Monthly Archives: February 2011

A rock and a hard place

I am well into Book 2: Earth and Space now. Chapters 3 and 4 talked about earthquakes and volcanoes; I used to love physical geography at school, so I was gratified to find that I remembered much of these subjects.

Fabulously, we had to take a look at a seismology website: the British Geological Society, in order to take a look at seismic activity around the UK in the last 30 days. Which can be found here. FYI, the most recent earthquake was in the Norweigan Sea on February 26, occurred at a depth of 37.4km and measured magnitude 3.6 on the Richter scale. So, just a tiny one then.

This seemed quite topical, considering the disaster that has befallen Christchurch in New Zealand. It’s so unusual to see that kind of devastation in a modern, Western country – 200+ lives lost doesn’t sound like many when compared to Pakistan’s 2005 quake, which killed 54,000 people. That quake triggered landslides; and of course, people live in much poorer buildings in very close proximity.

That’s why the scale of destruction in New Zealand is so shocking. There is a modern city, built to withstand the earthquakes that happen there on a regular basis. So why was it so destructive? The people of Christchurch had only just recovered from September’s magnitude 7.2 quake – a monster, but one that killed nobody. There was damage, but not devastation. Last week’s earthquake was a mere 6.3.

Well, it happened at a much shallower depth. And it caused liquefaction of the land Christchurch stands upon. Basically, it turned the soil to soaking wet mud by releasing an awful lot of water from the soil and bedrock. Double whammy…

People of Christchurch, my thoughts are with you. I wish you the very best of luck with rebuilding your city – and some respite from Earth movements.

Rock samples

Chapter 5 began with a foray into the box of goodies sent by the Open University before Christmas. There are six rock samples in there: a (really rather good) quartz crystal, sandstone, limestone (containing crinoid fossils), schist (I love that word), basalt and granite.

I might have to do some hippy-trippy stuff with the crystal at some point. And there are garnet grains within the schist. Probably not enough to make a gemstone, but you never know…

So that was practical exercise number two. It was a little time-consuming, but pretty interesting. The course gets you to see things that you wouldn’t otherwise notice – and I had taken a close look at the rock samples before today.

I didn’t do the Acid Test, however; we have no vinegar. This is a shame, and is testament to the fact that we rarely eat chips. I now want chips. Bit of a fail all round, really.

The course is going really well. I’m a couple of days behind, but I think this is because I start my weeks on a Monday, and the course guidelines start it on a Saturday. Which is clearly wrong. So I’m on the right track, and enjoying it immensely!

The only slight niggle I have is that I haven’t received my results for TMA01 – the first tutor-marked assignment I completed. I handed it in a couple of days ahead of the deadline, and now I’m champing at the bit to find out how I did. I think I probably did quite well – but it’s entirely possible I misunderstood a question or three. Apart from the one that is worded by a monkey that speaks English as a second language…

Stand by. Results will be posted when I have them, along with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Or clinking of glasses.


Guest blog: my strange shopping trip

My strange lunchtime, by Joe, age 31 ¼

Skype bings; it’s my colleague. Let’s call him Tim. “What are you doing for lunch today?” he enquires.

This, believe it or not, is a tricky question. It’s loaded with all sorts of issues, like “Can I have a lift?” and the fact that our resident “special” programmer, let’s call him Theo, can’t drive at the moment due to a recently broken wrist.

The building we all work in has no provision for lunch, so you either bring your own or you go out and buy something. There is a slightly frightening herd behaviour in the company that exibits itself when no-one really cares what they have for lunch, so the first person who dares to express an opinion usually has a carful of people to accompany him.

I go out on a limb and say: “I need to do some shopping, so I’m going into Warwick town centre, where I’ll pick up a baked spud or something.”

Immediately, Tim pipes up with: “Great! I need to go to the bank, I’ll come with you!” He really does use that many exclaimation marks when he communicates. You can almost see them hovering in the air above his head, like a 1940s Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

Of course, there’s the issue that Theo can’t drive, so he’s got to come with us, or starve. And so that puts the three of us into Tim’s tiny wee Peugeot. Tim’s tiny car is needed because my car is full of about 20 thousand pounds’ worth of automation parts at the moment, in anticipation of an exciting week building electrical panels in the bowels of Birmingham next week.

