30 December 2011

Hydrocarbons and Our Future

When the Deepwater Horizon platform blew up in April, 2010, it released approximately 4,900,000 barrels (780,000 cubic meters) of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.  Some of that raw crude floated to the surface and was skimmed or burned - or ruined wetlands that protect the fragile Gulf coast from hurricane storm-surges. Some of the hydrocarbons drifted off into the Loop Current, and what was not metabolized by bacteria probably drifted out into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream. But the low-gravity components simply blanketed vast stretches of the floor of the Gulf, suffocating all life forms beneath it. Because the temperatures are quite cold in the abyssal sea depths, bacteria will work on this stuff only very slowly - if at all.

While the flow was on-going from the Macondo Well 3,000 meters below the sea surface, I thought about this problem. It's incredibly expensive to even drop a string of sampling bottles over the side to these depths. I developed an electrical geophysical method to map, track, and characterize this dangerous stuff - whose impact on the Gulf ecosystem is still not clearly understood.

Hydrocarbons have figured in my life off and on for a long time. After birth, my father and mother drove me home from the hospital in an American-made car fueled by gasoline extracted and refined in California. When my youngest grandson was driven home from the hospital where he was born, the car was built in Korea and the gasoline came from Venezuelan oil, refined in Texas. I worked my way through undergraduate school by washing dishes during the winters, and by fighting forest fires during the summers. Fire-fighting is hard, dirty, and dangerous work, so after my Junior year at Berkeley I started working for an oil company near my home, where I could use my brain and education more. I initially worked in the southern San Joaquin Valley of California for Getty Oil company.

Oil had been discovered just north of Bakersfield early in the 20th Century, and the initial “gushers” were just that: when the drill-hole penetrated into a rock unit with sufficient porosity to host oil, the overlying rock pressure forced the stuff out in a violent fashion. It quite literally rained oil, and the land was permanently damaged and remains largely free of vegetation. The ground throughout most of Oildale, California, is now an ugly and relatively uniform reddish-brown from the gushers that blew out during the early history of the field. After the gushers stopped, pumping began.

After pumping oil from the Kern Field for half a century, drill-cores showed that only about 15% of the oil had actually been extracted – the low-viscosity, easily-flowing stuff. The rest was what we call "tar-sands" or "heavy crude" - even longer-chained carbon molecules that entangle with each other to make a much higher viscosity hydrocarbon than the "light crude." Viscosity is just a measure of the "sludginess" of a semi-solid material. Maple syrup has a higher viscosity than water, so it pours slower.

Solid rock salt even has a significant viscosity - especially under pressure from overlying rock. This is why layers of salt in the deep sediments of the Gulf of Mexico tend to ooze up into diapirs or "salt domes". Oil geologists learned early on that salt stopped oil from migrating. It also folded and lifted up sediments above it to create "traps" where oil and gas could migrate upwards through porous sedimentary rocks until they were blocked by the salt (it's more complicated than that, of course). However, if you can find the salt domes with gravity or seismic geophysical surveys - salt domes are less dense than surrounding rock and thus a gravity survey above one will give a lower-gravity "bulls-eye" - then you only have to drill around the edges to get at the traps.

You can increase viscosity in a petroleum-based product by heating it - my grandma would use heat to liquefy wax, or to get molasses to flow out of a jar faster.

The Getty engineers thought long and hard about abandoning the old Kern Field - if 85% of the oil was still in it, this seemed like an incredible waste. It was hardly economic anymore to operate a pump for a day to get just a few barrels of oil out.  They finally developed huge steam-injection generators and conducted an interesting experiment. They used the remaining light crude from the Kern Field to heat water to 500 degrees C. The super-heated water was then injected into the old drill-pipe at ~500 psi (about 30 times normal atmospheric pressure, or about 3.4 mega-pascals, the SI metric unit for pressure) for 5 days, then the well was capped and allowed to "stew" for two days. Finally the drill-pipe was uncapped and the steam was allowed to vent for 5 more days.

The the formerly nearly-solid oil literally poured itself out of the drill-pipe just from the pressure of the overlying rock. This was only a partial success story, however; the hot heavy crude could be poured into a bucket in liquid form; it was surprisingly light brown in color. After it cooled to room temperature, however, you could turn the bucket upside down and nothing would pour out - it had turned solid again.

You can imagine that dealing with this sort of heavy crude is more expensive, and you would be right. The oil from the Athabasca tar-sands in Canada requires a lot of effort and energy - mining expenses, local water, and heating - to extract it. The heavy crudes in Oildale, California, and in Venezuela can be extracted, but then must be mixed with light crude (in Venezuela this must be pumped down hundreds of kilometers from the Caribbean coast) into slurry that won't clog the return-pipe as it cools. heavy crudes must also be handled in a refinery in a far more complex manner.

I was a co-editor of a UNESCO book published years ago titled “The Future of Heavy Crudes and Tar-Sands.” We concluded that there was enough low-gravity hydrocarbons in Venezuela’s Llanos (plains) and Canada’s Athabasca tar-sands to power the industrial world for centuries at current rates of oil consumption – but only if the price of a barrel of oil was maintained high enough to pay for the extra costs of mining and lowering the viscosity so the oil could be refined into gasoline.

There are problems with exploiting the Athabascan tar-sands, however: there is an over-abundance of nickel and vanadium in the tar that can each be serious environmental pollutants. There is also the heavy need for local water to process the stuff - and this has seriously impacted local rivers in the area. Finally, extracting the oil is not done with drill-pipe, but by strip-mining the surface to access the tar-sands; this leaves huge scars on the arboreal landscape.

The engineering technology developed to exploit these tar-sands sounds like a great example of human ingenuity - and it is. But there is a down-side: if more and more hydrocarbons are consumed by a careless and ever-growing human population, the amount of CO2 and methane freed - powerful greenhouse gases - will drive our world's average temperatures ever high, ever faster.

Climate change has been going on for billions of years - see-sawing back and forth from a "snowball Earth" a billion years ago to a simmering Earth that several times saw forests in Antarctica. However, the anthropogenic (human-caused) contribution of burning hydrocarbons and destroying forests in the past two centuries has given the current climate a very, very sharp kick.

From the perspective of a scientist who loves his heated home and his Honda Accord, this causes me very mixed feelings. Glaciers are in retreat worldwide, and vast icebergs the size of some states are breaking free of Antarctica and melting. Island nations in the Pacific and Indian oceans are already starting to disappear - literally - as ocean levels rise. The list of consequences are as horrific as they are diverse, and our very human desire for a luxurious energy-powered life, fueled by more and more hydrocarbons, lies at the bottom of it all.

And the Lord said unto Enoch: look, and he looked and beheld the Son of Man lifted up on the bcross, after the manner of men; and he heard a loud voice; and the heavens were veiled; and all the creations of God mourned; and the earth groaned...

The Earth is where we live; if we treat our house carelessly, we will pay a very dear price.


24 December 2011

White: 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: 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 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 LDS 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 Viet Nam War. Right away I noticed that I was treated very reverently by our 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 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 non-USGS 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 - it was very disorienting to our younger Dulles Branch teenagers, recently transplanted from rural Laos. This cultural emphasis can be felt just about anywhere in the 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 comes to mind) his adulation clearly affects your ability to market yourself as an actor or an actress. Steven Spielberg recently had to quell rumors that Harrison Ford was going to be digitally "younged" in the next 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 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.

I was shocked at two things: the 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. 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 seeing a corpse is so shocking. It comes across as 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."

The take-away here is that we will age, and there is nothing we can do about it that won't look at least a bit bizarre. 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 permanently in a do-loop. 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 an order to it. There is a reason for that order. 

