RSES Recommends: Books, Part 1

Looking for something to read that isn’t directly related to your own scientific work? Try some of the books recommended by RSES PhD students and complied by Kelly-Anne Lawler.

Two books that should be on everyone’s reading list (these books are definitely not just for scientists!) are Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, and Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. Bad Science deals with the, well, bad science, that occurs in industries as varied as pharmaceuticals (he has written an entire book on this topic – Bad Pharma), the beauty industry, education and homeopathy. According to Ben Goldacre himself it is a ‘book about the misuse of science by quacks, journalists, and big pharmaceutical companies’.

Continue reading “RSES Recommends: Books, Part 1”

The Rio Tinto mines

The Rio Tinto ore body is a massive sulfide deposit in the south of the Iberian peninsula. It takes its name from the nearby Rio Tinto, literally “red river,” whose colour is due to oxidation of iron contaminants leached from minerals in the nearby ore body, or from the slag heaps that dot the region. In 1873, a group of investors took over the mine, forming the Rio Tinto Group, which has since become one of the largest mining concerns in the world. However, the exploitation of the region’s mineral wealth started long before the 19th century. rio_tinto

Fig. 1. The Rio Tinto river, showing the deep red colour caused by the high concentration of ferric iron.

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Trends in Science

By Tim Jones

The ability to search through colossal amounts of data with a few key strokes is one of the most powerful gifts of the digital age. While vastly improving the standard of common knowledge the world over (with no foreseeable limit to this trend), we have opened up areas of research that would be too arduous for humans, or simply never imagined before the rise of digital data analysis. An awesome example of this is Google’s Ngram Viewer, a corpus of digitised texts containing around 6% of all books ever printed. Linguists use it to track changes in language through time, e.g. the usage of “burnt” vs “burned” or the emergence of phrases such as “it takes two to tango”. I’ve used it to track the occurrence of four words between 1800 and 2000; physics, chemistry, biology, and geology. There are some interesting correlations that can been drawn between trends in word usage and the timing of developments and discoveries in these fields of science. For example, geology begins its greatest period of growth from the year 1829, one year before Charles Lyell began publishing his seminal work, Principles of Geology.


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Radioactive Glass that glows

By Louise Schoneveld.


Currently showing at the  National Gallery of Australia  is the wonderful artwork by Ken + Julia Yonetani entitled – The last temptation. The artwork is make up of beautiful uranium glass chandeliers, with each chandelier size representative of a country’s nuclear output. There are 31 chandeliers in the collection, however only a small selection are shown here in Canberra.

While walking amongst the chandeliers, I began to think; how does the glass glow?

Continue reading “Radioactive Glass that glows”

Gold of the bl-Incas

By Richard Skelton

In 1532, with just 168 men, a cannon, and mounts for fewer than 1 in 5 of his men, the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro defeated the Incan Empire. The Incas possessed, at the time, the largest and wealthiest empire in the Americas, encompassing an area nearly four times greater than that of modern Spain, and with a population estimated at anywhere between 4 and 37 million people. For the men involved in this expedition, as with those who had accompanied Hernan Cortez a few years earlier in his conquest of the Aztecs, the primary motivation can only have been plunder. The Incan empire was fabulously rich, with temples and palaces virtually overflowing with ornaments and statues made from gold and silver.

Continue reading “Gold of the bl-Incas”

What is modeling and how does it work?

I’ve noticed in a lot of RSES Thursday seminars and generally in the media that people often ask why is a particular model showing something but not something else. How is it that it is showing this phenomenon but not that other phenomenon. Or they point out how something can’t be because their data are not showing the same thing.

This goes in general for any model… whether it’s a climate model, a model of ocean currents or a combination thereof, a geodynamic model… anything.

Continue reading “What is modeling and how does it work?”

The lowest place on Earth

The lowest point on our planet is the Challenger Deep, around 12 km below sea level. There is a slight problem with it though – it is underwater. The lowest place you can actually go there without getting too wet is the Dead Sea, a hypersaline lake on the border of Israel and Jordan. You are going to get all wet and sweaty, because unlike Canberra at this time of the year, that place is incredibly hot. Here’s a cropped screen capture of today’s forecast from the Israeli Meteorological Service:

A cropped screen capture of today's forecast from the Israeli Meteorological Service

Now, I could talk to you about the environmental crises occurring there because we’re geoscientists, or I could write something about the rich history of the place because some of us may be interested in that. I was going to do it when thinking about this post, but then I decided that I will not. That’s boring stuff and you can go and find some papers or articles about it. Being a native of the Israeli desert, just looking at some pictures of this area made me feel all emotional and stuff. That place can definitely take some deep feelings from your heart and throw them in you face until you start crying like a little baby because it makes you so happy (and sad because I’m so far away).

