Posted 30 January 2014
I have had a very exciting time for the past several months.
My youngest daughter, Susie, has been making fantastic progress with her music career.
Two of her new songs have just been show cased on the Oxford Mail's website
We are off to Nashville in two week's time for a look around. Who knows? She may even come back with a recording deal!
She'll be be blogging about her trip on her website
Posted 28 September 2013
Rumours that I have been abducted by aliens, as Mark Twain might have said, are greatly exaggerated.
That said, I have been a bit quiet blog-wise the last few months. The reason is that I have working on my biography of Sir Nick Shackleton, THE ISOTOPE MAN, as well as putting the finishing touches to my novel DARK SITE.
In the meantime I had fab time at the HTLGI festival at Hay at the beginning of the summer. So many young, excited and engaged people to talk to. I also made several new friends including the wonderful, thoughtful, intellectual Nayef Al-Rodhan - the king of the new age of digital biology - who I am interviewing for my new column in the Oxford Times.
More coming this way soon, I promise.
Oh, and I was recently profiled in The Oxford Times
As always thanks for your interest and keep those emails coming!
Posted 24 April 2013
I am delighted to say that I will be appearing at the HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN festival at Hay on Wye at the end of May.
I shall be talking about my book THE SILENT LANDSCAPE; the first voyage of oceanographic exploration that circumnavigated the globe between 1872 and 1876 and founded the sciences of Marine Biology and Geology.
I shall also be discussing carbon dioxide and global warming with Michael McIntyre and Robert Carter. In a separate debate I will be considering the science of human nature with Nayef Al-Rodhan and Lou Marinoff.
Posted 25 February 2013
My alter ego Jack Shipley to make debut this summer
I am thrilled to announce that the first of my novels will be available from this summer.
The novel is entitled DARK SITE.
It is the first in a series of science thrillers tackling cutting edge concepts in science.
The books are purely about entertainment and reflect my love of such fantastic writers as Michael Crichton.
The novels are techy and edgy and are a lot of fun to write.
The second in the series, BROTHER'S KEEPER, is well underway and will be published late this year or early next.
Here's a taster from the opening of DARK SITE.
"Medical doctors will tell you that there are things that they will go a long way to avoid. Bodies of people that have been burned alive are one, bodies of people killed in an explosion another, and bodies that have been in water for too long - well, they're top of the list.
"This particular body floated face down in the shadow of a tree-covered islet several metres out from the river bank. Eyes the colour of nicotine were rolled back in a face blackened by decay while between the gaping jaws the teeth looked like the whitened stumps of bleached headstones. The jeans and red bomber jacket were matted with algae and the trainers were faded a dirty grey. Flies flickered about the corpse's head, attracted by the sweet smell of decomposition. The puffed and discoloured corpse drifted amongst the tangled roots of a willow that tilted so alarmingly it appeared ready at any moment to throw in the gravitational towel and slide into the Thames. The area was such a mass of tangled roots, dead branches and fast-growing foliage that, had it not been for the faint splash of a submerging mink - long-ago freed from the defunct fur-farm up the river - the young man walking by the river bank would have missed it altogether.
"For several seconds he stood motionless, staring. He had seen his first corpse years before on the Underground when he had been living with the Tunnelers, but to see this, in rural idyll, seemed obscene.
"From down the river - towards Eynsham Lock - the sound of the heavy earth moving machinery rang and rumbled like some distant, massive, railway marshalling yard. Here though all was still; the only sounds the chirping of the crickets and the occasional splash as a perch broke the surface of the still water. For a second Jason wondered how it had remained undiscovered for so long before remembering that the only traffic that passed along this quiet backwater of the Thames were the pleasure cruisers too-ing and fro-ing from Lechlade and they tended to hold a solid course within the middle of the river channel.
"Jason sat back on his heels and closed his eyes. This I need like a hole-in-the-head. These days, with his reputation, it would be arrest-on-suspicion and indefinite hold under Uncle Ed's new ninety-nine day detention laws. And he wasn't going back..."
Please bear with us while we get the Jack Shipley site fully up and running. It will be www.jackshipley.org and will feature links to the science behind the books as well as a forum page.
Posted 18 February 2013
In Our Time - Ice Ages
I contributed to Radio 4's In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg last Thursday talking about Ice Ages with Jane Francis and Carrie Lear.
To listen to the program, click HERE.
I was very pleased with the way that the program went. It was very relaxed and we covered some really interesting science.
Many of you have emailed and tweated me to say how much you enjoyed it. So many thanks for that. Feedback makes it all worthwhile for me.
Several of you have asked where you can get more information. Much of what I discussed can be found in my book ARCHITECTS OF ETERNITY which is available from Kindle HERE
Posted 6 February 2013
I am delighted to announce that the Earth Volt site will be launched soon.
Earth Volt is a project that I and some friends have been working on for some time.
Our aim is to make it a focal point for Alternative Energy information on the web.
It will include information about the various types of Alternative Energy solutions that are available on a variety of scales from local to supranational.
It will also include a Blog written by me reflecting my interest in and commitment to alternative energy as well as making available articles I write on the subject as they come out.
It will act as as focal point where Alternative Energy suppliers can showcase their wares - from solar panels to geothermal heat exchangers - you will be able to find what you need at Earth Volt.
To visit the site - please note it is still under development! - click HERE
Posted 31 January 2013
A Fusion of Minds
My new article A FUSION OF MINDS in the magazine Physics World is out today.
Doubt cast on Sir Bernard Lovell's 'brainwashing'
In this month's edition of Physics World, science writer Richard Corfield casts doubt on the alleged "brainwashing" of the late British astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War and explains how his trips beyond the Iron Curtain laid the foundations for the easing of geopolitical tensions between the UK and the USSR.
