06 November 2020

A Long and Happy Marriage


            In 1995, I crossed the dangerous Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia for a third time. On this expedition Gene Shoemaker, the father of astrogeology and only human buried on the Moon*, joined the Third Zahid Expedition (https://www.empty-quarter.com). Together we spent five days and six nights at the Wabar meteorite impact site, mapping it geologically and magnetically. We even collected thermoluminescence samples to definitively age-date the impact. We published several scientific papers (including the November 1998 issue of Scientific American) showing that a 3,500-ton iron-nickel asteroid hit the sand at 7 to 10 kilometers per second. In milliseconds it delivered a kinetic energy blast equivalent to a Hiroshima atom bomb.


            So… What does this have to do with marriage?


            On the way back, both of us exhausted from the 17-hour drive and the high temperatures, Gene and I were standing beside our Hummer vehicle in the late afternoon sun while the engineers refilled the tanks for the final run back into Riyadh. We had talked hypervelocity impact physics and geology for days – what really happens when a 3,500-ton iron body detonates on impact? After six days, however, we had run out of technical things to talk about. While staring into the eastern desert Gene parenthetically mentioned that he and his wife Carolyn had been married for 46 years – and that they were both surprised that “it just keeps getting better and better – we are just happier and happier together than ever before in our marriage.”

            This struck me for several reasons. For one, Louise and I had been married 27 years by that point, and we had gone through some very hard times. Huh, I thought: there’s hope for us yet. Another thing I had noticed by then – and Gene confirmed it for me from his experience – was that couples who had been married many decades all seemed to be happy. As a general rule, when one died, the other was not long in following. Could these two things be related? Could this all be part of a Larger Plan?

            When I was first married, I slowly began to notice an interesting thing about Louise. Without ever saying anything about it, she was always doing something small and thoughtful for me. The better portion of food. Making the bed. Insisting I had the better pillow. Doing the dishes if I didn’t get to it quick enough. There were so many small things that I began to notice. After about a year (I’m slow in a number of ways) I mentioned this to her. She seemed surprised and had to think for a bit before she responded. “I love you,” she said.

            A lot of the problems we had in the later, middle part of our marriage could be attributed to a relatively simple thing. I had decided, after we had nearly run out of cash several times, and once were afraid to even take a very sick baby to a doctor, that my primary responsibility was to provide. I was the husband – I needed to make sure I earned enough to support my growing little family. I developed a habit of working routine 55-hour weeks. I travelled extensively for field work – weeks at a time. I had become wedded to something else – my work. My duty.

            I said I am slow at some things. It took me years to come to a very simple decision: Louise came first. My work, my personal and professional goals, even the kids were secondary to anything that I might do that would make Louise happy. It became the core of my existence.

            This morning I waited in the van to drive her to an appointment. She got in, and as we started driving, she said “You are always so kind to me.” Huh? “What did I do?” I asked. “You opened the door for me so with all these things in my hands it was easier for me to get in. And now you’re driving me to an appointment.”

            Well, duhh.

            It’s become so ingrained for each of us, that neither of us takes any thought other than to do kind and considerate things – small acts – whenever the opportunity presents itself.

            And Gene was right: we are so much happier, after 52 years together now, than we were even when first married. We worry about our kids and grandkids together. We share interesting news stories. We prefer to walk together, even though we have different paces. We ask the other first if it’s OK to spend money on something. It doesn’t matter if the other says “Of course – you don’t have to ask!” Kindness and thoughtfulness for the other always comes first.

            It is my prayer – my expectation in fact – that when one of us passes to the Other Side, the other won’t have to wait around, lonely, for very long.  




* January 6, 1998, NASA release: Lunar spacecraft carries ashes, special tribute to Shoemaker

There could be no finer tribute to the legendary planetary geologist who said his greatest unfulfilled dream was to go to the moon.

Tonight, the ashes of Eugene M. Shoemaker are to be launched in a memorial capsule aboard Lunar Prospector to the moon. The polycarbonate capsule, one-and-three-quarters inches long and seventh-tenths inch in diameter, is carried in a vacuum-sealed, flight-tested aluminum sleeve mounted deep inside the spacecraft.

