Category Archives: Other

New Job!

This has been keeping me very busy since I found out I’d got the job last October, hence the lack of activity here…


Hello from sea!

Some of you will have noticed from my moblog and lab notebook that I’ve been at sea for the past few days. I’m sailing on the CEFAS Endeavour, currently around the Eastern North Sea but from tomorrow through the English Channel and out to the Western Approaches (the bit of shelf sea west and southwest of Cornwall. We were supposed to sail on Saturday morning but a strong cross wind prevented the Endeavour, who is quite a big ship (~85m long and 15m wide at a guess) getting through the narrow swing bridge at the mouth of Lowestoft Harbour. Eventually we got away on Monday morning. Since then it has been completely full on! I’m on board doing my own science, which hopefully I’ll get a chance to write about some time before the end of the cruise – it’s panning out quite well at the moment – but also helping with the general scientific duties – mainly centred around taking regular water samples from the ship’s underway supply (a pumped inlet in the hull of the ship which is supplied to the on board labs) and bottle (CTD – will explain later) casts for key ocean parameters which are measured routinely or are of particular interest to scientists on this cruise. The ‘core’ ones, which oceanographers have been measuring for hundreds of years are temperature and salinity, which tell us about ocean circulation and water mass patterns (and here in the coastal North Sea about where river plumes are spreading and mixing through the sea). Also chlorophyll (sampled on filters, extracted with acetone and analysed by measuring its fluorescence), which tells us about the algal productivity; and a core measurement in the Shelf Seas particularly – suspended load, which is about amount of particulate matter- particularly and and silt which is transported from the rivers running into the North Sea. We’re also sampling for dissolved inorganic carbon and alkalinity, which is part of the NERC Ocean Acidification Program, which CEFAS are involved in along with Andy Watson’s group at UEA.

The cruise is run by CEFAS (Centre for Environment, FIsheries and Aquaculture Science, in Lowestoft) and has various purposes. CEFAS maintain a fantastic array or moored instruments around English waters, including the SMARTBuoy nutrient monitoring network, the data and samples from which I’m working with in collaboration with Dave and Naomi who run the project; and the ‘waverider’ wave obervation buoys. These get pretty clagged up pretty quickly in the North sea so every month or so they are recovered and clean serviced ones are redeployed. That isn’t always done from a big ship like the Endeavour, but we can get through quite a few of them relatively efficiently.

SMARTBuoys waiting to be deployed

There have also been lander recoveries and deployments today – these are rigs which sit on the sea bottom making measurements (in this case current measurements) and when commanded to, some months later, float back to the surface for recovery. Or at least that’s the the theory. One didn’t come back today so we had to trawl for it with wires off the back of the ship. That didn’t work either. Such is life when you leave things at the bottom of the North Sea for two months! Also, there are a couple of guys on board who are using the brand new manta net to scour the sea surface for particles of microplastics and other man made saolid contaminants. They’re making some of the first such measurements in the world as I understand. Thomas, the guy in charge of this, told me some pretty scary stuff about plastic particulate pollution – I’d heard about it before before, but not the potential magnitude of it or the indirect dangers. But that’s not my story to tell…

What about me? I’m measuring various nitrogen species (ammonium, nitrate, nitrite, organic nitrogen) from various types of samples and doing various experiments, which I’ll try to find time to talk a little about tomorrow. Other than a few hours sleep, mealtimes and half an hour a day to find a quiet spot and have a strum on the banjo I’ve been working full tilt all the time until now. Just having a bit of quiet time after dinner this evening before being back on shift at 8pm.

btw, CTD casts are a set of instruments winched down to near the sea floor (and back up again), collecting data all the way, to create a profile of physical and biological/ biogeochemical properties. The sampling bottles are actually open tubes with covers which snap sut at either end to capture water when instructed to from the scientist in control on the surface. They are 10L in volume and you can fit 20 of them on the big size of CTD frame like the one in the picture below, but as we’re only sampling top and bottom mostly, we only have 6 (2 + 1 backup for each depth).

My letter to some Conservative peers regarding the sell-off of public woodland in England

Sent to Lord Marland, Lord Hanningfield, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Lord Eden of Winton, and Lord Henley (all conservative peers) using Feel free to use it as the basis of letters to other members of the House of Lords, or write to your MP! I’ll let you know if any of them reply.