Speaking to Lovell's son Bryan, Corfield reveals a more mundane explanation for why Lovell, who founded the Jodrell Bank telescope in the UK, fell ill
on his return from the USSR in 1963.
"For me the more likely explanation is that father was simply exhausted - and that gels with the account that he wrote in the contemporaneous diary of the 1963 trip, in which you will find nothing untoward, but plenty of fascinating science," reveals Bryan Lovell, who is the current president of the Geological Society of London.
The alleged brainwashing incident occurred during Lovell's visit to the USSR in 1963 when he was taken on an unexpected tour of the Soviets' new radio-telescope and space-tracking facility in the Crimea, which he was deeply impressed by. On his return to Moscow, Lovell was quizzed on his plans to build a larger telescope at Jodrell Bank, which at the time was the only telescope facility capable of tracking Soviet nuclear-tipped rockets. The Soviets made it clear that if Lovell remained in the USSR and built the facility there, they would give him the money.
Lovell declined the offer and returned to the UK, but immediately fell ill and found that his life had "suddenly turned to dust and ashes", as he wrote in a 2008 memorandum. In the months after his recovery, Lovell was told by the Ministry of Defence that the illness might have been caused by a Soviet attempt to remove his memory of the recruitment offer and what he had seen during his visit.
Despite the incident, Lovell was a fervent believer in the collaborative nature of science - a conviction that was confirmed in the diaries he wrote during the Cold War period, which were released by the University of Manchester after his death in August last year.
Indeed, the British scientific collaboration with the Soviet Union also extended to the field of fusion science, which in 1969 led to a group of leading researchers from the UK Atomic Energy Authority sharing their expertise in measuring plasma temperatures with a Soviet group working on the latest nuclear-fusion technologies.
The fusion collaboration forged in the 1960s ultimately paved the way to the creation of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) - a practical attempt to prove that ideas from plasma physics can be translated into full-scale electricity-producing fusion power plants. The first plasma is expected to be produced by ITER in 2020, with the first real working fusion power plants coming - if all goes well - some 20-30 years after that.
"When - and if - that happens, historians will be able to trace that success back to those early collaborations between Britain and the Soviet Union, and, in part, to the legacy of Sir Bernard Lovell's radio telescope that was used as the earliest of early-warning systems," Corfield writes.
To read the article click HERE
Posted 28 November 2012
Architects of Eternity out on Kindle at last!
I am delighted to say that my bestselling book ARCHITECTS OF ETERNITY: THE NEW SCIENCE OF FOSSILS is now available on Kindle.
To buy the book click HERE
Over the next few months I plan to make my other books THE SILENT LANDSCAPE and LIVES OF THE PLANETS available on Kindle.
I shall also be publishing thoughts and essays on science and science history exclusively on Kindle. These will not be published elsewhere so do please keep an eye on this website.
I have not forgotten my other output and will, of course, be keeping up my regular contributions to magazines as well as my new column SCIENCE AND SENSIBILITY starting soon in THE OXFORD TIMES.
I shall also be publishing my new book THE ISOTOPE MAN: THE LIFE AND SCIENCE OF SIR NICK SHACKLETON exclusively on Kindle in summer 2013.
Posted 24 October 2012
Voyager: To the Final Frontier
My friend and collaborator Christopher Riley's new space documentary is broadcast tonight on BBC 4 at 9pm.
It looks at two of the most remarkable deep space probes ever built - Voyagers 1 and 2.
Both probes, launched in the 1970s, are now at the edge of the Solar System (the Heliopause) and are heading into intergalactic space.
I was delighted to be a story consultant on the program.
It will be re-broadcast again over the next few nights on BBC4 and will be available on BBC I-player
Posted 19 October 2012
Follow Richard on Twitter!
I am delighted to say that you can now follow my writing and lecturing activities via Twitter.
To follow Richard on Twitter click HERE
Watch out for a lot more digital initiatives coming from me over the next couple of months - including my books and exclusive articles on Kindle!
We are also launching the EarthVolt website - your one-stop-shop for all things to do with alternative energy.
I am also doing a lot of lecturing over the next few months.
Venues include the Licensed Victuallers School in Ascot, Pinewood School on the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border, Colston's School in Bristol and Cokethorpe School near Witney.
Google their websites for more details.
New writing coming out soon includes the legacy of Apollo 17, my visit to the South of France where I discovered the Languedoc's equivalent to Area 51...
... and for Christmas I shall be telling the true story, exclusively in The Oxford Times, of how I fell in love with - and rescued - a Birman cat named Errol.
That's Errol and I at Miami Airport on our way home after a Titanic tussle with US Customs, the US Department of Agriculture, the UK Border Agency, The UK Department of Agriculture, not to mention Virgin Atlantic...
Trust me - It is quite a story!
Posted 12 October 2012
William Penney: There as the new age dawned
My latest article in The Oxford Times has just been published.
It tells the story of one of Britain's greatest scientists, William Penney.
All Penney wanted was to be a Professor at Oxford, yet his sense of national duty made him drop that ambition to help Britain stay a world superpower - by providing it with its own atom bomb!
To read the article click HERE
Look out for my new article on the brave soldiers of Britain's Bomb Disposal Regiment coming out exclusively in The Oxford Times in time for Remembrance Sunday.
Posted 1 October 2012
In the immediate aftermath of the Paralympics we all have a heightened awareness of the double hurdles that such athletes have to overcome. Not only competing and winning but also surmounting the severe psychological and physical hurdles to compete in the first place.
