31 December, 2006

Whenceforth my blogging?

‘Tis the season for navel-gazing, and appropriately enough the New Year also marks the end of a full year of blogging for me (although I first posted to Highly Allochthonous in September 2005, it was not until last January that I started putting a sustained effort into it). Now, therefore seems an apt time to assess how my little project has been going, and where I see it going next.

I’ve managed 112 posts this year – just over two a week. As most of them are reasonably substantial affairs - rather than simply links or clips posted without commentary - I’m happy enough with that level of productivity. With the whole of Earth Sciences to choose to write about, it’s time rather than a lack of material which prevents me producing more, and who knows, as I get better at this style of communication, I might even manage it.

Of course, the great thing about blogging is that I can write about whatever interests me. But more important for me personally has been the fact that in order to write a decent post about something, I need to read and think about the subject a bit – sometimes a lot - more than perhaps I would have done pre-blog. And this attitude is permeating my life: nowadays, even if I don’t end up posting something about it, I find myself looking more into things than perhaps I did before. A healthy attitude, methinks; the only risk is that perhaps I spend more time in front of my computer researching blog posts than is strictly healthy.

Furthermore, as reassurance that this is not just a massive exercise in self-indulgent ego-stroking, my readership, whilst not vast, is growing, and as a nice bonus I have recently picked up some semi-regular commentators. I’ve even attracted my first creationistID troll. It’s quite nice to think that what I’m writing is of some interest to other people, as well as being fun for me.

And as for next year – well, some changes are afoot in my life, which are obviously going to have an impact, but hopefully the blogging will continue.

30 December, 2006

Philosophia Naturalis #5: Call for submissions

On January the 4th, this blog will host Philosophia Naturalis, the physical sciences and technology blog carnival. If you've written something good about physics, astronomy, earth sciences, gadgetry or any other relevent topic, send me a link and share your sciblogging wisdom with a wider audience. Also feel free to share any other good stuff you've found in your browsings. My email address (now in the sidebar) is c.j.rowan * at * gmail.com. Send in your nominations before you get yanked away from the internet and forced to interact with your families, so that we all get a nice treat to recover from the trauma in the New Year.

To those of you with your own blogs - given that HA is not (yet) read by everyone on the Internet, I'd appreciate if you'd cross-post this call for submissions to get the word out a bit further. I'll refrain from threatening cephalopod infants this time...

Note:Using the awesome power of Blogger, this will remain the headline post until after Christmas, and new stuff will appear below it. That's the plan, anyway.

07 December, 2006

Hold your Martian horses

I share Emily’s slight disquiet over the spin applied to the latest (and possibly last) results from Mars Global Surveyer. This is not to say that pictures like this (source) don’t get me very excited:

However, let’s be clear on what we can say for sure. The deposit which appears in the later photo on the top right, and is magnified in the bottom right image, has features very suggestive of fluid-like flow: it appears to be diverted around elevated topography, and fans out at the end. And we strongly suspect that any water on Mars will have very high concentrations of mineral salts, meaning that the lighter colour of the new feature might plausibly be explained by these salts being left behind on the surface when flowing water sublimes away in Mars’s puny atmosphere. However, in the absence of spectrometry to analyse the composition, there are still alternatives to water, such as liquid carbon dioxide, or dust flows.

In the midst of all this excitement I wondered whether there was any more data coming in from MARSIS, the radar instrument on Mars Express. It’s been more than a year since I blogged about preliminary indications of subsurface water ice beneath Chryse Planitia (at mid-latitudes, like the crater gulleys being scrutinised by NASA). Very little seems to have been released since; the only reference I found was a throwaway remark in this nice summary article:

"MARSIS has shown that many of the upper layers of Mars contain water ice," says Jeffrey Plaut of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, who is the co-Principal Investigator on the MARSIS experiment.

