Category Archives: science communication

First Citizen Science Project Was A Damp Squib

comic almanac 1831

“A squib is a type of firework, hence damp squib: something that fails ignominiously to satisfy expectations; an anti-climax.”

Oxford English Dictionary


The opportunities for non-scientists to do science have never been greater: it’s called Citizen Science.

Helping out the professionals can involve anything from counting ladybirds in your back yard, to looking for alien life, to classifying galaxies and discovering new planets, to monitoring the population dynamics of the Rose-Ringed Parakeet. Just take your pick from the Zooniverse Smörgåsbord.

But when was the first citizen science project? I’ve been thinking about it lately, and my starter-for-ten comes from some research I did last year about fireworks. There must be other examples, so please comment if you have any.

Not to be distracted by definitions (however interesting – see Openscientist), I’m taking citizen science to mean some sort of research or project where a scientist – or what passed for one at the time – appeals to the public to report observations, measurements, or such like.

My candidate project concerns Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) Benjamin Robins, who in 1748 made a general appeal to the public to observe and report the height of rockets – ultimately with military and surveying purposes in mind – during a firework display.

Without email, podcasts, or Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club, Robins’s request appeared as an anonymous bulletin in the November 1748 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine1 (in his excellent Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History2, Simon Werrett suggests Robins is the most likely author)

Gentleman's MagazineFor if such as are curious and are from 15 to 50 miles distant from London, would carefully look out in all proper situations on the night when these fireworks are play’d off, we should then know the greatest distance to which rockets can possibly be seen; which if both the situation of the observer, and the evening be favourable, will not, I conceive, be less than 40 miles. And if ingenious gentlemen who are within 1,2 or 3 miles of the fireworks, would observe, as nicely as they can, the angle that the generality of the rockets shall make to the horizon, at their greatest height, this will determine the perpendicular ascent of those rockets to sufficient exactness.

The Gentleman’s Magazine1November 1748

Robins had made a name for himself in gunnery and ballistics, calculating for the first time how air resistance affects military projectiles3. Now he enthused over rockets for their

very great use in geography, navigation, military affairs, and many other arts;1.

The light alone from a rocket was a useful signal in war; but Robins knew more was possible. Provided the rocket rises vertically to a known height, the observed angle between the horizon and the rocket at the top of its flight lets you calculate its distance. Before GPS and radio, this could tell you where someone was:

Measuring distance with rockets
A rocket’s distance can be found from its height and the angle it makes with the ground ©Tim Jones

The map maker John Senex had already used the method for surveying4, but Robins needed more height and distance data to refine and calibrate the technique. But where would the rockets come from?

As it turned out, Robins’s timing was perfect. Bringing to an end a series of tortuous European wars, the recently signed Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle was the latest cause for national, and therefore Royal, celebration. And George II planned to celebrate in style, with a sound and light spectacular involving the launch of thousands of firework rockets. The geo-politics of the day were about to lend Robins an unlikely and unwitting hand.

Held at Green Park, London, in April 1749, George’s display, famously accompanied by Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, was huge. No less than 10650 rockets weighing up to 6 pounds each rose into the night sky from a 410 ft long ornate Doric temple or ‘firework machine’5 – 6000 of them reserved to go up together in the finale6.

Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni's Firework Machine in Green Park 1749
Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni’s Firework Machine in Green Park 1749, V&A Museum no. 21228, reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

Robins’ request for two types of data: angle measurements from those close in, and simple confirmations of visibility from those further out, came with instructions:

The observing the angle which a rocket, when highest, makes with the horizon, is not difficult. For if it be a star-light night, it is easy to mark the last position of the rocket among the stars: whence, if the time of the night be known, the altitude of the point of the heavens corresponding thereto, may be found on a celestial globe. Or if this method be thought too complex, the same thing may be done by keeping the eye at a fixed place, and then observing on the side of a distant building, some known mark, which the rocket appears to touch when highest; for the altitude of that mark may be examined next day by a quadrant; or, if a level line be carried from the place where the eye was fixed to the point perpendicularly under the mark, a triangle may be formed, whose base and perpendicular will be in the same proportion as the distance of the observer from the fireworks, is to the perpendicular ascent of the rocket.

The Gentleman’s Magazine1November 1748

Bearing in mind astronomy and triangulation are skills likely absent from most readers’ day jobs, this is quite an intimidating, albeit educational, set of instructions. So much for the procedure; how did the results pan out?

There were some issues on the night, including a large portion of the Doric temple unexpectedly catching fire during the show, and various eye witness accounts suggest the event was a little lack-lustre. But the rockets went up, and George’s spin-doctors took care of any negative PR.