Imagine then another group who routinely risk their health and mobility to keep us all safe. For those of us who live in Oxfordshire we do no need to look far. Vauxhall Barracks at Didcot is home to the 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment - the British Bomb Disposal Squad.
The men and women of 11 EOD are not only called in to defuse IEDs found in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, they are also in charge of fighting the threat in all territories where Britain's soldiers are deployed. This of course means Afghanistan and since the conflict began in 2001 six 11 EOD personnel have tragically lost their lives working in Helmand province.
IEDs and their evil creators are no respector of gender. Last year Captain Lisa Jade Head, a newly qualified 'high threat' operator with the Regiment successfully defused a bomb that had been placed in an alleyway used by Afghans and Security Forces. She was defusing a second device when a third detonated, severely injuring her. She was flown first to Camp Bastion and then Queen Elizabeth NHS Hospital in Birmingham, UK where she died of her injuries the next day. She was 29 years old.
This month marks the first anniversary of Felix Fund, the charity set up to care for these men and women - and their families. The fund's founder Holly Davies, told me "Bomb disposal experts face truly unique challenges and need specialist help. They are among the first on the scene after devices have killed or maimed men, women and children. They also must certify the bodies of all fallen British servicemen and women before they are flown back to the UK from Afghanistan. This can include their colleagues, who may have been life-long friends. Also, bomb disposal experts work under intense pressure for hours at a time, knowing each move could literally be their last. Just one IED could take up to six hours to render safe, but some operators have dealt with as many as 40 in one day.
And although they work in four-person teams, these teams split up and disperse to 16 locations upon return to Britain. Felix Fund reunites them in a civilian location some weeks after they have returned to their families. This allows the four individuals to talk through their experiences with the only people who truly understand what they've been through - the other three in their team"
So this September spare a thought for one of the loneliest and most dangerous jobs in the Army - and those who do it, day in and day out - with perfect courage.
To learn more about Felix Fund or make a donation click HERE
Posted 10 August 2012
I am pleased to be able to announce that Shire Cottage is available for rent.
This charming 18th century cottage is near our own in Long Hanborough. It is in a Conservation Area and on the edge of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It is available for writers, academics or indeed anyone who wants a quiet place to read or work.
It is close to Oxford and Blenheim Palace. The emphasis is on peace and tranquility.
Why Shire Cottage? It is my homage to J. R. R. Tolkien. The cottage is ideally located for exploring the area that Tolkien used as the basis for 'The Shire' in THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS.
More details can be found on the Homeaway website, click HERE
Posted 8 June 2012
New Lecture List
I've been working on my new lecture list for the rest of 2012.
To download the list in PDF format, click HERE
Posted 25 May 2012
Cothill House School, Abingdon
Great reception at Cothill House last night with my Titanic lecture.
Fifty four questions...
Posted 14 May 2012
Bryanston School, Blandford Forum
Lectured at Bryanston yesterday morning.
A beautiful drive over the Downs on a sublime summer's morning and a great welcome at the School.
Many thanks Bryanston!
Posted 20 April 2012
Summer Fields Lecture
Talked about Titanic last night at Summer Fields School in Oxford.
A fine, enthusiastic audience who asked more questions than I have ever had to answer before. I counted thirty to forty!
Well done Summer Fields!
Posted 16 April 2012
Physics World Article
Many of you have emailed me to ask for the link to the Physics World article
Click HERE to read it.
Posted 13 April 2012
Jeremy Vine show - Today at 1.30 pm
Talking on the Jeremy Vine show today about my recent Titanic work. BBC Radio 2 at 1.30.
Lecturing next week on THE PERFECT STORM THAT KILLED TITANIC. Corpus Christi College, Oxford on 14 April at 6.00 pm (Fully booked I'm afraid).
Summer Fields school on Thursday 19th April.
We are planning a Titanic dinner at the Boot Inn, Barnard Gate (Between Eynsham and Witney just off the A40) on 28th April. The dishes are drawn from the Titanic's menu and I will be there, circulating and chatting about my work on Titanic.
Call 01865 881231 for tickets.
If you would like me to give a talk at YOUR venue please email me.
Sooner rather than later please: My diary is filling rapidly!
Posted 10 April 2012
Titanic Science - New Article
Posted 10 April 2012
Just out in Chemistry and Industry - What's been happening to Titanic since she hit the sea floor all those years ago?
Click HERE to read my new article on Titanic's final resting place.
Titanic Media Interest
Posted 2 April 2012
Woke up to lots of interest in my Titanic article in the media today.
If you are interested type Richard Corfield Titanic into Google...
The Perfect Storm that Killed Titanic
Posted 31 March 2012
For those who were going to tune in to the Today program to hear me I'm sorry to say that they've cancelled it. The reason given is that it is 'a busy news day.'
I will be talking about my recent article THE PERFECT STORM THAT KILLED TITANIC on Canadian Broadcasting on Monday 2nd April.
I am also giving several lectures on the subject over the coming weeks.
If you are interested in having me come and talk to your audience about the science behind the Titanic tragedy please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Camilla Long - The Tittle from Tatler
Posted 19 February 2012
What a travesty of an article on Richard Dawkins by The Times' CAMILLA LONG in today's Sunday Times.
There is no content to the article at all. Nothing about what Dawkin's is currently trying to do or say.
Just the shallowest of hatchet jobs by an interviewer who clearly thinks she is more important than the interviewee.
I tried in vain to track down her qualifications for interviewing Dawkins. All I could find is that she used to work for Tatler. Who on Earth assigned her to do this interview - The Marx Brothers?
Murdoch doesn't need to launch The Sun on Sunday. It seems that The Sunday Times already fulfills that function admirably.
