EGU 2014 Day 3 – Science is for everyone!, the value of an open mind and when is a debate not a debate

Day three, one of the quieter days on my schedule meant I could a) relax a little and b) go looking for sessions I never would have thought of attending.


I started the day in Citizen Empowered Science and Crowdsourcing in the Geosciences (EESI1.8/EOS6) the second half of the session I attended yesterday. There were a couple of interesting presentations, including a plan for a citizen controlled platform for communicating climate science, but I often feel like the geoscience community is teetering on the edge of just accepting Citizen Science as a valid method of data collection, but right now they are still a bit unsure. As such the presentations today came across as enthusiastic but uncertain. I really liked Simone Frigerios presentation of ‘MAppERS: a peer produced community for emergency support’, partly because he said that we need to stop seeing communities at risk as victims, but instead as resource for disaster prevention and mitigation. Another project that I liked was Nuria Castell’s initiative ‘Building and Evaluating Sensor-based Citizens’ Observatories for Improving Quality of Life in Cities’. The project has set up citizen observatories (called CITI-SENSE) all across three target cities, Oslo, Ljubljana and Vienna. The great thing about these observatories (just sensors really) is that most of them do more than just one thing. They record air pollution (levels of O2, CO etc), wind data, UV and noise. There is also a link to an app that allows people to record how they feel in a place so the project results in a much more representative picture of the quality of life in these cities.


I also attended the session on Long-term Storage of CO2 and the Petrophysics of Unconventional Hydrocarbons: Results from Laboratory Studies (ERE2.2), which covered topics like carbonate dissolution and how to prevent CO2 leakage from a well and listened to a talk on ‘An Experimental Study of Basaltic Glass-H2O-CO2 Interaction at 22 and 55 degrees C’ and saw an extraordinary outburst from one of the audience, who at the end of the session said that the timescales were not big enough to make the results relevant and called it ‘trivial research’. Now this seems to have arisen from the fact that this researcher was a computational modeller and the young scientist presenting was a physical or experimental modeller, so instead of running a computer simulation that approximated 1000’s of years, she had actually done the experiment in a lab over a period of months instead. It highlighted to me how some scientists get so buried in their own method they resist any other method. Even though the moderator came to the defence of the young scientist by highlighting that computer models could not be run without the data from shorter term experimental models, the questioner appeared to remain firm in her dismissal of the work. Which just made me feel a little sorry for her, that she was so closed minded that she couldn’t see the value in other people’s work.


Towards the end of the day I attended an event that I had been looking forward to all week – the Great Debate on ‘Metals in our Backyard: to Mine or not to Mine‘. This session was proposed as a debate on the moral and social implications of mining in Europe. The panellists were:

Lluis Fontbote from the University of Geneva,
Roland Oberhansli from the Univerisity of Potsdam,
Alina Stadniskaia from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Reasearch (Royal NIOZ),
Joshua Brien from the Economic and Legal Section of the Commonwealth Secreatriat,
Gillian Davidson from the World Economic Forum.

Now although the panellists were great and the subject was right up my street, because no one was really against mining in Europe it was pretty much impossible to get any kind of debate going. What I didn’t understand is why no-one from the environmental community was willing to engage in the debate? If they really want to affect how mining is done, surely the way to do it is to go at it from the inside (how can we change our minds when we don’t even know what they think)? So much so that, apart from some interesting slides that I have included below, it was really a debate that wasn’t a debate.

We are not going to run out of metals – says Lluis Fontbote

Stone and mineral resources are fundamental to our society – says Roland Oberhansli

The future is in subocean mining – says Alina Stadniskaia

We need a roadmap – says Gillian Davidson

So, all in all a quiet day.

For a closing image – check out the world’s creepiest tube train signs!


EGU 2014 Day 2 – when moderators go wild, policy and earthquakes

Today was a loooooooooong day! You know that feeling when you are sat in a presentation and the speaker is on slide 14 of 27 and ran out of time 5 minutes ago? Well image how much worse it is when the person rambling, prevaricating and generally being annoying is the one who is supposed to be keeping order?! This was my experience today – of a moderator gone wild!! It was really frustrating!!!!

Anyway, I arrived in the morning for my first session, which was supposed to start at 8.30am, but the first talk was cancelled so it actually got going at 8.45 (oh the luxury!).

This was the session on Geoethics and Geoeducation (EOS1) and included presentations on Fukushima, nano technology and Antarctic lake exploration. The presenters weren’t pulling their punches about the failings of those in and associated with the geoscience community in terms of ethical behaviour, but by far the most outspoken present was Tokio Oshka from Japan. He implied that the accident at Fukushima, was actually caused by a lack of corporate responsibility on the part of the company, which didn’t have any capacity for negative feedback, in order to improve safety at the site and that the government was complicit because it held shares in the company. The presentation was conducted with great passion and it certainly made me think more about the ethical implications of a government apparently being so (financially) closely linked to a company.


