Category Archives: Science

Like, Wow! – The search for extraterrestrial intelligence and Humanity’s inescapable fear of cosmic loneliness

“Late night for Doctor Jerry Ehman

6EQ and it’s bigger than it came in”

SETI vs the Wow! Signal, The Dandy Warhols, 2012

The Wow! Signal referenced here by Millennial Alt Rockers the Dandy Warhols is considered by many to be the strongest contender yet detected for a message beamed to Earth from an extraterrestrial civilization.

Looking through his printouts of data one evening, volunteer analyst Jerry Ehman saw something remarkable – a strong and coherent signal that had all the hallmarks of originating from an artificially engineered source in deep space. Dandies frontman Courtney Taylor Taylor only captures half of the signal in his 2012 lyrics – but in his defence “6EQUJ5” doesn’t scan so well in 4/4 time. What those letters and numbers describe is the changing signal strength in a narrow band of radio wave energy received by the Ohio State University Big Ear radio telescope as it scanned across the night sky on August 15, 1977. Not the random chirps and squawks of cosmic background noise or radio interference that the facility had been recording since it was first turned to the search for alien messages four years earlier, but a clear and substantial signal that systematically rose and fell in intensity over 72 seconds.

Stunned by what he was seeing, Ehman circled the record on his printout and added the notation “Wow!” in red pen to signal his reaction – thereby creating the catchy moniker by which the signal is still known, even in serious scientific discussion. Some commentators have suggested that if he’d written what he’d actually been thinking, we’d now be calling it the ‘Holy shit!’ signal – but I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Ehman myself, so I can’t judge how excitable he might be.

Wow_signal

Scan of a color copy of the original computer printout, complete with Dr Ehman’s excited notation that gives the Wow! Signal its name.

 

Why the ‘shock and awe’ response to this brief radio signal? Well, put yourself in Ehman’s no-doubt-sensible shoes. Imagine listening to 4 years of static hiss and the occasional random squawk coming from your home sound system, then suddenly having your speakers burst into life with 72 seconds of music at full volume.

Only it wasn’t music. Or at least, we can’t say whether it was music or not. Each of those 6 alphanumeric digits in the record simply reflects the total energy received by the detectors over a 10 second period. We have no way of breaking that down to say whether there was any kind of modulation to the frequency or amplitude of the radio waves over time – something that might represent the complexity of real information – or if this was just a burst of energy (albeit curiously narrowly focused). So in essence, the speakers roared into life, but we’re not sure whether it was Motzart’s Eine kliene Nachtmuzik, Eminem giving out Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up, or Dylan Thomas reciting Under Milkwood. Or indeed, nothing more than intergalactic feedback.

The problem we run up against with applying any kind of deeper interrogation to the Wow! Signal is that the plan of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) programme of the time was essentially ‘lets see if we pick up any signals, then think about how we might analyse them and look for information later’. An understandable deficiency, perhaps – after all, if you’ve never seen a candidate signal before and don’t even know whether or not you’ll detect one, it’s probably not your top priority to invest the limited resources that you have in working out the details of what to do with one. Remember, back in the 70s the search for extra terrestrial life was basically thought of – and funded – a bit like Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd’s parapsychology research lab in the opening act of the original 1984 Ghostbusters movie. There’s a reason why Dr Ehman was a ‘volunteer’ analyst – very few people were actually getting paid to do this stuff as their day job.

In its practical application, unfortunately, this strategy is a bit like going to a bar with the vague idea of picking up girls, but not getting any farther than a plan of ‘if one comes up to talk to us, we’ll work out what to say then’. If a dark eyed vision of feminine beauty then draws herself up on the barstool next to you and starts speaking huskily in French, its too late to start wondering what she’s saying and making plans of how you’ll respond.

At the end of the day though, the Wow! Signal fit every criteria set by the SETI scientists in their “what to expect in a contact with an intelligent extraterrestrial communicator” guide for young spotters. No one-off surge that could be dismissed as an artifact of 20th century electronics, no random scatter of values that could reflect some radical malfunction of the experimental apparatus – the signal progressed in stately fashion from strong, to stronger, to the strongest value ever recorded by Big Ear in its entire 22 years listening to the skies between 1973 and 1995, and then equally steadily decayed away back down to background levels – exactly what would be seen if the stationary telescope was slowly being scanned across a point source in the distant reaches of deep space by the rotation of the Earth. Hackers playing a malicious joke on the Big Ear team can be ruled out because – sit down for a minute to process this one – it was before the development of the internet, at a time when computers were individual monoliths of mute silicon and wire rather than the networked hive minds of the modern day.

Wait – did I say every criteria? Every criterion, that is, except for one crucial element: whoever it was never got back to us. Despite re-scanning the relevant areas of the sky many times (somewhat problematically, because the Big Ear telescope had two detectors, each focused on a slightly different area of the sky, we can’t be sure which one of those the signal came from) both with Big Ear, and with other more sensitive telescopes of the era and in more modern times nothing, not the slightest apparition of a comparable signal, has been seen again. So unless it was the equivalent of an alien civilization being caught whispering “Shhhh – they’re listening – don’t call me on this number” it does become increasingly hard to credit it as an intelligent communication with every passing year.

Whatever the Wow! Signal was though, what this opens up is the interesting question of just why it is that we are so obsessed with the idea of who or what might be out there among the stars.

Humanity has always populated its Universe with creatures of the imagination – fellow travellers that we have imbued with such agency that we have built stories, mythologies, and even religions around them (and in L. Ron Hubbard’s case, all three). In earlier centuries the ‘outside’ domain where these others might wait for us started in the terrestrial sphere – blank spaces on the map filled with dragons, eldritch creatures, and kingdoms of gold – but as exploration has doggedly filled that vacant territory, alien life forms have been pushed ever further from our doorstep, until now the cracks and crevices and distant spaces of our own world are so thoroughly tested that the location of possible ‘others’ has been pushed far from our own neighbourhood, into the realm of different worlds in the far depths of space.

That’s not to say that our deep desire to find a partner has been diminished by this shift in our horizons.

I’m not even talking about fictional imaginings here. Big Ear, after all was just one cog in a substantial and coordinated investigation that has occupied the energies of serious scientific players since the 1960s. Perhaps even more telling of our human obsession, in the modern era, tech billionaire Yuri Milner has recently committed $US 100 million of his own money to a new, large-scale SETI initiative. That’s not just idle curiosity, that’s someone really willing to buy a full-price ticket on the fairground ride – investing 1700 person-years of equivalent resource (at the average Australian salary – proportionally more if you wanted to outsource it to a call centre in India) in the exercise.

What makes Milner and the SETI community think all this investment – time, money, whole careers of activity in some cases from talented and active scientists – is worth it? Do we have any real reason to believe that there are others out there wondering, like us, at the mysteries of the Universe? Or is it just an existential feeling that, as captured in the words of punk pop balladeer Feargal Sharkey in his 1985 single A Good Heart, “Anything is better than being alone”.

Looking to Geological history for insight on this question, life appears to have evolved pretty much as soon as it could have here on our own planet. The oldest sedimentary rocks preserved on Earth contain within them un-mistakable fabrics revealing the presence of bacteria living 3,700 million years ago. Earlier still, even though their body forms have been erased by the tectonic recycling of the crust, isotopic ratios of carbon reveal the telltale signature of biological processing by ancient organisms as far back as we have rocks to measure them in. Over time, these early inhabitants gave rise to multicellular life, vertebrate skeletons, and ultimately, the emergence of all the glorious complexity and variety of our worldly domain. And, of course, our own sentience – and the accompanying blessing (or curse) of wonder at our existence.

As the late paleontologist and prolific essayist Steven Jay Gould was fond of observing though, there is a real and fundamental question as to what would happen if we re-wound the clock and let the experiment start all over again. I’m not talking here about peripheral issues like whether humans would have tails (or in the prosaic words of comedian Rowan Atkinson, we would perhaps have a different shaped gear stick on the Mini Metro). We don’t even know something as fundamental as whether life of any sort would evolve, or the Earth would instead remain a sterile ball of silicate rocks.

As anyone who has ever tried to bleach a shower curtain can tell you, once life gets going it is remarkably persistent and self-moderating. But that initial quickening – the fundamental transition of inorganic chemistry into living organisms…was it a one-off event of miraculous unlikelihood here on Earth? Or is it inevitable if you put carbon, energy and liquid water together? There, surely, is one of the most fundamental questions at the heart of the mystery of the Universe.

Many theoretical concepts have been developed in this space, but empirical testing is rendered problematic by the issue of pathetic statistics: we’ve basically only got a sample set of one to look at – our own home (and history) here on Earth.

This is one of the reasons why Mars assumes such scientific interest. Ever since 1877 when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli pointed his telescope at the Red Planet and claimed to see channels built by Martian inhabitants, we Earthlings have been titillated by the possibility of life on Mars. Subsequent probing of our neighbour by observation missions and un-manned landers has clarified that, while Schiaparelli was well wide of the mark, the dry valleys of Mars may indeed have a tale to tell on the evolution of early life.

Why the big deal though? What possible relevance could the presence of life (either now or in the distant past) out there on the frigid surface of Mars have to us here on Earth? The key is that the Red Planet represents only the second place we’ve really had the opportunity to explore, even in passing. If life also developed there, then you go from a single point of data and the corresponding possibility of life originating by near-miraculous happenstance to the (still statistically dubious, obviously) situation of ‘well, every viable place we’ve looked, life developed’ – which would strengthen our expectations that it may also exist elsewhere in the Universe.

1024px-Burns_cliff

Approximate true-color mosaic image of Burns Cliff in Endurance Crater on Mars, captured by the NASA rover Opportunity. Proof that life once existed on the Red Planet’s surface would assume huge significance to thinking about our place in the Universe by demonstrating that the creation of life is replicable, and our own existence is more than the outcome of a cosmic lottery win of unimaginable unlikelihood.

 

So what about that wider universe then? In the words of Douglas Adams:

“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.”

Gaze up into the night sky (as the Big Ear team were probably fond of doing in between their volunteer shifts crunching data back in 1977), and the points of light you see mark out just some of the uncounted billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and, in the further distance, billions more galaxies just like our own. We have enough experience now with the careful observations of celestial mechanics necessary to say that most, if not all of these distant stars are probably orbited by their own families of planets. Some proportion of those will presumably sit, like our own comfortable residence, in the so-called ‘Goldilocks zone’ around their respective sun – not too hot, not too cold – where liquid water is stable. If we assume that some proportion of those potential alien domiciles see life kick-started as it was here on Earth (however that happens), some proportion of those biological incubators see the emergence of multicellular life, some proportion of these see development of some form of sentience…the powerful and attractive logic of extraterrestrial civilisations out there – alien eyes staring up at alien suns – becomes obvious.

Which brings us to the Fermi Paradox: when you put it like this, logical argument would seem to suggest that many technologically advanced civilizations might exist in the universe, but this belief seems inconsistent with our lack of observational evidence to support it. Or, as put more pithily by the great Nobel Prize winning Physicist Enrico Fermi himself – “Where is everybody?”

For all our uncounted generations of staring heavenwards and looking for a sign, all the millions of dollars invested in serious SETI research over the past 50 years, what have we got to show for it? No invitations to intergalactic councils. No imperious threats of our imminent destruction. Not even a poignant “I am Ozymandias, King of Kings, look on my works ye mighty and despair” from some long-vanished civilization.

For a point of comparison, the new enhanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in the United States picked up two black holes colliding pretty much the first time it was turned on for a test run earlier this year, and detected another collision just last month. Going by those statistics, collisions between black holes – astronomical features so vanishingly rare in their own right that until recently they were nothing more than abstract Cosmological theory and the fodder for science fiction imaginings – appear to be vastly more numerous than advanced alien civilisations out there.