Chris Riley - FIRST ORBIT
Posted 26 January 2012
My friend Chris Riley has directed the wonderful film First Orbit about Yuri Gagarin's orbit of the Earth in April 1961. He was the first human ever to do so and predated the US attempt by astronaut John Glenn by almost a year.
Chris and his team plan to release their film later this year as a multi region DVD and Blue Ray Disk and make it available FREE to educational institutions around the world.
Gargarin's First Orbit was the impetus that started the Space Race and eventually allowed humans to walk on the Moon. In this new age of international co-operation in space - with Mars as our next goal - it is very important that we remember those first tentative steps from Earth.
As the father of Russian Rocketry Konstantin Tsiolkovsky once said:- "Earth is the cradle of Humanity - but one cannot live in a cradle forever."
Please support Chris and his team at FIRST ORBIT Please contribute if you can - I am proud to say that I have!
Posted 23 November 2011
Several new articles in the pipeline. Watch out for a Titanic retrospective and an account of the history of the Pioneer deep-space probes.
Also working on a book-length biography of Professor Sir Nick Shackleton - the man who proved the link between greenhouse gases and climate change.
Launch of Newton Channel
Posted 10 March 2011
I am very proud to be associated with the launch of the new internet science project Newton TV.
Newton TV has been masterminded by my good friend - TV Science Producer Extraordinaire - Stephen Wilkinson.
My interview with Craig Venter has been posted on the Channel and also on The Guardian Science website and can be found HERE.
James Delingpole on Horizon
Posted 25 January 2011
I watched with interest James Delingpole being ‘intellectually raped’ by Sir Paul
Nurse last night on Horizon. Dunno where he gates the phrase ‘intellectually raped’
from (seems a trifle OTT to me). However there is no doubt that he was intellectually
If he can’t understand the cancer treatment consensus/hack-cure versus climate
change consensus/ignore-the-data metaphor then he needs to go back to Science 101.
But then I see that he has no qualifications in science (English Lit from Christchurch
in Oxford apparently). Nothing wrong with that of course, right up until the moment
when you try and out-argue a Noble Prize-winner in Science who is now President of
the Royal Society on the nature of the Scientific Method.
But as Delingpole says on the program – it is not his job to evaluate the primary
literature, rather ‘he interprets the interpretations’.
Well, that’s all right then – as long as no one takes him seriously.
Not to put too fine a point on it; if you are not qualified to evaluate the primary data
then you are not qualified to comment.
2010 Reith Lectures
Posted 12 May 2010
I was at the first 2010 BBC Reith Lecture last night. Very interesting! The subject was the "Scientific Citizen".
Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, President of the Royal Society and Master of Trinity College Cambridge, is giving this years Reith Lectures, the first scientist to do so since 1991.
It was, as you might imagine, an interesting lecture which was followed up by a lively and illuminating discussion.
I was intrigued when Martin Rees pointed out that the only Government Department that did not have a Chief Scientific Advisor was the Treasury. I wanted to make a point and ask a question but time did not allow so here it is:
My question was based on the point that the financial crises was largely based on the exotic financial instruments that were used by the investment banks and hedge funds (Collateralised Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps) and that they in turn were based on DAVID LI'S paper on Gaussian distributions (which bankers then used to price risk).
So my question was: Would the crisis have been averted if the Treasury had had a Chief Scientific Advisor who had been capable of understanding the complex maths that was being misused by the markets?
What do you think?
In today's world are the financial markets so complex that science should be involved?
Shades of ATLAS SHRUGGED methinks!
Making Banker's Honest
Posted 14 January 2010
A fascinating article by Anatole Kaletsky in today's TIMES.
His central point is that it is vital for Bankers to keep profits within the Bank rather than paying it out to employees (i.e. themselves).
So, how do we persuade Bankers not to pay themselves too much? It is after all the oldest and basest of all human emotions - greed...
Happy New Year
Posted 9 January 2010
First off a Happy New Year to you all. Sorry things have been a bit quiet around here recently - I have been incredibly busy with a whole bunch of new writing.
Watch out for a number of new articles - the excavation of the remains of 250 World War 1 soldiers at Fromelles, the fifth anniversary of the Huygens probe's landing on Titan, and the 40th anniversary of Apollo 13 - for which I have just interviewed Jim Lovell himself.
Interesting week this - it sees the departure of Jonathan Ross and Susan Greenfield. Can't say I'm sorry in either case though. Neither have been much good for the respective professions - cultural and scientific journalism respectively. Does this mean that we're about to see more emphasis on content and less on personality? If so, I can't wait!
The Geological Formation of Britain
Posted 27 October 2009
A few days ago I was privileged once again to appear on Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time on Radio 4.
As always we have a round table discussion about the some of the issues discussed on air in the 'Green Room' immediately after the program and then Melvyn uses this as the basis of his widely read and popular newsletter.
Here's what he had to say about The Geological Formation of Britain.
Still golden autumn days in London. Left Broadcasting House to go for a meeting at BAFTA in Piccadilly. Down Regent Street, across
into Savile Row, through Burlington Arcade and met friends strolling
along Piccadilly with all the nonchalance and leisure of a family in a
19th century novel. Sometimes even the West End of London can
seem like a village. By the time I got to the meeting I had just about
shaken down into the real world of time, but I must say that trying to
crunch the millions of years, not so much into a pattern but into a
digestible reality, had been a tough one.
