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Thar She Blows

The recent eruptions from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano this past week has caused havoc with European air carriers, bringing everything to a virtual stop. Something along the lines of 60,000 to 80,000 flights have been disrupted, stranding passengers and cargo in place, having a huge effect on the economies of numerous countries. And to think, this is a pretty minor eruption, with a historic record of followup eruptions that have taken place after the first ones in surrounding Volcanoes.

Volcanoes are one of the world’s most powerful forces of nature, literally fire from the Earth itself, a force that has proved to be incredible devastating throughout planetary history. During my college years, I minored in geology (a trait that I seem to have inherited from my father, who is a professional geologist), and it remains a field that I continue to find fascinating, beautiful and awe-inspiring. In 2005 and 2006, I travelled to the American Southwest with the geology department for two separate trips to study the regional characteristics in the beds of rock below the surface of the Earth.

While most of my geologic interests centered around sedimentology and stratigraphy (studying sedimentary rocks, and interpreting the conditions in which they were laid down, respectively), there are some parallels with studying igneous rocks and the larger structures that are formed in the presence of volcanoes. Walking in and around volcanoes is an awe-inspiring thing to do, and it’s an experience that I would really like to repeat sometime in the future.

Volcanic activity occurs when molten rock from the Earth’s mantle pushes its way up into the crust and onto the surface. There are three general methods in which this is presented: shield volcanoes, cinder cones and stratovolcanos. There are a couple of other out there, but those are the general types. The formation of each respective volcano depends greatly on the surrounding environment in the crust in which it is formed. There is a key element that helps to dictate the type of volcano that erupting magma forms: Silica.

The explosive nature of a volcano depends greatly on the viscosity of the magma, which in turn determines the gas content within the magma. From Princeton University: [Viscosity is the] resistance of a liquid to shear forces (and hence to flow). In a nutshell, this means that something with a high level of viscosity will have a higher resistance to flow: it’s thicker. Something with a low viscosity will have less resistance. The move viscous something is, the better it is at releasing gases trapped within the magma. The more gas within magma, the more explosive potential within a volcano.

This is why features such as the ones that created Hawaii constantly erupt with little disruption to anyone outside of the lava flows: the gasses within the magma allow for it to escape, and as a result, there are a number of very smooth flows of molten rock that spreads out from the origin, resulting in what is called a shield volcano, because of the shape that it forms. Here, the magma is classified as Mafic, which has a lower silicone content within the minerals that compose the flow – the resulting rocks tend to be rich in pyroxenes and olivines, and are darker in color. The other major class of volcanoes is the Stratovolcano, which form over major subduction zones, such as what you would find ringing the Pacific rim. The magma here tends to be classified as felsic, with a much higher silicone content, which is more viscous in nature and allows for more gas to be trapped within. These volcanoes tend to be very tall, with high peaks composed of alternating flows and debris from prior eruptions. Cinder cones tend to be found on both types of volcano, and are usually one-time events that build mounds of basalt to some impressive heights.

File:Krakatoa eruption lithograph.jpg

The Stratovolcanos are the ones that are problematic, because they have effects that stretch far beyond their immediate vicinity, as we’ve been seeing with Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, and more notably, with the Krakatoa eruption of 1883. This was one of the most violent eruption (About 13,000 times the strength of the Hiroshima atomic bomb) in human-recorded history, and had profound, long term effects on global climate. Following that eruption was a marked drop in global temperature (1.2 degrees C, according to Wikipedia). Eruptions of this nature do far more than throw out lava from the vents: pent up energy within the magma builds, then explodes, vaporizing rock and throwing up a massive plume of ash, debris and dust. Larger particles come down the quickest, given their mass, and the further from the volcano you go, the smaller the debris. The dust thrown up in an event such as this rises and moves to the Stratosphere, where it can be carried around the globe. This pumps other gasses into the atmosphere, which in turn helps to deflect sunlight from the planet, allowing for a cooling event to occur. The dust and gasses in the atmosphere has the added effect of filtering out sunlight, leading to some spectacular sunsets.

