Archive for August, 2013

diana princess of wales, fountain, hyde park, london, anti-clockwise

Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, Hyde Park, London.
Children are walking along the fountain in an anti-clockwise direction

I was at the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, London, a few weeks ago with my eight-year old grand-daughter. As the official website says ‘water flows from the highest point in two directions as it cascades, swirls and bubbles before meeting in a calm pool at the bottom’. Although the information on the site says visitors should ‘feel free to sit on the edge of the Memorial and refresh your feet’, it adds ‘visitors are asked not to walk on the Memorial’. Well when I was there, on a pleasant sunny weekday afternoon, it is hardly surprising that a couple of hundred children were walking and running all over the circular memorial having some outdoor fun.

My grand-daughter completed about a half a dozen circuits of the fountain, following and then passing groups of children, never seeming to get tired of going round and round. Then all of a sudden she was walking through the water in the opposite direction to virtually everybody else. Well, so what? But it struck me that everyone was moving in an anti-clockwise direction around the fountain (counter-clockwise in the USA). There wasn’t a notice telling the children that they had to move in a particular direction (after all they were only supposed to be splashing their toes in the water), nor was there any discernible difference between the two halves of the circular fountain that might influence the direction that the first children to arrive at the fountain in the morning, might take. Obviously once the early arrivals went in one direction, then the others coming after would be influenced to walk in the same direction, but was anti-clockwise the preferred direction?

roger bannister, athlete, running, oxford, four-minute mile

Roger Bannister becomes the first person to break the four-minute mile, running anti-clockwise, at the Iffley Road track in Oxford on 6 May 1954, in a time of 3 min 59.4 sec

Athletes on tracks throughout the world run in an anti-clockwise direction. ‘Left hand inside’ was adopted at the first London Olympics in 1908 and it has been used ever since. However the UK Amateur Athletic Association left open the choice of direction and as late as 1948, Oxford University athletes still ran clockwise. Some of the reasons advanced for this are, firstly, that with the majority of humans being right-handed, the same applies to your feet, so you push off with your right foot, and you are automatically steered in an anti-clockwise direction. Secondly, with the heart being on the left-hand side of our bodies, running anti-clockwise is more comfortable and reduces the stress on the heart.

One study though showed that statistically people tend to turn left more easily than right, although the variability is large. This may suggest that running in a left-hand turn (anti-clockwise) is easier than in a right-hand turn (clockwise). But why? Well the study concluded that ‘veering is related to a sense of straight ahead that could be shaped by vestibular inputs’. Whatever that means, it suggests that the two reasons given earlier are incorrect.

The anti-clockwise rule also applies to ice-skating, roller-skating, ballroom dancing, and apparently to aircraft in the circuit waiting to land. But this doesn’t seem to prove much as it doesn’t apply to horse-racing, which can be clockwise or anti-clockwise, nor to motor racing, which is predominantly run clockwise.

But for the children going round the Memorial Fountain, it does seem that anti-clockwise is their preferred direction.

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gavdos, crete, greece, libyan sea, mediterranean sea

Gavdos lies south of Crete in the Libyan Sea, some 260km north of Tobruk in Libya

If you were asked where the southernmost part of Europe was, would you say Spain, or Italy or Greece? The more geographically informed of you might say Gibraltar, Sicily, or Crete. One of you would certainly answer the Canary Islands. And some bright spark would argue that it was the Falkland Islands because they’re part of Britain, and Britain’s in Europe isn’t it? Well Crete is nearly right, but there’s an island off the south coast of Crete that is the southernmost part of Europe.

The island of Gavdos lies in the Libyan Sea, 48 kilometres south of Hora Sfakion, a small coastal town in the Sfakia region, the wild west of Crete. You can get to Gavdos by a ferry from Hora Sfakion, which takes two hours, though guide books warn somewhat dramatically that you can sometimes be marooned on the island as sailings can be cancelled due to bad weather so you need to come prepared.

gavdos, crete, ferry, hora sfakion

The north coast of Gavdos as seen from the ferry from Hora Sfakion

The island is roughly triangular in shape, it is 33 square km in area (about the size of Hastings or Worthing), and the highest point is Mount Vardia, 345m.

Fewer than 50 people live permanently on the island in small villages and hamlets, but in the summer the numbers can swell to several thousand, almost all of whom arrive by ferry at the harbour in Karave. There are no hotels, and not that many apartments or rooms to rent. Many of the summer visitors sleep in tents on the beaches or under the trees. There is some agriculture but tourism is the economic mainstay of the island. The rocky landscape of Gavdos is covered by low-lying shrubs but there are some pine and juniper forests, and it is an important stop for migrating birds. More information is given in this Wikipedia entry.

sarakiniko, gavdos, crete

A sleepy cafe on the beach at Sarakiniko on the north coast of Gavdos.

The attraction to tourists apart from the sun and several good beaches, is its remoteness, lack of commercial development, and the hippie-like laid back pace of life. This article gives you a good idea of why some see the island as the last paradise in Europe.

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storm surge, rising sea levels, london, flood

A scene from the 2007 disaster film Flood showing central London flooded by an extreme storm surge.
Lionsgate Films

For some people, one of the  consequences of global warming, almost unnoticed by the rest of us, is already upon them. The seas are rising, and this affects human populations living in low-lying coastal regions and on islands. While studies show that sea levels for millenia changed little until 1900, they began to climb in the 20th century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected in 2007 that during the 21st century, sea levels will rise another 18 to 59 cm, but these numbers did not include the impact of melting ice. More recently, the US National Research Council suggested in 2010 rises over the same period of between 56 and 200 cm ie. between half a metre and two metres. Future sea levels are notoriously difficult to predict, and different studies can show different results, but in all cases sea levels are going to rise.

This rise in sea level is a result of the thermal expansion of water due to the higher air temperatures, and the melting of land-based ice like glaciers and ice sheets, both stemming directly from man-made global warming. In addition, it may be that the seas are absorbing more of the heat of the atmosphere than was forecast. This may explain why the rate of increase in warming of the earth’s atmosphere has slowed in the last decade, but the sea is rising faster as a consequence.

The effect of rising sea levels is not felt equally across the globe. Ocean-borne storms and surges exacerbated by global warming can raise sea levels much higher than normal, causing sea water to flood inland over wide areas destroying urban development, or arable land through salt water contamination. The destruction of mangrove forests in coastal areas by human activity can dramatic alter the impact of rising sea levels. Coastal land can also be inundated or eroded far quicker where there are little or no sea defences or where rocks are softer.

If sea levels continue to rise, quite a number of cities, let alone thousands of smaller centres of population, are threatened this century by rising sea levels: Guangzhou and Shanghai (China), Alexandria (Egypt), Calcutta and Mumbai (India), Venice (Italy), Osaka-Kobe (Japan), Bangkok (Thailand), Boston and New York (USA), and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). Longer term projections that contemplate the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, would lead to a rise in sea level of seven metres, enough to submerge hundreds of cities worldwide including London and Los Angeles.

sundarbans, mangrove, world heritage site, ganges delta, bangladesh, rising sea levels

A map of the Sundarbans swampland and mangrove forest, a World Heritage Site and part of the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, which is threatened by rising sea levels

In Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest nations, agricultural land up to 100km inland has already  been damaged by  storm surges, and it is projected that a 1.5 m rise in sea levels would affect 17 million people and 16% of the landmass of the country. The Ganges delta is the largest river delta in the world. Much of the part that lies in Bangladesh supports one of the most densest human populations in Asia, the Sundarbans mangrove forest. It is projected that 75% of what remains of the forest will be destroyed by 2100 as a result of rising sea levels with a devastating impact inland due to flooding. Already two islands have disappeared. On the other hand, in the Netherlands, where 26% of country is below sea level and vulnerable to flooding, a massive building program is being considered to strengthen the country’s water defences against a rise in the North Sea of 1.3 metres by 2100 and 4 metres by 2200.

kiribati, pacific ocean, submerged, rising sea levels

One of the many atolls in Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, which will be submerged as a result of rising sea levels.

