I admit I haven’t been paying much attention to the intellectual decline of my own country – I’m far too fascinated with the collapse of the one I’m actually living in – but I came home last night to an email urging me to vote online for the top British innovation. The sender wanted me to vote for Alan Turing and his glorious universal machine because …[drum roll]… it was about to get beaten into second place by the Mini.

Yes, the Mini. The cute little car, not the cute little dress, which frankly I think might have made for a more difficult choice. In the end, Turing won by a whisker, and I think the theoretical foundation for the digital computer is certainly a defensible proposition for Britain’s most innovative idea. But the Mini still came second. SECOND. Little things like the jet engine, holograms, MRI scanners, radar and splitting the atom came way down the list.

Just to make it even more perplexing, the Mallard came fifth. The Mallard, as you will know, given its apparent historical importance, is a steam locomotive, and the thing that apparently made it the fifth most innovative thing the British have done was that it was the fastest steam locomotive ever. Well, all due respect to it for that. But the thing is, the British invented the steam locomotive in the first place! They invented the steam engine that not only powered the Mallard but changed the face of human productivity. They even invented the passenger railway upon which the Mallard rode. How can the ability to do something incrementally better than its predecessors possibly be more innovative than inventing the thing in the first place? Yet as far as I can see, the steam engine didn’t even make it onto the list. [Edit: I now realize this is because the vote was for the best innovation in the past 100 years, so the steam engine, along with factories, iron ships, suspension bridges, etc. doesn’t count.] But hey, the clockwork radio and a better kind of vacuum cleaner were right up there alongside such irrelevant fripperies as penicillin, DNA and the world wide web, so the Mini had a run for its money.

It’s not the list itself that surprised me, though, it was the vote for the Mini, lovely as it is. What went through the minds of the people who voted for it? “Jeez, never mind antibiotics; where would humanity be without the Mini Cooper, huh?”

This sounds like a British government attempt to fly the flag, and somehow the flag always seems to end up hanging limply in the drizzling rain as a result. I’m not really into patriotism. We can only be judged on what we do ourselves, not what was done by people we just happen to have shared a landmass with. But is it any wonder that American presidents can give speeches extolling the virtues of great American inventions that weren’t actually American, if we don’t properly appreciate the significance of our own history? American kids get taught that America invented EVERYTHING, and here we are telling them they’re not entirely right, because they didn’t invent the Austin Mini, and we once invented something that was even slightly better than that. I realize the history of invention is complicated and that standing on the shoulders of giants often makes it difficult to pin down the origin of things. After all, who really invented television? John Logie Baird (Scottish)? He was the first to transmit pictures but we don’t use his system. We actually use (or rather used to use – how quaint; I’m getting old) scanning electron beams. The scanning part of the idea is American and the cathode ray tube that makes it possible was mostly developed in England but can be traced back to Geissler tubes, which are German. When it comes down to it, all inventions are products of HUMAN ingenuity, and it makes no real difference which country that human being comes from. But the Mini? Really? Are there genuinely people who think that’s the best my country could do? Is that what we want to tell the world? We invented a rather entertainingly small car?

I should illustrate this post with something impressively industrial, but I don’t have any suitable photos to hand, so instead, here’s a picture of the PanSTARRS comet that I took a few days ago, for those of you who live in the land of my fathers – that small island of great inventors but incessant rain – who doubtless missed seeing it. I’m sure the cloudy skies encouraged the British interest in radio astronomy, though, and Jocelyn Bell’s discovery of pulsars came fourth, just above the Mallard!


Just a very quick comment because I’m totally absorbed in work right now and really shouldn’t allow myself to think about anything else, but I just read this short editorial by Maggie Ardiente in the Amercian Humanist Association newsletter and it saddened me enough to want to share it:

Last weekend I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which has become one of my favorite cities in the United States. I love it all: the history, the culture, and the food—oh, the spicy New Mexican food! I particularly enjoyed a visit to the Petroglyphs National Park, where our tour guide Luke talked about the history of the area and how the rock formations developed over 200,000 years ago. After the tour, I asked Luke if he ever encountered fundamentalist religious groups that challenge his 200,000-year-old claim. Not only did he say yes, but that because of his commitment to accurate scientific data, he’s no longer assigned to lead tours by such groups! We were lucky to have him.

Wait. What? I’ve been to Petroglyphs National Monument too. It’s part of the otherwise entirely splendid National Park Service. But this guy is seriously being pulled from leading groups that don’t want their infantile fantasies to be challenged? Really?

