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Rock Magnetism

10 minute interview: Louise Hawkins at AGU 2015

It’s been a shamefully long time since I last posted, or carried out a 10 minute interview, for the blog. What better place to find willing recruits and interesting research to showcase than the largest annual gathering of geoscientists: the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting?

For those of you who’ve been before, there is no doubt that attending the AGU Fall Meeting is a daunting experience. Add to that presenting your work, as an oral presentation to boot and it becomes quite a beast.

I popped along to one of the geomagnetism sessions at this year’s Fall Meeting to listen to Louise Hawkins’s talk on the strength of the magnetic field during the Devonian. Despite the imposing setting and a room was packed with experts in geomagnetism, Louise delivered a pitch perfect presentation and navigated the questions with ease. I caught up with her later to have a chat about her research and we also spoke about her experience at the meeting.

Vital Statistics

Meet Louise! (Credit: Louise Hawkins)

Meet Louise! (Credit: Louise Hawkins)

  • You are: Louise Hawkins (
  • You work at: Liverpool University
  • Your role is: PhD – 2nd Year.

Q1) What are you currently working on?

We think the geomagnetic field 360 million years ago, during the Devonian, was much weaker than it is presently. It may also have been flipping, or reversing, much more frequently than at present but we don’t have much direct evidence either way at this point..

It seems that leading up to a Superchron, a long period of time when the magnetic field does not reverse, the field behaves in this way, i.e., is weaker and prone to flipping more often. So, is there a pattern going back in time? If there is, the time it takes to switch between the two behaviours ,indicates that it may be controlled by mantle convection.

Why does it matter? We are able to model the recent field, but we know that the field’s past behaviour could be more extreme (long periods of no reversals, for example). The only way to understand its most extreme behaviour is to go back in time and find evidence for it. Importantly, if we are seeing a transition in the behaviour of the field in the Devonian it tells us something about Earth internal structure at that time.

Q2) What is a typical day like for you?

I don’t really have a typical day.

As soon as I get to the lab, I get started with experiments. I measure the strength of the field and I do this on Tristan – the microwave palaeointensity system. Tristan is pretty unique: it is the only instrument of its kind in the world.

In my experiments, I take tiny, tiny rock sample (5mm diameter), microwave them in order to heat them and extract information about the ancient magnetic field. I average about 2 hrs per sample – so I’m only able to complete 3 to 4 experiments in a day. It’s quite a tedious process which doesn’t need all my attention continuously, so you’ll often catch me trying to do some work, or watching Netflix while I’m running the experiments.

If I’m not doing experiments, I’ll be analysing the results of my experiments at the computer.

There is also lots of training as part of my PhD programme. At the moment I’m taking a maths course and another course in software carpentry, teaching me to use tools like Python and how to programme. In the past I’ve attended courses on how to run a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), for instance.

Q3) Can you provide a brief insight into the main findings of your recent paper/research?

The samples I’m working on are Devonian aged rocks from Siberia: intrusive rocks, such as dykes and sills. When I measure the strength of the magnetic field recorded by the samples, they suggest that the field at the time they were formed was very weak. This isn’t too unexpected as it fits the pattern in geomagnetic behaviour before a Superchron.

However, I’ve also had some interesting results. When my samples are heated and measured, a lot can go wrong with experiment e.g. the magnetic grains can alter, etc., so we perform checks to make sure the results are reliable. My samples have all behaved in a way that might suggest that the experiments have gone wrong but they pass all of the usual, and not so usual, checks. It seems this bad behaviour is a natural phenomenon as opposed to resulting from alternation or anything else. I came to the AGU hoping to start a discussion about that and get others people’s view on the subject.

Q4) What has been the highlight of your career so far? And as an early stage researcher where do you see yourself in a few years’ time?

Coming here (San Francisco) and presenting a talk at AGU in the second year of my PhD features high up there.

In the future I’d like academic career. I’d like to do a post-doc(s) after my PhD and hopefully one that would allow me to travel abroad as part of that.

Alternatively I could open a cake shop! Why a cake shop? Cake is delicious and why not? Baking is the other thing I love to do.

Louise on fieldwork, with the help of the Geomagnetism Lab Technician, Elliot Hurts, who featured in the first ever 10 minute interview! (Credit: Louise Hawkins)

Louise on fieldwork, with the help of the Geomagnetism Lab Technician, Elliot Hurts, who featured in the first ever 10 minute interview! (Credit: Louise Hawkins)

Q6) To what locations has your research taken you and why?

I’ve been to Scotland for field work – collecting samples – near Dundee. I’ve previously attended a conference in Prague (IUGG) and now I’m here in San Francisco.

Q7) What is your highlight of attending the AGU 2015 Fall Meeting?

I really enjoyed the Bullard Lecture given by Steve Constable. I’ve also enjoyed ‘fan-girling’ on big figures in palaeomagnetism too.

Q8) If you could invent an element, what would it be called and what would it do?

Fubarium – If it accidently gets mixed in with your experiment, then everything goes completely fubar , i.e., a disaster movie, but it has a short half-life so you just need to wrestle your results from Godzilla for two weeks, or save your lab from an oncoming meteorite and then you’ll remember you’ve got to get back to your thesis.

Louise completed her undergraduate degree (MSci) at Liverpool University – including a research project in sulphide mineralogy of North Wales and its deformation textures. Then she went onto a 2 year career in industry working for CGG Robertson as a mineralogist before joining the core magnetics group, were she carried out work in the fields of– magentostratigraphy and magnetic fabrics of cores for the oil industry. She is now back at University doing a PhD in Geophysics and studying the Earth’s past magnetic field.

An Andy Warhol Moment for Liverpool’s Geomagnetism Group – dating the formation of the Earth’s Inner core

An Andy Warhol Moment for Liverpool’s Geomagnetism Group – dating the formation of the Earth’s Inner core

This week, my PhD supervisor, Andy Biggin, had a paper out in Nature. The findings of this new research point towards the Earth’s inner core being older than we’d previously thought. Recent estimates, suggest that the Earth’s solid inner core started forming between half a billion and one billion years ago. However, Andy’s (and co-workers) new measurements of ancient rocks as they cool from magma have indicated that it may actually have started forming more than half a billion years earlier.

I’m not going to go into the details of the findings, you can learn more about those from the paper itself and also from the press coverage (BBC news and an article in The Conversation by Andy himself). Instead, below you’ll find a blog post which Andy originally posted on the Liverpool Geomagnetism Group blog (I reproduced it here with his permission). I found it interesting because it explores (from a scientists’ perspective) the sometimes difficult relationship between research and media coverage. One way to inspire future generations of scientists is by getting new and exciting research in the public eye; something not always easy when researching the workings of the inner Earth – it just doesn’t have the mass appeal and wow factor of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis! The new research has had plenty of media coverage, as Andy describes below, and it’s exciting, not only for palaeomagnetism, but also the broader public as it shed’s light on how the Earth formed and came to be as it is now.


Pop-artist Andy Warhol famously stated that: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. I suspect yesterday may be the closest we will ever get to proving him right.

A paper on which I am lead-author claims that we have may have pinned down the point in Earth’s history when the inner core first started to freeze at the centre of the Earth to between 1 and 1.5 billion years ago.  I already thought this was big news so was a bit deflated when Nature decided not to run with the excellent picture (above) created by Kay Lancaster (cartographer at the University of Liverpool) on its cover or even feature it in its press release.

Nevertheless, our excellent press officer at Liverpool helped produce a great press release which saw a story featured on the popular website from the outset and an article in one of Spain’s top newspapers El Pais.

Things were a bit slow-burning for a while – except in India and Finland. Then the break-though – a beautiful piece by Simon Redfern for BBC news online! I checked and it was even linked to the front page of BBC news (though you did have to scroll down a LONG way to get it…).

This was quickly followed up by a piece on the Daily Mail which our press officer tells me is the “most read online news site in the world”. A number of other things have followed including a post on one of my favourite blogs – IFLScience.

Then, just as I was packing up to go home, I received a phone call from the BBC World Service who wanted a short interview. I obliged in the evening and my nervous responses aired a few hours later. You can listen to the podcast here (it is the very last feature – “And finally…”). They refer before and after the interview to the finding as being that the magnetic field is much older than previously thought – incorrect in this specific case but relevant to another recent finding, albeit one that Liverpool people were not involved in making.

More informative is a piece I wrote for “The Conversation”. There has only been one comment at the time of writing – hopefully they will improve…

A summary from our press office indicates that there are 39 news outlets and counting featuring the story  and tweets still coming through every few minutes. The coverage extends over at least 11 countries ranging from USA to China,  Argentina to Pakistan so, while I can, I am claiming (brief) world fame for our research!

By Andy Biggin, Lecturer at the University of Liverpool

This article was originally posted in, you can view the post here.

EGU DIARIES: Day Two (Tuesday 29th April)

egu_logo_ga2014Tuesday was a seriously busy day! Again, I was in the situation where I found it difficult to choose which sessions to attend. I was spoilt for choice. There were a few highlights: an early morning session on geoethics and geoeducation proved to be an interesting experience whilst the session on geodynamics of the continental crust proved really relevant for my own research. I also attended my first ever press conferences and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience!

The Early Earth             

We know little about the history of the early Earth and this is mainly due to two key factors: the lack of records for the early Earth and their complicated histories and range of compositional mixtures. Research presented at session GMPV5/GD2.4 on the Earth’s early crust suggests the Archean mantle was 200-300°C hotter than at present. Continental crust volumes were small and supported little topography as a result of also being hotter. Sea-level is related (amongst many other factors, of course), to the temperature of the mantle and is expected to have been higher than at present due to the elevated mantle temperatures. As a result, it is estimated that less than 5% of the crust was emerged during Archean times.  One of the crucial questions about this period in the Earth’s history is: When did plate tectonics start and when did subduction being? Chris Hawkesworth (winner of the Robert Wilhelm Bunsen Medal) made the point that convergent margins do not produce a lasting record of crust generation and we might be better off looking in collision zones for the answers to these key questions.

The Core

Gaining understanding the workings of the Earth’s core was the main theme of session GD4.1/EMR/PS2.7. By developing

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Author: Dr. Gary A. Glatzmaier.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons,
Author: Dr. Gary A. Glatzmaier. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.

our knowledge of the Earth’s magnetic field we can make inferences about the Earth’s interior structure and interactions between the core and the mantle. The research presented in the session covered a number of time scales but the talk by Leah Ziegler linked in nicely with the talks I’d attended earlier on in the day and has implications for my own research. Newly published figures of thermal conductivity for the core suggest they are three times higher than previously thought and hint towards a largely adiabatic heat flow in the core. This implies that the core would be a relatively young feature appearing at about 3.0Ga. However, we have strong evidence (including the research I am presenting on Thursday, 1st May at Red Posters 15:30-17:00, Poster R112) from paleomagnetism that the Earth has a stable geomagnetic field since at least 3.48Ga. We’ve always assumed that the mantle is magnetically invisible, but perhaps this is an assumption we need to revisit. Is it possible that it could contribute to the magnetic field? Could it be that a large magma ocean, (which contributes a large number of radionuclides and is therefore a significant heat source), is a possible mechanism b which an early Earth magnetic field could be generated?

Geoethics & Geoeducation

As geoscientist we have to consider the social and cultural implications of our research and work.  I’ve noticed this topic has featured quite prominently at the Assembly this year. The ideas of geoethics can be applied to all aspects of geosciences, from how we communicate and engage with the lay person through to how we approach natural hazards, exploration in Polar Regions and climate change. It also includes the promotion of our geoheritage and geodiversity and highlights the usefulness of geology and geophysics in everyday life. The International Association for Promoting Geoethincs (IAPG), affiliated with the International Union of Geoscientist (IUGS), is the body which promotes geoethics.

There is no dedicated Division at EGU that covers geoethics, geoeducation and public engagement, but there are a variety of sessions and splinter meetings which cover all three subjects. They often clash in the time table and coverage seems more prominent in natural hazard sessions. As Earth Scientist become more aware of their social responsibility and the need to disseminate and communicate their research, I wonder whether the time for a more concerted effort to support and promote geoethics might have come.

The Earth’s protective shield

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Author: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Credit: Wikimedia Commons,
Author: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

I came across this video, which very clearly explains how the Earth’s magnetic field protects us from Solar Storms. It then goes on to explain the link of these phenomena to our planet’s climate. The added bonus is that the images are  very cool and I think the voice over is done by  Liam Neeson…. Does anyone else think so? Anyway, I digress…

For a written account of what is discussed in the brilliant video by NASA, head over to the guest blog post I wrote on Geosphere on how the Earth has an amazing protective shield.