Wednesday, April 30, 2008

So you want to work with undergrads: II. Job applications

So. You want a job, do you? At an undergraduate college? Ok, then. Let me tell you what I know.

(This is based on being on six different search committees at two different schools. However, I haven’t been part of a search in the past six years – my department has been successful at moving people from job candidate to tenured professor, so that’s no longer my biggest service obligation. So: the job market changes with time, and I may be out of touch.)

A job application is like any other piece of writing: to be effective, it needs to be pitched at the right audience. Except that goes triple (at least) for job applications. In the case of a search committee for a liberal arts college, that audience usually includes the entire department, the dean, other administrators, students (for parts of the application – not reference letters), and possibly a faculty member from another department.

So what does this audience want from the job search, anyway?

1) To find someone to teach certain classes. (Some of those classes will be within the major, and some classes will be part of the college’s general education program. All of them need to be taught. If the new hire can’t or won’t teach them, the other members of the department will have to.)

2) To hire a person who is good to work with. (Departments are small. Jerks are difficult to avoid in a small department.)

3) To avoid having to do this same search next year, or in four years, or in seven years. (The new hire should be someone who will be happy at the institution, and should be someone who will survive the tenure process and continue teaching important courses and being a pleasant department member until retirement.)

The administration may also have its own agenda – maybe to strengthen an interdisciplinary program, maybe to hire someone who can bring in grant money, maybe to straighten out a troubled program. (I wouldn’t want to be hired into the third situation, btw.) The students and the additional faculty are usually there to give a broader perspective – they don’t make or break a candidate’s case, in my experience.

The department members on the committee will probably divide up the application materials (cover letter, curriculum vitae, statements of teaching and research interest, letters of recommendation, and whatever else a candidate sends them) between them, and cull them down to a manageable pool (maybe 20 applications). Then the students and outside faculty and administrators join the process, and everyone narrows the field down to a short list, and then to a group of maybe three or four people to interview. Your application materials have to get you out of that pool of 100 (or more) files and into the interview stage.

So what makes a strong candidate versus a weak candidate?

There is one thing that is sure to eliminate a candidate from consideration: a lack of background in the subdisciplines to be taught. (Sometimes only one subdiscipline is absolutely necessary; in other cases, the list of courses is extensive.)

The other stuff can vary in importance, depending on the applicant pool. But, in general, the following things are good:

1) Teaching experience. (I know I said that research is an important part of the job. But teaching is the thing the department needs right away.)

2) Experience working with undergrads (as part of a mentoring program, or supervising undergrads in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, or supervising undergrads in a lab, for instance).

3) Enthusiasm about undergraduate education. (The cover letter is important here. Why do you want to teach at this place, anyway?)

4) Enthusiasm about research with undergraduates.

5) Demonstration of ways you would fit into the program. (Look at the web site. What courses are currently offered? Can you figure out who is leaving? Can you show that you can teach the things that the department needs to be taught?)

6) Knowledge about the institution. (What is the administration proud of, and how do they market the school? If you really don’t want the job, talk about all the graduate students you plan to attract to your research program, or leave another school’s name in the middle of the cover letter.)

7) For geoscientists especially, knowledge about the area around the school. (You will need to dive right in and lead local field trips. Do you have any idea what you’ll be able to do? Can you imagine undergrad research projects in the area?)

8) A PhD completed. (Once upon a time, assistant professors were hired before they had defended their dissertation. If industry starts hiring away a lot of geology PhDs, it’s possible that ABDs will be hired again. But I wouldn’t count on it. And that means you need to finish your dissertation. Are you writing? Huh? Huh?)

9) Publications. (Notice how low this is on the list – it’s still helpful to have published, but a small college is likely to hire people who they think will publish in the future, rather than the past. Existing publications, however, can provide evidence of your background to teach certain topics, and show that you can follow through on your research. And they impress administrators.)

10) Grants. (If you want tenure, you will need to do research, and that means finding money. If you’ve been successful at getting grants already, that’s impressive. Especially to administrators. But whether it’s critical will depend on how competitive the applicant pool is.)

If one of the other applicants is perfect – five years of experience teaching at another SLAC, a dozen first-authored publications, successful NSF grants, a record of sending senior research students to top graduate programs, stellar recommendation letters, clear enthusiasm about the position... well, you don’t have a chance. (Unless you are that perfect applicant. In which case, you probably aren’t looking for advice.)

But if you’re up against a lot of other people with a year of teaching experience, maybe a post-doc, maybe some papers in press... well, at that point, you can either stand out or disappear based on how you sell yourself. Use your statement of teaching interests to show that you are qualified to teach the courses listed in the job ad, and that you are a creative and enthusiastic instructor. If you have experience, talk about it; if you don’t have much experience, talk about what you plan to do. Use the statement of research interests to talk about how undergrads can get involved in your cutting-edge work. (And if you need to use instruments that aren’t available at the college, explain how you plan to manage collaborations that will allow you to both work with undergrads and do your cutting-edge stuff.) Arrange your C.V. so that your relevant experience is easy to find. Talk about undergrads in your cover letter, too. Make it clear that you understand the kind of school you’re applying to – if you sound like you belong at a research university, you probably won’t make the final cut.

