Archive for the ‘Facts & Figures’ Category

greater spotted woodpecker, drumming noise, woodland

The loud call or distinctive ‘drumming’ display of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker, particularly in Spring, ensures that woodlands are not free of noise.

If you were asked where the quietest place in Britain was, what would be your answer? You might say it all depends. Where there is least noise? Where there are no sounds of human activity? Are caves or disused mines included? But what about the weather; it can be noisy anywhere. The wind, the rain, and storms. And the sea is not silent, with the slamming of the waves against the cliffs. Neither is wildlife quiet, especially the screeching and chirping of birds. If you allow for the sounds of nature and look for places far away from human activity, then there must be hundreds of places in the highlands of Scotland that would qualify, and the same goes for a lesser number of places in mid-Wales, RAF training flights allowing. No, the quietest place must be all about remoteness from the racket made by us humans, and that must include flight paths of civil aircraft. If the highlands of Scotland and much of mid-Wales are excepted, then finding the quietest spot in crowded England might be more of a challenge.

anechoic chamber, salford university, quietest room

The anechoic chamber at the University of Salford, a room within a room built on rubber springs, is lined from floor to ceiling with soft foam wedges which absorb any vibrations in the air.

The quietest place ought also to be somewhere that can be visited, that isn’t private or unduly dangerous. So the further reaches of the many cave systems or abandoned mines in Britain should be discounted. And deadly silent man-made places such as the University of Salford’s ‘anechoic’ chamber (meaning non-reflective of sound), which is so quiet that you can hear the sound of your blood circulating in your head, or the quiet room at the British Standard Institute laboratories in Hemel Hempstead, where apparently fire alarms are tested; these places surely don’t qualify.

Mapping Tranquility

In March 2005, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) published a report Mapping Tranquility that sought to define and identify not the quietest places, which as discussed above, are not what they seem, but the places which were the most tranquil. England was divided into 500m by 500m squares and each square was given a tranquillity score, based on 44 different factors which add to or detract from people’s feelings of tranquillity. It was hoped that this ambitious project would help safeguard the English countryside from future development. The top ten factors that people said represented tranquillity were:

1. Seeing a natural landscape
2. Hearing birdsong
3. Hearing peace and quiet
4. Seeing natural looking woodland
5. Seeing the stars at night
6. Seeing streams
7. Seeing the sea
8. Hearing natural sounds
9. Hearing wildlife
10. Hearing running water

As a result of the survey, the CPRE in 2006 created a national tranquillity map based on the 500m by 500m squares, and they said that the most tranquil place in England was in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland. But the exact spot was kept secret, to keep it tranquil.

You can download the tranquillity map here, and see what else the CPRE has to say about tranquil places here.

The Most Tranquil Place

kielder mires, quietest place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is a map of the approximate location of the Kielder Mires National Nature Reserve, in which, somewhere, lies the ‘quietest place in England’. © Ordnance Survey

However since then, Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustics Engineering from the same Salford University, and a presenter of many popular science documentaries on television and radio, has gone to England’s most tranquil spot. The CPRE told Professor Cox which 500m by 500m square in the Kielder Forest had been identified as the spot, and he went there, trekking along forester’s tracks and wading through a mile and a half of peat bog.

In January 2014, the most tranquil place in England was described as a hillock in the Kielder Mires, two hours walking distance from the nearest human settlement, a Victorian grouse shooting lodge, and ten miles from the village of Gisland. As well as its distance from human habitation, the distance of the place from flight paths, was a key factor in making it the most tranquil spot.

The Kielder Mires 

bellcrag flow, border mires, peatland, most tranquil place in england, kielder forest, northumberland

This is Bellcrag Flow, one of the border mires in the southern part of Kielder Forest, typical of what you might see in the ‘most tranquil place in England’. Border Mires are areas of peatland up to 10 metres deep which have developed on the site of shallow lakes since the end of the Ice Age 12,000 years ago. © Les Hull / Creative Commons Licence

The Kielder Mires are formed of two deep peat mires known as Grain Heads Moss and Coom Rigg Moss. The mires are part of a collection of more than 50 recognised peat bodies known as the Border Mires which are mostly located within the boundaries of Kielder Forest. These blanket mires are rare globally, as they have been largely destroyed by plantations, drainage and grazing. The mires in Kielder are acidic, low-nutrient environments fed entirely by rain and provide refuge for rare species such as tall bog sedge, lichens and sphagnum mosses. Less is known about the natural fauna, although the area is rich in invertebrates and merlins, Britain’s smallest birds of prey, breed on the edge of the plantations. For these reasons the Kielder Mires been designated as a National Nature Reserves (NNR), a Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), and a Ramsar site, that is wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty signed in 1971.

