One of my favourite NASA clips shows the 1972 Apollo 17 lunar module blasting off, bringing home astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt – the last humans to set foot on the moon.
The film is presently looping, next to an R-18 rocket engine like the one used in the ascent, at the Huntington Library’s Blue Sky Metropolis exhibition – chronicaling a hundred years of Southern Californian aerospace.
There wouldn’t be much of an economy in the region if it wasn’t for aerospace – that, and the entertainment industry.
From the first fly-ins and air-meets of Wright Brothers’ style aeroplanes in 1910, to the birth of commercial aviation in the 1920s, to World War II fighter production and surveilance aircraft for the Cold War, to a still evolving space programme; this single-room display is an impressive distillation of the events, people, and motivations behind it all.
Documented photographs dominate the display. I liked this shot of a flight hostess in 1929, framed serving tea in the doorway of a Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) passenger aircraft – something of a contrast to pilot Amelia Earhart leaning against the hanger doors of an aircraft factory.
Politics might not be the most noble motivation for the conquest of space, but the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Russians in 1957 sure pushed the pace. In 1958, under Eisenhower and with the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, NASA was formed. Later that year, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Explorer 1 satellite (the horizonal object in the glass case above) shot into orbit in response to the Sputnik challenge.
The accompanying social commentary is also fascinating, and with family connections (on my wife’s side), we found the photographs of 50’s/60’s laboratory life – like JPL’s all-women ‘platoon’ of mechanical calculator operators lined up at their desks – especially interesting.
“in Sensation we believe external Things exist, in Memory we believe they were, in Imagination we neither do the one nor the other” (Erasmus Darwin quoting poet Richard Gifford back to himself in a letter of 1768.)
Here’s something to try if you haven’t already done it: make a Google Street View tour of all the old homes you’ve ever lived in.
Of course, if you’ve yet to leave the parental home it’s going to be a dull exercise, but if you’ve been around a while and lived in lots of different places, there’s the joy of reminiscing and spotting that the new owners have gotten around to replacing that leaky porch you ignored all those rainy winters.
It took me half an hour to track down the twelve places I’ve lived in, bought, or rented over the years (some in the pic above); although the flat I lived in for four years in Brussels came out as, well, flat. Belgium seems to have been overlooked by Google Street View)
Apart from the idle interest, dredging the past evokes ideas around the concept of time and how we store information and remember things; although if that’s just me, it’s because I’m presently transitioning between two books that touch on the topic: The Information by James Gleick and Jon Turney’s Winton Prize-longlisted The Rough Guide to the Future.
We capture so much nowadays – Gleick: “The information produced and consumed by humankind used to vanish – that was the norm, the default. The sight, the sounds, the songs, the spoken word just melted away.”
Then came the first marks on paper, drawings, writing; then photographs. Gleick again:
“Now expectations have inverted. Everything may be recorded and preserved, at least potentially: every musical performance; every crime in a shop, elevator, or street; every volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; every card played or piece moved in an online game; every rugby scrum and cricket match.”
Whether it’s Street View, Flickr, or Friends Reunited, there’s a bunch of stuff pushing in on us, persuading us to reconstruct our pasts in a way that was alien even five years ago.
What does it mean? Is it good?
For sure, any ideas we might have had about ‘clean breaks’ and ‘moving on’ get a good muddying. Old friends: material and personal, reappear unbidden – sometimes welcome, othertimes unsettling away from their original context.
In his chapter About Time, Turney says our memories impact our ability to think about the future; afterall, past experience is pretty much all we have to draw on.
The way we build memories, he says, may have adapted specifically to enable the efficient anticipation of new situations, and there is even evidence of a physical link in how we think about past and future events – neurological scans revealing common areas of brain activity.
Our memories “seem to work by storing individual pieces of past experience separately, as part of a complicated, interconnected web …. Our brains then assemble recollections of past episodes by adding together bits of information that seem to be related.”
