Archive for the ‘other’ Category

A march for science

6 February 2017

On Earth Day this year, April 22, an unknown but large number of scientists will be gathering together, in Washington and other cities, in a March for Science. I’ll be joining them somewhere in or near Oakland. Not only is science central to my being, it’s also central to our civilization.

As the March for Science site puts it, “At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers. It can and should influence policy and guide our long-term decision-making.”

While Earth Day lately has devolved into a day for innocuous tasks, this year it’s the best possible occasion for this march, because Earth science is the central science for the vital tasks ahead — breaking free of the destabilizing carbon economy, fostering a civilization that’s as sustainable as a forest, protecting and repairing the natural systems that provide our resources. Those tasks will require people who are experts at approaching the unknown, ninjas of curiosity.


Curiosity is an undervalued skill. You won’t see it in job requirements. Yet without our intense curiosity, we would still be bands of hairless apes huddled in the African savanna, if not entirely extinct. And when new questions need answers, no one is better equipped to find them than scientists.

Consider what happened during the terrible Deepwater Horizon oil-well blowout in 2010. When standard procedures failed, a panel of scientists was called in to seek answers. When the Challenger spacecraft exploded in 1986, a panel of scientists was called in to seek answers.

These were not experts in drilling or spacefaring technologies; they were experts in handling the unknown. We support jobs for such people not just to keep them busy with their pet problems — what many call “pure research” or “curiosity-driven research” as a put-down — but to ensure a supply of curiosity ninjas. Everyone understands the need for top skills in the performing arts, athletics, law and war. It’s the same with science.


I don’t know exactly what is driving so many powerful people to fear and downplay and deride and defund scientific research, but I know they need to be opposed and replaced by people who prize science. We have tremendous questions about our future on Earth. Who will seek their answers?

Museum-quality rocks from Oakland

30 January 2017

I keep saying that Oakland has geological features worthy of being put in textbooks. Today I’m here to show you that Oakland has rocks worthy of being in museums, and I’ve put them there.

In 2012, I was asked to put together a set of teaching rocks for the Chabot Space and Science Center. After all, other planets are made of rocks, right? It took some doing, but some of the rocks were easily available within Oakland’s borders in roadside exposures. The conglomerate of the Orinda Formation was one.


The red chert from the Franciscan Complex was another.


And of course there was our serpentinite.


All told, I made five sets of 15 rock types for the kids.

The next year I got a request from Las Positas College, in Livermore, for a boulder of blueschist. Turns out this little college teaches geology, because every citizen will benefit from a course, and students can get a head start on a 4-year degree there. I struggled one out of this streambed, where it wouldn’t be missed.


They installed it in their teaching garden as Rock J, on the left. It’s small compared to its mates, but that thing weighs a ton because high-grade blueschist is pretty dense.


My reward included a visit backstage to see their cool collections.


Then last year, I got a note out of the blue from the under-construction Maine Mineral and Gem Museum asking my help in building their collection. Maine is well known for its gemstone and mineral mines, but the state has no blueschist. I went to a quiet outcrop where it’s just lying around.


Got two nice boulders and couldn’t choose between them, so I sent them both. They told me one will go on display and the other will go in their teaching collection.


None of these are precious collectibles or gemstones. They’re just cool and educational.

I’ve pretty much stopped collecting rocks for myself because I’m not important enough. But museums are important enough.

Where my rocks go to die

15 May 2016

For many years I saved and collected rocks. This was especially true during my years at, when I put together a large set of photos and explanations to help people learn about rocks.

When dropped my contract in 2014, I’d reached “peak rocks.” My office had rocks everywhere, and my closet had still more. I’d even started putting rocks back where I collected them.

(I’d normally add a bunch of links to my old site to document those statements. However, I learned last week that will take down its Geology site entirely in yet another desperate attempt to gain altitude. Some of my articles have already disappeared from Google searches. Soon my work of 17 years, and the work of my hapless successor, will disappear except from, the internet’s “Wayback Machine.” So fuck ’em.)

Some of my rocks are sentimental favorites. Other rocks, I’ll look at it and realize I can’t recall where it’s from or decide that’s too far away to visit again, and I decide to set it free.

My go-to place for that is Devil’s Slide, the sedimentary version of Orodruin, where Frodo Baggins went to destroy the One Ring. There the Pacific lies ready to grind every stone into sand. And above the old Route 1 roadway, now a county trail, are spectacular exposures of what the sand will become in the geologic future.


I went there last week. On a somber day Devil’s Slide is very fitting for this purpose. Marine haze shuts out the world. The coast is under noisy, vigorous attack. The whole place is falling into the sea, which makes the textbook “rock cycle” a visceral reality. You feel a bit wary about the roadway itself.

Offshore is Point San Pedro, made of the same rocks. Geologists have determined that those rock beds have been overturned.


Anyway, here’s where I stand. I take my rocks and fling them toward the waves. Most of them fall short, but that’s OK, they’ll make it down to the surf soon enough.


One rock was this piece of coal I once found in the yard, dating from the days when our homes had coal-fired furnaces. I think it was from Utah, because California coal wasn’t this high quality.


Given the popular feelings about shipping Utah coal through Oakland, it was the right time to make a statement by destroying this specimen.

As a geologist, I adore coal. It’s a fascinating storehouse of carbon from the distant past. As a respecter of history, I honor coal’s fundamental role in the Industrial Age. Coal saved the forests from being turned to charcoal. When I was young, my family once burned coal in the house. But its time is over. Except for scientific research and historical reenactments, coal should be left in the ground.

I support Oaklanders’ efforts to stop commerce in coal. I just don’t endorse every statement they’re making. Specifically, coal dust from rail shipments won’t cause asthma or cancer; it’s only a nuisance. Smoke from burning coal is what causes asthma and cancer, and that will happen somewhere else. I oppose burning coal, and causing asthma and cancer, anywhere on Earth.


All I ask is that people do the right thing for the right reasons. It’s important for the long term.