(This was originally written on 22/10/2012 for The Graduate Times’ Notebook Section, however as that publication appears to have been abandoned by its editorial teams, I’m posting it here.)
In a landmark legal case in Italy yesterday, six scientists and one politician were convicted and sentenced for manslaughter charges. Accused of failing to accurately assess and communicate the risks of the earthquake that struck the town of L’Aquila in the Apennines Mountains of Italy in April 2009. Each faces a six year jail term and collective damages amounting to nine million Euros (approaching 7.4 million pounds or 12 million US dollars).
The prosecution urged that the six scientists involved had been negligent in “having provided an approximate, generic and ineffective assessment of seismic activity risks as well as incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information”. Conversely, defence lawyers have variously called the prosecution “hasty”, “incomprehensible” and “difficult to understand”. It is understood that all seven defendants plan to appeal the decision, and according to Italian law, they have two opportunities to appeal before they will be compelled to enter the Italian penal system
For members of the legal profession, policy makers and scientists alike this raises the question of whether this case will set any precedents. If so, what affects will it have?
It is easy to imagine that this case and the judgement, if upheld, will result in scientists being less communicative, not more, regarding risk from natural disasters. After all, there would be no risk of prosecution if you give no assessment, however after yesterday’s ruling you can now be prosecuted for giving an unbiased, professional opinion, even when dealing with inherently unpredictable systems such as seismology.
Groups have already campaigned against this trial, most prominently the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which wrote an open letter to the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano supporting the defendants which was signed by 5000 scientists. Actions like this and the push for a public interest defence in English Libel laws suggest that some degree of protection could be won for scientists working to inform policy makers in areas such as risk management.
What the result of yesterday’s decision will be remains to be seen, but whatever they may be, it marks a paradigm shift in the legal status of science and scientists around the world.
…well, we shall find out over the course of the next month or so!
In November of every year an American charitable organisation called the Office of Letters and Light runs an event called National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo). This event essentially consists of a dedicated month of creative writing and is billed as “Thirty days and nights of literary abandon”. The goal of this month of crazy, unedited and unadulterated soul-spilling is to produce a 50,000 word first draft manuscript in thirty days or less. It’s a bit like the Ten Tors Challenge in that the only competitive element is with yourself, and everyone else involved supports you along the way; and at a target of only 1,667 words per day it’s eminently achievable.
I’ve been meaning to give this event a go for a couple of years now (I discovered it for the first time in about 2009) but for a variety of reasons including university commitments and cowardice I never bit the bullet and committed to actually trying to write a novel… until now! I’m not sure how successful this whole enterprise will be, trying to write in flowery, not-necessarily-consise language after four years of training to remove those very tendencies, but there’s no harm in trying and I might even enjoy myself.
As for what I’m going to try and write, it’s a science-fantasy genre novel taking place in an anachronistic Britain where the Internal Combustion Engine hasn’t gained traction (I make no apologies for the terrible pun). This means there’s going to be lots of Airship/Zeppelin action, giant steamships, railways and a lot of steam-punked technology! The main protagonist is an economic geology professor at the Royal School of Mines in London and he’s about to get dragged into dark circles and events that he’s totally unprepared for…
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, I’d be really interested in finding out how you’re getting on with planning for the month ahead, and if you’re not but are interested in what I’m doing, you can find out more at my profile on the NaNoWriMo site.
Anywho, with any luck episode 2 of my YouTube vlog will be up tomorrow night; but for now, Allons-y.
I’ve been doing job applications this weekend and frankly I’ve been getting very bored, so this afternoon I decided I would wash away the boredom with a fun little project which I’d always wanted to have a go at but never really had the guts to try out.
I made this gorgeous (if I do say so myself) little subsurface geology model from an old vivarium, some builders sand, some different coloured food dyes and some other coloured poster paint powder:
It’s the sort of thing you see in smaller museums all the time – although they are usually based on real sub-surface geology in a relevant area, while this one is completely fictional!
So how does one go about making this beauty? here’s a step by step guide:
1. Decide what geological/geomorphological features you want to show: for me this was to show three of Nicolas Steno’s laws of sedimentology – superposition, original horizontality and cross-cutting relationships – then I just added stuff as I went along like the channel fills and the scarp slope (good way to use up spare sand that one!).
2. Gather up your materials: I used mostly builders sand, but beach sand will do just as well, or if you really can go for broke… go find all the different colours of sand naturally. I also used a few other things from my model railway cabinet (ballast/mock coal/flock for the grass/lichen for bushes) – these of course are optional extras.
– pro tip number 1: don’t do what I did and use sand you found lying about in a bag in the garden… I had to rescue/evict many of my invertebrate cousins during the build!
3. Colouring your model: At this point you can either dye all your sand in different buckets or do what I did and dye it bit by bit as you go along. Either way will work but if you’re limited on sand, I recommend the latter strategy. The easiest dyes are poster paint powders as this keeps everything nice and dry, but food colouring works too. If you’re dying the sand, the ideal sand is the white sort you can buy in arts and craft shops.
4. Start laying down your strata: not much to explain here really. Though you might notice a couple of pyritised ammonites hanging out in my model…
5. OK, this is the complex bit: If you want to put in folds like the ones I have, you will need a piece of strong cardboard or wood, stand this vertically in the tank with enough space on one side to get your hand in like in the image below…
…now you build up your strata on side of the cardboard with more accommodation space and keep building until you’re ready to fold them!
– Pro tip number 2: in order to fault the strata, just use the cardboard to squash the sand from one direction. For folds, apply pressure to the top of the sand with your hand and also squash with the cardboard MUCH more slowly… I cannot stress that enough! This technique will result in awesome folds or thrust faults, I don’t know how to produce strike-slip or dip-slip ones… if you have an idea of how to do this, please share it in the comments box below!
– Pro tip number 3: the cardboard also allows you to put in a nice, easy dyke or other cross-cutting structure.
Now you’ve folded or faulted your strata, fill in behind the cardboard and fill the tank. I should say I didn’t invent this technique, I copied it from an old Open University video I saw many moons ago where the professor was attempting to explain folding and faulting using a massive sand-box model and a screw-and-plate piston, sadly I cannot find said video now.
15/10/2012 Update: While I still cannot find the OU video; This video from the Structural Geology RWTH-Aachen YouTube Channel gives you some idea of the process.
6. Unconformities: Are a doddle; just remove some of what you have done. In my case I used a strong piece of single (not corrugated) card. Then just continue placing strata on top (in my case at a jaunty angle… but it can be done the other way round)
7. The Surface: Lastly for the construction phase, add a layer of Flock (if you wish) and diorama-ize your surface layer! Lichen works for bushes. Trees, animals, buildings and people can be bought at any rail modelling supply shop, or online.
8. (For the Geology Nerds/Geologists): Have a ball labelling your gorgeous creation! Here are my three labelled sides for your amusement. I used PVA and printed labels alongside a permanent OHP marker for the annotations/symbols.
When you’re done you can sit back and enjoy your handiwork, some people have said this would make an awesome coffee table… I think they’re right, get a nice glass top for it and you can be explaining geology to your in-laws over coffee in no time!
I hope you enjoyed this post and have fun making your own geological masterpiece! Share pictures in the comments, especially if you have some new ideas, or fix the strike-dip-slip faults problem!
Edited at 21:36 on 07/10/2012: emboldened each point to make it easier to comprehend (hopefully)
One thing I hate about some science articles in magazines and newspapers is where a whole article is expanded to a huge length in order to basically say “No”. The problem of course being that questions like “Was Darwin Wrong?” are the ones that get the readers in, not statements like “Darwin proven right, again”. This all being said I’m about to do exactly this myself, for which I apologise in advance.
The article is almost a year old, but it’s so bad I can’t let it get away with itself.
So according to the gentleman quoted in the article, he believes that if oil and gas companies are to be allowed to begin Fracking operations in the Mendip hills, it may re-activate an extinct volcano whose vent is situated at Moon’s Hill Quarry, near Stoke St Michael. I’m not going to attack the man for being wrong, he’s a non-specialist policy maker trying to protect his community from a harmful industry. I’m not going to attack the journalist for sensationalism because to use a tired metaphor – “sex sells”. Though we know not who the journalist is – quite telling in my opinion – the article has no actual person attached to it so we may never know.
What I will attack is the fact that our mystery journalist has thrown caution to the wind and not actually asked an expert – a geologist, volcanologist, or even the good folks at the Somerset Earth Science Centre (actually AT Moon’s Hill) – for clarification of whether or not there is a risk at all.
Now I’m no volcanologist, I’m a newly minted geologist far more interested in fossils and sediments than the very-hot-gooey-stuff that comes out of the ground; yet I can still explain why this article is nothing more than silly scaremongering. The volcanic plug at Moon’s Hill is very, very old, and a quick search online will bring you to websites explaining the geology of the place, at least one of which even gives you the geological setting for the now extinct volcano – it was a subduction zone volcano. This is a vital piece of information and one completely missing from the article in question.
Why is it vital I hear you whisper ever so quietly? Because there is no subducting margin anywhere near the Mendip hills any more… the nearest being in the Mediterranean sea. So I ask you… where is this huge accumulation of molten rock supposed to come from? It certainly hasn’t been hanging around unfed and unheated since the Silurian period some 425 million years ago, it would have cooled and hardened into a very, very solid rock by now.
Added to which, the rocks of this region have been shifted monumentally since the plug was emplaced. By what mechanism could such a huge quantity of molten rock so close to the surface as to be disturbed by Fracking; be kept from exploding or seeping out during the folding and faulting that produced the Mendips in the first place? If there is one, I haven’t come across it yet.
And finally, you might be thinking to yourself that the hot spring at Bath is mentioned in the article, if there’s no magma down there, how does it get heated up? An excellent question but one with a clean cut answer. Anywhere you dig on the planet, as you get deeper the ground gets warmer, by a whole 25 degrees centigrade per kilometre (77 degrees Farenheit) – even without a huge mass of molten magma near the surface. As the waters at Bath are a mere 46 degrees centigrade, that’s not a long distance the water would have to sink through the earth’s crust to attain that temperature and then rise back to the surface.
Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a science writing master class in London, and one of the biggest things that was stressed was that in science writing you have to produce something that will grab the interest of the reader, and also be right. Sadly while this article does the former, it is manifestly wrong, and all the more so for not asking the right questions of anyone who could have answered them.
…Actually it’s just a tad longer than that, something like fourteen whole months to be precise.
So here’s looking back over the last year (and a bit) I’ve had something of a roller-coaster ride starting with the move back home from Southampton – my adoptive home for the four years of my degree. This was fairly closely followed by moving to Yorkshire for a three month stint cataloging the geology collections of the Craven Museum and Gallery, which in turn faded to be replaced by the high excitement of traveling stateside for a glorious three weeks with the Museum of the Rockies digging up Dinosaurs (The DispatchesfromMontana Series). Now I’m back in the small corner of South England where I started and putting it like that makes it sound like a much more action-packed year than it actually was!
So in many ways my year since graduation has been a jolly successful one, after all I did get to collect dinosaur fossils, meet some awesome palaeontologists on both sides of the pond, and I am quite enjoying just being a freelancer with the spare time to do other things. Though as someone who loves “productive procrastination” I am finding it somewhat difficult to motivate myself without anything to procrastinate from (I’m sure there’s some irony there).
However in a few ways things haven’t gone entirely to plan, as I am still on the job market without any obvious lights at the end of the tunnel, and I am getting a bit fed up with HR departments that cannot be bothered to send a one line rejection email (I mean really, have these people never heard of Mail-Merge?) let alone a lack of feedback from applications – both speculative and for advertised roles. But I’m not going to let this turn into a rant so let’s move on.
On a more interesting note, I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do with my YouTube channel lately and I’m wondering what you guys (the people who actually read this blog) reckon I could do with it, I’ve been asked to add more “personal” content – whatever that is – and I’m working on some stuff in that vein. I’m also loving the “Crash Course” Channel’s World History Course and I’m wondering if I can do something similar with a Geological bent – but without the awesome graphics… I can’t do good graphics 😦
I loved doing the video in Norway (albeit without good audio) and do have some stuff from the states which I really ought to get edited and put together into something remotely video-esque. Perhaps I’ll get going on some Lymey-wimey stuff too (for non-Whovians Lyme Regis videos out in the field).
On the subject of Doctor Who… I’m less than pleased that the BBC have actually sacrificed its scheduling at the altar of the United Tanks of America… but sadly strongly worded letters don’t seem to make a difference these days.
Anywho, let me know your thoughts on that YouTube stuff (that’s why I’ve got a comment section!), apologies for the disordered and jumpy nature of the post and I hope to be writing some more (consistent) posts soon!
Ben D B
P.S.: Go find the Nyan-Mongol on Crash Course… well worth a laugh.
Missed the previous Dispatches from Montana? see them here and here.
Well I’m back in jolly ol’ England and as promised here’s the photographic edition of the Dispatches from Montana. I’ll try to explain all the photographs as and where they need it.
First off here’s the field crew as a group, Liz was the crew chief (the dig boss if you will) with Cary as second in command, Denver was the only other member of MOR staff with us. Danny, Will, Nick, Tom, Dana and Bobby were all undergraduates of various universities and Cracker is the Redding family’s dog.
On my first night in Montana we had a fabulous thunderstorm which provided ample opportunities to get frustrated by human/camera reaction times, the above and below pictures being the best results I could get that night!
Before the storm hit however I was just able to snap this shot of the Redding Field Station’s camp, you can just make out the storm-clouds to the left (south-west) and our flimsy patch of tents to the left of the quansit hut (the grey WWII hangar style building). The practically-bomb-proof ranch house is out of shot on the right.
The next photograph was taken from behind the afore-mentioned quansit hut, and shows a small section of Kennedy Coulee, the river valley to the north of the Redding Field Station, where all the dinosaurs can be found…
Here’s another panorama showing a small finger of Kennedy Coulee, including the “Rocky” dig site in which I was to spend the last three weeks digging. To give some idea of the scale of the operation, this site has been excavated for only the last 3 years, and at the start of that time, the left of this photograph would have looked pretty much just like the right hand side…
And here’s a view from inside the quarry itself, to give some more perspective on it and also to show you how much of the overburden mentioned in “The Adventure Begins” we had to remove… at the start of the field season, ground level was at the level of the white-grey sandstone layer!
This photograph zooms in on the area that I and two of my compatriots were working (on the right of the previous picture). I myself was working the middle section with the chisel, brush and oyster-knife. It is a surprisingly slow process because you never know when you will hit another fragment of bone (as Nick, working to my left, was finding out. every piece of tin-foil represents another bone uncovered).
Another panoramic photograph for you now, this one again showing Kennedy Coulee, but also some lovely Virga – that is to say rain that evaporates before it touches the ground – to the north of the site.
Here’s another photo of Cracker – affectionately known as the Cracker-the-quarry-dog, enjoying the sun and generally getting in the way!
So moving on to more palaeontological topics, here’s a field jacket… It’s what you do to the finds before they get transported to a museum or prep-lab. The first step is to cover all the bones in a consolidant (Vinac in this case) then a layer of wet tissue (to act as a buffer and a barrier to the next layer. Finally a mixture of plaster of paris is concocted and infused into burlap (hessian for us UK people) sacking. This was the first field jacket of this year’s season to be excavated.
A couple of days after the jacket was made it was dry and ready to flip (in order to remove excess rock and jacket the bottom). Here’s a photo of Dana with the flipped jacket. You can also see where it stood before it was flipped!
The strata in which the bone-bed is found is a mudstone approximately a metre thick, capped by a shelly sandstone layer containing bivalves up to 20cm across and many varieties of gastropod. This cap-rock can be seen below:
Here’s another panoramic shot, this one taken at lunch time (hence all the sleeping dino-nerds) from above the working face of the quarry on the penultimate day of my short stay at the Redding Field Station.
And finally… The night before I was due to fly out of Great Falls we had a rather close call with a thunderstorm that passed within a couple of miles of camp – all we had was a slight drizzle – but I had the chance to take this gorgeous photograph at about midnight…
We’ve reached the bone bed! It took over two and a half weeks of digging (one and a half on my part) but we’re finally there. Before reaching the bone bed however I managed to find a few other odds and ends within the overburden, including the following:
Another Hadrosaur tooth,
One small Crocodile tooth,
1 Tyrannosaurid Tooth (possibly Daspletosaurus),
Small fragments of ossified tendons,
After digging away the overburden and flattening out the top of the bone bed, we began to prospect within the quarry for dinosaur remains and very rapidly the first bone was discovered, though accidentally and unfortunately with a jack-hammer… with predictable results. This bone was a humerus of a fairly large individual hadrosaur. Within ten minutes of this find the second bone was discovered – this time by more mild means – and turned out to be a toe-bone, though don’t let that fool you into thinking it small, this one individual phalanx measured in the region of fifteen centimetres in length and a good ten in diameter!
I myself managed to uncover my first bone this afternoon after a slow but steady removal of the bone layer. The technique used by the MOR team is that once the overburden is removed, each digger chooses a section of the quarry wall measuring approximately two feet. The digger then proceeds to remove rock steadily decreasing the height of a flat plane with hand awls, chisel, hammer and brushes. Yes; that’s right, every palaeontologist that points to Jurassic Park and say’s “you can’t use a brush to uncover a fossil” is wrong, dead wrong* – at least in this case!
The only time digging is stopped is when high noon is reached and luncheon begins – consisting mainly of whatever you remember to scrounge from the kitchen supplies in the morning! After the first half an hour or so of lunch most people are fast asleep, taking the opportunity to make up for the early start. I on the other hand take the opportunity to rifle through the ever building spoil heap for small fossil remains that were inevitably missed during the overburden removal. The last two days have been moderately productive in this vein, with several pieces of turtle – including shell, a tyrannosaurid pre-maxillary tooth and a ceratopsian tooth.
The whole experience here at the MOR dig is a very different one to the excavations I’ve been privy to on the landslips and beaches of Dorset and Devon, for one thing everything is more considered and slow owing to the fact that there is no tide to keep a look out for and also that no-one would dare walk onto a museum-run site and remove material that had not been collected. As a result the excavations are both more comprehensive and far more scientific. This is not to cast detriment on my experiences at home as each site must be treated differently, but this approach is far more in keeping with the principles of scientific discovery. Every bone is mapped, numbered, catalogued and carefully consolidated long before there is any thought of removing the bone from its tomb.
Anywho, tomorrow is our town day, the one day off we get each week, so I’m now going to disappear and take some time out. Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed this post, and as with my last I’ll add pictures upon my return to the UK.
Following on from my previous post “Diggin’ Up Dino’s”; I flew out to Montana on the 3rd. I quietly celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee for the entire 30+ hours that I was in the air which proved to be an interesting experience in and of itself. Despite some minor delays in Toronto caused by US Customs “pre-approval” and a maintenance issue with the Canadair Jet in which we were due to fly. Thankfully unlike Air Ghana’s only aircraft back in 2007 this one didn’t burn to a shell.
I arrived into Great Falls International Airport at about 23:45 that evening and spent the night in one of the many local travel-lodge type hotels within a few miles of the Airport. Travelling from Great Falls to Reading the next afternoon with one of the MOR palaeontologists proved to be both a long and enlightening experience. It turned out that he was an English Ex-Pat named Denver who worked for Impossible Pictures during the “Walking With…” era which gave a fascinating series of conversations and anecdotes.
The first thing to say about Montana is that is approximately similar in area to the United Kingdom, but with a population density significantly closer to the Moon’s. This makes the act of travelling from any one place to another becomes an extended (and fairly monotonous) process – though as long as you’ve got someone to talk to then that’s no bad thing. The Reading field station where the MOR team is encamped consists of a series of tents (now including mine), two or three camper-trailers and portions of small ranch buildings lent by the ranch-owners for the summer.
The single most striking thing to note about Montana is the extreme flatness; shockingly so in fact, there do not appear to be any differences between hills and valleys beyond about 50 metres or so. The one major visible exceptions to this rule being the coulee (a regional name for a dried out river valley) that lies to the north of the Reading field station, and the mountainous region that lies somewhere to the west of us.
Having now been out here for a week and a half I am glad to report that we are approaching the stage where some dinosaur bone excavations will be taking place. I should probably explain some of the features of the site; it’s a small quarry dug into the side of the Coulee not far from the Redding Field Station, the site’s dimensions are approximately 20 meters by 15 meters in the horizontal plane, and about 25-30 meters in the vertical. For the past two weeks (the first two of this year’s field season) the crew have been digging away “overburden” – rock that is stratigraphically higher than the horizon in which the targeted fossil material is entombed. The Targeted fossil material is in this instance a Hadrosaur bone-bed with some associated Tyrannosaurid material (mainly teeth and coprolites).
So we are at present only about a day or so’s worth of digging away from the slow and fascinating process of actually digging up the dinosaur remains. That being said I’ve already had some luck with finding material within the overburden material. So to assay the fragmentary material I’ve collected thus far:
4 parts of a tiny fragmentary Theropod limb bone,
2 x Hadrosaur tooth spitters – ground down Hadrosaur teeth,
1 x Turtle limb bone,
1 x Turtle shell fragment,
1 x Gar Fish Scale,
Several indeterminate bone fragments and
Some interesting plant material – 3 indeterminate deciduous leaves and a probable conifer needle-frond.
The bone material here is an awful lot more obvious than that found around Lyme Regis, however the caveat to this is that it’s a lot more work to find and collect. Being a fossil hunting guide is not in my estimation good preparation for taking part in a full on palaeontological dig, the work is both fun and awesome but it’s taking its toll on my hands and muscles – though I suspect this is by definition good for me. As such the first piece of advice I’d give to anyone considering joining a field programme such as this would be get fit before you go, I’ve got more aches and pains than I care to relate to you my dear readers.
Anywho that’s about all I realistically have time for so I’ll leave you with a few photographs and* hope you have enjoyed this post!
Ben D. Brooks
*Sadly the Internet here isn’t good enough to upload photos so I’ll add them when I return to the UK!
Once again it’s been a while since I last posted, the talk that was the subject of my last post went very well, even if the staff only talk only had one attendee – the Chief Executive of the Craven District Council. The public talk fared much better with most of the volunteers turning up and one or two members of the public as well. Everyone seemed to enjoy the talk and the handling session held afterwards, though I don’t know that for certain!
I haven’t yet uploaded any video of the talk, mainly because the video is awful and I haven’t had time or a good enough computer recently (sadly my top spec’ laptop died a death out of warranty). However just as soon as I can I’ll get it on YouTube.
Moving on however, the three months I spent at Craven Museum were fantastic, I learned (and re-learned) a great deal and even got to handle some Geological enquiries. Museum Curation is definitely a career path for me to head down and I know I’ll enjoy it.
Before I chase down a new job and the start of a new career, I’m heading stateside for three weeks. I’ve been lucky enough to be offered the chance to join the Museum of the Rockies field crew digging up Hadrosaur remains from the Cretaceous rocks near Rudyard, Montana! Which is what I’ll be doing for the first three weeks of June!
This should be an awesome experience, I’ll get to take part in a full-on palaeontological excavation (think the opening scenes of Jurassic Park – for all the errors it’ll still give you the idea). I’ll also have the chance to see part of the USA properly – albeit a very limited part – and meet some very clever people who’ll no doubt be far more awesome than me… shouldn’t be that hard to be fair.
I’ll also be taking my cameras and will be writing a diary while I’m out there, so I’ll be able to give you all a lovely looooong post about it all when I return at the end of June – possibly even while I’m out there?!