Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pretty all right, pretty stupid

This has been making the rounds of the blogosphere lately.

It's a refrigerator magnet that was for sale by Forever 21, a store aimed at young women.  While the item is now listed as "Out of stock", hopefully pulled due to bad publicity, it's available as a t-shirt on Amazon as well.

This really pisses me off.  Not only as the father of a beautiful 10 year old girl who does very well in math, but at how damaging and insulting this message is to young women.

If you purchase something like this, you're not too pretty to do math, you're too fucking stupid.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Start a blog...

Posted yesterday about Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks.  He's also a blogger and, at the very end of his book, was talking about the poor state of science reporting in the media.  His advice was for those who know about science, and care about science literacy, was to write about science.

Now you don't need these people.  Start a blog.  Not everyone will care, but some will, and they will find your work.  Unmediated access to niche expertise is the future, and you know, science isn't hard - academics around the world explain hugely complicated ideas to ignorant eighteen-year-olds every September - it just requires motivation...

There's no money in it, but you knew that when you started on this path.  You will do it because you know that knowledge is beautiful, and because if only a hundred people share your passion, that is enough.

Amen, brother.  That's exactly why I write this blog.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

Recently read Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre (Faber & Faber, 2010).  Dr. Goldacre is an epidemiologist in London who has written the "Bad Science" column for The Guardian since 2003 and has a blog of the same name.

It's a humorous and entertaining book, written much in the same style as his blog, and concentrating, naturally enough given his background in medicine, on bad science in medical and health issues.  He discusses issues like "alternative medicine", homeopathy, nutritional pseudoscience, and immunizations (especially the MMR/autism nonsense).  He also has an extensive discussion of the placebo effect (which I found fascinating) and a great discussion of how probabilities are reported in such a way as to exaggerate risk.

Goldacre also skewers the media (deservedly) for its terrible reporting on health issues.  Let me give you a couple of examples from the book.  Suppose you read a health story in the newspaper saying that men in the fifties with high cholesterol are 50% more likely to have a heart attack.  Sounds scary, doesn't it?  This is how the news media typically reports health news.  But it's misleading bullshit!  Why?

The risk of heart attack of men in their fifties with normal cholesterol is 4 out of 100 men.  For men with high cholesterol, it's 6 out of 100 men.  That's a 50% increase.  It's also a 2% extra risk.  Would you see a newspaper story, however, saying that the extra risk of a heart attack for men in their fifties with high cholesterol is 2%?  Of course not, it's not dramatic and scary enough (and most men would say, "Only 2%, I can live with those odds!").

Another example was a news story in Britain about how cocaine use had doubled in schools in some area.  The actual data was a survey that asked school kids if they used cocaine in the past year and the number went from 1% to 2%.  In actual fact, however, the raw data was really 1.4% to 1.9% (0.5% increase) since the numbers were rounded for the report.  Is that increase even of statistical significance?

The media has also aided and abetted the supposed MMR-autism link, giving voice to Hollywood celebrities and their half-assed ideas yet ignoring the scientific data which has conclusively shown that there is absolutely no link between the two.  As an epidemiologist, Goldacre is rightfully concerned about the loss of herd immunity for childhood diseases that have the potential to kill because of unfounded fears over vaccinations.

I have a rant about media and science which I'll be writing soon so I won't dwell much more on Goldacre's points which I mostly agree with.  I'll save another quote from his book for tomorrow's post.

If you're interested in science and health, this book is a good read.  I found it in the local library.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Crazy Harold Camping and the end of the world - Part II

Read Part I of this post here.

So crazy brother Camping woke up Sunday, the day after his prediction of the supposed rapture in a funk.  What to do?  No rapture!  A normal person might think he made a terrible mistake and that using numerological "formulas" like 5 x 10 x 17 x 5 x 10 x 17 = 722,500 to calculate the days from the crucifixion of Jesus to the date of the rapture might be a bit dodgy.

Not crazy Harold.  He now claims that May 21 was the "invisible judgement day" (go watch the video at this link) and the world will still end on October 21 as he originally predicted (just without the tribulation in between).  I guess the prayers of the Saints were effective - God in His mercy spared us sinners the horrors of the great tribulation.  This is why psychology invented the term "rationalization".

Thanks Harold, now we'll have to go through this circus again next fall.

I actually started to feel sorry for the old guy.  He really believes the nonsense he's spouting and I can't imagine how he's going to mentally deal with the fact we'll still be here mocking him on Saturday, October 22.  Then I remember the people he duped, people who spent their life savings on promoting the May 21 rapture.  What's Brother Harold's Christian response to these people?  Basically to fuck off.  His ministry is worth over 100 million dollars and he can't spare a dime, brother.  There's also something odd about people who look forward to an event that will, in their mind, result in horrors, misery, and death for billions of people just because they didn't pick the right god to believe in.

