Imaging the footfall of Ice Age giants

Understanding how something walks is a fundamental question in vertebrate biology. If you want to study the biomechanics of a living animal, such as a human, you simply get them to walk on a pressure treadmill and this captures the pattern of basal (plantar) foot pressure.  With larger animals it is a little trickier and there is a reason why we only have a small number of pressure records for elephants since it is not that easy to get them to walk on a treadmill!  For an extinct animal, such as a mammoth or a dinosaur, it is impossible.  In such cases we use fossil footprints, substituting footprint depth for pressure, but unfortunately research has shown that this does not work as well as one might hope.  Something called ground penetrating radar (GPR) provides an alternative.

Popular TV shows such as Time Team and The Curse of Oak Island have transformed public understanding of geophysics; tools by which archaeologists and geologists image the hidden subsurface.  As one over enthusiastic presenter once said ‘it allows us to x-ray the ground, like Superman looking through the soil to see what is buried below!’  Ground penetrating radar was first developed in the early 20th Century but was not really developed until the Vietnam War when it was used to image subsurface bunkers and it is now used by engineers to view cracks in railway tracks and girders.  It is essentially an electromagnetic transmitter/receiver, a mobile phone on steroids if you like, and its signal penetrates the ground with varying speed, determined by the properties of that ground.  The signal is reflected back to the surface by boundaries that show marked changes in physical properties, thereby revealing the shape of those boundaries.  It is generally a tool for imaging big stuff (think walls) in the archaeologist’s toolkit.

Our research team have been working for several years at White Sands National Monument (WHSA) in New Mexico which contains the largest assemblage of vertebrate Ice Age tracks, probably in the world.  These tracks are preserved on a dried lake bed (Alkali Flat), but they are difficult to see which is why colloquially they are referred to as ghost tracks.  Seeing them is quite important not only so that we can track and map the interaction of human hunters with extinct Ice Age fauna, but also for their conservation.  Much of Alkali Flat is in co-use with the White Sands Missile Range, famous as the birth place of the American space programme, of the first nuclear blast at Trinity and Regan’s infamous Star Wars initiative.  In places missile debris litters the ground and being able to map conservation priorities is important especially since the true significance of the track assemblage at WHSA became known only in 2018 with the recognition of human tracks.

GPR_Converstion_1Images of Ice Age human footprints at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico), also showing the ground penetrating radar and the foam mats used in the survey [Author supplied]. 

The research team have had some success in using geophysics to map large animal tracks, but to our surprise we found that high-resolution ground penetrating radar gives fantastic results.  Now when we say high-resolution we are spacing our survey lines at around 10 cm or so; typical survey line spacing would normally be measured in metres.  We place foam jigsaw mats out on the desert floor, the sort of things you get at play school or in your home gym, and move the radar across this surface line by line.

Not only can we image large mammoth and giant ground sloth tracks but we can also image to those of human hunters that co-existed with these animals.  The electrical properties between the track fill and the printed ground are subtle but sufficient for the tracks to stand out.  There are many advantages.  Not only does it allow us to prospect for tracks, but it allows us to image buried tracks and deduced sequence of superposition.

op_1GPR imaging of mammoth, giant ground sloth and human tracks at White Sands National Monument [Author supplied].

We also noticed something cool beneath the mammoth tracks.  Below the base of the tracks we consistently saw a radar feature, hook-like in cross-section, we believe is caused by compressed sediment.  Comparing these structures to modern plantar pressure records, kindly donated to us by researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in London and Monash University, we see a tentative match.  It makes sense since that is where the plantar pressure would have been greatest beneath a mammoth’s foot and the sediment most compressed. The radar signal appears to be picking this out.  In fact we can get a similar pressure record off the human and giant ground sloth tracks.  We still have work to do but it appears as if the radar signal is able to give us a plantar pressure record from an extinct animal independent of the footprint itself.  In terms of studying the biomechanics of Ice Age giants this is revolutionary especially for animals like the giant ground sloth which had a peculiar gait, walking on the outside of its feet.

op_4Subsurface anomalies below mammoth tracks.  These are caused of compression below the footprint caused by the plantar pressure.  The spaceship like sculptures shows this; the top disc or surface is the actual footprint and the structure below the anomaly.  They resemble the pressure patterns found for modern elephants [Author supplied].

