Saturday, 31 August 2013

Door into The Dark

Here's a quiz for Irish people - nobody else would be remotely interested in the answers:
Name the 7 Irish people who have been awarded (even part of) a Nobel prize.  I would guess that only about 3 people in 100 standing up against a bar in Dublin could get them all right in 7 minutes.

I'll give you one for free, not the most recent recipient: Seamus Heaney, who died yesterday and left a hole in my inner self. In my youth, before the relentless pressure to specialise shoehorned me into a far too narrow "science only" boot, I both read and wrote poetry.  When I arrived in Dublin very fresh off the boat in the mid 1970s, one of the first things I did was buy a copy of Door into the Dark by Seamus Heaney.  Can't remember why I bought it now, but I bought it new and it became a most treasured possession for the next several decades. So I was a fan before he became really famous and 20+ years before he was rocketted to the top with the Nobel and all the celeb razzmatazz that brought in its train.  
I loved the way his words were onomatopoeic for ordinary domestic observations and how he could look sideways at the normal and make a deep comment on his own life or life in general.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging.
evokes the enormous sacrifices that a generation of Northern Irish parents, his included, made to give their children a leg-up through education.

But 1 ran my hand in the half-filled bags 
Hooked to the slots. 
It was hard as shot, 
Innumerable and cool. 
The bags gaped 
Where the chutes ran back to the stilled drum 
And forks were stuck at angles in the ground 
As javelins might mark lost battlefields. 
is from The Wife's Tale, which sweeps the whole life of a young farm-wife into a single picnic lunch at harvest time.  I suspect that poem was a deliberate call-to-mind and elaboration of Keats' heart-breaking couplet:
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

Many years later, I found myself - surprised-and-delighted - back in Dublin working in a lab with some really sharp people half of whom were From Foreign and at least one was plain FF.  We were pushing back the frontiers of science but we made a deliberate effort to behave like Renaissance Folk and make with some culture of an evening.  When it came my turn to organise an event I said we must all go to the Abbey Theatre to see The Burial at Thebes, Heaney's adaptation of Sophocles' Antigone.  I don't think I lost face by insisting on that as a way to pass an evening.  The issues for Antigone and Creon in mythic Greece are still pulsing in our world today and need a great poet to make truly dark.

It was one of the last such events I took part in, because that Summer I retired (again!) and went on a long walk through Spain.  Somewhere in La Rioja, after several weeks of tramp, while walking past an ancient ruin I was greeted by a stout German fellow with "Salve!".  I was so taken aback that I quizzed him about it, thinking it was a latinism that had dug itself into German language the way "Mensa" is standard German for a student refectory.  But he said otherwise - it was because we were in place so clearly built by the Romans that he thought it would be amusing to use a bit of Latin.  So we fell to talking, as you do on the Camino, about the sun and the earth and all that runs between.  And in the course of that 15 minutes of exposing and sharing our true selves, I said that he could do no better as an introduction to Irish poetry than remember "The Wife's Tale" and the words "Hard as shot, innumerable and cool".  And the advice stands for you, Dear Reader.
Ave atque vale, Heaney!

Friday, 30 August 2013

Stephen W(ikipedia)

I just posted a knicker-throw about boy genius Stephen Wolfram. In the last edit, I had to check some fact about him in Wikipedia, and noticed a curiosity in the hierarchy of Wikiguesses.  Like many info-sites nowadays Wikipedia helps you along by offering you word completion so you don't have to type - and no typos! - every letter of, say, onomatopoeia,  but only the first three.  With o-n-o onomatopoeia heaves into view and you can cursor down to fetch it up.  Wikipedia is much less good than Google for dealing with spelinge errurs, but then the former doesn't have a million googledrones to inch us over our ignorance. Google's word-completion guesses about what you want to know are almost certainly tailored to your IP address - if you type "Carlow" from Silesia, Google may well respond "assume you meant Cracow" - but the following anecdote suggests that Wikipedia has a one-size-fits-all.

Here's the progressive wiki-zeroing in on my target
States and union territories of India
Stephen King
several dittos
Stephen W. Kearney
Stephen Wolfram

One of the disappointments with the old print Britannica was its over-emphasis on 19th century Generals to the exclusion (there were only 40,000,000 words after all) of whatever it was you wanted to find out about.  Stephen W. Kearney is another of those Generals: "father of the United States Cavalry" and Military Governor of New Mexico in 1846.  All very worthy and interesting but, I think you must agree, not so interesting as to pip Wolfram from the top of the Stephen Ws.  But get this - it's Kearney's birthday today 30 Aug 1794 - cue Twilight Zone theme.

Wolfram alpha male

Stephen Wolfram, whose 54th birthday it was yesterday, has been twice as reproductively successful as the average man by having four children and good luck to them all. (I had to put that in or the witty title didn't mean a lot.) He has also been phenomenally successful as a computational mathematician.  Indeed, although I forgot it was his birthday yesterday, I used his knowledge-engine WolframAlpha to compute some distances and population densities.  Now WA is a pretty cool idea, nobody since the world began has ever wanted to know the distance between Cottonwood Falls and St Kilda, so it's not written down anywhere, but Wolfram's tool will calculate it for you. 

I use WA all the time and it comes up with something useful about 50% of the time.  Partly this is to do with not getting the syntax correct so that WolframAlpha can understand me, but it is partly to do with its assumption that people much less smart than Stephen are users: it will guess what you're trying to articulate.  So here's an example. I wanted to know what the atmospheric pressure was 200m down at the bottom of Lake Nyos.  It's work now as I'm prepping my Environmental Chemistry classes.  But WolframAlpha persisted in giving me the atmospheric pressure 200m up.  So I went off and Binged the answer from a diving website.  It wasn't until this morning that I twigged (duh!) you can calculate it from first principles so it should be ideal grist for the WolframAlpha mill.  1 atmosphere = 760 mm Mercury (Hg).  The density of Hg (densities are always compared to that of water) is 13.534.  So 0.760m * 13.534 = 10.2m of water is equal to 1 atm.  Which makes a rather inconveniently tall barometer, so that's why Torricelli used Mercury. The rule of neoprene thumb ?RNT? in the depths is that every 10m the pressure increases by 1 atm.

