Understandable Earth Science

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Snakes & Ladders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good and successful scientist, and I keep coming back to resilience. A lot of people don’t realise that doing scientific research can be incredibly frustrating, and it often feels like you are taking one step forwards and two or three steps backwards. A bit like playing a game of snakes and ladders.

Snake&Ladder

In scientific academia, “success” is generally measured by getting your research peer reviewed and published, and, ideally this then being used by other scientists to help their own research. But successfully completing a research project and getting it published is a lot of hard work – loads of things can go right or wrong, and sometimes this is just down to luck rather than skill.

Let’s think about all the steps in an academic science research project, and some of the more common pitfalls.

  • First, you might need to collect samples to carry out experiments on. Depending on your research question this could be as easy as opening a chemical store cupboard, or it could require intensive fieldwork in remote places (or, for planetary scientists and cosmologists, sending robots to even more remote places like Mars or comets). For a selection of examples of how things can go wrong in the field, check out #FieldworkFails on Twitter. Also, thanks to the human error element in shipping companies, getting your samples and / or equipment back to the lab isn’t always straightforward.
  • Once you have your samples, you need to carry out your experiment. This might involve expensive, specialised equipment. There might only be one or two labs in your entire country (or even none) that have this equipment, and so those people-skills, that scientists are stereotypically famous for not having, come in really handy here for negotiating instrument time.
  • You have your experiments scheduled – great stuff. Often, everything will go according to plan. But some instruments and techniques are so sensitive they could be considered temperamental; malfunctioning air conditioning, computer crashes, power cuts, vacuum pump failures, urgent and unanticipated instrument maintenance, unexpectedly incompatible samples – these are all issues that have delayed my data collection at some point in the past.
  • Once you have your data, things get interesting. In an ideal world, this data will answer a deep and meaningful scientific question. But in reality, you look at the data and realise that you weren’t quite asking the right question, or that the experiment design wasn’t quite right and you either need to re-do the experiment in a different way, or collect some extra data. This is something that does improve with experience. But most science is about discovering new stuff, or confirming existing hypotheses in different ways, so this risk never goes away completely. In short, science is an iterative process where you are constantly testing, evaluating, and retesting your ideas (and coming to terms with that can be quite painful for scientists-in-training).
  • Once your data is fit for purpose, it is time to start evaluating it and writing it up. In my experience, this usually involves a few more iterations of the hypothesis, and occasionally some more rounds of data collection to polish things up. This is also the part where the quality and enthusiasm of your collaborators can have a big impact on the project’s success – especially for junior researchers or for projects in a politically sensitive environment. Collaborator attitudes can either be a springboard to success, or a dragging weight that can even kill off a project all together.
  • Congratulations – you and your co-authors have successfully created a manuscript describing your work. Time to submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. Now. If you haven’t submitted at least one paper, you probably have no idea just how hellish a paper submission can be (it is a close second behind university job applications for irritating faff!). Even if you carefully read all of the author instructions when formatting your paper, there is usually something that gets missed. References aren’t formatted correctly. You thought you could submit figures as jpegs but they only accept tiffs. You need to suggest 5 reviewers, not the usual 2-3. Your abstract is 7 words too long. You have to provide a “highlights” file. A graphical abstract is compulsory. Things are improving, and more and more journals are now accepting initial submissions in “your paper your way” form; that means you submit a single word file with figures in line with the text, rather than uploading a separate manuscript file with figure captions listed at the end, and uploading each image separately. But it is still a pain. I always think it should be a half-an-hour job to submit a paper, but it always takes me at least half a day.
  • Now, sit back and wait for the peer review. Peer review is one of the foundations of science. Your scientific peers check your work, highlight any problems, and suggest ways to improve the work. This is supposed to ensure that only high quality work gets published. I am a big fan of the concept of peer review, but it has its problems, mostly relating to reviewers and editors being human, likely overworked, and things like egos and bias getting in the way. Now, I am a firm believer that, 90% of the time, if a reviewer hasn’t understood an aspect of the work, then that means I need to explain it better. But most researchers have, at some point in their careers, received a peer review where the reviewer has clearly not even tried to understand the material, and is intent on forcing their own biases onto the subject. Communities such as Facebook’s 11,000+ member group Reviewer 2 Must Be Stopped and the Twitter account Shit My Reviewers Say, with more than 37,000 followers, are testament to the ubiquity of this problem. Sometimes, the scientific editor handling your submission will realise what is happening and place less weight on this kind of review. Other times they might not.
  • Once the peer review is complete, the scientific editor will make a decision: Accept as is (this is quite rare, at least in Earth Sciences); Revise (i.e. address all the reviewer comments – sometimes this will go back out for peer review; and nowadays this may come in the form of a “reject and resubmit” decision so that journals can appear to keep their article processing times down); Reject. Reasons for rejection might just be that the journal isn’t the most appropriate host for the work, or that the science is thought to be unsound.
  • For revisions, the journal usually allows between 1 and 3 months to complete the revisions, depending on how major they are. They might include things like changing the language style, clarifying points, making diagrams clearer, considering new ideas or information, and even collecting a bit more data or re-evaluating some conclusions. Sometimes a major revision decision can leave you feeling like you are back at square 1.
  • Once accepted, then comes all the publication admin. Transfer of copyright, creative commons licences, etc. (I have a life goal to one day properly understand these). Colour printing options / charges (some journals even charge for colour figures in online versions of papers!). And then there are the copy editors. The journal passes your accepted manuscript to a copy editor who formats the article ready for publication and ensures the text matches the journal’s preferred style. They then send you an article proof to check over and approve. A lot of the time, this is a smooth process, but there are also plenty of times where the proof seems to have been created by badly programmed robots. I have had to correct things like figures appearing in the text 2 pages before they are first discussed, tables being mis-formatted, and place names having their first letter changed to lower case. One time I spent nearly a week persuading a copy editor to reinstate some hyphens when talking about “pre- and post-combustion CO2 capture” because the journal policy was to not hyphenate words.
  • A few years ago, you might still be waiting a few months for your paper to be published once it has been accepted, but this is less of an issue nowadays, thanks to journals being online. Having said that, some journals are still oversubscribed; one of my recent papers was accepted back in 2016, but not officially published for almost a year, In the meantime, the unformatted accepted manuscript was available online, but I had to wait months for the journal-formatted version.
  • So, finally – your paper is out. It has passed peer review and been published. Congratulations! But the journey to success doesn’t stop here. You need to do this again. Lots. And the papers you have published need to be impactful – other scientists need to read them, use the information, and cite your papers. But that is a whole new chapter to think about 😉

There are so many things out of your direct control, that can go wrong or right during research. Skill takes you a long way. But you also need luck. Or failing that, a LOT of resilience.

My PhD fieldwork involved collecting rock samples from subglacially erupted lavas in Iceland, which involved climbing up 100 m high scree slopes; for every 3 steps up, I would slide 1-4 steps back down. So in many ways, my PhD fieldwork was a fitting metaphor for scientific research. Similarly, in many ways, it is like the game Snakes and Ladders.

Loðmundur

Loðmundur (Kerlingarfjöll, Iceland) formed during a rhyolite eruption around 184 thousand years ago, beneath a glacier. Subglacial eruptions tend to produce big piles of scree, with solid material at the top of the edifice, if the eruption breaks through the ice cap and / or meltwater can drain away. This is not so much fun when you need to collect samples of the solid in situ material, because it means you have to climb hundreds of meters up scree slopes to collect the rock samples. For more information on Loðmundur and Kerlingarfjöll, see my paper here https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00445-010-0344-0.

A sense of humour and feeling of solidarity is one of the best things to help maintain resilience. So, to help my fellow researchers, I created Snakes and Ladders: The Science Edition.

Snakes & Ladders

Print me to play!

The full file is designed to be printed in landscape orientation on A3 paper. There are even science-themed counters to cut out and play with. If the above image won’t download in a high enough resolution, you can download a full resolution version here (select “download” from the top right hand corner of the window).

So, if your research is getting you down, take a break. Play a game, and remind yourself that you need to keep rolling that die to move forwards.

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Who am I?

Who am I and why am I calling myself the Noble Gasbag?

I am currently (summer 2014) a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Geosciences at The University of Edinburgh, Scotland. That means I work as a scientific researcher, mainly on a specific project (more on that in a moment). I did my PhD at The University of Manchester, UK, and have worked on postdoctoral projects at The Open University (Milton Keynes), UK and Roskilde University, Denmark.

