Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

How would you take a dinosaur’s temperature?

March 15, 2017
A tooth from a tyrannosaurus rex.

A tooth from a tyrannosaurus rex.

Were dinosaurs warm-blooded or cold-blooded?

That is an interesting question. And one might imagine that we could infer an answer by looking at fossil skeletons and drawing inferences from analogies with modern animals.

But with dinosaurs all being dead these last 66 million years or so, a direct temperature measurement is obviously impossible.

Or so I thought until earlier today when I visited the isotope facilities at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in East Kilbride.

There they have a plan to make direct physical measurements on dinosaur remains, and from these measurements work out the temperature of the dinosaur during its life.

Their cunning three-step plan goes like this:

  1. Find some dinosaur remains: They have chosen to study the teeth from tyrannosaurs because it transpires that there are plenty of these available and so museums will let them carry out experiments on samples.
  2. Analyse the isotopic composition of carbonate compounds in the teeth. It turns out that the detailed isotopic composition of carbonates changes systematically with the temperature at which the carbonate was formed. Studying the isotopic composition of the carbon dioxide gas given off when the teeth are dissolved reveals that subtle change in carbonate composition, and hence the temperature at which the carbonate was formed.
  3. Study the ‘formation temperature’ of the carbonate in dinosaur teeth discovered in a range of different climates. If dinosaurs were cold-blooded, (i.e. unable to control their own body temperature) then the temperature ought to vary systematically with climate. But if dinosaurs were warm-blooded, then the formation temperature should be the same no matter where they lived (in the same way that human body temperature doesn’t vary with latitude).
A 'paleo-thermometer'

A ‘paleo-thermometer’

I have written out the three step plan above, and I hope it sort of made sense.

So contrary to what I said at the start of this article, it is possible – at least in principle – to measure the temperature of a dinosaur that died at least 66 million years ago.

But in fact work like this is right on the edge of ‘the possible’. It ought to work. And the people doing the work think it will work.

But the complexities of the measurement in Step 2 appeared to me to be so many that it must be possible that it won’t work. Or not as well as hoped.

However I don’t say that as a criticism: I say it with admiration.

To be able to even imagine making such a measurement seems to me to be on a par with measuring the cosmic microwave background, or gravitational waves.

It involves stretching everything we can do to its limits and then studying the faint structures and patterns that we detect. Ghosts from the past, whispering to us through time.

I was inspired.


Thanks to Adrian Boyce and Darren Mark for their time today, and apologies to them both if I have mangled this story!

Light Sabre Research

March 5, 2017


Sometimes one finds oneself by chance at the cutting edge of a new field of research.

This Saturday, I found myself in a secret laboratory in the heart of England, and I was fortunate enough to try out the latest in Light Sabre technology.

It’s risky: It’s scary: but if one is guided by ‘the force’ then great things may be possible.

May the force be with you.

Remarkably Unremarkable

February 24, 2017


The ‘Now’

‘The future’ is a mysterious place.

And our first encounter with ‘the future’ is ‘the now’.

Today I felt like I encountered the future when I drove a car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. And far from being mysterious it was remarkably unremarkable.

The raw driving experience was similar to using a conventional car with automatic transmission.

But instead of filling the car with liquid fuel derived from fossil plant matter,  I filled it with hydrogen gas at a pressure 700 times greater than atmospheric pressure.


This was achieved using a pump similar in appearance to a conventional petrol pump.


This was the interface to some industrial plant which generated 80 kg of hydrogen each day from nothing more than electricity and water. This is enough to fill roughly 20 cars.

This is small scale in comparison with a conventional petrol station, but these are early days. We are still at the interface with the future. Or one possible future.

The past

Some years ago, I remember making measurements of the temperature and humidity inside a fuel cell during operation.

The measurements were difficult, and the results surprising – to me at least.

And at the end of the project I remember thinking “Well, that was interesting, but it will never work in practice”.

Allow me please to eat my words: it works fine.

Today I was enormously impressed by the engineering prowess that made the fuel cell technology transparent to the driver.

