Archive for June, 2018

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

 

 


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