Saturday, February 27, 2010

Animal Experimentation for Non and Profit

By Douglas H. Watts
Augusta, Maine
February 27, 2010

Carl Sagan said extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Given the extraordinarily large number of animals used and killed for lethal scientific research, it is useful to apply Sagan's dicta to this ongoing practice. Is there extraordinary evidence to justify the extraordinarily large number of animals which die every year in the name of scientific research? Has the case been made? How do we decide?

Lethal animal research fits Sagan's question, since it is elective (nobody is forcing researchers to do it), nobody has specifically asked them to do it (all requests are self-generated, by the research scientists and facilities themselves), nobody has ever done a serious investigation as to how much of this research can be eliminated as needless or so bereft of important societal benefits in comparison to its effects that it should be phased out. And most importantly, much of this research is undeniably and profoundly cruel.

Under Carl Sagan's dicta, the burden of proof is upon the researchers. It's their case to make. In my opinion they have failed to make it.

Where's the Plan?

Until scientists and researchers, profit and non-profit, put forth a program to phase out and end experimentation on animals for alleged human benefit, it is axiomatic that a certain segment of human society will try to publicize these actions and try to stop them. [1]

Some, but not all, researchers are under the delusion that by denying there's a problem, by supporting legislative limitations on investigation and protest, by criminalizing protest, by using an 'ends justifies the means' approach, by using scare tactics like 'your parent and kids will die without this,' and by calling people who are against animal cruelty 'crazy,' that somehow peoples' profound distaste for the elective use of animals for lethal research will magically go away. It won't.

As in all issues which rile up and inflame the emotions, there are people opposed to animal experimentation and cruelty who improperly allow their emotions and zeal to exceed the bounds of the law. The law exists as a deterrent to rein these people in, and if they flout the law, to mete out punishment.

What is missing, thus far, is a demonstrated commitment by researchers involved in animal experimentation to present a plan and program to phase out this practice and end it. Such a plan would rank research needs involving animals by highest and lowest priority, with a complementary ranking of research methods by a metric of least invasive and harmful and most invasive and harmful. By cross-referencing these two rankings, one could easily identify in a grid those research areas that are most invasive and harmful and are of the least priority. This is not difficult.

Reviewing much of the words written and said by animal research proponents, I am struck by how profoundly they misapprehend why most people have a great distaste and disgust with elective lethal animal research. Their arguments for continuation of the status quo ad infinitum are far removed from the logical, rational, research-driven discourse they use in the papers they publish based upon this same research:

1. People against cruelty to animals are "extremists."

This is logically fallacious since any cause contains a few people who are so zealous they go outside the bounds of the law. To tar and feather people solely based on the actions of others -- whom they don't even know -- is non-rational.

2. People who oppose animal research should focus on factory farming or puppy mills.

They do. A quick look at the Humane Society of America's website shows it is actively involved in opposing and ending all these types of cruelty to animals.

3. The ends justify the means.

Any activity can, eventually, perhaps, increase knowledge by some degree and lead to 'benefits' for some group. The White House was built in part by black American slaves.

4. Much 20th century medical knowledge is based on animal research.

Because so much lethal animal research has been conducted in the 20th century, it is inevitable that a lot of medical knowledge is partly or wholly drawn from this research. A statement of fact is not an argument.

5. Animals are not like us, therefore lethal animal research is okay if it may, perhaps, benefit humans.

This could justify anything done to animals, even the most extreme cruelty. It is the old "they are not like us" argument which has been used to justify endless amounts of cruelty by humans against other humans who were also deemed "not like us."

6. This is an attack on academic freedom and science.

The freedom to do academic research does not magically transcend human ethics or free one from society's bounds of ethical behavior, professional codes of conduct and publicly enacted laws which set bounds on one's behavior.

7. The best justifies opposing scrutiny of the worst, ie. the 'slippery slope.'

Some believe scrutiny of the worst types of animal research could, via the 'slippery slope,' restrict research that is comparatively less cruel and more useful. The public and legislators make these fine-edge distinctions all the time.

8. There are no cruelty-free alternatives.

Do or do not. There is no try.

The Arguments Don't Change, Nor does the Suffering

Carl Sagan said extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Animal researchers have yet to provide the requisite extraordinary evidence to support their claim that this extraordinary level of lethal animal experimentation and suffering is justified.

It's their case to make. Thus far they have failed to make it, nor have they even really tried. It's the lack of trying that gets me.

In the end researchers need to convince the public. And to do that, researchers must accept they have an obligation to do so. If they do not wish to fulfill this obligation they can stop doing the lethal research. Nobody is forcing them to do it.

There is no inherent right to conduct lethal experiments on animals. U.S. and state law have carved out very narrow exemptions for licensed animal researchers, ie. a privilege, as compared to run-of-the-mill animal abusers. And like a driver's license, this privilege must be earned. Inherent within it is an obligation. There is no right to conduct lethal experiments on animals, any more than I have the right to starve my dog to death or feed it poison. This is settled law. The law already comes down on the right of animals in this context. That ship has sailed.

What is left to discuss is the narrow window of exemption from animal cruelty laws which researchers have been allowed to operate within. Is the window too broad or to narrow? Too inclusive or too exclusive? That's the discussion which needs to occur.

50 years ago there were no limitations on lethal animal research. The legal limits which now exist had to have come from somewhere. Yet the arguments proffered for the status quo have not changed an iota from those used to justify what occurred 50 years ago. The only thing that has changed is that treatment today is, in some cases, not "as cruel" as it was 50 years ago. And that change has only happened because of public outcry -- not internal policing by the researchers themselves. The lesson is that researchers themselves have failed to prove they can police themselves. This is why public involvement is essential if we are to move to phase two, just as it was to get to phase one.

