Tuesday, March 30, 2010

LHC Has Collided Protons at 7 TeV!!!

Read the posting here.

If you're wondering how colliders work, ArsTechnica put up a great article this week on how they work.

As a freshman at Michigan State University, my family and I had the pleasure of being able to take one of their periodic public tours of the Cyclotron facilities. One of my favorite parts was how they curved the acceleration path at one point to separate particles by mass, so they could then sort of collect particles in Faraday Cups at the end of the path. That a machine so complex and powerful replies on the fundamental principle of inertia to sort the subjects of its studies by mass is somehow poetic.

Turns out we use that exact principle for isotope detection, except that it's on a far smaller scale. My research group makes frequent use of a multicollector induced-coupled plasma mass spectrometer (MC-ICP-MS), which allows us to measure with a high degree of precision (when the machine's behaving; I swear it's sentient sometimes) isotopic ratios. In particular, I'm looking at stable (or non-radioactive) iron isotopes. In the future, I'll be looking at stable magnesium isotopes, (obviously unstable) uranium isotopes, and possibly stable silicon isotopes. Silicon's difficult because of its low solubility in most solutions and its tendency to fractionate.

Fractionation occurs when some mechanism allows the preferential movement of one isotope over another. I'm being vague on that definition for a reason; there are multiple ways in which this can happen. One example is heating the sample to a level where silicon melts and could possibly vaporize. Heavier isotopes require more energy to lift, just as lifting a car requires more energy than lifting a bicycle. If there is only enough energy in a system to vaporize a few silicon atoms at a time, it's much more probable that the lighter silicon atoms will vaporize.

It doesn't exclude the possibility of vaporizing the heavy silicon atoms at this time - it's just less probable. However, if more energy is introduced to the system, the probability of heavier silicon isotopes being vaporized increases greatly. Were I to analyze collected silicon vapor collected from each of the energy levels, I'd find that the lower energy vapor has a "lighter" signature, whereas the higher energy vapor has a "heavier" signature.

Recall, though, that this is only one way to fractionate stable isotopes. It's by far the most common process, but there is also chemical fractionation. I won't go into as much detail about this process as I'm less familiar with it, but it's definitely a fascinating study and I'm hoping we go into great detail about it in my isotopes class next fall.

Why silicon is being problematic isn't clear yet. Part of our chemical procedure to prepare samples for analysis hasn't been perfected yet, and we know that for sure. One particular chemical added in extremely small amounts is intended to "anchor" the silicon in solution so it doesn't form a colloid or precipitate out, trapped in telltale wispy flakes that settle at the bottom of the sample tube. Too much of this chemical and it will occupy all available site on the silicon atoms in solution and turn into a gas, which means it will fractionate out an eventually escape. Dilution of the sample beyond the theoretical minimum volume required to dissolve the amount of silicon present hasn't entirely helped, either.

But the best part by far is that mass spectrometry and photospectrometry of the samples have provided results exactly the opposite of each other (there should be at least a rough direct correlation between the two). Hard to say. We're still working on the method.

And on that note, I should head into work fairly soon. My first class of the day was delayed by half an hour, but I have an array of small tasks I should plow through in some capacity before then.

Monday, March 29, 2010

MSU in Final Four and Back To The Grind

Got back to the home base yesterday afternoon in time for the second half of the MSU-Tennesee game, which I'd been tuning into for the last hour or so of my drive.

If I can get tickets at a reasonable price, I'm hoping to be able to watch the games in person, seeing as I live a mere hour and a half from Indianapolis. Chances are that I will not be successful in my quest, but it NEVER hurts to try.

In the meantime, we're starting the second major unit of the class I help run, and the camping trip is next week. Need to get plans solidifed, since it's highly likely I'll ultimately have to plan all of the underlying infrastructural parts of the trip (things like food, propane, etc.). Working for this prof certainly has been interesting, and not really something I want to do again.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

On Thinking Like A Scientist (Well, Me)

Been thinking a lot about how we think and brain structures/types lately. Not going into details why, but the more simplistic of the reasons is that ADHD, something I've lived with my entire life, is a fascinating disorder. The spectrum it exists on is facsinating as well: Asperger's/ASD, manic-depressive, OCD. It's rare to sit at purely one of those endmembers.

