30 November 2011


Durham: been there. Bristol: been there. Southampton: been there. Liverpool: been there. Plymouth: live there. Oxford: hadn’t been there! So when we got together for the kick-off meeting of iGlass, which has scientists from all these places, I was glad that Eelco, the project leader, had chosen the rather centrally located Oxford University as the venue.

On a sunny Sunday I got into the train with Roland, emerging into a dark Oxford. Less than an hour later, we were in a pub, meeting up with Tasha. That pub was Oxford’s most famous one, and, quite likely, also the least conspicuous: the Turf. We decided to dine there too, and then Roland already called it a day. Needless to say we hadn’t seen much of this famously beautiful town! As we had had a quieter night the previous day, Tasha and I decided to add one more pub and a few hundred metres more of Oxford streets to our repertoire: we had a last pint in what allegedly was Oxford’s oldest pub: the Bear. When we came in the first thing we saw was an elderly gentleman in a scholarly gown, reading the newspaper over a pint. We couldn’t have gotten a more Oxfordian reception...

Only when behlding this picture at full size will one see the little sign "Turf Tavern"; that's all that hints at its location!

The Turf itself! Notice the reassuring blue glow of Roland's coat inside; its owner is ordering us a pint...

We got back at a reasonable hour, so I decided to get up early the next morning, and have a stroll around town in daylight, before the meeting would start. As soon as the meeting would finish Roland and I would have to go to the railway station in order to still be able to make it home. So when the sky was still pink and the grass white I strolled around, with my camera ready. It is indeed very pretty! It’s almost becoming a series: Margot explores the prettiest town in the UK in around an hour...

Mansfield College

Frost in the park

Melancholy trees along the river

The Earth Sciences building

Keble College

The St Mary Magdalen; cute little church in the middle of the shopping area

Courtyard of the Bodleian Library

The Radcliffe Camera in the sunrise

Rather random and very old looking alley

29 November 2011


“Don’t get bogged down in the marsh work!” Whether that was a witty comment or not I’ll leave to the readers, but it sure was the concluding remark of the iGlass kick-off meeting. Some may think iGlass is one of the newer Apple products; it seems there once was an April Fool’s day spoof claiming Apple had indeed produced some sort of cyber-glasses. And there's more of such to be found; no idea if they're real, but there seems to be an iGlasses app that distorts images, and there are iGlasses for the blind, with obstacle detecton... But in this context it’s a big scientific consortium aiming at studying interglacial sea level. The familiar team of Roland, Antony, Tasha and me is involved in that; we’ll try to find interglacial salt marsh sediments to which we can apply our usual method of sea-level reconstruction. And apart from us there are speleothem specialists, ice modellers, isostatic adjustment specialists, coral specialists, and whatnot involved, with the thought that all together we’d be best able to find out what sea level is capable of in interglacial times.

The Oxford pub where we had a swift post-meeting half

Why does it matter? We are in an interglacial, sea levels are rising, lots of people live pretty close to sea level, and we want to know what we’re up for. That’s the short version. And if we know how much and how fast sea level has been changing in past, comparable periods, this will give us an idea. Policy makers are quite interested in what they need to base their adaptation policies on. We have some of these in the project, too... if you know within what range the changes will be, you might know whether you can get by with strengthening your defences, or whether it’s time to start building whole new ones. Or perhaps plan a retreat, as defence isn’t economically feasible.

In January we heard the project had been funded. In July it officially started, but most employees started later than that. So by now we all (well, most of us) met for the first time. As colleagues, that is; the community is small, and most people saw many familiar faces around the table.

So what did we do? We had to mainly go through the not-so-exiting non-scientific details, such as: how do we organise ourselves, how and when do we report back to the project coordinator, who takes which decisions, what do we do when things go wrong, how do we make our publications recognisable as iGlass productions, etc etc. It has to be done...

For us, the swamp squad, the project has started with site selection. We need old sediments, and these are harder to find than young sediments. We did quite a literature search, but that’s not enough; if you find a description of interesting sediments, but you consecutively find out someone has built a chemical plant on them, they suddenly cease being interesting. We hope to do the first reconnaissance fieldworks in January. And a big, proper one around Easter. And then we’re go! It will be a fascinating project to be part of...

