Thursday, March 31, 2011

Take a class with me - Classroom offerings

More self-promotion.  Yesterday I posted about two of the online courses I'll be teaching this summer and fall.  Today, I will mention two of the in-person (face-to-face) courses I'll be teaching in the classroom (actually, in the field).  Both of these courses are available to interested community members as well as our students.

The first is during our Summer Session 2 and runs for 8 days (July 5 - July 8 & July 11 - July 14) from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.  It's ESC-223-16 Field Course in Earth Science: Geology of the Hudson Valley.  It's a 3 credit course (even though it's only 8 days) and is taught entirely in the field. Of all the courses, I teach, this is my favorite.

Basically, we meet each day at the campus, get into a college van or two, and drive to some interesting geological area between Manhattan in the south and Saratoga Springs in the north.  Some days we hike, other days are along roadcuts and in city parks, and sometimes we even go down into natural caves and explore abandoned iron and natural cement mines.  You'll have the opportunity to collect some interesting minerals, rocks, and fossils and will take lots of photos from scenic vistas atop the Shawangunks, Hudson Highlands, and Catskills.

Here's a website telling more about the course.

Registration in this class is limited to 18 students (the number that can fit into two vans) so if you're interested, sign up as soon as you can.  Also be aware that to take this class, you'll have to be able to do a little hiking (nothing extremely strenuous, but a few miles each day are common).

The next course is meeting on Thursday nights from 7:00-10:00 pm during the fall semester from September 8 to November 10 - AST-103-51B Observational Astronomy.  This is a blended course meaning some of the course material is delivered in an online format requiring access to a computer and the Internet.  This is very much a hands-on course requiring time outside at night where you'll have the opportunity to learn how to use a telescope to find objects in the night sky.
Here's the course description:

This night course is a hands-on introduction to observing the night sky, how to locate these objects using celestial coordinate systems, and how to utilize the Internet and computer programs to obtain astronomical information. Most of the laboratory time will be spent outdoors learning the names and locations of stars and constellations and utilizing the department's telescopes to observe and study the moon, planets, deep sky objects, and other astronomical objects which might be visible. The course will include observing trips during class time to local areas away from the light pollution on campus.

So if you ever wanted to know how right ascension and declination worked, how to identify and locate planets, stars, or constellations in the sky, how to use a telescope, and if your idea of fun on a summer night is going up and looking at the sky, this course is for you.

How can you find out more about these courses? Email me with any content questions (there's a link in the left sidebar of my blog). For questions about how to register or what the tuition and fees will be, contact the Registrar's Office at SUNY Ulster County Community College.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Take a class with me - Online offerings

Yes, I'm going to shamelessly self-promote.  Registration at the college where I teach just opened up registration for the summer and fall sessions and I'd love for my classes to have healthy enrollments.

What am I teaching?  Well, today I'll feature some of the online courses and tomorrow the in-person classes.  I'm biased, of course, but I think they're great classes and really looking forward to teaching them (and it's even better when there are interested and engaged students taking them).

These fully online courses are available through the State University of New York (SUNY) Learning Network and can be taken from anywhere in the world that you have a reliable Internet connection.  While your register with my college, you don't have to be a student there to take the class.

In what we call Summer Session 2, from July 5 to August 15, I'm teaching ESC-114-S16 Geology of the National Parks - a course I developed a few years back specifically for the online environment.  Here's a description:

Designed for the non-science major, this course provides an introduction to geology and the geological evolution of North America through a detailed examination of selected U.S. National Parks and Monuments. National Parks studied include the Grand Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Petrified Forest, Badlands, Mammoth Cave, Carlsbad Caverns, Acadia, Yosemite, Mt. Rainier, Crater Lake, Hawaii Volcanoes, Yellowstone, and Death Valley among others. In addition to learning about the geology of North America’s National Parks, students will also gain an appreciation for the scenic beauty, natural resources, flora, and fauna preserved in these unique areas.

If you're a student at a SUNY school, this course satisfies a Natural Science General Education Elective and we have both science and non-science majors taking the course (there are no prerequisites).  I've personally visited many of the national parks and monuments around the U.S. including Acadia, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Rainier, Crater Lake, Death Valley, Canyonlands, Arches, Badlands, and others (I'll also be visiting Mammoth Cave in July).  Taking this course will not only teach you about geology and the geologic history of North America, but greatly enhance your enjoyment of any national park you visit in the future since I like to discuss more than just geology - we'll also touch on history (including the Native Americans), flora, and fauna.

In the fall semester, from August 24 to December 26, I'm teaching AST-105-S01 Ancient Astronomy - another course I originally developed and which first ran last fall (successfully, I might add).  Here's the course description:

This online course will examine the earliest origins of astronomy, our oldest science. The first half of the course will introduce students to the night sky. Topics covered will include the movements of the Earth and other solar system objects; the phases and cycles of the Moon; the origin of seasons, solstices, equinoxes, and eclipses; constellations and celestial navigation; and how ancient astronomers used their observations in developing civilization’s earliest calendars.

