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This is for the intrepid Melburnians who get out of the city, travelling the open spaces, winding up through the north past the more famous Hanging Rock, feeling the sun on their knees and the wind in their hair, exploring Major Mitchell’s old stomping ground, curious about the landscape therein. The wanderers, the dreamers, the scientists and artists. Here forth a note about the geology of the Coliban valley, in the Redesdale area, Victoria, Australia, that I wrote for the Redesdale and District Association:

A 400 Million Year Old Geological Tale

The landforms around Redesdale:

As far back as the expedition of Major Mitchell, the shape of the hills in this area were remarked upon for their flat table-top features, presiding over incised valleys and crumbling slopes pock-marked with giant granite boulders. The shape of the land here is a result of the slow erosion of rock and soil over the past million or so years. However, some of the rocks here are very much older than that.

Beginning at the bottom are the sedimentary rocks (mostly made up of clay and silt and sand, formed on an ancient sea floor, cemented into place some 450 million years ago, hundreds of millions of years before the world would see its first dinosaur) that form the foundation stone of much of Victoria. These are sometimes seen in road cuttings in the area and are typically grey to cream in colour, sometimes displaying their characteristic layered pattern. Pushing up through these like a bubble rising in water are the granites, which arrived around 100 million years later. Eventually they reached the end of their bubble like journey and solidified into the grey-coloured crystalline rocks you see poking up through the paddocks. In geological terms, the granites are ‘igneous rocks’ (as opposed to ‘sedimentary rocks’, like the previously mentioned sandstones).

The final arrival on the scene was the basalts (volcanic rock), which are, by comparison, mere infants, spewing out from nearby volcanic vents within the last few million years. They would have filled ancient valleys and streams carved into the granites and sandstones beneath, valleys which would later be known to geologists as ‘paleochannels’, and created a very flat volcanic plain. However, basalt is not very resistant to the weather. Soon after the volcanoes stopped flowing, Mother Nature would have started to carve new valleys and streams into the volcanic landscape, and much of the basalt would be eroded away. Once the water was through the basalt, it would start to erode away the more ancient rocks beneath, and the different way the different rocks erode can be seen in the different slope angles between the basalt hilltops and the granite slopes beneath. Some little sections of basalt remain, however, and these can be seen in their original flat lying glory, capping many of the hills in the region and creating perhaps the most striking geographical sight in the area.

Looking closer: 

(WARNING: may contain geological terms!)

Around the paddocks you will see large, grey coloured rocks that are generally rounded in shape. These are members of the rock unit known as the ‘Harcourt Granodiorite’ (‘granodiorite’ is a granitoid rock with more plagioclase feldspar than a typical granite, for the lay people, they’re typically just called ‘granite’). These erode in a characteristic ‘onion skin’ pattern, resulting in rounded boulders and curved sheet like portions that have peeled off the boulders. They also tend to form very coarse sand as they erode, typical of the river sand you see in the Coliban and Campaspe Rivers.

Also around some of the paddocks in the area you will  find a paler creamy-pink rock that is in flatter and in more square/rectangular shapes. It has been used extensively in rock walls in the region. It looks a little bit like sandstone, but in actual fact, it too is a granitoid, in this case, a true granite. This is the Metcalfe Granite, and it is part of the same group of rocks to which the Harcourt Granodiorite belongs (and they are of similar age, around 350 million years old). This group of rocks is properly termed the “Harcourt Suite” and includes several regional variations of granite and granodiorite. The interesting thing about the Metcalfe Granite is that it contains many ‘leucocratic dykes’ (leucocratic – pale coloured, as opposed to melanocratic – dark coloured). These are internal zones that have more of the feldspar and quartz minerals and were like internal ‘channels’ when the rock was emplaced. They actually ‘flowed’ through the surrounding rock. As a result, they contain features that look like the layering of a sandstone, and this also explains their more blocky fracture pattern.

