Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Do you really want to know if global warming is real?

January 28, 2017

About a year ago, I thought that Climate Change Deniers had lost the argument.

I thought that we were all moving on to answering more interesting questions, such as what to do about it.

But it seems I was wrong. It seems that in this post-truth world, climate change deniers are uninterested in reality – preferring instead alternative facts.

I am left speechless in the face of this kind of intellectual dishonesty.

Actually I am only almost speechless. I intend to continue trying to empower people by fighting this kind deception.

Rather than trying to woo people over to my view, my aim is simply to offer people the chance to come to their own informed opinion.

See for yourself

As part of my FREE University of Chicago Course on Global Warming, I have been using some astonishing FREE software. And its FREE!


The ‘Time Series Browser’ allows one to browse a 7000 station subset of our historical temperature records from meteorological stations around the world.

  • The data are the local station temperatures averaged over 1 month, 1 year or 1 decade. Whichever you choose you can also download this data into a spreadsheet to have fun with on your own!
  • One can select sets of data based on a variety of criteria – such as country, latitude band, altitude, or type of geographical location – desert, maritime, tropical etc. Or you can simply pick a single station – maybe the one nearest you.

Already this is enormously empowering: this is the pretty much the same data set that leading climate scientists have used.

For this article I randomly chose a set of stations with latitudes between 20°N and 50°N.


The bold dots on the map show the station locations, and the grey dots (merging into a continuous fill in parts) are the available locations that I could have chosen.

The data from the selected stations is shown below.  Notice the scale on the left hand side runs from -10 °C to + 30 °C.


In this form it is not obvious if the data is warming or cooling: And notice that only a few data sets span the full time range.

So how do we discover if there are trends in the data?

The first step

Once you have selected a set of stations one can see that some stations are warm and others cool. In order to be able to compare these data fairly, we subtract off the average value of each data set between 1900 and 1950.

This is called normalisation and allows us to look in detail at changes from the 1900-1950 average independent of whether the station was in a warm place or a cold place.


Notice that the scale on the left-hand side is now just ± 3.5 °C.

The second step

One can then average all the data together. This is has the effect of reducing the fluctuations in the data.

One can then fit a trend-line to see if there is a recent warming or cooling trend.


For this particular set of stations its pretty clear that since 1970, there is a warming trend. The software tells me it is approximately 0.31 ± 0.09 °C per decade.

What I have found is that for any reasonably diverse set of stations a warming trend always emerges. I haven’t investigated this thoroughly, but the trend actually seems to emerge quite clearly above the fluctuations.

But you can check that for yourself if you want!

Is it a cheat? No!

You can check the maths of the software by downloading the data and checking it for yourself.

Maybe the data is fixed? You download the source data yourself – it comes from the US Global Historical Climatology Network-Monthly (GHCN-M) temperature data-set.

But accessing the raw data is quite hard work. If you are a newbie, it will probably take you days to figure out how to do it.

There is more!

This ability to browse, normalise, average and fit trends to data is cool. But – at the risk of sounding like a shopping channel advertorial – there is more!

It can also access the calculations of eleven different climate models.

For the particular set of stations that you have selected, the software will select the climate model predictions (a) including the effect of human climate change and (b) without including human-induced climate change.

For my data selection I chose to compare the data with the predictions of the CCSM4 Climate model. The results are shown below


You can judge for yourself whether you think the trend in the observed data is consistent with the idea of human-induced climate change.

For the particular set of stations I chose, it seems the CCSM4 climate model can only explain the data by including the effect of human-induced climate change.

But Michael: this is just too much like hard work!

Yes and no. This analysis is conceptually challenging. But it is not crazily difficult. For example:

  • Schoolchildren could do this with help from a teacher.
  • Friends could do it as a group and ask each other for help.
  • University students could do this.
  • Scout groups could do it collectively.

It isn’t easy, but ultimately, if you really want to know for yourself, it will take some work. But then you will know.

So why not have a go?  The software is described in more detail here, and you can view a video explaining how to use the software here.

[January 28th 2017: Weight this morning 71.2 kg: Anxiety: Sick to my stomach: never felt worse]

Still learning after all these years

December 31, 2016
David Archer teaching a course on Global Warming

David Archer teaching a course on Global Warming

I have had to teach myself the physics of global warming.

