Small science, big picture

By Eleanor

Something I find bizarre and amazing about science is the juxtaposition of scales.

You can have a big problem, like “how did our planet form?” and attack it by understanding very small things, like how atoms arrange themselves in magma, or tiny differences in the amounts of elements present in different rocks. By understanding many small things, you can build a huge, yet rigorous and detailed picture of the world. Like a high-resolution panoramic photograph.

As a scientist, thinking about my research every day, I get desensitised sometimes to how cool it is. But sometimes I read something that blows my mind a little bit, and gives me a new appreciation for what it is I’m doing, and the achievements of the generations of scientists before us.

A moment like this happened last week. I was reading about a new technique that I will be using soon, which involves measuring something on the scale of ‘parts per million’.

What does a concentration of parts per million mean? Well, imagine a water tank that can hold ten thousand litres of water… like this one:

Now imagine that you fill it up with water, and then (assuming there’s a little more space in the top), pour in 100 mL (a bit under half a cup) of apple juice.

The concentration of apple juice in this water tank is ten parts per million.

Now imagine you have two water tanks, and an evil mastermind has put 100 mL apple juice into one, and 110 mL into the other. This evil mastermind will tell you all the secrets to the universe if you can figure out which one is which (and no guessing allowed; that’s not scientific!).

How would you do it? You could try to taste the difference, but I’d be willing to bet that you wouldn’t even be able to tell there was apple juice there at all, since it’s so dilute, let alone the difference between the tanks.

This is exactly the type of problem that earth scientists are confronted with on a regular basis. The evil mastermind is nature, who will share her secrets only if we try very very hard. The tank of water could be rock, and the apple juice is a certain element that we try to measure in the rock.

Fortunately, scientists have, over decades of work, developed techniques and machines that help us to make measurements like these. It’s something I often take for granted because these measurements can seem so routine, but it’s nice to remind myself every now and then that some of the simplest things I do are actually pretty cool. And that some of the smallest details that we discover are helping to complete that high resolution, panoramic photograph of the world.




Fish Ears at an Ancient Lake

By Kelsie Long

Hi all! I am part of the small but unique Archaeogeochemistry group here at the Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES). We are focused on bridging the gap between cutting edge analytical sciences and archaeological research. For my part I completed my undergraduate degree in archaeology and then for my honours project I moved into the realms of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction at the archaeologically and geologically significant site of Lake Mungo. I am continuing this work for my PhD. In the months to come I want to rope in some of the other archaeogeochemists to tell you about the cool and interesting stuff they are doing but for this post I will introduce you to Lake Mungo and the wonderful realm of fish otolith geochemistry.

Lake Mungo is one of seven now dry lakes that together make up the Willandra lakes world heritage area situated in south western, New South Wales. These lakes once formed the major overflow outlet for the Lachlan River and are enormous, in total covering some 240,000 hectares! I visited Lake Mungo for a couple of days in 2012 and again in 2014 and can attest to the areas almost ethereal beauty. As you walk along the ancient lakes’ shorelines, giant lunette outcrops tower over you. Exposed over time by wind and water, these structures provide not only welcome shade on the rather barren dunes, but also evidence for cyclic lake level fluctuations stretching back over the last 100,000 years.

Mungo 1

A view across Lake Mungo from the lunettes, two humans for scale (extra points if you can spot them).

In the 1970s human remains discovered eroding out of Mungo’s shoreline lunettes pushed dates for human occupation of Australia to beyond 20,000 years BP, radically changing our understanding of Australian pre-history at the time. Since then the development of new dating technologies and the discovery of further human remains have extended the timing of human occupation to beyond 40,000 years BP (not very old in a geological sense but for Australian archaeologists this was pretty epic).  Other evidence for human occupation found in the lunettes includes stone tools and fish bone fireplaces.

The lakeside lunettes of Lake Mungo are the focus of ongoing excavations and geological mapping by Nicola Stern and colleagues at the La Trobe University in Melbourne. Evidence for human occupation has turned up during some periods but not others. Why? I want to build up more information about what the lakes were like when humans were visiting them thousands of years ago and explore why certain lake conditions were more attractive than others. To this end I am assessing how the geochemistry of fish otoliths can be used as recorders of ambient water conditions.


