Category Archives: Geology

On Dreams Made Real

[SPOILER ALERT – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED]

When I was four years old a film was released that has since been a wonder for millions all over the globe, it had some of the most innovative special effects in film history, and did more to update the public perception of palaeontology than any museum or university field program could ever hope to achieve.

(if my memory serves me correctly) I first saw Jurassic Park in 1995, when I was six, when it first aired on the TV here in England. Besides knowing that I hid behind our family sofa from the T-Rex when it was gorging on lawyers and smashing up cars on that magically appearing concrete cliff, the one emotion that abides with me even now is one of childlike wonder and excitement at the creatures on the screen. They were so real, so present that I could not believe they were anything but extant, living beings. No longer extinct creatures confined to the rocks in Montana and the Isle of Wight.

My Old Dinosaur VHS tapes

My Old Dinosaur VHS tapes

I’d loved dinosaurs for as long as I could remember at that point, in no small part thanks to the VHS tapes that my parents bought for me (speaking of which, I must convert those to DVD soon). But as I grew older I learned about acting, CGI became so common in movies that you aren’t even sure the actors are real any more, and I watched as science enhanced our knowledge of the dinosauria beyond anything we could have dreamed of in 1993. We now have theropod dinosaurs – incuding some pretty big ones – with fillamentous integument (proto-feathers), we even know what colour archaeopteryx’ feathers would be. We’ve seen palaeoecology take off wildly, and study of the dinosaurs in relation to their environment as well as just their bones. And we’ve even managed to find out the colours of the insects that they shared their world with.

And over time, the magic dulled.

It’s never gone away  of course, I can still feel it whenever I watch the original film, and even to an extent when I watch Jurassic Park; The Lost World (I won’t speak much of JP3). But as I’m sure you may imagine, when I heard about Jurassic World I had some very high hopes… the question is, would it deliver.

Let’s just stop and talk about some of the inaccuracies though, before we get onto whether or not my expectations were met. Darren Naish published a very good (and frankly spot on) criticism of Jurassic World last week on the CNN website which captures my biggest problem with the backpeddalling from feathered raptors in JP3.

What John Hammond and InGen did at Jurassic Park is create genetically engineered theme park monsters – Dr. Alan Grant, JP3

Yes, Yes they did, they’re not “real” dinosaurs so we (presumably the palaeontological community) should shut up about it. This is the line that the film takes when it comes to the accuracy of Jurassic World’s creations, incidentally it’s also the line that TellTale’s Jurassic Park PC game took (don’t play it, the control scheme is awful) which is fair enough, the film-makers may be able to shut the scientists up but they can’t ignore them.

However, for a film series whose legacy to the world was bringing the public’s perceptions of dinosaur science out of the 18th century and into the 20th, it has, through a desire to make money/maintain continuity (or something like that) kept the public’s perception very much in the 1990’s as far as the look of the dinosaurs goes. I suppose we can all be thankful that the BBC’s excellent “Walking with” series’ picked up the baton and ran with it long before JP3 ever entered production, let alone Jurassic World.You might be able to say that they up-played the raptor’s intelligence, or that they got better at the herd behaviour. but that’s not what people will remember, they’ll remember trikes dragging their tails, pterosaurs flying off with people, and a mosasaur that is at least twice the size of any known mosasaur.

Add to all this the attempts the film makes to shoehorn in some “comedy gold” cliche – the cinema did erupt into laughter at it but it was terribly immersion breaking – and the at times strained nature of the militarisation of raptors story line, and it could have ruined the film completely.

So why didn’t it?

In a word; Magic.

I’m probably not going to be able to put this very well, but I spent the first half of the film trying to be cynical and watch the film objectively. But at some time around the half-way point Zach and Gray – this film’s Lex and Tim – are stumbling through the forest after escaping the Indominus rex and they come across an old, overgrown door; Instantly recognisable to anyone who saw the first film.

And suddenly it’s as if I am six years old again, I felt all the same emotions and feelings as I did watching Jurassic Park for the first time. The magic was back, If I hadn’t read somwhere that the original visitors centre from the first film was destroyed by a Hurricane after the first film’s release, I would swear the film crew had just walked in after the forests of Kauaʻi had reclaimed it. Anyway, the inaccuracies didn’t matter so much any more.

There were other redeeming features to this film as well, the eccentric CEO, Simon Masrani, brings many of the endearing characteristics of Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond to mind, while obviously having a similar vision for the park, and his own foibles… Who else would fly a helicopter into a combat situation without being able to autorotate? The fact that the man dies due to the actions of his creations was a lovely nod to the books and the people who actually read them as well (wherin Hammond is killed by the compsognathus’).

The character of Lowery also harkens back to characters from the previous movies, Ray Arnold and Ian Malcolm, and his workstation reminded me of the character Wash from Firefly… He’s probably my favourite of the film’s main characters, in no small part for the way he’s clearly a convert to Hammond’s initial vision.

So yes, the film has more than it’s fair share of errors in the science department, and it’s quite possible that my fanboy-ism and nostalgia are holding more sway than four years of a geology degree and three and a half as a “professional” palaeontologist. But you know what. I don’t care; nobody in palaeontology ever took me seriously anyway.

“What they did, it was real…” – Lowery, Jurassic World

If only it were.

Museum Lecture: “The Beast in the Cellar”

The 17th of May was the height of an event called ‘Museums at Night‘, a UK wide festival that bills itself as seeking to “encourage visitors into museums, galleries and heritage sites by throwing their doors open after hours and putting on special evening events.” As luck would have it this festival coincided with Lyme Regis Museum‘s celebration of the life of one very important palaeontologist, and I was invited to give a talk for the festival, but more about the talk later.

1840’s portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Trey on the beaches around Lyme Regis

The name of that important palaeontologist was Mary Anning, and if you’ve looked into the early years of palaeontology for more than about twenty minutes then you’ll have come across her name. Or perhaps you know the tongue twister that she reportedly inspired…

“She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.”

On the nearest weekend to her birthday every year, Lyme Regis Museum celebrates her life with free entry, family events and talks about topics ranging from her life and the early palaeontologists, to the geology of the Lyme Regis area and the animals that she sought in the cliffs and limestone ledges along the coast.

It was into this last category that my talk fell. Earlier this year, Phil Davidson from the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre and I spent some time looking over one of the Museum’s specimens; a large Ichthyosaur measuring four and a half metres long and stored in pieces in the museum cellar. Our task was to document the current state of the specimen and make sure it was all where it ought to be. This creature has been off of public display since the mid-eighties when a cast was made and hung on the wall of the museum to save on exhibition space. In the end my talk for the Museums at Night festival was much more general than our work on the specimen, and I chose to spend a lot of my time talking about convergent evolution between Ichthyosaurs and modern creatures.

Anywho, Here’s the talk in full, the audio is a bit hard to follow at the start but it improves as the talk goes on, and if you’re interested in the assessment Phil and I made earlier this year it can be seen here. I’d really appreciate any comments, suggestions and observations, as they will help me improve my presentation style, my content and its delivery!

Some Museum-ey Stuff and The PodQuest

Hullo everybody,

My last post was somewhat negative, as indeed was the one before; but this time it’s all flowers and sunshine… well, mostly.

The first thing to say is that I’m going to be a student again… and no, I don’t mean the loaf around a campus being either very lazy or over-distracted by clubs and societies type of student. I’ve done that (well the latter at least) and now I’ve landed a place on the Leicester University Museum Studies Masters by distance learning!

That means I’m going to be spending the next two years working on essays about plastazote, the ethics of taxidermy collections and the various merits of museum accreditation, funding applications and humidity guidelines. Among a million other things. It’ll also allow me to apply for all the (5 or so) geological curator’s posts that come up  every year without feeling like I’m wasting my time because the person specification says “Museum Studies Qualification” in the essential column!

N.B.: I took and stitched the photos together, labelled and scaled the image; so I think this isn't copyright infringement.

Lyme Regis Museum’s Hidden Gem – a Temnodontosaurus sp. Ichthyosaur.

In other museum-based news, I and Phil Davidson – the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre’s palaeontologist – recently did some work for Lyme Regis Museum assessing the state of one of the museum’s more spectacular specimens. The saddest thing about the specimen is that the museum cannot display it for a lack of space, and the cast they do have on their wall doesn’t show any of the more exciting bits (like a fragmentary fish preserved in the body cavity for example). If you’re interested in seeing the various parts of that beautiful creature, you can find it all here – I wouldn’t have called this a research paper, more like a detailed inventory, but that’s the way they roll.

That's Right, I can do graphics when I need to!I’ve something else to tell you all about, one of my year’s side projects that I muted in my last post. If you’re in to table-top role playing (if you’re not, think dungeons and dragons and you’ll get the picture) then hopefully you’ll love it. It’s called The PodQuest and it’s going to be a podcasted role-playing campaign set in a world of my own creation – Vilyalad – and with a suite of characters who will cause all sorts of merry hell around this once peaceful world. One of the players, my good friend Thomas is doing the majority of the podcasts’ artwork, so if you want to see what he’s up to I’ll give you a link to his art portfolio here.

Of course, if you’re into gaming then you’ll know I’m making a rod for my own back by being the games master of a world of my own creation… it means everything… background scenery, town plans, cults, religions, histories, NPC’s, creatures… EVERYTHING has to come out of my own head, often on the spot.

I reckon it’ll be a laugh none-the-less. The game system we will be using is RuneQuest Six (published in 2012), which is a re-write of one of the original big three role-playing systems. We’ve played the Avalon Hill version (RuneQuest III) with our usual games master so the system isn’t wholly new.

Anyway, enough of me blabbering about it, the website is here, though there’s not a great deal online yet, but with a launch date of 30th March (brought forward thanks to the fabulous enactment of Geek and Sundry‘s International Table Top Day) we’re pushing ahead with it as fast as can be! We hope you’ll join us for the ride; or at least the first podcast. 🙂

Anyway, as per usual I’ve rambled on about a very small amount of stuff, so I’ll leave it there for now and come back another day to talk about some other things, but I hope I’ve not bored anyone!

Until next time

Ben Brooks
15/03/2013

The L’Aquila prosecutions; a dangerous precedent?

(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.

Making a geological model from Sand!

Hi Everyone,

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:

The completed model with labels

The completed model with labels illustrating the important features.

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…

Using Cardboard for a false wall

Using Cardboard to enable the creation of folds or faults.

…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.

Faults side (Rear)

The rear side of my model, showing a few faults

The labelled left hand side of my model

The labelled left hand side of my model, showing two channel fills (one much harder to spot…)

The glorious, labelled front side of the model.

The glorious, labelled front side of the model. showing a lot of stuff..

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!

Ben
07/10/2012

Edited at 21:36 on 07/10/2012: emboldened each point to make it easier to comprehend (hopefully)

“A Volcano… in Somerset”

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.

So you may be wondering what the deuce the title of this article is referring to, well in short it’s all about this newspaper story from This Is Somerset: ‘We could be sitting on a Mendip volcano’ says Somerset expert.

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.

Ben Brooks
06/10/2012

Home Again – Dispatches from Montana 3 (The Photo Edition)

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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…Click for Big!

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…

Click for Big!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!

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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).

Click for Big!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.

Click for BigHere’s another photo of Cracker – affectionately known as the Cracker-the-quarry-dog, enjoying the sun and generally getting in the way!

Click for BigSo 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.

Click for Big!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!

Click for Big!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:

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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.

Click for Big!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…

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I hope you enjoyed the post.

Ben D. Brooks

28.06.2012