We park, after an uneventful journey livened up with detailed explanations from Theo on absolutely everything he can see, think, smell or tangentially associate with at the moment.

We enter Sainsbury’s. I fear what is coming, for I have a list; and to accompany it I have an enthusiatic mocker, and a very special programmer who I suspect doesn’t get out in the real world that often.

“Tomatoes,” I say decisively, pointing halfway up the salad isle. After a brief inspection, Theo informs me that there are seven options for tomatoes, and that the best value per tomato is just here; pointing. He then goes on to assess the environmental aspect of the assocated tomato packaging, the relative hues and shapes of the assembled tomatoes, and then requests more information as to the intended purpose of my soon-to-be-owned tomatoes.

Tim sniggers, and starts questioning Theo as to the water content to taste ratio of the tomatoes, and asks me if I remembered to bring a flip-chart for Theo to continue his assessment. I’m already willing to gnaw my own hand off to prevent this scene from continuing, so I grab a pack of tomatoes and move on. Much to Theo’s chagrin, as the fruit that randomly ended up in the basket were neither the reddest, the cheapest, not the most
environmentally-soundly packaged.

Theo asks on what criteria I have selected these toms, and I pretend not to hear the question, choosing instead to head for the alcohol. Not just because it was on the list; I’m hopeful that somewhere in the aisles there will be an opened bottle of gin I can dive into.

As I glide deafly around the supermarket, I realise that Theo has read the list in my hand, and has grabbed a startled looking staff member to assist him in identifying where I might find the items I require.

This kind lady, Isobel, has very quickly realised that we are on some kind of outing, the purpose of which is to allow special people to gain some real world experience. She is talking very slowly and carefully, and she appears to be looking behind Theo, on the floor – presumably to see where he’s dropped his foam helmet.

I’m not honestly sure if I’ve been cast in the role of carer or inmate.

Tim has taken on the role of encouraging Theo every step of the way, thus: “What was next on the list, Theo?” and “Should we put the tomatoes at the bottom of the basket, or on top?” which Theo, oblivious to the mockery, answers earnestly and completely, while Isobel takes him by the arm, heading for the pine nuts.

“Here are the pine nuts, Theo,” she gently informs him, indicating the required shelf.

“PINE NUTS, JOE! ITEM SIX ON THE LIST!” he kindly shouts at me, as I take the packet.

This routine continues for the rest of the list, with Isobel earning a special gold star when I hear her listening carefully to Theo describing how much better his custard is (last item on the list) when compared to shop-bought custard. He goes on to describe the ingredients, the method of combining them, the fact that Mr Birdseye doesn’t actually make custard, he makes something that approximates custard, which he discovered while trying to help his wife with an egg intolerance. Mr Birdseye’s wife, that is. Not Theo’s. He’s single; I know that will come as a surprise.

It’s one of his favourite stories, and he tells it in great detail. Very great detail. All the way from aisle three (fruit juice) to aisle 11 (desserts).

Wearily, I pay for my goods, say “goodbye”to Isobel (who has escorted us all the way to the door) and leave, hoping to never return in this company.

Tim has had a fantastic time; asking for more detail, listening intently, taking on the role of enthusiastic carer. I fear I may have been percieved as the sullen one; not smiling, probably preparing to bang my head on the wall and start screaming. It’s not that far from the truth.

This is not an unusual lunchtime. Well, not for me.

Science is complicated.

It is, you know. Really, really complex – which may seem obvious, but it was when I was reading a Guardian article about global warming and the shrinking (or not) of the Greenland ice sheet that it struck me: there are so many interlinking processes and systems involved in climate change that it is impossible for the popular media to explain it properly in the space available, to the lay person.

That is not to say that people are too stupid to understand it; far from it. Just that it is not something that can be explained in a page; or even two pages. It is one of those subjects that, when written about in the daily press, should encourage people – not just suggest to them – to go forth and find out more. There is tons of information out there; you don’t have to be doing an Open University degree, or even buying loads of books. There is New Scientist magazine, Nature magazine, their websites, countless phenomenal bloggers (some of whom are over on the right) all scrambling to educate and inform people.

This issue isn’t about convincing everybody that the world is going to end, it’s about educating the masses on the amazing planet we all share. And how we should really be looking after it a bit better.

