In Our Time: Perpetual Motion

Perpetual motion would be a wonderful thing, if only it were possible – being able to set some machine going and then it would power itself and just carry on & on without end. Free energy from nothing! Which is, of course, why it is impossible – but this wasn’t provable until relatively recently. Discussing the search for, and disproof of, perpetual motion on In Our Time were Ruth Gregory (Durham University), Frank Close (University of Oxford) and Steven Bramwell (University College London).

Before the modern understanding of physics there didn’t seem to be any reason why perpetual motion should necessarily be impossible. In the Aristotelian view of the universe the stars were in perpetual motion in the heavens – so there must surely be some way to replicate this on earth with earthly machinery. This wasn’t (solely) the province of charlatans – people like Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Boyle and Gottfried Leibniz were all involved in attempts to design machines that could power themselves forever. Various approaches were tried – like trying to design a waterwheel that not only ground corn but also pumped the water back uphill so it could flow down again. Or a bottle that siphoned liquid out of itself in order to refill itself. Or some sort of machine that was constantly over-balancing – like an Escher drawing of a waterwheel with buckets labelled 9 travelling down one side, and when they reach the bottom they flip round to now read 6 so they’re lighter. Which works beautifully in the illusory world of Escher’s art but rather less so in our mundane reality. As well as people genuinely trying to investigate the possibility there were also those who claimed to have achieved success – normally with machines that conveniently couldn’t be inspected to expose their charlatanry.

Once physicists started to gain a greater understanding of how the universe worked it became clear that perpetual motion machines were fundamentally impossible. All proposed perpetual motion machines violate either the first or second law of thermodynamics. Before moving on to explain how these laws affect perpetual motion machines they digressed slightly to explain some of the background to the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics. First they gave us the technical meaning of the word “work” in a physics context – important in understanding the rest of the discussion. Work is the energy that is applied to do something. For instance if you want to move something then work = force x distance. Or if you’re heating something up then work refers to the energy you need to cause the temperature change. Experiments by Joule were key to showing a link between heat and energy. Before his work the prevailing theory was that heat was a thing (called calor) that could be transferred between objects – so a fire heated a pot because calor was transferred from flames to pot. But Joule showed that you could generate heat using energy, and later it was realised that heat was a form of energy. Reception of his work at the time (the mid-19th Century) was mixed – the temperature changes he was study were very small and not everyone believed it was possibly to accurately detect them.

The First Law of Thermodynamics is that energy must be conserved in a closed system. I.e. you don’t get something for nothing. When work is done it all turns into motion or heat or some other form of energy. Many perpetual motion machines violate this law, and they are termed “perpetual motion machines of the first kind”. An example of this is a waterwheel that both grinds corn and pumps the water back up to the top to start over again. In order to pump all the water back up you need to use just as much energy as it generated for you on the way down – so there none left over for your corn grinding, even if your machine is perfectly efficient (see below).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is that entropy always increases or remains the same, it never decreases. Gregory used the example of a room that’s either tidy (a single ordered state) or untidy (many possible disordered states). In order to move from disordered to ordered you need to do work, otherwise over time the random chance will move objects from their positions in the room and it will become more disordered. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is associated with time – it provides directionality to the universe, if things are getting more disordered then they’re moving forwards. Perpetual motion machines which violate this law are categorised as “perpetual motion machines of the second kind”.

Another way that perpetual motion machines can violate the laws of physics is by being too efficient. I touched on that above – in the real world no machine operates without losing some energy (generally in the form of heat due to friction). And so even if you aren’t trying to do anything useful with the energy other than keep the machine moving you’ll still fail to achieve perpetual motion as you won’t have quite enough energy to return to the starting point.

So perpetual motion is impossible, as it would violate the laws of physics. There are some loopholes at the quantum level (aren’t there always?). Implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle mean that it’s possible to “borrow” energy temporarily from the future, which means the First Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t quite apply. But at the macro level these laws are inviolable and perpetual motion is impossible. They finished by saying that if a way to make a perpetual motion machine work was found then it wouldn’t just be a case of minor tweaks to physics-as-we-understand-it. Instead it would require a re-writing of pretty much all science we’ve ever conceptualised – the laws of thermodynamics are that fundamental to our understanding of the universe.

In Our Time: Extremophiles

“Extremophiles” is a bit of a parochial term – this is the name for organisms that live happily in environments that we consider extreme. Too cold, too hot, too acid, too something to support life, in our terms. Studying the lifeforms that disagree with us on what is a good place to live has started a new field of astrobiology and a new appreciation of the possibility of life existing in the wider universe. Discussing this on In Our Time were Monica Grady (Open University), Ian Crawford (Birkbeck University of London) and Nick Lane (University College London).

