Saturday, March 31, 2012

Reason to Homeschool #4,231

I'm completely speechless...

War On Words: NYC Dept. Of Education Wants 50 ‘Forbidden’ Words Banned From Standardized Tests

The news story states: "The word “dinosaur” made the hit list because dinosaurs suggest evolution which creationists might not like..."

I'm not going to write anything in response to this story since it would be profanity-laced and certainly not suitable for NYC school children.

Fucking idiots (sorry, couldn't control myself).

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pic de Bugarach - an upside-down mountain?

This story in Yahoo! News about a "doomsday" cult in France caught my eye.  It's about a group of losers who are gathering in a commune at the foot of Pic de Bugarach, in the Pyrenees of southern France, to await salvation from aliens living under the mountain when the world comes to an end on December 21, 2012 (you just can't make this shit up).

Being an ignorant American, I had never heard of Pic de Bugarach before, but evidently it's well known in Europe as a center of woo (kind of like Mount Shasta or Sedona here in the States).  Just Google Pic de Bugarach and you'll see all kinds of references to UFOs, aliens, ley lines, vortexes, and ancient treasures of the Templars.

What really caught my eye, however, since I'm a geologist, was the following:

Pic de Bugarach has long been famous because rock samples taken from its peak are actually older than points measured at lower elevation. Scientists say that is because when the 1,230 meter mountain erupted its peak flipped upside down before crashing back down upon the mountain's base.

What dumb ass "scientists" say this? 

The CNN video link in the story calls the mountain a "scientific anomaly" as if it's completely mysterious.

Even though I'm completely unfamiliar with the geology of Pic de Bugarach, I do know that mountains don't erupt and flip upside down.  Especially one that looks like it's made of limestone and has caves (that's where the aliens hide).

Let's ignore the clumsy prose of the author of the Yahoo! News article and ask "How come rocks collected from the peak of Pic de Bugarach are older than than rocks collected at the base?"  Well, to a geologist, that would be a classic indicator of a thrust fault - a place where horizontal compression of the crust, during mountain building, thrust a sheet of rock up and over younger strata.  Happens all the time and is seen in mountain belts (modern and ancient) all over the world (even, on a small scale, here in the Hudson Valley).

Thrust fault emplacing older strata on top of younger strata

So, I did some "research" (a Google search) and quickly learned that I was, in fact, correct.  Pic de Bugarach is a klippe - the erosional remnant of a thrust nappe formed when the Alpine Orogeny formed the Pyrenees.  Jurassic limestones are thrust over younger Cretaceous rocks in the area.

This is very similar to a place I am a bit more familiar with, Chief Mountain in Montana.  Chief Mountain is also the erosional remnant (klippe) of a thrust sheet.

Anyway, it's pretty cool geology but it's not particularly mysterious.  Pictures and descriptions of these features are seen in every single undergraduate textbook which discuss geologic structures and tectonics.

So, just because you read it in a "news" article, doesn't mean it's true, boys and girls.  Mountains don't just leap in the air and flip over.  And aliens don't live in caves under a mountain in France.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

I'll have the red beetle frappuccino please...

Hey, my blog was mentioned on a news bit over at Minnesota Public Radio on Starbuck's new red beetle frappuccino.

Read it here.

It's from my August 27, 2010 post on Bug juice.

Blog article in NAGT Newsletter

I was asked to write up an article on blogging for the NAGT (National Association of Geoscience Teachers) newsletter.  Here it is (March 2012 issue).  You can see how seriously I take blogging if you read the article.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Internet lunacy

I received an email the other day from someone who asked about the Moon being lit from the bottom.  This was a problem for him.  Why?

Here's the Moon calendar for April 2012.  Note how the waning and waxing crescent Moons are shown with the horns of the crescent pointing either left or right (e.g. April 18 & 24).

Photo : Bresson Thomas

To the right is a nice picture of a waxing crescent moon in its "proper" orientation.

So, what's the problem?  Well, the letter writer stated that he saw the moon lit from below in May 2010 and thought this odd.

Hey, what the fuck's going on here? The crescent is tilted!

Upon searching for a reason on the Internet, he evidently ran into a lot of "conspiracy" theories regarding this and was wondering what my thoughts were.  I did a Google search myself, to see what the big deal was, and stumbled upon a whole slew of discussion board posts, blog articles, and YouTube videos mentioning how people saw the Moon sideways one night or another and thought it was a sign of the coming apocalypse and Christian rapture, an indication of a polar shift (whatever the fuck that is), or the effects of a some rogue planet coming into our solar system (relating, of course, to the mythical Mayan 2012 doomsday).

