“Tuzo’s dead.” That was the first time I’d ever heard of Tuzo. It was April 1993 and I wondered who – or what – Tuzo was. Now he was dead. I had already completed my University of Saskatchewan geophysics degree but I couldn’t recall hearing about Canada’s greatest geophysicist. My ignorance was my own fault.

I had been focused on the theory of geophysics – signal processing, solid Earth dynamics, potential fields, anisotropic conditions, and the like. The professors at Saskatoon’s remarkable university imbued the ingredients that assured my success in science. There was a lot to absorb. At the end of each course, I squeezed my sponge-brain dry and moved on to the next semester. There was no time to indulge in a study of the context and environment of the subjects. Nor had it really occurred to me that some humans somewhere had invented all the geophysical things I had memorized.

To try to fill the gap – and fulfill graduation requirements – I took humanities electives. One was the History of Science, taught by an able young philosopher who introduced me to Kuhn and Cohen and Popper. I wrote a thesis on society’s acceptance of Einstein’s Special Relativity. Had I known about Tuzo Wilson, he would have been my subject.

Tuzo Wilson, 1908-1991

John Tuzo Wilson, 1908-1993

John Tuzo Wilson – called Tuzo by nearly everyone – indubitably revolutionized the way we understand the Earth. He had three great ideas that reinforced the nascent theory of plate tectonics. I will mention each briefly. But first I want to consider the versatile life of an established scientist who was able to change his mind about something important well into his middle age.

What follows is not a comprehensive biography of the great man, but rather a collection of some of his milestones. (In my book, The Mountain Mystery, I give Tuzo a broader treatment.) Tuzo’s mother carried the French Huguenot name Tuzo. From her, Tuzo inherited more than his middle name. Henrietta Tuzo was a fearless mountain climber. (In 1907, she and Christian Kaufman were first to climb Alberta’s Mount Tuzo, a peak so lovely it graced the Canadian 20 dollar bill for a long while.) Tuzo Wilson’s own love of mountains included his ascension of the Bear Tooth’s Mount Hague, conquered first  by Tuzo while he was doing his PhD field research.

From his father, Tuzo Wilson absorbed engineering and science. His father, a Scottish immigrant, designed the Montreal and Toronto airports. With his father’s sense of project design and craftsmanship, Tuzo took to the air and photographed Canada’s Arctic. He developed the idea of remote sensing, figuring out how to collate aerial photographs with geologists’ field notes.

Tuzo had a precocious appetite for geology. At 15, he worked summers for the Geological Survey of Canada. He loved geology and he excelled in math and physics. It is not surprising that he earned the first geophysics degree awarded to a Canadian. After Trinity College in Toronto, he received a Massey Fellowship to St John’s at Cambridge, then finished his PhD at Princeton, in 1936. After Princeton, Wilson returned to the GSC and mapped much of Canada’s enormous Northwest Territories. With the start of war in 1939, Tuzo Wilson enlisted in the Canadian Army, finishing his service with the rank of colonel. After the war, he led Exercise Musk Ox, a 5,000-kilometre excursion through the Arctic – it remains the longest arctic vehicular trip ever undertaken. Upon discharge, Colonel Wilson became Professor Wilson at the University of Toronto. He stayed there for almost thirty years.

If it involved geology, Wilson had probably studied it. His interests were so wide-ranging that colleagues called him the cyclone scientist. He was internationally regarded for his work on glaciers, which led him to draft the first glacial map of Canada. As part of that study, he searched for ice patches on the arctic islands and became the second Canadian to fly over the North Pole. His experience in flight, mapping, and the Arctic merged into pioneering work in aerial photography. His photos were a key element in creating Canada’s geological maps. A view from above was an essential step in that tedious project.

Tuzo UnglazedTuzo headed the department at U of T, ran the the Ontario Science Centre, and led Canada’s participation in the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). After an IGY meeting in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War, Tuzo hopped a trans-Siberian rail and headed to Beijing. He was the first western scientist to visit Mao’s China. His book, Unglazed China, is one of the few glimpses the west had of Chinese science and culture immediately after the Communists consolidated their autocratic power. Tuzo Wilson returned in 1971, just before Nixon’s famous table-tennis expedition, and wrote a second book, highlighting the changes that transpired since the International Geophysical Year – changes which included the devastating Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

For years, if Wilson had any opinion about continental drift, it was a guarded one. Those who knew him said he didn’t find much value in the idea until about 1960.  But after he contemplated the new evidence, Wilson decided the idea of moving continents fit the data and he became an unwavering advocate. His colleagues were much more reticent. As Tuzo Wilson himself said in this 1975 TV interview, “a lot of people weren’t happy about it, because they weren’t brought up with it – it’s like asking a middle-aged man to change his religion, and they don’t really like it. They would have been delighted to see something happen that would  destroy it all, and go back to fixed continents!”

Tuzo Wilson was in his mid-50s, an age at which most scientists find change and innovation difficult. Tuzo, however, delighted in the challenge. It was then that he made his greatest contributions to science. He resolved three of the most vexing issues that threatened to derail plate tectonics theory: (1) As presented in 1962, the idea of continents in motion implied Hawaii and Yellowstone shouldn’t exist – they are remote from the energy sources of spreading ocean rifts and  colliding continents. (2) Geologists made no sense of swarms of awkwardly positioned faults near rift zones – they weren’t within the style of typical faults. And (3) there was evidence that some mountain-building had inexplicably occurred at a time predating the supercontinent, Pangaea.

These three issues suggested flaws in drift theory. Wilson solved each without complicated mathematics. He used something he described as visual imagery – sharp pictures that formed in his creative mind. For example, in the case of Hawaii, he visualized the eerie scene of a girl lying on her back at the bottom of a stream. As bubbles surfaced from her mouth, they were swept away by the moving current. This is how he saw Hawaii – hot volcanic material rose to the crustal surface, building mountains that were ‘swept away’ by the moving seafloor. His ideas at first seemed outlandish, but geologists listened to Tuzo. He had a long-established reputation for getting things right.