Yes, 2 Peter 3:3 probably applies to me: "Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking".  I can't help myself, it's just too damn easy to mock people who convince themselves that their mad ravings are divinely inspired.  I'm think I'm going to have an "end-of-the-world/creation-of-the-world" party on that weekend since October 21 is the end of time and October 23 is the Earth's birthday according to the young-Earth creationists who believe it was created by God on October 23, 4004 BC.  They're both wrong - and for the same Bibliolatrous reason.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barred Owls

Been hearing a barred owl (Strix varia) a lot lately from the woodlands next to my house.  Haven't seen him, which is understandable, but his call is unmistakable (the males hoot).  Their call is often described as sounding like "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all" with the last "you-all" slurred together and dropping down in pitch.

Here's a YouTube video of a barred owl calling:

Barred owls are characterized by having brown eyes, no ear tufts, and horizontal bars on its neck and vertical bars on its belly.  Typically about 20 inches tall, it's a predator of small mammals as well as being an opportunistic feeder that will take birds, large insects, amphibians, and even small reptiles.  It's sometimes preyed on itself by the great horned owl and barred owls will generally avoid territories where they hunt.

It's not surprising to hear them near my house since I have a small meadow between my house and the road that's home to a lot of meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus).  This is also why I've seen coyotes in my front yard and hear them frequently.

Tasty little treats for those that silently swoop down in the night with sharp talons and beaks.

If you keep your eyes open next time you're hiking, you might spot an owl pellet at the base of a tree (I see them occasionally in the Shawangunks).  They're elongate masses of matted hair that owls regurgitate after their meals and if you pull them apart you'll find fragile little rodent bones.

Last year, our whole family went to a program on owl pellets at the Mohonk Preserve and we each dissected a pellet.  The kids and I got rodent bones but my wife had a whole bird skull in hers.  Great fun!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Geology of the National Parks online course

Shamelessly self-promoting once again. This summer I'm teaching a fully-online course on the Geology of the National Parks that I'd like to advertise.

The course is available through the community college where I teach which is part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.  It's also listed with the SUNY Learning Network and can be taken from anywhere in the world where 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.

The course runs for six weeks from July 5 to August 15 this summer and is listed as 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 anywhere else in NY State, this course satisfies a Natural Science General Education Elective (you need at least one of those to graduate).  I typically have both science and non-science majors taking the course (there are no prerequisites).  The textbook I use is Geology Of National Parks by Harris, Tuttle, and Tuttle (Kendall Hunt, 2003).

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.

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 a SUNY Learning Network online courses, or what the tuition and fees will be (cheaper than four-year college or university tuition), contact the Registrar's Office at SUNY Ulster County Community College.

Why not take a science course that has a practical benefit - who doesn't want to someday visit one of the beautiful national parks we're so fortunate to have in this country?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Is Art Bell running NPR now?

Listened to Fresh Air on NPR the one day last week and Terry Gross was interviewing journalist Annie Jacobsen who has written a new book called Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base (Little, Brown and Company, 2011).

While much of the book seems like a straightforward history of nuclear and advanced aircraft testing in the Nevada desert, Jacobsen appears to go off the deep end when she starts discussing the conspiracy theories surrounding the infamous Area 51.

Jacobsen supposed has a source (only one guy, from what I gathered by listening to the interview) who claims, apparently convincingly to her, that the 1947 Roswell UFO "crash" was really part of a Soviet conspiracy.

According to her, two former Third Reich aerospace designers named Walter and Reimar Horten invented a flying disk that Stalin manned with malformed adolescents, surgically altered by the Nazi SS doctor Josef Mengele (and from which we get the iconic alien imagery of small-statured, big-eyed beings).  The bodies and craft were all brought to Area 51 where engineers were able to reverse engineer this "hover and fly" technology.

What the fuck?  This story has so many holes you could strain pasta with it.

Either Annie Jacobsen is extremely gullible, especially given that this crazy theory is based on one "expert source" or she's cynically trying to sell lots of books.  Either way, I was disappointed that Terry Gross wasn't a bit more skeptical of these claims and didn't ask more probing questions about this ridiculous assertion.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

If the dog ate your homework, read this

Wonderful article titlted If the dog ate your homework, read this at the L.A. Times by Jaime O'Neill - a Community College freshman composition teacher.

Should be mandatory reading for all our incoming freshman next August.

Crazy Harold Camping and the end of the world

I'm setting this to post at 12:00 am on Saturday, May 21 - the date of the rapture.  At least according to the batshit crazy preacher Harold Camping.  Camping is an almost 90 year old evangelical preacher on the Family Radio broadcasting network he helped found and run for over 50 years.

I've heard Camping on the radio before (hey, I was in the car driving and bored) and his show typically has callers ask a question like "Brother Camping, does Hebrews 6:4-6 mean I can never be saved because I left the church and lived in sin for many years?" and Camping, with his deep, sonorous, made-for-radio voice then replies using lots of other Biblical verses to back up his claims (he believes, of course, that the Bible is inerrant, and must be interpreted using other parts of the Bible).

