Great geophysicists #11: Thomas Young

Painting of Young by Sir Thomas LawrenceThomas Young was a British scientist, one of the great polymaths of the early 19th century, and one of the greatest scientists. One author has called him 'the last man who knew everything'¹. He was born in Somerset, England, on 13 June 1773, and died in London on 10 May 1829, at the age of only 55. 

Like his contemporary Joseph Fourier, Young was an early Egyptologist. With Jean-François Champollion he is credited with deciphering the Rosetta Stone, a famous lump of granodiorite. This is not very surprising considering that at the age of 14, Young knew Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Amharic. And English, presumably. 

But we don't include Young in our list because of hieroglyphics. Nor  because he proved, by demonstrating diffraction and interference, that light is a wave — and a transverse wave at that. Nor because he wasn't a demented sociopath like Newton. No, he's here because of his modulus

Elasticity is the most fundamental principle of material science. First explored by Hooke, but largely ignored by the mathematically inclined French theorists of the day, Young took the next important steps in this more practical domain. Using an empirical approach, he discovered that when a body is put under pressure, the amount of deformation it experiences is proportional to a constant for that particular material — what we now call Young's modulus, or E:

This well-known quantity is one of the stars of the new geophysical pursuit of predicting brittleness from seismic data, and a renewed interested in geomechanics in general. We know that Young's modulus on its own is not enough information, because the mechanics of failure (as opposed to deformation) are highly nonlinear, but Young's disciplined approach to scientific understanding is the best model for figuring it out. 

Sources and bibliography


¹ Thomas Young wrote a lot of entries in the 1818 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, including pieces on bridges, colour, double refraction, Egypt, friction, hieroglyphics, hydraulics, languages, ships, sound, tides, and waves. Considering that lots of Wikipedia is from the out-of-copyright Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed. (1911), I wonder if some of Wikipedia was written by the great polymath? I hope so.


The nonlinear ear

Hearing, audition, or audioception, is one of the Famous Five of our twenty or so senses. Indeed, it is the most powerful sense, having about 100 dB of dynamic range, compared to about 90 dB for vision. Like vision, hearing — which is to say, the ear–brain system — has a nonlinear response to stimuli. This means that increasing the stimulus by, say, 10%, does not necessarily increase the response by 10%. Instead, it depends on the power and bandwidth of the signal, and on the response of the system itself.

What difference does it make if hearing is nonlinear? Well, nonlinear perception produces some interesting effects. Some of them are especially interesting to us because hearing is analogous to the detection of seismic signals — which are just very low frequency sounds, after all.

Stochastic resonance (Zeng et al, 2000)

One of the most unintuitive properties of nonlinear detection systems is that, under some circumstances, most importantly in the presence of a detection threshold, adding noise increases the signal-to-noise ratio.

I'll just let you read that last sentence again.

Add noise to increase S:N? It might seem bizarre, and downright wrong, but it's actually a fairly simple idea. If a signal is below the detection threshold, then adding a small Goldilocks amount of noise can make the signal 'peep' above the threshold, allowing it to be detected. Like this:

I have long wondered what sort of nonlinear detection system in geophysics might benefit from a small amount of noise. It also occurs to me that signal reconstruction methods like compressive sensing might help estimate that 'hidden' signal from the few semi-random samples that peep above the threshold. If you know of experiments in this, I'd love to hear about it.

Better than Heisenberg (Oppenheim & Magnasco, 2012)

Denis Gabor realized in 1946 that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle also applies to linear measures of a signal's time and frequency. That is, methods like the short-time Fourier transform (STFT) cannot provide the time and the frequency of a signal with arbitrary precision. Mathematically, the product of the uncertainties has some minimum, sometimes called the Fourier limit of the time–bandwidth product.

So far so good. But it turns out our hearing doesn't work like this. It turns out we can do better — about ten times better.

Oppenheim & Magnasco (2012) asked subjects to discriminate the timing and pitch of short sound pulses, overlapping in time and/or frequency. Most people were able to localize the pulses, especially in time, better than the Fourier limit. Unsurprisingly, musicians were especially sensitive, improving on the STFT by a factor of about 10. While seismic signals are not anything like pure tones, it's clear that human hearing does better than one of our workhorse algorithms.

Isolating weak signals (Gomez et al, 2014)

One of the most remarkable characteristics of biological systems is adaptation. It seems likely that the time–frequency localization ability most of us have is a long-term adaption. But it turns out our hearing system can also rapidly adapt itself to tune in to specific types of sound.