The second half of the course will be a broad survey of the historical development of astronomy from ancient times up to the scientific revolution of the Renaissance Period. Cosmologies from representative cultures around the world will be examined along with significant archaeoastronomy sites including the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, Newgrange, Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu, Chaco Canyon, the Big Horn Medicine Wheel, and others.

There are no prerequisites for this course other than being at a college level.  If you are a student that requires remedial math and/or English courses, this class would be a challenge (don't be scared off, the BIGGEST predictor of student success is a genuine interest in the topic!).  If you've ever wondered how the phases of the Moon work, how ancient people knew about solistices and equinoxes, what we really know about Stonehenge, or how the Mayan calendar is all about, this course is for you!  I'll also introduce you to a cool (and free) planetarium program that will show you what's in the night sky at any time or place) and ask you to go outside occassionally and look up to get in tune with the sky and how it changes.

How can you find out more about these courses?  Email me with any content questions (there's a link in the left sidebar of my blog).  For questions about how to register for these SUNY Learning Network online courses, or what the tuition and fees will be, contact the Registrar's Office at SUNY Ulster County Community College.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kachina Bridge Dinosaurs?

Answers in Genesis (AIG) is a young-Earth creationist (YEC) organization which promotes a peculiar, literalist reading of the book of Genesis which insists on a 6,000 year-old Earth, a literal Adam and Eve, and a global flood during the time of Noah (about 4,000 years ago).  Suffice it to say that for this to all be true, most modern fields of knowledge are completely incorrect - we'd have to toss out ALL of the sciences in addition to history, archaeology, linguistics, etc.

AIG, along with other YEC crazies, have claimed that humans and dinosaurs lived side-by-side - just like in the cartoons. To those of us who actually know something about geology and paleontology (or human history and archaeology, for that matter), this is just bat-shit crazy. It's not even remotely plausible - I'd be more likely to believe in fairies inhabiting my backyard than in some strange, alternate-reality world where dinosaurs and humans cavorted together a few thousand years ago.

Why does AIG believe this?  Because, according to their own Statement of Faith: "By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record."  In other words, since the book of Genesis states that God created all life during a six-day creation week, dinosaurs and humans were created together.  Since Noah brought all the animals on the ark, dinosaurs must have been on the ark as well.  Therefore, humans and dinosaurs lived together until they died off due to climate change after the flood.  Don't believe me, read the AIG article What really happened to the dinosaurs?

Answers in Genesis also runs the infamous Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (about a half hour from Cincinnati, Ohio).  One of the displays at the Creation Museum claims that there's a dinosaur petroglyph at a site called Kachina Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah.  Here's the AIG claim:

Wow!  That looks like a pretty convincing carving of a sauropod, doesn't it?  Here's a photograph of the rock (not enhanced) from a YEC's blog (click to enlarge):

The petroglyph is about 3 meters up a vertical cliff wall in a relatively inaccessible area so it's hard to get up close to it.  It's been studied by binocular and telephoto photographs to date.

So, did the Native Americans living in Utah record sauropod dinosaurs in the area of Kachina Bridge?  We know there were sauropods walking around in Utah since we find their trackways and fossils bones.  The problem, of course, is that paleontologists say they were around in the Jurassic Period some 175 million years ago and that no dinosaurs survived the 65 million-year-ago mass extinction event.

Well, a real scientist has now looked at this petroglyph and written a rebuttal to the dinosaur claim.  Dr. Phil Senter, a biology professor at Fayetteville State University of North Carolina, is an expert on dinosaurs (check out his publications list) and he interprets the petroglyphs a little differently.

At left is the AIG interpretation of a sauropod, at right is Dr. Senter's interpretation.  He claims the "sauropod" is made up of two snake-like pecked areas (maybe done at different times since the pecking differs) and the "legs" are actually mud or mineral staining.  Senter's paper is available electronically, go read it if interested:

Which is more plausible?  The interpretation which goes against EVERYTHING we know about geology, paleontology, biology, history, archaeology, etc. and is only adhered to because of people's beliefs about how a book written thousands of years ago by a bedouin people in the Middle East who wouldn't know a dinosaur if it bit them in the ass or...  What the hell, it's a rhetorical question.  True Believers® aren't going to be persuaded by something as mundane as facts.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Tycho's star

In early November of 1572, a new star appeared in the northern constellation of Cassiopeia.  For a time, it rivaled Venus in brilliance and was even visible during the day for about two weeks in November.  Over the next few months it began to fade in brightness until it finally disappeared from view in March of 1574.

One of the people to view this mysterious star was the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601).  Tycho (pronounced "tee-koh") noted that this new star did not change position like the planets but stayed fixed in the sky.  This observation was in direct opposition to the classical Aristotelian worldview which held that the heavens were fixed and immutable - the worldview also shared by the church.  Something was terribly amiss in the sky.

