Friday, December 30, 2011

Hydrocarbons and Our Future

When the Deepwater Horizon platform blew up in April, 2010, it released approximately 4,900,000 barrels (780,000 cubic meters) of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.  Some of that raw crude floated to the surface and was skimmed or burned - or ruined wetlands that protect the fragile Gulf coast from hurricane storm-surges. Some of the hydrocarbons drifted off into the Loop Current, and what was not metabolized by bacteria probably drifted out into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream. But the low-gravity components simply blanketed vast stretches of the floor of the Gulf, suffocating all life forms beneath it. Because the temperatures are quite cold in the abyssal sea depths, bacteria will work on this stuff only very slowly - if at all.

While the flow was on-going from the Macondo Well 3,000 meters below the sea surface, I thought about this problem. It's incredibly expensive to even drop a string of sampling bottles over the side to these depths. I developed an electrical geophysical method to map, track, and characterize this dangerous stuff - whose impact on the Gulf ecosystem is still not clearly understood.

Hydrocarbons have figured in my life off and on for a long time. After birth, my father and mother drove me home from the hospital in an American-made car fueled by gasoline extracted and refined in California. When my youngest grandson was driven home from the hospital where he was born, the car was built in Korea and the gasoline came from Venezuelan oil, refined in Texas. I worked my way through undergraduate school by washing dishes during the winters, and by fighting forest fires during the summers. Fire-fighting is hard, dirty, and dangerous work, so after my Junior year at Berkeley I started working for an oil company near my home, where I could use my brain and education more. I initially worked in the southern San Joaquin Valley of California for Getty Oil company.

Oil had been discovered just north of Bakersfield early in the 20th Century, and the initial “gushers” were just that: when the drill-hole penetrated into a rock unit with sufficient porosity to host oil, the overlying rock pressure forced the stuff out in a violent fashion. It quite literally rained oil, and the land was permanently damaged and remains largely free of vegetation. The ground throughout most of Oildale, California, is now an ugly and relatively uniform reddish-brown from the gushers that blew out during the early history of the field. After the gushers stopped, pumping began.

After pumping oil from the Kern Field for half a century, drill-cores showed that only about 15% of the oil had actually been extracted – the low-viscosity, easily-flowing stuff. The rest was what we call "tar-sands" or "heavy crude" - even longer-chained carbon molecules that entangle with each other to make a much higher viscosity hydrocarbon than the "light crude." Viscosity is just a measure of the "sludginess" of a semi-solid material. Maple syrup has a higher viscosity than water, so it pours slower.

Solid rock salt even has a significant viscosity - especially under pressure from overlying rock. This is why layers of salt in the deep sediments of the Gulf of Mexico tend to ooze up into diapirs or "salt domes". Oil geologists learned early on that salt stopped oil from migrating. It also folded and lifted up sediments above it to create "traps" where oil and gas could migrate upwards through porous sedimentary rocks until they were blocked by the salt (it's more complicated than that, of course). However, if you can find the salt domes with gravity or seismic geophysical surveys - salt domes are less dense than surrounding rock and thus a gravity survey above one will give a lower-gravity "bulls-eye" - then you only have to drill around the edges to get at the traps.

You can increase viscosity in a petroleum-based product by heating it - my grandma would use heat to liquefy wax, or to get molasses to flow out of a jar faster.

The Getty engineers thought long and hard about abandoning the old Kern Field - if 85% of the oil was still in it, this seemed like an incredible waste. It was hardly economic anymore to operate a pump for a day to get just a few barrels of oil out.  They finally developed huge steam-injection generators and conducted an interesting experiment. They used the remaining light crude from the Kern Field to heat water to 500 degrees C. The super-heated water was then injected into the old drill-pipe at ~500 psi (about 30 times normal atmospheric pressure, or about 3.4 mega-pascals, the SI metric unit for pressure) for 5 days, then the well was capped and allowed to "stew" for two days. Finally the drill-pipe was uncapped and the steam was allowed to vent for 5 more days.

The the formerly nearly-solid oil literally poured itself out of the drill-pipe just from the pressure of the overlying rock. This was only a partial success story, however; the hot heavy crude could be poured into a bucket in liquid form; it was surprisingly light brown in color. After it cooled to room temperature, however, you could turn the bucket upside down and nothing would pour out - it had turned solid again.

You can imagine that dealing with this sort of heavy crude is more expensive, and you would be right. The oil from the Athabasca tar-sands in Canada requires a lot of effort and energy - mining expenses, local water, and heating - to extract it. The heavy crudes in Oildale, California, and in Venezuela can be extracted, but then must be mixed with light crude (in Venezuela this must be pumped down hundreds of kilometers from the Caribbean coast) into slurry that won't clog the return-pipe as it cools. heavy crudes must also be handled in a refinery in a far more complex manner.

I was a co-editor of a UNESCO book published years ago titled “The Future of Heavy Crudes and Tar-Sands.” We concluded that there was enough low-gravity hydrocarbons in Venezuela’s Llanos (plains) and Canada’s Athabasca tar-sands to power the industrial world for centuries at current rates of oil consumption – but only if the price of a barrel of oil was maintained high enough to pay for the extra costs of mining and lowering the viscosity so the oil could be refined into gasoline.

There are problems with exploiting the Athabascan tar-sands, however: there is an over-abundance of nickel and vanadium in the tar that can each be serious environmental pollutants. There is also the heavy need for local water to process the stuff - and this has seriously impacted local rivers in the area. Finally, extracting the oil is not done with drill-pipe, but by strip-mining the surface to access the tar-sands; this leaves huge scars on the arboreal landscape.

The engineering technology developed to exploit these tar-sands sounds like a great example of human ingenuity - and it is. But there is a down-side: if more and more hydrocarbons are consumed by a careless and ever-growing human population, the amount of CO2 and methane freed - powerful greenhouse gases - will drive our world's average temperatures ever high, ever faster.

Climate change has been going on for billions of years - see-sawing back and forth from a "snowball Earth" a billion years ago to a simmering Earth that several times saw forests in Antarctica. However, the anthropogenic (human-caused) contribution of burning hydrocarbons and destroying forests in the past two centuries has given the current climate a very, very sharp kick.

From the perspective of a scientist who loves his heated home and his Honda Accord, this causes me very mixed feelings. Glaciers are in retreat worldwide, and vast icebergs the size of some states are breaking free of Antarctica and melting. Island nations in the Pacific and Indian oceans are already starting to disappear - literally - as ocean levels rise. The list of consequences are as horrific as they are diverse, and our very human desire for a luxurious energy-powered life, fueled by more and more hydrocarbons, lies at the bottom of it all.

And the Lord said unto Enoch: look, and he looked and beheld the Son of Man lifted up on the bcross, after the manner of men; and he heard a loud voice; and the heavens were veiled; and all the creations of God mourned; and the earth groaned...

The Earth is where we live; if we treat our house carelessly, we will pay a very dear price.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

White: Age and Respect

When I was in my early 30's, my hair rather abruptly largely turned gray (mostly straight white, with occasional strands of curly dark brown in it). I inherited this from my mother, who was bothered that her hair turned white in the front during her 30's. I thought it was sort of cool-looking: her hair when I was a kid, and my hair when I was barely no longer a kid.

In my late 30's I was invited to teach classes in applied geophysics to upper-division and grad students at the University of Maryland and The George Washington University. After meeting with the Department Chairs in both cases I was designated a full professor at both universities. In part this was because I already had a long science bibliography by that time, but I suspect that it also had to do with my hair color. Respect!

When I turned 40, I was called to serve as a counselor to the Dulles Branch President; this Branch was formed to help a large number of southeast Asian refugees who had arrived in Northern Virginia following the end of the Viet Nam War. Right away I noticed that I was treated very reverently by our Laotian brothers and sisters - they would bow deeply while making the 'wai', the hands-together formal bow of greeting. The deeper the bow, the greater the respect. I came to realize that their culture afforded great respect to older people - this was deeply ingrained from childhood. I remember feeling a bit awkward at being treated with a respect that I felt I had not earned. I still thought of myself as a kid.

