William Smith and The Discovery of Geology

February 18, 2013

This week’s book was “The Map That Changed The World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” by Simon Winchester, another Christmas present from the ever-loving.

Winchester is an extraordinarily prolific writer with at least 18 full-length titles to his name, most of which have been very well received, and scores of magazine and TV articles. I have previously read his “The Professor and the Madman” (about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary) and “Krakatoa.”  He has developed a non-fiction style that is eminently readable while packing in an immensity of well-researched material.

William_Smith_(geologist)His story of William Smith, the low-born farmer’s son who first understood the stratification of geological layers and, more importantly, the value of the specific fossils found in each layer, is brilliantly told.  Smith’s trials and tribulations, including a period in debtors’ prison — many of which were a direct result of the English class system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are described in detail, as is his ultimate triumph and celebration as an old man.

In between this very human story, Winchester weaves a clear portrait of the science that Smith discovered — the lie of the ancient rocks across England — and the great hand-coloured Geological Map that he finally published in 1815.  An item of particular interest was the use of his discoveries by those — the majority — who still believed that the earth was just 4,000 years old, while many scientists quietly, secretly, realized that Smith had shown the earth to be a far more ancient object.

A very good read.


Cultural Evolution

September 11, 2012

Edward O. Wilson

I just finished reading Edward O. Wilson’s “The Social Conquest of Earth” in which he ditches the prevailing kin-selection theory (“the selfish gene”) of evolution’s natural selection in favour of a mix of kin-selection and group selection.  In particular, he proposes that cultural and social evolution is propelled by group selection.

“In the search for ultimate causes of the human condition, the distinction between levels of natural selection applied to human behaviour is not perfect. Selfish behaviour, perhaps including nepotism-generating kin selection, can in some ways promote the interests of the group through invention and entrepreneurship … Group selection in its turn promoted the genetic interests of individuals with privilege and status as rewards for outstanding performance on behalf of the tribe.

Nevertheless, an iron rule exists in genetic social evolution.  It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.  The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme.  If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve.  If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.”

He persuaded me, a layman, with logic and good scientific examples.I am amazed that this is still considered an heretical view within biological science.

Wilson was particularly interesting on the development of religion as a human-origined phenomena requiring no external power. I was disappointed, however, with what I saw as his assumption that the homo sapiens of today is the ultimate outcome of evolution, as if evolution has now ceased.  Perhaps I read him wrong, but I had this thought at several points in the book.

Well worth reading.

Stewart Brand and The Way Forward

October 5, 2010

Last night I attended a speech by Stewart Brand which effectively opened the Gaining Ground Conference on urban sustainability in Vancouver.   For those who don’t know, Brand founded and edited the Whole Earth Catalog back in the 1960s.  He founded a number of organizations including The WELL (precursor to all the internet communities of today), the Global Business Network, and the Long Now Foundation.  He is a multi-volumed author and his latest book, which formed the theme of his speech last night, is called “Whole Earth Discipline: An EcoPragmatist Manifesto.”

In the book and in the speech, Brand takes what might be considered a contrarian position on issues such as cities, nuclear power and genetically-modified food — all of which he declares to be green — and on geo-engineering, which he believes will be necessary.  Brand believes that we have to work in these directions because no other set of policies can save the earth before we reach the tipping point to destruction.

With regard to cities, Brand remarked that the Renaissance was in fact the re-urbanization of Europe after the rural retreat caused by the collapse of Rome 800 years before.  It was the cities that drove progress, and he notes that city slums around the world are the breeding ground of the most interesting and progressive entrepreneurs.  These folks are poor and do not want to be poor any more; they do what is required to improve their lives and by doing, improve the cities at the same time by developing infrastructure.   He noted the development of Sausalito (where he has lived since the early 1960s) from a ramshackle locale to a gentrified space as an example of this process.

This development was described here earlier at: “What Slums Can Teach Us.”

Brand, like me, is a big pusher for nuclear energy.  I have no way of confirming his figures but he noted that one GW of power produced by nuclear energy results in 20 tons of waste. By comparison, one GW of power from coal-fired stations creates 800,000 tons of CO2. Further, he claims, there have never been any proven child defects as a result of nuclear disasters at Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Chernobyl.  Moreover, the area around Chernobyl is now one of the most successful wildlife areas — as a result of the removal of humans and human activity in the region.  He is in favour of very-deep bore holes for storage of the nuclear waste.