You can podcast a middle-aged Stephen giving a 2010 TED talk about Mathematica and WolframAlpha, to get the measure of him now: lots of arm waving (physical not metaphorical). Sometimes it is more expressive to wedge your hands firmly in your pockets rather than windmilling every phrase - lecturers, including Bob, please note.  The young Stephen was similarly restless.  He dropped out of school early, dropped out of Oxford University without taking a degree and only knuckled down to formal quals by getting his PhD from Cal Tech - at the age of 20!  The next year 1981 he was the youngest person to win one of the first MacArthur 'Genius' Fellowships for "showing exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work".  That was $500,000 but it's not about the money, is it?  Another recipient was Barbara McClintock, at 79 probably the oldest awardee that year.  You can get a feel for the restless energy - a sort of titanium butterfly - and boundless curiosity of the man in a Wired interview by Steven Levy . . . without having to read his monumental 1200 page A New Kind of Science. That book is truly a theory of life, the universe and everything mostly turning on the observation that extraordinary complexity can be generated from tweaking some very simple rules - as I recently suggested for the growth of haricots.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

A Postcard from the Edge

I clagged this together because postcards were a major source of cash for St Kildans in the late 19th century when visitors were still travelers rather than tourists and mostly well-heeled.  Excursion ships would run people out to St Kilda for a jaunt and all you could do there, apart from gawk at the peasantry, was send a postcard home with an exotic postmark.

After being continuously inhabited since the neolithic, certainly more than 2000 years, the last inhabitants of the archipelago of St Kilda gave up their homes to the elements and were transported to the Scottish mainland, at government expense, on 29th August 1930.  There were only 3 dozen inhabitants at that stage and few of those were "effectives".   St Kilda is remote - the islands are 65km from the nearest land, North Uist, itself part of the Outer Hebrides and a fair lick from the coast of mainland Scotland.  The only thing left behind was the face (squint top right) of the Viking warrior on Stac Leibhinis looking serenely out to sea.  The endemic sub-species of house mouse (Mus musculus muralis) rapidly went extinct after the people left, and stopped leaving crumbs on the floor.

The remoteness dictated the need to make an almost cash-free living from the available resources: a scrabble of barley and spuds, boiled gannets, eggs in season and sheep's milk cheese.  Gannetting from the immensely high sea-cliffs was dangerous and communal.  The feathers were saved for the landlord's factor as rent for the humble homes and gardens.  When things got dire, they would attach an SOS message to a piece of drift-wood, inflate a sheep's bladder as a sail, and tie the two together and launch it into the sea when the wind was from the NW.  Apparently more than half of these communications were picked up: most on the Islands of Scotland but some, less conveniently, in Norway many days later.  That would be an antidote to the restlessly continuous communication that we all expect nowadays.

Lots of £0.01 copies of Tom Steel's great book The Life and Death of St Kilda.  Which, in it's attention to detail, is not a million miles from PrairyErth's Chase County, Kansas.  No indeed, it is only 6390km.  And here's an arresting comparison, even at it's lowest ebb the population density on St Kilda (36/8.5 = 4.2 per was 3 times more than that of Chase County (2750/2000 = 1.4). 

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Pythagoras and the bean stalk

Everybody knows one thing about Pythagoras.  The squaw on the hippopotamus hide is equal to the sons of the squaws on the other two hides features as the punch-line of a long Victorian shaggy-dog story of the era when Caesar adsum iam forte was deemed hilarious. The Blob has shown how P's theorem about the relationships among the lengths of the sides of right-angled triangles is less useful on the real world than off the real world.

Pythagorean problems are set so often in examination questions (often as a multiple of 3-4-5 sides) that it's refreshing to see the whole tired non-learning undermined by a young student:
who was prepared to risk a zero mark for a great joke.

Adepts of the Inner Circle know one other thing about Pythagoras: that he eschewed rather than chewed broad beans (Vicia faba) and forbade his (many) followers from eating them either.  He had many followers because he was the leader of a cult that insisted on all sorts of weird restrictions, dietary and behavioral. Such restrictions are familiar at second hand to most of my readers in the 'sacred cow' of hindus and the laws of kosher which insists, among very many other things, on two sets (milky and meaty) of china to extrapolate inconveniently from the law (Exodus 12:19)  "Thou shalt not seethe the kid in its mother's milk" to make eating lasagne, as traditionally rendered in Ireland, impossible. Me, I don't eat broad beans either: I was talking about haricots (Phaseolus vulgaris) last week, now there's a bean for heroes.

When scientists of a certain type hear about these quirky cultural proscriptions, they assume that there is a rational basis, which has become opaque through the passage of time, and see it as their job to bring that reason into daylight.  So the cow is sacred because hindus used them to plough, if you've eaten your tractor you cannot sow seed, so there is nothing to harvest and everyone dies.  Even if you've eaten all of last year's corn don't eat the cow.  The same people salute the wisdom of Moses in recognising (empirically rather than microscopically) that pigs carried the nematode Trichinella spiralis and saving his people from a lifetime of chronic nausea, vomiting, sweating and diarrhea followed by intense muscular pain, difficulty breathing, weakening of pulse and blood pressure, heart damage and kidney malfunction.

The Pythagoreans' refusal of broad beans is mapped, by the loose-ends school of science, onto the observation that the frequency of Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency is rather common among the people of the Eastern Med, where all the Pythagoreans lived. There is evidence (PMID 10916676) that G6PDH deficiency confers resistance to malaria (which even today kills more than a million (mostly black) babies each year.  So the side-effect that a) some people with the deficiency b) IF they are exposed to broad bean pollen or eat the beans THEN they develop a hemolytic anemia (their red blood cells get destroyed), is a small evolutionary price to pay for lowering the chance that your kids will die of malaria.  Favism causes maybe 4000 deaths a year, although there are quality of life issues that need to be factored in.  It is obvious-to-all-thinking-people that Pythagoras (probably a G6PDH- sufferer himself) sorted all this out in his capacious brain and, just like Moses, issued a diktat to make the benefits accrue to the illiterate and those not so smart as the boss.  What a guy!  