The future

What I learned today was that the technology to make cars which emit no pollution at their point of use exists, now.

The range of this car is 300 miles and it takes only 5 minutes to re-fill. When there are more re-filling stations than the dozen or so currently around the UK, this will become a very attractive proposition.

I have no idea if fuel cell cars will become ubiquitous. Or whether they will become novelties like steam-powered cars from the end of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps this will represent the high-water mark of this technology. Or perhaps this will represent the first swallow in a summer of fuel cell cars.

None of us can know the future. But for the present, I was impressed.

It felt like the future was knocking on the door and asking us to hurry up.

Coping by counting

February 12, 2017


Just 6 weeks ago, I reflected that 2016 hadn’t been as bad as some previous years.

Sadly the start to 2017 has been a nightmare. But I am trying to stay positive.

As many people know, one way to cope with stress is to breathe deeply, and count slowly.

Following this reasoning, I created the chart above which allows me to count down the months  until I can claim my state pension.

In fact I could possibly retire a few months before that. The single red figure in April 2025 is the date that our mortgage will be paid off – and that is less than 100 months away!

It’s a long count but if I just keep calm and remember to breathe…. two…three…,  I think I can count down from 107.


If you would like to do something similar:

  • You can calculate the number of days between different events here:
  • You can find out your State Pension Age here

Keep calm!

5.What was all that about?

January 3, 2017


Interviewer: So Michael, why did you write the last four articles (1,2,3,4) on the transmission of infrared radiation through the atmosphere: that stuff is already well known?

Me: I know, but I was irritated by a friend of a friend who wrote an “exposé” of why carbon dioxide can’t cause global warming.

Interviewer: Curious. Were they an expert in Climate Science? Or had they made a study of radiative transfer through the atmosphere?

Me: Neither. I think they were an electrical engineer.

Interviewer: An electrical engineer? Why did they think that their assessment outweighed the view of the large number of experts who had studied this intensively over the last century or so?

Me: I think it is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect in which people who don’t know about a subject fail to appreciate how little they know. We are all affected by it at times.

Interviewer: OK, So you wrote all this just to set them straight?

Me: Yes, and hopefully to help others who are curious about radiative transfer. It is complicated.

Interviewer: And how do you feel about it now?

Me: Numb and Tired. But OK. I like one or two of the graphs I have created, and I enjoyed learning how to make animated GIFs. I have also learned quite a bit about MODTRAN.

Interviewer: But…

Me: But the articles took literally weeks to prepare and I still don’t feel satisfied with them. However now, if I see anyone else write stuff like this:

The bottom line is that once Carbon Dioxide reaches a concentration that makes the atmosphere completely opaque in the band where it resonates,  further increases in the concentration cannot result in any additional blocking

I will know exactly where to send them. And so will you.


When will the North Pole become the North Pool?

December 16, 2016


It is a sad fact, but it is likely that within my lifetime it will become possible to sail to the North Pole. I am 56.

Tragically it is also true that there is absolutely nothing that you or I can do about it.

In fact, even in the unlikely event that humanity en masse decided it wanted to prevent this liquefaction, there would be literally nothing we could do to stop it.

The carbon dioxide we have already put in the atmosphere will warm the Earth’s surface for a few decades yet even if we stopped all emissions right now.


The particular line of causation between carbon dioxide emissions and warming of the arctic is long, and difficult to pin down.

Similarly it is difficult to determine if a bull in a china shop broke a particular vase, or whether it was a shop helper trying to escape.

Nonetheless, in both cases the ultimate cause is undeniable.

What does the figure show?

The animation at the head of the page, stolen from NASA’s Earth Observatory, is particularly striking and clear.

The animation shows data from 1979 to this past November 2016 showing the extent of sea ice versus the month of year.

Initially the data is stable: each year is the same. But since the year 2000, we have seen reductions in the amount of sea ice which remains frozen over the summer.

In 2012, an additional one million square kilometres – four times the area of England Scotland and Wales combined – melted.

