Gem from GK Chesterton

"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

From The Everlasting Man

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Geologists' 100 Must See List (Updated)

Geotripper has started a geology-oriented 100 things meme. Thing's I've done are in bold. Follow along and keep score for yourself.

1. See an erupting volcano.

See a glacier. [More glaciers in the North Cascades than you can shake a stick at. The Winthrop Glacier on the north side of Mt. Rainier is IMHO the most dramatic with a huge, yawning mouth at its base that belches out a massive sub-glacial river.  Falling rocks echo across the valley.  Geology in action that is just jaw dropping.]

See an active geyser such as those in Yellowstone, New Zealand or the type locality of Iceland.

4. Visit the Cretaceous/Tertiary (KT) Boundary. Possible locations include Gubbio, Italy, Stevns Klint, Denmark, the Red Deer River Valley near Drumheller, Alberta.

Observe (from a safe distance) a river whose discharge is above bankful stage. [Nooksack River, WA]

6. Explore a limestone cave. Try Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Lehman Caves in Great Basin National Park, or the caves of Kentucky or TAG (Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia).

7. Tour an open pit mine, such as those in Butte, Montana, Bingham Canyon, Utah, Summitville, Colorado, Globe or Morenci, Arizona, or Chuquicamata, Chile. [The Mesquite Gold Mine in southern California. A pit large enough to see from space. Also the biggest Tonka trucks I've ever seen.]

8. Explore a subsurface mine. [At a tourmaline mine in southern California I saw a gem pocket being cleaned out with gorgeous watermelon tourmalines. Drool soaked my shirt through.]

9. See an ophiolite, such as the ophiolite complex in Oman or the Troodos complex on the Island Cyprus (if on a budget, try the Coast Ranges or Klamath Mountains of California). [The ophiolites in the San Juan Islands of Washington are a great low budget alternative too if you can't cobble together the bus fare to Oman.]

10. An anorthosite complex, such as those in Labrador, the Adirondacks, and Niger (there's some anorthosite in southern California too).

11. A slot canyon. Many of these amazing canyons are less than 3 feet wide and over 100 feet deep. They reside on the Colorado Plateau. Among the best are Antelope Canyon, Brimstone Canyon, Spooky Gulch and the Round Valley Draw. [Box Canyon on the south side of Mt Rainier is spectacular.]

12. Varves, whether you see the type section in Sweden or examples elsewhere. [Some glaciolacustrine varves in Island County, WA].

13. An exfoliation dome, such as those in the Sierra Nevada [I climbed the 5-pitch "Central Pillar of Frenzy" on Cathedral Spire across from El Cap.]

14. A layered igneous intrusion, such as the Stillwater complex in Montana or the Skaergaard Complex in Eastern Greenland.

15. Coastlines along the leading and trailing edge of a tectonic plate (check out The Dynamic Earth - The Story of Plate Tectonics - an excellent website). [I live on the leading edge of the North American Plate as it overrides the Juan de Fuca plate]

16. A gingko tree, which is the lone survivor of an ancient group of softwoods that covered much of the Northern Hemisphere in the Mesozoic. [The new Art and Children's Museum in Bellingham has a Gingko tree. Yeahh!]

17. Living and fossilized stromatolites (Glacier National Park is a great place to see fossil stromatolites, while Shark Bay in Australia is the place to see living ones) [I've seen the fossilized variety, 1/2 credit.]

18. A field of glacial erratics. [Lots in the Sierra Nevada.]

19. A caldera [Massive caldera in Mammoth California, and Yellowstone for the "super volcano"].

20. A sand dune more than 200 feet high.

21. A fjord.

22. A recently formed fault scarp. [I worked on a survey crew as an undergrad, measuring displacements along active faults.]

23. A megabreccia.

24. An actively accreting river delta.

25. A natural bridge.

26. A large sinkhole.

27. A glacial outwash plain.

28. A sea stack.

29. A house-sized glacial erratic. [Sierra Nevada]

30. An underground lake or river.

31. The continental divide.

32. Fluorescent and phosphorescent minerals. [Not "in the wild" but plenty in my petrology/mineralogy classes.]

33. Petrified trees.

34. Lava tubes.

35. The Grand Canyon. [I'm ashamed I haven't been to the Grand Canyon. My good friend Gary has told me that I'm not worth my salt as a geologist until I see the GC. Sigh.]

36. Meteor Crater, Arizona, also known as the Barringer Crater, to see an impact crater on a scale that is comprehensible.

37. The Great Barrier Reef, northeastern Australia, to see the largest coral reef in the world.

38. The Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Canada, to see the highest tides in the world (up to 16m).

39. The Waterpocket Fold, Utah, to see well exposed folds on a massive scale. [1/2 credit again on this one. I haven't seen Waterpocket, but the folds of Poleta in the White Mountain Range are terrific.]

40. The Banded Iron Formation, Michigan, to better appreciate the air you breathe. [I haven't the BIF in place, but I have a terrific chunk sitting on my desk. It is a gorgeously laminated rock.]

