Friday, December 28, 2007

Rain w/intermittent volcanoes

I've just found my new favorite website of the moment. It's "Science Made Stupid", and it's an abridged version of a book by the same name (written by Tom Weller in 1985). Unfortunately, the book isn't in print (though it is available through used-book purveyors), but the website certainly gives you a good idea of how absolutely hilarious the book is. I love the geologic time scale provided in the "Tables and Charts" section:

Geologic Ages and Events
in millions
of years
5000AtonalRocksMountain ranges upthrust; continents form
CatatonicGree slimeEarthquakes and volcanoes
ProphylacticGreen slime w/ orange spotsVolcanoes and earthquakes
AccordianSeashellsTorrential rains
425PedestrianMore seashellsThunder and lightning
360FreudianSlimy thingsMore rain
325ArtesianSlimy things w/ tentaclesMore thunder and lightning
280PestiferousNasty crawly thingsMore rain, oceans form
230ObstreperousLots of nasty crawly thingsRain w/ intermittent volcanoes
CrypticBig warty thingsSwamps form
165StypticReally big warty thingsHot, drifting continents
135CreosoteWarty things too big; start overEven hotter, lots of mosquitoes
ObsceneLittle hairy animalsCooler, 20% chance of comets
UglysceneBig hairy animalsWindy, small continent warning
39VaselineAnimals w/ silly hornsCold, w/ night and morning glaciers
28ListerineAnimals that don't understand
about tar pits
Fair inland, patchy fog near coast
12OvaltineShree trewsGreat weekend for a barbecue
1PlasticineFirst homonymsSmog alert
years ago
RecentModern person;
first Republicans
Freeways upthrust; suburbs form
minutes ago
Very recentComputer nerds emergeFast-food chains develop

Gotta watch out for those warty things. Actually, this reminds me of Uncyclopedia's Geologic Time Scale page, which enjoyed a brief popularity in my undergrad geology department. "BIG HONKING GAPOZOIC" was the new answer of choice that semester for people who had trouble remembering geologic eras. (I also highly recommend the Geologist entry, which I and many of my classmates contributed to. If I remember correctly, I'm responsible for the part under "How to Spot a Geologist" about outcrops and 8-lane highways. Memories.)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Inspiration and Thermostat Wars

A question recently came up at a social gathering about educators who were personally inspiring or changed the course of one's career. While awaiting my own turn to contribute to the discussion, I was struck by just how lucky I've been academically (I'll skip over non-academic inspiring people for now, although there have been quite a few). I've had a steady stream of wonderful, encouraging people guiding me from elementary school onward, and almost all of them (save for perhaps one or two that I didn't know particularly well, or only had for one class that I disliked for multiple reasons) have contributed in some positive way to the person I am now - academically or otherwise.

I initially supplied an amusing anecdote about the third-grade teacher who introduced us to the GT program by making us wear broccoli necklaces for the first week of school. (I don't remember the exact purpose of this, other than some vague assumption that it was meant to help us develop thick skins and not worry about being "labeled" GT, but it certainly does stick in my memory. The teacher, by the way, was a great lady who I will forever be grateful to for getting me through the pain of learning long division.)

But my serious response had to be that my undergraduate advisor has probably had the most impact in my academic journey. When I was first assigned to him as a freshman, I was frankly terrified of interacting with professors. I didn't know what to expect from a college setting, and I can conjure up a mental image of myself shaking in my shoes, overly formal, timid, etc etc. Because we didn't know each other well, our first meetings were mostly to iron out my schedule - I'd make suggestions for classes, he'd approve, and that would be it. (This is generally what freshman advisors end up doing, as I understand it, and that was fine.) But seeing as he was a geology prof and I wanted to be a major, he took a much greater interest in me than I'd expected. (This was probably a good thing, as my first geology class was taught by a visiting prof who I later found out was not enthusiastically received by either the upper-level students or the faculty.)

The most important point of that freshman year was, I think, when he gave me an override to attend his 3 1/2 week summer field course. By the end of freshman year, I'd still only been able to take Intro Geo and Earth History, and I essentially knew nothing about mineralogy, structure, mapping, etc. I was the only freshman on the trip, and aside from enthusiasm my skill set was pretty sparse. And oh, did I struggle. The trip was a major crash course in mapping, mineral identification, navigation, structure, keeping a field book - everything. And there were times when I was so frustrated with my lack of ability that I wanted to cry - or kill my advisor, which he thankfully wasn't too offended at.