22 December 2011


There is a passing mention of lightning in Pliny's description of the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompey by Vesuvius's eruption in 79 AD, but no one made much of it at the time, nor for the two ensuing millennia. 

Then the eruption of Surtsey in 1979 (a basalt-andesite volcano forming a new island off the coast of Iceland) had people present with cameras - and the spectacular lightning associated with the eruption was actually recorded, and evaluated in subsequent scientific papers.

When Mount St Helens erupted in May, 1980, the pilot flying closest to the Plinian column reaching up to the Stratosphere commented repeatedly about lightning bolts coming from the top of the eruption column and flashing down into the caldera. (Yes, that name came from Pliny the Younger's description of the demise of his father, Pliny the Elder, in the Mediterranean Sea off Herculaneum. These eruptions also entrain the surrounding air, which drew Pliny's ship into the coast; there are reports of 100 kph winds roaring towards MSH on May 18, 1980). 

Current models have suggested that the rapid rise of silica-loaded particles in effect drew (or separated, depending on your point of view) a net unbalanced charge entrained in the ash to considerable heights. When sufficient charge imbalance accumulated, it relieved itself by bolts of lightning to the highest topographic point below it... the still-considerable remains of the edifice of the volcano (which lost 400 meters of its original elevation in the eruption). 

There are scientists in the Alaska Volcano Observatory who now track lightning along the Aleutian chain as an early warning of an eruption on volcanoes that we can't yet afford to instrument.  It turns out that the noise threshold for a reasonably reliable call on an eruption is around a VEI level 3-4. That's for Volcano Explosivity Index, and the numbers are approximately logarithmic: the 1980 MSH eruption was a VEI 5, which is about 10 times greater energy released than a VEI 4 event. 

As an aside: Managua, Nicaragua, is not an old city. Instead, there have been at least three versions of the city just in historic times. In between each, stupendous subduction earthquakes leveled most of the pre-existing city, and huge blankets of volcanic tephra and ash buried what remained. The same holds, more or less, for Guatemala City, the capitol of Guatemala. While we can visit the Parthenon in Greece and the Forum in ancient Rome, we cannot view what ancient Central America might have looked like 2,000 years ago... 

...for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth...

15 December 2011

2.555 Gy

That's an estimate given by W.W. Phelps for the age of the universe ("eternity"). Incidentally, "Gy" is the usual scientific shorthand for 1,000,000,000 years, because there is both a Short Scale and a Long Scale version of what a "billion" is. They differ, depending on the country you live in, by 1,000. 

In The Times & Seasons, 1835, Phelps wrote "...that eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system, (not this world) almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years..." 

A deeper probe suggests that Phelps came up with this number by multiplying
7,000 x 365 x 1,000 = 2,555,000,000. 

In The Times and Seasons, he specifically said this was the age of the universe ("not this world"). This number also includes Phelps' assumptions that we are nearly at the end of eternity, that a day for the Lord was a 1,000 years to man, and that Genesis supported a 7,000 year span of creation. The current best estimate for the age of the universe - the time since the Big Bang - is about 13.4 Gy. You can tie yourself up in knots over this half-order-of-magnitude difference, but on the scale of important things, this ranks well below the noise threshold

This 2.555 Gy number is nevertheless interesting. In a remarkable coincidence, the Great Oxygenation Event of the Earth closely brackets this age. Depending on who writes about this, the GOE started at 2.7 Gy or 2.5 Gy, or 2.4 Gy. Before that time, the Earth's atmosphere was largely methane, SO2, CO2, and ammonia. The sky was not blue, and the Earth would have been unrecognizable to us as such. There are deposits of alluvial pyrite (FeS) sand found in Archean rocks in South Africa that predate the GOE; the grains are rounded, something that could never happen in the presence of oxygen (they would turn rapidly to iron oxides, including rust, in the rough-and-tumble erosion and deposition process). 

A talk given at one of the Union sessions at American Geophysical Union on December on 5 December 2011 fleshed out a lot of the chemistry necessary for oxygen to appear in the primordial Earth's atmosphere. First, a lot of hydrogen had to escape the atmosphere. This can happen when hydrogen-based molecules in the atmosphere decompose in the presence of U/V light - and in the absence of a protective ozone (O3) layer. Then, a lot of the freed-up oxygen would be needed to break down the remaining methane in the atmosphere. There is another big oxygen sink, however:  the rocks of the Earth's crust themselves had to be oxygenized. Only then (after the oxygen sinks were filled) would significant amounts of O2 get into the atmosphere, and a significant amount reach the upper Troposphere and form a protective shell of ozone. 

Somewhere in this evolving planetary atmosphere photosynthesis also began producing O2, but the atmospheric scientist at AGU discounted this as being a significant producer until after the Huronian Snowball Earth event

Today, modern photosynthesis in plants could produce the 21% oxygen in the modern atmosphere in just 2,000 years. During the Cretaceous, the ultimate dinosaur wonderland (or nightmare alley, depending on your point of view), the atmospheric oxygen ranged up to 35% - which would go a long way towards explaining 22-meter-long dinosaurs and meter-long insects in the fossil record from this time.

The Earth's age may be around 4.5 Gy, but as we presently understand it, it is closer to 2.555 Gy.


13 December 2011


Among scientists in the US Geological Survey there are two expressions of note: "WAG," which stands for Wild A$$ Guess, and Guestimate.

These are the low-end members of a legitimate - even critical - aspect of science: estimation. You can't predict the future (at least, managers in the US Geological Survey can't), but you can sketch out some possible scenarios and begin planning for them. These include rough guesses of what the annual funding for the US Geological Survey might be. If it includes reduced funding - and senior managers are strongly encouraged to follow the political news for this reason - then you SURE better not plan on hiring new people. This is a form of political estimation that can save you and other people a lot of grief later on.

Estimation is absolutely critical for both advanced math and for all of applied science. With a geophysical instrument inside Mount St Helens crater - or with the $20 billion Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland - you can ALWAYS get "results", you can ALWAYS come up with "numbers." The problem is that in complex systems, where there are a lot of things affecting the final results, the numbers can add up to something round and steaming.

The critical point of estimation is to set bounds on a reasonable result - a result that is consistent with the real world values already in hand. Example: the conductivity of water and the conductivity of dry rock are well known. If your geophysical box gives you numbers unlike any of these, if you get numbers outside a realistic range, those numbers may be round and steaming: in other words, crap.  You then must go back and check your equipment to see what might be wrong, what you must have overlooked when you set up the experiment. Technical review of any scientific manuscript will home in immediately on anything that is unrealistic, so you can save yourself embarrassment if you estimate ahead of time what may be reasonable to expect. Among other things, the preliminary estimate in science is also critical in designing the experiment in the first place. If you are looking for ants, don't build a science experiment to trap mastodons.

It used to be the case that "closeworked in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nukes. Not anymore. Close is usually better than perfect in the real workday, where your data are routinely fuzzy to begin with.

It also is very much the case that "perfect" is the enemy of "good." Scientists worrying about the third decimal place in accuracy on an important number (such as the Hubble Constant) could hold up publication for years - when the number had such approximations in it in the first place that the third decimal place was totally pointless. In other words, trying to get that third decimal place of accuracy was a waste of time.

Sanjoy Mahajan recently published a book "Numbersight" (Subtitle: "A street-fighting mathematician teaches how to make better decisions"). This book sings the praises of estimation. He also points out that to teach kids to do fast math in their heads, it is critical to first teach them how to estimate, and then teach them how to visualize results. If they had no idea what they could expect (for instance multiplying two three-digit numbers is NOT going to give you a four-digit result), then you couldn't be sure that your short-cut math was working in the first place.