41. The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

42. Lake Baikal, Siberia, to see the deepest lake in the world (1,620 m) with 20 percent of the Earth's fresh water.

43. Ayers Rock (known now by the Aboriginal name of Uluru), Australia. This inselberg of nearly vertical Precambrian strata is about 2.5 kilometers long and more than 350 meters high.

44. Devil's Tower, northeastern Wyoming, to see a classic example of columnar jointing.

45. The Alps.

46. Telescope Peak, in Death Valley National Park. From this spectacular summit you can look down onto the floor of Death Valley - 11,330 feet below.

47. The Li River, China, to see the fantastic tower karst that appears in much Chinese art.

48. The Dalmation Coast of Croatia, to see the original Karst.

49. The Gorge of Bhagirathi, one of the sacred headwaters of the Ganges, in the Indian Himalayas, where the river flows from an ice tunnel beneath the Gangatori Glacier into a deep gorge.

50. The Goosenecks of the San Juan River, Utah, an impressive series of entrenched meanders.

51. Shiprock, New Mexico, to see a large volcanic neck.

52. Land's End, Cornwall, Great Britain, for fractured granites that have feldspar crystals bigger than your fist.

53. Tierra del Fuego, Chile and Argentina, to see the Straights of Magellan and the southernmost tip of South America.

54. Mount St. Helens, Washington, to see the results of recent explosive volcanism. [With a bonus vial of ash my Grandma sent me after it erupted. See my post on "The Persistence of Life" about the recovery of Mount St. Helens.]

55. The Giant's Causeway and the Antrim Plateau, Northern Ireland, to see polygonally fractured basaltic flows.

56. The Great Rift Valley in Africa.

57. The Matterhorn, along the Swiss/Italian border, to see the classic "horn".

58. The Carolina Bays, along the Carolinian and Georgian coastal plain

59. The Mima Mounds near Olympia, Washington. [Kinda creepy when you see these. But I love the 'giant gopher' theory.]

60. Siccar Point, Berwickshire, Scotland, where James Hutton (the "father" of modern geology) observed the classic unconformity. [I've visited the equivalent contact on the Isle of Arran.]

61. The moving rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley.

62. Yosemite Valley

63. Landscape Arch (or Delicate Arch) in Utah

64. The Burgess Shale in British Columbia

65. The Channeled Scablands of central Washington. [The story of J. Harlen Bretz is a must read for the scablands. I highly recommend "Bretz's Flood" for laymen and geologists alike.]

66. Bryce Canyon

67. Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone

68. Monument Valley

69. The San Andreas fault [I would add the town of Parkfield as a must see for the SA fault]

70. The dinosaur footprints in La Rioja, Spain

71. The volcanic landscapes of the Canary Islands

72. The Pyrennees Mountains

73. The Lime Caves at Karamea on the West Coast of New Zealand

74. Denali (an orogeny in progress)

75. A catastrophic mass wasting event [The Hope Slide in southern British Columbia was an enormous event]

76. The giant crossbeds visible at Zion National Park

77. The black sand beaches in Hawaii (or the green sand-olivine beaches).

78. Barton Springs in Texas

79. Hells Canyon in Idaho

80. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado

81. The Tunguska Impact site in Siberia

82. Feel an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 5.0. [I grew up in California. 'Nuff said.]

83. Find dinosaur footprints in situ.

84. Find a trilobite (or a dinosaur bone or any other fossil)

85. Find gold, however small the flake.

86. Find a meteorite fragment

87. Experience a volcanic ashfall

88. Experience a sandstorm [San Juaqin Valley, zero visibility on the freeway, dust filtering in the truck. Pretty scary.]

89. See a tsunami.

90. Witness a total solar eclipse.

91. Witness a tornado firsthand.

92. Witness a meteor storm, a term used to describe a particularly intense (1000+ per minute) meteor shower

93. View Saturn and its moons through a respectable telescope.

94. See the Aurora borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights. [In a rare event I saw the Aurora from Washington state in the late 1990's. Unusual for them to be visible so far south.]

95. View a great naked-eye comet, an opportunity which occurs only a few times per century. [Hale-Bopp in 1997]

96. See a lunar eclipse.

97. View a distant galaxy through a large telescope

98. Experience a hurricane.

99. See noctilucent clouds

100. See the green flash

I score a 43, not too shabby.  I don't travel internationally enough to see some of these other gems.

I'd like to know where you score for this list. As an incentive to show off, I'll give you 2 bonus point for every 10 items you've seen on the list. Go on, do some bragging!

