Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Be the comet

It has been a bad month for flashbacks for victims of sexual harassment in Academia. First came the horrific stories of campus harassment from Rochester University, followed by the Antarctic harassment from Boston University, followed by the story of Harassment by a major Hollywood movie producer. At this point the producer has lost his job, and investigations continue for the two professors. And closer to home, the University of Canberra professor who was convicted of raping a student has appealed against his 4 year sentence.

As geologists, we need to figure out how to consign these dirtbags to the fossil record, preferably on a human, not geologic timescale. There are many ways to wipe out a species, but I am going to focus on what I think is an important one that is often overlooked: Habitat destruction.

It is no accident that harassment issues are constantly popping up in the academic and creative workplaces. Both sectors value their reputation, and are willing to defend the appearance of everything being fine. Both disciplines are popular career choices, with many more people willing to work in them than there are available jobs. Both sectors value intelligence to the point of considering it a virtue, or being willing to overlook other problems in the name of “Genius.” Both sectors have substantial hierarchies, with few formal checks and balances on power.

It is these problems that we should address if we want these perpetrators to go extinct. The names aren’t important- I haven’t even mentioned them above. As long as universities and studios build the perfect ecological niche for abusers to thrive in, then they will flock to the sectors. It is institutional change that is needed to actually stop the abuse.

So, specifically, what has to happen?

Firstly, reporting mechanisms need to be transparent and incorruptible. The reason that these scum can continue to wreck peoples lives for decades is that complaints, even if made, are too easy to bury. An administration that prefers ongoing, covert sexual assault on its campus over an embarrassing headline can simply use the reporting mechanism as a way of silencing victims, allowing the rapist to continue offending for decades.

Whomever victims report to, be it the police, the funding agencies, professional organizations, or some special independent body, the report receiver needs to be able to investigate allegations without being pressured from the university. In cases where potentially illegal activities have occurred and complainants are threatened, then university officials should be subject to the same treatment as organized criminals who try to intimidate witnesses.

Sexual predators are ambush predators- they need cover from which to attack, and removing administrative cover gives them fewer places to hide. There must be heavy penalties for authorities who fail to act, especially if the offender commits further offences. Administrators who cover for offenders so that they can offend again should be considered accessories.

However, these crooks are also pack animals, so a healthy culture is important towards setting an example of what is and isn’t professional behavior. This is not in itself a solution, but it makes sketchy behavior stand out more easily, and it puts the ratbags on notice that the work place is for real men, not whiney losers.

Finally, although habitat destruction is important, the offenders to have to be hunted down when spotted. This is best done by the whole work team, as uncharismatic megafauna can be dangerous in single combat. However, a habitat in which they are allowed to operate with impunity is not detrimental to them. It is by shrinking their range through a unfavorable setting that allows them to be vulnerable to catastrophic events, but those events still need to be initiated. If a change in corporate climate has weakened the terrible lizardmen, and drying their environment removes their cover and their hiding places, then it is much easier to be the comet that wipes them out.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

A charitable request

I have never been a good fund raiser or salesman.  My disjointed talents do not stretch to the power of persuasion.

Nor have I ever understood the concept of fundraising linked to an outdoor recreational activity. A few years after I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I heard of people doing it as a way to raise funds for one cause another. But why this particular recreational activity is one to be used for a cause baffles me. If you like riding a bike, ride a bike. If you like drinking beer, drink beer. Doing either to excess, like riding a hundred miles for cancer, or drinking a sixpack for dementia, never really made any sense to me.

However, this winter I signed up for the Sydney-Gong  bicycle ride, and one of the conditions of entry is to raise funds for multiple sclerosis. At first, this gave me pause. But as I considered, I reckoned, why not? If you are going to have a limit for a popular activity, why not accept, as a condition of entry, a certain amount of community assistance. And multiple sclerosis is certainly a worthy casue.

MS is an autoimmune disease. Like arthritis, or lupus, it can strike otherwise healthy people in the prime of life, and it can be debilitating, even fatal, if not treated. Like these other autoimmune diseases, treatment has improved as a result of science, but there is still a ways to go before a cure, or even a more effective system of management, can be achieved.

I do not personally know anyone in meatspace with MS; although I believe that one of our fellow geobloggers may suffer from the disease. However, I am not convinced that personal attachment should be a prerequisite for decreasing human suffering through scientific research. After all, as long time readers of this Lounge undoubtedly know, I am not a particularly empathetic person. And, as the social aspect of the internet has evolved over the past dozen or so years, I have noticed an overabundance of heartstring-tugging emotive appeals. I will not add to their din. Instead, I offer an alternative way to contribute to the betterment of society without the awkward warm and fuzzies.