So Professor Cox became the first person to knowingly visit this most peaceful spot, though humans must have struggled through the mires unknowingly many times over the last 10,000 or more years. Later, Cox wrote in his book Sonic Wonderland – A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, that ‘I had previously thought of asking the CPRE if I could publish the location of the quietest place, but I realised this would be a bad idea’.

But in the 1950s, something was going on less than six miles away that had the potential to shatter the peace of the Kielder Mires.



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Payment card numbers such as those on debit cards, credit cards, or store cards, used to be typed-in and quoted. This led to mistakes, though these days it happens only occasionally. To minimize this and avoid the complications that would follow if money was paid to the wrong account or ended up lost in the system, 16-digit card numbers are far from being the random numbers they appear to be. The numbers have a pattern and that pattern is verified using a single check digit.

We know we should never reveal our bank account details over the phone or in emails. Every once in a while though someone will fall for a phishing email and send off their card number. Software can be used to scan email traffic to identify bank account numbers in emails and thus reduce the chances of fraud. Also fictitious card numbers used to be generated by crooks unaware that the numbers are not random, and the software could identify these numbers.

algorithm, graphic

An example, in graphic form, of a simple algorithm

What is the pattern in bank account numbers and how are errors spotted? The software makes use of an algorithm, which is a set of mathematical instructions performed in a prescribed sequence to achieve a goal, in this case a mistake in the pattern of numbers. Here’s how it works.

Take out a bank card and write down the long number on the front on a piece of paper and follow these steps (you don’t really have to do this of course).

1  Starting from the right, double the value of each alternate digit beginning with the second digit from the right (not the first digit)

2  Add the individual digits of the numbers obtained in step 1 together. If the number has two digits treat them as separate numbers and add them together ie. the number 14 becomes 5

3  Add together each of the unaffected digits in the original number

4  Add together these two totals together (the totals in 2 and 3)

If the final total is a number ending in zero (30, 40, 50, 60, 70 etc) then the card number is validated.

Here is an example using the card number 4556 7375 8689 9855

Card Number 4 5 5 6 7 3 7 5 8 6 8 9 9 8 5 5  
Double every other number 8   10   14   14   16   16   18   10    
Sum of digits 8 5 1 6 5 3 5 5 7 6 7 9 9 8 1 5 90

The sum of all the digits is 90 which is divisible by 10, and therefore the card number is validated. If say the first two numbers had been switched around by mistake, the sum of the digits in the first two columns of the 3rd row would have been 1 and 4, instead of 8 and 5, and the total sum would have been 82. This is not divisible by 10, and the card number would not have been validated.

hans peter luhn, algorithm, ibm, lunometer

Hans Peter Luhn, creator of the Luhn algorithm, joined IBM in 1941 as a research engineer. He was awarded over 80 patents, including one for a thread counting gauge, the Lunometer, which is still used in the textile industry today.

This algorithm, know as the Luhn algorithm after the IBM scientist Hans Peter Luhn who created it in 1954, is also known as the ‘modulus 10’ or ‘mod 10’ algorithm. It doesn’t have any significant security function, criminals are much more sophisticated, but the algorithm is in the public domain and is still in wide use today serving its original purpose of spotting accidental errors. (more…)

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bbc, alexandra palace, london, television, transmitter mast

The first public television programmed transmissions in the world were sent from the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace in north London. A picture of the transmitter mast would appear at the start of the day’s programmes which were introduced with the words ‘This is direct television from the studios at Alexandra Palace’. Well into the 1950s, the news was introduced by stirring music, Girls in Grey by Charles Williams, and the words ‘BBC News & Newsreel’ revolving around the top of the mast.

On 1 September 1939, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey’s Gala Premier, was the last television programme to be broadcast by the BBC before the service was suspended due to the imminent outbreak of the Second World War. There were fears that the single VHF transmitter at Alexandra Palace would serve as a direction-finder for enemy aircraft approaching London. Also, there were only about 20,000 viewing families in London and the Home Counties of the regular ‘high-definition’ service with 405 lines that had been first launched on 2 November 1936, and it was a luxury the nation could not afford.

When I was born on 13 January 1946, it was only eight months since the end of the Second World War in Europe. The previous November, David Lean’s film Brief Encounter starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard was released, and on the last day of 1945, Britain received its first shipment of bananas since the outbreak of war. Four days after I was born, the first meeting of the United Nations Security Council was held in London; a month later the American dance craze, the Jitterbug, swept Britain; and in early March, Winston Churchill delivered his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech warning of the Soviet Union’s intention to block itself and its satellite states from open contact with the west.

