Friday, 20 June 2014

Neutron holiday

I have recently come back from one of the 'big experiments' that I have mentioned from time to time on this blog, in this post in particular.

Travelling in the British summer sunshine is a pleasure in itself, but this was a particularly sunny and rewarding trip to the ISIS facility at Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. Coke was quaffed, burgers were consumed and good company and conversation abounded. Neutrons were plentiful and samples were well-behaved. At times like these this doesn't really feel like a job at all; and maybe it isn't ("I don't really feel like I have done a full day's work", I reflected to one of my coworkers. "We haven't", said he).

OK, I have been slightly rash here. This type of experience is of course is countered by difficult, exhausting and almost fruitless trips. Preparation for this trip has taken many 'person-weeks' of intense preparation, and a fair quantity of stress, to be honest. Work is work, but it doesn't have to be so all the time, so I'll settle for that. Anyway this post is about walking up hills and taking pictures and not "philosophosising" too deeply, to be pronounced as spelt.

ISIS Target Station 2 (in the sun). Image Mike Weir but thanks to STFC.
One thing I find a real pleasure is to climb up ISIS's man-made hill and survey the scientific scenery. Apparently, there was already a hill of leftover earth that was dug out from when the first construction was done on the ISIS site (although it might not have been called that in those days). This hill was then 'in the way' when construction was planned for Target Station 2 (pictured) and so was moved. For good measure, some more earth was excavated and dumped on top of that in turn to create a sort of arc-shaped mound. You can see a scar on the side of the hill where ground level once was. There is a little path up there where you can go and look at the scenery while your experiment chugs along.

The view is of a fairly flat Oxfordshire scene although I am told you can see all the way to the Ridgeway - there were some ridgey looking things in the distance but I can't say I could have identified any correctly. The scientific scenery of the Harwell Campus (if I am indeed giving it its proper name) is spread out all around, from the shiny blue ISIS Target Station 2 to the flying saucer of Diamond. Beyond this scene, in the distance, are the monolithic cooling towers of the power station at Didcot. Bountiful numbers of Red Kites soar in the skies above this part of the world.

The scientific scenery from ISIS hill. Image Mike Weir but thanks to STFC.
I was accompanied on this trip by two colleagues who had never been to ISIS. I would like to think that they were impressed with ISIS and all of its facilities.

As I write my computer is chugging through the data we collected, rejigging and reprocessing it to get the best possible result. There is definite heat coming up through the laptop keyboard.

Well, it just finished, so I am off to fit the data. Enjoy the summer (now or in six months, depending on your hemisphere).

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Eccentricity at northern latitudes

I spent a couple of fantastic years out in Sydney, Australia, as I have alluded to several times on this blog. One huge, obvious difference between the UK and Australia is the climate, and when I speak to people about the whole experience, this is the first port of call in their minds – the weather in Australia is hotter and sunnier, and therefore, “better”, and this perception is very near the top of people’s mental pros and cons lists as they try and understand our reasons for returning to England.

Sunshine: Australian...

To be a pedant, Sydney experiences much more tumultuous weather than most Brits really realise; twice as much actual rain falls out of the sky in Sydney than in London, say, and the wind howls in off the ocean at times. Sydneysiders are also occasionally rewarded with truly spectacular thunderstorms (although if the lightning occurs without rain there is a terrible risk of bush fire). On the other hand, while a week of drizzle and rain is perfectly possible in the Sydney winter, the rain does all tend to fall at once in rather biblical downpours, leaving many more sunny days to enjoy. It does get “stinking hot” in most bits of Australia too, to use the local parlance, and in my humble opinion as a “delicate English rose” (as a wise Australian once described me), the novelty of 35+ degrees Celcius wears off pretty damn quickly, especially on a work day.

OK, it's still better in Australia. I lose. If you have never been there, you should really go!

One category though where Sydney falls down is that for a pontificating Brit, the days in the Summer are just too short! The latest the sun ever sets is approximately 8pm – the longest day being about 14 hours. Not much chance of a long stroll after tea in the twilight! In the UK we get much closer to 10pm and a longest day of 17 hours.

...and English
OK, say my critics, why is this whinging Pom getting excited about an extra 3 hours of daylight? Doth the gentleman protest too much? 

Well I’m just getting excited about Britain’s northerly latitude, is all. I love the fact we pay such a high price in the winter, experiencing days where the sun only peeps its pale yellow face a glancing angle over the horizon for just 7.5 hours, only to be rewarded with those long, balmy evenings in the (beer) garden. I love the fact that at the vernal equinox, around 21st March each year, the days in the UK are lengthening by a mind-boggling 3.5 minutes each day! I think our varying seasons and wonky northern latitude fuel our creativity, our industry, and even our eccentricity. There is something about that pale and slanting light...

I loved it in Australia and I would go back there in a heartbeat (particularly if it actually did only take that long to get there!), but I love the seasons here in the UK. It makes it all the better when the Sun does actually come out, because it feels a bit special.

My grandfather on my mum's side has a story that up in the east of Lancashire in England, the light of the sun never truly faded from the sky in the middle of summer. He would spend long nights out working on the railways and reported seeing a dim light in the sky that persisted all night long around the summer solstice (many Brits will also report a difficulty in sleeping at this time of year due to the light). When I recounted his tale to former residents of that particular area they seemed surprised that such an effect was possible "that far south". 

When doing some trawling on this topic on the internet however, I discovered that twilight does in fact last all night on the summer solstice anywhere north of 54 degrees north - the latitude of the city of Lancaster, UK, that is. The sun never truly stops illuminating part of the atmosphere since it never drops more than a certain angle below the horizon. I was pleased that my grandad's story has some scientific backup, although of course, he knows what he saw! Although this is not the land of the midnight sun, we Brits are truly living at an eccentric northern latitude.

Fun for nerds:
The BBC's Sydney weather page (the nerdy bit is the graph at the bottom) and their London page