What did you miss? Geological features that go unnoticed.

I recently completed a partial cross-country drive from Columbus, OH to Los Angeles, CA with a quick stay-over in Tucson, AZ. This drive took me through the middle part of the US that is often known as “fly-over country” since people choose to skip it as they fly from coast to coast. During this monotonous, often mind-numbing drive, I realized that there are some geological wonders along the way that go unnoticed. Here are 4 that I found the most interesting.


1. New Madrid Seismic Zone- Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas border.

Earthquake activity in the New Madrid area 1974-2011. Data from University of Memphis

Earthquake activity in the New Madrid area 1974-2011. Data from University of Memphis

The rumble and tumble of earthquakes is typically associated with the West Coast, but hidden right in the middle of the US is the New Madrid Seismic Zone. This zone represents a weak point in Earth’s crust from a messy, incomplete continental break-up about 750 million years ago. This weak point means that small compressions and contractions east to west in the US can be especially dangerous here.

Despite the long distance to the nearest tectonic plate boundary, this old fault can still cause extensive damage. From 1811 to 1812, four massive earthquakes rattled the surrounding areas. Although there were no seismographs (devices to measure earthquake strength) at that time, researchers used journal entries, newspaper articles, and reports to estimate the power of these shakes to be 10 times as strong as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The area surrounding the New Madrid Seismic Zone is still a concern especially for damage in large cities like St. Louis, MO and Memphis, TN.

2. Texas Panhandle.

Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, TX

Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, TX

I’m sorry Texans, but your panhandle is so flat and boring. The old joke really applies: “It is so flat you can watch your dog run away for three days”. Luckily, alternative wind power has utilized this level area to put up hundred of giant windmills: Don Quixote’s worst nightmare.

Literary references aside, I wanted to know why this area was so dang flat and what it could tell me about the geologic past of the area. I hoped the answer would be easy to find, but it took some digging and I’m still not sure I have the whole picture. A 1907 USGS report by Charles Gould told me this: “the surface of the High Plains in generally flat, with nothing to break the severe monotony.” See? Even geologists think it is flat and boring. Anyways, my interpretation of his report is that rivers originating in the Rocky Mountains occupied the High Plains in the panhandle of Texas. Over time, the streams became overloaded with sediment (rocks, dirt, etc.), deposited this sediment in the riverbed, and eventually filled the rivers pushing them into new directions. This process of deposition and river re-working continued until a deposit “several hundred feet thick” covered the area to the east of the Rocky Mountains including Texas.

I had a feeling that the flatness had something to do with water, most outstanding geological features do. However, I was surprised that instead of rivers cutting into the landscape, they actually created a flat surface. Next time I drive through Texas, I might give it a bit more respect.

(Update January 21: I reached out to the USGS for more information about this area. They pointed me to another, more complete resource on the geology of the High Plains. The information was essentially the same, but in more detail. It appears that this part of the Texas was covered and uncovered by water at many times in the geologic past. Each time it was underwater, more sediment was deposited creating such a flat surface. This short investigation has taught me an important lesson: it is hard to pinpoint an exact cause to a certain geologic feature.)

3. Texas Canyon Rest Area / Balancing Rocks, near Dragoon, AZ.

Roadside Rocks

Precariously balanced rocks. Arizona

Entering into New Mexico and Arizona the terrain became much more interesting. There were mountains, mesas, and sometimes bizarre rocks. Our last stop before entering Tucson was the Texas Canyon Rest Area, a surprisingly beautiful and well-known pit stop. We stopped here specifically to look at the perched boulders along the road. My parents have made this drive before and knew that it was a great spot to stop. Once again, being the inquisitive geology girl, I wanted to understand why it looked the way it did. The rounded boulders made me feel like I was within the circle of a giant’s game of marbles. Rounded and perched rock formations are not uncommon and even have an official name: precariously balanced rocks (or PBR for short). PBRs can be found in hipster hiking hotspots around the world from Africa to Arizona.