And make sure your advisor and the other people writing letters for you understand that you’re applying to an undergrad institution. You can’t control what they write, but you can make sure that they understand your goals, and don’t write glowing letters about your future as a research scientist and mentor of graduate students.

Finally, one last piece of advice. Don’t hint that you are applying to a SLAC job because you just couldn’t make it in the research university world. The private SLACs, in particular, consider themselves to be as good as a private research university. If you don’t think much of the type of institution, you probably shouldn’t work at one – they see themselves as communities, and even if your teaching and research are at the right level, you might be miserable dealing with the school’s sense of itself.

For more advice (from a wider variety of people), check out How to Get a Tenure-Track Job at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution, from the Council on Undergraduate Research. If you're serious about working at a PUI, you might want to join CUR and go to one of its meetings.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

So you want to work with undergrads: I. Expectations

This post is partly inspired by a post in last month's Scientiae about doing research at small colleges. (And that post was partly inspired by a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece entitled Big Research, Small College.)

I've taught at two undergrad-only colleges: one private liberal arts college on the East Coast, and one public liberal arts college in the Rockies. (I was also a student at a private liberal arts college. That made me want to teach at one, but it didn't teach me much about surviving.) Everything I'm going to say is based on my experience. One person, limited in time and institutions. All schools have their quirks, and SLACs may have more than most. And institutions change through time - the expectations when I was hired had changed within seven years, in both places. But I'm teaching at one right now, and that gives me a different perspective from professors at research universities (who may have been students at SLACs, or who may have run away screaming after a temporary teaching position, or who may know of SLACs mostly via grad students who came from them).

Oh, and for non-USAians - I don't think this kind of institution exists outside the US. And these schools are different from community colleges, and from small universities with M.S. programs. I've never taught at either of those, so I don't know what the work is like.

So, with those caveats, I'm going to do three posts. The first is going to deal with expectations: what exactly is involved in teaching at a SLAC? The second is going to deal with getting a job, and the third is going to deal with getting tenure. (Or not.)

So. Expectations.


Umm. Kim? Shouldn't teaching be the first category? I mean, these are the jobs for people who love working with undergrads, right? I've read the catalogs. "Teaching is our mission." So what's the deal with research?

I'm putting research first for a reason. The Chronicle of Higher Ed piece makes it sound as if you can do research at an undergrad institution, but really, you must. Not as much as at a research university, it's true. But you have to do it. And it's hard to know exactly how much, and what quality. And the expectations may change.

There are a lot of good reasons for doing research at an undergrad institution. For one, it's a good way to stay in touch with the field - doing research also means writing grant proposals and knowing what topics are currently hot and reading the literature. For another, research experiences are good for students. Good undergrad research projects let students get a taste of how scientists work. And there's nothing like a research project to test a student's critical thinking skills.

And then there are other reasons. Scientific research means grants, and grants mean money (including indirect costs). With pressure to keep tuition down, and limited possibilities for state funding, grants look like a good source of money to public colleges, especially. And undergraduate research enhances the prestige of the institution. (I suspect this was important to the private SLACs in the late 80's/early 90's, when my Baby Bust generation was going to college, and the SLACs had to convince students that they were as good as Princeton or Stanford. Hey, it convinced me, at least.)

So you do research, and you publish papers. What kind depends on the institution. (How important is it to have undergrad co-authors on your papers? How important is it to get an equipment grant? How many papers, and in which journals? Do you need to be a first author for a paper to count? Does continuing your research from grad school/post-doc count? Do grants count? Do unsuccessful grant proposals count, as the Chronicle article implied? (Not in my experience, at least.) Do pedagogy grants and papers count?) I don't have a good answer - these are things that are different from institution to institution, and from administration to administration, and from candidate to candidate. (One paper in seven years probably is not enough, though it might still be at some institutions, for the right person. One paper a year is probably plenty. And between that... I don't know. I was denied tenure when I had four papers, one grey literature field trip guide, and a couple small grants; I got tenure when I had nothing but a pedagogy paper, a third-authored paper, and a co-PI'd NSF equipment grant... but that was in three years.)

But I know one thing: you can't publish too much.


You can't publish too much, but you can lose your job if your teaching isn't good enough. And you generally don't get out of teaching for doing research, unless you get a grant that pays your salary during the academic year.

How much teaching? It depends. At the private SLAC, I taught four to five courses per year, most with labs. (I also taught nine different courses - that's nine different preps - in my first four years. Eleven courses in seven years.) At my current public SLAC, I teach six courses a year, most with labs, plus I have taught summer field camp a few times. (But I've only taught seven different courses, including field camp. And I had taught versions of most of them before.) Other private colleges have smaller teaching loads, depending on how they give credit for labs. Some also give new faculty a break.

And how good do you have to be? Ah. That's the real question. Teaching evaluations can be brutal, especially at private colleges. And there aren't many ways to evaluate how well students learn, as opposed to how much they like their professors. At my first school, the sciences lost around one junior professor a year to bad reviews resulting from student teaching evaluations.

It's difficult to balance the need to challenge students, and support students, and get good teaching evaluations, and publish.

What about Service? Don't you have to do Service?

Oh, yeah, service. You know... service takes care of itself. You get assigned to a few committees, you go to meetings, you get credit for service. It's basically a box that needs to be checked off - unlike research and teaching, it doesn't have to be excellent. I haven't found committee work to be overwhelming - in fact, it lets me get to know people across campus.

