01 March, 2007

My blog lives up to its name

Further update: Highly Allochthonous is now found at:


I am beginning to theorise that this is a cast iron example of nominative determinism.

When I started blogging, I had no real idea where it would lead. I didn’t know whether I would, or could, produce regular content; or whether anyone else would read it if I did. After a sluggish start, I found that the answer to the first question was yes. As for the second, the number of visitors to this site has been slowly but surely increasing, especially over the last few months; I could hardly claim to be setting the blogosphere alight, but I was reasonably content with progress.

But then, in a rather bewildering fortnight at the end of January, not only do I get the Naturejobs gig, but an e-mail arrives out of the blue from Scienceblogs, inviting me to the top table. And, as such, Highly Allochthonous is on the move; please click through to its shiny new home at http://scienceblogs.com/highlyallochthonous/.

To be honest, I’m still not sure whether I’ll be able to hack it with the big boys (I certainly won’t be able to match the prodigious output that some of them achieve), but it’s an exciting opportunity to get a wider audience. Of course, I’m hoping everyone who has already discovered me will drop in every so often, if only to brag that you read me “in the glory days, man, before he decided to play it safe and post nothing but pretty pictures!”

27 February, 2007

The bureaucratic run-around

This morning, armed with my contract and my passport, I set out to register at my new academic home. I was told that I needed to go the International Office, which proved to be the starting point of a rather long and convoluted morning of being shunted around campus:

  • The staff at the International Office tell me I need a student number from Biographics department.

  • I head downstairs to the Biographics department, who tell me that before they can give me a student number I need to go to the Science Faculty Office to get the relevant form.

  • Across campus at the Science Faculty Office, after some confusion I get given a form, which seems more like a student degree application form than anything else, and get told that at some point I will need to pay a fee to ‘unblock’ my registration.

  • Back at the Geology department, after checking that I’m not literally on a wild goose-chase, I fill in the sections of the form which actually seem relevant.

  • Back to Biographics, who tell me that the form needs to be stamped by the International Office.

  • Upstairs at the International Office, they stamp my form, but tell me that my account must be unblocked my paying the fee at the Finance Office.

  • I venture the other way across campus to the Finance Office, where I queue for 20 minutes or so to pay the fee.

  • Back in once more to Biographics and finally get my student number.

  • Return in triumph to the International Office – they give me yet another form to take back to Finance (I’m starting to think that my first visit – and payment – was unnecessary, but no-one seems sure).

  • After shuttling between a couple of people in the Finance Office, they tell me I am now ok to register at the Science Faculty Office.

  • I return to the Science Faculty Office, where they discover my account is still blocked. After 10 minutes of phoning around (what a novel concept!) I finally get registered.

I was an undergraduate at a University that has had eight centuries to perfect its administrative opacity, but I have to admit, I’m thoroughly impressed. At least I can say that I got some exercise this morning, and got a lot of practice in finding my way around the campus.

26 February, 2007

If at first you don't get published in Nature, cheat

Just a quick plug whilst I settle in down here in Jo'burg...

Actually, I've never even tried to get properly published in Nature - I've yet to stray into fields of study that are 'sexy' enough. Nonetheless, thanks to the mysteriously vanished Postblogger's heads-up, I'm getting the chance to sneak a few words of wisdom into print, as one of this years' four Postdoc Journal keepers. 200-250 words a month might not seem like very much wisdom, but I know some very long words...

My first entry was published the Thursday before last. Quite why I was deemed worthy is uncertain - I suspect that my exotic post-doc destination probably helped matters, but I suspect that all the writing practice I've had on these pages in recent months probably helped too.

22 February, 2007

In transit

The last week or so has been... intense. The speed at which moving to another country went from a theoretical possibility to imminent reality caught me completely unawares, and I suddenly had a million things to do and too little time to do them in. Somehow I got most things organised, I suspect more due to luck than judgement, and now - with a few hitches - I'm on my way.

What's weird is that not only do I not know what to expect when I arrive in Johannesburg, but I've been so focussed on the departure date that I haven't even thought about it until now. A 12-hour flight lies between me and finding out.

15 February, 2007

Valentine’s Day Massacre

Other people may have received cards telling them how wonderful they were yesterday – but not me. Instead, I got a nice long e-mail from JGR regarding two papers I submitted way back in June (which I have alluded to previously) which was about as far from ‘roses are red…’ territory as you could get.

I haven’t really talked about the research behind these papers on this blog (I guess I didn’t want to pre-empt publication, somewhat ironically), but they were basically presenting the major conclusions of my PhD project – a study of the tectonic evolution of New Zealand in the last 20 million years, using paleomagnetic measurements to look at crustal rotations. My first paper presented my dataset, which took a lot of work to amass, and the second was my attempt to construct a model of deformation to explain these data.

I’m still chewing over the reviews (they’ve hardly arrived at a convenient time!), but the basic gist seems to be that they don’t like my data - although they couldn’t really find much wrong with it – and they really don’t like my model. They were very keen to point out to me that accommodating the large and fast crustal rotations my data seem to indicate (much larger and faster than has previously been suggested) is not easy, and my suggestions for how it has happened are a little bit at odds with the well-established picture. Never… anyway, there’s a lot to filter and think about, which obviously I don’t have time to do at the moment, so for now I’m just going to have to go:



13 February, 2007

How to waste even more time with Google Earth

I dare you to visit this rather funky map quiz and not get addicted.

My only complaint is that the pictures containing nothing but ocean floor are a little bit too difficult...

(thanks to Ron).

12 February, 2007

Wasting your life, creationist style

I suppose as a geologist I should feel angry and aggrieved about this newly minted PhD student:

…Dr. Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young earth creationist” — he believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe, and that the earth is at most 10,000 years old.

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

Later in the article is becomes fairly clear that his motivation for getting his doctorate is to use “the fact that he has a Ph.D. from a legitimate science department as a springboard [for pushing a literalist viewpoint].”

I can’t bring myself to be angry about this, though (even though I can understand why others might). Instead, I find it sad; a waste of half a decade or more of someone’s life. Getting through a PhD is no picnic at the best of times; in my experience it’s only your fundamental enthusiasm and interest in your subject that gets you through. Forcing yourself through the whole traumatic process when you believe, deep down, that every word you write, every measurement you make, and every conclusion you draw is fundamentally mistaken – well, let’s just say that I can’t see it doing wonders for your mental well-being.

Over at PZ’s (where this story came to my attention - see also Chad's take), a large proportion of the comments are debating whether the University of Rhode Island would be justified in withdrawing his doctorate - or even, given that they knew about his young-earth beliefs before he applied, whether he should have been admitted to the PhD programme in the first place. I’d have to unequivocally answer no, and yes, respectively. In the context of a PhD you can only be judged on what you have submitted, and his supervisor tells us all we need to know:
His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”

“We are not here to certify his religious beliefs,” he said. “All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible.”

Presuming that this is an accurate representation of his dissertation, it’s a no-brainer: he came, he followed the rules, and he advanced his field: so he earned his doctorate, however galling it may be that he has proceeded to use his qualification in the manner that he has – to add a veneer of scientific authority to flawed creationist arguments.

Besides, there’s something else interesting about this story: the fact that when push came to shove, to get his qualification he had to follow the ground rules of science. And when he did that, what happened to all those big, obvious, gaping holes in the scientific picture of an old earth and common descent that we hear so much about? Did he try, even slightly, to cast some light on those holes with his research? It doesn’t look like it to me. Rather than a bold assault on the evil Darwinian empire, we get some meandering about “working within a particular paradigm of earth history”. Likewise, despite his self-declared mission to destroy Darwinism, it seems that Johnathan Wells kept his powder dry during his time at Berkeley. In both cases, the choice to use the PhD qualification as a rhetorical weapon, rather than the PhD research, pretty much tells you all you need to know.

10 February, 2007

Contestants, raise your hammers...

From the Berkeley Geological Association blog (with some snipping):

Geolympics is the ultimate in field geologist competition. This yearly event should put to the test all the field practices geologist's are trained to perform with accuracy and time contraints as parameters of success.

1) The Brunton: Imagine 5 or so rocks with varying strikes, dips, slickenlines, etc. that need measuring whilst being timed.

2) Rock Demolition: Imagine a line of geologists armed with a basketball size chunk of granite and their favorite rock hammer. They are timed to see who can smash their rocks into chunks no bigger than a baseball.

3) Twisted Map Folding: Imagine a new crisp map completly unfolded and a geologist blind folded who must then, by feel alone, fold the map into its original orientation while being timed.

4) Gear Up Gear Down: Imagine a geologist pulling up his/her truck when the clock starts and they must exit the vehicle and gear up with boots, hand lens, brunton, hammer with loop, acid bottle, map, rain gear, the works then when complete screaming ROCK IT! and then undressing again into street clothes, packing away the gear and firing up the truck again.

