Hot dry summers

August 10, 2018

Apparently its been hot all around the northern hemisphere this summer.

And that got me thinking about the long hot summer of 1976 when I was 16.

I have the general impression that summers now are warmer than they used to be. But I am aware that such impressions can be misleading.

Being the age I am (58), I fear my own mis-remembering of times past.

So was 1976 really exceptional? And will this year (2018) also prove to be really exceptional?

I decided to download some data and take a look.

Heathrow Data.

I popped over to the Met Office’s Climate pages and downloaded the historical data from the nearby Heathrow weather station.

I had downloaded this data before when looking at long-term climate trends, but this time I was looking for individual hot months rather than annual or decadal trends.

When I plotted the monthly average of the daily maximum temperature, I was surprised that 1976 didn’t stand out at all as an exceptional year.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data July Maxima Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature maxima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. I have highlighted the data from July each year using red squares. Notice that since 1976 there have been many comparable July months.

In the graph above I have highlighted July average maximum temperatures. I tried similar analyses for June and August and the results were similar. 1976 stood out as a hot year, but not exceptionally so.

Ask an Expert

Puzzled, I turned to an expert. I sent an e-mail to John Kennedy at the UK’s Met Office  and to my astonishment he responded within a few hours.

His suggestion was to try plotting seasonal data.

His insight was based on the fact that it is not so unusual to have a single warm month. But it is unusual to have three warm months in a row.

So I re-plotted the data and this time I highlighted the average of daily maximum temperatures for June, July and August.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data June July August Maxima Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature maxima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines as in the previous figure. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 now stands out as an exceptionally warm summer.

Delightfully, 1976 pops out as being an exceptional summer – in line with my adolescent recollection.

More than just being hot

But John suggested more. He suggested looking at the seasonal average of the minimum daily temperature.

Recall that in hot weather it is often the overnight warmth which is particularly oppressive.

In this graph (below) 1976 does not stand out as exceptional, but it is noticeable that warming trend is easily visible to the naked eye. On average summer, summer nights are about 2 °C warmer now than they were at the start of my lifetime.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data JJA Minimum Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature minima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 does not stand out exceptionally.

John also suggested that I look at other available data such as the averages of

  • daily hours of sunshine
  • daily rainfall

Once again seasonal averages of these quantities show 1976 to have been an exceptional year. Below I have plotted the Rainfall totals on two graphs, one showing the overall rainfall, and the other detail of the low rainfall summers.

Heathrow Monthly Monthly Rainfall

The monthly average of the daily rainfall total are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 was a dry summer. The data below 50 mm of rainfall are re-plotted in the next graph.

Heathrow Monthly Monthly Rainfall detail

Detail from the previous figure showing the low rainfall data. The monthly average of the daily rainfall total are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 was a dry summer.

de Podesta ‘Hot Summer’ Index

Following on from John’s suggestion, I devised the ‘de Podesta Long Hot Summer Index‘. I defined this to be:

  • the sum of the seasonal averages of the minimum and maximum temperatures (for June July and August),
  • divided by the seasonal average of rainfall (for June July and August).

Plotting this I was surprised to see 1976 pop out of the data as a truly exceptional hot dry summer – my memory had not deceived me.

But I also noticed 1995 ‘popped out’ too and I had no recollection of that being an exceptional summer. However this data (and Wikipedia) confirms that it was.

Now I just have to wait until the end of August to see if this year was exceptional too – it most surely felt exceptional, but we need to look at the data to see if our perceptions are genuinely grounded in reality.

Heathrow Hot Dry Summer Index

The de Podesta Hot Dry Summer (HDS) index as described in the text.  Construct an ‘index’ in this way really flags up the exceptional nature of 1976, and also 1995.

John Kennedy’s blog

In typical self-deprecating manner, John calls himself a ‘diagram monkey’ and blogs under that pseudonym. 

His is one of just two blogs to which I subscribe and I recommend it to you highly.

Talking about the SI

June 24, 2018

In just a few days, we will be setting up our stand about the International System of Units, the SI, at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (RSSSE).

