Category Archives: End of year summaries, general musings

Technical problem with Earth-pages News

Followers of Earth-pages News have been unable to access the site for more than three weeks due to a technical problem that disabled the earth-pages.co.uk link. The fault has been found and remedied. Apologies for the loss of service.

Steve Drury

Field studies – real or virtual?

Every evening’s TV schedules include either an ad for some kind of ‘virtual reality’ (VR) device or a ‘techie’ programme in which one appears. As well as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, commercial VR offers 3-D encounters with charging rhinoceroses, surfing, wingsuit flying and other ‘experiences’ that are either life threatening or viciously expensive. Second Life, the online virtual world (but not yet compatible with VR goggles), appeared as long ago as 2003 and at present has about a million regular users and many more have passed through its portal, eventually to tire of its cheesiness. Yet, Second Life no longer seems to be a topic of normal conversation; maybe aficionados don’t go out very often. The development software, the speed and resolution of computers, the peripheral technologies and the visual quality of immersive VR seem to be following something like Moore’s law – the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. And VR gaming is clearly very profitable with revenues likely to rise from about US$17 million in 2014 to over US$ 20 billion by 2020.

Douglas McCauley writes in Science (Insights 20 October 2017) about the potential of digital games and simulation for expanding the reach of STEM education, particularly in his own field ecology (McCauley, D.J. 2017. Digital nature: Are field trips a thing of the past? Science, v.  359, p. 298-300; doi: 10.1126/science.aao1919). His view is partly positive, as they match the thirst for armchair experiences and the growing digital expertise of the billion or more gamers and many more whose culture is dominated by electronic media, skewed strongly to the under-24s. For instance, children in the US spend on average 7 hours per day online, but only 4 to 7 minutes of unstructured outdoor play. There are obvious opportunities to familiarise and enthuse young people with the staggering richness of the natural world, which none of us will ever be able to witness first hand. At a time when the UK National Trust reports, for instance, that only a third of British children can recognise a magpie (a distinctive and common European member of the crow family) whereas 9 out of 10 easily recognise a Dalek alien cyborg, there is clearly a need. Sixty years ago David Attenborough’s early monochrome Zoo Quest series on BBC TV definitely drew me into natural science as it did millions of others, and I for one am deeply grateful for his then somewhat awkward efforts. So it would be stupid to condemn the potential of VR and more plain-vanilla gaming methods as they could do much the same and probably a great deal more. But can it really teach the field skills needed by any potential observational scientist rather than just make people more interested?

McCauley is less certain on that front, and so am I. Studies have shown that virtual field trip participants perform no better than their peers who engaged only in conventional illustrated lectures. ‘Immersive’ experiences can simulate some, but not all aspects of real terrain, ecosystems and geological features.  My own geological ventures have involved a ‘virtual’ aspect provided by remote sensing and image interpretation. Those now pretty aged technologies show ‘the big picture’ – with some zoom-in capacity – and provide insights into regional and, with Google Earth, local geological structures and relationships. By capturing imagery outside the humanly visible wavelength range they add a great deal about rock composition that would otherwise require large sample collections, petrographic interpretation of thin sections and some basic geochemistry. A stereoscopic 3-D view and the use of terrain in creating perspective oblique images also permit estimates of dip and strike of strata. But it is all a bit inhuman and alien, much the same as ‘doing’ geology on Mars without the opportunity to behave as a curious being would if actually on the surface. Any field scientist has real experience imprinted for years in much the same way as would her hunter-gatherer forbears, while it has been shown that virtual experiences may persist for a mere few weeks. My view is that often uncomfortable, total immersion in field reality, literally step-by-step and day after day fosters continual reflection during and for a long time after the experience. Much of science in general is about ‘mulling over’ observations at every level of detail; the more detail and the more repetition the deeper the insight and the more profound the breaks through.

As higher education continues along its path of commodification the more supposedly ‘immersive’ virtual experiences are likely to supplant field work, largely for cost reasons – both for students and institutions. In my former institution, to which I am still tenuously attached, a decision was taken 17 years ago to make residential field studies optional, and in 2011 to abandon them almost entirely in favour of ‘virtual’ experiences of one kind or another. The results have been dramatic: enrollment in geoscientific courses has fallen to a third of the pre-2000 level; retention has declined by up to 10% and pass rates have dropped significantly. The bottom line is that what we used to call Earth sciences has become increasingly marginalised as regards the range of courses on offer.

