My Geology Note-blog

A chronicle of my PhD journey and other geology writings

Month: Sep, 2014

Geology videos #1

I thought it would be fun to share with you some interesting geology videos I have found across the internet. Enjoy!

(For a more serious post about my first day at Swansea click here).

Oldoinyo Lengai is possibly the most unique volcano on planet Earth. Erupting what is chemically molten limestone (but not really as it has a different source) it flows from the volcano in Tanzania like slivery water. Although it is lava it is too cool (only 550-700 degrees C) to visibly glow during the day. Check out the weirdly compelling crack-glurble-hiss of the lava.

This was a series of videos I first came across while researching for my 4th year research project. Below is exemplary video in the collection… and a really silly video. Basically, this is what happens when something thinks “ooo, wouldn’t be be cool if we made our own lava flows out of real lava?!”

(Is this proof that Notch the developer of Minecraft was right to include furnaces that could cook beef with lava?)

Tales about great minds of science, in this episode Hank Green talks about the great fossil collector Mary Anning.

Trailer of the myVolcano App available on the itunes store is part of a colaboration between the British Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institute (with help from NERC). This is part of the BGS’ citizen science initiative to get people to photograph eruptions, upload information about ash fall and even send in samples to the BGS. Slightly cheesey video but interesting.

That’s enough of that for now… more will probably follow soon!


First day!

Yesterday I drove 260 miles from just outside Lancaster to Swansea.

I stopped off at my sister’s for lunch, was constantly blinded by the sun as I drove south, drove through so many roadworks I actually lost count, saw a Red Kite hovering by the side of the road near the Black Mountain, got stuck in traffic in Swansea and only took a wrong turn three times (one of which was just to pull over to check the map) and I didn’t get lost.

I also arrived at the B&B, which is where I’m hanging my hat for now, at half 6 then proceeded to go straight out again to meet my engineering supervisor and his group to attend a Science Cafe talk on image processing. Spoilers: it blew my mind! Hopefully I’ll do some digging and give you an overview at a later date.

But what about today? you (probably) ask! Well, (cue blues-y beats)

Oh I woke up this morning, got myself out of bed,
Drove my car to some free parking,
And ate some jam and toasted bread,
Walked down to the Uni, yeah, I got there by 10,
Signed some paperwork and stuff…. oh!
And then!
I signed some paperwork and stuff… Oooohhhhh,
And then….

(That’s quite enough for that).

So yes, after doing admin I got assigned a desk (which for me is a really big deal. A desk! All of my own! In an office! With other scientists!) But if you hear a news report of attempted assault that’s because I’ve actually taken a desk that wasn’t necessarily, strictly free. So to avoid meeting the current not-quite-occupant I went to sort my campus card and mill around Engineering.

My fellow XRCT buffs showed me some of their work. This caused me to geek out a lot for two reasons, firstly one of my colleagues is studying natural structures such as skeletons and shells by creating 3D scans and then also 3D printing the scanned images. The result? Awesome interlocking 3D printer models!

I was very excited to find that she had a hero shrew in a jar waiting to be scanned. What’s that? You’ve never seen a hero shrew?… then allow me to allow The Brianscoop to elucidate:

So, pretty cool? (Even if the one in the lab was in formaldehyde). Here’s an article about the new species of Hero Shrew complete with x-rays of the spines (yes it’s the Daily Fail, no I don’t care, its facts are ok).

And reason two… liquid F-ing nitrogen!!! (where “F” denotes the phrase “flipping freezingly fantastic”) Ahem…
So my colleague is also working on samples that have to be kept frozen, however, frozen things melt when put into, well, anywhere above zero Celsius. So she had an idea and with the help of another engineer post-grad they went and got some liquid nitrogen.

Let’s be clear, the epitome of science in the childish corner of my brain is a person in a lab coat handling a smoking sample of something. The non-childish areas of my brain, on the other hand, just think that the physics of liquid nitrogen is really amazing (i.e. how they compress and store it, the hoarfrost you get on the pipes, how the nitrogen basically boils as it hits the room temperature thermos and so on).

