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Chris Harris's Blog Archive: September 2010

A very sad and subdued month.



It's not easy to write this: Mum died in the early hours of Friday morning. She'd been ill for a long time, but it hasn't made things any easier to deal with.

Mum was an extraordinary person. From the cards and messages we've received over the last few days it's clear that she had a positive and lasting effect on many people's lives. If you met Mum, she would rapidly become your friend, and she would remain so for the rest of her days - Mum never believed in falling out with people. She was incredibly generous and giving, and she was never happier than when the house was full of friends, relatives and neighbours.

Mum had an extraordinary range of interests. She never forgot the cold November night back in 1998 when she and I sat in the back garden for several hours watching a spectacular meteor shower from the Leonids swarm; she'd seen the flashes from inside the house and thought I was playing about with my camera. She was an avid radio listener, and loved to tell me about programmes that she'd listened to which she'd particularly enjoyed. In recent years she had become quite an admirer of Professor Brian Cox!

She loved gardening. This summer she was still pottering around the garden in her electric buggy, digging up weeds and putting the flowerbeds in order. The garden was just one outlet for her immense creativity: I have pieces of batik and stained glass that she gave to me, and the house in Norfolk is full of her work. She encouraged that creativity in others, too, and would take genuine delight in seeing the results.

Mum loved nature. When we lived in London she would feed foxes by hand on the front doorstep, and several times discovered a grey squirrel was sitting on the kitchen table watching her doing her sewing. She loved visiting the RSPB reserve at Titchwell and when she was too ill to go birdwatching any more we set up bird feeders outside her window so the birds could come to her. And come they did - she loved telling me what she'd seen on the bird table. At the same time she loved watching and listening to the aircraft that flew over the house. North Norfolk is a military flying zone, and on the regular occasions when RAF Hercules aircraft made low passes over the house (often just a hundred feet up) she would always tell me about it.

As I write about all these things I'm just beginning to realise that they're not going to happen any more. I'm still discovering just how much I'm going to miss her. But I know she wouldn't want people to be sad - that really wasn't part of Mum's philosophy. I think the trick is to keep thinking of the many aspects of her life that made me smile or laugh out loud; those things will last for a lifetime.


It's Sunday afternoon and the house smells of the freshly ground coffee and hot cross buns I had for breakfast. I've already been to the dump to recycle some old electrical equipment that no longer works, and for good measure I've even mowed the lawn.

I ascribe this sudden burst of activity to the fact that I had a really good night's sleep last night, courtesy of a couple of painkillers at bedtime and a heated pad taped to the small of my back. I wish I slept that well every night - I'd be much more like my old self if I did. The fact that I'm blogging about it should give you some idea of how rarely it happens to me these days.


I still can't get used to the fact that I can eat hot cross buns for breakfast in September these days. I know our society is becoming increasingly secular, but it feels weird eating something that celebrates Easter at the beginning of autumn. Tesco (the store where I bought mine) now sell nine different varieties of the things in the run up to Easter, according to the BBC. Three of those varieties are on sale all year round.

Given the 2007 statistic that one pound in every seven spent in British shops is spent at Tesco, it's not much of a stretch to infer that the supermarket chain is the most likely driver for this change in our eating habits. If people buy them - and buy them in large quantities - for part of the year, they'll probably buy them for the rest, so why not sell them all year? I'm not sure whether I'm surprised or alarmed by the way a single business can affect a change in national behaviour like this, but I did enjoy my breakfast.


Mum continues to improve. When I rang the hospital yesterday, they put me through to her room and I was able to have a chat with her. She sounded much more like her old self, and it was great to hear her sounding better.


Bizarre star's death spiral. A binary star system is spraying carbon out into space like a giant catherine wheel. I kid you not.


The way that the shutter works for the CMOS sensor in a non-SLR digital camera can occasionally produce some gorgeous weirdness. This makes me want to go out and see what my iPhone can do.


Full marks to the Economist for their headline - it looks like Mr Scott was wrong and something can change the laws of physics. Take the square of the value of the charge on an electron and divide it by the Planck Constant multiplied by the speed of light, then multiply the lot by two pi. The units of measurement cancel each other out and you end up with a number that has no dimensions (in other words, it's a numerical value rather than a measurement of anything concrete) which quantifies the coupling constant of the electromagnetic interaction - that is, how much force is exerted on an electron by an electromagnetic field.

You should also end up with a number - known as the Fine Structure Constant or alpha for short - that always works out to be 1/137.0359 because the speed of light, the amount of electrical charge on an electron and Planck's Constant are generally considered to be - well, constant.

Except that this does not appear to be the case. Look far enough through the universe from Earth's northern hemisphere and you'll come up with an answer for the constant that's slightly smaller than it should be. Look in the opposite direction, from Earth's southern hemisphere, and you'll find a value that's bigger than it should be. In each case, the discrepancy is around one part in 100,000 and there's only a 1 in 15,000 chance that the measurements are at fault. The fact that the discrepancy shows equal hemispherical variance is strongly suggestive that the observed effect is real. If it's true, it's a mind-bogglingly strange one. In fact it's difficult to explain just how deeply, deeply weird this is. It's like measuring the distance to work one day and finding that it's ten feet further when you're going to the office than it is when you're coming back.

Now, our understanding of how the universe works is pretty good. By that I mean that our theoretical models of things like the structure of atoms and fields like electricity and gravity and magnetism do a fantastically good job of explaining how everything all works. These models work to the point that we can predict that all sorts of unobserved phenomena are likely to exist - based purely on what we already know. When physicists go looking for the phenomena that the models predict, they know they are very likely to find them and that they will behave exactly as predicted. These predictions aren't necessarily what common sense would lead you to expect, either. Perhaps the finest example I can think of was when Sir Arthur Eddington measured the position of stars close to the sun during the 1919 total eclipse and found that they had moved exactly in accordance with Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Einstein had predicted that the sun's immense gravity would bend starlight if it came close enough to the surface and sure enough, that's what had happened.

