Story of an atom: Carbon cycling

This is the second part of a story told to me by a Carbon atom in my brain. It started with her tale of how she ended up on earth

You know those places where young humans go and sit by the water in the sun? There’s a lot of ‘chemistry’ goes on, am I right? 1. It’s the same for us atoms – water and sunshine makes for some wild times.

You humans are used to water – you’re practically made of the stuff – but for us it’s really really weird. Water is a whole gang of Oxygen atoms, each with a pair of cute Hydrogens like bunny ears on top and they’ve got this weird thing going on, where they stick to each other, but not too much. If I’m bonded with the right atoms I can just get stuck into the mix. It’s like a great big party in there. You float around and make bonds with whoever else is floating around.

Sunlight makes things happen too, which is where life comes in. I’m a big fan of you living things – as a carbon I feel kind of responsible. There wasn’t much of you lot around to start with, just after I landed on this place, I mean2. I spent a lot of time floating around with a couple of oxygen atoms in the air, carbon dioxide you call it. There wasn’t any Oxygen in the atmosphere then, mostly Nitrogen and some other things. Nitrogen annoys me though. On their own they get up to all sorts of things – you’d be lost without them – but in the air they pair up and just ignore everyone else. You know restaurants on Valentine’s Day, each couple in their own little world? Well that’s the atmosphere is like with Nitrogen around.

I remember how things started getting more interesting. As carbon dioxide I got drawn into this really complicated place, quite green, with lots of complex molecules packed into a bag of water. I soon found myself bound up with lots of other carbons. Sunlight was involved somehow and one of the Oxygen atoms I came in with got kicked out3 Inside you living things there are these big molecules that make me do things – enzymes you call them. I might be thinking about maybe bonding with this or that atom, when somehow they trip me up and I end choosing the one they want. Every time it happens. I really don’t know how they do it4.

Soon a pattern started to form. I’d get stuck in a big molecule, then eventually turned back into carbon dioxide, float around the air or water for a bit and then get sucked back in again. Take the current loop I’m in, for instance.

A while back I got sucked into a green place in the usual fashion. There was an odd stage when everything got mashed up in water and I ended up in a molecule like the first one I was ever in5. I entered you this way and floated around in some huge sack for a while. I was quite surprised just how much of this molecule there was in there6. Then the enzymes got going and I ended up here in your brain as part of a different carbon molecule. Soon you’re going to take this molecule, mix it with Oxygen and break it up. You get energy to think with, I get turned into Carbon dioxide again and end up back in the air.

So for a long time now, I’ve regularly cycling through these different places – water, air, life and around again. Since that first time things have changed so much around here – the air’s full of Oxygen and these green places get everywhere.

Each cycle is different – sometimes I get to go underground. This can last for a very long time. Usually it’s when I’m in a big carbon molecule that gets buried under sand or mud, deeper and deeper. I’ve always made it back up to the surface though, in the end, to go back round the cycle again. There was one time which was very special though. It really *changed* me.

We’ll save that story for next time

Categories: excessive anthropomorphism, imaginary conversations

Story of an atom: birth to earth

A voice – soft and scratchy, like the sound of a pencil on paper – started speaking in my head. It claimed to be a Carbon atom and started telling me about the amazing journeys it’s taken over billions of years. I started writing down what it was saying and I’ve added some of my own notes about the science (which seems correct). It must have been a dream though, surely?

I’m a Carbon atom. Carbon 12 to be precise, like most of us are. I’ve got 6 protons and 6 neutrons in my tidy little nucleus and usually some electrons buzzing around to keep me decent. I’m not one of these bloated Carbon 13 types, waddling around with their extra neutron. Still, they’re OK, it’s Carbon 14 I try to avoid – big fat lumps. So unstable too! I bonded with one once, you know, sharing some electrons, just chilling in a bit of soot. Then, bang! All of a sudden one of her protons shoots off and she’s turned into a Nitrogen. Gave me such a shock.1

Oh, now, you’re getting a bit worried by me talking to you, aren’t you? Be careful, I’m only in your brain as a bit of glucose, not as one of your cells. If you think too much then two burly Oxygens will grab hold, stick me in your blood stream and puff me out via your lungs. My advice to you is this: don’t worry about how I’m talking like this, just enjoy the story. You’ll want to hear it. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

So let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start. Like most of us atoms, I was born in a star somewhere. Not that I like to think about it much – scary places, stars. The first thing I remember is being thrown all over the place with a whole mass of other atoms.2 We’re all terribly excited at first, rushing around like mad but eventually we calm down, spread out a bit. Naturally we start to pair up. You know you humans talk about there being ‘chemistry’ between two people? We are just the same, especially us Carbons.