Around the capsule is wrapped a piece of brass foil inscribed with an image of a Comet Hale-Bopp, an image of Meteor Crater in northern Arizona, and a passage from William Shakespeare's enduring love story, "Romeo and Juliet":


            And, when he shall die,

            Take him and cut him out in little stars,

            And he will make the face of heaven so fine

            That all the world will be in love with night,

            And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Shoemaker was best known for his work on extraterrestrial impacts and for his later collaboration with his wife, Carolyn, in the study and discovery of comets. He was long a distinguished scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Flagstaff, Ariz., where he established the agency's astrogeology branch. He was killed July 18, 1997, in a car accident in Alice Springs, Australia, during field research on impact crater geology. Carolyn Shoemaker was injured in the accident.

"I don't think Gene ever dreamed his ashes would go to the moon," Carolyn Shoemaker said shortly before leaving to witness the Lunar Prospector launch. "He would be thrilled."

The Shoemakers' children and their spouses, as well as a sister and brother-in-law, are also at Cape Canaveral for the event.

"This is so important to us," Carolyn Shoemaker said. "It brings a little closure, in a way, to our feelings. We will always know when we look at the moon, that Gene is there."

19 September 2020


Age and Respect

When I was in my early 30's, my hair rather abruptly turned gray (from dark curly brown to mostly straight white, with occasional strands of dark brown in it). I inherited this from my mother, who was bothered that her hair turned white in the front during her 30's. I thought it was sort of cool-looking, however: her hair when I was a kid, and my hair when I was barely no longer a kid.

In my late 30's I was invited to teach classes in applied geophysics to upper-division and grad students at the University of Maryland and The George Washington University. After meeting with the Department Chairs, in both cases I was designated a full professor at both universities. In part this was because I already had a long science bibliography from my work with the US Geological Survey by that time, but I suspect that it also had to do with my hair color. Respect!

When I turned 40, I was called to serve as a counselor to the CJCLDS Dulles Branch President; this Branch was formed to help a large number of southeast Asian refugees who had arrived in Northern Virginia following the end of the Vietnam War. Right away I noticed that I was treated very reverently by our mainly Laotian brothers and sisters - they would bow deeply while making the 'wai', the hands-together formal bow of greeting. The deeper the bow, the greater the respect. I came to realize that their culture afforded great respect to older people - this was deeply ingrained from childhood. I remember feeling a bit awkward at being treated with a respect that I felt I had not earned. I still thought of myself as nearly a kid.

At one point, we put on a Road Show with our Dulles youth. They were short of non-musician guys in the main part of the play, so Jared and I died our hair (my white hair, his golden hair) a deep black, in order to fit in. The box of hair-color said it would wash out with the next shower... but it didn't. For many weeks afterwards, people would pass me in the hallways in the immense US Geological Survey National Center, stop, turn around, and say "Jeff? Is that you?" Just changing the color of your hair can disorient people around you.

In 2000, I was the General Chair of the Symposium for the Application of Geophysics to Environmental & Engineering Problems. This was the annual international meeting of the Environmental & Engineering Geophysical Society (full disclosure: I was president of this society in 2002-2003), and is called "SAGEEP" - because some international visitors can get authorization to travel to a "symposium", but not to a "meeting." Go figure.

As General Chair, I organized this complex nightmare: we took over the Hyatt Arlington hotel for a week, I arranged for Dan Goldin, the NASA Administrator to be our keynote speaker, and we had over 300 international participants - who all seemed to need a letter to justify getting an American visa. I noticed that a number of people who I had called in to help me from among the DC Metro geophysical community would sometimes stare at me. One day, while driving one of them back to his office in downtown Washington, DC, the guy abruptly asked me how old I was?  I was 53 at the time. "Wow," he said, "You look like you are older than that, and you look like you are younger than that. You have the energy of a 20-yr-old, but you had the guts to called Dan Goldin!"

The hair again. That, and probably my sugar addiction.

