Friday, 20 October 2017

It's all about me (Trump and his ilk)

A few year back I did some work for a company in South Africa. The boss was British, an ex military man and cast from the same psychological mould as Donald Trump. 

Despite working in an industry where he was surrounded by well qualified graduates, he himself got by with three fake degrees purchased from the fictional Middleham University (Leeds). Of course, I'd spotted the forgeries because I know that Middleham is a small market town in North Yorkshire with a fine tradition of training race horses, a wonderful old castle but nothing at all corresponding to a University. 

But by talking to him you could tell that he wasn't at all embarrassed by his relative lack of formal education and that he regarded the rest of us as fools for not working out that it was just the piece of paper that mattered and why waste potential money making time studying when you could just buy one off the shelf. In Trumpian terms he was the winner and we, by definition, were losers.

Like Trump, his only interest in other people was in what they could do for him and, like Trump, there was a huge turnover of workers as people worked out what was going on and fell from favour. Like Trump, he covered up his lack of real knowledge with anecdotal bluster. If anyone had ever tried to get him to explain the concept of energy, or distinguish a kW from a kWh, I've no doubt that he would have done what he always did and gone off an extended personal anecdote. An anecdote designed not only to cover up his lack of real knowledge, and take up the time where this lack might be exposed, but also to big up his own prior "achievements". 

At one stage a glossy brochure was produced to promote the company. A full page spread showed a picture of him with the quote "Doing nothing is not an option" he couldn't help but put his own name to it. Just like Donald Trump he had an obsession with self promotion.

So, when Donald Trump says "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated" it's because he couldn't bring himself to say "I never knew health care was so complicated". To do so would have admitted his own ignorance. When he tells the family of a dead American soldier that "He knew what he was getting into" it's the Donald's way of reminding himself, and the rest of us, that he was too smart to get drafted.

Finally, like Trump, he was a sexual predator. Indeed, when I did expose him to the relevant authorities (in his case the UNFCCC), the thing that made me jump rather sooner than I probably should have done were the tales told to me, in confidence, about how he'd harassed women in the company.

This is an account of our last days working together. He still owns the company but it's now base in India not South Africa. 

Cartoon with thanks to Steve Bell (The Guardian 20/10/2017)

Monday, 9 October 2017

Bicycles and the Cinder Track (it's a matter of scale)

Short version

Getting someone out of a car and onto a bicycle is good for their health and good for everyone's environment. 

The Cinder Track connects places 3, 5, 15 miles apart. A bit long for a walk but fine on a bicycle. 

The biggest reasons people in the UK don't ride bicycles are fear of traffic and worries about hills. The Cinder Track is traffic free and only goes up when it has to. 

So, should we make the Cinder Track wide enough for a person on a bike to go past two people walking side by side? 

Should we make it smooth enough for buggies, wheelchairs and the fragile wrists of the elderly.? 

Yes and yes....

Friends of the Old Railway

Long version ?

I'll do one if anyone asks. 

Alternatively, you could search on "cycling, physical activity, health" or on "cycling, active transport, pollution" and write something yourself. 

+ While no sensible plan to encourage cycling in Scarborough would leave the Cinder Track as it is, what else would need to happen to get more people on bikes?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Comrades in ink

In May of this year my father was taken seriously ill and given hours or days, not weeks, to live. After 10 days at his bedside, with all of us getting used to the idea that any breath might be his last, he began to recover. It seems that sometimes, when you stop all of someone's existing medication and just give them pain relief, their body can just get on with getting better. The word a palliative care doctor used was poly-pharmacy ....

By the middle of June he was well enough to be discharged into a care home. Stuck down the end of a blind corridor in a rambling old building this clearly wasn't the best place for him to be, but it was close enough to home for my elderly mother to be able to get in to see him.

Looking around for alternatives we found two other homes that looked much better and that would be able to cope when, as we knew it would, his condition deteriorated. The first was an expensive, purpose built home on the edge of town. We got most of the way through an application and were just waiting for the company that ran it to have a board meeting where they'd decide if we had enough money to admit him. I suspected that we didn't, but the *******s didn't even give me the pleasure of listening to them explain that we weren't rich enough; they just kept it to themselves and never got back.

Meanwhile, we'd also applied to Lister House in Ripon. Run by the British Legion, entry is restricted to people who've served in the British military or their families. Now my father was hardly what you'd call a military man but he did do his National Service after the Second World War, was therefore eligible and, once we'd got over a few bureaucratic hurdles, was admitted to their nursing wing at the start of August. 