What's needed is for the research community to acknowledge that lethal animal research, especially in its most egregious forms, is profoundly distasteful to society at large for the same reason that dog fighting is distasteful. Researchers need to engage the community in a discussion and offer solutions, not bunker-mentality defenses. A starting point would be to offer a plan to phase out and eventually end lethal experimentation, starting first with the animals most closely related to humans and with the most harmful and most egregious types of research. Such a plan, itself a gesture, would be the first step in a path forward.

UPDATE: Science writer Eric Michael Johnson offers a thoughtful take on this issue.
[1] I say "alleged" human benefits not to dismiss or denigrate concrete medical advances made with the assistance of animal research, but to note that some lethal animal research is being done despite the lack of any clear, demonstrable and important human benefits, while exacting very clear and demonstrable sacrifice and suffering by the subject animals.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Methuen, Mass. Condo Association Fines and Bans Kids for Playing Wiffle Ball

Lots of Adult Bitterz out there:

"METHUEN - On several days last June, a photographer snapped shots of children playing Wiffle ball in the grassy common area of their 78-unit condominium complex. The pictures were not intended for a family album, authorities say, but as evidence that five families were violating a rule prohibiting organized sports on the grounds.

"The photos, taken by a condo association board member, led to fees and fines of about $2,500 for the children’s families. But the move also created problems for condo management: US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz is charging Stonecleave Village Association Inc., Property Management of Andover Inc., and its property manager, Elaine Romano, with discriminating against families with children at the complex, while allowing some adult residents to violate association regulations without penalty."

The best comment is by "Ally" who writes:

"Who says anyplace has to accommodate children? if one buys into a condo with specific rules, then the rules must be followed. seems like the parents are too damn lazy or indifferent about going out with their children to the designated play area ... so why should the rest of the residents have to change their lives to allow for poor parenting?"

The other day, the little kid next door, Jonathan, asked if he and his brother David could walk through our yard to walk to the supermarket. Of course I said yes. According to Kids Rulz, walking through someone else's yard is always allowed. Ours is a neighborhood where kids live and they need to know that they are always welcome. Kids have enough problems without being persecuted just for being kids.

I grew up in North Easton, Mass. and we lived in, apparently, a sane neighborhood. We all played street hockey in the street, sledded down the hill across the street, made bike ramps in the street, and played hide and go seek in everybody's yard. In a nearby field we played baseball and football, no adults, just kids. And on the nearby pond we played ice hockey and all tried to be Bobby Orr and Espo and Gerry Cheevers, no adults. We caught lots of frogs and sunfish and we built lots of tree forts and one spring we tapped trees and made our own maple syrup. This was all in a very dense residential neighborhood. This was all done without any supervision or interference from adults. Some parents did try to "manage" their kids and those kids ended up growing up twisted and warped. Kids need to play and do their own thing by themselves and make their own little rules and worlds by themselves. Our tiny little neighborhood in North Easton is proof it works. We even had chickens !!!

When you do that for kids, when they are in their 30s they will thank you for it. You will have given them their childhood, the only one they will ever have.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bangor, Maine Bans Chickens

Amidst all the world's suffering and all the unemployment and underemployment and squelched dreams and hopes in Maine, it's good to know that the Bangor City Council has drawn the line in the sand and stood their ground about letting a single chicken set a single grit-scratching foot within the limits of the Queen City.

Solidarity !!!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What is the Universe Expanding Into?

The Baboon Nebula, Small Magellanic Cloud, orbiting the Milky Way. Hubble Space Telescope Photo.

Since we've been kids we've been told we live in an infinitely immensi-huge-big Universe. And when told our Universe is still getting bigger, people ask:

1. How can a thing infinitely big get bigger?
2. If the Universe is bigger today than yesterday, what did it just bump into?
3. Why can't I get decent bus service from Augusta to Gardiner, Maine?

Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel provides the most up-to-date scientific understanding of the Universe here, here, here and here.

But even Ethan's explanations, as good as they are, do not really get at the two questions above, which are the most commonly asked and are the hardest to answer.

The best way I have found to ponder this is to think about the hierarchy of infinities. And for that we need to meet Georg Cantor, a 19th century German mathematician. Cantor upturned all of science and math by showing how bizarre infinite quantities are. For example, he showed how the infinity of odd and even numbers is no bigger than the infinity of just the even numbers:

When you line up all the odd and even numbers with just the even numbers, you can match up every odd and even number with an even number, and this one-to-one correspondence will continue infinitely. There will always be an even number available for each and every odd and even number you can list. This means there are as many even numbers as there are odd and even numbers !!! This seems downright crazy, but that's because the concept of infinity is profoundly counterintuitive to the human brain (commercial fishermen excepted). You can also show the infinity of all prime numbers is equal to the infinity of all prime and non-prime numbers:

Another way to think of this is to assume an infinity of blue blocks and an infinity of red blocks. Create two sets. One is the set of all the red blocks and all the blue blocks. The second set is just the blue blocks. In our normal way of thinking we would say that the set of all blue blocks is contained within the set of all blue and red blocks, therefore the set of all red and blue blocks has to be bigger than the set of just the blue blocks. But using a one-to-one correspondence, we can show that if you line up the set of just the blue blocks next to all the blue blocks and all the red blocks there will always be a blue block to line up next to each of them. How wicked bizarre !!!:

In the examples above, we see what appears to be a lock-solid proof which defies and defiles our intuitive sense of quantity. Apparently, all sets containing infinite quantities are equal, even when one set clearly contains items which are missing from the other set.

But then Georg Cantor pulls a fast one and shows that some infinities are truly bigger than others, although the term bigger is tricky, since it requires that you can count all the items in each set to make a final comparison. Since you cannot count to the end of an infinite quantity, the term "bigger" infinity is kind of an oxymoron. In his book "One, Two, Three ... Infinity," physicist George Gamow suggests the term "stronger."