Now, in the United States we have a culture that fairly worships youth - and it was very disorienting to our younger Dulles Branch Laotian-Vietnamese-Kampuchean teenagers, recently transplanted from rural Southeast Asia. This youth-worshiping cultural emphasis can be felt just about anywhere in this country, but it is strongest in New York City and Los Angeles, at least in my observation. The desperate effort to look youthful in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood can sometimes lead to bizarre creatures that could only be described as moms trying to out-dress each other in their teenage daughters' clothes. Madonna recently complained bitterly that her hands looked OLD, and there was nothing she could do about them. With few exceptions (Helen Mirren and Judy Dench come to mind) his adulation clearly affects your ability to market yourself as an actor or an actress. Steven Spielberg once had to quell rumors that Harrison Ford was going to be digitally "younged" in an Indiana Jones film.

At one point not long ago I looked at a passport photo, and compared it to a passport photo taken when I was 40. Hooo... when did THAT happen?!?? Around this same time I saw a TV special of before-and-after examples of several individuals getting a face-lift. The surgery was filmed, and it frankly stunned me. Don't get me wrong, I have done minor "auto-surgery" on myself a number of times. An infected ingrown toenail, acne cysts, and larvae multiplying in my feet in the jungle are strong motivations to pick up a scalpel.

I was shocked at two things: the crude, intrusive nature of a face-lift surgical procedure (the anesthetized patient was treated like a slab of beef), and the... wrong-ness of the face afterwards. It's basically the "uncanny valley" of a robot not quite looking like a human. You see, as we age, a lot more changes than just the tension of our facial skin. The juxtaposition of young and old in the same individual is strikingly artificial, and it doesn't take a Michael Jackson to convince most people that they shouldn't mess with the natural progression of things. The human eye is finely-attuned to the most subtle changes in a human face - that's why working with a corpse (when I took the Advanced Trauma Life Support class at the University of Maryland Medical School) was so shocking. Visually you get mixed signals... all wrong.

I rather enjoy being a grandpa, or as my father-in-law put it as he held our first daughter, "I'm the father of several aunts and an uncle." I enjoy having clear, corrected vision after replacing my cataracts.

The take-away here is that we will age, it's NOT bad, and moreover there is nothing we can do about it that won't look at least a bit bizarre (it's easy to identify the Hollywood types who have tried plastic surgery). If we didn't age, we wouldn't want to leave this planet. We would fear the Colored Door to the next level, and might choose to be stuck here permanently in a do-loop. If you think you want to live forever, consider the last time you were stuck at home on a rainy Sunday. Instead, I think it's great to enjoy each season of our lives and accept the admiration and respect that our changing faces and hair mean we've earned. The fact that I get to play with my grandkids and I don't have to change diapers anymore is sort of like 'having your cake and eating it too'.

Life is good. There is a progressive order to it. There is a reason for that order. 

05 May 2020

The First Vision - More significant than you might think.

             I saw a pillar of light, exactly over my head, above the brightness of the Sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. When the light rested upon me, I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. The first spoke to me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him.”
--Joseph Smith

There are some interesting physical phenomena involved here: Gravity is apparently constrained, and there is a “Beyond-a-19th-Century-technology-light-show,” among other things. These unusual features were also apparent in the three visits by Moroni to Joseph in 1823. Physicists have learned a lot in the past century, but mostly we’ve learned how much we don’t know. Some possibilities (among the known unknowns) are Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Quantum Entanglement – any of which may be involved. This is another reason for physicists to look forward to crossing over to the Other Side: we’ll learn what they are, and what else is involved!

TWO Brief Asides Here:
   a. This wasn’t the only time something like this happened. As noted, three years later in 1823 Moroni appeared the same way. These weren’t dreams either, but physical visits. Moroni physically carried away the plates after the translation was completed. Also, Joseph was not the only witness to this kind of visit; the Three Witnesses, the Eight Witnesses (who handled physical plates), and others (e.g., several in the Kirtland Temple) also witnessed similar visits.

   b. Why did God the Eternal Father visit a humble, half-grown, poorly-educated kid in the boonies of western New York – the wild west of the US at the time? Why not visit the Pope Pius VII in Rome? The chief Imam in Makkah? President James Monroe? There is an important pattern here: Christ himself was born in the most humble of circumstances. He died in the most humbling and degrading way the Romans could engineer. Humility is important – the Savior makes this clear time and time again throughout the scriptures. By example.

