Life from Mars?

Mars_atmosphereI am at Goldschmidt2013. A meeting of 4000 or so geochemists.

This Goldschmidt has been kinda crazy for me. It has been great, but almost too much. The multiple parallel sessions, the excellent science presented across the board, the opportunities to discover new things as well as discuss the latest results in the familiar. At some points I have felt delocalised across the isolated lecture rooms, which stand pod-like in a uniform landscape of a vast hall which always seems to manage to disorient me and leave me heading in the wrong direction.

As well as the science, I have been trying to report for the BBC. A sort of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde experience? There have been a couple of items out so far, one on the deep biosphere and one on whether life originated first on Mars. Also a radio piece on the biosphere story that I have edited a bit and will appear on Sunday on BBC world service radio. I’m trying to get another post up on the news site for tomorrow, but in the meantime I am blogging a bit! It’s tricky to fit it all in.

The Mars story came from Steve Benner’s talk about the role of borates and oxidised molybdates in templating and catalysing sugars to make ribose, on the way to making RNA. I managed to talk with Steve the day before his presentation, by phone, to get some quotations for the news piece. The piece went live on news online in the early hours of the morning and quickly rose to the coveted “most read” position on the main page.


Steve Benner in conversation with John Humphreys

Steve was all set to talk at 9am, but at 8:30 I got a call from the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme in London, saying that they wanted to interview him live in an hour’s time.

The Goldschmidt folk did a great job of setting up a skype connection at short notice, and I sat back to listen to Steve Benner’s talk. There were some fantastic sound bites, that I, as a mineralogist, really enjoyed. Explaining how the catalytic effects of minerals were essential in his picture, and minerals that would, he suggests, be more likely to have been present on Mars than Earth in the early Solar System, Benner put up a slide with the words “there is hope through mineralogy“. Love it!

As soon as he was finished we set off to find Goldschmidt guru Liane Benning and check that the computer was functioning. Then waited for the sports news, headlines, weather forecast, and an item about the governor of the Bank of England before John Humphrys turned his attention to the Mars question.

After that, back to the meeting to hear the latest on chondrite formation, mineral evolution, and palaeoceanographic proxies. It’s been another diverse day!

And finally, a song to sum up the experience, Bowie of course! Life on Mars?


Taking stock

Things roll on at the Science Hub since my last post. Officially, I have reached the end of my time with BBC Science Radio and have now joined the website folk at Science Online. In fact I am just a few desks further down the same office and can still pester the radio guys and gals on my way to and from the tea/coffee area.

News online seems a little more urgent and pressing, delivery of content daily rather than centred around one weekly show. Keeping up with news embargoes and abreast of what others are doing.

My first official story is one that I really think is a piece of brilliant science … observations of seismicity associated with volcanic eruptions at Redoubt, a magnificent volcano in Alaska. But I spent the first part of the morning reading the latest news from Mars’ Curiosity Rover to help assess how newsworthy it really is. Next I need to learn the mechanics of how to put a web page together for news online. Then I should be rather more independent come tomorrow. We’ll see what news that brings.

Anyway, I thought it was about time I recorded my output so far, since I am likely to lose track soon.


Volcanic ‘scream’ precedes eruption

Worm poo’s window into past climate

New idea tackles Earth core puzzle

Rust promises hydrogen power boost

Russian meteor shockwave circled globe twice


Science in Action (World Service) 12/07/2103 – Knitting perovskite molecules

The Science Hour (World Service) 07/07/2013 – Dark Matter

Science in Action (World Service) 05/07/2103 – Plank: Looking back to the dawn of time

The Science Hour (World Service) 30/06/2013 – Russian meteors make waves

Researcher for Material World (Radio 4) 27/06/2103 – Uncertainty in scientific research

Also, separately, on:


Mont Blanc’s glacier protects, rather than erodes -15/07/2013

Ageing rover finds evidence for an early ocean on Mars – 11/06/2013

Mystery solved: meteorite caused Tunguska devastation – 27/06/2013


and to my “famous five” I can add a few more BBC celebs spotted around the place .. Alan Yentob, Will Gompertz, and Jonathan Dimbelby.