I'm no medical doctor or psychologist, so I have no qualifications upon which to make a diagnosis, but I can certainly find the correlations between what I've found in literature and my brain. Better yet is that my observations are inherently contaminated because I'm making the fundamental mistake of observing myself. It's funny how that works.

In my case, though, whatever particular point of the spectrum I occupy has proven to be advantageous. I've had the luck of good, solid parenting in which I can root my morals, values, and behaviors. The first two are obvious; the third is not. I've never been able to entirely unconsciously assimilate acceptable social behaviors. There are an array that I've had to consciously learn, some by trial and error. Means that in some ways I've become a good actor. In other ways, it's gone from consciously responding in what's deemed an acceptable way (and avoiding other things like smiling at inappropriate times, which is something I've caught myself doing as an apparent standard emotional response where it's NOT recommended), to it becoming second nature because I've done it so much.

Anyway, I'm veering a bit. Back to the advantageous bit. I can argue that "disorder" is a misnomer for my brain's setup. It may have been at one time, but I've learned how to function in tandem with it in such a way that I can turn my tendencies into helpful behaviors. Some behaviors that I naturally want to engage in I know not to. One is busting into a room with voice at full volume, announcing what may or may not be a triviality. I save that for when it's really needed, sort of like the time we thought NHB was on fire (a bio student on the 3rd floor managed to mix ethanol, a Bunsen burner, and his lab manual), but other times, I consciously remind myself to suppress. That's one extreme.

The other extreme is the ability to hyperfocus. That comes naturally when I find myself doing something I find highly engaging. I don't take my luck for granted, especially when it's good, and I've certainly been lucky to find my subject of choice. Had no idea what I wanted to do, even coming into college, and thought I did shortly after. Found geology by chance partway through my junior year, and my mom was supporting enough to let me do an extra year in my undergrad to let me get my degree in geology instead of my previous major, which I'd been starting to flounder a bit in because I couldn't find research (no interested faculty), and as a result no real semblance of guidance. That alone caused me to start spacing out again. Getting into the Geology Department gave me a more engaging environment, a wide variety of subjects to sample, and a sense of community. I had the community with the band, but not so much in the academic side.

Fast fowarding to now, I'm in my niche area of study, which makes it easy for me to sit down and work 8 or more full hours a day. I don't always (not always 8 full hours of work to do), which means I can fill it by puttering around in the storage room of my teaching lab, reading papers, or engaging in the community in the department here. The key is that I enjoy what I do, so it's hard to consider it "work." If it's not so much work as fun or a game or a puzzle in my head, it's a relatively simple matter to sit down and expand my knowledge in the area or go work on my samples in the lab. Given the Scientific Method is essentially the thought structure I gravitated to at a young age, working the way I do is natural. Field work makes life even better.

However, try to get me to figure out something about insurance or business and it can take a few tries (sorry Mom!).

I'm loath to admit that there are a couple of downsides here and there to this "disorder." Though I'm one of the lucky ones who rarely has emotional downswings, they DO happen, and they can surprise me - sometimes just the right trigger, especially if I've been stressed about something. Thankfully, they never last more than a few hours, maybe a day or two at most. Stress is another issue in and of itself - can deal with it okay until it hits at the wrong angle and I break (insert shear stress/structure joke here). I'm sure that's true of almost everyone. Social stress is something I'm not used to, and there's been a fair amount this semester. Details as to why are irrelevant in this medium. All that matters is that I've once again demonstrated that I don't hide emotions well, which means it's probably very clear to the person with which I have a conflict that I have a conflict. Ironically, it's because this person and I are so much alike, but at different stages. This person is so close to the scientific rationale, except that it's clouded by a combination of upbringing and behavior that has obviously been advantageous in the past.

Once this person reaches a level proper for this academic environment, life will be better. The question remains as to whether or not the capability exists, because of some fundamental differences in this person's upbringing.

