I Bloody Love Equations


I fiddled with gravity today.

That is, I picked up two glass tumblers, weighed them on some kitchen scales, pulled them gradually apart at measured distances and input the information into an equation. A quick google of the gravitational constant and I had my answer. I had calculated the gravitational attraction between two objects. And all it took was a tape measure, a calculator, some kitchen scales, a textbook and an internet connection.

There is something indescribably beautiful about being able to apply an equation formulated on the border of the known and the unknown, used for complex theoretical and experimental science, to a couple of glass tumblers in your kitchen. Quite often we think of scientific ideas as something separate, something practical but not beautiful. Something that can’t affect YOU. But science is the understanding of the laws of nature through experiment. And there’s no denying that the laws of nature DO affect you, even if you choose to ignore them.

The idea that everything around you is curving up space and minutely attracting everything else is, I think, pretty stunning. Just THINK about it. The same forces that are responsible for planetary orbits are tugging on YOU, and YOU are tugging on another things too. A phenomenon that you imagine is incomprehensibly distant is in fact happening in your kitchen, between you and your cabinet, and between the two glass tumblers, and between the two glass tumblers and you. And you can quantify it using a simple equation. Weigh each individual tumbler on some kitchen scales. Place them apart on the work surface. Take a tape measure and record the distance from the centre of one glass tumbler to the other. Google the gravitational constant (if you can’t be arsed, it’s 6.67428×10^-11 … or 0.0000000000667428 if you are unfamiliar with standard form). You now have all you need to calculate a back-of-the-envelope value for the gravitational attraction between the two glass tumblers. It’s a simple matter of:

1) Multiplying the masses of the tumblers together (e.g. 0.250kg x 0.350kg)

2) Divide that number by the distance multiplied by itself (e.g. 0.50m x 0.50m)

3) Multiply that value by the gravitational constant (0.0000000000667428)

And BAM! You have your answer.
It’s a very small answer, and will come out as standard form on your calculator, but it is real, and that is important. And very bloody beautiful.

(NB. An important note about units: Kilograms and metres must be used for the equation to work. Such is the necessary pedantry of maths.)

“They’re lights in the sky, kid” – In Celebration Of Carl Sagan

Today is Carl Sagan Day, a day to celebrate the life of one of science’s great popularizers and communicators.

Born on November 9, 1934 in Brooklyn, New York, Carl Edward Sagan was the living embodiment of that childish sense of curiosity, a curiosity that has fed (and will continue to feed) millions of scientists past, present and future.
Inspired by sights at the New York World Fair during his childhood and the seemingly infinite number of questions the world around him conjured up, he quickly became adept at seeking out knowledge for himself.

“Sagan had begun to wonder about the stars: what were they? He recalled one winter in Brooklyn when he was five years old. The stars, he said, ‘seemed to me different. They just weren’t like everything else.
And so I asked other kids what they were…. They said things like “they’re lights in the sky, kid.”
I could tell they were lights in the sky, but what were they—little electric bulbs on long black wires? … I asked my parents, they didn’t know. I asked friends of my parents, they didn’t know […] I went to the library […] and the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light…. And while I didn’t know the [inverse] square law of light propagation or anything like that, still, it was clear to me that you would have to move that Sun enormously far away, further away than Brooklyn [for the stars to appears as dots of light]….
The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. [It was] kind of a religious experience. [There] was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.”

Carl Sagan was probably best known for his hugely popular television show “Cosmos” and the sweeping language of the accompanying book, a work of eloquent prose in itself, reflecting his mother’s own literary flair. He was also championed as the public’s number one science communicator and a great rationalist, a David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox of his America, and one of his most inspirational to-camera pieces was his powerful and potent message for humanity, which can be seen here:

And as I bring this post to a close, there is one more video I wish to share, as it is one that has become, I believe, one of the most powerful displays of human achievement the human race has yet seen. You see, Carl Sagan worked very closely with NASA for many years, collaborating with them on many of their space projects. One of these projects was called Voyager, a dual-spacecraft attempt to explore the outer solar system in the kind of detail our ancestors could only dream of. It was from one of these Voyager spacecraft that we were to take one of the most poignant photographs in the history of science and, I would argue, civilisation. A small, pale, blue dot, a fraction of a pixel in the dark expanse of space. A pale blue dot we call “home”.

Sagan gave a commencement address in 1996 on the Pale Blue Dot that is as beautiful in its language and passion as the photograph is in its reality. Sagan really was one of the great astronomers of his age.

Pale Blue Dot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p86BPM1GV8M&feature=youtube_gdata_player

[Musings] For The Love Of Science

“I would hazard a guess that most scientists will be able to identify a moment […] that first ignited the desire to understand […]. Such things are personal, and usually, I would imagine, unique” – Professor Brian Cox, “Wonders of Life” [HarperCollins, 2013]

My own “moment”, a wonderful, unquantifiable, mind-expanding moment, happened when I was six. At that age, I was pretty much absorbed in a bubble of paper planes, cakes and Harry Potter books. Due to a quirk of bedtime-defying rebellion I happened to catch a late night documentary on the expansion of the sun and the fate of the Earth. During one hour of film that bubble was burst. It was a (not unpleasant) smack in the face. I realised the impermanence of everything- my whole world, everything I had known in those six years (which is a lifetime at that age) would come to an end. Things decay, change, rebuild. Every day is unique. And worlds die. The carnival show of society was at the whim of events far further than the thin blue layer of gases blanketing our planet. In one hour, I had realised both the significance of science communication and the overwhelming reality that we are part of something so much greater than this wonderful little planet. Which is much more interesting than cake and Barbie dolls…
I’d prefer standing in the middle of the garden on a chilly, starry October night any day. Because it’s real. It’s tangible. It’s beautiful.

[Opinion] What’s With This “Stop Complaining, Start Doing” Ethos?

*Before I launch into something that is liable to enter sh*tstorm-causing territory, I need to clarify that I do NOT agree with the kind of unconstructive complaining used consciously for the purpose of attacking/degrading others or that which is expressed w/out the intention of doing anything about it. This kind of complaining devalues those with genuine grounds of concern*

I’ve noticed that the ethos “Stop complaining, start doing” has been the heated phrase on Twitter recently, which at a glance alarmed me. A lot of the feeling in this seemed to stem at first from the idea that the act of complaining is pointless. I’m not sure whether I agree.
Doesn’t society teach us as children to tell someone when we’re unhappy? This is logical. In childhood it a) allows a responsible adult/authority to act, b) stops you bottling it up and going crazy and c) sometimes you require expression to make you realise the degree to which it is making you unhappy and whether you really want a change to occur. Wait, I hear you cry. This isn’t complaining, you heckle. But I checked. The definition is thus: “COMPLAIN [v.] The act of expressing dissatisfaction”. If this is all complaining is, surely it can be constructive, for the the three reasons I have listed above? As an adult, you should definitely DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT, agreed, but sometimes there isn’t much you or I can do accept make your “expression of dissatisfaction” known in order to find like-minded people to use collective power (petition, mass fundraise, get it trending on Twitter, hold a protest march). Surely, this expression of dissatisfaction is a stepping stone to getting your voice heard, and therefore constructive in its reach for greater influence and change?

What troubles me is that
a) The definition of “complain” has been blurred
and b) I feel it has been unfairly tagged as derogatory or simple whining
or c) My pedantry for the English language is getting a tad out of hand.
What do you think?

[Musings] Live And Let Learn!

I can still remember getting my library card when I was five years old at a large central library in Yorkshire. I remember the excitement at realising that I had suddenly been given a key to a world of knowledge, and the freedom to be able to learn anything- see different character perspectives, learn a language, understand a science, answer the whys and hows of everyday life. It was synonymous to being given access to the library of Alexandria. How is that not exciting?!
And it’s not just about taking knowledge in, it’s about how you do so. It is one thing skimming a book on the lives of the ancient Greeks and being able to say “I know about how these Greeks lived now”, and quite another to read the book and actively ask questions and interact with the knowledge in order to add perspective (i.e. “Wow, this [concept] was an influence on our culture- I recognise this in my own life!”). Knowledge, I feel, is the greatest source of meaning because it is from knowledge that you create meaning.
To quote a hero of mine discussing the instilling of values in his children:

“Hopefully [he wishes to instill] the same thing I tried to encourage in my son Duncan, which is a thirst for learning. It’s not the subject matter that’s important. It’s the desire to want to learn and how to collect and take knowledge in. If you have a thirst for life it will take you through so many depressing periods and you’ll have a wider panorama.”

Personally, I’ll be a very happy person if, at the end of my life, I can say “I have asked all I want to ask, know all I can and want to know” and be able to pass the baton of curiosity to the next generation.

Live and let learn!

[Archive] Be Proud Of Our Global Lingual Heritage

An old journal entry I thought I’d share. A bit rambling, but if you can stick with it, that’s cool.

“[…] Our language, in the fabric of the universe, feels null and void. Language lives and dies with creatures like us. And it’s immense. The definition of one word relies on the definitions of an almost infinite number of others.
The universe hasn’t named all its stuff “matter”. We did. It didn’t go “Hey, let’s call this ball of rock a planet”. We did. And who gave a name to the spark of conscious matter we animals enjoy? We did. And we called it “life”. We name the unnamed.
There is a physical difference between empty and full, and yes, in the language of mathematics, we are provided with description. But even our mathematical language is a language some clever chaps devised to explain physical properties (i.e. the decimal system). The universe didn’t give the mathematics to us gift-wrapped. We had to wrap it for ourselves.
We have named things so that we can communicate links between ideas (e.g. there’s a black object; it’s also in the shape of a cat, so you now know this is specifically a black cat).
But then, literary (as opposed to mathematical) language changes (definitions change, names will die out, names will mutate out of all recognisable meaning, and are impermanent). Unlike the laws of physics, which do not change in our observable universe. Language is born and will die too. Language is one thing in this vast universe that we can proudly say is OURS [sic]”

[Musings] An Eye On Human Progress

“Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go”
– Life On Mars, David Bowie

In the 70’s David Bowie first spoke those words to the world in his hit song Life on Mars, and although his lyrics are open to interpretation, when I first heard that line my thoughts jumped to a metaphor that perfectly summarised the inner conflict I often feel towards humanity’s tentative steps into space (I do have a fondness for such metaphors). For me, the line conjures up images of past and present conflicts: world wars, the Middle East, the A-bomb… Conflict appears to be a dreadful animalistic vice we just can’t kick. The line conjures up “sailors” as a synonym for the early explorers of the past (Columbus, Drake etc) who threw themselves towards unknown horizons, fuelled by curiosity. And yet these brave men and women still “fight”.
We may have “dipped our toes into the cosmic ocean” but we still fight amongst ourselves. Space treaties and international collaborations are a step in the right direction…
Still. I spend half my time gazing at our incredible feats and the remainder wondering whether we’ll ruin it all one day, as we make our mark more permanently on other worlds, and give in once again to this ghastly vice.


Astronomy Guide: Jupiter- The Solar System’s Jovian Giant

Jupiter- The Solar System’s Jovian Giant

The Solar System has eight planets, three of which are terrestrial, whilst the remaining five are gas giants. The largest of them all, however, is the gas giant Jupiter- a planet dearly beloved of misled astrologers and one that, due to its position in the solar system, can be seen with the naked eye as a very bright star in the night sky; its bands and four of its moons can be seen through a simple refractor telescope. For those just beginning their journey into the joys of astronomy, it is definitely worth checking out.

I have been observing Jupiter a fair bit this month, as it makes its appearance in the southern portion of the British sky. I only have a small refractor telescope, but even with this you can see the faint brown bands of the Northern and Southern Equatorial Belts, and at times, all four of its most prominent moons (Io, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede). When observing over a few nights, you can track the positions of the moons as they orbit the giant, and at one point they line up in a beautiful diagonal running from the planet’s uppermost right corner to the lower most left corner. It is, truly, a breath-taking sight.

Planetary Features

This giant is two and a half times the mass of all the other Solar System’s planets combined, and is mostly composed of hydrogen, with a quarter of its mass being helium. Jupiter has rotating cloud layers (which can be seen in the eyepiece of a telescope as lighter bands called zones and darker bands called belts) which give rise to storms, including, interestingly, lightning. We think of lightning as an earthly phenomena, so the fact that it can be seen on other planets shows just how deeply connected we are to the rest of the solar system and the star systems beyond. Another feature of the cloud layers is the Great Red Spot, a huge storm that has been raging across the planet for as long as we have been observing it (around 1831).

This giant also has a faint ring system composed of four segments (a halo ring, a main ring and two gossamer rings) mainly made of dust. The halo ring, the innermost and thickest of the rings, lies close to the main ring. The gossamer rings, the outermost rings, are very faint and although they are particles of fine dust you could be mistaken for thinking they were just rays of light somehow being ejected from the other rings. It gives the rings an almost ethereal appearance.  You can read more about these ethereal gossamer rings here (I really love these rings!).

Jupiter also has an incredibly strong magnetic field, which results in a Jovian version of our own aurora borealis; yes indeed, like lightning, this phenomenon is not unique to our planet alone. Jupiter has a magnetic field fourteen times stronger than our own, meaning that the aurora is a very powerful source of energy in its magnetosphere. It is thought that the Jovian aurora is induced by its moon Io, and from particles carried in currents from deep inside Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

Europa, Ganymede, Io and Callisto are Jupiter’s largest moons and are named Galilean satellites as they were the only four moons Galileo could originally see through his telescope many centuries ago. If Ganymede, one of these Galilean satellites, were not bound to Jupiter, it’d be considered a planet in its own right as it is actually larger than Mercury. Not including these Galilean satellites, there are 57 other moons that orbit Jupiter, and not all others are the traditional billiard ball shape we expect. Many of them are so small that they actually take on the appearance of simple space rock, as their mass is so small that gravity has not been able to act on their matter to become strong enough to be “pulled” into the spherical shape we see other planets take up.

Past Explorations of the Jovian system and the JUICE Mission

Since Galileo first studied Jupiter through his telescope centuries ago, humankind have longed to be able to see this giant in further detail, and that is exactly what we went on to do in the late twentieth century. Starting with Pioneer in 1973, and later Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, Ulysses, Cassini, New Horizons and the Galileo spacecraft, the data we have on this gas giant has increased in leaps and bounds as we continue to reach for the stars and learn more about the cosmos in which we live. Now, a new mission is to be launched to explore the quirks of the Jovian system, and it’s rather endearingly named JUICE. JUICE stands for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer and its primary aim is to explore the possible emergence of habitable worlds orbiting around gas giants. For some time, scientists have proposed that icy moons such as Europa may hold vast oceans of liquid water beneath their icy crust, which poses a question: could life exist within such an environment?

There is certainly evidence for enough heat being generated inside the planet to allow liquid water to exist under the ice, as previous flybys of the satellite have shown high thermal readings coming from its famous “tiger stripes”.  However, this heat cannot be created by the satellite’s core itself. It is simply too small an astronomical body to have retained any form of molten core like the one that lies within our own planet. No, scientists have come up with a different explanation for the generation of such heat: friction.

As a moon like Europa orbits Jupiter, its volume is pulled and “stretched” as Jupiter’s enormous gravitational influence affects the planet. This slight bulging of the planet generated enough friction to explain these hot tiger stripes. And that heat, combined with the composition of the satellite itself (primarily ice) suggests one thing: liquid water.

It is hoped that, with exploration of this system, we will be able to answer more and more questions about the nature of our own existence: are we alone in this little corner of the universe or are there other (albeit most likely primitive) forms of life out there, somewhere, in the depths of some icy ocean on a distant satellite orbiting Jupiter?

Observing Jupiter

As I have said, you only need a small refractor telescope in order to see its banding in faint detail and the accompanying specks of light that are the four Galilean satellites. With larger and more powerful telescopes, you can see the Great Red Spot and the cloud layers in finer detail. Failing that, Jupiter can also be seen with the naked eye as it is one of the brightest objects in the night sky, and comes across as a very bright star.  Throughout this month, Jupiter has displayed itself as a very bright point of light just below the Moon; Jupiter will remain visible in the sky throughout the coming weeks into March.

The Importance Of The Royal Institution’s Historic Building

The Importance Of The Royal Institution’s Historic Building

In the Spring of March 1799, the Royal Institution was founded by inventor and chemist Humphry Davy, with the aim of giving a home to British science and bringing science and technology and its endeavours to the masses, and for the majority of that time (over two centuries) the Royal Institution has called 21 Albermarle Hall home. For over two hundred years, the RI has given annual Christmas lectures in its famous lecture hall, inspiring countless generations to seek the answers to what makes the world, metaphorically and physically, turn. Countless vital demonstrations and discoveries have ensued in its laboratories and of course, its famous lecture room- Faraday discovered electro-magnetic induction, creating the first generator and transformer, providing the vital starting blocks to bringing electricity into homes all over the globe; research was undertaken which ultimately lead to the understanding of the greenhouse effect; isolation was achieved of many of the elements that now fill a table in the school books of every GCSE student in Britain today- the Periodic Table. Even the development of the good ol’ thermos flask, friend of many campers, hikers and adventurers, took place within the building’s pillared walls.

21 Albermarle Hall has not only created a roof under which British scientists have been able to collaborate and make great strides in the field of science, but it gave British scientists the vital connection they needed to keep the public connected with the discoveries and breakthroughs of science that ultimately affect the lives of every single one of us. Science cannot be an isolated esoteric undertaking, simply occurring behind laboratory walls in a cloud of smoke and gases; it needs a channel of communication, a voice, to reach out to the next generation, the biologists, chemists and physicists of tomorrow, who will ultimately be responsible for exploring the workings of and understanding the universe in which we live. The building this institution calls home has provided a vital hub for such a venture.

“Symbolism and history matter, even to scientists, because we are all human beings.  A historic building like the Ri is important because it connects us with the aspirations of the past, as well of those for the future.   Apart from the building itself, many people may also be unaware of the huge amount of public engagement projects that the Ri runs outside its building.  It has very impressive schemes which reach large numbers of both adults and children who might not otherwise come into contact with science.   For its vital current work, as well as its historical significance, we need to fight to protect this hub of British science.” – Dr Helen Czerski

Communication has to be one of the most, if not THE MOST important of tools we humans possess. Allow me to use a horrendously extended analogy to illustrate this point:

Imagine, one day, between 400 000 and 800 000 years ago, one of our ancestors, whether through a stroke of genius or pure fluke, discovered fire. S/he may just have been absentmindedly rubbing rocks together, noticed a few sparks flying off, and decided to throw a few bits of wood into the equation. Before s/he knew it, s/he had discovered fire.

This discovery allowed his/her tribe to cook food, fend off predators at night and allow the tribe to produce basic building mixtures. By harnessing one phenomenon, s/he had now increased her tribe’s chances of survival and provided a firmer foundation for future generations- and set tongues wagging. Some miles away, another tribe noticed smoke coming from their neighbours’ territory, and received word that miraculous developments had occurred amongst the neighbouring tribe.  Upon investigation, they found a thriving tribe, eating hot, cooked meals (eliminating contaminants in the food) and appreciating the flames’ warmth to see them through the harsh winter ahead. The tribe, in a moment of kindness, shares their knowledge of the flame to their neighbours, allowing more of the population to harness fire and develop. This communication, these connections that we humans hold dear, have allowed us to collaborate, inform and inspire. The work that the RI does runs parallel with the attribute that runs deep in the fabric of society: communication.

By the tribe sharing their knowledge (although this event is obviously not recorded, and it cannot be proved, the sharing of this knowledge was incredibly likely), they set in motion a chain of events that allowed civilisation to develop, and we have not stopped asking questions about the physical world since.

In the great expanse of the universe, on a ball of rock hurtling around a sun at 100 000km/h, which is in turn orbiting around the centre of our galaxy at 800 000 km/h, we are all children of the universe. Every generation, for as long as we’ve slept around fires, has been asking questions about that very universe. That childlike sense of wonder, instilled further by the endeavours of previous generations, is the reason we are where we are today, with space programs, advanced cityscapes and powerful medical technology. The accomplishments of previous generations, whose (metaphorical) ghosts wander the halls of this great institution, the Royal Institution, and other institutions across the globe, are the reason we are here today.

And should we keep this building in its current hold, it will be home to future generations of scientific endeavours, providing a heaving, supporting hub for future scientists, who in turn open its doors to all those out there who wish to listen and learn about this most wonderful universe. So, 21 Albermarle Hall is, in the greatest sense of the word, a home.

Musings: The Issue With Consciousness

Have you ever wondered what life would have been like if your parents had never met? It is an age old question, and you’re likely to have thought about it before.

Well, you wouldn’t be here for a start, no matter how hard you postulate that you could have been born under another father, or the same father but a different mother- the issue is that your consciousness is a result of both parents’ genetic information and the experiences you’ve had since you were born, and so any change in parent would result in a person with different genetic information to you and therefore a different person’s consciousness. It’s tempting to say “I probably still would have been born, just a little later/in different circumstances under a different mother/father, because my mother/father would have met someone else instead”. But what do you mean by “I”?

When you say “I”, you mean your sense of self, your beliefs, your strengths and weaknesses, your personality and all the genetic information that has allowed your body to hold a brain that can develop a sense of self – everything that makes you YOU. By all intents and purposes, when speaking about “I” in the different mother/father scenario, that “I” would be a different person as they are holding different genetic information which has therefore created a different mind structure, and consequently that “I” would not possess the same consciousness you possess now.
Your consciousness is also created by experiences unique to yourself (and you also have a unique way of interpreting and dealing with them) so those in the same family all have their own sense of self within their own consciousness, even though they are living in the same environment in the same circumstances.
Attempt to postulate that, for example, “you could still have been born under a different father” and the postulate brings its own demise- that different father woudl provide a different set of genetic material, so that other “I” you assume is you, just because half the genetic material is still coming from your mother, would actually be considered another “he/she”. Logically, what you are actually imagining when you think of being born under a different mother/father is a step-sibling.

What I’m trying to say, although I keep bringing myself in circles, is that you are unique to you. A little obvious, but there can never be another you. This issue with consciousness is something I have been (and still am) grappling with for some time, so I just thought I’d put it out there.

Just… revel in your you-ness.