Archive for March, 2012

News from Southern California

March 29, 2012
Schedule D

In Southern California electricity becomes more expensive the more you use. This is a rational system for the pricing of a valuable resource. Table is from the Southern California Edison Co.

After a busy week at the 9th International Temperature Symposium, I am spending a few days in El Segundo, a pleasant small town near Los Angeles. I am staying with my friend from school, the world famous Brain Imaging Specialist, Richard Leahy.

The contrasts between the US and the UK are striking, and they are often not at all what one might have expected. In Europe the USA is often portrayed as ‘Energy Satan’ but based on a cursory inspection of the local paper and Richard’s electricity bill, this isn’t fair.

In the LA Times I read that the Environmental Protection Agency has announced that any new power plant in the US will have to meet carbon dioxide emission requirements that for all practical purposes, bans new coal-fired plant. Since coal generation is the cheapest form of electricity generation this is a major and difficult step. And one which has not been taken by the UK or the EU.

Most amazingly, the more electricity one uses, the more one has to pay. This is a rational way to charge for a precious resource, and should (IMHO) be used more widely. It provides a direct incentive for people to use less electricity, resulting in less emissions and less resource use. The price rise is quite steep:

  • For the first 10 kWh used each day the charge is around 8 pence per unit.
  • For the next 3 kWh used each day the charge is around 10 pence per unit.
  • For the next 7 kWh used each day the charge is around 15 pence per unit.
  • For the next 10 kWh used each day the charge is around 18 pence per unit.
  • Anything above this is the charged at around 20 pence per unit.

The system is not without disadvantages. One downside is that in order to ensure fairness, there are number of factors which determine ‘baseline’ electricity allocation and that makes it difficult to work out what the actual price is! But overall I think it represents a practical balance between fairness and freedom.

Anyway – I am off to ‘soak up some rays’. Stay Cool ūüôā

The Jeremy Clarkson Happiness Index

March 26, 2012
Clarkson Happiness Index

How happy can you get? The Clarkson Happiness Index(TM) shows that the more cars you own, the happier you become.

Many readers may be familiar with¬†Jeremy Clarkson, a popular journalist who generally writes on the topic of ‘motoring’. He represents the views of ¬†an embattled social group who define themselves by their ownership of cars.

Clarkson actually does a great deal more than write articles and present television programmes, and the graph at the head of this article shows the results of research by the influential¬†Clarkson Institute.¬†The data show conclusively that not owning a car causes misery (a score of zero on the Clarkson Happiness Index‚ĄĘ), and that the more cars one owns, the happier one becomes.

The result will be a boost for the car industry whose main aim is to increase to the net sum of human happiness. It shows that their current strategy – which involves making and selling as many cars as possible – is clearly optimal.

The Clarkson Institute results¬†¬†differ from the previous results from informal surveys which suggested that not owning a car did not cause terminal depression. Indeed, it had been previously believed that people could lead ‘normal’ lives without owning a car at all! Such people would find it hard to identify with the universal human experiences described in Clarkson’s best selling books:

  • The Joy of Parking : in which Clarkson describes the satisfaction of parking a car in a major city. How I laughed!
  • M1 to M1¬†: which describes an almost inconceivable circumnavigation of the entire M25!

The new Clarkson Institute research¬†makes clear that results of earlier research were flawed. Previously people had ¬†believed that although owning a motor car generally brought an increase in happiness, owning more motor cars resulted in relatively little extra happiness. Such informal research was seen as potentially limiting the growth of the car industry. The error appears to have occurred because of a flawed concept of happiness which the Clarkson Institute refer to as ‘hippy’ happiness. This ‘hippy happiness’ index counted things like ‘not spending time in a car’ as a positive influence on happiness! The¬†Clarkson Happiness Index‚ĄĘ has finally skewered that lie. And on that bombshell… I have to go to bed.

Clarkson Happiness Index 3

The result of discredited research had previous suggested that not owning a car did not cause misery. It suggested that owning a car often did make people happier, but subsequent cars brought relatively little added happiness.