Today I have been mainly …

… learning about the 95% of the Universe that we simply do not know much/anything about. Dark Matter and Dark Energy are the Dark Secrets of the place we inhabit. And having learned what I could, I tried to distill it and turn yesterday’s hour or so of interviews at the Royal Society into a coherent item for the Science In Action show … to appear on Thursday evening, this week.


Famous Five

The end of the week. This-morning I woke earlier and took a look at news online, to discover that a piece I had written had been transformed into a news item. The work of an expert editor in the shape of Paul Rincon!


Meanwhile, I have kept a tab of beeb celebs spotted through the week, my famous five: Brian Cox, Joan Bakewell, Evan Davis, Nicholas Witchell and Kate Adie. Unsurprising really, but still noticeable.

… the famous five.

Day 1 in the house

Alarm set, travel plans sorted, clothes selected for the day. I am ready for anything the BBC can throw at me … here we go: day one of life as a media fellow.

Get an early train and have plenty of time for my 10:15 appointment at New Broadcasting House (NBH) reception. Seems like a plan. Do I need a jumper and a jacket? It’s mid-summer, but certainly temperate. Let’s not take chances, jumper and jacket it is. That way I can store all my bits and bobs in the plethora of jacket pockets and arrive looking vaguely smart (as good as it gets for me, in any case).

I leave with just enough time to get to the station, and no more. In the process I have to cycle furiously, search hopelessly for a bike space on the forecourt, give up, and leave my steed squeezed between two others in a makeshift “space”. 08:13, plenty of time to get the 08:15? Scurrying across the new bridge to platform 6 I arrive just in time, having built up a good sweat to start the day.

Boy it’s warm. Strip off jacket and jumper and try to relax. By the time we are at King’s Cross I have re-equilibrated and found some calm. Rather than join the throng on the Victoria line I opt for a pleasant walk through Bloomsbury, Tottenham Court Rd, then Goodge Street to Langham Place. There should be time en route for a coffee, so I stop along the way and get one “to go”. Curiously the lid comes loose as I raise it to my lips and I spill half a cup down my shirt front. It’s going to be a jumper day, whatever the weather. Lucky I removed it earlier. I arrive at  NBH reception at 10:13, just in time.

Suzanne Elston brings me to the “Science Hub” on floor 2 and introduces me to my desk for the next two days. What happens on Wednesday? I’ll wait and see. Meantime I make my introductions with some of my new summer colleagues … Anna to my left works on TV, World News. We chat about her Horizon programme on The Core, and my regular colleagues’ parts in it. She recounts her pleasure at learning about the depths of the Earth. This sounds good.

Later I meet Johnny B, sitting directly behind me: one of last year’s cohort of media fellows who is back for another summer of fun, he enjoyed it so much. This sounds even better.


While I am trying to work out what I should be doing (and how Windows works) Anna kidnaps me and sets me to work on one of her projects for the week … news that is scheduled to come out with Glastonbury at the weekend (I am self-embargoed). Feeling I have already let radio down, I pitch an idea to Julian Siddle and before I know it I am roped in to do a piece for the World Service’s “Science in Action” programme, to be recorded tomorrow. This sounds “interesting”.  Could be car crash radio … wait and see.

Later I chat with Paul Rincon, further down the room at the online news desks. I mention the same idea to him. Lo and behold, it seems I might have a piece on the same subject in news online, we’ll see.

Day 1 in the house. Diverse, interesting, challenging, and now with some homework to do before that recording tomorrow.

Oh, and yes, now you ask, Brian Cox did pop into the office today.

Meeting Aunty

Earlier this week I paid my first visit to “Aunty” … the beeb, New Broadcasting House. An introduction to my temporary home for part of this summer, as a British Science Association media fellow.Image

Hidden behind All Souls Langham Place, at the end of Regent Street, a tardis-like edifice greets you and causes an instant impression.


I met up with Paul Rincon, one of my BBC hosts for the summer, and we went in search of the BBC “badging” office. Hidden away next to Radio 1 a few streets away, with an air conditioning unit blowing on full to remedy the unusually warm humid summer weather.

Paul took me back to New Broadcasting House where I had my first sight of the Science Desks, in the second floor. Met briefly with David Shukman and Matt McGrath, who were busy preparing the finishing touches to other long-term weather news.


First impressions? The natives seem friendly, but beware the Daleks on the way out.