Stories of Deep Science

15 February 2019 Excellent article in Forbes Magazine entitled THE GEOLOGY OF JULES VERNE’S JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH by geologist David Bressan who works in the eastern Alps.

A lovely area and where the Gartnerkofel core was drilled to examine the chemical changes across the biggest extinction of them all – the Permo-Triassic Boundary. I talk about this in my book ARCHITECTS OF ETERNITY in the section entitled ‘Drilling for the End of the World’

Here’s an excerpt:

Drilling for the End of the World. Gartnerkofel, near Reppwand, Austria, 46.30N, 13.15E. Sometime in the late 1980s

This high up the cold wind blowing round the shoulder of the mountain cut through Bill Holser’s fur-lined jacket like a scalpel even in the height of the Austrian summer. To the south the curtain of snow was still blowing off the summit of Mt Sernio. The snow plume seemed to be a permanent feature, or at least it had been in the three days since the scientific party had arrived. It formed a shimmering veil against the pale azure of the Italian sky. Further to the south the still bluer pool of the Adriatic lay in the crescent arms of Italy and Croatia. The air was crisp, the view spectacular. The mountains of the Carnic Alps towered all around him, a jagged and overlapping sequence that looked like tank-traps left over from the Second World War, isolating him from the rest of the world. This was the best part of being a palaeontologist, the places that you visited, the scenery you saw; in short: the fieldwork.

From Holser et al 1991. The Permian-Triassic Boundary in the Gartnerkofel-1 Core: Synthesis and Conclusions

But to appreciate this place properly required imagination. You needed to see it with the four-dimensional eye of the palaeontologist. And that was what he could see in his mind’s eye now. Before it had been thrust into the sky by the Alpine mountain-building episode, he imagined it when it was still a shallow sea close to a shoreline pushing out into the western edge of the transglobal superocean called Palaeo-Tethys – the ‘father’ of the Mesozoic era’s Tethys – and therefore the ‘grandfather’ of the present-day ocean: the Mediterranean. In the days of the Palaeo-Tethys, the continents of the world were not as they are today. If man had been around then – some 250 million years ago – it would have been possible for him to walk from the Arctic to the Antarctic – a 12,000-mile journey across the supercontinent known as Pangea – the land mass that had been all the world of the late Permian, the last period of the Palaeozoic era.

And that was what brought him and the team here today. That deceptively simple question: just what was it that made the Permian the last period of the Palaeozoic? The argument was at least vaguely circular, the Permian was the last period of the Palaeozoic because its top was defined by a major mass extinction horizon, one that was big enough in fact to dwarf even the better-known K–T boundary. Many miles due south a line drawn from Holser’s current position would cross the coast betwen Venice and Trieste cross the norther Adriatic Sea then intersect the south-east-trending coastline of Italy, further on it would bisect the steepening mountainsides of Italy’s central spine until it arrived near a small town nestling in the Apennines: Gubbio; and just up the valley from there to the north-east the clay layer in the Bottaccione Gorge, the progenitor of their current enterprise.

From Holser et al 1991. The Permian-Triassic Boundary in the Gartnerkofel-1 Core: Synthesis and Conclusions

That was it, that was why they were here, to see if they could repeat the Alvarez team’s success. The sound of a big engine starting split the quiet. The truck that had brought the rig up from Bolzano was reversing into position, grinding backwards until it was perfectly positioned over the white markers painted on the grass, then with a hiss of hydraulics the stabilisers winched down on to the frozen ground, the deck of the truck tilting and settling until it was perfectly flat, the frame of the rig now stark against the sky and surrounding mountains. A concentric circle of scurrying activity as the scientific crew ran around, hauling cables between the rig-truck and the electronics van which housed the gear the geophysics guys would use to monitor the down-hole parameters – principally gamma ray resistivity – which would tell them the density of the rock they passed through, a shorthand signature of the different formations penetrated, until they reached the rock layer that was their target.

From Holser et al 1991. The Permian-Triassic Boundary in the Gartnerkofel-1 Core: Synthesis and Conclusions

A few miles to the west, in the direction of Tesero, were the local outcrops that had given their name to the formation that they sought far beneath their feet. The Tesero formation was the boundary bed, the thin division that separated the vast thickness of the Permian Belerophon formation from the overlying Triassic Werfen formation. The names of the narrower time divisions that these rocks represented were if anything even more exotic, the Dorashamian, the last period of the Permian, and the Scythian, the first period of the Triassic.

