Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Rio Grande Birding

I have been doing quite a lot of traveling in the past month. Home on Long Island for Thanksgiving, then right after that a week in San Francisco for AGU, then a week back at Rice tying up some loose ends, then a road trip with Ben Van Allen down into the Lower Rio Grande Valley for some spectacular birding, and now, back home on Long Island again for the Christmas break. Below, mostly photos and some annotations about our RGV trip:

The weather was not the best - it rained both days we were down there, and it was cold and overcast the whole time. But, such is life and nature! We still got to see some great birds, 17 lifebirds for me: great kiskadee, green jay, plain chachalaca, clay-colored robin, long-billed thrasher, curve-billed thrasher, buff-bellied hummingbird, Altamira oriole, hooded oriole, Audubon's oriole, least grebe, cinnamon teal, to name a few. Green jay and Altamira oriole (in fact all the orioles we saw.. and orioles in general!) were my favorite. I felt like i was in almost a tropical place with green jays flapping overhead, kiskadees screeching, and plain chachalacas bumbling about everywhere. Here are some bird photos, taken by ncisco for AGU, then a week back at Rice tying up some loose ends, then a road trip with Ben:

Green Jay

Green Jay


Altamira oriole

Least Grebe. This bird is so awesome. It's tiny, and it zooms around the pond like a total badass. When we first saw it, it was in cruising in front of a Northern Shoveler, and we were like, "what the heck is that? is it a baby? but wait... babies don't swim in front of the parents! it kind of looks like a grebe... but its way too small for a pied-billed grebe..."

Vermilion flycatcher - surreal brilliance amidst dead winter snags.

Clay-colored robin

Here are some non-bird photos of the rainy trip:

Palm trees (forgot the name of the big one but I think the little one is Sabal minor) at Frontera Thicket

Raindrops on fronds of huisache (I think?)

Winter landscape in Santa Ana NWR. There are 2 American pipits sitting in this tree, and an entire flock of them on the ground (not visible in the photo).

Spanish moss balls.

We followed a big winter flock full of orange-crowned warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, black-crested titmice, ruby-crowned kinglets (i saw the ruby crown raised for the first time!!!) through this thicket. Ben also saw a white-eyed vireo here, but I didn't see it. We did see a blue-headed vireo though... so I didn't go home vireoless.

It was incredibly muddy at Santa Ana. Texas coastal floodplain mud is extremely clayey and sticky, that after walking a few steps, we accrued almost an entire shoe's worth of mud.

Having fun flinging off the mud.

We also studied a colony of leafcutter ants intently at Frontera Thicket for a while. These insects are amazing! What looked like bike tire tracks in the dirt were really paths cleared by the ants hauling leaf bits to their nest.

And finally - a picture of us hanging out with Santa on the visitor center deck at Estero Llano Grande SP.

Monday, November 7, 2011

California wildflowers pressed

Lupine, California poppy, mountain jewelflower.
Collected summer 2011 in the Sierras, CA.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Birds, triple junctions

These past few weeks, I've been out birding most mornings with a small group of people at Rice. We bird a few spots around Rice campus, and we've seen some great birds, such as a Townsend's warbler, Cassin's vireo, Le Conte's sparrow, among lots of other migrants and winter birds. I really enjoy it and it's a great way to start the day. Sometimes it's hard pulling myself out of bed, but every time I fall back asleep I think to myself, "what if I miss a cool bird that's only going to stay at Rice for 8 hours?!". Even if I don't see a cool new bird, it's still a rewarding experience - just to walk in nature during the quiet hours of the early morning, is enough to make me happy. Now that I have better binoculars, I'm becoming a bit more of a serious birder. This weekend I tallied up all the birds I have seen since I started birding, which is back in 2009, when I went and witnessed spring migration for the first time at High Island, TX. If it weren't for Cin-Ty, my advisor and Rice's resident Bird Man, I wouldn't have seen such cool birds. Just to name a few: Hudsonian godwit (April 2010), California condor (Summer 2010), vermilion flycatcher (OK, not a rare bird, but an AMAZING bird... Big Bend, Summer 2011), Fork-tailed flycatcher (TX coast), etc. Anyway, after I went through my old field notebooks and the bird book, I tallied up 215 species. Not yet a huge number, but hopefully in the years to come, it will double, maybe even triple!

