Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Fallibility of Heroes

I have a personal hero, and like all humans he is flawed. However, he is flawed in such a way that I have to question my admiration of him, and I am left wondering what I should think.

I have looked up to Harrison Schmitt for a few years now for a few reasons.  First he is the only geologist to walk on another world. Which is an amazing feat, and one that I dream about repeating myself (I doubt this would ever happen). As planetary geology is my dream field, this is the most amazing thing one could do in my eyes, actual field geology on another celestial object, and this alone would make him one of my favorite scientists of all time. I even have a poster taken of the Apollo 17 mission on my wall, I don't know if Dr. Schmitt is the astronaut pictured but there is a 50/50 chance that it is, and I like to think it is him.

This is the image I'm referring to

Dr. Schmitt and I also share something in common, in that we are from the same state, not only from the same state, but we are both from small, southern New Mexican towns whose entire economy rested on the exploitation of a limited resource (copper for him, oil for me). Maybe this isn't the strongest connection; however, growing up I saw the people around me and thought that my home town was like a black hole and the people born or raised there were already past the event horizon. I honestly feared for years that I would never escape, that no matter what I did, there would be no way out. Thus the idea that there were people from the crappy and poor areas of my state (one Political Science professor at my school  referred to much of southern New Mexico as the Third World within the First World) had lived the dream filled me with hope and confidence that I was not already past the event horizon, that there was a way out.

However, Dr. Schmitt is a Climate Change denier, a position I find irresponsible and uninformed. He has tried to do a tremendous amount of harm to the good science done by the climate scientists; I wouldn't be so upset about this if he wasn't a good geologist, but his body of work is impressive and he rightly won accolades earlier in his career. Thus to the uniformed his presence among the deniers seems like damning evidence.

It is becoming more and more evident that the position held by Schmitt and others like him is both wrong and dangerous. We see the effects all the time, pacific island nations looking for places to evacuate after the sea swallows their home, heat waves, storms; the evidence is so solid that the pentagon has become concerned that it poses a risk to national security. At times like these we need our best and brightest to look at the evidence without bias. It is pointless to bicker about the reality of  situation, when its consequences are already barreling down on you.

I would like to remember Dr. Schmitt as the type of person I want to be, a brave explorer who advanced the cause of science both by increasing our knowledge about the universe and by keeping scientific progress close to our hearts and in our imagination. However, these wonderful things that he did are tainted by his recent actions as a politician and I cannot separate the two, though I wish I could.

I won't take the poster down, though, because at the moment it was taken, he was doing something noble and beautiful, something that I can still strive to emulate and surpass.

For more information here is NASA biography, and in the interest of fairness, his biography on desmog blog as well.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Labradorite Meme

Okay, so the whole meme labradorite meme that started recently made me really excited, not really because I'm the world's greatest fan of labradorite (I like it but there is a lot of minerals that are just as amazing), but because there was a sample of feldspar in my Mineralogy lab quiz and it showed labradorescence!

And here it is!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Mexico Geology: Rio Grande Rift

I still vividly remember learning the words to the Beach Boys’ Surfin USA when I was five years old. I was due to graduate from my preschool and we were going to sing that song for our families at the graduation ceremony. For those of you who don’t know, the songs begin with the quintessential Californian Boys lamenting the lot in life for the rest of their countrymen. Specifically they bemoan that:

If everybody had an ocean
Across the U. S. A.
Then everybody'd be surfin'
Like Californi-a
You'd seem 'em wearing their baggies
Huarachi sandals too
A bushy bushy blonde hairdo
Surfin' U. S. A.

            While learning this song I remember trying to imagine a United States cut in half by a body of water large enough to generate waves like the ocean. I imagined cowboys surfing from Texas up to Kansas herding cattle who were chilling on rafts, or businessmen windsurfing through city streets to  their office buildings (I had a really overactive imagination as a kid). I didn't think an ocean in the middle of the continent would be such a great idea, but I thought it would be interesting none the less. On a side note, when we went over the Vietnam War in high school, guerrilla warfare was described as like your whole country being an ocean, and all your people floating in it which always made me think of this song. Yeah, I know I'm weird.
          However, what I didn’t know was that the interior of America did share some features with the ocean (the Atlantic though not the Pacific) and even more surprising, that this feature cut my home state in half. What could dry, land-locked New Mexico have with the Atlantic Ocean? It would seem that no two regions could be less alike. But somehow they are, but for that to be obvious, first we need to understand a very fundamental aspect of our Earth's surface.

