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.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Star Wars teaser far too tame

 The second biggest thing to hit the internet yesterday was the new Star Wars teaser. Like many, I clicked the link with interest.  But as a planetary scientist, I was disappointed from the first scene (via io9).

This is a wrecked star destroyer, half buried in desert sand.  The obvious implication is that the spacecraft has left space and crashed.  Is this realistic?  luckily, physics, and the internet, can answer this question.

According to this fan site a star destroyer weighs something on the order of 30-50 million metric tons. This makes it about 3000-5000 times larger that the meteorite which blew up over Chelyabinsk. If we assume the slowest possible re-entry, that from low orbit (about 8 km/s on Earth), then we can calculate what sort of impact this would have.  Better yet, we can use the internet to let the experts calculate it for us.

The Earth Impact Effects Program, by Marcus, Melosh, and Collins, simulates the effect of impactors of various sizes on Earth (our trusty stand-in for human-inhabitable worlds around the universe). Simplifying a star destroyer to a 1 km sphere with a density of 100 kg/m3 gives us the correct mass and a sensible size.  Falling from low Earth orbit, this object would need to dissipate 1.68 x 1018 Joules into the atmosphere or ground.  That’s about 400 megatons, or about 8 times more energy than the Tsar Bomba, the biggest nuclear weapon ever detonated.  Given a shallow impact angle, this object explodes in the atmosphere, raining small debris down onto the ground.

This, of course, is exactly what happened when real spacecraft suffered uncontrolled or malfunctioning re-entry: Skylab and the space shuttle Columbia (at ~70 tons, almost a million times smaller than a Star Destroyer) both broke up high in the atmosphere, raining debris down over very wide areas.

Of course, the die-hard fan might claim that the Star Destroyer is much tougher than a 20th century spacecraft, and would reach the ground intact.  In this case, the kinetic energy would be adsorbed by the ground, not the atmosphere.  We can simulate that as well, by using a solid iron meteorite of the same mass (only 232 meters across, due to the higher density), with a vertical descent.  It still imparts 400 megatons of kinetic energy on the planetary surface. But instead of an airblast, we end up with a crater 4.5 km in diameter, and half a km deep.  Nothing of this scale is evident in the Star Wars teaser.

As shown in the Chelyabinsk post a few years ago, the speeds- and energy- associated with space travel are so huge that even the most creative minds of Hollywood are unable to grasp their enormity and power. This was forgivable 30 years ago, before the internet, but in this day and age, fantastical videos that are tamer than reality are disappointing.

Related post: Viewing Imaginary Spacecraft from the Ground"

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The expat Chestnut

The story of the American Chestnut is a real-life ecological morality play, that I have been familiar with ever since I was young enough to recognize the red moldering logs for what they were.  Whole books have been written about the destruction of Chestnut forests, and internet summaries abound. Since then, I have moved to Australia, settled down, and, in due course, bought a house and started playing with the yard. Australia is renown for its biosecurity, and there is no endemic chestnut blight here.  A few years ago, I started a search to see if I could find some American Chestnut trees, to see if they would grow here. 

Canberra is not the ideal climate for chestnut trees.  The annual rainfall here is about half what it is in the eastern US, and there are soil fungi in some areas which will kill their roots.  Never-the-less, after a few years of false leads, last autumn, I managed to get my hands on a few seedlings.  I planted three in my yard.  The first, planted in the chook pen, leafed out in spring, but never really grew much, and during the February-March dry spell, it turned brown and shriveled up.

The second tree is in the western corner of the yard, where it is exposed to both the hot westerly winds and the cold southerlies.  While it didn't grow much, It did hang onto its leaves until the first cold night, and it is now changing color.  I don't know how it will cope with the native acacias around it, and whether their shade will help reduce evaporation or their competition for moisture will hinder, but it seems to have made it through the first year.

The third tree is in a more sheltered position, where it gets morning sun but is sheded for the rest of the day by the neighbour's hedge.  It has only just begun to change leaf colors, and put on a decent growth this year.  By North American standards, the Canberra winters are not particularly harsh, so hopefully these trees will enter dormancy, sleep well through the winter, and continue to grow.
The half-dozen or so North American trees commonly planted here have a mixed history.  The tulip trees tend to suffer and die off at their tops during drought years, and the sweet gums and pin oaks also suffer during long dry hot spells.  But there are quite a few upland oaks which are doing OK. Only time will tell how Castanea dentata fares in this strange new world.