Mug Cooling: Salty fingers

November 23, 2018

You wait years for an article about heat transfer at beverage-air interfaces and then four come along at once!

When I began writing these articles (1, 2, 3) I was just curious about the effect of insulation and lids.

But as I wrote more I had two further insights.

  • Firstly the complexity of the processes at the interface was mind-boggling!
  • Secondly, I realised that cooling beverages are just one example of the general problem of energy and material transfer at interfaces.

This is one of the most important processes that occurs on Earth. For example, it is how the top layer of the oceans – where most of the energy arriving on Earth from the Sun is absorbed – exchanges energy with the deeper ocean and the atmosphere.

But in the oceans there is another factor: salinity.


Sea water typically contains 35 grams of salt per litre of water, and is about 2.4% denser than pure water.

So pure water – such as rain water falling onto the ocean surface – will tend to float above the brine.

This effect is exacerbated if the pure water is warm. For example, water at 60 °C is approximately 1.5% less dense than water at around 20 °C.


In the video at the top of the article I added warm pure water (with added red food colouring) to a glass of cold pure water (on the left) and a glass of cold salty water (on the right).

[For the purposes of this article I hope you will allow that glasses are a type of mug]

The degree to which the pure and salty water spontaneously separated surprised me.

But more fascinating was the mechanism of eventual mixing – a variant on ‘salt fingering‘.

Salt Fingers Picture

The formation of ‘salty fingers’ of liquid is ubiquitous in the oceans and arises from density changes caused by salt diffusion and heat transfer.

As the time-lapse section of the movie shows – eventually the structure is lost and we just see ‘mixed fluid’ – but the initial stages, filmed in real time, are eerily beautiful.

Now I can’t quite explain what is happening in this movie – so I am not going to try.

But the web has articles, home-made videos and fancy computer simulations.


Mug Cooling: Visualising complexity with peanut butter

November 20, 2018

I hope you’ve enjoyed the last couple of articles (1, 2)  about mug cooling. I have enjoyed writing them, but I am having trouble stopping.

My problem in trying to finish this investigation is the sheer complexity of the physics involved in the cooling of beverages.

Complexity? Yes, mind-boggling complexity. In the liquid, the air, and the profoundly mysterious ‘boundary layer’ between them.

First there is the liquid.

When one looks at a cup of tea or coffee, its opacity hides the complexity of the flow patterns in the liquid.

But with different fluids, such as the mixture of Marmite™, Peanut Butter, and hot water shown in the movie at the top, the turgid flows become visible.

[ASIDE: Some might ask: “Michael, what made you think of mixing Marmite™, Peanut Butter, and hot water?”.  Sadly, the answer is confidential, but I urge readers: please: do try this at home, but please don’t blame me!]

These flows are driven by the convective instability of the liquid.

  • The hot liquid near the surface cools as its fast-moving molecules either evaporate or lose energy by colliding with the slower-moving air molecules.
  • As the liquid cools, its density increases until it begins to sink beneath the liquid layer below.
  • This lower layer is now lifted to the surface, cools, and then sinks in turn.
  • And so a circulating flow pattern can be established and sustained by a liquid cooling at a surface.

In the case of the  Marmite™  and Peanut Butter concoction in the movie above, matters are further complicated by oil from the peanut butter which appears to have formed a stable surface layer below which the convective flow takes place.

This roiling turmoil can also be measured quantitatively.

I repeated the cooling measurements from the previous articles, but this time I placed all four thermocouples close to the surface.

Thermocouples near the surface

Four thermocouples measuring the temperature close to the surface of hot water in an insulated mug.

Looking in detail at the data from just two of the thermocouples one can see apparently random heating and cooling events.

These temperature fluctuations are caused by rising and falling convecting liquid .

Slide 11

Then there is the air.

Analogous processes also occur in the air above the liquid. 

These are harder to visualise, but I have created a simulation of the process in the amazing (and free!) Energy2D application – more details at the end of this article.

Large Gif
Animated GIF made from selected frames of an Energy2D simulation of the  air cooling of a liquid in insulated mugs with a lid (left) and without (right).

