GeoLog

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This guest post was contributed by a scientist, student or a professional in the Earth, planetary or space sciences. The EGU blogs welcome guest contributions, so if you've got a great idea for a post or fancy trying your hand at science communication, please contact the blog editor or the EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts Artal to pitch your idea.

EGU geoscientists are out of this world!

EGU geoscientists are out of this world!

Space science has always been an exciting relative of the geosciences, and so it may come as no surprise that the woman who could become Germany’s first female astronaut attended the EGU General Assembly this year. Insa Thiele-Eich has made it to the final of Germany’s ‘Die Astronautin’ competition, which intends to send a German female astronaut to the International Space Station for a ten day research mission in 2020. She’s also a meteorologist and is currently finishing up a PhD on flooding in Bangladesh.

Insa wasn’t the only Die Astronautin competitor exhibiting at EGU and was joined by several female geoscientists who took part in the contest. Liv Heinecke and Sandra Tippenhauer also made it into the final rounds of the tough competition while juggling careers as geoscientists. Liv is coming to the end of her PhD on lake sediments in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, while Sandra researches physical oceanography and the effect on ocean biology.

We caught up with them at the EGU booth to find out about why they applied to be an astronaut and how their experiences of geoscience influenced their decision.

What made you apply to Die Astronautin?

Insa: It’s been a dream for me, as I think for all of us, we’ve been wanting to do this for so long that I don’t think anybody was surprised that any of us applied- for my family is was more like ‘oh ok- you finally had the opportunity’

Liv: The call was for scientists and engineers- STEM women- and I thought ‘yep, that sounds pretty cool!’ They asked for outdoor experience and usually in our field we go into the field- to Siberia, Antarctica- something like that. So you need to be adventurous, excitable and you need to love your work. It is also encouraging girls to go into STEM. I have two kids and I don’t ever want anyone to tell my daughter she can’t get a Nobel Prize in physics.

Sandra: I always wanted to be an astronaut since, I don’t know when! It made me think want I would do [to be an astronaut] so I decided to go into science. I really love my job in science; I always want to know how things work so studying physics was the right decision. I also work with the earth to try and understand how things work- at the moment I apply it to the oceans. I love the ocean and I live really close to it so I can go out and immediately see what I’m working with! But I also love space and I’d love to do science in space.

What was the application process like?

Insa: Initially there were 409 applicants, which were reduced to 120 and asked to fill out a medical questionnaire. Then 90 were invited to go to Hamburg for the first stage of cognitive testing, so that was maths, physics, memory span and a lot of other cognitive tests. And from those 90 we were reduced to 30, who continued on.

Then it was five days in groups of six. That was more group psychological testing and a psychological interview about yourself and how you work in a team as teamwork is essential. I think that’s where being a geoscientists, always having to go out and do fieldwork, really helps. You’re usually in a stressful situation because you (usually) have little funding, or you have to perform now because you can’t do it again. You have to cooperate; you’re often jetlagged with little sleep! So it really helps!

Also working in an international field, for me at least, has helped. You know- stay calm, assess, does everyone know what we’re talking about here? As everyone’s from different background, especially when you do interdisciplinary work you have to be a very good team player.

I just wanted to add that there are so many geoscientists that applied that we actually agreed to meet at EGU. I know at least of eight in addition to myself, but it’s probably even more- so I thought that was pretty amazing.

 

Interview by Keri McNamara, Video by Kai Boggild, EGU 2017 press assistants.

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.

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

Imaggeo on Mondays: Natural Bridges Monument, Utah, USA

Imaggeo on Mondays: Natural Bridges Monument, Utah, USA

Slowly but surely, the force of water has carved out a beautiful landscape in the sandstones of the Colorado Plateau. Suspended over canyons, naturally formed bridges and arches are the starts of Utah’s first national monument. The geological and modern  history of the region is rich as Kimberly Galvez, a student of the University of Miami, describes below.

This image shows an overview of a portion of the Natural Bridges Monument in Utah, taken from the Colorado Plateau. In the lower center of the picture is the Sipapu Bridge, one of the 3 bridges within the national park.

The dominating sandstone comes from the Permian Cedar Mesa Formation that is part of the Colorado Plateau, a geologic province that extends through southern Utah and northern Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and western Colorado; with geologic units including the Lower Cutler Beds from the Pennsylvanian, Permian Organ Rock and Cedar Mesa Formation, Triassic Chinle and Moenkopi Formations, Jurassic Wingate Sandstone and the Quaternary alluvium.

Due to the regional uplift the Colorado Plateau experienced, meandering rivers progressively cut through the crossbedded sandstone – cross-bedding reflects the transport of sand by a flow of water over a river channel – of the Cedar Mesa Formation forming the bridges, leaving behind the exposed erosional surfaces carved out by the river.

Today, these bridges face many challenges: The region is still seismically active. Earthquake activity could lead to the collapse of (some of) the bridges and other small formations. Due to the low stability of the sandstone from the lack of anchoring from root structures, slope failures and slumps can be quite common and especially in the event of flash floods. Continuous wind patterns increase erosion and alter the exposed surfaces and the structure of the channel is constantly changing due to seasonal rainstorms.  Sediment transport and deposition, caused by streamflow, is a major factor in channel morphology and, therefore, the ecosystem of the Natural Bridges Monument.  The National Park Service constantly monitors the changes and issues that arise.

A final remark: Thanks to the entire group of the 2015 Annual AAPG Student Field Trip for making this photo possible. Members of the CSL – Center for Carbonate Research and the UM Student Chapter of AAPG for funds, and field trip leaders: Gregor Eberli and Donald McNeill.

By Kimberly C. Galvez, University of Miami – RSMAS

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

 

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