Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Life, the universe, and everything:

A recent letter that has come, individually, to almost every program officer in the Earth Sciences Division:

"Mr. Filmer:

I have been a Professional Engineer for over thirty years. I have a BS in Civil Engineering from Michigan Technological University and a MS in Civil Engineering from Michigan State University. I have a broad background of experience and a long-standing interest in rocks and geology.
I have spent several years in puzzling over the process of periodic uplift and subsidence of large areas of rocks that has resulted in the formation of sedimentary rock formations. The simple word ¡§uplifted¡¨ is used extensively by scientists but, even though understanding the process is basic to understanding nearly all aspects of geology; though evidence of the process of uplift is abundant on all of the continents; and though uplift has been the subject of considerable research, concern and debate in the geological research community; scientists do not seem to understand the very basis of the phenomenon itself. It is certainly not well-explained by any scientific hypothesis that is related to the subject. ¡§Confusion reigns!¡¨

I have used engineering principles and analysis; principles of physics, hydraulics, thermodynamics, and mechanics of materials; integrative theory; logical deduction; my own investigations and observations; the sifting of extensive existing data and analyses; physical laws; common sense, experience, the process of elimination, and other problem-solving techniques to study the mechanics of the process. As indicated above, the process is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather is closely related to most aspects of geology. Attempting to do geological research without understanding this basic process is much like shooting in the dark and hoping to hit something.
I believe that I can explain well beyond a reasonable doubt how the process has functioned and, because the topics are closely related, why many overthrusts, ¡§out of order¡¨ formations, mountain chains, continental shelves, discontinuities, and islands exist as they do; why the continents are configured as they are; why there are terrestrial features on continental shelves; why there are land fossils in sea-deposited rocks; why there are tropical fossils in polar regions; why there are fossil similarities of cross-Atlantic sediments; why many of the rock formations were deposited in shallow-sea conditions; why some petroleum occurs where it does; why the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge are where they are; why some of the Earth¡¦s basic physical processes are as they are; and the reasons for the differences between oceanic and continental crust.

In addition, I believe I can resolve the questions concerning continental drift beyond a reasonable doubt, especially as it relates to the concepts of the following which need to be revised or put to rest completely:

?« Plate tectonics, wrench tectonics, surge tectonics,
?« Seafloor spreading
?« Lemuria, Atlantis, Hyperborea, The Imperishable Sacred Land
?« Rodinia, Pangaea, Laurasia, Gondwanaland,
?« India¡¦s ¡§flight and movement¡¨ into Tibet, and
?« The ¡§fit¡¨ of Africa and South America.

I am well aware that the above suggests much too broad of a scope for a single research project, but the fact is that the process of uplift and subsidence is such a very basic (but misunderstood) factor in the Earth¡¦s history that all of the above topics are actually very closely related to the process, each in its own way, and as such are an integral part of the explanation of it or it explains them. The pieces fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Also, a large part of the proof of my explanation is the extent to which it embraces the findings of other researchers regarding these topics. I may not have extracted the same conclusions from the basic data they have gathered, but my explanation seems to be in accord with much of previously accumulated data that I have studied and with physical reality and I believe it demonstrates well beyond a reasonable doubt the validity or invalidity of the conclusions they drew from their research as well as my conclusions.
This study has the very probable potential of completely changing long-standing ideas as to the Earth¡¦s history and some of its processes.
Because of its wide-ranging applicability and the close correlation of the above-listed topics, it is expected that the results of this research will revolutionize the present state of knowledge in the field. All who study any aspect of the processes that have affected the Earth from Precambrian times to the present will benefit from this study.

It will shed new light on the basic processes which formed sedimentary rocks and subsequently elevated them which should aid in further discovery of natural resources, including offshore oil and gas, a very important economic activity in the world.

The broader impacts of the study are that it will contribute significant information concerning an obscure period and the substantial increase in knowledge will provide the basis for major revisions in the scientific understanding of prehistorical processes. The study results are multi-disciplinary and will have a profound effect on the research fields of Continental Dynamics, Archaeology and Archaeometry, Geophysics, Hydrologic Sciences, Petrology and Geochemistry, Tectonics, Geography and Regional Sciences, Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics, Marine Geology and Geophysics, Paleoclimatology, as well as Sedimentary Geology and Paleobiology.

Researchers who are working on a broad range of problems worldwide will benefit directly and measurably from the results. The results of this research will provide future investigators with a solid integrated foundation for further geologic studies rather than a jumble of nebulous, ill-founded hypotheses. This study will provide members of the scientific community with a scientific and structured understanding of their geologic environment that is 99% certain rather than being 90% nebulous. It also will provide an educational resource for students as they study geology such that they can appreciate the relationship among Earth's development, geologic events, and the history of life.

My questions are: I have spent literally thousands of hours researching this subject and puzzling over what I have observed and the meanings of the findings of very reputable researchers attempting to put the puzzle pieces together. Is there any way that the time I have spent on this research can be included in a grant? Can a grant be awarded for a set amount based on attainment of a specific goal (explanation of all of the above-listed
phenomena) rather than being based on time spent after award of the grant?
Considering the knowledge, skill, and ability required to assemble the giant jigsaw puzzle, the great amount of time spent in doing so, and the apparent inability of anyone else being able to do so, would it be reasonable to apply for a grant of $4,000,000 as a flat rate consultant fee? I realize that that is a lot of money for one research project, but on the other hand, a lot more has been spent on unproductive research related to the listed phenomena and this should help your organization avoid spending a lot more on research that is based on a poor foundation.

