Thursday 31 December 2009

Looking Back, Looking Forward

With just under 10 hours of 2009 left, I suppose it's time I reflected on the year that has passed. All things considered, I don't wish to ever repeat the year. Although there were some high points, the private heartache I've had to deal with nearly broke me. Some were privy to it, and to those of you who showed love, support and a nearly limitless capacity to buy me beer, I am eternally grateful.

On a more uplifting note, 2009 was the year I finally figured out my place in the universe. Back in February, the local further education college was advertising for biology lecturers and I applied, not expecting to get interviewed. I actually did get interviewed, but did not get the position. In the meantime I took 10 days off to help out a UCL fieldtrip to Ainsa, northern Spain, by driving one of the minivans. My role was as a driver rather than demonstrator, but I couldn't resist helping out one group who were logging a stream section.

A postdoc overheard me and asked me if I was a teacher, and then said I had excellent teaching technique and a very clear way of explaining concepts and getting the students to investigate things on their own initiative. It was something I dismissed initially, but over the next month or so I mulled over it.

One day in May, out of the blue, I got a call from the FE college - they wanted to offer me a job. I accepted on the spot. I started in August, initially part-time, and I seem to have hit the ground running. The students like me and I like them. I consider myself pretty liberal, but I'm finding prejudices I didn't even know I had being knocked out of the water. I have one student who wants to be a palaeontologist because of me, and another who will, in a couple of days' time, know whether they've got into Cambridge University. A student who arrived in my class reluctant to smile actually laughed two weeks before Christmas.

I have a long way to go - I'm only four months into a two-year teaching qualification. I have some students who I just cannot see eye-to-eye with. I'm flying by the seat of my pants, and I've done a very dangerous thing - I've shown a degree of competence and IT literacy. This has served to give me more responsibility, more paperwork and more teaching hours.

I'm doomed!

Teaching and lecturing is by far the best thing I have ever done with my life. It is the most rewarding job I have had, and four out of five days it doesn't really feel like I'm "at work". I'm not going to make lots of new year's resolutions, but if I just say that I am going to work damn hard to be the best teacher I can be, and if everything I do works towards that, then I will end 2010 with a smile on my face.

Sunday 27 December 2009

Fractal Christmas Dinner

I did it. I finally got to try a Romanesco broccoli!

Paul and I had it with our roast pheasant for Christmas dinner. It does taste very similar to a cross between regular broccoli and cauliflower. And the fractal effect is even more noticeable with the Romanesco than it is with cauliflower or broccoli.

They are expensive to buy - about twice the price of regular broccoli at our local farm shop. But fortunately we have an allotment now, so we can grow our own!

Anyone else have any cool science food for Christmas dinner?

Saturday 19 December 2009

Things I Learned From My Students #2: Christmas 2009

Don't ask me how, but I survived the first term of teaching. And I managed to make enough of an impression to be asked to coordinate a new Level 1 (pre-GCSE) science course next term. I'll be branching out from Biology to teach general science (scientific units, method, how to draw apparatus etc) and a bit of Physics (space travel!), which I will thoroughly enjoy! Anyway, on with this half term's things I learned...
  1. Teenage boys are very often much better behaved than teenage girls.
  2. Not only does the word "dinosaur" have numerous different spellings, but my own name does too.
  3. There are some young people who have never heard of LOLcats.
  4. Younger students can easily be controlled by pointing to the lab skeleton and commenting that it was all that was left of the last student to answer me back.
  5. Hermaphrodites are the most fascinating subject ever.
  6. This is closely followed by brains.
  7. The precipitation on the day of the quadrat-throwing fieldwork is inversely proportional to the uptake of students for A-Level Biology.
  8. Some students know the most amazing facts, such as the ins and outs of the Battle of Thermopylae and the evolutionary history of the coelacanth (same student)!
  9. Kids of any age love playing "hangman" with new words.
  10. Dance music sounds just as dire in Korean as it does in English.
  11. Seeing my students get interviews and offers at universities fills me with more pride than I ever knew I was capable of.
  12. All the scientific literacy I embed in their brains will not stop them from genuinely believing the world will end in 2012.
  13. Apparently I get locked in the prep room overnight and at weekends.
  14. I am the only Biology lecturer who can identify blowflies.
  15. No teacher can compete with snow falling outside the lab window.
  16. It's probably just best if I don't tell the kids what is in haggis.

Friday 27 November 2009


You may remember that I have one or two "issues" with the official textbook available for GCSE Science. Now, being a biology lecturer, all my stuff is at the front of the book, ahead of chemistry and physics (I like to kid myself that it's not just an alphabetical order...). So I rarely have cause to flick through the back of the book. Until I met with one of my private tutees last week...

A fairly benign question, yes? You may need to click through to read the text. All very relevant, could link all three disciplines, highlights a current issue. Good good. But then you look at the next page...

See what they did there? It's Jay and Silent Bob in a GCSE textbook!! Clerks is older than some of the students! Who on Earth under the age of 18 is actually aware of Jay and Silent Bob? Why isn't Silent Bob silent? And does anyone else think that the average GCSE science lesson could be improved by the addition of Jay's rap:

Your thoughts please. And thank you everyone who offered advice on good programmes for my prospective palaeontology student, you've been immensely helpful.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Happy Origin Day!

On this day 150 years ago, Charles Darwin's most famous book, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" was published.

To "celebrate" this occasion I spent five minutes trying to deflect an argument from a colleague I shall charitably refer to as being "uninformed" telling me that "Darwin was wrong". There is a time and a place to go all Dawkins on someone's ass, and honestly that moment was not it. But a later rant to a fellow Biology lecturer helped a great deal, I can tell you!

It's also Zach's birthday, so you should go over there and wish him many happy returns.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Suggested University Courses

Here's a question for the numerous British university-based readers for this blog. I am absolutely tickled because one of my students wants to study palaeontology at university. And it's because of me. Is that not the best thing ever?

So, to give my new favourite student the best chances, I'm helping out by suggesting a few universities to apply to. Said student is doing Biology A-level but not Chemistry or Maths. This probably excludes some of the big Natural Sciences programmes (and if I recall correctly the closing date for Oxbridge applications has already passed).

My thoughts are that he would be well suited to a straight Palaeobiology degree: Portsmouth and Birmingham look ace. Royal Holloway's Geology & Biology degree is also a good bet too.

But this is where I get stuck. He could do with 5-6 prospective universities, so more are needed! I don't think a pure Geology degree is right for him, no matter how much Dinosaurology he might be able to do. So I'm thinking of suggesting some Zoology or Biology programmes with good links with vert palaeo. I just don't have a clue which universities might offer them! Glasgow? Bristol? Birkbeck as a full-time student?

All suggestions appreciated!

Tuesday 10 November 2009

End Of An Era

I learned last night that Professor Barrie Rickards, expert graptolite researcher, has died at the age of 71. It was reported this morning on PaleoNet, the palaeontology listserve.

My year group affectionately named him Darth Rickards, Dark Lord of the Schist. I recall sitting in a stream section somewhere in the Howgill Fells in the summer of 1999 trying to find graptolites with my fellow geology students (and nursing the mother of all hangovers), led by an ever-enthusiastic Barrie in his huge full-length wax coat.

Barrie also taught me everything I know about palaeobotany. And I wish, I wish, I had paid more attention in his classes.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

The State Of The Lecturer, 4th November

It's finally shaping up to be wintery here. Well, wintery by Soft Southern Nancy standards anyway. A chill in the air, blustery winds and crisp mornings to dry out soggy leaves.

For me, the first week of November heralds the official start of the Christmas countdown (I refuse to think about the C-word until this time). I refer, of course, to the arrival of the Starbucks Red Cups, and in particular, that nectar of the Flying Spaghetti Monster - the eggnog latte.

My first eggnog latte of the season, and I was salivating like Pavlov's dogs as I took this photo...

