Fox on grad students in climate science

An open letter to Donna Laframboise, who’s just written a book entitled “The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert,” about how mere graduate students have given input to and even played leadership roles within the UN’s IPCC process.  Shock.  Horror.


To: Professors; Re: Your Advisees

To: Professors; Re: Your Advisees.  So many PhD advisors are so bad at academic and career advising, that there’s now a cash market for consultants who will do their job for them.  Paid by graduate students of course.


The PhD factory

Nature notes that the world is producing more PHDs than ever before.  And asks it time to stop?  Graduate education isn’t like a pyramid scheme, it is a pyramid scheme.  And like all such schemes, it will eventually end in ruin for most of the participants.  Something has to change.  Why not sooner, and pro-actively, rather than later and in shambles?


What’s (socially) wrong with graduate school?

My Final Report Card

I say to you that we are full of chemicals which require us to belong to folk societies, or failing that, to feel lousy all the time. We are chemically engineered to live in folk societies, just as fish are chemically engineered to live in clean water—and there aren’t any folk societies for us anymore. (Kurt Vonnegut)

Wolfgang Pauli apparently once said of a student’s work: “This isn’t right.  This isn’t even wrong.”, to deride it for being unfalsifiable.  Grad school isn’t quite that bad.  We’re all running the experiment together every day.  We can tell whether or not it’s working, at least in theory.  But only if we’re willing to look.  I’m looking; I say it’s not working, at least not for graduate students, not on average (mean or median, pick your poison).


The twenty-oughts, a decade in review

I will remember the past decade as graduate school.  Only 6 years actually enrolled, but also another 1.5 or so working at Caltech beforehand, trying to get in.  However, all the highlights took place in the other times.  The 2.5 years yet unaccounted for.  Of that time, about 18 months was spent traveling, and that’s where the memories really are.

A wolf in our camp by the calving McBride glacier.  Paddling over Pacific swell with seaweed and a wright whale by George Island.  The miracle of getting over sea sickness while fishing for salmon on the M/V Radio out of Pelican.  A brown bear and her cubs on the beach.  Lonely, wordless, solo backpacking in the Beartooth range.  Two weeks in Dark Canyon with the ringtails eating cattail roots.  A half eaten deer and mountain lion tracks in the morning by our campsite in the Zion narrows.  A night with Concept One and Aphex Twin in a Subaru crammed full of camping gear during a rain storm in the redrock country.


I’m older than I’ve ever been

In class Peter Goldreich once said “You don’t get smarter in grad school. You just get older.”  I don’t know if I agree entirely, but there’s a grain of truth in there somewhere.  It is a strange kind of scientific hazing ritual.  An induction and an indoctrination.  Highly skilled and intelligent people, doing difficult technical work, for years, earning something close to minimum wage.  Why?  Is it for a chance to play in the tenure-track tournament, with the odds stacked 10 to 1 against you?  If you win, you can study anything you like (as long as there’s funding…).  Is it because we think having a PhD will get us somebody’s respect?  Whose?  Our parents?  Our advisors?  Society at large?  It’s certainly not because we’re seeking power or riches.  That way lies law school, or the dreaded MBA.  Is it because we don’t know how to do anything else?  Because our self esteem has been so entangled with school for so long?  Because we are a people addicted to understanding?  What fraction of PhD students finish feeling good about themselves, or in love with their research?  Or even learning in general?

The Thesis Cell

Doctoral Leaflet

It seems a bit of Vaudeville is still lingering around the Academe…



Zane A. Selvans


Date/Time: 2:30pm, Friday, 20th November, 2009
Bldg./Rm: Benson Earth Sciences (BESC) 380

Examining Committee Members:

  • Karl Mueller
  • John Wahr
  • Robert Pappalardo
  • Bruce Jakosky
  • John Spencer


Major Field: Geological Sciences


A descendant of Dust Bowl migrants, Zane grew up near Fresno in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He left as soon as humanly possible, and got his BS in Computer Science at the Caltech in Pasadena. After a brief stint working in Silicon Valley (which unfortunately did not result in any kind of dot-com stock option fortune), he returned to Caltech via sea kayak to work with Mars Global Surveyor data, mapping Mars’ south polar layered deposits. While he has been a student at CU Boulder since the fall of 2002 you may not have seen much of him lately, because in early 2006 his wife and advisor both moved to Caltech/JPL, and like a long period comet, he slid back down into that place’s deep potential well to be with them. Next year, Zane intends to spend a lot of time on his bicycle.


