That’s So Second Millennium
Episode 035 - Anne Hofmeister Shakes Up Earth Science

Episode 035 - Anne Hofmeister Shakes Up Earth Science

November 26, 2018

TSSM goes heavy: hard-hitting journalism from one of science's great controversialists, Anne Hofmeister. Intrigued? Disagree? Write me an email ( or look her up at Washington University in St. Louis' EPS department website.

The times below are keyed to the start of the interview and ignore my opening (just over 2 min).

0:00 Introduction

1:00 Anne's background (sorry, this part Anne was talking so quietly that I can't seem to fix it with Audacity, but bear with us; we moved the microphone and figured some things out and it gets better)

2:00 Spectroscopy and heat transfer

3:00 Thermal conductivity experiments and their pitfalls

5:00 Criticism of the history of thermodynamics and heat transfer; identification of light and heat

6:00 Problems with equilibrium and elastic collisions in theories of thermodynamics

8:00 Criticism of phonon theory

10:00 Electron and vibrational transfer of heat decoupled; metals and heat transfer

13:00 Garnet

14:00 Earth's interior: convection, the Rayleigh number

15:00 Viscosity

16:00 The Earth's mantle: nearly all solid

17:00 Plate tectonics without mantle convection

18:00 An even more radical idea: heat is being trapped inside the solid Earth

19:00 [there was a distortion I had to cut]

20:00 Implications: heat generation is in the crust (this part is widely known!)

21:00 Implications: the core is melting, not solidifying?

22:00 The geodynamo and magnetic field

23:00 The core: buffered at the temperature of melting high pressure iron

24:00 Magnetic modes diagram for the planets: spin and magnetic field


Episode 031 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Teaching Science and Human Nature

Episode 031 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Teaching Science and Human Nature

October 29, 2018

Paul moves from popular books to Br. Guy's 1990s planetary science textbook, Worlds Apart which Paul switched to in 2015, despite its age, precisely because of Br. Guy's explicit acknowledgment that "students want to learn about THE PLANETS." The chapters of the book therefore start with a saga of some planet, and then focus in on some process that is well exemplified on that planet. Other textbooks try to focus on processes and lose ME, let alone my students, most of whom were headed toward high school teaching.

Br. Guy goes on from the subject of his books to talk a little about John Scalzi's take on the common advice to authors to "kill your darlings"..."the failure mode of clever is idiot." (I am not unfamiliar with John Scalzi, who is certainly a master of the craft: see my review of Old Man's War on Goodreads.)

Bill references the science & religion initiative at the McGrath Institute at Notre Dame, to which Br. Guy has contributed. The Institute tries to form high school teachers with a sense of the complementary, rather than adversary, nature of science and faith. Br. Guy goes on to talk about how hard a high school teacher's job is, and the need for enthusiasm in presentation. If you are listening to two enthusiastic people talk shop about almost any topic, however little you yourself know about it, you get drawn in. That's the goal, except most high school teachers have to do it by themselves.

A teacher that can maintain enthusiasm and also model comfort with not knowing the answer and intellectual humility..."I don't know; let's go find the answer" a great gift to insecure, "self-conscious but not self-aware" teenagers.

Paul probes Br. Guy about the modern attitude of trying to discard as much of the past as possible. Br. Guy comments how living in Italy gives you perspective on how the attitude has shifted from the medieval attitude (discussed in great depth by CS Lewis in The Discarded Image) of reverence for the past, whose achievements we could never match, to the modern one. Rome gives you the perspective that while science and engineering may have advanced, art and architecture have not. Humanity can only progress so far...we can't get away from original sin. We do things we know are wrong, destructive, etc. That's why Twelve Step programs exist. A great 20th century tragedy, as has been noted many times, is the failure of great schemes (like communism) for revising society in some theoretically perfect new form.

A chance reference to Shakespeare, and then to Star Trek VI (of course), leads us off into a discussion of language and the way it shapes our lives, from the fun people have had since Tolkien inventing whole new languages, to the difference in what Sarah cooks for Abraham's visitors in English (yuck) versus Italian. Br. Guy makes the provocative statement that one has to learn more new words in freshman biology than in freshman French. When you learn philosophy, you learn new words, and with those words (if you're really learning them) you learn new ways of thinking.

As a final note, that's why you need others to truly learn and work in a subject...or in a faith. The Ethiopian that Phillip baptized in the Acts of the Apostles had a hard row to hoe.


Books mentioned in the interview:

Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

The Rock by T.S. Eliot

Image courtesy Robert Macke (wikimedia Commons)

Episode 030 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Galileo and Carl Sagan

Episode 030 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Galileo and Carl Sagan

October 22, 2018

Br. Guy starts with a brief bio of himself as the meteorite curator and now director of the Vatican Observatory. If you aren't familiar with his life and career, I cannot suggest strongly enough to go find a copy of Brother Astronomer. Paul takes the opportunity to geek out a bit about the VO's collection of Martian meteorites, which includes pieces of varying size of the three flagship members of the three great classes of Martian meteorites: Chassigny, Shergotty, and Nakhla. We discuss the romance and suspense of finding meteorites in the dry deserts.

Paul then poses the question of the recently discovered Galileo letter. Br. Guy defuses a bit of the noise surrounding this letter, likening the situation to scientists down to this very day putting out provocative theses and then pulling them back under criticism from their peers.

(My dog Riley starts barking at UPS personnel sometime between 13:00 and 13:30. This was an eventful session.)

Galileo in his time was rather like Carl Sagan in his time: a popularizer and a controversialist. Br. Guy, who met Carl Sagan a few times, recognizes the value that both of these controversial figures brought to the field. He goes on to discuss the travails that Sagan faced in his own life, dealing with fame and the risks he ran to get his message out (the massive debt he incurred in making Cosmos) and notes his own fraught relationship with his own faith.

Carl Sagan was a serious scientist, in the 1960s one of the first to grapple with the unexpectedly, incredibly hot temperatures the first Venus probes reported and to link it with the very thick carbon dioxide atmosphere Venus has.

Br. Guy talks a little about his experience "coming out" as a religious believer, and the opposition he _didn't_ receive in publicizing his decision to become a Jesuit. He moves on to discuss the romance of science, why we're attracted to it, and why it's important to steer a middle path (that Aristotelian mean again) in both science and faith between "I already know everything worth knowing" and "God / the universe is so big I can never understand it." Of course you won't learn it all, but of course you'll be able to learn and love something. He likens it to a good friendship or romantic relationship, in which you rejoice in both the known and the unknown.

Paul probes Br. Guy on whether Sagan influenced him in his own popular books. Br. Guy professes that not only did Carl Sagan influence his confidence in being able to discuss the wonders of planetary science and astronomy with a popular audience, as well as his colloquial tone, but even his wardrobe served as a good precursor (compare Carl at with Guy at and for good measure another great Italian scientist who wore the collar well

Image courtesy Robert Macke (wikimedia Commons)

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