Even if my parents had not otherwise been occupied, they wouldn’t have been thinking about what was on the TV that night as television broadcasts were not resumed until 7 June 1946. One of the first programmes that was then shown, it is hard to believe, was the same Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1939. There again, my parents didn’t get a television until the late 1950s. But I can remember watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 on a tiny rented set with a 9″ screen in a crowded upstairs room at my aunt and uncle’s house in Earlsfield, south-west London.

radio rentals radio, bakelite, bush television, coronation, bbc

Left: a typical Radio Rentals set from the 1950s with a Bakelite cabinet. Right: a 1950 Bush black and white television set, model TV22, with a 9″ screen and again with a Bakelite body. There was only one channel, the BBC. This was the set from which millions of people watched the coronation in 1953. It was sold at a price between £36-2-6d (£36.12 in decimal currency) and £42 guineas or £44-2-0d (£44.10), about two month’s pay for the average worker.

So if they hadn’t been busy dealing with me or my older brother, they might have sat down to listen to the ‘wireless’. The BBC had been broadcasting on radio, though only in the London area, since November 1922, so by 1946 there must have been a good choice of programmes to listen to. So what was on, and how can I find out?

Luckily, the BBC has just launched a test version of an online searchable archive of the listings that appeared in the Radio Times from 1923 to 2009, which you read about here.

It’s called the BBC Genome Project. 4,469 back copies of the Radio Times have been scanned using optical character recognition software (OCR). The archive is still in its early stages as inevitably many scanning errors have crept into the data, and members of the public are being asked to let the BBC know of these errors, as well as changes to the advertised schedules that would obviously not have appeared in the Radio Times. Nonetheless it is an amazing resource for serious research, to check obscure facts for a quiz, or like me to find out what was on, on a notable date in the past.

Incidentally a genome is the genetic material of an organism, which is encoded in DNA, or in some cases in RNA, and the Human Genome Project is the huge international scientific research project with the goal of mapping all of the genes of the human genome. The BBC says it chose the name because the corporation likened each of its programmes to ‘tiny pieces of BBC DNA’ that will form a ‘data spine’ once reassembled in the archive. I think the BBC use of the word genome is misplaced. Anyway back to the 13 January 1946.

Here is the link to the archive. At the bottom of the page under ‘Browse the issue archive’, you are asked to either ‘Choose a year’ or ‘Choose a decade’. The latter option didn’t work for me so having selected the year 1946, I then selected issue 1163 dated 11 January, the London edition. The contents of this issue then appear, and I see that on 13 January, there are two stations, the BBC Home Service Basic and the Light Programme.

radio times, alexandra palace, transmitter mast, princess elizabeth, queen elizabeth, aircraft carrier eagle

Left: this cover of the Radio Times from 23 October 1936 shows the new transmitter at Alexandra Palace. Right: this black and white cover from 17 March 1946, with the sub-title ‘The Journal of the BBC’, still shows the effects of post-war austerity. The top photograph is of HRH The Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, who was due to attend the launch of the new aircraft carrier, Eagle, in Belfast.

The Home Service provided news, serious drama, discussion, classical music etc, and the Light Programme arose from the wartime success of the BBC Forces and General Forces Programmes and provided light entertainment such as popular drama, comedy, bandshows etc. The Third Programme, predominately classical music, wasn’t broadcast until September 1946. In September 1967, the Home Service became the current Radio 4, the Third Programme became Radio 3, the Light Programme was re-branded as Radio 2, and a new radio channel, Radio1, was added.


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In a corridor adjacent to the foyer of the Clarendon Laboratory at the University of Oxford in England, is an electric bell that has been ringing almost continuously since it was first displayed in 1840.

OxfordElectricBell1The Oxford Electric Bell, also called the Clarendon Dry Pile, was an experimental electric bell when it was first set up. It consists of two brass half-spheres or bells, each positioned beneath a dry pile battery, with a metal sphere, about 4mm in diameter, suspended between the piles, acting as a ‘clapper’. The sphere moves the very short distance between the bells by electrostatic force. As the sphere touches one bell, it is charged by the pile, is electrostatically repelled, and is attracted to the other bell. On touching the other bell, the process repeats itself.

Whilst a high voltage is required to create the motion, only a miniscule amount of charge is carried from one bell to the other, which is why the piles have been able to last since the apparatus was set up. 

