Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Good quote on education

From philosopher John Alexander Smith (1863–1939), who gave the following advice to Oxford University students in 1914:

Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.

I wish more people in this society could distinguish when a man is talking rot.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rondout Creek at Rosendale, NY

I still don't have power at home this Tuesday evening (it went out Saturday night).  Lots of communities here in Ulster County hard hit by Irene with flooding and loss of electric from tree limbs.

An initial look at the USGS stream gaging station data from the Rondout Creek at Rosendale, NY (right down the road from me) confirmed my initial suspicions when I saw it raging Sunday afternoon.  The peak discharge on the 28th was recorded as 36,500 cfs or cubic feet per second (prior to the storm it was running a bit over 400 cfs).  That beats the record back in 1955 (when the town flooded instigating the flood control measures taken shortly thereafter) of 35,800 cfs.  I looked at continuous records back to 1927 (the record is spotty prior to then). This truly was a 100 year flood event.

More analysis to follow when I get better Internet access than Starbucks WiFi (I'd like to look at records for Esopus and Wallkill Rivers also).

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Irene from Space

Beautiful, isn't it?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hurricane Irene

For those of us in the Hudson Valley, this latest projected track for Hurricane Irene looks very similar to the path of Hurricane Floyd back in mid-September of 1999.

Floyd passed over Long Island and tracked up into the Connecticut Valley.  Here in the mid-Hudson Valley, where I live, winds brought branches and power outages lasted up to a week for some people.  The exact track for Irene is changing on a day-to-day basis - the movement and strength of a trough of low pressure will affect the storm and may move it further east (or not).

A little emergency preparedness (non-perishable food, water, gas for your car, batteries, etc.) would be prudent.

The National Hurricane Center is the place to go for up-to-date information on the storm.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Virginia Earthquake Details

Earthquakes in Virginia?  Why not?

Earthquakes can happen anywhere.  While they're most common along tectonic plate boundaries (like the San Andreas Fault system - the boundary between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate out in California), they can also occur in the middle of tectonic plates (geologists call them "intraplate earthquakes").

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), the epicenter of this quake was located at 37.936°N, 77.933°W, 5 miles from the small town of Mineral (38 miles NW of Richmond and 84 miles SW of Washington, D.C.).  This was a shallow quake at 6 km of depth (3.7 miles) and it occurred at 1:51 pm EDT (1751 UTC).

This earthquake occurred as reverse faulting movement in an area called the Central Virginia Seismic Zone - a previously recognized area of seismic activity (albeit rare).  Movement most likely occurred on an ancient NNE-oriented fault which was reactivated by modern-day stresses in the North American tectonic plate.  These ancient buried faults are most-likely from the formation of the Appalachian Mountains by the collision of Africa with North America during the formation of Pangaea some 250 million years ago.  This fault may have been inactive since then, simply remaining as a weak area in the crust that was reactivated by modern stresses.

Check out the following map.  It was created by the USGS before this earthquake and shows the probability of a greater than 4.75 magnitude earthquake within next 100 years.  It's about a 15-20% probabilty for the area where this quake occurred.  Sometimes those odds pay off!

There have been about 200 earthquakes in Virginia over the past 25 years.  Most are small and only detected by seismographs but larger ones are not unknown.  The last comparable earthquake in Virginia (about the same magnitude as this one, we think) was on May 31, 1897 near Pearisburg in SW Virginia - a different seismic zone.

Earthquakes of this magnitude are rare 100 year events, but they do occur (something for people to keep in mind - no where's 100% safe).

Why was this earthquake felt in such a large area (basically from Georgia to Maine)?  Because crustal rocks in the east are old, cold, and less fractured up then crustal rocks in places like California.  In California, a 5.8 magnitude quake like this will be greatly attenuated with distance from the epicenter by these fractures.  In the east, the mostly intact rock transmits the seismic energy much further.

Virginia Earthquake

Just saw that there was a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in the middle of Virginia.  A couple of people in this area felt it.  Details to come when I learn more.

Here's data from the National Earthquake Information Center.