Another notable event was the 1816 ‘Year without a summer’, which had in turn been caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before, which is likewise one of the most powerful eruptions in known history, at roughly four times the Krakatowa eruption. In this instance, a massive global cooling occurred, affecting the Northern Hemisphere by destroying crops and precipitating a famine. Here in Vermont, snow fell each month of the year, and the eruption would have an affect on the planet’s climate for years to come.

Most of the major eruptions in recorded history have been relatively minor, with explosions of Krakatoa and Mount Tambora occurring long before the advent of modern society and globalization. The dust that is thrown up into the air by the explosion is very fine, and has the ability to completely ruin mechanical engines, resulting in the grounding of air traffic around Europe, and soon, most likely Canada. Keeping in mind that this was a relatively small and localized eruption, imagine what will happen when there is another eruption on the scale of one of those eruptions. In that instance, we will have quite a lot more to worry about than stranded passengers.

New England Historical Association Recap

On Saturday morning, my father and I drove down to Salem Massachusetts to the New England Historical Association‘s spring conference, held at the Salem State College. Earlier this year, I had a paper accepted for presentation by the group, and it was time to present it.

The paper is entitled ‘The Military Roots of Manned Spaceflight and the Cold War‘, my master’s capstone paper that I graduated from Norwich University’s School of Graduate Studies with, and I was placed on a panel called Cold War Politics in the United States and Mexico, along with two women: Julia Sloan out of Cazenovia College with her paper: ‘Placating the Left by Vilifying the United States: Mexico’s Domestic Foreign Policy 1959-1979‘ and Matra Crilly from Simmons College with ‘Returning to Republican Motherhood: The DAR’s Postwar Strategy Against Communism‘, two excellent presentations that I learned a lot from over the course of each presentation.

My paper, as the title suggests, looks to the background developments in the military/political sphere that allowed for the proper conditions for manned spaceflight on the part of the United States and the Soviet Union. This largely starts from the Second World War, where rocket scientists found an ample supply of funding in Germany as Hitler worked towards building new weapons to use against the Allies. With the fall of Nazi Germany, rocket scientists defected or were captured by the United States and the Soviet Union, who in turn used them to create their own weapons. With the introduction of the nuclear bomb to the battlefield, missile and rocket technology proved to be a highly effective (after quite a bit of perfection) method for delivering them, and as such, each country began to build more and more missiles to counter the other. Ultimately, space became the ultimate high ground, and highly public programs that sent people into space were created, eventually leading to the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon. My presentation went well, I thought, and I was able to stay within my allotted time of twenty minutes. (There was a little prompting of time, with cards)

The following two presentations were pretty interesting. Julie Sloan spoke on Mexico during the Cold War, which I knew nothing about. Apparently, there was a move on the part of the government to use public perception to move against the United States, capitalizing on old grudges over lost territory and worries over American imperialism to stay in power. While the country never became a communist style government, it did support fellow Latin American countries during that time period, including Cuba.

Marta Crilly also spoke about Communism, in this instance, with the way the Daughters of the Revolution sought to move against communist agents and teachings within the United States in a very scary way: seeking to promote patriotism over learning, and shunning anything remotely ‘un-American’ in the post-World War II era. The group, of which members could join only by proving that they had a direct link to members of the Revolutionary army during the 1776 War for Independence. Discussion turned to some observations of similar other organizations within the United States throughout its history, combating immigration during the 18/19th centuries and to the modern day, with the current Tea Party movement.

Our Moderator, Avi Chomsky, noted at the beginning of our panel that this seemed to be a selection of papers that had been thrown together linked only by their connection to the Cold War, with three very different elements. In light of this, she worked to pose several questions to the three of us that would help us put our papers together at some basic elements: What was communism, what was the Cold War, how was Cold War Policy made and how did the Cold War impact Latin America?

The three of us tackled the first question, with help from the audience: for me (the first two questions were wrapped up here), Communism and the United States was not really a war of ideologies: it was a conflict of two governments, and as such, the Cold War was really about domination. Ideology in this instance was a force that was used to get the citizens of each country in line with shared interests to diametrically oppose the other. Marta joined in here noting that the perception of Communism was an extremely vague definition, as looked at through the eyes of the DAR: it was essentially anything that was considered un-American. Someone in the audience brought up the point that this is similar to rhetoric about the current administration being a socialist: the definition is perhaps deliberately vague, enough to get anyone very annoyed. Julia also noted that there were similarities taken in Mexico at the same time: America was seen through a certain lens at this point in time, fueled by a large number of old grudges, pushed to certain perceptions by policymakers.

Throughout the discussion, I’ve realized that I’ve never really looked at how Communism was looked at through the lens of the space race: certainly, there is an amount of irony with the United States using NASA, a publicly funded venture, as a symbol of American economic, technological and military might against Communism. Certainly, there was a number of the above perceptions about communism from the astronauts themselves, as well as a mix of motivations from the rocket makers themselves, looking more for scientific achievement over politics. Within this context, I think that even more so, the Cold War was less about ideology and more about two large nations looking for a larger influence in the world around them for their own benefit. In George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, he notes that nations will work towards their own interests, and at times, global chaos, rather than order, is far better for a nation, despite potentially stirring up national security concerns. In this is some truth: nations will act to preserve themselves. In the Cold War, the United States faced a massive and united foe: The Soviet Union. Their opposing ideology allowed for the nations to gather their people in a fairly united front, but at the end of the day, ideology really mattered little, just national concerns.

In the end, the conference was quite a bit of fun. I had spent several days reworking my presentation, pouring over books and sources to refresh myself, so having that aspect over with was a relief. I enjoyed sitting in on a couple of other papers and presentations, and enjoyed the historical discourse around me. With my presentation, I joined the New England Historical Association, and I suspect that I’ll be attending future conferences in the very near future. Many thanks to my father for both driving me down and attending my presentation, as well as Dr. Steven Sodergren from Norwich for sitting in and asking a couple of very good questions. Similar thanks goes out to my fellow panel mates, for their work and very interesting talks.

Obama’s Space Plan: Astronauts to Asteroids

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama spoke at the Kennedy Space Center, addressing the critics of his Administration’s plans for the future of NASA, indicating that there will be quite a lot to expect from the space administration in the coming years and decades.

Amongst the leading concerns, even some voiced by noted astronauts Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11), Gene Cernan (Apollo 10/17) and Jim Lovell (Apollo 8/13), charging the Obama administration with formulating a plan that would restrict NASA in the near future, and potentially allowing the U.S. to slip behind other nations in space supremacy. Much of the controversy has been around the massive Constellation program and its cancellation. With it went the first elements of a future moon program that would have utilized the new Ares 1 rocket and the Orion capsule.

President Obama noted at the speech that he was 100% behind the program, noting that the achievements that the Administration have provided much inspiration for the entire nation, noting that a space program was an essential element of the American character. The speech was mainly centered around what was to come: a six billion dollar increase in NASA’s budget over the next six years, which would be used to fund new programs, research and development for new means to reach space.

A major element of the speech was noting the issues with the Constellation program as a whole, and that the changes put into place would be more effective, faster and cheaper. The Constellation program was already behind schedule and over budget, according to an independent study, something that NASA itself really didn’t want. However, the President noted that a couple of elements from the program would be salvaged: the Orion capsule, to become an escape vehicle for the International Space Station, and alluded that a new, heavy-lift rocket would be developed by 2015, using older models – most likely, coming out of the Ares rocket design.

This mention of a new, heavy-lift rocket is a critical component of the President’s speech, because it signals a very different style of spaceflight in the future. A heavy-lift rocket will allow astronauts to travel away from a low earth orbit, for the first time since Apollo 17 (1975). Plans to land astronauts on an asteroid, and eventually, by the mid-2030s, to Mars, with a series of ever-increasing challenges to reach that goal, much like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions were geared towards reaching the Moon.

