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40 Years Ago - The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

SS Edmund Fitzgerald (Image Wikipedia)

SS Edmund Fitzgerald (Image Wikipedia)

While I normally post technical bits or project reports, occasionally we examine a historical event that happened "on this day" and see what is known about it. Today marks 40 years since the sinking of the freighter the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The ship disappeared November 10, 1975 with no distress call in the middle of a severe storm on the great lakes. The prescribed route took her from Superior, Wisconsin, across lake Superior, and towards Detroit with a load of ore pellets.  In this post I'll quickly give a synopsis of the storm and conditions of the sinking. A lot of research, videos, articles, and more have bene done on this event, so rather than re-write it all, we'll give a sense of the general circumstances and conjecture some on the theories of what happened.

After leaving port, the Fitz was joined by another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson, that looks nearly identical. The ships were not far apart for much of their journey and were within about 10 miles of each other at the time of last contact. While 10 miles is rather close, it was a huge distance in the storm that was coming upon them. It was a classic winter gale that had been expected to track further south. Winds rose, snow blinded the pilots, and the waves continuously grew from a few feet to rouge wave events of about 35 feet. Storms like this have frequently claimed ships on the lake, with the Whitefish Point area (where the Fitz sank) containing over 240 ships. The lake alone has over 7,000 wrecks and 30,000 lives claimed.

Winds and/or equipment problems rendered the radar on the Fitz inoperable about 4:10 PM. Captain McSorley slowed down to close the range with the Anderson to get radar guidance. Later in the evening, the captain reported that the waves were high enough that the ship was taking significant seas on deck. The ship had also developed a bad list (i.e. was leaning to one side). At 7:10 PM the Anderson called McSorley to ask how the ship was faring, he said "We are holding our own." Minutes later the Fitz disappeared from the Anderson's radar screen and was gone without a single distress signal. All 29 on board perished and none were recovered. This probably wound't be anything but "another shipwreck" to the general public if it hadn't been for the Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. After reading about the accident, he wrote a ballad that described what it might have been like to be on the boat. The song (below) hit number 2 on the charts in 1976 and immortalized the Fitz and her crew.

The wreck was found shortly after the accident by using an aircraft mounted magnetometer. The finding was confirmed with a side-scan sonar and then with a robot submersible. The ship had a broken back, lying to two pieces on the lake bottom, about 530 feet down. The aft of the ship was upside down and about 170' from the forward section. The forward part of the wreck sits roughly upright.

Wreck Map (Image: Wikipedia)

Wreck Map (Image: Wikipedia)

There are several theories about how the Fitz sank, but none can be confirmed. The obvious theory is that the waves were too much for the boat, but there are likely more complicating factors. A set of rogue waves about 35 feet in height had struck the Anderson and were headed in the direction of the Fitzgerald. It is possible that these waves, which had just buried the aft cabins of the Anderson, were too much for the listing Fitzgerald and that it was submerged to never resurface. Another popular theory was that the cargo hold had flooded. The coast guard favors this theory as evidence at the site suggests that not all of the hold hatch clamps were fastened. The holds gradually flooded until the ship could no longer recover from a wave strike. While this helps explain the list, it doesn't fit with the long safety record of the hatch closures used on the boat. The NTSB favored a theory that the hatch covers collapsed under a very large and heavy boarding sea, the holds instantly filled, and the boat sank. That would explain the sudden disappearance - I'd think that if a slow flood was occurring, an experienced captain (which McSorley was) would have sent a distress signal. Some have even proposed that loose debris in the water or from the ship itself caused significant damage to the topside. Yet another theory was that the ship had raked a reef earlier in the day since it's navigational aides were out. The puncture slowly let water in and eventually it was too much to stay afloat. This theory has been mostly ruled out by the lack of evidence on the exposed keel of the ship and by no marks on the reef (surveyed shortly after the wreck). The final theory is simple structural failure. The hull was a new design that was welded instead of riveted. Former crew members and boat keepers said that the ship was very "bendy" in heavy seas and that paint would even crack due to the large strains.

This mechanical failure theory seems most likely to me. Repeated flexing and/or riding up on a set of large waves allowed the hull to fail and immediately plunge to the bottom. The hull was under excess strain due to water loading from topside damage. That water loading is what caused the list. While some say the proximity of the sections mean that it sank whole, I disagree. The ship was 729 feet long and sank in 503 feet of water! If it had plunged bow first, hit the bottom, then broke there should be more evidence on the bow that just isn't there. Think ships don't bend in heavy seas? Have a look at the video below of a cargo ship passageway. Note about 11 seconds in when the ship hits a 7-8 meter wave. That's much smaller that the rouge wave that may have hit the Fitz.