To become so round, these rocks were subject to physical and chemical weathering. Physical weathering is when rocks are broken-down by forces like wind and water, but remain the same type of rock. Chemical weathering changes the rock composition through chemical reactions. I won’t go into the exact make up of the rocks (but see this post), however, eventually the weathering causes the rocks to breakdown in such a way that they become rounded and appear to balance atop other rocks.

Although they are called precarious, the rocks are typically very steady on the shoulders of the other rocks. However, earthquakes can jar these rocks down and can thus be used to monitor earth’s movements. Pretty cool, but I hope no one is at the rest stop when the rocks start to wiggle!

 4. San Andreas Fault, California.


Photo at rest stop near fault line. California

You don’t need to be a geology nerd to know about the San Andreas Fault. It is infamous for the fact that one day it will be the center of a break between Southwestern California and the rest of North America (see this classic flash-animated video warning: some NSFW language). This fault is one of the main reasons that Los Angeles and San Francisco are earthquake prone. What I found so surprising on our drive in Los Angeles is that even though I knew the fault line was there, we just drove right over it. I don’t know what I expected. A big sign pointing it out? Some large chasm in the earth? Not sure. Nevertheless, we drove right over this divide without even knowing it.

The San Andreas fault is actually a tectonic plate boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. The plates rub against each other in opposite directions. Think about it this way: place your hands together palms touching. Move your right hand down and your left hand up. That friction and tension between your hands is the same as between the plates. If you press your hands really hard you can understand how an earthquake may occur. The uneven surface of your hands cause them to stick together better in some parts and suddenly slip in others.

Once in Los Angeles, poking my toes into the Pacific Ocean and soaking in the rays, I realized that I hadn’t driven through swaths of nothingness to get here. Instead, I’d peeked into Earth’s history along the way. Next road trip, I’ll still be staring out the window watching the landscape pass, but I will be looking with a closer eye at what I can learn along the way.



New Madrid Seismic Zone:
USGS: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/states/events/1811-1812.php
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Madrid_Seismic_Zone
Texas Panhandle:
Gutentag et al. (1984). Geohydrology of the High Plains aquifer in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. Regional Aquifer System Analysis Paper 1400-B. Available here: http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1400b/report.pdf
Gould, C (1907). The geology and water resources of the western portion of the panhandle of Texas. Water Supply and Irrigation Paper. No. 191. Available here: http://pubs.usgs.gov/wsp/0191/report.pdf
Texas Canyon:
San Andreas Fault
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Andreas_Fault



Take a deep breath: A look at trees and lungs

IMG_0047On a short drive the other day, I was struck by the beauty of these leafless trees. The barren trees reminded me that things we see everyday connect us intimately with nature. In this case, the trees reminded me of the way our lungs work.


Do you see how the tree branches into smaller and smaller shoots? By branching out as the tree grows, it can increase its surface area to produce leaves. In turn, the leaves allow for the tree to exchange gases with the environment. In comes carbon dioxide out goes oxygen

By Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator (Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator (Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever thought of what your lungs look like inside? In fact, they look very similar to this tree. Consider your throat (and trachea) as the trunk of the tree. As air moves into your lungs, the windpipes branches out further and further appearing similar to the leafless tree above. This similarity is by no means a coincidence. Your lungs are also exchanging gases with the atmosphere. In comes oxygen out goes carbon dioxide. Nature repeats itself.

Take in a deep breath. (I’m waiting). Okay. Now exhale. Do it again, but this time think of the air entering into your body through those small alleyways of your lungs. Now exhale. Now think of that tree. It looks a bit like an upside-down version of your lungs and it is doing the opposite job of your lungs. In comes carbon dioxide out goes oxygen.

Take some time to wander outside, look at the trees, and see the intimate connection between you and nature. See another cool connection? Let me know!