To bring this post full-circle, it's the above paragraph that has gotten me thinking about all of this again. We are very alike and very different, and I've been trying to reconcile the differences in our thinking. In doing so, I have turned inward to try to figure out again what my brain's up to in somewhat of an attempt to figure out what's going on in this person's brain. I don't know why I'm doing this. It fascinates me, but it won't be productive until the group faces this problem. We won't face it because no one wants to be the first to address this person. It's definitely not been ideal (never mind I have to suppress a laugh anytime we discuss "ideal" in class because it essentially doesn't exist) and I think that's what's been stressing me out the most.

Brains are weird, people are weird. Yes, I'm attaching labels, and only because it's the best way I can explain at the moment.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Snowball Earth Proven?

Snowball Earth is a popular, controversial idea in which Earth is thought to have been completely covered at least once in ice during the Sturtian glaciation of roughly 718-700 Ma. This glaciation episode, bookended by two others, the Kaigas (~785-728 Ma) and the Marinoan (~670-624 Ma), comprise the period of the Late Precambrian known as the Cryogenian Period and are a precursor to the Cambrian Explosion of roughly 530 Ma.

This is proposed as a hypothesis to explain some sediments seen worldwide that some geologists are having trouble characterizing any other way. Glacially-associated sediments are distinct from the more common wind- and water-driven deposits. Because of the viscosity of ice, it is capable of carrying sediments of varying grain size from dust to megaboulder. Some sediments are sorted out during melting into eskers or loess, but other sediments are dropped where they are when the glacier starts to melt. Advance/retreat periods during melting can push up ridges of unsorted sediments at the glacier head known as moraines.

Skeptics of the hypothesis argue that there are problems with the idea of worldwide glaciation, and their arguments are very well-founded. Those of us who see snow every year are aware of how bright the world can get when snow is on the ground and the sun is shining. This is because snow and ice have a high albedo, or ability to reflect light. If light is reflected rather than absorbed, not much energy is available at surface level to melt snow or ice. It's possible that runaway glaciation would be VERY hard to reverse once established simply because of the albedo argument. I believe some models back this up. Others don't. It's controversial, which is what makes it a compelling story of Earth's past.

There are other arguments, but I strongly suggest reading through the Wikipedia article linked at the top of this post. It's fascinating.

Sediments such as these have been observed in paleoequatorial regions. Using paleomagnetic data embedded in rocks (that hasn't been too far altered by subsequent metamorphic processes), it is possible to extrapolate a paleolatitude of a particular rock formation. This is done by isolating the remanent magnetic signature (thought of as a vector) in the native Fe2O3 (hematite), Fe3O4 (magnetite), and FeTiO4 (ilmenite) crystals present in a rock. Alignment may occur in the internal structure of a crystal during cooling and crystallization of an igneous rock (if it has enough time), or during deposition of iron-bearing sedimentary rocks (if the magnetic field has enough influence to align enough of the grains in situ). If it is possible to establish an age for these same rocks, we know when that piece of continent was at that particular latitude (but NOT the longitude, because assuming a perfect magnetic dipole, the magnetic vector is the same at all longitudes at that latitude).

Better yet if you find glacial sediments hanging out in close association with rock types typically found in tropical environments. Uniformitarianism for the win.

That's what scientists have managed to do with a suite of rocks in northwestern Canada. Tropical sediments and presumably paleomagnetic data (not directly mentioned in the article) were used to identify what could be a smoking gun for Snowball Earth.

As a corollary, some glacial sediments are now found at tropical latitudes, but that plus paleomag provides a smoking gun in favor of plate tectonics. Typical glaciations throughout Earth's history were not at the level of the Cryogenian glaciations.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Daylight Savings Time

. . . Somewhat guilt-inducing, because I wake up thinking I've slept in an hour later than usual. While I haven't in terms of absolute time, social time indicates that I absolutely have!

Well, at least it's Pi Day. I will not be eating pie, or any number approximately equal to 3.14 for that matter, but I will happily ruminate on the philosophical implications of the ratio of a circle's diameter to its radius.

Nevertheless, today requires some level of productivity - finishing my lecture for Monday, then heading into work so I can cap my samples and get the teaching samples ready for tomorrow's lab, as well as hang around in case any students who might be around have some questions.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Have there been more earthquakes lately? NO!

