Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

It’s a shame…

August 2, 2017

JCM_Grave

Pictured above is the humble grave of James Clerk Maxwell.

By all accounts, he was a kind and humble man, and so in many ways it is an entirely appropriate memorial.

But simple as it is, surely we could show our respect and admiration by as simple an act as mowing the grass? It seems not.

My attention was drawn to the unkempt state of his grave by this article in the Scottish Daily Record.

In death we are all equal.

And I have no doubt that Maxwell himself would have wanted no fuss.

But some people – very few – have led such exceptional lives that it is appropriate for us to collectively mark their mortal remains in a way which shows how much we honour their achievements in life.

This is not an indicator of our belief in any kind of saintliness on their part.

It is rather a statement about us.

It is a statement about what we currently admire and treasure and celebrate.

I have been told that Ren Zhengfei, the founder and President of Huawei Technology visited the grave and was embarrassed and shocked.

To neglect the grave of such a monumental figure says something about us.

It is actually a matter of national shame. And while acknowledging that Maxwell was decidedly Scottish, I draw the boundaries of ‘nation-hood’ more widely.

So how great was James Clerk Maxwell?

Maxwell’s many contributions to our modern view of the world are difficult to summarise without being trite, and they span an enormous range. But here are two of his achievements concerning light.

The first colour photograph taken using Maxwell's prescription. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The first colour photograph taken using Maxwell’s prescription. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Having made a breakthrough understanding of the nature of human colour vision, he used that understanding to describe how to take the first colour photograph.

YoungJamesClerkMaxwell

A picture from Wikipedia showing a young James Clerk-Maxwell at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is holding one of his colour wheels that he used to study colour vision.

Later he became the first person to appreciate that light was an electrical phenomenon.

And the equations he wrote down to describe the nature of light are still those we use today to describe just about all electrical and magnetic phenomena*.

Richard Feynman, the person who made the next step in our understanding of the light said:

“From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now — there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.”

And Michael de Podesta, the person writing this blog said:

“I named my son after him”

That a true hero should not be honoured in his own land, is a shame on us all.

Surely we could collectively manage to keep the grass on his grave tidy?

———————————————————-

*Note for pedants: In fact the equations we use are a simplified form of Maxwell’s Equations devised by Oliver Heaviside after Maxwell’s tragic early death.

Work Experience

August 2, 2017

Film Crew

 

I had a work experience student with me last week. Let’s call him ‘William’.

On reflection, I am rather concerned about the impression that the “work” he witnessed might have on him.

Firstly

Firstly, everything was very ‘bitty’: it was hard to concentrate on a single task for any period as long as a half day.

And in between explicit tasks, I spent a fair amount of time composing e-mails. That’s right, I said composing, not writing. Because e-mails are generally not simply ‘written’.

For despite the immediacy of the transmission, words in e-mails have to be chosen as carefully as words in a missive that might travel more slowly.

So even though I may appear to be sitting in front of a computer for an hour, I am in fact ‘composing’: plucking words from the vacuum of possibility, and then distilling the raw words to create clear and unambiguous text.

Anyway, I think that bit may have been a bit boring for him.

Secondly

Secondly, although primarily temperature-related, it was extremely diverse.

One activity involved measuring the temperature of the air using our non-contact thermometer and hygrometer (NCTAH).

NCTAH in lab with notes

We set up the experiment in one of NPL’s ultra-stable temperature labs which we normally use for dimensional measurements.

The idea was to compare the temperature indicated by NCTAH with four conventional thermometers. However while NCTAH operated beautifully, it was the readings of the conventional sensors I couldn’t understand.

They indicated that objects in the room were hotter than the air in the room by as much as 0.3 °C. Unfortunately I was in a bit of a rush and I was bamboozled by this result. And I am still working on an answer. However I would have liked him to see something simple ‘just work’. Hey, ho.

And finally…

A film crew visited to interview me about the re-definition of the kelvin. They were charming and professional and genuinely interested in the subject.

They shot a long interview one afternoon, and then the next day they must have spent a good two hours filming me walking.

It wasn’t just walking. We spent a fair amount of time opening doors and then walking. Also walking and then opening doors.

Then it was time for a solid 30 minutes of emerging from corridors, and turning into corridors.

I am not sure what I made of the experience, and I am curious to see what the director Ed Watkins will make of the footage. But he and his colleagues seemed happy as they headed off to film at the PTB in Braunschweig, Germany.

And as for what ‘William’ made of it all, I haven’t a clue. It involved quite a lot of just ‘sitting’ and ‘keeping out of shot’.

But I guess he got to see how documentaries are constructed which might have been the most valuable experience of all.