Actually, speaking of science fiction, for my money it’s probably 20th century writer and futurist Isaac Asimov whose musings on this point best capture the philosophical implications of the search for extra-terrestrial life:

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

So to turn full circle back to the curious event that kicked off this discussion in the first place – what was the Wow! Signal? Was this Jor-El beaming out the sum total of Krypton’s knowledge as his world collapsed, in the hope that our distant civilization would receive it and carry on his work? And we’re caught here on Earth saying “hang on, I’ll just get my pencil…oh, they’ve gone.” Or possibly nothing more than some previously unknown natural radiowave phenomenon reaching us from deep space – still a mystery to be explained, to be sure, but lacking the radical overtones of extraterrestrial contact.

Well, perhaps…but then again – I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this, but the Wow! Signal was received the day before Elvis Presley ‘died’. Coincidence? Or the King being called home?

Of Cats and Cashflow: Human sentimentality and the flaw in economic rationalism

Last Christmas, I paid $5000 for a cat.

$5000.

For a cat.

“Cat” here, in case you should be wondering, is not the title of an avant garde piece of sculpture by some breaking new artist, or a colloquial reference to a rare wine or other exclusive gift for a loved one. Nor indeed, anything special in the feline department.

Just an ordinary cat that my 9 year old daughter had saved her pocket money to rescue from the Animal Shelter. Yes, okay, it’s accepted family lore that he is actually a pedigree animal who somehow found himself down on his luck on kitty skid row – but I can accept there may be a degree of parental self-delusion in that particular idea.

Whatever his back story though, as the warm summer evenings of 2013 began to lengthen, heralding the winding down of business and arrival of the holiday season, all thoughts of casual beachside barbecues and Christmas relaxation were rudely dashed for me one Saturday morning as young Pedro – having manfully picked a fight with a passing car – dragged his sorry frame into the house and collapsed theatrically in the middle of the living room floor.

After a quick cat scan at the local veterinary hospital (no, not a moment of levity playing on my feline friend’s biological order there – a real actual honest-to-goodness “cash up front please sir” CAT scan cat scan) showed up the incontrovertible evidence of a clean and comprehensive break right through the young street fighter’s pelvis, the therapeutic choices came to a quick fork in the road. One path led to major surgery, emptying of savings accounts (“kids – hands up who’s going to University. Not so fast there you two”), and having a half-shaved grumpy convalescing cat locked in a cage in our cosy house through the warmest weeks of summer. The other, to a quiet, calm, fully funded holiday season. Even a couple of weeks of really nice vacation. As well as the sticky point of explaining to my daughter why her precious kitty wouldn’t be joining us for Christmas dinner.

The path we chose (and I say “we” here entirely in the blame-shifting and shared responsibility sense – my wife’s version of this story may differ on the precise extent to which each of us couldn’t stomach the tough decision making) probably tells you everything you need to know about why I’m never likely to make the annual list of Australia’s 10 hardest hearts. And why you shouldn’t take my advice on anything to do with finance.

The point is, this doesn’t qualify as an investment decision. It’s not like I had some brilliant plan to parlay this $5000 outlay into a major stream of retirement income. Even if the cat in question is possessed of the kind of dashing good looks that could make him a major star in pet food commercials…if he could at some point stop trying to take a chunk out of any hand with the temerity to pat him without explicit permission.

No, it just turns out that little tiny titanium screws are really expensive. If you want them put somewhere useful by a veterinary surgeon, anyway.

The much pampered and perhaps overly tolerated Pedro - a few lives down from his initial quota of 9 perhaps, but still going strong as an extended metaphor for social relativism. And definitely not just a shameless attempt to elevate my viewing stats through use of a cute cat picture.

The much pampered and perhaps overly tolerated Pedro – a few lives down from his initial quota of 9, but still going strong as an extended metaphor for social relativism. And definitely not just a shameless attempt to elevate my viewing stats through use of a cute cat picture.

And there, laid bare for the world to see, lies the fundamental flaw with economic rationalism. People are not reliably rational actors on the world stage – we all bring our personal values, idiosyncrasies and biases to economic decision making.

For those of you who might not be fully familiar with the concept, economic rationalism (market liberalism, for readers from outside Australia) is the dogmatic view that markets and money can always do everything better than governments, bureaucracies and the law.

In the more prosaic words of Michael Pusey – Professor of Sociology at the University of New South Wales: “Forget about history and forget about national identity, culture and ‘society’…Don’t even think about public policy, national goals or nation-building. It’s all futile. Just get out of the way and let prices and market forces deliver their own economically rational solution.”

This philosophy underpinned a sharp step to the right across much of the Western political sphere in the 1980s and 90s – think the Hawke-Keating-Howard years in Australia, Thatcherism and its correlatives in Europe – and has more recently been used as the basis for a strict balance sheet approach to management in many areas of wider society – education, housing, the arts, even environmental policy.

This deference to accounting undeniably has a certain elegance to it – a simple coherent narrative that can easily be painted on a placard, or broadcast in a 6 second sound bite. Like Creationism re-packaged for a political audience though (and with many of the same elements of true belief and ideological fervor), the sneaky trick here is that while this is dressed up as analytical economics, really it is all about political philosophy – the ideology of unfettered personal freedom. Don’t get me wrong – it is entirely proper for economic rationalists (or anybody else) to allow value judgments about freedom to define their policy prescriptions. It is improper and, more importantly, incorrect, however, to claim that these ideas flow simply from the laws of economics, and possess some sort of inescapable mathematical truth.

The beauty of mathematics, of course – the reason political and social movements have long sought to co-opt it to their crusades – is that it gives defined, absolute solutions. Put your numbers into an equation, and you get an answer at the end. To as many significant figures as you like. This allows us to do amazing things – like build giant flying machines from aluminium and carbon fibre that can carry hundreds of passengers around the world in a matter of hours. Or land a spacecraft on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko hurtling through space 510 million kilometres from Earth.

Real world problems though – especially anything touched by the inordinate complexity of human social psychology – commonly fail to lend themselves to mathematical solution. The real world simply has too many possibilities and undefined variables – such that equations have no solid foundations they can be anchored to.

To make problems tractable – to allow mathematics to give us that pure, crystalline answer – we usually make certain assumptions to tie down the open ended possibilities and give us a solvable domain to work within. The danger here though is of ending up with what the great 20th Century physicist and public champion of science Richard Feynman used to call a spherical cow argument (readers of my earlier posting on University fees “More Pennies for Your Thoughts” will have seen a longer explanation of this concept) – an assumption that, while making your equation solvable, also removes any meaningful relationship to the physical system it purports to represent – and when that happens the clean precision of a mathematical solution can be misleading. Or worse.

The NASA engineers plotting the journey of the Mars Climate Orbiter to the Red Planet in 1999 produced incredibly precise solutions. They also assumed the output of one of the key pieces of navigation software on the Orbiter was in metric Newtons of force…when it was actually in pounds of thrust. Oops. This rendered their solutions elegant, precise…and dead wrong, with the $USD 125 million satellite coming in too close to the planet and breaking up in the Martian atmosphere.

Perhaps more than such elementary cases of error, however, the important thing to grasp in a social context is that you can use framing assumptions to distort the result in any direction you might desire. Want to argue against the opening of a new coal mine? Include some cost assumptions about externalities like atmospheric pollution, environmental risk, and increased traffic to show the economics don’t stack up. Or as I showed in an earlier blog, want to argue in favour of higher University fees? Make some helpful assumptions about the financial advantage accruing to a graduate while discounting the societal benefits and increased tax revenue from a more educated population.

Even in the best of circumstances though – if we assume (at the risk of vanishing into the never ending hall of mirrors that is self-referential logic) all our assumptions are correct and appropriate – the critical point to remember is that economics cannot tell you what is the right choice. Morality and values do not drop out of financial equations like wisdom paying out from a philosophical poker machine. Any investment decision comes down to a balance of short term sacrifice against long term gain. Instead of spending your money on something now, you invest it in the expectation of gaining greater reward at some future point.

When it comes to quantifying outcomes – basic economics – that can be a pretty straightforward calculation. “If I have $1000 now, would it be better to stuff it in my mattress or invest it in government bonds for 10 years”. Okay, there are still some assumptions to make about yields and the potential of unexpected events like your significant other throwing your mattress in a skip while you’re at work. Or a plunge in the commodity price on which a government had based all its economic projections, driving it to default on its debts (Hmmmmm…so how is the iron ore market going, by the way?)

By and large though, you can produce a pretty robust solution to that kind of question and say which one is likely to give you the higher return over a 10 year period.

Defining what the sensible decision is based on those results though – now there’s the challenge – with a crack arising in the logic around defining how great a long-term premium is required to make the short term sacrifice worthwhile.

Let’s say that Mike believes that the pleasure he derives from eating a custard slice is an appropriate trade for the 30 seconds it might shave off his life (or the hour in the gym it will take to work off all that delicious vanilla flavoured excess), whereas Susan doesn’t think the momentary pleasure of the creamy mouthful is worth the sacrifice. Who is right? Both are, of course. It’s a question of values and opinion, it has no absolute solution – no single true answer that trumps or invalidates all others.

Orthodox economics is very clear that policy recommendations must rest on both economic analysis AND a set of values. There is no objective adamantine economic ‘truth’ – the social implications of financial modeling depend on your personal beliefs and values.

Even Milton Friedman – often held up as the philosophical father of Economic Rationalism – understood this qualification, stating:

“As Liberals, we take freedom of the individual, or perhaps the family, as our ultimate goal in judging social arrangements.”

No special pleadings or claims of incontrovertible quantitative support there – Friedman is perfectly comfortable acknowledging that his social policy ideas (a fountainhead that fed both Reagan and Thatcher in their glory days of social engineering and reform, let us remember) are based on an ideology. And that’s fine. On that basis, you can assess and debate his arguments, and decide for yourself whether that’s the model you would like to see underpinning the society you live in. Friedman, unlike the hardline Economic Rationalists who have followed in his intellectual wake, allows that alternative social models may be equally valid if you don’t happen to share his values.

Like, for example, valuing a deeply ungrateful cat (and the happiness of a small child) more than a new sofa or a week in Paris.

And hey – at the end of the day, even if we were all perfectly rational actors making our life decisions on the basis of pure logic and mathematics, that might not actually be the lasting social panacea the Economic Rationalists hope for. You’ve seen what happens to the planet Vulcan in J. J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek re-boot, right?

Undercover Operatives: Inadequate Lighting and the Mineral Discovery Landscape in Australia

Underneath the lamplight... How do we re-frame the process of scientific enquiry (and in particular, mineral exploration) to focus on the areas of greatest potential discovery, rather than the easiest places to look?

Underneath the lamplight…
How do we re-frame the process of scientific enquiry (and in particular, mineral exploration) to focus on the areas of greatest potential discovery, rather than the easiest places to look?

A policeman walking the beat on a dark night sees a man down on his hands and knees searching for something under a streetlight.

“Excuse me sir,” he says – helpful servant of the public that he is “what seems to be the problem?”

“Hello oshi…offi…officer,” replies the man – obviously a little the worse for a night of drinking – “I…I appear to have lost my keys”

The kind-hearted policeman lends a hand, and the two spend a few minutes scouring the ground to no effect, before the policeman asks “Are you sure this is where you lost them?”

“Nonono” replies the drunk “Didn’t lost them here oshifer – I lost them across the road.”

“Then why are you looking here?”

“The light’s better.”

Ba-doom tssch, as my daughter would say – echoing the classic cabaret drum-and-cymbals punctuation to an obvious punchline.

Forms of this particular parable though – variously termed ‘the streetlight effect’ or ‘the drunkard’s search’ – have been codified in Social Science theory since at least the 1960s, and there is at least one version circulating on the web as a thoroughly creditable “Nasreddin story” (a traditional middle eastern form of ‘wise fool’ tale, supposedly based on 13th century populist philosopher Nasreddin Hoca, in which moral or pedagogical points are illuminated with pithy folk wisdom) – pointing to some useful philosophical bones beneath its vaudevillian exterior.