Stewart Brand is also a supporter of genetically-modified food primarily, it seems, because he sees it as the best way to deliver additional food and nutritional value.  Along the same lines, he believes that “garage biotech” will be the growing hobby — as programming was in the 70s and 80s.

He now believes — with reluctance, he admits — that some level of geo-engineering will be necessary as we are now not able to mitigate the effects of emissions in time.  He remarked that we would need three Mount Pinatubo-value eruptions each year to counter the rise in heat on the earth.  He has looked at atomizing seawater into the atmosphere to brighten the albedo affect from clouds which would help cool the earth.

Basically his point is that our problems are now so great that we will need to engineer ourselves out of them — ecological sentiment is simply not enough.  He hopes that the “legacy resistance” against older “new” technologies (nuclear, GM food, etc) will not stop us finding pragmatic solutions to the earth’s crisis.

The speech was the first in the new Fay & Milton Wong Theatre at the brand new SFU campus in the re-developed Woodward’s building.  It was a sold-out event at the 400-seat locale and attendees included BC Premier Gordon Campbell.

The Discovery of Asteroids

August 26, 2010

This is an extraordinary video.  It illustrates the discovery of asteroids in our solar system between 1980 and 2010.  The first time an asteroid is discovered it shown in bright white.  It then becomes green or, if it is an earth orbit-crossing asteroid it becomes red. Those asteroids that closely approach the earth are shown in yellow.  The years and the total number of asteroids are shown at the bottom left of the screen.  As the years pass, the number of asteroids discovered increases rapidly.  This is best seen at full screen.

More than 500,000 asteroids have now been found within the solar system, and thousands of them cross our orbit.  The scientists say that the rate of discovery is not slowing down.

In the video you can see the pattern of discovery follows the Earth around its orbit and most discoveries are made in the region directly opposite the Sun.  The orbital elements were created by Ted Bowell and associates at Arecibo. See this webpage for more info.

I got this video from http://www.universetoday.com

Weather In The Cold War

August 12, 2010

I am a devotee of linear history: I like to know the order in which things happened, what came first, what came next. Give me the timeline before giving me your explanation or analysis. In an earlier iteration of my blog, I tried to catalog some of these “cultural beginnings” and I have continued this here.

It will come as no surprise therefore that I just love the History of Science Timeline site.

Having been born in 1949, I decided to look at what happened in 1950 and the first thing I noticed was that in 1950 we have the first weather forecast by an electronic computer. The 24-hour forecast took 24 hours to compute. Of more interest to me was the purpose behind the work:

“As a committed opponent of Communism and a key member of the WWII-era national security establishment, [John] von Neumann hoped that weather modeling might lead to weather control, which might be used as a weapon of war. Soviet harvests, for example, might be ruined by a US-induced drought.”

Science for the greater good, eh?

I’m Ready For My Close Up, Mr DeMille!

January 16, 2009

A technological breakthrough that may “revolutionize the way we look at viruses, bacteria, proteins, and other biological elements” hasn’t received the press I think it deserves.   IBM have developed an MRI that is one hundred million times better than today’s standard MRIs.  I can’t even count that high!

By extending MRI to such fine resolution, the scientists have created a microscope that, with further development, may ultimately be powerful enough to unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for new advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine. This achievement stands to impact the study of materials from proteins to integrated circuits for which a detailed understanding of atomic structure is essential.


In addition to its high resolution, the imaging technique has the further advantages that it is chemically specific, can “see” below surfaces and, unlike electron microscopy, is non-destructive to sensitive biological materials.

Muons For Mayans

September 1, 2008

OK, I’m excited.  Particle physics and archaeology are coming together to investigate Mayan mounds, most of which have not been excavated.  No-one really knows what is inside these impressive structures.  But now, scientists working with muon detectors are coming to help.

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:  A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Fascinating stuff.  The article at BLDGBLOG goes much further and is well worth the read.