Science Summaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I hope you enjoyed the post.

Ben D. Brooks


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…!/metoffice/status/133623594851901440!/BenjaminDBrooks/status/133624113032990720

and low and behold…!/metoffice/status/133625999551246337

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


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


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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?


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

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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An Essay On: The Fossil Record

A favourite citation of those who do not understand evolution is that the fossil record does not show any transitional forms (like the now famous fictional Crocoduck that Kirk Cameron proposed), and that if evolution were “true” then we would expect to see an evolutionary continuum between the first single-celled bacterium and all modern creatures.

This “argument” is wrong for several reasons, firstly and fore mostly, nobody has ever said evolution was “true,” scientists say that evolution is a theory, it is not even a scientific FACT because a fact is something that is observed outright, such as the FACT that the sky is up, Truth is a philosophical idea and should not be used in a scientific context. It can be true that someone loves another person, but the fact of love is that a series of chemical reactions are going on that cause this – often irrational – attraction.

The "Ideal" vs. the "Real" fossil record
The top image shows the ideal fossil record in the form of a tree of life, this is what people want when they say "where are the transitional fossils". The lower image is an apporximation of what the same tree looks like in reality, showing the paucity of the fossil record.

The image on the left shows the ideal state of the fossil record at the top, and the real state of the fossil record on the bottom. It is not a brilliant nor is it an accurate representation of the tree of life, but it illustrates the point and I defy anyone to give the lower image to 10 people and have them all give you the same (join the dots) tree.  In comparison Palaeontologists are studying an incomprehensibly large, fragmented and poorly resolved tree of life, some idea of it might be to attempt to read this page of text if only every 150th character were printed in place, with the rest missing, and those characters were not spaced evenly within the document… in fact, you may have noticed the red letters In the first two paragraphs of text, imagine only having those letters to read, and trying to piece together the whole two paragraphs; that’s what studying the fossil record is like.

There are a wide variety of reasons why the fossil record is so poor, and I will endeavour to explain some of them here.

The Remoteness (or Improbability) of Fossilisation

Firstly let’s talk about the fossilisation of different forms of tissue. Animals and Plants are made up of a variety of types of tissues, in all there are 6 major groups to consider: Mineralised (Bony/Shelly), Cartilaginous (The stuff your nose is made of), Lignified Cellulose (wood), Cellulose (other plant, e.g.: Leaves), Chitin (hair/horn/insect carapace) and Volatile Tissues (soft body parts/organs/skin). Each one of these groups of tissues has a different preservation potential, that is to say that different tissues have different likelihoods of being fossilised under the same conditions. Mineralised Tissues such as bones for example, are made up of a large proportion of mineral in the first instance, this is why it is so difficult to break a bone, and how your skeleton is able to hold up your weight (as well as considerably more – as any hiker or boy-scout will tell you). This mineral content is the reason for the high preservation potential, as the fossilisation process only has a relatively small amount of the tissue that it “has” to replace before the process is completed, by analogy you can compare it to making a house from a cave rather than from scratch. Compare this to the other end of the scale, which is volatile tissues, which have a non-zero but minute mineral content, to fossilise this kind of material the process of fossilisation requires a huge surplus of chemical to precipitate to form the fossil, as compared to a bone.

Fossil Preservation Potential
This image shows the preservation potential of the main types of biological tissues, the least preserbable are at the bottom left. These must be preserved very rapidly if they are not to be lost to the fossil record. (source: Harding 2009, Lecture, Original source unknown)

Moving Evolution

Sometimes you may find a fossil which seems to have miraculously appeared from out of no-where in Geological terms, in one stratum you find it but in strata below you do not, nor do you find any evolutionary predecessors… How can this be? Well first off I can assure you there is no need for magic… there is a rational explanation, and that is evolution that occurs elsewhere. If evolution of a species occurs in one region of the globe, cut off from the progenitor (parent) species by some form of barrier which is later removed. The evolved species can become the dominant one in the lands inhabited by the progenitor species, and when these creatures fossilise, there will be no evolutionary process visible in that location. This lack of evolutionary intermediates will make it look as though the species appears from no-where, but this is not the case.

