My Geology Note-blog

A chronicle of my PhD journey and other geology writings

Category: Dear Diary…

Nier: Automata – the power of video games and thoughts on existentialist sci-fi in general, I suppose

Dredged from the archives of the “draft” box of my blog, a completely off-topic musing on a video game I first played back in August last year and which still gets me thinking even now. I’m likely to do this a few more times where I dig into the “notebook” of half-formed or simply unpublished blog posts just to get the thoughts finally out there. In this case the text is almost unchanged from August but the images have been added in today.


I like Philip K. Dick’s books…. well, ok, I didn’t get past half way with Lies, Inc. (The Unteleported Man) because I was not willing to endure reading about an LSD trip for no reason for a good chunk of the book (seriously, P.K.D. what were you thinking?!) but I like his works all the same. Partly because they are weird, see Counter-Clock World as the most extreme example, but within the weird are some excellent sci-fi concepts mostly to do with the nature of the self and being, the apex of which needs no introduction, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or (in film form) Bladerunner (Which is one of my favourite films of all time).

I mention all this because I have just finished 3 of the 5 ending paths of Nier: Automata, Square Enix and Platinum Games latest sci-fi existentialist, android hack-and-slash JRPG offering and I have a lot of feelings.

The original founders of Electronic Arts once asked the question “Can a video game make you cry?”. If the question had been about music or film or literature the response would naturally be an indignant “yes!” but for video games it’s taken a little while longer for such a question to be properly considered as well as examples of such emotional response realised.

The first game I remember crying at the end of was Final Fantasy X. I had already experienced the story via YouTube but somehow playing the game gave me such a connection to the characters that the emotions were so much more raw. I don’t remember if I cried at the end of Bastion but the fear and terror of the final moments of the last level were extremely emotionally draining. Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide left me in something of a dark pit of sorrow for a good few days (I did cry, yes) as I suffered through a brutal look at what it means to create, be understood or, damagingly, misunderstood through your work. (I realise that this paragraph makes me out to be a wet blanket but as there is no shame at crying while watching Forest Gump there should be no shame in crying because of a video game).


At the start of “The Beginner’s Guide” the game’s creator, Davey, tells us, the player, that we are going to be playing a series of games designed by his friend, Coda. This screenshot makes up part of the moment in the game where some sort of level beyond the 4th wall breaks as “Coda”, the creator of the games within the game, addresses the game’s creator, Davey directly via our, the player’s, screens. 

In the final few scenes of the 3rd “act” Neir: Automata you are presented with a choice, a choice that no other medium can present you with (besides chose your own adventure books, I guess). I sat at my computer, with my hand over my mouth, heartbroken. I didn’t know what consequence my choice would have. Should I side (i.e. play as) a character I have got to know over 3 game cycles and hope that will lead to a positive outcome, or, because of their fractured mental state should I side with the other character who I don’t really know and cannot trust to spare a life or do the right thing? After my choice and the final moments of the story the end credit music struck up and tears filled my eyes.


This is the moment that made me pause and not want to continue…. this image still gives me chills because you must make a choice to continue the game even if you don’t want to.

The notion that a fiction work can instil such emotion is, logically, absurd. The characters and events do not exist. In the case of Nier: Automata not only do the characters and events not exist but the characters are androids with no human emotions, only the illusion of such. And yet through fiction we gain such incredible moments of empathy that logic is no longer considered. These characters have invaded our consciousness and have become real.

Parallel to this pathos is the characters struggle with their own sense of identity and existence, hence my references to P.K.D.’s work at the start of this piece. Blackrunner‘s replicants, for all intents and purposes, could be biologically human if they had not been so heavily modified to strip them of human traits such as physical frailty, longevity, self-determination, childhood and family. (Yes, I consider physical frailty a human trait, super strength and resistance is inherently superhuman and therefore, not human. Where the line is drawn is naturally up for debate but if a fiction character can do what even the strongest real human cannot, that’s inhuman). Neir: Automata‘s “replicants”, YoRHa units, are full-blown androids, mechanical beings made in humanity’s image but without a scrap of biology at all.

Bridging this gap could be character’s such as the Major in Ghost in the Shell, a cyborg with a human brain but an android body. All of these examples, replicants, cyborgs and YoRHa struggle with a fundamental question, what does it mean to be human? Or perhaps more accurately, what needs to be added to make something or someone human?, or what needs to be taken away to strip a person of humanity?

Now if I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t be writing a blog about it, I’d be off in my fancy Professor of Philosophy house drinking single estate Darjeeling tea but all I can say is that Neir: Automata succeeds in the footsteps of Bladerunner and Ghost in the Shell, presenting us with questions of existence and unflinchingly making you look into the dark heart of the results.

So what is this piece about? A recommendation to play a video game? A justification for spending 35 hours of my life playing said video game? An outlet of emotion? A way to name drop classic sci-fi to sound clever? The ramblings of a decongestant fuelled, mad-person? (In order, yes, no, yes, I hope not, and possibly). Ok, here’s a takeaway then, I once saw sci-fi described as being about mad-scientists, robots and space, but I think what sci-fi actually is, is the canvas to explore fundamental questions about humanity through the fantastical but plausible.

I therefore commend Nier: Automata for your approval for being a great game, with great visuals and great music with philosophical themes that turns around and stabs you in the heart with all the emotional force of a katana.