The study of extremophiles started with the discovery of a rich ecosystem based on extremophiles living at hydrothermal vents in the sea floor near the Galapagos Islands (an amusing coincidence that it’s these islands in particular). The discovery was made by the scientific crew of a submersible called Alvin in 1977, and was a revelation as although extremophiles were known to exist this was the first evidence that there were more than a few outlier species. Previous assumptions about the requirements for life were shaken up by this discovery. The experts emphasised that we (and organisms like us) live in the “extreme” environments when compared to the universe as a whole – we require conditions that generally don’t exist. So the discovery that life could exist in more “usual” conditions meant that it’s more plausible that life might exist somewhere other than on Earth.

The science of astrobiology was started by these discoveries – this is a multidisciplinary field, which the experts positioned as being part of a trend in modern science. The 20th Century was in many ways about increasing specialisation in the sciences, but now there is a move towards seeing the bigger picture with more collaborations between groups with different specialities. Astrobiology is not exobiology – that would be the study of alien lifeforms and we haven’t found any (yet). Instead astrobiology is the search for life elsewhere.

One of the assumptions that was overturned by the extremophiles found by Alvin was that sunlight was critical for life. Knowing that it’s possible for life to cope with no sun* opens up the possibility that life might exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa, for instance. Europa has a hot core (due to the friction generated by the various gravitational forces exerted on it) and an icy shell, with liquid in between. It also probably has hydrothermal vents. It just wouldn’t have sunlight under the shell, but that might not matter after all.

*They did mention in passing later in the programme that parts of the ecosystem at those vents makes use of the oxygen dissolved in the sea, which wouldn’t be there without sunlight (as it’s a by-product of photosynthesis, which uses the sun for energy). So the current population is evolved to handle a post-photosynthesis world. But I think the idea is that if there wasn’t any dissolved oxygen then it’d just be a different ecosystem of extremophiles rather than no ecosystem at all.

Another foundational insight for the field of astrobiology was the work of Carl Woese in the 1970s on developing a Tree of Life based on genetic data. The traditional view of the high level groupings of organisms is five kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists, bacteria. But Woese’s work showed that the real high level division is into 3 kingdoms: bacteria, archaebacteria and eukaryotes. Eukaryotes include all multicellular organisms (plus some single celled ones). Archaebacteria include the extremophiles and were once thought to be just a subset of bacteria – but the genetic data shows that they are as unrelated to bacteria as we are. They also arose first – bacteria and eukaryotes diverged from them later.

Astrobiology is not the same as SETI – the latter is searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but astrobiologists will be overjoyed to discover a single celled organism existing somewhere other than Earth. The experts spent a bit of time discussing the Drake Equation and how astrobiology fits within that framework. The Drake Equation is an answer (of sorts) to the question of how many extraterrestrial civilisations we might be able to communicate with. I say “of sorts” because, as Bragg pointed out on the programme, the terms of the equation started out as all unknowns. What the equation is useful for is breaking down the question into manageable chunks that can then be investigated. So one term is “how many stars have planets”, and since Drake formulated his equation it’s been found that pretty much all stars have planets – so clearly that’s not a limiting factor. The question that astrobiologists are working on is “how common is life of any sort?” – which is a couple of the terms in the Drake Equation: the average number of planets that are capable of supporting life per star that has planets and the number of these capable planets that actually develop life.

There’s still only one example of a life-bearing planet, so it’s hard to extrapolate much about the origins of life and how common an occurrence it might be. One thing that might have bearing on the problem is that life only arose once on Earth – all organisms share a common ancestor. I did wonder, although they didn’t discuss it, if we can be sure it only arose once – is it possible to disambiguate that from multiple origins only one of which survived? But even if we are sure that it was a one-off event on Earth this may not be because it’s hard to do per se. It might be that once life gets going once it uses up the raw materials that it arose from, preventing subsequent developments of life. This is an idea that goes back even to Darwin although other parts of his “small warm pond” concept of the origin of life are no longer thought plausible.

The origins of life aren’t the only thing that we only have one example of on Earth (with relevance to the Drake Equation). The jump from the simpler cells of archaebacteria and bacteria to the more complex cells of eukaryotes has only occurred once. Multicellular organisms have also only evolved once, ditto intelligence capable of building a technological civilisation. So even if it turns out that there are many planets supporting life of a sort out there in the universe, intelligence may still be very rare or even unique.

