All Posts Filed in ‘Science and Nature

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Visiting the Same Glacier 22 Years Apart – Seeing Climate Change in Action

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Way back in 1995 my friends and I took an old MG Montego on a road trip from Scotland to Chamonix in the French Alps which also happened to be my first holiday abroad. I wrote about it a few years ago – The Spirit of Adventure. My abiding memory of that trip was taking a hike up the mountains to see my first ever glacier. I was expecting it to look pristine and white, not covered in rocks and debris so initially asked my friend where the glacier was before he pointed out that everything in front of me was a glacier! You can understand my confusion, this is the photo I subsequently took:

Scott and Gary and the Mer de Glace

Wind forward to the Summer of 2017 where I had the pleasure of spending a few months living in France including a couple of trips to Chamonix. First time was with a friend for a few days and we went up to the highest point a cable car can – the Aiguille du Midi (which was too expensive for the John Conners of 1995 to afford) – and I was hoping once again to catch sight of this amazing glacier I’d seen over 20 years before. Turns out I should have looked at a map – the glacier was on the next set of mountains over. But it was pretty spectacular nonetheless!

Nice view at the top! I'm the one on the left

A few weeks later I returned and this time I had a better of idea of the glacier I’d originally seen – I reckoned it was the mighty Mer de Glace. So I figured out how to hike there and one morning that’s exactly what I did. Rather than being a lazy tourist and taking the funicular railway to the top I walked – starting straight up a ski slope (those things are pretty steep and relentless to walk up). And after a couple of hours I found myself in truly spectacular scenery.

The Mountains above the Mer de Glace

It was shortly after I was in for a bit of a shock. Turns out the glacier has receded dramatically over the 22 years since I’d been. To the point where there are signs on the cliff as you go down showing you where it was in a given year.

I couldn’t help but feel sad – upset if I’m honest – to see such a dramatic difference in such a short space of time (22 years really isn’t long at all). The sheer volume of ice that’s melted just boggles the mind, but it wasn’t until I finally got around to scanning in the negatives of my photos from 1995 that I was really able to compare the before and after as it just happens that I’d taken pretty much the exact same photo 22 years apart (I’m nothing if not consistent).

The photos were taken at around the same time of year and it’s pretty clear that the rock and green line is significantly further from the glacier than it used to be. When you multiply that by how long the glacier is, that’s a hell of a lot of ice that’s no longer there. When you look at a photo like those above and see the difference it’s pretty unsettling. But when you walk there and see it with your own eyes and remember what it looked like before, it really does bring it home to you how our planet is warming. We live on a beautiful planet, but it’s fragile.

A couple of generations from now that glacier will be entirely gone. Enjoy it while you can.

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Tsunami

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When I was a young lad I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge (actually I still do, but more so back then). I read books on everything I could get my hands on – from insects to spiders to atlases to books about space, science, just about anything. I wanted to see what was outside my door and understand everything around me and in the pre-internet, 3 TV channel age that it was, books were the way to go.

One of the books I read that stuck with me was about tsunami through the eyes of a scientist who investigated them and was trying to design ways to defend against them. I think it was actually called ‘Tsunami’. At the time the word ‘tsunami’ wasn’t particularly well-known with the term ‘tidal wave’ being used in its place. Prior to reading the book my mental picture of a tidal wave (tsunami) was of a giant wave (like the sort of thing a pro surfer rides) breaking over land, carrying with it some boats and debris, then just dumping a load of water where previously there was land – I knew that Britain was once connected to Europe by a landmass that was flooded courtesy of a tsunami in the dim and distant past so figured that was the outcome.

On reading the book it turned out I was completely wrong about virtually everything I thought I knew.

Back then there was pretty much no recorded film of a tsunami. This is long before personal video cameras, never mind mobile phones. So the scientist spent his time visiting places that had just been hit and one of his frustrations was seeing the incredible damage caused but having to rely on eyewitness accounts to try to make sense of what actually happened rather than seeing it for himself. Since tsunami are as likely to strike at night, without warning and kill most of the people who encounter them, his information was sparse.

But the things he found to be consistently reported by all people who survived tsunami were then forever embedded in my psyche and came back to haunt me when watching footage of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 and the recent tragedy in Japan. The first thing I learned was what a tsunami actually is.

Most tsunami occur when an earthquake causes a shift in the ground at the bottom of the sea. We’ve all seen pictures of an earthquake at a fault line splitting roads in two and pushing one side metres up in the air. Tectonic plates don’t care if they’re on dry land or at the bottom of the sea so if one occurs down there and a few miles of ocean floor suddenly finds itself raised upwards then a huge volume of water (all the water above the plate that’s shifted upwards) is displaced in a very short place of time. This causes enormous waves to start propagating outwards from the site of the shift. Except it doesn’t look very big to the observer on the surface.

