Friday, September 28, 2007

The Plot Thickens

This semester, while lecturing on (okay, giving the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of…) Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I realized that what I was actually teaching that night was basic story plot structure. Deja-vu, deconstructing short stories in the Intro to Lit classes I used to teach. Kuhn’s work dispels the notion that most revolutionary scientific discoveries happen by chance or are the solitary personal discoveries made by a few stark geniuses. Rather, it is when old paradigms reach a point of crisis, that new paradigms are born.

This sounds like the classic “Cops and Robbers” plot line that I always used to illustrate story development in English 1B. There are the cops, keepers of the law—the scientists who support and purport the established paradigm. There are robbers—those radicals with the newfangled ideas and interpretations—the lawbreakers. As evidence mounts to break down the old paradigm, tension builds. Tension is the difference between what seems to be true and actual reality. In the Cops ‘n Robbers storyline, the chase exists because of the tension between the truth of the crime, and the reality of the criminals not being caught. In science, the plot is driven by the conflict between old and new ideas and the quest to determine validity.

In every story, tension builds to a point of crisis. In science, the crisis reaches its climax when enough new evidence is gathered to disprove the current paradigm. When the paradigm shift occurs, the old ideas are overthrown and the rest is all dénouement. In television land, the cops always capture the robbers, but in science, the twist is that the crime is always a one of passion and in the end, the jury sides with the defendants at the trial.

Next semester in Geol 1, we’ll be drawing that “inverted checkmark” to describe the shift from the view of earth as static to dynamic. The concept of Continental Drift will provide tension and drive the plot toward the shift to Plate Tectonics. But we’ll also take plot summary further. We’ll look at the rock cycle, stream systems, faults and deformation as stories of conflict between equilibrium and disequilibrium. We’ll trace the rise in tension as erosion exposes shy plutons, while weathering and isostatic rebound force the massive rocks to divulge their long kept secrets. There are so many good tales. Some stories are about marriages and/or dissolutions. Some describe crumbling or melting under pressure, then being born again. Still others chronicle the adjustments and ability to overcome repeated change. Each tale offers a detailed biography of a portion of the physical earth. Every rock (the broken record in me keeps repeating to my class) has a story to tell.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Detailed Mapping

I like following maps. Before went to visit my sister at her new home in Trinidad, California, I did the usual Yahoo Maps thing to get a map for her address. Well, it didn’t work—the map program couldn’t find the address. Fine. I went to MapQuest. It couldn’t find the address. Fine. I went to Google, but the results were the same! Hey, does an address really exist if even Google won’t map it?! I left the computer in disgust, mad that I couldn’t get my map!

We live in a maps-on-demand world today. We want our maps and directions, so we can just get on the road, go from point A to point B, and not have to look back. After all, maps tell us where to go, the best way to go, and approximately when we’ll be there. We rely on their prescriptive powers.

Eventually, my husband was able to coax a map out of Google. It was a feeble representation with enlarged streets, to compensate for a lack of detail for the area. In the end, we had to just call for directions when we got close to town, because in the end, a map with few details isn’t very useful. A map that is not descriptive, cannot be prescriptive.

We all start out life with maps that resemble the online map results for Trinidad, CA—underdeveloped. As we grow, our maps become contoured with joyful meadows, rippling brooks, wild rivers, steep cliffs, and of course, boring stretches of Interstate 5. Homes we have lived in, places we have worked, dot the farther reaches of the map behind us. Well worn roads lead to where our family and friends live. From these familiar places, we plot our paths through life and set out, map carefully tucked into the glove compartment of the car.

There are, of course, the proverbial “bumps in the road.” And I suppose it’s a matter of perception as to whether one person views the same bump as a mere bump or pothole, or giant sinkhole in the road, but in general, these are things too small to even show up on a map. These things cause delays, equipment failure, accidents, and detours. They require much patience and perseverance, but we eventually manage to get back onto the main road in the correct direction, for the most part. Sometimes, we just need to go back home for respite before continuing the journey. No one said that traveling through life is a linear process. That’s why there are so many roads and many different ways to get to the same place. Life offers us many opportunities to reach our goals. It’s comforting to know that if we just follow the map, we’ll never lose our way for long.

And then it happens. One fine day, the map changes. Oh yeah...maps change. They are continually revised, but we usually don’t think to switch to an updated map, until we go to use a map and find that it doesn’t work anymore.

The day after my cousin’s funeral, I woke up disoriented. A week before, I’d been tracking the Entiat fault in central Washington, driving logging roads, hiking trails, and getting lost only once—because I had been using an old map. Now I was home--no map needed--but I felt lost. The landscape had changed. A big, familiar landmark was gone—the person I depended on to find my way to comfort, safety, and reassurance was gone. I had lost a guidance point on my map, and I didn’t know how to navigate without it. The change was confusing, and the revised map difficult to understand. Eventually, I realized that my other landmarks were still there, and that as long as I remembered what Andy signified for me, he would always guide me despite no longer having a physical presence on my map.

Most recently, a large landslide covered my newly paved route. Technically, it would be classified as a “debris slide”—messy, unconsolidated, a mixture of rocks, soil and organic material. I’m not sure what precipitated the slide, but there it is in all it’s glory, unwelcome, unsummoned, and not likely to go away on its own. This thing is big. Well, it’s big to me. It’s a complicated mass, and it’s covering my road. Now it’s on my map.

The last time I checked my map, it was fine. A couple of the roads had been upgraded; my current one recently went from graded gravel to paved. Now, there’s a big ol’ landslide on the map. If I were on a freeway, I could just exit, but I seem to be trapped on a curvy two-lane road with no place to turn around. In addition to the Slippery When Wet sign, someone forgot to post the Falling Rocks sign. Even though the bulk of the hill is down, I keep getting hit by small airborne rocks.

So I’m back at studying the map. The new map. I’m reviewing the old maps, to see if there was a small ripple in a contour that hinted long ago of this latest development in my life. I am trying to grasp the scale and ramifications of this event. I know that landslides slide until they reach equilibrium. They stop when they are stable, and move when something has thrown them into disequilibrium again. I know that there area no easy fixes for large slides. All people can do in response is try to stabilize the mass. This may require a lengthy process of re-grading the hillside and excavating debris.

If you ask me if I’m up to the task, I’ll definitely say, No. If I wanted to deal with landslides, I’d have become an engineering geologist. Grouchily, I’ll concede that perhaps structural geologists do have some skills to help them deal with landslides, so I reluctantly put on the hard hat, reflective orange vest, and begin by mapping the slide for myself. Several people have posted signs for me. They all say the same thing: SLOW. I’ll take that to mean that the work will be slow.

I’m hoping that when the task is done, the newest map will show a helpful landmark instead of a barrier of debris, and a stable mass instead of unpredictable flow. Whatever the outcome, I’ll at least I’ll know a lot more about landslides, and my map will contain more detail than before.

While I resent the intrusion on my path, I have to take this as something that adds more definition to the normal contours of life, and I must look behind me at the part of the map that covers my life thus far. The well defined landscape, sculpted by faults, textured by sediment, smoothed by water, and polished with ice, stands in stark contrast to the unfilled expanse before me. I have to admit that, it’s easier to find your way on a map with varied terrain and lots of detail, than on a featureless map with bloated roads and no topography.