But Tokio Oshka was not the only vociferous speaker – the moderator for the session at one point launched into an accusation that the Ethics, education and communication sides of EGU were ‘discriminated against’ mostly because the partner poster session to this mornings ovals was at the same time, so many people who would have normally gone to both, could not. And I can kind of see his point – this year the Education and Outreach symposia has a much higher profile than the subject in previous years, but it is still very much at the edges of the conference. Perhaps it is because ethics, education and communication does not have a ‘division’ within EGU to protect its’s interests in the same way as the other groups do, though the team of staff who organised the Symposium are just as talented and dedicated as those in the divisions.


The second session I attended was EG1 The Role of Geoscientists in Public Policy – a panel discussion about the state of geoscience policy in Europe and the world. The Panel consisted of:

Lydia Harriss, Scientific Advisor in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)
Pascale Ehrenfreund, Research Professor of Space Policy and International Affairs, The George Washington University, Washinton D.C. and President of the Austrian Science Fund
Gunter Bloschl, President of the European Geosciences Union
Reinhard Huttl, Scientific Director of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Potsdam
Luca Demicheli, Secretary General of EuroGeoSurveys – the Geological Surveys of Europe
Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Communication at Plymouth and my supervisor (very important that!)

The panel discussed a wide range of ideas relating to policy, including; science-politics dialogue, the differences in different countries, interdisciplinarity, permanence of geoscience in the public realm (not just after a disaster), open access, training future generations and why scientists are reluctant to make statememts. Two particularly interesting questions to me were, are we overlooking local and regional government in favour of national and international, and how does scientific thinking affect our ability to communicate? To be honest I felt that both questions were rather dismissed – the first by saying that national and international governance informs local and regional decisions, but I think that is simplifying local political concerns. In my recent work I have been interviewing village residents in the south west and I have found that local politics is far more important to most people I have spoken to than national. The second question was approached as being a good idea, and the value of interdisciplinarity was raised (again), but the panellist seemed to quickly return to the bastion of old science.

Still it was an interesting session.


My afternoon was a bit spotty – I sat in on a couple of presentations about Thermal and Mechanical Processes and Energy Storage in Porous and Fractured Aquifers (HS 8.2.5), but ran away when the equations started to fill the whole screen, though I did learn that the amount of shearing in marbles does appear to improve their thermal conductivity. I also attended Biochar and Organic Waste in Soils (SSS6.5) on the recommendation of @EuroGeosciences and listened to a talk on the Economic feasibility of biochar to soils in temperate climate regions by Gerhard Soja. This was interesting because I didn’t really know anything about biochar before – so just as was suggested at the beginning of the conference, I tried something new!


I also attended the Citizen Empowered Science and Crowdsourcing in Geosciences session (ESSI1/EOS6) and spoke to Luca D’Auria about his poster on Real-time mapping of earthquake perception areas of the Italian region from Twitter streams analysis. Basically, the research used people’s comments on twitter that were geolocated to identify areas of increased perception of the earthquakes. I was interested to learn how they dealt with retweets and quoted or modified tweets. Dr D’Auria said that in order to take this into consideration they didn’t include any retweets in the dataset and they also collected background data in order to normalise the responses and counter any false positives that may be collected. What this normalised data showed was that although there was strong trend towards the cities without calculation, after the data was normalised the trend in the cities disappeared and the only identified highlight was in the east of Italy, around the area where the epicentre had been recorded. This research is interesting as it could be used to asses perception of strength and a better way to interpret earthquake risk to people in seismically active areas.


I ended the day at the ‘Scientists Must Film‘ workshop, a very entertaining and informative workshop presented by a pair of filmmakers who could have had their own double act!

Great fun and a great end to the day!

I also had a conference selfie moment with #EGUlegend Gunter Bloschl and Rachel Hay (@geogrhay)!!


Walk like a dinosaur…

Last weekend, for those of you who don’t already know, was the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. This festival is a celebration of geology and palaeontology in the UK (and to some extent abroad). Lyme Regis, in Dorset, is the perfect location for a festival like this because it is the home of Mary Anning – one of the first citizen scientists (or citizen geologists more specifically). Mary came from a poor background and, when her father died, it fell to her and her brother Joseph (the only surviving children from 10 born to their parents, Richard and Mary) to support themselves and their mother. Mary collected many fossils washed from the cliffs in Lyme Bay and made some of the most astonishing discoveries of the period – notably early Ichthyosaur, Plesiosaur and Pterodactyl skeletons. Mary herself, however, had little education and the description and identification of these fossils was handed over to the eminent (male) Victorian scientists of the time, including William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare. Because of her background, education and sex, Mary wasn’t credited with the discoveries of any new species’. She did have, however, a vast knowledge of geology and anatomy from her experience collecting the fossils, but even with that knowledge she was never considered a true Victorian scientist.

The idea of a citizen scientist seems like a new one to us, with initiatives such as OPAL ( the OPen Air Laboratory) and the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch using the observations of ordinary folk to assist in discoveries about the natural world, but actually the idea is an old one with a new name (and perhaps, better organisation). The UK is fairly unusual in the number of amateur societies that exist to study organisms that may be – to most people – fairly obscure. Are you really enchanted by earthworms? Then the Earthworm Society of Britain is for you. Mad about mushrooms and toadstools? Try the Dorset Fungus Group. But how do you get people interested in these rather specific areas of science in the first place? Well that brings me back to the value of a Fossil Festival.

It was a sunny Bank Holiday weekend in Lye Regis - with some characters from British Science History tempted out by the nice weather...

It was a sunny Bank Holiday weekend in Lyme Regis – with some characters from British Science History tempted out by the nice weather…

At the Fossil Festival, I (as a part of the University of Plymouth) helped with running an activity called the ‘Dinosaur Runway’ – basically it does what it says on the tin, we got children to put on a pair of boots with ‘dino-shaped-tracks’ on the bottom, and walk down the runway. Why? Because it’s fun (and it really is – you should try it next year). But also because it tells a story about science. This one activity represents several scientific ideas. The first is that dinosaurs leave behind trace fossils (teeth scars on bones, faeces, footprints, etc), that can tell us about the dinosaur itself. One of my favourite is the debate as to whether dinosaurs cared for their young after they laid the eggs and footprints can tell us much about this – if they had cared for their young then surely the footprints would show adults walking with young dinosaurs (although I always think of what a footprint trace from humans in central London would show, to demonstrate how interpretations can be influenced). Additionally, you can tell a lot about how dinosaurs moved by their tracks; were they upright, walking on two legs (bipedal), did they walk on all four legs (quadrupedal) or was it a mixture of the two? So everyone who tried our dino runway, hopefully got an idea of what fossilised footprints represent – some of them had a debate about it – which is the central idea.

The famed University of Plymouth Dinosaur Runway!

The famed University of Plymouth Dinosaur Runway!

The next idea that this activity represents, is the involvement of maths in science. Yes, you could get paint everywhere and make a huge footprinty mess, but without the maths (or trigonometry in the case) you couldn’t work out which dinosaur you represented. By measuring the pace length of the dinosaur and jimmying around with trigonometry we could calculate a rough ‘dino¬† hip height’ for the person doing the experiment. Which then correlated to a certain species – giving you your dino identity. If your footprints weren’t clear enough, or there weren’t enough of them, the calculations couldn’t be done; leaving your dinosaur identity a mystery – as is actually the case with many dinosaur tracks, they are simply unidentified because there is not enough information. So maths can solve mysteries, but a lack of information will confound your ability to make an identification.

The third idea is that of repetition of an experiment. Because our activity was fun and we catered for a variety of ages of children we were popular at the Fossil Festival, meaning we usually had a queue. That meant that our ‘dino’s in waiting’ got to see the experiment done over and over again – always in the same way. This has value for someone who in school may only have the opportunity to see an experiment done once (even if lots of people are doing it together) as it highlights how much of scientific investigation can be repetition. And how important it is to be able to reproduce your results. If you took a measured stride along our runway and were identified as Deinonychus, then went back and took the same measured stride, you would be identified as Deinonychus again. Repetition and replicability.

At the end though, I think I come back to the idea of it being fun because it is the most important. OK so the dino runway could probably have been more scientifically accurate – and the hip measurements were not exact, but rather fell within a dinosaur species ‘catchment’; but if you focus on those small points you miss the bigger picture – because our activity was fun it could inspire people to go out and try searching for footprints or trace fossils themselves. Or even just trying to interpret something they see without waiting for an explanation first. Nothing we did was wrong, it could just have been more detailed, but sometimes I think (as long as the detail is there for those who want it), a little bit of paint splattered fun is just what science needs.

After all, Mary Anning may have been a citizen scientist to pay the bills in the early 1800s, but I bet she still enjoyed it and that’s how citizen scientists are made – a bit of encouragement, a bit of fun and a lot of curiosity. I think we all have that in us.

So go on – walk like a citizen scientist.



For more information on dinosaur track interpretation see:

Dinosaur footprints in the Wealden at Fairlight, East Sussex (1993) Parkes

Jurassic dinosaur tracks and trackways of the Cleveland Basin, Yorkshire: preservation, diversity and distribution (2003) Romano and Whyte

Fossil footprints from the Dakota Group (Cretaceous) John Martin Reservoir, Bent County, Colorado: New insights into the paleoecology of the Dinosaur Freeway (2012) by Kukihara and Lockley

(if you know of any other good papers about this then please mention them!)