OxfordElectricBell2It is not known for sure what the piles are made of – they may be Zamboni piles which are made of alternate layers of metal foil and paper coated with manganese dioxide – but they were coated with molten sulphur to insulate them and to reduce the effects of atmospheric moisture.

clarendon laboratory, oxford university, physics

The original Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford (photo taken in 1894) was the first purpose-built physics laboratory in the country. The building, much enlarged, is now incorporated into the Department of Earth Sciences.

The bell was apparently made by Watkin and Hill, instrument makers, of London, and purchased by the Rev Robert Walker, Reader in Experimental Philosophy (the name by which physics was known at Oxford) at the university from 1839 to 1860, and Professor of Physics from 1860 to 1865. It bears a label in his handwriting ‘Set up in 1840’.

The Oxford Electric Bell does not demonstrate perpetual motion as the bell will eventually stop when the dry piles are depleted of charge, if the clapper does not wear out first. It has now been ringing almost continuously for 175 years apart from occasional short interruptions caused by high humidity. A double-thick glass bell jar muffles the ringing sound, so the bell is inaudible. There is a video of the bell here.

The bell has rung about 10 billion times and is considered to be the longest running experiment ever. The Guinness Book of Records lists it as the ‘world’s most durable battery’.

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centre of great britain, centre of united kingdom

If uou click on this map of the United Kingdom, you can see two small pink circles which, very roughly, mark the centre of Great Britain (including its 401 islands) and the centre of England.

If someone asked you where the centre of Great Britain was or for that matter where the centre of England was, would you know? Or more to the point would you care? The centre of Britain must obviously be further north than the centre of England, as Britain includes Scotland, of which there is quite a lot. And the centre of Britain is likely to be further west than the centre of England because of Wales.

Northern Ireland is not included in the centre of Great Britain as the country we are part of is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is Great Britain doesn’t include  Northern Ireland. Well to add to the other obscure geographical posts that I have written previously, here are some answers.

centre of britain, dunsop bridge, millstone grit, whitendale hanging stones

The weathered stones of an outcrop of Millstone Grit called Whitendale Hanging Stones north of Dunsop Bridge. The wooden post marks the exact centre of Great Britain.
© Tom Howard/Creative Commons Licence

The nearest village to the geographical centre of Britain (including its 401 islands) was officially recognised by the Ordnance Survey in 1992 as being Dunsop Bridge in the Forest of Bowland near Clitheroe in Lancashire. However in 2002, the Ordnance Survey calculated that the exact point is at Whitendale Hanging Stones (grid reference SD 64188 56541), near Brennand Farm, 4½ miles north of Dunsop Bridge. The measurement calculates the point at which a two-dimensional object – think of a cardboard cut-out of Great Britain – would balance horizontally on the head of a theoretical pin, that is its centre of gravity.

centre of britain, dunsop bridge, phone box

The plaque in the BT phone box in Dunsop Bridge that marks the centre of Great Britain.

BT also installed its 100,000th payphone at Dunsop Bridge (not by coincidence surely?) and included a plaque to explain its significance. The plaque reads ‘You are calling from the BT payphone that marks the centre of Great Britain.’ The telephone box was unveiled by the explorer and writer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

The geographical centre of England was calculated by the Ordnance Survey in 2002, again by finding the centre point of the two-dimensional shape made by England. It is in a field close to Lindley Hall Farm near Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire (grid reference SP 36373 96143).

centre of england, lindley hall farm

A post next to a hedge in a field of Lindley Hall Farm near Fenny Drayton points to the exact centre of England.

In June 2013, a 6ft high ‘monument’ made from a railway sleeper was erected on the side of the field with a sign pointing to the exact point, 492ft into the field. According to a BBC report at the time, the owner of the farm, Stephen Farmer, said it could become a tourist attraction in future, explaining that ‘It’s a position on the map, the same as Land’s End [and] John O’Groats. People go to see their marks and have their photos taken so I think it wants to be known to the public, where it is.’ As the field and the path to it are privately owned, Mr Farmer will presumably have to allow public access to the monument if he wants to put it on the map. Incidentally Dunsop Bridge is roughly 95 miles north-north-west of Fenny Drayton.

Some people argue that the furthest point from the sea should be considered the centre of Britain. The Ordnance Survey has found this point is just east of Church Flatts Farm, about a mile south-east of Coton-in-the-Elms, Derbyshire. Haltwhistle in Northumberland also claims, less convincingly, to be the centre of Britain based around it being on the mid-point of the longest line of longitude (the vertical line) on the mainland of Britain. The town even has a Centre of Britain Hotel!


