Fiddling With Storm Glasses

Credit Wikipedia

15 April 2019 Am making a couple of Admiral Fitzroy storm glasses as I have on and off over the years. The recipe I am using is the so-called Perth Recipe as chronicled by Barry Holliday’s most excellent website. Interested to see the results!

Barry’s page led me to this hilarious blog by science guru Derek Lowe. It can be found here.

NB Storm glasses are easily purchased from many, many sites over the web (e.g. amazon). Probably best to go this route rather build one yourself unless you have had chemical training.

A Glimpse Into The Eocene – 55 Million Years Ago


12 April 2019. There is no doubt that that the images recently taken of the Messier Black Hole are amazing. But how many people realise that they are looking at a time when the Earth was undergoing a profound biotic crisis?

The Messier Black Hole is 55 million light years away, so what we are looking at is the Black Hole 55 million years ago. To a

Credit Dr J. Smith

palaeontologist 55 Million years ago is the end of the Palaeocene period of Earth history and the start of the Eocene, a time when the Earth warmed by up to ten degrees C. This is known in the literature as the Late Palaeocene Thermal Maximum, a subject on which I and many colleagues around the world have written trying to gauge the simalarities with our own global warming future.

As you can seen from the map above during the LPTM the northern hemisphere was virtually ice-free. A very different world to the one we know today.


Judgement Day in North Dakota – Really?

9 April 2019. Just been reading about this fossil death assemblage from the last day of the Cretaceous (the day the non-avian dinosaurs died out!) supposedly found in North Dakota.

Hmmm. A geological locality that has restricted access, a New Yorker editorial by the noted science fiction author Douglas Preston, a name – Tanis – where Indiana Jones found the Ark of the Covenant, and a publication date of April 1st.


PS Just looked at Nature this morning. Glad to see they share my reservations.

Last Orders On RMS Titanic

Credit Shutterstock

28 March 2019. On 14-15 April 1912 RMS Titanic vanished near the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Over the next few weeks I look at the ‘Event Cascade’ of reasons why.

When people ask the question, “What sank Titanic?” at first sight, the answer is obvious. It hit an iceberg – how complicated can it be? But that simplistic answer masks deeper and more substantive question: Why did Titanic sink so quickly?

It is a mistake to regard Titanic as somehow primitive.  She was the most modern ship of her day, in a world that relied on its steam trade to maintain communications between Europe and America in the same way that today we rely on aviation. Titanic incorporated the latest technological innovations of the age to help ensure its safety. For example, it was the first ship to have sealable, watertight bulkheads with electrically operated doors that could be closed from the bridge at a moment’s notice. The hull was made of steel and was held together in the middle three-fifths of the ship’s length by steel rivets. She carried the latest Marconi wireless equipment, with a 5000 W transmitter that gave it a range of five hundred kilometres.

On the face of it the human factors were stacked in Titanic’s favour too. She had the most experienced crew of the entire White Star line on board for her maiden voyage, who were commanded by the White Star line’s most experienced captain, Capt E. J. Smith, the Commodore of the Line.

It is also worth noting that the North Atlantic run was very far from being an unknown quantity in the Edwardian era. It was as busy as the air route between Europe and America is today, and the chances of seeing a fellow ship en route were as high as an air traveller seeing a fellow aircraft today.

But the simple truth is that against all odds and expectations, including those of the ship’s designers, Lord Pirie, of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, and Thomas Andrews of the White Star line itself, Titanic sank as fast and completely as a stone, less than three hours after she had hit the iceberg. If she had stayed afloat a little longer then rescue ships could have got to her and tragedy been averted.

This is the real question of the Titanic mystery: How could a 46,000 ton ship sink so quickly? The answer is to be found within the science behind Titanic’s construction.

Watch this space for my trilogy of Titanic articles, coming soon.

The Future of Cities is Smart

23 March 2019 Just finishing off an article on sustainable cities. At its simplest this means a city that produced its own power, recycles its own waste and grows its own food. To imagine this properly we have to let go of a lot of preconceptions.

An essential ingredient to these sustainable cities will be AIs to make sure all the systems runs smoothly and correctly interact with each other.

All of which brought back memories of James Blish’s CITIES IN FLIGHT series where the cities, despite having an veneer of human control, were actually controlled by the City Fathers – giant AIs which over the millenia have accumulated a fantastic weight of wisdom and which are tasked with maintaining the safety of the city and its inhabitants at all costs.

Are we taking the first steps down that road already?

Synthetic Souls and Silicon Brains

21 March 2019. I am currently wrestling with an old problem and finding out that the huge literature that I assumed must exist – doesn’t.

Credit Shutterstock

Some years ago I was debating the difference between brain and mind with my friend and colleague Professor Steve Simpson (now Head of Zoology at the University of Sydney). We both agreed that mind was almost certainly an ’emergent’ product of the number of neurons in the brain and the number of potential connections that they can make. Technically this phenomenon is known as exaptation – a term coined by Steve Gould and Richard Lewontin to describe structures that arise in the body as a by-product of more orthodox adaptive processes.

My literature research has done nothing to change my mind, but to date two inescapable facts seem to be emerging. First, very few people seem to be tackling this problem and until we get an answer AI is still a pipe dream. Two, there is a qualitative divide between a superfast computer – even one that uses machine learning algorithms such as Deep Blue which beat Gary Kasparov (once) at chess – and a machine that thinks.

And as for soul, my working definition is that the soul is the sum of altruistic tendencies of the mind and their interaction. And no, the soul does not persist after death – how can it if the brain has stopped functioning?

I’m leaving this page open for comments and would welcome reasoned argument.