Exactitude and Inexactitude

July 19, 2017

Exactitude and Inexactitude

After being a professional physicist for more than 30 years, I realised the other day that I write for a living.

Yes, I am a physicist, and I still carry out experiments, do calculations and write computer programs.

But at the end of all these activities, I usually end up writing something: a scientific paper; a report; some notes for myself; or a blog article like this.

But although the final ‘output’ of most of what I do is a written communication of some description, nobody ever taught me to write.

I learned to write by reading what I had written. And being appalled.

Appalled by missed words and typographic errors, and by mangled ideas and inappropriate assumptions of familiarity with the subject matter.

Learning to write is a difficult, painful and never-ending process.

And over and over again I am torn between exactitude – which I seek – and inexactitude, which I have learned to tolerate for two reasons.

  • Firstly, a perfect article which is never completed communicates nothing. Lesson one for writing is that finishing is essential.
  • Secondly, an article which has all the appropriate details will be too long and may never be read by the people with whom I seek to communicate.

So in order communicate optimally, I need to find the appropriate tension between the competing forces of exactitude and inexactitude.

This blog 

When I write for this blog, I try to write articles that are about 500 words long. I rarely succeed.

Typically, I write something. Read it. And then add explanatory text either at the start or at the end?

But with each extra word I type, I realise that fewer and fewer people will read the article and appreciate the clarity of my writing.

And I have to acknowledge that if I had written fewer words I might have communicated something to more people.

Or even communicated more by omitting detail people might find obfuscatory

Indeed I have to acknowledge – and this is hard – that I could have even written something erroneous and communicated something to more people.

For example

For example, in the previous article on the GEO600 Gravity Wave detector, I said that “moving a mirror by half a wavelength of light caused the interferometer to change from constructive to destructive interference.”

Now I know what you are thinking: and yes, it only has to move by a quarter of a wavelength of light.

I realised this before I finished the article but it had already taken hours, and I had already recorded the narrative to the movie.

Similarly, my animation showed one of the reflections coming from the wrong side of a piece of glass (!), and it omitted the normal ‘compensator’ plate in the interferometer.

And how many people noticed or complained? None so far.

So the article was published and presumably communicated something, inexactly and slightly incorrectly. And it was not wholly erroneous.

Exactitude and Inexactitude.

Exactitude and Inexactitude are like two mis-matched protagonists in a ‘buddy movie’.

At the start they hate each other, but over the course of ‘a journey’ in which they are compelled to accompany one another, they learn to love each other for what they are, and to accept each other for what they are not.

Inexactitude: You drive me crazy, but I love you.

Measuring the Boltzmann constant for the last time

June 27, 2017
BIPM gardens

The gardens of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) in Paris

If you were thinking of measuring the Boltzmann constant, you had better hurry up.

If your research paper reporting your result is not accepted for publication by the end of this Friday 30th June 2017 then you are out of time.

As I write this on the morning of Tuesday 27th June 2017, there are four days to go and one very significant measurement has yet to be published.

====================================
UPDATE: It’s arrived! See the end of the article for details
====================================

What’s going on?

The Boltzmann constant is the conversion factor between mechanical energy and temperature.

Setting to one side my compulsion to scientific exactitude, the Boltzmann constant tells us how many joules of energy we must give to a molecule in order to increase its temperature by one kelvin (or one degree Celsius).

At the moment we measure temperatures in terms of other temperatures: we measure how much hotter or colder something is than a special temperature called the Triple Point of Water.

And energy is measured quite separately in joules.

From May 2019 the world’s metrologists plan to change this. We plan to use our best estimate of the Boltzmann constant to define temperature in terms of the energy of molecules.

This represents a fundamental change in our conception of the unit of temperature and of what we mean by ‘one degree’.

In my view, it is a change which is long overdue.

How will this changeover be made?

For the last decade or so, research teams from different countries have been making measurements of the Boltzmann constant.

The aim has been to make measurements with low measurement uncertainty.

Establishing a robust estimate of the measurement uncertainty is difficult and time-consuming.

It involves considering every part of an experiment and then asking two questions. Firstly:

  • “How wrong could this part of the experiment be?”

and secondly:

  • “What effect could this have on the final estimate of the Boltzmann constant?”

Typically working out the effect of one part of an experiment on the overall estimate of the Boltzmann constant might involve auxiliary experiments that may themselves take years.

Finally one constructs a big table (or spreadsheet) in which one adds up all the possible sources of uncertainty to produce an overall uncertainty estimate.

Every four years, a committee of experts called CODATA critically reviews all the published estimates of fundamental constants made in the last four years and comes up with a set of recommended values.

