Monday, October 31, 2011

Stupid geologists

This comment was recently submitted anonymously to my post Pretty all right, pretty stupid  from last May.

When I googled "fuck geologists" this site came up. Not only do geologists have the most boring profession of any academic circle, they are terrible at organizing their information. They don't make any practical discoveries, they simply state the obvious and create names for things that are already named! They then proceed to categorize the information many times over just for the sake of having something to do. I think the world would be a better place if Geology was never studied or practiced ever again.

I had to laugh (and then wonder why this person hates geology so much).  I'm guessing they're a high school or college kid taking an introductory geology course and hating it (not that I can understand why anyone would hate something as interesting as geology!).

Would "the world be a better place if geology were never studied or practiced ever again" as this poster claimed?

In my introductory classes, I always have the "Why study geology?" part of the lecture.  Why is geology useful?  Here are a few simple examples.

Ever use anything with metal in it?  Copper, aluminum, steel (iron), zinc, etc?  Guess where it came from... A mineral!  Someone had to find the mineral deposit, it was mined or quarried, and turned into a hunk of metal and manufactured into some material.  Like your computer, TV, cell phone, electric lines, indoor plumbing, etc.  All made from minerals.

Nonmetallic Earth resources are important too.  Gypsum wallboard (Sheetrock) in your home?  A porcelain toilet (manufactured from clay).  Like salt on the roads in the winter?  Want to give a gold wedding band or diamond to your sweetheart (or rubies, emeralds, garnets, aquamarines, etc.)?  Drive on roads?  Sand, gravel, and petroleum are used to make asphalt.  Concrete?  Comes from limestone.  Building stone like granite or marble?  Directly from the Earth.

Ever use energy?  Electricity, heating oil, gasoline, etc?  Guess where it cam from... Coal, petroleum, natural gas that someone had to find, it was mined, quarried, or drilled, and turned into a product used for electricity generation, transport, heating, manufacturing, etc.  All Earth materials.  What to use green energy from solar cells and batteries?  They're loaded with rare-earth elements all mined from the ground (and need plenty of copper wire).

Ever use anything made of plastics or wore synthetic fibers?  Most of them are derived from petroleum.

Who studies and monitors earthquakes in California?  Who studies and monitors volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest?  Who studies coastal erosion along the east coast?  Who studies landslide hazards?  Flooding hazards?  Good deal on a home in La Conchita, California?  Google it - a geologist would never have bought a house there!

How do civil engineers know what soils and rocks are suitable or unsuitable for foundations of walls, bridges, dams, buildings, etc?  Google "Vajont Dam" sometime to see what happens if civil engineers ignore geology.

Ever buy a house?  When I was in the market for a home a number of years ago, we were shown places on the floodplain of the Esopus Creek here in Ulster County.  I told my wife "No way" since I'm a geologist and a few years later we saw this house completely flood damaged.  Knowing what kind of soil you have on your property can mean the difference between a simple or specially engineered septic system (a several thousand dollar difference).  Knowing a bit about groundwater can clue you in on how deep your well has to be (and drillers charge by the foot - it makes a difference).  Any potential that your groundwater may be contaminated?  A little knowledge of groundwater geology will help you figure that out.

Who studies and helps remediate areas of contaminated soil or groundwater?  Where is that plume in contaminated groundwater going?  Better know something about the subsurface geology.  Where do you place a landfill such that it will have the least risk of contaminating the surrounding area?  Ask a geologist.

Global climate change is a big issue.  Guess what?  Climate's been changing on Earth from the time it formed.  How do we know that?  Geologists who've learned to decipher paleoclimate data from rocks and fossils.  This knowledge allows us to separate natural rates of climate change from anthropogenic ("man made") contributions.  The rock cycle, the carbon cycle, the hydrologic cycle are all directly relevant to our lives.

The Earth is four and a half billion years old.  Many people in this country are dumb asses and don't care about things like that (or believe in the particular mythology of a particular group of bedouin Hebrews thousands of years) but I think it's a great thing to gain knowledge about the world around us.  Think dinosaurs are cool?  How the hell do you think we know about dinosaurs?  Those damn geologists sitting in the hot Montana sun digging through layers of sandstone to expose those bones to the light of day and then patiently studying them in the laboratory to reconstruct them and their place in an ancient ecosystem.