At one point, we put on a Road Show with our Dulles youth. They were short of guys in the main part of the play, so Jared and I died our hair (my white hair, his golden hair) a deep black, in order to fit in. The box of hair-color said it would wash out with the next shower... but it didn't. For many weeks afterwards, people would pass me in the hallways in the immense US Geological Survey National Center, stop, turn around, and say "Jeff? Is that you?" Just changing the color of your hair can disorient people around you.

In 2000 I was the General Chair of the Symposium for the Application of Geophysics to Environmental & Engineering Problems. This was the annual international meeting of the Environmental & Engineering Geophysical Society (full disclosure: I was president of this society in 2002-2003), and is called "SAGEEP" because some international visitors can get authorization to travel to a "symposium", but not to a "meeting." Go figure.

As General Chair, I organized this complex nightmare: we took over the Hyatt Arlington hotel for a week, I arranged for the NASA Administrator to be our keynote speaker, and we had over 300 international participants who all seemed to need a letter to justify getting an American visa. I noticed that a number of non-USGS people who I had called to help me from among the DC Metro geophysical community would sometimes stare at me. One day, while driving one of them back to his office in downtown Washington, DC, the guy abruptly asked me how old I was?  I was 53 at the time. "Wow," he said, "You look like you are older than that, and you look like you are younger than that. You have the energy of a 20-yr-old, but you called Dan Goldin!"

The hair again. That, and probably my sugar addiction.

Now, in the United States, we have a culture that fairly worships youth - it was very disorienting to our younger Dulles Branch teenagers, recently transplanted from rural Laos. This cultural emphasis can be felt just about anywhere in the country, but it is strongest in New York City and Los Angeles, at least in my observation. The desperate effort to look youthful in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood can sometimes lead to bizarre creatures that could only be described as moms trying to out-dress each other in their daughters' clothes. Madonna recently complained bitterly that her hands looked OLD, and there was nothing she could do about them. This adulation clearly affects your ability to market yourself as an actor or an actress (Steven Spielberg recently had to quell rumors that Harrison Ford was going to be digitally "younged" in the next Indiana Jones film).

At one point not long ago I looked at a passport photo, and compared it to a passport photo taken when I was 40. Wooo... when did THAT happen?!?? Around this same time I saw a TV special of before-and-after examples of several individuals getting a face-lift. The surgery was filmed, and it frankly stunned me. Don't get me wrong, I have done minor surgery on myself a number of times. An infected ingrown toenail, acne cysts, and larvae multiplying in my feet in the jungle are strong motivations.

I was shocked at two things: the intrusive nature of a face-lift surgical procedure (the anesthetized patient was treated like a slab of beef), and the... wrong-ness of the face afterwards. You see, as we age. a lot more changes than just the tension of our facial skin. The juxtaposition of young and old in the same individual is strikingly artificial, and it doesn't take a Michael Jackson to convince most people that they shouldn't mess with the natural progression of things. The human eye is finely-attuned to the most subtle changes in a human face - that's why seeing a corpse is so shocking. It comes across as mixed signals... all wrong.

I rather enjoy being a grandpa, or as my father-in-law put it, "I'm the father of several aunts and an uncle."

The take-away here is that we will age, and there is nothing we can do about it that won't look at least a bit bizarre. If we didn't age, we wouldn't want to leave this planet. We would fear the Colored Door to the next level, and might choose to be stuck permanently in a do-loop. Instead, I think it's great to enjoy each season of our lives and accept the admiration and respect that our changing faces and hair mean we've earned. The fact that I get to play with my grandkids and I don't have to change diapers anymore is sort of like 'having your cake and eating it too'.

Life is good. There is an order to it. There is a reason for that order. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011


There is a passing mention of lightning in Pliny's description of the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompey by Vesuvius's eruption in 79 AD, but no one made much of it at the time, nor for the two ensuing millennia. 

Then the eruption of Surtsey in 1979 (a basalt-andesite volcano forming a new island off the coast of Iceland) had people present with cameras - and the spectacular lightning associated with the eruption was actually recorded, and evaluated in subsequent scientific papers.

When Mount St Helens erupted in May, 1980, the pilot flying closest to the Plinian column reaching up to the Stratosphere commented repeatedly about lightning bolts coming from the top of the eruption column and flashing down into the caldera. (Yes, that name came from Pliny the Younger's description of the demise of his father, Pliny the Elder, in the Mediterranean Sea off Herculaneum. These eruptions also entrain the surrounding air, which drew Pliny's ship into the coast; there are reports of 100 kph winds roaring towards MSH on May 18, 1980). 

Current models have suggested that the rapid rise of silica-loaded particles in effect drew (or separated, depending on your point of view) a net unbalanced charge entrained in the ash to considerable heights. When sufficient charge imbalance accumulated, it relieved itself by bolts of lightning to the highest topographic point below it... the still-considerable remains of the edifice of the volcano (which lost 400 meters of its original elevation in the eruption). 

There are scientists in the Alaska Volcano Observatory who now track lightning along the Aleutian chain as an early warning of an eruption on volcanoes that we can't yet afford to instrument.  It turns out that the noise threshold for a reasonably reliable call on an eruption is around a VEI level 3-4. That's for Volcano Explosivity Index, and the numbers are approximately logarithmic: the 1980 MSH eruption was a VEI 5, which is about 10 times greater energy released than a VEI 4 event. 

As an aside: Managua, Nicaragua, is not an old city. Instead, there have been at least three versions of the city just in historic times. In between each, stupendous subduction earthquakes leveled most of the pre-existing city, and huge blankets of volcanic tephra and ash buried what remained. The same holds, more or less, for Guatemala City, the capitol of Guatemala. While we can visit the Parthenon in Greece and the Forum in ancient Rome, we cannot view what ancient Central America might have looked like 2,000 years ago... 

...for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

2.555 Gy

That's an estimate given by W.W. Phelps for the age of the universe ("eternity"). Incidentally, "Gy" is the usual scientific shorthand for 1,000,000,000 years, because there is both a Short Scale and a Long Scale version of what a "billion" is. They differ, depending on the country you live in, by 1,000. 

In The Times & Seasons, 1835, Phelps wrote "...that eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system, (not this world) almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years..." 

A deeper probe suggests that Phelps came up with this number by multiplying
7,000 x 365 x 1,000 = 2,555,000,000. 

In The Times and Seasons, he specifically said this was the age of the universe ("not this world"). This number also includes Phelps' assumptions that we are nearly at the end of eternity, that a day for the Lord was a 1,000 years to man, and that Genesis supported a 7,000 year span of creation. The current best estimate for the age of the universe - the time since the Big Bang - is about 13.4 Gy. You can tie yourself up in knots over this half-order-of-magnitude difference, but on the scale of important things, this ranks well below the noise threshold 

This 2.555 Gy number is nevertheless interesting. In a remarkable coincidence, the Great Oxygenation Event of the Earth closely brackets this age. Depending on who writes about this, the GOE started at 2.7 Gy or 2.5 Gy, or 2.4 Gy. Before that time, the Earth's atmosphere was largely methane, SO2, CO2, and ammonia. The sky was not blue, and the Earth would have been unrecognizable to us as such. There are deposits of alluvial pyrite (FeS) sand found in Archean rocks in South Africa that predate the GOE; the grains are rounded, something that could never happen in the presence of oxygen (they would turn rapidly to iron oxides, including rust, in the rough-and-tumble erosion and deposition process). 

