Early on in my PhD I started telling people I do “experimental petrology”, which was true, but most people had no idea what I was talking about. I liked the term because it sounded clever and then I would explain it. “Petrology is the study of how rocks form,” I would say, “so I do experiments to understand how rocks form.”
Lately I’ve given up on that approach – instead, I just say, “I make magma.” This is also true, and it usually gets people more interested… everyone likes magma!
But then people tend to assume that I study volcanoes. So I have to add, “I’m interested in magma before it even thinks of coming out of a volcano.”
I don’t study volcanoes, but many people do, and last week I visited the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where I met people who do experimental volcanology. Now that’s a term people might be able to understand: yes, it does mean making volcanoes in the lab.
I was lucky enough to attend a short course called “Melts, Glasses and Magmas” by Prof. Don Dingwell. The course was fantastic – I felt like it came at just the right time for me, that it really helped me to develop my understanding and think more critically about my own research.
But besides the lectures, we were also given tours of the lab facilities. Seeing fancy, complicated looking labs is always fun, but it’s even better when you get to see something that has been referred to as a “volcano in the basement”… even if it does look more like a rocket ship than a volcano.
The top part of each of these columns is just a big container full of air. In a small chamber at the bottom sits a sample of volcanic rock, which has a lot of pores (holes). This lower chamber is filled with high-pressure argon gas – the gas also fills in all the holes in the rock.
Then, the valves separating the two chambers are opened. Suddenly the high-pressure gas at the bottom, in the rock, expands, and it does this so quickly that the rock explodes and is forced up into the chamber above – bang! Volcanic eruption!
Recently, in one of these ‘eruptions’, the team in Munich observed volcanic lightning! This is the first time volcanic lightning has been seen in a laboratory – check out the video.