So instead of going all academic telling you that it’s lower than 400 metres below sea level and decreasing because of human activities, or that it occasionally spits out asphalt that starts floating on the surface of the water, I’ll try to convey some of those inexplicable feelings to you. Feelings work better with sound, so here’s a song to play in the background while you’re reading this:

That song is called “tzipor midbar” (ציפור מדבר), meaning “desert bird”. Some say the lyrics are about a town called Arad, the neighbouring town to the famous Masada fortress, where the Roman army lay siege until all the Jewish inhabitants committed suicide.

A view of the Dead Sea from Masada. © by CarmelH, source:
A view of the Dead Sea from Masada. © by CarmelH, source:

My own relationship with does not go too far in time. I only got to intimately know it in my early twenties, when I had a job there. My task was to operate a barge that extracted carnallite (KMgCl3·6[H2O]) from the evaporation ponds and pumped it to the factory where they produced potash, magnesia, bromine and all kinds of chemicals from it.

The author in his early twenties, driving a small boat to a barge
The author in his early twenties, driving a small boat to a barge

Occasionally, during night shifts, the factory would shut down for maintenance, so that means that barge has to shut down as well. This means no noise from the machinery, and no lights because we don’t need it. And then it hits you – complete silence. Complete darkness. It’s you, alone (well almost, we’re two on a barge) in the middle of nowhere. You are on the sea, and the closest sign of any civilisation is the factory itself which may be several km away from you. Then you look up, and see the sky. Completely clear, millions of stars. You can almost see shadows cast by the glow of the milky way. And then the sun rises:

Sunrise, looking east
Sunrise, looking east

I worked there for only six months, but I visited the region countless more times. Easy when it’s only 1.5 hours away from where you live! Now, most tourists only visit Masada and the hotels. That’s not a bad thing, considering this is how the beach looks:

Yes, that's salt. Halite. NaCl. © by volnat, source:
Yes, that’s salt. Halite. NaCl. © by volnat, source:

Once you go slightly deeper to the desert, you find amazing things. First of all, the entire thing exposes magnificent outcrops of sedimentary rocks. You can see beautiful patterns in clays and marls, huge ammonites, quartz geodes (locally known as תפוחי אליהו, Elijah’s apples), huge dolomite crystals and what not. One of the most peculiar things you can find there is a huge salt diapir. That’s a mountain made out of almost pure salt, called Mount Sedom (of Sedom and Gomorrah fame). It’s always hilarious making unsuspecting tourists to actually lick the mountain:

A Belgian friend experiencing some of the tastes of the Middle East, Mt Sedom
A Belgian friend experiencing some of the tastes of the Middle East, Mt Sedom salt diapir

Although this place is a desert and not much (if at all) can survive in the Dead Sea (hence the name), there are some green spots around it. One of my favourite ones is Ein Bokek, a small oasis in a canyon that flows all year. There’s nothing like wetting your feet in the cool water after a long walk in the scorching sun.

Ein Bokek. © by serstef, source:
Ein Bokek. © by serstef, source:

I will stop now because just writing this blog post makes me home sick. I will finish with another song. Don’t worry – this time it’s in English. The filming location, the vibe of the song, the choreography, the effects, and everything else in this song makes me feel like I am actually standing there, 40°C, facing a strong and dry western wind. Put it on full screen and plug in your headphones.

Making volcanoes in the lab

By Eleanor

Early on in my PhD I started telling people I do “experimental petrology”, which was true, but most people had no idea what I was talking about. I liked the term because it sounded clever and then I would explain it. “Petrology is the study of how rocks form,” I would say, “so I do experiments to understand how rocks form.”

Lately I’ve given up on that approach – instead, I just say, “I make magma.” This is also true, and it usually gets people more interested… everyone likes magma!

But then people tend to assume that I study volcanoes. So I have to add, “I’m interested in magma before it even thinks of coming out of a volcano.”

I don’t study volcanoes, but many people do, and last week I visited the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where I met people who do experimental volcanology. Now that’s a term people might be able to understand: yes, it does mean making volcanoes in the lab.

I was lucky enough to attend a short course called “Melts, Glasses and Magmas” by Prof. Don Dingwell. The course was fantastic – I felt like it came at just the right time for me, that it really helped me to develop my understanding and think more critically about my own research.

But besides the lectures, we were also given tours of the lab facilities. Seeing fancy, complicated looking labs is always fun, but it’s even better when you get to see something that has been referred to as a “volcano in the basement”… even if it does look more like a rocket ship than a volcano.


The top part of each of these columns is just a big container full of air. In a small chamber at the bottom sits a sample of volcanic rock, which has a lot of pores (holes). This lower chamber is filled with high-pressure argon gas – the gas also fills in all the holes in the rock.

Then, the valves separating the two chambers are opened. Suddenly the high-pressure gas at the bottom, in the rock, expands, and it does this so quickly that the rock explodes and is forced up into the chamber above – bang! Volcanic eruption!

Recently, in one of these ‘eruptions’, the team in Munich observed volcanic lightning! This is the first time volcanic lightning has been seen in a laboratory – check out the video.