Except that he didn't, or at least we have only the most tentative evidence that he did.  Nothing written by Pythagoras has come down to us.  The first written sources seem to have codified a miscellany of oral traditions about 150 years after his death.  Among these was Plato's pupil Aristotle, who in Islamic and later medieval philosophy and science was the greatest of the ancient sages.  Aristotle notes the prohibition and advances a number of reasons why P should have had a bean in his bonnet. One of these being that the sprouting bean looks like a foetus (see left) and no civilised Greek was a cannibal. Aristole's pupil Aristoxenus OTOH "denies that Pythagoras forbade the eating of beans and says that he valued it most of all vegetables, since it was digestible and laxative”.  Aristoxenus grew up in Tarentum in Magna Graecia (now Taranto in S Italy) just down the road from Croton where Pythagoras spent most of his life, so may have a richer a source of oral tradition than Aristotle in Athens.  You should really follow this up in Carl Huffman's excellent and compendious essay on Pythagoras for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

In science we sometimes have theories that have the Ring of Truth but turn out to be wrong. Nature is the ultimate arbiter of what is true.  In The Arts, there is no such authority, so your opinion is as good as your reputation and that hinges on how well you interpret the data - and whether you come from Oxbridge of course.  The data on Pythagoras are few, fuzzy and a long time dead, so it's easy to say things that sound credible but don't bear scrutiny.  As scientists, there is no credit in duffing up The Arts Block for being unscientific.  Contrariwise we can learn from such stories to be really careful, nay critical, about out own cherished hypotheses.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013


It's more than 20 years since I read PrairyErth - a deep map by William Least Heat-Moon and it's still singing in my head.  A most unlikely source of compelling reading as it is 600+ pages on a single county of Kansas - which, since the Wizard of Oz, will ever be associated in our minds with monochrome. But utterly engaging it is.  If you have the patience and stamina for the long haul, this book is so rewarding that I'm tempted now to lash out $0.01 (+p&p!) and buy me another copy from Amazon. A 'Deep Map' is an excuse to ramble and present a gallimaufry of Quite Interesting stuff about and around a particular place - a bit like The Blob explores the territory known as my "Mind".

PrairyErth is set in its unique topology, but that is buffeted by the weather (incl tornadoes) and overlies a characteristic geology, which determines the soil, which determines the vegetation, which determines the fauna that romped and slithered through the tall-grass before people ever arrived in Chase County. The view is so much richer because WLHM looks at these interlocking dimensions of the place through scientific as well as English-major eyes.  And the people who finally appeared in this landscape were so intrinsically interesting that you need to hear their back-story and listen carefully to their folk-lore and songs.  But most of all it is, like Thoreau, a celebration of the ordinary.  As WLHM said "Be careful going in search of adventure - it's ridiculously easy to find."
“Suddenly, over the slope, as if tethered to a cord of air drawing quickly upward, came a Northern Harrier, motionless but for its rising. So still was the bird - wings, tail, head - it might have been a museum specimen. Then, as if atop the wind, it slid down the ridge, tilted a few times, veered, tacked up the hill, its wings hardly shifting. I thought, if I could be that hawk for one hour I'd never again be just a man.” 

Why today?  Because it's William Least Heat-Moon's birthday (1939 but who's counting?).  PrairyErth was published in 1991.  A decade earlier, he had written another extraordinary book sweeping across the whole of his native land rather than a microcosm of it.  Blue Highways tracks his solo journey in a camper-van from sea to shining sea and back entirely by back-roads (colored blue in Rand-McNally road atlases).  It's a similar conceit to Bill Bryson's later, funnier and more famous Lost Continent. If you're leery about spending $0.01 (+p&p!) on my rec, you can read an interview: but be warned, even that isn't a soundbyte. At 15,000 words long, it is half as much as the Lincoln-Douglas debates on slavery.

It's worrying how easily we can get to be voyeurs on the territory.  Here is the dead centre of Cottonwood Falls. When we're finished reading the notices outside the Municipal Building of Chase County, we can stroll across the street and get a coffee in the Grand Central Hotel and Grill (it's beHIND you).  I hope they have nice donuts, and I'm sure they will.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Anjeze Anna Anthony

An unlikely trio of As, clearly all women, all having something to celebrate today.  You'll probably recognise at least one of them, especially as the title gives them each a name.

Pause for effect:

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Hanna Reitsch

I know that The Blob, like so much of this bloke-run world, gives far less attention to women than they deserve: 50% of people have, after all, two X chromosomes.  If I hadn't been born in Dover and (therefore?) getting all excited about cross-channel swimming yesterday, I might have noted that Hanna Reitsch died on 24 August.  She is definitely worth writing about for her own extraordinary exploits rather than merely to shift The Blob's gender balance one point.  You have to be a little sensitive here because Reitsch was an unrepentant member of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei and would have been paying her dues to the Party still in 1970 if it hadn't melted away in 1945.

Her father was a doctor and she started adult life in medical school with the idea that she would be a missionary flying doctor in Africa.  While there she learned how to fly and was shocked that most of her fellow pilots had no idea how planes actually worked.  So she started hanging around the hangar where the engines were tuned and repaired. She was soon able to dissassemble any aero-engine to its component parts and put it back together again so it worked.  It must have been a little like teenage girls being willing to shovel horse-shit for a day to get up on a horse for an hour.  Clearly she was equipped for the vocation she had chosen.

But she dropped out of medical school in 1933 to pursue a full time job as a gliding instructor and proceeded to shatter records for gliding.  As we all know, Hitler became Reichskanzler the same year and over the next several years the charismatic and technically competent Reitsch became the poster girl ideal Mädchen. So technically competent that she became a test-pilot, taking to the air in dive bombers, rocket-planes, helicopters and whatever the frenzied imagination of the Nazi war-machine could dream up. . . and surviving - most of her Right Stuff colleagues didn't.  

Her last stunning exploit in WWII was to fly herself and newly appointed head of the Luftwaffe Robert Ritter von Greim into Berlin to report to Hitler, as the Red Army fought inexorably through the rubble of the suburbs.  It must have been like the opening sequence of Terminator, but Reitsch took control of the Fieseler Storch when Greim was shot in the foot, and landed at the Brandenberg Gate.  Three days later, having been giving personal cyanide capsules by Hitler they flew out again in a hidden Arado Ar 96 trainer and a hail of bullets (the Storch was understandably a write-off).  She didn't use her capsule, although Greim (probably her lover) and both her parents did rather than be surrendered to the Russians.

After the war she finally went to work in Africa: not as a medical missionary, but to develop aviation in Ghana at the personal invitation of Kwame Nkrumah the Premier. Working closely with him and other Africans she abandoned ("what presumptuousness and arrogance") the prejudice that most white people (not just Nazis!) have about the inferiority of blacks.  She died in Frankfurt in 1970, aged 67, and there is a suggestion of a hint that she finally used her half of the pair of capsules given to her and Greim by Hitler.

