Engaged: to be or not to be? Or why bother with lecture notes?

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 your own 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.

Academic writing I: Lots of opinions no right answers or dealing with uncertainty

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.

balls and control2

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).

balls and controls3

Figure 3: Landing your report in the right space.

balls and controls2

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.

AAFS Study Skills_Session#14_15_16

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.

Plate tectonics and driver-less cars?

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!

How to hunt a giant sloth

How to hunt a giant sloth – according to ancient human footprints

File 20180423 133859 v905gz.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
: Alex McClelland, Bournemouth University

Matthew Robert Bennett, Bournemouth University; Katie Thompson, Bournemouth University, and Sally Christine Reynolds, Bournemouth University

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.

White Sands National Monument.
Matthew Bennett, Bournemouth University, Author provided

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.

Tracking the footprints.
Matthew Bennett, Bournemouth University, Author provided

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.

Footprint comparison.
David Bustos, National Park Service

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.

Plaster cast footprints.
David Bustos, National Park Service

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.

Matthew Bennett, dusting for prints.
David Bustos, National Park Service

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.The Conversation

Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University; Katie Thompson, Research Associate, Bournemouth University, and Sally Christine Reynolds, Senior Lecturer in Hominin Palaeoecology, Bournemouth University

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

How to build the perfect sandcastle

How to build the perfect sandcastle – according to science

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Now you can do it too.
Matthew Bennett, Author provided

Matthew Robert Bennett, Bournemouth University

Whether we prefer water sports or relaxing with a good book, the humble sandcastle is often a seaside must. But what’s the secret to building a majestic sandcastle that will withstand the tide of time? Luckily, there’s a scientific formula for that.

It all started back in 2004, when a holiday company asked us to investigate the question. As a sedimentologist, someone who studies fragments of rock, I began pondering what kind of beach would work best for castle building. To find out, I compared the sand from the ten most popular beaches in the UK at the time. Though in truth any sandy beach will do, Torquay came out top with its delightful red sand, closely followed by Bridlington, with Bournemouth, Great Yarmouth and Tenby tied in third. At the bottom of the league was Rhyl.

Having selected a beach one has to find the perfect spot. Now this is a question of taste rather than hard rules. Some might prefer a spot close to the car park with easy access when the rain arrives while others might want to stay next to a cafe. Others yet might hanker after the secluded fringes of the beach, perhaps sheltered by natural promontories of rock that keep the biting wind at bay.

Torquay harbour.
averoxus/wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Now a castle should be a symbol of military strength, but to stand proud one needs strong sand. The strength of sand depends on the properties of its individual grains and on the water between them. The more angular the grains, the better they will lock together. The more a grain is transported the more rounded it becomes. Microscopic shell fragments work well in this regard. The finer the grains the more they hold the water. And water matters.

Too much water and your sand will flow, too little and it will crumble. You need to get it just right and your castle will stand proud and last. It’s all down to the surface tension of water – the thing that gives the “meniscus”, or skin, to a glass of water and holds down that glass when placed on a wet bar top. The film of water between individual sand grains is what gives sand its strength, too much and it lubricates one grain over the other, but just right and it binds them strong.

The magic formula

Now the experimentation we did suggested that the perfect sandcastle requires one bucket of water to eight buckets of dry sand. Or if you want the magic formula: Water = 0.125 x Sand. So assuming that you don’t have any science gear with you, then you are looking for a spot close to the high tide line – usually marked by a line of seaweed and flotsam – and the low tide line where sand is still visibly wet and the waves are close. But remember that this will change as the tide comes and goes during the day.

High tide line.

My next tip refers to quality of your tools. In my experience there is a direct correlation between the age of the builder, spade size and the speed at which boredom sets in. Adult helpers find the smallest spade nothing but frustrating, and while young assistants might aspire to use the biggest spade, it is often too big to handle. A selection of tools will keep the workforce in harmony. The bucket also has to be the perfect size and shape. The best buckets are the simple round ones – not the ones with the fancy turrets which when turned out produce a castle in itself. A round bucket will allow you turn out countless towers and architectural features. A single bucket can be turned out several times to create a large mound from which you carve an amazing tower.

As you build, spare a thought to the story, not just of the castle one is building with its tales of derring-do, but also the story of the sand itself. Each grain is a fragment of rock and contains a story of relict mountains, ancient rivers, dinosaur-infested swamps and seas, of past climates and events which tell the amazing story of our planet. The red sand of Torquay once blew in giant sandstorms, as the area was once part of a desert far greater than that of the Sahara. The sand at Bridlington or Great Yarmouth tells a tale of giant ice sheets and drowned lands below the North Sea.