On another non-bird note, here are 3 photos of a texturally equilibrated spinel peridotite (Plane-polarized light, crossed-polarized light, crossed polars with quartz plate inserted):

This is a well-equilibrated sample, meaning that most grain boundaries meet at triple junctions (120 degrees). Interestingly though, the grain size is not uniform - there are still olivine grains that are large, with areas that contain mostly small, recrystallized olivine grains.

Among all the Sierran spinel peridotites, this sample is weird, mainly because it is so fine-grained. The other spinel peridotites have typical harzburgitic textures, with huge olivine grains that contain kink bands almost like accordions. I wonder if these "accordions", which are incipient subgrains, are a step towards complete textural equilibration nearly achieved by this fine-grained sample, where you have far fewer kink bands but many more individual olivine grains.

The question remains though - why is this spinel peridotite, out of all of them, so fine-grained? Did you also notice that the spinels in this sample are riddled with inclusions? Close-up below:

What the heck are these things? Maybe the inclusions are related to melt infiltration, since you can see the boundaries of the spinel are attacked by some melt or fluid. But, note that the color of these spinels is rather pale for a 30 micron thick section. This implies low degrees of melting, probably less than 20% (just an educated guess based on the color of other spinels I've seen). That's intriguing, because all other Sierran spinel peridotites have very dark spinels, indicating high melting degrees, and are extremely coarse-grained (harzburgites). What's the story with this sample? Maybe it's just an anomaly. I wonder what temperature it equilibrated with. There is orthopyroxene in it, so we can do some thermometry. But until then... it will remain mysterious.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Crisp fall morning

The end of this week a cold front passed over Houston, lingered around cloudily yesterday, and then cleared away overnight. This morning (7 am) the temperature was 50 degrees F! It felt great.

Was going through some of my old photos trying to free up disk space. Here's a green anole photographed in the small botanical garden between the Geo and Bio labs (April 2011):

Vaccinium stamineum (Big Thicket, April 2011):

And this is a Blue pea from the UCLA botanical garden (Feb 2011):

OK, now back to work sitting at the kitchen table revising a manuscript.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Update: random stuff

Haven't checked in here in a while. Lots of new things on my plate - some extensions of current projects, others new projects, others seeds of projects. I feel slightly overwhelmed, but am trying to manage my time efficiently. I believe I have learned much and grown a lot in the past year, in more ways than one. What have I done in the past year and what do I hope to do in the remaining part of the year and next?

- Submitted my first paper, which I am very proud of and happy with, but it still is not yet in press (editorial bureaucracy I guess)... sigh!
- Brought what started as a "side" project (secondary PhD proposal) to fruition. I went out on a different limb for this project and looked at metasedimentary rocks. While I greatly enjoyed working on these rocks and will continue to do so, I realized that my true passion is for ultramafic rocks and the mantle lithosphere. But, I keep my mind open! It's just that when you find true love, it comes from deep down and it's unexplainable. Other loves can be cultivated, maybe that is how my love of crustal metamorphic rocks will be like. I am, and always will be, fascinated by anything that comes from the deep parts of the Earth… peridotites, eclogites, Cr-rich garnets, diamonds…

So those are two big things I did in the past year. Of course, many other things happened… but… What do I hope to do now?