He solved (1) Hawaii  by introducing plumes – an idea that seemed so peculiar he couldn’t get it published at first. (2) The odd faults at rift zones were resolved when he invented transform faults. And (3), the apparent existence of mountains that predated Pangaea was explained by cycles of continental amalgamation and disintegration – others named these Wilson Cycles in his honour.

Tuzo's Planet of Man series

Tuzo’s Planet of Man series

Tuzo Wilson, Canada’s Renaissance man, enjoyed educating and performing. In the 1970s, he created and hosted a 12-episode television series – The Planet of Man – in which he explained plate tectonics, fault systems, and mountain growth. These shows opened with Tuzo cruising lakes in northern Canada on his Chinese junk, a 12-metre craft that he said was well-suited for approaching isolated outcrops. Another venue for public education came late in life – he spent the eleven years up to his 76th birthday as director of the Ontario Science Centre. Because he had made such outstanding contributions to support plate tectonics, the Ontario Science Centre later built a three-metre-high memorial to commemorate Tuzo Wilson. The sculpture includes a spike jabbed into the ground. It indicates the distance the science centre has drifted away from Europe since Wilson’s birth. A remarkable monument that celebrates a man who spent most of his life skeptical of continental drift theory, but perhaps did more than anyone else to advance it.

Posted in History, How Geophysics Works, Plate Tectonics, Science Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Canada’s deceptive arm

Canada Arm, as seen on Government of Canada websites.

The Canadarm, as imagined  by the government of Canada

Well, this is embarrassing. A friend in the States sent me a link to a Washington Post story. Along with the link, he sent a short note: “So much for your Canada Arm.” You see, I had bragged about Canada’s amazing engineering feat – a robotic arm that can pop the top off an ice-cold Molson while orbiting 400 kilometres above the Earth. Yes, Canadians designed and built that dexterous appendage of utilitarian mechanics.

“Not so quick,” said my friend. I had to swallow hard when I saw the Washington Post photographs myself. The Post had copied a picture from Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship, a page on the Canadian government’s immigration site. That picture is reproduced above, but it has since been pulled from the several government sites that hosted it. For good reason. This is not what the astronauts saw. They saw the scene below. See if you can spot the difference.

The original NASA photo was doctored into something apparently more suited to a Canadian government web page about the “rights and responsibilities of citizenship.” I guess honesty and integrity aren’t essential responsibilities of citizenship.

The story in the respected Washington Post is troubling. The headline “How Canada Faked its Place in Space” is followed by an article that shows how like-minded governments in China and North Korea similarly Photoshop their image. So, we get to share a news piece with North Korea. Not the thing you see every day – thankfully.  The Economist – an even more venerated newspaper – also featured the story, along with a reference to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Under the banner “Airbrushing in Space: Canada’s Astronomical Boasting,” here’s what the Economist ran:

“CANADIANS are known for humility. But leave the Earth’s surface and you’ll find the country’s ego somewhere up in the thermosphere. Canada’s government websites use doctored photographs of its contribution to the International Space Station to call special attention to itself.

“Of course, countries have long fiddled with photographs to present an image of grandeur. But the tactic of fairly ham-fisted airbrushing used here seems more reminiscent of North Korean propaganda posters than of Western democracies’ typical PR efforts.”

This is quite a dismal drop in our prestige. Canada had been riding high on the achievements of our singing astronaut, Chris Hadfield. Of all the space station chiefs, none was as capable as Hadfield. He was the first Canadian space walker. (I can only imagine the guts, skill, and confidence that would take.) Hadfield popularized space exploration just as it was becoming a humdrum affair. (My youngsters were as awed as I.) After Commander Hadfield’s brilliant work and the tireless efforts of hundreds of other Canadian space scientists and engineers, we are now seen on the world stage as imposters. This scandal is a disservice to Canada’s space legacy, but the scandal is not entirely unexpected. Our recent history has been one of sour and strained relations between Canada’s scientists and Canada’s government. It is symptomatic of a deeper problem.

Last year, the Professional Institute of Public Service Canada (PIPSC) commissioned a survey “to gauge the scale and impact of ‘muzzling’ and political interference among federal scientists.” Over 4,000 of the country’s 60,000 public servants (including 20,000 scientists) in federal departments and agencies were polled. “Hundreds of federal scientists said that they had been asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons, and thousands said they had been prevented from responding to the media or the public,” according to the survey results. Gary Corbett, president of PIPSC, said that the scientists “say themselves, ‘We live in a climate of fear.'” What do they fear? Taboo topics include environmental science, studies of ozone depletion, statistics on aboriginal health, status reports from fisheries, waterways, and occupational hazards. Breaches are reported by government “minders” who have the Orwellian task of accompanying federal scientists to conferences and reporting home on any scientists who become unleashed or unmuzzled. It would be better if there were more support for science and scientists, and less emphasis on glossy policy salesmanship.

Because of the website blunder, there are people all around the world who have read the Economist, Washington Post, and dozens of other papers’ stories. They now doubt Canada’s contribution entirely. However, the fact remains that there really is a Canadian arm in space, developed by Canadian robotics and space scientists. It is a shame their reputations have been sullied – but they best not complain lest the minders report their thoughts. We would have preferred to see the Photoshopping money spent on unfettered science, research, and exploration – not on a computer graphic rendering of science, research, and exploration. Unlike a doctored space photograph, the damage done by the past half dozen years of muzzled scientists and stripped research budgets can not be undone by a simple cut and paste.