The crux of the tale here is to illustrate the logical trap of focusing our investigative effort in the areas where it is easiest to make observations, rather than those that hold the greatest potential for discovery. This moral holds particular relevance for the business of mineral exploration as the national discussion in Australia turns to how to find the resource wealth that will sustain the industry through the 21st century and beyond.

The fundamental challenge of future mineral exploration is one of simple calculus: the depletion rate of many resources globally – the speed with which industrialised society is extracting existing mineral endowment from the ground to feed the needs of urban development and increasing living standards around the world – is outstripping the rate at which new deposits are being discovered. Addressing this growing problem efficiently calls for diversity in the style and geography of exploration efforts, balancing the potential for mineral discovery against the associated technical and social risks. For all the mineral exploration opportunities to be found in places like Sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia, for example, the Sovereign risk attendant on their political and economic history mean that it would be a brave (or perhaps foolhardy) company who would invest all their eggs in such a basket – and nominally well-explored but stable jurisdictions such as Australia also have an important part to play in this solution.

Despite the intellectual and social capital invested in the mining industry in this country however, the all-important balance of risk and reward has been seen as tipping away from Australia as an exploration domain of choice in recent years.

Exploration expenditure nationally – the dollars poured into identifying and characterizing mineral deposits – has risen dramatically over the past decade. In part, this just reflects the expected upswing of a periodic cycle of investment – one more dizzying rise in a bi-polar industrial history of boom and bust stretching back to the earliest days of European colonisation – albeit with highs and lows increasing in magnitude through the latter half of the 20th century. More worryingly, this decade of enhanced spending has not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in discoveries. Quite the reverse – even allowing for a degree of time lag in the full size and value of discoveries being realized, the 10 years to 2010 actually saw fewer mineral discoveries in Australia than any equivalent period over the past 40 years. In real terms, it follows that the cost of discoveries has risen sharply – squeezed in a pincer of increased outlay and decreased success rates (Fig. 1).

Five year rolling average of Australian mineral resource discovery costs, 1975-2010 – excluding bulk minerals. Reproduced from compilation graph presented by Richard Schodde, MinEx Consulting. Costs are normalized to 2009 $AUD. ‘Moderate’ resource size denotes in excess of 100koz Au, 10kt Ni, 100kt Cu equivalent, or 5 kt U3O8. ‘Major’ resource size denotes in excess of 1Moz Au, 100kt Ni, 1Mt Cu equivalent, or 25 kt U3O8. ‘Giant’ resource size denotes in excess of 6Moz Au, 1Mt Ni, 5Mt Cu equivalent, or 125 kt U3O8. Data sourced from ABS and MinEx Consulting, August 2010.

Figure 1: Five year rolling average of Australian mineral resource discovery costs, 1975-2010 – excluding bulk minerals. Reproduced from compilation graph presented by Richard Schodde, MinEx Consulting. Costs are normalized to 2009 $AUD. ‘Moderate’ resource size denotes in excess of 100koz Au, 10kt Ni, 100kt Cu equivalent, or 5 kt U3O8. ‘Major’ resource size denotes in excess of 1Moz Au, 100kt Ni, 1Mt Cu equivalent, or 25 kt U3O8. ‘Giant’ resource size denotes in excess of 6Moz Au, 1Mt Ni, 5Mt Cu equivalent, or 125 kt U3O8. Data sourced from ABS and MinEx Consulting, August 2010.

To some degree, these statistics may be skewed by the lack of game-changing ‘Super Giant’ discoveries in the country over this period – the Olympic Dam and Mt Isa systems of the geological world, whose massive scale and rich grades of mineralisation place them in world-leading positions. Such spectacular concentrations of mineral endowment are surpassingly rare, but their concentrated bulk can so dominate the resource landscape that they account for a substantial share of the market – and profitability – of the mining industry. Looking in more depth at the results however (Fig. 2), we can see this appeal is misplaced – persistently high relative costs exist across all scales of deposit in Australia, with discoveries in this country significantly more expensive than most other areas of the world over the past decade. Welcome though it might be to the group lucky (or fore-sighted) enough to peg the ground, discovery of another Oyu Tolgoi – the ‘world class’ gold resource currently giving expectant parent Rio Tinto such political and economic labour pains with its troubled birthing process in Mongolia – in the Neoproterozoic rocks of the Paterson orogen would do little to change this fundamental landscape.

Cumulative number and size distribution of primary gold discoveries (excluding satellite deposits) per $US billion spent on exploration, 2001-2010. Figures compiled by MinEX Consulting, November 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Figure 2: Cumulative number and size distribution of primary gold discoveries (excluding satellite deposits) per $US billion spent on exploration, 2001-2010. Figures compiled by MinEX Consulting, November 2011. Reproduced with permission.

This value equation contributes to a pervasive view of exploration maturity in the Australian landscape – a perceived depletion of the residual search space. This has its positive side – such is our knowledge of exposed geological character across this wide brown land that it might reasonably be hoped the mature and well-informed exploration industry would no longer be so credulous as to swallow Harold Bell Lasseter’s fraudulent Depression-era tales of quartz reefs exposed in Australia’s rugged interior, awaiting discovery with their illusory “nuggets as thick as plums in a pudding.”

With this familiarity though, comes a matching degree of contempt – with the industry – or at least the financial markets – increasingly of a view that there are no more Telfer deposits or Kambalda nickel camps sitting around at the surface waiting to be stumbled across. “All the ground” it is said “has been walked” – all the rocks kicked by the boots of keen-eyed prospectors – with much of the formerly energetic Australian exploration industry seeing greater opportunities overseas in less thoroughly examined terrain.

But how valid is this pessimistic outlook? The vast majority of the Australian landscape – up to 80% by some estimates – is essentially un- (or certainly under-) explored for minerals – with the ancient Archean and Proterozoic rocks that have proven so richly endowed around the country masked by extensive blankets of regolith and younger cover sequences that have discouraged previous generations of explorers.

It is not that these covered domains are barren. Indeed, two of the most celebrated exploration successes in the past decade (the Tropicana gold resource and the company-making De Grusa copper discovery – about which, more below) were made under cover – and in areas widely perceived to be over-mature for exploration. The resources exist then…but to make their discovery and exploitation practical on a routine basis, we need a way to lower the risk involved in exploration. For all its heroic resonance, we shouldn’t simply rely on the storied Margaret Hawke effect.

For those unfamiliar with this dramatic masterpiece of recent industrial theatre, back in the winter of 2009 Hawke was a junior exploration geologist at Sandfire Resources. In fact, to give a perhaps more accurate view of the landscape, with her employer – as were so many junior mining companies at the time – savaged by the Global Financial Crisis like a child’s toy shaken by a maltreated Pitbull (I won’t quite go the full Shakespearian “Winter of our discontent” route…but times were certainly tough for the industry) Hawke, one of the last 3 employees left on the shrinking company payroll, was pretty close to being the entire exploration team at Sandfire. At the end of an otherwise unsuccessful exploration campaign, and with the company about to up-stakes and leave the field to lick their wounds, she took the bold initiative (some tellings of the tale might describe it as inexperienced presumption – but given the spectacular success of the play, we really have to respect the form of the heroic narrative) of signing off on a final drill hole without the approval of her absent boss. The spectacular copper, gold, and zinc mineralisation intersected in that last roll of the dice literally saved the company.

For every De Grusa jackpot though, there are likely a dozen ‘last rolls of the dice’ (and inexperienced presumptions) where the end result is the brass name plate of another failed small-cap mining company being quietly unscrewed from an office building in West Perth. These tales are less well reported though – with few participants keen to broadcast their failure from the rooftops.

Luck – perhaps not always of the spectacular form enjoyed by Sandfire in 2009 – will inevitably play a role in any discovery, with the true craft of a good explorationist like Hawke being to make sure you’re in the right place and looking in the right direction when your numbers come up. The question then is how do we use our luck more effectively in exploring for mineral systems beneath the blanketing rock?

Tools do exist to peer beneath this cover – an arsenal of geophysical methods to distinguish varying rock characteristics beneath the surface, geochemical approaches to resolve the cryptic fingerprints of a buried mineral system – and these tools have been widely applied across the exploration industry since the middle decades of the 20th century – with some noted success stories. The broad limitations of such techniques to date are made clear, however, in the statistics that show us that 50% of significant Australian mineral discoveries over the past 60 years were less than 15m beneath the surface, and only 10% under more than 200m of covering rock, truly in the realm blind to surface discovery (Fig. 3) – and those largely in the so-called brownfields environment, beneath or in immediate proximity to other known mineral deposits.

Geographical distribution and depth of Australian mineral discoveries –excluding bulk commodities - in relation to estimated cover thickness. Data sourced from MinExConsulting (August 2010) and Geoscience Australia. Reproduced with permission of Richard Schodde, MinEx Consulting.

Figure 3: Geographical distribution and depth of Australian mineral discoveries –excluding bulk commodities – in relation to estimated cover thickness. Data sourced from MinExConsulting (August 2010) and Geoscience Australia. Reproduced with permission of Richard Schodde, MinEx Consulting.

We can illuminate this search space then, but our efforts to date have in essence provided only a fitful firelight that can show us little more than shadows on the walls of the cave.

This limitation is widely appreciated – and extensive geoscience research and exploration targeting efforts have long been directed at improving our resolution and understanding of these faint signals – mindful certainly of the tremendous competitive advantage that any breakthrough may offer.

Instead of focusing on this narrow question of how to better detect mineralisation, however, perhaps we should be turning our attention to the critical decision making involved in targeting our drill rigs and sampling programmes in the first place. Before baiting your hook, after all, it is a good idea to address the question of whether there are any fish around. Or even any water.

This is the philosophy underpinning the Mineral Systems approach to exploration targeting – where rather than the traditional (and, to give its due, previously highly successful) methodology of characterizing an individual mineral deposit and seeking to replicate its discovery, exploration search space is instead defined by application of a rigorous conceptual model of how mineral endowment is concentrated within geological systems – incorporating understanding of the physical and chemical processes of ore fluid generation and metal solution, mobility and deposition across a range of scales. This approach focuses the explorer on mappable expressions of high quality mineralisation at the scale appropriate to the exploration decision – be that global, regional, or local. The process may not by itself identify the telltale signs of mineralisation, but the holistic view enhances the efficiency with which promising targets can be identified – and equally importantly, rapidly rules out search space where the geological fundamentals don’t line up – offering significant efficiencies to the exploration process.

Emeritus Professor David Groves – respected scientific researcher and former President of the Geological Society of Australia – articulates this concept through analogy to real estate. A rational person wouldn’t choose which house to buy on the basis of the bathroom fittings alone. No – the first thing you consider – so early in the piece that it might not usually even be thought of as a conscious choice – is the country you want to buy in. Then the state or city, then the suburb, then maybe even the street. Only at this stage would you concern yourself over which particular property to consider investing in, and it’s individual details and attractions.

It ultimately matters little how palatial the residence and impressive the swimming pool if the house is in rural Tasmania and your primary motivation is actually living close to a good school in Paris.

The power of such a holistic approach is amply demonstrated by the remarkable recent success of the petroleum exploration industry, where this style of systems-based prospectivity analysis was adopted some 30 or more years ago. It may seem hard to credit from a modern computationally intense scientific perspective – but many of the major discoveries made during the pioneering era of 20th Century petroleum exploration (think here of the Elysium fields of Texas, California, and even Saudi Arabia) were in no small part down to boots-on-the-ground prospectors recognising signs of oil and gas seeping out of the geological strata and probing for the source with an exploratory well – “I drink your milkshake”, in the evocative words of robber baron oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (an Oscar winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis) in 2007’s “There Will be Blood”.