28 November 2011

21st century; here I come!

When we’re on fieldwork, Tasha always solves any problem we might have with her iPhone. When we’re at a conference or something, in a town none of us have visited before, she can still find any restaurant of choice. With her iPhone. When one day my satnav was trying to take me to Exeter instead of home, Neil saved the day. With his iPhone. When Jon is in a pub thoroughly enjoying his pint, and he still has to take a train home, his iPhone will tell him if his train is delayed, sometimes allowing him to have an extra pint, instead of freezing his behind off on a windy platform. And he can also answer all sorts of questions on German vocabulary with it. I used Tasha’s iPhone to phone my mum for her birthday, when I happened to be in the USA on that day. Mine won’t allow such behaviour.

All that might illustrate the point that I had started to warm to the idea of smart phones. One day I got an SMS from the shop where I’d bought my very basic Nokia; I was eligible for some discount on a smartphone. I went to check it out, but that turned out to be an error. I wasn’t eligible at all! I thought to myself I’d go and buy one, discount or not, maƱana, but evidently, that day never came. Until I got another one of these messages. And I had to be near that shop anyway, so on a late Saturday morning I popped in to see if this time they were serious.

They were! They could offer me an iPhone 3G for only marginally more money than I currently pay with my pay-as-you-go Dickensian mobile. So I went for it… And so far I've not managed to get past charging it; it's not even activated yet. But my days as a luddite are practically over. I’ve joined the hordes of iPhoners! Who would have thought. And that's much more dramatic than getting myself an iPod, which shook me as well, back in the days. And real 21st century dwellers probably now all have a 4G, but hey, by my standards I’ve already made quite a leap…

27 November 2011

Children in need

I’d heard of Children in Need. I’d seen the mascot, “Pudsey Bear”, depicted in various places. I’d heard of various people raising money for it in various ways. But this year, suddenly, it dawned on me what a big institution it really is here in the UK.

Every year, somewhere in November, there is one day during which the BBC is entirely taken over by some broadcasting marathon, where they have anybody remotely famous doing stuff (mainly making an arse of themselves), live on stage to raise money. In between there are clips of what the money is used for. And everybody famous participates while everybody obscure watches and donates. And outside the world of television people go to school in their pyjamas or sit in a bath tub full of baked beans or do whatever to add to this big day of fundraising.

I came across a list of past highlights. And I recognised quite some, but of most I had no idea they were CiN-related. The concert in Royal Albert Hall where Take That came together for the first time. The re-release of “a Perfect Day” performed by a whole truckload of artists. So that had been Children in Need! It started to dawn on me this was bigger than I thought. Much bigger than anything I'm aware of in the Netherlands. We have “Kinderen voor Kinderen”, but that is only big for, well, the name suggests it already, children…

Another icon of Britishness, Dr. Who, with the Children in Need mascotte
From the "this is Jersey" website

There was loads I hadn’t heard of. But one performance got my attention. It seems that every year, the UK newsreaders do some kind of performance. And one year they had been asked (I think that’s how it works) to do a song from the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. So they were all in various stages of drag of the very fishnetty type. But the best part of it was this: one of the more traditional-looking newsreaders seemed to have had to read the news just before that performance, and had no time to change. No problem; Rocky Horror allows one to dress in a smart shirt and tie above the waist, and then a latex miniskirt, fishnets and glittery plateau boots below the waist. And newsreaders sit behind desks, so nobody will notice. Unless, of course, some specialist is present in the studio to elaborate on some item of news. And this could easily have been staged, but is a story that it indeed happened that an unsuspecting gentleman was suddenly confronted with the unusual attire of his interviewer. And even if it was staged, and he was prepared, it made for a good scene. If he knew he was a good yet understated actor!

There’s only very bad footage of the performance on Youtube, as far as I could find, but it may be worth it. It starts after the unsuspecting gentleman has already left, but it’s still quite fun… and I was quite impressed that these generally so tremendously homophobic Brits are willing to go in drag in public as soon as it benefits unprivileged children!

