Friday, January 27, 2012

When My Optimism and My Cynicism Collide:

A lot has already been said about Newt Gingrich's promise of a moon base; however, I still want to talk about it because I sort of agree with the two ways this statement has been met-optimism and cynicism. First lets go with cynicism, it should be obvious this is shameless pandering from a politician who will hedge back and forth on science insulting it or complementing it depending on when it suits him. I am almost positive that if he was elected he would either forget all about or make a half-hearted attempt which wouldn't work. I think The Crux had one of the best cynical responses, and I have to agree with all of their points; however, I don't have to like it.

We should always meet all claims of politicians with skepticism, and just because they pander to our interests (or our dreams) doesn't mean we should throw away our rational thought and embrace them. I do not think many, if any, space professionals, students, or knowledgeable public took these promises at face value, though judging by some of the comments r/space the interested public did, and that's not good. It is very easy for politicians to play to people's emotions on a subject like this, and we have to be careful and not be taken for a ride. So it is a good thing that many people like Neil deGrasse Tyson are coming out to temper expectations. Newt's plan is unworkable, and anybody who pays attention to the space industry knows it won't work.

One last thing about Gingrich, in an early speech he criticized NASA as an overblown bureaucracy and said they have had "failure after failure" well maybe NASA, like any government agency has a lot of red tape, but are the Mars Exploration Rovers failures? They have outlasted their warranties by an incredible amount. They were supposed to last three months, and their mission duration is now measured in years.

Last year when I told my friends, family, and coworkers that I had an internship with NASA they were astounded and impressed. Why? Because NASA is on the frontier of science, they are the dream. It is the only government agency that continues to inspire everyone from small children dreaming about the moon and stars  to college students planning their careers in STEM fields to old men and women thinking about the changes they have seen and the changes yet to come. If you dismiss NASA, you are ignorant of what they have accomplished and I pity you for living in that darkness.

Okay, on the optimistic side I want a moon base! A moon base is an amazing idea, and those of you interested in engineering or space science should go wide-eyed and misty just thinking about it. That was my initial reaction when I heard Newt's statement, then I crashed back down to reality.

However, I couldn't stand the hyper-cynical reactions many people had after the speech, many people who are fascinated with space had a visceral reaction to the speech. And understandingly so, because here is another politician offering something we love for votes with no intention to follow through. Though I can see some good coming from this speech though, maybe a lot of Americans may remember that they love space and they want this base. When they remember they may come looking for information on it, and be exposed to some amazing science and learn a thing or two (or hundred).

Let's not let our cynicism overcome us, this is important and a permanent human presence on another world is something we need to do, not just to prove we can do it, but to give us the ability to do amazing science and to start our manned exploration of the solar system and beyond. And if you don't think our government is investing enough in exploration write to your representatives and tell them so, and if they don't vote the way you want, vote them out. At this point, if we can change a few minds on capital hill that would be an improvement.

An article on io9 has some amazing reasons why; however, I want to go farther. We don't know much about the moon, there is only so much remote sensing and a half a dozen manned missions can tell us. What we need to really understand the moon are boots on the lunar surface. We need planetary scientists doing field work to further our understanding of the moon and how the Earth-Moon system formed. In addition, this will be valuable experience for Mars. Not just in how to live and work in the isolated environment of space travel, but also the development of new scientific tools and field techniques that will be needed. Planetary geologists will need new ways of taking measurements because a space suit isn't as easy to move around in as a flannel shirt and cargo pants. We have been studying the Earth for centuries and we still don't understand every geologic process on it; we need field planetary geologist to map the structure and features of the moon, and then we need field versions of every imaginable discipline of planetary science to really understand the moon. Then we will have to do this for every planet or moon that we want to understand and we can land on, and the adventure will be incredible.

I would love for Gingrich's plan to work, because by the time the moon base was up and working I would be finished with my doctorate and I still young enough to work there. I want that, we live in the future and we should have a moon base.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Update on Rio Grande Rift

In my last post on the Rio Grande Rift, I was hesitant to say if it was still spreading. I don't have access to all the journals, I had heard some conflicting opinions from a few geologists, and my cursory search didn't find a lot of information. However, the January issue of Geology did have a study dealing with exactly that. And guess what, the rift is spreading, about one inch every forty years, so that's pretty cool. I can't wait to read the full article (once I get my reimbursement check from my school and can afford to pay my student dues to the GSA).

