Posts by Chris Pearce:
Remember remember the fifth of November; gunpowder, treason and plot… At this time of year children and adults throughout the UK dress up warm and brave the winds and rain in order to watch a human effigy burn on the bonfire while thousands of pounds of fireworks explode in the sky above. For those who are unfamiliar with this seemingly bizarre tradition, it stems back to 1605 when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament using several barrels of gunpowder. While and his fellow conspirators were caught, tried, and executed, several bonfires were lit around London to celebrate the fact that King James I had survived the assassination attempt. During the ensuing years, the annual burning of the ‘guy’ on the bonfire served as a reminder to each generation that treason would not be forgiven or forgotten. Nowadays, however, it is really just a chance to be treated to a spectacular night-time display.
Traditionally fireworks used the same explosive mix of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulphur as Guy Fawkes had in his gunpowder. The discovery of this ‘black powder’ dates back as far as the 9th Century, when it was first used in China. Unsurprisingly, therefore, China is also attributed with the invention of fireworks, and remains the largest manufacturer and exporter of fireworks in the world.
It is easy to appreciate the skill that goes into producing massive firework spectacles, particularly when they are set to music and combine both aerial and ground-based displays. However our real fascination with fireworks comes in the size, sound and colour of the explosions themselves, all of which are controlled by the chemical composition of the rocket…
The size of the firework essentially depends on the amount of explosive material packed within; the more gunpowder (or equivalent substitute such as Pyrodex) that is used, the greater the force that will explode the rocket and the larger it will appear. Apparently the largest rocket ever produced weighted 13.4 kg and was launched at a Firework Symposium in Portugal in 2010.
The characteristic whistling noise of fireworks is created by resonating gases emitted as the rockets shoot up into the night sky. Salts such as sodium salicylate are added to an oxidising compound (typically potassium perchlorate) to form a propellant fuel that emits gas as intermittent rapid bursts and creates the distinctive screeching noise.
The colour of a firework is the aspect most dependent on chemistry. Stars containing chemical compounds of the desired colour are packed into the rocket and are emitted when the firework bursts. As the stars burn the constituent metal atoms absorb energy, become exited, and emit coloured light as they return to their ground state. Different elements emit light at specific wavelengths thereby generating the different colours. This is exactly the same principle used in Atomic Emission Spectroscopy, albeit on a slightly more dramatic scale.
Of course I’m no expert on the chemical components of fireworks; most of this information has come from the fantastic sources below that are well worth a read. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to know that many of the elements that I am so familiar with have an aesthetic appeal that brings joy to so many people. If only I could say the same about my strontium isotope data…
My bag’s unpacked, the backlog of emails has been read and sleep deprivation is just about back to normal. I can therefore now look back on what was yet another thoroughly enjoyable and exhausting Goldschmidt conference, and process everything that happened during the week. My main take-home messages include a mental note to self to check whether the caps lock key is on when trying to log into my computer, one inch thick walls that stop two foot from the ceiling do not act as good sound barriers, and (somewhat surprisingly), the world is not flat or made of Styrofoam. Thrown in with these intellectual wonders were a multitude of discoveries of isotopic fractionation where least expected, new constraints on marine element fluxes and novel methods for investigating continental weathering processes. I’ll spare you the details…
Trying to summarise my experience of a conference like Goldschmidt is no easy task. Probably the closest I can get would be to call it packed. This covers just about everything from my flight out of the UK on a bank holiday weekend to Florence itself with so many architectural and cultural wonders crammed into such a small space. I also doubt I’m the only person who got satisfyingly full on the delicious packed lunches before wondering where on Earth I was going to find a space for the box in the overflowing bins. Most of all, packed offers a perfect description of the scientific schedule. With >4000 delegates attending, this was yet again the largest Goldschmidt ever, which resulted in an overflowing auditorium during the lunchtime plenary sessions as well as a huge number of well-attended oral and poster presentations on all 5 days. Whether it’s a reflection of my increasingly broad range of research interests, or simply the fact that more and more people are working on similar scientific issues, I often found that multiple sessions that I wanted to be in were running at the same time, and I would have to choose which keynote talk I attended on the basis of its proximity to the next talk of interest. Of course we can grumble about having had to miss out on such and such a talk because we were in a different session, but in reality this growth is a great reflection of how important geochemistry is becoming for answering a range of scientific issues, and I for one hope that this expansion and development continues far into the future.
Away from the science, the conference provided a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues who are becoming increasingly scattered to all corners of the globe. I also made several new acquaintances, aided no doubt by my introduction to the delights of caffè corretto (thanks go to Mark Rehkamper), and by the fact that many delegates were inescapably drawn to the same bar (with the result that we drank it out of clean glasses on the first night). I also got to take in my fair share of culture, including visiting the breath-taking Medici Chapel and Ponte Vecchio. Unfortunately the usual last minute rush to collect and process all of my data meant I wasn’t as prepared as many and hadn’t pre-booked a ticket for Il Duomo di Firenze or the Uffizi gallery… I’ll just have to save them for a future visit.
Finally, as the dust settles on the conference and attention switches back to making good on our promises of publishing the newly presented data, we should take a moment to acknowledge the immense amount of work put in by the organising committee and EAG officers – one forgets that this was done of their own free will in addition to their regular day job of looking after labs, supervising students, editing journals and (time permitting) doing research. I’m sure that we can look forward to much more of the same next year in Sacremento, as well as discovering whether the vineyards of Italy or California reign supreme!
In my previous post, ‘A geochemistry ditty’, I penned what is possibly the geekiest poem you will ever come across. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when several people got in touch to say how much they appreciated my artistic license, as they could associate with much of what I’ve been through. This got me thinking about the many other experiences that geochemists share, and what other universal truths may bind us together. I’m not talking about problems with machines and or downtime in the lab due to bad airflow, rather the little day-to-day things that we all seem to do without realising.
Take, for example, my fondness for keeping things aligned. I fully accept that I am on the extreme end of things when it comes to keeping things neat and tidy; I rarely leave my desk without straightening up my piles of paper, and a favourite past time of my old office mates was turning my books upside down and misaligning them on the shelf and seeing how long it took me to realise the disturbance (never normally more than 1 day). Although this penchant for neatness is admittedly a bit over the top and can cause both extreme amusement and annoyance at the same time, it does serve me brilliantly in the lab: I keep my working area clear and free from rubbish, I know exactly where my acids and other reagents are kept, and everything’s fully labelled and identifiable should someone else want to run the procedure after I’ve left.
I have since discovered that I’m not alone in displaying such neurotic lab behaviour. I know several colleagues who happily hide away behind teetering piles of unread papers on their desk, but maintain an air of organisation in the lab that astounds even themselves. For example, during a recent visit to the clean labs at Durham University I discovered a colour coded label system used to keep specific acid bottles in certain fume hoods for use with particular isotope systems. Genius. Similarly, I’m sure I’m not the only person to keep all of my pots carefully aligned on the hotplate, and who doesn’t swear by the magic rule of ‘3’ when rinsing beakers in water?
Not all of this behaviour can be attributed to an over developed sense of order. Arranging pots when performing sample digestions is sound practice, as it means you know what sample is where if catastrophe strikes and all the labels become illegible. Likewise, rinsing everything 3 times (or more) helps minimise the risk of crossover contamination between cleaning stages. I guess the real question therefore is what aspects of our lab routine we develop because we’ve been taught to do it in that way, and what parts to we do just because it seems right to ourselves.
Differences in lab etiquette really come to the fore when discussing the lab-cleaning rota. This universal bone of contention is an essential but time consuming aspect of labwork, and is always made all the worse for knowing that it’s not your turn as you did it last time. No matter how many times you put your name down, the feel-good brownie points you got on Friday don’t count for anything when you rock up on a Monday morning only to discover that a heard of elephants must have stormed through the corridor over the weekend leaving their muddy prints all over the entrance mat. Of course, having a spotlessly clean lab provides no guarantee of getting good data, but it does help, and there’s nothing more frustrating then watching other people waltz in and benefit from your mornings hard mopping and scrubbing without a word of acknowledgement or offer to take their turn next time.
Of course it would be wrong to say that all geochemists should strive to be strictly regimented in the lab, as what really matters is the quality of scientific output and everyone should be allowed to achieve that in their own manner (with due consideration to Health & Safety constraints of course!). However, I can’t help wondering how many other researchers out there have a tendency to adhere to the ‘law of straightness’, and kept our working area spotlessly neat and tidy…
As I sit here watching my columns drip,
I thought I’d put together a little writ.
It’s about something that’s not always so plain to see;
the hidden world of isotope geochemistry.
It starts with a rock, water or gas
that contains an element of interest with a particular mass.
