Particle Hunting

Experimental physicists seem to be hunting quite a list of particles at present in the hope of ascertaining whether any of their theoretical colleagues are on even vaguely the right track.  Most recently I read of a hefty device (the IceCube laboratory – presumably named after the America rapper, late of NWA) being built in Antarctica to hunt for neutrinos.

At the same time, we in the UK have a sizeable number of people with red jackets, horses and beagles who since the work of our last government are unable to hunt foxes (or several of our other furry friends).

Surely, there is a win-win here.  We just need to train the beagles on the scent of a neutrino (or other desired particle) and it will surely only be a matter of time before they have brought one to bay.  I can’t see the animal cruelty lobby objecting to the hunting of neutrinos – and unlike a fox, the hounds will be unable to tear a neutrino (be it electron, muon or tau) to shreds as it is a fundamental particle.  (On the off-chance they can tear it to shreds, we will have discovered exciting new physics – so win-win again).

A final positive is that I’m fairly sure that the hunting lobby are willing to work for nothing (or at least, I assume no-one was actually paying them to chase foxes around the countryside) which will help to make our limited research budgets go that bit further in these straightened times.

I just hope a member of the Coalition is reading this blog.

Eukaryote Lunch Box

Further evidence would suggest that our lunchbox toting amoeba, Dictyostelium discoideum, is not quite so advanced as previously proposed.

It would seem that it does not carry lunch in obedience to the second law of geography field trips at all. Rather, it is a fussy eater and is worried that it might not like the food it finds at journey’s end. To avoid facing “funny foreign muck”, probably covered in the slime mould equivalent of garlic, it takes its own food with it. It is thus rather like the stereotypical British tourist, travelling with a suitcase full of baked beans and PG tips to avoid facing the horrors of the local cuisine.

All a bit disappointing – but it may offer business opportunities for the enterprising single-celled organism who can provide the slime mould analogue of the British pubs on the Costa del Sol.


Some of my friends and acquaintances believe me to be quite posh.  I think they mistake my ability (on occasion) to spit out a grammatically structured sentence, the use of long words and the superficial erudition for a place in the higher social strata.   You will, of course, recognise this for what it is – showing off.

I am just returned from the Dream of Gerontius.  No, I have not acquired some Freddie Krueger like ability to invade the sleep state of others – I’ve merely been enjoying the so named choral masterwork by Malvern’s most famous son.  If I had acquired Herr Kreuger’s abilities in conjunction with his youth slaughtering proclivities, I would like to think that I could see off a bunch of American teens by the end of reel one and have the rest of the film to myself.

But, I seem to be at risk of losing my narrative thread.  My primary reason for attending this musical extravaganza was as a supporter of CUMS (Cambridge University Musical Society) I feel I ought to turn out for their gigs.  Yes, I will admit I was tempted by the acronym – for perhaps the same reason, my waterproof rucksack cover has the word HUMP in large friendly, reflective letters emblazoned upon’t (I should perhaps point out that this is a brand name, I did not have it added specially).

As a supporter, I was invited to pre-concert drinks – quite a reasonable champagne since you ask – with other worthies.  I was welcomed by the most amazingly posh young man I have ever met – through no fault of his, I felt terribly plebeian.  He further blotted his copybook by enquiring whether I was the parent of a performer.  Now, I do recognise that I am middle-aged (I’m fast approaching 90 – and indeed, approaching 437 at exactly the same exhausting pace) and quite old enough to be the parent of a university student.  However, I do fondly like to imagine that I look too young to have teenage children – an illusion I try and maintain by avoiding simultaneous use of my glasses and a mirror.  Still, I suppose if you are going to have your illusions shattered, it might as well be in a cut-glass accent.

He did then make partial amends by introducing me to a pair of charming classicists (and the aforementioned glass of champagne).  The music was pretty good too, and King’s College Chapel makes for an impressive venue – if decidedly uncomfortable chairs.