Normal waves out at sea are caused mostly by the weather (either the wind, warm water mixing with cold or other similar actions). Even large waves are only really on the surface so are at most a few metres in height. However the wave generated by an earthquake starts at the sea bed and stretches to the surface. So instead of being a few metres in height it could be a couple of miles in height. Since earthquakes happen very quickly the resulting wave will be moving at serious speed – up to hundreds of miles per hour. Yet at sea you wouldn’t notice a tsunami wave at all – it would appear on the surface to be a normal wave or waves (there are usually multiple waves generated).

Things get scary when the tsunami waves approach land. As a 2 mile high wave reaches land the depth of the water reduces and this causes a huge build up of water while the wave slows down. Think of a bunch of runners sprinting along a road when they hit a deep muddy section. As they do this they slow down and the faster runners still on dry land quickly catch up and pack together with those wading through the mud – the density of people keeps increasing and it gets pretty crowded. Then when runners get clear of the mud they all spill out at once. In the same way the volume of water moving towards shore starts to build up and that’s where the first and only warning sign is.

The book talked about one telltale sign a tsunami was on its way. Suddenly, without warning and without any noise or fuss, all the water on the beach disappears in a matter of minutes. It’s like someone’s pulled the plug and the sea has drained away. When I watched footage from the 2004 tsunami I could see people standing on the beach looking out at shipwrecks suddenly revealed wondering what was going on. The book I read said in no uncertain terms that if you ever found yourself seeing a similar phenomenon then you should run for high ground as fast as you can, because what comes next will kill you for certain.

The reason the water drains away comes back to that huge wave building up as the tsunami slows down. Water starts to pile up and the usual ebb and flow at the beach gets halted so it all runs back out to sea. Shortly afterwards, instead of a huge surfers wave hitting the beach as I’d imagined, water just starts flowing and flowing and flowing carrying huge momentum. It picks up debris and destroys everything in its wake – particularly man-made. It’ll carry boats, ships, trees, cars, houses and it’s relentless. The scientist often found boats deposited several miles inland and he realised that when the water has extended as far inland as it could, gravity would kick in and it would flow back out to sea again. Some of the debris would be left in place, some of it dragged miles back out to the sea.

Until I read the book I’d imagined a single perfect wave crashing down on the shore. Afterwards I understood the mechanics of what was happening and how instead it made sense to think about it as a surge of a huge volume of water destroying everything in its wake. That there was very little you could do to predict or battle against it. And that your only warning is the sea disappearing. That stuck with me for 20 years.

Watching the footage from the 2004 Boxing Day and recent Japanese tsunami was horrifying for obvious reasons. But to actually see what I read about as a child unfold in front of my eyes knowing the damage it was doing was both fascinating and terrifying. Fascinating because as a child I wanted to see what a tsunami looked like. Terrifying because I was actually getting to see what a tsunami looked like. And it was every bit as bad as I’d imagined.

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Why I Stare At The Sky

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I remember being a small boy looking up at the night sky in a state of awe. Awe at what I was looking at knowing what I was actually seeing. I was one of these geeky kids – quiet, thoughtful, sensitive, but above all curious. Whatever I saw I wanted to understand. I’m told by my father that as an even younger child I used to cry when the wind blew in my hair – I like to think that I wasn’t a wuss, I just didn’t understand what the wind was and didn’t like it. (I’m sticking to that excuse!).

When I looked at the night sky and saw twinkling stars I wanted to understand what they were. So I read books and learned that what I was looking at wasn’t the sky as it was, I was looking at history. The stars were so distant that the light from them could take millions of years to reach my eyes and I wondered what they looked like now – were they still there? Was somebody looking back at me? That’s when I started to understand the scale of the universe out there. Cycling to the next village seemed like a long way, yet I knew that the planet we were on was a tiny dot compared to the star we’re spinning around, which itself was pretty small as stars go and there I was looking at countless stars in the sky just like our sun impossibly far apart.

The Orion Nebula

But my eyes were really opened when I looked up at the stars in a remote part of Scotland with no villages or towns nearby – so no light pollution – and for the first time in my life I could actually see the Milky Way. Far from being a chocolate bar, it’s actually a side-on view of the galaxy we’re a part of and there are so many stars in them you couldn’t count them (I couldn’t count up to a billion back then). The feeling of wonder I had just standing staring out into infinity is the sort of thing you can only experience as a child. I was open minded, full of imagination, wondering what the view was like from these far flung places and wishing I could travel between the stars exploring in a vaguely Star Trek way (but without the skin-tight uniforms). Realising the distances were so enormous I started to wonder how I might get there within my lifetime.

