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Oso tragic, Oso foolish

by Donald Prothero, Apr 02 2014

Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.

—Will Durant

For my post this week, I originally planned to write about the 50th anniversary of the Great Alaska earthquake, March 27, 1964. It was the largest measured quake in U.S. history, measuring 9.2 on the moment magnitude scale, and caused huge amounts of destruction in southern Alaska. It also profoundly changed the science of geology as well, since it proved that subduction zones were real, and showed us how the land changed after subduction zone earthquakes. And then as I finished this post on March 28, the earthquakes along the Puente Hills fault started to roll in. It seemed that earthquakes were the theme of the week!

But then another disaster grabbed the headlines, and pointed to some important issues that seemed even more timely. On Monday, March 24, we heard the news of the gigantic landslide that buried the tiny town of Oso, Washington, about an hour north and east of Seattle. When I originally wrote  this (March 28), the official death toll was  25, but over 90 were missing and feared dead. At last count it is 28 dead, 22 still missing. Most of the news coverage of the story focuses on the horrors of thousands of tons of mud and rocks roaring down on people in a matter of seconds, burying them alive or crushing them under the enormous weight of wet mud, ripping houses and cars to shreds, and even shredding the clothes off the bodies of the victims. In the weeks before the slide, over twice the amount of the normal rainfall fell, saturating the ground and increasing the pore pressure so the sediment was like quicksand or wet concrete. The slide material itself was made of ancient glacial lake and valley sediments, mostly porous sand that can absorb a lot of moisture, and is loose and crumbly, so when it is saturated, it will flow. Witnesses described the  debris flow  as a “fast-moving wall of mud” containing trees and other debris cutting through homes directly beneath the hill. A firefighter stated, “When the slide hit the river, it was like a tsunami”.  In numerical terms, the size of the mudflow is staggering. It’s estimated at 15 million cubic yards moved all at once. A Washington state geologist said the slide was one of the largest landslides he’d seen. The mud, soil and rock debris left from the mudslide is 1,500 ft (460 m) long, 4,400 ft (1,300 m) wide and deposited debris 30 to 40 ft (9.1 to 12.2 m) deep.

(continue reading…)

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House of cards

by Donald Prothero, Mar 26 2014
The "Creation Museum" in Petersburg, Kentucky, ironically built upon rocks which disprove Noah's flood

The “Creation Museum” in Petersburg, Kentucky, ironically built upon rocks which disprove Noah’s flood

A foolish man, which built his house upon the sand—Matthew 7: 24-27.

Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee—Job 12:8

During the Ham on Nye debate last February 4, Bill led off with a great example to throw Ken off balance. He pointed out that (ironically), the Creation “Museum” itself was built upon rocks which refuted flood geology! Bill even brought a piece of fossiliferous limestone from a road cut nearby to show that it was full of fossils, delicately preserved, and not the kind of thing a flood would produce. He explained it briefly, but I don’t know how many people got the point—and given the humorless nature of most creationists who don’t catch on to sarcasm and snark, I doubt they even noticed the irony that their entire model was refuted by the rocks beneath them at that very place.

Let’s look at the geologic background to this concept. First of all, how do limestones form? Geologists know from studying them all over the world, and looking closely at them in ancient settings, that limestones are produced by the accumulation of fragments of calcareous animals and plants (shell fragments, corals, pieces of calcareous algae) in warm, shallow, clear tropical waters, with no mud or sand from land that would clog the gills of the shelly organisms or corals, or make the water dark and muddy. Since many of these organisms (especially corals) only form big reefs in warm tropical waters, and since much of the reef community is plants (not only the calcareous algae, but also the algae symbiotically living in reef coral polyps), the water must be very shallow and clear to allow light penetration. Consequently,  modern limestones are formed in shallow clear tropical waters far from the mud of land-based rivers: the Bahamas, Bermuda, Yucatan, the Atlantic Coast of Florida (but not the Gulf side, where Mississippi mud darkens the waters), the Persian Gulf, and the southwest Pacific and Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Nowhere else! Not only is this a very restricted setting, but under no circumstances do limestones (today or in the past) show any evidence of being formed in the muddy, turbulent, cold waters of a typical flood—or even a supernatural flood. If you look at them closely, they are accumulations of layer after layer of fossil communities, slowly building on top of each other in quiet waters, often with delicate organisms (such as the stick-like bryozoans and delicate corals and sponges) buried in life position, with no evidence that they had been battered and toppled by the powerful energy of flood waters. Knowing this, right away we can refute “flood geology”, because there are many places in the world with huge piles of limestone, each made of layer upon layer of delicate fossils, that cannot be made by flood energy. Heck, even the creationists’ favorite example, the Grand Canyon, is built with many limestone layers: the Muav Limestone near the base, the huge thickness of Redwall Limestone at the cliff break, and the Kaibab and Toroweap Limestones that cap the rim. (continue reading…)