Good Lord!  Since I was so horrified by these results, I thought I'd write a blog post rather than only respond to the letter writer.  What horrified me?  Not the fact that the Moon was "tilted", it looks like that all the time as anyone who routinely observes the Moon knows full well.  What horrified me was the huge amount of rampant stupidity on the web about this fact.

Here's an example...  Check out this YouTube video from a show on Biblical prophecy.  Scroll ahead to 08:40 in the clip (unless you're a masochist and want to watch it all).  Oh my God!  The Moon's fucking rotated!  And scientists are covering it up!  It's a sign of the apocalypse!  They even mention a paper by an Italian scientist (Dr. Iorio) who talks about the eccentricity of the Moon.  As the guy on the video (L.A. Marzulli) says "Basically, the thumbnail sketch is this... we're looking at the lunar surface doing things that is [sic] eccentric, that normally we don't see" (10:14-10:24).

So, what exactly did Dr. Iorio write?  The paper can be seen here.  Here's my thumbnail summary.  For the past 38 years, scientists have been bouncing lasers off reflectors left by the Apollo astronauts in order to very accurately measure the distance to the Moon and its rate of recession from the Earth.  He claims that these measurements have indicated that the Moon's orbit has become more eccentric during this time.  What does that mean?  Well, when one object orbits another, it doesn't orbit in a perfectly circular orbit, it instead orbits in an elliptical shape.  A fellow named Johannes Kepler figured this out around 1609 and Isaac Newton showed how this is due to gravity around 1687.

The shape of an elliptical orbit is mathematically described by its eccentricity, a value between 0 (a circle or special case of an ellipse) and 1.0 (a line or infinitely stretched ellipse parabola).  The eccentricity of the Moon's orbit, for example, averages 0.0549.  So the moron on the video doesn't understand what eccentricty even means - it has nothing to do with the lunar surface, it describes the shape of the orbit.  The paper by Dr. Iorio claims that the eccentricty has increased over the past 38 years by a value of 9 ± 3 x 10-12 / year.  Keep in mind the average eccentricty of the Moon is 0.0549 (rounded off) and the amount of change claimed in the paper is 0.000000000009.  Very, very small.  He mentions that a trans-Neptunian object (something orbiting out past Neptune) may cause this perptubation, but then goes on to say:

"On the other hand, the values for the physical and orbital parameters of such a hypothetical body required to obtain the right order of magnitude for de/dt are completely unrealistic. Moreover, they are in neat disagreement with both the most recent theoretical scenarios envisaging the existence of a distant, planetary-sized body and with the model-independent constraints on them dynamically inferred from planetary motions."

In other words, it's not fucking likely.  That means that this YouTube video on supposed lunar changes which claims (starting at 1:00) that "The astronomer [Dr. Iorio] does say that these shifts are being caused by a larger planet in our solar system." is a complete lie.  He claimed exactly the opposite!  That it was a "completely unrealistic" scenario!

I could go on and on.  Do a Google search on "sideways Moon" and you'll see for yourself.

Of course, no one who is inclined to believe that this is all a sign of the end times will believe me, but there is a simple explanation.  The Moon calendar I printed above is an idealization.  The Moon will not look exactly like that in the sky.  The orientation of the Moon depends on the Earth-Moon-Sun geometry AND your position on planet Earth.

To understand Earth-Moon-Sun geometry, go back and read my previous post about the phases of the Moon.  Also keep in mind that the Moon's orbit around the Earth is tilted by about 5° from the ecliptic (the path of the Earth around the Sun).  Add to that the tilt of the Earth's axis (23.5°) that gives us our seasons and the path of the Moon through our sky is slightly different every night of the year.  There are certain times when the Moon is setting almost vertically and will thus be lit from underneath by the setting Sun.  It's still the same side of the Moon as always that's lit, just that the geometry of the Earth, Moon, and Sun are a little different.  Here are some examples using Stellarium (go download and play with it, it's fun!).

The waxing crescent from last January 26 at 6:00 pm in the mid-Hudson Valley
The Moon is almost totally sideways!

The waxing crescent in the mid-Hudson Valley on April 25, 2012 at 9:00 pm
Note how the Moon is still tilted a bit

The waxing crescent in the mid-Hudson Valley on June 23 at 9:30 pm
The Moon is even more upright now

In all three of the above images, the red line is the ecliptic, the path of the Sun and planets through our sky (the Moon, as mentioned previously is tilted with respect to the ecliptic so is sometimes to one side of it and sometimes to the other).

What if we changed our latitude?  What if we observe the moon on June 23 from Florida instead of New York?

Miami, Florida on June 23, 2012 at 9:30 pm
Note how the Moon is a bit more tilted than in New York

Hey, what if we went to higher latitudes instead of lower latitudes?