Where does Camping get the May 21 date?  It's almost too idiotic for words.  Here's the basic summary:

Noah's flood supposedly occurred in 4990 BCE,  which was 7000 years ago (4990 + 2011 - 1 since there's no year zero). Since 2 Peter 3:8, says "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years", then seven "God days" equals 7,000 Earth years since the flood, making 2011 the year of the apocalypse.

The exact date is obtained from the supposed date of the crucifixion - April 1, 33 CE. There are exactly 722,500 days from April 1, 33 CE until May 21, 2011. This number can be represented by 5 x 10 x 17 x 5 x 10 x 17 = 722,500 (numerology, anyone?).  Camping claims that the numbers signifies Biblical concepts: 5 for atonement or redemption, 10 for completeness, and 17 for heaven.

Pretty damn convincing, isn't it?

Camping fits every definition of a religious cult leader.  He has basically preached that the Holy Spirit has left the modern church and that all churches are now apostate - the solution to this is to read the Bible and listen to Family Radio.  In other words, he has the Truth (with a capital T) and everyone else is a heretic.  Of course, if you do a Google search on "Harold Camping heresies" you'll get thousands of web sites all listing their problems with Camping's ideas ("Our crazy ideas are correct, his crazy ideas are rank heresy!").

The sad thing are the people deceived by this nonsense (although it's hard for me to feel sorry for people so damn, fucking stupid).  Look for the rationalizations after the fact.  Brother Camping must have miscalculated (just like he did when he predicted the end of the world in 1994).  He'll show no shame for the psychological damage he's done to vulnerable people who will still continue to support this asshole with monetary contributions to his "ministry" on Family Radio.

By the way, despite all the news stories about this stupid prediction, Camping did not predict the end of the world on Saturday (what, reporters being lazy and getting simple facts wrong, you don't say?).  He predicted the rapture into heaven of about 200 million true believers with the start of the Great Tribulation written about in Revelation.  The end of the world is later in the fall on October 21.

Unfortunately, if there is a rapture, I'm sure I'm not floating away up into the sky. I'll just continue blogging about the rapture and tribulation until the Beast or his minions hunt me down (I'll console myself with the fact that since Camping believes in annihilationism, I won't have to worry about an eternity in Hell).

So, take a moment on Saturday night and thank whomever or whatever you'd like to thank for the beautiful gift of life and for having a mind that you can use for rational thought.  USE IT!  I hope we all try to work, in this post-apocalyptic world, toward pushing back the tides of superstitious nonsense that constantly threatens to roll over our civilization and enslave us in ignorance.  Evil old men like Harold Camping, parasitically living a good life off other's fears, should go rot in Hell.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Man Who Found Time

Recently finished reading The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity by Jack Repcheck (Basic Books, 2003).  I already posted earlier about a neat quotation from this book.

Repcheck is a science and economics editor at W.W. Norton and has written an interesting biography of James Hutton - one of the fathers of modern geology.  Hutton (1726-1797) was born and lived most of his life in Edinburgh, Scotland during an exciting time known as the Scottish Enlightenment (and he knew such luminaries as David Hume, Adam Smith, James Watt, and Joseph Black).  One thing I hadn't realized before was that Hutton was a young man during the Jacobite uprising of Bonnie Prince Charlie of 1745 - it was a tumultuous time.

Any geology course will mention James Hutton and I actually spend almost a full lecture on his ideas in my historical geology class (historical geology is the history of the Earth, but some time is also spent on the historical development of the science of geology).  The century between 1750 and 1850 was an interesting time in the history of geology for it marked the time when the traditional Biblical chronology of a recent creation and global flood was replaced by the idea of an ancient Earth with a long history of change.

Why was the traditional Biblical worldview overthrown?  It was because people like Hutton started looking at rocks.  Observing the process of erosion, slowly reducing rocks to sediments, and reasoning about how certain geology outcrops would have formed.  Outcrops, like the famous Siccar Point on the coast of Scotland, exhibiting multiple episodes of erosion, transport of sediments, deposition, lithification, folding, and erosion again.  This all takes eons of time. 

The rock record shows many transgressions and regressions of seawater and no evidence for a single global flood.  Fossils show no evidence of a recent creation of all life or of a global flood.  Geologists knew the Earth was ancient long before it was confirmed by radioactive dating in the 20th century.

The book was very good at covering certain things - the exciting happenings in 18th century Edinburgh, some interesting facts of Hutton's life (he appeared to have fathered a child out of wedlock as a young man leading him to leave the country for a time), the history of attempts to work out the age of the Earth (primarily through Scripture) - especially the influential work of Eusebius in 325 CE, the influence of German mineralogist Abraham Werner's ideas of Neptunism (the idea that all rocks, including igneous ones, formed from a primordial global ocean), Hutton's ideas on the evolution of life a century before Darwin, and Hutton's great influence on later geologists like Charles Lyell.

Where the book falls short, in my opinion, is that it never really delves into the geology much.  I think casual readers would have benefitted from a discussion of concepts like superposition and cross-cutting as well as a more detailed geologic discussion of features such as Siccar Point and Arthur's Seat that influenced Hutton so much.