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The myth of “earthquake weather”

by Donald Prothero, Mar 19 2014
Shaking intensity map of the March 17, 2014, Sherman Oaks quake

Shaking intensity map of the March 17, 2014, Sherman Oaks quake

As Saint Patrick’s Day was beginning to dawn here in Los Angeles, most people in the central and western side of the city were abruptly awakened just after 6:30 a.m. by a 4.4 magnitude quake on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains, near Woodland Hills, where I teach geology at Pierce College. It awoke my family during the 2-5 seconds of shaking, but I slept through it. I’ve been through the 1971 Sylmar quake, the 1987 Whittier quake, the 1994 Northridge quake—every major quake here since I was born in the region, so a piddling 4.4 doesn’t even rattle me. I even was lucky enough to experience a rare Eastern earthquake when I felt the Virginia quake of August, 2011, from the top floor of the Frick Wing of the American Museum of Natural History.

We immediately turned on the news and got the basic information about the quake, as the magnitude was downgraded from 4.7 to 4.4 when better data came in, and the location was moved from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, closer to the actual fault line on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Most of the reporting was competent, although in the early stages, it’s largely silly stuff like “Did you feel it?” and “What did it feel like?” rather than anything accurate or scientific that would tell us something important about the quake. Sure enough, sooner or later it was bound to happen: one of the “man-on-the-street” interviewees spouted  the geologists’ least favorite myth: “Oh, it was warm yesterday, so there must have been earthquake weather.” Fortunately, the news anchor was smart enough to dismiss this urban myth and move on to another interview, but if you surfed the internet, it was full of claims that “earthquake weather” must have caused this quake. (Geologists’ other pet peeve: people—especially  news anchors and reporters—using the term “tidal wave” for tsunamis, which have nothing to do with tides. Fortunately, the lessons of the Dec. 26, 2004, Sumatran quake and tsunami seem to have reduced the incidences of these displays of ignorance ). (continue reading…)

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“Cosmos” Reboots

by Donald Prothero, Mar 12 2014

COSMOS-SAGAN-TYSON
Like many scientists, for over a year I’ve been anxiously awaiting the first episode of the new version of “Cosmos,” starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. A reboot of the classic series originally done by Carl Sagan in 1980, this version is co-written and co-produced by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan. It is also co-produced by “Family Guy” creator Seth Macfarlane and by Jason Clark (producer of “42″, “Ted”, and the newly released “Mr. Peabody and Sherman”, which premiered the same weekend; he’s married to former actress Kimberly Beck, a high-school classmate of mine).  I figured with these people at the helm, and Tyson as the spokesperson, they would not disappoint. But I was not prepared for how amazing the first episode turned out, even given those high expectations.

It aired on Sunday, March 9, on Fox, which had me a bit concerned, given the political bent of their news network, but this was because Macfarlane has good connections at Fox thanks to “Family Guy”. As the evening started, I was watching my Facebook feed and Twitter to see the reactions from those who saw it in all the time zones before I got my chance in Pacific Daylight Time. I was a bit worried to see a few of my Facebook friends didn’t like the show, but overall it seemed that most of them loved it. Finally, we got the kids to bed and it aired at 9:00 p.m. our time. This is mighty late if they wanted to reach anyone under 12, or for early-to-bed, early-to-rise people like me who get up before 6:00 a.m. It is especially so since we had just gotten the change to Daylight Saving Time that same morning, and most of our biological clocks were out of whack. (continue reading…)

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The quake that shook the world

by Donald Prothero, Mar 11 2014

On March 11, we mark the third anniversary of the huge Sendai earthquake and tsunami in Japan (officially known as the Tohoku quake of 2011, since it struck that region). It was the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan, and the fifth most powerful quake ever to occur since modern recordkeeping began in 1900. It started when the oceanic crust about 70 km (43 miles) to the east of Tohoku and 30 km below the surface thrust down into the subduction zone beneath Japan. This plate movement produced a quake with a moment magnitude of 9.0, and it caused the islands of Japan to shift 2.4 m (8 feet) east in a matter of seconds. The upward acceleration on the quake was almost 3 times the force of gravity, so many objects flew up in the air. It released almost twice as much energy as the Sumatran quake on Dec. 26, 2004, which killed a quarter of a million people. The energy released by the quake would have been enough to power Los Angeles for an entire year. The earthquake even shifted the earth’s axis and caused it to wobble as much as 10-25 cm (4-10 inches). It also generated low-frequency sound waves that could be detected by satellites.