Coastal geomorphologist

Coastal geomorphologists, those are people who know stuff about, well, coasts! And how they form and how they evolve and all sorts of things. I have less than four months to become one.

I mentioned before that my career needs some teaching. I have started that; every week I now spend my Tuesday morning trying to convince students that foraminifera are splendid. And I enjoy that! I’m fortunately quite comfortable with the little buggers (the forams, I mean; not the students), and it’s a nice group of students, so all goes well.

Forams on a, eh, a stem of sorts

In March I’ll be dragged right out of my comfort zone. That’s when the Ireland Fieldwork takes place; we’ll take loads of students to the Irish west coast and let them have their way with everything geographically interesting they can find. The first two days we’ll take them on excursions. The next two days we’ll let them do a research project that we have designed; I’ll have them do Roland’s old project (Roland himself is not coming). It involves foraminifera, so that will be fine! But then the last two days it gets tougher.

The last two days we have to give the students a starting point to do a project themselves. And I’ve never been to that site, or anywhere near really, but we already had to submit our projects. No way one can come up with a feasible project without having seen the place, so I had to recycle extant projects. And I ended up with two projects designed by our other Dutch professor, Gerd; he has a chair in, you guessed it, coastal geomorphology. So I’ll be offering a project on a beach with conspicuously large boulders and even bigger rocks on it, and one on a spit there (a sand barrier stretching partially along an embayment). And what the students do with these is largely their decision, but questions they could address are in the direction of: how did these structures form, what does that tell us, how are they likely to change, are these unusual features? And I, of course, have to know the answer to all that. So now I’ve started to read up on sediment budgets, wave dynamics, currents, tides, and whatnot. I’m quite sure I’ll learn more than the students! And it’s a bit daunting given that I myself was educated as a geological lab rat, and now suddenly have to be a geomorphological field geographer, but I trust I can pull it off. And be a better scientist for it!

26 November 2011

Thanksgiving, the pie edition

I’m a dedicated housewife! Or at least I sure felt like one last Thursday. I was slaving away in the kitchen at 7AM. Don’t think I’ll make a habit of that. And why was I doing that? It was thanksgiving! And Pete and Sabrina tend to celebrate that every year with colleagues, of which I have so far been lucky enough to be one. But the idea is that they provide the turkey, and everybody brings an accompanying dish. And I didn’t want to have to go home between work and Pete, so I made sure it was done before I got to the university. But that involved starting at 7, evidently…

I had chosen to produce a stilton-and-broccoli pie. And luckily, it was a success! And so was the rest of the celebration. Of course. The food was almost as good as the company. And many had chosen to bring desserts. There was chocolate cake, some merengue cake, pear-ginger-cardamom-caramel cake (ooh!), and at least four pumpkin pies. How can one not overeat? I went home feeling at least 9 months pregnant. And even the next morning I felt full. It’s perhaps a sign of the time that this is the way in which you celebrate having narrowly escaped starvation…  

24 November 2011

Not see the forams for the trees

I wanted to check if I had stored some of my samples in a spatially efficient way. And when I was on it anyway, I pulled all those out I had in the fridge. Blimey! I was a bit taken aback by how many I have in there. Of course I know it's lots, but it's different when they're all staring at you from the table in the lab, on a day where you intended to not leave the lab too late... needless to say that didn't work.

It turned out not all of them were stored as compactly as reasonably desirable, but in the end I only got rid of one tray... still very many samples!

23 November 2011

Castle Drogo

If you drive for an hour to a castle to run a 10 mile race, you may just as well enjoy the castle itself too, before you go back. And this race didn't come with showers, so we walked into the impressive entry hall smelling somewhat inappropriately. But nobody seemed to mind.

Castle Drogo seems to be the last proper castle built in the UK; they started building in the 1910's, but because of WWI getting in the way, and other drawbacks, it wasn't finished until the early 1930's. It was designed for some rich industrial who wanted to flaunt his wealth. And I prefer old stuff! Not neo-medieval pretentious fake. So I was a bit sceptic when I walked in. But that would change.

