A wise football manager* once said, “Everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home”. And everyone has a soft spot for their own particular source samples, be they rocks or forams or whatever. But I can exclusively reveal, based on a poll of people in my office** that stalagmites, the stuff I study, are the most beautiful of all geological materials. Stony-iron meteorites, or pallasites as they are also known, come a close second.

They may look a bit dull and ugly from the outside but cut them open and give them a small amount of TLC and they are transformed!

Part of the preparation of my stalagmites before analysis is to polish them. Having already cut them down the middle to produce a slab, polishing reveals all sorts of hidden features in the layers of the stalagmites. Every feature becomes sharp and in focus, layers pop-out from the murk, and previously dull colours take on a brilliant sheen. Overall the whole thing looks really rather damned good.

Polishing stalagmites is not an easy task, it takes a couple of hours to polish each side. It’s a wet job and gives you a bit of a back-ache too as well as the occasional electric shock – apparently water and electricity don’t mix very well. The wet-polishing uses seven different grades of polishing pads, used sequentially to leave a finish that someone who designs babies’ bottoms would be proud of.

Once polished, we take the stalagmites over to the darkroom and photograph them in all their glory. These pictures form excellent figures in papers and also help you keep track of where changes in the isotopes occur in relation to changes in colour or texture of the stalagmite.

The sad thing is though, is that in a couple of weeks, I drill a great big fat trench down the middle of it to collect sample powders. More on that later!

*Arsene Wenger no less.

** So what if it’s just me in here at the moment?