…I’m a Doctor! Don’t worry, not a useful one, unless you want someone to look over your ancient fossils (not your grandmother). On Monday I passed my viva voce, a three hour examination that marked the end of the four year trial by science that was my DPhil. Given leave to supplicate, you can apparently now call me ‘Dr Leila Battison’.
Well, so much for keeping a regular travel blog. Little did I realise, but travelling half way across the world to an entirely new place, with an entirely new group of people, and entirely new kind of work, sort of knocks you backwards for a while. It’s been a little over two weeks since I arrived in San Francisco, and I finally feel like I’ve caught up with myself.
So, a fortnight ago I set off from rainy Wales, which became rainy London, and I soaked in the padded, rolling English countryside from the train window, only too conscious that it would be the last time I’d see anything like it for the next three months. A warm sunset with puffy clouds and contrails, like one of Marie Robinson’s paintings, was my last sight of England.
Twenty-four hours of transit was, as could be expected, near hell. As the hours ticked by beyond our scheduled departure from Heathrow, I was conscious of my dwindling transit time in Houston, and sure enough, I have never seen an airport at quite such speed. My impression of Houston, Texas was green – a lot more green than I had been expecting. But no time to explore and I was straight onto my flight across the mountains to ‘Frisco.
It was dark when I arrived, but I was welcomed like a lost friend into my cosy houseshare in the centre of the City. This Californian attitude is easy and heartfelt, and something that many places could benefit from. Never mind the acts of blatant generosity (dinner, wine, lifts to the train station), just a smile when you arrive is enough to dispel any gloomy thoughts.
Well, I was well looked after by my housemates, and the first weekend was spent exploring the city, getting my bearings. I think I had been in San Francisco less than 12 hours when I saw my first naked man. Five in fact, in the gay centre Castro, just a 15 minute walk from the house. Just sunning themselves in the square, they brought towels to sit on, although I’m not sure whether that was for their benefit or for the benefit of succeeding patrons.
The weather has been unseasonably warm for July, I am told. It has been mid to high 20s and clear most days in the city, although the dense marine layer of cloud blanket and fog usually rolls in around sunset, and perseveres until mid morning. The weather here is so dramatic and dynamic, it reminds me of this heartbreakingly beautiful time lapse of clouds over the Canary Islands. It could just as easily be here.
So once settled in San Francisco, Monday was time to start my new job. NASA here I come. The commute was ridiculously easy, buses and trains door to door – although so few people seem to use it. The numbers of cars are frightening. I’m carpooling now with a postdoc in our lab, and every morning we sail down the freeway that is packed bumper to bumper with one-commuter cars. It seems madness when the pubic transport is so efficient, but then I guess Americans sure do like their cars. Some of them even have six wheels. Why? Beats me.
NASA Ames is a lot more homely than you might expect. Nestled right up next to the Moffatt Airfield, the aeronautics heritage is ever-present. The science buildings are dwarfed by vast wind tunnels and hangars, used rarely now modelling technologies are so much more efficient. I was told that the largest wind tunnel there uses as much energy as the whole of San Francisco when in operation. Although that fact was later floored by the laser at nearby Lawrence Livermore, which in the few picoseconds of its operation uses as much energy as the whole USA. Anyway, big machines doing big science.
The second most amazing thing about NASA is how friendly everyone is. Must be California again. The lab is made up of a couple of PIs, a few postdocs, and a seemingly endless stream of short term researchers, interns, and summer students. Even those who are here short term are welcomed, inducted, and given free reign in the labs, permitting the kind of self-driven, self-motivated blue sky research that sets NASA apart from other universities and research institutions. All specialisations are mixed in together. I’ve had meetings with algologists, shared beers with geobiologists, visited the golf club with molecular biologists, and my office is sandwiched between the eminent Mars geologists that I spent my academic career referencing and respecting. I feel so different to the talent base there, and yet so welcomed for the skills I do have. It is a nurturing environment that I could easily get used to.
And so two weeks have passed already. I’ve set up my experiments, caught up on sleep, finished all the books I brought with me, and finally unpacked my suitcase. I’m on first name terms with the guy at the corner shop, and the guy who drives the NASA shuttle bus, and pretty much everyone in California, or so it seems. I’m looking forward to a profitable and fun six weeks in Frisco, with a short visit to Pasadena for AbGradCon, and then an epic road trip to take in all the sights that differ so much from the English countryside I’ve left behind. And then, who knows. I’ve got 2 months to think about that….
So I’m meant to start travelling this evening, and haven’t thought about packing yet, so what better way to distract myself/everyone else, than to draw your attention to some of the most awesome paintings I’ve seen in a long time.