Just about everything we know about the Earth is from geologists!  If all you care about is who is fucking who on Jersey Shore, this information may not seem "relevant" to you but that's because you're a moron.

Geologists Rock!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wisconsinites don't need none of that fancy book learnin'

The Governor, Scott Walker (R), is systematically trying to destroy public and higher education in the formerly great state of Wisconsin because it evidently costs too much to educate people.  The latest:

High schools would be allowed to drop math and English graduation requirements to set up vocational-only diplomas under a bill being backed by Gov. Scott Walker.

The plan in the governor's special session on jobs would let local school boards decide their own curricula and create vocational diplomas that carry the same weight as regular high school degrees. Oshkosh Assembly Republican Michelle Litjens supported the change at a public hearing. She says right now students don't always see a connection between the classes they're taking and the labor market, "And sometimes they're right. For the student who doesn't have the desire to pursue a higher education, who just doesn't want to sit still in an English class anymore, why are they there?"

Anyone see problems with this?  While I support vocational education (there's certainly nothing wrong with being a skilled trades person), don't they need some minimal reading, writing, and math skills too?  Unless you're just slinging fries in a fast food restaurant with picture buttons on the cash register, most jobs require some basic literacy and critical thinking skills (despite what most people think, math is not simply a set of non-relevant computational skills, it's about learning how to think logically to solve problems).

Do electricians ever use math?  You got a string of outlets with so many 110 V appliances plugged into it each drawing so many watts of electricity and you have to figure out a proper amperage for your circuit breaker.  No math there.  Do office workers need English skills?  No, joust type up those document any way u want and the spell checker will ketch any problemas, write?  Do auto technicians need to read well?  Nah, those repair manuals are mostly pictures anyway.

We all know that 16 year olds know exactly what they'll need for the rest of their life too, don't we?  They're perfectly capable of deciding on a career track that will doom them to never be able to succeed in college without a couple of years of remedial coursework at the local community college (assuming we're still around because the state and county keep cutting our funding year after year after year).

I am becoming more and more convinced that the political upper class in this country does not want an educated electorate.  It is easier, after all, to manipulate uneducated people with populist scaremongering.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Community-College Dropouts Cost Taxpayers $$$

The Chronicle of Higher Education had this article on October 20 - "Community-College Dropouts Cost Taxpayers Nearly $1-Billion a Year, Report Says."  The article references the report The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges from the American Institutes for Research.

The basic message of this report is summarized by the following:

Nearly $4 billion was spent by federal, state, and local governments over five years on full-time community college students who dropped out after their first year without completing their certificate or degree programs... About a fifth of full-time students who enroll at a community college do not return for a second year.

Sounds terrible, doesn't it?  We're wasting all this money on students who drop out of community colleges.  What can we do about it?  None of the recommendations made in this report are anything new.  It's all stuff we're trying to do at my institution.

It's no secret that I teach at a 2-year community college in the mid-Hudson Valley Region of New York.  We are a part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system and, as our catalog states, we're "a full opportunity, open-door institution."  What this means is that we accept virtually anyone who is able to pay the tuition (most of our students, as you might guess, receive State and Federal financial aid).  All applicants for full-time study are given placement exams in English (reading and writing) and mathematics.  If students have deficiencies in these areas, such that they would not be able to succeed in College English 1 or college level math course, we have a number of developmental (remedial) courses available and we're always looking at ways to assess these courses and make them more effective.

What about our close neighbor - a typical four-year state school (also part of the SUNY system)?  They describe themselves (on their website) as a "Very selective 4-year co-ed residential regional university college" and examine the following as criteria for admission:

  • The quality and strength of your high school academic program for 9th, 10th , and 11th grades.
  • The results of either the SAT (Critical Reading and Mathematics sections) or ACT (Composite score).