Colour in scientific graphs – part 2

Last time we had an introduction to colour in scientific graphs, where we had two categorical data series. What happens if we have continuous or sequential data, plotted over an area?

Here are two X-ray maps using the classic ‘rainbow’ colour scheme, the first of Ti in allanite:


Looks good, no? We can see the background that has very little Ti compared to the allanite. The allanite has a Ti rich “core”, intermediate “mantle”, and a Ti-poor “crust”. It is also possible to see some “hotspots” of Ti in the mantle.

Let’s see another example, this time of Mn in epidote:


Not as good as before, but we can see the important things. The epidote is mostly in the ~40 area (green), with some Mn-rich zones (blue and violet). The other mineral in the top is low on Mn (yellow).

If you’ve read my last post, then you can already see the problems in this. First of all, this will go bad in black and white printing. Let’s simulate that:


See how the colour scale makes absolutely no sense? The second obvious problem is the accessibility: the use of both red and green makes it difficult for people with colour deficiency to properly understand the figure.

In plots such as this, there is a third problem – the way our eye perceives colour. The computer “sees” the data as continuous. However, when plotted with different colours (hues) our brain interprets what it sees as discrete colours. You see green, red, blue, violet, etc. The problem is exacerbated because not all colours have the same numerical range. If you look at the scale, you can see that you have only one orange whereas you have several greens. Therefore, differences within different shades of the same colour are lost.

In order to make better colour schemes, luminosity should be used instead of hue. The human eye and brain can detect subtle differences in luminosity, especially when it is the same colour. Let’s see how it works for our two X-ray maps:



Oh my, now that’s beautiful. And clear. I used two different schemes – white to dark colour and black to bright colour. Both work fantastically. You can now see that the allanite is actually sector zoned in respect to Ti, and it has a weird Ti-poor ring surrounding its core. You can also discern the delicate details of Mn zoning in the epidote. Notice that I used only one colour! This also works great in grey scale printing.

What happens when you have a certain middle value (such as 0) where the values are diverging from it? It is a good idea to use two different colours and a neutral middle colour:



Even though it doesn’t make much sense to use it in mineral chemistry X-ray map, the result is surprisingly beautiful. It is, however, quite useful in topography (below and above water), geophysics (magnetic anomalies), meteorology (temperature), etc. Just be sure that you’re using colour blind friendly colours.

Colour in scientific graphs – part 1

In the past years, there is a surge in the amount of colour that appears in scientific papers. There are several reasons for it. The ease of creating coloured figures increases with every new release of a software version. Journals are accepting (and encouraging) colour more than ever. Additionally, in the world of online publishing, there are no added costs for colour.

In the past, people had only black and white (and grey scale if lucky) to use. This forced them to think about line types (dashed vs dotted), symbols (circles and squares), etc. to make the graph easy to understand. Today, many people submit their pretty colour figures without putting too much thought into the act.

Let’s take a look at an example:


Seemingly, there’s nothing wrong with that graph. There are two data series, both of which are coloured (red and green) and appear in the legend. However, this figure fails in two critical aspects:

Black and white photocopying and printing

Even though it’s possible to view articles online nowadays, many people still print out papers. Just take a look at any desk here at RSES. While you may think that the green looks brighter than the red so when printing one will be dark grey and the other will be light grey, it is not the case. The two colours have the exact same luminosity and thus will appear identical in print. It is then left to the reader to try and figure out which are better, kittens or spiders. And it is open to subjective interpretation.

There is a simple solution to that: use different symbols in addition to colour:


This way, people with no access to colour printing can still understand your figure, while people with colour printing or screen viewing can benefit from your use of colour. If you prefer to use only lines and no symbols, there is a solution for you as well – line types:


Accessibility and colour blindness

Colour blindness affects mostly males (in some countries close to 10% of the population) but also females. This means that you can be confident that some of your readers are certain to be colour blind. Most commonly, people cannot distinguish red from green. This makes our figure a great example of how not to do it. While people can use the symbols to distinguish the two data series, the entire point of the colour is reduce the time the reader needs to understand the figure. Which colours should we use then? This is a hard question because of the multitude of colour blindness forms. Generally, blue and orange are a good combination:


However, with increasing data series this quickly becomes a hard task. Fortunately, there are online tools to assist in colour choice. One of my favourites is ColorBrewer: but there are others (just search online for ‘colorblind safe colors’).

Remember – colour in scientific figures is a tool to assist understand the figure better and faster. It is not to make it pretty, although that is usually a welcome side effect.

There are two ways to test your figures after you’ve created them. First of all, print it black and white. Can you still understand the different data series? Second, you should run your figure through a simulator (or ask a colour blind friend). My favourite is the one at, but it requires that your figure already exists somewhere online. Finding other simulators should be easy using a search engine. Try to run the red-green and the blue-orange versions through the simulator!