Addendum (that is even more off-topic):

As I was looking for images for this post I remembered an exhibition I saw at the Tate Modern in London called “No Ghost, just a shell” which was based around several artists re-imagining and expanding upon the life of a minor character from the “Ghost in the Shell” Manga (may have been TV show, I forget). The image below includes one of the pieces of work which was a cold reading of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” that you could hear with the headphones and see being read by the avatar on the screen. I vaguely remember the bit I heard which I think was the moment when Deckard first meets Rachel in the book (I hadn’t read it at the time).


The next image is something that is still an avatar that I use on a gaming website, although I’ve not been active, according to the record I checked today, since 20th June 2015. It’s funny that I have a digital self that, a little bit like that art expo’s name has no ghost (no soul) but is a shell left by my prior digital footprint in the net.


The whole project culminated with the artists who had expanded this minor character’s life and likeness signing the rights of the character back to herself, giving her freedom but dooming her forever to silence. No Ghost, just a shell.

Anyway, just thought it was something interesting to share at the end of this.


Trip to BOSCORF!

The prologue: (cue Frankie Howard)

Here follows a “day in the life” sort of piece concerning my trip to Southampton to collect samples for my PhD. The time stamps are when I started writing each section and I am leaving it written as-was for full effect. All photos are shamelessly nicked from Millie Watts’ and the BOSCORF’s twitter feed. For more information on BOSCORF see their website here and follow them on twitter @BOSCORF_NOC and my guide for the day Millie @GeoMillie.  Right, onward!

And so begins my long day there and back to Southampton. Except my day actually began at about half past midnight when I woke up, peered across at my alarm clock, saw the top of the digits over the stack of books on my bedside table, panicked, then checked my phone to confirm that what could have been an eight was actually a zero. Such is the life of the highly strung academic. Putting on a long, rambling YouTube video was enough to send me back to the land of nod until my alarm woke me up at Six. Waiting for my taxi outside the flat, I heard the dawn chorus despite the mist.

I indulge in two things when I go to the railway station, one is taxi cabs (either there, back or both depending on the time of day) and large drinks from the station’s coffee shop (ha, ha, no free advertisement for you here! As they say, other publications are available). And after the newsagent nearly tried to charge me fifteen pounds for my magazine and getting my hot drink, I shuffled off down the platform to find my seat on the train (a Great Western with slam-door carriages, not quite as old school as Northern Rail’s Pacer stock but certainly possessing more charm). Speaking of trains, I recommend to you the currently-on-iplayer episode of Panorama concerning the UK’s current sorry state of train affairs.

The train’s filling up already (because of course it is) but I now have time to reflect upon the day’s tasks, which to the average person sounds a bit off. Trotting off down to Southampton to the National Oceanographic Centre (specifically BOSCORF) to collect some North Atlantic marine core samples for my work. Additional tasks include a shed load (which is an SI unit of measure and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) of writing to be getting on with. Train journeys, I find, can be ideal writing environments, not least because of the lack of readily available internet (must. resist. checking. for. free. WiFi). All being well I may manage to hash out a good few hundred to a thousand words today. As the sign on a local Chinese Restaurant genuinely says; Win-Win.

Work word count: 414

The train is getting increasingly busy as we pass through the stations onto Cardiff. I am somewhat concerned that what I have written for work thus far is less scientific, academic journal material than it is slightly rambling, single author monograph. We shall see. The fog is even thicker now than it was back in Swansea, probably something to do with the damp farmland around here between Bridgend and Cardiff.

Work word count: 465

On train two of two on the way to Southampton. I had to have one of those awkward “excuse me you’re in my seat” moments with the person next to me because of course I did, it wouldn’t be train travel in Britain without it. For some reason the train is just, sitting, here despite the fact it should have left at half past the hour. It’s probably waiting for another delayed connecting train to come in but dear goodness, if they keep up that trend the entire rail network would end up delayed!
*tannoy announcement*
Turns out the train ahead of us hasn’t cleared the line… for whatever reason. Dear me I deeply dislike being late for things, especially if I do everything in a timely manner and the reason ends up beyond my control. On the plus side for people still boarding the train if they were running late this morning they’re in luck to be sure.

Finally, at 8:39:30 we’re off!

[No further posts were written because the day was so busy when I finally got to Southampton half an hour later than planned.]

Word count: the same
Powerpoint slides for Tuesday: almost updated.

    Very little should be able to dampen my mood right now but by golly, former British Rail is having a good old go at it. The train out from Southampton Central was running late and got to Reading just as the doors on the Swansea train closed. Despite the obvious situation, after 40 agonising seconds the train pulled out without us who needed to get to Wales. Cue a half an hour wait and now a further wait in the train at the station as they wait for a connecting train (how nice of them! Wish the previous train had waited for us… grumble, grumble, ad nauseum). When we’re actually on the move I’ll be in a better mood to wax lyrical about my day. (Also, oh goody, someone near me on the train smells like a brewery… this isn’t going to be a pleasant stint…)


“I’m a trifle miffed” (c) Yahtzee Croshaw

Word count: the same
Powerpoint slides for Tuesday: Completed.

    There is something about trains that provoke productivity. Possibly it’s the knowledge that there is no alternative stimulation or seating arrangement for a good few hours so you jolly well better make the most of it.

    In light of making the most of it lets summarise my eventful first visit to the National Oceanographic Centre at Southampton. Approaching from the wharf side past container ships and a cruise ship you don’t fully appreciate the sheer size of NOCS. Laid out spectographically (yes really) with colour coded “nodes” denoting different sections it’s a rabbit warren that I’m glad I didn’t need to navigate by myself. BOSCORF, my destination for the day is separate from the main building and consists of the refrigerated core store with enough space for 5 km of core it is currently overstocked with more than 8 km of core, and a suite of prep and analysis equipment. For most people just the suite of equipment would make them as Charlie was in the Chocolate Factory but for me the best was yet to come in the cores that had been laid out for me.