Today's high #1 - actually getting one of the students (who, whilst he is not wholly feckless could certainly do with having a little more in the way of feck) interested in malacology. I nearly fainted!

Today's high #2 - mentioning the word "vagina" several times in the course of my A2 class about epithelial cells and managing to not induce giggles in the teenagers. Truly I have become a biology teacher.

Today's low - buying the new Bon Jovi album on CD and then realising I had nothing to play it on, so high-tech is our home life.

Monday 26 October 2009

Things I Learned From My Students #1: Autumn 2009

  1. It's really uncool and old-fashioned to call it a "pen-drive" rather than a "USB".
  2. No one born after 1991 has ever heard of "2001: A Space Odyssey".
  3. Arsene Wenger speaks nine different languages.
  4. There's a lot of really complicated stuff going on in "Eastenders" at the moment.
  5. Deep questions like "How do snails have sex?" are really fascinating.
  6. Everyone likes to look at bones and formaldehyde specimens, and even the dullest class can be rescued with "Who wants to play with a skeleton?".
  7. The word "dinosaurs" can be spelt in a gazillion different ways, none of which are the correct ones: dinosours, danosouer, dinisours, dinosauras, dinosuars, dinosaurus, dinasours, dinosauris, dinosourse.
  8. Charles Darwin looks an awful lot like Santa Claus.
  9. The CSI Effect should never be underestimated.
  10. A student who says they can get hold of some human hearts for next term's dissection class should be given a wide berth after dark.
  11. Robert Pattinson is apparently a hunk.
  12. A lack of forward planning on the students' part ALWAYS constitutes an emergency on my part.
  13. Something will happen every day to surprise you. Sometimes it will be a good surprise. Sometimes it won't...
  14. Every teenager has a Hotmail address that they're really going to regret when they go to university.
  15. The age of 29 is considered positively Jurassic (or at least it would be if any of them knew what Jurassic meant).
  16. You will learn more about your student at parents' evening than you will ever find out from them in class.

Friday 23 October 2009

Hello Internet

Well. It's been a while, hasn't it? I have just survived my first half term in what I suspect is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding professions in existence. There must be harder jobs, but I bet there aren't too many tough jobs that are as much bloody fun as teaching.

An advantage of living pretty much next door to the college is that within 10 minutes of leaving the office, this is what I was looking at:

To my father, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, cousin, and the numerous friends I have who teach and lecture, that bad-boy margarita is for you. Cheers!

You'll have noticed that internet activity from me has been patchy to say the least. The odd strangled scream via Facebook or Twitter, the occasional e-mail to say "I'm really busy right now". And you can forget about forum, mailing list or chatroom presence. It's half-term now, which means I can relax a little. And for the first time in a while, I've felt energised to blog. I'm sorry if I've ignored your comments - if you're hoping for a response, please comment on the thread you initially posted on, and that'll bump it up for me to reply.

I think my blogging will be more sporadic now. This teaching thing is handing my arse to me on a plate, along with teacher training and my PhD (busy much??). But what has been touching is to see that my blog still gets a pretty good number of visitors each day. I'm glad it serves a purpose even with the older material.

But for now, La Senorita Margarita calls. And if any of my students are reading this, why aren't you doing your homework? Didn't I give you enough for the whole week?

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #5: Driving

As I am still barely containing the panic, Paul Anderson (or Mr Julia Heathcote as he's often known at SVP) has very kindly written a final post for all you colonials on the perils of driving on British roads.

Most people coming to SVP will take public transport, but for those brave souls who intend to get a rental, the prospect of driving in the UK may appear daunting. It isn't nearly as scary as you might think. Sure, everything's on the wrong side of the road, the cars are smaller, the roads narrower and twistier, and nothing is set out on a sensible grid system, but apart from that...

Your car

Most cars in the UK are manual transmission, although you may be lucky and get an automatic. The first thing you'll notice is that the driver's seat is on the right, not the left. The gear stick will be at the driver's left hand, which may take some getting used to if you drive a manual transmission in the States. [Ed: you will also need to use the hand brake, situated behind the gear stick. Pull the hand brake up before you release the foot brake to ensure the car does not roll away.]

The car will also generally be smaller than in the US, but more fuel efficient. This is a good thing, because the price of petrol in the UK is far higher than you will be used to. 105.9 pence per litre is about the average at the moment (and it will be higher at motorway service stations), which is approximately $6 to the gallon. As well as being more fuel efficient, you will also be driving shorter distances, so hopefully this won't break the budget. Most cars take unleaded petrol, but be careful in case you get a diesel engine - you don't want to mix them up.

On the road

We drive on the left. Always on the left. Please do not forget this.

The UK equivalent of the interstate is the motorway. These are multilane fast roads, identified by an M followed by a number. Signs on the motorway are white text on a blue background. The maximum speed limit is 70mph, lower depending on conditions, roadworks etc. Junctions (offramps) are numbered and signposted.

After motorways, the UK has A roads and B roads. A roads are the major roadways, but can vary from single carriageway to multilane dual carriageways. Some A roads have more lanes than some motorways. Speed limits on A roads vary from as low as 30mph all the way up to national speed limit (this is 70mph on dual carriageways, but only 60mph on single carriageways).

Within towns, cities and built up areas, the speed limit will usually be 30mph unless otherwise marked.

Speed limit signs are black text on white circular signs with a red trim, with the exception of the national speed limit sign, which is a white circle with a black bar running diagonally from the upper right to the lower left. If you are changing from a lower speed to a higher speed, then you may only travel at the higher speed from the point of the sign. If however you are going from a higher speed to a lower speed zone then you must be travelling at the lower speed by the time you reach the sign.

Traffic signals and other road markings

The sequence of traffic lights is red for "stop", red + amber for "get ready" then green for "go". When changing back again, the sequence is green, amber, red. At pedestrian crossings, after a red light there will be a flashing amber light. You may pass through an amber light only if there are no pedestrians crossing the road at that point.

Sometimes there will be filter arrows that allow you to turn, even if the traffic light is at red. These will apply only to the turn lane, and will be marked by a green arrow that lights up in conjunction with the red light.

Please be aware that unlike in the US, it is not permitted to turn on a red signal even if there is no traffic coming.

Stop signs are few and far between in the UK. More common is the give way sign (yield). It is a red and white triangle with the point downwards, and the road marking is a double white broken line. You must yield to traffic coming from your right.

As well as traffic light pedestrian crossings, be on the lookout for "zebra crossings". These are marked by black and white lampposts with a yellow flashing light at the top, and the road will have white stripes across it. If pedestrians are standing at the crossing waiting to cross, then you must slow down and stop for them if safe to do so.

The most common road signs you will see in the UK can be found here.


These are not nearly as terrifying as you might suppose. Always travel in a clockwise direction around the roundabout, and the golden rule is that if there is traffic coming from your right, you do not enter the roundabout. Only when it is clear for you to do so should you enter. Once on the roundabout, you have priority over other traffic waiting to enter.

If you wish to turn off at the first exit from a roundabout, approach it whilst signalling left, in the furthest left lane. If you wish to exit from the second exit, do not signal left until you have passed the first exit. If you wish to exit from the third exit (or any further exits) then approach the roundabout signalling right. Once on the roundabout, keep signalling right until you are approaching the exit you need. Only then should you signal left to indicate that you are about to exit.

Roundabouts vary in size from mini-roundabouts in towns, to massive multi-exit roundabouts controlling entry to motorways. Some roundabouts also use traffic lights to help regulate traffic flow.


UK towns and cities are densely populated, and as such parking is often restricted. If there are double yellow lines down the edge of the road it means you may not park there at all. Doing so risks, at a minimum, a parking fine. But in some places it may mean that your vehicle will be clamped, and possibly removed.

