Wednesday, 30 May 2012

I'm not on a retainer

I'm currently reading in what little spare time I have, the second edition of David Woods' book How Apollo Flew To The Moon (Springer Praxis).  I read the first edition a few years back when it came out and although I have taken a few months to get hold of this edition, it was worth it.  The additions fill out the story that the first edition didn't have space for.  But most of all, it is even better than the best book on Apollo I've ever read.  And that was the first edition.
The landing of Apollo 15, my favourite Apollo of all time

 I thought I knew a lot about Apollo (though I know I am a bit behind a good many space fans out there), but I am learning so much from this book that is totally new to me.  Putting on the spacesuit in the confines of the lunar module was, I now know, like a choreographed Jane Austen style dance.  I have a good idea of where all the valves were in the spacecraft and what they did.  And I reckon I would have loved flying to the moon myself.  As an eight year old, that was what I wanted to do.

Playing in the veg patch, kicking up the dust, wearing the American football helmet that Mr and Mrs Nussman had got for my brother.  Well, they came close to being on the moon but there was something that wasn't missing.  There was too much gravity.  I couldn't walk like the astronauts, even if I could do a lot of the noises.  

The boat has been well and truly missed.  But I have got to meet a few who walked on the surface of another celestial body: Aldrin, Bean, Cernan, Scott.  And they are all wonderful gentlemen.  My current bedtime reading matter is a truly worthy tribute to those who ventured the quarter of a million miles in a tin cone of oxygen and clambered into a spiny lander to meet the lunar dust.  

If you do want to kow more, here is David Woods' site

Sunday, 27 May 2012


Marcel Proust, who famously (according to Monty Python, had a haddock, is remembered mostly for an enourmously long book that few have read and for a tiny part of that book referring to a cake:
      "No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt LĂ©onie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea."

For me, my madeleine moment comes each summer as I sit to mark exam papers.  There is no need to break a confidence here, so my bosses at a major exam board need not have apoplexy, because it is not the students' responses that matter but the question papers themselves.  Upon seeing them I am transported back to a hot and airless room where I am sitting trying to delve deeply into the recesses of my memory for facts about chemical equilibria and electron spins, aldehydes and ketones and, well, anything that had been drilled into me by my chemistry teachers for two years.  For some unknown reason it is the chemistry exam that I recall, and in exquisite detail.

I can remember the desks, giant wooden ones with a slight slope and holes for ink wells at the top right hand corner.  They are varnished and a honey glaze colour.  There is a board at the front, for chalk, with the start and finish times on it.  Because it is a lengthy paper, the finish time is after normal school finish time and the rush for the bus home.

I can remember the light on my right but although it is a sunny day, the northern aspect means I don't get it directly.  Just as well as it is warm enough already.  And I remember the fact that my girlfriend of the time will be waiting in the corridor outside for me when I finish.  We shall be going to her house straight after.
The memories of the exam room (it was the only time I sat a paper in this, a maths room normally so perhaps that is what makes it stand out) widen into the broader brush strokes of that exam season.  There is the music: George Harrison's Somewhere In England, the Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon (which I initially found dull), Simon & Garfunkel, Beach Boys, The Byrds and The Beatles.  There is sitting in the local park between papers one day.  And going to see tennis at Queen's Club with John McEnroe throwing a tantrum, because he was bored (as was I - it was one sided game).  Oh, and England were doing not so well in what became Botham's Ashes.

The George album is one of my favourites, even today.  I love it not just for the music but the memories it evokes too.  That summer was a glorious time: Charles and Di's Wedding, the end of school and the promise of university, the Ashes, discovering all sorts of new music (and heading distinctly the opposite way to my brother's soul fixation).

The thing is, why does my memory, and everyone else's I believe, play this trick and bring forth a vivid memory from a tiny stimulus.  I think the answer is a simple nobody knows.  Partly, I think, because no one really has got to the bottom of how memories are stored, whether chemically, in DNA or RNA or as circuits of neurons.  The teleological answer to the why question is almost certainly because a similar situation can require a similar response, and the stronger the original emotional investment, so to speak, the more likely it is to get a deeper and more detailed memory.

So my biology papers never evoke this response because I was better at those and the chemistry was the one I really wanted to get right.  But memory has a habit of being so elastic that it can get stretched out of shape.  Did I really go through those things I described?

In this case, the answer is pretty much a yes.  But one memory I have and which differs markedly from my dad's recollection of the event is the first moonwalk.  I saw bits of it on later rebroadcasts during the day of 21 July 1969.  My dad is adamant that I was awake for it, even though I know I wasn't.  I went to bed after the lunar module landed and have no recollection of anything until I awoke the next morning at normal time.  I was brought down to watch but I was so tired it made no difference.

So in true memorial fashion, perhaps we should have a where are they now item to finish up.

