December 2009

Posted by Ellen

Some people think it's been way too long since the last cute puppy picture, so . . . here's Stella, looking up at us from Michele Manno's lap. Clearly, the leopard-print fabric doesn't fool her for a minute.

Posted by Ellen

This is an ibex, photographed by Ruggero Barsacchi on safari in . . . Italy.

I guess I didn't know my ibex from my keister. To me, this guy looks like African big game, maybe an antelope sort of creature that might even give a lion a hard time. Nope. You're looking at lo stambecco, the mountain goat of the Italian Alps.

Ibexes are not really big enough to take on lions, but at 100 kilograms or more, with horns up to a meter in length, a full-grown male ibex can do a number on a wolf. Prized medicinally--almost all its body parts and also its excrement were said to cure whatever ails you--by the early nineteenth century it had been hunted almost to extinction. Ibex herds are now protected and have grown dramatically; the species is no longer considered particularly endangered.

Posted by Ellen


C-T scans have been in the news recently; evidently, they can sometimes be dangerous, zapping people with risky levels of radiation. My master's thesis involved a C-T scan, but fortunately a very safe one, of a rock instead of a human being. Rocks can sit there and take huge doses of X-rays without injury or complaint, making them ideal targets for this sort of procedure. Because there's no need for radiological restraint, scanning a rock can yield much clearer, more detailed results than scanning a live person. It's also a lot cheaper.

The rock I sent to Texas for a C-T scan was a metamorphic chunk of the North Cascades mountains in the state of Washington. It had garnets in it. Each garnet was surrounded by a shell of pure-white minerals: quartz and plagioclase. The rest of the rock--what we termed the matrix-- looked dark gray in color; it actually consisted of the same white minerals as in the shells, flecked with tiny black grains of a kind of mica called biotite.

We were trying to figure out why the garnets were set off from the rock matrix by the white shells, which we called coronas. Our hypothesis was that unusual conditions during the rock's metamorphism had permitted garnet growth but had simultaneously limited diffusion of elements that the garnets would consume during their growth. We wanted to know more about the geometry of the coronas, and about the separation between garnets and matrix. So we shipped a core of rock about an inch in diameter to a C-T lab at the University of Texas, where it was zapped with X-rays;  the results were reconstructed by a computer, rendered in 3-D, colorized, and made into a little animated movie.

I've posted the movie on YouTube. I recommend watching it--even if it's not your kind of movie, it only lasts 12 seconds. The garnets in the rock are rendered red, the corona shells green, and the matrix rendered as transparent, with a slight reddish speckling of biotite grains. When I first saw this movie, I'd spent months working with the rock sample, but I was surprised by how long and snake-like the coronas are, and how many clumps of garnets each corona engulfs. How did this happen? The short answer is that the rock got squished squished and heated and stretched and squished and heated again during its mountain-building experience, which coincided roughly with the era of the extinction of the dinosaurs. The long answer is published in a journal called Canadian Mineralogy.

And now, the rock is doing a star turn on the internet, in what I honestly believe to be the first true hard-rock video on YouTube.

Posted by Ellen

This image is from a computer model of a sunspot. Notice the scale bar at the bottom--that's not millimeters but Megameters: 1 Megameter = 1,000 kilometers.

Sunspots are occasionally visible to the naked eye near sunrise or sunset, if they are particularly large and if there's haze or thin clouds to partially dim the sunlight. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, it's been known that they have something to do with the sun's magnetic field, and that they may have consequences for electrical activity here on earth. We know that sunspots come and go in cycles lasting about eleven years and that years of high sunspot activity are often characterized by relatively cold weather. But even today, people who know a whole lot about sunspots say they don't understand them all that well.

The complex interaction of magnetic forces, superheated gases, the sun's huge gravitational field, and the nuclear reactions that keep stars glowing can't all be modeled in detail on a Macbook. In fact, supercomputing power has only recently become available in support of such a project, and this simulation of sunspot activity--published last June by researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the Max Planck Institute in Germany--is said to be the first comprehensive model. The sunspot itself is represented by the dark spot in the middle; it's a sort of blob of solar gas that no longer glows white-hot like the rest of the sun because it's been ejected from the main solar body by a fierce magnetic storm. Once it's ejected, the gas is not part of the ongoing nuclear reaction heating the sun.The blob cools down a bit and shows up dark compared to the glowing disk of the sun, though it's still plenty hot. It doesn't  fly off into space because the sun's gravity keeps it trapped, but it can't reconsolidate into the main solar body because of magnetic forces. All these processes and more are computer-modeled to produce a sort of movie in which a sunspot is born, grows, and eventually dies. The colors of the imagery reflect the relative heat of the gases.

The authors of this model admit it is flawed; the gas flares near the edges of the penumbra are sized incorrectly. They say they know how to fix this issue but do not yet have the super-supercomputing power they would need to do the job right.