Also, I'm curious about what you think is missing. I'll add a few:

  1. A kimberlite pipe, not necessarily diamond-bearing. [I collected a sample of kimberlite from Kentucky. Not the friendliest place to go rock hounding. 'Nuff said.]
  2. Pegmatite insitu with "honkin' crystals"
  3. Turbidite sequences.
  4. Flint Ridge in Ohio, source of much of the Native American arrowheads east of the Mississippi.
  5. Soak in a natural hot spring.
  6. Sand boils from liquefied soils after an earthquake.
  7. Glacially striated rock outcrops

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Fragility of Life: Remembering Kylie Roger

A few weeks ago I wrote about the "Persistence of Life" and promised a companion piece about the fragility of life.  Unfortunately I'm writing this today under very different auspices than what I had originally intended.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of 8 year old Kylie Roger who died from a brain tumor.  Kylie was a friend of my son.  He was also a hero and inspiration to our local community and to a larger national community of other people stricken with cancer.

Hundreds of people attended the memorial service.  The presiding pastor spoke truly that everybody who knew Kylie had an image in their heads that captured what a spunky, sparkling kid he was.  My image of Kylie is from a picnic where the kids were playing with a snake they had found.  Three young boys playing with a snake does not bode well for the snake.  Kylie, his brother, and my son chased this poor thing for hours, passed it from hand to hand, ooohhh'd and ahhhhh'd and ewwww'd.  There was a huge enthusiasm about such a small garter.  And my lasting image of Kylie is with a huge smile holding out his hand and a snake hanging limply from sheer exhaustion of being played with and loved too much (the snake did recover eventually and slithered away, regretting, I imagine, that some hawk didn't swoop down and rescue him earlier).  But that is a great picture of the thrill of life that Kylie had.  Absolute wonder and thrill.  

I can't imagine the grief his parents and brother are enduring at this moment.  And have endured over the past two years as their beloved battled his "brain bump".    The memorial service had a great slide show.  I'm struck by how much that little kid crammed into such a short life.   Equally striking is the number of people that fell within his sphere of influence.   Kylie made a big splash in the pond and the ripples travelled far.  Very far.

During the slide show they played two recent  phone messages left by Kylie to his mom.  Those words caught on tape are so valuable now.  I'm tearing as I think about the tragedy of listening to the last recorded voice of your child.  

This was the second funeral I attended in two weeks.  The first was for a beloved man who lived to be 93 and was a grandfather to me.  His life was too short also and he will also be greatly missed. Life in general is persistent.  But individual lives of those we love are fragile, too transient, too short. For those who are cut short like Kylie.  But even for those who live well into old age.  

Shame on me when I assume the people I cherish will always be here for me, assuming they will persist in my lifetime.   Shame on me when I forget the fragility of life and don't play with my son until he's exhausted, or I'm exhausted (which is more likely to happen first).  Shame on me when I forget the fragility of life and make the small priorities big and the big priorities small.

Among the rich gifts Kylie gave to his family, friends and community, he's given me a reminder of the fragility of life, which leads me to cherish those whom I love.

God's peace to you Kylie.  And your family.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Toxic Nudibranchs and Parasitic Wasps: there is nothing so alien as life on earth

[Warning: if you read this post it will be like taking the Matrix red pill.  If you choose to swallow the red pill, you can't go back, you go down the rabbit hole and your life is forever changed. Swallow the blue pill and you can leave now, your comfortable life in tact.  But if you choose the red pill... well... I warned you.]

OK.  Red pill it is.

Here we go.  Extra-terrestrial life forms have landed on earth.  And they are not being kept at Area 51.   Or any other government installation.  Just look to the seafloor and you'll find proof positive that aliens live among us.  Specifically nudibranchs.  Take a peak at this National Geographic gallery of toxic nudibranchs and this article, wipe the drool from your mouth, pull your jaw off the floor, then return.   

Nudibranchs are gastropods that have naked branches ("gills") hanging off their backs (hence the "nudi"), many with outlandish color schemes that appear to be a defense mechanism.  But their alien characteristics are not just that they look stranger than anything that sci-fi has yet to produce. Some nudibranchs are Borg-like, assimilating weaponry and technology of other species into their own toxic arsenals.   Many nudibranchs eat critters that have toxic weapons (stingers, nematocysts, poisons) then secrete the previously digested arsenal when attacked.

The 3,000+ species of nudibranchs are not content just to visit earth.  Their super-secret plan for world domination includes reproductive cycles where up to 2 million eggs are laid at a time. And the option for hermaphroditic reproduction in some species.

OK, I'm being a tad over-dramatic with the Matrix allusion.  And the course of your life probably isn't unalterably changed.  But seriously, nudibranchs are some of the oddest creatures alive.

If, however, you do want to be creeped out by a Red Pill/Blue Pill experience, do some investigating into parasitic wasps, and your life will forever be changed.  Not Exactly Rocket Science has some spine-tingling descriptions of these wasp species which must be alien. With the parasitic wasps, I'm exaggerating about the creepiness, but not much.  Life is much nicer without the knowledge that, in the words of Ed Young:

Parasitic wasps make a living by snatching the bodies of other insects and using them as living incubators for their grubs. Some species target caterpillars, and subdue them with a biological weapon. They inject the victim with "virus-like particles" called polydnaviruses (PDVs), which weaken its immune system and leave the wasp grub to develop unopposed.