Final note about legends

Legends are terrible in my opinion: your eyes keep moving around from the actual data to the legend. I always try to avoid using them. A better alternative is quite obvious in our case:


That’s it for now. Stay tuned for part 2 where I will discuss colour gradients. There plots were produced using R. If anyone is interested in seeing the code I used, feel free to ask me.

The Great Mantle Plume Debate

The Great Mantle Plume Debate has been simmering aggressively – in a similar fashion to soup on an unattended stove- throughout all facets of Earth Science since the 1960’s. Seismologists, geophysicists, experimental petrologists, and analytical geochemists alike have invested serious time and money trying to solve the mystery that is the mantle plume. Since starting my PhD on the geochemistry of Hawaiian volcanism, I have been thrust- like a spoon in a tub of icecream- to the complex topic that is mantle plume theory, and have been surprised to learn just how much is still in dispute, and how much is still to be discovered. Sounds dramatic, but -much like a good Agatha Christie novel- a lot of headway has been made by some unassuming and cool-headed detectives (scientists).

The aggressively simmering pot of soup that is the mantle plume debate.
The aggressively simmering pot of soup that is the mantle plume debate.

First of all, what are mantle plumes?

‘Mantle plume’ is the name given to buoyant material that rises from depth in the Earth through the mantle in a narrow conduit. This material melts, and produces volcanoes at the Earth’s surface which take on a linear geometry if a tectonic plate is moving overhead- like a linear row of oozing pimples…(?)

‘I don’t care about plumes!’ I hear you say.

Plume theory, now widely accepted (although there are many influential scientists who do not subscribe to the theory in its current form), is used to explain the curious types of volcanoes that form independent of tectonic forces, unlike the majority of volcanism on Earth. For example the volcanoes which make Earth’s continental crust are produced by the collision of two tectonic plates, and most of the Earth’s oceanic crust is produced by volcanism at two diverging plates. Some volcanoes however, occur far away from plate boundaries, and the mechanism for their formation is still shrouded in mystery! Much like a man in a trench-coat would be, if he were lurking on a street corner at night.

Mantle plumes if they were a person.
Mantle plumes if they were a person.

These mysterious volcanoes are known by many different names, depending on who you talk to, including:

  • Hotspots
  • Wetspots
  • Ocean Island Basalts (OIB)
  • Or vaguely: ‘melting anomalies’

The reason for all the names is that there are still many different theories circulating in the field of Earth sciences as to how mantle plumes form, what they are exactly, and if they even exist! Yes, many Earth Scientists maintain that plumes do not exist, and that hotspot volcanism is passive, caused by surficial processes such as shallow cracks and fissures in the crust- controversial! This group prefer to use the term ‘melting anomaly’. I will continue the rest of the article assuming that plumes do exist, however plume denialists raise a good point that the current one-size-fits-all plume theory struggles to account for the many unique features of each hotspot.

At this stage it needs to be pointed out that there are over 60 hotspots/wetspots/OIBs documented globally, and every single one on Earth is unique in some way.

Many appear to start at different mantle depths, have different isotopic trace element signatures, and even highly variable major element signatures. They all have different volume fluxes, uplift and subsidence rates, some form tracks while others don’t; some have flood basalts whereas others don’t. In general though, they all tend to be located around Africa or the Pacific Ocean- kinda weird!? Some well-known hotspots include:

  • Hawaii
  • Iceland
  • Reunion
  • Yellowstone
  • Samoa
  • Kerguelen
  • Ascension
  • Cape Verde
  • Canary Islands
  • Easter Island

The two big questions that are the crux of the Great Mantle Plume Debate are:

1) How deep in the Earth do plumes originate?

The best place to start with this question, is seismic evidence. The speed of seismic waves through the mantle enables us to see – as one would see a lady’s intimate apparel by using X-ray vision goggles- material of contrasting density, and thus to see plumes. Attenuation tomography allows us to see slices through the mantle and reveals differences in porosity, permeability, and viscosity of the material through which it is slicing. Studies have shown that, yes! we can see plumes below hotspots, and interestingly most originate from highly variable depths in the mantle: some are restricted to the upper mantle, some to the lower mantle, and a few have even been tracked to the core-mantle boundary (2800 km deep in the Earth… that’s as deep as an LSD-fuelled philosophical epiphany!). This method is good, but it seems the resolution is not good enough yet to have persuaded everybody in the Earth Sciences.

Seismic waves (X-ray goggles) travelling through the Earth's mantle (lady’s peticoat).
Seismic waves (X-ray goggles) travelling through the Earth’s mantle (lady’s peticoat).

A good way to show you how seismic imagery may not be high resolution enough is to show you what mantle plumes are supposed to look like, based on fluid dynamic experiments, and then compare it to what we actually see:

Left: what plumes are supposed to look like. Right: actual tomographic images of the plume beneath Hawaii.
What plumes are supposed to look like.

plume hawaii
Actual tomographic images of the plume beneath Hawaii.









As you can see, some colourful imagination is required to convert between the two. What we can say for sure though, is that large areas of mantle below Africa and the Pacific contrast seismically to surrounding ambient mantle. As I said before, this also happens to be where most of the hotspots are located. Coincidence…? I think not!

