Marking Time

Ever wonder what mathematicians do on vacation? In Texas A&M professor Wolfgang Bangerth’s case, he kicked off summer 2015 by hiking through history related to another of his disciplinary specialties: geophysics.

A widely respected expert in computational mathematics and mathematical modeling, Bangerth is the author of the software program ASPECT (Advanced Solver for Problems in Earth’s Convection). His code is helping geodynamics researchers around the world visualize the Earth’s interior and related processes, thanks to funding assistance from a major facility in California at the epicenter of geodynamics research.

Earlier today, Bangerth found himself at the site of one of the worst geological disasters in U.S. history, Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Roughly one month after the 35th anniversary of the historic eruption, Bangerth toured the area, posting these incredible photographs on Facebook and agreeing to share them via the Texas A&M Science blog.

“What a treat,” Bangerth writes, “A seven-hour hike through the devastation area and then halfway up Mount St. Helens. (Additional treat: Total number of people encountered in the first six hours: 1. In fact that equals the total number of mammals encountered during this time.)”


In addition to the photos and captions, Bangerth — ever the educator — offered to expound on the science as follows:

“So here’s the story: Mount St. Helens is one of the chain of Cascade volcanos along the U.S. West Coast that exist because the Pacific (or, more exactly, the Juan De Fuca plate) subducts beneath the North American plate. They take with them millions of years of sediments, entrapped water, etc., and this leads to melting of material when they get to certain depths, and this melt then comes up a couple of 100 miles inland of the subduction zone.

“In 1980, magma rising up bulged out the side of the volcano. After an earthquake, this whole bulge collapsed in a gigantic landslide. Liberated of the pressure of the overlying rock, two enormous explosions then ripped apart most of the mountain within seconds of the landslide. There is a fantastic video of this created from a sequence of 10 or 15 pictures and also another series here.

“What you see in my pictures are the remains of the volcano (1,300 feet shorter than it was before, with its enormous gash on one side) and the valley below the landslide and miles downstream from there — in some places up to 700 feet of debris, ash and the results of several later pyroclastic flows. The deep incisions are streams that have eroded this loose material.

“The landscape is largely barren since it had, of course, not a single living organism left after the 1980 event, and is only slowly re-growing. Along the streams there are man-high trees these days, but elsewhere you only find bare gravel and sand — some covered by hardy mosses and lichens — and in many places lots of miniature bluebonnets and some Indian paintbrushes. There are ants and a few insects, but generally few vertebrates. I did see a small number of birds, including a pair of hummingbirds. By and large, it’s a huge contrast from the densely forested areas around the mountain (and how it looked before the event, as seen in older pictures).”

Core Competency

As I have mentioned in past blog entries, one of the many perks of my job is having experts at my fingertips. With a simple email, phone call or Facebook message, I can get instant feedback concerning the day’s top headlines, scientific and beyond.

Take for instance last week’s reports celebrating discovery of oceans of water beneath the Earth’s surface. I happened to catch a radio snippet recapping the Huffington Post’s version of the story as I was heading solo to the grocery store on a rare Friday vacation day. (Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are as to what qualifies as vacation for this full-time working mom of three ages 10 and under. But that’s another story with neither experts nor answers!) Intrigued, I first Googled the story to find out where it originated (Northwestern University), then emailed my friend Wolfgang Bangerth, a Texas A&M mathematician and author of a modeling software program, ASPECT, that is designed to develop, among so many other things, clearer pictures of Earth’s interior.

Besides being a computational scientist and modeling genius, Wolfgang is no slouch when it comes to geophysics — or any engineering-related branch of science, in my experience. While I knew this would be right up his alley, I didn’t realize he was in South Korea at the time teaching a weeklong workshop. Distance certainly didn’t affect his ability to advise nor my efforts to produce a press release on the subject with his copious help.

(Here’s an example of Wolfgang’s ASPECT-driven work — convection in a 3D box. Reminds me of those cool optical illusion-type puzzles you got as a kid or the nifty gel-based paperweights you sometimes see in science-types offices!)

For me, curiosity is right up there with a sense of humor and vocabulary prowess in the way of appealing attributes, but I do so love it when others share my enthusiasm for a spur-of-the-moment idea, PR-related and otherwise. Wolfgang certainly went the extra mile (pun intended) to bring this one to fruition, paying me and other communicators what I consider to be the ultimate compliment during a side discussion concerning my use of the formal “Dr.” title with him out of habitual respect:

“It’s a title. I got it by doing my job, not by being particularly brilliant. As for respect, you are doing a fantastic job, too, and I do respect that just as much. At a university, we’re a team. You can’t do your job without us, and we can’t do it without people like you. I see no reason why we shouldn’t treat each other as equals.”

Well said as always, my wise friend. Let the record show (at least in this piece) that I’m recovering nicely.

Thank you, Wolfgang, for the global assist and the team affirmation. Awesome to the core!

Another bonus of being friends with such world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)

Another bonus of being friends with such a world traveler as Wolfgang Bangerth is lots of vicarious adventures, given his love of all things outdoors, nature and related photography. Here are but three picturesque examples: traversing rugged terrain in South Korea’s Seorak Mountains National Park, exploring evolution and iterations of blue at Isla San Cristobal, Galapagos and admiring the jaw-dropping descent and beauty of Victoria Falls, Zambia, South Africa. (Credit: Wolfgang Bangerth)