Granites (and granodiorites) are what are known as plutonic igneous rocks. They formed beneath the ground when their rise up from the inner earth ceased upon reaching a natural buoyancy level in the earth’s crust. They then solidified (‘crystallised’) and stayed there. In the local version’s case, this happened around 350 million years ago (for scale, the dinosaurs came onto the scene around 250 million years ago and were gone by 65 million years ago). Locally this meant that the granites rose up into the surrounding sedimentary rocks. Thus these are like blobs within the regionally-more-significant sedimentary rocks (sandstones, siltstones and the like). What this implies is that these granites you see today are seeing their first ever sunshine, having previously languished beneath the earth’s surface for most of their 350 million years of existence.

Atop many of the flat-topped hills of the area you will find crumbling reddish-brown rock with lots of holes in it (properly termed ‘vesicles’). This is basalt, and this is the rock that caps the hills and causes their shape. Basalt is a volcanic rock (think of lava flows in Hawaii). You are looking at the last remnants of huge volcanic eruptions that occurred over the last 4 or 5 million years. Victoria was a very active volcanic place in its recent geological history, and in some areas of south western Victoria, it is even possible that eruptions were still taking place when the first human inhabitants arrived some 40 thousand years ago.

A final, related point; a side note about the colours of rocks. Basalts are dark-grey to black when they are fresh. Granites are normally very pale grey, as are granodiorites (although they can have a range of colours from pinks to greys to blue-ish colours right up to reds and even some greens in places). Most of the pink to red to brown colours you see in these rocks are a result of erosion – “weathering”. The colour comes from the fact that all these rocks contain some minerals that have iron in them (basalt contains a lot of these minerals, granite hardly any). When those minerals weather they produce iron-rich minerals such as limonite and hematite. These are orange-red in colour and spread out and ‘stain’ the surrounding rocks. The effect can be quite pervasive, resulting in the colouration of entire rock pieces. In the case of basalt, the entire rock has had some degree of weathering, and so it is now a dark brown-red colour, having lost nearly all of its original fresh black. In the case of the local granite, the original rock is nearly white, however, the little bit of iron staining that has occurred has given these rocks their slightly pink hue. Indeed, a little bit of iron staining is exactly what gives some of these rocks their spectrum of colour, resulting in the beautiful pinks and creams that you see today.

Cloncurry River

My work and my photography have displaced this site nearly completely. I’ve come back here to caress this blog gently; remind it that it is still wanted. It must feel like an unloved child, bereft of attention.

Work – I am in full swing back in exploration looking for copper-gold and silver-lead-zinc deposits. The work is in outback Queensland, and has involved a range of exploration strategies, from basic geological mapping (what is it and where does it lie in space?) through rock chip sampling (is it worth anything anyway?) up to actual drilling (ok, is there really anything there?). The breadth of science that goes behind exploration is amazing; from physics – the physical properties of the different rock-types give different responses when subjected to different tests, which allow them to, roughly, be distinguished from each other – to chemistry in its central role – it is the minerals that we look for, and only a lab can really tell us how much is there – and then right up to the frontier, where biology has a role to play – the trees themselves suck up elements in the groundwater, and this gets deposited in their leaves, which then fall to the ground. All in all, it is a practical scientist’s playground. The money’s good too.

Play (serious play) – photography. It has become an obsession (like it wasn’t a little bit of one already). What started with a digital SLR a couple of years ago, has morphed into several film cameras, a home developing set up, a film scanner, and various other bits and pieces. All that and it’s only a hobby really. My passion in photography is more for the artistic side. Whilst I am a self-confessed sciencey person, I like my art to be artistic! I’m not a macro-photography kinda guy. That said, I do like macro shots, just don’t do it myself. I prefer to wander about the place, looking for interesting corners and angles, searching for the play of soft light; composing an interesting frame. I think it stems from my love of modernist art and architecture – I am a fan of brutalist architecture for instance (there – go look that up on wiki!!). The actual science behind a photograph is very interesting, but I don’t think about that at all in my photography. I suppose that is part of its appeal?

