Sometimes, just every now and then, you need a good shot of reality to return your mind to what is real, away from the stuff of mere thought, navel-gazing and “controversy”.

I’ve been in hospital since Sunday afternoon. It’s now Wednesday night, and I’ll be going home tomorrow. Pneumonia put me in here, via the emergency department. Pneumonia is quite a nasty condition indeed, filling parts of your lungs with fluid, causing intense pain and reducing lung capacity, just like someone squeezing your lungs to stop each breath. It even has an appreciable mortality rate; fortunately I appear to have dodged that bullet.

Between pain, restlessness, incessant (appreciated) attention from doctors and nurses, and being confined in isolation in case you have one of the very nasty ‘superbugs’ going round, this is an altogether unpleasant experience. I don’t recommend it at all. Zero stars.

One effect, I found, of hospitalization for pneumonia, is great difficulty in appreciating anything from anyone else’s point of view. It turned me into a surly, irritable bore. Even my wife left a couple of times because she could see clearly that I wasn’t getting much out of her presence, and that it was only upsetting her to see me this way. Now, those who know me might ask, “so, what’s changed?” Well, excuse me, I say, I am at least capable of sympathy and being nice and stuff. This kind of condition seems to highlight the worst in me!

Today, however, I am much improved. I am now capable of fully articulating my grievances. However, I don’t have many and those that I have (and did articulate, to the chagrin of my wife) are quite petty. They moved me into a shared room for my last night. Annoying, but it was so that someone in the same position that I was in three days ago could use it. Really, why be upset with that?

More than that, since I am now out of isolation, I was able to take my book into the hospital courtyard to read. In the fresh air! That was fantastic in itself: no beeping machines, no noises from other patients and no general activity and “goings on”. A little bit of peace in the middle of one of Perth’s busiest public hospitals.

As I sat there, I realized that the door to the courtyard is large enough and the pathways in the courtyard wide enough to allow a hospital bed to be wheeled out there. Thinking about that, I wondered, what type of patient would be wheeled outside on their bed? It occurred to me that it could be someone who wasn’t going to see the “real world” outside the hospital again.

There are trees and flowers in the courtyard. The courtyard garden would not win any awards, however, someone looks after this garden. A rectangle of sky above the courtyard provides glimpses of the weather, today revealing cold wind and rain; pretty rare in Perth recently. Even the ordinary looking shrubs and flowers, set against the drab architecture of this public hospital have a certain beauty. It occurred to me, that if this little shrubbery with its intermittent flowers were to be my final contact with nature, I wouldn’t mind. The sweeping vistas of Perth’s beaches would not be so sweeping in that state anyway; and the salty air would probably only irritate one’s condition. So, to hold a few leaves, to breath the fresh air and to watch the odd cloud pass by would be enough: Far better than to stare listlessly into a partially flickering fluorescent light for hours and hours; surely and sadly the fate of so many.

I contemplated those inside who are far more unwell; who weren’t able to wander out into the garden. Really, I am fortunate, and the marvel that is medical science has returned me almost to normal within three days of being admitted into the emergency department. Even as I type this, a man nearby is about to be seen by an Oncologist, which really means only one thing. He is not a well man either, and just telephoned a friend to say he wont be at the football match this weekend. He was offering his ticket. Last night, we had a code blue in my ward (code blue being a medical emergency with a patient, like for instance cardiac arrest). If I’m not mistaken, inconsolable tears followed from a woman I shall never meet.

Wonderful and horrible things take place in hospitals, it really depends on what ward you are in at a given time. In the middle are the majority of people like me who, in a fog of self-pity brought on by middle-of-the-road medical conditions, are awful to the very people trying to help. I regret it, but it is hard to imagine being different. Hopefully I won’t need to test it. In the end, this remains yet another tribute to the work of the Orderlies, Cleaners, Meals staff, Nurses, Technicians, Doctors, Administrators, and the Gardeners (who I imagine are too-easily forgotten) that make up the lifeblood of a hospital. And a further tribute to the decades of medical research that goes behind what made my recovery so speedy. I thank all the staff of the Sir Charles Gairdiner Hospital in Perth. Particularly, I thank the fabulous people who attended me in Emergency and those who looked after me here in Ward G54: I think you’ve fixed me!