Being a child I could think without boundaries or limitations and this led me to wonder about the nature of space, time and gravity (I did say I was a geeky child). I remember explaining to my parents how I reckoned that if you could create enough gravity between two points you could travel from one to the other without going through the space in between and they had no idea what I was on about (many years later my mother watched a programme about just such a theory and thought I was a bit less crazy from then on). Staring at the night sky captured my imagination and I could stare for hours at pictures of galaxies and nebulae wondering at the vastness of the universe and how I was stuck on planet earth staring at it through a telescope rather than being out there experiencing it.

More Galaxies Than You Can Shake A Stick At

I’ve never lost that sense of wonder about the universe and whenever I see photos or video from space looking back at earth I always feel almost emotional to look at where we are. I’m of the opinion that if everybody could go into space just once and look down on our planet as the blue marble that it is – so fragile with a tiny, wafer-thin band of atmosphere that makes our life possible – then the world would be a better place for it. Maybe in that case the first world would stop exploiting and plundering the third world for resources and enable our civilisation to last long enough that we can get out and explore the incredible universe we inhabit rather than destroy the beautiful planet on which we live. As I grew from childhood into adulthood I could see that people’s perspectives change. Instead of looking out into the world and beyond with a sense of wonderment and awe people shuffle along looking at their feet, eyes and minds closed, sleepwalking their lives away. Maybe it’s human nature.

But I’ll always be that kid staring up at the night sky with my mouth wide open imagining what civilisations have risen and fallen in the time taken for the light to travel from the stars to my eyes. How tiny and insignificant we are, how short our lives are in the grand scheme of things and what a miracle it is that I’m standing here staring at all. And fortunately I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

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Something Cool You May Not Know About Water

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When I was a kid I used to play with Star Wars action figures. I’d imagine battles and stories and play them out with my range of characters (and being a kid and therefore inherently evil the bad guys would usually win). Anyway, my parents used to have a large chest freezer and some days I’d take my Han Solo character and freeze him in ice – pretending it was like the carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

A Grainy Old Photo Of Some Of My Star Wars Figures

Being a nerdy young lad I wanted to try and re-create that authentic look so tried freezing him in Coke – which is black like the carbonite from the film. Sadly rather than the jet black effect it pretty much ended up looking like regular ice with a bit of slush on the surface. Lesson learned – don’t waste Coke by freezing it, just drink the stuff.

I once froze him submerged in a glass jam jar just for fun. Unfortunately I then discovered the interesting fact that when water freezes it expands as the jam jar had cracked into several pieces in the freezer. (I didn’t mention this to my parents). Lesson learned.

In the end I found that if I put him in a shallow plastic container on his back (a small Tupperware would do) then I could recreate the Return of the Jedi frozen Han Solo look after a few hours in the freezer. I could then carry on playing and act out a rescue scene where the villains let him think he’s getting away and kill him at the last minute (because the bad guys always win).

Anyway, I froze him quite a number of times, thawed him out in a rescue attempt and froze him again for the next chapter. Once, out of curiosity, I put warm water in the container instead of cold. I imagined that the small quantity of warm water would defrost the entire freezer and spoil all the food therein. I was quite wrong (sadly) and even more surprisingly the water actually seemed to freeze quicker than it normally did (being a very impatient child I’d check on the freezing process many times until it was done). Since it made no sense at all that warm water would freeze faster than cold I just thought I was mistaken and carried on playing.

But you know what? Believe it or not – and I’m pretty sure you won’t – warm water DOES freeze faster than cold water. It goes against all rational thinking, but it’s absolutely true!

How to Fossilise Your Hamster: And Other Amazing Experiments For The Armchair Scientist First described by Aristotle back in 350BC, this curious effect had long been forgotten until it was re-discovered in the 1960’s and called the Mpemba effect after the youngster who came across it. I read about this phenomenon from a book called, I kid you not: “How to Fossilise Your Hamster: And Other Amazing Experiments For The Armchair Scientist” (pictured right). It’s published by New Scientist and is filled with interesting experiments you can do at home including demonstrating that hot water can freeze faster than cold (the optimal test is to fill two ice cube trays with water, one at 5ºC and the other at 35ºC and put them in the freezer – you’ll find the latter freezes first even though the former reaches 0ºC first).

The even more curious thing about hot water freezing faster than cold water is that there’s no scientific explanation as to why. There are plenty of theories (and no, it’s not because the thermostat in your freezer goes into overdrive as the water is hot making it cool faster – you can do this outside if your Winter climate is cold enough and the same thing still happens) but none that have been unequivocally proven to be correct. Can you think of a reason?

