Here is a link to a piece written for the Nature Ecology and Evolution community. It gives some of the background to the sloth hunting story release in April 2018. Also since the publication of the Science Advances paper we have had another piece appear in Quaternary Science Reviews about the use of geophysics in detecting tracks.
In July of 2018 I was also involved in the rescue of some sauropod tracks on the Isle of Purbeck. It is a nice story and there is more on this to come in time. You can find out a bit about this ongoing work here.
There has been a lot of interest in our discovery of nearly-6m-year-old footprints on Crete, first reported by the The Conversation – suggesting that human ancestors could have roamed Europe at the same time as they were evolving in East Africa.
Sadly the site was vandalised in the last week, with four or five of the 29 tracks stolen. We are fortunate that many of the best tracks remain – the people who did it clearly didn’t know what they were looking for. Our guess is that they were simply intending to sell them.
The theft occurred despite the site being afforded protection under Greek heritage law and being in the care of local officials. Police, we are told, have made an arrest in connection with the incident, and it is hoped that the missing material will be returned soon. The damage, however, is irreparable.
The Cretan authorities moved swiftly to bury the site temporarily while a more permanent conservation solution, such as moving the entire surface, is sought. We are lucky that the whole area has been 3D-scanned with an optical laser scanner in high resolution as part of the original study. In due course this data will be made available via the Natural History Museum of Crete and the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden. So there will fortunately not be much of an impact on the research.
Yet the event is devastating. To understand the significance to someone who studies ancient tracks like these, consider it equivalent to an attempt to steal part of the Sphinx at Giza or vandals dislodging one of lintel blocks at Stonehenge.
Unfortunately, the theft and vandalism of tracks is nothing new. For example, there was a recent case on the Isle of Skye in Scotland of vandalised dinosaur tracks dating from around 165m year ago that lead to a police probe. The ethics around the collection and sale of fossils and artefacts is complex, and many of the great scientific collections today are based on collection and sales by amateurs in the past. Ultimately, it seems wrong to collect and sell artefacts that there’s only a limited number of.
But how can you conserve what is essentially a slab of soft rock, close to the sea and open to the elements? Oddly, erosion at such sites is to be encouraged because it often helps reveal new surfaces which may contain additional prints.
I did some research on this with colleagues and concluded that the only option is to excavate and digitally record them in 3D. This can be done either with a laser scanner or just with a digital camera in the field. Some 20 pictures of a track from different angles is enough to create a 3D image. These days 3D printers can easily create models for museums and for collectors.
Digital preservation is probably the key for the Cretan tracks as well. This worked well for the 2,100-year-old human footprints of Acahualinca
in Managua (Nicaragua), where the originals are perfectly preserved under a roof built over the site, and in an adjacent museum.
Perhaps the most controversial of conservation solutions has been to bury the world’s oldest confirmed hominin footprints – from Laetoli in Tanzania – which were first documented in the late 1970s. These tracks were buried as a way of protecting them from weathering and natural-decay.
There has been extensive debate about what should happen at this site and many scientists are unhappy about the lack of access. Plans for the site over the years have varied from an on-site museum to the removal of the whole slab to another site. The debate continues, but ultimately it is money that precludes a solution that would allow access to the public and scientists alike.
Indeed, the challenge is always money. It is expensive to erect and maintain protective structures, and to gain funds you need publicity to ensure that all the stakeholders involved are aware of the scientific, social and emotional value of a site.
One of the reasons for publicising the Trachilos tracks was not only to get the discovery debated in open scientific circles, but also to raise its public profile – thereby seeking better protection and ultimately its preservation in a local museum. That would bring visitors and fuel local revenue.
The trouble is the very publicity aimed to assist the site’s protection may have led to an enhanced perception of its monetary value. After all, the site had been known locally for years. Publicity though, is a double-edged sword and we have been lucky on this occasion to avoid the full length of its blade.
Western society has a rather specific view of what a good childhood should be like; protecting, sheltering and legislating to ensure compliance with it. However, perceptions of childhood vary greatly with geography, culture and time. What was it like to be a child in prehistoric times, for example – in the absence of toys, tablets and television?
In our new paper, published in Scientific Reports, we outline the discovery of children’s footprints in Ethiopia which show how children spent their time 700,000 years ago.
We first came across the question of what footprints can tell us about past childhood experiences a few years back while studying some astonishingly beautiful children’s footprints in Namibia, just south of Walvis Bay. In archaeological terms the tracks were young, dating only from around 1,500 years ago. They were made by a small group of children walking across a drying mud surface after a flock of sheep or goats. Some of these tracks were made by children as young as three-years-old in the company of slightly older children and perhaps young adolescents.