In May 2019 the world plans to redefine four of the base units of the SI. The re-definition represents a profound change in our concept of measurement.

And it involves quantities with which most people are familiar, such as ‘a kilogram’, or ‘a degree Celsius’.

So we have thought long and hard about how to communicate this at RSSSE.

Where to start?

The geographical theory of knowledge  suggests that ‘explanations of concepts’ are like ‘directions from one place to another’.

And thus, when people visit our stand, we are obliged to start giving ‘directions’ from where they actually ‘are’.

Although we want to talk about the re-definition of the SI, we have to acknowledge that most people don’t actually know much about the SI.

So if we want to ‘start from where people are’, we first need to explain what the SI is now, and why it matters. And that is what we have done.

It’s about Measurement.

In the ‘orientation’ for colleagues who will be helping at the RSSSE, we have stressed three starting points to help orient visitors to the stand.

  • At the heart of science and engineering, there is measurement.
  • Measurement is the comparison of an unknown thing against a standard.
  • In the International System of Units there are seven standard things against which all physical quantities are compared.

We then have seven hands-on demonstrations – one for each of the seven standard quantities (called ‘base units’)- which will hopefully serve as starting points for conversations.

Keep it simple!

In developing the ‘hands-on demonstrations we worked with the magical people at Science Projects to build apparatus that was robust and simple.

They have years of experience developing hands-on kit for museums and interactive science centres.

As we honed our initial ideas, Science Projects staff constantly challenged us to ‘keep it simple’. And in (almost) every case, their instincts were sound.

A demonstration which is engaging and which can be immediately grasped is a dramatically better starting point for a conversation than one which is beautifully sophisticated, but only elicits the Ah-yes,-I-see-now-moment after 5 minutes.

NPL Stands for the RSSSE exhibition

Stands for the RSSSE exhibition

NPL tweaks!

We developed the demonstrations and tried them out on NPL’s Open Day in May. The stands all survived and people seemed happy with the demonstrations.

But because we are NPL, and because at RSSSE we also need to interact with Fellows of the Royal Society, we had to add some truly complex and amazing features that are right at the forefront of science.

  • The ‘time team’ decided to develop an app that would allow people to compare the time on their own phones with the time from NPL’s Caesium atomic clock.
  • The ‘length team’ decided they wanted to develop a laser interferometer that would measure the height of SI-bots in terms of the wavelength of light.
  • The ‘mass team’ wanted to put an actual working Kibble balance on the stand at the Royal Society.

As I write this on Sunday 24th June, – none of these demonstrations are ready! But my colleagues are working hard and I am cautiously confident they will succeed.

If you get a chance to visit, the RSSSE is FREE and runs from Monday 2nd July 2018 until Sunday 9th July 2018.

 

 

 

Work-life balance

June 23, 2018
It is possible to do lots of things at the same time. (Picture Credit: Dr Seuss)

Figure 1: It is possible to do lots of things at the same time. (Picture Credit: Dr Seuss)

One of my favourite management consultants is Dr. Seuss.

In his guide to optimising productivity, amusingly titled, “The Cat in the Hat“, (TCITH) the good doctor shows us that it is indeed possible to ‘do it all’.

I find it interesting that this book – which uses short words and a restricted vocabulary because it was written for busy managers – is now widely used with children.

I see this as a really positive development. It is after all essential that our children learn what is possible with practice. But this has not reduced the impact of TCITH in modern management.

So while “standing on a ball in the hall”, a metaphor for day-to-day work, children learn that they can also do many other things at the same time without there being any negative consequences.

In Dr Seuss’s guide, the eponymous hero also balances a cake and a rake, a fish and a dish, a fan and a man! These wittily-chosen tasks are of course merely placeholders for specific tasks that we can all learn to do simultaneously.

For example in my life, they might represent:

  • Preparing for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition
  • Refereeing scientific papers.
  • Mending broken equipment.
  • Mending the gutter
  • Carrying out urgent experiments for customers
  • Giving training courses
  • Managing complex manufacturing projects with tight deadlines.
  • Collecting the children’s stuff from university.
  • Planning collaborative projects with European partners.

