About Me

My photo
I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Been there.... Thought that......

Just Finished Reading: Raptor Red by Robert T Bakker (FP: 1995)

Utah, 120 Million Years Ago. Raptor Red and her new consort are hunting. Over the past few months as they increasingly pair bond they have become a well-oiled, efficient and co-ordinated killing machine. But suddenly something goes wrong and her consort is killed. Bereft Rad is forced to hunt on her own something which Utah raptors are not very good at. Eating carrion and whatever she can catch Red eventually smells something familiar. A scent close to that of her siblings – but not quite. Recognising her sister’s brood she joins with her hatch-mate to hunt as a pair again. But Red wants to mate and is on the lookout for a suitable father of her future offspring. So when a young male comes courting she is more than pleased to take up the offer if he can prove himself worthy and if her sister can refrain from killing him on sight. Meanwhile Utah is becoming increasingly crowded with other bigger predators, strange new diseases and weird coloured foliage called ‘flowers’ seen for the first time. If Red and her adopted family can survive in this new environment the possibilities seem also endless. But it’s a big ‘if’ with some much competition and so many new prey species to investigate.

I picked this up at a roadside book stall years ago probably not long after watching one of the Jurassic Park movies. Raptors (as the author points out) are regularly voted peoples second favourite dinosaur after T-Rex. Personally I prefer the Raptors myself. Oddly for an author of entertaining speculative fiction this one is actually a palaeontologist and is well known in his ‘community’ probably for his willingness to speculate where his colleagues fear to tread. This his does ‘in spades’ in this novel not only imagining dinosaur behaviour but their emotional state and even inner mental lives. But don’t worry too much – there’s no dialogue here (except for grunts and squealing) – so it’s definitely not Disney. I did find it a bit silly in places but was impressed by the speed I actually found myself caring about Red and her quest to stay alive long enough to mate. If you’re a fan of the dinosaur movies and can hold onto a sense of disbelief to get you over the (very) speculative bits then this is the book for you. Entertaining and educational this I found was a surprisingly good read. Recommended.  

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book with nonhuman characters – COMPLETE (23/50)]

Monday, July 27, 2015

My Favourite Movies: The Guest (2014)

I was turned on to this superior B movie by my friend and fellow gamer Mr Ali P. I’s seen a brief trailer at the movies but the film itself seemed to pass me by. I regret not seeing it on the big screen.

The storyline (such as it is) starts with an unexpected visitor to a family still grieving at the loss of their eldest boy in Afghanistan/Iraq. Identifying himself as ‘David’ (and played superbly by Dan Stevens – previously of Downton Abbey if you can believe that!) he claims, with some justification, to be a close friend of the deceased and to be there to pass on his last message. Invited to stay ‘for a few days’ he becomes a rather awkward houseguest who listens to the husband bitch about being passed over for promotion, the son being bullied in school and the daughter secretly seeing her drug dealing boyfriend. In fact just another normal family in small town America. ‘David’ however is not the kind of person to stand idly by when he can help the family of his dead friend. Within days the husbands boss if found after an apparent suicide and the young boys problems with the bullies have been resolved by the private application of some rather brutal unarmed force. The daughter (again played brilliantly by Maika Monroe) is a tougher nut to crack. Initially suspicious of David, despite being attracted to him, she begins investigating his story and quickly finds holes in his background. She also alerts a private security company to his location and a hastily thrown together hit team led by Maj Carver (a rather understated Lance Reddick of Fringe fame) are immediately sent to ‘tie up loose ends’. Now ‘outed’ by the family he tried to protect David must now revert to protecting his own identity by erasing anyone who potentially knows the truth of his existence.

