Saturday, April 5, 2014

Geologic Time and Dinosaur Tracks in the Texas Hill Country

I live only a couple miles from the Guadalupe River. Recently, with Everett Deschner as my guide, I walked along a creek that feeds this river, and he showed me dinosaur tracks imbedded in the stone creek bed.

The tracks were quite visible, made by a young half-ton plant-eating dinosaur while walking through the area.

Everett on right. Photo by Linnea S.
Deschner is the vice president of the Heritage Museum of the Texas Hill Country, not far from Canyon Lake. He explained that the Hill Country didn't exist at the time of the dinosaur, which was about 100 million years ago. At that time, this area was a flat, low-lying marshy area sometimes covered by the sea water of what we now know as the Gulf of Mexico.

He went on to explain that we can now see these tracks in the stone because of a series of chance events over eons of time.

First, the dinosaur walked through an area covered by moist tidal algae. His great weight would be enough to create deep tracks. Not long after that, hot dry weather dried the algae, preserving the shape of the tracks. Tides brought in mud, which filled the tracks. Over millions of years, sediment was deposited layer upon layer until the tracks were covered by about 10,000 feet of sediment. The great weight of all this mud created intense pressure and heat, which caused the algae to slowly harden into stone.

Millions of years later, this environment was pushed up by the movement of the continents. Then, after millions of years of weather and erosion, valleys, creeks and rivers formed what we now know as the Hill Country in central Texas. The creek I saw had eroded the sediment down to the layer of stone, making the tracks visible.

Dinosaur tracks in Texas are found only in the Hill Country. The land west of this region was formed before the age of the dinosaurs, so no tracks are found there. The land east of the Hill Country was formed after the age of the dinosaurs. Deschner told me that there are about 60 known dinosaur track sites. The best known site is at Glen Rose, Texas. I've seen those tracks, but the ones in the creek near my home were equally impressive.

Yes, it's pretty cool to have dinosaur tracks only a couple miles from my house. Translation: I can easily go see them anytime I want!

But part of the coolness is pondering the millions and millions of years it took to create them and then expose them. Geologists call these vast spans of Earth history "geologic time." I first heard this term from a park ranger at the Grand Canyon. My sister-in-law, a geologist, also likes to refer to geologic time.

Cosmologists and astrophysicists use the term "deep time" when referring to the events of the history of the universe, which involve billions of years.

I love studying the history of the cosmos and our planet, and while walking with Mr. Deschner, I realized that I'm finally able to imagine the unimaginable - the vast spans of geologic time and deep time.

It has taken me a while to gain this understanding. I remember standing on a trail on the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in 1996, and I sort of got it when the park ranger joked that the rocks were "older than God." But I couldn't comprehend the reality of 500 million years. He could have said 5 million or 5 billion and it would have made the same impression on me. I was just a man who would live maybe 90 years if I was really lucky, and 500 million years was too many years. It didn't mean anything to me.

But now, standing at the edge of the shallow creek bed, when the man pointed at the tracks and said "100 million years," my study of Earth history and the history of universe was paying off. His cool story about the origins of the dinosaur tracks came alive for me.

The next time my sister-in-law talks about the origins and ages of rocks, I won't feel stupid. I'll get it.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Saturday, March 22, 2014

5 Lessons on Compassion We Can Learn From Nurses

This guest post comes from Sandra Mills, who writes about business and healthcare topics. Follow her on Twitter, @sandramills63.

Nearly 3 million nurses in the U.S. offer care to people of all ages and in various settings, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Everyday, nurses perform acts of compassion to reduce the stress of illness and injury. Adopting just a few of their skills in the home and workplace could make a big difference in the lives of people around you.

Compassionate Caring
There are two elements that make up compassionate nursing care, says Nursing Times. The first is mastery of the skills and procedures used with patients. The second is exercising those skills in a caring manner. You can be a technically competent nurse yet perform duties without compassion.

Putting this to use in your world means looking for opportunities to expand the impact of your expertise. When your task involves another person, how can you perform it so that both of you succeed? As an HR recruiter, you may have interviewed hundreds of people for positions in your company. How can you perform the next interview so that both you and the candidate go away feeling that it was a successful event? The person may not get the position, but they will leave the experience with something that could benefit them in their next interview.