Interestingly, most of the article is discussing spectrometry results which show how early standing water on Mars seems to have been fairly quickly locked away in clay minerals, sulphates, and red ferric oxides. But pure water may still be around, in the form of subsurface permafrost which in some places may be quite close to the surface. The Global Surveyor pictures hint that this arrangement may not be completely stable. And dynamic processes, even on a small scale, are exciting; change leads to disturbances from equilibrium, and interesting chemistry, which are the sorts of things that life thrives on.

Either way, results like this show exactly how the decision to send a succession of probes to Mars to place it under close, continuous observation is paying real scientific dividends.

Two carnivals for the price of one!

Dan Collins over at Down To Earth has been enthusiastically earning his sciblogging spurs this week, managing to organise not one, but two, blog carnivals. Go join the grand voyage of discovery that is Tangled Bank #68, or read the latest and best musings on physical sciences and technology at Philosophia Naturalis #4. Or both.

The next edition of Philosophia Naturalis will be hosted by this most 'umble blogger on January the 4th. I'll be sorting out an official call for submissions shortly, but anyone who's particularly keen can send suggestions to me at c.j.rowan *at* gmail *dot* com. Alternatively, go here , where you can also volunteer to host. No signing in blood required, I assure you.

Truth In Science on Newsnight

Via Richard Dawkin's website, I've been made aware that Truth in Science recently featured on Newsnight. The clip posted there rather annoyingly cuts off before the end of the segment, but I've found another, full version on YouTube:

The report states that 59 secondary schools (out of 4,230) have accepted the Truth in Science packs, although again there is no indication of how this number was arrived at, or what "accepted" means: wrote effusive thank you note? didn't return it or say they'd binned it? The interview at the end involves Paxman, head of Truth in Science Andy Macintosh, and Lewis Wolpert. I'd love to say otherwise, but Wolpert didn't do very well really. There was lots of huffing and puffing about how "it's not science, it's religion"; this is true, of course, but makes him easy to charicature as a "flustered defender of the crumbling Darwinian Orthodoxy". To be effective in such situations, pro-science people need to stay calm, and focus on getting some important points out to the average viewer:

  • Scientists have no trouble with criticism of evolution, or any theory - that's how science works, and how it progresses. But we'd prefer those criticisms not be ones that have been shown, time and again, to be flawed. For example, any criticism which rails against "random chance" is not a criticism of evolution, because it's ignoring the 'selection' part of natural selection.
  • Furthermore, to properly interpret criticism you need a firm theoretical understanding of the theory you're criticising. The level of instruction provided by the National Curriculum is scant enough, without muddying the waters further with pseudoscience that the students are ill-equipped to evaluate rigorously.
  • And let's be clear - "evolution can't explain x, therefore ID" is not an example of the scientific method in action, and "an unspecified intelligence at some point did something to DNA by some unspecified mechanism" is not a scientific hypothesis. When you make some positive hypotheses about the nature of God- sorry, The Designer- and when and how he has done his designing, and show (by experiment, not assertion) that your hypotheses explain the facts better than evolution does, then biologists might start taking ID seriously.
  • Please, please stop waffling on about information being separate from energy and matter. Information is a property of energy and matter. It's like saying that you can have "chocolate flavour" without the ice cream.

Sadly, in this case I think the only hit was scored by Paxman when he pressed Macintosh on who he thought the Designer was - and got nothing but weasel in reply.

06 December, 2006

Spotting geologists in the wild

Here is a good place to start for pointers (although the socks+sandals thing is a lie perpetuated by people jealous of the ease with which we get other people to pay us to go on holiday):

Geologists are 'scientists' with an unnatural obsession with rocks and alcohol. Often too smart to do boring monotonous sciences like chemistry or physics, geologists devote their time to mud-worrying, volcano spotting and high-risk colouring in.

One of the main difficulties in communicating with geologists is their belief that a million years is a short amount of time. Consequently, such abstract concepts as "Tuesday Morning" and Lunchtime are completely beyond their comprehension.