I finally got around to establishing a photographic portfolio site, and it also will now serve as another outlet – for my ‘artsy side’.  Have a look –


So long for now, hope to be back a bit sooner next time…

Greetings All!
What follows is my first guest post; and it touches on a topic in science communication that is close to my heart. Too often I find myself being irritated at a galah being described as a “Pink and Grey”. I cringe at people not being able to distinguish a monitor from a gecko. I particularly don’t like people worrying about crocodiles in places where they simply don’t live. Now; while I enjoyed a good education, I can assure you that these sorts of “real-world” lessons were not taught at school. I know what a galah is and I can even spot a wedge-tailed eagle from several hundred meters. I am who I am through an interest in the natural world that I have worked on through the years by asking questions and looking things up (in strange places like libraries, though the internet has replaced this largely in recent years.). I am not saying I am better than anyone in this, I am saying quite the opposite. IT IS HOW PEOPLE SHOULD BE. We were like this a couple of hundred years ago when people hung off every word from explorers. Somehow, in this age of information, we have lost the desire to have knowledge. It remains an important goal for science communicators, in my opinion, to inspire people to seek out information for themselves on the natural world. In some ways, it is not enough to simply teach.

Anyway, I owe my love of the natural world around me to my parents and grandparents. Thank you! Thus it is appropriate that my Mother be the first to guest post. A retired psychiatrist, she is also a naturalist. Her acuity of observation is second to none, and this is important if you are going to be mindful of your surroundings; another important lesson in life. If you’ve not heard of Dr. Kathy Hall, you have now:

Watch out for the crocs!

Artwork (C) Kathy Hall 2011

The visitor asked, “Do you ever see any of those white birds with yellow feathers on the top of their heads?”
Firstly, the visitor was Australian and had stayed at our place for several days on many occasions. He has also camped beside the Murray on a yearly basis for most of his adult life. Let’s give the visitor the benefit of the doubt and assume he was having trouble remembering the name Sulphur Crested Cockatoo or “Cocky” to most of us. Remembering the name is really not the issue, it’s asking whether we had any that is the problem! Cockies surround our house. They nest in the River Red Gums close by. They screech morning and night. They wake us even before the rooster crows. They fly in huge noisy flocks above us. They are omnipresent.
Probably even more bizarre was the comment of a 27year old Australian visitor who, when visiting the banks of the Coliban on a very hot day was concerned for my safety as I paddled on the shore-line in case there were crocodiles. She was serious.
Lack of wildlife observation skills is not unusual amongst our Australian guests, whereas, in general terms, our European visitors reach for binoculars, ask for individual names of species, and compare them with home wildlife. I often ponder the reason for this disparity. I suspect that the cause lies in less emphasis in this country on how we teach our children to speak and name things. If you point out a bird to a 2 year old and say, “Look, a bird!” in a minimalist way, that’s as far as the learning gets. If you say, “Look, honeyeater!” or “Look, Rosella!” or “There’s a corella!” the learning is already enriched. The trouble is, if the parent doesn’t know the difference, how can this enrichment occur? The knowledge, and interest, must be handed down through generations. Somehow we seem to have lost that interest and skill.
How often have you heard people refer to a pink and grey galah? They are all pink and grey, so ‘galah’ will do! It’s like referring to a black crow or a black and white magpie.
Although not true “twitchers”, R. and I have gained enormous pleasure from observing the different bird species that visit our property. Before we built the house and garden, while we camped in the paddocks, we observed 16 different birds. Since developing the garden, 5 years later, we have now observed 55 different species.
Some of you may remember [a previous piece of mine] about the pair of Australasian grebes who dominate our dam. They have produced two sets of chicks this season, four in each clutch. We are amazed to see them building a new nest so we may have a third brood soon.
Perhaps some may feel that being able to recognise different animal species is not important enough to worry about. I would counter that awareness of our surroundings and interest in the variety, characteristics and behaviour of living things around us is not only essential for the health of the planet, but also enhances our own pleasure and well-being. Not to mention our confidence while paddling in the Coliban!