My next tip refers to size. Yes, size matters – at least in the game of sandcastles. The modest castle with perfect towers, battlements and moat is ok, but it is the huge castles which break the beach horizon that inspire awe and wonderment in people that pass by. Think big! Pebbles, shells, driftwood fragments and feathers all enhance a castle. And let’s face it: a castle is about being seen. And although there may be science behind the humble sandcastle, don’t forget to have fun building it.The Conversation

Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Bournemouth University

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

How to take measurements from a photograph

Digital photographs have become a key part of the scientist’s observational toolkit.  In a forensic context photographs provide a vital source of evidence.  Taking accurate digital measurements is an important skill.

“I have never used Photoshop, how can I get a good grade?”

“Can’t I just measure from the photo?””

“It’s beyond my comfort zone!”

“What happens if I did not include a scale bar?”

The study skills unit is about learning new skills about stretching your horizons and above all else investing time in your own professional development.  This is one of those skills or pieces of ‘know-how’ that is worth investing.

So invest the time to learn something new; it won’t be easy but it will make you a better professional given practice.  As with any task there are many different ways of approaching a task and one is not necessarily better than another.

Simple measurements

Open Photoshop and navigate to the photograph that you want to take measurements from.  The photograph must not be oblique; that is the line from the camera lens to the object (and surface its rests on) must be orthogonal (at right angles).  Compare Figures 1 and 2 one is good for taking measurements and one is not.  We now need to make sure the Rulers are visible in the window; go to View >> Rulers to turn them on.  By right clicking on the ruler you can change the units of measurements (Fig. 3).  Initially we want pixels so select this.  Now we need the measurement tool which looks like a cartoon version of a ruler and is hidden with a range of other tools including the eye dropper on the left hand pallet.  Any of the buttons on the left hand pallet that has a small triangle in the bottom corner has more than one tool hidden there; click and hold on the upper most icon and a pull out menu will appear allowing you to find the tool you want (Fig. 1).  If you use it a lot you can custom the tool bars.

fig1Figure 1: Image ready for measurement.  Note that it is orthogonal to the camera.  The scale bar is square in the picture.  Compare to Figure 2.

fig2Figure 2:  The same object in Figure 2 but from an oblique angle.  In this case any measurements made would not be true distances. 

Using the measurement tool measure accurately the distance on your scale bar between two point.  For example the distance between 0 and 15 cm which is the length of the scale bar (Fig. 4).  The number of pixels this corresponds to will appear in the top tool bar, circled in red in Figure 4.  Remember we set the units to pixels by right clicking on the rulers (Fig. 3).


Figure 3: Changing the units by right clicking on the ruler.


Figure 4: Measuring the length of the scale bar in pixels

In my case the distance is 2596 pixels, so if we divide this by 15 we get the number of pixels per centimetres which is 173.06.  Write this number down.  Now we can give this information to Photoshop so that it is correctly calibrated for this photograph.  Go to Image >> Image Size (Fig. 5).  Now adjust the drop down so that it shows pixels/centimetre and write in the figure of 173.06.  Uncheck the resample and constrain check boxes (Fig. 5) and press OK.


Figure 5: Calibrating the image for measurements.

The image is now correctly calibrated.  If we wanted to permanently set the image to 1:1 then we could leave the ‘Resample Image’ checked and it would re-sample and adjust the image permanently.  If you wanted to print the image at 1:1 then this is what you would do.  However in our case we don’t want to unnecessarily and perhaps detrimentally adjust the image resolution so leave it unchecked.  If you now go back to the rulers and right click you can change the units back to something useful like millimetres or centimetres. So next we much check the accuracy of our calibration.  There are two ways of doing this.  Firstly if you measure between 0 and 15 cm on the scale bar the figure of 15 cm should appear in the measurement value (Fig. 6).  Secondly, you can drag two guides to one corner of your scale bar and then drag the origin of the ruler to that point.  You do this by left clicking on the origin (point where the vertical and horizontal rulers meet).  The measurements on the rulers should now correspond to those of the scale bar.  You can now proceed to take as many measurements as you wish (Fig. 6).  If the calibration is not quite right then you need to repeat the steps above.  You have calibrated your first photograph for measurement; congratulations!

fig6Figure 6: Calibration checks assuming the checks are good you are now ready to measure your artefact.

You can also measure angles.  Use the measuring tool in the normal way but then depress and hold down the Alt key when you have drawn the line this will allow you drag out a new line.  The angle between the two lines is recorded in the toolbar (Fig. 7).

fig7Figure 7 Measuring angles in Photoshop.  Drag a measurement line 1-2 then depress and hold the Alt key down to drag out a third line 3.  The angle between the two lines is shown in the main toolbar.

Multiple measurements

If you have multiple measurements to make on a single image there is a facility in Photoshop to create a measurement log and to export this as a Text-file.  This can be very useful.  Go to Windows >> Measurement Log a horizontal window will appear along the bottom of the screen.  You now need to set the measurement scale (Fig. 8).  Essentially you are being asked to add in the same information as before; how many pixels equals your unit of measurement (Fig. 9).  You can now continue to makes a series of measurements; after each one you need to press ‘record measurement’.  Once you have completed your measurements you can export the log by clicking on the ruler icon with an arrow embedded.  This is located in the top right hand side of the measurement log window (Fig. 10).  It is important to realise that the system only records the measurements so you need to keep a written note or sketch in your notebook of what each measurement corresponds to.  Files are exported as Text-files.

fig8Figure 8: Measurement log.  Click the stack of lines on the right hand edge of the upper part of the window to bring up the ‘Set Measurement Scale’.  Select Custom to bring up the dialogue box in Figure 9.

fig9Figure 9: Setting the measurement scale.  You need to type in the number of pixels that corresponds to a cm.

fig10Figure 10: Measurement log in action.  You will find the export function circled.

Correcting oblique images

If you did not take your images orthogonal to the plane then it is not ideal.  Sometimes this can be difficult to achieve such as in the case of buildings, where they will always appear foreshortened unless you can get far enough away from them.  There are several ways of correcting for this within Photoshop and some excellent perspective tools.  The way I am going to show here is just one solution that I find useful provided that there is a square object in the frame.

My preferred solution is to use the Perspective Crop tool.  You will find this hiding below the crop button; it looks like a mesh (Fig.11).  Use this tool to draw out a grid approximately near the square object (Fig. 12).  Now take the corners and place them on the corners of the scale bar.  Having done this place the cursor on the side walls of the grid and pull them out to extend it in all dimensions over the key parts of the image (Fig. 13).  Now clip crop.  The plane is corrected and you can proceed to make measurements as before (Fig. 14).  It is not ideal and there are several opportunities for error so avoid using this if possible.

fig11Figure 11: Deploying the perspective crop tool.

fig12Figure 12: Drag the corners with the cursor so they are on the object of something you know to be square, in this case the scale bar.

fig13Figure 13: Extending the sides of the crop tool beyond the initial square.

fig14Figure 14: The final cropped and corrected image ready for measurements

What is the point of physical geography?

Imagine that you are a first year student sitting there fresh-faced in your first physical geography lecture.  Some of you will be excited having done physical geography at A-level and enjoyed it, others will be saying ‘I only like human geography, the physical stuff is boring!”  Perhaps others will be saying “I am an ecologist, why do I have to learn this geology stuff?”  All are valid viewpoints.  I have spent my life as a geographer, come geologist, working in the high arctic on glacial processes, reconstructing our Ice Age past, studying the geography of human evolution in Africa and applying geomorphological expertise to the study of forensic footprints at crime scenes. 

 It is hardly surprising therefore that I believe the world’s leaders and decision-makers all need to be both scientifically and geographically literate.  We must overcome huge challenges in the coming years as the Earth’s climate changes.  What ever happens about greenhouse gas emissions climate will change, in fact change is normal!  Geographers can help decision-makers face these challenges and inform the solutions.   Let me try and show you why geographers matter. 

Roll the clock forward and imagine that you are now working for an aid organisation coordinating humanitarian relief.  The news breaks of a major earthquake in northern Pakistan.  You have to mobilise people, resources and get them to the epicentre fast.  The questions flood in: what is the terrain like, what is the vegetation like, what is the climate and weather doing and where are the transport lines most vulnerable to after-shocks? These are just a small selection – Google Earth and the internet has its limits.  Later you may be asked to advise on rebuilding lost infrastructure or improving disaster/emergency planning.  All these questions are underpinned by physical geography.

If you don’t like this scenario image yourself as a conservation worker in Africa saving the white rhino.  The rhino is a product of its environment, the distribution of soil and food resources and its movements limited by the local terrain.  Climate change and local weather patterns all play apart in its survival even before we consider the social and cultural aspects that lead to is predation by poachers.

I could go on.  Understanding the Earth’s surface terrain its shape, composition and the processes that formed it in the past and that shape it now and will in the future is fundamental to almost all human interaction with the planet we live on.  That is what physical geography is about.  It is the foundation of environmental and ecological science a key component of geology and therefore to our understanding of Earth history and our past.  That is why all those interested in ecology, geology and the environment need to be versed in the fundamental Earth systems.

Definition and history

Physical geography is the study of the processes that shape the Earth’s surface, the animals and plants that inhabit it, and their spatial distribution.  This surface lies at the interface between the lithosphere and the atmosphere and is shaped by both.  Its study is by definition multi-disciplinary therefore drawing on geology and meteorology, and is fundamental to understanding the ecology and biogeography our planet.