What Mr. Cantor does is to extend the approach he used above: apply a one-to-one correspondence test to each set containing an infinite number of members and see what happens. When Cantor applies this test between rational numbers and real numbers (rationals + irrationals) the correspondence test fails. There is no way you can match up every whole number (or even every whole number + fractions) with every infinitely non-repeating decimal between zero and 1. Cantor does this with what is called a "diagonalization proof." His proof shows there is no way to assemble a complete, consecutive catalog of all infinitely non-repeating decimals between 0 and 1. No matter how complete and consecutive you try to make your catalog, there will always be at least one infinitely non-repeating decimal that is "between" any two numbers on your list:

Above are two simplified variants of Cantor's diagonalization proof. What he did was try to establish a one-to-one correspondence between all natural numbers with all infinitely non-repeating decimals between 0 and 1, just as he did with all integers and all even integers. But this time it doesn't work. The genius of Cantor's proof is that it shows that by whatever method you choose to compile your list of all irrational numbers between zero and 1, there will always be at least one that is not on your list. This is because the diagonal construction is guaranteed to generate a number that is different by at least one numeral from all the numbers it intersects and is built from. It's kind of a sneaky proof and for the past century there has developed a cottage industry of people who claim to have falsified it, but it still stands: some infinities are provably "bigger" than others.

The infinity of infinitely non-repeating decimals between 0 and 1 does not extend outward since it is bounded by 0 and 1. Instead, it extends inward between every nook and cranny between every decimal you can ever catalog. In this sense the infinite "space" between 0 and 1 is larger (stronger) than the infinite linear space of integers moving outward as they get larger.

With infinitely non-repeating decimals between 0 and 1, there is no precise "next" in the series because the number of digits in each decimal is infinite, and you need to know what the "last" digit is in each number to correctly assign the number to its place in the series, which you cannot do. It's this "infinity of between-ness" which caused Georg Cantor to declare the infinity of points on a line to be, as Gamow says, "stronger" than the infinity of integers. We can say that a point on a line from 0 to 1 denoted as:

.11111111111111123456789 ...

must be "larger than" or "farther to the right" than:

.11111111111111123456788 ...

In the above case, no matter what comes after the last digit shown, we know the first number is farther to the right on the line segment than the second number because they are identical up to the last digit and 9 is bigger than 8. But that's all we can ever really know. Unlike integers, there is no exact "next" in line with infinitely non-repeating decimals. No matter which number we try to catalog as the "next" in line, there are an infinite number of others in between.

So what the hell does this have to do with the Universe?

Cantor's hierarchy of infinities gives us a possible analog (and possibly totally wrong analog) to conceptualize the Universe.

We can say that if the "space" component of the Universe is infinite and the amount of "stuff" in the Universe is also infinite, then the Universe should be so tightly packed with "stuff" that we can't move. Without a strategically placed lack of stuff we would have no room to move our stuff. I used to live in an apartment like this.

But if the infinity of space is of a different hierarchy than the infinity of stuff, then we could have more space than stuff, even though we have infinite amounts of both. Cantor's proof shows the infinity of real numbers is "bigger" than the infinity of rational numbers in the sense that it is impossible to establish a one-to-one correspondence between rational and real numbers, particularly infinitely non-repeating decimals. By analogy we can suggest that the infinity of space is bigger than the infinity of stuff in the sense that you can never establish a one-to-one correspondence between space and stuff.

Our efforts to catalog all the stuff in the Universe with telescopes is analogous to writing down all integers starting from zero. While you can never count every integer, you can at least compile a sequential catalog starting from any one spot (say, zero) in which you are certain you haven't left any out. Although your list will always be incomplete (there's still more to count), you can be certain it is complete in an inward direction (of what you've counted so far, you haven't left any out).

We can do the same with all the stuff in the Universe, and actually we have. [1] Starting from Earth we can conceivably catalog every piece of stuff moving outward from Earth and assign it a unique label, such as an integer: particle 1, particle 2, particle 3 etc. If we did this carefully enough, we could be certain we weren't missing any stuff. We would only need to continue moving outward and count more stuff. And because integers are infinite we will never run out of unique labels for every bit of stuff we count.

Assume we have built a Commodore VIC-20, sorry, a supercomputer, that can count, compile and store a catalog of every subatomic particle from Earth outward and assign each particle with a catalog number corresponding to an integer and store this catalog in its hard drive. But eventually our computer will run into a memory space problem. Even if you turn all the atoms in the entire accessible Universe into a hard drive to store our catalog of stuff (each labelled by a unique integer), eventually we will use up all the nearby atoms and our computer will run out of hard drive space. Our ability to store our catalog will be limited by how fast we can go farther out into the Universe and gather more atoms and convert them into new hard drives so we can keep counting and cataloging all of the "stuff" we find. At this point our counting exercise and our hard drive building exercise will become one since we need to collect every subatomic particle to add to our hard drive to extend our catalog of all the subatomic particles we find. At this point, the map becomes the territory and vice versa.

But how do you count empty space? The only way we know how to "count" space is by estimating the amount of stuff that would be in that space if it was filled with stuff, which it isn't. This brings us back to Georg Cantor and the problem of counting rational numbers vs. counting irrationals. Like "stuff" you can count rationals, like 1, 2, 3 etc. because there are gaps between them. Cantor proved you cannot count irrationals like you can integers because no matter how tiny a region of number space you select, there will always be an uncountable number of irrationals within it. Space is analogous to irrationals in that there are no gaps. What do you call a gap in between space?

Even though integers are infinite, there are gaps between them, like between 1 and 2. And there are certainly gaps between two prime numbers, even though primes are also infinite. But Cantor's diagonalization proof shows there are no gaps between any two infinitely non-repeating decimals. Instead there is an infinity of decimals in between any two you select, no matter how "close" they are together, which is why they cannot be cataloged.

