GeoLog

GeoLog

Light years from home – a geologist’s tale

Light years from home – a geologist’s tale

In a departure from the usual posts we feature on the blog, today Conor Purcell (a freelance science writer) brings you a thought provoking science fiction piece. Grab a drink and dive into this geology inspired adventure!

“It’s typical geology for a rocky planet” K reported. “Captured beneath the ocean at its northern pole, the core is a mix of metamorphic and sedimentary rock, with sand and fossilized organisms of the non-intelligent form. Nothing unusual.”

“We should use our new systems for this analysis,” It thought to itself. “Best to begin with a rocky planet.” K was the collective thinking entity of its group, a unified consortium of representatives now located across interstellar space: their task to find intelligent life beyond itself.

Here, on the orbiting cube, lying lengthways in front of K, and secured within the hold of the onboard core analyser, was a long cylindrical section – a core – of rock and mud which had been excavated from the planet below. K was now beginning the routine inspection performed on each of the cores acquired across the surveyed planets.

“Inspect all elements and produce time-series of environmental parameters relevant for the planet” K commanded itself.

It was then that something unusual triggered a notification in its Thought Centre – something it had never experienced. “What is this?” it asked.

For millennia, K had been searching for evidence of intelligent life on exoplanets beyond its own host star. In earlier times ground based receivers had been constructed and used to scour the endless black sky, and although life had been discovered to exist almost everywhere, without exception it took the form of mindless cellular or multicellular organisms. No trace of another Type 1 civilization had ever been found. Even as K’s technology advanced, observing and measuring the atmospheres of millions of remote planets to seek out the signatures of machine and biological life, and now even visiting those remote worlds, no sign of intelligence had yet been discovered.

What now caught the attention of K’s Thought Centre was a narrow section of fine material which appeared to have been laid down in a remarkably short period of time, during just twenty solar orbits. “This geology is unique,” K thought.

“On a planet that contains layers stacked typically over tens of thousands or millions of years, what kind of mechanism could produce such a pattern?” it asked itself. “A rapid fluvial event could produce something like this” it responded. “But not exactly: the material here is far too fine to be explained by known terrestrial, oceanic or atmospheric forces in the universe,” it thought. K could not explain it.

Far below the orbiting cube on which the analysis was being performed, over extensive distances from the poles to the equatorial belt, the K machines proceeded to core their way across the planet. For a rocky sphere of this size, two hundred cores would be drilled and sampled. The complete process would take a little over one solar orbit.

“What do we think about this anomaly?” K asked itself. “We should compute an age model for the section.”

“The section in question is relatively young, just 2.167 million solar orbits in age” it calculated. “It is wedged at the intersection between two geological epochs, marked by a large (25 degrees Kelvin) and incredibly rapid (300 years) temperature increase across the transition.”

K next extracted a sample from each of the section’s annually laid sediments and instructed itself to begin the weighing of trace elements. Chemical analysis of the ratios of isotopes would spell out a varying signal across time, detailing past temperatures and planetary ice volume. This kind of varying palaeoclimate history had been discovered on planets throughout the galaxy. It was ubiquitous.

But, amazingly, unlike the millions of geological cores previously processed, this short section presented no ordinary signal: the pattern generated by the weight of these trace elements was encrypted.

K had not seen anything like it before and inside its Thought Centre an alert was raised: no signal in the known universe had ever been found encrypted.

“Perform an analysis on the encryption, decipher, and display results,” K commanded.

“The signal has been encrypted using a very basic cypher, and can be unravelled easily.”

The deciphering took just microseconds, and right there and then the signal was laid bare, changing K’s understanding of the universe forever.

After millennia of exploration, believing it was the lone thinking entity in the universe, here was evidence conveying the existence of another intelligence, a message sublimely detailed in the universal language of mathematics. It read:

‘This was once an inhabited place which we called Earth.’

By Conor Purcell Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science

Conor Purcell is a Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science. He can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Airplane views of the Alps

Imaggeo on Mondays: Airplane views of the Alps

The forward scattering of sunlight, which is caused by a large number of aerosol particles (moist haze) in Alpine valleys, gives the mountain massifs a rather plastic appearance.

The hazy area in the foreground lies above the Koenigsee lake; behind it the Watzmann, Hochkalter, Loferer Steinberge and Wilder Kaiser massifs loom up behind one other to the right of the centre line. Behind them is the wide Inn valley, which extends right across the picture. In the far distance in the middle of the picture, the Wetterstein massif projects upwards with the Zugspitze mountain as its highest peak.

The left side shows Steinernes Meer, Leoganger Steinberge and a sequence of at least 10 mountain chains that extend as far as Kellerjoch, which is in front of the whitish area of haze above Innsbruck. The noon sounding from Munich showed that relative humidity exceeded 75% up to 1,400 m above sea level, with distinctly lower values above (less than 20 %).

The view is from an aircraft window approximately 10 km to the east of the Salzach valley.

Description by Hans Volkert, as published previously on imaggeo.egu.eu

Cartooning science at EGU 2017 with Matthew Partridge (a.k.a Errant Science)

Cartooning science at EGU 2017 with Matthew Partridge (a.k.a Errant Science)

Most researchers are regular conference-goers. Tell a geoscientist you are attending the EGU General Assembly and they will most likely picture rooms full of people listening to a miriad of talks, many an hour chatting to colleagues old and new and you desperately trying to find your way around the maze that is the Austria Centre Vienna (where the conference is held). Describing your experiences to others (not so familiar with the conference set-up) can be a lot more tricky.

Cue Matthew Partridge, author of Errant Science, a blog which features (~) weekly cartoons and posts about the world of research.

With the aim to demystify what happens during a week-long conference, Matthew set himself the challenge of keeping a daily diary of his time at the 2017 General Assembly. As if that weren’t a tall enough order, the posts feature not only a witty take on his time in Vienna, but also cartoons! Whilst battling a huge sense of ‘impostor syndrome‘ (Matthew’s words, not ours), Matthew’s daily posts bring the conference to life.

With Errant Science (Matthew’s twitter alter ego is possibly better know) at the conference, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of speaking to him. Video camera in hand, our press assistant, Kai Boggild, talked with Matthew about his motivations for blogging about the conference and that badger cartoon.

If you didn’t read Matthew’s posts while the conference was taking place in April, grab a coffee and get comfortable, they should be enjoyed repeatedly!

Enmeshed in the gears of publishing – lessons from working as a young editor

Enmeshed in the gears of publishing – lessons from working as a young editor

Editors of scientific journals play an important role in the process research publication. They act as the midpoint between authors and reviewers, and set the direction of a given journal. However, for an early career scientist like me (I only defended my PhD in early December 2016) the intricacies of editorial work remained somewhat mysterious. Many academic journals tend to appoint established, more senior scientists to these roles, and while most scientists interact with editors regularly their role is not commonly taught to more junior researchers. I was fortunate to get the chance to work, short term, as an associate editor at Nature Geoscience in the first 4 months of this year (2017). During that time, I learned a number of lessons about scientific publishing that I felt could be valuable to the community at large.

What does an editor actually do?

The role of the editor is often hidden to readers; in both paywalled and open-access journals the notes and thoughts editors make on submitted manuscripts are generally kept private. One of the first things to appreciate is that editors judge whether a manuscript meets a set of editorial thresholds that would make it appropriate for the journal in question, rather than whether the study is correctly designed or the results are robust. I’d argue most editors are looking for a balance of an advance beyond existing literature and the level of interest a manuscript offers for their audience.

At each step of the publication process, from initial submission, through judging referee comments, to making a final decision, the editor is making a judgement whether the manuscript still meets those editorial thresholds.

The vast majority of the papers I got the chance to read were pretty fascinating, but since the journal I was working for is targeted at the whole Earth science community some of these were a bit too esoteric, and as such didn’t fit the thresholds we set to appeal to the journal audience.

I actually found judging papers on the basis of editorial thresholds refreshing – in our capacity as peer reviewers, most scientists are naturally sceptical of methodology and conclusions in other studies, but as an editor in most cases I was able to take the authors conclusions at face-value, and leave the critical assessment to referees.

That’s where the important difference lies; even though editors are generally scientists by training, since they are naturally not experts in every field that they receive papers from, it’s paramount to find reviewers who have the appropriate expertise and to ask them the right set of questions. In journals with academic editors, the editors may have more leeway to make critical comments, but impartiality is key.

Much of this may be already clear to many readers, but perhaps less so to more junior scientists. Many of the editorial decisions are somewhat subjective, like gauging the level of interest to a journal audience.

In the context of open access research journals, I think it’s worth asking whether the editorial decisions should also be made openly readable by authors and referees – this might aid potential authors in deciding how to pitch their articles to a given journal. This feeds into my next point – what are journals looking for?

By which metrics do journals judge studies?
The second big thing I picked up is that the amount of work does not always equate to a paper being appropriate for a given journal. Invariably, authors have clearly worked hard, and it’s often really tricky to explain to authors that their study is not a good fit for the journal you’re working for.

Speaking somewhat cynically, journals run for profit are interested in articles that can sell more copies or subscriptions. Since the audiences are primarily scientists, “scientific significance” will be a dominant consideration, but Nature and subsidiary journals also directly compare the mainstream media coverage of some of their articles with that of Science – that competition is important to their business.

Many other authors have discussed the relative merits of “prestige” journals (including Nobel prize winners – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/09/nobel-winner-boycott-science-journals), and all I’ll add here is what strikes me most is that ‘number of grad student hours worked’ is often not related to those articles that would be of a broader interest to the more mainstream media. The majority of articles don’t attract media attention of course, but I’d also argue that “scientific significance” is not strongly linked to the amount of time that goes into each study.

In the long run, high quality science tends to ensure a strong readership of any journal, but in my experience as an editor the quality of science in submitted manuscripts tends to be universally strong – the scientific method is followed, conclusions are robust, but in some cases they’re just pitched at the wrong audience. I’d argue this is why some studies have found in meta-analysis that in the majority of cases, articles that are initially rejected are later accepted in journals of similar ‘prestige’ (Weller et al. 2001, Moore et al. 2017).

As such, it’s imperative that authors tailor their manuscripts to the appropriate audience. Editors from every journal are picking from the same pool of peer reviewers, and so the quality of reviews should also be consistent, which ultimately determines the robustness of a study; so to meet editorial thresholds, prospective authors should think about who is reading the journal.
It’s certainly a fine line to walk – studies that are confirmatory of prior work tend to attract fewer readers, and as such editors may be less inclined to take an interest, but these are nonetheless important for the scientific canon.

In my short time as an editor I certainly didn’t see a way around these problems, but it was eye-opening to see the gears of the publication system – the machine from within, as it were.

Who gets to review?
One of the most time-consuming jobs of an editor is finding referees for manuscripts. It generally takes as long, if not far longer, than reading the manuscript in detail!

The ideal set of referees should first have the required set of expertise to properly assess the paper in question, and then beyond that be representative of the field at large. Moreover, they need to have no conflict of interest with the authors of the paper. There are an awful lot of scientists working in the world at the moment, but in some sub-fields it can be pretty hard to find individuals who fit all these categories.

For example, some studies in smaller research fields with a large number of senior co-authors often unintentionally rule out vast swathes of their colleagues as referees, simply because they have collaborated extensively.

Ironically, working with everyone in your field leaves no-one left to review your work! I have no doubt that the vast majority of scientists would be able to referee a colleagues work impartially, but striving for truly impartial review should be an aim of an editor.

As mentioned above, finding referees who represent the field is also important. More senior scientists have a greater range of experience, but tend to have less time available to review, while junior researchers can often provide more in-depth reviews of specific aspects. Referees from a range of geographic locations help provide diversity of opinion, as well as a fair balance in terms of gender.

It was certainly informative to compare the diversity of authors with the diversity of the referees they recommended, who in general tend to be more male dominated and more US-centric than the authors themselves.

A positive way of looking at this might be that this represents a diversifying Earth science community; recommended referees tend to be more established scientists, so greater author diversity might represent a changing demographic. On the other hand, it’s certainly worth bearing in mind that since reviewing is increasingly becoming a metric by which scientists themselves are judged, recommending referees who are more diverse is a way of encouraging a more varied and open community.

What’s the job like?
Editorial work is definitely rewarding – I certainly felt part of the scientific process, and providing a service to authors and the readership community is the main remit of the job.

I got to read a lot of interesting science from a range of different places, and worked with some highly motivated people. It’s a steep learning curve, and tends to be consistently busy; papers are always coming in, so there’s always a need to keep working.

Perhaps I’m biased, but I’d also suggest that scientists could work as editors at almost any stage in their careers, and it offers a neat place between the world of academia and science communication, which I found fascinating.

By Robert Emberson, freelance science writer

References

Moore, S., Neylon, C., Eve, M. P., O’Donnell, D. P., and Pattinson, D. 2017. “Excellence R Us”: university research and the fetishisation of excellence. Palgrave Communications, 3, 16105

Weller A.C. 2001 Editorial Peer Review: Its Strengths and Weaknesses. Information Today: Medford NJ

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