So... would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I like teaching a broad range of subdisciplines. I like working with students one-on-one in lab. I like spending time in the field with each research student, brainstorming with them, trying to remember to make them say what they see before I tell them. I like watching students transform into independent scientists. I like mentoring.

(If I had to do it again, though, I would have left the first job after a year or two. There were warning signs that things weren't going well, and I would have saved myself a lot of grief if I had paid attention to them.)

(Geoscience grad students/post-docs: if you want a broader range of advice, check out On the Cutting Edge. Their workshops for this year are full, but they've got general advice on the website.)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Why so personal?

I had a conversation today with David Brown, who's writing an article about geoblogging for the AAPG Explorer. He asked one question that I really didn't know how to answer: why is my blogging so personal?

I've been thinking about it for the rest of the day, and I think there are a couple answers. The first goes back to the reasons why I blog. Geologists, like other scientists, do their professional communicating using strict (but often unwritten) rules. Scientific writing is impersonal, for good reason: the point is to talk about the observations, the models, the reasons why one explanation is better than the other. The ideas should hold up under examination by many other people. And a scientist should be able to step back from her own pet hypothesis and conclude that she was wrong, if that's what the evidence says. Good science should be free of ego and bias.

But that's an almost inhuman ideal. And, well, it may be a useful process, but it's not what makes me keep working in this field. I do geology because it's beautiful. I love being outside, scrambling through brush, and then looking up and seeing the mountain across the valley, or the potholes in a streambed, and feeling as though the breath has just been knocked out of me. I'm fascinated by the stories hidden in the textures of metamorphic rocks. I like to spin the stage on a petrographic microscope and watch the pretty colors. (Come on. I can't be the only person who does this.) I like the twisted shapes of multiple crenulations seen in thin section, and the smoothness of slickenlines on a fault plane. And I like being confused: walking up to an outcrop and wondering what on earth could have made it like that, and does it really make sense given what everyone else has said about it.

Those aren't the kinds of things that go into a scientific paper. They keep me going through the research, but when the time comes to write a grant proposal or a journal article, I have to put them aside.

Five years ago, I had just been admitted to the hospital to have my son. I was luckier than most women in science: I had accumulated a great deal of experience before my mid-30's, enough so that I got tenure while on maternity leave. If I hadn't, having a baby would have knocked me out of science.* I'm not as strong and determined and efficient as most of the women-in-science bloggers. I slacked off, let the fieldwork slide, didn't publish. Now, I'm working my way back. But I can't do it by simply sitting down and writing an impersonal article. I need to be driven by the sense of wonder, as well.

I started blogging as an outlet for that part of me: the part that finds geology beautiful.

And there's another thing. Being a geologist means that I have an intense sense of place. I'm not from around here, but I live here, and do research here. So I blog about plants, rivers, ice crystals, and whatever else I see, because blogging helps me pay attention to where I am.

(Of course, I may write very personal-sounding posts simply because I'm not a good journalist, and I can't think up universal hooks. So I'm left telling personal stories. Perhaps.)

* You know, it struck me that this could be used as fodder for all those people who think that women shouldn't be hired as doctors or scientists or whatever, because they'll just go and have babies and stop being productive. So, a little more detail about my situation five years ago: I was denied tenure at my first job, in December of 1999. It was like getting dumped, after trying for seven years to become the person that my old school expected me to be. So I was a bit commitment-shy in the first years of my new job: I didn't want to become too attached to the place before I knew that it wouldn't dump me, as well. That meant that I decided I wouldn't start a new research project in a new field area until after I had tenure. And by that time, I had a baby. So, here I am.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sunday stroll: that's a lawn?

This is my lawn:

Or rather, this is the spot where I'm trying to put a lawn. There was grass here when we bought the house, eight years ago. I didn't water it enough. (I'm from New England. It rains there. Back there, I had to worry more about whether I wanted to allow a forest to replace the semi-tamed meadow, because if I left it alone, it would be impenetrable within five years. And I mean impenetrable. Ask any student who followed me through re-grown clearcuts in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.)

So the grass died. I'm not a fan of lawns, anyway, and I think that landscaping ought to fit the climate (and the critters who eat the landscaping), so I figured I was better off without it. We considered having three rock gardens on each side of the house. We made narrow paths of gravel, flagstone, and hand samples, trying for a look that was half Zen garden and half rock collection. The west side of the house is the sedimentary garden, with red sandstone flagstone and blocks of the yellowish Tertiary Paleogene sediment that fills the San Juan basin. The east side is metamorphic: micaceous quartzite for the flagstone, and blocks of rock that increase in grade from greenschist to migmatite as you go north.

The south side of the house had a larger area to cover, and it reflects sun back into the house in the summer. And I didn't have many blocks of igneous rock to work with. And it's next to the driveway, so we didn't need the rock barrier as a defense against forest fires. So we decided to give the lawn another try.

Choosing grass out here is difficult. The typical lawn grasses are huge water hogs, and simply don't belong in this environment. Fortunately, there are some xeric alternatives. Out here the main choices are blue grama and buffalo grass. Blue grama is better at the higher elevations, and buffalo grass works well at the lower elevations. I'm at 7200 feet, which ought to be blue grama territory, but this is the south side of the house, and it's a hot, dry spot. So I've planted buffalo grass.

