Friday, 31 October 2014

Between a rock and a hard place - a lecture on Sci Comm


Review of the George de Boer biennial lecture given by Prof. Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Education, University of Plymouth. 
A guest blog By Dr. Lara S. Blythe

Prof Iain Stewart, geoscientist and TV personality, was the guest of honour at the University of Hull on Wednesday 29th October, invited by the Department of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences in collaboration with their geology society, the Harker Society, to mark the reinstallation of geology as a degree programme after ca. 25 years of absence. Prof. Stewart presented the George de Boer biennial lecture entitled ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’ to an audience of well over one hundred people.

Photo by Rebecca Williams
The title, one might think, is not unfamiliar territory to the professional geologist. However, in this case we should think again. Caught between our science and the public, science communication and more specifically, geoscience communication is something that traditionally we scientists have had a bad reputation for. Good then that the Professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth University, whose interests are the cultural and social effects of geology, should give us his take on the matter.

Geology, from the perspective of the public, can be likened to an omnipresent invisible subject, which only becomes visible when necessary: at times of crisis. One issue almost immediately brought to the fore was the L’Aquila case in Italy, where a number of senior scientists and officials were sentenced to six years imprisonment for their 'inability to predict the earthquake' that killed 309 people in 2009 (Hall, 2011; Davies, 2013). This case, akin to several aftershocks, has reverberated through the scientific community and highlights the need for a better relationship between geoscience and the public where good communication is paramount.

Even though being a member of the scientific academic community and being in the public domain may seem like a contradiction in terms, the incentives for academics to communicate are clearly present and, in the face of recent developments (e.g. fracking) are increasingly necessary. For me, academia and science represent a true ecological niche whose inhabitants, as Prof. Stewart explained, approach geological events in almost a complete opposite way to the public in order to understand them. Although this niche is seen as typically attracting introverts obsessed with rocks, in short an ‘odd bunch’, these scientists in fact have a responsibility to interpret their research to the public and inform them about the world.

As Prof. Stewart pointed out, why should the public be interested? and how do we get through to a public that may not even be interested? Combined with poor understanding and many misconceptions, science is not popular amongst the public. Why ever not? I hear you ask; because it contains too much erm, science. Too many details and facts that are in essence, boring.  However according to Stewart, and co-author, Ted Nield (2012) people are interested in other people, a point towards which we need to direct out efforts to communicate effectively. Geoscience is both an applied and a visual science, attributes which enable an interesting and ‘audience grabbing’ story to be told out of an otherwise ‘dull’ subject. Take for example, one of Prof. Stewarts Earth Science broadcasts on the BBC – Journeys to the Centre of the Earth, which links Sedimentary, Metamorphic and Igneous rocks through the building stones used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans respectively. This series used a visual art to connect history with geology and its applications, and it proved a hit.

Used to fascinate and spark an interest rather than educate, geoscience communication in ‘quiet’ times facilitates the important transfer of information in times of change and crisis. The public know what geoscience is and know where to find out more information for themselves. As the phoenix of geology and geoscience rises from the ashes left behind at former departments country wide, so (geo)science communication must grow into a new world where academics and the public learn to first respect, then trust, and finally communicate successfully. 

Dr. Lara S Blythe. 

The lecture is available here.

References:
Davies, L. 2013. L’Aquila quake: Italian judge explains why he jailed scientists over disaster. The Guardian, World News, 18 Jan.  
Hall, S. S. 2011. Scientists on trial: At fault? Nature, 477, 264-269.
Stuart, I. S. and Nield, T. 2012. Earth Stories: context and narrative in the communication of popular geoscience. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 124, 699-712.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Remembering a loyal Malawian colleague and contemplating the challenges of mortality for collaborative research in Africa

By Elsbeth Robson

This blog is prompted by the tragic death of my valued colleague and collaborator at the Centre for Social Research of the University of Malawi – James Milner. On 2nd September 2014 James was involved in a road accident while conducting fieldwork in the north of Malawi. He was hospitalised and later died in Mwaiwathu Private Hospital, Blantyre on 7th September 2014. The James I knew and miss was committed to his work, his family and his church.

James’s sudden death is a huge shock and loss to his family, friends and colleagues around the world. He worked as an economist for the Government of Malawi for five years and 19 years as a research fellow at the Centre for Social Research, University of Malawi. He studied as a postgraduate at Williams College in the USA and York University in the UK.

I worked with James on an ESRC-DFID funded project investigating young people’s use of mobile phones in Africa (available here). He joined the project team in 2012 and quickly became a valued colleague for his dedication, loyalty, dependability and thoroughness. We last undertook fieldwork together in January earlier this year when we spent several weeks running a large questionnaire survey with a team of research assistants. It was demanding work involving long days in remote communities, rough roads, heat, occasional malaria and even reluctant respondents at times. Our evenings were spent closely quality checking piles of completed questionnaires and closely monitoring research assistants’ performance. James’ contribution was vital to ensuring everything went smoothly.

During fieldwork we usually travelled as a team together with a driver and several research assistants in a Toyota Landcruiser and as I always do I regularly reminded everyone to wear a seat belt and encouraged those reluctant to use the seatbelts because they were dusty, difficult to adjust and uncomfortable that it is better to ‘Arrive Alive’. I am a passionate believer in the virtue of seatbelts having been personally in two vehicle accidents (overturned minibus on US fieldtrip; collision in Germany) where seatbelts saved lives and because I might have been orphaned as a child had my mother not been wearing a seatbelt in an accident at high speed on a UK dual carriageway. It is painful for me to know that last month James was not wearing a seatbelt and was flung from the vehicle sustaining injuries, while the front passenger (a visiting researcher from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) and the University of Malawi driver who were wearing seatbelts escaped relatively unscathed.


