Thursday, March 27, 2014


My wife and I recently had cause to stay in a motel for a week while visiting northern New Mexico. To keep up on what was happening in the world, we watched the news each morning. As it turned out, we watched CNN, although we rarely watch it at home. I was surprised to see all the coverage the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 was getting. Every day it was the leading story. There was no news to report, but there was plenty of speculation on what might have happened. Some were suggesting terrorists were behind it, others suggested the pilot(s) were responsible, a psychic suggested that some of the passengers were still alive, and some suggested God was responsible and He flew them to Heaven; something like the 'Left Behind' stories. During that whole time, there was really nothing new to report. It reminded me of Johathan Gottschall's "The Storytelling Animal," which I read recently, and about how we like to tell ourselves stories.

Humankind has an obsession of answers. We don't like not knowing. We would rather have an answer that might be wrong rather than not know.

It starts in childhood with the games children play. Their play involves telling themselves stories while playing house, driving truck (tricycle), or playing cops and robbers. Often their play is practice for when they become adults. In their play, they often puts themselves in the position of their parents.

As adults, daydreams are ways we tell ourselves stories. We daydream about our friends or those with whom we fall in love. If the relationship works out, our stories tend to be similar and compatible; if not, then we make up stories blaming the other person. Our stories always put ourselves in the best light.

At work we make up stories about our boss or co-workers. We create stories to explain why we didn't get the raise or the promotion and other stories to explain why a co-worker got the promotion we should have gotten. Our stories boost our self esteem.

Conspiracy theories are another form of storytelling. There are conspiracy theories for just about everything. Many of them involve large corporations or the government. If the government couldn't stop some disaster, such as 9/11, then the government must have been behind it. To some of us, the disaster is incomprehensible; it makes no sense. Because we need an answer, we make up one blaming our government. Then we look for others who agree with us, and the more people we find who agree, the more confident we are of the conspiracy. It doesn't matter if it is true as long as it gives us an explanation, an answer. Anyone who disagrees, of course, is part of the conspiracy.

Storytelling is part of our evolution. Early humans, for example, made up stories about why they became ill. Illness was interpreted as being the result of displeasing the gods or witchcraft; perhaps receiving the evil eye of another member of the tribe who didn't like you. Early man had a lot of stories about their gods. To them gods were everywhere and were responsible for many of their trials and triumphs. Everything had a god or spirit, good or bad - rivers, trees, mountains, volcanoes, people, etc. Even early man did not like not knowing. Perhaps it was the result of children asking questions, and the parents not liking having to say they didn't know; so they started making up stuff to satisfy the questions. Parents always had the answers. As adults, our gods have the answers.

Religion is a major source of answers; answers for all questions. There is no question for which religion doesn't not have an answer. Religion never says it doesn't know. Religions have answers that never need to be questioned; in fact, should not be questioned. That is perhaps the reason some people dislike science. Science will say when it doesn't know. If science doesn't know and religion does, people will turn to religion. They want answers, meaning and purpose in all things; none of this "we don't know." However, science will win in the end. As science shows more and more that stories in the bible are wrong and can not fit the facts as science uncovers them, religion will more and more find its position reduced and moved to the realm of mythology.

Think about the stories you tell yourself. Usually these stories start out being private and are not ready to be shared. In many ways these stories are like religion. We use them to make sense of our world. There are a lot of mysteries in life and a lot of things to which science does not yet have answers. We don't like not knowing so we speculate and come up with possible answers. Once we find an answer we like, we get comfortable with it and find ourselves defending it against other possible answers. It doesn't matter if these is no evidence to support your conclusion; for you it is true. When we are ready to share our answers with others, we may get upset if they do not agree with us. We may tell them they are not being open-minded about what you believe to be true.

Open-mindedness, however, is not being open to accepting something as true because it sounds good, or even possible. Open-mindedness is really about being open to considering what you believe to be true may in fact be false.

1. Jonathan Gottschall, 2012, The Storytelling Animal; How Stories Make Us Human, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 248 p.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Favorite Books of 2013 - Fiction

1. Sharon Cramer, 2012, The Execution, B & F Publishing, 348p.

This is a very enjoyable read and highly recommended. The story takes place in 14th century France and starts with a young priest visiting a prisoner who is to be executed the next day. The priest quickly realizes that the prisoner is his twin brother who he never knew. They end up spending the night before the execution telling each other their story. I pretty much guessed the ending, but that didn't subtract at all from the great read.

