Monday, November 26, 2012

Science and play

Anyone who made it through high school knows that science can get boring. There are so many rules and processes that must be completed to discover anything. It's not surprising then that U.S. students were ranked 25th in math and 17th in science in a study of 31 countries. As a fan of math and science, I find this really sad. I was fortunate enough to have the right people to show me the fun in math and science. A big question that needs to be answered is: how can we get more students involved and excited about math and science? I certainly don't have the answer but check out the TED video shown below.

Beau Lotto took a simple idea about play and turned it into a serious scientific study completed by 25 8 to 10-year-olds. I'll let the video tell you more. Here's a link to the video on the TED site.


I like how Beau Lotto takes a completely out-of-the-box approach to science. It's refreshing and funny. This video inspires me to get out there and help inspire kids to play with science!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Geologist jokes

There's an old joke that goes something like this (depending who's telling it): There is a geologist, geophysicist, and a petroleum engineer in a room with their boss. The boss asks, "What’s 2 times 2?"  The geologist thinks for a while says “well it’s probably more than 3 and less than 5″. The geophysicist punches it into his calculator and answers that it’s 3.999999. The petroleum engineer gets up, locks the door, pulls the curtains, unplugs the phone and says, “What do you want it to be?”
(Sometimes its the geophysicist answering with what the petroleum engineer says - only if its a geologist telling the joke!)

There's also this great Calvin & Hobbes cartoon:
Calvin thinking of the least mathematical job.
Its fun to poke at other fields and get a good laugh. The sad part is that some of this is true. Geologist depend on visual cues and mostly descriptive language. Geophysicists rely on physics and talk in equations and math. When geologists and geophysicists have to communicate with each other it can be difficult because no one understands what the other one means. And terms are not defined the same in each field. Example: a thrust fault in geology is a reverse fault that has an angle less than 30 degrees but geophysicists use the term thrust fault to describe any reverse fault!

I am experiencing this currently because I am taking a structural geology class. It's almost the end of the semester and I think we've learned less than 10 equations! We have learned over 100 definitions of different rock types and structures. For example, a fold, a rock layer that has been bent or buckled, can be described by 3 different classes of bend, 5 different classes of angle, and about 10 different shapes! Which ones a particular fold falls into is sometimes up to interpretation. As a mathematically minded person, I find the descriptive terms frustrating!

An example of chevron folds.
Geologists and geophysicist need to be able to communicate with each other. Any project focused on finding oil on land or in the sea will need both a geophysicist and a geologist to make it successful (and yes, a petroleum engineer too). As Misac, one of our geophysics professors says, "You can't do geophysics without geology!" 

So for myself and other geophysicists, I think we need to be flexible with different "languages". Get comfortable with adapting to someone else's view. The structural geology class has definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone and I needed it! The amazing thing is that this lesson is exactly the same for communicating with the public! Scientists need to learn the "language" of people who don't do research every day.

There will always be jokes but hopefully we can start useful conversations too!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Elections & earthquakes

There is a man who has correctly predicted the outcome of the last 8 presidential elections. He said Obama would win a second term a year before Mitt Romney was chosen to be his opponent! This man is Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University. Now you are probably thinking he's using some complicated method based on political strategies. That is not the case. Lichtman based his predictive method on geophysics! Listen to the NPR article HERE.

Who win the next presidential election? Ask Allan Lichtman!
More specifically Lichtman thinks of election as geophysicists think of earthquakes. Lichtman says:
"Everything we know about elections, we've already stolen from geophysics.Tremors of political change, seismic movements of the voters, volcanic elections, political earthquakes. It's all geophysics anyway."
The basics of Lichtman's method is decide if the election will be stable or if there will be upheaval. This is a principle of earthquakes. For elections, Lichtman defines stability as the incumbent party stays in the White House. Upheaval is when the incumbent loses.

After reviewing past elections, Lichtman defined 13 key questions (which he wrote about in his book The Keys to the White House). If the six or more questions went against the incumbent party then he predicted upheaval. Obama only had three strikes with the economy, low approval ratings, and the poor  results for his party in the midterm elections.

Now you might wonder why we can't predict earthquakes with as much accuracy as Lichtman with elections. Well, it is a simple fact that earthquakes are much more complex than political elections. We can characterize the forces and geologic structure but the exact time it will occur is impossible. The USGS (US Geological Survey) is in charge of monitoring seismic activity over the whole nation. The best warning system we have right now is the Earthquake Early Warning system. It works by detecting the first rumbles of the earthquake and sending a message to the city before the destructive energy arrives. The waves travel at 2 miles per second so if the earthquake is 20 miles away it gives a 10 second warning. Not much but maybe enough for people to run to a safe location.

Example of the Early Earthquake Warning system.

It is interesting that principles of geophysics which characterize movements of the earth can be used to so accurately predict election outcomes. I guess it shows that laws of nature rule even at the human level!

