Royal Society Winton Book Prize

18/11/2011

Uncategorized

In Praise of Idleness

That was the title of a famous essay by Bertrand Russell. Being myself a lifelong victim of the protestant work ethic, I was impressed at the Royal Society last night when the prize for science books 2011, now sponsored by Winton Capital Management, went to Gavin Pretor-Pinney for The Wavewatcher’s Companion (Bloomsbury).

 

Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Although the book has a beach chair with sea waves on its cover (an icon of idleness) it covers waves of every kind you’d think of, and some you wouldn’t. Given the chance to read a passage from his book during the ceremonies, Pretor-Pinney chose the intricate waves of hungry amoebae. They assemble to make a slug-like object and then build a tower from which they send spores to look for happier hunting grounds.

Salutary point (1) This is only the second book that Pretor-Pinney has written. The previous one was The Cloudspotter’s Guide, which of course I have because of my interest in the Svensmark cloud-seeding connection.

Salutary point (2): Pretor-Pinney was a founder of The Idler magazine. http://idler.co.uk/

Perhaps my only claim to fruitful idleness is that a literary by-product of my family cruising under sail, The English Channel, won the Best Book of the Sea award at the London Boat Show.

Small world note: Gavin Pretor-Pinney also took part in the BBC-TV programme “The Secret Life of Waves”, which was made by David Malone, son of Adrian Malone who produced one of my BBC blockbusters “The Life Game” (1973). That programme took its title, and an important sequence, from a table game with nucleic acids played by biophysicists in Goettingen led by Manfred Eigen. Now Eigen has written the most interesting upcoming book that I know about just now. Due out soon from Oxford UP, it’s called From Strange Simplicity to Complex Familiarity. Oxford asked me for an endorsement and here’s what I’ve offered them.

What a splendid antidote to the swagger of physicists and biologists who think they already understand the living universe! Manfred Eigen pulls back the carpet like a careful housekeeper and brings to light mind-wrenching questions that most scientists brush out of sight. His search for the physical roots of the logic of life is not an easy path to follow, but Eigen helps us all he can with his polymathic skill and lucid style.

I fear it may be too mind-wrenching for the general readers targeted by the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.


Sorting out the Svensmarks Junior

03/06/2011

Uncategorized

Jacob, Joachim and Julius

A key paper on the effect of solar eruptions on atmospheric aerosols and clouds, published in 2009, is referenced as H. Svensmark, T. Bondo and J. Svensmark, Geophys. Res. Lett., Vol. 36, L15101, 2009. See last year’s blog post here http://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/do-clouds-disappear/

Jacob Svensmark

H is for Henrik, T is for Torsten, and J is for Jacob. It’s not hard to work out that Jacob Svensmark is Henrik’s son. He’s reading physics at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). During the past few years Jacob has helped his father with complex computations of the behaviour of cosmic rays in the heliosphere, and he also took part in the CLOUD Prototype experiment at CERN in 2006. Busy stuff, on top of his own university studies.

But the names of Henrik’s other sons also begin with J, so casual googling could mix them up. While Henrik and Jacob are both polymaths in science, the Svensmark talents head in quite different directions with Joachim and Julius.

Joachim Svensmark

Joachim is a remarkable guitarist, and you can see and hear him here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAyGf9Z3myc I’m pleased to report that his instrument is a Fender that Henrik bought for Joachim during a visit for scientific chats in my home town of Crawley, England. Henrik modified the guitar with different pickups and a preamplifier in the body.

It has a sound Joachim likes,” Henrik assured me. “His way of playing requires very strong string bending and he wears the frets down very fast. Using thin strings is not an option since he thinks it gives a thin sound.” Here’s more music from Joachim http://www.myspace.com/joachimsv but the word is that, after plenty of very popular gigs, he is resuming his high-school studies in earnest.

Not to be outdone, as the youngest of these junior Svensmarks, Julius follows a sporting route and plays in Denmark’s Under-21 Volleyball Team. They beat Romania last month, which was something of a sensation.

Julius Svensmark is No. 14 in the Under-21 Team


Whoosh — not missing just busy

23/10/2010

I’m all too aware of the sluggish rate of new posts recently. That’s because of other fascinating and urgent work that I hope you’ll all hear about before too long.

Douglas Adams famously said,  “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Perhaps I take them too seriously, but it’s a fault that’s done no harm in my work.