A single yellow line indicates that parking is restricted to certain times, which will be signposted close by.

Often there are parking bays marked - usually in conjunction with metered parking. Most towns and cities have several dedicated pay car parks - these will be signposted on road signs. Look out for a white letter P on a blue background.

Some safety reminders
  • It is against the law to use your mobile phone whilst driving.
  • Police traffic enforcement officers may stop any driver they suspect of not giving due care and attention to driving - eating, reading a map etc can all constitute failure to give due care and attention.
  • Wearing seatbelts is compulsory.
  • Please do not drink and drive. It is against the law, and it is taken very seriously by the police.

Monday 21 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #4: Etiquette

Because I'm having a Week Of Doom at the moment, the wonderful Paul Anderson has agreed to guest-write this post, and probably the next one (about driving on the left hand side of the road!). He rocks.

If you know anything about the British, then you know that we are famed for politeness and good manners.

In Hollywood movies anyway. In real life we can be as crass, arrogant and rude as the next nation (the next nation is France - enough said). Here's a crash course in surviving the bewildering world of etiquette in Britain. There are whole books dedicated to this subject. This is just a taster.

Dining and Drinking

One of the delights of dining in America is the excellent service that you will receive, regardless of the eating establishment. From fine dining to fast food, service is fast, with a smile, and designed to please you. A very good reason for this is tipping. You don't dare incur the wrath of your customers, in case they don't tip, and if you are in the service industry, you need those tips to get by.

Not so in Britain. Thanks to the minimum wage, the service industry does not rely on tips. So lesson one, is that tipping is purely customary. Some restaurants may add a service charge to a table with a large party, but in general anything under 8 will not see a service charge added to your bill. At this point tipping is purely at your discretion, and a good tip is considered to be 10% of the bill. There are also no sales taxes to add on at the end, so don't worry about having to add that on when working out how to split the bill.

The downside of this of course is waiting staff may not be quite as attentive to you as you are used to. This doesn't excuse rudeness of course, but you aren't going to get quite the same level of service as you might expect in the US.

Also worth noting is that tips are generally placed in a pool and divided amongst all the staff on duty for that shift - your own particular server will not get the whole tip.

When in bars you may tip at your discretion - it is always appreciated, but again is not expected. Whilst in the US a dollar per drink is the normal rate, in the UK a couple of pounds per round is perfectly acceptable (unless the round is particularly expensive, or involves difficult drinks to mix, in which case you may consider the 10% option). [Ed: I tend not to tip in the average chain pub, but as Paul says, it is always appreciated.]


Outside of major cities like London, it is rare to see public taxis that you can flag down in the street. Most local councils have licensed taxi ranks from which to get a cab, or you can phone a private minicab company to arrange pick up. Please, for your own safety, only travel in licensed private minicabs or from licensed taxi ranks. There have been a number of cases of unlicensed cars picking up customers, particularly lone females, and assaulting them.

Once again, it is not customary to tip your driver, but you may do so if you feel the service was particularly good.


Note the spelling. If there's one thing the British know how to do, it is forming an orderly queue. Woe betide someone who cuts in line. You will be subjected to a chorus of tutting and repressed hostility. People may even mutter something about "bloody foreigners". The exception to this appears to be on public transport, when it is every man for themselves.

In crowded places like bars, there may appear to be no organised queuing system, but patrons have a general sense of who was there before them. Be aware of this. Often a barman will start to take an order from someone who will indicate that you were before them. Be gracious. If you truly were, then thank them. If you weren't, then say so and allow them to go before you.


It is still considered impolite to discuss religion and politics with strangers. And no matter how much you hear a British person complain about public transport, our food, our government, or our sporting performances, we're allowed to do so because they are ours. The instant a non-Brit starts complaining, we'll close ranks. Remember, you're a visitor, so in a sense you haven't earned the right to moan yet.

Oh, and for god's sake, don't mention the war. Any of them.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #3: The Language Barrier

George Bernard Shaw said that the US and UK are "two nations divided by a common language". Here's a brief guide to avoid embarrassment.

When you say "pants" you are referring to attire for the bottom half of your body. We call them "trousers". What we call "pants" are underpants. Be careful with this, especially if clothes shopping.

It should go without saying that you will be laughed at in the streets if you wear a "fanny pack". Over here, they're called "bum bags". However, you should also note that "fanny" is a word describing the female genitals and not the backside.

If someone asks if they can bum a fag off you, this is not an invitation to a homosexual act. They are merely asking if they can have a cigarette. While "fag" is a term for a gay man, even over here, it is also more commonly used to mean "cigarette".

The word "bugger" has a stronger meaning here than it seems to in the US. The verb "to bugger" means "to have anal sex with". Calling someone a "bugger" or telling someone to "bugger off" is a friendlier, softer insult than many you might come across, but be careful if you don't know the person very well.

Here, when we have "chips" we're having "fries" - they may be thick or thin cut. It is the British way to have thicker cut chips than other Europeans or Americans do. If you want what you would refer to as a "packet of chips" you want a "packet of crisps", or perhaps a "packet of tortilla chips".

Soda and pop is referred to as a "soft drink". We only use "candy" to describe boiled sweets - any other confectionery is a "sweet" or a "chocolate".

If we're in a restaurant and wanting to pay for our meal, we ask the waitress for the "bill" and not the "check". Here, a "cheque" (note the different spelling) is something you write from a "chequebook" to pay for an item. You will not be able to use your "chequebook" (or even "checkbook"!) over here.

The paved area of the road allocated for pedestrians to walk on is called the "pavement" here and not the "sidewalk". We usually refer to the "asphalt" as being "tarmac".

Oh yes, and our pints have 20oz in them...

If you have any language queries stick them in the comments and I'll try to answer them!

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #2: Eating Out

Oh you Americans. You have both the best and the worst restaurants on the planet. You will find most of them in Britain. You have probably heard it said (or maybe said yourself) that the British only had the Empire for the cuisine (totally failing to take into account the fact that American food without the immigrant influences is pretty dire). So here is my guide to eating in the UK.


The fundamental unit of breakfast is the Full English Breakfast. If you have booked a Bed & Breakfast room, this will be included in your rate. Otherwise I heartily recommend finding a café or "greasy spoon" which serves breakfast. You will receive, for about £3-4, eggs (fried, sunny side up - don't even contemplate asking for them any other way because we don't know what those other ways are), sausages (not frankfurters!), bacon (real bacon with actual meat on it rather than fried fat), baked beans (these are more like the beans in "Pork 'N' Beans" than your own baked beans), fried bread (hey, don't criticise - you put syrup on your sausage), possibly fried tomatoes or mushrooms, and if you're really lucky, black pudding. Black pudding is basically a blood sausage, and you'll get a couple of slices of it. Don't knock it until you've tried it. If you're a vegetarian, just have muesli or something - the Full English is not for you. The coffee will not be brilliant, and you will certainly not get free refills from anywhere unless explicitly stated. I suggest drinking tea for the week.

Lunch and Dinner

Since you'll probably be going to the same sort of places for each meal, let's combine the two. First up - soft drinks, soda, pop, whatever you want to call them. With a few exceptions (Pizza Hut, TGI Fridays, Subway) you will rarely get free refills on soft drinks. Some restaurants will charge an extortionate amount of money for non-alcoholic drinks. If you go to a Chinese restaurant, your best deal is to have green tea, as that is usually refilled for free. If you ask for water, make it clear that you want tap water, since restaurants have to provide you with free tap water if you want it. Our water does not taste of chlorine.

Our meal portions are generally smaller than yours, and more expensive for what you get. You will not have free chips and dip while you wait for your main course, or all you can eat salad. However, what you see on the menu is what you pay. Tax is included (and this applies to all prices for any goods or merchandise). Your only additional charge will be the waiting staff's tip (more on that with etiquette). If you're on a limited budget, try Wetherspoons pubs (if you can find one). They usually have two meals for £7-8, and they're filling. Wetherspoons also have real ales on tap (you will never go back to Budweiser), and they're often under £2 a pint, which is a price I haven't seen since my student days. If you are at a nicer restaurant though, you can usually get a doggy bag for your leftovers. It never hurts to ask.