Anyway, it reads well and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the natural sciences.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Graduation today

Attended graduation today at the college where I teach (well, technically yesterday since it's past midnight).  Two things really affected me.  One was when the president asked the graduates "Who here is ths first in your family to attend college and graduate?" and a significant portion of the students raised their hands.  This is what community colleges are all about.

The other is when a student held up his diploma, smiled widely, and his mom took his picture.  His mom looked like she was bursting with pride and about to start crying.

When you teach, it's easy to get cynical.  You deal the most with the bad students who cause problems.  The better students often pass  by unnoticed.  At graduation, however, you see the successes.  Happy students celebrating a genuine accomplishement no one can take from them.

Congratulations to the class of 2011!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mount St Helens

Happy anniversary Mount St Helens!  Thirty-one years ago today (May 18, 1980), she blew her top in a catastrophic explosive eruption that should still remind us of the hazards of Cascades Range volcanoes.

I love this iconic image below - Mount St Helens prior to 1980.  A beautiful vacation spot in the mountains of southern Washington State.

People lived there, sailed boats on Spirit Lake, and logged the nearby forests.  Then the rumbling began and the northern side of the mountain started bulging.  At 8:32 am, it blew.

The lateral blast wave caused extensive damage on the northern side of the volcano.  Volcanic ash mud flows (lahars) and debris ripped down the river valleys taking out everything in their paths.

Now it's not quite so pretty.  Here's me at the Johnston Ridge Observatory with the remnant of the mountain five and a half miles behind me (geologist David Johnston was killed on this ridge when the volcano blew).

Walking with my kids in the same general area a few years earlier than the previous picture (they're 10 years old now).  Note the steam coming off the lava dome which was actively growing at the time.  I always feel like a bad dad when I see this - "Hey kids, let's go for a walk near an active volcano!"

Hard to get a sense of scale in this image. We're over five miles from the mile wide crater and that lava dome is 1,000 feet off the crater floor!

Why did Mount St Helens erupt?  The answer lies in the understanding the plate tectonic configuration of the Pacific Northwest.

Just offshore is a small tectonic plate, called the Juan de Fuca plate, composed of basaltic seafloor crust.  There's a spreading ridge on its western side generating new seafloor from rising magma and pushing the plate to the east.  As the plate moves east, it hits up against the thicker continental crust of the North American plate.  With nowhere else to go, it slides down a seafloor trench under the continent - a process geologists term subduction (the trench is called the Cascadia subduction zone).

Subduction is a slow process and the plate often gets stuck.  Stresses build up until the strength of the rock is exceeded and then it breaks and slips all at once in an area.  Bang.  An earthquake.  On February 28, 2001, for example, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake struck 32 miles below Seattle.  What's 32 miles below Seattle?  The subducting Juan de Fuca plate.

When the subducting plate gets deep enough (~150 km), it starts to melt and generate magma.  This magma, being less dense than the surrounding mantle rock, slowly makes its way up to the surface where it forms volcanoes.  A whole line of volcanic mountains forms on the continent east of the subduction trench - geologists call this a continental volcanic arc (the Andes Mountains of South America have the same origin due to subduction of the Nazca plate down the Peru-Chile trench).  The continental volcanic arc of the Pacific Northwest is called the Cascades Range.

Note that volcanoes in the Cascades have periodically erupted.  They will continue to periodically erupt. (By the way, there are no volcanoes in central and southern California because that subduction zone plate boundary turns into the San Andreas fault system - a transform plate boundary where plates slide sideways past each other resulting in earthquakes but not generating magma).

Seattle is scenic, isn't it?

One day Mount Rainier will also blow, just as it's done many times in the past.  Here's a picture of me up on Mount Rainier (above Spray Park, if you're familiar with the mountain).  See the reddish rock.  All pumice from a previous eruption.

Will geologists be surprised and shocked the next time a Cascades volcano blows causing death and destruction in the Pacific Northwest.  Unfortunately not.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

End of Semester Grades

The spring semester is over where I teach.  A few random thoughts about grades and grading...

- Grades aren't gifts or punishments.  My courses have a very detailed grade breakdown in the syllabus.  Assignments are worth so much, exams so much, etc.  Nothing subjective, all based on student performance and recorded in an Excel spreadsheet that automatically calculates the grade.  No need to thank me when you get an A, it was your hard work.  No need to get mad at me when you get a D, it was your own lack of hard work.  There's nothing arbitrary about grades in my classes.

- How the fuck do you "forget" to take a final exam?  A student in an online course forgot that the final exam was due by 8 am this morning (after having an entire week to do it).  Even though assignments have been due 8 am Tuesday mornings all semester long.  Even though the syllabus provided on day one specified the final exam was this week.  Even though it was "Finals Week" at the college.  Even though the course announcements said "Do the final this week by 8 am Tuesday".  Even though I sent email last night to all students who hadn't done it yet.  A math professor also told me a student told them that they forgot to show up for the math final (math has group finals all given on the same day at the same time).  Not my problem, better luck next semester.

- Sometimes I wish I could give out F- (F minus) grades.  An F doesn't quite express how poorly they did.

