Archive for May, 2013

Watching Earth Breathe

May 12, 2013
Daily carbon dioxide concentration measurements for the year to May 2013. Daily measurements are shown as black dots, weekly averages as red lines, and monthly averages as blue lines.  On May 9th 2013, the daily value exceeded 400 ppm.

Daily carbon dioxide concentration measurements for the year to May 2013. Daily measurements are shown as black dots, weekly averages as red lines, and monthly averages as blue lines. On May 9th 2013, the daily value exceeded 400 ppm. Click for larger graph: Graphic is from NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory

On May 9th 2013, the observatory at Mauna Loa in Hawaii recorded a single daily reading of carbon dioxide concentration of 400.3 parts per million (ppm) – the highest value since human beings have existed as a distinct species.

This is a bit depressing for reasons we are all familiar with, but on the bright side, the annual average won’t exceed 400 ppm until 2015 ūüôā

I took the opportunity to look at the Mauna Loa data again – it is freely available – because I found the annual cycle rather curious. The graph at the head of the page shows the Earth ‘breathing’ – absorbing CO2 from May to October (Northern hemisphere summer) and then emitting it again from November to May.

The daily variations are interesting showing lots of systematic increases and decreases, presumably reflecting imperfect mixing of CO2 in the weather in the central Pacific ocean

You can see that the concentration from May 2012 to May 2013 has increased by around 3 ppm – that’s our carbon dioxide emissions – but I wondered if the annual cycle of ¬†‘breathing’ had changed over the years. After a little bit of Excel jiggery -pokery I found to my relief and surprise that there was no evidence of this. I think this means that Earth is still ‘breathing’ OK.

The annual cycle of carbon dioxide measurements at Mauna Loa plotted with the trend subtracted against month of the year. The data is colour-coded.

The annual cycle of carbon dioxide measurements at Mauna Loa plotted with the trend subtracted against month of the year. The data is colour-coded and stupidly I have used the same colour for the 2010’s as the 1970s (Doh!). But even so it looks to me like this cycle is unchanged

However the rate at which we are emitting CO2 is increasing. No news here ūüė¶

The annual increase in annually averaged CO2 concentration. Back in eth 1970s the annual incerase were just over 1 ppm per year. Now they are 2 ppm per year and above. The rate of increase is around 0.23 ppm per year per decade.

The annual increase in annually averaged CO2 concentration. Back in the 1970s the annual increase about 1.5 ppm per year. Now it is more typically 2 ppm per year and above. The rate of acceleration is around 0.23 ppm per year per decade.

Getting ready for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

May 11, 2013
Why did I buy six supporters horns today? That's right - I am getting ready for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

Why did I buy six insanely-loud supporters horns today? That’s right – I am getting ready for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

You may have noticed that the frequency of my postings has gone down lately. Sorry: I have just been too busy.

I find this distressing because writing this blog is my way of clarifying what I feel and think about the torrent of ‘science news’ that flows through our collective consciousness. The lack of time to distill my thoughts adds to my sense of permanent and irretrievable ‘backlog’.

Work is overwhelming at the moment and on top of the normal tasks, I am organising an exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. In fact I am organising two exhibits.

Their common theme concerns the likely redefinition of the units of measurement for mass and temperature: the kilogram and the kelvin.

Getting the stands ‘right’ is challenging.¬†My aim is to avoid prolonged ‘monologued’ explanations. Instead¬†I am trying have demonstrations which can seed conversations – because taking part in a dialogue feels so much better than being either the source or the target of a monologue.

The challenge is to have demonstrations that are meaningful to Fellows of the Royal Society, normal people, and school children. The demonstrations need to be simple enough to understand, but in some way surprising or delightful.

At the moment I am feeling enthusiastic about all parts of the stand, and this weekend I went shopping for bits for the demonstrations. I bought four types of sand, a candle lantern, a steam generator, and six insanely-loud supporters horns: it will all makes sense in the end!

You can follow the build up to the exhibition by following:

And of course, do feel free to come along to the exhibition itself (1st July until the 7th July 2013). If you do come, please look me up and say “hello”.

Even though it is held at the Royal Society – possibly the poshest place in London – normal people are welcome. So if you are even in the slightest bit interested in science, you will find a building full of scientists who would love to talk with you about their work.

All in all – its a pretty amazing event.

Copy this!

May 6, 2013
The Jelly Baby Wave Machine at Protons for Breakfast together with some of its constructors!

A GIANT Jelly Baby Wave Machine at Protons for Breakfast together with some of its constructors!

At school we are told ‘not to copy’. But in real life, learning to copy from people who do things well is an essential skill. But it is important to give credit to the people from whom you copy!

For example, five or six years ago I took one look at the Jelly Baby Wave Machine  and fell in love. If you are prepared to register you can see a slightly longer demonstration here. At Protons for Breakfast we make a bigger version Рabout 12 metres long Рand everyone loves it!

And then a few years ago I saw a beautifully simple demo of a motor – which I thought had been invented by Alom Shaha – and I immediately made a short film.

But in fact both these demonstrations were invented by Science Communication maestro,¬†Jonathan Sanderson¬†(This hub has links to all Jonathan’s web personas).¬†

Jonathan’s talents extend from classy cinematography and photography, to insightful story-telling, both of which are informed by a delight in science and human ingenuity.

Anyway, the other day I received a tweet Рor a ping back Рor a something Рthat indicated that Jonathan felt slightly peeved that his invention of these demonstrations had not been properly credited. Ooops.

Jonathan: If I have failed to give you full credit for your inventions – I apologise. And I hope this sets things out clearly. And Oh Yes, Thanks:-)

A piano from a plane

May 1, 2013
What happens if you through a piano from a plane?

What happens if you throw a piano from a plane? Would it be dangerous?

I think we should ban people throwing pianos out of planes!

Exactly, what would happen if you threw a piano out of a plane? Are you sure it would be dangerous?

Well, you say it’s obvious, but let me ask you some questions and then let’s see if you are so sure.

  • How long will it take to fall? Will it be 10 seconds? One minute? Two minutes? Oh! you need to know how high the plane was flying before you can tell me how long it will take to fall? What what range of times will it take? What if the plane is only just above the ground – would that be dangerous?
  • Will it break apart as it falls?¬†Pianos are not known for their aerodynamic efficiency. So could the wind actually tear it apart? Well yes, it might. It could easily loose a lid, and some internal parts.
  • How dangerous would a falling piano be?¬†Very dangerous? Well doesn’t that depend on where it fell? And in how many pieces. And the range of speeds of those pieces. And of course, there are many types of piano.

So based on this we conclude that¬†you want a blanket ban, but you don’t know exactly how long it would take to fall – that would need further research. And low altitude falls -from ¬†say 1 metre would probably not be dangerous. You don’t know how many pieces it would break into – that too would need research. And you don’t know exactly how fast each part would be travelling when it hit the ground. And you would need to know where the piano exited the plane in order assess the¬†likelihood¬†of damage.

So without further research you can’t be sure that de-planing of pianos would definitely be dangerous. And yet you want a complete ban?

Is a blanket ban appropriate? Yes! Because despite the detailed uncertainty, we all know that one way or another the piano will hit the ground and damage whatever it happens to hit.

And it’s the same with putting 35 billion of tonnes of ¬†carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every year. Lots of the details are uncertain, and much of the argument against actually doing something exploits this uncertainty. But the end result is simple to¬†calculate.

As surely as a piano thrown from a plane will hit the Earth, carbon dioxide emissions will warm it.


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