Sunday, 15 April 2018

Week 80: (9th to 15th April 2017) or 'Spring in Vienna'

"Spring in Vienna. We could write an entire guide about how magnificent the season is but the chances are you already know. It's why you have chosen this particular time of year to visit, we would assume."

(Foreword to 'Vienna: In your Pocket', April 2018)

You can imagine the editors of In Your Pocket. You can imagine them ten storeys high into Austrian airspace, gently gnawing the end of an overworked red biro; their eyes slowly defecting from the screen, and becoming possessed by life in the streets below. You can imagine them gazing over the sunlit spires of baroque palaces, the ornate domes that crown antiquity, the year long blossom of opulence and the blue sash of the Danube that enwraps all of these architectural jewels. You can imagine their journalistic antennae for the 'here' and 'now' retracting, and their eyes becoming hypnotic with Vienna's ever-evolving narrative tapestry. Ancient crotchets and quavers float out the chimneys of grand music halls as some of Mozart's notes to the future are being read, and in a shadowed courtyard, four hoofs begin to clap their way out of parliament. A cart is chaperoned over the cobbles and, as if history has been liquidized in a food mixer, the city is soaked with the rich syrup of imperialism. That which was, and that which is in Vienna; to pluck one from the other would be to tear into the very fabric of this city. You can then imagine the editor looking back at his screen and realizing that to place Vienna in a pocket of a tourist would be like placing the Moon in the fruit bowl of an astrologist. As impossible as it is, the guide is written, it is published, and it now lies in the palms of my hands.

They assume incorrectly. I am visiting Vienna for quite different reasons. Before me awaits one of the largest geosciences conferences in the world: the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, affectionately referred to as the EGU. I begin to recall my memories of last year's EGU...

"...It is an overwhelming experience. If one is ever equipped with the desire to experience what a TARDIS is really like - bigger on the inside than the outside - come to the Austria Centre, Vienna in late April. You do not step foot into a building. You step foot into a world; a world where mysteries float on the backs of question marks, where the knowledge from distant places is unzipped and unpackaged, where the data from probes deep underground or far out into Space are decoded and disseminated..." (From an article written last April, accessed here).  

I recollected such overwhelming enormity and wondered whether, inoculated with experience, it would feel less titanic.


I arrived just as the dusters were sweeping their way over my apartment so I made passage to a small, cosmopolitan park close by. There under the surprising strength of the Springtime sunlight, I breakfasted on a bagel and the subtle flavours of life on the continent. The carpet of the park was a sheet of gravelly crumbs, with all colours bleached except from small pools of green moss outcropping at the toes of a parade of trees. A calm hum of weekend traffic passed almost unnoticeably by; the whirring of engines being drowned out by a generously sized fountain display. Occasionally a dry continental breeze would flutter through the fountain, as if to cool off from its journey across the cloudless Austrian sky, and would shake it off like a wet dog over nearby park goers.

I found it difficult, from this uncelebrated Viennese park, to convince myself I was in Vienna. All those acts and dramas of universal life were reciting their scripts. Neon signs stamped the brows of takeaway bars, owners clasped ropes as their dogs took them for the Sunday stroll, cyclists and joggers whisked by and skateboards surfed over the pavement. I watched as children ran towards the fountain supposedly to check water was still wet. Commuters stepped under the golden arches to enter one of Ronald McDonald's kitchens. I could have been anywhere. Perhaps, it was less of all this and more of the fact that I had conveyed myself from a small hotel room in Luton to a parkland in Vienna in one, frictionless move. Time passed, and my apartment became ready.


Most writers, on their travels across the globe, fulfil what is at most an ironically unwritten ritual: a description of their hotel rooms. A room which hasn't been sufficiently cleaned is more than sufficient for the writer who relishes the first twenty minutes of his or her stay, piecing together the story of the previous occupant. The contents of a wastepaper basket, the lost and forgotten items down the back of a sofa, the fragrance left resting on pillows and the last watched channel on the television is often enough to sketch out a vivid personality. But hotel rooms are seldom left with these artefacts. Instead, they are stripped back to their bland, untarnished, homogenous shells and nowadays, in multinational complexes, there is very little one can say about the designer let alone the previous guest.

