August 12, 2012
Note – spotty interwebs and the site was down for maintenence yesterday evening. This is from Saturday night.
So many fossils my head is spinning. But I can’t take the whole mountain home, now can I? I have the rest of this very short field work week to decide how to work on what we’ve found. We answered so many questions today that we replaced them with incredible new ones. This is why science is always so much fun, and always a challenge.
It’s honestly difficult to type this up because I’ve been conversing in Spanish so much today that I’m now thinking in Spanish. I’ve got to keep it up because the one person fluent in both English and Spanish just left!
And WOW but these geologists are amazing. I was all wrong earlier when I said mining geologists and I speak different languages. Many of them study sedimentology – seafloor muck layer systems – less than your average oil guy, sure. But these guys are damn fine geologists. With the help of Dra. Rosas, they knew exactly what I wanted to look for, and beat me to finding it every time. “!Sus ojos!” I’d explaim; your eyes! And Julio would answer, “Por los mineralos”; for the minerals. And wouldn’t you know it. The higher-ups needed to go back to work, but they left us with Julio, who has the finest ojos in the group. So my team of nine is becoming a team of five or six. If I can manage to Spanglish my way through my ambitious research plan in the morning, I think my biggest challenge will be thinking fast enough to best use the talents of my host geologists and the spectacular fossils we’ve found.
Now the fossils themselves are either tiny or ugly, such that I don’t have great photos to share. And I don’t want to post photos of the specific rock outcrops or fossil groups – to keep our work private. But for those interested, the next post will be a mini-paleontology lesson.
Our driver grew up here in the countryside on the Alto Plano, the high planes between the western and eastern cordillera; two mountain belt systems that formed through time due to plate collision, with the requisite earth quakes and volcanoes. Dra. Rosas thought we wouldn’t see native lifestock, but sure enough, today we saw alpacas and llamas. !!Ahora, estoy seguro que estoy en Peru!! Now I am sure I’m in Peru!!
Other animal sightings in last 2 days: pigs, goats, sheep, dogs EVERYWHERE, horses, cows, gulls.
Meals: trout, fried trout, mashed yucca, boiled potatoes, local goat cheese, chicken soup. Repeat.
August 10, 2012
Hola! I have tons of pictures and video to post, but we just arrived back at the hotel after a long dinner with the geologists, so I have to go to bed pronto to be up on time in the morning. Until visuals, enjoy these descriptions of the day:
WOW. This road into the mountains is the main – and until recently, only paved – Andean highway. With only one lane each direction, it connects Peru’s Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. Today we rode it through a river-carved canyon, past the crowded foothill towns, into the mining districts, and across the South American continental divide.
The scientific experience I’m receiving completely surpasses any expectations I had, ever. Years ago I thought I would work in Peru at the beginning of my PhD. It is amazing that I am here now instead. As grad students, we celebrate myopic concentration on specific problems. But now that I’m here, I see how my work relates to a completely different world.
I just can’t describe the elation of being here with this amazing team of people. In addition to chairs from the USC Earth Sciences Department and Peru’s PUCP Mining Engineering department, joining us is the chief geologist and several other geologists from the PanAmerican mining company. Wow. Picture all of us, standing around a geologic map, standing on the South American continental ddivide. Little children bundled up in wool coats, swarming to sell us sweets, joined our huddle to stare at the strange map. And Dr. Rosas explained my dissertation work to the collected geologists, and said, “Todo es paleontologia!”; It’s all paleontology. They nodded and added agreements in Spanish. With my mix of spanglish, I’m able to explain my work, and ask questions, and it’s a totally amazing field seminar.
I’m an ecologist. I’m a time traveling ecologist. I want to know how animals recovered from a mass extinction. Studying marine invertebrates is completely different from studying terrestrial vertebrates, like dinosaurs. The animals I study don’t just get caught up in rocks. They create rocks. The animals that are alive in the sea drive the construction of whole worlds of rock, which, millions of years later, determine the location and availability of valuable human resources.