  • The quality of the personal essay you submit.
  • One academic teacher or guidance counselor letter of recommendation.

Nothing wrong with that but think about how that affects our student bodies.  We accept everyone. The four-year state schools are selective (and let's not even talk about the private colleges in the Hudson Valley).  See a difference?  We often get those rejected from everywhere else!   It makes no sense to compare our retention to four-year college retention.  We have different missions and a different student population.  In many ways our mission is more difficult because we have students that range from barely literate to top notch and we have to meet all of their needs.
So why don't so many students continue from the first year to the next at community colleges?  If anyone ever figures it out, let us know because we rip our hair out over this issue.  Our college certainly does not want students to leave prior to graduation - we expend a lot of time, effort, and money trying to improve retention.

Here's what I've learned simply by teaching here for the past 12 years or so...

     A.  Some students simply flunk out with a low GPA.  Quite frankly, they don't have the academic ability to succeed in college and  100-level courses are too difficult for them to handle.  Some of my colleagues disagree, and believe anyone and everyone has the ability to succeed in college, but I think they're living in a fantasy land.

     B.  Some students leave because they've had something bad happen to them and can't continue attending school.  A loss of income, a health issue, or a family issue. Some of these students have a good GPA and some don't.  The college is limited in how much we can help students who tell us "My car died and I can't afford another one so I can't get to school" or "I've just been diagnosed with cancer."  Some eventually return, others are never seen again.

     C.  Some students are insufficiently motivated to succeed.  They are not in college because they want to be here (usually because parents want them to be there).  They invest more effort into a job or just going out and having fun.  Some tell us point blank "I don't want to be here but my parents told me I have to go to school or they'll kick me out."  Usually, these students have a poor GPA and end up flunking out.  Sometimes, however, they simply have an epiphany and leave.

     D.  Some students transfer to a different institution that they feel better meets their needs.  Many of my advisees tell me that don't plan on getting a degree here, they just want to get their GPA up so they can transfer somewhere "better".  It's very common for students to flunk out of a four-year school, come to our community college for a year, and then transfer back to the four-year school.
Many times we simply don't know why they leave and never return.

Some of these are success stories even though they're reported in our statistics as retention failures.  The student who transfers to a four-year school before completing a degree at our institution isn't failing - they're succeeding!  As far as I'm concerned, it may also be a good thing if a student realizes that they'd be better off going out into the workforce (especially if they have a useful skill) instead of getting a generic two-year degree.  I know many people who have no college degree and who make far more money than PhDs teaching at your local community college!

What about a barely literate student who comes for a year, doesn't do well, and drops out?  Well, we tried.  Even if the student couldn't handle college-level work, I think the student probably benefited from the remedial reading and writing classes they would have had to take and that can only help them when they're out in the job market.  Just counting it as a retention failure is short-sighted.

We can't guarantee that everyone who comes to our institution will succeed and leave with a degree.  Any policy maker who believes that is possible is a moron (tell them I said so).  What we provide, with our open-door policy, is for everyone to have a CHANCE to succeed.  We do all we can here to facilitate that but the student also has to contribute.  You can't just buy your degree, just as you can't pay to join a health club and automatically expect to lose weight and grow muscles.  The student has to work to succeed.  If that part of the equation is missing, no amount of money or policies is going to fix it.

There are many places around the world where most people don't have even a chance of higher education - especially if they were born to poor parents.  What we provide, for virtually everyone, is that chance.  If I had been born in many other places around the world, I would have NEVER received a college education (I almost didn't here!).  But I went to a community college and succeeded.  State and federal financial aid (as well as student loans) assisted in that.  Was it worth it to society to provide me that opportunity even though I could have also blown it and flunked out?  I'll leave that for others to answer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


There were reports of widespread aurora activity visible throughout Canada and the U.S. last night due to a coronal mass ejection of ionized particles from the Sun.  Did I see them?  Of course not.  It's been cloudy almost every single #*@#&* night here in the Hudson Valley this fall.  Did I mention I'm teaching Observational Astronomy - a course that requires us to go outside and view the night sky.  Did I mention it's been cloudy all the time?  Anyway, visit for some neat aurora pictures from places where it wasn't cloudy.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Geologists are easy

Geologists have a bit of a reputation when it comes to drinking - especially beer.  I've shared this link before but I love the video - Why Geologists Like Beer.  There's also this story from a few years back, in the New York Times no less, discussing a seminar on geology and beer at a Geological Society of American meeting (With Great Beer, It's All in the Rocks).