- Why do students think that telling me they "NEED" to pass the course after earning a failing grade because they never turned in half the assignments, missed a lot of classes, etc. is going to sway me?  If you needed to pass the course, you could at least have made a half-assed attempt to try learning the material.

- I love it when students do a great job on an exam or final paper.  It makes me happy to see good work and have the student earn an A.  I hate having to assign people D's and F's.

- One can often predict, the first week of class, who will end up getting an A or a D.  The young lady with a new binder in the front row who smiles and answers questions vs. the guy in the back corner slouched in his seat with earbuds and a scowl.  No surprises there.

Tomorrow's graduation - it's great to see hundreds of students who have succeeded and are off to four-year schools or a career.

Dave Gorman - Math Stand Up Comedy

Now how often do you see stand up comedians who know about number theory?  I thought this was pretty funny:

Monday, May 16, 2011

Color of the setting Sun

Nice Earth Science Picture of the Day for yesterday - Sunday, May 15 (visit the site for a larger image and explanation).

Why does the Sun look yellow in the sky?  Why is the setting Sun red?  Why is the sky blue?  All related questions that most people understand as having to do with the scattering of different wavelengths of light in our atmosphere (although many of my students can't explain it well when asked to do so on an exam).

There are a couple of things going on with regards to this phenomenon.  Let's start with the figure at right.  It shows how you have to look through a thicker layer of the atmosphere when you look at the Sun near the horizon than you do when it's higher in the sky.

Second, understand that light from the Sun is white light, a mixture of all different wavelengths (colors).  As light from the Sun passes through the atmosphere, the shorter wavelengths of light (the blue end of the spectrum) are scattered more than the longer wavelengths of light (the red end of the spectrum).

Why are different wavelengths of light scattered differently?  The blue sky is caused by Rayleigh scattering - named after the English physicist John William Strutt, aka Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919).

Rayleigh worked out an equation explaining how much different wavelengths are scattered by molecules of oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere.   It's basically due to the electromagnetic energy waves interacting with the electrical charges of small atoms and molecules.  I won't go into the derivation of this since it's very messy and I don't fully understand it myself but here's one version of the equation:

Forget about most of the terms (for a nitrogen molecule in the Earth's atmosphere, for example, we can assume all of the variables are essentially fixed to some value), the important term is lambda (l) raised to the fourth power in the denominator.  This denotes the wavelenth of the light that will be scattered.

Red light at, for example, a wavelength of 625 nm will give a larger value in the denominator when raised to the 4th power than will blue light at a wavelength of around 450 nm.  A larger value in the denominator of a fraction will result in a smaller value for the overall fraction.  In other words, blue light, at a wavelenth of 450 nm, will be scattered 3.7 times more than red light, at a wavelength 625 nm.
This is why the sky is blue.  As white light comes in from the Sun, the shorter wavelengths of blue light are scattered around in the sky by nitrogen (N2 = 78% of our atmosphere) and oxygen (O2 = 21% of our atmosphere) molecules making it all appear blue in color.

Why are clouds white?  Because the water droplets that make up clouds are much larger than the nitrogen or oxygen molecules in the atmosphere.  Rayleigh scattering only works when the particles are less than about 1/10 of the the wavelength of radiation of the electromagnetic energy.  For water droplets, a different type of scattering occurs for light which is not wavelength dependent.  Water droplets scatter all wavelengths equally making clouds look white.

By the way, for longer wavelength microwaves, water droplets will actually cause Rayleigh scattering and this is how weather radar works.

Back to the setting Sun which started this discussion.  From orbit, the Sun is blindingly white.

From the Earth's surface, however, we perceive it has color.  When it's high in the sky, and we see it through a thinner layer of atmosphere, only the bluest wavelengths are scattered out and our eyes average the rest of the wavelengths into a yellow color.  When it's setting, however, we're looking at it through a thicker layer of the atmosphere, and most of the wavelengths are scattered away and only wavelengths from the red end of the spectrum reaches our eyes.  Therefore, a reddish setting Sun.

Isn't science wonderful?

Addendum:  Today's Earth Science Picture of the Day shows the same effect for the Moon.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Physics crank

Received this email the other day (cut and pasted in full except for the signature):

The origin of the Earth's magnetic field

The magnetic-dynamo theory is widely accepted. This system is ingenious but incredible complex and therefore unlikely. There is a simple solution.

A magnetic field is a fundamental phenomenon and is described in physics by the Electromagnetic Theory (EM). The EM is formulated by a number of empirical and mathematical derived formulas. Although EM is very successful the physical correctness of EM depends on empirical verification.

Is it possible that a characteristic of the magnetic field is incorrectly described by EM?

As long as not all the assumed fundamental characteristics of the magnetic field are empirical verified there is a possibility that EM is not completely correct. One of the fundamentals of EM is that two parallel electric currents attract each other; this is empirically stated. The assumed mathematical vector characteristics of EM state that a parallel proton and electron beam, where the particles move in the same direction, must reject.