The singular, rented apartment, however, can never become immune to study. The interior design, the selection of soft furnishings, the passive sprinkling of subtle decorative statements, can reveal a great deal about the mind of its owner. After half an hour of close inspection, I had made several notes about - well, let's call him - Dennis. First, the apartment is unapologetically minimalist. Dennis may well be entranced by the history of Vienna, but the apartment stands proudly modern. Rather than veiling it with an inorganic array of emblematic antiquities - there are no paintings nor ornaments depicting old Vienna, for example - an honest Dennis, who has risked making a room quite bland, presents an apartment that is, at least, true to itself. Dennis is an economics student (that much he told me in the lift) and I imagine he is a commendable one. The room is not only clean and neat, but is organised into zones; everything has its place, its own cupboard, its own drawer; nothing is 'left out' and there is an air of self-sufficiency. Next comes an interesting set of exhibits. On a shelf sits a range of magazines - academic journals - but Dennis did not buy them. (They are editions published in the late nineties and Dennis would have been too young). So why are they there? And why these particular issues? In both, there are articles on funding Science: could Dennis be specialising in the economics of research? Or does Dennis have a distanced interest with Science; after all, he has a number of Science Fantasy fiction tales on the shelf below. Either way, I believe Dennis cares for a good view when he's working on whatever he studies and he passes this luxury on to his guests by staging the desk to overlook the city. Equally, above the bed, hangs an impressive landscape canvas of some Venetian gondolas. A memory of a trip to Italy perhaps, since he also has a recently published novel set in Turin among his apartment affects.


The ribbon is silk and royal blue; the kind of garland you may expect to see flamboyantly decorating a gift. The two ends are married together on a small identity badge. On its own, it is arguably defunct. But when loosely hung around the neck, it has an altogether transformative property. You become a geoscientist. 

Often it is nearly impossible to identify a person's occupation when granted a three or four minute audience with them on public transport. Only those students of the human may be able to detect subtle signals in their subjects' posture, clothing or demeanour. A decorator may, for instance, have the stains of a hundred paint jobs archived on his trousers. A barista boy may carry the perfume of a dozen mochas. But the geoscientist is clothed under a veil of deception. There are no distinguishing features to filter them out from a crowd so that the person standing next to you on a crowded platform may be a world leading expert on tectonic plates or a hotel concierge. This is, until, they withdraw from their bag this blue ribbon - an identity lanyard - and then it's all too clear they are, indeed, an attendee at one of the world's largest geoscience conferences, the European Geosciences Union General Assembly. 

I wrote at some length last year about the size and diversity which dresses this conference and I feel there is no need to repeat myself  on these remarks. My comments last year stand true this year, and most likely for many years to come, because the EGU is almost essentially based on tradition. There are many divisions - the Soil System Sciences division amongst them - and within each division, there are a number of sessions. Academics present their work either orally, or through a poster, or if they are astute at the latest technology, through an EGU-patented PICO 'Presenting Interactive Content' display. You may recall that I did a PICO last year, demonstrating my Soil Productive Lifespan concept. 

This year, however, I secured a 12 minute oral presentation within a session thematically based on the solutions to overcome soil compaction. I decided, at long last some may say, to officially and formally present the work I did whilst at the Royal Holloway, University of London. The project I conducted was a study of root tapering; that is to say, the variation of diameter down a root and how this tapering affected certain soil properties. At the time I wrote quite extensively about the project in a series of dissertation diaries, which can be found here. However, for a more up-to-date analysis of the results, you may find the audio of my talk together with my slides, below.

Those who attend the EGU do so to invest time in acknowledging and learning from the work of others but there is also an air of self introspection about it. It is not difficult to sit down, after sauntering through the hallways of science, and think about your own work; the way you are conducting it, the data you are collecting, the conclusions you are making. Thinking is not writing; thinking is not presenting. Thinking is not earning. But thinking must be done.

Think about it. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Weeks 78: Scottish Separations

Once upon a time, our unshod feet were life-long allies of the ground. Back then, the Earth would confide all her textural secrets so that, throughout these epidermic conversations, the grass became thick, luscious hair, the mud became a velvetly brown soap and the peatland moss became a bathtub scrub. But now, in the evolution of our bipedalism, our feet are clad, cocooned all day inside leather caves. I wonder if there is a case to be made that Soil Scientists should, for a day or so, tread the earth with naked feet, allowing the silts and the sands and the clays to ooze through the ravines between their toes, to let the brown peaty water to eddy around the ankle like the ripples around an oar. Might this lead to a new, embodied relationship with the soil that our ancestors must have once enjoyed? 

I'm not sure, but until then, it's time to put our shoes back on. Another adventure awaits...


The soles of my shoes kiss farewell with a slab of English stone and then, with unrivaled loyality, join me in the carriage of my train. Nine carriages holding hands are heading for Glasgow. If I were to run a bead over a map of our Kingdom, it wouldn't be any smoother a journey. And it's Spring! The journey showcases a country in renewal. The Sun is climbing the sky, dispensing the frost from the breeze, and in it shines, through the windows of the carriage. Light that has travelled 149.6 million miles, completes its journey on my cheek. Outside, county after county, the calendar is being turned. We pass Lancashire farmsteads, where horses chew on fresh palettes of green. Channels and dykes, are slurping the rain from the land. We sail by solitary cottages, wearing roofs of moss and jackets of ivy, with daffoldils dancing at their ankles. And on and on we ride.