A talk given at one of the Union sessions at American Geophysical Union on December on 5 December 2011 fleshed out a lot of the chemistry necessary for oxygen to appear in the primordial Earth's atmosphere. First, a lot of hydrogen had to escape the atmosphere. This can happen when hydrogen-based molecules in the atmosphere decompose in the presence of U/V light - and in the absence of a protective ozone (O3) layer. Then, a lot of the freed-up oxygen would be needed to break down the remaining methane in the atmosphere. There is another big oxygen sink, however:  the rocks of the Earth's crust themselves had to be oxygenized. Only then (after the oxygen sinks were filled) would significant amounts of O2 get into the atmosphere, and a significant amount reach the upper Troposphere and form a protective shell of ozone. 

Somewhere in this evolving planetary atmosphere photosynthesis also began producing O2, but the atmospheric scientist at AGU discounted this as being a significant producer until after the Huronian Snowball Earth event

Today, modern photosynthesis in plants could produce the 21% oxygen in the modern atmosphere in just 2,000 years. During the Cretaceous, the ultimate dinosaur wonderland (or nightmare alley, depending on your point of view), the atmospheric oxygen ranged up to 35% - which would go a long way towards explaining 22-meter-long dinosaurs and meter-long insects in the fossil record from this time.

The Earth's age may be around 4.5 Gy, but as we presently understand it, it is closer to 2.555 Gy.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Among scientists in the US Geological Survey there are two expressions of note: "WAG," which stands for Wild A$$ Guess, and Guestimate.

These are the low-end members of a legitimate - even critical - aspect of science: estimation. You can't predict the future (at least, managers in the US Geological Survey can't), but you can sketch out some possible scenarios and begin planning for them. These include rough guesses of what the annual funding for the US Geological Survey might be. If it includes reduced funding - and senior managers are strongly encouraged to follow the political news for this reason - then you SURE better not plan on hiring new people. This is a form of political estimation that can save you and other people a lot of grief later on.

Estimation is absolutely critical for both advanced math and for all of applied science. With a geophysical instrument inside Mount St Helens crater - or with the $20 billion Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland - you can ALWAYS get "results", you can ALWAYS come up with numbers." The problem is that in complex systems, where there are a lot of things affecting the final results, the numbers can add up to something round and steaming.

The critical point of estimation is to set bounds on a reasonable result - a result that is consistent with the real world values already in hand. Example: the conductivity of water and the conductivity of dry rock are well known. If your geophysical box gives you numbers unlike any of these, if you get numbers outside a realistic range, those numbers may be round and steaming: crap.  You then must go back and check your equipment to see what might be wrong, what you must have overlooked when you set up the experiment. Technical review of any scientific manuscript will home in immediately on anything that is unrealistic, so you can save yourself embarrassment if you estimate ahead of time what may be reasonable to expect. Among other things, the preliminary estimate in science is also critical in designing the experiment in the first place. If you are looking for ants, don't build a science experiment to trap mastodons.

It used to be the case that "close" worked in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nukes. Not anymore. Close is usually better than perfect in the real workday, where your data are routinely fuzzy to begin with.

It also is very much the case that "perfect" is the enemy of "good." Scientists worrying about the third decimal place in accuracy on an important number (such as the Hubble Constant) could hold up publication for years - when the number had such approximations in it in the first place that the third decimal place was totally pointless. In other words, that third decimal place of accuracy was a waste of time.

Sanjoy Mahajan recently published a book "Numbersight" (Subtitle: "A street-fighting mathematician teaches how to make better decisions"). This book sings the praises of estimation. He also points out that to teach kids to do fast math in their heads, it is critical to first teach them how to estimate, and then teach them how to visualize results. If they had no idea what they could expect (for instance multiplying two three-digit numbers is NOT going to give you a four-digit result), then you couldn't be sure that your short-cut math was working in the first place.

Another aspect of estimation - very useful in teaching kids how to do math - is to visualize the result in terms of something that they can relate to. It therefor helps to visualize a football field as being "60 dads long" instead of 100 yards or 91.4 meters in length. In the 1960's physicists spent a lot of time deciding what kind of metric system to use (they had already concluded that all science must be metric to be universally understood, and only in the United States do children still learn distances in "feet" and weights in "pounds"). The argument went something like this: the SI (standard international) system uses meters and seconds and kilograms. The CGS system uses centimeters and grams and seconds. As an old Manhattan Project nuclear physicist gruffly put it, the SI system was appropriate for humans, and the CGS system was appropriate for grasshoppers.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Amateur Science

Well, that sounds kinda bad, doesn't it?  However, in my experience amateur science can be both good and bad.

There are certainly examples of both good and bad professional science out there. Examples of good science include the breakthroughs for AIDS drug cocktails that essentially lifted the automatic death sentence from AIDS sufferers - at least in the United States. At least if you have health care insurance. As I write this there appears to be a breakthrough on the horizon for a malaria vaccine; malaria kills millions, mainly children, every year.

One example of bad professional science is the scientist who fudges data - or worse, makes up data - in order to get the publications needed to get ahead. The competition is incredibly fierce to go from student to PhD, to post-doc, to term-appointment scientist, to career scientist in a public agency or university. Sadly, there have been a number of examples of (generally younger) scientists who under this pressure have cheated on their research. When discovered - and all successful science is subject to repeat verification testing - it generally means the end to someone's aspiring career. The science journal that had to retract the flawed paper will not be interested in dealing with that individual again. Would YOU trust someone to do research on a drug you needed if you found out that the person had been dishonest?

Let's consider now an example of bad amateur science:
I received an Ask-a-Geologist query that wasn't a query, but instead a statement that the Great Comet of 1811 had caused the 1812 New Madrid Earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley. The writer ignored the time-gap, and also ignored readily-available astronomical information out there that the Great Comet of 1811 had never come within 100,000,000 miles of Earth. Instead he gave several reasons why he was sure that the features on his property proved this causal link - and then said a USGS geologist had agreed with him. He pointed me at a web-site that he claimed had all the data... his personal website.

Aside: All US Government employees must take IT security training at least once a year - due to the ferocious hacking attempts that happen from 8am to 5pm Mainland China time. One of the Big Red Flags we are told to avoid is social engineering like this - an attempt to steer us to do something we normally wouldn't do. Do NOT Open a Link - unless you are looking for it yourself.

A quick check with the USGS geologist (whom he named) proved that he had in fact lied to me. This kind-hearted lady told me she was giving a free public lecture on earthquakes, and had stood still long enough to politely listen to him. She said she had emphatically NOT agreed with his half-baked idea.

I use that expression deliberately: the individual had not done his homework on several fronts. He had not researched the astronomical information that I found within seconds on the internet. He had no idea what an abandoned stream meander was, something basic in a first-year geology class, or even simpler, available in the first third of a basic geology textbook. Instead, he painted the feature on his land as a comet impact structure. Still avoiding the website that he seemed anxious for me to click on (he kept including copies of the link throughout his message, along with oblique references to curiosity come-ons like "fossilized human remains"), I read his text again. To even a casual observer it was apparent that he was cherry-picking only information that supported his idea. He chose to ignore explanations and additional data that the USGS geologist had offered him - they weren't convenient.

Cherry-picking only the data that supports your hypothesis is fundamentally dishonest. Lying about what someone said to you is fundamentally dishonest. Dishonesty is fundamentally the polar opposite of good science. 

Consider now an example of good amateur science:
This took place during the third of the three Zahid expeditions to map the Wabar impact site in the middle of the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. We were a group of about 23 individuals including several PhD scientists interested in mapping and studying a very recent asteroid impact. The party also included a cook, several automotive engineers, a front-end loader specialist, even a senior manager of sales for Zahid Tractor company, which marketed the AM General Hummers we were using, and had funded this expedition.

Without exception, every person was interested in the expedition's objectives. They had to: the temperatures reached 132 F during the day and never dropped below 100 F during the sandstorm-dusted nights. The the breakfast menu each morning was invariably "Grit Eggs", "Dust Toast", and "Sand Meal", while lunch each day was invariably "Sand-wich" or "Sand-burger." Why else subject yourself to such conditions unless you were somehow interested in the research effort?