Another aspect of estimation - very useful in teaching kids how to do math - is to visualize the result in terms of something that they can relate to. It therefor helps to visualize a football field as being "60 dads long" instead of 100 yards or 91.4 meters in length. In the 1960's physicists spent a lot of time deciding what kind of metric system to use (they had already concluded that all science must be metric to be universally understood, and only in the United States do children still learn distances in "feet" and weights in "pounds"). The argument went something like this: the SI (standard international) system uses meters and seconds and kilograms. The CGS system uses centimeters and grams and seconds. As an old Manhattan Project nuclear physicist gruffly put it, the SI system was appropriate for humans, and the CGS system was appropriate for grasshoppers.


02 December 2011

Amateur Science

Well, that sounds kinda bad, doesn't it?  However, in my experience amateur science can be both good and bad.

There are certainly examples of both good and bad professional science out there. Examples of good science include the breakthroughs for AIDS drug cocktails that essentially lifted the automatic death sentence from AIDS sufferers - at least in the United States. At least if you have health care insurance. As I write this there appears to be a breakthrough on the horizon for a malaria vaccine; malaria kills millions, mainly children, every year.

One example of bad professional science is the scientist who fudges data - or worse, makes up data - in order to get the publications needed to get ahead. The competition is incredibly fierce to go from student to PhD, to post-doc, to term-appointment scientist, to career scientist in a public agency or university. Sadly, there have been a number of examples of (generally younger) scientists who under this pressure have cheated on their research. When discovered - and all successful science is subject to repeat verification testing - it generally means the end to someone's aspiring career. The science journal that had to retract the flawed paper will not be interested in dealing with that individual again. Would YOU trust someone to do research on a drug you needed if you found out that the person had been dishonest?

Let's consider now an example of bad amateur science:
I received an Ask-a-Geologist query that wasn't a query, but instead a statement that the Great Comet of 1811 had caused the 1812 New Madrid Earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley. The writer ignored the time-gap, and also ignored readily-available astronomical information out there that the Great Comet of 1811 had never come within 100,000,000 miles of Earth. Instead he gave several reasons why he was sure that the features on his property proved this causal link - and then said a USGS geologist had agreed with him. He pointed me at a web-site that he claimed had all the data... his personal website.

Aside: All US Government employees must take IT security training at least once a year - due to the ferocious hacking attempts that happen from 8am to 5pm Mainland China time. One of the Big Red Flags we are told to avoid is social engineering like this - an attempt to steer us to do something we normally wouldn't do. Do NOT Open a Link - unless you are looking for it yourself.

A quick check with the USGS geologist (whom he named) proved that he had in fact lied to me. This kind-hearted lady told me she was giving a free public lecture on earthquakes, and had stood still long enough to politely listen to him. She said she had emphatically NOT agreed with his half-baked idea.

I use that expression deliberately: the individual had not done his homework on several fronts. He had not researched the astronomical information that I found within seconds on the internet. He had no idea what an abandoned stream meander was, something basic in a first-year geology class, or even simpler, available in the first third of a basic geology textbook. Instead, he painted the feature on his land as a comet impact structure. Still avoiding the website that he seemed anxious for me to click on (he kept including copies of the link throughout his message, along with oblique references to curiosity come-ons like "fossilized human remains"), I read his text again. To even a casual observer it was apparent that he was cherry-picking only information that supported his idea. He chose to ignore explanations and additional data that the USGS geologist had offered him - they weren't convenient.

Cherry-picking only the data that supports your hypothesis is fundamentally dishonest. Lying about what someone said to you is fundamentally dishonest. Dishonesty is fundamentally the polar opposite of good science. 

Consider now an example of good amateur science:
This took place during the third of the three Zahid expeditions to map the Wabar impact site in the middle of the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. We were a group of about 23 individuals including several PhD scientists interested in mapping and studying a very recent asteroid impact. The party also included a cook, several automotive engineers, a front-end loader specialist, even a senior manager of sales for Zahid Tractor company, which marketed the AM General Hummers we were using, and had funded this expedition.

Without exception, every person was interested in the expedition's objectives. They had to: the temperatures reached 132 F during the day and never dropped below 100 F during the sandstorm-dusted nights. The the breakfast menu each morning was invariably "Grit Eggs", "Dust Toast", and "Sand Meal", while lunch each day was invariably "Sand-wich" or "Sand-burger." Why else subject yourself to such conditions unless you were somehow interested in the research effort?

Whenever we had breakfast, whenever we stopped for lunch, whenever we relaxed around dinner (when a sandstorm was not flattening our cook-tent), people would all ask questions. As we would gather detailed geologic mapping data (Gene Shoemaker), close-spaced magnetic data (me), or ground-penetrating radar imagery (one of the Saudi university professors), we would discuss it. Everyone would listen, and early on the front-end loader driver tentatively offered a suggestion for why not check for structures under the crater impact crater rims. Gene and I both got excited: yes! That's a great idea - let's do that this afternoon when the heat drops below 110 F. That opened the dam-gates, and everyone started to offer ideas and suggestions. Some would fit with what we already knew, some were inconsistent, and some we thought should be chased down by one team or another. Everyone was a participant, everyone was a contributor to the research effort.

This was an excellent example of participative science - the final results were much greater than if just the professional scientists had been operating in isolation. Here's the thing: most people are interested in what surrounds them in the world - most people and almost all children are curious, natural scientists. And most people, if they are not upbraided but instead encouraged, can become natural scientists participating in a greater research effort. A PhD is NOT required to be a scientist. If you ever visit a university, you will find that there are professors - and there are non-professors. There are people who run the laboratories who are not professors and may or may not even have college degrees - but the research would shut down without their quiet, tedious work and contributions.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

A Second example of good amateur science: A group of researchers created an online game called FoldIt to simulate protein folding, and used teams of online gamers to help solve the structure of an enzyme.  This was aimed at a problem that had vexed researchers for decades. It was finally put out to the world in the form of a game-challenge, asking for help. Gamers took on the challenge and solved the problem in a mere three weeks.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

Another example:
Researchers trying to process vast amounts of radio-telescope data in the SETI project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) realized they did not have the computing power to deal with the data properly. It would require billions of dollars to pay for it. Someone suggested the idea of distributed computing: put it out as an elegant screen-saver. Millions of personal computers that would otherwise stand idle for hours on end could then automatically download a packet of data, process it, and then upload the results to a central server at Berkeley. Anyone with a personal computer can do this. You can do this while you are asleep.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

I can go on and on with examples: people participating in the Christmas Bird Count, people volunteering to check ponds for frog eggs, etc. These, unfortunately, you cannot do in pajamas in front of a personal computer.

Here's the take-away, in three parts:
1. Anyone can participate in science. You don't need a PhD.
2. However, you must accept the fact that good science requires you do your homework, and
3. You MUST be determinedly honest about every facet of it.

You - virtually anyone - can contribute to the advancement of science, helping others and gaining great personal satisfaction in the process.


15 November 2011

Not even close: 6 vs. 1,657,100,000,000

Genesis 1 lays out in a poetic manner a six-day sequence for the creation of the Earth. It's very simple, something I imagine an unschooled shepherd could easily deal with. 

19th Century geologists in Europe (especially England - the British Geologists Association formed in 1858) had watched as sediments accumulated in basins and puddles. They realized that they could rather easily calculate the rate of sediment accumulation. They also had seen and mapped huge stacks of similar, consolidated sediments in many places - and had even begun to correlate some distinctive bedding sequences in one place with bedding sequences a long ways away. This permitted British geologists, blessed with pretty much the fullrange of geologic ages on one small island, to figure out which layer sat on top of another layer, which must be older, and that units below these were older still.  By the turn of the 20th Century, even conservative geologists looking at their numbers had concluded that the Earth had to be many millions of years old. 