None of us can think of anywhere better for him to have been. The care was exemplary and extended to us, his family, as well. All in all, a dignified place to spend the last days of your life.

Shortly after he was admitted I was approached by the editor of his local parish magazine and asked if I could provide a few words to go with an article in the next edition. There's an awful lot that could be said about his life but I simply wrote a few words about his brief military experience .....

"After a period of severe illness Roy Sharp, a long term resident of Galphay, has just been admitted to Lister House in Ripon (a nursing and retirement home for ex-military personnel and their families). Not a natural military man, Roy probably wasn't to be trusted with a gun, for his own safety as much as others, but even then he had a handy way with words and found himself part of a Public Relations team in post-war Germany."

Roy Sharp, on the left, and his comrades in ink in post war Berlin

He finally died in the early hours of the 1st of September and I have to admit that my main feeling was one of relief. For four months he'd made it very clear that he didn't want to be here, was annoyed that they couldn't just give him a pill to take his life away, and was frustrated that the words no longer came to him as once they had. Besides, he'd got to "two fat ladies" (88) and that was as old as anyone else in his immediate family including his mother, a keen bingo player.

Postscript. Although he'd had humble beginnings, living with his entire family in a one roomed basement flat in West London, he was evacuated as a child to the West Country. For a few years he stayed with a wealthy family where he learnt the important lesson, in class ridden England, that just because you were posh didn't mean you were clever. After those few years he was joined by the rest of his family when his father's engineering firm was also evacuated from London down to Bridgwater in Somerset. There he attended the local School of Navigation but left at 14 to work in a local printing works (it turns out that his father took him out of school because he feared that at 16 he'd be conscripted into the Navy) Well spoken, having learnt from the posh folk, he was initially considered for officer training. However, in one exercise they were obliged to stab a straw dummy with a bayonet whilst shouting "we will kill all enemy, we will take no prisoners". At which request he turned to the commanding officer and said "But surely that's against the Geneva Convention Sir"  You can guess the rest...

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Cinder Track June 2017

Two community groups look after the interests of the old railway line between Scarborough and Whitby (The Cinder Track). A group based in Whitby (Gateway) covers the track from Whitby to Ravenscar and The Friends of the Old Railway, which I chair, the stretch from Ravenscar down into Scarborough.  Tied up in family affairs I hadn't been able to make it up the Track for a couple of months but I did manage to get out yesterday and here's a brief report on what I found.

In early summer the vegetation alongside the Track can begin to get out of control and is beginning to get to the state where unless it's cut back soon the Track runs the risk of becoming impassable. 

At Barrowcliff fields, nettles around the lamp post, 
and vegetation growing through the fence, makes 
it hard to stick to the Track

Further north, the effective width in some places is now less than 1m.

Near Burniston, nettles and cow parsley 
threaten to overwhelm the Track

But, even though the verges all the way up to the Grange Farm crossing (about 1 mile south of Ravenscar) are in desperate need of cutting there have been some other improvements.

There was a section of Track just to the south of the bridge that leads to Cober Hill in Cloughton where the removal of surface cinders had left behind an extremely bumpy field of boulders. As part of the work to deal with a drainage issue further north these have now been successfully buried beneath a covering of road planings. Many thanks....

Road planings covering the boulder field near Cober Hill

Water used to run onto the track from the field entrance to the right.
The puddles have been filled, and the surface graded, so that excess water will run off.

Earlier in the year the Track had quite a few areas of standing water. These have now dried up and its interesting to note how well the cinder surface self heals, any hollows fill themselves in, and is back to being a smooth comfortable surface to ride on.

Of course, the major issues still remain. Not least, the extremely bumpy and narrow surface where the Track actually gets most use in the urban section in Scarborough.

Monday, 5 June 2017

ATE (What is CRISPR and how does it work?)

F asks "What is CRISPR and how does it work?"

CRISPR is not to be confused with KRISPA which, it turns out, is a highly classified, well it would be, project to take alien technologies and adapt them for civilian use. This project clearly raises many questions, the first of which is "is it nonsense or is it nonsense?"

Viruses have plenty of DNA but don't have the cellular mechanisms needed to reproduce them. Their trick is to get to get a host cell to do it for them. This host cell could be one of yours or mine, or even just a one celled organism such as a bacteria. 