- I thought that it would be cool to model how long garnet took to form in the metaquartzite xenoliths I studied for my 2nd paper. I think I came into this too naively. After reading some papers on related studies as well as exploring ways of how to model it, I realize that it is a difficult problem (solvable of course, but I'm not sure if it's the best battle to pick at the moment). It would involve boundary conditions in the host rock that change and move continually as the host becomes depleted (or even melts), among other big assumptions on initial conditions, etc. So, this is a path I went down and perhaps found a thicket full of thorns, but maybe in the future, I will be better prepared to think about it.
- I'm not giving up hope on the diffusion modeling though. I'm going to try to model Al depletion haloes in host orthopyroxene that exsolved garnet lamellae. I think this will be an easier problem, because 1) garnet and orthopyroxene are related by a well-known and calibrated Al net transfer reaction, 2) therefore a P-T path (or isobaric and varying T or isothermal and varying P) path can be modeled where the boundary conditions of the opx and garnet obey a known relationship, and 3) I can just look at the host opx and not worry about the garnet lamellae (because there is a relationship between garnet lamellae thickness and Al depletion halo width, so knowing one will give info on the other). Moreover, I think this is a problem with broader implications than the crustal metamorphic garnet issue, because the Al-in-opx-gt problem can provide insights into the cooling rate of the sub-continental arc lithosphere.
- I started working with an undergrad, Brittany Brown, on some interesting cumulate xenoliths and basalts from the East African Rift in Tanzania. We only just started, so things are still in exploratory mode. I'm looking forward to some new data - crushing rocks with the mill, dissolving them, then analyzing them on the ICPMS. Currently Brittany analyzed a lot of minerals using the laser, and we are now in the process of looking at the data. I think it will be very interesting (more details on why in another post).
- I have a few side projects on the back burner... One project involves extending the peridotite trace element partition coefficient database to include garnet, and another involves caveats when using Al-in-opx and Fe-Mg thermometry.

Anyway… that’s what I have been up to scientifically.

On another note, I finally have gotten into birdwatching more seriously (meaning I got a good pair of binoculars!). It’s kind of addictive. It’s like treasure hunting… hunting for tiny vibrant, vivacious treasures that move and flit about rapidly (warblers). I really like it and I can see why some people are crazy about birds. When you look at them up close, they’re not only beautiful, but each one is unique and has its own behavior and mannerisms. Birds must be emotional creatures. Why do they sing even when they’re already married?

I leave you with a few photos I took last year along the California coast:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

rubber stamp bookplate

When I find myself having a few leisurely hours and when the mood strikes, sometimes I feel like making stuff (i.e. arts and crafts). I have a big box of random art supplies that I've been carrying around with me since high school and college. Mostly things like linoleum cutters, woodcut tools, sharpening stones, colored pens, dye, inks, grease crayons, string, different types of paper (including 100% cotton paper... you could wash it and dry it!), etc. So a couple weekends ago, after cleaning the house, I got the urge to make some sort of arts and craft project. I've always thought the idea of bookplates (you know, that sticker that says "Ex Libris" and has some fancy illustration of a unicorn or something..) was cool. But I didn't really have the motivation to make a bookplate (plus I always felt they were a bit pretentious). I've always loved stamps though, along with printmaking. Basically, anything carved or impregnated into a block that can be inked and repeated. So I tried a miniaturized form of printmaking - making rubber stamps from erasers. Using a white polymer eraser and some of my linoleum cutters, I made a little stamp I can imprint on all my books:

Anyway, it came out OK. It would take ink more evenly if I mounted it onto a wooden block or used a (tiny) roller. Rubber eraser stamps take no time at all to cut using linoleum tools. You do need the trough of a linoleum cutter because it's too difficult to get the rubber to gouge out evenly with just a knife blade (you get annoying eraser bits everywhere).

Here's a woodcut I made a long time ago when I was bored at home over Christmas break, using a stray piece of plywood I sanded down:

And here's a lithograph I made when I took a class in lithography in college (one of my favorite classes ever). We were lucky enough to use one of the few remaining collections of Solnhofen limestone slabs left in America. Apparently this was the same formation that Archeopteryx was found in. These stones were used before the invention of offset printing for centuries to make everything from certificates to illustrations. The grease crayon has a unique dark and moody feeling... I love looking at old lithographs. So many layers from just one color black.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Hour of the Pearl

This week I’ve been waking up quite early (by my usual standards) – 6 – 6:30 am, but also going to bed quite early too (9 – 9:30 pm). Maybe it’s a residual effect of being in Europe for a week, but I’m trying to stay on the bandwagon and continue this pattern. I even made breakfast a few days: hashed browns with green onions and cheese!