All over the Southern Alps parts of these formations were preserved but the overall thickness of the sedimentary sequence in this area – the very thing that made it valuable in fact – meant that all that could be seen were bits and pieces, small fragments of the total picture. And yet this succession in the southern Alps was the thickest and most continuous section of this age in all the world. Never mind the rumours that the newly discovered succession in South China was as good; even if that were true the palaeomagnetic reconstructions of the plate positions in the late Permian showed positively that the south China plate could not have collided with ancient Pangea at that time. Therefore its faunas could not be taken as representative. South China had been an island continent – a refuge that had finally collided with Pangea in the early Triassic – it had missed the main action. So, if they wanted to understand the extinction at the Permo–Triassic boundary then they needed an ‘edge’. A new angle on an old problem. And, after years of trying to organise financial and logistical support, they had made it.

They were finally going to get the ‘edge’ they needed – they were going to drill right through the Triassic and into the Permian.


Copyright Richard Corfield. Taken from ARCHITECTS OF ETERNITY All Rights Reserved.



Quackery and Quantification

14 February 2019 Interesting article in the Guardian yesterday about evidence based medicine and quack cures for cancer.

Here’s my take.

Some drugs are based on plant-derived molecules and are considered ‘evidence-based medicine’. Aspirin is the obvious example. For those with IGA Nephropathy, for example, there is evidence that Omega-3 Oils and their components docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid can reduce kidney inflammation resulting in less blood and protein in the urine. BUT, always check the primary literature using Google Scholar and ignore anything that looks like an advert. Some people might be put off by reading a scientific paper but whether the compound is thought to work or not will be right there in the conclusions. Yes or no. Don’t just read one paper though, read them all (concentrating on those published in the last five years) and form a judgement. Then, talk to your consultant. It is imperative that they know what you are doing and what dose you are taking. That said, for things like cancer (DNA replication errors) it is an immensely complicated field involving some of the outer reaches of genomic research. Here, you just take your Consultant’s advice. This is a subject I am actively researching and posting on at Please note, I am not a medical doctor but I have been an active academic for over thirty years and my quality-of-evidence bar is set very high indeed.

The Starman of Oxfordshire

5 February 2019

The Starman of Oxfordshire

Richard Corfield

Should you happen to find yourself in the Bystander Inn at Wootton when Crystal Palace are playing you will find an affable, genteel men of late middle age propping up the bar with a glass of lager in his hand. It is not the most obvious place to find the person responsible for designing a crucial part of humanity’s most distant planetary probe, yet it is here that Professor John Zarnecki goes to watch his favourite football team.

Zarnecki led the team that designed and built the Surface Science Package of the Huygens probe that successfully landed on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, fourteen years ago. The Huygens probe travelled with the Cassini spacecraft which was in orbit around Saturn, sending back pictures of that enigmatic planet and its moons until it was decommissioned in 2017. But, as a thousand episodes of Star Trek have taught us, there is nothing quite the same as landing on a planet or moon to make it seem special.

John Zarnecki is Emeritus Professor of Space Science at the Open University. Educated at Highgate School, London and then Queens’ College, Cambridge he tells me that his interest in space science started when his school decided to give the boys an afternoon off to visit Highgate Cemetery where Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space – was visiting the grave of Karl Marx.

It was, John tells me, his Eureka moment and the catalyst that impelled him to go into science. “I had an aptitude for science and maths,” says John, “but growing up in the early space era just grabbed me. After I got my degree in physics, having the opportunity to launch Skylark Sounding rockets in Australia was a brilliant grounding for a young researcher because the projects were small enough that I basically ran my own rocket programme. These days you are a small cog in a very big machine.”

I asked John how it felt when his probe landed on Titan. “I had spent fifteen years working on the project. It was the most emotional moment of my professional life.”