All in addition to “standing on a ball in the hall” i.e. carrying out my normal job.

I have to admit that I occasionally find this stressful. But when I do I turn to Dr. Seuss for re-assurance.

Looking at the charmingly-drawn illustrations (see Figure 1), I see ‘a cat’ who is ‘doing it all’ and enjoying it at the same time.

The seminal impact of TCITH can be assessed by considering our relatively recent concerns with ‘work-life balance’, a concept clearly foreseen and graphically illustrated in TCITH.

Looking at ‘cat’ in the illustrations, it is clear that if life is busy or challenging at home, one merely needs to add an equivalent challenge at work in order to maintain the work-life balance.

  • Dr. Seuss: Thank you.
  • Cat in the Hat: you are my hero.

 

The view from 10 kilometres

June 3, 2018

At the start of May I travelled by air to and from California.

The flight takes an extraordinary route, crossing the southern tip of Greenland, the vast shield of northern Canada, the American mid-west and the south-western deserts.

But despite the extreme terrain covered by the plane, for me the journey was easy. It was nothing more than an exercise in advanced sitting, and I am good at sitting.

And looking out the window, I saw two extraordinary things.

London to LA

Greenland

I had chosen a window seat on the right-hand side of the plane on the off-chance that visibility would be good as we flew over Greenland. I also brought my camera with a pointy lens.

The camera’s field of view on the ground was roughly 1 km at best, and I could see detailed features of the spring-melt of the sea-ice around Greenland.

Greeland Ice

At times I could see the surface texture of what I guess was a glacier as it reached the sea in an ice-cliff.

Greeland Ice 5

The scale of the ice was overwhelming. It didn’t look like a ‘snowy polar cap’ on the globe. It looked like a vast and utterly alien ice world.

I found it interesting to compare this ‘bird’s-eye’ view with the data gathered by satellites that have charted the decades long decline in the extent of the sea ice.

California-Nevada

As we flew over the Nevada-California border I was delighted  to catch a  glimpse of the immense Ivanpah solar power plant (Link & Wikipedia article).

One of three solar collectors at the Ivanpah solar power plant.

One of three solar collectors at the Ivanpah solar power plant.

The three solar collectors of the Ivanpah solar plant together with a vast solar photo-voltaic array

The three solar collectors of the Ivanpah solar plant together with a vast solar photo-voltaic array. It is clear that solar generation is not limited by available land!

Next to Ivanpah was a vast conventional solar photo-voltaic plant.

As I had been when I flew over Greenland, I was struck by the vastness of the landscape and the boldness of these engineering ventures in that inhospitable climate.

The link

Momentarily I allowed my self to hope – forgive me: I was on holiday.

I allowed myself to hope that solar engineering might really provide a way to de-carbonise electricity production.

From 10 km above the ground  it was breathtakingly clear that a lack of suitable land for solar power plants was not a limitation on production. Surely not even 1% of the available land was being used.

And as we flew over the Hoover Dam – with water sadly still at historically low levels – I allowed myself to imagine a world powered by renewable energy.

And as result, eventually there would be a slowdown in the rate of loss of arctic sea ice.

Hoover Dam  from 10 km

Hoover Dam from 10 km

It struck me that the first step required to make this happen was to imagine that it could even be possible.

From 10 kilometres up, briefly it all seemed clear

 

 

Summer Science

May 26, 2018

Video Capture 2

For some months now I have been preparing for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.

We have been working with the fabulous team at Science Projects on developing seven demonstration experiments – one for each of the seven SI base units.

Being so distracted, the deadline for submitting a video almost passed me by. In fact my colleague Andrew Hanson and I remembered with just one day to go!

So after a necessarily short planning phase, Andrew and I shot the video below on Andrew’s iPhone.

The background noise on some of the sections was problematic and Andrew had to do a great deal of filtering to get anything close to intelligible.

But given that everything was shot in’one take’, we were pretty happy with it, even if it came out a bit long (5’20”)

The end of the film was forced on us because my colleagues from the ‘length team’ were both absent when the end of the film was shot at about 7:30 p.m.!