Tycho wrote up his and other observations of the new star in De nova et nullius aevi memoria prius visa stella usually known today simply as De nova stella, "the new star".  Today we still call these types of stars "novae" and this one is now known as Tycho's star in his honor.

So, what was this mysterious ephemeral star in Cassiopeia?  Cassiopeia, high in the northwestern sky, looks like either a W or an M depending on your orientation and the supernova was a bit to the right (marked by the circle in the star map).  While astronomers knew its approximate location from sketches left by Brahe, it wasn't rediscovered again until radio telescopes detected it in 1952.

Tycho's star was a Type Ia supernova now known by astronomers as SN1572.  Type Ia supernovae originate in binary star systems.  Imagine such a system with two Sun-like stars.  Stars generate energy by fusing hydrogen into helium in their cores and they eventually run low on hydrogen fuel.  When this happens, they will expand into red giants in an attempt to keep going by fusing helium into carbon.  Eventually, the outer layers of the star are pushed off in an expanding shell of gas (a planetary nebula) and a small compact white dwarf remains behind.

OK, this is all highly simplified and would comprise a couple of hours of lecture in an astronomy class!

So now suppose we have a binary star system where one star is a white dwarf and the other is a red giant.  Gas puffed off by the red giant accretes onto the white dwarf.  When the white dwarf reaches 1.4 solar masses, a series of complex reactions occur resulting in the violent explosion of the star billions of times more brilliant than our Sun - a Type Ia supernova.

Astronomers can now image the remnant of expanding gases from this violent explosion.  Here's a recent image from the Chandra X-Ray observatory - an orbiting telescope which images in the x-ray part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Pretty damn impressive.  There's some amazing stuff out there we've only been able to "see" in our lifetimes with modern technology.  What wonders await us yet?

Some astronomers have argued that Shakespeare referred to Tycho's star, west of Polaris, the Pole Star, when he wrote Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 1).

     Last night of all,
     When yond same star that's westward from the pole
     Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
     Where now it burns...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Umpire (Rat) Rock in Central Park

Went down to Manhattan yesterday with the family to visit my brother-in-law.  Personally, I think he's certifiably insane since he gave up a nice house in Redmond, Washington and a good job at Microsoft to go live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment on the West Side and work at Morgan Stanley.  Personally, you couldn't pay me enough money to live and work in the City - it just seems overcrowded, noisy, dirty, and expensive to me.  Call me a hick but I much prefer the real dirt of a northeastern forest to the cigarette butts and frozen spit of city sidewalks.  I'd rather hear red-wing blackbirds trilling than the incessant beat of dance music blaring from most Manhattan storefronts (we visited the Lego store at Rockefeller Center for my son and they were incogruously blaring Lady Gaga type music - when we went in, I told my wife I felt like I should have a beer in my hand).  I also hate crowds - call me a misanthrope - but large masses of pushy people start to really annoy me after a while.

So, picture this.  You're with your family for a semi-annual outing to the Big City and are heading down to the Time Square area to check out some stores and your husband suggests a side trip.  He says there's this neat rock in Central Park called Umpire Rock. It's other name is Rat Rock, supposedly because of all the rats that used to swarm there at night.  He wants some photographs.

My wife, bless her soul, is used to these types of requests and typically humors me.  My brother-in-law, the high finance computer whiz, tags along good naturedly (he knows me well enough by now to not even question such requests).  So off we go on a pilgrimage to Rat Rock in Manhattan.

If you've ever walked in Central Park, you'll know that it's is studded with rock outcrops.  They belong to a rock unit named the Manhattan Formation.  Much of the Manhattan Formation is a metamorphic rock called schist and is quite pretty since it's primarily composed of flakes of mica which reflect sunlight creating a sparkly rock.  The Manhattan schist a highly-deformed rock with much folding:

(Yes, I carry a knife and whip it out to use as a scale bar when photographing rocks, even in Manhattan)  It's also crosscut in places by granitic-type intrusions as the rock fractured and magma was injected.  These are often folded as well.

The real reason I wanted to see Umpire Rock, however, is because it has these massive grooves in it which were carved by glaciers during the last ice age about 18,000 years ago.

Aren't those awesome?  I can just picture the glacial ice, studded with big boulders, slowly sliding and grinding up this outcrop witnessed, perhaps, by mastodons out on the surrounding tundra.  (My 10-year-old son is standing up there but I cut off half his head to focus on the glacial grooves - I'm a terrible parent)

These rocks formed, by the way, about 450 million years ago during the Ordovician Period of geologic time.  They began their lives as interlayered graywacke sandstones and shales, sediments layered by successive submarine landslides in a deep basin between the North American continent (called Laurentia by geologists) and a chain of volcanic islands offshore (we were south of the equator and in a subtropical climate zone back then).  When the chain of volcanic islands collided, it resulted in a mountain building event called the Taconic Orogeny and these sedimentary rocks were metamorphosed in the New York City area into schists of the Manhattan Formation.  If you want to see what the original sedimentary rocks looked like, drive up north of Newburgh and look at the rocks on the side of the Hudson in places like Poughkeepsie and Kingston.

