Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Politics And Pettiness In Indian Seismology

American seismologist Roger Bilham who has previously visited India many times to attend workshops and to meet colleagues on a tourist visa is now blacklisted and is being refused entry in to India.

A year ago he and Vinod Gaur of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics in Bangalore wrote a paper in Current Science  (open access) suggesting that there is small probability of a 6-7 mag earthquake near or at the site of a proposed nuclear power plant at Jaitapur in southern Maharashtra and that this should be taken in to account in the design of the plant. The paper was criticized by several Indian seismologists.  The scientific debate has been summarized by K.S Jayaraman.

This May, Bilham was denied entry into New Delhi and deported.  The reason given was that he was coming for activities not consistent with his tourist visa status. Bilham suspects that this decision by the Indian government is due to pressure from a senior Indian seismologist.

From G.S Mudur's article in The Telegraph:

The government decision was presumably based on recommendations made by one or more influential seismologists in India,” Bilham wrote to the IISc on October 17 this year, in a letter where he has declined to evaluate the PhD thesis of a young scholar. 

The IISc had requested Bilham to assist in the evaluation of the thesis. 

“It has been brought to my attention that some younger colleagues have been intimidated by a retired (Indian) seismologist who once held a position in Hyderabad, from working with me, or being associated with scientific studies, or discussions,” Bilham told the IISc. 

“The intimidation takes the form of suggestions that future funding, or chances of promotion, or job security, may be placed in jeopardy if these young scientists are in any way associated with my name,” he wrote, adding that his presence on the panel of thesis examiners might turn detrimental to the future of the young scholar. 

If true, this is a sorry sorry situation. What was it that Prof Krishna Kumar wrote about Indian academia and research institutions recently?... 

Inadequacy of funds is, of course, worrisome, but it cannot explain the extent to which malice, jealousy and cussedness define the fabric of academic life in our country.

All that seems to be on full display here. Several Indian seismologists have spoken out against Bilham's entry ban. More scientists must speak out. Scientific differences and even personality clashes should not translate into bans for scientists. If the tourist visa is indeed a problem then Dr. Bilham should be asked to apply for the correct visa category. But just keeping silent shows our government as a whimsical petty system which takes offense at any dissent, in this case, someone pointing out that it may have been wrong in its assessment of seismic risk. So far there has been no detailed explanation from the government for Bilham's ban.

HT: Nanopolitan

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Groundwater Powered Grain Mill In The Kumaon Lesser Himalayas

What is this mountain made up of?

Rocks off course. In this case the Deobang Formation dolomites and phyllites of the Lesser Himalayan Sequence. But a not so insignificant volume of this mountain is groundwater. Say 2% or 5% or locally near a fracture zone or a section of  weathered schists and phyllites maybe somewhat more.

Groundwater plays a big role in Himalayan farming economies. The point was driven forcefully to me as I made a traverse from the village of Shama to the village of Gogina which I covered in my post Interactive Geologic Map and Cross Section of Kumaon Lesser Himalayas.

During this traverse we came across a stream. Our hosts pointed to a small hut near the stream and told us that it was a water powered grain mill. My friend (many thanks Swati Pednekar!) has compiled a small video of that mill. Check it out. That's me in a blue shirt and blue cap looking intently at some mylonites and augen gneiss.

The pipe you see leading up to the hut brings water from the stream and powers the machinery that runs the stone mill. But.. you will say. .. this is surface water. Why do you call it a groundwater powered mill?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Summary Of India Draft National Water Policy

How India manages its water resources is an issue of paramount importance. S. Ramesh at InfoChange.org gives an excellent summary of the National Water Policy and its merits and demerits.

The draft National Water Policy has gone into two revisions, first in May 2012 and then again in July, after being tabled in January when protests were made about the policy treating water as an economic good, and favouring privatisation. Still, the soul of the draft remains intact except for a few points.

There is every likelihood that water will become a highly rationed commodity in the future. We will have to pay for any excess water we use after our basic domestic, sanitation and agriculture requirements have been met. This makes a national-level legal framework to control water use and prevent inter-state, intra-state and regional water conflicts absolutely imperative.

Statistics on India's water availability are summed up in one paragraph and a table gives projected increase in water demand for various sectors. One quirky detail... Inland navigation which has no demand in 1988 shoots up to 15 bcm (billion cubic meters) in 2050! Is that due to the building of large canals to transfer water from one river basin to another? (I haven't read the report by the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development  Plan 1999 from which this data was taken). Inter basin transfer of water or river linking as it is also known is often being presented as one solution for supplying southern Indian water "deficit" basins with "excess" water from mostly northern Himalayan rivers, although there are more local versions of the plan too. The problem off course is to get states to agree that they have excess water to part with, along with a host of other issues involving resettlement of displaced people and energy and ecological costs.

Quite a useful overview. And there are more interesting articles on India's water resources and the debates over privatization of water on the InfoChangeIndia website.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Can You Publish Poetry In The Journal Science?

In the late 1800's this doggerel:

And Holmes cries "rejected,
They're nothing but Indian chips."
He glanced at the ground,
Truth, fancied he found,
And homeward to Washington skips...

So dear W.J.,
There is no more to say,
Because you'll never agree
That anything's truth,
But what issues, forsooth,
From Holmes or the brain of McGee.

This I found in 1491: New Revelations of The Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann and the context is the contempt with which federal scientists looked upon amateurs who hunted for ancient American Indian artifacts and skeletons. Charles Abbot a physician from New Jersey was one such amateur and in 1872 he found arrowheads, scrapers and other implements on his farm in the Delaware Valley. Consulting a geologist he found out that the gravels containing the implements were ten thousand years old, implying a very old presence of Indians going back maybe to the ice ages in north America. Off course in those days there was no absolute dating methods available to ascertain the age of rocks. Geologists used context, in this case for example the gravels were older than historical layers. Then using educated guesses on rates of processes like sedimentation rates a likely age was proposed.

This went against the prevailing wisdom which regarded Indians as a more recent entry in to the continent sometime during historical times, perhaps a few hundred years before colonial times to the first millennium B.C. at most. The Bureau of American Ethology's scientist William Henry Holmes and the United States Geological Survey's W.J. McGee assigned to investigate Abbot's claim stuck to the official position and rubbished the find.

Hence Abbot vented his frustration in verse in the journal Science (I guess publishing in Science was easier in those days!).

Its not that Holmes and McGee were incompetent. But they clearly did not like amateurs messing around their domain, ever so often announcing sensational finds and spinning stories not backed up by any evidence.

Another concern was that amateurs often disturbed an archaeological site and made later documenting artifacts and skeletons in their proper stratigraphic context and exact location very difficult.