Friday, November 9, 2012

When things go wrong . . . Part 3

This is the final post in the "When things go wrong series . . ." Click to see Part 1 and Part 2

Italian Scientists Found Guilty

WHAT: On April 6th, 2009, there was a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. The region has a long history of earthquakes and the citizens of L’Aquila usually sleep outside during times when there are small tremors. However, for this earthquake people stayed inside and 309 people died. The community had heard reports from the nation’s scientists that it was unlikely a large earthquake would occur. Six Italian scientists and one ex-governmental official were put on trial and recently found guilty of manslaughter. All of them were from the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks.

Read the BBC’s coverage of the story HERE

WHERE: L’Aquila, Italy, a town located in a fault rich area of Italy.

The location of the 6.3 earthquake that hit Italy in 2009.

Damage of homes in L'Aquila, Italy.
HOW: There were tremors occurring in L’Aquila and the citizens were becoming concerned that a large earthquake could be coming. The National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks calmed the citizens down by stating that it was unlikely that a large earthquake could strike. Because of the advice of the Commission many residents stayed in the area and in their homes.

WHY: This is an important case because it is putting the communication of science on trial. There is no way to accurately predict a major earthquake but the geophysicists failed to communicate that effectively to the people of L’Aquila. The people believed that there was no risk because the scientists said an earthquake was unlikely. The scientists knew that there was still a chance that a large earthquake could occur but wanted to calm the citizens.

WHO: This story is very sad and unfortunate. I think many people, especially the survivors in L’Aquila, are trying to find the people they should blame. Who should be held responsible for the deaths? The court has ruled that the scientists did hold some of that responsibility (although the decision is being appealed). For me, it seems clear that the seven people from the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks failed at their job. The main failure is the lack of risk communication. None of the citizens of L’Aquila should ever have heard a message of stay inside. This story shows how critical it is that scientists be able to communicate with the public without just dumbing down the science.

Do you think the scientists are guilty? Who is to blame? What should the Italian government do to avoid another tragedy like the L’Aquila earthquake?

This concludes the "When things go wrong . . ." series. Let me know if you would be interested in hearing about a particular subject in geophysics. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

When things go wrong . . . Part 2

This is Part 2 of “When things go wrong . . . “. If you missed Part 1 click here.

Water Contamination in Pavillion, WY

This is the story of water contamination in the small town of Pavillion, WY thought to come from hydraulic fracturing. The EPA has been studying the area for about 3 years and released a draft of their results at the end of 2011. The gas industry responded by questioning the results.

There are some great petroleum engineer students in our class that did a nice summary on the events and concerns in Pavillion, WY. Being petroleum engineer students, they understand the mechanical working of fracking much better than I do. Check out their posts on the topic: What was going on in Pavillion, WY and More on Pavillion, WY.

I’m going to look at the controversy from a different perspective and take a step back from the technical problems to look at the broader issues. But first, a summary of the events:

WHAT: Possible drinking water contamination in a town that had producing gas wells that had been hydraulically fractured. The EPA composed a draft of their investigation that was released for public comments on December 8, 2011.

WHERE: Pavillion, WY, a small town of less than 300 people in the western half of Wyoming

The sign marking the entrance into Pavillion, WY.

A Pavillion, WY resident standing in front of a natural gas storage tank.

HOW: As the petroleum engineers explain in their blog posts Pavillion, WY is a special case. The wells are very shallow (~300m) and it is extremely uncommon to preform hydraulic fracturing that shallow. The EPA has confirmed that open pits of flowback (fracking fluid that comes back up out of the well) definitely contributed to shallow aquifer contamination but the deeper contamination is much more complex and does not have as clear of a connection to fracking. There is evidence that fracking did play a role in the contamination that occurred at a deeper level. To read the full EPA report go HERE.

WHY: There have been other situations where a fault in a well (poor construction usually) has led to contamination. The situation in Pavillion, WY was a big deal because it occurred at a time when fracking was a hot issue. There were many fears from the public that fracking could contaminate drinking water but there was no proof. Pavillion, WY was the first real indication that hydraulic fracturing had possibly caused contamination. The questioning of the results by industry only added to the controversy around fracking.

WHO: The case of water contamination in Pavillion, WY is important for scientists. The main lesson to learn is that the context matters. The subject of hydraulic fracturing was already a big issue when the EPA reported its results. Thus the results of an EPA study that might not have received any media attention previously was in the news for weeks. The history and background of a topic, issue, tool, whatever matter. In research, we usually conduct a literature review to summarize previous treatment of the method or topic. When communicating in the public sphere, scientist need to take the same action. Scientists need to take a moment to understand what's going on from a perspective different from their own.

What do you think of the situation at Pavillion, WY? What do think is the main message for scientists? For society?

Tomorrow I'm moving away from the energy issues in America to earthquakes in Italy. Stay tuned! 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When things go wrong . . . Part 1

 Geophysics is exciting, interesting, and useful – most of the time. Geophysicists (me included) focus on how to make images sharper, seismic records clearer, and inversions run better. We forget how our field interacts with society – especially when something goes wrong.

