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Monday, 6 May 2019

My father would be appalled

My father was a very old-fashioned type, a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, a dour Calvinist in thought but not in action, but mostly, he was a very private man. He died, 51 years ago, thinking he took his secret to the grave.

It seems that a couple of years before he married my mother, he was engaged to somebody else, and while the record was there in the newspapers, who would ever bother to poke around in the SMH for 1941?

The problem is that we have a fairly unusual spelling of our surname, and the National Library of Australia has been putting "historic" newspapers (that means 1803 to 1954, though sometimes they reach later) online.

I'm a bit of a power user of the service, and I was idly searching on our surname when the engagement notice bobbed up. It's not a highly interesting item: probably they just didn't hit it off, or she found a Yank or something. The interesting thing to me is that even though he probably never even told my mother about this, I now know. Our world is changing...

I just idly typed in my surname, which has an odd spelling, and flushed an amazing number of hits out of the papers: the funeral of a grandfather, the death of a great-aunt at two months who was, I think, unknown to anybody, the weddings of uncles and births of cousins — and that engagement.

I have also managed to trace the outline of my great-grandfather's insolvency, though there's more to learn there, and I won't be chasing it in a hurry, because family history isn't high on my list of things to do, but the option is there. I just use my search skills to flag stuff so that others with my surname can access it easily, should they wish to do so.

The interesting thing is that the National Library has the newspapers scanned by machine, but then allows registered users to correct the text. The top four contributors have corrected more than 10 million lines between them, while I'm just over the half-million mark, but most of mine relate to the periods and topics I research for books.

Occasionally I need to really chase something down, and in those cases I add comments that will help other researchers that come after me. In other words, it's one of those collaborative things that historians will look back on as the real heart of the internet. I also create a lot of lists, also with annotations.

Interestingly, it appears that everything I do is available if you know how to look for it. Unlike my father, I have no illusion that I have that many secrets. I just have to put the best spin on them that I can.

The link? I recommend a day spent playing with it!

If nothing else, you will get some idea about what your descendants may be able to find out about you.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Developing measurement standards

It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it...

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In early human societies, the main needs were for standard fair measures for length, weight and volume. With those sorted, you could measure out food, drink, cloth, and most of the other products early humans wanted to trade with each other.

If the trades were to be fair, all measures had to be the same, and this meant comparing them back to a common standard that all people could reach. But even at the heights of the Roman, Mongol and Inca Empires, the fastest messenger service could only cover between a hundred and a hundred and fifty kilometres a day.

Freight carriers and ordinary folk, travelling on foot with a load, would only travel about thirty kilometres a day, or perhaps fifteen if they were travelling with stock. So copies of the standards for weight and length either had to be distributed widely, or they had to be established locally. In most cases, people just set up their own local standards.

Typically, they would use the local ruler’s body, so a digit was the width of the king’s finger, and a cubit was the distance from the king’s elbow to the tip of his longest finger.

Obviously this sort of thing makes problems: what happens if the throne is taken over by a midget? Or a giant? Obviously people needed a better standard, preferably an international one, so measurements no longer had to be given in London inches, or Paris inches.

The foot is a convenient sort of unit, and so is the inch, and even the yard has a comfortable sort of feel about it. In the end, when the French Revolutionaries did away with their monarch, they changed the units as well.

The basis, they proposed, would still be about the same as one yard, but it would be defined in a non-human, international way. It was to be one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator on a meridian passing through or near Paris, Dunkirk and Barcelona. (They chose that meridian, because a ten-degree length of it had just been accurately surveyed, between 1792 and 1799.)

This measurement system was known as the metric system, and it is more or less what we use today. We now call our measurement system SI (for Système Internationale), and the metre is now defined from the speed of light, now defined for all time as 299,792,458 metres per second, with the second defined by a special clock called a caesium clock.

These are standards any large laboratory in the world can reproduce whenever they want to. The standard international kilogram used to be a platinum-iridium cylinder, stored at Sèvres, near Paris, between 1889 and November 2018. On the latter date, a new standard was announced, to apply from May 2019.

The change was forced because the standard cylinder had lost about 50 micrograms over the past 130 years. Now the world will use a value of Planck’s constant. This will be 6.62607015 × 10-34 m2 kg/s, and for valid reasons, that now sets the mass of the kilogram totally.

Now back to the French Revolution: why were the French so keen on new standards? Maybe it had something to do with the three different standards of length in use in just one city, Bordeaux, in 1800. In a case like this, it would pay to shop around before you bought anything, and maybe the people of Bordeaux felt they were wasting too much time!

We certainly know that the lack of standards annoyed the nobles of Norman Britain. When they assembled to meet with King John, they placed this passage in the Magna Carta:
Throughout the kingdom there shall be standard measures of wine, ale and corn. Also there shall be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and halberject; namely [a width of] two ells within the selvedges. Weights [also] are to be standardised similarly.
From 1215 until now, the process of standardisation has been slow. It was only a generation ago that the United States inch (2.54005 cm) and the British inch (2.5399956 cm) were brought into line with the Canadian and Australian inch (2.54 cm).

So even where the metric system is not used, the “local” units are tied to the international metric standards, and the era of local units has almost passed. Mind you, with the loss of those units, a great deal of romance has passed away as well, but that assertion requires illustration.

Early English units for measuring liquid started with the mouthful, which was about 15 millilitres. Twice this was a jigger or handful. Two handfuls made a jack, or jackpot, and two jackpots made a gill, or jill.

When Charles I needed more money, he placed a tax on the jackpot, and reduced its size, so there would be more of them. The gill was (by its definition as two jackpots) also reduced in size, much to the annoyance of the common people.

The pail was another measure, about the size of a gill. Given that King Charles wore a crown, until he was beheaded a few years later, you may now be able to read the old rhyme about Jack and Jill with more understanding. Just one question remains unanswered: was Jack anything to do with the Jacobites, who took their name from the Latin form of James, Jacobus?

Just to finish the sequence of old liquid measures, two gills made a cup, and two cups a pint. There were two pints to the quart; and two quarts made a pottle; while twice a pottle was a gallon. The double gallon was also called a peck; the double peck was a half bushel; and obviously two half bushels made a bushel, which was eight gallons, or about 35 litres. Two bushels filled a cask; and two casks made a barrel or chaldron. Doubling the barrel gave us a hogshead of about 280 litres. 

Some of these terms are still in common use today. And even though we have largely changed over to metric measurements, there are other hangovers from the past as well. The size of the type used in a book is measured in points, with 72 points to the inch.
Wind speeds are still measured in knots (nautical miles per hour), and diamonds are weighed in carats (not to be confused with the karat, which is a measure of the purity of gold.

And you may still have inches on your feet, even if you live in a country which mostly uses metric standards. In the time of Edward I of England, the inch was defined by “three grains of barley dry and round make an inch”. To this day, the difference between a size five shoe and a size six shoe is still just one barley corn, a third of an inch!

Wednesday, 17 April 2019


It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it...

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This term covers the protection and preservation of the Earth’s resources (e.g. plants, animals, land, energy, minerals) or of historical artefacts (including books, paintings and monuments) for the future. The term is most widely used with reference to the environment.

Most people today think the conservation movement began with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, but conservation is far older than that. As far back as 1860, laws were introduced in Tasmania, Australia, to protect native species of bird, and extinctions in the 1600s (the aurochs in Poland, 1627, the dodo in Mauritius, some time in the 1670s) had all had an impact.

By 1680, Poland had introduced reserved forests for the European bison, or wisent, and that probably saved many other species as well. The publication of Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell in the early 1830s made people far more aware of extinction, as did the publications of Charles Darwin, who even commented about Australia’s need to preserve its wild life:
A few years since this country abounded with wild animals; but now the emu is banished to a long distance, and the kangaroo is become scarce; to both the English greyhound has been highly destructive.
—Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1836.
Later on, Darwin’s friend, the ornithologist John Gould said something similar:
Short-sighted indeed are the Anglo-Australians, or they would long ere this have made laws for the preservation of their highly singular, and in many cases noble indigenous animals; and doubly short-sighted are they for wishing to introduce into Australia the productions of other climes …
—John Gould (writing in 1863), quoted in A. B. Costin and H. J. Frith, Conservation, Pelican Books, 1971, 131.
As well, the British were beginning to see some of the problems of deforestation in their Indian and African settlements, and ever since then, scientists have been aware that extinction is demeaning of life.

Rachel Carson was certainly responsible for making the general public aware of some of the many problems that come from using pesticides, and she made the general public aware of the word ‘ecology’, but others had known of both the word and the more general conservation problem throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The earliest recorded use of the word was in 1873, and the Journal of Ecology (the title is a sign that ecology had finally been noticed) was first published in 1912. In fact, there were many other people who delivered the same message, as much as forty years earlier, but Rachel Carson did it better.

When she wrote, Carson was much more forceful in her care and compassion, and more poetic in her writing, so she drew people’s attention more effectively to what was happening. As well, there were many more people around, and many more chemicals. The time was right.

The impact was greater because pollution was increasing very fast, and killing people all over the world. In some parts of the world, pesticide pollution is still on the increase. More to the point, like Charles Darwin, Carson offered a huge range of examples.

In the most general terms, pollution happens when something is released into the environment of a living thing, to the harm of that living thing. Plants need phosphates and nitrates to grow, but if they get too much phosphate or nitrate, the plants can be killed.

Once the harm starts, helpful fertiliser becomes pollution. The phosphates and nitrates which you put on your garden or farm are not pollution. Not, that is, until they wash off into a neighbouring creek, and start poisoning the algae in the creek.

Faecal pollution of the Australian bush by dogs is a problem: because most bush plants have adapted to low levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, and the contamination allows weeds which otherwise would be starved out to gain a toehold.

So the best thing that conservationists can do is to seek strategies which maintain the balances of nature, to ensure that the various extremes of human exploitation are kept under control, and to ensure that biodiversity and genetic diversity are not threatened too drastically.

In the earth sciences and agriculture, conservation is more concerned with management of resources such as water, and with manipulation of the environment to provide convenient circumstances.

For example, a scheme was seriously put forward at one stage to use nuclear explosives to cut a channel from the sea to the usually dry Lake Eyre in South Australia, the aim being to increase evaporation and hence increase the rainfall in the area.

Flying over Lake Eyre, look for pelicans in the lower left quadrant.
This would have needed to be a large channel, as the total drop from the sea to Lake Eyre is only about 10 metres, but the increased rainfall would undoubtedly have an impact on the flora and fauna around the lake, and also on the pelicans which reproduce there when the lake fills with water from rain falling in Queensland. There would also be long-term problems with the salt left behind by the evaporating sea water, which would also impact on other species in the lake and surrounding areas.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Crooked Mick goes to war

This marks a turn-around, because Stewart the Sandgroper nudged me at just the right time, so I pulled this (and the other 85,000 words that go with it) off the back burner, and I am now pitching it to publishers. Remember, this is part of something far bigger.

My mate, Baron Munchausen, asked me why there were no women in the story, and I assured him that there were women on the Speeewah. He says I have to prove it, so I told him about Smiling Annie's Snake Circus.

This tale, apparently written by a thumbnail dipped in tar, was in among Cruciform’s papers, stuck to the bottom of one of the tin boxes. It is in plain English, but clearly escaped the eyes of the security people who vetted the papers. This single plain English account confirms what Cruciform’s coded notebooks tell us, that Mick and Cruciform were working together during the war.

Crooked Mick was quite old when World War I broke out, so he had to dye his hair in order to join up. He joined the Light Horse, but kept on breaking the horses he was given, and the army wouldn’t let him bring in his own horse. He even broke a few heavy horses they let him try, but he was so strong, they asked him to be their farrier, and he agreed, knowing that once he got to the front he could do some good.

When the Brass decided to send the Light Horse to invade Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, the lads had to leave their horses behind, so Mick should have stayed in Egypt with the horses, but he hid in the hold until it was too late to send him back. Then when two of the motorboats that were supposed to tow the troops to shore broke down, Mick jumped into the water and swam to the beach, towing five longboats.

That was how he came to be one of the first ashore when the ANZAC troops landed. Once across the beach, Mick set to work digging trenches and tunnelling under the enemy’s trenches, but unfortunately, he was soon being given orders by an English officer who wasn’t very bright.

“Dig there”, the Pommy would say, pointing at the ground, and Mick would take off in a tunnel going north, never stopping to question the order he was given. You can still see some of these tunnels: they went under the enemy lines and mostly came out on the opposite shore of the peninsula. If the Poms had paid attention, they could’ve gone through those tunnels and attacked the enemy from the rear.

After a while, Mick realised that this digging wasn’t achieving anything, so he started doing things his mates thought might be useful for the war effort. One of his best tricks was throwing dead donkeys with devastating accuracy at the Turkish officers, in their bunkers, half a mile behind the lines.

The result was that their high command promptly told the Turkish soldiers to stop shooting at Simpson and his donkeys, because every dead donkey was being used to wipe out some of the Top Brass. After that time, it was only those Turks who hated officers who fired at Simpson’s donkeys.

Mick dug most of the trenches for our blokes, and chucked all his spoil into the Turks’ trenches for good measure, which got the Turks really cranky, and then he found out about jam tin bombs. That got the Turks seriously upset, because Mick could throw further than they could, and he used all his cricketing skills to drop them into a trench every time. These jam tins had a fuse, the explosive out of twenty bullets, and any old scrap iron or rocks that came to hand. Somebody told me he also used nitrogum, and that we’re not supposed to mention that, but I will.

Mick might have won the war for us, if he’d been allowed, but the Poms kept being stupid. The Turks brought in this big field piece, just to try and get him, and Mick and his mates had no ammo left, as they’d used it all to make jam tin bombs. All they had was a pile of lead bullets from the cartridges. So Mick opens fire with those, against the field gun.

I know, of course, you can’t shoot bits of lead. You need the stuff that goes bang, and that was all used up, but Mick wasn’t shooting the bullets, he was throwing them.

Now you might say that still wouldn’t do much against a field gun, but that’s if you fight fair, as the Poms call it. Mick was belting the bullets down the barrel of that field gun so hard that they wedged at the far end. That made a sort of blockage so the next time the Turks fired the gun, it jammed the round in the barrel and the gun blew up. Our blokes thought it was a great joke, and started collecting more ammo so Mick could spike the other guns. That was when the Poms bought into it.

Some Pommy brass hat said Mick’s activities were unsporting, because the guns were sitting targets. Anyhow, one of our blokes decked him, and Mick said he’d better stop then and there, or some of the diggers’d get into trouble. So Mick dug through quietly into the Turks’ trenches and dumped the unconscious officer there, then backfilled the tunnel, but the Turks were fussy.

A discerning Turkish soldier called Mehmet thought this was no better than littering, and he brought the officer back across No Man’s Land and dropped him on our side. The Turks thought this was so funny, they erected a statue to commemorate it, but in the 1950s, there was nearly a diplomatic incident, and with the help of Lord Casey, they made up a cover story. Don’t believe it.

The Respect to Mehmetçik Memorial (Turkish: Mehmetçiğe Saygı Anıtı).

The officer was never the same again, but Mick’s company named him Puddles, and kept him as a pet. Some people reckon he later became Jacko the Hatter, on the Speewah, but Jacko seems to be a bit brighter than that officer.

One of Mick’s tunnels was later filled with explosives. There was this Australian scientist bloke called Henry Cruciform, who had made this top-secret explosive out of eucalyptus oil, called nitrogum, and they put barrels and barrels of the stuff into Mick’s tunnel, then backfilled the hole with rocks and stuff.

Once it was ready, they lit a long fuse, and went a long way back. The idea was that the explosion would cave in the Turkish trenches, but the tunnel had gone too deep into solid rock. Instead, all of the rocks that were packed into the hole got blasted out of the tunnel, and went heading off through the stratosphere in the direction of France.

Now there are lots of people who claim they shot down the Red Baron, but if you check the official histories, you will see that Manfred von Richthofen was shot down just an hour after they set off the charge in Mick’s tunnel. What’s more, if you look at the available pictures of the Red Baron’s plane, and examine the wreckage carefully, you can see jagged tears going down through the plane from above: it was Mick’s tunnel, powered by nitrogum and working like a giant gun, that really shot the Red Baron down.

Mick’s time there ended when he drove another tunnel back to the landing beach, so the Anzacs could carry food and ammunition up in safety. Just as he was about to break through the rock at the beach end, he tapped into a spring, and got soaking wet, which washed the dye out of his hair, and he stepped out into the sun with all the dye running out of his rapidly whitening hair.

The brass hats were embarrassed, and they had him sent back home so they could avoid admitting that an old man had been winning the war for them. They used the feeble excuse that he had been eating the rations for five companies — which shows how bad their accounting was, as Mick used to eat that much before he sat down to breakfast.

So in the end, Crooked Mick spent the rest of the war helping this Henry Cruciform bloke, the man who had invented the nitrogum, who was working on forms of psychological warfare. But that was after he got back to Australia: on the way home, Crooked Mick refused to give up fighting.

First there was the German torpedo that was heading for the hospital ship he was travelling on, as they were sailing across the Indian Ocean. Mick saw this torpedo coming and dived into the water, trying to stop it. He was feeling a bit weakened as he was only getting rations for five men, and he was pushed backwards by the torpedo, towards the ship.

I forgot to mention that Mick’s dog had been with him, right through the Gallipoli campaign, and had personally captured twenty Turks before the Poms interfered. They reckoned it was unsporting to point your dog at the enemy trenches and say “Fetch!”. Anyhow, Mick’s dog was there, and he jumps in to help, and between them, they flipped the torpedo over, just as it was about to hit the ship, and it went back to the German submarine, sinking it.

Well Mick was hauled back on deck, and his dog too, and the officers said they’d pretend they hadn’t seen the dog, and that Mick might even get a medal for his brave deed, but that he shouldn’t go diving in the water any more. The next day, though, there was another torpedo, and this time, Mick picked up a lifeboat, and threw it at the torpedo, destroying it. He was about to wipe out the submarine with a second smaller life boat, but he was told to stop, and the submarine got away.

The day after that, it was back again, following the ship with just its periscope showing, so Mick went down to the engine room and borrowed a few spare bits of ironmongery and chucked them at the periscope. He missed the first two throws, but the third shot was with a fly wheel that had a crack in it, and he threw it like a discus.

The fly wheel skipped over the surface and ripped off the periscope, which left a big hole that flooded the submarine and forcing it to the surface, where it was captured by the frigate that was convoying them. Mick was treated like a hero, and given a free run of the galley, which is what they call a kitchen on a ship.

They were close to Fremantle in Western Australia when a third submarine tried to have a go at sinking them, and strictly against orders, Mick dived in once more, pulled faces down the periscope, which made them surface to see what was wrong, and then he threw all of the crew overboard, ripped four plates off the hull to sink the submarine, and swam back to the ship, leaving his dog to round up the prisoners and bring them in.

He might have got away with disobeying orders, but the ship was still going full ahead when he caught up with her, and as he approached the stern, his head came in contact with the ship’s screw, which shattered, leaving the ship stranded off the coast with no form of propulsion. “There’ll be no more going into the galley for you, you one-man galley plunderer!” bristled the captain, who had just realised that not only were they stranded, but that Mick had eaten just about all the food. Anyhow, Mick just grinned, and said that was the answer.

He went down to the engine room, kicked one of the riveted steel plates off each of the ship’s sides, and used two oars, made from the lengths of steel rail the ship was carrying as deck cargo, lashed on the steel plates to make oars and rowed the ship in against the tide.

So in the end, the captain agreed to let bygones be bygones, and they hushed the whole matter up, so Mick wouldn’t get into trouble for disobeying orders. Mind you, they say that scientist bloke Cruciform was on board, and he used his influence to make sure Mick’s name was kept out of the papers by telling Billy Hughes to send out a D notice.

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This story and the related ones all have the tag Crooked Mick on them. Use that to find the rest.

Monday, 1 April 2019

The end of the Great Auks

It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it...

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After a set of Icelandic islands called the Geirfuglasker Skerries were submerged by volcanic activity in 1830, there was just one home left for the Great Auks, on the island of Eldey, off the coast of Iceland. On June 3, 1844, an expedition of 14 men went there, intent on getting specimens before all the birds died. They were sent there by an Icelandic bird collector named Carl Siemsen.

Later in the 19th century, Symington Grieve described their raid. Although there were 14 in the party, led by a Vilhjälmur Hakonarsson, only three men actually landed on the island: Sigurör Islefsson, Ketil Ketilsson and Jón Brandsson. Grieve tells it like this, using the name Garefowl to refer to the Great Auk:
Public domain.
As the men clambered up they saw two Garefowl sitting among numberless other rock-birds (Uria troille and Alca torda) and at once gave chase. The Garefowl showed not the slightest disposition to repel the invaders, but immediately ran along under the high cliff, their heads erect, their wings somewhat extended. They uttered no cry of alarm, and moved, with their short steps, about as quickly as a man could walk. Jón [Brandsson], with outstretched arms, drove one into a corner, where he soon had it fast.
Sigurör [Islefsson] and Ketil [Ketilsson] pursued the second, and the former seized it close to the edge of the rock, here risen to a precipice some fathoms high, the water being directly below it. Ketil then returned to the sloping shelf whence the birds had started, and saw an egg lying on the lava slab, which he knew to be a Garefowl’s. He took it up but finding it broken put it down again. Whether there was not another egg is uncertain. All this took place in much less time than it takes to tell.
Vilhjälmur Hakonarsson went back to Eldey in 1846 and again in 1860 looking for Great Auks but saw none. A species had been snuffed out in the name, not of science, but of an amateur enthusiasm for a sad sort of stamp collecting, in a pale imitation of science.

Other ways to extinguish life
Large game animals with impressive pelts or horns are equally at threat, but so are smaller animals. Species can also be endangered by what we loosely call pollution, or using fancier terms, environmental degradation. Plastic bags that blow or wash into the sea, pesticides that drift away from crops, chemical fertilisers that wash into streams and rivers are just a few of the problems that animals have to contend with.

Two other causes of endangerment are habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation. Habitat destruction comes about when we take land that is carrying an ecosystem and turn it into roads, dams, farms or housing.

Nearly half of Earth’s land area has been transformed by humans. Habitat fragmentation comes about when a continuous forest is broken up into small islands with small populations.

Imagine a family of gorillas in a forest which is wiped out. In time, other gorillas will wander in, find there are no other gorillas there, and set up a new family—so long as they can reach there.

Open fields, cities, or even roads may be enough to block new gorillas from coming in. It matters not whether they were killed by disease, fire, hunting or something else: others of their species must come in to replace them, or the species goes locally extinct.

The same thing happens with every species in an ecosystem: if new animals or plants can find their way in, they eventually will, but when a pocket of rain forest is surrounded by farms, this is less likely.

The answer, say conservationists, is to set up wildlife corridors. If corridors are established, the biodiversity of small pockets can be maintained, but there is still a problem, because fewer species can be maintained in a smaller area.

Islands of less than 3000 km2 are at particular risk, and there are about 40 nations with areas less than that size. In order of size, the small nations under threat (mostly islands) are Midway Island, Tokelau, Macau, Nauru, Tuvalu, Norfolk Island (an Australian territory), Bermuda, San Marino, Montserrat, Jersey, Liechtenstein, the Marshall Islands, Guernsey, Niue, St Kitts and Nevis, Maldives, Malta, Grenada, Virgin Islands, Mayotte, St Helena, Turks and Caicos, Andorra, Seychelles, Palau, Guam, St Lucia, Singapore, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Tonga, Netherlands Antilles, Sao Tome and Principe, Hong Kong, Martinique, Faroe Islands, Guadeloupe, Mauritius, Réunion, Western Samoa.

Extinction is demenaing of life.

Saturday, 30 March 2019

A short history of climate change

It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it, but let me add here that in late March 2019, a circular from Rush Holt at AAAS drew my attention to Eunice Foote:

"Let me add one interesting historical note that is not widely known. In 1856 at the AAAS Annual Meeting, the work of Eunice Foote was presented, showing that carbon dioxide is a heat-blanketing greenhouse gas that in the atmosphere could warm the Earth. This was years before the work of the men usually credited with the finding (Tyndall in England and Arrhenius in Sweden)."

Well, that bit into my weekend a bit. Here is a link to the paper in question. Her short piece begins on p. 382, and here is a key comment: "An atmosphere of that gas [carbonic acid, CO2] would give our earth a high temperature..."

Now I have to go back and amend the book to add this!

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Jens Galschiot's installation 'Unbearable' in Copenhagen. [Peter Macinnis]
If the illustration above seems rather savage, the J-curve on which the polar bear is skewered reflects the graph of the inexorable rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the curve is made from a length of oil pipe. Art and politics go together very well.

Here is some surprising news: we knew that “global warming” was happening, way back in 1950! Now, of course, most reputable atmospheric scientists believe human activity is driving the modern slow warming of our climate, but back then it was just a passing reference that came my way.

All the same, now we know that global warming is a bad description, so we call it ‘climate change’. Under any name, it’s the same beast, and the same looming disaster, and we knew it was happening, two thirds of a century ago.

Mind you, the knowledge that humans are to blame is even older, because as we will shortly see, the whole thing had been predicted. The problem before was that there was not a lot of hard science in the arguments, which come down to logic, reason, careful modelling—and interpretation that is likely to be biased by a generous serving of self-interest. That has changed in the last ten years.

Nobody denies that the Earth is getting warmer, because the evidence is there, and it was apparent in 1950, when George Kimble reported in Scientific American that the northern limit of wheat-growing in Canada had moved northward some 2 – 300 miles (call it 400 kilometres), adding that farmers in southern Ontario were experimenting with cotton. While that industry seems not to have taken off, he reported another trend that continues to this day, the northward retreat of the permafrost:
In parts of Siberia the southern boundary of permanently frozen ground is receding poleward several dozen yards per annum.
The matter open to question back then was the cause. Kimble noted that the Domesday Book featured 38 vineyards in England in 1086, in addition to those of the Crown. He pointed also to the Greenland colony which was frozen out, back around the mid-1400s and other evidence that climates change. He also looked at Biblical evidence on the distribution of date palms to suggest that conditions in 1950 were much those of Biblical times, providing a picture of a climate that fluctuates around a mean. Maybe it was just one of those cycles.

That was in a time before ‘global warming’ when climate change was referred to as the ‘greenhouse effect’. In cold climates, a greenhouse is a glass shed which allows sunlight to shine in, where much of the radiation is absorbed and changed to heat.

Glass is less transparent to heat, but a greenhouse does not just trap warmth that way: it also holds a body of warm air around the plants, and protects them from wind-driven evaporation. So while we still speak of ‘greenhouse gases’, it is rare to hear anybody mention the greenhouse effect these days, but that goes way back to those early predictions.

In the 1820s, Joseph Fourier realised that heat-trapping might occur. Then in 1896, Svante Arrhenius reminded us that both water vapour and carbon dioxide were ‘greenhouse gases’ (escaping that bad analogy is hard) and so water and carbon dioxide would play a role in making the planet get warmer.

He also considered changes that might be happening, and consulted Arvid Högbom, who just happened to know all about carbon dioxide sources and sinks. Carbon dioxide was coming from life forms when they breathed, from volcanoes, and from humans burning fossil and other fuels. The human additions were a very small part of the total in the air already, perhaps one part in a thousand was added by the burning of coal, and there were probably checks and balances.

Arrhenius estimated that it would take 3000 years to double the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, if it ever happened, but that such a doubling would raise world average temperatures by 5 to 6°C.

Back in 1896, when Arrhenius did that calculation, the CO2 level was around 290 parts per million: in 2016, the value was estimated at 396 parts per million: we had travelled one third of the projected distance in just 120 years.

To Europeans back in the 1890s, the warming effect seemed nothing to worry about, because nobody had stopped to consider the cascades, the flow-ons that might be driven by that rise in temperature. Walter Nernst, even wondered if it would be feasible to set fire to uneconomical and low-grade coal seams, so as to release enough carbon dioxide to warm the Earth’s climate deliberately!

In the 1990s, global warming was in much the same position that “continental drift” had been in, a generation earlier, with some of the scientists arguing furiously, even when they agreed on the main principles, and as in the puzzle of the wandering continents, the key evidence was there. Mind you, when I covered the 2002 Spring Conference of then American Geophysical Union, there were no nay-sayers there.

The problem is that so long as people can get away with saying “global warming”, we are once again stuck with a bad analogy, just as the early 1960s saw us hung up on “continental drift”.

That aside, the cost of disagreement and bickering is remarkably different. It mattered not at all if people disagreed about plate tectonics (except, perhaps, that it makes tsunamis like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami easier to understand), but global warming is likely to be a major disaster for humanity, and any delay has the potential to cost lives. To understand this, we have to accept some puzzling propositions.

To take one example, the formation of sea ice in the northern Atlantic is probably what stops Dublin and New York being iced-in each winter. This is because the sea ice is largely free of salt, and leaves a residue of cold brine that drives a current known as the Conveyor, which in turn drives the Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream takes warm water from the Caribbean and swirls it up around the North Atlantic, contributing to fogs and breaking icebergs loose, but keeping many ports warm and open, even in winter.

Just as the prion proteins of mad cow disease have more than one stable form, so do weather patterns, and if the weather once drops into a new pattern, we may not be able to bounce it back to where it started.

The good news is that as northern Europe freezes over, the glaciers which are now melting away fast will be replenished, lowering sea levels. The increased snow cover will also increase the reflectivity of the northern hemisphere, and that may cool the planet down a little. We just have to hope it does not trigger a new stable pattern that happens to be an ice age.

The actual changes that might follow the breaking point are hard to predict. They are unlikely to be spectacular and major, and probably they will do their harm stealthily, when infrastructure, port facilities and cities are flooded, or when agricultural land is lost, either by being covered by the sea or as a result of drastically changed rainfall patterns.

If any significant amount of rock is exposed in Antarctica, this could lead to a low pressure zone over the icy continent that could change weather patterns around the world.

It hasn’t happened yet, but we need to learn from history. Ten years ago, no politician would take a long-term view and force the changes needed in the next thirty to forty years, when most of them are elected for a mere three to four years, and then have to face the voters again.

It is easier to bleat plaintively that there is no real agreement among the scientists yet (even when there is), or that some eminent scientists believe that there are other explanations (they don’t: just look at where the funding of these “scientists” comes from).

That load of bollocks saves the politicians from having to act—and the honesty of scientists in saying that they cannot be sure just how things will go wrong allows devious short-term opportunists to prate that “the scientists aren’t sure…”

Politics is a marvellous human discovery. It is a pity that politicians still have to discover humanity and consider its prospects. It is likely that politics, dithering, duck-shoving and shilly-shallying will make this disaster happen.

The reader is referred to my comments about “future value” in the piece preceding this, called A Question of Values. So long as the electorate value their comfort right now, over the comfort of their grandchildren, we are doomed like the bears.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A question of values

It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

According to Edward O. Wilson, there are three kinds of value: commodity value, or how much you can sell something for, amenity value, or the dollar value of the pleasure and benefit you get from its existence, and morality value, which has no dollar value at all, but relates to our responsibility to those species less able than us to protect themselves.

Consider a property owner who rents out a house. There is no economic gain, no commodity value in doing repairs, there is no pleasure in doing repairs when you don’t have to live with the mess that the house is becoming, but maybe there’s a morality value in making sure there’s something left for the owner’s heirs. Those of us who are parents and grandparents may see some merit in that line of thought…

A different set of values. [Peter Macinnis]

From the viewpoint of short-term economic gain, old-growth trees have no dollar value because they are producing nothing, but they are in fact extremely valuable because they offer places of shelter for animals that help to control pests and maintain balance within the forest. They have immense background value, like grandparents.

Old trees and grandparents are both often seen as unproductive, and you can’t taste the egg in a cake, but old trees hold ecosystems together, grandparents hold societies together, and the egg holds a cake together. I think there is a case for factoring in the background value of things. I plan to call this “future value”, a sort of investment in a future for our species and our world.

A forest is much more than trees, and a plantation of the same species, all of uniform age, is far less diverse and offers a much poorer habitat all round. In most cases, when old growth forest is logged, it is clear-felled and replaced with a plantation. At the very least, the area should be left dotted with islands of old-growth forest, and these should be linked by old growth corridors, so forest biodiversity can be retained.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Gutta percha and cauchu

Let us begin with gutta percha, because it was in practical use before rubber was.  This came from the sap of an Asian tree that could be tapped, much as the rubber tree (and rubber is the cauchu we will come to later).

In 1832, Dr William Montgomerie saw gutta percha being used to make handles for parangs (machete-like knives) in Singapore. He introduced gutta percha to Europe in 1843, where it was used first for knife handles and in golf balls. In 1845, Werner Siemens suggested using it to insulate telegraph wires, the method was patented in 1847, and the first recorded use of the new insulated wires was in 1849.

In 1848, Michael Faraday was delighted by gutta percha. It could be softened by warming and moulded, but when it cooled, it was flexible and resilient, and it was an insulator. By 1853 in the Gardener’s Chronicle, ‘CRD’ (alias Charles Robert Darwin, a keen reader) was seeking advice on any problems he might expect while using a canvas hose, coated and lined with gutta percha, as a siphon tube to move water from one tank to another on a different level.

After 1855, the Second US Cavalry’s soldiers were issued with a gutta percha talma, a long cape or cloak, extending to the knees, with large loose sleeves. Soldiers in one squadron had gutta percha scabbards and another squadron had gutta percha cartridge boxes, but the material could also serve more peaceful uses. In April, the Portadown Weekly News in Ireland carried an advertisement for “Ladies’ and Children’s Leather and Gutta Percha Boots and Shoes”.

Across the Atlantic, an enterprising American was making waterproof packing paper by giving paper a thin coating of gutta percha dissolved in turpentine. Two New Yorkers, Johns and Crosby, offered a cement for roofing based on gutta percha: the advertised cost was “5 cents a foot”. It was guaranteed for five years.

With steamers entering the Amazon, rubber traders were already moving up the river by 1853, so the era of gutta percha would be brief. Critics sniped, suggesting it cracked, that the failure of the covering had destroyed the second Atlantic cable. Manufacturers of gutta percha cables disagreed, but they still lost out in the end to rubber, and just in time, because the jungles of the East Indies were almost cleared of gutta percha trees by 1859.

A few niche markets were left to gutta percha. Even today, when you have root canal therapy, your dentist may insert a temporary gutta percha filling, but a surgeon on the Australian goldfields in the 1850s was well aware that gutta percha could be softened again.

He told a fellow surgeon he had paid five shillings for a bunch of old tools being sold with a gutta percha bucket, just to acquire the bucket. With this and a supply of hot water, he had ‘stopped’ (filled the cavities in) hundreds of teeth at a guinea a piece, and he expected to stop thousands more before the old bucket was used up. He claimed he was known as an unrivalled dentist, with people coming from far and near.

India rubber, alias cauchu, caoutchouc or gum elastic, was interesting stuff. It was used by the Mesoamericans before Columbus and the Spaniards who followed him must have seen games played with balls made of rubber, but the material did not interest the Europeans as much as gold and silver.

By the 1830s, the needs of industry were changing. Slow steam engines could use oiled leather to seal valves, and while shoes and inflatable canvas boats could be made with India rubber, steam valves could not. Inventors everywhere hunted for ways of making India rubber stronger, tougher and more weather-proof.

One of them was a bankrupt called Charles Goodyear (1800–1860), who had been mixing gum elastic with white lead and sulfur, but the mix was unsuccessful until he had a stroke of luck in February 1839. Some of his gum elastic/sulfur mix landed by accident on a hot pot-bellied stove, and when he scraped the material off, he realized that the heat had produced an elastic rim.

Here was the secret to toughening rubber: mix it with sulfur and heat it. But how much sulfur, and how much heat? In the end, he found that to toughen the rubber, it had to be heated by steam under pressure, providing a temperature of about 270°F (132°C) for several hours.

The molecules of rubber are natural polymers, long chains that can slip and slide past each other. The sulfur forms bridges between chains, tying them together and making a more stable product. At the time, there was no theory to explain this, so anybody seeing the material would have no idea of how the gum elastic had been changed.

Goodyear never benefited from his discovery. He died in 1860, worn out by patent battles and owing some $200,000. The giant Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. may carry his name, but there is no family connection. It would be some time before rubber tyres would soften the rides of wagons, bicycles and automobiles, but by 1860, railway cars could be fitted with coiled springs, embedded in vulcanized rubber.

People all over the world died as food crops were displaced by rubber plantations, or as Congolese rubber tappers were terrorized, beaten and killed to make them work harder. At the same time, rubber has made our lives better, and it continues to save lives today. Catheters, surgical gloves, condoms and other products are still made of rubber, as are the tires on vehicles and aircraft.
On balance, rubber has probably done more good than harm, just.

Charles Goodyear’s battle to maintain his patent for vulcanised rubber dragged on through 1859. Rubber was beginning to become more popular, and not only in roles filled earlier by gutta percha. Most new uses needed vulcanised rubber, but in 1855, Augustus Gregory experimented with an inflatable boat made of canvas covered with India rubber to explore rivers in northern Australia. It was not a success.

In 1859, a diver crossed the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia, striding along in an India rubber suit that covered him up to his neck, with a sheet-copper helmet over his head. He breathed through a pipe connected to a compressor on a boat and followed a guide rope during his 25-minute stroll. On another front, Messrs Badger and Co reported successfully making a Boehm flute from Goodyear’s vulcanised rubber, though this was probably more like ebonite than the rubber we know today.

Rubber and cotton hoses could stand the pressures being generated by the new steam fire engines– and the late 1850s was a time when fire brigades were being formed in many places and equipping themselves with steam pumps.

Hoses were a major concern, because the high pressures needed tore most cloth, and the available range of hoses was poor. The choice of textiles for any purpose was limited: cotton and wool for everyday use, silk and linen for the rich, and that was about it. Wool sold in New York for 11 to 50 cents a pound, depending on quality. Cotton was plentiful and cost 8.5 to 12.5 cents a pound.

It was a world where anything might find a use,  even isinglass and seahorse teeth.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Yes, Minister

Originally, a minister was a lesser official, as opposed to a magister — a word which has come down to us as both 'master' and 'magistrate'. The magister was a greater official, a big-wig, an important person, a chief, a boss, a director. The Latin word ministerialis meant somebody who had some menial official duties, but by the Middle Ages, the ministerialis was a person whose task was to entertain his employer by singing and telling tales, and soon the ministerialis took on the role that we now describe by the term 'minstrel'.

The sense of minstrel we now have can also be fitted to the label 'troubadour', which comes from the Provençal trobador, and which is related to the French trouver, meaning 'to find', because it was the task of the troubadour to find, invent and compose in verse, much like the skalds of the Norsemen — or today's rap performers, who, like their predecessors, usually have a range of rhymes prepared in advance, ready to use as a refuge when the going gets tough.

Despite what we sometimes see in Hollywood depictions of Merrie England, the troubadours were inhabitants of the patch from Spain, through southern France to northern Italy, though at the eastern end, the troubadour became il trovatore. England had to make do with minstrels, and these folk were certainly among those who ministered to the needs of the local lord.

The minister in a church is a priest by another name, and while the clergy of an area may be referred to collectively as 'the local ministry', there are still some churches in which the term is avoided, perhaps because it seems to have its roots in a saying of Calvin. One Albert Babinot, who had studied at la Ministerie in Poitiers, and who was addressed by Calvin as "Mr. Minister", a name which then was transferred to other clergy in the Calvinist tradition.

The low position of a minister was clear to the translators who created the King James Version: in Matthew 20, Jesus reminded his disciples that the Gentiles allowed their princes to exercise authority, but then he says "but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant." (Matthew 20: 26-27).

Shakespeare knew this meaning of 'minister' as well, for in the first part of Henry VI, we find the Duke of York calling 'La Pucelle' (Joan of Arc) "Thou foul accursed minister of hell".

Indeed, the sense of a minister as a servant can still be seen in the term 'cabinet minister', for these high and mighty officials are conceived as the servants of the government, carrying out its will, and as long as nobody reminds them of this, then probably all will be well. For the most part, these ministers do not sing like minstrels, but when they write their memoirs, they often sing like canaries, to the embarrassment of some of their former colleagues.

So how much difference is there between a magister and a minister? In Venice, where people are worried about the rising sea levels, the Magistrato alle Acque, the Water Magistracy, is the body responsible for planning a set of gates that may help stop tidal and storm surges pouring into the Venetian lagoon. To all intents and purposes, this appears to be the equivalent of a Water Ministry in a country following the Westminster system.

And that raises another question: York has a Minster, not a Cathedral, and what is Westminster itself? The name now indicates not only the seat of the Mother or Parliaments, but also the location of Westminster Abbey. This, however, is a different word, coming from the Old English mynster, which later would become monastery, while the nunnery or convent in Old English was a nunmynster.