…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’.
It was spectacularly ambitious and terrifying complicated, but at 10:31pm Pacific time, the MSL rover, Curiosity, touched down softly on the surface of Mars, and sent back its first thumbnail image of the horizon through a fisheye lens.
I watched the rover’s launch in November from my bedroom and shed a private tear of pride and hope. Tonight I was at NASA Ames in California, sharing many tears of happiness and relief. Nearly ten thousand people packed out the parade ground inside Ames, watching the two huge screens as mission control checked off each automated stage from NASA’s JPL in Pasadena. Ripples of applause at the switching of antennae and data feeds turned to hearty cheers and then whoops and shouts of delight as entry began, the parachute was deployed, the retro-boosters set in, and finally, MSL touched down on Mars. It’s hard to believe any image has caused such universal joy as that first 64×64 thumbnail of the Martian surface.
Over the last few weeks I had become increasingly tired of watching NASA’s cinematic ’7 minutes of terror’ trailer, and explaining the to best of my knowledge the intricacies of the upcoming landing. But the event tonight, experienced not only by the scientists involved, and the thousands packed into NASA centres across America, but by the whole world through unrivalled live streaming, is something that can not be easily explained or forgotten. Watching the landing, I had chills that had nothing to do with the coolness of the night, and seeing its success, there is a warmth and elation that is nothing to do with the celebratory swigs of fizz.
We have landed toys on Mars before, small rovers the size of remote control cars, and barely better equipped. In comparison, the behemoth we have just lowered out of the sky from a freaking jet pack, is a fully equipped geochemical and geological laboratory. It’s the size of a small car and weighs nearly a tonne, and we’ve just airlifted it from 500,000 miles away. It’s going to tell us more about the geological and habitable history than we’ve ever known before, and I get to work with that data to look for traces of past life. It’s going to be an unbelievably exciting couple of years.
But first, I’m just going to bask in scientific glory and pride. Today we touched Mars with curiosity, and Curiosity survives to tell the tale. What a fucking awesome time to be here.
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….
Not enough posts from me in the last month or so. Well, none at all. But I do have the best excuse of all. Try writing a 360 page thesis, and a 600 page atlas in a month, and then see how motivated you can be to write more than an email. Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I survived the experience, and the thesis was gleefully, if exhaustedly, submitted on the 6th June.
Since then it has been all change at Pen and Ink towers. After a week long conference, supposedly exploring the origins of life, but mostly exploring the local wine lists courtesy of the Lyon Institute of Origins, I packed up and drove away from Oxford for the last time, ending an eight-year era that has been the majority of my adult life. A tear was shed, but stepping out into the unknown can be exhilarating with a look to the future instead of the past.
The last week has been a complete change to the pure academic life I’ve been leading of late, as I organised and led the Diamond Jubilee tour of The Ancient Men Morris Dancers on their 107th tour in 60 years. This past week we have danced from Llandeilo to Llanelli, Camarthen to Cardiff, in some of the most inclement weather the UK has seen for years. An unremittingly wet, but unremittingly fun week was spent with some of the finest people I know, and while the bruises and blisters may take some time to heal, the memories will stick around for a good while yet. Here’s a photo of us after our last dance on the beach at Port Talbot.
So, onwards and upwards to this future, and I am now counting down the days before I leave for my summer of adventure. On Saturday, I fly out to San Francisco, to join the exalted ranks of NASA scientists as we strive for a truer understanding of our place in the universe. Or, more simply, I’m going to poke some algae for a couple of months. The plan is to try and approach some of the enigmas of early Earth microbial systems from a biological point of view, with a view to understanding what they may be doing, or may have done, if life arose elsewhere. I expect the work to involve collecting, culturing, and sequencing algal mats, as well as investigating nutrient flows and responses to extreme external stimuli. I have high hopes and am super excited for a new direction and a new location.
Also super exciting is the prospect of living and working in San Francisco. Renowned for its microbrewery and chilled out folk culture, somehow I feel I’m going to get on pretty well there. I’ll be living just off Alamo Square, and while its about an hour commute, I think its going to be well worth it, for living in the middle of everything. Recommendations for places to hang out, or things not to be missed are greatly welcomed!
As seems to be the thing these days, I’m going to try and keep some semblance of a travel blog/diary right here for those of you who will be missing me desperately, or want to find out how I’m treating San Francisco. So watch this space for considerably more updates on life as a Brit in the States, life as a Morris dancer in San Francisco, or life as a palaeontologist at NASA.
Sex. Doing the dirty. A bit of the old in and out. Making teenage boys giggle and girls blush since the beginning of time. Or was it? Has sex always been around? If not, who ever thought that an awkward fumble followed by a nine month wait was a good way of continuing the species? Perhaps sex hasn’t always been the taboo subject that it is now, and we know that there are other ways than doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel, but the origin of sexual reproduction is still far from being resolved.
