BenjaminDBrooks’ Blog

Hip Hip Huzzah for Science Education…

…well for Biology at any rate.

It has been announced by the powers that be (they being the current Labour Government under the cyclops… Gordon Brown) that from september 2011 it will be a legal requirement for all state-owned primary schools to teach the basics of Darwinian Evolution.

This is,  needless to say; a fantastic advance for science education in the UK, and I must admit to having trouble remembering what if any science I studied at my C of E primary schools… but I still hold some reservations about this great announcement.

Firstly, why are private/public schools exempt from this? Surely science, being the search for fact and mechanisms within the universe, should be taught to everyone at primary and lower secondary, and those who want to study it beyond?  More to the point, why should private/publics be allowed to add a non-scientific bias to their teaching and instill stupification (Religious “schools” I am looking at you) in those most likely to lead our nation in the future?

Secondly, what controls are going to be placed on the curriculum at the state schools? and how are Ofstead going to guard against the “teach the controversy” imbiciles that plague the modern world?

But I shall not dwell on these worrying questions, but shall move on to another great “Huzzah” moment for biology, indeed for medicine – Stem Cell Research is at long last starting to be sanctioned, and hopefully the trend towards pro-science governance will continue long into the future… I dare say if it reverses I will be emigrating as soon as I can!

Also a little bit of Palaeo for the rock-hounds out there that do read this blog, either here on wordpress, or on Facebook or Windoze Live Space… Friday’s copy of The Times ran an article about Paul Sereno’s work on Mesozoic African Crocodilians after his team published some post-expedition papers.

Their expedition found a total of four new species from present day Niger and Morocco, the crocs were found in strata ~100Ma (The Albian Stage of the Early Cretaceous) and include forms varied and wonderful, from “Pancake Croc” (Laganosuchus thaumastos) that was supposedly an ambush piscivore (fish eater), lying open mouthed for hours or days until an unsupecting fish swam into it’s jaws, to “Boar Croc” (Kaprosuchus saharicus); a 20 foot long obligate carnivore whose comparative anatomy suggests it could literally bowl over its prey before dispatching it with its one metre long jaws.

Here’s the link to the Times article:

and an old, but related National Geographic article:

Complex Career Conundrums

Oh yes… even I, a lowly peasant and fairly useless linguist, can use alliteration…

So I am sat once more at my desk in my Southampton home, which for the most part is covered in books, computers, and an awful lot of rubbish, in fact my entire room has undergone some form of layman’s entropy since my return from Tenerife, but that’s another issue. I am currently considering my options with respect to my next year and a half in academia, whilst enrolled on this four year undergraduate masters degree at Southampton, I have found that the more studying one does here, the more you realise how “Oil and Mineral Exploration” centric the degree is. By the time you get to your third year, you are very lucky if you study a single module that is not at some point about finding one of these two things and making a lot of money from them, however for most geology students that’s what they signed up for… I however… did not.

I study geology because I find it to be jolly interesting despite my absolute hatred of the “oil industry” because of the result it (and our cars) are having our only planet, and I really want to study it further; especially Palaeontology, the study of ancient life and most particularly the vertebrata (that’s animals with Backbones to you and me). This leaves me in a bit of a quandary because my university whilst having one of the best Earth Sciences departments around, still only runs three palaeontological units, and nothing in the vein of comparative anatomy or ecology that geology students can study to better themselves in this area. This is not to mention the distinct lack of non-industry representatives at the careers and alumni events – not even an in-house academic to talk about academia!!! I am therefore, left with the question of do I stay here at southampton to continue the MGeol to completion? or do I graduate this year and move to a MSc Palaeobiology at Bristol – touted as the best palaeo course this side of the atlantic?

I’ve spoken to the one vertebrate palaeontologist at the uni, and he has said that I would be better off staying put and concentrating on sedimentology until i’m ready to move to a PhD, which seems like sound advice considering his connection to the MSc Palaeobio. Apparantly that course is somewhat oversubscribed and thus could be considered less valuable, and Palaeontologists with a strong Sedimentology background do rather well… but I guess we’ll see.

I’m waiting on several palaeontologists, from David Norman and Simon Conway-Morris at Cambridge to David Unwin at Leicester, whom I have emailled to ask their opinion of the two courses and which I ought to run with, and I will be sending out some more emails to museums and such soon enough.

Then again, would an MSci (undergraduate) be considered to be as good as an MSc (post-graduate), and will the people who matter recognise it? As there are those in industry who don’t, and it really annoys people both within and without the uni, afterall we spend £12,000+ on the degree, so we definitely want people to recognise the comparable effort we put in!

Still, this remains a quandary and indeed a conundrum at present, I can only hope that the academics can provide me with some useful advice and keep their biases out of the equation… like they are taught to as scientists…

Big Bangs and Catastrophism on Tenerife

Last week I was fortunate enough to join my fellow Geology students in travelling to Tenerife (pronounced Ten-err-iff-AY apparantly) where we were to spend the week investigating the different deposits all over the western two thirds of the island. The reason for this trip was simple, we as Geologists had up until this point seen very little of effusive (above surface) volcanism and the deposits that they produced and although some of the students had done their independent mapping projects in areas of effusive volcanism, little instruction had been given.

Las Cañadas 'Caldera' - Photo Courtesy of Rachel Garnett
Caldera wall & rim, Montaña Blanca and A'a Lava flows (brown tongues) can all be seen in this image, as well as the 2ka Fissure Eruption fissure - trending to top right.

There is a large feature in the centre of Tenerife, which is known as the Las Cañadas caldera (word of latin origin, meaning a “cooking pot”) and despite there being two opposing models for the formation of this feature, over the course of the week, indeed in the weeks of lectures before the trip, it became apparant that none of the lecturers and demonstrators were particularly fond of one of the models that attempt to explain the formation of the “Caldera”.

The two models concerned are the Volcanological Caldera Collapse model, whereby beneath the present day caldera structure there was once a large magma chamber; with approximately the same footprint as the caldera, which evacuated explosively, then subsided creating the caldera structure seen today – this was the favoured model. The other model is the Sector Collapse model, which contends that somewhere beneath the palaeo-surface of the volcanic edifice (before the modern Mt Teide/Pico Viejo volcano formed) magma became trapped, only to be released later after a massive landslide (known as a Sector Collapse) took out most of the material capping the trapped magma, allowing the formation of the Mt Teide/Pico Viejo edifice. You may remember this model from the days when the newspapers said that half of La Palma (another Canary Island) was due to collapse into the sea and swamp the east coast of the USA!

Strangely, whilst there is good evidence for both Sector Collapse and Caldera Collapse having a part to play in the formation of the caldera, the Sector Collapse proponents seem to adamantly state that no volcanism of any kind had any part to play in the formation of Las Cañadas caldera, whilst the Volcanologists are willing to accept a more reasoned approach whereby both models are considered to have a role. Indeed I suspect it is the sheer adamant attitude of the Sector Collapse proponents is what is preventing the volcanologists from taking them 100% seriously.

There are also some compelling questions for both sides to answer, for the volcanologists need to be able to explain the existence of what are interpreted as sector collapse deposits to the north whereas the sector collapse people need to explain the existence of La Forteleza scarp to the north side of the caldera. As with a lot of the finer details of science, the more you learn, the more controversies you uncover and the fewer certainties you find.

Perhaps it would be good to get a really good, structured debate and discourse going between the two parties…. it may at least be interesting from an academic perspective.

Last Chance to See

Hullo all,

I just finished watching the last of Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine’s serial “Last Chance to See” on BBC iPlayer, unfortunately i’ve been unable to see all of them, but I caught the last two (the Kakapo and the Blue Whale).

Twenty years ago Mark and the brilliant Douglas Adams adventured on the same trip to see and document some of the animals that were on the endangered species list. including the Kakapo, Blue Whale, Aye-Aye, White Rhino and the Yangtze River Dolphin, the latter now regrettably extinct due to pressure from the chinese (though not intentionally i’m sure).

A photograph of the Yangtze River Dolphin care of
A photograph of the Yangtze River Dolphin care of

I’m an environmentalist, i’ve even helped (in a small way through with the writing of a book on critical thinking and its application with respect to climate change. No animal on the planet should have to suffer at the hands of human ignorance, Nature is full of wonderful creatures from the porcupine to the mosquito. Even the funnel-web spider, though deadly to humans; is fascinating and beautiful in it’s own right. The human race holds a huge hippocracy, a double standard if you will when it comes to extinction; if it’s cute, cuddly or majestic we mourn the loss, but if it’s not warm blooded – or especially if it’s an arthropod – we really couldn’t care less. Now i’ll admit that at the end of the day, when all is said and done, I am an environmentalist because I have grown up in the modern western world, with all its decadent luxuries, and I know climate chance will result in the end of those luxuries, in fact a mad max world if we aren’t careful, but does that mean I don’t care about the animals?

NO! I think that it says alot about our species that we are one of only two forms of life that have so far caused a mass extinction (the othere being cyanobacteria, back in the pre-cambrian), and one of a handful who’s influence can be seen from space. If we could build a non-polluting, non-extinctionist society tomorrow, and all it took was for me to lay down my own life, I think I might just take that hit, provided there were some guarantees that politicians didn’t water down the result.

I am also a card-carrying conservative, and recently had the luxury of attending an event run by my local association where one of our MEP’s gave a speach, and whilst I agreed with everything he said regarding ID-cards, the EU, and numerous other issues. His singularly ignorant view of the issue of climate change enraged me beyond words… to quote a line from his speach;

“if you look at the data, there’s been a cooling trend for the last ten years, and some scientists are starting to doubt Climate Change is even happening”

Now if you don’t know why this is patently absurd, go and look at the data, or look up how you can take any graph with variable output and slap any trend you like on it by changing the period of observation. I’d also like to meet these “scientists”… I’m pretty sure the majority would be economists, sociologists or other people with no grasp of the science involved.

Whilst I do sincerely hope that we (the conservatives) win the next General Election in the UK, I also fervently hope these hopelessly right wing idiots are not in the majority within my party.

OK, rant over for the day… have a good one everybody

Ben D Brooks

Blogging is for me?

Hello World!

Ok, so having found that uploading my “blog-posts” to my website is a long and labourious task, I have decided WordPress is the way to go… unfortunately at present I don’t know if I can add an in-house WordPress Blog (iSolutions at the Uni haven’t yet explained if you can and if so how…) so until then here I am.

This blog won’t be replacing my Scientific/Political Essays, but it will probably end up replacing the Opinion Essays, but we shall see what the future holds.

Anywho… I now have to go and edit my website some more so that it links here… Joy…


Ben Brooks