The conclusion that all three of them came to in the chat afterwards
was that the Earth will certainly cope. There's no doubt that all the CO2 will be sucked down somehow or other and bury itself
somewhere or other and, as happened about 50 million (or was it 550 million) years ago, things will change but continue. So, in the long
term, the Earth's great. In the short term, it seems we've had it. They agreed that it's way too late to cut down CO2 emissions. There
is a possibility of cleaning CO2 out of the atmosphere. For this we
need nuclear reactors to power the scrubbers which will put CO2
back in the pits of Earth, such as those in the North Sea which were
resultant from the oil industry. So there we are. That's about as
cheerful as it gets. When I challenged, or rather asked, Jane Francis
how long she thought we'd got, she said a few years. But, as I said
on the programme once or twice, what's a few years to geologists? She muttered something about hundreds but refused to be committed
on such a narrow basis.
Richard Corfield suddenly expressed a passion for the works of John
Wyndham. He gave us a potted biog. It appears that Wyndham had
written bodice rippers before the Second World War, but after the war
came back to write what Corfield thinks are three great books based
on science - The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes and The
Midwich Cuckoos. I say based on science, by which I mean
acceptable and even exciting to people who know a lot about science.
Jane Francis cheered us all up by saying that the ice sheets are
melting, but there's a sudden tipping point where the meltdown
begins quite quickly - by which she means it takes a hundred years
or so. I gather that she thinks we're near that.
It's just as well that I was going to have a bite and a glass with a pal
Lives of the Planets - Spanish Edition
Posted 29 June 2009
I am really pleased to announce that the Spanish edition of Lives of the Planets has just been published by Paidos.
The translation was done by Isabel Febrian.
To see the book on the Paidos website click HERE
Many thanks to all involved!
Lives of the Planets - Japanese Edition
Posted 21 February 2009
I am delighted to announce that the Japanese edition of Lives of the Planets has just been published by Bungei Shunju.
The translation and editing were beautifully done by Jun Mizutani and Tanaka Takahisa respectively.
Tanaka is also responsible for tracking down some rare pictures of Soviet Spacecraft that are not in the American edition.
Thanks Jun and Tanaka!
To visit the Bungei Shunju website click HERE
Craig Venter Interview
Posted 21 October 2008
The interview with CRAIG VENTER, geneticist and co-sequencer of the human genome, which I wrote and produced for Teacher's TV airs today!
From left to right are Heather Kowalski (Craig's Director of Communications), Louis Colombo (Assistant Cameraman), Craig Venter, Mike Hiscocks (Principal Cameraman) and myself.
To watch the interview, click HERE.
To read my Chemistry World interview with Craig, click HERE.
We filmed in Valencia, Spain and got well acquainted with the superb Tapas there! The program was commissioned and executive produced by Stephen Wilkinson of Brook Lapping TV, part of TEN ALPS PRODUCTIONS.
The Chemist Who Saved Biology - Podcast
Posted 1 February 2008
Together with the fine folks at THE NAKED SCIENTISTS I made this PODCAST to go with my recent article THE CHEMIST WHO SAVED BIOLOGY for Chemistry World.
John Young Buchanan is one of my favourite 'Scientifics' from the voyage of HMS Challenger which I wrote about in my book THE SILENT LANDSCAPE.
Why? I think it must be because he is the most mysterious character on board! It was a great priviledge to dig into his background further to find out more about him for the Chemistry World article.
The Brotherhood of Speed
Posted 14 October 2007
About 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles the small town of Rosamund slumbers on the edge of the Great American Desert. At this altitude the air is thin and cold and the smog behind you in the LA basin lies like an orange-tinted coverlet between the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada and ceaseless breakers of the Pacific Ocean.
Look ahead eastwards though, and you will see some of the strangest terrain in the world. Vast areas of desert that have been smoothed to a surface that looks like glass. These are playa lakes, shallow depressions in the desert that in the winter fill up with water that then blows back and forth, back and forth until they have the surface of a billiard table. Here in December shrieking seagulls pour in from the Pacific wheeling and screaming as they search for the shrimps that wriggle from this primordial ooze. It may look like a place from the dawn of time but in fact it is one of the most significant aviation arenas in the world, for it was here, above these colossal natural runways, that the space race was forged.
In the last two weeks the attention of the world has focused – appropriately - on the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first Soviet Satellite, but what is less well known, is that only ten years before, the barrier that proved that humans could survive the colossal accelerations and speeds of space travel was finally breached.
In the aftermath of the Second World War the US Army had discovered that they were lagging both the Nazis and their European allies in the development of jet aircraft. Amongst the wreckage of Nazi Germany US investigators found evidence of an airplane that had reached speeds of 596 miles per hour, while in England the Brits had come up with the Gloster Meteor, an airplane that had raised the world aviation speed record from 470 to over 600 miles an hour in a single day.
The next milestone – shattering the sound barrier - was clear to everyone, and America considered it crucial that they should do it first.
The sound barrier – the speed at which sound propagates through air - had been predicted by the great German physicist Ernst Mach to be a physical hurdle that would have to be overcome in the race for speed in the sky. The speed of sound varies with altitude, temperature and wind speed but is approximately 760 miles an hour at sea level and 660 miles an hour at 40,000 feet, or slightly above the cruising altitude of a commercial jet-airliner. Glance today at the seat-back readouts on a modern plane about two hours after take-off you will find that you are doing something like 98% of the speed of sound. But in the 1940s the sound barrier was an invisible demon that lived in the sky. It was impossible to test for it in the laboratory: wind tunnels and propeller aircraft encounter horrendous problems when operating near these speeds. Wind tunnels eventually choked out and anyone flying a propeller aircraft near these velocities would buy 'the farm' after their airfoil controls froze.
And so the US Army Air Force (these were the days before the USAF) had taken it upon themselves to assault the dreaded sound barrier and find out once and for all if it was a farm you could buy in the sky, or a natural barrier that could be outwitted by human technology and ingenuity.