The mines themselves have long plagued society here with ignorant environmental devastation. Now the larger companies, if continually held responsible by the government, are investing uncounted millions into the education, research, infrastructure, engineering, and chemistry to create sustainable mineral resource management. Rocks and metallurgy are at the very heart of Peruvian culture from ancient times. Now the resources that built this computer I’m typing on and the airplane that flew me here have the power to pay for the needed environmental and civil infrastructure the people here need.
As a lifelong treehugger, looking into open pit mines alongside alpine lakes and bleach-white cliffs devastated by irresponsible mining many decades ago, it is strange that I feel a swelling confidence that people can, if they work cleverly, make this right. Dr. Rosas is passionate about the changes sweeping this industry and her university, and her students are learning how to process, isolate, and manage mining wastes from previous generation’s misuse.
Today we looked at cliffs and drove to mountain overlooks to survey the land we’ll be hunting for fossils all week. We would have started hunting today, but the geologists had to explain to a farmer that no, we are not looking for ore, and we are not looking to start any new mines in his area, so he would let us pass by a road he’d blocked near his farm. How to explain how esoteric, academic, and altogether non-lucrative the work that Dave and I do!? But the geologists were in their company outfits; he was necessarily cynical and explained wrongs the defunct 1970s company Cerro de Pasco did to him and his neighbors. Big changes in mining, big changes in geology; we’re just here to learn about the past, so we can better manage the future. After a long talk and showing him all of our university identifications, “de siencias”, he agreed to let us return on Wednesday morning. His son looked on curiously with his herding dogs. The old man shook our hands again, and seemed impressed at least with how far we’ve come to see his “rockas”. He may even come with us, and – crossing my fingers – we can show him his fossilized neighbors.
August 9, 2012
I keep promising myself I’ll go to bed sooner…
It’s been a whirlwind of microscope time and also getting to know our collaborator and her beautiful university. She took us to lunch and a tour around the campus. The arcitecture is a mix of mid century, local cubey-modular, and very modern.
Plus they have deer – wild deer – grazing around campus. This campus is surrounded by bustling Lima on all sides, so there’s nowhere for these deer to go but on campus. They’re totally docile and get along with the students. They don’t even eat the flowers!
Here’s a model the mining students made of the Chilean mining collapse and rescue route – I recognized it from a diagram at the Smithsonian from my visit last month. The Smithsonian has the escape pod on display. It’s so eerie.
We were in a rush to pack up so I had Dave catch a picture of what I’ve been doing all this time. Very glamorous! I especially love the dopey racoon face I have; combination of blinking and the goofy impressions the eyepieces leave on my face.
In the morning a truck picks us up early. I’ve packed everything back together with my gear ready for action. As we’ll be at elevation – over 5k meters! – we will not hike much tomorrow. I’m so excited to finally see these rocks. I’ve been looking at photographs and, now, microscopic images of them for so long. And before this trip I was holed up in my Los Angeles apartment for months doing math. It will be AMAZING to see real rocks, and hunt for our favorite fossils, once again!
August 8, 2012
Time for bed and a big day tomorrow. Nothing drastic to report. I’ve been ghost hunting all day.
Most things that live on planet Earth go extinct without leaving a fossil behind.
Today I’ve been ghost hunting. I’m searching microscope slides for pieces of ancient sponges that have been almost entirely obliterated by time and minerals.
It’s hard enough to even begin to preserve microscopic glass needles from a squishy sea floor sponge. Then the sediments became rocks, got buried under kilometers of other rocks, got cooked by contacting hot volcanic eruptions, and got uplifted and exposed in the enormous Andes mountains. A lot goes on during 201,300,000 years!
Maybe I’ll find more, and maybe I won’t. Either way, Friday we head to the Andes to look for fossils. I want to know what the marine ecology looked like on the shores of Pangea after a mass extinction. It’s not like I expect this to be easy. It’s time travel, and ghost hunting. I’m a Greek myth right now!
