Science people perennially grumble that, when journos like me get hold of a bit of science and/or technology and then try to write about it for a non-specialist audience, we dumb it down. (Engineering people grumble similarly, but unlike the scientists, there seems to be little expectation that they will be understood, so the disappointment is less.)
Anyway, the big news in science this morning, courtesy of Associated Press, is that astronomers have found a planet orbiting a distant star that might, just might, fulfil the conditions needed to support life as we know it. Rather charmingly, the scientists involved have dubbed it the Goldilocks planet, because its position relative to its star is such that its surface temperature is likely to be not too cold, not too hot, but just right.
This is pretty exciting stuff: around 500 planets orbiting stars have been discovered so far, but this is apparently the first one to hit the target for position and size. There are, of course, plenty of caveats attached, because there are lots of other factors that come into play here. And most of the AP article is sensibly cautious. (It also, thank goodness, doesn’t go in for any of those false comparatives with strange units, as in the phrase “scientists have discovered a planet the size of Wales with oceans that would fill seventeen Olympic swimming pools…”.)
Even so, there’s a couple of things, but they seem to come from the scientists involved, not the journalists. One is that someone is quoted as saying that, because this planet has been discovered “so early” in the hunt for other planets, there must be a lot of habitable planets out there. Uh huh? We journalists get stick for taking random single events and claiming they represent a trend: why should we be tolerant when science folk do the same?
And then there’s the picture – in fact, a set of pictures. Here’s the planet and its sun and, oh my word, it’s blue and green and white and looks remarkably like a jumbled-up version of Earth. And the source of this fanciful artwork? It’s the National Science Foundation.
27 September Stuck in traffic
I spent the weekend in west London. Not intentionally. And not all of it. But certainly far too much of it. On both Saturday and Sunday it was my “pleasure” to drive from home in south London a small matter of about nine-and-a-half miles to the bit just under the Westway where part of the family lives. I did it three times in each direction in all. And in all I spent more than six hours doing it.
That works out at a little over nine miles per hour, and I only managed to achieve that because the last journey back home, fairly late on Sunday evening, took no more than half an hour.
From my travels, it was obvious I wasn’t alone. Indeed, everywhere I turned there were other motorists, congested alongside me. Occasionally, they smiled or shrugged their shoulders: no one much was losing their tempers or fretting. This is the way life is in inner London. Sitting behind the steering wheel, we’re all brothers and sisters in atrophy, powerlessly calcified by necrotising traffic sclerosis. It’s no one’s fault.
But if no one’s specifically to blame for there being too many cars on the road and not enough road to put them on, then someone really is responsible for making it worse. What struck me many times yesterday, and the day before, was how little premium we in the UK put on the value of having traffic that flows. Rather the opposite, in fact. Everywhere there are new sets of traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, chicanes and road pinchings. None of them seem co-ordinated to enable traffic to flow; all are designed to stop cars, not to control them to sensible speeds or to encourage better driving behaviour. The pedestrianisation of our major roads has been achieved without consultation: we’re all down to walking speeds now.
The government has announced, as part of red-tape cutting, that it wants to reduce the roadside signs and distracting paraphernalia that assail us while driving. That’s a good idea. But a better one would be, to my mind, to focus on getting traffic moving and keeping it moving. I don’t want to drive fast in west London. I don’t want pedestrians to fear for their lives. But I do want to get there.
My time over a weekend isn’t particularly valuable, and my car’s a fairly efficient one. So the extra time I spent driving in west London this weekend doesn’t probably amount to much in cash terms. But multiply that up over days, weeks, months, with more expensive people and less environmentally friendly vehicles, and the ossification of the UK’s roads is a huge drain on the very resources that we apparently don’t have. Isn’t that something worth tackling?