It turns out that many bacteria have a trick up their sleeves for dealing with invading viral DNA. Their own DNA contains a list of the bits of viral DNA that they, or their ancestors, have encountered in the past. To keep things nice and tidy these viral DNA sequences are separated by what we might think of as DNA bookmarks. These take the form of short repeated sections of DNA letters (C, G, A or T) that read the same way backwards as forwards (i.e are palindromes like civic, kayak or racecar). So these sequences are Clustered together in a particular bacterial genome, they're Regularly Inter-spaced, they're Short, they're Palindromic and they Repeat. Hence CRISPR.

To make use of this library of viral DNA the bacteria produces a protein known as CAS9. This protein makes an RNA copy of the viral DNA sequence between the CRISPR genes and then wanders off into the cell. Should it happen to encounter a bit of viral DNA with this same sequence it attaches itself to it and disables it by snipping it in two.

When the viral DNA is snipped in two, it will attempt to repair itself but isn't likely to get it absolutely right and most of the time it's disabled and unable to carry out its dastardly deeds.

Having uncovered all this, some scientists wondered if we might be able to use this mechanism not against viral DNA but to precisely disable particular gene sequences inside other living cells. All you'd need to do is make a sample string of DNA letters matching the gene you want to target and attach CRISPR genes to each end so that the Cas9 enzyme recognises it as a gene sequence to copy. Release this combination into a cell and it will find the targeted sequence, snip it in two and disable it.

Since we now have the technology not only to rapidly sequence DNA, but also to manufacture DNA strands of any sequence we choose, this means that we can use CRISPR to selectively disable what might, for example, be a faulty gene.

Which just leaves one final trick. DNA is good at attempting to repair itself when it's been broken. Like many builders it will tend to make use of the materials at hand. Supply it with a good copy of the gene that you've snipped and there's a good chance that the good copy will be inserted in its place and the cell's DNA will have been repaired.

ATE (How does the Hydrogen bomb work?)

This is the third in a series of answers to questions put to me by students at a local secondary school. The sheet of paper they gave me was titled "Ask the Expert", but I don't really feel like "an expert" let alone "the expert" so I've changed the post title to ATE.

J asks "How does a hydrogen bomb work?"

Given the serious resources needed to put any of what follows into practice, I'm confident that J, or anyone else who reads this, will not be in any better position to actually make a bomb than they were before.

Look at an atom and you'll find that it has a very dense positively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. If the nucleus was the size of a tennis ball then the atom as a whole would be about 10km across. 

The nucleus is made from positively charged protons and, as their name suggests, neutrally charged neutrons. Since like charges repel, and the closer you put them the harder they repel, there must be an even stronger force (helpfully known as the strong nuclear force) that stops the protons in the nucleus simply blasting the whole thing apart. This is the reason why there's a limit to how many protons a nucleus can contain and explains why bigger stable nuclei tend to have a larger proportion of neutrons (they provide extra glue to hold it all together).

You may recall the most famous equation in physics (E = mc2). This is a consequence of Einstein's special theory of relativity and quantifies the fact that mass and energy are interchangeable. Measure the mass of all the fuel and air that goes into a coal fired power station and compare this with the mass of all the ash and flue gases that come out and you'll find that a little bit less comes out than goes in. Put this mass into the famous equation and you'll get the total energy (heat and electricity) that the power station produced.*

If you compare the mass of a nucleus with the masses of its component parts (i.e. all the protons and neutrons) you find that the nucleus weighs less than the sum of its parts. If you wanted to pull the nucleus apart you'd have to supply this missing mass (energy) and so it represents what's called the binding energy of the nucleus. If you look at a whole load of different nuclei and divide the total binding energy of each by the number of nucleons (the collective term for protons and neutrons) you get the binding energy per nucleon.

Plot a graph of this binding energy per nucleon against the size of the nucleus and you get an interesting curve.

The nuclei of light atoms such as Hydrogen and Helium are on the left and of large atoms like Uranium are on the right. You'll notice that if you were to stick two light nuclei together to make a bigger one then the binding energy per nucleon would increase. This happens all the way up to Iron (Fe). Similarly, if you could persuade a really big nucleus to split into two or more parts then the binding energy per nucleon would also increase. The first process, putting two nuclei together, is known as fusion. The second, when a big nucleus falls apart, is know as fission. 

In a conventional hydro electric power station, falling water turns a turbine and produces power. The water ends up closer, more tightly bound, to the earth than it was at the start. So, increasing the water's binding energy releases energy that's used by the turbine. Similarly if two light nuclei fuse, or a heavy nucleus splits, then energy is released. Lots of it.