It just goes to show that even in the 21st century with all our miracles of modern technology that something as seemingly inert and simple as water can be shrouded in mystery. Now, time to head to the pet shop for a hamster to fossilise… 😉

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The Science Of The Little Things (And The Big Things Too)

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I went to see a band called Eels a year or so ago and really liked them. I knew of their most successful single ‘Novocaine For The Soul’ which I’d really liked although I hadn’t followed their subsequent work. A friend of mine had a spare ticket so I tagged along and I really enjoyed what I heard – not full of pop tunes but much more soulful, heartfelt material and I became a fan.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the man behind Eels – Mark Everett – was in fact the son of none other than Hugh Everett III! What, you’ve never heard of him? Maybe you haven’t, but you’ve most likely heard of the theory he came up with – namely what has now come to be referred to as parallel universes. In a parallel universe every possible outcome can and does exist. Many science fiction books, TV shows and films have used parallel universes within their plots and it’s become widely accepted in both the scientific community and popular culture. However this wasn’t always so.

I watched an interesting documentary where Mark went on a voyage of discovery to find out about his father. He knew nothing of his father’s genius as a child as his father was distant and they barely had any conversations as he grew up. Since his father died over 25 years ago he wanted to find out about his theories and about the man himself. It was fascinating. Hugh was perhaps 40 years ahead of his time and came up with a theory that shook quantum physics to its core and was completely dismissed by his peers when he published his findings in the 1950s. Turning his back on the academic community he worked for the government then his own company, only really starting to get the recognition he deserved a few years before his untimely death.

I’m lucky that I’ve always been close to my father but for Mark to ask his father’s former colleagues and friends what he was like to try to get to know the man must have been tough from him. But in the end he started to understand and know the man his father was and having been told that his theory of parallel universes was as ground breaking and perhaps more so than Einstein’s theory of Relativity showed him that in the academic world his father was as much a rock star as he himself actually is in the rock star world.

Quantum physics is a strange thing. To say the least. I tried to explain to my good lady how things like photons (effectively the particles that make up light) exist in a state of quantum flux meaning that they don’t exist in any given place until you look at them, whereby they start behaving in a more predictable way. I then used the example in the documentary to explain how strange quantum physics is. You shine a laser through a metal plate with two very fine slits in it and measure where the photons hit a screen on the other side, like so:

A quantum physics experiment - this is what you’d expect

You’d expect to see two groups of places on the photon detector that line up with the slits. If you scale the experiment up to shoot tennis balls though a somewhat larger plate with two slits in it, then some of the tennis balls would go through one slit, some would go through the other and many more wouldn’t get through at all. You’d expect that if you looked at all the places the tennis balls impacted the detector (perhaps a wall) you’d get two groupings that line up with the two slits. But when you scale it down to use photons – which are very small – this isn’t what happens at all. You actually get three groupings, one on either side and one in between the two, which should be impossible since the centre of the plate is in the way.

The explanation is that some of the photons go through the top slit, some go through the bottom, but some photons actually go through both slits at the same time – therefore existing in two places at once – and strike the plate as one photon on the other side in between the two slits. I told you it was strange:

The photon passes through two points at the same time

Until Hugh Everett III came along the thinking was that small things behaved in this way as defined by quantum mechanics but large things behaved differently and different rules applied. We’re made up of molecules which are made up of atoms and these atoms can exist in two places at once (as defined by quantum physics), but we don’t – there’s only one of me (lucky for you). So two sets of conditions, two sets of rules. You can’t tell where an electron (or something similarly small) is – and it can exist in multiple places at once remember – until you measure it and then it stops behaving so strangely and exists in exactly one place.

But what if big things behaved the same way and it’s only our perception that makes us see them as we do? If every possible outcome of an event occurs simultaneously but we can only perceive one of them – the rest existing in some parallel but invisible universe – then we can use the same laws of mechanics on big things and small things too. Hugh challenged the existing thinking of the time which firmly believed that quantum mechanics only acted on small things. He wasn’t alone though. A clever man named Erwin Schrödinger came up with a novel way to demonstrate that the classical thinking was flawed.

It’s a thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat (you’ve likely heard of it before). The idea is you put a cat in a box along with some radioactive material (in your imagination of course – otherwise it would be extremely cruel). Next to that is a Geiger counter that, when it detects an atom decaying from the radioactive material (which may or may not happen within the duration of the experiment), fires a hammer at a bottle of poison that, when exposed to the air inside the box will kill the cat. So the cat dies when an atom decays. Except the atom obeys quantum physics so at any given time it does and doesn’t exist which means that the cat is both dead and alive at the same time. Until, that is, you open the box and look at the cat to see if it’s alive or dead. Just like tiny particles, the cat is in an indeterminate state until you observe it. Bizarre.

I’m only scratching the surface here of course. I covered some quantum theory at university and what I learned was that the more you dig into it the more complex it gets – the more you know the less you know. But it was a fascinating program and shows that it’s a small world – who’d have thought the father of a rock star would be the man who came up with the theory that’s been used in countless episodes of Stargate SG-1? Bizarre indeed!