Sunday, January 17, 2016

Geosonnet 36

When sand dunes, glac'ers spread across the farm
Migration to a sanctuary's best.
We need an Eden, Oregon lest harm
Befall environments which are distressed.
Six hundred fifty million years ago
The glac'ers covered every continent
Yet benthic evolution did not slow.
How'd life the frozen ocean circumvent?
A diamictite sandwich of black shale
With fossil seaweed as the veg'table.
In open water haven, they prevail
Suggesting snowball Earth was just a fable.
   This promised land of cryogenic times.
   Requires small, locally mild climes.

Geology 43 507

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens SPOILERS

So, I finally saw the new Star Wars movie today.  The good news is that it didn’t suck.  My thoughts will continue, with increasingly annoying spoilers as I go. 

On the science point of view, they had some interesting X-wing fly-byes of a ringed planet’s rings.  I’m hoping that sometime in 2017, the Cassini mission’s actual ring flybys actually work without destroying the spacecraft, and produce images which we can compare to the Star Wars artist’s impression. I suspect that once again, reality will show how limited the human imagination really is.

My other beef is that planets seemed to be less climactically diverse than Earth.  We had all-green planets, all desert planets, all ice planets, but nothing like Earth, will al of those regions easily visible from space.

As for the cinematic experience, the great thing about the new Star Wars movies is that all the little stuff is done really well.  The dialogue is lively, the effects are awesome, the tension in the scenes is well tuned. The new young leads both hold up their parts of the story, and Han Solo is old, but still has it.  The story is very fast-paced, and there is always something happening. Despite the speed of the plot, there are relatively few glaring plot holes.

However, at the same time, there wasn’t a lot of momentum, and much of the movie was emotionally flat. The movie was running full speed from the very beginning of the film.  But unlike the previous movies, there was not a lot of emotional B-story to make us care. The chemistry between Han and Leia from the earlier movies was sadly lacking. Furthermore, all of the main plot points were telegraphed, or otherwise made absurdly obvious, way in advance.  There were no jaw dropping surprises here. And the reveals didn’t have much impact. Any many plot points in the latter third of the movie were transparently about setting up later films.

Similarly, the villains were weak.  One of the few things the prequels did well was to show just what a complete badass the Emperor was; in contrast, the bad guy in the new movie is a cartoon villain. And the Kylo Ren is so shallow that his personality is perfectly captured by a spoof twitter account. Mrs. Lemming described him like a Harry Potter villain- a half blood with a disappointing muggle father. And at several points, I felt the Jedi battles degenerated into yet another live action comic.

Still, the movie kept my attention all the way through, and the special effects were fantastic, both in their spectacle and their integration into the plot. Definitely worth a viewing, but I doubt I will go back unless it is to take the kids.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Twenty-one protons

The David Guetta / Sia hit Titanium has been floating around the internet and our airwaves for about five years now; the first adio broadcasts are just now passing Alpha Centauri. Despite the popularity of the song, its lesser known prequel is hardly ever heard. This may be an accident of economics; not everything can be a hit, especially if it is odd. Or it might just be a sign of the times; unlike Titanium, the prequel came out before Youtube or streaming, and was released on a rather more old-fashioned musical medium known as the 45.  Or, to be more precise, the 44.9559…

You leave it out
And ekaboron holds the space
Nilsen cooked my oxide up
I’m purified, but molten salts are such a waste
Reduced fluorite makes me up

Mendeleev proved nothing removed
Fire assay fire assay
Trivalent, but not the same
As lanthanum or gallium.

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the yttrium
I am the Scandium

Cut me with
Aluminum increase the strength
Rare earth, the lightest one
Take your choice of ore min’rals to soak me up
Phosphates and uranium.

Mendeleev proved nothing removed
Fire assay fire assay
Trivalent, but not the same
As lanthanum or gallium.

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the yttrium
I am the Scandium

I am the Scandium
I am the Scandium

One chart, calcium
takes a proton on the run
Scandium oxide makes glass!

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the Yttrium
I am the Scandium

You melt me down, strengthen Al
I am the Scandium
Lighter than the Yttrium
I am the Scandium

I am the Scandium!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

RIP Marco Beltrando

A quick search of the term “RIP” in this blog will show that it has been used over the years to mark the passing of senior scientists, mentors, and explorers who have an influence on me, whether personally or by reputation. I never imagined that I would have to write one for a student several years my junior. So it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to Marco Beltrando.

Marco did his PhD at the Australian National University when I was a technician there. In fact, he would have graduated a few years after I started this blog. He was a big friendly guy, full of energy, lighting up the hallway with the excitement of science. He studied the formation of the Alps, the journey of the various alpine thrust sheets down deep into the Earth and back to the surface again, prying apart their precollisional history, their tectonic wanderings, and their speed, one accessory mineral at a time.

Marco’s geochronological tool of choice was the argon-argon system, not uranium-lead, so we didn’t interact directly in lab on a regular basis. But he certainly had an excellent understanding of geologic time.

As geochronologists, we need to work on a very large span of time. The nanoseconds that we use to define the dead time in our counting systems are 24 orders of magnitude shorter than the duration of time since the Alpine rocks Marco studied were deformed. And the Alps are considered young by geologic standards.  When we throw around millions of years of uncertainty in our professional lives, it can be easy to miss the individual moments that make up our day to day existence. And since the most we can hope for is a lifetime that spans 20 billionths of the history of this planet, it behooves us to treat our time more valuably. After all, Marco only got eight and a half billionths.

To put it another way, the 31 million year age of the Alps is also a thousand trillion seconds. Millions of years are easy to get lost in- ice ages, extinction events, and the evolution of modern humans all happened in a fraction of a million years.  But we can all relate to seconds. We waste them all the time: By the hundreds waiting for the bus, by the dozens looking at random crap on the internet, by the score looking for things we ought never to have lost.

And yet, it only takes a single second to wave someone down at a conference, to greet a long lost friend, to offer a cup of coffee and the prospect of devoting a thousand seconds to catching up on years of life. It is a professional hazard of geology to think that places, things, and people will always be there, as they always have, with no vestige of an end. And it’s not until we lose someone that we realize how fleeting life can be.

Good-bye Marco, and rest in peace. You’ve left us some mighty big shoes to fill, in education, in motivation, and in research. But the best we can do is to try to make the time.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Tetrodotoxin Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving can be a tricky holiday overseas. As it is a distinctly North American holiday, anyone outside of the USA and Canada will not necessarily understand what is going on.  Before we had kids, I would take a day of annual leave on Thanksgiving Thursday, and cook up a storm for local friends. We have been having expat Thanksgivings in Canberra ever since I first came here in 1997, and the tradition has continued in most years.

However, as the arrival of children has cut into our spare time, and as work responcibilities have increased, scheduling issues have forced me to abandon the strict calendar approach and host Thanksgiving on the following weekend. I've generally managed to be home on Thanksgiving, but for the first time since the field work for my PhD in 1998, this year I was stuck overseas.

I had a few thoughts about what to do, but my wonderful hosts in Japan's National Institute of Polar Research saved the day and took me out to dinner.  When I asked what it was, the answer was, "boiled fish." But it wasn't just any old fish, it was a notoriously poisonous-and Japanese- one.

The Fugu is a toxic blowfish (there are a variety of species, apparently). In a country known for the diversity of diet, it is one of the most extreme and iconic dishes of Japanese cuisine.  A poisonous fish, with the parts that will kill you carefully removed by a licenced chef, turned into a fancy meal. One of our post-docs had a manuscript rejected that morning, so she volunteered to be the taster. And the drinker.

The first course was salad of vegetables and strips of raw fish skin.  This was followed by the sashimi (shown below). After that came the deep-fried fish, followed by the main course; fish meat so fresh it was twitching, boiled at the table. After that, various vegetables were cooked in the fishy water, hotpot style, with thin strips of fish eaten shabu-shabu style. Finally, the residual broth was used to make rice.

As one can imagine, pufferfish are not particularly muscular.  Quite the opposite, in fact. So most of the later courses involved coaxing small amounts of meat off of large, perforated, platy bones. The boiled course, in particular, was probably the most difficult-to-eat chopstick meal that I have encountered in Japan, China, or Korea.  And the meat itself was extremely mild flavored, in contrast to the orange paste shown above, which was quite spicy.

The price was more reasonable than I feared- 5000 yen per person, including the beer. Overall, it was a fascinating experience, but not something that I will add to my standard rotation of what to eat in Japan. Still, it was better than trying to find a turkey substitute that wasn't quite the same as mom cooking her great-grandma's recipe, and it was a great way to celebrate the holiday with a meal that has a distict sense of place, even if that place was where I was working, and not my home.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Playing with science metrics

There are numerous critiques, both online and in the literature (pdf), of the overused H-index and journal impact factor (IF) metrics, particularly when it comes to assessing the quality of recent research.  However, many of these critiques do not include suggestions for how to improve the situation, aside from pointing out that if h-index equals half the square root of total citations, then it is a redundant number.  Over in Economics, they have gone all out to make a fantasy economics league, but we dirt people have no such construction.  Here, then, are a few easily calculated stats that would be an improvement on the status quo.  The can be calculated using Google Scholar, if necessary, assuming anyone knows how to yank their numbers.

COIF: Citations over Impact factor.
This is the number of citations per year a given paper has relative to the impact factor of the journal. Impact factor/2 is the average citations per year of a journal for papers in their first two years of release; subracting that from the citations per year for each given paper gives each paper a score. averaging those for a researcher gives their score. 
This metric puts the particular work of a scientist into perspective relative to others who publish in similar journals. Of course, the COIF from someone who publishes in journals with IF of 20 is not comparable to that of those who publish in papers with IF of two, but if IF is going to be tied to individual researchers despite all admonitions against this practice, then COIF gives a way to interpret it.

I suspect that most young to mid careers scientists will have a positive COIF; citations, at least in geology, tends to accumulate more in later years than in the first two.  However, a declining COIF might mean that one's work is becoming less relevant as time goes by.

Whether an institution wants a person with low COIF and flashy journals, or a high COIF in esoteric publications probably depends on the particular institution, and what their priorities are.  So the COIF might even be useful for determining how well suited people are to various particular institutions.

As an industry person who publishes occasionally, I have few enough papers to be able to calculate this for myself manually and easily (using Google scholar, which probably inflates the numbers by 20%). Anyone with a basic knowledge of programming could probably automate the process, though.

Paper year Journal IF CPY COIF
Birch et al. 2007 AJES 1.6 1.8 1.0
Parsons et al.  2008 Am Min 2.0 4.3 3.3
Klemme et al 2008 Geostandards 3.2 2.9 1.3
Parsons et al.  2009 CMP 3.5 3.3 1.6
Aleinikoff et al. 2012 Chem Geol 3.5 7.7 5.9
Magee et al 2014 SIA 1.2 1.0 0.4

3.5 2.2

SCP: Self citation percentage
What percentage of a paper's citations come from authors of that paper? This is simply The number of times a paper is cited by one or more of its authors divided by the total number of citations. This has been looked into by a number of people in the never ending struggle to interpret citation numbers.  At least some suggest that the number in generally in the twenties, and doesn't have enough variant to be useful, but I find that surprising, as the papers I've published vary quite a bit:

Demonstrating on myself again, it can range from 4% to 100%.

paper year cites sefies SCP
Parsons et al.  2008 30 6 20%
Aleinikoff et al. 2012 23 1 4%
Parsons et al.  2009 20 7 35%
Klemme et al 2008 20 6 30%
Birch et al. 2007 14 2 14%
Magee et al 2014 1 1 100%
108 23 21%

Friday, November 13, 2015


I've been working on a manuscript and other things. so it could be quiet around here for a while.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Geosonnet 35

The bluestone of which Melbourne is constructed
Is fresh basalt, from NVP derived
And yet no ocean slab is here subducted
No spreading ridge or hotspot has survived
With late Cretaceous Antarctic divorce
The margin should be passive, fires spent
And yet there must be an upwelling force
As mantle melting is quite evident.
Cratonic root plows through Asthenosphere
The slowest ship to ever voyage north
Yet models show convection will appear
So decompression melts can issue forth.
  Melb's gloomy architecture isn't fake
  The town's built from Australia's stony wake.

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36