Author Archives: Robert Zimmerman

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.

Share

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

sensor

helicopter

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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

Share

Plastic pollution down

Despite increasing use by humans, the plastic pollution floating in the North Atlantic ocean has not increased over the last two decades,and scientists don’t know why. From the Science press notice:

The authors propose a handful of possible explanations for why more discarded plastic is not appearing out in the open Atlantic Ocean. It may break up into pieces too small to be collected by the nets, or it might be sinking beneath the surface. Or, it might be consumed by marine organisms. More research will be necessary to determine the likelihood of each scenario.

Share

Obama’s traffic jam

The charade in Los Angeles on Monday when President Obama arrived for a fundraiser and shut down traffic during rush hour — causing a storm of angry protest — is another very obvious illustration of the great disconnect between today’s ruling class and the general public.

It’s not just that Obama seemed oblivious to the traffic chaos he created. It is that he, as well as most politicians today (from both parties), truly expect large areas of a city to be closed down for their convenience, and don’t seem to give a damn that by doing so they make life miserable for everyone else.

To paraphrase what Glenn Reynolds likes to say, traffic jams are for “the little people.”

Obama’s actions here are far from new and have actually been deeply institutionalized since the 1960s, following Kennedy’s assassination. Originally designed to protect a president from attack, the shutting down of highways quickly became a tool to make the president’s life as easy as possible while demonstrating to all his lordly superiority.

For example, I personally experienced this kingly arrogance back in 1979. I needed to get from my house in Astoria, Queens, to LaGuardia Airport, normally a very short 10 minute drive. But as I pulled into the ramp for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway I found myself being waved to a stop by a policeman. The expressway was being closed so that President Jimmy Carter could use it. I, along with hundreds of others, was forced to sit there for thirty minutes, waiting for his entourage of approximately thirty limousines finally go by. To say that this infuriated me is to put it mildly.

Nor do I think this behavior is reserved to Democrats. I am sure that my readers could easily cite similar events during past Republican administrations.

Nor is it limited to American political leaders. The ruling class of the defunct Soviet Union made it offical policy. There, those in power built many urban roadways with special lanes reserved exclusively for communist party officials. Moreover, when they used those lanes the street lights could be commandeered, turning them all green so that anyone on a cross street had to wait.

In the U.S. we have not yet come that far. Yet, that presidents feel it their right to shut down entire transportation systems for their mere convenience suggests that sadly we don’t have that far to travel.

Unless of course the public, which still has the vote, does something about it.

Share
1 674 675 676 677 678 693