And as an autodidact, I have suffered from the misfortune of having been taught by an idiot.

So ‘attending’ an online course about Global Warming is a genuine pleasure: it is so much easier than teaching oneself!

All I have to do is to listen – and re-listen – and then answer the questions.

Someone else has selected the topics that they feel are most important and determined the order of presentation.

Taking the course on-line allows me to expose my ignorance to no-one but myself and the course-bot.

And in this low-stress environment it is possible to remember the sheer pleasure of just learning stuff.

On line courses

Using the FutureLearn platform, I have taken courses on Global WarmingSoil, and Programming in Python.

I have participated with dual aims. In part I have wanted to learn about the topic. But also I have been curious to experience ‘a course’ from a student’s perspective.

The current course uses the Coursera platform and is much more technical than any of the Futurelearn courses I have tried previously.

For me that’s fine, but my guess is that the mathematical level is somewhere between GCSE and ‘A’ level and many people would find that intimidating.

The course assessments are also genuinely challenging, requiring the use of quite complex online software, and implicitly, the use of a spreadsheet or calculator.

One pleasing aspect of the course – for me at least – is that the course lecturer (David Archer) basically stands in front of a blackboard and talks.

He dresses like a physicist, and sounds like a physicist, and makes mistakes on the blackboard – it’s just like being back at University!

And in the vacuum between Christmas and New Year it has been a pleasure to lose myself in this on-line world.

Continuous Professional Development

‘Attending’ this course has also had a curious personal resonance for me.

I recently applied to become a ‘Fellow’ of the Institute of Physics – I am currently ‘only’ a member.

I first filled out the application form in 2013 – three years ago – and I thought I was doing well until I came to the section marked ‘CPD- Continuous Professional Development’.

The section was marked with a stern warning that it was not optional. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a single word to put in the section. So I just forgot about the application.

Each year since I have re-visited the form and fallen at the same hurdle.

But this year I asked some colleagues for help. It turns out that attending courses like this is actually CPD!

Who knew!



Grandmother’s kilograms

December 28, 2016


One of the reasons that I feel better this Christmas than last is because I have managed to lose weight.

In the 11 months since the end of January 2016 my weight has fallen from about 88 kg to around 73 kg.

For US readers, that’s a weight loss of 33 pounds, and for older UK readers, that’s about two and a half stone. It is a transformative amount of weight to loose. I feel much better.

I mention it here, because I have showed similar graphs before. For example, in 2011 I wrote “The Mass of Sisyphus” which has a graph of my weight from 1995 to 2011 (Ages 35 to 51)

So I have achieved similar weight loss previously, but previously my weight crept back onto my body. However I don’t have any data about the times when my weight is increasing.

It is like the game of Grandmother’s Footsteps in which children have to sneak up on ‘Grandmother’ but they can only move when ‘Grandmother’ is not looking.

Similarly, my weight seems happy to stay still or indeed to go down, as long as I weigh myself every day. But when I stop weighing myself – it slowly creeps up on me in the most sinister way.

My conclusion is that in order to maintain my weight I need to weigh myself every day.

It is yet another example of the power of measurement: because it is not until one measures a thing that one can begin to understand it, and control it.


The graph also shows the busy year I have had with trips to Canada just before the graph began, India, the USA (twice), Poland, Italy and Spain.

Irritatingly, each trip has broken my weight loss trend.

However another good feature of the year has been running. Compared with 2015, I have increased the distance I have run from about 14 km per month, to around 100 km /month.


Running has helped keep anxiety at bay and happily I can take my running shoes with me when I travel.

This seems to have settled down into a routine, and although it seems quite sporty for a man of my age (57) it takes only just over two hours a week.

And as I have run more, even though I haven’t been trying to run faster, I found I have naturally speeded up.


Looking at the graph I can see that even since July 2016 when my weight has been more or less stable, my speed has been slowly increasing.

So my aim for the new year is to keep on running – and weighing myself every day. And hopefully I will keep Grandmother’s kilograms from creeping up on me!




Happy Christmas 2016

December 24, 2016


First of all, thank you for having taken the trouble to stop by.

I had been going to write my reflections on the year – but I am too tired, and too likely to say negative things. So I will put that off for now.

