Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Publishing event of the year

Ok, it's here at last! The main event of the year will be this May, when my first book, 'The Structure and Interpretation of the Standard Model' is published. (Those in the US will have to wait until June 15th).

How to create a universe

I've just finished another paper: arxiv.org/PS_cache/physics/pdf/0702/0702239.pdf

As the abstract says, "The purpose of this paper is (i) to expound the specification of a universe, according to those parts of mathematical physics which have been experimentally and observationally verified in our own universe; and (ii) to expound the possible means of creating a universe in the laboratory."

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Northern lights

Courtesy of the wonderful John C. Baez again (http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/), here's an incredible time-lapse movie of the Northern lights (Aurora borealis), filmed on September 24th 2006 in British Columbia, Canada:

One question I have though: why are some of the stars rotating round through the course of the night, whilst other, fainter ones remain fixed?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Kaiser Monkeys and Arctic Chiefs

What have all the following winners of the 'Best British Group' in the Brit Awards, for the past 10 years, got in common?

1998 Best British Group: The Verve
1999 Best British Group: Manic Street Preachers
2000 Best British Group: Travis
2001 Best British Group: Coldplay
2002 Best British Group: Travis
2003 Best British Group: Coldplay
2004 Best British Group: The Darkness
2005 Best British Group: Franz Ferdinand
2006 Best British Group: Kaiser Chiefs
2007 Best British Group: Arctic Monkeys

The answer is that they're all completely mediocre. None of them have produced a 'great' album, an album on which every track is an excellent or indispensable part of the whole. As epitomised by Travis's 1999 album 'The Man Who', these bands, at the very best, produce a first album with five or so decent tracks, and a couple of very good tracks, and then follow it up with an instantly forgettable second album. And you could claim that the winners for the last four years struggle even to reach that standard. And Coldplay have never produced a single decent track.

As Superhans says in Peep Show, "People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis. You can't trust people, Jeremy."

The Nordschleife

At mid-morning on Saturday the rain had stopped but down the Foxhole the road was still streaming wet. Shallow sheets of rainwater were rippling down diagonally from kerb to kerb across the kinks of the track. Down here among the dripping firs it was impossible to hear anything of activities at the start/finish, but one could visualize the drivers running round and round the pits loop taking the pulse of their cars and heating themselves up for the plunge out around the mountains. Not a timed session, this, no real necessity for doing a full lap. But not unwise to try one, at least, just to see...

It was many long minutes into the session before an engine could be heard nearing the Fuchsrohre section. It came through thinly at first and intermittently, isolated bursts of power modulated by passage over hill crests and across valleys and filtered through the shaggy limbs of millions of trees, but each time it was nearer and clearer, until with abruptness it was here, just up over the top of the ridge on the entrance to Schwedenkreuz. The sudden straining of the engine was cut off, there were cracklings and blippings. Then from a new direction, around the shoulder of the hill, the car came powersliding out of the Aremberg hairpin. It was little and slithered on its tyres, and spray was rising up behind. The driver's helmet bobbed as the car lunged over humps and waggled between the kerbs. It hurled itself forward under the road bridge - throwing ahead of it a brief reflection of noise from the concrete surfaces - and dropped down the hill. But the smoothness of the descent was interrupted as once, twice, three times and more the driver slacked off his foot on the way down to the bottom. The black shape of the car dissolved in the boiling grey water thrown up by the tyres. Then even that vanished, and there was nothing left but the hard horn of the engine: moments of strong driving power, then tentative slackenings and cracklings. Up the swerving hill to Adenauer Forst; away through the gears to Metzgesfeld and down around Kallenhard; the loom of the hills above Wehrseifen cutting off the noise finally almost completely. The moan of full power still came back occasionally, but across miles now.

Minutes passed. The twin paths left by the rain tyres gradually filled in, and the road glistened again. The silence of the forest crept back slowly, like the confidence of a frightened wild animal.

But a new noise was crashing through the wood. Another car, the second, and this was running harder. It cried defiance over the ridgetop and its deceleration into the hairpin was briefer. The car swung around into sight with its wheels running up on the kerbing; then it squatted and burst out under the bridge. Down the valley a wet metallic blur, the turmoil of vapour streaking along behind. From kerb to kerb, running nearly straight as the road weaved, down to the distant bottom of the dip, and not for an instant did the driver's foot ease. The strident engine howled unchecked as the car became a comet of water spray up the other side, arcing quickly out of sight under the trees. Hard, long, confident bursts of power through the swerves; hard, sharp deceleration at the next crest; hard, quick sure acceleration away. The noise hung in the air angrily, abandoned by the speeding machine.

