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Red foot tortoise - looking vaguely Tiger likeSeems so long since I updated anything here, I thought I might change the name of the blog: Techno-tortoise! I went looking for a picture of a tortoise and found this one, looking much as a cross between a tiger and tortoise. Remarkably, it is from a web site where you can order one of these animals by mail order. I am stunned. I though import of such creatures had long ago been banned. The thought of shipping a tortoise by mail leaves me speechless.

(Minutes pass…)

Anyway, power of speech regained. I am going to spend a bit more time, work allowing, on this site so watch this space.

Hello world!

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Former Royal Ordnance Factory 16: Elstow

Panoramic view of the Royal Ordnance Factory 16 Elstow

The Royal Ordnance Factory at Elstow was a World War 2 ammunition factory, producing a seventh of the total tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany.

The site is now being demolished to build a new town, Wixams that is being developed south of Bedford. Prior to its demolition Albion Archaeology based in Bedford carried out a detailed building survey and oral history study. It is available online. Fabulously detailed in ruins to some sixty pages with a separate file of 33 MB of pictures, like the one above.

Elstow memorial

Monument erected by protesters against nuclear dumping at Elstow Storage Depot.

It is a fascinating read, I have known of the site for as long as I can remember. In the seventies when I first heard of it, it was a storage site owned by the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board). In the early eighties it was one of four sites shortlisted to store nuclear waste. This was firmly resisted by a local group and a monument to their resistance was erected. It can still be seen from the road from Bedford to Ampthill.

During the second world war the site manufactured the actual ammunition. The explosives, such as Cordite and Ammonium Nitrate, and TNT were brought to the site and stored, prior to being mixed put into the shells and bombs. The main explosive used was Amatol. which is a mixture of TNT and Ammonium Nitrate. Curiously, it was found that complete detonation was difficult, and some RDX explosive was subsequently added. Rather scarily, this mixture of explosives was heated to enable it to be poured into the shell or bomb casings.

A constant danger was explosion, and the site was designed to minimise the damage caused by an individual accident. Buildings has massive blast walls, and lightweight roofs. The idea was that the blast then goes up and is dissipated, rather than sideways and so potentially detonates explosives in nearby buildings. Especially dangerous buildings were also surrounded by blast mounds.

After the war the site was used initially by the Ministry of Defence for storage, and for a while the Blue Streak missile was stored there.

Blue Streak missile on gantry

Blue Streak missile on gantry

Source and main image: ‘Cooper-Reade, H’ (2009) Former Royal Ordnance 16 Elstow :Building Recording and Oral History Project. Bedford: Albion Archaeology , 2009/16. doi: 10.5284/1008248

Further Blue Streak images can be found here:

Drivers distracted 18% of the time

Re-blogged from Transport Research Laboratory news hub

Image of a sat nav.

Sat nav users spend 12 per cent of driving time studying the screen instead of the road.

Motorists spend 18 per cent of their time behind the wheel not concentrating on the road, according to a study into driver behaviour.

The research, which was commissioned by Direct Line, found that drivers often become distracted by clouds, scenery and adverts. On average it found that motorists take their eyes off the road every nine seconds as they look at non-driving related things, reports News Insurances.

The study used eye-tracking technology in order to see from the drivers’ eye movements where they were looking and how focused they were.

Read the full article at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory website.

RIP: Gerry Anderson, creator of Captain Scarlet, Thunderbirds and Stingray

Captain Scarlet created by Gerry Anderson

Captain Scarlet created by Gerry Anderson 14 April 1929 – 26 December 2012

Gerry Anderson famed during the 1960′s for a string of successful children’s television science fiction programmes has died. Famed most of all perhaps for Thunderbirds, he also created Fireball XL5, Joe 90, Stingray and several others.

I can still remember watching Captain Scarlet, I even read some of the books. He was a James Bond like hero, along with Captain Blue, Lieutenant Green, their leader Colonel White and their chief adversary, the treacherous Captain Black. Even watching on a monochrome tv, somehow I could tell them apart. Captain Scarlet’s most famous trait was that he was indestructible, no matter what adventures he went through, his antagonists the Mysterons could never kill him. His unique retro-metabolism would simply rebuild him.

Perhaps less famous than the Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet was always my favourite. It got me into the whole idea of space travel, blasters, jet-powered backpacks, which led  ultimately to science. Real science, though science fiction has never been far away.

SI humour

Portrait by Godfrey Kneller of Isaac Newton-1689

Godfrey Kneller-Isaac Newton-1689

One day, Einstein, Newton, and Pascal meet up and decide to play a game of hide and seek. Einstein volunteered to be “It.”