A few more potential events occur to me:
  • Contact free running: A test of mapping skill and athleticism. Contestants have to precisely follow a contact between two formations, across hill, dale, ravine, cliff face, river, bracken, and bog. Points for speed, accuracy and style.
  • Drilling time trial: One for the paleomagicians amongst us. Contestants are given an hour to drill, orient and extract as many core samples as they can. Scoring is based on the length of the cores as well as the number (i.e. an 8cm core which yields 3 standard paleomagnetic samples scores the same as three cores which yield only one each). Solo and pair events.
  • Geo-orienteering: Like orienteering, except you have a geological map and specified rock samples must be gathered from each control point.

I'm sure you guys can come up with some more events...

09 February, 2007

Reality intrudes on blogging

You might have noticed that things fell silent here only two days into my promised seven-day epic. As it has turned out, the reasons I prevaricated about signing up to the Just Science challenge in the first place have defeated me: exam marking to get through, a couple of presentations to give, and, due to the fact that next week is my last week here in Southampton, lots of departmental loose ends to tie up. As if that weren’t enough, just when I’d figured that the South African Consulate were going to tell me to get lost, on Wednesday my passport came back with a nice visa stuck in it. It’s really happening – in two weeks, I shall be arriving in South Africa to start my new job. Which means that I have quite a lot to get done between now and then...

Anyway, although I had a number of half-completed posts lying around, and I believed that I would have enough time to polish and post one up every day, I have ended up being too busy, or too tired, to really give them they attention they deserve. And, if I’m honest, my motivation was also sapped by the realisation that for some reason, my posts were appearing in the Just Science aggregator dated as 1969 or something, and were not appearing in the RSS feed either.

However, whilst I have failed miserably, at least one geoblogger is making a good fist of it: Brian is going from strength to strength with a great series of posts on sedimentary geology. I particularly liked Wednesday’s post about the modelling of depositional systems in big tanks.

06 February, 2007

Stalagmite records individual storms and intensities

In last months’ post about climate records from stalagmites and other speleothems, I concentrated on their potential for giving us detailed regional climate information over long time periods: 10s, and even 100s, of thousands of years. However, this article at Mongabay.com highlights some research concerned with records preserving climatic variations over much shorter timescales, and one of the more contentious issues in modern climate research: how the frequency and intensity of hurricanes is affected by our warming climate.

It seems that the towering storm clouds and humid atmosphere associated with hurricanes and other tropical cyclones produce rainwater which is extremely light isotopically (it has &delta18O 6 per mil more negative than normal precipitation), and a lot of it falls in a short time when a storm hits land. Amy Frappier and her colleagues decided to test if this pulse of storm water could affect the &delta18O of the groundwater enough to leave a signal in speleothems growing in underlying caves.

We used a computer-controlled dental drill to carefully mill off layers of powder from a fast-growing stalagmite [from Actun Tunichil Muknal caves, Belize], where each sample reflects cave drip water over periods of a week to a month. Analyzing these rock powders using standard techniques, we were able to detect brief spikes from recent hurricanes and tropical storms that produced rain over the cave - even when those storms struck only weeks apart!"

The effect is clearly illustrated by this figure from a paper Frappier et al. have just published in Geology [1]. Tropical cyclones which have hit Belize in the last 30 years (A) correlate well with short negative excursions in &delta18O (B). These excursions are superimposed on a longer-term pattern related to the El Nino Southern Oscillation (the 15 month offset with the El Nino record in C represents the time it takes rainwater to percolate from the surface to the cave). The accompanying carbon isotope record also shows the El Nino variation, probably due to changes in soil respiration rates, but not the storm events, showing that they are due to a separate forcing (heavy storm precipation).

The final subfigure D is interesting, as it indicates that stronger storms (plotted in A) seem to produce larger excursions. Going back to the Mongabay piece:
"We also found that the relative size of spikes that we measured was related to the intensity of the storm, which is encouraging for the prospect of reconstructing the intensities of pre-historic landfalling storms.."

There’s currently a lot of debate over possible changes in storm numbers and/or intensity as a result of anthropogenic climate change (RealClimate has a good summary of the science) – some people claim there is already a clear signal, but others say that the historical data just isn’t good enough. Speleothem records can’t help resolve one of the major issues, the detection of non-landfalling storms, but it seems that they can potentially give us a much longer term record of trends in tropical cyclone intensity than is currently available; and a better idea of how much natural variability there was in the past can only help.

[1] Geology 35, p111-114 (doi).

This post was published on Day 2 of the Just Science challenge – a full week of science and only science. You can subscribe to the RSS feed at http://www.justscience.net/?feed=rss2.
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