Why, for example, is it so prevalent? Why would you go to the effort of finding a mate and performing some intricate act with them, if you can more efficiently clone yourself instead? Cloning takes just one to make one more, rather than sex, which needs a matching pair to reproduce. There must be a good reason to keep such an inefficient process going.
And indeed there is. When it comes down to it, sex is not about the bump and grind, or the fancy feathers and elaborate mating rituals. It’s all about what goes on in the cells. Meiosis is the first stage, with a ‘normal’ cell dividing twice to make gametes with half the right amount of DNA – in our case sperm and eggs. Two gametes, usually from different individuals, come together at fertilisation, making up the full complement of DNA, and then the fertilised egg, or zygote, starts dividing and keeps on dividing until it has the right number of cells to make an organism. The whole thing is a lengthy and complicated process that is seemingly designed to confuse biology students.
But there is meaning behind the madness. Sex is what allows organisms to mix up their genes – first during the random allocation of gene variants to gametes, and secondly during the random choice of fertilising pairs – and is the reason that no two sexually reproducing organisms look identical. One of the greatest misconceptions in evolution is that random mutation in DNA drives the variation exploited by natural selection, when in actual fact it is sex. Sex effectively shuffles the genetic material of a whole species every time an organism reproduces – a much more effective way of experimenting with variation than waiting a few generations for just one, potentially damaging mutation to one gene.
So, that’s why sex is a more attractive prospect than cloning yourself. But it doesn’t explain how, when, or where it got started. When was the first time the earth moved? Do we owe the discovery of sex to animals, or were they latecomers to the sexual arena, following in the footsteps of earlier, smaller, and simpler organisms in the deep past? Scientists have no firm answers yet, but there are a few clues.
When trying to work out when something evolved, scientists have two choices. They can look at living organisms and use the information contained in their DNA to work out when it first appeared. Or they can use the fossil record to trace a creature back in time to when it first appeared. Both methods are useful, but both are beset with problems. The creature in question may survived until today, or its fossil record may be incomplete and misleading. This is just the case with sex.
Sex is easy to spot and study in living organisms today. In addition to bizarre sexual practices, like the mid-act cannibalism practiced by many praying mantids, or the colour coded treasuries of Australian bowerbirds, there are some more clear morphological adaptations that can be spotted in living or dead creatures. First and most obvious, is sexual organs. Chances are, if you are a sexually reproducing animal, you are going to have some specialised organs to do so whether you’re a barnacle with the largest penis in the world or boast a four-headed member like the modest echidna.
Sexual dimorphism is an indirect consequence of a sexual lifestyle. Most notable amongst elaborately plumed birds, like peacocks or birds of paradise, sexual dimorphism is also extremely realised in terms of body size in certain species of fish. The male angler fish, arguably the smallest vertebrate in the world, is forty times smaller than the female.
But all these products of sex appeared at a late stage in the history of cellular sexual reproduction. If we want to find the origin, we need to look at modern examples of much more primitive creatures. Many eukaryotic organisms (those with a nucleus, as opposed to bacteria) consist of just a single cell, and still manage to reproduce sexually without all the adaptive trappings. And these single-celled creatures, called protists, evolved much earlier than animals. So does sex predate the animals? Possibly. Assuming that those sexually reproducing protists that are living today have been doing it ever since they evolved, then yes. But what evidence do we have to prove this is the case? Like the ancestors of humans haven’t always walked on two feet, perhaps today’s protists haven’t always been reproducing sexually. We need to turn to the fossil record.
Tracking sex though the fossil record is a tricky business, mostly because of the extreme bias in what can be preserved. The bulk of the fossil record is a record of hard parts and sex is generally concerned with the softer parts of anatomy (no jokes). Whether occurring in animals or in tiny protists, the adaptations and cellular products of the sexual process are not made of hard mineralised substances and so are easily decayed away after death. Sexual dimorphism too is difficult to recognise unequivocally, with different sized skeletons often interpreted as different species, or as younger forms, rather than different genders. So the fossil record of sex must be built on the rare examples where soft parts are preserved, or the indirect effects that sexual reproduction may have on a species.
Two big clues both come from around a time of major revolution in the biological world, the so-called Cambrian explosion of animal life, around 540 million years ago, when all the animal groups appeared in the fossil record for the very first time. This was not only a time of extraordinary fossil diversity, but also of exceptional fossil preservation. Microscopic algae and intricate macroscopic animals are preserved in the finest possible detail. Amongst these, just before the appearance of animals, scientists found tiny remains which looked like balls of cells, with different number of cells in each – one, two, four, eight, sixteen, and so on. In fact, these fossils looked just like embryos. The now infamous Doushantuo embryos, named after the formation in China from which they were first described, have been the subject of intense scientific debate for the last 15 years, with many scientists arguing that they are just giant bacteria. If they are embryos though, then they provide evidence that the sexual processes that must have formed them were well established before the majority of animals emerged.