I love James Hansen

March 23, 2012
James Hansen being arrested

James Hansen being arrested. Photo Credit: Ben Powless

A few years ago I wanted to distribute a copy of an article in the Scientific American to the Protons for Breakfast class. I e-mailed the journal to ask their permission and they told me that the copyright resided with James Hansen, the author. I e-mailed him, barely expecting a reply, but instead received a friendly and positive reply: I immediately liked him.

I then learned a bit a more about him and my admiration has only increased.

Take 17 minutes to watch his talk at TED. He is spectacularly unspectacular, but for me that just makes what he has to say all the more dramatic.

James Hansen’s talk at TED¬†(Link corrected: Thanks Ed)

I am not a climate scientist. I am physicist who has stumbled into this field and I am trying to make sense of it all. James Hansen is a climate scientist and his genuine alarm at the prospect facing humanity is clear. I don’t know if his fears will become reality, but I find his reliance on science rather than rhetoric very powerful.

When I hear him speak I feel I am listening to a human being who understands enough to feel compelled to shout ‘Fire’ in the ‘cinema’ of the modern world. He feels that no matter what the consequences, we must face up to the climate challenge ahead. Being prepared to be arrested for his insistence that the US government should listen to what the science (they have paid for!) ¬†has to say seems like an act of great bravery to me.

Is this a picture of Earth?

March 21, 2012
One of these images is a photograph of the Earth. The other isn't. So which is which? And what is the other one? (Images courtesy of NASA)

One of these images is a photograph of the Earth. The other isn't. So which is which? And what is the other one? (Images courtesy of NASA)

Friends. Fellow humans. We live on an amazing planet. And I feel priveliged to belong to the first generation in all of Earth’s history who have seen our planet as viewed from space. As we beat ourselves up for our collective failure to safeguard our planet, I feel it is worthwhile to pause and realise just how recently we acquired a truly global perspective.

The image on the left is a photograph of the Earth taken on a Hasslebad camera by an astronaut on Apollo 17 who, 28,000 miles out from Earth, looked out the window and happened to find the Earth illuminated fully. Since you can see Antarctica in daylight you can tell this must be in the southern hemisphere summer. When the camera was returned to Earth, the film was developed and the image revealed – there were no digital previews in 1972!

The image on the right is a fabrication. It uses ‘data’ acquired by a low Earth orbit satellite (Suomi) which is cleverly pasted together as described here.

Illustration of the way in which the right hand image was fabricated

Illustration of the way in which the right-hand image was fabricated. Despite being acquired by a satellite at a height of around 300 miles, it simulates the view from much further away. Image courtesy of NASA.

So what do we conclude? The view is no less amazing for having been simulated. And the whole Earth perspective it represents is as much a philosophical perspective as a physical one. But despite the ubiquity of a similar image as the default iPhone desktop, I find the original more emotionally powerful. The fact that an individual human being took the picture on the boldest adventure of a generation somehow resonates with me.

The six and a half minute video below describes in more detail how the images are made – it is shockingly complicated. Enjoy ūüôā

What Science Management has learned from International Shipping

March 19, 2012
A container ship

A container ship. What do you think is in the containers? Image from

You may have noticed that it is possible to obtain goods which were manufactured in other countries. In fact, unless you are reading this in China, it is almost impossible not to! One element underlying the mystical appearance of goods from half-way around the world is the humble shipping container.

Standardising the size of the container has transformed world trade. What’s in the containers? Who cares – it makes no difference. Oranges or computers? The container is placed on a lorry at the factory or farm, taken to a dock, loaded, shipped, unloaded, and delivered by lorry or train. The contents of the container are incidental and the fact that the physical containers are all the same size, independent of content has dramatically lowered the cost of shipping.

And that got me to thinking about the way science is managed.

Science is awkward. It forms an unbroken network connecting ideas and techniques; it implicitly involves ‘the unknown’; and is, famously, impossible to manage. The solution has been the containerisation of science via a concept known as ‘a project’. A ‘project’ has specified inputs and outputs, a defined cost and duration, and is eminently manageable. However, in order to fit science into containers, it has to be cut up into small chunks. The most successful projects actually cut one segment adrift from the entire network, and in that way the specified goals of the project may be reached without confusing interference from other ‘branches’ of the tree of science.