So there is one truth for reasoning people, but faith-driven people are to be allowed their own truth? They don’t have to be exposed to the actual facts if they don’t like it? Shame on you, NPS!!!! Shame on you. Your bounden duty is to stand up for what the national parks represent. The rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, for instance, really are two billion years old and they’re going to stay that way whether people like it or not. If they don’t want to hear it then they have absolutely no business being there. You don’t pretend it’s not true just to avoid upsetting them.

You can’t pander to people like this without being hypocritical. You guys know why the features in these wonderful places are the way they are, and to tacitly hide the truth from people just because they don’t want to be faced with it, is dishonest and cowardly. Of course, the primary fault lies with the morons who want to gawp at things but don’t want to understand what they’re gawping at, but that’s no excuse. The NPS has a duty to uphold, so if Luke’s interpretation of events is correct, somebody at Petroglyphs National Monument should be ashamed of themselves and the NPS needs to reassess its policies to make sure it keeps its finger in the dam. Train staff in ways to handle dissenters with diplomacy by all means, but please don’t allow ignorance to breed.

By the way, I took the following photo at Petroglyphs National Monument. It clearly shows a space alien, proving without a shadow of a doubt that scientists are TOTALLY lying to us about global warming and vapor trails and evolution and Noah’s Flood not really having happened and… and… and stuff.

“Well done, Mr. Armstrong”

As the late Neil Armstrong once said to the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh: “The dream remains! The reality has faded a bit, but it will come back, in time.”

I can’t watch either one of these historic moments again without thinking of the other, so I mashed them together.

Wot Grandad did in the war

When I was a kid I was very interested in amateur radio. This is hardly a surprise, since my dad was an electronics engineer at the time and his father an electrical engineer. I never got my licence, as it happens, mostly because I like to listen but I’m not so keen to hear my own voice. But I learned an awful lot from all those coils and condensers and ridiculously long aerials. In fact I learned a lot that I didn’t even really understand at the time but which comes in very handy for my present work. Understand radio and you understand everything!

Anyway, Dad was telling me recently about Grandad’s radio work during the war. His callsign was G2BPT, and I can imagine Grandad’s light Norfolk accent in my head, coughing politely and saying, “CQ, CQ, CQ, this is golf two bravo papa tango calling CQ.” Except in truth he probably only used Morse, so really it should be dah-dit-dah-dit, dah-dah-dit-dah, etc. But during the war, Grandad was a radio listener, writing down secret German messages that he picked up on his radio and sending them off to a mysterious post office box somewhere. Here he is with his wireless set:

Dad didn’t know very much about what my grandfather actually did, though, because of course people simply didn’t speak about such things at the time or even for decades afterwards. Walls have ears. He did show me one of Grandad’s message pads years ago and I’m pretty sure it was an Enigma message but that’s as much as I could say. But a few days ago Dad emailed to say he’d realized he’d been Googling for the wrong information: he’d been looking up stuff to do with the radio secret service, when in fact it was the Radio Security Service. So I just had a quick Google myself (Google is spelled  − −  .   − − −    − − −   − −  .   . −  . .   .   for you old folks) and came across this rather charming documentary about the Service, made in 1979. I thought it was really interesting so I thought I’d share it, partly because this year is Alan Turing’s centenary and this is my modest connection with that world, but mostly because I know a bunch of you are inveterate geeks just like me and will enjoy it…

Way to go, Grandad!

P.S. Who invented radio? If you say Marconi you aren’t geek enough! I came across this the other day and thought I’d help spread it. Nikola Tesla was a real genius, an oppressed hero and the owner of the mother of all spark generators. You might like to help preserve what’s left of it:

Hard to compete with this…

…when it comes to astronomy photos! (It won’t embed in WordPress, but check out the link).

Curiosity rover: Martian solar day 2 in New Mexico

Funnily enough, I don’t have to drive a million miles from here to see scenery pretty much exactly like this (only a lot hotter and with unmistakable signs of life), but this is like stepping back in time by three billion years on Earth. What a privilege it is, to look out on the surface of another planet like this. Google StreetMap eat your heart out!

(And what a strange country this is, whose engineers can achieve something so amazing while a big chunk of the population seems hell-bent on returning to the seventeenth century)

Thanks to Lisa for the link!


Continuing an astronomical theme, here’s a short video of the Perseid meteor shower. I took it from Lake Mary and saw 55 meteors during the couple of hours I was filming, but it’s hard to get them to show up on a digital camera so there are only about ten visible here (and then only if you watch it in fullscreen HD). Eventually the moon rose and weakened the viewing (it was a bit misty down by the lake), so I had a good excuse to go home to bed.

Eclipse hat-trick!

Our solar system is SO busy at the moment! Three ‘eclipses’ in just a few days, starting with the annular eclipse of the Sun, then a partial eclipse of the Moon, and right this minute the transit of Venus. This is for my soggy, cloud-covered British chums!