So after we had a go at freezing the sample we had to get rid of the nitrogen. Now, those among you who did a science GCSE or your country’s equivalent know that the air is over 70% nitrogen so there’s no harm in just letting it boil away slowly in a ventilated room. Or you can have some fun like this; watch between 16 seconds and 2 minutes:

For those who watched the whole video, no you couldn’t pay me to stick my hand in it like that and I don’t think either of my colleagues would either! Safety gear was worn when they were handing the nitrogen (thick gloves, long sleaves/lab coat and a face shield).

The Liedenfrost effect is one of those excellent experiments that I’ve been dying to see in person and now I have! On my first day!

Funnily enough I have done something that humans would recognise as work by getting some books out and being confused by the library system (Dewey decimal all is forgiven! This alphabetical system makes as much sense as watching snooker in black and white).

So, the net profit of the day is I can’t wait for my second day in the office.

For more about the lab I’m going to be working in check out my engineering supervisor’s website here.

This time next week…

Ahh Malcolm Tucker is shouting from another tab on my browser which means that yes, I am watching “The Thick of It”. I won’t have the opportunity for that sort of thing soon so I might as well make the most of Netflix because a) playtime will soon be over, and it’s back to the coal face and b) I’ll probably be without internet out of office hours for at least a fortnight.

After all the applications, sorting things out and the many house-hunting trips to Swansea the blindly obvious has crystallised in my brain: Postgraduate is a totally different kettle of fish to undergraduate (yes, cue the slow sarcastic claps, I know, I know).

So let’s do a comparison run-down:


Oh for the high school hand-holding of the UCAS application system. I may have not personally got on with it but at least you only had to fill out one form (after you’ve drafted 9 versions of your personal statement, of course. What? Just me?)
In the PG camp, if you can’t type out your personal details in your sleep you’ve clearly not filled out enough application forms. And you fill out a lot. While also applying for jobs. While also having minor existential crisis’.


I didn’t get interviewed for my undergraduate degree, indeed most academic style interview horror stories always begin with “I was offered an interview at Oxford/Cambridge…”. After a quick bit of digger here turns out it’s very subject dependant (and Oxbridge dependant) if you actually get interviewed. Also, a lot of interviews are more encouragements for the student to accept an offer not a way of deciding if a student will get the offer (apparently).

Being interviewed for a postgraduate course seems to be a given though. And it will be academic. And you need to know your stuff. (I was lucky, I applied for something I could wax-lyrical about for hours. I guess that’s the trick, picking something you know something about already and filling in basic gaps in your knowledge before hand. I read papers and made notes on the train to give my worrying brain something to do).

Original image

Staff-student interaction

For my Bachalor’s degree application (before, during and after applying) I spoke to exactly one member of staff for any meaningful length of time. He only took me for one module in the first year, half a module in the second year, half a module in the third year and nothing in my final year. On the other hand, the three people who interviewed me for my PhD (yeah, three, I hadn’t realised until I did an interview prep thing with the University careers service that it could be more than one or two), were my prospective supervisor, my prospective second supervisor and one of the Post-Docs from the research group. And all three of those people, if I was going to be accepted, I would be working extremely closely with. No pressure then!

(Brief anecdotal aside: If you manage to make a funny quip (unintentionally) and they laugh you will at least know they’re people you’ll be able to get on with. I made a self-deprecating remark about how rubbish my XRCT scans had been for my 4th year project ( they actually were, I didn’t have enough time for the scans to be better) and that got a chuckle. It put me at ease at least).

I know each supervisor is different and every post-grad needs to find their kind of supervisor. I’m the sort of person who needs someone I want to do well for (make ’em proud, y’know). Some people need a more Jedi approach, or an equal partnership or whatever. Either way, it’s so very different from the kind of relationship you have with staff at undergraduate level (and I was in a pretty laid back department at Durham, first name terms, y’know).

(Obviously this is satirical)


Boy, oh, boy, where do I start with this! To think I thought undergrad halls and college accommodation was complicated! To think I thought getting a shared house in second year was complicated! Little did I know what it would be like trying to arrange private rentals from the opposite end of the country. Lots of blisters, long journeys, notes scribbled on bits of papers and agents trying to up-sell some of the worst dives I’ve ever seen in my life, that’s what it’s like. With a week to go all the setbacks and issues I’ve had with rentals has meant I haven’t signed for a place yet (I’ve got somewhere lined up though, it just has a wasps nest in the kitchen roof space…)
So, ye who have somewhere sorted for this academic year, be thankful, and for all those still looking, the housing market can’t be any worse than Swansea (some of the houses I saw were fine actually, it’s just a landlord’s market there).