If you find yourself in midtown Manhattan anytime, the outcrop is easy to find.  From Central Park West and West 63rd Street, you enter the park and walk toward the Heckscher Ballfields right in front of you.  On the south side of the ballfield is a massive rock (typically crawling with people).  It's called Umpire Rock because it overlooks the baseball fields.  You can see the rock in the Google Maps satellite image below just south of the ballfields (those funny looking round rings just west of the rock are part of a playground next to the rock - they're rubbery, fake-grass type areas for poor little city kids to play on).

I'd rather climb on rocks in Central Park than visit Times Square any day.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Was the Japanese Earthquake unusual?

Not from a geological perspective.

From headlines in the media over the past few weeks, you'd think the Japanese earthquake was some highly unusual and unexpected event.  While the exact location of large earthquakes is always a surprise (to a certain extent), Japan is well suited for occassional megaquakes like this.

Look at a map of Japanese seismicity since 1990!  The purple line is the subduction zone where the Pacific Plate dives beneath Japan and the different color dots represent earthquakes of different depths (deeper as you move west of the trench).  Earthquakes occur all along that subducting plate and some of them will be very large.

Here's a summary of how many earthquakes occur each year above magnitude 5.0 since 1990.  The data was obtained from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Earthquake Hazards Program.  Click to enlarge.

On average, you'd expect a magnitude 8+ earthquake every year and a magnitude 9+ earthquake every decade.  It was Japan's turn.  It could have occurred in Chile, Alaska, Indonesia, or off the coast of Washington State!  Wherever there's a subduction zone, you have the potential for a large quake, disruption of the seafloor, and a tsunami.

One will eventually occur on the Cascadia subduction zone and send a tsunami crashing into the Oregon and Washington coast.  Geologically guaranteed.  Communities like Ocean Park, WA (see map below) - built on a spit of land just north of the mouth of the Columbia River - would be toast when that occurs.  May not happen in our lifetimes (but could happen today).

People have short lifespans compared to the recurrence of geologic phenomena like large earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  We could say the same thing about residents of Tacoma and Mount Rainier - sooner or later their number will come up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Frivolous Research?

Pure scientific research has always been looked upon with a certain amount of hostility by a certain segment of society.  Traditionally, those hostile to science have been the uneducated but lately there's been a populist anti-science sentiment among people who should know better (e.g. State and Federal legislators - primarily Republican).

In an attempt to counter the increasing cuts to funding for basic research, the Association of American Universities has a neat website illustrating the societal benefits of research.  Check out the amusing AAU's Scientific Enquirer, Vol.1, January 2011 link (it's a PDF file) - it tells the story of the screwworm.

In 1955, a $250,000 grant was awarded to researcher E.F. Knipling to study the sex life of the parasitic screwworm.  Senator William Proxmire (a Democrat) later awarded this study - The Sexual Behavior of the Screw-Worm Fly - his infamous "Golden Fleece" award which was given to projects he believed were a ridiculous waste of taxpayer dollars.  Proxmire, whose degree was in Business Administration, turned out to be rather poor judge of biological research projects since this project is estimated to have had a payback measured in the billions of dollars.

Screwworms were a major cattle parasite in the southern U.S. and Mexico.  Knipling developed the sterile insect release technique (take an bunch of male insects, sterilize them, and release them into the wild) which is now used for the control of many different insect species.  By 1966, the U.S. was declared screwworm free.  The program is estimated to have saved $20 billion for U.S. cattle producers and $7 billion for Mexicans.  It's estimated that beef prices are 5% lower because of the eradication of this cattle parasite.  In 1992, Knipling won the World Food Prize since his research had such a positive effect on the world food supply.  Even Proxmire later admitted he was wrong about this study.

Now, nobody's claiming that all research is this useful to society.  Sometimes research contributes just a tiny piece of our overall body of knowledge.  But as those pieces build up, we learn more about how the world works and this always has benefits to society, even if they're many years away.  It's also important to let scientists decide which research is worthy of being funded, not lawyers and business people (which describes virtually all politicians).  You wouldn't necessarily place a PhD scientist in charge of a Fortune 500 company or into a courtroom to argue a case, why the hell would you take a lawyer or CPA and ask them to decide if a scientific research project is worthy of funding?

National Science Foundation (NSF) grants are highly competitive (as well as other federal grants such as those award by the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy, etc.).  Researchers spend months putting together proposals (I applied once in grad school so I'm familiar with the process) which then are evaluated by panels of scientist reviewers.  Most proposals are not funded (there's just not enough money to go around).  The ones that are funded are serious research proposals judged by multiple researchers in the field to have scientific merit.  It's not a perfect system but it's the best we have.