The CODATA recommendations are a ‘weighted’ average of the published data giving more weight to estimates which have a low measurement uncertainty.

In order to make their consensus estimate of the value of the Boltzmann constant in good time for the redefinition of the kelvin in 2019, CODATA set a deadline of 1st July 2017 – this coming Saturday.

Only papers which have been accepted for publication – i.e. submitted and refereed by that date will be considered.

After this date, a new measurement of the link between temperature and molecular energy will be reflected as a change in our temperature scale, not a change in the Boltzmann constant, which will be fixed forever.

The NPL Boltzmann constant estimate.

Professionally and personally, I have spent a decent fraction of the last 10 years working on an estimate of the Boltzmann constant – the official NPL estimate.

To do this we worked out the energy of molecules in a two-step process.

  • We inferred the average speed of argon molecules held at the temperature of the triple point of water using precision measurements of the speed of sound in argon gas.
  • We then worked out the average mass of an argon atom from measurements of the isotopic composition of argon.

Bringing these results together we were able work out the kinetic energy of argon molecules at the temperature of the triple point of water.

When we published our Boltzmann constant estimate in 2013 we estimated that it had a fractional uncertainty of 0.7 parts per million.

Unfortunately it transpired that our estimate was just wrong. Colleagues from around the world helpfully highlighted my mistake. That led to a revised estimate in 2015 with a fractional uncertainty of 0.9 parts per million.

At the time I found this cripplingly humiliating, but as I look at it now, it seems like just a normal part of the scientific process.

The source of my error was in the estimate of the isotopic content of the argon gas we used in our experiment.

Since then I have worked with many colleagues inside and outside NPL to improve this part of the experiment.  And earlier this month we published our final NPL estimate of the Boltzmann constant with a fractional uncertainty of… 0.7 parts per million: back to where we were four years ago!

Our estimate is just one among many from laboratories in the USA, China, Japan, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany.

But at the moment (7:30 a.m. BST on 27th June 2017) the NPL-2017 estimate has the lowest uncertainty of any published value of the Boltzmann constant.

The NPL 2017 estimates of the Boltzmann constant is very close to CODATA's 2014 consensus estimate

The history of NPL’s recent estimates of the Boltzmann constant. The NPL 2017 estimate of the Boltzmann constant is close to CODATA’s 2014 consensus estimate

The LNE-CNAM Boltzmann constant estimate.

However my Frieval – i.e.friendly rival – Dr. Laurent Pitre from LNE-CNAM in France reported at meeting at BIPM last month that he had made an estimate of the Boltzmann constant with a fractional uncertainty of just 0.6 parts per million.

WOW! That’s right. 0.1 parts per million more accurate than the NPL estimate.

Dr. Pitre is a brilliant experimenter and if he has achieved this, I take my hat off to him.

But I have been looking daily at this page on the website of the journal Metrologia to see if his paper is there. But as I write – the paper has not yet been accepted for publication!

So after working on this project for 10 years I still don’t know if I will have made the most accurate measurement of the Boltzmann constant ever. Or only the second most accurate.

But I will know for sure in just 4 days time.

=========
UPDATE
=========

The article arrived this lunchtime

New Measurement of the Boltzmann Constant by acoustic thermometry in helium-4 gas

The paper reports a measurement of the Boltzmann Constant with a fractional uncertainty of just 0.6 parts per million.

The  measurements are similar in overall quality to those we published four years ago, but the French team made a crucial advance: they used helium for the measurements rather than argon.

Overall measurements are technically more difficult in helium gas than in the argon. These difficulties arise from the fact that helium isn’t a very dense gas and so microphones don’t work so well. Additionally the speed of sound is high – around three times higher than in argon.

But they have put in a lot of work to overcome these difficulties. And there are two rewards.

Their first reward is that by using a liquid helium ‘trap’ they can ensure exceptional gas purity. Their ‘trap’ is a device cooled to 4.2 degrees above absolute zero at which temperature every other gas solidifies. This has allowed them to obtain an exceptionally low uncertainty in the determination of the molar mass of the gas.

Their second reward is the most astounding. Critical uncertainties in the experiment originate with measurements of properties of helium gas, such as its compressibility or thermal conductivity.

For helium gas, these properties can be calculated from first principles more accurately than they can measured. Let me explain.

These calculations assume the known properties of a helium nucleus and that a helium atom has two electrons. Then everything is calculated assuming that the Schrödinger Equation describes the dynamics of the electrons and that electrons and the nucleus interact with each other using Coulomb’s law. That’s it!

