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Radioactivity, science, and spirit March 31, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in book review, Buddhist practice, contemplative practice, disasters, earth community, Japan, meditation, radioactivity, science, Tsunamis.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and at Being.

Radioactivity. Life. Death. These are front-and-center in my thoughts these days as I contemplate the fallout from the nuclear plant meltdown generated by power outages, triggered by a tsunami, set off by an earthquake in Japan. Amidst these events, I turned my attention to reading Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.

Currently, the book is on exhibit at the New York Public Library. The author, an artist, teaches documentary, drawing, graphic novels, and printmaking at the Parsons School of Design, so one might be excused from not immediately recognizing the logic of her having written a book on the Curies (who shared with Henri Becquerel the1903 Nobel Prize in physics for their research on radiation.) But there’s little that is logical about the way this story reveals itself and that’s what makes it beautiful and such a pleasure to read. The book is a piece of art composed of images and words. Although told in roughly chronological fashion, mostly the story has long tendrils of other tales. In this regard as well as others, I suspect it will be of interest to people fascinated by the intersections of science and mind.

Here’s what I liked about it. To me, the format ofRadioactive mimics the way a mind—mine at least–works. All of us dedicated to a regular sitting practice know that just a few breaths into a sit, the mind is likely to take an excursion, follow an idea. After some time we wake up to the fact of our distraction and come back to focusing on the breath. It is in this manner that the story of the Curies, their colleagues, friends, enemies, lovers, and offspring unfolds. Unlike histories of science or biographies of scientists that are so often linear and wordy, this one provides multiple pursuable pathways.

Even if they know little else, most people know that Marie Skłodowska Curie was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. They may also know that her first Nobel in physics was followed by a second in 1911 in chemistry for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. But the story of Marie and Pierre Curie is much more interesting than that plain fact. It involves a stimulating partnership of spouses engaged by the same scientific questions; infatuation with the invisible; Marie’s scandalous love affair after her husband’s accidental death by horse-drawn carriage; an ongoing commitment to scientific and medical investigations that ultimately killed her, and offspring—both biological and scientific—who have carried on their work.  And in Radioactive, entwined images and prose create a fabric that relates the stories of the Curies to more modern-day concerns: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and two World Wars. Redniss indulges her readers with haunting cyanotype and archival images offered up in nonlinear fashion; this is a boon for right-brainers such as I whose minds tend toward wandering.

A most fascinating facet of the book tells of the Curie’s explorations in Spiritualism—a movement that suggested the possibility of contact with the divine. As Redniss tells it:

Electricity, radio, the telegraph, the X-ray, and now, radioactivity—at the turn of the twentieth century a series of invisible forces were radically transforming daily life. These advances were dazzling and disorienting: for some, they blurred the boundary between science and magic….Spiritualists claimed that clairvoyants possessed “X-gazes,” and that photographic plates placed on the forehead could record vital forces of the brain, or “V-rays.”

The Curies and their circle—including leading artists, writers, and scientists such as Edvard Munch, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henri Poincare, Alexander Graham Bell—participated in the Spiritualist séances of Italian medium Eusapia Palladino and considered it possible to find in spiritualism the origin of unknown energy that might relate to radioactivity. In fact, as Susan Quinn recounts in Marie Curie: A Life, just prior to his death Pierre Curie wrote to physicist Louis Georges Gouy about his last séance with Palladino “There is here, in my opinion, a whole domain of entirely new facts and physical states in space of which we have no conception.”

Both scientists and spiritualists believed that there was much that exists in the world that cannot be seen by the naked eyes of humans.

Radioactive is a story of mystery and magic as well as a history of science and invention. It shows how science, so often thought of as motivated by passionate rationality, is equally about marvelous ambiguity. The Curies, perhaps influenced by their encounters with spiritualism, devoted their lives to the search for evidence of phenomena they could not see but that they believed existed. The implications of what they found—the good and the bad, medical innovation and nuclear proliferation—they couldn’t fully anticipate.

A recent New York Times article about nuclear energy, “Preparing for Everything, Except the Unknown,” states the obvious: experts say it is impossible to prepare for everything. As a mindfulness practitioner I’d like to offer a corollary to that statement: when we sit seemingly doing nothing, plenty happens—we don’t see it, but we sense it. Redniss’s history of the lives of Marie and Pierre Curie inspires me as a scientist to continue to pursue my mindfulness practice.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on March 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post

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Japan in my thoughts March 17, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in disasters, earthquakes, geology, Japan, Tsunamis.
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For those of you interested in the science of earthquakes and tsunamis, you may be interested in this recent piece from Scientific American. It features an interview with my colleague Greg Valentine, geology professor and director of the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York Center for GeoHazards Studies. Also, if you would like to follow developments in the science of tsunamis, I recommend my colleague Brian McAdoo’s  The Tsunami Project: Transdisciplinary Approaches to Disaster Risk Reduction.