Somewhere up in Northern Quebec on June 23, 2012 (still light at 9:30 pm!)
Note the Moon is more upright here at a higher latitude

The orientation of the Moon depends on time of year and latitude from where you observe it.  For a crescent Moon, if the ecliptic is near vertical, the Moon will be rotated and lit from below from the Sun below the horizon and if the ecliptic is tilted a lot (like the figure directly above), the Moon is lit from more of an angle and will have more of an upright appearance.

What really pisses me off is not that someone sees something they think is odd.  It's perfectly normal for people these days to have no experience with how things look in the sky given our pervasive light pollution, general apathy about the natural world around us, and electronic nightime diversions.  People don't even know what the Moon looks like anymore.

What pisses me off is the widespread belief that either:

a.  Scientists (or the millions of astronomy enthusiasts out all the time with telescopes) are morons and wouldn't notice the fucking Moon is flipping around in the sky, or

b.  There is a worldwide conspiracy among scientists not to tell people that the fucking Moon is flipping around in the sky.

I'm always amazed at how little some people know about how the world works.  I'm not just talking about the Moon's movements or appearance, but about how there are millions of amateur astronomers who observe the sky all the time and how scientists are mostly professors at colleges and universities who couldn't (and wouldn't) keep a secret about some crazy Moon rotation caused by aliens, Jesus, or mysterious rogue planets.  Scientists are normal people with families and mortgages who drink beer and watch TV like everyone else.  They're not like the evil geniuses you saw on cartoons when you were a kid.

Our civilization is doomed.  Not from Jesus coming back to punish wicked people like me or alien invasions or Mayan prophecies of natural disasters.  I'm sure those reading my blog know why I think civilization is doomed so I don't even have to say it, do I?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Warming? Cooling?

Haven't posted in a couple of days since I was at a conference on academic advising at Foxwoods in Connecticut (yes, I may have drank and gambled a bit in my off hours).

Just saw this interesting map put out by NOAA on weather records set this February.  While its been a mild winter and very early spring here in the Hudson Valley, other parts of the globe have seen unseasonably cold temperatures.  Go figure.  I have no answers to the question why and neither do the professional meteorologists.

Click to embiggen

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dinosaurs - Science Fact or Fiction?

Someone called my attention to this website.  Some crazy fucker who believes dinosaurs are an atheist conspiracy made up by scientists to discredit the Bible.

The dinosaur industry should be investigated and questions need to be asked. I am unaware of any evidence or reason for absolutely believing dinosaurs ever were alive on earth. The possibility exists that the concept of prehistoric living dinosaurs has been a fabrication of nineteenth and twentieth century people possibly pursuing an evolutionary and anti-Bible and anti-Christian agenda.

Damn evil scientists!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy Equinox

This is set to post at 1:14 am EDT (0514 UTC) on Tuesday, March 20, the time of the vernal equinox.

We're halfway between the winter and summer solstices.  The Sun is directly over the equator and moving into the Northern Hemisphere.  Day and night are each about 12 hours long (here in the Hudson Valley, sunrise is around 7:00 am and sunset around 7:00 pm local daylight savings time).  The word equinox is derived from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night).

Very unseasonably warm here in the Hudson Valley, it's more like mid-April than March.  Try to get out and enjoy the weather!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dinosaur Trackways

As regular readers of this blog will know, my wife and I homeschool our kids.  While she does the day-to-day stuff, I often get to do the fun stuff.  Today, a beautiful spring day in the mid-60s here in the Hudson Valley, we learned a bit about dinosaur trackways with a half-dozen other pre-teen homeschooled kids.

We started by measuring our feet length and hip height (in meters, of course, since this is science).  My feet are 0.35 m long and my hip height is 1.00 m.  Then we calculated the (hip height / foot length) ratio for everyone and averaged all the values.  Mine was 2.9 but, for the kids participating, it was around 3.2.

Turns out, from fossil data, that bipedal dinosaurs have an average (hip height / foot length) ratio of around 4.0.  Why is this important?  Because hip height is related to stride length, the average length of a dinosaur's steps.  It also turns out that the height of an average bipedal dinosaur is 10 times their foot length.  One footprint can now give us some useful information.

The next thing I did with the kids is set up a 25 meter long area in my backyard.  Then the kids took turns walking this distance and then running this distance.  In each case, they counted the number of footsteps and I timed them.  From this, we calculated their walking and running stride lengths (footsteps / 2) and their walking and running velocities in meters per second.

When I did it, I got 27 steps in 19 seconds for walking (a stride length of 1.85 m and a velocity of 1.3 m/s) and 16.5 steps in 7.5 seconds for running (a stride length of 3.03 m and a velocity of 3.3 m/s).  The kids, obviously got different values.