24 September Watts off the Kentish coast
Today’s papers are fairly bullish about yesterday’s news on the energy front: the first few watts were generated from the world’s largest offshore windfarm, off the Kent coast at Thanet. When it’s all up and running, it will apparently generate enough power to keep the lights on across an area the size of Scotland. Or half of Kent. Or somewhere else, depending which newspaper you read. Of course, if the wind doesn’t blow, it’ll do no such thing, and all the geographical similes will be even more nonsensical.
You don’t, though, escape geography in all of this. One of the things claimed for the new windfarm, by a government minister among others, is that it puts the UK in the global forefront of offshore windpower; possibly, it’s being said, we’re now the world leader in it. Excuse me if I fail to get excited about this. As a large island off the draughty northwest corner of Europe, the UK’s pretty well sited for offshore wind: you’re not going to get much competition from Slovakia or Slovenia, for example, for this particular title. The geography is on our side. (And, by the way, the developer is a Swedish company, but we’ll let that pass.)
More germane, though, is whether offshore wind is the renewable technology we should aspire to world leadership in, and there I have some doubt. Intermittency – the fact that sometimes it’s windy and sometimes it isn’t – means that you’ll always have to have some back-up energy source of equivalent size for the days when the windfarm isn’t working and those sails are hanging idly around on the top of their masts. And all right, the windfarms may well mean that we can burn less coal or gas or whatever for much of the time, but we’ll still need the capacity for those days when it’s still and cold. Other renewables, such as tidal or wave power, have fewer problems in this regard. Even solar, particularly using concentrators, may be more reliable even in UK latitudes than wind might be.
Windpower’s attraction is that it’s known technology and it’s readily available. It’s almost certainly part of the answer, but it’s not the whole answer by any means. And any suggestion that this suddenly catapults us up some spurious world league of energy good guys is rather ducking the real question, which is whether we’ve got security of energy supply for the lifestyles that we aspire to. Have we? I honestly don’t know.
21 September A life under construction
In a fit of energy, or perhaps it was ego, a month or so back, I bought the dotcom version of myself. Or to be more precise, I bought a two-year lease on www.johnpullin.com, which for some unaccountable reason hadn't been snapped up during the web frenzy a decade ago. Yesterday, in a second fit of whatever it was, I bought myself a do-it-yourself website creation package.
So I am now a website. Or rather, I would be if I knew what to put on it.
The website package comes with various pre-set pages, which is to a degree helpful. But only to a degree. There's a "Home" page on which, I presume, I say who I am and what I do. And then there's an "About Me" page in which I, er, say who I am and what I do. The "My Photos" section is empty and I can't think what photographs I'd want to put in it, having always had something of a horror of the Facebook-style live-your-life-in-front-of-the-cameras phenomenon. "My Blog" is patently useful, though for the moment at least I'm blogging here. And I've already discarded the "Guestbook" page, on the basis that if I didn't know what to put in there, then I still wasn't minded to be at the mercy of those with fewer qualms. How can I have guests when I'm not even living there myself?
What I did do, though, was to fill out all the search engine optimisation stuff, with a short description of the website and some keywords, as was heavily advised on the only website journalism course I've ever been on. And I've put an annoying opening sequence on the site and a trailing banner that says it is "under construction". So I can now be found, and that phrase, "under construction", suggests there is the promise of progress.
But will there be? Perhaps inspiration will strike later today with another fit of energy/ego. Perhaps not. At present, I suspect that "under construction" may prove to be a metaphor for rather more than just the website.
20 September Good news from garbage
A nice way to start a Monday is with a news story where it's virtually impossible to see any downside. And that could well be the case with the announcement this morning that UK-based company TMO Renewables has signed a 20-year deal, worth at least $25 million a year, with the US corporation Fiberight, to develop plants across the US that will convert municipal waste into bioethanol.
Municipal waste – garbage, trash, rubbish – is a global disgrace. Year after year, the amounts we throw away grow and the percentage that goes to landfill or other "useless" places seems to change barely at all. Quite a few people in the UK (and elsewhere) get pretty steamed up about how just modest investments in rubbish incineration and a few combined heat and power plants could provide cheap energy and a fillip to waste disposal: a double benefit.
