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Once an ocean, now one of the driest, most desolate places on earth May 27, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth system science, geologic time, geology, hydrosphere, Mars, Vassar College.
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Vassar freshman Aaron Jones probably wasn’t the first visitor to Death Valley to observe it looks a lot like the surface of Mars. But the future earth science major says if he hadn’t seen it for himself, he couldn’t have grasped the power of wind erosion and compared the resulting rock formations to those on the distant planet.


The New Yorker’s Disappointing Science Journalism May 8, 2013

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Mars, science.
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Here’s a quick letter to the editor (not published as far as I know) regarding the New Yorker’s recent piece on the scientific exploration of Mars. The cover of the New Yorker issue that contained the piece is pictured here. The cover epitomizes the essay.


To the editor:

Burkhard Bilger’s piece “The Martian Chroniclers” (April 22, 2013) came just at the right time for me and my Vassar students in STS/WMST 375, “Gender, Race and Science.” We ‘d been reading all semester feminist histories of science in an attempt to track changes in the culture of science and had just arrived at the issue of the so-called “leaky pipeline” that is, why so many women leave science even after they obtain advanced degrees.

In communicating the tremendous excitement of discoveries of the Martian rover “Curiosity” since its spectacularly successful landing this past summer–I’m a geoscientist who studies what sediments reveal about planetary history–Bilger also inadvertently conveys much about subtleties in science culture that make it difficult for women to persist over the long-term in scientific research.

Bilger’s depiction of mission engineer Adam Steltzner captures the gendered bravado, swagger and profanity (“We think we’ve crushed  this fucker”) that characterizes big-money science and puts off people who feel uncomfortable with masculinist discourse. Bilger plays into the gender divide in science. Although he lauds the work of geologist John Grotzinger (who Steltzner derides as “fairly charming but not brash”), he plays up the enthusiasm for the “arsenal of instruments” that ” slender, effervescent” rover driver Vandi Tompkins has for her scientific endeavor.  And he resurrects the birthing trope commenting that “the Sky Crane was Steltzner’s baby….the landing also happened to coincide with another long-term project of his, now approaching its final descent: his wife, Trisha, was nine months pregnant.”

What would science look like if scientists and those who report on it worked actively to end this hierarchically gendered structure?

Jill S. Schneiderman, Professor of Earth Science, Vassar College

Earth, Mars, and Meteorites Inter-Are October 1, 2012

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Buddhist concepts, earth community, geology, Iron Man/Space Buddha, Mars, meteorites, Norman Fischer, science, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted on Shambhala SunSpace.

Credit: Dr. Elmar Buchner

While discussing the five skandhas (aspects) that constitute a human being during a dharma talk on The Heart Sutra—a core Buddhist text—renowned Zen teacher Norman Fischer commented that although we don’t need science to confirm the veracity of what we think to be true, it’s nice when it happens that way.

Recently some extraterrestrial data sources corroborated for me what my beginner’s mind thinks The Heart Sutra teaches—that all phenomena are expressions of emptiness. Fischer says this teaching on emptiness is really a teaching about connection. Emptiness, he says, refers to the emptiness of any separation and therefore to the radical connection or interdependence of all things.

Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “interbeing” to express this idea that no thing arises independently. As he described in The Heart of Understanding, there is only the constant arising of the universe (which etymologically means “turned into one”)—each so-called thing enables every other so-called thing. News of the past weeks from both Mars and the asteroid belt confirm such connection between Earth and our neighbors in the solar system.

Ever since it landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in early August I’ve been following the discoveries of NASA’s Curiosity rover (a car-sized, six-wheeled robot), the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory whose mission is to see if the red planet ever could have supported small life forms called microbes. The photos the rover sends back are mesmerizing and the discoveries tremendously exciting for they show that the material substance and processes of Mars are the material substance and processes of Earth.

Curiosity’s discoveries in the past months repeatedly reveal rocks and rock formations that are similar maybe even the same, as what we see on Earth. For example, the first rock analyzed chemically by Curiosity, just for the sake of target practice and dubbed “Coronation,” turns out to be basalt. This is no more spiritually surprising than it is scientifically surprising: this type of volcanic rock is common on Earth and Earth’s moon as well as known from previous missions to Mars to be abundant there.

In at least three sites, visual observations by Curiosity’s high-resolution imager reveal sedimentary conglomerate—a rock composed of compacted and rounded gravels naturally cemented together. We know from geological observations on Earth that water transport is the only process capable of producing the rounded shape of rock fragments this size. Curiosity has found evidence of an ancient Martian streambed!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS and PSI

Listen to Rebecca Williams of the Planetary Space Institute describe these findings. Williams is able to offer her lucid explanation because Curiosity is seeing on Mars the same materials and processes we are accustomed to seeing on Earth.

And as if I were not already convinced of the truth of The Heart Sutra, word arrived that a one thousand year old Buddhist statue taken during a Nazi expedition in 1938 turned up five years ago and was analyzed by planetary scientists in Germany.

Guess what the monument is carved from: iron meteorite, a piece of a meteor from the asteroid belt. Okay, so this piece of iron meteorite has an unusual composition. It’s an especially nickel- and cobalt-rich variety and so is easily traced to the Chinga meteorite that 15,000 years ago smashed into the border area between Mongolia and Siberia. Nonetheless, this “Iron Man” was carved from a piece of space rock whose major elements, iron and nickel, are the very same elements that make up the core of Earth.

Not that we need science to confirm that what we think is true. We’ve also got the wisdom of the ancients. Earth, Mars, and meteorites, for example, inter-are.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on October 1, 2012 at 10:28 am and tagged. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.