At this point we firmly move to the near-future, because as with all new ideas there is validation work to be done.  But assuming this all comes good and crucially the technique works outside the specific gypsum rich sediments of White Sands as we believe it will, then the implications are significant for those who study biomechanics.  For example, we might be able to use it map footprints elsewhere especially where digging could be disruptive at such famous footprint sites like that at Laetoli in Tanzania where the oldest human footprints in the world are to be found.  Or alternatively search for buried footprints around shallow or mass graves.  But the big goal is to be able to obtain a plantar pressure record from beneath a dinosaur’s foot.  We are not quite there yet, but given the right geological circumstances it is we believe possible and with funding we hope to try soon.

This work was carried out by: Tommy Urban and Sturt Manning of Cornell University, Matthew Bennett, Matteo Belvedere and Sally Reynolds from Bournemouth University and David Bustos, Daniel Odess and Vincent Santucci from the National Park Service in the USA.

An editorial pedant: one or two spaces after a full stop?

I took a seminar yesterday with my current crop of dissertation students working hard to submit their undergraduate dissertations next week.  You can imagine the eye-roll when in response to a formatting query I had a minor rant about the number of spaces after a full stop, or if we are being American after a period.  This devolved into banter between myself, an ardent two spaces type of guy, and one of my doctoral students present to assist with the seminar who is very much a one space girl.

I learnt to touch type back in the 1980’s on an upright typewriter the summer before leaving for university.  This was one of the best things my parents ever encouraged me to do.  Ever since those days I have stuck rigidly to the two space rule, despite quickly transitioning to a word processor.  The argument goes that modern fonts are designed with variable widths to aid reading and to make the two spaces redundant.  But like an editorial pedant I have stuck, to them although I have stopped correcting the error (at least in my opinion) in other people’s work.

So this morning while displacing from a real task (or conducting an exercise in strategic procrastination if you prefer) I had a quick Google and was pleased find this piece in The Independent from earlier in the year that suggested that scientists had answered this age old debate using eye tracking software.  The original research published in Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics showed some marginal improvement in reading speeds with the use of two spaces.  The gain was small and the results have been disputed, but it is good enough for this dinosaur to continue to claim that the world is better with two spaces!

show symbol

If you are a student, there is this little tool on Microsoft Word which shows the hidden formatting which I have turned on all the time so I can see the number of spaces and the hard paragraph returns.  It can be useful and this sort of pedantry should not concern you overly, just pick a side and be consistent.

Revision Advice: 2018-19

Well it is that time of year the festive music is out and the Physical Geography exam is looming int he New Year! So here with a few words of wisdom.

Good notes
A set of good notes for all topics is critical to successful revision. So in the case of the Physical Geography Unit what constitutes a good set of notes? Well you will need more than just the annotated PowerPoint slides out the slide bank. Some questions will need you to develop ideas beyond the pure content of the lectures; that is to have done some reading around the subject. Look at one of the recommended textbooks and extract some additional examples, facts and illustrations. For example, if you are writing about mass movements then you want a few choice examples with some basic information – when, where, how big, what sort of mass movement. It will be even better if you can include information from a relevant scientific paper; see the hyper links int he slide banks. You don’t need to remember complete citations and references in an exam.  Your notes should also include good diagrams.

A good exam answer should demonstrate your understanding of the basic ideas/theory illustrated by good and relevant examples and/or additional information/facts. If you can include relevant information that will make the ‘marking-weary examiner’ sit-up and take note then do so. Always try to demonstrate where you can your reading and research around a topic.
In order to work out what the key concept(s) for each week was/were you need to step-back from your notes and think about the broader issues. For example, in week one we looked at plate tectonics – the key issue or piece of theory was how plate tectonics has a controlled the earth’s long-term climate and not the detail of plate tectonics. In the week about slopes the key concept was the factor of safety and how it could be used to examine the causes of slope failure. Try and pick out what the key concept(s) (or body of theory) was each week and make sure you understand this and can illustrate it.