-Kathy Hall, Coliban Springs.

Its been a while, but then science can’t be rushed, and much pondering over certain products made with water must be had first. For around 3 months now we’ve been doing this water exploration program and it’s coming to an end. I wrote about my experiences talking with local farmers and watching them wander around the paddocks with bent pieces of wire here. As I said, there is a certain comfort that this gives the farmers in siting a drill rig to drill a hole for their windmills. It’s not a cheap exercise, so when they commit, they like to feel confident that they’ve given themselves the best possible shot. When you can’t afford a hydrogeologist, and when it’s all you’ve known growing up; it is understandable that you’d see water divining as the way to go.

Scientists, such as myself, do not believe in water divining. Not because we simply reject that which we weren’t taught at school (which is a tempting retort from many who believe in pseudoscience). Rather because there is no evidence for its efficacy. Water divining has been subjected to a number of scientific trials and has failed to produce a significant result. It is, therefore, bunkum in scientific circles. No serious scientist or scientific consultant could use it professionally.

As I said in my previous post, however, there can be some client-liaison and political reasons for not rejecting it out of hand when in the field. It ‘smooths the water’ to let landholders do their thing and feel that they are influencing your scientific process. In fact, through this process, I have learned a lot about the land I’m exploring in and it has revealed numerous insights into otherwise obscured geological features. All this has aided my scientific exploration effort and I think bettered my hit rate. Of the holes planned and sited, the success rate through the program has gone from a predictable 20-30-odd percent to better than 50%. This may not sound too good, but sub-50% success rates in the terrain we’re in are not uncommon. In other terms, you could say that science and keen observation on the ground coupled with a relatively open minded approach to the landholders has enabled me to go from rank amateur in that terrain, to better than a water diviner in less than 3 months. The best water diviners have taken a lifetime to learn the craft and a require a lifetime’s experience.

So, let this be a little message to scientists who find themselves working with real people on real projects out on the ground where pseudoscience is rife. Don’t dismiss the pseudoscience out of hand and thereby fail to gather all the nuanced data that’s available to you. By all means disbelieve, as I do, but remember these are people you’re dealing with. If you get the opportunity to do it, take them through your scientific exploration process. You might be surprised how well they understand what you’re talking about (you shouldn’t be though, unless you’re one of a particular breed of condescending city-scientist), and you may just convert the odd one to the joy of good science well applied!

You may have detected a skeptical vein in me whilst reading. I am skeptical. I am a scientist, it’s my job! Furthermore, I am a geologist who specializes in groundwater. I earn money through the planning and delivery of water (potable or construction water typically) to major projects. Part of that process is the exploration for water. Through a combination of looking at maps, on the ground reconnaissance, and clever things like geophysics, I decide where precisely to drill water wells. It is a scientific process, with a lot of learning along the way. You really do get better with experience, and for me anyway, my background in gold and nickel exploration has helped. I’ve been doing all these various exploration tasks for a several years now (about 6 in fact) and definitely I’ve improved. I know how drill rigs work and I have a decent idea of how (basically) to tease out from the local geology in a given area the better places to look for water (or gold, or nickel or whatever). Again, it relies on the collective knowledge from generations of geological science. Knowledge that I started to learn at university.

Enough about my scientific credentials already! Why I write this is that I am currently working on a project where we are trying to find enough groundwater for the construction of 100km of railway. Railway line construction requires a lot of water (about 800,000L per day every 10-15km of line in this case).