As a discipline it emerged in the mid- to late 1800s with geomorphologists dominating the discipline at first (Table 1).  The emphasis was on the description of landscapes, climates and biomes. Ideas of environmental determinism dominated in which landscapes in particular were seen as part of development trajectories.  For example, William Morris Davis (1850-1934) saw fluvial landscape in a series of age related cycles.

Geographical sub-disciplines
Geomorphology – shape of the Earth’s surface and processes by which it is shaped, both at the present as well as in the past. It is closely linked to Geology.
Hydrology – the distribution, movement and quality of water on the land surface and in the soils and rocks near the surface.  Ground water hydrology is known as geo-hydrology.
Glaciology – study of the Earth’s current glaciers and ice sheets (cryosphere).  It is closely associated with Quaternary Science.
Biogeography – study of the geographic patterns of species distribution and the processes that result in these patterns.
Climatology – study of the Earth’s climate or weather patterns that predominate at a location, distinct from meteorology which is the study of day-to-day weather.
Pedology or Soil Science – the study of soils in their natural environment.
Oceanography – the study of the Earth’s oceans and seas, many people would recognise this as a discipline in its own right.
Quaternary Science – is the inter-disciplinary study of the Quaternary period, which encompasses the last 2.6 million years. This includes understanding past climates, landscape changes, ice sheets and the mechanisms of both climate and environmental change.
Geomatics – is the collection and process of geographically relevant ‘big-data’ from satellites and Earth observation systems.
Environmental Geography – this focuses on the interaction of humans and the natural world. In some respects it lies at the interface between human and physical geography.

Table 1: Some of the main sub-disciplines in Physical Geography.

Physical geography along with human geography underwent radical period of quantification in the late 1950s and early 1960s known as the Quantitative Revolution.  In geomorphology there was a radical shift from the description of landforms to process based experimentation on the mechanism by which landforms were formed.  What followed was massive growth in research and intense disciplinary specialisation around five broad themes: geomorphology, climatology, biogeography, soil science, and Quaternary environmental change

Today Physical Geographers remains an intrinsically inter-disciplinary subject of ever growing relevance as the pace of global environmental change accelerates. Geographers grapple with the inter-connected nature of the Earth’s fundamental geodynamic systems – lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and atmosphere – and their impact on, and interaction with, different scales on the human use system.  It is by definition both local and global in scale and geographers’ bring their unique spatial and analytical skills to bear on these interactions.  Many geographers now recognise the Anthropocene as a new geological era; the era shaped by human activity.  It is an era in which geographical and scientific literacy are likely to be key to the survival of our species.

Succeeding in Physical Geography?

So you are still sitting there and now wondering how do I succeed in this unit?  How do I gain a fundamental knowledge of Physical Geography.  At this stage you probably want me to give you the answers to the exam or direct you to the magic ‘know it all geographical potions’.  Sadly the latter does not exist and the former would have William Davis turning in his grave.

The key is pro-active engagement in three vital areas, these are:

  • Preparation. Go on to Brightspace and engage with the material there.
  • Attend and engage. You will quickly find out that the lecture slides consist mainly of line diagrams and pictures.  Unless you note down the spoken words and explanations that go with them you won’t stand much chance of understanding the material.  If you could get everything from Brightspace why would we bother giving lectures?  You need to annotate a set of printed slides and write detailed notes during the lectures.  Without a good set of notes you will struggle and perhaps fail the unit – it’s that simple!  Take part in the discussions on the perspective pieces and use this as an opportunity to ask questions and seek greater understanding.
  • Reflect and read. So you leave the lecture and you are on to the next thing; your lecture notes end up at worse as a crumpled set of pages or at best get filed in a nice shiny, new binder.  You may even go as far as to buy a copy of one of the core texts and display it proudly on your shelves.  Have you ever heard of the ‘psychological value of unused information?’  People buy self-help books but never read them but feel better for having them – well that’s the concept.  It applies here – having that new shiny binder and copy of the core text makes you feel better, but in truth won’t improve your grade.  You need to engage with those notes and read the textbook!  You have to engage.  As soon as you get a chance after a lecture get the notes out and review them, don’t waste time copying them out and making them look pretty read and reflect them while making sure they are legible.  What do you understand and what don’t you?  What interests you and what left you feeling cold?  Look at the suggested reading list for the lecture provided each week and draw up a prioritised list of things to follow up on.  May be its to read a section of the core text and makes notes, may be it is to read suggested paper, or may be its to simply spend half an hour on the internet to get some specific examples, facts and illustrations.  Whatever it is augment your lecture notes by further research.  If you don’t understand stuff then be pro-active don’t sit there worrying about it – seek help.  You can get help from your Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) tutor if you have one or directly from the lecturer by attending one of the practical drop sessions.

Engage with the lectures as outline above and build a good body of notes and the assessment and exam will take care of themselves.