The summer of 2016 showed the second largest melt ever.

The animation highlights the fact that the Arctic has been so warm this autumn, that Sea Ice is forming at an unprecedentedly slow rate.

The Arctic Sea Ice extent for November 2016 is about one million square kilometres less than what we might expect it to be at this time of year.

My Concern 

Downloading the data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, I produced my own graph of exactly the same data used in the animation.

The graph below lacks the drama of the animated version at the head of the article. But it shows some things more clearly.


This static graph shows that the minimum ice extent used to be stable at around 7 ± 1 million square kilometres. The minimum value in 2012 was around half that.

The animated graph at the head of the article highlights the fact that the autumn freeze (dotted blue circle) is slower than usual – something which is not clear in the static graph.

My concern is that if this winter’s freeze is ‘weak’, then the ice formed will be thin, and then next summer’s melt is likely to be especially strong.

And that raises a big question at the very heart of our culture.

When the North Pole becomes the North Pool, where will Santa live?


Global Warming for Electrical Engineers

November 21, 2016
An electrical analogy to the flux of energy from the surface of the Sun energy as it reaches and then leaves the Earth's surface on its journey into deep space. If these fluxes are not equal then the Earth's surface temperature will change.

An electrical analogy to the flux of energy from the surface of the Sun as it reaches and then leaves the Earth’s surface on its journey into deep space.

I haven’t written much about global warming lately, but I have noticed that the resurgence of the ‘alt-right‘ seems to have emboldened people to express ‘sceptical’ views.

People expressing these views are in general no more or less stupid than anyone else. However, they do fail to understand that their own competence in one area, or the popularity of their views in polls, has no bearing on the correctness or otherwise of their understanding of anthropogenic global warming.

In a recent interaction with a Nameless American, it became clear that despite being able to assemble the facts, this individual was unable to understand the basic process by which the surface temperature of the Earth comes to be what it is. And hence they could not understand why it is rational to expect that increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are affecting the surface temperature of the Earth.

So here, for that Nameless American, is Global Warming for Electrical Engineers: Apologies to everyone else.

Basic Circuit

Figure 1: A simple electrical circuit. The key feature is that the same current flows through both resistors R1 and R2.

Figure 1: A simple electrical circuit. The key feature is that the same current flows through both resistors R1 and R2.

The basic circuit required to understand the way in which the surface temperature of the Earth is established is shown in Figure 1. Two key features of this resistor-divider circuit are that:

  1. The current flow through circuit elements R1 and R2 is the same.
  2. The DC steady state operating point of the circuit is determined just by the resistances and the voltage of the DC power supply

Now the analogy we will make is this:

  • Voltage is analogous to temperature: In the same way that voltage differences drive electrical currents, temperature differences drive energy flows.
  • V0 is like the surface temperature of the Sun
  • V1 is like the surface temperature of the Earth
  • V2 is like the temperature of the deep space – almost absolute zero.

Importantly, the only way to get thermal energy on or off the Earth is by electromagnetic radiation – mainly visible and infrared light.

Notice that the surface temperature of the Earth is determined (in the steady state) by the requirement that the average flux of energy onto the Earth’s surface is the same as the average flux off the Earth’s surface.

This is analogous to the way Kirchoff’s current law is used to establish the steady state DC voltage V1.

Figure 2: We are drawing an analogy between the flow of electrical current through resistors in series and the flow of energy from the Sun onto the Earth's surface and then secondly off the Earth's surface and out into space.

Figure 2: We are drawing an analogy between the flow of electrical current through resistors in series and the flow of energy from the Sun onto the Earth’s surface and then secondly off the Earth’s surface and out into space.

How the analogy works

The surface of the Sun is hotter than the Earth: Radiation travels from the surface of the Sun through space and arrives at the top of the atmosphere.

For the moment let’s forget about the radiation reflected from the cloud tops, and consider only radiation which travels through the atmosphere and reaches the Earth’s surface. We’ll discuss the effect of this assumption in Subtlety #2 below.