There is yeast in the moorland, here. Like a fresh loaf in the oven, the moors are rising, stretching, reaching out to the candy floss in the sky. The resilient snow caps each like a dusting of flour. With every mile, the trees are losing weight; dense Oaks become Pines, and the woodland floor is a sea of needles. We are edging closer; the notes of a pipe are surfing on the whiff of a broth.

My seat does not face Scotland. I am reversing out of England and up the drive to the city of Glasgow. I watch as the vacuum of the Present sucks farmyards, cottages, trees and streams out of the landscape and into the bag of the past. They disappear from gaze and space becomes dusty again: more farms, more cottages, more trees, more streams, all becoming simultaneously smaller, all falling off the horizon.

I reflect on my recent past; an undocumented past as far as this blog's concerned. Alas, it has become difficult in recent weeks, for one reason or another, to discharge a weekly dose of thoughts. I have been kept away from the pen, mostly, by my duties as the new ECR representative for the British Society of Soil Science. This, however, is not an undocumented undertaking and there is a standalone page dedicated to the work on this blog (click here). My other, and arguably more time-consuming work package, has been an unremitting stretch in the laboratory. The soil samples I collected last Summer have been dried, sieved, crushed, re-bagged, and processed through a melange of different techniques, each of which is intended to provide key information about the conditions of these soils at my study sites. Some samples have been 'ashed' (burnt) to reveal the stocks of Carbon. Some samples have been analysed for Nitrogen. Some samples have been prepared for soil texture analysis (a study into how large the grains are). Some samples are ready to have their acidity measured. These tests, as with so many aspects of a PhD, are ongoing. As such, they do not become smaller, and they do not disappear off the horizon.

The most loyal of this PhDiary's readership will note in acute detail that I have, so far, not discussed the bedrock samples. Since last Summer, these rocks that had once spent thousands of years under the soil, have spent a few thousand hours in a box, under a sink, in one of my lab's dusty alcoves. But I hadn't forgotten them. Instead, I was waiting, patiently, for Week 78 of my PhD - this week - when I would begin a six month process called Cosmogenic Radionuclide Analysis. This is the result of a grant I won from NERC, and you can read more details here:


A seat facing Scotland becomes free, and I take it. Facing forwards, objects on the horizon are now conveyed closer towards me; shadowy figures become trees, a speck of dirt on the window becomes a cottage. The trick is to seize these objects, for we know - as I have just been describing - how quick the Present is swept into the dustpan of the Past. What lies ahead on the horizon for me? Another EGU in Vienna, a trip to Wales, much more laboratory work, the World Congress in Rio... but first, Cosmogenic Radionuclide Analysis.

There is no easy way to explain Cosmogenic Radionuclide Analysis, and I will not even try to explain the entire Science behind it. The ultimate aim, however, is to calculate the concentration of Beryllium atoms in my bedrock samples. (Beryllium is an element, just as Iron, Oxygen and Magnesium are). This Beryllium concentration can then be used in a mathematical equation to work out the rates of Soil Formation. Only one laboratory in the UK is equipped with both the expertise and the equipment to measure Beryllium concentration, and this - as you may now guess- is in Scotland.

There is nothing trivial about Cosmogenic Radionuclide Analysis. After all, my analysis costs just under £19,000 and it took over a year to successfully bid for analytical support. On this basis, you may expect that such a laboratory is encased within a shell of at least some architectural repute. You may expect many floors of tirelessly working scientists, labouring their minds through challenging intellectual hoops and over perplexing scholarly hurdles. Imagining long hours, you may then expect such a building to be equipped with a series of leisure pods: restaurants, cafes, perhaps a gymnasium? You couldn't be further from the truth if you stood in Penzance. The building is a small, two-tiered complex, with auburn sheets of corrugated metal masking the interior walls. There is no cafe (a van arrives at about 11:30am every morning for those wishing to purchase a snack from the outside world) and inside the coffee room, a perculiar fusion between a doctor's waiting room and a school staffroom, there are no spoons. Instead, the throngs of world leading scientists that bustle in and out each morning to caffeinate their thoughts, must prepare their beverages with no other tool to hand but an over-worked knife. No more than 400m from the building's perimeter is a college where the nation's future hair stylists are perfecting their quiffs and curls and the next generation of daytime carers are practicing feeding baby dolls. No more than 400m away from a world renowned facility and yet, to the innocent visitor, one would be excused from mistaking the college for the facility. In fact, one would be excused from mistaking the facility for just about anything apart from what it actually is.