The response to Robins’ experiment was more disappointing, with only one report appearing in the follow up edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and that from a Welshman 138 miles away near Carmarthen:

I had a clear prospect of several miles eastward where I waited with impatience till near 10 o’clock, and then saw two flashes of light, one a few minutes after the other, that rose east of me to the height of about 15 degrees above the visible horizon. I don’t pretend that I saw any body of fire, only a blaze of light, which neither descended like a meteor, nor expanded itself abroad like a lightning, but ascended and died. Clouds interrupted, that I could see no more.

Thomas Ap Cymra, Gentleman’s Magazine, May 17497

Let’s remind ourselves what 138 miles looks like:

Robins’s ‘Citizen Science’ project had one response (©Tim Jones)

So, how believable is Thomas Ap Cymra’s report?

At this distance, a line-of-sight view of the rocket at the top of its trajectory is out of the question, thanks to the curvature of the Earth – never mind the Brecon Beacon mountain range. But we shouldn’t write Thomas off just yet. 6000 rockets going off together would make a hell of a flash, and we know lightning from thunderstorms can be seen from many miles away. And in the First World War there were reports of flashes from the fighting in France being visible from London.

In his full letter, Thomas logically argues why his observations could not have been meteors or lightning. Off the technical topic, he then questions the suitability and cost of the event, saying how he struggles to rationalise the irony of using fireworks to celebrate a military cessation. The moaning somehow makes his observations more credible.

All the same, a single response with no elevation data must have been a disappointment to Robins. And just as well he’d taken the belt-and-braces precaution of making some of his own elevation measurements, with the help of a friend stationed 4000 yards away in Cheapside,

Observations from Cheapside

From these measurements, taken with a sextant with the starry background as reference, Robins was able to publish in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, that the highest Green Park rockets had risen to 8.75 degrees above the horizon, equivalent to a height of 615 yards8.

At six pounds, the Green Park display rockets were relatively small

Robins made further tests after the Green Park display, trusting to friends and colleagues placed at various locations tens of miles from London – itself a non-trivial task without mobile phones – and using rockets of more consistent specification9

Robins trusted to friends in further tests

We have to hand it to Robins, that despite a poor public response, his was a valiant effort to stir up interest and participation using the latest communications media available to him.

We should also remember The Gentleman’s Magazine was the first publication of its type (est. 1721) and the first to reach anything like a wide audience – albeit one excluding women and the not so well-to-do. The concept of a publicly visible two-way conversation via a publication was itself recent, having first appeared in pseudo form in the fictional dialogue between characters in the Spectator Magazine (1711-12). So maybe it was just all too new.

These days, I suppose Robins might suggest participants send him a geo-mapped digital photograph of the rockets.  Some would understand what they were doing – others wouldn’t – but the data would still be good.  But that brings us back to asking exactly who counts as a citizen scientist, which is a whole new question, and probably a good place to stop.


References and further reading

1. ‘A Geometrical Use proposed for ‘the Fire-Works’, Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 18 Nov. 1748, p.488.

2. Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History. Simon Werrett, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

3. New Principles of Gunnery, Benjamin Robins, London, J.Nourse, 1742

4. John Senex Wikipedia article

5. A description of the machine for the fireworks; with all its ornaments, and a detail of the manner in which they are to be exhibited in St.James Park, Thursday, April 27th, 1749, on account of the General Peace, signed at Aix-la-Chappelle, October 7, 1748. Published by His Majesty’s Board of Ordnance. By Gaetano Ruggieri and Gioseppe Sarti.

6. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction. Vol 32, 1838, p.66

7. Fireworks Observed. Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 19, May 1749, pp.217-18

8. Observations on the Height to Which Rockets Ascend; By Mr. Benjamin Robins F. R. S. Phil. Trans. 1749 46 491-496 131-133; doi:10.1098/rstl.1749.0025

9. An Account of Some Experiments, Made by Benjamin Robins Esq; F. R. S. Mr. Samuel Da Costa, and Several Other Gentlemen, in Order to Discover the Height to Which Rockets May Be Made to Ascend, and to What Distance Their Light May be Seen; by Mr. John Ellicott F. R. S. Phil. Trans. 1749 46 491-496 578-584; doi:10.1098/rstl.1749.0109

Leicester’s Famous Bones

Model of Richard III's Skull at the Leicester Guildhall(Photo: Tim Jones)
Model of Richard III’s Skull at the Leicester Guildhall(Photo: Tim Jones)

Spending time in my original home town of Leicester last week was a chance to get better acquainted with the city’s recently recovered celebrity, King Richard III no less, at an exhibition in the ancient Guildhall.  I also got to visit another of my favourite Leicester museums, The New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, which has its own bones to shout about.