The Drewe family, which had it built, hadn't lived in it very long; by 1925 they moved into the half-finished building, and already by 1974 they sold it to the National Trust. And in 2009, this organisation restored it to the state it had somewhere in the earlier years of its occupation. And it's all 20th century, but still it has style! I loved both how the architect had managed to make fake palatable, how they had built a house that looked semi-ancient but was technically cutting edge, and how it now provided a time warp into the past, far enough back to be the realm of my great-grandparents. I enjoyed it! Hugh was fascinated too. And they also had very classy gardens. I felt my colonial gown rustling. Except that I was dressed in a sweaty sports bra with a newly acquired race T-shirt on top. A good combination of first running through mud, and then getting all into aristocratic mode. I think I'll be able to find more off-road runs, but probably not one with such bonus!

The castle

The entrance hall

Would this be the drawing room?

Even the corridors were majestic

Does this need explanation? The dining room

Elegant tableware

This is servants' territory: the repair-paraphernalia-cupboard

A stove from the days when they were still beautiful

And last but not least: the gardens!

21 November 2011

Drogo 10

It would have been a beautiful walk! Great views over the Teign Valley, picturesque autumnal trees, a gentle November sun... but of course we didn't walk. We ran! And that complicated things.

On the Tamar Trotters website I had seen this 10 mile off-road run on the other side of Dartmoor, and it sounded rather splendid. And when it drew nearer the decision fell: Hugh and I would give it a go. So we both scrutinised the Drogo 10 website, as this race was rumoured to be quite a tough one. Three major hills! And indeed, they would not remain unnoticed.

On a hazy morning we parked at Drogo castle (hence the name), got our numbers, and went to the start. I kept an eye out for my pacer woman, of whom I knew she had registered too, but I didn't see her. And then we were off. There were hundreds of runners, and we were somewhere in the back, so we couldn't immediately start. And after an initial stretch over a broad, flat road we got to the off-road bit. And had to walk.

Drogo Castle itself looming over the start

Traffic jam downhill

It was so steep there running was tricky, and we were still a crowd, so we snailed our way down in a throng. And after some more running at a pace which was mainly dictated by the people in front of us we came to a bridge. A narrow bridge. With a stile behind it.

Here the runners were really standing still for minutes! Frustrating.

The bridge, with its queue, did provide a good opportunity for taking a picture of the Teign, along which we would run large parts of the route.

We waited in the queue for minutes. This isn't a race! This is a traffic jam. But that would change.

A fellow runner kindly took a picture of us. There was nothing better to do!

After the stile the actual race could begin. It started mild, with a sub-horizontal, muddy bit. Nice! But soon I would face the tougher side of the race: the first hill! Most people walked up. I even saw mr. Stubborn, aka Hugh, walk. I was even more stubborn! I ran all the way up. Marginally faster than most walking people. And slower than Hugh with his long strides, walking or not. This was the last time I'd see him until the finish...

I wheezed and panted my way up. Terrible! I got lots of encouragement from the walkers, but that doesn't give you extra breath. When I reached the top I was practically dead. And now I saw even clearer why most people walk; reaching the top they can happily start running downhill, while I was staggering down, entirely out of breath, with my calves seized up. Hmm! Maybe there is something about walking up hills...

Between hill 1 and 3 there is a stretch that does some up, down and level; I'd lost my enthusiasm for storming uphill a bit, and downhill is, off-road shoes or not, not my forte, as I am perennially afraid of hurting my knees. And on the flat bits I'm acceptably fast, but I knew I had yet another hill to conquer, so I made sure not to wear myself out.

The good news, in all this talk about being slow, is that I was enjoying the running! I had my mojo back. Maybe BECAUSE I wasn't fast. Maybe I've just been overdoing it a bit in recent runs. And the route was beautiful, and so was the weather! Enough to enjoy.

Hill no. 2 was not anywhere as serious as no. 1, so I ran up that one too, without such effort, but when I reached hill no. 3, of which I knew it was a nasty one, I abandoned my die-hard strategy and walked up. Just as everybody else in sight. And if you walk fast enough it still is demanding! But it's worth it; at the end you're rewarded with a beautiful view over the valley.