Digital natives

Very interesting article in Inside Higher Ed titled What Students Don't Know.  It summarizes the results of the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project, a two-year, five-campus ethnographic study examining how students view and use their campus libraries.

The study found that students relied almost exclusively on Google, did not use or misused scholarly databases, and even with the reliance on Google, didn't know how to frame a decent search.  As the article states:  Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.  One subtext of the study was that student's had no idea they sucked at library research and were loath to ask librarians (or professors) for assistance.

The so-called "digital natives" are illiterate and don't even know it.  Surprise, surprise!  No different than their remedial English and math skills that shock them so much when they enter college in the fall.

Meanwhile, professors and academic librarians respond with No shit Sherlock.  Anyone who's read "research" papers by college students knows that a quick Google search and the first Wikipedia article that pops up is most of what constitutes "research" for most of them.  Here's one amusing take on the article.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Rick Perry

I normally don't post about politics on this blog unless a politician says something relating to science or education.  Rick Perry, Governor of Texas and one of the front runners in the race to the Republican nomination for president, has made some idiotic statements about both recently so I can't resist.

A boy asks him "How old do you think the Earth is?" and Perry answers "I don't have any idea" admitting that " goes back a long, long ways.." and "...I'm not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how long ago..."  Then he references a question the boy's mother must have just asked him about evolution calling it a "...theory with gaps in it..." and then makes a truly astonishing and completely false statement.

The Governor of Texas told the boy that "In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools..."  Holy shit!  First off, this is false.  Texas does not teach creationism in public schools, although attempts have been made by members of the  Texas State Board of Education to introduce "Intelligent Design" (mostly unsuccessfully due to national attention).  So, not only is the Governor of Texas totally out of touch with a major educational controversy in his state, he apparently supports the unconstitutional teaching of creationism in public schools (this is not an opinion - numerous courts have ruled that creationism and intelligent design - its better-dressed cousin - are unconstitutional in schools).

Perry sure as hell tries to get creationism taught in Texas public schools, he's appointed young-Earth creationists numerous times to the State Board of Education (which makes decisions on how science is taught and what textbooks are used).  The good news, however, is that just a few weeks ago sanity prevailed and the use of intelligent design textbook supplements was rejected.

Perry also recently said the following about climate change:

"I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized. I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed. But I do not buy into, that a group of scientists, who in some cases were found to be manipulating this data.”

Yes, Rick, it's a great conspiracy.  You're on to us.  Climatologists lie about climate change, biologists lie about evolution, geologists lie about the age of the Earth (astronomers too).  All those PhD eggheads are just living high on the hog sucking at the government teat of grant money and telling lies to all the good God-fearing folk of this country.  Know why?  Because they hate God, that's why Rick.  They hate God and bought into the lies of the enemy - Satan himself.  Yes, I'm being sarcastic but there are a large number of Americans out there who truly believe this - I've met some locally.


Fuck you Rick!  I know people working on climate change and they are not manipulating data.  They're not making shit up.  They're out there in the field, gathering data year-after-year, and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.  Some of these highly-trained, experienced scientists with PhDs are also living on almost poverty wages.  Some have trouble staying employed because they're on soft-money (grants), and not in a tenure-track faculty position (because, due to budget cuts, there are essentially no faculty positions out there anymore, your precious darlings in college are mostly being taught by part-timers).  Meanwhile the federal, state, and local governments cut, cut, cut money for education and basic scientific research on something as important as climate change THAT WILL AFFECT EVERY LAST MAN, WOMAN, AND CHILD ON THIS IDIOTIC PLANET!

Are we really going to elect this fucking idiot to the presidency of the United States?  This country can't sustain more cuts to education and scientific research and the inauguration of this anti-intellectual liar.  ("Tell us how you really feel, Steve").

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ancient Astronomy

I would like to advertise a fall semester online course I'm teaching - AST-105-S01 Ancient Astronomy. I developed the course last year and this is the second time it's run - I think it was very successful last fall and I had a good group of participants.

This 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.

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 what 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.

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, however, the BIGGEST predictor of student success is a genuine interest in the topic!).