  • First the basic properties of the helium atom are calculated.
  • Then the way electric fields affect the atom is calculated.
  • The the way two helium atoms interact is calculated.
  • And then the way the interaction of two helium atoms is affected if a third atom is nearby.
  • And so on

Finally, the numbers in the calculation are jiggled about a bit to see how wrong the calculation might be so that the uncertainty of the calculation can be estimated.

In this way, the physical properties of helium gas can be calculated more accurately than they can measured, and that is the reward that the French team could use to overcome some of their experimental difficulties.

Is it hotter than normal?

June 21, 2017
MaxTemp_Average_1981-2010_June

This map shows how the average of the maximum daily temperature in June varies across the UK.

It was hot last night. And hot today. But is this hotter than normal? Is this global warming?

Human beings have a remarkably poor perspective on such questions for two reasons.

  • Firstly we only experience the weather in a single place which may not be representative of a country or region. And certainly not the entire Earth!
  • And secondly, our memory of previous weather is poor. Can you remember whether last winter was warmer or colder than average?

Personally I thought last winter was cold. But it was not.

Another reason to love the Met Office.

The Met Office have created carefully written digests of past weather, with month-by-month summaries.

You can see their summaries here and use links from that page to chase historical month-by-month data for the UK as a whole, or for regions of the country.

Below I have extracted the last 12 months of temperature summaries. Was this what you remembered?

  • May 2017: UK mean temperature was 12.1 °C, which is 1.7 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average, making it the second warmest May in a series from 1910 (behind 2008).
  • April 2017: UK mean temperature was 8.0 °C, which is 0.6 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average.
  • March 2017 :UK mean temperature was 7.3 °C, which is 1.8 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average, making it the joint fifth warmest March in a series since 1910.
  • February 2017: UK mean temperature was 5.3 °C, which is 1.6 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average, making it the ninth warmest February in a series since 1910.
  • January 2017: UK mean temperature was 3.9 °C, which is 0.2 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average. It was a cold month in the south-east but generally milder than average elsewhere.
  • December 2016: UK mean temperature was 5.9 °C, which is 2.0 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average, and the eighth warmest December in a series from 1910.
  • November 2016: The UK mean temperature was 4.9 °C, which is 1.3 °C below the 1981-2010 long-term average.
  • October 2016: The UK mean temperature was 9.8 °C, which is 0.3 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average.
  • September 2016: The UK mean temperature was 14.6 °C, which is 2.0 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average, making it the equal second warmest September in a series from 1910.
  • August 2016: The UK mean temperature was 15.5 °C, which is 0.6 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average.
  • July 2016: The UK mean temperature was 15.3 °C, which is 0.2 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average.
  • June 2016: The UK mean temperature was 13.9 °C, which is 0.9 °C above the 1981-2010 long-term average.

So all but one month in the last year has been warmer than the 1981 to 2010 long term average. It is almost as if the whole country were warming up.

But UK mean temperature is not we feel. Often we remember single hot or cold days.

So I looked up the maximum June temperature recorded in England or Wales for every year of my life.

Each point on the graph below may have occurred for just a day, or for several days, and may have occurred in a different place. But it is broadly indicative of whether there were some ‘very hot days’ in June.

June Maximum Temperatures

The exceptional year of 1976 stands out in the data and in my memory: I was 16. And 2017 is the first June to come close to that year.

But something else stands out too.

  • From 1960 to 1993 – the years up until I was 34 – the maximum June temperature in England and Wales exceeded 30 °C just 6 times i.e. 18% of the years had a ‘very hot day in June’.
  • Since 2001 – the years from age 41 to my present 57 – there were 10 years in which the maximum June temperature in the England and Wales exceeded 30 °C i.e. 63% of the years had a ‘very hot day in June’.

Similarly,

  • From 1960 to 1993 there were 6 years when the maximum June temperature fell below 26 °C  i.e. 18% of the years didn’t have any very hot days.
  • Since 2001 the maximum June temperature in the England and Wales has always exceeded 26 °C.

Together these data tell us something about our climate – our average weather.

They tell us that weather such as we are experiencing now is normal. But it didn’t used to be: our climate – our average weather – has changed.

Is this global warming?

Broadly speaking, yes. In our new warming world, weather like we are experiencing now is likely to be become more common.

More technically, global warming is – obviously – global and requires the measurement of temperatures all around the world. It also refers to climate – the average weather – and not individual weather events. So…

  • The fact that this year we have had exceptionally hot days this June is not global warming: indeed 1976 was hotter!
  • But the fact that exceptionally hot days in June have become more common is a manifestation of global warming.

P.S. This Met Office page shows all the weather ‘records’ so you can check for when new ‘records’ are likely to be set.

Be kind

May 16, 2017

impostor-syndrome-cartoon

Dear Reader,

Last week I attended a lunchtime seminar on ‘Imposter Syndrome‘.