As it happens, by Turney’s reckoning, I’m probably at the optimum age for projecting possible futures. Meaning, I’m old enough to have collected some experiences, but not so old I’ve forgotten them all. (I love some of the terminology people use for age brackets, particularly the ‘old old’ – meaning over 80. At 49, I’m holding out for ‘young middle-age’.)
I want to wind up the post by sharing some great life-changing revelations resulting from this technology-induced disturbance in my mental time-space continuum and reassessment of ‘self’. But as the most emotionally charged evocations seem to relate to the unfeasible number of lawnmowers I’ve owned over the years, I’ll skip on that and instead leave you with a bit of topical DNA:
With a diameter of 120,000 kilometres and a bright reflective surface, Saturn is an unmissable object in the night sky right now. But at 1.3 billion kilometres away from us, it looks only a hundreth the size of the full moon. Which means the screen width of my Saturn video below represents one third of a lunar diameter across (for best view, click to full screen):
I recorded the movie through my old but capable 1978-vintage 6″ Fullerscopes reflector – specially resurrected for Easter after 30 years in storage. (See my efforts with the moon and the smaller ETX-90 telescope in Armchair Astronomy.)
Getting the telescope up and running really required nothing more than (literally) brushing away some cobwebs and giving the mirrors a wash – something I’d be more hesitant of doing had I not just read a step-by-step ‘how to’ in Sky at Night magazine.
Although thick with dust and grime, I’d reason to believe the mirrors’ coatings beneath were o.k., as I remember having them vacuum re-aluminised and silica coated just before I abandoned the instrument and disappeared off to university. Some gentle soaking, swabbing, and rinsing down with distilled water, and all was shiny once again.
Fullerscopes’ german equatorial mountings were all built like tanks – this ‘Mark II’, rated to carry a 10″ reflector, is still in good order save for some rust on the exposed steel shafts.
The RA drive, that ordinarily would drive the telescope counter-rotational to the Earth’s axis, wasn’t operational for a variety of reasons; but the fine adjustment on the declination axis was working.
All of which goes to explain why on the clip Saturn appears to fly across the screen.
I’d forgotten how stunning to the eye Saturn is through this telescope. In better seeing conditions I’ve seen the gap in the rings – the Cassini Division – quite clearly. Now, Saturn’s moon Titan was unmistakable.
Filming what you see with your eye is a little more challenging, although the ‘live view’ on the Canon 7D makes life a lot easier. Rather than watch the live feed through a computer, on this occasion I used the camera’s LCD display directly to focus with the help of a magnifying glass. The clip was made by projecting the image onto the camera’s CCD sensor via a 12.5mm orthoscopic eyepiece; the main mirror’s focal length is about 1250mm. The scene could have stood higher magnification, but I was limited by the eyepiece focal length and size of the projection tube.
All in all, considering the state of the equipment at the start of the day, I’m happy with the end result. The gap between the disk of Saturn and the rings is clear enough; but no Cassini division – so still some work to do! All the same, a fun day messing around with telescopes and engineering – no better way to spend the Easter hols.
2. To be exact: the angular size of Saturn on 25/4/2011 was 19 seconds (“) of arc, approximately a third of a minute. There are 60 seconds in a minute, and the moon is typically 30 minutes across; so Saturn appears one ninetieth of the moons diameter.
It’s many years since that winter weekend I met up with friends in the UK’s Lake District National Park, intent on hiking the slopes of Helvellyn.
Helvellyn (Photo: Simon Ledingham, WikiCommons)
We’d arrived in groups from various locations, and it was during the traditional kitting-up ritual, managed out the back of our respective vehicles, that the full realisation of my ill-preparedness struck home.
Confidence in my sturdy boots and fleece failed to counter the sinking dread I felt as my friends systematically bedecked themselves, NASA pre-flight-ops style, with all the latest snow gear. The thing was, I simply didn’t own, or had neglected to bring, the mittens, over-trousers, goggles, and miscellaneous species of crampons and ice-axe recommended by the now darkening sky.