Here's the course outline.

This fully online course is 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 you register with my college, you don't have to be a student there to take the class.

For questions about how to register for this SUNY Learning Network online course, or what the tuition and fees will be, contact the Registrar's Office at SUNY Ulster County Community College.  The semester starts next week - August 24!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


The cougar, mountain lion, puma, catamount, panther (Puma concolor) may be expanding its range.

A healthy 140 pound cougar was struck and killed by an SUV on Route 15 (Wilbur Cross Parkway) north of Milford, Connecticut on June 11 of this year (news story).  There had been reports of presumably the same animal a few days earlier in Greenwich, Connecticut which is next door to White Plains, New York (news story).

Genetic testing on the dead animal showed that it was the same animal spotted numerous times in Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2009 and 2010 (information here) where it was dubbed the St. Croix Cougar (they were able to obtain DNA from the animal's scat).  Turns out this cougar has the same DNA as a group of cats living in the Black Hills region of South Dakota (more information).  This was a surprise to me - I've been to the Black Hills a number of times and had no idea there were cougars endemic there!

Cougar caught by camera trap in Minnesota near Wisconsin border

This cougar has set a record for a straight-line travel distance of over 1,500 miles (well over in reality since it didn't travel in a straight line).  The cougar apparently traveled north of the Great Lakes through Canada and then may have come down through New York to get into Connecticut.

Are there other cougars in the East or is this just a fluke?  Most wildlife experts maintain that there are no breeding populations of cougars here in the East given that, if there were, we'd occassionally see them run over by cars as this one was and we'd find tracks (as they now do in Wisconsin and Minnesota).  On the other hand, for years now, I've heard some locals swear that they've seen cougars out in the wild in places like Sam's Point in the Shawangunks and up in the Catskills.

The New York State DEC position is that these reports are mistaken identifications and that cougars are extirpated in New York.  The St. Croix Cougar may be a harbinger of things to come, however, since cougars would do quite well here in New York if reintroduced.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Acasta Gneiss

One of the things I did over the past few weeks was travel down to the Washington D.C. area to visit family.  We went into the city to visit the Smithsonian Natural History museum and I was very excited to see a sample of the Acasta Gneiss I could actually touch!

Here's the picture with my cell phone (didn't have a good camera on me at the time).

"OK, Steve," I'm sure you're wondering, "why do you have a hard-on for some stupid rock?"  BECAUSE IT'S 4 BILLION YEARS OLD!  It's the oldest known rock on Earth.  I'm sorry, that's fucking cool!

It's a gneiss which means it's a high-grade metamorphic rock.  That means it was formed from an older preexisting rock that was altered by very high temperatures and pressures.  The gneiss was derived from the metamorphism of an igneous rock called tonalite (similar to granite but lacking K-feldspar).  Crystals of the mineral zircon (ZrSiO4) within the Acasta Gneiss record the age of that earlier igneous intrusion as 4.2 billion years ago.  Given that the Earth formed around 4.6 billion, that's old!

This was a period of time know as the Hadean Eon - derived from the Greek word hades or Hell.  The Earth truly was a hellish place back then - no life, heavy meteorite bombardment, massive tides from a closer Moon, acidic ocean, poisonous (for us) atmosphere, and more volcanic activity.  Almost nothing from that time has been preserved due to the Earth's active surface processes (although we have older meteorites and Moon rocks).

Wish I could have a piece of the Acasta Gneiss for my bookshelf but it's found way up in what geologists call the Slave Province about 220 miles north of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories (click here for a Flash Earth view of this remote area along the Acasta River).  That's a long way for a field trip.

End of Hiatus

I've taken a few weeks off from posting on the blog.  I've actually been busy, not taking a summer vacation but teaching two online courses, preparing for the fall semester (which starts August 24), chairperson duties at the College, outside professional obligations, and personal stuff.

Off to Albany today but will resume daily (or so) posts tonight.  If anyone cares - not sure if anyone really follows this blog or if I just get random hits from Google searches.

I did get time to do some local hiking in the Shawangunks.  Never enough time, however.