Leicester Guildhall (Photo:Tim Jones)
Leicester Guildhall (Photo:Tim Jones)

Richard III

The search for Richard started in August last year, when the University of Leicester working with the King Richard III Society discovered and recovered a skeleton – everything but its feet – from a central Leicester car park: a car park that overlays the site of the former Greyfriars Priory.

Richard was buried in Greyfriars Priory(Photo:Tim Jones)
Richard was buried in Greyfriars Priory(Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Richard III on Greyfriars, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Richard III on Grey Friars, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)

With a barrage of forensic tests and historical interpretation brought to bear over several months, including a DNA match with a living descendant, the remains were finally declared the real deal in February this year.

An unlikely prospect made good for historians and archaeologists, I’m guessing I’m not the only one raised in the city for whom the find has a special fascination.  I lived close to the King Richard’s Road; and as kids we visited nearby Bosworth Field, where Richard fell in 1485; and I can remember some rivalry with the local ‘King Dick’s’ school.   The science labs where I studied for A-Levels were literally a stone’s throw from the burial site.  I’m not suggesting Leicester folk spend all their time sat round thinking about history, but there’s always been a general awareness in the air.

Leicester are proud of their find (Photo:Tim Jones)
Leicester are proud of their find. There are several posters like this around the town (Photo:Tim Jones)

Richard’s character in life, unambiguously portrayed by Shakespeare as one of murderous villainy, is disputed – not least by the splendidly motivated Richard III Society.  But there’s no doubting his popularity in death – not if the queues to the exhibition are anything to go by; I gave up on my first attempt and came back early the next day.

Over a thousand visitors a day (Photo:Tim Jones)
Over a thousand visitors a day (Photo:Tim Jones)

Rather than the real skeleton being on display, there’s a model of the skull and a light-table graphic representation of the bones.  The side-on curved spine characteristic of scoliosis is clearly visible: doubtless the origin of historical reports/myths/exaggerations on Richard’s appearance and gait.

 Skull model and skeleton image (Photo:Tim Jones)
Skull model and skeleton image (Photo:Tim Jones)
 Richard III Exhibition, Guildhall, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)
Richard III Exhibition, Guildhall, Leicester (Photo:Tim Jones)

The suite of scientific tests used to characterise the remains included DNA Sequencing for identification, Radiocarbon Dating for age at death (1450-1538), Stable Isotope Analysis (tooth enamel) and Calculus Analysis (tooth plaque) for diet, health and lifestyle.  The Leicester University team successfully matched mitochondrial DNA from Richard’s teeth with that from his living descendant Michael Ibsen.  For more on the science, see Leicester University’s Richard III website.

New Walk Museum

Passing on Richard’s queue that first day gave me plenty of time to explore Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

 New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Photo:Tim Jones)
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery (Photo:Tim Jones)

New Walk Museum & Art Gallery

I’m spoilt for museums in London, but still have a soft spot for Leicester’s New Walk.  It was the first museum I visited as a child: with an indoor goldfish pond and scary Egyptian mummies standing at the top of the stairs as you went in.  The fish have gone, but the mummies are still there, better contextualised now in a special ancient Egypt exhibit.  And overall they’ve done a great job of keeping up with the times.

On this occasion, supporting a special exhibition on DNA,  I caught a lunchtime lecture on the human genome, by Dr Ed Hollox, a Leicester University geneticist whose talk focused on the genetic basis and geographical distribution of milk (lactose) intolerance.

Part of the interactive Inside DNA exhibition at New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
Part of the interactive Inside DNA exhibition at New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

The Leicester group have also printed a 130 volume hard copy of the entire human genome – as a communication exercise in getting over the sheer size of the thing.  The volumes, printed in tiny 4 point font, are on display at New Walk.

 Printed in 4 point text 130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
Printed in 4 point text 130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)
130 Volume Hard Copy of the Human Genome (Photo:Tim Jones at New Walk Museum, Leicester)

The Rutland Dinosaur

Back to the bones, and this c.168 million year old Ceteosaurus Oxoniensis , known as The Rutland Dinosaur.

The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester's New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester’s New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester's New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Rutland Dinosaur, Cetiosaurus, at Leicester’s New Walk Museum (Photo:Tim Jones)

The long-necked herbivore’s fossilised remains, recovered in 1968 from Great Casterton, Rutland – the county just East of Leicestershire – have a special claim as the most complete (about 40%)  Sauropod found in the United Kingdom.


I’m not alone in my childhood memories of New Walk Museum.  In this video, Sir David Attenborough, who hails from Leicester and stays close to the museum, recalls his early impressions.  Incidentally, the chair he mentions, belonging to the giant Daniel Lambert, is now in Leicester’s Newarke Houses Museum – but that’s a different story.

Let’s not forget too that one of the oldest fossils in the world is kept at New Walk: the pre-Cambrian Charnia fossil, as featured in Attenborough’s First Life series (for more on that, see Return to the Land of Charnia).