John’s long experience with rockets and space travel have made him naturally cautious. Hence when he was asked whether he wanted a back up channel for his experiment’s data he said yes. “We were the only one of the six experiments on Huygens that decided to play it safe. So when we lost that one channel most of the other experiments lost half their data.” John pauses reflectively, “I didn’t want to say I told you so but…” his voice tails off with a faint chuckle.

John and his team also designed the weather package on the Mars Beagle 2 lander. I asked him how it felt to know that his instrument made it to the surface of Mars and may even have functioned as it was programmed to do “I am totally staggered. I thought that it was in thousand pieces. The scariest part of these sort of encounters is that you arrive at Mars or Titan or the Moon with a hell of a lot of kinetic energy and you have to lose that in a controlled way. If you don’t then you end up with a disaster and that is what I thought had happened . But I was totally wrong because 95% of the Beagle Entry, Descent and Landing phase worked perfectly. The only thing that didn’t work was when two of the solar panel ‘petals’ failed to open and Beagle 2 could not send its data home.”

John married Oxfordshire resident Kate in 2009 and they bought a house in Wootton because her roots are here. Kate is now retired but spent her career working in the health industry as a nurse, midwife, and latterly health care home inspector.

John is also at home in Oxfordshire because of its connections to the space industry. “There has been a conscious decision to put a lot of central government resources into the Harwell Campus,” he tells me. “The concentration of expertise and faculties there is a very significant and has spawned a whole raft of SME’s either on the campus or in the area. Reaction Engines at Culham are a particularly exciting company because they are developing a reusable space engine which takes off from the ground. That will bring down the cost of space travel by an order of magnitude.”

John is also very proud that the Rutherford lab (now RAL Space) had an important part in the design of the Huygens probe. “They have vast experience of turning laboratory experiments into instruments that can be carried aboard a spacecraft,” John says. “That is a vital capability and it is based here in Oxfordshire.”

So next time Crystal Palace are playing, stop in at the Bystander and say hello to the Starman of Oxfordshire – and maybe even buy him a pint of lager.

Copyright Richard Corfield. All Rights Reserved.

IGA Nephropathy – Approaches to Improved Outcomes

30 January 2019. This is one of the most common Chronic Kidney Diseases in the world. It often results in high blood creatinine and low Glomerular Filtration Rates. It’s cause is unknown and there is no cure.

So, this got me thinking – are there any ways of improving the course and outcome of the disease? I’ve been checking the technical literature and there are some interesting approaches out there, from Prescription Steroids (which can have side effects) to Omega 3 (i.e. Fish) oils which, on the face of it, look very promising.

I’ll report here  – and probably write an article – when I have more info.

In the meantime, if there is anybody out there who has experience with IGA Nephropathy and Omega-3 oils do drop me a line at (my academic email address).

I’d also be interested to hear your experiences with IGA Nephropathy and Vitamin B6.

All best, Richard

Katz Are My Kryptonite

22 January 2019. Am sitting in my study looking out at the ‘bit of sleet’ the Met Office promised us. If, by that, they meant a blizzard then they were spot on.

So, have just taken the time to start posting my cat stories to this site. Yes, I am a cat lover – big time. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Katz Are My Kryptonite.

I have been writing these stories for years for my own amusement and that of friends in the Birman Cat Club. Somewhere, I even have video footage of me reading some to an audience while on holiday in the South of France. If I find them I’ll post them too.

In the meantime, enjoy the stories. Richard

PS The picture is of Errol

Where was I in 2017-2018?

22 January 2019. Several of you have been kind enough to enquire. And since I am still here, and my birthday is on Tuesday, (I am posting this blog entry a couple of days early) here’s the answer :-

Having spent far too much of the past two years in and out of doctor’s surgeries, clinics and hospitals I now have a far deeper understanding of the applied side of science than I ever thought possible. I have had so many X-Ray’s I can eat my meals raw and they are cooked by the time they hit my stomach. I can practically take apart an MRI scanner with a bent paperclip and my knowledge of medical pharmacology means that I could consult for the scriptwriters of Breaking Bad.

Having walked the hallways of the John Radcliffe Hospital in the wee, small hours of the night wondering if the Ferryman now takes PayPal, I have a new and profound respect for doctors, nurses and support staff and the life-and-death decisions that they take every day.

You know who you are. Thank you so much. Richard.