Turns out that studies have shown a roughly linear relationship between stride length and velocity for all different animals (the graph at left shows some mammals but these studies have been done for reptiles as well).

In other words, the longer the stride length, the faster the animal is moving (makes sense).  It's also somewhat independent of the type of animal (not exactly true, but as a generalization it works well enough).

Next I had the kids calculate their gait for running and walking using data they had already obtained.  The gait is defined as the (stride length / hip height).  My gait for walking was 1.85 and for running was 3.03.  Paleontologists use the generalization that a gait around 2.0 indicates walking and a gait around 3.0 indicates running.  Once again, we compared numbers and discussed why they might be different.

Then we moved into the front yard.  Before the kids came over, we had cut out two types of dinosaur tracks from construction paper - one was meant to represent a theropod (a bipedal meat-eating dinosaur) and one was meant to represent an ornithopod (a bipedal plant-eating dinosaur).  The theropod had a walking gait to start and then a running gait.  The nearby ornithopod track started with two tracks next to each other (standing) and then running.  The scenario was that the theropod was walking along, saw the ornithopod, and took off running after it.  The ornithopod, obviously, was running for its life.

Dinosaur tracks on my front lawn

When we moved into the front yard, I told the kids to imagine they were out in the hot Montana sun looking at a trackway eroding out of a sandstone bed. The kids figured out the scenario pretty quickly and then we did some measurements of foot length and stride length (two different stride lengths for the theropod and one for the ornithopod). From the foot length, we could estimate the dinosaur's hip height and overall height and from the stride length we could estimate their speeds.

My son sketching a dinosaur track

At this point it became more complicated and I left it for parents to go further with their kids if they wanted to do so.  The formula paleontologists actually use to calculate a dinosaur's velocity is actually fairly complex:

     v = 0.25 g0.5 SL1.67 L-1.17

Where g is the acceleration of gravity (9.8 m/s2), SL is the stride length in meters, and L is the hip height in meters.  A little beyond 11-year-old kids, but I provided the information anyway.

For our dinosaur trackway, the data worked out to:

     Theropod walking v = 0.25 (9.8 m/s2)0.5 (0.25 m)1.67 (0.72 m)-1.17 = 0.11 m/s
     Theropod running v = 0.25 (9.8 m/s2)0.5 (0.85 m)1.67 (0.72 m)-1.17 = 0.88 m/s
     Ornithopod running v = 0.25 (9.8 m/s2)0.5 (0.60 m)1.67 (0.52 m)-1.17 = 0.72 m/s

Are these reasonable speeds?  I don't know but that's not really the point.  The point was seeing that we can calculate such things from trackway data and we can also study living animals (in this case, all of us) to gain some insights into extinct ones.

I thought it was all pretty cool, if I do say so myself. The kids got to see how paleontologists can extract a lot of useful information about dinosaurs from a set of fossil tracks.  They learned some new terms (bipedal, paleontology, ichnology).  How to properly use a metric tape measure.  How to record data (metric units).  Different ways to indicate math operations (my handout had X / Y rather than X ¸ Y which is what they usually see).  How to use a calculator.  How to round off calculated numbers (informally).  Averaging.  Interpreting numerical results (what does this answer indicate?).  How math is useful in interpreting something found in the real world (a dinosaur trackway).  An educational afternoon in the sun while their peers were sitting in a math classroom doing worksheets.

If you want to learn more, here's the classic paper that started it all:

     Alexander, R.M. 1976. Estimates of speeds of dinosaurs. Nature 261: 129-130.

Here's the exercise I put together if anyone's interested.  It was the first time I did this so I would change a few things if we did it again.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Don't major in science if you're dumb...

Interesting article titled 5 Hardest and Easiest College Majors by GPA's.  Here it is, in a nutshell:

5 Lowest Grade Point Averages
  1. Chemistry 2.78 GPA
  2. Math 2.90 GPA
  3. Economics 2.95 GPA
  4. Psychology 2.98 GPA
  5. Biology 3.02 GPA
5 Highest Grade Point Averages
  1. Education 3.36 GPA
  2. Language 3.34 GPA
  3. English 3.33 GPA
  4. Music 3.30 GPA
  5. Religion 3.22 GPA
I'm certainly not surprised that Education is the easiest.  I've seen positively stupid people major in education and do well (yes, they're teaching your kids).  I am a bit surprised I didn't see Physics and/or Engineering on the lowest GPA list.

The study was done by Kevin Rask, an economics professor at Wake Forest University (see the article for more details).  The "solution" proposed by education consultant Lynn O'Shaughnessy, the author of the article?