All of which lets me finish on a nice obscure link, almost as unlikely as finding Richard III in a car park.  Which is to realise the roof tiles from the Greyfriars Priory, recovered from the excavation and featured in the Guildhall exhibition, come from the very same Swithland slate quarry where Charnia was found.

Swithland slate roof tiles recovered from Greyfriars Priory (Photo: Tim Jones)
Swithland slate roof tiles recovered from Greyfriars Priory (Photo: Tim Jones)

Unexpected Space in a Pasadena Parking Garage

You never know what unexpected quirky stuff is going to show up if you keep your eyes open.

Graffiti by Kenny Scharf in garage of Pasadena Museum of California Art (Photo:Tim Jones)
Graffiti by Kenny Scharf in garage of Pasadena Museum of California Art (Photo:Tim Jones)

This afternoon, Erin and I visited the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see an exhibition of works by Edgar Payne.  We’re both fans of American plein-air painting, and Payne was a master of the technique – so the exhibition was a great success.  But parking up, we found the Museum’s garage had its own artistic charm.

Graffiti by Kenny Scharf in garage of Pasadena Museum of California Art (Photo:Tim Jones)

The graffiti is by artist Kenny Scharf, and instantly caught my eye with its images of rocket ships and swirling galaxies.   The garage – or Kosmic Kavern – is the colorful legacy of an exhibition of Scharf’s work in the gallery proper in 2004 – his graffiti in the garage was just never cleaned off!  Scharf’s work is influenced by the 1962 animated comedy sit-com The Jetsons, and there are other bits of space and nuclear iconography from the Golden Age of American Science spotted around – like the mushroom cloud and atom-swirl.

The Jetson's lived the future for folks in 1962 (Photo:Tim Jones)
The Jetson’s lived the future for folks in 1962
The Jetsons (Wikipedia)
The Jetsons (Source: Wikipedia)

Some of the Jetson’s techno-utopia became a reality.  But not, unfortunately, the aerocar or three-day week.


More Kenny Scharf

If you’d like to see more of his Kenny Scharf’s work, there’s a good collection at Artsy’s Kenny Scharf Page


Of related interest on Zoonomian

Chemistry in the Golden Age of American Science

Buck Rogers – A Copper-clad Lesson from History

Puzzling over Tyrannosaurs at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

Thomas and friends illustrate three stages of tyranosaur development (Photo:Tim Jones)
Thomas and friends illustrate three stages of development (Photo:Tim Jones)

How when we dig up a dinosaur bone do we know it comes from a young animal or a smaller example of a different species?  That’s a question the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles collection of T.rex helps answer.

Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History ©Tim Jones
Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History

Yesterday, Erin and I visited the new Dinosaur Hall, where for the first time fossilised skeletons of three complete Tyrannosaurs are brought together to illustrate the different stages in the animal’s development.

 Thomas today: looking good
Thomas today: looking good

Above you see the three who died at 17 yrs, 14 yrs, and 2 yrs.

Here’s the largest, Thomas, as he looked a couple of years back when we last visited the museum: encrusted in rock, but the star all the same of his own very public extraction in the Dino Lab:

 in 2010 (Photo:Tim Jones)
Thomas being uncovered in the Dino Lab (Photo: Tim Jones)
Dino Lab in 2010 (Photo:Tim Jones)
In the Dino Lab visitors can watch the professionals at work

Dino Lab at Museum of Natural History Los Angeles

Dino Lab at Museum of Natural History Los AngelesComparing the three, we see that Tyrannosaurs don’t just scale up uniformly as they grow.  The eye sockets, for example, are more rounded in babies, changing to a keyhole shape in the adult.  The accompanying texts to the display explain how the relative length of the foot bone to the leg decreases from 70% to 50% from 2 to 17 yrs.

At 14 yrs. Adolescent, but dangerous.
2 yr old toddler Tyrannosaur

On a lighter note.  Ever wondered what a Tyrannosaurus rex looks like with (most of) its bones missing?  Probably not I guess, but here it is:


This was a bit of fun we got roped into: a Tyrannosaur puzzle no less.   The bones of the T.rex are taken off the frame, and it’s up to us non-experts to put them back in the right place.   It’s harder than you might think – and it makes you think! (Shh – that’s the point).

Where to start…..

I got off to an easy start with those deceptively unimpressive fore-limbs we all know and love from Jurassic Park, but soon came to grief when it came to the ribs. Best leave things to the experts:

The tail bone’s connected to the ……..?

Assembling a Tyrannosaur is just like working on your car: there’s always an extra piece left over when you put it back together……

A tyrannosaur also guards the gate... (photo:Tim Jones)
A tyrannosaur also guards the gate…

Great exhibition and well recommended.   Thanks to NHMLA for an enjoyable afternoon.


