Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hidden Beauty

At times when science is questioned and threatened, as it is currently, its defenders remind us of the many reasons science is vital: Science cures diseases and improves our quality of life. Science education and funding helps the US stay competitive in an increasingly technology-driven global economy. Science helps us understand how the world works; uncovering nature's deepest laws. All these things are true and crucial, but I think there's another gift science gives us that's widely underappreciated, even by many scientists. Science shows us the hidden beauty and wonder of nature. Science can make the mundane awe-inspiring.

Consider, for example, the rock in the picture above. It doesn't look like much, does it? It sits in a parking lot at a trailhead near Boulder, Colorado, and people walk by every day without ever noticing it. But that rock has a story to tell.

It comes from a layer of rock in the canyons above Boulder known as the Coal Creek Formation. If you look at it closely, you see that it's made of smaller rocks--it's a type of rock called conglomerate. The constituent rocks are slightly rounded, like river rocks, because that's exactly what they once were. Long ago, they were part of a rocky riverbank a few miles from a mountain range. But no animals roamed that bank, and no trees shaded it. Animals and trees didn't exist yet, because that riverbank existed 1700 million years ago.

Even then, the pebbles inside that rock were ancient by our standards. They had eroded out of rocks formed millions of years before, when the ancient core of North America colliding with a line of volcanic islands, which slowly smashed together to create the first land that would become Colorado. Mountains rose in the collision, and then began to erode away, as mountains constantly do. The riverbank was eventually buried, and the pebbles and sand solidified into a layer of conglomerate. Then it was buried deeper and deeper, until eventually it was miles underground, where the heat and pressure fused the pebbles and sand together into a metamorphic rock called quartzite. The conglomerate had become a metaconglomerate. In some places where this rock appears today, you can see where the original river pebbles were warped and stretched in its journey through the depths.

A billion and a half years ago, then, our boulder was part of a layer of rock buried deep in the earth. And there it stayed, for hundreds of millions of years. Up above, single-celled life slowly evolved into complex organisms like early plants and animals. Some of the fish came onto the land and became amphibians, and some of the amphibians evolved into early reptiles. Finally, after 1400 million years, our rock began to rise again. Far-off tectonic forces were lifting a new mountain range, called the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. The Coal Creek formation rose to the surface, and was then hoisted into the air as a part of the mountains. Once again, erosion set in, and parts of the formation eroded into pebbles in mountain streams. Aprons of rocky debris spread out of the dwindling mountains onto the flatlands. One day, they would become the soaring red cliffs of Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Boulder Flatirons. Finally, the Ancestral Rockies crumbled into a sea of sand dunes (which would one day form the rocks at Garden of the Gods), which was in turn covered by an actual, shallow sea.

Elsewhere, dinosaurs evolved and grew into giants, who eventually migrated across the Jurassic coast of Colorado, leaving their huge footprints and bones in the sand. The seas rose again, and giant reptiles patrolled the waters, while pterosaurs soared above the waves like scaly pelicans. Then the sea retreated again around 67 million years ago, as a third set of mountains--called the Laramide Rockies--started to rise. Triceratops and T rex roamed the rainforests below, leaving more bones and footprints along the Front Range, before they were killed by an asteroid that firebombed North America. All the while, the Coal Creek formation kept rising with the mountains.

The Laramide Rockies began eroding as soon as they started to rise, and parts of the Coal Creek Formation again fell into mountain streams, creating a new generation of river rocks. Giant boulders southwest of Denver tell us that enormous floods once roared out of the mountains, powerful enough to carry refrigerator-sized rocks for nearly fifty miles. Eventually, all the erosion nearly buried the Laramide Rockies in their own debris. The high plains rose nearly to the tops of the mountains in a smooth incline, as they still do in southern Wyoming. The surface of the plain was high above the current sites of the cities along the Front Range. Our boulder was still part of a larger rock, which was (probably) buried once again.

Finally, around 5 million years ago, the land began to rise again (or perhaps the climate grew wetter) and rivers began carving up the landscape once again. The hard rock in the buried mountains resisted erosion, and the mountains began to emerge from their debris. These were the modern Rockies--the fourth mountain range our rock has seen. Earth entered one of its periodic ice ages, and glaciers began to descend from the mountains. They would stick around for 100,000 years or so, carving the high peaks into their current dramatic form, and then retreat for a few millennia during a brief, warm recess. Human civilization has arisen during the latest recess.