So I will politely request that long time readers- those who have enjoyed this blog since the early days of Hot Chick Thermodynamics and OysterBlessings, before Hypotheses were dumped and Geosonnets began- consider a donation via my MS ride fundraising page if, at any point in the last dozen years, you have found this blog informative, entertaining, or interesting in any way.

And if, like me, you are a bit too wry to donate to an event linked to a wholesome activity like bike riding, then I have an alternative. I will crassly debase myself by putting the charity sixpack back on the proverbial table. If I can get a hundred bucks donated through the MS ride page with comments attesting that your donation is earmarked for the beer, not the ride, then I will drink six bottles at the conclusion of the ride. Because I’m the sort of guy who is willing to drink beer…. FOR SCIENCE!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Total eclipse of the Death Star

Happy Eclipse day!
Congratulations to everybody who is lucky enough to live in the eclipse path, or who made the effort to get under the shadow of the moon! I hope it was grand; I was on the wrong side of the planet this time, so I have had to enjoy it via the internet.

Of course, the Internet likes to have fun, so along with the various actual eclipse photos (which range from cool to spectacular), there have been some pictures replacing the black disk of the moon with the DeathStar.  Long time readers of this blog will know that this Lounge has a great view of imaginary spacecraft in orbit; the Death Star fits into that category nicely. So with a bit of basic math and physics, we can calculate the conditions under which the Death Star can eclipse the sun, as viewed from here on Earth.

But first, we need to define our Death Star. I won’t dig too far down into the seedy underbelly of Srat Wars fandom, but a oft repeated figure for the size of the Death Star is a diameter of 100 miles, which yields an 80km radius. As for the density (which we’ll need later for reasons I don’t want to spoil), we will go with 800kg/m3. This is the density of something that is 10% steel and 90% air, which would give it the same general construction as modern naval vessels. This makes the Death Star slightly more dence than pure ethanol, but substantially lighter than the beer which fuels this blog.

In order to eclipse the sun, the Death Star needs to subtend a larger angle of sky than the Sun. For the sake of simplicity, we will call the sun angle 0.5 degrees, or 30 minutes of arc (it actually varies slightly, as the Earth’s orbit is elliptical, and the eccentricity of this orbit changes between 0 and 6 percent depending on where in the Milanković cycle we are). So, given a 80 km radius, the Death Star can eclipse the sun if it is closer than 80/sin(0.25deg)= ~18,300 km.

This is much farther than near Earth orbit, but much closer than geosynchronous orbit (about 36,000 km altitude). It is also, of course, about 21 times closer than the Moon, which is about 21 times larger than the Death Star.  However, it means that if the Death Star was in Geosynchronous orbit (to ‘hover’ over a target, for example), it would not eclipse the sun; it would block out at most a quarter of the light, which would be barely noticeable by people down below.

On the other had, if the Death Star was in low Earth orbit, like the International Space Station, it could easily eclipse the Sun. An 80km radius space station only 360 km up would be huge from the point of view of an observer directly underneath, blotting out more than 25 degrees of arc in the sky as it zoomed past at 8 km/sec (or one diameter every 20 seconds). However, it isn’t clear if the Death Star could fly this close to our planet.

The orbital velocity of a satellite around the Earth, in meters per second, is sqrt(GM/R), where G is the Gravitational Constant (6.67E-11 m3kg-1s-2), M is the mass of the Earth (6E24 kg), and R is the radius of the orbit IN METERS (not km). So with an orbital radius of 6700 km (329km above the mean surface), the orbital velocity is 7728 m/s. The problem for the Empire is that the Death Star has a radius of 80km, so the guys sitting in the gun turrets facing the Earth only have an orbital radius of 6620 km. Thus they will be orbiting at 7775 km/s, 47 m/s faster than the space station. For people who live in the real world, that’s a 105 miles per hour, or 165 km/hour difference. Smashing your troops against the walls at a hundered miles per hour is going to impede their ability to fire their super laser, and it is possible that even the structural integrity of the Death Star would be under threat this close to the Earth.