Regular revision
Exams require you to regurgitate and demonstrate your knowledge so you need specific knowledge stored away and the only way to get that knowledge is to undertake regular revision over a sustained period of weeks. Cramming knowledge the day before an exam is nowhere near as effective as regular weekly revision sessions over a matter of weeks. Revision is highly personal but simply reading ones notes is rarely enough; assuming you have good notes(!). You need to work out what works for you and be an active not passive reviser. For example, when I was an undergraduate I used to use a combination of three things to revise: (1) I used to sit in my room and lecture myself out loud on the material, because my oral memory is better than my memory for things that I read; (2) I used to practice sketching out key diagrams and figures quickly and roughly on scraps of paper many times until I could reproduce them from memory; and (3) I used to practice questions both against the clock and by writing outlines. These are the things that worked for me; you need to work out what works for you and if you don’t know then experiment and innovate until you find a way that works well for you. However you revise, revision is essential to success and there is no substitute.
Exam technique
A calm systematic approach to the examination is critical. Arrive at the exam rested, confident and avoid being wound-up and stressed by your peers. All exams are a bit different so know what to expect in this case by looking at the past papers available via Library website and the revision comics which you will find on Brightspace!

In this exam you must write three answers in 2 hours. You are advised to spend 30 minutes writing each question and the remaining 30 minutes in planning, revision of your answers and thinking. Make sure you adhere to the following:

  1. Answer the questions provided and if there is more than one part make sure you spend equal time on each part. The hardest part for an examiner is to give zero for a beautiful answer that is not relevant to the question and that is what examiners have to do. So don’t just write what you have revised if it is irrelevant to the question in the hope that demonstrating some knowledge is better than showing no knowledge. Only include relevant material. Even if you do a superb answer for part of a question you won’t be able to get over 50% in a two part question with equal weighting so make sure you write something relevant down for each part and spend equal time on each part.
  2. Answer in whole sentences, you don’t need to worry too much about essay structure at this level but don’t give way to the temptation to simply dump information in bullets and lists – it is an essay not a set of notes that you are being asked for. You need to expand and explain the points you are making clearly and in full to get the credit; demonstrating your understanding is key.
  3. Make sure that you include relevant diagrams and illustrations if you can; they don’t need to be neatly drawn as long as they are legible to the examiner.
  4. Explain concepts well and clearly, don’t just litter your answer with jargon; demonstrate your understanding by what you write.
  5. Include specific examples and illustrations wherever you can; facts and figure are much better than waffle.
  6. Try not to repeat yourself; say something well once, and effectively.
  7. Make sure you spend equal time on each of the three questions. One good answer and two poor ones will give you a worse mark than three mediocre ones.
  8. How much is enough? Well in this case you should be write/drawing flat out for 30 minutes and will end up with an essay of several pages in length. There is more than enough material relevant to each question to keep you writing hard for 30 minutes

Above all else don’t panic, remain calm and let your pen do the talking!


Augmented reality promises to rescue dying museums – so why don’t visitors want to use it?

File 20181129 170241 17gifj8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Matthew Bennett, Author provided

Matthew Robert Bennett, Bournemouth University and Marcin Budka, Bournemouth University

Museums are often perceived as dusty cabinets full off dead and ancient things, especially those institutions you’ve never heard off. You know the ones, the neglected pride of county towns that could play a vital cultural and social role but struggle for funding.

For some, technology is the answer, virtually recreating museums and their contents online, or launching fancy augmented reality smartphone apps that overlay videos of the real world with interactive computer-generated content. We certainly see the potential for such apps to make museums more exciting, especially to young people, and have recently been using them to bring dinosaurs to life.

But sadly our experience suggests visitors just aren’t keen on downloading these apps. So is there another way technology can help revitalise musuems and similar attractions?

We are working on a project called PalaeoGo! that explores how museums and parks can be enhanced by augmented reality, 3D digitisation and new search engines. Our first foray with augmented reality was at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, US, using a smartphone app called Zappar to support research undertaken there.

Using the phone’s camera to scan a code on a notice board or flyer brings forward a 2D computer-generated image superimposed on the phone’s live camera feed. Users can see a troop of mammoths walk over the horizon with the real landscape behind, or have their selfies taken with a mammoth. We’ve since created our own free app that recreates augmented reality dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles and mammals in 3D, without the need to scan a code.

We deployed the mammoth and a T. rex at various events in 2017 and 2018, allowing visitors to pose for selfies. The tech was embraced enthusiastically, not just by children but by older generations as well. We found the sense of technological wonder coupled with a chance to strike a silly pose with an extinct animal really appealed to the visitors.