The TMO deal with Fiberight seems to add another benefit, in that the bioethanol produced from the waste stream will mean that acres of agricultural land that might otherwise be tempting to convert away from food production into automotive fuel production could be saved.
The new deal will use Fiberight's American technology for waste sorting and conversion to create the feedstock that can then be converted into the bioethanol using TMO's process, which is already working in pilot format in its UK plant. And what's good about this announcement is that there doesn't seem to be anything half-hearted about it: the first plant in Iowa is already being converted, and Fiberight is talking about 15 in the next five years. Even the first plant will make somewhere in the region of five million US gallons of bioethanol a year. This is big stuff.
And it's good stuff to start the week with.
17 September Somerset cricket: The joy of finishing second
I should, of course, be feeling completely desolated this morning. But somehow I'm not. Yesterday afternoon, in the cricket County Championship, Nottinghamshire, by scoring more than 400 runs and taking three Lancashire wickets, managed to pip Somerset to the title. Though equal on points at the end of the season, Notts get the accolade by virtue of having won more matches than Somerset did.
Actually, put like that, it seems a pretty fair result. But for those of us who've followed Somerset, mostly at a distance, for half a century or more, this ought to be a bitter blow. For while Nottinghamshire have won the County Championship several times over the 121 years since it was formally set up in 1890, Somerset never have. Until a few years ago, they'd never come higher than third. And they've come last more often than any other team including, on the fringes of my own backward memory, four times on the trot in the early 1950s.
Somerset cricket has long been characterised by, er, character. The tales of eccentricity are legion. The county club was founded, not in Somerset, but in Devon (in 1875, since you ask); not one, but two distinguished players, Peter Randall Johnson and Tom Lowry, were registered to play on the basis that they were born in Wellington, with the county omitting to say that this was the New Zealand Wellington, rather than the one just down the road from Taunton; the father of a Conservative cabinet minister once played for Somerset under an assumed name to divert the attention of his employer, the Inland Revenue, which believed he was on sick leave.
Of course in the proliferation of competitions of the one-day variety in recent years, Somerset have been reasonably successful, winning most of the available tournaments a few times. But even this goes back to a long tradition: to Bill Hyman, for example, who scored 359 in less than two hours in a club match against the bowling of W G Grace's brother, or Bill Alley, who claimed to be 38 when he started playing but was very likely much older. Somerset were always swashbuckling: think of Harold Gimblett's debut.
In the "more serious" longer form of the game, the County Championship, though, there has been nothing. And that remains the case this morning. Yet if you go back through the cricket histories to look for memorable matches from the past or personalities who've made an impact, remarkably large numbers of them have been associated with Somerset. Cricket and all sports are, these days, serious businesses, but at root they're entertainment, and Somerset cricket has managed, at times despite itself, to maintain that.
Would winning the County Championship yesterday have changed matters? Maybe, a little. But to my mind, Somerset are unique in that they don't have to win things to get my undivided and undisguised support. You don't have to be successful to be good and, in a world where increasingly you don't have to be good to be successful, that's a quality to be prized.
8 September The Cable cutbacks
Vince Cable's speech on science funding in London this morning is seen as a strong indication that the science and research communities should brace themselves for potentially severe cuts in the spending round due next month. And the yowls of anguish from the science people are already loud and clear.
Cable, the LibDem UK secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, appears to be, to many, heading back to old-style Labour ways in which government gets involved in the business of "picking winners". It didn't work way back when, say Cable's critics, so why would it work now?
That may well be a fair point, but there are other points to be made too. If government isn't the right body to be choosing between different research topics and projects, then are the scientists themselves better qualified? Has their freedom to choose produced massive money-spinning riches for us in recent years? And where does engineering fit into all this?