Here are some links if you don’t know what all this is about:

Dear Lord XXXX

I write on behalf of myself and my wife to express our extreme concern at the government’s plan to sell off large tracts of publicly owned forest and woodland in England within the public bodies reform bill which is currently passing through the House of Lords.

We are dismayed at the betrayal of our national heritage that these proposals represent, for a trifling amount of money relative to our national debt (less than a days interest payments I believe). The sale risks the loss of ancient woodland, a rare and desperately important natural habitat for many endangered species. Although the environment minister has pledged that biodiversity would be protected, it must be the case that the preservation of these habitats must be less secure outside of public ownership (what plans are there for policing the protection of valuable woodlands when sold off?). Although protected in law, what is to stop a developer logging an ancient woodland, selling off the lumber, paying the necessary fine for breaking the law, and then building their hotel / golf course / shopping centre? Such disgraceful behaviour already occurs to listed buildings, so I find it hard to believe that the same unscrupulous businessmen won’t do the same to our woodlands.

A second serious concern is that of access. Forest / woodland in public ownership provides free access to the countryside for recreation to millions of people every year. Whilst some (but not all) access will be protected under the Countryside Rights of Way act, CRoW will not protect nature trails, maintained paths, car parks etc, and furthermore only covers access on foot, and much of the public recreation in forests is on horseback or bicycle. To loose these rights of access will deprive the people of this country now, and forever, full access to huge wooded areas of their country. To my mind this is absolutely unthinkable.

Finally, it is inevitable that the sell-off of the forestry commission will cost hundreds of jobs and is likely to loose much of the valuable skills and expertise these people have to the UK forestry sector.

I urge you to speak against these proposals at the third reading of the bill in the House of Lords and to share your concerns about this bill with other members of the House face-to-face. Furthermore, I would request that you engage with experts in the Woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts to learn their concerns for the biodiversity of our ancient woodlands (which have been likened to rainforests in their diversity and fragility).

Yours Sincerely…

Snow and ice and the interface between science and common sense

Its a snowy morning in Norwich after an icy weekend and things are pretty quiet here at UEA. Also I have a massive amount of work to do on a research proposal, which is providing me with some strong procrastinatory motivation so this seems like perfect opportunity to launch myself into the blogosphere by recounting an astounding experience I had this weekend, and what I think it tells us about how science teaching, at least in the past, has failed the general public.

I was giving a good friend a lift on Saturday evening and we were going carefully down a quite slippery road covered in ice and snow. It was a quiet side-road on a shallow slope (that’s shallow by Norfolk standards; you’d barely notice the incline if you cycled up it). The slipperiness wasn’t really causing me any worry, or anybody anybody else any trouble. Except for one. A car, apparently stationary, was facing in the opposite direction to us (up the hill). As we got closer it became clear that while the car was stationary the engine and wheels were far from it. In fact they were spinning so fast (and had presumably been doing so for some time) that there was a strong smell of burning rubber!

The trick to driving in slippery conditions is to keep the power to wheels low. If the force that the tyre is applying to the surface is too great for the traction available (which depends on the coefficient of friction i.e. the slipperiness of the surface)  then the wheels will spin. When your wheels are spinning then traction is close to zero and furthermore, you’ll polish the ice under your wheels so the coefficient of friction decreases further. Now we could go into the science of this in a lot more detail, but I’d guess that pretty much everybody would have an intuitive (or ‘common sense’) understanding of this based on their personal experiences of slippery surfaces (whether in a car on on foot). Or at least I would have until Saturday evening…

As I was gingerly approaching the slipping car the driver opened their door into my path. Fortunately I was only doing about 3 mph so I managed to avoid crashing into the car door and crushing the driver’s legs in the process. It was a lady who was obviously quite distressed about being stuck (particularly, maybe, because she was seemingly the only person having trouble) and she had a young boy of maybe 7 or 8 in the back, so I stopped and offered help. Firstly I suggested that she rolled back off her little areas of super-polished ice and tried to get going where there was a bit more grip. I told her to take it really easy, not to put her foot down, to keep the engine turning over at a reasonable speed to avoid stalling and to let the clutch slip so as not to apply too much power to the road and to try to get moving. She appeared to take all this in and rolled backwards.