This is never empirically verified.

A simple physics experiment can verify this. Requests to perform this experiment were denied without argument. (If you want to know the non-arguments theoretical physicists use read the correspondence with Nobel laureate Prof. dr. 't Hooft). This test is very important because when EM is false, in this respect, the origin of the Earth's magnetic field becomes clear and many other mysteries will be solved.

Summarized explanation: Below the Earth's crust the heat ionizes matter. The Earth rotates; the free electrons rotate with the Earth and therefore induce a magnetic field around the Earth comparable with a solenoid. The positive ions induce also a magnetic field. According to EM the magnetic field of the positive ions is contrary to the induced magnetic field of the electrons; the fields cancel out.

When EM is false in this respect the induced magnetic fields of the free electrons and the positive ions ad up; they do not cancel out. Then the rotation of the Earth and the ionization explains the magnetic field of the Earth. The observed altering of the Earth's magnetic field at the crust is caused by a “wobbling” of the crust in relation to the rotating ionized core.

Persons who have access to a proton beam can verify whether EM is correct or not, because EM predicts that the direction of the induced magnetic field of a proton beam is contrary to the direction of the induced magnetic field of an electron beam. This can easily be verified with a compass.

I send you this email because I need help. There are fundamental omissions in Theoretical Physics and they have to be eliminated. One simple experiment and Science knows!

It was sent to my Steve@HudsonValleyGeologist.com email so I assume he happened upon my blog.

For all you physics cranks out there with crackpot "theories" overturning all of modern physics - I'm a fucking geologist!  Yes, I did take a year of calculus-based physics back in college as an undergraduate decades ago, and I like reading about modern physics, but the Earth's magnetic field could be generated by fairies for all I know about electromagnetic fields and the dynamo effect (at least the nitty, gritty equations).

Like physicists would listen to me if I started advocating for this loon (and yes, he's a loon, because he sent this stupid email to a GEOLOGIST blogger at a fucking community college!).

Anyway, I participated in a secret ceremony with naked virgins at midnight at the crossroads to never reveal the details of the great scientific conspiracy (or maybe I just fantasized that in physics class one morning long ago as a bored sophmore).  Either way, we won't do the damn experiment just to spite you.  Unless there's money in it.  For a nice fat research grant, I'm sure I could convince our physics professor to work something out with me.  I have a compass, but I need a fucking proton beam - where does one get one of those anyway?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Star-Crossed Stone

Just finished reading The Star-Crossed Stone: The Secret Life, Myths, and History of a Fascinating Fossil by Kenneth McNamara (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Dr. Kenneth McNamara is a paleontologist at the University of Cambridge Department of Earth Sciences with an interest in fossil echinoids (sea urchins).  Echinoids like Micraster, for example, are relatively common fossils in the Cretaceous Period chalks of southern England.

One of the most distinctive features of fossil echinoids is their pentameral (five-fold) symmetry.  This is, of course, where the author's term "star-crossed stone" comes from.

Why are stars always depicted with five points?  Perhaps, the author argues, there is a relationship between these fossils (which were collected and buried with ancient people) and our ancestor's mythologies of the skies (look up at the night sky - why draw stars with five points « ?).

Known by folk terms, of somewhat uncertain origin, such as sheep hearts, shepherd's crowns, fairy loaves, or thunderstones, they've been collected and prized by humans since paleolithic times.

One interesting artifact discussed was the Acheulian-type flint handaxe seen at left.  It was formed from a flint nodule containing a fossil echinoid (Conulus) during the Paleolithic era.  There's something cool about this artifact that still resonates with us hundreds of thousands of years later (admit it, you'd love to have this sitting on your desk).

 The idea behind this book is interesting - looking at how people have been attracted to fossil echinoids for millenia.  They collected them, were buried with them, made tools and jewelry out of them, used them in the architecture of churches and other buildings in England, and incorporated them into their mythological beliefs.

I do have to say, however, that while all of these topics are interesting and covered in this book, the writing is a bit repetitive and disorganized.  I found myself skimming parts of the book thinking "Oh, this topic again" and getting annoyed.  I'm not sure I buy into all of his ideas either, but that's another post.  It could have used some good editing to tighten things up but overall a worthwhile read.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger problems

Blogger was down for a while and I seem to have lost my Wednesday and Thursday posts.  Maybe I can reconstruct them but I'll wait to make sure they don't magically reappear or Blogger has another problem.
Saturday Addendum

The posts magically reappeared.  Yay!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Why college students can't write...

They're simply not taught how to do so in high school.

Read Death to High School English

Why do you care, Steve, you're the Hudson Valley Geologist?

Because I make my students write labs and papers in geology classes - just like you're made to write in real life if you have any job beyond that requiring the use of a deep fryer.

"people who right like this and dont use proper grammer or spelling, sometimes random Capitalization for know apparant reason and, wierd comma use or slang like u see hear in a college paper are surpisingly common in the college."

I swear to God I've read shit like this in a college-level class. (OK, it's a community college, but these students do have high school diplomas!)