More Big Quakes in Chile

These are probably aftershocks, but I got these e-mails from the USGS about an hour ago:

Magnitude 7.2, Libertador O'Higgins, Chile 3/11/10 14:39:48 UTC
[This has since been revised down to magnitude 6.9.]

Magnitude 6.9, Libertador O'Higgins, Chile 3/11/10 14:55:30 UTC
[This has since been revised down to magnitude 6.7.]

Magnitude 6.0, Libertador O'Higgins, Chile 3/11/10 15:06:03 UTC

Aftershocks may continue for years after a quake in some cases, but these are strong. I couldn't say for sure whether these are indeed aftershocks or this is a new section of the fault breaking. Not my area of expertise, but I'll post a link if I can find anything on that after my class this morning.

What I'm finding strange about these earthquakes (aside from the third, which doesn't have first motion data and hence no focal mechanisms/moment tensors yet) is that they are not compressional, as you'd expect from the proximity to the subduction zone off of the Andes mountains. They are extensional. I'll have to look into this more after class as well.

As a note, revisions to magnitude are common as more seismograph stations worldwide pick up tremors from an event. The more data we have, the better we can characterize the motions and strength of the event.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Smoke Rings!!

More Chilean Earthquake Stuff and Mars

In other news, Concepcion, Chile is now sitting ten feet further west than it did previous to the magnitude 8.8 earthquake.

Only about 3.1 meters displacement, you say? For one event, that is pretty damn significant. That and in the grand scheme of things, there's only a smidgen of crustal shortening and subduction going on there. Amazing to think about how much ocean crust once did exist there before the subduction zone developed. But alas, as the ridge is still actively spreading, the crust must go somewhere!

Something about that whole conservation of mass thing . . .

Then there's this article about Mars. Cool. One of the great questions about Mars is centered around what controlled the erosional and sedimentary features on the planet's surface and what happened to it.

Mars' surface yields some spotty paleomagnetic evidence of possible early plate tectonics (I like to think so, at least. However, it's not universally accepted and other models exist), but it's plainly evident that whatever the tectonic style of the planet, it shut down while Earth was still in the Precambrian Eon (I guess it's considered a "Supereon"?). Mars is just too small to maintain plate tectonics/convection cycles like those of Earth - the heat gradient from core to surface is too steep. I could talk all day about what I think about the formation of the giant shield volcanoes and Tharsis, but that's not what the article's about. Well, it could tie into Tharsis. But it's not directly about it.

Later on, sedimentary features developed - most strikingly, the canyons larger than any found on Earth. Whatever fluids and erosional processes that once controlled this are mostly gone now. It's now being postulated in this article that some of the channel features were carved out by lava.

I can buy this - camped in Snow Canyon State Park in Utah a couple of years ago. It admittedly started as a canyon carved by fluvial (waterflow-driven) processes, but was located proximal to a basaltic magma source as young as 20,000 years old. Eruptions there changed the course of the river - partly by building up topography in some places and carving it out in others. Redirection of waterways carved new, deeper canyons and remnants of older lava flows can be seen near the top of the present day canyon. This is a phenomenon called "inverted topography," where younger rock sits lower than older rock. This is only one way to form inverted topography, but that could be a blog post in and of itself, so maybe I'll save that for another post.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Good Morning!

This was one of the forms of entertainment of choice at field camp - the dreaded Flash Bang. During periods of downtime and carbo-loading, it was discovered fairly early on that the sighting mirrors of our compasses, particularly those of the Brunton brand, reflected sunlight REALLY well across large distances. (This is also very handy to know for potential field emergencies in which signaling across large distances would be required. Let's hope my buddies and I never have this problem in future excursions.)

This turned into a game and it ultimately became hard for large groups to eat lunch together as we'd all end up flashbanging each other. My favorites were when we could get someone when they were about 1000 ft. away, usually on the other side of a basin or canyon that we were mapping.

The other dominant form of entertainment was the fabled "Suck Bomb," in which someone called out the target victim's name to grab his or her attention. The victim's typical answer is, "What?" The reply would then be, "SUCKS!"