August 7, 2012
Ah, a quiet night in Lima. So much work to do! But this blog is a welcome way to procrastinate and process what we’ve done today.
I got to sleep around 3am; customs took about an hour longer than we expected, but was otherwise pleasant.
Honking notwithstanding, life in the touristy areas of Peru seems surprisingly laid back. Visitors and locals seem comfortable with their setting. The streets around Miraflores are packed with tourists, business people, ditch diggers, taxi workers, security guards, and police in determined expressions.
Dave and I walked to the coast to get our bearings, then headed to the Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru. Like our beloved USC, PUCP was a giant construction zone with classes out of session. We met with the chair of the engineering and mines department, Dr. Rosas. We had much to discuss; our field work starting Friday, her plans for new geology classes at the University, the rocks themselves. Dr. Rosas earned degrees published in Spanish, German, and English. Amazing!
And she’s an enviable organizer. All the microscope slides from her dissertation research are carefully numbered, stored in wooden boxes, and keyed to descriptions in her dissertation. Yikes! Dave and I marveled; what if a plucky young student from another contient comes to look at MY thin sections in 20 years? I should probably at least formalize my terribly haphazard system of nicknames for sponge-bearing rock units…
Then the best part – her new petrographic microscope with a color camera and computer attached. Heavenly! I’ve gotten spoiled using sedimentologist Frank Corsetti’s scope at USC, and didn’t guess I’d have access to a scope camera here.
So with a few hours to go, the hunt began. Microscope slides of rocks are fascinating; you can see every crystal of every grain of sand, the details in bubbles of muck that formed around sea shell fragments, even little burrows from microbes that bored into shells. The detail, however, is daunting. Overwhelming. In fact, the crystals are often new features that obliterated fossil fragments. I can play with the light and focus to find the ghosts of shells that disolved 200 million years ago. Spooky, no?
At first I felt like a kid in a candy store with so many slides – hundreds! to look at. Soon, though, it felt overwhelming. After all, Dr. Rosas worked on these for years herself. Is there anything special, some little clue, hidden among some of the slides that will help us decide where to look for fossils on Friday?
All day long people ask us, “Oh, when are you going to Cuzco?”, that being the hub for Machu Pichu travel. No one can really understand why we’re staying in Lima. At least half of the science that seems to happen on these expeditions happens in our heads, happens in hotels, happens while we’re standing in line at customs on the way back to US soil. When I’m not in the microscope room I’m thinking about the minerals and fossils I saw today. We’re talking over dinner about what to say in my talk next Wednesday.
Oh! Yes. Dr. Rosas invited me to give a talk at the Geological Society meeting on Wednesday. I jumped at the chance – but it will be a ton of work. Though I can do the talk in English, the audience will be “economic geologists”, miners. We speak very, very different languages. I may as well try to give the talk in French!
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.
Yes, we made it to Lima and it’s beautiful! A great flight, no troubles. In a little later than expected. I’ll be up around 10:30 local time tomorrow, and ready to go to the university.
We took a taxi through town from the airport. Much of it feels like home, like Los Angeles. But the poverty is more pronounced, the building codes and practices more haphazard in the poor areas. For various reasons we’re staying at a fine hotel in the very clean touristy area of Miraflores. It’s beautiful.
I was able to converse with the cab driver well enough particularly because we drove along the coast. We talked about when people go to the beach, comparisons to LA. He was very familiar with Santa Monica and Malibu beaches from television. When reviewing spanish recently, mostly I could remeber sentences about going to the beach. I thought they would be totally useless in our academic setting, but at least I could use them tonight.
It really reminds me of an Eddie Izzard bit about how we know stock phrases of other languages that become impractical in daily situations. If anybody can post a link in the comments I’ll love you forever!
Well buenas noches! Pictures and posts I wrote on the plane tomorrow. Now for a good night’s sleep!!
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.