Whenever we had breakfast, whenever we stopped for lunch, whenever we relaxed around dinner (when a sandstorm was not flattening our cook-tent), people would all ask questions. As we would gather detailed geologic mapping data (Gene Shoemaker), close-spaced magnetic data (me), or ground-penetrating radar imagery (one of the Saudi university professors), we would discuss it. Everyone would listen, and early on the front-end loader driver tentatively offered a suggestion for why not check for structures under the crater impact crater rims. Gene and I both got excited: yes! That's a great idea - let's do that this afternoon when the heat drops below 110 F. That opened the dam-gates, and everyone started to offer ideas and suggestions. Some would fit with what we already knew, some were inconsistent, and some we thought should be chased down by one team or another. Everyone was a participant, everyone was a contributor to the research effort.

This was an excellent example of participative science - the final results were much greater than if just the professional scientists had been operating in isolation. Here's the thing: most people are interested in what surrounds them in the world - most people and almost all children are curious, natural scientists. And most people, if they are not upbraided but instead encouraged, can become natural scientists participating in a greater research effort. A PhD is NOT required to be a scientist. If you ever visit a university, you will find that there are professors - and there are non-professors. There are people who run the laboratories who are not professors and may or may not even have college degrees - but the research would shut down without their quiet, tedious work and contributions.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

A Second example of good amateur science: A group of researchers created an online game called FoldIt to simulate protein folding, and used teams of online gamers to help solve the structure of an enzyme.  This was aimed at a problem that had vexed researchers for decades. It was finally put out to the world in the form of a game-challenge, asking for help. Gamers took on the challenge and solved the problem in a mere three weeks.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

Another example:
Researchers trying to process vast amounts of radio-telescope data in the SETI project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) realized they did not have the computing power to deal with the data properly. It would require billions of dollars to pay for it. Someone suggested the idea of distributed computing: put it out as an elegant screen-saver. Millions of personal computers that would otherwise stand idle for hours on end could then automatically download a packet of data, process it, and then upload the results to a central server at Berkeley. Anyone with a personal computer can do this. You can do this while you are asleep.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

I can go on and on with examples: people participating in the Christmas Bird Count, people volunteering to check ponds for frog eggs, etc. These, unfortunately, you cannot do in pajamas in front of a personal computer.

Here's the take-away, in three parts:
1. Anyone can participate in science. You don't need a PhD.
2. However, you must accept the fact that good science requires you do your homework, and
3. You MUST be determinedly honest about every facet of it.

You - virtually anyone - can contribute to the advancement of science, helping others and gaining great personal satisfaction in the process.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

German anecdotes - and a marriage due to penmanship

A friend on a Fulbright Fellowship in France asked me if I had heard about the Malmedy Massacre.  Yes, I had, I said - I had described (with a map) a little bit here:

As the Battle of the Bulge unfolded quickly in late December 1944 in the Ardennes Forest region of Belgium, the German Army captured quite a number of American soldiers, including my Uncle James. Eighty-four surrendered American soldiers were murdered nearby at Malmedy, somehow missing Uncle James.  The massacre was perpetrated by Lt. Col. Joachim Pieper's infamous Waffen SS troops, the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. Including Malmedy, Kampfegruppe Pieper murdered more than 500 POWs and civilians at more than ten different locations in Belgium. Pieper was sentenced to death for this in 1946, but the sentence was commuted. After he got out of prison in 1956, he emigrated to Italy to work as a manager in a Porsche factory, but was forced to leave amid accusations of atrocities that his Kampfgruppe Pieper had committed in Italy. In 1976 Pieper was shot during a fire-fight at his home in France, and his house set afire by unknown assailants.

You can find Malmedy on the map vis-a-vis the Battle of the Bulge frontlines at the web-page I built for my Uncle (link above).  It appears possible that the officers and noncoms who abandoned him and his platoon of privates - basically as a sacrificial rear-guard – may have been killed at Malmedy and paid for their sins, but I have no way of knowing for sure.

Follow the link above and you can scroll down to see the maps. Uncle James’ 1944 Christmas dinner - his first meal in 6 days after being captured - was a 50-gallon bucket of sauerkraut and pork fat shared with about 500 American POWs. This was the same kind of food he had grown up with – and that I grew up with, as we were both raised by the same great lady, Anna Josephine Schneider Wynn, his mother and my grandmother. I called Uncle James on Veteran's day and talked with him; he's a remarkably gentle-souled, forgiving, and ethical individual considering what was done to him. He was born in 1926, drafted in January 1944 despite being married.  The criteria then was you were deferred if you had a child already born, but imminently draftable if you were just newly married... this same thing happened to one of Louise's uncles, who sadly didn't survive an incompetent American doctor while on the European front.

During an extended series of interviews, it became clear that my Uncle James' entire experience in the US Army consisted of being treated like crap - worse than a slave. The only difference after he was captured was that he was also starved, and forced to bury gruesome war remains. He went from 180 lbs to 95 lbs in about 6 months - Red Cross rations sent for the prisoners were confiscated by their German jailers and sold on the black market. The photo you will see at the top of the webpage shows him clean-shaven... but he had not shaved in six months.  Neither hair nor fingernails grew during that time, they were starved so completely. After he got back, the Army refused to acknowledge that he had ever even BEEN in the Army until he could provide Red Cross letters and his American and German-POW dog-tags. He was still awarded a Bronze Star 57 years after the fact.


Another German anecdote: I was trying to trace my Grandmother's ancestry; she had been born in Neu-Ulm, Bavaria, in 1885 and emigrated with her family when she was 9 months old to Louisville, KY. I sent a letter to the Neu-Ulm clerk-record-keeper, who sent a letter back saying all records had been destroyed by "war events."

Then out of the blue a letter came to me from a lady I had never heard of, the widow of a great-uncle and brother of my grandmother. This widow was living in a rest-home in Compton, CA, and said in the letter she had heard I had interest in the German part of the family. 

In the letter she enclosed an original birth certificate for this great uncle - already dark brown with acid damage from the poor manufacture of the paper. However, it had a recognizable official stamp on it. At the time there was a German post-doc in our high-pressure physics lab at the University of Illinois. Helmuth Moller got very interested in this goal of mine, but said that there were a number of towns called "Goggingen" in Germany, and asked me to send a Xerox copy of the certificate to him after he returned to Frankfurt. I did, and he got back to me saying the stamp was from Goggingen-Augsburg, and provided an address for the equivalent of city hall. I sent a letter there asking for information, and didn't get anything back for 6 months.

Then a package nearly a centimeter thick arrived, with birth, marriage, and death certificates extending my family lines all the way back to a Donat Stegmann in the 1790's. It turns out that the recipient of the letter had spent hours researching, tracked one line to Hiltenfingen, and forwarded my letter there. The package I received included results from both sides of my Grandmother's genealogical line. I was absolutely amazed.  


My German language skills are rudimentary – they consist of one summer-school session while in physics grad school at the University of Illinois. My grandmother (who raised me after my Dad abandoned my Mom) never taught either my Dad nor me any German, though that was all she spoke until she was 7 years old and entered elementary school in Louisville. Her maiden name was Schneider (Tailor). My grandfather, George A. Wynn, Sr., worked in a railroad shipping office in Somerset, on the opposite side of Kentucky. He saw her handwriting on a number of packages and was enthralled by it. He traveled all the way up to Louisville to meet the 17-yr-old lady who wrote like that. He courted her and they were married.

True stories.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Not even close: 6 vs. 1,657,100,000,000

Genesis 1 lays out in a poetic manner a six-day sequence for the creation of the Earth. It's very simple, something I imagine an unschooled shepherd could easily deal with. 

