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!


Science Summaries

This evening I was sitting at my computer casually minding my own business (i.e.: downloading the Kerbal Space Program Update), and all of a sudden found myself drawn into a conversation on Twitter about science communicators and scientists – as one does when one follows the sort of crowd I follow.

Anywho in the course of this conversation I ended up having what my nerd-fighter friends would call a brain-crack (an idea) and tweeting it out loud:

Now I pondered that for a few moments as the conversation continued with some good points raised about getting scientists blogging, aggregators like SciSeeker and so on.

And at this point it hit me that this could be a very easy thing to accomplish, even using something as simple as this blogging system I’m using here (WordPress). – oh; and please stop me if it’s been done

Simply canvass scientists to submit a 200-400 word lay-summary of their new papers, add links to their personal websites and the Journal article at the end of the summary, and boom. science communication just got a whole lot easier, journalists could look up the summaries for articles without having to slog through a paper, interested amateurs could do likewise without having to pay £30-90 per article to read them, and school children could instantly learn something cool and amazing.

There are, as with anything like this, pit falls..

  1. Getting scientists to write lay summaries. – Let’s face it, scientists aren’t always great at sci-comm, those that are, that blog or tumbl or tweet will probably jump on such a thing like a cheetah on an impala; but what about the other 90% of scientists? Many journals don’t even require lay-summaries, many more aren’t even open access anyway.
  2. Ensuring that they are lay summaries and not abstracts (there’s a difference y’all) – there’s a big difference between an abstract which can contain as much jargon as you want, and a lay summary that can’t! (more on this here, or try this.) I guess one solution is get keeno amateurs to read them before they get posted, but who’d volunteer for that?

So anyway, that’s the brain-crack put down on (virtual) paper, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, has this already been done* (link please 🙂 )? is it a terrible idea? if not, what pitfalls have I missed, or how could we make such a thing work?

Ben Brooks

*I know that, for example the UK Science Media Centre or NHS Direct does this sort of thing for news-grabbing science, but why not make somewhere for all science?!

Thanks to @JonTennant, @WarrenPearce, @andrewjlockley and @McDawg for the stimulating twitter convo and links too!

Other Resources/Links (I will add any from commments below as they come!) (see point 5)

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

We’ve completed another Orbit!

In other words, Happy New Year!

Also, while I’m at it; Happy Chanukkah, A Very Merry Christmas or Season’s Greetings to you!

We’ve managed to survive yet another so-called apocalypse, London survived the Olympocalypse and our planet’s combined scientific exploits have done us proud once again, from the landing of Curiosity on the Martian surface to the statistically significant and probable discover of the Higgs Boson.

As for me, I’ve dug up Dinosaurs in Montana, Catalogued almost an entire museum collection, Monetised my Youtube channel… (so far making me a total of 44 cents US), Attempted to write a Novel, and totally and utterly failed to find a lasting, paying Job.

As for the next twelve months, I’m hoping to change that last thing, but I’m also hoping to do a lot of other interesting things. This month I plan to start working on digitising Lyme Regis Museum’s Geological collections, which means I’ll be learning how to use Modes 1.99…. oh dear…. but I’ll also be learning how to improve my specimen photography and digital image manipulation. In a similar vein I hope to take up arms against LYMPH 2006-72 again soon, hopefully with more success and less worrying about writing “the wrong thing”.

The Connecting Awesome ‘G.L.O.B.A.L’ blogging project is ramping up nicely; despite a little service interruption over the holiday period, if you haven’t done so already, go check out the other bloggers involved and give them all some hearty encouragement. This week the topic appears to be local events, so my post today will be about the Fossil Festival, and if I can think of something I’ll cover a more generalised British event – though currently I’m at a loss as to what that might be.

More new projects including a podcast are on the horizon, but I’ll not be sure what’s going on with those for a while as they do depend on other people.

Anywho, I just thought I’d drop in and wish everyone the best of the season, even if I’m a week or so behind the curve. Make 2013 a good one everybody!

Ben Brooks

A discussion of failures.

For me November has been a month of new experiences and learning curves.

I started this month with the high minded idea (along with thousands of other people all over the world) of writing a 50,000 word manuscript for a novel in under a month. I failed; miserably. After the first week and a half I just plain ran out of steam… no pun intended. At this point I’d written 14,021 words – almost double that of either of my university dissertations – and had managed to get all my main characters from their starting points to the main first focus of the story, but then I hit some brick walls.

I determined on Nov. 1st that I would not jump around my story and write all the fun bits only to end the month in a dull drudgery of filling in gaps, I’ve seen my good friend Tom trying to write a book this past year and failing for precisely this reason. This meant that I got to a “boring bit” but couldn’t push through it in under a day, meaning I lost a lot of heart. This probably could have been side-stepped but something else got there first. What finally killed my NaNoWriMo experience was a job interview that needed a week of prep-time in which I couldn’t justify the writing for NaNoWriMo – but more on this later.

What did I learn from the experience? well firstly and most impressively I can write fiction – no mean feat after four years of “the observer is separate from the observed” training, and the depressing way that creative writing is “taught” in school. Even more baffling perhaps is that apparently it’s not “bad” writing either; an acquaintance of mine who writes for a living very kindly looked at my first ten thousand words and commented that:

“I was able to forget that I was reading a draft and enjoy it as much as if it was a finished product. That’s a huge achievement for a beginning writer — in fact I’m quite jealous, because I couldn’t have done anything like this… when I was your age!”

Which I’m taking as one massive pat on the back, the other thing I’ve learned is that I should have planned more. It’s no understatement to say that I had only the vaguest idea of plot and characters by the end of October, and I’m pretty sure this didn’t help when enthusiasm hit a low point in week two.

Finally, I’ve learned that not only can I write fiction, but I really enjoyed doing it. Even though I haven’t succeeded in meeting the quotas for the NaNo event, I’m not going to give up on my novel, but will do some more planning and come back to it afresh in a few weeks time after the end-year glut of job applications have passed.

Speaking of job applications, the one that de-railed NaNo for me was another new experience, both one of being 100% qualified for the job (a rare thing without a PhD in my sector), but also of being a strong candidate for the post. I didn’t get if of course (this would be a very different post if I had), but I came second. That was initially quite a galling thing to be told when I received the phone-call the day after interview; but by an equal measure a huge encouragement too, as I now know that it’s not my interview technique that’s bad, or my applications, or even my CV. It actually is just that we’re in a recession and the fact that so many more people are applying for the same jobs than if it was a booming economy – and believe you me, I was beginning to despair.

Might I also add at this point that despite popular opinion; no matter how many times your friends or parent’s say “Don’t worry; something is bound to go your way eventually.” it never actually makes a positive difference to your mood, at least it doesn’t to mine. I know this is always meant as a kindness, but if anything it just blackens my mood.

So anywho, November has been a month of apparent failures for me, but as with all things there were silver linings to be found, and for once; they were easy to divine.

Ben D. Brooks

Let The Awesome Commence!

(F.Y.I: Red Text in this post has on-mouseover explanations, hover over it and all shall be explained)

Animated GIF from the Space Statoin

Animated GIF of video taken by the ISS (public domain)

Who wants some awesome?

I thought you might, indeed if you’re a long-time reader of my blog you may be wondering where all the awesome went… well never fear I’m sending you to some right now!

As some of you are no doubt aware I’m an avid YouTuber, what some of you may not know is that I’m also a nerdfighter (cue mass google search, or just click here). Recently the opportunity arose to become part of an Austrian Nerdfighter’s collaborative blogging effort to decrease “world suck” through increasing understanding, and naturally I jumped at the chance!

The project I’m now a part of comes in two distinct flavours – an americo-european and a global one. The aim of the project is for each of the awesome people involved to learn about themselves, each other and the world around us through blogging once a week and reading the posts of the other bloggers.

Each week will see a new topic for the seeding of the posts, and this week (our first) is introductions week. I myself will be helping our Austrian architect to represent Europe in the G.L.O.B.A.L blog; posting on Wednesdays and I hope you’ll join me in supporting my new-found compatriots!

The E.U.R.O.P.E team have been going since Sunday and the G.L.O.B.A.L team got started today, so if this sounds like your cup of tea, head over to Connecting Awesome and take a look around!

I may have more awesome news soon… in the mean-time DFTBA!

Ben D. Brooks

NaNoWriMo… Day the Third

NaNoWriMo Participant Logo 2012Ok, so it’s not the third day any more… by the time you read this, in fact, by the time I post it, it will be day 4.

But that’s not the point, the point is it’s the end of day 3 and I’ve reached the 5000 word target for the end of today! In recognition of this oh-so-awesome feat of willpower and “I will not give them another reason to mock me”, I’m posting the first draft of chapter three of my NaNoWriMo Project here!

Why chapter three? Well I’ve already posted chapter one as my novel excerpt on the NaNo website (see if you haven’t read it). Also, if I posted chapter two it could give the game away; so you get chapter three.

To anyone who follows this blog for the sciencey-wiency stuff, please bear with me for the rest of the month, for you I have uploaded this youtube video on ammonite preparation:

For everyone else… here’s chapter three!

I hope you like it, and I’d love any constructive comments you might have.

Ben D Brooks


It was a wet day in London that Saturday morning, and a mist hung in the air like thick treacle, it felt to Alexi as though it clung to every surface and willed everyone into a state of apprehension. Even given the abject depression expressed by the other people on board the Picadilly line train to London Air and Rail Terminus, nothing could dampen his spirits today. When it came to travelling, Alexi was like an oversized ten year old, there was nothing he liked more than watching the world flow by at exhilarating speed. It didn’t really matter if it was rail, air or even his old Raleigh all-steel bicycle, travel excited him, and he didn’t care if it meant he looked completely gormless surrounded by the early morning’s miserable commuters.

The train regurgitated most of its passengers at Earls Court station, allowing Alexi to gain a seat and while away the rest of his journey in relative peace. By the time the train arrived at the Rail Terminus, there were only a few people still aboard, and as this was the end of the line for this train, everybody disembarked. There were only two Airships due to leave the terminus before noon, and so it came as no surprise to Alexi that most of the other passengers stayed on the platforms waiting for another train.
The London Air and Rail Terminus was a marvel of the age, a rare occasion where engineering, civic planning and practicality were melded into a structure that was as close to perfection as could be achieved with Iron, Glass and Masonry Brick. The whole terminus centred about a central, circular, four story office building in the modern, art deco style which was surmounted by a tower which would not have looked wholly out of place as a lighthouse. The tower was in fact designed to be similar to the iconic lighthouse on Plymouth Hoe and was topped with a bright, revolving lime-light to guide in the airships in poor weather. The only major interference with the lighthouse image was the glass windowed control room set below the revolving lamp. From this room, every action of the airship ground crews could be controlled by telephone, and the operation of the rail networks could be controlled with precision, ensuring seamless transfers in all but the most dire of service delays. The offices below were occupied by representatives from all of the rail companies on the ground floor. The Airship companies filled the second and third, and the fourth housed offices for the newly formed British Transport Police, Royal Mail, the managerial staff of the terminus, and extra space for expansion of the control room when new rail lines linked up to the building. From this central hub, the building radiated out in an arc towards the west, with platform space for twelve rail lines which was covered by a glass and iron canopy similar to that at Paddington station, arching out from the centre to columns on platform six, and then again to platform twelve where it abutted the airship landing terminal. This part of the building was the pièce de résistance, thanks to the innovative engineering of a small but underappreciated band of engineers. Ticket and customs offices fitted neatly alongside the passenger lounges, and the whole is sited on ground level, while the actual landing gantries sat above the terminal, could rotate to suit the approach of airships from any direction, and were approached by stairways and ramps within the large, central supporting pillars.  The curving terminal played host to 15 separate gantries, and during the busy seasons of the summer months and Christmas could theoretically accommodate some 300 trains and 200 airship arrivals and departures each day. All told, the scheme to build this modern wonder had cost a consortium of companies four hundred thousand pounds of capital investment and the government one hundred thousand pounds in subsidies.

When Alexi’s train had arrived at 9:18 am there had only been four trains in the station, and only the one airship graced the gantries overhead. This was the R.M.A. Alexandria, she was nothing grand, a fairly new British Aerospace airship of the Albert class. With four Vickers electric motors powered from a steam turbine engine housed near the rear of the vessel, she could comfortably reach speeds of seventy knots in still air, which could be increased to nearly 120 knots with a strong tailwind. She is a semi-rigid airship, constructed from the new light alloys and the lower half is skinned with aluminium like the hull of a colossal flying boat. The airship’s gas-bags are filled with helium, nestled into the very top of the hull, and are covered in an expandable rubber and cotton blended fabric. Altitude control is achieved through careful adjustments to the pressure of the helium in the gas bags of the ship, and directional control was provided by a rudder and aileron assembly at the rear of the craft. In total, she measures nine hundred feet in length and has a diameter of two hundred and fifty feet. Housing some fifty passenger cabins and bunks for forty individual crewmembers, she is one of the largest British Airships, with two passenger lounges, a bar and even a carefully railed promenade deck at the very top of the craft. When docked or in sufficiently calm weather, this deck is opened to the more adventurous passengers, who could then look out over the countryside sweeping away below them.

As Alexi approached the ticket offices located near to gantry number four, he gazed up at the imposing monolith floating above in wonderment; in only two and a half decades aviation had gone from completely uncontrollable balloons to fully functioning liners of the air flown by both private and national airlines in a safe, controlled and scheduled way. He purchased his ticket for the short six hour journey to Edinburgh and went through to the airship terminal. There were a number of people in the waiting lounge already; most were occupying themselves with the newspapers, from the doorway Alexi could see several passengers reading a variety of newspapers including The Times, the Evening Standard and even one individual perusing the previous day’s Manchester Guardian. One or two people were taking the opportunity to have a cup of tea and look out of the glass walls at the far end of the room, to where the hangars for storing and repairing Airships were packed tightly around the one gantry not located upon the terminal building. Beyond the hangars, the yet unspoiled English countryside rapidly overtook the newly built suburbs and the Thames could be seen meandering into the distance towards Oxford. Alexi moved from the doorway towards the counter of the lounge cafe and proceeded to order a strong cup of Earl Grey tea.

Across the room, a man in a tweed suit sat quietly observing the other passengers while working his way through today’s copy of The Times, he had seen Alexi enter the room, but in the same way that the professor had not noticed him, he took little notice of the appearance of the professor. Both men had little presence in a crowd; many of the watcher’s friends envied his ability to become a “hole in the room”, but then when you work for the Secret Service Bureau of the British Government that ability is bound to be envied. According to the newspaper the coal miners were ramping themselves up into a frenzy over working conditions, prices for the valuable black, fossil laden sedimentary rock would skyrocket as a result. Given that Major George Harcourt’s current role at the SSB was in energy security, this new development in the ongoing saga of the coal miners versus the National Coal Board was more interesting than another person who had his chameleon-like ability to disappear. And anyway, by the look of him, he was probably just some middle manager or banker heading home for the weekend.

Major Harcourt’s mind drifted away from the newspaper and he began to muse on the airship anchored two stories above him. The Albert class airships; as with so many of the most recent designs and unbeknownst to the public, had been rushed through the design and construction process in a race to increase efficiency and tackle the rising costs of fuel. This was because of the slow realisation among government officials and industry leaders that Britain’s natural, native coal reserves were becoming more scarce and expensive to extract, resulting in a slow but inexorable series of price hikes over the last two years. There were of course, huge reserves of coal that could be mined in the colonies and dominions, but the Major was well aware of the dangers of over-extending one’s supply lines. Adding to this pressure, similar problems were affecting many other European powers, most of who were not in the fortunate position of having near surface coal reserves, relationships between nations were beginning to show strain. He was abruptly dragged from his reverie by more passengers entering the lounge; he recommenced his observations and put thoughts of high politicking aside.

Alexi knew none of his fellow passengers, indeed he didn’t expect to know any of them, so he chose a seat as close to the embarkation point as possible while still avoiding as many people as possible. The airship would not likely be boarding for at least an hour so he sat and regarded the other passengers with a detached fascination; all but the lowest tiers of society were represented. A group of ladies were seated near the window in muted discussion, while the men Alexi assumed to be their husbands were sat in another, far less talkative group at the next table. Two businessmen were sifting through their paperwork and discussing where their investments would be best placed in the future. A few couples were strewn around the lounge like so much confetti, ranging from long-attached couples travelling to young newlyweds about to experience air-travel for the first time. It was only then that he noticed in the far corner of the room; a man in tweed who seemed more interested in the exit of the customs offices than his paper, not giving it much thought at all he concluded that the man was probably waiting for a friend. Catching his eye he made a courteous wave which was met with a curt, but not evidentially impolite nod and a tight smile.

Alexi went back to drinking his tea and waited for the boarding call.