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The Theory of Everything

Stephen Hawking, addressing NASA, 2008. Photo credit NASA

Stephen Hawking, addressing NASA, 2008.  (Photo credit NASA)

The marriage of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde – as told through the ex-wife’s memoir – has become the stuff of a Hollywood tragic-romance. I have not read her memoir but have read excerpts and reviews of it. The Jane Wilde Hawking Jones book, Travelling to Infinity – My Life with Stephen, was written a few years after their divorce (the Hawkings had been together for nearly 30 years). The Theory of Everything, the Hollywood adaptation, is a very loose interpretation of her story of their time together. The film makes  a compelling and fascinating account, but it is an extraordinarily unfaithful rendering. The screenplay adapters knew what they were doing in their rewrite – they were presenting a story that should fill theatre seats. It is intended as entertainment, of course.

As entertainment, the movie works well. The viewer is quickly engaged in the awkward charm and cerebral wit of young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and the quiet poise and dignity of his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). The film begins with Hawking’s arrival at Cambridge, the first signs of his progressive motor neuron disease, his PhD defence, and his meeting of Jane. (They were introduced through Jane’s sister, but the movie has us believe that Hawking spied her at a party and pursued her through some quirky schemes.) The movie trails through Jane’s incredible efforts to build a semblance of a family life for their children while simultaneously dealing with her husband’s unimaginably challenging progressive paralysis, her own infidelity, and Hawking’s growing fame. The film shows their parting and a final reconciliation. Although they were married nearly 30 years and their children became adults, the ending scenes present the children as grammar-school kids, for obvious emotional effect.

The movie does a good job documenting the progression of Hawking’s motor neuron disease, which has been described as a variant of ALS. (It is a variant only because it has been slowly progressive – all of his symptoms fall well within this broad-spectrum disorder.) Hawking was diagnosed at age 21 and the disease has slowly paralyzed him – albeit at a rate one-tenth the “normal” progression of the illness. It took 20 years for his disability to mimic the presentation found within 2 years in a typical ALS patient. The movie does an exceptionally stirring job of showing the difficulties family, friends, and spouses endure as they try to maintain normal lives while caring for profoundly ill loved ones.

But the movie should not be taken as a serious factual representation of the life of the Hawkings. For example, as Jane is unzipping her boyfriend’s tent, Stephen is far away, having his trachea neatly incised by a surgeon. Although the juxtaposed symbolism is startling and brilliant as it equates young Jane’s affair with the slitting of her husband’s throat, things didn’t happen quite that way. For pursuers of fact, I would point you towards Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine. This more accurate account shows us that Jane is not so young –  it  is a mature 42-year-old Jane Hawking who made the life-saving decision for her husband’s continued ventilation. The tracheotomy came months later. And, according to Jane’s memoir, she stayed faithful to Stephen –  the camping scene is entirely contrived theatre.

A few more overt fabrications in the movie:

Sex. A friend asks Stephen about his sex life. Hawking’s actor smirks and responds. The scene is shear invention – Hawking, according to Jane’s memoir, never spoke openly about sex, “which for him was as taboo a subject as his illness.”

Dating. The movie shows Hawking’s friends breaking the news about the diagnosis to Jane. In the film, the Hawkings were depicted as a couple – in reality, she heard about his ALS by chance and they were not even dating yet.

Croquet. A game of croquet figures large in the movie – it symbolizes Hawking’s frustration with his illness and Jane’s loyalty. The game never happened.

Tracheotomy. In the movie, Hawking coughs and chokes at a formal concert and is whisked away in an ambulance – reality was not as dramatic. During a stop in Geneva, his friends were concerned about his persistent cough. They called a doctor. He was admitted to a hospital. The tracheotomy came after Hawking had recovered and had been on a ventilator for months.

The family friend. The movie leads the viewer to believe that Jane’s friend, Johnathan Jones, was the family’s sole helper for years. This is not true. A series of Hawking’s grad students lived with the family and helped with his care – one even travelled to California and lived with the family there for a year. The family friend did not. Further, the movie shows Hawking suffering the indignity of his wife’s boyfriend lifting Stephen from the toilet, implying this was how life worked in the Hawking household. It didn’t work that way, but it creates great theatre.

Brian. To simplify things, many of Hawking’s colleagues are merged into a single person. This was most artfully executed in “Brian,” portrayed as Hawking’s close friend and confidant, the gentleman who tries to rescue Stephen Hawking from despair. In real life, no such person existed.

The voice. In the movie, Jane remarks that Hawking’s new voice is “American” – this drew laughter from the audience, but in reality, she never said it. Instead, Jane thought the voice sounded like a cyborg from the British television series, Doctor Who.

I think that Physics actually receives a reasonable treatment from this Hollywood flick, although the New York Times reviewer calls it vastly over-simplified. Of course it is – this is a mass-consumption movie, not a Feynman lecture. At one point, Jane spews one of Hawking’s theories at a dinner table. This theatrical device describes the science in layman’s terms and helps the audience grasp an outline of the scientist’s work. But this movie is not a science movie, and its makers do not portend as much. For the real physics, Errol Morris’s documentary A Brief History of Time will not disappoint you.

In the film, I felt that Stephen Hawking’s religious beliefs are intentionally muddled. In what I assume is an attempt to appease a largely religious American audience, Hawking’s well-known and frequently stated atheism is toned down and his wife’s religiosity (which is genuine) was amplified. Hawking was shown making allowances for God in the universe and, near the movie’s end, Hawking is asked directly about the role of a deity (and his own beliefs) –  the film’s answer is a very indirect and highly qualified retreat from Stephen Hawking’s often stated principles. But perhaps vague innuendo about religion is the best way to satisfy those who may attend this show. To be direct, the producers could have used this quote from Hawking: “There is no god. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.” You can see Hawking make this statement and its context at this link. It is not presented as a muddled triviality.

Although this Mountain Mystery blog is usually about Earth Science topics, I have written at length about this new movie for two reasons.  First, I saw the film last night at a first-screening event here in Calgary. My tickets were provided through the distributor, E-One Entertainment and were sent to me by the Canadian Science Writers Association, of which I am a member. So, with gratitude for the E-One advance screening tickets (the movies opens here on Friday) and with thanks to the CSWA, I felt I would blog this bit about the film. But there is a second reason for blogging about The Theory of Everything. And it is personal.


