Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown

eric winkle brown, university air unit, edinburgh, naval test pilot

Young Eric Brown, aged 18, in the uniform of the University Air Unit at Edinburgh where he learned to fly.

No one ever had to say ‘he’s gone for a Burton’, but how test pilot Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown survived 50 years of flying is remarkable. The only Allied pilot to fly the Komet, a Nazi rocket-powered death trap of an aircraft, he said it was ‘like being in charge of a runaway train’. Captain Brown, born in 1919 in Leith, Scotland, died last Sunday, 21 February, aged 97.

Brown’s claim to unsought fame was that he flew 487 different types of aircraft and made 2,407 aircraft carrier landings, both world records that will never be repeated. He was the most decorated pilot in the Fleet Air Arm (FAA). The newspapers have been rightly generous in their praise of Captain Brown, the Telegraph and the Independent being just two. Here are the highlights of his spectacular flying career.

Brown’s father, Robert, had served in the First World War as a balloon observer and pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Brown said that he first flew in a bi-plane at the age of eight whilst sitting in his father’s lap. While still at school in Edinburgh, Brown accompanied his father to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His father’s RFC background led to them to meeting the boastful Hermann Göring, the chief of the newly-formed Luftwaffe (the Nazi air force), and Ernst Udet, a senior Luftwaffe officer, both First World War aces. Udet took the young Brown for a flight and declared that Brown had the temperament of a fighter pilot and that he must learn to fly.

At the time of the outbreak of war in 1939, Brown, a fluent German speaker, was an exchange teacher in Munich. He was arrested by the SS and briefly imprisoned, but was escorted in his MG sports car to the Swiss border. Back in Britain, he applied to join the RAF bu concluded that ‘there was no rush for my services’. So instead Brown enlisted in the FAA, the branch of the Royal Navy that operates naval aircraft.

eric winkle brown, naval test pilot, fleet air arm, second world war

Brown (dark uniform) with fellow test pilots in the 1940s.

After training, his combat flying began in 1941 as a fighter pilot flying off HMS Audacity, the world’s first auxiliary carrier (a captured and then converted German banana boat) protecting Clydeside-Gibraltar convoys. There were no below-deck hangers so the six aircraft had to stay on the deck. Brown received his first decoration, the DSC, for his bravery and skill in defending a convoy during a heavy and sustained air attack by enemy aircraft. On 21 December 1941 the Audacity was torpedoed by a U-boat whilst escorting convoy OG76. Brown was one of the only two aircrew who survived.

In 1942, he was posted to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough where he became chief naval test pilot in 1944, flying up to seven allied aircraft a day, including the Soviet MiG-15. One test was for Brown to dive a propeller-engined Spitfire at a staggering Mach reading of 0.86 (more than 600mph). Brown performed the first landing on a carrier of a twin-engined aircraft, a Sea Mosquito, on HMS Indefatigable in March 1944, and the world’s first landing of a jet aircraft, a de Havilland Sea Vampire, on the HMS Ocean in December 1945.

eric winkle brown, me163, komet, naval test pilot, second world war

A Messerschmitt ME163 Komet of the type flown by Brown. The first test flight of the ME163 was in July 1944. It had a phenomenal rate of climb and speed. With only a few minutes flight duration, and with highly inflammable propellants, it was a very dangerous plane to fly. Brown wrote of his flight ‘there was so much to get wrong and virtually no escape route’.

Ten days after the German surrender in May 1945, Brown was at an airfield in Schleswig-Holstein in north-west Germany testing the ‘Komet’, the rocket-powered fighter Messerschmitt 163, the only rocket aircraft ever to have been operational. The Nazis had begun deploying the plane during the last year of the war. Brown was completely fascinated by the tiny and lethally dangerous plane. Only RAE pilots were exempt from flying the planes, but only for a time, and Brown took his chance, despite the reservations of the German ground crew. Once the fuel in the plane had been used up, Brown glided the plane back to the airfield.

In April 1945, Brown, on account of his fluent German, was asked to help with translation at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during the Allied interrogations of Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, the commandant of the camp and his assistant. Brown later wrote ‘Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine’, adding that Grese was ‘the worst human being I have ever met’.