We’re working in a pastoral area, sheep and wheat country. The geology is pretty much granite through and through, and anyone who knows what that’s like will tell you that water is scarce. Surface water is practically non-existent and groundwater is hard to come by. This is nearly a desert. How do I know this specifically in this area? Because I have been talking to the local farmers. These guys have been breaking their backs for generations, eeking out the precious value this land will throw up to those who persevere. The one thing that determines success or otherwise more than anything is water. Stock need it to survive, and having no mains water system, a farmer’s house supply relies on it. Subsequently, the farmers invest a large amount of thought and effort into finding water. The country is pock-marked with drill holes and windmills. With this effort comes a culture of great interest in the techniques deployed to find that precious water.

From my discussions, the number one technique employed to find water here is water divining (“water witching” or “water dowsing”, depends where in the world you are). Before you sigh and stop reading, consider this: a water bore can cost more than $10,000 whether or not you actually find water. A farm would quickly go broke drilling holes if their success rate wasn’t too good. But then, hiring geological consultants such as myself is not cheap either, and materially adds to the cost.

What you need is a method of locating the holes yourself (or even getting a mate to do it for a few beers). Enter divining. You know who they are – they’re the ones with bent pieces of wire or Y-shaped sticks who wander about and find the “stream” and tell you where to drill. There is no scientific evidence for its efficacy whatsoever. Indeed there is scientific evidence that demonstrates that diviners have success rates no better than chance (for a good summary, I do recommend the Wiki page). This scientific ‘disproof’ has been around for at least half a century. Despite claims by practitioners to the contrary, we can probably consign water diving to the quack-bin and declare it bogus. Hocus pocus pseudoscience.

BUT, does it work “in the real world”? Given that so many still use it, even rely on it, what residual value might it poses for the farmers out here?

Well, my unscientific study of the local farmers deploying this unscientific technique suggests that it is valuable indeed. The process of divining has located many successful bores in this district (together with a largely unmentioned number of failed bores!). Any geologist will tell you that drilling completely at random will not give you a good success rate. To this end, drilling on “crossing streams” found by diviners is not random. There is a great deal of local land knowledge that is deployed when divining, thus narrowing the focus of the search. The divining really then just delivers a reason for siting the drill rig in a particular location. With limited resources at-hand, this is perhaps just what is needed – comfort in spending the money.

So how am I to react when confronted with several ‘divined locations’ (I can’t help but make the mistake of pronouncing it ‘divine locations’ here!)? This is difficult country to explore, and even I, the skilled geologist, have limited data. My locations are beset with large error margins. In fact I will plan for a certain failure rate given the known geology.

I decided to let them have the run of it for a while, as the divined spots had some features that made them acceptable exploration targets. One diviner, we’ll call him ‘Bruce’, comes with, it is said, a 100% success rate! (Forgive my skepticism, 100%?) I have spent the last week drilling his targets. So far, we’ve drilled four holes. The first one was an absolute gusher! More water than we hoped for. Even the farmer, lets call him ‘Barry’, said he’d never seen anything like it! Then the second came up with water too. Not as much, but adequate.

At this stage, I’m running through the stats in my head. This is getting like some sort of baseball or cricket statistic. Surely the ‘run’ must end soon. But then comes the third hole, better than the second. So Bruce is 3 from 3. Pretty good. Don’t worry, I’m not about to be ‘converted’.

The fourth hole comes. I press on, drilling deeper than I usually would. Barry is telling me I have to go deeper, Bruce is never wrong! Bare in mind, this is hard, dry granite. No water in that. But then, sure enough, there’s the water! This time though, it’s minimal; not enough for a bore. So how to call this? 3.5 out of 4?

It’s hard to explain this without saying that there was simply a network of water baring fractures in the granite that would have been found anyway. That would be the logical, geologically appropriate explanation. I happen believe this to be the case. We may even have been able to detect the fracture systems with the right geophysics. And then, we might have drilled proper ‘geological holes’. But, like Bruce the diviner might agree (perhaps not) how will I ever know? We can’t drill everywhere, and geophysics for this kind of exploration is costly in both time and money with limited chance of improving the success rate.