I took this photo in July 2013 during the qualitative fieldwork phase of the mobile phone project. James (wearing glasses, 3rd from left) is standing together with our hardworking team of research assistants during a break from transcription of interviews at the College of Medicine Guesthouse in Blantyre, Malawi.


While mourning the loss of a colleague James’ untimely death prompts wider reflections on the unevenness of the playing field between academics in/of the Global North and those in/of the Global South. It is a stark reality that life expectancy in the Global North (UK average life expectancy is over 80 years) far exceeds life expectancy in the Global South (like expectancy for Malawi is about 55 years). This bare demographic fact has major implications for trying to build and sustain long term North-South academic research collaborations.

It is more than poignant that on the weekend of his death James was expected to be travelling to the UK to present at a DFID-ESRC event in London with a collaborator from Durham University.  Sadly, during the past three decades of my career James is not the first academic collaborator I have worked with in Africa who has died before old age. An academic geographer at University of Malawi, as well as two team members (one a young researcher) in Ghana at University of Cape Coast all died during or shortly after we worked together on collaborative international research projects. None of these died in road accidents I believe but HIV/AIDS is one of the top causes of adult deaths for both Malawi and Ghana along with stroke and heart disease which also kill plenty of people in UK too. I can recall only one colleague in UK I might have collaborated with if he hadn’t died of cancer in his 50s. Other UK colleagues continue to be academically active into their 70s and 80s.

Where the death toll from road accidents in Africa are concerned expatriates are also not immune. I knew two British geographers and long term Africa residents who died tragically in car accidents in Kenya and South Africa. Their contributions to research and teaching which might otherwise have been expected to continue for several decades longer were curtailed.

Mortality on Africa’s roads is shockingly high - Malawi has the 3rd highest rate of deaths from road traffic accidents in the world (here) exacerbated by poorly maintained vehicles and dangerous driving habits.

Are my experiences of the tragic loss of colleagues typical for researchers who work in the Global South and try to build up long term collaborative relationships? I suspect these experiences are not unique and there are similar challenge for those who work in Africa and other poor countries. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Why Japan’s deadly Ontake eruption could not be predicted

Why Japan’s deadly Ontake eruption could not be predicted

By Rebecca Williams, (@volcanologist)

This article was originally published on The Conversation on the 30th September 2014. It is re-posted here in order for the article to be updated as further news about the ongoing activity comes in, and analysis by Japanese volcanologists and the JMA are released. 

Mount Ontake, Japan’s second-highest volcano, erupted killing at least 31 people (as of Oct 27th, the death toll is at 57 and 6 are missing) on September 27. Since then, there has been feverish speculation about why tourists were on an active volcano and why the eruption wasn’t predicted.
Mount Ontake (also known as Ontakesan) is a stratovolcano which last erupted in 1979-80 and 2007 (there was also a possible, unconfirmed eruption in 1991). Before this, there were no recorded historical eruptions at Mount Ontake.
Since the eruption in 1980, Ontake has been monitored by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA). It has seismometers around the volcano to record volcanic tremors and instruments to measure any changes around the volcano. This would provide the JMA with signs that there was magma movement underneath the volcano and that perhaps an eruption was imminent. There had been a slight increase in volcanic tremors starting at the beginning of September. Why, then, was this eruption not predicted?

No warnings

Firstly, the ability to predict volcanic eruptions is an ambition that volcanologists are far from realising. Magma movement under a volcano will cause volcanic tremor, make the ground rise and fall and release gases such as sulphur dioxide. If these signs are monitored closely, then it may be possible to forecast that an eruption may be imminent.




Safe distance. EPA/Kimimasa Mayama

However, all of these things can also happen without any volcanic eruption. Knowing what these signs mean for an individual volcano relies on data collected during previous eruptive episodes, as each volcano behaves differently. Mount Ontake has only had two known historical eruptions and previous to the 1979 eruption, had not been monitored, so scientists here had no previous data to work with. Volcanic tremors are very common at active volcanoes and often occur without being associated with an eruption.
Secondly, the type of eruption that volcanologists think occurred at Ontake is one that does not cause the signals typically monitored at volcanoes. The images and videos captured by hikers on the volcano show that the ash cloud was mostly white, which can be interpreted to mean that the eruption was mostly steam.
The effects of the pyroclastic density currents, the flows of ash, and gas that flowed over the ground from the summit, suggest that they were low-temperature and low concentration. Both of these point to there being no magma directly involved in the eruption. Instead, it is likely water had seeped into the volcano and was superheated by magma within the volcano and flashed to steam causing what is known as a phreatic eruption. Phreatic eruptions occur without magma movement, hence the lack of precursor signals. The 2007 eruption was also phreatic and also occurred with little warning.