Things have changed a bit from the "good old days" when I was a student.  In all of my undergraduate overnight field trips, the first stop at the end of the day was the beer stop where we picked up cases of beer for the evening around the campfire.  When I was in graduate school, the department had Friday afternoon symposia and one rotating job among the teaching assistants was to collect money from the graduate students and faculty to make the beer and chips run for after the talk.  It's a damn shame that these days young men and women are judged old enough to travel half-way round the world to kill people yet are deemed too immature to imbibe in a glass of beer or wine back home.

One of the good things about October, a time when one is reminded of the inevitable onset of winter, snow, and cold, is the appearance of good Oktoberfest beers from local breweries in the local tavern.  By the way, for some of you who need edumacatin', beer looks like this...

Beer is never the color of well-hydrated piss boys and girls.  Trust me, I'm a professor with many years of field research experience.

Anyway, on another blog, my attention was drawn to a dating trends blog from OkCupid, an online dating site.  They had a post on the Best Questions for a First Date - in other words, what can you ask on a date that will give you the most useful information about that person?
What's the most important thing most guys want to know when they're on a date?  OkCupid knows and they did some statistical analysis of their member's profiles and found a clear correlation.

What's the biggest predictor of being willing to sleep with someone on the first date?  Liking the taste of beer!  Geologists drink a lot of beer.  Ergo, geologists are easy!  Can't argue with logic.

Being married for 18+ years, such information is useless to me today but in the interest of science I thought I'd share it with my readers.  If you want to get laid quickly, find a geologist.  You have to be willing to be seen with someone who's sometimes a bit dirty (with real dirt) and wearing jeans, hiking boots, and flannel (and that's the women geologists!).  But geologists really do know how to make the bedrock (ha, "bed rock", get it?).

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Happy Birthday Earth!

According to James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (1581-1656), the world was created by God on the evening preceding October 23, 4004 BC.

The Earth is therefore 6,014 years old (there is no year 0 - the calendar goes from 1 BC to 1 AD).  Of course those evil godless geologists say it's closer to  4,540,000,000 (4.54 billion) years old.

Quite honestly, one can forgive Archbishop Ussher his belief since, back around 1650, there was little in the way of scientific evidence to support an ancient age for the Earth.  After the work of early geologists like James Hutton (1726-1797) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875), however, this view became more and more untenable as time went on.

The clincher, of course, was the development of radiometric dating in the 20th century which has conclusively shown the age of the Earth to within a few million years (± 1% or so).  Since the environmentalists own Earth Day in April, I'd like to see the geologists take October 23 as their day to celebrate the scientific study of the Earth - an ancient, dynamic, and fascinating planet.  Our home.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The world will end today!

Remember the bat-shit crazy preacher Harold Camping?  The one who predicted the rapture of all true believers on May 21 and the end of the world on October 21 (and encouraging followers to spend their life savings promoting this non-event)?

I don't remember seeing anyone, Christian or otherwise, floating up into the sky last May so Camping obviously screwed up.  Did he admit that?  Nope.  He just said it was an "invisible judgement day" and that the world will still end on October 21.  That's TODAY!

The Christian Science Monitor reported that Brother Camping is avoiding the press as his end of the world date is nigh. What a surprise!  He apparently never learned the number 1 rule of end-times preaching - never offer a specific date (Mark 13:32) because you'll always end up looking like a fool.

Is it wrong of me to hope the ROSAT satellite will come down today on Brother Camping's house?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Public misunderstanding of science

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

This is interesting.   I got the following table from Callan Bentley's excellent Mountain Beltway blog and he got it from “Communicating the Science of Climate Change,” by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol (Physics Today, October 2011, p. 48).

