On Sunday “Dad’s Taxi” was in operation ferrying one offspring to see another. To avoid running backwards and forwards twice in an afternoon, we decided to spend the afternoon at Salford Quays as we hadn’t visited for a while.

First stop was the Lowry to see the current temporary exhibition – Syzygy – which features works by Katie Paterson.

Katie Paterson was born in Glasgow in 1981 and studied at Edinburgh College of Art from 2000-2004 and at the Slade School of Art from 2005- 2007.

Paterson’s artistic practice is cross-medium, multi-disciplinary and conceptually driven, with emphasis on nature, ecology, geology and cosmology. (source)

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as the blurb on the Lowry website wasn’t entirely clear about the theme of the exhibition and the nature of the works and the only image was of a row of clocks on the wall. Entering the galleries we could hear music playing – the Moonlight Sonata – but it didn’t seem quite right.

We soon discovered that the works in the exhibition were inspired by science, particularly cosmology. So as someone with a scientific education it was of particular interest.

The music was a recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata that had translated into Morse code, transmitted by radio, bounced off the surface of the moon and received back on earth. The code was then transposed back into a player piano scroll and played back on a grand piano in the centre of the gallery on a. As some of the radio waves had been absorbed by the Moon’s surface, there were gaps in the recording. A simple idea, but I thought it was interesting and if visitors thought about it they would perhaps learn that radio waves can be absorbed by surfaces.

Earth–Moon–Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon)


On the wall behind the gallery there were a row of clocks. At first glance you might think “what’s the point of that?” Looking closer they all seemed to be telling different times, although the minute hands were all in the same position. On closer inspection it could be seen that each clock had a different number of hour marks – only one with the “correct” number – i.e. 12. This work was entitled Timepieces (Solar System).

Here, each clock represents the number of hours that must pass before each planet in our solar system experiences a full day – that is, one full rotation of the planet equates to two revolutions of the clock face. Setting us up for a comic double-take, at first glance each clock looks as it should; but only the Earth clock takes 12 hours to circumnavigate. The clock for Saturn performs one round of the face every five and a half hours, Jupiter every five, while Mars needs only a small adjustment of the Earth clock, for it is just 20 minutes out, and Neptune requires an extra ten minutes.

An interesting idea that should make viewers think about the representation of time and how the meaning of something as simple as the length of a day changes with context and how something familiar to us, like an hour, is actually a human construct.

On the floor in one of the other galleries there was an object that was clearly a meteorite. A sign told visitors they could touch but that they shouldn’t attempt to move it. Well if they did they would have injured themselves. It was iron and very heavy.


This work was Campo del Cielo, Field of the Sky, 2012. It was a  meteorite, but it had been melted and then re-cast back into a new version of itself – essentially using the original meteorite as the raw material to make a model of itself.

When it first fell, the meteorite was made up of recognisable elements and compounds, but in configurations never found on earth. On melting and re-solidifying, the molecules reformed into their common terrestrial arrangements. While the eventual cast looks identical to the original meteorite, it is profoundly, yet invisibly, different. It has been naturalised, by Earth standards.

So, while outwardly identical to the original, structurally and chemically it has been transformed by the recasting process. As someone who studied Chemistry, this was interesting. 

My favourite work in the exhibition was Totalitya mirrorball suspended in one of the galleries turning and reflecting points of light around the room.


There were10,000 images of solar eclipses printed on the mirrorball which were reflected onto the walls, floor and ceiling.

The images depict almost every eclipse that has occurred since records began, and have been collected from all quarters of the globe, most from photographic sources, although there are some drawings from before the invention of photography.

The term Syzygy comes from astronomy, and is used to describe an alignment of celestial bodies. At the opening, Paterson said: “It’s a coming together of planets in space and time, and relates to how most of my work deals with Earthly time and cosmic time, and our relationship with heavenly bodies and the wider cosmos.”

Standing inside the room, watching the points of light swirl around the surfaces was quite disorientating.

Other works included All the Dead Stars – a stellar map showing the locations of all known dead stars, and Langjökull, Snæfellsjökull, Solheimajökull, a video piece showing three records cast from glacial meltwater, slowly melting while replaying recorded sounds made by the very glaciers from which the ice discs were made.

Some of the other works didn’t work quite so well for me, but another one,  Future Library which was a very interesting project, represented in the exhibition by a couple of drawings.

A forest has been planted to serve as the source of paper for a literary anthology to be printed in one hundred years’ time – the implication being that thinking literally about the materials one uses is the only responsible way to act when complex and occluded networks of production and distribution make it impossible to tell the real impact of one’s consumption. The trees have been planted within an existing forest in the environs of Oslo, its future secured by a forestry commission and a board of trustees. And as the trees grow, so will the Deichmanske library in Bjørvika in Oslo, with an archive box, containing a manuscript contributed by an invited writer, added each year.

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No one, not even Paterson, is allowed to open the archive boxes and read the manuscripts until the work is complete and that will be in 2114

Margaret Atwood has produced the first work for this library and the second has been written by David Mitchell. Apparently all authors will be given a copy of the completed anthology. Unfortunately many of them won’t be around to receive their reward!

So, for us, it was a very enjoyable exhibition. A pleasant surprise. I’m not sure every visitor will agree, but the concepts behind the works are very interesting if the visitor takes time to think about them.

Oh, and what about the title of the exhibition? Syzygy – a made up word? No, it’s an astronomical term used to describe an alignment of celestial bodies.

Coffe Cup Caustic

One of the works by Grace Weir in her exhibition at the IMMA in Dublin demonstrates an optical effect produced by the reflection of light inside a cylinder. In this case a copper cylinder but also frequently noticed inside a cup of cofee – hence the common name of the effect and the title of the work.

What the Higgs …?

Event display showing particle tracks from a collision as seen by the CMS experiment

Image source:CERN

The (probable) confirmation of the existence of the “Higgs boson” at CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire  i.e. European Council for Nuclear Research) near Geneva, has been all over the news this week. But I reckon most people don’t really know what it is.  Here’s a couple of attempts to explain it in layman’s terms,

one from Jonathon Amos at the BBC using ping pong balls and sugar

another from Don Lincoln, a nuclear physicist from Fermilab in the USA

a slightly more technical explanation by one of the boffins at CERN, with equations written on his tee shirt,

And for some alternative approaches to explaining what it is, see here.

As someone who studied chemistry, my view of particle physics is that it is seriously weird. Things are both particles and not particles, they can be in two places at the same time and it’s impossible to know both where they are and how fast they are moving. Everything is about probabilities, so the uncertainty about whether CERN have actually discovered the darn thing or not is par for the course!

Joseph Priestley – radical, dissenter and scientist

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I was in Leeds a few weeks ago attending a seminar held in the Queens hotel nest to the railway station. Across the road there’s a very grand building which at one time was the central post office. In front of the building there was a public square where there were a number of statues. It was quite common in the 19th Century for cities to honour notable citizens, often contemporary politicians, many of whom are now forgotten. So I was pleased to see that one of the statues in the square was of one of my heroes, Joseph Priestley – radical, dissenter and scientist.

Priestley, who was born in in Birstall, near Batley, which is a few miles from Leeds, in 1703, is probably best remembered for being one of the discoverers of oxygen (it was discovered independently by the Swede Carl Wilhelm Scheele). He was actually a clergyman – not in the Church of England, he was a Unitarian, and a “rational dissenter”, who rejected mysticism and emphasised the rational analysis of the natural world and the Bible.

As an amateur scientist he wrote a history of electricity and conducted chemical experiments that led to his discovery in 1774 of what he called “dephlogisticated air” which we now know as oxygen (named by the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier). His other innovations included the invention of soda water.


He was a political radical and supporter of the American and French revolutions, opposing slavery, promoting religious tolerance. He was also an educational theorist arguing for a more practical curriculum more relevant to contemporary society, with students studying English and the modern languages instead of the classical languages, practical mathematics, modern rather than ancient history, and the constitution and laws of England.

He moved to Birmingham in 1780 where he became an active member of the Lunar Society alongside James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgewood.

While he was living in Birmingham, on 14 July 1791, the  second anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Priestley and several other Dissenters had arranged to have a celebratory dinner. This was used by opponents to stir up a mob leading to 3 days of riots. Priestley’s house was attacked and set on fire.

Fleeing Birmingham he moved to London, living in Hackney where political and religious dissent was more accepted. He emigrated to America in 1794 and died there in 1804.

Jeremiah Horrocks and the transit of Venus

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Anyone getting up early at the crack of dawn this morning in Lancashire to observe the transit of Venus would have been disappointed. The sky was covered by a blanket of white cloud that obscured the sun. Luckily this wasn’t the case at 3:00 pm on 4 December 1639 (24 November  according to the Julian calendar that was then in use) as it was on this date that Jeremiah Horrocks observed this rare astronomical event from the garden of a house in Much Hoole, a village just south of Preston.

Jeremiah Horrocks, was probably born in Toxteth, then a hamlet just outside Liverpool, but today part of the inner city, in 1619. He was obviously a bright lad as at only thirteen he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge as a “sizar” ( a poor scholar). In those days Universities were establishments for training men for the clergy, but while he was there Horrocks studied astronomy. Apparently he was the only person at Cambridge at that time to accept Copernicus’  heliocentric theory – i.e. that the the planets, including the Earth, orbit the sun.

In 1635 he returned to Toxteth and using Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion, worked out that the Moon had an eliptical orbit.

The transit of Venus is where the planet passes between the Earth and the sun, and (if you’re lucky!) can be seen as a dark dot passing across the face of the sun. Pairs of transits occur eight years apart separated by long gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years. It was Horrocks who worked out that they occurred in pairs.

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Animation of simulated transit in equatorial coordinates. Picture source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately, Horrocks died on January 3rd 1641 at the early age of 22. I wonder what he would have achieved if he’d lived longer.

There’s a memorial plaque to Horrocks in Westminster Abbey and two stained glass windows in St.Michael’s Church, Much Hoole. And recently a memorial was erected at the Pier Head in Liverpool. This monument, by Andy Plant, is in the form of a telescope pointing to the Sun and Venus. I snapped it during a recent visit to Liverpool. The photo isn’t that great – I took it with the camera on my mobile phone and it was a grey, overcast day. There’s a better picture on the artist’s website

According to Andy Plant’s website:

The sculpture has a working hand powered mechanical orrery, the position of Venus has been replaced by a copper angel version of Jeremiah and as his wings flap he orbits the other planets. Inside the large telescope there is a video animation of the life of Jeremiah by Tim Hunkin.

Horrocks was also a poet and there’s an extract from one of his poems, describing the long wait until people would be able to see the next transit of Venus, inscribed on the base of the sculpture.

Thy return posterity shall witness;

Years must roll away,

But then at length the splendid sight

Again shall greet our distant children’s eyes

Unfortunately the cloud shielded this splendid sight from our eyes this morning!

Watch the icecaps melt away

I came across this animation via, a blog I subscribe to. It covers the period from the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago and ends 1,000 years in the future., and shows the ice caps gradually melting away.

The visualsation has been developed at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences by Adrian Meyer and Karl Rege

“End summer sea ice is shown. The yellow line shows the actual shoreline. The future projection is based on the assumption of complete cessation of carbon dioxide emissions in 2100 (IPCC A2). Because world population is rather uncertain we froze to its current value.”

Beautiful Minds – Jocelyn Bell Burnell

The Vela Pulsar

On Wednesday this week I watched the first of a series of 3 programmes profiling British Scientists. It told the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who, as a postgraduate student, discovered pulsars – highly magnetized, rotating neutron stars that emit pulses of radiation at regular intervals.

Jocelyn Bell comes across as a genuine, self efacing, modest person. She speaks quietly with a distinct brogue revealing her Northen Irish origin (interestingly, her sister, who was interviewed during the programme, didn’t have a trace of a Ulster accent!). The programme included segments of an interview with her, where she expressed views on the practice of science but mainly concentrated on the story of her discovery of pulsars. As a PhD student in Cambridge, working under Antony Hewish, she was given the task of building a radio telescope (not the dish type but a field full of wires) and analysing the data obtained. Being in the 1950’s this data was in the form of chart recorder data – yards and yards of paper.During this analysis she noticed a series of small “blips”. Initially dismissed as “noise” by her superiors she carried on obtaining better data by slowing down the pen recorder! This allowed her to analyse these “blips” in more detail and it was then quite clear that she had found a series of regular pulses,  This led to quite a furore as initially it was thought these could be signals from ET. However, she went on to analyse other parts of the sky where she found similar signals, ruling out the ET theory.

Despite this marvellous work, it was her supervisor, Antony Hewish, who was awarded the Nobel prize. JBB didn’t get a mention. Hewish was interviewed during the programme and justified this by almost dismissing JBB’s role and arguing that it is a team effort and that the team leader is the person who deserves any credit. I think this was absolutely disgraceful and is indicative of the attitude of the scientific establishment. The “top men” taking all the credit and glory and also the embedded misogyny. Despite this, when discussing it during the programme (and I’ve seen other interviews with her where she takes the same attitude), she does not come across as bitter. I don’t know whether she feels any anger inside – if so, she does a good job of hiding it. I suspect this is partly explained by her religion – she is a Quaker and a gentle, stoic attitude and lack of bitterness seems to go allong with that.