There is nothing so alien as life on earth.

10 Bonus Points if you tell me about other examples of alien life among us.  I've taken the Red Pill already, so I have nothing more to loose.  And so have you if you've read this far.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Sincerest Form of Flattery


If you haven't seen the astronomy pictures at Blackholes and Astrostuff , you must.  Now.  Take a long look through his archives.  Dig deep because there are amazing jewels in those mine tailings.  I'll wait.....

See?  Did I tell you? Or did I tell you?

As the sincerest form of flattery to Bob Johnson, I've decided to try some of my own astro-photography.  In this shot I captured the moon wearing a sombrero.

Now having studied Bob's work and looking at mine, the discerning audience will notice a few slight differences, which I'll enumerate in this compare/contrast (in case you're not discerning).


Standards of Excellence for Blackholes and Astrostuff

The Secret of Newton: First Attempt at Astro-Photography


Pictures often entail foresight that ranges from days to weeks, months or even years ahead.  Critical astronomical events are identified early and intense planning is made so that the shot is captured. 

I was planning on going to the store and happened to look up as I walked out of my house.

Knowledge Base

Pictures are described in great detail so that the reader of the blog gleans excellent information. Bob even has his own meteor shower named after him.

My astronomy knowledge base is just a few stars shy of stellar. “Looks like a sombrero” pretty much says it all. 


Pictures are taken in the very late night or early morning hours, after enduring hours of frigid temperatures, long-suffering patience required to wait for just the right conditions, travel far and wide, sleep deprivation is but a small price to pay.

Reached into pocket, pulled out camera, lifted camera up, walked briskly into truck and immediately turned on the heater because the extra 30 seconds in the cold made me sorta chilly.  Mind you, I did walk briskly.  Briskly, I say. 


A veritable store-house of telephoto lenses, tri-pods, fish-eye lenses, telescopes, filters, cameras.  Even a mini observatory in his yard.

iPhone,  first generation.  Hey! Don’t tease me that I don’t have 3G.  Stop it!  That’s not nice!

Technical Expertise

The equivalent of mechanical and electrical engineering degrees needed to use his gear to good effect.

I know that if you want to take a picture, you push the icon that looks like a little camera.  Plus I tried really hard not to be all shaky when I took the picture.  I was sorta chilly, remember?

Picture Quality

High resolution pictures that are jaw-dropping gorgeous.  

Not just grainy.  More grains than the beaches of Bermuda.


UPDATED 2/13/09: OK, forget all of the compare/contrast above.  Now that I have fancy animation on my picture, we might conclude that there is no practical difference between Blackholes & Astrostuff  and TSON.  Yup, virtually indistinguishable. OK, there are still a few differences, but I'm certainly closing the gap.  (Oh yeah, I suppose I should give 10 Bonus Points to Bob for showing me how to do the animation.  I'm grateful for my sudden, meteoric rise to almost joining him in the ranks of the elite of astronomical photographers on the web.  I'd also like to thank all  of the behind-the-scenes people who made this over-night photographic near-success possible.  I won't forget you.  Of course, I won't be sending as many Christmas cards, and now we can't be seen together in public, and I'll ask that you contact my agent if you want to talk to me.  And no, I won't give you an autograph.  Sheesh, I'm a busy guy with tons of obligations now.  But I won't forget you.  Hang on... Angelina Jolie is calling. "Hey Ang, what's up girl? Sure, send me the Tomb Raider 5 script and I'll take a look.  Yeah... Yeah... Hey I gotta go OK?  My peeps will call yours.  OK... Yeah... OK...  Uh huh... Hey, look I really have to go... Yeah... OK.... Uh huh... OK Ang... Right...Bye.")    

Thursday, February 5, 2009

pL: The Persistence of Life

Last week somebody who was  important in my life passed away.  Among the swirling emotions attendant to funerals I've been thinking of life: its persistence, its fragility. This is the first of two companion pieces that looks at these thought lines, both striking in their own right, and even more so in apposition. 

This post takes up the first theme: life is unbelievably persistent. I'd like to look at the persistence of life from an unusual perspective*: the partial pressure of life.  Since the readers of TSON have already established the importance of semantics, let me define my terms.  The partial pressure of life can be thought of as the force that moves life from areas of high concentration to low concentration.  Not "Life Force" as in a nutritional drink, nor a Star Wars type force that lets Luke be a hero even though he starts out as a whiny little punk**.  Neither am I thinking about "life force" as a concept of spiritual energy.  

I'm using "partial pressure of life" in a similar manner that physicists talk about the partial pressure of dissolved   gases in a liquid.  Dissolved gases move from from areas of high partial pressures to low partial pressures.  I argue that the persistence of life stems from an analogous function (not identical, but analogous).  Life itself has a partial pressure and with often unrelenting, unstoppable force moves from areas of high concentration to low.  I'll shamelessly borrow from physics and refer to the partial pressure of life as pL (similar to pH, which is the partial pressure or activity of hydrogen dissolved in a fluid).   