That’s a lot of cores!

    There is an austere beauty to sediment cores, especially marine sediment cores with their pale fauns, muted greys, deep blacks and sandy browns. A particularly stunning example is BOSCORF’s so called Butterfly Core which contains a clump of mud that had rolled in such a way that layers had formed all different coloured horizons. When it was split and the structure was revealed it looked like a swallowtail butterfly.


The butterfly core in all its beauty

For those who may consider mud to be “mud” these cores from the North Atlantic will change your mind and then some. First off, what a geologist means when they say “mud” is not the same as the mud you find in your back garden when it rains and the soil turns to soup. Mud is a grain size, far smaller than sand grains, usually made of clay minerals and finely ground rock flour. It is so fine grained it can take months to settle to the sea floor and a single centimetre of mud can represent decades of deposition.

    Sub-sampling the cores is a fiddly procedure but satisfying when it works. You only even work on half of a core that is taken. When it is recovered it is split and half becomes an archive section while the other half is the working section that you can sample from. Knowing there’s still a pristine half left is small comfort when you bugger things up so badly your past-self cringes with embracement from the middle of last week. Luckily I had an excellent guide through the process (thanks Millie!) and the mainly fine grained nature of the important bits of the core made it easier to sample.

    You know how if you’re down at the beach and you’re making sand castles, if you get the water to sand mix wrong it doesn’t form a nice solid castle shape after a gentle spade tap but a collapsed blob or a powdery lump? That is the fear as you pull the plastic casing up from the sediment and hope and pray that the sample comes with it and not flop out on the top of the rest of the core. Luckily no such mishaps befell me except for a near miss that was quickly dealt with by a quick thinking Millie and a new piece of cheese wire.

Word count: 512

    At Cardiff. Had it not been for the delays I would be seeing the lights of the Liberty stadium on the outskirts of Swansea-land instead of the inside of Cardiff station. I guess the biggest question is when did I turn into someone who looked forward to bed time? (Granted I’ve been up since 6 and worked at least a 12 hour day so maybe the desire for bed is justified?).

    The rest of the NOCS is basically everything you ever wanted in a nationally funded research facility, more labs with more equipment than you know what to do with, dozens of people all about the place, a canteen with a view of the harbour and a knee high door labelled B. Baggins (yes, they have a hobbit hole in the blue node, and it made me very, very happy). One of the lovely things about big research facilities is the diversity of work being done and the somewhat pleasingly utilitarian architecture. We even noised through the door of one of the newly refurbished teaching labs to see a class learning about geological maps. Truly, I was with my people today! Sometimes being a geologist in a geography department feels like being the classical music reporter to Rolling Stone magazine, there’s a definite connection but the chord progressions are totally different. (Hush, it’s neatly 10 O’clock and I’m tired, I can’t be expected to always come out with witty metaphors).

    I had to wonder whether my enthusiasm was coming off as disingenuous (and I told Millie the same) but I genuinely was getting excited by the things I was seeing and the ideas we were having as I met people over lunch and in BOSCORF. A friend of mine said that when he reached the end of his PhD he found that he had loads of new questions he wanted to investigate if only he could get the opportunity. One key advantage of my work is that I basically recycle other people’s previous samples. Don’t forget that each core section, which is about 1.5 m long at most probably cost on average £1000 to recover on a research cruise so you might as well get the most from them. Contained within BOSCORF is multiple academic careers worth of possible investigations including more than enough tephra deposits for me to be getting on with for now!

    Another big thank you must be extended once again to Millie and the BOSCORF team for hosting me and letting me make use of their samples, some of which are still under limited external use agreements. I needed no persuasion at all to take up the offer of returning to BOSCORF soon but first to analysis the samples I have taken today, that will be enough work to get on with for a little while!

This is losttimelady_PhD signing off at 22:03.


Millie and I (with fellow BOSCORF staff on the screen behind) while we were packing up the cores to go back into the fridge.

The samples and I made it safely back to Swansea and soon they shall be getting zapped in the X-ray machine.
If you read this far, thanks!


Elitism is the enemy of merit

OK, this is going to be a knotty one….

Let me tell you a couple of quick tales before starting to provide much needed background:

The second High School I attended was a selective grammar. This was 2003 where such things were so rare as to be considered as legends along with wyvern on maps (“here be dragons”). Current plans may very well soon resurrect this mastodon but without its former social context (the training ground for the white collar work force from bank clerks to solicitors) I’m not sure what, if any, good it can do. But I digress. The point is it was an unusual educational environment (a C grade wasn’t seen as a passing mark so much as barely above failure). It gave you a warped sense of what ‘normal’ actually was let me tell you! or so I thought.

I discovered later that when it came to the pursuit of post-16 career choices my school was ahead of the curve… they believed there was one way to go about it. And that was sixth form followed by University. Out of a year group of 120 (yes I went to high school in a small town surrounded by rural villages, so sue me!) I’d say barely a handful didn’t actually carry on into sixth form (on balance we may have actually gained more students then those who left!) and everyone, and I mean everyone, was expected to get their UCAS applications done. And not just done, done for the Oxbridge deadline despite the fact that only a dozen or so people actually applied to study there. There was no doubt in my school’s mind that their students all went to university. And I’d say that, more or less, that’s how things panned out.

Now I took the road less travelled, I didn’t go straight to university. I worked as a church youth worker for a year and did a distance learning diploma as part of the job. To begin with my teachers all but had a fit. How dare I go against the grain?! Granted, they simmered down when I explained my plan and finally conceded that if I wanted to apply when I actually had my A level grades, well, at least that rid the process of so much uncertainty.