After feedback from the team at the Royal Society we were asked to shorten the video and we took that opportunity to re-shoot the start and end of the movie with a proper microphone.

And here is the final shortened version (2’34”) which should be on the Royal Society site next week.

I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks 

Thanks to everyone who helped: Andrew Hanson, Brian Madzima, Rachel Godun, Stuart Davidson, Robin Underwood, Teresa Goodman, Lucy Culleton, Masaya Kataoka and Jonathan Fletcher

 

The Last Artifact

May 20, 2018

Handling a kilogram (but not THE kilogram). Picture taken from The Last Artifact Web Site

Don’t pack away your Royal Wedding party gear just yet! Today (Sunday 20th May) is World Metrology Day 2018!

And that means there are just 5 months and 26 days until the commencement of the 26th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM).

At this governmental level gathering, it will hopefully be decided to go ahead with the redefinition of four of the base units of the International System of Units, the SI.

And if matters proceed as planned, in one year’s time – World Metrology Day 2019 – we will finally make the change.

It’s all about the kilogram

All the unit redefinitions – of the kilogram, the ampere, the kelvin and the mole – are important.

But the redefinition of the kilogram has been the hardest and is considered an event of such significance that someone is making a high-end film about it.

I was fortunate enough to meet the co-director Ed Watkins and his crew when they swung by NPL last year to film.

The film will be released on World Metrology Day 2019, but the trailer (below) certainly looks intriguing.

How mass measurement will change.

At the moment, when we weigh something we:

  • compare the force of gravity on that object with the force of gravity on a standard object.
  • and the force of gravity on that standard object is known by comparison against the force of gravity on a more special standard object
  • Add so we proceed in many steps until eventually, we encounter a weighing against the International Prototype of the Kilogram (the IPK). This single unique ‘artifact’ currently defines what we mean by ‘one kilogram’.

This kind of repeated comparison against standards until we reach a defining artefact is completely normal in traditional metrology.

In future, when we weigh something we will:

  • compare the force of gravity on that object with the force of gravity on a standard object.
  • and the force of gravity on that standard object is known by comparison against the force of gravity on a more special standard object
  • Add so we proceed in many steps until eventually, we encounter a weighing on a Kibble Balance or a weighing against a specially-made silicon sphere.

It is these two new options that represent the change.

  • When we weigh an object on a Kibble Balance, we compare the gravitational force on an object with an electromagnetic force which can be calculated in terms of volts and amperes and related to fundamental physical constants.
  • Alternatively, the special silicon spheres have their mass calculated in terms of their physical properties: size, density etc.

In either case, the final definition of what we mean by one kilogram is determined by the basic physical measurements, and is no longer simply a comparison against an arbitrary physical artifact.

That’s it. It’s a small change, but as I am sure the film will make clear, a profound one.

The James Webb Space Telescope

May 10, 2018

Last week I was on holiday in Southern California. Lucky me.

Lucky me indeed. During my visit I had – by extreme good fortune – the opportunity to meet with Jon Arenberg – former engineering director of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

And by even more extreme good fortune I had the opportunity to speak with him while overlooking the JWST itself – held upright in a clean room at the Northrop Grumman campus in Redondo Beach, California.

[Sadly, photography was not allowed, so I will have to paint you a picture in words and use some stock images.]

The JWST

In case you don’t know, the JWST will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and has been designed to exceed the operational performance of the HST in two key areas.

  • Firstly, it is designed to gather more light than the HST. This will allow the JWST to see very faint objects.
  • Secondly, it is designed to work better with infrared light than the HST. This will allow the JWST to see objects whose light has been extremely red-shifted from the visible.

A full-size model of the JWST is shown below and it is clear that the design is extraordinary, and at first sight, rather odd-looking. But the structure – and much else besides – is driven by these two requirements.

JWST and people

Requirement#1: Gather more light.

To gather more light, the main light-gathering mirror in the JWST is 6.5 metres across rather than just 2.5 metres in the HST. That means it gathers around 7 times more light than the HST and so can see fainter objects and produce sharper images.

1280px-JWST-HST-primary-mirrors.svg

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

But in order to launch a mirror this size from Earth on a rocket, it is necessary to use a  mirror which can be folded for launch. This is why the mirror is made in hexagonal segments.

To cope with the alignment requirements of a folding mirror, the mirror segments have actuators to enable fine-tuning of the shape of the mirror.

To reduce the weight of such a large mirror it had to be made of beryllium – a highly toxic metal which is difficult to machine. It is however 30% less dense than aluminium and also has a much lower coefficient of thermal expansion.

The ‘deployment’ or ‘unfolding’ sequence of the JWST is shown below.

Requirement#2: Improved imaging of infrared light.

The wavelength of visible light varies from roughly 0.000 4 mm for light which elicits the sensation we call violet, to 0.000 7 mm for light which elicits the sensation we call red.

Light with a wavelength longer than 0.000 7 mm does not elicit any visible sensation in humans and is called ‘infrared’ light.

Imaging so-called ‘near’ infrared light (with wavelengths from 0.000 7 mm to 0.005 mm) is relatively easy.

Hubble can ‘see’ at wavelengths as long as 0.002 5 mm. To achieve this, the detector in HST was cooled. But to work at longer wavelengths the entire telescope needs to be cold.

This is because every object emits infrared light and the amount of infrared light it emits is related to its temperature. So a warm telescope ‘glows’ and offers no chance to image dim infrared light from the edge of the universe!

The JWST is designed to ‘see’ at wavelengths as long as 0.029 mm – 10 times longer wavelengths than the HST – and that means that typically the telescope needs to be on the order of 10 times colder.

To cool the entire telescope requires a breathtaking – but logical – design. There were two parts to the solution.

  • The first part involved the design of the satellite itself.
  • The second part involved the positioning the satellite.

Cooling the telescope part#1: design

The telescope and detectors were separated from the rest of the satellite that contains elements such as the thrusters, cryo-coolers, data transmission equipment and solar cells. These parts need to be warm to operate correctly.

The telescope is separated from the ‘operational’ part of the satellite with a sun-shield roughly the size of tennis court. When shielded from the Sun, the telescope is exposed to the chilly universe, and cooled gas from the cryo-coolers cools some of the detectors to just a few degrees above absolute zero.

Cooling the telescope part#2: location

The HST is only 300 miles or so from Earth, and orbits every 97 minutes. It travels in-to and out-of full sunshine on each orbit. This type of orbit is not compatible with keeping a gigantic telescope cold.

So the second part of the cooling strategy is to position the JWST approximately 1 million miles from Earth at a location known as the second Lagrange point L2.

At L2 the gravitational attraction of the Sun is approximately 30 times greater than the gravitational attraction of the Earth and Moon.

At L2 the satellite orbits the Sun in a period of one year – and so stays in the same position relative to the Earth.

  • The advantage of orbiting at L2 is that the satellite can maintain the same orientation with respect to the Sun for long periods. And so the sun-shade can shield the telescope very effectively, allowing it to stay cool.
  • The disadvantage of orbiting at L2 is that it is beyond the orbit of the moon and no manned space-craft has ever travelled so far from Earth. So once launched, there is absolutely no possibility of a rescue mission.

The most expensive object on Earth?

I love the concept of the JWST. At an estimated cost of $8 billion, if this is not the most expensive single object on Earth, then I would be interested to know what is.

But it has not been created to make money or as an act of aggression.

Instead, it has been created to answer the simple question

I wonder what we would see if we looked into deep space at infrared wavelengths.”. 

Ultimately, we just don’t know until we look.

In a year or two, engineers will place the JWST on top of an Ariane rocket and fire it into space. And the most expensive object on Earth will then – hopefully – become the most expensive object in space.

Personally I find the mere existence of such an enterprise a bastion of hope in a world full of worry.

Thanks

Many thanks to Jon Arenberg  and Stephanie Sandor-Leahy for the opportunity to see this apogee of science and engineering.