Know Your Audience: Best Practices (2/n)

(This post is part of my Best Practices in Science Communication series. Check the original post for more information)

Know your audience: Tips and Techniques for different groups.

Use these ideas in your next classroom visit, public talk, or conversation on the sidewalk!

Young children: Kids say and do the darndest things, but they can also be the hardest audience to keep engaged. Let them use all their senses including looking, touching, and (sometimes) smelling to really get your point across. Got some samples from the field still in your lab? Bring them with you to facilitate observations with the kids! Young kids love the interaction and wow factor of your science activities and information. Always make it fun and hook them in.  

If you plan to do an activity remember that young children need clear instructions. I often make the mistake of thinking that the the kids can figure it out on their own, but often they need to be told exactly what to do. (Bonus: following directions is often part of Pre-K and Kindergarten curriculum, so if you are in a classroom, the teacher will be happy to see that this is met).

Teens: Ah yes, the dreaded teenage years. I am still working on the best ways to reach aloof teens so please let me know YOUR suggestions. I like to treat teens like adults and make conversation with them. Teens love the “cool” factor and interesting stories. Teens today are so connected with the world that they often have ample stories about what they saw on the internet to guide your conversation. As the “spider-woman” (a non-self imposed title), I hear comments like “Did you hear about that story where the spider burrowed into the guy’s belly?” Those cool (although bizarre) stories are just what teens love! Don’t be worried about the sidetracking because you can always wrap it up with your message in the end.

In contrast to young children who need clear instructions, teens like a good physical or mental challenge. In a recent museum activity, we challenged people to perform better than nature’s superstars, like the brilliant crow seen here. The teens loved to show-off their skills especially when told how tough the challenge was. We also took a group of 50+ teenagers and had volunteers battle it out in the physical challenges (jumping, throwing, etc). A little healthy competition and showmanship goes over well with teens. Present your research as a challenge and let teens come up with their own solutions to stretch their brains.

Adults: Hey, that’s us! Most adults like to be treated as equals in a conversation. Open up for them to add experiences, insights, and personal connections. When I asked my parents (very non-sciencey people…sorry Mom and Dad!) about what makes them interested in a science story they said when it has a human connection (global warming, agriculture, habitat changes) and when it has the “wow” factor. Using one of those two hooks can help you get talking with adults and can help you lead the conversation towards your research.

Try it out!

Pick a friend and have them act as either a 5-year old, 16-year old, or adult. Practice telling them about what you do and what you research. Use the tips from above to keep them engaged for 1-2 minutes. (Bonus points for the friend that sits on the floor acting like a true 5-year old or plays on their phone the whole time as that typical teen.)


Best practices for #scicomm (series: 1/n).

Woo! I’m going to start my first series on the blog! Over the next weeks I will be releasing posts about several tips for communicating science to the public that fit under four broad best practices that I list below.

I’m excited to share my ideas with you and hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading and look for more new posts in this series soon!

What are your #bestpractices for #scicomm? Leave me a comment below or tweet me (@crhoffman99).


Know your audience. Take time to understand which entity of the public (see here) you are talking to. If you are doing something planned, like a public talk or visit, learn about the group and understand what experiences they may have. This knowledge will help you connect with your audience and leave them with a lasting impressing. When talking to people for the first time, take some time to first get to know their experiences and interests, which leads me to point number two!

Make it a conversation. No one likes to be lectured, we all know that. Communication and learning are two-way streets where you should be facilitating a conversation about a topic. Ask questions, ask for opinions or personal experiences. Genuine interest in the responses and opening up the conversation will make you successful.

Your message can be flexible. You never know where a conversation will lead you! Be flexible with your message. You may begin a conversation about melting sea ice and greenhouse gases, but your audience keeps bringing the conversation back to a local issue. Lean in. Don’t back away from this new theme, but engage and discuss with them. Adjust your message to fit the interests and experiences of your audience. 

