Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Education, education, education . . . .

Greetings, one and all!

Yep, education is very much back in the forefront of my mind this week as I start a new Open University course and ponder my potential future line of study.

Regarding the former, I've enrolled on a short 10 point Level 1course, 'Fossils and the History of Life' which kicked off last weekend. And it looks like it will be a fascinating couple of months of peering at a kit of fossil replicas through a hand lens and learning all about this fascinating subject. I've been supplied with a couple of cracking books which I suspect will only be a small part of the learning process. It should all stand me in good stead for when I eventually get to study Geology at University - whenever and wherever that may turn out to be.

So, to bring you up to date then . . .

You may recall that I was given an unconditional offer of a place at Leicester University on their 4 year MGeol course earlier this year. Much rejoicing ensued as I celebrated this momentous feat and looked forward to getting started in Sept 2010. Oh, that it could possibly be that straight forward!

Alas, while most educational establishments are openly emphasising their willingness to admit mature students onto their degree programmes, it isn't necessarily as easy to achieve as it should be and as they make it sound. The harsh facts of the matter are that if like me, you have studied at a higher educational level at some time in your past, then don't go expecting to receive full funding for a degree second time around even if your previous level of study was NOT at degree level.

As it stands, it seems I would have to fund the first two years of study at Leicester myself, which was a crushing blow and makes taking up my place there next year damn near impossible!

But just as despair was about to get the better of me, my wife suddenly remembered that Derby University offer a Geology degree part time! So blinkered have I been about doing a degree full time that this possible answer to my prayers had gone right over my head!

So I attended another Open Day there last month, met one of the lecturers for a chat and I now reckon it's my best chance of getting to study Geology at a University properly. An OU Geosciences degree would be a good last resort, but there's nowt like actually going in to lectures, tutorials and getting out in the rain doing proper geology fieldwork which would be rather lacking in an OU degree I think.

Funding the study myself, paying per module at the rate of as little as 3 modules a year, make it a much more viable option for me and my family at this time. Unless I win the Euro Millions draw of course, which would be a hell of a shock, particularly as I don't actually buy a ticket!
So, I now hope to get an application in shortly for a potential September 2010 start and take it from there. The dream is still alive!!!

Will be back shortly with a progress report on my 'fossils' course.

Cheers for now,

Friday, 16 October 2009

Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau

As a frustrated geologist of years too many to mention, I have an almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge on the subject, particularly since my family’s trip to Grand Canyon last year. But for the keen beginner or ‘interested layman’ it can be a struggle to find books on the subject that adequately help. Yes, there are plenty of geology books, but all too often the infamous ‘geo-jargon’ is there to stop the wanabee geologist in his tracks.

As I’ve mentioned before, I needed a book on Grand Canyon that went some way to answering the myriad of questions I needed answering when I returned home to ‘Blighty’. Wayne Ranney’s book, ‘Carving Grand Canyon’ answered my prayers by laying out all the theories and mysteries surrounding the canyon and it’s history in a highly enjoyable and understandable way. It’s a book that will work for anyone with a modicum of interest in the subject.

Such was the impact of this book on me personally, it caused me to look beyond Grand Canyon and outwards to the Colorado Plateau as a whole. The more you look around Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico and the staggering geological wonders to be found there, the more fascinating the American south-west becomes.

So, right on cue, Wayne in collaboration with his old college lecturer, Ron Blakey, last year published a truly stunning book entitled ‘Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau’.

Viewers of this blog will hopefully have noticed the little slideshow (in the right hand column) of Ron’s palaeogeograhical maps of the world. These have been available on his own web site for some time, but this book at last brings his ground breaking maps to a wider audience.

Above: An example of one of Ron Blakey's palaeogeographicalmaps to be found on his web site (See link on right hand column of this blog!)

Palaeogeographical maps are strangely absent from many geology books these days and I find this odd. For me and I’m sure many others, it is difficult to visualise when looking at a geological formation, just what the region looked like at the time of deposition. Throw plate tectonics into the mix and the job becomes even harder. ‘Ancient Landscapes’ is an absolute triumph in this respect.

The book is split into the essential periods starting with the early Proterozoic (1,750 million years ago) through to the Cenozoic (65 million years ago) and to the present, with each chapter readable on its own. Each period includes varying numbers of truly stunning maps that along with Wayne’s typically understandable text really bring it all to life. As Ron himself explains, the maps have to involve a degree of ‘artistic licence’. Obviously, no one can know for sure what the area really looked like at these points in time, but the maps are based on thorough and accepted research that Ron Blakey has seemingly spent his life drawing together. It is fascinating to read that he created the stunning images from numerous satellite images of modern comparable landforms that he ‘cut and pasted’ together on his computer!

The book finishes with a summary of the historical geology of Grand Canyon and the Grand Staircase followed by a chapter on ‘Where to see the rocks’, covering such locations as Sedona, Petrified Forest, Zuni Cliffs, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Arches National Park and many, many more. I've learnt so much already, such as the effect of repeated transgressions and regressions has on the pattern of strata. So far, I feel I've barely scratched the surface of what this publication contains so it's certainly a book that I will repeatedly return to over the months and years.
In short, a quite magnificent book and possibly the best £25 I have spent in a long while!

As well as buying the book, it is also worth taking a wander over to ‘You Tube’ and having a look at a series of films of Ron and Wayne’s joint lecture at the Grand Canyon Field Institute last year all about the book, the making of the maps and the Colorado Plateau story . Click Here.


Until next time!


Monday, 21 September 2009

Car park fossil hunting

Hello again,

With my next Open University course on fossils due to start mid November, I have borrowed a couple of books on the subject from my local library, just to whet my appetite. One is the book of the recent BBC TV series 'Fossil Detectives' and the other, 'Fossils of the World' by Turek, Malek and Benes, which is a much more academic book than the other. They will both prove useful in different ways in the coming months I think.

One of the first passages that I read in 'Fossil Detectives' suggested that when you start out in the world of palaeontology, you never forget that first fossil find. Well, I have only recently begun to look into the subject and have never actually found one at all myself, so feel a bit miffed! Anyway, during my lunch break last week I happened to mention to a colleague of mine that I was going to have a stab at doing the OU course, 'S193 - Fossils and the History of Life'. He immediately opened his drawer and produced a handful of what looked to the untrained eye like shells that you might find on a beach. These were in fact fossils of a mollusc which abound in the car park where we work. Bizarre but true!

