November 10, 2011

Do You Know What’s Interesting About Caves, Sheldon? Everything.

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Exploring Cango Cave, South Africa, September 2011.

Dear Dr. Sheldon Cooper,

Let me first say that I greatly admire the documentary “The Big Bang Theory” that follows the daily lives of you and some of your scientific colleagues* at Caltech. “The Big Bang Theory” provides refreshing, mentally stimulating programming in a time when television is, sadly, dominated by fluffy reality TV shows about weddings, cakes, and orange-colored inhabitants of the Jersey Shore who will probably develop melanoma in their early 30s. With rare exceptions, TV has really gone downhill ever since “Firefly” was canceled. Your delightful documentary and “Game of Thrones” are the only shows I regularly watch on television these days. I recently tried adding the promising-sounding “Terra Nova” to my TV-watching schedule, but unfortunately the painfully cliché dialogue and pervasive scientific inaccuracies can only be moderately compensated for by CGI dinosaurs. I’m afraid I may have to abandon my attempts to follow “Terra Nova”, which makes me all the more grateful that I can watch your documentary. Furthermore, I imagine that footage from “The Big Bang Theory” will provide valuable information for the historians who will write your biographies after you win the Nobel Prize in Physics for your innovative and brilliant work in String Theory. I actually wish you would go into more detail about your work in theoretical physics, which sounds fascinating. Much as I enjoy watching you and your friends play games such Klingon boggle, Wii Bowling, and Dungeons & Dragons– past times that I also find entertaining– and watching your amusing interactions with your neighbor Penny and various friends and family members, I do wish that more of your documentary would focus on your scientific achievements.

However, the actual purpose of this letter is not simply to praise your documentary and your work as a scientist. As I’m sure you understand, unfortunately it is sometimes necessary to follow non-optional social conventions. In this case, I am following the social convention of providing compliments prior to providing criticisms. Now that I’ve provided an entire complimentary paragraph, let me move on to my criticism. Actually, I have more of a demand than a criticism. To put it simply: Stop saying that geology isn’t a real science.

 

Perhaps making up 26 dimensions in order to make your mathematics work out isn’t real science. Ever thought about that, Sheldon? I am a geologist, and I take offense that you consider me a “dirt person” and  “not a real scientist.” Firstly, the term is “soil scientist” not “dirt person.” Secondly, geology is a perfectly legitimate, interdisciplinary science that requires advanced knowledge and synthesis of the fields of biology, chemistry, mathematics, and– yes– even physics. Geologists must be polymaths, which makes geologists elite scientists in my completely unbiased opinion. For hundreds of years, geologists have made concrete and important contributions to science. Let me list just a few of these contributions below:

The Age of the Earth:
Without the science of geology, people might still believe that the Earth has a Biblical age of only a few thousand years**. In the 1600s and 1700s geologists such as Nicolas Steno and James Hutton helped scientists understand that Earth must be millions of years old if the weathering and sedimentation processes operating in the Quarternary were responsible for forming the Earth’s landscape. “The Present is the Key to the Past” is a simple but extremely useful concept that was introduced by these early geologists. Admittedly, one of the first scientists to try to calculate (inaccurately, I might mention) the age of the Earth was physicist Lord Kelvin, who came up with an age of 100 million years based on cooling properties. However, Lord Kelvin overlooked radioactive heating***, so his calculated age was far too young.  Fortunately, geochemists eventually determined that the Earth has an age of 4.54 billion years based on radiometric dating of chondrite meteorites and also Pb-Pb isotope systematics.

Plate Tectonics:
The theory of plate tectonics was developed by geologists in the 1950s and 1960s. Since you live in southern California dangerously close to the San Andreas fault, perhaps you are not fully familiar with the importance of this theory. After brushing up on the theory, perhaps you will want to consider moving to a more tectonically-stable region of the planet. Personally, I recommend southern Africa.

Science on the Moon:
The only scientist ever to travel to the Moon is geologist Harrison Schmitt, a Caltech alumnus. Clearly, NASA has great respect for the science of geology. Don’t you think that NASA would have sent a physicist to the moon if they considered physics more important?

I could go on, but I think you understand my point. Let me conclude my letter by stating that I think your disrespect for the fine science of geology limits your own scientific endeavors. For example, in one of the early episodes of your documentary you completely overlook the potential for scientific research in caves. As you and your friend Leonard are walking down the stairs to attend a department party, you complain about how at the last department party you were forced to listen to a professor talk about spelunking for 45 minutes. You then rhetorically ask, “Do you know what’s interesting about caves, Leonard?” and then answer your own question with the simple reply, “Nothing.”

 

Really, I’m shocked at your lack of knowledge regarding caves. A simple Wikipedia search would inform you that there are dozens of reasons why caves are both interesting and scientifically important. To assist you in filling this gaping hole in your scientific knowledge, I’ve listed a few examples below.

A Few Reasons Why Caves are Interesting:
-Many important archaeological artifacts and fossils have been discovered in caves, which tend to preserve items by protecting them from the environment. As an example, important Austrolopithecus africanus fossils have been uncovered in the Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa. 

-Study of speleothems (chemical precipitates which form in caves), which form slowly over thousands of years, provides important information about Earth’s paleoclimate, a topic which is very important to understand  in light of the rapid anthropogenic climate change which has been occurring since the Industrial Revolution.

-Study of troglobites (cave-dwelling animals) is a rich and very important field of biology that can provide insights into evolutionary adaptation such as the enhancement of non-vision senses such as hearing, taste, and touch.

-Deep, well-shielded caves provide excellent environments in which to observe neutrinos. If I were a physicist, I would want a cave lair where I could set-up and monitor my neutrino experiments.

-Caves contain bats, which are one of nature’s most elegant and interesting creatures. Personally, I find bats’ use of echolocation particularly fascinating. Based on your strong interest in Batman, I imagine you must also find bats very interesting.

 

Those are just a few of the many, many reasons why caves are interesting.

Now that I have explained why geology is an important and very legitimate science and why caves are fascinating and important scientific research environments, I hope you will reconsider your rash disregard for geology and geologists. Perhaps you will even consider collaborating on some scientific projects with geologists. Caltech has one of the world’s best geology departments, and I would be very interested to see your brilliant mind turned to some of the important outstanding questions in geology. For example, geophysicists do not understand Earth’s magnetic field reversals very well. I imagine that your expertise in theoretical physics could be very useful for providing insight into why and when Earth’s magnetic field reverses. You may wish to pursue this topic for personal reasons since an unexpected geomagnetic field reversal could prove very detrimental to your standard of living.

I look forward to receiving your reply to this letter.

Sincerely,

Evelyn Mervine

PhD Candidate in Marine Geology & Geophysics

MIT / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program

 

*I realize that you may view “scientific colleagues” as somewhat strong wording. After all, Howard is just an engineer.

**I think that some of your relatives in Texas still believe this. Can you please try to educate them on this matter?

***Probably because radioactivity hadn’t been discovered yet, but surely a smart physicist should have discovered radioactive heat prior to endeavoring to calculate Earth’s age from cooling models.