What you won't be able to get

You will not be able to get Mountain Dew or root beer. You can get Dr Pepper though. You can buy lemonade and you can buy a Milky Way chocolate bar, but they will not be what you're expecting. You will be unlikely to find iced tea. Bread does not taste sweet over here. Our cheese is delicious. We're not big on items flavoured with peanut butter, although we're increasingly seeing Reese's products available. Kebabs are what British people eat at 3am when they're drunk and have the munchies. Do not consider going into a kebab shop prior to this point.

Surviving In Britain #1: Public Transport

It has been an exhausting few weeks, and I'm only just into my first week of teaching at a Popular Further Education College. But I promised myself and some fellow palaeontologists that I would do a short series of posts on how to survive in the UK.

The reason for this is that SVP is coming to Bristol next week - it's the first time the conference has ever been held outside North America, and this is to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin Of Species. The most popular question I've been fielding from American and Canadian friends has been sorting out our terminally bewildering public transport system, and mostly the trains.

Firstly, to prepare yourselves for travelling in the UK by train, read the guide at The Man In Seat Sixty-One. He can explain how our system works far better than I can, and to be honest I'd only be rehashing what he says. As a general rule, flexibility is inversely proportional to the cost of the ticket - if you get a very cheap ticket it is likely to only be valid on the specific train you want to book.

Monday to Friday before about 9:30am is peak travel time, and you probably won't be able to get discounted rates. Some companies also restrict travel between 4pm and 6pm as that's the afternoon commute. It is impossible for a train to sell out of tickets, but you may not be guaranteed a seat, and they really can pack you on like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse. We used to have a lovely national railway system called British Rail, but then it all got privatised (this has made a lot of people very angry). This is why there are so many different companies, all calling their tickets different things, and with such variation on routes and prices.

However, if you're booking travel from London to Bristol, then this route is served by First Great Western from London Paddington station. You can book with non-UK credit cards, and you can collect your tickets from the self-service points at the major stations.

If you're planning on spending a week or so in London (and especially if you're planning to take buses around the city), you will find it cheaper to buy an Oyster card. This can be loaded with a weekly pass (or longer) or simply loaded with cash to pay as you go. It will save you 50p a day on a daily travel pass for whatever zones you travel in, and if you take the buses only it will cost £1 per journey rather than £2. This will make it well worth the £3 deposit you have to pay to load it.

Beware that the London Underground is not 24-hour, although it is only really shut for five hours tops overnight. We do have night buses, but they aren't frequent and unless you're a jammy sod like me and have a night bus stop at the bottom of your road, you'll have a long and increasingly sober walk from wherever the bus gets you to. Taxis are expensive, but a licensed black cab is trustworthy. We have had problems with unlicensed mini-cabs, and if you are a young woman on your own just get the black cab.

Most of the city of London is pretty safe, and applying the same common sense to London as you would to any American town or city is sensible. Don't go down dark alleys if you're on your own, don't flash your cash around or wear your very expensive DSLR round your neck, and keep alert for disturbances or fights. I personally would not go to Finsbury Park, Hoxton, Brixton or anywhere with a postcode beginning with an E alone after dark. But I have many friends who live in or near those areas who are similarly terrified of the area of London in which I live!

Coming up, eating out, the language barrier and etiquette.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Millennium Vulture

This is a brief post to celebrate International Vulture Appreciation Day 2009.

Back in March of this year, I spent 10 days in northern Spain as a driver for a UCL fieldtrip. The primary focus of the fieldwork was the brilliant sedimentology, structural geology and sequence stratigraphy of the area. I was also fascinated by the botany of the region, and some of the other drivers were keen birdwatchers. I deliberately hadn't brought my SLR camera with me, and rather regretted it, as I'd probably have been able to borrow the other guys' lenses and get some better shots than this one with my digicam:

I think these are griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus). But to be honest this was as close as we got to them! What I would have loved to see was a Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), known locally as a quebrantahuesos, but we never went high enough into the Pyrenees to see them. On a free morning, I visited the Eco Museum in Ainsa Castle, home to the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (the site was down when I visited just now - maybe it'll come back online later), where a skeleton was on display:

I bought a cuddly quebrantahuesos (I prefer the Spanish name - it rolls off the tongue), named it Billy, and stuck it in the front of my van so the students could spot our vehicle amid the other identical ones. And because I had a fair percentage of the UCL Sci-Fi Society in my van, by the end of the week the seven-seater Renault Espace had been renamed "The Millennium Vulture". Which beats "The Vomit Comet" and "Clutch Lady's Car", its previous incarnations...

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Back To School #2: Alternative Lunchbox

Palaeontologically correct it may not be, but I thought the use of googly eyes made this superior to the lunchbox of a few weeks ago:

Monday 24 August 2009

The Palaeontologist At The Airport

Over at Ask Doctor Vector, Matt has recounted his recent experience transporting a cow shinbone through an airport. It reminded me of an incident as I was returning home from SVP last year.

I loaded my bags onto the conveyor, did my usual striptease (since almost everything I own or wear has at some point set off the metal detector), and proceeded through to collect my bags. The Homeland Security officer was looking aghast at my bag's image on the screen, running it backwards and forwards, zooming in, flicking between different views.

Until she turned to me, looking extremely confused, and said "Ma'am, do you have a dinosaur in your bag?". When I replied in the affirmative, she just let it through with no further questions.

This was the dinosaur in question. Rather makes one wonder what the officer would have done if the answer had been "No"...

Friday 14 August 2009

Sometimes Humanity Sucks

The Natural History Museum isn't just the South Kensington site - its bird collection, for example, is housed north of London in Tring, Hertfordshire. Many of the non-British readers might have been unaware of this; unfortunately the thieves who broke into the collection on 24th June and stole several rare bird skins were not ignorant of this fact.

A statement from the Museum is online here. Professor Richard Lane, the Director of Science at the NHM, said:
"The birds that were stolen formed part of the nation's natural history collection, painstakingly assembled over the last 350 years. The 70 million specimens looked after by the Natural History Museum are a resource of international importance in the development of scientific knowledge. Our ornithological collections are amongst our most heavily used and are consulted by researchers throughout the world, who either visit Tring or request loans from us. The knowledge gleaned from these collections can help protect endangered species and answer questions about the biodiversity of the world around us."
In this technologically advanced age, Hertfordshire Police now have an official YouTube channel, and released this video:

I didn't know we had a National Wildlife Crime Unit, but I'm pleased they exist and are involved in the investigation. One thing is clear - this is not the sort of thing that opportunistic burglars steal. These bird skins haven't been nicked in order to fund a crack habit. To my mind (uneducated as it is in criminology) this is far more organised - stealing to order, for rich private collectors perhaps. If that is the case, then perhaps there will be more leads than one gets with the average house burglary (although as I discovered, not even the irrefutable DNA of the burglar left in our house could make up for the incompetence of Ealing Police - ask me about that sometime...). I'm sure we'll all be hoping to hear shortly that the birds have been found and the thieves caught.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Happy Left-Handers Day, Fellow Southpaws!

Today, 13th August, is a cool day for me. It's my "half-birthday", meaning I am now just six short months from the big 3-0. It is also International Left-Handers Day, where (if you choose to celebrate) the 10% of us who have to exist in a right-handed world can turn the tables and designate a "Lefty Zone" (don't worry Paul, given this morning's smoothie incident you have enough trouble coping with ambidextrous and right-handed equipment, let alone stuff designed for a lefty, so consider yourself spared!).

