Monthly Archives: February 2017

When North becomes South; The flip-side of earth’s magnetic field

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Constancy in life is a comforting, if not fleeting thought, shattered by riddles, unknowns, and sometimes brutal realities.  Even the supposed constant, that your compass always points north, has an unsettling caveat; sometimes it may point south. Continue reading

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Terroir-as

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Among wine drinkers, the term Terroir can invoke glazed expressions, or in real enthusiasts an opportunity to wax lyrical about the provenance of their beverage.  The term is French, morphing from the word terre , the land, or earth.  It conveys a ‘sense of place’, the earth, the climate, and the culture of wine-making.  In other words, pretty well anything that contributes to a wine’s character.

Opinions vary about the real significance of terroir. For some, the cultural foundations are most important in a kind of philosophical, metaphysical way.  For others, it is the physical environment in which the grapes grow, are harvested, and finally turned into wine.  For the more cynical it is just a marketing ploy, something to make the purchaser and imbiber feel good.  The French have honed this to a fine art, to the point where only wine from Burgundy can be called Burgundy, or Champagne from a region and appellation of the same name in north France. Continue reading

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Darwin Day, with apologies to Abraham Lincoln

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February 12 is Darwin Day.  On this day in 1809 Abraham Lincoln was also born. Lincoln rose from his humble beginnings in Kentucky to become the 16th President of the Union, but almost immediately was plunged into a brutal Civil War.  His legacy is tied to the War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and his address at what was left of Gettysberg on November 19, 1863. Darwin’s legacy could not be more different; bold statements about curiosity and creativity, and one of the greatest revolutions in scientific thought. Continue reading

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Peer review, scientific integrity and community; a comment

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A rite of passage for many scientists is their elevation to some kind of editorial board, usually associated with a scientific journal.  This is where they get to review the work of other scientists and become part of the decision-making process that results in publication – or rejection.  It is an excellent means of extending one’s network of people who are interested in the same discipline.  It is always a learning experience, no matter how many papers one reviews or edits over a lifetime; new ideas, new data, new methods, new ways of expression.  Admittedly, the task of reviewing a paper can arrive on your desk at precisely the wrong time.  But a good reviewer will understand that there is always a quid pro quo; your own paper under review may arrive on someone’s desk at a time most inconvenient for them.  So you do the job anyway. Continue reading

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Burnt soles: black sand beaches in New Zealand

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February in New Zealand is mid-summer and this means beaches, swimming, BBQs, and generally chilling (often literally).  One beach we frequent, a 50-minute drive, is Ngarunui.  It is a popular surf beach near the coastal town of Raglan on New Zealand’s west coast.  Here, the Tasman Sea rolls in, as it has done for millennia; the ancestral Tasman began to form about 80 million years ago, when the NZ subcontinent split from what then was a combined Australian – Antarctic continental block.  The ‘Ditch’, as the Tasman is often called, is about 2000km wide so there is lots of space to develop a decent wave set. Continue reading

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The (not so) Great Dying; Permian extinctions

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It seems that global catastrophes and the ensuing mass extinction of all manner of life-forms, asteroid impacts and Dinosaurs immediately come to mind, were made for Popular Science.  Even Hollywood is in on the act.  Perhaps it’s because, in the telling, they appeal to some innate sense of nihilism, a bit like the existential threats that politicians trot out from time to time.

A recent scientific paper by Steven Stanley published by the US National Academy of Sciences, provides some good news on this score; past estimates of life forms snuffed out by such global events, have been exaggerated.  Stanley’s reassessment accounts for the fact that extinctions are taking place all the time, in the background, and that these individual, long-term biotic events need to be subtracted from the total species loss resulting from some catastrophe.  Continue reading

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