One final thing: Next time you’re in your garden looking at an old shrub and thinking about replacing it with a slicker, trendier model, consider how important that very plant could be to a different person in different circumstances.

A little embarrassing to share one’s own poetry, but as I am about to move back into minerals exploration, this seemed appropriate. I wrote this the last time I did fly-in, fly-out exploration; something I am unlikely ever to do again.It’s not all that good, I’ll warn you!

Weary site, weary home

Drilling, drilling, drilling on.
Catch a sulphide, cast it out.
See a speck, move about.

Move on now, more to do.
Live the dream, spirits high.
There’s no disappointment; why?

So now to execute the plan.
See the rods go down, turn,
And the metres burn, burn.

A budget tried; the geo lied,
There’s more in the assay,
Well that’s what they say.

And then, while much is had,
Back at home, things are sad,
The other half is away,
And it seems that he’ll stay.

The results come in, a hopeful grin.
Much is forgotten,
As we drill what’s rotten.

Sun setting, a forlorn pit,
As noone thinks to ask,
What will become of it?
Wallowing a weary task.

Mast at angle,
Offsiders wrangle,
The spoils aren’t in line.

And so the call is come,
The metres are all done.
The Geo rests his head,
Will he lie straight in bed?

Cat flap opens in empty home,
As the wife walks lonely in,
The food bowl empty, quiet moan,
Reward a forgotten sin.

See there, in the freedom bird,
Novel resting in his hand.
His situation is absurd,
He resolves to make a stand.

A stranger to no longer be
In a house of his own.
To only recently see,
So many times lost, groan.

Reconciled, together again,
Weeks lost; catch up required.
There at heart shall his home remain,
What exploration inspired.

Wait! A new way may be found,
Heart and home in one place.
His feet firmly on the ground.
But results come, stealing space.

Cycle, cycle, cycle again,
Flights leave off, and hopes are lost.


Mike Robinson, July 2009

The work of a geologist is a mystery for many people. We know about rocks and that is probably the extent of the average person’s knowledge of the field. It’s true, too. We do know about rocks (that is supposedly what 3 or 4 years of uni taught us).

But the life of a working geologist involves a fair bit of time watching drill holes be drilled. Whether you’re in minerals exploration or water drilling, a fair bit of time is spent simply watching a hole be drilled and monitoring its progress. For water bores, you are hoping for water (funny that!) When it does come, both you and the driller keep a close eye on the process, to ensure that the bore is drilled properly and that a bore is constructed that can be pumped for water in the future.

So, here below is a picture of a driller contemplating a successful bore. This post is really just a photo post. He’s referred to as “Waggie”, a reference to his actual name. I get on well with him and so I took this pic midway through the slower development process – we’re not actually drilling here, rather preparing the bore for future production, a process that requires observation and a little bit of contemplation. A reminder to any geos out there that a good drilling relationship is key to all good drilling campaigns.

At least we have some water!

And then, for me, as a geo, an example of why I want to come home (apart from leaving the flies, heat and dust). I have loved ones; my Wife; and my cat, seen here having a torrid day…

Bundi Under Flowers

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!!

Some time ago I mentioned that I was interviewing Gary Cass about his work, especially his work teaching school students science and creativity. He uses an artistic approach to educate in some fairly complex scientific areas. I wrote more about him here.

Well, having interviewed him, filmed him and edited the film, here it is. He is a remarkable man, and it just goes to show that there are people out there who not only value the intersection of art and science, but teach it as well. Creativity + science = win!