Marie Robinson is a wife of a friend and fellow Morris Dancer, and she paints some astounding stuff, mostly in oils, always in intricate and perfect detail. Myself, as someone with an aversion to paint and colour, I am astounded by what she can achieve with a few brushstrokes. On her website, she has a variety of lovely collections, my personal OCD favourite is this pair of spoons.
I love the collections, and there are plenty more over at her website, check them out.
But what really, really, gets me going, is her landscapes. Again, something I would never be able to attempt myself, they are breathtakingly beautiful in themselves, but what Marie has gone one step further and done something I have been hankering to see for a long time. Modern landscapes. Clouds and rolling hills are beautiful, but are not particularly representative of the skies we see every day. Skies that are criss-crossed with contrails and modern views of rural landscapes are just as, if not more beautiful, in my humble opinion, than the flawless Constables and Turners.
The beauty of Turner’s work is owed partly to the global effects of the Indonesian volcanic eruptions between 1812 and 1815, and he captured a brief, beautiful period of time. Marie is doing the same today with the effects of our extensive intercontinental air travel, and our gradual spread into rural England.
So, with her permission, I reproduce a few more of my favourites from her website. I hope you too will be tempted to go and check them out, go to her exhibitions, and buy her beautiful paintings.
Marie can be found at www.marie-robinson.com
Last night it was my pleasure to attend the Oxford Alumni Society Professional Networking Event at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. Just a week on from my disastrous visit to the London Cabaret Awards, the evening couldn’t have been more sensible, smooth, or better executed. I didn’t manage to lose a single item of clothing, and I arrived at Pall Mall a very fashionable five minutes late.
The event melded the seemingly non-sequitur fields of volcanology and evolution with public policy, with speakers Professor David Pyle and Dr Matt Friedman sharing with us some of the new and most relevant findings of their work in the elegant and homely environs of the O&C Club.
Following a jolly hour of wine and high-class nibbles, newly reunited with leavers from my graduation year and my fourth year seminar group from that morning, we crowded into the teensy lecture room and gradually settled down to learn.
Professor Pyle, who taught me volcanology as an undergraduate, started us off with an endearing familiarity. He spoke of Oxford’s involvement with the recent ash disruption from the April 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption in Iceland, demonstrating with some strong images, just how light the ash fall was. He spoke of his primary research interest – the interaction between volcanoes and the glaciers that commonly form in their craters, in places like the Chilean Andes.
Particularly close to my heart was his work on the Greek island of Santorini, where I spent an extremely pleasant field trip in my final year of undergraduate, and which seemingly involved riding around in boats and admiring the view. Prof. Pyle and his geophysical colleagues at Oxford have been monitoring the dormant crater at the centre of the island since 2004, with a hope of detecting changes in the shape and seismic activity of the volcano that may signal an upcoming eruption.
And they may have spotted just that. Measurements of the tiny movements of the rocks since January 2010 have hinted at a bulging in the centre of the island complex, which is likely to be cause by a pulse of magma surging upwards to fill a magma chamber. Exciting stuff, and I am by no means enough of a volcanologist to know what this might mean in the future, but it is fascinating to be able to document the real-time activity of a classic Mediterranean volcano, and to potentially compare it with those historical eruptions responsible for the decimation of the Minoan civilisation, and the levelling of Pompeii. Happy happy memories of those halcyon undergraduate days when beer was cheap and the sun always shone…
Dr Matt Friedman, molester of fishes and general vertebrate whizz, followed and, coping well with the inevitable technological stall, treated us to some excellent pictures, movies and reconstructions of fossil fish. I never knew they could be so interesting!
As a paleaontologist, I have always turned my research attentions to the squishier, smaller and weirder parts of the early fossil record. But I learnt more from Matt in half an hour than I did for my entire undergraduate course. I learnt that of all the vertebrates, over half of them live in water. I learnt that you can douse your precious fish fossil in acid to make its bones stick out more to study them, and I learnt that some now extinct fish looked really, really stupid.
Matt has the rather dubious honour of being the flatfish fossil king, and has used the skeletons of some primitive groups to show how fish evolved from having one eye on each side of their face, to having both on the same side. It apparently involved an evolutionary stage where they looked sillier than usual:
Some of the really cool work that Matt is doing at the moment makes use of probably the biggest piece of scientific kit in the UK – the diamond light source synchrotron. The synchrotron accelerates particles around the huge doughnut-shaped building, generating x-rays that can be used like a super high-powered hospital CT-scanner to peer inside some exceptionally preserved fossils. Despite having only just started this, Matt and his coworkers have already got some exciting results, being able to reconstruct the delicate gill supports, and the nerves inside the skull of some early fishes.
Both speakers got plenty of incisive questions from the diverse audience, and as we hurried back to the wine and nibbles, I heard nothing but enthusiasm, for the lawyers and linguists, as well as the easily-pleased geologists.
