Sunday, 27 March 2011

Walking the otter

Lovely weather in St Ives now that Spring is here.  Max the dog enjoys swimming in our local lake.

Down by the river after a pint.  The beer in the South is not as bad as I had anticipated!

Is nothing sacred?

Walking though St Ives yesterday, I was dismayed to see poor old Oliver Cromwell hideously disfigured.

Is nothing sacred in this country anymore?

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Long summer evenings in Darfield

When we were very young, my brother Mike and I went through a phase where we were rather interested in engineering.  Purely in the interest of advancing our scientific knowledge, we decided to investigate the strength of various materials which could have possible use in some as yet unknown construction project.
After giving this idea much thought, we decided to devise an experiment.  We used a very large sheet of plywood which our dad had stored in the shed.  Looking back, this piece of wood was roughly square and I guess the dimension must have been about 1.5 square meters.  It was also thin, probably no more than a centimetre in thickness.   First we needed to see whether it would support the weight of an adult so we set about devising a cunning plan.
We had observed over a number of months that our mother had struck up a warm and, as it turned out, enduring friendship with Mrs Murial Bletcher, our next door neighbour.  Mother used to stand on the garden and partake of long and boring (at least to 7 and 10 year old boys with far too much curiosity and energy) conversations with Mrs Bletcher over the garden fence. 
During the long and warm summer evenings on Edderthorpe land in Darfield, which I remember with a good deal of nostalgia, we set about digging a large man trap in the area where mother often stood in conversation with Mrs Bletcher.  This project was undertaken when the Bletchers were on holiday, so there was plenty of time for our work to proceed undisturbed.  When it was finished, the pit was of a slightly smaller area than the ply wood and about 1 meter deep.  As it had been raining for a week it was half full with water the day before the Bletchers arrived home.  We then placed the plywood over the pit and covered it with soil so that mother would not be suspicious. 
We waited with agonising anticipation.  We waited and waited, but our mother never did walk on that carefully disguised man trap.  The disappointment was palpable!   Now, looking back, I have to say that I have no idea why we devised this trap for our mother.  She was and still is a wonderful mother who we love dearly!  But I can’t help thinking that we would have been over the moon to see her up to her waist in muddy water and the imagined look of horror on Mrs Bletcher’s face as our mother descended into the pit swearing and cursing still causes me amusement.
All was not lost, however.  During the time of the construction project the rain kept coming.  We noticed that Max the milkman was having a lot of trouble driving his three wheeled electric milk float around the back of the houses. This was a mud track, which got progressively muddier as the week passed.  The mud track along the back of number 3 merged into two more paths to make a y-shaped track, with one path going to the right and emerging on the main Doncaster – Barnsley road, and one to the left, back down a bit of a hill to Edderthopre lane.  Every morning on his milk round, Max drove his three wheeled milk truck along the path and stopped where the three paths merged.  This was by now exceptionally wet and muddy and another plan was fermenting in my evil little mind.  One night we went out with Dad’s spade and dug another pit.  This time it was in the middle of the turning place in the track and really deep.  We placed our plywood over the hole and once again we covered it with mud.  We woke early the next morning to wait for Max.  Sure enough, at around 7 in the morning Max arrived with the milk.  After delivering to our house he proceeded according to our plan and stopped with his single front wheel right in the middle of the plywood.  Before the poor man knew what was happening his little milk float descended with dream like slow motion into the carefully laid trap.  We watched with great interest from behind our garden wall as Max attempted to retrieve intact milk bottles from the mud and later, as an Express Dairies van came and pulled the little milk float out of the hole.  For days the mud in that area was milk coloured due to the spilt milk.

Of scorpions and prostitutes

Day one in Nairobi
Barrie is a good mate of mine and is a first rate mass spec engineer.   He was instrumental in setting up our charity – Foundation for Analytical Science and Technology in Africa.  His company donated a fantastic instrument which we shipped out to Kenya to install in the lab of another good mate, Professor Anthony Gachanja. 
Barrie and I followed the mass spectrometer out to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi where we had a really busy week setting it up in Anthony’s lab.  We worked really hard, often arriving at the lab at 9 am and not leaving until 6 or 7 in the evening.  We were staying in the Nairobi Hilton, which is a very nice hotel in the middle of Nairobi, just next to the pile of rubble that was the American Embassy before it was bombed by Al Qaeda.  
 Kenya is a wonderful country and I always enjoy my visits there.   After the first day in the lab, we arrived back at the Hilton and had a couple of beers and something to eat before retiring to our (separate) rooms completely knackered.  I had a shower and was walking across to my bed when, out of the corner of my eye,  I saw a small animal run across the floor.  Obviously, this being Africa I was a bit  worried and after very quickly getting dressed and tucking my trousers into my socks I spent 20 minutes looking for this creature, but to no avail.  By now it was about midnight and I was frankly (I don’t mind admitting it) too scared to go to sleep in my room.  What did I do?  I rang Barrie and got him out of bed.  He arrived at my room none too pleased at been disturbed and between us we spent another 20 minutes searching but still found nothing.  Barrie then suggested that we phone the manager, which we did.  The manager appeared and suggested that we go down to the bar for another drink whilst his staff turned out my room.  An hour later, he came down to the bar and assured me that whatever it was it was not there now.  He said he thought it could have been a scorpion.  I asked him if they were dangerous and he replied ‘Oh yes sir, one bite from a scorpion and you could wake up dead in the morning’.  After that I made sure that I checked in the bed and under it before going to sleep.

L-R Anthony, Barrie, me.

L-R Mable (VC), Mary, Anthony and me

Unpacking the GC-MS

Day 4 in Nairobi
This particular day, we had worked really hard and managed (after 4 days of toil) to install the instrument and get it working well.  Again, we returned to the hotel at around 8 pm.  Anthony was due to join us for a beer and something to eat so I suggested to Barrie that I would go to my room for a shower and would meet him in the bar in 20 minutes.   When I got down to the bar I saw that the place was almost empty and Barrie was sitting on a bar stool with a beer.  I sat myself down next to him and ordered one for myself.  After about 5 minutes a rather attractive young lady sat down next me and struck up a conversation.  I remember thinking at the time that this was somewhat unusual and that this kind of thing did not often happen to me.  Anyway, the conversation continued and Barrie ordered some more beers.  After she showed no sign of getting tired of my conversation I casually asked her what she did for a living.  It was only when I heard Barrie choking on his beer that the penny dropped.  Soon after that Anthony arrived and the young lady realised that she was wasting her time and went off and sat next to a rather large and wealthy looking gentlemen.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

A chemical called mineral oil

Today is Tuesday 8 March 2011.  I have just been watching the 700th anniversary of the Sky at Night.  I am consistently amazed by people like Patrick Moore.  He has been an inspiration for decent enthusiastic people for more than 50 years.  He really is a global ambassador for scientific endeavour.  One of my great worriess in life is that the peoples of the so called developed world now seem to be turning their back on science.  There are many examples of this.  In the late 60s we were sending people to the moon.  If this momentum had continued, we would now have manned bases on the moon doing wonderful things which can only be done in low gravity.  Maybe there would be entirely new industries based on this.   People would be routinely going into earth orbit for vacations and for work.  Maybe there would be manned missions to Mars.  The lack of momentum has been a waste of 40 years. I am upset that we have been denied this progress.  Other examples of a retreat include the loss of commercially available supersonic flight.  If the pace of technological developments that led to Concord in the 60s had been sustained, human transport would now be truly amazing.  Maybe people would be travelling to Australia in a couple of hours!  The spin offs would undoubtedly include much more efficient aviation propulsion technology.  Nuclear Energy is another example where we have lost momentum and are very close to losing the skills base needed to maintain a nuclear industry.  In the 50s  nuclear energy was promoted by telling people that it would be so cheap it wouldn't be worth metering.  This was a very big excercise in deception.  The real reason for all the nuclear power stations back then was not to make electricity, but to generate material for weapons.  This technology now has an undeserved poor reputation which is only slowly changing.  Nuclear energy is the only way to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions in the medium term.

On the other hand, where are we now?  We have highly prestigious news programmes like the Today programme on BBC radio 4 pandering to the scientifically illiterate.  The same day as I was listening to the wonderful 700th Sky at Night, the today programme was reporting that a harmful chemical was migrating from cardboard packaging made from recycled newspaper into the food within the package.  This they described as a chemical called mineral oil!  If anyone needs me to elaborate why I am upset by this, please let me know and I will gladly enlighten them.

Our world is in danger of descending back into the scientific dark ages where it is becoming politically unacceptable to spend public money on science and exploration.  Why?  Because the electorate have no curiosity anymore.  They are happy for politicians to spend our money populating university courses such as media studies and close down physics, chemistry and maths courses!  They buy into the witchcraft that is homeopathy and believe the people who peddle this crap rather than trained scientists.  I am not saying for one minute that science has all the answers, but I am saying that good science is evidence based!    What can be done about this?  I submit that the only way to engender public enthusiasm for science and technology is to fund high profile big science and engineering projects.  The world desperately needs another moon shot and this time it should be sustained.