Although I enjoyed the programme the content was inevitably limited it mainly concentrated on the pulsar story, only touching on other aspects of her life and career. I would have liked to have known more about how she squares her deep religious conviction with being a scientist and to have learnt more about her career after the 1950’s.  In other programmes I’ve seen about her life she has mentioned how difficult it was to work in science as a mother with young children and how she was able to keep in touch by working as a tutor for the Open University.

More information on JBB can be found on the Internet including some interviews with her that delve into some more detail, here.

Picture credit: NASA via Wikipdedia

Humphry Davy – a man of two cultures

Its 50 years ago since CP Snow gave his Reid lecture on the “The two cultures” about the division between the arts and scientists and in many ways the division is probably more pronounced today. Science is perceived as difficult by the general public but I think that most “scientists” do very little to try to get over this barrier and help to increase understanding of science.  I studied Chemistry at University and worked in a scientific discipline all my life and my experience is that many people with a scientific education don’t have much interest in the arts and humanities. Yet, this has not always been the case. Before the 20th Century, there was much less of a barrier between the arts and sciences – “educated” men and women, (and I include self educated working class people in this category) cultivated an interest in both.

Personally, I’ve always had a passion for history, literature and reading in general. A long time favourite book is Richard Holmes‘ “Footsteps“, a book which combines biography, travel and autobiography. His biography of Shelley is also a favourite. So when I heard that a new book of his was due out that focused on the development of science in the “romantic age” I bought a copy hot off the press – even though it was in hardback, as I didn’t want to wait the extra months it would take for a paperback edition to be published (mind you a half price offer made it even more tempting!).

As in Footsteps, Holmes covers the life of more than one subject and also wanders off down sidetracks related to the main theme. One of the main topics is the life of Sir Humphrey Davy. I’ve always had an interest in this pioneering chemist so was keen to read this section of the book. He is best known for his invention of the safety lamp and he is also credited with the discovery (or isolation) of sodium, potassium and barium. But there is a lot more to his life.

Humphrey Davy came from humble beginnings in Cornwall, being born in Penzance in 1778. In 1794 he was apprenticed to John Bingham Borlase, a Penzance surgeon, but in 1798 was taken on by Thomas Bedooes (well known at the time as a Radical) to work as a laboratory assistant in the latter’s newly established Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. It was here that Davy was able to develop his talents as an experimental scientist, before finally moving to London in 1801 to work at the Royal Institution.

There was no separation of arts and sciences for Davy – he moved in both worlds, as did many other prominent artists and scientists at the time. He was a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, who took an interest in his work, as did others, including Shelley and Keats – Davy even wrote poetry himself. Men of ideas were interested in more than one sphere of knowledge and culture.

Given my work as an occupational hygienist (its O.K. – nobody knows what that is!) it was particularly interesting to read about Davy’s experiments with gases in Bristol. He explored the effects of nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide by conducting inhalation studies on himself. On more than one occasion he came close to death by exposing himself to high concentrations of carbon monoxide.

For most people Davy is known as the inventor of the miner’s safety lamp. Although this is surrounded by controversy (not least disputes about who first developed the lamp with George Stevenson) Davy was largely motivated by a desire to save lives (although the search for glory was a factor too, it has to be said) and he refused to take out a patent, even though strongly encouraged to do so. He wanted his lamp to be freely available. Sadly, although the lamp was intended to save lives it has been said that it actually caused the death of more men because the mine owners used the lamp as an excuse to send their workers into more dangerous workings. However, the ones really responsible for this were the greedy mine owners. Davy cannot be blamed for the misuse of his invention by others.

Although he had radical tendencies in his youth, he moved to the right in older age as he became part of the establishment (sadly this is too often the case – his contemporary, Wordsworth is a particularly notable example). He also had a tendency to seek glory and credit for inventions and could be jealous of others who worked with him – notably Michael Faraday who started out as Davy’s assistant. Nevertheless there is much about him to admire and Holmes, who is clearly sympathetic towards his subject, has written an educative and entertaining account of his life. And although the book as a whole is excellent, it was worth shelling out for a hardback book for this alone.