Having been in the same department in Oxford for the last eight years, it is easy to feel staid, and tied down by the expectations and traditions of some of the older members of the faculty. It was truly refreshing to be a part of the younger, outward-looking and truly outreaching new generation of Oxford scientists. I came away glowing with pride and wine, and hoping that researchers and teachers like Prof. Pyle and Dr Friedman can help Oxford to keep up with the curve.
It is December, and I couldn’t think of a better time to start a new project. New Year’s resolutions are for sissies (sp?), and not only have I started my Christmas diet preemptively, I have also decided to start some of my new projects early to give them a run up before the dreaded January swamp…
So let me introduce SciVoxPops - a chance for everyone to have a say about a hot science question.
The project will not only pose these questions and relay the doubtless fascinating answers, but use these voxpops in ways they are unaccustomed to. I’m going to analyse them.
Gist: A scientific question or issue will be posed, comments and replies will be obtained, the results will be collated, presented, and analysed. You will find out fascinating facts as well as some diverse opinions.
What I will do: Each week, I will pose a scientific question across various social media outlets, and also to real people in the real world. I will collate the comments, present them, and try to tease out some sense or trend which, hopefully, will throw up some surprising results. These will be presented in a weekly blog. If this trial goes well, YouTube will be conquered.
What you will do: Watch out for the question each week. On twitter, search for the hashtag #scivoxpop. Send an honest or witty reply, then wait to find out how you fit in or out in a blog here at the end of the week. Tell everyone you know, and send me suggestions for future SciVoxPops.
First question tomorrow (Fri 9th Dec). Hint: it will be a subject close to my heart to get the ball rolling.
VoxPops – literally Vox populi or ‘voice of the people’, is commonly used to describe the so-called man-on-the-street interviews carried out by TV and Radio journalists. Whilst they often provide a light relief from the professional and often cutting reporting of journalists and people trained in public speaking, they are usually left at just that.
I would like to use a large volume of these to try and tease out trends in opinion, especially about scientific questions or issues. Sometimes it will be a matter of opinion, sometimes it will be a matter of communication. Will we find the Higgs Boson? What is the best source of energy? How old is the Earth? Which sci-fi movie taught you most? All of these questions can be addressed and gauged by YOU, the man (or woman or undecided) on the street (or in the lab or on the internet). I can’t wait to see the results.
In fact, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ – what we use these days in croudsourcing the best kind of DVI cable to buy and other Very Important Issues – was a concept first postulated by Sir Francis Galton way back in 1907. He published his research in the journal Nature entitled, coincidentally ‘Vox populi’. So this is my hundred-year-old tribute to Sir Francis, in attempting to harness the ‘wisdom of crowds’, using the VoxPoppery of today.
UPDATE: This week’s SciVoxPop is ‘Do you think there is life elsewhere in the universe?’ Answers here or on twitter, or if you’re shy email me…
I received the sad news today that Lynn Margulis, celebrated eccentric and evolutionary revolutionary, passed away last night, the evening of the 22nd November, 2011. She had suffered from a severe stroke and was discharged from UMass Medical Centre on the 19th November to receive hospice care at home. Her family were with her.
I had the great fortune of working with Lynn for two years on various projects and investigations, including the evolutionary origin of sex, symbiosis in foraminifera, definitions of life, and NASA exobiology projects. She visited Oxford for a year where she taught me vast amounts about microbial evolution and diversity, hosted countless seminars and symposia, even a debate with Richard Dawkins. She worked closely with myself and my supervisor Martin Brasier, and became a cherished friend.
In the short time that I knew her, she was unfailingly kind and generous, warm, and welcoming. Lynn first made a name for herself with the maverick suggestion that Eukaryotes evolved from the long term symbiotic association between different kinds of bacteria. Her theory seemed crazy at the time, but gradually it has slipped into common acceptance and for evolutionary microbiologists, Lynn Margulis became a household name.
Since then, Lynn continued to walk a knife edge of eccentricity. Her theories were always a little outside the norm, and some dismissed her as a quack or even, cruelly, an ‘embarassment’. No scientist deserves to be described in that way, especially a person as hard-working and dedicated as Lynn. Especially when she herself set the precedent for ‘crazy’ hypothesis to accepted theory. To people like Lynn we owe some great leaps in scientific theory, and the world would be a much lesser place without them.
Lynn was a strong woman. I last saw her just over a year ago, at a NASA symposium in Washington DC. She was vibrant and outrageous and outspoken. She held tightly to my hand while she laughingly gossiped about delegates behind their back. When we parted, she hugged me and told me never to be dull. And after knowing her, I never could be.
I know she touched a lot of people during her life. She was a person that inspires great feeling, good or bad. But Lynn Margulis shaped the course of my research career, and inspired the kind of scientist, and the kind of person, I try to be. Her legacy will live on in those who were fortunate enough to know her. She is, and always will be, truly unforgettable.