Time, Tides and Tectonics on Icy Satellites
Faculty Advisor: Karl Mueller


In the outer solar system, we cannot directly use the radiometric dating techniques widely applied in terrestrial geology. We also lack the detailed understanding of the correspondence between crater size-frequency distributions and absolute ages that the radiometric dating of lunar samples has given us in the inner solar system. Additionally, many geologically interesting surfaces on the icy satellites are insufficiently cratered to allow us to infer precise relative ages. Thus it is desirable to find other ways to construct geological chronologies that function well in the outer solar system. In this work I develop two techniques.

The first compares the linear tectonic features covering Jupiter’s moon Europa to modeled tensile fractures resulting from tidal stresses due to the non-synchronous rotation (NSR) of the satellite’s decoupled, icy, lithospheric shell. The amount of shell rotation required to align a feature with the stress field resulting from NSR is used as a proxy for time. This translation is potentially convolved with a phase lag between the tidal potential and the stresses it induces, resulting from the shell’s partially viscous response to the NSR forcing. The geography of individual lineaments is found to be no more consistent with NSR stresses than chance would predict, however, the ensemble of global lineaments displays a non-uniform apparent rate of lineament formation throughout the time period recorded by the surface. This non-uniformity may be explained either by steady state fracture formation, activity, quiescence and erasure, or by a transient episode of tectonics.

The second technique encodes the myriad superposition relationships evident between Europa’s tectonic features as a directed graph enabling algorithmic analysis. The observed superposition relationships are generally insufficient to construct complete stratigraphic stacks, but we can calculate the degree to which they corroborate or contradict another hypothesized order of formation. We find that they tend to corroborate the hypothesis that the lineaments are tensile fractures due to NSR stresses.

Together these results offer cautious support for the idea that Europa’s shell rotates independently of its silicate interior, and demonstrate techniques useful in comparing tectonic features on other icy satellites to hypothesized mechanisms of formation.


Amateur Earthling on Hiatus

I have lots of draft posts in progress here on the back end, calling to me whenever I log in like internet sirens:

  • The Scale and Form of Cities, about how one might design a city from the ground up today, with efficient resource utilization and conviviality in mind.  A follow up to What Are Cities For?
  • Corporate Paternalism, about the ways in which we (especially conservatives) seem to have more faith in corporations than our elected representatives when it comes to making decisions for us.
  • Our Newtonian Hangover, about the non-linear, non-deterministic nature of history and technology, and James Burke’s excellent BBC series The Day the Universe Changed and Connections.  Miraculously, they are almost as relevant today as they were 30 years ago, and we are in the process of implementing one of the strange futures he foretold.
  • The dunes told me to work on passive buildings, which is a more personal and spiritual response to the NREL interview questions than seemed appropriate for a job interview.
  • and a magnum opus entitled What’s Wrong With Graduate School, that examines both how my own graduate career has been uniquely flawed, why I believe the graduate education system as a whole is in general broken, and a vision of what I think higher education might look like by the time any offspring I could conceivably have would be there.

However, at the moment the thing most wrong with graduate school is that I’m still in it.  My PhD defense has been tentatively scheduled for November 20th, and I’m going to the AGU fall meeting in San Francisco in mid-December to present my work, so I’m going to be completely occupied until the beginning of 2010.  There will be no further blog updates between now and then.  Or at least, there shouldn’t be.  If you see me making posts, don’t read them.  Instead ridicule me in person, or offer up some kind of digital castigation.

Of course, you can still read my mind keep in touch with me via my linkstream, my tweets, and my photos.  Oh, and of course there’s always e-mail and the telephone.


The Beatings Will Continue

Associate Dean Stevenson,

I am a PhD candidate in the Department of Geological Sciences, researching two methods for inferring the temporal variability of tidally induced tectonic activity on the icy satellites of the outer solar system. I am petitioning for permission to register for an additional semester beyond the elapsed time limit of 6 years between matriculation and graduation which is imposed by the CU graduate school on PhD students. There are several reasons for my tardiness. Some were within my control, and others outside of it.


Visitor Without Stipend

As of Monday, I will be living up to my official title at Caltech. I tried to quit grad school a couple of weeks ago. In response to Bob’s email: “Please let me know that you’re not dead.”, I replied: “I’m not dead, but apparently, I don’t want a Ph.D. either”. Today was to be my last day, with figures cleaned up for the Wahr et al. 2008 stress paper, and helpful outlines of future research projects written for my academic successors.