And looking back at my blog, I realise that I do feel better than I felt in 2013.

All the things I wrote back then are still true, and some even more so.

But my campaign to manage my own anxiety has partially alleviated their personal impact. So there are positives from the year!

But horrifically I also realise that I am struggling to complete exactly the same ‘3 month’ project that I was desperate to complete by last Christmas! Aargh

Hey Ho! “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!” Anyway, please allow me to wish you a…

…Happy Christmas, and a splendid 2017.



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]



Grammar Schools:Their formula for success revealed!

October 2, 2016


Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s article on Grammar Schools. I feel I am slowly becoming able to articulate what I think about this.

An article in The Guardian today has clarified things further:

Latymer grammar school asks parents to make up financial shortfall

The gist of the story is that Latymer School, a Grammar School with 96% A*-C pass rate at A-level, has asked its parents for more money. The Guardian quotes the school as saying:

“We are now appealing to all parents and carers of current students to support the school either by making a new or increasing an existing voluntary regular donation. Typically the amount you would pledge would be £30-£50 per month (£360-600 per annum) over the period your child attends Latymer. This averages out at between £1.89 and £3.15 per school day and is considerably less than the average fees of an independent school.”

It seems like a perfectly reasonable request. I think Tiffin School asked – but did not require – something similar.

The contribution amounts to roughly £50,000 per school year (i.e. about £350,000 per year across all seven school years). But not all schools have parents who could afford such a contribution.

And isn’t the point of state schools that parents don’t have to pay directly?

Latymer has been able to keep going in the last couple of years despite cuts to their budget because of the Latymer Foundation, which clearly has substantial funds available.

In a  June 2015 letter to parents available on the school web site, the trustees write:

 To balance the budgets over the next two years, the Foundation will underwrite the school deficits for 2015/16 and 2016/17 for potentially in excess of £1million. The funding will help buffer the impact of the significant drop in funding and increased costs for the next 18 months.

Over half of this sum relates to one-off capital and non-recurring revenue expenditure. However, the school will need to use this window of time to plan for and adjust to the, as yet unknown, longer term forecast of revenue and capital funding streams being made available by central government.

The Latymer Foundation wishes to express its thanks to the large number of parents who have been donating to the Standards Fund over many years and whose continuing contributions make this funding support possible.

So it seems that there are two elements to the success of Latymer, and by inference, other successful Grammar Schools. We can summarise this simply:

Money + Selection = Success


I arrived at the money connection at the end of the previous article where I pointed out that private schools cost approximately twice as much as state schools.

But what about the role of selection?

Grammar schools select children who – at the relevant age – can display a particular kind of mental agility. Typically – as Latymer’s appeal suggests – this also selects parents with an ability to contribute financially to the school.

But did anyone else notice Ed’s radical suggestion in the discussion of last week’s article? He proposed selection by behaviour rather than ability.

He suggested that schools selected the 95% of children who – given the right culture – are capable of benefiting from an academic education.

An alternative statement would be that we identify the 5% of children who disrupt every class they are in, and do something – I have no idea what – to engage them in a way which doesn’t disrupt the education of the majority.


In the end, its about the money

The education of the majority of people is a critical cultural endeavour. Our culture is our collective treasure.

We need more than an elite capable of understanding the technology our our brave new world. We do need that elite – but we need a culture in which their enhanced skills make sense.

But this costs money.

And when we see how expensive it is in the private sector – supposedly the most efficient provider of services – is it any surprise that the state sector struggles on half that level of funding? Maybe the formula is even simpler:

Money + Selection = Success

[October 2nd 2016: Weight this morning 74.0 kg: Anxiety: Medium]

William Smith

August 29, 2016
The geological map of the UK is now available as an app. The first version was created by William Smith and was considerably more difficult to obtain.

The geological map of the UK is now available as an app. The first version was created by William Smith and was considerably more difficult to obtain.

Apologies for the lack of blog articles, but it has been a busy and difficult summer and despite my best efforts, anxiety levels have been high.


News that the Earth has entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene – should cause us all to reflect a little.


Personally, the news adds to my general sense of anxiety.

But the news reminded me of my summer holiday this year, spent in rural isolation near the lonely village of Churchill, in Oxfordshire.