Climate change is a fact. It’s not something that can be denied. The climate is in constant flux, and has been since the dawn of time. We are, at present, reaching the end (if previous Earthly form is anything to go by) of an interglacial period. Yes: we are in an ice age.

This interglacial period, which is pretty pleasant, has been pottering along for around 10,000 years. Modern humans  have been around for much longer than that. (I’m not talking mp3 players and Pop Tarts here, either.) So it seems reasonable, with all we know and have achieved, that when the ice returns the human race will survive (for good or bad…) and there will be Interesting Times.

What I’m interested in is how much of the climate change that is going on at the moment is anthropogenic. I suspect that we are speeding things up a little… Here is where we look at rates of temperature increase.

Looking at ice cores, we know that the Earth’s mean temperature rose about 10°C during the past 20,000 years, and it happened over the space of about 10,000 years within that time. The rate of increase of the Earth’s mean temperature was about 0.1°C per century.

We also know that between 1850 and 2004, the Earth’s mean temperature rose by about 0.8°C. This means that over the last couple of hundred years, the rate of increase is around 0.5°C per century.

So, it appears that this recent global warming is unusual when the bigger picture is examined. But we don’t really know, yet, why this should be so. And this is were it becomes so very complicated! So far, in Book One of S104, Exploring Science, I have studied:

  • The Earth’s surface temperature: how it’s measured; uncertainties; GMST (global mean surface temperature); GMST in the recent past; GMST in the distant past (and how we find out); ice ages
  • What determines the Earth’s GMST? energy and power; a balance of energy gains and losses; modelling the behaviour of the GMST; rate of energy gain from solar radiation; solar radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere and at its surface; rate of energy loss from the Earth’s surface; atmospheric infrared radiation absorbed by the Earth’s surface; the greenhouse effect
  • The Earth’s atmosphere: its structure and composition; greenhouse gases; processes of recycling
  • The water cycle: reservoirs and transfers between reservoirs; the stability of the water cycle; feedback effects
  • The carbon cycle: carbon reservoirs and transfers between reservoirs; biogeochemical cycles; the biological carbon cycle; the geochemical carbon cycle; human impacts on cycles in balance

This is a HUGE amount of information – and it’s only an overview of the processes affecting climate change! How on Earth a summary of all this can be presented to people in such a way that they understand how it works is beyond me. It’s beyond the scope of most of the daily press – they simply don’t have the room.

Part of my mission is to talk to people I know about all this. In person, and through this blog – not to preach about saving the planet, but to encourage people to open their eyes and their minds and learn about our home. Do you have an opinion? Good! What is it based upon? If it’s just based upon what you read in the Daily Mail, or the Guardian, GO AND FIND OUT MORE!

Don’t just read one side of an argument – take a look at the bigger picture, and then begin to make up your mind. Science is fantastic. It’s awesome. It is too easy, in this age of instant news, to simply be told what to think, especially when people are so busy. But a little bit of time spent reading – or watching – about a subject is enriching; being informed is being powerful.

Go forth and educate yourselves. Please!

Quiet reflection and a certain amount of pride

I have almost finished Chapter Six of Book One: The Water Cycle. Again, it is information I’m revisiting from school, but it is a welcome reminder – both of the facts, and the singular re-realisation that our planet is just incredible.

The carbon cycle comes next, and progress is good. Then I have to take a test. Two, in fact! A computer-marked assessment (which I inadvertently started the other day – I hope it hasn’t buggered up my chances of submitting it properly!) and a tutor-marked assignment, that I hope I can put into the correct format.

I’m still having trouble remembering the scientific conventions, and maths is frightening me slightly, but I’m getting there.

Quiet reflection

One of the recent activities – activity 4.3 – asked us to review our progress so far, referring back to the study plan we made at the beginning. I’m quite pleased with my progress; I’m slightly ahead of schedule and not spinning around in panic. This is Good.

The course also wants us to read “actively”. I do this anyway, or I find I retain nothing. Making notes of what I think are the salient points as I go along is my technique. Read a paragraph; summarise the main points. Draw a diagram here and there to illustrate my words.