You crush, dissolve, evaporate or ash
until it resembles nothing more than a residual splash.
Next, with hands as steady as they can be,
weigh out some spike so that you can perform ID.
(Of course if you are feeling particularly pious,
using a DS will enable you to correct for subsequent mass bias.)
A drop more acid then on we go,
to run the columns that flow slow slow slow!
With resin and frits that just won’t sit right,
they’ll keep you stuck in the lab until late at night.
But finally it’s done and the samples are now ready
to be aspirated and analysed by mass spectrometry.
You tweak and you tune and you wait all day long,
but the blasted machine won’t behave unless you play its favorite song*.
Eventually the standards come down to a value that’s alright,
at just about the time you planned to call it a night.
However the lure of the data means you set the run going,
while keeping everything crossed that the nebulizer stays flowing.
The next day… oh joy, what fun, can you see?
A brand new delta value that’s been generated just by me!
Now back to the lab to clean all that plastic;
a few hundred more runs like this doesn’t sound too drastic…
To end, while I think that it’s absolutely fab,
sitting on my own running columns in the lab.
I do so wish there was someone who wanted a PhD,
that would come and run all these wretched samples for me!
*Not proven, but probably worth a try.
It was the season for carol singing, tree decorating and merry making. This year, however, the highlight of Christmas for me was the fact that I was able to stay in one place and catch my breath after a very hectic few weeks. I realize, of course, that many people see the holiday as an opportunity to recover from the undergraduate’s end of term party, or a rare chance to spend >24hrs away from the clean labs. Nevertheless, it felt like my feet barely touched the ground in the weeks before Christmas, and I probably spent as much time in the air as I did in the office.
The rush started back in November, when, like many other Earth Scientists, I had a mad couple of weeks trying to collect enough data and put together a poster before flying out to the AGU fall meeting. Of course, the benefits of going to San Francisco and presenting your latest results to international colleagues far outweigh a few sleepless nights and an inability to talk about anything other than strontium isotopes (although I doubt that my other half would agree with this). However, the associated ice-breakers, happy-hours and socalising combined with 8am prompt starts (!) provided little time for rest and recuperation during the week… recovery from AGU is consequently normally designated for the week(s) after the conference, when term ends and universities wind down for the holidays. That wasn’t to be the case for me this year.
I had barely got home, dusted off the decorations, and put up the Christmas tree before I was back on a plane and heading out for my second conference in as many weeks. This time I was off to the inaugural MINSC meeting, where I had been invited to present my experiences of being involved in a similar Marie-Curie research-training network. The contrast between this meeting and AGU could not have been more pronounced: The mild Californian climate was swapped for the snow-covered alpine resort of Seefeld in Austria, the jostling hubbub of 22,000 delegates were replaced with face-to-face discussions with 15 early career researchers and their supervisors, and instead of having to queue for 20 minutes to get any beer other then Budweiser, I was able to enjoy a pint of weißbeer in front of a roaring fire. Again, this idealistic meeting didn’t provide quite as much time for rest as I’d hoped for, although in this instance I’m not complaining – there was fresh powder snow and the ski-lift was just opposite the hotel…
A few days later, as I sat on my third flight that month en-route to spend Christmas in Germany with the family, I realized that no matter how exhausting conferences and meetings may be, there is nothing more stimulating for scientific research then having the chance to discussing it with your peers. It’s just a shame that such discussions can’t always take place around the fire with a mince pie and glass of mulled wine!
For the fourth time in my career I am starting life at a new institution. Like most academics I’ve had several jobs since completing my PhD and each post has involved a change in surroundings, colleagues and a slight shift in research focus. Moving is generally accepted to be part and parcel of academic life, and in my experience can be both a bane and a blessing.
In practical terms short-tem postdoc contracts are a nightmare. By the time you’ve been given your own desk and granted access through the university’s firewall, you’re arranging a date for your leaving interview and being wished all the best for your future. This, together with the fact that you don’t get anywhere near the expected amount of project work done because you spent most of the time putting together proposals and job applications for the next post, can make the positions appear to be more hassle then their worth.
However, no matter how stressful this hopping between postdocs is, it is worth it. Academics thrive on collaborations, and the best way of establishing a support network is to go and work with different people. Geochemistry is a relatively small community (though it’s growing quickly!), so by working with different people your name can become known to people you’ve never met, potentially improving your chances for getting the next post. Undoubtedly the greatest boost to my career came when I moved to a country whose language I didn’t speak to work on a topic that was completely new to me… not the easiest of transitions at the time but something that I have benefitted from ever since.
There is also the advantage of getting a change in scene and learning new working practices. The way clean labs and machines are set up vary between institutions, and getting experience of how others do what you do can be both useful and interesting (and, I confess, occasionally frustrating if you discover the answer to an issue that’s been bugging you for months!). Of course this type of knowledge transfer goes both ways, and it’s always encouraging to find that your skills are suddenly in demand and that you can help people who are struggling through the same sorts of issues that you’ve encountered before.
So far I have found that the benefits of starting somewhere new far outweigh whatever difficulties are encountered during the moving process, and it’s easy to see why many academics actually choose to move on (temporarily at least) when on sabbatical. Nonetheless, as I write this surrounded by boxes and bags of unsorted papers that were dumped out of my last filing cabinet, I can’t help but hope that my next move isn’t for quite some time yet…
Taking its name from one of the great pioneers of geochemistry, Victor Moritz Goldschmidt (1888-1947), the Goldschmidt conference has become a key annual event for geochemists and Earth scientists alike. It provides an opportunity for fresh-faced postgrads to meet like-minded people whose eyes don’t glaze over when they discuss their work, and gives senior academics a chance to chat to old colleagues, re-engage with their scientific roots, or perhaps more importantly, allows them to hide at the back of the quietest seminar room and make some headway into the backlog of assignments that needed marking.
Unlike the other conference opportunities available to geochemists, Goldschmidt has the appealing feature that it is held in a different city each year. Once seen as a way of encouraging interaction between different groups of geoscientists, the conference’s continual alteration between North America and Europe (reflecting its joint organisation by the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry respectively) has become part of its attraction, and I’m sure that the associated holiday potential has helped persuade many delegates to attend in the past. The constant mobility of the conference also provides a scale by which you can judge how long a geochemist has been part of the community: They will have been involved for a few years when they start counting the cities/countries they’ve visited by the year that Goldschmidt was there, a bit longer if they can recall the first time that a city held the conference, and quite a lot longer still if they attended the inaugural Goldschmidt conference back in 1988. Of course there are other more subtle indicators for how experienced a Goldschmidt delegate is: First timers walk away from the poster session beer queue holding just one beer, whilst the pro’s have a ticket to the Thermo-party in their pocket before the doors to the ice-breaker have opened.
This year Goldschmidt was held in Montreal, during a week bounded by Quebec’s national holiday on the 24th June and Canada day on 1stJuly. If the revelry associated with these celebrations wasn’t sufficient, the week also saw the start of the International Jazz festival, which featured world-famous acts such as Rufus Wainwright, Seal, Norah Jones, and Emeli Sandé… it was therefore quite surprising to see that so many delegates managed to make it into the conference centre by 8:30 each day (or atleast surprising to see how awake most appeared), even if the coffee queues did get longer as the week progressed…
Of course, we would not have been in Montreal to see any of this had it not been for the science, and in that respect the conference excelled as usual. Goldschmidt increases in size year on year, principally as a result of the exceptionally hard work put in by all of the organising committees, and this year things stepped up a notch again with more then 3000 abstracts submitted. Although the increase in size meant that I was unable to see perhaps all of the talks that I’d have like to, it also ensured that there were plenty of engaging sessions on offer that offered an interesting mix of research. Particular highlights included sessions on ‘Seawater chemistry changes through time (10b)’; ‘Geochemical proxies for past ocean circulation (13b)’, and of course the session I spoke in; ‘Traditional and novel isotopes as tracers of weathering processes (17g)’. The standard of presentation was exceptional by both student and professor alike (the consequence of considerable preparation and ‘pillow practise’) and have given me much to think about until the next meeting.
In addition to hearing about the latest scientific research, one of the primary functions of the conference was to facilitate networking and new collaboration between scientists, and yet again the meeting came up trumps. Whether it was chatting over a glass of wine at the poster session, or joining together to watch the semi-finals of the European Championships, there was an air of unity within the community that seemed to progress as the week went on and tiredness crept in. Combined with several business lunches and many evening meetings, Goldschmidt was as much a success outside of the conference centre as it was inside, and I look forward to continuing where things left off next year in Florence (once I’ve caught up on a bit of sleep that is!).
