Novel madness – first draft complete!

Yes, you heard that right! One hundred and sixty thousand words and I have completed the first draft of Nimbus. In its plainest form it is a novel about clouds coming to life, a vision of a future flooded Britain. And it’s been a long time coming. I had the first idea for it in 2008, after all.

It began with this phrase that entered my head as I sat idly at work, bored to tears with insurance claims and trying to put it off by looking out the window at the cumulus clouds that passed by;

“The gods came alive, and the clouds started moving – big hulking giants bobbing sedately, purposefully through the sky – and as mere humans on this earth, all we could do was watch.”

And since then it has grown into a behemoth of a tale. I had not started studying geology or meteorology when I began writing the novel, and now, halfway through my geosciences degree, I have been able to pour some scientific awesomeness on it in addition to my usual human-centric fare.

It must have been fate that the theme for Sky Blue started playing on shuffle when I typed the final words of the final chapter. I may have cried a little.

Today, I went to East Wittering to sit in the sun and start proofreading the manuscript (keyboard kindles are awesome for making notes). The clouds were too perfect today, they really added to the mood.

The lovely view from where I sat

So now, to celebrate this milestone I am off to an Italian restaurant where I shall enjoy wine from volcanic vineyards and epic portions of calzone.


In which I tell my sister that Scooby Doo is wrong

So I went round my parents house at the weekend, for a quick catch-up since my France trip, and ended up revising my continental geology textbook in the garden whilst my little sister drew on a whiteboard.

She drew a volcano, a pretty generic strato-type cone, and proudly announced to me that she knows how to draw them now because she watched Aloha Scooby Doo the other day.

Uh-oh. Once my brain’s in geo-mode I can’t seem to stop. Aloha = Hawaiian, and I know there are no stratovolcanoes on Hawaii.

So I said to her, ‘Well, Scooby Doo’s wrong.’

Cue blank stare.

‘Shall I tell you why?’

‘Okay,’ she agrees enthusiastically.

So I tell her that Hawaii is full of shield volcanoes, which look very different to the sticky lava cone she has just drawn. I draw her an example on the whiteboard, and I show her what pahoehoe lava looks like, and she says ‘Coool.’ When she found out that sometimes the lava in Hawaii can flow so slowly you can outwalk it, she drew a couple of guys walking past my pahoehoe flow with a wee speech bubble saying ‘Catch up!’

I them draw some lava bombs coming from the top of her stratovolcano, and tell her this is a Strombolian type eruption, and that I went to Stromboli last year. I told her I’d watched the eruptions from the side of the volcano itself, but that it was safe because the eruptive material always tended to go down the same ash slope, so we could avoid it. She proceeded to draw a little stick figure me halfway up the volcano.

Then I showed her another type of volcanic eruption, Plinian eruptions. I drew a picture of a lava dome resembling Mt St Helens for ease of understanding, and explained that in these kind of eruptions, there are huge clouds of ash that kill more people than the lava does. I told her about Pompeii – she’s pretty young still, and hasn’t yet done the Romans at school – and when it got to the fossilised ash people thing, she was pretty horrified. To annotate my diagram she drew a person lying on the ground to signify one of the ash mummies and added a ‘x1000’ after it.

She was still pretty hungry for more info, so I told her about hydrothermal vents, to which she replied, ‘Oh I saw something about those on TV.’ I told her that the crabs and worms that live there feed off the chemicals from the vents, and can live on the sides of the vents even though it’s very hot.

She then told me a fact – that islands are actually mountains rising up from the sea floor. She even drew me a picture of it. I said ‘Did you know you can get mountains under the sea too?’ and she was astounded. We added an undersea mountain chain to our diagram.

I didn’t do much revision after that, teaching was too much fun.

Later we watched Futurama, in which they happened to go up Olympus Mons. I realised they’d made the mistake of drawing it as a stratovolcano, exactly the same as Scooby Doo had done, but I think by now I’d given my sister enough food for thought. Maybe I’ll tackle Olympus Mons next time!

Neutrinos are normal after all

So today it emerges that the strange results of the CERN – Gran Sasso neutrino experiment last year – whereby neutrinos appeared to travel faster than the speed of light, something impossible in a relativistic universe – were down to problems with the fibre-optics. It would have been interesting if the results had been true, and the whole thing certainly gave plenty of scientifically-minded people pause for thought, but it says just as much that the results aren’t true, because it is further confirmation of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles, which can travel long distances through matter as they are only affected by the weak atomic force and by gravity. The OPERA experiment at CERN attempts to find out more about neutrinos by firing them from a neutrino cannon through the ground to a sister lab in Gran Sasso, Italy.  The aim had been to detect tau neutrinos from muon neutrinos as particles decayed, and nobody had been expecting a faster-than-light speed result. Back in March, they repeated the experiment with the ICARUS detector, which found no such anomaly.

The experiments that go on at CERN have long been a subject of media intrigue, and it’s rare to hear something so highly scientific talked about to such a degree by non-scientific folks. This time round, what with the increasing prevalence of scientists in the media, we had the neutrino experiment even more in the public eye when Prof. Jim Al-Khalili announced he would eat his shorts on live TV if the results turned out to be true. In the end, we won’t be needing to pass him the ketchup, we now have an explanation for the anomaly, and can rest assured that a few more people in the world now know about neutrinos… which is great!


When Amphibole and Garnet is erupted

Over the past week I have learned a lot about garnet and amphibole. Garnet is one of those minerals I tend to associate with metamorphic activity, as I’m sure many of you do. But after travelling around the Auvergne region of France, I had to open up to the idea that garnet could be an inclusive mineral in erupted igneous rock. Who would have thought!

The clue lies in the presence of amphibole in these lava samples. Now, initially the presence of amphibole brought its own problems for me, as it is the resultant mineral from hydration of pyroxene. Certainly this is to be expected when you’re at a destructive margin, where hydration of magmas can occur, but here’s the thing – the Auvergne volcanoes are all intra-plate. So how would water get in?

Lava can be made hydrous via mechanisms other than physical water input from subduction zones or recycling at spreading ridges. In an intra-continental setting, the occurrence of hotspots can cause continental minerals to melt and release oxygen and hydrogen locked up in their structures, which then regroups to form H2O and voilà – you have water!

And if you then learn that garnet can form from a hydrous mantle source (provided there is also some spare aluminium) it all makes perfect sense. The fact that garnets are present in the Auvergne in small amounts, and that amphiboles are present in vast swathes point to the fact that the Auvergne volcanics formed from a hotspot – a hotspot which triggered dehydration of continental material and subsequent hydration of the eruptive magmas.

Problem solved!