Archive for the ‘Science & Technology’ Category

It’s a company that supplies equipment to 45 of the world’s 50 largest telecoms operators and ships its products to 140 countries. It has 140,000 employees worldwide, and it has research and development centres in 20 countries including the United States, Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and India. It’s turnover in 2012 was 220 billion yuan (roughly £22bn) and it’s profits were 15 billion yuan (roughly £1.5bn). In 2008, it was the largest applicant for patents in the world, and by 2011, it had filed 49,000 patents globally and had been granted 17,765.

huawei, headquarters, reading

Huawei’s new UK headquarters at 300 South Oak Way, Green Park, Reading

In the UK, it has 15 offices and 690 employees, with new headquarters in Green Park, Reading in Berkshire. Its customers include BT, Everything Everywhere, Sky, O2, Orange, TalkTalk, and Virgin Media. In September 2012, it announced that it was investing £1.3bn in expanding its UK operations in reply to which Prime Minister David Cameron said the investment demonstrated that the UK is ‘open for business’.

huawei, telecommunication

Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer, which signed a £10bn deal with BT in 2005

You may not see its logo plastered over handsets, but its products and services support the infrastructure of the world’s best-known mobile phone service providers through which phone calls and data flow around the world. It is the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world, having overtaken Ericsson in 2012.

It is the world’s biggest company that most people in the West have never heard of, and its headquarters is in Shenzhen, Guangdong in China. But Huawei (pronounced WAH-way) is at the centre of a debate about cyber security, and about how far western countries are willing to engage with the Chinese company.

The US Congress has done its best to keep Huawei out of the US infrastructure, the House Intelligence Committee describing it as a threat to ‘core national security interests’. In 2012, Huawei, along with ZTE (another telecommunications equipment supplier based in China, and the world’s 4th largest mobile phone manufacturer) faced allegations that some of their equipment had been installed with codes to relay sensitive information back to China. The US’s attitude though may mask the real reasons for their concern. They know from their own experience how imported electronics can be turned into a weapon of espionage and sabotage by the supplier, one notable example being their creation of the Stuxnet worm that was used to damage the Iranian nuclear research program. In any case this official hand-wringing neglects the fact that most electronic components, with the exception of certain high-grade chips, are manufactured in China.

However in the UK back in 2005, BT after consulting the government signed a deal worth £10 billion to purchase Huawei equipment as part of an infrastructure upgrade, a deal that saved the British company millions of pounds. Checks were put in place by BT and government to make sure there was no risk that the Chinese company would act on behalf of the Chinese state by installing back-doors. But in June this year, the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee in their report Foreign Involvement in the Critical National Infrastructure said it was ‘shocked that officials chose not to inform, let alone consult, ministers’ about BT’s use of Huawei equipment until a year after the contract had been signed, a deal in which security issues ‘risked being overlooked’. It also said that the self-policing arrangements by Huawei were ‘highly unlikely to provide the required levels of security assurance’.



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pierre curie, marie curie, laboratory, paris, radioactivity, polonium, radium, uranium

Pierre and Marie Curie in their makeshift laboratory in Paris where they laboriously extracted minute quantities of the radioactive elements polonium (named after her native Poland) and radium from tonnes of uranium ore

On 26 December 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie working in a converted shed, formerly a medical dissecting room, in the Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris, announced their discovery of the radioactive element Radium. In the process Marie Curie coined the word radioactivity. The origin of the name Radium comes from the Latin word radius meaning ray. At the World Physics Congress in Paris in 1900, one of the results presented by the Curies was that their new substance glowed; materials containing radium emitted light as well as radioactive rays.

Between 1898 and 1902, the Curies published a total of 32 scientific papers, including one that announced that diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells when exposed to radium. The Curies published details of the processes they used to isolate radium, without patenting any of them, believing scientists should devote their lives to research for the benefit of humanity. In any case, they had no reason to expect that radium would be a big money-maker. But in the meantime a new industry began developing based on radium.

radium, ink, l d gardner, new york, radioactive, luminosity

A 1904 advert for radium ink manufactured by L D Gardner in New York. You are instructed to hold the picture in a bright light for a minute and then look at it in an absolutely dark closet.

Due to its therapeutic power, radium came to be seen as a source of life. After scientists successfully killed cancer cells with radium in early experiments in Europe, the demand for the element soared. In 1904 in New York, L D Gardner patented his radium ‘health’ water, Liquid Sunshine, and a glow-in-the-dark radium ink. Factories producing radium cures and novelty products began to appear all over the city. Quack doctors aggressively sold radium cures for almost every ailment with enormous success. By 1906, the so-called radium craze was sweeping through France, Britain, America, Germany and Italy. In the same year, a Los Angeles ‘doctor’ who sold radium and milk cures was sued for not using enough radium in his product. The radium craze even spread to the New York stage, where radium plays and dances featuring performers in glow-in-the-dark costumes were shown in theatres throughout the city. However, many critics suspected that the glowing costumes were not made of radium because of its prohibitively high cost, but of phosphorous

But while the controlled use of radiation was curing some cancers, its uncontrolled use by healthy people was another matter entirely. The trouble was that even pioneers such as the Curies knew nothing of the hazards. Early radiographers tested their X-ray machines on their hands each morning.


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earth's rotation, coriolis effect, clockwise, anti-clockwise, atmosphere, ocean, hemisphere

Due to the earth’s rotation, the Coriolis force deflects the atmosphere, oceans, and large objects on the surface of the Earth in an anti-clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise in the southern hemisphere

You may have heard that water flowing down the plug hole in a sink or bath always swirls anti-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, and clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, and that this is due to the Coriolis effect.

