August 7, 2012
Charles Darwin, writing on the HMS Beagle, January 11, 1832:
“Again did I admire the rapid course of the setting sun. — It did not at first occur to me that it was owing to the change of Latitude”
I was reading through my old notes from a class about Darwin and noticed the snippet above. Moments ago I glanced out the window and thought, “Damn but it is so dark out!” It’s 6:40 pm California time. What Darwin experienced during five years at sea we can now experience in hours. I’m flying into the night. Soon I’ll be flying into the winter. I am a Greek myth right now.
10:02 California time. Soon we’ll be descending into Lima. Baggage check, a taxi to the hotel.
I’m crossing my fingers I get enough sleep to act sensibly tomorrow. Tomorrow is a big day. In the afternoon we’ll go to the university and meet the chair of the geology department. She wrote her dissertation on these rocks, specifically, how they formed 200 million years ago in the crucible of plate tectonic motion.
While I’m in Lima, my favorite seismologist is flying to Alaska. What, do we think California’s mighty San Andreas fault is too boring?
[If you’re reading this and live in southern California, stop by the market later today for a couple gallons of water to store in your home. The southern San Andreas is overdue for what Angelenos cheerfully call, “the big one”.]
The San Andreas cuts right through California. People joke that California will “fall off” of North America but actually it’s just the opposite. California is built out of geological what-nots that SLAMMED onto the side of North America. Conveniently for us, the famous San Andreas represents the seam between the true North American plate and the enormous Pacific plate. Right now, around North America, the two are basically sliding past each other. So whatever earthquakes the San Andreas and friends dish out will be at least a mutual affair. In the grand scheme, both plates get what they want.
Consider two plates colliding head-on. Look at Peru via Google Satelite. Google now includes details of the seafloor topography; now we can look right at the seams the separate these tectonic plates that are hidden under water. It took geologists decades to find and interpret this information, and now any ten year old can google it on an iphone. Mind boggling!
Via Google we can see a chunk of crust under the ocean named the Nazca plate. This one is diving under Peru right now. Only, I wouldn’t call it a mutual affair between the plates. No, this one is very unpleasant. At their collision, an enormous belt of mountains forms – those mountains are my destination on Friday.
When Charles Darwin sailed around South America on the HMS Beagle, he was as much a geologist as biologist. But he, like the rest of his society, was totally baffled at the puzzles hidden in rocks and fossils. The very concept that a mountain of sedimentary rocks might have formed slowly over time was still a new topic of discussion. How MUCH time was hotly debated and politically perilous.
Enter Darwin, young, rich, curious, and very sea sick. He spent much of his journey exploring the land while the ship surveyed the coast. [His entire diary from the five year trip is online, and is a fascinating read. Insofar as I have time I’ll find and share snippets.] Darwin marveled at sea shells high up on coastal cliffs. Did the sea level fall or did the cliffs rise up?
Before long Darwin got an answer first hand. He was in the forest in Chile when a huge earthquake shook the land, literally knocking him on his butt. Later the Beagle traveled north to Conception, which was wrecked terribly in the quake. Because of his earlier observations, Darwin recognized rocks moving up, containing the fossils of sea shells from an earlier time. This process built the mountains that contain sea shells from the Mesozoic, fossils I hope to recognize later this week in the field.
It’s pretty convenient for me. Animals lived and died on the seafloor 200 million years ago, and I get to wait for them to be moved about and exposed in beautiful mountains, where I just show up and look at them. Time travel, made easy.
Ah, ready for descent. Time to pack up, and turn off the computer. Next time I write will likely be after my first day at the university.
I often say this (even on my facebook page) when I’m excited about my research. I don’t mean it in a competitive way; I’m not the type to brag about being up all night running experiments in the lab. I tried that in college; it didn’t work out too well. I was dissecting octopus eyeballs to make slides for a laser microscope, but I kept nodding off while processing them at 2am. When I say “Science never sleeps!” the subtext is, “but I do!”
Work/life balance is tough in any career, but it can be especially tricky in science. I’m concerned that I can’t keep up with changes in my field, or the peripheral disciplines that affect my research. Or if I can, how do I keep up with the rest of my life?
Two weeks ago I began preparing specifically for this trip. Until that point I’d been pushing other projects so hard that August seemed half a year away. Also two weeks ago, my two closest friends took a sudden opportunity to move to Portland. When I get back to Los Angeles, it won’t be the same.
I’ve been a close friend with Jen for about fourteen years, and with her husband Paul for about 7. Above is a picture of Jen and I at her fabulous wedding last year. Since I moved from their hip Silver Lake neighborhood last winter I’ve missed walking up the street to watch movies on lazy evenings. Now I’ll miss brunches where we’d review the week’s developments in the music business, comedy scene, and paleontology finds. I’ll miss that moment in each conversation when Jen shrugs and says, ‘They’re just rocks’, and Paul wants to know more about the specific fossils and physics.
Saturday afternoon I found myself still on campus, pouring over my sponge fossils one by one, organizing and packing and planning. It was time to leave for Jen’s going-away barbeque, which was characteristically festive if a little bittersweet.
