Archive for November, 2010

PARIS-Paper Aeroplane Released in Space

November 29, 2010
View from 'Space'

View from 'Space'

Sometimes one comes across an activity which is utterly pointless, but which is at the same time profoundly inspirational. It is possible that the original Apollo programme that landed human beings on the moon is one such endeavour. On a reduced scale The Register a techy gossip web site – recently sponsored the PARIS project to release a paper aeroplane in space. I really wish I had the time to repeat this endeavour which I find inspiring in so many ways.

Put simply, they attached a (rather well-made) paper aeroplane to a weather balloon. The balloon had a camera attached and the aeroplane had a miniature radio transmitter. The plan was that when the balloon burst – which it did at around 29  kilometres (three times the height of Mount Everest) – the paper aeroplane would be released and the team would be able to track it and recover it!

At the end of this project the team managed to (a) recover photographs such as the one above showing the curve of the Earth, the glowing blue of the atmosphere, and the blackness of space and (b) actually the recover the paper aeroplane essentially undamaged.

This is not the first time I have been inspired by this endeavour – I remember writing about this back in March. But the Register’s have published lots of details about what they did and how they did it.

If I were wearing a hat,  I would take it off to them.


Information about Greenhouse gases

November 28, 2010
Data from EDGAR on Carbon Dioxide Emissions from different regions

Data from EDGAR on Carbon Dioxide Emissions from different regions

Sources of real data are precious and I just wanted to create place to link sources of information about greenhouse gas  emissions. If you know of any other good sources of data, do let me know.

EDGAR (Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research)

This is a source  of data on emissions of a wide range of greenhouse gases categorised by year, by geographic region, and even available on a geographic grid. One needs to register (free) to download raw data, but a number of useful graphs are available – like the one at the hea dof this article, or the geographically linked data below.

Map of the World showing the intensity of CO2 emissions per square kilometre

Map of the World showing the intensity of CO2 emissions per square kilometre

CDIAC (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center)

This is a source  of data on emissions of a carbon dioxide run by the US department of Energy. It also includes the World Data Center for Atmospheric Trace Gases. It includes a very nice frequently asked questions page. It can often take a lot of clicks to get to the data one needs – especially if one isn’t sure before hand exactly what one is looking for. This site was the source of the recent blog about annual oscillations in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration

WMO (World Meteorological Organisation Greenhouse Gas Bulletin)

Authoritative annual summary of the state of current research on Greenhouse gases. The current summary (November 2010) can be found here.

Songs about Industrial Accidents

November 28, 2010
The Wreck of the Old '97

The Wreck of the Old '97

I was listening back through my iTunes collection when I came across some songs by The Seekers. First was “Morningtown Ride“, which I still find strangely touching and then a couple of tracks further on came  the fast moving “Wreck of the Old 97” . This is a great ballad describing a horrific industrial accident which occurred in 1903, killing 9 people. What struck me was that the driver Steve Brady was portrayed as a hero for trying to make up lost time and deliver the mail on time.

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Sayin’ “Steve, you’re way behind time;
It’s 8:38, and it’s the Old ’97;
Gotta put her into Danville on time.”

So began the chain of events that must have initiated a thousand industrial accidents: workers being asked to operate machinery outside their safe working limits. Also the railway track had been poorly maintained:

Well, it’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg down to Danville,
On a line with a three-mile grade;

At first things went well, and Steve clearly thought he could make up an hour on a four hour train ride.

Steve Brady he said to his black, greasy fireman,
“Shovel on a little more coal;
I’m waitin’ to pass them wide-open mountains;
Gonna see the Old ’97 roll.”

But then they took a bend too fast at the bottom of long hill

It was down that line where he lost his air-brakes;

and the consequences are gruesomely recorded .

He’s comin’ down that line makin’ ninety miles an hour
The whistle broke into a scream;
They found him in the wreck with his hand upon the throttle;
He’d been scalded to death by steam.

It is a measure of how times have changed that the company and the staff are portrayed here as heroically trying to achieve a ‘production target’. Nowadays this would be seen as criminally reckless. And although we are generally safer than we ever were at any point in history, I can’t help feeling that in losing this sense of heroism about our work, we have lost  a little something: if only a genre of songs about industrial accidents.

CDIAC: The Keeling Curve and more.

November 27, 2010

Click Image for a larger version. The sites of CO2 sampling stations in the Pacific

Forgive me: I am re-blogging this from my old blog because
(a) its interesting and (b) someone at Protons asked a question about it.

I love the CDIAC (Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre ) website. Yes, it is obscure and takes a lot of clicking to find what you want. But that is because you don’t really know what you want!

