Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tour of the Lunar Lab

                I don’t really remember when, but at some point last year I realized how different the geology of Mars, Venus, and the Moon are from our home planet, not just their lack of plate tectonics, but also the strange features and processes that seem to exist, separate from our own experiences. At the same time, I was researching graduate schools and trying to figure out what I would want to study when I got there. Lucky for me, somehow those three factors converged and I learned that it was possible to major in Planetary Science, so I changed my plans for the future, and decided to study the planets. Now I don’t know exactly what I will study, but there are enough unanswered questions to go around, so I’m not really worried, I just want to learn one of those questions.
                With a new goal for the six plus years once I graduate, I started looking for opportunities to participate in real research, and while on a whim I started looking at possible NASA internships. While I do have faith in my own abilities, that faith does not extend to my resume because it was not that impressive when I started applying to different programs. I have never had any experience working in a scientific field and I go to a very small school that is not known for its STEM fields; however, I applied anyways, but I honestly didn’t expect to hear back from them. They did call back, first for an interview, and then I was emailed about a great opportunity during the summer.  I worked with Crew Earth Observations, building a database of astronaut photography of volcanoes.  So I spent this last summer in Houston, working a dream job.
                Let me first say, if you are a STEM major and you do not have any opportunities on the table for next summer, look up NASA SOLAR and apply for something. NASA has set up a one stop shopping initiative for interns, thus you can fill out one application and apply for as many opportunities as you possibly can. It was a wonderful experience, and the Education office there does an amazing job to provide lectures and learning experiences beyond just what you worked on. However, by far my favorite opportunity was a suited up tour of the Lunar Sample Lab.
                I had the opportunity to gain first-hand experience of the tools and processes used to examine and study extraterrestrial materials, and I was amazed by the thorough processes utilized to prevent contamination. First, we gave up our cameras so they could be sterilized, and then we went into the first room which we had to put booties on before we came in. Then we went through a series of rooms each time upping the amount of protection we had before we finally reached the lab. Each room is pressurized slightly more than the one before it, so any contaminants floating in the air would be blown out of the room when the door was opened. Once inside the Lab, everything was inside containment boxes, so a pair of thick rubber gloves provided even more protection to the samples. The most striking thing to me was the intense protection given to every sample.  They are hermetically sealed to prevent contamination during storage, and the samples are not opened until they are safely sealed in one of the containment boxes, and only then could scientists examine them. In addition, every bit of every rock has to be kept track of, and unless the researcher has express permission to perform a destructive test, the weight of the sample at the beginning must match the weight of the sample at the end. The people who run the lab and gave us our tour were both highly professional and very friendly; at one point we had a conversion about mineralogy of the rocks and the processes that formed them. In addition, they explained that the unique processes on the surface of the moon (such as micro-meteorite impacts) cannot be duplicated in laboratories which led into a joke about the moon hoax people. If I could get an internship in that lab next summer I would jump on the opportunity in a heartbeat; it was an amazing opportunity.

And now pictures to prove I was there! (Really I was, I didn’t Photoshop any of them)
Hands on experience with a containment box

Tools inside the containment box

This is from memory, but I believe this is the Genesis Rock

Observing the Genesis Rock under a microscope

Basalt from the Moon

Close up on another sample of basalt

More Lunar basalt

The black cube in the bottom right corner is used to show the original orientation of the sample on the Moon!

Three Pieces of Lunar Basalt
This is a station used to cut the samples

If you can't tell, this tour made me excited

Well I didn't use Photoshop, so technically I told the truth

Accretionary Wedge 38: Things I Wished I Learned and Things I Want to Learn

I haven’t blogged much, mostly because I’m about as scattered brained as you could get (I was going to say I haven’t done much, but then I remembered touring the Lunar Sample Lab, the Trinity Site, and several interesting hikes which I should have written about, well I will get to that soon-ish) however, when I read about this topic, I figured I had a few things to say, so I would try to write some.
                First off, I wish somebody would have told me in High School that you could study Geology in college and what you could do with that education. I honestly didn’t even know that Geologists did actual science.  I thought they were more technicians in mines or the oil fields; I grew up in the Permian Basin with a working pump jack in my school’s courtyard and two oil refineries on the outside of town, so that was all the experience I had with it. I had been interested in Earth Science since I read a book on Plate Tectonics in the first grade, but nobody told me you could make a living off of it. This actually brings me to a related issue, that I wish a professor at New Mexico Tech would have told me the definition of petrology (or I would have just asked him to clarify) since my only understanding of  the prefix petro- came from petroleum I assumed the worst. And because my stated goal in going to college was first and foremost to get away from the oil fields, I thought that Geology wasn’t the field for me and went into college without a clear path towards a degree.
                Ironically, once I talked to one of the Geology professors I found out how much I could do with a geology degree, I promptly switched my major after an aimless two year period where I floated through the basics for every science and even wetted my feet in social studies (which ended fairly unpleasantly). While most of my classes applied to my Geology degree since you have to know a lot of everything to effectively understand geology, I still wasted a lot of time on classes that didn’t interest me just so I could realize that they didn’t interest me.