Predict something and see if it happens. If it does, your theory passes the test - for now. Eventually someone might devise an experiment in which something that isn't predicted occurs, and that's when the hard work really begins. This approach is fundamental to the scientific method. If your theory is good enough to allow you to predict something is going to happen and you find out that it really does happen, then that's a pretty good indication that your theory is correct. Forget all the idiots carping on about their "it's only a theory" bullshit; they don't understand how science works. If their model of the world says that something happens by magic, then it's not a testable hypothesis. Magic only works as an explanation for things that have already happened, and it's a dubious explanation even then. Theories are all about making predictions; prediction is a way of putting a theory to the test; testing things means you have to keep refining your models of how things work; the more you refine them, the better your models of reality get. And the better your model of reality, the more accurate your predictions of things are likely to be. The scientific method is a wonderful, circular process that has enabled our working knowledge of things to get better and better.

Physicists have often wondered why the fundamental properties of the universe are just right for stars to form planets and for matter to hang around long enough, and in an appropriate form, for life to evolve. If any one of a dozen constants defining the physical properties of the universe took a value that was even a teeny bit different, there would be no galaxies, no stars, no atoms. Physicists get very uncomfortable with explanations along the lines of "that's just the way things are." As a result, you'll sometimes hear them refer dismissively to the cosmological anthropic principle as the Goldilocks Effect. Why should things be just right for life to exist? Now it seems that the rest of the universe might exhibit different properties elsewhere. Perversely, this turns out to be a more believable scenario than if the whole universe has the same properties, everywhere.

This is where science really gets interesting. These results indicate something's going on which isn't explained by the current models. Our understanding does not currently have a process to explain why any of the fundamental quantities described above would need to change over time and that, folks, means that physics is going to be an even more awesomely interesting field until someone comes up with an explanation. I can't wait to see what happens.


The League of Gentlemen got together last month for the first time in five years, and they did it at the Ram Inn up the road from me in Wotton. Over the last decade, the Ram has become well known for promoting itself as the most haunted pub in Britain. Whether that's true or not is irrelevant; to get the folk behind Edward and Tubbs making a programme for Radio Four on the premises is quite a coup. The programme will be broadcast just before halloween on October 28th.


I keep meaning to post about a page of links to 100 helpful photography tutorials that I saw last month. There's some useful stuff in there, although many of the tutorials are extremely basic. Still, if you don't already know about things like the rule of thirds, it'll help you improve the composition of your pictures.


More physics news (it's been that sort of day). The University of Colorado have a fascinating article on their website about the findings of the latest international study of asteroids. The study looked at asteroid pairs - rocks that orbit around each other, just like moons orbit around planets - and suggests that in some cases these pairs form when a larger asteroid spun itself apart, rotating so fast that the rock's weak gravitational field was too feeble to overcome centrifugal force. And how had that rotation built up? From sunlight.

It's all down to something called the Yarkovsky effect and it may even help us to deflect space rocks on a collision course with Earth by painting them black or white.


Jeez, I go away for a week and when I get back I found out that Duke Nukem Forever has risen from the grave. I thought the gaming industry's most notorious vapourware was finally dead and buried, but apparently not. Hey, it's only been "in production" for a couple of centuries, right?

However, my eyebrows were raised considerably by the news that it's Gearbox Software who now own the franchise. Gearbox, you should know by now, are the people behind my favourite game on the PS3, Borderlands. And Gearbox Software was formed by folk who used to work at the original DNF developer, 3D Realms...


A classical voice teacher assesses the vocal talents of singers from a very different genre: heavy metal. Singers examined include Bruce Dickinson, Ronnie James Dio and Ozzy Osbourne, and the verdicts are surprising, particularly the frontman of Judas Priest, Rob Halford, who is summed up with two words: "Mad skills."



Meanwhile, U2 meets the International Space Station. As Bono says, ""These are the very best people in the world - dedicated to figuring how our little planet exists in this cosmos we call home."

Which is pretty much where we came in.


I'm back home after a fraught week in Norfolk. When I got there last Sunday, Mum was in a bad way. She wasn't conscious but would occasionally mutter "oh dear" to herself and that was about it; yet when I saw her on Friday she'd been able to take a shower and was sitting up in bed chatting and eating jelly and ice cream. The difference was remarkable and as I visited her each day it was amazing to watch her recover. Mum is still very ill, and I suspect she'll be in hospital for some time, but the situation doesn't appear to be as desperate as it was a week ago.


So, what have I missed over the past week or so? If you watched the BBC News Channel (and Dad has that on for much of the day) you'd have thought that the only things to occur recently were an ex-Prime Minister's attempt to rewrite history and a bunch of sportsmen getting caught accepting money. In fact, the BBC coverage of the Pakistan cricketing scandal was excessive, even for a rolling news channel. It went on, and on, and on - in some cases no other news story was mentioned for more than 25 minutes. This is not balanced news coverage; considering the other events that were going on at the time, such as the flooding in Pakistan, or the Middle East peace negotiations, or Stephen Hawking doing away with God, or Cyril Smith passing away, the focus on a few dodgy dealings in sport was ludicrously misjudged.

Or do you think perhaps that there are other, political reasons for giving Pakistan such bad press at the moment?


Still no news - other than it's supposed to happen "this month" - on when the latest downloadable content for Borderlands will be available. I'm getting twitchy already.