Just as well I was in the safe invincibility of my early twenties.
So off up the hill went we. Almost immediately it started snowing – gently at first, with a serious deterioration setting in at 2000 feet; a full-blown blizzard now: horizontal snow, near zero-visibility, heavy reliance on compass etc.
I stood clown-like, my gaiterless cotton trousers stiff as boards, the ice caking and cracking as I lifted my legs through the thick snow. My fingers and face went numb. Resplendent in Gortex, my fellow hikers peered out from their hermetic cocoons, reflectorised goggles glinting from deep within wind-cheating hoods. Proffered spare socks were gratefully accepted and fashioned into makeshift gloves.
Then as the storm blew into near total white-out, we made the only possible decision, irrespective of equipment, and turned around.
Had we pushed on, things could have got nasty. As it was, we’d still managed something of a walk, and I guess I got what I deserved by way of a sound freezing and lesson learned. You’ve got the picture.
In Good Company
This mildy embarrassing tale comes to mind because of research I’ve been doing into the history of botany (and science stuff in general) in Wales.
And as it turns out, I’m not the first to show up for a mountain ascent without the proper kit. What’s surprising perhaps is that, among scientists of the Victorian age, that honour goes to none other than seasoned Alpinist John Tyndall and ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Thomas Huxley for their 1860 ascent of – not Helvellyn this time – but Mount Snowdon in North Wales.
Snowdonia was a major stomping ground for botanists in the 18th and 19th centuries, and by the 19th century, professional guiding had become quite a local industry.
In ‘The Botanists and Guides of Snowdonia’, Dewi Jonesdescribes how mountain guide Robin Hughes first met up with Tyndall and Huxley:
“Robin Hughes was 61 when he guided John Tyndall, the famous alpine mountaineer and scientist, up Snowdon from Gorffwysfa (now Pen y Pass) in 1860. Tyndall, despite his Alpine experience, had arrived in the area on a snowy December day rather ill prepared for a winter assault on Snowdon, but they managed to gain the summit despite having to wade through drifts of soft snow. Tyndall, with his friend Huxley, had brought no ice axes or gaiters with them. They bought two rake handles at a shop in Bethesda, while on their way from Bangor to Capel Curig, and had the local blacksmith fit them with rings and iron spikes. During the ascent Tyndall complained of numbness in the feet as the result of his boots becoming filled with snow due to the absence of gaiters.“
So, with all due credit for the last minute improvisations, one still wonders what they were thinking – especially Tyndall. With Tyndall aged 40 and Huxley 35 in 1860, it’s not like either man could claim the inexperience of youth.
A bit more digging suggests Huxley at least was distracted. The Snowdon trip had been arranged by his wife Nettie, with the help of Tyndall, to relieve the depression he suffered at the recent death of their son, Noel. That Nettie had soon after given birth to another son only added to Huxley’s confusion (Desmond):
[Hal hardly knew whether] ‘it was pleasure or pain. The ground has gone from under my feet once & I hardly know how to rest on anything again’
Nettie…..conspired with Tyndall to get Hal away. That meant one thing. In unprecedented Boxing Day frosts, when the thermometer plummeted to -17 degrees, Busk and Tyndall marched him off to the rareified air of the Welsh mountains, reaching Snowdon on 28th December. The grandeur of it matched ‘most things Alpine‘. (Busk is George Busk (TJ)).
On 19th December, Huxley had written to his friend Joseph Hooker that he was:
“…going to do one sensible thing, however, viz. to rush down to Llanberis with Busk between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day and get my lungs full of hill-air for the coming session.” (The Huxley Letters.)