The danger and uncertainty of the project was the reason that the huge natural airfield of Muroc (later to be named Edwards after the doomed pilot of the fabled 'Flying Wing') was chosen for the project. There was literally thousands of miles for error above its vast playa lakes and, with the velocities being contemplated, this was nothing less than a real-estate requirement.
Under an army contract Bell Aviation built a small, rocket power plane based on the design of a 50-calibre rifle bullet named the X-1. The bullet shape was important since this was one of the few objects that was known to go supersonic smoothly. The pilot selected to fly this tiny, swallow-shaped beast was a man with a name perfectly suited to the endeavour – Slick Goodlin. The X-1 dropped from beneath the belly of a B-29 bomber, the pilot peeling it away from the aircraft before igniting its four rocket chambers. The propellant - liquid oxygen and kerosene – was not so much a fuel as an explosive and the beast was normally 'topped off' miles from the few tattered shacks that those - with a sense of humour - referred to as Muroc's 'facility'.
But Goodlin was a civilian and was paid large bonuses for the work that he undertook. Naturally it was to his advantage to raise the ante at every possible stage and a few days before the assault in Mach 1 itself the figure of $150,000 began to be mentioned. At this point the Army's sense of humour failed and it decided to use one of its own pilots, somebody who would follow order for less than three hundred dollars a month.
The man selected was Charles E. 'Chuck' Yeager, a natural born stick-and-rudder man who would later be anointed with 'The Right Stuff' – in Tom Wolfe's classic book of the same name.
The date scheduled for the assault on the sound barrier was October 14th 1947, a Tuesday. But when Yeager showed up on the flight line that morning he was slightly the worse for wear. Two nights before he had been thrown by a horse near the local bar - 'Pancho's Fly Inn' - and had broken two ribs. Knowing that the base aviation doctors would never have let him fly he mentioned his dilemma to his flight engineer Jack Ridley. Ridley's solution was to saw twelve inches off a janitor's broom. Yeager could then use this to gain enough mechanical advantage to shut the X-1's almost impossibly tight-fitting door.
It was an unconventional piece of additional flight hardware but nevertheless Yeager went aloft with it. At 40,000 feet he, accompanied by good-ole' Ridley, made his way down to the fully-fuelled beast that hung - sweating liquid oxygen - beneath the B29's belly. After he slid into its microscopic cockpit, Ridley handed him the length of broom handle and Yeager whanged the door home. A few moments later the B-29 dropped him.
For a few eternal seconds he hung, suspended in the dome of space between the ancient playa lakes below and humanity's next frontier above, before firing off all the rocket chambers simultaneously. The shock and the acceleration flung him back into his seat, while his home-made flight-helmet – cannibalised from a leather football helmet – thudded remorselessly against his head rest. The vibration was so intense that the instrument dials splintered in front of his eyes but then, unbelievably, it was as though he had spun out from a waterfall onto a mill-pond. His vision cleared and the X-1's stabilised as, far below on the desert floor, a new sound split the world - the long, hollow, bass rumble of a sonic boom, exactly as predicted by physicist Theodore von Karman many years before.
Yeager had split the sound barrier, in the process proving that the human exploration of space, destined to start just a decade hence, was possible.
Posted 5 October 2007
Yesterday I was privileged to take part in one of the things that make Great Britain great; a simple harvest festival, conducted by Hanborough Manor School at the local Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul in Church Hanborough.
It was a glorious autumn's morning and as I cycled down to the church I encountered a happy, chattering crocodile of schoolchildren all simply enjoying a change from the daily regimen of their daily lives in the warm rays of the Indian Summer we are currently enjoying. Seeing me Susie waved and called “Hi Dad”. Of such simple things are a father's joy made.
The morning sun cast lambent beams of buttermilk through the old elm trees that surround the ancient church and inside, to my surprise, I found it packed. I was amazed that so many parents had taken the time and trouble to turn out – although surely I should not have been – many in Long Hanborough, like me, long ago took the decision to abandon the rat race and the choked A40 into Oxford for a quieter life in the Oxfordshire countryside where the money may be worse but the quality of life is immeasurably better. One of the most important factors is that we get to spend more time with our children: If I had missed today I would have been spiritually poorer for it - and I would never have known.
As I took pictures with my mobile phone I marvelled at the technology that I used so lightly. I said as much to my neighbour, a member of the Governors at my daughter's school and a pillar of our village community. His reply was simple. “If it terrifies you, imagine how it feels to me. When I was born, we didn't even have electric light.”
For a few moments more I chatted with this supremely and serenely civilised man. He is now a Great-grandfather and did not need me to tell him how lucky we were to be in that dignified old church, full of happy schoolchildren, on that warm autumn morning. It was an honour to meet him.
So, thanks to a mobile miracle of modern technology that many of us take for granted, I captured those peaceful scenes of the ebb-and-flow of life in the village that I am privileged to call home.
In the early 21st century, life in Long Hanborough is good.
Posted 4 October 2007
Today it is exactly fifty years since the launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite that launched the space race and ultimately the communications revolution. My take on these momentous events, published this week in Physics World is to be found HERE.
Earlier this summer I wrote a piece on the Phoenix Mars mission. To read it click HERE.
Back on the Grid
Posted 22 September 2007
Greetings all! It has been a long time since I updated this blog. The reasons were personal. It has been a difficult summer. However, in amongst the problems I did manage to do a radio satellite tour in support of LIVES OF THE PLANETS and we will be updating these pages in the next week or so with new information and reviews of the book.