This is in complete and total contrast to others whom I know well who were the only one, or one of a small handful, from an entire year group to go to University. Chalk? Meet cheese.

There are lots of social reasons why university still is seen as a path travelled by “other people”. Just as I was embedded in a school that expected me to apply to university with no other option presented as an alternative, other schools will take the opposite approach (if they offer job and careers advice at all!)

University is seen as expensive, a debt few people earning less than the national average wage could conceive of being able to pay back (debt was a reason I nearly didn’t go to university myself). As a young person grows up they become attune to the worth of money relative to their background. £50 can mean very different amounts to people. For some, that’s a little, for others, that amount is a lot.

University is seen as elitist. Full of aging academics in funny gowns talking in some weird hybrid of English, Latin and Ancient Greek to lecture halls of quietly vegetating students. While for the most part this is very far from the truth the behaviour of certain academics in the public eye don’t break down this stereotype, they reinforce it.

Now I don’t live in a hole. I’m fully aware of the issues of controversial speakers having invites to events withdrawn, the #black-lives-matter movement hopping over the Pond to the UK, the spat between Student Union Officers at other universities and the students they are meant to represent with relation to diversity (or lack their of) and finally, the redefinition of the words sexist, racist, culture and violence.

When said-certain academics speak out against these people who wish to silence discourse their words are not heard by their target audience. They are heard by everyone else.

When Richard Dawkins created the “university is probably not for you” trend on twitter I am sure it began with wanting to tell the hyper-sensitive minority already in universities that reasoned debate and the challenging of ideas are the very point of universities. Alas, instead it will be added to a continuing list of reasons why university will be seen as something for “other people” and not a possibility for everyone.

The odd thing is is that I always thought University was for clever people. People who were smarter than me and for a lot of my schooling it was an unobtainable goal in my mind. But when I got to the applying stage it turned out I was academically good enough to apply. I didn’t think University was for the rich, middle class (of which I was not) but for the bright and hard working. With emphasis on the “hard working”.
To quote Thomas Edison: What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

(Aside: Isaac Newton attended university because he hated being a farmer but had been made to farm by his mother. Lucky for us his old school master convinced him to finish his education and then go on to university.)

Widening university access is vitally important. I’ve expressed this feeling many times before that given equal educational opportunities those with the skills and drive should achieve their fullest potential. We’re still not there yet in this country, let alone globally ,but here’s a few crumbs of food for thought which probably won’t win me any friends.

  1. Full-time university study is not the only path to a degree or even a vocation
    I was heartened to see in the news recently that a fully on the job, apprentice-style nursing course will be soon implemented within the NHS. If we are to admit as true that certain subjects are necessarily less traditionally academic and more hands-on it makes perfect sense to train people with that philosophy in mind. I would rather have a plumber who trained on the job fix my water pipes than someone who did an academic degree focused on computer simulations of fluid dynamics! (Hyperbole for rhetorical effect, don’t get cross with me!)
  2. We must avoid snobbery regarding the possession (or lack thereof) of degrees
    “Gradibus ascendimus” or “ascending by degrees” (the witty motto of Grey College, Durham) is certainly one way to get places. Indeed it should be the great social equaliser. If you have the knack, you’ll get the letters after your name. But in the same way as we shouldn’t measure success as amount of money in the bank we shouldn’t measure it by the acquisition of qualifications. Success can be measured and achieved in so may ways and for many the path of social mobility will be through university education however…
  3. University may not be the right path
    We must make sure that all paths are open to everyone.
    Monty Python says it better than I can…

There should be no disgrace in a student from a private school wanting to be a butcher in the same way as their is no disgrace in a student from a comprehensive school aspiring to be a judge. That is making sure all paths are open to everyone not making it so that university becomes the only path for everyone. To reiterate, the point of widening access and outreach is to give people choice to do what they want to do in accordance with what they are good at.

We have to get away from any notion that a person’s worth is measured by external forces, especially when those measures are informed by the prejudices of others. We must accept that the brightest and best may not actually fit within the mould of universities because we know that people learn and engage in different ways. All paths are equally valid, especially if we have the choice of paths to take.
After all, there was some German bloke called Albert who disliked his schooling, refused the go into the family trade, who couldn’t get a job as a teacher and ended up worked in a patient office… and then discovered the theory of special relativity!

For anyone reading this who still thinks that a career path they’d like to take “isn’t for people like me” I’m here to tell you that because you want to follow that path, it is for people exactly like you.
To speak from the knowledge of but one path: I assist teaching at a university and I would rather be under-resourced and teach only a dozen students who battled their way to be in those classrooms than have the flashiest labs in the world and have to teach a dozen-dozen students who arrived at the university gates by taking the path of least resistance out of social expectation.

The author of this blog once again reminds the reader that the opinions expressed herein are purely her own and do not represent the university she is currently at. However, in preference, please send all hate mail to her lab so she can X-ray it before opening it. 


Remember, if you do chose to go to university, you too can have the opportunity to have Prof. Stephen Hawking photo-bomb your pictures.

The tales from the practical class: Reloaded


Teaching is in full swing at the University at the moment. I will preface this piece by saying that despite the hard work (and it is) of teaching I do enjoy it and love interacting with students. However, as with all things we love, we complain because we care.

First though, let’s indulge in some silly vignettes before I get onto the meatier things.


Classic Undergrad Moments Montage

A student who wanted to bribe my colleagues with a quid for the answer in a minerals identification practical.