To explain further, I work on the construction site of a major road improvement scheme in the East Midlands where the company has constructed a site office for the duration of the scheme. All around the car park perimeter, the borders have been dressed with what I simply assumed to be simple, 'bog standard' gravel. Thanks to my eagle-eyed colleague however, I now see it for what it is - a geologists treasure trove of goodies! In amongst a variety of miscellaneous pebbles and chunks of granite are loads of these:-

A brief thumbing through 'Fossils of the World' easily identified these albeit slightly ropey specimens. They are in fact a fossil called Gryphaea arcuata, a mollusc from the Jurassic, i.e. 180 - 135 Ma. According to the natural history museum web site, this is a fairly common fossil but is particularly common to Suffolk, Gloucestershire and the Scunthorpe area, where the Lower Jurassic rocks were mined for their iron ore. Quite why so many of these fossils are lying in amongst other random pebbles and chunks of granite I've no idea. Maybe the dressing supplied to the company to decorate the borders is just a mix of waste rocks of about 2 -3 cm just thrown together.

Anyway, this little chap consists of two pieces, being what I believe is called a 'bi-valve' - a curved left valve and a flat, lid-like right valve. I have only managed to find one example of the latter, seen at front left of the photo. The curved part of this little creature sat in the soft sediment with the lid above the surface. They are commonly called 'Devils Toenails' apparently, presumably because of their resemblance (with a bit of imagination) to toenails? Well, sort of . . .

It seems amazing to me that even in these fairly poor quality specimens, there are distinct growth bands to be seen, which is remarkable for something up to 180 million years old and have most recently been churned up in sacks! But this is what is amazing. Looking at something that stems from something that lived millions of years ago, is pretty mind blowing. Well, mind blowing to me at least. I'm not sure the rest of my family quite understand the fascination - yet!

So, there you go - my first fossil find! A bit of a cheat really, as they were rather handed to me on a plate! What I need next , is a genuine 'first', out in the field extracting a nice trilobite or ammonite from its rocky matrix. Proper palaeontology?

All in good time eh?

Before I go, I had a message posted up (see here) in response to my June post on the 'Geology of Charnwood'. The postee highlighted an innocent error on my part which I've corrected and highlighted my lack of acknowledgement of the source of my information. While I recognise that paraphrasing other peoples work and passing it off as ones own constitutes plagiarism in academic work, perhaps one should bear in mind what 'Holey Schist' actually is - a humble blog! A serious piece of academic work it ain't! I have and always will acknowledge my sources of text and photos, when I deem it sensible, but please remember folks, these are just the casual ramblings of a wannabee geologist - no more, no less!

Cheers for now!


Monday, 14 September 2009

Earth After Us Humans!

Hi there!

Education is a wonderful thing, particularly when one feels inspired to learn for its own sake, rather than at the start of that quest for a vocation. Having 'dipped my toe' in the educational waters earlier this year, I have felt a little lost since it all ended in June!

Time to get back in the saddle I think, so I have enrolled on 'S193: Fossils and the History of Life'. This is a short 10 point Level 1 course which should be a useful introduction to the subject and build on what I learnt on the previous course. It will set me up nicely either for the MGeol course at Leicester or be another 10 points towards an OU Geosciences degree, whatever I choose to do. Leicester is the ultimate goal but such are the financial implications, it may well prove out of reach. We'll see, but what is important is that I keep studying, learning and growing as a human being. The quest for knowledge is what keeps one 'alive' I think. If we're not learning anything, what is the point of it all?

Anyway, going back to a book I mentioned last time - 'Life After Us' by Jan Zalasiewicz, ironically, a lecturer at Leicester University. I've often wondered how our planet would react to the disappearance of us humans. What, if anything, would remain millions of years from now to show future inhabitants of Earth that an intelligent life form once existed in the past? We like to think man's miracles of engineering will survive long into the future, but in reality, what will last longer than say a few hundred years?

In 'Earth After Us', Zalasiewicz gives us his take on what evidence we are likely to leave behind for some alien visitors to discover 100 million years from now. What evidence will there be for such structures as roads and motorways, 100 million years from now? A thin layer of rock with traces of hydrocarbons, found in long narrow lines over hundreds of miles? What evidence will there be for them to deduce that this former dominant lifeform on Earth propelled itself across its surface by some form of powered transportation?

And what about fossilization of humans? I've always quite fancied the idea of being fossilised for some future life on Earth to find me million years from now! But then, as my daughter Aimee frequently tells me, I'm 'weird'! But how could this immortality be achieved? Most fossilisation occurs in shallow marine environments and it seems to take something exceptional for preservation in other environments to occur. So I won't hold out much hope there!

One heartening thought raised by Zalasiewicz is the fate of those millions of tonnes to human detritus buried on landfill sites. All those supermarket shopping bags, shampoo bottles and innumerable plastic containers thoughtlessly dumped, buried and forgotten about. Out of sight . . .? Well, perhaps millions of years from now, after subsequent buriel under layers of fresh sediment and in the right circumstances, these former hydrocarbons may once again be transformed by pressure and heat to form once again, oil and gas reserves for future life forms to exploit! The ultimate in recycling perhaps! Hopefully, if this were to happen, these future beings will use it somewhat more wisely than we have done.

All in all, a fascinating and thought provoking read. It was interesting to see on the books cover, an interpretation of what Earth may look like 100 million years from now rather like Ron Blakey's maps (see the link elsewhere in this blog site!). However, Zalasiewicz says in his book, "unfortunately, we cannot predict where the Earth's continents will be in one hundred million years time". He believes there are so many uncertainties that "detailed prediction becomes useless". I'm not sure I agree with that. Surely there's always room for prediction whatever the variables? In fact, in 'Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau', Blakey and Ranney present a suggestion as to what the Earth may look like for exactly this time period!

I'll delve more into this latter book next time!



Thursday, 3 September 2009

Save the World? I don't think so!


Apologies again for the break in service to my dear blog, but such is life these days! Anyone who has read a few of my blogs this year will realise how 'challenging' things have been for my family since the turn of the year. It's been a little crazy, but there's light at the end of that tunnel at last. Maybe time to start enjoying life again at a more sensible pace? Throughout the turmoil I have at least managed to find a few minutes to read a few interesting books to build on my OU science course and keep the grey matter functional. I've read 'Life after Us' by Jan Zalasiewicz and most recently 'The Revenge of Gaia' by James Lovelock. I'm now onto 'Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau', by a guy who has had way too many mentions from 'Holey Schist' already, but more of that excellent book soon!
So to get back into the swing of things, I'll start with a brief look at Lovelock's 'Revenge of Gaia'. Finding this book (ironically via a reference in 'Life After Us') was particularly interesting as the author takes the view that planet Earth is like a living organism, self-regulating and capable of looking after itself on a constant basis, which is a view I share.

Barely a day goes by without someone teling us what steps we need to take to 'help save the Earth'. Well meaning suggestions I'm sure, but are we not being a little arrogant to suggest that we humans can indeed 'save the Earth'? Dr Iain Stewart of Plymouth University stated in his excellent book and television series 'Earth: The Power of the Planet', that the Earth is quite able to look after itself and is indeed already doing so! A multitude of extremely clever feedback mechanisms help restore the Earth's natural balance.

Lovelock however strikes a cautionary note, warning that if human activity tips the balance too far, we may reach a point where the Earth's natural feedbacks are unable to cope, leaving our planet heading for excessive warming to the point where life will no longer be possible. The thought of Earth becoming like some of our neighboiurs in the solar system is a sobering one and one not to be ignored.

Lovelock also argues the case for nuclear energy in a very persuasive way. Indeed, sitting on a bench in Skegness last weekend, looking out to sea and being confronted by the sight of 54 wind turbines just off the coast, I couldn't help but wonder at the futility of it all! Is this a genuine alternative source of energy to replace fossil fuels, or is it merely to achieve european community goals for carbon dioxide emission reduction? If we surround our coast and cover our hillsides with these huge turbines (which we surely must if we are to replace coal and oil fired electricity generation), can we be sure that their very presence is not going to adversely affect our climate themselves?

Unlike Lovelock, I don't believe that his nightmare scenario will come to fruition. Earth will find a way and restore its natural balance, but the downside I believe will almost certainly mean the extinction of us homo sapiens. How soon this happens will be largely down to how bold we can be to take the necessary steps to slow our and the Earth's decline. Can we voluntarily slow our population growth to achieve a more sustainable global level? A population of 8 billion cannot be sustained based on fossil fuel consumption or any other fuel for that matter, so something has got to give. Throw into the mix the small matters of water supply and food supply and things start to lookvery serious. And the alarming thing is that it may well come to a head in my lifetime - and I'm nearly 50! Scary!

Iain Stewart ended his book with the optimistic view that the Earth will be okay. It will take care of itself very nicely thankyou, but just how long the human being will play a part is very much open to debate.

This all leads very nicely onto the other book I mentioned earlier, 'The Earth After Us' by Jan Zalasiewicz, which looks at Earth 100 million years from now, long after the human being has become extinct. What evidence will there be for the presence of homo sapiens? How will we be judged? Intriguing stuff and more on that next time!

Cheers, Alyn.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Oh Blimey, it's S104 Result Day!

Greetings Folks!

Brace yourself! It's result day! Nine months of sweat and mental toil come down to this. The suspense has been killing me for the last couple of months, so without further ado, my result is . . . . .


YES!!!!! Fantastic! Never in doubt really, but there was a glimmer of a chance of a distinction leading up to the end of course assessment. However, the mark of 77% was tantalisingly 8 marks short. Curses! A shame, but when I think about the domestic turmoil that I was working through while doing the course it was pretty amazing that I was even within sniffing distance of a distinction. Living 100 miles away from half of my family, moving home and changing jobs isn't exactly conducive to serious study! But, I weathered the storm and got through it. In the end, I've got to be delighted by 85% for the coursework and 77% for the ECA.
This great result has given me loads of confidence in my ability and brain power and allows me to think about Leicester University with excitement and confidence. There are lots of obstacles (particularly financial) to overcome before that goal is realised, but at least I know I'm capable, which was the reason for doing S104 in the first place.
As a result of the pass I even get a qualification in it's own right! I now have a Certificate in Natural Sciences and may use the letters Cert NatSci (Open) after my name! I will of course be using this at every available opportunity and expect all my friends and family to use it when communicating with me from now on!

So on that triumphant note I will leave you! Rest assured, lots of bubbly stuff will be consumed in due course!
See ya soon!

Cheers, Alyn

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Matlock Bath - the photos!


Well, as promised, a lead has been puchased from a proper camera shop that stocks proper replacements as opposed to 'universal leads that cost twice the price from a retailer with a name that reminds one of 'Indian food' if you get my drift!?!

So, without any further ado, here are the pics from our recent trip to the delightful Derbyshire spa town of Matlock Bath. . . .

View of Matlock Bath and the River Derwent

Cable car to the summit of the Heights of Abraham - a little scary, but great views!

The cable car ride was very reasonably priced and included trips to view two caverns, so very good value! The cars slowed to a halt almost half way up allowing some good photo opportunities:-
Gulp! That's one heck of a drop! I felt quite safe though, cocooned in the cable car!

Cracking views of the geology too! This is High Tor and more on this in another blog soon! You may be able to make out a few climbers on the sheer face of the limestone! Mad!

Above, a photo within Masson Cavern, a former lead mine and
Below, the carved initials of some of the miners who worked this mine by candlelight, rather alarmingly!

Ruth thought it would be a challenge for me to ride down on this chair lift instead of the cable car!!! Okay, I lie! This was a mock up of the equipment that was used to construct the towers on which the cable car now runs. My fear of falling means that I would have a much more panic stricken look about me if this was anything like real!

The real thing!

So, I will finish for now with a geological poser! This interesting rock exposure is located along the River Derwent in Matlock Bath, just beyond the Jubilee Bridge. Hopefully you can make out the blues, greys and reds in the sloping strata. In my usual style, I will do some reading and return in due course with what I find. Meanwhile, if there is an East Midland geologist looking in who knows this area well, do tell!
Hmmm!?! Nice rocks!

Cheers for now!

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Coughs, colds, flu and escape to Matlock Bath!

Eh up mi Ducks!

Excuse the dialect, but that is a traditional greeting in these parts! It's a bit different to the Boltonian words I grew up with, but I'm getting to like it! Being referred to as an aquatic bird did strike me as a little strange, but no weirder than 'cocker' or (worse) 'cock' as they do in my home town of Bolton!

Anyway, if ever one needs proof that prolonged stress has a an adverse effect on one's immune system then the last week is it! What started as a sore throat gradually worsened to perhaps the worst period of illness since I had shingles in 2003! Generally, colds and flu I can cope with, but the shivering, rapidly followed by profuse sweating is not in the least bit pleasant. Add multi-coloured mucous exuding from several orifices and you will start to get the picture!

ENOUGH I hear you scream! I guess that's WAY too much information! So lets move on to pleasanter things. The weekend prior to the viral invasion, my wife and I, conscious of our 'off-the-scale' stress levels decided "enough is enough" and gladly taking advantage of the invaluable child minding skills of 'sister-in-law' Julia, we sought sanctury in the Derbyshire spa town of Matlock Bath.

There are times when one needs to just get away for a few days. Away from the hassles of everyday 'stuff', the staggering ineptitude of Virgin Media (are you listening Mr Branson?) and their banal Indian call-centres! Who was it that came up with the idea of exporting all our telephone help lines to India? Whoever it is needs to be strung up and given a sound thrashing if you ask me! Has anyone EVER actually been 'helped' by an Indian call centre??? I think probably not.

Anyway, good people, lets not go there. Instead let me take you to Matlock Bath, a beautifully picturesque spa town built along the River Derwent and former centre of Lead mining. A missing lead (that's 'lead' as in 'long wirey thing with plugs on the end' as opposed to the heavy metal commonly found on church roofs!) that allows me to download photographs from my digital camera to the PC is temporarliy mislaid post move so alas no photos for now. I'll add them later once its been located, or more likely, a replacement is bought! Meanwhile for an idea of what this fine little town is like click here!

It was in 1698 that three medicinal springs were discovered and a 'bath' created made of wood and lined with lead for people to enjoy the supposedly rejuvenating effects of the waters! But it wasn't until the nineteenth century that Matlock Bath really developed as a spa town and became truly prosperous. The arrival of the railway to the town brought hordes of daytrippers and established it's reputation as an 'inland seaside resort'!

Times and fashions change of course and Matlock needed to reinvent itself to halt its decline. So in the 1980's, someone came up with the inspired idea of constructing an alpine style cable car up to the Heights of Abraham. This opened in 1984 and has been a phenomenal success, restoring Matlock's status as an interesting holiday destination. The cable car is a bit scary, but fun and there's a cracking view from the top.

This will mean rather more when I get the photos of the weekend posted, obviously, so bear with me for a few days! Now, for our stay we chose a thoroughly excellent 'B & B' called 'Sunnybank' in Matlock Bath. Located away from the hustle and bustle of the town, Sunnybank lies on Clifton Road, a somewhat steep road off the main road through Matlock Bath and is run by Mark and Jane Bound. These two people clearly love what they do and bend over backwards to see that everything is just right. Fantastic breakfasts included probably the best cooked eggs ever! Yes, even better than Bright Angel Lodges in Grand Canyon and that IS saying something!

While Sunnybanks position on a steep hill does make parking problematic, Mark paintakingly ensured that there were spaces available for all his guests which was great. To be honest, Sunnybank B & B is MY kind of place! I've never been a fan of pretentious 'poncey' hotels with their gyms, saunas and health spas and their superfluous trouser presses! I always feel so much more able to relax in a good quality, straight forward B & B like this one. So Sunnybank B & B comes highly recommended from both me and Ruth and we'll definitely return - soon and with others!

Well folks, I'll leave it at that for now. I will update this post when I've managed to replace my lead and upload the photos. I will then proceed to enlighten you on the geology of the area too with photos of High Tor - a stunning lump of limestone that overlooks the town!

Stay tuned!



P.S. Can't go this week without mentioning the fact that a certain Wayne Ranney and Helen were married on 21st June overlooking his beloved Grand Canyon! Many congratulations guys and here's to many years of health and happiness for you both!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Charnwood Charnia!

Greetings Folks!

A quick search in Google for interesting articles about the geology of Charnwood reveals this humble blog as high as third on the list! So if my single blog on the subject last month is enough to shoot this venue to such stratospheric heights I think it proves that there is just not enough written on the subject!

As mentioned last time, the area of Charnwood in the East Midlands contains some of the oldest rocks in Britain, of pre-cambrian age. In 1957 frond shaped fossils were detected in these rocks suggesting the presence of complex, multicellular life in the pre-cambrian era.

A cast of the 'Charnia', the first accepted complex Precambrian organism. (From Wikipedia)

It is quite staggering to think that right on my own (new) doorstep are rocks that contain evidence of the earliest known multicellular life form on earth! The Charnia is one of the organisms found to have been present in the Ediacaran Period of the Neoproterzoic era which was the last era of the Pre-cambrian at 575Ma to 545Ma.

Strangely, the Ediacaran Period gave rise to a distinct form of life that only lasted in this relatively short timespan, before what became known as the 'Cambrian explosion. Few of the characteristics of the Charnian biota were carried forward into the Cambrian explosion of lifeforms, so alas they were a short lived phenomenon! Why they disappeared so abruptly hasn't fully been explained, but some believe it my have been due to the emergence of competition from other lifeforms, the emergence of predators or simply a change in the environment.

Prior to the discovery of the Charnia in 1957, it was believed that no life forms existed prior to the Cambrian. The humble fossil shown above brought about a hasty rethink! What is particularly interesting about the fossils of this period is that they are all soft bodied. Such creatures generally don't fossilise, so there must have been something about the global conditions of this time that allowed such delicate creatures to be preserved in such numbers.

The Leicestershire City Council Museums and Galleries website suggests this interpretation of what the Charnia may have looked like all those years ago:-

How the Charnia may have looked 575 Ma to 545 Ma.

This weekend sees Ruth and I getting away for a couple of days to Matlock Bath in Derbyshire, home of The Heights of Abraham, a scary cable car ride and some interesting caverns. I'll take the camera and post up a few photos next week if you're lucky!

Until then, take care!

Cheers, Alyn

Friday, 12 June 2009

The Geology of Charnwood

Greetings Folks!

Last weekend, I made yet another trip to the East Midlands to rejoin my wife at our new home in Loughborough. My mum and dad came down with us as well to see the new house. We had a great weekend, despite the miserable weather - rain, rain and more rain! How very British!

Anyway, the rain did finally stop just before Sunday lunchtime, allowing us to go for a drive round the local area. During the drive we stopped in an interesting area of the Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire, which turns out to be a particularly significant area of Britain in geological terms! I had heard that Charnwood contains some of the oldest rocks in Britain, but knew little more than that. On our short walk (it had to be short to avoid potential hypothermia in several of our inappropriately dressed party!), we did see some interesting exposures of what seemed to be granite, but I didn't think that these were the rumoured 'oldest rocks in Britain'.

As you'll be beginning to realise by now, I'm not the sort of person who is going to leave it at that! No Sir-eee! A little delving within the 'wibbly-wobbly web' was required to enlighten this curious wannabee geologist! Here's what I've found in an article by Mike Lewis, extracted from his book 'The Rocks of Charnwood Forest'. Click here.

Pre-cambrian rock exposure at Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

(Photo: from www.naturalengland.co.uk)

There are indeed rocks of pre-cambrian age in the Charnwood Forest area and they are volcanic in origin. Back in the early Palaeozoic, this area formed part of the southern fringe of a continent of which Scandinavia and northern Scotland also formed a part. Volcanic eruptions occurred over a prolonged period from a major crater that is now located near to High Sharpley. Other smaller vents surrounding the main volcano also contributed. Material ejected from the volcano was deposited around the crater for several kilometres with a high proportion carried in the wind in a southerly direction.

There was a great amount of variation in the size of volcanic material produced, which lead to the formation of the agglomerates, tuffs and ashes evident in the exposures seen at Beacon Hill. (See map).

As the period of vulcanism subsided, grading and sedimentation occurred on the sides of the volcano, leading to large areas of conglomerates, overlain by volcanic mudstones. This series of rocks is called 'The Brand Series' and are particularly evident in the western parts of the region as outcrops such as the 'Hanging Stones' beneath Beacon Hill, Billa Barra and Groby.

After the period of volcanic activity, the mid Palaeozoic period saw uplift and folding and the creation of a huge anticline. The numerous faults that were thus created allowed igneous intrusions to form through them which are now seen as the syenite outcrops at Groby, the 'Altar Stones' at Markfield and Cliffe Hill.

Apparently, the dome at Charnwood would have been several thousand feet higher than it now is while its base would have been over a thousand feet lower than its present elevation due to the continuous erosion, stripping rocks from the exposed surfaces, filling the surrounding valleys with the eroded material.

Following this we entered the carboniferous period with the surrounding valleys being swamps and shallow marine environments. The Triassic period saw Charnwood buried beneath dry desert clay-sands ultimately forming marls. The impermeable nature of marls thus allowed shallow lakes to form. The Cenozoic saw further erosion in the tropical environment and the following glacial periods of the Pleistocene added its own process of 'freeze-thaw' erosion and examples of Charnwood rocks have been found in places some considerable distance from the area due to glacial transportation.

So there you go! An rather brief geological history of Charnwood! That's what I have deduced from a bit of reading and may be somewhat abbreviated and maybe even wrong!?! If there is a 'proper geologist looking in who has spotted any alarming errors, please feel free to correct me! As I have said before in a previous blog, we learn just as much by being told we've got it wrong, as we do when we are being patted on the back! What I need to do now of course, is get out there, see all these outcrops for myself and take some photos! When I do I'll update this blog and post them up!

There has also been an interesting development within the younger members of the family recently! My 16 year old daughter Anna, while revising for her GCSE Geography exam, has been bombarding me with questions about geology and rocks recently and has developed a particular fondness for saying 'slatey cleavage' as often as possible! AND even Aimee who is 11, has been asking me what a glacier is and how it forms! So perhaps they are both gradually beginning to realise that maybe geology AND their step-father aren't quite as boring as they once thought? There's nothing quite like getting outside and 'into the geology' to make it all come alive!

One final thing to note is that the pre-cambrian rocks of Charnwood include within them, fossils of some of the earliest examples of multi-cellular life forms on earth! More on this next time!

Cheers for now!


Monday, 1 June 2009

Time to read some books!


What a strange feeling it is! With the Open University course now all wrapped up, I'm left with a slightly empty feeling! No assignment to aim for? No deadline to meet? Weird!?!

Having got over that realisation now, I find I am able to go ahead and read a book without having to necessarily write a 500 word appraisal of it, (mind you, the type of books I read, I tend to do that in my head anyway!) So at least now I am able to get stuck into my two 'birthday books'. My mum and dad gave me some money for my birthday, so I purchased 2 geology books would you believe?

Firstly, I got a book called "The Earth After Us", by Jan Zalasiewicz. In this book, the author imagines what a population of alien visitors to Earth would make of our planet when they arrive 100 million years from now, long after the human being has gone the same way as the Dodo. What have we humans left behind in the fossil record? What will these aliens make of the 'human stratum' and how will they judge us? I've just started this one and it's a fascinating read as I've often wondered myself, what evidence of our lives will be left millons of years from now? What will the remains of say, a landfill site look like millions of years from now? Bottles, both glass and plastic, mountains of diposable nappies, all compressed and changed into another form presumably, but what? I'll read on and see what unfolds!

Incidentally, by pure coincidence, Jan Zalasiewicz just happens to be a lecturer in Geology at Leicester University and I met him and had a brief chat while at an open day at the Uni last July! When I spotted the book in Waterstones a while ago, I recognised the name from somewhere, but couldn't place it. A quick look at the sleeve notes and the penny dropped!

The second book is one I've been itching to buy ever since I heard about it's imminent publication. Following my family's trip to Arizona last year, I've been fascinated not only by the Canyon, but the whole of the Colorado Plateau area. While there, I bought a book by Wayne Ranney (I may have mentioned it before within this blog? Maybe a million times?) called 'Carving Grand Canyon', which is a superb book, detailing the theories and mysteries surrounding the possible formation of Grand Canyon. Well, the multitude of staggering geological wonders to be found in the American southwest are inextricably linked to the ever changing Colorado Plateau and this is the subject of Wayne Ranney's latest book "Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau".