The specifications of the syndrome seem to be rather broadly drawn, but roughly speaking, it involves ‘successful people‘ who are ‘unable to internalise, or feel deserving of, their success‘.

The seminar leader had many good quotes, but somehow missed out the genre-defining Groucho Marx quote:

I sent the club a wire stating, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.

I should have felt more surprised that anyone turned up! But feeling persistent and unquenchable self-doubt is the ideal mental disposition for a person interested in precision metrology.

So it might not surprise you that the session was attended by some of the best scientists at NPL. At least, I think they are some of our best scientists. They might not feel the same way.

Coincidentally…

I came across the following tale from Neil Gaiman on Twitter.

“… Some years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice polite elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people and said words to the effect of “ I just look at all these people and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.

And I said, “Yes, But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something”

And so…

It is clear that “Imposter Syndrome” is a common cognitive bias in which people whom most people would consider to be “successful”, are unable to feel the positivity which we imagine would accompany such a designation.

Like most cognitive biases, this is something we can become aware of and transcend.

I am aware that I am ‘successful’. Indeed I am more “successful” than I ever aspired to be.

It would be invidious to list my own ‘successes’. Indeed, I put ‘successes’ in quotation marks, because what I think other people might imagine to be ‘my successes’ feel to me either like ‘good fortune‘ or ‘a narrow escape from failure‘.

I know I ought to feel successful. But that is not what I actually feel.

What I learn from this.

At the height of his Nobel-prize winning powers, Bob Dylan wrote:

There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all

(Taken from the Book of Bob, Subterraneans, 19:65)

What I think his Bob’ness means by this is that the very idea of a person being “successful” is nonsense.

As we each travel the path from our birth to our death, to call people following one path ‘successful’ and people on other paths ‘failures’ would be bizarre.

Compassion for one’s fellow travellers should outweigh any illusion of success or failure.

And thinking of: my colleagues; acquaintances; the more senior and the more junior; the faster and the slower; women and men; even managers. And thinking of all their situations in life, and of how quickly our lives pass, I am reminded of another quotation:

Each person you meet is carrying a heavy load. Be kind. 

Perhaps this should read:

Each person you meet, even apparently successful people, may be carrying a heavy load. Be kind.

Wishing you every success.

With kind thoughts.

Michael

Reasons to be cheerful

May 6, 2017

My Grid GB 28 daysWhen everything feels rubbish, it is sometimes calming to remind oneself that progress in human affairs is possible.

Solar Energy in the UK!

Looking at the MyGrid GB site I notice that the longer brighter days are leading to significant solar power generation every day – the yellow in the figure above and below.

My Grid GB 48 hours

Over the last month, solar power has contributed more than 5% of the UK’s electricity supply. I find this truly astonishing.

The electricity comes from solar panels on people’s rooftops, and from large solar ‘farms’ – which can still be used to graze sheep!

It is clear that solar energy generation is well matched to the demand for electricity – peaking every day at around 1:00 p.m. BST.

Storing the energy

We could certainly generate two or three times as much solar energy as this with relatively low impact. But imagine how cool it would be if we could store some of that energy as it was generated, and then release it exactly when we most needed it.

Over the last year I have noticed that ‘energy storage’ has gone from being ‘a great thing if it existed‘ to ‘a reality on a small but ever-growing scale‘.

Here are five ideas I have seen recently. They don’t have much in common, but I am collecting them together simply to hearten myself.

One of the ideas pumps water as an energy storage medium, one compresses air, one uses ice, and another is just a big battery! And one is just a cool idea whose point I don’t quite understand!

Pumping Water

At the Dinorwig power station (earlier blog) water is pumped uphill at night and released at times of peak demand to generate electricity. Dinorwig stores approximately 10 GWh of energy with approximately 75% efficiency – enough to generate 1.8 GW of electricity for approximately 6 hours.

But sites such as Dinorwig are rare. What if the same trick could be done in a more mundane way?

Ars Technica describes a sweet idea in which 30 metre diameter concrete spheres – each containing a pump-generator set – would be placed deep underwater.

Positioned near a wind farm, wind-generated electricity could be used to pump water out of the sphere against the enormous head of a few hundred metres of water. When electricity was required, water could be let back in, generating electricity.

They report that each sphere could generate 5 MW for 4 hours. So a Dinorwig-scale installation would require 500 spheres – which would probably occupy about 1 square kilometre of sea bed.

German Undersea Spheres

Less practically, The Independent have a story describing an artificial island in the North Sea that could form a hub of a renewable energy facility.