The issue of a Pleistocene presence of Indians in north America was settled in 1927 when a team led by Jesse D. Figgins of the Colorado Museum of Natural History found at Folsom New Mexico a spear point stuck inside a bison skeleton. Earlier, federal scientists fed up by Figgins's claims of a half a million year antiquity to human presence in North America had insisted that Figgins unearth any new discoveries only in the presence of independent experts. The site was excavated in the presence of three well considered scientists who agreed that the find was real and could have only one explanation which was that people were present in north America in the Pleistocene.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Quote: Darwin On Marriage

Apart from evolution much pondering on the pro's and con's of marriage:


"It is intolerable to think of spending one's whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, and nothing after all," he writes, "No, no won't do – Imagine living all one's day solitarily in smoky dirty London."

"Cheer up. One cannot live this solitary life, with groggy old age, friendless and cold, and childless staring one in ones face, already beginning to wrinkle. Never mind, trust to chance… There is many a happy slave."


"Eheu!! I never should know French, – or see the Continent – or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip in Wales – poor slave."

read more on this post by James Randerson  The Private Life of Charles Darwin @ Guardian's Notes&Theories.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Interactive Geologic Map And Cross Section Of Kumaon Lesser Himalayas In Shama Gogina Region

This has been pending. As I posted earlier this month I returned from a trek in the Kumaon Himalayas along the Ramganga river in the Namik Valley just west of the town of Munsiyari in Pittorgarh district. The terrain is mostly the Lesser Himalayas made up of the Lesser Himalayan Sequence (LHS) composed of  late Proterozoic to early Palaeozoic metasediments.

The red line on the map below shows my location with respect to the regional Lesser Himalayan structure and stratigraphy.

Source: Celerier et. al. 2009

A quick recap of the geology:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On Darwin's Bad Days And Long Ponderings

On Krulwich Wonders, Robert Krulwich mines Darwin's correspondence with Charles Lyell in which he complains of bad days and feeling poor and stupid. The great man was not worrying about natural selection but rather an upcoming book on orchids!

There is more on Darwin's tendency to be anxious and careful about his ideas and data:

In his short biography of Darwin, David Quammen writes that he was "nerdy, systematic, prone to anxiety." He was not quick, witty, or social. He spent decades working out his ideas, slowly, mostly by himself, writing letters and tending to a weak heart and a constantly upset stomach. He was a Slow Processor, who soaked in the data, thought, stared, tried to make sense of what he was seeing, hoping for a breakthrough. All around were snappier brains, busy being dazzling, but not Darwin's, which just plodded on until it finally saw something special, hiding in plain view.

Plodded on until it finally saw something special, hiding in plain view.

To that I will add that most people can't see something special, hiding in plain view. Inspiration often comes to the prepared mind and Darwin through his meticulous observations and prolonged days of thinking had a prepared mind, one that was not ideologically constrained but one that could accommodate and not summarily reject more radical notions of nature and change.
I am reading right now from  Darwin's Timeline which summarizes chronologically his life. There is a section on his life and work in London after he returned from his epic voyage on the Beagle in 1836. In it are two incidents which sowed the germs of two of the most important ideas on the nature of life and evolution; common descent and natural selection.

The first was in the months of 1837 when ornithologist John Gould on examining the collection of birds from Galapagos announced that what were cursorily identified as finches, wrens and blackbirds were all actually closely related varieties of finches. Why the confusion? Because the birds all had distinctly different shaped beaks. The prevailing world view of nature was that organisms could be grouped into different "kinds" distinguished by large differences in some trait or a collection of traits. Taxonomy was a flourishing field then and that species could be organized into hierarchically related groups was well understood. But that was seen to be the Creator's way of ordering the natural world.

Darwin on receiving Gould's interpretation that these birds were really closely related varieties of just one "kind" i.e. a finch began thinking on a different interpretation of the tree of life, on ways by which one species may change or transmutate into several species differing in one character, in this case the beak. His own collection of finches from the Galapagos was a mess. He had not labelled the birds by the island he collected them from. Fortunately, some other sailors on the Beagle had and using their collection Darwin could place the variation of beaks in a geographic and ecologic context. Perhaps few finches made their way from the South American mainland and populated different Galapagos islands? Isolated on different islands,  some force may have led to the differentiation of beak shape, each specific to a particular island ecology. That is common descent and adaptive radiation as we understand it today. More than natural selection, common descent is probably Darwin's most original contribution to biology.

The second "moment" for Darwin came in October 1838 when he read Thomas Malthus's essay on human population growth. Malthus argued that human populations grow until there is a resource scarcity, thereafter which a struggle for existence ensues and the weak die off. Darwin recognized that resources are limited in nature and a struggle for existence must be taking place wherein some organisms survive to reproduce while those not possessed with the right characters die out without reproducing. Populations will gradually change in character as generation after generation passes through this nature's filter, a process he called natural selection.

The Darwin Timeline is fascinating to read.  In all those months of thinking and rethinking there would have been bad days and days of frustration as Robert Krulwich points to. But Darwin was truly great not just because he had a couple of great ideas but because he took a firm grip on them and had the intellectual courage not to let go even as he increasingly realized that his theory would demolish cherished notions of our place in the universe.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Chinatown And Water Law On Generation Anthropocene

No.. no.. Jack Nicholson didn't show up on Gen. Anthropocene to revisit his great role in the movie Chinatown. In that movie, detective J.J.Gittes played by Nicholson uncovers a shady plan set in the early 1900's  to monopolize the water resources of Owen's Valley and to divert that water to the growing city of Los Angeles.

Buzz Thompson who is an expert in environmental and natural resources law and policy has a personal connection with California's dodgy water history as he recounts how his grandfather's farm was bought over by the city of Los Angeles in the early 1920's using a local farmer as a front and then letting the farm lay fallow as it diverted water for urban use. 

He also gives a tutorial on the different water use doctrines prevalent in the U.S as he explains the differences between the riparian water use doctrine of the eastern part of the U.S. versus the prior appropriation water use doctrine common in the west and also talks about how enforcement of water law has generally failed in the U.S. Another important topic covered is the economics of water use especially in the context of water recycling.

 Excellent conversation from Gen Anthropocene.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Humor: Young Earth Creationists And Oxygen Levels

I get responses to my blog posts from students, geology and nature lovers and even journalists asking questions, requesting papers and sometimes just to chat.

Occasionally I get comments like this one recently left on my blog post Early Homo Leaves Modern Footprints:

hasn't anyone ever stopped to think that, maybe when that giant flood happened a long time ago (10,00 years?) that maybe, just maybe, due to the serious compression of heat, oxygen, and pressure, that that is why we have fossils and remains? also, before "the flood" the oxygen level in the air was significantly higher than afterward. so our modern "technology" that measures how much oxygen something has been exposed to, is merely based on the level of oxygen that is currently in the air. not what the levels were long ago. thus, those who claim the earth is billions or millions of years old...is mistaken due to the lack of knowledge of the oxygen levels before "the flood".

