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

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

Short-Link for this post:

Lyme Regis’ Urban Palaeontology 1

Howdy there!

So I’m back in Devon now after the furore that was my student house move  and a very busy couple of weeks, in which alas I haven’t been able to post anything much. For that I apologise; however I am back and hopefully more interesting than ever!!! *cue sniggers from the back of the class…*

I live in Devon, very near the border with Dorset… another stange land (like Devon) to which tourists flock every year to gawp at beaches and buildings… but this isn’t what we’re here for today; oh no… today I’m going to twitter on about the urban geology of Lyme Regis… my local (and rather quaint) regency seaside town.

Cobb Hamlet & Lyme Regis from the Air
Cobb Hamlet & Lyme Regis from the Air

Lyme Regis is perhaps a not unexpected location to find good geological sites, afterall this is the place to which the leading lights of early palaeontology flocked; including Henry De la Beche, Richard Owen, William Buckland and Gideon Mantell amongst others. The Town is also famous for Mary Anning, one of the first in a very long line of fossil collectors who still scour the ledges at low tide to this day.

Lyme may be famous for the Geology on which it is built (I could – and probably will – write several posts on it.) but not alas for the rock from which it is built, though the amount of render/pebbledash around probably provides ample explanation as to why! However there are still some buildings which exhibit the original stones of which they are constucted and some of them contain fossils, creatures frozen in stone for time immemorial – if only people knew what they were looking at!

Locality Map of the locations in this blog post.
Locality Map of the locations in this and the next blog post.

I took a wander through the town reccently and brought my trusty camera along for the ride, and I’m glad I did because now I can write about some of the beautiful fossils around.

Locality 1: Bench Seat on the folley.

At the eastern end of the towns seafront is what looks for all the world like an 18th century fortified sea wall. You would probably walk through it thinking that something doesn’t look or feel quite right… and you would be correct. It’s not weathered enough, and the reason why is that it is to all intents and purposes a folley, a fake, a forgery! The building was built in 1993 to house a pumping station and water treatment works whilst disguising them sympathetically with the rest of Lyme Regis’ sea front.

Stromatoporids in Bench Seat
Stromatoporids in a Bench Seat on the water treatment works, compass clino for scale is 18 cm x 6.5 cm : click for larger image

There are quite a few good fossils to be found in the limestone brick-work of the sea front here, and the rock appears to be the local Blue Lias limestone, which typically exhibits bivalves both large and small – more on that later. I was drawn more particularly to a bench seat facing out to sea, which showed some beautiful fossils (see right) which at first thought appeared to be some form of coral, though this resemblence was fleeting and almost immediately replaced by another hypothesis – that these are in fact a form of stromatoporid (aka stromatolites), which has since been confirmed (reservedly) by a chat with one of the many friendly palaeontologists of the town.

These fossils are fairly small, being no bigger in the section photographed than three centimetres, but it would certainly make a pretty worktop for one’s kitchen. They have been preserved in lime mud not dissimilar to that in the biomicritic rock I described in my last urban geology post and the density of fossil material was much denser.

Bivalve cast in Portland Stone
Bivalve cast in Portland Stone found above the stromatoporids described above.

In the rock making up the seat back (Portland Stone) I spotted this beautiful internal cast of a relatively large bivalve, at  I’ve identified it as Laevitrigonia gibbosa, though as I am neither an authority or particularly good at this identification malarky… I am more than open to being wrong so please feel free to call me on it! (After all, good scientists should be able to admit when they’re wrong!)

Locality 2: Bridge over the River Lym.

Moving along the folley towards the small car park at the bottom of the town, you cross a small bridge across the river that gives the town its name (see below). On each side of the bridge capstones are littered with bivalves and scleractinian (modern) corals. Whilst sadly I cannot identify beyond this level of detail, I have reproduced the photographs below for you to have a look at.

Graphic 1
(a) Location situation photograph. (b) Scleractinian Coral shown in near horizontal cross section. (c) Nested bivalve valves - one smaller inside larger, with minor post-depositional veining. (d) Scleractinian corals seen in less obvious and diagnostic cross section.

When the rocks that make up the local areas geology (and thus this building stone) were laid down in the Jurassic period, the scleractinian corals were the only members of the coral group still extant. Over the evolutionary history of the coral group, there have been at least eight different branches, but only the Scleractinians survive today, all the other groups including the highly successful Rugose and Tabulate corals were extinct by the permo-triassic boundary (end paleozoic).

The fossil corals also show how within the scleractinia there are both solitary (as in (b)) and colonial corals as appears to be the case in picture (d) to the left.

I haven’t had a really good look at the make up of these rocks as I foolishly didn’t bring either a hand lens or grain-size card on my little jaunt… however I will add an addendum to this post when I have returned for another look.

I hope you’ve found this interesting, though I realise the solid (non-fossil) geology is somewhat lacking and in need of a re-visit, as always if I have missed something or got anything heinously wrong… let me know!

As for the other two sites I went to… you’ll just have to wait for the next post!

Ben Brooks

Short-Link for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-4R

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

Urban Geology… wait wha?


Have you ever heard the term urban geology? If you are an engineer you probably have… or if you’re a geology student or geek you may have invented the term and thought ooh that’s awesome… to everyone else it may conjure one of two images:    

  • either geologists lying on the floor of the local shopping centre… wondering at the fossiliferous rock used – most likely for aesthetics – to tile the floor. (Prof. John Marshall i’m looking at you!)
  • or the image of a load of hip-hop merchants rapping about geology.

Thankfully it’s more likely to be the former (though also I think the latter could be fun) and that’s what i’m blogging about tonight, so if you came here looking for tensile strengths of different lithotypes, you’re in the wrong place and we geologists aren’t the sort for such exacting standards… apparantly.    

Ben looks distainfully at the Video Camera, whilst filming outside Southampton Civic Centre. (C) Dan Hall, 2010
Filming outside Southampton Civic Centre | (C) Dan Hall, 2010


I began thinking about this on friday when I was out filming a mini-documentary for one of my friends’ film and media modules on his university course. For reasons i’m still not wholly aware of he decided to use me for the documentary and cover some geological topics, including me taking him on a tour around southampton showing him some fossiliferous building stone, of which two got filmed.    

I stuck to fossils mainly because that’s the area of geology with which I am most comfortable and familiar, but on the way between sites one could observe some fantastic – almost perfect – phenocrysts of plagioclase in the pavement curbing on the high streets. Furthermore on the floor of the WestQuay shopping centre one could see what I think are schistose pavings on the floor of the above bar street entrance hall*… I’m told there are yet more fossils somewhere inside the shopping centre, but I didn’t have the time to look.    

Limestones in Southampton, Oolitic above, Dense Biomicrite below | (C) Dan Hall, 2010
Limestones in Southampton, Oolitic above, Dense Biomicrite below | (C) Dan Hall, 2010


Also found amongst the building stones of southampton was a useful juxtaposition of oolitic limestone and a dense biomicrite. These were filmed as part of the mini-documentary with me trying to give a very poor geological appraisal of their origin and environment of deposition.    

The oolitic limestone (upper, yellow-grey stone in image on left) is made up almost entirely of tiny “balls” of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), or more rarely silica (SiO2) which have been precipitated around a “seed” which can be anything from a quartz grain, to a bacterium or a shell fragment.   

These ooids form in very shallow, high energy shelf seas supersaturated in the forming mineral, such as tropical coastlines seen around the world today in areas like the bahamas and some parts of Turkey.  

Ooids in cross-polarised light, no scale I'm afraid
Ooids in cross-polarised light, no scale I'm afraid, typical round ooid such as the one on the right may be ~0.2 to 0.5mm across. You might also be able to see the laminar structure of the ooid if you click through to the larger image.


The dense biomicrite (lower, grey-white stone in image above) is made up predominantly from shell fragments – mostly from small bivalves and brachiopods, with one or two larger oysters present – and is cemented together by lime mud (or micrite) in between the shell fragments. This rock happenned to be less coherent than the oolitic limestone which was evident from the greater weathering of the micrite from the rock, leaving many shell fragments proud of the modern surface. Depositionally this rock would have been deposited on a shallow carbonate platform, probably in the lagoon of an island atoll, of which many modern examples can be found in the pacific and indian oceans.  

I will not bore you all with more information but will encourage you to go and have a look around your local village, town or city for any hidden geological gems… I know of some excellent solitary corals in Lyme Regis and red-bed sandstone here in southampton… go see what you can find! All it takes is a magnifying glass and an eye for interesting patterns… even if you don’t know what you’re seeing, take a photo and send it to a local museum or a geological blogger and they’ll try and identify your finds.  

Honestly… it’s great fun!!  