The student who didn’t have a lab coat or the 50p required to borrow one because they doesn’t carry cash. Ever. Not sure how they’re going to pay us back! And also, I didn’t know The Queen was studying in my department as she is the only person I know who doesn’t carry cash (except on Maundy Thursday of course).

The rag-tag group of pals who managed to convince the lecturer in charge of a field trip to stop off for MacDonald’s after an afternoon in the rain at 4 degrees above freezing plus wind chill. Bless.

All the students that keep turning up to practical classes without a ruler, then ask me how to work out the grain size of rocks. (Answer: Measure it)

The completely unsubtle students who tried to sneak a look at my answer sheet during an assessed practical.
0/10 for style, folks.

The post-Trump-win lamentations from students that dominated a practical, instead of, say, the work.

A field trip to caves being scuppered by the film crew of Doctor Who.

The student who arrived half an hour before the start of a practical… There by walking into the end of the previous session.

All the students who were late for an assessed practical because they went to the wrong room. (Actually, that wasn’t funny, it was kind of saddening)

Honourable mention goes to the two students who were wandering the corridors of the department lost and trying to find their tutor’s office… All offices are on the same floor on one long U-shaped corridor. Oh dear.


Serious commentary time

Here follows 5 statements that I will draw on in the discussion below:

  1. This week I dug out a pile of lecture notes from a module I did in my 3rd year of undergraduate. It was a really hard module with a big piece of complex summative coursework making up a large part of the assessment. The module was about the structure and large scale processes of the planet including the driving forces behind plate tectonics and the complexities of earthquake fault zones (to name two aspects). One lecturer’s approach to easing(!) us into all this was to have every single one of his lecture slides have at least one equation on it, usually differential calculus. But we put our head’s down and got on with it. It was tough stuff but I’m glad I took the module.
  2. I wanted to get a first class degree (who doesn’t) but my efforts were tempered not by wanting that Damian Hirst (First) but learning as much as I could and trying as hard as I could. We all have a talent wall and I hit mine eventually in modules and topics I wasn’t as proficient in and ended up with a respectable, high 2:1 for my efforts. It got me to where I am now, so that’s what matters.
  3. When I was an A level student I took AS Maths. It did not go well. The only thing that saved me from an out and out failing mark was my ability to mechanically follow the rules of calculus and be able to do algebra and trigonometry. It was suddenly too abstract. I got to the point where I would stare at a blank page in my notebook and not even attempt to answer the question. Not because I couldn’t start it but because I knew I’d get it wrong. It was a really negative cycle to be in.
  4. I can remember things I learnt in primary school. Activities I did, trips we took and stories and facts we learnt. We visited the Farne Islands during the year of the foot and mouth disease, we learnt about Grace Darling, puffins, and the monastery of Lindisfarne to name but a few things. I first memorised “From a railway carriage” before I was 9. I treasure my ability to remember, like J K Rowling’s Pensieve I like to look anew at my memories. After all “man is the sum of his memories” [sic]
  5. I have watched the entirety of the following films start to finish: Lawrence of Arabia, the extended cuts of the Lord of the Rings films, Ben-Hur (the Charlton Heston version, sans the first 10 minutes because it was on telly and I missed the start), The Wolf of Wall Street, The Dark Knight and the meditative documentary Into Great Silence. This is not a gloat, or an “I’m better than you” declaration, basically what I’m saying is I possess an attention that when interested, becomes captivated.

3D TV with Digital surround sound eat your heart out!

The above are all things that I have mused upon in light of the attitudes displayed with alarming regularity by the current crop of undergraduates. Perhaps it is an issue peculiar to where I am but frankly that would be terribly bad to assume that the students at my University are somehow worse than those at others. Granted, my own undergraduate experience is different from others in the sense that I have ended up in academia but I reflect on my contemporaries from my undergraduate days and I do see distinct differences between then and now.

Let’s start with point 3:
There seems to be an instinctive shying away of trying things when their is a risk of failing. I find myself encouraging students to commit to writing down an answer to a problem in class even when they have followed through the steps and therefore should be able to give the correct solution. It feels akin to watching a student work out an unknown angle of a triangle, going through the method, using the correct trig functions then at the end refusing to put down a value for theta.
I am therefore reminded of myself as an AS Maths student. The fear of getting it wrong is crippling. I think it is more so than ever tied up in the current teaching methods in schools. Education is becoming very perceptive. Besides the above example from a recent practical class I have also witnessed a student become distressed at the thought of having to put two opposing view points down in a essay. The lack of a “correct” answer clearly distressed them.
At University their is rarely a right answer to complex issues, merely well test and observed theories. In the case of observed phenomena I have to disagree with Master Obi-Wan Kenobi: he says “you’re eyes can deceive you, don’t trust them”, when I ask a student to tell me what they see I am not asking a trick question. Observe and record then discuss and theorise and finally test and comment.

On to points 1 and 2:
It is becoming increasingly common for students to demand far more of tutors’ and lecturers’ time than is reasonable. One student came to see a colleague about a piece of work outside of the tutorial time. I assumed that they had missed the last tutorial and were wanting to catch up. No, they wanted assurance that they were on the right track because they wanted to get a First. But no amount of time with staff is going to make up for the hard work and limits of a student’s talent. Not everyone will get a First. And that’s OK, or at least it should be.
I’m alarmed that there is an expectation that because students are now paying so much money for attending university that they deserve a good grade. That’s not what your paying for dear undergrad, you’re paying to be taught and have the opportunity to earn a degree, the rest is up to you. Unfortunately the business machine of universities are extremely interested in student (read, customer) satisfaction so courses are forced to remove from their modules topics and concepts deemed too advanced. Give these BSc students equations to do and your module satisfaction ratings will drop like a stone. But being pushed is part of learning. I am no natural talent myself, I have to work at what I do, especially when it comes to things that do involve post-GCSE level maths. But when I do achieve something difficult the feeling of accomplishment makes the hard work worth it.

