25 March 2020

The Story of More, by Hope Jahren

Humanity faces a crisis today, and we struggle to find the right way to deal with it, to solve it, to live meaningfully within the constraints it imposes. You might think I’m referring to coronavirus, but it’s actually climate change that’s on my mind. Hope Jahren, author of the incandescent Lab Girl, has a new volume out, on the unsustainability of modern Western life, and what actions we can take as individuals to lessen our negative impact on the global environment while simultaneously living richer, more thoughtful lives. It’s called The Story of More (more people, more energy, more resources, more carbon dioxide, etc.) with the subtitle of “How We Got to Climate Change, and Where to Go from Here.” Apparently derived from a university-level course on climate change that Jahren teaches, this book is more relentlessly quantitative than the deeply personal stories told in Lab Girl, but each chapter includes some tale from Jahren’s life that illustrates some connection to the topic in question. These vary between extremely apt and peripheral, but they are invariably heartfelt and poignant. Her writing, as always, is exceptionally elegant. One example of this is her description of a petroleum refinery south of New Orleans: It’s “a bizarre landscape that looks to have been co-designed by Ayn Rand and Aldous Huxley. For a full five miles along the road next to Chalmette, Louisiana, you’ll pass a massive array of smokestacks, steamstacks, and chimneys, looped together with pipes and shutoff valves, more angular than a Dr. Seuss drawing but equally fantastic.” The focus is always on the human connection, and never delves into remote, inhuman topics like atmospheric dynamics. A lot of it is about food and eating, nurturing plants that they may nurture us. It feels very grounded and profound as a result. I’d imagine that for Jahren’s lucky students, this intimate sense of our own deep connections with the wider world comes through in classroom discussions. In communicating, Jahren exhibits a disciplined love of words and allusions, connections and analogies. She impresses her perspective with countless calculations that she has performed herself from a diverse suite of data sources (an extended appendix to the book reviews these sources, enabling readers to explore the numbers on their own). All told, the book doesn’t “land” emotionally with the same intensity as Lab Girl, but it’s less of a memoir and more of a “personal textbook.” I could very easily imagine this volume as one of a triad of readers for an Environmental Geology course: Along with John McPhee’s The Control of Nature and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, The Story of More would serve there to round out an understanding of the human relationship to nature with an emphasis on personal opportunity and responsibility. Recommended, particularly the audiobook, which Jahren herself reads at perfect pace and with vital emphasis.

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20 March 2020

Friday fold: more folds from lower Titus Canyon

We are living in surreal times. It hardly seems possible, but a week ago this evening, I drove down the Las Vegas strip with my students, ogling at the glitz and spectacle and crowds. Now, a mere 7 days later, Vegas has been shuttered, and it’s been shuttered for days. We traveled freely through California and now a week later, everyone in the state is ordered to stay home. What a week it’s been! Ever since I arrived home, my family and I have been in self-imposed self-isolation. It seems our Death Valley trip was the last face-to-face academic thing that happened at the College prior to the unprecedented transition to 100% online instruction for the remainder of the semester.

So let’s take comfort in the routine of the good old Friday fold, and look back to pre-lockdown days in the field.

Eight days ago, I drove through Titus Canyon with my students, which manifested in last week’s Friday fold, and also gives us some smaller scale structures this week. There aren’t a lot of places to pull over in Titus Canyon, so these are all “drive-by” photos (and hence they all lack a proper sense of scale; mea culpa), but I think you’ll enjoy them as a glimpse into the highly deformed strata of the overturned Corkscrew Syncline in lower Titus Canyon:

Looking up through the skylight:

Some kink folding:

And these recumbent isoclinal folds really took the cake; at first glance they just look like bedding, but there are fold hinges near the center of both of these photos:

Example # 1:

Example # 2:

Hope you and your loved ones are safe. Please stay home. Please wash your hands.

I’m not sure if we can get “normal” back at this point, but we can prevent spreading this plague to the most vulnerable members of our civilization with simple, straightforward measures. I know those simple, straightforward measures contort our lives into almost-unrecognizable shapes as we seek fulfillment of our employment duties, our educational goals, and our social desires, all mediated through electronic communications. But the priority needs to be safety and health. All else is secondary.