In the simulationthe flow patterns in the air quickly develop a breathtaking fractal complexity that is completely familiar.

The simulation is not entirely realistic. It is only in two-dimensions, does not include the effects of evaporation, does not include convection in the ‘liquid’ (so it is more like a solid), and yet some how, when the data is exported, it looks qualitatively similar to that which I observed experimentally in a real 3-D mug!

Slide 10

Graph of data exported from the Energy 2D simulation showing the cooling of an insulated beverage cup with and without a lid.


Underlying the ‘simple’ beverage cooling curves are processes in both the liquid and the air which are at the limit of what can be realistically modelled.

And as we approach the interface between the liquid and the air and look in ever more detail, matters only get more complex.

At this apparently ‘static’ interface there are multiple dynamic processes:

  • The liquid is evaporating, cooling and convecting away from the surface.
  • Air molecules and liquid molecules are interacting strongly.
    • The air is dissolving in the liquid
    • The liquid is evaporating and re-condensing both as droplets in the air (steam) and back into the liquid.
  • The air is warming and convecting away from the surface.

And yet all we just notice is that our coffee is getting cold!

Energy 2D

Energy2D is a wonderful FREE application that carries out complex two-dimensional calculations based on real physics.

I have found it difficult to get exact numerical matches between simulations and real world situations, but the physics which the software simulates is deeply insightful.

I strongly recommend that you waste several hours playing with its example demonstrations.


Mug Cooling: The Lid Effect

November 12, 2018

Droplets collect near the rim of a mug filled with hot water.

During my mug cooling experiment last week, I was surprised to find that taking the lid off a vacuum insulated mug increased its initial cooling rate by a factor 7.5.

Removing the lid allowed air from the room to flow across the surface of the water, cooling it in two ways.

  • Firstly, the air would warm up when it contacted the hot water, and then carry heat away in a convective flow.
  • Secondly, some hot water would evaporate into the moving air and carry away so – called ‘latent heat’.

I wondered which of these two effects was more important?

I decided to work out the answer by calculating how much evaporation would be required to explain ALL the cooling. I could then check my calculation against the measured mass of water that was lost to evaporation.

Where to start?

I started with the cooling curve from the previous blog.


Graph#1: Temperature (°C) versus time (minutes) for water cooling in an insulated mug with and without a lid. Without a lid, the water cools more than 7 times faster.

Because I knew the mass of water (g) and its heat capacity (joule per gram per °C), I could calculate the rate of heat loss in watts required to cool the water at the observed rate.

In Graph#2 below I have plotted this versus the difference in temperature between the water and the room temperature, which was around 20 °C.


Graph#2: The rate of heat flow (in watts) calculated from the cooling curve versus the temperature difference (°C) from the ambient environment. The raw estimates are very noisy so the dotted lines are ‘best fit lines’ which approximately capture the trend of the data.

I was struck by two things: 

  • Firstly, without the lid, the rate of heat loss was initially 40 watts – which seemed very high.
  • Secondly:
    • When the lid was on, the rate of heat loss was almost a perfect straight line This is broadly what one expects in a wide range of heat flow problems – the rate of heat flow is proportional to the temperature difference. But…
    • When the lid was off, the heat flow varied non-linearly with temperature difference.

To find out the effect of the lid, I subtracted the two curves from each other to get the difference in heat flow versus the temperature of the water above ambient (Graph#3).

[Technical Note: Because the data in Graph#2 is very noisy and irregularly spaced, I used Excel™ to work out a ‘trend line’ that describes the underlying ‘trend’ of the data. I then subtracted the two trend lines from each other.]


Graph#3: The dotted line shows the difference in power (watts) between the two curves in the previous graph. This should be a fair estimate for the heat loss across the liquid surface.

This curve now told me the extra rate of cooling caused by removing the lid.

If this was ALL due to evaporative cooling, then I could work out the expected loss of mass by dividing by the latent heat of vaporisation of water (approximately 2260 joules per gram) (Graph#4).


Graph#4. The calculated rate of evaporation (in milligrams per second) that would be required to explain the increased cooling rate caused by removing the lid.

Graph#4 told me the rate at which water would need to evaporate to explain ALL the cooling caused by removing the lid.