OK, terms better defined, let's look at the persistence of life.  First, life has absolutely and completely blanketed the earth.   From the highest mountain to the deepest cavern.  Land, sea and air.  After learning about extreme life forms such as thermophiles, acidophiles, alkaliphiles, halophiles (and a whole other grocery isle of extreme "-ophiles") I'm more suprised to find a place where there isn't a form of life.

Of course, life is much more concentrated near the equator according to a number of metrics (diversity of species, number of individuals) and decreases toward the polar regions.   Using the digital equivalents of crayons, the partial pressure of life (pL) across the earth might be charted like this.

So the first thought for the persistence of life is from its geographic abundance.  Along the equator, where the earth receives the most sunlight exposure, the partial pressure of life is highest.   The number of species and variety is staggering (just in insects alone!).  Yet even at the poles, which have extreme temperature fluctuations and low amounts of nutrients, micro and macro psychrophilic*** life is abundant, though with a lower pL than the equator.    It would seem that the high pL gradient inexorably forces life from the equator to the poles.

In some cases there is an actual push from the areas of higher pL to lower pL.  Life is persistent because it fills voids.  Mount St. Helens is an excellent example of this.  On May 18th, 1980 the volcano erupted catastrophically, devastating over 200 square miles of wilderness.   It was a massive loss of life (both human and non-human) and within minutes the pL plummeted to near zero within the blast, avalanche and pyroclastic flow zone.  Yet because there was a drastic gradient in pL between the mountain and surrounding areas, life returned and persisted.   From both animal and plant re-colonization, life has returned to Mount St. Helens.  Life pushed from the high partial pressures surrounding the mountain into the void of the blast area.   

When describing the distribution of mountains and relief on the ground we use topographic lines and contours which are lines of equal elevation.  When describing the distribution of weather phenomenon we use both isotherms (lines of equal temperature) and isobarics (lines of equal barometric pressure).  When describing the devastation of Mount St. Helens, it is instructive (though not necessary) to use isobiotics**** (lines of equal pL).  If you would bear with me an another simple diagram, an isobiotic map after the blast would look something like this.

Even in a volcanic blast zone with, for all practical purposes, the annihilation of life, the steep gradient in the pL ultimately drove life in to fill the void at Mount St. Helens with both macro and micro-organism. The mountain hasn't fully recovered from the eruption. But it will.  Just as it has in millenia past.  Why?  Because life is shockingly resilient.

And Mount St. Helens is only a small volcano.  If you've been to eastern California, you know the stunning beauty of the Owens Valley.  If you haven't been, you must put it on your "List O' Amazing Places to Go".  Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada are on the west and the White Mountains are on the east side of the valley. Drop dead gorgeous.  And yet, beginning about 30 million years ago, before the tallest mountains in the continental U.S. formed, everything did drop dead.  In his outstanding book Basin and Range, John McPhee tells it best:

Up through perhaps a hundred fissures, dikes, chimneys, vents, fractures came a violently expanding, exploding mixture of steam and rhyolite glass, and, in enormous incandescent clouds, heavier than air, it scudded across the landscape like a dust storm.  The volcanic ash that would someday settle down on Herculaneum and Pompeii was a light powder compared with this stuff, and as the great ground-covering clouds oozed into the contours of the existing landscape they sent streams hissing to extinction, and covered the stream beds and then the valleys, and--with wave after wave of additional cloud--obliterated entire drainages like plaster filling a mould.  They filled every gully and gulch, cave, swale, and draw until almost nothing stuck above a blazing level plain.  Needless to say, every living creature in the region died.  Single outpourings settled upon areas the size of Massachusetts, and before the heavy ash stopped flowing it had covered twenty times that.  Moreover, it was hot enough to weld...'When you bury a countryside in that much rock so hot it welds, that is the ultimate environmental catastrophe'.

Yet life now persists in the Basin Range--no, teems.   In fact, what is among the world's oldest living organisms, the 5,000 year old "Methuselah" Bristle Cone Pine tree, sits atop White Mountain along the Owens Valley.  Life not only prevailed, it's doing a funky chicken dance in the end zone. The partial pressure of life, applied over time can exert enormous force against even the most catastrophic conditions.  Ever forcing it's way down-gradient from "life" to "non-life". Here's a picture of a Bristle Cone Pine on White Mountain.

I love to backpack, especially in alpine wilderness.  I'm always stunned when I see a tree growing out of a hairline fracture of a rock like this.  This tree and its heirs (life) will likely prevail over the rock (non-life).  It's roots will dig deeper into the fissure and extend to depths of the rock where there is no life.  The roots will grow and ultimately crush the rocks into fragments.  Plants are an enormous and powerful erosional force, helping to reduce mountains to rubble (which is why JRR Tolkien had it exactly right in Lord of the Rings when the tree Ents attacked the fortress of Isengard and destroyed it's rocky reaches).