I have watched with interest the run on Northern Rock. What an extraordinary sight - and in 21st century Britain of all places! I was particularly amused to see the Chancellor and the Prime Minister imploring for calm in the midst of the panic and being completely ignored. What did they expect? For us to believe them after ten years of spin and media manipulation? Remember 9/11 and "a bad day to bury bad news?" Remember non-existent "weapons of mass destruction?" Remember "Your pensions are safe with us?" Remember, "we're going to improve the quality-of-life for doctors - so now they earn a hundred grand a year and don't even open on Saturdays?"
Matthew Parris, one of the most gifted commentators I have ever come across, makes this point cogently in this morning's TIMES
Back to the Future
Posted 7 May 2007
Earlier this year I wrote in THE WASHINGTON POST of the heroism of two groups of astronauts, the crew of Apollo 1 and the Challenger Space Shuttle crew. In just a couple of months we will be commemorating the twenty-eighth anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's epic landing on the Moon.
Last week I was enormously heartened to READ that there are already plans to return to the Moon by the end of the second decade of the twentieth century. This time though the impetus will not be the Cold War but will be science in the service of commerce.- the mining of helium-3 which is abundant on the Moon and which is almost certain to be a crucial component of clean, limitless energy in the second half of the twenty-first century. The idea is being championed by one of the last two astronauts - and the only scientist - to walk on the Moon: Harrison Schmitt
As I write in LIVES OF THE PLANETS (coming out next month) we are privileged to live in the most extraordinary era of planetary exploration. A return to the Moon is the obvious next step on our road to the stars and if the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese are competing to be the first to get there so much the better. It may make NASA raise its game.
A return of the pioneer spirit is what this tired world of ours desperately needs.
Hats off to Professor Schmitt for promoting it.
So, what is the secret of LIFE ON MARS?
Posted 11 April 2007
Have had a night's sleep and time to reflect on the LIFE ON MARS phenomenon. As I said last night what a wonderful series! But it has got me wondering why it is so wonderful and why it has crashed into the popular conciousness like a fishtailing Cortina in the back streets of Bolton (where many of the driving scenes were filmed). For years the '70s was the decade that time forgot; The Sweet, platform soles, flares, Abba, The Six Million Dollar Man, and yes David Bowie etc. And now all of a sudden the '70s are back with vengence and LIFE ON MARS is carrying the torch for the revival. Why?
Well surely one reason is simply generational. Middle aged adults today - the movers and the shakers, the bankers, the insurance executives, the media professionals, the writers, the plumbers, the electricians, the publicans - most are products of the '70s. It is our decade and no matter its faults, we love it. To anyone who might gainsay that as DCI Hunt would say, 'up yours'.
Another reason must surely be the ten years that the New Labour thought police have been in power. Goodness knows that political correctness was bad enough in the '90s but now it is off the clock. Almost every sentence uttered in private conversation - and certainly every sentence uttered in public - is now subjected to a subliminal PC filter that has been invidiously installed in our collective conciousness by a decade of New Labour spin and media manipulation.
The simple truth is that we ache to be like Gene Hunt and say exactly what is on our minds without fear of being sued by some agenda-driven pressure group with a fat whack of public funding supplied courtesy of New Labour's stealth taxes. The sooner those fairies in Whitehall are out of power and we regain the right to think and say exactly what we mean the better.
In the meantime we can secretly hug the memory of DCI Hunt to ourselves and revel in his fabulous political incorrectness. Team-building meeting getting you down? Health and Safety assessment taking too long? Bank manager on your case about the size of your overdraft?
'Oh, shut up you nancy-arsed fairy boy...'
Life on Television
Posted 10 April 2007
Just switched off from watching the final episode of LIFE ON MARS. Whatever Kudos are paying Philip Glenister it is not enough. What a terrific performance, chewing up the set and spitting it out like the dinosaur he is supposed to be. I have to confess that Kudos confounded my expectations; I fully expected Tyler to go back to the future and find Cartwright as the Chief Constable of Manchester and DCI Hunt in a terminal care home for serial alcohol abusers - but hey ho.
It seems to me that the production team at Kudos had a bit of the same problem that Patrick McGoohan had at the end of THE PRISONER - it was so good that they did not know how to end it. Hence the botched roof jumping sequence - which just didn't scan for me.
But who cares? Brilliant is brilliant and my eldest daughter has just told me that Glenister was interviewed today on the Paul O'Grady show as saying that there will be a 1980's spin off.
I can't wait!
Spinning our Spineless Navy
Posted 8 April 2007
It's obviously good to have our sailors back home but as is so often the case there are more questions than answers here. Being televised eating meals, smoking fags and playing chess having been in captivity for only a few days does not promote the feeling that our military personnel are a force to be reckoned with does it? And that in turn suggests strongly that there is something wrong with the military culture that these young people have been trained in. Being in the military is not like being in a conventional job. It is a high risk occupation which is why the pensions and fringe benefits are so good. In other words, if you choose to be in the military you have to be prepared for this kind of thing to happen. Next time it does - and there will be a next time while we pursue this policy of appeasement with violent and undemocratic regimes - can we at least pretend to show a bit of the spirit that our father's showed in the Second World War and not look like a bunch of reality TV pansies?
But the bigger issue is just what on Earth under-armed, poorly supported military personnel were doing searching ships in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway in the first place? If we are going to enforce a peace we need to give our soldiers the means to do it. There is no doubt that our own naval command here is culpable and quite possibly guilty of negligence. We need a thorough review to make sure that this kind of shambles does not happen again. Next time it looks like our people are about to be kidnapped perhaps we could at least fire a warning shot? Would that be too much to ask? And if that fails could we at least try and put up a bit of a fight? At the moment we are the laughing stock of the Islamic and Western World and rightly so.