Some observations on scientific publication

For most scientists research brings many pleasures: exercising curiosity and ingenuity; the moment of discovery, sometimes an esprit de corps; showing that you were right, and so on. Anthropologists might say that it is a form of playfulness, the ‘scientific method’ being the rules of the game. Telling people about your results at conferences also has its bright moments: showing off; making new acquaintances and renewing old ones; a wider esprit de corps; globetrotting, all expenses paid. Communicating data and discussing results formally before that part of the academic world that you inhabit is a pain by comparison, even for the most gifted writer.  Have all avenues of enquiry and interpretation been exhausted? Is your paper a model of clarity, and will/can anyone read it? Is what you have to recount actually new and/or important? Have you missed something that has already been published? Have you committed plagiarism unconsciously. Are your references bang up to date? The anonymous peer-review system can be merciless, and so can journal editors. Writing up and awaiting reviews are among the most stressful periods in the professional lives of most researchers, because so many boxes have to be ticked to glide effortlessly into print.

The greatest of all literary bugbears is tailoring the style of your list of references to that of the target journal. Very, very occasionally the publisher will employ kindly sub-editors who make sure that all is well in this the most arcane of all academic rituals. The problem is that every academic publishing house and even different journals that each produces have subtly different rules for references cited, in the text and in the list at the end. There are so many permutations and combinations: a comma before the year; v. before volume number, including the issue or not, bold or plain font; journal name in full or one of several kinds of abbreviation; each author’s initials separated by a space or not (the former for the Journal of Geology if you have been wondering – ‘Their given names in full are separated by a space, so it is only polite’!). And there is much, much more in each journal’s ‘Information for Authors’. Quanmin Guo of the University of Birmingham (Correspondence, Nature, v. 540 22/29 December 2016, p. 525) makes the obvious point that every journal should conform to a uniform style – within vividly distinctive bindings what is the need for arcane house rules?

But there is another, more serious grouse about the vast majority of journals. If your institution or you as an individual cannot afford to subscribe to a journal you will inevitably come up against the ‘paywall’ when you try to read an article on line ($10 – 50 per article) even at a time when well-heeled academics are paying for their papers to be open-access (in most cases still behind the paywall for 6 months following publication). The irony is that less well-off researchers also cannot afford to make their work available to all.  Alexandra Elbakyan of Alamaty, Kazakhstan, set out to circumvent the paywall barrier to scholarly exchange, and succeeded in the foundation of Sci-Hub (Van Noorden, R. 2016. Paper pirate. Nature, v. 540, p. 512-513), which hosts about 60 million papers and encompassed about 3% of all PDF downloads in the last year (simply by pasting in a paper’s DOI. Alexandra has been widely praised and thanked, served with a writ for breach of copyright (by Elsevier), had Sci-Hub shut down by order of a US judge (there are proxies), and is currently incommunicado (except for encrypted e-mail) for fear of a demand for multi-million dollar damages. Chances are that she has opened a floodgate to future universal open access. In the meantime, unless I am hopelessly mistaken, there is a perfectly legal work around for you to get must-read papers shortly after they appear at no cost. Email the corresponding author (usually in the free online Abstract in a journals latest issue list of contents) and ask for an offprint in the form of a PDF ‘for the purpose of scholarly exchange’.

Geoscience academic under threat

While she was US Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Hilary Clinton the 2016 Democrat candidate for presidential office habitually used her private email server to send and receive messages, both personal and concerning affairs of state. She did not activate a state.gov email account for the official stuff, saying that it was ‘for convenience’ as her Blackberry smartphone could only access on account. More than 30 thousand undeleted e-mails were hacked by ‘persons unknown’ and appeared on Wikileaks in early 2016, with more in late October 2016, to become one of several issues central to the 2016 US presidential campaign. This practice was twice exonerated by the FBI, despite her account proving to be insecure and the risk to state secrets.