As things go this really shouldn’t have been anything special. After all we’ve seen this sort of low-budget stuff time and time again. What raises it far above the average B-Movie competition (for me at least) are two things – or rather two actors. Dan Stevens is quite simply superb and the every polite, ever calm David who even apologises to people he’s just killed unless that is they really piss him off – there’s no apology then, just a bullet in the head. Described as a psychopath (actually more likely a high functioning sociopath) and, rather ironically, as a perfect soldier he is very creepy and extremely scary to get on the wrong side of. It’s his ever calm demeanour that is really, really effective. No one normal is ever that calm! Likewise Maika Monroe is brilliant as the teenage (almost 20 she yells at her father) waitress who needs to grow up really fast if she and her younger brother are to survive David covering his tracks before moving on. Sassy, sexy and obviously very clever she proves more than capable of staying alive – though only just.

Oh, and then there’s the much talked about soundtrack that helps hold the whole thing together. It’s kind of an 80’s techno-goth pastiche thing that really, really works. I check for the CD version but couldn’t find anything until today. It appears to be available on MP3 download or vinyl. Go figure! Now the warnings: It’s quite violent in places and they don’t skimp on the blood. There’s one short sex scene and a bit of female nudity plus the occasional F word. In other words not much to take it into the 15 certificate category. Not exactly family friendly viewing but nothing the average teenager would have a problem with. Switch off your brain and enjoy 96 minutes of superior B-movie fun.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

'Earth 2.0' found in Nasa Kepler telescope haul

By Paul Rincon for BBC News

23 July 2015

A haul of planets from Nasa's Kepler telescope includes a world sharing many characteristics with Earth. Kepler-452b orbits at a very similar distance from its star, though its radius is 60% larger. Mission scientists said they believed it was the most Earth-like planet yet. Such worlds are of interest to astronomers because they might be small and cool enough to host liquid water on their surface - and might therefore be hospitable to life. Nasa's science chief John Grunsfeld called the new world "Earth 2.0" and the "closest so far" to our home. It is around 1,400 light years away from Earth.

John Jenkins, Kepler data analysis lead at Nasa's Ames Research Center in California, added: "It's a real privilege to deliver this news to you today. There's a new kid on the block that's just moved in next door." The new world joins other exoplanets such as Kepler-186f that are similar in many ways to Earth. Determining which is most Earth-like depends on the properties one considers. Kepler-186f, announced in 2014, is smaller than the new planet, but orbits a red dwarf star that is significantly cooler than our own.

Kepler-452b, however, orbits a parent star which belongs to the same class as the Sun: it is just 4% more massive and 10% brighter. Kepler-452b takes 385 days to complete a full circuit of this star, so its orbital period is 5% longer than Earth's. The mass of Kepler-452b cannot be measured yet, so astronomers have to rely on models to estimate a range of possible masses, with the most likely being five times that of Earth. If it is rocky, the world would likely still have active volcanism and its gravity could be roughly twice that on our own planet. The new world is included in a haul of 500 new possible planets sighted by the Kepler space telescope around distant stars.

Twelve of the new candidates are less than twice Earth's diameter, orbiting in the so-called habitable zone around their star. This zone refers to a range of distances at which the energy radiated by the star would permit water to exist as a liquid on the planet's surface if certain other conditions are also met. Of these 500 candidates, Kepler-452b is the first to be confirmed as a planet.

Dr Suzanne Aigrain, from the University of Oxford, who was not involved with the study, told BBC News: "I do believe the properties described for Kepler-452b are the most Earth-like I've come across for a confirmed planet to date. "What seems even more significant to me is the number of planets in the habitable zone of their host stars with radii below two Earth radii; 12 is quite a few compared to the pre-existing Kepler planet catalogue. It bodes well for their attempts to provide a more robust measure of the incidence of Earth-like planets, which is the top-level goal of the Kepler mission."

While similar in size and brightness to the Sun, Kepler-452b's host star is 1.5 billion years older than ours. Scientists working on the mission therefore believe it could point to a possible future for the Earth. "If Kepler-452b is indeed a rocky planet, its location vis-a-vis its star could mean that it is just entering a runaway greenhouse phase of its climate history," explained Dr Doug Caldwell, a Seti Institute scientist working on the Kepler mission. "The increasing energy from its aging sun might be heating the surface and evaporating any oceans. The water vapour would be lost from the planet forever. Kepler-452b could be experiencing now what the Earth will undergo more than a billion years from now, as the Sun ages and grows brighter."