The village was the birthplace of the astonishing William Smith, the man who created the first geological map of England.

On our first day of adventuring  we came across a small museum dedicated to his memory. By chance they had the very readable biography (The Map that Changed the World) for sale.

One of the pleasures of the biography was to read about a topic so profound, and one of which I was so profoundly ignorant.



I had been dimly aware of the map previously. I had noticed it when I was honoured in November 2014 to address the London Petrophysical Society  at the Geological Society’s premises in Burlington Arcade.

The map hangs on the wall to the right of the main hallway beyond the reception desk. I was so impressed that I asked for a copy for Christmas that year, but I think my wife thought it might be a bit too big 😦

Just seeing the map, I had enjoyed its grandeur. But reading about its creation was awe-inspiring.

Smith worked as a surveyor and was fortunate enough (!) to descend down shafts in mines separated by just a few miles.

He noticed that the very obvious strata which the miners used to locate the coal were similar in different mines, but that they occurred at different depths.

He was then employed to build a canal, and was amongst the first people to cut open a slot in the Earth many miles long. This time he noticed that surface rocks changed from one location to another.

Piecing these experiences together allowed him to realise the three-dimensional layer structure of the Earth beneath the surface of England.

He realised that the strata were originally laid down horizontally, but were now slightly tilted, and that this explained both the surface and sub-surface observations.

There was one more clue that helped him piece together the confusing strata encountered in different places: fossils. He realised that the type of fossil in each layer formed a unique identifier for that layer.

With these insights, and a prodigious amount of energy, he travelled the length and breadth of the country constructing his grand map, the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The map is in someways akin to the periodic table.

The periodic table contains chemical information, but more importantly than the information it contains, it provides a structure and a context that gives meaning to all chemical information.

Similarly, William Smith’s map contains geological information, but more importantly it provided a framework for understanding all geological information.

Imagine discovering that the fossils collected at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast were of the same type as those collected in Lyme Regis on the South coast!

Who would have connected the two places before Smith traced the layer of rock across the whole of England? But after he had made the connection, and after you have seen the map, the connections seem almost obvious.

As I read of William Smith’s travails, I reflected that despite the enclosed fields and the robotic harvesters, the countryside hereabouts would probably have been recognisable to Smith if he could re-visit now.

And I wondered how he would react to news that the Anthropocene layer had begun.


P.S. The Geological Map is now downloadable as an app called iGeology.


[August 29th 2016: Weight this morning 72.9 kg: Anxiety: Very High]


Hinkley Point C: What should we think?

July 30, 2016
A schematic diagram of the European Pressurised Water Reactor to be built at Hinkley Point. What could possibly go wrong?

A schematic diagram of the European Pressurised Water Reactor to be built at Hinkley Point. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that one can re-visit one’s own thoughts on a subject.

Given the current turmoil around the contract for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, I was interested to read what I had thought about it 1014 days ago back in October 2013.

First some light relief: I opened with:

So the UK is finally ready to embark on building some new nuclear power stations. I – like most people – don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But I do feel a sense of relief that we have finally made a decision.

Ha Ha Ha. Nearly three years on and we have still to make up our mind.

Back in 2013, newspapers and commentators seemed resigned to the inevitability of the contract.

Now, given the significant fall in energy prices worldwide, they portray the project with much greater contrast: some calling it a white elephant, and others an essential piece of national infrastructure, all the while prevaricating on whether it is a good idea or not.

What has not changed much are the numbers. Back then I wrote:

The power station, planned to begin operating in 10 years time in 2023, consists of two massive plants each generating 1.6 GW of electricity. The build cost is estimated to be £16 billion  which French and Chinese government-owned companies will invest. Yes, this really is an investment backed by foreign governments.

The start date is now shifted to 2025 and the estimated build cost has increased to £18 billion.

However what is not made clear in many news stories is that the UK (government, taxpayer or electricity consumer) still does not have to pay one penny of this.

The gist of the deal is that these foreign governments take all the risk in return for a premium on the price of the electricity they produce. And the risk is substantial.

  • Construction of the first reactor of this type at Olkiluotu in Finland began in 2005 and the reactor is still not operational. Currently it is ‘expected’ to begin generating in 2018.
  • Construction of the second reactor of this type at Flamanville in France began in 2007 and the reactor is still not operational. Currently it is ‘expected’ to begin generating in 2018.

Both projects are billions of euros over-budget, and the ‘expected’ start dates are questionable. The Hinkley Point C project is larger than either Olkiluoto or Flamanville.

Considering only the financial aspects of the deal, whether it makes sense or not depends on the size of premium we have promised to pay when account is taken of:

  • the investment required (£18 billion)
  • the length of time before the investors make any return (>10 years),
  • and the risk (substantial)

So how much have we promised to pay them?

If the plants operate for 90% of time generating 3.2 GW of electricity then the guaranteed minimum income for the plant is £2.3 billion per year. Subtracting the operational costs – typically relatively low for nuclear plant – then after 10 years of no income and substantial risk of construction problems and delays, the operators should generate around 13% per annum return on their investment every year for 35 years.

It has been argued that this electricity is as much as twice as expensive as  the current price. So we are effectively paying a premium of £1.15 billion per year for the privilege of (a) not investing a penny up front; (b) not paying a penny if the project is delayed or fails to deliver; (c) having 60% of the contracts awarded to UK companies.

Does that represent good value? Back in 2013 I wrote:

I am not an economist, but in this context [this may not be] the best possible thing we could do. But it is probably not the worst either.

And I still think the same.


[July 30th 2016: Weight this morning 74.1 kg: Anxiety: Very High]

Impact, basic science and the Tinker Bell effect

July 16, 2016
Tinker Bell will die if you do not believe in her.

Tinker Bell will die if you do not believe in her. 

For scientists in the UK, it has become a reality that research proposals without identifiable ‘impact’ are unlikely to be funded.

This is understandable, but problematic. Because ‘impact’ is difficult to anticipate, and may take many years to become apparent.

I was reminded of this today when I received letter from the son of John Wilson, who died in October 2013.

He wrote to express his surprise that a paper by his father was listed as the most cited paper in Advances in Physics. He asked if this could really be possible?

The paper, written in 2006, was entitled:

The transition metal dichalcogenides: discussion and interpretation of the observed optical, electrical and structural properties

I am absolutely sure that when John co-authored this paper 10 years ago ‘impact’ – such as forming part of the foundation for hundreds of other papers – was the last thing on his mind: it never was.

Everything John did was driven by his fascination with materials and his personal curiosity.


Tinker Bell

Tinker Bell, you may recall, is a fairy. Yes, she is, and I believe in her. Do you believe in her boys and girls? Clap if you believe in her…. I knew you did.

Tinker Bell has given her name to the Tinkerbell effect which describes things that continue to exist only because people believe they do.

It applies not just to fairies, but to more critical and serious matters such as ‘the rule of law’.

And I think it applies to the value of basic science undertaken without any regard to impact. Once we stop believing in it, it will die.

And if it does die, then in my opinion, we will all be the poorer.

Boys and girls! Do you believe in basic science? Clap if you believe in basic science…. harder…harder…


[July 16th 2016: Weight 73.8 kg: Anxiety: Medium]



Too busy to blog

June 18, 2016

As I mentioned at the start of the year, this year I have been trying to live my life free from gut-wrenching anxiety.

I have had a pretty good run during a busy start to the year, despite very challenging experiments and trips to Canada, India, and the USA.

But as we approach the Solstice, I can feel the anxiety gaining in intensity again.

However, my determination to stare it down and make it go away is undiminished!

In testament to that determination I give you this two minute song I wrote earlier in the year. It includes the lyrics:

I refuse to be unhappy, I refuse to be sad, I refuse to spend another day feeling bad. I refuse. I simply refuse.

Fifty years is … long enough

Blogging and running both help me to reduce the chronic effects of work-induced anxiety.

But recently they have been in competition with each other for precious non-work time.

Blogging – if I write thoughtfully – allows me to clarify my ideas. And without that discipline, lots of my ideas have found no proper place for expression.

And running (more than 100 km a month) has helped me lose 13 kg – and also helped me cope with anxiety from day to day.

Hopefully – as my desire to lose weight wanes – I will be able to find a new balance that will allow me to both blog and run.

I just have this keynote talk to write for a conference, and after that I am sure work will calm down…

Wish me luck…

%d bloggers like this: