Friday, July 24, 2015

Geosonnet 30

The periodic dinner tables host
A smorgasbord of elemental food.
Without the nutrient that’s needed most,
The spread of life’s substantially subdued.
When goethite settled out of ancient seas
The phosphorus adhered to iron mush.
Experimental doping can appease
Silicic activists and calcite crush.
If photoferrotrophs consume the P
Archean ocean surface life can’t grow.
No photosynthesis, O can’t be free
‘till rivers from the first great mountains flow.
  Yet when a couple billion more years pass
  Not P, but iron grows the biomass.

 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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The biodiversity of topography

The central Australian desert is an extreme arid environment.  For 20 million years, the continent has been drying, its rivers turning to playas, its ground water salting up, its inland plains and plateaus slowly disappearing under waves of sand.  The plant kingdom has not abandoned the continent, though, and thousands of drought-tolerant plants inhabit the red centre of Australia.  This aridity is a fickle thing, however.  In this wide brown land we call home, a slight increase in water availability, or a bit of shade from the noonday sun can make a big difference to a tropical, moisture loving plant.

A stunning example of this is the cycad.  As this global distribution map shows, cycads are mostly found in tropical to sub-tropical forests, and in Australia, they hug the wetter coastal areas.  But there is one species not shown on this map.

In the central Australian Macdonnell ranges, Macrozamia macdonnelli is found in ravines, at the base of south facing cliffs, and in rare desert oases, where ground water and sun protection allow it to cling to life as the continent dried out.  1500 km from the ocean and about as far from its nearest living relative, these cycads are found through the MacDonnell and Hartz ranges of the Northern Territory, where steep ravines channel water and shade the plants which grow within. Like an outlawed bushranger on the run from the law, this plant and its pollinator sidekick have been hiding out from the sun in the secret mountain waterholes for millions of years.  

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Tim Hunt sleight of hand

The internet has been all atwitter about the blatantly sexist remarks made by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt earlier this week, at a women in scientist event in Korea.  These remarks have been roundly ridiculed, as is appropriate for such stupidity from such an influential scientist.  A few days later, after a half-assed apology, Professor Hunt resigned. 

This is unfortunate.  His resignation allows his university, not to mention the rest of academia, to “shoot the messenger” and use him as a scapegoat to ignore the structural problems that allow academia to shelter and perpetuate sexist behaviour in the first place. It is like treating cholera with doxycycline while ignoring the sewage.
Ideally, his remarks, which were basically an admission of sexual harassment and/or bullying, should have triggered the standard investigative processes at his universities.  If, in fact, he has been hiring in a gender-biased manner, or taking sexual advantage of starry-eyed underlings, or making his employees cry, then he should be dealt with using the appropriate channels.  By resigning in haste, it means that we have no way of gauging the efficacy of the university grievance policies, and it gives his victims no means of redress or compensation.
I have mentioned many times the depreofessionalization ofscience, and the attendant social problems that result.  However, the flip side of scientific research getting outsourced from the corporate world to academia is that it requires academia to get more professional.  This is especially true in those areas where commercial research is being done.  However, there has been a resistance from academia to adopt professional attitudes and work practices along with this work.  And this is one of the problems that allows sexist and racist hiring practices and work environments to persist in the ivory tower while private and public sector workplaces are trying to reduce them.
In all types of workplaces, people do fall in love.  Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, and People hopefully learn to work out how to balance their personal and professional lives before their 72nd birthday.  But whether one believes the appropriate waiting time between leaving supervision and calling should be measured on the second hand or by the orbit of Mars, the admission of a senior researcher of committing damaging and unprofessional behaviour should not prompt knee-jerk resignation.  This just deflects attention from the institutional structures that either address or cover up these sorts of problems.  The issue is not Professor Hunt’s twinfamy; it is the inability of academic institutions to protect their junior personnel.


Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Geosonnet 29

The scent from Madagascar’s fine perfume
Enhances ice cream, fragrances the bath
Beyond this orchid spice a shadow looms:
A mass extinction’s lethal aftermath.
When sulfur, carbon oxidize in air
A surplus of ionic hydrogen
In rain burns plants, and leaches soil bare
Wrecked ecosystems cannot rise again.
Vanillin burns as microbes decompose
At high pH, vanillic acid’s made.
With only aldehyde, one could propose
An acid landscape, compounds undecayed.
   Pollution in the first Triassic rain
   Prevented life from sprouting up again.

Geology 43 159

 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

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Prime Minister's Business Advisory Chair loses his marbles.

On Friday, Maurice Newman, the chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, wrote a frothing opinion article in The Australian newspaper (paywalled). It reads more like a Evangelical Christian teenager’s blog than an op-ed by an adult with a job, but basically follows the delusional UN world order climate hoax script found on American survivalist websites and other reputable sources of scientific knowledge. Of course, it is not a crime to be a delusional conspiracy nut. And if tin foil hat sales are what we need to preserve our aluminum industry, I’m all for it. But having one of the PM’s chief economic advisors carry on this way is like having the head of the Canberra Deep Space network decrying the moon landings as a hoax. It is like the health minister saying that vaccines cause autism, or that fucking virgins cures AIDS. The only way it makes any since at all is if The Australian has transformed into a joke newspaper like The Chaser. Except that it isn't actually funny. If the Prime Minister expects his Business Advisory Council to be taken seriously, he should replace the chair with someone who actually has a grip on reality. Because it is difficult to have confidence in a person who publicly espouses lunacy.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Geosonet 28

The Mesozoic ended with a splat
But what about a vastly older time?
Archean life was breathing algal mat
Did asteroids destroy them in their prime?
The spherule layer in the Kuruman
Contains iridium, enriched by mass.
Though seared in orogenic frying pan
Stilpnomelane was once an impact glass.
The Pilbara, a continent away
Contains the same meteoritic trace
The world rained fire on that fateful day,
A hail of red-hot glass from outer space.
   Yet, younger sediments are undisturbed
   The hydrologic cycle’s unperturbed.

Previous 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

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Anonymity in peer review

As anyone who follows science-related social media knows by now, a PLOS journal recently rejected a paper by Dr. Fiona Ingleby, based partly on a reviewer who stated that the paper needed a male co-author.  This is appalling, and the response so far is that PLOS has removed the handling editor and removed the (anonymous) reviewer from there reviewer database.

Of course, since we have no idea who this reviewer is, we can only presume that he (Or she, at least theoretically) is still out there in the community, able to inject this sort of bias into other academic peer review systems at other journals, grants, etc.

 This has renewed discussion about anonymity and the appropriateness of either signed or double-blind review. The problem with double blind is that, especially in some fields (like analytical geology), it is fairly easy for the reviewer to guess the identity of the authors. The critique of signed reviews is that they allow retribution and might scare junior researchers into not challenging senior colleagues whom they rely on for recommendations, grant funding, etc.

Being scientists, we should test these hypotheses instead of arguing about them.  And luckily, the EGU open-access, open review journals should allow this opportunity.

For people not familiar with this publishing model, the open review journals (for example, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics) post the original submitted manuscript, the reviewer comments, and the author comments online in the associated discussion journal (Atmospheric Chemistry and PhysicsDiscussions).  The final, revised manuscript is then published in the main journal.

The reviews in the discussion paper are a mix of anonymous and signed. So assuming that scholars of science publishing can come up with a criteria for what constitutes a soft review, it should be possible to apply that criteria to the database of published comments. So there should be data on the effect of (optional) signing vs anonymity here to be mined by interested parties. 

Friday, May 01, 2015

Carnival of Space #403

Back in the days before Tumblr and facebook and twitter, people wrote blogs, read other blogs, and collate series of posts about common themes into link compilations called "Carnivals."  These days, most carnivals have dies out, due to the death of independent blogging, the loss of attention span to microsocial, and the increasing automation of trend formation.  But a few still live on, and one of them is the Carnival of Space.  Here is number 403.