So if we have a model of the Universe as containing infinite space containing infinite stuff we can still have lots of gaps in between the stuff if what we call space corresponds to the infinity of real numbers and what we call stuff corresponds to the infinity of integers, or primes or even numbers, etc. Both are infinite, but one is bigger than the other. One has gaps, the other has none.

So if space is like an "ether" of all infinitely non-repeating decimals and "stuff" is like the integers, we now have a way to explain how you can have an infinite amount of stuff but still have gaps so the stuff can move around.

Just keep telling yourself, "This is only an analogy."

What's more bizarre is the Universe may actually be finite. Vastly immensely huge, but still finite.

The state-of-art "inflationary" model of the Universe posits that around 13.75 billion years ago, a tiny section of the Universe, perhaps only the size of a proton, expanded within a few trillionths of second into the Universe we exist in today. As crackpot as that sounds, hard data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) shows this idea is by far the best fit for what the evidence shows. And this data effectively rules out a whole lot of competing ideas.

What's interesting about the inflationary model, as buttressed by recent WMAP data, is that the Universe may not be infinite per se, but "our portion" is so huge that it may as well be infinite for anyone within it, in the sense that only a tiny portion the Universe will ever be observable. This is partly because of a weird thing where the most distant galaxies now visible to us (the light we now see from them is from 10 billion years ago), are actually moving away from us at faster than the speed of light. Yes, that's not allowed by E=mc2, However, only "stuff" must obey E=mc2 and space is not stuff. And technically, it can be said that we are moving faster than light speed from these distant galaxies. This is not a big deal, actually. If this were not the case we would enter Olber's Paradox, which says that if there is infinite stuff in the Universe then the entire sky should be blindingly bright with an infinite number of stars and galaxies. And we know that is not the case so we must consider the alternatives:

a) The Universe is pretty big.

b) The Universe is so immensely huge in its big immensity of large bigness and is biggening so fast that some parts of it are moving faster than the speed of light from us and can never be seen by us again.

c) The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

The WMAP probe tried to see if any part of very early microwave emissions of the Universe appear to be moving faster away from us than others, which would imply some directional movement, ie. that we are not at the very center of the expansion. Since it is obvious that we are not at the center of the expansion of the entire Universe, the lack of any directionality shows that if there is any "shape" or "edge" to the Universe it is so big and far away that it is completely and utterly unobservable or confirmable. This does not prove there is no "edge," but if there is, it is so distant that it will forever remain outside our detection ability. The question of "edge or no edge" will be an unknown that remains an unknown forever.

The inflationary model, by postulating a sudden expansion from a tiny point of space, does "sort of" postulate the existence of a center and edge, unless the point is truly a dimensionless point. It's at least possible that there are parts of the Universe where a WMAP actually shows a slight preferential direction, ie. a pointer toward some "edge." WMAP shows the Earth and Sun and Milky Way Galaxy are definitely not in a place where such a differentiation can be seen.

From our feeble brains' perspective, the idea of a vastly immense and unknowably large and expanding but still finite Universe is much easier to grasp than a truly infinite Universe. But Georg Cantor's hierarchy of infinities provides a way to at least begin to conceptualize the latter.

[1] Thanks to Newton and Einstein's laws of gravity, astronomers have already calculated the entire amount of stuff in the visible Universe and found there to be far less stuff than there should be. In fact about 75 percent of all the stuff that should be in the Universe is unaccounted for and has defied all efforts to observe it. It is provisionally called "dark energy" and "dark matter." Nobody knows what the hell it is.

UPDATE: I wrote and posted this with lots of trepidation because earlier drafts kept veering far closer to 'crackpot land' than I would prefer. Devising analogies is a way that helps me think about things that are not easy to grasp in and of themselves. That said, the analogy is not the thing, just like the map is not the territory.

Friday, February 19, 2010

New England Lake Ice-Out Dates, 1850-2000.

This nice, short, publicly funded study of ice-out dates collected from 29 New England lakes from 1850 to 2000 tells an interesting story about where our climate is headed.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Geology of South Easton, Massachusetts: Still Swampy After All These Years

Bull frog, Mulberry Meadow Brook, Foundry Street, Furnace Village, South Easton, Massachusetts. July 7, 1996.

The geological story of South Easton is much more mysterious than North Easton's. What we do know is South Easton has been flat and swampy for a lot of the last 300 million years. How do we know this?

The bedrock geology map of Massachusetts shows the bedrock of Easton changes dramatically along a west to east line roughly drawn from Rockland Street to Allen Road to Lincoln Street to Main Street to Torrey Street. North of this line is nothing but Dedham granodiorite, a hard, fine-grained granite that is 620 million years old. This is the "basement" that underlies all of Easton and much of eastern Massachusetts.

South of Main Street, the Dedham granite dives deep underground and is covered by a 250 million year old set of folded sedimentary rocks called the Rhode Island Formation which covers much of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. These rocks tell us that 300 million years ago, South Easton was at the edge of a vast coal forest and swamp stretching from South Easton to Cape Cod and from Plymouth to Providence. How do we know this? Not from South Easton.

As anyone in Easton knows, exposures of bedrock south of Main Street are rare to non-existent. Even tiny hills are uncommon and the only boulders on the surface were dragged and dropped by the last glaciation and came from the north. The last glaciation covered South Easton with a thick coat of sand, gravel and a jumbled mix-up of sand, rocks and boulders called till, leaving the bedrock buried a dozen to a hundred feet underground. The lowest spots were flooded, allowing peat swamps to develop, like the Hockomock and Little Cedar Swamp, with peat depths of 20-40 feet and remain wet today. South Easton for a bedrock geologist is like the Sahara for a rainforest botanist. Na ga happa.

