Herdman Symposium 2009 – Beginnings of the World

This was a day of talks organised by the Earth and Ocean Sciences student society at Liverpool University on Saturday 28th February 2009. It is an annual event and is always very interesting.

The first speaker was Dr Phil Bland, Imperial College London, on ‘From dust and gas to the first planetesimals: the early history of the Solar System’. Phil explained that the analysis and dating of meteorites can give an indication of how planets have been formed elsewhere. He showed a computerised simulation of star formation and the subsequent accretion of dust into planets.

The second speaker was Dr Nick Butterfield, University of Cambridge, on ‘From the top down: animals, oxygen and the Ediacaran transition’. Nick described the stratified nature of the Proterozoic oceans and the subsequent Ediacaran species explosion in terms of levels of atmospheric oxygen, and linked this to the evolution of zooplankton. The zooplankton ate the cyanobacteria, and so the cyanobacteria had to evolve other, larger forms to survive. His mantra was ‘big fish eat little fish’. The first attempts at larger, organ-grade animals followed.

The last speaker of the morning session was Professor Joe Cann FRS, University of Leeds, on ‘Ocean floor hot springs, strange animal communities and the origin of life’. These hot springs are found where plates split apart, and may be associated with either volcanoes or faulting. Joe explained how the earliest life is thought to have been powered by chemical energy derived from these black smokers, and showed some excellent deep sea photos.

After a buffet lunch, the day continued with a talk by Professor Dianne Edwards FRS, University of Cardiff, on ‘Plants that changed the world’. Land plants had to evolve methods of obtaining water and transporting it through their cells. One of Dianne’s main research interests is Cooksonia, a small plant which was widespread in the late Silurian and early Devonian, and was thought at one time to be the first land plant. She described the constraints on its development and explained that the evolution of roots, and then the biochemical evolution of lignin enabled the development of trees and eventually flowering plants.

The next speaker was Professor Mike Searle, Oxford University, on ‘Evolution of the Himalaya – Karakoram and Tibet: analogue for crustal growth since the Proterozoic?’ Stunning aerial photos of the area enabled us all to sit back and marvel at the landscape. Mike had marked thrusts and folds on many slides and these gave a good indication of the massive forces involved. Field trips to this area involve horses, yaks, climbing and the help of many local people.

The final talk of the day was by Professor Mark Sephton, Imperial College London, on ‘Organics matter: Life and its distribution in the solar system’. Mark is European Team Leader for the Urey life detection instrument which has been selected as part of the Exo Mars mission, planned for 2016, the aim of which is to explore the Martian surface for traces of life. The instrument will take Martian soil samples and analyse them for biological molecules, and also meteorite and life amino acids, which differ in various respects such as chirality. Watch this space!

Our heads were buzzing by now with all the information which had been so well presented by excellent speakers. It was a super day, well worth the journey to Liverpool.

Sue Plumb