Then she floored it! Pedal straight down to the metal, wheels spinning, engine sounding like it was about to explode. I told her again that she needed to go really easy and be gentle with the accelerator, that spinning the wheels really wasn’t helping and that maybe she should try starting off in second gear  and she nodded and said “right, OK”,  looking like she’d understood and then floored it again. At this point I was beginning to think stopping to help was a really stupid thing to have done (I was against the clock because I was going out to see Hexstatic at Norwich Arts Centre later that evening and had lots to do beforehand).

By this time there were a few cars behind me so I suggested she put her footmats in front of her wheels to get a bit of extra traction (a really handy trick if you ever do genuinely get stuck) and drove on to get my car out of the way. When I got back to her car, her son was pointing out that it was the front wheels that were spinning. The reason he was saying this was that she’d put the mats under the back wheels of her front wheel drive car! Trying not to look completely exasperated I suggested that the front wheels might be the place to put the mats and moved them there for her. I told her to drive forward normally and if she got moving to park up on the curb where there was thicker snow and more grip so I could give her her mats back and she could then get going again. She got moving perfectly normally, and parked up on the kerb where the hill had flattened out. I delivered her car mats and she was really grateful for my help. I told her to remember to keep the revs down and just go slowly, she agreed, and I felt like I’d done my good deed for the day. I started walking back to my car. I’d got about 10 metres when I heard her engine start screaming and wheels slipping, she’d just floored it again…

A better person would have gone back and run through everything again with her, but I just kept walking. Had I gone back I would have been in danger of getting cross. Which would have been unfair, as the poor lady was clearly at her wits end with no reserves of ideas or approaches to solving her problem left. Now you might argue that this was due to ‘stupidity’ or reacting irrationally in a stressful situation, or just simply being bad at driving, but I’d suggest that all of these things boil down to what I would hold to be the root cause of her problems – a complete lack of ability to synthesize the information she was receiving (from her attempts to get her car to move) with her general life experience of walking on slippery surfaces, or driving in other conditions i.e. to apply what we might call common sense to understand and adapt to her surroundings based on her experience and change what she was doing to make things work better.

Now that’s not about knowing terms like ‘coefficient of friction’ or knowing the mathematical relationships that science has used to formalize the definitions of torque (turning force), friction, and the relationships between them, it’s about having the skills to think e.g. “this isn’t working. I can imagine walking on a slippery surface, and slow movements seem to have better grip than rapid ones, maybe I should apply that experience to my current situation”. As I see it,  common sense on practical matters is basically a scientific  approach where planned and structured experiment is replaced by random experience and happenstance over a lifetime and results are synthesized into general rules of life and specific approaches to specific problems, rather than a series of formalized equations and variables.

It seems to me that our education system fails many people these days in terms of providing them with the skills to look analytically at problems and solve them using common sense. It certainly failed the lady in the car. I’m not directly involved in schools so I don’t know how things are these days. I’d like to think they’re getting better and I’d love to hear from people with direct experience. My only experience is that of the new undergraduate students fresh from school who seem for the most part largely unable to think for themselves at all, or take any initiative when it comes to learning. Maybe that’s just a feature of being an 18-20 year old. I don’t know about their driving skills.

But if our education system can’t provide people with the analytical skills they need to be able to overcome a minor lack of friction driving up a snowy road, how can we expect the general public to evaluate competing arguments on such apparently controversial subjects as climate change or homeopathy or other medical quack cures. If the default position of the media and the public is to distrust experts,  and journalists for the most part aren’t prepared to take sides, even when there’s a clear right and wrong (maybe because they don’t have the necessary understanding themselves), then we must arm the general public with the ability to understand and evaluate, not quantitatively (although that would be nice) but at least qualitatively, otherwise our society is in real danger of collapsing under the weight of ill informed belief and decisions making at all levels of society.

The lady with the friction problem was supposed to be delivering a take-away pizza, which I presume was completely cold by the time it arrived, if it ever did. I improved my intuitive knowlegde of the coefficient of friction of rubber on ice and snow by cycling pell-mell into town to the awesome Hexstatic gig, fortunately without serious injury. Thank science for that!