In a classic model of needs-driven innovation, saturation coverage of accessible terrain during the later 20th century – the end of the golden age – forced the industry to change – driving exploration deeper, and making it increasingly more technologically focused and expensive to pursue. Today rather than combing the backwoods, Beverly Hillbillies style, for “a-bubbling crude”, serious exploration takes place on the back of comprehensive geological and geophysical evaluation of sedimentary basin histories and predictive modeling of petroleum evolution and migration, carried out to identify prospective search domains and provide the confidence required for the multi-million-dollar investment decision to mobilize a drill rig and sink an exploratory hole.

Okay, no more swaggering heroes and rugged individualists to lionize in cinematic tributes – no-one’s going to remake the 1943 John Wayne vehicle “War of the Wildcats” updated for the modern era as “Co-operative Joint Venture of the Balanced Risk Portfolio Exploration Drillers” any time soon – but the industry as a whole has been incredibly successful in meeting global resource needs over this period of change. And turning a more than tidy profit.

Rather than putting in more streetlamps then, the better solution to the dark frontier of mineral exploration under cover may be to follow the example of the petroleum industry here and think more carefully about where we aim the light sources we already have.

Delusions of Inadequacy: A review of Curtis White’s ‘The Science Delusion’

In the opening scenes of Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 Western parody Blazing Saddles, Burton Gilliam’s racist overseer Lyle demands that his black railroad labourers perform “a good ol’ nigger work song”. When the obliging work gang, led by Cleavon Little’s Bart, burst into an elegant a cappella version of Cole Porter’s ‘I get a kick out of you’, Lyle stops them, and he and his cowboy colleagues show them what a ‘real’ negro song is supposed to be like, with a spirited rendition of ‘De Camptown Ladies’ – complete with minstrel dancing and derogatory mispronunciation – while the black labourers look on dumbfounded, unable to relate to the racist caricature played out before them.

The stereotyping skewered so effectively in this scene bears close parallels to the views presented by Curtis White in his book ‘The Science Delusion’.

White’s stated aim is to critically examine the ‘privileged place’ of science in secular western society. His thesis though is built around a definition of ‘science’ that I fail to recognize, and a crude caricature of the scientist – a cold, detached savant unable to appreciate human emotions or true beauty – that seems to have been based largely on watching re-runs of Big Bang Theory.

Bart and his fellow convicts responding to overseer Lyle's entreaty: “Now come on boys, where's your spirit? I don't hear no singin'. When you were slaves, you sang like birds. Go on. How 'bout a good ole nigger work song?” Still image taken from Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy "Blazing Saddles".

Bart and his fellow railroad labourers responding to overseer Lyle’s entreaty: “Now come on boys, where’s your spirit? I don’t hear no singin’. When you were slaves, you sang like birds. Go on. How ’bout a good ole nigger work song?”
Still image taken from Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy “Blazing Saddles”.

At the heart of White’s failed analysis lies the equation of science with a moral and political philosophy. It isn’t enough that science produces new ideas and insights to inspire discussion – White wants to be told what to think about them, complaining that science doesn’t inform us how to judge its discoveries. “Far too many scientists”, he writes, “leave the ethical meaning of their work to people bereft of moral imagination”.

But as any serious student of science could tell you, White is tilting at windmills of his own imagination here. Science is nothing more nor less than an ordered way of assessing problems and testing ideas – a systematic approach to problem solving and self criticism. It is explicitly not a code of Bushido by which to live.

At the heart of White’s critique though is not a dislike of science itself – indeed, as becomes apparent in the later chapters of his work, White actually both understands the nature of the scientific method, and appreciates the beauty to be found in science through the challenge it poses to the existing order. Rather, the over-riding narrative is one of visceral disrespect for the practitioners of science, expressed through sweeping generalizations that if you replaced the word ‘scientists’ with ‘Asians’ might have him suspended from the faculty at Illinois State University. It got to the point where I kept expecting arguments to be prefaced by a paraphrasing of the old vituperative racist’s standby: “Don’t get me wrong – some of my best friends are scientists, but…”

It is not that White’s criticisms are entirely without merit – indeed, many of his individual targets are well chosen. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens can, as White pointedly observes, be overbearing and un-necessarily dogmatic in their commentary. Likewise, Sebastian Seung and others in the public vanguard of neuroscience do often lapse across the dividing line between science communication and science fiction. And yes, I’m comfortable conceding White’s point that many scientists – even very good ones – are probably mediocre to appalling poets, falling at the first hurdle when trying to use evocative language and imagery to capture the beauty and nuance of their work.

At the same time though, I don’t get a sense that White is looking to establish a level playing field in these regards – there is certainly no indication he would expect a poet writing on the nature of life and the universe to have a firm grasp of virology or particle physics.

Such uneven treatment is a notable and distracting element throughout the text. White calls to Tom Waits lyrics, pop culture movies, and novels as sources of rhetorical strength in his own writing, but would deny his antagonists any written form not as formally codified and structured as the 19th century German philosphical treatises he is so fond of.

White is also quick to point out sloppy structure and inadequate definition of terms in the writing of those he seeks to criticize…but then takes equal liberties himself, and all too readily forgives the linguistic sins of those whose work he would co-opt to his purposes. He takes umbrage, for example, with Jim Watkins’ description of humans as ‘products’ of evolution – suggesting with a sniff of derision that such terminology places us on a par with the output of some cosmic factory conveyor belt. A virtually identical linguistic allusion, however – the world being a ‘product’ of the self in Schelling’s philosophical arguments – is then later adopted by White himself without comment.

Such uneven handling might be forgivable in an undergraduate thesis, but White is a career wordsmith – a novelist, essayist, and academic. He obviously cares about, and has considerable mastery of, the English language – continually waving the flag for well-structured and elegant communication throughout this book – so such double standards are at best sloppy, and at worst self-serving hypocrisy.

With his fundamental thesis stretched painfully thin and his narrative structure riddled with such inconsistencies, White frequently over-reaches in seeking to generalize his individual criticisms to a comprehensive attack on the essence of science – as where he argues that because a scientist (specifically in this instance, neuroscientist Seung) has produced a bad philosophical argument, science cannot relate to philosophy or art. The logical corollary of this is that if Salman Rushdie burns the toast, writing can have no relationship to cooking.

If scientific writers and commentators have failed to appreciate the artistic and sociological implications of their ideas – and rest assured, many have – it is because of their personal inadequacies, not because of anything to do with the nature of science. There is no ‘Science Pope’ sitting on a throne issuing encyclicals about how scientists should relate to other ideas and viewpoints.

When he writes that Christopher Hitchens “reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes…[ignoring] virtually all of the real history of religious thought, as well as historical and textual scholarship”, White himself willfully overlooks the contextual framing of Hitchens’ writing. Hitchens is not offering up this critique of religion de novo, but as a deliberate counterpoint to the historically promulgated view that we should think only of the positive philosophical and sociological functions of religion, and ignore the darker side of its use as a justification for war, social injustice, and other abuses.

Hitchens and Dawkins are not writing to engage with the enlightened philosophers and thinkers of the world. The two are the bulldogs of the humanist viewpoint deliberately setting out to take on and worry the one eyed commentators expounding conservative religious polemics and attempting to dominate the cultural airwaves. Rather than taking the moral high ground by constructing an artful, comprehensive and syntactically complete thesis and sitting back to watch it be ignored or misrepresented by their opponents, they plunge in with the rhetoric of broad engagement – taking on their intellectual opponents in hand-to-hand combat.

I might not approve of everything Dawkins says, but I am grateful for his occupation of this position. Dawkins is the Charles Bronson of scientific writers – an enforcer out there brawling in the street to control the baying mob so the rest of us can get on with our work.

By far the most distracting of White’s narrative straw men though is his placement of words into the mouths of his intellectual sparring partners to make them into obvious cartoonish buffoons, so that he can then ride to the rhetorical rescue with a devastating rejoinder. Yes, I know the Socratic dialogue (an imagined discussion with a naive or foolish companion) is a valid and effective rhetorical device with a long and rich history in Philosophy – one I appeal to myself on occasion. I’m just not sure that Socrates ever used the approach to so transparently belittle his contemporaries or score cheap personal points. Fundamentally, to paraphrase US Senator Lloyd Bensen in his 1988 Vice-presidential debate smack-down of Dan Quayle: Professor White, you’re no Socrates.

Putting foolish words into the mouth of your opponent does not enhance your own intellectual credibility. Reproduced from Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip, originally published January 18th, 1987.

Putting foolish words into the mouth of your opponent does not enhance your own intellectual credibility. Reproduced from Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip, originally published January 18th, 1987.

Behind the claims to an intellectual high ground, White’s true motivation perhaps emerges as something closer to sour grapes in a series of unguarded comments around the demarcation he sees between science and what he would stake out as his own home ground – art and literature.

He criticises Hitchens’ “privileged position on the New York Times best-seller list” as if this was some hereditary title Hitchens had unfairly usurped from its rightful holder, and complains of science “being given every kind of opportunity to make its case to the public, including high-tech presentations and best selling books”, while philosophers sit unread and unremarked upon on unvisited library shelves. White seems to imagine there are an endless array of publishers and TV commissioning editors beating down the door of theoretical physicists desperate for new books on their work and its relationship to the fabric of reality. In the real world though, I’m afraid that if Schelling and his fellow academic philosophers can’t get their own TV series, its not because those nasty scientists have formed a cabal to dominate the Western cultural conversation and black listed them.

In seeking to establish the boundaries between the qualities of art and science, White speaks of transcendence – but his framing of the term is deeply flawed. His juxtaposition of Beethoven with the industrial design team at Proctor and Gamble is manifestly ludicrous (although not as over the top as his analogy of the company motto “GE: Imagination at work” with the historically laden Nazi concentration camp slogan “arbeit macht frei”). Under such a framing we might equally compare Isaac Newton with George Formby to establish (with apologies to fans of “When I’m Cleaning Windows”) a countervailing majestry of science over art.

If ‘art’ is the common factor, White would lump together the good, bad and indifferent – Beethoven, Picasso, and Hitchcock with internet memes and LOL cats. It is actually the transcendence of genius of which his examples speak, and I would be far more generous than White in my attribution of this to other fields. Contrary to his criticism, there is unquestionably a form of genius in convincing an already overweight, well-fed consumer that they really want to eat a hamburger right now. Or in convincing an intelligent human being to take up a habit like smoking when they know it will shorten and decrease the quality of their life. Yes, it may be an evil genius…but genius, none the less.

White’s view ultimately comes across as narrowly bourgeois – creation is only worthwhile if it occurs in the critical space occupied by he and his coterie. Things that touch, move, or inspire the masses are worthless. We (I would happily include myself among White’s great unwashed masses) are not even allowed to appreciate and value art unless it’s for the reasons he wants us to. According to White the ‘wrong’ view of art “is the assumption now even of arts councils and, as far as I know, the artists they fund.”

The artists they fund? Did I mention the odour of sour grapes?

Wow. So now its not just the scientists, but a conspiracy running right to the heart of the all-powerful arts council Illuminati! Did White have Dan Brown ghost write this chapter?

With presumably unintended irony, the nature of what I would define as science is actually not far removed from White’s phrasing of Schiller’s definition of art: “It refuses the world as something already determined…[offering] a welcoming openness to change”.

I find myself suspecting that a much more positive contribution to public discourse could have been laid on this foundation, but if White’s fundamental drive is to encourage active thought and challenging of ideas in society, this book has probably done a good job of alienating a substantial slice of his potential constituency – namely those critical thinkers who would describe themselves as scientists.

Therein lies the tragedy of this work – I know I’m not White’s target audience…but I could have been. There are many areas in which I have some sympathy with White. I share his appreciation for the Romantic spirit – with the best art (like the best science) to be found in the overturning of paradigms, and the challenging of comfortable authorities.