Feel free to dissect this nonsense :)

The four glaring problems:

1) There is no evidence of "the flood" which in young earth creationist language means a global flood which deposited all the rocks seen on the surface today.

2) rocks exposed to "serious compression of heat, oxygen and pressure" would destroy organic remains, not provide conditions for fossilization.

3) There is no evidence that oxygen levels a few thousand years ago were much higher than today.

4) We don't rely on the levels of oxygen in the atmosphere to figure out how old the earth is.

One good thing about comments like these is that I get tempted to dig into the literature to read more on the fundamentals. I found two good sources on the geologic history of atmospheric oxygen. Atmospheric oxygen over Phanerozoic time by Robert Berner and a chapter on Oxygen Through Time in Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, and Earth's Ancient Atmosphere.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Field Photos: Kumaon Himalaya Landscapes In The Shama Gogina Region

The location of the picture below is from near the village of Shama in the Kumaon Himalayas. Here  I am, dreamily looking north towards the Namik Glacier lying on the footwall of the north dipping Berinag Thrust and also the footwall of the north dipping Main Central Thrust! .. That is one of the structural characteristics of the Lesser Himalayan region.. it is made up of stacks of thrusts sheets.  ..but the geology will be up in another post as I need time to sort through some photographs and such (Update November 29 2012: See my new post on the geologic traverse!).

Meanwhile here is a location map of where I went on my trekking adventure followed by images of the scenic landscapes.

View Gogina, Uttarakhand in a larger map

Nanda Devi at sunrise from my camp near village Shama. This is the 2nd highest peak in India and the 23rd highest in the world.

View of the Panchchuli range from near the village Shama.

The pictureque village of Gyan Dhura where I camped for several days.

 Range after range. Himalayas leave you breathless.

 Red hot chilli peppers drying in the sun to be used in making a spicy chutney!

Children of the village Gyan Dhura. Roofing material is a graphitic slate and phyllite of the Deobang Formation.

Another beautiful village. In the background are the north-north east dipping Deobang Formation dolomites and graphitic phyllites.

Brilliant  yellow in the Himalayan sunshine. A house in the village of Gogina.

Ending with a teaser. There is a structural feature in this picture I will be writing about in my upcoming post.

I did an important traverse from the village of Shama to the village of Gogina and saw some very interesting geology, structure and metamorphic transitions. Annotated satellite images and cross section to follow soon.. stay tuned.

Update November 29 2012: See my new post on the geologic traverse!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Trekking Amongst The Stratigraphy And Structure Of Lesser Himalayas In Kumaon And Gharwal


(Update November 29 2012: See my new post on the geology I saw on this trek!).

Yes.. I know Geology Map Day was last week, but although late, I have put up this map and a schematic cross section... I'm leaving on a hiking trip to the Kumaon Himalayas and have been reading up on the geology of the area. After many years of being confused about the stratigraphy and structure, I finally got some clarity on Lesser Himalayan geology reading some recent work. The paper that helped me most was:

The Kumaun and Garwhal Lesser Himalaya, India: Part 1. Structure and stratigraphy- Julian Celerier et. al. 2009 GSA Bulletin

and its companion paper

 The Kumaun and Garwhal Lesser Himalaya, India. Part 2: Thermal and deformation histories

Two other papers also were quite useful:

1) Patel, R.C. and Carter, Andrew (2009) Exhumation history of the Higher Himalayan Crystalline along Dhauliganga-Goriganga river valleys, NW India: new constraints from fission track analysis. Tectonics 28

2) Revisiting Central crystallines in Pindar and Ramganga valleys, Kumaon Hills,Uttarakhand – an expedition based case study - Geological Survey of India Mapping Report. The report describes the lithologies very near my trek route along the Ramganga river sourced from the Namik glacier, near the village of Namik.

Base camp for the trek is going to be a campsite on a ridge across the small village of Tejam. Looking at geological maps I found out that I am going to be in the Lesser Himalayas, but very just south of the Main Central Thrust which structurally juxtaposes the Greater or High Himalayas over the Lesser Himalayas. The first paper I mentioned by Celerier et.al. explains quite well the stratigraphic and structural evolution of the Lesser Himalayas.

A quick recap:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Before Darwin: Dante Alighieri On Language Change

My Book Shelf  #21

I came across this passage in Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. The topic is the change of Latin in to various Romance languages post demise of the Roman Empire in Europe:

The first theorist of these new linguistic developments is none other than the leading Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, who lived from 1265 to 1321. In his De vulgari eloquentia he recognized that Latin, grammatica, was in essence the preserved older form of the Romance languages. He seems to have had as much difficulty in convincing his audience that these ancestral differences were the predictable result of gradual change as Darwin was to find with a different subject matter and timescale, five centuries later.

Nor should what we say appear any more strange than to see a young person grown up, whom we do not see grow up: for what moves gradually is not at all recognized by us, and the longer something needs for its change to be recognized the more stable we think it is.  So we are not surprised if the opinion of men, who are little distant from brutes, is that a given city has existed always with the same language, since the change in language in a city happens gradually only over a very long succession of time, and the life of men is also, by its very nature, very short....

The italicized portion is Dante Alighieri's analysis.

So then how do we know that a particular language has descended from an older language or that two languages are sister languages, both having evolved from an older language? And the same could be asked of species. How do we know that two species are related and evolved from a common ancestor? 

Great Conversations: Edward Larson On History Of Evolution

I was going through my podcast collection over the weekend in preparation for a hiking trip to the Himalayas ( more on that later this week!) and found one of the great talks I have heard on evolution. This is Edward J Larson's superb exposition on the history of creationism in the United States and its transformation (or should I say evolution) into the intelligent design movement of recent  years.

Edward J Larson is Professor of History and Law at University of Georgia. His book Evolution: The Remarkable History Of A Scientific Idea is also an excellent summary of the history of the theory of evolution.

But his talk is really worth listening too. Goes straight into my Great Conversations collection.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Geophysicst Mark Zoback On Fracking

Another terrific geology related talk on Generation Anthropocene. Geophysicist and shale gas expert Mark Zoback attempts to clear up the many misconceptions about fracking. He doesn't minimize or take lightly the negative impact of shale gas drilling, but rather puts it in a broader context. The greater risk of contaminating overlying aquifers is not from the act of hydraulic fracturing itself but from improper well construction and from leaky ponds which are constructed to store waste water that flows back out of the formation. This water may contain metals like iron or arsenic flushed by reaction with the shale. So actually according to him, there is nothing in the fracking fluid that is dangerous. But that fluid after reacting with the rock may become toxic.

Shale gas drilling companies don't have to disclose the exact composition of the fracking fluid as they have an exemption under the Clean Water Act. But perception does matter. As Mark Zobeck points out, there was growing support for nuclear power in the U.S. until the accident at Fukushima occurred. Public perception about risk can reverse major energy policy decisions regardless of the actual risk. If that is so, then why slow down or kill the shale gas goose? Perhaps it will be wiser to change policy and to come clean about fracking fluids.