A second piece of evidence, and one which supports the similar idea that sex got started before animals, is more indirect. Given that today, sex is responsible for much of the variation we see amongst eukaryotic organisms, it is reasonable to assume that when sex first got started, it would have been marked by a sharp increase in the variation of the creatures alive at the time, which would be recognised as a peak in species diversity. Looking for peaks in diversity is quite easy in the fossil record, and once compared with information from other time periods, there remains one gigantic spike – the Cambrian explosion itself. Could the invention of sex by eukaryotic protists have sparked the beginning of the animal kingdom as we know it? Quite possibly.
The evidence from the fossil record seems to point to an origin of sex just before the evolution of the animals, and as far as we can interpret it, the patterns of diversity of living creatures seems to point in that direction too. It may be that we will never be able to place an exact date on the origin. But it is clear that without sex, without that mucky, clumsy, long-winded process that is the bane and the joy of so many, we wouldn’t be here – not just those who are able to read this text, but every animal alive today.
This article was written for, and originally published in, Aberdeen University Science Magazine Issue 3
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.
When I was 17, I fancied myself as a bit of an environmental activist. I was devastated by the devastation of the Amazon, and choked by the choking of the oceans with plastic. I joined Greenpeace and got an activist’s pack, including a stencil which I dutifully cut out.
But that was about as far as it went. I never sprayed my stencil onto anything, never did any flyering, and never chained myself to any railings. It would seem my sense of self-preservation was a little bit stronger than my cares for the World’s preservation. I’m a little ashamed to admit that, but I don’t really believe I am alone. If I was in the minority, maybe we wouldn’t have the environmental issues we do, and I would be admitting a much more heinous crime of selfishness.
Would everyone in my position admit such self-preservation? Not without producing a few excuses: we didn’t know; we didn’t know what to do; we didn’t know how to make a difference. Not everyone wants to hijack an oiltanker to make a difference, and they shouldn’t have to. For us to be able to deal with the climatic and ecological changes to our planet today, the baton must be carried by more than the few, fierce, selfless activists, but by all – as a part of everyday life.
UNEP’s World Environment Day (5th June), will address this issue with this year’s theme: ‘Green Economy: Does it include you?’
Like the majority of people in the UK, I am not intimately involved in forming our country’s economic policy, but I am environmentally minded. But what are the opportunities for an ordinary person to be green, without being an activist?
So I thought I would assess my own greenness, eight years on from my Greenpeace days. What has slipped unnoticed into my world?
Light bulbs: When I get home each night, I go through the same ritual. I switch on the light in my room, and then I go and do something else for 5 minutes. Why? Because my house has been imperceptibly infiltrated by energy-saving bulbs, producing a laughably small amount of light when switched on, and taking hours to ‘warm up’. Apart from this very minor, first-world irritation, energy saving bulbs are one of the triumphs of subversive green policy making. Have you tried to buy a tungsten bulb recently? They might as well be illegal, for the trouble you have to go to. Low energy bulbs are now made easier on the eye and on the pocket, and are a shining beacon of successful, if small, steps to greenness.
Green Energy: Wind turbines! What a wonderful way to make use of Britain’s prevailing southwesterlies. Personally, I find wind farms some of the most graceful, beautiful and striking examples of green engineering, but they attract a surprising number of antagonists – mostly on ecological grounds (surprisingly not on grounds of impending invasion). But are we close to meeting renewable targets, or are we even trying? Can I have my own wind turbine? Please?
Sustainable and Organic: Many foods and products now proudly tote logos proclaiming their sustainability. The Red Tractor for British farms, and FSC for sustainable wood are both fairly ubiquitous in the marketplace, offering green alternatives at no expense or inconvenience. The Organic revolution is still floundering though, with organic goods prohibitively expensive for all but the lavishly rich or the more pressingly green-conscious.
This is a pretty small list. Although it could be made longer, it would begin to include options, like organic food, that require a strength of will, awareness, or purse, that most people don’t have time or inclination to invest in.
Does the Green economy include me? A bit, I suppose, if you count my light-bulb ritual and my love of wind farms. But until all unfriendly solutions go the quiet but definite way of the tungsten lightbulb, I won’t hold my breath for willing or active advocacy.
This blog post is submitted as an entry to the UNEP/WED blog competition.
If you study evolution and palaeontology, whether it is diplodocus or drosophila, hadrosaurs or hominids, at some point you are likely to make use of, or even make your own, phylogenetic tree. These trees are really the holy grail of evolution studies, showing the relationships between species, what evolved from what and, in some cases, how long ago their common ancestor lived. They can be built by comparing similar characters in a creature’s appearance, like number of legs, or how they reproduce. Alternatively, modern evolutionary biologists use the information-rich genetic code in living organisms to make and compare many trees, ultimately resulting in one that most accurately represents the true course of evolution.