Power of nature

So, if an eruption like the one in Japan could not be predicted, should tourists have been allowed up Mount Ontake? Ontake is a place for religious pilgrimage, as well as a popular destination for hikers and climbers. This is quite common for volcanoes around the world; tourists flock to Kilauea, Hawaii to watch the lava flows, climb volcanoes in the Cascade Range, USA and even ski at volcanoes such as Ruapehu in New Zealand. A phreatic explosion such as the one seen at Ontake on Saturday is possible at all of these places.
There is something compelling about the power of nature, and the beauty of a volcano that draws people to them. Volcanoes are inherently dangerous places and there will always be risks to those who visit them. However, events like that at Ontake are thankfully rare. Laying the blame at the foot of either the hikers, or the authorities that allow tourists to visit active volcanoes would be misplaced.

The events at Ontake were tragic. It’s my opinion that it was a tragedy that could not have been predicted or prevented, given our current level of knowledge. It highlights the need to understand volcanic systems better. My thoughts are with the survivors, and the families of those who didn’t make it.
The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Please post links to updated information in the comments below.

Updates

Hindsight bias
The article above was largely written in response to several inflammatory articles suggesting that there was someone to blame for this tragedy, or that 'warning signs were missed'. I will not link to those articles here. These types of articles either fall into the trap of thinking that someone must be to blame, or they have looked at the events with 'hindsight bias'. Jonathon Stone has written an excellent article about hindsight bias that I urge you to read here: http://www.nonsolidground.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/i-knew-it-all-along-avoiding-hindsight.html

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Freshwater limestones and the salt budget of the Mediterranean Sea

by Dr Mike Rogerson (@MikeRogerson7)



Freshwater limestones and the salt budget of the Mediterranean Sea have as much to do with each other as a hookah-smoking caterpillar does with a baby capable of turning into a pig. In both cases, the link could not be more simple; they both exist in the same storyline, the former case being my research career and the latter Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The caterpillar and the pig/baby are elements slowly manoeuvring Alice towards her showdown with the Queen of Hearts. Whether or not my career will end up with me in court, we are yet to see.

Freshwater limestones and the salt budget of the Mediterranean Sea share a fundamental characteristic - they are both essentially controlled by a single equation; the Froude equation. The Froude number (Froude is pronounced “Frood”, as in “sass that hoopy Ford Prefect, there’s a frood who really knows where his towel is”) tells you whether water flowing through a gap is moving slowly enough that waves can go through the water in the opposite direction to the flow, or not. You’ve probably seen the impact of the “hydraulic jumps” that form because of transitions between these two states – think back to the last time you were gazing at a waterfall. Remember how the water pours over in a sheet? That water has a Froude number that is “super-critical”. The water that seems to be boiling and upwelling downstream of the waterfall is “sub-critical”. The strange “standing wave” that seems to dance at the foot of the waterfall is a “hydraulic jump” between these two states. There is another one just above the waterfall, but you need a bit more practice to notice that.

The waterfall analogy works well for us, because freshwater limestones do in fact make waterfalls. These beautiful sediments form when calcium and carbon in the river water react to form calcite – limestone – to make crusty lumps and sheets on the river bottom. They are beautiful, by the way. Here are a few pictures if you don’t believe me (Images © Mike Rogerson).

The calcite forms inside a community of microorganisms living on the bottom of the river – a biofilm. The way the river water, the biofilm and the calcite interact is one of the wonders of nature, with implications for the global carbon cycle, the evolution of life on our continents, the way we can reduce the impact of metal pollution on our waters and the future of oil production in the south Atlantic. Not even Lewis Carroll tried to convince us to relate such apparently unrelated scenes. The world is a strange and unpredictable place, and anyone that tells you that you can understand it intuitively is not to be trusted. 

What controls the rate of calcite formation at the river bottom is mostly how fast you can get calcium and bicarbonate ions from the river to the bottom, and how fast you can get the protons produced by the mineral formation (Ca2+(aq) + HCO3-(aq) ⇌ CaCO3(s) + H+(aq)) back out into the river. This happens by diffusion, which is a really slow process in water. If you don’t believe me, gently pour a kettle of boiling water into the middle of a completely still, cold bath, leave it for 10 minutes and then try and find it with your hand. You should have no problem.

The distance the diffusion of the ions in the river have to travel is controlled by the still layer that sits at the bottom of all flowing waters. If the water is moving slowly, this still layer is thick. If the water is moving fast, it is thin – but it is there. If the water is moving super-critically, it is very thin indeed – and therein lies the rub. The calcite will form much faster on the top of our waterfall where the flow is super-critical than it will upstream or downstream. This is actually good news for the biofilm; their economy is driven by photosynthesis, which needs light. The light hitting the river bottom is stronger when the water layer is thin, and also when it is super-critical. The bigger the waterfall gets, the happier the biofilm is. The consequence of this is that the waterfall gets higher, the biofilm gets happier, the Froude number gets higher and the waterfall gets higher again. And look how high some of these things get. These whole walls have been built by a biofilm precipitating a mineral from water, exploiting the physics of how water flows. You’ve got to be impressed.
Plitvice Lakes Croatia. Photo by permission from Jack Brauer. Check out his stunning photography here: http://www.mountainphotography.com/
If you have super-critical flow of water through a sea-strait, then the amount of water you can push though per second is controlled by the friction on the sea floor. A good example is the shallow and narrow Strait of Gibraltar at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea. You can see the standing wave on the eastern side of the Strait – I hope that is convincing enough that there is a Froude transition happening in there. If you have a region - like the Mediterranean Sea - which is pretty dry, then the total amount of evaporation is a bit bigger than the amount of rainfall. Because you can’t just pour as much water as you like through the Strait of Gibraltar, this means the Mediterranean is a bit saltier than the Atlantic. So long as sea level stays the same, this balance is maintained. If you reduce sea level though, the Gibraltar gap gets smaller, it gets harder to push water though it and salinity in the Mediterranean gets higher. Vice versa if you raise sea level – the Mediterranean steadily gets more and more similar to the Atlantic.
The Strait of Gibralter from above - note the standing wave at the eastern side. © Mike Rogerson
24,000 years ago there was an ice sheet on Britain. Its probably what you call the “ice age”, but really you should call it the “last glacial maximum”. You can tell these glaciers were there though, because we have lovely glaciated valleys in the North of Britain, stunning fjords in the west of Scotland and you can see moraines (which formed at the southern ends of the ice sheet) all over eastern Yorkshire. There were also ice sheets in North America, Scandinavia, Kamchatka, Iceland and other places. And all the water to make these ice sheets came out of the ocean. All that water removed from the ocean was enough to drop sea level by 120 to 130m. For the Strait of Gibraltar, which today is about 245m deep, this means the bottle-neck got an awful lot smaller. The Froude number was even higher than today, and it was even harder to balance the Mediterranean salt budget. 