The Science of Earthquakes and Tsunamis March 15, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earthquakes, geology, Japan, science, U.S. Geological Survey.
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For those readers interested in the geoscience behind the events in Japan, I can recommend CoreCast from the U.S. Geological Survey; this episode provides an  informative interview with USGS geophysicists Bill Ellsworth and Eric Geist on the mechanisms of the earthquake and tsunami.

The Japan Earthquake: Healing After Trauma March 14, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in disasters, earth community, earth system science, earthquakes, geology, Japan, science.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace and Common Dreams.

I just returned from a weeklong spring break field trip in West Texas with my geology students to news of the 8.9 (now upgraded to 9.0) magnitude earthquake, and related 30-foot tsunami, nuclear reactor explosion and meltdowns, and oil refinery fire in Japan. In the El Paso airport on March 12, I picked up a copy of The Wall Street Journal to find out more about the events. The images of buildings, boats and other transport vehicles tossed willy-nilly by seawater—like toys swept aside by a frustrated child—took my breath away; they impressed on me yet again the spatial magnitude of Earth’s powerful forces.

I appreciated the clear rendering of the mechanisms of the quake and consequent tsunami— subduction of the Pacific plate beneath this outpost of the North American plate with massive uplift of the seafloor and displacement of voluminous amounts of seawater. Reporters for the Journalcontextualized the historic proportions of the seismic event (the fifth-largest recorded earthquake in the past century and the biggest in Japan in three hundred years); they lauded the country’s high degree of earthquake preparedness.

What struck me most, however was the extensive coverage of the economic implications of the quake for the global economy and speculations about how quickly life in and beyond Japan could get back to normal especially in terms of industrial and technological production. Of course I realize that business and financial news is that paper’s focus, nonetheless, I’d like to take the opportunity offered by this recent cascade of events to highlight a lesson that I think the Earth offers about reactions to stresses that can traumatize all living beings.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a seeker of Earth dharma—examples of Earth processes that resound with the wisdom of dharma teachers. For me, this recent temblor echoes teachings related to the devastating effects of the build-up of stress on a body and mindful approaches to healing.

In this seismic event, a locked fracture at the juncture of two lithospheric plates caused strain to accumulate in the rocks beneath the sea near the east coast of Honshu, Japan. It was released catastrophically as images of demolished landscapes and towns continue to show. As one geophysicist put it, “the rocks cracked under the pressure.”

I find it impossible not to take this as a metaphor for the effect on the human body of stress accumulated over the long-term and extract from it ideas about the delicacy of healing after such crises on earth. I’m sure others must have the same impulse but I feel especially inclined to it just coming off this field trip which took me to, among other places, Carlsbad Caverns (in New Mexico, just over the Texas border).

The moist, cool, subterranean world of Carlsbad Caverns beneath the rugged, desert landscape is an unparalleled realm of colossal chambers and extraordinary cave formations (known to geologists as speleothems). Formed a few million years ago by the dissolution of parts of a much older reef—the remains of sponges, algae and other marine invertebrate organisms that lived during the late Paleozoic—and then decorated beginning around 500,000 years ago, drop by drop, with crystals of calcite, steep passages connecting horizontal levels provide access to the Earth’s shallow interior.

While walking along the dimly lit paths through the caverns, I pointed out to one my medical school-bound students, “popcorn” speleothems precipitated so as to resemble, in my view, the alveoli of human lungs.

She marveled at the formation along with me. Then, further down the trail commented, “I feel like I’m walking inside the body of the Earth.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Upon learning of the Japan quake, President Obama said at a news conference, “Today’s events remind us of just how fragile life can be.” Ostensibly sturdy, our Earth and all living beings on it are really quite delicate. The Prime Minister of Japan asserted that the current situation is the most severe crisis the country has faced since World War II and one that, in his words, will require people to join together in order to overcome the catastrophe. I agree that people will need to cooperate with one another but I think also that the current situation requires honesty (what is happening at those damaged reactors?) and patience. Is a focus on the possible effects of the catastrophe on the global economy a compassionate first response?