In the final interview she ever gave she said "And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can't find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power".
I like that, it shows integrity.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

At Swim Two Countries

Matthew Webb, shown here striking a quintessentially Victorian manly pose, was born in Dawley, Shropshire in 1848.  On 24th August 1875 he dived off Admiralty Pier in Dover and started swimming out to sea.  He arrived on the beach in France the next day after swimming for nearly 22 hours.  As the crow (or Louis Bleriot in 1909) flies it's almost exactly 35km from shore to shore, but Webb swam an estimated 62km in the Z-shaped path dictated by the currents swooshing through the narrow gap between two much larger bodies of tidal water. The GPS tracker information shown below is from the unsuccessful swim of Susan Taylor in July last year.  

This shows a) the typical path and b) the potential hazards of this undertaking as Ms Taylor took ill and died 2km from France. 

Captain (of the merchant marine) Webb's record was unparallelled for 36 years until Thomas Burgess repeated the feat in 1911 (slightly slower, mind you).  Over the next hundred years, Channel swimming has got to be a bit of a raree show, with people regularly making the journey: the wrong (France-England) way, both ways, three-ways, without legs, as a four-limb amputee, in less than 7 hours, as young as 11 and as old as 70, as relays back and forth. In all, something in excess of 1800 people have made the cross solo. There's even now an association.

My top certified swimming achievement is "One Length of the Drake Baths" in Plymouth. I gave up about a quarter of the way through my bronze medal life-saving certificate although my brother and sister went on to get silver and gold medals for this.  So I appreciate from a great distance that, apart from natural endowment and a mort o' training, it takes bottle to do things like this.  Burgess, for example, completed his swim on his 11th attempt; I didn't even give my infinitely more modest swimming goal a second go.  In a way the record of records should go to Jackie Cobell (as the Daily Mail had it: 56 year old mother of two from Kent) who took the longest time: spending more than 28 hours, and travelling more than 100km, in the water before stepping ashore for a croissant.  The longer you take the more the tides sweep you back and forth.

And the bold Captain Webb?  He struck his head on a rock and drowned while attempting to swim through the whirlpool rapids below Niagara falls for a purse of £12,000.  He was 35 - his epitaph "Nothing great is easy".  Here he is commemorated by John Betjeman with Tom O'Bedlam reading A Shropshire Lad.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Baltic Way

To me, the Baltic republics are rather romantic places.  The red arrow on the map shows just how close I got to them.  Three years ago I went on a visit to NE Poland and we took a trip out in the woods picking mushrooms (as you do in Poland).  At one point we looked over a little bridge at the Lithuanian border post. It had armed guards, so I didn't feel I had the chutzpah to go and ask if I could step across the line for a jape.

The republics are each about the size of Ireland and combined comprise 175, compared to Ireland-the-island's 84,  The population in "Baltica" is about 6.2m now (compared to 6.4m on I-t-i).  So my Irish readers will easily imagine just how difficult it was to achieve the happening I am about to describe.

On 23 August 1939, the foreign ministers of Soviet Russia and NSDP Germany, Molotov and Ribbentrop, signed a pact that divvied up Eastern Europe between their two empires. Exactly 50 years later in 1989 as the Soviet empire started to heave and shake and rumble, the local independence movements created the Baltic Way - a human chain of people holding hands from Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius and all 600km in between.  On dit que 2 million people were actually holding hands at 7pm that night as a powerful gesture of solidarity.  600km is 600,000m so either there were kinks (or very small children) in the line or there was no need to stretch out your hand because everyone was standing shoulder-to-shoulder (mine are 50cm wide) or there weren't 2 million adult people taking part.  But  that is definitely in the right order of magnitude and even if only 1 million Balts took a day off work to participate that is a hugely impressive logistical achievement.  The Baltic SSRs collapsed the following year and were reborn as independent republics.

When I say that we in Ireland can imagine how difficult it would be to herd 2 million Kilkenny cats into an unbroken line, I rather understate the case. Because to the logistical difficulties you have to add the fact that  the SSRs in 1989 were police-states.  For example, 75 people were arrested and banged up in chokey for trying to hold a sympathy event in Moscow that day.

Here's another arresting fact.  When the protests were held there were far more people people living in the Baltic SSRs than there are today:

Area Pop 1989 Pop 2011
Estonia 1.6million 1.3million
Latvia 2.7million 2.0million
Lithuania 3.7million 2.9million
1.8 million people (nearly a quarter of the population) have left their Baltic homes over the last 20 years.  And it sometimes seems as if fully half of them have come to Ireland.  To which I say fáilte, tervitama, sveiktsveiki!

Bean there

At last Jack's beans in the polytunnel are starting the bear 'fruit'.  I call them Jack's because they are very tall and commendably bean-stalky.  This is the second round of propagation of some tall beans that I saved from the late-lamented poly-tunnel of "Rissoles" Hayes from Wexford.  That structure frapped itself to ribbons in a couple of storms and they took down the skeleton last year to move it somewhere more sheltered.  Our tunnel is 4.5m high in the centre and these beans grow up that high and then start entangling themselves so it looks a bit like rural Brazil up there.  

ANNyway, the interesting thing about picking haricot beans, apart from the fact that they have white, yellow, pink and purple flowers, is how hard it can be.  It's as if the bean was trying to avoid predation.  It's not so much that the beans grow under dinner-plate-sized leaves, although they do, but that other parts of the plant look disconcertingly like the bean-pods.  The leaves have a wee point opposite the stalk and so do the bean-pods and the stalks are the same diameter and colour as the pods, so I keep reaching for a mouthful of dinner and coming up empty.  What's all that about?  It must be that the growth and development of the whole plant is under the control of a limited number of genes and whatever mutations are present they affect all the devt systems in similar ways.

We sort of know this from looking at the development of plants like magnolia where it is much less clear that the flesh appendage you're looking at is a leaf, a sepal or a petal.  Now that they have sequenced the complete genome of a number of plants, we are in a position to make sense of the genetic control systems.  Indeed, I have a project awaiting a student in The Institute next month that will compare the genome sequences of tomato Lycopersicon esculentum and potato Solanum tuberosum, both members of the Solanaceae along with Aubergine Solanum melongena and deadly-night-shade Atropa belladonna. You can see why I try to remember to use Latin names for species when you note that in English alone aubergine, brinjal, eggplant, melongene, garden egg, and guinea squash all refer to the same species.

