Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Gravity: one more thing

January 28, 2018

I am a great admirer of James Clerk Maxwell.

And amongst his greatest achievements was the prediction that waves in electric and magnetic fields should travel at the speed of light.

He arrived at his prediction by considering the observed strength of static electric magnetic fields.

  • For example, studies had established the strength of the force from a given amount of electric charge at a given distance.
  • This electrical force was characterised by a constant called (for historical reasons) the permittivity of free space. It was given the symbol ε0 – the greek letter ‘epsilon’ with a subscript of zero. It was considered to represent in some way how ‘disturbed’ the space was around an electric charge.
  • Similarly, studies had established the strength of the magnetic force from a given electric current at a given distance.
  • This magnetic force was characterised by a constant called (for historical reasons) the permeability of free space. It was given the symbol μ0 – the greek letter ‘mu’ with a subscript of zero. It was considered to represent in some way how ‘disturbed’ the space was around an electric current.

Maxwell analysed these static experiments and predicted that there should be coupled waves in the electric and magnetic fields and that they would travel with a speed of:

image002

And when Maxwell calculated this number he arrived at a number very close to the previously measured speed of light.

He observed that this was unlikely to be a coincidence and concluded that light was a wave in the electromagnetic field.

I can still remember how I felt when – aged 19 – I followed Maxwell’s footsteps and ‘discovered’ this connection: I was gob-struck!

Other waves

This type of formula is typical of expressions for the speed of waves. For example, the speed of a wave on a stretched wire or string is given by:

image002

where T is the tension in the string and m is the mass per unit length of the string.  So a wave will travel quickly when the string is taut and low mass.

And in general we expect the speed of waves to reflect how the medium in which the waves travel responds to a disturbance.

Gravity waves

And that is why last years’ announcement (LIGO, Popular Report) that gravity waves travel at the speed of light is so profoundly important.

This discovery implies that there is a connection between:

  • electricity and magnetism – responsible for just about all the phenomena we experience around us – and…
  • gravity – which is associated with space and time and mass.

Alternatively, it could indicate a connection between them both and something else we don’t know about.

But the experimental fact of this connection astounds me as much if not more than the connection that Maxwell made.

And it makes me wonder just what he would have to say about the discovery.

Now I know this connection is not ‘new’: I can remember being told that gravity waves would travel at the speed of light many years ago.

But the discovery of the experimental fact of the speeds of light and gravity being equal seems to me to be more profound than the mere expectation that it should be so.

You can see more about the discovery in the LIGO video below

 

Perspectives on Gravity

January 9, 2018

Gravity is such a familiar force that its utterly mysterious nature can sometimes go unnoticed.

Looking at the picture of Earth and Moon bound together in the solitude of the Universe, it is strange to think that all that holds them together is this apparently weak force.

In this article I will do a couple of calculations using Newton’s law of Universal Gravitation. If you know the maths, please check my calculations, and if you don’t, please trust me.

Not so weak

Many people are familiar with the fact that the average gravitational field strength at the surface of the Earth is approximately 9.8 newtons of force for every kilogram of mass. This is sometimes called one ‘g‘.

(This is sometime expressed as 9.8 metres per second per second, but I don’t think that formulation is as clear in this context.)

But what is the gravitational field strength due to the Earth at the Moon? A simple calculation shows it to be just 0.0027 newtons per kilogram – about 0.02% of g.

And yet this weak field is sufficient to bind the Moon to the Earth with a force of 2 × 1020 newtons.

If gravity disappeared (!) and we applied that force to the Moon with a tensile steel cable, it would need to be 1000 km in diameter and would require about half the mass of the Earth to manufacture!

So weak

Many people are familiar with the fact that the tides on Earth are affected by the Moon.

We can work out the gravitational field strength on the side of the Earth nearest the Moon – where the Moon’s gravity opposes the Earth’s gravity: 9.8134727 newtons per kilogram.

Compare this with the gravitational field strength on the side of the Earth farthest from the Moon – where the Moon’s gravity acts with the Earth’s gravity: 9.8134749 newtons per kilogram.

The gravitational field strengths differ by just 0.2 parts in a million. And yet this difference is sufficient to affect the tides!

So very weak

Many people are familiar with the fact that the Earth is bound to the Sun by gravity. And that the Sun is bound to the Centre of the Milky Way Galaxy by gravity.

We can work out the gravitational field strength at the Earth due to the Sun. It is just 0.0059 newtons per kilogram or about 0.06% of g.

And the gravitational field strength at the Sun due to the Galaxy is a breathtakingly small 0.000000002135 newtons per kilogram or just 0.2 parts per billion of the gravitational field strength at the Earth’s surface.

And the lesson is?

There is no lesson here – it is just surprising to me how weak gravitational fields – billions of times weaker than the fields we are familiar with on Earth – can bind stars into galaxies. That’s all.

Good night.

Perspective

January 8, 2018

Image courtesy fo NASA

The image above shows the Earth on the left and the Moon on the right.

It was acquired by a spacecraftOsiris Rex – a couple of months ago, 10 days after it had just been ‘slingshot’ into an orbit where it will eventually meet up with an asteroid.

The mission is fascinating: it will rendezvous with an asteroid, take a sample from it – and in September 2023, return it to Earth for analysis.

But for me, this picture is worth the project in itself. I find it haunting and surprising.

Most significant is the tiny fraction of the image taken up by the Earth and the Moon. I find it chilling to see this against the blackness of space.

Next is the sense of perspective. The figure below shows where the spacecraft was when it took the image.

Image courtesy of NASA

From my perspective on Earth, the Moon looms large, and its true distance is unimaginable.

In the image the Moon seems less significant than I would have expected, and yet it still drives our tides.

So…

If I place in one hand my anxiety about work, an anxiety which poisons so much of my life.

And in my other hand I place this image of my home in the cosmos.

Then I feel sure that if I could just gain the right perspective, and balance these two realities, then my anxiety would seem smaller and less significant.

And if I could manage that, then the view from a spacecraft deep in space would have meaningfully changed life back here on Earth. Mmmmm.

 

 

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!


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