I wouldn't hire these dumb asses if I ran a business.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Maple flowers

A couple more pictures from my Tuesday walk in the woods.  One small shrub-like tree abundant in the Mohonk Preserve on the Shawangunk Ridge is the striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum).  It's called striped maple because the trunks of the saplings are distinctively green and white vertically striped (the large goose-foot-shaped leaf is also distinctive).

See the hanging clusters of green flowers (click to enlarge).  Many people aren't aware of this, but deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves seasonally - most trees, in other words) belong to a group of plants known as the angiosperms or flowering plants.  You don't always notice or see flowers on trees, many are very inconspicuous, but they have them.

I just thought they were neat to see.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Today was such a beautiful spring day, the family and I went for a bit of a hike on the Shawangunk Ridge - if you know the area, we did the Overcliff/Undercliff Road loop from the Trapps parking area in the Mohonk Preserve.

One of the usual sights in spring along Undercliff Road, besides the abundant rock climbers and boulderers, are millipedes crossing the carriage road.  There were literally thousands (alive and squished).  Here are a couple of pictures (click to enlarge):

I believe they're Narceus annularis - one of the largest North American millipede species and I'm guessing they're out and about this fine spring day because they're looking for love.  Despite their intimidating appearance for those who dislike creepy-crawly things, they're mostly harmless although they can secrete a mildly irritating chemical when handled (it protects them from being eaten by predators like birds).

Despite their name, millipedes only have between 60 and 400 legs (depending on the species).  Two pairs of legs exist on each body segment (leading to their taxonomic classification into Class Diploda) except for the 1st and 4th segments, which have no legs, and the 2nd and 3rd, which only have one pair each.

The number of legs on the millipede is therefore 4 times the number of body segments minus 10.  I counted 57 segments (hard to do!) on the millipede pictured at right above which would work out to 218 legs which seems reasonable.  It's neat to watch them walk as their legs seem to ripple as they move.

Millipedes are detritivores eating leaf litter and other decaying vegetation.  They're relatively slow moving and can be distinguished from centipedes which have one pair of legs on each body segment.  Centipedes are faster moving and many can deliver a painful bite.

Millipedes have evolved very little since they first appeared about 428 million years ago in the Middle Silurian Period.  They were among the first arthropods to colonize the land following the appearance of early land plants like mosses.  Paleontologists have even identified a number of millipede trackways in some ancient rocks.

The nightmarish Arthropleura, a relative of centipedes and millipedes shown reconstructed at left, crawled through the primeval forests of the Carboniferous Period and grew to a length of 2.6 m (8.5 ft).

Sweet dreams!

Remedial students in Virginia

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Half of the community college students in Virginia have to do remedial training, mostly in math, an analyst for the state legislature's watchdog agency said today.

Aris Bearse of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said the statistics come from to the State Council of Higher Education.

JLARC is studying options to improve coordination among the state's educational entities, including public education, community colleges and the State Council of Higher Education.

A report by the General Assembly's investigative arm is due in July.

Same old, same old.  Here in New York, MOST of our local community college students require remedial English and/or math courses (some require remedial reading).  And yes, most of them are recent high school graduates.

I've said it before and I'll say it again (but I'm not sure anyone cares), the high schools are failing by graduating students completely unable to begin college-level work.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

More on Mississippi flooding

The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise... Mark Twain

There's a real drama being played on on the lower Mississippi - a "500-year flood event" that is shaping up to be catastrophic for people living along its banks and floodplains (personally, I think these 500-year events aren't very accurately classified given global climate change and you have to love how the Army Corp of Engineers designs for 500-year flood events with 100-years of hydrologic data).

Here's a great article in the DownWithTyranny blog summarizing what's going on.  Highly recommended.

Is This the Big One? The Flood That Makes New Orleans A Backwater?

Once again I'll stress that all of this is no surprise to geologists.  Anyone who studies fluvial processes knows that these event are periodic and inevitable. What is surprising is how willful ignorance of people who live on the river's banks, the shortsighted stupidity of politicians and zoning boards, and the hubris of the Army Corp of Engineers.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Dangerous Creek

Pretty good video from 2007 about rivers, floodplains, and floods from Steve Gough - author of the blog Riparian Rap and a fluvial geomorphologist.

Worth watching.  Now I have to track down that Quicktime video animation he shows.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The future of English composition?

Interesting report from the Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Parents, send your kids to the local community college!

I know all of our English faculty.  Some are a bit odd but this is most definitely NOT reresentative of what we teach in freshman English 101 and 102.  We adhere to that old fashioned idea that students in freshman English composition classes should learn to write papers (using standard English and proper grammar)!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cross-Quarter Day

Today, May 5, at 4:20 pm EDT, is the astronomical half-way point between the Vernal Equinox (March 20 at 7:21 pm EDT) and the Summer Solstice (June 21 at 1:16 pm EDT).  These half-way points between the equinoxes and solstices are called cross-quarter days and often the times of traditional holidays like the May 1 Celtic holiday of Beltane (Bealtaine).  Be a good excuse to get naked and dance around a fire if it wasn't supposed to be so damn cold tonight (frost warnings)!