Across the world however, small communities are already being destroyed.

  • Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean has a population of 102,000 on 32 low-lying atolls and one coral reef island, Most of its population has already moved to the island’s main island Tarawam, after many of the atolls disappeared beneath the ocean. The government is negotiating to buy land on Fiji to where its population could be re-located (more…)

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r u r, karel capek, bbc, robot, science fiction

The BBC screened adaptations of the 1920 play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek in 1938 & 1948. The word ‘robot’ was originally coined in this play.

Doctor Who may well be the longest-running science-fiction television series in the UK, having been broadcast for 33 seasons since 1963, but it wasn’t the first science-fiction programme. That distinction belongs to a 35-minute abridged adaptation of a 1920 play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek, called R.U.R. (sub-titled Rossum’s Universal Robots) which presents a world which first exploits its new servile creations, robots, and is then dominated by them. It was produced by the BBC on 11 February 1938, and it is the first known piece of television science fiction anywhere in the world. A full ninety-minute live production of R U R was produced on 4 March 1948.

quatermass experiment, bbc, 1953, science fiction

The Quatermass Experiment was made by the BBC in 1953. It was Britain’s first science fiction TV programme aimed at an adult audience

In the summer of 1953, BBC staff writer Nigel Kneale created, together with director and producer Rudolph Cartier, the six-part serial The Quatermass Experiment, the first of several Quatermass serials. It was Britain’s first science fiction television programme aimed at an adult audience. Only the first two episodes were recorded, and these only as poor-quality tele-recordings. These are the oldest BBC recordings of any fictional series today. Note that as colour television was only introduced in the UK in July 1967, all programmes up to then were in black and white.

On 12 December 1954, a live adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, produced by the BBC’s Quatermass team, achieved the highest television ratings since the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was so controversial that it was debated in Parliament, and campaigners tried unsuccessfully to have the second performance the following Thursday banned.

Britain’s first commercial television network, Independent Television, was launched in September 1955 as a competitor to the BBC. According to most buffs and compilers of TV history, commercial television’s first science-fiction serial was Pathfinders In Space, produced by ABC, a network licensee, in 1960. This was followed by the sequels Pathfinders to Mars (1960) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). However this was not the first. Several science-fiction serials were in fact produced not long after the launch of commercial television, but if any recordings of them were made, they have been lost.

the strange world of planet x, film, tv serial, science fiction

The title still from the film version of The Strange World of Planet X released in 1958. No recordings of the earlier TV serial made in 1956 are believed to exist

In September 1956, ATV (Associated Television), the licensee for London weekend television, produced The Strange World of Planet X, shown in six 25-minute episodes as part of its Saturday Serial anthology series. Scientists discover a formula giving access to the fourth dimension – the  unification of time and space – and, with others, are transported to the abstractly arid Planet X. It presented the fairly cerebral concept of the fourth dimension and time travel in an engrossing way that held the attention of audiences for nearly two months on the fledgling network, this at a time when there were only a relatively small number of television sets in England. I can remember watching the programme and feeling scared as the scientists stared through a screen into a dark experimental chamber where some frightening transformation was taking place.

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What living things on Earth have been in existence the longest? I don’t mean which individual animal or plant has lived the longest, such as species of coral or sponge that are known to have been living upwards of 2,000 years, or terrestrial animals such as tortoise that have lived for over 150 years. Nor plants such as the bristlecone pine from North America, one of which is 5,062 years old (measured by ring count), nor the Llangernyw Yew in the churchyard of the village of Llangernyw in North Wales, one of the oldest individuals tree in the world, and believed to be aged between 4,000 years and 5,000 years old. I mean what life forms have been in existence the longest and are still living today?

stromatolites, shark bay, western australia

Stromatolites in Shark Bay, Western Australia

The answer is Stromatolites (or stromatoliths). These are rare rock-like structures found in just a few hypersaline lakes and marine environments around the world, and which, from the fossil record, are known to have been in existence for some 3.5 billion years. They existed in abundance after the earth had been formed when there were no animals or plants.  Because they were prodigious photosynthesizers, their waste product, oxygen, entered the atmosphere in great quantities, making the earth suitable for other forms of life. Over time, organisms developed that grazed on stromatolites, and by the end of the Pre-Cambrian Period (about 570 million years ago), they numbered only 20% of their peak.