Although my body screams at me to stay comfortably ensconced in bed during the early hours of the morning, once I do get out of bed, it’s the most rewarding feeling. It’s analogous to jumping into a pool on a cold day. You know the water will be icy cold, you hesitate, invisible strings are pulling you back to stay on the ground, but after the initial few moments of shock, it’s the most refreshing feeling ever.

Getting up early I’ve come to experience what John Steinbeck called “the hour of the pearl” – that calm, almost desolate time before the sun breaks over the horizon, and when everything is bathed in mysterious pearly light. Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s the hour when the world stops and takes a breath, before the clamor of the daybreaking and all the activities that follow.

This time of day is a solitary one. Even if there are other people around me, I feel like the hour of the pearl affects us all in a different, unique way – kind of like having your own pearl if you were an oyster, something you keep hidden away and treasure and build layers upon over time. I’ve experienced it while waking up at the crack of dawn to drive up to College Station to use the electron probe at TAMU. Once I got out of the Houston city limits, I was one of the few cars on the road. The countryside was beautiful: the first of the sun through the live oaks, rolling fields, wildflowers in waste places near broken fences, swallows flitting overhead. That scene stays with me forever. Why? There’s no rational reason… it’s probably a scene that millions of people wake up to every morning, but maybe they forget to immerse themselves in it, or are too busy. I’ve experienced the hour of the pearl back home on Long Island, when I wake up before everyone else and sit by the big window at the kitchen table, watching that magical grey light outside. No birds sing yet, everything is hushed, as if waiting.

So I’m glad that I’ve been waking up early and experiencing the hour of the pearl. Somehow, I feel more prepared, if that is the correct word, for the day ahead after I’ve been still and become part of this collective tranquility.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Prague, snails and slugs, my first European adventure

Haven't checked in here in a long time - seeing as my last post was over 2 months ago. The summer has been a whirlwind: first there was CIDER at UC Berkeley for 3 weeks, then a week in the field looking at pluton-wall rock interactions, skarns, and copper porphyries in Southern California and Nevada, then a few weeks back at Rice tidying up my paper for resubmission to JPet, and then the Goldschmidt Conference in Prague, Czech Republic.

Goldschmidt was a great conference, it was a good experience to see what the latest developments in the field of geochemistry were, as well as present my own work to the community. There were lots of interesting talks, here are some of the highlights. In the session on role of continental/island arcs in crust formation, there were several talks similar to mine, which instead of looking at crustal input beneath arcs from the continent-ward side, examined the material coming in from the subducting slab side:
delta 18O and how it might be used to estimate how much supracrustal material gets into the deep crust beneath arcs (Lackey), "relamination" mechanisms and how these might be related to UHP rocks (Kelemen at al.). I also went to several Keynote talks which were really good, particularly Ionov's talk on the Siberian craton. There was also an entire session on rutile and what we can now do with it for thermobarometry in light of new experiments. There was a whole session on crustal growth models, which was packed! I also sat in on some radiogenic isotope geochemistry sessions, during one of them the talk evolved into a shouting match.

On Sunday before the conference started, I had a chance to do a little exploration of the city. Prague is beautiful. It's truly a "textbook" of architecture, where you can see so many styles and old to modern buildings that are extremely well preserved. There were many things I loved about Prague. One was how much detail is packed in everywhere you look - the city is actually quite small, you can walk all around it in a day, but everywhere you turn you need to look twice to take in all the beautiful architectural details. I loved all the amazing Art Nouveau structures, such as the balconies and doorways:

Another thing I loved about Prague was how there are gardens everywhere throughout the city. Even in the main square, there's little patches of lawn and rows of roses, lavender, and other flowers. Wandering through the city, you find yourself walking through a passageway that you have no idea where it leads, but suddenly opens up into a little secluded garden with well-tended hedges and roses.

View of the Vltava River and one of the many bridges in Prague.

Even the bus stations are natural, with grass and flowers allowed to bloom and grow like they should.

Walking around the city there are tons of Bohemian crystal shops everywhere, with incredibly ornate, bejeweled goblets and crockery (they are really into crockery here in the Czech republic... even the water glasses and light bulb covers in our barebones dorm room were crockery). I found this tiny little "souvenir shop" tucked away in a corner on a cobblestone street:

Some native Czech arts and crafts.