                Besides learning some technical skills, which are difficult to attain at a small university, I would like the opportunity to take a class with a holistic look at the geosciences. It would be nice once you learn about Mineralogy, Petrology, Geochemistry, Sedimentology, Structural Geology, etc. to put all that knowledge together and see how they interact with one another in real life. I know that it would be nearly impossible to cover all of geology so in depth in one class, but maybe just looking at one local phenomena and looking at how the different geoscience disciplines interact with each other in that instance. For example, in New Mexico we could study the Rio Grande Rift and see how the structures formed by it where influenced by different properties of the rocks and minerals affected. It was enjoyable in introductory Geology to look at the big picture; however, I think it would be useful to step back at the end of your undergraduate degree and look at the big picture again, in the light of all you have just learned.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bad Lab Procedures and Bad Science

The above picture is used by my university (the one which decreed that there shall be no new geology majors) as one of the banner pictures for its website. Basically, this is a picture which is supposed to make prospective students want to come to our school. Well I have a problem with this.  First off it has been a while since I took chemistry, but I can’t think of a chem lab where we used a solution that looks like this. I might be wrong; it might be a copper solution of some kind.  However, I think this is the Chem lab for non-majors and that is water with blue food dye or this was a faked, thus staged picture.
Now I could be wrong, however there is something else missing from this picture which leads me to believe that it is not a representative of someone practicing real science. I blocked some of the face to hide this person’s identity (I don’t know who this is and I didn’t ask for permission so I’m covering my bases), however I believe you can tell what is missing here-SAFETY GLASSES! This person is totally exposed if something goes wrong with this reaction. Thus either this is a fake or this person (and whoever is watching the lab) has no clue what they are doing.
In the interest of being thorough, I will discuss both situations. If this picture is a fake, this makes the school photographer ignorant and lazy. There is no other way to put it, there are several labs a week happening, each doing very interesting things; instead, based off of this assumption the photographer decided to take a “science-y” looking picture and call it good. Why not go into an upper level chemistry (or geology) lab and take a picture of the students using the advanced (and really cool looking) equipment while wearing proper safety gear? It would have looked better and the picture wouldn’t scream BS to everybody who saw it and knew what actually happens in a science lab (including most High School students, the people this picture is trying to appeal to).
However, what if this is actually a class and that is water with blue food dye in it? I’m ruling out the chemistry classes for science majors.  We always had to wear safety goggles and the Professors and TA’s were very insistent about that (as they should be). That means this is a Chem 113 lab designed for non-science majors, and college students are performing a lab best reserved for Junior High students at the oldest! I have a feeling that this might be the case, as I have talked to some professors and they have said they feel the need to dumb down the courses to make sure that the art and communication students understand it (the professors didn’t single out those majors I did). The problem is the students in those classes don’t understand science, they just pass easier classes. Now here in lies my problem with the system. All majors take the same introductory English classes including English majors.  The same is true with introductory history and history majors, political science and poly sci majors.  If you took Intro to business as an elective, you would take that class with actual business majors. In no other subject at this university are you told that you don’t need to know the basics that is required of the majors.  In effect you are saying that these classes are too hard for the average student. I call BS on that. It is ridiculous that we think science is ‘too hard’ for most students; science is the building blocks of our society. Everything we do and everything we interact with relies on the body of knowledge and techniques that have been in development since Galileo. And the ignorance of these students is shown.  This is a very conservative area, thus this university has a tremendous amount of Climate Change-deniers and creationists. However, conservative doesn’t mean stupid and ignorant, one of my good friends is pretty conservative and is a biomathmatical researcher (as an undergrad, the boy is smart), but science is never really explained to these students so they have no reason to trust it, so they live in a magical world where they can turn on the lights but have no idea how they turn on.
I am aware that some, if not most, students come to this school unprepared to take these ‘tougher’ science classes; however that should not stop them from getting to them eventually. When a student comes to college, if they are in need of immediate English, Reading, or Math, they take remedial classes, classes for no credit, but they are required for that student in order for them to advance to actual college level classes. Why not have remediate science classes in the same vein as those other subjects? Students shown in need of basic science education could be placed in the classes where they could learn about the scientific method, atomic theory, cellular theory, basic Newtonian mechanics (sans most of the math just the concepts), evolution, and in general be brought up to the national standards expected of High School graduates.
The point of a traditional liberal education is to become familiar with a wide array of subjects.  I have credits for everything from Introduction to Literature to Comparative Government to US and World History and those classes would be the same as was required for the majors. However, if you live in a First World country and you do not understand science, you do not understand the world you live in. It is absurd to use a smart phone without understanding radio waves or how computers work, or to use an antibiotic other than Penicillin without understanding evolution. College is the last opportunity most of these students will have to understand science and if they leave ignorant, we know that ignorance will be twisted into a rope that someone will lead them around by. Be it a politician, cult leader, new age guru, or unscrupulous business owner, if you do not know how the world works someone will use it against you.

We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
Carl Sagan

However, I would like to say there is a good banner photo of science on the school site:

Well, you can’t tell what the students are doing, but that skull makes the picture looks awesome!