Stromatolites are created by the accumulation of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria (often incorrectly called blue-green algae). These bacteria are prokaryotic bacteria, and are neither algae nor plant. When they colonize to form a stromatolite, they number some 3 billion organisms per square metre. The bacteria secrets a mucus coating that traps sediment, and calcium carbonate precipitates from the water providing a hard, cement-like material to fuse the sediment together. New cyanobacteria grow over the sediment and over time a rock-like structure is formed.

fossil stromatolites, cross section, 1.8 billion year old, great slave lake, canada

Cross section of 1.8 billion year old fossil stromatolites from rock formations at Great Slave Lake, Canada

Scientists had long known about stromatolites from the fossil record, but were surprised to find them still in existence, when they were discovered in 1956 at Shark Bay, Western Australia (now the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve). Other places where stromatolites are found are Lagoa  Salgada, Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil and two inland sites in Mexico at Cuatro Cienegas and Lake Alchichica. Unexpectedly, there is one marine site that is not hypersaline, Exuma Cays in the Bahamas.

And according to the BBC, a very young colony of stromatolites, just a single layer thick, was found at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland in 2011.

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dinner table, rajeev chopra, pocketbookuk

Dinner Table by Rajeev Chopra

Most popular newspapers and magazines have a page or column where some well known person or local luminary answers questions about themselves, some bland, some quite intimate. What three things would you take with you to a desert island? When were you happiest? What keeps you awake at night? What do you do to relax? When did you last cry? It’s not meant to be revealing or taken too seriously; at most mildly interesting. Comics have a difficulty of course as witty answers are expected; artists have to be profound and down to earth at the same time, and politician’s answers are likely to be dull or safe, though wouldn’t this mean that current politicians are not chosen?

One question that appears regularly is ‘who would you most like to have dinner with?’ or ‘who would you most like to invite to dinner?’ Often this includes notable people from the past being asked to dinner, though they would have to be brought back from the dead to sit at your table. And it is usually the case that the person must be well known. It wouldn’t be of much interest if the ‘interviewee’ said ‘my grandmother’, or ‘my wonderful hubby’, best friend, or the gardener ‘because he is so entertaining’.

What never seems to be mentioned is the food that would be served, nor who would do the cooking or the washing up? Suppose a famous chef was doing the inviting. It wouldn’t do for the guests to expect some lavish or experimental dishes. The modest chef would want to play down their expertise, so french onion soup, followed by scrambled eggs and smoked salmon would be rustled up, to be washed down with elderflower presse or Belgian beer.

aubrey manning, zoologist broadcaster

Aubrey Manning
Zoologist & Broadcaster

In tabloids and provincial newspapers, the dinner guests seem to comprise predictable celebrities, popular heroes, and people in the public eye, often for some scandal or their outrageousness. Andy Murray of course, Bob Marley, Kerry Katona, Gordon Ramsay, Ann Widdecombe, Chris Hoy, Boris Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Chris Moyles, Russell Brand,  Margaret Thatcher, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Usain Bolt, Simon Cowell, David Beckham, Joanna Lumley, Henry VIII, Steve Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Nelson Mandela, John Lennon, Jimmy Carr, Princess Diana, Nigella Lawson have all been invited, the list is endless. Even the Kray twins and Genghis Khan have been sought after as guests. Sometimes it is a fantasy dinner party so anything goes, though looking at the above names we are surely well into the realms of fantasy anyway. Are they likely to turn up? Popular fictional guests are Harry Potter, obviously, Del Boy, Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, Mr Bean, Ellen Ripley, Jeeves, Superman, David Brent, Captain James T Kirk, Tintin, and James Bond.

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