Archive for December, 2010

Nuclear Waste Storage

December 28, 2010
Schematic disposal arrangements for high level nuclear waste

Schematic disposal arrangements for high level nuclear waste at Onkalo (Copyright Posiva)

Perhaps the most difficult question for proponents on Nuclear Power to answer is the question “What are you going to do with the high level nuclear waste?”. Its’ a simple question and the answers are – in principle – quite simple. Eventually high level nuclear waste has to be encapsulated ‘in some way’ and then put ‘somewhere’. All the problems and challenges arise when one considers specific answers to specify exactly ‘which way’ and exactly ‘where’. In the UK we seem have invested a large amount of money on putting off facing this challenge for as long as possible. In Finland it seems they are facing up to the challenge – and the costs – now. And the plans look impressive.

Finnish Plans

The Finnish waste storage facility is called Onkalo. The company building the site (Posiva) has several animations and presentations on its web site (links below) and overall it looks to me to be a rational way to solve this problem. They say the cost will be around 3 billion Euro which is around half of the cost of a 1 GWe nuclear power plant. It’s hard to find this kind of serious activity amusing but I was struck by exactly how much the activity looks like the reverse of coal mining! In a very characteristically Finnish move, they have made a very moody movie called Into Eternity which has just been released. It got a good review in the Telegraph and the Guardian who were both impressed by the profound questions asked by the film.

UK ‘Plans’

In contrast to Finland (with 4 nuclear reactors on 2 sites), the UK (19 nuclear reactors on 9 sites) has made almost no progress. There have been numerous proposals and false starts, but there is an utter lack of political leadership in this area. Hopefully we will be inspired by the rationality of Finnish programme. But I doubt it.

Dear Reader: If you have any details on the current state of UK proposals would be very welcome.

The future?

December 20, 2010
Picture showing the Word Lens iPhone app in action

Picture showing the Word Lens iPhone app in action

A while ago I wrote a couple of articles (here and here) on how hard it can be to recognise ‘the future’ when one sees it. Well today I saw something which definitely looks like the future, in fact I was sure it was a spoof at first. It’s a product for the iPhone called Word Lens and it instantly translates text from one language to another. So one simply holds up the phone so that its built in camera is looking at the target text and the screen shows the view – but the with text in a different language! The text is rendered in fonts and colours similar to the original text so it looks passably similar – it looks like a miracle! The Word Lens web site which has a couple video clips of the product in action.

I have two colleagues at work who regularly compete to ‘out-app’ each other – one of them shows off  an app for producing images of the night sky that change as one moves the phone around  – and the other will respond with an app which can measure the ambient magnetic fields. There is a whole ‘app universe‘ out there, but this is the first thing I have seen which combines relatively simple ideas like word recognition, and text translation to make an app that looks like it has been beamed back from the future. If I ever get an iPhone, I will definitely get one of these! And when will I get an iPhone?  In the future!

Ice Cream Recipes

December 15, 2010
Making Ice Cream with liquid nitrogen

Making Ice Cream with liquid nitrogen

One of the highlights of Protons for Breakfast is making ice cream almost instantly with just a few fresh ingredients and some liquid nitrogen. A couple of people have asked me recently for the recipe, and so I thought I would just make a note of it here. Please note,

Base Mixture

  • Custard ……. 1 litre
  • Single Cream…… 0.6 litre
  • Icing Sugar ……. 0.25 kg


  • Chocolate: Base Mixture + 50 g of Cocoa
  • Ginger: Base Mixture + 1 jar of Tesco Ginger Preserve
  • Rum and Raisin: Base Mixture + 200 g raisins soaked in rum (Adults only)
  • Strawberry: Base Mixture + 500 g fresh strawberries sliced thinly
  • Golden Syrup & Crunchie: + Improbably large amount of Golden Syrup and a smashed up Crunchie Bar
  • Orange Sorbet: 1 litre orange juice + 0.25 k g Icing sugar

Have you got a recipe you would like to share? If so, leave a comment on the blog and I will add your recipe to the article.


  • Ideally use a large  ceramic mixing bowl. Failing that, polythene is good, but fragile when cold, and lastly metal is OK, but gets cold making it difficult to hold at the rim. Saucepans are also possible mixing vessels
  • Put dry powders in bowl first (Cocoa, sugar) and add liquids after. Stir gently with a spoon before electric mixing. This minimises dust.
  • Mix thoroughly with an electric hand mixer. This adds air bubbles which improves quality and makes the ice cream more attractive.
  • None of the quantities involved are critical but modest accuracy helps to plan the amount of ingredients required.
  • Segregate dairy from non-dairy utensils


  • Add liquid nitrogen to the mix while stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon.
  • Add liquid nitrogen in 150 ml polystyrene cups. This minimises (a) the possibility of damage from accidental spills and (b) the chances of really getting the ice cream mixing dangerously cold.
  • It should take around 8 cups to cool 1 litre of mixture
  • The mixture needs to be quite thick and it is hard work. The mixture will freeze to the outside of the bowl: Don’t worry. Keep mixing. At the end, scrape off the frozen stuff at the edge with a spoon


