Thursday, January 6, 2022

...And You Will Have Knowledge – From FOUR Sources. ALL of them must be verifiable.


ABSTRACT: Eyeballs. Science. News. Revelation/Inspiration, in no particular order.

            However, note that we all must question and verify every source of knowledge. For instance, if you hear someone emphasize the word “unbiased” regarding a public-domain news source, you should become deeply suspicious: why would the purveyors feel they even need to say that? If you hear someone making a distinction between science vs. religion, it is usually prima facie evidence that the speaker doesn’t understand either. Our modern social electronic world is as full of nontruth as our world was a thousand years ago – Surprise! Well, what can we do about this? The short answer is that we should start with what we are reasonably certain of.

            There are really just four distinct sources of knowledge available to all human beings. By knowledge, in this case I mean information that is true. Just like a thousand years ago, all of them, including our own eyes, must be verified – all of them must be “truthed.” That sometimes requires looking for an underlying motivation behind something that seems… off. Seems wrong.



            The first source of information for all of us starting with infancy is our own eyes and our own ears: direct observation. This seems simple, but it is very important for two reasons: First, because we compare or scale all other sources of information against what we are certain we know. And second, because witness rules and procedures in courts of law make it clear that we cannot always rely on eyewitnesses. Or even our eyes. As Richard Pryor said, “Do you believe me – or your stinkin’ eyes?!??” We should at least think about what we saw with our eyes; quite a few innocent men have been executed because of faulty or biased eye-witness reporting. There is a compelling reason why any good scientist takes copious notes of her/his observations – our memories are the weak link here, not our eyes.

            Let’s begin by considering in detail the first source of knowledge: our own personal observation. It is very rare in science to be able to conduct direct observation, believe it or not. If it were easy, the Greeks, Maya, Chinese, and others without instrumentation would have already answered all our scientific questions. Examples include the fact that the Earth is not flat; Greeks by the 5th century BC noticed a curved shadow on the Moon during Lunar eclipses, and even reported an observation of sunlight penetrating to the bottom of a well in Southern Egypt – and noting that it didn’t do this in Greece. Eratosthenes is believed to be the first person to determine the size of the Earth – through measurement – in the 2nd century BC. A century later, Posidonius, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, calculated the circumference of the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon. Greek observational science was not perfect, however: even Aristotle, revered for millennia as a brilliant scientist, thought hummingbirds did not have feet. Really.



            Now let’s consider a second source: science. In order to “do” science, we must depend in almost all cases on indirect observation through carefully controlled experiments, and then the use of inductive and deductive reasoning. A rare exception from my personal life: I was in Northern Saudi Arabia after one of the terrible seasonal sandstorms called a Shamaal. There was so much dust in the air that initially we could not even land at the town of ‘Ar-‘Ar – the pilot could not see the ground! Many hours later, after waiting at a Saudi military airbase to the west in Tobuk, we returned and started our borehole logging experiments. I was leading this effort to determine if we could indirectly map the huge phosphate deposits in the region using caliper and gamma-ray logging. Late that first afternoon, I realized that with my unprotected eyes I could see a huge sunspot cluster on the upper left quadrant of the setting Sun. I diagrammed it in my field notebook. I did this again the second day, missed the third day for some reason, but got it again the fourth day. I realized that with direct personal observation – with my own eyes – I could determine the axis of the Sun with respect to where I was standing, and its approximate rotation rate at the equator (I roughly calculated at least 20 days – it’s actually 27 at the Sun’s equator). In my internet research, I do not see any evidence that the ancient Greeks, Chinese, or Maya were able to do this. I saw this with my own eyes and recorded it. I know it absolutely to be true.

            For the purposes of the following discussion, you do not need a science degree or even use the word “science” if you are talking about sources of verifiable information guiding you. You could say “knowledge” or “data” or “understanding” when it comes to explaining what you are reasonably certain is correct based on the reliability of the source. I carefully added that qualifier “reasonably” to that sentence – because much “information” available in the public domain is not fact-based. Someone just pulled it out of their ear and yelled loudly about it to get advertising credits. It’s a sleazy business model: to monetize anger. It has also led to the unnecessary deaths of many mentally susceptible people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

            Elsewhere I have made a separate distinction between truth, and Truth – the latter with a capital “T” – to distinguish between information that is ephemeral, and information that will not be revised in the future but is always that same information. The Sun will rise tomorrow, for instance, though you may not see it. Also, the nature or existence of God is something that should be unchanging, essentially by definition. It really should not be something that changes with temporary human fashion or culture or group opinion-swings. Fundamentally, if there is a Creator God, and He isn’t just a Transcendent God but an Imminent God who cares about His creations, then He should, by definition, be far beyond our comprehension. Similarly, the detailed evolution of the universe around us is permanently beyond our comprehension, though as scientists we get tiny, enthralling glimpses of it. We just do not have the wherewithal in the way of synapses to encompass a full understanding of either. To suppose otherwise is an incredibly arrogant assumption that implies that we are equivalent to God or the Universe.

            I will here also make a distinction here between short-term correct information (for instance, a weather report) and long-term correct information. The latter I will call Important Information. By this I mean long-term things, things that you would consider or think about if you or a loved one are/is approaching the end of life, for instance. Weather reports are an important source of useful information that we often consider as we go about our daily lives. My wife and I drove through a Sky River on November 12, 2021 – we had not checked the weather reports – and it was terrifying. The time scale is important here, however. On November 9, 2021, there were gale warnings for Port Townsend, WA, which we were visiting. The next day it was calm and sunny in Port Townsend. However, a weather report is well below the threshold of Important Information in terms of what is meaningful ten years from now – or 100 years from now. Is something important to you – or even relevant – 100 years from now? If so, then it fits in the category of Important Information.

            Let’s continue to consider science as a source of information to help guide our decisions, and improve our lives. In science we acquire data, but we must also process and interpret it – data generally don’t explain themselves to the non-specialist – and then report our findings. As scientists, we think through our research results carefully, and then decide what it means. I’ve published over 300 books, maps, and scientific papers while working as a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey – and they all must go through technical review. This means that at least two other people – whom I do not choose – must read through my draft papers and vet them for consistency and correct logic. A science manager then reads through all the reviews and the revised draft to make sure that the final result is true. Do cigarettes improve your digestion after a big meal? That was the public consensus until 1965. By then however, enough data had been gathered to make a reliable interpretation that no, the cigarette company ads were incorrect at best. By 1965 science knew that any benefits beyond addiction-management were outweighed by the irreparable damage that cigarettes did to your lungs, your heart, your face, and your brain.

            But for scientific data to be reliable, you must first ascertain that you have enough of it to even make a judgement or interpretation in the first place. In science, this is called the sampling number, or “n” in an experimental investigation. A single experiment with a binary outcome (for instance just a yes or no) on a single parameter is not science. One of my uncles chain-smoked for 85 years and lived to the age of 97. That’s just a single data-point in a nicotine-benefits study. The second-hand smoke gave his mother-in-law, my grandmother, terminal lung cancer by age 88, however. These are just TWO data-points, and there are a lot of additional unseen variables.

            You need a large enough “n” to even carry out a reasonable statistical analysis of the data you acquire. A state-level cancer dataset would qualify. Which state has the lowest numbers of cancer deaths overall, for instance? Would you be surprised to learn that it is Utah ( Then can you suggest why? This raises an even more fundamental issue, however: is something even testable or “experimentable” in the first place? The philosopher Carl Popper (1902-1994) gave to the world the concept of “falsifiability”: can something even be tested in the first place? The existence of a God, the existence of a multiverse, what preceded the Big Bang, why is the Anthropic Principle… these are not things that can be tested in the ordinary meaning of a scientific investigation. These belong in another domain sometimes called meta philosophy: sort of thinking about philosophy. They are just big ideas that make us feel warmly smug that we can think about them, but otherwise (unless there is an application) they are useless to humans and their well-being. These things constitute Important Information, but science cannot help us here.

            The concepts of a large enough sample (that “n” number), along with falsifiability, are profoundly important. But there is another almost hidden issue: any large number of data points will always include noise: systemic noise, random noise, instrumental noise, as well as experimental design biases. There is no such thing as a perfect experimental approach, no matter what some NSF grant proposal might assert. In a simplest case example, let’s consider a single variable set, for instance adult height vs. weight. In simplest form, this can be represented as y = a + b*x. The variable “a” is how much one weighs when X (one’s height) is zero – and is just included for general completeness here. One would think that the result would be a straight (upward-tilting) line, but we’ve all seen skinny and obese individuals, so it’s more complicated than that. Data points collected can easily be scattered all over an X-Y graph. If you have sufficient data, there will be data points that are “outliers” – well off the beaten path of what we think might be reasonable results. This could be a morbidly obese individual or someone suffering from anorexia. If there are enough sample points, we can do a quick statistical analysis and determine if a suspicious point is more than, say, two standard deviations away from the average trend of the rest of the data. Some immature scientists might even just discard a data point that they don’t “like” – but this becomes “cherry picking” and is no longer science. That scientist has introduced a new variable – personal sampling bias – into the data analysis.

            We can arbitrarily decide to throw out data points on a graph that lie more than two standard deviations away from the rest of the data… but this is an arbitrary decision also. Why not one standard deviation? Or three? Depending on how we carry out one of these arbitrary data-discard exercises, a “regression” – drawing a line (generally but not necessarily straight) through the data-points on that simplest X-Y graph – could tilt the function curve upwards (increasing weight with increasing height) or downwards (decreasing weight with increasing height). In this example (see figure 1) I am only talking about a very simple, two-variable system. You can represent it on a 2D graph, on a single piece of paper.

            Another simple example from our recent trip to the Hoh Rainforest: How many seagulls show up if I throw crackers out into a parking lot in Forks, WA? This seems like an example of a simple scientific experiment. Or is it? Perhaps the final greatest problem with any scientific experiment is to isolate variables. Dependent variables are the nightmare of any scientific study. Toss out too many crackers and all sorts of birds (and perhaps squirrels) will show up, for instance. Throwing out just saltine crackers only, where a Western Gull only is likely to see it, is a personal experimental design bias in the form of several assumptions that may not be justified. Are there crows or scrub jays around? How would I even know that since they generally don’t want to be seen? These are examples of hidden, or missed, or dependent variables. When there is a lot of “scatter” in experimental data it almost always means that there are additional variables or biases affecting our data – complicating things that we may not even realize are there. Gravity, or wind, perhaps in this case. Different bird types that we do not see, perhaps. Some weirdness or blind spot in our data-collection system, or our electronic recording devices, or the species of surrounding trees, even. A more accurate solution could be a 4-D (or 19-D) graph (figure 1).

            Related to this is the issue of accuracy vs. precision. If I keep shooting arrows at a target and they consistently land around a single point on the ground, well, I have precision here. If they end up consistently in the center of the target, then this is accuracy. Precision or repeatability in measurements or data-gathering does not lead to Important Information, because the results may not be correct. The trick, then, is to assess accuracy.

Figure 1. Regression analysis involves fitting a straight line (or sometimes a simple curved function) to a scatterplot of data. One or two noisy data-points can dramatically shift the result. Image from Gonick & Smith (1993), "The cartoon guide to Statistics" Collins Reference.


            All of this is a long way around saying that science is always imperfect, just like news (see figure 2). Science is a growing, organic thing, very dependent on human or data-gathering limitations, and biases. Science must be constantly tested, self-checked, and compared against older data – and technically reviewed. Those who worship science as the be-all, end-all of creation, do so at great personal risk. This actually has a name: it’s called Scientism. Another way of putting this: you think you’re smarter than the universe.

            As an example of how this imperfect scientific process might affect our very lives and health, consider the science we all saw unfolding in how to deal with the SARS-COV-19 virus in 2020-2021. The virus in its many manifestations, social contexts and variables including different spike proteins, social isolation, age, health, and the wealth of human victims is an experimental scientific nightmare. Stopping the Pandemic so far still seems so… incomplete... after nearly two years of evolving and expensive medical and governmental responses to it. Grotesquely amateur political interference made things worse, of course, but the nature of science is that there are always too many variables and internal biases to realistically take them all into account.

            In a way, the progression of data-gathering, and the evolving analyses we’ve seen during the Covid-19 Pandemic are characteristic of the very nature of good science: it is a growing, evolving thing. It is being conducted by very fallible human beings but keeps getting better. Science is approaching the Correct Answer(s), and every month the recommendations are more reliable, more useful. Masks? Different vaccines? Boosters? Lockdowns? Confronting self-serving, deliberate misinformation? These changing issues are just science happening in public view, self-correcting (ideally) and advancing in the right direction (hopefully). To make the assumption that an early interpretation of that data must never change is unrealistic – and profoundly uninformed. Science approaches truth as a final product. Except in very limited and simple systems, it never actually quite gets there. It’s far better than rabid, uninformed opinion, however. It’s like the famous Winston Churchill quote:

“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”  – Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947



            Let’s next consider sources of publicly available knowledge – the hope here is that all the research has already been done for us. Let’s start with, ahem, “news.” Many consider the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Wall Street Journal to be reliable sources of information. There are some people who prefer Fox or InfoWars or MSNBC or the Daily Kos as their source of information because it complements something that they already believe to be true or correct (usually of a political nature). In logic, this is called a “confirmation bias.” In some cases, it is the akin to pouring gasoline on a dangerous fire.

            The Pew Charitable Trust finances studies on polling and biases. It has had an unbiased reputation itself for decades because it is in their mission statement to avoid bias. Ad Fontes (“to the source”) is related and does the same. They are both careful in their assessments, and deliberately apolitical. Pew ranks the NYTimes and the Associated Press as sources of reliable facts and information. It considers Fox News, and especially InfoWars and the Daily Kos, to be well outside of a green box (below) surrounding what Pew considers reliable sources of data, and far to the right or left politically. In other words, Fox, InfoWars, and the Daily Kos are not sources of reliable information according to Pew, but sources of wildly skewed opinion that is generally not fact-based. Fox TV personalities, for instance, rail against vaccines on air. Yet it is established fact that every one of them is vaccinated. There are sources on both ends of the political spectrum that Pew and Ad Fontes consider to be unreliable (figure 2).

Figure 2. Ranking of news sources according to political bias and reliability. The green box is the place to trust. The orange, and especially the red boxes, include sources to avoid if truth is important to you. Image from Ad Fontes Media, Inc. (2018).


            In general, we should carefully avoid basing major life decisions (like vaccination) on anything political and/or not fact-based – on sources outside the Green Box in the figure above.



            Now let’s take a significant jump and consider a fourth source of information: revelation. Another way to say this: otherwise-unexplainable information from a completely outside source, a Source we may already realize is committed to not violating our personal agency so usually doesn’t explain itself. We all know examples of people who somehow “know” something important without an obvious reason why. In one type of example, we even have a name for this: a mother’s intuition. My own mother once put my baby sister in a highchair out in the backyard of our house. She wanted Barb to get fresh air and sunlight (before UVA/UVB was understood to contribute to skin cancers). Suddenly (I remember this) she rushed out of the house. She said later that she had a “bad feeling” about the baby being out there but didn’t understand why. As she picked up the baby and started to dismantle the highchair to bring it back inside, she saw something move on the underside of the table part: a huge black widow spider. It had been within centimeters of my little sister’s legs.

            Unexplainable, outside source, un-asked-for information.

Two Different Depths

            An analysis of revelation as a source of Important Information must be done at two separate depths or scales: personal revelation, and revelation at a much larger scale: from someone we implicitly or explicitly trust. This could be a parent, a teacher, a prophet (ancient or modern). If you are paying tithing, it strongly implies a belief and acceptance in a prophet or leader of a church as a reliable source of truthful information and guidance. I personally know people who fiercely object to vaccines and masks, though they claim to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ and say that they follow its prophet. If you don’t agree with that leader on, say, vaccination or masks, and you still pay tithing and attend that Church, then you are suffering a serious rational disconnect in your life. This is the equivalent of gross hypocrisy in conversation – or even schizophrenia. What else don’t you agree with him on?

Reading Scriptures & Prayer

            Perhaps the most consistent way to receive personal revelation is by reading the scriptures, and in personal prayer. It’s unsurprising that prophets for millennia have encourage the human family to study the scriptures available to it. There is a downside to this approach, however: the revelation you want may not be the revelation you get. If you do as modern prophets have suggested – “search the scriptures” – instead of just reading them from start to finish, you may be able to improve the efficiency of the want/get convergence here. Of course, if you have not read the Standard Works through a few times already, you won’t really have any idea what to even search for, Topical Guide notwithstanding.


            There is another issue here that is perhaps the most important of all: being in tune. In short, worthiness is critical. Years ago, I worked with Venezuelan geology teams in the deep jungle of the Amazonas Territory (now Amazonas State). It was incredibly dangerous, where things like Bushmaster snakes were the least of our worries. One Venezuelan friend fell on his machete and sliced open his right radial artery. The USGS geologist that I had assigned to work with Henry said he saw a 2-meter spurt of arterial blood shooting out. He managed to stop the bleeding and together they called for an emergency medevac on their HF camp radio. There was someone listening on the frequency we used, and that someone called for a rescue helicopter. Henry Sanchez lost perhaps a third of his blood (he went into shock if he wasn’t upside down in the aircraft) but he lives in Tucson today. Another American scientist working in a different jungle camp came back to our base a week later and told me that they could listen to the rescue, but that their radio could not transmit. Gary had no idea that Henry had even survived. This is a long way of saying that you need a means to communicate that works in both directions, you need to have someone listening, both ways, and you need to be using the right frequency.

            In the radio world there is a lot of information floating out there. You must tune into the transmission you seek. If you are not in tune with the Holy Ghost, because you are living a lifestyle dissonant with Him, then you can’t really expect that He will be terribly encouraged to even deal with you. You are not working on the same frequency. You cannot just yell “SAVE ME!” Or perhaps say, “I really like that flashy car – I need it. What? Well, no, I don’t have money – I don’t even have a job! You, God (somehow) owe it to me.” This sort of discordant thinking almost never works, the Prodigal Son being a notable (and for many of us, encouraging) exception.


            You must also consider the data reliability issue for personal revelation, just like in science, news, and even personal observation. Revelation must be testable, and this part can be frustrating because the process takes a long time to verify. Here there is yet another advantage to arriving at an advanced age. If you have received “understandings” (or whatever you wish to call them), and they are self-consistent and pan out over time, then you will have steadily increasing confidence in those understandings – revelations – if they arrive the same way. You have a growing database, so to speak. This often means in my personal experience that you are not thinking about the subject when the understanding arrives. With age, you will begin to note that the understanding or revelation does not even come into your mind in English or whatever language you tend to think in… but arrives as an instantaneous understanding. More commonly, the understanding is just a peaceful feeling in the midst of a personal disaster or general chaos. This even has a specific name: “The peace that surpasseth understanding.” I first experienced this after I had passed the written physics qualification exam at the University of Illinois, an exam to decide if you could go on to work on a PhD. That year, however (1970) there were over 1,500 graduating physics PhDs – and available jobs for just 236 of them in the United States. It’s amazing how I can still remember those specific numbers, many years later. The University of Illinois had decided to drastically cut back on their physics graduate student population: the post-atomic-bomb era was officially over: the country no longer needed hundreds of thousands of physics PhD’s. So, the Physics department that year added an oral component to the Quals, as we called them. This I failed miserably, meaning that I could not stay at the university beyond that semester. I faced a real personal disaster that also affected my wife, who had a year to go to finish her BA degree. As we stared into the sunset through the window of our little apartment, however, I had an incredible feeling of peace, of not-to-worry. This, I now realize, comes from the Atonement. Peace that mitigates suffering. That sense of peace is always remarkably devoid of details – it “…surpasseth understanding.” In other words, it usually makes no logical sense. Only four years later did I finally understood that sense of peace.

            It works. It’s very real. I’ve experienced it many times.

            Less commonly, a revelatory understanding arrives with very specific information. In another personal example, which happened on June 7, 1995, the message to me arrived at the most comically illogical time. It came in the middle of a contentious meeting between the Saudi Deputy Ministry for Mineral Resources, the US Geological Survey, and the French counterpart of the USGS in Jeddah called the Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières. Angry words were being exchanged and I was just keeping my head low to avoid being drawn into what I had earlier realized was just another example of Saudi paranoia… but which my French colleagues had yet to realize was not even a rational discussion. Suddenly, a diamond-hard, instantaneous understanding hit me. The message: “The time to leave Saudi Arabia is in October – Do not worry about this. This is in answer to your prayers for the past 18 months concerning your wife’s declining health.” When this bright and very sharp understanding arrived, I nearly fell out of my tilted-back chair.

            I walked home and unpacked that understanding, converting it to English to share with my wife. To us it made no sense initially… because our children would normally start school in August. This particular revelation arrived four months before our departure from the Magic Kingdom, as we called it. Months later we realized that the specific timing saved me from a Reduction in Force in the US Geological Survey… that took place with almost no warning in August 1995. It also meant that one son could finish his senior year in his Swiss boarding school, and not in a Virginia high school where he knew no one. He ended up totally fluent in French as a result. Five hours after that revelation arrived, I learned that the Saudi Deputy Minister had sent an order down through the chain of command: “Order Jeff Wynn to stop practicing his religion.” From the context, I realized that the Mutawa, the Saudi religious police, had been following us to our at-that-time-illegal Church house-meetings on Fridays.

            This was actually part of a larger Kabuki Theater exercise where an Assistant Deputy Minister was trying to mess with the mind of the Deputy Minister – whose job he wanted. However, that Deputy Minister was not stupid, and had already anticipated that his deputy would trigger a mass arrest of the LDS people in Jeddah at that time. This would have meant that half our Jeddah Ward population – Filipino brothers and sisters – would have been beaten and then deported with a massive loss of an annual income. However, with five hours of warning, I was prepared. When I got the Stop Practicing Your Religion message, I immediately offered my resignation from the USGS mission to Saudi Arabia… and requested reassignment to my former job in the United States. About 40% of the USGS Geologic Division was RIF’d in August 1995, and I returned in October.

            To recap the revelatory patterns: revelation usually but not always arrives unbidden, though you may have been thinking and praying about the subject off and on for months or even years beforehand. It arrives sometimes as a profoundly peaceful feeling that makes absolutely no sense considering the circumstances. Sometimes it arrives as a sharp, clear, instantaneous Understanding that must be unpacked and converted to English in order to share it with others.

            When you find yourself suffering through one of the many Bad Times in your life, be prepared: sometimes it takes 2 – 4 years to even see the Light at the End of the Tunnel. Pain and sadness don’t turn off like a faucet with a magical prayer. I got my PhD in Geosciences with an Electrical Engineer as a thesis advisor four years after failing the physics oral qualifying exam in Illinois. It was in a different field (I became a geologist, geophysicist, hydrologist and oceanographer, with publications in astrophysics and archaeology). It opened up huge opportunities for my family – they have all lived in multiple countries on diplomatic passports and are all multi-lingual.

            Sometimes revelation arrives in response to prayers about how to fulfill an aspect of a Church calling – it usually arrives as a quiet, clear idea about what to do. When this fourth and most common revelation happens, it almost always arrives for me, at least, as a clear understanding before I can even kneel down to pray for help… and I generally smile, get down on my knees anyway, and just say thanks.

            Thus, knowledge comes to us, imperfect human beings, in at least four different ways, with many variants and complexities in each of the ways or sources. I think it’s reasonable to say that there are probably as many variants as we are each different people. Note, however, that if we don’t make a sincere effort to verify – truth out – our sources of knowledge, we run the risk of making life-changing decisions based on incorrect information, decisions that we may regret.

            If not done carefully, we could regret those decisions forever.


Thursday, December 9, 2021

There is Always Someone Smarter – Some Lessons on Self-Comparison

The IQ Test

As a 12-year-old living in Bakersfield California, my Catholic Mom sent me to Garces Junior High. Unbeknownst to my parents, the administrators gave all incoming young men an IQ test. There was not room for all 80+ of us in one classroom, so it was made very clear to us that the “dummies” were sent to the “other” classroom. Those of us not included in that group were initially organized in seating according to the IQ results. There were six rows with 7 desk-chairs in each. I was initially ranked #2. I didn’t understand but thought this was sort of cool. The one guy with a higher score was named Kenny Larkin, and we became friends. Like me, he hated sports. Unlike him, however, I could outrun everyone else among all 80 young men – except one. 

We were strictly segregated at Garces from the young women, who were taught by another monastic group, this one comprised of black-veiled nuns. We rarely saw any of the girls, and only at a distance. My Mom and stepfather were shocked to learn from me about several horrifically savage beatings* that Brother Gerald and Brother Remy inflicted on us boys; the Christian Brothers were a non-priestly monastic organization running the boys’ side of the school. Mindful of this, and of that IQ test, my new stepfather cajoled my Mom over a year and a half into letting me attend a public high school, Bakersfield High. He knew this school also had a nascent version of AP classes called the “Point 5 Program” in place. Every class was numbered: English 9.4 for freshman college prep, English 9.3 for kids expected to go into business or auto-mechanics, English 9.1 was for special ed. English 9.5 was the much harder class intended for the smarties in the school. I learned it was designed to encourage talent. It is the reason I ended up attending the University of California at Berkeley, and ultimately, earning a PhD. 

The Rope

Another side effect of testing: at the beginning of each school year, the boys were always tested in P.E. This had nothing to do with sports, but involved running a 440-yard loop, racing to the stop of the stadium… and climbing a rope. Yes: a 22-ft/7-meter rope. As a 14-yr-old I was terrified of that rope – I had never climbed one before. We had to start from a sitting-in-the-dirt position, then climb and touch a bell at the top while being timed with a stopwatch. Full of adrenaline, I figured out how to use my legs to help about a third of the way up. When I came back down (not knowing how not to burn my hands) the coach stared at his stopwatch and ordered me to do it again. When I came down the second time, he gave me an odd look and said that this was the fastest time he had ever recorded any kid doing on that rope. Ever. After all the testing was done, we were separated into three groups: the Jocks, The Fatties (they were actually called that), and the In-Betweens. The Fatties did things like throw medicine balls back and forth to each other. I was assigned to The Jocks and this was all about sports – which was all they did. I had never played football, never played baseball (I didn’t even own a mitt), and never, ever, dribbled a basketball. This was the beginning of a terrible year for me; I consistently got C’s in P.E. The first day we started the basketball cycle, the coach had each of us dribble from mid-court and go in against five guys in the Key to take a shot. I had to be instructed (with transparent irritation) how to dribble the ball, and then how to shoot the ball. One kid just stood there at the mid-court circle and hesitated, then did a half-court “swisher” – right in the basket the first time. The coach never looked directly at me again. I was in misery every day for P.E., made worse by my fear of being seen nude in the showers (that stepfather turned out to be a pedophile when I was 11 years old and my Mom remarried). The next three years were the same: test, get thrust into The Jocks class, get lousy grades, cringe with my acne cysts showering in the nude every day, five days a week. The one semester we had “Health” in my Junior year was an incredible relief to me... and I learned most of the other guys also.

Through much of the rest of my life, however, I wondered about what that IQ partitioning did mentally to all those boys graded as “dummies” at Garces? The dyslexic kids? What was the life-long impact for those at BHS left in “The Fatties” class… for the rest of their lives?