"It seems to me that the best way to produce more scientists and engineers might be to get the professors in those fields to lighten up on their grades. Do the students, who are brave enough to wrestle with organic chemistry and multivariable calculus, need to be crushed at exam time?"

That sound you heard was me hitting my head against the wall.  That's all we need.  The civil engineer who designs the bridge you drive over to be graded on a curve for his or her differential equations class so as not to harm their GPA.  I bet Lynn was an education major with ideas like that.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Have you seen The Periodic Table of Videos?  A neat collection of short videos for each element on the periodic table from the University of Nottingham.

I have to say that Dr. Martyn Poliakoff, the guy with the white-haired afro, is right out of central casting for a mad scientist look-alike.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lecture Fail? Really?

First watch this video from a The Chronicle of Higher Education online article.

Now view this response from a biology instructor.

Fuck yeah!  I love this woman and agree 100% with her!

For the record, I lecture in my classes.  I don't gather everyone in a circle so they can share their feelings about plate tectonics.  I don't twitter shit that I know damn well most of my students wouldn't read or care about.  I have this blog, but it's not for my students (they're welcome to read it along with everyone else but I don't advertise it to them).

I do use PowerPoint but I have virtually no text on my PowerPoint slides.  In the courses I teach, we used to all have 35 mm slide carousels (anyone old school enough to remember those?) with pictures of geologic features (mostly those I took myself on various travels around the country).  What a pain in the ass those were (ever accidentally dump a whole tray of slides just before an important talk?).  Arranging images is so much easier in PowerPoint than on a light table.  A few years back, I donated lots and lots of slide trays to our art department.

At right is an example of a typical PowerPoint image (a picture of a glacial erratic in the Shawangunks that I took myself).  As I'm showing this and other images in class, I'm lecturing and writing stuff down (and sketching things, which we do a lot in geology).  Yes, I go off on tangents.  Not about irrelevent things, but about recent topics in the news relating to what I'm lecturing about, local geologic features, making connections to other fields of study, or, yes, even about experiences I've had (how can I lecture about the Grand Canyon, for example, without saying something about the times I've actually been there?).  That's how I roll.

If students find it boring, fuck them.  I'm not getting on the table to sing and dance for their entertainment.  I'm older, wiser, more experienced, and better educated than those idiots.  Learning about the world around you is one of the most interesting things you can do - I love education and wish I had more hours in the day to learn about everything that interests me!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Yes, I'm a nerd. I want to see the film John Carter opening this weekend (March 9).  For those lacking a classical literary education, it's based on the novel A Princess of Mars (1917) by Edgar Rice Burroughs (also known as the creator of Tarzan).

John Carter, the protagonist, was a Confederate War veteran who goes prospecting in Arizona.  Chased into a cave by the Apaches, he's mysteriously transported to Mars (Barsoom) where he meets the Green Martians - the insect-like Tharks.  The low Martian gravity gives him superhuman strength and he soon befriends the warrier Tars Tarkas and rises to a position of power in the tribe.  Enter the beautiful Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris, captured by the Tharks but rescued by Carter.  Dejah Thoris belongs to the race of Red Martians, humanoids who control the canals of a dying, increasingly arid Mars.  Carter eventually marries her and lives as Prince of Helium.  When the plant that creates the oxygen in the atmosphere of Barsoom breaks down, Carter is able to save the planet but asphyxiates in the process waking up back on Earth, heartbroken.  Other novels followed...

Being a Disney movie, they probably changed a few things.  For example, Burroughs described the Red Martians like Princess Dejah Thoris as being entirely naked except for some jewelry!

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure.

In the movie trailer, it looks like the actor who plays Carter shows more skin.  Oh well...

You can read an ebook version of A Princess of Mars for free, by the way (although that will probably just piss you off when you see the movie and note all the inevitable random plot changes that always happen in movies).  It's great for those, like me, who have never outgrown their male adolescent fantasies.  I have no idea if women would like it (although I suppose there's that whole "rescued damsel in distress" fantasy and Carter does look pretty good without a shirt I suppose).

Burroughs probably based his image of Mars on the work of astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916) whose telescopic observations of Mars at his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona convinced him that the red planet was criss-crossed with canals.  Perhaps, Lowell speculated, built by a dying Martian race to carry water from the icy poles to the rest of the increasingly arid planet.

By the way, I came across this great article by Leathem Mehaffey, another nerd professor at nearby Vassar College, trying to locate the Barsoom geography of Burroughs onto Lowell's map!

Anyway, it turns out the "canals" on were imaginary.  Linear features seen on the surface that Lowell's mind fashioned into a system of canals.  Even scientists were disappointed when, in 1965, the Mariner 4 probe returned the first real images of Mars (at right) showing a cratered, almost Moon-like surface.  It would have been much more exciting if Lowell had it correct!