Hostile Geological Circumstances (Environments)

Another, slightly related reason for the scarcity of the fossil record is the plethora of geological environments in existence compared to each environment’s preservation potential. To take three examples of geological environments that will hopefully illustrate this point, we will discuss a Terrestrial Desert Environment, a Shallow Marine Shelf Environment and a Deep Sea Anoxic Zone.

The Terrestrial Desert is a very hot environment where there are fewer animals; this will aid preservation in that scavengers are less likely to disassemble the skeleton. This environment also lacks several important factors that would greatly aid fossilisation, the main missing parts being a surplus of chemicals to precipitate (chemistry is facilitated by water, so the lack of it is vital here) and the protection from the elements that would otherwise erode the organism (Deserts often do not deposit sediment quickly enough to prevent erosion). The end result of this is that there is a significantly lowered preservation potential compared to most geological environments. Another way to look at it is that a desert is an erosive environment, so the majority of things in it will not be lithified in the first place.

A Marine Shelf environment by contrast, is a lot less erosive, and in most places is depositional (that is to say, forms sediments). This environment is also beneath the sea, and as such has an enormous supply of chemicals that can precipitate out to form fossils (sea-water contains 3.5% ‘salt’ – including six chemical compounds at greater than 0.35 grams per litre); deposition of sediment in this environment is often rapid enough to preserve the most resistant tissues. Whilst there are more predators and scavengers in this environment, the significantly increased biology of this environment increases the number of dead organisms with the possibility to fossilise. The cumulative result of these factors is that this environment has a higher preservation potential than the desert environment previously discussed.

The final environment that we will consider is a Deep Sea Anoxic Zone, in this environment there is a huge quantity of available chemical compounds, few predators or other animals to disturb the dead organisms or the sediments onto which they come to rest. The environment is depositional but in all cases at a slower rate than most environments. One final significant benefit is that this environment will (depending upon the degree of anoxia) prevent the decomposition of the organism’s softer, more volatile tissues, allowing for exceptional preservation of tissues that would otherwise not fossilise. There is however one major caveat to these benefits; and that is that if the ocean is “too” deep, or the Calcium compensation depth is too high in the water column, the hard parts of the organism (shell/cartilage/bone) will all dissolve fairly rapidly.

One poignant example of this latter style of environment is the world famous Burgess Shale Deposits of British Columbia. This enhanced the scientific picture of the environment in which the fauna (animals) were fossilised. Before the discovery, only the hard parts of the fauna (mineralised tissues) were found.

Burgess Shale Fauna
image showing the Burgess Shale Fauna; most of these animals were originally soft bodied, so would not have been known about were it not for the Burgess Shale. (Source: Harding (2009a) lecture, original source: "The Fossils of the Burgess Shales", by Briggs, Erwin and Collier, 1994)

After the discovery of the Burgess shale, the deposit produced a huge quantity of soft-bodied animals that would otherwise not have been known. Comparisons of these two pictures of hte environment show that the average non-hard-part dauna that palaeontology normally misses far out-weighs that which we know – which in itself demonstrates how depleted the fossil record is (Conway Morris, 1997).

Geological Unconformities (Time Gaps)

The geological record is full of unconformities, which put simply are gaps in time. Each unconformity can represent a gap of millions of years, during which time many species could have evolved and become extinct, but no organisms would be preserved because no sediments are being deposited. In point of fact most modern environments that we as humans come into contact with are non-depositional, and it is these areas that will produce future unconformities.

Unconformities allow fossils of completely different geological ages to be juxtaposed one stratum atop the other, so you might see a Triassic rock stratum lying directly above a Silurian stratum where the intervening strata (Devonian, Carboniferous and Permian) are completely missing. Any organisms from this intervening age will not have been fossilised and so there would be a gap in the observed tree of life.