But if I ever had any doubts that I wanted to be a geologist, they were gone within the first few days of that course. Wandering around the Colorado Plateau for nearly a month was one of the best experiences of my life, and one field trip stop actually led to my senior research and thesis. And - most important of all - I got to know my advisor not only as a professor but as a person. (There's nothing like having a snowball fight on the continental divide or getting tackled down a sand dune to break down social barriers.)

And it kept going from there. I ended up taking many classes and field trips with my advisor, and working on his REU the summer of my senior year, and I can't say I've regretted any of it. There were still times that I wanted to throttle him, but I can sincerely say that any pain I suffered as his advisee was for my own good and ended up teaching me something important or useful, even if I couldn't see it clearly at the time. And it was his insistence that I do an honors thesis which led to the most exhilarating moment of my academic career and left me with a piece of work that I can proudly show to future employers and graduate committees, as well as a future of collaboration on a promising mapping project.

I'm of course grateful to my other undergraduate professors, who were an extraordinary group of people and whose guidance and knowledge I am extremely fortunate to have received. But my advisor deserves a special place in my acknowledgements (although undoubtedly I will be fuming at him for something again before too long). Ah, love/hate relationships.

In unrelated commentary, is it a natural state of affairs for there to be such polarization in regards to appropriate workplace temperatures? I've found that, where I work, one group would be perfectly happy to sit around with their windows open when it's below fifty outside, while the other group would prefer not to have to wear gloves and scarves inside the building. (I am firmly in the group who doesn't want the thermostat below 70. I like to be able to feel my extremities.) And, interestingly, the warm group tends to be women, while the cold group tends to be men. Is this a physiology thing, or a symptom of the fact that men are more likely to wear undershirts in addition to the whole suit and tie ensemble?

Of course it would also help to have a functioning furnace, which I suspect is not the case at this point, as the little weather station outside my office has not changed from 68 degrees despite the fact that the thermostat in my office is cranked to 80.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Chrismahanukwanzaka!

....or something like that.

I can't remember whose blog this came from, but I thought it was the coolest thing ever and I wish I'd had time to put it on my Christmas cards. (Whoever made this, thank you - and let me know if you want me to credit you! It's awesome.)

Maybe next year. :)

Have a happy, safe and successful new year, everyone!

**Update: I've been informed that this site is the original source of the image.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Gods must be restless? Take a look at the scientists.

I just finished reading the most recent National Geographic, and I spent some time thinking about Andrew Marshall's article, "The Gods Must Be Restless". In it, he talks about some of the beliefs that have grown up around Indonesian volcanoes - and there are a lot of them, considering that Indonesia has the most active volcanoes of anywhere in the world.

I found myself conflicted about the attitudes of some of the people who live in the shadow of these volcanoes, especially the Gatekeeper of Merapi. While I can certainly understand the importance of respecting beliefs and traditions of the Indonesian poeple regarding their volcanoes, it almost seems criminally negligent of their spiritual leaders to ignore or even oppose the efforts of scientists and local civil authorities to alert them to the dangers they face. Scientists are sincerely trying to help, and it seems that they're hitting an impossible situation: if people don't heed their warnings because local spiritual leaders say not to, and nothing happens, then people are more inclined to trust them than the scientists; if they choose not to listen and something does happen, the scientists are blamed for not trying hard enough, or telling them sooner, etc. (I know this isn't always the case, and that many people take the scientists very seriously, but it's those few who don't that make things difficult for everyone.)

I'm reminded of Harry Truman at Mt. St. Helens, or the Aetas on Pinatubo. It boggles my mind that people somehow think that volcanologists are somehow trying to advance personal agendas or take their land or otherwise screw them over. Every volcanologist I've ever met has certainly not been in the job for the money or the prestige - they're working in the field because they're passionate about it, and they care about making people's lives safer. Those are my motivations, at least. I want to specialize in volcanic hazards mitigation because I love volcanoes, AND because I want to use my skills to help others. And it's why this article has touched on such a sore spot. I know I'll come across this sort of bias and willful ignorance in my work, and I hope I can prepare myself to deal with it, but I really wish it didn't exist.

