27 February, 2007

The bureaucratic run-around

This morning, armed with my contract and my passport, I set out to register at my new academic home. I was told that I needed to go the International Office, which proved to be the starting point of a rather long and convoluted morning of being shunted around campus:

  • The staff at the International Office tell me I need a student number from Biographics department.

  • I head downstairs to the Biographics department, who tell me that before they can give me a student number I need to go to the Science Faculty Office to get the relevant form.

  • Across campus at the Science Faculty Office, after some confusion I get given a form, which seems more like a student degree application form than anything else, and get told that at some point I will need to pay a fee to ‘unblock’ my registration.

  • Back at the Geology department, after checking that I’m not literally on a wild goose-chase, I fill in the sections of the form which actually seem relevant.

  • Back to Biographics, who tell me that the form needs to be stamped by the International Office.

  • Upstairs at the International Office, they stamp my form, but tell me that my account must be unblocked my paying the fee at the Finance Office.

  • I venture the other way across campus to the Finance Office, where I queue for 20 minutes or so to pay the fee.

  • Back in once more to Biographics and finally get my student number.

  • Return in triumph to the International Office – they give me yet another form to take back to Finance (I’m starting to think that my first visit – and payment – was unnecessary, but no-one seems sure).

  • After shuttling between a couple of people in the Finance Office, they tell me I am now ok to register at the Science Faculty Office.

  • I return to the Science Faculty Office, where they discover my account is still blocked. After 10 minutes of phoning around (what a novel concept!) I finally get registered.

I was an undergraduate at a University that has had eight centuries to perfect its administrative opacity, but I have to admit, I’m thoroughly impressed. At least I can say that I got some exercise this morning, and got a lot of practice in finding my way around the campus.

26 February, 2007

If at first you don't get published in Nature, cheat

Just a quick plug whilst I settle in down here in Jo'burg...

Actually, I've never even tried to get properly published in Nature - I've yet to stray into fields of study that are 'sexy' enough. Nonetheless, thanks to the mysteriously vanished Postblogger's heads-up, I'm getting the chance to sneak a few words of wisdom into print, as one of this years' four Postdoc Journal keepers. 200-250 words a month might not seem like very much wisdom, but I know some very long words...

My first entry was published the Thursday before last. Quite why I was deemed worthy is uncertain - I suspect that my exotic post-doc destination probably helped matters, but I suspect that all the writing practice I've had on these pages in recent months probably helped too.

22 February, 2007

In transit

The last week or so has been... intense. The speed at which moving to another country went from a theoretical possibility to imminent reality caught me completely unawares, and I suddenly had a million things to do and too little time to do them in. Somehow I got most things organised, I suspect more due to luck than judgement, and now - with a few hitches - I'm on my way.

What's weird is that not only do I not know what to expect when I arrive in Johannesburg, but I've been so focussed on the departure date that I haven't even thought about it until now. A 12-hour flight lies between me and finding out.

15 February, 2007

Valentine’s Day Massacre

Other people may have received cards telling them how wonderful they were yesterday – but not me. Instead, I got a nice long e-mail from JGR regarding two papers I submitted way back in June (which I have alluded to previously) which was about as far from ‘roses are red…’ territory as you could get.

I haven’t really talked about the research behind these papers on this blog (I guess I didn’t want to pre-empt publication, somewhat ironically), but they were basically presenting the major conclusions of my PhD project – a study of the tectonic evolution of New Zealand in the last 20 million years, using paleomagnetic measurements to look at crustal rotations. My first paper presented my dataset, which took a lot of work to amass, and the second was my attempt to construct a model of deformation to explain these data.

I’m still chewing over the reviews (they’ve hardly arrived at a convenient time!), but the basic gist seems to be that they don’t like my data - although they couldn’t really find much wrong with it – and they really don’t like my model. They were very keen to point out to me that accommodating the large and fast crustal rotations my data seem to indicate (much larger and faster than has previously been suggested) is not easy, and my suggestions for how it has happened are a little bit at odds with the well-established picture. Never… anyway, there’s a lot to filter and think about, which obviously I don’t have time to do at the moment, so for now I’m just going to have to go:



13 February, 2007

How to waste even more time with Google Earth

I dare you to visit this rather funky map quiz and not get addicted.

My only complaint is that the pictures containing nothing but ocean floor are a little bit too difficult...

(thanks to Ron).

