Posts Tagged ‘science’

You have to love science, much as you have to love a slightly naughty, slightly incompetent little child when it claims to have worked something out about the world for the first time ever.  The study of the history of science may seem a dull and distant cousin to the cutting edge of modern research, but history has many virtues, one of which is to help prevent us having to reinvent forgotten wheels. Researching the history of glaciology for my new book “Glacier”  I have encountered many cases where discoveries have been made, written up… and then forgotten, only for the same questions to be asked again a generation later.

In 2001 the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association included a paper that the authors described as “the first comprehensive description and interpretation of Pleistocene glacigenic deposits exposed in a cliff section at Thurstaston on the Wirral Peninsula, NW England.” It was a splendid paper, and did indeed provide the most comprehensive description and analysis of that site to date. It even referred to previously published literature about the glaciation of the UK from as early as 1860 to set the historical context for the work. However, it didn’t refer to one particular publication from that era: a fairly obscure note published in “The Glacialists’ Magazine” in 1895 under the heading “Notes on the glacial deposits on the Cheshire shore of the Dee Estuary” by Arthur R. Dwerryhouse, which was itself a detailed description and analysis of those same sediments. The 1895 paper seems to have fallen into the great pit of forgotten knowledge.

The 2001 paper set out to address the ongoing debate about whether the sediments were deposited by a land-based glacier or laid down under water, and whether the different sediments in the sequence represented different events or different processes operating within the context of a single event.  Dwerryhouse in 1895 had used much the same evidence as the 2001 team, including clast lithological analysis, striations on individual boulders and on boulder pavements, and deformation structures and clast fabrics in the sediments to settle the same argument for a previous generation. He concluded that the sediments were glacial, with the “boulder clay” deposited directly by an ice sheet while the sand and gravel were deposited by streams flowing at the base of that ice sheet. The list below compares extracts from the 2001 publication with extracts from the note published a hundred years earlier:

2001: The sedimentary succession at Thurstaston is best explained by the advance and subsequent recession of a single terrestrially based ice sheet during the Late Devensian. Both the diamictons are interpreted as basal, deformation tills with the interbeds of the sand, gravel and mud lithofacies as indicators of subglacial meltwater flow and ponding.

1895: The boulder clays I attribute, then, to the direct action of an ice sheet, and the gravels and sands to subglacial drainage.


2001 There is no evidence at Thurstaston to suggest a glaciomarine origin for the Late Devensian deglaciation sediments on this margin of the Irish Sea basin.

1895: I cannot see any evidence in the deposits on this shore in favour of the view that the beds were deposited in deep water.


2001: The diamicton lithofacies can be divided into an upper, clast-poor sandy diamicton and multiple units of a lower, clast-rich sandy diamicton.

1895: …two distinct layers of boulder-clay are shown in the cliffs. The lower bed… is sandy and of a bright red colour. The upper bed is… extremely varied in composition, in some places being very gravelly.


2001: (There is a) lack of clearly defined changes in clast lithology through the various lithofacies… Particularly distinctive rocks include the Borrowdale Volcanic Group tuffs, the Ennerdale granophyre and Eskdale granite. …

1895: Both beds contain shell fragments and their boulder contents appear to be similar. The latter consists of Eskdale granite, Buttermere granophyres, Scotch granites, Lake District volcanic rocks…

In a way it is reassuring to know that science can repeat its results in an independent re-study of the same question after a gap of a hundred years. Somehow it is comforting, also, to know that the till at Thurstaston hasn’t changed in that time. And it is astonishing to see how Victorian scientists over a century ago could reach the same conclusions as scientists in the 21st century, and then have their work lost and forgotten. It makes you wonder what else has been lost, and what will happen, over the course of time, to the things we are finding out today.

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The American writer Austin Kleon, who wrote “Newspaper Blackout”, has also written a book called “Steal Like an Artist”, so I am hoping that he won’t mind that I have stolen his idea to help teach my Geography students. The picture here from Kleon’s website http://www.austinkleon.com illustrates what he does.

"Creativity is Subtraction" from austinkleon.com

As Kleon puts it: “Grab a newspaper. Grab a marker. Find an article. Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like. Pretty soon you’ll have a poem.”

So how do I use this teaching Geography? The point I’m trying to make with the students is that Science is a way of exploring and understanding the world, but that there are other ways of exploring and understanding the world, and that sometimes those different approaches can help each other out. For example, as a Geographer you might often want to look closely at the world around you to see details that will help you to describe, understand and represent the way the world works. Science is one way of doing that. But I learned from my friend and colleague the artist Miriam Burke that a good way of forcing yourself to look carefully at something is to try to make art about it. Trying to make a picture or a model or a poem of something really makes you look closely at it. Art is a great way of exploring. That’s why, for me, art and Geography go nicely side by side.

So I took a copy of the first page of one of the basic course textbooks (“Geography – a Very Short Introduction” by J.A.Matthews and D.T.Herbert, 2008) and I started crossing out words. I asked the students to do the same. Now I’m sure there’s a whole psycho-pedagogic discourse on the traumatic consequences of making students cross out swathes of their text book. We’ll save that for a different blog. The point I want to record here is about how asking students to cross out most of the words in a page from the textbook makes them look much more closely at the original source than if we just asked them to read it. And if we insist that their Blackout Poem reflects the underlying meaning or core concept of the page they are editing (but that it must do more than simply abbreviate the content of the page), the activity seems to engage a whole new level of critical attention to the source (helping students to learn and think about the material) and at the same time switches on a creative or interpretive intellect that fixes the academic content of the original document into the mental context of the student’s own “work” on the piece. In other words, by USING the original document to create something new of their own, they get much more out of it.

This illustrates something I constantly tell students: that the best way to learn something is to use it for some purpose, especially if that involves communicating it to somebody. If you are struggling to understand glacier dynamics, set a date where you have to teach glacier dynamics to somebody who knows nothing about it.  It also illustrates nicely how doing something that appears to be non-academic can be a big help with your academic work. The value of play. If I can get my students to PLAY with their scientific source material… well, they’ll end up just like me!

I only came up with (sorry, stole) this idea a couple of days ago, but already I see huge scope ranging from fun little tutorial activities to major coursework projects. You could even do it just for Art. Oh, yeah, Austin Kleon already thought of that.  When I tweeted my first attempt at a Geography Blackout yesterday it quickly became far and away my most retweeted tweet ever, so this seems to have struck a chord with others, too.  And that’s why I thought I’d say just a little bit more about it here. For the record, here is that first attempt. My “Geography Blackout” redaction of the opening page of Matthews and Herbert (2008). I suspect there may be more to follow.

Gosh, I hope nobody steals this idea.

Peter Knight's "Exploration"

Peter Knight's "Exploration", inspired by Austin Kleon's "Newspaper Blackout" and by page 1 of "Geography - A Very Short Introduction" (Matthews and Herbert, 2008).

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Despite the best efforts of curriculum builders in schools and universities Geography may soon cease to exist. Like a firework, some disciplines burst into existence, burn brightly, explode into a thousand tiny sparkles and then disappear. This may be no bad thing: there is a school of thought that knowledge should not be broken up into disciplines and that it is only natural for a discipline to have a lifespan of usefulness and then die off. Following up the research I was doing recently into the Oceanic Turn of the 18th Century I was drawn into looking at work on “predisciplinarity”, or how ideas were organised before there were actual academic disciplines. From there I got into the idea that there might be such a thing as postdisciplinarity: a stage when disciplines stop being useful and cease to exist.  Geography as a named and labelled academic discipline isn’t actually that old, although people have been doing things that we would now call Geography more or less forever. The way that Geography can interact with so many other disciplines makes it a strong candidate for breaking up into little fragments, and I even have some colleagues who treat it as nothing but a bunch of fragments now. Of course they are wrong. There is a core, a heart to Geography that makes it much more than the sum of its component parts. Even though Geography overlaps with, and uses information from, a wide range of other disciplines, you can’t take a Historian, a Meteorologist, a Sociologist and a Geologist, shove them together in a building and call them a Geography Department! The heart, the Geography, the Geographers would be missing.  It is important for Geography students to learn (and for Geography staff to remember) what that heart is. Geography may be heading in the direction of the postdisciplinary, but it would be a little premature to think it was already there. Certainly Geography is the sort of discipline that can turn down that path very easily, but I don’t think it is time yet. Geography still needs some actual Geographers. If you are teaching Geography, or if you claim to be a Geographer, just make sure you know what Geography is and that you can tell the difference between what it reaches out to and what is at its core.

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I’ve been doing some very local geography lately. Partly just because I find my interests going that way and partly because I’m doing “research” for my “Total Geography” project. Of course doing hyper local micro-geography is nothing new, but it’s new to me. Today I was out with my i-phone, close to the building where I work, looking for the 53rd parallel. Yes, I know I could have looked it up on a map but that’s not the point. Yes I know that “real” geographers will tell me it’s sacrilege to use a phone for serious navigation, but this wasn’t all that serious. Part of the fun, in fact the whole point, was that this would be my 53-degrees north. I didn’t want to tame it and bag it and pin it down, I just wanted to go and find it, watch it for a bit, and then leave it alone. I know it’s already marked on the map so it’s not much of a discovery, but the one on the map isn’t mine, it’s the Ordnance Survey’s. I needed to find my own. Yes, the GPS found it for me really, but by combining the GPS and the map, and using a fairly dodgy GPS and a fairly small-scale map I kept any real certainty out of the picture and felt as if I was exploring for myself and discovering, over the space of a few minutes, an actual in-the-flesh example of an elusive geographical concept. A whole-number line stretching off around the world in both directions, separating everything to the north from everything to the south.  And so I sat for a while with my own little bit of the 53rd parallel. If I go and look for it in the same place tomorrow I hope it will have moved at least a little.  For a moment I considered (since it runs through the University Campus where I teach)  that I could mark it with some posts and a line carved in the ground, like the meridian at Greenwich or the equator at, well, at lots of places in fact. But then what would be the point of anyone trying to find it. Part of the fun of geography is exploration. At a global scale that is quite hard. But at a local scale it isn’t hard at all unless somebody has already labelled everything in big letters. Hence the growth in popularity of activities like geocaching, and the relevance of projects such as Mission Explore. For most of my professional life my Geography has either been at a grand scale (ice sheets, and epic landforms created in extreme environments) or has been couched within a framework of global systems. In a lot of “science” physical geography you can only get funding if you demonstrate that your project will address some global concern or relate to a massive international project concerning the history of the planet and the global impact of some hugely significant process . I don’t think I’ll get NERC funding to go and sit with the 53rd parallel for half an hour. But it’s Geography. And I enjoyed it a lot. If you have a little time to spare one afternoon you could do a lot worse than look at a map to find out what your nearest nice-sounding line of latitude or longitude is, then just go out and try to find it. Don’t disturb it. Just sit with it quietly for a while then leave it alone where nobody will pay it much attention. But next time you pass, you’ll know it’s around there somewhere. My 53-degrees North was on a stone bench at the end of the terrace walk overlooking the old walled garden at Keele. When I last saw it the line stretched off into the distance to the west across open country, and to the east it dived into dark woodland. Next week I might go and see if I can find 52-degrees and 59-minutes north.

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It’s a Complicated World

The world is a complicated place. That’s easy to say. I could hear people saying that to me when I was a first-year undergraduate. I could even say it myself. But I didn’t really see then how complicated the world is. The older you get, the more you see, the more complicated it becomes. And so we have schemes that help us to make sense of the world. Ways of organising all those complicated things and ideas and places and history and uncertainties and contradictions. Science is one scheme that gives us a way of making sense of the world.  Religion is another. There are lots to choose from. And you don’t just have to choose one. You can mix and match. You can make your scheme, your system, your way of looking at the world as complex as you like. It can be really complicated, if you want. Of course that might defeat your original goal of having a system that cut through the complexity, if that’s what you were looking for. On the other hand perhaps you were just looking for a scheme that recognised the complexity. Perhaps you just wanted to see it and acknowledge it. Perhaps then you don’t need a scheme, you need a vision.  And then everything becomes much more simple. The world turns out not to be so complicated after all. The world is a pretty straightforward place.

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