Halfway down the Foxhole, in the long grass behind the guardrail at one side, a pair of rubber suited marshals moved their shoulders and spoke at once. They used the word Konig, and laughed. The sense of their remarks was that they guessed they knew now who was the king of the 'Ring.
The most northerly corner on the 'Ring is Bergwerk, a tight right-hander around a blink bank with a house on the outside. Approaching this is a downhill bit of road, which kinks slightly to the left. This kink can't really be considered a corner, and in normal conditions a driver wouldn't have a problem there. But for some reason never resolved Lauda lost control of the Ferrari,

His left side wheels appeared to brush the kerbing at the apex and the tail snapped out to the right. Then, like lightning, it snapped the other way, and without any further correction the car plunged head-on toward the right of the track. It spun clockwise as it went, so that it was travelling backwards when it finally contacted the catch-fencing on the outside verge. There were two rows of fencing, quite close together, and just beyond was a steep grassy hillside.

Both left side wheels were torn off the car, and the left side fuel tankage was ripped open as well, as the Ferrari went through the fencing, careered off the embankment, and went on through the fencing again. At the same time, according to filmed evidence, the catch-fencing, pulling over the driver's head from a rearward direction, snagged his helmet and plucked it off his head - depositing it neatly in his lap and leaving him protected only by his fireproof balaclava.

There was fire, according to witnesses, from the time it was through the fences against the bank, and as it went back down it trailed a river of burning petrol across the road. One rubber fuel cell was torn loose from the monocoque and went some distance on along the road on its own.

Edwards, braking heavily, made it through the gap to the left of the burning wreckage with just a glancing blow. Lunger was aiming for the same gap, but saw the Hesketh slowing and tried to change to the right. His front tyres lost their grip on the combination of mud and petrol and the Surtees went head on into the Ferrari. This impact pushed both cars into a little whirling dance, which was stopped by Ertl's car hitting the Ferrari hard, and bouncing it back against Lunger's.

Everyone along behind managed to stop without further shunting, and the drivers nearest waded into the low thicket of flames to Lauda's cockpit. They could see him moving, "sort of waving his hands around his head as if he was trying to beat the flames away." Lunger, Edwards, Ertl and Merzario worked over him for a moment, but couldn't lift him out. Ertl went away to fetch a fire bottle. Lunger jumped up to straddle the cockpit and pull on Lauda's shoulders, while Merzario reached into the cockpit and released the harness. Then as Brett heaved upward, whatever his left foot was on gave way; Lauda was partially out and the two tumbled together sideways to the ground

(Pete Lyons, Autocourse 1976-77, p144 and p148).

In-car, a lap of the Nordschleife with Hubert Hahne in 1967. "It's hairy stuff, alright":

In-car with Derek Bell, a lap of the Nordschleife in 1983:

Fabulous footage of the 1967 German Grand Prix:

Lauda's crash:

He was back 6 weeks later:

The future of urban space

Urban space is defined by the configuration of the various opaque barriers which restrict our lines of sight. However, two technological developments will transform the concept of urban space within our lifetimes: terahertz sensing and organic LEDs.

Terahertz sensors can see through masonry, plastic, wood, ceramics and clothing (although they cannot see through metal or water). They are currently being developed for use in asymmetric warfare and counter-terrorism, where it is necessary to distinguish between civilian and combatant. Inevitably, however, like infra-red technology, the price of terahertz sensing will drop to the level at which it becomes commercially available. If there is sufficient consumer demand, the technology will then become ubiquitous. At that point, many of the restrictions to our current lines of sight will evaporate. Unless your house or place of work is made of metal, you'll be visible at all times.

'Organic', or polymer-based transistors and LEDs enable the construction of wafer-thin television screens upon the contours of any surface. Any wall, any roof, any floor, interior or exterior, will become a potential site for a television screen. If television is indeed a device for transporting the mind elsewhere, then every line of sight will intersect devices capable of transporting our minds elsewhere.

Perhaps urban designers will respond to terahertz technology by building metal shielding, or by constructing baroque three-dimensional water structures around solid architecture. Or perhaps government legislation would deem such measures inconsistent with the fight against terrorism. Given the potential for advertising, it seems unlikely that government would legislate against the spread of ubiquitous organic-LED billboards.

It seems that the dystopic visions of Philip K. Dick will be coming to an urban space near you.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Life on other planets

A headline story in The Daily Telegraph by their Science editor, Roger Highfield, suggests that astronomers analysing the chemical makeup of the atmosphere of extrasolar planets, have found "tentative evidence that suggests the presence of chemicals which play a role in one theory of how life began on Earth." (www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml;?xml=/news/2007/02/21/nalien121.xml).

The infrared spectra from two Jupiter-size planets, HD 209458b and HD 189733b, were analysed, and it is claimed that the spectrum obtained from the former included "an unidentified feature in the spectrum, a much sharper peak at a wavelength of around 7.78 micrometres, which is hard to identify but may correspond to polycyclic aromatic hyrocarbons."