12 February, 2007

Wasting your life, creationist style

I suppose as a geologist I should feel angry and aggrieved about this newly minted PhD student:

…Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” — he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

Later in the article is becomes fairly clear that his motivation for getting his doctorate is to use “the fact that he has a Ph.D. from a legitimate science department as a springboard [for pushing a literalist viewpoint].”

I can’t bring myself to be angry about this, though (even though I can understand why others might). Instead, I find it sad; a waste of half a decade or more of someone’s life. Getting through a PhD is no picnic at the best of times; in my experience it’s only your fundamental enthusiasm and interest in your subject that gets you through. Forcing yourself through the whole traumatic process when you believe, deep down, that every word you write, every measurement you make, and every conclusion you draw is fundamentally mistaken – well, let’s just say that I can’t see it doing wonders for your mental well-being.

Over at PZ’s (where this story came to my attention - see also Chad's take), a large proportion of the comments are debating whether the University of Rhode Island would be justified in withdrawing his doctorate - or even, given that they knew about his young-earth beliefs before he applied, whether he should have been admitted to the PhD programme in the first place. I’d have to unequivocally answer no, and yes, respectively. In the context of a PhD you can only be judged on what you have submitted, and his supervisor tells us all we need to know:
His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”

“We are not here to certify his religious beliefs,” he said. “All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible.”

Presuming that this is an accurate representation of his dissertation, it’s a no-brainer: he came, he followed the rules, and he advanced his field: so he earned his doctorate, however galling it may be that he has proceeded to use his qualification in the manner that he has – to add a veneer of scientific authority to flawed creationist arguments.

Besides, there’s something else interesting about this story: the fact that when push came to shove, to get his qualification he had to follow the ground rules of science. And when he did that, what happened to all those big, obvious, gaping holes in the scientific picture of an old earth and common descent that we hear so much about? Did he try, even slightly, to cast some light on those holes with his research? It doesn’t look like it to me. Rather than a bold assault on the evil Darwinian empire, we get some meandering about “working within a particular paradigm of earth history”. Likewise, despite his self-declared mission to destroy Darwinism, it seems that Johnathan Wells kept his powder dry during his time at Berkeley. In both cases, the choice to use the PhD qualification as a rhetorical weapon, rather than the PhD research, pretty much tells you all you need to know.

10 February, 2007

Contestants, raise your hammers...

From the Berkeley Geological Association blog (with some snipping):

Geolympics is the ultimate in field geologist competition. This yearly event should put to the test all the field practices geologist's are trained to perform with accuracy and time contraints as parameters of success.

1) The Brunton: Imagine 5 or so rocks with varying strikes, dips, slickenlines, etc. that need measuring whilst being timed.

2) Rock Demolition: Imagine a line of geologists armed with a basketball size chunk of granite and their favorite rock hammer. They are timed to see who can smash their rocks into chunks no bigger than a baseball.

3) Twisted Map Folding: Imagine a new crisp map completly unfolded and a geologist blind folded who must then, by feel alone, fold the map into its original orientation while being timed.

4) Gear Up Gear Down: Imagine a geologist pulling up his/her truck when the clock starts and they must exit the vehicle and gear up with boots, hand lens, brunton, hammer with loop, acid bottle, map, rain gear, the works then when complete screaming ROCK IT! and then undressing again into street clothes, packing away the gear and firing up the truck again.

A few more potential events occur to me:
  • Contact free running: A test of mapping skill and athleticism. Contestants have to precisely follow a contact between two formations, across hill, dale, ravine, cliff face, river, bracken, and bog. Points for speed, accuracy and style.
  • Drilling time trial: One for the paleomagicians amongst us. Contestants are given an hour to drill, orient and extract as many core samples as they can. Scoring is based on the length of the cores as well as the number (i.e. an 8cm core which yields 3 standard paleomagnetic samples scores the same as three cores which yield only one each). Solo and pair events.
  • Geo-orienteering: Like orienteering, except you have a geological map and specified rock samples must be gathered from each control point.

I'm sure you guys can come up with some more events...

09 February, 2007

Reality intrudes on blogging

You might have noticed that things fell silent here only two days into my promised seven-day epic. As it has turned out, the reasons I prevaricated about signing up to the Just Science challenge in the first place have defeated me: exam marking to get through, a couple of presentations to give, and, due to the fact that next week is my last week here in Southampton, lots of departmental loose ends to tie up. As if that weren’t enough, just when I’d figured that the South African Consulate were going to tell me to get lost, on Wednesday my passport came back with a nice visa stuck in it. It’s really happening – in two weeks, I shall be arriving in South Africa to start my new job. Which means that I have quite a lot to get done between now and then...