So here's a list of everyday equipment that I have to struggle to use, use with my non-dominant hand or try to find a left-handed version:
  • Pens (we need quick-drying ink or a pen that will adapt to the different way a lefty has to hold a pen to see what they've written, and the nib has to be able to cope with a lefty pushing rather than pulling the pen across the page - biros saved our lives!)
  • Rulers (I have a left-handed ruler now, where the "0" is on the right hand side)
  • Scissors (using a right-handed pair makes it very difficult to see the line that needs to be cut)
  • Cake forks (never any point in giving me a righty cake fork because I won't use the "blade")
  • Kettles (the level indicator is almost always set up so the handle is on the right hand side - I've adapted to using it right-handed)
  • Computer mice (once upon a time there wasn't an option to swap over the buttons, or spend ages in computing classes switching the mouse to the other side of the keyboard so I learned to use it right-handed)
  • Microwaves (all the buttons are on the right hand side)
  • Can openers (thank goodness most of the plastic ones out now are ambidextrous)
  • Ticket barriers (I still have a fumble at the ticket barriers as I remember to swap hands or cross my left arm over my body)
  • Hockey sticks (despite an average of three lefty students per class my school had no lefty hockey sticks, so I played with a right-handed one and sucked badly at hockey)
  • Computer keyboard (the sodding number keys are always on the right hand side, making fast data entry difficult for the lefty)
However, while these things are an annoyance (and probably much more so for people who cannot use their right hand for anything - I'm at least moderately ambidextrous with some things), I wouldn't be so foolish as to expect massive design changes in things like ticket barriers and microwaves. I'm sure if it bothered me enough I could get a left-handed keyboard, and stationery and kitchen equipment is well catered for at Anything Left-Handed.

A couple of years ago I mentioned research on the LRRTM1 gene, which may go some way to explaining why three members of my family were or are left-handed (out of 10 of my grandfather's descendants plus himself). It'll be interesting to see which hand Grandpa's great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren use, and whether the world will be a little less frustrating for them to live in.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Palaeontology Benefitting The World

As I have frequently ranted about on here, palaeontology is often seen as a frivolous pastime of no real benefit to the rest of science, let alone the world at large. Some people feel the same way about the Space Race, teflon frying pans notwithstanding. But here's an example, in New Scientist today:
How to digitally iron out chewed-up photos
A sophisticated imaging technique used to enhance fossils and ancient engravings may soon help you erase rips and creases from old photographs, using just an ordinary flatbed scanner. Tom Malzbender of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, California, and his colleagues pioneered a method of taking scores of digital photographs of a textured object from slightly different angles to create a computer model of the object's bumps and ridges.
There you go, a technique developed in the course of palaeontological and archaeological research could be a mainstream feature of flatbed scanner software in years to come.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Back To School #1: Kit

Lunchboxes ain't what they used to be. 25 years ago, when I started school, I had a plastic Peanuts lunchbox with a thermos inside. Now look at what you can buy:

And on the back is a load of NHM-sanctioned trivia:

Here's the question. Can a respectable biology lecturer at a further education college get away with having her sandwiches in this?

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Exposure To Science In Magazines

Just under two weeks ago, I posted about a quiz testing the science knowledge of the average American, with results broken down by demographic. I noted that the only questions where women scored more highly than men were the life/health science stories, and we got a nice bit of discussion going as to why this might be. KJHaxton hit the nail on the head:
I wonder if it is to do with they types of media each gender is exposed to - women's magazines may be more likely to carry health information, programs (esp in the US) pitched at men focus on more physical things.
So I was tickled to see an example of this in action today.

Fellow palaeo-blogger and far-too-occasional drinking buddy Dave Hone is having a busy week, partly caused by this article. I've only just asked Dave for a PDF (and he might not even have a copy himself yet!), but here's the gist. Adult dinosaur bones are not commonly found with predator tooth marks, nor are adult bone fragments found in the stomach contents of predatory dinosaurs. Add in a distinct lack of juveniles preserved in the fossil record (along with the caveat that a fair bit of this may be attributed to taphonomic bias) and observations of extant predators tending to go for juvenile prey as an easier target than a sick or elderly adult and certainly easier than a healthy adult, and one can hypothesise that adult theropods were preying on predominantly juveniles.

Dave's got a comprehensive post on the paper on his blog, and he says himself it's almost as long as the paper, so I recommend going over and having a good read. But this is the bit that tickled me: it got picked up by GQ Magazine!

I don't know how many countries GQ has reached, but (originally short for Gentlemen's Quarterly) it is at the higher end of the spectrum of men's glossy magazines. It has the articles that all you boys say you read Playboy for. It has fairly intellectual (for a glossy) journalism, and a low tits quotient. The article itself is pretty good - there is no mention of the word "boffin", they've spelled "palaeontologist" correctly, remembered to capitalise the genus name of the dinosaurs concerned, and pretty much explained the journal article for non-scientists. This may be the very first time the word Lethaia has featured on any men's magazine website, but let's hope it's not the last.

Here's the kicker though - there is no way, if I go to the Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan or Glamour websites, that I would see this article or anything like it. I searched for the word "dinosaur" on each website, and all I got was a designer's fashion show where he/she had been "inspired" by One Million Years BC.


It really does seem as though women are only allowed to be interested in science that directly affects them as wives and mothers and consumers of expensive cosmetics. It's okay to inform men about cool science that (sorry Dave) won't have any impact on their daily lives, because men like cool stuff. Maybe dinosaurs would make it into the women's glossies if they were suddenly found to have been bright pink.

Your thoughts, oh loyal readership?

Saturday 25 July 2009

Interesting Science Quiz Results

David Bradley of Sciencebase tweeted a quiz on science in the news and asked his followers if we know more science than the average American:

Test Your News IQ

It would appear that I do know more science than the average American (and, I suspect, the average Brit) as I got 12/12. Now, you'll have to do the quiz to see the demographic results, but I thought this was interesting:

I apologise for the lack of labelling - the number column on the far right indicates the percentage of female respondees who answered correctly for each question. The number column immediately to the left indicates the percentage of male respondees. On nine of the questions, men scored more highly than women, but on three questions women did better than men:
  • Which over-the-counter drug do doctors recommend that people take to help prevent heart attacks?
  • How are stem cells different from other cells?
  • True or false: Antibiotics will kill viruses as well as bacteria.
These are the three biology/medicine/life science type questions - the other being geology/chemistry/physics/astronomy based. Now, I can't obviously say whether this is statistically significant, although maybe the Pew Research Center will follow up on this. However, when I was at university, physics classes were made up mainly of men and biology classes were made up mainly of women - even at the University Of Cambridge. Gender stereotypes manifesting themselves even among adults? Biology is "nice" and "soft" and you can go along and work with flowers and cute fuzzy animals, young lady, but leave the "serious" physics and astronomy to the more mathematically-minded men. They will solve our real problems. Is this a case that women are more educated in life sciences and less so in physical sciences than the men? Or, being in the vast majority the primary care-givers, do they simply pay attention mainly to the science news that directly affects the health of their family and ignore the rest (remember that awful exchange on The View about whether the Earth was flat)? Conversely is this support for the commonly-held view that men tend to ignore their health? Do they ignore it because they're uninformed or are they uninformed because they've ignored it? So, what do you think? I've used sweeping generalisations here with only that number table to back up my thoughts, but I wonder if there is a real signal there and what the reason might be.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Scientists Not Involved In Policy

It probably comes as no surprise to most scientists that they have been excluded from scientific policy decisions by the Government, according to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Parliamentary Committee (IUSS Committee hereafter):

Scientists "kept at arm's length"

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Parliamentary Committee is a cross-party committee whose official remit is:
To examine the administration, expenditure and policy of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, including further education, higher education, skills and the Government Office for Science which has responsibility for science across all Government departments.
Of course, now that DIUS has been disbanded and mostly shifted over to DBIS one assumes this will be updated soon enough.

On the subject of this, one of the IUSS Committee's main concerns is the way that the Government Office for Science has been passed around departments like a hot potato (maybe I should be in science policy...), which gives the impression that it doesn't give a pair of foetid dingoes' kidneys about science.

And here's something that American scientists have had to put up with for the duration of the Bush Administration (possibly before that? Grateful for any further information from the Old Guard), which has been suspected for some time in the UK, but which looks damn scary written down:
The committee said that too often advisers came under intense pressure to agree with the government's stance on an issue.
It's things like this that make me very glad I work in a discipline that is unlikely to need to have a major input on Government policy. I don't know whether this "intense pressure" is merely that senior officials in institutions like the Royal Society are leaned upon to make statements that fit with policy, or whether (as reported in the USA in Top Scientists Want Research Free From Politics in February 2008):
"Government scientists have had their findings subjected to censorship and misrepresentation," said Kurt Gottfried, professor of physics at Cornell University and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The public and Congress have often been deprived of accurate and candid scientific information."
Perhaps the IUSS Committee should check whether British scientists are having Research Council funding cut for "inconvenient" research projects. I really hope they're not; I have a very high opinion of the Research Councils and the work they do in the face of having their own budgets cut. I fear if there is such funding pressure it's happening in agencies such as FERA, which, given their research areas, could be quite detrimental to public health and the environment.

Friday 17 July 2009

Female Performance On Fieldwork

I read this article on the F-Word blog: "Women, confidence and fear of male judgment", and thought about my own performance in certain activities in front of men. The obvious one for me was fieldwork, so I commented:
I'm a palaeontologist, which involves a lot of fieldwork. I assisted on an undergraduate fieldtrip, driving one of the minivans. Although there were three female drivers I was the only one who didn't opt out as soon as they could, so I found myself "competing" with male drivers. Despite being a competent driver (I have never had a problem with manoeuvres), with all the other drivers watching I managed to burn out the clutch, earning myself the nickname of "Clutch Lady" for the whole fortnight.

I'm also fairly nimble on my feet and pretty good at bouldering (although I don't pretend to be any good at actual climbing). A 6-ft scramble would have been very little trouble for me if I'd been on my own or in a group of girls. But faced with two men offering a hand to help me up I stumbled, lost my footing and had to be hauled up. I beat myself up about it for the rest of the day, because I knew I should have been able to make the climb.

I don't know if we're so caught up in worrying about what the men might think that we fail to concentrate on our activity, or whether we subconsciously act how the men are expecting us to act. I am expected to be a bad driver because I am a woman. I am expected to not be able to scramble up a rock face because I am a woman.
Not to take away comments from the F-Word, but I'd be interested to know what my readers think, male and female. Is it just having an audience that does it? Am I imagining my perceived competence with a female audience and incompetence with a male audience? Anyone want to share their fieldtrip shame?

Interestingly enough, I have never underperformed when giving presentations at SVP. I don't know whether it's that women are not expected to suck at public speaking, or whether it's only really physical performance (something easy to assess objectively), or whether it really is all in my imagination (and presumably the original article's writer...).

Wednesday 15 July 2009

The Lot Of A Palaeontology Spouse

My former advisor used to spout an awful lot of drivel, but one thing I believed: he always said that geologists had the highest divorce rates of all the scientific professions. I'd love to see some statistics, but I think it comes down to a few key things - fieldwork, conferences and downright nerdiness.

And it can be hard on the spouses. So I thought it might be helpful for the other palaeo-spouses to see how my own husband deals with these issues.


He has never been on fieldwork with me. He has only ever spent one night under canvas, and that was in a friend's back garden five years ago. When I did the Ainsa fieldtrip, I left him with three frozen meals, and after that he decamped to his parents' house for the rest of the week. Since we've been holidaying together, he's had pretty much no input on location as it's either close to an SVP conference location or it's one of my field areas, and let's just say that the Peak District in December is an acquired taste:

Nevertheless, I have always managed to find something to keep him happy, and that's the key to success - make sure you take time out each day to do something your spouse really enjoys...


Paul has accompanied me to all but one SVP conference - he even went to a GSA once. This is A Good Thing as it's always nice to have someone who signed up for the whole "in sickness and in health" thing to hold one's hair back after an evening of "socialising".

Now, because most palaeontologists are old and male, most spouse activities planned by conference organisers are with old women in mind. You should have seen the look on Paul's face when I suggested he might like to go on the spouse visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Garden in Austin in 2007.

No, his needs are simple: coffee and wi-fi. He probably decimates the coffee supplies outside the conference halls each morning, and I think SVP will be able to use him as an instant indicator of whether their internet is working or not. And after hours he fits in so well with my friends:

He gets his social registration each year, so he gets a name badge and he loves to swap it at the end of the last night. He has been "Paul Anderson: Not the shit movie director", "Paulmela Anderson" "Paul AndersonUpchurch: ask me about Euhelopus" (the year my own supervisor didn't go to SVP) and frequently amends his institution to be the Kansas City Creationist College of Jeebus Studies. So including him in drinks and meals, allowing him to mock us a little bit and giving him something to do while I'm at talks has meant he looks forward to SVP each year.


Poor thing. He has to cope with so much. The lounge is full of dinosaurs, rocks, fossils and the like. One whole bookshelf is pretty much palaeontology books. Even the plants have to be dinosaur-related. How does he respond? Utter disdain. And a healthy interest in gargoyles.

I even walked in to "Theme from Jurassic Park" when we got married. On this front he just had to suck it up and accept that he was not going to change me.

Happy wedding anniversary darling. You're rawrsome.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Summer Reading

I'm spending the summer mainly unemployed (boo hiss), which does have some advantages: I can plan all my lessons for the start of the school year, I can do some fieldwork, I can garden all I want, and I can finally read for pleasure! ReBecca has her summer reading list, so as the meme is going round I thought I'd tell you what I'm planning to read (and what I've already made a start on this summer):

Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham

This was the last I had of the republished Wyndham books, and I think it might actually be my favourite. In contrast to the other Wyndham books, it has a strong female lead character in Diana Brackley, a successful biochemist. Surprisingly, the Wikipedia entry (plot spoilers there, click with caution!) says the book is "not generally regarded as one of Wyndham's best novels". I suspect Paul and Chris favour The Kraken Wakes as the best (and possibly The Day Of The Triffids a close second?).

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Paul was given this as a birthday present. I had to read it...

I did enjoy it, but (perhaps this was the point) found myself wanting to go back and read the original story without zombies! I read P&P as a teenager trying to make her GCSE English reading list look pretentious and intellectual, and didn't actually enjoy it at all. So, being twice the age now and with a significantly longer attention span (and the joy of being able to envisage Matthew McFadyen as Mr Darcy - he was so much more Darcyish than Colin Firth...), I'll be re-reading:

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

I commented last week that I had never read Silent Spring, and I feel as though it's one of those books that I need to have read, one of those compulsory reads. I visited Love Canal when I was 17, and the friend we were with told us the whole story (we were not allowed to get out of the vehicle, as our friend said the area was still pretty contaminated).

I'm sure there'll be many more (and don't even get me started on the sheer number of papers, books and memoirs I have to read for my PhD!!) but I'd be interested to hear opinions from people who've read these books, and given the few examples, anyone who has any suggestions for further reading.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

GCSE Biology And Creationism

(An aside to non-UK readers - GCSEs are qualifications that high school students sit at age 15-16, and the last compulsory education British children have.)

I saw this headline: "Creationism question 'misleading'" on the BBC News website. The AQA exam board has received a number of complaints after a question appeared on this summer's GCSE Biology paper asking students how the Bible's theory of creation seeks to explain the origins of life. I'm afraid the original wording isn't included in the news article, so we can't have a proper discussion on its significance, nor on how it might have been answered.