The detail in these tracks, preserved beneath the shifting sands of the Namibian Sand Sea, is amazing, and the pattern of footfall – with the occasional skip, hop and jump – shows they were being playful. The site also showed that children were trusted with the family flock of animals from an early age and, one assumes, they learnt from that experience how to function as adults were expected to within that culture.
No helicopter parents
But what about the childhood of our earlier ancestors – those that came before anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens)? Children’s tracks by Homo antecessor (1.2m to 800,000 years ago) were found at Happisburgh in East Anglia, a site dating to a million years ago. Sadly though, these tracks leave no insight into what these children were doing.
But the footprints described in our recent study – from a remarkable site in the Upper Awash Valley of Southern Ethiopia that was excavated by researchers from the Università di Roma “La Sapienza” – reveal a bit more. The children’s tracks were probably made by the extinct species Homo heidelbergensis(600,000 to 200,000 years ago), occurring next to adult prints and an abundance of animal tracks congregated around a small, muddy pool. Stone tools and the butchered remains of a hippo were also found at the site, called Melka Kunture.
This assemblage of tracks is capped by an ash flow from a nearby volcano which has been dated to 700,000 years ago. The ash flow was deposited shortly after the tracks were left, although we don’t know precisely how soon after. The tracks are not as anatomically distinct as those from Namibia but they are smaller and may have been made by children as young as one or two, standing in the mud while their parents and older siblings got on with their activities. This included knapping the stone tools with which they butchered the carcass of the hippo.
The findings create a unique and momentary insight into the world of a child long ago. They clearly were not left at home with a babysitter when the parents were hunting. In the harsh savannah plains of the East African Rift Valley, it was natural to bring your children to such daily tasks, perhaps so they could observe and learn.
This is not surprising, when one considers the wealth of ethnographic evidence from modern, culturally distinct human societies. Babies and children are most often seen as the lowliest members of their social and family groups. They are often expected to contribute to activities that support the mother, and the wider family group, according to their abilities. In many societies, small boys tend to help with herding, while young girls are preferred as babysitters. Interestingly, adult tools – like axes, knives, machetes, even guns – are often freely available to children as a way of learning.
So, if we picture the scene at Melka Kunture, the children observing the butchery were probably allowed to handle stone tools and practice their skills on discarded pieces of carcass while staying out of the way of the fully-occupied adults. This was their school room, and the curriculum was the acquisition of survival skills. There was little time or space to simply be a child, in the sense that we would recognise today.
However, these observations contrasts to the story that emerged last year based on tracks from the older Homo Homo erectus (1.5m-year-old) at Ileret, located further south in the Rift Valley, just within the northern border of Kenya. Here the tracks have been interpreted as the product of adult hunting groups moving along a lake shore, rather than a domestic scene such as that at Melka Kunture. However, these scenes aren’t mutually exclusive and both show the power of footprints to provide a snapshot into past hominin behaviour.
But it does seem like the overwhelming parenting lesson from the distant past is that children had more responsibilities, less adult supervision and certainly no indulgence from their parents. It is a picture of a childhood very different from our own, at least from the privileged perspective of life in Western society.
A fossil footprint is one of the most evocative insights into the past. It can tell you not only about presence, but also about the biomechanics of the track-maker. We have studied ancient footprints from around the world for more than a decade – and perhaps most notably we were part of the team that discovered the second oldest human footprints at Ileret in northern Kenya in 2009. They date back 1.5m years and were likely made by Homo erectus.
Over the past ten years, we have witnessed unparalleled technological advances. We used to take a large, expensive and delicate optical laser scanner into the field, encased in a shroud specially made by a sail maker. I remember with horror how it exploded on the first day of one particular field trip.
It had been flown at great expense first to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and then on a small plane which landed on a dirt strip. But then, on its first day out, it was connected to a generator supposedly that had been repaired in a back street Nairobi shop – and the sparks flew. My colleagues had to infill the excavation and it was another six months before I was back out with a repaired scanner and a new generator.
These days, thankfully, we need nothing more than a digital camera in the field. We take 20 pictures from different angles and I have a 3D model to rival those I once created by physically scanning the footprint. And with far fewer headaches. In fact, in October, Microsoft demonstrated a 3D scanner that works on a smart phone – technology is changing fast.
Great leaps forward
Despite this, 3D models have yet to make an impact in some areas. One of these is in the analysis of footwear evidence at crime scenes. Here, traditional methods of photography and casting still prevail and footwear evidence is no longer routinely collected at many crime scenes. Yet it has real power, especially when brought into 3D – and the 21st century.
Footwear impressions provide an important source of evidence from crime scenes. They can help to determine the sequence of events and – if distinctive due to the wear patterns – can link a suspect to multiple crime scenes. The value is not only as a tool in prosecution, but crucially in intelligence gathering often around petty crime. Unfortunately, it isn’t being routinely used – at least until now.