Compassionate Listening
A good nurse is detail-oriented, and that includes listening for details in every conversation. Especially important are the things that aren't said. Most people are not accustomed to really being listened to. So they compensate by holding back information. A patient may respond to a question about pain with "Oh, I feel okay," when they are actually in pain. They don't want to appear weak or needy. The nurse might respond, "It sounds like you're in more pain than you're telling me. I'll get you something to help." This lets the patient know that they were heard, and it will improve future conversations.

If you manage staff in an office, you likely meet with individuals in your group to talk about their work and projects. You may have noticed one of them struggling with a task, yet when you ask if they need help, they tell you, "I have it covered." "Walk through your project with me and let's see where I can provide some help," is a way to show the person that you cared enough to listen to what they needed, behind the words they said.

Compassionate Smile
A smile is a simple gesture that nurses use to calm fears, reassure and let people know they are there to help. A nursing unit can become a very busy place and patients can feel isolated in their own problems. A smile from their nurse breaks that isolation and tells the patient that they haven't been forgotten.

Your smile is a reflection of your personality, and it can make a momentary connection with the people around you. It can become infectious. The person that bags your groceries at the supermarket might be having a bad day, and a smile from you with a simple, "Thank you so much for your help!" could be that bright spot that shifts their mood. They may pass that on to the next customer they help, creating a domino effect of compassionate gestures.

Compassionate Touch
There are times when a simple touch by another person completely changes a situation. Nurses know this and look for those moments when a hand placed on an arm or shoulder takes on a therapeutic role. A patient lies on a hospital cart, fearful of going into surgery. A nurse takes their hands into theirs and says, "I'll be with you throughout the whole procedure." The patient relaxes, feeling supported now by that simple act.

If you have children at home then you know how effective touch can be. At work, you can thank your staff for doing a good job. Or you can hold out your hand and shake theirs warmly as you thank them and convey a much stronger gratitude for their efforts. Your neighbor is telling you about just losing their job. A hand on their shoulder can say, "I'll share this grief with you in this moment," and create a feeling of connection in their isolation.

Compassion and Respect
Sometimes the compassionate thing to do is to acknowledge that you have no answers and to just hold space with a person. Nurses working in a hospice help people to remain as comfortable as possible in their final days. There is nothing the nurse can do to "fix" things. Quietly sitting with a hospice patient tells them "I respect that you have to go through this experience yourself. But I won't abandon you."

Your son comes home from school dejected because he wasn’t chosen for the football team. Your spouse comes home from work in tears because a co-worker was in a serious car accident the night before. Just sitting next to them quietly tells them, "I'll be right here if there is something I can do to help, and I will never be far away."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Near-Future Science Fiction - Realistic Portrayals of Space Travel

We often hear scientists and engineers working in the space industry make grandiose statements like, “We are a race of explorers. It is our destiny to travel to the stars.” They compare the courageous achievements of astronauts to those of Christopher Columbus and Magellan.

These high-sounding pronouncements strike a chord. People like to think of themselves in heroic terms.

Science fiction movies encourage this romanticism—alien creatures that look only slightly different from humans and space travel that seems safe and routine—even comfortable. Informed by this imagery, the general public has little appreciation for the formidable dangers and challenges of space travel.

The first movie to portray outer space as hostile to human life was "Alien" (1979) and its sequels. It portrayed an intelligent life form that was an encounter of the worst kind.

Recently there have been a few of what I call “near-future” sci-fi flicks that even more realistically portray the dangers of venturing into outer space. The most celebrated is “Gravity” (2013), starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, which won several Academy Awards.

Also in this genre are “Race to Mars” (2007), a Canadian feature, and "Europa Report" (2013). Both portray the dangers of space travel realistically. The drama intensifies as the vulnerable astronauts deal with a variety of life-threatening situations.

But even the most scientifically realistic documentaries and movies fail to account for all the dangers.