Elsewhere, the findings of this research are described in quite different terms. Essentially, the scientists expected to find evidence of water, methane and carbon dioxide, and failed to detect any of these componds. According to an Associated Press article "The study of one planet found hints of fine silicate-particle clouds. Research on the other planet found no chemical fingerprints for any of the molecules scientists were seeking," (skytonight.com/news/wires?id=103456062&c=y). Regarding the feature at 7.78 microns, the New Scientist account states that "They could not identify this with any known material, but they say they cannot not rule out that it is carbon-based," (space.newscientist.com/article/dn11228-dusty-clouds-may-conceal-water-on-alien-worlds.html).

At the end of the Daily Telegraph article Hugh Jones, of the University of Hertfordshire, states that "From the description this is a ropey spectrum which they have explained by fitting ad hoc/uncertain models." Once more, this vindicates my Golden Rule for reading popular science articles in newspapers and magazines: read the final paragraphs first!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Particle Physics Booklet

Yesterday, I discovered a strange-looking package on the floor beneath my letterbox. It wasn't an Amazon package, and I couldn't recall having ordered anything else, so I viewed this unusually-shaped envelope with deep suspicion. There was clearly something thicker than a letter inside, but the package was upside-down, so I couldn't gain any idea of its provenance without turning it over. Could it be a letter-bomb? I'm well-known for my dislike of Coldplay; could it be an IED from a deranged Chris Martin fan? Gingerly, I decided to flip the package over with my left hand; this way, at least I would only lose one arm. Imagine my pleasure and surprise, then, when I flipped the package over and found that it came from CERN! Yes, I'd forgotten that I'd requested the latest copy of the 'Particle Physics Booklet' from them, just the previous week.


Written in a pacy style, this handy, pocket-sized, 3" by 5" booklet specifies, in 320 pages, all the known properties of all the known elementary particles and subatomic particles. There's even a calendar on the back, so that you can trace the progress of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun.

This booklet is great for settling arguments in the pub. Did you know, for example, that the mass of the electron is 0.51099892 +/- 0.00000004 MeV?

Space shuttle Robin Reliant launch

Perhaps the most entertaining and impressive piece of television I've seen for a long time:



The BBC keep taking out these videos within 24 hours of them appearing, so the best I can recommend is to search for them on Google video or Youtube.

Solar power

With the exception of nuclear fusion, solar power remains the greatest untapped energy resource available on the planet. The diagram on the left demonstrates the magnitude of the flow of energy from the Sun reaching the Earth's surface (89 petaWatts), compared to the average power consumption of humans (15 teraWatts). Solar power is generally expected to become a competitive rival to fossil-fuel power circa 2030, but an article in the Daily Telegraph (www.telegraph.co.uk/money/main.jhtml;?xml=/money/2007/02/19/ccview19.xml) claims that "Within five years, solar power will be cheap enough to compete with carbon-generated electricity." The article goes on to claim that "The "tipping point" will arrive when the capital cost of solar power falls below $1 (51p) per watt, roughly the cost of carbon power." This is a rather strange assertion, because the tipping point for solar energy is generally considered to be the point at which its financial cost, per kiloWatt-hour (kWh), drops to the fossil-fuel cost per kWh. The current cost of fossil fuel power is about 5 cents/kWh. Now, without patronising the reader, a Watt is 1 joule of energy per second, and there's 3600 seconds in an hour, and 1000 Watts in a kiloWatt. So $1 per Watt is $3,600,000/kWh, or 360,000,000 cents/kWh.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Liverpool FC

For the first time all season, the Liverpool football team has done something exciting. Sadly, it seems that the excitement includes red-on-red violence, and a drunken brawl with the Portuguese police.

Firstly, Craig Bellamy took a swipe at John Arne Riise with a golf club, after Riise had brazenly snubbed the Footballers' Code by refusing to take part in a karaoke session, (www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/main.jhtml?xml=/sport/2007/02/19/sfnliv19.xml) Presumably Bellamy was madly yelling "Dribble with the ball, I say, dribble with it!" as he swung wildly at Riise's ankles. Riise is reportedly unhurt, so Bellamy must have under-clubbed, taking an 8-iron when perhaps a longer iron would have been advisable. This is what caddies are for.

Meanwhile, 15 Liverpool players have been fined for a general drunken brawl, (uk.sports.yahoo.com/20022007/4/benitez-fines-15-players-report.html), which prompted hotel guests to call for the police. Jerzy Dudek has subsequently been forced to claim on his web-site that he didn't take out an entire SWAT-team, in the style of Jean Reno in Leon.