The first species of flowering plants to be genome sequenced was Arabidopsis thaliana [see right] which trips so lightly off the tongue that you never need to know that the common name in English is mouse-ear cress.  It is the cause of a disconcerting thing that can happen to newbie searchers in sequence databases.  They ask for sequences from "mouse" not realising that the default search-term is "mouse*" where * is a wildcard, so they get their mouse sequences well shuffled with data from mouse  mouse-ear cress, Tragulus javanicus (Lesser mouse deer),  Microcebus murinus (Gray Mouse Lemur), and Rhabdomys pumilio (Four-striped grass mouse).  How we larfed at the tyros before sending them off for the glass hammer.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Dorothy Parker

Dottie Parker was born 120 years ago on 22nd August.  In her own speak (it would be impertinent to add anything):

When asked to use the word "horticulture" during a game of Can-You-Give-Me-A-Sentence, Parker replied: You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.
If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.
If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised.
The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.
Katharine Hepburn delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.
One more drink and I'd have been under the host.
[On being told of Calvin Coolidge's death] How do they know?
You can't teach an old dogma new tricks.
Heterosexuality is not normal, it's just common.
I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.
The Monte Carlo casino refused to admit me until I was properly dressed so I went and found my stockings, and then came back and lost my shirt.
The only -ism Hollywood believes in is plagiarism.
And it is that word 'hummy,' my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up. Her "Constant Reader" review of A. A. Milne's book 

Mouth of the Ford of the Buttermilk

22 August 1922:  the day The Big Feller Michael Collins bought it.  He has achieved mythic status in all sections of Ireland except in Fianna Fail where they probably still disparage him as Lloyd George's Poodle or That Low Bowsie from Cork

If you find it incredible that people are still voting the way their (great) grandfathers fought in the civil war you'll be amazed at the work of  Kevin Byrne and Eoin O'Malley.  Kevin Byrne has featured in The Blob before as interesting-smart, so his political stuff makes good copy. Surnames have been used in Ireland for longer than almost anywhere else - alone in Europe they haven't been adopted even now in Iceland!  Surnames identify your tribe almost as well as having  "Sable on a fesse ermine between three cinquefoils argent two mullets of the field." on your shield. Byrne & O'Malley looked at the surnames of everyone who has been elected to the Irish Parliament and binned them according to their party political affiliations.  They found that their are statistically significant differences in name frequency in the two main political parties. That suggests that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are bickering now in the Dáil with words as their ancestors bludgeoned each other with battle-axes. More socio-genetico-politico research here.

[Note for my Russian readers: the Irish fought an internecine civil war at about the same time as Reds and Whites were slaughtering each other in your country. Collins had negotiated a treaty with British P.M. David Lloyd George that gained a measure of independence for part of Ireland. That was repugnant to some other republicans because they wanted Four Green Fields as well as the plough, moon and stars . . .  now]

"The Big Fellow" is resonant of the antient heroes of Ireland like Cú Chulainn and Finn MacCool about whom Flann O'Brien wrote "Finn Mac Cool was a legendary hero of old Ireland. Though not mentally robust, he was a man of superb physique and development. Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse's belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass".  Woot!  So it is great to hear from Frank O'Connor, who wrote a biography called The Big Fellow, that the name was originally applied with contemptuous irony because people thought Collins was too big for his boots.  This is a bit like almost every artistic school you can think of - Les Fauves, impressionists, cubism - whose members wore with pride and defiance the snitty label applied to them by bloodless self-regarding Parisian critics.

Meanwhile back in 1922, a convoy of vehicles in which Collins was traveling was ambushed and he was shot dead at the age of 31. Where? Béal na Bláth, Sorry, Where? Try Béal na mBláth, Béal na Blá, Bealnablath or Bealnabla - the Irish are notoriously lax in spelinge their place names even on official road signs which can be amusingly inconsistent.  Last week on The Blob it was unclear whether Kill was originally Cill/chapel or Coill/hazelwood.  Here it is a similar problem to ascertain whether the original toponym meant "Mouth of the Blossoms", "Mouth of the Ford of Buttermilk" or "Mouth of the Lawn".  Nobody is suggesting that it ever meant Town of the Blather.

No really, where was Michael Collins shot?
A. Here: in Glannarouge West
How cool is modern technology to deliver you, on Der Tag, to the very spot.  You can even see the grassy knoll where the ambush was laid.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Degassing Nyos

On 21st August 1986, 1700 people in a remote area of Cameroon woke up dead.  They lived close to a small body of water called Lake Nyos  The region is seismically active and Lake Nyos is set on the side of a volcano, indeed it looks like a caldera but is more precisely a maar.  It's only 160 ha in area, and on average 100m deep - Lake Baikal is 150,000x bigger by volume.  I'm prepping my environmental chemistry classes this week.  One of the the odd things that happens in lakes is stratification of the water.  The relationship between solar flux, temperature and water density can sometimes leave the bottom of Irish lakes dark and cold for a long time rather than the whole mass getting mixed up.  In Nyos and a nearby lake called Monoun, because they sit on volcanically active rock, carbon dioxide leaches into the water from the bottom and accumulates in the depths as carbonic acid.  In water, the pressure gets higher the lower you go and the more gas can be dissolved.   Because of stratification of the Nyos water column, this CO2 saturated water sat there until something caused the upper and lower levels to start mixing.  Heavy rainfall or a natural landslip are suspected.  It was like opening a 150 billion litre bottle of fizzy Ballygowan.  As the CO2-laden water was stirred up, the pressure dropped and the CO2 came out of solution as fizz.  This further stirred the water bringing more deep water out of its natural pressurised container and so on.  Nobody saw it but investigations afterwards suggest that the column of bubbly was 100m high above the lake. It generated a tsunami 25m high that stripped trees off one shore.  When the action subsided the lake was 1 meter lower and had turned bright red: iron rich sediments had been stirred up from the bottom and were oxidised over the succeeding days.  On dit que 300,000 tons of CO2 were released in one catastrophic whoomph.

Carbon dioxide gas is much less dense than water but 1.5x denser than air,  so doesn't disperse up into the atmosphere but hugs the ground. Everybode kno that 1 mole of gas fills 22lt.  The molecular weight of CO2 is 48 (call it 50).  So a kilo of the gas fills 400lt and a ton of gas fills 400,000lt.  You can do the intermediate calcs yourself (and check that I haven't dropped a bunch of zeroes - Wikipedia claims of gas escaped) but the investigators estimated that the wall of CO2 was 50m deep and traveled at 50km/h, so of ground was covered much higher than people's noses.  The nature of the terrain (narrow valleys steep sides) meant that the 1700 victims were concentrated in three radiating river valleys and as much as 25km distant from the lake!