Here's a good example of why I think some politicians are dumb as stumps (or, more likely,  mendacious sociopaths) - listen to Jindal's ignorant comment on so-called "volcano monitoring":

Hey Bobby, since you represent Louisiana, how about we cut funding for so-called "hurricane monitoring".  Those are federal funds too, you dumb fuck.

Monday, March 21, 2011

How far did Japan move?

Here's a neat illustration from Geocommons on the displacement in Japan from the March 11 earthquake.

The GPS data is from JPL and NASA and the attached caption reads: The displacement is both horizontal and vertical. The displacement in space ranges from just a fraction of a meter to more than 4 meters (24 ft).

Imagine the amount of energy necessary to shove tens of thousands of square kilometers of landscape a meter or more in a matter of seconds! 

Queen's Galley

The Queen's Galley is a local "soup kitchen" and homeless shelter on Washington Avenue in Kingston, NY. They're desperately applying to the show Extreme Makeover in hopes to stay open.  Watch the video:

They're doing good work (serving over 9,000 meals a month!) so consider writing a letter of support for them to Lock & Key Productions, 5062 Lankershim Blvd, Suite 3005, North Hollywood, CA 91601. Please also consider volunteering or sending them a few bucks, it's tax deductible and the money is feeding people in our community.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Vernal Equinox

This post should appear at 7:21 pm EDT on March 20, 2011 - the exact time of the Vernal Equinox. What exactly is the Vernal Equinox?

The Earth is rotating on its axis (counterclockwise when viewed from above the North Pole or west-to-east as viewed from above the Equator).  Each rotation takes 24 hours - a day.  The axis is tilted, however, by 23.5°.  Tilted with respect to what, you might ask?  There is no "up" in space.  Well the Earth is also revolving about the Sun.  The time it takes to complete each orbit is roughly 365.25 days - a year.  The plane of the Earth's rotation around the Sun is called the plane of the ecliptic.  Perpendicular to that is up and down and the Earth's axis is tilted with respect to that perpendicular.

As the Earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the Sun, its axis is always pointing in the same direction in space.  Right now, it happens to be pointed toward a star called Polaris (the North Star) in the constellation of Ursa Minor.  Because the Earth's axis wobbles a bit, it hasn't always pointed in that same direction - it was different a few thousand years ago (the ancient Egyptians used the star Thuban in the constellation of Draco as a pole star) and will be different a few thousand years from now.

So, as planet Earth orbit the star that is our sun, its Northern and Southern Poles are sometimes tilted toward the Sun and somtimes tilted away from the Sun.  Here in the Northern Hemisphere this year, we're tilted the most toward the Sun on June 21 - the Summer Solstice - and tilted the most away from the Sun on December 22 (Eastern time) - the Winter Solstice.  The equinoxes are the points between the solstices on March 20 (Vernal or Spring Equinox) and September 23 (Autumnal or Fall Equinox) when we're neither pointed toward nor away from the Sun.

From our perspective here on Earth, we see the Sun rise in the east, move across the sky, and set in the west.  At my latitude (42° N), around the time of the Winter Solstice, when we're tilted away from the Sun, it rises in the southeast (about 32° south of east), doesn't get very high in the sky (it barely makes it to 25° above the horizon), and sets in the southwest (about 32° south of west).  On the Summer Solstice, on the other hand, the Sun rises in the northeast (about 32° north of east), gets up to around 71° (at my latitude, the Sun never gets up to 90° or the zenith) above the horizon, and sets in the northwest (about 32° north of west).  Today, and on the Autumnal Equinox is September, the Sun rises in the due east, gets up to about 48° above the horizon, and sets in the due west.

Again, at my latitude, on the Summer Solstice, since we're tilted towards the Sun, the sunlight can wrap more than halfway around the Earth and days are around 15 hours long, on the Winter Solstice, since we're titlted away from the Sun, the sunlight can't even make it halfway around the Earth and days are only 9 hours long.  Today, on the Equinox, the Sun wraps halfway around the Earth and days are 12 hours long (sunrise is around 7 am and sunset around 7 pm EDT).

For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

Atalanta in Calydon
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

Fukushima Melt-Down - Gas or Poo?

OK, the Japanese are a bit strange...

See, nothing to worry about!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Another sign of the decline of civilization

I was in my local Barnes & Noble bookstore today and have noticed that they've changed the store significantly over the past few months.  Now about 1/3 of the store is devoted to toys and games.  This is, of course, at the expense of books.

Borders filed for Chapter 11 last week and is closing over 200 stores at last count.

Reading is evidently down.

Meanwhile, the television reality show Jersey Shore is wildly successful and a foul little troll her calls herself Snooki makes more in one episode than some elementary school teachers earn in a year.