Additionally, private industry will be a major component of this plan, with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket getting named in the beginning of the speech. The President made a vital point in the middle of his speech, noting that Private industry has always been a major part of NASA’s plans, and that that relationship would continue. Personally, I find this to be an exciting proposition, with a number of companies starting up and well on their way towards reaching space. SpaceX is a company that I’ve personally followed for a couple of years now, and I’m very excited to see what they come up with next. Bringing in private industry makes sense to me, because it helps to shift some of the costs away from taxpayers, and it would seem that the President hopes that a major industry that will attract industry and highly skilled workers will spring up in the Florida region. To that end, they’ve promised $40 million towards an area redevelopment plan to further this along.

This seems to fit with a larger element of the Administration’s plans, especially bringing more people to college and by extension, creating a highly knowledgeable and skilled workforce. The main issue there is that this work force needs a place to exist after college, and it would be a positive thing for the country to grow and maintain a major industry that is geared towards space exploration.

There were some issues with President Obama’s speech. His address did not cover what the short term ramifications of creating a new program would be, and with the Space Shuttle program ending this year, it is likely that NASA will be left no choice but to travel to space with the Russians, at least until a replacement can be found. SpaceX is working towards this goal, but that is something that is a little ways out at this point. To his credit, Obama noted that the decision to cancel the Space Shuttle program did not come from his administration, but from the Bush administration, who rightly saw that the Shuttle was an aging piece of technology that would need to be replaced.

Furthermore, the President noted that he was not interested in returning to the Moon, setting his sights on the Red Planet instead. I can’t see a Martian mission being put into place without further exploration of the moon happening: The U.S. has been away from the Moon for 35 years at this point, and additional training and practice. Considering the distances involved for a Mars landing mission, it would make sense to perfect technology and crews close to home, where problems can be solved far more easily, and in the event that something goes wrong, solutions are far more achievable.

One thing is for sure, this plan, to me, sounds very ambitious, exciting and most of all, provides a rough point for NASA to work towards in the next twenty years: Mars. While the speech did not resonate with me as Kennedy’s speech in 1961 did, I hope that we will see much of the same results, and that the change in plans will pay off for the United States. What is most exciting is that there is a plan beyond simply going to space as a sort of placeholder, as the Shuttle program seems to really be. The first age of space was marked with a goal and time: land on the moon by the end of the decade, and is something that should have been followed upon with a larger project that would have taken the lessons learned from Apollo and applied them to new ventures in space. In short, Obama’s plan is long overdue, something that should have been put into place twenty years ago, and that should have yielded results by this point.

High Speed (or, I Want To Read On The Way To Work)

Recently, the problem of drivers texting while in a vehicle has been brought to the forefront of the news, shedding light on a vital issue that illustrates that driving is inherently a very dangerous activity. Road safety is something that should never be far from our minds, either in the car, or out of it, and every day on my drive to work, I see examples of poor training and practice amongst my fellow drivers. Two years ago, the issue was on the roads themselves, where cuts and transfers of funds to the roads took place, resulting in roads with plenty of hazards. Both issues taken separately are worrisome, but taken together, they’re both downright scary.

Thinking about this has brought to mind another initiative that has been making a bit of news over the course of the past year: high speed rail service. Currently, the nation lags far behind other industrialized nations, such as the United Kingdom, much of Europe and Japan, for large-scale access to a fast train system. In part, I suspect, that’s due to the sheer size of the United States, as well as competing for space with freight transportation across the country. Because of the size, a high speed rail system is going to be an expensive proposition, upgrading the current one to something far better.

However, despite the expense, I want to see a high speed rail system come to the United States. On my way to work, I cross a set of rail road tracks that have since been abandoned, and over a hill, follow alongside the major railroad track that runs from the Burlington area all the way down to Boston and down the East Coast. A friend once visited from New York City, and it took her just as long to get up as it would have been to drive. Driving alongside the railroad tracks this morning, I couldn’t help but think how much I would prefer to have the ability to make a short walk to a train station, get on a train and simply ride in to work. While I lived in England, in 2006, this was a common occurrence for me, and I found that I really enjoyed riding in to work and class via the underground and regular London transit system.