Matt Melis Shares 30 Years of the Space Shuttle at the London Science Festival

There are so many science events going on in London at the moment, it’s hard to know what to join and what to skip.  But last night’s London Science Festival talk by NASA’s  Matt Melis was a no-brainer – and quite excellent.

Matt Melis, NASA Glenn Research Center at London Science Festival 2011
Matt Melis, NASA Glenn Research Center at London Science Festival (Photo:Tim Jones)

Not only is Melis an ‘insider’ who’s up for sharing those tidbits of information and video clips you don’t normally see; but he’s also an engineer with a math and physical modelling background that resonates a little with my own research roots; so I guess I’m a fan.  The event was organised by Francisco Diego (UCL Physics & Astronomy) and Melis was introduced by writer/film-maker Chris Riley (In the Shadow of the Moon, First Orbit, Space Shuttle the Final Mission).  Melis collaborated with Riley on his production Final Mission with Kevin Fong, and has his own movie Ascent out on YouTube (embedded below).

Francisco Diego, Chris Riley, Matt Melis at London Science Festival Photo:Tim Jones
Francisco Diego, Chris Riley, Matt Melis at London Science Festival (Photo:Tim Jones)

Kicking off with an all-round engineering tour of the shuttle, the focus soon turned to the intensive ‘return to flight’ programme NASA pursued after the STS-107 Columbia disaster of 2003.

The cause of the accident was traced to a wing leading-edge being damaged by a briefcase-sized piece of insulating foam detached from the fuel tank during launch.  Melis described the variety of model tests used to confirm the analysis and help pre-empt future impact scenarios.  So, lots of high speed film of various projectiles, from foam to ice, impacting various bits of Shuttle; the whole thing made more real by the samples of foam, orbiter leading-edge material, and a cross-section of the aluminium/foam fuel tank composite he passed around the audience.

Feeling the foam’s super-lightness in your hand brings home just how counter-intuitive reality can be.  Travelling fast enough – over 500 mph in this case – the impact of an apparently harmless piece of foam is devastating.  Melis showed the clip in this video of a full-scale impact test of foam hitting an actual Shuttle leading-edge section:

The key take-away for NASA, and I guess for all of us, is that we learn most through failure – painful as that can be.

Vulture falls away after impact with STS-114, 2005 (Photo:NASA)
Vulture falls away after impact with STS-114, 2005 (Photo:NASA)

Management systems and general attitudes, as well as technology, changed over the Shuttle’s 30 year life.  Melis showed  a photo of icicles hanging off the gantry of the ill-fated Challenger launch-pad: they weren’t the cause of the disaster – that was the booster O-rings – but they could have been if they’d got caught up in the turbulence of the launch.   Nobody thought that way back then though, or the information didn’t get to the right people.  Similarly, on one of the HD videos that NASA started using extensively post-Columbia, Melis showed a bunch of vultures sitting on the gantry at launch, at least one of whose number (all six foot wing-span of him), spooked by the engine start-up, ended up smashing into the rising fuel tank.

All in all a great evening, but not one I’m going to recount in its entirety here.  Here’s a flavor though in Melis’s Ascent:


Bonus Clips from Ascent:

Lawrence Krauss Sprinkles Stardust at the School of Life

I’d heard of Alain de Botton’s School of Life  and its  “good ideas for everyday living“; I just hadn’t been to one of their ‘Sunday Sermons’.

Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
Krauss 2.0 ?

So arriving at Conway Hall yesterday to hear theoretical physicist and all-round science communicator Professor Lawrence Krauss talk about Cosmic Connections, it was an unexpected but not disagreeable surprise to find David Bowie and a seven foot spandex-clad devil stirred into the mix.  I for one can’t think of a better preparation for contemplating one’s insignificance in a miserable futureless universe than a good singalong to Space Oddity.

Conway Hall (Photo:Tim Jones)
Conway Hall (Photo:Tim Jones)
Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
“You are stardust; it is literally the most poetic thing I know about in all of science”

On the face of it, Krauss’s ultimate message is a bit grim: that our expanding, accelerating, universe will eventually dilate into cold, empty, blackness.  But, more positively, he’s saying we should take all that as read and concentrate on our perspective: understand what we really are and how we connect with the universe.  Then the journey to oblivion doesn’t look so miserable afterall; it looks fascinating – even poetic.

Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
Stardust meets Starman

Krauss’s consciousness-raising / cheer-up therapy centred around three less than obvious connections we have with the cosmos:

First off – we are the universe.  We’re made of stars.   The heavy elements that make us up could only have been made in stars, and they could only end up as part of us if they were blasted out of exploding stars: the supernovae.