And when he can rise above the vitriol and histrionics, he’s a good writer – even with a pleasingly dry sense of humour. Anyone who can skewer his opponent’s philosophical knowledge with the pithy “Dawkins knows sweet nothing about Foucault” has my utmost respect. Yes, this does rely on a mispronunciation of Foucault, but I imagine you’re there well ahead of me on this one.

Part of me even thinks it might well be enjoyable to share a bottle of good wine with White and talk about his ideas…but in the face of his espoused views on scientists, I fear this might be a bit like Louis Armstrong sitting down for a chat with Benito Mussolini – a big fan of jazz music according to his son Romano, but otherwise unlikely to have much common ground with the great African-American musician.

At the end of all the analysis I find myself left, disappointingly, as Bart – the hero of Blazing Saddles – looking on bemused from the sideline as White crow dances and sings his minstrel song of science – ultimately showing more about his own biased views than offering any kind of serious analysis.

A Nice Glass of Montepulciano: Risk, Lies, and Politics in the L’Aquila Earthquake

“the scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable”.

Bernardo De Bernardinis, dismissing the risk of a major earthquake at L’Aquila on March 31, 2009…5 days before 309 people died in a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in the city.

De Bernardinis – together with senior Italian scientists Enzo Boschi, Giulio Selvaggi, Franco Barberi, Claudio Eva, Mauro Dolce, and Gian Michele Calvi – ultimately had cause to regret the flippancy he displayed in this press conference. As has been widely reported the seven, then members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were found guilty of manslaughter in an ensuing trial and sentenced to 6 years in prison.

That outcome is still under appeal, but this case and its ramifications continue to reverberate through the world of science.

Like many the world over, I was stunned and outraged by the verdict in October last year (see my original blog post Fairy Tales on Shaky Ground – Scientific understanding and the Italian court system – WordPress 25/10/2012). That original response though was not a proud moment in my record as a researcher and analyst. My rush to public pronouncement before I had gathered the full facts of the case could almost have come straight from the 2GB talk radio playbook.

Having had cause to look further into the trial and its participants over the ensuing months, while I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve undergone a Damascene conversion, I have come to appreciate that this case is more nuanced and complex than I had originally assumed…and a much more compelling tale for that.

To dismiss a red herring up front: this was never about earthquake prediction. The seven were not prosecuted – as many commentators in the English-speaking press initially suggested – for failing to forecast the earthquake, or for neglecting to advise the evacuation of the city. Rather, the case was brought for undermining public safety by providing – in the words of Fabio Picuti, the public prosecutor in the case – “inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information” about the dangers of seismic activity occurring in L’Aquila in the weeks leading up to April 2009.

The L’Aquila earthquake was no bolt from the blue. As we can see in this map, L’Aquila lies at the heart of one of the zones of highest seismic risk in the tectonically active Italian peninsula – and as I noted in my earlier blog, the city has been devastated by earthquakes on no fewer than 7 recorded historical occasions, dating back to 1315.

Earthquake Hazard Map for the Italian Peninsula, showing the peak ground acceleration with a 10% probability of being exceeded in 50 years. For reference, a ground acceleration of 0.001g is perceptible by people, at 0.02g people can lose their balance, and at 0.1g light property damage can be expected. Produced by the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, 2005.

Earthquake Hazard Map for the Italian Peninsula, showing the peak ground acceleration with a 10% probability of being exceeded in 50 years. For reference, a ground acceleration of 0.001g is perceptible by a careful observer, at 0.02g people can lose their balance, and at 0.1g light property damage can be expected. Produced by the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, 2005.

In the face of this record, it’s no wonder that public concern was high when a series of significant seismic tremors were felt in the city during the spring of 2009. This concern was further sharpened by the pronouncements – widely condemned in the scientific community – of laboratory technician Giampaolo Giuliani, who attracted wide publicity with his claims that variations in radon gas levels indicated an imminent large earthquake in the area.

Against this climate of public anxiety, the seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – the L’Aquila Seven, as they have become widely labelled – were given the task of evaluating the risk these tremors represented, and duly met in the tense and shaky city on March 31st, 2009.

According to Giulio Selvaggi – a member of that ill-starred seven, and director of the Italian National Earthquake Centre – the scientific consensus expressed at the meeting was anything but reassuring. “If you live in L’Aquila, even if there’s no swarm [of earthquakes],” Selvaggi is on record as saying, “you can never say, ‘No problem.’ You can never say that in a high-risk region.” Notably, Selvaggi’s claim of appropriate caution and respect for uncertainty among the scientists on the panel is supported by the official minutes of the proceedings.

So how did this message of watchful preparedness become De Bernardinis’ dismissive ‘the scientists say don’t worry your pretty little heads about it’?

Therein turns the tale.

You’d struggle to suspend disbelief if this turned up in a Dan Brown pot boiler, but the narrative gods smile upon us here. It turns out that De Bernardinis’ then boss – Guido Bertolaso, Director of the Italian Civil Defense committee – was having his phone tapped by the police at the time this episode was unfolding (due to unrelated ongoing corruption investigations…ah, Italy, land of simple honest folk and open government).

In setting up the Commission meeting with L’Aquila town councilor Daniela Stati, Bertolaso was recorded as saying:

“So they, the best seismology experts, will say: “This is normal, these phenomena happen. It is better to have 100 level 4 Richter scale tremors rather than nothing. Because 100 tremors are useful for dispersing energy, so there will never be the dangerous quake. Do you understand?”

Remember, this is the day before the Commission meeting in L’Aquila.

Sound familiar? It should – that’s pretty much point for point the story De Bernardinis offered at the post-meeting press conference – as quoted in the introduction to this post.

Warming to his ‘keep calm and carry on’ message, when asked by a journalist at that press conference if the public should sit back and enjoy a glass of wine rather than worry about earthquakes, De Bernardinis famously replied: “Absolutely, absolutely, a Montepulciano” – playing to the gallery in favouring that deep-hued rustic red from the local Abruzzo region.

“Absolutely, absolutely, a Montepulciano” – words that came back to haunt spokesman Bernardo De Bernardinis.

De Bernardinis has subsequently claimed that he was merely trying to summarise the view of the scientists at the meeting – but his erstwhile colleagues dispute this strongly. There is no mention of the ‘seismic discharge’ idea in the official minutes, and Boschi, Selvaggi and the other indicted scientists stated unequivocally during the trial that De Bernardinis was making remarks along these lines before the Commission proceedings even got underway.

The balance of evidence then would appear to indicate that those scientifically invalid, overly reassuring comments were essentially a scripted message De Bernardinis had been sent along with by his political master – with the meeting laid out as nothing more than an elaborate public relations event to dismiss the concerns of the local residents.

Indeed, as a PR exercise, the initial press conference was an unqualified success…and it is to that ‘success’ that the L’Aquila Seven owe their subsequent prosecution. To quote Simona Giannangeli, a lawyer representing 8 bereaved families in the court case:

“You could almost hear a sigh of relief go through the town. It was repeated almost like a mantra: the more tremors, the less danger.”

Calming mantra it may have been. Sadly, it was also fatally inaccurate. Minor tremors do not pre-sage a significant earthquake in any meaningful way…but nor do they lessen the risk as De Bernardinis had implied.

That fateful statement was ultimately costly for many, with the trial judge recognising ‘a direct causal link’ between those comforting pronouncements on behalf of the Commission and the deaths of 29 victims – largely residents who are reported to have forgone, expressly on the basis of the Commission’s reassurances, their traditional precautionary response of sleeping outdoors, or hurrying outside at the first sign of a tremor.

De Bernardinis looks pretty bad in all this – as does his former boss Bertolaso, who many commentators have suggested should have joined the seven men in the dock. What of the other six though – the scientific members of the Commission. Are they just blameless dupes, unfairly ensnared by the machinations of a Machiavellian public servant?

Where my view has changed on this point is that now, regrettably, I think not.

Don’t get me wrong here – I don’t for a moment consider that culpability for manslaughter is something that can reasonably be laid at their door – Selvaggi and his colleagues were just one link in a long chain of causation and negligence leading to the many tragic outcomes in this episode. Where the snow-white credibility of the group starts to drift though is that these were not just 6 scientists meeting in the cafe over a glass of wine (Montepulciano or not) to discuss the situation. This was a legally constituted committee of experts, convened in L’Aquila by the Italian government specifically to address not just the seismic risk itself, but public perceptions of that risk.

Franco Barberi, a volcanologist at the University of Rome and the Commission’s then-vice-president, stood alongside De Bernardinis at that March press conference. He could have turned to his colleague and said – in impeccably stylish Italian phrasing of course – “Whoa up there Bernardo, which meeting were you just at, ‘cos that’s not what we were saying.”

Okay though, let’s give Barberi a free pass on that one for now – anyone can be ambushed, caught off-balance in the glare of the spotlight, after all. But Barberi and the other members of the committee then had every opportunity to think over De Bernardinis’ widely reported comments in the following days – to see how they were being presented by the media, and the effect they were having on public opinion and actions. If they felt that the statements were inaccurate or inappropriate, they could have made their feelings known and corrected the apparent mis-representations for the benefit of the people of L’Aquila.

None of them did.

Any of the 6 scientists could have, at any point in the next 5 days, put out a press release saying “actually, that stuff that’s being reported in the papers, that’s (a) scientifically inaccurate, and (b) not a reflection of what we concluded at the meeting” or – and this is the important one – “remember, earthquakes can’t be reliably predicted, and L’Aquila is in a zone of high seismic risk – all residents should take whatever precautions they feel are appropriate any time they are concerned about tremors”. That’s all it would have taken.

But they didn’t.

Instead the 309 victims of the L’Aquila earthquake went to their graves that April night believing that the falsely comforting words offered by De Bernardinis at the press conference carried the imprimatur of Selvaggi and the other scientists on the committee.

Here is where the fault lies for the scientists. Their willingness to abrogate responsibility for the discussion of seismic risk and scientific uncertainty to De Bernardinis – the one non-scientist on the Commission panel that March evening, let’s not forget – is like the Chief Financial Officer of a major corporation handing off the presentation of the accounts to the head of public relations.

While our metaphorical PR executive should, we would hope, be competent in their own field, they may lack the expertise and authority to speak for the financial state of the company…and worse they could well – as De Bernardinis clearly did – have their own agenda to push. If things then go all GFC and the company’s financial report turns out to have been an artful construction of smoke and mirrors, the responsibility ultimately comes back to the CFO for their inappropriate delegation and dereliction of duty. If you’re the one who lets ‘the smartest guys in the room’ get away with it, you ultimately have to share the fall out – just ask David Duncan, former Lead Partner for the Enron account at the (equally former) Arthur Andersen accounting firm.

Perhaps the final word though should go to public prosecutor Fabio Picuti:

“I’m not crazy. I know they can’t predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L’Aquila. They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors, and they did not.”

Sticky Fingers: Changing Old Noise to New Data in the Course of Scientific Discovery

“I suppose you won’t be able to find one of your famous Clues on the thing?”

“Shouldn’t think so, sir. Not with all these fingerprints on it.”

Terry Pratchett, “Feet of Clay”

Captured in Pratchett’s satirical writing here is a key concept underpinning the advancement of science: In recognising the deficiencies of our understanding, we identify pathways to more fundamental, deeper insight.

If you might indulge me in illustrating this concept: The science of geochronology is only a little over a hundred years old. The genesis of this field – the direct measurement of the age of Earth materials in the millions and even billions of years, putting a timescale to the grinding wheels of geological process – is probably traceable most directly to the New Zealander (albeit that we should add the prefix ‘Colonial’ to that label, given he undertook his post-graduate education and scientific career at Cambridge University in Britain) Ernest Rutherford – one of the great figures of 19th and early 20th century physics. Scientists don’t often ascend to the pantheon of cultural heroes, so the fact that Rutherford’s distinguished portrait graces the $50 note of his country of birth is probably as effective a mark as any of the degree to which he bestrode the world stage, and the respect in which he is still held.