Back here in Science Land, we call the closest that a satellite can get to a planet without being torn apart by this sort of differential orbital speed the Roche Limit. The Roche Limit determines the closest approach a satellite can orbit a planet without being torn apart. Technically, the Roche limit only applies to objects held together by gravity- e.g. with no tensile strength. Steel, the purported structural material of the Death Star, has substantial tensile strength- this is why it’s used for everything from bicycle spokes to suspension bridge cables. But even if the space station is held together by the tensile strength of the steel, that will be little comfort to everything and everyone that isn’t tied down; even if the Death Star could survive inside the Roche limit, the occupants wouldn’t. So in order to know if a fully operational Death Star can eclipse the sun, we need to calculate the Roche Limit, and determine whether it is closer or farther than the maximum eclipse distance of ~18,300 km calculated at the top of this blog post.

The Roche limit equation is d = R (2 rhoM/rhom)^1/3, where

R is the radius of the Primary, rhoM is the density of the primary, and rhom is the density of the moon. And the assumption we are using is that the density of the death star is 0.8 g/cc or 800 kg/m3 (a bit less than my second beer).
As for the other numbers, the Earth’s radius is 6371km, and the earth’s density is 5500kg/m3. So the Roche limit for the Death Star is 15,263 km.

This is closer than the maximum eclipse distance of 18,300 km (which is a distance, not a radius, so you can add up to 6371 more km for an equatorial eclipse viewer), so there is a range, albeit a fairly well restricted range, in the orbital radius of roughly 16,000 to 24,000 km where the Death Star is far enough from Earth to not be tidally disrupted, but still close enough to blot out the sun. But it wouldn’t be blotted out for very long. A 16000 radius orbit has an orbital velocity of 5 km/s. So even with an equatorial observer only 10,000 km away, where the shadow is largest, at 72 km wide, totality would last less than 15 seconds. This is almost the exact elapsed time from Tarkin’s “Fire when ready” to weapon discharge. And Bonnie Tyler wouldn’t even have time to get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of her tears.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Can bad fashion save the icecaps?

With rapid melting in the Arctic, and potential glacial instability in Antarctica. the planet’s present cryosphere is in a spot of bother. The root cause of this is warming from the heat trapped by greenhouse gasses, mostly CO2. But while many suggestions have been made for reducing CO2 output, as yet there are relatively few mothods for capturing those emissions which are still occurring. And with international agreements lacking enforcement mechanisms, a new push for Coal in the US, and decades of record rates of emissions growths, humanity clearly needs someone to police the worlds emissions. And we don’t need any old police. We need fashion police.

Although many proposals have been made for finding ways to prevent our hunger for fossil fuels from ruining the atmosphere, not nearly enough of these strategies have included the use of tacky clothing. And yet, the potential for horrific fashion statements to save the world should not be underestimated. The reason for this is that ultimately, the easiest way to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is to react it with an alkali or alkali earth oxide, thereby forming a carbonate  mineral. While silicate weathering will do this naturally over a 50-100kA timescale, we can’t really afford to wait that long. Roasting carbonates obviously won’t accomplish anything, since that simply makes the alkali oxides available by releasing CO2. However, there are alternatives.

One way to generate an effective carbon dioxide scrubber is to split salt (from ocean water) into its component sodium and chlorine. The sodium will rapidly (on a geologic timescale) oxidize, hydrate, and carbonate, forming NaHCO3. This should be reasonably effective, so long as we can sequester the chlorine that is produced as a byproduct. And here is where the tacky clothes come in. During the latter part of the 20th century, outrageous costumes were constructed out of the polymer polyvinyl chloride. If we can simply manufacture enough disco pats, fake leather jackets, and not-so-Sunday dresses, that will sequester the chlorine from salt electrolysis in the world’s wardrobes, so that the sodium can be used for atmospheric CO2 drawdown.

Doing a bit of math here, with annual emissions of about 29 billion tons of CO2, we will need about 15 billion tons of Na to scrub our emissions. This requires approximately 55 billion tons of PVC to store the chlorine left over from the salt decomposition (powering the electrolysis is left as an exercise for the reader). Luckily, due to the large world population, this works out to only about 8 tons of PVC per person per year, or about 21 kg of PVC per day.

None of the PVC outfits I can find for sale on the internet at this hour appear to contain 21 kg of material. They are generally a little bit flimsier than that. And even with a new steampunk, burlesque, gothic, and disco outfit every day for every man, woman, and child on Earth, we are still looking to be short by a factor of 50. Buying 21 kg of new PVC outfits a day would necessitate a costume change every 7 minutes. Luckily, there are other things which PVC can be made into.

For example, the credit cards used to purchase PVC outfits by people too brazen to stoop to cash are made of PVC. And while they only weigh a few grams each, most people do have a few. Similarly, the music to which PVC clad people traditionally dance comes from an archaic form of grooved PVC platter known as a “record”. Buying 140 LP records a day will put all of the world’s citizens at their PVC quota without having to wear anything at all.

So fear not, reader. There is hope. with enough old time music and garish clothing, anything is possible.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Geosonnet 50

When protolith components decompose
Some isolated grains are left behind
Hydration takes their comrades, spinel knows
Not why it’s been preserved. So can its mind
Be trusted to reveal the deepest Earth
The mantle which exists beneath the crust?
Survivor guilt clouds memories of birth
In which trace elements must earn our trust.
The Tonga Trench serpentinites preserve
Hydration from minimal to complete
Survivor mantle phases there conserve
The elements closed min’rals don’t excrete.
   As long as these survivors can be found
   They will remember stories to expound.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Geosonnet 49

From gutters, one can’t always see the stars
The fog, the rain, life’s tedium can shade
So should the stardust gravitate to Earth
It could collect wherever dreams may fade.
But like the needle, tightly stacked with hay
These grains of hope are difficult to find
Accumulate detritus, day to day
Our eye for stellar hope goes dim, then blind
But careful observation does reveal
That space dust is detectable in town
The sampled gutters no longer conceal
That which from asteroids to Earth came down.
   Thus steadfast pessimists must now beware
   That specks of heaven settle everywhere.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Routine science turns clever- laser ICP vs SHRIMP analysis of Archean detrital zircons

So, last year I published a Geology paper. It is summarized in Geosonnet 42; see link therein to the paper itself. As it turns out, the paper deals with Archean uranium mobilization and the sedimentary history of carbonado diamond. But what the paper doesn’t say is that I wasn’t actually trying to do that. More professional researchers than I might know how state in their articles that it was all just a lucky coincidence, but I don’t know how to squeeze that into a short format journal.

What actually happened is that the second author and I realized that we had different pieces of the puzzle which, with the help of some old Japanese data, could be pieced together for a coherent story. So hey, "write it up."  Most of my part of the puzzle was unpublished bits and pieces from my PhD and post doc 15+ years ago, but the SHRIMP data was actually less than a year old, as I had collected it for an entirely different reason.

Back when I was working at ASI, which had just bought the Resolution laser ablation line from Resonetics, a few of us started looking at how the SHRIMP and laser products could best compliment each other. One of the things we experimented with was controlling the SHRIMP with a version of the laser control software. Another thing we wanted to know was whether there was any advantage to using the SHRIMP for detrital zircon provenance studies, so I pulled out my old PhD zircons, remounted them with modern standards, and we programmed a customized version of GEOSTAR to automatically rerun the same zircons (if they hadn’t been blown up) to compare the results. Of course, the laser data was old, and the SHRIMP was trying to make analyses next to laser holes (which distort the extraction field, due to the unfortunate tendency of holes not to be flat), but it generally worked, and the data is tucked away deep in the supplementary section of the paper.

Since there are analytical geochemists who occasionally read this blog, but might not think to look for microbeam comparisons in the appendix of a diamond radiation defect luminescence paper, I thought I’d mention it, and put up some plots that got culled due to space requirements.

The short answer is that fully metamict zircons (like half of the Tombador grains) are open system with either technique, but for zircons that are only a little bit metamict (most of the Jacobina zircons), the smaller ion probe spot and better 204Pb backgrounds improve data quality. Anyone who is interested is welcome to download the Data Repository data (it’s all there) and ask.

Figure 1 (See data repository for full version): Tombador zircon analyses with SHRIMP (red) and laser ICPMS (yellow). The SHRIMP data are, in general, a little more concordant, but there isn’t much in it.

Figure 2 (See data repository for full version): Jacobina zircon analyses with SHRIMP (red) and laser ICPMS (yellow). For this sample, the SHRIMP data are substantially more concordant.

Figure 3:  Probability distribution curves for Tombador zircons analysed by SHRIMP (purple) and laser (Red).

Figure 4:  Probability distribution curves for Jacobina zircons analysed by SHRIMP (tan) and laser (Red). Note that laser peaks are generally broader and offset to younger ages due to Phanerozoic Pb loss.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Geosonnet 48

The garden in which life evolved from slime
Did not have apples, naked girls, delights.
Although the details have been lost to time
clay seems more likely, or serpentinites.
Hydrated mantle min’rals do not tempt
But their kinetics none-the-less intrigue
Relationship twixt rock and sea attempts
at understanding help if we know speed.
The magnetite which serpentine expels
Contains trace actinides which will decay.
The helium which in the crystal dwells
Gives cooling time and late stage growth away.
Three million years ago, when Lucy ran
The final Greek tectonic stretch began.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48