Actually, I planted buffalo grass twice. About four years ago I got a bag of seed, sometime late in the summer or early in the fall. The grass came up in the spots where I piled the seed on more thickly than I thought I should, but the rest of the ground stayed bare. Then, last summer, my mother bought some buffalo grass plugs and put them it. Again, some of them took, and some died. (Perhaps I just don't understand how much water plants need when they're getting established.)

Today, I put down some more seed, a mixture of blue grama and buffalo grass this time. And my son is watching the dirt, and reminding me that it's dry, and that I should water it some more. I'm a bit worried that I planted too early - it's still getting down to freezing at night, though it's in the 70's and dry during the day.

We'll see.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Dear NPR: let's talk earthquakes

NPR's Bryant Park Project features a story about last week's M 5.4 earthquake in Illinois. And, well, they should have interviewed Maria instead, because her post explaining earthquakes in Illinois is really good. And NPR's story, ummm, isn't.

What did NPR get right? Well, yes, there have been big earthquakes on the New Madrid seismic zone. Really big earthquakes. And the 1811-1812 quakes (which supposedly rang church bells in Boston) are worth telling people about.


The California activity — along what is known as the San Andreas fault — is a result of the North American plate riding over the Pacific plates and continually building stress, Gibson says. The New Madrid fault, on the other hand, is an "ancient scar" where two very old plates are slowly pulling apart.

Ok. Problem #1: California. California is on a strike-slip plate boundary (as Julian's photos show very nicely). The Pacific plate slides past the North American plate. Mostly. Except where the boundary isn't oriented in quite the right direction. But it's not a subduction zone, as implied by "riding over." (You need to go north, near the Oregon border, to find one of those. And up there, North America slides over the teeny-tiny Juan de Fuca plate, not the Pacific plate.)

Problem #2: New Madrid as an active rift? The failed rift that is now the New Madrid seismic zone tried to tear North America apart 700 million years ago. It's not an active rift now. It failed. No ocean basin. No separate continents. Just lingering effects like low elevations and lots of old faults, just waiting to be reactivated. Maria's analogy is perfect: they are old injuries that react to unrelated events. In this case, I would guess that the fault was driven by some east-west compression of the North American plate, between the Mid-Atlantic ridge on the east and the San Andreas fault on the west. (The focal mechanism says that the earthquake involved strike-slip motion with east-west compression - consistent with reactivation, but not with active rifting.)

So. Seismic hazard? Yes. (And so are many other areas with old normal faults: one of the other big earthquakes of the 1800's was in Charleston, South Carolina.) Future beach-front property? Not without a lot of sea-level rise.

And should we care? Well, if the New Madrid seismic zone were actively building stress, we might have a better handle on the risks there. We could use continuous GPS to monitor the ground deformation. We could make a decent guess about the likely size of future ruptures, and the size of future earthquakes. And then it might be possible to decide just how crucial it would be to retrofit old buildings. But as it is, we've mostly got history, rather than theory, as a guide. And in most places, human history is too short to give a good feel for earthquake risk.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A more serious Earth Day post

The price of oil is over $100 a barrel. Copper is worth so much that wiring gets stolen from building sites. In my part of the world, water would be scarce due to population growth, even without the added problems of climate change. After years of being those oddball geeks from books by John McPhee, geologists are in demand again. So why am I finding it so hard to figure out how to pitch the science to people?

Geology is, after all, everywhere around us. It’s under our feet – perhaps below a few layers of pavement, but it’s still down there. It’s the river that’s running high on the other side of the levee, or another river, on the other side of the country, that doesn’t have enough water for all the people who want to use it. It’s the beach we play at. It’s the mountain we ski on. It’s the rocks that fell on the highway when the roadcut got wet. It’s the sudden lurch of an earthquake beneath our feet, even in the supposedly stable mid-continent. And yet so many people go about their lives blissfully ignorant of the physical world around them.

Part way through college, I came to a horrible discovery. We already knew how to avoid fracking up the environment. Want to avoid contaminating groundwater? Make less toxic waste, and don’t just dump it. Use too much energy*? Turn off the lights, walk or bike or carpool, turn down the heat or the air conditioning. And as for living in harmony with the environment – avoiding the need for flood control, avoiding getting buried by a landslide – well, it isn’t that difficult. The land beside rivers is prone to flooding. Steep slopes have landslides. The problem wasn’t that scientists didn’t understand. The problem was that people weren’t aware, or didn’t care.

I bailed on environmental geology as a career, figuring that education was more important. I still think so, but I don’t have much hope for its effectiveness, either.

As far as I can tell, American society has come nowhere in the past twenty years. Well, ok, maybe not nowhere. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs have improved, computers go to sleep automatically, refrigerators and washing machines are more efficient, and the Prius has finally been invented. But that isn’t a heck of a lot to show for twenty years.

And I’m not sure that geoscience education has much to contribute today, either. We can tell students about the research behind An Inconvenient Truth and argue with young skeptics. We can talk about the resources that go into driving to the ski area, riding the lift, and proposing to someone on the slopes. But do the students hear? And does the connection of geology with the resource industry mean that we become the Bad Guys who are profiting from the destruction of the planet? How can we explain that the oil industry exists for them, for them and the other billions of people driving cars; that coal is burned because they use electricity; that metals are mined to build their mountain bikes?