Llanberis is the village at the base of Snowdon, and Pen y Pass the highest point in the nearby pass. There’s a pub there now, and in 1860 an inn, where, according to Tyndall, Hughes fueled up with whisky before the trip, [and Huxley doubtless topped off his brandy flask] (Tyndall).
Fifteen years later, writing his book Hours of Exercise in the Alps, Tyndall’s torment on Snowdon was fresh in his mind:
“I had no gaiters, and my boots were incessantly filled with snow. My own heat sufficed for a time to melt the snow; but this clearly could not go on for ever. My left heel first became numbed and painful; and this increased till both feet were in great distress. I sought relief by quitting the track and trying to get along the impending shingle to the right. The high ridges afforded me some relief, but they were separated by couloirs in which the snow had accumulated, and through which I sometimes floundered waist-deep. The pain at length became unbearable; I sat down, took off my boots and emptied them; put them on again; tied Huxley’s pocket handkerchief round one ankle; and my own round the other, and went forward once more. It was a great improvement – the pain vanished and did not return.”
And that’s pretty much the story. Maybe it’s because I know the territory so well, or just that I’m a big fan of both these guys; but I love the imagery of Huxley and Tyndall spilling out of Pen y Pass with their half-cut guide, then trogging up Snowdon with their frozen feet and rake handles.
Anyway, all this staring at a computer screen is unhealthy; I’m off out.
Now where did I put those gloves……
Jones, Dewi. The Botanists and Guides of Snowdonia. Pub. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch (Jun 1996), ISBN-10: 0863813836, ISBN-13: 978-0863813832
Tyndall, J. Hours of Exercise in the Alps. Pub. Appleton and Company 1875 (Tyndall originally described his exploits in the Saturday Review 6 Jan 1861 as ‘The Ascent of Snowdon in Winter‘, but clearly felt the tale was worth re-telling in his Alpine book)
Desmond, Adrian. Huxley The Devil’s Disciple. Pub. MIchael Joseph 1994. pp 289-290.
Watching the last episode of Tony Robinson’s ‘Blitz Street’ on Channel 4 this week has prompted a few thoughts and surprising memories.
The four-part series revisited the intensive ‘Blitz’ bombing of Britain during the Second World War by recreating a wartime street and subjecting it to progressively larger explosions, simulating the range of bombs and missiles delivered by the Nazis. The real Blitz bombing was focused on London, but also other cities including: Liverpool, Hull, Coventry, and the city where I was later raised – Leicester.
The show was framed as a serious science experiment that would, as well as being entertaining, generate new data for historians. To that end, the houses were wired with pressure sensors to measure the intensity of the blasts, and the associated destruction was captured with high speed photography.
For example, readings taken inside a recreated domestic Anderson Shelter, constructed from corrugated steel and earth, revealed how under certain bombing conditions the pressure wave would be sufficient to kill the occupants, consistent with contemporary reports of whole families being found externally unscathed but dead from internal injuries. Under other conditions, the test explosions suggested that simply hiding under the stairs had offered adequate protection.
Amazingly, a bottle of milk parked outside one of the houses survived the entire simulated campaign, ranging from the explosion of a 50kg High Explosive (HE) bomb, right through to a simulated V2 rocket impact.
Well, what can you say? Great television. And that surviving bottle of milk was a gift to the producers. For sure, some will criticise various points of historic content and scientific accuracy. Viewers have commented on the under-representation of Hull as the second most bombed city after London; and I was bemused at the placement of the V2 simulated charge behind an earth bank that seemed to guarantee it wouldn’t totally obliterate the set. Others might find the whole thing an unnecessary waste of building materials and explosives.
However the popular verdict washes out, I thought the show’s mix of social history with science and technology successfully outweighed any failings. Here we saw one of the more negative applications of science and technology in context: Science Communication, right? But more so, a graphic raising of awareness that war isn’t just something that happens to others on CNN.