The way scientists use terms when discussing climate change is different from the way the general public uses those same terms (we can say much the same thing about scientists discussing evolution and other "hot button" issues that people are skeptical about for ideological reasons).

I discuss global climate change in many of my geoscience courses and do try to explain the terminology used as well.  Sometimes those of us who read the scientific literature become so used to the jargon used that we simply repeat it when discussing the topic without thinking about how people hear and perceive the terms.  It's good to be reminded that we shouldn't take some things for granted.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

National Fossil Day

Just learned that today was National Fossil Day.

Happy National Fossil Day!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Growth of the ISS

This is cool.  USA Today had this neat animation on the growth of the International Space Station (ISS) since its intial launch in 1998.  Go watch it here.

Here's an image of the ISS taken from the Space Shuttle (I assume).  It looks like it's passing over the Straits of Gibralter.

All that surface area reflects a lot of light when the ISS passes overhead just after sunset or just before sunrise when the observer on the ground is in the dark and the ISS is still seeing sunlight.  It's easy to spot the ISS if you know when and where to look.  Here's a NASA website which gives quick and easy directions.

If I select New York and Kingston (the city closest to my house), I get a number of possible ISS sightings over the next few weeks.  Since I don't like getting up before dawn, I might wait until Saturday, October 15 when I can see the ISS at 7:39 pm.  It will be visible for a couple of minutes in the southern sky first appearing 10 degrees above the horizon in the south-southwest and then disappearing in the south-southwest around 26 degrees above the horizon.

Sat Oct 15/07:39 PM

10 above SSW26 above SSE

A better choice, however, would be on Monday the 17th at 7:18 pm when it will be visible for 4 minutes and will be higher in the sky (reaching a maximum altitude of 56 degrees.

Mon Oct 17/07:18 PM

11 above SW33 above E

By the way, the altitude varies from 0 degrees at the horizon to 90 degrees at the zenith - the point directly above your head.  How do you estimate altitude?  Hold out your fist at arm's length - it covers about 10 degrees of the sky.

A more precise ISS satellite prediction for my home's exact location (I'm about 10 miles southwest of Kingston) gives the time as 7:16:52 pm (about a minute earlier) so be aware that the time may not be exact if you're using a city that's a few miles away from your observing location.

The ISS that night will be brighter than any of the stars, even brighter than Jupiter - the brightest thing in the current night sky other than the Moon.

So, if you've never spotted the ISS, go out and try to do it.  It will surprise you in its brightness and you can wave at the 3 astronauts currently on board!  Here's NASA's ISS page.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Born in Africa

Another book review.  This weekend I read Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life by Martin Meredith (2011, Public Affairs).  It was in the new books section of the library and I was hoping it would discuss some of the newer (past decade or so) hominid discoveries.

I found it to be mostly a review of what I already knew (or once knew and forgot) but it would be a good introductory book for those unfamiliar with the field of paleoanthropology (the study of ancient humans).  It's a field I've read quiet a bit about in the past (my first interest in college was archaeology).

Martin Meredith is an historian and journalist.  I'm always a bit skeptical of science books written by nonscientists but Meredith seems to do an OK job of summarizing the latest thinking on human evolution - his journalist side comes through, however, in his focus on the personalities of the people invovled, more than analysis of the specimens discovered and the significance of the finds.

Unfortunately, the field of paleoanthropology seems to attract people who develop emotional, and sometimes irrational, attachments to their pet hypotheses. In all accounts I've read, two of the best known leaders in the field, Richard Leakey and Donald Johanson, are both egotistical jerks. Many times, grand claims were made from discoveries that were little more than a few scraps of bone.  Rivalries between researchers in the field and irrational attachment to preconceived ideas about hominid evolutionary relationships has probably kept the field from developing as fast as it could have otherwise.