Much as it took some work, I really enjoyed every aspect of making this film, from talking to Gary, filming and even the editing. I hope to do more of this some day (that is if anyone will let me after seeing this!). I hope you enjoy it and I’d like to send out a big thanks to Gary, the University of Western Australia, and the girls from Shenton College who appear in the film.

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?

Followers of my blog (I think they exist) would have observed that I try to capture what it is about science that’s worth your learning. I’ve tried to find some good words, but really, I can’t do much better than Hannah Waters at Culturing Science. This is my favourite blog post on the topic so far. I urge you to read it, it captures the feelings and issues so well:

Developing a scientific worldview: why it’s hard and what we can do

Please read and tell me or Hannah what you think in the comments.

This blog is mostly about science, and about how people understand science, and hopefully it also attempts to explain some science from time to time. I try to keep atheist tirades out of it, because that is not the purpose of this blog. However, because the way people think is central to their understanding of science, and because religious thinking can have an impact on the way science is viewed, I consider it a rationally appropriate side-topic and will venture there from time to time.

In my haste and sleepiness at the time, I missed an argument in the comments, by Daniel, on my last post. I don’t mean to single Daniel out for this, however he made the comment and in the interests of furthering the debate, I’m reposting it for discussion. Isn’t the internet and the world-wide-web wonderful! Daniel wrote:

Medicine, planes, and cars do not oppose the knowledge of God, and neither does science. People do.

At first this seemed quite unremarkable to me. After all, no one was suggesting that other species oppose the knowledge of God. But then I noticed a classic misstep in the understanding of science: that science is a thing that exists apart from people. It is quite common, I think, for people to mistake the products of science for science itself. Science is a methodology; a set of tools, techniques and ways of thinking that allow a rational exploration of the world about us in the quest for knowledge. It has also helped us create some nifty devices and tricks, like planes and medicine.

Science is most definitely a creation of humans and human minds. The products of science, like medicine and automobiles, are not science themselves. The same can be said for “facts” about the world. That cheetahs eat gazelles on the African plains is not science. However, science has helped us understand the remarkable evolutionary arms race that has resulted in some of the fastest land animals that have ever existed.

So, when Daniel says that people oppose the knowledge of God, and that science doesn’t, he makes what is, to a large degree, a nonsensical argument. Science is created by people. If science develops explanations for things that do not require a God or Gods, then by implication, people have opposed the knowledge of God. The very same people who “oppose the knowledge of God” in Daniel’s argument may also substitute that knowledge with their own, scientific, explanations. Science and people are intimately intertwined. Indeed, inseparable. Likewise, religion and people.

To me, in this lies the fundamental problem with ideas like Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-overlapping Magesteria” which holds that science and religion are concerned with such different things that they do not and should not step into each others territory. The fact is that they do, and they both exist in people’s minds. Sometimes in the same mind. They both make claims about the way the world is, and both provide evidence, in different forms. Assessing the quality of that evidence is precisely the kind of task at which science has proven itself so adept. I, and many others, would hold that religion has done a pretty poor job at providing evidence for its claims about the way the world is, whereas science, in as much as it does give to us, has been pretty good.

Yet, there may be things that science helps us little in. It may tell us what varieties of moral system there are and why we have a moral system in the first place (hot research and debate here), but it science may still never actually tell us how to behave. For that we must make choices, decisions based on what we know. That is a property of our minds that is poorly understood, though we have reason to believe that it is one of the things that makes us unique. Our remarkable brains gave us science, and they also give us enough ‘free will’ to oppose science, even make choices that defy evolution. That does not mean that our brains didn’t get like this through evolution.

There is one more position to hold, one that is still scientific. That is to accept that there are things that we don’t know. Richard Dawkins asks, in a famous TED talk,

Are there things about the universe that will be forever beyond our grasp? Are there things about the universe that are, in principle, ungraspable?

These are important questions, and one cannot help but think that the only way forward is to apply the best tools of rational inquiry we have to the task, in the search for answers. The best tool we have is science. Lets get to work!

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!

Edit: I had to remove the link which started this post (it was a reply to another post on another blog with which I have some association, but I wish to state that I have no association with that post which has now been taken down). However, the general points remain true to my thoughts on the matter. I cannot comment further.

Blogging will not replace other forms of media. This is not its goal anyway. Certainly for me, it was a way of practicing and practising writing. Doing this in a public way was designed for me to ‘commit’ to the task. Feedback would be an additional benefit. Blogs, do, on the other hand, provide a good analysis of various issues, and in many cases in the scientific blogosphere anyway, they are highly accurate and treat the subject in greater depth than any of the traditional media. So we can agree that they are valuable. Perhaps more valuable than they appear to most people, as Scott Rosenberg discusses in this fascinating piece on blogging, empowerment and the ‘adjacent possible’. I am certain I will return to that post again and the intriguing ideas therein.

So, to pick apart a few points sometimes made about blogging:

Easy to start, hard to maintain.

Yes, and no. Writing a blog is not simply about writing. One must have subject material and that means “research”. However, if you are a regular across news sites, research journals, current affairs and other blogs (that is to say if you are a fully paid-up geek) then finding stories is not too hard. And if you do blog, you’re probably already the kind of person who feels compelled to write about the stories and information you find! Still, it requires effort and this may not fit in with your lifestyle and interests.

“Maintain” is an interesting choice of word. They don’t require a lot of maintenance once set up well. Sites like WordPress and Blogger make this possible. But you still need to write for your blog. Your blog becomes like a little corporation that employs (dictates?) you to write for it. Yes, it gets a life of its own as you contribute the pieces and the ‘general public’ delivers some feedback. You may even end up engaged in a public discussion on a particular issue. Rather like this post really. What a wonderful thing to be a part of.

Need to keep it constant updated otherwise you lose potential  followers

Frequent/regular posting is important, but arguably quality is more so. On this blog, I still get hits on the better posts (in my opinion anyway) weeks after I posted them. Yes, the hit rate drifts if I don’t post for a while, but it quickly recovers when I do. This is because I promote new posts via twitter and Facebook etc., so my followers (I don’t have all that many unfortunately) know if I’ve posted. New followers come from being active in the online community. It is very rare to have someone simply stumble onto your site and then choose to follow it. These people are not likely to be harsh on you for infrequent posting anyway.

Engaging with the online community through twitter, Facebook and especially through hosting and contributing to things like blog carnivals is what gets people interested in your blog. It establishes ‘capital’ in your blog and that lingers for some time after each post, sustaining the blog between posts.

Thoughts into words

Writing is not that hard with practise. If you can speak coherently, you’ve got the basics of writing coherently. In fact, you can practice writing when you speak – next time someone asks you an ‘important’ question, think about how you will craft your next sentence a bit more than usual. Sure, spoken and written language are different, but clarity cuts across both domains. Practise is what is needed. Writing will help you clarify your thoughts too. Add to that some constructive feedback and you have a brilliant combination of original thought, considered opinion and flowing writing.

Credibility and the ol’ anonymity chestnut

This has been done to death. Anonymity no more suggests inaccuracy than having a name implies factual correctness. Seriously consider it. There are idiots writing for newspapers who put their name to their work. Having the name there obviously does nothing to improve the tripe they concoct. And I do find it irritating when anonymous writers make critical observations on anonymity online. There may be many reasons for concealing your identity, e.g. so your employer doesn’t know, so people can’t find you (especially if you’re providing a whistleblowing function), the list goes on. The desire to spread rubbish is not the only reason (though I can’t deny some do, I still return to my point that people do the same under their own name, so who’s kidding who here?)

Oh, and this issue with making it possible for “just about anybody to write anything”. Is anyone seriously suggesting this is a bad thing? Now, of course, how one reads all these random ramblings in cyberspace is important. Note that carefully because it warrants repeating: it matters how you read blogs – you have to take care in what you accept as true or correct. This applies to newspapers too; and TV; and magazines. Hell, even refereed academic journals are not immune.

Sorry, post has nowhere near the impact following revision. The link that remains at the top remains an interest of mine though, worthy of follow up.

Proudly do I present to you The 43rd Scientia Pro Publica, Science for the People, the Loves, Lives and Learning Edition. It’s brought to you by Technetium, the element with no stable isotopes!

You may detect an antipodean flavour in this issue, with some excellent work included from Australia! My hope is that Scientia is a springboard for people to read about research and to read scientific writing by real scientists who (generally) are not paid by anyone to write what they write. Consider this as science “from the horse’s mouth”.

Scientia Pro Publica

As always, science bloggers are keen for commentary and review of their work, especially if they are writing about original research. This kind of peer-review gives science blogging its power and maintains its integrity. You really can get your fill of juicy science here.

Scientia Pro Publica relies on YOU, so be sure to submit your blog posts, or the best of others’ here. Future editions need hosts, and we need them EVERY WEEK now. The schedule is here. Also, Scientia has a Twitter account, and there is even one for all science, environment and medical blog carnivals here! Read the rest of this entry » 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).

Read the rest of this entry »

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!!

Soon I will have the honour to present to you, dear readers, the 43rd Edition of Scientia Pro Publica! This was a recent revelation for me, and I was fortunate enough to be included in edition 42 hosted at Cosmodynamics. Thanks Vanessa!

Scientia Pro Publica is a bi-weekly carnival of the best science writing (well communication generally) from across the blogosphere. It has grown in stature to the point where the convener is now seriously contemplating making this a weekly thing. In other words, Scientia Pro Publica is becoming something akin to the Nature of science blogging. Ok, that might be a bit of a stretch, however, it is like a magazine – it relies on public blog submissions and the host to compile and editorialize a selection of submitted blog posts. Currently, it receives more than 50 submissions each time, and this grows with each new host as the network expands. It is a privilege that I am able to bring it to you.

So, watch this space.

More importantly, if you are interested in science and writing, and would like to submit, just use the online form.

I would be interested in hearing from bloggers in earth science disciplines, as geology is my “home discipline”. That said, I have very broad scientific interests, so anything is welcome. You will notice that Traversing the Razor has very little geology in it!

The more the merrier! You may even want to host it yourself sometime!

Can’t wait to see your submissions!!

A great poem over at Science and the Media by CWeightman:

Ode to the Science Magazine

Newspapers and internet, these things just aren’t my scene.

But what I love instead is the science magazine!

Some whisper “obsolete”, it’s the age of kilobytes

I disagree: no better way to start days, fill nights.

Cosmos, New Scientist, take them as you find,

Built on ads and feedback columns, patiently aligned.

When needing of the latest scientific fable,

Look no further than the toilet, or coffee table.

Marvel at the graphics which fill the glossy pages.

A filler piece says “Einstein’s wrong”: will it last the ages?

So long as never broken remains the golden rule –

Always write on global warming, or else be the fool.

Here’s a checklist: archaeology, astronomy,

Conservation and health, the research economy,

Physics: particle and astro, sometimes even chem,

Geology, geography, must not forget them!

Articles on chaos theory, no one understands,

Thankfully there are diagrams giving us a hand.

And update me on L H C, save me a google

Tell me what I need to know, let me be time frugal!

So take away my dollars, as long as every week

I get fed a pulpy dish of science at its peak.

Now tell me, fellow readers, what in your heart you feel,

When I say “science magazines”, do they have appeal?

Ok, so chiro could be considered low-hanging fruit. Not many doctors take it seriously and many people are sceptical. Hardly world-changing stuff for me to have a go at it.

On the other hand, many people (including some of my friends) have been through it and swear by it for certain circumstances. There may even be some truth to some of the benefits of some manipulations (although, for instance, a Cochrane review on lower back pain seem to dispute this, with no conclusive evidence either way, and no advantage over medical approaches).