Hans Thybo, President of the European Geophysical Union and a widely esteemed professor of seismology at the University of Copenhagen, was not so lucky. He was fired by the University authorities, allegedly for using his private email account for work-related issues and advising a postdoctoral fellow that criticising the University’s management was ‘legitimate’. More than 1000 academic colleagues have petitioned the University of Copenhagen to reverse its decision and reinstate Thybo, and his case was central to the lead editorial A creeping corporate culture in Nature of 15 December 2016.

Anyone connected for more than a few years with academic life in probably every university on the planet will be conscious of the spread of a culture of bureaucratic control, corporatism and commodification in what formerly were largely self-governing institutions of higher education and research. The trend is in line with increasing, omnidirectional economic pressures stemming from the aftermath of the 2007-8 global financial crisis. But it is not entirely new. My own experience suggests it is partly a logical outcome of leading academics becoming increasingly prone to saying ‘Yes’; at best simply disengaging from dispute with a growing managerial caste within education and research, at worst by opportunistically joining it. A serious disjuncture has developed between teachers and researchers and the managers and business administrators in institutions of higher education. Symptomatic of this kind of schism was the recent passing of a motion of no confidence in the Vice Chancellors Executive of Britain’s Open University by its unionised academic and academic-related staff, following disastrous bungling of a new means of tuition of its entirely non-residential undergraduates in the current academic year. Those who were to implement the measures were inadequately consulted by the leading managers, most of whom had little experience of how the OU had functioned successfully since it received its Charter in 1969.

In Britain, checks and balances on the requirements of management and faculty historically centred on their Senate, once the primary academic authority of universities, in which all members of both academic and non-academic sectors freely debated and passed judgement on new directions and the abandonment of practices that had been found wanting. In most institutions, the Senate has been reduced since the mid 1980s to a mere fraction of staff, who, after nomination, are elected by the various components of the institution, together with unelected, ex officio, members of senior management. In practice, Senates now generally act as a ‘rubber stamp’ for decisions of the top echelons, much in the manner of business corporations.

Part of the new culture attempts to regulate electronic communications. An example of such an IT regulation states that the institution ‘… may monitor all data, systems and network traffic at any time …’, i.e. it claims ownership of work-related communication. No wonder Hans Thybo fell foul of his university. Should outside pressure persuade the authorities of the University of Copenhagen to reinstate him, that would be a significant blow against what has become an unwholesome aspect of learning and scholarship.

Stepping Stones relaunch on-line

In 2000 I was approached by Ian Francis, then a commissioning editor at Blackwell Science if I would like to write a series of news items on advances in Earth Science for the publishers’ new website Earth-Pages. The invitation stemmed from his having read my recently published book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World, which threaded a similar path through developments in the science that I helped to teach through the Open University. Ian’s initiative led to my learning a great deal by sifting through leading scientific journals, which became a weekly discipline. Much of what I commented on covered the eclectic spread of Stepping Stones, but I did not think of authoring a revised edition of the book until just a few years before I retired from the Open University in 2011. As they say; ‘what with one thing or another’ it took me another 7 or 8 years to galvanise myself for such a task. If you would like to have a look at the revised edition, it is now on-line at https://earthstep.wordpress.com/.

The famous 3.6 Ma old hominin footsteps at Laetoli in Tanzania – Stepping Stones emblematic image. (Credit: Mary Leakey)

The famous 3.6 Ma old hominin footsteps at Laetoli in Tanzania – Stepping Stones emblematic image. (Credit: Mary Leakey)

Deciding to produce it in electronic form it occurred to me to make it a possible means of geoscience self-teaching by various devices, such as suggesting key words and phrases to find more in-depth material through a web browser and, equally important, to find useful images. Fifteen years of working on over 800 posts for Earth-Pages and the publications that they were about made revising Stepping Stones a quicker task than I had anticipated. Then it dawned on me that I had written a lot more on various topics for Earth-Pages than I had in the new project. So the Earth-Pages archive is a possibly valuable learning resource, if you can navigate through it, which is not always easy. Being the source for most of the new additions to the book’s Further Reading in, inserting links from each reference to the appropriate post in the Earth-Pages archive was easy.