Beyond the politically incorrect schoolboy/girl appeal of blowing things up, Blitz Street got me digging deeper into the science behind the show, looking out my old university notes on flow simulation, super-sonic pressure wave propagation and nozzle design (re the V2).
On a completely different tack, the show reminded me of the many happy (formative?) hours I’d spent as a teenager inside an air-raid shelter.
How come? I may be old enough to have benefited from real chemistry sets and the relaxed authority that accommodated them, but I certainly wasn’t around in the Second World War. I did however grow up assuming everyone had a WWII surface air-raid shelter in their back garden, like this one at my parents home in Leicester.
I’ve always known this cube, with its 14 inch thick brick walls and reinforced concrete ceiling as simply ‘The Shelter’.
When the family moved here in the seventies, the interior was still in immediate post-war condition, including wooden bunk supports for two, maybe four max, persons. To protect from lime, the concrete ceiling had been lined with fascinating newspapers of the period, discovered when I converted The Shelter to a photographic darkroom, re-papering it with pages from Amateur Photographer Magazine.
At the age of twelve or so, The Shelter became my first chemistry laboratory. Minimal ventilation via perforated bricks at the top of each thick wall meant that reactions that were exothermic or likely to generate noxious gases were relegated to the annexed greenhouse. For example, anything where chlorine or oxides of nitrogen were produced, or compounds were combined with acids or oxidants; and anything involving organic compounds. All these were better suited to the fume-cupboard environment of the greenhouse.
An interesting design feature in the wall at right-angles to the main entrance, is a sort of escape hatch comprising a two foot square of bricks where the cement has been replaced with plain sand. The idea, I presume, was that if the house got bombed and fell onto the shelter, the occupants, safe inside, could kick out the bricks on the adjacent wall. It’s been mortared up since, but you can still see the outline in the photo. Originally, an iron bar extended out from the hatch that an external rescuer could pull on to release the brickwork.
Now of course I’m keen to know how my Shelter would have fared against Tony Robinson’s bombs – something to be investigated when I find an appropriate (=free) fluid dynamics package.
And from a social history perspective, I’m intrigued as to why the house had it’s own surface air-raid shelter in the first place. A scan of GoogleEarth suggests none of the neighbours have anything similar; and it’s not the sort of structure that could be easily or inexpensively removed. So more research needed there.
The house wasn’t situated next to a munitions factory or similar target; it’s just one house in a row of similar suburban dwellings. Maybe the owner was just nervous enough, and had the cash, to go one better than the standard Anderson shelter. I’ve heard of similar domestic shelters associated with homes where military personnel were billeted. A US Airborne division was stationed in the city, so maybe that’s the reason. Either way, it was more than paranoia. According to The Leicester Chronicler, two hundred and fifty homes in Leicester were completely destroyed by bombing. A map of all bombs dropped on Leicester during WWII is here at Wartimeleicestershire.com.
Anyhow, looks like Channel 4 at least succeeded in inspiring a nostalgic ramble; make of it what you will.
Gee, I spoil you guys: a blog about a broken screwdriver.
Not just any old screwdriver though, because the handle of this one is made from nitrocellulose, and they don’t do that anymore – not since the 1940s. I found the remains in a garage I’ve been clearing out over the past couple of days.
Nitrocellulose is an interesting material on many levels; its tendency for spontaneous disintegration is only one of the reasons you’ll no longer find it in tool handles, movie film, guitar pick guards, billiard balls, and dice. Its flammability made early nitrocellulose film stock a safety liability; even today the UK Health & Safety Executive publish guidance on its handling (downloadable pdf file).
My first encounter with nitrocellulose came as a 12 year old schoolboy, when in the school library I learnt from a popular science book, ‘The Oddities of Heat’, how to apply nitrocellulose as gun-cotton to the blowing up of bridges. There was even a diagram showing how to position the charge. Ah, the innocent diversions of less troubled times.