Also, go out any night after dark these next few weeks at look to the east.  See that bright red "star"?  It's Barsoom, shining brightly as the Earth swings past it in our mutual orbits around the Sun.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Someone sent me this and I liked it...

Reminds me of Big Bang Theory's Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock

Monday, March 5, 2012

Philosophy, literature, religion, and geology (Part III)

In Part I of this series, I talked about Voltaire's mention of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in his novella Candide.  In Part II of this series, I discussed a little bit about the geology of the earthquake itself.  To wrap things up now, I will reiterate how this natural disaster caused people to think very seriously about, basically, why bad things happen to good people.  Back, full circle, to our initial discussion of theodicy.

What were the reactions to the earthquake?  Well, as Voltaire amusingly rote in Candide:

After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.

Not so amusing in real life.  An "Auto-da-fé" ("act of faith) was a public ritual for those identified as heretics by the Inquisition.  It began with a Catholic mass (it was, after all, a religious ceremony), a public precession of those pronounced guilty by the Inquisition (often those people had no idea what they were even being charged with), a "trial" of sorts, and then the reading of the sentence.  Many would then be tortured and/or burned alive.  All done by people who considered themselves devout followers of Christ.

Anyway, the tens of thousands of deaths from the 1755 earthquake is no different from the hundreds of millions of deaths throughout history from natural disasters.  Just this week, we hear of little Angel Babcock, the 15-month-old toddler found in an Indiana field after a tornado killed her entire family.  She died in the hospital.

The obvious question that arises from such events is "Where's God?" Disease, famine, and natural disasters occur.  Either God allows innocent little babies to die miserable, painful deaths (which calls into question his or her omnibenevolance), or God is powerless to prevent it (which goes against omipotence).  Most Christian  theologians simply go with the the explanation that there are no good people (e.g. Romans 3:23), even "innocent" little babies are born in sin and we can't hope to understand what God is doing or thinking (e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9).  In other words, shut up and trust God.  Or, I suppose, you can rail against God.  Either way, it doesn't much matter.  The world is a shitty place because Adam and Eve ate the damn fruit off that tree and disobeyed God.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the great hymnist and leader of the Methodist movement said of the Lisbon earthquake "Sin is the cause, earthquakes the effect, of his anger."  Even today, this type of thinking persists with Pat Robsertson claiming that the 2010 Haiti earthquake was due to a Haitian pact with Satan.  Perhaps natural disasters a sign of God's anger and judgement?

The other option, of course, is atheism.  Why do bad things happed to good people?  They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Random dumb luck (or lack of it).  Winds blow, the Earth moves, and cancer cells grow.  Sucks to be you.  The problem, of course, with this idea is that it's profoundly unsettling when you think about it too much.

Anyway, many people date the real beginnings of atheism as a philosophical idea in the Western world to the Lisbon earthquake and the contrast between the writings of philosophers like Leibnitz and Voltaire.  One could spend a lifetime reading all that has been written about theodicy and I have no answers (although I certainly lean more toward the "random events in a godless natural world" camp).

But the whole thing is pretty cool, right?  Starting with the co-inventor of calculus, writing about theodicy and philosphical optimism.  Then a big earthquake in one of the most prosperous cities in Europe.  Tens of thousands die a horrible death - many while worshipping God.  Voltaire writes his satirical novella Candide mocking Leibnitz's optimism.  From this discussion develops both Christian and atheist responses to theodicy that persist to the present day.  Why learn history?  Why learn philosophy?  Why learn science?  Because it's all interesting!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Philosophy, literature, religion, and geology (Part II)

Are you then sure, the power which would create
The universe and fix the laws of fate,
Could not have found for man a proper place,
But earthquakes must destroy the human race?
Voltaire (1755)

Yesterday, in Part I of this post, I talked about Voltaire's mention of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in his novella Candide.

Lisbon isn't a place we normally associate with earthquakes.  Portugal is a small country nestled up against Spain, on the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula, and Lisbon, its capital, is located at the mouth of the Tagus River (Tejo in Portugeuse) where it flows into the Atlantic.

Note the nicely curved, southwest-facing coastline funneling into the estuary of the Tagus River.  This feature will be significant when we discuss the tsunami which struck Lisbon shortly after the earthquake.

Seismicity in this part of the world is due to the tectonic plate boundary between the African Plate and the Eurasian Plate (which runs through the Straits of Gibralter out to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge).