Brown also interviewed many Germans including Hermann Göring, Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel, the aircraft designers. But the interviews were brief, his part was limited to aviation matters, due to the need to begin the Nuremburg Trials. He was present at the interrogation of Heinrich Himmler, head of the entire Nazi police force including the Gestapo, who, under forged papers, had called himself Henrich Hitzinger.

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The Queen made a surprise visit on Tuesday to Bond Street tube station in London to be told that Crossrail is going to be named after her: the Elizabeth line.

One shouldn’t comment on how women are dressed, we should be listening to what they say, but an exception must surely be made here. Her Majesty’s colour-co-ordination was spot on. Crossrail purple, sorry Elizabeth line purple, has been deliberately chosen so as to match the Queen’s outfit (though I think the Queen’s attire is closer to lilac).

The colour purple has been associated with power and wealth going back to the Roman emperors, it’s status stemming from the rarity and cost of the dye originally used to produce it. Queen Elizabeth I forbad anyone except close members of the royal family to wear it. Did Transport for London have to ask the Queen’s permission I wonder?

Crossrail by the way is a £14.8bn east-west underground line, the central London section of which will open in December 2018, with a fleet of new 200-metre-long trains. Amazingly the project is so far on time and on budget.

orange army, her majesty the queen, hi-vis jacket, crossrail, elizabeth line, london underground, purple plaque

The Orange Army is out in force, many of them with seats in the circle. The Queen looks genuinely delighted as one would. But why are the top brass not wearing their hi-vis jackets? Lots of women in the front row, but they didn’t get to give the Queen her purple roundel plaque.

But Elizabeth, that’s four syllables. Though that’s the same as the Victoria line and the Piccadilly line, it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, it’s a bit clunky. For instance, you don’t say ‘I’ll take the underground’, you say ‘I’ll take the tube’.

Mmmm, I can’t think what Londoners might call the new line?

Crossrail has been called Crossrail for the past five years so it’s going to be some time before people start calling it something else. And what happens when Crossrail 2 is built. That’s something to keep you awake at night; the ‘Charles line’ or the ‘William line’.

her majesty the queen, mike brown london transport, buckingham palace, bomb shelter, crossrail, elizabeth line, london underground

Queen (Her Majesty). The Victoria line goes right under my house [Buckingham Palace]. But there’s a kink in it to avoid our bomb shelters. I opened that line you know, in 1968.
Mike Brown (London Transport Commissioner). Yes Ma’am. A bit before my time, that’s the year I was born

 

PointofViewThe Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain said in 1886, and the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson said much the same in 1964, that ‘in politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight’. We will soon know the reforms that David Cameron has been offered by the European Union as a result of his around the clock diplomacy. If he accepts what is offered, selling it to a bitterly divided Cabinet and to his party, let alone to voters, will be a nightmare. It is like a box of fireworks, which when lit will go off in unpredictable directions. But the government stands to lose either way.

Following its unexpected general election victory in May 2015, and no longer restrained by its coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative government is moving Britain towards a one-party state, in which the free market must be allowed to reign unchallenged. But leaving the EU risks a collapse in confidence in Britain’s financial markets. Many right-wing MPs believe that regaining parliamentary sovereignty is paramount and want to leave the EU regardless of whatever concessions are made by the EU. They are even more in thrall to a laissez-faire economy, and they also believe that by leaving the EU, Britain’s economy will flourish.

The future of the Conservative government is on the line, not just on the referendum, but on many other critical issues right up to the next general election in 2020. My own predictions out what is going to happen in that time are at the end this post. But first, how are we drifting towards a one-party state?

The Path to Power

ParliamentVotesPerMPThe Conservatives won the general election in 2015 with 37% of the vote. Labour got 30% of the vote, the Liberal Democrats 8%, UKIP (the UK Independence Party) 12%, and the Greens 4%. Yet under the first-past-the post-system (FPTP), the number of MPs voted in had little to do with the number of votes cast for a particular party as the picture to the left shows.