I’m not going into the clinical efficacy of particular components of chiropractic treatments. I have my view on that, but that’s not the point I want to make here. I would point out, also, that I am not a doctor. I am doing this based on a reasoned analysis. I welcome comment or correction.

What I want to take issue with is a document (pamphlet) that I had brought to me by a friend whose daughter (12 years old) had just been to a chiro for a regular “treatment”.

I have no problem with preventative care (if it can be shown to be effective). I do have a BIG problem with the contents of the brochure, because it pedals a load of nonsense dressed up as fact, with no references (not in the pamphlet anyway – you have to go online for that, which can be hard whilst in the clinic). Indeed, it even contains messages designed to implant the idea in parents heads that vaccination is the wrong thing to do. This is a patent absurdity (I hardly need to go into the countless lives saved through immunization, nor indeed the great deal of suffering that people no longer have to go through at the hands of diseases like polio or smallpox). Any how, I am going to take you through the text of this pernicious pamphlet. Bare with me, this is a little longer than normal.

“The Astonishing Dr. You”, a critique.

First, look at its first pages. I do this to give you a taste. The full brochure can be found here.

Now, “each effect has a cause”. Let’s start with that. One can only assume these people have God on their side because this just begs for an infinite regress argument. And look at that lovely picture of a nebula. Doesn’t that just fill you with awe at how incredibly large and complex the universe is. But, there is a reason for it, because there is “an intelligence”. Actually, it is more likely that universal constants are responsible for the “balance” we perceive. But then, just how balanced are things? Thermodynamics strongly argues against any notion of order coming from chaos. Furthermore, how do they know that “what seems unnecessary has purpose”? What do they have in mind, the appendix? That had a purpose, it just doesn’t serve it anymore.  All this is beside the point anyway, as this is a pamphlet about helping real people with real problems, apparently. Not an auspicious start.

I thank a particular FaceBook page that had the text of this pamphlet, and from here I’ll just analyze the text. Here goes. My notes in blue.

Read the rest of this entry »

Thanks to those who looked at and commented on my variants post. Quite popular it seems!

I have two more to add, one that I had clearly left out, and one suggested to me by a reader.

Here goes, although I worry that this is going to become book length soon…

C. Scientificus Var. Attenboroughensii – The Naturalist

Named in honour of the greatest television naturalist and narrator of all time, David Attenborough, The Naturalist is a person who began their scientific career simply wanting to explore the world. Having found that there really are some very interesting things out there, he or she decided that other people ought to know about them too. And thus began a fruitful career of showing people just how amazing the world and life on it is. The Naturalist tends to avoid controversy, rallying to causes only when provoked. Attenboroughensii prefers to let this amazing world speak for itself.

C. Scientificus Var. Enterprisiensis – The Coal-face Worker [thanks to Andyextance’s comment]

Enterprisiensis is the ex-industrial scientist who remains focussed on their home industry. Be it through choice or chance, they have found a niche in communicating their industry’s research. Enterprisiensis inhabits the murky niches of trade and professional society press – not as desperate to editorialise as other C. Scientificus. Instead, they are happy to act as a conduit of information to help bench-bound researchers achieve optimal results for their businesses, or at least reliably let them know what’s going on in their field. They are reluctant to stray from their home industry as they find that their niche is both productive and rewarding. A true specialist, the Coal-face Worker may not be well adapted to other ecosystems.

Ok, enough for now, I have to crawl back into my shell…

It occurs to me (as a novice in this field) that there are a few main variants of “science communicator”:

Communicatus Scientificus Var. Unopinionatii* – Cool-Hand Luke

Also know as the “Non-committal One”, Cool-Hand will never put his name to an opinion. He is probably a journalist, maybe a science journalist, almost certainly not a scientist. He writes for news papers, and loves phrases like, “scientists have claimed” (and a lovely critique of Luke can be found at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong’s great blog). Cool-Hand prefers balance to the truth, and so will likely present most of science as a perpetual slanging match between sides balanced at 50/50. Science isn’t like that (in case you didn’t know).