With his finger on the scientific pulse of the Edwardian age – and in particular the atomic theory at the heart of his own cutting-edge research – Rutherford was quick to appreciate the significance of the new phenomenon of radioactivity discovered by his contemporaries Marie and Pierre Curie. In the words of the great man himself:

“The helium observed in the radioactive minerals is almost certainly due to its production from the radium and other radioactive substances contained therein. If the rate of production of helium from known weights of the different radioelements were experimentally known, it should thus be possible to determine the interval required for the production of the amount of helium observed in radioactive minerals, or, in other words, to determine the age of the mineral.”

Ernest Rutherford – Silliman Lectures at Yale, 1905

With those words, a scientific revolution began.

Rutherford quickly set to work encouraging collaborators in the fields of chemistry, physics, and geology to put that principle into practice, but it didn’t take long for the community to recognise that his original elegant concept wasn’t going to be the simple path to greater knowledge that they had hoped for. The problem was that helium – the simple, easily extracted product of radioactive alpha decay – wasn’t fully retained in the mineral structures they were testing. In the words of John Strutt, one of the key figures in this early research:

“[helium ages provide only] minimum values, because helium leaks out from the mineral, to what extent it is impossible to say.”

R. J. Strutt (1910), Proceedings of the Royal Society of London

Some process – unknown at the time – was allowing the helium to escape from the crystals. Like a water clock with a leak in it then, there was no true fundamental way to calculate age from the system.

The key to our story here is that the contemporary paradigm to which these scientists were working was that the only age that mattered was the time at which a sample crystallised – nothing else entered their world view. When helium dating returned values that were clearly far too young and inconsistent to reflect such formation ages, the method was consequently abandoned, with the scientific community pursuing other isotopic systems – notably the pairing of uranium isotopes with their ultimate stable decay product of lead – as the pathway to temporal understanding of Earth evolution.

90 years later at the turn of the 21st century though, helium dating was back on the scene and a hot property (quite literally, as it turns out – but more of that later) in the field of geochronology – and it remains so right up to the present day. Why? Have we just forgotten the lessons of the past?

To understand the answer to that question, you need to appreciate that an isotopic ‘age’ is fundamentally just a ratio of chemical species – namely the abundance of a radioactive parent isotope – the ticking clock of the system – and the product of its decay within your sample. Ultimately, this is just a number – nothing more or less…unless you have a physical event you can relate that number to. If I toss you a rock and say “this rock is 7,000 years old” – what does that mean? Is it 7,000 years since the rock crystallised? 7,000 years since it was knocked from a large boulder upstream? That it has spent 7,000 years tumbling back and forth in the surf? 7,000 years lying on the beach? All these ‘ages’ might have meaning – telling us something interesting about the history of this particular sample – but unless you know which one I mean, the manifold possibilities obscure the potential insight.

Nice looking piece of rock - so how old is it? And how would we tell?

Nice looking piece of rock – so how old is it? And how would we tell?

To address this confusion from the perspective of helium, let’s drill down from the scale of rocks and hammers to the sub-microscopic world of a crystal lattice. The comforting solidity and discrete character of the everyday is replaced by a dynamic constellation of atomic structures held in place by overlapping and interfering clouds of electrons and opposing forces – a seething maelstrom of movement and change. As those particles spin and vibrate, the force balances governing their interactions rise and fall, bonds parting and re-forming in the blink of a conceptual eye as their stability waxes and wanes. Take a moment to watch this video clip from Dr Erik Laegsgaard at Aarhus University.

Scanning Tunneling Microscope imagery of atomic-scale diffusion in titanium dioxide, created by Dr Erik Laegsgaard, Aarhus University. Recorded at 300 degrees Kelvin, and at 8.6 seconds/frame.

Each of those glowing orange orbs is actually an atom of oxygen resolved by advanced scanning tunnelling microscopy of a sample of titanium dioxide. To my thinking, this movie is mind blowing – this is not a cartoon, or a fancy computer model – this is an actual resolved record of real individual atoms, in solid material, at room temperature. Reflect for a moment on just how we see those atoms behave as the movie advances through time. Rather than locked in place like mosaic tiles set in mortar, they skitter back and forth – momentarily held in the embrace of one bond, but then twisting away across the crystalline dance floor to some new partnership. The movement is random and unpredictable – particles as likely to jump one way as any other.

This atomic diffusion is what was responsible for Strutt’s anomalous ‘leakage’. Although the movements are individually random, if you’re building up an increased concentration of something (as with the helium produced by alpha decay in the example of our geochronometer), then you’re statistically more likely to have those random movements going out of the radioactive crystal structure than into it. It follows that this diffusion will prevent the build up of your daughter product (helium), keeping the isotopic age stuck stubbornly at zero.

So how then do we stop diffusion happening and allow our ticking clocks to record time? How do we set the geological stopwatch running? The simple answer is temperature – you cool things down. The rate at which diffusion occurs is proportional to temperature raised to an exponential power. In essence, this means that even a small change in temperature leads to a very large change in diffusivity, and the transition from rapid diffusion – so rapid that all the daughter product produced by radioactive decay is lost – to negligible diffusion where all that daughter product is retained – occurs across a very narrow temperature range.

Rather than the aberrant or spoiled data Strutt took them to be then, helium ages, once we understand this process and calibrate its thermal sensitivity, become sensitive records of the temperature change associated with dynamic geological history.

How does this help us?

When Gil Grissom finds a gun at the scene of a murder in CSI (yes, I know Grissom left the show after series 9, but I always thought he had excellent style as an on-screen scientist, and geologically speaking, his tenure is pretty much still within error of the present), his first thought isn’t “I must find out how old this gun is” – no – there are far more dynamic aspects of the weapon’s history he would like to see resolved. When was it bought? How long ago was it fired? Who pulled the trigger?

Similarly, if we focus purely on the crystallisation age of our samples, as Strutt, Rutherford, and their contemporaries were, there are many potential insights we will miss.

When were our samples last thrust beneath the crushing weight of an uplifting mountain range? When did they last feel the rush of superheated steam carrying rich mineral endowment through subterranean fluid conduits, or the frictional warmth induced by an active fault boundary radiating through the crust? When did erosion wear away its weighty overburden to exhume our rock from the hot interior of the Earth? With the thermal ages provided by helium dating and its correlatives, these dynamic episodes come within our grasp.

What was simply noise becomes, when we understand and can translate its origin, a sensitive new record of dynamic geological processes.

Unlike Pratchett’s protagonists, our FBI database is ready, and the fingerprints of geological systems are waiting to reveal themselves to our careful detective work.

Gold in the Custard – Hidden Elephants and the Art of Mineral Exploration

Why do elephants paint their feet yellow?

So they can hide upside down in the custard.

Although I confess a fondness for such absurdist humour, even I have to admit that this joke is pretty much pitched at a level such that only someone under the age of six could truly enjoy it for its comedic value. If you will indulge me though, it does possess a kind of simple beauty that can serve to illustrate a useful concept for us. The image of someone failing to recognize an elephant in their custard is both vivid, and clearly ludicrous – painted feet or not. But hold on there a second – let’s pursue that particular surrealist idea down the rabbit hole to see how deep it goes. What if, perchance, you’d been warned about those devious pachyderms and their propensity for hiding on the dessert cart, and you were so busy checking for them that you were trampled to death by a wildebeest that had camouflaged itself behind the rhubarb?

Consider the process of mineral exploration. There are very few parts of the world where you can genuinely be the first person to explore the landscape and assess its potential mineral endowment. Others have almost invariably been there before you, evaluated the economic potential of the geology, and moved on. The art of exploration then is to find things that others have overlooked – or perhaps not even known how to look for. To look at the landscape in a different way.

The discovery of the rich Telfer mine in northern Australia presents a salient example here.

Telfer’s mineral endowment is hosted in ancient sediments folded into a series of elongated domes, the strata dipping away in all directions. Structures like this are sometimes referred to as dolphin-backs for their resemblance to one of our cetacean friends breaking the surface of the water – an apt metaphor here given the whale-like size of the mineral resource. Although also host to significant copper and appreciable silver, it’s gold for which Telfer is best known – and in respect of that commodity the deposit is truly world class, with around 10 million ounces of gold produced to date and another 20 million in the ground in the currently defined resource. Surely a jewel in any portfolio, and one of the most productive mines in Australia throughout the past 25 years.

Aerial oblique view of the Telfer Dome in 1976, prior to the start of major excavations of the deposit. Image is drawn from the archives of Newcrest Mining Limited, and was published in Ferguson et al. (2005) - 'Mineral Occurrences and Exploration Potential of the Paterson Area' - Report 97 of the GSWA.

Aerial oblique view of the Telfer Dome in 1976, prior to the start of major excavations of the deposit. Image is drawn from the archives of Newcrest Mining Limited, and was published in Ferguson et al. (2005) – ‘Mineral Occurrences and Exploration Potential of the Paterson Area’ – Report 97 of the GSWA.

By official reckoning though, at least three resource companies evaluated the Telfer deposit and walked away before Newmont Australia made the call and pegged it. How could they have missed this opportunity?

Therein lies the tale.

As with many major finds from the glory days of trail-blazing back country prospectors, the details of Telfer’s discovery have always been a little murky, and remain vigorously argued in some quarters up to the present day. What is not in debate, however, is that the first non-indigenous explorer to recognise the dome and consider its mineral potential was a Frenchman named Jean-Paul Turcaud, back in 1971.

Turcaud, had he but realised, was probably nine tenths of the way to what surely would have been a discovery of epic scale for an independent prospector, and rendered him an Australian legend, perhaps even a fitting subject for a heroic movie. Hollywood producers would have loved the story of a pioneering iconoclast who single-handedly opened up a whole new mineral province. Of course, they would have tried to make the main character American, and given him a wise-cracking but essentially lovable sidekick – but if the Turcaud of our alternate reality – his ‘Sliding Doors’ moment having gone the other way – balked at these narrative improvements, he could just have financed the film himself.

Turcaud recognised the spectacular folded form of Telfer’s dome structures, and appreciated the potential influence of such geological architecture on the concentration of ore minerals. He sampled the gossans – weathered remnants of mineralised veins – that ringed the amphitheatre of the main dome – including the spectacular 10m thick horizon that later became the economic heart of the Telfer mine – and then he took his observations (and his samples) to the major mining companies acting in Australia at the time, a couple of whom – Western Mining Corporation and Anglo American – were interested enough to come up into the remote country, inland from Port Hedland in the far north of Western Australia, with the field-hardened Frenchman and look over the ground for themselves.

But they all passed on the opportunity. They literally walked the ground over one of the largest gold deposits ever discovered in this country – a deposit already broken open by erosion and exposed at the surface like an earthworm popping up at a convention of hungry sparrows. They sampled the major ore-bearing horizons, had them assayed for their mineral content…and then walked away saying “not for me thanks Jean-Paul”. Why?

Because they forgot about the possibility of the wildebeest in the rhubarb.

Neither Turcaud nor – perhaps more indictably – the corporate geologists he took to the prospect, checked their samples for gold. Seriously.

Turcaud viewed the rich potential of the ground at Telfer with blinkers on, intellectually weighed down by a restrictive exploration model focused around base metals – copper, nickel, zinc, lead – the mineral darlings of the age, driving an exploration boom in Australia in the early 1970s. He was assuredly an excellent prospector – rugged, driven, and with enough understanding to appreciate the potential of good ground when he saw it. But he wasn’t a scientist, and lacked the curiosity and depth of knowledge that might have allowed him to make a leap of insight and realise that he was, quite literally, standing on a gold mine.

To be charitable, this might not be such an obvious failure as it seems at first viewing. Although there is significant coarse gold in the oxidised surface layers of the deposit, most of the gold at Telfer is so fine grained as to be invisible to the naked eye, and locked up inside sulphide minerals – principally pyrite. A real trick for young players then – the gold is IN the fools gold.