Geologists could also see another kind of time-line: progressively more sophisticated fossils, remains of ancient life forms not currently found walking or swimming the Earth, as the sediments got younger - more towards the "top" or modern day of the stratigraphic stack. A curator at the BYU Geology Museum once walked me through a series of dinosaur vertebrae, showing me how with time the vertebrae became lighter but at the same time structurally stronger. This meant they could run faster. Evolution.

Then Pierre and MarieCurieBecquerel, and others discovered radioactive decay. They could measure a decay rate for a given amount of a particular element, and they could see the daughter products forming as a result of that decay. It's an easy step to measure the ratio of radioisotope to its daughter products (uranium-lead, for example, and of course there are intermediate steps) and so you should be able to figure how long that particular crystal (a zircon, for example, containing uranium and lead) has been sitting there since it solidified out of a magma somewhere.  

WhoaGeochronologists started coming up with HUGE numbers. As more and more rock units were sampled and dated, the push-back for an oldest rock - homing in on an origin of the Earth - passed into the hundreds of millions of years, and then billions of years. 

Radiometric dating currently suggests that the age of the Earth is 4.54 +/- 0.01 years. 

Times 365 days per year, this is 1,657,100,000,000 days, at least, that this rock has been orbiting what is now our Sun.  This number is not really comprehensible to people who count on their fingers. "...7, 8, 9, 10!" Can you count higher than that? "Sure, (raises both hands overhead) "1, 2, 3, 4...".

However, as you consider the actual processes involved, as we understand them from geology and astronomy, it certainly can't be this precise. There was a protoplanetary disk, gravitational clustering, segregation, a crust formed, modified repeatedly by continued heavy early bombardment, and then later in the game there was an impact of another protoplanet that led to the formation of the Moon. So it's unrealistic to place such a precise three-decimal-point age as a "start" - better to point at the oldest piece of unmelted material ever found. The current record-holder comes from the Jack Hills of Western Australia, at 4.4 By.  If you compare the mass and luminosity of the Sun to other stars, and age-date meteorites, it is apparent that the Solar System can't be much older than that

Certainly there are complications with radiometric dating; the Carbon-14 creation rate in the atmosphere varies over time depending on cosmic ray flux, for instance. You can calibrate for this using tree-rings, however. Radiometric dating also must necessarily make some assumptions, among them that the decaying radioisotope and its daughter products remain together for the entire time that the age is calculated for (no remelting), and also that the decay rate today is the same now as it was when the original material solidified out of a melt. It's more complicated than that, even, but at this point we're only quibbling about small plus-and-minus stuff.

Science writing being as persistent as it is, rather few people take the Six Days of Genesis as literal truth these days. Genesis IS, after all, a translation of a translation, and the original writer had rather little experience with orbital mechanics, conservation of angular momentum, and the weak nuclear force. This is to say, he had a limited vocabulary to work with. 
In this context, I found some interesting things in the writings of Latter-Day Saint apostles who were also scholars: 

John A. Widtsoe wrote about the "vast periods of time" required for each class of animal to rise, dominate the Earth, and then become extinct. (Joseph Smith as Scientist, manual distributed by the General Board of the YMMIA, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1908).

Here's something even more specific, unlike anything I've seen in any other church doxology: "What is a day? It is a specified time period; it is an age, an eon, a division of eternity; it is the time between two identifiable events. And each day, of whatever length, has the duration needed for its purposes." --Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Church Apostle, during General Conference, 1982. 

I also was pointed at an interesting quote from the (atheist) astronomer Carl Sagan:

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater  than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, No, No! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge." - Carl Sagan, "Pale Blue Dot:A Vision of the Human Future in Space" (1994).
I think that religion has emerged, actually. 

But let's put this all in perspective. Can you count to a million? Neither can I, so the difference between a million years and a billion years seems somewhat irrelevant - unless you are a geochronologist. I once poured over $250,000 into instrumentation for a rock-dating laboratory - because it was important to know how long ago a volcanic eruption had taken place, in order to get a sense of how dangerous that particular volcano was. That can be important, right? Especially if you live in, say Seattle, or Tokyo... or anywhere in the Mediterranean or Pacific Rim.

But consider this: allow for a minute the possibility that there is life after life. I have agnostic friends, even atheist friends, who go back and forth on this one. I myself have a number of strong experiential reasons for no longer questioning this. If you are an atheist, then the Age of the Earth doesn't matter. If you are faith-based, then... it doesn't really matter either. It's sort of like Pascal's Wager

When we die and make that transition, cross the Veil, I think there may be some questions asked of us. Like: Where is your family? What did you do to help others? 

Somehow I don't think that Someone is going to ask me "While you were in your mortal state, what was your opinion about the age of the Earth?"


07 November 2011

A Farewell to Arms

A book recently published by Steven Pinker, called The Better Angels of Our Nature, makes an interesting claim:

Violence has declined through history and still is dropping today.

Wait a minute. What about the First World War? The Second World War? The deaths of 20,000,000 people during Stalin's purges in the 1930's in between? The Crack epidemic of the 1980's? Two million people in American jails? What about 9/11? The Iraq and Afghanistan and Libyan Wars?

In fact, this is how proximity weight-loads the history that WE remember. It is dramatically amplified by the rise of the 24-hour news cycle since the advent of CNN. This is called a "bias towards recency." A careful statistical and historical analysis makes a compelling case that in fact violence has declined throughout history.

Put another way: the actual likelihood of being assaulted or killed has been falling for centuries.

How could this possibly be?  

Pinker's book moves through the historical record first (Hey! Ever hear of the Hundred Years War? This represents a century of continual European warfare, famine, and death). It then addresses the intellectual revolutions of the last several centuries, and even delves into modern studies on the human mind and human behavior. Pinker's lasting achievement is that his intellectual quest really knew no bounds: he covers the gamut from psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, history, and social science.

He didn't operate in a vacuum, however. Pinker homes in on, and give full credit to, a particular inspiration. He calls Norbert Elias, a German-born scholar who wrote during Hitler's 1930's, "the most important thinker you have never heard of."

Elias proposed that the growth of the nation-state all over the world in the past several millennia has had profound effects (described in Thomas Hobbes, 1651 book Leviathan) on stabilizing human behavior. It created physical boundaries, it established bahavioral norms with consequences. The consequences were profound, too: outlaw behavior drew out the posse - stirred up the hornet's nest - and sociopaths were removed from the gene pool. In the United States, we incarcerate more than 2,000,000 people, mostly men, but in past centuries there weren't resources to hold people in jail. Beheading, hanging, and feathering with arrows accomplished the same goal much less expensively. With time, violent tendencies have been steadily filtered out of the human race, and all of this stemmed from the establishment of nation-states.

The other thing that Elias and Pinker noted was the rise of commerce. Mutual gains from trade created a common purpose, and raised most of humanity above the tribal state. The xenophobia common throughout the world earlier became progressively more untenable - xenophobia interfered with the common gain, and has been increasingly less tolerated by the majority of humanity.

There has also been a "rights revolution" in the past century: women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, animal rights... with the accompanying increase in sensitivity that goes with these. There is also a somewhat more controversial idea: that there has been a rise in human reasoning ability. However, it's hard to separate this from evolving culture. Pinker also tends to dismiss income inequality. However, numerous studies have shown that income inequality correlates closely with homicide rates in country after country, and areas within countries. If you wish to see low rates of violence (the anomalous Breivik massacre last summer notwithstanding) go to Norway. Norway has an income disparity range far smaller than the United States or even many other countries in Europe - and is one of the most peaceful nations on the planet.

