Friday, 31 July 2009

An Alpine Field Trip

Last Friday, just before leaving work for the day, one of my colleagues mentioned to me that two of them would be heading on a field trip on Monday, and would I like to join them? For that sort of question there is only one answer possible.

He then provided me with this much advance information: I was to meet the other colleague at the train station on Monday to catch the 08:00 train to Como, where we will meet the first colleague, get in a car, and head to the field.

Once I arrived at the train station the purpose of the day’s journey was revealed; my colleagues were introducing a new graduate student to his field area. We first drove for about an hour along the western shore of the lake to Gravedona, where we stopped at a sore to pick up some stuff for lunch, and then went up hill from there, first to Dossa del Liro, then on to Caiaso. At our first stop we walked a short way up the gully and spent a pleasant hour looking at the various metamorphic rocks which have been dropped there by the stream in its rush to the lake. The intent was to familiarize the student with the many lithologies which are present in his field area, and more specifically to introduce us to the peridotite (photo to the right--the large garnet is ~2 cm long) so that if we were fortunate enough to find it "in place" later, we'd recognize it. We had along a copy of a 1968 paper which documents the presence of peridotite from the valley in which we'd be hiking, but none of my colleagues were quite certain where in the valley we'd find it.

The hike itself was wonderful--it was a lovely day. Sure, it was hot, but it has been hot every day since I arrive in Europe, so I'm started to adjust, and it was not quite as hot at that elevation (the sign at the trail head said 1000 meters) as it has been in down in the city. Driving up the hill to the trail head I kept seeing lovely old stone houses, and was delighted that there was one at the trail head, and quite a number of them along the trail. Some of the cottages have obviously been abandoned and are in poor repair, but one of the houses has a solar panel on the roof, which I consider to be a good indication that it is still in use today.

Walking up the valley we stopped now and then to admire various rock outcrops, such as this garnet migmatite (left), which is a metamorphic rock which went far enough down a subduction zone that the pressure/heat caused partial melting, or the intricate folds in this one (right).

Late in the afternoon we’d hiked far enough up the valley to reach a good-sized patch of snow that has survived the summer heat. I suppose one could call it a glacier, as the snow obviously stays year-round, yet it clearly doesn't have sufficent mass to cause the metamorphic crystallization of the ice in the lower levels, nor to flow down hill.

Just down hill from the snow-patch, I discovered some truly yummy wild strawberries, a true highlight of the day. I must confess that I ate most of them before remembering that I've a camera in my pocket, and it might be nice to record them for posterity. Fortunately, there was one remaining when I thought of it...

All in all it was a wonderful day, and I am so very glad I went. It was a joy to get out of the city, and to see some mountains! It was interesting listening to the various lectures on the rocks given the graduate student in the local language, as there are a number of geologic terms which are the same (or close enough to the same) in both languages, so I was able to understand more of those lectures than I did the random bits of other conversation that were scattered across the day. (Fortunately for me, both of my colleagues speak English and remembered to include me in conversations on a regular basis, but I do look forward to the language course they say I can take come September, I would like to be able to communicate a bit in the local language.)

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Dining with colleagues

Earlier this month Female Science Professor had a poll on how often people eat lunch at their desks, and was surprised at the result. When I read the poll I was one of the respondents who usually ate lunch at my desk—sometimes doing work whilst I ate, other times taking the time to catch up on personal e-mail/blog reading etc.

Now that I have started my post-doc position that has changed; instead of each of us on the research team eating lunch on our own, our team meets daily for lunch. I find that while I was accustomed to my solitary lunches, I am enjoying this custom. It is a good opportunity for us to touch base with the others and discuss places where our work overlaps, and it is a good social break in the middle of the working day.

In my case it is also a good opportunity to listen to the local language. Everyone on my team speaks English, and some of the conversation each day at lunch is conducted in English, but some of them also speak among themselves in their native language. The first day I was here I’d listen carefully to their words, and simply attempt to tell where one word ended and another begun. Now that I’ve been here more than a week, I’m also listening for the occasional word I am able to understand. I’m told that in September I shall be able to take a course to learn the basics of this language, and the more I listen now, the easier that course is likely to be. However, some days the listening for words I know is more helpful than others. Today I thought I heard one of my colleagues speak a work I know, only to realize that no, the word I thought I heard is in Japanese, and not a European language word at all…

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Some differences between analyzing minerals in natural rocks and minerals grown in experiments

For my PhD research I worked with Tasmanian metamorphic rocks. The schists I studied had major minerals in the 2 mm to 2 cm size range (though, of course, most of them were closer to 2 mm than 2 cm in size). As a result of these large sizes the approach to microprobe time for mineral analysis was to find sets of minerals near one another (in textural equilibrium) and select points for analysis. I’d take photographs of the selected minerals, make marks upon the printouts showing the locations of the selected points, and then leave the microprobe to do all of the analyses after I’d gone home for the day. Then I’d use ArcMap to align the photographs with the x-y coordinates from the microprobe so that I’d have a good record of where each analysis point was located.

Now that I’ve started my first post-doctoral position things will be somewhat different; I’ve signed on for an experimental position. This means that instead of analyzing mineral assemblages in natural rocks and doing calculations to try to determine at what temperature and pressure they must have formed, I shall be growing minerals at specific temperatures and pressures and analyzing them to see what their compositions are at those temperatures. (The results of these experiments will, in theory, be used by others who wish to determine the temperatures and pressures at which their minerals in natural rocks formed.)

I have not yet gotten to the point of being able to do my own experiments, but today I have spent some time in the microprobe lab with one of my colleagues as she analyzed the minerals which she grew in one of her experiments. The capsule in which she grew the minerals is only a few millimeters long, and the minerals present are all very small. The microprobe here is set up to use a 1 micron beam size, so the minerals need to be at least 1 mm in diameter in order to obtain analyses which are from a single mineral (the one I used in Australia was set up to analyze minerals that are at least 10 microns in diameter—remember that there are 1000 microns in every millimeter!).

Because the minerals here are so small they don’t tend to use the microprobe in automatic mode—instead one stays with the machine while it does the analyses. The procedure is to find a mineral you wish to analyze, analyze it, look at the results, and if it is “good” (has an appropriate proportions of elements for that mineral) move on to a new location to begin the next analysis. If it is “bad” (contains other elements than should be in that mineral and/or contains the correct elements in an unexpected proportion) it is mostly likely due to contamination from a neighboring mineral—sometimes the grain isn’t large enough and the electron beam also analyses the grain next to it, sometimes the grain isn’t thick enough, and the analysis includes the underlying grain. In this case you also move on to the next analysis, but you keep track of the number of “good” vs “bad” data, so that you can obtain sufficient “good” results to be able to state with confidence the composition of each of the minerals in the sample.

The approach is very different to what I have been used to, and requires one to become accustomed to looking at the raw microprobe data (hitherto I simply took the report generated by my microprobe operator and ran the results through the program Ax to convert it to number of cations per oxygen, and then dealt with the numbers only in that form. I am very much looking forward to starting my own experiments—I think that the procedures used here will help me to better understand the microprobe and how it operates, and it all sounds like fun. But first, there is much background reading to do…

Sunday, 12 July 2009

On the ground in my new location, ready to begin the next adventure

I arrived in Europe on Wednesday, after three weeks of travel, during which I visited with friends and family in seven different US locations on my way here from Australia. This vacation was very much a whirl-wind adventure, trying to see as many different people as I could manage during the time allotted and still have some quality time with people at each stop. I didn’t get to see everyone I might have liked to have seen, but I very much enjoyed the time with the folks I did get to see. During the final two and a half weeks of my mad rush to complete my thesis before boarding that plane to commence my journey I gave up any attempt to read my 1000 words a day of geologic literature. There may have been some days in that period where I did read that many words in the course of looking at the literature in order to reference things as I was writing, but if so, I did not make a note of it in my 1000-words-a-day spreadsheet, I simply did the work as quickly as I could and kept going. Given the hectic, sleep-deprived schedule necessary to complete such a project on a firm deadline like that, it is no surprise that I didn’t re-commence reading my 1000 words a day as soon as the thesis was submitted. Instead I hopped on the plane and then dove into having an active social life (for the first time in months) from the moment my feet hit the ground on the other side. I did start to feel guilty about half way through my vacation about not working on anything related to my research, and started reading my 1000 words a day again. This lasted all of two days before I moved on to the next location and was so busy having fun with friends and family that I quit again. Good habits may be easy to form through regular practice, but they are just as easily discarded by taking some time off, making it difficult to pick them back up again.

The first couple of days at my destination have been devoted to paperwork essential to my getting paid for the work I will be doing (e.g. obtaining a local official number so that taxes may be withheld from my earnings, obtaining a bank account, and turning in forms with these numbers to the university) and moving into the room the university provided me. Somehow, I was kept busy enough that I didn’t even think about starting up my 1000 words a day again. Then, on Friday, my boss gave me a stack of journal articles (in paper) to read, with instructions to make copies and return his copies to him. Not wanting to waste paper, I spent a couple of hours downloading as many as I could obtain in pdf format via University library web pages (16 out of 20!). By the time I was done it was time to attend a BBQ that one of my colleagues on my research team was hosting, so I didn’t make time to actually read any of these articles (though they have all be entered into EndNote and into my “to do” list, with notes as to when they were added and why they are on the list.