The radiation which travels through the atmosphere is mostly visible light – the sunlight which warms the Earth’s surface.

The resistance R1 then determines the amount of heat delivered to the Earth’s surface from the Sun’s Surface. The actual value of R1 is determined by factors such as the distance from the Sun to the Earth.

Now we consider the re-radiation of thermal energy from the Earth’s surface. This is in the form of infrared light. In the same way that warming happens mainly on the ‘day’ side of the Earth, cooling happens mainly on the ‘night’ side of the Earth.

Whereas the atmosphere is mainly transparent to incoming radiation, the atmosphere is mainly opaque to infrared radiation. If we humans could see at the relevant the wavelengths, and looked up at the night sky, we would not see the stars, but just a ‘fog’.

The atmosphere would appear to be totally opaque at these wavelengths: but it is not.

When we shine light into a fog, it is multiply scattered and only a tiny amount of light makes it out the other side of the fog. We can consider the fog as presenting an impedance R2 to the transmission of radiation out to the heat sink of deep space.

The surface temperature of the Earth is determined in the steady state by the requirement that it is hot enough to ‘drive’ infrared radiation through the impedance R2 and out into space.

  • If the Earth’s surface temperature is ‘too low’, more energy will arrive on the surface of the Earth than leaves and the surface temperature will rise.
  • Similarly, if the Earth’s surface temperature is ‘too high’, more energy will leave the surface of the Earth than arrives and the surface temperature will fall.

Eventually, a steady-state is reached: a dynamic equilibrium. The temperature of the Earth’s surface becomes hot enough, that it glows brightly enough to drive sufficient infrared radiation through the Earth’s atmosphere and out into space.

In our circuit, this is equivalent to the voltage V1 rising until it reaches a value sufficient to drive the operating current  through the resistor R2.

Anthropogenic global warming is caused by an increase in the impedance R2. For a fixed surface temperature, this reduces the amount of radiation which leaves the Earth’s surface and reaches space.

In order to re-establish the equilibrium and drive the requisite energy flux through the atmosphere and out into space, the temperature of Earth’s surface needs to rise

Subtlety #1

The electrical analogy in Figure 1 is ridiculously simple, so let’s make it more complicated and (very slightly) more realistic.

Figure 2: Ra, Rb etc represent transmission through the atmosphere in different wavelength bands.

Figure 2: Ra, Rb etc represent transmission through the atmosphere in different wavelength bands.

Figure 2 replaces a single resistance R2 with an array of parallel resistances each of which radiatively couples the surface of the Earth to the coolness of space. We could imagine that each parallel resistance represents (say) transmission in a different wavelength band.

The important observation is that increasing the impedance any of Ra, Rb etc always increases, the total impedance R2. Since the current through the circuit is fixed, this will cause an increase in the voltage V2.

Considering our Earth analogy, if we decrease the transparency of the atmosphere to infrared light in any waveband, this will increase the overall impedance. Since the flux of radiation onto the Earth is unaffected, this will cause an increase in the surface temperature of the Earth.

Of particular interest is the radiation which leaves the Earth’s surface in wavelength bands that are absorbed by carbon dioxide molecules.

Aside on Subtlety #1: ‘blocked bands’

The conclusion of the previous section is that if we make the atmosphere more opaque in any wavelength band, the surface temperature of the Earth will increase. This conclusion is inescapable. Unless…

…The only time that increasing a number makes no difference to the number’s value is if that number is already infinite.

So global warming sceptics frequently argue that ‘the carbon dioxide bands are blocked‘. They argue that carbon dioxide absorbs infrared light so effectively, that at certain specific wavelengths the atmosphere is (practically) 100% opaque.

Their argument is that increasing the amount of carbon dioxide cannot therefore increase the opacity of the Earth’s atmosphere any further. The problem with this argument is that it is ‘just wrong‘.

[We can see why in various ways, but firstly I feel compelled to note that water vapour is dramatically more effective than carbon dioxide at blocking infrared light, and yet sceptics don’t apply the same argument to water vapour!]