However, I think it should be clear to all that I am moving up in the world.  I can see my summer being a gay, social whirl of garden parties with the minor nobility.  I shall be looking for a better class of reader in future.

What is news?

Betelgeuse (or Alpha Orionis, as it is known to friends) is a star in the constellation of Orion (well duh, look at the name).  In its vicinity, according to Douglas Adams, is a small planet which Ford Prefect called home.  Amusingly, for those of us who can remember Star Trek, it is class M star – though I don’t think this means quite what Mr Spock did when describing a similarly monickered planet.

Betelgeuse is also a red supergiant – which for a star means it is definitely drawing its pension and asking anyone who’ll listen if they know how old it is (probably 10 million years or so).  Apparently it could peg out quite soon, though quite soon for an ageing star could be any time in the next couple of million years – probably after an unfeasibly large number of come-back tours.

None of this is new information – nor does it seem terribly pressing.  I haven’t started making plans for a million years hence yet – though maybe I should something pencil in:

3 Feb 1002011  11:45  Dental Checkup

given the shortage of dentists, and the difficulty getting an appointment on the NHS, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Given these facts, it is a trifle surprising that this should be reported as news today – and, as a quick search of the interweb reveals, on several other days over the last few years.  This suggests it utterly fails to be “new”: neither a current event nor recent happening.  On the plus side, some have suggested it could provide a second sun shining day and night for several weeks – which would be good news for anyone with solar panels.

Surely, if they are going to start reporting long known about potential events in the distant future as news, our newspapers are going to be enormous (and the Sunday Times is already storing up a back-ache time bomb for the future at its current bloated size).

Come back that man with his lost cat, all is forgiven.  (I wonder if he ever found it?)

Word Wars

Into my, mostly, harmonious existence the Microsoft Office suite intrudes from time-to-time like a software Pierre Boulez.

I have spent the last two days (and probably will spend the next several) trying to force Word to accept charts from its Excel stablemate and then to do what I want with them and the surrounding text.  Word, like so much of today’s software, likes to think it knows better than the user – and that it is far better to insulate the user from any of the details of what it is doing or why.  Now, of course, outside of the realm of science fiction, software can neither “think” nor “know” – so I should more accurately say that the authors of Word have, in their hubris, decided how we should do things and what we should be permitted to know.  For me, word processing reaches its zenith with WordPerfect 5.1 and it’s been downhill from there.  More recent attempts at the genre may look prettier, but their surface style hides the Big Brother beneath (and I refer here to the character in Eric Blair’s novel, rather than any subsequent abuses of the fruits of his creative genius) and its subtle (and infuriating) policing of our thoughts.

I discovered that WordSpeak has a surprising range to its activities.  I was creating a document ostensibly in English (British – the original and still the best) but did need to use a few words from Italian.  When using the Italian word for “green”, I discovered that Word automatically capitalised the first letter to produce “Verdi”.  This launched a little game, with me testing it with other operatic composers and then more broadly with composers in the classical music canon.  It was surprisingly good with artists working prior to the twentieth century, but failed to recognise more modern names like Benjamin Britten, Herbert Howells or Pierre Boulez.  Entartete Kunst, anyone?

Just see that craft, surely no-one could have seen the second reference to Messiaen’s pupil coming.  I do wonder if this is all wasted on you…

Rise of the Duvet

There have been several mentions of blanket bans in recent days – they seem to be linked to those languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Presumably, inmates must sleep beneath a duvet for fear they will knot sheets and blankets together and make good their escape.

This talk of gaol reminds me of a joke I created in Bejam in Epsom (this is before it was re-named after a bankrupt, north Atlantic country – and, indeed, before Kerry Katona was born). I observed that prisoners were served a wide range of vegetables, but were never offered peas. The reason being that there’s no peas for the wicked. (Look, I was only eleven at the time – though to be honest, quality hasn’t improved much over the following decades).