Now I’m on an airplane bound for South America, into the land of Darwin’s confusion and birthplace of the potato. Out my window, between the equatorial storm clouds, I can see just a narrow slice of spectacular sunset. Brilliant pink and tangerine on a single white cloud sandwiched between the grey.
Academic life will keep me moving for a few years, I guess. It’s lucky I got to live in the same town as long-time friends for most of my PhD years. It’s just tough to be a grown up, and to watch the wonderful adventures and opportunities we gain also draw us apart.
Written over the southern tip of Mexico, 6:15 California time.
5:03 pm California time
We’re flying over the Sea of Cortez between Baja California and the rest of continental Mexico. A teen near me has been watching a Justin Beiber documentary for what seems like several hours. I guess we’ve only been in the air about two. Back at the gate in LAX, boarding started so abruptly that I shut down my laptop immediately to queue up. I laughed because my attempt at social media, which requires constant updating, was woefully inadequate. Anyone actually “following” me would wonder if I ever made it on board.
The flight has been very pleasant so far. It’s a packed plane, but everyone seems relaxed, owing in part to little televisions set in every seat. This is only my third time leaving the United States, and my domestic travel standards are very low budget. Consequently I am totally impressed by airplanes, especially international flights. Free wine!
Comedian Louie CK famously summarized the foolishness of whining about airplanes this way:
“You’re on a chair in the SKY. You’re a Greek myth right now!”
It’s good advice about life in general, for those of us lucky enough to sit around writing and reading travel blogs. Since seeing that comedy bit, my friends and I remind each other often not to take the conveniences, and even the slight inconveniences, of modern technology for granted. We’re all very lucky to be here.
August 6, 2012
Here I go bragging about how easy the trip is, and we’ve already got our first amorphus, cryptic delay. They’re checking the plane for something technical. An hour after the originally scheduled take-off, we should have info about a new take-off time.
This is the only daily non-stop flight to Lima from LAX.
For my part, the delay doesn’t mean much. Maybe they’ll send us home and I fly tomorrow. It would be lousy to get routed through Miami… I was really looking forward to starting at the university tomorrow with a full tank of sleep. So far, these delays are just an opportunity to practice my spanish. I listen carefully to the first announcement, try to translate it, and get the english version right after! Fun!
Its rough, though, for people who have connections, or have come a long way to be here. The terminal is packed now. many people are lining the isles because they were standing, anticipating boarding. The clerk actually announced that we would board in ten minutes then… Well I’d rather have a delay than a technical problem in the air.
July and August are the hight of tourist season in the Andes. Next to me are some russians with bags from Hawaii and big packs of outdoor gear for the ruins ahead. Many of the tourists here are headed to Machu Pichu. Most people who ask about my trip assume that’s where I’m going. A dear family friend who led university trips through the region for decades could not BELIEVE that I would be in Peru two weeks with no archeological tourism plans.
Mostly, though, it seems like people here have been visiting the states and are returning home. Families, young children, business men, stately older couples with carefully coiffed hair. They’re gathered around iphones or newspapers, stratified by decade. A healthy smattering of ipads. Actually, given the free internet and the electronic devices on hand – mine included – this is the least grumbling I’ve ever heard out of a room full of people delayed an hour At Least.
Dave, for his part, is always cool as a cucumber. He’s just relaxing into his New York Times like this is any Sunday morning over breakfast. I am a compulsive worrier. I rarely relax, but when I do, I feel guilty and assured there’s something I should be worried about. I’ve been trying to turn over a new leaf the past year or so, and it’s going well.
Another hour on the ground is just another hour to read. When I get on the rocks, everything will become finite, questions will be answered. Until then, I have time to imagine what we might see, and to create the questions themselves.
WOW. I’ve never had an experience like this at LAX. No lines at checkout, no lines in security, polite clerks everywhere. And now free internet? I’m convinced I’m still in my bed dreaming and in fact will miss my flight…
Easy traffic too! So I’ve arrived before Dave, with a full two hours before we board. I’ve got a bagel and some orange juice, you know, so I can carbo load before sitting on my duff for 8 hours.
It’s remarkable how easy everything has been so far, logistically. Our Peruvian collaborators have been outstandingly prompt and easy going with recommendations and reservations for the past six months. Part of my brain isn’t remotely contemplating the journey I’m starting, but my body is here and so is my luggage, so I guess it’s really happening.
This is my carryon bag, amusingly. In it I’ve got all my electronics, my camera, my gps, brunton compus, microscope slides, laptop, sweater, leisure reading, etc. It’s an amazing field pack for hauling rocks – one of the first packs ever made with an internal frame. It was my mother’s, and she gave it to me when I started grad school. With it she packed a dissertation’s supply of trilobite fossils out of Nevada’s Great Basin, now a national park. We’ll see, in a week’s time, whether I find any rocks worth hauling.
It’s funny now, looking at this picture. I took it during my first short research trip out to Nevada, in 2008. I was still looking for snails back then. A lot has changed.
Ah! Dave is here too, after patiently wrangling his reservation with airline staff. I’ll get settled, then write about the geology of our destination and adventures the last few days. Writing for this blog will be a nice way to break up the 8 hr flight.