Science Project

The tree of science and a project manager's vision. Can you tell which is which? Image from

Containerisation of science can be wasteful.¬†Small scientific ideas (from which large ideas grow) are particularly delicate and easily-harmed or even killed by the process. Medium-sized scientific¬†investigations¬†(which is the kind of work which employs most scientists) inevitably become less ambitious and¬†adventurous¬†as a result of the career-limiting prospect of ‘not delivering’. However¬†containerisation is¬†critical to the very¬†existence of large scientific endeavours such as the Large Hadron-Collider. While the public, or a company, might risk a few thousand pounds, or even a few million pounds on a poorly defined investigation, no one would risk a few billion pounds!

Reading this you might think I am slyly denigrating Science Management. No. People managing science – and yes, managers are people too – have an impossible job. And the containerisation of science is their response to being asked to spend taxpayers money or investors money on activities that seem to have poorly-defined beginnings and ends! The only fixed-point appears to be the constant activity of people called scientists- and yes, scientists are people too – doing something they call ‘science’.

It is possible to become depressed at the limited conception of science implicit in the ‘project containerisation’ procedure. But if that is your disposition,¬†I think there are probably better things to become depressed about. In fact the ‘containerisation’ of science is probably a good thing – or at least inevitable. As the picture at the head of the article shows, containers can be stacked together, and hence taken from beginning to end at minimum cost. And the contents will eventually emerge and presumably re-form into their non-containerised form, reconnected to the branches of the tree of science.


Signal Generator

March 16, 2012
Signal Generator

Who wouldn't want to turn their iPhone into a Signal Generator for 69p?

Signal Generator is an app I have actually used more than once!

  • In the lab we were testing an acoustic thermometer (as you do) and we wanted to test the effect of white noise. I realised that Signal Generator was on my iPhone and in a trice our problem was solved.
  • In the last couple of talks I have given about acoustic thermometry, I have been able to allow people to experience 7.5 kHz ¬†– thanks to this little app

So if your line of business involves acoustic thermometry, or acoustics, or music, or you just want to know low the upper limit of your hearing has fallen, this is a great little app. It does use up a lot of power, but that is about the only bad thing I can think to say it about it.,

  • Frequencies can be entered on a key pad or on a dial
  • Frequency range is from 1 Hz to 20 kHz with 1 Hz resolution
  • Musical tones can be selected
  • Sine wave, square wave or triangular waves are possible, as are ‘white’ and ‘pink’ noise.
  • One channel or two can be selected

So if you want an audio signal generator in your pocket: this is the app for you.

Have a nice weekend.

School IT

March 14, 2012
Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi computer. The machine costs £20 and is a fully-fledged computer. The user has to 'do' things and 'know' things in order to make it work!

Above all, education should empower children. And yet when it comes to Information Technology, IT, we are in danger of doing the opposite. Training courses such as the¬†European Computer Driver’s Licence course show students how to use¬†Microsoft’s ubiquitous ‘Office’ suite of applications and this is useful. So for example, learning to drive a car is useful: but it’s also not very difficult. And learning to use ‘Office’ applications is similarly, not very difficult.

In contrast, learning Newton’s laws, thermodynamics and materials science is hard, and you won’t actually be able to drive a car at the end of your training. But you will be able to understand, how a car works. And not just that: you might be able to imagine different types of cars, or even aeroplanes or rockets or submarines. Similarly, teaching computer programming will not directly help students to use a word processor. But they will understand how a word processor does what it does, and maybe they will even imagine new ways to use a computer. This is genuine empowerment.¬†On this issue, if on few others, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with Michael Gove.

It is only when students take charge of computers that they become empowered, and I hope the Raspberry Pi computer will enable a resurgence in that. The Raspberry Pi is a fully-fledged but bare-bones computer costing around £20, and when it went on sale recently, it sold out in minutes. It was sold to people who are probably a bit like me. But my hope Рand the hope of the Raspberry Pi foundation Рis that it will find its way into the hands of children who will be excited by the prospect of making this device do what they want it to. In all probability this means using it to play games!

When my¬†colleagues¬†Gavin and Robin were teenagers¬†the hottest technology available¬†¬†was the¬†Sinclair Spectrum, and a key attraction was the ability to create and play games! This ability fascinated them, and now – I think as a direct result of this early experience – they incorporate a profound understanding of programming into their skill set. Even now when any of us write software that works, and we control a machine or calculate the answer to a¬†complicated¬†problem, we all smile in¬†appreciation¬†at the¬†technical¬†sweetness of the process. In the case of my own programming achievements, Gavin and Robin smile mainly in sympathy ūüôā

Being the age I am Р52 Рit was not until I reached University that I met a computer. And I loved it! Using Commodore PET, a WANG, and an Apple II I learned the power of computing to set my imagination free. As an undergraduate  I calculated the orbits of planets in systems which Newton would have found impossible! Learning to program computers empowered and inpsired me.

One could take the view that a fascination with the minutiae of computing is as relevant today as a fascination with the details of a steam engine! ‘Chill out man‘ I hear some of you say, ‘Just consume media on your iPad and be grateful‘. I respectfully disagree. Empowering our children means enabling them to be creators, and not consumers, and computer programming is one the most creative of all activities.

I love Meteorologists

March 12, 2012
Drought 2011

Map of the UK showing how rainfall in 2010 varied from the normal amount expected based on the averages from 1971 to 2000. Map from Met Office Web Site

I was brought up in Manchester where, famously, it rains. Living in Teddington in West London, I notice that it doesn’t rain as much as it did when I grew up. But I was still surprised to find that the South East of England is in a drought! And that’s the point of this article: individually we have a very poor perspective on the slow changes in weather patterns that we call ‘climate’.

Fortunately, I live in the UK and we have possibly the best meteorological service in the world! So I can look at the Met Office Web Site. There one can examine maps like the one above for a variety of climate variables, showing how data for a quantity in a particular year or month compares with the average of that quantity over a 30 year period.

Met Office Options

OPtions for plotting graphs on the Met Office Web Site. Data can be annual or monthly and a variety of meteorological variables can be plotted.

The ability to compare a year or a month with the 30 year averages is something at which we as individuals are chronically bad. But the statistics are reliable and they are available for us all – we paid for the data collection! The Met Office even have historic data from climate stations – an enormously valuable resource. So just for the hell of it I downloaded the data from Heathrow Airport. I plotted data for how the maximum daily temperature varied since 1948 – with the data averaged over a month and over a year.

Heathrow Maximum Temperature

This chart shows the maximum daily temperature at Heathrow Airport averaged over one month (blue) and one year (red) from 1950 until 2010. Data downloaded from the Met Office. Click for larger picture.

And then just for the hell of it – I had had a glass of wine! – I also plotted the decadal (10-year) averages.

Heathrow Maximum Temperature Detail

Monthly (Blue) , Annual (Red) and Decadal (Green) averages of the maximum daily temperature at Heathrow Airport from 1950 until 2010. Can you see a trend? Click for larger picture.

Plotting the decadal averages it is possible to discern that the maximum daily temperature has increased by around 1.5¬†¬įC over the last 60 years. Given the location – a major international airport – it is likely that some or all of this rise is not a signal of climate change, but an ‘urban heat island’ effect. However, that is not the point of this article. What I want to stress is this:

  • Having this data available is fantastic. We should be proud of funding a service which makes this data available.
  • You can download it for several sites in the UK and see how the data varies. Have any sites cooled?
  • There is absolutely no way that an individual human being could have sensed such a tiny change in daily maximum temperature.

So I agree with one part of the famous quotation: There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics. But in this case I think it is statistics that we need to look to in order to find truth.

If I ruled the world…

March 9, 2012

The video above is a time-lapse movie of the view from the International Space Station (ISS) as it flies through the night. And I share it with you for the simple reason I love the video. In itself it seems to me a justification of the installation of a ‘picture window’ on the ISS, and possibly of the entire project. As I mentioned before, if I ruled the world, I would chill out weekends on the ISS, put on some nice music and just float in the cupola and watch the Earth drift by.