Anyway, although I had a number of half-completed posts lying around, and I believed that I would have enough time to polish and post one up every day, I have ended up being too busy, or too tired, to really give them they attention they deserve. And, if I’m honest, my motivation was also sapped by the realisation that for some reason, my posts were appearing in the Just Science aggregator dated as 1969 or something, and were not appearing in the RSS feed either.

However, whilst I have failed miserably, at least one geoblogger is making a good fist of it: Brian is going from strength to strength with a great series of posts on sedimentary geology. I particularly liked Wednesday’s post about the modelling of depositional systems in big tanks.

06 February, 2007

Stalagmite records individual storms and intensities

In last months’ post about climate records from stalagmites and other speleothems, I concentrated on their potential for giving us detailed regional climate information over long time periods: 10s, and even 100s, of thousands of years. However, this article at Mongabay.com highlights some research concerned with records preserving climatic variations over much shorter timescales, and one of the more contentious issues in modern climate research: how the frequency and intensity of hurricanes is affected by our warming climate.

It seems that the towering storm clouds and humid atmosphere associated with hurricanes and other tropical cyclones produce rainwater which is extremely light isotopically (it has &delta18O 6 per mil more negative than normal precipitation), and a lot of it falls in a short time when a storm hits land. Amy Frappier and her colleagues decided to test if this pulse of storm water could affect the &delta18O of the groundwater enough to leave a signal in speleothems growing in underlying caves.

We used a computer-controlled dental drill to carefully mill off layers of powder from a fast-growing stalagmite [from Actun Tunichil Muknal caves, Belize], where each sample reflects cave drip water over periods of a week to a month. Analyzing these rock powders using standard techniques, we were able to detect brief spikes from recent hurricanes and tropical storms that produced rain over the cave - even when those storms struck only weeks apart!"

The effect is clearly illustrated by this figure from a paper Frappier et al. have just published in Geology [1]. Tropical cyclones which have hit Belize in the last 30 years (A) correlate well with short negative excursions in &delta18O (B). These excursions are superimposed on a longer-term pattern related to the El Nino Southern Oscillation (the 15 month offset with the El Nino record in C represents the time it takes rainwater to percolate from the surface to the cave). The accompanying carbon isotope record also shows the El Nino variation, probably due to changes in soil respiration rates, but not the storm events, showing that they are due to a separate forcing (heavy storm precipation).

The final subfigure D is interesting, as it indicates that stronger storms (plotted in A) seem to produce larger excursions. Going back to the Mongabay piece:
"We also found that the relative size of spikes that we measured was related to the intensity of the storm, which is encouraging for the prospect of reconstructing the intensities of pre-historic landfalling storms.."

There’s currently a lot of debate over possible changes in storm numbers and/or intensity as a result of anthropogenic climate change (RealClimate has a good summary of the science) – some people claim there is already a clear signal, but others say that the historical data just isn’t good enough. Speleothem records can’t help resolve one of the major issues, the detection of non-landfalling storms, but it seems that they can potentially give us a much longer term record of trends in tropical cyclone intensity than is currently available; and a better idea of how much natural variability there was in the past can only help.

[1] Geology 35, p111-114 (doi).

This post was published on Day 2 of the Just Science challenge – a full week of science and only science. You can subscribe to the RSS feed at http://www.justscience.net/?feed=rss2.
All my posts for this week

05 February, 2007

Spot the planetary difference

There are many differences between Titan’s atmosphere and Earth’s, in terms of temperature (a couple of hundred degrees lower) and composition (no oxygen, more methane), but the cloud formation recently snapped above Titan’s north pole by Cassini, shown in the top image above, doesn’t look too dissimilar from storms snapped from our own planet’s orbit, as the lower image (source) illustrates. At 2400 km in diameter, it is quite a whopper - it would fill most of the North Atlantic.

It’s not that clouds haven’t been imaged on Titan before; we managed that even before Cassini arrived in Saturnian orbit, and Cassini itself has imaged some before now as well. But those previously observed cloud systems were mainly located around the south pole of Titan; what’s interesting about this one is that it is in the opposite hemisphere, directly above the lakes which have caused so much excitement. This makes it extremely tempting to link the two phenomena. The northern hemisphere of Titan is now entering its spring after a seven-year winter, so evaporation from these lakes in the rising temperatures could easily have contributed to the formation of clouds.