In a few decades, Asian schoolchildren will study the decline and fall of America in their history classes.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Grimm's Fairy Tales

SUNY Ulster County Community College, as with many other colleges and universities across the country, has been trying to have a One Book/One College event each semester.  This is where a committee chooses a book which, ideally, everyone at the college reads and then meets to discuss in some meaningful way - sort of like a large book club.

Problem is, very few of the students and only a handful of faculty and staff actually appear to willingly want to read the books chosen.  Oh well.  I actually do read them since I read a lot (and a lot of different things) and I've also been a faculty presenter at each of the events.  In the past we've read Frankenstein (where I presented on the 1816 "year without a summer" after the 1815 eruption of Tambora and the time Mary Shelly wrote her novel because of the dreary weather in Switzerland that year), Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (where I presented on environmental racism - how we ship our waste electronics to India and China allowing children laborers to become exposed to toxic materials), and The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (where I presented on how geologists know the age of the Earth).

This semester's book was Grimm's Fairy Tales - a book which I thought I knew but really didn't.

These are not fairy tales you want to read to your children.  A number of time while reading this book, I stopped myself and said "WTF?"  My Germanic ancestors were apparently a stupid and cruel people (kind of like many people today).  There's also absolutely no science in these books, not even a mention of anything Earth science related, and so when I was asked to think about presenting I at first drew a blank.

I finally figured out a topic relating my field, Earth science, to Grimm's.  I'll be talking about the relationship between dwarves and mining.  Snow White is a Grimm's story and we all know the Disneyfied version.  In Teutonic mythology, however, dwarves are not cute little guys, they're dark and dangerous folk who lust for precious metals and gems.

So, people will be presenting all week (March 21-25) from 1:00-2:00 pm in the Student Lounge at Ulster County Community CollegeHere's the schedule of talks (I'll be presenting on Tuesday).  While the college isn't advertising the event to the general public, people are always welcome to come to campus and attend these talks.

Pi vs e

Last Monday (3/14) was Pi day and one of the math people in my department clued me it to a hilarious video on a tongue-in-cheek debate at Williams College on "Pi vs e" (e is another irrational and transcendental number like pi with a value of 2.71828...).

You can watch the debate on YouTube, it's broken into 5 parts. Here they are (at the end of each video will be a link to the next part):

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring has sprung

It's official, spring has sprung.  Not because of the date on the calendar but because tonight is the first night that we've heard the spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer).  It got up to a little above 60 F today so I left work early (don't tell anyone).  Don't be too jealous though, since I spent the afternoon walking around my relatively large yard picking up sticks and dog poop (with a shovel!) now that the snow's melted.

Right after the sun set, we started hearing the peepers (we've been waiting for them).  Peepers are tiny frogs (typically less than an inch long) and various shades of brown in color.  They're hard to see, I've only seen them up close because my daughter, a nature girl, has been able to catch them at times.  Their scientific name Pseudacris is from the Greek for "false locust" due to their vocalization and crucifer refers to the dark cross (an X-shape) on their back.

Males use their throat sack to make a single high-pitched call 15-25 times a minute to attract a female. Click here to listen to their singing.

Resources for teaching about the Japanese earthquake

On the Cutting Edge, an NSF-funded program to the National Association of Geology Teachers (NAGT) for professional development of geoscience faculty, has a website with a collection of resources about the recent Japanese megaquake.

The 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami site has some great stuff.  Here's an example of before and after satellite images of various affected by the tsunami (on the website, the images have some interactivity).

Another example is this animation:

Here's a seismogram from the University of Portland:

Great resources for the classroom!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lazy journalists & media whores

About a month ago, I read a post over at P.Z. Myers blog Phyrangula on Why do physicists think they are masters of all sciences?  It was about Michio Kaku, who is the Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics at CUNY's City College of New York.  Dr. Kaku professionally works on string theory and attempts to communicate science to the general public by lectures, books, and articles.

I've read one of his books, Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel, and it's an interesting read.  It's also pretty much in his area of expertise - physics.

The problem is that Kaku has become somewhat of a media darling (check out his Wikipedia page for a list of appearances and interviews).  Why is that a problem?  Well, it wouldn't be if he just stuck to physics, but for some reason many physicists have the conceit that they're experts in everything.  This conceit actually has a name - it's called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the post at Phyrangula, Myers shows a video of Kaku talking about evolution and wonders if he's an idiot because what he's saying betrays a complete ignorance of evolutionary biology.  I was reminded of this because a couple of days ago, I was in my car listening to NPR and who were they quoting about the Japanese earthquake?  That's right, Dr. Michio Kaku.

I'm not sure what motivates a journalist to think "I need some information about an earthquake, I'll call a theoretical physicist who works on string theory" other than pure ignorance and/or laziness.  Who would even think to call a geologist to ask about a new breakthrough in particle physics?  For earthquake information, they could have just as easily called a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty, for example (Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, NY has a seismology and tectonophysics division with numerous PhD seismologists).  These guys know exactly what happened in Japan.