I didn’t recognise many of the land masses on view, but at 1 minute and 9 seconds the space station is looking from over the Alps in Northern Italy down along the length of Italy. It then flies across Northern Greece, Turkey – Cyprus is visible – Israel and then Iraq at 1 minute 20 seconds.

Have a nice weekend.


The 'cupola' on the International Space Station. This is where I would hang out if I were an astronaut.

The price of petrol

March 7, 2012
Petrol Prices

In this Feb. 15, 2012 photograph, Chevron gas prices are displayed in Modesto, Calif. Gasoline prices have never been higher at this time of year. At a national average of $3.51 a gallon, gas is up 23 percent since Jan. 1. (Picture from LA Times: AP Photo/The Modesto Bee, Debbie Noda)

[Postscript: I wrote this article last week and with all the numbers in my mind I commented on a BBC site about petrol prices. I was called up and asked to speak on Radio 5’s late night ‘Let’s have a heated debate‘ programme and speak in favour of increasing petrol prices: surprisingly they were having trouble getting people to volunteer. I was extremely nervous and managed to say a couple of sentences trying to appear less mad than other people who had been lined up to support petrol price rises, but I am not sure I managed. Anyway, if it happens to you: my advice is to say ‘No’! I was later called and questioned by a BBC journalist who wrote¬†this.]

Browsing the LA Times I noticed that petrol(gasoline) prices are causing pain in the USA, and I wondered just what happens when petrol prices rise. Do we drive less? Do we trade in inefficient cars and buy smaller models? Or do we just complain and hope someone will lower the price. Thinking about these questions, I wrote a spreadsheet (Link here) to help me think. And I would like to share three calculations with you.

1. What is the equivalent cost in pence per litre of gasoline at $4/gallon?

  • 1 US Gallon is equal to 3.785 litres
  • 1$ is worth approximately 62.5 pence (at ¬£1 = $1.6)

So putting these together we find that $4/US gallon = 250 pence/3.785 litres which is 66 p/litre Рroughly half the cost in the UK!

2. Does it make economic sense to buy a new car? I worked out the cost of travelling 10,000 miles a year which corresponds to travelling just 23 miles to work on 220 working days. Many people travel much further. As an extreme example, let’s compare Car A which gives 30 miles per gallon (mpg) with Car B that gives 60 mpg.

  • At ¬£1.20/litre, Car A costs 19 pence per mile and ¬†Car B costs 9.5 pence per mile.

So one would save 9.5 pence for every mile driven, or ¬£940 per year.¬†To me that doesn’t seem like quite enough of an incentive to invest, say, ¬£10k in a car.

3. Does it make  ecological sense to buy a new car? Considering only carbon dioxide emissions, the calculation no longer depends on the price of fuel, but the type of fuel does make a difference. Diesel fuel has longer hydrocarbon molecules than petrol, with more carbon-carbon bonds and so has a higher energy density. Burning 1 litre of diesel emits 2.6 kg of CO2 while burning 1 litre of petrol (gasoline) emits 2.3 kg of CO2.

  • If Car A is a petrol car ¬†it would emit 3.5 tonnes of CO2 per year and if Car B is a diesel, then¬†it would emit 2.0 tonnes of CO2 per year

Wow! That is a reduction of 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per year, and that really seems like it would be worthwhile saving!

Putting these three calculations together we see the problem: Even though UK fuel prices are twice the level of prices in the US, they are still not high enough to allow people to make rational economic decisions that also make ecological sense.

Of course I have ignored many factors, including the carbon embodied in the manufacture of a car. The Guardian tells me that the Citroen C1 has 6 tonnes of embodied CO2, The Ford Mondeo has 17 tonnes of embodied CO2, the Landrover Discovery has 35 tonnes of embodied CO2. Looking at the prices of the base models in each of these ranges (£7,000, £18,000, £34,000) it seems that the base model price correlates with amount of embodied carbon:

  • Each tonne of embodied carbon adds about ¬£1,000 to cost of the base model of the car.

Surely that can’t be a coincidence!?

The spread sheet is an .xslx file and can be downloaded here

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