The key question, though, is what happens then: do significant amounts of hydrocarbons rain back out of the atmosphere to complete the “methanological cycle”? Is this precipitation intense enough be actively eroding out the landscapes imaged by the Huygens lander on its descent, and produce standing bodies of hydrocarbons in depressed topography? Or, rather than being refilled from above, are lakes on the surface more to do with hydrocarbon release from either subsurface “methanifers”, or cryovolcanic venting?

Some of these questions are still open. During Huygen’s descent, it measured variations in atmospheric methane concentration and temperature which, when examined in detail, indicated the presence of thin methane clouds capable of generating a persistent light drizzle [1]. Such weather makes the surface of Titan the natural location for any British extraterrestrial colony, but it is not really energetic enough to carve new drainage channels or any other new topography. And although attempts to model Titan’s atmosphere do suggest that strong storms can occur [2], how common or important they are in reality is unclear. Effectively, what we need is more observation time. Just like continuous observations of Mars over several years have revealed changing features which might indicate actively flowing water, if Cassini is able to observe Titan for long enough, we might not only see a few storms but also be able to assess their effect on the landscape.

[1] Tokano et al., 2006. Nature, 442, 432-435, [doi].

[2] Hueso and Sánchez-Lavega, 2006. Nature, 442, 428-431, [doi].

This post was published on Day 1 of the Just Science challenge – a full week of science and only science. You can subscribe to the RSS feed at http://www.justscience.net/?feed=rss2.
All my posts for this week

04 February, 2007

Prepare for 7 days of pure science

After a lot of dithering, I've signed myself up for the Just Science Challenge:

we would like to propose a Week of Science, to begin on Monday, February 5, and end on Sunday, February 11. During that time each blogger should post about science only, with at least one post per day. Furthermore, issues which are favored by anti-scientific groups (creationism, global warming, etc.) should be either avoided, or discussed without reference to anti-scientific positions.

I like to think I am fairly science-focused anyway, or at least that my digressions into other realms do not overwhelm the geology. But I like the idea of having a week where we don't let creationists, denialists and the other forces of antiscience dictate any of our output. Besides, it's always nice to stretch myself, and a post a day is enough of an increase in my average output to be a nice challenge, even if I've cheated a little by putting in a fair amount of preliminary groundwork.

02 February, 2007

A day in the life

Lab Lemming wants to know what I do in a typical day. I’m not sure I have a “typical day”, but today is as good as any other I suppose.

Job title: Paleomagnetism technician (bear this in mind for what follows)
Insitution: School of Ocean and Earth Sciences, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.
Date: Friday 2nd February, 2007

Prevailing conditions:

  • The deadline for handing in the third year mapping projects is Monday
  • Semester 1 exams have just finished
  • Our cryogenic magnetometer is not being used this week because we need a helium refill (which was going to be done this morning but has been put back to Monday).

8:30-8:45: Walk into work
8:50: Switch on my computer and open exam paper to mark.
8:55: Computer beeps – student has e-mailed wanting me to check their map before they print it
8:55-9:15: In computer room consulting with stressed and sleep-deprived student.
9:20: Get back to my office to find another pile of exam scripts on my chair. This lot really liked my question, it seems.
9:20-10:00: Marking
10:00-10:15: Another student wanting help with his cross-sections
10:30-10:45: Yet another student; this one wants his report abstract checked, and reassurance regarding the word limit.
11:00-11:20: In lab to show a fourth year undergraduate how to do susceptibility measurements (for their dissertation project).
11:30-11:45: Get fed up with constant interruptions and go and have coffee.
11:50-12:00: Dragged back to the lab by panicky student who thinks she’s broken the computer. She hasn’t, it’s just so old (DOS, no less) that she doesn’t really get how it works.
12:00-12:45: Marking.
(12:25: Course co-ordinator pops in to check that I have got the latest batch of exam scripts. He’d like them back early next week (!) )
12:45-12:50: Some more students, this time people doing 4th year dissertation who want to book some lab time.
12:50-1:30 pm: Lunch.
1:30-2:45: Finally get a moment of quiet to get through some marking. Promisingly, most appear to be written in a language resembling English.
2:45-3:00: Start sending out e-mails about laboratory schedule for the coming weeks (given that it’s going to be chaos when I leave, I want to make sure everyone has some machine time).
3:00-3:30: Reinvaded by stressed students.
3:30-3:45: A bit more marking.
3:45-4:30: More mapping consulation down in the computer room with even more stressed and sleep-deprived students.
4:30-4:45: Need caffeine.
4:45-5:00: Work on lab schedule for those who have bothered to respond to my e-mails.
5:00-5:30: Finalise marks on first exam question. Two more to go!
5:30-5:45: Tidy stuff up before heading to the pub for a well-earned pint or three.