Crab Nebula
You were here…

Call me a romantic, but I like the imagery.  Bits of me: hands and feet, arms, legs, head, brain – they didn’t just pop up a few decades ago, but have been flying around for billions of years and will be around for billions more.  I’ve been inside an exploding supernova – several most likely.

Lawrence Krauss and the Devil. Photo by Tim Jones
Straight on at purgatory, then right at the second circle….

devil photo Tim Jones
What the….

Next came the connectedness of life, with a nice story of Krauss sitting to write a physics paper, aware  he’s breathing the very atoms breathed by Einstein as he formulated his own theories (inspired inhalation?).  We’ve all got a bit of Julius Caesar in us it seems – literally.  And on the larger scale of the solar system, the exchange of possible life-bearing rocks between the Earth and other planets, including Mars, could mean we’re all extra-terrestrials without even knowing it.

Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
“The future is miserable”

Krauss’s final illustration challenges our perception that aspects of reality we normally consider outlandish and irrelevant to our day-to-day life do indeed have a direct influence on us.  The mundane activity in question is navigation by Global Positioning System (GPS), where the consquences of not correcting for satellite speed (Special Relativity), and height above the Earth (gravity effect/General Relativity), on measurement of the requisite nano-second scale signal transit times, would in only a day be sufficient to put ground track navigation out by several kilometres.

“Ground control to Major Tom”
Lawrence Krauss at Conway Hall 16th October 2011. Photo by Tim Jones
“Bits of Mars are falling on Earth all the time”

I really like this GPS example and the way Krauss presented it.  There was no such thing as GPS when I was at school, so all we got were stories of atomic clocks losing time when they were shot round the world on fast planes, or hypothetical astronauts of the future going on fictional journeys.  To be able to relate relativistic effects to a very real navigational error that normal folk can recognise and care about is brilliant.

Who’d have thought Sunday sermons could be such fun?

Lawrence Krauss and Tim Jones Photo Sven Klinge
It’s important to help struggling authors….

Photographs copyright Tim Jones.

Final photo: Thanks Sven Klinge.

Update 4th Dec. 2011 Video of the event:

Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections from The School of Life on Vimeo.

Also of interest? – Lawrence Krauss recently on Materials World with Quentin Cooper (about 15 mins in)



Something’s Brewing in Darkest Surrey

Wine fermenting in a demijohn (photo: Tim Jones)

Q – What did the grape say when an elephant stepped on him?

A – Nothing.  He just let out a little wine.

The first alcohol I ever drank was home brewed.  I was twelve when the evil liquor – orange and raison wine – was served up by my refreshingly enlightened policeman uncle of all people.  We’d visit the house and find these wort-filled vessels in the bathroom, glug-glug-glugging as bubbles of carbon dioxide chugged through little glass airlocks.

Not that I was swilling the stuff in quantity you understand, but what better introduction to the practical application of biochemistry and chemical engineering.  Who knows what influence these little episodes have on later life decisions?

Six years later, as an impoverished student at Birmingham University, I was brewing my own 40 pints of  barely drinkable delicious Mild Ale (pronounced ‘m + oiled’ in the local dialect).  And while I never got into the brewing habit big time, I still on occasion reach for the demijohn and yeast – like recently, prompted by the  promise of summer blackberries and the pungent whiff of Thames-side hops.

It’s obvious booze is an educational resource we ignore at our peril; but to consolidate, consider what’s going on in that murky ochre, as it sits in my hall, infusing the carpets and curtains with its fruity ambience.   I hope it’s this:


C12H22O11  + H2O   ->   C6H12O6 +    C6H12O6

Sucrose        Water        Glucose           Fructose


followed by this:

C6H12O6 ->   2C2H5OH    +    2CO2

(Glucose/Fructose)           Alcohol (Ethanol)          Carbon Dioxide

Yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Wikicommons)

The contents of the bottle are yellow because the blackberries haven’t actually appeared yet, so for now I’m using Chardonnay grape concentrate out of a can.  And as that contains fructose from the grapes plus added glucose syrup, and I’m adding sucrose on top of that, both reactions should have kicked off immediately – the whole thing enabled by one of my favourite eukaryotic micro-organisms – Saccharomyces cerevisiae: a wine yeast.

There’s nothing to do now until it ferments out, but I managed to kill 20 minutes using the chemistry and bubble rate data to figure out how things are ticking along.  I reckon I’ll produce 511g of alcohol and 488g  (273 litres) of CO2, which at the current bubble rate means the fermentation will take 6 days  (workings in the end-notes for those interested and assuming I’ve remembered my O-level chem.).