19th Century geologists in Europe (especially England - the British Geologists Association formed in 1858) had watched as sediments accumulated in basins and puddles. They realized that they could rather easily calculate the rate of sediment accumulation. They also had seen and mapped huge stacks of similar, consolidated sediments in many places - and had even begun to correlate some distinctive bedding sequences in one place with bedding sequences a long ways away. This permitted British geologists, blessed with pretty much the fullrange of geologic ages on one small island, to figure out which layer sat on top of another layer, which must be older, and that units below these were older still.  By the turn of the 20th Century, even conservative geologists looking at their numbers had concluded that the Earth had to be many millions of years old. 

Geologists could also see another kind of time-line: progressively more sophisticated fossils, remains of ancient life forms not currently found walking or swimming the Earth, as the sediments got younger - more towards the "top" or modern day of the stratigraphic stack. A curator at the BYU Geology Museum once walked me through a series of dinosaur vertebrae, showing me how with time the vertebrae became lighter but at the same time structurally stronger. This meant they could run faster. Evolution.

Then Pierre and MarieCurieBecquerel, and others discovered radioactive decay. They could measure a decay rate for a given amount of a particular element, and they could see the daughter products forming as a result of that decay. It's an easy step to measure the ratio of radioisotope to its daughter products (uranium-lead, for example, and of course there are intermediate steps) and so you should be able to figure how long that particular crystal (a zircon, for example, containing uranium and lead) has been sitting there since it solidified out of a magma somewhere.  

WhoaGeochronologists started coming up with HUGE numbers. As more and more rock units were sampled and dated, the push-back for an oldest rock - homing in on an origin of the Earth - passed into the hundreds of millions of years, and then billions of years. 

Radiometric dating currently suggests that the age of the Earth is 4.54 +/- 0.01 years. 

Times 365 days per year, this is 1,657,100,000,000 days, at least, that this rock has been orbiting what is now our Sun.  This number is not really comprehensible to people who count on their fingers. "...7, 8, 9, 10!" Can you count higher than that? "Sure, (raises both hands overhead) "1, 2, 3, 4...".

However, as you consider the actual processes involved, as we understand them from geology and astronomy, it certainly can't be this precise. There was a protoplanetary disk, gravitational clustering, segregation, a crust formed, modified repeatedly by continued heavy early bombardment, and then later in the game there was an impact of another protoplanet that led to the formation of the Moon. So it's unrealistic to place such a precise three-decimal-point age as a "start" - better to point at the oldest piece of unmelted material ever found. The current record-holder comes from the Jack Hills of Western Australia, at 4.4 By.  If you compare the mass and luminosity of the Sun to other stars, and age-date meteorites, it is apparent that the Solar System can't be much older than that

Certainly there are complications with radiometric dating; the Carbon-14 creation rate in the atmosphere varies over time depending on cosmic ray flux, for instance. You can calibrate for this using tree-rings, however. Radiometric dating also must necessarily make some assumptions, among them that the decaying radioisotope and its daughter products remain together for the entire time that the age is calculated for (no remelting), and also that the decay rate today is the same now as it was when the original material solidified out of a melt. It's more complicated than that, even, but at this point we're only quibbling about small plus-and-minus stuff.

Science writing being as persistent as it is, rather few people take the Six Days of Genesis as literal truth these days. Genesis IS, after all, a translation of a translation, and the original writer had rather little experience with orbital mechanics, conservation of angular momentum, and the weak nuclear force. This is to say, he had a limited vocabulary to work with. 
In this context, I found some interesting things in the writings of Latter-Day Saint apostles who were also scholars: 

John A. Widtsoe wrote about the "vast periods of time" required for each class of animal to rise, dominate the Earth, and then become extinct. (Joseph Smith as Scientist, manual distributed by the General Board of the YMMIA, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1908).

Here's something even more specific, unlike anything I've seen in any other church doxology: "What is a day? It is a specified time period; it is an age, an eon, a division of eternity; it is the time between two identifiable events. And each day, of whatever length, has the duration needed for its purposes." --Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Church Apostle, during General Conference, 1982. 

I also was pointed at an interesting quote from the (atheist) astronomer Carl Sagan:

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater  than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, No, No! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." - Carl Sagan, "Pale Blue Dot:A Vision of the Human Future in Space" (1994).
I think that religion has emerged, actually. 

But let's put this all in perspective. Can you count to a million? Neither can I, so the difference between a million years and a billion years seems somewhat irrelevant - unless you are a geochronologist. I once poured over $250,000 into instrumentation for a rock-dating laboratory - because it was important to know how long ago a volcanic eruption had taken place, in order to get a sense of how dangerous that particular volcano was. That can be important, right? Especially if you live in, say Seattle, or Tokyo... or anywhere in the Mediterranean or Pacific Rim.

But consider this: allow for a minute the possibility that there is life after life. I have agnostic friends, even atheist friends, who go back and forth on this one. I myself have a number of strong experiential reasons for no longer questioning this. If you are an atheist, then the Age of the Earth doesn't matter. If you are faith-based, then... it doesn't really matter either. It's sort of like Pascal's Wager

When we die and make that transition, cross the Veil, I think there may be some questions asked of us. Like: Where is your family? What did you do to help others? 

Somehow I don't think that Someone is going to ask me "While you were in your mortal state, what was your opinion about the age of the Earth?"


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Brother Remy

The previous post reminded me of another incident, this time from the 8th Grade at Garces Junior High in Bakersfield, California. I it with Louise, and she said it had to go here.

I must first share with you the fact that the Garces school colors were... green. Just green. Our boys uniforms were salt-and-pepper corduroy pants and white shirts, but the girls had green plaid skirts and wore green sweaters over white blouses. As part of this exercise in mindless loyalty, we were all issued little ink pots that fit into a well at the top of our desks. The teacher would fill these periodically from a big bottle of green ink, and all of us were expected to bring pull-the-lever-and-squeeze-to-fill fountain pens. All homework had to be done in green ink or it was down-graded: an A became a B, a B became a C, etc. As you might expect, there was green ink on our fingers, and sometimes our white uniform shirts, all the time.

Our teacher that year was a tall, thin, austere man named Brother Remy. He never smiled.

"You mean Remigious, don't you?" I asked brightly and cleverly when he first introduced himself.

He turned slowly toward me.

"It's Brother Remy to you," he replied slowly, with a dark look on his face. No other explanation was forthcoming, and his countenance made clear that a follow-up question would be asking for trouble. Not very bright, not even remotely clever.

One day several of us asked if we could skip the stupid run-around-kill-the-man-with-the-ball lunchtime activity, and just stay in the classroom to study? He looked at us suspiciously, but agreed. He turned out the lights so we only had sunlight through the windows, and locked the classroom door behind him as he departed at noon for the monks' residence.

Of course there was rather little studying going on after he left. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. We froze, but it was only George. George had failed several years of classes by this point in time, so he was quite a bit older than any of us, and in fact had a noticeable 5 o'clock shadow rather early in the day. What George was missing in gray matter he made up for with enormous physical strength and ferocity. If you made him mad, George would get even. It might take awhile, since most of us could outrun him despite his tendency to bolt suddenly, but he would eventually catch one of  us. He would then crush your hand with his incredible grip, or pound you in the side of the head til your ears rang.

"Let me in!" said George.

"Not anytime soon," said Neville, one of the other guys in the room with me, and flipped him a bird.

"I'll GET you!" snarled George.

"Not anytime soon," repeated Neville with a sneer.

Now I've already hinted that George wasn't the brightest bulb in the room - he was from the "other" of the two classes that had been divided by IQ testing the previous year. He glared at us for a long time through the window filling the upper half of the classroom door. Then he looked to his right, looked back and past Neville, then allowed an evil grin to slowly form on his face - and bolted to the right.

Neville was on the other side of the room in a flash. It had slant-open windows, and one was open. Suddenly George's triumphant face appeared through that window.

"Ah-HAH!" George exulted.

