Stratigraphy (blog)

Danke, Wien

Several days after my trip to Vienna, I still find myself saying ‘danke’ when buying coffee. Clearly, Austria has made an impression!

I, along with some 10,000 other scientists, visited Vienna last week to attend and present my work at the European Geosciences Union meeting. The meeting itself was a blur of new faces, new scientific results, and late night karaoke with new friends. In other words, exactly what I’d hoped for.

Vienna itself also lived up to expectations; an abstract collision of grandiose and imperialistic buildings, since reclaimed for public use largely in the form of mind-blowing caf├ęs, freakishly efficient public transport, and widespread but often light-hearted graffiti. The centre piece of the city (in my humble opinion), was, wait for it…

… the Natural History Museum! Much like the one in London, and just the week before in Stockholm, the NHM in Vienna blew me away. I went three separate times, always failing to get around the whole thing whilst excitedly discussing the exhibits with a friend. I practically drooled over the meteorite display, which contained most of the samples I’ve been working on in my PhD (including old-faithful, Chelyabinsk!), and even met up with the museum’s meteorite curator himself – Ludovic, a luminous fellow who has risked life and limb for the cause.

I hope to come back soon, for science or a holiday. How wonderful it is, after years of going in covid-circles, to be travelling again. According to the intellectual graffiti artists of Vienna, ‘METABOLISM IS OVER’ (see below…), but here’s hoping my science-fuelled trips to Europe are only just getting started!


Sweden is permanently braced for autumn. In May, leaves seem to remain tinged with russet shades – not quite believing that the sun has been shining since 4 am and it’s warm enough for a barbecue (although, I hear some Swedes barbecue even in the depths of winter). In spite of the fact that the country itself – bedrock, forests, and the sea – awkwardly stumble around the idea of summertime, the locals are some of the most relaxed people I’ve ever met in my life.

Shortly after arriving, I witness a man stop his car to chat to an old friend. The cars behind wait patiently, as if lulled into a daze by the sheer goodwill of letting this obstructing individual have their lovely but totally inconvenient moment. I take the opportunity to cross the road and grin: I’ve just flown over from London.

I’m in Sweden not for a holiday, but for deadly serious scientific business. I have a bag full of meteorite samples that have been waiting circa 2 years – no prizes for guessing why – to make it into a Secondary Ionisation Mass Spectrometer. This week, in almost real time, I finally got to break the tension and learn their secrets in the lab. I’ll keep what I learned to myself for now (… until I know I know what I learned actually means!) and savour it. Safe to say it was a tremendously productive visit to the NordSIM facility, which is located in a rather wonderful ‘Museet’ of Natural History.

Sitting on a bench writing this, looking out over a spectacular array of turreted houses, 19th century masted ships, and sparkling lakes, the sun goes behind a cloud. Reaching for my jumper, I realise that the trees were right all along. We are, after all, pretty far Nord!

[ …to be continued when I know what the data means ]

Chelyabinsk: the cosmic tourist

Today, our latest research article on meteorites came out in Communications Earth and Environment. The paper focusses on Chelyabinsk – a fantastically preserved ordinary chondrite that evidences ancient and recent collisions involving its parent body asteroid. This is a unique sample, which has both travelled our Solar System and, in the course of my research, the whole world. From Milton Keynes to Beijing, and everywhere in between, in and out of numerous instruments, nearly falling to pieces twice, and being salvaged by the tender care of expertly trained geologists and planetary scientists, this little rock has been on quite the journey…

You can hear about my research in an interview here. You can read press releases that summarise the work here, here and here! (and in the Daily Mail, if you want a chuckle – though please don’t trust their grasp of cause and effect…!)

What will we learn in 2022?

Rudolph has been and gone, the new year is in by one rotation, and resolutions have been made (… and many possibly already broken). My own resolution is small: to try and post here more regularly – to share with the world what I’ve been up to in something other than the knotted sheen of journal articles.

First off, a headline and a recap of last years hightlights: 2021 was infinitely better than 2020. Globally, certainly, but also in the microcosmos of science that was the 3rd year of my PhD. A lot went right (at last) and (as a sign of that) you can now read about my efforts in a few publications. I’m aiming to post a few general interest summaries of the topics I’ve been working on here across the year. So, stay tuned for some pretty pictures of meteorites under the microscope, musings on the origin of life, and updates on my long-standing love affair with phosphorus: one of the key limiting nutrients for life on Earth.

What’s a year to a rock? Not much!

Now, a nod to the future: what will we learn in 2022, scientifically? James Webb is finally afloat in the void, so we can begin to look forward to insights about the atmospheric composition and possible habitability (and maybe even inhabited-ness) of Earth-like exoplanets. That will be simply electric. There are several other space science missions in action that should get exciting. The debate about phosphine on Venus as an indicator of life, and possible niches of habitability in the atmosphere of this otherwise hellish world, will continue to heat up.

On my own horizon is an ongoing attempt to quantify the availability of phosphorus (P) to early life on Earth, and on other similar worlds, by understanding the distribution and weathering of P-bearing minerals in rocks that make up Earth’s crust. Cosmic dust and meteorites feature in the tantalising middle-distance. Oh, and Goldschmidt this year is in Hawaii. Here’s hoping the PhD budget stretches a little further…

I look forward to it all – and to posting about it here, if I can remember!!