This boundary is called the Azores-Gibralter Fault Zone (AGFZ) and movement along this boundary is complex.  East of the Azores, the AGFZ has divergent movement where the plates pull apart along the Tercieira Ridge.  In the middle segments, there's transform movement along the Gloria Fault where the plates grind sideways past each other.  And, finally, near the Gulf of Cadiz and Straits of Gibralter, the plates have a convergent motion where they're pushing together.

So, around 9:40 am (local time), on Saturday, November 1, 1755 (All Saints Day), the convergent portion of this plate boundary slipped, possible 10 - 20 meters, by thrusting along a shallowly-dipping eastward-directed fault plane.  This fault is just offshore from the Cape St. Vincent (Cabo de São Vicente), the extreme southwestern tip of Portugal  (reference).  The movement along this fault generated an estimated 8.5 - 9.0 magnitude earthquake (no seismic instruments back then, the magnitude is estimated from the size of the fault and damage estimates).

The first strong shock wave (the P wave arrival) damaged many of the buildings, but it was the arrival of the second shock (surface waves) which caused the extensive damage and collapsed structures throughout the city.  Among those structures were many of the stone churches filled with worshippers celebrating mass.  This phase lasted a reported 3.5 minutes (a long time when you're experiencing such a terrifying event).  Fissures up to 15 feet wide opened up in the city.  After the main shocks, people worked their way down to the riverside quays of the Tagus River (Rio Tejo in Portuguese) where they gathered for comfort.

Lisbon, across the Tagus River

People presumably watched in confusion as the water in the Tagus estuary pulled out to see exposing a "sea floor littered by lost cargo and old shipwrecks."  Today we all should know what that presages but people in the mid-1700s in Portugal had no idea.  Some 40 minutes after the quake, the waters came rushing back up the river.  So fast, according to contemporary accounts, people on horseback, galloping at full speed, barely escaped.  At least three waves of tsunami came up the river, the largest being an estimated 20 meters (65 feet) in height.  All of the ships in Lisbon's harbor were destroyed and tens of thousands of people drowned.

Just as happened with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Lisbon was then beset by several days of uncontrolled fire which burned through the city killing and injuring even more people.  As one researcher writes:

Fanned by steady northeast winds, the great fire burned out of control through the ruins of the city for more than 3 days. It swept everything in its path and destroyed houses, churches and palaces. Lisbon's magnificent museums, and its magnificent libraries - housing priceless documents and papers dealing with the great history of Portugal's great past - burned to the ground. Archives and other precious documents were completely destroyed. Works of art, tapestries, books, manuscripts, including the invaluable records of the India Company were destroyed. Also burned was the king's palace and its 70,000-volume library. Over two hundred fine, priceless paintings , including paintings by Titan, Reubens, and Coreggio, were burned in the palace of the Marques de Lourcal.

The earthquake caused damage in many more places than Lisbon.  Other cities in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco were heavily damaged as well.  The earthquake was felt as far away as Finland.  The tsunami raced across the Atlantic causing damage in England and Ireland and large waves struck several islands in the Caribbean.  Seismologists have estimated that this was a 1,000 year earthquake.

Tomorrow, in Part III of this series, I'll talk about how this earthquake affected Europe.  I'll leave you with a basically unanswerable question: If God exists, why would He allow an earthquake to drop a cathedral on devout worshippers celebrating mass? 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Philosophy, literature, religion, and geology (Part I)

The Théodicée, or more precisely, the Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal (Essays of Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil), was a philosophical work published in 1710 by the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716).  Anyone who's ever taken calculus knows of Liebniz since he is given credit, along with Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), for independently developing this incredibly useful branch of mathematics (which was far more important than any of his philosophical ramblings).

Liebniz invented the term theodicy - derived from the Greek roots  θεός (theos, god) and δίκη (dikē, justice).  It refers to a branch of Christian apologetics dealing with the problem of evil - attempts to reconcile God's supposed omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence (all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving) characteristics with the obvious fact that the world is a really shitty place sometimes.  Bad things happen to good people and vice-versa.

Leibniz dealt with this problem by arguing that, despite all its imperfections, this is the best of all possible worlds (that phrase may have just rung some bells in the heads of my more literate readers, we'll get to that shortly).  It must be the best of all possible worlds because it was created by a perfect God.  If it wasn't the most perfect world He could create, He would have created something better.  In a later work, La Monadologie (from the Greek μονάς monas or "unit"), published in 1714, Leibnitz further discussed his philosophy which has been described as "Leibnitzian Optimism".  He argued that everything exists according to a reason and everything which exists is better than anything non-existent.  His conclusion was "Therefore this is the best of all possible worlds."

