Why headlines matter

July 22, 2014

Consider the following:

  • Imagine a hypothetical country in which the president made a decision to change the rules by which medication for heart disease was prescribed.
  • And suppose that in this country a woman died from a heart-related problem and her grieving son blamed his mother’s death on the President’s decision.
  • And further suppose that a reporter interviewed the son who said: “I feel as though the President has stabbed my mother through the heart”.
  • And finally imagine that a newspaper ran this reporter’s story with the headline at the start of this article:

The President stabbed my mother through the heart

Now if I read that headline I would assume that it was an assertion of a fact. But in fact it isn’t. And once I read the article and discovered that this was a quote from a grieving individual I would ask:

  • How did that headline, with its misleading and negative view get written?
  • If the newspaper wanted to highlight this important issue, why did they pick this misleading headline which undermines their own credibility?

So back to reality, and a letter from Thom Davis (reproduced in full at the end of this article) who thinks that I have been unfair in my comments on his article in The Independent.

I called attention to the fact that the article’s headline asserted that as a result of the Chernobyl disaster there were ‘cemeteries the size of cities’. This is completely untrue. And to me it raised the same two questions I highlighted above.

I am not sure of the timeline, but as I recall it, when I tweeted the author for more details he went quiet and when I looked again at the article, the headline had changed to something which was not an untruth. It may have been as a result of my questioning that the headline was changed. The newspaper made no record that the article had been changed.

Months later Thom wrote to me arguing at length that I should conclude nothing from the fact that a misleading headline was placed above his article: that it was just an editing mistake. I beg to differ.

Reading the article itself, without the misleading steer of its headline one can hear Thom’s genuine concern for the plight of these refugees. And I am happy to accept that the headline was indeed not of his choosing.

But in what Universe could a junior editor claim the existence of hundreds of thousands of dead people? The answer is: only in a Universe where nonsense is believed and propagated as easily as in a school playground. And I find it hard to believe that anyone in that profession could be unaware of its potential impact on UK readers.

The point of my article was to highlight this misleading headline and the fact it was changed without any record of the change. And that The Independent has a history of doing this.

The Independent did Thom a disservice in choosing a headline which exposed their own editorial prejudice and undermined his article’s credibility.

The headline of an article sets the tone and expectation for an article. And it matters.


  • My original article is here
  • Thom’s article – with its modified headline – is here
  • Thom’s reply to my article is reproduced in full below

Dear Protons for Breakfast,

I am the author of this article.

I did not choose the original title. As I believe I pointed out in a following tweet (not shown above).

As Vanessa rightly suggests, it is standard practice in journalism for the titles and taglines to be the choice of the editor. As soon as I read the title, I immediately emailed the editor to get it changed. Which he promptly did, within minutes. I agree with you, to put “cemeteries the size of cities” in the title like this is obviously misleading, as this is not what the article is saying – and precisely why I had the title changed immediately. It seems in your critique of the article you have focussed upon this.

For what it is worth I do not think the editor did this on purpose as some kind of anti-nuclear (or in your words ‘Nuclear Nonsense’) agenda – but was merely the consequence of a misreading and rushed deadline. As Vanessa suggests:

“An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.”

As is quite clear is you read the text, the cemeteries quote comes from an interview with a research participant who was stressing how Evacuation and forced displacement has killed more people, in his opinion, than living with the constant threat of radiation. Like many others who live near the Exclusion Zone, he believes more people have been killed through forced evacuation than from staying to live with the radiated landscape.

It is a widely held opinion that the stress of becoming an environmental refugee has negatively impacted the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands who were forced to abandon their homes. Something supported by other academic research on other disasters, and from many interviews I have conducted with evacuees.

The revised title, made minutes after I emailed the editor now reads:

“Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves”

This is something I stand by 100%. And I am grateful for The Independent’s swift action on this.

I am guessing your following critique is based on the briefly shown original erroneous title:
“by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?”

It is clear (from reading the main text) that the original title is an editorial error. If you believe other parts of the article are in anyway hyperbolic or unjustified I would very much like to hear, as this is a topic I take incredibly seriously. I very strongly dispute for example that what I have written counts as ‘Nuclear Nonsense’. It is based on three years of in-depth ethnographic research with communities throughout Ukraine.