Maintaining a high speed rail system in the State of Vermont would be a good thing for Vermonters. Our long winters bring about hundreds of accidents each year on the highways that commuters use between Montpelier and Burlington, and hopefully, a rapid system would help to cut transit time for people who live a bit further away, and would help reduce the load on the roadways. With an increasing number of people texting and driving, deteriorating roads, moving more people off the roads into a mass transit system will help reduce some of the risks while on the road, and will help with the wear and tear on the roads. It’s an alternative that should be available, and as public transportation has increased as fuel prices have done the same, hopefully there will be the the perfect storm of dangerous drivers and accidents, federal spending and infrastructure and availability to Vermonters.

A system such as this would be good for the state as well, linking Vermont to the southern states and cities, allowing for the state to market itself as it has long done for weekend excursions during changing of the fall leaves to the ski season, as well as all of the other attractive reasons to visit our state. It’s easy to do that by car, but I’ve always seen taking a train ride somewhere as a sort of adventure, and have many fond memories of doing so while in London, travelling to Edinburg, Cambridge, Oxford, Eastbourne, Stratford-Upon-Avon and many other places. It was quick, allowed me to plow through fourteen books in four months and allowed me to see the rest of the country without requiring a personal vehicle.

Plus, mass transportation is a good, sustainable sort of practice. Thousands of people driving separately to their destinations is a woefully inefficient activity in the grander scheme of things, only going to highlight some of the issues that the country has when it comes to dependence on oil. It would be good to get used to the idea of having to limit ourselves and what we use before we’re forced to in the future by high price by becoming a more efficient society. Don’t get me wrong, I like driving my Mini very much – it’s one of the reasons why I bought a car in the first place. But I while I enjoy driving, I get very little joy out of my morning commute. I would much rather be reading a book and not having to worry about the other drivers around me.

Leadership and Apollo 13

40 years ago yesterday, on April 13th, 1970, an onboard explosion crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft’s service module, forcing the ground crew and astronauts to abandon their original mission of landing on the moon. The story is a well known one, second only to the Apollo 11 mission and still resonates for the actions that occurred over the next week as all involved worked to bring the crew home alive. The successful return of the crew underscored the importance of organization, leadership and innovation on the part of NASA, and remains one of the best examples of the traits to this day.

On April 11th, the Apollo 13 mission blasted off from Cape Canaveral, headed towards the Fra Mauro formation, which was rich in geological significance, with a number of hills and meteor craters. Shortly after liftoff, the mission experienced its first problem with a premature shutdown of one of the main engines, but with a longer burn from the four remaining engines, the spacecraft was able to make it to space and on its way. The far better known disaster that befell the crew occurred two days later when the crew stirred the oxygen and hydrogen tanks onboard the ship, causing a short in a wire, thus detonating the tank, causing damage to the Service Module. With depleted oxygen, the crew had to shut down their fuel cells to conserve electricity, and used their Lunar Module as a lifeboat to survive the trip home. Mission Control on Earth decided that the crew would be better off by using a free-return trajectory (allowing the Moon’s gravity to pull the ship around and back in the proper direction) in order to return. In addition to their problems with power and returning home, the crew was forced to improvise a device that would allow them to filter out the carbon dioxide from the ship’s atmosphere. Despite the challenges that faced them, the crew returned to Earth and landed safely.

The Apollo 13 mission has long been a triumph of NASA, not just because of its successes in returning a crippled spaceship to Earth, but because it represents one of the best examples of leadership and ingenuity on the part of a massive organization in order to accomplish an almost impossible task. Oftentimes, these sorts of examples are seen amongst military operations: the Apollo 13 mission is a rare, highly public example of this in the civilian world.

The steps taken on the part of leadership were clearly laid out. The crew and ground teams had to first determine what the problem was – initially, the crew feared that they had been hit by a micrometeorite, but determined the problem shortly thereafter. From that point, they determined the steps to stabilize the spaceship, and ruled out the main mission objective: landing on the moon, and then were forced to work out exactly how the crew would be returning home. What makes Apollo 13 a good example of leadership lies in the successes of bringing the crew back: the clear objective in this instance was to prevent the death of the crew, and highlights a sort of ‘Commander’s Intent’ directive where the leaders of Mission Control, namely Gene Kranz, the lead flight director. From his position, he directed the people underneath his command to come up with solutions to the numerous problems, acting as an intermediary, collecting information and making a decision based on what he knew at the time. The responsibilities of the people below him were with specific issues: determining the extent of the problem, then the solution to either fixing it, or minimizing its impact on the event. These items included the supply of oxygen and trying to figure out exactly how to conserve power because of a reduction in supply, how to scrub the CO2 out of the ship’s atmosphere, how to accomplish burns and ultimately, bring the crew home safely. The end result was the return of Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise. They owe their lives to good organization and leadership on the part of NASA and the flight control teams.

In the end, the crew received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their actions, and the Fra Mauro highlands were visited in the next mission, Apollo 14, crewed by Alan Shepard (The United State’s first astronaut into space), Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell.

The sequence of events and actions that were taken demonstrate leadership in moments where the consequences were most dire. However, the lessons that can be learned from the event, such as identifying problems and then identifying their solutions, delegating to other team members and trusting their findings and conclusions, while fitting all of these elements together into the framework of an overall mission are essential traits that can be applied to any number of practices outside of space travel, any place where there are numerous, organized people. While the consequences might not be dire in all instances, having proper leadership and organization is essential to achieving an eventual goal.

The Clash of the Titans

For Christmas last year, my girlfriend bought me a copy of Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 Don Chaffey film that featured a number of technical innovations, the coolest of which was the skeleton fight scene. We both really enjoyed the film, including its fairly decent special effects, which I found to hold up quite well with the test of time. I’ve long been a fan of the various Greek and to a lesser extent, the Roman mythology. As such, I was really looking forward to the recent remake of Clash of the Titans.

This is not a movie that I had any major expectations of, and in that way, it completely met my expectations by being the film equivalent of a big, dumb Labrador. Very nice to look at, and quite a lot of fun, but really, really dumb. Clash of the Titans is a big, dumb movie. But quite a bit of fun to watch. The film had the requisite amount of action, some very nice lighting with a couple of the epic looking scenes that really scream ‘Epic’. Where the film really succeeded though was where the production design and overall look and feel of the film: it looks like a concept artist’s dream project. As the heroes set out from Argos to track down Medusa, they venture through forests to deserts to volcanoes, and there’s quite a bit of really good scenery and setting here. What impressed me more was the crossing of the river Styx and the ferryman Charon. There was a large amount of detail there, with little touches that really made that stand out for me. Other scenes, such as the background of Argos and the Underworld itself worked just as well. Along the same lines, the Djinn, Sand-Demons with magical powers, which brings the film far more into the realm of fantasy than over any sort of adaptation of myth, were particularly fun to watch – constructs of dark magic and wood.

The action also really was a lot of fun to watch, with any number of monsters, soldiers and people waving swords at one another and attempting to kill each other. The camera work was good, and I have to say that the battle against the giant scorpions was something that kept me at the edge of my seat. The film presents itself as a completely over the top thrill that really is one of the few reasons to actually watch: it doesn’t feel like it’s taking itself seriously, from beginning to end, which I appreciated.

Still, I couldn’t help but think that there were things that could have been done far better. The acting from some very good actors, such as Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson was abysmal throughout, and Sam Worthington continues his trend of fairly lack-luster performance from Avatar into the ancient times. The acting element was something that I wasn’t too annoyed with, but at points, the story itself could have been tightened up quite a bit more, particularly when it came to the relationship between Zeus and Hades, which has essentially been likened to a Christianity-themed relationship, with Zeus taking on the part of God, and Hades, Lucifer. I can’t really think of a good reason as to why this was done, but it’s certainly a major departure from the mythos of the characters. (However, I have to continue to remind myself that this move as a whole is a major departure). What bothers me the most though, is that this film could have gone both ways, either a serious retelling of the myth, or a complete pulp version. Clash of the Titans as a whole falls somewhere in between. It’s fun, but not as much fun as it could have been.

“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been invented, there will also be men who come forward to sail those ships.” -Johannes Kepler
November 2015
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