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Leaves in Hyperspace - Nature's Meteorologists

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7 March 2011

This is the story of the development of a new climate proxy that can be used to document past climate change and evaluate the climate models used to predict our future. It tells how the architecture of leaves can be numerically described and correlated with climate to allow us to quantify ancient temperature and moisture regimes. The technique has proved particularly valuable for exposing inadequacies in climate models when they are applied to the past; a past when the Earth was much warmer than now and forests grew near the North Pole. The models are shown to be ‘anchored in the present’, which implies that future climate change might well be more marked than is currently widely recognized. This is also the story of working in the forests of China and India for understanding changes in the Asian Monsoon, and thus the future prospects for over half the world's population.

Presentation by Bob Spicer, Professor of Earth Sciences, The Open University, and Visiting Professor, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing.

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Fascinating subject matter.

Of course I have to wonder how relevant it will be to Social Science students?

Steven Harris
09:56 on 22 March 2011

Bob is quite a good speaker, he's very inspirational and knows how to play the system without compromising yourself. Very worth watching, whatever the discipline

Peter Wood
10:06 on 22 March 2011

Interesting Bob acknowledges the role of chance in research..........and fun!

Steven Harris
10:12 on 22 March 2011

Looks to me like Bob is raising the initial questions for the research to investigate...CO2 leading to freezing poles? Worth investigating...

Steven Harris
10:14 on 22 March 2011

Extremely technical now...Physiognomic anyone?  Not relevant for non-science research - a shame really - we should have split the two and offered a non-science topic for those research students doing non-science research.  

Steven Harris
10:19 on 22 March 2011

3D graphing very impressive - 31 dimensional space anyone? Multivariate analysis, all dimensions at right angles to each other - its useful to see computer portrayals of 3d, multi-d graphing.

Steven Harris
10:27 on 22 March 2011

Bob's giving a very engaging talk about how the Intergovernmental panel on climate change use computer models to create their climate forecasts, from which the emissions recommendations are sourced. If you're interested in this look up, for a great project using individuals' personal computers to all independently and automatically compute a part of the model, relieving the Open University of the expense of buying a supercomputer. But anyway...


In short this talk is about proxies- specifically on examining fossilised plants, seeds and other vegetation-like organisms as a means of estimating past climates lacking or pre-dating direct historical records. Prof Spicer is interested in leaf architecture- the various features of a leaf operating in conjunction in order to create an efficient plant. With a great metaphor of a formula 1 car.


But anyway- it's worth checking out the slides themselves. It's a good example of how you can verbally make some quite technical points whilst still making the presentation very understandable to people who are less familiar with the raw science.


Oh, and it looks like researching this gets you the opportunity to frequently visit China. Which is probably a nice extra.


Ah, HA! Despite receiving only a grade D at O-level maths Bob is now a pioneer in a discipline founded on statistical analysis. There's hope for us all!


Some lovely graphs. Quite easy to understand the trends visually, even if you have no idea what an increase in mean temperature would do to plants.

Peter Wood
10:35 on 22 March 2011

Questions, questions, questions...I think what I am taking away from this lecture is that how the more research is done, the more questions it raises!!!

Steven Harris
10:36 on 22 March 2011

Just to set the scene- it's quite a warm day, which means that the lecture hall is already sweltering. There's a bit of disruption to the conference because of the strike being held by the Universities and Colleges Union, and some of the conference staff have joined the strike. There has been a little behind the scenes discussion on student forums, because no-one's sure if PhD students can go on strike. Do individuals receiving stipends count as employed members of staff, or just lucky students? Well, it looks like we're just lucky, and that the Conference is still mandatory.

Peter Wood
10:37 on 22 March 2011

And this is why everyone is on strike outside. Pension cuts

Peter Wood
10:40 on 22 March 2011

Did you know N.America had a monsoon? North American monsson from Gulf of Mexico to Arizona!

Steven Harris
10:50 on 22 March 2011

There are yaks and a video of Tibet. Fieldwork at altitude is a bit of a problem. As is doing fieldwork in a politically, um, sensitive, region.

Peter Wood
10:53 on 22 March 2011

The benefits of a multi-disciplinary approach can be seen here as being very effective and able to open new pathways of investigation and potentially contributing to a paradigm shift.

Steven Harris
10:59 on 22 March 2011

Finally - Bob discusses how to do research - share your research, go east, build your networks.

Steven Harris
11:04 on 22 March 2011

Share your research- meet new people. Make interdisciplineary connections- you're more likely to get funding.

Peter Wood
11:05 on 22 March 2011

And we've started talking about so-called Climategate at the University of East Anglia. Essentially, treat your emails as if the possibility of being hacked is ever present. Which means that you shouldn't use informal languge amongst friends, such as using the word "trick" to imply "a variety of scientifically valid methods which we all understand but can't be bothered to state explicitly, because this is supposed to be a private email between friends".

And also, in addittion to the possibility that your emails will be hacked, be aware that making your data openly availiable after publication is becoming increasingly important. 

Peter Wood
11:19 on 22 March 2011

Thanks for the comments even though, apparently, they were posted in 1970. If only I had known all this stuff back then before I started on this journey.....

I am glad the graphics were appreciated - the point is that anyone can used such devices to get their point across whatever their subject area. It is also worth remembering that multivariate analysis had its origins in the social sciences - it is the natural sciences that are the 'borrowers' here.

If there is one point I want to make it is to have fun while doing research! That means not being afraid of numbers and learning to recognise opportunities when they come along - even if it means moving out of your comfort zone.


Robert Spicer
09:24 on 23 March 2011

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