Your assumption that the point of the article was “to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK” is also unfounded. As the author of this article, I can tell you that the point – would you believe it – was to draw attention to the plight of people I have spent years getting to know in Ukraine, who are continuing to suffer from nuclear disaster. Something I believe this article achieves.

You say that the “article [is] seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true.” I would love to know on what basis you think what I have written is both ‘nonsense’ and ‘not true’?

I am glad this article, for whatever reason, has caused a discussion, as I believe it is an important subject, especially for those involved.

If you are interested further in my research on this subject, I can suggest reading this peer reviewed academic article:


Best wishes,

Thom Davies


Cradle of the best and the worst

July 19, 2014
One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

I am on holiday with my family in Nevada and California, and while shopping for beer and clothing in Las Vegas, I was reminded of the words of Leonard Cohen:

It’s coming to America first.
The cradle of the best and the worst

Lenny’ was speaking of Democracy,  but I feel that the phrase can be extended into environmental, technological and cultural realms. And in his blog I wanted to record a few thoughts about the ‘best’ of the things I have seen.

Amidst the hyperbolic kitch of Las Vegas, we stayed in the walls of a gigantic hollow pyramid that is a truly astounding architectural and engineering achievement. For example, the elevators obviously cannot run vertically but instead run at angle along the slanted edges of the pyramid.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel - which is pyramidal in shape.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel – which is pyramidal in shape.

Housed underneath this beautiful roof were any number of gaudy distractions. But amongst them was the Bodies exhibition. I found the exhibition dignified, tasteful and astonishingly  educational. I left with renewed wonder at my body.

We visited the Hoover Dam in which the barely mentioned reality is that the water levels are running low. But there is no denying the engineering genius and boldness of the ambition behind it’s construction.

The Ivanpah Solar Power plant may be on the wrong-side of a historic divide between solar photo-voltaic and solar thermal. But the engineering is awe-inspiring: three giant towers concentrating solar energy – one resource which is not in short supply in this part of the world.

In Los Angeles we have used the excellent public transport rail system, which is easily accessible and welcomes bicycles. Over long stretches it has been built to use the inner lanes of freeways or major roads to minimise construction costs. And nearly all the buses have bicycle carriers attached to their fenders.

An LA Metro Train. Teh station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

An LA Metro Train. The station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

Many freeways have car pool lanes – in which only cars with more than one passenger may travel. Some freeways use a road pricing system –  long-discussed in the UK – in which the price to use a ‘Fastrak’ lane changes minute by minute – reaching peaks of 10 times the minimum charge at times of peak congestion. These lanes also allow fast buses to speed public transport as advertised in this excessively positive advertising video.

Of course road traffic defines LA. But driving speeds are slower in suburban streets  than in the UK’s narrower and more congested roads. In the suburban area of LA in which we are staying (El Segundo) traffic is dramatically better than Teddington.  And contrary to myth, there is excellent provision for pedestrians. And of course, California is a world-leader in legislation to control vehicle emissions.

The Hollywood Bowl

The Hollywood Bowl  is aunique cultural venue combining excellent music with the  friendly ambience of the proms and the ability to picnic as the Sun sets over the Hollywood Hills.

Culturally, the Getty Centre and Villa, the California Science Centre  (which houses the space shuttle Endeavour) and the Griffiths Observatory are among the best museums I have ever visited. And they are free.

The Disney Theatre is breathtaking and the Hollywood Bowl provides a venue for music that is unique – it felt like ‘the Proms with picnics’

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a modern day secular temple to the stars.

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a secular temple to the stars.

So forgive me if I pass on reciting the sins of this resource-gobbling satan. In this ‘cradle’along with ‘the worst’, are some things that I find inspiring and well-worthy of the epithet ‘the best’. And I hope that like many Californian innovations – such as vehicle emission limits – many of these will leave this cradle and spread around the world.

And to my friends: forgive me if I forgive myself for this carbon-heavy holiday.

My body is a machine

July 12, 2014

This song is the best song ever written about glycolosis: the basic mechanism by which the ‘engine’ of the human body takes in ’fuel’ and enables ‘it’ to do ‘work’. 