I suspect my chemistry teachers are well retired, possibly still with us.  The old girlfriend left me for a marine (honest) eighteen months later.  George Harrison died in 2001 and my dad is still with us.  Unlike Ian Botham, my dad never got a knighthood.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

This ever changing world in which we're living

We are led to believe that before Galileo no one believed that the cosmos, the realms beyond planet Earth, could change and that all celestial bodies were perfect and incorruptible.  History books also tell us that everyone thought the Earth was flat until that pesky Columbus said, No, 'tis round and luckily I know a short cut to the Indies.

What Galileo did was point his telescope at things of interest up in the sky, the Moon, Jupiter, Venus and so on, and demonstrate to anyone with at least one working eye and a modicum of open mindedness, that things in the heavens weren't always quite the same as they were the day before yesterday.  And the single most corruptible of those heavenly bodies turns out to be the Sun.

One of Galileo's sunspot sketches
Before Galileo there were reports of sunspots.  But you can't just look at the Sun and see them, so those reports are very rare.  Only at sunrise and sunset do the intensely bright and damagingly hot rays of the Sun become ameliorated enough to be able to bear them for more than a split second.  Then you can see the odd blemish on the surface of the Sun with your unaided eyes.  Galileo wisely did not peer down his telescope (HEALTH AND SAFETY GONE SENSIBLE: DO NOT EVER EVER EVER LOOK AT THE SUN THROUGH A TELESCOPE, BINOCULARS OR ANYTHING ELSE WITH YOUR OWN EYES (UNLESS YOU HAVE A PROPER SOLAR FILTER OVER ALL THE LENSES AT THE OTHER END OF YOUR DEVICE) projected an image and then drew what he saw. 

SOHO-large-sunspotI used the same method myself yesterday.  I have a small, 3 inch reflector that's very handy for deep sky objects but also works nicely for projecting the late afternoon Sun onto the ceiling of my porch.  I did it to show my granddaughter something she won't see too often - a naked eye sunspot.  This one is called AR1476 and it is very big indeed, and active and could interfere with communications and electricity grids down here on the good Earth.  The NASA image left shows how large, in comparison to the size of the Sun, this sunspot is.  It was clearly visible on my porch ceiling and the grandaughter left having seen it going "Sun, mummy, spot."

 My limited technology does not extend, sadly for the moment, to solar filters and the like so I was deprived of having an even closer view.  As might have been guessed, sunspots have structure so large magnification reveals the spot to be a roiling mass of fingers of superhot gas, trained by the rippling magnetic fields of the Sun's inner structure poking through into the visible sphere.  So this photo from David Maidment in Oman (via captures even more wonderment and delight than the NASA picture:

If you have a small telescope or a pair of binoculars, take the occasional safe look at the Sun.  It is not just a yellow circle up there to warm and tan you.  It is a fascinating object in its own right. 

Monday, 7 May 2012

Slime Moulds

If I were asked for the identity of my favourite organism, I might be tempted to say slime moulds.  So, hands up all those who have heard of slime moulds.  Hmm.  Thought there might not be too many hands.

There's a reason for that.  Slime moulds just aren't famous.  They don't have any PR, unlike the tasty or toxic mushrooms, the annoying pin moulds and the ubiquitous yeast.  But then slime moulds aren't moulds at all, because they aren't fungi.  They are protists, single celled organisms, and can grwo very big for microbes.  Some slime moulds occupy an area of several square metres and have a mass of up to 30g.  Look for them on fallen logs where they chomp on the bacteria that are part of the decay process and look like brightly coloured slime patches.

The reason I love slime moulds is because they are just so odd.  Most people now no longer encounter nature so readily as they used to.  My family, for instance, had never seen a weasel until we saw one while visiting my mother's grave one day last year.  For city dwellers, wildlife is often birds and foxes and little besides.  That's a shame but I was brought up to turn over logs and stones to see what was beneath, and I spent a summer investigating the ponds and streams around my village, mostly in search of my second favourite life form, the planarian flat worm.  But slime moulds are odd.
From daviddarlinginfo

Some of them consist of a single cell with hundreds of nuclei.  Sometimes they group together to form a slug-like entity that moves away and forms a fruiting body that releases spores.  So there is an element of multicellular life in there and the evolutionary importance of such behaviour has not been lost.  Not that we have entirely worked out the evolution of these things. 

I first came across slime moulds when I met the UK's chief scientist of the time, John Ashworth, through his eldest daughter.  She loaned me his slim book on slime moulds, The Biology Of Slime Moulds in the good old studies in biology series that Unwin published in the sixties and seventies.  I read the book as a sixteen year old then bought my own copy when I visited Nottingham University a couple of years later.  I have since lost the book sadly.  It's not much of a read but it's not meant to be.  It is an overview of what was known about these strange creatures at the time.  I could get it for a penny at Amazon if I wanted.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about slime moulds is that they can solve puzzles like mazes in a most efficient way.  All in all they should have better PR.

Anyway, look under or on logs in the future to see if you can find some slimy looking patches.  They might be slime moulds.