Some friends and I.

Like Stephen Hawking, I have a variant of motor neuron disease. I sensed something was amiss for most of my life. But I was nearly 40 when I finally began to tumble and fall. (The first time resulted in a broken arm; a series of lesser mishaps soon followed.) It took a year of clumsy movement, slow walking, and weakness before I approached a physician. Another year passed before a neurologist reluctantly told me that I probably had ALS. We would monitor the disease monthly and see how it progressed. All of the tests (mostly electrified wires that made me jump like a dead frog) pointed to motor neuron disease, but progression has been incredibly slow.  What I have is certainly not typical ALS, nor is Hawking’s disease typical ALS. It is best described as a motor neuron disorder (of which there are many flavours). It took years, but I recently surrendered my outdoor ambulations to a wheelchair, curtailed my travels, reduced my work. Fatigue is chronic. Everything I do takes more energy and frustration than you can imagine. Both of my feet have pronounced foot-drop which requires me to lift my legs high when I try to walk, lest I trip on my toes and plant my face into our wooden floor. My left hand hangs limp and its fingers no longer coordinate their movements very well. My right arm does not rise above my head.  But like Stephen Hawking in his younger days, I also have a dedicated wife who spends her free time doing things I should be able to do and who tirelessly works to make my life easier and more comfortable.

Unlike Stephen Hawking, I am not profoundly disabled. Nor am I profoundly intelligent. We are all different people, aren’t we? Most of us have some debilitation – often unseen emotional or mental challenges, sometimes unseen medical problems, sometimes severe disabilities that startle others unexpectedly. We all travel the same road, all bound to the same destiny. With that in mind, the movie – The Theory of Everything – is less remarkable than it might seem. It is a movie about all of us. It is worth watching, not as a documentary about a scientist and his wife, but as a glimpse into the reality of life and the suffering that every one of us endures.

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The Audacity of Exploration


A thoughtful – even poetic – telling of humanity’s drive to explore.

From the blog Write Science.

Originally posted on Write Science:

by Shane L. Larson

We are perhaps the most audacious species to ever inhabit the Earth. Our audacity is not defined by our weird physical features (as perhaps defines our cousin the duck-billed platypus), nor defined by our strange physical geometry (as perhaps defines our cousins the octopuses), nor defined by abbreviated or extenuated oddities in our life cycles (as perhaps defines our cousins the mayflies or cicadas respectively).

Humans have been on Earth a long time. Doing what humans do.

Humans have been on Earth a long time. Doing what humans do.

The existence of modern humans as a distinct biological species on planet Earth goes back around 200,000 years. At the time modern humans appear in the fossil record, we were just as smart and as strong as we are now, but we hadn’t become a society yet. The oldest known artifacts of human manufacture are roughly 100,000 years old (shell jewelry), and the oldest bit of recorded history goes…

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We Love Comets… but it wasn’t always that way

So, today we kissed a comet. Many of us shared the excitement of the European Space Agency’s successful landing. Something built on the Earth is now sitting on a comet, traveling at 135,000 kilometres an hour, heading towards an even faster spin around the sun. The sheer scope of the engineering is astounding – the spacecraft traveled over 6 billion kilometres pursuing its target and the rendezvous took place 500 million kilometres from the mission’s control room in Germany. Rosetta’s speed had to exactly match the speed of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko when its lander, Philae, was sent to touchdown. The lander lit on the comet as one might settle on a park bench after a long casual walk. Almost softly and gently taking its seat, with just a slight rebound.

19 September 2014 at 28.6 km from the centre of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko - photo mosaic by permission of "ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0"

September 19 2014 at 28.6 km from the centre of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – photo mosaic by permission of  ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM, CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

I hate to be the one to say it, but Comet 67P/C-G doesn’t look much like a comet. In fact, it is rather ugly. And, if reports are correct, it is rather smelly, too. A comet only a mother could love. And, I suspect, a few hundred Europena space flight engineers. 67P is mottled, grey, warty. It is irregularly twisted. With some imagination, the image released by the European Space Agency might represent a two-headed chimera. I see an Elsa the lion on the left end, a Scottish terrier on the right. At just 4 kilometres in length, this flying creature will not it light up the night sky. Visually, it will neither delight nor terrorize anyone on its dash around the sun.

Hale-Bopp March 29 1997 photo by Philipp Salzgeber released the pictures under CC-BY-SA-2.0-AT

Hale-Bopp March 29 1997 photo by Philipp Salzgeber released under CC-BY-SA-2.0-AT

In the past, comets were almost universally an omen that terrorized onlookers. That’s hard to believe today. I remember watching Hale-Bopp in April 1997. My best view was quite accidental – I was standing at a bus stop just before sunrise. I pointed out the comet to others waiting. I especially remember the man who wouldn’t look. He somehow thought it was a prank – make the unwary gentleman search the sky for the elusive comet, lots of laughs. But it was no hoax and when the fellow finally dared to look, he dropped his pack and muttered profane words of astonishment. A good view of a superior comet can have that effect on anyone. Hale-Bopp’s 1997 appearance at the Calgary bus stop did not send shudders of fear down the spines of its witnesses. Had it appeared a thousand years earlier, it certainly would have. Mayans, Aztecs, Chinese, and Europeans all thought comets bade only misfortune. Comets brought unexpected deaths, famines, revolts against the king. I guess you would not want to be the royal astronomer who first spotted a new comet in the sky.

For nearly 2,000 years,  people believed Aristotle’s tripe about comets – comets, he said, lived in the realm between Earth and Moon. They were part of our atmosphere and understandably, they could influence life on Earth. It wasn’t until Tycho Brahe (1600) proved that comets occupy space much, much further away from the Earth that people quit fearing comets. Only if one should colllide with the Earth should there be much cause for dread. And in that case, the dread would be short-lived. Newton and Halley put a final end to superstitious musings about comets. Newton proved the elliptical shape of their paths and Halley made predictions of comets’ returns.