I’d like to end by saying that Goldschmidt continues to be a great advert for what research conferences can be: a great leveller between academics where everyone is happy to meet, and introduce, everyone else. Concerns about competition for the latest paper or funding are put aside as we focus on the scientific questions that brought us there in the first place, and get excited about potential breakthroughs and future research opportunities. Long may it continue!
In essence therefore, ‘fun’ is not a word that most people would associate with presenting their data. True research in progress meetings, such as that organised by the Geochemistry Group, provide an opportunity for us to change this perception and make presenting our data a more enjoyable affair. This particular RiP meeting was hosted by The Open University under the generic title ‘Building a Habitable Planet’ and provided an excellent showcase of research being carried out in a diverse range of subjects. Four sessions were loosely structured around keynote talks by Sarah Russell ‘Forming the Solar System and the Earth: Are we special?’, Craig Storey ‘Crustal evolution and plate tectonics: New insights from accessory minerals’, Rachael James ‘The evolution of ocean chemistry’ and Gideon Henderson ‘Rating the Ocean’, and included presentations from students, postdocs and research fellows. The meeting was well attended by Earth and Planetary scientists from throughout the country, and will hopefully provide a solid basis for repeat meetings over the next few years.
It would be naive to ask, or expect, different groups to stand up at these meetings and share the innermost secrets of their techniques before they’ve been published. However, by being a little more encouraging towards the new research and researchers coming from other institutions the geochemistry community will develop a much more relaxed and supportive atmosphere, something that often gets overlooked in our strive to get that elusive Science or Nature paper. Besides, all research is inevitably shared, so why keep it underwraps until you discover that another group has done exactly the same but with the opposite conclusion, or worse, the same conclusion ‘In Press’?
I, like many other aspiring academics, am currently locked in the rounds of writing fellowship proposals that if funded will see me break free of the shackles of being somebody’s postdoc and become an independent researcher. Before I can dream about having the kudos of my own budget code, however, I must achieve the seemingly impossible and successfully sell my science. This innocuous phrase is hammered into us from the moment we brazenly set out on our PhD, but it is not until we have been broken by too many late night stints in the lab or in front of our machine that we come to realise exactly how mundane most scientific research is, and just how hard it is to make what we do sound interesting to an outsider.
Some people do strike it lucky though, and there is always the hope that you will have a ‘Eureka!’ moment that grabs the national headlines and brings with it a flood of follow-up funding. Yet for some inexplicable reason fortune always seems to favour the senior academics who haven’t brushed the dust off their labcoats in years. The rest of us are left to ponder how on earth it is possible to write a proposal that has a broad appeal whilst remaining focused on a particular topic, is suitable for a non-specialist but contains enough detail for the most insatiable of reviewers, and is novel enough that no-one has thought to do it before yet has a demonstrable chance of success. There is, I’m reliably informed, no magic answer for this, so like a door-to-door salesman, the best we can do is dress the project up nice and hope that the reviewers like what we are selling.
This does not mean that finding funding is pure lottery. There is a whole spectrum of grading criteria and methods that undoubtedly provide the most rigorous means for comparing between projects in different disciplines. Any candidate who can jump through these hoops unscathed deserves to be put through to the next round (where the hoops only get higher and come with flames). In my opinion, however, there’s one box missing from all of the assessment lists that every reviewer asks at some point: Does the science sound sexy? Discrimination acts may prevent panel members from trawling through our Facebook profiles to give us marks out of 10, but the same does not apply to the proposal that you’ve loved and cherished for so long – if it does not raise the reviewers’ interest after the first look then it gets tossed aside faster than a PhD student can eat free sandwiches.
Making science sexy (which, I should clarify, is all down to topical relevance and its ability to generate interest, and nothing to do with what font or colour theme you choose to use) is perhaps easier for some disciplines then others. Volcanoes and dinosaurs capture our imagination from a young age and are never far from the public’s attention, whilst new insights into the planets and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life get priority access to the media. It is far harder to generate the same level of excitement about what makes one soil different from another, even if there are genuine consequences for atmospheric CO2. We shouldn’t be discouraged by this, however, and should instead turn it to our advantage. Knowing what people like and are familiar with provides an easy door for them to open and take the first step towards finding a common level on which you can present your work, and at the end of the day, the next person reviewing your proposal may know nothing more about your particular brand of science than Mrs Jones from the canteen does. My next research proposal therefore won’t be about determining changes in the ionic composition of seawater – I will be finding out whether the sea tasted salty to the dinosaurs, and hopefully learning a few other things along the way.