The fact that water in the Mediterranean was a lot saltier than today during the last glacial maximum is not an obvious consequence of growing ice sheets in Britain and elsewhere. But the consequences of climate change are rarely obvious and intuitive. But what the Froude controls on freshwater limestones and Mediterranean salinity tell us is that features of the natural environment can be predicted by mathematics, even if they are completely impossible to relate without that tool. It probably is no accident that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician – he was used to following internal logic without worrying that it told him things outside his everyday experience. He knew that the world is always more complicated than it seems on the surface.
So the message we should all take home is that if mathematics tells us that raising CO2 in the atmosphere is not a great idea, then we should pay attention. Maths does a much better job of predicting the world than our experience-based guesswork ever can. The mathematics for climate change were worked out in the 1900’s, and the first prediction of climate change was made by an equation – not by a model – in 1908. Look up SvanteArrhenius’ “Worlds in the Making”. It may not seem obvious from your everyday life that climate change must be true, but neither is it obvious that biofilms make waterfalls. Nature works in mysterious ways.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia. By Donarreiskoffer via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Kinematic indicators in the Green Tuff Ignimbrite: can they tell us about the timing of caldera collapse?

By Dr Rebecca Williams (@volcanologist) & Jodie Dyble

In the summer of 2014 I have had a Nuffield Foundation student, Jodie, working with me towards a Gold CREST Award, which we blogged about the other week. Here, I’m going to talk a bit about the research she did.

Jodie looked at the Green Tuff Ignimbrite on the island of Pantelleria, Italy. The Green Tuff Ignimbrite is a rheomorphic ignimbrite which was emplaced during an eruption about 45 thousand years ago. An ignimbrite is the deposit from a pyroclastic density current. Rheomorphic means that the deposit was still hot when it was formed, so that the shards of ash welded together and was able to be deformed ductiley. Rheomorphic ignimbrites are common on places like Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands (where the classic work of Schmincke & Swanson 1967 was done) and the Snake River Plain in the western US. You can get two types of rheomorphism, that which occurs during deposition of the ignimbrite (e.g. the overriding current exerts a shear on the underlying deposit) and rheomorphism which occurs after the deposit has been fully formed (e.g. the deposit starts slumping under gravity). I’m avoiding using primary vs secondary here, as actually the historical meaning of those words and their relative timings can be difficult to disentangle. For a very good, concise overview take a read of (Andrews & Branney 2005). Either way, rheomorphic structures within the deposit like lineations, folds, tension gashes and rotated crystals or clasts, can tell us about this sense of movement. Volcanologists interpret these kinematic indicators in the same way a structural geologist would interpret verging folds, or rotated porphyroclasts in a mylonite (e.g. Passchier & Simpson 1986). You can even determine the direction a pyroclastic density current flowed if you map out these kinematic indicators across the ignimbrite (e.g. Andrews & Branney, 2011).
Schematic diagram of the development of rheomorphic structures in a syndepositional shear zone during the deposition of an ignimbrite. Taken from Andrews & Branney, 2005.
The Green Tuff eruption was said to have been a caldera forming eruption, but the details of this have been debated. Two different calderas have been proposed: the Cinque Denti caldera (Mahood & Hildreth 1986) and the Monastero caldera (Cornette et al. 1983; Civetta et al. 1988). These share the same scarps to the east, west and south but while the Cinque Denti caldera has exposed scarps in the north (the Costa di Zinedi scarp, the Kattibucale scarp and the Cinque Denti scarp), the Monastero caldera has a buried northern scarp. During my PhD on the Green Tuff (Williams 2010; Williams et al. 2014) I found that the Costa di Zinedi scarps, the Kattibucale scarps and the Cinque Denti scarps were extensively draped by the Green Tuff, right down to the bottom of the exposed caldera walls.
The map shows the two different proposed calderas for the Green Tuff eruption. Panoramics and sketches show the draping Green Tuff down the three disputed scarps. Localities used in this study are highlighted. From Williams, 2010.
What Jodie set out to determine this summer was when that draping occurred. My work on the chemical stratigraphy of the Green Tuff already determined that those drapes represented the earliest part of the eruption. So, did caldera collapse happen after the deposition of the Green Tuff and did those drapes represent the rheomorphic slumping of the deposit down a newly formed caldera wall? Or, did the caldera wall exist before the emplacement of the Green Tuff, and those drapes represent a deposit formed by an overriding current? In the field, macro indicators (such as large scale folds) suggested that the deposit slumped down the caldera wall. We went in search of micro kinematic indicators to see if they would tell the same story.
 Some of the micro-kinematic indicators seen in the thin sections from the Green Tuff Ignimbrite, including verging folds and rotated clasts (δ and σ–objects). From Dyble & Williams, 2015.
What Jodie found was compelling evidence for upslope flow in the thin sections that she analysed. Thus, those deposits were formed by the Green Tuff pyroclastic density current flowing up the caldera scarps, depositing and shearing the underlying deposit as it went. Which means that those caldera scarps must have existed before the Green Tuff ignimbrite did, so we support the idea that those scarps had nothing to do with the Green Tuff eruption. We think that’s pretty neat and we’re presenting the work at the Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group annual conference, which in January 2015 will be held in Norwich. Jodie has already made the poster we’ll be presenting as part of the assessment required to achieve a Gold CREST Award, so we’ve decided to publish that online before the conference. I’d like to thank Jodie for some stellar research this summer, despite only having done 1 year of Sixth Form (AS level) geology (she’s 17!), and answering some questions I’ve been pondering for about 6 years. Hopefully, this data will go into a couple of papers I’m working on too!