So, what is the upshot of this? Well, I have spent a week drilling holes and conversing with Barry. We get on well and he has been helpful above and beyond the call. It has been a pleasure. What about the divining? Well, Barry wouldn’t let me drill anywhere that didn’t come approved by Bruce anyway. So, the upshot is that we have a happy landholder, and a happy geologist drilling good water bores (the task for which I am paid). Everyone’s a winner, except, perhaps, science. I come out of this a little miffed that I couldn’t show Barry a better way. But then I’m not from round here. It seems that local knowledge has beaten science in this round. Next time, I will have better data, and a better story. I hope.

I still don’t believe that we wouldn’t have found the water without Bruce though!!

Naomi Oreskes is here in Australia promoting her new book, co-authored with Erik Conway, called “Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming“. I will be reading it, definitely. Tonight I went to her public talk at the University of Western Australia. She is a very good speaker, clear and concise, conveying precisely what it is she means to say and not confusing any of the issues. Impressive. Oreskes is a Professor of Science and History at the University of California, San Diego.

Her thesis surrounds scientific uncertainty and how that has been used by a group of scientists to create doubt in the minds of people about big issues like the dangers of tobacco smoke, and the realities of climate change (or global warming, if you prefer the older, arguably more-correct terminology). It is an eye-opening study of recent history.

If you’ve read my blog before, you’d know that I have an interest in the role of uncertainty in science. I see it as especially critical to the communication of science, and so this talk was particularly interesting. Good scientists embrace uncertainty. So much so that they use sophisticated statistical techniques to quantify it. A good scientific study knows its limits.

Uncertainty, in the scientific sense, does not equate to doubt as to the ability of a study to illuminate our understanding of the world. However, it does appear to be very useful in making scientific findings hard to understand for the general public. In the public’s eye, it very well may be that scientific uncertainty is interpreted as ‘doubt’. This is a shame, because truly doubtful scientists will say that they are doubtful (doubtful here implying that the results are dubious as to their implications). Doubt is not what is meant by the error bars of science. Those error bars simply demonstrate just how precise the findings are. If there are ‘overlaps of error bars’, it is very likely that the result will not be ‘significant’ and so the scientist might not have anything definitive to say as to the results.

This, however, has not been the case in climate science, as Oreskes makes plain. Climate science, unlike most fields of science, has been very definite indeed as to global warming. It is happening, and it is almost certainly contributed to (if not entirely caused by) humans. The level of agreement amongst scientists is extraordinary. Unfortunately, along the margins, the error bars and minor disagreements have been interpreted as doubt as to the general findings and implications. Oreskes’ contribution is to say that this might have its roots in the political ideology and personal motivations of some influential individuals, rather than actual doubt in scientific circles.

Oreskes has conducted an historical study, using the mainstay of historical techniques. What she speaks of is the actual historical record of the individuals concerned. In that sense, what she says should be uncontroversial. Her interpretations may remain controversial, but some of the things said by the scientists she writes about have to be seen to be believed.

Which ever side of the mythical climate fence you sit on, the historical record remains. It does not paint a pretty picture of the deep motivations of the anti-global warming movement. It also carries some important warnings. We need to be careful with science and how it is used in the public domain. This is a lesson that applies to both ‘sides’. Equally.

Interestingly, unlike how these things usually go, there were no ‘skeptic’ questions asked. Is this because her work has revealed a particularly inconvenient truth? Is the history of science a domain where skeptics fear to tread?

I suspect that when religious types have a spiritual moment that they really do feel like they are in the presence of God. A sense of awe, rapture and love not achieved normally in everyday life. I think also that many of the great communicators of science (most of whom are atheists) have had exactly the same feelings when contemplating something wonderful that science has revealed to them.

Myself, I get this too. It comes in a few different flavours, and this depends largely on the subject of my awe and wonder. Love, awe and even rapture really are emotions that I feel (not all of me is a scientific robot). But my subject is reality and the natural (or at least my perception of stuff, lets not even go down that psycho-philosophical path!).