Halley and his sketch of the Earth's inner layers and core.

Edmond Halley with his sketch of the Earth’s inner layers and core.

Edmond Halley was interested in everything. He explained the newly discovered problem of magnetic drift which made compasses slowly less accurate. Halley suggested that extreme internal pressure gives the Earth a solid iron core. The crust we stand upon is also obviously solid. But Halley brilliantly surmised that some type of fluid separates the two solids.  He believed the fluid region of the inner Earth produces the magnetic field, but due to sluggish rotation of that liquid, the magnetic pole is drifting. Halley was partially correct; he was certainly right when he identified distinct inner-earth layers. He was one of the first to understand the differentiation.

Halley had a knack for clear reasoning in other areas of science, too. He said solar heat was the cause of wind. He discovered the relationship between barometric pressure and elevation. Halley edited his friend Newton’s great study of physics, Principia, then printed it when the Royal Society failed to find the cash. And, of course, Halley predicted the return of the comet which others named in his honour. Halley was England’s Royal Astronomer but he didn’t receive the job he really wanted – Oxford Professor of Astronomy. The Archbishop of Canterbury vetoed the appointment due to Halley’s well-known atheism.

Whiston's 1696 drawing of the solar system - almost good enough to use today.

Whiston’s 1696 drawing of the solar system – good enough for some of today’s high school text books.

Comets were becoming a thing of nature rather than a messenger of gods.  A Brit named William Whiston wrote a very popular book, A New Theory of the Earth (1696), that tried to reconcile stories from Genesis with Renaissance discoveries from science. Comets played a big role.  Whiston was one of the smartest men of his era. He followed Newton as Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge and he produced an extraordinarily popular translation of Josephus’s History of the Jews – after the Bible, Whiston’s version of Josephus was the most widely-owned book in England. For Noah’s Flood, Whiston had the necessary water delivered on the tail of a comet. Whiston correctly identified that comets contain water and his 1696 drawing of a comet’s orbit is among the earliest printed diagrams showing the Earth revolving around the Sun. Except for perfect circles, rather than ellipses for the planets’ paths, his sketch of the solar system could almost sneak into a modern Kansas high school textbook.

Whiston also maintained that the Earth itself originated from the atmosphere of a comet and most changes in Earth’s geological history could be attributed to the action of comets. God created the Earth out of the atmosphere of a comet, and then engulfed it in a Great Flood with the tail of another. His book, with its nod to a world designed by God, then set in motion and allowed to run on fixed laws, was well received by Isaac Newton, John Locke, and other notable contemporaries.  Comets enamoured Whiston. He caused a bit of a panic in London when he predicted that one of those comets would collide with the Earth on October 16, 1736, and bring an end to life on the planet. It didn’t.

Into our own times, one of the most bizarre cases of pseudoscience involved a psychiatrist named Immanuel Velikovsky. Velikovsky gained fame for his best-selling Worlds in Collision which offered an alternative view of the evolution of the solar system. His book claims Venus was once a comet ejected from Jupiter and the new comet Venus swept near the Earth in 50-year intervals, disrupting the planet’s spin and orbit, leading to some of the dramatic events portrayed in the Bible – including the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea.  At one point Venus stalled near the Earth, giving Joshua the extra hours of sunlight the Bible said he needed to slaughter the Amorites of Gibeon, following God’s orders to kill every Canaanite on Earth.

According to Velikovsky, Comet Venus helped Joshua in his battle, and the planet carried pestilences of flies that originated on Jupiter. Those flies and other Jovian creatures were the source of Earth’s current petroleum deposits. Decaying organic bodies of creatures from Jupiter, said Velikovsky, were carried to Earth on the comet tail of Venus. He also argued persuasively that Saturn had once gone through a nova state, ejecting a huge quantity of water into space, which found its way to Earth on a comet and caused Noah’s flood. Velikovsky also proved (at least to his readers) that the planet Mercury was involved in the collapse of the Tower Of Babel, and Jupiter in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I don’t make these things up. Velikovsky wrote sincerely and stretched science to fit his stories. And he made millions from book sales.

Worlds in Collision was enormously popular in the 1960s and 1970s. It (and Velikovsky’s sequels) sold tens of millions of copies. Study groups formed in high schools and colleges across the USA. Velikovsky’s pseudoscience appealed to many who wanted to believe the literal word of the Bible, yet also needed to support their belief with some type of science. Although Velikovsky had no training in physics or astronomy, he persuasively explained Old Testament miracles with an imaginative flair that seduced millions of followers. Geologists dismissed Velikovsky’s charming hypotheses, inadvertently strengthening his standing among those who recognized the dismissive tones as a conspiracy among mainstream scientists to hide the true nature of the solar system. Velikovsky offered a non-mathematical solace with his entertaining religious-scientific synthesis. It did not take much depth of thought to be swept away by his tales – in fact, that was perhaps a prerequisite. Readers came to the defence of the doctor whom they saw as a persecuted scientific martyr attacked by the establishment. Geologists objected and Velikovsky’s books sold better.

But that was then and this is now. Today, Philae is apparently perched on a small comet dashing around the solar system. Don’t expect plagues or deluges or harbingers of death and destruction. Instead, celebrate with the European engineers who pulled off a marvelous achievement.

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The Age of Man?