Andrews, G. & Branney, M., 2005. Folds, fabrics, and kinematic criteria in rheomorphic ignimbrites of the Snake River Plain, Idaho: Insights into emplacement and flow. In J. Pederson & C. . Dehler, eds. Interior Western United States: Field Guide 6. Bouldor, Colorado: Geological Society of America, pp. 311–327.
Andrews, G.D.M. & Branney, M.J., 2011. Emplacement and rheomorphic deformation of a large, lava-like rhyolitic ignimbrite: Grey’s Landing, southern Idaho. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 123(3-4), pp.725–743.
Civetta, L. et al., 1988. The eruptive history of Pantelleria (Sicily Channel) in the last 50 ka. Bulletin of Volcanology, 50, pp.47–57.
Cornette, Y. et al., 1983. Recent volcanic history of pantelleria: A new interpretation. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 17(1-4), pp.361–373.
Dyble, J.A., Williams, R., 2015. Micro kinematic indicators in the Green Tuff Ignimbrite: can they tell us about caldera collapse? VMSG Meeting, Norwich, 5th-7th January 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1160476
Mahood, G. & Hildreth, W., 1986. Geology of the peralkaline volcano at Pantelleria, Strait of Sicily. Bulletin of Volcanology, 48, pp.143–172.
Passchier, C. & Simpson, C., 1986. Porphyroclast systems as kinematic indicators. Journal of Structural Geology, 8(8), pp.831–843.
Schmincke, H. & Swanson, D., 1967. Laminar viscous flowage structures in ash-flow tuffs from Gran Canaria, Canary Islands. The Journal of Geology, 75(6), pp.641–644.
Williams, R., 2010. Emplacement of radial pyroclastic density currents over irregular topography: The chemically-zoned, low aspect-ratio Green Tuff ignimbrite, Pantelleria, Italy. University of Leicester. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.789054
Williams, R., Branney, M.J. & Barry, T.L., 2014. Temporal and spatial evolution of a waxing then waning catastrophic density current revealed by chemical mapping. Geology, 42(2), pp.107–110.



Wednesday, 3 September 2014

How I Became a Music Geographer

by Dr Kevin Milburn (@kevmilburn)

Oxbow lakes. That’s the first thing people tend to say to me when I mention that I’m a geographer. Occasionally this is followed by ‘glacial moraine’, or, much rarer still, by ‘Christaller’ and ‘central business districts’. I then helpfully correct them by saying that I’m a music geographer, but invariably that just confuses matters further.

Me. Next to a river. 2013

So, I will try here to explain what it is that I tend to spend my days doing – an exercise likely to prove at least as beneficial to me as to anybody else. But before I do so, a quick detour, a circumlocutory ramble concerning how I reached this point. I was born in the town of… no, too far back, no one cares… Secondary school (onto education at least, vaguely relevant) was divided between Essex and Detroit, two places not well known for being linked, unless that is you had a family member working for the Ford Motor Company. Perhaps being schooled in a different culture gave me a lasting interest in notions of similarity and diversity, in what connects and divides us, core ideas that continue to generate considerable levels of discussion within human geography. More likely is that that is just psychoanalytical babble but it did perhaps stimulate an interest in American subject matter which continues to inform my teaching, as on the World Cities (New York) module, as well as my research (as detailed below).

New York, New York. 2006

Next up, came the ‘geography years’; three years studying the subject as an undergraduate at the University of Manchester. The courses offered back then were interesting up to a point, although truth be told, there was a slight sense that rather too many lecturers were counting down the days till their retirement, and I encountered a more dynamic research environment in the geography department at University College Dublin, where I spent an enjoyable term as a student on the EC’s Erasmus scheme. However, one member of staff at Manchester who certainly was not coasting along at that time was Gill Valentine.  Valentine, now a pro-vice chancellor at the University of Sheffield, was the academic who encouraged me, along with other students, such as John Wylie, now a highly regarded professor of geography at the University of Exeter, to engage with a relatively fresh approach / set of ideas / way of thinking — fresh at least in the 1990s — called ‘new cultural geography’.  Interest in this branch of the subject inspired me to do a dissertation with the badly punning title, ‘On the Road with Jack Kerouac and the New Cultural Geography’.


Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957. Penquin Books

A decent mark for the Kerouac dissertation prompted me to decide to stay in academia for a bit longer and I successfully applied to do a Masters in Media Culture, taught jointly by the Universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow. The start date of that wouldn’t be for another year however, so in the interim I spent a year working in, and travelling across, Canada (a summer dressed as a monk in a monastic themed restaurant called ‘Brothers’) and Australia (telemarketing to Outback truck drivers, a ‘character building’ experience, and fruit picking in the Bush. The latter was one of the worst jobs imaginable, especially bad were the days spent wrestling with oranges – who knew the trees were so prickly? – and grapes – the juice squirts, the flies descend. Not good).

Once safely ensconced in Glasgow, my longshore drift away from geography and towards popular culture began (years later, I cunningly began to devise various ruses to bring the two together).  On my Media Culture course students had the option of focusing either on TV and film or on popular music. I chose the latter; I'd always been a music nut and had spent a good deal more time than I should have as an undergraduate writing music reviews for Manchester's student paper.  Extended essays on topics of such pressing social concern as the semiotics of New Romantic fashion followed. The culmination of this period of wrapt self-absorption was my dissertation: The production, marketing and consumption of popular music as high art: a case-study of David Sylvian’. Somewhat miraculously, all of this training in becoming a pop pub bore actually led to me landing a job. I know, amazing right?!


David Sylvian, Brilliant Trees, 1984. Virgin Records

A couple of months after leaving Glasgow I was in the capital, doing marketing (still not a term I fully understand) on an event called London Music Week, an exhibition, conference and live music event co-sponsored by Music Week (the music industry’s trade magazine), Radio 1 and MTV. After this I joined the Mercury Music Prize, the annual prize and awards ceremony for the best album of the year from the UK and Ireland, http://www.mercuryprize.com/ Joining the Prize saw me reunited, sort of, with my Masters supervisor from Strathclyde, Simon Frith, who has been chair of the Mercury Prize judging panel since the prize started in 1992 and is widely acknowledged as the world’s foremost academic when it comes to popular music. I worked full-time at the prize for many years, most of them as a director; I stopped working full-time for it in 2008 but have continued my long association with it, to varying degrees, ever since. This year's shortlisted albums are announced a week today (10th September) in Covent Garden, whilst the decision on who will follow the likes of PJ Harvey, The xx, Alt-J and James Blake in becoming the overall winner of the Prize, will be made at the show at the Roundhouse, north London on 29th October.

Working for the Prize, and by extension, with the music and media industries was enjoyable and very rarely dull; my role included: getting the entries in; choosing and liaising with the judges; running retail campaigns in HMV, Fopp, Virgin and so on; writing press releases, website copy and also event scripts for hosts Jools Holland and Lauren Laverne; presenting to sponsors, hosting media announcements and doing lots of press and broadcast interviews. Here’s one that I did with BBC 6Music (with my name mis-spelt most of the way through!) that explains a bit more about how the prize works: http://www.bbc.co.uk/6music/news/20080722_mercury.shtml and here's another with The Independent, one that was also syndicated to the Belfast Telegraph: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/entertainment/music/news/the-night-of-the-unknowns-the-mercury-music-prize-28062460.html  Quite a lot of my time at the Prize was spent talking about, and talking up, the shortlisted albums, such as here, in relation to Thom Yorke’s solo album, Eraser: http://www.bbc.co.uk/oxford/content/articles/2006/07/19/eraser.shtml


Mercury Prize Albums of the Year Launch, 2013 (t); A Mercury Prize / HMV retail display, 2009 (b) 

However, after a few years at the Mercury, and some might say rather inexplicably,
I began to miss academia. So I did what any sane person would do and started another Masters, this time in Japanese Cultural Studies. I undertook the degree on a part-time basis at Birkbeck, University of London whilst still working at the prize. Here I am talking about combining the two in an interview I did for The Guardian at that time:
http://www.theguardian.com/money/2006/oct/09/careers.theguardian8

My considerable interest in Japan was prompted by a few trips I made to the country in quick succession at the turn of the century. The degree was, as its name suggests, essentially Cultural Studies but with a Japanese emphasis. Debate and ideas encountered there, most notably surrounding issues of identity, representation, and Orientalism, have continued to inform my research and my teaching, most notably in Hull on the Imagining Place, Cultural and Historical Geography and World Cities (Tokyo) modules.  The course was wide ranging and I covered topics as diverse as Tokyo’s 1920s café culture and jazz age, Okinawan modes of cultural protest, Japanese food and identity, and representations of Japan in travel writing and western films. Again, when it came to my dissertation I focused on popular music, this one had the snappy title of: ‘Self-reflexive Orientalism and Cultural Hybridity: a Case Study of Ryuichi Sakamoto and the Yellow Magic Orchestra’.   