Panspermia is another hypothesis about how life got to Earth – or conversely how it may have got/will get to other places. This is the idea that life is spread through the universe via meteors etc, and so life may not’ve originated on Earth. There are several things that suggest that this is possible, even if we don’t know if it actually happened. For instance we do find bits of rocks on Earth that originated on other planets (the Manchester Museum has a small piece of the Moon and a small piece of Mars that got to Earth as meteorites). There are also micro-organisms on Earth that can live within rocks. And we know from experiments done on space missions that some micro-organisms can live through the heat of entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. At this point in the discussion Bragg mentioned Fred Hoyle had been laughed out of the scientific community for proposing something similar many decades ago. Grady pointed out that one reason this sort of theory is looked down is that all it does is shift the question up one level: What’s the origin of life on Earth? Space! What’s the origin of life in space? Dunno. The modern concept of panspermia is also not the same as Hoyle’s – which involved free-floating life seeds travelling over large distances, rather than accidental transfer between planets via meteorite. (This whole section of the discussion made me think of the start of the film Prometheus, which of course is another reason people raise their eyebrows at panspermia – all too often it comes with a side order of “and that’s how the aliens made us”.)

Finding life on other planets is made more difficult because we don’t entirely know what we’re looking for. There was a meteorite discovered in Australia that was thought might have fossil micro-organisms in it that hadn’t originated on Earth. Eventually it was decided that these weren’t the first signs of extraterrestrial life, but it was controversial for a long time. Grady noted that it was easier to figure out in that particular case because it was a rock that had landed on Earth – the task gets much more difficult when another sample means another round trip to Mars. However the only way we’re likely to find out if there’s life elsewhere is by going and looking – whether that’s with robotic explorers or human explorers.

As the Australian meteorite case shows there is a high level of proof required before astrobiologists will be willing to agree that they have found signs of life that are definitely of non-Earth origin. However the experts felt that they (as a field) are getting better at figuring out what to look for. The essential requirements for life are now thought to be water and carbon, but even with those requirements in common with Earth life extraterrestrial life might look very different. The experts emphasised how much chance is involved in evolution – even if you could re-run the history of the Earth it would look completely different despite starting with the same conditions.

This programme felt oddly mis-named – not often the case for In Our Time episodes which generally stay on topic rather well. But this wasn’t really about extremophiles, it was about the search for non-Earth life.

In Our Time: The Science of Glass

Glass is odd stuff. We’ve been making it so long that one tends to forget that it’s both artificial and really quite odd. The In Our Time episode about glass talked both the science of glass and glass-making, and the history of it. The experts discussing it were Dame Athene Donald (University of Cambridge, current Master of Churchill College, my old college, but here in her context as a physicist), Jim Bennett (University of Oxford) and Paul McMillan (University College London).

On the programme they intertwined the historical and the scientific discussion, but I thought the joins showed rather more than they usually do and so I’m going to split the threads up in my writeup. We first know of glass manufacturing about 5,000 years ago, by the ancient Egyptians who made beads of it initially. Over time they learnt to make larger and more complex objects like bottles & ornaments. The Romans developed the technology further. They invented most of the techniques that were used before the Industrial Revolution, like glass blowing for example. In ancient Egypt glass was primarily used for decorative or luxury goods, but the Romans used glass for both everyday and finer objects – including wine bottles (which struck me as an awfully modern way to store wine!).

In the Renaissance era the Venetians were famed for making particularly fine quality glass. The city attempted to keep a monopoly on glass-making by keeping their methods secret & forbidding glass-makers to leave the city. Which didn’t entirely work, unsurprisingly. One of their secrets was a way of making very transparent glass which was useful for lenses. Something I learnt from this programme was that spectacles first appear in the 13th Century AD which is much earlier than I’d assumed. Once lenses were being made to correct people’s sight it was only a relatively short step to making lenses for scientific instruments. Glass is part of the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution – not just lenses but also for making scientific instruments or vessels. There is a feedback loop between the demands of the scientific experiments driving new glass making technology and better glass instruments expanding the possible experiments that can be done. Industrial production of glass as we know it today begins in the Industrial Revolution.

The whole of the history discussion was very Eurocentric so I had a little look on wikipedia after we’d listened to the programme to see whether this was a fair reflection of the world history of glassmaking. The answer (based on a tiny amount of effort on my part) is … maybe? Glass making in China appears to’ve arrived late – during the Han Dynasty and probably influenced by trade goods from the Roman Empire. I didn’t find anything about the Americas, so I don’t know if that means they didn’t invent glass making or if no-one cared enough to add it to wikipedia. It’s odd to think that something so ubiquitous today might’ve been discovered once & once only.