Excavations at one of the fish bone fireplaces at Lake Mungo (or maybe an area with stone tools, this was taken in 2012 and I can’t quite remember)

Otoliths are structures that form within the inner ear of bony fish by the incremental deposition of calcium carbonate forming annual rings similar to those of trees. As calcium carbonate is laid down elements from the surrounding water, some with distinctive isotopic compositions, become incorporated into the otolith matrix. By cutting transversely through fish otoliths their age rings can be exposed. Then we can analyse their unique elemental and isotopic compositions  using high resolution in situ techniques, such as the Sensitive High resolution Ion Microprobe (SHRIMP) here at the RSES.

otolith images 1

Clockwise from top left: an otolith and some burnt fish bones at Lake Mungo (the scale bar has 1 cm increments); two otoliths from Mungo encased in resin; a modern otolith in resin sectioned to expose annual rings; a modern otolith thin section showing those beautiful annual rings.

At the moment I am determining how the geochemistry of modern fish otoliths record water composition change, such as during evaporation or flooding, and whether or not we can pick up a temperature signal. Once I have established this I will then apply the same techniques to  ancient otoliths from Lake Mungo. Preliminary results from the modern fish studies show that large changes in the ambient water chemistry during the fish’s life, such as during evaporation or flooding, can be easily identified  but temperature effects are not as easily discernible.

I will leave you with the following comic because it made me laugh and now I wish we had interdepartmental pun-offs!

geology pun

Archaeologists vs Geologists in a pun-off

The Foram’s Song

Are you fed up with boring graphs? What about listening to your data instead of starring at them for hours?

It is possible thanks to the sonification of data.

Above, an example of the sonification played by physicists of CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) for the 60th birthday of the organisation. This piece of music is made of different data set from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider), giving an idea of the complexity of the Universe.

How did they do that?

A brief explanation on sonification from BBC

The idea is simple. You assign a musical note to a value. The greater your value is, the higher the pitch gets. If your data are increasing the higher your composition will become and vice versa. Their are several free software programs on the internet that enables you to do this like Puredata among others.

Sonification has been used for a long time without creating such nice melodies. For instance, the Geiger counter uses the same principle as the more radiation there is, the strongest the sound you hear.

Why should we use it?

Because it sounds fun. And because, sonification of data enables scientists to hear more information at once than when looking at graphs. You can put together several data set and recognize patterns and harmony between them. In fact, it’s possible to hear many dimensions.

Their are many other examples on the internet. This one is a real current issue:

I am only an amateur but I know that there are few people in RSES who are very good music players. Maybe we could team up and try to work on an RSES sonification project with geology data?

Why you should study abroad in Australia

By Jo

For my blogging debut I thought I would share some of my experiences with moving to the other side of the world to start my PhD – the good the bad and the ugly (but mainly the good). A year on into my studies is probably a good time to write this as I’ve been here long enough to become settled but haven’t yet been over come by the demon thesis.

2014-01-30 10.01.12

Figure 1 – My first encounter with the Australian residents – a water dragon (the ugly?).

Firstly, why did I decide to make the move from sunny Leicester, UK to wet and windy Canberra, Australia*? Well, at some point in my life I wanted to live abroad and I’ve always wanted to study for a PhD – so why not kill two birds with one stone? After mentioning this to my master’s project supervisor, he pointed me towards the Research School of Earth Science, ANU, where he also studied for his PhD. I looked into it and made contact with my potential supervisor, Hrvoje Tkalčić – it was pretty strange having an interview at 11pm due to the time difference! So after submitting my application, waiting a few months, and a few more, I was accepted, found somewhere to live, and the next thing I knew I arrived in Canberra in the middle of a 40 °C heat wave. The first thing that crossed my mind was “what have I done, how will I cope with this heat!?” Turns out I needn’t have worried, the body is very good at adapting to, for the most, perfect weather. My supervisor, Hrvoje, kindly greeted me at the airport, we went to grab some lunch and I was introduced to some of the Australian residents (figure 1).

Figure 2 - my academic family (I unwisely chose this photo day the day to wear my Star Wars t-shirt which now is on the internet for evermore)

Figure 2 – my excellent academic “family” (I unwisely chose this photo day the day to wear my Star Wars t-shirt which is now on the internet for evermore)

In my opinion, if you want to move abroad, doing it for your PhD is a great time. In many cases, especially if you come straight from an undergrad/masters like me, you have very little tying you down and stopping you moving. When you arrive, you will also have the support of an academic institution around you in case anything goes wrong or you need advice or financial support. Your research group turns into your academic “family” so you always have people to hang out with or talk to if you have any concerns. Mine were great at making me feel settled and answering my many research and non- research related questions (figure 2).

Living abroad also gives you that extra push to become fully independent. In my case during my undergrad I was living a 40 min drive from home, so was home most weekends (even with the occasional load of washing – sorry Dad!). Living on the other side of the world means you can’t do that. Even you have a problem during the day where it would be nice to hear the advice of a family member, you can’t even phone as they will be sleeping – so you learn to solve things yourself, and if I were to be very cliché about it, become an actual adult (maybe)!

FIgure 3 - team "Subductors" (get it?) arise victorious in their gruelling triathlon!

FIgure 3 – team “Subductors” (get it?) arise victorious from their gruelling triathlon!

Now onto the (not so) bad. These are very Canberra specific and are probably more like minor grievances – those of you who have spent the last year with me probably know exactly what I’m going to say here! Number 1 – the temperature inside houses. Canberra gets very cold winters (down to -8 at night) and none of the houses are insulated which quite frankly, baffles me. However this is not a reason not to move to Canberra, I just enjoy a good shameless rant. Number two – the public transport system – not so great in Canberra. However I have solved this problem with spending far too much money buying a bike – Canberra really is great for biking, and anything outdoorsy in general. In fact, in the last year I have done outdoor things I would have never even thought I could do, for example, climbing, rogaining and entering triathlons and even winning one as part of a team! (Figure 3)

So a year on, I can honestly say moving abroad has been one of the best decisions of my life. You just have to remember that even though you are very far away you are only a flight from home** – it’s crazy how small the world really is.

* was that right?

** or two in my case!  This is advice I was given before I moved and it really is so true.  Travel may be expensive but it really is easy to just jump on a plane.

Aloha, Mahalo and Goodnight!

By Jo Ward

I was lucky enough to go on the recent Geological Society of America’s Hawaiian volcanoes field trip with a fabulous bunch of students from Australia, New Zealand and the United States.  It was an amazing geological experience and a fantastic opportunity to meet people from around the world. For those of you who are not familiar with Hawaii, the culture is unique and exhibits a lovely blend of Polynesian traditions and if you think you can’t take a good photo, it is the place for you! I challenge anyone to take a bad photo of the Hawaiian landscape, it won’t happen.


There is an uncanny fondness for Chihuahuas across the island state and a reverence when referring to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and the creator of the islands. The mythology surrounding her describes her as a fair but fiery lady who is not to be trifled with. She is so highly respected that during volcanic activity, locals in Kona visit the henna parlors to have images of her and the volcano imprinted on their bodies.  The locals are conscientious in their attempt to not lose their cultural roots and are happy to chat about almost anything, for a place that is so regularly devastated by natural hazards the spirit and generosity of the people was absolutely phenomenal to experience.

The trip was organized by Gary Lewis of the GSA and co-run by the lovely Amy Magoo, the whole trip was well planned and expertly executed. I’m an ore-focused geologist and had a limited knowledge of volcanology but that did not inhibit the experience or my understanding on this tour. Like many geo’s it is not until you go out into the field that you gain a deeper understanding of how all the features for a deposit/ landscape fit together.


The trip delivered awesome activities like hiking some truly incredibly impressive lava fields and volcanoes, coastal treks, whale watching and an amazing ‘doors off’ chopper ride over the currently active Kilauea volcano summit with an adept Belgian pilot named York who provided an excellent playlist. I can honestly say the combination of Jonny Cash’s Ring of Fire while flying over ropey Pohoehoe flows decimating a pine forest and feeling the heat and smoke off the ground was a once in a lifetime experience, and what can I say I love volcanic gasses in the morning.


We also ventured to an ocean worn  ancient lava cove which holds one of the world’s only green beach, or for the discerning geologist a beach with sand consisting entirely of olivine. The water was unlike any colour I’ve seen and there was something almost trippy and definitely enjoyable about lying in green sand.


The sunsets are spectacular, the cocktails were creative and tasty (I suggest trying a ‘Lava-flow’) and the geology was unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I’ve snorkeled with a 3-legged turtle, learned many things and seen the ‘glow’ of a volcanic crater at night. I had an absolute ball and cannot more highly recommend having a geo-venture in Hawaii.


Auf Wiedersehen

By Thomas

This post is likely going to be my last one in a while. The reason for this is, that I’m now venturing in the final stage of my PhD and I have to focus on writing my thesis. Normally it takes a considerable amount of my time to write a blog post. So the only reason I might show up here in the next months would be if I just want to share an interesting read or if I want to let off some steam by writing down a rant in 30-X minutes.

But there is another reason: It is time for me to hand over the blog to the “next generation” of RSES student bloggers. I took over the blog at the beginning of April last year from Claire, and after nearly one year I think it is time for a change for the blog as well. Those of you who follow Oncirculation since its early days may remember that the blog started with a group of bloggers around founding mother Kelly. This group ensured that different views and especially the different fields represented at RSES found themselves on the blog.

Luckily, a group of PhD students came forward and wants to stir the course of the blog back into this direction. So instead of the “single editor + guest blogger” approach of the last two years, they will try to go back to a “multiple editors + guest bloggers” approach. This will not only widen the spectrum of the posts appearing on the blog, it will also raise their quantity:


“Good …” Well, you got it.

Good news everyone, the team set themselves the goal of 2 posts per week - so you`ll get a double dose of Oncirculation each week.

Over the course of the coming weeks every member of the new team will start to delight you with their posts. While Louise, Jo, Rose, Kelsie, Jess, Pat and Johanna are new to the blog, Eleanor and Jenn already wrote for it before (here and here). Some of the team see their role as bloggers themselves while others are going to stalk the corridors and offices of RSES to hunt down posts from the vast RSES student body (~120 PhD students) to ensure an even wider scope of the topics covered by the blog.

The teams sidekick will be Tanja, who already contributed many posts over the last year and who I can`t thank enough as without her I wouldn`t have been able to fill the blog every week.1 Why only the sidekick? Well, she forced me at gunpoint to sign a blood pact with satan stating that she never ever has to be disturbed with the administrative/editorial side of the blog as you can see the team is already big enough, and didn`t needed another administrator/editor at this point in time. I also want to thank Kate and Kelly who came up with several post over the year and everyone else who contributed.

I`m very excited about the future of the blog and I`m sure the new team will lead it to new heights (no pressure). Eleanor already made a good start with last weeks post about alternative founding possibilities for field works, which has of now been shared 52 on Facebook2, the by far highest ever “scored” number of any Oncirculation posts (as far as I know). Of course this would not have been possible without YOU – our readers. So please keep on sharing, liking, ranking and commenting. There is nothing more rewarding after you`ve put a lot of effort into a post, than to see that people stayed long enough after reading it to do any of those things. And also let us know if you spot anything where you think we need improvement or need to fix something.

Thanks for following us.

I had a great year with the blog, I hope you too.

Don`t know how to finish this post elegantly, so just …

Over and Out.

1 Seriously, if I couldn`t find any other person to write a post and my own head was empty, I asked Tanja and she would respond: “I`m pretty busy right now, but I might be able to write up something short this afternoon” …  30 minutes later I would have a 5 page post in my inbox.

2 As the highest I`ve ever got was somewhere in the mid-twenties I have to admid that I  would be jealous if I wouldn`t be so happy that the new era started with a “BANG”.

Hilarity ensues – Part II

Or: Why you should do fieldwork

By Tanja

After last weeks post covered “why you should do fieldwork” this weeks post covers “why you should do fieldwork”. As promised – a sort of daily account of all the fun and action.


Figure 1: A bit of Rottnest island. Still haven’t booked it? How will you ever see the adorable quokka?! Google images just won’t do it justice!

Day 0

Free day before the actual work. Spent it on the Rottnest Island (Figure 1). Beautiful place, highly recommended for a 2-3 day vacation. Lots of cute quokkas (Figure 2), two amazing lighthouses, scenery galore and – oh my god – the beautiful beaches.

Go. Book it.

You can cycle the entire island in one day and you will still have more to see.


Figure 2: Artist impression of a quokka.

Day 2

After servicing a station with the rest of the crew (three guys) somewhere in the red bush outside of Esperance, I had to quickly pee before proceeding. So I moved away from the cars and squatted. As I was relieving myself, from the bush across from me (~2m away) a snake crawled out and started moving towards me. First I cursed silently and since that didn’t stop the snake and didn’t minimize the chances of it crawling right past my backside I had to throw away my pride and modesty, risking the guys to see me – and I stood up.

The snake stopped. I looked at it. It looked back at me as it caught me (literally) with my pants down.

I guess it decided “Daymn I don’t want to bite THAT” because it turned around and crawled back where it came from. After visually inspecting the area around me I squatted back and finished my business.

Coming back to the car (the guys luckily didn’t witness this brave battle) I told the rest of my party what happened. Christian (the trip leader, and the person who actually needs the seismic array) had this to say: “Figures, I’ve been here so many times, never saw a snake and you get to see one on your second day”.

Day 3

After installing a station I touched onto my pants pocket where I could feel the outline of my camera and asked my trip leader if he needs a photo of the location. We needed some before because we installed two in the Cape Arid National Park and the park ranger asked us to take and later send her photos so she knows what they look like. The trip leader said this wasn’t necessary as we’re not in the park anymore. Leaving my camera in the pocket I walked back to the car, where I remained until we reached our next camping spot in the middle of nowhere. As I sat down on the camping chair and popped open a can of EMU beer I asked “where is my camera?”. Searched everywhere in the car, in and around it and the camping gear, everywhere on the camping spot – camera was nowhere to be found. We weren’t that far away from the station we just installed and the guys assured me it is probably still lying there. Umar and I will go and look for it in the morning.

In the middle of the night something wakes me up. Through the opening of my swag I observe a dark outline of something grazing next to Umar’s swag. It looked like a camel or a horse. I fall asleep.

Day 4

First time that our party separates into two groups (one car in each group, two people per car). According to our trip leader Umar and I had three easy stations to service. Not very far away, easy to reach… we will be finished by 2 o’clock, three at the latest.


Figure 3: Fraser range station. This photo taken from the logo of features the cottage where we stayed

Umar and I started very early to get my camera and start this easy service as quick as possible. We wanted to reach Fraser Range station (our stay for the night, Figure 3) as soon as possible as it was our 4th day without a shower. Went back to the station, looked everywhere – couldn’t find a camera. And you’re wondering why there are no photos in this post that I shot myself? The camera is still somewhere out there. The guys reckon it might be found when someone comes to service the station next time (3-6 months from now). It is game on for all the fieldies in WA now.

Anyways… It took us around two and half hours to reach the station we had to service. It was a really shit road with lots of obstacles and holes and bumps. When we finally reached an approximate location of the station, the GPS informed us that the station is now 560m from the car. In the bush. Through the very thick f***ing bush. And so Umar and I started through the bush, him hauling a heavy recorder. Found the station and replaced the battery. Walked back to the car (we exited about 200 m to the right of it, as stupidly we didn’t take its position – it is easy to get lost in the bush). At the car, I check the data on the laptop – no good. We have to change the recorder entirely. This time we took the position of the car and walked back through the bush, exchanged the recorder and then again got back to the car. This whole endeavor of servicing took just over 45 mins. By the time we were ready to go to the next station it was lunchtime and we knew – we are not finishing by 2 o’clock.

Took us another hour and a half to reach the second station. We had a flat tire on the way there. When that happened, Umar started freaking out about all the smushed crackers in the back of the car. They got smushed because of all the holes, bumps and bush bashing. Which is also what caused our flat tire. I said something like “so this tire”“Nevermind that, look at these crackers!” Umar interrupted. “They’re all over the place! How am I supposed to eat them now?! Don’t worry about the tire, that’s no biggie”. True to his word, he changed the tire in 15-20 mins, all the while cursing the crackers.

The second station was around 200 m into the bush, after another bumpy track. Also required a change of recorder.

By the time we reached the third station it was five o’clock, and we were still around ~1.5 hours drive from Fraser Range. Since we were in government vehicles and they are not really allowed to drive in the dark (it is frowned upon) we didn’t have much time (WA doesn’t have daylight savings). The third station was installed on an ants nest. Umar didn’t take his gloves with him that one time and payed for it. Everything that could have been wrong with this station was wrong – in other words, it didn’t work at all. Whenever we turned it on, it turned itself back off. We exchanged three different recorders and two batteries to try and correct for this but nothing happened. This means around 6 trips to and from the car through the bush. Eventually we didn’t know what to do and we took the recorder with us and left. Meaning there was no station there when we finished.


Figure 4: A part of Eyre highway that I have actually seen. This bit of road turns into an airstrip if needed. Umar tells me that what happens is you see an airplane descending towards you and you wildly swerve over to the side to let it land. Cursing everything and everyone as you do that. Straya.

On our way back when we finally reached a wide enough dirt road we pushed our side mirrors out again (we kept them in for bush bashing of course). In my mirror – horror – we see one of the flaps on our car broke and a seismic recorder is hanging over the side. Emergency stopping – quick check, everything seems to be ok and not missing. Keep going. Almost hit a kangaroo. After about 45 minutes of bush bashing and another ~40 minutes on Eyre highway (Figure 4) we reached Fraser Range station exhausted and pissed off around 7 o’clock. Luckily showers were available.

Aftermath: In the fridge my bacon was marinated in Corona beer that spilled all over because of bumpy tracks. Cherry tomatoes were smushed all over the fridge. Fatigue. And the necessity to go back to that last station again to put any recorder there sometimes later in the trip. Comfortable bed.

Day 5

Staying at trailer park in Norseman because total fire ban and 40+ degrees. Unexpected shower and bed.

Day 6

Camping in the bush again. While setting up camp I realize I have no idea where my sleeping bag is. Did you guess it? Fell out of the back of the car when our flaps broke.

Day 7

Returning to the station that was left empty – traveling back on the same road. And what do you know? In the middle of the road (about ~30 minutes from the spot where we realized our flaps broke two days before) lies a big, blue bulge of my sleeping bag. So much win!

Day 8

Fraser Range station again. Showers and bed again (yay!) Doing the laundry (yay!). Cleaning the smushed tomatoes in the fridge (yay!).

Apparently Billy the python (yes, the python) sleeps in the roof of the cottage where we are staying.

Days 9-13

Various hilarity. Moments worth of a photograph, but no camera in sight.

Towards the end of the trip, one of the last stations to serve…. We are very close to private property, farms and paddocks. We stop at a supposed location of our station, right next to the dirt road and the fence of someone’s farm. The GPS tells me I’m basically standing right where the station should be!

But it’s not there.

Umar observes the tracks on the side of the road leading straight to where I’m standing and with Sherlock-like precision breaks down the events: Someone brought a heavy vehicle (of bulldozer type) and pushed dirt and branches and whatnot to the side of the road, right where our station had been. Our station was hence buried a few metres beneath the visible pile of dirt I was standing on. Why would this happen? Maybe there was a reason. And maybe the farmer thought ANU is spying on him. Be as it may – as Umar put it: that station is half-way down to China bro.

Today we finish early. Obviously. 

Day 13

Kalgoorlie-Boulder. Showers and bed (yay!) Mining town, seems a bit dead but otherwise it’s good. I have phone reception!

Day 14

Visit to the Super Pit (Figure 5) – it is big. It is mind-boggingly big.

Super Pit_0

Figure 5: Kalgoorlie Super Pit.

A tour of one of the last still working brothels in Kalgoorlie. Yes, you read that correctly. Mind you – and I have to stress this – we did this at our own expense. University or government were not involved in this. It was an… interesting… experience. A middle-aged madame was telling us stories while sitting next to a few massive…. Toys. Enough said.

Skimpy bars. The only type of bar you get to see in Kalgoorlie. Enough Said.

Taking all of this into account – this was probably the best Valentines day ever (and yes, it was Valentines).

Day 15

Flying Kalgoorlie-Perth-Canberra.

Moral of the story? You should do fieldwork, because you don’t just learn something. You get to laugh out loud, visit dodgy places, visit beautiful places and you get to lose your camera. Don’t take your camera.

Fieldies of WA – I get you a crate of beer if you find my camera and no photos end up on the internet! Game on.