The actual mechanism of transmission of infrared light through the atmosphere is complex: it is illustrated schematically in Figure 3.

At infrared wavelengths the atmosphere looks ‘foggy’. Radiation travels through ‘fog’ in a process involving multiple scatterings – think of car headlights shining into fog: some of the light comes back in the direction towards your headlights and some goes forward and sideways.


Figure 3: Illustration of the energy flux onto and off the Earth's surface. On average, roughly 240 W/m^2 of solar energy reaches the Earth;s surface. This is re-radiated as infrared red light at wavelengths at which the atmosphere is opaque. The light is scattered, and some comes back to the Earth, and some makes its way further up the atmosphere. Eventually the light reaches a height - typically 6 km to 10 km - where it can radiate freely into space.

Figure 3: Illustration of the energy flux onto and off the Earth’s surface. On average, roughly 240 W/m^2 of solar energy reaches the Earth;s surface. This is re-radiated as infrared red light at wavelengths at which the atmosphere is opaque. The light is scattered, and some comes back to the Earth, and some makes its way further up the atmosphere. Eventually the light reaches a height – typically 6 km to 10 km – where it can radiate freely into space.

This process of multiple scattering goes on repeatedly until radiation makes it to an elevation of typically 6 km to 10 km above the Earth’s surface at which point the atmosphere is thin enough to allow radiation directly out into space.

Importantly, there are no ‘completely blocked bands’. If there were, our satellites would fly over the Earth at night and find no emission at all at some wavelengths: that is not what is seen.

What is seen is the ‘top of the fog’: the radiation from the highest part of the ‘fog’. Radiation at all wavelengths does eventually make its way through the atmosphere in a process of multiple random scatterings.

Increasing the concentration of carbon dioxide makes the atmosphere less transparent in some wavelength bands and, as we saw in the previous section, that inevitably drives an increase in the temperature of the Earth’s surface.

Calculating the sensitivity of the Earth’s surface temperature to an increase in carbon dioxide concentration is complex, but in fact our estimates have not changed much since Arrhenius’s first estimate in 1896.

Arrhenius calculated that doubling carbon dioxide concentration from the historical value of 280 ppm  to 560 ppm would cause an increase of 4 °C.

Now using supercomputers and complex climate models we estimate this sensitivity to be 3 °C ± 1.5 °C. The robustness of this estimate in the face of the overwhelming additional calculational complexity is testament to the fundamental simplicity of the physics involved.

Subtlety #2

This article is already long enough, but back when I was a few hours younger, I said I would comment on the effect of reflections at the top of the Earth’s atmosphere.

We can model this by splitting R1 into two series resistances describing transmission from the surface of the Sun to the top of atmosphere (R1a) and subsequent transmission through the atmosphere to the surface of the Earth (R1b). The equivalent circuit diagram is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Modification of the equivalent circuit to describe reflection from the top of the atmosphere.

Figure 4. Modification of the equivalent circuit to describe reflection from the top of the atmosphere.

In this modification, R3 describes the reflection of light from the top of the atmosphere.

  • If there are lots of white cloud tops during the day, then R3 is small: it is small compared with the sum of R1b and R2, But notice that clouds at night don’t affect R3.
  • If very little light is reflected from white cloud tops during the day, then R3 is large compared with the sum of R1b and R2.

In practice, on average the flux of energy from the Sun is 340 watts per square metre at the top of the atmosphere, and about 100 watts per square metre are reflected into space. This indicates that R3 is approximately twice as large as the series sum of R1b and the components of R2.


The reason I mention this additional complexity is because of the role of clouds. It is important to look at clouds from both sides, from up and down and from night and day.

The inevitable warming caused by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations will inevitably cause changes in the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere. And these changes can affect the pattern of clouds formed on Earth and give rise to effects which alter R1b – the transmission of visible light between the top of the atmosphere and the surface of the Earth.

Roughly speaking, additional cloudiness during the day could cool the Earth, reducing the warming effect. But additional cloudiness at night will warm the Earth.

