Four wheels that changed my approach to packing

In the past, I’d always been a “checked bag, minimum carry on” type of packer. Even in the face of luggage fees. Especially in the face of luggage fees. Living in the US, my biggest travel pet peeve was arguing with airline employees about why it wasn’t fair that I had to put my backpack underneath the plane because the first 100 passengers had shoved these enormous suitcases into the overhead bins.

In Europe, though, the strategy is different. The budget airlines (RyanAir, EasyJet, and their ilk), have a VERY different approach to carry-on luggage requirements. Oh, there’s the usual fees to check luggage (which are heftier than in the US—it’s not hard for them to exceed the cost of the ticket), but then there are also size and weight restrictions on the carry on. Anything too big, and you’re forced to check—and pay. The same goes for something to heavy. To add insult to this, the allowable size is small—and getting smaller. Some of my American friends even go so far as to say they have carry-on bags in “US” and “European” sizes.

With those kinds of standards, I realised that my packing philosophy needed a serious overhaul if I was going to do any sort of budget travel in Europe.

Here to save the day!

Here to save the day!

Enter this little Antler suitcase. (Here’s a similar one at Amazon.) Picked up from a discount retailer for about ¼ its original price, lightweight, four wheels, and reasonably spacious inside. This thing is like Hermione’s bottomless handbag. It holds everything. A week’s worth of clothes, toiletries, and extra shoes? Done. Books, papers, computer, knitting? No problem.

The thing is, if you’re willing to wash clothes, the difference between packing for a week and packing for 3 weeks is quite small. Thinking in terms of capsule wardrobes, re-wearing a few pieces, and going easy on the toiletries (or buying at your destination) eliminates a lot of weight. If you’ve never tried it, I challenge you: pack for 3 days into your carry-on. Then pack for a week. What’s the difference on your ‘stuff’?

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Isle of Skye, Part I

Hello everyone (all three of you)! I’ve got another travel-related post for you, though there’s not much science involved. Instead there’s kilts, whisky, monsters, and sheep! Lots of sheep.  A friend from Australia came up to visit, and he wanted to go out to the highlands for a bit of landscape spotting, Nessie hunting, and hiking. So north we went. Loch Ness, Eilean Donan,  and Skye, in about three days.  My friend had suggested that ‘if the weather turned crap, we could just head back to the city’. What he didn’t realise is that, in Scotland, in the highlands, in late October, the weather is going to be crap. There were some sunny moments…but for the most part, we had very moody hiking.

A photo of Loch Ness

Loch Ness. Nessie disappeared into the water before I could photograph her.

We didn’t linger too long at Loch Ness, because we wanted to head out and see other things. I did hear word that there is a guy who lives in a trailer along the south side of the Loch, and he’s been tracking Nessie for 20 years, and will tell any visitors about his efforts and the conspiracies surrounding the monster. Part of me was a bit disappointed we didn’t find him and chat to him for half an hour. It would have been interesting to meet that dude.

While working our way out to Skye, we also stopped at Eilean Donan Castle. This is one of Scotland’s more iconic castles, as you have to cross a stone bridge to get out to it. It’s built at the intersection of 3 lochs (two of which are salt water), so historically it served as a gate to more protected inland waters. It is said that Bonnie Prince Charlie hid out here when he was a fugitive, and the castle itself was eventually destroyed. In the 1930’s, it was rebuilt, and outfitted to be liveable. The upshot of this is that it looks old on the outside, but is fairly modern on the inside. It’s filled with memorabilia from Clan Macrae…which would have been more interesting to me if I were actually a member of Clan Macrae.  This ended up being our only castle visit because we’d heard through the grapevine that the castles on Skye that were also open to the public were modernised as well.

Modern or not, it’s still pretty forbidding in the fog and mist.

Out at Skye, we went out on a few short hikes. First up was the Old Man of Storr. Apparently the trees around there are cut down every few years, so we had a clear view all the way up, which was quite nice.

