Thursday, July 25, 2013

Science Writing In India And Some Thoughts On Punctuated Equilibrium

Kind of a hodge podge title but I didn't feel like writing two separate posts.

Current Science had a special focus a couple of weeks ago on science writing in India. Seema Singh has written quite well about her struggles to become a better science writer. She summarizes the state of science writing in India:

Science is just about reviving in India. People mention that the first time in three decades such a coordinated effort is being mounted to infuse funds and sparkle in Indian science. But there still are not too many stories that can be told with a single-sentence punch line. In which case, the art of chronicling the process becomes even more important. Now, whether the body of knowledge will help here, or the skill of storytelling, is left to my mind, to individual communicators, specialists or non-specialists. For me, personally, it is about homework and humility, intricate osmosis of critical inquiry and sensitivity, the spirit of curiosity, sense of wonder, and, of course, fact checking.

That's an important point about what and how science gets covered. Far too often, the media either exults in and tries to claim an Indian connection to a notable piece of research by an Indian scientist who left the country 20 years ago, or features scientists based in India only during satellite launches, nuclear power plant protests or major earthquakes. Science as an activity and scientists in their day to day working avatar are rarely featured.  A trigger to change this could come from within too. Few Indian scientists today are using social media platforms to initiate a conversation with the public. There has been a small increase in the number of Indian scientists who do blog with biologists and ecologists (1, 2) taking the lead, but my impression is that far too many write about everything else but their research.

Seema Singh also writes about her interesting encounter back in 2001 with evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould who popularized the field of evolution like no other writer except perhaps Richard Dawkins. Gould along with Niles Eldredge proposed the controversial and widely misunderstood theory of punctuated equilibrium. Seema Singh describes it thus: ... which propounded that evolution takes place in rapid spurts of species differentiation, not in continuous transformations.

I wanted to expand on this.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Field Photo: A Village In The Monsoons

Can monsoon magic get better than this?

A small village, flooded paddy fields, cool breeze, clouds and the majestic Deccan volcanics towering over..

Taken on way to Panchgani from Pasarani Ghat.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Periods Of Non Deposition of Sediments Are Transformative And Useful Recorders Of History Too

Came across this interesting article published a few months ago in Sedimentology:

Deciphering condensed sequences: A case study from the Oxfordian (Upper Jurassic) Dhosa Oolite member of the Kachchh Basin, western India -Mathhias Alberti, Franz Fursichi, Dhirendra Pandey

Properties of sediments and sedimentary rocks tell us a lot about the geological history of the depositional basin as well as for clastic sedimentary rocks the history of the source terrains from which the sediment was weathered, eroded and transported. But why study phases of basin evolution when no sediment or very little sediment is deposited. What imprint do such events leave on sedimentary basins? What can such episodes tell us about sea level change, tectonic movements and climates? The authors address this issue by examining one of the most prominent marker beds from the Jurassic rift basins of western India, the Dhosa Oolite.

In large parts of the Kachchh Basin, a Mesozoic rift basin situated in western India, the Oxfordian succession is characterized by strong condensation and several depositional gaps. The top layer of the Early to Middle Oxfordian Dhosa Oolite member, for which the term ‘Dhosa Conglomerate Bed’ is proposed, is an excellent marker horizon. Despite being mostly less than 1 m thick, this unit can be followed for more than 100 km throughout the Kachchh Mainland. A detailed sedimentological analysis has led to a complex model for its formation. Signs of subaerial weathering, including palaeokarst features, suggest at least two phases of emersion of the area. Metre-sized concretionary slabs floating in a fine-grained matrix, together with signs of synsedimentary tectonics, point to a highly active fault system causing recurrent earthquakes in the basin. The model takes into account information from outcrops outside the Kachchh Mainland and thereby considerably refines the current understanding of the basin history during the Late Jurassic. Large fault systems and possibly the so-called Median High uplift separated the basin into several sub-basins. The main reason for condensation in the Oxfordian succession is an inversion that affected large parts of the basin by cutting them off from the sediment supply. The Dhosa Conglomerate Bed is an excellent example, demonstrating the potential of condensed units in reconstructing depositional environments and events that took place during phases of non-deposition. Although condensed sequences occur frequently throughout the sedimentary record, they are particularly common around the Callovian to Oxfordian transition. A series of models has been proposed to explain these almost worldwide occurrences, ranging from eustatic sea-level highstands to glacial phases connected with regressions. The succession of the Kachchh Basin shows almost stable conditions across this boundary with only a slight fall in relative sea-level, reaching its minimum not before the late Early Oxfordian.

So even a thin layer of sediment (compared to the time it represents) can be an important recorder of history.

Here, the Dhosa oolite, a complex bed of detrital particles, diagenetic coated grains and intraclasts cemented together to form a distinctive horizon represents very slow accumulation of material in a basin.

My interest is in the even more extreme situation when absolutely no sediment accumulates in a basin. In fact, my entire PhD research was on such events of non-deposition and what effect they have on earlier deposited sedimentary sequences.

Monday, July 15, 2013

My New Book Shelf

..has gone digital!

First downloads:

The Universe Within: Neil Shubin
Written In Stone: The Fossil Record And Our Place In Nature: Brian Switek

I realize that I am reading at a faster pace on my Kindle than my usual pace with print. Maybe the bad habits of skimming through internet material is translating to book reading too. I need to adjust that. Otherwise I am enjoying the experience. My strategy for now is to buy special interest, semi technical books in the Kindle format while sticking to print books that I would like to share with friends. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mountains Of Saint Francis - Walter Alvarez

A certain type of travel book or TV show on Italy features the adventurer driving through sun dappled rolling hills and winding narrow roads to a picturesque village in search of that one undiscovered Trattoria not featured in similar other books or TV shows. Walter Alvarez though refreshingly keeps driving past these rustic eating places to an old quarry just beyond the village. There, he begins poking around in the rocks in an attempt to unravel their secrets.

Walter Alvarez is quite a famous geologist. He was one of the proponents of the theory that a meteorite impact precipitated a mass extinction 65 million years ago, an idea that is now amply supported by evidence.  He has written a story about that discovery in T Rex And The Crater Of Doom (dinosaurs were the most famous casualty of this event). He has had a long professional relationship with Italian geologists and he uses the Italian rock record to explain the methods and basic principals used by geologists in this enjoyable book The Mountains Of Saint Francis: Discovering The Geologic Events That Shaped Our Earth. 

The Mountains of Saint Francis (after Francis of Assisi) is Alvarez's name for the Apennine mountains of the Tuscany and Umbria region and this books explains step by step how they came to be. Throughout the Mesozoic until mid Cenozoic, what is now Italy, was a promontory of the African continent sticking out like a north pointing thumb into the sea of Tethys that separated Africa and Europe. An enormous pile of mostly limestone accumulated on this submerged promontory. These Jurassic to mid Cenozoic limestones form the building block of the Apennine mountains. They stand spectacularly exposed in road cuts and cliffs and have attracted the attention of geologists from all over the world.  As a result, the Apennine rock exposures along with younger Pleistocene deposits have become some of the best studied strata in the world. They not only tell us about local geological evolution, but have provided key insights to answer some broad geological questions.