Although I never studied it at school, I have known for a long time about the basic mechanism by which the ‘engine’ of the human body takes in ’fuel’ and enables ‘it’ to do ‘work’.

But only recently I have become aware of how the ‘engine’ of my body works, and what it feels like when it doesn’t.

As a slightly overweight (86 kg, 1.75 m) 54-year-old male I am aware that I am entering my prime hear-attack decade. Exercise is apparently the key to reducing my risk, but I have not been doing much of that lately: you know how it is.

And whenever I had tried to exercise by jogging at what felt a comfortable pace, I would find that after maybe half a mile I would find my heart racing, I would be out of breath and would need to slow down dramatically – even stop. I assumed that this was a symptom of early-onset death.

However, recently I decided to try this running lark again and popped into the local ‘Sweatshop’ where a very enthusiastic young man took pressure patterns of my feet as I stood on a glass plate, and then made videos of me running on a treadmill. All very high tech. He then sold me a pair of embarrassingly expensive running shoes.

And as an afterthought I bought a £50 heart monitor. It consists of band that goes around my chest – which detects the electrical signals associated with each beat of my heart – which is wirelessly linked to a watch which displays my heart rate.

Suitably equipped, I began to investigate how the engine of my own body was behaving.

The first number I looked for was my resting heart rate. I tried the monitor out throughout one whole day and found that – perhaps surprisingly – my lowest heart rate did not occur lying in bed in the morning (67 beats per minute or bpm) but instead at a planning  meeting at work (60 bpm). This is a healthy number and I was relieved. But maybe I need to contribute more to meetings.

All the web sites frame heart rates for exercise in terms of maximum heart rate. This number varies from person to person, and declines with age. A little reading told me that the typical value for a 54 year old male is around 170 beats per minute (bpm) And based on this I should be exercising at around 140 bpm.

And so the second  number I had to find was my maximum heart rate. This turned out be closer to 195 bpm which I think is basically a good thing. And based on my maximum heart rate, the web sites say I should be exercising at a much faster heart rate.

The sites predict that I should experience a transition from aerobic to anaerobic exercise at around 165 to 170 bpm. And when I ran I could feel that change exactly where it was supposed to be.

Using the monitor I found that if I jog at 165 bpm I don’t go very fast, but I can sing to myself and feel barely out of breath. I can basically run until I am bored.

But when my heart rate reaches 175 bpm I find myself shorter of breath and can either tough it out or relax back to a more manageable 165 bpm.

So the key to understanding my experience of what my body was doing was to make a measurement not of my speed of running – but of my heart rate. I guess it is equivalent to watching the rev-meter on a car instead of the speedometer.

And as result I have been able to run local roads on a course that lasts 5 kilometers: further than I have ever run before. And at the end I still have energy for a not very impressive sprint. (It’s not the time that I care about – its just I would like to give my neighbours the impression that I have been running at that speed all the time)

And the reason I am writing this is because the experience has left me feeling mildly empowered and slightly relieved. Understanding what I was experiencing and being able to relate it to what other people experienced was comforting. It’s just another example of Kelvin’s maxim that until you can ‘put a number’ to something, you do not truly understand it.

And the good news is that the device is telling me that, rather than being close to death, I instead have the heart of younger man. So as long as he doesn’t want it back any time soon, that’s great!

Farewell to Schooledemia

July 4, 2014
The entrance to Xaverian College, Manchester.

The entrance to Xaverian College, Manchester., my own alma mater.

[Advice for readers for whom English is not their first language: "Schooledemia" is not a real word.]

It is now one week since my eldest son took his last public exam, and with ‘proms’ and parties concluded, his school days are now over.

He seems fairly nonchalant - off for a week’s holiday with his friends – but I am still stunned.

I am not surprised – obviously – because I have known this day was coming. But I am shocked: was that it?

Part of what has confused me is that I can recall vividly specific days in his academic life:

  • Looking in on him in the playground at infant school;
  • Seeing him off on his first day at Secondary School;

These days seem like they were yesterday.

And my youngest son has also completed his GCSE’s – another milestone.

So having been critical of these exams in the past, I just thought I would make a note about my parental experience of these exams.


My overwhelming impression of GCSE’s is that while my son has learned a lot, exam standards are much too low.