On balance the effect is difficult to calculate, but our best estimates result in warming consistent with that observed experimentally.


This article is written for one individual: the Nameless American  who thinks that his cleverness and popularity means that their’gut belief’ that global warming is a hoax is correct. They are, sadly, ‘just wrong’.

I too would love to believe that global warming is a hoax, but it isn’t.

The electrical models I have described could be improved by adding some capacitances to the circuit to allow the dynamics of the changes in temperature to be simulated.

These electrical capacitances, would be analogous to the heat capacity of the top layers of the land and ocean surfaces of the Earth.

But there is not much point: scientists have done this calculation and the results are in. We have already made the measurements, and the results are in also.

The real argument for the ‘alt-right’ is this: if you think the economic benefits of burning unlimited coal and emitting unlimited carbon dioxide outweigh the costs: please make this argument. I disagree with you, but it’s a fair argument.

But don’t attack the science. Our understanding of this process is a collective triumph for humanity.

[November 21st 2016: Weight this morning 73.5 kg: Anxiety: High: off the scale]



We need to talk about bullshit

October 6, 2016

[If you are offended by my use of the word ‘bullshit’: I apologise.
Please leave this post now and do not read any further]

Friends and Colleagues: We are being showered with bullshit.

My consciousness of this has been raised by a paper in the journal Judgment and Decision Making: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues. Thanks to Stephen Giblin for the link.

Before discussing sub-genres of bullshit, the authors clarify precisely what they mean by bullshit in general. They write eloquently:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines bullshit as, simply, “rubbish” and “nonsense”, which unfortunately does not get to the core of bullshit. Consider the following statement (a):

“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.

Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure. The bullshit statement is not merely nonsense,as would also be true of the following (b), which is not bullshit:

“Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract”.

The syntactic structure of a), unlike b), implies that it was constructed to communicate something. Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.

The authors focus on what they call pseudo-profound bullshit and try to identify the factors that lead people to be receptive to such statements.

We focus on pseudo-profound bullshit because it represents a rather extreme point on what could be considered a spectrum of bullshit. We can say quite confidently that the above example (a) is bullshit, but one might also label an exaggerated story told over drinks to be bullshit. In future studies on bullshit, it will be important to define the type of bullshit under investigation

Their analysis is interesting, and occasionally amusing as they generate meaningless statements using a website ‘bullshit generator

But my own interest is in the bullshit I encounter every day. It consists of syntactically correct structures about work, science or technical activities. These sentences slip through my first layer of ‘nonsense filters’. And it then requires active thinking to evaluate and reject the content – and that can be hard work.

Of course, I could use an agile methodology to incisively shortcut the usual appraisal process. And if I did that in a dynamic way, it might be more effective.

Did you see what I did there? The above paragraph is bullshit. It sounds like it might possibly mean something. But the words themselves do not convey that meaning.

They do fill up the space on the page making it appear that something has been said, but it hasn’t.

Once again the eloquence and insight of the authors helps us to see the essence of bullshit. I have edited their words below because I think their comments apply to all bullshit, and not just pseudo-profound bullshit:

Despite the lack of direct concern for truth … bullshit betrays a concern for verisimilitude or truthiness.

We argue that an important adjutant of bullshit is vagueness which, combined with a generally charitable attitude toward ambiguity, may be exacerbated by the nature of recent media. As a prime example, the necessary succinctness and rapidity of “Twitter” (140 characters per “Tweet”) may be particularly conducive to the promulgation of bullshit.

Importantly, vagueness and meaning are, by definition, at cross purposes, as the inclusion of vagueness obscures the meaning of the statement and therefore must undermine or mask “deep meaning” (i.e., profundity) that the statement purports to convey.

The concern for “profundity” reveals an important defining characteristic of bullshit (in general): that it attempts to impress rather than to inform; to be engaging rather than instructive.

Their conclusion that bullshit attempts to “impress rather than inform” seems to me to cut to the heart of it.