Well, this is not the Age of Aquarius. Last week, geologists met in Berlin to discuss  renaming our current geological epoch – the Holocene. They say it began when the ice age ended, 11,700 years ago. The geologists in Berlin debated splitting the Holocene into two pieces. The most recent part would be renamed the Anthropocene – literally, the age of New (-cene) Man (anthropo-). There are some persuasive reasons to consider this change in nomenclature.

neanderthalOld Man, as we might call our distant ancestors, lived for 200,000 years in rather close commune with nature. Fire was tamed, stone tools were fashioned, animal skins served for warmth and perhaps modesty. But for most of those thousands of generations, the human animal population fit into the ecology with little impact and we numbered only a few hundred thousand. Our “carbon footprint” wasn’t much larger than a size 7 slipper. Then, around 8,000 years ago, New Man emerged. Agriculture and trips to the Moon soon followed. Progress in itself is not enough to warrant naming a new geological epoch for ourselves. Geologists base geological ages on more concrete entities. Distinct soils and rocks. Extinct animals. Changes in landforms and ocean chemistry. These have all identified past epoch transitions. Some geologists are arguing that New Man has modified the soil, killed some species, flooded a few islands, and added enough acid and carbon dioxide to the seas that we deserve having our name affixed to this altered stage of the planet. Congratulations to us.

In the past, the great ages of the Earth were divided into eras, periods, and epochs based largely on extinctions. When geologist Charles Lyell, in the mid-nineteenth century, named the major rock divisions (Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic) he and his colleagues distinguished them by their fossils. Those early geologists had no way of knowing the actual age of the formations – they guessed millions of years – but on the basis of the simple idea that younger rocks were in layers above older rocks, they worked out the relative ages. Fossil assemblages helped. Rather consistently, fossils occurring in deeper (older) rocks were simpler than the complex fossils found in shallower rocks. It was an early clue of evolution and astute geologists realized this years before Darwin explained the mechanisms involved.

Costa Rica’s golden toad – extinct in 1989.

Extinctions certainly formed the demarcation line between the time periods. Long before an asteroid was blamed for the transition between Cretaceous and Tertiary, geologists easily distinguished between the two. Cretaceous rocks hosted mammoth dinosaur bones while all dinosaurs were absent in the Tertiary. Similar stunning disappearances mark at least 5 other major time boundaries. If extinctions were the only criterion designating the end of one age and the beginning of the next, then surely relabeling the latter part of the Holocene as the Anthropocene makes sense – there have been many thousands of extinctions since New Man arrived on the scene. These famously include the dodo, golden toad, Yangtze River dolphin, passenger pigeon, and west African black rhino. There is good evidence human activity also ended the North American camel and perhaps the mastodon. These are the big photogenic creatures. There were also lesser animals that are no more. In a 1995 paper in Science, researchers showed that the extinction rate due to New Man’s activity is roughly 1,000 times greater than during the days of Old Man. There is, indeed, an Anthropocene extinction severe enough to show itself in the fossil record.

lima peruBut defining the Anthropocene entails more than tallying extinctions. In addition to disappearing species, previous geological eras and epochs stand out for their distinguishing rock types. New Man is busy creating some interesting geology. We might assume that our most obvious monuments to ourselves – our steel and concrete cities – will speak of our existence a million years hence. Probably not. Although in a few thousand years cities may crumble and leave tell-tale rust spots on the landscape, the besmirched soil will eventually erode. In most cases, signs of our cities will not last. Erosion sweeps away landscapes. Oceanscapes, however, are often preserved.

garbageTherefore, the legacy of New Man’s Anthropocene will be most evident in places that seem obscure to us today. Although astute future geologists will find traces of radioactive dust as a sign of the mid-twentieth century (remnants of the fallout of atmospheric nuclear bomb tests) and future archeologists may find landfills with non-degradable diapers and plastic hypodermic needles, it will be the seas that most clearly demonstrate the start of the Anthropocene.

New Man’s brilliant ability to manipulate molecules into new chemicals has led to more effective fertilizers and pesticides. I am not opposed to these discoveries – our billions of human cousins need their bodies protected from malaria and malnutrition. We want a clean environment; but we can’t let people starve. But this not need to be an unsolvable dichotomy, a win-and-lose scenario, although we have mostly pointed our world towards this dead-end direction. Until we learn to curb our appetites for shiny bling-bling, we will raze our forests and ply the resulting fields with manufactured fertilizers and poisons. Modern chemistry is reshaping the soil (perhaps future geologists will notice the trace elements) but far worse is the damage to the basins into which our chemicals bleed. It is in those basins – the world’s lakes, seas, and oceans – that the effects of the Anthropocene will remain the longest and be seen the most clearly.

Chemical runoff from fields and factories will unite with industrial aerial pollution, adding weight to our seas. By the end of this century, enough carbon dioxide from the air will become mild carbolic acid in the oceans to kill he world’s coral reefs. The reefs will die as they have in each of the previous 5 major extinctions. Of course they may come back, as they have 5 times already. But there will be a million-year reef-gap and it will be associated with the human animal’s impact on the Earth.

pollutionThe billions of tonnes of coal and oil which New Man has converted to energy and carbon dioxide are melting polar ice, raising sea level and flooding shorelines. Neither the pollution, the climate change, nor the extinctions will mark an end to life on Earth. They might not even mark an end to man’s time on the planet. The Earth has been hotter and damper and colder and more violently altered in the past and life has endured. But that does not excuse New Man’s messy creation of the Anthropocene.

Last week, geologists at the Berlin meeting pondered the formal use of this new name. The International Union of Geological Sciences’ Commission on Stratigraphy will decide in 2016 if Anthropocene will be approved as the officially designated title for the current epoch. If they approve,  the Age of New Man will be noted for yet another mass extinction of species, changed climate, flooded continental shelves – plus dabs of radioactive dust and a thin layer of Styrofoam coffee cups. These will mark our existence on this planet.

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Russia’s Growing Pains

Up for grabs? North Pole web cam image from US NOAA.

Up for grabs? North Pole web cam image from US NOAA.

Russia plans to grow. It may do this by annexing 1.2 million square kilometres of Arctic Ocean. That’s a piece of Earth more than twice the current size of the Ukraine. This includes the North Pole. And potentially a lot of oil, gas, and minerals that other countries are claiming. Distressful news, to say the least. But it is not yet a done deal.

