28 February 2011

Growing up fast

I dress in rags and if I invite more than 3 people over for dinner I have to ask them to bring dishware. In other words, I live the life of a student. Largely. But a student’s life doesn’t last forever.

We had an Israeli lady on sabbatical here in Plymouth, and she informed me of the stereotype of the Jewish mother. These seem to be very nosy, caring and protective. And she showed that largely by example... I had to sometimes text her to say I had come out of a mine unharmed... and she cooked for me on several occasions. Always excellent food, and always too much.

Her time was almost up. She was packing to leave for the Netherlands, where she would spend the second half of her sabbatical. And she decided to give her English dishware to me. So now I have a coordinated set of dishes for four, which means I can cook for 8 people without running out of plates! Where I would seat them and where they would leave their plates is another matter, but I feel very adult now, with my well-filled cupboard.

And I dress in rags. I had been trying to convince myself to go shopping for clothes for many months, but I never had the discipline. Until last Saturday! I calmly drank Dorit, my adoptive Jewish mother, goodbye on the Friday, and then was up early on a Saturday. Early enough to be ahead of the crowds! So I ventured into the ominous Drake Circus shopping mall, and came out with several items of clothing! I’m proud of myself. And now I’ve thrown away a favourite skirt that really had been worn to the end.

 New clothes!

Arty-farty picture of how battered the cloth of a garment is by the time I am ready to throw it away

Maybe even I am in the process of growing up. Who knows!

24 February 2011

Total deprivation

It seems to be all around me! But eternally optimistic as I am I see a fairly nice and pleasant environment. Some room for improvement, I admit, but hey, where wouldn't you have that.

There was some stir concerning the government releasing information on what crime was committed where, so you would have an idea of what to expect in all sorts of areas, such as the one you live in. I don't think I found it. But I found something else: the total deprivation meter! Have a look. This looks bad!

Oh well. As long as I am happy with it it's OK. But it does explain the look of disgust on the face of one of my colleagues when I told him where I lived. And that when I said "come on, it could be worse!" he really had to think long and hard before he could agree with me...

21 February 2011

Paradise revisited

Does it all come down to
the thing one girl fears
in the night
is another girl's paradise?

Tori Amos might not have had mine exploration in mind when she wrote that. But it may well apply! There must be girls who would not see where we ventured last Sunday as paradise. But for me it's quite close. The Cornish mine explorers introduced themselves with a proper blast, taking me on a ten hour stroll through this mine of epic beauty and extent. And now, 9 months later, they would take me back there. I was thrilled.

The entrance, and thus also the exit, was a 140 ft shaft, and some of us weren't looking forward to having to climb that. These people were catered for by a winch the Cornish had brought. This lead to me having an opportunity for enjoying some Sunday laziness while the men got that thing into position. And then we went down! Descending the rope I switched my light on. I thought. Nothing. I wouldn’t be going into a mine with the most impressively huge stopes with only my spare light, would I? I wondered if I had somehow drained the batteries unnoticed, but switching these did not help. It just wouldn’t work! Said my X-chromosomes. Luckily there were some Y-chromosomes around too, that faffed and fondled a bit, and tadaa! The light worked again. And it would continue doing that all the way.

We first went to a massive stope with the teetering tram rails balancing on decaying wood structures where we had been the previous time as well, and then we went in another direction. This mine is just amazingly beautiful wherever you go. And this time we did a smaller round, so there was plenty of time for photography. All worked together painting by light. If you have enough headlights and enough time you can light up a stope of any size! And of course there were smaller features to admire and document as well.

Strangely early the men decided to go back up (I was too busy taking pictures of oozing stuff to engage in the deciding process). First Lionel and Daz, being bold, fit and technical, would go up, and they would then work the winch to get the lesser gods up. They would need some time to get that done, so the others made a small extra round. More pretties to behold!

When the surface men were supposed to be done, two eager spirits hung themselves in the rope (the winch could pull two men at the same time), and awaited the moment they would be brought up effortlessly. And then we heard “we’ve broken it; you’ll all have to climb!” I thought that was very funny. Not everybody agreed.

We all came up without issues. Winches are for weaklings! And we evidently have none. And with that knowledge we de-rigged, changed, and buggered off, all looking forward to seeing the fruits of our photographic efforts. And you, my reader, can enjoy these already!