We covered production of ethanol from fermentation at school, but I don’t remember doing any distillation (which is illegal without a license in the UK).  Certainly nothing to compare with the alcohol education afforded 1960s American youth courtesy of the fabulous Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (excerpts below), which covers fermentation with yeast plus the distillation/synthesis of ethanol, methanol, and a bunch of other fun compounds from the ethanol ‘Family Tree’:

I love the helpful precautionary note on chloroform:’THEN SNIFF CAREFULLY’.  A complete home schooling if ever there was one:

That’s all really. I’ll update with a report on the finished product, assuming the wrong types of bug and oxygen don’t intervene and vinegarate the show.

One last item though.  Yeast is of course also used in baking; the carbon dioxide from fermentation causes dough to rise.  So here’s a particularly rigorous explanation of the process from Alton Browne.   It’s over my head, but I’m sure the trained biochemists out there will relate. (Quality isn’t up to much either – sorry about that.)




The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. Robert Brent, Golden Press New York, 1960. (Anne Marie Helmenstine has a page linking to a pdf of the book at

Drink Aware


Guessing there’s about 300g of glucose in the concentrate, and I know I’ve added 450g sucrose to 5.5 litres of water. As 1 Mole sucrose (242g) yields 2 Moles glucose/fructose (360g), 450g sucrose will make 669g glucose/fructose. With the 300g in the syrup that rounds up to about 1000g total C6H12O6. 1 Mole of C6H12O6 (180g) makes 2 Moles ethanol (92g) plus 2 Moles carbon dioxide (88), so 1000g should make 511g of alcohol and 488g carbon dioxide. That’s roughly half a kilo of alcohol in 5.5kg water, or, ignoring the density difference, about 10% by volume . These kits supposedly deliver 12%, so the 300g estimate was probably low. The volume of gas produced can be calculated given 1 Mole CO2 (44g) has a volume of 22.4 litres at STP (24.6 at current 25deg C room temp), so our 488g equates to 273 litres of gas having to bubble through the airlock. It’s bubbling at about 1 per second with an estimated bubble volume of half a cm3 ; so I figure at that rate it will take 6 days to ferment out. All of which seems to hang together with what it says on the tin.

Science Communication – Over the Garden Fence

science communication over the garden fence

Last week’s Public Attitudes to Science report from Ipsos MORI and BIS says a lot about how the  public feel about and engage with science.

The Summary is worth five minutes of anyone’s time.

But what came unbidden to my mind, as I pondered how informed or uninformed people are about science, was a visit from a neighbour last week, and a reminder that we don’t need to appear on the telly or be called Brian Cox to do our own bit for science communication.

Basically, the guy spots me over the fence messing around with my telescopes, and invites himself over for a look-see.  And, yes, he has been ‘Wonderised’ by Brian.

So I drop plans to photograph the ISS – I’ve got enough of those anyhow – and instead show him Saturn through the little ETX-90.  For a first view through a telescope we could hardly do better.

We talk about the earth’s rotation and why the telescope’s axis points at the pole – watching Saturn scoot across the view with the drive turned off.   We talk about the cost of kit, magnification, aperture, and what can be achieved with a pair of binoculars.

The forgotten ISS appears.  Ultra-bright.  Fantastic stuff.

The truth is that astronomy could have been designed for engagement, with other areas of science and engineering not lending themselves to a hands-on demo in quite the same way.  I’ve worked with everything from fluid mechanics, to ultrasonics, to high-power lasers and the thermodynamics of steelmaking slags.  It’s all fascinating stuff  (believe me :-P); and while earthbound, still somehow less accessible than the stars.

This is where good science writing steps in; but TO MY POINT: if you know something cool – don’t wait for an invite to the Royal Society or the BBC to share it.   And have a peep over your neighbours fence; you might see something interesting.  (But don’t get arrested either.)

Let’s Make A Comet

Having unaccountably failed to spot comet McNaught on its recent visit, I was compensated last week by a meeting with this artificial comet created at the Griffith Observatory .

Demonstrator Grace holds the artificial comet (Photo:Tim Jones)

Demonstrator Grace is holding the tangible product of last Friday’s  ‘Let’s Make A Comet’ event, held in the Griffith’s Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theatre.   And I have to say, it was one of the best half hour’s worth of science communication I’ve seen.

I think the shear fun value had a lot to do with it.  And although the show was geared to a young audience, there was no dumbing down of the science or talking down to the kids.  Presentation style and jokes were witty rather than silly, patronising, or childish; and references to popular culture, like Harry Potter and the Transformers movie, were entertaining but topic-related.  The professionalism of the two demonstrators / presenters really made the show, and it’s taking nothing away from the scientific knowledge and skills these guys have, to say they were genuine entertainers.

The comet was made by mixing together common substances containing the elements found in real comets.  So that meant shaking up water, sand, carbon, and cleaning fluid (ammonia) together with dry-ice, or frozen CO2, in a plastic bag; the details are here on Griffith’s Teacher Resources page.

