Just keeping it Fresh

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It always makes for a great movie. The lonely scientist in his white coat, working alone in his lab late into the night. There he is, mixing crazy coloured chemicals as part of an insane quest to find some sort of secret elixir. Like Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit, or Spencer Tracy in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde success is pyrrhic at best. Yes, the lonely nutty professor remains a powerful cliché for how science works.

Of course reality is generally a little different. Splendid isolation is not usually a recipe for scientific success. Most researchers work as part of a well-organised group that meets regularly to share new results and discuss recent important developments. Our group here at the Open University is no exception. With the impressive title of: the Cosmochemistry Research Group (CRG), we meet up every Tuesday for a round-up of what everyone has been doing over the past week and to listen to a short seminar presentation by one of the group members. To be successful such meetings need to be properly organised. Over the past few years Dr Natalie Starkey has done an exceptional job of keeping things focussed and on track. She has recently handed on this role to Dr Romain Tartese. Longstanding readers of this blog will be pleased to know that cake remains an essential ingredient of CRG weekly meetings. As always, the chocolate brownies are particularly good.

Well, OK! this is not really a picture of a cake from one of our weekly CRG meetings, but one prepared by Margaret Tindle for the Moon Rocks ibook celebration. But you get the idea!

But while regular weekly meetings are a vital part of keeping research group members in touch with each other, it is also important to find out what’s going on in the wider scientific world. A vibrant programme of visiting speakers is an essential part of the mix. Thanks to the hard work and organisational skills of Dr Susanne Schwenzer we have been benefiting from a series of fascinating talks covering a wide range of planetary science topics. Take the last two weeks as an example. Dr Bill Bottke (Southwest Research Institute) presented a talk examining the Late Heavy Bombardment on the Earth and Moon and Professor Jamie Gilmour (University of Manchester) discussed aspects of the development and analytical application of the RELAX and RIMSKI noble gas mass spectrometers. We also had a talk about the potential for life on Mars given by NASA scientist Professor Everett Gibson, and Professor Alex Halliday (University of Oxford) gave a presentation on the delivery of volatiles to Earth both before and after the Giant Impact.

Good science communication involves using a wide range of new media. On his recent visit to the Open University Prof. Everett Gibson of NASA (left) takes a look at the new Moon Rocks ibook – the first ibook published by the Open University and now available as a free downlaod on the Apple Bookstore. In the picture with Everett are Prof. Peter Scott – Head of the Knowledge Media Institute (centre) and Dr. Andy Tindle (right), co-author of the new ibook.

Then there are more organised scientific meetings. These range from large international gatherings, such as the annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, Texas, to smaller-scale more focussed events. A nice recent example of the latter was held in London on November 9th by the Royal Astronomical Society and highlighted how new lunar research was changing our views on the early evolution of the Solar System. An important theme of this meeting was the possibility that, as a result of impact processes, terrestrial samples may have been ejected from the early Earth and then landed on the Moon. Of course identifying terrestrial meteorites within the lunar regolith will be extremely challenging.

Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean holding a sample of lunar soil. The picture was taken by Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad, who can be seen in the reflection in Bean’s visor. One of the soil samples collected during the Apollo 12 mission contained a small meteorite sample called Bench Crater. It was the first meteorite to be discovered on a solar system body other than the Earth. The lunar soil may also contain meteorites from the Earth, although none have so far been identified.

So is that all there is to it? Lots of very enthusiastic scientists having lots of meetings! All a bit self-indulgent you might think. And of course it would be, if that was the end of the story. Happily it isn’t.

So let’s move on. It’s a cold damp Saturday afternoon in early November. A group of twelve enthusiastic members of the Derby and District Astronomical Society head down to the Open University for an afternoon visit. We kick things off with a talk about meteorites and early solar system evolution. It’s looking good, no one falls asleep. Then there’s a chance for people to handle some real meteorite specimens and later observe meteorites under the microscope. We finish with a Cook’s tour of the various bits of kit we use to study the oxygen isotope composition of extraterrestrial materials (laser fluorination line, NanoSIMS). That’s all great. But the fun bit is done over coffee and biscuits. Here are a really enthusiastic group of people asking questions and showing real interest in the subject. They come at things from a different angle. They find it all fun (well most of it!) and ask challenging and thought-provoking questions. This sort of activity is given the jargon name “Outreach”, but that doesn’t really cover it. It’s all about dialogue and discussion.

One of the Derby astronomers told me that they now have more than double the number of people at their regular meetings as a result of the “Cox Effect”. Communication it seems is at the heart of keeping science fresh and relevant.

Members of the Derby and District Astronomical Society studying meteorites in thin section. (image: Graham Ensor)

Blog image credit top: TVtropes.com

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