Oh, and another thing, so few published science authors gain satisfaction from royalties, I decided Stepping Stones v.2.0 should be free!

A ‘proper’ stratigraphic view of the ‘Anthropocene’

Readers may recall my occasional rants over the years against the growing bandwagoning for an  ‘Anthropocene‘ epoch at the top of the stratigraphic column. I , for one, was delighted to find in the latest issue of GSA Today a more sober assessment of the campaign by two stratigraphers who are well placed to have a real say in whether or not the ‘Anthropocene’ is acceptable, one serving on the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the other on the North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (Finney, S.C. & Edwards, L.E. 2016. The “Anthropocene” epoch: Scientific decision or political statement? GSA Today, v. 26 (3–4).

A rational view of the start of human influences on Life and Geology

Regular readers will know that I have strong views on attempts to burden stratigraphy with a new Epoch: the Anthropocene. The central one is that the lead-in to a putsch has as much to do with the creation of a bandwagon, to whose wheels all future geologists will be shackled, as it does to any scientific need for such a novelty. Bound up as it is with the fear that Earth may be experiencing its sixth mass extinction, the mooted Anthropocene will likely become a mere boundary marked by future stratigraphers as a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point or GSSP between the existing Holocene Epoch and that sequence of sedimentary strata and their fossil record that will be laid down on top of it. Or not, if humanity becomes extinct should the economically induced, dangerous modifications of our homeworld of the last few decades or centuries not be halted. Either way, it defies the stratigraphic ‘rule book’.

No one can deny that humanity’s activities are now immensely disruptive to surface geological processes. Nor is it possible to rule out such disruptive change to the biosphere in the near-future that a latter-day equivalent of the K/Pg or end-Permian events is on the cards: such confidence does not spring from the interminable succession of grand words and global inaction reiterated in December 2015 by the UN Paris Agreement on economically-induced climate change. Still, it was a bit of a relief to find that palaeontological evidence, or rather statistics derived from the fossil record in North American sedimentary rocks since the Carboniferous, emphasises that there is no need for the adoption of Anthropocene as an acceptable geological adjective.

To ecologists, extinctions are not the be all and end all of disruption of the biosphere. Major shifts in life’s richness are also recorded by the way entire ecosystems become disrupted. A classic, if small-scale, example is that way in which the ecosystem of the US Yellowstone National Park changed since the eradication by 1926 of the few hundred grey wolves that formerly preyed mainly on elk. In the 20 years since wolf reintroduction to the Park in 1995 the hugely complex but fragile Yellowstone ecosystem has showed clear signs of recovery of its pre-extirpation structure and diversity.

A consortium of mainly US ecologists, led by Kathleen Lyons of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, has assessed linkages between species of fossil animal and plants since the Carboniferous (S.K. Lyons and 28 others, 2015. Holocene shifts in the assembly of plant and animal communities implicate human impacts. Nature, published on-line 16 December 2015 doi:10.1038/nature16447). They found that of the 350 thousand pairs of species that occurred together at different times throughout the late Palaeozoic to the last Epoch of the Cenozoic, the Holocene, some pairs appeared or clustered together more often than might be expected from random chance. Such non-random association suggests to ecologists that the two members of such a pair somehow shared ecological resources persistently, hinting at relationships that helped stabilise their shared ecosystem. For most of post-300 Ma time an average of 64% of non-random pairs prevailed, but after 11.7 ka ago – the start of the Holocene – that dropped to 37%, suggesting a general destabilisation of many of the ecosystems being considered. This closely correlates with the first human colonisation of the Americas, the last of the habitable continents to which humans migrated. This matches the empirical evidence of early Holocene extinctions of large mammals in the Americas, which itself is analogous to the decimation of large fauna in Australasia during the late Pleistocene following human arrival from about 50 to 60 ka ago. Significant human-induced ecological impact seems to have accompanied their initial appearance everywhere. The ecological effects of animal domestication and agriculture in Eurasia and the Americas mark the Holocene particularly. In fact, in Europe the presence of Mesolithic hunter gatherers is generally inferred, in the face of very rare finds of artefacts and dwellings, from changes in pollen records from Holocene lake and wetland sediments, which show periods of tree clearance that can not be accounted for by climate change.