Ben Brooks  

Shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/pFUij-3G  

*EDIT: From Dave Gardiner: 

The West Quay floor is a rare type of rock that is linked between fluid injection into young sediments associated with volcanics…..John Marshall made us have a look at it for our tutorial in 1st year.  He also said that they are worth a ridiculous amount of money each. I think he said sourcing them somewhere in Brittany.

A very British thanksgiving…

In the United Tanks of America; this week is Thanksgiving, the season started by Abraham Lincoln during the darkest days of the American Civil War to remind americans that they did indeed have a lot to be thankful for.  WordPress decided that they would take the opportunity to get people Vlogging about the things in their lives for which they are thankful… however I have missed the proverbial boat, and haven’t the time to go video editing at the moment (hence the tumbleweeds flying around my YouTube channel).

However I thought that in the spirit of things, and always loving the excuse to have a bit of a holiday, this post is about things, places, people and ideas that I – as a lowly british citizen who will most likely amount to nothing – am thankful for. So let’s begin with the obvious: My Existence.

When all is said and done, I am just a great big humanoid mass of cells, made up of molecules which in turn are made up of atoms which in their turn are made up of mostly empty space… if they weren’t so electrically charged, you could actually walk through walls. But this arrangement of atoms didn’t have to be me, I could have been any combination of human DNA imaginable… I could have been taller, shorter, fatter, thinner, disabled (I don’t call asthma a disability) or indeed you and for the chance to live a life, however brief and however pointless, I am immensely thankful.

Next on my list is my family, however flawed they are individually, and however much they argue, without them I would not be the person I am today, without my mother I would never have got even close to some of my goals, and without my father’s deadpan philosophies I would be just as certifiable as my mother can be (sorry ma!). My dear brother could be called a nemesis, except that as he has grown up he has become one of my best friends… despite being a mathematician, rock musician, and politically apathetic to the point of perversion… and I couldn’t be without him.

Talking of Friends, it’s probably worth mentioning them in general, but to go through each one I was thankful for would be beyond the scope of this blog, so I will just mention a couple. The Debaters come first, the people whomI can have a proper discussion with about our differing opinions, but still have mutual respect at the end. Secondly there are the Strategists, those few people whom I trust implicitly enough to confide in on anything, and who will pick up the pieces when I fail. Lastly are the Educators, the friends I have who will answer my questions, no matter how dumb, about their subject areas of specialist knowledge. I have a great respect for my friends, and for my enemies, and I am thankful for them beyond words.

 I am thankful for being in a world I do not understand, as to understand everything in the world, let alone the universe, would then mean there would be no knowledge left to gain, and the point of existence (at least to me) would be null and void… I do wonder what will happen when the span of human knowledge gets to a theory of everything.

That said I am also thankful for Science as when you want to know something, where do you turn? In this world you have two basic options, Science or God, and anyone who reads my blogs/facebook notes will know my views on the latter. Science gives us a toolbox with which to search out the answers to all the questions in the (un)known universe, and it is truely brilliant to gaze up at the night sky, or down a microscope, and find whole new worlds just lying there, that you had never known before.

You can probably add Human Curiosity to this list, and I agree wholeheartedly when Dr Who says things that make him seem to be rather in awe of Humans, remarking on the human inclination for curiosity and exploration. This is one of the things that makes us great, and whilst some all fear the unknown to some extent, we should all try to embrace it.

Mssrs. Jim Thomas, Alan Brown, Zahid Akram and Chris Sweetland are four men whom I am most grateful for having known, and for having had the luxury of being taught by at school, because the four of them together (and by no means on their own) gave me a lust for learning of which I am still afflicted, the former two being Geography Teachers and the latter being Science Teachers were all extremely enthusiastic in their subjects, although of variable teaching success, each and every one having something to bring to the table, Alan made Human Geography bearable and even interesting, and even helped me self learn Meteorology, whilst Jim taught me Glacial Geomorphology, and this I think is the main reason why I went into a Geology. Chris has a way with chemistry that can make it fun and understandable, whilst his industry background gives some perspective and relavance to the teaching, and dear old Zahid, whilst not being the best physics teacher I ever had, was by far the quirkiest, funniest and had the highest enthusiasm!

The last item on my list is Books, mainly non-fiction… because if there is anything you want to know about, even in these days of internet and wiki-(no-peer-review)-pedia there are always books. I sincerely hope there always will be, for there is nothing more satisfying that sitting with a well written book and whiling away the late hours learning something new from the carefully printed and edited pages, and thanks to public libraries, they are accessable to all.

So what about you? What things are you thankful for and why? Perhaps with people taking just some time to consider that question, some will be happier for it.