It seems that Lake Nyos has only been there for about 400 years and the pumice wall of the maar is quietly eroding from the bottom, so it probably won't be there in 400 years time.  It might seem appropriate to leave the local people sitting on a time bomb - sub-Saharan Africans are beset by so many random horrors (genocide, famine, globalisation, malaria, loa-loa the eye-worm, trypanosomiasis) that one more may not be noticed.

But Michel Halbwachs and colleagues from Université de Savoie, in France came up with a cunning plan.  Why not sink a PVC pipe to near the base of the lake and float the top end on the surface?  If you do that and just start pumping water through the pipe then the gas-dense pressurised water will quickly reach a depth where the water will spontaneously fizz up and you can switch off the pump.  The system will continue to siphon so long as there is CO2 saturated water available.  Вы русских инженеров can have a geek at the technical details, but I'll just clip one picture of the life-saving geyser. Isn't science just so cool! It serves a more useful purpose than the Geneva jet d'eau which is just a raree show for tourists.  Furthermore, with 2 x 500kW pumps pushing water into the sky day and night, le jet costs the taxpayers of Geneva in the region of €800,000 a year.  That pretty much matches the cost of installing the 'appropriate technology' system in Nyos.  You do the geopolitical math!

Antidote to twitter

Not much room for a complex or extensive discourse in a tweet is there? Although I'll grant that there may be nuance in your 140 characters like there is in haiku.  The Blob's pageview stats indicate that virtually nobody follows up a link, so I suspect that many readers flit off to something more immediate before they get close to the end of my 500 words. It is after all about 20x longer than a tweet.  So one of my longer (800 words say?) posts must seem as daunting to twitterati as War and Peace (20,000 tweets) or all VI volumes of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (60,000 tweets) is to me. Nevertheless you can read such a post, which has often exhausted my interest and knowledge about whatever, in 4 minutes even reading aloud.

On 21 August 1858 the first of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was held in Ottawa, Illinois.  Abraham Lincoln (Republican; not yet President) and Stephen Douglas (Democrat), both candidates for a seat in the Senate, had agreed to a series of 7 debates in different congressional districts of Illinois.  The agreed format for each debate was that one candidate would speak for an hour, then the other man would hold forth for an hour and a half, finally ceding the floor to his opponent for a 30 minute wrap-up.  That's three hours of argument and rhetoric, passion and logic.  Much of the debate was taken up with the issue of slavery - this was just before the American Civil War - so you'd imagine that after 180 minutes (maybe 1500 tweets) they'd said everything that could be said by anyone on the matter.  You don't feel quite the same sense of finality after a US presidential debate in the present era when a red stop light comes on 2 minutes after anyone starts speaking.  No wonder candidates pay more attention to their tailors than to their speechwriters.  Sir/St. Thomas More wrote 500,000 words as a counterblast to William Tyndale's perceived heresies.  "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there" indeed! As Neil Postman said 30 years ago in "Amusing Ourselves to Death" - summary here - it's not when TV is full of idle fluff that we need to worry, it's rather when TV affects to be making a serious contribution.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Geography 201

Today we tie up a loose end about the ISS and offer an explanatory of map of why, after endless rounds of playing Isn't Uncle Bob Clever, Geoguessr starts to seem samey.  Check out the other 39 maps on the same page - bri'nt!  And there's a nice post about exclaves and enclaves in Nor'n Ire''n' on the StrangeMaps site - can you be a separate country because you're the last Catholic on a Protestant street?  Ulster .ne. N.I. etc. in the comments

ANNyway, a tuthree days ago I posed a guesstimation conundrum about the visibility of the International Space Station which you must have a geek at the end of this post before going below the fold to see the answer.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Vitamin Woowah

While half the population is horsing through the brightly coloured product range of Nabisco and Nestle's food chemists, the other half are horsing through a veritable pharmacopoeia of multi-vits, as if this avenue is "healthier".

A lot of what we believe to be true about the benefits (near universal, it seems) of vitamin C, (and by extension other vits) is due to relentless decades-long pushing by Professor Linus Pauling who won two Nobel prizes before he died on 19th August (today) 1994.  Pauling made really fundamental contributions to our understanding of biochemistry, particularly the structure of proteins (the alpha-helix was his idea).  He also discovered that a single genetic mutation in hemoglobin had physical, physiological and medical (sickle-cell anemia) consequences and so midwifed the birth of  molecular biology.  His classic mega-cited multi-edition book The Nature of the Chemical Bond was required reading for two generations of bio-scientists.  His second Nobel was for Peace because after WWII he became such an ardent peacenik that he had his passport seized for a while by the US State Department to prevent him talking to the Reds that were, in those McCarthy Era days, under every unamerican bed.

Later he became shining-eyed-sure that Vitamin C was not only a cure for the common cold and 'flu, but also for cancer.  To do this he had to abandon a life-time of scientific training to follow where the data led.  Unaccountably he preferred to lead from the front in a personal jihad against disease while vigorously waving a vitamin C flag and letting the data for its efficacy fall where it may.  Up until last month, I had been a desultory popper of vitamin C tablets on the premiss that the habit was at worst harmless even if the good it might do was marginal.  I used to tell people that the evidence showed that, if taken before the fact, sufficiently large doses of vitamin C would, on average, slightly reduce, by 3/4 of a day IIRC,  the length of your suffering with a cold.  Your nose would stream as much, your eyes would be as red and you'd feel as crappy as usual but not for so long.  I think now that if I had done a proper study of all the data from the very many carefully controlled investigations, even this marginal benefit would be suspect not to say wrong.

In July, a long and quite angry article in Atlantic Monthly - whence I get a good proportion of my long-form reading over the interweb - by Paul Offit explodes this cosy primum non nocere view.  Several carefully controlled studies have shown that people who take multivits are more likely to die from various forms of cancer - including prostate, lung and GI tract. Ooops! One of the problems with reporting science for ordinary folk is a strong tendency to talk up the new and exciting and fail to report the painstaking repeat studies that undermine or contradict the original finding especially if the original is written by a Nobelist. Even within science we have real problems with replication and reporting mundane negative results. 

Next month I'm going to start teaching Human Physiology again to The Institute's 1st Year students.  The pervasive theme in any such course has to be the concept of homeostasis - the observation that all our bodily functions are arranged about a set point and that complex, subtle and redundant mechanisms are in place to maintain them there: core body temperature at 37oC is the most obvious example.  Too much selenium or vitamin C or E is seemingly as bad a thing for the roundabouts as too little is for the swings, perhaps because they overwhelm the normal homeostatic mechanisms.

If, without an exhaustive study of the science behind the claims, you choose to believe that your diet in Ireland or Россия or the US is in some sense deficient and you therefore buy and consume vitamin supplements, you are a fool with too much money. I'll put it stronger than that: for every multivit you pop a small black child, who really is on the edge of nutritional insufficiency, dies [The math: $10 for 50 MV pills is 20c a day, while 1 billion people live on $1 a day or less].  Sorry folks, but science is hard. Tracking down and reconciling a couple of dozen contradictory, slightly different studies is a lot of work, so you may think that a long article by the highly qualified Professor Paul Offit will sufficiently inform you. It is very interesting and I urge you to take the half-hour it requires to read it.  But Offit is not above a rhetorical device or two to make his point.  After citing all the studies that showed how wrong Pauling was about the value of vitamins in dealing with prostate cancer, the final sentence of Offit's article is "In 1994, Linus Pauling died of prostate cancer." Duh! Pauling was 93 and a half when he died. From which I take, Professor, that those multivits worked treat for Linus Pauling keeping him going for more than two decades over his allotted three-score-and-ten.  I think I'll start a course now and forget about the black babies.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Oola Oval

I elicited an interesting response to yesterday's post about places names in Ireland, their origins and the bafflement of foreign tourists in dealing with the spelinge and pronunciation.  My pal Chris "Rissoles" Hayes from Wexford, who has appeared on The Blob before, shared some stories of robust rural humour meted out on Yanqui tourists trying to locate themselves in the warren of strangely-named medieval streets that is Wexford town.  He also told a tale (cue splutterings of barely suppressed laughter behind the back of gent generously filling a pair of plaid shorts and a bright green Guinness Hop-Store casual shirt) of a tourist totally lost between Tipperary and Limerick waving a map at a farmer and asking directions to Zero-Zero L.A.

Poor chap of course meant Oola Co Limerick, not to be confused with Oulart, Co Wexford which has its own store of interest.  As you do, I went immediately to Google maps to find the place, which I must have passed through a dozen times but of which I have no memory: I must have blinked.  Unless you live there or thereabouts, perhaps the most interesting thing about Oola is the strange oval field pattern to the East (
It's about 300m x 400m, 10 hectrares in size.  I had no idea what it is so I went to the Ordnance Survey (,583165,642225,6,3):
That view is a bit pale and although you can see the feature, there is no useful annotation on the current map, nor much more from the 25 inch second OSI series of the 1880s:
What's a "foot-stick"?  The ever-intrusive GoogleStreetview car has even been down the lane to within 100m of the Oval, but the hedge is so dense you can't see anything through it.

There must, I thought, surely be some mention at the National Monuments Service ( where sites are as dense across the country as currants in a cake.  But although there are a a good dozen interesting items identified near the village 
none of them coincide with the Oola Oval.  And neither does it match the two round hillocks (which may name the village) Oolahills West and Oolahills East which name two townlands just East.  I'm not sure whether to contact Chris Corlett of the Archaeological Service or check the ley-lines to see if the Oval's major axis points towards Roswell, New Mexico.  Come to think of it, the feature looks a little like an enormous rissole; maybe Oola is an antient colony of Wexford (Oulart!!) and the Oval represents what they fed their mighty god Yellowbelly the Hurler

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Old L33t Street

Okay, light relief today.  This is clearly a road-sign (km 6 is a clue), but if you saw it on Geoguessr would you know where it is?  Half my readers would knock the country off immediately, but мои друзья в России may well not recognise An Chill as an Irish placename.  The former group would nevertheless probably be hard put to zero in on the particular Kill from which this sign is 6km distant.  This is because Kill is a very common Irish toponym.  It is often impossible to discern (lost in the mists of time) whether Kill is named for a local (hazel) wood coill or a local church cill (same as [monastic] cell).  I specify hazel (Corylus) wood, because if the predominant species is oak (Quercus) then the Irish call it doire, which becomes Derry, Terryglass, Edenderry etc.
We can knock off the county if we pull back the view focus to:
There's only one Bunmahon - at the "base/stump/bottom/Bun" of the river Mahon, so this places "our" Kill in Co Waterford.  It's interesting how Irish sees a river as something growing from a base at the sea like a tree, whereas English sees the flow rather than the structure and its rivers have mouths.  The fractal nature and structural similarity of both trees against a winter sky and rivers on an Ordnance Survey map is similar, no?

But we haven't parsed the whole sign yet.  Before about 20 years ago there were effectively no road numbers.  There would be The Old Bog Road, The New Line, lots of places had a Dublin Road pointing towards the capital, local roads would be, as here, the Kill Road or the Bunmahon Road.  The main artery West of Dublin serving Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and all points between and beyond was universally known as The Naas Road after the first town encountered about 30km out of the City.  This caused all sorts of comical problems back in the day trying to direct foreign tourists.  They weren't even sure how to pronounce the 'aa': sensibly but incorrectly trying 'Narse' rather than 'Nayce'.  A concerted effort by the Tourist Board and the National Roads Authority has got all but the oldest and most contrary to call the road the N7.  After they'd got the N roads solid in a majority of heads, they started to identify the network of inter-connectors with R (R for Regional rather than Rural, I think) numbers, like the R702 near us.  Then about 6 or 7 years ago, the smaller roads started to acquire numbers with L (Link? Local?) like the L4015 here discussed.  This makes life, particularly direction-giving much easier, "turn left at the L4015" is more reliable than "turn left at the widow's bar" or "take the fourth left after Kilmeadan".  Although the whole NRA naming-of-parts exercise is something of a chimera, because 3 km from 'our' sign, there is a fork in the road with no signs at all at all.

I think that the L numbers are totally arbitrary which is a missed opportunity because if identified hierarchically like in Britain, where the A19 and A14 branch off the A1 and all roads beginning 7,8 or 9 are in Scotland, it would help travellers to locate themselves.  But if they are arbitrary there's a huge & geeky l33t-speaky missed opportunity not to have L4015 pointing towards Laois (LAOIS geddit?).  Dang!

Friday, 16 August 2013


On this day in 1982 the then Attorney General (the chief law officer of the country and adviser to the government on all legal matters), Patrick Connelly, resigned.  Falling on your metaphorical sword is much less common in Irish political circles than, say, in Britain. I'm not sure if it's a devil-may-care-but-I-don't tolerance here or a limpet-like adherence to the trappings and salary of power.  Twenty years ago, for example, a Minister of State was found cruising through a sea of male prostitutes in the Phoenix Park and he maintained his position, and indeed is still a TD now.  That's fine with me but I was surprised it was tolerated by his government colleagues as it's not the sort of action that's guaranteed to secure a landslide of votes at the next election.