There is no need for Anthropocene, other than as a political device.

Global Tectonics Centenary: Any Inspiring Papers?

Although Alfred Wegener first began to present his ideas on Continental Drift in 1912 his publication in 1915 of The Origin of Continents and Oceans (Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane) is generally taken as the global launch of his hypothesis. Apart from support from Alexander du Toit and Arthur Holmes, geoluminaries of the day panned it unmercifully because, in the absence of evidence for a driving mechanism, he speculated that his proposed ‘urkontinent’ (primal continent) Pangaea had been split apart by a centrifugal mechanism connected to the precession of Earth’s rotational axis. This ‘polflucht’ (flight from the poles) is in fact far too weak to have any such influence. Wegener’s masterly assembly of geological evidence for former links between the major continents was ignored by the critics, suggesting that their motive for excoriation of his suggested mechanism was as much spite against an ‘outsider’ as a full consideration of his hypothesis. It must have been hurtful in the extreme, yet Wegener defended himself with a series of revised editions that amassed yet more concrete evidence. What is often overlooked, even now that his ideas have become part of the geoscientific canon, is that in his initial Geologische Rundschau paper in 1912 he mused that the floor of the Atlantic is continuously spreading by tearing apart at the mid-Atlantic Ridge where ‘relatively fluid and hot sima’ rises. Strangely, he dropped that idea in later works. Anyhow, neither 2012 nor 2015 was celebrated in the manner of the centenary-and-a-half of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: 2009 was marked by palaeobiologists and geneticists metaphorically dancing in the streets, if not foaming at the mouth. There have been a few paragraphs, and some minor symposia about Wegener’s dragging geology out of the 18th century and into the 20th, but that’s about it. The best centenary item I have seen is by Marco Romano and Richard Cifelli (Romano, M. & Cifelli, R.L. 2015. 100 years of continental drift. Science, v. 350, p. 916-916).

In the shape of plate tectonics the Earth sciences hosted what was truly a revolution in science, albeit 50 years on from its discoverer’s announcement. It was through the persistent agitation by his tiny band of supporters, that the upheaval was unleashed when the revelations from palaeomagnetism, seismology and many other lines of evidence were resolved as plate tectonics by the discovery of ocean-floor magnetic stripes by Vine, Matthews and Morley in 1963. Despite an explosion of papers that followed, elaborating onthe new theory and showing examples of its influence on ‘big’ geology , counter-revolutionary resistance lasted almost to the first years of the new century. By then so much evidence had emerged from every geological Eon that opponents looked truly stupid. Even so, the skepticism among those sub-disciplines that were ‘left out’ of geodynamic thought continued to blurt out with the emergence of other exciting aspects of the Earth’s history. I remember that, when three of us in the Open University’s Department of Earth Sciences proposed in 1994 that the influence of impacts by extraterrestrial objects ought to figure in a new course on the evolution of Earth and Life we were sneered at as ‘whizz-bang kids’ by those more earth-bound. Trying belatedly in 1996 to introduce students to another revolutionary development – the use of sedimentary and glacial oxygen isotopes in unraveling past climate change – became a huge struggle in the OU’s Faculty of Science. It went to the press eventually and for 2 years our students had the benefit. But the murmuration of dissent ended with a force-majeur re-edit of the course, by someone who had played no role in its development, expunged the lot and changed the ‘offending’ section back to the way it had been a decade before.  As they say: ho hum!

