Thursday, February 28, 2008

Time for therapeutic chocolate

So, the first notice that I haven't been accepted to a graduate school has arrived. To be perfectly honest, I was prepared for this one; I was warned beforehand that competition for funding spots in this department was stiff, and that the profs I was interested in working with might not have space for me. (Actually, I was told that some students are considered for this program years in advance, which I think is completely nuts. What's the point of asking people to apply to your program if you've already handpicked your grad students before they've even graduated?) As it turns out, only two students were asked to join the volcanology group this year, out of what was undoubtedly a large crop of qualified applicants.

It is disappointing, since this would have been one of my best opportunities to get into work in volcanic hazards - at least immediately. I do realize, however, that because I've decided to do a masters first, I can still apply again when I'm ready for a Ph.D. This is, after all, my chance to feel out what I really want to work on, and two years is not a very long time, put into perspective.

I'm also sure I'll find work that I like at the other places I've applied; I've had very generous offers so far (including some smaller institutions that I might actually be happier at than the Big Well-Funded University in question). It's just that...well, rejection is never a good feeling. In fact, it stinks. So I'll stop by the gourmet food place and get myself a nice dinner, pack my bags (again) for my cousin's wedding, and spend the evening watching comfort TV. And then I'll go back to worrying about scheduling the rest of my grad school visits.

There's actually a bright side to all this: I will not have to figure out how to schlep my stuff from the East Coast to the middle of the Pacific or afford rent in the middle of a completely overpriced tourist trap.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sleepless in Seattle

As promised, I have an update on my latest travel experience, which was out to Seattle to visit the University of Washington graduate school. Surprisingly enough, the weather was fantastic - clear for three days in a row and not even cold! I was quickly informed by the grad students that this was highly unusual and that I had, in fact, been secretly transported to an alternate universe version of Seattle. I was pretty much happy to spend my entire visit within sight of a volcano, weather or no weather. Dealing with three time zones of jet-lag was much less fun, especially since my body didn't reset itself until I was ready to leave, but the grad students and profs at UW definitely made up for it.

Because I've never been on a flight to the Northwest, I was of course taking lots of photos from the plane. Unfortunately, I'm not sure exactly where I was for these, but here are a few. The first one is from somewhere over Montana vaguely near Great Falls; it's of a beautiful ring-shaped structure next to a small mountain range. My guess is either a caldera or an impact crater, and I'm leaning toward impact crater. Anyone know for sure?

UPDATE: Ron found the feature on Google Earth and informs me that it's the
Cayuse Basin, a breached structural dome. So much for my guessing abilities.

A little further on were some nice cirques (sans glaciers, as far as I can tell):

And of course, the best part of the flight: Mount Rainier! It was clear enough to see the summit and, far off in the distance, Mount Baker (I think), but this is the best of the pictures I took.

I really enjoyed the visit to U-Dub, which has a great campus - all Gothic architecture and trees and beautiful views. This is looking back toward the library (in the center of the photo) with the Earth and Space Sciences building on the left.

This is a view from the Pike Place Market looking south toward Safeco and Qwest fields, with (of course) Rainier in the background. As I said, beautiful clear days, which are apparently not common in winter.

And of course, a visit to the Market wouldn't be complete without a little fish-throwing:

All in all, it was a great trip, and made even better by the reception of the UW students and professors, who went out of their way to make the prospective grads feel welcome. Potlucks, personal guided tours and a seminar featuring John Clague as the guest speaker, not to mention the awesome, just-renovated facilities at the ESS building and the fact that the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network headquarters are in the basement. It was like a coolness overload for three days.

And you know, if I got to wake up and see Rainier every day, I wouldn't even mind the rain. (Especially if it decided to erupt...)

Accretionary Wedge Call for Posts: Geology/ists in the Movies

Installment #6 of The Accretionary Wedge is up at Lounge of the Lab Lemming, and there are more submissions than ever, all of them definitely hmmm-provoking. I didn't get a post in this time, but I did volunteer to host the next one, so here it is:

Geology/ists in the Movies

This should be pretty easy - there's no end of movies out there (many made by the SciFi channel, for instance) that attempt, successfully or not, to depict geoscience and geoscientists. Which one is your favorite? Your least favorite? What do you hate or love about it? What does Hollywood do that drives you crazy? What's the dumbest mistake you've seen them make?

I can guess the obvious culprits, but this is a chance for all you film buffs out there to show off your knowledge of cinema history and pull out some older offenders for our castigation pleasure. TV movies and series are also game, since the SciFi channel (at least) seems to be really determined to give us such prime material for ranting. (And to allow for a wide range of submissions, space movies are fair game as long as there's some sort of rock science involved.)

I'm setting the final submission date as Easter Sunday (March 23rd); entries should be in by 6 PM Eastern Standard Time to be included. Post a link to your entry in the comments section, or email them to me using the address in my profile. I'll post it all up on Monday the 24th, in honor of John Wesley Powell's birthday. (He could even be considered the first geology action hero; after all, a crusty one-armed Civil War veteran rafting into uncharted lands on the Colorado is pretty adventurous.)

Let the ranting begin!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Brief update

Apologies for the lack of posting...being flattened by the latest bug wasn't what I had planned for this week. Fortunately, I managed to spend a productive weekend working with my undergrad advisor on the paper we're hoping to publish before I head off to grad school.

Thursday I'm flying to Seattle for the first of my grad school visits. I made sure to get a window seat on the plane - though I can't remember which side - and I'll hopefully be able to get some good photos while I'm flying across the country.

And, of course, I'm looking forward to seeing the Cascades for the first time. Lahar hazards aside, I think it's very cool that Mount Rainier is visible from the city - what volcanologist wouldn't want to wake up to that kind of view? (I'm probably going to end up with a few dozen shots of Rainier on the camera by the end of the trip, but hey, that's what 1GB memory cards are for.)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

It's a stretch, but...

Happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Blow it out your tailpipe. No, really.

The BBC website has just run a story about a car that runs on compressed air. This is an pretty cool vehicle, if the article is anything to go by:
[The car] "will be driven by compressed air stored in carbon-fibre tanks built into the chassis. The tanks can be filled with air from a compressor in just three minutes - much quicker than a battery car. Alternatively, it can be plugged into the mains for four hours and an on-board compressor will do the job.
"For long journeys the compressed air driving the pistons can be boosted by a fuel burner which heats the air so it expands and increases the pressure on the pistons. The burner will use all kinds of liquid fuel.

"The designers say on long journeys the car will do the equivalent of 120mpg. In town, running on air, it will be cheaper than that."
The company's website, Air Car Factories, is a little vague on the specifics of the cars, but it does give a brief history of compressed-air vehicles, including 19th century pneumatic locamotives and a 1930s car. There's also a form to fill out for more information and to be allowed first crack at purchasing a car. Unfortunately for people in the US who are interested, the only firm licensed to sell the car is limited to India, but the designer, Guy Negre, "hopes to persuade hundreds of investors to set up their own factories, making the car from 80% locally-sourced materials."

The idea is certainly intriguing. Who wouldn't want a car that produces no emissions and can be filled up using the tire pump at a gas station? A few dollars for a couple of minutes to fill up an air tank is a lot cheaper than $40 or $50 for a tank of gas, after all. There are, of course, disadvantages. Wikipedia has a list of them, including some major concerns with efficiency compared to electric motors and the fact that it still takes energy to compress air in the first place. The current air tank technology is also still in need of improvement, and for anyone in a cold climate, you're currently out of luck - since the engine doesn't create heat, you'll need a seperate heat pump if you want to keep warm.

I won't be trading in my current car for one of these just yet, even though I'd love to have something more environmentally-friendly. (I also think the Air Car is pretty unattractive, not to mention the tiny little tires would be difficult to replace if you got a flat.) But the technology, if it can be made more efficient, certainly merits attention.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Holy Smoking Breadfruit, Batman!

Judging from the sudden dropoff of comments, people are a little stumped on exactly what got dropped in a lava flow in Friday's geopuzzle. So, here's the answer: Breadfruit.


At least, that's what the locals said. I was skeptical, since breadfruit is usually pretty smooth, and these appear to have some pretty prominent spiky parts, but there was a garden nearby that had some immature breadfruit growing in it, and it looked pretty much like the impressions. (My guess, to be honest, would have been something closer to this photo, but whatever that thing is seems to be growing on a palm tree, which breadfruit does not do.)

As I mentioned in the comments of the last post, there were also some imprints of tree trunks nearby:

This of course begs the question: If you drop breadfruit onto hot lava, do you get toast?

Friday, February 8, 2008

Friday Field Foto: A little volcanic geopuzzle

Since it seems to be geopuzzle day, I thought I'd pitch in with something for the more igneous-inclined. (And it's an excuse to post a cool photo - always a good thing.)

So what's going on here? Click on the image for a larger version (somehow larger than I wanted, but it'll do for now). Wild conjecture and serious exposition are equally welcome; I'm going to withhold hints for the moment, since I don't know how easy or difficult this will be for everyone. (For a sense of scale, though, I will say that the two red rocks at the top left are about 4 or 5 cm wide.)

PS - If you've been to see these, no ruining it for the guessers. I'll throw in a poster of "Volcanoes in the National Parks" for the correct answer!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Textbook tribulations

An interesting part of my job is that I end up doing a lot of different (read totally unrelated) things. Since I work for a non-profit organization, we can't just hire people on whenever we have a new project or come up with new duties that need to be taken care of, so current employees pick up the slack. Asking someone in my office to tell you their job history gets you such a circuitous route to their current position that throwing darts at an organizational chart would probably have gotten roughly the same results.

As a symptom of the "Here, see if you're any good at this" distribution of projects, I'm now working on photo research for an environmental science textbook.

Which, at this point, is what's making me wish that putting my fist through my computer screen would actually help me feel better. Because we've redone all of the photo documentation at least twice, been told of the photo requirements in increments by the publisher (who seems to disappear for months at a time, only to return and make us redo everything), accumulated a horrible number of photos we need to get copyright permissions for, been told by the publisher that we need to make every drawn figure 30% different than the examples we supplied, and had to eliminate every initial photo in 17 chapters because they all depict students (who we don't have permission to show). Oh, and did I mention that the author has now decided he's no longer interested in being involved with the work? And that there are now exactly three people, including me, working on the entire project?

I understand that this is probably an unusual situation and not the norm, but in case any of this is typical of textbook writing, I've got a few requests.

To the authors: If you're going to include specific information on what photos you want, please don't pick images from non-public-domain sources and then refuse to accept alternatives. If you don't mind the photo researchers choosing alternative images, don't make your captions so vague or weird or specific that we can't figure out what you want or can't possibly find the image. (I.E., don't ask for things like "Photo of beach wrack, perhaps with a sand flea biting a beetle.") Because I work for a non-profit organization, we have to find public-domain images before we can pay for copyrighted ones, and there are very few useful sources for high quality geology photos.

And please, if you don't want to be involved in a project, don't accept the job and then duck out of it and refuse to help your researchers.

To the publishers: Give us all your publication requirements before the research starts. What size does the photo need to be? What resolution? What file type? How do you want them organized and named? Who's responsible for copyright permissions? Who needs to pay for copyrighted images? Who owns the rights?

Set reasonable deadlines. We understand that you're trying to meet a publication date, but if you expect a very small team of people to completely redo all the work they've already done because you didn't like the formatting, you shouldn't expect it to get done quickly.

I was never really aware of all the work that goes into textbook writing, but my introduction to it (aside from reviewing chapters from a text that a professor was revising) has certainly been less than glamorous. I think the main problem with this project is that there's been a major lack of communication between the three parties - publisher, researchers and author - but not for lack of trying on our part. My one consolation is that, at the end of this, I'll have my name on the title page of a textbook, although if I've gone completely insane by that point I won't really be able to enjoy it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Good planets are hard to find

On Friday I attended the NOVA Climate Change Symposium on the Annandale Campus of Northern Virginia Community College, and despite the weather's earnest attempts to drown the attendees (and drill through the roof of the auditorium, from what I could hear), it was a great event. The speakers were engaging and earnest, the audience listened intently (and took lots of notes), and the questions at the end were thoughtful and received just as well-considered answers. The event reminded me of what I miss about being in college - getting to learn a lot of fascinating things from a variety of people in a very short time. (The Powerpoints made me all nostalgic...)

My main impression, having seen An Inconvenient Truth, was that this event was a similar presentation to the movie...only much better. After all, it was coming straight from the experts themselves, and it concentrated more on science and solutions than an ex-VP with a slick Powerpoint (who couldn't help injecting far too many clips of himself looking thoughtful while traveling around DC.) I certainly took lots of notes, and here are a few of the things that struck me:

Jill Corporale's biology perspective: Not only is climate change affecting humans, it's affecting species everywhere. It's not very often that people connect species extinction with climate change - mostly, it's some sort of vague reference to deforestation or over-hunting. I was particularly struck by her recollection of visiting coral reefs twenty years ago, then returning to the same reefs recently, only to find them blighted and dead. That makes it personal and immediate; I've swum among reefs that may someday end up like that. As she said, "Climate change is more than a warm day in January."

Callan Bentley's "Meltdown": That's the kind of talk I want to see! He used a very simple set of facts to demonstrate exactly why CO2 is doing to the atmosphere, and why the "climate change skeptics" have no ground to argue that anything other than human activity is responsible for the current dramatic changes we're seeing. I especially liked seeing the Mauna Loa measurements presented in conjunction with the output of volcanic eruptions - it's so easy to hold one or the other up for inspection, but I rarely see the two compared. The slide about Naomi Oreskes' literature search (published in the Dec. 2004 edition of Science) especially made me want to laugh at the "skeptics". If you don't believe human-driven climate change is happening after almost 700 studies say it is - and NO studies say it isn't - then you're pretty dense. Kudos to Callan! (I feel jealous that his students get to see talks of that caliber in class every day. I really need to get back to school.)

Craig Jensen's "Nuclear option": I was somewhat distressed by my lack of knowledge in this area - particularly since my college campus was fairly close to a nuclear power plant. I didn't know, for instance, that it was impossible for a nuclear plant to explode; that even if one experiences a meltdown, containment (at least in US plants) is so good that it harmful aftereffects are minimal; and that Chernobyl was such a disaster because it had substandard - meaning little to no - containment. (The last one didn't surprise me, but it was sad.) I was especially interested to hear that the reporters flying to Pennsylvania to cover the Three Mile Island meltdown received more radiation from being in a plane than residents living near the plant did from the incident. I was also ignorant of the time it would take for nuclear waste to decay sufficiently to be harmless - the scale is actually hundreds of years, not tens of thousands, as is usually bandied about by opponents of nuclear power.

Scott Sklar's solar power options: This talk excited me sheerly for the cool factor of the technology he was talking about. I, for one, am definitely going to pony up the money for solar-voltaic roof shingles when I finally get around to buying a house, and I really want to try out those LED light bulbs. On a more practical note, he made me think about the way I use energy in my house right now, and I've already begun to alter my habits to try and conserve electricity. (Replacing the crappy insulation in the roof will take a little more effort, unfortunately.) Mostly I want one of those "Solar Patriot" homes he was talking about, but I'm going to be on the renting side of the housing market for a while yet, so that will have to wait.

There were other great talks, and a lot of excited, motivated people at the end of the event, but I hope next year's Symposium is even better. This is exactly what we need: an way for individuals to become informed about climate change and active in mitigation efforts, rather than the status quo of sitting back and letting politicians and industry be the only important players.

Al Gore may have won the Nobel, but there are a lot of people out there who care about climate change - and when they get together for wonderful events like this one, we all need to join in. Congratulations to the organizers and participants of the first annual NOVA Climate Change Symposium!