Denudation (Erosion and Weathering)

Along a similar vein to geological unconformities, denudation – or the weathering and erosion of existing rock strata – removes a significant portion of the fossil record, so that any fossils that existed in these removed strata will no longer be there to find, and may indeed have been re-worked and deposited into younger strata, thankfully this is fairly easy to spot when looking at a new fossil, and the re-working doesn’t fool a palaeontologist for long.

Though this process is responsible for the loss of huge amounts of the fossil record, it is also a blessing in disguise because if it wasn’t for the erosive nature of many of the earth’s environments, most fossils would never be found, as they would remain in the rock, hidden forever from human eyes.

Plate Tectonics and Metamorphism

Plate Tectonics and Metamorphism both remove huge amounts of the fossil record over time. Taking these processes one at a time; Plate Tectonics works at what is (on a human timescale at least) a perilously slow pace, however it is the reason that so much of the earth’s early fossil record is missing. The earth’s crust is constantly recycling itself, perpetually being created at Mid-ocean ridges and volcanic regions, and then destroyed at plate margins like those off of the Japanese and Chilean coasts; the oldest ocean crust is approximately 200 million years old. No ocean crust older than this exists beneath the waves, the only places where it does are where it has been obducted (or raised) onto and incorporated into the continents. The continents so contain older rocks up to approximately 4.3 Billion Years old; but these parts are small and rarely in their original state due to the second of these forces: Metamorphism.

Metamorphism is a fossil destroyer in its own right, the process of heating and compressing the rocks involved can deform, crush, and even obliterate any fossils within the rock, and whilst this is not always the case (a friend of mine discovered a trace-fossil in the metamorphic rocks of Anglesey) exceptions to this rule are rare. Combining the extreme age of an ancient rock (say circa 4 billion years), with it’s almost inevitably small size, and the all but inescapable repeated metamorphism of that rock, and the chances of a fossil being preserved, let alone found, are hideously small. Certainly not a fossil in the traditional sense of the word, Biomarkers are a possibility, but that’s another story

Destructive Biology (Predation, Bacteria and Decomposers)

Consider a world without any form of predation or biological decay, putting aside all the severe detriments that this world would have, one group of people would be extremely happy… yep, you guessed it, the Palaeontologists. Just think about it for a moment, if there are no predators, no bacteria and no decomposers, the number of organisms that can be fossilised increases immensely, because a large number of animals that at present are decomposed or disturbed would not be. The carcasses would be left to allow the mostly physical and chemical processes of fossilisation to occur.

This imaginary world does not exist however, and most dead organisms are predated, scavenged, and eventually decompose, and a number of the environments involved do not induce rapid fossilisation, so in most cases by the time fossilisation begins, there is nothing left of the creature to preserve.

Yet another reason why the fossil record is so… empty…

Human Fallibility (Not Knowing Where/How to Look)

Well now we come to the last factor I intend to cover in this essay; Human Fallibility. Humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) have many wonderful characteristics; one is their innate curiosity, without which Science, Religion, Technology, and Society itself would never have developed. That said, however good our brains are at many things, they are flawed because of the evolutionary way in which they have come into being… like everything evolved, there are problems. Scientifically speaking the biggest are Bias, over-extrapolation and over-interpretation.

Often scientists have been accused of creating forgeries of fossils; however in many cases we have now found modern analogues or corroborating fossils… not to mention how is it possible for someone to forge something we did not know existed?

Once we get an idea in our heads, it is extremely difficult to change it, so when we are taught that something is the case; it is very hard on us (and our egos) to find we are wrong or that there is a better model out there. For example when the Gunflint Cherts of Southern Canada were first found, no-one knew what they were, and when it was proposed that they were organic in origin, the rocks were so old that the scientific establishment balked at the idea. Since then there has come to light ample evidence to back the hypothesis and we even have modern analogues – the Stromatolites of Shark Bay, Australia.

It takes real initiative to look for fossils in places where the rest of palaeontology considers it impossible to find a fossil… however this has repeatedly shown that there are things that we do not know; Microfossils, Biomarkers, the Ediacaran Hills Sandstones… again and again new, exciting fields open up and the world learns something new. The same applies to methods, electron microscopy, chemical analysis, polarised light (recent studies have shown diffraction gratings on fossils (Parker 1998) including insect carapaces and even feathers; allowing us for the first time to accurately colour in some of our reconstructions of the ancient world); even the re-cataloguing of old collections brings out new fossils and new species.

One other issue of human fallibility is something that can be referred to as collecting bias. Many of the early fossil sites were in quarry workings and mines, whereas most early palaeontologists were men of class and distinction – not the type to go around caves and quarries – and thus the people doing the collecting (quarrymen and miners) would only collect the major specimens that they knew would garner a rich payment from the palaeontologist This results in lots of individual skeletons of vertebrates and many large or novel or pretty invertebrates, but the more common and less beautiful fossils would be left or ignored, even if they were of high scientific importance. After all most miners and quarrymen would not know what was scientifically important at that time. Unfortunately for science, most of these pits and quarries no longer exist, have been filled in or collapsed, leaving no way to regain the knowledge potentially lost – not that it is anyone’s fault.

Professor Ichthyosaurus
in a future world... Professor Ichthyosaurus opines on the existence of the great apes: cartoon by Henry De La Beche (1830)

In Conclusion

So when you next hear someone decrying the lack of “transitional forms” or how useless the Fossil Record is for defining the history of life… remember that this lack of forms, this sparse nature of the record, the amazing variety of preservation… is all innate, is all integral to the record itself.

How likely do you think it is that in 200 million years time a future palaeontologist will dig up your bones? You might be scavenged, denuded out, metamorphosed or just were buried in the wrong environment… which is most likely, a church-yard is perhaps the most inappropriate place to hope to fossilise yourself. Try putting a clause in your last will and testament that you will be soaked in amber… or weighted and dropped into an anoxic shallow water environment… or thrown into a tar pit… these would all be better bets.

Then again, at the end of the day if Palaeontology saw a seamless transition from inorganic molecules to prokaryotes to eukaryotes to metazoans to you… it would be Soooooo boring… so easy, so lacking in challenge and intellectual thought… wouldn’t you agree?

Ben Brooks

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Conway-Morris, S. (1997). The Crucible of Creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harding, I. C. (2009, March). SOES 2001 Palaeobiology Lecture 8. Southampton Uni. Original Source Unknown

Harding, I. C. (2009a, March). SOES 2001 Palaeobiology Lecture 9. Southampton Uni. Original Source: The Fossils of the Burgess Shales, by Briggs, Erwin and Collier, 1994

Parker, A. R. (1998). “Colour in Burgess Shale animals and the effect of light on evolution in the Cambrian”, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 265(1400), pp. 967-972. (ONLINE) Available: (Accessed 20 Nov. 2010)

With Thanks to Messrs Paddy Howe and Christopher Andrews of The Fossil Workshop, 55 Broad Street, Lyme Regis, DT7 3QF for reviewing, critiquing and commenting on this post and for all their kind help and assistance as both Palaeontologists and Personal Friends.

Science Is Vital: a Letter to my MP

Further to my blog-post “Vince Cable: Respectfully, You’re Wrong.” wherein I made my case for science and had a bit of a rant I’ve written to Caroline Nokes; my local MP, through the website which makes the whole process much faster, simpler and easier than I thought possible. Anywho I realise that some of you who read this will disagree, but as a science student looking to go into a research career, I see it as my duty to fight as though my back is against the wall for my future career.

I am posting my letter below, and will post a response – should I receive one – in the interest of open and responsible Government.

The Letter:

Dear Caroline Nokes,

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, I realise you are a
very busy person and have far more pressing matters to attend to than
reading constituent letters.

I am writing to request that you add your name to the Early Day Motion,
EDM 767 SCIENCE IS VITAL CAMPAIGN which has been tabled by your
colleague Julian Huppert. See:

As a student at the University of Southampton wishing to undertake a
PhD upon my graduation next year I have a vested interest in the
maintenance of or increase in science funding. I also feel strongly
that the apparent view of both the Treasury and the Department for
Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) of science funding as an
“expense” rather than an “investment” is both shortsighted and will put
this country on the back foot when it comes to future – more prosperous
– times.

Like any informed citizen of these isles I am as shocked and
disappointed as everyone else in Britain at the enormous structural
deficit we find ourselves in as a nation but I implore you to review
the proposed cuts to the Science investment budget.

The UK has one of the smallest percentage investment budgets of all of
the G10 countries and yet we account for;

“eight per cent of scientific journal articles, and 14 per cent of
high-impact citations (a measure of how influential the research
is)…the UK spends 0.55 per cent of GDP on research and development,
compared to Germany’s 0.71 per cent, France’s 0.81 per cent and the
USA’s 0.77 per cent.”

Daily Telegraph, 21 Sep, 2010.

For a nation that has has such an illustrious history and ongoing
reputation in all of the sciences it would be very shortsighted to
jeopardise its proper and respected place amongst the scientific elite.

I would also like to point to the evidence that demonstrates a very
strong correlation between increases in science funding and an increase
in GDP and that the inverse is also true. May I draw your attention to
the following section of the parliamentary report of the Science and
Technology Committee from earlier this year as an illustration of this

Thank you once again for taking the time to read this letter and I look
forward to meeting you at a future surgery and at campaigning events
for the conservative and unionist party.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin David Brooks

I hope to receive a response in the next couple of days, be assured that as soon as I do I shall post it here also. I should also acknowledge James Thomas from the Science Is Vital Facebook Group for providing the basic letter from which I adapted this one.

I received a response from Caroline Nokes within two hours and this alone was very impressive as I’ve had a mixed experience of contacting my elected representatives in the past, I’ve posted Caroline’s response below with the understanding that should she wish for me to remove it I will do at her request.

Caroline Nokes’ Response

Dear Benjamin

Thank you for your email of today’s date – actually I am not sure that I do have anything more important to do than respond to constituents’ concerns and issues which they raise with me!

I attended a fascinating event yesterday, the launch of the new LOFAR telescope which is located in the Romsey and Southampton North constituency.  It is the only one in the UK, and a really important project for the whole of Europe.  It would not be possible without the backing and investment of 50 universities (I think – although that number may be wrong) and the support of the scientific community, many of whom were present yesterday.  Please be assured they used that opportunity to lobby me very hard.

I have been generally impressed with the arguments put forward that whilst investment in science may not reap rewards this year, or even next, neglecting the sector will be disastrous for the UK Plc long term.  We have to recognise that this is not a manufacturing country which can compete with India or China, but we have the potential to reinforce our position as one of the strongest knowledge based economies.

With regard to the EDM, to be frank I am far from convinced as to their benefit, and I have heard colleagues refer to them as “parliamentary graffiti”.  But please do not consider my lack of signature as in any way expressing a lack of support for the issues raised.

Best wishes


Caroline Nokes MP

I was heartened by this response and am somewhat pleased that the Science Is Vital campaign may have at least one more ally in parliament, but decided to (politely) push the EDM issue, my reply is posted below.

My Reply

Dear Mrs. Nokes,

Thank you for your rapid and candid response, I have had a mixed experience of correspondence with MP’s in the past and am heartened by your reply. I hope you will not mind my posting it on my blog at but will take it down if you so wish.

I am as you may understand happy to read of your support for the broader scientific community in the UK and of their need for support and investment through these tough economic times. Whilst I am in no place as a student to comment on the UK manufacturing base I am of a similar, if less informed opinion on that issue.

As to the Early Day Motion, I understand and share your scepticism of them as a means of furthering the democratic process. I would however impress upon you to add your signature to it if for no other reasons than to help assuage the scientific community who are feeling very isolated at the present time; and to raise the issue’s profile in the parliamentary chamber.

Once again thank you for your rapid and candid response and I hope you are enjoying your first term in office.

Yours Sincerely

Benjamin David Brooks

I’ve since had a response to this email, the upshot being that I now have an assurance that she will look again at the Early Day Motion. I must say this has restored my faith in elected representatives to some extent.

Ben Brooks

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