If you'd like to know more about the accident and see some interviews with experts, have a look at the Discovery channel documentary below. We will probably never know exactly how the Fitzgerald sank, but it's a very interesting and cautionary tale. It also reminds us of the incredible power of water and wind against practically anything that we can manufacture.

Happy Leap Second Day!

I'm currently in the process of getting part 2 in our open science series prepared, but wanted to drop a quick note saying happy leap second day! In just a few hours we will have our 26th leap second! The last minute of today (UTC) will have 61 seconds to make up for difference in our atomically derived time system and the imperfect system that is the Earth's rotation. The clock will read 11:59:59, 11:59:60, 12:00:00. Unusual eh? You can watch the leap second online at, spend your leap second watching a random one second video at, or watch it nerd-style on your GPS NMEA feed.

If you want to know more about leap seconds and the wacky world of time keeping systems, I encourage you to listen to our episode on time-keeping on Don't Panic Geocast. We put a lot of time into researching that show and had a lot of fun learning about how complex time really is. Happy leap second day everyone!


Open Science Pt. 1 - What is Science?

The topic of open science has been on my mind a lot lately, and it has also been on the list of potential posts for this blog. As I sat down to map the ideas I wanted to clarify and share, I realized that I wasn't looking at one post, but several. I think this will take us most of the summer to get through. Why? Well, there's a lot here to talk about and there are also a few exciting projects that I'm working on that will hopefully line-up with their respective blog posts.

This post series was finally pushed to the top of my stack by a few events. First, I had some great discussions on open data with some colleagues and promised to show their work as an example of open science. Next, I was frustrated by reading a high impact paper whose data and methods were decidedly not open. I also wanted to raise awareness that US federally funded research is now supposed to be open through a mandate from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). You can read the mandate here. Finally, several people had mentioned to me that they wanted to know more about open science, some even mentioning a social science site called ResearchGate.

For this first post, we are going to ask ourselves: 1) What is science anyway? 2) Why should it be open? 3) Why is this hard? Without further delay, let's jump in!

What is science anyway?

When I was in seventh grade our science teacher, Mr.Paskiewicz, asked us to write down the answer to "what is science?" I don't remember what I wrote then, but I know that the question has never stopped being something I wonder about. While my answer changes depending on the level of detail requested, I believe that science is basically the name for structured curiosity. While this is more broad than Merriam-Webster's definition of "knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation," I think it encompasses a similar idea. Science is the process that we have devised to learn about universal truths of our existence in a way that safeguards us against our own human tendencies. These tendencies include bias, preconceived ideas, literature inertia, and career pressure.

In an effort to protect us from ourselves, the scientific method came into existence. The scientific method is a recursive process of making predictions, testing them, revising our ideas and models, then making more predictions. This process seems bullet-proof until we step into the equation. If a scientist is working alone (or in a vacuum as we often say), they may end up chasing a line of work that supports their "pet" hypothesis. This is easy to do! What happens if that idea turns out to be false? Sometimes we still pursue different ways to show that it may be true, not wanting to let go of our self-conceived brilliance. The missing chunk in this process was filled much after the early days of science by the sharing of discoveries in publications, and finally the peer review process was conceived.

Peer review is how we ideally are one another's check and balance system. I think that my work has made a contribution to the knowledge base that is science, so I submit it for publication. The paper (and ideally the evidence) is sent to other scientists to read, review, and comment on. These comments should concern how good the work is, but be mostly made up of recommendations or comments on the contribution. This sounds like it should be fertile ground from which we continually reap a harvest, but instead has turned into one of the most mocked processes in science. Reviews on publications are sometimes very helpful, but just as often seem to contain requests to add references (often to the reviewer's work), mundane requests to change things in the figures or writing style, or are completely unhelpful (such as "good paper"). The publication and review processes are part of the called-for revisions in open science, so we'll discuss them deeply in a later post.



why should science be open?

As we said above, one of the goals of science is to create a curated body of knowledge. The definition didn't say what all was included in that body of knowledge. Is it our conclusions and "laws" of nature? Sure, but it should also consist of the methods, hardware, software, and data to back up those conclusions. If we do not continually re-evaluate our "laws," we run the risk of continuing the obey a false, self-imposed, misconception.