We weren’t very effective in the 90’s, when we weren’t in demand. How can we be effective now, when we’re seen as part of the problem?

*We didn’t talk much about carbon dioxide in the 80’s, unless we were climate scientists, so the issue was wasting energy rather than generating CO2.

The pre-K guide to saving the Earth

I'm working on a real geology Earth Day post for the next Accretionary Wedge, but in case I don't manage to finish it by tomorrow, here's some advice on saving the planet from my preschooler.

My son's daycare has been talking about Earth Day lately. He's brought his plastic Earth ball to show-and-tell, and he's been giving me lots of advice about what I can do to save the planet:

- Turn off the lights. (Check.)
- Plant things. (Bought drought-tolerant grass seed today, in yet another attempt to create a tiny patch of lawn. Not that it's green to be green in the desert, but a small patch in front of the south windows might help keep the house cool in summer.)
- Be a Power Ranger.

"Wait," I say. "How does being a Power Ranger help the Earth?"

"Power Rangers save the world from Bad Guys," he tells me. "Bad Guys want to destroy the Earth. So we should all be Power Rangers."

So there you have it. Environmental education for the pre-K set.

So if you'll excuse me, I think I have to go power up.

Night of the living superprobe?

I just got yet another Nigerian scam e-mail:


And I thought... you know... I always wondered whether the microprobe was a zombie. All those late nights in the dark, eating my brain...

Good thing the lab I'm using now has a Cameca.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Students plagiarizing blogs

Christie has had one of her blog posts used in a lab report by a student from a neighboring institution. She wonders what she can do, other than add a threatening notice in her sidebar. Check out her post for the discussion.

I've got a couple related questions.

1) If one were to, say, deliberately stick an oddball word into science-y posts to catch the attention of a grader, what would you suggest? Gnamma? Random use of British spellings (or American spellings for Chris, Julia, and anyone else who tends to use extra vowels)? Off-hand references to various offspring or to being born before Mt St Helens erupted?

2) Would you allow students to use blogs as cited sources in a paper? Under what circumstances? And how should a blog post be cited, anyway?

(My take on question #2: when I make my intro class do background research before field data collection, I'll let them use any sources. When my juniors are doing background research for their senior theses, however, I tell them that they can't use more than one internet source - though that doesn't count USGS open-file reports or open access journals or any other formal publication that happens to be on the net. The juniors are supposed to be learning to read and understand the formal scientific literature; I don't allow them to use The Roadside Geology of X as a major source, either.)

Sunday stroll: mystery weed

Every spring, the roadsides turn purple. But I don't think that it's a native flower that's responsible. There are maybe three or four plants that seem to colonize disturbed ground around here, and this is one of them. And I don't know what it is.

Here's what it looks like:

The flowers are hard to see. They're about half a centimeter across, purple, with five (I think) petals.

After a week, the flowers will be replaced by sharp seed pods, that stick to clothes and dogs and anything that touches them. The leaves will dry out, and the ground will be covered with brown pricklies until the August rains allow some of the seeds to germinate. They have long, thick roots, too.

I classify these as "weeds" in my lawn or garden. (I dig them up in the garden; the "lawn" is so hopeless that I just ignore them.) But I'm not sure what they are. I expect that they're something invasive - they take over places so aggressively, but I don't see them in places that haven't been disturbed by development. I don't think they're one of the species that the county Extension Office has flyers about (at the farmer's market, or at the county fair).

Weeds are the most common plants that I see. I think. But they aren't in any of my plant guides. (They're not shrubs, and they don't really count as wildflowers.) I wish I knew what these things are.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mississippi River watch continued

At Natchez, Mississippi, the Mississippi is now one-tenth of a foot lower than it was in 1973.

Meanwhile, the New Orleans Times-Picayune has a long piece on what this flood could be doing for coastal restoration.

Geo-jargon 3: battle of the spellcheck

(Note: this is a follow-up to my post on jargon that we should ditch and Maria's post on jargon that should return from the dead.)

I used to get really annoyed about MS Word's standard spell-checker with geology terms. It's gotten a bit better - it knows how to spell "plagioclase" now - but it still marks a lot of geologic terms as misspelled.

But now, it's mostly a source of entertainment - at least when Word has suggestions for replacements:

Anastomosing... Anatomizing
Cataclastic... Cataclysmic
Cataclasis... Catalysis
Orogeny... Progeny
Phyllic... Phallic
Phyllite... Phillies
Listric... Lipstick
Rheology... Theology

(And spell-check doesn't replace "asses" with "assess," to the humiliation of many speakers over the years.)

Do you have any favorite suggested replacements?

(Thanks to my students for telling me about some of these.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I can almost see the CO2 from here...

Earlier this month, Purdue University released some very cool visualizations of the movement of carbon dioxide in the US. (Callan and Mel blogged about it.)

This week, they've released a list of the top twenty counties for CO2 production in the US.

And the top ones are...