Sunspot activity is correlated with cold weather on earth because the blobs of dark, relatively cool gases block a bit of the sun's heat from radiating out to the earth. The years 2009 and 2010 are fairly high sunspot years in the eleven-year cycle, so we shouldn't be surprised if this winter winds up relatively cold--not abnormally crazy cold, but perhaps on the cold side of average. The sunspot effect may become less noticeable, however, as global warming progresses;  even if we collect a little less heat than average from the sun this year, relatively more of that heat will be trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases, and relatively more of this year's heat will still be trapped in our atmosphere next year and the year after that. Each year, the trapped heat is becoming relatively more important in controlling our weather, and small fluctuations in heat input caused by sunspots are becoming relatively less important.

The magnetic storms associated with sunspot activity, however, remain extremely important. Disruptions in the sun's magnetic field can wreak havoc with sensitive electrical equipment here on earth, even causing major blackouts in the electrical grid. It has been suggested that if we understood sunspots better we might eventually learn to predict them.


Posted by Ellen

Downtown Havana, Cuba, in 2009.

Posted by Ellen

Susan Wiggin's daughter Emily wore her Super Girl dress for Thanksgiving dinner. After dinner, Emily posed with her Grandma Helen and with Maggie Stein, who also has a Grandma Helen.


Posted by Ellen

In 1979, the developers of Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois, near Chicago, went bankrupt. More than a hundred merchants abandoned the mall overnight, including the big three anchor tenants, Sears, Penney's, and Montgomery Ward. The trees and ivy in the planters in center court were left to overgrow. The parking lot was left to . . . things went so far south in the parking lot that the town of Harvey built a police substation in the middle of it. You can still go inside the mall, if the spirit moves you--ever since people busted the doors and broke the plywood that was supposed to board things up, the place has been wide open for decades. It has been reported that the food court and much of the rest of the territory is controlled by packs of dogs. When cinematographers need a location for the next dystopic blockbuster, they can check out Dixie Square Mall.

And we're going to have to get used to this, because as the housing bust now spreads to commercial properties in suburbs all over America, Dixie Square Mall is a harbinger. Welcome to the twenty-first century. Already, the phenomenon has atrracted its own historical website--deadmallsdotcom--and a small army of documentary photographers. This photo is by Brian Ulrich.


Posted by Ellen

This building is headquarters for the NXP corporation in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

I like the looks of the building a lot, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like working in it. NXP makes semiconductors and suchlike, including chips for car radio tuners, cable-TV boxes, and keyless entry systems. Half the laptop computers in the world use NXP chips in their power supplies. Although these products seem socially useful, and I'm sure they are challenging to make, there's something scary about the corporate culture.

This is the first sentence of NXP's press release from yesterday: "NXP now offers the industry-leading TJA1021TK, the first LIN 2.1-certified transceiver, in a space-saving HVSON8 package."

And this is the first sentence of the press release from the day before yesterday: "With TDA18272, NXP introduces a unique Master/Slave architecture for optimizing the design of multi-tuner applications."

It's like they're trying to make me feel stupid.  Even so, I think they've got a pretty building.

Posted by Ellen

Geology professor Harold Stowell from the University of Alabama recently taught a workshop in Beijing and then caught a train on the new railroad connecting China and Tibet. After a ride lasting forty-eight hours along the highest train tracks in the world, he got off near this monastery, where he says a monk approached him and asked to have this picture taken.

Dr. Stowell , who was my master's adviser at Alabama, started out in geology the old-fashioned way, prospecting for gold and uranium in Alaska. One summer, he found a nice gold mine in a spectacularly beautiful setting at the mouth of a fjord in southeast Alaska. He showed the mining company just where they should come in and tear up the mountain, scarring a pristine landscape and leaching poisons into the fjord. They would have to start by building a road two thousand feet up the mountain to access the best approach to the gold. But in that part of Alaska, land at two thousand feet above sea level is buried in snow and ice almost the entire year. The company decided that a mine so high up would be uneconomical, and Dr. Stowell recalls that he expected to feel disappointed but actually felt tremendously relieved. The place wouldn't be ruined after all.

His latest research projects involve fieldwork in Doubtful Sound and Secretary Island, New Zealand, where he is trying to figure out "the relationship between partial melting, garnet growth, and strain during late stage extension of the lower crust." I would have to agree with him that not enough is known about that stuff, even though it won't help anyone find more gold or platinum or oil or anything else useful.

Posted by Ellen

Two girls who have recently immigrated to the United States, one from China and the other from Pakistan, have learned enough English and reading in Michele Manno's sixth-grade class to enjoy storybooks. Ms. Manno observes that both girls are good kids, eager to learn and interested in school, but one of them studies hard and the other "wants it spoon fed." They live and attend school in Queens, New York.