Though replicated on a smaller scale than the Basin and Range volcanism, the persistence of life is also on display at the Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific where 23 nuclear bombs were tested between 1946 and 1958. While residual radiation still persists, sea life has returned in abundance (including scuba divers), moving down the pL gradient from surrounding areas unaffected by the nuclear blasts.  It will continue to recover over time with life again trumping non-life.   

I'm also fascinated by the persistence of life throughout geologic time.  Newton's Ocean has a great post about telomerase and certain genes that appear to be immortal.  Also look at some cyanobacteria, such as stromatolites (pictured below), that are found both in the rock record dating back about 3 billion years ago and in modern day Australia.

Stromatolites (and other "living fossils") survived catastrophes that make the Bikini Atoll and even the Basin and Range volcanism seem like sand box playtime.  Consider the Permian/Triassic extinction about 250 million years ago where estimates of specie extinction rates are estimated to be between 70-90% of all marine life.  Likely tied to a planetary impact of sorts (asteroid, comet, etc..), the P/T event also wiped out a massive percentage of land-based species.   Another massive extinction occurred at the close of the Cretaceous about 65 million years ago, also likely related to planetary impact.

It becomes evident that pL gradients aren't operable just geographically, because when you look at the geologic record, you see the partial pressure of life acting across temporal gradients.  (I know that this is becoming a bit Rube Goldberg-ish, but it is my prerogative to make something simple more complex than it needs to.)

Extinction charts can be read as partial pressure of life charts (pL vs time).  If there is one thing that is explicitly clear from my study of geology, it is that "life" extends into "non-life" across time. Conditions change (often radically and catastrophically), eliminating a large portion of life, creating a steep pL gradient, then life moves down gradient and fills the void.

Looking forward, I believe the persistence of life is displayed as humans pursue space travel. There's an enormous partial pressure of life on earth adjoining a very low partial pressure of life in the rest of the solar system.  Life is bound to expand into the non-life of space.   

I'd like your thoughts on other examples of the persistence of life.  I know I've just scratched the surface*****.  Also 10 bonus points to the math whizz who comes up with a cool analysis for the partial pressure of life over time or space using calculus.  It starts with  dpL/dt or dpL/dx, now you do the rest if you want the BPs. 

For everybody clamouring that life is fragile (and I know you're out there... lurking!) that will covered in my forthcoming companion post.  For now, just sit and ponder the persistence of life.  Ahhh.....

The Fine Print
*It's unique to me either because I'm too lazy to look exhaustively elsewhere, or because this truly is an new perspective.  Perhaps I'll have Bob of Blackholes and Astrostuff do some digging.  He did after all assure me that my "nostril event horizon" phrase is unique.  And that's good enough for me.

**The "whiny little punk" characterization of Luke is unassailable.  Just watch the original movie (Episode 4 if you want to be technical).  Listen to him say, "But I wanted to go to Tarshi Station for some power converters" and you'll agree.  

***Of course I didn't know this word all by myself.  I found it like everybody else finds stuff.  And no, not the World Book Encyclopedia on my bookshelf.

****Bob, I'll need your help here also to confirm that nobody has coined this phrase.  Yes, I know, I'm in a bit of a slothful mood.   

*****Hey!  Look what I found beneath the surface... life!!!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Cool or Creepy? Self-Assembling Robot

The next installment of "Cool or Creepy" comes from NewScientist via MAKE Magazine .
To get the full effect, think back to Arnold Schwartzenegger in The Terminator, then play the video clip below. 
I guarantee a shiver going up your spine either from the coolness or creepiness of it all.
Be sure to vote below.

Image Credit: Gizmodo

One Giant Leap: And the winner is...

The polls are closed and with 43% of the readers' vote, I'd like to congratulate "The Deeps of Time" for the winning submission to the inaugural "One Giant Leap".     20 bonus points! Plus honor, fame, glory and the respect of your peers!  Sorry, wealth is not included in the prize package.

I also want to thank the other One Giant Leap contributors:

Arash's World

They all are an essential part of any healthy blog diet.

And for the record, here are the contributions again to "One Giant Leap".


What advancement in thought, technology or discovery pushed science the furthest in one giant leap?  This question was posed to some outstanding bloggers for whom I have great respect. And it is your job, dear reader, to vote for which of the following is the "One Giant Leap".
Unless you're from Illinois each person gets one vote, so I ask you to lobby your friends/family/garbage collectors to vote for which scientific advancement is the most important as a single step in history.  The poll will be open for 1 week so organize your grass roots,  and let the debate begin.   When voting you'll need to decide which blogger is most convincing in their "Giant Leap" if there is overlap between submissions.

The blogger who garners the most votes will not only win glory, honor, fame and the respect of their peers, but also 20 Bonus Points and likely assure themselves a top spot on the Bonus Point Leader Board or be able to get fabulous stuff from the Store House O' Prizes.  And you, dear reader, will win because you'll be exposed to bloggers who are well worthy of your time to read and follow closely.    