This has resulted in pervasive ‘gaming’ of the exams – with schools coaching students to answer questions in specific ways in order to match the examiner’s ritualised concept of a correct answer.

This is not to say that students don’t work hard, or that teachers don’t teach well. But in the subjects that I care about most – Maths and Physics – the knowledge of teachers in state schools is (in general) abysmal. And students know it.

This causes teachers to focus on ‘getting marks in the exam‘. And if ever an approach were design to kill inspiration or curiosity – this is it.

I can’t offer any solutions, but that is what I see.

‘A’ levels

My impression of ‘A’ levels in Maths, Physics and German is that they are really quite difficult. But I think again that they are still not difficult enough.

In order to get in to prestigious universities, students need to achieve almost perfect exam scores, and – as someone who has always been very far from perfect – I distrust perfectionists.

The purpose of exams

The purpose of exams is to discriminate against pupils who demonstrate less ability to pass exams.

Their purpose is to select the academically brightest in the same way that the purpose of a high jump is to select the people who can jump the highest – its an artificial test – but so are all tests. And tests are only meaningful if people fail.

I have all kinds of suggestions for particular things that could be done to enable this process to take place while retaining fairness, but in fact my interest in the whole process is waning.

In honesty I feel only relief that my own children’s interaction with the educational system is nearing its end. And sympathy for the teachers who have to put up with the apparently endless series of ‘improvements’ that never seem to fundamentally change the reality on the ground.






Farewell to Academia

June 11, 2014

Fourteen years ago, aged 40, I resigned from my position as a tenured lecturer in the Physics Department at University College London and took up my current position at the National Physical Laboratory.

I periodically reflect on this decision which at the time I found painful and traumatic. In retrospect, it was undoubtedly one of the best decisions I ever made.

At the time I felt I was leaving ‘academia’, but now I feel differently.

The bullying culture, total focus on income, and indifference to teaching quality or intellectual matters were actually signs that ‘academia’ as a concept was withering.

In the same way that Agri-culture became Agri-business, so ‘academic culture’ has become ‘academi-business’.

The fundamental problem is that academic institutions used to have academic goals – furthering knowledge and inspiring minds. But now they are conceived of as being primarily businesses, and so they have primarily business goals. And every other activity is subservient to these goals.

I recall a conversation with my then Head of Department at UCL, Brian Martin,  who told me that he would ‘make my life hell‘ if I didn’t bring in £200,000 of income in the next year – a task both he and I knew was impossible. He advised me particularly that I should not doubt that he would really do it.

Nowadays this lesson is pre-learned and is assumed by all staff. This recent article about destructive dismissals at Kings College London reminded me of the insane logic of the process. But KCL is not unique: I hear similar stories from other universities both in the UK and abroad.

The business perspective is re-shaping how we concieve  of what used to be called ‘an academic life’.

In the sciences, universities acknowledge teaching and research because they have associated income streams which can be maximised. The employment of short-term staff for both teaching and research (MacLecturers(™) and MacResearchers(™)) is booming. (This is incidentally the reason why I encourage students to study science to highest level they can, but not to take jobs in the subject.)

However scholarship- advanced reading, learning and synthesis – is simply not acknowledged as a category of useful activity. Thus we find ourselves in a world where people are encouraged to publish more and more, but fewer and fewer people are reading the articles!

In my opinion, aside from vestiges in the richest universities world-wide, ‘academia’ is dead and it is time to acknowledge its death and say, farewell.

I, for one, am missing it already.

What could possibly go wrong?

June 3, 2014
Our data acquisition equipment outside the Aarhus University Mars Simulator.

Our data acquisition equipment outside the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. What could possibly go wrong?

My colleague Andrew Finlayson and I made it to Denmark on Sunday and turned up at Aarhus University bright and early on Monday morning.

We set about unpacking our equipment and around four hours later the pile of  apparatus you see above was pretty much working.

Looking at the scene, my first thought was, and is:

What could possibly go wrong?

But I am not asking in a sarcastic tone: I want to know the answer!

And I want a list! That way I can go down the list and think in advance how to avoid that possibility and what to do if I can’t.