There was of course a referendum in 2011 on changing the electoral system, but the only voting system that the coalition government, led by the Conservatives, would agree to be put to the people was based on the Alternative Vote (AV). This had previously been described by Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a ‘miserable little compromise’, and it was loved by no one. The Electoral Commission’s explanation of the AV system was hideously complex, whilst that for FPTP took only three sentences. In the end, the No campaign, supported by the Conservatives opposed, was dirty and deceitful, whilst the Yes campaign, half-heartedly supported by the Labour Party, was lack-lustre and muddled. The outcome was almost 70% voting against a change and 30% in support.

Despite there being electoral systems elsewhere that link a party’s tally of votes to its tally of seats, mention anything to do with the constitution to many people and their eyes will glaze over. Unsurprisingly the turnout in the 2011 referendum was only 42%. But the reality is that under FPTP a small number of swing voters can decide who is in government.

There is a good explanation here, published by the Electoral Reform Society, of why FPTP is such an undemocratic method of electing our MPs, and why it doesn’t deliver what it claims.

Holding On To Power

The government has made or is making major changes to political processes so as to ensure that the chance of opposition parties forming a government, whether one party or as part of a coalition, is dramatically reduced.

  • the Chancellor in his 2015 autumn statement announced plans for a 19% cut in state funding for opposition parties, the so-called ‘Short money’ named after the former minister Edward Short, who devised the system in 1974. This was to compensate opposition parties for not having access to Whitehall resources and it has been in place for 40 years. The move will hit the finances of Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and other smaller parties, with the Labour Party set to lose £1m. The government though has relatively free rein to appoint its own special advisers paid for by the state, and since 2010 the cost of this has increased from £5.0m in 2009 to £8.4 in 2014.VoterRegistrationStudents
  • the government has changed the method of voter registration so that individuals have to register by 1 December 2015 in order to remain on the electoral list. Previously registration was done on a household by household basis. The government cited the need to stop fraudulent voting and to remove ghost entries, though fraud is almost non-existent. The Electoral Commission warned at the time that this could disenfranchise almost two million voters. The majority of these voters are young people and students, or people from ethnic minorities, people who are more likely to vote for opposition parties. These lost voters, together with the estimated 8 million people who are missing from the register, equates to 19% of all eligible adults not being on the electoral register. No major national campaigns are planned to persuade people to register.
  • in the Trade Union Bill now going through Parliament, the government is attempting to change the basis on which trade unions are able to make donations to the Labour Party. The outcome will be that the party will lose millions of pounds. The Conservative Party’s main sources of funding, corporate and private donations, which include 50 or so multi-millionaires, will remain untouched.
  • the government’s increasing use of statutory instruments as a back door means to change legislation, as opposed to Bills being presented to Parliament, has soared under the present government. George Osborne used a statutory instrument to introduce proposed cuts to tax credits. When the House of Lords opposed this, criticising the government for legislating through the back-door, Osborne attacked the House of Lords as an unelected body. The House of Lords should of course be an elected second chamber, but contrary to its feigned outrage, the government has thrown every obstacle in the path of reform of the second chamber. Osborne with no sense of irony threatened to flood the House of Lords with new Tory peers so that their defiance could not be repeated.

Incidentally the government’s intention to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600, and for number of electors within each constituency to be within 5% of the average number, which was agreed by Parliament in 2011, will now be progressed by the Electoral Commission. Whilst it is estimated that Labour will lose 20 seats as a result, the principle of having constituencies of more equal size cannot be said as such to be undemocratic as has been argued by some.

What is undemocratic is that FPTP will continue to be used to decide the winner in each of the ‘more equal’ constituencies. The winner can take all just by a few voters changing how they vote. The theoretical absurdity of FPTP is that one party could win every one of the 600 seats in Parliament with just a majority of one in each. No opposition MPs at all in Parliament? Just 600 votes could do it.