The Coriolis effect (or Coriolis force) was first postulated by the French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis in relation to the behaviour of water wheels in 1835, but so far as the Earth is concerned, it is the deflection of the atmosphere and the oceans, and large objects on the surface of the Earth, due to the earth’s rotation around its axis. Cyclones, and jet streams in the upper atmosphere, are two of the more obvious phenomena caused by the Coriolis effect, but the effect also causes certain types of waves to form in the oceans. However because the earth spins relatively slowly, the apparent force that its rotation generates only becomes significant over large distances or long periods of time.

paris gun, first world war, bombardment, coriolis effect, trajectory

In the First World War, the Paris Gun was used to bombard Paris from a range of about 120 km (75 miles). Because of the distance, the Coriolis effect had to be taken account of in the calculations of the trajectory.

The Coriolis effect became important in external ballistics for calculating the trajectories of very long-range artillery shells. The most famous historical example was the Paris gun, used by the Germans during the First World War to bombard Paris in 1918 from a range of about 120 km (75 miles). The distance was so far that the Coriolis effect was substantial enough to affect trajectory calculations. Incidentally, the shells of the gun reached a height of 40 kilometers (25 miles, 131,000 ft) and were the first man-made objects to reach the stratosphere.

However, the direction in which water flows down a plug hole is not influenced by the Coriolis effect, which is tens of thousands of times weaker than other factors such as the existing disturbance in the water, the angular momentum that causes the initial vortex, and the shape of the bowl.

bart simpson, anti-clockwise, coriolis effect

Bart Simpson notices that the water flows down the toilet in an anti-clockwise direction

Despite this, popular entertainment has maintained interest in the Coriolis effect. Bart vs. Australia, the sixteenth episode of the sixth season of The Simpsons, starts with Bart Simpson noticing that the water in his bathroom sink always drains anti-clockwise (counterclockwise in the USA). Bart does not believe Lisa, his sister, who explains that this is due to Coriolis effect, and that in the southern hemisphere the water drains the other way round. To confirm this, Bart makes phone calls to various countries in the southern hemisphere, ending up with a call to Australia. Here a little boy, who lives in the outback, confirms, having also checked with his neighbours, that the toilets and sinks are all draining clockwise. The plot continues with Bart being sued by the boy’s father for the cost of his six-hour ‘collect’ call, with Australia indicting Bart for fraud, the USA wanting to send him to prison to placate the Australian government, Bart having to make a public apology in Australia, and so on.

However in 1962, Ascher Shapiro, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, USA, was able to demonstrate the Coriolis effect on draining water, and this was later repeated by scientists in Sydney, Australia.  But this was only achieved by using a perfectly circular bath 1.8m in diameter  and 15cm deep, and by allowing the water to stand for 24 hours so that any currents from filling would die down. A small outlet, on the outside, meant that the water took about half an hour to drain away. Under these conditions, the Boston researcher reported a tendency for water to swirl anti-clockwise (viewed from above), whilst the scientists in Sydney described seeing water swirling clockwise.

So to observe the Coriolis effect at home, you would need a large but shallow circular bath, and one that’s not affected by any vibration or disturbance, as well as plenty of time.

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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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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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If you look hard enough, the news is full of stories about climate change, loss of species and biodiversity, rising sea levels, the shrinkage of arctic sea ice and glaciers, increasing pollution, the destruction of forests and jungles, the depletion of earth’s natural resources, and so on. The coverage is relentless. And if you read for long enough, you might feel depressed and wonder if the human race is running out of time. Or perhaps you feel that scientists have got it wrong, and/or that humans with their limitless ingenuity can master these changes. Even if the population is projected to rise from 7,177,594,112 at the time of writing (link) to 10 billion by 2050. That’s 10,000,000,000 people.

krill, euphausiid, crustacean, antarctic, ocean

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, are one of the most abundant and successful animal species on Earth. There are about 85 species of these open-ocean living crustaceans which are known as euphausiids (Photo: Stephen Brookes)

Well if that’s not enough, scientists are now warning that substantial reductions in the numbers of antarctic krill could have catastrophic consequences for marine mammals and birds in the cold oceans of the southern hemisphere. Krill? What are krill?

Krill are small crustaceans found in all the world’s oceans. In the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, are the backbone of the food chain and are the primary food for penguins, seals, fish and whales. They make up an estimated biomass of over 500,000,000 tonnes, roughly twice that of humans on the planet, and may be the largest of any multi-cellular animal species on the planet. A study by the Australia’s Antarctic Division published in Nature Climate Change has found that once levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in the ocean reach about 1,250 micro-atmospheres due to the oceans becoming more acidic as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, the numbers of krill eggs hatching successfully begins to decline dramatically. Some of the areas for krill already reach 550 micro-atmospheres.

krill, antarctic, happy two feet, film, brad pitt, matt damon

In the 2011 Australian-American 3D animated film, Happy Feet Two, Brad Pitt provides the voice of Will the Krill, and Matt Damon that of Bill the Krill. Will seeks a life outside of the swarm, with Bill following reluctantly, but they realise they are at the bottom of the food chain. Although Will tries to be a predator, they eventually return to the relative safety of the swarm. Hopefully these two cute crustaceans will raise the profile of this potentially threatened species.

As well as mammals, birds and fish being threatened, commercial fishing is currently taking around 200,000 tonnes of the crustacean from the same areas affected by the projected decline. The krill are used in food products, health supplements, and as feed for farmed fish.

These findings come as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources  – comprising 25 countries including the European Union – is considering proposals to protect thousands of species in the Southern Ocean from exploitation. The increasing acidification of earth’s oceans due to the burning of fossil fuels however will respect no such boundaries.

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