The first thing you see when coming in. Do notice the stope with the ladders.

The mine had evidently dried up and then gotten inundated again. Desiccation cracks underwater!

One of the treats of this mine: dodgy chemistry, leading to blood red water...

This feature might impress all, but probably has special appeal to geologists: the hanging wall, which resembles a ship's hull, is a sill, probably a gabbro specimen. And all adjacent rock has been mined away, so here you can actually see a sill in its natural habitat!

 That same sill, now from the side

 And now with people for scale

A forest of timbers

A fairytale tunnel almost choked with dripstone formations

This looks surreal... there was a waterfall that had created amazing flowstone formations. They extended forever. Do notice the dark stalagmite on the left, the broken ladder top left, and Mike's boots top right.

The water evidently contained all sorts of stuff, and precipitated amazing and colourful stone coatings on whatever it came across.

Simon (left) and Mike are ready to be hauled up, and Mark keeps radiocontact with the surface crew. He's about to hear there will be no hauling up... 

So we climb! The arm belongs to Simon who keeps some of my kit out of the way so I can take a pic of Mike, whose kit is not optimally configured, so he is struggling. But in a photogenic way!

Coming up over the edge of a shaft can be a challenge. But cavers look after each other!

18 February 2011

Sports fanatic II

The big unanswered question is: can you have too many sweaty men? I spoke of my sore and swollen ankles after a run with both Pete, my normal running mate, and Will the Tornado who joined once. I thought perhaps my physique wasn't made for running, and I told Will that. He wasn't having any of it! He practically kicked me to the sports injury specialist of the campus sports centre. I could make an appointment for the next Wednesday. They book only whole hours for first consults; that seemed a bit over the top for me. Ten minutes would surely do?

That Tuesday I made sure I ran again; I wanted to have some symptoms to show. And it worked! I showed up with a swollen right ankle. The physio subjected me to a proper interrogation, made me walk up and down and do all sorts of things, and then started to poke around in my ankle. All very thorough! That hour was not a joke...

Her diagnosis was as follows: one has a small muscle on the inside of the lower leg, which keeps the foot upright, called the tibialis posterior. Mine wasn't particularly strong, and it had been a bit battered by my running exploits. Hence the swelling. She said it was quite possible this muscle had always been a bit dodgy; hence the spraining my ankle a lot as a kid, and the eternal foot problems. And then walking around on orthopaedic soles, which take over its function, will only make the muscle weaker. Time to kick it into shape!

She gave me a bunch of exercises to do, and advised me not to run for about two weeks. But with these exercises I should get that muscle back in shape, and she figured I could run the half marathon without issues.

Me obsequiously doing one of the exercises

I conscientiously set out doing these exercises, which made me feel even more a sports fanatic than just the running and the pull-ups. And lo and behold; next time I ran my ankle stayed ankle-shaped! And the time after that! I might be old and grey, but perhaps, with my all renewed and improved tibialis posterior I might be in better shape than ever before... and thus able to face as many sweaty men as may show up!

17 February 2011

Dig your way out

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Five were expected to meet up at Ludcott Mine. Four showed up. One had just fallen out of a tree, and thought that dangling from ropes and wielding spades would perhaps not be such a good idea. Another had confidence issues and wished not to hurl himself into a hole that’s a bit awkward to rig. So two brave explorers ventured underground…

The idea was to see if we could find a horizontal exit. And we would explore past a gaping hole we had not previously been able to negotiate. We started with looking for the exit; there was a level ending in a collapse, and we figured just behind it might be the woods. So armed with a tape measure we made a simple map of the mine, sent it up the rope to the surface dwellers who would try to look for the place where that collapse would come out at the surface, and started digging…

Hours later we had managed to remove lots and lots of rubble, but still had seen no sign of the surface. Time to go back to the shaft, report back to the surface men (who hadn’t found the site), retrieve the ladder they’d let down, cross the gaping hole, encounter the dead end only a few tens of meters behind it, and get back to our dig. We then displaced even more rubble, and made our very own cloud of fog; it’s a confined, unventilated space, and two hard-working people breathe and sweat it hazy in no time. I did realize that this was a bit of an unconventional way of spending a Sunday, but I enjoyed myself.

