Friday, 29 August 2014

Caroline Graham - a rock (star) physicist... by Hazel Gibson


Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from Plymouth University, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. During July I was up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

Dr Caroline Graham is not your average geologist. For a start she spent most of her early career listening to rock music, but this isn’t the heavy metal kind, more the percussive sequence of low frequency sounds that a rock makes when it is forced to break under extreme pressure! In fact here at the British Geological Survey Caroline is described as the rock (star) physicist – kind of like the other one, but better because there are rocks. Caroline, you see, is a Geomechanics Specialist, someone who knows the way rocks break apart and why better than almost anyone else. Throughout her career she has been interested in lots of different aspects of how rocks break, from earthquakes to collapsing mine shafts. In fact if her career was album, it would probably be called ‘All about the fractures’.
Caroline was encouraged in her early career by her parents; her dad, who was an engineer, and her mum, who although mostly self taught, had a brilliant scientific curiosity, took Caroline fossil hunting and discussed archaeology, evolution and other scientific ideas with her. In fact Caroline originally wanted to study Archaeology at university, but realised how hard it would be to get an archaeology job without a special skill, so instead she decided to study Geophysics at Edinburgh University. It was during this course that her interest in how rocks fracture really blossomed. Her work eventually led her to study for a PhD examining what sounds rock make as they break apart. In fact whilst listening to the death rattles of granites, she discovered they actually make a specific sound just before they explode apart and by listening for this sound, you can tell in advance when the rock will break!

Caroline in a Salt Mine.
She still experiments with rocks breaking today, but now the rocks she works with are far more likely to be related to UK’s need for energy solutions, be they shale rocks for gas and oil resources or rocks that might one day house a radioactive waste repository. Caroline still really enjoys her work, but the experiments don’t always go the way she expects “It’s like working in a nursery of rocks!” she told me, “They do silly things the minute you turn your back, you have to always have your eye on them!” And it can be a lot of watching – some of the experiments that Caroline runs can last for several years! You also have to be pretty patient; one of Caroline’s proudest discoveries was an amendment to an equation. This might seem like a pretty small step to us, but is a huge achievement for a rock physicist.

Caroline has travelled all over the world with her work in Geomechanics. In March 2012, she went to China to represent the UK and the BGS to examine radioactive waste disposal solutions. She went to Montserrat to discover more about how rocks break during earthquakes under volcanoes and working for the BGS has visited most countries in Europe. “Sometimes” she says, “it feels like I am visiting a different country every week!” By working with scientists from all over the globe who are also interested in these problems, Caroline ensures that the BGS has the most up to date approaches in place to answer our important questions. One of the strangest places she has been, however, was BoulbySalt Mine in Britain. Well, at least she entered this mine in Britain, but by the time she had gone down 1.2km (0.75 miles or 364 stories - which is like going up the Shard in London five times) in an elevator and gotten in a car to drive 12km to the place she needed to look at the rock, she was miles out under the North Sea! The thing that made this such a strange place to be was the fact that the pressure is so high that the mine tunnels will collapse within a year of being tunnelled. Now the idea of being in a tunnel, miles under the rock (and under the sea), that is cracking apart, with bits falling off as it continuously collapses under the weight of the planet’s gravity is pretty terrifying, but for Caroline it was a brilliant experience – she was just excited to see giant rock mechanics experiments in action!

Caroline is also dedicated to talking about her science. She has made a number of videos for the BGS (see below and on YouTube), but finds the issues of language one of the biggest hurdles that we have to overcome as geologists – and she is not talking about jargon. “There is a big difference between prediction and forecasting” she says. And she has a point; the Met Office forecasts the weather all the time and we know that includes a degree of uncertainty. However geologists are often asked to predict things and that is much harder – a prediction suggest that you KNOW what is going to happen – but that is impossible. One thing though is for sure, we can forecast a bright future for this ground breaking Geomechanic. 

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