Working with a talented team of software developers, we have now translated academic know-how and software developed for research into a freeware package that puts 3D tools into the hands of everyone. Over the past year, with funding from a Natural Environment Research Council Innovation Award and with the help of the Home Office and the National Crime Agency, we have developed DigTrace a bespoke software tool for footprint analysis. This tool is now freely available to police forces and forensic services both in the UK and overseas.
DigTrace is the first integrated freeware product that allows crime scene officers to capture 3D images of footwear impressions with nothing more than a digital camera and then to visualise, analyse and compare these traces digitally. It integrates fully with existing databases and approaches and we hope it will change the cost benefit equation of footwear analysis.
From the extraordinary to the everyday
The use of 3D modelling of this kind need not only be used in high capital crimes but can also be used to tackle the petty crime that often plagues society. Take, for example, a series of grass verges on the edges of car parks of ill repute. Using this tool, you can easily scan footprints in these areas. And if you can link the same piece of footwear to several of these disreputable areas, you know you are looking for one individual or group rather than several. The power lies in improving intelligence.
We’ve been developing the software for the better part of a decade. What started as a collection of tools for addressing specific research tasks, built using a variety of technologies, has now been consolidated with the help of NERC into a standalone software suite. There is some neat mathematics that underlies the various 3D transformations required. Keeping things simple, however, has been the key to building trust with end-users who are not computer scientists.
At the heart of the approach is the idea of digital photogrammetry – take a series of images, identify common pixels in each and triangulate the pixels to define their location in 3D space. The result is a 3D pixel cloud that can be scaled, transformed and surfaced. We are actively researching the enabling technology here at Bournemouth University to develop new tools from this basic premise. Creating 3D models from video and even CCTV footage is in our sights. Our aim is to provide tools that make society safer, not just from high profile-crime, but that which affects everyday lives.
While DigTrace may help fight crime, it is also there for geologists and archaeologists to help them study dinosaur or ancient human tracks. The use of 3D data is a brave new world from printing in 3D to developing tools that visualise and analyse such data – and it is helping to bring the recent, and most distant, past to life.
Our ancient ancestors seem to have survived some pretty harsh arid spells in East Africa’s Rift Valley over five million years. Quite how they kept going has long been a mystery, given the lack of water to drink. Now, new research shows that they may have been able to survive on a small networks of springs.
The study from our inter-disciplinary research team, published in Nature Communications, illustrates that groundwater springs may have been far more important as a driver of human evolution in Africa than previously thought.
The study focuses on water in the Rift Valley. This area – a continuous geographic trench that runs from Ethiopia to Mozambique – is also known as the “cradle of humanity”.
Here, our ancestors evolved over a period of about five million years. Throughout this time, rainfall was affected by the African monsoon, which strengthened and weakened on a 23,000-year cycle. During intense periods of aridity, monsoon rains would have been light and drinking water in short supply. So how did our ancestors survive such extremes?
Previously, scientists had assumed that the evolution and dispersal of our ancestors in the region was solely dependent on climate shifts changing patterns of vegetation (food) and water (rivers and lakes). However, the details are blurry – especially when it comes to the role of groundwater (springs).
We decided to find out just how important springs were. Our starting point was to identify springs in the region to map how groundwater distribution varies with climate. We are not talking about small, babbling springs here, but large outflows of groundwater. These are buffered against climate change as their distribution is controlled by geology – the underlying rocks can store rainwater and transfer it slowly to the springs.
We figured that our ancestors could have stayed close to such groundwater in dry times – playing a greater part in their survival than previously thought. When the climate got increasingly wet, groundwater levels would have risen and made springs more plentiful – feeding smaller rivers and leading to lakes becoming less saline. At this point, our ancestors would have roamed across the landscape free of concerns about water.
Life and death decisions
To test this idea, we embarked on a computer experiment. If the springs and water bodies are thought of as the rest stops, or service stations, then the linkages between can be modelled by computers. Our model was based on what decisions individuals would have taken to survive – and what collective behaviours could have emerged from thousands of such decisions.
Individuals were give a simple task: to find a new source of water within three days of travel. Three days is the time that a modern human and, by inference, our ancestors could go without drinking water. The harder and rougher the terrain, the shorter the distance one can travel in those vital three days.
We used the present landscape and existing water springs to map potential routes. The detailed location of springs may have changed over time but the principles hold. If our agent failed to find water within three days, he or she would die. In this way we could map out the migration pathways between different water sources as they varied through 23,000-year climate cycles. The map shows that there were indeed small networks of springs available even during the driest of intervals. These would have been vital for the survival or our ancestors.
