F*ck yes! Curiosity lands on Mars!

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.

First thumbnail image returned to Earth from MSL/Curiosity after its landing on Mars.  Courtesy of NASA.

First thumbnail image returned to Earth from MSL/Curiosity after its landing on Mars. Courtesy of NASA.

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.

Mission control for MSL/Curiosity Landing at NASA JPL via the big screens at NASA Ames.

Mission control for MSL/Curiosity Landing at NASA JPL via the big screens at NASA Ames.

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.

Beers to fit the Mars landing theme...

Beers to fit the Mars landing theme…

Hobbing and Nobbing with Volcanoes and Fish

University of OxfordLast 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.

Aerial view of Santorini, with the newest volcanic cone, Kameni, in the centre.

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:

Fossil skulls of the ancestors of flatfish, showing how one eye (right side) migrated up and over the skull. (Modified from Friedman 2008)

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.

 

Camels in the Cambrian? A Geology Mnemonic

Sitting camel

Sitting camel. Indian ink on paper. Copyright Leila Battison 2012

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…?

 

The Pinnacle of Cake Evolution

Each year, our Earth Science Department in Oxford has a Christmas party which incorporates, amongst other things, a cake competition.  Each research group makes a cake that is in some way related to their work. The palaeontologists have always been something of a diminutive group, and have been considered the underdogs in the department, but with the arrival of three new members this year we are growing strong.  We decided to take on a mammoth task with our cake – to represent the evolution of all life, from the first cells to humans, on a gigantic spiral cake.  This was the inspiration:

And, after 30 hours, 32 eggs, and 3kg of marzipan, this was the outcome:

Evolution cake by the Oxford Palaleobiology Group

This photo isn’t really the best, and there are lots of things I would like to draw your attention to, so I have made a lovely video for your watching pleasure. You can find it *here*.

Anyway, we were all supremely happy with what we produced, which was just as well because we didn’t even win the competition.  Not that I’m bitter about that at all….  It would seem that when a cake is being judged on both style and taste, you can’t rely on a thoroughly manhandled multi-bake cake and marzipan to clinch the deal.  Never mind.

I plan to hand in a less edible version as a diorama alongside my thesis.  Pretty sure it will boost my approval?

Anglesey, Portmeirion, and a new artwork

A few weeks ago, after coming back from my journalistic summer, I embarked on
hopefully the final piece of fieldwork I will have to carry out for my thesis.

My three-year-and-two-month (and counting) doctoral research has been very heavily field based, and I have had the opportunity to scour the rocks in northwest Scotland, south Wales, northern Ontario, and eastern Newfoundland.  My latest trip was to one of the less glamorous locations – Anglesey.  My intended destination was the happening town of Cemaes and its nearby bay, where I hoped to find some excitingly ancient evidence of continents colliding and crumbling.  The fossil-bearing rocks I was in search for formed before the first animals and were once attached to part of South America.

I organised it at pretty short notice, and didn’t have time to organise a proper field assistant.  So I took… my mummy. Here she is:

Mummy admiring some rocks

She was a very good field assistant, quite apart from the trendy fieldworking handbag.  She didn’t answer back, provide any ‘outsider insight’.  She did a spectacular job in sitting on rocks, showing mild interest and making sure I didn’t fall in the sea and drown.

As we were such an efficient fieldworking team, we finished everything I needed to do in minimum time.  We had a spare day, and we decided to spend it at the nearby Portmeirion village on the mainland.

Portmeirion, known to most as the setting for 1960s psychological thriller The Prisoner,  was the brainchild of the absurdly wealthy and deliciously eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis, who supposedly built it to resemble an Italian village.  The setting certainly suits, and if you ignore the biting wind and harsh north-Welsh accents, the hillside settlement is truly idyllic.  But the village is not entirely Italian in its design.  Alongside the traditionally brightly coloured Italian townhouses and belvederes, the Town Hall has a gothic-art and crafts feel, owing to many of its architectural elements being scavenged from an abandoned manor house.  There is a soft-plaster roundhouse that is only missing a thatch roof to set it apart form its Cotswold counterparts, and the main ‘piazza’ is dominated by a grand Bristol Colonnade that features its namesake in style and stone. Williams-Ellis should be given extra credit for creating an image with so many individual style elements, but which still fit seamlessly and harmoniously alongside each other and the dramatic setting.

If I was left wanting at any juncture, it was that the village presented a perfect facade, but that was all it was.  The majority of the buildings that had not been turned into shops or resaurants were roped off. The Town Hall apparently boasts an impressive plaster barrel ceiling, but visitors get no further than the doorway.  Most of the individual cottages are rented out to holiday makers, and I am sure this is a valuable and much0needed source of income, necessary for the upkeep of the village.  But to the day-visitor, it can make for a slightly frustrating barrier.

Regardless, my mummy and I had a lovely day, and we had lovely lunch and coffee overlooking the lovely estuary. It was a beautiful day in early November, and one of those golden days that stick in the memory.

So being a lowly journalist-in-training and particularly strapped for cash, I decided to make her a birthday present that reflected that perfect day.  I gave her this:

Portmeirion (c) Leila Battison 2011

Portmeirion (c) Leila Battison 2011. Pen and Ink on Paper

You can see the Bristol Colonnade centre left, and the roundhouse bottom centre.  I am pretty pleased with the result, I really enjoyed doing it, and it was a new experiment with a chinese caligraphy brush and indian ink. Completely different to my usual style, but I’m pleased with how it turned out.  I will be doing more like this just as soon as I find some time!

Mummy was delighted with it and showed all the neighbors.  I am just happy to have been able to record my marvellous trip in my own special way.