There is one other thing to mention, before I discuss the work I have been doing this week and that is the elemental Scottishness of the Cosmogenic Radionuclide Analysis facility. Och aye! Most academic institutions these days would, I'm sure, profess to be - and some may even go so far as to celebrate being - culturally diverse. You may, therefore, expect a similarly diverse environment at the Analysis facility. Bit och na, ye coudnae be further fae th' truth! Whin in bonnie scotland, think lik' a scot! It's true. On the final day, my advisor Alan and I were having a debriefing tea. Alan said he was off to an archery match that evening. (There were many Ochs and many Ayes). As I sat there, I saw not a scientist studying the target in a playing field, but an army on horseback clutching their longbows.


The Cosmogenic Radionuclide Analysis is a six month process. To measure Beryllium 10 concentration, pure quartz minerals are required, and most importantly, nothing else. This means that when a sample of bedrock arrives at the laboratory, the first (and arguably most significant) steps are to separate the quartz from all of the other minerals.

I shall now describe the process, as simple as I can:

1) Samples are ground and sieved into four 'fractions' (< 125 micrometers, 125-250 micrometers, 250-500 micrometers and >500 micrometers). A 'nest' or column of sieves, with these gradations, are placed on a sieving shaker machine.

2) The four fractions are placed into separate bags, and the sieves are thoroughly cleaned. I mention this as one of the pertinent pieces of equipment in each room is a hoover!

3) The 250-500 micrometer fraction is then subject to the following analysis. First, the sample is poured into a bottle and a mix of hydrochloric and nitric acids are added, which removes any metals and carbonates. These are shaken overnight.

4) The next morning, the samples are thoroughly rinsed to remove the acids and are then dried in an oven overnight.

5) Another morning comes around. The samples should now be dry and are ready for the next stage of analysis. We still have non-quartz material within the sample. Luckily, some of this is magnetic and the quartz, fundamentally, is non-magnetic. Therefore we can use a Magnetic Separation machine to segregate the non-magnetic quartz from those minerals which are magnetic.

6) We still have a few other minerals to contend with, though, even after magnetic separation. Two of these include feldspars and micas. We can isolate these from the quartz using a useful, but extremely hazardous technique, called Froth Flotation. The procedure is simple. Hydrofluoric acid is added to the sample for an hour; this changes the chemistry of the minerals. Interestingly, the feldspar and mica become hydrophobic (water-hating) and the quartz becomes hydrophillic (water-loving). After an hour, you add a carbonated (gassy) solution to the sample with three drops of eucalyptus oil. The eucalyptus oil holds the bubbles together and a head will form on the surface (like that on the top of a beer). The feldspar and mica - remembering these are hydrophobic - rise and float on the surface; the quartz on the other hand does not float and remains at the bottom of the bowl. The final step, therefore, is to pour off the frothy liquid, together with the feldspar and mica, and thereotically you are left with pure quartz in the bowl.


The destiny of my samples now lie in the hands of the Scots! They will undergo further processing over the next couple of months, before I return again for more chemistry.

And fare-thee-weel, my only luve!
And fare-thee-well, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho- twere ten thousand mile!

PEDcast- March 2018

BSSS National ECR Rep, Dan Evans, presents the third edition of a monthly PEDcast; a podcast for Soil Science across the UK and beyond. In this programme, IUSS President Rattan Lal broadcasts his monthly message, Professor Mark Reed from Fast Track Impact has another tip for achieving research impact and Kyle Collins, an ECR at the Florida Institute of Technology, talks about a project to cultivate soil on Mars. 

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

The Soil Lifespan

In this standalone video, produced by Brightmoon Media exclusively for the STARS CDT Programme, I explain the major themes that underpin my research into the Soil Lifespan.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

PEDcast- February 2018

BSSS National ECR Rep, Dan Evans, presents the second edition of a monthly PEDcast; a podcast for Soil Science across the UK and beyond. In this programme, he drops by a Spatial Datasets event in Newcastle, Nick Skinner from Poppyfish People Development talks about workplace relationships, PhD student Grant Campbell discusses his research and Dan speaks with Daniel Batcheldor, a professor at the Florida Institute of Technology, who is working with NASA to create soil on Mars. 

Monday, 26 February 2018

Weeks 60 to 74: Silence... and Science!

I feel I must confirm my continued existence for those who are concerned about a recent spell of silence. My Windows on the World series, released daily before Christmas now feels, and indeed was, many moons ago! However, in the interim time, I have been involved in a number of projects, including a trip to Tenerife, teaching duties and various jobs associated with my role as the National BSSS Student Rep. My monthly PEDcast - the Podcast for Pedologists - is an exciting new project that I launched at the end of January, and you can watch Programme 1 here.

However, I have also spent a lot of time in the laboratories here at Lancaster University, processing the many hundreds of samples I collected from various sites around the country last summer. Dan's PhDiary will be taking a look at some of these laboratory methods over the next few weeks.

Click on the links below to find out a little 

about my PhD Laboratory Work

Dan's PhDiary will be uploading more links to Laboratory Work over the next couple of weeks. Do check back later.