It shouldn’t come to this at least… source

The work

Am I a student now? Well, yes, technically (at least according to my council tax bill). Am I employed? Sort of, I’m getting money to do work. Does this mean I have a, gasp, job?! I’m still not sure but it’s an interesting quandary. I know some PGs who treat their PhD like a full time job (the more computer/lab based types who have to go to the department between 9 and 5) while others continue the concept of “reading” a subject at University (getting their reading done any time they like because books can be transported to the comfort of one’s own bedroom. And in your bedroom you don’t get frowned at for wearing PJs while working).

Speaking personally I’m going to try and treat my PhD like a quote-unquote job in the vain attempt to get out of the less productive habits of my undergraduate. Out with manana, manana, in with a regular work schedule. Out with PJs until 11, in with smart-casual office garb (“dress smart, think smart”…?!). Out with mid-afternoon YouTube breaks, in with mid-afternoon tea breaks etcetera.

So abandon all expectations, all who enter here, that going into academia is an easy way out. It’s just an equally tough road, just less travelled.


T-minus 2 weeks (ish)

An introduction

featuring: scientific definitions, explanations and some welsh

I thought I’d begin this blog as a slightly more formal and semi-professional way of sharing my journey into the great wide unknown of postgraduate academia. Most who I speak to on a face to face basis (or even a Facebook to Facebook basis) will know that I will soon be starting a PhD at Swansea University (or Prifysgol Abertawe as the lovely Welsh would have it).

But before I start it might be fun for me to explain in plain English what on Earth Swansea University agreed to give me money to do.

My actual PhD title is: “Deciphering the processes affecting volcanic ash deposition within sedimentary environments using X-ray microtomography and mu-XRF techniques” (probably subject to change on the actual thesis cover). I’ve settled for “climatology”, “studying deep-sea sediment cores” and even (desperately) “x-raying rocks” as a description to non-geologists, but the beauty of a blog is that I have a captive audience a bit more time to explain what it really is.
So here we go…

As we all know from a month or so the other year where all the news readers struggled to pronounce an Icelandic word and everyone’s holiday fights were cancelled volcanoes produce ash which spreads a very, very long way from the source. The result is that a lot of it gets laid down in the ocean sediment near the volcano. We’ve all walked on a sandy beach and know that it’s covered in ripple marks and shifting pebbles not millions upon millions of previous footprints. The sediments move and when you have a layer of ash that has settled out onto your sediment there’s a chance that will move too. (Thus explaining the first 10 words of the title).

The next bit is a little more “science-y” but put simple X-ray microtomography uses exactly the same principle as medical CT scanners. It uses X-rays to build up a 3D picture of an object without the need to destroy it (useful for rocks and life-saving for people!) These images then can be studied and manipulated to look at the different materials that make up the sample using contrasts in density. mu-XRF or to give it its full title, micro-x-ray fluorescence, once again uses x-rays but instead of firing them through the sample and detecting the resulting contrast, XRF looks at the radiation emitted from the sample being excited by the X-rays. Kind of like how a fluorescent light works.

Your final question of course is ‘what is all this in aid of?’. That answer is actually the easiest bit. We’ve all seen those climate change graphs that show how the Earth’s temperature has varied over time. The way those graphs are made is by looking at so called proxy data, information that indirectly tells us about things like temperature or carbon dioxide. But there’s a flaw, what is needed is not just these data but when those proxies were laid down in the rock record. 10 cm of rock can represent a single winter flood or a million years and without absolute dates it’s just educated guesswork (there are methods we can use such as fossils which gives relative dates). Volcanic ash can be dated absolutely using radiogenic isotopes; atoms that are unstable and decay at a fixed speed over time. My work will make sure that the ash being dated is actually the same age as the sediments it is surrounded by because if it has been moved around, like those pebbles on the beach, the dating could be out by hundreds or thousands of years.

I know that look a while to explain, I promise my next post will be a little more interesting.

I hope September is treating you well!