I've not had much luck with women recently. I thought things were going well with Anna-Nicole, but she hasn't returned my calls for a couple of weeks now, and I think I may have been dumped. And I was chatting to Britney the other day, and I may have let slip some remark about being able to spot a few split-ends. I'll admit, it wasn't the most diplomatic thing I've ever said, but I still think she over-reacted.

Anyway, I read today that young people are still 'hung-up on their bodies' (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6376367.stm). This is troubling because I'm not sure which pretentious French expression to use in response: 'quelle surprise', 'quelle horreur', and 'plus ca change', all work extremely well for me in this context. I also learn that Radio 1 have a doctor, and this doctor, talking through the results of the survey last night on Radio 5, said that 1 in 4 women actually like the skinny male body shape, as exemplified by Jarvis Cocker or Preston. There are two possibilities here: either a) I only ever meet the other 3/4 of the female population, or b) the female respondents in this survey mentally transformed the question into 'Do you like Jarvis Cocker or Preston?'

Monday, February 19, 2007

Transportologists discover expanding congestion zone

In a discovery set to revolutionise our understanding of personal mobility, transportologists have discovered today that the London congestion zone is expanding. Experts at the Centre for Rapidly Advancing government Prohibitions report that "London's congestion charge zone roughly doubled in size at 0700 GMT with a westward expansion," (news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/6368957.stm).

A variety of theories have already been put forward to explain this phenomenon. The most popular is 'dark government energy', which suggests that those in government dislike the personal independence and mobility provided by the motor car, and would prefer people to be bused around by the state, from locations chosen by the state, and according to timetables determined by the state. An alternative theory, 'environmental quintessence', suggests that such measures are necessary to alleviate environmental pollution and congestion.

At present the distribution of the congestion zone appears to be inhomogeneous, confined to certain regions of high population density. Computer simulations, however, already suggest that the seeds of congestion zones and road charging have been laid throughout the country, and that within a few years, this exotic form of government may become homogeneous.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Spreng's triangle

A fundamental question facing our civilization is: which direction do we wish to go on Spreng's triangle?

Let me explain. Daniel Spreng conceived the eponymous triangle illustrated here to demonstrate the inter-relationship between the energy, time, and information expended or used to complete economic tasks. Each point in the lattice represents a different combination of energy, time and information.

For example, the more information (knowledge, understanding) we have, the more efficiently we can achieve a task; i.e., we can achieve the same task by expending less energy. We can think of a particular task as being achieved in a certain time (in rough terms, at a certain speed), by expending a certain amount of energy, at a certain level of efficiency.

A task can be achieved quicker if either (i) the amount of energy expended is increased, whilst the efficiency with which it is expended remains constant, or if (ii) the amount of energy expended remains constant, but the efficiency with which it is expended is increased, (or if (iii) both energy and efficiency are increased). As a sweeping generalisation, the technological history of the 20th century is one in which tasks have generally been achieved quicker by the expenditure of more energy.

If we are about to suffer an energy crisis, either due to global warming, or due to the end of cheap oil and gas, then we may need to travel in a different direction on Spreng's triangle. To consume less energy in the completion of a task, one must either (i) achieve the task more slowly, or (ii) expend the energy more efficiently, (or both).

As an example of the interplay between energy, time and information, (which I mentioned on Bryan Appleyard's blog last year: www.bryanappleyard.com/blog/, and which has been emphasised by Autosport's Mark Hughes) motorcar manufacturers are steadily increasing the efficiency of the internal combustion engine. In motorsport, this increasing efficiency is used to make the cars go faster whilst expending the same amount of energy; in road-cars, this increasing efficiency is used to make the cars expend a smaller amount of energy whilst going at the same speed.

John Barrow has also written about Spreng's triangle in his book, 'Impossibility'. See p146-147 here: www.angelfire.com/indie/green_economics/Limits.pdf

Friday, February 16, 2007

Astronomy and astrophysics

I've just finished my latest paper, 'Mathematics and explanation in astronomy and astrophysics':


It does exactly what it says on the tin.

Montoya and McDonald's

Formula One refugee Juan Pablo Montoya makes his NASCAR debut this Sunday, in the Daytona 500. (www.autosport.com/news/report.php/id/56778). Montoya is my type of driver: audacious, unpredictable, spectacular, hot-headed, flamboyant, and spontaneous. Montoya enjoys racing and overtaking, and driving cars which oversteer. This is how Grand Prix drivers should be.

Sadly, success in Formula One now requires drivers to be dispassionate and analytical, and Montoya quit F1 in the middle of last season, unable to compete against team-mate Raikkonen in a McLaren car which suffered from understeer.

