Tag Archives: Science

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
17.03.2013

*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!)
http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/politics/2013/03/14/making-an-impact-how-to-deal-with-the-media/ (see point 5)

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The L’Aquila prosecutions; a dangerous precedent?

(This was originally written on 22/10/2012 for The Graduate Times’ Notebook Section, however as that publication appears to have been abandoned by its editorial teams, I’m posting it here.)

In a landmark legal case in Italy yesterday, six scientists and one politician were convicted and sentenced for manslaughter charges. Accused of failing to accurately assess and communicate the risks of the earthquake that struck the town of L’Aquila in the Apennines Mountains of Italy in April 2009. Each faces a six year jail term and collective damages amounting to nine million Euros (approaching 7.4 million pounds or 12 million US dollars).

The prosecution urged that the six scientists involved had been negligent in “having provided an approximate, generic and ineffective assessment of seismic activity risks as well as incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information”. Conversely, defence lawyers have variously called the prosecution “hasty”, “incomprehensible” and “difficult to understand”. It is understood that all seven defendants plan to appeal the decision, and according to Italian law, they have two opportunities to appeal before they will be compelled to enter the Italian penal system

For members of the legal profession, policy makers and scientists alike this raises the question of whether this case will set any precedents. If so, what affects will it have?

It is easy to imagine that this case and the judgement, if upheld, will result in scientists being less communicative, not more, regarding risk from natural disasters. After all, there would be no risk of prosecution if you give no assessment, however after yesterday’s ruling you can now be prosecuted for giving an unbiased, professional opinion, even when dealing with inherently unpredictable systems such as seismology.

Groups have already campaigned against this trial, most prominently the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which wrote an open letter to the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano supporting the defendants which was signed by 5000 scientists. Actions like this and the push for a public interest defence in English Libel laws suggest that some degree of protection could be won for scientists working to inform policy makers in areas such as risk management.

What the result of yesterday’s decision will be remains to be seen, but whatever they may be, it marks a paradigm shift in the legal status of science and scientists around the world.

“A Volcano… in Somerset”

One thing I hate about some science articles in magazines and newspapers is where a whole article is expanded to a huge length in order to basically say “No”. The problem of course being that questions like “Was Darwin Wrong?” are the ones that get the readers in, not statements like “Darwin proven right, again”. This all being said I’m about to do exactly this myself, for which I apologise in advance.

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

The article is almost a year old, but it’s so bad I can’t let it get away with itself.

So according to the gentleman quoted in the article, he believes that if oil and gas companies are to be allowed to begin Fracking operations in the Mendip hills, it may re-activate an extinct volcano whose vent is situated at Moon’s Hill Quarry, near Stoke St Michael. I’m not going to attack the man for being wrong, he’s a non-specialist policy maker trying to protect his community from a harmful industry. I’m not going to attack the journalist for sensationalism because to use a tired metaphor – “sex sells”. Though we know not who the journalist is – quite telling in my opinion – the article has no actual person attached to it so we may never know.

What I will attack is the fact that our mystery journalist has thrown caution to the wind and not actually asked an expert – a geologist, volcanologist, or even the good folks at the Somerset Earth Science Centre (actually AT Moon’s Hill) – for clarification of whether or not there is a risk at all.

Now I’m no volcanologist, I’m a newly minted geologist far more interested in fossils and sediments than the very-hot-gooey-stuff that comes out of the ground; yet I can still explain why this article is nothing more than silly scaremongering. The volcanic plug at Moon’s Hill is very, very old, and a quick search online will bring you to websites explaining the geology of the place, at least one of which even gives you the geological setting for the now extinct volcano – it was a subduction zone volcano. This is a vital piece of information and one completely missing from the article in question.

Why is it vital I hear you whisper ever so quietly? Because there is no subducting margin anywhere near the Mendip hills any more… the nearest being in the Mediterranean sea. So I ask you… where is this huge accumulation of molten rock supposed to come from? It certainly hasn’t been hanging around unfed and unheated since the Silurian period some 425 million years ago, it would have cooled and hardened into a very, very solid rock by now.

Added to which, the rocks of this region have been shifted monumentally since the plug was emplaced. By what mechanism could such a huge quantity of molten rock so close to the surface as to be disturbed by Fracking; be kept from exploding or seeping out during the folding and faulting that produced the Mendips in the first place? If there is one, I haven’t come across it yet.

And finally, you might be thinking to yourself that the hot spring at Bath is mentioned in the article, if there’s no magma down there, how does it get heated up? An excellent question but one with a clean cut answer. Anywhere you dig on the planet, as you get deeper the ground gets warmer, by a whole 25 degrees centigrade per kilometre (77 degrees Farenheit) – even without a huge mass of molten magma near the surface. As the waters at Bath are a mere 46 degrees centigrade, that’s not a long distance the water would have to sink through the earth’s crust to attain that temperature and then rise back to the surface.

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a science writing master class in London, and one of the biggest things that was stressed was that in science writing you have to produce something that will grab the interest of the reader, and also be right. Sadly while this article does the former, it is manifestly wrong, and all the more so for not asking the right questions of anyone who could have answered them.