Can I suggest to my very welcome visitors that they might like to browse  through the 90-plus existing posts, under Categories?


Worse than Ivan the Terrible

06/09/2010

Predictions Revisited

Worse than Ivan the Terrible

The “balance of error” for a missile boat’s captain

Prompting this post is a recent report that Russian Akula-class hunter-killer submarines are stalking British Vanguard-class submarines carrying Trident nuclear missiles. It’s the sort of thing that happened routinely during the Cold War. Thomas Harding, defence editor of the Daily Telegraph, quotes a senior Royal Navy source as saying: “The Russians have been playing games with us, the Americans and French in the North Atlantic. We have put a lot of resources into protecting Trident because we cannot afford by any stretch to let the Russians learn the acoustic profile of one of our bombers as that would compromise the deterrent.”

Bombers, by the way, is Navy slang for missile-carrying boats.

The special problems of controlling them figured in one of the predictions of possible routes to nuclear war explored in 1979 by Peter Batty and me in our BBC-TV programme “Nuclear Nightmares”.

In the accompanying book of the same title I wrote:

… the submarine as the weapon of the last resort remains an important concept and an awkward problem in command and control because, by definition, the submarine ought logically to be able to launch its missiles without receipt of explicit orders.

Read the rest of this entry »


Guided hurricanes

17/08/2010

Predictions revisited and Climate Change: News and Comments

Guided hurricanes

When speculating four decades ago about the military uses of geophysics, Gordon J.F. MacDonald of UCLA contemplated the triggering of earthquakes or tsunamis, or melting polar ice with nuclear weapons. And he didn’t overlook the idea of steering hurricanes to ravage the enemy’s coasts. Reminding me of that prediction is a report now in press in Geophysical Research Letters, about how natural variations in the colour of the sea help to guide cyclones in the Pacific. A cyclone, remember, is a loosely used generic term that includes the major storms called hurricanes (Atlantic), typhoons (Pacific) or tropical cyclones (Indian Ocean and Australia).

Contributing to Unless Peace Comes, (1968), in a chapter entitled “How to Wreck the Environment”, MacDonald wrote:

… preliminary experiments have been carried out on the seeding of hurricanes. The dynamics of hurricanes and the mechanism by which energy is transferred from the ocean into the atmosphere supporting the hurricane are poorly understood. Yet various schemes for both dissipation and steering can be imagined. Although hurricanes originate in tropical regions, they can travel into temperate latitudes, as the residents of New England know only too well. A controlled hurricane could be used as a weapon to terrorize opponents over substantial parts of the populated world.

Read the rest of this entry »


Identified flying objects

25/05/2010

Uncategorized – or declassified, you could say

Identified flying objects

It’s always worth keeping an eye on the sky. Not just because a mass ejection from the Sun is heading vaguely our way and there may be nice auroras this week. You could also spot a secret spaceflight, except that the one I have in mind is hardly secret any more.

On 22 April the US Air Force launched an unmanned mini-shuttle, X-37B, from Cape Canaveral on an undisclosed mission. For photo-reconnaissance, you might guess. Four weeks later, amateurs Greg Roberts in South Africa and Kevin Fetter in Canada saw it. On the following night another Canadian, Ted Molczan, found it again, having computed its orbit from the earlier sightings. In the past few days (sorry, all you Pentagon folk) X-37B has been anyone’s game. Today, 25 May, spaceweather.com publishes this picture of its photographic trail as it cruised across the sky, taken by Gary O. in Texas.

Trail of the mini-shuttle X-37B, 2010. Photo by Gary O.

Meanwhile, on 22 May, Thierry Legault in Switzerland got a remarkable shot of the International Space Station passing directly in front of the Sun, with the Space Shuttle Atlantis docked to it – again reported by spaceweather.com

Transit of the ISS front of the Sun, 2010, with Atlantis docked centre-left. Photo by Thierry Legault.

Congratulations, Thierry. To me, this is one of the finest images of the Space Age — and I’ve seen all the pretty ones since 1957.


The Register approves

08/05/2010

Noticing the Internet 64 story posted on Calder’s Updates a couple of days ago, The Register (online IT newspaper) has an article by Andrew Orlowski http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/05/07/nigel_calder_internet_1965/

It closes with the kind remark:

“The blog is only a week old, but already looks like a splendid editor’s scrapbook, a place to while away some time.”

Thanks, Andrew

Nigel Calder




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