Something neither Elias nor Pinker noted was an additional factor that I have noticed: the establishment of sports as a normative social activity. Sports in aggregate constitute a legally-sanctioned opportunity to compete with others without loss of life or limb (Rugby or Hockey or Lacrosse notwithstanding). Sports are a way to release pent-up energy and frustration; they are also a means for organizing small armies and using strategies to win... and gain fame and riches at the same time.

I may have come up with this sports issue on my own because it seems an odd part of our culture. I (and several of my children) have never been able to see any point to golf, baseball, or football. The potential aerobic benefits of basketball and soccer seem counterbalanced by the risk (some say inevitability) of knee and spinal injury. In fairness, people look at me as someone in his '60's practicing Jujitsu and think I'm crazy. In my defense, it makes me more flexible/younger, and gives me a means to perform community service outside the range of Church opportunities.

The bottom line: the Angels in our natures seem to be winning the battle for the soul of humanity.


05 November 2011

It's the DATA, Stupid! - The Fourth Paradigm

This is a shorthand way of describing the life-work of a visionary Microsoft research scientist named Jim Gray. A few weeks after he gave a talk on the subject in 2007, he was lost at sea off the coast of California.

Gray was proposing the Fourth Paradigm: a quasi-new scientific approach that says insight can be gathered from manipulating large amounts of data. Manipulating, sorting, and graphically expressing relationships in very large data sets: new stuff pops out. You can apply statistics to very large data sets and have far greater confidence in the results.

The First Paradigm is sometimes called empirical science - observational or descriptive science. This is the science carried out by interested folk like you and me over the past several thousand years. That, for instance, is Drosophila Melanogaster... what you've been calling the Fruit Fly. You named it, classified it as a fly of the fruit-eating variety.

The Second Paradigm is analytic science: analysis of scientific observations that leads to an understanding of electricity and magnetism, for example. By careful experiment and observation, Michael Faraday was able to connect electricity with magnetism. From this work, James Clerk Maxwell developed... yep, the famous Maxwell's Equations. I'm not making this up: Maxwell built on the scientific experiments and papers of Faraday to develop a working theory of electromagnetism, complete with an elegant mathematical formalism that haunts undergrad physics students to this day.  Actually, these guys are heroes to physicists as much as Fermi, Bohr, and Einstein are.

An Example: In 1994 I was working in northern Saudi Arabia on a phosphate project.  A monster sandstorm beginning in the Sahara far to the west engulfed us, and for a day it was very hard to work. For the next several days the dust haze hung in the air and I realized that each afternoon I could look directly at the Sun without a filter - with my naked eyes and without injury. I noticed a huge Sunspot cluster in the upper left quadrant, and was so impressed that I could actually see this without instrumentation that I sketched it into my field notebook. The next day I could see it again... and it had migrated downward and right. By the fourth day I had a complete sketch of the movement of this Sunspot cluster.  That is an example of First Paradigm science: observation. FROM those observations, I could deduce (a) that the Sun rotated, (b) where the axis of that rotation was (upper right of the observed disk), and (c) how FAST it rotated (I figured roughly 10 days would bring that cluster if it still existed to the same initial point). That part is the Second Paradigm: I analyzed the data and drew some conclusions from them. (PS: Data are always plural - there is always more than one number).

The Third Paradigm is sometimes called computational science; sometimes it's called simulation science. Think ever larger computers, calculating results from ever finer grids of models of the galaxy, models of a complex earth being deformed by stress leading to an earthquake, giant models used to predict weather.  More or less.

An Example of this is my use of a powerful software package called Geosoft Oasis Montaj: this software allows me to bring in vast amounts of data from any source and process the entire mess. It's generally known among geophysicists that you can only "see" about 15% of the content of magnetic data by hand-contouring many measurements on paper. If I pass frequency filters through the data, I can separate the deep sources from the shallow sources. If I pass derivative filters through it I can find the edges of those sources of magnetic anomalies. If I then do two-dimensional (or higher dimensional) modeling, I can obtain a probable shape of the source(s) of the anomaly(s). Say, an electric pig in a magnetic bathtub. This is computational or simulation science.

The Fourth Paradigm is a step beyond this. Grey's point was that hey!*  We are collecting vast amounts of data - more data in seconds now than in all previous history before 1950. There MUST be some relationships, connections, new things in all that mess. If we don't DO something with all these numbers, then what is the point in COLLECTING them?

Data mining is an obvious outcome of this sort of work. Clever digital types can use many different sources of data, search for links - relationships or connections - and from all this can pretty much tell some company what you are going to buy this Christmas, where, and how much money you will spend. That is valuable to a company - it allows the company to save money on inventory and helps them set up displays that will get even MORE money out of you. That's a good thing, right? Maybe.

It's already well-established that corporate recruiters need little training in data mining to find out how you party, what you really do, who your friends are, and how honest you are... no matter what your resume may say. A good thing for the HR people, a bad thing for the careless and dishonest job-hunter.

This same data mining can have unequivocally terrible consequences: people supporting the revolutions in Iran and Syria using Twitter, Facebook, and Anonymizer have died because regime agents have connected different sources of data and figured out who was trashing their regimes... and people have been found, arrested, and have died as a consequence of this kind of data mining.

For better or worse, we have all reached - and fallen into - the ocean of data lying at the end of our continent of former human interaction. Our lives will never be the same again. The Internet is self-healing and in effect self-replicating.

Big Brother is Skynet, and it has found us. 
You may run, but you cannot hide.


* No pun intended, but a book has been published online by T.S. Hey and others (2009) that assembles all the ideas Jim Gray was promoting.

23 October 2011

Christian vs. christian

What exactly constitutes being a Christian? In 1982 the "Christian" Phalange militia in Lebanon massacred every man, woman, and child in the Palestinian Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Christian?

When I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, my Jewish-atheist roommate at Berkeley expressed disbelief and surprise. "There's something to this, you know. You ought to investigate it yourself," I replied. He turned on me and for the only time I ever remember, I saw anger in his face:

"Do you have any idea how many of my ancestors were KILLED in the name of Christ?!??"

I have had various reactions, ranging from polite curiosity to dislike, suspicion, and even contempt aimed at me for being a Mormon (world's term) or LDS (preferred term). This has been brought to my awareness almost daily through most of my adult life since I stopped being an atheist and chose to be baptized.  Presidential candidate Rick Perry's pastor is the current source of anti-Mormon hate, but just one of many. Polls suggest that fully 25% of this country will never vote for a "Mormon" for president. I suspect that this is in the same ballpark as anti-Semites, but likely quite a bit higher than the percentage of the population who are skin-color racist types.

The other night I went with my Bishop to visit a friend in our ward whose son had been found dead of acute Oxycontin poisoning. He had been living with back pain; a doctor prescribed Oxycontin, he got hooked, and had been fighting addiction for years since then. That young man's wife had just given birth three weeks earlier to a baby daughter. It is incredibly sad. However, the wife will not have anything to do with any "Mormons" - something she learned from her dad. This has estranged her husband from his parents, and has made the funeral arrangements even harder on my friend. It was made even worse by a former band-member of the deceased asking people on his Facebook page to come to the funeral and try to "save" the parents - my LDS friend and his wife. Ken told me this was like the knife in his heart was now being twisted.