Change in Location of  continental Plates from the Permian to the present, Photo Credit
While the ground beneath our feet may feel solid and static, we know that it is not. Instead the surface is made up of tectonic plates which floats on the flowing plastic of the Upper Mantle. The plates can be divided into two groups, oceanic and continental plates; the continental plates are mostly composed of granite with a thin veneer of sediments coating it and the oceanic crust is composed mainly of basalt. Since granite is composed of lighter (in color and density) than the iron rich basalt, it stands to reason that the continental plates would float above the basalt. Now look at the changes our world has undergone, specifically look at how the continents were torn apart, forming the east and west hemispheres. This formed a divergent plate boundary, and you can almost make out the change in this picture from the initial valley (in the Triassic) that the rift formed to the ocean we see now.
Plates can interact in three primary ways. If two plates strike together head on, this is called a converging plate boundary, and in this instance three different outcomes are possible. If a light continental plate and heavy oceanic plate converge, then the oceanic plate will subduct, or sink, beneath the continent. In this instance a lot of oceanic water end up mixing with the magma, this creates some seriously violent volcanoes, like Mount St. Helens. If two light continental plates crash together, they push each other up like a rug bunching up when you slip on it; this creates massive mountain ranges a great example being the Himalayas. Two heavy oceanic plates can meet, here both plates get pushed down, partially melt and form a  volcanic arc. Plates can also slide past each other, like in California at San Andres Fault, and if those movement is interrupted then the plates will lurch forward in a jerking motion causing an Earthquake.

Photo Credit:
However, none of those are what makes the Atlantic Ocean similar to New Mexico. Instead we have to discuss the third type of plate interaction, divergent plate boundaries which are places where plates pull away from each other . Like we saw in the break-up of Pangaea, this small crack in the plates can grow into a huge rift valley and eventually into an ocean! Luckily we have the opportunity to see a Rift Valley in the process of growing farther a part; we see in the aptly named East African Rift Valley the convergence of a few rifts cutting up the eastern coast of Africa. While the mechanism which cause this phenomena are not well known, the popular model among Earth Scientists involves elevated heat flow from the mantles causing bulges under the plates, forcing those plates apart.

Photo Credit:

In New Mexico we have our own example of this process, a massive structure that cuts the state in two and formed mountains  and volcanoes at its sides making it one of the two features that dominate the geology of the state (the other being the Jemez Lineament). It began about 35 million years ago and then entered a phase of major volcanism for around 15 million years, and the first phase of crustal extension occurred about 5 million years after the start of the volcanism and lasted for ten million years. The rift then took it easy for a few million years, until the northern and southern portions of the rift underwent a period of expansion in the last 10-12 million years.

Photo Credit: Originally produced by the USGS

The rift formed numerous interesting features, but I like the Sandia's the best, so that is a great place to start. Why do I like the Sandia Mountains the best? It might be because they translate to the Watermelon Mountains, it might be because my fiance is from Eastern flank of those mountains, or it might be because it was the first stop on my structural geology field trip. Whatever the reason, they are really cool. Here the crustal extension resulted in horst and graben mountains; the grabens were mostly filled in with sediments eroded off of the Sandias.

Photo Credit:

The Sandia's culminate at the crest, which is a beautiful sight and I could not more highly recommend that anyone visiting Albuquerque drive up to the top and look out over the city.

From my Structural Geology field trip

In addition to being beautiful the Sandia's also hold some amazing geologic features. First and for most is the amazing unconformity which represents a 1.2 billion year gap in the geologic feature. I have to give you my sincerest apologies for not taking pictures of it on my trip, but I'll try to get some the next time I'm in the area. However, just imagine the ancient granite crumbling into a pile of grus at its base tilted slightly with sandstone and limestone laying on top of it. The bottom of the sedimentary layers have been exposed in some places by crumbling granite, and you can walk under the rock and pull out fossils buried above your head! The Sandias also contain hydrothermal vents perforating the area which have resulted in mineral deposits (including some gold).
On the western edge of the Rift are the Three Sisters, who are now kind of old and cold but they used to be HOT...get it because they are dormant volcanoes, I'm hilarious...In all seriousness these three volcanoes are not that large, but they are awesome. These were also caused by the tectonic forces which shaped the valley, and sit on top of a 5 mile long fissure. They are dormant now, but they once spewed out basaltic lava over the area - side note you can actually see the path and level of the rain water over these volcanoes, the calcium minerals in the lava have been weathered in some parts into calcite, so that you have rocks which are black on top and white on bottom.
It would be easy to write a book just about the Sandia's, but the rift gave us more than just this, including the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces which is made up of granite, rhyolite, some sedimentary rocks and even some welded volcanics. The rift dominated much of New Mexican geology and most the North-South trending features in New Mexico were caused by the Rift (East-West trending features are a result of the Jemez Lineament. Including the very river that named the rift.
You see the Rio Grande is a fairly unique river, in that it formed within the valley, instead of forming the valley it now resides in. When the rift was opening up it created several lakes which then began to start linking up, eventually they started to flow south, and provide part of our border with Mexico. These massive forces are at their most striking at the Rio Grande Gorge which drives home more than any other site the awesome power that was tearing apart the crust millions of years ago.