Points 4 and 5:
I personally think that attention and engagement is a learned skill. Being attentive for an hour solid is something you have to work at. Recent pedagogy seems to run counter to training attention but instead caters to a lack there of. How did I learn to have good attention? I took notes in lectures; I was studying a subject I liked; attending church helps funnily enough because if you zone out you look like a right wally when the next hymn starts and you’re still sitting like a lemon; and making the effort to resist the call to daydream, however strong.
When I find myself repeating instructions given to students mere minutes ago, when they can’t seem to recall something they were taught in a lecture the day before and Sixth Form is “ages ago” one wonders if they’re in the right place. If you can’t remember information about a subject you’re studying it’s probably because you’re not interested, and if you’re not interested, well, perhaps you need to find something that does interest you and do that instead.

Blimey this has turned into a long one.
These are merely my thoughts and I don’t have any answers and this is not meant to generalise all students, it’s just common issues I have personally encountered.

The author is a PhD student who helps teach courses mainly on geology, environmental science and computer skills. All views are her own so send the lynch mob to her door not anyone else’s. 

The best laid plans of mice and men…

A more philosophical post this time, away from my usual topics of science and stuff (the back-log of science and stuff posts is getting to be quite a long list…).

Plan: keeping in contact better with Durham people…

Result: An almost universal fail. Many of the people who I hold dearly to heart probably think I’ve totally forgotten about them. So this bit is for you:
Meth. Soc. gang and North Road Methodist people: I miss your gentle and friendly company. I hope you all are well.
MCR folks: I hope people are reading the library books! I’m glad knitting soc. is still going strong. I miss meal times with you, breakfasts are quite lonely now.
Geology pals: Rock on.
St John’s staff etc: Thank you. I think of you often and all the support you gave me (yes I mean the Porters, the Assistant Senior Tutor, Head of Maintenance, our Chaplin and Millie the dog etc etc etc)
Cranmer and Weasley peeps: Many of you are now all over the country, God’s blessings on you. Be as cunning as snakes but as innocent as lambs.

Truthfully, I’m more interested in how you are than me letting you know how I am.

But for what it’s worth: I have found a Church, I have great colleagues who have become good friends (we go to a pub quiz together among other things, and sometimes we win prizes), I have a place of my own and a pet Zebra Finch called Daisy (she’s adorable).


     Now onto something else.

Recently, whenever we seem to get into a good swing of work in the lab something seems to happen. Mainly to the equipment. To that end I spent all of yesterday change the filament in the X-ray machine as it had blown 1 hour into a 7 hour scan I had set to run on Thursday (we suspect a power surge may have occurred as the SEM’s filament also blew over night on Thursday. Or it might just to good ol’ coincidence). I’m quite pleased that with a little oversight from my colleagues (read: me begging them to check that I’d done it correctly every hour) I managed to do it all by myself.
Here’s the relevance: This sort of thing teaches you emotional resilience or at the very least highlights a need for improvement in that regard.
When things go wrong (in the ‘broken equipment’, ‘car won’t start’, ‘computer just died’ kind of way) we can behave in a couple of ways:

Anger: “How dare the world conspire to ruin my perfectly good day”.
Frustration: “Great, now I have to spend my time sorting this instead of doing something else”.
Impotent sadness: “Wwwwhhhhyyyyyyy???? *sob*”
Pragmatism: “These things happen.”
Cynicism: “Things things always happen.”
Optimism: “At least it happened now when I can fix it.”
Joy: “Yay, a new experience!”

I wouldn’t say any of those reactions are healthier than others (except that impotent sadness doesn’t get anything done) and by yourself any of those reactions are valid. But in a work environment some can be more helpful than others.

I once when on a residential trip where one of the discussions we had was about group dynamics and positive and negative behaviours. One friend of mine suggested something that initially had been a bit of a joke “complaining about the weather”. When we thought about it more, though, we agreed that that attitude can bring everyone down.

Yesterday, I got frustrated. I lost Thursday’s scan time and Friday’s scan time, but I had to be pragmatic. As a member of a team being angry and potentially lashing out at someone would have been extremely unproductive. Being miserable and unable to function would have meant someone else would have had to do it. That would have meant firstly, someone busier than me would have had to fix it and also it would have prevented me from learning a very important skill I will need when several of my lab mates graduate.

That being said, by the end of yesterday I was exhausted. My back ached in a characteristic way that indicated I was stressed, I was going cross-eyed from looking at the alignment images and one of my colleagues clearly noticed I was flagging. I don’t say that to garner sympathy, a gentle cycle home and eating chips while watching telly was enough to fix that, but to highlight that pragmatism isn’t easy.

My mother had a colleague at a previous job who would suffer badly with stress. She would storm around the office, sighing heavily, complaining and slamming filing cabinets shut. It was easier for her to get cross than to bottle it up or try to move past the thing that was going on.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. But it still doesn’t stop it costing energy to put it right.

I’m not one of finish any blog post of mine with some Aesop’s fables style moral lesson instead I’ll circle back to my opening comment in this section. These events teach you emotional resilience by only if we have the emotional intelligence to know what pushes our buttons. I know I respond badly to change or unexpected things so I know I have to work through them, especially at work where I’m part of a team. Maybe bad weather gets you down or seeing fifty emails in your inbox is enough to switch you to panic mode but if we know those things, we can mitigate.