Dr Don Pollacco, from Warwick University, UK, who was not involved with the latest analysis, told the BBC: "Kepler data allows you to estimate the relative size of a planet to its host star, so if you know the size of the host, hey presto, you know the size of the planet. However, to go further - i.e. is it rocky? - involves measuring the mass of the planets and this is much more difficult to do as the stars are too far away for these measurements (which are incredibly difficult) to make. So in reality they have no idea what this planet is made of: It could be rock but it could be a small gassy ball or something more exotic maybe."

Dr Chris Watson, from Queen's University Belfast, UK, commented: "Other Kepler habitable zone planets may well be more Earth-like in this respect. For example, Kepler-186f is approximately 1.17 Earth radii, and Kepler-438b is approximately 1.12 Earth radii. In fact, at 1.6 Earth radii, this would place Kepler-452b in a category of planet called a 'Super-Earth' - our Solar System does not actually have any planet of this type within it! Super-Earths are hugely interesting for this reason, but one might then say, well, is it really 'Earth-like' given all this?" He added: "When we look at the type of star Kepler-452b orbits, then it seems to be a star not too dissimilar to our Sun... The other Kepler habitable zone planets that have been discovered so far tend to be orbiting M-dwarfs - stars far cooler than our Sun, and therefore the planets need to orbit much closer to receive the same levels of heating. So it may be a potentially rocky super-Earth in an Earth-like orbit (in terms of host star and orbital distance). It's this combination of the host star and orbit that set it apart in my opinion."

The findings have been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal.

[Cool! It looks like an excellent candidate for a planet (if it turns out to be a rocky one) with a distinct possibility of life. But at 1,400 light years away the only way we can check for sure if we can pick up radio signals [1400 years old!] from there. Shame really. It would have been great if it was close enough to think about sending a probe when we eventually develop the technology to launch things at an appreciable percentage of light speed.]

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Just Finished Reading: The Guns of August by Barbara W Tuchman (FP: 1962)

This has been on my radar for some time – being quite famous and all that – so when I saw it in a handy paperback size I jumped at it, especially as it helped me to fulfil another of the 2015 Book Challenges.

As with any book with a decade’s long reputation I approached it with some caution but was pleased to find it both very informative and very readable. The author certainly has a way of making sometimes complex sequences of events – often viewed from at least two different perspectives in turn – into not only a readily understandable format but does so in a frankly exciting way. There was a mention in the introduction that the author seemed to have the ability to build tension regarding the German advance across France (for example) regardless of the fact that we, the reader, already knew the outcome. As I read through this compact work I found that statement true again and again.

But, I did have a few problems with this book despite its pedigree. For one thing I thought that she didn’t really explain (or even attempt to explain actually) exactly why the war happened. The Serbian assassination was mentioned briefly as was the subsequent Austro-Hungarian invasion and the Russian reaction followed by the German reaction and so on. The diplomatic ties between the Central Powers and the Triple Alliance of France, Russia and Great Britain explained some of what happened but I felt that there was much more to this than she mentioned or even alluded to. She also seemed to spend much of her time speaking in stereotypes viewing the Russians as incompetent aristocratic fools, the British as aloof and arrogant bunglers but she saved her most savage stereotype for the Germans – very much her villain of the piece. Much of what she said might indeed be true. But I had a very strong feeling that her interpretation of history was heavily edited to reflect her personal prejudices. After all this book was published on 17 years after the Holocaust and resentment against the German people must still have been running high in the generation that lived through the war – or in the case of the author through both wars. A case in point is her repeated mention of German atrocities against the civilian populations of Belgium and France in the early months of the war. Hardly a section went by without mention of mayor’s being killed in retaliation for acts of resistance and whole towns being destroyed in reprisals for a single dead German soldier. This might indeed have been true. Yet she mentioned in passing (without comment or repeat) that Russian soldiers in East Prussia were doing exactly the same thing there – as if such a thing was to be expected by Russian peasants but not of German citizen soldiers. I couldn’t help but think that she definitely wore her prejudice on her sleeve and was proud to do so. I must say that it couldn’t help but taint my reading of the whole (otherwise very good) work.