This portion of the Earth and the people who live there have experienced what my colleague David Applegate, senior science adviser for earthquakes at the U.S. Geological Survey has called a “low probability, high consequence” event. Foremost among my responses to the crisis, fresh from my recent intimate encounter with the Earth, is the wish that all living beings effected by this trauma be healed over the course of time.

The Anthropocene March 3, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Anthropocene, geologic time.
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I’m about to head out to West Texas on a geology field trip with a group of sedimentology students, a colleague, and my 10 year old child in order to look at sedimentary rocks formed hundreds of millions of years ago. If I weren’t leaving shortly I’d take more time to write about the February 27 New York Times editorial that broadcasts what should be (but is not) widely known. We live in a geological time period that we used to call the Holocene (the Recent). The New York Times echoes what a few scientists have been saying for a while now: it’s not the Holocene, it’s the Anthropocene.  I explain this further in my May 20, 2010 comments on this blog.

Walkway Over the Hudson: Bird’s Eye Geology March 1, 2011

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth system science, geologic time, geology, Hudson Valley, The New Yorker, Walkway over the Hudson.
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In the February 28 issue of The New Yorker, Ian Frazier has a lovely short piece entitled “Bridge” about the rejuvenation of the old Poughkeepsie-Highland Railroad bridge into what we Poughkeepsie-dwellers like to think of as the longest elevated pedestrian bridge in the world. For those who don’t subscribe to the magazine, you can access Frazier’s piece at the Walkway Over the Hudson website.

In my opinion, Ian Frazier has captured in words the remarkable world that one enters into while strolling on the bridge high above the Hudson River. He concludes his piece by stating, “Every once in a while, people need to be in the presence of things that are really far away.”

I know that Frazier means far away in space but I also think that people need to be aware of the fact that they are often in the presence of things that are really far away in time. The Walkway facilitates that as well because high above the River we have a bird’s eye view of the millions of years of Earth history that the Hudson Valley exposes.

For those whose curiosity about the valley is peaked by Frazier’s column, here’s a short piece that I wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal,”Rocks Serve as Snapshot of Valley’s Timeline” that explains some of what walkers can engage as they stroll along our magnificent pedestrian bridge.

Rocks serve as snapshot of valley’s timeline

By Jill S. Schneiderman

For the Poughkeepsie Journal

The names Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Billy the Kid, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Pete Seeger conjure up our region’s rich historic past.

But what of its prehistory? Rocks along both banks of the Hudson River and throughout its valley and adjacent mountains record a long and complex geologic history.

On this land, human history has played out. Much of the geologic drama occurred in prolonged pulses of activity during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras — 570 million years, but only the latest 13 percent of geologic time.

Though remarkable in the geologic scheme of things — uplift of Himalayan-sized mountains, spreading of inland seas of which there are no comparisons today save perhaps Canada’s Hudson’s Bay, tearing of continental crust, and burial by mile- thick ice — we read the record of these events in subtle clues from our area’s rocks.

Compared to human events over the last 400 years and those that will transpire in the next millennium, geology seems to provide a record of change whose pace requires patience.

As historians, geologists think from the past to the present — and so first we marvel at rocks of the Hudson Highlands. They begin near Anthony’s Nose, at the eastern edge of the Bear Mountain Bridge on the border of Westchester and Putnam counties. (It is named, according to legend, for the nose of Peter Stuyvesant’s trumpeter, Anthony Corlaer, who had a nose “of vast lusty size strutting boldly from his countenance like a mountain of Golconda”. Golgonda, India, the center of the diamond trade, denoted excess.)

The Highlands then run north to Breakneck and Storm King mountains, and they consist of more than 1 billion-year-old, coarsely crystalline granites and magnificent marble-cake gneisses. They are the bedrock of our area, the core of our continent, metamorphic rocks that tell us they’ve suffered intense pressures and temperatures from overlying rocks. Hard and unfractured — how remarkable it is that the deepest part of the Hudson River cuts through them.

Resources aid building boom

Cement from our region and crushed stone that have supplied New York’s building industry come from dolostones, magnesium-rich limestones north of the Highlands. New York Trap Rock at the Clinton Point quarry to this day mines this material, whose existence records the presence of a shallow sea that covered our area about 500 million years ago.

Closely associated with this carbonate rock is a shale that occurs throughout much of the Poughkeepsie area. This rock, too, is a marine sediment, akin to the material deposited in shallow offshore seaways. Though not especially rich in fossils, this rock unit, from the Ordovician period at least 435 million years ago, sometimes contains brachiopods, two-shelled marine organisms that superficially resemble but are substantially different from clams of today.