“Old 160”

Fast forward a decade and a half. I had a PhD and was traveling for work with the US Geological Survey. I just finished a training course in science management in Monterey, CA, and on my way home to my family in Virginia I stopped in Long Beach to see my sister. Barb had arranged for a float plane to pick me up and take me to Santa Catalina Island off the coast. She was on a 32-ft sailboat with her boyfriend at the time, surnamed Rogers. My mother had warned me that “Rog” was a successful attorney and very proud of the fact that his IQ was tested at 160. He boasted of this frequently enough that Mom actually referred to him as “Old 160.” The amphibious plane landed in Catalina Harbor and Barb met me at the dock. She took me and my suitcase to an inflatable Zodiac and motored me out to the sailboat. For the next two days we motored around the island while Barb and Rog dived for “bugs” – illegally-harvested lobsters. My job was to stand at the side of the boat to receive the grab-bag as they would bring one up every so often. We only raised sails for the traverse back to Santa Barbara at the end of the trip. Rog seemed to be probing me – and watching me closely – the entire time; I sensed a weird vibe but didn’t know what to do about it except answer his questions. I later gathered two things from Barb: (1) She and Rog had already decided to part company as a couple, and (2) Rog had somehow gotten the impression that I was super smart. A PhD does seem to fool some people. He also understood that I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ – and he had difficulty reconciling those things. Finally, as we were docking back in Santa Barbara, Rog looked over to me and said this: “Jeff, I admire you. In 30 years, I will be a lonely alcoholic, surviving until I die on this very boat – if I’m lucky. You, on the other hand, will be happy and surrounded by grandchildren.” 

The lesson here seems obvious to me, as it was to Rog.

3-D Chess

My first three years in the US Geological Survey were spent in the Denver field office. I was part of three geophysics branches of the USGS, all centered in rented office space on Colfax Avenue. I was the last young PhD hired in a huge hiring spurt that lasted from 1971 to 1975. One of those other newly minted PhDs I will call Gary. Gary was super smart and made sure that everyone knew it. Then after three years I was invited to move to the USGS National Center in northern Virginia and became a deputy science office chief. This led several of my former colleagues to feel some apparent jealousy (I learned this later; I’m often very naïve). Once while back in Denver for a technical meeting, Gary invited me over to his house for dinner, and I accepted. As soon as dinner was over, he pulled out a very interesting game – a 3-D form of chess. Gary’s wife immediately started to complain to him about mistreating his guest (apparently this had happened before). The game had multiple vertical levels and different pieces than traditional chess, with different movement rules – which he quickly explained to me, the novice. One could move a piece horizontally, vertically, and on diagonals. “Let’s play,” said Gary. His wife again told him that this was inappropriate, but Gary insisted. After about 30 minutes, I said “I think that’s checkmate.” Gary stared at the boards for almost 20 seconds. Then he stared at me, without saying a word. I felt increasingly uncomfortable and suggested that I should leave because I had an early technical meeting the next morning. Gary, wordlessly but still staring at me, just walked me to the door. I was never invited to dinner there again. I learned later that he and his wife divorced soon after. 

But here’s the thing: I’m not smart enough to beat anyone at chess. However, this time I had help in the form of inspiration, guidance that I listened to and followed. After no contact for ~20 years I learned that Gary had retired because he had developed Parkinson’s Disease. I called to express my concern and sympathy, and we talked for a long while. Our earlier friendship was renewed with just that call. Gary was a humbler person, and I hope I was also. 

So, what’s important?

“This Man is GUILELESS!

In 2002 I received two phone calls at my office in the USGS National Center. By this time, I had returned from two mission chief assignments in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Both calls were from colleagues to notify me that the position for chief scientist for volcano hazards had opened up. “You should apply for this,” both told me. I talked with Louise, who was working on Capitol Hill at the time, and whose work-week-with-commute was 63 hours (we counted them). “By all means,” she said. It would require relocating to the Pacific Northwest, but we had visited Washington State during our obligatory, State-Department-required Home Leave from Saudi Arabia years earlier – and we both loved it. I applied… and then forgot about it. Two months later the selecting official suddenly called, said he was in Reston, and wanted to interview me. What I thought would be a 15-minute conversation lasted more than two hours. He said that quite a few people had applied, and the list had been whittled down to just three short-list applicants. A week later I got a call telling me that I was selected. I called Louise. “By all means,” she answered. There followed a horrific six weeks, where I had to wind down four separate research projects, pack up an office and a laboratory, prepare and sell our house, find a house, and move with one of our sons and several birds across the continent… while the DC Shooter was still at large (he was caught, just 7 miles from our daughter’s house, when we were passing through Indiana). 

There were two other applicants for that job, however. One was selected later for another management position in Denver. The other had been the chief of a science team in the National Center but had left that position under mysterious circumstances. He was later selected to be the volcano program coordinator. One of my senior scientists, who knew him well, remarked that this new program coordinator was the smartest man he (Carl) had ever encountered. At the time the USGS was experimenting with misbegotten thing called “matrix management.” In this system I had line authority over about 120 scientists and support staff – but the program coordinator held the purse-strings and had a say in how the financial allocations were spent. The Golden Rule is Him what got the gold, rules. Initially we worked together equably enough, but he apparently decided that I didn’t have the jets to swing a chief scientist job. He decided that I wasn’t as smart as him because I would not follow Machiavelli’s “The Prince” as my guiding management philosophy. I’m not joking here – that really was the issue. So… why had I been selected over him for the chief scientist position? He began to try to manage behind my back, confusing the heck out of everyone in my office. I confronted him several times, and he would back off with some excuse like “I’m just trying to help you!” I tried hard to think the best of him and went out of my way to be open with all my information. At one program council meeting I passed something to him privately. He stared at me, then turning to the rest of the people present said in a loud voice and a nasty smile “this man is guileless!” He did not mean it as a compliment. As I thought about this, however, I concluded that I would not want to be any other kind of man. Machiavellian game-playing at other peoples’ expense is not something I would ever want for my legacy. To do nasty things – force people into Directed Reassignments to drive them out of the USGS just to make a point – was something he recommended. “If they don’t fear you, they won’t obey you,” he told me several times. I’m not making this up. 

Eventually I talked with my own senior executive supervisor, as this was causing increasingly serious confusion among my staff. They were getting orders from the program coordinator to stop whatever they were doing and do a task for him… without bothering to notify either me or my subordinate scientists-in-charge. I was surprised to learn that my senior executive manager knew all sorts of interesting things about this program coordinator – like, why he had been forced out of a chief scientist job earlier. Eventually, with the intervention of several senior executive managers, rules governing and limiting the program coordinator’s behavior were written and signed – to his transparent chagrin. Interestingly, a few years later the USGS abandoned matrix management as “unworkable.” 

The program coordinator by this time found himself “glass-ceilinged” – he had been forced out as a chief scientist by misbehavior once before, and now was being spanked again. He was fearful of rotating back to a scientist position, certain that people he had abused before would want to get even with him (he was right – I got quite an earful after he left). The guy left the USGS for a dean position at a small distant university. On the last day we were together, he sat across from me at the conference table in my office to discuss some funding issue. As he was preparing to leave, I mentioned to him that I was resigning my chief scientist position and returning to research; I didn’t say why. We both knew that my job was a 5-year rotational management position, and that I had done my five years of 55-84-hour weeks; Louise had repeatedly suggested to me that I might want to consider getting a life for a change. The program coordinator stared at me for a full 20 seconds, trying to fathom what I meant by this – what was the strategic move I was pulling here? Finally, as someone who had coveted my position for five years, he ground out “why are you telling me this?” I responded, “Professional courtesy, I suppose.” He stared at me icily for another very long time, then without another word put his notepad in his briefcase and just walked out. I never saw him again. 