Remarkable Consequences followed from this visit: The First Vision restored to us the only Pre-Nicaean “Primitive Christianity” Church on Earth; One not “…made of The Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Scripture,” but instead fully consistent with what Jesus taught:
·       This is the only Church that preaches all the Bible, including the principle of a Separate Godhead (Matthew 3:16-17 “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” and Matthew 17:5 “While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.”), Baptism for the Dead (see 1 Corinthians 15:29 “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”), and a Pre-Existence (Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” and Ecclesiastes 12:7 “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”), among other doctrines unique to this Church – a Church that the Savior countenances.
·       This is the only Church that has planned and operates 168 Temples, with 49 more planned or under construction, all over the Earth.
·       This is the only Church, as far as I know, that is also preached in all the World – even in China, even in Saudi Arabia (where my family were personal witnesses), even in Israel (despite severe restrictions).  It is likely even practiced in North Korea (though sub-rosa among diplomats, inferred from our experience as such in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia).

This represents only the 6th time (according to my count) that God the Eternal Father has physically visited the Earth. Most other interactions with prophets (Abraham, Moses, Paul, the Brother of Jared, Nephi, etc.) were with Jehovah.

            1. Organizing Adam and Eve (Genesis, Temple)
            2. Casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden (Genesis, Temple)
            3. Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:16–17)
            4. Transfiguration on the Mount (Matthew 17:5)
            5. To the Nephites (3 Nephi 11:7)
            6. The Sacred Grove (JS—History 1:11–20)

            Let’s now put this into larger perspective (warning – we're entering the nerd zone here):

Specifically, let’s talk about Exoplanets: In the 1830’s we learned from multiple revelations that there were “other worlds” in addition to ours. This was far beyond the science of the time. Astronomers were only just discovering what existed in the Solar System – Neptune had not yet been discovered. In fact, there is very explicit information about other worlds in the Temple Endowment ceremony.  To give a sense of how ahead-of-its-time this other worlds concept was, bear in mind that it was only in 1933 that Edwin Hubble finally proved through variable stars in a photographic plate that some blurry things seen in telescopes were other galaxies!
In the past 30 years astronomers actually began discovering “exo-planets.”
·       As of January 2020: 4,108 exoplanets are “firmly” verified. 18 can support liquid water.        (About 1,000 of these exoplanets have been found by the Kepler satellite.)
·       Kepler-452b (1,402 LY) and Kepler-1638b (2,492 LY) are Earth-sized and orbit G-type stars like ours, found at 0.75 – 1.5 Earth-orbit radii from their star. They lie in the “Goldilocks Zone” – Not too hot/too cold.
·       Note that the Milky Way galaxy hosts 100 billion stars… maybe twice that. It’s kind of hard to count.
·       We have enough information from the local galactic vicinity now to suggest that 10% - 26% of stars can host an Earth-sized planet.
·       That means there could be 5 billion Earth-sized “worlds” in our galaxy alone.
·       In 1995 the Hubble telescope was turned to a dark, star-free part of the northern hemisphere sky to gather a “Deep Field” image. This effort took 10 days to gather enough photons to see anything in that apparently empty patch – a tiny patch of sky the size of a tennis ball at a distance of a football field. Another Deep Field image was acquired in the southern hemisphere the following year, and both images were full of far-distant galaxies. These have been extrapolated by cosmologists to suggest there are as many as 2 trillion galaxies in the universe.

Some simple multiplication gives 2 x 10+12 * 5 x 10+9 ≈ 10+22 worlds out there. That’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (in other words, ten sextillion) Earth-sized worlds.