Making a tree inevitably involves a lot of number crunching, but the resulting diagram is elegant and informative. Try this general one of eukaryotic life
Here, Bacteria have been used as an ‘outlier’ to compare all the other members of the Eukaryotes. Each branch marks an evolutionary ‘divergence’ – a novel change that created that group of organisms. For instance, the invention of chloroplasts led to the all the members of the plant kingdom, just as the invention of feathers led uniquely to birds. The fewer the number of branches between two creatures, the more closely related they are. For instance, we are more closely related to cows and whales, than we are to marsupials.
So to a graphically minded palaeontologist, a phylogenetic tree is quite a thing to behold, but there is a way of making them even better. For many, more detailed trees, you may be dealing with specific species, and lots of them. Take this now-famous ‘megatree’ of all the dinosaurs:
While it is undoubtedly a breathtaking piece of work, with a striking design, its usefulness is questionable to all but the most dedicated head-tilting members of the vertebrate palaeontological community. More and more trees are appearing with more and more information crammed into them, and they are no longer the elegantly informative diagrams they once were.
But there is a growing trend to making phylogenetic trees beautiful and readable again, using silhouettes of the creatures being compared, rather than, or in addition to, their names. And hopefully this graphically gorgeous trend will continue with the launch of PhyloPic a new open database of life form silhouettes for use in phylogenetic and other applications. Here’s an example:
The open source database is encouraging submissions from registered users (registration is as easy as pie) of silhouettes of any creature, in solid black, to be used under a creative commons license. Users can search the database for the latin or the common name, and download the image in a variety of sizes and manipulable formats.
At the moment, the search and browse facilities are still a little clunky, and the database is rather sparsely populated with some odd looking silhouetted. What on earth are these?
They are, in actual fact (from left to right): a single-celled symbiotic euakryote, a placozoan, a human baby, a choanoflagellate, and a pterosaur. Perhaps a little more contecxt will make these silhouettes a little less mysterious.
Needless to day, as an artist and a palaeontologist, I heartily approve of this new resource and I know I’m not alone – the young palaeo-community has got silhouetted ants in their pants with excitement over it. I will certainly be contributing some images over the coming weeks, and I encourage any other artistically minded palaeontologist, zoologist or miscellaneous scientist to help to build this wonderful database.
Browse or contribute to PhyloPic here: http://phylopic.org
How did you learn the geological timescale?
Geology is not a standard subject in the UK Curriculum, so those few students who arrive at university having done it at GCSE or A-Level, have usually been taught it by non-tradtitional means. They are more exposed to the whim and wit of their teacher than they would be in any other subject.
In fact, it was partly the charisma and enthusiasm of my A-Level Geology teacher that prompted me to apply to Geology at university, and…well, the rest is history. Initially planning to take science subjects and apply for biochemistry, I chose Geology at A-Level on a bit of a whim – having always enjoyed physical geography. Imperceptibly, as the weeks passed, all thoughts of biochemistry slipped away, and I realised I’d been a geologist all along. Starting it at university was a bit of a shock to the system, and it was only then I realised my love affair was not entirely with the subject, but also with the teaching (not the teacher, I know how that sounds), and I was suddenly deprived of it.
Amongst the physical memories: Shap granite on the front desk, the poster about petroleum play (tee hee) and the river delta tank – some lessons still remain. By far the most useful was a handy mnemonic for remembering the order of the geological time periods. I was surprised to find later that not everyone learnt this, and I admit I have rather come to depend on it, reciting it inside my head whenever I need to pluck a series of periods out of the air. It goes like this:
Camels Often Sit Down Carefully, Perhaps Their Joints Creak – reciting upwards from the base of the Phanerozoic goes through Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. In fact, this only really covers the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic, but they are always the trickiest ones to remember. Nevertheless, my choice to research the Palaeozoic and Precambrian is in part due to the fact that I have no idea of the order of the things in the Tertiary. Perhaps it is possible to become too reliant on a mnemonic…
Let me tell you one of my favourite things about this little phrase. It is clever when it come to C’s. You have three periods beginning with C – the Cambrian, the Carboniferous, and the Cretaceous. Now if you didn’t know and you were given an acrostic-style mnemonic that dealt only with the first letter, you would be left in the dark while you were guessing whether the Cretaceous or the Carboniferous came first. But this is great in that the C’s are padded out – CAMels for the CAMbrian; CARefully for the CARboniferous, and CREak for the CREtaceous. Neat, huh?
So no, it won’t help with your Vendians or Ripheans, or with your Palaeogene or Pleistocene, but it is a super little phrase which played a big part in shaping my career.
I’d love to hear any other suggestions, especially something that can help ease my distrust of the Cenozoic…?