The last hill

The view from the top

Once at the top you're almost at the finish. I suffered a bit from some breathing issue I have had the last weeks; I tend to lose the talent for breathing in after having run up a hill. As long as I go up I'm fine, but as soon as I try to catch my breath going down I can only properly breathe out. That's not helping! But that lasted only a few minutes this time.

So quite happy I crossed the finish, after 1.42.09. Quite some time! But I hadn't expected anything spectacular. And I found Hugh back, who had waited for me. He'd been there for 5 minutes already. So we could get our commemorative T-shirts (they had girlie fit this time! Yay for the organisation!) and go get changed. It had been a good race! And I may never be really good at it, given my knee fears, but It's enough fun to immediately want to register for another off-road race...

ps Pacer woman did run it, but she was fast! She probably started further forward in the crowd, and got to the bridge before it got too jammed there... maybe I'll spot her again at the next race!

17 November 2011

Cave rescue: how to and how not to

Let's start with the bad news. Quite some time ago I was having a post training beer with some fellow rescuers, and we ended up talking about the things that go wrong sometimes. And one guy mentioned a case of a woman who had taken a shortcut home, across some rough terrain, and in the dark she had overlooked an old mine shaft and fallen in. As she therefore failed to arrive home her daughter went to look for her, and, upon finding her, phoned the emergency services. The fire brigade showed up, and then twiddled their thumbs and got all hysterical about health and safety, so it took six hours to get the woman out, by which time her injuries and hypothermia had gotten so bad she died later in hospital.

And this morning I saw on the BBC website that that case had indeed happened exactly as he had described, and that there had been some legal kerfuffle because of it. Rightly so! But unfortunately, nothing seems to have come of that. The header was “No apology from fire service over Alison Hume's death”. So basically, the fire brigade clung to regulations of health and safety for themselves while someone’s health and safety was actually massively compromised. They should have either decided to break a few bureaucratic rules and perhaps gotten a bollocking later (but what is a bollocking if you’ve just saved someone’s life!), or just phoned mine rescue who are trained up especially for such situations. But they didn’t. The woman died and they won’t apologise. Nice, that.

The whole story can be found online, by the way; from the initial accident, to the probe into the accident opening, through mention that the shaft had only just collapsed, the probe being told of the delay involved, the safety rules getting questioned, the fire brigade having the audacity to call the rescue operation a success, the probe reopening, the safety rules getting questioned again, a “fatal accident inquiry” being opened, the probe reopening again, mine rescue telling people that they should have been involved much earlier, the safety rules getting questioned yet again, an elaboration on the case which by now is getting complicated, to, finally, the absence of apologies. And yes these are all separate links. Enjoy!

Generic picture of a cave rescue operation (this isn't us!)

Anyway; this reminded me of the rescue operation that frustratingly took place when I was in Switzerland; I heard afterwards the fire brigade had overestimated their own capacities in cave rescue once again. And this time the actual cave rescuers had been called in immediately, but they had to not only deal with the casualty, but also with the firemen that thought that not knowing the way, not having caving experience and not having the right equipment was no reason to not go underground. Luckily that did not lead to even more casualties…

But now time for the good news. I was still quite preoccupied with the sad case of the dead woman when I heard yet another case of cave rescue in the news (happened before!), on BBC radio: somewhere in Shropshire a young woman had suffered an epileptic attack underground, and had been saved by the local cave rescue team. Sometimes it works out! Let’s hope this is not just coincidence, but a trend that leads to more effective underground rescue. But let’s also hope it takes a very long time for a proper dataset to build up!

ps They've apologised after all! Very spontaneous.It only took the prime minister to get angry to achieve that...

15 November 2011

Dangle your colleagues from a rope

Once you do down a mine you can easily get hooked. It happened to me! And the next victim is Hugh. I dragged him down a Tamar mine as I figured he should know what he’s talking about; he works on mine pollution in the Tamar valley. But soon his interest proceeded beyond the scientific, and he wanted to try SRT. And that’s a bit of a bugger. The club nowadays has two sets of SRT kit, but these are for training purposes only, and we haven’t had a training session for yonks. We don’t lend them out, as experience seems to prove you get them back soaked in corrosive liquids. And I have one set, but if he wears it I can’t come along to keep an eye on things. And sharing a set can be both time-consuming and dangerous. So that was a bit of a difficult one! But then the Cornish came up with a splendid trip, tailored for such circumstances. A trip down a mine with both horizontal and vertical access, and several other SRT novices using the occasion for practice. Perfect! I would just give him my stuff and use the horizontal entrance myself. Mark had promised me an underground lake, so I wouldn’t have to be bored.

When we got to the site, it turned out Mark had brought several spare SRT kits. In Cornwall they do lend them out! So even though I’d already donned my wetsuit I now could go in through the shaft myself as well. So we rigged the shaft while the horizontal people vanished into the direction of the adit, which would provide walk-in access. Mark talked Hugh through the kit; quite splendid as one should learn from the best, and besides that; he had borrowed a caving harness with a rack, while I cave in a combination harness with a stop, so I’m really not the one to listen to when it comes to such things.

Mark showing Tom and Hugh how to get into a caving harness

I went down with Mark’s son. Or at least: I tried. I was the only one going down on a stop, while the rest had racks; the idea of a stop is that it’s not adjustable, but if you don’t push the lever the device is supposed to stop your descent. Hence the name. The idea behind that is that if, for instance, a rock falls on your head and you lose consciousness, you won’t add to that already unfortunate situation by getting into free fall, and hurtling to the ground. A rack doesn’t have that safety feature, but by being adjustable you can just use lots of friction when you’re scared such a thing might happen. But if you just want to get down smoothly, you reduce the friction. I didn’t have that option. And the rope was quite thick. I had to struggle to get down. I was just not heavy enough! Very annoying. All the others sailed down with their racks. I think I know which device Hugh will choose…

While Tom and I were waiting for the next lot we did a little recce. One tunnel was had a dead end. One lead to daylight; it looked like you could possibly scramble back to the surface! One tunnel ended, but had a drop down that might lead somewhere. So when we were all down we explored that only chance: the drop down. The rope was long enough for both descents! But then we came to another drop after only a few metres. Luckily Mark had another short piece of rope that was just enough. This was much smoother rope, though; I loved it, for I actually managed to descend along it. Hugh simply tarzanned down. He seems to think a rack is solely for low-friction use…

Hugh had come down so fast I couldn't possibly take a picture of it

Down there we found two dead ends, and two tunnels leading to the same water body. Water! I wanted some after all the sweating in my wetsuit. And I heard the voices of the other group. They turned out to be on the other side of the water. The only way to get from our to their side was swimming, and then climbing up a smooth incline. I didn’t even bother! Let alone the rest, who weren’t wearing wetsuits.

We went back and checked the scramble to the surface. We decided it was too dangerous, so we all went up the shaft as well. A first time for me in a wetsuit I think; it actually didn’t bother me! Which is good. While waiting for the last ones to come up we had a bit of a walk around, and we found another open shaft. Maybe for next time?

A pretty underground fungus

We went to go and have a look at the other entrance too; we went down a hole inside a very impressive quarry, which had a bit of an uncomfortable descent. And below it only water waited. That was a bit of a bummer! Hugh had a big hole in his leg (which doesn’t stop him from doing wild SRT) which he shouldn’t get wet. So that wasn’t an option. So we basically just all clambered up again and got out. And it shouldn’t have been any later; Hugh had social engagements to attend to. We had to be on our way! But it had been a great day; nice rope work, nice exploration, and a swim. What more does one want on one’s Sunday!

Me in the quarry

14 November 2011

Radiocarbon dating makes you old

The first days of November I attended a course on age modelling. In the second week of November we received our radiocarbon dates. What does that mean? Work! Lots of it.

I am responsible for 4 of the 6 sites in our project. That sounds unfair, but mind you; three of these are sites Roland has already worked on, so we’re not starting from scratch. And of these four sites, two already had quite an age model; the other two were clean slates. So for these sites, suddenly things got meaning! It was very exciting. But a lot of work, too.

We date our sediments with what we can find. In practice that means we have radiogenic lead and radiocarbon dates for all cores, and for some we have extra age points such as a well-dated change in the pollen, or a datable volcanic ash layer, or such things. The pollen and the ash are quite straightforward. The lead requires some elaborate modelling. And the radiocarbon takes even more elaborate modelling.

The simple idea with radiocarbon dating is that the sun bombards the atmosphere with radiation, which blasts neutrons out of nitrogen atoms, which then change into 14C. This spreads through the atmosphere. It doesn’t last; it has a half-life of 5568 years. But they’re constantly being resupplied so the atmosphere doesn’t run out. And all that is in equilibrium with the atmosphere, such as us, gets replenished as well. Carbon-containing bodies that stop equilibrating, or in other words: breathing, will stop replenishing their 14C, and eventually run out. So if you find such a body, be it a shell, a bone, an entire mammoth, a fossilised leaf, a piece of wood; if you check its 14C concentration you know how long ago it died. So that’s how it works!

Something one could date: Tollund man!

That evidently was the easy version. In real life it’s more complicated. Because it’s true that 14C gets replenished, but unfortunately not at a really constant rate. So if you get your 14C concentration, or in other words: your 14C age, you have to hurl that through a calibration curve which represents the changes in 14C creation speed, and only then do you get your actual age, also known as calendar age.

If you look at that calibration curve from a distance it looks like straight line. But if you come closer, and zoom in to the last, say, 500 years, you’ll see the curve is all over the place. With the problem that a certain 14C age can intersect with the curve at several places, each with their own calendar age. So which one to pick? Stratigraphic position (simply said: deeper is older) helps here. But sometimes you have a whole array of dates that are all the same, simply because the calibration curve there is just flat-lining. Unpleasant! And sometimes your samples are contaminated or have ended up at the wrong stratigraphic depth. Think of a root growing down, or some burrowing critter that eats stuff at one level and shits it out at another. All sorts of things can complicate matters! And that’s why I’m working at strange hours, trying to make sense of it all. I’m tired, but it is damn interesting!

What my monitor displays these days. It's a bit blurred on purpose; these are unpublished data! But notice the fuzzy age modelling graph, and in the background the bumpy shape of the 14C calibration curve. If only that was a straight line!

10 November 2011

Running nerd

Everything can be approached from a nerdy perspective. Running, too! To the extent it scares people away from the lunch table (believe me!).

When I saw Pete again on the Monday after the Plymouth 10K he said “well aren’t you the success story!” Ad I had no idea what he was talking about. He and Hugh had beaten me by 2.5 minutes! How is that a success. But he mentioned my ranking within my age/gender category. I hadn’t noticed that, but well, it sounded like I had done well. So of course I immediately looked it up: indeed; I had come 7th out of 79 in the category women 35-39. Not bad!

Having figured that out I had a look at my older race results. All were categorized as well… and I never had done as well as in the Plymouth 10k! I might not run comfortably, but I seem to be outrunning more and more of my peers… that’s something at least. And now I will have to admit that I, too, was perhaps being falsely modest. Hmm!

Something struck me as odd when I looked at my results; my worst ranking had been in the Saltram 10K, which was the race in which I felt the fastest! And the Plymouth one didn’t feel the slowest (the Tavy 7 and Totnes 10 felt worse), but it surely didn’t feel as good as it looked on paper. Strange! I don’t know what that means. But now I have a nerdy graph, and I’m already looking forward to my next race, if only to be able to plot an extra data point! Maybe I’ll wear glasses that have been taped together in the middle, and a lab coat with lots of pens in the pocket… I’m now officially a nerd runner!

09 November 2011

Arty pics of wet Dartmoor

When I go on a swamphike I bring a waterproof camera. When Maaike went on last month's swamphike she brought no fewer than four cameras, none of which waterproof. It seemed not to have led to loss of camera life! And it did result in some marvellous artistic old school pics. I have no idea what the technical details of these pictures are, but I thought they were so beautiful I wanted to put some on the blog. And Maaike let me! So here is a selection. I hope one agrees they are splendid indeed.

All pictures by Maaike