This man was very, very intelligent. But he based his personal management style, the way he dealt with other human beings, on all the wrong principles. I won the years-long fight with him, but not because I was smarter than he was. Many people had ferocious opinions of him as a manager and as a human being. I just happened to be the last one in a long line of people he had tried (and often succeeded) to hurt. 

Where is this Going?

Several times during my initial years with the USGS, Louise would ask me if I worked for the CIA? “No – why,” I would ask? Her brother, a pilot, had told her that a job requiring me to travel all over Saudi Arabia, Europe, the Far East, Australia, and South America – was the perfect cover for a spy. When other people have asked me if I’m a spy, I’ve just said no. 

There is some reasonable basis for this thought, however. Once in Saudi Arabia a non-descript man walked into my office, flashed his US Consulate badge at me, and asked if he could ask me some questions. “Sure,” I said. “We have heard rumors that there was a gun-battle in Hail, in the central Arabian Peninsula. My colleagues and I cannot find meaningful information about this, but we are aware that you travel all over the country for your work. Have you heard anything?” In fact, I had – two of my staff who came from Hail told me that the ‘Amir’s office there was abandoned and covered with bullet holes. He took notes and thanked me – and did not leave a business card. Something like this happened to me when I first got to Venezuela. The Ambassador at the time told me that a person on his staff wanted to talk to me. Again, a very non-descript individual came into the Ambassador’s office. He said that he understood that I would be traveling all over Venezuela in my job as USGS mission chief, leading the mapping project for the jungle-covered, roadless southern half of the country. He reminded me that there are Alcabalas – Guardia Nacional checkpoints – on all roads between major cities in Venezuela. As diplomats, they did not have paperwork that would get them through those checkpoints. One had to have a reason to pass through them, especially a non-Venezuelan. “Yes, this is correct,” I replied. “Would you please take photos of roads and bridges and checkpoints in your travels, and share them with us,” he asked? I stared at him. Sure, I thought – poison the trust that our host agency, the C.V.G., had for the US Geological Survey? Right. 

        BTW, I never saw that man again. 

A year later, after we had seen several deaths in both Puerto Ordaz and the jungle, and had had a number of close calls, a USGS colleague in the USGS National Center sent down several programable, “Fly-Away” HF radio transceivers. I had no idea how to use them (Louise and I are licensed HAM operators now). I asked around in the Embassy in Caracas and was told to go to the offices of the “Political Section” – but the Political Section offices on the 6th floor, not the 5th floor, which is behind a gold-leaf-lettered, fancy glass door. The Economics Section that I was vetted to (I was a formal State Department employee with Ambassador-grade of FS-12 during the three years I was there), was on the 4th floor and the Commerce Section was in the 3rd. I took the elevator to the 6th floor, and when it opened, I found myself facing a blank wall with a steel door in it. The doorhandle had a cipher lock. A man came out, said he understood I needed some help with a radio, and took me downstairs to the secluded little park on the embassy grounds. After looking around carefully, he showed me how to set up an HF antenna, and how to program a frequency into the 25-kg radio. He then gave me a small, torn piece of paper, with a 10-meter-band frequency penciled in on it and told me to call him at that frequency when I got home. I flew home to Puerto Ordaz, 700 km away, and set up the radio on my apartment terrace. I called the frequency he had given me, and he answered. “OK, it works. Please lose that piece of paper now. Good luck in the jungle,” he concluded, and hung up. 

        I never learned his name. He took a personal risk to help another human being who was at serious risk working in the jungle. He didn’t have to do that – but was just being a good guy to help another human being.

OK, I’m not CIA, and I’ll tell anyone. However, I do not tell anyone (except Louise) what my IQ is. I got that number from a high school councilor’s folder with my name on it as she discussed potential scholarships with me. I’ve given invited lectures at annual MENSA meetings, but no, I am not a member of MENSA. And here’s the thing: that IQ number is not important. Your speed to the top of the rope is not important. Comparing yourself to another person – read those stories above – leads to nothing good. There is always someone smarter than you, wealthier than you. 

        Just try to do good; compete with yourself if that floats your boat. If you live your life right, help other people when you can, you will do just fine when you are forced to go go toe-to-toe against the guys who think they are smarter, or better, or tougher. It’s really just their problem with their own self-worth. 

You don’t need to buy someone else’s problem.


* My best friend in elementary and junior high was Marcus Espitia, whose father was Mexican and whose mother was African American. We had defended each other against bullies in Saint Joseph elementary school for years and started Garces together. One day in 7th grade Brother Gerald was pacing back and forth in front of the class, declining Latin nouns out loud from a book he held. Brother Gerald was a huge man – 240 lbs/110 kg. My friend Marcus had lifted the lid of his desk above where his books were kept, blocking Brother Gerald’s view. From there he was shooting spitballs at the guy sitting across the aisle from him. I watched as Brother Gerald slipped down into that aisle without changing his monotonous repetition. Suddenly he leaned hard on the top of Marcus’ desk, trapping his head inside the desk, cutting off his air. I can still vividly recall Marcus’ arms and legs thrashing around, his head locked in the desk as he tried to free it. Then – still intoning the Latin – Brother Gerald lifted the lid with the hand holding the book, and with his open right hand hit Marcus in the side of the face so hard it physically lifted him out of his seat. Marcus actually hit the adjacent wall first, then slid to the ground, stunned. Still droning on, Brother Gerald proceeded to pick up each book in the desk and throw it – as hard as he could – at Marcus’ face. One. Two. Three. Four. Marcus finally got up off the floor and ran to the door to escape… with books bouncing off him several times before he reached it and exited. Brother Gerald then strolled back to the front of the class and continued reading out the Latin declinations to us – without any vocal interruption through this entire process. 

We all just sat there, frozen in our seats. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Is Water Wet?

In the response below I had to throttle back my Inner Scientist from wanting to strangle certain abusers of social media. Facts are NOT the same as Alternative Facts. Internet Foo-Foo is NOT truth. Much of it represents all the bad consequences of the 1st Amendment to the American Constitution - without any redeeming good.

Q: So on social media there’s been a huge debate on whether water is wet or not. I believe water is not either wet or dry. So is water wet?  - Kacie M

A: This is akin to Medieval arguments about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. In other words, it's a pointless issue. Water is water. Wet means something has water on or in it in all versions of the English language that I am familiar with. I did a cursory look and did not see a "huge debate" on social media about water being wet or not. 

Social media should NEVER be considered a source of meaningful information, as there is no vetting, no peer review of the content you see there. People make up "Alternative Facts" and post them to social media, and if it's done with flashy visuals, some weak-minded and poorly educated people might take this stuff as fact. Don't YOU fall into that old make-up-a-fact trap. That's what humanity fought its way out of the Middle Ages to get away from. Your smart phone doesn't work because of some made-up fact about electricity.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Well, how big WAS it?

It is human nature to want to measure things, or at least calibrate big things against other big things. The big and destructive fairly beg quantifying, in fact, so we have for instance the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale (with a top level of 5 for winds above 156 mph/250 kph). This depends only on wind velocities, and doesn’t take into account rain or storm surges (Allaby, 2008). We also have the Fujita tornado intensity scale (Fujita, 1971), which for winds above 261 mph/420 kph can reach a level of F5. The following question asks about measuring earthquakes and volcanoes, which are much harder to quantify than wind-speed velocities.

Q: Hi I am an 8th grade student and I was wondering what determines the magnitude of an earthquake or what determines the power of a volcano...
- Caleb Le M.

A: Your question has two parts, which I will answer in order:

1. Earthquake magnitudes are calculated many different ways, but ultimately it comes down to measuring the amplitude of the actual ground motion (up-down, side-to-side, front-back) on multiple seismometers, and correcting for the varying seismic velocities and the distance separating these seismometers from the earthquake epicenter. Of course you have to calculate the distance to the epicenter first by triangulation from three or more seismometers (and also correct THOSE results by different velocities of sound in the different rocks between the hypocenter [the actual source] and the different measuring seismometers). 

Asking a seismologist how big an earthquake was is like asking a friend to describe how big someone is? Do you mean tall? Wide? Heavy? Some combination of all of these? Does this dress make me look fat? Seismologists do NOT like being asked how they calculate a magnitude, because it will generally require a 30-minute explanation. Therefore, their first reply is often which magnitude are we talking about here?

The original earthquake magnitude scale (Richter, 1935) was the first coherent attempt to define something that is ultimately very three-dimensional and complex. The original Richter scale  measured only the energy in the low frequency end of the seismic energy spectrum, standardized to the particular type of Wood-Anderson seismometer available at the time. Today a modified Richter magnitude is called the “local magnitude” or ML, and is tuned for the rocks and sediments of a local region. For southern California, the equation to calculate this magnitude (Spence et al., 1989; Bormann and Dewey, 2014) is:
ML = Log (A) + 0.00189*r - 2.09,
…where A = amplitude of maximum ground movement in nanometers measured at the seismometer, r = distance from the seismometer to the epicenter in kilometers, and – 2.09 is a correction factor. This equation works only for southern California, and doesn’t work for Cascadia, Japan, the Mediterranean, or Indonesia, which are each served better by different numerical factors.

Another way to calculate an earthquake local magnitude is to work off of an analog log-scale diagram such as in this link:

Though relatively easy to understand and use, the Richter Scale is no longer commonly used.

There are also Mb (the body-wave magnitude), MS (the surface-wave magnitude), and Mw (the moment magnitude). Most of these track closely together for magnitudes of M = 2 to M = 5, but diverge for larger and smaller earthquakes. In part this is because some wave-types strongly influence a short-period or broadband seismometer (which are sensitive to higher frequencies) while other wave-types (for example, surface waves) more strongly affect a seismometer designed to optimally measure low-frequency energy in the 1 – 2 Hz range.

For large earthquakes, MW (Moment Magnitude) is the preferred magnitude, because it more fully represents everything emanating from the earthquake hypocenter. The “moment” MO is calculated as a product of µ (the shear strength of the rocks) times S (the surface area of the fault tear), and d (the displacement – how far did one side of the fault move with respect to the other side). The largest ever recorded earthquake was the Great Chilean event of May 1960, which had a moment magnitude Mw = 9.5

Confused yet? There is also Me (the energy magnitude – a measure of the potential damage to man-made structures), and Intensity (the measure of surface-shaking damage observed). They are related. Energy release is generally proportional to the shaking amplitude raised to the 3/2 power, so an increase of 1 magnitude corresponds to a release of energy 31.6 times greater than that released by the next lower earthquake magnitude. In other words,
Magnitude 3 = 2 gigajoules
Magnitude 4 = 63 gigajoules
Magnitude 5 = 2,000 gigajoules
Magnitude 6 = 63,000 gigajoules
Magnitude 7 = 2,000,000 gigajoules

These numbers dwarf the puny power of hydrogen bombs, by the way,  

Both Intensity and Magnitude depend on many local variables, including surface geometry and velocities of various underlying rock and sediment units. For example, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake had a surface-wave magnitude MS of 8.1 However, because of resonant focusing of seismic waves as the partially-dried-up Lake Texcoco basin lapped onto bedrock, some buildings on one side of a city boulevard had ground motions 75 times greater than the other side (Moreno-Murillo, 1985; see also ). A friend (Mauricio de la Fuente, a Mexican geophysicist) who lived through this event told me that it was amazing to stand in that street and see everything on one side standing, and everything on the other side flattened. Over 8,000 people died, many in buildings on that (Texcoco ancient lake) side.

Intensity is based on the Mercalli scale ( It is a twelve-level scale designed to fit to differences in observed damage. The name Mercalli is attached to a scale that Giuseppe Mercalli revised from an earlier Rossi-Forel scale, and which has been further modified multiple times since then ( ). On the Modified Mercalli scale, the 1985 Mexico City event scored an intensity level of IX (“Violent”). There are higher levels (and scarier words) than that, by the way.

One more thing to think about: seismologists estimate that only 1% to 10% of the energy of any given earthquake is released as seismic waves. Almost all the rest of the energy is released as heat ( ). This figures indirectly into models designed to emulate the complex breaking process of a fault tear, because at some points, wall-rocks are literally welded together by the intense heat, forcing complex movements around these focal points (Dieterich, 1978; James Dieterich, personal communication 2016).

Moment magnitudes are calculated by complex equations that take into account a number of factors including different velocities and different attenuation of seismic energy in different rocks.

An earthquake on the San Andreas fault system will almost certainly be smaller than an earthquake where I live in the Pacific Northwest. This is because the San Andreas fault plane (at least the earthquake shears visible from the surface) can only go down vertically 10 to 15 kilometers before the crust turns plastic. A subduction earthquake, however (think of the Great Tohoku Earthquake of Japan in 2011) occurs on a SHALLOWLY DIPPING fault plane. The depth-direction part (dipping in the direction of the Japanese Archipelago) of the fault-tear actually extended over 200 kilometers! It has been estimated that the surface rip was at least 200 km x 300 km!  By comparison, a major earthquake on a part of the San Andreas fault system might be "just" 100 km x 15 km. 