Mammoth selfies.
Matthew Bennett, Author provided

But when we first deployed the app at a museum, in summer 2018 at the Etches Collection on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, it challenged our thinking. In fact, it stopped us dead. When we had staff on site to show people what was possible with our own tablets and phones, the technology had an impact and people were excited to see it in action (although they did not always download the app). But no one engaged when we relied on posters and banners to encourage visitors to download and use the app.

We failed at the first step, not due to a lack of interest in the technology or in the 3D dinosaurs deployed, but due to the fundamental reluctance of visitors to download museum apps. We have since found this experience to be shared by others, such as Skybox Museum, who also struggle to get visitors to download their app deployed at their site in Manchester. In fact, the feedback we’ve received so far suggests that simply getting people to download a museum app, rather than a problem with the underlying technology, is the biggest obstacle to its success.

What makes people download apps?

To find out why, we immersed ourselves in a growing body of consumer-based research on smartphone apps. It turns out that the characteristics of an app are less important when it comes to getting people to download it than whether they trust the makers, and that brand loyalty and familiarity help build this trust. We also know that the potential for social interaction and pure enjoyment are more important than the usefulness or educational value of an app. People want to be entertained, engage with others and are wary of potential risks to their phones and personal data.

So when you’re asked to download an app at the doors of a museum, the default position is to decline. It’s a hard sell, especially if you have children in tow. Promoting the app in advance helps but, even if you overcome this reluctance, people still want a guarantee of fun.

Not enough for a download.
Matthew Bennett, Author provided

What’s the answer? Games are an obvious possibility. Which regular museum visitor hasn’t seen a horde of children with clipboards on some form of quest or hunt? Promising a fun game is perhaps the key to getting children to try the augmented reality we know can change a museum experience.

The alternative is to make such resources available without an app, and we are exploring this. One solution might be to enable visitors to access it through their phone’s internet browser or via a standard QR code. Another idea we are trialling is to preload the technology onto a tablet hired like an audio guide at a museum’s entrance. As the software doesn’t need downloading it can be more complex, for example using locational technology such as GPS that can prompt the user to activate the device at a given spot and offer content tailored to their visit. But this would make social interaction and downloading those fun-filled selfies harder.

We believe that technology has much to offer the museums of the future. In fact, we would argue it’s essential to their survival. In particular, mixed reality, a form of enhanced augmented reality where real people and objects are displayed in virtual worlds, has some exciting potential to create immersive, engaging and educational content. But for once, the smartphone may not hold the key.The Conversation

Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University and Marcin Budka, Professor of Data Science, Bournemouth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It is project proposal season again so here are few ideas

In the current academic year I have a team of ten forensic undergraduates working on their dissertations with me.  They are exploring different aspects of footwear evidence from taphonomic studies through wear of branded shoes and real time experiments using instrumented shoes.  The team is contributing to the research of one my Doctoral students and to my own work in this area.  Co-creating knowledge is fun.  It is great to have a team and we meet each week to monitor progress and to provide feedback and support.

For a geographer it is perhaps surprising, however, that I don’t have any geography projects this year.  I am keen to correct this and to use the same team-based approach I am using this year.  So in the spirit of building a group of students working on related projects I thought I might throw out a few ideas.  They are all linked by their use of digital elevation models whether derived from satellite data or created by near-surface photogrammetry.  If any of these interests you then get in touch!

Project ideas that interest me at the moment:

  • Moraine volumes in Snowdonia. The Younger Dryas was associated with a number of small cirque glaciers in Snowdonia as evidenced by a range of moraine fields.  The moraine fields vary in volume and form.  This project will use high resolution DEM’s to estimate moraine volumes and explore/explain this variation in relation to data on the dynamics of these former glaciers and geological data.
  • Hillslope and climate: homage to Troy (1977). In a seminal paper in 1977 Terrance Troy established a model of slope form and its relationship to climate.  It was a beautifully designed project, at least in my view, but is now a bit dated.  The aim of this project is to replicate this work using modern DEM’s to explore Troy’s original conclusions.
  • Scratch Dials: Before the advent of train timetables local time used to vary across small county areas and clocks were not ubiquitous. Scratch Dials were carved into the sides of churches and a stick placed in the centre to tell the time in a similar fashion to a sun dial but vertical not horizontal.  Clergy would mark on the times of service.  Scratch Dials can be found in Dorset and elsewhere in the country.  The aim of this project is to capture these dials via photogrammetry and explore local time zones.
  • Volcanic morphology in the East African Rift. Sections of the East Africa Rift Valley floor contain numerous small monogenetic volcanoes.  The aims of this project are to explore their morphology, spatial arrangement (faults?) and age using high resolution DEMs.
  • Volcanic morphology of sector collapses. I have previously worked on volcanic debris avalanches and would like to extend this work through morphological description of examples around the world looking for common morphological traits using DEM’s.  Debris avalanches are significant volcanic hazards in some regions.
  • Near-surface photogrammetry in geomorphological monitoring. Structure from motion is a type of photogrammetry in which DEM’s are created from a selection of oblique photographs and is something we have expertise in at Bournemouth.  I am interested in exploring its application to a range of environmental monitoring projects from footpath erosion, cliff recession/weathering and beach morphology.  This may involve the use of drones.
  • Fossil footprints at White Sands National Monument. I have ongoing research at White Sands National Monument (New Mexico) into terminal Pleistocene footprints both human and megafauna (mammoth, camel and sloth).  For those interested and with the resources to do an overseas project this is a fantastic opportunity to gain field experience and first-hand knowledge of conservation with the National Park Service in the US.
  • Inventory of Dinosaur Footprints in the UK. Again for students willing and able to travel this time around the UK we are in the process of digitising in 3D dinosaur footprint sites around the UK in order to develop a digital resource.  There are a number of student projects possible around this theme.


In addition we will be offering a range of forensic projects next year all based around the use of photogrammetry in footwear, document forgery, and suspect height profiling from CCTV footage.  Drop me a line if any of these interest and I will add to this list as ideas come to mind.

Animating science: the role of the scientist in a world where anything is possible

Computer animation (CGI) has revolutionised the film industry.  No longer is a writer or director limited by the constraints of delivery and execution, literally any action stunt or visual world can be created.  The limitations are now those of the digital artists, of the computation required, of time and budget.  Jurassic Park (1993) showed what was possible; dinosaurs reborn as you had never seen them before.  By the time of Jurassic World (2015) and its sequel (2018) hit our screens the wonder was gone; CGI was taken for granted.  Given that anything is possible, should we not now expect a greater degree of scientific realism?  The Martian, for example, was widely lauded for its scientific veracity, but even here scientific veracity (i.e. the dust storm, radiation risks and geological aspects of the landscape) were not allowed to get in the way of a good story; after all we go to the movies to be entertained not educated.  Or do we?  Subliminal learning particularly in challenging scientific and gender stereotypes matters.  After all, aside from a rampant genetic hybrid of a dinosaur in Jurassic World it was ultimately the male and mad geneticist that is the true villain of the pierce.

Most scientists would agree that there are lots of good science programmes and documentaries out there today, but there are also some very bad ones.  Many documentaries and films play to the lowest common denominator, ‘sexing’ up the risks to humanity of a particular phenomenon and combine stock images and video carelessly.  The last point is a good case in point; just about every documentary that involves a volcano plays to the geological stereotype of red hot molten lava, when in fact gases and volcanic ash are perhaps the norm and only a few of the world’s volcanoes actually produce such fluid molten lava.  It is a volcanic stereotype reinforced by countless movies such as Volcano (1997).  Similarly the fact that the velociraptors of Jurassic World remained without feathers, despite the advance in science since 1993 that suggested they were in fact feathered is another example of a stereotype at work; we don’t see birds as frightening in the same way we see reptiles.


But is it really the fault of the film maker or animator?  After all their objective is to entertain not educate and stereotypes are essential ‘short-cuts’ in storytelling.  Is it not the fault of the scientist who fails to stand up and point out these failings?  Perhaps as scientists we should challenge the loose use of science-based stereotypes, not just around gender, race and the mad-demonic and out of control geneticist, but all those stereotypes that miss-inform and miss educate?  If we as scientist demanded more, were more vocal as critics especially of those who set out educate via documentaries, as well as those that seek to entertain would things change for the better?  The Martian was subject to a surprising level of scientific scrutiny – with countless blogs and newspaper reports documenting what was right and what was wrong with the science.  Perhaps fuelled by the claim to be the ‘most scientifically accurate film yet’.  It was good to see.  While ‘feather-gate’ (Jurassic World, 2015, 2018) still has palaeontologist grumbling into their pints (or not) perhaps they should have done more through public engagement and the use of their own animations to change the stereotypical dinosaur?  In the world of CGI where anything is possible scientists have an increasingly important role in constraining the art of the possible with a dose of scientific reality.