Montoya also got a bit of stick in F1 for his comparative lack of, how shall I say, gastronomic asceticism. Thing is, Montoya likes a burger or two. This is what he had to say to the NASCAR press last week:

Everyone gave me crap because I ate McDonald's. I like it. What do you want me to say?...Many years ago, I ate at McDonalds's in every country just to taste the difference. And, believe me, there is a difference in the way it tastes from country to country!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

How to be free

Boredom was invented in 1760. That is the year, according to academic Lars Svendsen in his excellent study, 'A Philosophy of Boredom' (2005), that the word was first used in English. The other great invention of the time was the Spinning Jenny, which heralded the start of the Industrial Revolution. In other words, boredom arrives with the division of labour and the transformation of enjoyable autonomous work into tedious slave-work.

And we are very bored. Go into chat rooms and forums on the Internet between three and five in the afternoon and you will find hundreds of posts from office workers reading, 'Bored bored bored!' These pleas for help, these desperate entreaties from trapped spirits, are like messages in a bottle, sent out into the ether, into the oceans of cyberspace, in the hope that someone out there is listening and that someone out there may be able to do something to help. The odds, of course, are low.

This wonderful passage comes from Tom Hodgkinson's recent book, 'How to be free', which I have just started reading. Already, it looks like it may be as good as Hodgkinson's sublime 'How to be Idle'. Chapter titles include 'Reject Career and All Its Empty Promises', 'Stop Competing', 'Death to Shopping, or Fleeing the Prison of Consumer Desire', 'Live Mortgage-Free; Be a Happy Wanderer', and, my favourite, 'Self Important Puritans Must Die'.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The chilling stars?

This Friday sees the publication of 'The Chilling Stars' by Danish scientist Henrik Svensmark, and the journalist Nigel Calder. The authors argue in this book that solar activity has a stronger effect on climate change than greenhouse gases: www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1363818.ece

Could they be right? Certainly, there is a sense in which the Earth exists in the extended atmosphere of the Sun, and there are three means by which the Sun can, and does, influence the climate of the Earth:

  • Solar radiation

  • The solar wind

  • The solar magnetic field
Let's consider the effects of each one in turn.

On some estimates, solar irradiance of the Earth has increased by 0.4% over the past 200-300 years, causing a temperature increase of about 0.4 degrees C (Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist, p276). Significant, then, but not enough to entirely explain global warming.

The solar wind is the flow of charged particles, mainly protons and electrons, from the corona of the Sun. The Earth's magnetic field protects us from most of these particles, but disturbances in the solar wind can cause disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field, and this can, amongst other things, accelerate charged particles down the magnetic field lines at the magnetic poles of the Earth, causing the aurorae.

However, the Earth's atmosphere is bombarded by particles much more energetic than solar wind particles, called cosmic rays, or, to distinguish them from solar wind particles, galactic cosmic rays (GCRs). These are high kinetic-energy protons, electrons, positrons, and the nuclei of helium or even heavier elements. Such particles are probably produced by the supernovae explosions of high-mass stars. When cosmic ray particles hit the upper atmosphere of the Earth, they produce secondary particles, which can reach the lower atmosphere or ground level. When the Sun's magnetic field is weaker, a greater number of GCRs impinge upon the atmosphere of the Earth.

Now, Henrik Svensmark claims that secondary cosmic ray particles such as muons can liberate electrons from the atoms in the lower atmosphere, and these electrons help to make the condensation nuclei on which water droplets form. Hence, argues Svensmark, the greater the flux of cosmic rays, the greater the amount of low-altitude cloud cover over the Earth. Low-altitude clouds have a net cooling effect upon global temperatures, so if there were less cosmic rays, there would be less low-altitude cloud, and global temperatures would rise. The solar magnetic field ultimately determines the flux of cosmic rays to which the Earth is subjected, hence variations in the solar magnetic field can cause variations in the global temperature of the Earth.

Svensmark argues that a shorter sunspot cycle corresponds to more intense solar activity, less cosmic rays, less low-altitude cloud, and rising temperatures. And, to some extent, the evidence supports this claim: the sunspot cycle shortened in the first half of the twentieth century, in synchrony with rising global temperatures. The increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the first half of the twentieth century was negligible, so this rise in global temperature can only be explained by solar activity. However, in the second half of the twentieth century, global temperatures rose again by a comparable degree, but the length of the sunspot cycle remained largely constant. Given the rise in greenhouse gas emissions during the second half of the twentieth century, this suggests that global warming is the combined effect of solar activity and greenhouse gases. Svensmark and Calder may therefore be overplaying their case, but I await their book with interest.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The flying car

A company called Terrafugia is developing a flying car, called the 'Transition', which, they promise, will be available for purchase by 2009. Sadly, the Transition doesn't appear to have vertical take-off and landing capabilities. The idea is that you drive it to your local airport, unfold the wings, and take-off. This rather detracts from one of the reasons for owning a flying car; namely, to avoid the road congestion around places such as airports. However, I guess that, once in the air, you would be travelling faster than the peasants still clinging to the surface of the planet below you.