So Monday was a good day because none of the major things which could go wrong, did go wrong. In the afternoon we lowered the pressure until it was equivalent to a height of 8 kilometres altitude and most of the equipment seemed to cope.

Tuesday was not so good. We spent the morning understanding the effect of air circulation within the chamber. Fortunately I had anticipated this might be a problem* and brought two fans with me that we could place inside the chamber. (See the pictures below).

And just when we thought we had sorted out the temperature control - the laser in our our laser hygrometer broke. This is kind of thing which is difficult to plan for. But we did have a plan!

My colleague Tom Gardiner was planning to join us tomorrow morning and by chance a new laser module had been delivered to NPL last week and he will be able to bring it with him.

So with luck – and it will require some – we should be back up and running tomorrow afternoon.

Anyway I must get to bed now – I need to be bright and alert in the morning. But below are a few pictures of our adventure.


*Actually it was my wife who anticipated it – but I listened to her and took her advice!


Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. The experimental section of the pressure vessel slides out on rails to allow access to the equipment.

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. Here Jens Jacobson and Jon Merrison from Aarhus University are installing a barrier to restrict air flow in the experimental section

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. My colleague Andrew Finlayson is just adjusting a mirror on the laser hygrometer. Below it can be seen an ultrasonic anemometer from Gill Instruments which measures air flow within the chamber – both natural convective flows and those due to fans.

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

‘Feedthroughs’ in the Aarhus University Mars Simulator. One of the major problems is how to connect electrical equipment outside the pressure chamber to sensors inside the  chamber. This is how we did it!


Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Two fans for moving the air inside the environmental chamber. The tiny fan on the left can move 67 cubic metres of air per hour and makes a big difference to the uniformity of the temperature within the chamber.

Installing Equipment in the Aarhus University Mars SImulator

Graph showing temperature versus time for two sensors inside the chamber. The air is unmixed at first and the two sensors indicate temperature differences from one part of the chamber to another of more than one degree Celsius. When the fan is switched on the air is mixed and the temperature becomes uniform to with 0.05 degrees Celsius.

My mission to the MARS simulator

May 27, 2014
An apparatus for simulating the atmosphere on MARS. We are going to use it test a new apparatus for measuring the atmosphere on Earth.

An apparatus for simulating the atmosphere on MARS. We are going to use it test a new apparatus for measuring the atmosphere on Earth.

Next Saturday (31st May) I will be setting off to Denmark to carry out an experiment in the MARS simulator at the University of Aarhus.

Inside the gigantic red planet sausage chamber, we will be able to change the pressure, temperature and humidity of the air to simulate the conditions in the upper atmosphere and stratosphere of Earth rather than Mars

My aim is to test a new type of combined thermometer and hygrometer.

There are at least two clever things about the new device

  • The first clever thing is that it measures the temperature of the air without ‘touching’ it – it is a non-contact thermometer.
    • It does this by measuring the speed of sound in a volume of relatively unperturbed air. From the speed of sound we can relatively directly infer the temperature.
  • The second clever thing is that it simultaneously measures the humidity in the air, again without making contact with the air.
    • It does this by shining a laser through the same volume of air. The frequency of the laser is adjusted so that exactly matches a frequency of molecular vibration in water molecules.

But inventing the device is not enough: every invention needs an acronym. So after playing with the acronym generator, I have baptised the device NCTAH (pronounced nectar) which stands for Non-Contact Thermometer And Hygrometer.

And why does it matter? 

Measuring air temperature is difficult. For example at NPL we will happily calibrate a good thermometer with an uncertainty of around 0.001 °C, if it is to be used in contact with a liquid or solid. But when used in air we have to give an uncertainty more than 50 times larger!

And one place where the measurement of temperature and humidity is particularly important is when we try to determine how close a particular sample of air is to saturation. In other words when we ask:

“How close is a particular sample of air to forming water droplets or ice crystals?”.

This is the basic process of cloud formation in the atmosphere and it is extremely difficult to study. Assessing how close air is to saturation requires accurate measurement of both the amount of water present in the air and the temperature of the air.

When conventional instruments ascend to the upper atmosphere (where it is very dry) from the lower atmosphere (where it is relatively wet) they carry up moisture with them which affects their slow-responding humidity sensors.

Additionally the temperature readings from contact thermometers frequently lag the true air temperature.

Both these effects make it difficult to know how close the air in the upper atmosphere and stratosphere is to saturation and our instrument could make a significant improvement.

Making it work.

Developing and testing this device has required experts from

  • the Gas Analysis team (Tom Gardiner and Andrew Finlayson),
  • the Humidity Team (Stephanie Bell and Jenny Wilkinson),
  • and the Temperature team (Robin Underwood and myself).

We have tested the device at temperatures from -40 °C to + 40 °C at atmospheric pressure. And we have separately tested it at room temperature at a pressure of less then a twentieth of an atmosphere – equivalent to an altitude of about 25 km.

But the MARS chamber tests in Denmark will assess the whole instrument together at the extremes of its operating range.

The facility is expensive to hire, and the logistics of moving the experimental team and all the monitoring equipment to Denmark are challenging.

So I am excited – but nervous. I will try and let you know how it goes.

This is my colleague Robin Underwood holding the Non Contact Thermometer and Hygrometer (NCTAH). Tiny microphones and speakers measure the speed of sound in the space between the parabola on the left and the acoustic 'mirror' on the right.

My colleague Robin Underwood holding the Non Contact Thermometer and Hygrometer (NCTAH). Tiny microphones and speakers measure the speed of sound in the space between the parabola on the left and the acoustic ‘mirror’ on the right.


Who paid for this?

You did. The work is funded in part by the UK government and in part by the METEOMET project funded by the European Metrology Research Programme of the European Union.


What’s that in degrees Celsius?

May 24, 2014
Table describing how various temperatures 'feel'. Click for a larger version.

Table describing how various temperatures ‘feel’. Click for a larger version.

Here are some simple guidelines for using degrees Celsius to describe every day temperatures: enjoy :-)

Weather (Simple Guide)

  • -20 °C: The coldest it gets in the UK
  • -10 °C: A bitterly cold winter’s day
  • 0 °C: Ice melts and water freezes
  • 10 °C: A typical day in winter
  • 20 °C: A nice warm day
  • 30 °C: A very hot summer’s day

Weather (More complicated guide)

  • -20 °C: The coldest it gets in the UK
  • -10 °C: A bitterly cold winter’s day
  • 0 °C: Ice melts and water freezes
  • 5 °C: A typical cold day in winter
  • 10 °C: A typical day in winter
  • 15 °C: A warm winter day or a cool summer day
  • 20 °C: A nice warm day
  • 25°C: A hot summer’s day
  • 30 °C: A very hot summer’s day
  • 35 °C: The hottest it ever gets in the UK


  • -20 °C: Your freezer should be this temperature
  • 0 °C: Ice melts and water freezes
  • 5 °C: The bottom of your fridge
  • 10 °C: Condensation forms if walls are colder than this
  • 20 °C: Nominal ‘Comfortable’ indoor temperature
    • What feels comfortable depends on air flows and varies from person to person typically in the range 18 °C to 23°C
  • 25°C: A warm room
  • Temperature sensation varies from person to person but typically
    • 35 °C: Bath water feels cool
    • 40 °C: Bath water feels hot
    • 45 °C: Scalding water
    • 65 °C: A hot cup of tea
  • 100 °C: Water boils

Where were you on World Metrology Day?

May 21, 2014
On World Metrology Day 2014 I was attending a meeting of working group 4 of the Consultative Committee on Thermometry at the BIPM in Paris

On World Metrology Day 2014 I was attending a meeting of Working Group 4 of the Consultative Committee on Thermometry at the BIPM in Paris

Where were you on World Metrology Day?

I was in Paris, attending a meeting at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM).

The Bureau is reached by turning off the busy main street through Sevres, and turning up a narrow cobbled path to the historic Pavillon de Breteuil

As I entered the splendid gardens of the Pavilion on this bright Tuesday morning, I found myself taking coffee with the creme-de-la-creme of world experts in every aspect of temperature measurement.

They were gathered for the 27th meeting of the Consultative Committee on Thermometry (CCT), and I was there to update my colleagues in Working Group 4 of the CCT on the progress of my research.