To spot a geologist in the wild, look for:
  • Socks worn with sandals, unless the wearer is German.
  • Hand-lens, compass, pen-knife, handcuffs etc. tied round neck with string.
  • Ownership of a pet rock (in the case of palaeontologists, this will be their closest friend).
  • Overenthusiasm on the subject of dinosaurs.
  • Someone explaining to airport security that a rock hammer isn't really a weapon.
  • Takes photos, includes people only for scale, and has more pictures of rock hammer and lens cap than of his family.
  • Someone with collection of beer cans/bottles rivals the size of his rock collection.
  • Someone who brings beer instead of water when hiking.
  • Someone with unnatural amounts of facial hair and wears lots of polar fleece.
  • Someone whose lunch consists of rocks, instead of ordinary bread.
  • Someone who consumes tonsil-killing chili for dinner every night of the week, and warms it up in a can on the drill rig engine block.
  • Often has hair in a pony-tail (this applies to male or female geologists).
  • Someone who considers a "recent event" to be anything that has happened in the last hundred thousand years.
  • Someone who licks and/or scratches & sniffs rocks.
  • Someone who eats dirt and claims to be "getting an estimate of grain size"
Follow the link to the Uncyclopedia, Wikipedia's "very special" cousin, for more. It seems that they recognise the importance of us Geologists in the scientific ecosystem, because as yet only the Physicists have had similar treatment (well, Geographers have too, but we all know that they're wannabes).

05 December, 2006

Point urgently required

Clearly I’m having an off week, because I’m having trouble seeing the logic which justifies a couple of recently announced, grandiose projects:

  • The maintenance and eventual replacement of Trident. It seems that the UK government is convinced of the worth of our ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent (the White Paper can be found here ), which (a) relies on us renting missiles from the US, (b) at best weasels around, and at worst flagrantly breaches, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (either way, we look like hypocrites), and (c) seems unlikely to deter (in the government’s own words) fanatical terrorist groups hell-bent on destroying western civilisation; even if they have state sponsors, are we really going to nuke an entire city of people in retaliation for the secret acts of some members of their government? Ye gods, according to Wikipedia, we are. Ulp.

    In terms of unforeseen “conventional” threats to deter, when asked point blank on Channel 4 News last night about exactly which countries might pose a strategic nuclear threat in the future, Defence Minister Des Browne replied (being mercifully succinct by his normal standards) that “we all know who they are.” Colour me unenlightened, then, because I can’t see North Korea or Iran wasting what capability they may eventually develop on us when there are much closer and more obvious targets. Likewise, amongst the present nuclear powers, for India, Pakistan and Israel. This leaves Russia and China (who seem unlikely to want to bomb major export customers back into the Stone Age), France, and the US.

    This is beside the point anyway: if we don’t want other people threatening us with nuclear weapons, isn’t saying “erm, actually maybe we should hang on to ours”, rather than working towards disarmament, more likely to produce a world where this becomes a danger? The only true advantage that I can see (beyond keeping our shipyards busy) is that it keeps us on the UN Security Council; but has that exalted position garnered us any real benefit in the last 30 years, beyond being able to fool ourselves into thinking we are still a major mover and shaker in world affairs?

  • NASA’s moonbase. NASA has announced plans to set up a permanent base on the moon. Leaving aside the question is whether the vast sums being diverted to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond Program is worth losing lots of cool robotic missions (which believe, it or not, is a tough one for me - what breathing geologist would not want the opportunity to swing their hammer on Mars?), what is building a lunar base meant to achieve? Technology testing? I’m not sure that the Moon is such a close match to Martian conditions that it is worth the expense and difficulty. To increase the chances of novel scientific output? We could always do with some more lunar rocks, and the astronomers would also be tempted, but forgive me for being cynical. As part of a long-term strategy of establishing a permanent human presence beyond low Earth orbit? Stop laughing. I fear that this will go the way of the ISS: huge amounts of money in, very little tangible out other than the fact that it exists. You can read more commentary on this at Cosmic Variance.

So what is it with government and their agencies? I doubt I could get one of the funding councils to give me a teeny fraction of the billions these projects are going to eat up without being a lot more specific about exactly why it’s worth it.