However, due to my status as a college kid with limited funds; I unfortunately did not read about this from a cool source, instead I learned about it from this Yahoo News article which didn't even turn out to be an intelligent source. It doesn't start out bad, but then it starts saying a few things which demonstrate a lack of real understanding about geology. First off, it says this is a very slow pace (direct quote is "paltry rate", and it is compared to Usain Bolt or a landslide or really anything we deal with in our day to day experience. However, this is geology so almost everything happens slowly, so if you are going to say it happens slowly compare it to another plate. It is moving slowly compared to other plates which can move around 2.5 cm a year, while this rift is widening around 1 mm per year, 1/250 slower!

Then, the author makes a comment about controlling the expansion which seems odd and raised a few questions. First, why, it is barely moving and at those rates shouldn't disrupt humans at all; however, stopping the motion would just mean all the energy is pent up and then released when whatever is keeping from moving fails, causing an earthquake. Second, since when is it the goal of geology to stop plate tectonics? I've heard of geo-engineering projects, but I don't think anybody has ever even thought of something this large.

The article did leave a few questions I had unanswered. Do the scientists know if this rate is accelerating, decelerating, or remaining the same? This would be nice to know; is another East African Rift opening up in Southwest America or is this movement dying out. I would like to know this because there are inactive volcanoes around the rift (including near Albuquerque) and it would be nice to know if they might wake up. In addition, does this movement have any implications for earthquakes around the rift, especially in the Sandia Mountains where New Mexico's largest city sits on loosely compacted sediments from the mountains surrounding it oh and an aquifer. So as my Intro to geology professor once (somewhat gleefully) pointed out, should a large earthquake hit the city, the soil would probably liquify and consume large parts of the city.

By the way, I'm not too worried about earthquakes or volcanoes as a result of the spreading; however, it is not a stretch that some people who live in Albuquerque might be, and it would only take a extra sentence worth of effort to soothe these fears. Questions like this is why you should talk to a scientist before you publish a story because now I have to wait to gain anything valuable until I either bum the latest copy of Geology, or get the money to look at it online. Thanks Yahoo News, for all the effort you put into the story.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Erosion vs. Weathering

I never really explained why I named this blog what I did, but there is a reason. You see, since I'm an undergraduate student (for only two more semesters) I wanted to tell the story of my journey from lowly and ignorant undergraduate through graduate school and into my own career (however long that takes). However, that only makes sense if you know the actual definition of erosion:

Erosion-The physical removal of rock by an agent such as running water, glacial ice, or wind.

And compare that to weathering:

Weathering- The group of processes that change rock at or near the Earth's surface

Now why do I care about that?  Well besides confusing the two makes it seem like I feel like my education is disappearing or being torn down some how, the real problem is that erosion is used as a literary device by several people and it is almost always used wrong. Here are two examples:

Now I understand that educational erosion makes a good almost alliteration (look at my blog title) however, they are not describing erosion.  They are describing weathering, and there is a fundamental difference.

Weathering can be broken up into two categories, chemical and physical. Physical is the easiest to understand, as it is simply mechanical processes which break apart the source rock. Examples include frost wedging, water running over rocks or rivers down cutting into the ground, wind sand blasting formations, or even animals walking over the same trail numerous times.

Chemical weathering is different.  This is when the minerals withing a source rock are changed into different minerals, which is often caused by water. Near Albuquerque are the three peaks, three inactive volcanoes which spewed basaltic lava thousands of years ago. On these volcanoes you can see the mechanical weathering from the water flowing down the slopes creating the classic V-shape indicative of mountain streams. However, the most interesting part is that where the black lava is along the stream, you can see how high the water gets when it does flow. As the once black rocks are turned white where they were submerged in the stream. This is due to chemical weathering, the Calcium Feldspars, indicative to basalts, are chemically weathered into calcite, a much softer mineral, which compromises the integrity of the formation.

Erosion, on the other hand, is all about transportation.  So while the forces of weathering and erosion may be the same, the processes are different. Weathering breaks down a mountain, while erosion spreads the pile of rubble far and wide, flattening out the landscape. Some of the mechanisms of erosion include landslides, turbidity flows, rivers, and wind.

So please remember, I'm on an educational journey and my education is not being torn down. Thank you