The other side of the gaping hole. Now we know what's there!

The day was progressing, and at some point we called it a day. We kitted back up and climbed out. No luck! But a day well spent. All together we probably found the place where our level came out at the hillside, but who knows how much rubble there still was between where we had been toiling, and the fresh air. We might go back there one day; give it another try.

Lionel (who else had this been?) and I were hungry by now. Finbar had to get back to his horses, but Rick was so kind as to accompany us to a nearby pub that would still serve food at this hour. The food never had a chance! By the time we left the pub the sky was already pink. And next weekend it should get even wilder! Much wilder…

12 February 2011

Dark responsibility

Humans are heavier than you’d sometimes think. Normally that doesn’t matter too much, as people tend to be so polite as to move their own body weight around if physical displacement is required, but there are exceptions. And if you don’t want to be faced with these it’s advisable not to join Cave Rescue. Which, by the way, is part of Mountain Rescue. Carrying a fellow cave rescuer on a stretcher out of a mine adit-infested bit of woodland gave me a taste of how many able bodies you need for transporting one disabled specimen. More than I’d have thought!

However, we are supposed to do more trying things, of course. By the time we have gotten a victim to the surface, it’s thinkable we can transfer them to a stretcher on wheels, and deliver them into the hands of professionals. We are first and foremost the ones to take care of them befóre we’ve achieved that feat. And thus I found myself underground on my free Wednesday evening, profusely sweating over a willing volunteer on a stretcher we tried to get out of Baker’s pit.

The "victim" is carefully placed on the stretcher

It’s not really easy to lift a stretcher with a full-grown male through a slippery maze that often is so tight even one single able-bodied person has to crawl, but we managed. A very good exercise! And I hope we never need these skills, but we’d better have them anyway.

I recently found out as well I have ended up on the “first call” list. If someone in Devon or Cornwall gets him- or herself into trouble underground I’ll be phoned. I can feel the responsibility on my shoulders! I’m eager to improve my first aid skills, and I figured that for the very small chance someone’s life comes to depends on me I’d better make sure I actually notice when I get a text message, so I adjusted the message tone of my phone to "very annoying".

It’s all very “good citizenship” and “big society” and the works, but Richard our lab technician provided the reality check. He said “if you then get back to the Netherlands, you can say you can do mountain rescue and cave rescue! And then they’ll ask “what is a mountain? What is a cave?””

Climate sceptics

Nobody listens to scientists. What do people listen to? TV! So what should science do to be heard? Use TV! I did too. My blog had remarkably many hits when I blogged about “Science under attack”. And only a few days later there was more climate science on the BBC: a programme about climate sceptics. I was taking notes on my NetBook while watching the programme... and it took a while to compose an actual blog post, but maybe there’s still some far-field effect of that broadcast lingering in the air.

The programme focussed on one specific sceptic, who probably is most known to the British audience: Lord Christopher Monckton. He was followed by the maker of the programme. This maker did not know who to believe, and decided to make this programme to find out if this sceptic could convince him that anthropogenic climate change is indeed a scam.

But there’s more sceptics around. There is, for instance, Stephen McIntyre. He found a flaw in Michael Mann’s work. And then, as he admits, though in subtler words, he was grabbed by the oil lobby and sent around the world to tell everybody that there was this flaw. And then the idea of that lobby would be that one should conclude that a flaw means Mann is wrong. And all other climate scientists too. I heard McIntyre talk in Amsterdam one day. It made me feel sorry for him. Yes he’s famous now, and maybe rich, but as far as I could see he’s a puppet!

We also have Salomon Kroonenberg in the Netherlands. When I picked up his book in a book shop and started leafing through it I needed only seconds to decide I should buy it; not because I thought it was so good, but because I thought it needed opposition. He needs only a few pages to bluntly claim, supported by two very outdated references, that there’s an ice age on the way, and we’d better exhaust lots of CO2 in order to mitigate the destructive effects of this imminent climate amelioration. And most of the book, which admittedly is written in pleasant style, is founded on that assumption. Had he read some more, and more recent, literature, he would have known that the next ice age is not expected anywhere soon. It seems he has, by now, indeed read enough to know and admit that was bollocks, but some damage must have been done. I heard he now claims that avoiding climate change is too difficult, and we should focus on adapting. That is a fair point, but I am a bit afraid it is too easy for the polluters to let countries that would be hard hit, but are not very economically strong, just rot away.