Engineering does tend to be regarded in every mention of "science and engineering" as the poor relation of science: less pure, fewer blue skies, more to do with making money as well as things. But isn't that rather what the economy as a whole needs at the moment? More companies adding value to the country, developing intellectual property and profiting from it?
Cable hasn't said as much, but if there were to be, in all of this cutback and choosing, a subtle shift back towards putting a bigger proportion of our public money into activities that could earn us more money, would that really be a misplaced use of government influence? And if at the same time there was more emphasis on the "d" bit of research and development, would that be altogether wrong?
7 September The broadened mind
Travel is supposed to broaden the mind and as I've landed up today in Copenhagen it's a point I've mulled a little, particularly as my friend from CAD User magazine, Dave, and I were discussing, on the plane over from Gatwick, just how many places in western Europe we'd been to.
It turned out there was barely a capital city in the region that we couldn't muster between us, though Helsinki was a miss for both, and neither of us had been to San Marino either. I passed on Luxembourg, Dave on Lisbon. We thought there might be extra leeway given, though, as both of us had been to Vaduz, capital of Liechtenstein.
Until today, though, I'd not been here before, except to pass through the clean and crowded airport on the way to southern Sweden. And now I have: pleasant enough in the late summer sun it looks, too, and enough of an edge about the place to put the Hans Christian Andersen-Danny Kaye schmaltzyness to the back of the mind.
But I am, of course, here not as a tourist (though that's what I've been doing today) but for work, courtesy of the computer-aided design company SolidWorks. And if I'm honest with myself, rather a lot of my travel experiences, and rather a lot of the capitals of Europe that Dave and I can happily tick off, have been achieved through the good offices of someone else who thought it worth their while to pay the fare for me to work in these places for a few days.
I've never been to Madrid, or Stockholm, or Brussels, for instance, except on expenses: often someone else's expenses. Of the former "east bloc" capitals I've been to, only with Prague did I pay my own airfare: Ljubljana, Moscow, Bratislava, Minsk, plus the first time I went to Prague, I didn't fork out. My employer did, or someone else did. Sometimes both.
Sitting in a hotel room in the capital of Denmark I am, I hope, duly appreciative of all this generosity and hope I repay it to some extent in what I then write. But I do feel a bit of a fraud. It isn't travel that's broadened my mind. It's work, and the opportunities that come with it. And travel is just a small part of that.
6 September I've been Twinterviewed
This morning, as part of my crash course in 21st century methods of communication, I was twinterviewed. And just in case there is someone reading this who doesn't know what a twinterview is, I'd better explain that it's an interview conducted through the medium of Twitter, with 10 tweet-sized questions closely followed by 10 tweet-sized answers.
I was put up to this by my mischievous former colleagues at Professional Engineering Publishing – the academic publishing branch thereof – who've done these before with vastly more respectable people than I am, like real engineers and academics. I know a couple of people followed this morning's one while it was happening, because they chipped in with comments of their own. But essentially it was just like a conversation. With. Pauses. Between responses.
Except, of course, that it wasn't like a conversation at all. Not, I think, because they wanted to be gentle with me but because this is the way these things are done, the PE Publishing people sent me word of the questions beforehand, so I could practise getting my answers down to a neat 140 characters or fewer. So spontaneous it couldn't be.
But does that matter? Every weekend colour supp worth its salt has these days its Questionnaire feature in which some half-heard-of celeb puts down clever-dick answers to a series of pre-ordained questions. These features don't pretend to be spontaneous. And do you imagine that Michael Parkinson's or Jonathan Ross's TV chat show interviews aren't, at least in part, "foreshadowed" if not entirely scripted?
There's still something within me that says that this new way of doing things is a bit soft, and that an interview isn't really an interview unless you've got, metaphorically at least, Jeremy Paxman's boot resting none too lightly on the politician's throat. But in an age when communication proliferates, why shouldn't the format of the interview adapt too?