But, that wander down memory lane is beside the point. What I was planning to say was that I fully support a blanket ban. There is only one good blanket in my book, and that is a picnic blanket – and then only when accompanied by a picnic. If you wish to stay warm in bed, there is only one option for the discerning sleeper – the duvet.

I have travelled around a bit on business, many a time and oft spending nights away from hearth and home. Too many of these nights have been spent in hotel rooms with their rather curious bedding arrangements. The continental quilt is far less prevalent over the Channel than its name might lead one to believe. Instead, sheets and blankets are applied to the bed in such a fashion that it is a struggle to insert a sheet of A4 paper between the sheets, let alone a human being. Why do they do this? Is it beyond the wit of man to make a bed and leave sufficient space for a relatively svelte man of middle years to enter in comfort and style? By the time I have broken into my bed, I am left with an untidy heap of sheets and blankets which do not lend themselves to a night of restful slumber.

Have I just turned into Michael MacIntyre? Arghh!

Geography Field Trip Rules

Perhaps I should start with an admission, 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of my last geography field trip – a few very wet and windy days on the Isle of Purbeck (home of Corfe Castle, but not so far as I can recall Far Corfe).  But, the rules of the Field Trip apply in many areas of life – especially those where your legs are providing the primary source of locomotion.  The rules (or the ones that I can still remember) were as follows:

Rule 1:  Never surrender height once gained.

Rule 2: Always know where your lunch is.

(Anyone who was anticipating that the first rule of geography field trips was that you “don’t talk about geography field trips” should go to the back of the class and think about what they’ve done).

I have always tried to live my life by these two simple maxims.  I’ll grant you that at some stage one does have to let go of rule 1, well it’s either that or learn to fly or levitate.  I’d hate you to imagine that my life has involved constantly moving uphill (and given that we have already established my demesne lies in East Anglia, this would suggest either very slow progress or my life beginning deep within the bowels of the Earth).  Perhaps rule 1 is really telling us never to let go of altitude frivolously  – particularly, any moral altitude we manage to acquire.

However, it is to rule 2 that the meat of this blog is dedicated.  Even to this day, my baggage for any journey I undertake of more than a few hundred metres (or yards for my older readers) will be comprised of at least 50% victuals to keep body and soul together (subject to the existence of the latter, I am willing to assume the existence of the former a priori).  You never can tell when a journey may be delayed, or pangs of hunger may strike the traveller, and at such times luggage full of tempting comestibles is a great comfort to a chap.

I had thought that it was just me, and a few other like-minded (or as I like to say, right-minded) individuals who functioned in this way – but researchers from the appropriately named Rice University have found another group of creatures who follow rule number 2.  It would seem that when they go travelling several species of amoeba (a single-celled member of the Genus Protozoa – admit it, you’d have missed it if it wasn’t there) pack a lunchbox full of tasty bacteria.  Being single-celled, they can’t actually carry a lunchbox so they bunch together into a fruiting body and then disperse to pastures new taking their bacterial provender with them.

There are, in fact, two other items I always carry with me – a good book and an umbrella.  I suppose that it is too much to hope that our eukaryotic predecessors will be found to share these habits as well.

The Great Black and White

Antipodean scientists have reported that our friends from superorder Selachimorpha (Linnean reference – check!) are probably colour-blind. Certainly most of the sharks I’ve seen (on wildlife documentaries, rather than swimming up the River Cam) do seem to utilise a somewhat monochrome livery.

I did wonder if knowledge that our cartilaginous friends would fail an Ishihara test could be of any assistance in case of an attack. I suppose I could initiate a discussion about snooker – a game poorly suited to the colour-blind – and hope to bore my assailant into submission. However, this would pre-suppose quite a slow attack, access to a hydrophone and some knowledge of snooker on my part – so probably only good in a somewhat limited number of cases.