The Terrafugia website invites interested parties to order now by putting down a $7,400 deposit www.terrafugia.com/deposit.html. The Terrafugia VP of Sales and Marketing appears to be one Alex B.Min. And he will, I'm sure, be found 'B min' like a cheshire cat if enough people fall for that one.

The man behind the Transition is an MIT prodigy called Carl Dietrich: www.boston.com/yourlife/articles/2006/02/15/baby_you_can_fly_my_car/

This article claims that Dietrich has a 'portfolio' of novel inventions, including a "desktop-sized fusion reactor". So not only has Carl solved the problem of controlled fusion, and thereby solved all the world's energy problems in one fell swoop, but he has done so without the use of huge lasers and superconducting magnets, in a handy desktop-sized package. And, not only that, but he's decided to concentrate on the flying car instead.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Blue roses

Today, the weather has been almost unremittingly grim. After a rainy night, the clouds briefly lifted at breakfast, the sun came out, and myriad raindrops hung like pellucid beads upon the mossy branches of the wintering trees. Shortly thereafter, however, the skies darkened once more, and the rest of the day was punctuated by cold, wintry showers.

Time, then, to think of more colourful things, and, appropriately, this week's Economist features an interesting story about genetic attempts to create a genuinely blue rose, (www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8663291). Horticulturalists attempted for many years, unsuccessfully, to breed blue roses, and existing roses which purport to be blue are, it seems, merely white roses which have been dyed blue. A couple of years ago, however, after many years of research, the Australian biotech company Florigene, working with researchers at its parent company, Suntory, produced a mauve-coloured rose, and attempts continue to develop a genuinely blue rose. www.physorg.com/news3581.html

Friday, February 09, 2007


A week or so ago, someone tried to use Wikipedia to coin a new word, 'wittertainment'. The entry began as follows:

Wittertainment is a term inspired by the ‘Good Doctor’ Mark Kermode's film reviews on Simon Mayo's BBC Radio Five Live show.

Suggested usage: “Wittertainment at its most wittertaining”

In a nutshell, Kermode...is provoked into ranting by the urbane and erudite, Mayo, a perfect foil for the discontemparily-coiffed (sic), Kermode.

Now, Wikipedia policy forbids the coining of new words, and requires the citing of sources, so the Wittertainment article was deleted (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Wittertainment). However, the Wittertainment entry was read out on last Friday's film review slot, and this fact was added to the Wikipedia entry prior to deletion. This means that the entry acquired a source, even if the origin of the source was circular. This begs the question of whether Wikipedia entries could be self-generating. If 'wittertainment' enters general usage because of the Wikipedia entry, then the entry will have to be restored, and will become a self-generating encyclopedia article.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

New Scientist and climate change

The cover article in this week's New Scientist (10th February 2007, p6-p9), written by Fred Pearce, complains that the latest IPCC report underestimates global climate change, and that "many legitimate findings have been frozen out," because "research deemed controversial, not fully quantified or not yet incorporated into climate models was excluded."

Given that the whole raison d'etre of the IPCC reports is to present a solid, consensually agreed analysis of climate change, this seems a perverse criticism to make. The main article concludes with a quote from Venkatchalam Ramaswamy, who found that his own fears failed to make it into the IPCC summary, and complains that "Anything qualitative rather than quantitative was knocked out...By and large where there was ambiguity or controversy, it didn't make it." Again, this increases rather than decreases my confidence in the IPCC report!

There is certainly new data on, for example, the melting of ice sheets, and it is right that this data is analysed and investigated further until ice sheet melting is properly understood, but an IPCC report is not the appropriate forum for speculative debate or the extrapolation of small data sets.

My confidence in the New Scientist article is further eroded by the main diagram, which is a version of the IPCC diagram on p21 of the 'Summary for Policymakers', showing the predicted global warming under various scenarios, according to the various global climate models. New Scientist appear to have annotated their version of the diagram in a manner which is, at best, misleading. They define the error bars down the right as 'Potential error to one standard deviation'. This seems to be a mis-interpretation of the IPCC diagram, in which the shading either side of the coloured lines in the graph "denotes the plus/minus one standard deviation range of individual model annual means...The gray bars at right indicate the best estimate (solid line within each bar) and the likely range assessed for the six SRES marker scenarios. The assessment of the best estimate and likely ranges in the gray bars includes the AOGCMs in the left part of the figure, as well as results from a hierarchy of independent models and observational constraints." The error bars down the right indicate the dispersion of temperature predictions produced by the different global climate models for each scenario; they are not standard deviations produced by individual models.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Tomorrow morning, I confidently expect to awake and find the elegant spires and haphazard Victorian rooftops of Dorchester, transformed by the silent fall of billions of snowflakes.