Meanwhile, on the topic of shale gas in India,  a reader wrote in a comment on an earlier post I had written about Indian shale gas prospects:

US geological survey says the total shale gas reserves to be 6.1 Tcf, contrary to 63 Tcf by EIA. What are your views on this?

That is a major downgrade for Indian shale gas prospects. I could only suggest this possibility:

thanks Dakshina.. yeah.. i saw those figures.. hard to say but downward revisions are going on in many other basins around the world.. perhaps the actual recovery rates observed from shale gas wells i.e. their performance over a longer term have not been as good as initially projected..leading to downward revision of technically recoverable resources in other areas as well.. or maybe it has to do with the reassessment of the basic geological data.. can't say for sure without reading more details.. ///

Also worth reading is another article by Mark Zoback on the seismic risk posed by shale gas drilling and waste water disposal.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Indian Academic Heads Back Home

On Sunday I drove past the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune. This new institute is part of the Government's initiative to expand and improve the state of science and technical higher education and research in the country. Apart from 5 new IISER's, over the past few years 8 new IIT's (Indian Institute of Technology), 7 new IIM's (Indian Institute of Management) and 12 new central Universities have been seeded.  It is hoped that a sizable number of Indian academics currently working abroad will be convinced to come and teach and work at these institutes.

Coincidentally Inside Higher Ed carried a story of Somak Raychaudhury an astrophysicist working in the U.K. who has been recruited by Presidency University Kolkata as part of their effort to upgrade their science infrastructure.

Presidency plans to hire about 180 new faculty members, many of them from abroad, to boost the quality of its teachers. Raychaudhury is among the first group of faculty members to be hired. (Existing faculty members have the option of applying for the openings or seeking a transfer to other state-run universities.)

Raychaudhury’s brief is to modernize the physics curriculum and introduce new branches of physics to students. "Presidency needs to ensure that students are taught by those who are at the cutting edge of research, and that students are involved in and inspired to do research,” he said in an e-mail. “The teaching material has to be constantly updated. Teaching has to be hands-on.”

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Most Divisive Maps In America

More on the art and science of map making. This time it is Robert Draper in The Atlantic writing about the history and politics of gerrymandering:

....as works of art, redistricting maps continue to evoke a crazed but symbolically rich dreamscape of yearnings, sentimentality, vendettas, and hyper-realism in American political life. Districts weave this way and that to include a Congress member’s childhood school, a mother-in-law’s residence, a wealthy donor’s office, or, out of spite, an adversary’s pet project. When touring Republican strongholds, Tom Hofeller enjoys showing audiences the contours of Georgia’s 13th District, as proposed after the 2010 census, which he likens to “flat-cat roadkill.” (The map that was ultimately approved is shaped more like a squirrel that hasn’t yet been hit by a car.) This redistricting cycle’s focus of wonderment, in Hofeller’s view, is Maryland’s splatter-art 3rd District, which reminds him of an “amoeba convention.” He tends not to mention the gimpy-legged facsimile that is his own rendition of North Carolina’s 4th District.

 My speciality, Geographic Information Systems plays a role too:

“There’s an old saying: Give a child a hammer, and the world becomes a nail. Give the chairman of a state redistricting committee a powerful enough computer and block-level census data, so that he suddenly discovers he can draw really weird and aggressive districts—and he will.”

Fascinating article..

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Building Google Deep Maps

After Apple's epic fail, its worth reading about how much effort Google has put into the making of accurate digital maps available for navigation and other location based services.

Alexis Madrigal writes in The Atlantic:

The sheer amount of human effort that goes into Google's maps is just mind-boggling. Every road that you see slightly askew in the top image has been hand-massaged by a human. The most telling moment for me came when we looked at couple of the several thousand user reports of problems with Google Maps that come in every day. The Geo team tries to address the majority of fixable problems within minutes. One complaint reported that Google did not show a new roundabout that had been built in a rural part of the country. The satellite imagery did not show the change, but a Street View car had recently driven down the street and its tracks showed the new road perfectly.

..and on Google's extended vision of capturing geographic information:

It's common when we discuss the future of maps to reference the Borgesian dream of a 1:1 map of the entire world. It seems like a ridiculous notion that we would need a complete representation of the world when we already have the world itself. But to take scholar Nathan Jurgenson's conception of augmented reality seriously, we would have to believe that every physical space is, in his words, "interpenetrated" with information. All physical spaces already are also informational spaces. We humans all hold a Borgesian map in our heads of the places we know and we use it to navigate and compute physical space. Google's strategy is to bring all our mental maps together and process them into accessible, useful forms.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Field Photo: Adaptation

Location: Slope of Panchgani Tableland- Western Ghats

Do let me know if you can identify this plant.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Trekking Again In The Open Basalt Landscapes

Mid to late 1600's Maharashtra was a time of war between the local Marathas led by Shivaji and the Sultanate of Bijapur and later with the Mughals. On many steep basalt escarpments were forts that the Marathas controlled and used as strategic vantage points for launching guerrilla attacks on the enemy.

There are many important forts near Pune. Two are seen in the interactive Google imagery below.

View Larger Map

Rajgad was the home and capital of Shivaji for quite some time. A ridge which you can trace west of Rajgad meets Torna fort which was the first fort captured by Shivaji as he launched his resistance against the Bijapur Sultanate. And north north east of Rajgad is Sinhagad, site of one of the most famous night battles of 1600's Maharashtra. To give you a geographic mooring, north east of Sinhagad is the city of Pune.

You can zoom in to locate the plateaus on which the forts are built. The Deccan volcanic pile is made up of lava flows of different physical properties. Some flows are softer and weather into gentler slopes. They may be overlain by harder compact flows that form escarpments and mesas. The forts were built on top of thick compact basalt flows.

I went to Rajgad last Saturday for a one day trek. It is about a two hour climb which offers some great views of the valleys and surrounding countryside.

I'm facing south, looking towards the imposing Rajgad, altitude 4324 feet ASL.

On route a classic view of rural India.

Getting closer; looking onwards from a grassy ridge.

Mountain path with the forts ramparts visible through the trees.

The steep climb begins. The last 200 feet or so is an abrupt change in slope as the escarpment starts.

The topmost compact basalt and a rampart.

That's me trying negotiating the final few steps.


Perched aquifers form the water supply of the fort. A perched aquifer is a local aquifer which is underlain by a confining impermeable layer and occurs isolated above the regional water table usually on a mountain top. The regional water table is the groundwater table in the surrounding plains and valleys. Along the slopes of the mountains the aquifer will discharge groundwater as springs. 

A spectacular view of the escarpments and the topmost ramparts.

