Understandable Earth Science

Archive for the ‘Other stuff’ Category

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



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.