There’s also Bjørn Lomborg. In the late nineties he railed against climate science, but by now he has turned, though he seems to want to emphasise that there are more problems the world is faced with. Again; a fair point.

These four men give, I think, a fairly representative image of climate sceptics. Lomborg is a political scientist, Monckton a journalist, and McIntyre a statistician. Kroonenberg is an actual earth scientist, but his specialism is not climate science. At least one of them, viz. Monckton, claims to know better than all the thousands of climate scientists the world holds. McIntyre says he just points out a flaw, and that’s proper scientific behaviour, and that’s true, but if that was the whole story he would just have written a comment to Mann’s paper, and let science have its way.

So what’s going on? I think climate sceptics are to science what X-factor wannabees are to music. They don’t necessarily have the talent, but they want the spotlight anyway. And if you take on an entire discipline, say what people most like to hear, and potentially have an immensely rich oil lobby behind you, you will get that spotlight in your face! And as people believe TV, not scientists, your voice is really heard. And turning to the realist side after many years (e.g. Lomborg) will not only get you your conscience back, but may get you an additional 15 minutes of fame if your initial sceptic message has lost its lustre.

So what happened in the BBC programme? Monckton finds one article that is used in the IPCC report, in which he finds one figure that he thinks disproves all of anthropogenic climate change. And with that message he travels the world (mainly the US), and is greeted by masses of enthusiastic pensioners who claim to have finally heard “the truth”; on what they base their belief that this indeed is the truth is not something any of them seems to be willing to elaborate on, but Monckton isn’t complaining.

But science fights back. The author of this article sends him a letter in which she explains he hasn’t understood it. An actual scientist takes apart his lecture and comes up with a whole list of inaccuracies and worse. Step by step Monckton has to retreat. And the programme ends with the maker concluding this man has had all the opportunity in the world to convince him, but has failed. Completely. He’s now firmly wedged on the scientific side.

So who isn’t? The programme showed who it is that welcomes these sceptic viewpoints. It’s largely the likes of the Tea Party. They simply don’t want to see the price of fuel rise. And they don’t want any (more) tax. And we all know that thoroughly cutting down on emissions will cost dearly. So it’s the fame-seekers catering for the tax-haters. A strong force! But still, sometimes science prevails...

11 February 2011

Quick caving

We ran into the adit, reached the stope, said "ooh!" and "aah!" in admiration of its beauty, took some pictures, and ran out again. Caving trips can be so simple!

I almost walked past that without noticing anything strange. When it dawned on me that such a sign in Dutch was a bit odd I realised this was another case of Lionel making a cultural reference...

When I emerged out of the adit before Dave, without whose car key I could not change, I decided to do an extra excursion into the Tamar. I was wearing a wetsuit, and then you can just as well have a nightswim afterwards. I also tried to take a night picture of the river, which involved me comfortably lying on my back in the river, shining my headlight on the trees on the other side, and the picture didn't work out but I thought it was a splendid way to spend some of a Tuesday night after all. Nothing like bobbing around in a nightly river in a busy week!

04 February 2011

Sweaty men: more is better! Or not?

I noticed some buzz in the school, last year, when the subscription to the Plymouth half marathon had opened. You couldn't walk a meter without bumping into a sweaty colleague on running shoes. And these times have returned...

Last year the fastest geographer (by far!) was Rob, but this year he can't join. The second fastest geographer was Will, and he is running this year as well, so he's got some expectations to live up to. He had heard of Pete and me running, and was interested in joining, which of course we welcomed. So this time we set of with the three of us.

With Will as the record holder with us I figured it would be a bit more die-hard than when only Pete and I, serene as we are, wrestle our way through the park. And these expectations combined with my new extra bouncy shoes made me take off at great speed. I had to come back from that.

We weren’t even in the park yet when Will already started asking eager questions, such as what the training plan was. Training plan? We just run the same route over and over again and are quite content with it. But not Will; he was thinking running more and more loops through the park, carrying bricks, and doing somersaults every 3 meters. Okay, these last two things I made up. But still, it shows why he was so fast!

