An unscrupulous woolly investigation: a look at the more unusual work at BGS... by C Pennington

Jim Riding and his microscope
Dr Jim Riding is a world-renowned palynologist, which means he studies pollen to reconstruct past environments and provides assessments of geological age.  He has worked on a very wide range of projects over the years, some more unusual than others... 
It was a typically busy day in the office for Jim when, out of the blue, the phone rang.  What was to follow was an investigation into the murky world of fraud.

The caller worked in the wool industry and explained that he knew of an unscrupulous trader whom, he suspected, was making false claims about his wool.  The wool in question was marketed as the finest British produce expected to sell at a premium price, but it didn’t look like kind of wool it claimed to be.  The caller had studied geography at university and, remembering pollen analysis, phoned Jim in the hope that he might be able to determine where the wool had come from.

Used to dealing with geological materials, no one in the BGS palynology laboratory had ever prepared wool for this kind of analysis before.  The first job was to work out how to get the pollen out of the wool.  This proved quite tricky as Jim explained:
We had to use a warm solution of potassium hydroxide that, if too strong a concentration, would actually dissolve the wool!
From the analysis, Jim found pollen from the Southern Beech tree (Nothofagus) – a plant mostly confined to Australasia or South America – and therefore successfully proved the wool could not be British!

If you would like to read more about the work Jim does, he has published a substantial volume of papers and other publications that are available via NORA.

Catherine Pennington