Of course, there are caveats upon caveats with this number. For one thing, the early universe did not have enough heavy elements for any Earth-like worlds until sufficient stars had formed, grown old, and gone nova/supernova to provide the life-critical heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, silica, and iron, etc. How many of these worlds orbit in a “Goldilocks Zone”? How many orbit single stars instead of complex binary stars? How many have "correct" ratios of light isotopes (C, O, N, P, Si, etc.) to heavy isotopes (Fe, Cr, Mn, etc.)

From latter-day revelation we know that the Father and the Son have tangible bodies of flesh and bone (D&C 130:22–23 / Articles of Faith 1). They look like us (or more correctly, we are organized in their image). This implies that Father in Heaven can be in only one place at a time.

I want to qualify this “implies” word carefully, because the history of humankind is full of men who try to put human limits on a Creator who is far beyond what they can possibly comprehend.

But if so, then the significance of Father In Heaven visiting our world even once is hugeMuch less six times.

Why Now? I put together a chart of the (growing) Signs of the Times. I found seventeen separate prophesies about these Signs in scripture – and more than half of the seventeen – nine – have been fulfilled only since 1820! There are just five more to go, and two are pretty terrifying:

Clearly the Signs are accelerating. Gathering Steam.

In “Nerdlish” the curve is non-linear; the 2nd Derivative is strongly positive.

Pres. Nelson reinforced this observation in the October 2018 General Conference:

“If you think the church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning… There is much more to come.… Wait till next year. And then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”
We are celebrating the 200th anniversary of one of just six Cusp Events in all of human history.

I am so grateful that my Father in Heaven chose to come here personally – first to bring about, and now to accelerate our salvation.

==Jeff Wynn, 8Mar2020, the last talk given in the Grass Valley Ward.

15 January 2019

Climate Change - Is IT REAL?

        Yep, Nelly, that cow’s left the barn.

You can choose not to believe in climate change, but it's pretty much a done deal. A landmark peer-reviewed study (Cook, et al., 2013) evaluated 10,306 scientists, and concluded that over 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and largely caused by humans. These are the guys actually gathering the data and doing the scientific analyses – not politicians. No “belief” is really necessary anymore, because evidence such as spiking carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, sea-level rise, the disappearance of arctic sea-ice, northward migrations of pests, and decimations of formerly healthy species are all around us.

        In fact, climate change has been going on since the beginning of time, and there is a huge trove of geologic evidence supporting the fact that our world is always changing. This evidence comes from stable isotopes in lake sediments. It also comes from fossil evidence such as cold-blooded fresh water animals whose remains have been found in Antarctica. It comes from packrat middens (ancient packrat nests that can be dated using Carbon-14) and tree-rings (Thompson, 1990).  One of us has visited Anasazi building sites in the southwestern United States, and the density of these structures in now-waterless lands prove that a large number of people lived in a region that today could no longer support even a fraction of that evident population. We could fill our house with all the documentary evidence that has been accumulating that shows our climate has changed and is changing.

What climate-change deniers are fighting about most about these days is a slightly more specific question: how much of the recent climate change is Anthropogenic – that is, caused by humans? It's no surprise to anyone that we are using more fossil fuels today than are being replenished, by many orders of magnitude. Records kept since the 1950's at an atmospheric observatory on Mauna Loa volcano's north flank in Hawai'i show a steady rise in CO2 in our atmosphere. It has gone from 312 parts per million in 1955 to over 400 ppm today. (See for instance http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/ ).

        That’s a 25 percent increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in less than our lifetime!

        Recently, scientists have made enough measurements to quantify what is contributing to this CO2 increase in our atmosphere. It’s not volcanic eruptions. A USGS scientist named Terry Gerlach (Gerlach, 2011) showed that volcanoes do not contribute most of the CO2 to our atmosphere. In fact, they contribute a minuscule amount, two orders of magnitude less than the contributions to atmospheric CO2 from humans. Here are the final measured numbers:
Volcanoes:       0.26 Gigatons of CO2 per year     
  Humans:        35.00 Gigatons of CO2 per year

And it's accelerating: there has been a 550 percent increase in the rate of atmospheric CO2 emissions just since 1950. CO2 is a known greenhouse gas, as high-school kids sometimes prove in physics classes. A greenhouse gas is a gas that causes heat to be retained by our atmosphere. Methane is an even more effective heat-retaining greenhouse gas than CO2 – and the dramatic increase in population in the past century of people who want to eat beef has dramatically raised the methane naturally released by herbivores in their fermentation-digestion process.

How could the CO2 emission rate ramp up so strongly? Well, for starts, China is bringing one new coal-fired power plant online nearly every week. There are commonly dense-smog days that are declared health hazards by the American embassy, because the Chinese government has blocked publication of the air-quality numbers. India is fast converting itself from a rural agrarian society to a society of middle-class people who ALL want their own car. While some American states and European countries are making small steps, they are nowhere near enough to offset the huge carbon and particulate emissions from just these two countries alone.

There is now even a new name for this era we live in: the Anthropocene. Until recently, geologists broke up prehistory into several categories:
The Precambrian Era ended about 542 million years ago (we start seeing fossils).
The Paleozoic Era ended about 250 million years ago – when 95 percent of all living things died during what is called the Permian Extinction.
The Mesozoic Era (the age of Dinosaurs), which ended about 65 million years ago when a 10-km/6-mile diameter asteroid crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula.
We are now in the Cenozoic Era, which has several sub-sets:
  - The Paleocene lasted until 56 million years ago
  - The Eocene (when horse ancestors first appeared) lasted until 34 million years ago
  - The Oligocene lasted until 23 million years ago
  - The Miocene lasted until about 5 million years ago
  - The Pliocene lasted until about 1.8 million years ago
  - The Pleistocene (Saber-Tooth Cats, Mastodons, etc.) lasted until about 11,000 years ago.
        - The Anthropocene (the Epoch when Man changed EVERYTHING).

Until recently, the last ~11,000 years have been just called the Holocene. Now the Holocene has been divided up to add a more recent epoch: the Anthropocene: The Time When Man Started Changing Things.  A singular characteristic: in the last century, mass-extinctions have accelerated so fast (Kolbert, 2014) that it's comparable to the extinction event that ended the age of dinosaurs. Instead of a killer asteroid this time, it’s… humankind.

        There are a number of other Signs of the Times, but this may be the most seriously under-estimated one.

26 April 2018

Subduction Events, Related Volcanoes – and Nephi’s Smoking Gun

In 1973 Hugh Nibley gave a lecture at the University of Arizona. We tried to get him to autograph our copy of his book, “Since Cumorah,” (Nibley, 1967), but he initially refused. “There are so many better examples now available, some discovered even as this book was being printed, that I’m embarrassed to sign this poor thing.” Eventually he signed it, however, and the book is still treasured by our family.
            In fact, while “Since Cumorah” was going through the publishing process and for years afterward, hundreds of new geographic and scientific discoveries have been made (and are still being made) supporting the veracity of historical and geographical details in the Book of Mormon. All of these appeared more than a century after the Book of Mormon was first released and were, of course, unknown to anyone in Joseph Smith’s time, let alone a poorly-educated young man living on the edge of a rough frontier.
            For example, one item that did not make it into “Since Cumorah” was the surprising similarity of details in 3 Nephi 8 to the events surrounding the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, which took place 13 years after “Since Cumorah” was first published. To a professional volcanologist, this chapter accurately describes a cataclysmic volcano-tectonic event on a major subduction zone. Yet volcanoes, earthquakes, subsidence, and allocthons are geological phenomena that don’t exist within 3,000 kilometers of western New York State, nor were they known to any Americans in 1828.
Joseph Smith grew up in Vermont and New York State. He received only three years of formal education in his entire lifetime. Western New York is covered with glacial moraines – huge gravel and boulder piles shoved down from their origins in Canada by the glaciers that retreated with the Younger Dryas epoch about 11,700 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Cumorah, the hill where Joseph found the golden plates that he translated as the Book of Mormon, is one of these glacial moraines. Joseph Smith had never seen a volcano nor felt an earthquake in his short life. A primitive form of the field of volcanology existed at the time, mainly in Italy around Vesuvius, Etna, and Stromboli volcanoes, but Pompeii and Herculaneum had not yet been seriously excavated. Tectonics as a scientific field would not develop until more than a century later.
            Back to Mount St. Helens: Its 1980 eruption was classified as a VEI 5 event – that stands for “Volcano Explosivity Index Level 5.” This VEI scale (Newhall and Self, 1982) is approximately logarithmic: a VEI 4 is about 10 times smaller than a VEI 5 event, and a VEI 6 is about 10 times greater than MSH 1980. Third Nephi, chapter 8, describes a geological event that would rank somewhere between a VEI 6 and a VEI 7. In 3 Nephi 8 we encounter expressions such as "...there were exceedingly sharp lightnings...", "...the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea...", "...the whole face of the land was changed...", "...there was darkness upon the face of the land...", and "...the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness..." describing the disaster that engulfed the Nephites nearly 2,000 years ago.       
Huge, hot pyroclastic density currents and tephra typically burn and bury all living things within their reach during these events, and completely reshape the face of the land. Magnitude 8+ earthquakes sink cities and everything else – there is a drowned forest in Puget Sound that was sunk by the January 1700 AD subduction megathrust earthquake (Atwater and others, 2005; 2015). Earthquakes this violent commonly redistribute whole sections of mountains to cover and fill valleys, sometimes even causing flanks of mountains to slide so fast that they fly through the air before they hit; these are called allocthons by geologists; and these monster events make smooth places very, very rough.
For “vapor of darkness” substitute “volcanic ash” and everything falls precisely into place. This kind of ash suffocated many of the people who died during the eruption of Mount St Helens on May 18, 1980; and the city of Yakima, Washington, was essentially shut down hours later as a meter-thick blanket of ash fell on the town. Contemporary descriptions tell us that day turned to night and the street lights came on around noon (Waitt, 2015). Please keep in mind that the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens was relatively small when compared to ash and tephra falls now well documented in Central America.
Central America, of course, is an integral part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, so called because of the string of volcanoes that all lie just inland from the Pacific Ocean margins. The Ring of Fire includes hundreds of volcanoes, some of them HUGE, including supervolcanoes like Cerro Hudson in southern Chile, Masaya in Nicaragua, Katmai and Veniaminof, in the Aleutians, Sheveluch and the Mutnovski-Gorely complex in Kamchatka, Aira in Japan, and Taupo in New Zealand. We can't leave out Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, whose 1992 eruption lowered the worldwide temperature by two degrees Celsius, and we must include the long arc of volcanoes in Indonesia fronting the Indian Oceanic plate, including the monster Toba. The phenomenal eruption of the Toba supervolcano around 72,000 years ago may have reduced the proto-human population on Earth to less than 10,000 individuals, according to genetic studies (Gibbons, 1993; Ambrose, 1998).