Now geophysics usually is not a cause of controversy. But because geophysics is involved in the industries where disasters occur, we are grouped with those industries when the finger pointing starts. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We should be held accountable for the work we do and understand how that work helps make decisions.

I am going to do a mini-series on three different controversies that involve geophysics in one way or another. Today I’m going to talk about the BP Macondo well disaster. Tomorrow we’ll explore what happened in Pavillion, WY. And Friday we’ll investigate why six Italian scientists might be headed to jail. These all raise important questions for both scientists and society to answer.

BP Deepwater Horizon disaster

WHAT: It was April 20th, 2010, when an explosion occurred on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The rig caught fire and sank two days later. Eleven men died. The explosion and fire where caused by hydrocarbons (oil) coming up out of the well onto the rig. The well was severed and spilled oil into the Gulf for 87 days.

WHERE: Out in the Gulf of Mexico.

HOW: The committee that investigated the disaster concluded that the main failure was in the cement barrier that let the hydrocarbons flow upward and onto the rig.  The committee states:
The loss of life at the Macondo site on April 20, 2010, and the subsequent pollution of the Gulf of Mexico through the summer of 2010 were the result of poor risk management, last minute changes to plans, failure to observe and respond to critical indicators, inadequate well control response, and insufficient emergency bridge response training by companies and individuals responsible for drilling at the Macondo well and for the operation of the Deepwater Horizon.
Go HERE for the full report.

A cartoon illustrating the parts of the well.

WHY: The lesson to learn from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is that for as much as we think we know about the processes involved in drilling for oil there are still unknowns and we are all human. The crew on the rig that night were about to head home after two weeks working on a tough well. When a well pressure test didn't make sense the engineers decided it was a rare phenomenon and didn't raise alarms. We take great risks to get to oil that is deep under water and earth.

WHO: We take great risks in many things that we do but with the large impact the BP oil disaster had on the coastal communities, it makes me wonder who said its OK for the oil companies to take those risks? The government? Geophysicists are usually upfront about the limits of their methods but this disaster makes defining the extent of our knowledge important.

What do you guys think about the disaster? What do think is the one take away for scientists? For society?

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2! Click HERE to go to the second part!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Li-Fi for marine surveys

Li-Fi stands for light fidelity which is a play on Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity or wireless network). This interesting technology could change how data is collected in geophysics.

Geophysics in most applications uses tools to image the interior of the earth. These tools measure some property of the earth like gravity or magnetic field strength. The success of any geophysics survey is limited by the technology used. There are entire companies that just focus on developing better technology for certain types of surveys. It is amazing how complex the instruments have become. One good example of this is seismic surveys conducted in the ocean.

Seismic surveys are used to characterize the subsurface geology. A source is used to make vibrations that travel through the subsurface and bound off of the geologic structures. The receivers record the bounced around waves.

A towed seismic source and receiver array.
The traditional method to conduct surveys is to tow the source and receivers behind a boat. The streamers (lines of receivers) can be kilometers long! This makes it difficult to keep straight lines. Another method used is ocean bottom cables.

Ocean bottom cables waiting to be laid on the ocean floor. 
These cables are laid down by a boat around the area of interest. They are usually put down in parallel lines. These are better than the towed array but the lines cannot be placed underneath an oil platform which is usually where the survey needs to be conducted. Enter ocean bottom nodes (OBN). OBN are geophones that are completely detached from any cable. Inside the cylinderical shape is every instrument needed, batteries, and a way to record the data.

An ocean bottom node from CGGVeritas.
These are placed on the ocean floor by a remotely operation underwater vechicle (ROV). They stay on the ocean floor until the survey is complete which is sometimes months. Then the ROV comes by and picks them up. Once they get back to the surface the data is downloaded from their memory.

A cartoon of an ROV placing nodes on the ocean floor.
The bad part of OBN is that you have to wait until the nodes are back on the surface to see the quality of the data. Problems could occur and you wouldn't know until the whole survey is complete. Better data is always the goal and with the high cost of these surveys it would help if the data could be streamed up to the boat or to the ROV. How might this be accomplished?

There is a idea out there to use light to transmit data exactly like how your wireless internet streams data to your computer or a radio tower communicates with your phone. Harald Haas, a professor from University of Edinburgh, explains and demonstrates the principle in the TED video below.

The basic idea is that an LED light can be turned off and on extremely fast so fast that humans can't see the variation. The light on equals a one and the light off equals a zero. So binary code is being transmitted by the light. The receiver takes that information and turns it into a video or a text or an email. The method still has a ways to go for everyday use with phones or internet but it is looking promising for communicate between nodes and ROVs. The ROV's light could be used to download data from the nodes. This is still just a futuristic idea but it could be a way to make a geophysical tool even more efficient and valuable for surveys.

How do you think data could be retrieved from ocean bottom nodes? Have you heard of any crazy technology that might change the way information is gathered?