Sometimes, I look out into the cosmos on a clear night, and I am struck with my puniness on that vast scale. I am almost overwhelmed with the span of time that it all represents. That light, that speck of illumination that teases the rods in my retina; it has been on such a spectacularly long journey that it seems almost whimsical that I should be there to see it. To think that after their journey of millions of years my eye is a few photons’ final resting place.

Other times, I have looked down through a mineralogical microscope, and have simply been amazed at what a few crystals have to tell, heaved through the Earth in that grand geological story.

I even sit in my garden and watch the wind rustle the leaves of a nearby tree and contemplate the brief little example they provide of the forces of nature at work.

If it were simply beauty that moved me, there would surely be enough in all that to sustain me. But there is more! As those photons excite my eyes and the electrical impulses course through my neurons to alert me to all the activity in the world, I am doubly moved by my ability to understand. To understand what is going on. That knowledge, itself made from the stuff of my brain, is an additional layer of beauty. An embellishment of wonder that has no parallel. My education, and particularly the discoveries of science over the ages that have fed that education, is the source of that wonder, that understanding. How can I not be moved by this? How can I want for more, other than to escalate the majesty through more knowledge and more understanding? It is not overstating the matter to say that this is the stuff of poetry; the very core of wisdom to be had.

So now, as we celebrate Carl Sagan Day, in honour of one of the great communicators of science, a man who brought the cosmos into the living room, I want to quote part of Pale Blue Dot, and I know I break no new ground here. However, it bears repeating. Before I do that though, I want to grab a little part of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at the end and it shows how its not just science that understands, but art also. Lest there be any idea that science and art are not good bedfellows, compare the two passages and see how, in literary mode and in scientific mode, we are united by a sense of the unknown, and a sense of what might be known.

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And from Carl Sagan:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Amen to that! This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for Many people might not associate Saudi Arabia with volcanoes and earthquakes. A more common image might be miles upon miles of sandy desert. However, the Arabian region is home to some large fields of volcanoes that have erupted in the last thousand years or so. In May 2009, 40,000 people were evacuated from the Harrat Lunayyir province in northwest Saudi Arabia in response to a series of earthquakes, some over magnitude 5, in case larger, more damaging quakes were to come. In response to this, the Saudi Geological Survey invited the US Geological Survey to help investigate not only whether more, larger quakes could occur, but also if this could signal volcanic eruptions in the region. A recent paper in Nature Geoscience documents the scientific investigations that followed (Pallister, et al., 2010).

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It was a Sunday, but not just any old Sunday. This was the first one, ever. Today, we would call it the 23rd of October 4004 BC, but of course Christ had not even been born yet. This famous Sunday was the first day on Earth, the first 24 hours after God created the Earth and everything around it. It was to be a busy week ahead, culminating in the first humans, Adam and Eve, in a heavenly garden. The Following Sunday was to be a day of rest, even God needed his beauty sleep after all that.

I speak, of course, of the date that was calculated by Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) for God’s creation by a strict literal reading of the Bible, and especially the Book of Genesis (which you may well know has agonizingly long genealogies). Dates such as Ussher’s have been used to support creationist’s conception of the age of the Earth.

We now know, of course, that Ussher’s dates are fiction. The Earth has been dated at 4.54 Billion years, based on radiometric dating of meteorites, as well as dates on lunar and terrestrial material; quite a departure from Ussher’s calculation. The advancement of dating techniques is a marvel, and perhaps geology’s enduring contribution to science. More remarkable is how varied geochronological techniques so readily agree with each other, in another triumph of modern science.

So, in honour of the wonderful contribution of geochronology to our understanding of this fine planet, the only one we have, I would like to dedicate the 23rd of October as Geochronology Day. It is perhaps a fitting way to put all creation myths to bed, recognizing that they are only works of literature. Earth has a long and fascinating history, one worth celebrating, and it is made all the more wonderful through a deeper scientific understanding.

Viva la Science!!