            All these volcanoes (except the Indonesian archipelago volcanoes like Toba) lie just inland of the Pacific Ocean margins because they lie just above their sources: the down-going Pacific Ocean seafloor that is being over-ridden by continental margins all around it. Linking each over-riding continental plate with its subducting oceanic plate are huge subduction faults. These are the sources of the largest earthquakes in Earth's recorded history, including the magnitude 9.5 Valdivia earthquake of 1960 in Chile (which caused a tsunami that destroyed downtown Hilo, Hawai'i, about 8 hours later). Other subduction earthquakes include the magnitude 8.7 to 9.2 Cascadia event of 1700, which sank an entire forest in Puget Sound, and then created the "Orphan Tsunami" that destroyed villages on the Japanese east coast (Atwater and others, 2015). The magnitude 8.6 Aceh subduction earthquake of 2004 triggered a tsunami that killed at least 250,000 people along the Indian Ocean margins. The magnitude 9.0 Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 triggered the meltdown of the Fukushima-Di-Ichi nuclear plant and devastated the northeastern Japanese coast yet again.          
            During the colonization of Central and South America by Spain, a number of regional Central American capitals (including Santiago de Guatemala, and Managua, Nicaragua) were repeatedly buried and/or pulverized. In each case, the city had to be entirely rebuilt, often in a different location.  To say that earthquakes and related volcanic tephra-falls have changed the face of the land in Central America would be an understatement.
            Since the 1963 eruption that created the island of Surtsey, Iceland, and especially since the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, volcanologists have known that lightning storms are closely associated with Plinian eruptions (named for Pliny the Elder, killed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD). This is because of the prodigious electric charge dragged aloft along with the vast amounts of volcanic ash that are blasted up to the stratosphere. Those electric charges accumulate until voltage differences are so great that they must discharge back to the earth via lightning.
            But what caused the "vapor of darkness" described in 3 Nephi 19 and 20? This was almost certainly a smothering blanket of volcanic ash. As attention-garnering as it was, Mount St. Helens 1980 was a relatively small eruption (VEI level 5). Yet this event still lofted about 3 cubic kilometers of material and left nearly a meter-thick blanket of ash on Yakima, Washington, 240 kilometers to the east, within a few hours of its eruption (Waitt, 2015). Can ash put out fires? Yes – ask any forest fire fighter (one of us worked his way through college fighting forest fires each summer) or ask anyone who learned how to shovel dirt and ashes onto a campfire to smother it.
            So, what caused all this destruction? To get a handle on a “smoking gun” responsible for 3 Nephi 8, we must examine the largest volcanic eruptions in Central America (Sigurdsson et al., 2000; Jordan, 2003; Kutterolf, et al. 2008; Grover, 2014). One sneaky but efficient way to do this is to accumulate information on tephra, the fragmental (pea-to-cantaloupe-size) material blown out by a volcanic eruption. More to the point, we want to know how far the tephra reached (we are not really interested in ash here, because ash can travel all around the earth). The greater the distance that the tephra falls reached, the larger was the eruption. Two events stand out:
  • Masaya volcano, Nicaragua, about 2,100 +/- 100 years ago. It deposited tephra as far as 170 km distant.
  • Chiletepe volcano, Nicaragua, erupted about 1,900 +/- 100 years ago and dropped tephra as far as 570 km distant.
            Note that these dates are very approximate (see Kutterolf, et al., 2008). 
            The Masaya eruption lofted approximately 8 cubic kilometers of ash and tephra, nearly three times more than Mount St Helens in 1980. Both Chiletepe and Masaya lie east of the subduction zone where the Cocos Plate is being over-ridden by the Caribbean Plate at a rate of nearly 7 cm/year.
            This rate of crustal movement is important, because it is nearly three times faster than the Cascadia subduction rate in the Pacific Northwest of the US. This faster subduction rate means that there are proportionally larger and more frequent volcanic eruptions in Nicaragua than in the Washington and Oregon Cascades. Central America is basically a gargantuan pile of volcanic lava, tephra, and ash covered with recent soils and vegetation. In that sense, 3 Nephi 8 doesn’t record such a remarkable event, at least not by local standards – except for the timing of it.
            In other words, the Book of Mormon is fully conformable with the geologic record of Central America.
            This subduction-earthquake-volcano cataclysm is just one example among many where modern science seems to be converging with events and geographical details recounted in the Book of Mormon.  Other examples include linguistics (for instance chiasmus, Egyptian names, and other Semitic cognates seen in the Bible (see Welsh, 1969; 1981), and the remarkable correlations of the first 17 chapters of the Book of Mormon with the still-accumulating details of the Frankincense Trail (see Hilton and Hilton, 1976; Givens, 2002). The stories recorded in the Book of Mormon by prophets over the 1,021 years of its internal history are remarkably consistent with geologic, geographical, and historical evidence now known.  The Uto-Aztecan language group in the Western Hemisphere is loaded with both cognates and fossil linguistic structures only found in Semitic languages of the Arabian Peninsula (Stubbs, 2016). 
          None of this information, however, was available in Joseph Smith’s lifetime. None of it "proves” the veracity of the Book of Mormon – but it sure hints at that direction pretty strongly.  

           That name Masaya is a coincidence, but it still took my breath away.