On both sides of the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie’s vicinity, topographically elevated regions of the Taconic mountains to the east and the Catskill mountains to the west remain as reminders of a geologically active time in our region’s past. Approximately 450 million years ago, an island chain much like Japan collided with North America and raised up the Taconic mountains. What’s left of them today is their roots.

Heated and crumpled, the Ordovician shale previously laid down on the shallow sea endured a kind of pressure-cooking that turned the shale into slate, which becomes coarser-grained schist as one travels east from Poughkeepsie into Connecticut. Beautiful red garnets, elongated white needles of sillimanite, and lustrous brown staurolite crystals adorn mica schists that sparkle in the sunlight as we go east toward the Taconic mountains on the border of northeastern Dutchess County.

Not long after this, we believe that a meteor may have hit the Earth just west of the current-day Hudson River at Panther Mountain in the Catskills. There, a circular pattern six miles across is formed by the Esopus and Woodland creeks. For streams to travel in a circle is very unusual and has led some investigators to suggest the presence of an impact crater in 400-million-year-old sedimentary rock that had previously been laid down in a shallow sea.

Because sediments were being deposited in the shallow sea, the crater was buried and preserved much like a fossil. The streams have carved out a circular outline around it though the crater itself remains completely buried.

After the Taconics rose in a mountain-building event known as an orogeny, the North American continent collided with an even larger land mass farther east. This orogenic event raised up the Acadian mountains, a chain of perhaps Himalayan proportions just east of the Taconics. Sediments shed from the Acadian mountains accumulated as blankets of conglomerate, sandstone and shale in a delta. Sediments of the Catskill Delta were almost two miles thick.

Today those sedimentary strata are visible as the Shawangunk and Catskill mountains. The Devonian sandstones of the Catskill Mountains, at least 345 million years old, are what have supplied the Catskill bluestone, blue from feldspar grains in it, for curbstone and flagstones throughout the United States.

Devonian limestones forming the spectacular escarpment overlooking the Mohawk and Hudson valleys contain an abundant assemblage of life that teemed in the area’s seas 345 million years ago. Stream beds cutting through the limestones at John Boyd Thatcher state park in Vorheesville show that corals, crinoids, trilobites and brachiopods thrived during that time.

A period of quiescence followed in this area until the Atlantic Ocean began to form. The spreading of continent crust that accompanied its formation tore the crust so valleys formed. Into them poured sediments, like those which today fill the lake- and flamingo-rich valleys of east Africa.

As dinosaurs stomped atop these sediments, magma (molten rock) was injected into them. To this magma we owe thanks for the magnificent Palisades on the west side of the Hudson River. For the next 185 million years, things were quiet in our region.

The next major episode of activity reflected in our rocks is glaciation. Though glaciers began to advance on the North American continent around 2 million years ago, our area records only the most recent advance of ice.

Approximately 40,000 years ago, the last glacial advance scraped over the area’s bedrock and sediments. When the ice retreated, it left behind a trail of kettle holes, moraines — sediments pushed aside like a snow plow creates drifts of snow — and glacial striations, scratch marks that we can see atop Bonticou Crag in the Mohonk Preserve of the Shawangunks in Ulster County and across the river into Millbrook in Dutchess. Perhaps most significant to valley residents, the ice carved a deep fjord which today is the Hudson River.

River forms in glacier’s wake

After the ice departed, the Hudson River became Glacial Lake Albany and Glacial Lake Hudson. Influxes of clays into those lakes ultimately supplied materials for the brickyards of our area. Sediment-laden glacial meltwaters continued to course down the Hudson, across today’s submarine continental shelf, and gouged out the Hudson River submarine canyon in today’s New York Harbor.

Thousands of years after the valley’s glaciation, humans evolved. Clearly, we have been on this planet only for a geological instant.

Despite this fact, people have managed to scar the surface of the Earth. Pits from quarry operations, PCBs (toxic industrial oils) in the bottom sediments of the Hudson River, metal-laden landfills, acidified lakes and streams each testify to that. Such transformations of natural resources affect our ability to provide what every human being deserves: clean soil, water and air.

Since we live on the eastern, passive edge of the North American continent, a place unlike the quake-plagued West Coast, we can be pretty sure that no catastrophic geologic change will occur in our area in the next millennium. But how we treat the Earth will profoundly affect our lives. We cannot afford to treat this planet as if it were an unending cornucopia of natural riches here for us to take and haphazardly discard. As we strive toward a sustainable future, we must all come to appreciate how the Earth works.