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sandstone, jack hills, western australia, zircon, bruce watson, mark harrison, oldest

These are the sandstone rocks in Jack Hills in Western Australia, in which zircon crystals found by geochemists Bruce Watson and Mark Harrison in 2005, were later dated as being 4.4 billion years old, the oldest material so far found on Earth.

There was a news item on the BBC website a few days ago that tiny crystals of zircon, a blue semi-precious stone, that had been found in a much younger sandstone in the Jack Hills in the Murchison river basin in Western Australia, were the oldest fragments of the earth’s crust. The age of the crystal, which was dated using the decay of trace uranium atoms within it, is 4.4 billion years, only 200 million years after the formation of the earth itself. This is in the very earliest part of the Pre-Cambrian era that makes up seven-eighths of geologic time. The significance of this discovery is not so much how old the rock was, but that it is evidence of the earth having had a solid crust much earlier than had been thought and consequently of having been able to host life very early in its history.

As for the oldest rocks in the world, that is rocks consisting of minerals that have not been subsequently melted or broken down by erosion – unlike the Jack Hills zircon – there are four contenders, depending on the latest research. The rocks are all gneisses (gneiss is pronounced ‘nice’), rocks formed, or metamorphosed, by the action of heat and pressure on earlier rocks. Gneisses are hard, folded, and characterised by darker and lighter coloured bands, and they are widely distributed around the world.

The four locations are in south-western Greenland; the Jack Hills area of Western Australia as above; and in two locations in Canada, the eastern shore of the Hudson Bay and the Canadian shield in the Northwest territory. These rocks have all been dated as being between 3.8 and 4.4 billion years old. The difficulty in assigning the title of oldest to one particular formation of gneiss is that they are all extremely deformed, hence claiming one site to have the oldest rocks may be as much a matter of luck in sampling as by an understanding of the rocks themselves.

geologic time scale, pre-cambrian, age of the earth, jack hills, zircon, chalk, dover, cretaceous

In this geologic time chart, the Pre-Cambrian period, because it covers seven-eighths of the age of the earth occupies most of the lower scale, with the remaining one-eighth expanded into the upper scale. For comparison purposes the Jack Hills zircon were formed in the dark-brown Hadean period at the very beginning of the Pre-cambrian era, and the chalk cliffs of Dover were formed in the light green Cretaceous peiod above, only about 100 million years ago.
Incidentally this is an American chart, and in the UK the two blue periods between the Permian period and the Devonian, are called the Carboniferous period, which is when coal was formed.

But where are the oldest rocks in Britain?

The oldest rocks, the Lewisian gneiss of the Pre-Cambrian era, date from at least 2.7 billion years old – close to two-thirds of the age of the planet – and can be found at the surface in the far north-west of mainland Scotland and on the Hebridean islands. This rock is thought to underlie much of the Britain Isles although boreholes have only penetrated the first few kilometres. The main outcrops of Lewisian gneiss are on the islands of the Outer Hebrides, including Lewis, from which the formation takes its name, but the oldest of these rocks, are on the mainland around Scourie and Laxford Bridge, small villages halfway between Ullapool and Durness.


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wallace & gromit, christmas stampThis Christmas quiz, which you can print off below, is not a quiz about Christmas. It doesn’t have a Christmassy theme, and it’s not about events of the past year, which I find rather boring. It’s just an ordinary pub-type quiz to have a go at over the festive season with hopefully interesting questions. Most people will be able to answer a fair number of the questions, and it should be more fun if two of you do it together.

It is not therefore the sort of impossible-to-answer general knowledge quiz like that set by the King William’s College on the Isle of  Man that is featured each year in the The Guardian. Since 1905, pupils at the college have been required to take this test, and until 1999 it was compulsory. That said, the average score of the 300 pupils aged between 11 and 18 that take the test each year is, out of 180 questions, just two!

This is not surprising as who knows ‘where Blanche save the doomed Neville by clinging to the clapper of the curfew bell?’ (question 4.3). Nor ‘which royal infant was born prematurely at the Fürstenhof due to her mother’s pleurisy, and died the same day?’ (question 11.5). One wonders what is the point of it, other than providing some strange sort of kudos for the college. You can have a go at the King William’s College quiz here. The answers will be published in The Guardian in the New Year.

So, for a more relaxing and less challenging quiz try my one: Christmas Quiz 2013.

And here are the answers: Christmas Quiz 2013 Answers

I hope you enjoy the quiz. Your comments would be welcome.

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