Although well-paced (indeed it moved at a breathless pace in places) I did question the way she handled both the beginning and the end of the work. I felt that she spent a great deal of time discussing the run up to war over a period of years, covered the early battles (and the march through Belgium) in great detail and then, just as the final fully mobile contest of arms on the western front was about to be fought kind of… well, fizzled out. It did leave me with a feeling of significant anti-climax.

So, I find myself in two minds about this one. I think it was the product of its time and the personal prejudice of the author. I’ll see how her analysis of the early war stands up to other more modern and, presumably, less personally engaged authors who, also probably, had access to much more contemporary information than she did. I did find it very good in parts but very questionable in others. It’s certainly worth a read, that’s a given, but I think you’ll need to take her attitude into account and certainly try to contrast her views with others who will probably regard the Germans or the German people as somewhat less than evil incarnate. I’m taking the whole thing with a serious pinch of salt at this point until shown otherwise. Patchy but mostly very good.
[2015 Reading Challenge: A Pulitzer Prize winning book – COMPLETE (22/50)]

Monday, July 20, 2015

NASA Mars Spacecraft Reveals a More Dynamic Red Planet 


December 10, 2013

NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has revealed to scientists slender dark markings -- possibly due to salty water – that advance seasonally down slopes surprisingly close to the Martian equator.

"The equatorial surface region of Mars has been regarded as dry, free of liquid or frozen water, but we may need to rethink that," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona in Tucson, principal investigator for MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera.

Tracking how these features recur each year is one example of how the longevity of NASA orbiters observing Mars is providing insight about changes on many time scales. Researchers at the American Geophysical Union meeting Tuesday in San Francisco discussed a range of current Martian activity, from fresh craters offering glimpses of subsurface ice to multi-year patterns in the occurrence of large, regional dust storms.

The seasonally changing surface flows were first reported two years ago on mid-latitude southern slopes. They are finger-like features typically less than 16 feet (5 meters) wide that appear and extend down steep, rocky slopes during spring through summer, then fade in winter and return the next spring. Recently observed slopes stretch as long as 4,000 feet (1,200 meters).

McEwen and co-authors reported the equatorial flows at the conference and in a paper published online Tuesday by Nature Geoscience. Five well-monitored sites with these markings are in Valles Marineris, the largest canyon system in the solar system. At each of these sites, the features appear on both north- and south-facing walls. On the north-facing slopes, they are active during the part of the year when those slopes get the most sunshine. The counterparts on south-facing slopes start flowing when the season shifts and more sunshine hits their side.

"The explanation that fits best is salty water is flowing down the slopes when the temperature rises," McEwen said. "We still don't have any definite identification of water at these sites, but there's nothing that rules it out, either."

Dissolved salts can keep water melted at temperatures when purer water freezes, and they can slow the evaporation rate so brine can flow farther. This analysis used data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars and the Context Camera on the MRO as well as the Thermal Emission Imaging System experiment on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter. Water ice has been identified in another dynamic process researchers are monitoring with MRO. Impacts of small asteroids or bits of comets dig many fresh craters on Mars every year. Twenty fresh craters have exposed bright ice previously hidden beneath the surface. Five were reported in 2009. The 15 newly reported ones are distributed over a wider range of latitudes and longitudes.

"The more we find, the more we can fill in a global map of where ice is buried," said Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz. "We've now seen icy craters down to 39 degrees north, more than halfway from the pole to the equator. They tell us that either the average climate over several thousand years is wetter than present or that water vapor in the current atmosphere is concentrated near the surface. Ice could have formed under wetter conditions, with remnants from that time persisting today, but slowly disappearing."