Here’s how the takeover could work. By international agreement, every country in the world is allowed to claim and completely dominate abutting ocean out to a distance of 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres). If this runs into a neighbour on the opposite side of a sea, the border meets in the middle. To exercise any control beyond that (in other words, to extend its maritime boundary into open, unclaimed seas), a country has to show that its continental shelf extends further than 370 kilometres. If it does, the country may claim the sea floor and any treasures below – but not the water column above. Sounds complicated, but if a country can show that its shelf goes on and on, it can claim subsurface minerals, oil, and gas indefinitely – but it can not stop marine traffic or fishing in the international waters above.

The United Nations granted the five countries encircling the Arctic Ocean a deadline to stake claims to the arctic. Last year, Canada produced geophysical and geological data that suggests Canada’s claim goes well beyond Canada’s Arctic Islands and extends up to the North Pole. It seems to be a valid claim, supported by oceanography data. However, this week, the Russian research vessel Akademik Fyodorov ended its surveys and the Russians immediately announced that their continental shelf also reaches the North Pole.

Apparently not needing to wait to analyze the new data, the Russian Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology (Sergey Donskoy) announced, “We lay our claim on 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean. That is a big increase to our country’s territory, that’s why we call this application an application for the future – an application for the future sustainable development of our country.”  This is according to the Russian news source Novosti. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources will file its submission with the UN in the spring of 2015. By then, the Russian scientists should have had time to interpret the new raw data. But don’t expect the scientific results to differ from the political announcement already made.

Novosti says that Minister Donskoy called the North Pole research unique work. “Our main goal there was to conduct seismic exploration and we managed to achieve it. The seismic exploration of this kind was conducted for the first time in the world.” Not really. Marine seismic exploration and bathymetry surveys are hardly new nor unique – they have been around since the late 1930s and are no different than seismic data acquisition performed by the other four countries completing for a slice of high arctic resources – Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, and the USA.

Arktika - the first surface ship to reach the North Pole - credit RIA Novosti, Commons

Arktika – the first surface ship to reach the North Pole – credit RIA Novosti, Commons

Ominously, the Russian military also takes a great (non-scientific) interest in the Arctic and that may ultimately decide the North Pole’s ownership. Russia will complete deployment of military units along the Arctic circle by the end of 2014, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday. This entails the establishment of 10 naval bases from Murmansk to Chukotka. “We have been very active in the Arctic region lately, and this year we will have a large number of units deployed along the Arctic circle,” Shoigu said.

The KV Svalbard, a Norwegian Coast Guard vessel. The Royal Canadian Navy plans to use this model to build half a dozen offshore patrol vessels at $4.3 billion each. Announced in 2007, none have been built, but Canadian Prime Minister Harper revealed in September 2014 that the first ship will be called the Harry DeWolf - if it is ever constructed.

The KV Svalbard, a Norwegian Coast Guard vessel, is the model for future $700 million Royal Canadian Navy patrol vessels. Announced in 2007, none have been built yet. But Canadian Prime Minister Harper revealed in September 2014 that the first ship will be called Harry DeWolf –                if it is ever constructed.

Canada, the second big player in the arctic waters, has done little to protect its interests. Seven years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that an arctic training centre and deep water naval base would be built. One training base. That singular Resolute Bay base, announced with much bluster in 2007, finally opened last year. The proposed deep water port will be a resurrection of an old mining port at Nanisivik. A Nunavut military base was also announced in 2007, but construction hasn’t even started. “Canada’s very good at plans, but not so much at execution,” says Dr Rob Huebert, a University of Calgary professor, and arctic defence policy expert. Canada’s policy in the far north has been hesitant, to say the least. Currently, Canada has 150 soldiers protecting its four million square kilometres of arctic territory. Russia has thousands of troops along its expanse of arctic waters, stretching half-way around the entire planet – from Norway to Alaska.

The four non-Russian countries with an interest in the far north are all NATO members, so their combined presence could counterbalance the Russian occupation. There were even plans for joint Russian-NATO arctic exercises. But on October 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov casually stated that NATO’s presence in the Arctic “was unnecessary.” There were no problems in the region, the foreign minister continued, that required NATO’s participation. Everything was working well in Russia’s capable hands. Back in April, President Vladimir Putin described a network of military facilities, warships and 13 aircraft bases as part of his plan to protect Russian interests and its territorial claims in the region. Relations are wary and Canada has been cautious – especially after Canada (which has the world’s largest diaspora population of Ukrainians) openly supported Ukraine’s Crimean claims. Russia retaliated by sending fighter planes over Canada’s arctic waters this summer.

US Navy submarine in the Arctic

US Navy submarine in the Arctic

You may wonder how the United States figures into all of this. Dr. Huebert, of Calgary’s School of Policy, calls the USA  “The Reluctant Arctic Power” and has written a policy paper with that title. He begins his study stating “the Arctic has seldom figured prominently in US policy.” The USA, of course, has a permanent Arctic presence through the state of Alaska and has long produced oil from the North Slope and Prudhoe Bay. But Huebert is right, the USA seems ambivalent to the opening arctic waters. While the United Nations asked the arctic countries to submit their territorial claims (Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway responded) the Americans ignored the filing deadlines. This could be because the American arctic frontier is only 1,000 kilometres long and holds little prospect of shelf-extension. In contrast, Canada has over 5,000 kilometres of arctic frontier and Russia has 7,000.

uscanadaborderWith respect to Canada, the Americans have sometimes been abrasive. There is a serious territorial dispute between Alaska and the Yukon regarding near-offshore waters. Canada claims the border continues northwest, perpendicular to the coastline while the USA disagrees and extends the border into Canada’s claimed zone. At stake is a Beaufort Sea resource play with millions of barrels of untapped oil. Further north, the Americans recently sent a nuclear submarine through passages between Canada’s archipelago of islands. Canada demanded advanced notice and a request for permission. None was sought. To save face, Prime Minister Harper quickly dispatched an ice cutter to “accompany” the Americans. Nevertheless, Harper’s best defense of the Canadian arctic frontier is not his 150 troops but a reliance on American help to push Russia back – if pushing is ever needed. Canada and the USA are, after all, friendly allies.

