Sea-level: Explained

By Nick,

Did you know that the ocean is around 180m higher off Australia than it is around Sri Lanka. This is incredible. Why doesn’t the water flow towards Sri Lanka then? It all got to do with gravity, and how it is varies across the globe. This explanation is brilliant, and I guarantee that after 2 minutes and 45 seconds, you will know a lot more about the world*.

In general I’m quite a fan of Minute Physics, it explains some pretty complex ideas simply and easily. Check it out.


*unless of course, you’re a geophysicist and you know all this stuff already, but even so, its a cool video, and probably the best way of explaining to your Gran exactly what it is you do again.


By Nick,

from wronghands1.wordpress
from wronghands1.wordpress

Over the past few months I’ve been writing a bit less on this blog, as I began writing on my thesis, and preparing to maybe start possibly looking at the possibility of perhaps at least inquiring about potential future employment, or lack of. It seems like its been the right time for the younger generation to get to grips with the blog. Kelly has already given her final PhD talk, which was typically amazing. Brendan has done likewise. And with myself and Evan also writing up and hoping to be out of here soon enough its high time the young whipper-snappers get to grips with some good old fashioned science communication!

But in the last month, I’ve written quite a few more posts, getting back to my old once a week effort. The reason for this: Procrastiblogging. Its a great way of putting off the real important writing for some light-hearted, still interesting bits of science. My writing isn’t going too well at the moment. For the first two or so months it was all going swimmingly, I was writing well, making some pretty graphs. But its all started to come to a halt. Perhaps what I’ve written so far has just been the low-hanging fruit, that I’ve written the easy chapters and am now getting into the harder nitty gritty that I’ve been avoiding. Evan has a post going into the grind of slow writing coming up soon.

So instead of tapping out words onto the page of my thesis, I’ve been blogging instead. It has helped! So for those writing a thesis, a blog-post can actually help relieve the sense of getting nothing done all day. And for those in the lower-years starting to take on the blog: get writing. Someday all that you see here will be yours.

One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king
One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king

Procrastibaking also helps – Amaretto and Chocolate cupcakes = yum

Late Nights and Scientists: how about some data!

By Nick

Following on from my blog post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve come across some interesting data which reveals the working habits of scientists across the globe. This study (reported on here) by a Chinese research groups studied the rates of paper downloads from a major journal publisher (Springer) at various times during the day throughout the week. The result is an interesting insight into cultural differences between the work-ethics of different nations.

Working habits of the top paper downloading nations
Working habits of the top paper downloading nations

Continue reading “Late Nights and Scientists: how about some data!”

Denmark passes 120% Wind Power

By Nick,

Last year, we reported on the impressive feat of Germany managing to source 50% of its electricity needs purely from solar: here and here. This was due to a period of sunny weather combined with the closure of several nuclear power plants following the Fukushima crisis. Now Denmark has succeeding in generating more than 120% of its energy needs from Wind Power, achieving this feet on November the 4th. This too was a combination of some windy weather and the opening of Denmark’s largest offshore wind farm in early september.

Denmark's wind power generation over 100% of consumption.
Denmark’s wind power generation over 100% of consumption on November the 3rd.

Continue reading “Denmark passes 120% Wind Power”

Lego, late nights and the working habits of grad students

By Nick,

The brilliant Scientist’s specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together.
The brilliant Scientist’s specialty is finding new and interesting ways to combine things together.

Last week, Lego unveiled a new character, a female scientist by the name of Professor C. Bodin, with a coveted Nobrick prize. The wonderful thing is that the description of this new character does not explicitly say “woman scientist”. Its just a scientist character description using the word she. The company was rightly praised by news outlets and women scientists groups, as helping to break down gender stereotypes regarding women and science. But a couple of stereotypes remained: first the white lab-coat, which isn’t really too much of a big deal, but also in the description were the words:

“She’ll spend all night in her lab analyzing how to connect bricks of different sizes and shapes…”

Do scientists work all night? Is this stereotype gaining popularity? Is it even true? And if it is, is this a good thing or a bad thing for scientific progress?