While attending Goldschmidt, I stayed in a dorm along with other students, located on the outskirts of the city (but it was extremely easy to get into Prague since the public transport was so close and fast). The area by the dorms was quite natural, right near the river, and with lots of trees and fields around. A few nights it rained, and the morning afterward, all the slugs and one beautiful snail came out from the woods to hang out on the sidewalk. There was a pear tree nearby which had dropped a number of pears, which began to rot and ferment on the ground - this became a feast for the slugs. Walking to the bus stop each morning, I passed by tons of slugs just feasting on the rotting pears. Some of the slugs were enormous! I identified them as Arion rufus, the European red slug (native to Europe). Check out the huge pneumostome (breathing pore) on some of these guys:

Amidst all the slugs, there was only one snail, but he was huge (about the size of a crabapple):

Seeing this snail every day made me very happy for some reason. I don't know why, but I find snails fascinating. Maybe it's how their locomotion works - they slime the ground and then ripple their giant foot. And then their shells are beautiful too, and so are their bodies, which if you look really closely are translucent and seem to shimmer sometimes. OK, that's it for now. More posts later about our field work in Southern California. It's much easier adjusting to the time change going from Europe to North America, than the other way around. It's amazing that just yesterday I was on another continent!

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Beachcombing Robert Moses, Long Island. Looked for but didn't find any seaglass. Some of the more interesting bits and pieces:

Friday, June 3, 2011

Long Island

I spent the last week back home on Long Island visiting my family and going to my sister's graduation up in Ithaca NY. I had a great time as usual, and it was nice to relax for a bit. There were still vestiges of springtime up in Ithaca, while spring had passed into summer on Long Island. I saw red-winged blackbirds in the cattails each morning we were there. For some reason, seeing a red-winged blackbird makes me happy. Maybe it's because they seem so plain at first, but when you look closer there's that bright red and yellow spot on their wings that makes them so special. The dogwoods were flowering. We drove along Cayuga Lake, one of the Upstate NY Finger Lakes. That got me to wondering - how did the Finger Lakes actually form? Although we learned a lot about the glacial geology of Long Island in middle school, I forgot if we learned about what happened further up north. I noticed that Cayuga Lake has no sandy beach like most lakes do - the "shore" is almost like a riverbank; there's no sand, only cobbles and jagged shards of slate. It drops off a bit precipitously into the water... not much of a beach. That's interesting. Then the narrowness of the lakes if you look on a map is also really interesting. They almost look like fragments of rivers. My initial theory didn't involve rivers at all though, but instead I just figured the steep sides bordering the lakes were moraines, and the lakes were valleys or low-lying pre-existing channels. Well, it turns out that the Finger Lakes were actually originally northward-flowing rivers, and were further gouged out by the Pleistocene glaciations. So the steep sides weren't moraines or remnants thereof, but just pre-existing strata (which makes a lot more sense now).

I didn't really have much time to explore Cornell unfortunately, since graduation festivities took up pretty much the whole weekend. Maybe I can go and visit in more detail some other time. Then when I was back home at my parents' house on Long Island, I woke up early a few mornings and just took long walks around the neighborhood. Reminded me of when I used to go on long bike rides, sometimes miles away from home, just to be away and alone. It's amazing, but that was only 10 years ago, and there were still farms and lots of undeveloped land in our part of LI. Now nearly everything is developed, there aren't many farms left, and the traffic is getting pretty bad.

There was a field of buttercups next to the shed in our backyard. Buttercups are very interesting - relics of an ancient angiosperm lineage. Our yard is full of trees and pretty much wild... so these buttercups were kind of hidden away in a little thicket. I like the light through them.

I also went took a much-needed visit to the Robert Moses Beach, which is right next to the famous Jones Beach. Ahh... fond memories of playing all summer, sitting on the lifeguard tower waiting for the moon to rise, digging pits in the sand and burying each other in them. My mind clears when I stand next to the ocean for a while. The feeling is one that can't be described, but is familiar to all of us.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Water and mineral complexity, and a South African xenolith

These past few days I've been playing around with THERIAK DOMINO, a program for thermodynamic calculations in metamorphic petrology. My goal was to get a general idea of the P-T region in which both garnet and plagioclase are stable for these Sierran metaquartzite xenoliths. First, I generate a few pseudosections in DOMINO for a given bulk composition in a simplified components (i.e., CMAS - Ca-Mg-Al-Si), then I incrementally add another component (i.e., CFMAS - with Fe, to name one of many possibilities), until I get to the real system (which is something like CFMKNASH, or NCKFMASH as they say in the literature - I guess NCK F MASH is easier on the tongue!). Then to refine these general plots, I pick a few reactions to investigate, or a specific PT point, or an isothermal or isobaric line - which can be done in THERIAK. Anyway, the results have been pretty cool, but one thing that struck me as really interesting was the addition of water to an extremely quartz-rich, almost pure sandstone composition (NOT your typical metapelite). Adding water greatly increases the complexity of the diagram, as the phase rule F = C-P+2 would dictate (increase the # of components in the system, and the variance or degrees of freedom increases). However, as the # of phases increases in the system, the variance of the system must also decrease (Goldschmidt's Rule), and we can never have more phases than components. For example, at the triple point for aluminosilicate, 3 phases (Kyanite, Andalusite, and Sillimanite) exist in equilibrium, so according to the phase rule for this 1-component (Al2SiO5) system F = 1-3+2 = 0; meaning if we change P or T we will no longer have 3 phases. So, when water is added to CKFMAS (CKFMASH), we have one additional component (H2O), and we can stabilize many new hydrous minerals. Does this imply that the stability field of a hydrous mineral coexisting with an anhydrous mineral is going to be restricted in size? If we have many more phases stable because of the addition of H2O, the phase rule forces us to minimize the variance of the system at all times - so this means that the "size" of a stability field of hydrous mineral + anhydrous mineral in PT space must be small. (This makes intuitive sense to me since hydrous minerals normally can't exist for large expanses of PT space because they will just break down). This seems like a simple question, but I am struggling with it! Below, the first figure is for the anhydrous system, and the second figure for the water-saturated equivalent. The numbers just refer to mineral reactions which are not shown on the diagram.

But anyway, after seeing the remarkable contrasts between these two plots, the ONLY difference being water, that got me thinking to a Loony Noon discussion way back when, concerning "life" and how to define it. Somehow, that got us on the idea that minerals, and the complexity of minerals on Earth, draws some interesting parallels to how life has evolved. For instance, in our ideas of how to define life, we agreed on such criteria as 1) life competes for what it needs to keep going (minerals also compete for cations they need for their structures. 2) life moves (minerals also move... on an atomic scale - but then so does everything, so maybe this is a vague definition). 3) life replicates itself but also mutates (minerals also replicate... given enough substrate, you could grow a crystal meters long. Sometiems minerals mutate too - meaning there are imperfections/defects in crystals). Anyway, the list can go on. But one thing that life needs (or life as WE know it) is water. Complex, eukaryotic life would not be possible with water as a solvent and facilitator for metabolism. Does having mineral complexity also require water? Once we get water involved, a single chain pyroxene can become a double-chain amphibole because now there is space for OH- groups to fit into the lattice. Making more complex chains - you get sheets and phyllosilicates, which all have water. Minerals that have water or OH- in their structures tend to be structurally complex. Did the availability of water on Earth's surface initiate the explosion of new minerals like phyllosilicates? I'm probably definitely not the first to think of this, but it's sort of a neat idea, isn't it? Plus... the more water you have around, the easier it is to dissolve cations, and the more possibilities you have to make new minerals.

Anyway, aside from forays into the world of metamorphic petrology, I come back again to my true love in petrology - the ultramafics. Cin-Ty had some xenoliths from South Africa, which I'm going to analyze for a small side project. These xenoliths are beautiful! Huge garnet megacrysts, huge phlogopites, huge diopside crystals... huge everything. Here's an example of one from the Venetian mine: