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!


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

Southampton Social Media Surgery (02/07/2011)

Have you heard of a “Social Media Surgery”?

No..? Well… nor had I until a friend and colleague of mine from Southampton University Students’ Union mentioned that she was planning one a few weeks ago…!/parboo/status/80558951409786880

…Now she’s got it all organised, and it’s going to be happenning between 2pm and 4pm on Saturday the 2nd of July in the Shooting Star public house on Bevois Valley Road.

Now that I know all about it, I think these Social Media Surgeries are a fantastic idea, after all how many of us have helped a friend get their head around Facebook, or in more recent years Twitter? Now there’s a way to do that for the greater good, by helping local individuals, charities, organisations and volunteer groups get online.

The amount of net awesomeness that a charity or volunteer group can engage in once they are on the social media bandwagon is huge! Just imagine the conversations that can be had, the collaboration between groups, the extra awareness of fundraising or other activities… the list isn’t endless, but it’s pretty long.

Anywho, Southampton SMS is looking for “surgeons” to help people get online, and also of course they’re looking for anyone who wants to get online or any groups that are interested in getting online, so spread the word, and link people to the website. You’ll also find help organising your own if you are not from the southampton area.

If you want to follow what’s happenning with the planning of the event, it’s Twitter hashtag is #SotonSMS. And if you’re thinking about coming along to see what this “Social Media” malarky is all about, or you’re coming along to help out, I look forward to meeting you on the day!

Ben D Brooks


Observations on Teaching Observation

I’m about three months from finishing my degree at the University of Southampton (my my how four years has just flown by) and I now have to start thinking about what on earth I’m going to do after graduating with my degree in hand. One of the many options I’ve been exploring is going into teaching, specifically I am considering teaching in Further Education Colleges (AS & A Levels in the UK or upper High School in the US?).

Interestingly; in the UK so far as I can ascertain there is no requirement to have QTS (qualified teacher status) before starting work in a FE College though you have to get it within 2 years of starting. However; through discussions about the options it is fairly obvious that having a PGCE in secondary education would be far more beneficial than the PGCE in Post-Compulsory Education, especially with as restricted a job market as we are experiencing at the moment.

>30m Diameter blowout in the Psammosere Succession in Studland Bay, where the school took it's year 10 pupils on a field trip.

In response to this and the requirements of some universities offering secondary PGCE courses, I have just undertaken a week of teaching observation in my old school. This was thoroughly enjoyable and despite it being the last week of the school’s term I managed to sit in on classes from every year group from year 7 through to upper 6th form, helped out on a field course in swanage and also got to observe a practical lab, revision lessons and even a lesson given by a very capable PGCE student. Anywho, now that it’s come to the end of the week and I thought I might as well share my thoughts and observations, and would appreciate any thoughts people have on the matter…

Variation in teaching styles
One of the first and by far the most startling features that I noticed this week was the widely variable teaching styles employed by the teachers in the school, and not just between different year groups (who all have different abilities anyway). For example I sat in on two year 11 (2nd year of GCSE) science lessons by two different members of the department, the first of which I can only equate to the sort of to-and-fro discussion crossed with lecturing I would expect in a University environment, and the second being a more traditional “teacher at front” class environment. I have to say I was far more comfortable in the less formal teaching environments than I was in the rote learning classes.

The most interesting thing about these differences is that I never really noticed it when I was at the school, The teachers were the same people (for the most part) as when I left, and I always liked some teachers more than I did others, but I never really twigged as to why.

BTEC Logo, click to go to edexcel exam board...

“Tactical” education
Something that has definitely changed since I left the school four years ago is the very clear tactical nature of some of the subject matter in later years. What I mean is that the students who tend to “flake” in the exams but who show a real potential in the classroom are removed from the “traditional” GCSE curricula and moved onto more “modern” coursework only courses such as the BTEC first and national diplomas. I have to admit to being in two minds over this. On the one hand I believe in education for education’s sake, and I don’t see how the way you learn something should have any bearing on anything… so long as you learn and get the education every individual deserves. On the other hand I would worry about how taking less common curricular programmes such as the BTEC, NVQ’s and others that fit in to the English Baccalaureate may affect a student’s success in the job market… not that it should.

“Loss of Traditional Subjects”
Another major and interesting change since I left the school in question is that some subjects in lower years have been combined (most notably Geography and History, now “People and Places”) to make room in the school timetable for Literacy classes, over and above English lessons.
Ostensibly this is a good thing because many students struggle with the transition from one teacher in primary to a plethora of teachers in secondary school, but I worry about two things; firstly how can a geography teacher make a good, competant effort of teaching history (and vice versa), and why do literacy lessons need to be added to the curriculum? Surely any decline in literacy rates is an indication that the english curriculum isn’t working and should be changed, not an excuse to add more lessons (and so more teachers) to the curriculum… you don’t see the same thing with numeracy and mathematics.

Classroom Content… and why I couldn’t teach lower school (Years 7-11)
My final observation goes back to the classroom and away from curriculum issues and changing the system. The biggest problem I had sitting in on many of the lessons was that because I got to see all year groups, the differring content was clearly visible, and I can safely say that I would hate year 7-9 teaching, because the subject matter just isn’t there… that’s no fault of the teachers or the children, and I remember when I was in those years and the teaching was no different. I just don’t think I could handle “dumbing down” my subject knowledge to the level required to teach science or geography at year 7 level. I could do it, but I think I would hate it.

…So After an enjoyable week of observing teaching, teaching methods and teacher-student interactions… I have had fun, reinforced my decision to do FE teaching rather than general secondary, and learnt a fair bit about how curricula are decided upon by staff and departments in schools. Still not sure about doing the PGCE secondary or PGCE PCE, but I think that might be decided for me by my applications down the road.

On what museums are doing wrong

This is going to be a part rant, part lament and part questioning essay (hopefully) but before I begin I wish to make clear a few things:

Firstly, as I hope came across in my post: Volunteering at the Natural History Museum, I very much love Museums and all that they entail.

Secondly, I bear no ill will toward, nor wish to make any assumptions about the people of the institutions mentioned or museums in general, and do not wish to disparage their reputations or intentions, but I am going to be frank and honest about my opinions and so hope they will not be overly offended by them.

Thirdly if you feel I have been unfair or am wrong, tell me so and let’s discuss it – that’s why blogs have comment sections, as I am no expert and have the utmost respect for your opinion, especially if more informed than mine.


So then, allow me to begin… are you sitting comfortably?

“Imagine you walk into an old victorian building with high rafters, many columns and arches, and masonry which wouldn’t look too out of place in a medieval cathedral. Everywhere you look you can see mounted skeletons, banks of glass & wood cases filled with stuffed animals, archaeological artifacts & rocks, with pictures and murals adorning the few walls without architectural gems.”

The Central Hall in Natural History Museum, London
Main Hall of the NHM, London | Image via Wikipedia

This is the image in my minds eye whenever I hear the words “Museum” it’s a very specific image, relating to a natural history setting almost exclusively one that I’m sure many of you will have your own variants on; but is this what a museum is? From my experiences both front-of-house (galleries & expeditions) and back-of-house (curation/research) this can be safely said to be a very bad, out-moded image which factually belongs to the history books… in almost every respect.

This image is the “old-world” view of the museum, and it’s very idealistic. This old world way of doing things had many problems, and still does where it is the norm. “new world” museums on the other hand have problems, and I will argue that they have many more than the old… but then I’m a traditionalist so maybe it’s just me?

Older museums were run completely by academics and this could often be seen in the content, The curators were academics and decided what people wanted to see and how much information they got; often very little. I remember going to see museums when I was younger where you might be told the chemical formula for a mineral, it’s name and where it was found, but little or nothing besides. This isn’t the way to engage people in the collections you have in your museum, it is nothing less than boring unless you are a scientist and know a lot about the subject, so maybe don’t need the extra information.

New museums are at the extreme other end of the scale when it comes to information, they contain galleries often with many fewer objects from the collections, but these objects come with expansive paragraphs of writing. The amount of information given is a definite and drastic improvement over a chemical formula and a name. In terms of content however I have found many museums in recent years are disappointing, because it is clear that the information has not come from an expert, but someone who knows how to teach and entertain, but doesn’t have the detailed knowledge to carry it off.

This is a real shame as at the end of the day museums hire curators (or at least they used to) to know about their subject in detail and also to know the collections back-to-front and inside-out. Curators are now in the absurd position where they are by-passed when it comes to writing the information that goes with an exhibit and it’s left to the outreach staff. These outreach staff are often fantastically good at their jobs because they are hired specifically for the role and trained as teachers or educators in the first instance, but they seem to be afraid to ask the experts for input to their work… I don’t know why and have no theories, but its result is information in exhibits that often leaves out vital and fascinating scientific facts in favour of idealistic, unprovable or plain wrong interpretations.

Curators are now in the firing line at some institutions because of this lack of input through no fault of their own. Museums have cottoned on to the fact that while they pay a certain amount of money for a curator who is both good at collections management and an expert in their subject, or pay less for someone who is only good at the former and whose time will not be split with research and academia, and in this time of austerity who can blame them?

…Well me actually, whilst trying to save money is almost always admirable, in this case it is severely short sighted; and here’s why. Anyone who wants to access the collections will have to work doubly hard because the collections manager will be little able to help them beyond telling them exactly where specimen X is. The Museum’s collection may be categorised fully (in some cases for the first time ever) but it just becomes a storehouse, and museums cease to be the places of cutting edge research, learning and fascination that they once were… in effect they lose their soul.

The Wild-Walk exhibit at @Bristol science "exploration" | Image via Wikipedia

Speaking of collections, let’s briefly cover something else. Has anyone else noticed how few actual specimens are on display in many big museums, there’s loads of “interactives”, videos and interpretative text, but there seems to have been a severe decline in the number of objects on display.

To use but one example; When I visited the Natural History Museum in London as a child, I have fond and awe inspiring memories of the Mammalian Megafauna gallery (to the right of the doors as you walk in) at some point between then and the next visit (2008) this was removed wholesale and replaced. Not with an updated exhibit, not with more objects of a different type, but with a very “@Bristol” type exhibit about ecology without a single specimen and with a massive expansion of the museum shop (it now takes up half the ex-gallery). These massive, awesome fossil remains & casts have been put into storage and are now unavailable for public viewing. When the Palaeontology department alone has over 9 million objects, most of which are not on display, to say this is lamentable has to my mind a good change of being understatement of the year.

A History of the World in 100 objects | Credit: BBC/Radio 4/British Museum

All this alongside the BBC/British Museum extravaganza “A History of the World in 100 objects”, which has already showcased many more than 100, and is all about getting the experts in to talk about them, and let the public SEE them. At least someone’s got the right idea! If you asked me, or I suspect most people, we go to museums to see objects of fascination; not to stare at well meaning computer screens and animations.

I could go on as there are other problems such as over rationalisation, the (muted) abolition of free entry at national museums, the mothballing of historically/scientifically important collections etc. but I think I would be labouring my point.

Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m too old-fashioned and traditionalist but I think we need to put educators back in touch with curators, bring back the objects (but not lose the information), ease up on the unnecessary overuse of interactives and above all give our many, beautiful museums back their souls.

Ben Brooks

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Of beginnings and biases

So it’s the summer holidays for me – or at least it is for another week, then it’s back to Southampton University for my last year as an undergraduate student. As part of the summer break I have been doing some (though not nearly enough) work on my Masters of Science project which I explained not very well in my post “My Msci Research Project – Macroecological changes in offshore shelf seas” and now seems as good a time as any to review what I’ve done; and to do so publically in the name of open access science!

Essentially the upshot of the work I have been doing has been to look at the project as described in the previous post and thinking about the methodology and the approach that I will use in undertaking the research. The result of this? I now have a two page list of biases for which I will have to find solutions, adjustments or reasons to discount them and options as to my methodology.

Geological time-scale represented in spiral form
Geological time-scale, the past being at the base of the spiral, image from USGS


The scope of the project – if taken to it’s pedantic conclusion – is epic, and far beyond either my research experience and the time-frame in which I am able to undertake it. Taking a census of every publically owned fossil from every one of the deposits that I could study would be not only prohibitively expensive due to air fares etc, but very, very time consuming. The solution? to do what other researchers have done when studying palaeoenvironment, take the smallest reasonable stratigraphic unit, in some cases this will be at the level of the formation (such as the Blue Lias) and for others the member (such as the Oxford Clay, where the Peterborough Member is promising), this will also hopefully give a more accurate set of size structure profiles for the study as it will be closer to taking a snap-shot of the palaeo-ecosystem at any one time.


The second and last problem for which I have a definitive solution at present is how best to get a suitable resolution for the project, there were two approaches to this and both had their merits:

The pragmatic approach is to look only at the most complete fossil records within palaeontology’s current appraisal of the fossil record.

The idealistic approach is to take the 200 million year scope of the project and split it into “sensible” intervals, and take a sampling at each… say… 40 million year step.

Now if the fossil record was perfect (or even near representative) the decision would be a no brainer, the idealistic approach would be best, and the most scientifically defensible. The idealistic option is certainly what you would do if you were undertaking a study whose study period started tomorrow as it gives the best temporal resolution (or view of changes over time). The record is demonstrably inappropriate for the task, as anyone who is familiar with the palaeontological importance of lagerstätten to the field will understand – most animal carcasses never preserve, and most fossil sites are heinously misrepresentative of the original ecosystem. So in this instance it is more sensible to forego temporal resolution in favour of the best fossil records, with the hope that it will produce a more accurate result in terms of the ecosystem. The risk being that there may be large gaps which make the study less useful in studying changes over time.

Now to move on to some of the problems for which I have no solution as yet…

Scaling of partial specimens

How does one go about using a fossil for a body size metric if you only have a skull? Well in practice when it comes to skulls it is quite simple as most animals have a complete fossil somewhere and the scaling is simple as a proportion of body length – so long as you find the right paper! What about Ichthyosaur paddles, fish ribs or other less simple fossil body parts?

One option is obvious… ignore partials… but by heaven that is the worst solution and would discredit the study before anyone got beyond the abstract! So what else can I do? some people have said that if you know the number of a vertebrae (i.e.: where it comes from along the vertebral column) you can work out a vague size… is that good enough? What about anything other than skulls and vertebrae; can I ignore them?

Prominent British geologist and palaeontologis...
William Buckland | Image via Wikipedia

Collection Biases

Many of the deposits I’ll be studying have the same problem, their fossil collections were mostly excavated in victorian times, when science was done by country gentlemen or rich folks who wanted the biggest, most interesting vertebrates or even other fossils.

Chris Andrew (Lyme Regis fossil expert) related to me a story about William Buckland‘s coprolites (fossilised excrement). When they were surveyed approximately 1 in 20 had Ichthyosaur remains in them. The survey suggested that this is the proportion in reality within the blue lias, yet any of the miriad fossil hunters on the coast can tell you that this isn’t even close to true, finding many coprolites and maybe being lucky to have one a year with such remains within them. The cause of the disparity? The collector had only purchased coprolites that they thought interesting… ambiguous ones with nothing “interesting” were not bought, so biasing the result.

Similarly institutions are going to be more willing to buy specimens that show something different to what they already have in their collections, because if they bought everything they would run out of space! Should I consider all museum collections biased? How does one adjust one’s research outcomes to counter this? Should I even try?

Preservation Biases

On a very similar (but non-human) level and as already stated, not all animal carcases preserve. Some types of animal preserve better than others (e.g.: Ichthyosaurs compared to fish), how can this be tackled?

Actually there is a lot of research on this, it has it’s own field within palaeontology – “Taphonomy” –  but I haven’t researched it yet, and even then the aforementioned Chris provided me with another option which I may describe elsewhere if I use it, or even if I don’t.

In closing, this just gives you an idea of the miriad of problems anyone would face when they are trying to come up with a piece of research, and by golly I can understand why researchers spend so very long on research applications, justifying every decision you have to make is a real eye-opener. Long gone are the days of GCSE science classes when I could say I thought it was the best option because the teacher had advised it!

Ben Brooks

My Thanks to Dr Tim Ewin (Natural History Museum), Mr Paddy Howe (Lyme Regis Museum) and Mr Chris Andrew (The Fossil Workshop, Lyme Regis) for being willing to discuss my project with me and helping me identify the many problems that I now know of, though I’m sure there are more to come!

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On the Browne Review Leaks

OK, so I was planning for this next blog post to be about the catalogue of errors being made in UK Museums across the board, however I am finding it really hard to write a diplomatic enough post not to destroy my hopes of a museum career, and recent trends in the UK government have given me an excuse to rant; so here goes nothing…

At the beginning of next month Lord Browne and his appointed review will report on the subject of how to finance higher education, which is good in itself because higher education is in desperate need of a better funding strategy as the current one neither pays the bills nor encourages poorer students into the system.

However I bet every student will be able to guess which method of funding the system is the one that has been leaked out as the favourite? Yep, you guessed it, according to an article in The Times newspaper, the review looks set to call on parliament to raise the Tuition Fee Cap to a whopping £7,000 per student per annum – you heard me right – £7,000.

So what exactly have they discounted to come up with a preference for this hideous, elitist option? Well there are I am sure a great many options have been tabled, including the Russell Group‘s call to completely remove the fees cap, the Graduate Tax and the option of asking Businesses to pay towards the costs.

The Russel Groups “suggestion” does not even merit discussion (from a student/equal opportunities perspective) because it would allow the universities to charge whatever they like! Between you and me I would not be surprised if that meant charging international student rates to UK Students (£10,000+). Meanwhile the Graduate Tax was the preferred option of the National Union of Students and one or two lecturers unions, and although not my personal favourite (because I am a cynic and expect the taxation would never end), is one of the better options for the task. This option however is said to have been ruled out completely by the review. The final option that I know anything about is this idea of making businesses “pay” for the luxury of the huge pool of graduates available by asking them for a tax contribution to higher education, this is a good idea, but does anyone honestly see large or small businesses willingly letting such legislation pass? of course not, lobbyists rule the day on that, and business can afford to buy the best.

Now back to this £7,000 figure, this is just the fee that is paid to the university for the privilege of being taught your subject, it doesn’t go towards living at the university of your choice (not even halls residents), or the costs of any learning materials or even the cost of field-work if you are in a subject like I am (Geology).

The BBC (1/2), Telegraph, and others have all been quoting the results of polls by various groups (notably including that “useless” left-wing organisation, the NUS) stating that most students wouldn’t go to university with higher fees, and they may be right, although I’m sure there’s an element of “if we have to, then we will” amongst students, especially all the while that Student Finance England are paying the fees for them. This isn’t quite the point though, the rich will always be able to afford it, and won’t be worried about the costs of the loans in the long-term, so why should they care?

It’s the poor and the middle classes that are going to feel the pinch, even more especially those parents with mortgages and other debts to pay off. If it wasn’t for my parents I wouldn’t have got past the second year of university, let alone be entering into my fourth or even considering a PhD, and while I know an anecdote is useless as evidence; I dread to think what the financial situation would be for students without some amount of parental help.

Another point (which I will expand upon in a different post some time soon) is that the UK looks set to be paying for and doing less science research, we are as one columnist put it, set to retreat from the knowledge empire. I would say “What the F*ck”, but the current Vice President Academic Affairs at Southampton University Student’s Union put it far more eloquently when he tweeted the following:

@robstanning: fees rumoured to be increasing & research cuts also planned: how can the gov. justify charging students more for less?

Anyway, enough of my ranting. Sufficed to say if you are a potential student from the UK, you have three options as I see it –

  1. be rich,
  2. get screwed or
  3. go study abroad.

Thank heavens I’m going to have graduated before this disaster hits the undergraduate schools at UK universities.

Ben Brooks

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Lyme Regis’ Urban Palaeontology 2

One month ago I posted Lyme Regis’ Palaeontology 1, in which I talked about two small parts of the Lyme Regis pumping station and waterworks (locations 1 and 2 on the map below) and promised to finish the job with a second post within a fortnight or so… I failed to do so and as such I apologise, but I’m here to right that wrong now.

Satellite map of locations 1 - 4
Locality Map of locations visited on my jaunt... 3 & 4 are discussed in this post!

Ok so with that apology said let us get on with it!

Bench Seating Alcove in Langmoor Gardens
Bench Seating Alcove in Langmoor Gardens

Locality 3: Bench Seat Alcoves in Langmoor & Lister Gardens.

If you stand on the beach or the Cobb (harbour wall) in Lyme Regis and look inland you should see a large grassy park and garden area just above the promenade,  this is Langmoor and Lister Gardens, though the latter name is commonly usurped by younger locals in place of just the former. There’s not a great deal of geology visible in the gardens themselves with one set of exceptions; the alcoves into which the bench seating has been arranged in the gardens.

The alcoves have been “bricked” using local blue lias stone, and as such you can see many small fossils within the rocks although nothing large has been included so we are left looking at very pretty small bivalve fossils. That said a palaeontologist friend of mine has consoled me on many occasions by reminding me that often the most exciting things in the palaeo-world are the smaller things that complete the ecological picture.

Many small bivalves
A death assemblage of small bivalve fossils visible in an alcove "brick"

For example what you can see in the picture on the right is a “death assemblage” (thanatocoenosis) of these small bivalves preserved in a micritic blue lias limestone. You can tell that this is a death assemblage for three reasons (that I observe); firstly the fossils are all disarticulated – the two valves are not connected at the hinge as you would expect in the living organisms, if this had been a “life assemblage” (biocoenosis) you would expect the fossils both to be articulated.

Secondly there is some evidence of winnowing after death – almost all of th valves visible are of a similar size and anything smaller has been transported away, whilst these have been transported away from larger valves.

Finally there appears to be a preferred orientation of the valves in the rock which I will venture to be open side down.

Locality 4: The Cobb.

The Gardens which are the site of locality 3 separates Lyme Regis Town to the north and east from what was historically the Cobb Hamlet, which was a major port until the increasing size of ships and rise of larger ports such as Liverpool spelled doom for the small harbour in the 18th Century. Cobb hamlet is named for the Harbour wall which has seen many versions and has been rebuilt many times in its 1500 year history, with the most recent Cobb being built almost entirely from Portland Stone, the same rock as was used in the construction of the folley/waterworks at the eastern end of the promenade.

Example of a "Portland Screw" (Aptyxiella portlandica) in the wall of The Cobb
Example of a "Portland Screw" (Aptyxiella portlandica) in the wall of The Cobb

There are, as with the rocks used in the folley/waterworks (locaiton 1) many fossils that can be seen in the Cobb, One of the most common fossils that can be seen is that of Aptyxiella portlandica, colloquially known as the “Portland Screw” which is a gastropod (common gastropods are slugs and snails), which can be found in great number and in a variety of orientations in the rock, though only the internal cast tends to have been preserved, with the original shell material having dissolved away during or after lithification – the resulting shape probably giving rise to the common name.

So there you have it, that’s all the locations I visited on the day of my little jaunt into Lyme Regis with my camera, I hope you have found these posts at least interesting, if perhaps not that informative! If you go a-wandering around Lyme Regis looking for some urban geology there are a couple of other good places to go, perhaps you can start at the Post Office where the X-53 bus service drops off eastbound travellers? Either way go and have a look to see what you find!

Ben Brooks

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That Geological Mini-Documentary

Just in case you’re interested, the mini-geological documentary mentioned in “Urban Geology… wait…wha?” is now completed and uploaded to YouTube on the producer’s YouTube Channel. We did film more than went into this final cut, but it was done for one of the producer’s Film and Media course modules so there was a limit on airtime.

I’ll make a couple of notes about it here because there are some errors that need to be highlighted, mostly caused by my nerves in front of a camera:

1) at 3:27, The photograph used for the oolitic limestone is in fact the lower bio-micrite, as is the photo used later for the bio-micrite itself – I suspect this is an “aesthetic” choice by the producer because the SLR used to photograph the pillar may not have picked up much texture in the oolite.

2) at 5:49, I make the mistake of trying to do unscripted “ad-lib” and get the names of the co-discoverers of DNA wrong (EPIC FAIL), it should be Watson and Crick, not Francis and Crick… c’est la vie.

3) at 6:26, I make an even more egregious error of mis-quoting Charles Darwin, by missing out one of the most poetic parts of the last paragraphs of The Origin, for the record it should read thus (missed words emboldened):

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
– Charles Darwin – Closing words to “On the Origin of Species”

Anywho, I hope you enjoy the short film despite it’s errors.

Ben Brooks

The B!G Marking Experiment

Exam season is upon us once again, and whilst some of us (myself included) have now finished our exams and are anxiously awaiting the release of our grades (or degrees of failure – as some may prefer), others are still going and will have a good week or two before the relative freedom of results purgatory. 

I was walking around at the NOCS the other day and  noticed an old issue (18-24 Sept. ’08) of the Times Higher Education Magazine lying in the careers area of the student centre… whose headline was “The B!G Marking Experiment” and naturally I was intrigued and ended up reading the whole headline feature.

I came away very worried and concerned, and feeling somewhat as if I could have predicted the outcomes of their experiment for them. Basically the range of marks were uniform if you removed the highest and lowest marks (a 66% and a 0% in turn) but that the criteria used by each of their 10 markers was widely disparate.

Anywho, I just thought I would draw your attention to this interesting (if slightly disconcerting) article, and ask you your views if you read it, please leave comments below and we’ll get a discussion going!

Ben Brooks

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On the EVAs and a year of volunteering

Here’s hoping everyone had a glorious Bank Holiday weekend, and that anyone who could managed to get down to Lyme Regis for the annual Fossil Festival. It was a gloriously wonderful three days of touting the wonders of the natural sciences (and shamelessly selling fossils to tourists). I’ll save this for my YouTube Channel as I intend to incorporate the Fossil Festival into a video at some point.

Yesterday (4th May) saw Southampton University Students’ Union’s annual EVAs or Excellence in Volunteering Awards. This was a really well organised and run event at the Southampton Guildhall which by the by is a beautiful building and should anyone ever get the chance to go I would thouroughly recommend it!

Anywho I was nominated for two awards in the Education category for work done over the last eleven months as the School President of Ocean and Earth Sciences – the awards being “Best School President” and “Innovation in Student Representation”. Now anyone who follows me in the twitterverse or on Facebook will have noticed that I wasn’t too impressed by my nomination because I didn’t consider that I deserved either. The reason behind this being that in my opinion I would have expected anyone to have put in at least the amount of effort I put into the role.

It would appear however that the powers that be disagreed and I was awarded the latter of the two awards – Innovation in Student Representation – and although I still haven’t seen the citation on which this was awarded, I have been informed as to the reasons behind it. I should also mention that I am extremely grateful for the recognition as being a representative of any constituency is a fairly thankless task.

The other award for which I was nominated was awarded to the Management School President – Bradley Fitchew – who has been a fantastic holder of his office, has been both vocal and level-headed in his arguements in Union Council and other activities and in my opinion is far more deserving of the award than I would have been.

It is true to say that whilst I think the idea behind these awards is fantastic, and long may thay continue; that they recognise only those whom people deem to nominate. It is also true to say that I think the best administrators and representatives are those who never have to be called upon, and who are never in the news or publicising something to improve the way things work.

With this in mind I would like to give my thanks to the following people who have worked tirelessly to improve the education system at the University of Southampton and with whom it has been my honour to work:

  • All the Members of the Students Union Education Committee: School Presidents, Executive Officers and the UCOM’s who provide our ever watchful oversight.
  • Becky Maclean – VP Education and Representation, who is probably getting less than minimum wage given the hours she puts in 🙂
  • The SU Staff members: Erica Hussey and Daphne Bright
  • The SOES Staff members: Duncan Purdie, Hilary Bush and Nicola Reader
  • Every single course representative, without whom most of the issues affecting students would never get up the chain to me and whose tireless efforts are least recognised.

I haven’t mentioned everyone by name because it would make this post dreadfully long, and also there would be issues with privacy laws… not that I think anyone would mind too much.

The fact remains that these people work either in a paid capacity or completely voluntarily to make sure students get the best from their three (or four) years at Southampton and it is only fair that somewhere they should be recognised.

I hope all the students who read this will remember that next time they are walking around campus, they are surrounded by volunteers who, mostly through no thought of personal gain are giving up a not trivial amount of time to make this a better place to study.

Ben Brooks

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