1. Harris, Texas (Houston) - 18.625 million tons carbon/year
2. Los Angeles, California (LA) - 18.595
3. Cook, Illinois (Chicago) - 13.209
4. Cuyahoga, Ohio (Cleveland) — 11.144
5. Wayne, Michigan (Detroit) — 8.270
6. San Juan, New Mexico (Farmington) — 8.245

One of these things is not like the others... Farmington has fewer than 45,000 residents. It does, however, have two coal-fired power plants, with another proposed.

It's absolutely stunning to see Farmington on the list with three of the four largest cities in the country, and with major industrial cities of the midwest.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Lower Mississippi: flood stage comparable to 1973

From the National Weather Service:

928 PM CDT MON APR 14 2008


edit: The NWS has raised the predicted flood crest to 57 feet. That's higher than 1973. Still less than 1927, the year that inspired Randy Newman's song Louisiana 1927. (It also inspired the Army Corps of Engineers to build the Bonnet Carre spillway, to let water out of the Mississippi before it flooded New Orleans.) /edit

The Old River Control Structure was nearly wrecked by the 1973 flood.

Meanwhile, the Bonnet Carre spillway, which lets water from the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain, has been partially opened, to keep the Mississippi near New Orleans from rising higher.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Gravity, rocks, mud, and the Big Snow Year

Headline of the week, from my local paper: Geologic forces plague East Animas Road.

Ten years ago, a big piece of Dakota Sandstone fell off the cliff on the top of the ridge north of town. For years, we would wave our arms at it, and tell stories about it to intro students. And then, in the fall of 2006, mud started to trickle out of the bottom of the rock fall. It had been a wet fall, and the finer grains were remobilizing into a debris flow.

One of out students did a senior thesis on the hazard. Usually when students predict something in geology courses, they don't see their predictions come true. Not so with this student.

When the snow melted this year, the mud came down with it.

East Animas Road has been closed for the past few weeks. I drove out there one afternoon to take pictures. Apparently there have been multiple feet of mud across the road at various times. There's a loader parked there, and it moves the mud out of the way, and then more comes down. Fortunately, there are no houses in the direct path, and the road has two outlets, so it's an inconvenience rather than a tragedy.

The mud is really slippery, too.

(And field camps who want to know where this is - e-mail me and I can give directions, and let you know if it's still running. The snow has nearly melted from that part of the ridge, so the mudflows may be done... for this year.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday stroll: River of Lost Souls

Most of the rivers that leave the San Juan Mountains are dammed to make reservoirs: the Dolores at McPhee, the Uncompaghre at Ridgway, the Gunnison at Blue Mesa, the Rio Grande all over the place, the San Juan at Navajo, even the little Los Pinos and Florida Rivers at Vallecito and Lemon.

Not so the Rio de las Animas Perdidas, Durango's river of lost souls. To the delight of the local boating community, the Animas runs free.

At least for now.

The Animas-La Plata project was authorized in the 1960's (and gets a brief mention in Cadillac Desert), but it is only being built now. Water is going to be pumped out of the Animas River, right here, downstream of the old uranium smelter site, the city water treatment plant, and the kayak park. And it's going to be pumped uphill into a reservoir that won't be visible from town.

I don't know what effect it will have on the river - it may be that humans won't notice it much. (There's a little more boating downstream, but a lot of rafts and kayaks take out at the beach across from the pumping station.) There was a lot of talk against the project before it began. But now... now we're watching it be built, and waiting.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Watching the Mississippi basin

Has anyone else been watching the USGS flood map this spring?

This is what it looks like today, April 10.

There are at least three things that scare me on this map.

1) All those black triangles represent places where the rivers are above flood stage. Look how many of them there are!

2) Some of the places above flood stage include the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge and the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City. (Recommended background reading: "Atchafalaya" in The Control of Nature by John McPhee. For anyone who hasn't read it: the Atchafalaya River would probably be the main course of the Mississippi River by now, if it weren't for some massive engineering. The Old River Control Structure, which tries to let just enough water into the Atchafalaya to prevent floods in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, nearly failed in the 70's. It's been strengthened since then, but it hasn't faced huge floods, either.) Both places have been a few feet above flood stage for a week, at least.

3) Of the big tributaries of the lower Mississippi, only the Ohio is currently above flood stage. But it's still snowing across the Rockies, the northern plains, and Minnesota:

The Missouri and upper Mississippi drain areas where the snow hasn't melted yet.

I was frantically writing my dissertation in 1993, and water data wasn't on the web for daily ogling. I remember some discussion that the 1993 floods on the upper Mississippi and Missouri didn't result in danger for Louisiana because the Ohio basin was fairly dry that summer.

I hope the Ohio goes down before the Missouri and upper Mississippi rise.

Edit: The National Weather Service flood warning for Natchez, Mississippi (above the Old River Control Structure) says the Mississippi should crest just below the level of floods in 1983:

FEET ON MAY 31 1983.

According to John McPhee (Control of Nature, p. 53), the 1983 flood was the 3rd largest of the 20th century. (1973 was the year the Old River Control Structure nearly failed.)

Monday, April 7, 2008

Data, interpretations, and field work

You know what I find really interesting about all the various geopuzzles that have been popping up in the geoblogosphere lately? Reading the answers from people with various backgrounds.