Never the less, it does represent an epic failure of imagination – pretty much the geological equivalent of checking your boots for scorpions and then being bitten on the toe by a red back spider. Any exploration geologist worth their salt could have picked up the presence of the coarse gold in 10 minutes by panning the streams dissecting the dome. And should have done if they had even contemplated the possibility.

So just how much gold was there?

Well, the question isn’t quite as simple as that – it’s not just a case arriving in the Great Sandy Desert with an armoured car and loading it up with bullion. Mining is an industrial process – in both its scale and its essential form. First and foremost, you need the capability of moving massive quantities of rock. Even at the appreciable grades touching 10g of gold per tonne they were taking off at Telfer in the first year of operations, you’re still talking about almost 3 tonnes of rock for every ounce of gold – and that’s just the ore. On top of that there’s all the overburden you need to strip off to get to that paydirt. So you’re talking about putting in serious infrastructure – roads or rail lines to move material and people in and out, accommodation for a workforce, water – and waste water treatment facilities – crushing plants and treatment mills to extract the minerals, and tailings dams to hold the processing waste.

When the money men who make such decisions green-light the massive investment spend on this kind of a project, it’s usually based on some serious forward planning around recovering costs and moving into nett profitability over the course of many years to decades. Once they broke ground at Telfer, Newmont Australia made back their capital costs within 10 months…at a gold price averaging around $US90 per ounce. Yes, there’s not a zero missing there. Looking from the perspective of gold currently fetching somewhere north of $US1600 an ounce, you get an idea of just what a rich prize this deposit was.

We’re not done yet though – the true beauty of Telfer as a cautionary tale is that it also provides us with an act 2 – an example of scientific exploration done the right way.

Having located their whale, Newmont pursued the logical follow up questions with vigour – where has all this gold come from? And how do we find some more?

One of the earliest major targets they identified was a granite body just beneath the surface, a few km to the south of Telfer. Gold mineralisation is commonly associated with intrusive rocks in one way or another, so the recognition of this granite in their geophysical surveys piqued the interest of the company’s exploration team – could this be the goose that had laid Telfer’s golden egg?

Well, no, unfortunately that particular idea didn’t work out. Not only is the granite very low in contained gold – too low to produce a significant ore deposit – it is also younger than the mineralised veins at Telfer, so there is no way it could have been involved in their development.

The morally uplifting kick to the parable though is that when they came up empty on their gold model, Newmont didn’t just pack up their drill stems and go home. No – they scanned the horizon to see what other beasts could be lurking on the dessert table, assaying their samples for a broad range of elements that might be carried by granitic magma. And lo and behold, it turned out they had drilled into one of the world’s largest tungsten deposits – a deposit now looking all the more strategically attractive for being one of the few major sources of this industrially important element outside Chinese control.

Turns out that even when you’re absolutely sure there are no scorpions in your boots, it might just pay to give them an extra shake.

Statement of interest – My position at the University of Western Australia is funded by a research contract with Newcrest Mining Limited, the current owners of the Telfer deposit.

Rosetta Stones and Rugged Men

The Rosetta Stone - prize exhibit of the British Museum...and extended scientific metaphor.

The Rosetta Stone – prize exhibit of the British Museum…and extended scientific metaphor.

There are all kinds of arguments to be made about the imperial history that saw Britain amass the huge treasure trove housed in the British Museum, and whether ‘finders keepers’ should actually be a valid point of international law. Unarguably though, this collection is one of the most glorious and inspiring concentrations of culturally significant historical artifacts in the world. And amongst all this splendour, the most visited antiquity is not some golden treasure or grand architectural marvel – but a simple carved slab of rock – the Rosetta Stone.

This artifact has been displayed behind protective glass since 2000, but when I first visited the museum in the simpler (or perhaps more naive) days of the previous century, the stone was tantalisingly exposed to the world, lying in a steel cradle where I could have reached out to gently touch its ancient surface, had I been so inclined.

The stone itself is a slab of dark, fairly fine-grained granodiorite, a broken fragment of a previously larger tablet inscribed with a decree issued by Ptolemy V in 196 BC, commemorating his ascension to the Egyptian throne. Neither the elegant solidity of the stone though, nor the content of the inscription, explain why this piece is so inspirational and universally recognised.

Instead, the Rosetta Stone has entered our lexicon as the ultimate cypher – the key to breaking the deepest of codes – reviving a dead language.

The Ancient Egyptians were a famously literate society. We’re not talking the mass literacy of the modern world of course, with only around 1% of the population – at a generous estimate – able to read and write. This is a rate put to shame by even modern laggard states like Burkina Faso, where literacy extends to 21.8% of the population – the lowest rate in the world by current UN reckoning. Egypt’s 1% though stand out through the mists of history for having produced, among other milestones in the development of civilization, one of the earliest true traditions of narrative literature, recorded in an array of letters, poems, and commemorative autobiographical texts celebrating the careers of prominent officials. Beyond these temple walls and epic monumental writings of storied fame though, the Egyptians also left a record of the day-to-day function of their highly ordered society – of harvests and recipes, contracts and legal disputes – on papyri and tablets that have withstood the ravages of time in the hot dry climate of the Nile valley and its surrounding deserts to preserve a historical record of the ancient world unique in its depth and completeness.

The important element for our story though is that when first re-discovered by the explorers and enquirers of an enlightened Europe intent on understanding and controlling (and returning to our opening discussion of the British Museum, often exporting) the mysteries of the world, this treasured store of information was locked away – hidden, denied to the hopeful scholars – behind the apparently impenetrable barrier of lost language – with understanding of both hieroglyphic (the famed pictographic writing of Pharonic tombs and Hollywood blockbusters) and the simpler written version of Ancient Egyptian erased by the shifting sands of time.

Where the Rosetta Stone enters the picture is that it’s message of glory and divine rule is inscribed not once, but three times, in three different languages – those two lost Egyptian scripts and, crucially, the very much alive (at least for upper class educated Europeans of the 19th century who had been to the right schools) ancient Greek – for which we can thank the fact that the Ptolemaic Dynasty was actually founded by Macedonian general Ptolemy Soter, who installed himself as ruler of Egypt in the carve-up of Alexander the Great’s empire in 323BC. Even in its broken state (none of the three versions of the inscription is complete), this combination provided a starter kit for the eventual translation of the previously lost Egyptian languages. The Rosetta Stone, in essence, provided a single example of spectacular clarity that made sense of a much larger array of other information, unlocking that vast catalogue of previously indecipherable records.

The concept of a cypher along these lines is not uncommon in observational science. We often look to sites and specimens where relationships or natural processes seem expressed with unusual clarity or simplicity in order to illustrate our ideas or to use as the basis of discussion.

This is certainly not a new idea when it comes to theories regarding the nature of geological systems – indeed, it’s as old as the science of Geology itself. James Hutton – the 18th century Scottish polymath who surely boasts a claim as strong as any to be the intellectual father of this field – didn’t try to explain his ideas on the dynamics of the world by picking up the nearest pebble. On the contrary – he was renowned for taking friends and dignitaries on field trips to view exceptional exposures he had located that seemed to present particularly clear examples of the phenomena he was discussing. His Rosetta Stones.

Even today, we look to such unusual examples where the complexity and vagaries of natural history seem momentarily brushed aside to reveal unambiguous evidence of a physical process in action.

The corollary to the importance of such examples though is the critical question – where should we look for our Rosetta Stones? To give away the ending here, the smart money is on “anywhere and everywhere”…but this measured insight often proves surprisingly difficult to impart. Rather, there is a persistent belief among many in the profession that the importance of an outcrop is (or at least, with a plaintive appeal to cosmic justice, should be) in inverse proportion to the ease with which it can be accessed.

Release a group of Geology students into the wild on a mapping exercise – especially, it should be said, young male students, and their first reaction usually isn’t to sit down and plan an efficient programme of work. It’s to decamp to the highest, most rugged, least accessible area of the field.

At the heart of this challenge lies some pretty fundamental human psychology. We love stories – and whatever we might tell ourselves, we spend much of our lives with an ear half tuned to an internal narrative of how our actions stack up. “I had to ford the river in spate, vanquish the dragon, then climb to the highest room in the tallest tower” is simply more appealing than “well, I just poked about under the bush and there it was.”

Which leads me to the rugged man maxim – an empirical law derived from observation of generations of young Earth Science students in action. In its purest form, this represents a belief that the most important outcrop in a district – the most informative, the most significant to unravelling the ambiguous twists and turns of geological history – will be found at its pole of inaccessibility: the hardest point to reach.

Besides giving rise to a host of sore and sun-burnt students though, does the Rugged Man Maxim stack up when it comes to results? All those trips I took as field trip leader to Andalucian Accident and Emergency departments trying to help testosterone-fuelled young men explain in broken Spanish just where the thorns were lodged – were they actually associated with greater understanding on the part of the bandaged apprentice geologists, and higher marks in their mapping projects?

I think we all already know the answer to that question.

Certainly, physically and logistically challenging fieldwork can produce results of great significance and enrich our understanding of fundamental questions. But the importance of a locality does not derive from its accessibility or spectacular grandeur – it is incidental to it.

The Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 by paleontologist Charles Dolittle Walcott in a remote mountain pass, high in the Canadian Rockies. The exquisitely preserved 505 million year old fossils extracted from this spectacular wilderness setting – as far from the Madding Crowd as you could hope to find yourself – provided a new window on life in the ancient Cambrian oceans – a Rosetta Stone that changed and enhanced our understanding of a host of other, less complete and more poorly preserved fossil fauna.

At the other end of the scale, you can get to the La Brea Tar Pits in urban Los Angeles on the Metro Rail – but that doesn’t stop the Pleistocene fossil fauna preserved in the tar being any less inspiring and scientifically significant in its own way, as the best known and most exquisitely preserved record of the extinct mammalian megafauna of North America.

Neither methodical and thorough investigation nor boundless investment are guarantees of significant discovery, and equally, sometimes it really is simply enough to be in the right place at the right time – as in 1928 when William P. “Punch” Jones and his father were playing horseshoes in Peterstown, West Virginia, and happened to turn up a 34.48 carat alluvial diamond, the largest such gem found in the United States to date.

Fundamentally, there is no justice in the layout of the world and its geological treasures. The key exposure that will lay clear the mysteries of a study area and lead to a bankable discovery may well sit under a poisonous thorn bush atop the windswept peak of the highest mountain in the district. But it’s just as likely to be right beside the trail where you stopped the 4WD for the night in the shade of a beautiful old acacia tree, so don’t discount your good fortune on those occasions when you do get lucky.

Old Men and the Sea – the curious persistence of willful disbelief in Anthropogenic Climate Change

Imagine yourself, for a moment, adrift in a storm-tossed wooden lifeboat. Yours is the only vessel in sight – the only refuge in the heaving sea stretching to the horizon all around you. With a sinking heart – rightly concerned by the potential consequences – you realise the water level in the bottom of the boat is rising. You have nowhere else to go.

Now, the environment in which you find yourself may well be the source of this water – the persistent rain, the sea spray washing over the sides, perhaps even marine bivalve Teredo navalis – shipworms, as they were known in the days of grand wooden ships plying the seven seas – chewing their way through the hull of your fragile boat. That doesn’t mean that the signal fire you lit in the stern might not also be causing a leak. It’s not like you have a leakage budget to work within – “it’s okay, I’m going to take on a gallon of water an hour, so I can shave some more wood out of the sides and stoke the fire, and the rain will ease up to compensate”. Aware that fire is known to consume wood, and that, as my boat is made of wood, I could reasonably infer that my cheery blaze might be a factor – and one over which I had control, the prudent thing to do until I was pretty darned sure of things would be to douse it.