I am an Earth Scientist – that means I use scientific methods to investigate processes happening in The Earth. I could also be classed as a Geoscientist or a Geologist.

A lot of my work involves a group of elements called the Noble Gases (Group 8 on the periodic table –those elements in the far right hand column, historically these have also been called “the rare gases” or inert gases). So The Noble Gasbag seemed an appropriate name for a blog where I talk about my scientific work.

One of my main interests is a geological dating technique called ⁴⁰Ar/³⁹Ar dating (that is finding out how old rocks are, not wining and dining fellow geologists 😉 ). This involves measuring the noble gas, Argon (Ar).  I am most interested in using this to find out when volcanoes erupted, which means I have been lucky enough to visit some exciting parts of the world with some very pretty volcanoes, all in the name of work.

Göreme, Cappadocia, Turkey

Houses built into volcanic ash, Göreme, Cappadocia, Turkey

Inerie, Flores, Indonesia

Inerie volcano near Bajawa, Flores, Indonesia

I am also interested in learning more about some of the fundamental assumptions of the technique and how to refine and improve it so we can produce more accurate and precise dates of geological events. Part of this involves studying how atoms diffuse in geological materials.

To fully understand how atoms diffuse, we really need to understand the structure, chemical and thermodynamic properties of the geological materials being studied. That means I have spent quite a lot of time studying geological and mineralogical microtextures (small scale – microns to centimetres – structures and features in rocks and minerals) and helping to develop ways to study microtextures more easily. The blogs summarising those papers will have a lot of pretty pictures.

The project I am currently working on is a bit of a new area for me. I will be finding out if we can use noble gases to make sure that geological storage sites for CO₂ are secure and don’t leak (and if they do leak, who should take responsibility for fixing the problem). CO₂ capture and storage (CCS) is a way that the world can quickly reduce CO₂ emissions and minimise anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, IF large-scale CCS projects start working soon. More on that later.

So, that is me, and a bit of info about what I am going to be “gassing” about.

The Noble Gasbag

Photo of me in the Soa Basin, Flores, Indonesia.
Photo by David McGahan

 

Welcome

Hello, and welcome to The Noble Gasbag.

This is a blog that is all about making science more accessible and understandable to non-experts.

Science is fascinating and the  results of scientific experiments are vital for making  all sorts of decisions, from whether a particular food is good for us, through to large scale issues, like how can we minimise human-induced climate change and keep life on Earth comfortable.

But, let’s face it. Scientific publications are generally not the most interesting things to read, especially to non-experts. There’s all sorts of boring , tedious, perhaps difficult to understand technical information and lots of assumptions about how much the reader knows about the subject. As a practicing scientific researcher, when reading scientific papers I regularly find myself yawning, not fully understanding parts and my mind wandering.

All this “boring” information is critical to the scientific process. It needs to be included in the paper because that is what allows other experts to use and test the results. Perhaps more importantly, it is essential for the peer review process. I will talk more about this in another blog post, but peer review is one of the things that make science credible and robust.

Peer review means that, if I am reading a paper where I am not an expert in the particular method being used, I don’t need to understand all the fine details and assumptions of the methodology. I don’t need to know how it works. I can just read the introduction of the paper, to understand why the work is relevant, and read the discussion and conclusions section to know what their experiments found out. I don’t necessarily need to understand how they reached those conclusions, because a peer review panel of experts has already examined the paper in detail and checked that it is scientifically robust, and if they have missed anything important, then other subject-specific experts who read the paper will comment on the problems. I, as a non-expert reader, am free to accept and trust the conclusions reached by the paper authors, and enjoy the extra knowledge that their work has given me.

One of the things I want to do with this blog is to provide easy-to-understand summaries of my own peer-reviewed articles. I don’t want you to have to wade through paragraphs of information about mass-spectrometer corrections factors to find out when a particular volcano erupted and why that is interesting.

However, to really understand the relevance of some of my papers, you do need a bit of background knowledge, so I also plan to write a few blog posts summarising some of this information in what I hope is an easy to understand way.

Finally, scientific knowledge is incredibly important for making political decisions that affect the entire world. There is a lot of public misunderstanding about some of this scientific knowledge, and indeed the scientific process itself. I will also be blogging about some of these issues to try and clarify information and also to highlight some of the important and difficult decisions that need to be made about the way we live.