A scientist in my research team in the USGS National Center in Northern Virginia was constantly making fun of me when I was still resident there, typically making snarky comments about me at the group table in the cafeteria. He is from a narrow Protestant group in the upper Midwest. He told me when I asked him about it that there are about 200,000 of them, and they are the only ones that will "make it into Heaven" - the rest of us all being "damned to Hell".  I was amazed; he's a senior scientist with a PhD, which at least implies some thoughtfulness. I quietly took this abuse at lunch and in the hallways for a long time. Finally one day, as I was helping him with his desktop computer, he did it again - only half-jokingly told me I would be damned to Hell. I asked him why he was being so overtly offensive? He told me that my particular LDS belief was "not Christian", and was particularly anathema to him and his small sect, worse even than if I were a Moslem. I told him (very mildly I think) that his behavior struck me as startlingly un-Christlike, and asked him if he had read the New Testament recently? He stared at me. I pointed out that I was the only person in the team who would help him when he had computer problems, that despite the rude and contemptuous treatment leveled at me, I felt it was expected of me as a follower of Christ. He didn't say a word, just stared, so after fixing his problem I went back to my office. About 10am the following morning, he leaned into my office doorway and said, very awkwardly, that he had been thinking all night about what I had said, and had concluded that I was right. He said that he was not acting like a follower of Christ, and that he would stop saying things that caused me discomfort. I believe he still did so behind my back, but I thanked him anyway.

My perception of MY responsibilities, as a follower of Christ, includes being patient with abuse like this. If an opportunity avails itself, I believe I'm allowed to raise the obvious contrary-to-Christ's-teachings behavior.

How many times must you turn the other cheek to this sort of abuse? Probably forever ("seven times seven" said Christ). Where do you draw the line between abuse and deadly threat? Is it Christ-like to defend yourself against almost certain physical damage or death? The head of our local YWCA is wheel-chair-bound, a devout pacifist, and took exception to me and my family teaching women how to defend themselves against physical assault. I never had an opportunity to talk with her about this - she just made it clear that we were not welcome to teach there again. Every one of the students, however, thanked us - some with hugs.

No one can honestly deny that there is evil in this world. 

And everyone has the right to choose if they want to return home to their families from wherever they may be. I do not believe the Christ requires of us to permit others to stomp our brains out in a drunken rage on a parking lot, or to submit to a brutal sexual assault with life-long consequences. On the contrary, I feel strongly that everyone deserves the opportunity to live their life on this Earth to its fullest, and that violation of this right puts the attacker at immeasurable, eternal risk.  The attacker is also a child of the same God - and I think God would prefer the attack be stopped before irreversible consequences happen - for BOTH of His children's sake. We teach our students that a proportional response to an attack is for their own and the attacker's long-term benefit. We just give them the tools to have a say in the matter.

Back to the self-styled "Christians" out there: did any of these people read the New Testament? Really read it? Why do they assume that they are uniquely God's chosen? Especially: why do they assume that God only loves a few of His children?


21 October 2011

Skewed History, False History

This will be old hat to professional historians out there, but the old saying goes that “history is written by the victors.” Truth is rather often not the truth in verbal form, but often not the truth even in the written format - at least the complete truth.  It’s simply the opinion of the most articulate (or loudest) person on the block... and they ALL have an agenda. That's close to saying that all truth is subjective - but not quite.

Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death-March were held up to me as a child in school as examples of Japanese war-time evil and perfidy. The Allies were the Good Guys - the saviors of civilization. However, my uncle was a personal witness to the Dresden fire-bombing of February 1945, where virtually all of the victims were civilians, deliberately massacred to demoralize a combatant nation. THAT was not discussed in MY history classes.

Ramesses The Great (Ramesses II) lost the battle of Kadesh-Barnea to Hittite forces that cleverly baited him and the Egyptian army he “led” into attacking a small Hittite force, thereby exposing him and his army to a devastating ambush. He suffered a tactical and strategic defeat that he barely survived - by abandoning his personal "Ra" Division troops to the mercies of the Hittites. You would never know this from the victory monuments that Ramesses later erected in Egypt, however. According to those monuments, Ramesses was the great victor, the father of over 100 children... and the one who wrote HIS version of history into monumental stone.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is another example.  These hideous documents have been proven repeatedly to be fraudulent - a clumsy anti-Semitic propaganda effort put to rest and then later resurrected and propagated by Nazi Germany.  With each new generation of anti-Semites, this thing has taken on a multi-generational life of its own. As Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief famously said:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. ”  

The full Goebbels quote is even more appalling.

Depending on who you listen to, Joseph Smith was a charlatan and a conjuror - or he was a prophet. He dictated the Book of Mormon by staring at two stones in the bottom of a hat, or he actually did translate ~30 kg of golden, minutely-inscribed plates seen and hefted by 13 people. Which version of history is correct?

I automatically discount anything written by people like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, as they have a transparent agenda to uphold - and have shown no qualms about writing things about the LDS Church that I know from personal experience have long since been disproved. Other things they have each written about other people and other issues are contested by scholars as dishonest at best, fraudulent at worst.

So: what history can you trust?

I've thought a lot about this. I finally concluded that only something I could see supporting (first- or second-hand) evidence for could be considered reasonably reliable. My Uncle James’ account of Dresden is one: I know him personally to be an individual of very high personal integrity. What about supportive evidence for Joseph Smith? Journals of individuals who viewed the Gold Plates describe leafing through the pages; at least one journal describes the 8" (cubed) block of plates as weighing 60 lbs. With slight variations they all agree on details.  Besides never recanting their affidavit, there is one ancillary piece of logic we could apply. Could YOU get 11 people to sign affidavits that they saw and held gold plates - and never reneged from those statements - from your own neighborhood? We could also append to this the rapid and steady growth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; it would be hard for that to happen if the premise was based on a string of lies. There are a rather high percentage of Latter-Day Saints with advanced degrees - the faith actively encourages advanced education, something inconsistent with a structure based on lies and deceit. Some people would count this, others perhaps not.

I’ve also considered my own personal experiences. As a physical scientist, I have accumulated in my personal journals a rather large series of small but cumulative evidences that ALL tell me that I’m not following a lie.  There are others that are somewhat harder to easily document, such as the strong internal self-consistency, and the utterly pragmatic doctrinal-philosophical framework underlying my faith. I still am astounded with its consistency in explaining personally-observed phenomena and the broader life-experiences of the human species. When I want answers to specific things - in Church history or in my own research efforts - I can always get them, though sometimes the answers arrive in full only years after I began searching.

Years ago I had a friend in Virginia who was troubled by certain anti-LDS writings. There seems to be a  small but focused sub-culture of people who accumulate and publish these sorts of things. I agree this isn't very logical - I mean, why would they even care?. Mike would bring one to my attention and challenge me. I would dutifully research the issue, and it was always something said by one person, perhaps two - and always arrived third or fourth hand. After a significant amount of effort I would satisfy myself that someone - for whatever suspect personal reasons - was simply out to cause damage, creating their own small Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

After awhile I concluded that this debunking effort was a huge waste of time. I suppose everyone should go through this at some time just to satisfy themselves. However, I concluded that from the cumulative evidence that I can see, particularly in my own life, that I need not bother anymore to even pursue these ugly things. I'm too busy cataloging my own supportive personal experiences - the things I know firsthand that attest that I'm really on the Shining Path.

"Brothers and sisters, this is a divine work in process, with the manifestations and blessings of it abounding in every direction, so please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will. In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith....So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.I know that Joseph Smith, who acknowledged that he wasn’t perfect, was nevertheless the chosen instrument in God’s hand to restore the everlasting gospel to the earth. " --Jeffrey R Holland, April 2013 General Conference.

Joseph Smith readily admitted to being imperfect - just like Moses did, like Peter and Paul did. Only Christ is perfect.

One final thing to consider: At the time Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, the population of Nauvoo was roughly 12,000 souls, rivaling Chicago at the time. In the terrible confusion and sadness that followed Joseph's death, Brigham Young took charge as the presiding authority - the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In the bitter winter of 1846-47 almost the entire population decamped for Iowa, to live in misery for several months, then they moved westward in a long overland trek to the Great Salt Lake Basin to establish their new Zion. Everyone in that population knew what had gone on with Joseph - gossip in a small community moves quickly, especially when the community is without televisions, the internet, computer games, or air conditioning to keep them indoors. If their prophet had been doing bad things, everyone would have known about it. Yet some 12,000 people gave up their comfortable homes and marched into the dangerous, largely unknown western wilderness together.

I consider that the strongest vote you could possibly make about the character of Joseph Smith, and the door to truth that he opened with the Restoration. 12,000 people voted with their feet - 12,000 people who all personally knew Joseph Smith. That simple historical fact speaks volumes.

I’m satisfied that I've found the truth, and am happy to just follow it. The plan now is just to endure to the end.


12 October 2011

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

This sentence is attributed to the brilliant philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951).

I had seen this before and commented on the un-measurable and un-testable theory of a Multiverse (many parallel universes, of which ours is the lucky one with physical parameters finely-tuned enough to allow it to host thinking life).

I encountered the Wittgenstein quote again in a fascinating (and very nearly complete) summary of current cosmological knowledge assembled by UCLA Astronomer Ned Wright (which I highly recommend - it's short, readable, and largely non-technical).

The point that Wright was making was that if you can't ever test a theory to see if it's even true (like the Multiverse), then wisdom would suggest you don't talk about it.

Makes sense: don't talk about something you know nothing about.

I could suggest that to a number of outspoken opinionaivers who think they "know Mormonism" (sic).

Back to Wright's FAQ: it's refreshing to see this level of humility and honesty in a scientist (yes, despite what science is supposed to seek, the level of honesty among scientists is about the same as found in the general population).

However, it is just basic human nature - perhaps it's a distinguishing characteristic of human nature - to want to know more.

And actually, there IS a way to know more, much more.  Dallin H. Oaks, in an article titled "Knowledge encourages obedience, and obedience enhances knowledge." points out (a bit indirectly) that scientific testing and analysis will only work in a fairly narrow sphere of Knowledge (capital K).  He reminds us that there are other pathways to gain information over a wide range of things important to me - important to you. (Mor 10:5 and D&C 8:1-2 come to mind). The secular (narrowly-focused) world would call this sort of approach "inspiration" - such as the famous "Eureka moment" of the philosopher-scientist Archimedes.  People who have lots of these inspirations (or a few that shift paradigms significantly) are sometimes called geniuses. It does NOT mean that they are smarter than their peers - I am myself proof of that lack of correlation (I just have an unfair advantage over my secular peers). In the official story, Watson and Crick earned the Nobel Prize when they came up with the structure of DNA in 1953. Truth is, they had a lot of unacknowledged help from Rosalind Franklin. Without making a moral judgement here - the full story is probably not known to anyone living - I will just say that there are many avenues to knowledge, some more acknowledged than others (pun intended).

I have garnered an immense amount of knowledge in my life, both in my search for things of personal interest, and in my professional scientific career. The "secret" has helped me avoid years mining scientific dead ends, and has guided me past numerous research blocks. An example: I was able to finally get a marine induced polarization system operational - and earn two patents for it - by developing optical isolation and a floating ground, among other things.

The "secret"? Live your life in such a way as to open the door to these understandings coming to you. Even purely secular scientists understand most of these principles. This means being obedient to a number of "rules": (a) live a life of honesty and service to others, and (b) conduct your physical life wisely, availing yourself of existing scientific knowledge. A cynic would say that (a) is why others will often offer to help you with figuring out certain things, making certain types of necessary measurements, etc., while (b) is now established as fundamental requirements for the full functioning of the human brain. Incidentally, this particular knowledge-set was available to Latter-Day Saints in 1835, about 130 years before the Surgeon General's famous 1964 report.

There are other, even more direct sources of understanding and knowledge.

The take-home here: you can get an answer to whatever is important to you - if you are patient enough, if you are obedient enough - and if you are humble enough. For starters, do not ever consider the science you now understand as the final answer. The history of science itself will immediately paint you the fool.


10 October 2011

7 June 1995

That's a very important date to me and to my family.

But first, some history. I grew up during the height of the Cold War. I still remember crouching under my desk during bomb drills in elementary school (as if...). With this terrifying threat drummed in your mind long enough - not a day seemed to go by without a short film clip of a nuclear test - it's not surprising that many people of my generation worried a lot about a nuclear holocaust. When the US and the USSR between them (mid 1970's) had sufficient nuclear devices to turn this entire planet into a cinder many times over, well, it can color your thinking.

I mostly got over it, but it started worrying me a lot again after my children were born. Should we even have children? While pondering and praying about this in 1979, a startling understanding burst into my mind. I can't articulate it better than this, but the understanding was instantaneous, and it was not in English. I had to convert it to English to share it with my wife. In short: "Don't worry. There will not be a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. There will be a nuclear exchange in the future, but in another, narrower venue." I was told where that other venue would be, but can only share it with my family for reasons that I need not explain to a Latter-Day Saint.

Fast forward to 1989: the USSR crumbled almost overnight after being one pole of a bipolar world (pun intended) for over 70 years. The START treaty and START II led to (by comparison, at least) dramatic reductions in nuclear stockpiles.

Fast Forward to 2004: evil incarnate, in the form of A.Q. Khan of Pakistan, stole the hardest part of nuclear weapons development - isotopic separation technology - from the Netherlands. He then shared it for huge personal bribes with Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Until they perish from this, the Pakistani people will continue to revere Khan as the Father of the Islamic Bomb. Indeed. However make no mistake about it: Khan couldn't do any of this by himself - he had nowhere near enough jets to swing it. He received nearly unlimited money for bribes and purchases from the Pakistani military, used outright theft, and voila, we have another nuclear Sword of Damocles - this time in South Asia... and in the Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean... and the South China Sea.

Flash backward to 1995: For a long time I have tried to disentangle myself from my position as deputy chief of the USGS Saudi Arabian mission. For over 30 years the Saudis have paid the USGS to map their country and do a mineral resource assessment.  For the previous four years I have been living in Jeddah, on the Red Sea, while my children have been attending boarding school in Switzerland or college in Spain and Montreal. My wife, however, has seen a steady drop in her physical health. If we go to Ireland for 10 days to do the diplomatic-passport-required annual R&R trip out of the country, her health pops back to normal. Return to the Magic Kingdom and it starts rapidly spiraling downward. I research the water supply: reverse-osmosis filtered. I check the house for mold - humidity is too low. We restrict the food to only what the US military provides through their imports at the PX in Arabian Homes - no change. I talk repeatedly to the USGS mission chief: "Jeff, we can't do without you. You are the deputy chief for science, the chief geophysicist, and head of the remote sensing section - it will take three people to replace you."

The mission chief retires in early 1995. The Saudis reject PhD scientist after PhD scientist offered by the USGS, and insist instead that the mission's finance officer - with a BA in accounting - become the next USGS mission chief. The USGS meekly complies - the Saudis have poured over $10 Billion into the US Treasury over the previous 30 years as "overhead" for the mission. George's selection may have a lot to to do with the fact that the Saudis can count on anything they ask for from him. This includes up to six pink Cadillacs (I'm not making this up) per year from him, which then disappear from both the USGS and the host agency car-pool lots. Our French counterparts are even more open about the corruption: they have hired an architect whose sole job is to design the 2nd and 3rd villas for the Assistant Deputy Minister and the Deputy Minister, so they can acquire their 2nd and 3rd co-wives respectively.

This stinks. I begin to worry that just be being a deputy mission chief, I am somehow becoming an accessory to a huge criminal enterprise. And my best friend's health is going down the tubes.

