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.

 

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