The quake shook up my life in many ways. Just weeks before, my new book Catastrophes! had been published, and the publicity folks at Johns Hopkins University Press asked me to be prepared to get a big boost of press events and sales if a natural disaster occurred. Sure enough, a week or two later we heard the news from Japan, and suddenly my phone was ringing off the hook. The next morning, I found myself getting up at 5:00 a.m. to drive over to a studio where I could speak directly to the East Coast audiences on MSNBC twice in a few hours–my first experience as a “talking head expert” on TV. Then I got home and found a call from the Los Angeles Times for a short piece on earthquakes and preparedness, which I wrote in just two hours and was published on the editorial page of the Times the next morning. That same day it appeared, I got a call from Mayor Villaraigosa, who wanted my opinion on earthquake preparedness in Los Angeles, and what we should do besides our annual “California Shake-Out” drills each October. Over the next few months, I found myself doing interview after interview: NPR, BBC, PBS, and numerous other radio and TV outlets. Never in my life have I gotten so much free publicity for promoting a book! (continue reading…)

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The $10 million Bigfoot bust

by Donald Prothero, Mar 05 2014

A few months ago, there was a big buzz of publicity for a new show on Spike TV called “The $10 Million Bigfoot Bounty”. As I described in my post shortly after it began, it was a cross between a typical competitive reality show in a rugged location (like “Survivor” or “The Amazing Race”), with a veneer of cryptozoology to give it a new twist. Originally, eight teams of two people were to compete for a $10 million bounty if they found good evidence of Bigfoot, and a $100,000 “research grant” as a consolation prize for the team that did the best even if they didn’t find  Bigfoot. The series was hosted by former “Superman” actor Dean Cain, and the judges were molecular anthropologist Dr. Todd Disotell and primatologist Natalia Reagan.

Well, the show finally aired its eighth and last episode (some of which can still be watched on the show’s website). If you were watching a few episodes and want to follow it to the end, I won’t reveal everything and spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that none of the teams were very competent, so the “winner” could have been just about any of the original groups of contestants, except for those who were so completely out of shape and unfamiliar with the woods that they dropped out after a round or two. And it should come as no surprise (since it taped last summer and there were no leaks of amazing discoveries) that no evidence of Bigfoot was found—not even close! Nobody won the $10 million bounty. Instead, the final competition hiking all around the Porcupine Mountains State Park on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan hinged on whether one of the two teams didn’t bicker all the time—since the “evidence” both teams obtained was worthless. In the teaser for the episode, Disotell says they each got primate DNA! And then, after commercial, he finishes his sentence and says that it was human DNA (probably from the “hunters” themselves). (continue reading…)

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“Observational” vs. “historical” science? Pure bunk!

by Donald Prothero, Feb 26 2014

Csi_Logo

One of the recurring themes at the Feb. 4 debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham was Ham’s continuously harping on a supposed distinction between “observational science” (science we can observe in real time) and “historical science” (science that must be inferred from the past). This strange distinction is almost unique to Ken Ham, although I’m sure he borrowed from older creationist writings somewhere, since I remember reading about it when I researched creationism in the 1980s. Nevertheless, Ham kept pounding on it again and again, refusing to talk about any scientific evidence that couldn’t be witnessed in real time.

As many scientists have discussed, this distinction is complete bunk, and only Ken Ham and his followers seem to think that it makes any sense. Naturally, he pounds on this phony, self-serving, artificial distinction because it plays in his favor. Each time Bill pressed him on one point or another, Ham retreated behind his dodge of no one can know anything of “historical” past, then made the ridiculous assertion that the only reliable source of information about the past is the Bible. (Bill was too much of a gentleman to challenge him on this and ask Ken how he knows this. As Ham always says, “Were you there?”). Most of science tells us that the earth is old, that life has evolved, and so on. Ham wants to throw all this information away, so he creates a convenient but ridiculous distinction that serves his purposes—but bears no relation to what real scientists do or think. (continue reading…)

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Dancing into an uncertain future

by Donald Prothero, Feb 19 2014
Eager young VP students dance through the night at the after-meeting party. Photo by R. Hunt-Foster.

Eager young VP students dance through the night at the after-meeting party. (Photo by R. Hunt-Foster).