social contract

Portrayal of the social contract between state and university in the UK

There are bridges to be built since animation has huge potential in public engagement.  Public engagement is now an important part of most scientists work, a requirement of research funds and part of the agenda in most UK universities at least.  It lies at the core of the social contract between state and the university; that money is received to educate and research and while freedom to explore both is essential the reality of societal and economic are clear.  The growth of the impact agenda as part of the Research Excellence Framework in the UK has strengthened this as a drive to demonstrate both value for money but crucially societal return on investment.  Scientist now blog, hold numerous outreach events and some are actively researching the process of impact and engagement itself.  Animation offers one route to engagement.

A University funded project (2015/16) saw us working with a BU animation graduate (Katie Hill) to produce a series of short animated video clips to promote research in human evolution.  After all BU has one of the World’s leading animation courses and also has some great scientific research to shout about.   The clip showcased here shows what is possible with animation alone, and was generated to support footprint research at BU and to stress the importance of human evolution in a dynamic landscape.  The story is based on published scientific research, the terrain is based on digital elevation models derived from satellite observations, the vegetation assets reflect those present at the site and the footprints are based on detailed 3D models captured by photogrammetry in the field.  The behaviour of the volcano and the eruption is consistent with volcanoes of the region and referenced to real-life still and video images throughout.  The only nod to fictional composition was to move the signboard inside the site enclosure and to reverse it orientation.  The rest is accurate; a level of scientific veracity that in truth was not hard to achieve although the animation as a whole was not quick to produce taking six months of work. We used a second animation to help promote our work on springs and human evolution.

The point here is that getting things right in a world of CGI is actually not that difficult, but is matter of care and belief in its importance and collaborative working between scientists and animators.   Scientists have to stand up and engage, not just grumble from the sidelines and if they embrace the tools of animation they have much to gain.

Working with Audacity: Create that podcast today!

Creating a podcast or sound clip for that important presentation is easy using something called Audacity or so I learnt last week.  Previously I had always struggled to edit audio in video editing software such as Camtasia but never again.  Audacity is a powerful tool and is freeware to boot!  Just watch the download, it seems simple, but you need an extra file to make it work with MP3 files.

audacity logo

I discovered Audacity while creating an audio-book for my daughter.  Stories written and recorded by my mother, with music and sound effects added by me.  Audacity records well both using a microphone and internally while sampling YouTube sound effect files.  There are some good noise reduction tools as well and some other simple effects of which i have only just began to scratch the surface.  It is simple and intuitive to use.  There is also a healthy body of ‘how to’ videos on YouTube and a variety of websites all offering support and help.

So yes this must read like a sales pitch for Audacity and so it is; it is awesome for the occasional user like myself and has opened my mind to the idea of the podcast as part of my teaching portfolio.  I have previously done a few podcasts to sit alongside PowerPoint slides, but the idea of the podcast covering key topics is centre stage in my mind at the moment, so what this space!

Practice makes perfect in academic writing?

The relative importance of practice versus innate talent is a matter of extensive debate and there is some pretty cool research out there and lots of popular articles to read.  Malcolm Gladwell coined the term the ‘ten thousand hour rule’ in his book the Outliers and developed this further in a piece in the New Yorker.  Basically complex tasks like composing or playing chess at the highest levels require in excess of 10,000 hours of practice so the rule goes.  The question here off course is where does raw talent (genetics) feature?

This debate is explored in relation to new research by Maria Konnikova in another piece in the New Yorker.  On reading her piece I was struck by a number of things.  Firstly, that the average athlete benefits most from practice and training while the margins of gained are much smaller for elite ones. Secondly practice relative to raw talent operates differently in different areas having less impact on education and computer science for example when compared with music or sport.  Finally, if you take a group of highly talented individuals their career performance is ultimately determined amongst many factors by ‘work (practice) ethic’.  Now I believe in the importance of work ethic; the more you invest in yourself and your contribution the better the outcome.  Constructive and directed industry has always been a big indicator of success in my opinion, although it is often mitigated by the power of an extrovert who can tell a good story.  There is off course the irrational pique here of an introvert speaking.