You always remember your first time. My first bonding was with a Hydrogen atom, “H” I called her. When we started sharing that electron I thought it would be for ever. I’ve had a soft spot for Hydrogen ever since. They’re so neat and simple, just a cute little proton, happy to bond. Old too – some of them formed right at the beginning.3 Not a trace of arrogance about being so old though, not like Helium. Those guys never bond with anyone – for that you call them a ‘noble element’. Pah! Damn rude more like it.

Anyway, back then me and my Hydrogen were happy enough just floating about, but something was missing, so we got together with an Oxygen, 5 more Hydrogens and another Carbon. We worked it out that everyone got the electrons they wanted, everyone had their place to be. Once we cracked it, it was an intoxicating feeling.4 I miss those times, everything was nice and cool and relaxed.

But those Helium atoms messed things up. Once enough of them get together into a big heap they start making mischief. Together with poor old Hydrogen they start destroying atoms, squeezing them so hard and making it so hot that they turn into new ones.5 I was born in one of those places I suppose, but it freaks me out. Still, you humans don’t like to think about the details of where you came from, do you? What really scares me is the idea that I’ll fall into one of those things and get turned into something else. I like being a Carbon atom! Some snotty Helium once tried to tell me that I shouldn’t feel like this. “We all share our particles in common” she said. Apparently I was “formed from the joyful merging of 3 Heliums” and it’s my “destiny to be reborn as other elements in the cosmic cycle of rebirth”. Bloody hippy nonsense!6

We weren’t anywhere near this mischief, thank goodness, but when it got going it created loads of light and a tremendous wind. All of us atoms that were just floating about got pushed away from the sun and started getting pulled into lumps.7 I ended up in a dusty icy lump circling the sun. It was still a long way away though – just a small dot in the sky.

After a while, rumours started coming in that some of the bigger lumps closer in were moving around. The kerfuffle reached us and things started getting very hairy indeed. Our lump got pushed around and then started moving straight towards the sun! I was terrified.8 As we moved closer to the sun, things warmed up. The outside of the lump started melting off, floating away as a pretty tail.9 Then, pretty close to the sun, just when I was thinking it was time to die, this huge great rock, the one we’re on now, veered up towards us and we hit it. We were saved!10

I was saved from the sun, but I lost my first love, H. When we hit, everything got crazy and we star-crossed lovers were flung apart, losing each other in a vast crowd of super-fast atoms. I’ve been looking for H ever since, but it’s a big planet. She may even have joined with another Hydrogen and floated out into space.11 I’ve bonded a *lot* since then, I don’t even keep track of who I pair with any more. It’s fun, but not the same.

I still think about H a lot. Maybe she was too simple, too pure for this planet. It’s for the best if she’s floating out there in space, gently dancing along with another Hydrogen. I hope she still thinks of me.

She had a lot more to say: the second instalment is about the Carbon cycle.

Categories: excessive anthropomorphism, imaginary conversations

Types of geological blog posts

I write a geological blog. I read lots of them too. The old geological training has kicked in and I feel an urge to classify the various types of blog posts. Metageologist is about to get meta….


The current research post

A staple of sci-blogging, the ‘current research post’ centres around a recent journal article. A good one will tell you about the paper, its methods, its conclusions and above all, why it is important. Within print-bound science journalism, I find it is often too brief and too dependent on quotes from scientists. Within the wide open spaces of a blog, there is an opportunity to let the science breathe.

Among many others, Brian Switek (Laelaps) and Ed Yong are masters of the genre.

The ‘what I did on my holidays’ post

The slightly derogatory name reflects my feelings about my own attempts at the genre. The hard facts of hits and retweets suggest you agree that my attempts of turning a rocky journey into a blog post are somewhat lacking.