Making glass (not good glass, just glass) is deceptively simple. In essence the process is to heat up sand till it melts, and then cool it very quickly and you end up with the transparent solid that we call glass. One of the experts pointed out that the necessary temperatures are those that would be reached by a bonfire on a beach – so it was probably discovered in Egypt by people (briskly) putting out campfires in the desert. Although a large body of empirical knowledge of how to make glass was built up over the next 5,000 years it was only relatively recently that we gained any understanding of what is actually going on, and the science of glass & glass-making is still not entirely understood. It’s actually more difficult to make glass out of pure sand than when there are impurities present, pure sand needs a quicker cooling step. So when making glass other things are often added – like potash or lime.

One of the complicated things about glass formation is that the phase transition from liquid sand to glass is not well defined – which is an oddity in physics. An example of a well defined phase transition is that from liquid water to ice: it happens at 0°C no matter how you cool the water. But the point at which liquid sand becomes glass depends on the precise starting conditions and the precise heating & cooling regimen – and it isn’t predictable using the current state of knowledge. Glass isn’t even a usual solid – it’s not crystalline, and that’s why the speed of cooling is important. If it cools too slowly it will crystalise and you don’t get glass. So instead of the atoms lining up in neat little rows they appear to just stop where they are. This non-crystalline nature of glass is what gives it some of its characteristic properties. It is brittle because there are no planes of atoms able to spread over each other when pressure is applied. I think they also said that the transparency is down to there being more routes for light to take through the structure, but I’m not sure that makes sense to me so I may’ve mis-remembered.

Glass in the technical sense is a broader term than just silicon glass (the stuff we generally call glass). You can make a glass using sugar – that’s what sweets like glacier mints are made of. And something I knew but had never really thought about is that spectacles & things like motorbike crash helmet visors aren’t made from silicon glass. Instead they are made using large polycarbon molecules – these can never crystallise so are much easier to work with. And the glass produced is not prone to fracturing, which is obviously important in those usages. I assume there are other downsides which mean we don’t use these glasses for all applications.

From the title I hadn’t expected this to be as interesting as it was – I didn’t realise how much wasn’t known about glass (nor how unique a discovery it was).

In Our Time: Brunel

The name Isambard Kingdom Brunel conjures up thoughts of the Great Western Railway, and other successful engineering projects that are still well regarded today. But on the the In Our Time episode about him Julia Elton (former President of the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology), Ben Marsden (University of Aberdeen) and Crosbie Smith (University of Kent) explained that this is not all there was to Brunel, and he wasn’t always as successful as his modern reputation suggests. His reputation during his lifetime was mixed – he was an innovator, but also prone to over-reach.

They started the programme by briefly discussing Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s father, Marc Isambard Brunel, who was born in France before the French Revolution. He fled to the US as a refugee during the Revolution, and subsequently moved to England. He married Sophia Kingdom, an English woman who he’d met in France during the Revolution. He was a highly successful engineer, and he educated his son to follow in his footsteps.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in England, and his early education was biased towards science, maths & engineering and came from his father. He was then sent to school to get a proper gentleman’s education to complement this (Greek, Latin and so on). Afterwards he spent some time abroad before returning to England to work as an engineer with his father. The big project that they were working on was a tunnel under the Thames river. This didn’t go as well as was initially hoped, although it was ultimately successful. The ground under the river is not very good for tunnelling through – instead of the clay they hoped for it was gravel. This meant that the progress of tunnelling operations was slow and also dangerous.

Brunel chafed at working in his father’s shadow and was very keen to make a name for himself independently. While he was in Bristol convalescing from an accident during work on the Thames Tunnel he got involved in a project to build a bridge there. This was funded by money left in someone’s will which had been invested until the interest earnt meant that it was enough to cover the project, and then there was a competition for the design of the bridge. Brunel put his own design in, and won – although the bridge that was built was a slight redesign of his idea, because a Grand Old Man of engineering (whose name I forget :/) said that Brunel’s design wouldn’t work. I’m not quite clear if this expert was right or not – bucking the conventional wisdom was to be a noticeable Brunel trait, and often he was right. His approach to engineering was a scientific one – to work from first principles, to experiment and to keep meticulous records. This could be a double edged sword, “the way things have always been done” is not necessarily wrong. This project also highlighted another of Brunel’s key traits – his showmanship. Despite the project running out of money before the bridge was finished, the grand opening still went ahead as Brunel planned.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the Great Western Railway is what I particularly remember Brunel for, and this was his next big project. Unsurprisingly, his winning bid flung out all the precedents for railway design and started over from scratch – much to Stephenson’s disgust. Brunel was aiming for the luxury end of the railway market and so ended up with a design incompatible with other parts of the evolving rail network – his track was a wider guage and his trains were larger than those in the rest of the country. Brunel was initially in charge not only of the engineering of the railway but also of the locomotives, and once again he started over from first principles. Sadly this was not a success, and an inquiry set up to investigate his failures ended by taking control of locomotive design away from him.

Having had overall success in his foray into railway engineering Brunel moved into ship building. This was a natural extension of the Great Western Railway – the idea being you’d travel from London to Bristol by GWR train and thence to the USA by a GWS ship. This project started out as a very nice example of the good in Brunel’s approach to engineering. Here conventional wisdom said that if you built a bigger steam ship it would sink, for what are in retrospect silly reasons. Brunel’s start from scratch approach meant that he challenged that assumption and discovered that big ships will float. This meant that Brunel’s ships could carry more fuel, and so weren’t cutting it quite so fine when crossing the Atlantic on a single tank of fuel.

But then he gets carried away and keeps increasing the size of the ships – not all of these larger ones were successful. Although I’m not sure if this was all down to bad design, or if bad luck also played a part – because once he had some bad luck then his mixed reputation would lead to people assuming it was obviously his fault. When his designs and business ventures worked, they worked pretty well, but as soon as something stopped working public confidence in his abilities dropped. And even when things did work there were always niggles and things that might’ve been better designed differently – like the railway that wasn’t compatible with the other networks. His reputation during his lifetime and immediately after his death was decidedly mixed.

One of the experts on the programme, Julia Elton, summed up Brunel’s modern reputation as fitting into a narrative we like – the lone heroic figure taking on the establishment and succeeding when they said he’d fail. She thinks that Stephenson was a much better engineer – but Brunel was a better showman. Brunel also kept diaries throughout his life – one set of personal ones, one set of engineering “lab books” – which meant that when his descendants wanted to promote his memory they had ample material to work with.

In Our Time: Complexity

Complexity theory is a relatively new discipline, about 40 years old, that looks to model and understand the behaviour of complex systems. The systems themselves can be as diverse as the weather, crowd movements, epidemic spread or the brain. The experts talking about it on In Our Time were Ian Stewart (University of Warwick), Jeff Johnson (Open University) and Eve Mitleton-Kelly (London School of Economics).

One of the important first steps in understanding what complexity theory is about is to distinguish between a complicated system and a complex system. Mitleton-Kelly talked about this and said that a jet engine is a good example of a complicated system – it has many parts, but it is still something that can be designed and its behaviour can be predicted precisely. A complex system is something like the movement of a crowd through a building – again there are many parts (each person, the building itself) but whilst you can change things or design things in the building to influence the system the system as a whole is not designable. It is also unpredictable in a mechanistic sense, in particular complex systems are very sensitive to changes in the starting conditions and so a relatively minor difference can change the eventual outcome significantly. However complexity theory can be used to build models of the system that can predict the sorts of things that are likely to happen.

Complex systems are generally made up of a network of interacting units – people in a crowd, neurones in a brain, etc. These units may be (are always?) governed by straightforward and knowable rules. An example is that each person in a crowd is trying to get somewhere, and as a space opens up in the right direction they move into it. The complex system itself emerges from the interactions between the individual units (emergent behaviour is one of the key concepts of complexity theory). Crowd movements are apparently a solved problem and there are commercial packages that can be used to model crowds in different situations. Whilst there’s no way of predicting where any given individual is going to be at any given time, nor precisely how many people will be trying to go from any given A to B, you can model what the crowd as a whole will look like under different conditions.

Feedback and equilibrium are two important concepts in thinking about complex systems. Normally when we think about these concepts we are thinking about a system like a central heating system. When the thermostat detects the temperature has dropped, the heating switches on and so the temperature rises again until it’s in the desired range at which point the heating switches off. So that’s negative feedback acting to keep the system in equilibrium. But in a complex system there may be many equilibria, and feedback between the units is more likely to be positive and to reinforce the change from the equilibrium. An example of positive feedback between units in a network was given by Johnson (I think) – think of a rumour which starts with person A. Person A tells person B it’s definitely true (whatever it may be) even tho they’re not 100% sure, person B passes it on to person C (“guess what I heard?”) who passes it on to D & E and so on. Eventually someone repeats it back to person A, who then thinks to themselves “see, I was right” and doubles down on telling people about this “fact”.

Because of how feedback works in this sort of complex system, and because there are multiple stable points, it’s unlikely that once the system is perturbed from one equilibrium that it will return to that one. It’s particularly unlikely that an attempt (following a more mechanistic model) to generate negative feedback to return the system to equilibrium will work as intended. This has important implications for controlling the economy. Mitleton-Kelly also talked about work she’s involved with in Indonesia in helping the government attempt to stop deforestation – just passing a law saying “don’t do it” as a negative feedback mechanism is unlikely to have the right effect. Instead her work is on trying to model the complex system that arises from all the factors that affect who cuts down the forest where, and why. Then the Indonesian government should be able to try several strategies in the model and see what sort of effect they have and then pick something more effective.