Isn't this the pot calling the kettle black, Steve?  Here I am in my blog writing about everything under the Sun - many of the topics being far outside of my area of expertise.  I guess there's something of an egotist in a blogger thinking that other people will be interested in what they write.  In my very first blog post, I called it "literary masturbation".  I guess the difference, or at least my rationalization, is that I fully acknowledge that I often write about topics outside of my area of expertise.  I don't believe, however, that I present myself as an expert on all these topics.  Blogs are like op-ed pages, they're mostly opinion pieces.

Full disclosure - I was called by a local public radio station the other day and asked questions about the Japanese earthquake (I'm not a seismologist, but my academic background is in structure/tectonics).  They either didn't like the sound of my voice (personally, I think I sound like shit when recorded) or what I said (I basically said the Japanese quake wasn't unusual to a geologist and large quakes like that could be expected every once in a while on a geologic time scale on an area like the subduction zone under Japan) but it apparently never aired.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How to Teach Physics to Your Dog

I've been reading Chad Orzel's blog Uncertain Principles for a while now on Science Blogs so I was excited to see he was giving a talk tonight at SUNY New Paltz sponsored by the Mid-Hudson Astronomical Association.

Dr. Orzel is an associate professor of physics at Union College in Schenectady and is the author of a book called How to Teach Physics to Your Dog which I haven't yet read, but certainly plan to now that I've seen his talk.  He also has a  website

Orzel gave an entertaining and interesting lecture on some of the popular topics in quantum mechanics like the wave-particle duality, quantum tunneling, and  the uncertainty principle.  While I didn't learn anything new, per se, I like hearing about new ways of explaining science to non-scientists.  The book is based on a cute idea too - explaining physics to his dog Emmy.

Anyway, if you see Orzel giving a talk anywhere, it's a good way to spend an hour.  I'll post about his book after I read it.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Stink Bugs

Have you seen this guy?  Keep your eye open this spring.

It's a brown marmorated stinkbug (Halyomorpha halys) -- an invasive species from mainland China that likely hitched a ride into the U.S. via packing crates.

The bug was first collected in Allentown, PA in 1998 and made it's way into the Hudson Valley of New York by 2008.  It's spreading throughout North America.

While harmless to humans, it can congregate in large numbers to overwinter in homes and other structures and is an agricultural pest damaging crops such as apples and corn (both important in the Hudson Valley).

While it can be confused with some other species of native shield bugs, the key identifying feature are the white bands on the antennae and the alternating light and dark bands on the abdominal segments which protrude beneath their wings (both features seen in picture at right).

And yes, they do stink -- especially if you crush them (if I find any, I will crush and smell them since I never have -- I'm strange like that).

If you see any in the Hudson Valley, the Cornell Cooperative Extension would like you to catch them and send them in with some data on where they were found.  Read here for details.  I've got my kids on it - if any are in our yard this year, they'll find them!

Apple and corn damaged by marmorated stinkbugs

Saturday, March 12, 2011


A number of you have probably heard about the SuperMoon coming next week on March 19.  A friend of mine recently mentioned it, and I'm sure students will bring it up in class next week, so I thought it would make a good blog post (one which will likely disappoint many of you reading this).

There's really nothing astronomically special about this month's full Moon.

In order to understand why, however, we have to discuss a few things about the Moon's orbit around the Earth.  You'd think the orbit of the Moon around the Earth is simple, but it's actually quite complex (much more so than I'll discuss here!).

Way back in 1609, German mathamatician/astronomer Johannes Kepler showed that the planets all orbited the Sun in ellipses, not perfect circles.  The closest approach of a planet is called perihelion and the furthest distance is called aphelian (from "helios", the Greek word for Sun).  The Moon similarly orbits the Earth in an ellipse, but closest and furthest approaches are called perigee and apogee (from "gē", the Greek word for Earth).

Each month, as the Moon orbits the Earth, it has a point at which it's at perigee and a point at which it's at apogee.  At perigee, since it's closer, the full Moon actually looks about 12% larger than it does at apogee.  The distances of perigee and apogee also change slightly with each orbit of the Moon.  Here's a list showing values for 2011 (click to enlarge).

Note that March 19 is a lunar perigee date and it's the closest approach of the year at 356,577 km.  Is it unusually close?  Not really, on December 12, 2008, the distance was 356,567 km - a hair closer.  On November 14, 2016, it will be closer yet at 356,511 km.  So, while this perigee in March is closer than average, it's nothing unusual and close approaches of a similar nature occur every few years.

As an aside, one web site I visited said it was the closest approach in 18 years.  I got my data above from the Lunar Perigee and Apogee Calculator which indicated a closer approach in 2008 as I indicated.  When I checked the data for 18 years ago (1993), I saw March 8 of that year had a perigee of 356,529 km.  A bit closer, but only by a few kilometers.  Either way, my argument holds that this is not a significant event.