AQA said:
"Merely asking a question about creationism and intelligent design does not imply support for these ideas. Neither idea is included in our specification and AQA does not support the teaching of these ideas as scientific."
All fair enough, perhaps, but then the BBC went on to say:
Nonetheless, the candidates were expected to have some understanding of it. A spokeswoman explained that pupils had been asked to match up several theories, including the Biblical theory of creation, with descriptions of them. She said pupils were not taught creationism as a valid scientific theory but that it would be strange not to mention it when discussing Darwinism.
But this is a GCSE Biology class, and "[matching] up several theories, including the Biblical theory of creation, with descriptions of them" sounds awfully like a GCSE Religious Studies class.

This is all very relevant to me. In September I will begin teaching Biology at GCSE and A level (the 17-18 qualification). The college uses Edexcel rather than AQA, but evolution is still very much a topic on the syllabus. According to my teacher notes, higher tier students will be expected to:
Discuss why Charles Darwin experienced difficulty in getting his theory of evolution through natural selection accepted by the scientific community in the 19th century.
This is a world of difference to matching up theories of creation, and something I would be very happy discussing in a science class.

GCSE Science for Edexcel

This is the textbook I'll be using, and on page 29 (do not read page 28 if you're a palaeontologist who suffers from high blood pressure) it reads:
Most people recognise nowadays that evolution explains the development of life on our planet and the extinction of the dinosaurs. However, when Charles Darwin published his book, The Origin of Species, in 1859, it created a huge controversy. Some said it contradicted the Bible's account of creation. The power of the established church was so great at the time that some scientists were frightened to support Darwin. The theory of evolution also drew on a number of different areas of study (biology, chemistry, geology, geography) and scientists did not tend to cooperate across disciplines in those days. Nowadays the vast majority of serious scientists, and many Christians, accept the theory of evolution as the best explanation we currently have. The original antagonism to the idea may have been because it was so shocking. Even today in some parts of the USA, science teachers have to be very careful to explain that evolution is just a theory (which is true for almost everything in science lessons!) to avoid criticism from fundamentalist believers.
So, blogosphere, what do you think of that? Is that okay for an explanation for a 16-year-old? How could I improve that in my lessons? Given that Christianity is unlikely to be the majority religion of my students, what else might I need to consider?

Monday 6 July 2009

How We Map

At last, here is what I produced after six weeks in the Lake District back in 2000:

You can see in the south of the mapping area the contact metamorphism and aureole in green and blue, the oranges, browns and pinks of the Skiddaw Slates in the centre of my area, and the purples and greys of the Eycott Volcanic Group to the north.

The more observant of you will also have noticed that, to the west of my area I had a hill delightfully named Great Cockup, which I sometimes felt was wholly appropriate.

I suspect I may have been one of the last year groups to draw their maps by hand. We used light tables and tracing paper, bought incredibly expensive pens with 0.1, 0.3, 0.5 and 0.7 mm nibs, used green ink to draw round outcrops (with such little exposure you can see why we needed to highlight that we'd actually found an outcrop), used blue to indicate ridges, hollows and breaks in slope, and recorded the quaternary deposits on top of all that. We used Letraset machines to generate text, and painstakingly attempted to stick them on straight. And when all that was done we had to go down to the local printers and get copies made up on paper so we could colour them in.

The lucky students who draw them in Adobe Illustrator or whatever it is the kids use nowadays, and simply send them to the departmental plotter for printing don't know they're born.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Women Scientists

I know, I promised you some geological maps a week ago didn't I? All in good time. In the meantime, New Scientist magazine has revealed the most inspirational woman scientist of all time. I could probably have guessed that Marie Curie would win the title. I'm delighted to see that Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall are on the list (I need to read "Silent Spring" as to my shame I never have).

But one of the commenters pointed out, and I noticed as I read through, that four of the winners, Rosalind Franklin, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Ada Lovelace and Lise Meitner, carried out important work for which their male colleagues received most, if not all, of the credit.

Fortunately, that is all in the past now, and no woman scientist has had her male colleagues taking the credit for her work since 1960 at least, right?

Saturday 27 June 2009

Where We Map

A while ago I had a brief conversation with (((Billy))) about mapping in the UK, where we rarely have exceptional exposure and where a lot of our mapping is carried out by playing a game of dot-to-dot, joining up sections across valleys, using boreholes and logs, and doing the old-fashioned things like measuring the dip and strike of the contacts and extrapolating them along the topography.

My mapping area was the Uldale Fells, in the northern Lake District. In theory, I had an astoundingly good area: a metamorphic aureole around a granite intrusion, the less metamorphosed rocks being Ordovician turbidites, and a bit of subaerial volcanics up in the north of the area, complete with contact metamorphism to greenschist facies.

In practice, I had this to map:

You might just be able to see the exposure in the stream sections...

If I was really lucky, I had exposure like this, at Roughton Gill mines:

The highest point in my mapping area (and indeed the whole of the Uldale Fells) was Knott, at 723m. I don't think that even counts as a hill in the USA, let alone a mountain. Latitude-wise, at about 55°N, the Lake District receives less sunlight than the southwest USA, and that and the sheer amount of rain the Lake District is subjected to each year (why do you think it's called the Lake District?) results in a heavily grass-covered, wet environment, which isn't particularly conducive to the exposure of the bedrock.

So what sort of detail can we get out of this sort of area? Tune in next time to see my maps themselves...

Monday 22 June 2009

Good Teaching Resources

I'm trying to find good online resources in time for September, for teaching GCSE and AS/A2-level Biology. The search is going pretty well. And I just had to share this gem with you:

From Boardworks

I love it. Crosses for eyes, flat out on its back, tongue hanging out. It's the universal cartoon symbol for "dead"!

Saturday 20 June 2009

The Woman Who Looks Back At Me

This is a post for this month's Scientiae carnival, and the theme is "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall...".

The woman I see first thing each morning and last thing at night has three grey hairs in the centre of her hairline. I remember her anguish when the first one appeared on 24th December 2005. They stick out at funny angles, and resist all dyes. She should probably just suck it up and deal with the fact of life - even my little brother has grey hairs.

Her eyes change colour: blue, green, grey, depending on the lighting and her choice of make-up. I always think she is at her most beautiful when they are a vivid blue. Lately she has got some fine lines in the outer corner of her eyes. I can see them all the more clearly because the skin in the wrinkles is much paler than the rest of her face.

She's been on fieldwork or working outside a lot. I, and everyone I know, can always tell because her freckles appear all over her face. It makes her look younger, but maybe that's also down to her being happiest outside. I've seen her come so alive out in the field that I can barely keep up with her. Her own husband would probably not recognise her when she's up to her ears in rocks.

The woman looks older than her 29 years, and she doesn't laugh as much as she used to. Even when she's simply relaxed, she looks sad. Her eyes and mouth droop slightly at the outer corners, and her unnerving habit of always maintaining eye contact has been known to scare people. I sometimes dig out her old US driving licence, of her smiling, blonde-haired and vividly blue-eyed. Maybe it's the blue background of the photograph, but I chuckle wryly, and murmur "That's her before the lights went out".

She has tattoos now. They're scars she has chosen for herself, and she will tell anyone who will listen that she'd rather have any number of tattoos than a C-section or episiotomy scar. She has picked fossils, and shuns names of close family, saying "I'd never choose anything as transient as a human being". Sometimes I see her looking out of the window of a tattoo parlour with a wistful look on her face, and I know she'll be back for more.

We are worse than best friends with our criticism of each other. Sometimes when I catch her gaze she looks absolutely repulsed by my body. In turn, I spot every lump and bump (although I also notice that the bitch always looks pretty damn good in the bedroom - if only she would look as good in the shop windows as I walk past).