But bedrock geologists are strange folk. Throw a great mystery at them, with virtually no evidence, and they will scurry and nose about like Queequeg T. Dog, Ph.D. looking for the last molecule of food on the dinner plate, or looking for a good tenting spot in the Hockomock Swamp:

Note in the Queequeg T. Dog, Ph.D. video of the Hockomock that from what we know of Appalachian coal forests, they looked quite similar to the Hockomock today, and some plants in Easton, like royal ferns, have changed very little in the past 300 million years.

The Mystery of the Narragansett Basin

We know that a broad swath of southeastern Massachusetts, with its northern end at Easton below Main Street, is a very old freshwater basin, the Narragansett Basin, that over millions of years was filled with stream-washed sand, silt and rounded stream cobbles. Geologists are quite sure this basin first developed about 300 million years ago and rapidly began to fill with sediment from uplands to the north and northeast, creating a broad, flat and very wet plain of swamp and forest.

We know this because plant fossils from the bedrock which hardened from these sediments date to the Pennsylvanian Period (315-290 million years ago) and are typical of a vast forested, freshwater wetland. These fossils have never been found in South Easton, but have been found in bedrock exposures in Brockton and other nearby towns. The tree and plant species identified are typical of an Appalachian coal swamp. We know these were coal forests because small deposits of coal are fairly common in various spots around southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Many of these lenses of coal were first discovered by homeowners digging wells in the 1900s. Despite a great hoo haa by local captains of industry, these beds of anthracite coal proved immune to mining because they are small, thin, buried deep under glacial debris and contain 20 percent or more ash after burning.

We also know that the coal forests of the Narragansett Basin created petrified wood, which was found in place in by Clifford A. Kaye in the 1960s in Plympton and as wave-polished glacial drift on the beaches of Martha's Vineyard and the south Cape.

These plant fossils, coal deposits and petrified wood give us a fairly good picture of what South Easton looked like 300 million years ago. It was like the northern edge of a giant Hockomock Swamp surrounded by slightly higher ground and streams flowing into it -- not radically different than what we see today, but with different tree species.

What we don't know is what made the Narragansett Basin a basin in the first place. We know when it sank, but what made it sink?

To get at this conundrum we have to recall that all of Easton and eastern Massachusetts is a chunk of West Africa which split off and set sail for North America around 600 million years ago. This chunk of West Africa (called "Avalonia") slowly smacked into North America from north to south from 375-325 million years ago, first hitting Newfoundland, then maritime Canada, then coastal Maine and then Massachusetts. If you drill down deep enough anywhere in Easton you will hit this Dedham granodiorite. In North Easton it is right on the surface. South of Main Street it is dozens or hundreds of feet below the surface.

After Easton was done smacking into North America, about 320 million years ago the granite bedrock of southeastern Massachusetts began to stretch and thin, causing the crust to sink, creating the Narragansett Basin. While the mechanism and details of this stretching period are poorly understood, we do know what happened soon after: the basin quickly began to fill. We know this basin was landlocked, since it contains no marine fossils and only freshwater fossils, but its depth is still not known. And because the basin was freshwater and filled with trees, we know it must have existed within a fairly large chunk of continent, or else saltwater would have come pouring in from the sides.

The Hockomock: a modern coal swamp?

Coal beds are formed when forest trees die and are quickly submerged underwater, which keeps them from rotting. To make coal you need lots of trees growing for a long time in a very wet environment, with each tree growing on top of the trunks of those which have died and the dead trunks staying underwater. What you need to make coal is a ginormous forested swamp.

South Easton's Hockomock Swamp might be thought of as a modern coal forest. In 1970, several square-ended dug-out canoes were found in the Hockomock in West Bridgewater by muskrat trappers. The canoes are more than 500 years old, and most likely are much older than that. This shows how water can perfectly preserve wood for centuries.

Research shows that the Atlantic white cedar, or at least its genus, Chamaecyparis, have been around for at least 60 million years. Atlantic white cedar are the King Tree of the Hockomock and its oldest and longest living resident, next to box turtles, of course. It is possible that the Hockomock has been a cedar swamp for the past 50 million years, interrupted by glaciers, and coming back again when the glaciers melt.

A honkin' Atlantic white cedar in the Hockomock.
The trees in the Hock are growing on top of a layer of peat and tree trunks that is 40 feet or more thick. Peat is a precursor of coal. And coal is made from very deep layers of peat and tree trunks that have been shoved deep enough into the Earth's crust so that the heat drives out the water and compacts and bakes the peat and tree trunks until they are almost pure carbon.

The lack of thick coal beds in southeastern Mass. suggests that the Narragansett Basin was wet enough and stable enough to form lush wetland forests, but these forests were frequently interrupted and buried by incoming floods of sand and sediment from the surrounding uplands and had to start all over. It's not known how much of South Easton's coal beds were eroded as rock after they were folded and crumpled, and how much were scraped away by the numerous glaciers which advanced across Easton like one-mile thick bulldozers during the past 1 million years. It's at least possible that Easton once had coal beds as thick as those in Pennsylvania, but most of it was plowed onto the continental shelf past Nantucket, where it still resides in little tiny pieces.
My brother Tim's dog, Queequeg T. Dog, Ph.D., takes a swim in Black Brook in the Hockomock, July 18, 2009. Queequeg wants to go tent camping there this summer for a week.

The Pondville Conglomerate

This past July, my wife Lori and I took a walk into Borderland to illegally swim in Puds Pond. We illegally parked at the head of "Bob's Trail," which begins at the corner of Allen Road and Bay Road.[1] After awhile we entered an area that had been a cow pasture or hayfield in the early 20th century. And there we encountered a very big rock, about 7 feet across, just sitting on the ground. But this was a goofy rock. It looked nothing like the granite boulders you see all over North Easton. This was made of tennis ball-sized, polished white and grey stones in a matrix of coarse sandstone, like plums in a pudding. We had found an errant piece of the Pondville Conglomerate.

Glacial erratic of Pondville Conglomerate, just west of Bay Road in Borderland.
After the 620 million year-old Dedham granodiorite, the oldest exposed bedrock in Easton is called the Pondville Conglomerate, named after the Pondville railroad station in Norfolk, Mass., where it was first mapped and studied. A small lens of Pondville Conglomerate is mapped on the grounds of Stonehill College, behind Moreau Hall.

Conglomerate looks like very coarse gravel which turned into solid rock. The Pondville conglomerate began to form about 315 million years ago, when the Narragansett Basin sank and streams from the uplands to the northeast washed billions of fist and golf-ball sized water-worn cobbles into the depression. Later, as the basin filled and flattened, and the uplands were worn down, the basin filled with finer sand and silt until the basin was flat and wet enough to support a vast coal forest. In geologic terms, this forest did not last for long, maybe about 15 million years. And then South Easton was smacked again, this time at a distance.

What's odd about the piece of Pondville Conglomerate we found in Borderland is that it shouldn't be there. The only exposure of Pondville Conglomerate in Easton is on the grounds of Stonehill College, three miles to the east. This boulder was obviously a glacial erratic and must have been carried in the ice from somewhere north of Borderland. A glance at the Massachusetts bedrock geology map shows an exposure of the Pondville Conglomerate in Canton and Norwood, in almost a direct north-south line to Borderland. This must have been where the last glacier plucked out this boulder from the bedrock and dropped it 20 miles to the south in the woods along Bay Road. Cool.
One of the stones in the 300 million year-old Pondville Conglomerate.

Africa's Second Date with Easton

Geologists are very certain that about 290 million years ago, the full brunt of Africa smacked into North America, creating what is called the Alleghanian Orogeny. This impact created the middle and southern section of the Appalachian Mountains.
The full impact was well south of Easton, and more towards the mid-Atlantic states. But the effects in Massachusetts were still severe. Thousands of feet of loose sediment in the Narragansett Basin were crumpled and folded and baked as they were driven down towards the Earth's mantle, including the trunks of millions of coal forest trees, creating the thin, folded beds of coal that dot southeastern Mass. and Rhode Island today.[2]

When sedimentary rock is pushed toward the mantle it heats up and is subjected to enormous pressure, causing the sediment to harden and recombine chemically into new new minerals, ie. metamorphism. Each metamorphic mineral forms at a different temperature and pressure regime. Because of this, metamorphic minerals are used as thermometer and a barometer to tell how deep and how long a slab of sediment was pushed to great depth. The metamorphic minerals found in the coal forest sediments of Easton show they were subjected to fairly low levels of metamorphism when they were crumpled and folded. [3]

The metamorphic history of the bedrock of southeastern Mass. is very complicated, which means, once again, there are far more mysteries than knowns for the period after African smacked into North America and created Easton around 350 million years ago and then smacked into it again 290 million years ago. The lack of bedrock exposures in South Easton makes untangling this history much harder, since graduate students and collegiate geologists rely on easily accessible exposures of bedrock to do their work. What would be useful to have are well drilling cores from Easton that go deep into the underlying bedrock. If Wayne Southworth is reading this, please give a shout.

South Easton, after Africa

What we do know is that after about 250 million years ago, the sediment and trunks of the coal forests of South Easton, now crumbled and folded into solid rock buried deep beneath the surface, cooled to "closure" temperatures for metamorphic minerals. Aside from erosion, not much has happened to these rocks since. So what's happened in South Easton since 250 million years ago? We don't know and will never know. But the Easton Country Store had Bisquick that old.

Thanks to our friends erosion and the glaciers, every bit of rock and every bit of history in South Easton after 250 million years ago has long ago been ground into dust and washed into the Atlantic Ocean. Every dinosaur track, every dinosaur bone, every vestige of every living and non-living thing that has resided in South Easton from 250 million years ago until the end of the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago is completely gone. We have no clue nor will we ever. But South Easton is still here. And still swampy.

Cheap, Gratuitous South Easton Joke for Mark Murphy:

Why did God make South Easton so flat?

So when they passed out in the front yard, they wouldn't roll off.

NEXT: The Rattlesnake Hill Pluton, the weird volcanic rocks at Oakes Ames Hall, and more cheap jokes about South Easton.

[1] I fully support the Uber-Draconian Rulez at Borderland because it keeps out the idiots with ATVs and SUVs who would quickly turn the place into the Sky View Drive-In at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning in terms of total McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's trash, forest fires, rutted roads, broken Zima bottles, human feces, toilet paper hanging like confetti from high bush blueberry, and poorly hacked off live trees ostensibly to be used as "firewood" until the cops come. Being a duplicitous hack, I reserve the right to break these Rulez as they pertain to taking a swim in Puds Pond, which is the clearest, cleanest and bestest swimming pond in the Entire World. According to the Rulez, if you wear a fake dog suit, you can swim in Puds Pond all day long.

[2] The thinness and intermittency of the coal seams in southeastern Mass. and Rhode Island suggests the Narragansett Basin was only sporadically conducive to coal forest growth and massive trunk burial (which creates coal), and nothing like the thousands- feet thick coal beds of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But sporadically, in the terms of a coal forest, could still be a million years. Geologic time is weird that way.

[3] A unique clue to the grade of metamorphism in Easton can be seen behind Sedell's Pharmacy and Tedeschi's variety along Main Street in North Easton, next to the North Easton Post Office. The volcanic bedrock exposed there, which was skun-up by bulldozers at the time, contain fractures lined with very small, gem-clear crystals of emerald green epidote. I took samples of these in 1997 and put them in a box somewhere. When I find them, I'll take pix and post them. They are quite pretty.

NOTE: Because nearly all geological research and review papers are inaccessible on-line due to a paywall which charges $20 or more per paper, even for papers published 50 years ago, the summary above is based on abstracts of many research papers and is far less informative than I would prefer to present. This paywall system basically prevents anyone except professional geologists from learning anything about the natural history of their own town or region. I'm not sure keeping people dumb is a good way to increase scientific literacy.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Geology of North Easton, Massachusetts: We're Still in West Africa.

Sitting on a chunk of West Africa, looking towards West Africa, thinking about snack cakes. Fred's Pond, North Easton, Massachusetts. Dec. 2009.

The most important thing to know about the geology of Easton, Massachusetts is that every rock you see is a part of West Africa.

Massachusetts has some of the most horrendously contorted and complex bedrock geology of any place on Earth.

But in Easton, it's fairly simple. All of Easton is underlain by a type of granite called the Dedham granodiorite, just like most of eastern Massachusetts from Boston to Cape Cod. It's named after the Town of Dedham, the type locality where it was first studied.

This Dedham granite is what we see all over town, especially in North Easton, where it appears everywhere in boulders scattered and dragged about by the last glaciation which ended 15,000 years ago. It's light gray, fine-grained, and is much harder than your head, which you know if you tripped over it running from the cops at midnight in Picker Field.

Radioactive dating of this granite show it cooled from a molten state about 620 million years ago. Chemical studies show this granite hardened fairly close to the Earth's surface, since it is mixed with surface volcanic lava of similar composition. Sit on any one of the millions of boulders or miles of stonewalls in Easton and you're sitting on a 620 million year-old chunk of Senegal, Liberia, or Sierra Leone from a time when no life on land existed on Earth and nothing bigger than your hand lived in the world's oceans.

All of eastern Massachusetts, from Route 495 to the Atlantic, is a chunk of West Africa which began to split from that continent around 600 million years ago and started moving towards ancestral North America, which at the time had a coastline alongside the Adirondacks in the north and followed the western side of the Appalachians to the south, neither of which existed then. This early, smaller continent we now call North America is called "Laurentia." At this time, Africa and much of Europe and Asia were part of one giant continent called "Gondwana."

A Winnebago-sized chunk of 620 million year-old Dedham granodiorite along Massapoag Ave. in North Easton in Borderland State Park. If you get up close it goes, "GRARWRRRRRR !!!"
Somewhere around 650-600 million years ago the westernmost end of Gondwana did an Ishmael, took a boat ride and began to split from Africa. As this splitting occurred, magma from the Earth's mantle surged up through the cracks, creating volcano chains and lava flows. Some of the magma never surfaced but formed huge pools and ponds underground where it slowly cooled into solid, fine-grained rock. This is the rock, the Dedham granodiorite, which comprises what we now call Easton. This made what my dad called "Hoobies." [1]

By recent and ingenious detective work using "paleopoles" in Massachusetts rocks, which use the alignment of tiny iron crystals in rocks as compasses to show where the rocks were in relation to the Earth's magnetic pole when they cooled, we can figure out where eastern Massachusetts ... err ... West Africa ... was at various times in the deep past. Using volcanic rocks from Lynn and Mattapan, which cooled after the Dedham granodiorite of Easton, it is believed that by 595 million years ago, what is now Easton had already left its mooring at Dakar, Senegal and was heading into fair seas toward the beautiful seacoast town of Binghamton, New York. Try the trilobites !!!
Sitting atop an outcrop of Dedham granodiorite between Shovelshop Pond and Fred's Pond in North Easton. The red arrow showing me gives an idea how big these boulders are.

Mom, Are We There Yet?

During the American Revolution, it took 3-6 months to get people, messages and mail by boat from England to Boston. The Dedham granodiorite of Easton took a much slower boat than Ben Franklin -- 200 million years slower. Cape traffic had nothing on this. Better bring board games for the kids !!!

To get a proper perspective for the ridiculous time scales we're talking about, think of this. The time from when the rocks of North Easton first cooled until they set sail from Africa is about the time it took a four-legged animal to venture into the ocean and become the largest animal to ever live on Earth, the blue whale.

Somewhere between 375 and 325 million years ago, Easton finally made landfall and glued itself to North America. This event is called the Acadian Orogeny, which is a fancy name for when one big chunk of the Earth's crust slams into another.

But Easton was not the sole passenger on this very slow ferry. Easton was part of a long, thin chunk of crust called Avalonia, which appears to have been of a similar size and shape to Japan. This chunk included most of coastal Maine, lots of coastal New Brunswick, the eastern half of Newfoundland, southernmost Ireland, a big chunk of England and part of Belgium. The word "Avalonia" comes from the Avalon peninsula of Newfoundland, where this whole mess was first deduced. But how?

As comedian Lewis Black would say, "Fossils."

Geologists have long made a habit of studying marine fossils and have spent a century carefully identifying and sorting them according to species, going back 600 million years. By doing this over and over, around the world, you can sort marine fossils (most no bigger than your thumb) into groups. And the groups tend to be sorted by region and habitat. From the earliest marine fossils we can find, there is a clear separation of species between North America and Europe and Africa. The little buggers are often quite similar, but the differences are there.

What confused 20th century geologists and paleontologists about eastern Newfoundland was that it contained marine fossils identical to those found in Europe and the British Isles but were clearly different from those found in nearby parts of North America. Similar findings were made with fossils in eastern South America and western Africa.

In 1912, a crazy guy named Alfred Wegener, noticing an oddly coincident fit between the coasts of South America and west Africa, theorized that perhaps the fossils on both coasts were so similar was because the two continents were once joined. His theory was called "continental drift," and he was loudly mocked and ridiculed, partly because Wegener could not devise any way continents could skate and slide willy nilly across the oceans like air hockey pucks. [2]

As late as the 1960s, the concept of "continental drift" was still mocked and derided by many esteemed older geologists as kooky carnival hoo-haa. By about the time I was born, in 1964, geologists were finally able to study in detail the seafloor of the Earth's oceans. What they found was that Wegener was right. However it wasn't the continents "drifting" around on top of the oceans like boats. They found that the oceanic crust does the drifting and the continents just ride along on top, like the cherry on a sundae in the dining car of a very slow moving train. They found through detailed mapping that the Earth's solid crust is broken into a few dozen thin sheets, or plates, and these plates are all doing a slow motion dance around and against each other, with some plates going under another, some going on top of another. And here's the kicker: some plates are split in the middle and move away from each other, creating new crust in the gap by undersea volcanoes. The secret is that the Earth's crust, which is solid and hard and brittle, rides on top of the Earth's mantle, much like an ice skate glides on the ice of a pond: the pressure from the crust helps to liquify the very top of the mantle, creating enough lubrication to move.

It's these cracks in the oceanic plates, called "spreading centers," that start the whole merry go-round moving. Convection cells of heat welling up from the bottom of the mantle appear to be the primary driver. And the largest spreading center on Earth splits the Atlantic in two, creating a crack from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego. The Earth's crust beneath the mid-Atlantic is literally splitting apart, with the left side moving west (toward us) and the right side pushing east to Europe and Africa. The continents, being made of lighter rock, sit atop these plates like rooftop luggage and go along from the ride.

Today the Atlantic Ocean is getting wider by a couple thumbnails (10-15 millimeters) each year. If you dial that rate back, you find that around 290 million years ago, Africa was just a hop-step off Plymouth Rock (which, incidentally is made of West African bedrock, ie. good old Dedham granodiorite). This whole body of knowledge is now called "plate tectonics" -- but a shorter name is "what actually happened," since there is today no question of its veracity. To geology, plate tectonics is Darwin's theory of evolution, or Newton's theory of gravity. Without plate tectonics, you can't explain anything except by fairies, leprechauns, trolls, Pukwudgees, and Uncle Weedo.

All Geology is Local

A glance at the Massachusetts bedrock geology map explains a lot of why Easton is the way it is. An west-east line that follows Rockland Street, Allen Road, Lincoln Street, Main Street and Torrey Street is where the Dedham granodiorite goes underground. North of this line it is on the surface. This is why North Easton is so damned rocky and South Easton is not. This is why North Easton has always been crappy for farming and South Easton is comparatively good. This explains why the brooks in North Easton are all fast-moving and the brooks in South Easton are comparatively swampy and sluggish. This is why North Easton has all the good sledding hills and South Easton has none.

If you go to Sheep Pasture along Queset Brook to the foundations of the old Ames mansion, you walk along a big outcrop of bare bedrock that runs north and south from Main Street. This is one of the most southerly exposures of the Dedham granodiorite in North America, or more correctly, that 620 million year old slab of West Africa that we live on.

One of the best and most enjoyable ways to see the geology of Easton is at Borderland State Park, specifically the Upper and Lower Granite Hills trails which run north from Leaches Pond to Mountain Road. This is the largest exposure of bedrock in town and is virtually all Dedham granodiorite. The rock is exposed in giant ribs like blue whales with massive boulders cracked and plucked out and scattered by the last glaciation. There is at least one cave along this trail, which my cousins Todd and Pete Heino and my brother Tim found when we were kids and crawled into as far as we could go. It goes back about 20 feet and then branches out. We brought a flashlight in one day and found a bat clinging to the ceiling of the last big chamber. Last summer I tried to find the cave, but couldn't.

At the highest point of Upper Granite Hills trail, if you are walking north toward Mountain Road from Leaches Pond, turn left and ascend a few hundred feet to what is probably the highest point in Easton, a glacially flattened knob of Dedham granite with small red oaks growing in its cracks. Climb halfway up one of these trees and you can see all the way to Cape Cod. There is a similar height of land along Canton Street near the Easton-Stoughton line next to Long Pond, just north of the Ames Rifle & Pistol Club.

Next: The mysterious, wet geology of South Easton.

[1] When he was a teenager, my dad, Allan E. Watts, was assigned by his father the task of digging out the cellar of their beach cottage in Mattapoisett with a shovel. In the cellar were several giant, rounded boulders about eight feet long, weighing a few tons. They didn't try to move them, not that they could. My dad called these "hoobies." In the era of 20-ton excavators, 80-house subdivisions, 100-acre clear cuts and high explosives, the word "hoobie" has become an anachronism.

[2] Professor Chet Raymo of North Easton, who teaches at Stonehill College, did a nice demonstration of this for our 6th grade class at Frothingham Hall in Easton in 1976 using a paper map and a pair of scissors. As he showed us, the key to get a near-perfect fit is to include the continental shelves. Chet's book, co-authored with his daughter Maureen Raymo, Written in Stone, is an excellent, non-technical overview of the geologic history of New England and Easton. Chet's book, The Path, is also very good.

NOTE: Because nearly all geological research and review papers are inaccessible on-line due to a paywall which charges $20 or more per paper, even for papers published 50 years ago, the summary above is based on abstracts of many research papers and is far less informative than I would prefer to present. This paywall system basically prevents anyone except professional geologists from learning anything about the geology of their own town or region. I'm not sure keeping people dumb is a good way to increase scientific literacy.

Monday, February 01, 2010

How to Report High Unemployment

Dems. haven't figured out that voters will only forgive 10 percent unenjoyment unless you blame it on the darkies.

cf. Ronald Wilson Reagan c. 1984.