Photo Credit: NM BLM
I should really go into more depth about these features; however, when I first said I would talk about this feature I forgot about how freaking huge it was and just how much the rift affects the geology of the entire state, so when I take some trips out to the areas I'll write them up, but until then why don't we just try to imagine what if the rift had expanded farther until there was an ocean across the U.S.A, do you think everybody would be surfin' like Californi-a?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

New Mexico Geology Primer

I haven’t talked about geology as much as I want to on this blog, so I have decided to change that, this was inspired by Anne at Highly Allochthonous, and in an effort to ease in (and because I won’t start anything resembling research until next semester) I’ve decided to write about a few important geological sights in my home state. Why? Because I love it here, and because it has fascinating and varied features which you could spend a lifetime exploring. In addition, I can pepper the stories with anecdotes about the great and sometimes very strange people and events associated with those sites. You see, New Mexico is very odd from our diet (depending on who you talk to it ranges from strange to a dire sin for any restaurant not to provide green chile as a topping) to music (go to a large dance or party the music will shift between dance music, country, and tejano) to the landforms (I’ll talk about that later) and it makes for an interesting place to live.
                Why is New Mexico so odd? It might be because New Mexico has the oldest, continuously inhabited settlement within the United States or the oldest center of government in the country or maybe it is because our history includes a tremendously successful Native American revolt which forced the Europeans out of the state and when they finally returned they had to play nice. Or it might be because of our more recent history of government research or the dichotomy of having the highest rate of PhDs per capita of any state in the union (at least according to History Channel’s series The States) and having the tenth highest rate of high school dropouts in the country. However I always assumed it was due to the diversity and uniqueness of the ecosystems surrounding us. In New Mexico you can take a four hour drive starting in the High planes and drive through deserts, mountains, and wetlands. It was a fascinating place to grow up in, and luckily for me my parents took every opportunity to teach me new and wondrous things about the history and nature surrounding me.
                However, eventually I grew older and wiser and learned a very important thing about New Mexico, all that diversity of nature I grew up being fascinated by wasn’t due to the biology which was just a symptom of a much more interesting aspect to the state, instead I learned better and learned that New Mexico is amazing due to its geology. So I am going to call my shots for future posts and provide some background info for the places I plan to write about as well.

                First off is the Southern High Plains, which isn’t my favorite part of the state, as it is flat and flat and oh did I mention flat? But it is the specific place in New Mexico where I was born and raised, so it deserves some attention. The Southern High Plains are flat because they used to be crossed from west to east by meandering streams which lazily spread across the planes through Texas into the Gulf of Mexico, however their waters were pirated away by the faster Pecos River—on a side note you know it is going to be an awesome class when your professor starts talking about pirating water.
                The High Plains now don’t have too much water, besides on the far western edge where that dastardly Pecos River still resides smugly taunting those he left destitute of water, and are mostly reliant on aquifers for the stuff (okay so even the parts of New Mexico with lakes and rivers rely on aquifers, the state’s drier then straight gin in a martini glass). I grew up drinking well water pulled up from the Ogallala Aquifer (at least for twelve years there was an interlude which we will talk about later); however, for a long time the discharge rates of the aquifer has far outstripped the recharge rate and the residents of the High Plane who think about such things fear very probable water shortages in the region’s future.

Sierra Blanca:
                Luckily, I did not spend my entire childhood out where short grass prairie and desert mix and intermingle, but instead I spend most of my elementary school years on a VOLCANO! Okay, well a very dead volcano, but a volcano all the same. Unfortunately for me, though, I did not know this while I grew up there and I didn’t completely appreciate it until after I had been gone for far too long. However, it was here that I first read a book on plate tectonics and the whole reason I stumbled into geology was that I was trying to understand how I was living on a mountain in the middle of the continental crust far away from any plate boundaries. Also this was where we went on my first college geology field trip, so happy memories!

                The first time I ever visited this site was during a field trip in Elementary school, and it was amazing; huge white dunes stretch across as far as the eye can see, and I could remember my child brain trying to reconcile the heat with the fact it looked like it had just snowed which wasn’t helped out by us trying to sled down the dunes—if you ever want an extremely effective illustration on static friction first go to Ruidoso in the winter and sled down a hill, then drive down to White Sands and try it there(actually do it the other way around unless you want to end your day on a downer).

                There is a lot I could say about this area, but to understand why this area is so cool all you need to do is imagine me excitedly screaming “THE CRUST TRIED TO PULL ITSELF APART HERE!” and you get the gist.

Carlsbad Caverns:
                When I was a child I loved bats, I don’t exactly remember why but I know the obsession I had about Chiroptera (which I actually memorized as a third grader) was greatly aided by the Caverns. If you have never seen a bat flight, I cannot highly recommend it enough. However, I recommend exploring a highly decorative cave like Carlsbad even more, the speleothems are amazing, and if you are healthy and wealthy enough you should walk in from the natural entrance and then take a guided tour to get a better appreciation for the beauty and grandeur of these caves. I still remember very vividly my second grade field trip down into the caverns and I’m pretty sure it had a huge effect on me growing up.

                So there you go, five posts that I want to get out as soon as possible, and as I have several of them in some level of completion. I’m going to try to finish one every week to week and half from time that this post is published.

 So I'm running really late on these, but I have the last two started, and I'll try to finish them soon.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Living in a State of Scientific Wonderment

I have noticed a disturbing trend with a lot of people, mostly that when I tell them I am a science major they give me a dumbfounded look and ask “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why would you put yourself through that?” and you know in all honesty screw them. I’m tired of playing nice about this; I’m tired of people greedily lapping up the results of science, while insulting those who participate in it. I’m tired of people who are too lazy or have let themselves be brainwashed into thinking science isn’t ‘cool’ disparage my career choice. If I’m having trouble in my class and say something about it or stay in to study instead of going to college night somebody always tells me “Well pick an easier major”.
                I didn’t chose my major so I can shill BS in class and pass, or because it would give me more time to party, and every person I’ve talked to who says they picked their major for those reasons have said that they either regret it or life hasn’t been as much fun since they left college. The traditional college experience lasts only four or five years and humans are living longer than ever, so instead of picking a career where you would live for the weekend so that those five years are easy and filled with booze, why not choose something you love and do that for the rest of your life.
                That is what I chose to do; I love my classes—every semester I look forward to learning new ideas and developing new tools for my future career. Is it going to be hard? Hell yes, I have no delusions about that, and yes I am nervous about the next few steps, but I also am anxious. I like learning, and am tired of college students who write it off as just something they have to trudge through on their way to their next kegger.
                Science lets you live your life with the wonderment and amazement of a child, science not only encourages you but rewards you for asking “why?” I am not a morning person, so I get my day started with coffee, and some mornings when I’m pouring my coffee, it will come out of the spout and seemingly defy gravity as it rushes down the side of the pot only to spill onto the counter where the pot ends. Most people are just annoyed at this momentary delay in their daily schedule. I, however, am not, instead I think about the physical properties of water, how it is a polar molecule with a slight charge at the ends like a magnet. I think about cohesion and adhesion, and sometimes if I am tired enough to let my mind wander far enough, I’ll think about how water aids in chemical reactions and by doing so allowed life to arise on this planet and how on some far off distant planet the same processes may be happening on some new life form is growing up in the water. So I’ll stand there transfixed by the beauty of the universe which was just displayed for me in that tiny little inconvenience that most would either shrug off as inconsequential or bemoan as a horrible waste of their time.
                That is the great thing about science.  If you know enough, the universe is constantly presenting its wonders to you in some form or another. For example, look at the wall in front of you; do you see its color? That is because outer shell electrons are being excited by the light striking them, jumping up in energy levels and then dropping back to their more comfortable position and as they do, they emit tiny massless packets of energy called a photon, which also acts as a wave, which then travels at the speed of light to your eye so you can perceive its color. Go walk across a grassy field, you are stomping on your cousins just removed by  over a billion years of evolution. Look up at night, see those stars? Those are balls of gas under so much pressure due to the force of gravity caused by their huge masses that they are causing nuclear fusion to occur at their cores. Every little speck of light is a hydrogen bomb factory produces massive explosions which pump out the heavier elements of our universe.  Oh and by the way, a lot of those stars have planets orbiting them, and some of those planets might even have life.
                So, if you are not a scientist, a science major, or science enthusiast, and someone tells you they are don’t ask “What is wrong with you?” but instead ask “Why?” Ask what makes them so passionate that they would dedicate a large portion of their fleeting existence to the process of science and trust me they will tell you. They will explain to you why they do what they do with the wide eyed innocence of a child and with all the enthusiasm of one as well. Because in the end, that is the reason I study science.  I like to live in a state of wonderment that can only come as a result of delving past the surface on the mundane world into the why’s and how’s of its inner workings.