Of course, despite my obvious and melodramatic allegory here, we’re not really talking about drifting lifeboats. Rather, in a summer in which the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has found it necessary to add new colours to the temperature scale on their national synoptic charts, changing climate is probably a fair topic for engaged conversation.

Although I’m a professional scientist, and try to keep myself pretty well informed, I’m under no illusion that I can offer a fair and valid critique of understanding in this area. If that’s what you’re after, I heartily suggest you check out the US Global Change Research Program (www.global change.gov). Me? I’ll put my hand up right now and tell you I don’t fully understand the physics of greenhouse warming, the consequences of changing landscape albedo to a solar energy budget, the details of orbital precession, or the design and function of supercomputer models of climate sensitivity. Unlike a number of (usually self nominated) commentators on climate science though, my philosophy in these circumstances is not to go ahead and shoot my mouth off anyway – at least not without a few glasses of good wine inside me – so this is not principally an essay about the rights and wrongs of understanding on anthropogenic climate change.

Instead I want to talk about the (to me, anyway) curious fact that vested interests and enthusiastic amateurs from all walks of life – politicians, newspaper columnists, school teachers, Jeremy Clarkson – seem possessed of an unshakeable belief that their understanding of climate change and its causes should be given equal weight to, say, Roger Revelle, or the IPCC.

I’m not talking here about debate over how we, individually and as a society, should respond to climate change – what steps we should take, how the cost should be borne. Here opinion and debate clearly should be entertained as we move towards a social contract. But the facts of the matter, the understanding of physical phenomena, does not submit to willpower or popularity. You don’t get to vote by SMS on whether anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are a driver of dangerous levels of climatic warming or just a combination of snuggly global duvet and healthy plant food.

By way of analogy to the problem here – diesel has a greater energy content than unleaded petrol. I know that’s true because I read it on the internet. Logically then, if I start putting diesel into my car, it will be more powerful and go further on a tank. Right?

The fact that I used the word logically probably tells you everything you need to know about why it’s important that I listen to my mechanic rather than trying to fix my car myself.

Let’s pursue that metaphor a little farther. Think about it – if this was your car we were talking about (and I might venture here that the climatic system of our entire planet might be a bit more important than that – even if you do wash yours more often than I manage and rotate the tires every 6 months) I doubt you’d be up for self diagnosis – or even taking the advice of Alan Jones – when your engine started knocking. No. I suspect that, like me, you would far rather trust the judgement and experience of auto mechanics who have trained for years and devoted themselves professionally to the diagnosis and correction of engine problems. Even if you did roll up to the workshop door with a worrying knot in your stomach over what they might find under the hood, and just how eye-wateringly expensive it might be to fix.

Yes, some mechanics are better than others, and there may even be shonky ones out there that don’t know what they’re doing, or worse, who are criminally intent on defrauding you by exaggerating or inventing problems. If you do your research though, and find out who other mechanics respect and what they think of each other’s work, I’m pretty confident you could probably do a good job of picking the right person to deal with any engine trouble you might have.

The problem, in its essence, is that ‘opinion’ is a complex and chimeric beast. It covers a spectrum from tastes or preferences, through views on issues of common concern – the ethical and political questions of the day, to views grounded in technical expertise – and here I’d include legal or scientific opinions. The common thread is that all these areas admit a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty – but not all are equal.

You can’t really argue about the first kind of opinion. It would be ludicrous for me to tell you that you were wrong to prefer sticky date pudding to cheesecake. Where this issue starts to go off the rails though is that we sometimes take opinions of the ethical and even the expertise-based sort to be unarguable in the same way such questions of taste are.

The silly – even embarrassing – thing here, at least for somebody coming from a Western philosophical tradition, is that Plato pretty much had this distinction sewn up 2400 years ago.

Today though all too often – whether by design or, I suspect usually more likely, ignorance, we seem to have forgotten this lesson.

Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Greens and Federal Senator, argued long and vociferously against nuclear power throughout his career, despite not being a nuclear physicist. All well and good – but Meryl Dorey – leader of the Australian Vaccination Network (don’t be fooled by the name – this is a group vehemently opposed to childhood vaccination in all its forms) has used Brown’s record to argue that she should, in a similar vein, be listened to in regards to the healthcare of our children, despite having no medical qualifications of any stripe. The crucial difference between the two is that Dr Brown never represented himself as an authority on the physics of nuclear fission. He was always, entirely appropriately, commenting on policy responses to science, not the underlying scientific understanding. Dorey, in contrast, essentially tries to represent that her views should factor in debate regarding the biomechanics of vaccination and immune response itself – that her personal biases should be weighted equally to expert and scientifically validated opinion.

So – back to climate change – let’s take on board Plato’s distinction for a minute and ignore the opinions of the Nick Minchins and Lord Moncktons of the world. What do professional climate scientists – those experts who have devoted themselves to understanding the detailed interactions of climatic systems and earned the respect of their critical peers – understand to be happening to our climate?

First and foremost, our planet is warming up. Using any of a wide range of indicators (ocean heat content, sea surface temperatures, sea level, temperatures in the lower and middle troposphere, the rates at which glaciers and ice sheets are melting), the overall temperature of the Earth and the corresponding energy in our climate system are increasing.

According to a study recently published by a team of scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, there are now on average five times as many months with record-breaking high temperatures at measured locations worldwide than could be expected without significant and ongoing warming occurring. In parts of Europe, Africa and southern Asia, the figures are even worse – with instances of record-setting monthly temperatures exceeding statistical expectation by a factor of ten.

While there are a number of influences on the climate system, such as changing levels of solar radiation and abundance of atmospheric aerosols, independent climate researchers also almost universally conclude that this warming has been produced dominantly by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with a significant proportion of this emitted by human activities.

Now remember, that’s not me saying this – these are the expert opinions of the big beasts at the climate science waterhole with the expertise and experience to give their opinions real weight. These are the people we should be listening to.

In a recent essay on Science Communication (‘Three Monkeys, Ten Minutes: Scientists and the Importance of Communication Skills’ – WordPress, 18 October, 2012), I used the metaphor of taking sides in a scientific debate you don’t understand being like weighing in to an argument in a language you don’t speak – a Frenchman and a German speaking in Spanish, let’s say – on the basis of liking one participant’s accent more than the other. In the field of climate change, the position of someone who would deny the reality of anthropogenic warming is even more tenuous, because as the debate stands its like 97% of the Spanish speakers in the room (everyone except Pierre’s mother and the crazy old guy whose brother was killed in the second world war and hates all Germans with an unquenchable rage, let’s say) agree that our French friend is wrong-headed and it’s Heidi we should listen to – but still there are non-linguists willing to back up the Frenchman with an unthinking “yeah, what he said” against all comers.

To come full circle to our fragile boat alone on the stormy seas – although the consequences of putting out my fire if it wasn’t reducing my vessel’s seaworthiness might be unpleasant (I’d be wet and cold – and frightened, alone in the vast empty expanse of the ocean), the consequences of not taking action if my hypothesis ultimately proved correct would be much, much worse.

More importantly, although I would really like to know exactly where the water was coming from and which source was the most important (sorry, scientific curiosity has me in its thrall), my first reaction wouldn’t be to set up an interim enquiry and design some experiments. No. Me? I’d start bailing.

French String – Mathematics, Linguistics, and the Nature of Reality

“Daddy,” my eldest daughter asked me, some years ago now (at a time when Europe was but a short train ride away and a welcome escape from the grey winters of Surrey), “What’s the Spanish word for thank you?”

“Gracias.” I replied, pleased by her inquisitiveness “And denada means you’re welcome.”

Warming to the conversation, she went on “Oh. And what’s thank you in French?”

“Merci.”

“And what do they say for you’re welcome?”

I paused for a moment (but only, it must be said, a moment) reflecting on the fact that I had no idea how to express that concept – my ability with the French language extending little further than ordering coffee and croissants for breakfast – before telling her, with all my fatherly sincerity “The French have no phrase for that.”

Now yes, I admit it was a cheap knee-bend to Francophone stereotypes, and a ‘Dad joke’ to cover my linguistic ignorance…and it was probably inappropriate for me to let an impressionable child go on believing this for as long as I subsequently did.

But it does introduce an interesting and important concept – our ability to describe something has no bearing on its reality. Even if my statement were true and the French had, through some curious artifact of linguistic heritage, failed to develop a phrase capable of expressing gratitude, it would not change the fact that such feelings could – and do – exist. Language describes reality. It does not – outside of the most extreme hardline views of social constructivism – define it.

Mathematics too is essentially a language – a language, moreover, that we can use to describe the physical reality of the universe. Most of the time. As with the example of spoken language above though, the critical caveat is that however well mathematics describes physical behaviour, again, it does not define it.

Sir Phillip Bin, the fictional hero of Mark Evans’ radio comedy ‘Bleak Expectations’, muses wistfully on the days before Sir Isaac Newton ‘invented’ gravity, when people falling from great height would ‘simply drift gently and harmlessly to the ground’.

Such satirical diversions aside, Newtonian mechanics works pretty well in describing the interactions of macroscopic objects under the conditions of our everyday experience. But gravitational attraction between two bodies doesn’t fall off in proportion to the square of the distance between them because that’s the way the equation is written – rather, the equation seeks to empirically describe the behaviour that occurs.

As Einstein recognised in his theories of general and special relativity, under certain circumstances – far removed from the world of everyday experience – objects behave in ways that are incompatible with Newtonian physics. In formulating expressions to account for this relativistic behaviour, Einstein did not change the nature of the universe – he simply gave us a new form of language by which to describe the poetry of our existence.

Similarly, the remarkable duality of electrons – whereby they can be shown through physical experiment to possess the characteristics of both a continuous wave function and a discrete physical particle – is only a paradox in the context of the ways in which we have come to describe these sub-atomic features. Fundamentally, the electron is what it is, and if theories are unable to fully account for its behaviour, it is a reflection of the inadequacy of our mathematical approximations for reality, not proof of some cosmic trick set up to titillate a Vegas audience on the quantum scale.

Perhaps the most interesting example of this concept in action, however, is the search for an ultimate physical ‘theory of everything’. The properties of electromagnetism, strong nuclear and weak nuclear attraction, and gravity – the fundamental forces that define and control interactions of matter and energy throughout the universe – converge at high energy, and it is theorized that all four derive from a common underlying property. But just what this is remains a point of hard debate, as none of the individual equations that are so successful in describing the behaviour of each of these forces on the macroscopic level of the everyday can adequately cope with the conditions of this theoretical point of convergence.

This does not mean that there are somehow four separate overlapping layers making up the Universe that don’t quite fit together perfectly where they join, like some kind of badly put together set of existential DIY shelves. Rather, the theory runs that there is one reality, where all aspects of the physical behaviour that we observe in the universe must somehow derive from the fundamental character of matter and energy. The failure lies in the mathematical language in our possession – it’s not just that it’s tricky to calculate the results, standard mathematics is literally unable to describe reality under those conditions.

The ‘theory of everything’ that can account for the emergence and existence of these separate forces is one of the great challenges at the business end of modern physics where the big kids of theory get serious. Tackling this problem however requires not just a dab hand with a slide rule, but the creation – literally – of entirely new forms of mathematics, incorporating additional physical fields and interactions, and even extra dimensions of space.

For the record, I should confess that I’m not one of those big kids – a real physicist would have stolen my mathematical lunch money and sent me crying for home long before we even got to string theory – which I understand is regarded as one of the more accessible (and promising) of these approaches. As secret shames go, I can appreciate that this is not exactly stupendous, but I’ve been happily married for 16 years and don’t get out to as many wild parties as I used to.

The point is, I’m fine with that. I don’t need to understand the higher order branches of mathematics – the high linguistics of the Physicist’s hymnal – to appreciate the reality and significance of what they are trying to achieve in understanding the nature of reality. I wish them well, and look forward to the day that Google produces a Mathematics-English translator so I can appreciate the beauty of their work.

I’m sure even the French would be grateful for that.