Resources

Breathtaking photographs are available in galleries linked to from this page

 

Error Bar: Update

April 17, 2018

Error Bar

Friends – I have found the author of the above image that I mentioned in my previous post

And I knew them all along! What are the chances of that!

The author is John Kennedy from the Meteorological Office who blogs under the pseudonym ‘diagram monkey’.

The story of the image’s creation can be found here.

It is based on a real similarly-named barthe Aero Bar in San Diego.

The Aero Club Bar

The Aero Club Bar, San Diego

The World of Diagram Monkey

John’s blog contains some wonderful resources.

Do check out his post to find out how he came close to a humiliating early death at the hands of an orange.

 

 

Error Bar

April 15, 2018

Error Bar

This picture arrived in my in box through the medium of Twitter.

The Bar

It shows the Error Bar, with 20 ± 2 beers on tap, and a neon sign in which two glasses conspire to make an uncertainty indication.

It must surely be run by a burned-out metrologist who couldn’t take the heat of cutting-edge metrology.

The modern day equivalent of Graham Greene’s ‘whisky priest’, they retired to a town with barely a single calibration laboratory.

Here, they run the Error Bar and (unheeded) give advice on uncertainty estimation to random passers by while dispensing precise doses of tequila, with amounts of ethanol traceable to the SI base unit mole .

The awning of the bar sports the logo of the BIPM – the International Bureau of Weights and Measures – where they were seconded for a summer.

Error Bar detail 2

However it was here that their true love slipped away while they worked on an impossible uncertainty budget. And they never recovered.

In memory of their lost love,  they commissioned the local blacksmith to create a railing on the disabled access ramp which reflects the uncertainty that life always entails.

Error Bar detail 1

The Restaurant

And after a drinking a glass or two of tequila, one can retire to the restaurant next door – Measurands (literally meaning “the things which are measured”).

Error Bar detail 3

Is this place real?

I doubt it. 

But the picture has been created with great care by a metrologist and (if they can ever confess to creating this picture)  I would love to shake their hand…

…and perhaps buy them a drink in this little out-of-the-way bar I have heard of…

 

Factfullness

April 7, 2018

Factfullness

Back in December 2010 I wrote about Hans Rosling with a post titled:

Hans Rosling: You’re my hero

Sadly, Hans Rosling died in February 2017.

But aware of his imminent death, he worked with his son and daughter-in-law to write a book which captures some key elements of his world view, which he summarises as…

…Factfulness

The book has two strands that run through all the chapters.

  • The first strand is that we are tremendously ignorant about the world. Repeatedly he expresses his surprise at our levels of ignorance. And given our access to facts, he asks why we are not just randomly ignorant, but have views which are  systematically wrong. He suggests it is a kind of cognitive bias.
  • The second strand is that we can stop being ignorant if we want to. And with this aim, he and his son invented delightful ways to view developmental data.

I won’t try to precis the book, but as someone who experiences intense anxiety in everyday situations, I found the section “Statistics as Therapy” particularly affecting.

As one specific example I went to the download page of Gapminder and downloaded a Powerpoint file with a graph showing how extreme poverty in the world has changed over time.

Extreme Poverty

It is clear that collectively humanity has made truly astonishing progress in reducing the awfulness of crushing poverty. [The Powerpoint file and the web site includes links so you can chase the data sources and check them.]

Why do we not celebrate this fantastic achievement?

This graph tells a good news story compared with which any news story we have experienced in the last 10 years is irrelevant.

This is a story of an epochal and positive change in the world of which most people – including myself – are largely ignorant.

The idea that the world – while acknowledging all its faults and injustices – is dramatically better than it is has ever been, feels like a balm against the ‘news-ification’ of reality that we experience.

Hans Rosling’s Death

I leave you with a video which I find intensely moving.

It shows Hans, his son,and his daughter-in-law explaining why they wrote the book.

Somehow knowing that he is no longer with us feels like a very intense – and despite the fact that I never knew him, personal – loss.

 

Videos

The fact that I feel Hans Rosling’s death personally is probably a cognitive bias caused by his many engaging video appearances.

This page on the Gapminder website contains links to many of his best videos. I cannot recommend them strongly enough.


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