This view isn’t normally visible–along the Old Man of Storr walk

It was easy to get a sense of what the poets and writers were talking about here–when it was sunny, the ground and the water simply glowed. As holiday sites, it’s one I’d definitely recommend, but pack a warm hat and your rain gear!

Up next: The great lighthouse adventure….

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A Floating Monument to Fieldwork

Over the weekend I headed up the road to Dundee, even though I was frequently met with the question of ‘Why?’ I had a date with a ship. And not just any ship, the RSS Discovery.

A photo of a 3-masted wooden sailing ship

The RRS Discovery–where ‘Treasure Island’ meets fieldwork.

The RRS Discovery is a pretty unique ship. One of the last of the three-masted wooden ships constructed in Britain, she is also the first purpose-built research vessel–designed specifically for Antarctic exploration. Designed with the research questions in mind, it would be like getting a rocket ship built just for you and your lab mates to use.

There is a small museum nearby where the ship is docked, detailing the construction, daily life of the crew, and the research they undertook while there. But the part that impressed me the most was the fact that every detail of the design had both the environmental conditions (as best they knew them) and the research aims at the forefront of the process. For instance, the hull is double-layered: There is an inner hull (the part you see in the interior of the ship) and then an outer hull. The outer hull is constructed from 24 different types of wood, specifically chosen for their flexing properties (and their maximum flexibility at different temperatures). The space between the two hulls was filled with salt, in order that it might absorb any water that would get in should any hairline fractures develop in the outer hull. How clever (and meticulous!) is that?

Picture of the interior of the RRS Discovery

The interior space is accessed via these letter-box shaped holes, where you could add salt as needed.

Despite this planning, water does get in. There were some areas in the engine room where you could find an inch of water standing the base of the hull. I asked a docent about it, and she said that it’s just part of the ship. When she first sailed, this water started appearing, and when she arrived in New Zealand for re-provisioning, she was dry-docked and shipbuilders there looked for the leak. They couldn’t find one, and the expedition continued on reason that she hadn’t sunk yet, so she was unlikely to at this point. During the ship’s recent restoration, an MRI scan was taken of the hull, in order to finally find (and repair) the leak. The restorers couldn’t find the leak either. The hull construction is just too complicated.


The RRS Discovery’s lab.

Perhaps even more interesting than the Discovery’s construction and context is the scientific advances that were made on her. The initial 1903 expedition featured a physicist, a botanist, a biologist, and a geologist. The physicist took meteorological measurements and worked to resolve the difference between magnetic and geographic south.

A photo of a desk with watercolour paintings on it

An alcove in the lab, with watercolours of whales and seals

The botanist and biologist recorded marine flora and fauna, and brought back as many specimens as they could carry. The geologist found granite, and determined Antarctica to be a continent. He also found leafy plant fossils just a few miles inland from the coast, which supported early climate change theories and gave an indication of the types of life that was possible on Antarctica before it was in its present location. No one from the ship attempted to reach the South Pole; that was not part of their mission.

In all, I found the ship to be well worth the day trip out of Edinburgh, and would certainly recommend it for anyone with an interest in the polar regions and the history of science.  Or just ship buffs.

Over to you: Do you know of any other cool science history places worth checking out?

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When Fieldwork Goes Wrong

Well, it’s been a while since I posted anything. I’d like to catch up on what happened over the summer holidays. First, I had to do another autumn stint back in Australia. As usual, I managed to pack a lot of living into 10 weeks. Think wakeboarding, Ita (cyclone), John (Mayer), and Alice (Walker).  There’s lots of photos to share!

The purpose of the trip was to do a couple of extended trips out in the field for some intense sampling campaigns, because mid-March to Mid-May is the season I’m interested in. I couldn’t be out in the field continuously–it was too expensive, and I needed to do the analysis in reasonably short order–so I came up with a plan that had me bouncing between Sydney and Cairns every two weeks. I had to account for the calendar as well–Australians take their Easter holidays VERY seriously, and with ANZAC day falling during the same week this year…everyone was looking forward to a long holiday.

Except Mother Nature.

Image of Coastal Road overlooking Coral Sea

On the road to the field…what could go wrong?