When I read other scientists talking about data and interpretation, I occasionally feel like I'm from another planet. My problem usually isn't pushing students to come up with interesting interpretations of their data. My students love to tell a good story. But in field work, it can be difficult to tell what's data and what's interpretation - what's repeatable, and what is one of a large set of reasonable (and testable) explanations.

There are things in geology that are obviously data. Measurement of discharge of a river. A chemical analysis of an igneous rock. GPS measurements showing the displacement of a site after an earthquake.

And then there's field geology. I walk up to a rock:

I look at it.

I measure the orientation of the surface, and the orientation of the lines, and write the data in my field notebook, with some kind of cryptic annotation that says:

Shear fracture = orientation
Slickenlines = orientation
Slip direction = direction

And I move on and collect more data.

But... wait a minute. Didn't I just assume the most interesting part, there? How do I know what that surface was? It's just a crack with shiny grooves on it.

And that was a pretty minor interpretation. During my first semester of grad school, I went on a field trip to an ophiolite in the Diablo Range in California. We hiked up the canyon, and at every stop, we had a quick overview of what this rock used to be, back in the day when it lay below the ocean floor. And, well... I, ummm, wasn't convinced. I was lousy at looking at ultramafic rocks (all those green and black minerals were hard to tell apart for someone with little experience), and we moved quickly, talking about what the rocks meant rather than what we saw in the rocks.

When I do fieldwork, I need to think about interpretations. It's possible that I will never be able to go back to a site: maybe I was dropped off by a helicopter, maybe I backpacked twenty miles into a wilderness area, maybe the property owner will deny me permission to come back. I need to simultaneously observe, document my observations with photos, take measurements, collect samples, and think about what it all means. And I need to construct my mental model and think about how to test it, all while slapping mosquitoes or putting on suncreen.

We don't talk about the importance of that skill set very often: that field geologists have to simultaneously conduct one "experiment" and design experiments to test competing hypothesis and develop models. It takes a lot of mental flexibility, and a combination of wildly creative egotism (to imagine an entire mountain belt while looking at a tiny outcrop) and humility (to recognize that the interpretation could turn out to be, you know, totally wrong).

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that students find it difficult to figure out what's data and interpretation. Field trips are like professional field work, only worse, in some ways. Part of their goal is to get students excited about geology - and telling the story of the big picture is one of the ways to get the students engaged. Part of their goal is to help students learn to observe (at progressively more sophisticated levels as they go from freshman to senior). And part of the goal is for the students to understand how the observations relate to the big picture, so they can go to a new outcrop on their own and make up their own stories.

I've tried a number of ways to make students be explicit about what they've observed versus how it's interpreted. I make my structure students write up their work in two sections: data (or observations), and interpretation. The data, I grade based on whether its correct; their interpretation, I grade based on whether it's reasonable. (Perhaps I should also grade based on whether it's interesting, but geology students seem quite happy to extrapolate from the scale of outcrop to plate.) In my intro class, I play devil's advocate at the Great Unconformity - I try to convince the students that the granite is younger than the quartz-cemented sandstone. (It's pretty easy to convince them that the sandstone might really be a quartzite, and that maybe the granite intruded it.) Then I make them give the evidence that supports or disproves each possible interpretation.

It doesn't always work, so I'm always looking for new things to try. I'm thinking of pointing my students (especially the intro students) towards some of the geopuzzles. (Maybe I'll do something similar this fall on my class web site, and let students ask questions about things that can't be observed in a picture. I wonder what kind of carrot or stick would get them to participate? Hmmmm.)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sunday stroll: Flat Stanley visits the Great Unconformity

My sister called a couple nights ago with a request. It seems that my oldest nephew's class is doing a geography project based on Flat Stanley, a children's book about a boy who is flattened in a tragic accident with a bulletin board, and who goes on to travel the world in an envelope. The original school project involved mailing Flat Stanley to other people, and having them mail back pictures and stories about his adventures. It's the Age of the Internet now, though, so Flat Stanley doesn't actually travel. My sister had a simple request: just take a couple pictures with my son in them, maybe at the train station, and e-mail them to her.

My sister should have known what I would do with a guest.

This is Flat Stanley, as drawn by my son and me:

I'm not quite sure what happened to his head. Perhaps it's a scar from the original bulletin board accident. In any case, Flat Stanley wants my nephew to know that yes, you can find several different types of cactus in Durango, even though it snows a lot here.

Flat Stanley went on a hike with us, looking for some places for my next week's field lab. When we were done, we drove up the valley to see some of the local geologic sites.

Here he is, admiring the brand-new travertine deposits at Pinkerton Hot (well, really tepid) Spring. (The rock pile was built about nine years ago by the Colorado Department of Transportation. The spring used to be on the other side of the highway, but the warm water caused a lot of road damage, so they piped it across the road and turned it into a tourist attraction.)

Then we headed down a side road to a place called Baker's Bridge. The Animas River goes through a steep-walled gorge there, but Flat Stanley was understandably concerned about getting wet. So we looked at rocks instead.

Flat Stanley is particularly fond of pink granites. Especially this one, because it's 1.7 billion years old, and there aren't any rocks that old in Connecticut!

And even better... the highlight of the trip: the Great Unconformity. Below: the 1.7 billion-year-old Baker's Bridge Granite. Above, a quartz-cemented sandstone that is either Cambrian or Devonian. In between, there's at least 1.2 billion years of time missing.

Flat Stanley wants to know what happened during all that time. I told him sorry: envelopes and e-mail aren't the same as a time machine.

Maybe next trip.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Field trip season... almost

At least the rocks are out of the snow now. And the old snow is packed enough so we didn't really post-hole.

It's past time to get outside.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is it unethical to blog about peer-reviewed research?

Chris Rowan has already posted about the commentary in Nature Geoscience from Myles Allen, which includes this argument for comment-and-reply within journals, rather than discussion in the blogosphere:

We just need to remember the basic courtesies that our doctoral supervisors took for granted: criticism of peer-reviewed results belongs in the peer-reviewed literature.

Allen responded to Chris's post, and raised some interesting points about problems with blogging.

But the idea we should post our personal views on the internet and leave them there to be picked up and twisted who-knows-how, without subjecting them to any form of review before doing so, is a new one, and not good for science. I don't have a problem with blogging per se, if bloggers were to comply with the old-fashioned courtesy of checking with the authors that they have understood a paper correctly before criticizing it in public.

A little background to Allen's criticism, for people who don't have access to Nature Geoscience: he was a co-author of a paper discussed on RealClimate, and the discussion misinterpreted their work. Over a year later, the story came back again, and

two journalists picked up the story and, led on by what they had found in the blogosphere, accused us of distorting our results for the sake of publicity.

That sounds like an unpleasant experience.

Blogging is an odd activity. Like much conversation on the internet, it feels like talking to oneself. And the writer alone controls what is said: there is no other editor or reviewer. But the conversations are open to the entire world, and are accessible long after the conversations are past.

So what kind of responsibility do we have to get things right?

It's a tough question. You know, I teach about some of the papers that I blog about. And I teach undergraduates, which means that my explanations of methods and background are The Last Word about them. And I'm not perfect, not by any means. I've taught probably 150 students about fracture mechanics - and I'm a specialist in ductilely squashed rocks; everything I know about cracks comes from papers (and smashing things with a rock hammer). I probably miss important points in about half the things that I teach. Yet I don't e-mail the authors of papers, unless they are people I know, or unless an undergrad research student wants to work with their results. I'm not sure they would want me to e-mail them.

Should blogging be different from teaching undergraduates? If so, why? Because blogs can be read by anyone? (Hi, Mom!) Because there aren't many blogs about, say, structural geology, so I have a greater responsibility to act as a reliable authority? Because blog posts can be recalled more easily than comments made in a lecture to sleep-deprived undergrads?

Until this discussion, I had figured that published work was fair game for discussion in any forum, as long as the work was appropriately cited. It's ok to adapt methods, it's ok to use ideas to explain your own work, and it's ok to criticize - in class, in a discussion and reply, in another paper... or in a blog.

I'm not sure that the peer-review system ensures that published work is interpreted correctly (or as the authors would like). Reviews of new papers focus on the new work: are the methods appropriate? Do the conclusions follow from the results? A reviewer has the opportunity to correct an author, but most of the cited authors aren't reviewers. (Thank goodness. The review process requires a lot of unthanked volunteer work as it is.)

That's not Allen's point, though. Allen is talking, I believe, about the comments-and-replies. I don't know what goes on in that editorial process. Are there reviewers, besides the journal editor? And if there aren't, is a comment essentially reviewed by the original authors who are given the opportunity to respond? (This does make the process more fair to the original authors, who probably don't google their own names daily, looking for blog posts about their work.)

Do bloggers have a similar responsibility, to contact authors and let them comment?

And what happens when news reports and press releases have misleading headlines that are not supported by the journal articles? Are those appropriate blogging fodder?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Two posts I don't need to write

Maria at Green Gabbro writes about geology terms that should be brought back from the dead. (That means I don't need to write a sequel to my post about retiring outmoded terms. Plus she knows some really good words. I'm going to have to find a way to use tiphon and gnamma in conversation this week.)

And Chris at Highly Allochthonous writes about a discussion of science blogging in this month's Nature Geoscience (which, amusingly enough, also featured letters from Julia and me that were, at least in my case, requested by the editor after he read my blog). One of the opinion pieces is by Gavin Schmidt at RealClimate, and argues for the usefulness of blogging. The other one - the one that made me want to blog - was by Myles Allen, who argues that discussions of the scientific literature belong in comments and replies. (I might still have to write about this, from the perspective of a teacher... but Chris has some interesting things to say, so maybe I'll just stick to commenting there.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Precambrian fossil!

I've been waiting and waiting to tell someone about this, and today seemed an appropriate day.(Edit: Note post date. ;) )

I've been working in metamorphosed Precambrian (well, Paleoproterozoic, to be precise) sediments. Their exact age is thought to be around 1.7 billion years, but that's estimated from detrital zircons. They are cut by a 1.4 billion year old granite, though, so we've got a minimum age, as well.

Now, these rocks are conglomerates, made mostly of pebbles of quartzite, vein quartz, and banded iron formation, so they were deposited someplace where water was moving fast. I didn't expect to see subtle features preserved, let alone this:

Can't see it? Well, it's usually hard to recognize fossils in rocks metamorphosed to andalusite grade. Here, let me outline it for you:

A Precambrian rabbit.

J.B.S. Haldane is rolling in his grave.