Griffith Observatory (Photo:Tim Jones)

I liked the hidden plan to pull an audience in on the promise of seeing a comet being made, then to educate them on broader themes and related topics; the practical demonstration happening only at the end of the session.   There was nothing sinister in that though, and it all went down well with the bulk of the show taken up with a mix of talk, slides, videos and Q&A breaks.  A lot of ground was covered, ranging from the chemical and physical requirements for life, to how the solar system is thought to have formed, and a pretty good introduction to astrobiology – including a discussion of extremophile life-forms.

Lecture theatre events are inevitably going to be a little one-way, but there was good engagement through the Q&As and frequent questions back to the audience. And it’s not like this was a public consultation on the risks of nanotechnology, the material being relatively uncontroversial.

Having the finished item available for inspection after the show was a big plus, and I’m sure the memory of it will for many people be a lasting anchor for the science they picked up.

The Cricket Thermometer – Fact or Fiction?

Can you tell the temperature by listening to how fast crickets chirrup in the evening?   Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks so, according to this Tweet yesterday evening:

Sounds like a great idea, and as I’m up in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains at the mo’ – cricket central by my standards  – I thought I’d test out the theory.   thermometerI should also say that Dr Tyson is not the first person to suggest you can tell the temperature with a cricket, and he’s only having a bit of fun, so in the worst case scenario he’ll be guilty of spreading, rather than generating, misleading information ;-).

Heading to the garden armed with a  digital recorder and a laboratory thermometer, I quickly found a suitable subject.  The temperature read 65 degrees Fahrenheit.   This is what the chirruping sounded like:

Press the arrow key to stream live,

[podcast][/podcast]- Cricket at 65F, 20.40hrs

From this sample, using only my ears, I counted 67 chirps in a 15 second period (it’s tricky counting that fast, but I found I could do it by checking off groups of 8 chirps on my fingers).  According to Dr Tyson’s formula, that gives a temperature of 67 plus 40 = 107 F; a whole 42 degrees above the actual temperature.

So, why the difference?

We’re doing something vaguely akin to science here, which means there’s a whole load of stuff to check out before rushing to condemn Dr Tyson for inaccurate tweeting.

  • Was it indeed a cricket I was listening to? Sounded like one, but I didn’t actually see it.
  • Was Neil referring to a specific type of cricket, but the 140 Twitter limited the detail he could provide?  If he’s missed out a division factor of 2 on the cricket count, that would put my number in the right ballpark.
  • Did I listen to the cricket long enough?  Was it in a cricket warm-up or warm-down mode?
  • Was my thermometer broken?  Ideally I’d have two or more to check, calibrated against a standard.  But I don’t think it was the problem.
  • Could the cricket be hiding under someone’s air-conditioning unit outlet?  This isn’t so far fetched actually.  We have one in the house at the moment living under our fridge because it’s warm.
  • Was my sample large enough – both in terms of number of recordings and number of crickets?  I did make four separate recordings and (for now take my word for it) they were pretty similar.  That said, I should really come back over a number of evenings at different times to be sure – right?

Well, in the longer term the sample could get large, as I’ll probably be listening out for these things obsessively for the rest of my life now.

But in the meantime I wondered if the explanation was down to definitions of what a ‘chirp’ is.  In fact, I sort of convinced myself the chirps I had recorded might be doubling up; maybe something the cricket was doing with its legs: ‘chirp-chirp’, ‘chirp-chirp’, etc. – each ‘chirp-chirp’ counting as one ‘chirp’.  Are these double chirps what Neil had been counting as single chirps?  Was it an issue of resolution and my ears?   To find out, I slowed the recording to 0.19 times its normal speed and re-recorded a sample to get this:

Press the arrow key to stream live:


and a waveform looking like this:

Cricket sound slowed down to x0.19 original

Interestingly, what you hear on the playback isn’t ‘chirp-chirp’ at all; but ‘chirp-chirp-chirp’.  And it doesn’t help us, because each group of three sub-chirps only makes up a single one of our original chirps.  And there is no indication of a slower beat or modulation that would yield a lower chirp count.  My original estimate remember was 67, and if you count the groups on the expanded trace above you’ll find there are 13 in 15 seconds on the slowed down trace or, correcting for the factor of 0.19, gives us 68.4.  Virtually where I started.  The cricket still says it’s 107F when it’s only 65F.  (BTW – you can also hear another animal making an even faster noise in the background.)

In conclusion, accepting all the experimental limitations and caveats listed above, this test alone does not inspire confidence in the formula, and hence, the value of the tweet.

But hey, on the bright side we’ve all learned some possibly quite useless information about crickets, plus, more importantly, something of the pitfalls to watch out for in chronological cricket research (or any research for that matter).