So without further ado, I present to you the  One Giant Leap candidates and their submissions.   The poll follows these submissions.

Rocket Scientist:  Information Technology Revolution

I'm going to have to go with the information technology revolution and all that entails. I can't think of anything that has changed the world we live in more than the way we communicate and get/send information. When I think back 100 years (speculatively of course) and the world as it was then and then think back 500 years before that, the difference between 600 and 100 years is not, in my opinion, as profound as the change in the past century. But, more than that, the world my father grew up in is a damn site closer to the world his father grew up in than to the world I grew up in. And mine is much more like his than my daughter's is to mine.

I don't think it's any one thing but the serendipitous combinations of many things like computers and word processing/image processing, and the internet and telephones/instant paging and faxes and email and truly instant access around the world. 

You can't keep a secret any more like you used to. Someone with a cell phone camera will be there. You want to know what something is, google and know. You want an opinion by someone in another country. Find one instantly!

Geography is less of a concern than it's ever been. Information can go anywhere, instantly. The world and entertainment for kids today is a completely different world than it was for me and light years from how it was for my grandfather. Good or ill (and I think much of it is good), it sure as heck is different.

Ether Wave Propaganda: Sir Isaac Newton's Principia
If we're talking about a single contribution, and if we measure the "size" of that contribution as a leap that had a very quick effect rather than a cumulative one over all remaining history, I'd probably have to go with Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. To suggest that astronomical motions could be explained in terms of force acting over time was a massive shift in thinking, and to offer no philosophical explanation of this force (contra Descartes' version of mechanistic natural philosophy, itself a huge contribution) simply doubled down on an already massive contribution.

The feat, one might say, was replicated in 1925 when Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, and Pascual Jordan published their "Three Man Work", which postulated the matrix mechanics version of quantum mechanics. This work suggested that at the universe at its most fundamentally microscopic level could not be mathematically described in any continuous way (as with Newtonian motion), but as a probabilistic and immediate succession between distinct states: the original "quantum leap". They then doubled down (really in 1927 with the so-called "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum mechanics) by asserting that there was no underlying but undetectable reality causing the transition from state to state. Only what could be observed could be considered real.

Leave the Lights On: Heliocentrism
I'm going to go with the shift that occurred around the time of the Scientific Revolution in which scientists stopped trying to pigeonhole the universe to their ideas and instead began to described it the way they observed it. I am specifically thinking of the shift from the ancient Aristotelian idea of heavenly bodies circling in shells of aether (which was never able to explain retrograde motion no matter how hard astronomers tried) to planets in elliptical orbits around the sun. This is not the discovery of any one scientist (Copernicus, for example, was the first heliocentrist, but he still believed in spheres of aether), but rather a larger-scale shift in thinking.

At one time, philosophy came up with ideas of how the universe "should be" according to the current understanding of God, and science tried to show how the universe proved that understanding of God. After this shift, scientists observe how the universe is, leaving the philosophers and theologians to work out how it affects our understanding of God.

Newton's Ocean: Mass Conservation in Chemical Reactions
OK so the giant leap has to "advance a field of science" by the hugest amount. I'm going to interpret this quite literally. So I could go after the father of the field of evolutionary biology but that's too obvious. How about the father of chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier, who in 1789 came up with the principle that mass is conserved in a chemical reaction. This led to the whole idea of chemical constituents combining with each other without themselves changing. Not only did this transform (no pun intended) alchemy into the scientific field of chemistry, but it paved the way for Dalton to come up with his atomic theory, and the idea that chemistry involves atomic elements of different weights combining in simple proportions.

Wikipedia seems to imply that Lavoisier really had to keep his unpopular job as a tax collector in order to fund his scientific research. As a result, he was guillotined during the French revolution. So it has always been hard to keep your head while trying to fund those giant leaps.

The Deeps of Time:  Greek Philosophical Rationality and the Christian Faith
My first thought is to second the first suggestion, the computer revolution. The progress of scientific knowledge, at least in the total body of scientific facts known, in the last century has been exponential, based largely on the computer. Not only does computer technology allow a wider dissemination of knowledge (like the printing press), it also helps in the processing of that information. In everything from genetics to cosmology, sheer number-crunching and the ability to simulate complex systems has advanced science tremendously. 

I'll offer another suggestion, though, in the interests of provoking thought. Readers of my blog know that I place an emphasis on the interaction between philosophy and science. Science itself isn't even possible without a prior belief in the intelligibility of the universe and a trust in reason to be able to investigate it. Historians have noted that modern science is a distinctly Western venture, and Western civilization is at its heart based in two things: Greek philosophical rationality and the Christian faith. Those two facts are related, I believe. It is the Christian belief that God made a rational, purposeful universe and the tools of classical philosophy ("baptized" by Christan thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas) that have made science bloom in Christian culture in ways that it couldn't in other intellectual paradigms.

Nested Universe: Heliocentrism
I'll suggest that Copernicus' theory that the Sun is at the center of our Solar System is the greatest leap in the history of science.