Instead of trying to spin a positive gloss onto the events which led to the release of the kidnappees - a release that was orchestrated by the Iranians for their own diplomatic ends - we should acknowledge it for the international humiliation that it is. It is time for our own military and political leaders to have a close look at themselves and try and summon up a little fighting spirit.
If our leaders were to show a little backbone, maybe our soldiers would learn to do the same.
The Kraken Wakes: A global warning about the global warming debate
Posted 4 April 2007
I had been watching with interest and some amusement as the global warming debate left the editorial pages of Science and Nature and started to invade the front pages of the broadsheets. However, that amusement is now rapidly turning to alarm as the proposition that mankind is rapidly altering the Earth's climate, meteorological meltdown is imminent, and anyone without a house above the hundred-metre mark should take up power-swimming becomes part of the political agenda. The attendant knee-jerk reaction from the public after they have been spoon-fed selected facts by journalist's whose closest encounter with the technical issues is a half-baked 'science communication module' in their media studies course is as entirely predictable as it is non-scientific.
The facts are these. There has apparently been a increase in average global temperatures of a couple of degrees over the last fifty to a hundred years or so. At the same time global carbon dioxide levels have been reliably documented as rising through sensors placed on Mauna Kea in Hawaii and elsewhere. The interpretation is this: human-induced carbon dioxide levels are causing the planet to warm and if left unchecked the planet will become uninhabitable with rising sea levels (see the image above inspired by John Wyndham's classic 1953 novel THE KRAKEN WAKES).
Oh my God! We're all going to die!
Give me a break.
OK, let's get real. This planet is 4.5 billion years old (that's 4.5 thousand million years) and has probably had a functioning (though evolving) climate system since the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment period of Earth history 3.8 billion years ago. Mankind has been at the tool-user level of sentience for roughly the past twenty thousand years. Do we really think that the Earth's climate has just been hanging around, picking it's nose, and waiting for us to worry about it when we evolved to the right level? Of course not. The most cursory inventory of Earth history shows us that climate has changed continuously and by far greater amounts than that which we are currently worried about. For example, at the time of the dinosaurs carbon dioxide levels were eight times higher than they are today with global temperatures slightly warmer in the tropics and quite bit warmer at the poles. Sea levels were higher but that didn't stop an awful lot of land-dwelling dinosaurs from having perfectly good, productive lives and producing lots and lots of perfectly good healthy baby dinosaurs. So even if carbon dioxide levels do rise by eight times - from about 300 ppm to 2400 ppm (which they won't, current predictions are a doubling at most) so what? Life has been there before.
I am not advocating that we should not move to non-CO2 emitting energy sources. It makes sense to do so simply because hydrocarbon based fuels are becoming scarce and are polluting the environment with things far more dangerous than inert CO2. We now have the technology to move onto other, more efficient fuels; hydrogen and nuclear where appropriate. In short, what I am saying is that we need to retain a sense of proportion about the global warming issue.
At the moment we are in the hands of a media that needs to sell newspapers, being fed stories by political parties who want power, who in turn are being informed by a scientific establishment that needs funding. This funding is mostly delivered through themed pathways - of which global warming is a prominent strand - that are controlled by civil servants that are instructed by governments, which is to say political parties. This is not a healthy situation. The way that science funding in the western world is currently organised means that the threat of global warming becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Scientists are only human and what is more they - and their familes - need to eat. What would you do if your livelihood depended on you endorsing the threat of global catastrophe?
Lives of the Planets: A Natural History of the Solar System
Posted 2 April 2007
LIVES OF THE PLANETS is completed! What an epic task that turned out to be. I could have made it four times as long but my editor Bill Frucht wisely decided that it should remain a readable length. I am happy with it - it takes the planets and explores them from the point of view of their historical discovery, their recent exploration by the latest planetary probes and also from the perspective of the planets themselves as biographical objects. It is also bang up to date, the latest from the Mars Exploration Rovers, the fate of Beagle 2, the demotion of Pluto and the hunt for extrasolar planets are just some of the topics covered. The publication date is set for June 25 in the United States and SIGNED COPIES will be available from me via the internet after that date. We now have facilities to accept payment by Paypal or by credit card. If you want a personalised greeting then simply let me know what it is and I'll be happy to oblige. If you want a copy, simply drop me a line here at Corfield Central and I'll get back to you. It goes without saying that my backlist - ARCHITECTS OF ETERNITY and THE SILENT LANDSCAPE are also currently available. Copies of ARCHITECTS are running low so hurry if you want one. I am still waiting to hear about the publication date of LIVES OF THE PLANETS in Japan where the rights have been acquired by Bungei Shinju.
I am delighted to be able to tell you that discussions about a TV version of LIVES OF THE PLANETS are advancing well. Watch this space.
With a bit more time on my hands now that LOTP is finished I have updated my other writing page with lots of new journalism CLICK HERE
Britain: A Toothless Bulldog
Posted 2 April 2007
Well, my goodness. It is difficult to know who is the more grotesque - the government of Iran or the government of Great Britain. The former has kidnapped fifteen British subjects in broad daylight. (kidnapped I said and kidnapped I mean - they were not in Iranian waters and so this is an act of international piracy on the high seas) and now is parading the kidnappees on TV. That alone would have earned Tehran a visit from a flock of helicopter gunships if the subjects had been American. But our government? Not a chance. Just more feckless bleating and impotent posturing while they ask the nice Iranians if they will kindly give back our people.
When will we learn? What's needed here is some old style British diplomacy. A request for their return while half a dozen gunboats with cruise missiles trained on Iran's illegal nuclear facilities stand just offshore.
Check out Niall Ferguson's excellent article on the subject in YESTERDAY'S TELEGRAPH
It's not rocket science, is it?
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