At 10:30am on 7 June 1995, I am sitting in on a nasty bureaucratic fight in the Ministry building in Jeddah. The Saudis, ever paranoid, have decided that the USGS and the BRGM are HOARDING SAUDI DATA. This first cropped up several days earlier. Understanding immediately what is happening, I call in one of the several spies assigned to my geophysics section. How do I know they are spies? They speak excellent English, have no other apparent skill set - and want to talk all the time and ask me questions. I ask Hani to go through my computer with me, and then go through every other computer in the section. I instruct him to extract all the geophysical data he can find onto floppy disks and deliver the stack to the Ministry. My French BRGM counterparts, however, are very western and are being stubbornly rational: "What?!?? Archiving IBM PC 8-bit data onto obsolete DEC-10 computer tapes, with a different OS, will jumble the bit-order and will be forever unusable. This is an exercise in stupidity!" "But Jeff Wynn did it in less than a day! What is YOUR problem?" yell back the angry Saudis.

As I tilt my chair back, bemused at this spectacle, a thought enters my mind - and it does so instantaneously. It is so clear and strong that I nearly fall out of my chair.  It is not in English - it is a crisp, diamond-hard, pure understanding : "The time to depart with your family is October. Don't worry. This is in answer to your prayers and worries over the past 18 months." Click, it ends within a microsecond of starting. This did not come from my mind, and I am astounded, shocked. It makes no sense.

90 minutes later I head home for lunch, and share this astounding experience with my wife. What could this mean? The logical time to leave - even if the USGS lets me - is in August, when the kids can start the Fall semester in school. I have another 3 hours to ponder this when the phone in my office rings. George asks if I could come downstairs to his office in the huge USGS complex.

"Jeff, I have a big problem, and don't know what to do."

Tell me. 

"I got a call at noon today from Khabiri, the Deputy Minister - that means I miss my lunch and it is done deliberately to punish me.. I got to his office and he said 'Tell Jeff Wynn to stop practicing his religion.' "I ask him what he meant? Khabiri gestured to his desk and said 'I have report after report from the Mukhabarrat (the Saudi Secret Police) that Jeff Wynn attends Christian meetings at different houses every Friday. Tell him to stop this.' "

My skin runs cold: this means I've been followed. It also means that the Assistant Deputy Minister, who covets the Deputy Minister's job, is about to use me once again with some trumped-up issue, to force the Deputy Minister down to his office during yet another weekend. The Deputy Minister is a lawyer and smart enough to know what is probably coming next. More seriously, it means that the local police are about to raid our LDS Church meeting. The local police are not told that Latter-Day Saints have authorization from Higher Up to meet with up to 35 people per house at one time. No, this is the land of the Haramain - the Two Holy Mosques - a land where theaters or other social/political gatherings of three and more people are absolutely forbidden. I have a diplomatic passport and speak sufficient Arabic to walk away from this, but the German, British, and Filipino guys will all be thrown in jail for up to several months. Their wives if present will be put in a women's prison, and any children will be put into a Saudi orphanage. It will take months to sort out, because the Saudis will not bother to call or notify anyone. The Filipinos will almost certainly be beaten repeatedly and eventually deported - at a huge economic loss to them and to their families. This is how it always happens, at least - I've searched for and found several of them among the seven jails (that we know about) in Jeddah. We routinely go searching to get them out of jail when they don't show up at Church. Usually they haven't eaten for up to 6 days by then, so I would always bring food with me.

All of this pours through my mind, but I've had more than four hours to think about this. "No problem, George, I will resign immediately and return to the domestic USGS program."

"You can't do that! This place will fall apart! I don't know jack about geology or mineral resources! I DEPEND ON YOU!"

"George, no one is irreplaceable. I will personally help the chief geologist to find the replacements. And George - you know very well that if you don't comply with this instruction, your daughter in college will NOT receive the necessary visa to come and spend the summer with you. She'll be stuck looking for a place to stay in the States."

"Oh God, you're right... you would do this for the mission ( = for me)?"

"Sure, George, I'll have the letter in your hands in 10 minutes."

I return to my office and called my former Branch Chief in the USGS Reston, VA, National Center, and explain this to him.

Klaus' reply is telling: "Wow, Jeff, we'd love to get you back - we are desperately short of people with your skill-sets. But whatever you do, delay your return until 15 October at the earliest."

"What? Why?"

"Because we will be having a RIF - a Reduction in Force - and will lose about 1,000 people from the USGS Geologic Division. You have a guaranteed re-employment clause in your Saudi agreement, but if you came back it would knock someone else off the ladder. The RIF notices will be handed out on August 15, 1995. People will have until October 15 to clear out their offices."

I ponder that.

The next day, George shakily tells me that he explained to Khabiri that I have resigned rather than stop practicing my religion. He reports that Khabiri is enraged: Why?!?? George says that, "Well, Jeff can't go to a Church like you can go to a mosque." As Khabiri stares at him, George then said this:  "Despite the teachings of the Qu'ran, no Christian Church can be built in Saudi Arabia." George reports that Khabiri screamed at him "Don't you presume to tell me what the Qu'ran teaches!" - and threw a copy of the Qu'ran at him! George says could think of nothing better to do than to beat a hasty retreat without saying anything more. He is afraid to return to the Ministry... or to answer his phone.

As the summer proceeds I learn that the full $25,000 fee for Cory's senior year at the boarding school in Laysin, Switzerland, must be paid by mid-August. The mission is more than happy to pay this, so Cory finishes his senior year with friends and has the American School in Laysin on his transcript to get into Virginia Tech. Even though his grades are good, he's an exotic - he adds diversity to the student body and is coveted by admissions officials.

In early October, my Saudi, Palestinian, Sudani, Somali, and Filipino staff put on a lavish farewell party for me. Later I realize that you don't cover an acre in the middle of a giant traffic loop with Persian carpets for ordinary parties. They present me with a gorgeous carpet as a gift, which I later learns is worth $2,600. They are quietly trying to convey a message - to me, but also to the Deputy Minister (who is not among the ~200 invited guests). For years afterward, when one of them comes to the States for training, they go out of their way to visit me.

We departed Saudi Arabia on October 9th, and we both looked around and remarked that the lights in the aircraft got suddenly brighter as we cleared Saudi airspace. We spent a paradisaical week in a Mediterranean sea-front hotel in Gammarth, Tripoli, and visited Carthage. We then spent three days in Lisbon - whose history of ocean navigation and exploration has always fascinated me - then flew on to Paris. Our multi-lingual Cory arrived that same day by Bullet Train from Switzerland to spend much of a fun-filled week with us touring the Musee d'Orsay, Montmartre, the Louvre, and the Hotel des Invalides (another special place for me).

On October 22 Cory returned to Leysin, and we flew on to Dulles Airport, where I kissed the ground, so happy to be an American. There we were met by our 22-yr-old Jared, who had just completed his LDS mission in the Czech and Slovak Republics (and now speaks 6 languages), and our 14-yr-old Don, who had flown out of Jeddah two weeks earlier to camp in our house with his older brother. It was camping, too: no furniture, no utensils, no car - just our friends the Willises providing support.  The next day I showed up at work in Reston,VA, and was given the key to a large but utterly filthy office; the previous owner had had little incentive to clean anything. It took me three days to clean it sufficiently to move my stuff in, during which I struck up a friendship with an LDS painting contractor working there. By an interesting (perhaps foreboding) coincidence, the building walls - previously color-coded to help people navigate in a huge building made up of 8 floors of 12-sided stars - was being repainted battleship gray. Government contract: the lowest bidder wins.

I have never forgotten that Bright and Shining - and instantaneous, non-English - message of 7 June 1995.