Listening to a voice in a noisy crowd, or a particular instrument in an orchestra, is often surprisingly easy. A group at the University of Zurich has figured out part of how we do this. Surprisingly, it's not high-level processing in the auditory cortex. It's not in the brain at all; it's in the ear itself.

That hearing is an active process was known. But the team modeled the cochlea (right, purple) with a feature called Hopf bifurcation, which helps describe certain types of nonlinear oscillator. They established a mechanism for the way the inner ear's tiny mechanoreceptive hairs engage in active sensing.

What does all this mean for geophysics?

I have yet to hear of any biomimetic geophysical research, but it's hard to believe that there are no leads here for us. Are there applications for stochastic resonance in acquisition systems? We strive to make receivers with linear responses, but maybe we shouldn't! Could our hearing do a better job of time-frequency localization than any spectral decomposition scheme? Could turning seismic into music help us detect weak signals in the geological noise?

All very intriguing, but of course no detection system is perfect... you can fool your ears too!


Zeng FG, Fu Q, Morse R (2000). Human hearing enhanced by noise. Brain Research 869, 251–255.

Oppenheim, J, and M Magnasco (2013). Human time-frequency acuity beats the Fourier uncertainty principle. Physical Review Letters. DOI 10.1103/PhysRevLett.110.044301 and in the arXiv.

Gomez, F, V Saase, N Buchheim, and R Stoop (2014). How the ear tunes in to sounds: A physics approach. Physics Review Applied 1, 014003. DOI 10.1103/PhysRevApplied.1.014003.

The stochastic resonance figure is original, inspired by Simonotto et al (1997), Physical Review Letters 78 (6). The figure from Oppenheim & Magnasco is copyright of the authors. The ear image is licensed CC-BY by Bruce Blaus


Saving time with code

A year or so ago I wrote that...

...every team should have a coder. Not to build software, not exactly. But to help build quick, thin solutions to everyday problems — in a smart way. Developers are special people. They are good at solving problems in flexible, reusable, scalable ways.

Since writing that, I've written more code than ever. I'm not ready to say that my starry-eyed vision of a perfect world of techs-cum-coders, but now I see that the path to nimble teams is probably paved with long cycle times, and never-ending iterations of fixing bugs and writing documentation.

So potentially we replace the time saved, three times over, with a tool that now needs documenting, maintaining, and enhancing. This may not be a problem if it scales to lots of users with the same problem, but of course having lots of users just adds to the maintaining. And if you want to get paid, you can add 'selling' and 'marketing' to the list. Pfff, it's a wonder anybody ever makes anthing!

At least xkcd has some advice on how long we should spend on this sort of thing...

All of the comics in this post were drawn by and are copyright of the nonpareil of geek cartoonery, Randall Munroe, aka xkcd. You should subscribe to his comics and his What If series. All his work is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial.


Lusi's 8th birthday

Lusi is the nickname of Lumpur Sidoarjo — 'the mud of Sidoarjo' — the giant mud volcano in the city of Sidoarjo, East Java, Indonesia. This week, Lusi is eight years old.

Google MapsBefore you read on, I recommend taking a look at it in Google Maps. Actually, Google Earth is even better — especially with the historical imagery. 

The mud flow was [may have been; see comments below — edit, 26 June 2014] triggered by the Banjar Panji 1 exploration well, operated by Lapindo Brantas, though the conditions may have been set up by a deadly earthquake. Mud loss events started in the early hours of 27 May 2006, seven minutes after the 6.2 Mw Yogyakarta earthquake that killed about 6,000 people. About 24 hours later, a large kick was killed and the blow-out preventer activated. Another 22 hours after this, while fishing in the killed well, mud, steam, and natural gas erupted from a fissure about 200 m southwest of the well. A few weeks after that, it was venting 180,000 m³ every day — enough mud to fill 72 Olympic swimming pools.

Thousands of years

In the slow-motion disaster that followed, as hot water from Miocene carbonates mobilized volcanic mud from Pleistocene mudstones, at least 15,000 people — and maybe as many as 50,000 people — were displaced from their homes. Davies et al. (2011) estimated that the main eruption may last 26 years, though recent sources suggest it is easing quickly. Still, during this time, we might expect 95–475 m of subsidence. And in the long term? 