  • Ensure the mixture is not too cold
  • Serve with a scoop into a cornet. For dairy intolerant people offer the sorbet. For gluten intolerant people offer sorbet without a cornet (spoon and plastic container)
  • Segregate dairy from non-dairy utensils.
  • Wear hygienic gloves (cornet hand mainly)
  • If the mixture softens, add a little liquid nitrogen

Hans Rosling: You’re my Hero

December 8, 2010
Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling

In general, I avoid hero worship. But for Hans Rosling I make an exception. His talents as a communicator are impressive – see the links below – but he is my hero for a much simpler reason: his positivity. I have never heard a person speak so clearly and then felt that for all the depressing news we hear day upon day; and for the knowledge we now have of our own privilege, and of widespread human inhumanity. For all that – and accepting all that – not denying it – if one keeps one’s eye on the data, one can see a pattern evolving. And that pattern is a pattern of progress. For boldly asserting this is not just possible, but that it is happening right now, Hans Rosling, I name you as ‘My Hero’.

Hans Rosling

His TED talks are inspiring. If you have not seen these talks: I urge you to make the time. It will change your perspective

And finally the Gapminder foundation – named after the famous announcement on the London Underground – now funded by Google. Gapminder is the software used to produce Hans Rosling’s amazing graphics and it’s available free for you to play with.

I really don’t know anything about Hans Rosling. This is the name of a human being I do not know. I only see glimpses on television and the internet. But what I see fills me with admiration for his insights and his optimism.

May it happen to you.

My Calculator

December 6, 2010
Casio fx120 Calculator

Casio fx120 Calculator purchased in 1978

I was just answering the feedback from Protons for Breakfast this weekend when I reached for my calculator to work out the skin depth of microwaves in a steel plate.

And all of a sudden I realised just how long I had had this calculator by my side. I recall buying it in Lewis’s Department store in Manchester in the summer of 1978, with my first girlfriend Janice PIlling at my side. As I recall, it cost £28. It was just few weeks before I headed off to university, and she persuaded me to buy the fx120 with 10 digits of resolution rather than a cheaper version which cost a few pounds less. I thought about all the calculations this calculator had helped me with – in laboratory classes, projects, exams, my PhD and beyond – and how I had  eventually come to understand all the buttons on the front – even the mysterious [HYP] button.

And in that moment I was filled with admiration for the engineers who created this device. It has suffered all kinds of spills and knocks throughout the years, and it still works perfectly. Indeed, it is possibly the best value object I have ever purchased.

Solar Variability

December 3, 2010


Composite total solar irradiance - how the brightness of the Sun has changed over the last 35 years

Composite total solar irradiance - how the brightness of the Sun has changed over the last 35 years. Click to enlarge.

While browsing the web for links for my previous post, I came across a page on the web site of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies asking the question ‘How hot was the summer of 2010‘. It’s a dense page and I don’t particularly recommend it, but on it I found the graph above. It shows the intensity of solar radiation reaching the atmosphere above the Earth for the last 35 years. It is an amazing graph. There is the clearly visible 11 year cycle of solar activity that can be seen in sunspot activity, and also some indication that the Sun is currently at a minimum in its output slightly deeper than its previous minima.

I could talk about this graph all night but I really must go to bed. But before I do, let me mention two things

  • Firstly, it has not been constructed easily! You can read about some of the details here – again a difficult page to read. My colleagues at NPL are working with this institute to try to improve their measurements and increase confidence in these results.
  • Secondly, the changes in solar intensity reaching the Earth amount to around 0.25 watts per square metre. Our best estimate for the effect of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is that they are warming the Earth (technically ‘forcing the climate’) by around 2 watts per square metre – 8 times as much.

So as Zebedee used to say, “Time for bed”: Goodnight 🙂

Climate Change and Weather

December 3, 2010
The UK covered in snow

The UK covered in snow. Click for large picture to open in a new window.

It’s a little colder than usual in the UK at the moment, even though globally this looks like being another warm year – possibly one the three warmest on record. Noticing this reminds me of two particular features of discussions about global warming.

Perspective: In the UK, the winter of 2009-2010 was cold, and the summer was not particularly warm. And this winter 2010-2011 has started off with a strikingly cold period in which temperatures around the UK have been at or close to zero and have fallen to -27 °C in northern Scotland. So from a UK perspective it is shocking to learn that globally this looks like being one of the three warmest years on record. Looking back, there were particularly warm events – perhaps most notably the extreme heat in Russia which led to widespread fires and even a ban on the export of wheat. And to me thus just emphasises the complexity of weather and climate. It is hard for us as individuals to understand the long timescales on which climate evolves, especially in the face of the large variability of weather on daily monthly and annual timescales.

The big effect of small changes: The ‘cold snap’ is actually not that extreme in weather terms – but it has drastically affected life in the UK. There have been road closures, school closures, crops have been left in the field and entire villages have been shut off. If this kind of weather became more common in the UK, even though it would represent only a relatively minor climate change- it would change the way we live and work – and cost a good deal of money as we adapted. Similarly, if equally minor changes in weather patterns became more common in poorer regions then it is easy to see how even relatively minor changes could be catastrophic.

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