The model also reveals movement patterns that are somewhat counter-intuitive. One would assume that the easiest route would be along the north to south axis of the rift valley. In this way, hominins could stay at the bottom of the valley rather than crossing the high rift walls. But the model suggests that in intermediate states between wet and dry, groups of people may have preferred to go from east to west across the rift valley. This is because springs on the rift floor and sides link to large rivers on the rift flanks. This is important as it helps explain how our ancestors spread away from the rift valley. Indeed, what we are beginning to see is a network of walking highways that develop as our ancestors moved across Africa.
Human movement allows the flow of gossip, know-how and genes. Even in modern times, the water-cooler is often the fount of all knowledge and the start of many budding friendships. The same may have been true in ancient Africa and the patterns of mobility and their variability through a climate cycle will have had a profound impact on breeding and technology.
This suggests that population growth, genetics, implications for survival and dispersal of human life across Africa can all potentially be predicted and modelled using water as the key – helping us to uncover human history. The next step will be to compare our model of human movement with real archaeological evidence of how humans actually moved when the climate changed.
So next time you complain about not finding your favourite brand of bottled spring water in the shop, spare a thought for our ancestors who may died in their quest to find a rare, secluded spring in the arid African landscape.
This research was carried out in partnership with our colleagues Tom Gleeson, Sally Reynolds, Adrian Newton, Cormac McCormack and Gail Ashley.
The human foot is distinctive. Our five toes lack claws, we normally present the sole of our foot flat to the ground, and our first and second toes are longer than the smaller ones. In comparison to our fellow primates, our big toes are in line with the long axis of the foot – they don’t stick out to one side.
In fact, some would argue that one of the defining characteristics of being part of the human clade is the shape of our foot. So imagine our surprise when we discovered fossil footprints with remarkable, human-like characteristics at Trachilos, Crete, that are 5.7m years old. This research, published in the Proceedings of the Geologist Association, is controversial as it suggests that the earliest human ancestors may have wandered around southern Europe as well as East Africa.
The period corresponds to a geological time interval known as the Miocene. The footprints are small tracks made by someone walking upright on two legs – there are 29 of them in total. They range in size from 94mm to 223mm, and have a shape and form very similar to human tracks. Non-human ape footprints look very different; the foot is shaped more like a human hand, with the big toe attached low on the side of the sole and sticking out sideways.
The footprints were dated using a combination of fossilised marine microorganisms called foraminifera and the character of the local sedimentary rocks. Foraminifera evolve very rapidly and marine sedimentary rocks can be dated quite precisely on the basis of the foraminifera they contain. These indicated an age somewhere in the span 8.5m to 3.5m years. However, at the very end of the Miocene, about 5.6m years ago, an extraordinary thing happened: the entire Mediterranean sea dried out for some time. This event left a clear signature in the sediments of the surrounding areas. The sediments that contain the footprints suggest they probably date to the period immediately before this, at about 5.7m years.
The oldest known footprints, however, were found at Laetoli in Tanzania and come from the next geological time interval, the Pliocene. These are some 3.66m years old and even more human-like than those of Trachilos. The second oldest tracks are those at Ileret made by Homo erectus (1.5m years old), and are little different from the tracks that we ourselves might make today.
If – and for many it is a big if – the tracks of Trachilos were indeed made by an early human ancestor, then the biogeographical range of our early ancestors would increase to encompass the eastern Mediterranean. Crete was not an island at this time but attached to the Greek mainland, and the environment of the Mediterranean region was very different from now.
The discovery comes just months after another study reported the discovery of 7m-year-old Greek and Bulgarian fossil teeth from a hominin ape dubbed “El Graeco”. This is the oldest fossil of a human-like ape, which has led some to suggest that humans started to evolve in Europe hundreds of thousands of years before they started to evolve in Africa. But many scientists have remained sceptical about this claim – as are we. The presence of Miocene hominids in Europe and Africa simply shows that both continents are possible “homelands” for the group. In theory, El Graeco could be responsible for the Trachilos foorprints but without any limb or foot bones it is impossible to tell.
But there are other ways to interpret the findings. Some might suggest that the distinctive anatomy of a human-like foot could have evolved more than once. The tracks could have been made by a hitherto unknown Miocene primate that had a foot anatomy and locomotive style not unlike our own.
There are examples throughout the fossil record of what is called “convergent evolution” – two unrelated animals developing similar anatomical features as adaptations to a particular lifestyle. However, there is nothing about the Trachilos footprints themselves that suggests such convergence.
Convergence rarely produces perfect duplicates; rather, you tend to get an odd mix of similarities and differences, like you see when you compare a shark and a dolphin for example. Now, imagine if the Trachilos footprints combined human-like characters with a few other characters that simply didn’t “fit”: for example, that the toes looked human-like but carried big claws. This would be a reason to suspect that the human-like features could be convergent. But the Trachilos footprints don’t show any such discordant characters, they simply look like primitive hominin footprints as far as we can tell.
For those unable to see beyond Africa as the “human cradle”, these tracks present a considerable challenge, and it has not been easy to get the discovery published. Some have even questioned whether the observed features are footprints at all. However, collectively, the researchers behind this study have published over 400 papers on tracks, so we are pretty confidence we know what they are.
Although the results are controversial, suggesting that the rich East African evidence for early hominids may not be telling the whole story, it’s important that we take the findings seriously. The Trachilos tracksite deserves to be protected and the evidence should be debated by scientists.
It is now for the researchers in the field to embark on finding more tracks or, better still, body fossils that will help us to better understand this interesting period of primate diversity, which ultimately led to our own evolution irrespective of where this first happened. The very essence of this type of science is prospection, discovery, evidence-based inference and debate. We are sure that this paper will stimulate debate; let us hope that it also stimulates further discoveries.
There is nothing more dispiriting as a tutor than to look out at a sea of blank or vacant faces. These days many hide behind expensive laptops, doing who knows what! Attendance can be variable especially after the first flush of a new term is over. As staff we are required to post our lectures and now under pressure to record our lectures. The idea behind this by the way is that a student can return to key sections in the future. In truth at least from my perspective if you are going to do this why run formal lectures at all? Units might be better packaged as YouTube videos? From a tutor’s perspective the equation is often simple, the more you give the less your students need to engage and attend. May be this is not very fair but it is borne out by my own experience.
Whether it is with rose tinted glasses or not I believe I used to have stronger student engagement when I set out lecturing in the 1990s. In those days (as in mine the decade before) a student needed to write notes or leave with nothing. Attendance was much better and I believe so was student performance. The introduction of a succession of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs; currently Bightspace at BU) killed this to some extent. Slides had to be posted. Despite what others argue I believe strongly that the VLE weakens student engagement. In the old days you had to write notes, you had to engage while these days you simply have to download the slides. Or so the theory goes, until you encounter someone like me who’s slides are simply a pile of graphs, diagrams and pictures. The narrative that goes with them is the bit you get by attending and engaging with the lecture.
I am a realist about such matters knowing that the competition between a cold lecture hall and a warm student bed is tough especially on a cold Monday morning in winter! So from a student’s perspective let’s explore the question of engagement with lectures. Why does it matter and what does engagement actually mean?
Well you go to university – rather than college or the like – to learn from those that are creating new knowledge. To learn from the people active in your discipline area and driving research forward. That is the theory at least and how it should be, especially if you are paying £9,000 plus for the privilege each year. Your tutors should have pedigree either in professional practice or as academic researchers and if they don’t you have in my view the right to question this. The difference between a textbook and real researcher is that you gain from their experience, from their perspective and ultimately from their knowledge and research which unlike a textbook is evolving all the time. You gain this through lectures and in the case of geography/geology through fieldwork. A lecture should be different every time, should refer to new literature and emerging debates. It is by its nature unpredictable, if it is predicable then it has lost its relevance and has become simply an audio/video file and something that is static. I am not here to teach, but to share my knowledge and to join with you in debating the latest ideas and to develop them together. So the very best lectures should be unpredictable in a good way that is and that is why you need to attend and accept that they will divert from script and posted material from time to time and so they should. If you don’t attend then you a missing out one of the key facets of a university education at least in my view, that and learning to think critically and communicate those thoughts.
So let us take as read that attendance is essential if at all possible, why else would we bother to schedule classes otherwise? So the next question and one many students ask is should you listen or write notes? Well if your lecturer is talking and talking fast as they do then verbatim notes are a waste of time, but capturing key points is not. I am not talking about listening to them read PowerPoint slides; heaven help you if that is the experience you get. In fact you have my sympathies and I would encourage you to push back if that is the case.
Some students seek to record lectures as a way around the problem – they talk to fast! I am guilty of talking to fast and I am personally not opposed to having my lectures recorded, but unless there is a specific reason for doing so my advice is not to. Why sit through the same talk twice? Engage the first time. If you don’t understand something when you review your notes then find a time to ask a question and seek help even if the cohort is large and the tutor is scary! This is also part of the learning process.
Now our learning styles are all different so we are told frequently, and they may be, but there is a key step here that is true to most elements of life (and to the lecture) and we use every day in conversation – listen, think/reflect and respond through action. It is the process of active listening and is evidenced by action. In conversation it is the act of responding to what is said rather than just talking. It is a skill that often needs to be learnt even by those who talk and gossip continuously. Whatever you’re learning style find a way to listen, distil/reflect and to record those thoughts.
Writing can be a challenge for some but writing/noting for oneself is a key way of engaging. You just need to work out here what works best for you through some experimentation. May be pictures, abbreviations, bullet-points or thought maps, there are loads of things to try.
Call me traditional but I would say that it is always a good idea (and an excellent habit to form) to write notes fast and legibly by hand for yourown use. They don’t have to look pretty! There is certainly no point making them pretty after the event as long as you can read them, to do so is to waste time. The note writing skill is like any other and needs to be practiced and mastering it will serve you well in professional practice and later life. Lectures allow you to practice this skill. Writing fast is a useful skill for exams now and in the future for meetings, taking statements, receiving instructions and jotting down ideas and decisions. Annotating printed PowerPoint slides is a common solution, but is not as good as listening and noting in your own words what is actually being said. A slide is the lecturer’s summary not yours and yours is the one that counts, the one you will digest, understand and own.
Whatever you do find a way to engage in lectures and value them for what they are; a key part of your university educations and always remember there are good lectures and there bad lectures just as there are good days and bad days.
In a previous post I wrote about the concept of ‘rhetoric’ and the interplay between the audience, the writer and the context (Fig. 1). This helps explain why there is no right or wrong way to set about a piece of academic writing or coursework. Ultimately the audience is always right and is often fickle.
Figure 1: The use of rhetoric.
There are lots of reasons for this, different disciplines have their own way of doing things and everyone has their own personal ‘writing experience’. Essentially they ‘do unto you, what was done (rightly or wrongly) unto them’. Different bosses like things done in different ways and in truth most of your tutors at University will have different opinions. These will depend on their academic history, how much they publish and where they publish. As the phrase says ‘what is breed in the bone will out in the flesh’.
In the case of your boss you may be able to slowly challenge them and educate them into your (hopefully better) way of writing, but in most cases you will need to confirm to your audiences expectations. Just because all your tutors are from the same faculty don’t assume that they all write in the same way or expect the same output. Your audience will always have different perspectives, experiences and values. Your tutors are all different and hurray for individuality! In most cases therefore you are appealing to the likes and dislikes of your audience and to ‘like-minded’ readers, but it is always good to remember that if you always conform you cannot change minds and opinions. Ultimately it is about the way you go about this.
The lack of certainty about what is required can be a nightmare for students. You are not going to solve this however much you wish or demand conformity, so best to embrace it and work within the constraints that you do have.
Figure 2: Your tutors are individuals each with their own perspective of how things should be done.
Figure 2 tries to crystallise this. The known constraints are the assignment brief, the style guide to which you are working and your aim is to land the assignment in the ball-park remembering that each ball (i.e. tutor) is different. They are kept broadly (and I mean broadly) by external examiners and professional benchmarks. A good illustration of this is the use of the first person. When I was a student and a young lecture the first person was a big no, for some academics it remains a no, but in the last 30 years this has changed and many journals now encourage the use of the first person. In my own writing practice I embrace it. There are people in my own faculty, however, who still think it is a huge sin. This is an example of the uncertainty around how to land an assignment. Well in this example the simple answer is to ask the tutor for whom you are writing and/or check out what the style is in the journals specific to their subject area or in which they write. A bit of simple audience research can really help. If a tutor tells you to never use the first person, take it with a ‘pinch of salt.’
This level of uncertainty is not just specific to Universities; you will find a similar set of uncertainties in professional practice to (Fig. 3). And academics work with uncertainty in the form of the opinions of peer reviewers and their audiences all the time (Fig. 4).
Figure 3: Landing your report in the right space.
Figure 4: Landing an academic paper (publication) in the right space.
So the first thing to remember is to know your audience and write for them within the formal and informal constraints that are set.
Now don’t get me wrong I am not in favour of just writing any old rubbish to conform and flatter your audience. Some messages are easier however:
‘I found the same as them!’
‘We are doing a wonderful job.’
‘This evidence supports your case.’
‘This evidence supports your site model.’
It is much harder to challenge:
‘We have to change the way we are doing things, and now!’
‘The evidence doesn’t support the Boss’s view.’
‘Your prime suspect couldn’t have done it!’
Conforming to your audiences views does not mean ‘rolling over’ but you need to tread carefully and build a strong evidence case when challenging the status quo. The so called ‘tempered radical’ usually wins the day, if slowly. The second lesson is to always evidence your claim and build a reasoned argument which considers alternatives and provides context. You can conform to audience expectations while also punching them in the face! Gently!
Uncertainty can extend to definitions of different types of written work. Take the humble essay for example much loved as an assessment. Personally I think that the use of sub-heading is appropriate to help provide some structure, but others argue that there should be none at all. The dictionary is of little help:
‘Short piece of writing on a particular subject’
‘A short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.’
Generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper or an article. Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay has a more personal element. Nowhere is the any guidance about the use of subheadings! Now an essay is not a report. A report is a more factual and any argument is confined to the discussion or conclusion once the data/evidence has been presented. Here are some definitions but they are mine, not necessarily everyone’s!
Essay – a continuous piece of prose which explores/evaluates one or more concepts and/or develops an argument (a thesis or claim). The word thesis is not to be confused with a PhD or Master Thesis, but refers to a central claim or idea which is then argued. Generally an essay may have broad headings to act as a guide and has a clear logical development of ideas normally around a single thesis. It can contain general illustrations but is usually free from data.
Report – a factual description of a set of results (field and/or laboratory) followed by analysis and discussion of those results. Usually sub-divided into sub-headings following AIMRaD structure (Fig. 5): aims, introduction, methods, results and discussion. It normally contains data, graphs and analysis
Dissertation/thesis – an extended piece of work based on original research and/or a systematic review of secondary sources/literature.
Literature review – a structured summary and synthesis of previous work on a subject. Note this may be a component of a report, essay or dissertation.
Paper – in academic circles this normally refers to a peer reviewed and published paper/article. In some countries especially the USA it is synonymous with ‘essay/report’.
Again the key to dealing with uncertainty is to find out what your audience expects and wants and to give it to them.
Figure 5: The classic AIMRad structure.
One of the hardest things to do is to write, especially when you are working with uncertainty, but writing is part of the creative scientific process. It provides a way of working through your arguments and making your case. Unfortunately there is only one solution and that is to practice and to never forget your audience.
If driver-less cars are the future then we had better take account of plate tectonics! You have no doubt heard the stories “driver follows satnav instructions and ends up in a field!” Well what about driver-less cars? Their success is crucially dependent on Global Positioning Systems (GPS). If you have a smart phone you have a GPS; by linking with one or more satellites a GPS can triangulate its position with varying levels of accuracy. In a driver-less car you want to be sure that the car’s GPS is both accurate and linked to the road map, half a metre out and you could be facing the oncoming traffic!
Maps and their datum’s
In the UK the Ordnance Survey has been making maps since 1747. These maps are based on the British National Grid, a system of rectilinear lines (northings and easting) superimposed on the curved surface of the earth. This is typical of what are known as country, or local-co-ordinate, systems.
Australia is no exception. In the summer of 2016 it was reported (BBC, 29 July 2016) that Geoscience Australia was moving Australia so that the gap between its local co-ordinate system and that of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) were in closer agreement. When we way ‘moving Australia’ what they mean is moving the official longitude and latitude of the origin (zero point) of their local co-ordinate system. The Geocentric Datum of Australia, the origin for the country’s local co-ordinate system, was last updated in 1994 since when Australia has moved about 1.5 m north due to plate tectonics. Driver-less tractors are already a feature of some Australian farms so the problem is very real irrespective of what may or may not happen with respect to driver-less cars.
Plate tectonics is constantly and subtly re-arranging the World’s geography. For example, the distance between London and New York is growing by about 5 cm each year, in a decade that is 50 cm and in a hundred years 5 m. Plate tectonics is a big deal and is also an essential paradigm to understanding the Earth’s geological past.
Paradigms and gladiatorial science
A paradigm is a model or conceptual framework of ideas with which to organise and interpret observations and data. It is bigger than a hypothesis, but less definitive than fact or theory. Scientists make arguments; they advance explanations, models and ideas by reasoned and evidenced argument. They articulate their ideas, garner supporting evidence and/or test them against that evidence. In natural science there are few absolute rights and wrongs; it’s not like a maths problem in which you can look the answer up in the back of the book!
Inductive science involves observing and noting everything around you; in our case observing the natural world. From that body of data you look for patterns, make logical inferences and deductions developing ideas which as they gather support become irrefutable and take on the status of fact or theory. It is a philosophy of investigation that was first formalised by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in 1620: one observes nature, proposes a modest law to generalize an observed pattern, confirms it by many observations, ventures a modestly broader law, and confirms that, too, by many more observations, while discarding disconfirmed laws. In this way a laws grow ever broader but never exceeds the observations on which it is founded. As a philosophy of science it is not without its problems. Take the case of the hypothesis ‘do black swans exist?’ Any number of observations of white swans will not address the question, but find one black swan and the hypothesis is proven.
This alternative method of science is called ‘falsification’ – rather than gather supporting evidence for an idea how can you formulate a test that will disprove it? In this view of science one is constantly working to disprove the ideas and models you propose. It is a view of science proposed by Karl Popper (1902-1994) amongst others.
Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) proposed in his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, influential in both academic and popular communities, that periods of normal science dominated by paradigms are overturned by periods of revolutionary science establishing new paradigms and renewed stasis.
Little did Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), a leading explorer and meteorologist of his time, know that he was laying the foundation for one of the biggest paradigm shifts in earth science when he proposed his idea of continental drift on the 6 January 1912. Amassing palaeontological, lithological and structural evidence he proposed that continents had moved over the Earth’s surface in the past. He famously pointed to the ‘jigsaw’ like fit of Africa and South America, something that Francis Bacon had noted previously. He coined the term Pangea for a giant supercontinent that had once existed.
Science can be brutal, often gladiatorial; propose an idea that is too radical for the scientific establishment and they will turn and savage you. That is what happened to Wegener and his ideas of continental drift were neglected until geophysical exploration of the ocean following the Second World War began to throw up new data. On the basis of this data the paradigm of plate tectonics emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s revolutionising our understanding of our planet both past and present . One of the greatest scientific paradigm shifts of the twentieth century. A number of popular reviews were published to mark the centennial anniversary the best of these is by Romano and Cifelli (2015) published in Science.
Finally I came across this wonderful song on YouTube the other day which celebrates Wegener’s contribution; I have no idea what he would make of it!
Rearing on its hind legs, the giant ground sloth would have been a formidable prey for anyone, let alone humans without modern weapons. Tightly muscled, angry and swinging its fore legs tipped with wolverine-like claws, it would have been able to defend itself effectively. Our ancestors used misdirection to gain the upper hand in close-quarter combat with this deadly creature.
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that we can read this story from the 10,000-year-old footprints that these combatants left behind, as revealed by our new research published in Science Advances. Numerous large animals such as the giant ground sloth – so-called megafauna – became extinct at the end of the Ice Age. We don’t know if hunting was the cause but the new footprint evidence tells us how human hunters tackled such fearsome animals and clearly shows that they did.
These footprints were found at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, US, on part of the monument that used by the military. The White Sands Missile Range, located close to the Trinity nuclear site, is famous as the birth place of the US space programme, of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars initiative and of countless missile tests. It is now a place where long-range rather than close-quarter combat is fine-tuned.
It is a beautiful place, home to a huge salt playa (dry lake) known as Alkali Flat and the world’s largest gypsum dune field, made famous by numerous films including Transformers and the Book of Eli. At the height of the Ice Age it was home to a large lake (palaeo Lake Otero).
As the climate warmed, the lake shrank and its bed was eroded by the wind to create the dunes and leave salt flats that periodically pooled water. The Ice Age megafauna left tracks on these flats, as did the humans that hunted them. The tracks are remarkable in that they are only a few centimetres beneath the surface and yet have been preserved for over 10,000 years.
Here there are tracks of extinct giant ground sloth, of mastodon, mammoth, camel and dire wolf. These tracks are colloquially known as “ghost tracks” as they are only visible at the surface during specific weather conditions, when the salt crusts are not too thick and the ground not too wet. Careful excavation is possible in the right conditions and reveals some amazing features.
Perhaps the coolest of these is a series of human tracks that we found within the sloth prints. In our paper, produced with a large number of colleagues, we suggest that the humans stepped into the sloth prints as they stalked them for the kill. We have also identified large “flailing circles” that record the sloth rising up on its hind legs and swinging its fore legs, presumably in a defensive, sweeping motion to keep the hunters at bay. As it overbalanced, it put its knuckles and claws down to steady itself.
These circles are always accompanied by human tracks. Over a wide area, we see that where there are no human tracks, the sloth walk in straight lines. Where human track are present, the sloth trackways show sudden changes in direction suggesting the sloth was trying to evade its hunters.
Piecing together the puzzle, we can see how sloth were kept on the flat playa by a horde of people who left tracks along the its edge. The animals was then distracted by one stalking hunter, while another crept forward and tried to strike the killing blow. It is a story of life and death, written in mud.
What would convince our ancestors to engage is such a deadly game? Surely the bigger the prey, the greater the risk? Maybe it was because a big kill could fill many stomachs without waste, or maybe it was pure human bravado.
At this time at the end of the last Ice Age, the Americas were being colonised by humans spreading out over the prairie plains. It was also a time of animal extinctions. Many palaeontologists favour the argument that human over-hunting drove this wave of extinction and for some it has become an emblem of early human impact on the environment. Others argue that climate change was the true cause and our species is innocent.
It is a giant crime scene in which footprints now play a part. Our data confirms that human hunters were attacking megafauna and were practiced at it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cast light on the impact of that hunting. Whether humans were the ultimate or immediate cause of the extinction is still not clear. There are many variables including rapid environmental change to be considered. But what is clear from tracks at White Sands is that humans were then, as now, “apex predators” at the top of the food chain.