By analogy with natural mud volcanoes it can be expected to continue to flow at lower rates for thousands of years. — Davies et al. (2011)

So we're only 8 years into a thousand-year man-made eruption. And there's already enough mud thrown up from the depths to cover downtown Calgary...

References and further reading

Quite a bit has been written about LUSI. The Hot Mud Flow blog tracks a lot of it. The National University of Singapore has a lot of satellite photographs, besides those you'll find in Google Earth. The Wikipedia article links to a lot of information, as you'd expect. The Interweb has a few others, including this article by Tayvis Dunnahoe in E&P Magazine. 

There are also some scholarly articles. These two are worth tracking down:

Davies, R, S Mathias, R Swarbrick and M Tingay (2011). Probabilistic longevity estimate for the LUSI mud volcano, East Java. Journal of the Geological Society 168, 517–523. DOI 10.1144/0016-76492010-129

Sawolo, N, E Sutriono, B Istadi, A Darmoyo (2009). The LUSI mud volcano triggering controversy: was it caused by drilling? Marine & Petroleum Geology 26 (9), 1766–1784. DOI 10.1016/j.marpetgeo.2009.04.002

The satellite images in this post are © DigitalGlobe and Google, captured from Google Earth, and are used here in accordance with their terms of use. The maps are © OpenStreetMap and licensed ODbL. The seismic section is from Davies et al. 2011 and © The Geological Society of London and is used here in accordance with their terms of use. The text of this post is © Agile Geoscience and openly licensed under the terms of CC-BY, as always!


Are we alright?

This year's Canada GeoConvention tried a few new things. There was the Openness Unsession, Jen Russel Houston's Best of 2013 PechaKutcha session, and the On Belay careers session. Attendance at the unsession was a bit thin; the others were well attended. Hats off to the organizers for getting out of a rut.

I went to the afternoon of the On Belay session. It featured several applied geoscientists with less than 5 years of experience in the industry. I gather the conference asked them for a candid 'insider' view, with career tips for people like them. I heard 2 talks, and the experience left me literally shaking, prompting Ben Cowie to ask me if I was alright.

I was alright, but I'm not sure about us. Our community — or this industry — has a problem.

Don't be yourself

Marc Enter gave a talk entitlted Breaking into Calgary's oil and gas industry, an Aussie's perspective.

Marc narrated the arc of his career: well site geology in a trailer in the outback, re-location to Calgary, being laid-off, stumbling into consultancy (what a person does when they can't find a real job), and so on. On this journey, Marc racked up hundreds of hours of interview experience searching for work in Calgary. Here are some of his learnings, paraphrased but I think they are accurate: 

  • Being yourself is impossible in a unfamiliar place. So don't be yourself.
  • Interview experience is crucial to being comfortable, so apply for jobs you have no interest in, just for the experience.
  • If the job description doesn’t sound exactly right to you, apply anyway. It's experience.
  • Confidence is everything. HR people are sniffer dogs for confidence. If you don't have it, invent it.
  • On confidence: it is easier to find a job when you have a job.

What on earth are we teaching these young professionals about working in this industry? This is awful.

How to survive the workday 

Jesse Shoengut gave a talk entitled One man’s tips and tricks for surviving your early professional career

Surviving. That's the word he chose. Might as well have been enduring. Tolerating. TGIF mindset. Like Marc, Jesse spoke about a haphazard transition from university into the working world. If you can't find a job after you finish your undergrad, you can always have a go at grad school. That's one way to get work experience, if all else fails.

Fine, finding work can be hard, and not all jobs are awesome. But with statements like, "Here are some things that keep me sane at work, and help get me through the day," I started to react a bit. C'mon, is that really what people in the audience deserve to hear? Is that really what work is like? It's depressing.

A broken promise

Listening to these talks, I felt embarrassed for our profession. They felt like a candid celebration of mediocrity, where confidence compensates for complacency. I don't blame these young professionals — students have been groomed, through summer internships and hyper-conventional careers events, to get their resumes in order, fit in, and follow instructions. We in industry have built this trap we're mired in. And we are continually seduced. Seduced by the bait of more-then-decent pay and plenty of other rewards. 

I talked to one fellow afterwards. He said, "Yeah, well, a lot of people are finding it hard to find a job right now." If these cynical, jaded young professionals are representative, I'm not surprised.

Were you at this session? Did you see other talks, or walk away with a different impression? I'd love to hear your viewpoints... am I being unfair? Leave a comment.

Page 1 ... 5 6 7 8 9 ... 84 Next 5 Entries »