Mars' modern climate becomes better known each year because of a growing set of data from a series of orbiters that have been studying Mars continually since 1997. That has been almost nine Martian years because a year on Mars is almost two years long on Earth. Earlier missions and surface landers have added insight about the dynamics of Mars' atmosphere and its interaction with the ground. "The dust cycle is the main driver of the climate system," said Robert Haberle of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

One key question researchers want to answer is why dust storms encircle Mars in some years and not in others. These storms affect annual patterns of water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, freezing into polar ice caps in winter and replenishing the atmosphere in spring. Identifying significant variations in annual patterns requires many Martian years of observations. The data emerging from long-term studies will help future human explorers of Mars know where to find resources such as water, how to prepare for hazards such as dust storms, and where to be extra careful about contamination with Earth microbes.

Launched in 2005, MRO and its six instruments have provided more high-resolution data about the Red Planet than all other Mars orbiters combined. Data is made available for scientists worldwide to research, analyze and report their findings.

[Of course that one of the great advantages of having something (or a group of someone’s) on station 24/7/365 to study changes, see patterns and draw conclusions. You can, in other words, find out a lot more by watching a video than looking at isolated snapshots. Just imagine what we might find if we had a group of scientists living on Mars for a year – or more – at a time. If only…..]

Saturday, July 18, 2015

'Drunk' squirrel causes hundreds of pounds of damage

From The BBC

16 July 2015

A "drunk" squirrel has caused hundreds of pounds of damage at a private members' club. The secretary of Honeybourne Railway Club said he originally thought someone had broken into the premises, near Evesham in Worcestershire. The floor was covered in beer and glasses and bottles smashed, Sam Boulter said.

Mr Boulter, 62, said he then saw a squirrel "staggering around" after coming out from behind a box of crisps. He added: "There were bottles scattered around, money scattered around and he had obviously run across the bar's pumps and managed to turn on the Caffrey's tap.

"He must have flung himself on the handle and drank some as he was staggering around all over the place and moving a bit slowly. I've never seen a drunk squirrel before. He was sozzled and looked a bit worse for wear, shall we say."

Mr Boulter, who estimated he lost about £300 in the incident, eventually caught the squirrel in a waste paper bin and released it out of the window.

[I do love stories like this. They make such a pleasant, and delightfully odd, change from all the doom and gloom we’re fed on these days. It make me laugh out loud when I read it, chuckle for hours afterwards and I’m still smiling about it today. I do wonder though what the recovering squirrel felt like the next day: initial confusion and occasional flashbacks, pounding headache and ‘funny’ taste in its mouth. Then slow and painful recovery followed by the strange feeling he wants to do it all again no matter the predictable consequences…..]

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Just Finished Reading: Zombie Economics – How Dead Ideas still Walk Among Us by John Quiggin (FP: 2010)

With my continuing, though still relatively new, interest in Economics how could I possibly resist a book like this! OK, I’m not exactly a huge fan of the Zombie genre – actually no fan at all – but I couldn’t help but chuckle at the author’s use of it to describe some of the ideas that helped destroy the world’s economy in 2007-2008 but that seem, like the metaphorical zombie almost impossible to kill. It also helped that the author had the native skill to describe some pretty convoluted ideas – and some of the ‘products’ created in the years up to the Crash are convoluted like you’ve never imagined – without either dumbing down or (mostly) going over my head. As a neophyte to Economics he did loose me from time to time but I kind of expected this with the almost non-existent knowledge base I’m starting from. But don’t let that put you off. This is definitely not the book that requires any great or deep understanding of the subject or any qualifications to speak of. If it did I would’ve quickly become lost. No, if you have been paying attention during the last 7-10 years and can give this fascinating volume the time and attention it deserves you’ll be OK.

So, saying all that, what was this all about? The author’s contention, which I agree with, is that the neo-liberal economic philosophy (or ideology) that emerged in the 1980’s and 90’s and grew to such astounding proportions with the Millennium was fully responsible for the Crash of 2008 (despite or maybe because of the belief that the new way of doing business had actually moved beyond the Boom-Bust cycle) and that through a mixture of denial, misinformation, propaganda and extremely short memories (to say nothing of blind greed) are coming back from the dead seemingly untouched and more than capable of doing it all again. It’s as in the financial markets have decided to hum really loud and hope that people simply forget that they were responsible for the mess we’re in today (which they seem to be doing). Some economists (amazingly or simply brazenly) are saying that the Crash of 2008 didn’t actually happen – that it was a temporary ‘blip’ on the road to profits continuing their upward spiral forever.