So why am I writing about practice?  Well I run sessions for the Doctoral College here at Bournemouth on academic writing.  As a severely dyslexic individual writing has always been difficult, but over the years I have done a lot of it, and while I would never say that I am particularly good at it, I am continually learning and improving.  I advocate in these sessions the importance of practice, off investing in one’s own development.

Now writing is a skill that is on the decline in most science graduates.  Can I evidence this?  Well not really, but it is apparent every semester in the papers I grade.  The point is that students don’t get the chance to practice in the mercenary academic world in which we live.  In this world only the thing that seems to count to most student’s is work that contributes to a final grade.  Summative assessment is king and we are increasingly limited as tutors by what we can set.  As tutors we do not help this because with the growth in class sizes we usually strive to reduce grading at all costs.  Yet what science students really need is formative assessment and coaching in writing.  As a student I had to write four tutorial essays a semester in addition to coursework, these essays didn’t count for any unit grades but they did in hindsight help me along the way.  Over thirty years later you would not get a modern student doing this unless there was a grade it in.  As I say education has become very mercenary.  So when a student graduates and ends up needing to write academic papers in Graduate School they struggle.  It is why they come to classes on academic writing!

My answer is the same however; you need to practice.  Write something every day, it doesn’t really matter what as along as it is coherent prose.  I advocate the use of blogs, after all they don’t have to be public and there are so many of them these days that most remain obscure even if they available online.  A blog post of 500 to 600 words is an ideal length to practice, and writing prose free of references and academic baggage allows you to focus on the writing itself.  In class I am asked: write about what?  My answer is always, anything that holds your interest.  Who will give us feedback?  No one is the answer, learning to be your own critic is one of the keys to good writing.  How many take this advice?  To be honest I am not sure, but I hope they do, because in the case of writing reading good prose and emulating this through practice and self-critique will always be king in my view.

I have one other tip to pass on.  I once had a management coach when on the academic leadership track and he told me a story which I can’t now remember to whom it was attributed, but basically it went like this.  Instead of sitting down at your computer each morning and writing emails, posting on Facebook or Twitter write a piece of coherent prose for half an hour and you will have a more productive writing day.   Not sure what the evidence for this was or is, but try it because it works for me.

If you are an undergraduate reading this.  Well my message to you is simple, practice and invests in yourself and in a good work ethic and in my experience you will win the day.

The use of the word poo, or a matter of tone?

A brief note in the journal Nature caught my attention the other day.  It took issue with the use of the word ‘poo’ in a research highlight; in fact it called it juvenile.

The highlight was a news piece not a research article and was reporting on an article published in the Proceeding of the National Academy for Science entitled: Responses to pup vocalizations in subordinate naked mole-rats are induced by estradiol ingested through coprophagy of queen’s feces. 

So is this an example of poor use of tone in academic writing, or a simply pomposity on the part of the author of the comment?

Finding the right academic voice or tone is difficult for many students.  Over the years I have marked many assignments in which the author writes as if they are talking to their mates in the pub.  Equally I have read more than one Masters Dissertations (and PhD thesis and papers to boot!) in which the author seems to believe that route to scientific veracity is to write in the most convoluted and pompous prose possible.  In fact there is a bit of a pendulum at work here; students start out too informal and end up at the other extreme, before hopefully finding a mid-ground as they develop their practice.

I am an advocate of direct and active prose where ever possible and to me pomposity, convolution and pretension is like a spark to a gas ring.  The KISS acronym holds well in my view: Keep it Short and Simple.  Simple does not however mean informal.  As writers we should aim to communicate clearly using appropriate language for the audience and above all else make sure that we write in direct and clear prose which is also wherever possible engaging! Practice is the key. Find academic authors and science journalists we like to read and reflecting on and dissecting their style to adapt and form in to our own style through practice is the key.  I don’t hold myself up as a good writer, simply one doing his best and learning through practice.  I like to reflect occasionally on the six rules on good writing proposed by Orwell and modified slightly here:

  1. Never use a metaphor or other figure of speech which has become hackneyed.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Write for your audience and never forget that it is they that count.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Would Orwell have used the word ‘poo’, perhaps?  Do I agree with the comment about the use of the word poo, no!  It is a headline, designed to draw the reader in which in my view is acceptable.  The term ‘feces’ is the correct term for the title of the paper sure, but a journalist even in Nature should be able to have some latitude with a headline.  We drink our own pomposity, at our peril and the more pompous we become the more distance we place between ourselves and the general public.

Busy? Let’s call another meeting!

I hate meetings, pure and simple, I have said it now!  I think that most meetings are a huge waste of time and I was refreshed to read the other day that others think the same.  In fact this piece set me thinking of my past as a senior university leader.

I hate meetings not just because I am introvert, and serious one at that, but because they rarely achieve anything and in my experience at least in the University sector are about the information cascade rather than real strategic decision-making.  In my experience decision-making is made by a very small group of University managers and is often strategically self-evident any way so needs little discussion, I should know because I was once one of them.  Consultation and debate rarely change in a meaningful way decisions that are made by these elite, although they would fiercely deny it as a truth.

My mother once said to me that you make a decision in an instant but spend hours, weeks or even years agonising over it and second guessing that initial instinct.  Malcom Gladwell is superb on this subject in his book Blink.  It is the same in universities where the elite (Vice Chancellors and their deputies of various types), make the decisions and rarely do those decisions change.  They manipulate consultation consciously and unconsciously, after all they have to seek a consensus from an academic body known for arguing about most things and prefer that consensus to be modelled on their own.  In fact I have only one concrete example in 26 years of academic experience of a VC changing their mind in face of academic debate.  It was Sir Paul Curran while he was VC at Bournemouth and he backed down in the face of academic opposition from Senate which in most Post-1992 Universities is only advisory.  For me it was a defining moment in a truly academically led regime, not without its faults don’t get me wrong, but such academic collegiate leadership at the highest levels is now rare in UK.  We have lots of good managers but true academic leaders are few.

I digress so back to my hatred of meetings.  There are those who love meetings and away days and the like, extroverts to a tee I am guessing.  I once was appalled to hear a colleague in a leadership meeting many years ago express their love of meetings: “gets me out of the office and lets me catch-up with the gossip”.  I want to be in my office analysing and writing, not wasting time on gossip after all I am a researcher at heart, and one who also enjoys his teaching despite being an introvert.  University meetings conflate three elements in my experience: (1) an important touch point for staff and teams (even an introvert accepts this); (2) information cascade and project monitoring; and (3) very rarely a decision point.

These three elements require very different things and most meeting chairs prefer to focus on the former two elements because in truth, except at the most senior levels in a university, few real decisions are actually made just referred up.  Call me cynical but in my experience this is the truth and also a source of huge irritation for those not part of the decision-making elite.  Isolating the first two elements from the other agenda is done at a chair’s peril because it exposes this, yet is essential to making meetings effective.

Now I have little positive to say for billionaire self-publicists like Musk, but the idea of him empowering people to walk out of meetings if they have nothing to contribute is truly awesome.  His idea of asking for meeting papers in concise prose and insisting the first 30 minutes of a meeting is devoted to silent reading of those papers is even better.  Banning slide presentation is fantastic to.  I would go further however and insist that all papers are hard-copy and phones and tablets are banned.  I used to have to attend a Leadership Team Meeting every fortnight with a large membership and a meaningless agenda driven largely by the information cascade.  The papers got so big and everyone had tablets so the move to electronic papers seemed sensible – to save the environment.  In fact attention at meetings fell and the length increased because most people got on with their emails and reading.  A cynic might say that it improved productivity, not of the meeting but in email response times!

Taking the information cascade out of meetings is perhaps the key challenge for any chair and to hold a meeting as a default is a logical solution since most delete corporate emails and bulletins.  While PVC at Bournemouth several years ago we set up a research blog as the information cascade and to replace static and tired information based web pages.  The archive became that resource over time.  The daily digest still pop’s into my email and I follow the links and read what I need.  I never managed to integrate this with a reduction in meetings however with an agenda focused on key decisions which is something I regret but could have been done easily in hindsight.  Open online discussions are something to consider.  The team outside my office door, who are not led by me, have stand-up meetings which is an interesting innovation and while PVC the most useful team meeting was a half hour over a coffee every Monday morning.  Called the prayer meeting by those who felt excluded (it took place in a campus coffee shop) it actually was useful as touch point each week for a team.  There are lots of innovations possible here with the aim of separating out the functional requirements for meetings as long as they are driven by a desire to reduce the total hours spent in such activity!  I would say that off course because my computer is where I want to be.

If you are a student reading this, then forgive the cynicism.  You are the next generation of meeting attendees and chairs and I beseech you to learn by our mistakes!