Written in collaboration with his onetime Northern Arizona University lecturer Ron Blakey, this publication is a truly stunning book! I only picked it up from the postal depot this morning, but a brief flick through it's pages reveal Ron's palaeogeographical maps in all their glory. Let's not beat around the bush - Ron's ground breaking maps are a work of utter genius (see the slideshow of his world maps at the lower right column of this blog!) and their publication is long overdue! Together with loads of explanatory diagrams and Wayne's text, it looks an absolute gem of a book! I'll let you know more and maybe do my own little reviews of these books at a later date.

Cheers for now!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Education - 'tis a wonderful thing!

Well, that's just about that!

After nine months sweat and toil, it's almost over! S104: Exploring Science, is all but over with only the 25 question computer marked assignment left to do. Astonishingly, I achieved a whopping 97% in my final tutor marked assignment, which means that if I manage to get 85% on my End of Course Assessment, I will be awarded a 'distinction'!!!

When I started out on this journey nine months ago, the goals were merely to see if I was up to study again after donkeys years of nothing, learn a bit and see if I can pass an Open University course - nothing more than that really. With all that has gone on domestically since the turn of the year, it's frankly astonishing that I have even a sniff of a distinction. There have been times when I even considered, albeit briefly, to throw the towel in. With so much going on around me, to then sit down and try to grapple with Quantum Physics, was a 'big ask' as Mark Lawrenson would say!

But this course has given me so much that I never even considered beforehand. I now find myself routinely reading the BBC Science web pages, NASA's Mars mission pages and countless others to feed my almost unquenchable thirst for knowledge. But to have this thirst at the ripe old age of 49 is kind of interesting. I can never remember ever having had such an enthusiasm for learning all those years ago in school. Not even in college either! I'm left thinking that maybe one needs to 'live life' a bit, experience the repetitive dullness of employment, before one realises what is truly exciting and stimulating in life. In that sense, education is rather lost on the young. School and indeed further education seems geared to getting 'a job' at the end of it, without thinking beyond that.


There, I've said it! Tar 'n feather me if you like, but that's what I feel. I can assure you, when I get my Geology degree, I won't be seeking employment with another consulting engineers, to resume that climb up the ladder again (not that I ever got above the second rung previously!). Nope, of more interest to me is research. As I've already said, if I can make some contribution, however small to the multitude of questions, asking how Grand Canyon came to be the way it is, I will die a happy man! If I can write a geology book like Wayne Ranney's, that make this wonderful subject understandable to the interested layman I will be very proud indeed!

That's got to be preferable to meaningless staff appraisals, 'taking ownership of your deliverables' and endless corporate 'tosh' surely?

Each to their own, I guess.

Until next time!


Friday, 15 May 2009

End of Course Asssessment looming!

Greetings Folks!
So, the pressure mounts! The deadline for the S104, Exploring Science, end of course assessment is 28th of May! It's a HUGE piece of work and I have to say, I am not at all impressed with the Open University's choice of cut off date! They say we should post off our work at least 4 days before the deadline. Well, that just happens to be a Bank Holiday, so there is no postal service that day! The day before that is a Sunday, so there's no postal service then either! So I will have to look at getting it posted on Saturday 23rd at the latest. However, I'm going to be away for the weekend, so that means I'll need to have everything done and dusted by the end of next Thursday night! Arrrrrrgggghhh!!???!!!
Anyway, that aside, it's going reasonably well so far and I think I'm on schedule to finish it in time. Just about!?! Progress was hampered by the OU's insistence on including an exercise that requires online discussions and contributions to the course forum. This involves online research and also needs the cooperation and efforts of all your fellow students to spark an online debate! Well, having to rely on ones online colleagues was never going to be that straight forward and the 'debate' has been virtually non-existant. Only 7 people have contributed anything at all, out of about 15 who started the couse in our group! That suggests either a major drop out rate or some students simply sacrificing a few marks in favour of getting on with the rest of the questions without this ill conceived hassle interrupting their flow! Maybe a wise choice, I'm beginning to think!?!
AND, I've still not received my mark for my final tutor marked assignment, so I don't know at this stage what my final mark is for my course work. My tutor has been pretty excellent thorughout the whole course, taking over at short notice after our original Canadian tutor failed to get her work permit renewed and consequently got shown the door. I've already passed the course work anyway, so it's not that important I guess.
Oh blimey, somebody stop me moaning! That's something my wife and I are doing way, WAY too much at the moment, but I guess that's just a sign of the stress we are under right now! There's got to be an outlet somehow!
So tomorrow, Ruth and I are going to have a bit of stress relief by going to watch our beloved Bolton Wanderers play Hull City at the Reebok Stadium in what is the final home match of the Premier League season! It's a bit of an 'end of season' affair with nothing at stake for the Wanderers, but poor old Hull are hanging by a thread to their Premier League status! Should be fun!
Before I go, take a look at this photo from the BBC Science web site which blew my mind this week!
Taken by Hubble telescope, it shows a huge cluster of galaxies some 13 billion light years away! S104 has made me think a lot about the sheer scale of the universe and bearing in mind the vastness of our own galaxy, to then consider a whole cluster of galaxies as shown here, just goes to highlight the almost unfathomable immensity of the universe! When I finish my course, I'll have lots more time to talk about this stuff in more detail!
Better get on - I've got an assessment to finish!
Cheers for now!

Friday, 8 May 2009

Hanging in there!

Greetings folks!
Apologies for the deadly silence over the last few weeks! It's not that there hasn't been anything to blog about recently - far from it! But it has been a frantically busy, and extremely stressful time, not just for me, but all of my family too in so many ways. Where do I begin?
Well as you know, as it stands I am living in our home of five years in Bolton, in the north west of England with our eldest daughter Anna-Ruth who is now in the midst of her GCSE exams. So Anna has a whole heap of stress to cope with and thankfully, so far, she's taking it all in her stride. Meanwhile, my darling wife Ruth and our youngest daughter Aimee Claire, have moved to Loughborough, in the East Midlands. Aimee has settled in superbly to her new school while Ruth gradually gets to grips with her new role in Nottingham Trent University.
Starting a new job is tricky enough, but with the family split up from Sunday evening until Friday evening each week it obviously means that for Ruth, all the family childcare duties such as taking Aimee to Guides/trampolining/guitar lessons etc etc falls completely in her lap. Ruths mum and dad chip in of course with the school run and stuff like that, but it all leaves Ruth with precious little time to 'chill' or do anything for herself. It's all taking its toll which is heart breaking for me and I feel so helpless, being over 100 miles away!
So it all makes our weekends so precious. Either I travel down to Loughborough or Ruth travels up to Bolton, which naturally costs a fortune in petrol at a time when our finances are stretched while trying to run two homes, albeit temporarily! And then there is the problem of employment! Ruth has obviously started her new job, but I now need to find an alternative position for myself by mid June. Encouragingly, I've been getting positive vibes from my current employers about the possibility of a transfer to one of its other offices in the East Midlands - either Nottingham or Derby. So hopefully something will come of that and give me one less thing to worry about.
Now, just for a laugh, throw into the mix the small matter of me trying to finish my Open University science foundation course! I have now done all the computer marked and tutor marked assignments and averaged at about 83%. Only one blip of 60% has scuppered the chance of a distinction! So given the circumstances of my study, I think it's nothing short of a miracle that I've been able to achieve what I have. It has given me a lot of confidence that when I finally start my MGeol degree at Leicester Uni I will be able to achieve great things. Yes folks, after careful consideration, I have deferred my place at Leicester to the September 2010 start, which was a difficult, but necessary decision. That will give me a year to settle in Loughborough and be properly ready to get cracking! Can't wait!!!!
So there you have it. A brief snapshot of the crazy, mentally and physically draining, mad, mad world of Alyn, Ruth and family! One things for sure - when all four of us are finally reunited in our new home in Loughborough, there will be
So, after getting all that off my chest, I'll get back to geology next time, which will be soon - promise!
Cheers for now,

Friday, 6 March 2009

Hey! Do you speak Geology?


After my sharing my thoughts last week regarding the ability or otherwise, of geologists to embrace the fact that they can actually be wrong sometimes, my thoughts this week have turned to that other strange tendency that geologists seem to have - the need to speak in gobbledy-gook!?!

As you're probably aware by now, I went to Grand Canyon last year. (No, really?) Following my return I have had an insatiable thirst for knowledge of anything 'Grand Canyon', but particularly anything that will shed some light on how this magnificent place came to be. I downloaded every single one of the papers from the 2000 symposium on the 'Evolution of the Colorado River' - Click here if you would like to do the same!

Now, I know I should perhaps wait a few years before trying to read academic papers, but the language used in some of them is absolutely unintelligible to anyone other than geological academics. Okay, perhaps little ol' me wasn't part of the target audience when these guys wrote their papers. But back in 1945, Donald L. Babenroth and Arthur N. Strahler wrote a paper on the Geomorphology and Structure of the East Kaibab Monocline . The interesting thing about this paper is the language it is written in! Even for the relative layman like me, it is very readable and understandable. Another paper by Chester Longwell in 1946 entitled 'How Old is the Colorado River?' was similar - straight forward and readable. Surely this is how it should be isn't it? Why should this fascinating subject be submerged in complex, ludicrously long worded, technical terminology, only understandable to a small minority? What on earth has happened in the last 50 years to turn geology into some sort of foreign language?

Two geologists that have inspired me greatly over the last year or so are Dr Iain Stewart of Plymouth University in England and Wayne Ranney of Flagstaff, Arizona. Wayne, as you'll know by now is author of 'Carving Grand Canyon' and co-author with Dr Ron Blakey of 'Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau'. Iain is the presenter of the excellent recent TV series 'Earth: The Power of the Planet' and other superb geology and environmental television series. What these gentlemen have in common is that they both recognise that geology is a fantastically exciting subject that stirs the imagination of a great many people. They realise that while some people might go to Grand Canyon and say "ooh, isn't that lovely" and then hop on a helicopter back to Vegas, rather more people actually stop and wonder "how the heck did this place come to be"? That's exactly what I did and I went in search of a book that might tell me. A book full of long words and technical jargon would've been of little use to me. What I needed was exactly what Wayne's book provides - a detailed explanation of the theories and mysteries in a language understandable to the interested layman. The end result is a thirst for more! Job done Wayne!

Similarly, Iain Stewart inspired me with his series and book mentioned above. I think it was New Year's Day 2007, when I was hopping round the TV channels while staying at my mother-in-law's, that I stumbled upon ironically, the last in the series of 'Earth: The Power of the Planet'. This was basically rounding up the series with a look at the future of planet Earth. The straight forward, enthusiastic presentation style and above all, non-technical language was a sheer delight. Iain presents geology on television with a passion I can relate to. Surely this is how geology should be presented?

Yes, I know, technical papers are not directed at layman. We're talking about different audiences and I appreciate that. But, it seems to me that so often these days, scientific news is regularly misinterpreted in the media, often to an embarrassing degree. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it is because scientific journalists simply don't fully understand the message of a particular paper after getting bogged down by the jargon! Okay, once I get my MGeol degree (how's that for positivity?) I will need to be submitting papers to peer review journals and these will need to be liberally sprinkled with technical language. But I hope there will always be room for a more thorough explanation within my text, in an accessible language that will make it understandable to a wider audience.

Any thoughts? Post 'em up if you like!

Before I go, Iain Stewart makes the point at the end of 'Earth: The Power of the Planet', that the our world doesn't need saving at all! Outraged? Well, there's no need to be! Our dear planet is quite capable of coping with whatever us clumsy, destructive humans can throw at it and is looking after itself quite well, thank you! What actually needs saving is the human being! More on this next time!

Cheers for now,


Friday, 27 February 2009

The Great 'Grand Canyon Age' Debate!

Hi there!

I was very interested to read a post in Wayne Ranney's blog 'Earthly Musings' some weeks ago, regarding 2008 being the 'Banner year' for Grand Canyon research papers. In his blog he mentioned the geological 'hoo-hah' that was stirred up by the publication of a paper by Victor Polyak, which presented the possibility that part of Grand Canyon may well have been around 17 Ma. Shock horror!?! How could they say such a thing? Outrageous!
Or is it?

Their research into U-Pb dating of speleothems (cave formations) brought forward the possibility that sections of Grand Canyon may have been in existance a lot longer than originally thought. However, I suppose it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that rather than stimulate discussion and open the minds of other geologist to new possibilities regarding the age of Grand Canyon, their research paper seems to have brought a near hysterical response from "the young canyon police" as Wayne called them. Those geologists that are firmly behind the '6Ma age' scenario seem unwilling to entertain any other possibility which seems very strange to me.