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Shippea Hill

ShippeaHillUpdateWhat does Shippea Hill, a remote railway station in Cambridgeshire, have in common with Shinjuku railway station in Tokyo, Japan? It’s all a question of busyness. Shinjuku is the world’s busiest station and is used by 1.26 billion passengers each year, whereas at Shippea Hill there is not much going on. In Europe, the busiest station according to recent analysis by the Independent newspaper, which takes account of metro or underground users as well, is Waterloo in London with 200 million passengers a year, followed by the Gare du Nord in Paris with 180 million users a year. So what about the least busy railway stations?

shinjuku railway station, world's busiest station

No photo can do justice to Shinjuku Railway Station, the world’s busiest transport hub with its 11 separate railway lines, 36 platforms and 200 entrances. Here is a pedestrian crossing to just one of those entrances.

World-wide figures for the quietest stations are not available, nor are there any for Europe. But according to the figures for 2014-15 released on 15 December by the UK Office of Rail and Road, there are ten stations on the national rail network that have fewer than 100 passengers a year. By comparison, Shinjuku has 12 million times more users.

The Least Busy Railway Stations

The ten least busy stations in Britain during 2014-15, in decreasing order of the number of users, are

10 Breich in West Lothian, Scotland (with 92 passengers)

9 Elston & Orston in Nottinghamshire, England (88)

8 Buckenham in Norfolk, England (88)

7 Golf Street in the town of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland (86)

6 Pilning in Gloucestershire, England (68)

5 Barry Links west of Carnoustie, Angus in Scotland (60)

4 Reddish South in Stockport, Greater Manchester (54)

3 Tees-side Airport near Darlington, County Durham (32)

2 Coombe Junction serving the villages of Coombe and Lamellion, near Liskeard, Cornwall (26)

1 Shippea Hill serving the hamlets of Shippea Hill and Prickwillow in Cambridgeshire (with 22 passengers)

The reason for these very low levels of patronage is usually the small number of trains that actually stop at these stations. Take Tees-side Airport. You would expect a station apparently serving an airport to have tens of thousands of users a year. Despite the name, the station is a fifteen-minute walk from the airport, so accessibility is a major factor in its lack of usage. The other is that only two trains stop at the station each week, both on a Sunday: the eastbound Northern service 11.14 Darlington to Hartlepool, and the westbound 12.35 Hartlepool to Darlington. Sadly campaigns to highlight the poor rail service at the station, and to persuade rail authorities to move the station 500 metres closer to the airport terminal, have so far been unsuccessful.

shippea hill station, railway map, ely, norwich, east anglia, the wash

Shippea Hill is marked on this railway map with Ely to the west and Norwich to the east. Most of the land to the north of Cambridge is the Fens, which drain into the square area of sea to the north, which is called the Wash.

Why did Shippea Hill however attract just 22 passengers from April 2014 to March 2015? Firstly only one train a day going eastwards towards Norwich actually stops there, the 07.28 which runs from Cambridge via Ely to Norwich (07.25 on a Saturday), and then not on a Sunday. Going westwards there is just one train a week, on a Saturday, the 19.27 that runs from Norwich to Cambridge. The service then is almost non-existent. Shippea Hill is also a request stop, so passengers must inform the driver or conductor if they want to get off, or put their hand out as they stand on the station to alert the driver that they want to get on.

On a weekday over 30 passenger trains, including an East Midlands hourly 125 service between Norwich and Liverpool, pass through Shippea Hill each way so the route itself is a busy one. But why don’t more trains stop there? The simple answer is that it is a remote location where very few people live.

Where is Shippea Hill?

shippea hill mapShippea Hill railway station lies in the east of Cambridgeshire, with the Suffolk border 200 yards to the east, and a triple border with Norfolk a little further to the north-east. The station is on the Breckland Line that runs between Ely in the west and Norwich in the east. The station was opened in July 1845 by the Eastern Counties Railway as Mildenhall Road, the road that crosses the railway next to the station, though Mildenhall itself is eight miles away.

In 1885, with the opening of a separate railway from Cambridge to Mildenhall, the name of the station was changed to Burnt Fen, the name of the surrounding area. Finally in 1905 the current name was adopted. The only settlements are farms, and the nearest hamlet of Prickwillow is four and a half miles away by road. The name Shippea Hill seems odd as being in The Fens, the area is very flat and much of the land around the station is about one metre below sea level as a result of the draining of the fens. It is therefore very likely to be the only station in the world with ‘hill’ in its name that is below sea level.

shippea hill farm, burnt fen, frederick hiam, new covent garden market, new spitalfields market

Shippea Hill Farm © Evelyn Simak / Creative Commons Licence

Shippea Hill Farm (photo left) is a mile and a half to the west of the station (see map above), and stands on slightly higher ground 5 metres high but it is still surrounded by land at sea level. It is one of the few areas within Burnt Fen which rises above sea level, hence the ‘hill’. Potatoes are the main crop today, and the farm is owned by Frederick Hiam Ltd. Fresh produce is still delivered daily to Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets in London.

There are farms that are nearer to the station than Shippea Hill Farm, though they may no longer have lived-in farmhouses. One of the nearest is Bulldog Bridge Farm, less than a mile away to the west along the A1101 to Littleport. Bulldog Bridge, which crosses Engine Drain, is back along the road towards the station. Might Bulldog Bridge have been a more appropriate name for the station?

The Fens, also known as Fenland, cover an area of 1,500 sq miles in eastern England, and they were drained in the 18th century leading so that most of the area lies at sea level or just above. Read more about this here. Incidentally the lowest point in Britain, at 2.75 metres (9.5 ft) below sea level, is also in the Fens at Holme Fen. The land is very fertile and it continues to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps that work continuously. In the 17th century however the land was described as being all above sea level so perhaps Shippea Hill was a more significant hill then.

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Christmas Quiz 2015

christmas quizThis Christmas quiz, which you can print off below, only has a sprinkling of questions with a Christmas theme. It’s not about events of the past year, which I find rather dull. It’s more like 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 there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do it together.

It is not therefore the sort of impossible-to-answer general knowledge quiz like that set by 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 just two, out of 180 questions!

radio times christmas edition, wireless, radio receivers

This is the cover of the first Radio Times Christmas Number published on 23 December 1923 priced 6d ( a bit less than 3p). The complete issue can be downloaded here. There’s no quiz but lots of ads for ‘wireless’ and ‘radio receivers’.

This is not surprising as who knows ‘following the escape of the lugger from the Hole, who expressed gladness at having trodden on which blind man’s corns?’ (question 5.6 in the 2014 quiz). Nor ‘which administrator was fatally speared during his riverside ablutions?’ (question 8 .8). One wonders what is the point of it? It certainly provides some kudos for the college and it exemplifies perhaps the thirst for knowledge for its own sake. There’s a term for this: autotelic. I did like however Q6.6: what dual enterprise began when two pharmacists were inspired by a gourmet’s Bengali experience? Answer: Lea and Perrins (Worcestershire Sauce)!

The current compiler of the quiz Dr Pat Cullen has produced a compendium of past papers entitled The World’s Most Difficult Quiz which is available from the School Shop. On a picky note, on the school website, ‘papers’ above is stated as ‘paper’, and ‘available’ is spelt ‘avialable’. Oh dear.

wallace and gromit, postage stamp, post box, christmasBy the way, the answers to the two questions above are ‘Mr Dance, Pew’s (R L Stevenson – Treasure Island)’ (Q5.6) and ‘J W W Birch (Resident of Perak, 1875)’ (Q8.8). I’m surprised that the average score is as high as two.

As the King William’s College quiz is only published in the The Guardian on Christmas Eve you will have to wait until then. This year’s answers will be published in The Guardian in the New Year towards the end of January.

So, for a more relaxing and less challenging quiz try my one: Christmas Quiz 2015 Questions. The full quiz is quite long with 40 questions scoring a maximum of 84 points, so alternatively you could try the first 30 questions which score 63 points.

And here are the answers: Christmas Quiz 2015 Answers.

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

What’s a MacGuffin?

apocalypse now, kurtz, willard, francis ford coppola, marlon brando, macguffin

There are only fleeting glimpses of Kurtz when Willard meets him face to face in the closing acts of the film, but the character of Kurtz drives the action of the film from the very beginning.

Well, it’s all to do with films, and here are two films that have MacGuffins in them.

In the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent during the Vietnam War on a secret mission up the Nang river through war-torn jungle to assassinate the renegade and insane Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who has set up camp in a remote abandoned Cambodian temple. And yet in the film, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Kurtz does not appear until two and a half hours have passed, and then is on-screen for only 18 minutes, mainly delivering a rambling monologue.

The opening scenes of the 1997 film Titanic, directed by James Cameron, concerns a treasure hunter Brock Lovett searching the wreck of RMS Titanic for a necklace with a rare blue diamond, the Heart of the Ocean. Lovett’s team recover a safe from the wreck which contains a drawing of a young woman wearing only the necklace. The women in the drawing, Rose Dawson Calvert (played by Kate Winslet when young and Gloria Stuart when old), had survived the sinking and is located and brought aboard the survey ship. She then tells her story of the voyage. The diamond seems at first to play a crucial part in the plot, but the film is actually about a romance between two people, Rose and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) from different social classes set against the sinking of an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

titanic, heart of the ocean, blue diamond, billy zane, kate winslet, leonardo dicaprio. macguffin

Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) gives Rose (Kate Winslet) the blue diamond necklace as an engagement present. To keep Rose away from Dawson, Hockley has the diamond planted on Dawson, who is then arrested, but the diamond plays little or no further part as the Titanic has already collided with the iceberg.

What both these films have in common is that a character, Kurtz, and an object, the diamond, seem to be of critical importance to the film’s plot, but the main action of the film doesn’t depend on them. Coppola envisioned Apocalypse Now as a definitive statement on the nature of modern war, the difference between good and evil, and the impact of American society on the rest of the world. Kurtz could just as well have been an enemy commander. In Titanic, the diamond could have been a diary or a photograph. Kurtz and the diamond are just catalysts, plot devices to drive the action forward, to get the characters moving, and they are called MacGuffins.

It’s mostly irrelevant what the MacGuffin actually is. It may be an object, a place, or a person. Or it may take more abstract forms such as money, survival, power, love, or some unexplained force. The MacGuffin device is especially common in thrillers. It is usually the focus of the film at the beginning, and thereafter declines in importance.

The term MacGuffin was originally popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, and his first recorded usage was in a lecture that he gave at Columbia University on 30 March 1939.

We have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers. We just try to be a little more original.

For Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is the engine that sets the story in motion; it serves as a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur.

39 steps, thirty-nine steps, richard hannay, robert donat, mr memory, macguffin

In the theatre, Hannay asks Mr Memory ‘what are the Thirty-Nine Steps?’. Mr Memory compulsively answers that it is a secret organisation of spies but is shot before he can finish. Backstage, the dying Mr Memory recites the details of the aircraft engine he has memorised, the MacGuffin, and says before he dies ‘It was the biggest job I ever tackled …. I’m glad it’s off my mind.’

In The 39 Steps (1935), the MacGuffin is the coveted design for a silent aircraft engine stored in the mind of a vaudeville performer named ‘Mr Memory’ but for the cinema audience the real action is in the hero, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), being chased up and down the country by police and villains alike.

In Psycho (1960), it is the $40,000 stolen by Marion Crane from an estate agent, though the plot actually centres on the unnerving behaviour of Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. Crane becomes a MacGuffin herself as she is killed less than halfway through the film. In The Lady Vanishes (1938), it is a coded message contained in a tune performed by a folk singer overheard by a guest, Miss Froy, whilst staying at a remote eastern European inn. It is one of the most abstract of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins. The audience however are more interested in the quest of a young English tourist, Iris Henderson, in trying to find Miss Froy, who has mysteriously disappeared on the train that is taking them both back to England.

Hitchcock may have got the idea of the MacGuffin from a brief story told by his friend screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who delighted in wordplay and puzzles, and who at one time earned his living by making up jokes for Tommy Trinder who was a popular comedian at the time.

Two men were travelling on a train from London to Scotland. An odd shaped package sat on the luggage rack above their seat.

‘What have you there?’ asked one of the men.
‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,’ replied his companion.
‘What’s a MacGuffin?’
‘It’s a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’
‘But there aren’t any lions in the Scottish Highlands!’
‘Well, then, I guess that’s no MacGuffin!’

Earlier versions place the action in the Adirondack Mountains in the USA, rather than Scotland, which is obviously a better location given the choice of name.

In an interview with director François Truffaut in 1967, Hitchcock explained the idea in more detail.

The theft of secret documents was the original MacGuffin. So the ‘MacGuffin’ is the term we use to cover all that sort of thing: to steal plans or documents, or discover a secret, it doesn’t matter what it is. And the logicians are wrong in trying to figure out the truth of a MacGuffin, since it’s beside the point. The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents, or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.

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large hadron collider, cms detector, cern

This is the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector which analysed the data for the Higgs boson discovery in 2012. It is one of four separate detectors on the LHC ring. At 12,500 tonnes, it is the heaviest, containing twice as much metal as the Eiffel Tower.

The Large Hadron Collider under the France-Swiss border captures the headlines every so often. The big story this spring was that the LHC had been successfully re-started with protons circling the 27km long accelerator ring for the first time in more than two years. A month later proton beams collided at 99.9% of the speed of light at the ‘record-breaking energy of 13 TEVs’, and the machine began to deliver the much sought-after physics data.

But one news headline caught my attention. ‘What would happen if you got zapped by the LHC?’ One might guess it wouldn’t be very nice.

The LHC is the largest particle collider in the world and the largest single machine ever built. Although one TEV (or tera-electron volt) is roughly equivalent to the energy of motion of a flying mosquito, the energy within the LHC is squeezed into an extremely small space, about a million, million times smaller than a mosquito, and it is this intensity which causes the protons to be smashed apart. I’m not sure the mosquito analogy works. I know that energy like this can’t be quoted in terms of so many London buses or Olympic size swimming pools, though I did read somewhere that each beam contains the energy of a Eurostar train travelling at full speed. That’s more like it.

large hadron collider, accelerator ring, beam pipe, cern

The ring encloses two vacuumed ‘beam-pipes’ along which the protons travel in opposite directions at a speed of 11,000 revolutions of the ring per second before being made to intersect at four locations, at each of which there is a massive particle detector.

Back to the zapping. You’ve managed to get through security, down one of the eight shafts (which are up to 175 metres deep), and you’ve found a quiet spot in the 3.8 metre concrete tunnel close to a hypothetical inspection hatch into the accelerator ring. Though the collider should shut off if anyone starts tampering with the ring whilst it’s running, make believe that you’ve by-passed the safety systems and managed to stick your head inside the ring and into the proton beams. What happens next?

It depends on how many protons collide with nuclei in the tissues in your head, and how many zip through undisturbed. If the beam was of single protons, there would be little chance of impact, but there are 320 trillion protons spinning around each pipe of the LHC, and the beam would almost certainly burn a hole through your head. And as protons fling off secondary particles when they hit something, which incite another round of collisions, the beam would create a space that spreads out laterally. Rather than boring a hole a few microns wide in your head, a beam might carve out a large cone of tissue. You would be toast!

anatoli bugorski, proton beam, large hadron collider, u-70 synchrotron

The beam burnt a hole from the back of Bugorski’s head, through his skull and brain, and exited just beside his left nostril. And the Russian machine had only one hundredth the power of the LHC

Is this all conjecture? Well not entirely. In 1978, Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, a 36-year-old physicist at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, Russia, was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment in a particle accelerator, the U-70 synchrotron. The machine was switched on inadvertently, and unfortunately the safety mechanisms failed to work. Bugorski’s head was in the path of the 76 GeV proton beam. Reportedly, he saw a flash ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ but did not feel any pain.

Over the next few days, the left half of Bugorski’s face swelled up and his skin started peeling around the spots where the beam had entered and exited his head. Believing that he had received far in excess of a fatal dose of radiation, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow for observation as the doctors fully expected him to die within a few days. Bugorski survived however, though he lost the hearing in his left ear, the left half of his face was paralysed due to nerve damage, and he was to suffer from occasional seizures. However, there was virtually no damage to his intellectual capacity. Continue Reading »