Ben Brooks
06/10/2012

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

Missed the previous Dispatches from Montana? see them here and here.

Well I’m back in jolly ol’ England and as promised here’s the photographic edition of the Dispatches from Montana. I’ll try to explain all the photographs as and where they need it.

click for big!

First off here’s the field crew as a group, Liz was the crew chief (the dig boss if you will) with Cary as second in command, Denver was the only other member of MOR staff with us. Danny, Will, Nick, Tom, Dana and Bobby were all undergraduates of various universities and Cracker is the Redding family’s dog.

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On my first night in Montana we had a fabulous thunderstorm which provided ample opportunities to get frustrated by human/camera reaction times, the above and below pictures being the best results I could get that night!

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Before the storm hit however I was just able to snap this shot of the Redding Field Station’s camp, you can just make out the storm-clouds to the left (south-west) and our flimsy patch of tents to the left of the quansit hut (the grey WWII hangar style building). The practically-bomb-proof ranch house is out of shot on the right.

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The next photograph was taken from behind the afore-mentioned quansit hut, and shows a small section of Kennedy Coulee, the river valley to the north of the Redding Field Station, where all the dinosaurs can be found…Click for Big!

Here’s another panorama showing a small finger of Kennedy Coulee, including the “Rocky” dig site in which I was to spend the last three weeks digging. To give some idea of the scale of the operation, this site has been excavated for only the last 3 years, and at the start of that time, the left of this photograph would have looked pretty much just like the right hand side…

Click for Big!And here’s a view from inside the quarry itself, to give some more perspective on it and also to show you how much of the overburden mentioned in “The Adventure Begins” we had to remove… at the start of the field season, ground level was at the level of the white-grey sandstone layer!

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This photograph zooms in on the area that I and two of my compatriots were working (on the right of the previous picture). I myself was working the middle section with the chisel, brush and oyster-knife. It is a surprisingly slow process because you never know when you will hit another fragment of bone (as Nick, working to my left, was finding out. every piece of tin-foil represents another bone uncovered).

Click for Big!Another panoramic photograph for you now, this one again showing Kennedy Coulee, but also some lovely Virga – that is to say rain that evaporates before it touches the ground – to the north of the site.

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

Click for BigSo moving on to more palaeontological topics, here’s a field jacket… It’s what you do to the finds before they get transported to a museum or prep-lab. The first step is to cover all the bones in a consolidant (Vinac in this case) then a layer of wet tissue (to act as a buffer and a barrier to the next layer. Finally a mixture of plaster of paris is concocted and infused into burlap (hessian for us UK people) sacking. This was the first field jacket of this year’s season to be excavated.

Click for Big!A couple of days after the jacket was made it was dry and ready to flip (in order to remove excess rock and jacket the bottom). Here’s a photo of Dana with the flipped jacket. You can also see where it stood before it was flipped!

Click for Big!The strata in which the bone-bed is found is a mudstone approximately a metre thick, capped by a shelly sandstone layer containing bivalves up to 20cm across and many varieties of gastropod. This cap-rock can be seen below:

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Here’s another panoramic shot, this one taken at lunch time (hence all the sleeping dino-nerds) from above the working face of the quarry on the penultimate day of my short stay at the Redding Field Station.

Click for Big!And finally… The night before I was due to fly out of Great Falls we had a rather close call with a thunderstorm that passed within a couple of miles of camp – all we had was a slight drizzle – but I had the chance to take this gorgeous photograph at about midnight…

Click for Big!

I hope you enjoyed the post.

Ben D. Brooks

28.06.2012

A Cloudy Conundrum…

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils.”

– William Wordsworth, 1804.
“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”

Except clouds aren’t really lonely, they’re a veritable megalopolis every one; containing millions upon millions of droplets of water vapour. Though according to the BBC comedy quiz show QI you’d only get about 250 ml of water from a cloud the size of a double decker London bus (Series G, Episode 12: “Gravity” Aired 12 Feb 2010).

Now, you’re probably wondering why am I talking about clouds… especially after such a long hiatus from blogging…no? Well I do have a couple of posts written (on science conferences and publishing) but because I’m still looking for a job, their incendiary nature is best left unpublished at the moment. Also, because I’m looking for said job, I haven’t had much time to spend watching newsfeeds, reading blogs and generally geologising.

But! The reason I’m talking about clouds is this; when I was studying the third year of my degree one major piece of work was an essay titled:

How would the Earth have evolved in the absence of life? (Click for .pdf)

A part of the early research for this essay was to find and list as many possible effects life demonstrably has on the earth system, and conversely the unaffected systems, and every which way in between. Now it’s a dead certainty that I barely scratched the surface, and people like NASA, NOAA, the MetOffice and many academics have done much better in the past however I did come across one question that I couldn’t find any information on. That question was one that I thought would have a very, very simple answer.

What percentage of cloud condensation nuclei consist of biological elements (i.e.: microscopic organisms from bacteria to small insects)?

That is as opposed to naturally occurring aerosols and rock dust (thinking about it now, a whole new affect to have included would be anthropogenic aerosols… but hey).