More recently, on a visit to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles (don’t ask, I’m going to write that visit up in due course), I saw an exhibition featuring magician Ricky Jay’s collection of disintegrating nitrocellulose dice (you’re already gauging the character of this museum – right?).
So what’s the science behind this fun stuff. And why the spontaneous disintegration?
Nitrocellulose is made by treating cellulose, a natural organic compound found in the cell walls of plants such as cotton, with chemicals containing nitrogen – normally nitric acid. Some hydrogen atoms in the cellulose polymer [C6H7O(OH)3]n are replaced with nitrogen in the form of the nitryl group NO2. The exact properties of the resulting nitrocellulose depend on how much of the hydrogen is replaced with nitrogen.
The fully nitrated and highly explosive gun-cotton version of nitrocellulose thus has the formula [C6H7O(ONO2)3]n. Nitrocellulose with less nitrogen in the chemical structure, known as pyroxylin or (with camphor added to reduce brittleness) celluloid. This is the variety used in old film stock, and is probably what my screwdriver handle is made of. It certainly burns well; I tested it.
Googling this topic yielded a few examples akin to my screwdriver scenario: knife handles, film restoration sites and such like. But a convincing explanation of the spontaneous failure mechanism was more elusive. There are several academic papers in the literature dealing with the reaction chemistry and kinetics (speed) of nitrocellulose breakdown in the laboratory, with more practical discussions focusing on movie film conservation.
In all cases, the disintegration appears to happen in two stages: an initial phase where NO2 groups in gaseous form come free from the nitrocellulose structure, to combine with any water present to form nitric acid. The acid then auto-catalyses the same reaction but at a much higher rate.
It seems fair to hypothesize from this that the release of gases in the surface layers of the screwdriver handle create micro-cracks that transmit the decomposition reaction into the body of the material, the increasing pressure driving the reaction harder. It certainly looks like that’s what has happened.
Yet I still don’t really understand what triggers the timing of the initial decomposition.
Inevitably, spring cleaning and winnowing of the paper archives throws up blasts from the past – often in the form of faded, pre-digital-age photographs. They waft the embers of dormant memories.
This memory concerns a charity drive I made with my brother 19 years ago in support of the British Heart Foundation. The Round Britain Reliability Run involved a group of car enthusiasts loyal to the Triumph brand, driving non-stop (save for pit-stop style re-fueling and the occasional sandwich break) around the UK. That’s a distance of about 2000 miles in something like 40 hours, taking a route from London to John O’Groats to Lands End, and back to London.
A number of thoughts struck me, looking at the photo of our ride – a 1981 Triumph Dolomite Sprint; but two in particular.
Firstly, nobody in 1990 had heard of global warming, so all were oblivious to the carbon footprint of the event or any incongruity with the charitable tone of the challenge (not that heart health and global warming are directly related).
Secondly, this was a reliability run; part of the perverse thrill lay in not knowing with any certainty your vehicle would hack the 2000 miles round trip. Alright, some of these cars were from the 1950’s, but mechanical reliability – even into the ’70s and ’80s – did not compare to today’s standards. The Sprint in particular was prone to engine overheating – a defect which, when it occurred, could be ameliorated by driving with the heaters full on and the windows open.
And guess what? They are still running these events – every two years. What’s more, the Club Triumph Round Britain Reliability Run has from last year been carbon neutral. The carbon impact in terms of off-setting equivalent has been calculated at £10 per car – which is duly charged to the drivers. The beneficiary charity seems to change with each event, but an impressive total of £270,000 has been generated for various causes since 1990.
I never repeated this sort of stunt. For starters, all the Triumphs in our family wore out or were sold off (we had six over the years). And I moved on to more mature transport related pastimes, like throwing bags of flour out of aeroplanes (the science and technology of flour bombing is a post for another day).
Anyhow, a few more of these blast from the past photos were loosed along with this one from the box file of history so, if you’re really unlucky, there could be further posts in Zoonomian’s nostalgia category :-).