2. The "power of a volcano" is generally characterized by scientists as Volcano Explosivity Index or VEI. This is a relative measure of explosiveness of volcanic eruptions, and is open-ended with the largest supervolcano eruptions in pre-history (Yellowstone, Toba, Taupo) given a magnitude of 8 in this classification system. The 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius and the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens in Washington State are both rated a VEI 5 on this scale. The VEI number attached to a volcanic eruption depends on (a) how much volcanic material (dense rock equivalent) is thrown out, (b) to what height is it thrown, and (c) how long the eruption lasts. There is no equation to calculate this scale (it is like the Mercalli scale based on visual observations), but it is considered logarithmic from VEI 2 upwards. In other words a VEI = 5 event represents approximately 10 times more energy than a VEI = 4 event. Follow this link for more information on how to assess the VEI magnitude (from Newhall and Self, 1982):


Allaby, Michael, 2008, Saffir-Simpson scale, in: A dictionary of earth sciences (3rd ed.): Oxford University Press, 1672 pp. ISBN 978-0-1992-11944

Bormann, Peter; and James W. Dewey, 2014, The new IASPEI standards for determining magnitudes from digital data and their relation to classical magnitudes:
doi: 10.2312/GFZ.NMSOP-2_IS_3.3

Dieterich, James H., 1978, Time-dependent friction and the mechanics of stick-slip: Pure and Applied Geophysics 116, issue 4, p. 790–806. doi: 10.1007/BF00876539

Fujita, Tetsuya Theodore, 1971, Proposed Characterization of Tornadoes and Hurricanes by Area and Intensity: Satellite and Mesometeorology Research Paper 91. Chicago, IL: Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago.

Moreno-Murillo, Juan Manuel, 1995, The 1985 Mexico Earthquake: Geofisica Colombiana. Universidad Nacional de Colombia 3, p. 5–19. ISSN 0121-2974.

Newhall, Christopher G.; and Self, Stephen, 1982, The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI): An Estimate of Explosive Magnitude for Historical Volcanism (PDF): Journal of Geophysical Research 87 (C2), p. 1231–1238. doi: 10.1029/JC087iC02p01231.

Richter, C.F., 1935, An instrumental earthquake magnitude scale (PDF): Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. Seismological Society of America 25 (1-2), p. 1–32.

Spence, William; Stuart A. Sipkin; and George L. Choy, 1989, Measuring the size of an earthquake, in: Earthquakes and Volcanoes 21, Number 1, 1989.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Is Our Atmosphere Dynamic?

It may surprise readers to learn that the American Geophysical Union has divisions named Atmospheric and Space Electricity, Global Environmental Change, and Atmospheric Sciences. In short, the geosciences world include a very large element of atmospheric science.  The following query has several different elements, all of which suggest an awareness of how dynamic our atmosphere really is.

Q: Hello. I wasn't sure which category to inquire within but this seemed appropriate. Since Earth is not a perfectly spherical object, nor any other planetary bodies we know of, how does that affect the gaseous layers of atmosphere surrounding us? My question stems from an uneducated assumption that our atmosphere is not a perfect bubble around us but must be dynamic given the amount of energy factors associated with it, the terrain beneath it and which locations have the greatest gravitational pull. Can the sphere of air around us ever dissipate into space? Are there higher or lower points that exist because of geography that make our categories of layers more ambiguous?
-Joe A

A: As you suggest, the atmosphere is indeed a very dynamic thing, and yes all rotating solar system bodies are oblate spheroids because of centrifugal force at the equators (and none at the poles). Jupiter rotates at a phenomenal rate (it has 9.8 hour days!) and is thus is the most oblate planet of all.

If you think about oceans, however (the ocean surface is at the same elevation above the spheroid datum over the Marianas Trench as it is in Pamlico Sound), then mountain ranges will similarly have little to do with atmospheric height over the globe (there IS a small amount of isostacy). The most common exception to this are called storm surges - the low-pressure cores of hurricanes and typhoons will literally lift up the (warmed and expanded) ocean water. With Hurricane Katrina, the storm surge reached an astonishing 8.5 meters (27.8 feet!) at Pass Christian, Mississippi. That's above the normal tides!

There is atmospheric thinning with altitude, however, and the upper reaches can still be detected at 100+ kilometers, which is why satellites must fly at 250+ kilometers. Even at those altitudes there is measurable drag that over time will bring down low-flying satellites and launch vehicle debris. Most of the upper atmospheric variation has to do with solar wind and solar heating activity, however. Because of Earth’s gravity, most of our original atmosphere remains - unlike Mars, where the original atmosphere and water were stripped over time by solar winds. When you see clouds over mountain tops (pretty common over our volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest), it is because winds trying to get around the mountain send some of their components up and OVER the mountain. This leads to a drop in temperature with increasing altitude, which contributes to dissolved moisture precipitating out into what we call orographic clouds - cloud caps. As the air moves past and back down to lower elevations the water re-dissolves back into the atmosphere and the clouds disappear... but the same AMOUNT of water remains.

Q: I had to do a little research to understand a few of the terms you used but I definitely feel like I came away with a better understanding. Thank you for your insightful response. I shouldnt be surprised I guess that avenues of inquiry like this are out there given the ubiquity of websites, but I never tried something like this before. I had a thought, did some googling and found you. It's awesome to get answers from professionals as if I was back in school and could pick the brains of my professors after hours. So thanks again, despite my questions being kind of convoluted!
- Joe

A: I'm glad I could help. I suppose I am technically a professional, in that I get paid to do research in geophysics, but I'm just a very ordinary person with the same level of curiosity that you have. I personally don't divide the world into professional vs. non-professional, but instead into interested vs. non-interested. I plumber who asked some really deep questions about the lithosphere and upper mantle told me he spends a lot of "windshield time" thinking about the physical world as he drives from job to job. 

THAT meets my definition of a scientist. You and I fit in there also. That goes for anyone reading this chapter, too.

Monday, October 3, 2016

When Was North Carolina Last Under Water?

We often get queries that ask about local geology that we do not have easy access to. However, it’s fairly easy to sleuth things in the broad brush by locating state geologic maps. I can’t say much about a rock found in someone’s backyard, because glaciers and rivers could have moved that rock hundreds of kilometers from its original source. The following is a local-geology question that I CAN reasonably respond to. 

Q: Can you tell me when was the last time North Carolina was under water? I'm finding fossil seashells yet I live nowhere near any ocean. I live in Jacksonville, NC (Onslow County)
- Brandon F

A: You live on the Outer Coastal Plain of North Carolina; Onslow County runs all the way to the ocean. The Outer Coastal Plain, or Tidewater is extremely flat, averaging less than 20 feet above sea level. It contains large swamps and lakes indicative of poor drainage conditions, which have hosted both freshwater and marine mollusks at different times. The coastal margin north of Cape Lookout is a “drowned coast,” in which sea level rise associated with the end of the last Ice Age, and continual melting of the ice caps, has caused the ocean to invade the lower reaches of river valleys including where you live. This drowning has produced large embayments such as Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. New River (where you live) lies between this region and the Cape Fear uplift.

You might wish to look at the North Carolina geologic map for more detail:


To your east you have the Belgrade Formation, with oyster shells embedded in sand. To your north and west you have the River Bend Formation, also fossiliferous with limestone among other rocks. Both formations are listed as Tertiary in age (66 million to 2.6 million years ago). However, the shells you are seeing could conceivably be from the last several tens of millennia if I read your elevations and location correctly.

I hope this helps. You have some excellent geologists in your state, both at the state and university levels. It should be fairly easy to contact one - perhaps visit the closest university and ask to talk with a geologist there.