In the park Will and Pete ended up discussing the mathematics of hydrology; a sure sign they had plenty of breath to spare. I don’t have much to say on that topic, so there my ignorance (or perhaps my marine preference, to make it sound better) gave me a marked advantage there.

And as the university is at higher elevation than the park the run ends uphill; a stretch Pete and I tend to do in a most resignated manner. But not Will! He accelerated to the point where most would have had a heart attack. With more stubbornness than breath I ran the last meters back to the office, glad to have survived.

During lunch afterwards Pete was complaining about Will and me being children having upset his whole calm running routine. But I think Will’s here to stay! And there will be moments when that’s not going to be easy, but in the end I think it’s not just good since he’s good company, but he may kick us to a higher level... stay tuned!

PS It looks as if I'm being punished for my indulgence. As I wrote in the "sports fanatic" post; I bought new shoes as I started to have ankle problems after running. But the evening after the run described above I took my clothes off only to discover my ankles were twice the size they normally are. Shit! Maybe they just can't cope with this running on asphalt business. That would be the end of this adventure...

03 February 2011

Exploring again

There's a first time for everything. Including dropping yourself, without any training, into a gaping chasm, as I found out just over a year ago. And the blog bears witness to that this activity (be it with increasing amounts of training) screamed for repetition, at least in my ears, and that I did nothing to resist that call. And this week my path lead me back to here it all began. Wheal Fanny! A beautiful copper mine.

We did not go very far the previous time, but still I was eager to lower myself into that immeasurable lode, between the rotting beams. And when we arrived at the site and started changing, and Rick mentioned he intended to lower himself into a previously unexplored hole, my enthusiasm became even bigger.

We dropped down, and after taking some first pictures we went on. I thought it would be Dave taking pictures in one side of the mine, and the rest coming with Rick, but how wrong I was! It was just Rick and me. The others don’t know how to have a good time!

Lionel lowering himself down the lode. Pic by Dave


Lionel and Richard in the Rainy Stope. Pic by Dave

Rick took me to a piece of plastic rope I had seen the previous time, and now it became clear to me what that was for. You could tie a proper climbing rope to it, pull it through a loop of sorts, and then use the climbing rope to come up! Very clever. Though it was a lot more faffing than it sounds. But we came up, to a level that looks quite like my favourite mine so far. And happily we walked on to the gaping hole in question. Rick conjured a drill out of his bag, and started placing bolts to hang a rope from. I found my vocation as a bolting assistant! And soon we had fixed the rope in impeccable style. Around that time we heard ominous sounds; that turned out to be Lionel, who had gotten bored, and came to see how we were doing. Good timing!

From where we were standing, it looked like the winze only went down a few meters and ended in a pile of rubble, but at a closer, rope-facilitated look you could see two narrow chutes going further. Just big enough for a human! And by the sound of it (we boisterously threw some things down) there really is a lot down there. We’ll be back! And hopefully soon.

The part of the mine where we went exploring

On the way back I had some extra fun; normally you remove the bolts on the way out. So far I had left the rigging and de-rigging to the more experienced, but I figured it was time I became more proactive. So I found myself balancing precariously above afore mentioned chasm, trying to pry a bolt I could barely reach out of a wall. But don’t worry, readers, I was still attached to a rope which was fixed to another bolt, so the risk was negligible.

This trip, with its many rope pitches, took a while, so we skipped the pub this time. But damn was it a good trip! And it will only get better...

01 February 2011

Night in the labs

I’ve just published three (3!) blog posts about things other than work! An outrage. Time to return to my natural habitat: the lab. It happens regularly that I’m the last person still working, when the sun has already gone down and the building has gone quiet. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but not necessarily bad either: the lab, which is on the 8th floor, provides an amazing view over Plymouth, especially during sunset. And the labs, with lots of equipment that should not be switched off (it seems to be bad for balances, for instance, to be switched off regularly), turns into an alluringly eerie world at night, with only flickering, coloured LEDs and pale balance displays to illuminate the ill-defined yet high-tech world. And yesterday I got inspired and took some pictures of that world, with my camera on the 15 seconds exposure time setting. I hope the feeling comes across!