On the plus side, sharks would enjoy a cheap TV licence – though there is limited shark-centric programming on Freeview (but given the plethora of channels, I’m sure Sky could offer something).

I also wonder how shark opticians would work. Mine (by which I mean, my human optician, I rarely fear being eaten during an ophthalmic examination) tends to keep asking whether the green or red circles are clearer (and now… and now… and now) – but this will be no help for a shark. Perhaps this explains why I have never seen a shark in glasses (the lack of external ears may also be an issue). Either that or they wear contacts – and, let’s face it, they certainly aren’t short of a supply of saline solution!

Metablog One

This is where I completely smash down the fourth wall (admittedly, I have granted it only limited respect heretofore) and drive a coach and horses into the metaphorical auditorium (in case you are worried and have moved back from the screen, the coach and horses are also metaphorical).

In this post, the blog will refer to itself – risking recursion or even paradox – but I am without fear (well, if we ignore heights, enclosed spaces and a number of more esoteric phobias which I will cover in some later post).

To my astonishment, the inane ramblings of your electronic interlocutor have now received more than 200 “views”.  I’m fairly sure I have only mentioned this blog to four people – so it seems likely that the readership has grown or the four have viewed it 50 times each.  To be honest, either option is somewhat alarming and proof positive that care in the community isn’t working.

I find writing it oddly cathartic, it is a method to harangue a small crowd without any of the usual, concomitant social awkwardness that would ensue (BTW, isn’t awkward an amazing word – W K W can’t be a common sequence of letters in English).  It also provides an outlet for my heavy-handed attempts at humour, an opportunity to provide some much needed exercise for splendid (but underused) words I am unable to home within my business writings and a way to share my frankly dreadful jokes.  At this point I should warn you that my favourite post (by a long way) is Declension Tension – I know it is only a sub-cracker standard joke dressed up with some pseudo-intellectual trappings, but I love it.  (I am also somewhat alarmed that someone rated SOC Sawston a 5 Star post – I can only assume fat fingers or some sort of ocular disturbance were involved).

Please do feel free to use the ratings system (or leave comments if you can work out how) – it will give you the pleasing illusion that you, in some way, control the direction in which this blog will lurch as time unfolds (it may even be more than an illusion).

Writing the blog has also made me realise why so many people write as part of a team – the muse is a fickle jade and sometimes days can pass without a thought worth sharing crossing the howling void between my ears (luckily, I don’t let this stop me posting).  Some days I worry I’m turning into Ed Reardon – other days I view this as a positive outcome..

Normal (normal?!) service will now be resumed (further metablogs may arise in the future, but probably not in the past unless my experiments in temporal physics start bearing fruit).

SOC Sawston

I’ve been working on a pitch for a new crime drama series.  Set on the mean streets of South Cambridgeshire it will be more CSI than Midsomer Murders – but grittier than either and with a cast who look like human beings (and less like air-brushed models).  I thought I’d share the opening scene of the pilot with you.

Scene 1:

Exterior: Night: Heavy Rain: An alley behind Budgens.  Camera pans from a SOCO leaning over a body sprawled on the ground, passes small plastic numbers placed next to a lettuce leaf, a small rasher of bacon, a slice of turkey and a couple of slices of bread (one of which appears to be blood stained).  Camera, pans up to see Detective arrive in classic 1982 Nissan Cherry.  Detective climbs out of car, pausing only to poke a liquorice tube into a sherbet fountain and lick at its tangy goodness.  He walks over to the SOCO.

Detective: So, what’s happened?

SOCO: White male, mid 30s.  Blunt force trauma to the back of the head.  Dead less than 2 hours I reckon.

Detective: Any sign of the murder weapon?

SOCO: All around you, gov.  Seems he was struck from behind with a sandwich – he never stood a chance.

Detective: A sandwich?!  How is that even possible?

SOCO: It was a club sandwich.  Looks like a premeditated attack.

Fade to black.

It’s got ITV prime time drama written all over it.