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Thursday, 25 June 2009

COLUMN: Fabian's World

By about 1800 BC the chair was common throughout the ancient world, but it wasn’t until about 1755 BC that the table was invented. Quite elaborate calculations had to be done on the floor while sitting on a chair, as this statue outside the British Library so vividly portrays.

Piety and royalty
The two leading scientists of the 21st Century, the Pope and Prince Charles have taken opposite side on the GM debate, the Pontiff in favour and HH against. I can’t make up my mind either way. As a born-again atheist and an arm-chair republican, I don’t support either of them, but disagreeing with both doesn’t really advance the argument.

Life in the nano lane
The science community’s increasing exploration of the nano world is fascinating but confusing for us swag-bellied old sailors who, until 15 or 20 years ago could just about encompass a millimetre as the smallest comprehensible length. Now we have to contend with prefixes such as femto, acto, oxo, and zento that are quite hard to imagine without lots of help, such as “tenth of the diameter of a human hair” or “one gram of butter a joctometre thick could cover a football field and leave enough over for 20 chip butties”.

So I was relieved when attending a conference last month on Nano Hands ie the devices that one might use for plucking carbon nanotubes up from one site, and placing them at another, to see that the speed of closure of the fingers was measured in feet per second. Like coming across an old friend in a crowded jail.

If only we could resuscitate the pole perch or rod as measurements of length, how much livelier these conferences would be.

I was also relieved to see a touch of magic introduced at the All Energy conference, where, at the plenary session, all the energy dignitaries contributed their thoughts. It was all so interesting I never glanced at the clock. Well now and again, just to keep my neck mobile. An electric clock, it was, but connected in a rather spooky way to `My Grandfather’s Clock', which, as you know, acted unexpectedly at various events in the grandfather’s life. The hands of this electric clock were whizzing round at about 15 rev/min zipping through the hours, peripherally faster than the closure of a nano hand (20 ft/s) marking, in its prescient way the time we’re squandering in our race to climate tripping point.

Come back Archimedes
Writing in The Independent recently, Terence Blacker complained about a rising trend to blame everything on fat people, and put together a list of their sins, one of which was that they use more water in the bath (than thin people).

Powerful stuff
An IBM scientist addressing 750 kids about the excitement of engineering last week, told them that a chip for a games console consumed four times as much power as one for a computer. He meant energy, of course. Anyway what do kids know? They'll accept anything. And we'll just run remedial classes at university. If they get that far.