Christmas quilting. With ammonites!

Merry Christmas everyone!

I hope you had a great holiday and were properly jolly all week! I can now post something that I have been working on for a while, but couldn’t write about before, because it was a present for my sister.

A Christmas Quilt!

Because who doesn't need a quilt with ammonites!!

Because who doesn’t need a quilt with ammonites!!

But not just any quilt – my sister is a keen amateur palaeontologist and likes nothing better than scouring the beaches of the southwest looking for a good fossil. So obviously her quilt had to have some fossils on it! This quilt is a bit smaller than usual as it is a sofa throw quilt, but would suit for the end of a single bed.

A close up of the 'ammonites'

A close up of the ‘ammonites’

I made the front using off cuts of old fabric pieced in a simple stripe patchwork and then used fur for the backing (because my sister’s house is quite cold and it’s snuggly). Because it’s a fossil quilt I decided to appliqué some ammonites onto the front, but I wanted the pattern to be peeping through the back as well, just like you might see if you saw a rock with a fossil in it – so I used the ammonite pattern to bind the front, back and wadding together! This did make the binding quite loose, but as it’s a small quilt that isn’t so much of a problem. Using fur for the back made the binding quite difficult and it is a bit messier around the edges than I would have liked, but she seems to like it and it will do well for her front room.

The whorl pattern of the ammonite was used to bind the quilt, giving just a hint of the ammonite pattern on the other side.

The whorl pattern of the ammonite was used to bind the quilt, giving just a hint of the ammonite pattern on the other side.

Materials I used:

3m soft brown fur (for back and hemming)

2.5m wadding (2oz)

A selection of off cuts to make a 2m x 1.5m patchwork

Green and Black threads for sewing machine (and a sewing machine to make things easier)

Contrasting colour fabric for the ammonite appliqué

Final quilt was 3m x 2.5m.

If you want more information on quilt making along with some excellent tutorials, I recommend looking at Amy Smart’s blog – Diary of a Quilter.

Happy New Year!

Is science boring?

Last week I attended a training session on science communication and one of the things we discussed was the value of truly representing what a scientist is and does. Part of this was the idea that the public is never going to be interested in scientists, because they are boring. Now whether we should give up on communicating just because we don’t think people are interested is another matter, but this idea of scientists being boring as off-putting is something that I found quite interesting. Is science boring? And should we only communicate something when it is interesting?

Yes you can even get a t-shirt featuring our favourite scientists stereotype from

Yes, you can even get a t-shirt featuring our favourite scientist stereotype from Shirtoid

As a PhD student, I am right of the thick of scientific research – ok so mine is a combination of psychology and geology – but still, I go through the daily grind of reading journal articles, collecting or generating data, analysing said data and preparing it for review, be it as a part of a report, article or presentation. In my last data analysis phase I ‘cleaned’ just over 4,500 words for a thematic analysis of people’s first words that they associate with ‘geology’. I thematically coded the data, then quantified the number of occurrences of each word and calculated the dominant trends.

What that means is I started out by going through all the words that were submitted for my survey. I checked them all to make sure that they were spelled correctly and if I couldn’t work out what word they should be, I flagged them for attention later. I took out the incomplete datasets; where people hadn’t answered all the questions (because an incomplete set could change the way my data calculated the statistics) and the ones where the respondent was clearly taking the mickey. I then looked through the words to see if there were any themes; any words that represented the same ideas that could be grouped together, and counted the number of times those themes were mentioned. I then went through and calculated how many times each individual word was mentioned and looked at which were the most common. Then I split up the data by some of the other information I had been given, whether people thought they had experience of geology or not, their gender and what their educational level was and ran those tests again. I then looked at all these results and tried to work out what they were telling me.

And that’s just the data analysis!

It just goes on and on and on and on and on........

It just goes on and on and on and on and on……..

Was it boring? Well I can tell you that whilst I was going through it my answer to that question would have been YES. When you have read the word ‘rocks’ for the 2,378th time, you start to wish for a magic wand to do all this data analysis for you. But despite the repetition and unending lists of information, I wouldn’t give up doing the data analysis myself, because what you get with reading it all yourself are the really interesting little sparkles in the data that you didn’t know were there. The seeds of discovery. I don’t even know what the discovery will be yet and I can feel it fizzing away in the back of my mind every time I see a surprising word or trend. Why would someone use a word like ‘strata’ rather than ‘layers’?  Are the different ways that people represent time important? Does the fact that volcanoes are mentioned a lot refer to the influence of the media or formal school education? Or something else entirely!?!

It’s exciting. And having to go through the boring bit makes the little flashes of exciting even more thrilling! I suppose the thing is with discovery is that quite often you have to walk for days hacking through the jungle before you spot the swirling cloud of orange monarch butterflies, or look through thousands of pebbles on the beach before you spot the corner of bone that turns out to be a new species of dinosaur.

Discovery is very rarely something you can do without a bit of drudgery and mind-numbing effort and I think this is an important story to tell. Science isn’t all explosions, vaccinations and rules of the universe. Most of it is slow and steady – you have a question you want answered and the answer might take years, or centuries to come, or it might never be found at all. This is why some research might not seem to have a point; if the question is very specific or hard to answer it might look like someone is burying their life in useless information. A lot of people might even say that was a waste of time, but I can think of at least one very good reason that it’s not.


As a species one of the few characteristics that define us, in my opinion, is curiosity. We are explorers, questioners, challengers, discoverers – we want to know why, how deep, which way, when, with who and she said what?! As children, we are constantly questioning (some children very persistently – how many of us were the ‘why, but why, but why, but why?’ child?!) and we don’t mind if the answer takes a little bit of digging, sometimes literally, to achieve.

In our adult world immediacy becomes everything. Time is money, don’t you know and if a question takes too long to answer it is thought that we won’t wait for the solution. TV shows present scientific concepts as done deals; the climax of what, behind the scenes, may have been years of painstaking work. Newspapers encapsulate discoveries into sound bites. And scientists are just as much as fault as those attempting to tell the stories; many scientists will not disseminate information about their research until it is published in order to keep priority on the discovery. Science communicators look for the most exciting story to tell, to ‘hook’ people in to listening.

Sometimes knowing the build-up is just as important.

Sometimes knowing the build-up is just as important.

When you communicate your research before it is completed, it is called ‘upstreaming’. Upstreaming tells the story of the science method rather than the science facts. It’s the story of how most of the discoveries we value were made – not with a whizz-bang, but with tedium and effort. So yes, my research is sometimes boring. And sometimes it’s exciting and sometimes I have to dance round my office with the joy of what I see being revealed in my data.

Don’t dismiss boring; if you head upstream you might just make a discovery of your own.