In addition, geochemists –represent- know that the isotopic signature of hotspot lavas is very different to that of mid-ocean ridge lavas, indicating they must have come from much deeper in the mantle than the strongly depleted mid-ocean ridge lavas. Further geochemical evidence for a core mantle boundary source for some hotspots comes from the helium isotopic signature, although this isotope as a tracer has come under scrutiny because other processes may affect the ratio.

Some disagree with a deep source however, and suggest that the source depth may be restricted to the upper mantle (shallower than mid-ocean ridges in some cases), or at least to the 660km discontinuity, and that upwelling occurs as a result of mineral phase change there.

2) What causes the material to upwell?

This question appears to divide people the most. There are broadly two possibilities: it is a thermal anomaly at some boundary layer that causes material to become warm and buoyant, or it is a geochemical compositional anomaly that causes buoyancy.

Another possibility which does not get discussed nearly enough in my opinion is that it could be some combination of the two. Both work on the same principal that warmer material or material with a different chemical composition would become buoyant and upwell to create a plume- in the same way you can melt ice by either warming it up or by adding salt to it.

A few methods have been used to investigate this; one is using calculation of buoyancy flux to see what temperatures would be required to produce large amounts of melting- many people believe that for any large amount of melting to occur an increase in temperature must exist. This is where the name ‘hotspot’ originates from. Similarly, topography can be used to infer the amount of heat entering the plume, and subsequently the depth the plume originates.

Another method is the use of geothermometry to determine mantle temperatures. One that is commonly used is the olivine geothermometer, however the use of this method has produced excess temperatures of over 200̊C in some studies, but zero excess in others. Either way the thermal argument would require long-lived thermal anomalies at the core-mantle boundary, and heat conducting from the core heterogeneously.

Geochemists and petrologists are more in favour of a chemical argument for plume formationfunnily enough.

The general idea is that subducted crust may sink down to a boundary layer where it sits, warms up and becomes buoyant, and melt is produced because the reaction between this crust and mantle forms material with a lower melting point than ambient mantle. There is growing evidence that the source rock for OIB lavas may be pyroxenitic, and not peridotitic, based on experimental petrology and the ratios of major elements present in the lava.

Others speculate that the amount of water and carbon in this subducted material may be the cause for melting. ‘This is why ‘hotspots’ have started to be called ‘wetspots’ by some scientists.

Other studies have rejected the need for a deep source for this crustal material, suggesting that it may simply be delaminated lithosphere that has metasomatized the asthenosphere to cause melting.

Seismic studies have found ‘blebs’ of material sitting at the core-mantle boundary (called large low shear velocity provinces), but it cannot distinguish the difference between thermal or compositional ‘blebs’, so unfortunately this method is less useful for answering this question.

In the end, we have many different unique volcanoes that vary in so many different ways, and we don’t have a mantle plume model that explains all of them. We also don’t know the exact mechanism that causes plumes, and we don’t know for sure at what depth in the Earth they form. This is good news for us geologists as it gives us something to do with our attention deficit brains.

Small science, big picture

By Eleanor

Something I find bizarre and amazing about science is the juxtaposition of scales.

You can have a big problem, like “how did our planet form?” and attack it by understanding very small things, like how atoms arrange themselves in magma, or tiny differences in the amounts of elements present in different rocks. By understanding many small things, you can build a huge, yet rigorous and detailed picture of the world. Like a high-resolution panoramic photograph.

As a scientist, thinking about my research every day, I get desensitised sometimes to how cool it is. But sometimes I read something that blows my mind a little bit, and gives me a new appreciation for what it is I’m doing, and the achievements of the generations of scientists before us.

A moment like this happened last week. I was reading about a new technique that I will be using soon, which involves measuring something on the scale of ‘parts per million’.

What does a concentration of parts per million mean? Well, imagine a water tank that can hold ten thousand litres of water… like this one:


Now imagine that you fill it up with water, and then (assuming there’s a little more space in the top), pour in 100 mL (a bit under half a cup) of apple juice.


The concentration of apple juice in this water tank is ten parts per million.

Now imagine you have two water tanks, and an evil mastermind has put 100 mL apple juice into one, and 110 mL into the other. This evil mastermind will tell you all the secrets to the universe if you can figure out which one is which (and no guessing allowed; that’s not scientific!).

How would you do it? You could try to taste the difference, but I’d be willing to bet that you wouldn’t even be able to tell there was apple juice there at all, since it’s so dilute, let alone the difference between the tanks.

This is exactly the type of problem that earth scientists are confronted with on a regular basis. The evil mastermind is nature, who will share her secrets only if we try very very hard. The tank of water could be rock, and the apple juice is a certain element that we try to measure in the rock.

Fortunately, scientists have, over decades of work, developed techniques and machines that help us to make measurements like these. It’s something I often take for granted because these measurements can seem so routine, but it’s nice to remind myself every now and then that some of the simplest things I do are actually pretty cool. And that some of the smallest details that we discover are helping to complete that high resolution, panoramic photograph of the world.





The Foram’s Song

Are you fed up with boring graphs? What about listening to your data instead of starring at them for hours?

It is possible thanks to the sonification of data.

Above, an example of the sonification played by physicists of CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) for the 60th birthday of the organisation. This piece of music is made of different data set from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), giving an idea of the complexity of the Universe.

How did they do that?

A brief explanation on sonification from BBC

The idea is simple. You assign a musical note to a value. The greater your value is, the higher the pitch gets. If your data are increasing the higher your composition will become and vice versa. Their are several free software programs on the internet that enables you to do this like Puredata among others.

Sonification has been used for a long time without creating such nice melodies. For instance, the Geiger counter uses the same principle as the more radiation there is, the strongest the sound you hear.

Why should we use it?

Because it sounds fun. And because, sonification of data enables scientists to hear more information at once than when looking at graphs. You can put together several data set and recognize patterns and harmony between them. In fact, it’s possible to hear many dimensions.

Their are many other examples on the internet. This one is a real current issue:

I am only an amateur but I know that there are few people in RSES who are very good music players. Maybe we could team up and try to work on an RSES sonification project with geology data?

Stupid hoodies

By Thomas

Sometimes you come across things that leave you speechless for a moment. Then you consider short whether it is worth the trouble to get upset about it. You shake your head and walk off. But then you come across this thing again …

The “thing” I am talking about in this case are hoodies soled by a group called “ANU Graduates Community”, not to be confused with the ANU Alumni community (I hope).

The first hoodie I came across said “I graduated from ANU. To save time, let`s just assume I`m always right” (Figure 1).

Figure 1: If you wear this I will assume something, it will have nothing to do with you being right though.

I shook my head and walked away from the idea of writing a post about it. After all, if people wanted to display their ignorance and the fact that they had not learned some essentials they should have learned at university, so be it. I was a bit worried that (some) ANU graduates might not understand that in an (ideal) academic discourse the formulated argument is what counts, not some authority you build up (e.g. by graduating from a certain institution). I was a bit more worried about the snobbish picture these hoodies would display to the general public. But hey, maybe the whole thing was some insider joke, or it was a good piece of irony that I just had failed to grasp.

Then I came across another hoddie this morning. It says “I graduated from ANU. I solve problems you don`t know you have in ways you can`t understand” (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Are you sure you graduated from ANU?

What the f … I mean … Really?! This hoodie raises the same problems as the first one: What did the person wearing it actually understood during the time at ANU and how is this message received by other people?

But there is another alarm clock that went off when I saw this one. But before I come to this let me make one thing clear:

I can totally understand that people are proud of graduating from ANU (or from any other institution for that matter) and there is no problem with that. But why do you have to use this pride to elevate yourself above others and be condescending towards them (“you don`t know […] you can`t understand”)?

In the best case that makes you an insensitive … person-I-don`t-want-to-have-anything-to-do-with.

In the worst case it is a sign that you get your self-esteem by belonging to a group of people which you elevate above others.

A human trait that accompanied us through all ages and has many facets.

A trait that can only bring forth misery and harm.

You might think I am a bit dramatic here. Yes, it is only a minor case. But in my eyes the well educated people coming out of university are (and have an obligation to be) the forefront of a modern society that ever pushes to get closer to the utopia of a world with equal rights and equal opportunities.

How can we ever get there, if even the graduates of a world leading university slip back into the old ways of group (i.e. “us against them”) thinking?

Rant is over.

First Words

By Thomas

Six times the Apollo missions landed on the Moon (Yes, they did!).

Six times “first words” were spoken on the lunar surface. Most of them are not well known though.

What were they and how do they compare to each other? I put them into a sort of ascending (subjective!) order from “good” to “great”.

I`m sure your order will be different – let me know in the comments.

And it’s been a long way, but we’re here.
Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr. , Apollo 14

Apollo 14 – The first golf swing on the Moon (by Alan Shepard)

The space race was won and the “successful failure” of Apollo 13 was probably still prominently in people’s minds. Therefore – when landing safely on the lunar surface again – this simple, down-to-Moon sentence set a good baseline for what was becoming more and more the focus of the Apollo missions now: Exploring and understanding the Moon.

Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.
Charles Conrad, Jr. , Apollo 12

as12-46-6777 thru as12-46-6780
Apollo 12 – The first landing on the intended landing site on the Moon

Well, what could you have said being the next in line and only 121 days after the “giant leap”? You would have had no chance to “beat” it. So why not use the occasion to prove that the first words on the Moon weren`t scripted by NASA. Conrad had made a 500 US$ bet with journalist Oriana Fallaci that he would make exactly this joke about his height while stepping from the ladder. Thus he showed that the astronauts were free to say what they wanted as their “first words”. He won the bet – but never got the money.

… as I step off at the surface at Taurus-Littrow, we’d like to dedicate the first step of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible.
Eugene Andrew Cernan, Apollo 17

Apollo 17 – The first geologist on the Moon (Harrison Schmitt)

Flying and landing on the Moon is not easy. It needs a lot of woman- and manpower. The Apollo program employed up to 400000 people that made the whole enterprise possible. And they had to be paid. So every US-taxpayer was involved in making it possible too. And someone had to get the ball rolling to make it possible. I think it is fitting that the first words of the last Apollo mission were dedicated to all these people.

There you are: Mysterious and Unknown Descartes. Highland plains. Apollo 16 is gonna change your image.
John Watts Young, Apollo 16

as16-116-18573 thru as16-116-18581
Apollo 16 – The first landing in the lunar highlands

Prior to the mission the expectation was that the main geological units at the Apollo 16 landings site (the Cayley Plains and Descartes Highlands) were of volcanic origin. The mission showed that this expectation was wrong: The Cayley Plains as well as the Descartes Highland are large ejecta features, formed by rocks which were thrown to the location by gigantic impacts early in the lunar history. The first words on the surface during this mission therefore were quite prophetic. Although, you have to mention that short after landing John Young had already observed that something was strange with the rocks.1 So it was an “informed prophecy”.

As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest.
David Randolph Scott, Apollo 15

Apollo 15 – The first car on the Moon

In my opinion the best first words due to their poetic quality.

“There is a fundamental truth to our nature. Man must explore. And this is exploration at its greatest.”

Could as well be the entry quote for a Star Trek movie or any other utopian works on the human strive “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Apollo 11 – The first bootprints on the Moon

Of course, missing in this little collection of quotes are THE first words. That is because you can`t really compare them to the others. Even if they would have been “This Moon landing is brought to you by Coca Cola” they would stand out, simply because they are THE first words. But of course I have to list them here, though not in competition with the other “first words”.

That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.
Neil Alden Armstrong, Apollo 11

If mankind ever leaves this planet before annihilating itself, then these words will be carried with our collective consciousness to other planets, other stars or even other galaxies2. In a distant future, when all fairy tale books assigning humans a special place in nature by supernatural means will gather dust in the fantasy sections of libraries, this sentence will still be taught as a shining example for what really sets us apart – our will and ability to cross frontiers no one else3 could cross before.

The perfect line for the first “first words”!


1 “I wish I could tell you what kind of rocks those are Houston. But some of them are very white; and, doggone, if I could see…I’m not close enough to them, but…And I see one white one with some black…Can’t tell whether that’s dirt or not on it. But it could be a white breccia, if you believe such a thing.” Apollo Lunar Surface Journal

2 I`m sticking my neck far, far out here

3 “No one else” in this case means not other species. On this planet. As far as we know.

In the heart of the machine

By Eleanor

“Is that like a transformer?”

I’ve just been to Japan for a synchrotron school. Most of my non-scientist friends had never even heard of the word ‘synchrotron’ before I told them where I was going. One friend thought it sounded like something from the movie ‘Transformers’. Fortunately, Mike’s latest post will help you tell the difference.

Others friends have heard of the Large Hadron Collider and they assume that I must be doing particle physics. But I’m not – I’m a geologist.

Synchrotron Source: Riken
‘SPring-8’ synchrotron, Japan
Source: Riken

This is the synchrotron facility called ‘SPring-8’ in Japan, where I’ve just spent ten days learning all about how these things work and what you can do with them. So what do they do and why, as a geologist, would I go there? And what does it look like, inside?

Being a geologist means that I want to learn about the Earth. As children, most of us grow up learning a lot about the world by seeing. The sun’s light reflects off the things around us and enters our eyes, which send signals to our brain. But there is a limit to what we can see with our eyes, and with light from the sun.

In my lab at the Research School of Earth Sciences, I make lava – molten rock – and cool it so quickly that it turns to glass. I want to find out how the atoms are arranged inside the glass, and how that arrangement might change with pressure. But that’s not something I can see with sunlight and my eyes. Instead, I need a different type of light – I need x-rays.

But I can’t just use any old x-rays. When you break an arm you might get an x-ray that illuminates your whole arm, but I need to look at atoms, so I need to focus all that light into a very small spot – like the difference between a light globe and a laser pointer. Both might have the same power, but because the laser pointer is so focussed, it illuminates small areas much more brightly.

So I need very bright, focussed x-rays. Unfortunately it’s not easy to make an x-ray laser*. This is where synchrotrons come in. A synchrotron is a light source, and I need it to generate light that will help me “see” the results of my experiments, and hopefully understand something new about the Earth.

Okay, but why does it look like a doughnut?

That’s because of the way synchrotron light is produced. Inside the doughnut-shaped building, there is another doughnut-shaped, er, room (?) … called the “storage ring” which has walls at least a metre thick. Inside the storage ring, there is a length of metal tubing that goes all the way around, surrounded by different types of magnets. Inside the tubing, electrons are flying through, around the ring, at close to the speed of light. The magnets keep all the electrons going in the right direction – not in a circle but in a big polygon with straight sections and bends. So, it’s called a storage ring because this is where the electrons are stored. When the electron beam is forced to bend, x-rays (and other wavelengths of light) are produced, and this light is funnelled out of the storage ring and into a “beamline”.

Okay. Breathe!

Did you just skim over that paragraph, wondering why I got so excited about magnets and electrons and metal tubing? I’m describing it because this is the real heart of the synchrotron, and this is not something you usually get to see. Even if I’d known all this stuff was in there (which I didn’t), seeing it for myself really helped me understand what was going on.

Inside the storage ring.

So I want to share two cool things that I saw inside the storage ring, and both of them are evidence that not all of the x-rays go to the beamlines, but some get scattered and escape (that’s why you need the walls to be so thick).

(1) Have you ever left some paper on the windowsill, and found after a couple of weeks it turned yellow? In this photo, the same thing has happened to the floor, but with x-rays. The floor has been discoloured except for the region in the ‘shadow’ of the metal strut.

X-rays causing discolouration of the floor, but the metal strut has cast a shadow.

(2) This telephone. I took a photo because it seemed strange to see such old technology while standing in the heart of such high-tech facility. As it turns out, the x-rays in the storage ring tend to kill electronics, proving the worth of the trusty analogue phone.

Also inside the storage ring.

Though some get scattered, most of the x-rays do get captured and sent down into the beamlines – and this is where the science happens! What kind of science? It turns out, a lot! I was surprised to find myself one of only four earth scientists out of 77 students on this course. The majority of students seemed to be in biological research doing protein crystallography. Until now I didn’t even know that proteins formed crystals! There were also students working on topics ranging from the properties of rubber and plastic, to nanoparticles in the environment, to the motion of atoms in solids.

So, synchrotrons are not aliens, nor do they involve smashing particles together. They are facilities that produce bright and focussed light useful to a wide range of science and engineering.

* X-ray lasers have just started to be developed. There are three in the world, and the smallest one is 900 m long. You can actually see this facility in the photo of SPring-8 above: it’s the long building above and to the right of the synchrotron.

Not-so-serious Sunday 55: Ambitious science communication

By Kelly

The European Space Agency shows the world what science communication can achieve (on a large budget). The making of below is also excellent.

Ambition is a collaboration between Platige Image and ESA. Directed by Tomek Bagiński and starring Aiden Gillen and Aisling Franciosi, Ambition was shot on location in Iceland, and screened on 24 October 2014 during the British Film Institute’s celebration of Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, at the Southbank, London.

Scroll down for the making of….

Continue reading “Not-so-serious Sunday 55: Ambitious science communication”

ANU Climate Café

By Liane

Free coffee and snacks at Vivaldi’s Café (Union Court), on the first Wednesday of every month from 3:30 – 5:00 PM.

Well that got your attention, didn’t it?

A group of diverse PhD students are interested in overcoming disciplinary barriers when it comes to discussing climate change research here on campus – and they are providing free drinks and snacks to help facilitate the conversation.

Enter the ANU Climate Café.

Modelled after other dialogue events (e.g., Café Scientific), the monthly conversation forum is changing how we can communicate about climate change here in Canberra. At each event, a guest host presents an idea or topic which is then explored in smaller discussion groups whilst leisurely enjoying a nice drink or snack.

Put on in association with the ANU Climate Change Institute and the ANU Postgraduate and Research Student Association (PARSA), the café aims to overcome disciplinary barriers and create a supportive synergistic community amongst ANU climate change researchers.

I attended the inaugural event hosted by Michael Raupach, Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, in October. He introduced his topic, ‘Climate change and evolving narratives’, with a brief overview while providing signposts for the following discussions:

What are narratives?
Are they important in the climate change discourse?
Can narratives, for individuals of for societies, change?

At our table there was an earth scientist (me), a biologist, an artist, a philosopher and a public servant. We spent the majority of our time discussing the definition of narrative. Other groups focused on other aspects of the topic including ethics of narratives, how to change narratives, narratives of individuals vs. those for societies.

I thought that the inaugural event was interesting. Active discussion was encouraged, as was inclusivity and mutual respect. ANU Climate Café offers an innovative way to interact with a diverse group of researchers in the community outside of the standard passive seminar format.

Upcoming topics include ‘Global Warming framed as a hyperobject’ hosted by Liz Boulton from the Fenner School in November (RSVP by Oct 29, i.e. TODAY); as well as ‘The Artist’s Way’ with host Carolyn Young from the School of Art with host in December (RSVP by Nov 26).

The café returns in February 2015 with a further 12 more sessions, speakers and discussion leaders to be determined; suggestions are more than welcome.

If you are considering attending a session, be sure to RSVPs (via ANU Campus Life System) the Wednesday prior to the event to make sure that there are enough snacks.

You can find the ANU Climate Cafe here.


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