It’s only when we know our quirks but don’t spare others our reactions to those quirks that we stand on shaky ground.

This article was sponsored by Chai tea drunk from a china cup,
because I’m way classy, yo. 

Edible geology #1 – The Earth is like a peach… sort of

As I wrote the title of this post I was reminded of a quotation from the Quandary Phase of The Hitch-hiker’s guide to the Galaxy: 

“Life… is like a grapefruit. Well, it’s sort of orangey-yellow and dimpled on the outside, wet and squidgy in the middle. It’s got pips inside, too. Oh, and some people have half a one for breakfast.” – Ford Prefect

We could probably mull over how serious Douglas Adams was being when he gave that line to Ford but food analogies are a common metaphor, and geology abounds with them. So here’s a simple one to start of with:

The Earth is like a peach.

The similarities

The ratio of skin to flesh to stone is very similar to the ratio of crust to mantle to core (more anon on that!)

The fuzzy exterior of a peach at that scale represents quite nicely the hills and valleys of the planet, as does the non-perfect spherical shape. (The Earth is not actually a sphere but bulges slightly at the equator).

The differences

The crust of the Earth is broken into tectonic plates not one perfect, connected skin.

The flesh of a peach doesn’t illustrate well the plastic, solid-yet-it-flows, fluidity of the mantle (even if you wait until the peach is so soft the juice goes everywhere!)

The stone, while a good rough analogue for the diameter of the core, doesn’t illustrate that the core is made up of a liquid outer and solid inner core.

It also doesn’t show the correct temperature, pressure and phase boundaries but then that’s just splitting hairs. What can someone really expect for comparing fruit to the entire Earth!

So there we go, next like you eat a delicious peach you can contemplate its beautiful similarity to the layers inside the Earth.



“MY LIT REVIEW IS GOING FINE! STOP BOTHERING ME!!!!… ahem… I mean, my lit review is going fine, why do you ask?” (current word count: approximately 1700 words… ~1000 of which are references… oh dear…)


For more info and further food based Earth analogies including boiled eggs and onions: 

Women who inspire me

This week I went to a talk launching the new year’s programme of ScienceGrrl Swansea which included a really great recap of everything they had done in the last year in partnership with Soapbox Science, Athena SWAN, Materials Live and the Swansea Waterfront Museum. Anyone who knows me personally knows I believe in equality of opportunity for everyone but in the case of STEMM subjects in academia there is an alarming dropout rate for women. (Which strikes me as odd as I know several very successful academics who take full advantage of flexible working hours and the option to work from home when needed so they and their partners can raise a family and continue to work). Clearly something more is at work than child-baring and working conditions.

I think the tides are turning as those women who were the vanguard of female academics are now lecturers, professors, even heads of departments and pro-VCs. Many might say, “ok, you’ve done it, women have broken the amorphous silica ceiling of academia” but this belies the still slightly insidious thought still in the back of girl’s heads: “science isn’t for girls”. I know I’ve had those thoughts when wondering if I’d ever make it in academia.
As part of the talk my Engineering Supervisor read out a piece he’d written for a newspaper about a woman in science who inspired him. That person was his sister. He encouraged us all to think about those women (and men!) who inspire us and got us into science.

So here goes:

There are a good many people that got me interested in science. Adam Hart-Davis’ Local Heroes taught me about British scientists from Humphrey Davie to Mary Anning. The days when I was ill were spent watching the education slots on BBC (do they still do that?). I hungrily ate-up the Open University material that used to have to be recorded at four in the morning and anything else that was about science on telly. I’ve had some great science teachers, university lecturers and supervisors. The wave of educational content on YouTube such as SciShow, ViHart and Notthingham University’s channels such as Periodic Videos and Numberphile has continued to fuel my curiosity in the natural world. Indeed, before YouTube I read my mother’s rocks and minerals books, my school library didn’t have one science book I hadn’t leafed through and my DK children’s Encyclopaedia must be my most read childhood book.

But I think there is one person who inspired me most, one person who I think always knew I’d become a PhD student and that was my High School Geology teacher, Mrs H*.
Mrs H over the years had taught me RE, Geography and Geology (it was that kind of school). Her form room, which was my form for Lower and Upper Sixth, was the geology lab. And. It. Was. Awesome. Specimens everywhere, geology posters on the walls, old OU tapes we could borrow to revise from, textbooks, microscopes, even a small sample cabinet containing tourmaline and opal (amongst other things). Best of all was Mrs H herself. She did her degree in geology and geography and was the daughter of a miner who worked the Pennine Orefield. She got interested in geology through him when he’d bring her home samples of fluorite (at the time a waste product of the galena mines).

She frothed with enthusiasm for geology and as a result her’s were some of the most engaging lessons I had in Sixth Form. She also encouraged us to pursue our own interests in the subject. During a fieldtrip me and J-Ro* (our other geology teacher who helped out with fieldtrips) got talking about how an outcrop we had seen had formed. By the end of the drive I had the bare bones of what would become my lab based coursework experiment (maybe I’ll talk about that in a future post). A teacher wanting an easy life marking coursework would have suggested I do a tried and test experiment like others (some looked at porosity of sediments, others, the formation of desiccation cracks) but not Mrs H. (It paid off, my work got special mention in the examiner’s report, something I am more proud of than my final mark. She even phoned me up to tell me).

There are many great women in science, the above mentioned Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Beatrix Potter, Florence Nightingale, and they are all an inspiration within their respective fields (as are their male counterparts) but if it wasn’t for Mrs H, I don’t think that today I’d be calling myself a Geologist.