Occasionally she'll dress up for a night out, put on a really pretty top which shows off "The Girls", and some killer heels. She always gives me one last look, as though she needs my approval. She must think my opinion matters over anyone else's. She looks great when she leaves the house, but by the first photograph she seems to no longer fit her clothes, and I can hardly believe it's the same person looking out of the Facebook page at me.

But when she puts on combats, boots and a fleece jacket, ties her fringe back and slings on a cowboy hat, she loses five years and 10lbs, and becomes some kind of a superwoman.

Maybe it's just as well she's a palaeontologist.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Rock Filth

I was clearing out a cupboard the other day, trying to find my degree certificates. They are still eluding me, but I did finally find one of my favourite photos:

This is at the Lulworth Fossil Forest. Two algal mounds flanking a felled tree trunk. It never fails to amuse.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Once Upon A Time In Keyworth

Twelve years ago, when I was a mere slip of a 17-year-old girl, I won a Nuffield bursary to spend the summer working at the British Geological Survey in Keyworth. I worked in what was at the time called the Regional Geophysics Group, digitising radiometric data from the 1957 airborne survey of Cornwall.

Reproduced with the permission of the British Geological Survey ©NERC. All rights Reserved.

I started at the most westerly section and made it as far east as St Ives in the four weeks I spent in the Group.

Reproduced with the permission of the British Geological Survey ©NERC. All rights Reserved.

I came up with a 10-page report, "Digitisation Of Analogue Airborne Radiometric Data From South-West Cornwall And Its Interpretation", submitted it in triplicate, got a gorgeous colour printout of my map and never saw any of it again. A year later, my data made it into the BGS technical report "Digitisation of the 1957 Airborne Radiometric Survey of Cornwall" (ISBN: B0018TNG3A).

Reproduced with the permission of the British Geological Survey ©NERC. All rights Reserved.

The colours are different on my plot and the plot for the whole of Cornwall - the latter was an equal area plot, which shows up nicely the increased radioactivity associated with uranium-bearing granite.

Last month I finally got a chance to visit the area, on my holiday. Despite participating in a field trip to southwest England as an undergraduate, we never went further west than The Lizard, so a week in St Ives was a great opportunity to see the rocks. Here is the granite that makes up the vast majority of the Lands End peninsula (with my pudgy little hand for scale):

You'll see that it's quite a pale granite, chock full of feldspars (about the size of each of my pudgy little fingers). It erodes to form some of the most beautiful quartz and feldspar beaches:

And of course, where you find granite, you find metamorphic rocks. These were on the private beach at Trebah Gardens:

I do wonder sometimes if anyone has ever set eyes on my report since 1997. I suspect not, which is good because there are few things more embarrassing than a 17-year-old trying to write in academic style.

It's very likely that, over the next year or so, I will have to go back up to the BGS at Keyworth to look at some of their boreholes from my new field area. It'll be great to look around again!

Monday 8 June 2009

Angry Dazed Bird Of The Day

Last week I posted photos of an adult European robin (Erithacus rubecula) taken on holiday. Well, at the weekend I had the chance to see a juvenile up close and personal, as the silly bugger flew in through our back door and straight into our bedroom window, terrifying the hell out of Paul, whose writing desk is in the window bay.

I was alerted to this by the "Aaagh! Whoaa! Jesus! There's a bird!!" from the bedroom, and ran in to see what sort of bird we were dealing with. I shut the doors so it couldn't wreak havoc through the house and identified it as a juvenile robin, almost certainly one of the fledged babies from our robin family's first batch. These chaps are now independent of their parents, so I was happy enough to handle it without gloves.

Despite its furious look in the photo above, it wasn't that angry. I could feel its little heart pumping, and assume it was absolutely terrified, but it was very good and didn't whiz on my hands. Dr Brazen Hussy has been doing a series on angry birds - I can only assume this little sweetie was trying not to push its luck.

You can see the juveniles are very spotty indeed - from last year's observations I reckon they'll start getting their adult plumage in a couple of months tops. I took it out to the garden and released it into the hedge behind our apple tree, where it could sit and take stock (and no doubt wait for its headache to wear off). I suspect I learned some avian swearwords as it flew off twittering loudly.

Yup, at Jurassic Towers we let all sorts of animals in. Two years ago we had a neighbour's cat that liked to just amble in as we were cooking dinner. We could have shut the back door, but it's so nice to have a cool breeze circulating in the summer!

Friday 5 June 2009

Dropping The Hot Potato

Once upon a time there was a Department of Education and Science. This worked pretty well for over 30 years, but one day they decided that they didn't fancy the Science bit so they passed it on to the Department of Trade and Industry and became the Department for Education. Then the Department for Education merged with the Department of Employment to become the Department for Education and Employment. Six years later they decided they didn't like the Employment bit much either, so gave it to the newly set up Department for Work and Pensions and rebranded themselves the Department for Education and Skills.

Then one day Gordon Brown became prime minister, and he decided to abolish the Department for Education and Skills, and instead split Education two ways between the new Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). He also made the Department of Trade and Industry into the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) and decided that DIUS could bloody well have Science back.

Non-European readers may be unaware that we've had elections to elect MEPs, or Members of the European Parliament. Just before the elections (which were combined with a lot of local council elections in the UK), a lot of senior government ministers jumped ship, leaving Gordon Brown with a much larger Cabinet reshuffle than he'd obviously planned. Today is the first time since Barack Obama was elected that I have watched a streaming news channel, because there's rather a big movement afoot.

John Denham has been transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government, but no successor has been announced. There have been rumours all morning on Twitter that DIUS (yup, still sounds like a contraceptive) is being abolished, with the Innovation going to the care of Sir Alan Sugar (yes folks, he's our Donald Trump...), Science going to BERR, and who knows where Universities are going (probably absorbed into DCSF).

So science policy will be decided by a load of businessmen. I've already said why I think that it would be bad to try to run science as a business, that it just is not possible to just fund "economically viable" research. The research councils will almost certainly be part of BERR too. The research councils are our equivalents of NSF (we have arts and humanities, economic and social sciences and medical research councils as well as four science research councils).

I'm awaiting the statement that will apparently be released this afternoon stating the full reshuffle, but in the meantime I am shitting bricks at the thought that the awful Lord Mandelson is going to be in charge of NERC funding. NERC supports, among other institutions, the British Geological Survey and British Antarctic Survey. We'll get no more penguin poo research with him running the show.

16:14: Dr Ian Gibson MP has resigned as an MP with immediate effect. Given his extensive experience with science on parliamentary committees, it's difficult not to read more into his resignation than is being divulged at the moment. Still waiting on a statement from the PM.

17:12: Shit. Yes, BERR and DIUS are to be merged to form the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS?). The whole sorry situation is up on the Downing Street website. As I feared, it's going to be all about economically viable science:
Continue to invest in the UK's world class science base and develop strategies for commercialising more of that science.
Some science just isn't open to commercialisation. And I have a horrible, sickening feeling that these topics are going to suffer badly in the next few years.

Thursday 4 June 2009

The Red Red Robin

There is a common misconception among my American friends that the ugly big native blackbird with the token bit of red on its throat is a robin. Any self-respecting British twitcher will scoff, say "That's just an ugly blackbird with a paint job" and direct you to a real robin (Erithacus rubecula):

Note the smallness, cuteness and redness. I accept we're not talking cardinal red (a bird that, every time I see it, causes me to say "Wow, that's really quite red"), but it's red nonetheless.

This one was hanging out at the Lost Gardens of Heligan a couple of weeks ago, and it was absolutely as bold as brass.

And if you've never heard the British Dawn Chorus, have a look at this video by my dear pater:

I've been chuckling about what the ranger said about bird song being all about sex. A few years ago, on the way home from university, Paul and I discussed how bird song comes down to one of three things:
  1. Fancy a shag?
  2. Get off my land!
It would appear that we weren't far from the truth.
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