And the quote that suggests the Merapi Gatekeeper thinks "the alerts are merely guesses by men at far remove from the spirit of the volcano"? That just makes my blood boil. How can you not be in touch with the spirit of a volcano when you're listening to it breathe, feeling its pulse under your feet and watching it bleed molten rock and explode with all the violence of a savage beast? How can you not feel a connection with something like that? Just because I will use electronic equipment and the latest technologies to monitor a volcano doesn't mean I won't also fight up and down its slopes, and get ash and mud under my fingernails, and make a thousand little blood sacrifices in my efforts to learn about it. To me, a volcano can't be anything other than a living thing, one with its own personality and temperment, and I take offense at anyone who says that I can't forge a connection with it because I am a scientist.

Now, I won't deny that superstition can have its place in dealing with volcanoes. I myself took the precaution of leaving tokens for Pele on my last visit to Hawaii (especially after the strep throat and ear infection I picked up after my first trip, where I did do some legal sample collecting off National Park land). I'll probably do the same thing again wherever I end up studying volcanoes for graduate school. But when people have their heads buried so thoroughly in their superstitions and rituals and traditions that they ignore the efforts of the scientists who are trying to protect them? That's when I start to get angry.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A journey of a thousand miles...

I've been contemplating, for some time, starting a blog about my experiences as a female geologist (and continuing geology student). I've recently discovered a number of other geology and science-related blogs, and I find their discourse stimulating, informative, and in many cases enlightening. It's useful to me as a student to have insight into the thoughts of professors and older scientists, and it's often easier to discover it through print than conversation, since my interactions are usually limited to my undergraduate department, conferences or the occasional research collaboration. All of these are useful, but I feel like there's very little discourse among students about what it's like to be in the formative years of your career.

FemaleScienceProfessor's blog is one of the most interesting to me, since she describes not only the internal workings of an academic science department but the experiences she's had as a woman and a scientist. I've been lucky so far to never encounter the kind of chauvenism and callousness she's had to deal with, and perhaps that's a result of my choice of geology for a field of study. She's never really specified what field she works in, and I don't want to try and guess because I'd rather not start out with any preconceived notions of what I might be getting myself into. I hope that I'll be fortunate enough to avoid those difficulties, though I'm not so naiive that I believe that will never be the case.

At any rate, I'm currently working (quite happily) for a non-profit geoscience organization where I get to help promote geology, but I'm very eager to continue my studies in graduate school, and to that end I'm deep in the throes of graduate school applications. I'm finding that I alternate between enthusiasm for the prospect of starting the next phase of my career, and total disgust for the amount of crap I have to deal with just to complete an application. Every time I turn around there's another form that has to be signed, letter to be requested, essay to write, or transcript request to pay for and send in.

The transcript requests are what really annoy me. Out of three schools and the GREs that I have to get transcripts or scores from, only ONE school doesn't charge for a transcript request - and that's the community college! I understand that these institutions need money to operate, but isn't the money that I paid to TAKE these classes in the first place enough to cover postage and the cost of a few pieces of paper with official stamps? The GREs are especially galling. I only had to pay more than a hundred dollars to take the damned test in the first place - on ridiculously outdated computers, no less - and it costs me another $15 every time I need a copy of the scores. Ridiculous. They're MY scores; I earned them. I paid to take the classes and the test. It strikes me as slightly petty to charge students an additional fee simply to have access to something that rightfully belongs to them.

Anyway, the application slogging continues; I hope to be done with them before the New Year rolls around. Two down and four to go - thank goodness that all of them are online, at least partially. (And I have to wonder who gets the processing fee that goes along with some - though not all - of the applications. If it's being used to pay for printing all the paperwork I'm submitting, and to pay the salaries of the people who have to process and file it, then I suppose it's appropriate that I get charged. I won't begrudge them that.)

Then, I suppose, the waiting game begins. I was lucky enough as an undergraduate to be accepted early admission to my college of choice, so I didn't have to complete multiple applications and agonize about which ones were going to result in acceptance letters. I guess it's my time to give up the blood and sweat I didn't pay out the last time.

Wish me luck, blogosphere!