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.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Silence Is The Enemy

I am one of the lucky ones. On the grand scheme of things, considering I lived in a society where one in three women are raped (I don't have UK references but I can't imagine they're too much lower), I did quite well to escape with "just" being sexually assaulted[*]. But I know another American academic who wept when I told her why I was leaving my PhD programme, because she had done exactly the same after being raped on fieldwork by her advisor, and she saw just another generation of professors behaving the way her advisor had done ten years previously.

Women in the UK and US are used to being leered at by tradeys in their vans, cat-called at by builders, groped in pubs and bars and followed home at night. It's part of the daily grind. More women than the casual reader might think are used to highly inappropriate behaviour on the part of other students and faculty, and fieldwork has a whole set of perils that the average male academic will never have to worry about. And this is in White-Middle-Class-Ivory-Tower Land.

Yesterday, Sheril Kirshenbaum launched Silence Is The Enemy. Because what happens in White-Middle-Class-Ivory-Tower Land is extrapolated, enhanced and meted out on thousands if not millions of women and children all over the world on a daily basis. If this isn't okay with you (it certainly isn't okay with me), then there are a number of things you can do. The simplest thing is to click on the blogs who have pledged to donate their blogging revenue to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. I get no revenue from this blog, but these people get it on theirs:
The next simplest thing is to donate money yourself, and/or to write your own blog post to highlight the campaign and keep the momentum going within the blogosphere. And if you can write a blog post you can write to your friendly government representative.

Which would all be a start.

[*]I have become increasingly reluctant to talk about all of this. Unfortunately it is an essential part of my narrative, and ultimately less damaging than any fabrication I could come up with for failing to complete a PhD. What I overwhelmingly feel after talking about it is a sort of emotional uncleanliness, as I tell the story on autopilot while a voice inside my head screams at me to shut up. This is an occasion where I didn't need to say anything if I didn't want to. However, isn't it rather the point of the campaign, to stand up, say something that is uncomfortable to say, put some weight behind it and get others to do the same?
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