"Ah-HAH," said Neville, and with a "spoosh" he emptied one of the green ink-pots on George's upturned face. As George jerked back, Neville slammed the window shut - right into George's nose. George glared murderously, flexing claw-like fingers like a cartoon character, then bolted away.

At that moment, we heard the door lock click, and in walked Brother Remy. By the time he entered and could clearly see us in the gloom, we were all buried in our books. He peered at us for a long moment with an inscrutable look, but didn't say anything. After a moment he turned, and opened the door and...

"Ah-HAH!" shouted George, complete with hands raised to claws, a green-splotched face, and a maniacal grin as he leaped into the doorway.

As Brother Remy stared at this apparition, it finally registered on George that this wasn't Neville.

"Oh $#!*!" said George, a look of horror coming over his face, and he bolted out of sight to the right.

Brother Remy just stood there, staring straight ahead for a long moment.

Then he slowly turned and looked at us. Our heads were buried in our books, as if nothing had happened.

He said not a word, but I swear that I saw a twitch of a suppressed smile on his face as he turned and left, locking the door behind him before he strode away.

I think I actually fell out of my chair onto the floor at that point, I was laughing so hard.

It took awhile, but George eventually laid hands on Neville and pounded him something fierce. The rest of us - maybe Neville too - thought it was worth it.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Christian Brothers

All right, you asked for it. Here are two stories from my time at Garces Junior High School.

After I "graduated" from St Josephs elementary school, the next two years were spent at Garces, in north Bakersfield. At this time the girls were rigidly separated from the boys; though on the same property, the nuns and the girls they taught were rarely visible to us, almost like they didn't exist. The boys used the huge, expansive lawns to play Kill the Man with the Ball before school and during recess and lunch. I have no idea where this game came from - it was something like home-grown Rugby, where the objective was to pile on the guy who had picked up and started running with the ball, and there were no goals or teams or objectives beyond that. In addition, the boys had exclusive access to the football and baseball fields.

At induction into Garces, we were given what I later learned was an IQ test, and separated and seated according to the results. I ended up in the class of about 40 boys taught by Brother Gerald. He was one of about 8 members of a Catholic monk order called the Christian Brothers. The same people who make the wine also taught Junior High. They had no interest in the priesthood, or perhaps didn't qualify for some reason - they would never answer our questions about this directly. They wore cassocks - long shirts reaching to the ankles - like a priest, but did not have the white-notched Roman Collar.

Sometime in that first year, Brother Gerald came into the classroom one morning lugging a huge TV. He set it on his desk, fiddled with the rabbit-ears antenna, and we spent most of the next week watching the Baseball World Series. I still recall that it was the Dodgers vs. the Braves. Why he did this was transparent: he avidly followed each game, and displayed the most emotion (which is to say very little) that we ever saw in him. I have no idea where permission to just ditch a week's worth of Latin, grammar, and math classes came from, but we certainly didn't complain. This was the first time in my life that I ever recall seeing a sport actually played - there was only a rudimentary PE class intermittently taught at St Josephs elementary by the Mexican bus driver, Jesse, when he didn't have other day-work.

Brother Gerald was a large man - probably over 225 lbs( 110 kg) at that time. He towered over us, and the total lack of emotion that he evinced made us all a bit nervous in his presence. I suppose each teacher has different ways of commanding attention and respect.

One day Brother Gerald was lecturing about how to decline Latin verbs. Amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. I love, you (singular) love, he loves, we love, you (plural) love, they love. I recall my friend Marcus Espitia lifted the lid of his modular desk as if to reach for a book, but really to hide what he was doing. He was shooting spit-wads at the guy in the desk to his left. Marcus was near the bottom of the academic ranking for that 6-week period, so his desk was about mid-way down the row on the extreme right side of the classroom. Brother Gerald was pacing back and forth in the front of the room, lecturing in his emotionless, sonorous voice. Unseen by Espitia, he moved from his back-and-forth pacing down the aisle between the two boys.

Suddenly, his heavy hand came down on the wooden lid of Espitia's desk-top, catching his head like a clam snapping its shell shut. I remember Espitia's hands and legs flailing all over the place while his head and neck were trapped under Brother Gerald's full weight. He held the lid hard down on Espitia's head for a full 20 seconds.

Still lecturing without any interruption, Brother Gerald then lifted the lid with his left hand and with his right hand gave Espitia's just-released head a ferocious upper-cut, open-handed slap. The force was such that it lifted Espitia physically out of his chair and threw his entire body against the far right wall. I remember it seemed like he hung there for a moment, before he slid down to the floor.

STILL without breaking the train of his lecture, Brother Gerald began pulling books from Espitia's desk and throwing them at his head as hard as he could. We could hear him grunt from the effort as he continued the lecture. It was terrifying and surreal. After being hit in the face and head several times with hard-edged books, Espitia bolted for the door, fortuitously at the right front of the room. Flying books followed him the entire way, not one ever missing. Baseball player, I thought. We must have each had at least 10 books in our desks, and Espitia caught every one with his head or back.

Having with this effort turned himself towards the front of the classroom as his right arm followed Espitia to the door, Brother Gerald paced slowly back to the front and continued his back-and-forth pacing. There was no expression of emotion, nor any break in the lecture on Latin during this entire episode. We all sat frozen in place, eyes fixed on Brother Gerald.

When the lunch bell rang, Brother Gerald retreated, as was his custom, to the Christian Brothers residential building on the west side of the Garces campus. Espitia found us out on the lawn and asked if it was OK to go back into class after lunch? None of us had any idea. We each thought to ourselves: There but for the Grace of God go I. Each of us was just glad we weren't the poor sucker who had been nailed.

When lunch was over Espitia nervously filed in with the rest of us and took his seat. People in the row in front of him shoved and slid his books down the far aisle floor to him, and he picked them up and put them back in his desk. Brother Gerald began the afternoon lessons as if nothing had happened, starting us on doing English grammar diagrams using sentences: where is the predicate? Where is the nominative? Where do they go in this diagram? Where do you place the adjective, and where do you place the adverb?  He treated Espitia with the aloof, distant and calm disdain that he afforded all of us.

However, he had our full and undivided attention.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Sisters of Mercy

This is a true story from the 5th grade at St. Josephs elementary school in Bakersfield, California, many long years ago:

The nuns who taught us were the Order of the Sisters of Mercy. Each had a binary hermaphroditic name like Sister Mary Sylvester, Sister Mary Nicholas, Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Mary Anthony. Don't ask me why.

There was one student in my class named Steve Kelvey. He was bigger than most, and a real bully to a much smaller friend of mine named John Killeen. One day I arrived at school on my bike and showed Killeen some monster thorns in my bar-bags, from a date-palm tree I had passed on the way home the previous evening. These were easily two hand-spans long. They were green, but the last several centimeters were black and evil-looking.

"Can I borrow one?" asked Killeen.

Sure. What for?

"Watch!" said Killeen with an insane-looking smile. So I followed him across the school yard, where girls were talking, and boys were swinging from the monkey-bars or shooting marbles in the dirt, as we waited for the nuns to open the building so we could all file in. No, they definitely didn't trust us to go in on our own and behave until they finished their morning ablutions, or whatever it was that they did before school began.

Kelvey was leaning on the chain-link fence, talking to Elena Bonaventura, the sweet, chubby daughter of the wealthiest family in the parish. A chauffeur had just driven her to the school, and she was stepping out onto the sidewalk as Kelvey made smiley-face at her.

Killeen quite literally pranced up to him from behind, and with a deranged smile rammed the date-palm thorn several inches into Kelvey's glute.

With a loud bellow and several very bad words, Kelvey went up and forward, and hung himself on the chain-link fence. When he could free himself, and had yanked the thorn out, he set off after Killeen.

I remember being stunned at the courage - or insanity - that this act required.

Perhaps this was actually thought out ahead of time, but I doubt it: Kelvey would normally be able to outrun the shorter Killeen and beat him to a pulp - he had often done this for far less reason - but because of the deep puncture I suppose he couldn't catch Killeen after two complete circles of the city block that the red-brick, two-story school building sat on. Around and around they went, and I noticed that Killeen was cackling in a weird way, the whole way. Kelvey said nothing, but pursued him furiously.

The bell went off and Killeen darted into the school with marvelous timing, hoping, I suppose, that Kelvey couldn't do anything under the eye of the murderous nuns.

(ASIDE: Oh yes, we truly feared them. I have personally been slapped and beaten with a ruler more times than I could count - and the nuns were all so much bigger than we were. They could and did frequently knock us down. The habits that the Sisters of Mercy wore included all-black robes, with a white wimple and a black veil over that. Around their waists were (a) a 5-cm-wide black leather belt that ran through a large black metal ring and down to the ankles, and (b) a black rosary with huge beads that ran around the waist and all the way down to a black metal cross, also at ankle-level. We have all been whipped with one or both. The nuns who taught my cousins in LA were from a different order called the "Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary". They would sign letters to parents with "Sister so-and-so, B.V.M." My cousins assured me that this really stood for "Black Veiled Monsters").

Despite this huge danger, Kelvey kept trying to work his way around the 5th grade classroom to get at Killeen, as Sister Mary Nicholas flowed into the room. "Flowed" is really the most accurate word I could use to describe her dramatic entries. Sister Mary Nicholas was a prim Boston lady of Irish descent, the school Principal, and she had a strong sense of dignity, and I now realize, command theatrics. She swept into the room with eyes alert, books in one hand and a ruler in another. Believe me, I never once saw a nun use a ruler to measure the length of anything.

"What is going on here?" demanded Sister Mary Nicholas.

Never being shy to open my mouth, I yelled "Killeen stabbed Kelvey in the butt with a huge thorn!"

Taken aback momentarily, Sister Mary Nicholas (to this day I must reflexively say the entire name. I can never abbreviate it. This has been beaten into me down to the genetic level.) paused, and somehow forgot that HUGELY BAD WORD I HAD USED.

"Steven, is this true?" she asked Kelvey.

"He stabbed me in the butt and I'm gonna kill him!" snarled Kelvey.

The second use of that HUGELY BAD WORD definitely got Sister Mary Nicholas' attention this time.

"Steven! Come into my office right this minute! This wound must be treated with merthiolate immediately!"

Momentarily forgetting where he was, Kelvey yelled "No damn nun is gonna doctor up MY ass!"

I had never heard that word used in the remote vicinity of a nun before. Holy Mother of God, I thought (as the nuns frequently would say).

To put things in perspective, Sister Mary Nicholas's Principals Office was a dreaded place for all of us. It was close nearby, it was small, and it was where vicious corporal punishment was always administered - at least to boys. And small was especially bad: you couldn't dodge the blows because you would be immediately cornered, and then really beaten for not standing up and taking it.

Sister Mary Nicholas shrieked at that point, a truly terrifying sound, and that brought the rest of the hornets. I have to say, this shrieking noise was always truly terrifying to us students - it seemed to say that the jailers had gone off the edge, gone berserk. It was certainly more effective than the loud school bell for drawing all the rest of the nuns on the ground floor. In nothing flat, Kelvey was muscled by four huge women into the Principal's Office.

In the classroom, we all sat frozen, enthralled and terrified at the same time, as the yelling and shrieking continued from the other room. Then: silence. Long moments of silence. Our silly grins quickly disappeared as Sister Mary Nicholas, eyes flashing, flowed back into the classroom, followed by a sullen and red-faced Kelvey, still buckling his belt. He was followed by two other nuns (one of them, Sister Mary Anthony, always wore dark aviator glasses so you couldn't see where she was looking. She was especially intimidating). The other two nuns followed Kelvey to his desk, and stood on both sides of him for several minutes as Sister Mary Nicholas glared at him, then glared around the room at no one in particular, then glared at Kelvey again. It seemed like this tableau continued for a long time, but it was probably only 15 seconds.

Killeen and I both slowly started to un-hunch our shoulders as it became apparent that our individual offenses had been forgotten in the (literally unspeakable) event.

I have no idea what transpired in class the rest of that school day, but I do remember that Killeen asked if he could stay in the classroom during lunch time, and with a long and pregnant glare first, Sister Mary Nicholas granted that request with a curt nod.

Killeen was a hero in St. Josephs from that day forth. He had stood up to the bully, and very strategically had won. I always admire people who finally screw up their courage and confront a bully.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Noan gwine uherstah

Louise and I were in Gammarth, Tripoli, after escaping Saudi Arabia after a harrowing (but utterly fascinating) four-year-long residence in Jeddah. The reason? Something there was destroying Louise's health, but the excuse was that I had been ordered to stop practicing my religion. The long version of that story is here.

We spent a week on the southern shore of the Mediterranean... which was beautiful to look upon, but when we swam briefly in it we realized was quite polluted. There are very few seafood restaurants lining this sea, and if you want fish in a regular restaurant, you must request it days ahead.

We took long walks along the beach, and at one point saw four men throwing a football around. An American football? In Gammarth? One of them homed in on my belt buckle, something normally worn by US Marines as part of their non-dress uniform. We learned that they were Marine guards at the Tunisian US Embassy in nearby Tripoli - and they invited us to a party in their compound the next day. We took them up on it, and they made us feel very welcome, indeed: Americans tend to bond while living in foreign countries.  They even taught us what Armchair Quarterbacking is: you sit in a ratty, old, over-stuffed, discarded arm-chair in the backyard of their compound, and throw a football through a tire-on-a-rope swinging (and spinning) from a tree. Like the ancient Olympics, the winner earned only the respect of his peers.

The day after that we took a tour of ancient Carthage. We were shown the ancient city with multi-story houses that seemed like modern condos... and where running water and a managed sewer system predated anything like this anywhere else in the world. We were also shown a sewer where archaeologists had excavated several hundred infant skeletons... human sacrifices. This was one of several reasons why the Romans detested the Carthaginians, and eventually destroyed the greatest ocean-commerce civilization in the Mediterranean Sea during the Punic Wars about 2,250 years ago...

Louise and I were in a minivan with several other tourist couples. At one point we started talking privately (we thought) about our various kids scattered all over several continents. I noticed that the couple behind and to our right had stopped talking and were listening. We switched from English to Spanish, and then noticed that a couple in front of us stopped talking and tilted their heads in listening mode. Um. We tried French, and noticed that yet another couple stopped talking... then we even tried our rudimentary Arabic. I noticed that the driver looked up at us in the rear-view mirror. I was amazed.

I sat for a moment, then recalled a friend from the hills of western North Carolina, and how hard it had been for me to understand him years earlier.

"Mon. We gonna try wesrn nor C'lina, K? Noan gwine uherstah' a thang we'un palaverin'. Foo on theysefs, silly snoops."

The effect was satisfying, as people all around the minivan looked quizically at each other. In several languages I heard the muttered equivalent of "What the heck are they speaking, anyway?"

If you were born and raised in the United States, and especially if you ever knew someone from Appalachia, I won't need to explain what that sentence - of course spoken very fast - really means.

A week or so later when we landed at Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. I knelt down on the asphalt and kissed the good ol' U-S of A, whar ah come from.

I love being an American.


Monday, November 7, 2011

A Farewell to Arms

A book recently published by Steven Pinker, called The Better Angels of Our Nature, makes an interesting claim:

Violence has declined through history and still is dropping today.

Wait a minute. What about the First World War? The Second World War? The deaths of 20,000,000 people during Stalin's purges in the 1930's in between? The Crack epidemic of the 1980's? Two million people in American jails? What about 9/11? The Iraq and Afghanistan and Libyan Wars?

In fact, this is how proximity weight-loads the history that WE remember. It is dramatically amplified by the rise of the 24-hour news cycle since the advent of CNN. This is called a "bias towards recency." A careful statistical and historical analysis makes a compelling case that in fact violence has declined throughout history.

Put another way: the actual likelihood of being assaulted or killed has been falling for centuries.

How could this possibly be?  

Pinker's book moves through the historical record first (Hey! Ever hear of the Hundred Years War? This represents a century of continual European warfare, famine, and death). It then addresses the intellectual revolutions of the last several centuries, and even delves into modern studies on the human mind and human behavior. Pinker's lasting achievement is that his intellectual quest really knew no bounds: he covers the gamut from psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, history, and social science.

He didn't operate in a vacuum, however. Pinker homes in on, and give full credit to, a particular inspiration. He calls Norbert Elias, a German-born scholar who wrote during Hitler's 1930's, "the most important thinker you have never heard of."

Elias proposed that the growth of the nation-state all over the world in the past several millennia has had profound effects (described in Thomas Hobbes, 1651 book Leviathan) on stabilizing human behavior. It created physical boundaries, it established bahavioral norms with consequences. The consequences were profound, too: outlaw behavior drew out the posse - stirred up the hornet's nest - and sociopaths were removed from the gene pool. In the United States, we incarcerate more than 2,000,000 people, mostly men, but in past centuries there weren't resources to hold people in jail. Beheading, hanging, and feathering with arrows accomplished the same goal much less expensively. With time, violent tendencies have been steadily filtered out of the human race, and all of this stemmed from the establishment of nation-states.

The other thing that Elias and Pinker noted was the rise of commerce. Mutual gains from trade created a common purpose, and raised most of humanity above the tribal state. The xenophobia common throughout the world earlier became progressively more untenable - xenophobia interfered with the common gain, and has been increasingly less tolerated by the majority of humanity.

There has also been a "rights revolution" in the past century: women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, animal rights... with the accompanying increase in sensitivity that goes with these. There is also a somewhat more controversial idea: that there has been a rise in human reasoning ability. However, it's hard to separate this from evolving culture. Pinker also tends to dismiss income inequality. However, numerous studies have shown that income inequality correlates closely with homicide rates in country after country, and areas within countries. If you wish to see low rates of violence (the anomalous Breivik massacre last summer notwithstanding) go to Norway. Norway has an income disparity range far smaller than the United States or even many other countries in Europe - and is one of the most peaceful nations on the planet.

Something neither Elias nor Pinker noted was an additional factor that I have noticed: the establishment of sports as a normative social activity. Sports in aggregate constitute a legally-sanctioned opportunity to compete with others without loss of life or limb (Rugby or Hockey or Lacrosse notwithstanding). Sports are a way to release pent-up energy and frustration; they are also a means for organizing small armies and using strategies to win... and gain fame and riches at the same time.

I may have come up with this sports issue on my own because it seems an odd part of our culture. I (and several of my children) have never been able to see any point to golf, baseball, or football. The potential aerobic benefits of basketball and soccer seem counterbalanced by the risk (some say inevitability) of knee and spinal injury. In fairness, people look at me as someone in his '60's practicing Jujitsu and think I'm crazy. In my defense, it makes me more flexible/younger, and gives me a means to perform community service outside the range of Church opportunities.

The bottom line: the Angels in our natures seem to be winning the battle for the soul of humanity.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

It's the DATA, Stupid! - The Fourth Paradigm

This is a shorthand way of describing the life-work of a visionary Microsoft research scientist named Jim Gray. A few weeks after he gave a talk on the subject in 2007, he was lost at sea off the coast of California.

Gray was proposing the Fourth Paradigm: a quasi-new scientific approach that says insight can be gathered from manipulating large amounts of data. Manipulating, sorting, and graphically expressing relationships in very large data sets: new stuff pops out. You can apply statistics to very large data sets and have far greater confidence in the results.

The First Paradigm is sometimes called empirical science - observational or descriptive science. This is the science carried out by interested folk like you and me over the past several thousand years. That, for instance, is Drosophila Melanogaster... what you've been calling the Fruit Fly. You named it, classified it as a fly of the fruit-eating variety.

The Second Paradigm is analytic science: analysis of scientific observations that leads to an understanding of electricity and magnetism, for example. By careful experiment and observation, Michael Faraday was able to connect electricity with magnetism. From this work, James Clerk Maxwell developed... yep, the famous Maxwell's Equations. I'm not making this up: Maxwell built on the scientific experiments and papers of Faraday to develop a working theory of electromagnetism, complete with an elegant mathematical formalism that haunts undergrad physics students to this day.  Actually, these guys are heroes to physicists as much as Fermi, Bohr, and Einstein are.

An Example: In 1994 I was working in northern Saudi Arabia on a phosphate project.  A monster sandstorm beginning in the Sahara far to the west engulfed us, and for a day it was very hard to work. For the next several days the dust haze hung in the air and I realized that each afternoon I could look directly at the Sun without a filter - with my naked eyes and without injury. I noticed a huge Sunspot cluster in the upper left quadrant, and was so impressed that I could actually see this without instrumentation that I sketched it into my field notebook. The next day I could see it again... and it had migrated downward and right. By the fourth day I had a complete sketch of the movement of this Sunspot cluster.  That is an example of First Paradigm science: observation. FROM those observations, I could deduce (a) that the Sun rotated, (b) where the axis of that rotation was (upper right of the observed disk), and (c) how FAST it rotated (I figured roughly 10 days would bring that cluster if it still existed to the same initial point). That part is the Second Paradigm: I analyzed the data and drew some conclusions from them. (PS: Data are always plural - there is always more than one number).

The Third Paradigm is sometimes called computational science; sometimes it's called simulation science. Think ever larger computers, calculating results from ever finer grids of models of the galaxy, models of a complex earth being deformed by stress leading to an earthquake, giant models used to predict weather.  More or less.

An Example of this is my use of a powerful software package called Geosoft Oasis Montaj: this software allows me to bring in vast amounts of data from any source and process the entire mess. It's generally known among geophysicists that you can only "see" about 15% of the content of magnetic data by hand-contouring many measurements on paper. If I pass frequency filters through the data, I can separate the deep sources from the shallow sources. If I pass derivative filters through it I can find the edges of those sources of magnetic anomalies. If I then do two-dimensional (or higher dimensional) modeling, I can obtain a probable shape of the source(s) of the anomaly(s). Say, an electric pig in a magnetic bathtub. This is computational or simulation science.

The Fourth Paradigm is a step beyond this. Grey's point was that hey!*  We are collecting vast amounts of data - more data in seconds now than in all previous history before 1950. There MUST be some relationships, connections, new things in all that mess. If we don't DO something with all these numbers, then what is the point in COLLECTING them?

Data mining is an obvious outcome of this sort of work. Clever digital types can use many different sources of data, search for links - relationships or connections - and from all this can pretty much tell some company what you are going to buy this Christmas, where, and how much money you will spend. That is valuable to a company - it allows the company to save money on inventory and helps them set up displays that will get even MORE money out of you. That's a good thing, right? Maybe.

It's already well-established that corporate recruiters need little training in data mining to find out how you party, what you really do, who your friends are, and how honest you are... no matter what your resume may say. A good thing for the HR people, a bad thing for the careless and dishonest job-hunter.

This same data mining can have unequivocally terrible consequences: people supporting the revolutions in Iran and Syria using Twitter, Facebook, and Anonymizer have died because regime agents have connected different sources of data and figured out who was trashing their regimes... and people have been found, arrested, and have died as a consequence of this kind of data mining.

For better or worse, we have all reached - and fallen into - the ocean of data lying at the end of our continent of former human interaction. Our lives will never be the same again. The Internet is self-healing and in effect self-replicating.

Big Brother is Skynet, and it has found us. 
You may run, but you cannot hide.


* No pun intended, but a book has been published online by T.S. Hey and others (2009) that assembles all the ideas Jim Gray was promoting.