An individual snowflake is itself an agglomeration of up to several hundred ice crystals, and a cubic foot of snow can contain roughly one billion crystals of ice. Conventional wisdom suggests that no two snowflakes are alike, but in the case of the simplest type of snowflake, this isn't actually true. According to Dr Karl Kruszelnicki:

In 1988, the scientist Nancy Knight (at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado) was studying wispy high altitude cirrus clouds. Her research plane was collecting snowflakes on a chilled glass slide that was coated with a sticky oil. She found two identical (under a microscope, at least) snowflakes in a Wisconsin snowstorm.

As Dr Karl points out, these snowflakes were simply hexagonal prisms, rather than the more complex type of snowflake-crystal, which exhibit the classic six-fold spoked structure, seen in the picture above. And, as both Dr Karl and Kenneth G.Libbrecht of Caltech point out, if two such snowflakes are deemed alike, then they are only alike at the level of resolution provided by a microscope.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Hello Hugh!


Snow joke

Warm and humid Atlantic air is about to collide with cold continental air over the British Isles, causing heavy snowfall through Wednesday night and into Thursday morning. As ever, the Met Office's supercomputer simulations are now so accurate that they are able to predict exactly where the snow will fall: "The band of heavy snow is most likely to affect southern Wales, the Midlands and central and southern England, including London." In other words, the snow might fall anywhere South of Northern England. In fact, the Met Office's supercomputers are so impressive that they would like members of the public, here


to tell them where the snow has fallen, so that they can accurately describe where the snow has fallen, after it has fallen. As the blurb says, "Snow is forecast for certain areas during the next few days. Some places could well see significant falls of snow, but many of us will see very little as the distribution of snow can vary enormously from place to place." Hilarious.

Rubber pavements

Rubber pavements, apparently, have already been introduced to parts of Shanghai and Chicago, and could be introduced en masse in Philadelphia:


The main advantage of a rubber pavement is that it is porous, and thereby allows rainwater to percolate through into the groundwater, minimising surface run-off. Rubber pavement also allows air to penetrate into the soil, enabling tree roots to breathe. When the area over tree roots is concreted, the roots become suffocated, and actually spasm upwards to break through the concrete.

The initial costs of laying rubber pavement are currently slightly greater than concrete pavement, but according to Philadelphia councilman Jim Kenney, interviewed on Radio 5's 'Up all Night', it lasts longer than concrete pavement, and can be made from the recycling of old car tyres, so ultimately provides a cost saving.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Armando Iannucci Shows

“When return of the Jedi came out, there were street parties. George V came out to see it, and we were all given a silver sixpence with a picture of Queen Victoria on one side and a picture of Jabba the Hutt on the other.” (Hugh.)

Armando Iannucci is well-known for satirical TV programmes such as 'The Day Today', 'The Thick of it', and, most recently, 'Time Trumpet'. However, his greatest work is his least well-known, 'The Armando Iannucci Shows', broadcast on Channel 4 in 2001. This series offered a much more personal, philosophy-of-life style of humour. You can sample a few clips here:

“There used to be air-raids and we’d all hide in the air-raid shelter and we’d watch television. And we always watched Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush with Chris Evans. He was very good, ‘til he disappeared up his own arse.” (Hugh).

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The space hosepipe

Now, you've all heard of the space elevator, a proposed structure anchored to the surface of the Earth, extending upwards through the atmosphere and into space? (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator) Well, now comes the space hosepipe, suggested by Jeremy Clarkson as a means of mitigating rising sea levels: www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,176-2580397,00.html. Jeremy suggests that if we had a giant hose dipped into the sea at one end, and extending up into the vacuum of space at the other end, then the pressure difference would cause the water to be sucked up the pipe, against the force of gravity, and expelled into space. I haven't worked out if the pressure difference would be sufficient to overcome the force of gravity, but it's surely worth a go isn't it?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Bullseye gives you flaps!

Coffee is for winners, go-getters, tea-ignorers, lunch-cancellers, early-risers, guilt-ridden strivers, money-obsessives and status-driven spiritually empty lunatics. It is an enervating force. We should resist it and embrace tea, the ancient drink of poets, philosophers and meditators. ('How to be Idle', Tom Hodgkinson, p98).

Whilst ruminating earlier today upon the beneficient properties of a cup of tea, I hit upon a wonderful business idea. The co-owner of Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz has made himself an awful lot of money by selling what is basically a carbonated sugary drink, with added caffeine. To market Red Bull, Mateschitz has associated the brand with various 'extreme' and adrenaline-fuelled activities such as Formula One, skydiving, aeroplane acrobatics, and snowboarding. This appeals, of course, to people who need above-average levels of stimulation to feel good. There is, however, another sub-population of people, for whom the average day at work provides more than enough stimulation, and who love nothing better than some rest and relaxation.

For these people, I will launch 'Bullseye', a carbonated sugary drink, with added tea. I will market the drink by associating it with activities such as: having a long soak in the bath; watching TV with your feet up; reading a good book or magazine; listening to the rain susurrating sibilantly upon the window pane; and dozing in bed, as the alpha brain-waves lap gently upon the shores of consciousness.

I will also market it with the slogan, 'Bullseye gives you flaps!' This is short and memorable, conveys the idea of slowing down one's speed of flight by deploying the wing-flaps, and also includes a vital adolescent double-entendre, which will have the media-types sniggering. It's pure marketing genius.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC

Well, it's arrived, and you can download the 'Summary for policymakers' here:


The key diagram is on the last page, p21. This shows the predicted evolution of global temperature over the course of the 21st century, for the six SRES 'marker' scenarios. By taking an average over the output of the various different global climate models, each differently coloured line represents the predicted evolution of global temperature under a particular scenario. Scenarios prefixed with an 'A' are scenarios in which economics are the driving factors, whereas scenarios prefixed with a 'B' are scenarios in which environmental policies are the driving factors. A1FI is the scenario in which fossil fuels continue to dominate global energy consumption, A1B is the scenario in which fossil fuels reach a balance with renewable energy sources, and A1T is the scenario in which there is a transition between fossil fuel usage and renewable energy.

The cost of solar energy is halving each decade, and solar energy is predicted to become a competitive rival to fossil fuel circa 2030-2040. Accordingly, the A1T scenario used in the third IPCC assessment report in 2001 represented CO2 emissions to decline beyond 2040. Assuming that economics will continue to be the driving factor, the two most realistic scenarios are therefore A1T and A1B. The scenario which produces the highest estimated rise in global temperatures, the A1FI scenario, is technologically and economically unrealistic, so the upper limits of the IPCC temperature range can be discarded.

The predicted temperature change under the A1T scenario averages out at 2.4 degrees C, with the various climate models producing a range of predictions between 1.4 and 3.8 degrees C. The predicted temperature change under the A1B scenario averages out at 2.8 degrees C, with the various climate models producing a range of predictions between 1.7 and 4.4 degrees C. In both cases the uncertainty is of the same order as the 'most likely' temperature change. There is still an awful lot of 'noise' being produced by the global climate models.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Methane and contradictions

The February 2007 edition of Scientific American contains an article on plant-methane and climate change, written by Frank Keppler and Thomas Rockmann, the researchers who discovered a year or so ago that plants actually emit large quantities of methane, a significant greenhouse gas. Keppler and Rockmann calculate that plants and trees are responsible for somewhere between 10-40% of annual global emissions of methane. They also point out that plant methane emissions explain why atmospheric methane levels vary with the same pattern as atmospheric CO2 levels. In particular, warm, inter-glacial periods coincide with high levels of atmospheric CO2 in a manner that is reasonably well understood, but an explanation was sought for why such periods also have high levels of atmospheric methane. Keppler and Rockmann state that:

Extremely high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations as well as rising temperatures could have resulted in a dramatic increase in vegetation biomass. Such global warming periods could have been accompanied by a massive release of methane from vegetation and by more heating. (p44-45)

Vegetation then, and forests in particular, have a positive feedback effect upon global warming. If the temperature and CO2 increases, biomass increases, methane levels increase, and temperatures increase further. Keppler and Rockmann then state, however, that:

The climatic benefits gained by establishing new forests to absorb carbon dioxide would far exceed the relatively small negative effect of adding more methane to the atmosphere...The potential for reducing global warming by planting trees is most definitely positive. (p45).

This, I don't understand. At face value, it appears to be a direct contradiction. If increasing biomass increases global warming, then because reforestation increases biomass, reforestation must increase global warming. Perhaps the difference lies in biomass gained by the growth of existing trees and plants, versus the biomass gained by the planting of new trees. Perhaps the former results in a net gain of greenhouse gas, whilst the latter results in a net decrease. New trees increase the sequestration of carbon dioxide, perhaps, whilst tree and plant growth alone do not?

The authors argue that "the large plant [positive] feedback to global climate change that most likely happened in the past, however, is probably unlikely today because so many forests have been cut down," (p45). So if the only reason why plant-methane doesn't accelerate global warming today has been deforestation, this suggests, again, that reforestation would accelerate global warming. The claim that deforestation has hidden this positive-feeback effect itself deserves close scrutiny because global forest coverage has been largely constant since 1950, according to figures from the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN). 20% of the world's forests have been lost, but these losses mostly occurred prior to 1950 (approximately 2% has been lost since then). Global temperatures and CO2 levels have been rising since 1975, but the biomass of the Earth has remained largely constant during that period, so surely the positive feedback mechanism should have kicked in? Apparently not, given that atmospheric methane levels have remained largely constant since the 1980s.