But after a bit of clicking you can find data – raw data that you can plot and analyse yourself – or simple graphics. I like this page which shows what the atmospheric CO2 record looks like from the Northern Pacific, southwards through the famous Mauna Loa data, and at successively further southward in the Pacific until one reaches the Antarctic. I have pasted graphs of the data below.

The vertical scale is the same in all the graphs, but not the horizontal scale. What the graphs show is the same rising trend, but the annual oscillations differ in character and magnitude. In particular  the further north one looks, the more dramatic is the effect of ‘summer’ in the northern hemisphere which causes a drastic fall in carbon dioxide concentrations as plants grow. Most of the Earth’s plants are in the northern hemisphere and so this effect is seen much more strongly here. And just to show that the site really does give access to the data, here is the data from these three sites plotted for the year 2007. Notice how weak the oscillation is in the antarctic and how it is out of phase with the Northern hemisphere summer.

Month by Month Data from 2007

Click Image for a larger version. Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide concentration versus month of the year for 2007. The data is for three different locations. Notice the seasonal variation for each location is quite different.

Data from Alert, Alaska

Click Image for a larger version. Atmospheric Carbon dioxide data from Alert, Alaska

Data from Mauna Loa, Hawaii

Click Image for a larger version. Atmospheric Carbon dioxide data from Mauna Loa, Hawaii

Data from Antarctica

Click Image for a larger version. Atmospheric Carbon dioxide data from Antarctica

The distorted perspective of the ‘news’

November 26, 2010


A family listening to the radio

Radio News

I was an odd child: from the earliest age I was interested in listening to the news. First on the home service, and from 1967 onwards, on Radio 4. Without disclosing too much of my personal psychology, I interpret this now as a symptom of anxiety: of wanting to know what was happening. And I still retain this vague sense that some ‘news programmes’ are about ‘what is happening’. But of course that is not true at all.

As I have I mentioned previously, news is about ‘new’ things. It is not about important things: if it was it would called ‘importants’. As this BBC blog points out, the news services of the world communicate a horrifically distorted perspective of the events in the world. They are like children searching on the beach for the brightest shiniest pebble or shell – not actually interested in the pebbles or shells – but just keen to shout out the loudest “Come and look at THIS!”. The media are incapable of paying prolonged attention to anything, with the possible exception of the Daily Express and the death of Princess Diana.

Examples of this are plentiful but let me just give three because its late and I have to get to bed!

  • Consider the number of people dying on the roads of the UK and the world. Around 2500 per year in the UK – 7 per day, and more than 1 million people worldwide. This is ‘not news’: the traffic delays caused by the deaths feature in the traffic reports, but the resultant web of devastation and the enormous direct costs to us all are simply ‘not news’. However, extremely unlikely events such as train crashes are ‘news’ and someone must be blamed and punished for every such event.
  • The consistent consensus of concern around the consequences of climate change is ‘not news’. But some unqualified toff stating that  ‘climate change hysteria heralds a ‘new age of unreason” is apparently worthy of our attention and is thus ‘news’.
  • Poverty and inequality within the UK and around the world are issues which affect us all every day. But if a news service such as the BBC looked rationally at the state of the world every day and placed poverty and inequality as the continuing headline story day after day they would be accused of political bias. So even though people are literally dying from trivially preventable disease as I type this, this is unfortunately ‘not news’.

This kind of distortion is like poison to a democracy, constantly directing public attention to the trivial changes taking place in the World, and consequently directing attention away from the significant but unchanging reality of the World. It’s good to be aware of these things without becoming overly cynical, because that too will poison one’s mind. So now I will get to bed, and if I am quick I will be able to listen to the midnight news, which somehow still feels like a comforting prospect.

Sleep Well.

Climate Change Discussion at Protons for Breakfast

November 25, 2010
Wind Farms in Texas

Wind Farms in Texas

I am just back from discussing ‘Climate Change’ at Protons for Breakfast. And after having eaten – I was ravenous! – I am reflecting on a very moving evening.

  • So many people – children and adults – concerned and interested and coming along to these sessions
  • So many helpers giving up their time.
  • My friend Lindsay standing outside in the freezing cold to make sure that people found their way to the right car park!
  • Andrew Russell giving up his time to be an expert when all NPL’s experts were abroad!

And as we came to the end, one of the attendees stood up and encouraged everyone not to give up hope – and she related her experience of how things were changing in Africa and that solar photovoltaics were making a real difference. I remembered the first few times we had run Protons for Breakfast and how depressed I had felt about our situation. Now, I don’t feel depressed about our situation – even though I still don’t know what will happen. But now I feel that as the reality of our situation becomes apparent, humanity has the capability to act together. And although there will be squabbles and political manoeuvring, we will do something. It won’t be ideal, but it will be – in some sense – enough.