Down lower, when the ground around Boulder was still a few hundred feet higher than it is today, our rock finally eroded out a cliff and fell into Coal Creek. Its rounded shape tells us that floods knocked it against other rocks and ground away its edges, and its large size tells us these were powerful floods--only a flood can carry a rock that big. One of these floods finally carried it out of the mountains and deposited it on a flat plain. That plain was left standing by erosion around it, and now it's a mesa (technically a pediment) known as Rocky Flats. Rocky Flats is now notorious for being radioactive, due to careless handling of nuclear waste by some recently-evolved primates. At some point, those primates built a parking lot, and put our boulder there as a decoration. And there it sits. For now.

Will it still be sitting there when we are gone? It certainly could be--we are ephemeral things by its standards--but how long we last will depend on how wise and lucky we turn out to be. In any case, in the short time we've been here, we've discovered science. And science has allowed us to look at that nondescript rock in a parking lot and see beyond its initial appearance, to the amazing, eons-long story it can tell. The rock can't appreciate the grandeur of its own story, but we can. That's a major reason science is so important--it gives us the knowledge we need to appreciate the hidden beauty of nature.

Of course, some people don't see science this way. They think science kills the wonder of nature by reducing it to equations and theories; by "unweaving the rainbow" as Keats put it. And science can be dry and boring, when it isn't communicated well. But it doesn't have to be. When it is communicated well, science can show us the astounding majesty of nature. I think the physicist Walter Lewin put this best (in a lecture on the beauty of rainbows): "Knowledge always adds. Knowledge never subtracts. Knowledge is hidden beauty." That nondescript rock in a parking lot is full of hidden beauty, once you know how to see it.


Geology Underfoot Along Colorado's Front Range / Lon Abbott and Terri Cook  I learned about this rock, and the Coal Creek formation, from this excellent book. My copy is falling apart, because I've tromped all over the Front Range with it in my backpack.

The Hidden Beauty of Rainbows / Walter Lewin 

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Facts are not Partisan: A Plea to Honest Conservatives

The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him.
- George Orwell, 1984
Still from the film Gaslight
Most of the people I knew growing up were conservatives. I'm from rural Arkansas--a red part of a red state--so many of my friends, extended family, and teachers were very conservative. And most of them were good, honest people. My maternal grandfather, for example, was the very picture of a conservative man's man. He was a cattle-rancher; a big man who was still saddle-breaking horses well into his sixties. He didn't even have to try to be manly. He had that rare kind of effortless masculinity that other men looked up to, and were secretly intimidated by. He was a staunch Republican, from a family that was Republican when most southerners were Democrats. And he was one of the best and most honest men I've ever known. In fact, honesty was something he was known for. Several people made a point to tell me that my grandpa was one of the most honest people they had ever met.

I'm a moderate liberal myself, and my grandfather never liked that (he once peeled a Bill Clinton sticker off my car) but I think he would have been pleased to know he was my main role model for honesty. At times in my life when I've been asked to do something advantageous but dishonest, I've always thought of him. And it's helped me do the right thing. 

That's one reason I'm so disturbed by our new president and his administration. My grandfather was one of many Republican role models I've had in my life, and I don't want to see their party take the path it's taking. I don't want it to become the party of Trump. While most of the Republicans I knew growing up were good people, I truly don't think Donald Trump is. He just isn't like them. He's not modest. He's not polite. He's not kind. He's not respectful of other people. He follows none of the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. He's an admitted adulterer who's bragged about behavior that the Republicans I grew up around would be sickened by. 

But what I want to focus on here is that he is not honest. 

It's a demonstrable, well-documented fact that our new president is a habitual liar. That's a terrible thing to say, but it's true. Just the other day, he told a group of sheriffs that the murder rate is the highest it's been in 47 years. That wasn't simply untrue; it was almost the opposite of the truth. FBI data show that the murder rate is close to the lowest it's been in 50 years. And that's just one of many of Trump's lies. Recently, he lied about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, saying it was bigger than Barack Obama's, even though anybody could compare pictures of the two crowds and see that this simply wasn't true. And his staff backed him up with their own lies. Kellyanne Conway created a new catchphrase when she claimed they were just "alternative facts", and then created an internet meme with a lie about the Bowling Green Massacre, which, as everybody now knows, never happened.