Yellow Magic Orchestra, Yellow Magic Orchestra, 1979. A&M Records

As with my earlier Kerouac dissertation, the enjoyment I derived from writing this, allied to some positive feedback, encouraged me to think about pursuing such things in more depth. Therefore, in 2008, I began to scale back my involvement with the Mercury and started a PhD in the Department of Geography at the University of Nottingham. I chose this department principally because Andrew Leyshon and David Matless, two out of the three editors of a book that had captured my attention, The Place of Music, were based there. Andrew became one of my PhD supervisors (along with Alex Vasudevan), whilst David would be one of my viva examiners, the other being Simon Rycroft, also a contributor to that still important collection of writings on music and geography.

Andrew Leyshon, David Matless and George Revill (eds), The Place of Music, 1998. Guilford Press

The content and focus of my PhD thesis evolved during the course of its gestation, as it seems do most, but at its core was an investigation into why and how the city, particularly the nocturnal city, has been aestheticized in certain forms of (generally male authored) romantic balladry and electronica.  Initially, the plan was to produce a kind of 50 year sweep of this topic but it soon became apparent that even a work of 100,000 words would struggle to accommodate all I wanted to say. Sadly, contemporary musicians whose work I reflected on, including Burial, Carl Craig and Richard Hawley, were put to one side (to be ‘re-mobilised’ years later as examples in undergraduate lectures years…) Instead, the focus congealed around two case studies, Frank Sinatra and The Blue Nile, the latter a trio most active in the 1980s, acts with sufficient similarities and differences to warrant being studied together in a comparative fashion in an extended piece of work. Not only were there clear links between the music of both, but there was also no shortage of cultural connections, particularly musical ones, between the cities with which the two artists were most readily identified: New York (Sinatra) and Glasgow (The Blue Nile), something which the thesis explored in some depth when exploring relationships between notions of place and the production and reception of popular music. As is often the way, the title came quite late, and again brevity was not its strong point: ‘Songs of the City: geographies of metropolitanism and mobility in the music of Frank Sinatra and The Blue Nile’.

The Blue Nile, Hats, 1989. Linn Records (l); Frank Sinatra, In the Wee Small Hours, 1955. Capitol Records (r)

Writing the PhD was great fun; no misery memoir here concerning my experience of doing it. Besides the actual writing and editing, one of the most enjoyable aspects of doing the doctorate was getting the opportunity to travel and to attend conferences in many different places, including London, Exeter, Aberystwyth, Durham, Edinburgh, and, easily the most exciting of the lot, Kyoto.

Kyoto Railway Station, 2001

Following completion of my PhD there followed a spell in which I divided my time between the Research and Higher Education Department at the RGS-IBG in Kensington and convening a 3rd year module on Auditory Cultures in the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. I got to know the East Midlands Trains timetable better than I ever wished to.

Next, and we are nearly at the end destination now, I took up a Research Fellow position for a few months in the Department of Geography at the University of Exeter, working on two AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded public engagement projects, both of which were led by Nicola Thomas, who I first encountered at the Kyoto conference. Given that I am writing this a few days after attending the RGS-IBG conference, it reaffirms the importance of being present at such events (especially if they are held somewhere nice…)

The first of the projects that I worked on with Nicola involved developing a historical geography prototype Android app under the aegis of REACT, http://www.react-hub.org.uk/ It covered many themes but foremost among them were issues of gender, biography, race and status in the Indian Raj, using the life, celebrity and experiences of Mary Curzon, the former Vicereine of India, as something of a prism with which to interrogate these themes; here’s a blog I wrote that highlights how fashion became enrolled in such discourses: http://www.react-hub.org.uk/books-and-print-sandbox/projects/2013/digitising-the-dollar-princess/journal/delhi-durbar-dress-in-derbyshire/ The second AHRC project involved me initiating a timeline for the 80th anniversary of the Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen. Like the Curzon one, this was largely archival in nature and involved extensive research into the Guild's history, most of which was undertaken at The British Library, the Gloucestershire County archives and the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham.

And then finally, in 2013, to Hull. To that place with the distinctive and likeable “end of the line sense of freedom”, as Philip Larkin so accurately put it. An end of the lineness that is even more appropriate in this context given that mobility is one of the geographical themes that I’m most interested in and because my arrival in Hull is where this blog kisses the buffers.

Vintage LNER Hull and London poster

It turns out that I never did get round in this blog to saying what it is that I do all day. I suspect I prevaricate for the most part, hence not getting around here to saying what it is that I do... But I do know what it is that excites me about being a cultural/music geographer: it is coming across all those seemingly random but actually not random at all connections, that sense of “oh look, this links to that, and that informs this.” That’s what keeps me interested, that exploration of those endlessly rich links between, for example, Kerouac and Sinatra (artists both at their prime in 1950s America), between London and Tokyo (Olympic cities), New York and Glasgow (creative connections), Liverpool and Hull (Cities of Culture) and many more besides. And the geography department at Hull is an excellent place in which to feed one’s wonder and intrigue about such things. 

Should you want a or a more straightforward account of my teaching and research there’s always my Hull webpage: http://www2.hull.ac.uk/science/gees/staff/milburn.aspx Additionally, on my blog, www.sonicgeographies.com, I write about music and geography; I also tweet (@kevmilburn), sometimes about the former, and occasionally about the latter #butiamstillcluelessaboutoxbowlakes.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

High school students as research partners: working with Nuffield Placement Students

 by Jane Bunting (@DrMJBunting) and Rebecca Williams (@Volcanologist)


Meanwhile, back in the lab...