Keep it simple. We all know science can be complicated…most things are! But unless people ask about the details, keep it simple. Remove jargon and words that need too much explantation. Use images, pictures, analogies, objects and more to let your audience gain a holistic experience.

Oh, and one last thing….

Respect your audience. I feel like this shouldn’t need to be stated, but it does. When you are talking to someone in the public, respect their opinions and viewpoints. Even though you may disagree with someone who choose not to vaccinate their children, by disrespecting their opinion you are only setting up for disaster. Be respectful: people will listen. Even if you’re audience is not right in front of you (like Twitter) don’t talk down to them! 



Who is the public?


When a scientist decides to enter the world of communicating their science outside of academia, she often starts with some phrase like, “I want the public to understand what I do.” This statement summarizes how most scientists feel, myself included. I’ve come to realize, however, that there is a problem with a statement like that serving as your goal: there is this nebulous term “the public” that has no good definition. Often people assume the public is anyone outside of academia. Others would consider it anyone outside your speciality field. For example, I may be considered part of the public to someone that works on physics. Therefore the public can include schoolchildren, parents, adults, teachers, policymakers, friends, neighbours etc. This list is long. If we want to have effective science communication, the first step is to define your public. 

Chances are that whatever your outreach method is whether it is writing a blog, visiting a classroom, facilitating citizen science, giving a talk, or filming a video, you cannot reach all of “the public” in one fell swoop. Just as you would do for your experiments, set a reasonable and attainable goal so you can measure your success (more on measurement in a future post). Define your audience for that particular outreach project. As an overarching goal, many of us want to reach all those parts of the public, but in reality we’ll need to take small steps, focusing our attention on “the public” with which we connect.

Others argue that by having our goal be “the public” it forces scientists to get out of their comfort zones and learn about a new audience. I certainly agree with forcing yourself to reach a new audience, but this should be a gradual process after starting with a more comfortable audience.

I am also not the first person to question the vagueness of “the public”.  The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education summarizes the term “Public Engagement” noting its tendency as a “buzzword that succeeds because it allows multiple stakeholders to rally together despite sometimes conflicting goals”. Take a look at their post to learn more about different forms of engagement.

What do you think? Should we use the catch-all term “the public” or focus our attention on sectors of that group? Let me know in the comments or tweet me. (@crhoffman99)


6 science people to follow on Twitter.

I will be honest: I totally love Twitter. I started my Twitter (@crhoffman99) over 5 years ago for personal use and over the past two years transitioned to using it professionally and for communication. I follow a lot of science folks, but also some celebs & lifestyle bloggers (diversity is good!). Here are some great science related people and places that I think YOU should follow to get started.


1. Specimen FMNH PR2081 (@SUEtheTrex): Okay, so this is not a person, but a SPECIMEN from the Field Museum in Chicago that tweets pretty hilarious scientific jokes. Always good for a laugh.

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2. California Academy of Science (@calacademy): An outstanding museum in San Francisco tweeting about its exhibits and education efforts. Lots of stunning visuals come through their feed.

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3. Ed Yong (@edyong209): Science journalist who shares a multitude of interesting stories. Ed always seems to be ahead of curve on popular science trends. Follow him to get the latest and greatest of science journalism.

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4. Emily Graslie (@ehmee): With a job title like “Chief Curiosity Correspondent”, you can guess you’ll get some great tweets from Emily. She hosts “The Brain Scoop” on YouTube and is generally making great strides for science communication and women in science.

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5. Alex Wild (@Myrmecos): A prominent wildlife and insect photographer, his feed will bombard you with out of this world, up-close shots of insects. Be prepared for lots of ants and spiders!

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6. Real Scientists (@realscientists): As the name implies, this Twitter account contains real scientists who alternate weekly to bring you various content. Check the info box and picture to identify the weekly scientist. Great account for getting answers to questions!

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What other account do you suggest for getting started? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me!