Despite a good few hours of looking through the scientific literature I had access to at the time (and sadly don’t have access to any more), searching the web and textbooks… even asking twitter… I found nothing… nada… zip.

So tonight when I saw that the UK Met Office were having a Q&A session on Twitter I thought I’d give them a shot on this question which has been in the back of my mind for the last year and a half…

and low and behold…

Their poor forecaster sent to quench the twitterati’s curiosity had no idea either…

So… I’ve done as Dan suggested and written an email to see if any of their scientists have any further leads or information. But would really welcome any input from anyone else who may have an insight. Is this a non-question? Has someone done research on this? If not how would you go about it?

Anywho, I’ll let you all know what I find out if and when I get a reply, but until I do it’s back to job-hunting for me…

Ben D Brooks

07/11/2011

A rare summer find in Lyme Regis

About two weeks ago, after the Lyme Regis Museum‘s fossil walk on the 27th August, there was an interesting find on the Church Cliffs landslip east of Lyme Regis.

Paddy Howe, fossil walk leader and the museum’s resident geologist was walking back from the end of the walk with myself and Chris Andrew (the museum’s education officer) when he spotted something in the shales of the landslip…

Line of ribs visible in the shale

Rib cross sections visible in the shales of the church cliff landslip.

…There were only three small (approximately 5mm in diameter) cross sections of ichthyosaur rib bone that could be seen in the shale layer he had spotted. When some of the shale was removed however there could be seen a small number of holes in the shale where other ribs had been. This immediately caught Paddy’s attention as it meant that there could be a significant portion of an animal fossilised in this spot, but with the tide rapidly approaching it was necessary to return the next day, so the find was carefully covered to prevent further erosion and we burned the location in our minds, determined to return on the Sunday.

Paddy Howe Digging out the Ichthyosaur

Paddy Howe digging out the Shale Slab.

Had the fossil survived the night? Had another fossil collector discovered and excavated it? or worst of all, had it been destroyed by the tide?

After some not inconsiderable trepidation during the Sunday mornings fossil walk, we three returned to excavate the slab containing the ribs that had been spotted the day before. To my amazement – and I am sure; Paddy’s relief – the slab had survived relatively undamaged and so the excavations began.

The first task was to remove as much of the surrounding material as was possible, and this was done through the liberal use of a hammer, chisel and shovel… and took about 30 minutes to complete. This done, a more careful investigation of the slab could be made, which raised far more questions than answers because at first inspection there appeared to be no further bones in the rock! Had we wasted our time digging around this slab when all we would find were a few rib fragments?

Thankfully not, more bones were eventually seen, after some mud and shale was washed off of the newly exposed surfaces, so now the task was to remove the block – preferably  in one piece – for preparation and exposure of the whole fossil.

Ichthyosaur Slabs on the Stretcher

Slabs of rock collected together on Paddy's stretcher. (this is only half of them!)

Disaster – or near disaster at any rate – struck a few minutes later when the slab split, not once, but many times, leaving us with a large number of small blocks and a jumble of loose bones at the bottom of the hole. This was a mixed blessing in that it made the fossil easier to get onto the stretcher (the only method of transporting the remains) but as the hole was rapidly filling with water and all of the bones of the skull (the lower-most bones in the slab) had been disarticulated. Sifting them from the mud may have resulted in some being lost lost in the pool of muddy water. Sadly we will never know.

The final task now facing us was to get the remains of the slab off of the beach, which was to take an inordinately long time thanks to both the weight of the slabs, and the ungainly and distinctly uncomfortable nature of the ex-army stretcher we were using. This process took approximately an hour and a half, and yet we only travelled about half a mile along the coast back to Lyme Regis. Including some impromptu outreach along the way to interested tourists!

Paddy and the Fossil talking to Tourists

Paddy undertaking some impromptu outreach with holiday-makers and the Ichthyosaur fossil.

The slabs have now been passed to a local fossil preparator, who will work hard for a couple of months to release the fossil from it’s muddy tomb and carefully piece the jigsaw back together. Unfortunately we won’t be able to identify the animal to a species level until this work is completed, and even then only if all the diagnostic features are available… only time will tell if that’s possible.

Ben Brooks

07/09/2011

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

Re-blogging: Active, Passive, Poppycock (via Speech and Science)

Seeing as I’ve just completed degree module that has required me to write “actively” despite three years of marks deductions for doing just that!

And also given the amount of complaining I’ve been making regarding that very point at uni, and the fact that at least one or two of my lecturers read the occasional post (really?!) I’m re-blogging this one so hopefully my uni will stop the “active/passive” writing crap.

What’s the betting they don’t?

Ben

Use the Active Voice! No, the passive voice should be used! This is a debate that keeps flickering up in the blogosphere. It taps into two different controversies: Subjectivity versus objectivity Quality of scientific writing The subjectivity versus objectivity debate is illustrated quite nicely by the comment thread to Sylvia McLain's recent post on active versus passive. The central assumption seems to be that using the active voice acknowledge … Read More

via Speech and Science