NOrth Sea Island

I don’t quite know what the point of the island would be, but I love the sheer chutzpah of the proposal.

Compressing Air

Much more practically, the Hydrostor Terra company have a plan to store energy as compressed air in scale-able plants built by a lakeside.

Interestingly – and showing a reassuring contact with reality – they separately store and recover the heat generated  when the air is compressed. This is the key to getting a reasonable efficiency.

It would take perhaps a thousand of these systems to create a Dinorwig-scale storage facility. However, because the system is scale-able, small systems could be built and put into operation quickly, with the revenue being used to fund the creation of expanded storage over the coming decades.

This ‘scale-ability’ avoids the need for billions of pounds to be invested up front and is important for demonstrating new technologies.

Ice Batteries

In the here and now, I love this idea of power companies subsidising the purchase of equipment which will lower demand for electricity rather than simply building more capacity.

In this scheme, air conditioning plant is run off-peak to create a store of around 2 cubic metres of ice. The ice is then used to chill air at times of peak demand.

In a way this is really ‘demand management’ rather than ‘energy storage’, but it achieves the same effect.

Ice Storage

Tesla Batteries

And finally, the obvious idea of storing electricity in batteries! This story reports on an an actual real functioning 80 MWh storage facility in California that can deliver 20 MW of electricity for 4 hours.

It would take 120 of these installations to create a Dinorwig Scale facility, but because each unit can be built independently, it does not require investment at the same scale and risk as that required to build a Dinorwig.

Energy Storage has arrived

The problem of grid scale energy storage has many solutions, and they are available now using current engineering practices.

My hope is that the growth of energy storage will surprise me in the same way that the the growth of solar energy has suprised me.

I hope that one day soon I will look at the chart on MyGrid GB and see that the wind supply is smooth not spiky – and that solar power is supplying electricity after the sun has gone down!

How is knowledge lost?

April 20, 2017

At some point in the 1950’s the physics of the Greenhouse Effect was so uncontroversial in the United States that it was the subject of a children’s song. A really great song.

WARNING: This song contains a BANJO accompanimentWARNING

The song is on the You Tube link above and the lyrics are at the end of this article.

Written by folk-singer Tom Glazer, the lyrics show an excellent appreciation of the physics of the greenhouse effect.

After first describing how a greenhouse works, the song describes how the Earth is warmed by solar radiation

The atmosphere is like a greenhouse too
It lets most of the solar rays through
The surface of the Earth absorbs these rays
And re-radiates them as long heat rays

And then, in very sophisticated terms it describes the role of water vapour in the atmosphere

There’s vapour in the air, What does it do?
It doesn’t let the long heat rays pass through
Trapped by the vapour they bounce back and forth,
Re-radiated and re-absorbed

Did you read that?

re-radiated and re-absorbed

Tom Glazer is describing the basic physics of the MODTRAN model of atmospheric transmission! (Link).

Can you imagine a world where it is OK to say “re-radiated and re-absorbed” to primary school children?

Children who learned this song would have a better operational understanding of the physics of the greenhouse effect and global warming than a fair fraction of the population of this country or the USA!

But the terrible truth is that 60 years after it was written, this song and the knowledge it embodies has been lost to popular culture and become – apparently – controversial.

How did we lose this collective knowledge?

Lyrics

What does the glass of a Greenhouse do?
It lets the short solar rays pass through
The objects in the house absorb these rays
And re-radiate them as long heat rays

What does the glass of a Greenhouse do?
It doesn’t let the long heat rays pass through
Trapped by the glass they bounce back and forth,
Re-radiated and re-absorbed

Stay Stay, you long heat rays, Warm up the house on cold cold days
Stay Stay, you long heat rays, Warm up the house on coooooold cold days

The atmosphere is like a greenhouse too
It lets most of the solar rays through
The surface of the Earth absorbs these rays
And re-radiates them as long heat rays

There’s vapour in the air, What does it do?
It doesn’t let the long heat rays pass through
Trapped by the vapour they bounce back and forth,
Re-radiated and re-absorbed

Stay Stay, you long heat rays, Warm up the house on cold cold days
Stay Stay, you long heat rays, Warm up the Earth on cooooooold cold days

Weather Songs

Global Warming: we were warned.

April 2, 2017

Human beings – including the one writing this – often find it hard to grasp the rates of processes involved in Global Warming.

When thinking about the physics, there are three important rates to consider.

  • The rate at which human emissions have taken place.
  • The rate at which the emissions affect Earth’s temperature.
  • The rate on which human emissions will dissipate.

But we also need to consider one other ‘rate’:

  • The rate at which humanity can respond to a warning after it has been given.

Let’s look at each of these ‘rates’ in turn:

Rate of Emissions

We are emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an astonishing rate: about 33 billions tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.

Humanity's Cumulative Emissions of Carbon Dioxide expressed in two ways. The left-hand axis shows the data as a fraction of the emissions. The right-hand axis shows the data as billions of tones (i.e. Gt) of carbon.

The graph above shows data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. It shows humanity’s cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide expressed in two ways.

  • The left-hand axis shows the data as a fraction of the emission up to 2013 (100%)
  • The right-hand axis shows the data as billions of tonnes (i.e. Gt) of carbon. Multiply this number by 3.67 to convert it to billions of tonnes (i.e. Gt) of carbon dioxide.

From the graph we can see that:

  • 80% of the carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere has been put there in my lifetime. I am 57.
  • Although climate emissions have stabilised in the last three years, this only means that the slope of the graph has stopped increasing.
  • Continuing at the current rate, every 7 years we will emit carbon dioxide equivalent to the entirety of human emissions from the dawn of time to the date of my birth.

Climate Impact

Below is the estimate of the Earth’s average surface temperature made by the team at the NASA GISS laboratory. Alongside the data is a trend-line smoothed over a 10 year period.

The temperature rise is shown relative to the average temperature over the period 1951 to 1980.

Global Land Ocean 10 year smoothing

  • The graph shows that since 1980, the temperature trend has been rising roughly linearly at about 0.02 °C per year i.e. 0.2 °C per decade, or 2 °C per century.

Carbon absorption

The 33 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide we emit annually into the atmosphere corresponds to about 9 billion tonnes of carbon – these are the units used in the info-graphic below.

Carbon_cycle

This image is from Wikipedia and was adapted from U.S. DOE, Biological and Environmental Research Information System. – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/CarbonCycle/, Public Domain, Link All the numbers are in billions of tonnes of carbon (Multiply by 3.7 to obtain the numbers in billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide). Figures in red are human emissions.

Natural processes remove about 2 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year by dissolving it in sea water. And a further 3 billion tonnes of carbon a year is removed by increased plant growth.

If we stopped emitting carbon dioxide now, then these processes would the lower the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere back to 1960’s levels in about 100 years.

As a consequence of these slow rates of removal, we are already committed to many decades of further warming at a rate similar to that which we are experiencing already.

Summary. 

  • The bulk of human emissions have occurred relatively recently.
  • We are now in an era when the Earth’s surface is definitely warming.
  • When we eventually take action we will still experience warming for many decades more.

But we have known all this for a long time: at least 36 years

The process which limits our rate of response. 

Arguably, the emergence of ‘popular’ appreciation of the effect of carbon dioxide emissions can be timed to 1981, when James Hansen and colleagues published a landmark paper in Science 

The paper is complex, but readable. But in case you are busy, here are some extracts.

A 2 °C global warming is exceeded in the 21st century in all the CO2 scenarios we considered, except no growth and coal phaseout.

This is happening now.

Floating polar sea ice responds rapidly to climate change. The 5 °C to 10 °C warming expected at high northern latitudes for doubled CO2 should open the North-west and North-east passages along the borders of the American and Eurasian continents. Preliminary experiments with sea ice models suggest that all the sea ice may melt in summer, but part of it would refreeze in winter. Even a partially ice-free Arctic will modify neighbouring continental climates.

This is happening now well before CO2 concentrations have doubled.

The global warming projected for the next century is of almost unprecedented magnitude. On the basis of our model calculations, we estimate it to be ~2.5°C for a scenario with slow energy growth and a mixture of nonfossil and fossil fuels. This would exceed the temperature during the altithermal (6000 years ago) and the previous (Eemian) interglacial period 125,000 years ago, and would approach the warmth of the Mesozoic, the age of dinosaurs.

This is happening now, but the warming is faster than the ‘worst case’ scenario they envisaged.

Political and economic forces affecting energy use and fuel choice make it unlikely that the CO2 issue will have a major impact on energy policies until convincing observations of the global warming are in hand.

How true! And even after the observations have become convincing, ‘political and economic forces‘ are still resisting a change in fuel use.

In light of historical evidence that it takes several decades to complete a major change in fuel use, this makes large climate change almost inevitable. However, the degree of warming will depend strongly on the energy growth rate and choice of fuels for the next century. Thus, CO2 effects on climate may make full exploitation of coal resources undesirable.

An appropriate strategy may be to encourage energy conservation and develop alternative energy sources, while using fossil fuels as necessary during the next few decades.

In retrospect, we could not have asked for a clearer or more accurate warning or better advice.

As I look at it now, the physical rates of processes make this problem really difficult

But it is our inability to respond to warnings which makes this potentially insoluble.