This administration's lies are so bold and pervasive that they're starting to seem like an intentional strategy to make people question their grip on reality. As many have pointed out, it closely resembles a form of psychological abuse called gaslighting. In the movie Gaslight, a sociopathic man makes Ingrid Bergman think she's going crazy by making her think she can't believe her own eyes. When she sees a gaslight flickering and wonders why, he denies that it's happening, even though she can plainly see it. Soon, rather than believe he could lie that shamelessly, she starts to question her own sanity. That's the reason gaslighting works, ironically. Most people can't imagine lying remorselessly themselves, so they can't believe anyone else could either. They start to doubt their own sanity before believing another person could really be that dishonest. 

Now the Trump administration is taking advantage of that fact, and they're starting to resemble a propaganda ministry in an authoritarian country or dystopian novel. Lately it's been reminding me of the information minister in Iraq during the American invasion in 2003. Remember him? I'll never forget how he looked right at the cameras and said there was no invasion, while American troops poured into the country all around him. I never dreamed we would have an American president and his staff acting like Saddam Hussein's information minister, but here we are.

And that shouldn't be acceptable to any of us--Republican or Democrat. Facts are not partisan. Reality doesn't care what ideology we subscribe to, and facts are facts whether we believe them or not. That's basically what facts are. And facts must be defended, even when it isn't easy. After the Boston Massacre, John Adams almost ruined his career by defending the British soldiers in court. He did the hard and unpopular thing, because he believed that some of those soldiers were innocent. During the trial, he said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." Both parties should hold themselves to Adams' standard.

Of course, Democrats and Republicans can disagree about many things and remain decent, honest people. They may honestly disagree about what's right and wrong, and even what's true (if the evidence is inconclusive, or made to seem that way). But when it comes to truth and facts, there are two things both parties should agree on: 1. There's no such thing as alternative facts. If a claim contradicts the evidence, it's a falsehood, not an alternative fact. 2. Facts matter. Truth matters. Both parties should consider it unethical to tell lies, and grossly unethical for a leader to gaslight citizens as a political strategy.

Any party that can't accept or follow these principles has gone badly astray. Any party that tolerates habitual, blatant disregard for truth will either self-destruct or betray the democratic principles it was created to uphold. Believe it or not, I don't want to see either of these things happen to the Republican Party. Obviously I don't want to see the Republican Party to damage our country with a wildly unethical president, but I also don't want to see it self-destruct. I really don't. Even if I disagree with Republicans about most things, I wouldn't want to live in a one-party country ruled by the left. I think opposing factions are necessary to keep either side from sacrificing basic rights and liberties to their ideology, and I think there are people on both sides who would do just that if they could. History has shown that either the right or the left can descend into tyranny when unopposed.

So, if you're the kind of decent, honest conservative that I grew up around, I'm not going to plead with you to abandon your party. I know that's not going to happen. But I am going to plead with you to take a stand, and fix it. Don't let Trump become the face of the Republican Party. Don't let it become the first party in American history to abandon truth completely. Don't let that happen to the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower. Please...don't let that happen on your watch. 

You may be getting defensive right now, and if so I don't blame you. I probably would be too if I were in your shoes, and believe me, I don't envy your position. I genuinely feel bad for the many Republicans I know who are as horrified by Trump as I am. To my knowledge, nothing quite like this has happened before in American history. Even Nixon didn't try to make the American people disbelieve their own eyes and ears. No national politician has ever seemed truly devoid of honesty the way Trump seems to be. 

You may also be thinking I'm a hypocrite, asking you to do something about a lying politician in your party, when there have been plenty of lying Democrats. After all, Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Bill Clinton did, in fact, have sex with that woman. Hillary Clinton never came under sniper fire. Yes, "my" politicians have also lied. But I don't think they've ever lied like Trump does, because I can't think of any politician in American history who has. 

But let's say I'm wrong. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Hillary would have been just as dishonest as Trump. If that were true, you and I both know two wrongs don't make a right. Another politician's lies don't make Trump's lies OK. So, call me a hypocrite if you like. Believe Hillary lied as much as Trump if you must. And then show me why you're better than that, even if I'm not.

I wouldn't make such a plea in normal times, but these are not normal times, and this is not a normal Republican president. What's at stake here is not just the future of your party, but the future of the entire country...perhaps the future of the entire world. You can think what you like about me; that's not important. What's important is that Republicans take a stand and tell Trump that his lies are unacceptable and have to stop. That simply has to happen, and I'm hopeful that it will. Here's why: if you're one of the many good, honest conservatives like the ones I grew up around, I know you. You're in the same party as my tough, honest Republican grandfather, and he was nothing like Donald Trump. He was so much better than that, and I believe that you are too.