Ten years earlier in late July 1982, and not a mile from The Cruising, a young woman was bludgeoned to death so that an unhinged idler called Malcolm MacArthur could have the exclusive use of her car. He needed wheels so that he could go out and buy a gun down the country.  He needed the gun so that he could rob a few banks to restore his depleted funds.  Having a dead body in the back of the car made it too difficult to drive in broad daylight to Edenderry that afternoon, so it wasn't until three days later that MacArthur went out to purchase the gun that had been advertised for sale.  MacArthur's first action with his new acquisition was to shoot the vendor and steal his car to return to Dublin.  This was grist to the tabloid mill and the police eventually ran the murderer down . . . in the home of the Attorney General.  The irony was too great to allow AG Patrick Connelly to survive in government.  The Taoiseach of day Charles Haughey spluttered about "a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance."  As if the louche acquaintances of his legal adviser were tolerably odd rather than exposing a systemic something rotten in the state of Dublin.  Conor Cruise O'Brien, journalist and opposition insider, abstracted the adjectives from Haughey's statement and clagged them into the acronym GUBU which has become rather a cliche over succeeding years.

Ten years after this first of many GUBU events, Haughey was back in power as Taoiseach and I was getting to know a new friend from Madrid.  Jose-Maria "Pepe" Malpica was visiting TCD on a year's sabbatical from his Institute in Spain.  Over coffee one morning I was explaining to Pepe just how corrupt the country was. The latest of gubu shenanigan might have been that the Taoiseach was having his shirts tailored by Charvet in Paris and getting them delivered by diplomatic bag - I forget.  Pepe pulled himself up and patriotically asserted "You call that corruption?  That's small potatoes my friend.  If you want true corruption you must come to Spain, we do things bigger there".  Pepe died a few years ago, I miss him.

Al Harouns

The book starts:
Some of the evil in my tale might have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us, and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds. A purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.

How could you not want to read on . . .

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Dark dark clouds, silver lining

[Today is the 15th anniversary of the Omagh bombing, the bloodiest (28 dead, 200+ injured) event of the Irish Troubles]
The Boy was born in early December 1975 and came home to a garden flat looking out to sea in Dun Laoghaire - poor students could rent such places back then.  We were wrapped up in ourselves as The Boy was wrapped up in a cosy warm blanket. But in the cold black heart of 'bandit country' of South Armagh is was a bloody awful month of reciprocal atrocity which paused only after the Kingsmill Massacre on 5th January 1976.  On that evening a minibus returning textile workers (both protestant and catholic) to their homes was stopped, the only remaining catholic on the bus was identified and told to leg it.  The other 11 occupants were then gunned down -  miraculously, one of them survived.

In the dark humour of the day, this shocking incident was transmogrified into a joke:  Gunmen stop a chap in the dark and ask what is his religion.  Unsure which side his interrogators are from - one balaclava looks much like another - and thinking quickly, he replies "I'm an atheist".  To which the answer is "Sure, would that be a protestant atheist or a catholic atheist".

Twenty years later, after 'bring up baby' in three countries on two continents we returned home.  The Beloved had work in domestic energy efficiency and fuel poverty which she brought from her last job in England.  Part of this involved running training courses in Northern Ireland and her local contact had a rather interesting background.  His grandfather had been a Jewish glazier from central Europe who had survived the holocaust and in the late 1940s made his living wandering through the rubble restoring the stained glass windows of some of the hundreds of bomb-damaged churches.  A combination of accidents and opportunity and a growing family brought him to Belfast in the late 1950s.

The Europa Hotel in downtown Belfast was completed in 1971 at the height of the troubles.  It was where all the journalists used to hang out plagiarising each other's stories and became the 'most-bombed hotel in Europe'. Surviving and trading through 28 damaging attacks during the troubles, they only closed after the Provos put a really big bomb outside in 1993.  And who got many of the contracts to repair the glazing? The conspicuously neutral company set up by the little feller from Central Europe.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Identical twins separated by time

I wrote a couple of months ago about the, to me, uncanny resemblance between T.H. Morgan, pioneer American geneticist, and D.H. Lawrence, game-changing English author.  It's not just the identical middle initial:
Dang!  I can't remember which is which now.  This is a game that has been played out in where you can see Tilda Swinton-Bowie and Hugh Wilde-Grant from the Arts Block, along with a gallery of other pairs.  Mais revenons-nous a nos savamts:
It's not just the open-neck shirt and that the ould hair has slipped from the top to the bottom of the head, is it? But they are not identical twins separated at birth.  Left was born 14 Oct 46 and Right was born 03 Sep 29.  Since 1994 Left has been been making the running in Big Science (e.g. 1994c PMID 7920649) while Right has been on the run.
Mouse over to reveal: Left J Craig Venter | Right  JJ Whitey Bulger.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Perseids ISS Telstar

One of the benefits of living in the boondocks is the minimisation of artificial light, so we're well placed for star-gazing.  The pretensions of the Celtic Tiger still linger in the desire to floodlight your dwelling to show how big it is and our neighbour across the valley has unfortunately signed up to this sect.  Nevertheless it's waaaay better than Dublin, let alone Los Angeles or London.  So last night I went up behind the house about 11 o'clock and lay out on the grass to watch the Perseids meteor shower.  It's not as exciting as Grand Theft Auto but it's worth doing because it's a natural wonder and rather wonderful for that.

So I was trying not to fall asleep - it was way past my bedtime and 'events' were only coming in every 2-3 minutes - when I saw a very bright light flickering through the trees as it lumbered in from the West. There's a LOT of crap endlessly circling our Earth and if you look up for longer than the time it takes to tweet about it you'll see that the night sky is busy. But the International Space Station is by far the biggest and brightest, and a check later with the Astronomy Ireland website said that the ISS had passed across Ireland at 2303hrs.  It was almost as exciting as 8-year-old me seeing Telstar bippling across the sky in the freezing winter of 1962/3 when there were so few artificial satellites that their appearance was listed in the newspaper under the weather report.  Cue The Tornadoes.

Puzzle time: 
the Earth is 8000km in diameter 
the ISS orbits 400km above the surface
you have an unobstructed horizon and no clouds
the cosmonauts are clipping along at 7.7km/s (that's just under 30,000km/h)
How long will the ISS be visible as it passes overhead?
Answers on a postcard!  Answers added 20/Aug/13 below the fold: