Do your worst (presentation)

Check out the ridiculously awful graph below. Bravo, Helena, it offends all kinds of sensibilities:

This sort of thing gets filtered out of conference posters and talks, but it would have been right at home in a presentation I made freshman year. Actually, I wish I’d thought of it back then because the assignment was to make the Worst Presentation Ever. And then never do it again. ‘Go nuts now with animation and colors and get it out of your system early’, the prof would say, making an apt metaphor for college at the same time.

To keep us focused on the visual rather than content side, we had 5 minutes to present on “where we saw ourselves in ten years”. And boy did I have visions. Not so much for my future self – my predictions were limited to things like “graduated” and “alive” – but I had visions of pain for my soon-to-be audience of classmates.

Drawing upon years of running a terrible website through GeoCities, I had vast collections of ridiculous images and GIFs. Oh, the GIFs! Not like the awesome nature GIFs of today, but more like grainy, neon, seizure-inducing background GIFs. I threw in everything I could think of: Those backgrounds, every “intro” animation Powerpoint offered, a duck that chococat_duck_yellowslowly floated across the screen in the background, a fake “conclusions” slide three slides in, thirty acknowledgements, a sound bite from Monty Python (that didn’t work)…Basically, I had a lot of fun with the project.

Making such a ridiculous presentation paid off in several ways. For one, it was my first ever PowerPoint presentation, where I learned how fast I can talk (wicked fast, it turns out). Another student demonstrated the importance of contrast when he used black text on a dark blue background. Most importantly was that, over the next four years, nobody made an awful presentation with anywhere near the level of atrocities that mine had unleashed. To a lesser extent, the project also forced us to explore the nooks and crannies of PowerPoint, which for better or worse is the universal science conference platform. We had to build on the default backgrounds, templates, colors and organization styles to make it our own. We learned it takes a lot of time and effort to make a presentation look great (or terrible), and even more time to make it sound great. And by the end of the project we were able to see – rather than just being told – how unnecessary and distracting were the whiz-bang extras of PowerPoint.

The presentation was one of several projects in the course, where we also read and discussed chapters from John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, collected volcanic ash to look for zircons, and did a couple other things I’ve forgotten. Mainly though, the course gave the freshmen geology majors (all six of us) a chance to interact with one another and the prof on a semi-formal basis. I hope other colleges offer similar courses to students, and would almost rank it with other “dream courses” if it wasn’t already offered.

Course description, from here:
GSCI 191: Intro to Geology at Geneseo
An introductory course for first year students who are considering a career in the Geological Sciences. Weekly meetings will focus on career opportunities, pertinent academic information, campus and department resources, and study skills and time utilization. This course also intends to promote a close working relationship between students and faculty. Cannot be counted toward the Geological Sciences major. Graded on an S/U basis. Credits: 1

Findings from the USGS Store $1 Sale

The USGS Store $1 Spring Mega Sale ends Monday, June 4th, 2012. I pored through their archives for a couple of days and ended up with 40 items in my basket. Then, of course, after purchasing those i found ‘just one more map’ that I had to have. Total cost: $49 dollars (includes $5 handling charge and two duplicate maps).

Instead of merely posting a picture of my flood of maps after they arrive, it would be more beneficial for y’all if I put my shopping list on display while the sale is still ongoing. Hopefully something will spark your interest or remind you of a map you’d like to have! Product codes are shown with links to items in the store in case my link-fu is poor (If a link fails at first, usually a second try does the trick).
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Geophoto: Antelope Island

Antelope Island from the air, Salt Lake City, Utah 2007

Today’s contribution to the geology photo week geomeme is Antelope Island. This shot was taken on approach into Salt Lake City. Antelope Island is one of the ranges that makes up the Basin and Range Province of the western United States. The island is particularly photogenic as it is surrounded by the Great Salt Lake, which makes for fantastic plays of contrasting colors. Turns out it’s a state park as well!

Take your own photo on approach:

So an igneous petrologist walks into Indiana…

…and says, “Hey, wait just a minute…”
It’s not a funny joke, or even a joke, really. It’s a thought that crosses my mind every now and again: What am I doing in the Midwest? I’m a hard rock geologist. Give me volcanoes and basalts, faults and structures…heck, I’d even settle for a roadcut. On a field trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula we didn’t see an outcrop until hour six. There is, however, plenty of this:

digging into shore of glacial lake Warren (NY)

Make your own GD roadcut.

At first you might think that’s soil…and you’d be correct, but that’s not what we were digging for. Beneath that veneer of Quaternary flim-flam is the edge of a glacial lake. That was in New York, but northern Indiana is rife with unconsolidated glacial deposits. In some areas you’ll dig 500 feet and still be scraping glacial drift off of your shovel. But maybe you’re persistent. Surely, you think, it all pays off when you hit bedrock. Could be, if you’re a fan of gray rocks…

Maybe you like nice big gray chunks of steadily accumulated, neatly bedded shale? Or how about some nice gray fossil corals in gray dolostone? Under the gray permacloud, of course.


Or, at least, that was my initial self-important, half-serious reaction. I know of many important, interesting, varied and difficult facets of sedimentary geology. Those two gray photos are from a summer research project to constrain an extinction boundary (primarily in NY). To get that internship, I had to submit an application. Get letters of recommendation. Say to myself, “Yes, I want to spend my time looking at black microfossils in black shale collected from cold black streams and battered core tubes. Give me a summer of that.” And in the end, a summer was enough and a bag of chips. It ended up as a way to narrow potential fields of study. Igneous petrology was my primary interest before and after that project, but at least afterward I could say I had tried something different.

The problem with Indiana was that it was too similar to New York in all the wrong ways. The bedrock geology spans over 150 million years from the Mississippian back to Ordovician time, but look at the dominant lithology (youngest to oldest): limestone, shale, sandstone, siltstone, shale, shale, dolomite, limestone, limestone, dolomite, and finally shale and limestone. I had such a bias against Indiana that none of these pictures are actually from the Hoosier state. And maybe that’s the problem: I haven’t tried it. Until recently, I hadn’t even researched Indiana geology, and what I found shouldn’t have surprised me. Turns out Indiana actually has some interesting geology for work and play, and most of it’s not more than four hours away: sand dunes, geodes, caves, impact craters..wait, what?

Kentland structure. Click to visit interactive USGS Indiana geology map

Yeah, there’s this anomalous bulls-eye on a map of Indiana’s bedrock geology. A puncture wound in the Mississippian-age siltstone of west-central Indiana, the Kentland impact structure. It left an ~8 mile diameter wide dome-like structure, bringing Ordovician dolomite to the surface where it remains exposed today. That’s pretty cool.

So there are no ancient volcanoes here. No columnar basalts or peridotite. It’s not paradise, but you’re all right in my book, Indiana.

Additional Info:

Indiana Geological Survey; maps of bedrock and surficial geology, and more.

Roadside Geology of Indiana, Mountain Press Publishing; where I first read about the Kentland crater.

McRocks reports of geode/mineral/rock collecting expeditions

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, National Park Service

Warren Dunes, briefly

In July my friend visited Notre Dame to run in the Sunburst (Half-)Marathon, and while he was around we took a trip to Warren Dunes State Park. Dunes occur over a broad area in the eastern shore of Lake Michigan (Sleeping Bear, Silver Lake, Cowles Bog, etc.), with Warren Dunes being one of the largest and most popular southernmost parks.

Peak ridge of a sand dune

This was my second trip to a sand dune field (my first was nearby Cowles Bog), and I’m consistently surprised by the variety of environments in such a small area. Some near-shore areas are almost all sand:

People scrambling up, also note group of three on horizon at right

But a few hundred meters down the shore, heavily vegetated sand dunes appear to be securely anchored in place:

Of course, looks can be deceiving and a closer inspection revealed exposed roots in some areas – a result of dune migration, or just short-term erosion?

Other than a few birds, trace fossils, and a heck of a lot of mosquitoes in the boggy inland area, there wasn’t much visible life on the dunes. That is, until we saw this guy (he was hard to miss)

The mosquitoes were so bad that we took the first opportunity we came across to get out of the bog and back into dune territory. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a steep face of a sand dune. We had to take a few breaks on the way to the top…

Here I used photo-documentation as an excuse to pause.

It was so steep that in some areas, even though he was so far away his footsteps would cause sand near me to collapse. My best estimate from maps of the area are that it was ~70 ft to the top, with this photo being taken ~halfway up. We did a quick 4 mile hike around the park to see some highlights, but I’m looking forward to a return trip next summer to learn a bit more about the area and spend some time on the beach.


What did you do today? Yesterday? The past three years?

Tracing crystals. It’s one of the boulders I’ve been pushing uphill since the beginning of my graduate research. Why? What is it all for? Three little words: crystal size distributions. CSDs are a method to quantify rock textures from thin sections. Let’s look at one of my samples, Apollo 17 basalt 75015,52:

You can readily describe the overall texture of a thin section, and estimate phase proportions and morphology, etc. The coarse-grained nature and large crystals are obviously the result of slow cooling. Ilmenite (FeTiO3) makes up the majority of the opaque phase and varies in morphology from generally euhedral, lath-like crystals to skeletal and almost amoeboidal in some areas. CSDs are a way to (attempt to) address questions such as:
- Whether these phases all one population of crystals (i.e. a single crystallization sequence with larger crystals being the earliest formed) or a mixed population (perhaps large skeletal ilmenite crystals formed prior to eruption or elsewhere during flow and were later mixed with smaller euhedral ilmenite crystals) or were they affected by some other process;
- How fast the sample cooled, and whether it was constant or variable
- Whether this basalt is related to other basalts from the same area.

Crystal size distributions are an objective method of assessing crystal size, shape, abundance, and distribution. It’s basically a three step process. Step 1 is to make a mosaic of the thin section (as above). Step 2 involves tracing individual crystals (we use a tablet), which takes anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. I trace different phases on separate layers in Photoshop, with the final result looking like this:

Gray is the sample area, blue is pyroxene, yellow is plagioclase, and black is ilmenite.  For this sample I traced ~1500 individual crystals.

The rest is easy. We have a slew of programs to measure length, width, area, and position of the crystals (NIH ImageJ), estimate crystal habit short/intermediate/long axis dimensions, and population density (CSDCorrections).

See the website of M.D. Higgins for more information on quantitative analysis by CSDs.