So it was not until Saturday, fully four days after arriving at my new job that I actually begun reading my 1000 words a day. Perhaps it was a result of taking the time off, but it felt amazingly good to be reading again! I started with an old journal article, chosen at random from the pile, which contains background information which will be useful for the experiments I shall be undertaking over the course of the next year and a half. I got as far as the first couple of pages, and saw the sketches my boss had added to the margins of table 1, showing the changing tie lines associated with different mineral assemblages, and I recalled the conversation we’d had when he gave me the papers, wherein I explained that I while I was very comfortable with the rectangle diagrams I’d generated for my thesis, showing pressure on one axis and temperature on the other, and which minerals are stable in which P/T zones, I wasn’t terribly comfortable with the triangle diagrams which are so common in metamorphic petrology, which show different chemical compositions on each point, and minerals are plotted within (or, sometimes outside of) the triangles, not having done anything with them for my PhD project.

When he heard that he handed me a textbook from 1979, Petrogenesis of Metamorphic Rocks by Helmut Winkler. This is not a book I’d seen before, presumably having been of the wrong age, or possibly on the wrong continent for it to have been required reading when I was taking classes. Remembering the text book, I set aside the journal article, and lost a happy hour or more skimming over the intro chapters and then focusing on the chapter on Graphical Representation of Metamorphic Mineral Parageneses. I don’t know if this book is more clearly written than ones I’d seen hitherto, or if I’ve simply finally read enough articles and other text books to “get it”, but the triangle diagrams are making much more sense this time. Or, perhaps it is the approach I used this time. Rather than simply reading over the words on the page quickly, I actually took the time to draw my own triangles and attempted to plot the locations of the minerals myself, before looking at the diagram in the book to see if I’d done it right. This method takes *much* longer than just reading the chapter (indeed, I’ve got a fair bit more reading to do before I’ll finish this chapter), but I think that the quality of what I’m getting out of the chapter is worth the extra effort. If I understand my job description correctly, I’ll be generating such diagrams from my experiments, and while these days there are computer programs to do this for me, it is important to understand what they are doing, so that I will be able to notice if a data entry error results in a diagram that doesn’t show what I thought I was plotting.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Here's one I prepared before

Is it cheating to participate in this month's Accretionary Wedge by simply linking one's first ever blog? How nice of them to request a topic upon which I've already written, since I've not had much time for writing recently.

I've been taking time off from geology related stuff--I've had just over two weeks of adventures visiting friends and family in the US after finishing up my PhD project in Tasmania and before heading to Europe for my first post-doc position (the degree itself will be complete sometime in the next few months, after the examiners have had a chance to look over my results and I've had a chance to do any corrections they wish to see). I fly to my new home in another four hours, with luck I'll be posting again regularly soon.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Homophone Phobia

I have been pondering the parallel between text-message abbreviations (e.g. CUL8R = see you later) and puns. Both rely upon the *sound* of the word, either to communicate meaning (the text message abbreviations) or to substitute another meaning entirely with humorous intent (puns). This realization goes a long way to explain why I have always been reluctant to make puns or to use such abbreviations.

When I am reading I convert the word shape to meaning without an intermediate step of thinking about the sounds of the words. There have been many times in my life when speaking when I stumbled when attempting to say a word and realized that I didn’t know what it should sound like—that while the word was part of my vocabulary because I use it in writing, I had yet to hear it used in spoken conversation. Because of my tendency to translate word shape to meaning without thinking of the sound, text message abbreviations look wrong to me. Indeed, I find it frustrating when someone sends me a message using such abbreviations; it requires more effort and is much slower to take the time to read it out loud and decode the meaning from the sound than it would be to simply read a word which is spelled correctly (or, even, a misspelled word which happens to have more or less the same shape as the correctly spelled version of the word).

Likewise with puns, the play in words is dependant upon their sound. In the case of puns they are more often shared in the spoken form and the hearers then think of all of the various meanings which happen to all have that sound in order to “get the joke”. This is not a step I do instinctively, even when I hear words, I tend to translate them directly to meaning, without paying much attention to the individual sounds. Indeed, even from an early age I would often picture words in print when hear them—even in spoken language it is the *shape* of the word which is tied to the meaning for me. This may have a fair bit to do with having grown up with a hearing problem. My hearing is good enough that if I’m not wearing my hearing aids, and you have my undivided attention I am likely to be able to hear you well enough to understand most of what you say, if you are speaking clearly and looking at me while you speak, and you are not too far away, I will probably understand most, if not all, of what you say (assuming, of course, that you are speaking English, which, so far, is the only language in which I am fluent). However, it often happens that I’m not quite close enough to hear clearly what was said, and sometimes I don’t even realize that I’ve misheard the speaker until later in the conversation when other clues make me realize that I’ve responded to something other than what was actually said. Those embarrassing moments are rare now that I wear hearing aids, but I strongly suspect that the embarrassment of having often misunderstanding others when they spoke is a large part of why puns don’t make my list of top ten fun things to do—since they require “mishearing” what was said.