Last November, the 73rd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) was held here in Los Angeles. SVP is my professional society, since my primary training and research is fossil vertebrates (especially fossil mammals like rhinos, peccaries, camels, horses, and others). My first SVP  was the 1977 meeting, the last time it was held here in Los Angeles, when I was just a beginning graduate student. Since then,  I’ve been to every meeting of SVP, a streak of 36 years in a row. It’s my lifeline, and I wouldn’t consider missing it for anything. Once a year I get to see all my closest professional friends and colleagues, people I spent months in the field with, former officemates from grad school, and find out the latest news about people I’ve known for 30 years or more. I also present my own research (I always do at least one presentation, and sometimes my name is on several more by my students), and I usually get to see my former students as they grow and thrive in their own careers. For five years (1999-2004), I was the Program Chair, running the entire meeting and producing (editing, typesetting, etc.) the abstract volume with over 600 individual abstracts. At that point, I couldn’t miss the meeting for anything, including my brother’s wedding (I told him in advance NOT to schedule it to conflict with SVP).  Most importantly, I go each year to get some positive feedback and affirmation that my 40 years  of research and scholarship is valued and means something to people who appreciate it. This is  essential when you spend the other 51 weeks of the year in a hostile department where they don’t appreciate you and try to tear you down at every opportunity.

(continue reading…)

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Hearts and minds

by Donald Prothero, Feb 12 2014

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I write this post just a few hours after watching the Ham on Nye “debate” last night. I’m still mulling over the details, and checking on line to see the evolving reactions to the events, but it’s running through my head so much now that it’s time to write it down so I can get back to work. Fittingly, it will post on February 12, Darwin’s 205th birthday. It couldn’t be more appropriate.

Let me start at the beginning. I was at Michael Shermer’s New Year’s Eve party last December 31st.  This is not just your average New Year’s Eve party: it’s in Shermer’s magnificent glass-walled view house at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains with an amazing panorama of the lights of the city below.  He had his telescope out on the porch, and we all got a view of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. The guests include Mr. Deity and “Lucy” (Brian Keith Dalton and Amy Rohren), D.J. Grothe of the James Randi Educational Foundation, lots of scientists including several JPL people, Shermer’s grad students—and Bill Nye. Late in the evening, Bill comes up to me and mentions that he had agreed to debate Ken Ham. He knew I’d beaten Duane Gish back in 1983, and that I was familiar with battling creationism over the past 35 years. After I talked to him and realized that the debate was set and he could not back out, I offered to help him prepare. Then about 3 weeks ago, he emailed me and we made arrangements. He spent a day in Oakland at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), where a bunch of their staff helped him analyze Ham’s past debates and arguments (they have archives of every creationist out there), and suggest strategies. Since Ham had voluntarily  set the debate topic to defend the scientific value and truth of the Bible, Bill was not in the usual dilemma of having to defend and explain complex topics of evolution. Normally, creationists employ the “Gish Gallop” to keep the scientist on the defensive, trying to undo the mistaken ideas and lies the creationist has just said, and replace it with a more complex explanation. Instead, the NCSE staffers  recommended that Bill use this to his advantage, and do a “reverse Gish Gallop”: pile on the examples one after another, so that Ham wouldn’t have time or ability to answer them all. (continue reading…)

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Adjunct professors: slave labor of academia

by Donald Prothero, Feb 05 2014
A plot showing the growth in number of Ph.D.'s (blue lines) versus the slow change in the academic job market (yellow lines) (From Schillebeeckx et al., 2013)

A plot showing the growth in number of Ph.D.’s (blue lines) versus the slow change in the academic job market (yellow lines) (From Schillebeeckx et al., 2013)

In my previous post, I talked about the dramatic differences between students and expectations in an elite four-year college vs. the two-year colleges. Implicit in the discussion was another topic that most of the public does not know about: the increasing use of underpaid adjunct faculty to teach courses throughout academia.

The topic finally broke through the media silence last fall when on September 1, Mary Margaret Vojtko, an adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for 25 years, died of heart attack at age 83, completely penniless. The original story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette soon made the national and international media as the sordid details emerged. Vojtko slaved away tirelessly at Duquesne for all those years with excellent teaching evaluations and everything else that should have resulted in rewards from the university. Instead, she got an adjunct contract year after year, working for less than $25,000 a year with no benefits. She fell further and further into poverty living on those wages, until she could no longer afford a home, and was completely broke by the time she died. When caseworkers from Adult Protective Services were called in to investigate, they were shocked that she was a hard-working professor, not some sort of bum off the street, and could not imagine how someone with a Ph.D. could have fallen so low without the usual problems with drugs, alcohol, or mental illness. (continue reading…)

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