Friday, 31 August 2012

August Ramblings

August is a strange month. Rather like the void between Christmas and New Year, nothing much is happening professionally, as a glance at the Calendar of Events will show.

In the northern hemisphere this is school holiday time, a season to be enjoying the sun in the great outdoors, but not this year, which has been one of Britain’s worst summers in living memory (many would say that the best summers are also not that good!). I’m not sure what happens in the southern hemisphere in August, maybe hibernation in the depths of winter?

Last weekend Barbara and I stayed in a beautiful hotel just up the coast, to celebrate our 45th anniversary. During that weekend we also heard of the death of Neil Armstrong, and this all brought back memories of the fabulous 60s when everything seemed to be happening, scientifically and culturally.

It is hard now to appreciate the immense courage of Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts during that epic and technologically massive trip to the Moon, in a craft whose onboard computer was less powerful than a modern smart-phone. It’s also hard to appreciate the great influence that the Apollo programme had on scientific advances- just imagine trying to explain to a time-traveller from the 60s our digital cameras, SatNav, satellite TV and the internet.

Some will say that the vast amounts of money spent on the Apollo programme could have been better utilised elsewhere, in the fight against poverty etc, an argument that is also made against the modern day equivalent of Apollo, CERN’s quest for the Higgs Boson.

All of these advances depend on another branch of science, which was also controversially in its early days, around a century ago. Quantum physics deals with the strange world of atoms, and although it is now totally accepted, and our modern world is dependent on it, the main player in this science, the atom itself, is completely beyond human imagination.

How do you try to explain to a non-scientist how small an atom actually is? No-one has ever seen an atom directly, although modern technology has been able to visualise it by means of measurements converted to computer images. When I briefly taught material science in my academic career, I would ask students to imagine a sugar lump at the dawn of time, at the instant of the Big-Bang. If the sugar lump was very accurately weighed, and then one atom removed each second, how much of the lump would be left now, roughly 14 billion years later? The answer- there would be no noticeable change in weight, it would take something like 14 thousand trillion years for the sugar lump to disappear! Atoms are staggeringly tiny!

I now realise this explanation is not satisfactory, as there are other concepts that we scientists talk blithely about that are also beyond imagination, and one of these is geological time. A thousand years is an awful long time. King Ethelred the Unready ruled England and the Norman conquest was still over 50 years away. So try to imagine a thousand times that length of time, a million years, a mere blink in geological time. The rocks that I walk on each day on the Cornish coastal path were laid down over 400 million years ago, so although this vast temporal abyss is beyond the human mind, it is easy to understand how the slow creep of evolution has occurred, the inexorable movement of tectonic plates to create new oceans and continents, and the carving out of massive gorges and canyons in sediments that have accumulated and solidified over these vast periods.

And there are other unimaginables- Apollo 11’s journey from Earth to Moon was around 240,000 miles- less than 2 light seconds, so try if you can to imagine a light year!

Anyway, enough of my ramblings. September starts tomorrow and hopefully the spark of life will ignite again- and the IMPC in India is only three weeks away!


  1. Hi Barry, us folks in the southern hemisphere spend a lot of August wondering why all the northerners are so slack (papers take longer to be reviewed, emails longer to be answered, etc.)

  2. Hi Mark. The 'great 'sleep' is not confined to the northern hemisphere. You are assuming that reviewers are all northerners, which they most certainly aren't.
    This is a global thing, but hopefully we are all now waking from our slumbers.


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