The first nuclear bombs were purely fission devices. It turns out that there are particular isotopes of Uranium and Plutonium that are largely stable until hit by a neutron, at which point they fall apart. This not only releases tremendous amounts of energy but also spits out a few more spare neutrons. If one of these should hit another nucleus then that too will split and, if there's enough material (a critical mass) and its in the right shape, you can get an explosive chain reaction. 

Choose the right nuclei, and fission is relatively easy. Find ways to control the reaction so it doesn't get out of hand and you can have a nuclear power station. Fusion is much more difficult for the simple reason that to get two nuclei to fuse you've got to get them very close together and, because they're both positively charged, they really don't like this. But, it can be done provided that they're moving fast enough to overcome the repulsive electrical force. 

Now you can speed up a nucleus in two ways. One at a time in a particle accelerator, or a whole bunch of them by simply raising the temperature. Deuterium is an isotope of Hydrogen which contains a proton and a neutron rather than just a proton. To get two Deuterium nuclei to fuse takes a temperature of around 100 million degrees. The interior of the Sun is as hot as this, and its enormous gravity stops everything flying apart, but these conditions are much harder to achieve on Earth.

But, there is one place where we can get temperatures and pressures high enough to initiate a fusion reaction and that's inside a conventional fission powered nuclear bomb. So a Hydrogen bomb is simply a fission device with the right isotopes of Hydrogen carefully packed around it in such a way that, when the fission bomb goes off, they hang around long enough to start fusing into Helium.

*A 1GW station produces 1 x 109 J of electrical energy per second. It's about 40% efficient so this is about 40% of the total energy produced. Hence the total energy = 1 x 10 9 / 0.4 = 2.5 x 109 J. In a year this adds up to a total of 1.3 x 1015 J. The speed of light c = 3 x 108 m/s so putting this much energy into the equation E = mc2 gives a mass of 0.015kg (about 6 ounces). Just think of all the coal trains going in, and all the gases coming out, and I think you'll agree this might be quite difficult to measure.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Ask the expert (The end of the world)

G writes to ask "How might the world end?" 

Here's a top of the head response.

If G means the world as G knows it, then this will probably be in the next 80 years. G can change the odds on how it will end by becoming a couch potato, eating a fast food diet and taking up smoking. For an accidental death try Everest.

If G means the Earth, then perhaps what's more important is not when it ends, but when it stops being habitable. 

Astronomers study stars by the light they give out. From measurements of a star's brightness, from the detailed spectrum of the light it emits and from how it seems to wobble around other stars nearby, you can work out it's mass, it's temperature, whether it's coming towards you or going away, how far away it is, what sorts of atoms there are in its outer atmosphere ... In particular, if you know how far away a star is you can say how long ago light must have left it and therefore how old it must have been (relative to the age of the Universe) when that light was given out. Knowing all these things means that we know a lot about different star types and their typical life cycles.

We know that big stars are brighter, hotter and have relatively short lives and that small stars are dimmer, cooler and live much longer. We also know that our star, the Sun, is a typical middle sized sort of star. It simply isn't big enough to explode in a Super Nova, or end it's life as a black hole or a neutron star. Instead, as it fuses it's nuclear fuel into heavier elements (in colloquial terms "burns up"), the pressure from the reactions inside will build up and it will swell. As it swells the surface will cool slightly and become redder. The Sun will be what's known as a Red Giant. After this phase it will spend a long time as a spinning cinder of hot rock known as a White Dwarf.

Astrophysicists think that in about 3 billion years the Sun will have expanded so much that it will completely smother Mercury and Venus and reach out almost as far as the Earth. Even though the Sun will be cooler, it will be so much closer, and cover so much of the sky, that all of the earth's water will evaporate and the conditions for life will cease to exist.

If G means the Universe, then the answer depends on whether of not it keeps expanding. 

If it does, then eventually all of the stars, and the stars formed from the remnants of other stars, will have run out of fuel and will slowly cool down as they radiate their remaining heat energy into space. Meanwhile, if space keeps on expanding we'd begin to notice not only the space between galaxies expanding, as we do now, but also that between the atoms in molecules and even the particles within the atoms. Everything will be smeared out into an ever thinner smudge.

If it doesn't, and the Universe collapses back in on itself, it won't so much end as reset. A "new" Universe will bounce back out with no memory of the one we're in now. 

This might take some time.

There'll still be rocks with Lichen when we're long gone