Combining that result with the data in Graph#1, I worked out the cumulative amount of water that would need to evaporate to explain ALL the observed extra cooling (Graph#5)


Graph#5: The red dashed line shows the cumulative mass loss (g) required to explain all the extra cooling caused by removing the lid. The green dashed lines show the amount of water that actually evaporated in each of the two ‘lid off’ experiments. The green data shows additional measurements of mass loss versus time from a third experiment.

In Lid-Off Experiments#1 and #2, I had weighed the water before and after the cooling experiment and so I knew that in each experiment with the lid off I had lost respectively 25 g and 31 g of water –  just under 10% of the water.

But Graph #5 really needed some data on the rate of mass loss, so I did an additional experiment where I didn’t measure the temperature, but instead just weighed the mug every few minutes. This is the data plotted on Graph#5 as discrete points.


In Graph#5, it’s clear that the measured rate of evaporation can’t explain all the increased cooling rate loss, but it can explain ‘about a third of it‘.

So evaporation is responsible for about a third of the extra cooling, with two thirds being driven by heat transfer to the flowing air above the cup.

It is also interesting that even though the cooling curves in Graph#1 are very similar, the amount of evaporation in Graph#5 is quite variable.

The video below is backlit to show the ‘steam’ rising above the mug, and it is clear that the particular patterns of air flow are very variable.

The actual amount of evaporation depends on the rate of air flow across the water surface, and that is driven both by

  1. natural convection – driven by the hot low-density air rising, but also by…
  2. forced convection – draughts flowing above the cup.

I don’t know, but I suspect it is this variability in air flow that caused the variability in the amount of evaporation.


I have wasted spent a several hours on these calculations. And I don’t really know why.

Partly, I was just curious about the answer.

Partly, I wanted to share my view that it is simply amazing how much subtle physics is taking place around us all the time.

And partly, I am still trying to catch my breath after deciding to go ‘part-time’ from next year. Writing blog articles such as this is part of just keeping on keeping on until something about the future becomes clearer.

P.S. Expensive Mugs

Finally, on the off-chance that (a) anybody is still reading and (b) they actually care passionately about the temperature of their beverages, and (c) they are prepared to spend £80 on a mug, then the Ember temperature-controlled Ceramic mug may be just thing for you. Enjoy 🙂


Mug Cooling: Initial Results

November 7, 2018

One of life’s greatest pleasures is a nice cup of tea or coffee.

  • But what temperature makes the drink ‘nice’?
  • And how long after making the beverage should we wait to drink it?
  • And what type of mug is optimal?

To answer these questions I devised a research proposal involving temperature measurements made inside mugs during the cooling process.

I am pleased to tell you that my proposal was fully-funded in its initial stage by the HBRC*, having scored highly on its societal impact.

Experimental Method

The basic experiment consisted of pouring approximately 300 ml of water (pre-stabilised at 90 °C) into a mug sitting on a weighing scale. The weighing allowed low uncertainty assessment of the amount of water added.

The temperature of the water was measured every 10 seconds using four thermocouples held in place by a wooden splint. The readings were generally very similar and so in the graphs below I have just plotted the average of the four readings.

Experiments were conducted for a fancy vacuum-insulated mug (with and without its lid) and a conventional thick-walled ceramic mug. The results for the vacuum-insulated mug without its lid were so surprising that I repeated them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


The average temperature of the water in the mugs is shown in the two graphs below.

The first graph shows all the data – more than 8 hours for the vacuum insulated mug – , and the second graph shows the initial behaviour.

Also shown are horizontal lines at various temperatures that I determined (in a separate series of experiments) to be the optimal drinking range.


The average temperature of the water in the mugs versus time.


The first 120 minutes of the cooling curves. The water was poured in at 4 minutes.


The most striking feature of the cooling curves is the massive difference between the results for the vacuum insulated mug with, and without, its lid.

As I mentioned at the start, the result was so striking that I repeated the measurements (marked as #1 and #2) on the graphs.

The table below shows how many minutes it took for the water to cool to the three states highlighted on the graphs above:

  • Too hot to drink, but just sippable
  • Mmmm. A nice hot cuppa.
  • I’ll finish this quickly otherwise it’ll be too cold.

Minutes to reach status

  Vacuum-Insulated Mug

Ceramic Mug

 No Lid

 With Lid

Just Sippable




Upper Drinkable Limit 12 24


Lower Drinkable Limit





The insulating prowess of the vacuum insulated mug (with lid) is outstanding.

But the purpose of a mug is not simply to prevent cooling. It is to enable drinking! 

So to me this data raises a profound question about the raison d’être for vacuum insulated mugs.

  • Who  makes a cup of coffee and then thinks “Mmm, that’ll be just right to drink in two and a half hours time!”

Admittedly,  the coffee will then stay in the drinkable range for an impressive two hours. But still.

In contrast, the ceramic mug cools the hot liquid initially and allows it to reach the optimal drinking temperature after just a few minutes.

Further work

The review committee rated this research very highly and suggested two further research proposals.

  • The first concerned the explanation for the very large effect of removing the lid from the vacuum insulated mug. That research has already been carried out and will be the result of a further report in this journal.
  • The second concerned the effect of milk addition which could significantly affect the time to reach the optimal drinking temperature. That research proposal is currently being considered by HBRC.


*HBRC = Hot Beverage Research Council

Where have I been all this time?

October 26, 2018

It’s been almost two months since I last wrote an article for this blog. In the 10 years since I began writing here, that is the longest gap ever.

What’s up?

Broadly speaking, I have been very busy and very unhappy at work.

My unhappiness at work is nothing new. Regular readers may remember my article on ‘Coping by Counting‘ back in February 2017 where I extolled the virtue of counting down the time to retirement month-by-month.

Colleagues will know that I have been able to immediately tell them how many months, weeks  and days (and occasionally hours!) until my planned retirement date.

This technique really helped me through the last 20 months, but recently it became apparent that I would not last another 86 months and two weeks.

The only possibility seemed to be to resign, and a couple of weeks ago that is what I decided to do. But after talking with friends, family and colleagues, I was ‘talked down’ from this precipitous step and urged to look for alternatives.

So I have been negotiating to work part-time, and happily this seems to be achievable. This is due in no small part to my exceptionally kind line manager. So from January 2019 I will begin working three days a week. Hopefully this will be sustainable.

Perspective & Reflections

At the moment, this step feels like a humiliating defeat. Being unable to cope in a 21st Century working environment feels like a very personal failure. But I hope these feelings will fade.

Firstly, when I have told colleagues of my decision, they have reacted with a mixture of empathy and envy. They too are feeling the strain. So I have sense that it is not ‘just me’.

Secondly, looking at my career more broadly, in my 18 years at NPL I have managed to achieve a thing or two.

  • I was part of the team that made the second most accurate measurement of the Boltzmann constant ever.
  • I was part of the team that made the most accurate temperature measurements ever.
  • I have affected the lives of many people with my outreach work.
  • In 2009 I met the Queen and she gave me a medal!

And importantly I have managed to earn money, stay married, and bring up two children.

So from this wider perspective, reducing the amount of work I do and focusing more on writing and general pottering seems reasonable and not really a sign of defeat and failure.


Over the next few months I will hand over (or drop) the responsibilities that  fitted into the previously normal 6/7 working days, and find a package of work projects that I can achieve in 3.00 working days.

  • Did you notice the decimal point?

This will require a change in perspective on my part. I will need to let  go of some projects which I have been holding onto in the hope that I would be able to find some time to move them forwards. This won’t be easy.

But on the other hand, the prospect of several days a week on which I have no agenda items whatsoever already feels exhilarating.




Hydraulic jumps in the kitchen

September 1, 2018

It has been a difficult summer for me.

Putting on the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition was utterly exhausting, and even two months on, I have not been able to catch up on all the extra days and hours I worked. And I fell behind on every other project on which I am working.

So every day as I enter work I have to catch my breath, staunch my sense of panic, and force myself to stay calm as I begin another day of struggling through tiredness to avoid failure on all the projects on which I am way behind.

But earlier this week my colleague caught me staring at the water flowing down the sink in the kitchenette where we prepare tea.


I was staring at a phenomenon I have been fascinated by since childhood – the way water falling from the tap onto the bottom of the kitchen sink forms a smooth flat circle for a few centimetres around where the water lands – and then forms a ‘wavy wall’ around this circle.

My colleague said to me: “It’s great isn’t it. It’s called a hydraulic jump“. Learning that this phenomenon had a name lifted my spirits enormously and made me more curious about what was going on.

So today (Saturday) I have wantonly avoided catching up with my weekly tide of failure, stupidly neglected to pack for my week long conference in Belfast starting tomorrow, and spent the afternoon playing at the kitchen sink. I have experienced transitory happiness.

Hydraulic jump

Naming a phenomenon is stage#1 of the process of understanding it. Knowing this name allowed me to read a number of  – frankly confusing – articles on the web.

But after reading and playing for a while I think I am now beginning to understand what makes the circle form. There are two parts to my understanding:

The first insight arises from comparing:

  • the flow speed of the water with,
  • the speed at which waves travel on the surface of the water.

Inside the circle, the flow is faster than the speed at which waves can travel in the water.  So surface disturbances are swept outwards – the waves are not fast enough to travel ‘upstream’, back towards the centre.

As one moves further away from the centre, the flow speed falls and at the edge of the circle, the flow speed is just equal to the speed of water waves. So water waves travelling back towards the centre of the circle appear stationary – this what makes the circle appear to be ‘fixed’ even though it is a dynamically created structure.

Outside the circle, the flow slows sufficiently that water waves can travel upstream (towards the middle) but they can never travel into ‘the circle’. (There is actually a scientific paper in which this circle is used as an analogy to the ‘Event Horizon’ in a putative ‘White hole’!)

Hydraulic Jump Illustration

The second insight, arises from considering turbulence.

Once waves can travel in both directions in the water, turbulence builds up which slows the speed of the flowing water dramatically.

So in the steady state, the depth of the water builds up suddenly and the ratio of the depth of water inside the circle to the depth outside the circle is simply the ratio of the speeds of water flow just outside and just inside the circle.

So if the speed of flow is 10 times slower outside the circle, then the water will be be 10 times deeper outside the circle.

In the picture above and the video below, you can see the very strikingly different nature of the liquid surfaces. Shallow and perfectly smooth within the circle, and deeper and turbulent outside the circle.


I began playing by finding a better surface than the bottom of a sink. I used an upside down baking tray and adjusted it to be as level as I could manage.


Not knowing what to do, I began by measuring the diameter of the circle formed for different flow rates:

  • I measured the diameter roughly with a ruler
  • I measured the flow rate by timing how long it took to fill a measuring jug which I weighed before and after filling.

This produced a pleasing graph, but no real insight. An increased flow rate meant made the circle larger because it took more time (and distance) for the flowing water to slow down to the speed of water waves.


Looking at the algebra, I realised I really needed to know the speed of the water and depth of the water. But how could I measure these things?

I tried estimating the speed of the water by injecting food colouring into the flow and making a movie using the slow-motion mode of my iPhone camera.

Knowing the circle was about 8.8 cm in diameter, this allowed me to estimate the speed of flow as roughly 1.5 ± 0.5 metres per second in the centre zone. However I couldn’t think how to estimate the thickness (height) of the flowing layer.

By sticking a needle in I could see that it was much less than 1 mm and appeared to be less than a tenth of the thickness of the water outside the circle. But I couldn’t make any meaningful measurements.

Then I realised that I could I estimate the speed of the water in a different way. If I placed a needle in the moving water, it produced an angular ‘shock wave’.

This is similar to way an aeroplane travelling faster than the speed of sound in air produces a ‘sonic boom’.

  • For an aeroplane, the angle of the shock wave with respect to the direction of motion is related to the ratio of the speed of the plane to the speed of the sound.
  • For our flowing water, the angle of the shock wave with respect to the direction of motion is related to the ratio of the speed of the water to the speed of the water waves.

Unfortunately the angle changes very rapidly as the ratio of flow speed to wave speed approaches unity and I found this phenomenon difficult to capture photographically.

Graph 2

But as the photographs below show, I could convince myself qualitatively that the angle was opening out as I placed the obstacle nearer the edge of the circle.

Hydraulic Jump Pictures

Observations of the shock wave formed when an obstruction is placed in the water flow. The top row of photographs shows the effect of moving the obstruction from near the centre to near the edge of the circle. The bottom row of photographs are the same as the top row but I have added dotted lines to show how the shock angle opens up nearer the edge of the circle.


  • My work remains undone.
  • I still have to pack in order to leave for the conference at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning: less than 8 hours away as I finish this. (Perhaps I will have a chance to complete some tasks at the airport or on Sunday evening?)
  • I have understood a little something about one more little thing in this beautiful world, and that has lifted my spirits. For now at least.








Hot dry summers

August 10, 2018

Apparently its been hot all around the northern hemisphere this summer.

And that got me thinking about the long hot summer of 1976 when I was 16.

I have the general impression that summers now are warmer than they used to be. But I am aware that such impressions can be misleading.

Being the age I am (58), I fear my own mis-remembering of times past.

So was 1976 really exceptional? And will this year (2018) also prove to be really exceptional?

I decided to download some data and take a look.

Heathrow Data.

I popped over to the Met Office’s Climate pages and downloaded the historical data from the nearby Heathrow weather station.

I had downloaded this data before when looking at long-term climate trends, but this time I was looking for individual hot months rather than annual or decadal trends.

When I plotted the monthly average of the daily maximum temperature, I was surprised that 1976 didn’t stand out at all as an exceptional year.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data July Maxima Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature maxima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. I have highlighted the data from July each year using red squares. Notice that since 1976 there have been many comparable July months.

In the graph above I have highlighted July average maximum temperatures. I tried similar analyses for June and August and the results were similar. 1976 stood out as a hot year, but not exceptionally so.

Ask an Expert

Puzzled, I turned to an expert. I sent an e-mail to John Kennedy at the UK’s Met Office  and to my astonishment he responded within a few hours.

His suggestion was to try plotting seasonal data.

His insight was based on the fact that it is not so unusual to have a single warm month. But it is unusual to have three warm months in a row.

So I re-plotted the data and this time I highlighted the average of daily maximum temperatures for June, July and August.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data June July August Maxima Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature maxima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines as in the previous figure. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 now stands out as an exceptionally warm summer.

Delightfully, 1976 pops out as being an exceptional summer – in line with my adolescent recollection.

More than just being hot

But John suggested more. He suggested looking at the seasonal average of the minimum daily temperature.

Recall that in hot weather it is often the overnight warmth which is particularly oppressive.

In this graph (below) 1976 does not stand out as exceptional, but it is noticeable that warming trend is easily visible to the naked eye. On average summer, summer nights are about 2 °C warmer now than they were at the start of my lifetime.

Heathrow Monthly Climate Data JJA Minimum Analysis

The monthly average of the daily temperature minima are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 does not stand out exceptionally.

John also suggested that I look at other available data such as the averages of

  • daily hours of sunshine
  • daily rainfall

Once again seasonal averages of these quantities show 1976 to have been an exceptional year. Below I have plotted the Rainfall totals on two graphs, one showing the overall rainfall, and the other detail of the low rainfall summers.

Heathrow Monthly Monthly Rainfall

The monthly average of the daily rainfall total are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 was a dry summer. The data below 50 mm of rainfall are re-plotted in the next graph.

Heathrow Monthly Monthly Rainfall detail

Detail from the previous figure showing the low rainfall data. The monthly average of the daily rainfall total are plotted as black dots connected by grey lines. Here I have highlighted the seasonal average data (from June July and August) using red squares. Notice that 1976 was a dry summer.

de Podesta ‘Hot Summer’ Index

Following on from John’s suggestion, I devised the ‘de Podesta Long Hot Summer Index‘. I defined this to be:

  • the sum of the seasonal averages of the minimum and maximum temperatures (for June July and August),
  • divided by the seasonal average of rainfall (for June July and August).

Plotting this I was surprised to see 1976 pop out of the data as a truly exceptional hot dry summer – my memory had not deceived me.

But I also noticed 1995 ‘popped out’ too and I had no recollection of that being an exceptional summer. However this data (and Wikipedia) confirms that it was.

Now I just have to wait until the end of August to see if this year was exceptional too – it most surely felt exceptional, but we need to look at the data to see if our perceptions are genuinely grounded in reality.

Heathrow Hot Dry Summer Index

The de Podesta Hot Dry Summer (HDS) index as described in the text.  Construct an ‘index’ in this way really flags up the exceptional nature of 1976, and also 1995.

John Kennedy’s blog

In typical self-deprecating manner, John calls himself a ‘diagram monkey’ and blogs under that pseudonym. 

His is one of just two blogs to which I subscribe and I recommend it to you highly.

Talking about the SI

June 24, 2018

In just a few days, we will be setting up our stand about the International System of Units, the SI, at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (RSSSE).

In May 2019 the world plans to redefine four of the base units of the SI. The re-definition represents a profound change in our concept of measurement.

And it involves quantities with which most people are familiar, such as ‘a kilogram’, or ‘a degree Celsius’.

So we have thought long and hard about how to communicate this at RSSSE.

Where to start?

The geographical theory of knowledge  suggests that ‘explanations of concepts’ are like ‘directions from one place to another’.

And thus, when people visit our stand, we are obliged to start giving ‘directions’ from where they actually ‘are’.

Although we want to talk about the re-definition of the SI, we have to acknowledge that most people don’t actually know much about the SI.

So if we want to ‘start from where people are’, we first need to explain what the SI is now, and why it matters. And that is what we have done.

It’s about Measurement.

In the ‘orientation’ for colleagues who will be helping at the RSSSE, we have stressed three starting points to help orient visitors to the stand.

  • At the heart of science and engineering, there is measurement.
  • Measurement is the comparison of an unknown thing against a standard.
  • In the International System of Units there are seven standard things against which all physical quantities are compared.

We then have seven hands-on demonstrations – one for each of the seven standard quantities (called ‘base units’)- which will hopefully serve as starting points for conversations.

Keep it simple!

In developing the ‘hands-on demonstrations we worked with the magical people at Science Projects to build apparatus that was robust and simple.

They have years of experience developing hands-on kit for museums and interactive science centres.

As we honed our initial ideas, Science Projects staff constantly challenged us to ‘keep it simple’. And in (almost) every case, their instincts were sound.

A demonstration which is engaging and which can be immediately grasped is a dramatically better starting point for a conversation than one which is beautifully sophisticated, but only elicits the Ah-yes,-I-see-now-moment after 5 minutes.

NPL Stands for the RSSSE exhibition

Stands for the RSSSE exhibition

NPL tweaks!

We developed the demonstrations and tried them out on NPL’s Open Day in May. The stands all survived and people seemed happy with the demonstrations.

But because we are NPL, and because at RSSSE we also need to interact with Fellows of the Royal Society, we had to add some truly complex and amazing features that are right at the forefront of science.

  • The ‘time team’ decided to develop an app that would allow people to compare the time on their own phones with the time from NPL’s Caesium atomic clock.
  • The ‘length team’ decided they wanted to develop a laser interferometer that would measure the height of SI-bots in terms of the wavelength of light.
  • The ‘mass team’ wanted to put an actual working Kibble balance on the stand at the Royal Society.

As I write this on Sunday 24th June, – none of these demonstrations are ready! But my colleagues are working hard and I am cautiously confident they will succeed.

If you get a chance to visit, the RSSSE is FREE and runs from Monday 2nd July 2018 until Sunday 9th July 2018.




Work-life balance

June 23, 2018
It is possible to do lots of things at the same time. (Picture Credit: Dr Seuss)

Figure 1: It is possible to do lots of things at the same time. (Picture Credit: Dr Seuss)

One of my favourite management consultants is Dr. Seuss.

In his guide to optimising productivity, amusingly titled, “The Cat in the Hat“, (TCITH) the good doctor shows us that it is indeed possible to ‘do it all’.

I find it interesting that this book – which uses short words and a restricted vocabulary because it was written for busy managers – is now widely used with children.

I see this as a really positive development. It is after all essential that our children learn what is possible with practice. But this has not reduced the impact of TCITH in modern management.

So while “standing on a ball in the hall”, a metaphor for day-to-day work, children learn that they can also do many other things at the same time without there being any negative consequences.

In Dr Seuss’s guide, the eponymous hero also balances a cake and a rake, a fish and a dish, a fan and a man! These wittily-chosen tasks are of course merely placeholders for specific tasks that we can all learn to do simultaneously.

For example in my life, they might represent:

  • Preparing for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition
  • Refereeing scientific papers.
  • Mending broken equipment.
  • Mending the gutter
  • Carrying out urgent experiments for customers
  • Giving training courses
  • Managing complex manufacturing projects with tight deadlines.
  • Collecting the children’s stuff from university.
  • Planning collaborative projects with European partners.

All in addition to “standing on a ball in the hall” i.e. carrying out my normal job.

I have to admit that I occasionally find this stressful. But when I do I turn to Dr. Seuss for re-assurance.

Looking at the charmingly-drawn illustrations (see Figure 1), I see ‘a cat’ who is ‘doing it all’ and enjoying it at the same time.

The seminal impact of TCITH can be assessed by considering our relatively recent concerns with ‘work-life balance’, a concept clearly foreseen and graphically illustrated in TCITH.

Looking at ‘cat’ in the illustrations, it is clear that if life is busy or challenging at home, one merely needs to add an equivalent challenge at work in order to maintain the work-life balance.

  • Dr. Seuss: Thank you.
  • Cat in the Hat: you are my hero.


The view from 10 kilometres

June 3, 2018

At the start of May I travelled by air to and from California.

The flight takes an extraordinary route, crossing the southern tip of Greenland, the vast shield of northern Canada, the American mid-west and the south-western deserts.

But despite the extreme terrain covered by the plane, for me the journey was easy. It was nothing more than an exercise in advanced sitting, and I am good at sitting.

And looking out the window, I saw two extraordinary things.

London to LA


I had chosen a window seat on the right-hand side of the plane on the off-chance that visibility would be good as we flew over Greenland. I also brought my camera with a pointy lens.

The camera’s field of view on the ground was roughly 1 km at best, and I could see detailed features of the spring-melt of the sea-ice around Greenland.

Greeland Ice

At times I could see the surface texture of what I guess was a glacier as it reached the sea in an ice-cliff.

Greeland Ice 5

The scale of the ice was overwhelming. It didn’t look like a ‘snowy polar cap’ on the globe. It looked like a vast and utterly alien ice world.

I found it interesting to compare this ‘bird’s-eye’ view with the data gathered by satellites that have charted the decades long decline in the extent of the sea ice.


As we flew over the Nevada-California border I was delighted  to catch a  glimpse of the immense Ivanpah solar power plant (Link & Wikipedia article).

One of three solar collectors at the Ivanpah solar power plant.

One of three solar collectors at the Ivanpah solar power plant.

The three solar collectors of the Ivanpah solar plant together with a vast solar photo-voltaic array

The three solar collectors of the Ivanpah solar plant together with a vast solar photo-voltaic array. It is clear that solar generation is not limited by available land!

Next to Ivanpah was a vast conventional solar photo-voltaic plant.

As I had been when I flew over Greenland, I was struck by the vastness of the landscape and the boldness of these engineering ventures in that inhospitable climate.

The link

Momentarily I allowed my self to hope – forgive me: I was on holiday.

I allowed myself to hope that solar engineering might really provide a way to de-carbonise electricity production.

From 10 km above the ground  it was breathtakingly clear that a lack of suitable land for solar power plants was not a limitation on production. Surely not even 1% of the available land was being used.

And as we flew over the Hoover Dam – with water sadly still at historically low levels – I allowed myself to imagine a world powered by renewable energy.

And as result, eventually there would be a slowdown in the rate of loss of arctic sea ice.

Hoover Dam  from 10 km

Hoover Dam from 10 km

It struck me that the first step required to make this happen was to imagine that it could even be possible.

From 10 kilometres up, briefly it all seemed clear



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