Countryside is still lush after the monsoons. Springs on the mountain slopes usually begin drying out by February to March, some even earlier. So, water management in the valley in the form of small surface reservoirs (in the center) and groundwater recharging structures is really important to sustain agriculture and livelihoods until the rains come back in June.

 Until next time...

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Early History Of Coal Mining In India

India's coal reserves come from the Permian-Early Mesozoic continental rift basins situated in eastern India.

Coalgate is making headline news almost every day in India but Vikram Doctor on his blog On My Plate writes about the many shenanigans of early coal mining:

It was an American who first tried to develop systematic coal mining in India. Suetonius Grant Heatly was born in Newport, Rhode Island, but during the American Revolution his family was loyal to the British, and fled to Britain. Heatly joined the East India Company in 1766, possibly because Lord Cornwallis, the Governor-General of India, had earlier headed the losing British forces in America, and was expected to favour the British loyalists of that conflict. Heatly became Collector of Chotanagpur and Palamu (now part of Jharkhand). And it was while travelling here that he noticed local tribal people burning coal fires, Jha notes that the seams are found exposed on the surface in these areas. This was not far from the Damodar river and Grant, along with another East Indian man, John Sumner, realised that coal could be mined and floated down the river to Calcutta.

Grant and Sumner teamed up to get Company permission to mine coal. Yet their first application, in 1770, was rejected. Jha suggests this was because the Company was unsure of its rights of mineral extraction and, in any case, preferred to use its monopoly position to import minerals from Britain and sell them at high prices in India. Also, they were apprehensive about Indians learning how to use these minerals: “They even feared that once the natives acquired the art of smelting metals and the manner of casting them into cannon shot and shells that they would become masters of the latter.”

There were many early attempts in the late 1700's to early 1800's to mine coal but these ventures were never profitable due to hazardous mining conditions, legal disputes over land rights, poor transport and the better quality of imported English coal.  Then later in the 1800's demand reached a point whereby mining Indian coal became economic again. The East India Company backed English entrepreneurs who leased land from local rulers.  There were Indian businessman too. Among them who made a fortune in coal was Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of one of the most famous Indian poet writers Rabindranath Tagore. 

Tirthankar Roy in his book The East India Company describes the precarious balance the Company had to maintain between monopoly and allowing its agents and other merchants to conduct private trade in competition with the Company. Vikram Doctor's article brings out this aspect of  Company business life quite well along with the ruthless opportunism of these early coal entrepreneurs.

Read more here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Is It Hard To Classify Archaeopteryx?

For the last few days I have had noticeable traffic to my blog via the search term " Why is it hard to classify Archaeopteryx?". And all of it from the United Kingdom! Maybe there is a college essay competition going on there on fossils and evolution..?

Coincidentally, I wrote a post more than two years ago on Archaeopteryx in response to a new analysis of Archaeopteryx bone growth which cast doubt on whether Archaeopteryx was an early bird. More recently, Xu et.al using a wider selection of character traits suggested that Archaeopteryx is not a basal bird i.e. it is not an early representative of the lineage of birds but rather may belong to a different now extinct branch of feathered dinosaurs.  So there is genuine uncertainty on how to classify Archaeopteryx.

I'm reproducing the post below with some new additional comments. Image below sourced from  Wikimedia Commons:

How birdlike was Archaeopteryx?

Beak - Yes

Feathers - Yes
Wishbone - Yes

Growth pattern of blood vessels - Not quite there yet

By comparing the structure of the bone of Archaeopteryx  with modern birds and fossil dinosaurs, researchers found out the growth pattern of blood vessels in Archaeopteryx was more like dinosaurs than modern birds. Archaeopteryx individuals seem to have taken a longer time to mature than modern birds do.

Archaeopteryx lived about 150 million years ago and is the earliest bird-like creature to have been found yet.  A younger bird-like fossil -
Ichthyornis dispar - dated about 94 million years ago shows several characteristics of quick growth, giving us an idea of the timing of the various changes in morphology and physiology that were taking place within the Maniraptor dinosaurian clade as they evolved  characteristics that are recognized as bird-like.

By the way this is not some earth shattering find. The basic relationship that  small carnivorous dinosaurs evolved into birds still holds. But the study highlights how difficult categorizing a creature which is a composite of ancestral and derived traits can be.

It doesn't matter in the larger view if Archaeopteryx is classified as a dinosaur or a bird. The value is in demonstrating that evolution of a complex suite of characters takes place in fits and starts, some features evolve earlier than others preserving the historical trajectories that major transitions in evolution have taken.

here for the lighter version.

Additional comments: Recently, South Korea under pressure from creationist groups was mulling excising mentions of Archaeopteryx from science textbooks because the uncertainty regarding its relationship to birds meant according to creationists that the theory of evolution is an inadequate theory to answering questions about the history of life and to the problem of the evolution of birds. Thankfully better sense has prevailed and Archaeopteryx will continue to have a place in South Korean science education.

As evolutionary biologist Ryan Gregory recently pointed out, there are many aspects to evolution. There is evolution as a fact, evolution as a mechanism, and evolution as a path. Archaeopteryx not being a bird does not in any way threaten the factual basis of evolution, nor does it undermine natural selection or random genetic drift as the principle mechanisms of evolution. Its taxonomic status is a specific hypothesis about how two groups of organisms are related, i.e. evolution as a path. This aspect of evolution is concerned with the historical patterns of life, such as, when did a particular lineage originate, how are lineages related, do species originate geologically suddenly and then show almost no morphological change during their lifetime.

Was Archaeopteryx an early bird is a question of historical detail.  That initial assessment could turn out to be wrong. That does not mean that birds did not evolve but instead were spontaneously created as some creationists would insinuate. Rather, it means that our understanding about one particular ancestor descendant relationship is incomplete. It means that we don't yet have enough data to reconstruct with confidence the unfolding of one particular historical pathway of life.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Another Good Writer In The Geology Blogosphere

Dana Hunter is good, but we have another writer in the geoblogosphere:

On a corner in the road, at the entrance to the small village of Churchill in the English Cotswold Hills, is a small monument that seems out of place in its sleepy, pastoral surroundings. It is made from a rough-hewn, locally quarried limestone, which succumbs to the gentle Oxfordshire climate by a modest growth of encrustations of lichen and moss. Turning the corner, one sees an impressive gothic church set within a neat low stone wall, with its steeples reaching skywards, in perfect architectural proportions to itself, but oversized relative to the settlement that it serves, as if history had abandoned it, consigned it as a picturesque relic. There must be many stories to be told about this small village. Only one of them is that an inconspicuous child was born here of a blacksmith father in 1769. His name was William Smith; he is known as the ‘Father of English Geology’ and he drew the ‘Map that Changed the World’[1].

That was Prof. Philip Allen who writes Earth-Literally blog. He comments on a meeting he recently attended on the theme of Strata and Time and where the discussions ranged from stratigraphic completeness to cyclicity to sediment budget and fluxes..

 Enjoyable and educational.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Existential Awareness In Gorillas

We always knew that great apes were smart and thoughtful creatures, but they continue to surprise in terms of just how human-like they really are. Using some innovative techniques like euthanizing a pet cat and other visual cues, researchers from Tulane University Louisiana have recently taught Quigley a western lowland Gorilla that he - just like every other living creature - will die one day. Quigley, after a few initial panic attacks soon came to terms with his own mortality. 

A report from the reliable Onion.

via WEIT

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Multiple Events Caused K-Pg Mass Extinction?

Tobin et.al. have published work on a K-Pg section from Antarctica. From the latest issue of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology:

Although abundant evidence now exists for a massive bolide impact coincident with the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) mass extinction event (~ 65.5 Ma), the relative importance of this impact as an extinction mechanism is still the subject of debate. On Seymour Island, Antarctic Peninsula, the López de Bertodano Formation yields one of the most expanded K–Pg boundary sections known. Using a new chronology from magnetostratigraphy, and isotopic data from carbonate-secreting macrofauna, we present a high-resolution, high-latitude paleotemperature record spanning this time interval. We find two prominent warming events synchronous with the three main phases of Deccan Traps flood volcanism, and the onset of the second is contemporaneous with a local extinction that pre-dates the bolide impact. What has been termed the K–Pg extinction is potentially the sum of multiple, independent events, at least at high latitudes.

I don't have access to the paper so just some general thoughts.

Gerta Keller and colleagues have also challenged the theory that a single meteorite impact caused the mass extinction 65 mya. Except, their theory is that the bolide impact everyone is familiar with, which is the Chicxulub impact event in Yucatan Mexico took place about 300,000 thousand years before the peak Deccan volcanism. They base this on observations made on K-Pg boundary sections in Mexico and Texas and some work in India published in Journal of the Geological Society of India and Earth and Planetary Science Letters which support a link between Deccan volcanism and regional extinctions.

So, was the Chicxulub meteorite impact before the peak Deccan volcanism as Keller and colleagues say or was it 200,000- 300,000 thousand years after Deccan volcanism as this new paper by Tobin et. al. suggests. The famous iridium anomaly observed in many K-Pg boundary sections has been dated to after the main phase of Deccan volcanism indicating that there was a meteorite impact some time after peak volcanism.

Or were there two impacts with the Deccan volcanism sandwiched in between? It does seem that the single bullet theory for the K-Pg mass extinction is under serious threat.

Science Daily summary of Tobin et.al.' s paper

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Borlaug Award For Study Of Groundwater Use In West Bengal

It's good to see the vital role groundwater plays in Indian agriculture gain recognition. Aditi Mukherji with the International Water Management Institute has been awarded the Norman Borlaug award given by the World Food Prize Foundation for her work on access and usage of groundwater in agriculture in West Bengal.

From the Times of India interview with Aditi Mukherji:

West Bengal has one of the best agricultural electricity governance regimes in India. The majority of electricity pumps are metered and farmers pay high electricity bills, which in my opinion is a good thing. It sends the right price signal.

The real constraint was getting an electricity connection. We suggested removal of permits system in all blocks where the groundwater situation is safe. We also suggested rationalization of capital costs of initial electrification, but also recommended that metered tariffs must continue. The government has accepted most of these suggestions. In addition, it is deploying NREGA funds for excavation of ponds. That will help in groundwater recharge.

The prerequisite for a successful policy change in terms of immediate benefit to farmers as well as judicious use of groundwater was already in place in West Bengal. By prerequisite I mean good electricity governance. In the interview Ms. Mukherji mentions that Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have 80% of pumps electrified, a high percentage achieved due to past populist policies of handing out free electricity to farmers. The consequence has been rampant over exploitation of groundwater (largely by richer farmers). To avoid over extraction of groundwater,  West Bengal had set up a blanket restrictive permit policy even for areas within the state that had abundant groundwater. This perversely affected poor and marginal farmers in West Bengal who would have benefited from access to groundwater.

She suggests her recommendations could also be extended to the eastern states of Assam and Bihar. Geological conditions there are right for making such a policy work in favor of small farmers. Aquifers are alluvial over large parts. Groundwater is easier to find and is available at shallow depths.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Third Man On The Moon

I so much more like what Charles P. (Pete) Conrad, the third man on the moon said: 

"Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me"

Apparently this was not entirely impromptu. Capt. Conrad had made a bet with an Italian journalist that NASA does not script what astronauts are supposed to utter on this momentous occasion. Here is a snippet from the Apollo 12 Lunar Surface Journal.

 115:22:09 Conrad: Okay. (Pause) Down to the pad. (TV still)

115:22:15 Bean: Okay.

    [After pausing on the next to last rung, Pete steps down to the last one, gets his hands in position and jumps down, sliding his hands along the outside rails as he drops. Once he gets down to the footpad, the bottom rung is about level with his waist. (TV still)]

115:22:16 Conrad: (As he lands) Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me. (Pause)

    [Jones - "I understand that there was a bet on your saying that."]

    [Bean - "Who'd you bet?"]

    [Conrad - "You know who I bet."]

    [Bean - "Nope. I forget."]

    [Conrad - "A reporter, who thought the government put words in our mouths."]

    [Bean - "Oh!"]

    [Conrad - (Laughing) "I also had $500 riding on it, but I never got paid."]

    [Bean - (Laughing) "I didn't know that! Is that right? I kind of remember it, a little. Oh, well."]

    [Jones - "Do you want that story as part of the record?"]

    [Bean - "Put it in. It will be good for the myth. We're trying to create a Conrad Myth. Big Bucks on this. Can't have too many human interest things."]

    [Conrad - "I tell the story, but I don't tell who I bet."]

    [Actually, Pete does occasionally reveal that the reporter was Oriana Fallaci. A more detailed version of the story can be found in Andrew Chaikin's "A Man on the Moon".]

Meanwhile... RIP Neil Armstrong.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Darwin Just Made It Up

Another gem from the annals of religious stupidity:

“The theory of evolution is a theory, and essentially the theory of evolution is not science — Darwin made it up,” state Sen. Ben Waide (R) said. “My objection is they should ensure whatever scientific material is being put forth as a standard should at least stand up to scientific method. Under the most rudimentary, basic scientific examination, the theory of evolution has never stood up to scientific scrutiny.”

This comes from a Huffington Post article  (via: WEIT) which quotes Kentucky republican Sen. Ben Waide protesting the inclusion of evolution in science classes.

Darwin this... Darwin that.... Isn't it revealing that it is religious fundamentalists who claim that the theory of evolution will stand or fall based on what Darwin said?

Monday, August 20, 2012

50th Anniversary of Kuhn's Structure Of Scientific Revolutions

John Naughton at The Guardian has a very readable account of Thomas Kuhn's book on how scientific developments and progress take place.

Kuhn is credited for making popular the term "paradigm" with consequences that go beyond understanding the history of the development of scientific thought.

From the article:

As for his big idea – that of a "paradigm" as an intellectual framework that makes research possible –well, it quickly escaped into the wild and took on a life of its own. Hucksters, marketers and business school professors adopted it as a way of explaining the need for radical changes of world-view in their clients. And social scientists saw the adoption of a paradigm as a route to respectability and research funding, which in due course led to the emergence of pathological paradigms in fields such as economics, which came to esteem mastery of mathematics over an understanding of how banking actually works, with the consequences that we now have to endure.

And about the publication of the first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

The following year, the book was published by the University of Chicago Press. Despite the 172 pages of the first edition, Kuhn – in his characteristic, old-world scholarly style – always referred to it as a mere "sketch". He would doubtless have preferred to have written an 800-page doorstop.

But in the event, the readability and relative brevity of the "sketch" was a key factor in its eventual success.

Do I see a parallel here with another book that was transformative? Charles Darwin wanted to write a tome on natural selection but was hastened by Alfred Wallace's entry into writing a slimmer version of his theory... a sketch which perhaps due to its relative brevity became widely read.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mars Rover Scientist John Grotzinger Explains What It Is All About

Science Friday hosted Mars Rover Project Scientist John Grotzinger. He explained with clarity the instruments on board and what the mission is about:

From the transcript:

But from orbit, we could already tell that as we approached this mountain in the middle of Gale Crater that we informally refer to as Mount Sharp, that there's a succession of layers that are five kilometers thick, so that's a bit over three miles. And it's almost three times as deep as the Grand Canyon. And what we learned ever since the time of John Wesley Powell's pioneering trip down the Grand Canyon, staring up at the walls of the canyon and wondering what those layers preserved, I think we're doing the same thing.

We look up at this, and we can only imagine that this represents a tremendous swath through the geologic history of Mars, its early environmental evolution of what might be tens, hundreds, maybe even a billion years, hundreds of millions of years to a billion years. And that interval of time that we're sampling occurred somewhere between three and four billion years ago.

So we're for the first time really probing the next dimension of Mars exploration, which is the dimension of deep time.

Fascinating....Curiosity is not equipped to directly sense any signature of life like microbial respiration. It's all about doing as thorough a job of documenting the mineralogy and geochemistry of the rocks and piecing together a story of the geological evolution of the sampled terrain. In doing so, the hope is to identify habitable environments, a place that had or has water.

Back on earth, life in the Pasadena diner called Conrad's frequented by Mars mission scientists just got a lot busy. From the recent Nature News article :

Grotzinger was a regular at Conrad’s in 2004, before and after his working days on the rover Opportunity, which landed that year along with Spirit, its twin, comprising the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Because the rovers were positioned on opposite sides of Mars, one team would be having breakfast while the other would be eating dinner. “The waitresses were always confused,” he recalls. This time there is only one rover, but still no standard working day. Adapting to ‘Mars time’ requires starting each Earth day 40 minutes later than the last to match Martian daylight, inducing a state of perpetual jet lag.

Also, Mars Rover Curiosity is tweeting. You can follow the mission @MarsCuriosity. What a great way to engage the public in this mission and get them excited about science.

I am the 1,001,964th follower! Looking forward to at least two years of updates from the mobile geology lab on Mars...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

You Now Have Easier Access To Some Of My Favorite Posts

This was suggested to me by Indian Top Blogs who reviewed my blog some time back and I've been wanting to do this for a while. Give readers easier access to posts written long back. I've created categories just below the blog banner image that describe some of my favorite topics and experiences. These are not necessarily the most popular posts by the metrics but are topics which I've enjoyed covering.

Great Conversations- I love listening to a good science conversation and these posts cover some of the more engaging talks I've come across.

My Book Shelf - I've posted passages from books that I had been reading at that instance, often with my commentary and thoughts.

Humor - Can't live without that!

Field Trips - Can't live without that either!!

Maps - Wouldn't be a geology blog if I didn't cover interesting maps.

Geology and Livelihoods - Where I explore the myriad ways in which geology impacts our lives.

I might add categories, so readers following my blog via email or feed do go over to the site once in a while to see if any new category has been added.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Indian Versus Western Universities

Prof. Krishna Kumar delivers a devastating indictment of Indian Universities:

1) Faculty recruitment is not meritocratic.
2) Our concept of what constitutes teaching and learning is mechanical, based on criteria like number of hours taught and percentage attendance by students.
3) Teachers are restricted to narrowly defined syllabi and don't have the freedom to innovate- "Teaching goes on following the grooves of preset syllabi, like the needle boring into an old gramophone record" ... What a line!
4) Our Libraries suck.

He goes on:

These four critical differences are, of course, symptomatic of deeper problems entrenched in structures that govern higher education in India. Those who perceive all problems in financial terms miss the barren landscape of our campuses. Inadequacy of funds is, of course, worrisome, but it cannot explain the extent to which malice, jealousy and cussedness define the fabric of academic life in our country. There is a vast chasm that separates the Indian academia from society. Let alone the masses, even the urban middle class cares little for what goes on inside classrooms and laboratories.

There are off course centers of excellence. But the vast majority of Indian graduates pass through the dystopian lands that Prof. Krishna Kumar describes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

My Rather Tenuous Connection With The Mars Rover Project Scientist

I have no connection with the Mars Rover program :)...but this @geosociety tweet a few days ago caught my eye:

@geosociety Fellow John Grotzinger, JPL geologist on Mars Curiosity rover mission, in LA Times. http://lat.ms/QzG81W  MT @earthmagazine

John Grotzinger was profiled in an article in the LA Times. He is project scientist for the Mars mission and in charge of directing the earth science effort to glean information about the geology of Mars. Here is what the article says about his work-

For much of his post-PhD career, the geologist kept his feet planted firmly on Earth. He combed ancient sedimentary rocks for signs of early life. He took trips around the globe, family in tow, to collect 550-million-year old specimens in Namibia and Oman.

What it left out was that Prof. Grotzinger is a carbonate sedimentologist. So.. I guess I can claim that I share an academic kinship with him :)

I am quite familiar with his work in carbonates. When I was working on my PhD in the mid 1990's he was already a faculty at MIT. His PhD research on Proterozoic carbonates of the Northwest Territories in Canada was directed by J. Fred Read at Virginia Polytechnic. During several GSA meetings I did get an opportunity to listen to his presentation on various aspects of Proterozoic carbonate platform evolution. He later moved to Cal Tech and JPL in Pasadena, California.