Concentrating on well known (and repeatedly discredited) ideas such as Trickle Down Economics and Efficient Markets, the quite bizarre idea that private companies are always more efficient than state run enterprises (who bailed out who by the way?) to less well known ideas as Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (try saying that three times really fast) and ending with the killer idea of Expansionary Austerity – spend less and get more! – this is a journey through what went wrong 7 years ago, the wrongheaded ideas that seemed to underpin the whole thing, why they did nothing of the sort and what we can do about it to save the future generations from the Zombie hordes who want to destroy us all. This is well worth a read. It’s informative, mostly easy reading (though it will stretch you mind from time to time – I know it did mine) and even useful. It will help you understand some of the headlines and even given you an appreciation of the underlying ideas behind economic decisions. Recommended – just remember that you need to aim for the head….

Monday, July 13, 2015

My Favourite Movies: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

When I first saw the trailer for GotG I thought to myself that Marvel had finally run out of ideas – then came Ant Man! But I kid… kind of. I did sort of watch it open mouthed and said that this is either going to be truly awful or a screaming laugh a minute. Well, it wasn’t awful.

The story starts with a young Peter Quill in hospital refusing to be involved in his mother’s dying moments. Running away from the hospital in despair he’s picked up by an alien spacecraft and abducted. Cut to 20+ years later when Quill, now known (at least to some people) as Starlord is a passably capable thief caught in the act of stealing something really, really important. The rest of the film (or at least most of it) is basically a chase film for what I originally thought to be a ‘McGuffin’ but turned out to be an actually Very Important Object (VIO). Typically of McGuffins and VIO’s this object is found, fought over, lost, recovered, lost, traded, stolen back and so on just to keep things interesting. Through this process we get to know all of the major players Quinn/Starlord played brilliantly by Chris Pratt, the assassin Gamora played excellently by Zoe Saldana complete with green skin (a very odd but good look for her), Drax played (or barely acted) by Dave Bautista, and the two CGI characters Rocket voiced by Bradley Cooper and Groot voiced (if you can call it that) by Vin Diesel. There’s also sometimes a rather frightening ‘comedy’ role Yondu (Quill’s abductor) played by Michael Rooker. Through a series of adventures the self-styled Guardians bond, save each other’s lives and basically become who they publically profess to be – almost despite themselves and to the surprise of those around them.

So, despite the rather generic plot why did this film make my Favourite movies list? Essentially for one thing – it was really, really, and I can’t emphasise this too much, really funny. If you are in anyway a fan of the SF space-opera genre or just SF generally you with most definitely laugh your socks off during this movie as it sends up just about every plot device in the genre time and time again – and in a way that just makes you (or at least me) smile and nod in appreciation at a job brilliantly done. But humour isn’t the only thing going on here. There’s some serious bits too. There’s real danger, some pretty good fight scenes, death (mostly off screen this is a 12 certificate after all!), hinted at sex, loss and longing for those long gone and of course a kicking soundtrack from the 1970’s (how that cassette tape survived for so long is well beyond me!!). Oh, I almost forgot…. The great surprise of the movie for me was who played Nebula – a kick ass (mostly) blue cyborg. It was Karen Gillan from Dr Who. I was stunned (I kid you not) at just how wonderful she was in it.

I do hope that they make the much talked about sequel. I’d like them to get the band back together to discover the mystery of Quill’s dad and why he’d paid a bunch of ravagers to abduct him from Earth (and then not follow it up be coming to get him) but – hopefully – that’s for another time.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Was HG Wells the first to think of the atom bomb?

From The BBC

3 July 2015

The atom bomb was one of the defining inventions of the 20th Century. So how did science fiction writer HG Wells predict its invention three decades before the first detonations, asks Samira Ahmed.