My lab manager and I flew into Cairns on a Monday and drove up to Cape Tribulation. When we arrived at the research station, the first words out of the station manager’s mouth were ‘You picked a brilliant time to come up here! There’s a cyclone forecast to hit at the end of the week.’ Well then. The lab manager and I got our instruments installed in the forest, fired them up, and as it was late afternoon by that point, we went back to our lodgings to devise Plan B.

After much debate, Plan B was simply to play it by ear. We would run the instruments and collect as much data as we could, take our other samples on their original schedule, and otherwise pretend that there wouldn’t be an apocalypse in five days. My manager was supposed to leave on Wednesday, and the cyclone wasn’t predicted to make landfall anywhere until late Thursday or Friday. I always end up booking flexible tickets for fieldwork, so I would wait and see what happened.

In the meantime, there was data to collect, so up we climbed.

By midday Wednesday, my ostrich plan was looking a little less sound. Cyclone Ita had reached Category 5 status, and was packing 130 mph winds. She had dumped rain and caused flash floods in the Solomon Islands to the north, and left 22 dead and 50,000 displaced in her wake. This was not a little storm. Later in the day, I was told that the winds were too high to climb the research tower (above), and there would be no more data collection for me. My lab manager left, and there was nothing more for me to do but hang out at the research station and work out Plan C.

A picture of Cape Tribulation Beach

Cape Tribulation Beach. Not exactly inviting in advance of a cyclone.

There really weren’t any decisions to be made. As you can probably tell from the photo above, the site is less than a mile inland, and my lodgings were about 100 yards from the beach (yes, ordinarily, it’s pretty nice). At the time, Ita was projected to make landfall with a high tide, which would wash away my bed and the road, but probably not my gear. I couldn’t stay where I was. Some of the locals, whom I’ve gotten to know over many trips, kindly invited me to stay with them. They had enough beer (priorities..) supplies, an extra pallet, and I’d be welcome. As generous as that offer was, I really didn’t want to be an extra mouth to feed. I may be local(ish), but I don’t have any family or property there to look after. So I packed my bags, my equipment, and went down to Cairns.


A picture of the patio at the Cairns City YHA

Home away from home. Waiting for the pool to flood

My new home was the YHA. I’ve usually done well with them, and this one was no exception. As usual, the amenities were exactly what I needed-off the beach, a place to stash $55,000 worth of equipment, and a covered parking space to ascertain that I would be able to get away without filing an insurance claim on the rental car. Plus it was next door to the grocery store, the movie theatre, and the bar.

And what a dodgy bar it was. A dive that served the finest piss-water Australia has to offer (XXXX or Tooheys, take your pick), these folks did a brisk business throughout the entire ordeal. All of Cairns was shuttered and closed except for this place. I’m not sure it would even close for a zombie apocalypse. It was that kind of place.

A map shop near the ocean tracked the storm

By Friday, the situation started to improve. Ita had slowed a little overnight, and weakened some, too. That pulled her back from making landfall with the high tide, and instead she came ashore with a low tide (much less damage). She ended up making landfall as a weak Category 4 storm, which is still nothing to laugh at, but her angle was such that the Tablelands which flank the coast helped to disrupt the wind field a bit. When the eye passed over Cairns, she was barely hanging on at a Category 1. I ended up spending three days in the hostel reading my book, answering questions about the weather, and waiting for the power to go out.

Picture of a taped-up window prior to a cyclone

The residents send their best to Ita


Still, the field trip was disrupted enough that there was nothing to do but go home. It was several days before non-residents were let back up the road north. The river ferry had sustained some damage and had to be repaired before crews could go in and clear trees and restore services. The site was fine, except for the odd downed tree.  But paying for a car and a hotel to wait around and waste time didn’t make much sense. I stashed my gear with a fellow researcher and went home to regroup, plan, and hope for better luck next time.

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The agony and ecstasy of doing a joint PhD

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to explain my PhD programme to someone, I could retire a few years from now. If I had another dollar for every time I had to explain that no, I’m not visiting, I work here, I could retire tomorrow.   My PhD program can be summarized with a Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.


Joint degrees are exactly what they sound like: a degree that you earn while dividing your time between two universities. This allows you to tackle a project that is more ambitious than you would otherwise be capable of doing. Joint degrees allow you to take advantage of expertise and/or resources that may not be available had you stayed at home. Then, when you’re finished, you earn a single degree bearing the seals of both universities.


Sounds pretty cool, right? It certainly has its perks, but it also comes with substantial opportunity costs. For now, though, we’ll take a look at the good stuff.


The Ecstasy:


  1. Travel! Adventure! The expertise you’re taking advantage of may be across town. Or it could be across the globe. If it’s the latter, get your passport ready! The world awaits. For me, I get to divide my time between Sydney, Australia, and Edinburgh, Scotland. Who needs vacation when you’ve got beaches and castles in your back yard?
  2. You get to see how more than one lab works. It’s not all about seeing the sights. Every lab group or cohort functions a little bit differently. This provides a huge learning opportunity for the joint student—exposure to different methods, different ways of thinking, and the importance placed on theories and approaches. When you go out into the world, no matter the sector, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the different ways of organizing a work force and approaching problems.
  3. Your professional network is twice as big. When you’re in graduate school, your cohort or lab group evolves into a solid professional network by the time you graduate. With a joint degree, you get two. This can be particularly advantageous if you find that one of your cohorts/labs is small or otherwise not very engaging with one another.
  4. You receive the benefits of graduating from two universities. This can vary among universities, and the strength of their alumni association, but any sort of benefits you may receive as a graduate of a university also come to you. Prestige, alumni associations, professional networking, the opportunities are yours for the taking.
  5. You can add “international experience” to your resume or CV. While this only applies to those who have an overseas partner university, it’s still an important point. More than that study abroad you might have done as an undergraduate, taking a couple of classes, doing a PhD abroad is more akin to the regular expat experience: finding a place to live. Opening a bank account. Adapting to the local culture. While it is definitely one of those “soft skills” for your resume, it is a valuable one.

Have you done one? Do you know someone who has? What was their experience? Did they see any benefit to it? 

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Murry Salby and the Sloppy Gospel of Anti-AGW

A few evenings ago I attended a lecture by Murry Salby, a notable and vocal opponent of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). This presentation was a stop on his latest European speaking tour, a way to fill the time and spread his gospel after being dismissed from his most recent post at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments in favor of and against AGW, some reasonable and some not.  However, this presentation takes the cake. It was so incomprehensible, so scientifically sloppy, that is more closely resembled snake oil than any sort of true argument against AGW.

Salby opened by discussing warming in reference to change from the global average temperature from 1979-1983. He then went on to use this average to discuss how temperature anomalies tracked changes in the level of CO2. Methane was mentioned as well, but was not emphasized.

I was bothered by the fact that there was no justification for choosing these four years. Nothing was said about how these 4 years compare to any other 4 years, or if they were representative of the global climate in any particular way.

Seeing as climate scientists generally compare any anomalies to a 30-year base period, this made me wonder what sort of bias was introduced as a result of this choice. Of course, no corrections for bias or error were shown, mentioned, or discussed in Salby’s presentation.

Once he had established his point that temperature change is correlated to CO2 (and methane) change, Salby stated that plants are the main contributors to CO2 emission. This was supported with an unlabelled satellite data (from SCIAMACHY) plot showing high levels of CO2 emission over the Amazon and African Congo and savannah regions.  The main problem with this chart (which I asked about in the Q&A) was that it showed only one year of data, from either 2003 or 2005 (Salby couldn’t remember which).

As I mentioned before, climate baselines are 30 years. This was one. This was a seasonal map.  I call bull: cherry picking, possibly biased data. The only conclusive thing that can be said about this graph was “One year, there was a lot of CO2 emitted from the Amazon.” But you don’t know which year.

Salby went on, but by this point, I was starting to get angry, so the notes are a bit disjointed. He talked for a while about the “induced component” of CO2 and CH4, but induced by what was never addressed. There was also some discussion about the global heat budget, and which parts were removable. I remember having to learn that heat budget from his book in my undergraduate days, but I don’t remember any parts being negotiable or removable.

The question and answer session was truly disappointing. The majority of it centered upon the SCIAMACHY satellite data. One person pointed out some blue areas in the arctic (over Siberia), and said “Well, look, the earth is absorbing CO2 there!” This was incorrect: the image showed NO areas of CO2 absorption—this was simply an area where less was emitted. Salby made no move to correct the man.  There was also debate about an area of high emission in the region of Tibet. Salby (and the rest of the room) mis-identified the area as the Gobi desert. This prompted someone to ask “Does this mean that deserts emit CO2?”

At this point, Salby took on a contemplative look, and SAID NOTHING.

Let’s set one thing straight: deserts are not significant contributors to the CO2 load in the atmosphere.  And the Gobi desert isn’t in Tibet.

These are not the actions of an honest academic, wanting to engage laypersons and educate interested citizens in the facts and myths surrounding climate and AGW.   Letting people believe things that are untrue is a discredit to scientists.

The anti-AGW folks should perhaps take a hard look at welcoming him in their ranks as well. How can you expect to pose a reasonable challenge to your opposition when the “experts” on your side are willing to present sloppy, unlabeled data and let you believe untruths about the most basic of the facts?

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Lit Review: Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin

Lit review week here at the Science Cabinet is brought to you by the letter “P” (for procrastination) and a need to think about something other than programming languages.  This book was finished several months ago, but I’m just now getting around to writing it up.

Joel Salatin is an American farmer was brought to many people’s attention through the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. He owns and operates a successful, sustainable farm in northern Virginia where he raises both animals and vegetables.  I also had the privilege to hear him speak at an OzHarvest event in January. 

In his book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, Salatin details in his direct and plainspoken style what he sees as a deviation from normalcy in the American food system. No stone is left unturned as he tackles agribusiness, monoculture farming, feed lots or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and even the farm lobby and estate law. For the record, “normal” to Salatin is eating meals from ingredients your great-grandmother would have recognized as food, animals eating things they evolved to eat, and capitalizing on nature’s biological processes to sequester carbon and provide nourishment up the food chain.

My favourite part of the book came at the end of each chapter, where Salatin details things the reader can do to help change the system. These things range from small to large, and I was happy to see that many suggestions were attainable by someone like me: a poor PhD student with a nomadic lifestyle. Starting a backyard garden is wonderful, but just isn’t a realistic option for me at this point.

I also appreciated that several of his suggestions were truly interesting and novel. For instance, he suggests that land preservation groups and farmers start to work together. If a farmer has to sell land to pay taxes (or, more realistically, his children have to sell land to avoid inheritance taxes), and that land is bought by a developer, that goes against the land preservationists goals as well as the farmer’s. Both consider good land stewardship to be important, why aren’t they working together?

So many of Salatin’s suggestions make perfect sense. For instance, he describes taking a long-haul plane flight, and the amount of waste generated from his meal: he has a disposable cup. His disposable silverware is wrapped in a packet, which also contains salt, pepper, and sugar. Each item on his plate is individually wrapped. When he’s finished with his meal, the pile of waste is piled higher than his original plate. There are 300 people on his flight with the same issue, and hundreds of planes in the air (with the same issue) at that moment. That’s a lot of waste. As a solution, Salatin proposes that airlines switch to offering stew, in washable bowls, for a meal. One bowl, one spoon, a napkin or two, and you’re set. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian options.  Cookies on a large plate for dessert. And before anyone starts to fuss about it not being hygienic, consider the number of potlucks you’ve attended where no one was sickened from taking a portion of a large dish of food.

Of course, the book isn’t without its’ flaws, but I found them minor in comparison, to the whole, or, say, Kingsolver’s. I thought the sections surrounding the farm lobby, industrial agriculture, and estate law dragged a bit, and the suggestions of things to do weren’t particularly applicable for most individuals.

Still, this one’s a very good read. More engaging than Kingsolver, and there’s more for you to do at the end of the day. Definitely worth a look. 

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