*there is some debate as to the taxonomy here – Var. Unopinionatii may in fact belong to C. Journalensii under the subspecies of Scientalis.

C. Scientificus Var. Bulldogensis – The Watchdog

These are the people who, coming from a scientific background (particularly medical science) review the science behind grand claims and debunk them if dodgy. These guys write books about it that really should be essential reading for everyone over the age of about two. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science is a prime example. The watchdogs are the heros of sanity in a crazy, commercially-driven world where a pill is better than a good nights sleep. Some Watchdogs are graduated Skeptics (see below). Michael Shermer comes to mind.

C. Scientificus Var. Sceptiensis – The Skeptic

Closely related to the Watchdog (but perhaps more distant from their original scientific training, or perhaps not even scientifically trained), the Skeptic will go after anything even remotely unscientific, and has a penchant for examining people who believe in crazy things. Some Skeptics become very good (and very popular) whilst others skirt the boundaries of sanity and start to believe in conspiracies themselves.  This skeptic has to be constantly vigilant against “The Forces of Darkness”.  Sooner or later it is revealed that the Skeptic works for the Templeton Foundation (no I’m not going to link to them, they might find out where I live).

C. Scientificus Var. Theatricalus – The Performer

Yep, you’ve seen them at shows, and seen them on TV. They make science “cool”, and mostly teach kids (and a few ‘kids’ masquerading as adults). These guys are probably our main line of defense against the dark arts of Woo and religion. Without the Performer, your child really might continue to believe in the Easter Bunny. Scientific thinking gets its first opportunity to thrive in the Performer’s hands. The world is a little safer from silliness thanks to them (God bless ’em). Explosions and volcanoes and dry ice and the like are tricks of the trade here.

C. Scientificus Var. Obsesionatii – The Passionate One

The Passionate One is convinced that the world is in peril if we don’t all understand their field of science. So important is it that they sometimes lose the message of their science in an attempt to “get it out there”. Obsessionatii can be found engaged in long well-worded arguments across the blogosphere, or may be found appearing on late-night current affairs programs. Sometimes they accidentally fall victim to Unopinionatii in a cruel act known as “sensationalism”. Occasionally, Obsessionatii gets mixed in with roaming hoards of Bulldogensis and Sceptiensis. In these instances, they can be most effective, sometimes writing books about how, for instance, geology has an answer against anthropogenic climate change. However, it is important here to distinguish them from our next variant:

C. Scientificus Var. Professorisis – The Prominent Professor

The Prominent Professor is a genuine leader in his or her scientific field. However, usually after having written a surprisingly popular book, they have moved into a position of leadership in science communication, typically with the phrase “public understanding of science” associated with them. They typically have huge masses of seething fans, as well as a notable number of “antis”. Their opponents (who often have Sceptiensis in their mix) can be quite vocal, often labeling them as “strident” or at least labelling them as patsies to the media. They try to avoid Unopinionatii for reasons of professional integrity.

C. Scientificus Var. Polymathicus – The Profligate Writer

Sometimes a scientist, sometimes a journalist; Polymathicus writes features and blogs and books like they have six hands and an army of assistants. Sometimes they actually do have an army of assistants (probably only two hands). Who knows? Their products are easy to read and they really do reach a broad church. Most of the other variants are simply jealous of these types because Polymathicus have always done what the others always wanted to do – speak and write about interesting stuff. Whilst they sometimes sensationalize the science, they always offer a guiding argument, which distinguishes them from Unopinionatii.

There are probably others. Any thoughts?

I don’t know which I am or which I want to be. I suspect that I have grandiose visions of Polymathicus or Professorisis. I may have to settle for the debated taxonomic classification of Var. Studentiasis – who writes blogs about blogs and blogs about science and continually studies at uni and generally would kill to join one of the other variants.

All posts copyright Traversing the Razor

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