Continue reading “Lego, late nights and the working habits of grad students”

The Ferrari of satellites succumbs to gravity

By Nick,

Sometime in the next two hours, one of my favourite satellites*, GOCE, will fall to Earth. GOCE stands for Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer and is the European Space Agency’s gravity measuring mission. It flies in a low earth orbit measuring tiny variations in the earth’s gravitational field to help measure ocean circulation patterns and sea-level. It also mapped the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, the boundary between crust and mantle, which I reported on here. Because it is flying so low (about 280km), it encounters a lot more air resistance than other boxy satellites, and so it was designed to be a sleek and beautiful machine. Being so beautiful, and built in Italy, it is often referred to as either the Ferrari or Supermodel of satellites.

The most beautiful satellite in (above) the world. Art by AOES Medialab / ESA
The most beautiful satellite in (above) the world. Art by AOES Medialab / ESA


Continue reading “The Ferrari of satellites succumbs to gravity”

Lab Lava: The hottest geology experiment around

By Nick


Oh my this is so cool, and by cool I mean 1600 degrees hot! A project at Syracuse University in the states is melting basalts and then pouring them down slopes, creating man-made lava flows. Its known as the lava project and its so awesome!

The project is a collaborative piece between geologist and a sculptor. But they are getting some really interesting scientific results, learning more about the interactions between lava flows and the surface they run over. For example, how lava flows interact with ice is important for learning how icelandic lava flows might behave. They are even publishing papers in geology from all the cool stuff they are learning. They’ve been trying different viscosities, adding crystals to the mix, all sorts of things.

One thing that is proving difficult though, is getting dissolved gases involved. Real-world lava flows involve a lot of escaping gas, which of course is hard to get back into the lava, when you melt basalts which have already degassed millions of years ago!

More details on the project can be found here, or try here for a decent article! There are videos abound! This looks like the ice video here:

Also: 666 posts for OnCirculation, with this one being written (but alas not published) on Halloween! Spooky.

Oh no, not another climate website! Wait, this one is actually good, it uses facts and everything

By Nick

There’s a plethora of climate change websites out there and sometimes it feels like the market may have reached a bit of saturation. So much discussion, so much arguing, so much opinion. Want to get some juicy facts instead, learn about the climate system from the experts, and then make up your own mind. Go on: try Climatica.

Climatica is a new website, co-founded by a good friend of mine, another postgraduate earth scientist from back home in the UK*. What’s different about this site? The articles aren’t written by journalists, or even well-meaning bloggers attempting to cover as broad a field as possible. Each article is written by an expert, a world renowned scientist in the field of what they are writing about. Accurate information about the world’s climate – now there’s a refreshing change of pace.

*not strictly true, he has now finished his PhD, and he claims not to be a geologist, he likes to call himself a “quaternarist” – I guess that’s what you get from doing a geography degree. But he drinks lots of beer, has an impressive beard and researches ice streams in the past – which seems like a damn good impression of a geologist to me.

Word Count = 0

By Nick,

The blank page
The blank page

Following on from this moment last month, I have now sat down to write. The blank page sits before me empty, waiting for some kind of wisdom or insight that I have gained over the last three years of experiments, conferences, and plenty of time analysing data. The calendar sits there quietly, six months to go. An eternity, and nothing at the same time. I stand at the metaphorical tunnel entrance, the light at the other end a mere rumour. How do you even start a thesis?

Every journey begins with a single step, every thesis begins with a single word.

Lets get to work.

Also: no-one told me about the snake part:

The Penny Drops

By Nick


Oh dear God,

So the realisation finally came today, that I have to finish my PhD, soon. I’ve just been working on the Application for Extension of Research Scholarship. The form I need to fill in to get a further six months (from 3 years, to 3 years six months) of funding in order to get my PhD finished.