2. Ian McEwan, 2012, Sweet Tooth, Nan A. Talese, 320p.

Great finish! As with all Ian McEwan's novels, there is an unexpected twist right at the end, and, as always, the reader is totally unprepared for it. I think that is what I like about his books; the reader can't anticipate the ending.

3. Christopher Moore, 2004, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, William Morrow, 432p.

If you are interested in learning about the missing years in the life of Jesus, those years between his birth and when he begins his ministry at about age 30, this books for you. However, after a few pages, you will begin to understand why the Church did not include The Gospel According to Biff in the New Testament.

This novel is full of sarcastic humor and had me laughing out loud on several occasions. One of my favorite passages is the story of Joshua/Jesus healing the two blind men (Amphibians 24:7-21):

'Then Joshua climbed down from his camel, laid his hands upon the old men's eyes, and said, "You have faith in the Lord, and you have heard, as evidently everyone in Judea has, that I am his son with whom he is well pleased." Then he pulled his hands from their faces and the old men looked around.

"Tell me what you see," Joshua said.
The old guys sort of looked around, saying nothing.
"So, Tell me what you see."
The blind men looked at each other.
"Something wrong?" Joshua asked. "You can see, can't you?"
"Well, yeah," said Abel, "but I thought there'd be more color."
"Yeah," said Crustus, "it's kind of dull."
I stepped up. "You're on the edge of the Judean desert, one of the most lifeless, desolate, hostile places on earth, what did you expect?"
"I don't know." Crustus shrugged. "More."
"Yeah, more," said Abel. "What color is that?"
"That's brown,"
"How about that one?"
"That would be brown as well."
"That color over here? Right there?"
"You're sure that's not mauve."
"Nope, brown."
"And. . ."
"Brown," I said.
The two former blind guys shrugged and walked off mumbling to each other.
"Excellent healing," said Nathaniel
"I for one have never seen a better healing," said Philip, "but then, I'm new."
Joshua rode off shaking his head.'

4. Kathy Reichs, 2012, Bones are Forever, Turtleback, 400p.

This is the fourth book of Kathy Reichs that I've read, all staring the forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan. This series is now a regular series on TV. I especially liked this story because it takes Brennan to some places I've been: Edmonton and Yellowknife, Canada.

5. Toni Dwiggins, 2012, Volcano Watch: The Forensic Geology Series, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 342p.

I enjoyed this book because the main character was a forensic geologist who lives in a town on the side of an active volcano with a ski resort on its slopes.

Honorable Mention:
1. Stephen Frey, 2012, Arctic Fire, Thomas & Mercer, 344p.
2. John Kess, 2013, Elly's Ghost, Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 218p.
3. Janet Tavakoli, 2013, Archangels: Rise of the Jesuits, Create Space Independent Publishing, 324p.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Favorite Books of 2013 - Non-fiction

1. Johathan Gottschall, 2012, The Story Telling Animal; How Stories Make us Human, Mariner Books, 272p.

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall explains in an easy-to-read and entertaining manner how stories make us human. At an early age, children start making up stories as they play. Children at play are training for the roles they will play as adults. As adults, daydreaming is a way we tell ourselves stories; we make up stories about work and how we will tell off the boss, we tell ourselves stories about how we will win the heart of another, we tell stories about how we will write that great-American novel. We are even able to turn our dreams at night into stories. No matter what it is, in order to make sense of it, we make up a story; it doesn't matter if it is true as long as it seems to make sense to us.

An area of his book I found particularly interesting was his explaining how fiction is so much more powerful than nonfiction is getting people to change their minds about things. With non-fiction we tend to be more critical and skeptical. With fiction, if the author is able to pull us in and get us absorbed with the story, we become more emotionally involved and more readily accept what is being presented; especially if it is coming from likeable characters.

This is an easily quotable book. Some of my favorite:

"Fiction has positive effects on readers' moral development and sense of empathy."

"We misremember the past in a way that allows us to maintain protagonist status in the stories of our own lives."

"The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can't."

"Most of us believe that we know how to separate fantasy and reality - that we keep information gathered from fiction safely quarantined from our stories of general knowledge. But studies show that this is not always the case. In the same mental bin, we mix information gleaned from both fiction and nonfiction."

"We have religion because, by nature, we abhor explanatory vacuums."

2. Paul Offit, 2013, Do You Believe in Magic?, Harper, 336p.

This is the book I would recommend to both those who practice alternative medicine. Offit does well in describing the background to the various modalities of alternative medicine and the politicians and celebrities who helped made them so popular. 


3. Sean Carroll, 2012, The Particle at the End of the Universe, Dutton Adult, 341p.

I enjoyed this book because it gave me a better understanding of particle physics and what the discovery of the Higgs particle means. Physicists have different ways of seeing particles depending on what they are looking for. They may think of the particles as waves or fields, yet find them as particles. 

4. David Roberts, 2013, Alone on the Ice; The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration, W. W. Norton & Company; 368p.   

Alone on the Ice is a story to match Shackleton's amazing adventure in Antarctica aboard the Endurance. This book tells of Douglas Mawson's 600 mile journey by dog sledge in Antarctica in 1912-13. After losing his two companions, Mawson manages the last 100 miles back to base camp on his own. An incredible story of one man's will to survive.


5. John Brockman, 2013, Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction, Harper Perennial, 432p.

This book is a nice collection of articles by the psychologists and philosophers who are investigating how we perceive, think, and make decisions.


Honorable Mention:
1. Neil Shubin, 2013, The Universe Within, Vintage, 240p.
2. Paul Bloom, 2013, Just Babies; The Origins of Good and Evil, Crown, 288p.
3. John Loftus and Randal Rauser, 2013, God or Godless, Baker Books, 208p.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thoughts on Thinking

According to Daniel Kahneman, in "Thinking, Fast and Slow", published in 2011, there are two ways of thinking, intuitive (system 1) and analytical (system 2). Intuitive thinking is the fast thinking; it is the thinking we do in making quick decisions with limited information. Along with instinct, intuitive thinking likely arose in our pre-primate ancestors.  Intuitive thinking helped our ancestors survive by avoiding the noise in the bush that may have been caused by a lion or other dangerous predator rather than just the wind. If you don't know, it is safer to react to the noise as coming from a dangerous animal. Those early hominids who lacked intuitive thinking, which includes common sense, may have attempt to investigate the noise and ended up removing themselves from the gene pool. Those who avoided the bush survived to pass on their genes, whether or not a predator was in the bush.
Analytical thinking may not have evolved until modern humans appeared. Analytical thinking would have been needed by early hunter and gatherers in planning hunting and foraging excursions. These humans would be able to process data from different sources; tracks to determine the kind and size of the animal, droppings to tell how long ago the animal had passed, wind direction to plan the direction they would approach the target animal. Analytical thinking was probably also important when early humans learned to create stone tools. It became further developed when civilizations arose and together with critical thinking got a boost from the Greek philosophers and again during the Enlightenment.
Today most of us use both intuitive thinking and analytical/critical thinking skills. However, many seem to stop with intuition; they feel intuition serves them just as well as analytical thinking. There are also times when intuition may be all you have available, or all you think you have available. Sometimes when people think they making an intuitive decision, it is because they are not aware they are actually making a decision based on past knowledge and experience. There are times people can't explain why they made a particular decision that in the end turned out to be the right one. They probably did is subconsciously; their mind was capable of analyzing the knowledge that resided there in making what seemed to be an intuitive decision.
If data is available, it is better to use analytical thinking rather than ignore the data in favor of intuition. Many people, however, don't like to think analytically. It's too hard or takes too much time. They would rather just know rather than have to think about it. That's why religious and political leaders are popular; they tell people what to think, saving the people the effort. And, that's why people often stay with the same religion or political party as their parents. They really don't think much about either.
Analytical thinking can also be abused. When some people try to make a decision about something, they will investigate the available data until they find something that feels right and then stick with that position no matter what other evidence may eventually become available. Once they have decided, they only see the evidence that confirms their belief and none of the evidence that denies it. This is called confirmation bias and is very common in pseudoscience beliefs such as astrology, alternative medicine, ESP, conspiracy theories, UFOs, etc.
If data is available, it is best to use analytical thinking and consider all the data. Intuition can often lead one astray; particularly in this modern world of science. Much of science is not intuitive; it cannot be arrived at using common sense. For example, intuition without science tells us that the sun orbits the Earth; rising in the east, passing overhead, and setting in the west. Intuition tells us that we are standing still on a stationary Earth and not traveling with the Earth's rotational speed of 1,040 miles per hour (at the equator) and it's speed of 67,000 miles per hour as it travels around the sun. If we are traveling that fast, why isn't it messing up our hair? Intuition tells us the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon were always there. Analysis of the science tells us something wonderfully different. It took the Rocky Mountains tens of millions of years to be uplifted and millions more to be eroded down to their present landscape. It took rain and rivers millions of years to erode and sculpt what we see when we view the Grand Canyon today. That is where the wonder and awe of science come in to play for me. When I see a beautiful forested valley leading up to snow-capped peaks while hiking in the mountains, I see the time involved and the forces acting in and on the Earth that created the scene I am seeing. Intuition alone will likely tell you God did it all.
1. Kahneman, Daniel, 2011,  Thinking, Fast and Slow,  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 512p.
2. Mithen, Steven, 1996, The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science, Thames & Hudson, 288p.
3. Ehrenreich, Barbara, 2009, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Metropolitan Books, 256p.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Geologic Time Scale