While much of the geological terminology used goes way over my head, it is nevertheless interesting to read the reviews of the paper made by Pedersen et al and Pearthree et al (Sept. 2008). There seems to be a 'disprove this paper at all costs' approach rather than create a healthy discussion, but maybe that's just me misinterpreting their reviews. Polyak responds to their reviews with the inference that maybe many geologists don't fully understand cave formations and the hydrology behind them.

Okay, I haven't even started a geology degree course yet and am very much an outsider looking in, but I sincerely hope that when the time comes and I start to contribute to geological debate that I will be able to keep an open mind and be able when necessary to admit to myself and others, "hey, you know, I might just be wrong here!" Surely if one of my geological peers looks at my work, critically analyses it and shows me that I am wrong, that is GOOD for the geological world and me too? Surely we learn just as much by finding out that we aren't quite correct, as we do when proved right?

In Wayne Ranney's book "Carving Grand Canyon", he mentions the tensions in the air during the 2000 symposium on the origins of the Colorado Plateau, that was almost palpable between the 'young canyon' groups and those who had the audacity to suggest that it might be older! Surely, what every geologist or interested party wants, is to find the truth? I like to think that, in the coming years, as my geology studies progress, I will be 'man enough' to take criticism from my peers on the chin and embrace the fact that I might have been wrong.

Time will tell, I guess!

See ya later!


Friday, 30 January 2009

Over the moon!

Greetings one and all!
As I was saying last time, 2008 was a funny old year - a few exceptionally good bits and an awful lot of grim stuff. But 2009 has got off to an exciting start with Ruth getting a new job in the Midlands, and now, just a few days ago, I received an email from UCAS to say.....
wait for it......
I have been offered an UNCONDITIONAL place to study Geology
on their 4 year MGeol Masters degree course
at Leicester University from September 2009!!!
How cool is that, huh?
To say that I am over the moon would be something of an understatement! I am almost soiling my underwear with the excitement of it all! It's the 'unconditional' part that has really surprised me a bit, to be honest. I rather thought that any offer would be conditional on me passing the Open University Science Foundation course at least and maybe have to attend an interview. But it seems I must have made some sort of decent impression during the course of last July's Open Day to be offered a place straight off! FANTASTIC! It also means that the pressure to pass the OU course is off, so I can relax a bit more, just enjoy the learning and not get so stressed on the run up to the assignments.
For an idea of what I will be getting up to in the not too distant future have a little click on this, the Leicester University's Geology web page:-
Just imagine the change:- here I am sitting in the same old office, bored rigid, drawing yet another road to yet another housing development or whatever. Now, before me is the chance to get out in the open air to study rocks, fossils and everything else that shapes this amazingly complex and fascinating world. Instead of sitting in an office every day I will be visiting, Arran, Wales, Tenerife, Spain, the Alps and who knows where else! Pinch me someone, I must be dreaming!!!
Lord knows, give me a few years, I might even be taking people on tours like my geologist chum from the other side of the herring pond, Wayne Ranney! He's currently on an amazing 'Private Jet Expedition' covering Madeira, Burkino Faso, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Horn and Panama! Nice work if you can get it!
I can't wait to get cracking, but wait I must! There's the small matter of funding to sort out, which is not as straight forward as it should be. It seems my previous period of study, back in 1978-81, which was funded by a local authority grant affects my entitlement to further funding now! So it may be that I will have to defer my place to the 2010 intake to give me time to save up a few pennies! That would be a bit frustrating but as I've waited this long for the opportunity, another year won't be too bad and knowing that the place is there ready and waiting will give me something to look forward to!
In the meantime, we'll have to sell the house (not easy in the current climate!), get a new temporary job and move. So no stress there then? It will be a weird old year, spending so much of the next 6 months apart from my wife and youngest daughter, but as I keep saying to Ruth, we must focus on the goals and take one step at a time! Everything will fall into place in the fullness of time, you see if it don't!
See y'all later!
Cheers, Alyn

Monday, 5 January 2009

A look back at '08 and forward to an exciting 2009!

Happy New Year!

Well, that's that for another year then! Christmas festivities have come and gone and we're now into 2009! As is usual, one takes a look back at the year just passed and for me and my family, 2008 was mixed - a lot of dull, frustrating, annoying, at times depressing and thoroughly average days, broken up by a few exciting events that lifted the gloom!

The trip to Arizona and Grand Canyon was (as I have mentioned many times already!) was the outstanding highlight. Ruth and I also had a great time in August travelling round Britain on the 'Carillon Tour' - a tour of most of the UK's Carillons with Ruths' sister Caroline who is the Carilloneur for Loughborough in Leicestershire. For the uninitiated, a Carillon is a fascinating and rare (in the UK at least) musical instrument, consisting of varying numbers of static bells, played by a clavier or baton keyboard.

A Carillon clavier, this one at Bourneville in Birmingham

The tour took us as far north as Aberdeen in Scotland and as south at Spalding in Lincolnshire. It was a fun and fascinating way to spend a summer and certainly beat sitting on a beach! It gave me much more respect for these things....

Bells! This whopper is also from the Bournville Carillon.

Anyone interested in reading a lot more about Carillons can take a look at the outstanding daily blog we did during the tour, expertly written by my dear wife Ruth. Just click here.

So what of 2009?

Well, exciting stuff in store! In February, Ruth starts her new job in the midlands, which means that Ruth and Aimee (our youngest), will move down to Loughborough, while Anna and I will remain in Lancashire until Anna does her GCSE's in the summer. In the meantime, we'll be rushing back and forth between Loughborough and Lancs at weekends. Splitting up the family temporarily isn't ideal I guess, but as we have always planned to relocate back to my wife's home town at some stage, at least we can do it gradually, rather than try to sell up, move, get jobs, etc, etc, all at once! At least this way the stress load can be spread over several months - well, that's the theory anyway! In between, we'll need to do a lot of decoration of our house to get it in sufficiently good shape to either sell or rent out - preferably the former! Plus of course, the Open University course continues, so I'll have to find sufficient time to continue the studies!!! Phew!

So, exciting things ahead! I'll keep ypu posted!

Cheers for now!