Be well, friends.

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13 March 2020

Friday fold: Bizarro folding in Titus Canyon

Hi everyone, and greetings from eastern California’s Death Valley, where I’m leading a field geology course over our spring break.

I found an excellent Friday fold for you:

That’s the Cambrian-aged Bonanza King Formation, a package of limestones, as exposed in lower Titus Canyon, Death Valley National Park.

Here’s the thing: the lower part of that outcrop is Upper Bonanza King Formation, while the upper part of the cliff is Lower Bonanza King Formation… The stratigraphic sequence, in other words, has been inverted.

These beds are upside-down. They are part of the large-scale Corkscrew syncline, a recumbent fold. This is is its overturned limb.

Which means that thing on the left which looks like an anticline, is really an upside-down syncline. It’s antiformal, but really it’s a syncline, with the youngest rock in the middle, and the oldest rock on its flanks. Similarly, the fold at right looks like a syncline, but once we understand the strata have been flipped over, we recognize it to be an anticline, with the oldest layers in the middle.

So we have a synformal anticline and an antiformal syncline, side by side and utterly upside down.

Bonkers. The power of tectonics made manifest.

Happy Friday! I hope you’re healthy and neither dying of COVID-19 nor transmitting it to someone who will transmit it to someone who will die of it.

Wash your hands, eh?

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6 March 2020

Friday fold: an Extreme(adura) geological history question

Today’s Friday fold is the last question on the Historical Geology midterm exam I gave today.

This is a diagram showing a cross-section through the rocks at Villuercas-Ibores-Jara UNESCO Global Geopark in Extremadura, Spain. It comes from a field guide to the region by J.J. Álvaro, S. Jensen, and T. Palacios. I stumbled across the image while searching for something else, and was immediately struck by its elegance and graphical balance, but also how it showed a deep time story with many discernible chapters. I modified their image to trim it down to what I considered to be the essential components for my own students, but I was so pleased with the story that popped out that I also posted it on Twitter today, challenging geo-students there to take a crack at deciphering the saga from the information in this cross-section. Despite likes and retweets, no one was brave enough to put forward some observations and interpretations.

Can you?

Before you scroll any further down this blog post (and see my answer), see what sense you can tease out of this accumulation of lines, wiggles, and dots….


(keep scrolling…)


(keep scrolling…)


Okay, here’s what I see:

  1. Once upon a time, there was a deep marine basin where most of the time, mud was deposited.
  2. Periodically, turbidites would bring in layers of graywacke.
  3. At some point, either a glacier dumped a bunch of debris in, or there were some submarine landslides that resulted in an exceptionally poorly sorted deposit of diamictite. (We can’t tell from the data available here whether the clasts in that diamictite are faceted and striated or not.)
  4. Then there was an episode of folding and faulting, probably accompanying an episode of mountain-building. Roughly speaking, and with the diamictite acting as our marker unit, the strata were warped into what appears to be a regional antiform in structure.
  5. This tectonic squeezing resulted in uplift, subjecting our now-near-vertical strata to a time of erosion. The mudstone, graywacke, and diamictite layers were truncated against the ancient Earth’s surface.
  6. Time went by and subsidence occurred, allowing sea level to creep back up and over the site. Higher-energy fluvial or shoreline (delta) deposits were laid down. Based on the lens-shaped deposits of conglomerate within the coarse sandstone, it looks like this was either terrestrial or transitional. The base of the unit makes an angular unconformity with the layers described in steps 1-5.
  7. On top of that is a layer of fine-grained sandstone, perhaps indicating beach or nearshore marine deposition.
  8. On top of that is a layer of mudstone, going back to a more offshore setting, and…
  9. Topping that is a layer of limestone, dolostone, and shale – the most offshore facies yet. In total, this package represents a classic fining-upward transgressive sequence.
  10. Then another episode of compression happened, folding all these layers into a big synform.
  11. Once again, this uplifted the edges of some of the layers to the surface, where they were eroded.
  12. Again, subsidence and/or sea level rise (during the Ordovician, according to the explanation) brought deposition back to the site, resulting in the “Base” Formation. An angular unconformity exists now between the base of the Base and the underlying high-angle strata.
  13. Based on truncation of some of the upper layers of the Base Formation against the overlying unit, I’m guessing there was another round of erosion.
  14. Deposition resumed anew, with layers of quartz sand, also during the Ordovician. This makes an unconformity with respect to the underlying Base layers.
  15. Then there was a little bit of folding (pretty subtle), again effecting all layers, but most noticeable in the non-horizontality of the Ordovician package.
  16. Then faulting down-dropped the northeast side relative to the southwest.
  17. Then (or perhaps accompanying #16) uplift brought it all above the surface, where erosion went to work again, breaking down the mountainous outcrop and laying down temporary (?) deposits of Recent debris.