As another aside, I've seen the term SuperMoon attributed to an astrology named Richard Nolle who defines it on his website as "... a perigee-syzygy, a new or full moon (syzygy) which occurs when the Moon is at 90% or greater of its mean closest approach to Earth (perigee)."  A lot of woo sites on the Internet are claiming terrible catastrophes with this SuperMoon but these claims simply don't hold up to scrutiny.

If you want really extreme perigees, you missed the last one if you're younger than 81 years old.  It occurred on January 15, 1930 when the Moon was 356,397 km from the Earth.  Forget about the next extreme perigee, it will occur on January 1, 2257 when the Moon is a mere 356,371 km away.

What is a little more interesting about this perigee in March is that it occurs at the time of the full Moon (technically a  perigee-syzygy where syzygy refers to an astronomical alignment of 3 or more celestial objects - in this case the Sun, Earth, and Moon).  Perigee and apogee are not linked to the Moon's phases because of differences in their cycles.  The amount of time from perigee to perigee is 27.55455 days.  The amount of time from full Moon to full Moon is 29.53059 days.  That's a two-day difference.


    14 x 29.53059 days = 413.43 days


   15 x  27.55455 days = 413.32 days

These cycles approximately coincide every 413 days.  So, since we have a perigee full Moon on March 19, 2011, we can expect a perigee full Moon again  1 year and 48 days later on May 6, 2012.  Guess what the Lunar Perigee and Apogee Calculator says? That's right, another perigee full Moon on May 6, 2012 (science works!).  That perigee's not as close at 356,953 km, but it's only about a 0.1% difference!

So, perigee full Moons aren't all that unusual either, they occur every year.

There is one final significance to this month's full Moon, however, and that is that it's occurring near the vernal (spring) equinox.  That's the point when the Earth is neither titlted toward nor away from the Sun and the Sun is directly over the Earth's equator.  On the equinox (literally "equal night" from Latin), the day and night are each about 12 hours in length everywhere on Earth.

Astronomically, the equinox will occur on March 20 at 23:21 UTC. The Full Moon will be March 19 at 18:10 UTC.  The perigee will be on March 19 at 19:10 UTC.  So while perigee and the exact time of the full Moon are only an hour apart, they miss the equinox by slightly over a full day.  Is it unusual for a full Moon to fall on the equinox?  Not really, it happened on the last autumnal equinox of September 22, 2010.  Between 1951 and 2049, there have been three full Moons on vernal equinoxes (1962, 1981, and 2000) and five full Moons one day offset from the vernal equinox (2008, 2011, 2019, 2030, and 2038).  Exact matches, unlike this year, occur every 16.7 years in this century span of time.  Not a big deal astronomically.

By the way, all of this is why Easter is so late this year. Since Easter generally (the formula used is more complicated) falls on the first Sunday after the full Moon after the vernal equinox, it can only fall between March 22 and April 25. This year, because there's a full Moon right before the equinox, we have to wait another lunar month for the full Moon on Sunday, April 17 (my birthday, by the way) and then another full week for Easter on Sunday, April 24 (about as late as it gets - it fell on April 25 in 1943 and won't again until 2038).  If the image at right puzzles you, there are two types of people in the world, those who like peeps, a traditional Easter treat in my house, and those who don't.

What about the big earthquake in Japan?  Was this perhaps caused by how close we are to a SuperMoon?  Sorry, the facts don't support it.  The Moon at the time wasn't even first quarter phase yet (not until March 12 at 23:45 UTC).  This means it's at right angles to the Earth and Sun and at the point of least gravitational influence.

Let's look at the distance from the surface of the sea to the Moon at the time of the earthquake vs. the time of perigee on the 19th.  This data can be obtained from the U.S. Naval Observatory Data Services Topocentric Configuration of Major Solar System Bodies link.  I used 38º 19' N and 142º 22' E as the coordinates of the quake.

When the earthquake occurred on March 11 at 5:46 UTC, the Moon was 390,644 km away.  On March 19 at 19:10 UTC, the point of perigee, the Moon will be 355,167 km away.  That's actually a pretty big difference of about 9%.  Compare that to the only 0.1% difference between the perigee Moon on March 19, 2011 and the perigee Moon on May 6, 2012 - in other words, the earthquake was completely unrelated to the closeness of the Moon.

Here's a big caveat, however.  Just because it's not that big a deal astronomically, and will not result in all kinds of terrible catastrophes, doesn't mean it's not significant.  Our ancient ancestors would have treated this as a special event, a correspondence between the solar and lunar cycles.  Go outside next Friday, look up at the large full Moon as the Northern Hemisphere of the Earth enters the first day of spring, and feel the connection with the natural cycles which connect all living and nonliving things in the eternal passage of time.  I'll be out there.