Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

New exoplanets

Exoplanet news! Scientists today announced the discovery of a host of planets, all orbiting a single star similar to the Sun. Though five are Neptune-sized, a sixth (not yet confirmed) might be the size of Earth. What makes this even more exciting is that the astronomers made the discovery using a ground-based telescope.

But wait, there’s more! Thursday NASA will hold a press conference about a new discovery by Kepler!


The high country above Mt. St. Helens

Today we did an 11.5 mile hike up to the high country to the north of Mt. St. Helens. This hike, following Boundary Trail #1 from Norway Pass to the summit of Mt. Margaret, provides the best views of the volcano of any hike, at least according to the two books on hiking in Washington that I used, 100 Classic Hikes in Washington and Washington Hiking. Based on our experience today I would have to agree.

View from Norway Pass
The view of Mt. St. Helens and Spirit Lake from Norway Pass

The Boundary Trail runs through country directly hit by the 1980 eruption. Not surprisingly, there is much evidence of the devastation caused by the blast wave.

blown down trees

However, these high mountains have recovered far better than the plains at the base of the volcano. Many slopes looked like any typical Alpine forest, with many young evergreens and the ground covered with thick brush, grass, and flowers.

vibrant life

One final thought about the scientific research that I described at Mt. St. Helens yesterday. The one thing I forgot to note is how much the 1980 eruption changed volcano research in the United States. When it occurred, the only active volcano observatory in the United States was in Hawaii. Now there is a whole network of additional observatories in the Northwest, Alaska, the Sierra Nevada and Yellowstone.

When the next mainland volcano finally decides to erupt — as did Mt. St. Helens — the geologists who study these things will therefore be far more prepared to tackle the event than they were in 1980. And because of this readiness the next explosion should be a far more amazing event for ordinary citizens to watch as well.


The Time Machine

An evening pause: A clip from The Time Machine (1960). Though not a completely accurate adaption, this enchanting film captured the essence of H.G. Wells’ novel. As Wells wrote,

But to me the future is still black and blank — is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of [the Time Traveler’s] story. And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers — shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle — to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.


The desert below Mt. St. Helens

On May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens erupted, the blast throwing the north slope of the mountain out and downward in a terribly hot wave of ash, rock, and magma. All life in its path was destroyed. Forests were ripped to the ground, then buried. The force of the wave tore into Spirit Lake, pushing the water sideways so that it sent its own wave 500 feet up the side of the opposite mountain. The mountain then dumped so much material into the lake that it actually doubled in size, its shores raised 200 feet.

It is now thirty years later. After years of slowly oozing out two large lava domes into its shattered crater, Mt. St. Helens had finally quieted down enough for the National Park Service to permit hikers to once again return. Not only do trails now criss-cross the blast zone below the crater, if you make arrangements in advance you can actually hike up the mountain’s south face and look down into the crater.

Our hike yesterday at Mt. St. Helens consisted of two parts. The first took us down onto the Loowit Trail, the closest the National Park Service permits hikers to get to the volcano’s lava domes. The second part was a short hike down to the shoreline of Spirit Lake.

Two things stood out in both these hikes. First, I was astonished how much of the surrounding landscape remains devastated, barren, and desert-like, decades after the eruption. I come from the East, where you expect a barren field to quickly become overgrown with life. Yet, even in the rainy climate of the northwest the destruction left by the volcano is so profound it is going to take many more decades for the forest to reclaim its former glory.

Thus, the land between the mountain and Spirit Lake more resembles the deserts of the American southwest than the lush, wet forests of the Cascade mountains. At one point I even noted to Diane how the Loowit trail reminded me of the Tonto Plateau trail in the Grand Canyon — a wide shadeless terrain crossing periodic dry gullys.

Loowit Trail looking up at Mt. St. Helens

Still, in what had been a dead zone thirty years ago, small life has reappeared, from chipmunks to a variety of scrubs and grasses. There are even a scattering a small young evergreens, signaling the eventual return of the forest.

At Spirit Lake, farther from the volcano, the landscape showed even more life. Yet, the lake was still half covered with a mat of dead logs, left over from the blast. And the hillsides were littered with the blown-down logs. Though many have rotted away in the ensuing decades, many remain, scattered about like giant toothpicks.

logs on lake

The second thing notable was how much the barren landscape of Mt. St. Helens was dominated by the research work of scientists. Wherever we looked we saw evidence of it. Instruments and sensors could be spotted everywhere. Helicopters transporting scientists flew over repeatedly. We even met a young researcher gathering animal traps, part of the continuing census of life in the blast zone. As she explained to me, they are tracking the changing species as life re-enters and repopulates the dead zone.

researcher with samples

From a human perspective, this research is profound. Though natural disasters such as the Mt. St. Helens eruption are not unusual things in the history of our planet, humans have never had an opportunity to study the aftermath of one in such detail. The knowledge gained will be priceless beyond measure. And that we as a society are willing to dedicate the funds to do this work will speak very well of us to future generations.

ground sensor




Harvard researcher admits to research misconduct

Another scientific scandal, this time in the field of animal and human cognitive research: Harvard scientist Marc Hauser has admitted to eight instances of misconduct. Three key quotes:

The university said in a statement last week that Dr. Hauser or a co-author had been directed to correct three published papers for which the original data could not be found. [emphasis mine]

Harvard itself had faced growing criticism for not releasing more details of the inquiry since The Boston Globe reported on Aug. 10 that the university had found evidence of scientific misconduct in Dr. Hauser’s lab. On Friday, Michael D. Smith, dean of the Harvard faculty of arts and sciences, issued a letter to the faculty confirming the inquiry and saying the eight instances of scientific misconduct involved problems of “data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results.” No further details were given.

Harvard’s findings against him, if sustained, may cast a shadow over the broad field of scientific research that depended on the particular research technique often used in his experiments.

Gee, this sure sounds a lot like the Phil Jones/East Anglia University climategate scandal, where both the researcher and his university provided cover for each other, thereby leaving a cloud over a vast amount of climate research that depends on Jones’s data.


Space war breakthrough?

Is the space war over NASA’s future ending? I wonder, reading this report in which NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver confidently announces that a compromise between Congress and the administration is pending. More importantly, she said the following:

Many things are still uncertain, but one thing is not uncertain. Marshall [Space Flight Center] will lead the heavy-lift launch program.

Considering Garver’s previously strong opposition to Constellation, this statement indicates that she and the administration have backed down, and are willing to accept the heavy-lift part of Constellation, once called Ares V, as long as no one uses those Bush-era names.


A cloudy day in Paradise

We were back at Mt. Rainier today, this time doing one short hike and one long one, totaling 8.6 miles. The short hike took us to the Grove of the Patriarchs, a small grove of thousand year old trees. The long hike took us up to 7200 feet elevation on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. Unfortunately, the mountain was shy today, keeping itself hidden behind clouds for most of the day. Near the top of the climb the clouds parted for about 30 seconds, and I was able to get a signal snapshot of it. Otherwise, we spent most of the hike in the mist, which was beautiful in its own way.

Grove of the Patriarchs

Mt. Rainier, in the clouds

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