At their simplest they can be a string of photos with brief descriptions, which can be very nice indeed. As a mediocre photographer I find myself leaning towards the research-heavy and the more ‘literary’.

What these posts need are fantastic field photos, lots of context (not just geological) and a strong narrative. See Geotripper’s great posts to see how it should be done.

News and events posts

Some posts live in the moment. Sometimes this is putting a geological context on mainstream news. Others comment on geological events that are only sometimes part of ‘the news’. I’m thinking of Dave Petley on landslides and Erik Klemetti on volcanoes. For these two the combination of scientific context, an understanding of the human impact and awesome visuals is pretty potent.

Meta posts

Blogs are sometimes seen as narcissistic, self-obsessed, all about the author.  Sometimes this is true. In New Year 2013 sent its bloggers a traffic report for the year which caused a rash of introspection. I’ve done it myself – a yearly review is a nice thing to write. The competitive side of me relishes the opportunity to get a peek at other blog’s traffic statistics, if only to see what is possible.

Some posts are about the business of science communication, science making or blogging, including this one. So this post, seeking to be a set of all sets of blog posts, avoids paradox by containing itself.

‘It’s been a bit quiet here’ post

A unkind blog cliche is the site that contains only one substantive post and then a series of posts apologising for the lack of posts. It’s been quiet at times here, but I’ve always feel a post just to explain is a bit naff (unless the reason for silence is significant). It may be because I consume blogs via Twitter,  Google and all-geo. If I followed the original subscribing-to-a-feed model it might more sense.

‘About my research’ posts

I think these are excellent, ace, brilliant and lovely: see the folks at Geojenga. They are also important.

Of course too much honesty about your work can be risky, of course you don’t want your journal paper pipped at the post, of course you are busybusy. But all you researchers out there PLEASE write about more what you do. Science communication should be about not just the findings, but the research methods, techniques and people that led to those findings. That machine you spend your time cursing may be doing things that are astonishing to others, even to a chap like me a mere 15 years out of the game.

There are lots of reasons why communicating your research is important, I won’t rehash them here, but here’s a new one: you writing a post about your research will make me happy. What could be more important than that? So get to it.

The round-up

The classic is Ed Yong’s “I’ve got your missing links right here”. Only those with the power to command many clicks write these. The rest of us wait and hope to be picked. One day….

Series of posts

Sometimes a subject is just too big for one post. It spreads over into a whole series like Dana Hunter’s gripping posts on Mount St Helens.

Blog carnivals fit in this slot as well. Hosting an Accretionary Wedge felt like a rite of passage for me and Where On Google Earth got me starting my first blog. Gateway drugs.

A themed post a week is deservedly popular. I always keep an eye out for Callan Bentley‘s Friday Fold, which is a reminder that sometimes one great photo with explanation is all that is required.

Finally, lets bow our heads in gratitude to those crazy fools Lockwood DeWitt and Ian Stimpson who have both written a series of posts with one for every day of a year. Lockwood’s doing one this year and promises a grand finale.

A bit of fun

Humour creeps into my posts, to various degrees and I’m not alone in this. Sometimes it can be overdone. Sometimes the best policy is to have an entire site dedicated to it like Trust Me, I’m A Geologist or Geokittehs.

The explainer post

These are my favourite, both to read and write. A good explainer post will take a reader by the hand and lead them through unfamiliar territory and out again a more informed person. Erik Klemetti’s post on ‘Why do Rocks Melt on Earth?’ is a great example of the genre – it answers an important geological question in an approachable way.

They can be hard work to write. My own tend come from following my own curiosity, which makes it easier – the post can retrace my own journey of discovery. I tend to have two readers in mind – a keen amateur and a nit-picking professor. Writing to keep both happy is quite a challenge.

Explainer posts are important because they fill a gap. Increasingly people get information from the Internet, where very high-level information is easy to find. However much of the knowledge required to understand what scientists are actually doing is ‘locked up’ within textbooks and scientific papers. This isn’t just an ‘Open Access’ issue, because knowledge can remain hidden in plain-sight, behind layers of technical language. Good explainer posts are a way of bridging this gap, removing barriers between academia and the intelligent lay reader.


Have I missed any types in my classification? Know any better examples? Let me know below.

Categories: Navel gazing

The edge of Cheshire. Part 2 – layers of landscape

This is part 2 of a series of posts seeking to describe everything of interest on a walk along the edge of Cheshire, in England’s Peak District. Part 1 ended as I left Sutton Common, my mood lifting as the ground dropped.

Descending the hill I passed a small house with a pigeon coop in the garden. On top there are two plastic birds of prey and occasionally, recorded bird noises sound out. It guess it is some of defence against real predators, but it can’t be good for the mental health of the pigeons inside.  These are racing pigeons – there is a small and lovely film about the owners.

Summer 2013 170Passing over a little col and a main road I find myself on a high wide ridge with two odd names. The western side is Bosley Minn, the eastern Wincle Minn and the track I’m walking along is Minn-End Lane. Bosley and Wincle are the nearest villages and Minn most likely comes from the Welsh mynydd meaning mountain or moorland – a reminder that Celtic languages were once spoken in England too.

There are traces of pre-Celtic cultures here too; there are standing stones on the Minns. They’ve been used as gate posts, but people who know more than me suggest that some of them are ancient standing stones. The area is rich in pre-historic remains; Cleulow Cross nearby is an ancient artificial mound crowned by a later Anglo-Saxon cross. It sits in a clump of trees located high on a ridge that has been catching my eye since the beginning of the walk.

Summer 2013 174

Up close the Minn stones have patches of an odd blue tinge. Sadly this is not ancient woad dye but rather scrapings from modern itchy sheep, spray-painted bright blue by the farmer.

Summer 2013 176

Barrows and standing stones are often found in prominent positions in the landscape, within sight of each other. It is humbling to think of humans, potentially my ancestors, viewing this same landscape in totally different ways. These monuments suggest a whole layer of meaning, mythical or religious was once overlaid on these hills and valleys, but is now completely lost.

I’m on the edge of the Cheshire plain and it is hard to take my eyes off The View. It’s a clear day and my attention is caught by a sudden sharpness on the horizon – Snowdonia. All around me are rounded landforms, smooth hills and undulating plains, but these distant Welsh mountains have sharp peaks and steep cliffs. This difference is due to ice and its ebb and flow across this landscape.

To a geologist, we are living in an Ice Age. For great periods of time the earth has had no ice at all – even the Poles were free of it. But Ice Ages are not static. The amount of ice changes in great cycles, driven by tiny changes in the spin of the earth. Today we are in a relatively warm period, called an interglacial – the ice has retreated to high mountains or the far north. During the last cold period (around 20 thousand years ago) everything to the west of here was covered by a thick ice-cap. We know that ice flowing into east Cheshire came from the Lake District as it left behind fragments of rock from there, some of them very large.

The ice failed to cover all of the Pennines, England’s central spine. Looking to the east we’d have seen the edge of the ice sheet. Shutlingsloe, the most distinctive peak in the area is through to have peeked out through the ice, forming a feature called a nunatak.

Summer 2013 178

As the cycle of climate shifted warmer, the ice sheet melted, leaving behind thick deposits of ‘boulder clay’ over a smoothed landscape. There was a brief reversal in the warming trend around 12,000 years ago. In Britain, this ‘Younger Dryas’ event caused ice to return – the ‘Loch Lomond readvance’. The ice was restricted to mountainous areas, forming valley glaciers rather than an ice cap. These glaciers explain the spikiness of Snowdonia in the distance.

It feels like I am floating above most of Britain here. These uninterrupted views were once briefly of use to military men at the dawn of electronic warfare. In 1941 the air war above Britain was making full use of the new Radar technology. German bombers were flying at night into Britain along special radio beams. These allowed them to fly low (avoiding detection by British radar) and to find their targets. The ‘blackout’, where every house covered their windows and even car headlights were masked, was designed to ensure the enemy couldn’t find their target cities.

In response to this new threat, the RAF developed Meacon, a system that jammed the German beams and confused the incoming bombers. For a short while, one of these transmitters was sited at the very top of the ridge, sowing electronic confusion across the country. The evolutionary game of technological development soon moved on and not a trace remains.

My path takes me off the ridge and down the side. The wind suddenly drops and it feels like I’m entering a new world.

The final part is now up.

Categories: England, landscape