Anyway, I'm not sure yet whether I shall be adding twinterviewing to the list of life skills that adorn my CV, along with my cub scout badge in reef knot-tying. But I think no harm was done. If I was better at some of the other methods of 21st century communication, I'd be able to point you directly to the whole interview with one classy segue. That's still beyond me. But if you're on Twitter and you stick #pepview into the search box, it may appear before your eyes, almost spontaneously.
6 September The good news about manufacturing
For the past umpteen years, the economic indicator I’ve looked out for as the one that means the most for the people I work for and with has been the EEF’s quarterly economic outlook. (The EEF, for those not in the loop, is the UK’s federation of engineering and manufacturing trade bodies, dealing with the firms that make things and do things.)
What the EEF does is to chronicle the ups and downs of UK manufacturing, and if you think that sounds a bit dull, then you obviously haven’t followed its at-times rollercoaster progress. A couple of years ago, for example, the EEF’s graphs looked a bit like a section through the Grand Canyon, and duly we all hurtled lemming-style into the abyss.
Anyway, today’s news is that not only is the recovery from that recession being sustained in this third quarter of 2010, but that it’s if anything gathering pace a bit, with some new factors thrown in. EEF member companies, for instance, are reporting a small surge in recruitment, which is good news. Exports are up and orders are up too.
Of course, having been horribly let down in the past, the EEF is taking a suitably cautious view of this, talking about recovery possibly being sustained into a fourth quarter. Don’t raise your hopes too high, seems to be the key message. Which is probably wise.
But while we’ve got this good news, let’s savour a couple of points from it. One of them is that, in 2010 and again next year in 2011, manufacturing is forecast to grow faster than the UK economy as a whole. How long is it since we had two years in succession when that was the case?
A second point is that, for about as long as I can remember, there has been the promise that one day the UK economy would benefit from an export-led recovery. And somehow before it never quite seemed to happen. Someone or something would come along to dent the optimism: an injudicious diplomatic falling-out with a potential customer or a savage re-adjustment of exchange rates. But this time… well, let’s just say it no longer looks impossible.
5 September Back to work, kind of
The schools are back and it’s time I went back to work too, having had a fairly lazy time in the past few weeks. But good intentions are set to be thwarted, to some extent at least, because the “work” that I’ve got lined up for this week looks suspiciously like fun rather than hard graft.
Tomorrow, for example, I’m doing a Twinterview for former colleagues at PE Publishing: this is an interview over Twitter, and it may well have all of the spontaneity of a conversation of the profoundly deaf. But you’ve got to try these things.
Then, courtesy of the friendly people at SolidWorks, I’m off for a couple of days in Copenhagen, which I’ve never been to – and in my new relaxed state I’ll do some of the tourist stuff as well as the work part of the trip. And finally, thanks to other friends at National Instruments, I have a posh lunch at the Roof Garden in Kensington, which will be 99% fun and just a tad of work, I suspect.
That’s the week in prospect and I have to say it doesn’t sound a bad one at all. But what it doesn’t contain, of course, is much revenue-generating activity. Somewhere in the middle, between this kind of work-light hedonism and my former nose-to-the-grindstone modus operandi, is probably a happy state in which I do some work (maybe not as much as heretofore) and then get paid for it. Where is this happy medium? And how do I find it?
Future posts in this blog will presumably tell the tale of success, or failure. I’ll keep you posted.
2 September Hello World!
Having blogged for some time on other people’s websites, I’m venturing into virgin territory where the thoughts that appear will have my name on them, and only mine. Will that make me more responsible? Or less?
I don’t have to bother about offending a corporate strategy or a communal line, or wonder whether I’m being politically correct in tune with the aims and objectives of a wider organisation. But if I make a fool of myself here, then there’s no doubt: the only fool is the one who’s writing these words.
So this is the first post and we’ll wait to see if it’s the first of many, or the first of one.