Imagine you're the greatest fantasy writer of your age. One day you dream up the idea of a bomb of infinite power. You call it the "atomic bomb". HG Wells first imagined a uranium-based hand grenade that "would continue to explode indefinitely" in his 1914 novel The World Set Free. He even thought it would be dropped from planes. What he couldn't predict was how a strange conjunction of his friends - notably Winston Churchill, who'd read all Wells’ novels twice, and the physicist Leo Szilard - would turn the idea from fantasy to reality, leaving them deeply tormented by the scale of destructive power that it unleashed.

The story of the atom bomb starts in the Edwardian age, when scientists such as Ernest Rutherford were grappling with a new way of conceiving the physical world. "When it became apparent that the Rutherford atom had a dense nucleus, there was a sense that it was like a coiled spring," says Andrew Nahum, curator of the Science Museum's Churchill's Scientists exhibition.

Wells was fascinated with the new discoveries. He had a track record of predicting technological innovations. Winston Churchill credited Wells for coming up with the idea of using aeroplanes and tanks in combat ahead of World War One. The two men met and discussed ideas over the decades, especially as Churchill, a highly popular writer himself, spent the interwar years out of political power, contemplating the rising instability of Europe. Churchill grasped the danger of technology running ahead of human maturity, penning a 1924 article in the Pall Mall Gazette called "Shall we all commit suicide?". In the article, Churchill wrote: "Might a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings - nay to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke?"

By 1932 British scientists had succeeded in splitting the atom for the first time by artificial means, although some believed it couldn't produce huge amounts of energy. But the same year Wells's friend, the Hungarian emigre physicist Leo Szilard, read The World Set Free. Szilard believed that the splitting of the atom could produce vast energy. He later wrote that Wells showed him "what the liberation of atomic energy on a large scale would mean". Szilard suddenly came up with the answer in September 1933 - the chain reaction - while watching the traffic lights turn green in Russell Square in London. He wrote: "It suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction."

In that eureka moment, Szilard also felt great fear - of how a bustling city like London and all its inhabitants could be destroyed in an instant as he reflected in his memoir published in 1968: "Knowing what it would mean - and I knew because I had read HG Wells - I did not want this patent to become public." The Nazis were on the rise and Szilard was deeply anxious about who else might be working on the chain reaction theory and an atomic Bomb. Wells’ novel Things To Come, turned into a 1936 film, The Shape of Things to Come, accurately predicted aerial bombardment and an imminent devastating world war. In 1939 Szilard drafted the letter Albert Einstein sent to President Roosevelt warning America that Germany was stockpiling uranium. The Manhattan Project was born.

Szilard and several British scientists worked on it with the US military's massive financial backing. Britons and Americans worked alongside each other in "silos" - each team unaware of how their work fitted together. They ended up moving on from the original enriched uranium "gun" method, which had been conceived in Britain, to create a plutonium implosion weapon instead. Szilard campaigned for a demonstration bomb test in front of the Japanese ambassador to give them a chance to surrender. He was horrified that it was instead dropped on a city.

In 1945 Churchill was beaten in the general election and in another shock, the US government passed the 1946 McMahon Act, shutting Britain out of access to the atomic technology it had helped create. William Penney, one of the returning Los Alamos physicists, led the team charged by Prime Minister Clement Atlee with somehow putting together their individual pieces of the puzzle to create a British bomb on a fraction of the American budget. "It was a huge intellectual feat," Andrew Nahum observes. "Essentially the reworked the calculations that they'd been doing in Los Alamos. They had the services of Klaus Fuchs, who [later] turned out to be an atom spy passing information to the Soviet Union, but he also had a phenomenal memory."

Another British physicist, Patrick Blackett, who discussed the Bomb after the war with a German scientist in captivity, observed that there were no real secrets. According to Nahum he said: "It's a bit like making an omelette. Not everyone can make a good one." When Churchill was re-elected in 1951 he "found an almost complete weapon ready to test and was puzzled and fascinated by how Atlee had buried the costs in the budget", says Nahum. "He was very conflicted about whether to go ahead with the test and wrote about whether we should have 'the art and not the article'. Meaning should it be enough to have the capability… [rather] than to have a dangerous weapon in the armoury." Churchill was convinced to go ahead with the test, but the much more powerful hydrogen bomb developed three years later worried him greatly.