Nonsense on Stilts

As I've posted a couple of times already, Dr. Massimo Pigliucci will be speaking at SUNY Ulster County Community College tonight, Thursday, May 5, at 7 pm in the Vanderlyn Student Lounge. The talk is free and open to the public. Drop on by - I'll be introducing him.

Pigliucci's lecture is titled Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk which is also the title of his book (University of Chicago Press, 2010) which I just finished yesterday. Highly recommended if you're interested in a somewhat dense, but readable explanation of the philosophy of science.  By the way, "nonsense upon stilts" was a phrase coined by English philospher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).

How do we tell science from bunk (the so-called "demarcation problem" in the philosophy of science)? Given that not all science is the same, and many legitimate branches of science like my own field of geology have a strong historical component, it's not a trivial question. Karl Popper's famous "falsifiability" criterion is simply not enough.

After a discussion of the demarcation problem, and the overly simplistic view of hard vs. soft sciences, Pigliucci then jumps into a discussion of topics he refers to as quasi-science. String theory, SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), evolutionary psychology a la E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology, and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel hypothesis for the technological success of Western cultures. Ideas that are embedded, to a certain extent, in scientific fields yet are lacking some important criteria to make them truly scientific (at least at the present time). From there, it's an easy jump into topics fully recognized as pseudoscientific - astrology, UFO cults, and paranormal phenomena among others.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter titlted "Blame the Media" since it's one of my pet peeves. Media reporting on science is abysmal - I believe it's because most journalists were humanities majors who avoided science classes like the plague - and the media has this bizarre idea that every topic needs to be treated like a political debate. Find someone "for" the topic, find someone "against" the topic, and have them debate it - the most clever rhetorician wins the debate. So, even if 99% of all scientists support something based on decades of careful research and reams of published data, the media digs up some loon to parrot an opposing view to make it look like it's a controversy. Don't get me started!

Pigliucci then moves on to the rise of "think tanks" and the decline of public intellectuals. Most think tanks, of course, are organized around political ideologies (although some public intellectuals are/were as well - notably Noam Chomsky and the late Stephen Jay Gould). This is following by a discussion of science and politics comparing and contrasting books by Bjørn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist with Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth. I do have some disagreements with Pigliucci's treatment of these two works (I have a little higher regard for Lomborg's work and a little less for Gore's than he does, but I won't go into it here). The next section extensively discusses the Kitzmiller v. Dover case against Intelligent Design showing that ID is not scientific.

The last section of the book is, I think, the best where Pigliucci discusses a bit of the history of the philosophy of science and some of the nonsense out there in philosophy such as the "rantings" (Pigliucci's term) of Paul Feyerabend whose ideas lead us toward "post-modernist" and "deconstructionist" ideas that there is no such thing as objective reality (or science, ultimately). The conclusion I drew from this book is that the demarcation problem is very difficult to settle. Science is kind of like pornography - there are clear cut examples of things on both ends of the spectrum but lots of fuzzy stuff in between as well - not quite as easy to distinguish, perhaps, as "I know it when I see it" as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously stated in 1964.

Bottom line as far as I'm concerned...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Tornado tracks, satellites, and politics

Some incredible images have been making the rounds of the blogosphere lately.  The first was taken on April 28 from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite.  It shows three tornado tracks through and around the city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The next image is a closer view from Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing 1 satellite showing a track running right through the middle of Tuscaloosa (almost parallel to the contrail).

In both images, the brown trail is bare dirt where the tornado ripped up trees and vegetation as it roared over the landscape.  Next is an impressive Doppler radar image of the tornado showing the classic "hook" signature of rotation.

The intense red patch at the point of the "hook" is the debris ball - airborne debris in the tornado reflecting back the radar waves.  Here's a 3-D model of this system:

This was an amazing, complex storm system that, unfortunately, resulted in hundreds of deaths.  Take tornado watches and warnings seriously - many people don't.  While there's little to be done to protect yourself from an EF-5 tornado running across your house, it's foolish to be out driving around (as many people were) after the National Weather Service issued the severe weather watches (in this day and age, there's no excuse to be taken by surprise by severe weather). While actual tornado on the ground warnings only give you a few minutes, the NWS had severe weather watches posted the day before this storm hit.
Here's an interesting aside as well.  Congress wants to reduce our severe weather preparedness by killing funding of environmental satellite.  Read this blog post whose title says it all - Tornado forecasting saved countless lives this week. Too bad Congress, including Alabama’s entire GOP delegation, voted against maintaining forecast quality.  This quote about sums it up:
Clearly, Congressional Republicans were more interested in protecting the $5.5 billion in subsidies and foregone royalty payments for Big Oil—which collectively reported a total of more than $30 billion in first quarter profits this week—than they were in spending the $700 million necessary to literally save the lives of their constituents.
Why do congressional Republicans hate these satellites?  I believe it's because they provide data that supports global climate change.  Can't have that, can we?