All the warnings above have come to pass: Let’s hope the paper’s warnings about sea level rise prove to be less accurate.

Danger of rapid sea level rise is posed by the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, unlike the land-based Greenland and East Antarctic ice sheets, is grounded below sea level, making it vulnerable to rapid disintegration and melting in case of general warming.

The summer temperature in its vicinity is about -5°C. If this temperature rises ~5°C, de-glaciation could be rapid, requiring a century or less and causing a sea level rise of 5 to 6 m (55). If the West Antarctic ice sheet melts on such a time scale, it will temporarily overwhelm any sea level change due to growth or decay of land-based ice-sheets. A sea level rise of 5 m would flood 25 percent of Louisiana and Florida, 10 percent of New Jersey, and many other lowlands throughout the world.

Arctic Sea Ice update: everything is proceeding exactly as we had foreseen

March 25, 2017

Graph 2017

If you read The Guardian’s news coverage of the extent of Arctic Sea Ice, you might be forgiven for thinking that something special had happened.

Arctic ice falls to record winter low after polar ‘heatwaves’

They state that2017 is the third year in a row the Arctic’s winter ice has set a new low.“. And they quote the director of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) as saying

“I have been looking at Arctic weather patterns for 35 years and have never seen anything close to what we’ve experienced these past two winters,”. 

But the truth is simpler and can be seen and understood by a child.

The extent of Arctic Sea Ice is declining year on year.
It has been happening for a couple of decades and we have no reason to think it will stop. 

The graph at the head of the page shows the extent of Arctic Sea Ice in millions of square kilometres. This has been assessed by satellites* every day since 20th October 1978 and the data can be downloaded from here.

As the graph shows, each year the sea ice grows in the northern hemisphere winter by an astonishing 10 million square kilometres. And shrinks by a corresponding amount in the summer.

The graph shows that on average:

  • The maximum extent of the sea ice in winter has been falling by about 44,000 square kilometres every year.
  • The minimum extent of the sea ice in summer has been falling about twice as fast – by about 84,000 square kilometres every year.

So since 1979,

  • the extent of the winter sea ice maximum has fallen by about 1.6 million square kilometres  and,
  • the extent of the summer sea ice minimum has fallen by about 3.2 million square kilometres .

To put that into context, the 3.2 million square kilometres is about 12 times the land area of the UK – or roughly the land area of India.

The two graphs below show the decline in winter maxima and summer minima in more detail.

And what is clear is that the decline in Arctic Sea Ice this year is pretty much exactly what we would have anticipated.

Graph 2017-3

Graph 2017-2

What happens next?

Well, we are now talking about ‘the future’ so the answer has to be ‘nobody knows’.

But the trends look to be well-established, and in our best understanding, the ultimate cause of the decline – the warming of our planet’s surface – will not abate for many decades.

So eventually we will see the Sea Ice Extent fall to zero in the summer. Drawing a straight line through the data, one obtains an estimate of about 2065.

However many ‘so-called experts’ think that an ice-free summer will come much sooner. They argue that sea ice extent is a 2-dimensional measure of a 3-dimensional quantity – the volume of sea ice.

They argue that accompanying the decline in sea ice area, there has been a thinning of the sea ice.

Satellite measurements of sea ice thickness are relative new, and don’t yet show any clear trend. But despite that, scientists have been combining the sparse data that do exist with the data on sea ice area to produce an estimate for Sea Ice Volume . Their estimates are shown below.

Sea Ice Volume March 2017

Now we can see the true drama of the situation. While the sea ice minimum area has declined by approximately 30%, the sea ice minimum volume has declined by approximately 70%.

For this data, a linear decline no longer captures the trend of the data. Fitting a quadratic trend and extrapolating, the estimate of the date at which summer sea ice volume reaches zero moves forward from 2065 to 2021.

As I mentioned, we are discussing ‘the future’ so no-one knows what is really going happen: 2021 is probably too early, but 2065 is probably too late. This 2012 article discusses the complexities of this extrapolation in detail.

But as the trend continues, the likelihood is that the sea ice will become more fragile, and eventually it will become thin enough that even mild storms will break it up.

In our lifetimes** we will reach a condition where the sea ice in the northern hemisphere entirely melts every summer. The North Pole will have become the North Pool.

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*Reader: I had thought the measurement was made from analysing visual images, but in fact it is made using microwaves. The emission of microwaves from water and ice have different characteristic polarisations and the contrast allows the fraction of sea-ice to be estimated. Details here. Sorry for the initial mistake, and thank you to Victor Venema for spotting it.

**Reader: I hope your life is long and healthy.


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