Anyway, the book starts with Darwin's ideas on the origin of man and then moves on to early discoveries in South Africa by Raymond Dart (Taung Baby) and Robert Broom.  Much of the book, quite reasonably, is devoted to the work of Louis and Mary Leaky in Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania and then the work of his son Richard and Donald Johanson (discoverer of "Lucy") in northern Kenya and Ethiopia (Koobi Fora; Turkana; Hadar).  Most interesting to me were accounts of more recent discoveries (1990s and 2000s) at the classic sites of Sterkfontein and Swartkrans in South Africa, the discovery of Ardipithecus ("Ardi") in Hadar, and a description of other hominids I was unfamiliar with (Kenyanthropus platyops, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Orrorin tugensis, etc.).

The field of paleoanthropology was really turned on its head in the 1970s and 1980s by the development of molecular dating and analysis of mitochondrial DNA.  The genetic information of modern hominids (humans, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans) and other primates can be studied to show when they had a last common ancestor.  Turns out that gibbons and humans had a last common ancestor around 20 million years ago, orangutans split off from us around 16 million years ago, gorillas around 10 million years ago, and humans and chimpanzees (with whom we share 98.6% of our DNA) had a last common ancestor only around 6 million years ago.  Far more recent than paleoanthropologists had thought based solely on fossil evidence.

The big takeaway from this book is that human evolution is complicated.  Many people still have the following image of "the evolution of man" (at least those who don't hold to the Adam and Eve literalism of the Bible!).
I put a big red X through it because it's completely incorrect.  It's a 19th century idea rooted in the false concept of evolution working to produce the "crown of creation" - humans.

Evolution is like a many-branched bush and, during the last few million years, there were many hominids walking around and coexisting together.  Some became evolutionary dead ends and others led eventually to us (judging by what we're doing to our world, it's hard not to believe that in a few million years, Homo sapiens will be an evolutionary dead end as well!).  Below is one interpretation of our ancestors and possible evolutionary relationships.

Just to be clear, in the diagram above, the fossils and the age ranges are facts.  They are specimens that have been excavated and very well studied.  The age ranges may be extended with new discoveries, of course.  The interpretation comes in with the taxonomy - assigning the specimens to a particular genus and species (a man-made construct) - and the arrows showing inferred evolutionary relationships.  These are also subject to change based on new discoveries (that's how science works!).

It's an interesting and still unfolding story.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The laryngeal nerve & evolution

Saw this video on Phyrangula and found it very interesting.  Its a dissection on the neck of a giraffe illustrating the laryngeal nerve. Warning: It's not for the squeamish!

The laryngeal nerve runs from the brainstem (it's a branch of the vagus or tenth cranial nerve) to the larynx (voicebox).  It's a nerve that evolved early in the vertebrate line appearing in fish where it ran from the brain, past the heart, directly to the gills.  With tetrapod evolution, the neck extended and the heart moved lower into the thorax.  Natural selection resulted in the nerve gradually lengthening with these changes such that, in modern mammals, the nerve runs from the brain, down around the heart, and then back up to the voicebox.  A totally circuitous route.

Biologists, like retired Oxford professor and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins above, have argued that the recurrent laryngeal nerve is a kludge and direct evidence against the religiously-motivated idea of intelligent design.  Neil Shubin also makes this argument in his wonderful book Your Inner Fish.

There are a number of anatomical features like this that make absolutely no sense from a design standpoint but are perfectly understandable in an evolutionary context.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sex on the Moon

I was up late last night reading Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History by Ben Mezrich (2011, Doubleday).  I couldn't put it down until I finished it.

It's the true story of Thad Roberts, a charismatic NASA geology intern at the Johnson Space Center in Houston who, along with fellow interns Tiffany Fowler and Shae Saur (they were given pseudonyms in the book of Rebecca and Sandra), stole moon rocks from a safe in a NASA lab in the summer of 2002.  They then attempted to sell the rocks to Belgian mineral collector Axel Emmermann who tipped off the FBI.  They were obviously caught (even the unauthorized possession of irreplaceable moon rocks is against the law) and these supposedly brilliant interns were dumb as stumps as criminals.

The title Sex on the Moon, by the way, came from Thad Roberts supposedly placing a stolen moon rock under the mattress before having sex with his girlfriend Tiffany.

The book was an easy read and suspenseful (like I said, I couldn't put it down until I finished it).  It would make a good movie (the book was clearly written with that goal in mind).  It is, however, full of hyperbole ("the most audacious heist in history", overly-inflated valuations of the moon rocks at "close to a trillion", all the interns are "brilliant", etc.).

More disturbing to me was the glamorization of Thad Roberts and his accomplices.  Mezrich gives the impression Roberts was doing it for love, for adventure, to give his girlfriend the Moon (he was married to another woman while screwing Tiffany, by the way).  Tiffany was blinded by his charisma (what, women love charismatic assholes and make bad decisions, who knew?).  His "friend" Shae's participation is harder to understand, one gets the impression of an unrequited love triangle.  Anyway, it seems to me that they were simply greedy bastards without an ounce of  ethics - typically known as common thieves when they're not middle-class college kids.  They were in it for the money, plain and simple.  First thing they wanted to do was sell the rocks for a profit.

Mezrich also tries to make Thad a sympathetic character.  He seemed to me to be a classic sociopath.  He used people, he stole minerals and fossils while a student at the University of Utah before the moon rock theft, and he rationalized everything he did as a good thing or simply a prank.  One doesn't meticulously plan a theft from a secure NASA lab, arrange an international buyer of contraband, enlist accomplices, and carry out a slew of felonies as a "prank".  He betrayed the trust of NASA, of the scientists who worked with and mentored him in the opportunity of a lifetime, and destroyed one scientist's research (Dr. Everett Gibson who was working with those rocks).  If I was the judge, I would have given him significantly more than 100 months in prison.

From all accounts I've read, Roberts still doesn't really appreciate the magnitude of his crime.  One can Google his name and see pictures of him smiling and posing with the book's author for publicity photos.  Doesn't seem to have much of a sense of remorse or shame about what he did barely 10 years ago.  It bothers me that people like him can profit from their crimes (at least I borrowed the book from the public library and didn't purchase it myself).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Came home to this on our portable whiteboard.  What are my ten-year old children mocking?

Why the infamous crocoduck, of course!  Kirk Cameron, a teen actor in the series Growing Pains some 25 years ago, is currently an Evangelical Christian and friend of evangelist Ray "Banana Man" Comfort.

Kirk and Ray introduced the crocoduck to the world in 2007 during a televised debate on ABC's Nightline on the existence of God.  They claim that since we don't see crocoducks, there is no such thing as transitional evolutionary forms, evolution is therefore wrong, and God exists.  QED.  Or something like that.

Here's a clip of the Bill O'Reilly Show where Cameron again references the crocoduck.  You might want to fast forward up to 2:05 to see it if, like me, O'Reilly irritates you.

The crocoduck is now an Internet meme.

A meme denoting almost unbelievable stupidity on the part of young-Earth creationists who pontificate on evolution yet don't understand even the rudiments of high-school-level biology.  I guess Kirk was on the set of Growing Pains while his peers were stuck in school learning about science.

Anyway, if I have any young-Earth creationist readers, trust me on this...  Don't use the crocoduck as an argument against evolution - it truly makes you look like a dumb ass.  Even intelligent ten-year-olds will mock you.

Monday, October 3, 2011

King of Infinite Space

Picked up King of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry by Siobhan Roberts (2006, Walker & Company) when I saw it in the new books area of my college library.

I had never heard of Harold Scott MacDonald "Donald" Coxeter (1907-2003), but he was evidently well known as a classical geometer in the mathematical community.  Born and educated in England (Trinity College, Cambridge), he spent 60 years of his professional life at the University of Toronto in Canada.

Everyone is familiar (or should be) with the the classical geometry of Euclid developed around 300 BCE and which ruled for some 2,000 years in mathematical education.

Less familiar to most are the non-Euclidean geometries developed in the 19th century by mathematicians such as János Bolyai, Nikolai Lobachevsky, and Bernhard Riemann.  Geometries which grew out of playing with Euclid's parallel postulate.  As a simple example, think of how geometry on the surface of a sphere would be different from planar geometry on a flat sheet of paper - on a plane the three interior angles of a triangle add up to 180° and on a sphere they add to more than 180°.

In the 20th century, geometry fell out of fashion in mathematics, especially the more visual and intuitive forms of geometery that interested people like Donald Coxeter (and many amateur mathematicians).  One group of influential French mathematicians, who published collectively under the pseudonym of Nicolas Bourbaki, argued against mathematical intuition, stressed rigor and formalism, and famously exclaimed "Death to triangles!" in reaction to the constructions of classical geometry.

Donald Coxeter swam against the mathematical tide and followed his passion, even when advised by colleagues to quit messing around with circles and triangles and move into more "important" mathematical areas.  Turns out, however, that many of the things Coxeter was interested in are important and useful.

One topic that Coxeter found interesting are regular polytopes.  These are generalization into higher dimensions of objects like the five Platonic solids known to the ancient Greeks (the tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron).  While mathematicians find such shapes irresistable to explore, there are useful applications when looking at symmetry in crystallography, molecular shapes, and dimensions in modern string theory.

While Coxeter was not all that exciting a personality, Siobhan Roberts does provide an interesting biography. Coxeter was a vegetarian (due to his poor digestive health) and pacifist (at a time such a view wasn't popular).  He comes across as sympathetic even while being somewhat aloof and not a very good husband or father to his children (his wife commented that his mistress was mathematics).

One criticism I have of the book, however, is that the author doesn't seem to understand much of the mathematics she writes about (or, if she understands it, she isn't able to explain it well).  There are many places where she discusses Coxeter's work, but in a very superficial way without the imagery I believe Coxeter himself would have included when explaining his research.  I would like to have learned more about regular polytopes that I did reading this book.  The book itself seems somewhat schizophrenic partly being a popular biography of an interesting character and partly attempting to be a scholarly work (with 60+ pages of footnotes).

Finally, the book does have one interesting Hudson Valley link.  George Odom, an artist and long-time resident of the Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie, corresponded frequently with Coxeter for decades and sent Coxeter amazing numbers of geometric models he created (he evidently had a lot of free time in the psychiatric institute).

Overall, worth reading.  Some parts I did find myself skimming, however.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's Greek to me...

As some readers of this blog might know, my wife and I homeschool our two children (10-year old boy & girl fraternal twins).

I recently decided to teach them the Greek alphabet.  I don't remember how it came up, but I explained to one of them what a Greek letter was we saw somewhere.  Then I thought it would be fun to teach them some basic Greek (yes, that's what geeks like me think of as "fun").  It's a good review for me - I taught myself some basic Koine Greek years ago (Koine or Biblical Greek instead of Classical Greek since most of the self-teaching resources are for that purpose). Anyway, the kids seem to enjoy it so far.

Each night, at the dinner table, I've been introducing two new Greek letters and reviewing the ones we've learned to date.  Even mom has joined in.  Then we practice writing them on lined paper.  That's a lot of what homeschooling is at our house.  We of course do the basics in English and math, but we also pursue what we're interested in at the time.  Greek is certainly not part of the NYS curriculum for 5th grade.  It's not anything they would learn in public school.  But it's fun to do.

Is it useful?  I think it's nice to recognize Greek letters used as symbols in science and math.  I think I'll also teach them some useful root words in Greek that crop up in many English words (especially in science).  Words like liqoV (lithos, meaning "stone") which crop up in geology in words like lithosphere, lithification, lithology, etc.  Words you can figure out the meaning of if you knew lithos meant stone.  What's "orographic lifting of clouds" in meteorology?  Well, if you knew the Greek word for mountain was oroV (oros), you could probably figure it out.

We can also have discussions on where the word alphabet came from (alpha-beta - yes, I know, which in turn derived from earlier Middle Eastern language roots).  What the term "alpha dog" means.  What the Biblical phrase τὸ Α καὶ τὸ Ω in Revelation 22:13 means.  What I mean if I told them I wasn't going to change something by "one iota".  Trivia perhaps, but isn't that the mark of what we consider to be an educated adult?