This means I really have to get working on writing now. No more lab work, less time playing around with my data. And more time writing, writing and writing some more. My original aim of finishing at christmas suddenly looks like a mountainous task. The end of my six month extension at the end of February looks bad enough.

Compared to a couple of months ago, it all suddenly feels quite daunting. I am going to have to work very very hard for the next few months in order to finish.


Bad Talk Bingo

By Nick,

I’m just back from a week long presentation. My talk went well, the networking was great and I had a fun time. The sessions in my field were also excellent. But…

It wasn’t that great a conference, and a lot of that was down to some really dodgy presentations – especially in some of the sessions that weren’t directly related to my field, but were still of a passing interest. A bad presentation is hell on earth. I hate them, I switch off, I don’t care, often I sleep. I know I should try, I know that a bad presentation is not the same as bad science (although there was plenty of correlation = causation going on) and that I should really try hard. But in a long conference keeping up attention is hard. So a bad presentation is not exactly the best way to get your message across to me.

Now, there are plenty of blogs and websites out there which will explain how to give a good presentation, so I won’t go into the details. Instead, I’ll give you a way of staving off the boredom in those terrible talks. Next time you go to a conference, print one of these and take it with you, and play Bad Talk Bingo! Compare with your friends in other sessions and see who had the worst time.



monotonic voice

distracting background photograph

changing the title to something boring


Comic Sans

skipping unnecessary slides

turning back on the audience

reading from notes


mentioning lunch, before the end of the session

PowerPoint’s slide transitions

“As we all know…”

convener unwilling to keep session on time

running massively over time

figures with panels not used in talk

correlation = causation

Font size too small


acronyms not defined


lack of contrast between text and slide

inappropriate dress

“As you can see…”

clip art

reading from the slide

Sledding down sand dunes on surfboards made of dry ice, on Mars

By Nick,

Its been a busy week for Martian discoveries. And all of the stories here are from the Martian geologists that aren’t Curiosity. Remember Opportunity, a rover that landed on the red planet, over nine years ago. Well, despite its initial 90 martian day working lifespan, after 3300 martian days it’s still running, and still producing some great new science.

With all of Curiosity’s success in finding clues as to past water on Mars, Opportunity has discovered this rock, called Esperance. It has lower calcium and iron than any other rock so far analysed by the rover, and far higher quantities of aluminium and silica. Chemically, this means its highly likely to be a clay rich rock. And clay rich rocks can only form where there is high pH (ie. not acid) water.

Opportunity meanwhile, is off on a 2.2km trek for some winter sun, moving 25m on its first day as it trundles off in search of more science!

The pale rock in the middle of the image is believed to contain clays. Image: Nasa/JPL/Caltech/Cornell/ArizonaState
The pale rock in the middle of the image is believed to contain clays.
Image: Nasa/JPL/Caltech/Cornell/ArizonaState

But its not just the old rover’s that continue to function, the satellites are producing some stunning results and images of their own.

Continue reading “Sledding down sand dunes on surfboards made of dry ice, on Mars”

Keeping tabs on Ozone

By Nick

The American Chemical Society are producing some wonderful bite-size videos in a series called Bytesize Science (see what they did there!). They are, of course mostly about chemistry, and feature some cool stuff on the science of alcohol, and why orange juice tastes so bad after brushing your teeth (or eating shampoo). They don’t cover much geochemistry unfortunately, but there are a couple of earth monitoring videos. This one, on NASA’s Aura satellite covers how we keep tabs on air pollutants such as Ozone. Well worth 7 and a half minutes of your time!

Pavlof’s Volcano definitely erupting confirms ISS.

By Nick

Last week there was an amusing situation where some data was suggesting Pavlof’s volcano was about to erupt (seismometers), and then was erupting (thermal imaging), but people on the ground couldn’t confirm it, because, as the volcano is in Alaska and it was a bit cloudy. It cleared up a bit and the eruption was confirmed. Well, the folks on the International Space Station have produced some stunning shots (via of Pavlof’s volcano erupting and the plume spreading for 100s of kms.


Volcano observation from the ISS is actually a very handy tool, as most remote sensing satellites work only in a top down approach. The ability to have a human able to recognise something and look at it from side-on is still quite powerful!


Here’s to that great combination of stunning and deadly.


Note the Slate website have been stealing my obviously original jokes. :p

Pavlof’s Volcano will erupt when bell is rung

By Nick,

Unfortunately its Pavlov’s Dog, and Pavlof Volcano, but it would have been such a good joke.

Over sixty volcanoes erupt on earth every year, but most of these are underwater, or in countries where the media cycle is less than the 24 hour constant barrage we face in the west. So hooray for volcanoes blowing up in the United States*, or about to, or maybe. Still. News is out today that seismic activity around Pavlof volcano has increased, signalling that an eruption is on the way. Pavlof is located on the Alaskan peninsula and is one of the more active volcanos in the region, with close to 40 known eruptions.

And it may already have started. Its also quite hot, as you can see from one very white pixel in this satellite image.

I like a good eruption, but lets hope the community of Cold Bay, who can’t currently see the volcano as its cloudy, aren’t harmed.

Update: it appears to have cleared up a bit and an ash cloud can now be seen.

"A thermal anomaly is likely the result of new lava at Pavlof"
“A thermal anomaly is likely the result of new lava at Pavlof”

Another volcano is also on the orange alert level, a bit further out in the Aleutian Islands. Unfortunately Cleveland volcano doesn’t have seismic instruments, but satellite imagery shows us it had a small eruption earlier in the month.

You can check out all the latest info at the Alaska Volcano Observatory at: where you can check out cool things like predicted ash cloud trajectories.

* now there’s a statement that will get your blog read by the CIA

Dinosaurs and the Universe: Highlights from the week’s Earth and Planetary Science news

By Nick

The new Planck space telescope has much better resolution, allowing us to improve our best estimate at the age of the universe.
The new Planck space telescope has much better resolution, allowing us to improve our best estimate at the age of the universe.


Two of the most common questions in science have had there answers changed this week as more data has come to light. If you were to ask me last week how the dinosaurs died out: I would have told you it was caused by an asteroid hitting the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico one bad day some 65 million years ago. How old is the universe? I would have had to look this one up, but the answer was 13.72 billion years old.

But wait! These answers are no longer quite right. And in a very good illustration about the gradual step by step process of science, the old answers aren’t wrong, we just know a little more than we did before. Continue reading “Dinosaurs and the Universe: Highlights from the week’s Earth and Planetary Science news”

Ten hundred words to talk about my work

By Nick

So this task has been doing the rounds on a few geology blogs recently and it is a great exercise in trying to explain science as simply as possible. It was all inspired by this XKCD comic, which explains the Saturn V rocket and how it works using only the thousand most common words in the English language. Or rather the ten hundred most common words, because thousand is not one of the top ten hundred!

Now, someone has written a text editor that scans your text for the most common words and tells you which ones you can’t use. So now everyone can have a go!

This is my attempt, I’ve even made an attempt at explaining isotopes:

Continue reading “Ten hundred words to talk about my work”

Why giving a conference poster is like going to court

By Nick

My first poster session went really well, I got loads of interest, some really good questions and lots of ideas. But boy was it an ordeal.

Two hours of standing next to your poster. During this time I had an almost constant stream of people coming and asking questions. Probing, inquiring. What have I done, what does my data show, did I think about this, why didn’t I do that? Have I considered the possibility of being completely wrong. It is exhausting have to stand there and defend your poster and your work as academic after academic comes over and tries to pick holes in it all. It felt like being a lawyer in court, standing up and arguing for the defendant (my PhD) in the face of a barrage of questions.

Continue reading “Why giving a conference poster is like going to court”

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