Time management, I am beginning to find, is going to be crucial to success during this degree. At the moment, my week looks like this – and it’s going pretty well:

  • Monday – an hour’s study after work (usually 6.30 – 7.30)
  • Tuesday – an hour at lunchtime, and an hour after work
  • Wednesday – an hour after work
  • Thursday – an hour at lunchtime (yoga in the evening, d’you see?)
  • Friday – two hours after work
  • Saturday – 2-3 hours in the morning, 2-3 hours in the afternoon
  • Sunday – 2-3 hours in the morning, 2-3 hours in the afternoon

It really helps that I’m enjoying it! I do worry slightly about the weekends I’m away – like this coming weekend, for example. We’re at a birthday party, which is likely to get raucous, on Friday night, then I’m at a hen party on the Saturday and in the evening. So Sunday is (hungover) study day. But I’m far enough ahead, I hope.

Active reading isn’t just note making though – I tend to discuss what I’ve learned with Joe. He asks me questions, sometimes to clarify what I’ve said, and sometimes picking random (and obscure) facts from the book to test me on.

I think the book could do with more questions and mini-tests – I find them very useful, to check that I’ve really understood what they’re trying to teach us. The activities have been excellent – not too taxing, and perfectly designed to make us constantly review and revisit what we’re learning.

All in all: not too shabby.

I’m looking forward to Thursday night. It’s our first tutorial. Bring on the OU student fellowship!

/Coming soon: a guest blog about a Very Strange Lunchtime.

Solar radiation

The Earth intercepts an average of 1370Wm-2 of solar radiation. That’s quite a lot… I’m surprised everyone doesn’t get more sunburnt.

I’m well into Chapter Four now, and we’re talking about energy exchange with regards to GMST (Global Mean Surface Temperature). Why does the GMST change? Well, it stays in a steady state when the energy gain equals the energy loss. When the energy gain increases, the GMST increases, and the energy loss begins to increase until a new, higher, GMST is reached.

And then the same happens when energy loss outdoes energy gain. A new lower GMST is reached.

You see, I think this is a fairly simple concept, but a lot of words are being used to explain it. The book uses an analogy – that of a leaky tank. Water is poured in at a constant rate, and leaks out. Eventually, the rate at which it leaks is equal to the rate at which it pours in. So the steady state is reached. Turn the tap on harder, and the level increases – and so does the leak rate – until they reach a state of equilibrium again.

Are you still awake?

We are on to solar radiation now, though, and it’s all a little more interesting. I understand that they have to explain absolutely everything very clearly and precisely, but it does make it rather long-winded… I can’t fault the clarity of presentation though.

I really am impressed with the course so far; I am looking forward to more challenging subject matter though. And I’m still formulating my opinions on global warming itself…

OH! And – I’m terribly excited, because I have just booked tickets for Himself and myself to go and see Professor Brian Cox and Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Robin Ince at their show: Uncaged Monkeys in Birmingham in May!

/This post was powered by Crabbies and chocolate coins.

I need a ruler.

A device for measuring lines etc. Preferably a see-through one, but at this point I’ll take anything.

I have completed the first three tasks of Book One, and I’m most of the way through Chapter Three. I need to speed up a bit, but time is fleeting, my friends. Anyway – we’re looking at past GMSTs (Global Mean Surface Temperatures). Ice cores, lake cores, and such like. And plotting temperatures on graphs, and reading graphs. For which a ruler would come in useful…

I’ve been a bit disorganised the last couple of days; I left my folder and books at work yesterday, so couldn’t do any studying last night. I did, however, tidy my study. Tidy study = err.. tidy study. So that was a win.

Tonight I’ve added my first week’s precipitation gauge results to the communal wiki table on the OU module website – I was the third person to do so *proud* and so far, conducted the experiment earliest. Early bird.

I also completed activity 3.1, which was gathering data from a table online, and plotting it on a graph. I then had to decide whether or not the overall trend for increasing GMST was, in fact, continuing through to 2010 and beyond. There’s not enough data yet. The random variations were similar to the past few years, and it’s holding steady for now. Apparently it’s expected to increase though.

I’m going to do a bit of reading about global warming, and wait until we’re a little further on in the book; then I’m planning a bit of a discussion with myself as to what I think. At the moment I think global warming is happening; but why? Probably a bit of natural warming, and a bit of us.

I want to save the planet though, and chucking less carbon into the air is definitely a good place to start.

I’m feeling like I’m still waiting for the course to properly get going, to be honest. But I am enjoying it so far. And I’m looking forward to meeting my tutor and some more of the students on February 10th at a tutorial in Coventry. Coventry! Oh, the horrors…