Arriving home I watched the BBC News where there was a feature about giant  wind farms in Texas. The feature stressed how politically it was unacceptable to mention anything ‘green’ or global warming related, but the wind farms were there nonetheless – the largest wind farms in the world – colossal constructions harvesting a sustainable resource which should still be reaping rewards long after the ‘nodding donkeys‘ beneath them have nodded for the last time.

The World really is changing- in small ways and in large ways, and momentarily I feel happy. Being amongst fellow citizens and work colleagues like these –  I feel quite sure humanity will adapt to our new reality.

Italy at night

November 17, 2010


View of Italy at Night from the International Space Station

View of Italy at Night from the International Space Station

Some time ago I remember blogging that if I ruled the world I would spend my spare time hanging out in a space station with a ‘cupola’, gazing out over the world and listening to music. It seems that astronauts on the space station, while clearly failing in their ambitions of global domination, are doing exactly the same thing. Hence this awe-inspiring picture of Italy at night. The BBC has the story (such as it is). There is no story here, but the picture is just astounding.

I love fireworks :-)

November 16, 2010
Fireworks 2010

Fireworks 2010

In the UK we are just past Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night or Guy Fawkes Night. I love the Britishness (or is it Englishness?) of this festival, especially the fact that over most of the year we (as a country) obsessively track explosive materials – and yet in the weeks leading up to bonfire night we openly sell explosives to anyone!  I love the NPL firework display and I love the anarchy of people letting off fireworks in their own gardens. And I love observing my children enjoy the responsibility being allowed to light fireworks themselves. And  I just love the colours and the brightness and the patterns – all created by practical chemistry. It is just like having my eyes tickled.



Sometimes it’s all too much…

November 15, 2010


Sometimes what other people think is small feels very big to us...

Sometimes what other people think is small feels very big to me... and vice versa

At the National Physical Laboratory we aim to make the best measurements in the world, and I am currently engaged in building the most accurate thermometer ever made. Without going into all the details, it works by measuring the speed of sound in a rather perfectly made spherical resonator. The speed of sound varies with the temperature of the gas in the resonator, and by monitoring the resonant frequency of the gas in the resonator, we can determine the temperature. The experiment is a bit more complicated, but that’s the gist of it. But sometimes the extent of the precision required is frightening.

Our resonator is made of two hemispheres of copper, 120 mm in diameter with a wall thickness of approximately 12 mm. The flanges that comes together to make the inner spherical cavity were machined to be especially flat. Our measurements indicate that they are flat to within one thousandth of a millimetre – barely more than a wavelength of light. And yet when we assembled the two hemispheres, we found out that this was not good enough! We were able to detect even this tiny imperfection. And our results would not make sense until we corrected for it. A colleague from France recently assembled some similar hemispheres and found that the flanges were not flat by 20 thousandths of a millimetre – 0.02 millimetres – and considered this to be a disaster. It is sometimes frightening when what is considered in nearly all other circumstances to be ‘good enough’, is just not acceptable.

And today I was struggling over the argon gas that we use to fill the resonator. We use ultra pure gas, but in order to work out what speed of sound to expect, we need to measure the isotopic composition of the argon we used. To do this, colleagues in Scotland have made special measurements for us – but I just can’t understand the results. It is one more area in which I am struggling to become an expert very quickly. Maybe tomorrow it will make sense…

And so what I mean by the title of this blog is that sometimes, as I worry about the n‘th degree of perfection of a surface, or the isotopic composition of the gas, I find that I enter worlds – like Alice in Wonderland – where what other people think are small things, appear to me enormously large and signficant – and I find myself wishing (albeit temporarily) that I were trying to achieve something just a little bit easier.

More depressing news about the shameful Exam Board scandal

November 8, 2010

News from the BBC confirming GCSE exam standards are indeed declining and shedding light of how it is being done. You can read the story here or download the podcast here. Basically the story is that the five Exam Boards compete to produce simpler exams that satisfy the ‘nominal’ benchmarks, but are easier to pass. As Mick Waters, the former head of QCA said ‘The system is diseased, almost corrupt’. Really depressing.

The story includes allegations that:

  • Exam boards ‘tipping off’ teachers about likely topics in exams.
  • OFQUAL are not investigating the professional malpractice around exams that boosts exam results.
  • There is a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of exam standards.

My previous comments on the shameful phenomena are here. But without saying too much again, it is an outrage, that not-for-profit exam boards can be wholly owned by publishing corporations. IMHO the solution is simple: the UK needs exactly one exam board which should have no commercial involvement whatsoever.

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