Open science is one of the best ways to help (though not totally prevent, we are human after all) us keep a trusted and verified scientific knowledge base. Open science is the idea that our data, methods, software, hardware, ideas, notes, and all materials are available to be checked, tested, compared, and scrutinized by anyone. How available? That is part of the core argument going on currently. Should things that I worked years on and devoted thousands of hours to be posted online for anyone to download? I'm going to argue that they should. This is absolutely not a trivial thing to do, and it certainly doesn't end in a situation with no problems where scientists worldwide sit in a virtual circle around a hologram campfire singing Kumbaya. It's certainly closer than where we are now though.

One last note on this before we move on. I am not at all against companies that make software, hardware, etc. I am not against making money, we all need to make a living. I am not against patents, the patent process, or copyright. There are so many licenses out there currently (copyleft, share and share alike, CERN Open Hardware License, and many others) that it is confusing. In fact, your work needs some kind of license or it is assumed that others cannot use it! The issue is further confused when we often sign over rights to our figures and text to a publishing house when we publish a paper. I'm not sure, nor is anyone, what the best path is, so let's explore that together as well.

Also have a look at Michael Nielsen's TEDxWaterloo talk on open science (below). He shows some excellent examples of both the successes and failures of open science. (Like anything, acknowledging failures is crucial to the eventual success.)

why is this hard?

So why are all scientists and R&D folks not sitting around that virtual campfire already? There are so many road-blocks and difficult decisions we will have to make as a community that it can seem very imposing. Why would we share our hard-earned results and ideas for free? How can we get funding to do our work from a company and remain open? Where will all of this go and who maintains it? Who sets standards? This list seems pretty imposing to me and may even sound discouraging. It's not! Challenges of equal magnitude have been faced during every major revolution by information workers. No solution will be perfect, but most of the solutions we have devised have been good enough. Just think about standardization in the early days of the internet or when plans for early scientific apparatus were released from corporate secrecy.

Final thoughts

As you can see, this is a subject that I am very passionate about. My goal is going to be explaining things in a brief manner so that these are not so long that you have trouble making it through! I hope that these posts will promote discussion amongst my colleagues, both known and unknown. Please contribute by commenting: sharing your ideas is the first step!

There is an entire spectrum of open-ness that runs from top-secret documents that will never see the sun to those who freely give all of their knowledge and content. The community will never reach either end of that spectrum, but it is my hope that the slow migration towards open source science can be promoted through discussion. I'm really looking forward to working through my own thoughts on this subject and hearing what others have to say about it.

Drawdio: Creating Music with Your Hands

Awhile back I saw a post from the folks at the MIT Media Lab on a little creation they called the "drawdio" (here).  This looked like a fun little project! It's an oscillator based on the classic 555 timer integrated circuit, but with a twist.  The twist is that you can control the frequency of the oscillation (tone of the note played by a speaker) by varying the resistance between two contacts.  These contacts seem to commonly be a pencil lead and your body, but as the MIT website demonstrates, almost anything can be used.



I decided it was time to build one of these, so I headed over the MAKE to get the plans.  I already had most of the parts (or good substitutes) on hand.  The battery holder and enclosure would have to come later.  I built the circuit with simple point-to-point wiring on perforated board.  The speaker is a salvaged part from a fax machine!

Drawdio No Case


I plugged the power supply in a touched the signal wires together.  The speaker let out a shrill tone and we were in business.  The next challenge was figuring out a case a final setup for the device.  I wanted this to be durable since lots of people at work and home would be playing with it.  The solution ended up being hot glue and a plastic crayon case.  I drilled holes in the case above the speaker for sound and added a power switch.  The final touch was terminal posts for the sense wires that control the pitch.

To make the sensor I just wrapped bare wire around a pencil body for one contact and inserted a push pin into the lead at the top for a second contact.  The goal is to complete that circuit and change the resistance between the two contacts.  The easiest way is to draw a graphite track on paper and make the circuit through your hands.  See the demo video below.

This is an incredibly fun project and can be very educational to the beginning electronics hobbyist or a way to get school children interested in STEM fields.  What are you waiting for? Go build a drawdio! (Kits available from Adafruit)

Why a Standing Desk Didn't Work for Me

Standing Desk Leeman

I spend a lot of time at work... probably more than is really healthy for me.  In an effort to mitigate any harmful effects that working has on my health, I decided to try the standing desk idea.  We've all heard about how sitting all day is very detrimental to your health (example).  Recently our department has been renovating offices and giving people the option of a small motorized adjustable height desk.  I was very excited about his until I found out that my office was not going to be renovated.  I looked at the standing desks that professors had purchased, such as the Geek Desk, but realized that those commercials desks are out of the graduate student budget.  I also had never used a standing desk before.... what if it didn't work for me?