Personally, I find the formality of these meetings a little intimidating, and I guess everybody else does too. But it is hard to imagine that things would be very different in any organisation with the stated aims of BIPM

…to ensure world-wide uniformity of measurements and their traceability to the International System of Units (SI).

And what gives BIPM the right to do this? The Convention of the Metre, a diplomatic treaty between fifty-six nations. It is the first signing of this treaty in 1875 which is commemorated each year on 20th May.

Despite it’s name, the convention applies does not just apply to measurements of length.

So when a thermometer in Japan agrees with one in Australia, this has not happened by coincidence. It is has happened because of ongoing active collaborations mediated formally and informally via the BIPM.

This coherence of measurement brings benefits to everyone at very little cost or inconvenience. However because BIPM’s goal of world-wide uniformity of measurements has been substantially achievedpeople just don’t notice that this coherence is a positive achievement, and that it needs active ongoing attention for it to be maintained.

As I whisper to myself during the long hours of our meetings, “We worry about the millikelvins so that you don’t have to”


By the way, I feel obliged to mention that my wife, Stephanie Bell, sits on the CCT itself and is thus metrologically more important than me: I only sit on a Working Group.

But because of our shared involvement in CCT, these triennial committee meetings represent a significant childcare problem for us – a problem which is probably unique in the history of the CCT.

So this week Stephanie travelled to CCT on Sunday, returning to the UK on Monday to make sure the children were up for their exams on Tuesday morning. She then returned to Paris on Tuesday afternoon for more meetings – and I hope she will be back home on Friday

My own travel arrangements were relatively straightforward. I left the UK on Monday for a Tuesday morning meeting and then returned immediately afterwards.

But by good chance, our paths crossed late on Monday afternoon at the Gare du Nord as I travelled to BIPM and she travelled home.

So for 10 precious minutes we stood still amongst the hurly burly of the moving world, and shared a beer. And then we went on our respective ways. Santé

Me and Steph at the Gare du Nord

Stephanie and I cross paths at the Gare du Nord.


Why you shouldn’t use the ‘F’ word

May 13, 2014
Some people use the F-word with consideration for how offensive its use may be to there people.

Some people use the F-word without consideration for how offensive its use may be to other people.

As a parent, I obviously watch my language around my children. And I promise you that they did not learn to use the ‘F-word’ from either myself or my wife.

But we can’t control their whole lives. And at school or on the internet they encounter all kinds of bad language. And being children, they love to use shocking words to shock.

And so before we knew it the children were routinely referring to temperatures in ‘degrees Fahren***t‘. They hardly knew what the word meant, but it was shocking nonetheless.

How could our children behave this way? we asked. Where had we gone wrong?

And initially of course, we blamed ourselves. Had we been too strict? But we have come to terms with it now, and we think it is ‘just a phase’.

We had some long difficult ‘conversations’ with the children where we explained the importance of using the correct words to describe ‘difficult’ ideas about which they may feel embarrassed.

And we are past it now – but I am writing this because some people use this word all the time. Its use was common in earlier times and indeed, as a child I often heard people using the word without any embarrassment at all! And I blush to think I even used it myself.

Even now some older people think its just ‘political correctness‘ to describe temperatures in degrees Celsius or kelvin. But its not.

To use ‘Fahren***t‘ in the modern world is not just an idiosyncrasy: it is an insult to other people – and yes America, I am talking about you.

The US National Measurement Institute (NIST) is the biggest and best in the world, but I guess they feel a little embarrassed about the US’s idiosyncratic insistence on continuing to use - of all things – ‘Imperial’ measurement units! If the United Kingdom can slowly wean itself of these units then so can you ‘revolutionaries’!

And the reason it matters is that at the heart of the scientific endeavour is the process of measurement. And the International System of Units – the SI – is the cumulative achievement of humanity in being clear about precisely what we mean when we express a value of a physical quantity in measurement units.

Expressing temperatures in degrees Celsius or kelvin is simply being polite.

It means acknowledging that people outside one’s own cultural whirlpool may be interested in what we have measured.

It means acknowledging that we belong to one world and that the SI is our shared achievement and inheritance: a language of science through which all humanity can communicate clearly.

So, now you know: stop using f***ing Fahren***t!

UPDATE: Here is a friendly post for those of you who have never had the chance to learn how to use degrees Celsius.






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