This week, the blog is back indoors, where Jane and Rebecca are spending August helping some Sixth Form students get a taste of 'real science' in the summer before they apply for University.  Five students have placements with us in GEES through the Nuffield Foundation Research Placements Scheme, which will enable them to be assessed for a British Science Association CREST Gold Award.

Rebecca did a Nuffield Placement herself in the summer after her first year of A Levels.  Neither the Nuffield scheme or the CREST Awards had been done before at Rebecca’s school. An eager biology teacher, Dr Bridgeman, had heard of the scheme and so started it up that year with Rebecca and two of her school friends being the first students to go through it. They weren’t provided with placements, but rather had to find them for themselves. At the time, Rebecca knew she enjoyed Geography, Science and Maths. She was also a bit obsessed with Time Team and she has blogged before about how her journey into geology really started by wanting to be a geophysicist. The only company she could find locally which did geophysics was a consultancy company for the oil and gas company, TGS-Nopec (as they were then known). Rebecca wrote a letter (no email back then!) asking if they would take her on as a work experience student and was delighted when they did. It was a phenomenal experience. Rebecca worked on a project called ‘Hydrocarbon prospectivity along the eastern seaboard, offshore northwest Europe’. She doesn’t have a good memory, but the report is sat next to her as she types this – a testament to how important the experience was. Rebecca found that the geophysical interpretation of the seismic lines wasn’t what interested her. Rather, it was the geology – how is the oil formed, where does it come from, where is it stored, how is it trapped and where can it be found? When Rebecca then had to fill out her UCAS application a month or so later, it was geology degrees she applied to, and not the geophysics that she thought she was going to do, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Nuffield Scheme really did change Rebecca’s path in life. The results from that project were eventually presented by TGS-Nopec at the PETEX Conference – the premier oil and gas conference!

Students doing placements work with a supervisor for 4-6 weeks on a 'real' research project - one where the supervisor doesn't know what will happen or be found out.  The students are expected to read around their topics, contribute to discussions about the design of experiments or studies, plan their own time, learn to use different pieces of equipment, collect data and interpret it, and produce a report and a talk or poster at the end of the placement - of course there is lots of help available, from the supervisor, from technical staff, from other students and researchers in related fields, but it is still quite a challenge.  This year's students all seem to be making the most of it, and are filling their lab notebooks with lots of lovely data.
Tinashe weighing an ear of wheat
surface of a wheat leaf: the 'squashed donuts' are the stomata

Jordan, Leah, Charlotte and Tinashe from local sixth forms at Wyke and Sirius Academy are all working with Jane and Lindsey Atkinson (@LJA_1), who also blogs here, on a pilot study of the effects of small climate changes on spring wheat, which is linked to a bigger project being run by the Network Ecology Group called "The impacts of climate-warming on farmland food-webs and ecosystem services".  In this project, 24 plots are marked out in a field of spring wheat.  Half of these are warmed by 2 oC, the sort of change in summer temperature which we are likely to see in our region within the next century according to predictive models.  Since the warming will dry out the soil, half of the warmed plots and half of the non-warmed plots are also given some extra water, so some plots are warmer and drier, and some are just warmer.  We're studying wheat plants collected from the different plots in the field experiment, and also growing our own in the controlled environment rooms in the GEES building, where special lights on timers mimic day and night cycles, the room temperature is controlled, and neither rabbits nor aphids can snack on the growing leaves - the indoors experiment should therefore help us understand how the plants respond to the climate changes without the rest of the food web complicating the picture.  Jordan is studying how biomass allocation varies (essentially 'plant budgeting', looking at how plant resources are divided between light capture, water capture and reproduction).  Charlotte is looking at the effects of the climate changes on the grain yield of the wheat plants.  Leah and Tinashe are looking in more detail at whether the plants can adapt to grow in different conditions by varying the number of stomatal cells in their leaves (an introduction to studying stomata aimed at students can be found here). 


Jordan and Leah cutting up wheat plants
These data, along with other aspects of the plants being measured by Jane and Lindsey, will form the basis for an initial paper on the response of this important crop plant to anticipated climate changes (which of course will get blogged about here) and for a grant application to extend the work; we need to show that our experiments will produce interesting results before we can ask for funding, so these projects are playing an important role in helping us develop this research area.



Jodie uses a digital camera to photograph her thin sections
Jodie joins us from Hessle High School and Sixth Form College. Jodie is interested in geology and chemistry so we’re convincing her that volcanology is an excellent subject! Jodie is doing a research project on the Green Tuff Ignimbrite from Pantelleria with Rebecca. In particular she is looking at thin sections of the ignimbrite to look for features that she can use to interpret how the ignimbrite was formed. This project is a continuation of a long-running project that started with Rebecca’s PhD in 2006. It’s a small, but important part of a much bigger research jigsaw, and the results look promising! We’ll be blogging more about the project next week. If the results look good, Jodie and Rebecca will be presenting the research at the UK’s volcanology conference which this year is hosted in Norwich; Jodie is getting real experience of working on a research project at the cutting-edge of Rebecca’s science.

The Nuffield Schemes offer a wonderful opportunity for students to try out real science; it's very different from school!  For us, it's an excellent way to communicate with the next generation of scientists and consumers of scientific findings, and gives the students involved a taste of scientific work, a boost for their university or job applications and helps them make better course and career choices.  If you're a student reading this, ask your teachers about the scheme or go to this link.  If you're a scientist, we urge you to consider taking on placement students through the scheme - it might even help you get that crucial bit of data to progress your research next summer.