Ref: Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology (Coursera course instructed by Philip John Currie, PhD, Sept 4 - Nov 27, 2013)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sandpipes at Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah

A couple months ago, we revisited the Kodochrome Basin State Park near Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. I've been fascinated by the sandstone pipes that I saw here on our first visit about twelve years ago. My wife also found the pipes fascinating; she kept mentioning the erotic nature of the landscape.
There are over 50 sandstone pipes in the park; most are circular or oval in horizontal cross section. Some of these pipes are free-standing columns and others appear embedded in cliff-face outcrops. The largest of the pipes can reach 170 feet high and up to 50 feet in diameter. The pipes are well cemented and more resistant to erosion that often removed the softer surrounding sediments. Figures 1 through 3 show three of these pipes in the park.

Figure 1. Free standing sandstone pipe near campground at Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah.
Figure 2. Sentinel Pipe southeast of campground.
Figure 3.  Sandstone pipe south of campground at sunset.
In Kodachrome Basin State Park and the surrounding area, the sandstone pipes are in the Jurassic Entrada and Carmel Formations (145-175 m.y.). The sedimentary environment in which the sandstones, shales, thin limestones and gypsum were deposited was shallow and near-shore marine and tidal flats that periodically dried out. During the Jurassic an inland sea extended from the north down into this part of south-central Utah.

The sandstone pipes at Kodachrome were probably formed during the deposition of the sediments and while the sediments were still saturated with sea water. This might be easiest visualized by imagining sands being deposited underwater near the coastline of the Jurassic sea. As sea level rose, the coast moved further to the east and finer grained clays were deposited on top of the saturated sand layers. As additional deposits of sands and clays occurred, the weight of the sediments and the overlying water cause the water in the underlying sands became over-pressured; the clays forming a cap that prevented the water from escaping the sand units. Perhaps a nearby earthquake provided the spark that disturbed the sediments enough that a small fault or other zone of weakness allowed the over-pressured water to escape upward toward the surface. As the water gushed upward, it included much of the sand from the saturated sand units as well as fragments from the upper clay and sand units that were ripped away by the ascending slurry. Some of the resulting pipes only extended through a few of the overlying sedimentary layers while others very likely broke the surface creating sand geysers. Perhaps, the sight of an erupting sand geyser may have caused some large Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs walking by to pause and look at what was happening.

The mechanism for this kind of soft-sediment deformation is called fluidization and is similar to what happens when you walk barefooted on wet sands near the water's edge. If the sand is saturated, it will squeeze up between your toes.

The outcrop at Shepard's Point, a few miles west of Kodachrome Basin State Park (Figures 4, 5, and 6), shows a large sandstone pipe in the cliff face that probably formed by the rapid eruption of saturated sands that probably broke the surface. After the eruption, the void left at depth caused the pipe and surrounding sediments to collapse. This can be seen by the sedimentary strata dipping down toward the pipe and the near vertical faults (down-arrows in Figure 6) on both sides of the pipe. This collapse feature formed much like calderas form following a volcanic eruption.
Figure 4.  Sandstone Pipe at Shepard's Point about 4 miles west of Kodochrome Basin State Park.
Figure 5.  Major Sandstone Pipe at Shepard's Point.
In Figure 6 I've outlined the sedimentary units in the outcrop at Shepard's Point and labeled the various sedimentary units alphabetically. I've also outlined the vertical pipes and numbered them to identify them. Besides the main pipe in the figure 6 (pipe #1) there is a second smaller pipe (#2). The uppermost unit in this outcrop is a Quaternary conglomerate layer that was deposited less than 2.5 m.y. ago, long after the major units exposed here were deposited, lithified, and heavily eroded. Although the source sedimentary unit for the main sandstone pipe (#1) is buried at some depth, the smaller pipe appears to have originated from sedimentary unit "D". Both pipes either broke the surface when then formed or intruded into overlying units that were eroded away prior to being capped by the uppermost conglomerate unit.