There are a few dramatic climate-change related videos going round at the moment, frequently going after the shock factor. Whilst the shock factor is not always effective, this one below I think is very good, because it has a cognitive component – linking polar bears with your behaviour. No longer are they stuck on a melting iceberg, and this delivers a nice little way of thinking about your carbon footprint:

A rough version of a talk I’m doing at uni. Thought I’d try out recording it. Thoughts?

The journey continues. After reading “What is this thing called science” by A. F. Chalmers, I got a rush of blood to the head and decided to take the plunge. It is fascinating stuff, and what is particularly interesting to me is that, as a geologist, I was born just after probably the most significant revolution in geology of all time – the plate tectonics revolution. It is an amazing story of the progress of science, one that should be told and analysed more (and if I have the time, I will!)

So now, the history and philosophy of science is firmly on my agenda. Here’s the recent additions:

Karl Popper, The logic of Scientific Discovery

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Paul Feyerabend, Against Method

The astute reader will note the lack of Lakatos here. My mistake, let me get through these three first…

Also, this may take me a while – lacking a formal education in philosophy, some of these folks can be quite obtruse… but you get there in the end…

In the coming month I will be producing a short film profile of Gary Cass, a scientific researcher in the soil science/agriculture section of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Western Australia where I am studying a Masters in Science Communication.

Red Wine Dress, Micro'be. Photo Ray Scott, courtesy of

He is famous for the Red Wine Dress. He used to work in a vineyard and he noticed a thin film of slime that developed on red wine when Acetobacter infected it and turned it to vinegar (a wine-maker’s worst nightmare). Being an artistic person, he wondered whether it would be useful as a fabric. The film was in fact threads of nanofibre-scale cellulose that is the ‘poo’ of the bacteria. So he got together with an artist and developed the world’s first “Red Wine Dress”. As creative as that was, what he’s realised is that the same cellulose fabric is potentially useful in other applications. He’s now involved in further research into these materials.

The great thing is that all you need is wine, sugar and the bacteria to produce it. It can even be used to produce biofuels. In other words, we could have a multi-use biofuel technology – wine, fabric and fuel all from the one crop. It’s far more land efficient than sugar cane for instance. The spooky part is what a colleague of his is doing in the States – he’s taken gene’s from the Acetobacter and put them in cyanobacteria, so now these little bugs photosynthesise to produce the same cellulose. All they need is water, sunshine and carbon dioxide!

I spoke to him yesterday and he is passionate about creativity in science. One of the things he does is teaching at a school here, Shenton College. It’s a program he developed where he gets the kids (year 11s) to learn earth history, biology and genetics using artistic methods. So for instance, one kid coded a musical score from his basic DNA sequence. Another group of girls put the process of abiogenesis to dance! The reaction has been very positive and he’s now getting international attention for his approach. He thinks that creativity is an essential part of scientific progress (really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, that, but it does challenge traditional ideas) and that for too long science education has stifled that. Art is a natural medium to reintroduce it, and the strong boundary between art and science has been unnecessarily created. He struggles somewhat with the question of whether he’s an artist or a scientist! He did agree however, that really it’s depends on the work he’s doing – when testing hypotheses, he’s a scientist, when developing creative ideas, he’s more of an artist.

My film will be a profile of him with a focus on the Shenton college program, with some background about the red wine dress.

A few links about him:

and here’s a little film about an exhibition with him:

his website: and particularly the dresses: and the evolution pages:

Human history is blessed with many great thinkers who have enlightened us with their observations and theories about the world. Darwin and Wallace discovered for us our place in geological time, Copernicus our place in the solar system, Einstein our place in the universe. One theme that emerges from what we now know is the smallness of our existence. We really do occupy but a molecule of water in a vast, never ending ocean. But what we do with our time can be brilliant, as great artists and scientists have demonstrated. The video below is moving because it represents our place in the cosmos, taking you away and then back again. You feel the nostalgia as you explore, and the elation upon return. Well done to the American Museum of Natural History.

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