Another example, that Bragg brought up, of a complex system that’s been perturbed from one equilibrium and is gradually (hopefully) settling into another was the Arab Spring. Which also illustrated something else – the idea that the system might be in equilibrium but also be ripe for a change. The way the world has evolved with it being easier to interact with each other via the internet meant that the situation in the Middle East & North African autocratic regimes was actually changing before it became apparent. Then the effects from a key event in Tunisia rippled through the network, and the system abruptly moved away from equilibrium. And it’s still shifting and trying to come to a new equilibrium.

This was fascinating as a look at a new and still rapidly evolving discipline. I did think Bragg came across as a bit out of his depth tho – amazing how rarely that happens to be honest. There was also a slightly odd mix on the panel, with two theoreticians (and mathematicians) and one more applied practitioner of the science. Sometimes Stewart and Johnson seemed to be having a different conversation to the one Mitleton-Kelly was having.

Egypt’s Lost Queens; Talk to the Animals; John Bishop’s Australia

Egypt’s Lost Queens was a one off programme presented by Joann Fletcher about four influential women in Ancient Egyptian history. Of the women she picked to focus on there were two who wielded power in their own right, and two who were mothers and/or wives of Pharaohs. Fletcher didn’t just go the easy route of picking all the “obvious” ones – i.e. no Nefertiti, no Cleopatra – instead she covered Hetepheres, Hatshepsut (who does count as an obvious choice), Nefertari (ditto) and Arsinoe.

Hetepheres was the mother of the Pharaoh Khufu – the man for whom the Great Pyramid at Giza was built. Fletcher said that Hetepheres was the first burial at the Giza plateau and so she positioned her as the founder of this burial site – I suspect it’s more likely that Khufu picked the site for his own pyramid, then buried dear old Mum there when she died rather than Hetepheres having much say in the matter. As there’s not much known about Hetepheres other than her family relations this segment of the programme mostly looked at those of her grave goods which have survived – which includes a bed frame, and a carrying chair. They’re in Cairo Museum and I remember we saw them when we were there a few years ago – pretty impressive to see a bed that’s 4,500 years old.

Hatshepsut is an 18th Dynasty Pharaoh who first ruled as her step-son Tutmosis IV’s regent when he was under age, and subsequently ruled in her own name as Pharaoh (with him as co-ruler but in the junior role). Fletcher mostly talked about how Hatshepsut used the propaganda machinery of Ancient Egypt to legitimise herself – her temple walls were covered with herself as Pharaoh (with all the accessories including the false beard). And also with references to her divine parentage and birth. Fletcher also talked about Hatshepsut as a military commander and suggested there’s evidence she may’ve seen battle.

Nefertari was Rameses II’s most important wife – she is the woman to whom the secondary temple at Abu Simbel is dedicated. She seems to’ve been involved in the diplomacy of the time – Fletcher showed us a letter from Nefertari to a Queen in Mesopotamia. And of course you can’t have a programme about Nefertari without visiting her tomb which is one of the most spectacularly decorated tombs that’s been found. (And we’re going to see it later this year!)

The last of Fletcher’s powerful women was Arsinoe, who was the daughter of the first Ptolemy to be Pharaoh of Egypt and later ruled herself – as co-ruler with her brother Ptolemy (who was also her second husband, her first was king of Macedon). At the end of this section of the programme Fletcher talked about how Arsinoe’s iconography references that of the earlier queens – with a crown formed from the crowns that these previous women wore in their own iconography. She was positioning that as a deliberate reference on Arsinoe’s part but I would’ve thought it more likely that Arsinoe and her predecessors were referencing the same gods and the same iconography as each other rather than a more direct link.

I’m torn about what I think about this programme. On the one hand it’s very well filmed and talks about a lot of interesting stuff, some of which I hadn’t seen before. On the other hand I did spend a fair amount of time thinking “well, yeah, but …”. In simplifying things to emphasise her point I sometimes feel Fletcher goes too far towards misrepresenting things.

We also finished off a couple of series this week. One of these was Talk to the Animals – a two part series about animal communication presented by Lucy Cooke. These programmes were an overview of the many ways that animals communicate both within their own species and between species. So there were segments on things like how can hippos communicate both underwater and above water simulataneously, or how does a particular species of bird lie to meerkats, or how banded mongoose calls are a bit like a twitter feed. One of the things Cooke was emphasising was how animal communication is a lot more complex than one might expect and certainly more complex than early researchers had assumed. She also met a lot of just slightly oddball scientists (of which there are plenty – I know I’ve met many that fit that categorisation – but that did seem to be a theme).

A fun series with a good blend of “isn’t that cute!” and science (with actual experiments, too).

