma Prieta. We're all at risk. Yet in my opinion, staying aware without staying terrified is the best way to handle living in a seismically active zone. (Or anywhere else, really.) And the games, fairs, parties, and drills allow people to learn and stay aware while having some fun.

California. We dance on the edge of destruction.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ground Zero Theatre

Yes, that's actually what they call the small screening room (in a simulated bomb shelter) at the Atom Testing Museum in beautiful Las Vegas, Nevada. (Just blocks from the Strip on one side and the Clark County Library on the other. The library has a vast ongoing book sale that makes it one of the best used bookstores in Las Vegas.)

The museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, is dedicated to the history of testing nuclear devices, from the days of the Manhattan Project up to the present. I thought the science was explained pretty well (Alan, the physicist, says it was adequate for lay people). I certainly will never forget the excerpt of Disney's Our Friend the Atom film. The excerpt skipped old Walt himself, but included a German scientist, hundreds of mousetraps armed with ping-pong balls, Atomic Energy as a Tom of Finland-style genie whom we can finally control, and a non-turning globe firmly focused on the Western hemisphere. Radioactivity was portrayed as a jitterbugging atom-headed creature in tie and tails, animated in every sense, leaping from one element to another. And there are rows of Geiger counters, inactive bomb cases, and vast drillheads to delight the techies.

The museum provides plenty of social context -- the Einstein letter, some newsreels, and a lot of snippets from television. The earlier ones I found utterly fascinating, because by God that was the world I was born into. There is a 1940s/1950s era office complete with--"Look, Alan, a *real* telephone!" And a non-electric typewriter, and various other objects that have faded into prehistory. The display of pop-culture atomic allusions was mostly amusing, but the cover of the old Life or Look magazine on the children of the atomic scientists was utterly chilling. Headline trumpeting that these kids have been through a score of nuclear tests. Mushroom cloud rising in the background; in the foreground, a dozen kids prone in their unnaturally clean play clothes. It didn't look like a test. It looked like a tidy massacre.

Nuclear testing is more than blowing up Bikini Atoll or the kind of underground nuclear testing that seems so routine today. They tested the relative effectiveness of aerial versus surface detonation. They tested the effects of radioactivity on various house materials. The museum even features a facsimile bomb shelter that was used in testing shelters, complete with its blond, blue-eyed mannequins: brave Dad on his feet looking about him in curiosity, seated Mom in a dark-blue wrap dress with her face turned toward Junior in his overalls. They didn't show that in fifteen years or so Junior would be a long-haired antiwar protester, Dad would be an alcoholic, and Mom would be coming out as a lesbian textile artist (after her time in the psychiatric hospital).

In addition to the testing itself, the museum gave a nod to the test sites: geology, history, and meaning to the indigenous peoples who found the arid land a sacred place of plenty. Looking at the tools they shaped, I had to ponder that they used the land with more love and more productivity than we did, and left it living for the next generation. Well, until we started exploding thermonuclear devices over, under, and on it. On the other hand, the Nevada Test Site is still used as a training ground for first responders from all over the US to learn to deal with radiation emergencies and hazardous waste.

We checked out the museum shop, looking for Ellen Klages' superb books on the kids at Los Alamos: The Green Glass Sea and White Sands, Red Menace. No dice. So I stopped at the cash register to mention them. Although the cashier seemed indifferent, the bookstore manager overheard and came out to get details. She'd been looking for books that would help kids understand it all. With the help of the iPhone, Alan was even able to provide the ISBN numbers.

Then out again into the 109-degree heat and heavy traffic of Flamingo Road. On the next block we saw two women -- one in a bikini -- trying to cross against the light. Nobody stopped for them. Nobody even paused to look.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day: Florence Bascom, Geologist

Florence Bascom became fascinated with geology while taking a driving tour with her father (president of Williams College) and a geologist friend of his. An unremarkable genesis for an earth science career, except that the driving tour must have been done by horse and carriage: Florence was born in 1862.

To put this in perspective: In the United States, 1862 was the second year of the Civil War, and one of the bloodiest: Shiloh, the Seven Days, Antietam. The Gatling gun and the iron-clad ship were the big military innovations.

President Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. He also signed into law the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Acts, which provided for the first transcontinental railroad, thus shaping the American West.

It was the year of Lady Audley's Secret, Les Miserables, and Salammbo. Thoreau died at 44. Alice in Wonderland was written. Gustave Klimt was born (same day as Florence Bascom). The Albert Memorial and Westminster Bridge were opened. Princess Alice, Queen Victoria's daughter, married Prince Louis of Hesse. Her daughter would become the last Empress of Russia.

In this world, higher education for women was a rarity. Nevertheless, Florence Bascom earned a BA and then an MS from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She became the first woman to be granted a PhD from Johns Hopkins.* She had to attend lectures behind a screen; women are not yet admitted to the university.

Then she started teaching at Bryn Mawr College, establishing their world-class geology department and training many of the great female geologists of the early twentieth century. Bascom is quoted as frequently saying that she didn't want to be the only woman geologist. She did her best to make sure she was not.

Often, though, she was the only woman in the room or in the field. Her list of firsts is impressive:

* first woman geologist hired by the USGS
* first woman to present a scientific paper at the Geological Society of Washington
* first woman officer of the Geological Society of America

Florence Bascom isn't important just for being the first woman. She made major contributions to earth science. She invented techniques that used microscopic analysis in the study of oil-bearing rocks. She was a major pioneer in igneous petrology. Her analysis of the complex orogeny of the folded-and-faulted Appalachians is still the basis for understanding certain aspects of Pennsylvania geology.

Nor was she merely an armchair geologist; she emphasized the importance of fieldwork. She also strongly encouraged independent thinking in her students, which is how she and two of her former students became involved in the Wissahickon controversy, the first all-female scientific controversy. They conducted their disagreement with scholarly courtesy. (Yes, Florence was right, although recent discoveries have fine-tuned the picture.)

Even after being acknowledged as one of the top 100 geologists in the United States, she continued learning. In 1906 she visited Germany to study theories of petrology. What she learned there helped her understand the formation of the Appalachian Mountains.

After her death, this observation was found among her papers:

The fascination of any search after the truth lies not in the attainment...but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind and character are brought into play and are absorbed by the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite and one finds joy that is beyond expression in sounding the abyss of science and the secrets of the infinite mind.

*One other woman had earned a PhD, but the university did not actually grant the degree until 1926. Male chauvinism or incompetent paperwork? You decide.