HG Wells died in 1946. He had been working on a film sequel to The Shape of Things To Come that was to include his concerns about the now-realised atomic bomb he'd first imagined. But it was never made. Towards the end of his life, says Nahum, Wells's friendship with Churchill "cooled a little". Wells believed technocrats and scientists would ultimately run a peaceful new world order like in The Shape of Things To Come, even if global war destroyed the world as we knew it first. Churchill, a former soldier, believed in the lessons of history and saw diplomacy as they only way to keep mankind from self-destruction in the atomic age.

Wells’ scientist friend Leo Szilard stayed in America and campaigned for civilian control of atomic energy, equally pessimistic about Wells’ idea of a bold new scientist-led world order. If anything Szilard was tormented by the power he had helped unleash. In 1950, he predicted a cobalt bomb that would destroy all life on the planet.

In Britain, the legacy of the Bomb was a remarkable period of elite scientific innovation as the many scientists who had worked on weaponry or radar returned to their civilian labs. They gave us the first commercial jet airliner, the Comet, near-supersonic aircraft and rockets, highly engineered computers, and the Jodrell Bank giant moveable radio telescope. The latter had nearly ended the career of its champion, physicist Bernard Lovell, with its huge costs, until the 1957 launch of Sputnik, when it emerged that Jodrell Bank had the only device in the West that could track it. Nahum says Lovell reflected that "during the war the question was never what will something cost. The question was only can you do it and how soon can we have it? And that was the spirit he took into his peacetime science." Austerity and the tiny size of the British market, compared with America, were to scupper those dreams. But though the Bomb created a new terror, for a few years at least, Britain saw a vision of a benign atomic future, too and believed it could be the shape of things to come.

[Ah, the power of Sci-Fi and the brilliance of Mr H G Wells……]

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Much time on your hands....?

Just Finished Reading: The X-Files - Goblins by Charles Grant (FP: 1995)

At first it seemed like a simple mugging. Certainly nothing to bother the FBI about. Purely a case for local law enforcement. But when a witness comes forward to say that the wall came alive and killed him some people start to take notice – especially Special Agent Fox Mulder. But it doesn’t help that he’s under internal investigation and that the very existence of the X-Files section is in jeopardy. However, when a US Senator become involved Mulder and ever capable, ever sceptical assistant investigator Dana Scully are sent to find out exactly when is happening in the small town. When the bodies start piling up and a nearby military base becomes the focus of their interest more than solving a simple crime is at stake. Local urban legends of Goblins capable of vanishing into thin air and striking from anywhere become all too real. A secret government project, illegal human experimentation, cover up, murder and an adversary that can disappear faster than you can blink. Mulder hasn’t had this much fun in ages….

Yet another book that’s been on my shelves for years and only brought out as part of the 2015 Reading Challenge. I enjoyed the X-Files (at least to begin with) and not just because of the lovely sceptic Dana Scully. No, The X-Files was just delicious conspiratorial fun, until it got fat too self-referential, convoluted and just plain boring. Anyway, the volume had nothing (much) to do with the over-arching alien conspiracy the show got mired in and was (pun intended) much more down to Earth. It was classic X-Files territory. A small town plagued by an inexplicable series of crimes which had more than a hint of covert conspiracy and secret government involvement. This element I thought was well done and there were definitely moments of a real creep factor. It took me a little while to ease into both the Mulder and Scully characters because at first, at least, they didn’t seem quite ‘right’. I can’t really put my finger on it but something about them clashed with my memory of the series. I soon got over that and just enjoyed the ride. Despite, or maybe because, my low expectations I actually rather enjoyed this book. There was plenty of drama, pretty good characterisation, a decent story with some pretty decent bad guys and a nicely ambiguous ending (as always in the show!). Reasonable.

[2015 Reading Challenge: A book based on or turned into a TV show – COMPLETE (21/50)]