*these were my teacher’s nicknames but hopefully they wont mind being referenced in that form.

Grasmere Cave and Bracelet Bay

Today I’d like to share a couple of recent little trips I took and the geology I saw:

Firstly, before I started work I went out walking with family around Grasmere. Not only were we enjoying a nice walk we knew we’d be passing an old quarry, now more man-made cave, that is in the hills between Grasmere and Rydal Water.

A fun fact about the cave is that a) it’s been used for concerts. (Good Acoustics?!)

b) It could fit the entire population of Ambleside within it.

Below are some typically arty photos of the cave.


P1010510 P1010508 P1010515

Before the weather recently broke in Swansea I went on a little field excursion to Bracelet Bay which is by Mumbles Head on Swansea Bay.

I took some photos (no surprise, see below) and made some poor quality notes in the back of my diary. So I followed good practice in keeping notes but didn’t record them in the right sort of place. So to preserve them for prosperity and to illustrate how a geologist might keep a notebook (I make no promises that my notebook technique is exemplary! In fact, I know it’s not, don’t follow my example!). Anyway, here goes:

Bracelet Bay 27/9/14 10:55

Around the back of the café by the stone benches.

After receiving a tip off from a dept. geologist I’ve gone in search of fossils!

– Fine grained, grey rocks.
– 2 scales of bedding ~40 cm & ~10-15 cm
– Jointed twice in the vertical ~E-W and NNE-SSW
– Highly fossiliferous
– Minor veining – calcite
– Fossils are matrix supported.

Wackestone (?) limestone
Some more dense – packstone

– Shells both concave and convex upwards (death assemblage?)
– Possible bivalves – vary from <1 cm up to 5 cm.

Photos taken.

P1010528 P1010530 P1010532 P1010534 P1010528 P1010529

I’ll admit the photos are more interesting than the above.


Some sort of adult or something – also science in the media

This episode I talk about: Argos, 3D printing, shake and vac, reading journals, volcanoes and rescue missions.

For those who have been following my recent exploits (aka saw a facebook post or something) will know the story so far, if not, to summarise, this is my first full week as a PhD student with the department of Geography and Engineering.

My days have mainly involved reading journal articles, going to the library to aquire more textbooks and journals, reading those, going down to the XRCT lab to check out the data they’ve already got on tephra and fiddling with learning how to use the software. Oh, and watching the fish tank and 3D printer while the software loads data (seriously, it’s hypnotic, I must do a timelapse sometime).

Yesterday I acquired somewhere to live which meant I had to go to Wilkinsons (other discount stores are available) and by crockery. But today, today I went to Argos, which called to mind:

Seriously, the entire time I had Bill Bailey in the back of my mind saying
“the laminated book of dreams… why is it laminated? To catch to tears of joy…”

New houses that aren’t new never have that new house smell so I indulged in something seriously retro. I’d be surprised they’re still making it except I knew they sold it about 10 years ago so after 30 years of it, why stop! Yes indeed:

Why yes I did make those gifs myself just to illustrate my point… Oi! I’m not that sad!

Blimey, when did I become so domesticated? I must be some sort of adult or something.

Right, onto something more serious:
Recently there’s been some exciting science in the media. Firstly, the girl with the 3D printed bionic arm:

Born with a condition effecting her hand the 3D printed hand (in fashionable pink and black) means that Hayley from Inverness can now grab, hold and manipulate things with her hand. The report says that it might help to boost her confidence in school now as before she would hide her hand some the other children wouldn’t see. I’ve seen some pretty cool 3D printed stuff (hero shrew vertebra, the Eiffel tower, meshing gears, a model of a jet engine to name but some of the things in the lab) but this is remarkable because it’s customisable, quick to manufacture and low cost. The world needs more 3D printed bionic limbs! NHS, make this happen!

In more sad news, the recovery effort looking for Malaysia fight MH370 has produced something surprising:

The hunt for the missing aircraft has lead the search crews to create sea bed maps in never-before-seen resolutions. The data is quite remarkable and even though I’ve seen bathymetry maps before there’s still that thrill of exploration about them. Especially when you think that if these ridges and valleys were above sea level they would dwarf every mountain in the UK and the footprint of a single volcano could squash a good size British town and leave no trace of it. Truly awesome.
But coming back to the actual story, one can only hope and pray they find the plane soon.

And finally, the suddenly eruption of the Japanese volcano, Mount Ontake, has left dozens kills and even more trapped:

The authorities confirm that 47 have died in the eruption; rescue attempts continue despite gas emissions, ash and continuing seismic activity. Despite having some of the best monitored volcanoes in the world the eruption in Japan took everyone by surprise, which is why there were hikers on the mountain at the time. This once again highlights that volcano monitoring is not yet an exact science. Until volcanologists have all the available facts about a volcano observation and mitigation is the best they can do.

Mount Ontake is a stratovolcano and the second highest volcano in Japan. It is also one of the sacred mountains of Japan and frequently climbed as part of spiritual rituals [source]. The volcanos in Japan are formed by the subduction of the North American and Philippine plate under the Eurasian plate. The water and other volatiles released by the subducting plates causes the solid mantle to melt and erupt explosively. Explosive volcanoes are the more deadly because, while still spectacular and hazardous, effusive, lava-flow based eruptions can, literally, be walked away from. Ash fall, on the other hand, can collapse roofs, pollute water supplies, seed rain clouds causing torrential rain and lead to chronic respiratory issues.

Next time: I talk about two mini-fieldtrips I’ve been on recently, complete with pictures. Also, more on tephra.


An academic paper related PhD comic:

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.