Oddly, in the last 15 years or so of trying to follow in Earth-Pages what I considered to be the most exciting developments in the geosciences, it has become increasing difficult to find papers in the top journals that are truly ground-breaking. Of course that may just be ageing and a certain cynicism that often companies it. From being spoiled for choice week after week it has become increasingly difficult from month to month to maintain the standards that I have set for new work. Has Earth science entered the fifth phase of a ‘paradigm shift’ predicted by philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? According to him once a science has entered a period when there is little consensus on the theories that might lie at the root of natural processes there is a drift in opinion to a few conceptual frameworks that seem to work, albeit leaving a lot to be desired. Weaknesses at the frontier between theory and empirical knowledge become increasingly burdensome as a result of the steady plod of ‘normal science’ until the science in question reaches a crisis. If existing paradigms fail repeatedly, science is ripe for the metaphorical equivalent of a ‘Big Bang’: maybe an entirely new discovery or hypothesis, or an idea that has been suppressed which new data fits better than any others that have been common currency. Plate Tectonics is the second kind. After the revolution much is reexamined and new lines of work emerge, until in Kuhn’s 5th phase scientists return to ‘normal science’. That looks like a pretty good story, on paper, but other forces are at work in science; external to scientific objectives. Most of these are a blend of economics, political ideologies and managerial ‘practicalities’. If the Earth sciences have entered the doldrums of novelty, I suspect it is these forces that are bearing some kind of glum fruit.

The old concept of academic freedom has gone by the board. Institutions demand that research is externally funded – the more the better as the institution, at least in the UK, demands a kind of tax (40% of that proposed) supposedly to cover corporate overheads including salaries of support staff. If an academic doesn’t pull in the dosh, she is not much favoured. If the individual doesn’t publish regularly either, there is a weasel sanction: Josephine Soap is declared ‘research inactive’. Consortia of researchers are more and more in vogue: managers and funders like ‘team players’, so individuals who are bright and confident enough to ‘stick their necks out’ cannot do that in a consortium publication and as often as not are ‘left on the bench’. Risk taking is more dangerous now and to stay ‘research active’, and in many cases of non-tenured posts getting a salary, an individual, even a few like-minded colleagues have to publish 2 or 3 papers a year.

It’s worth mentioning that open access publishing is not just all the rage, it has become more or less compulsory. Of course, it has some benefits for scientists in less well-heeled countries, but there is a downside. You have to raise the cash demanded by journals for the privilege or potentially universal access – at least US$1000 a pop, depending on a journals Impact Factor, and that of course is an odiously essential corporate consideration – and having done that woe betide those who do not publish and spend it. Academic publishing is the most profitable sector of the trade, the more so as print is supplanted by electronic delivery – the 50 free reprints is a thing of the past. So there are more and more journals and each of them strives to get out more issues per year, and of course those have to be filled. To me, this all adds up to more and more ‘pot-boiler’ articles and a tendency to maximise the flesh rendered from the body of research work and into the pot. Taken together with the stresses of commodification in higher education and the now vertical corporate structures from which it is constituted, it shouldn’t be a surprise that excitement and inspiration are at a premium in the weekly and monthly output of such a marginal science as that concerned with how the world works.

Anthropocene: what (or who) is it for?

The made-up word chrononymy could be applied to the study of the names of geological divisions and their places on the International Stratigraphic Chart. Until 2008 that was something of a slow-burner, as careers go. It all began with Giovanni Arduino and Johann Gotlob Lehman in the mid- to late 18th century, during the informal historic episode known as the Enlightenment. To them we owe the first statements of stratigraphic principles and the beginning of stratigraphic divisions: rocks divided into the major segments of Primitive, Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary (Arduino). Thus stratigraphy seeks to set up a fundamental scale or chart for expressing Earth’s history as revealed by rocks. The first two divisions bit the dust long ago; Tertiary is now an informal synonym for the Cenozoic Era; only Quaternary clings on as the embattled Period at the end of the Cenozoic.  All 11 Systems/Periods of the Phanerozoic, their 37 Series/Epochs and 85 Stages/Ages in the latest version of the International Stratigraphic Chart have been thrashed out since then, much being accomplished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Curiously, the world body responsible for sharpening up the definition of this system of ‘chrononymy’, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), seems not to have seen fit to record the history of stratigraphy: a great mystery. Without it geologists would be unable to converse with one another and the world at large.

Yet now an increasing number of scientists are seriously proposing a new entry at the 4th level of division after Eon, Era and Period: a new Epoch that acknowledges the huge global impact of human activity on atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and even lithosphere. They want it to be called the Anthropocene, and for some its eventual acceptance ought to relegate the current Holocene Epoch, in which humans invented agriculture, a form of economic intercourse and exchange known as capital and all the trappings of modern industry, to the 5th division or Stage. Earth-pages has been muttering about the Anthropocene for the past decade, as charted in a number of the links above, so if you want to know which way its author is leaning and how he came to find the proposal an unnecessary irritation, have a look at them. Last week things became sufficiently serious for another comment. Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin of the Department of Geography at University College London have summarised the scientific grounds alleged to justify an Anthropocene Epoch and its strict definition in a Nature Perspective (Lewis, S.J. & Maslin, M.A. 2015. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, v. 519, p. 171-180).-=, which is interestingly discussed in the same Issue by Richard Monastersky.

Lewis and Maslin present two dates that their arguments and accepted stratigraphic protocols suggest as candidates for the start of the Anthropocene: 1610 and 1964 CE, both of which relate to features that are expressed by geological records that should last indefinitely. The first is a decline and eventual recovery in the atmospheric CO2 level recorded in high-resolution Antarctic ice core records between 1570 and 1620 CE that can be ascribed to the decline in the population of the Americas’ native peoples from an estimated 60 to 6 million. This result of the impact of European first colonisation – disease, slaughter, enslavement and famine – reduced agriculture and fire use and saw the regeneration of 5 x 107 hectares of forest, which drew down CO2 globally. It also coincides with the coolest part of the Little Ice Age from 1594-1677 CE. They caution against the start of the Industrial Revolution as an alternative for a ‘Golden Spike’ since it was a diachronous event, beginning in Europe. Instead, they show that the second proposal for a start in 1964 has a good basis in the record of global anthropogenic effects on the Earth marked by the peak fallout of radioactive isotopes generated by atomic weapons tests during the Cold War, principally 14C with a 5730 year half life, together with others more long-lived. The year 1964 is also roughly when growth in all aspects of human activity really took off, which some dub in a slightly Tolkienesque manner the ‘Great Acceleration’. [There is a growing taste for this kind of hyperbole, e.g. the ‘Great Oxygenation Event’ around 2.4 Ga and the ‘Great Dying’ for the end-Permian mass extinction]. Yet they neglect to note that the geochronological origin point for times past has been defined as 1950 CE when nucleogenic 14C contaminated later materials as regards radiocarbon dating, which had just become feasible.   Lewis and Maslin conclude their Perspective as follows:

To a large extent the future of the only place where life is known to exist is being determined by the actions of humans. Yet, the power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature, because it is reflexive and therefore can be used, withdrawn or modified. More widespread recognition that human actions are driving far-reaching changes to the life-supporting infrastructure of Earth may well have increasing philosophical, social, economic and political implications over the coming decades.

So the Anthropocene adds the future to the stratigraphic column, which seems more than slightly odd. As Richard Monastersky notes, it is in fact a political entity: part of some kind of agenda or manifesto; a sort of environmental agitprop from the ‘geos’. As if there were not dozens of rational reasons to change human impacts to haul society back from catastrophe, which many people outside the scientific community have good reason to see as  hot air on which there is never any concrete action by ‘the great and the good’. Monastersky also notes that the present Anthropocene record in naturally deposited geological materials accounts for less than a millimetre at the top of ocean-floor sediments. How long might the proposed Epoch last? If action to halt anthropogenic environmental change does eventually work, the Anthropocene will be  very short in historic terms let alone those which form the currency of geology. If it doesn’t, there will be nobody around able to document, let alone understand, the epochal events recorded in rocks. At its worst, for some alien, visiting planetary scientists, far in the future, an Anthropocene Epoch will almost certainly be far shorter than the 104 to 105 years represented by the hugely more important Palaeozoic-Mesozoic and Mesozoic-Cenozoic boundary sequences; but with no Wikipedia entry.

Not everybody gets a vote on these kinds of thing, such is the way that science is administered, but all is not lost. The final arbiter is the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), but first the Anthropocene’s status as a new Epoch has to be approved by 60% of the ICS Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, if put to a vote. Then such a ‘supermajority’ would be needed from the chairs of all 16 of the ICS subcommissions that study Earth’s major time divisions. But first, the 37 members of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy’s ‘Anthropocene’ working group have to decide whether or not to submit a proposal: things may drag on at an appropriately stratigraphic pace. Yet the real point is that the effect of human activity on Earth-system processes has been documented and discussed at length. I’ll give Marx the last word in this ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. A new stratigraphic Epoch doesn’t really seem to measure up to that…

Bibliometrics: the numbers game

In mid-December, British universities, their constituent units and departments, and most academics experienced the same kind of traumatic day familiar to 18-year olds awaiting the examination results on which their advancement to higher education, or not, depended. December 18th, 2014, was REF-Day. Since its predecessor (RAE-Day), 8 years before, a vast – by university standards – effort went into preparing bids on a department-by-department basis to rank them nationally and conflate individual assessments to build a sort of institutional league table for research excellence; hence REF stands for Research Excellence Framework (the RAE was the less meritorious-sounding Research Assessment Exercise). It resembled the Guide Michelin or Automobile Association star system for restaurants and hotels or guest houses. The reason for the 8-year frenzy of activity was that the outcomes aimed to inform the selective allocation of governmental research funding. Unsurprisingly, this kind of competition stemmed from the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher, which in 1986 set the scene for ‘performance-related’ funding rather than that based on peer review of each individual bid for major grants, which preceded it.

To itemise each aspect of the way the REF worked could take the majority of Earth Pages readers to an early and ignoble grave. It centred on departmental selection from its full-time researchers of those who were deemed to be ‘research active’ and those who were not, the former having to select four recently published works or ‘outputs’. They had to self-assess each according to its ‘impact’, defined as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Institutions vetted and bundled individual submissions, collated them in the subject areas designated by the REF, then sent them off to ‘REF Central’, where they were to be reviewed by subject-specialist panels that gave out the stars for each submitted item of work: **** = world-leading (30% were deemed to be); *** = internationally excellent (46%); ** = recognized internationally (20%); * = recognized nationally (3%); unclassified = below the standard of national recognition (1% – presumably those obviously lacking star quality were weeded out at institution level). There were more than 190 thousand ‘outputs’, which begs the questions; Were all of them read by at least one specialist panel member? Against what standards were they judged?

On average, each of the roughly 1000 panelists would have had to consider about 190 outputs in greater depth than a casual skim, or more if some were read by several panelists. Outputs were rated ‘in terms of their “originality, significance and rigour”, with reference to international research quality standards’, ‘the “reach and significance” of impacts on the economy, society and/or culture’ and the part they played in their department’s contribution to ‘the vitality and sustainability… of the wider discipline or research base’. On paper – and believe me, REF Central produced plenty of wordy PDFs of guidance – this level of scrutiny makes the adjective ‘daunting’ seem a bit of an understatement. Entering into this spirit of things in the gleeful manner of a Michelin or AA assessor does seem to me a bit hard to grasp. I wonder if the panels in reality just checked each submission for signs of an overly hubristic vision of self-worth.

To some extent, the issue of each output’s citation count or other bibliometric measure must at some stage have come into REF reckoning, and here is what spurred me to defy normal cautions about boredom as a contributor to general organ failure. Physicist Reinhard Werner of Leibniz University in Hanover, Germany believes that deciding on funding and hiring, or firing, needs to steer well-clear of impact factors, citations and other kinds of bibliometrics (Werner, R. 2015 The focus on bibliometrics makes papers less useful. Nature, v. 517, p. 245). Scientists cite other works for many reasons, some worthy and some less so. But it is rare that in doing so we express any opinion on the overall significance of the work that we choose to cite. Yet, conversely, a researcher can choose a field, phrase some findings and submit to such and such journal that will boost their citation frequency and impact. Just by writing about some mundane topic in a publicly accessible way, reviewing the work of lots of other people, or simply writing about this or that topic as observed or measured in an especially highly populous country where science is really booming does much the same thing. Werner makes a telling point, ‘When we believe that we will be judged by silly criteria, we will adapt and behave in silly ways’. Although he does not touch on the absurdities of the REF – why on Earth would he? – Werner comments on distortion of the job market, and peer-reviewed journals. He also pleas for a return to proper scrutiny of scientific merit and, I suspect, for cutting hubris off at the roots.