For long, carbonate sedimentologists gave much more attention to Phanerozoic carbonates and less attention to Proterozoic carbonate deposits. There was an economic incentive in that. Many Phanerozoic carbonate basins host prolific oil and gas deposits. The origin, growth and architecture of Phanerozoic carbonate sedimentary platforms,  a term for depositional basins in which hundreds to thousands of feet of calcium carbonate sediments accumulate, was studied quite intensely and we gained a very detailed understanding of these systems. All this work ultimately helps exploration geologists make reasonable predictions on the location and thicknesses of strata best suited to be oil reservoirs.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

5 Years And I Am Still Blogging!

Just realized that its been 5 years to the day that I started blogging!

Here is my very first post, an essay on early human evolution and the topology of the evolutionary process  - The Trunk-Less Tree Of Life

Yeah.. I still feel pretty enthused about the whole blogging experience, so expect a fairly regular supply of posts!

And I got some recognition from Indian Top Blogs, who after a survey of the Indian blogosphere placed my blog in their platinum category, which is in their top 50 list.

And I am now tweeting @rapiduplift... so do follow this space as well as my Twitter feed.

Thanks for all your support over the years!

Richard Muller On Reconfirmation Of Temperature Data

NPR Science Friday hosts Berkeley professor Richard Muller whose Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project investigated whether measured temperature data collected and reported by climate scientists was flawed. His conclusion is that the previously measured data faithfully records that the earth has been warming and that humans are primarily responsible for the temperature increase:

FLATOW: So tell us about your change of mind and heart about this issue.

MULLER: Well, if you had asked me a year ago, I might have said I didn't know whether there was global warming at all. But we had begun a major study, scientific reinvestigation. We were addressing what I consider to be legitimate criticisms of many of the skeptics.

But about nine months ago, we reached a conclusion that global warming was indeed taking place, that all of the effects that the skeptics raised could be addressed, and to my surprise, actually, the global warming was approximately what people had previously said.

It came as a bigger surprise over the last three to six months when our young scientist, Robert Rhode, was able to adopt really excellent statistical methods and push the record back to 1753. With such a long record, we could then separate out the signatures of solar variability, of volcanic eruptions, of El Nino and so on. And actually, to my surprise, the clear signature that really matched the rise in the data was human carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It just matched so much better than anything else. I was just stunned.

Prof. Muller also talks about the urgent need for a policy that provides incentives and financial assistance to switch to natural gas thus cutting down on the need to burn coal. Clean fracking is his rallying point!

Also the Guardian has a long article on Richard Muller and his work.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Hyperspectral Mapping Of The Geology Of Afghanistan

This post submitted to the Accretionary Wedge # 48 hosted by Earth-like Planet. The theme is "Geoscience and Technology" and this post is on the use of multi and hyperspectral remote sensing for geological mapping.

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the Landsat series of remote sensing satellites, two maps of the surface distribution of several distinctive minerals covering a large portion of Afghanistan has been released by the USGS.

 Source: USGS Pub A

These maps have been prepared by processing the reflectance properties of surface materials captured by sensors aboard a plane. Conventional satellite mapping like that prepared from Landsat data does the same thing but it generally captures less information. For example, most conventional commercial satellites will capture reflected energy in the visible and the near infra red portion of the spectrum in 4 - 7 bands.

This type of remote sensing of the reflected and emitted energy from surface material is termed multispectral sensing. Recently, new satellites have started capturing hyperspectral data. Here, the energy from the visible to infrared spectrum is collected at very narrow intervals or channels. For example, NASA's Hyperion sensor aboard the EO-1 satellite is capable of collecting spectral information in 220 spectral bands from between the 0.4 to 2.5 µm (micrometer) bandwidth with a 30-meter ground resolution.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Battling For The One True History Of Israel

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating article on several new archaeological finds in Israel. There is serious scholarship addressing these finds and reasonable scientists have different opinions on the significance of ruins and artifacts, particularly on the correspondence of archaeological finds and biblical stories. On the other hand there is some apprehension that these findings are being used by some to push forward a nationalistic version of the history of Israel.

The wild card and one that may be having a damaging impact on the field of archaeology is the recent interest shown by cable TV and film producers:

In the old days, scholars could spend years excavating a site, and then more years, perhaps decades, marshaling material and publishing their conclusions.

In recent years, a new hunger for publicity and acclaim has changed all that. As the cost of excavations and scholarship has risen, archaeologists have turned to private sponsors and commercial organizations to underwrite their expeditions. Publicity has become a key tool for raising money. With the proliferation of cable TV, channels like National Geographic and Discovery, and then independent film producers, were able to provide huge injections of cash in return for exclusive access and production rights to the most camera-friendly expeditions. After such heavy investment, the producers expect discoveries that would create headlines and attract large audiences.

In the past decade, a steady stream of spectacular discoveries linked to well-known biblical stories has come from a mixture of outright charlatans, religious foundations, highly regarded mainstream archaeologists, and even the Israel Antiquities Authority, an official government agency that oversees all archaeological work in Israel. Some of the announcements read like a modern-day search for holy relics.

Suddenly, every archaeologist is being compared with Indiana Jones, and filmed in what appear to be similar settings.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Creationism And Fused Chromosomes

I used to avidly follow the evolution creationism debates on the internet. The beginning of my interest was the flurry of rebuttals to Michael Behe's book Darwin's Black Box which were put up on Boston Review. It was a great learning experience as biologists picked apart the concept of intelligent design and "irreducible complexity".

That tradition of battling creationists by providing clear explanations of biological phenomena continues with science writer Carl Zimmer explaining how the fusion of chromosomes can explain the difference in the chromosome number between our closest relatives and humans. Gorillas and chimpanzees have 24 pairs of chromosomes while humans have 23 pairs. John Hawks pitches in and gives an insight into the relationship between large genetic changes and the origin of new species.

I am always completely befuddled by the creationist response. I mean who are the creationists really addressing?  Their arguments against evolution are usually poor and not backed by evidence and their alternative explanations for the origin of complexity and diversity like Michael Behe's idea of a pre-formed genome border on the ridiculous. Even they must know that they will never win over biologists and well.. people with the ability to think for themselves..:)

My take is that creationists are not so much trying to convert people to the idea of creationism as much as trying to keep their flock from rejecting God and migrating to the side of rationality. Their enterprise of rejecting evolution and providing counter "explanations" rely on the vast majority of people with faith who already reject evolution only reading creationist literature. You could argue that with the internet it is so easy to find and read arguments put forward by scientists. That is true, but it is also true that people with strong convictions generally seek out conforming opinions and then stick to their own community. I doubt if the vast majority of followers of major creationist websites take the trouble of reading the criticisms of biologists.

I think that suits the creationists. They can misrepresent evolution and the work of scientists all they want knowing that the majority of the faithful will be reading only their side of the story. That is the reason for the conditions they have recently put on debating the fused chromosomes with Carl Zimmer. It has to be on their moderated web site with a word limit with no comments allowed.