Convinced?  No?  Neither were a lot of other people, most notably the French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), better known by his pen name of Voltaire.  Voltaire was a prolific writer and social commentator (often using satire) whose ideas on liberty and freedom of expression influenced the leaders of the French and American Revolutions.  In 1759, Voltaire wrote (supposedly in only three days!) Candide, a satirical novella mocking Leibnitz's philosophical optimism (later versions of the book were subtitled All for the Best and The Optimist).

In the novella (read it here online), Candide is a young man brought up by the scholar and philosophical optimist Professor Pangloss (whose philosophy can be summed up by the phrase "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds").

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron's castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles - thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings - and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles - therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten - therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best."

Through a convoluted variety of events, Candide and Pangloss come to be traveling through Europe, South America, and eventually Turkey while a whole host of misfortunes befall them and those they meet.  While Candide becomes disillusioned with Pangloss's optimistic philosophy, Pangloss himself keeps the faith.

"Well, my dear Pangloss," said Candide to him, "when you had been hanged, dissected, whipped, and were tugging at the oar, did you always think that everything happens for the best?"

"I am still of my first opinion," answered Pangloss, "for I am a philosopher and I cannot retract, especially as Leibnitz could never be wrong; and besides, the pre-established harmony is the finest thing in the world..."

Voltaire wrote this novella mocking Leibnitz's ideas because he believed, with some justification, that current events like the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the Great Lisbon Earthquake (1755) showed that we certainly did not live in the "best of all possible worlds."

As soon as they recovered themselves a little they walked toward Lisbon. They had some money left, with which they hoped to save themselves from starving, after they had escaped drowning. Scarcely had they reached the city, lamenting the death of their benefactor, when they felt the earth tremble under their feet. The sea swelled and foamed in the harbour, and beat to pieces the vessels riding at anchor. Whirlwinds of fire and ashes covered the streets and public places; houses fell, roofs were flung upon the pavements, and the pavements were scattered. Thirty thousand inhabitants of all ages and sexes were crushed under the ruins.

The Seven Years War was understandably bad, but what was so bad about the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake?  The earthquake occurred on November 1 and some historians estimate that of the 200,000 people living in Lisbon, Portugal at the time, some 30,000–40,000 were killed in the earthquake - 20% of the population.  The quake occurred on a Saturday morning and, as it was All Saints Day, an important Roman Catholic holiday, many people were in the Lisbon Cathedral and other churches celebrating mass - structures that were almost totally leveled by the earthquake.  A tsunami followed the shaking making things worse.

Read this gripping contemporary description of the earthquake by the Reverend Charles Davy.

I'll pick up the thread of this story tomorrow...

Thursday, March 1, 2012

In like a lion...

So there's a common saying regarding weather during the month of March.  That if March comes in like a lion (bad weather) it will go out like a lamb (nice weather) and vice-versa.  Well March is certainly coming in like a lion here in the Hudson Valley - just look at the 12-hour forecast map on the evening of February 29!

We're in for a nasty day today with a Winter Weather Advisor from the National Weather Service due to the mix of rain, sleet, and snow forecast for the day.  I'm not much of a fan of such weather as it leaves me house-bound and restless.  I also have two classes this morning which may well be canceled requiring extra work on my part to make up (snow days aren't really a vacation for me).  At least we're not getting the nasty tornadoes along the leading edge of that cold front causing all the devastation and loss of life out in Branson, Missouri and elsewhere.

So anyway, since March is coming in like a lion, can we now hope it will go out like a lamb?  I hope so since I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring!  That got me to wondering where the expression came from and if it has any validity (alas, I suspect not).  While some weather adages are based on observation and may generally hold true, others are simply rhymes or sayings that seem to have no basis in reality.

March is a changable month, containing the vernal equinox, and being the transitional month between the cold and snows of winter and the warm greening days of spring.  As such, it can be either lion-like or lamb-like at either the beginning or the end of the month.  The saying may well be a desire to see a symmetry between the start and end of the month, a yin-yang balancing of the cosmic forces.

Doing a little research (OK, I used Google), I was only able to ascertain that it's a traditional English folk saying. Here it is in the book Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British collected by Thomas Fuller, M.D. and published in London in 1732 (page 295).

     "March balkham, Comes in like a Lion, goes out like a Lamb."

No, I don't know what "balkham" means!

Here's the late, great John Belushi discussing this adage on an old Saturday Night Live skit.

So is it true?  Well, we do have weather records and the general consensus is that March often does go in like a lion and out like a lamb simply because the beginning of March is simply the tail end of winter here in our region and the end of March is the beginning of spring.  It's not surprising to see an improvement of the weather over the month.  Other than that general trend, there really is no correlation (nor would you expect a reason for such).

I supposed I could dig out all the weather records to statistically show this, but I have better things to do with my day!