The other series we finished was John Bishop’s Australia. John Bishop is a British comedian, and in his 20s he did a cycle ride up the east coast of Australia. Now, 22 years on, he was repeating that ride but visiting more of the places along the way and with TV cameras in tow. I don’t really have much to say about the series – but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, it was actually rather good. On his travels he covered a fairly wide cross-section of Australian society and places. He’s a funny guy (as one would expect from a comedian) but was also serious when the subject required it.

Also watched this week:

Episode 3 of Britain’s Great War – Jeremy Paxman looking at what happened in Britain during WWI.

Episode 1 of Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A 17th Century History for Girls – Lucy Worsley talking about late 17th Century British women.

Episode 1 of The Boats that Built Britain – Tom Cunliffe sails six boats that were important in British history.

Episode 1 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.

Secrets of Bones; Tales from the Royal Wardrobe

Secrets of Bones was a 6 part series of half hour programmes about skeletons, presented by Ben Garrod. Each episode covered a different aspect of the way that skeletons are vital to vertebrates. The series looked at both the commonalities between the vertebrate skeletal structure, and also the ways that skeletons are adapted to the life style of the particularly organism. For instance when talking about bone structure Garrod highlighted how the mix of mineral and organic material makes bone particularly suited to holding organisms up in general. And he also talked about how bird bones are particularly lightweight as an adaptation for flight.

Garrod was a very enthusiastic presenter, clearly in love with his subject and able to convey that to the viewer. I was also impressed that it didn’t feel dumbed down at all. It was perhaps a little repetitive at times, but given how information dense the short episodes felt it might’ve been necessary to recap at the end just to stop one from getting lost. Worth watching.

Tales from the Royal Wardrobe was another one-off programme about royal history presented by Lucy Worsley. As with Tales from the Royal Bedchamber (post) it was a history of the English (and then British) monarchy from Tudor times forward, this time viewed through the lens of what clothes they wore and how this affected public perceptions of them. And it was a splendid opportunity for Worsley to dress up in a variety of historical outfits! 🙂 She stopped short of dressing up as the Queen or Princess Di, however – but we did get that far towards modernity in the clothes that were discussed.

It was a fun programme, I think I always enjoy watching Worsley’s programmes. I do wonder how many times she can repeat this particular formula before it goes stale, tho – two might be enough.

Other TV watched this last couple of weeks:

Episodes 3 and 4 of Tropic of Cancer – repeat of a series where Simon Reeve travels round the world visiting the countries that the Tropic of Cancer runs through.

Episode 1 of Dolphins – Spy in the Pod – slightly disappointing documentary series about dolphins.

Mud Sweat and Tractors; Fossil Wonderlands: Nature’s Hidden Treasures; The Crusades

Mud Sweat and Tractors is a four part series about the changes in farming in Britain over the last century or so. It split it up into four areas – milk, horticulture, wheat and beef – and treated each as a separate story, so each episode seemed quite self-contained. Each time there were two or three farming families chosen who had photographs and video footage stretching back to the 1930s. So they made good case studies and could talk about why they or their Dad or Grandad had made particular decisions at particular points. And the old videos were good for showing what the actual changes were. As well as this there were several social historians or experts in other parts of the farming/food production process who could talk about the wider trends that the individual farmers & their decisions fitted into.

Separating it out like that worked for telling the individual stories, but I think I might’ve like a bit more explicit drawing together of the themes that affected all the areas of farming. I could work some of them out, it just would’ve been nice to see more discussion of it in the actual programmes. Some of the commonalities were that the Second World War, and the aftermath of it, were a turning point – farming had been in decline before that, but during the war food imports were cut off and so increased production was important. After the war there was concern that Britain shouldn’t return to the pre-war situation, so farmers were given financial incentives to stay farming and to increase food production. And a lot of effort put into scientifically improving the breeds and technology used in farming. And the common theme after that is of food production getting too high – too much that wasn’t being eaten – so the subsidies go and it gets much harder for farmers economically. In addition some of the previous good ideas become seen as not such a good thing – things like the increase in chemicals used in horticulture in the post-war era (like DDT). Or things like breeding beef cattle for larger size & less fatty meat, but then it turns out that doesn’t taste so good so you have to compensate and fatten them up a bit.

It was interesting watching this with J. I grew up in a town so it was just history for me, and someone else’s history if that makes sense. But J grew up in a very rural area, right near farms. For a while his family rented a house on a farm, most of the rest of the time they lived in a 10 house village with working farms around them. So a lot of the 70s and 80s footage included things he remembered seeing as a child. I think we watched one bit of it three or four times in the last episode, because it included a hay baler that was exactly the sort he’d been fascinated by as a little boy. It had a robot arm, and somehow hay went in, was moved around by the arm then came out as square bales. Which was kinda fascinating to watch 🙂

In Fossil Wonderlands: Nature’s Hidden Treasures Richard Fortey visited 3 particularly important and rich fossil beds, and talked about what they’d taught us about the evolution of life. One commonality of the three is that they have fossils with the soft body parts preserved, which means we know so much more about the animals than is generally possible from fossils.