I have often thought that human beings are ‘meaning machines’: we seek out nuggets of meaning in the world around us, digesting information with a voracious appetite, and discarding vast amounts of irrelevant information.

But if we are exposed to too much bullshit, it clogs up our senses, and makes it harder to recognise and communicate meaning. It is a kind of intellectual pollution.

I am really grateful to these authors for taking the time to analyse the key characteristics of bullshit.

With my consciousness raised I hope to recognise bullshit more easily, and to avoid ingesting it. Or worse still – producing any.

Friends: I leave you with the words of the late great Jake Thackray singing ‘The Bull’


The Bull by Jake Thackray

On my farm, the bull is the king of the yard;
He’s big and bad and fast, he’s strong he’s . . . hard.
All my other animals would readily concur
That he is the one you salute, he’s the one you call “Sir”.
But my hens, a noisy, flighty flock –
Led, of course by my unsubmissive cock –
Whenever His Majesty the bull importantly goes by
They dance along behind him and they cry:
“Beware of the bull!”

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

Beware of the bull! The dancing cock is right:
Beware of whoever looks down upon you from a height.
Beware of His Honour, His Excellence, His Grace, His Worshipful,
Beware of His Highness, because of the bull.
For if the boss, the chief, the chap at the top
Should let a single lump of claptrap drop,
The greater the weight and the height he is, the harder it will go
With a grander splat! on the bleeders below.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

The hero arrives, we hoist him shoulder-high.
He’s good and wise and strong, he’s brave, he’s . . . shy.
And how we have to plead with him, how bashfully he climbs
Up the steps to the microphone – two at a time.
Then down it comes: slick, slithery pat!
If you must put people on pedestals, wear a big hat.
The tongue he’s got is pure gold, the breast is pure brass,
The feet are pure clay – and watch out for the arse.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

At long last, the revolution comes
And in no time at all we’re erecting podiums.
Comrades with chests of medals by the balcony-full;
After the Red Flag, the galloping bull.
The Saviour came especially from on high
To face up to the punters eye-to-eye.
No sooner is he dead and gone, there’s blessed pulpits-full;
Bestride the holy lamb, behold the bull.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

These well-known men, so over-glorified –
There’s one of them here his name’s on the poster outside –
And he’s up here like this, and you are all down there.
Remember his cock and his bull and mutter: “Beware!”
For when they’ve done, we clap, we cheer, we roar:
“For he is a jolly good fellow! Encore! More, more!”
How glorious it would be if before these buggers began
We all stood up together and solemnly sang:
“Beware of the bull!”

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker
And the bigger and quicker and thicker
And the bigger and quicker and thicker and slicker the bullshite falls.



°C and C are not the same!

October 5, 2016
Sometimes one has to write to the papers!

Sometimes one has to write to the papers!


Sometimes I am unable to stop myself writing to the papers.

Some issues – such as people not using measurement units correctly  – are just too important to let pass.

And people referring to temperature units incorrectly induces apoplexy!

For the record, the degree Celsius is an SI unit for temperature: the degrees C********e and F********t are not.

Their use in everyday language is understandable – many people use the F-word occasionally – and in the correct context, it gives no offence.

But for newspapers and media outlets to do so is outrageous!

And using the abbreviation C instead of °C is just wrong.

As I wrote to The Guardian recently:

Dear Guardian,

The measurement system that underpins all of our physical measurements of the world around us is called the International System of Units, widely referred to as ‘the SI’.

It is a staggering achievement, used daily by hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers.

It provides a standard way of comparing measurements around the globe and of referring to those measurements. So why has The Guardian invented its own system of units?

To refer to a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius, the standard abbreviation is 25 °C. However The Guardian routinely refers to this as 25C, using the symbol ‘C’ which refers to the SI ‘coulomb’, an amount of electric charge. Why?

You might argue that your meaning is clear in context. And generally it is. But why be wrong when you can be right so easily?


Michael de Podesta

National Physical Laboratory.

P.S. In MS Windows™ systems, the degree symbol is [ALT] + 2 + 4 + 8 on the number keypad and in MacOS the degree symbol is [ALT] + [SHIFT] + 8. In iOS, on numeric keypad use a long press on the zero key to reveal the degree symbol.

P.P.S. There should also be a space between the number and its unit, but I didn’t want to mention that in case you thought I was being pedantic.

More seriously, reporting measurements in the correct units aids clarity of understanding and establishes the basic competence of the author.

Reporting, as The Guardian did this week, that:

“the 2016 temperature is likely to be 1.25C above pre-industrial times, following a warming trend where the world has heated up at a rate of 0.18C per decade.”

merely establishes that the writer knows nothing about measurements.

This is not a matter of style, it’s a matter of just being wrong.


[October 5th 2016: Weight this morning 73.5 kg: Anxiety: Low. I don’t know why, but I just felt OK today :-)]

Uncertain Uncertainty and Variable Variability

October 4, 2016
Graph prepared by John Kennedy illustrating the effect of some of the uncertainties. Any one of the blue of the blue lines - or an un-drawn similar line - could be what actually happened. We don't know - but all of them show significant warming.

Graph prepared by John Kennedy illustrating the effect of some (but not all) of the uncertainties in the data. Any one of the blue lines – or an un-drawn similar line – could be what actually happened. We don’t know – that’s the nature of uncertainty. The significant thing is that even considering the confounding factors, all of the estimates show significant warming.

Variable Variability

One of the real pleasures of attending WMO CIMO TECO last week was the chance to meet some of my heroes. And among them I finally met Victor Venema.

Victor is climate scientist whose primary interest is in identifying and removing biases from the instrumental temperature record. He is – in the very best sense of the word – a sceptic.

His blogVariable Variability – is one of my few ‘must reads’.

Uncertain Uncertainty

Victor’s last article drew together many representations of our instrumental temperature record to ask the question: what makes people pay attention to the fact that OUR PLANET’S SURFACE IS WARMING UP!

This shocking fact has gone from being widely denied or ignored to being widely accepted and ignored.

The aim of all the presentations Victor draws together is to fairly communicate the reality of the uncertainty of the conclusions drawn – but also that the warming trend is strong when compared with these uncertainties.

Alternative Reality

But Victor’s page does not (yet!*) contain the beautiful representation at the head of this page.

The animated graph was devised by John Kennedy from the UK’s Met Office and illustrates many of the possible curves – alternate realities – that are consistent with the data.

There are more curves that would be consistent with the data but John wasn’t quite sure how to represent them.

One of the most important ‘uncertain uncertainties’ that John didn’t include is called ‘coverage uncertainty’. It arises from the fact that the instrumental record derives from thermometers that are not optimally positioned around the globe.

When I wrote to him to ask permission to use the graph he said:

The coverage uncertainty has, I suspect, an important low-frequency component. We know HadCRUT4 has a tendency to slightly under-represent Arctic areas, which have been relatively warm these past 10 years. Over time, the balance of land and ocean changes too and we know these warm at different rates. The coverage uncertainty also has a high-frequency component too.

I will get round to writing a blog post about the wiggles at some point, but in the meantime I’m interested in what people think about it. Lots of the animated presentations that I see don’t obviously add anything beyond what the standard static time series graph would show, so one concern I have is, does it add anything to that? Is there any way we can improve the representation of uncertainty in our graphs and other visual aids, particularly where there are more complex error structures that can affect the interpretation?

I love John’s attitude. Critical of his own work and looking for feedback to improve it.


Certain Certainties

I think the animation does add something. Each line represents a possible ‘reality’ that is consistent with the data we have.

The animation shows which features persist from one ‘possible reality’ to another.

In general, a year which is hotter than it’s predecessor, stays hotter in all ‘realities’.

Critically, none of the realities consistent with the data reverse or cancel the overall warming trend.

And that makes it essentially certain that the warming trend is real. And that the world really is hotter than it has been for a long, long time.


*The image is there now!

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