Last December, Canada was about to submit its own Arctic claim when Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked his science researchers to expand their results and include the North Pole.  The original Canadian claim didn’t include the North Pole, which lies near a large oil patch. But with prime-ministerial urging, the pole was added.  It sounds like a political add-on of the sort the Russians themselves pulled. The Canadian assertion, however, is not bogus and from the maps I have seen, has more scientific merit than the Russian counter-claim.

What is there to protect? Or take? Plenty. According to the United States Geological Survey, the arctic holds one-third of all the untapped oil and gas in the world. We don’t even know what other exotic delights (diamonds, gold, platinum, manganese, nickel?) await future explorers. The US Navy has concluded that global warming is real and that the Arctic will be ice-free each summer, likely starting in 2016. If true, this makes mineral and oil exploitation more tenable. And delivery of pumped crude by tanker ships will also be possible. Which brings us to the other strategic advantage belonging to the country owning the arctic waters.

The fabled Northwest Passage – sought since the days of Henry Hudson in 1610 – is the shipping route between Europe and Asia across the top of the globe. Until the Panama Canal was built in 1914, European freight traveled around the southern tip of either South America or Africa to reach Asia. A much more direct route links Europe and Japan, Korea, and China through the arctic. With global warming, the sea route is becoming feasible. In ten years, it will be the regular normal passage for most freight, according to the Council on Foreign Affairs.

The Russians tested a northern passage last year when an enormous empty liquified natural gas freighter – a tanker operated by Russian gas giant Gazprom – traveled from Japan to Europe (Hammerfest, Norway) where it was loaded with LNG. Accompanied by Russian nuclear-powered ice breakers, it then brought the liquified gas fuel back to Japan. The press largely missed this event, but it has phenomenal importance. It was the first commercial delivery of commercial cargo across that 6,000 kilometre stretch of the Arctic. The entire tanker journey (from Norway to Japan via Russia’s Northern Passage) was 11,000 kilometres. The alternative shipping route (from Norway to Japan via the Suez Canal) is 22,000 kilometres – if the tanker could squeeze through the canal – otherwise it would need to sail around Africa’s cape, a journey of 31,000 kilometres to Japan. The Russian route cuts a three-month trip to one month and saves hundreds of thousands of dollars in freight costs.

What is the science behind these territorial claims? International law bestows mineral riches to the countries that can show their nation’s continental shelf extends beyond the 370 kilometres of ocean normally given to a seafaring country. Continental shelf is determined in two main ways – the rock type on the sea floor and the depth of the water. In most passive margins, water meets land which slowly disappears as one ventures further asea. It is not unusual for shelves to extend several hundred kilometres with water as shallow as a few hundred metres. But almost everywhere, the land then suddenly plunges to the average sea floor depth of over 4,000 metres. It is well-nigh impossible for any country to claim that sort of a depth is a natural extension of a continental shelf. The average depth of the Arctic – the world’s shallowest ocean –  is only 1,050 metres. It is almost easy to confuse real continental shelf with real ocean sea floor on the basis of depth or topography. That’s why another determinant is useful. This is rock type. Continents (and shelves) are lighter weight rocks like granite and they rise above the asthenosphere. Ocean crust is heavier, basaltic rock. For a solid shelf-claim, rock samples are retrieved and they best not be basalt.

Russia has been using the extension of the Lomonsov ridge to booster its claims to the North Pole and much of the Arctic. The Russians say the ridge is an extension of the Eurasian continent. But the Lomonsov ridge is peculiar. It might not be shelf at all. Lomonsov is an 1,800 kilometre long ridge of narrow, uplifted continental crust. The rock type is continental. The ridge rises 3 kilometres above surrounding arctic water but is nevertheless rather deep, almost entirely lying under a kilometre of water. The Russians view it as an ancient craton – a chunk of exceedingly ancient continental crust that has survived the rifting, drifting, and merging of continental plates and has stayed attached to its tectonic host. But which host? Eurasian or North American? Therein lies the great debate.

The Arctic. Image from NOAA Commons.

The Lomonsov Ridge is near the centre, crosses the North Pole, and extends to Greenland. From this single view, it is seen terminating at the boundary between Greenland and Canada but is detached from Russia. Image from NOAA Commons.

The Russian scientists claim seismic data shows the craton is an extension of their continental shelf. But so do the Danes with seismic acquired by the Greenland and Denmark Geological Survey. I have worked with seismic data from the arctic, but not these two data sets. However, I can imagine it would be easy and convincing to extend the underlying shelf from either side. Seismic geophysics is a creative art. Cross-sections built from the Danish data (which I have seen) are persuasive and show the Lomonsov ridge rising to a relatively shallow height just north of Greenland.  The ridge’s attachment to either shelf and its tectonic history are vitally important to the UN decision.

Lomonsov might be a non-shelf crustal feature rather than an extension of a continental shelf – but, again, whose shelf? The ridge crosses confirmed Canadian territory, north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Meanwhile, the Danes believe it is an extension of Greenland. All three – Russia, Canada, and Greenland/Denmark have laid claim to a vast swath of the sea – and the North Pole – much of it on the basis of the very odd (and ambiguously understood) Lomonsov ridge formation.

If Russia’s claims are rejected by the United Nations and no other country successfully claims the North Pole, it becomes a part of the Arctic called “The Area” which will be administered by the UN “on behalf of humanity as a whole.” But with Russia’s huge military presence in the north, a failed Russian scientific petition might not be enough to turn the North Pole over to international custody.

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