Not only did this theory redefine astronomy, his work is seen by many as the starting point of the Scientific Revolution itself, and led to significant advances in a number of the Sciences. Understanding that our world does not hold a special place in the universe was a truly revolutionary change, and one that sparked a radically new way of thinking about our world and ourselves.

Arash's World: The Gutenberg Press
If thinking about inventions, I would say that Gutenberg's invention of the printing press was a giant leap in pretty much all the areas one can think of.

It caused a social and economic revolution as education became more accessible to laypeople and was not only the domain of the church. 

It was an information or communication revolution (and I think the Internet, with all due respect, is simply its follow-up, sequel or logical consequence). 

All this had enormous impact on religion, government and brought about a changing and more receptive mentality. It brought about more accurate geographical information through actualized maps. 

Various other academic disciplines evolved and spread rapidly through books. In other words, knowledge was finally, at least theoretically, available to all. Without the printing press I would venture to say that we would not be where we are today.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thermodynamics Test for Financial Investments

As a service to the readers of The Secret of Newton, I'd like to offer some financial advice, at no charge!*  Call it the "Thermodynamics Test for Financial Investments".  Let's say you come across what you consider to be an outstanding business or investment opportunity (such as the free offer in a Craig's List classified below). But you're just not sure if it is the right fit for you.   Here's the ad, quoted verbatim: 


Motivation and potential - free...

We've all seen those overnight success money making schemes online. Well, I have a couple in mind that I truly believe in, but I need a partner to help me to get it off the ground. I am not opposed to spending a little money as long as I am relatively sure of a good return for us both. I want to learn, but don't want to have to slog through all the stuff necessary to learn how to build websites, set up search engine stuff, etc. Can you tell that I don't know what I'm doing? So, what do you say? Is there some kind of IT techie kind of guy or gal out there who wants to work with me to make some serious money online? Email me and let's get started asap.


Now let's take a look and see if this offer passes the Thermodynamics Test of Financial Investments. 

If two thermodynamic systems are each in thermal equilibrium with a third, then they are in thermal equilibrium with each other.

OK, there are two systems presented in this financial opportunity.  These systems are "overnight success money making schemes online" that the ad author has "in mind".  Unfortunately his statement "Can you tell that I don't know what I'm doing?" tells us that his mind is not in equilibrium (thermal or otherwise) with the third system which is "reality".  

Analysis: Fails the Zeroth Law.

In any process, the total energy of the universe remains the same.

Or, more commonly, "energy cannot be created nor destroyed".  When applied to financial investing, think of the first law as "no such thing as a free lunch" or: can't create sumpin' from nuthin'.  In this case, the ad author claims to be offering free motivation and free potential.   Turns out, however, that the motivation and potential really aren't free.  He wants you to do some computer programming for him to help get the two "overnight success money making schemes" he "has in mind" off the ground.  In this case, he is working within the bounds of the First Law of Thermodynamics and knows that nobody will be his  IT Techie for nothing, so he's open to spending "a little money".  

Analysis: Passes the First Law of Thermodynamics.

The entropy of an isolated system not in equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value at equilibrium.
If we consider "entropy" to be the amount of disorder in a system, then we can be certain that our entrepreneur above will increase your entropy over time if you team up with him.  Imagine: you've decided that you want to grab this golden ring and shoot for a "relatively good return" and make "serious money online".  So with your IT Techie know-how you meet with him and get the scheme up and running.  Then comes the late night phone call from your new business partner asking you to "shut it down immediately!!!!" and "shred everything now!!!".  Followed soon after by the knock on the door from the SEC and the visit from the FBI men in black  investigating interstate fraud.  Oh yes, my friend, the amount of entropy in your life will certainly increase over time.  You will also likely end up in an "isolated system" such as.... umm... a prison cell.  

Analysis: Passes the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

As temperature approaches absolute zero, the entropy of a system approaches a constant minimum.
You are assured a "constant minimum" amount of entropy (disorder) if you put your eggs into this investment basket, most likely when the (legal) revenue from this scheme approaches absolute zero.  

Analysis: Passes the Third Law.

Conclusion:  This investment opportunity is consistent with the First, Second, and Third Laws of Thermodynamics.  Were it not for the violation of the Zeroth Law, I would say this is a terrific financial investment.  However, the "Thermodynamic Test for Financial Investments" requires that you forgo any opportunity that isn't consistent with all laws.  So, regretfully, I must advise you to pass on this "Free Motivation and Potential"  offer.

Also filed under: Free Comedy Gold from Craig's List.

Image credit: A Cool Friday.

The Fine Print
*Oops, I'm violating the First Law of Thermodynamics here.  Corn!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

This is the Internet.

The IT Crowd has finally done it!  I'm guessing with a combination of biocomputing and quantum computing, they've designed a desktop device that contains the entirety of the Internet.  I'm astonished, frankly. 

Video here.

5 BPs to Make for the tip.