Not really sure which is the more mature of the two, but both are funny. With the latter, people figured out pretty quickly when they were about to receive a suck bomb. If they heard their name called, some would figure it out and instead of "What?" we'd get a "F**k you!" with a giant grin on their face.

A short-lived practice was something some of the boys invented, called "Pass the Rock." Pretty self-explanatory. The trick was that the rock generally had absolutely nothing to do with the lecture going on at the time, but they wanted to see how long it'd get passed around and inspected. People figured that one out within a couple of weeks, I think, after it became frequent and rather obvious.

Back into the present and we find no soy milk in my fridge, so no pancakes this morning. Bummer. I'll probably do eggs again today. Thunderstorms are expected, my running buddy's bike is in need of maintenance (tire blew, so my inefficiently-running arse can't join her today on her 7-miler), and I have grading to blast through. Should be a quiet day, which I'm totally in favor of, and anything could be more productive than yesterday. About the only things I managed to do yesterday were to make/eat breakfast while it was still early, get out for an hourlong walk in the residental section of Urbana (GORGEOUS - saw some crocuses!), wash the pile of dishes I've let build up for a while after 11 pm, then attempted to stay up to watch a movie and fell asleep less than halfway through.

And I'm off to be along with it. Peace out.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Love Geology, Yes I Do!

It's a monocline that looks like a SHIP! I hope everyone else sees that too!

This is a picture from the start of the San Rafael Swell in Utah. A monocline is sort of like an anticline (convex fold), except it only has one leg. It tells us that the area was undergoing some sort of uneven compression that caused one side to kink up and form a leg, while the other side slooooowly tapers downward to gradually merge with the rest of the Colorado Plateau. Note that this area is only a tiny part of the Swell itself. When we camped on the monocline in 2008, we were only still part of civilization in that we were staying in a campground. No facilities or water, though - we had to bring everything in and pack it all out.

One of the cool things we discussed at field camp while we were camping up on the Swell is that evidence of hydrocarbons exists in the sandstone beds of the monocline. Before erosive forces carved out the Little Grand Canyon and other features, this has been interpreted to be one of the largest hydrocarbon reservoirs ever to have existed. If I remember correctly, it was thought to contain more barrels of oil than sources in Saudi Arabia. Once the entrapping rocks were cut through during erosion, though, the hydrocarbons drained away to who-knows-where. They're long gone and broken down.

I'll dig out a few more photos with time. I've taken a TON of pictures on my field excursions in the past couple of years, downloaded them, looked at a few, and forgotten about more than I've looked at. Perhaps a massive reorganization/cataloguing project is in order.

Or, knowing me, maybe not! Regardless, I've been coming across some fun shots with stories behind them and it would be only best if I were to share them.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I'd like to point out that reading my class' text, which is the same one I used when I took the class as an undergrad at MSU, is MUCH easier now that I've been out of the class for a while and actually use this stuff every day.

Now off to the world of granite typing.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Excitement and Arm-Waving

Had possibly one of the most exciting meetings ever this afternoon!

There's not much in terms of detail since things are only in the barest of planning stages, but what I can say is that it's a collaborative effort with one of the other research groups in the department and if things end up as interesting as we suspect, and better yet if we can develop some new models, this could be VERY important research.

In other news, I'm writing another lecture to have ready for Monday's lab. Some of the information the prof conveyed in lecture this morning was anything but correct, and unfortunately the students won't realize that. I nearly broke the Rules of Conduct (my own personal rules, sort of coupled with some of the admittedly strange rules I have to stay aware of in the academic world. They certainly have their logic, but they can sometimes be counterproductive) during lecture when she said what she did. Took every ounce of willpower to not say anything, and I'm glad I didn't.

[I'm not mentioning any specifics about class, etc. so as to preserve identities.]

I'll let her know, but it wouldn't have been proper to call that error out during lecture. However, at the same time I'm concerned that the level of education my students are receiving from this class isn't satisfactory. This means I'm taking into my hands a large portion of their education. It's more work than I should have as a TA (never mind I'm the ONLY TA in the department who has only one lab to teach. Yes, my subject is that hard to teach), and I shouldn't be responsible for teaching fundamentals.