Whew! What a tale. I can’t wait to someday see these rocks in person.

Happy Friday.

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5 March 2020

The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz

What if geologists studied more than just Earth processes and history, but also how to go back in time and manipulate that history? That’s the job of the “cultural geologist” who is the flawed protagonist of Annalee Newitz‘s novel The Future of Another Timeline. (I’ve previously read her book Autonomous, and enjoyed it. I see her as a leading thinker about futurism’s intersection with feminism.) In TFOATL, the main character, Tess, lives in a United States that oppresses women even more than the current one does. Abortion is illegal for instance, but Harriet Tubman was a Senator. The book is set partially in the near-future (2022) and also in the early 1990s, but also in 1893/4, as well as the early and late Ordovician period of geologic time. Plus one of the characters comes from the distant future, a few hundred years down the line, bringing some intriguing technology with her. Tess is part of a group of female geoscientists who are working to edit the past so that women of the future can live freer lives. They are battling followers of a smut-obsessed U.S. Postal Service special agent, intent on subjugating women for all time. The action ranges from the World’s Fair in Chicago to suburban Los Angeles’s punk rock scene to the ancient city at Petra, Jordan, as well as the desolation of Flin Flon, Manitoba. An interesting feature of all these times and places are the “Machines,” time travel devices that are natural features associated with the Precambrian cratons of most continents – except the one at Petra (Raqmu,’ the site’s original name, is used instead), which is apparently a master Machine that controls the others. Humans can tap a rhythm into the Machines to go back in time, but they cannot go further forward than their present, and they cannot visit the same time twice. It’s weird to think of time travel as being a natural phenomenon, thought these wormhole-generating spots, though maybe they were made by alien intelligences in the deep past. The possibility is raised and set aside. It doesn’t matter: if they exist, people will use them, and pursue their own agendas accordingly. Geoscience takes on whole new levels of significance in such a world, and readers of this blog will be tickled to see that the fictional American Geophysical Union of the novel has a library in Raqmu, where geoscientists from across human history meet in the year 94 CE to compare notes on their edits in upstream and downstream in the timeline. (Take that, Fall Meeting!) As various characters go to various times and spawn new and divergent timelines, it gets dizzying to try and keep track of it all. Ultimately though, the good gals win, and manifest a future where collective action results in women having control over their own bodies. A warning: there are some scenes of real nasty violence and one of sexual abuse. The novel is by turns inspirational, fantastically creative, righteous, and extremely unsettling. I’ve never read anything quite like it.

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28 February 2020

Friday fold: sandbox

The Friday fold is a lovely little sandbox analogue model by Prof. Marco Martins-Ferreira, who posted it on Twitter this week:

As deformation proceeds, you can see the layers develop folds that then morph into faults, shoving deeper layers atop more shallow strata. As a bonus, you can hear Marco’s baby cooing in the background!

Here’s a stabilized, sped-up version, courtesy of Anna Williams:

Happy Friday, all!