Figure 6.  Major Sandstone Pipe (Fig. 5) with Pipe and Strata Outlined.

Figures 7 and 8 show three smaller sandstone pipes in the same Shepard's Point outcrop a few hundred feet to the north. In this outcrop, the three pipes appear to originate from sedimentary unit "G". The diagonal line on the left side of Figure 8 shows a minor normal fault that may have occurred simultaneously with the three pipes. I would suspect the fault and all three pipes formed at the same time. All three pipes appear to have intruded only so far as sedimentary unit "B".
Figure 7. Smaller Sandstone Pipes at Shepard's Point.
Figure 8. Smaller Sandstone Pipes (Fig. 7) with Pipes and Strata Outlined.
I only spent about an hour at Shepard's point and the above description is rather sketchy. I would like to see more detailed work done on these pipes and the geology of the area. If you are a geology student looking for a thesis idea, feel free to contact me for additional information. Thirty-five years ago I did my MS thesis on similar soft sediment deformation. The small-scale folding I studied was the result of fluidization in Eocene (40 m.y.) oil shales of the Green River Basin of Wyoming; but, that's another story.

Next time you visit Bryce Canyon National Park or find yourself in this part of Utah, I recommend visiting Kodachrome Basin State Park. As my wife pointed out, the area is fascinating both for the geologist and non-geologist. The campground is one of the nicest and quietest park campgrounds in which we have stayed. If you happen to be there on a moonless night, you will likely see a spectacular display of stars.

1.  Baer, James L. and Steed, Robert H., 2010, Geology of Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah in Sprinkel, Douglas A., et. al., Geology of Utah's Parks and Monuments, pp. 466-482.
2.  Hannum, Cheryl, 1980, Sandstone and conglomerate-breccia pipes and kikes of the Kodachrome Basin area, Kane County, Utah: Brigham Young University Geology Studies, v. 27, pp. 31-50.
3.  Hornbacher, Dwight, 1984, Geology and structure of Kodachrome Basin State Reserve and vicinity, Kane and Garfield Counties, Utah: Loma Linda, Loma Linda university, M.S. thesis, 179 p.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Arches National Park

The following was taken from The Human Landscape in "Arches; Where Rock Meets Sky" by Nicky Leach. This well expresses my feelings about being out in nature:

"Studies in Canyonlands have recorded an acoustic level one notch above that found in a soundproof recording studio. Ambient sound levels and crowds in national parks have increased to such a degree that the National Park Service now manages silence and solitude as a resource. Canyon Country's silence is truly rare, one of its greatest resources. Caught up in the busy-ness of civilization, perhaps we don't notice noise pollution anymore or the effect that our expanding global population has on our nerves. Airplanes buzz across the Grand Canyon. Idling vehicles sit at overlooks. Larger numbers of hikers on popular trails means more talk and socializing. Campgrounds have the look, as my friend Jeff commented, of refugee camps, which perhaps they are, as we increasingly flee our stressful urban lives.
Even the shortest hikes outdoors can strip away the armor of culture and lay us bare to ourselves. We begin to speak in the language of the heart, not the mind. There is a fellowship in nature that is lacking in our man-made environments, which, for all our ingenuity, are limited by a human view of the world. For me, true diversity embraces other life forms as well as different cultures and requires a reciprocity we still seem unable to envision. I doubt that nature minds, but I sense that it is we who are diminished.

A small hawk flies directly in front of me, oblivious to my presence. A cottontail bolts from behind a rock and disappears into a clump of dark-gray skeletal blackbrush. Stink beetles crawl slowly across sand, then disappear into holes in the ground. There is a rustling in a stately old juniper, the ear-splitting squawk of a jay, then silence. To the northwest are jointed cliffs that have been weathered into odd fins. They are tilted at almost a 45-degree angle. I marvel that they can stay upright at all. Like so many other features in the park, the redrocks seem choreographed to geological perfection, graceful, soaring, bending, leaping. Everything seems to be in motion, sliding out of view in a long slow freefall."