For example, two types of radiation threaten humans traveling in space. The Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field shield nearly all solar and cosmic radiation. In space, however, the protection has to come from the spacecraft. Radiation from the sun, high-energy high-speed hydrogen protons, is dangerous but not nearly as devastating as cosmic radiation, which comes from distant exploded stars.

These consist of high-speed high-energy heavy particles. A recent study examined the potential for cosmic radiation to cause brain damage. It concluded: “Because iron particles pack a bigger wallop it is extremely difficult from an engineering perspective to effectively shield against them. One would have to essentially wrap a spacecraft in a six-foot block of lead or concrete.” They quickly add that it would be impossible to launch a spacecraft protected by this kind of shielding.

And people who promote colonizing Mars and even “terraforming” Mars never mention the effect of low gravity on muscle loss and bone loss. Mars gravity is only 38% that of Earth. Our bodies evolved to thrive in Earth gravity. Mars gravity wouldn't give humans the stress needed to maintain bone and muscle health. To date, this issue has been not been sufficiently researched, and so no practical solutions have been found.

With both spacecraft and meteorite fragments traveling at high speed, an impact can easily puncture the hull—a catastrophic event. In space, there is no air, so there is no air pressure. Temperatures approach absolute zero. This isn't anything like the voyages of Christopher Columbus, which required great courage and stamina. Conditions on these early voyages were austere, but the explorers enjoyed plenty of fresh food, water and air; ideal gravity, air pressure and temperature range; and protection from solar and cosmic radiation; In other words, they voyaged in the environment our species was born to thrive in.

We weren't born to thrive—or even to survive—in outer space or on the surface of another planet.

In my opinion, we need more information and less romance. We need to learn about the challenges and dangers, because they’re going to come with a high price tag. And you know who will pay for them. That’s right—you and me. So if these missions are to be attempted, and whether they succeed or fail, there better be a damn good reason to pursue them. Not some bombastic sentiment like, “It’s our destiny.”

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Thursday, March 6, 2014

My Strange Encounter with an Old Friend

Forty years ago I was an English professor at West Point when I learned that someone I once knew would be buried with honors in the West Point cemetery. He was the man who, 15 years before, had pinned my Eagle Scout medal on me. I remembered him as a tall, distinguished, handsome man who resembled General Robert E. Lee.

This old graduate was being laid to rest, and I wanted to be there to honor him. It was a cold, rainy day. Present there was his son, who was my age - a former junior high classmate. My family had moved away, and I hadn't seen or heard anything about him in those 15 years. He had grown up to be as tall as his father.

After the ceremony, I went up to my old friend to express my condolences. When he didn't recognize me, I told him who I was. He said he didn't remember me.

Yes, a fair amount of water had passed under the bridge since we were boys. For my part, I had finished high school overseas, attended West Point, survived the Army Ranger School, commanded a HAWK missile battery in Germany and a mobile advisory team in Vietnam, earned degrees at Duke University and was now teaching English at the military academy his father had once attended. I assumed that my friend's separate journey must have been as busy as mine, but in ways unknown to me.

Still, I was shocked that he didn't remember me. But there it was, the reality that everything that had happened to him had pushed memories of me aside. I wished this "stranger" well and left.

Forty years beyond that surprise encounter, I still think about it - a dramatic example of the "membrane of separateness" I've written about, the fact that our personal experience can never be completely known to another and that even though we have family, friends and acquaintances, we walk our life journey essentially alone.

This isn't a morose sentiment. It just is what it is. Most people abhor the feeling of being alone, and to a degree we penetrate this separateness by sharing stories of our lives with each other.

As I share this story with you now.

Today, forty years later, I was wondering what happened to my old friend, the one who had forgotten who I was. I searched the web thoroughly and found nothing, nothing at all. And so apparently his separate journey will remain a mystery to me.

Maybe, in fact, his journey has already reached its end.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Want to Be a Better Leader? A Job Aid for Managers

From, here is "The Manager's Cheat Sheet: 101 Common-Sense Rules for Leaders," a "cheat sheet" checklist for managers.

Yes, it's a long list - 101 items. But it's practical and realistic, and it's chunked into 10 categories - a real good how-to reference for anyone who wants to succeed as a manager.

Check it out...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2014. Building Personal Strength .