As Einstein counted, eyes closed, to 100, Pascal ran away and hid, but Newton stood right in front of Einstein and drew a one meter by one meter square on the floor around himself.

When Einstein opened his eyes, he immediately saw Newton and said “I found you Newton,” but Newton replied,

“No, you found one Newton per square meter. You found Pascal!”.

Scientific science fiction – from Alastair Reynolds

Image of books by Alastair Reynolds

Hard SF from Alastair Reynolds

“I really struggle to pinpoint whether I became a scientist because I like science fiction, or did I gravitate to science fiction because I identified strongly with scientists.”

This quote from scientist and science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds is my excuse for writing a post on science fiction. And it’s SF – never sci-fi.

Science and Science Fiction can become indistinguishable. The kit I am writing this on was the stuff of SF only a few decades back. The screen is mere centimetres thick but bigger than the first colour TV I watched; the keyboard and mouse don’t seem to be connected to the computer at all. And as for the internet… I am sure that to some it still is like something from a SF novel.

I have always loved science fiction; I grew up reading the hard core type written by Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Clarke’s “The Star” and “The City and Stars” are just awesome, I read them first when I was a teenager and can still remember their impact.

Asimov’s “The Gods Themselves” is based on the quote by Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805): “Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.” (“Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.”).

It starts with a description of an isotope plutonium-186 that cannot exist in our universe, and examines the conditions that would be required for it to be stable.

I looked for ages for someone to take their place. I don’t like science fantasy, and much of the SF I’ve tried has been long on the fiction and short on science. I’m happy for the story to involve some way to travel at near light speed. But I want to see the time dilation effects considered. Similarly, if the story describes an explosion in space, there is going to be no flames and certainly no shock wave – what is going to propagate it, the ether!

Enter Alastair Reynolds: he writes great stories, and bends scientific laws only when absolutely required. And even then makes some rational explanation. Although his description of the way that starship engines work is priceless. They take in interstellar dust and “subject it to some frankly unimaginable physics”! Brilliant.

I’m sure it is no coincidence that like Asimov and Clarke before him he started life as a practicing scientist, in his case at CERN.

His first novel Revelation Space is full of interesting characters, and has a fascinating and suitably scientific story. It touches on neutron stars, nanotechnology – a favourite theme – and long, long dead civilisations. A complete story in itself is also forms part of a longer story arc, with elements and people re-appearing in later books, notably Revelation Ark.

This is science fiction for the scientist. Beware, if you like it, it is addictive.

Further info:

Sub-atomic humour

Is This the Biggest Black Hole Ever?

Reblogged from National Geographic

The galaxy NGC 1277, seen here in an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, contains one of the biggest central supermassive black holes ever detected. Courtesy NASA/ESA/Andrew C. Fabian/Remco C. E. van den Bosch (MPIA)

A monstrous black hole—17 billion times the mass of the Sun and possibly the largest ever detected—appears to be too big for its galactic home, leaving astronomers scratching their heads about its very existence.

Is This the Biggest Black Hole Ever?.

NORAD Tracks Santa

Original Sears Roebuck advert giving children Santa's private number. Actually the hotline at US Air Defence command.I know it’s nearly Xmas when I start taking an interest in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

NORAD was set up in 1957 at the height of the Cold War to track Soviet nuclear tipped missiles. The Russian’s launched Sputnik just three weeks later, and a terrified US and Canada feared a preemptive nuclear strike could happen at any time.  (Ironically, the Russians feared a strike form the US, though this was probably unknown to most Americans.)

In 1955 a large US shop printed the wrong telephone number in a national advert. Suddenly the commander-in-chief of Continental Air Defense (NORAD’s predecessor) was receiving calls on his ‘hotline’ – not from observers warning of imminent destruction, but from children wanting to speak to Santa.

The NORAD history tells that:

“The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born.”

Nearly sixty years later, with Brezhnev and Reagan, fading memories, the threat to the US of Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles has all but vanished. Yet the tradition of tracking Santa is still going strong. And I love it.

Air traffic worldwide

This is too good to miss. The technology behind is mind-boggling.
Each yellow dot is an aircraft, with the whole thing taken by satellites and spliced together over a 24 hour period.
I especially like the way you can see the terminator (the line between night & day – not the cyborg, this is not Skynet!) and the way that the traffic density changes during the day.

The folks that made it are here.

Visually it is just fascinating.
Watch it in HD if you’ve got the bandwidth.

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