After reading lots of articles online, I decided to build something like a standing desk on-top of my existing desk.  Following the advice over at "Only a Model", I made the IKEA pilgrimage and bought the required parts (a coffee table, a shelf, and two brackets).  I got back, cleaned off my desk, assembled the parts, and had my very own standing desk!  It was slightly shaky under the weight of two 27" monitors, but overall useable.  I thought my health problems had been successfully avoided.

I noticed that my feet began to get sore, walking down the hall at the end of the day was painful.  Reading more, it appeared that I needed a foot pad.  I bought the best that I could find, in fact it cost more than all of my standing desk parts!  The mat was incredibly comfortable and thick enough that I could take my shoes off and dig my toes in.  It still didn't solve the problem though.  I continued standing for weeks, brought in a stool to sit a few hours a day, but no gain.  Standing felt great, but not for 10-12 hours a day.

I noticed that doing tasks such as filling out paperwork that required focus, but not creativity were helped.  I wanted to get it done! Tasks like writing and coding suffered.  Not being able to lean back and think of the right words or the correct function call slowed me down.  Reading and absorbing papers was also difficult.  At the end of the day, it just wasn't working (another example).

Maybe if I only worked 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, things would have gone differently.  An adjustable height desk may have helped as well, but I doubt that I would take the time to change configurations more than once a day.  I ended up back at my sitting configuration with a new coffee table at home.

There are other options out there.  Several people in the department have recently purchased a FitDesk. These cycle desks look good for computer tasks, but are not intended to replace a full desk with their small surface area.  Probably the best option is to have multiple work spaces.  One standing position, one sitting position, and possibly something else as well.  That's possible if you have a larger office/cube, but a small office with 6 graduate students just doesn't have the room.

So what do I do? I've been trying to be better about getting up every hour or so and taking a short walk/refocusing my eyes at a long distance.  Maybe something like a foot roller would help as well.  What is your workspace setup like? Remember to make sure it is ergonomic!

Passion - Are You Looking Forward to Friday or Monday?



Recently our department had Dr.Roel Snieder of the Colorado School of Mines over for a visit, colloquium talk, and a seminar.  Dr. Snieder has written multiple books, including one that is given to all first year graduate students in our department "The Art of Being a Scientist."  While I highly recommend this book, I wanted to write a post or two concerning some things Dr. Snieder said during his brown-bag seminar on the art of being a scientist.

One question that everyone in attendance wanted to know about was choosing your passion.  What is the niche that you want to fit into and work at during your career? This is something I often struggle with since I'm interested in a wide variety of questions.  It's easy to give lots of things a little thought, but choosing one or two topics to deeply address over an extended time is rather difficult!

Dr. Snieder related a story about working in Holland.  He wasn't very satisfied with where he was.  One day a colleague asked him a question that pushed him to change his situation: "Are you looking forward to Friday or Monday?"  The point isn't to make weekends miserable, but are you excited to come in on Monday and work on something you are passionate about.  If not, you probably are looking forward to the end of the week and are ready to get away.  Generally we don't run from our passion.

Deciding what your personal passion is depends on your background, experiences, etc and can change over time.  No matter what it is, there will be some boring and unpleasant activities.  For example, I'm passionate about my research, but sitting next to an experiment at 1AM waiting for it to finish isn't exactly exciting.  So to follow your passion you must first know what it is, which for someone like me involves making lots of lists, mind-maps, flow charts, and notes to store other ideas for future times.

Another component involves choosing who you work with.  In graduate school things are relatively flexible and collaborations can come from anywhere.  I really enjoy reaching out into other fields and trying to learn new perspectives on our data.  Almost daily I talk to professors in seismology, glaciology, engineering, or even water science to learn about new things going on in their fields (and read other literature).  It's common to see a connection or how to apply something from those fields in our work.  (Not to mention that nerds such as us love to talk shop.)  Passion is also important to convey to our students, a type of co-worker, especially with the loss of passion in undergraduate education.

In conclusion I'll ask a question that we were asked... Why are you here? Right now, in this room (or reading this post).  What are you passionate about?