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17 February 2020

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

This is the second novel in Chambers’ Wayfarers science fiction series, but it’s very different in plot structure from the first, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which I reviewed a couple weeks back. In this sequel, two of the characters from the first book, one minor and one major (but with her memory wiped clean), settle into a comfortable galactic backwater. As the novel unfolds, the backstory of the minor character is built up, revealing her traumatic past and plucky resolve. Meanwhile, the other character, an artificial intelligence, reckons with her existence, and how she wants to exist in a society that doesn’t see her as a person. They are joined by two other (new) principal characters: a stuttering human artist, and an alien tattoo parlor proprietor. Though ultimately the two story lines converge with a common conclusion, the beauty of the novel is Chambers’ exploration of the characters’ humanity, and in “humanity” I include both the aliens and the AI, too. I found myself missing the characters I’d come to know from the first novel, but deeply appreciated the chance to explore more with these new folks, to feel their developmental journey and growth. Recommended.

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14 February 2020

Friday fold: Miocene slump in Anza-Borrego

Today’s Friday Fold comes from Edith Carolina Rojas, the dynamic geology professor at The College of The Desert in Palm Desert, California. She’s an awesome person, and also the sense of scale in this amazing image:

Edith shares that this gorgeous structure is an

anticline is located in Split Mountain Gorge in Fish Creek Canyon. It’s a gigantic gravity-slide fold due to soft sediment deformation in the Latrania Formation.

Wow – Great stuff. I’d love to see this site in person someday!

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12 February 2020

History of Science: Antiquity to 1700, by Lawrence Principe

My most recent commuting audio has been this course from The Great Courses: Johns Hopkins professor Lawrence Principe‘s History of Science: Antiquity to 1700. I checked it out from my local library: 36 lectures, each about 30 to 45 minutes long. I found it quite interesting, well-paced, and insightful. Principe is an organic chemist-turned-historian-of-science, and he recounts key developments in the way people thought about “natural philosophy” (it wasn’t dubbed “science” until centuries after people starting doing it). Alchemy, astronomy, and physics are the key foci; biology gets a series of cameos but is really not a star. There’s pretty much no geology in it at all. Regardless of discipline, the key thing about this course is that Principe is very keen on trying to shuck modern scientific conventions in reviewing the thinking of historical practitioners. In other words, his goal is to anchor scientific advances and thinking of the past strictly in the context of the time: the religious, societal, technological, and political milieu that nurtured (or permitted, or resisted) new ideas. I appreciated Principe’s style as a lecturer, and was impressed with his mastery of such a wide span of practitioners, set in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East over the past several thousand years. Quite enjoyable; I look forward to listening to the sequel, about science since 1700.

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10 February 2020

The Pentagon’s Brain, by Annie Jacobsen

This book is a comprehensive account of everything unclassified that DARPA and its predecessor ARPA, has ever done. The subtitle is: “An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency.” It begins with testing nuclear bombs at Bikini Atoll in 1954, where theoretical calculations about the Castle Bravo bomb’s explosive yield get a sobering reality check: it was more than twice as powerful as had been anticipated! Oops. The narrative then moves on through time discussing how the U.S. War Department (later rebranded the Department of Defense) pushed research and innovation in military activities. Through the Cold War, groups of scientists and academics collaborate in their attempt to push American military superiority into the future. A significant portion of the book is spent on the Viet Nam War, as this appears to have been a ripe time for out-of-the-box thinking and experimentation with military strategy and technical innovation. Jacobsen also does a terrific job documenting the developments that led to the phenomenon by which I’m communicating this review to you: the Internet, which is a direct spinoff from a DARPA project. Her comprehensive history also devotes substantial attention to the first and second iterations of the Bushes’ Iraq War, with case studies of decisive battles won with the advent of effective night vision capacity, or precisely-guided smartbombs. Biotech also gets substantial attention, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. A fascinating section on Russian efforts to weaponize some of humanity’s worse plagues makes for chilling reading. The history concludes with a discussion of the modern day, as DARPA explores drones, autonomous robots, cyborgs, and (a perennial topic of fascination for me) artificial intelligence.

Jacobsen’s book is a thorough account of the U.S. interest in science and war. It is very long, which lowers its readability, but increases its scholarly value. The tone is apolitical, but Jacobsen doesn’t shy away from pointing out the unmatched power of these killer innovations. It ends on a foreboding note about the imminent deployment of hunter-killer robots. Will a few top-clearance military scientists underestimate their power in the same way the ferocity of the Castle Bravo nuclear test caught their predecessors by surprise a half century ago?

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