Thank you for your consideration of this matter.

**Name and address removed for safety reasons**

At $4 million, the solutions to all these quandaries are a bargain. What do you say, fellow taxpayers?

As required, I sent a polite reply outlining the application procedure. He might well have *the answer,* but here at NSF, everyone gets in line. Even Nobel Prize winners.

Now, back to being 90% nebulous.

 Monday, November 27, 2006

Mountains of chow mein

The city of Bogotá, Colombia, is built on an ancient lake bed. The sediments forming the bottom of this prehistoric lake form a flat area, or sabana that sits at about 8,600 feet above sea level between large mountain ranges. The city is crammed up against the mountains of the Eastern side of the sabana, and as it has grown, the city has spread out far to the North and South. When my parents arrived there separately in the early 1950's, there were about 300,000 people in the city. Now there are over 8 million.

In some areas of the sabana, mountain tops protrude from the flat plain. The Suba mountain is like a whale's back, humped before submerging again in the millennial ooze of the sabana. The mountain used to have a line of trees running along the top of it that from certain perspectives reminded me of Queequeeg's mohawk (as I pictured it, anyway). Lately it seems to be more encrusted with the barnacles of suburban sprawl.

The most memorable part of the mountains is how different they were from day to night. Daylight showed them fuzzy with eucalyptus and pine trees, slowly merging with the strange vegetation of the high-altitude páramo: strange plants that looked like they belonged in the Devonian era. On our rare walks up there, before it became an act of suicide to wander into the territory of leftist guerillas, we discovered many wonderful waterfalls among the varied rock formations. These thin streams drenched the surrounding blue lichen-encrusted trees with a frigid spray.

The most striking daylight feature of the mountains were their scars. These scars were either fire scars, dark black and spread out over the mountain crests like the ones that dropped cinders into my cradle in 1964, or bright yellow scars at the mountain's base, left by cement plant excavations inexorably gnawing away at the sandstone buttresses in order to build the city below. One only had to look at the scar pattern of the Eastern skyline to know where one was in the city.

By night, the mountains were completely different. The extent of the barrios' reach into the mountains became clear. Thousands upon thousands of clear lightbulbs twinkled in the freezing air, reaching up in sweeping arcs across the slopes. Because the sky was jet-black, the mountains disappeared, and it often looked like a trail of sparks from a firework had been frozen, suspended against the sky. When there were fires, the main impression was that the bright flames were much nearer than reality, and could be quite frightening. My memories of the largest fires, during the early 1960's are probably much contaminated by a series of black and white photographs that my father took of them.

One drive in the mountains spelled the end of Chinese food for me for several decades. Very early on, perhaps still in the 1960's, I was alone with my father on a drive down to the town of Villavicencio. Villavo, as it is known, is only a few tens of miles from Bogotá. By air, anyway. By land, in our old green Jeep Willy's, it was several hundred miles over some of the most fantastic landscape imaginable. Tiny whitewashed towns clung stolidly to green cliffs, and townspeople would glare over their tables covered in empty brown bottles of Bavaria beer at the passing cars. Between the clouds below, one might spot the towns on the other side of the valley, which could only be got to by going back to Bogotá and taking a different route, or by braving side roads that more often than not petered out into boulder strewn horse-trails.

The approach to Villavo and its cursed Chinese restaurant is still spectacular. After hours of winding around on cut-backs and only being able to see a few miles across the valley, the Western front of the Andes is amazingly abrupt. One single curve, and suddenly there is an expanse of flat land far below spreading out as far as the eye can see. It was my first sight of the llanos, or the plains. This was the "wild West" of Colombia, where there were still whole new economies waiting to be developed: cocaine and petroleum. But in those days it was still the land of the cattle ranchers, beautiful harp music, and my first taste of chow mein.

I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but I do remember it was pretty typical of the region: fluorescent lamps hung with bare wires from the steel beams holding up the Eternit tile ceiling, casting their blue light on high-gloss paint walls, and onto a dull green, white and red tile floor. Formica and aluminium tables were surrounded by spindly chairs covered in red plastic. A calendar with a see-through Jesus, posters for Marlboro and more Bavaria beer were on the wall, along with an inevitable Chinese character or two for "health" or "prosperity."

What is permanently etched into my mind is the taste of the pepper I bit into that day. Some fiery combination of vinegar and capsicum was lurking in an innocent green sliver, and my throat went into paroxysms very early on into the meal. Typical of a young eater's response, I refused to touch anything else on the plate. I don't remember the details, but I do remember my father's annoyance, and attempts to get me to try something else.

I did not eat Chinese food again for many, many years. Exactly when I started again is lost - it was a non-event compared to the pepper incident. I have been back to Villavicencio several times since then, and I always look for Chinese restaurants in which to eat, in order to finally reconquer the town.