However, it appears that it usually comes to that for those who TA this class. When a glaring error (omitted chapter that was rather essential to the lab I ran Monday) cropped up last week, I was fuming mad about it. I wrote a lecture and even managed to pull it off and have some of the info stick in my students' heads, even. That's a huge accomplishment, given the rough time I had last semester when I was trying to teach intro geology lab to non-geology majors.

In addition to that, I graded the first lab quiz of the semester and it taught me a lot. I know where their deficiencies are and that helps me tailor what I need to cover in lab to help them learn. You can't learn this subject without solid fundamentals, and regrettably those are not always properly covered in lecture. I even managed to show them how to solve ternary phase diagrams. *smug grin*

This is going to be a tough semester, but in a manner different from last semester. It will be a challenge to stay on top of the material covered in class. It will be a challenge to keep encouraging my students to read the book (been there, was terrible about reading too). It will be a challenge to master the fundamentals behind the methods, and convey the concepts in a manner that my students can understand. This subject is tough enough when taught well, and I can't imagine how my students feel right now, because they KNOW the prof is lacking somewhat.

That is my challenge. My confidence in my ability to teach has soared somewhat since Monday's personal triumph, and I'm hoping I can carry that energy over into the coming lab.

. . . I need a shower. Did my first spin class with a friend tonight, and it was loads of fun. Recommend it - feel great now, wondering how well I'll be moving tomorrow!

Monday, March 1, 2010

More Cool Earthquake Stuff

From BoingBoing: Chile quake changed Earth's figure axis (based on center of mass, not north-south axis) and shortened Earth's days.

Forgive me for saying this, but this is what makes earthquake science COOL. And yes, I'm definitely keeping Chile in my thoughts; a friend of mine has plans to live there for a short while after she finishes her master's degree next year so my degree of separation from the country will soon close significantly.

At the same time as I'm amazed at the pictures of quake damage and that the death toll is as small as it is, I have to mention that the somewhat unsympathetic side of me keeps clamoring about Man choosing to build cities, civilizations in these unstable areas. Chile is a smart country - they acknowledge their risks and build accordingly.

I have considerably less sympathy for folks who build homes on major fault lines and have zero idea what they're living on (yes, I'm talking about YOU, people who built mansions on the Wasatch Fault!!). Sure, it's a great view. Sure, I'd LOVE to have a mountain range as my backyard. Do I want to live on a major fault line, even if it only ruptures every several hundred years? Nope! The less frequently a fault ruptures, the less data we can gather on it and the less we know about that fault or fault system.

Earthquake Frequency Stats

Here's a really good article on earthquake frequency in light of the recent quakes in Japan and Chile.

I'm not going to copy/paste anything directly into this post from that article, but I recommend reading through it. It is a strong testimony to the extremely short memory of us as a society, not to mention how uninformed the public are on earthquakes.

Many of the earthquakes studied in this statistics exercise (M 6.0-6.9) don't even make news because they occur in remote/low population areas, little damage occurs, or quakes of that magnitude occur with enough frequency that it's not unusual to the residents of the area. It's the quakes that size that hit less frequently in populated areas or cause lots of damage/kill lots of people that make the news. It's all about the social impact.

There's the matter of correlation vs. causation and the breakdown of Occam's Razor to some extent going on. Short public memory combined with 3 significant earthquakes since January causes a stir. Sure, there's a correlation. Three large quakes occurred in a short period of time. People died; it was a huge social impact.

Correlation here does not imply causation, however. It's easy to apply Occam's Razor and say, "well, they happened quickly, they must be related to each other."

Not necessarily. In this case, the better application of Occam is to say, "They correlate. They may or may not be related thanks to the large releases of energy from each quake and the resultant redistribution of stresses on portions of tectonic plate boundaries worldwide. But we cannot say causation - not enough information."

Add in the sensationalistic 2012 bullcrap, and it's easy to get swept up in the hype.

In a nutshell, sit down and think about it. Bad things and good things tend to cluster like this, but we're more prone to remember the bad things.