• Jerry wants some help identifying a mineral; I’m inclined to say “uh, green, um, chlorite? epidote?” but that’s why I’m not a real geologist. He’s also got some tomatoes going, and by zoinks, it’s March, time to get cracking on these recalcitrant scavenged Cherokee Purples!
  • Am I the only one who finds her eyebrows falling out in clumps? No loose eyebrows, no loose eyebrows, no loose eyebrows, then all of a sudden, BAM! A dozen eyebrows on my finger after scratching my forehead.
  • This one’s been in the “to blog” folder for a while, but I can’t think of anything clever to add:

    I do not work for little more than minimum wage in the kid’s section of a large bookstore because I am “naturally” better at dealing with kids or because I cannot cut it – tech wise – in a technical field. I work where I do mainly because books, unlike science, have never ceased to be safe, and I’ve always been on the nervous and shy side. While I do not blame sexism alone for constricting my choices, my logical brain cannot but boggle at the audacity of men who cry “cooties!” at the mere mention of anything not hypermasculine and then turn around and say that I’m not competitive enough. Seriously, watch how the slashdotters mock femininity by joking about “Hello Kitty lab coats” and then recoil in horror at their own invention.

  • Earth science + social science = lurve?

    “All the years I worked as a geophysicist, I wondered about issues like global poverty and what it might take to get people out of it,” said Dr. Mutter, 57, who is now the deputy director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “I kept wondering if there wasn’t something we scientists could do about global poverty.”
    In most parts of the world, people depend on the earth for their livelihoods. “If we can understand more how the earth functions,” Dr. Mutter said, “we can learn how it interacts with human well-being.”

    The general lack of explicitly acknowledged social consciousness among earth scientists is… discomfiting. Lots of use variations on the theme of “we can learn how it interacts with human well-being” when we’re begging the government for research money, but it’s like Richard Feynman said about sex and physics: it sometimes has a practical result, but that’s not really why we do it. This article doesn’t really indicate what Mutter is doing to go deeper than that lip service, and I’m too sleepy to investigate, but I’m glad someone is out there trying, anyway.


  1. b wrote:

    How would you describe how -your- research interacts with human well-being? Or do you not know yet?
    I don’t mean to be snide — I’m genuinely curious. It’s something I’ve been struggling with since grad school.

  2. yami wrote:

    That’s a good question – and I don’t really know yet. I mean, obviously I have the stock answers that all earth scientists fall back on, that figuring out the basics will help us be smarter about avoiding geologic hazards and using geologic resources. My current project is doesn’t have much in the way of direct applications to resource or hazard management, though.
    Doing it interacts with my well-being, of course, and that’s fundamentally why I’m here. If I were maximizing my social benefit I’d be drilling wells in Africa, or building cheap earthquake-resistant structures in Pakistan, etc., instead – or abandoning earth science entirely in favor of politics and economics. Even if I move to something with more practical earthquake engineering applications (which I’d like to do, at some point), investing in fancy new mitigation in the first world seems like a waste when there’s still so much low-hanging fruit, so to speak, in the rest of the world.

  3. b wrote:

    Does laboring in the third world maximize your social benefit? Suppose that, instead of flying off to Africa or Pakistan, you sat at your desk in Berkeley and invented the Dows-o-matic wellamadriller, or some sort of quake-proof Insta-shelter kit. Assuming your inventions are ten times as efficient as you and your hammer, you’ve ten-timed your social benefit.
    Now suppose that, instead of inventing those devices, you create some tool or scientific principle that lets someone else invent them… and lets nine other inventors invent nine other things. That’s another 10x. Now suppose that you create the tool that helps create tools. Meta-meta-meta.
    I kind of think that it’s a person’s responsibility to go as high in the pyramid as their intellect will take them. Often that means not directly working on the problem of interest, but on some abstraction or generalization.
    There’s a great speech by Richard Hamming which I try to reread every year or so. One of the great passages ends with: “Instead of attacking isolated problems, I made the resolution that I would never again solve an isolated problem except as characteristic of a class.”

  4. yami wrote:

    Yebbut I’m not guaranteed to be successful in my quest to invent a wellamadriller or a fabulously applicable scientific theory, while I am reasonably certain that laboring in the third world would pay off. Maximizing the expected value of one’s social contribution means making some estimate of the odds that higher-level efforts will succeed. Also, directing your efforts to the problems you think are most likely to pay off – as a junior grad student I feel like I’m still acquiring background knowledge and learning how to do that. But I’m not learning it any faster than I would if I were drilling wells in Chad, where I could see firsthand what the problems are.
    That’s a nice speech, thanks

  5. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Would the people of Chad be better off if you were drilling water wells or oil wells?

  6. yami wrote:

    In this political reality, or a different one?

  7. Lab Lemming wrote:

    What is the current political reality in Chad? Did Lybia ever give back those oil fields it borrowed back in the 80’s?
    The other question, of course, is whether Saharan groundwater is too saline to drink. ‘Cause if it is, drilling wells isn’t going to be all that helpful, unless you are trying to reinvigorate the Saharan Salt trade.

  8. yami wrote:

    Oh, you and your pesky facts!

  9. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Well, if you learn enough geophysics to be able to teach chadians how to find and recover their own water and oil resources, then they can figure out all the pesky facts themselves.

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