It’s not like this every day – Thursday was spent mainly trying to sort out someone’s misorientated sample data, Monday will mainly be spent sorting out the helium refill. The common theme, perhaps, is that of me doing a lot running about on other peoples’ behalf.

I’m passing this on to Transient Reporter (assuming that he’s not snowed under changing nappies, I don’t really want to hear about that) and Thermochronic, but everyone should pile in. Now, where's that pint...

Linking up

Philosophia Naturalis #6 is up at Science and Reason. Lots of physical science goodness, but scandalously no geology - which is at least partly my fault for not getting around to submitting any suggestions. Perhaps our growing band of geobloggers should fortify ourselves with gin and tonic and gatecrash next months edition at Geek Counterpoint.

On that subject, you may or may not have noticed the new occupant of my sidebar - an amalgamated feed of recent posts from all the geobloggers I'm aware of, created using Google Reader's nifty 'share' function. I thought it was a convenient way of making all (any) of my readers aware of what everyone else in the geoblogosphere is up to. At the rate it's been ticking over in the last week, quite a lot.

Anyone is welcome to hijack the feed (if you can't find the relevant script in my source page, let me know and I'll send it to you) - the more cross-linking the better for all of us, I reckon. And if you write (or know of) a geoblog I've yet to include, drop me an e-mail.

01 February, 2007

Lusi – the man-made mud volcano

The latest from Lusi

In May 2006, an exploratory gas well being drilled in eastern Java hit a limestone aquifer. Because the lower part of the well had not yet been ‘cased’ - sealed off from the surrounding rock - a surge of overpressured water was released into the mudstones higher in the borehole, fracturing them and mixing them into a hot mud which eventually made its way to the surface near the drilling rig.

Since then, since then, 7,000-150,000 cubic metres of mud* a day has been disgorged from a vent dubbed ‘Lusi’, burying surrounding villages. I found this video on You Tube showing the encroachment of the mud – a rising tide which shows no sign of stopping.

From a more elevated perspective, here’s a satellite image. I think those huts on the bottom left of the second panel are the ones you see at the end of the video

This is from a recent GSA Today paper by Davies et al.[doi], which confirmed that the drilling into the aquifer was probably responsible for the eruption; the company operating the well (understandably) tried to implicate an earthquake which occurred two days beforehand, but any seismogenic effects should have been immediate (and detectable as a pressure change in the borehole), and ‘liquefaction’ tends to affect less cohesive sands more than mud.

You can read more on this at PhysOrg. Then read how they’re planning to put a stop to it:
Indonesian geophysicists hope to stem the flow of a destructive mud volcano on East Java by dropping chains of concrete balls into its mouth…

… Last week, the government team tackling the disaster approved a plan that will use 1,000 steel chains to try to slow the flow of mud. Each chain is 1.5 metres long and links together four concrete balls — two that are 40 centimetres across and two that are 20 centimetres across. Each ball and chain set will weigh about 300 kilograms. The balls themselves will be modified to maximize their friction with the mud.

Apparently, they think this will restrict the flow without just causing it to divert somewhere else. I suppose it depends on how fractured the rock is, but I’d say it’s a long shot at best.

Update:And, a month later, this rather bizarre plan swings into action. On Saturday, they only managed to drop one chain because a steel cable on the hoisting mechanism broke. They managed sixteen more on Monday, but then they hit another potential snag when they looked at the telemetry from sensors attached to the chains, as another site has reported under the arresting title ‘Volcano consumes concrete balls’:

The balls slid one kilometre into the crater, roughly twice the depth anticipated, so many more than planned may be required to staunch the mudflow, said the operation's spokesperson Rudi Novrianto.

"Based on our monitoring of Monday's operations, we may later decide to add to the number of ball chains, but the decision will only be made once the initial target of 374 chains have been dropped into the mud hole," he said…

…Basuki Hadimuljono, the head of the team trying to plug the steaming crater, was quoted by the Koran Tempo newspaper as saying that the number of chains required may rise to 1 000 from the initial estimate of 374.

I remain unconvinced that this is going to work, but you can’t fault their perseverance.

(Thanks to Geology News for the heads-up which led to the update).

*In media units, that’s up to 40 olympic swimming pools.