First (and most obvious to me) was the Burgess Shale – a section of the Rockies where early multicellular organisms are well preserved. We’d just seen that on the David Attenborough programme we watched recently (post) so this wasn’t new ground for us. Still nice to see tho, particularly as I remember reading about it when I was a teenager. The second episode took us to China and to some new fossil beds there which are re-writing our ideas of how birds evolved and what the differences between dinosaurs and birds actually are. This is because these recently discovered fossils include several feathered dinosaurs. And the last of the three fossil beds was in Germany, with many fossils from early in the explosion of mammalian diversity after the dinosaurs died out. These well preserved fossils include lots of bats (already looking very sophisticated), early horses, and the earliest known primate fossils.

This was an interesting series 🙂 I’m sure I’ve said before that I wanted to be a palaeontologist when I was in my early teens – until I worked out that it would mean lots of being outside grubbing about in the dirt & rocks! So I particularly like seeing these sorts of programmes, and all the cool stuff that’s been discovered since I was reading so much about it.

We also finished watching a series about The Crusades this week. It was presented by Thomas Asbridge, and I’m pretty sure we’ve seen it before – but not during a period when I was blogging about the TV we watch so I can’t be 100% sure (this is one incentive to keep writing up the programmes we see!). Sadly the reason we’re pretty sure we’ve seen it is because the irritations seemed familiar. Some of that was the style – whenever there was a static image (like a painting from a manuscript) they’d tilt it or pan around on it in a particular irritating fashion. And there was a lot of over dramaticness to the script and the way Asbridge presented it. And for all it was billed as “groundbreaking” I didn’t really have any “wow I didn’t know that/remember that” moments (and I don’t think that’s just because I think I’ve seen it before).

It covered the Crusades in three chunks. First the start, and the initial successes (and their attendant brutalities). Next was Richard the Lionheart vs. Saladin. The final episode looked at the Muslim success in driving out the Christians, and at how it was actually the need to fight the encroaching Mongol Empire that drove this and the effects on the Christian Crusader Kingdoms were more of a side-effect.

Overall it was interesting enough to keep watching, but not as interesting as I’d hoped.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears – a look at how the geography of the USA affected the colonisation and history of the Wild West.

Episode 1 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

In Our Time: Robert Boyle

I know of Robert Boyle because of Boyle’s Law (which I must’ve learnt in GCSE physics about 25 years ago although I couldn’t give you the details now), but as In Our Time explained his part in developing the scientific method is probably the more important part of his legacy. And in his own time his piety and religious writings were also important. The three experts who discussed it were Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge), Michael Hunter (Birkbeck College, University of London) and Anna Marie Roos (University of Lincoln).

Robert Boyle was born in 1627 as the 14th child and 7th son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. The Boyles were fabulously wealthy. Not all of the children survived to adulthood, of those that did the daughters were married off advantageously (although not always happily) and the sons inherited their father’s land. Robert Boyle as the youngest son probably had the least lands and income, but this still inclued lands in County Limerick and a manor in Dorset. And an income of around £3,000/year (if I remember right) which made him ludicrously wealthy at the time. An anecdote the experts used to illustrate this was that Boyle funded Hooke’s telescope for the Royal Society, which was almost not built because it was too expensive and Hooke couldn’t secure funds – Boyle stepped in and paid, and the programme gave the impression that this wasn’t a stretch for him.

Boyle was educated at Eton for a few years starting when he was 8 years old, just after his mother died. Then in his mid-teens he went abroad, with a tutor, and spent several years in Continental Europe including France and Italy on a sort of Grand Tour. During that time he began to develop an interest in science, but more important to him he had the opportunity to debate religion with various scholars of the day. At some point in these years abroad he had a type of religious conversion experience during a thunderstorm in which he thought he might die. On his return to Ireland (and then England) in the 1640s he began to write essays about his understanding of religion, seeing this as his life’s work. One of the experts, Hunter I think, said that if this was all Boyle had done then we probably wouldn’t remember him – his style and his thinking weren’t particularly novel or readable.

Boyle’s practice of religion was a fairly practical matter. He was part of a school of thought that felt the best way to live a godly Christian life was to carefully examine your past to determine if you’d taken the actions most pleasing to God (and then presumably you have a pattern for the future). It’s an ongoing process and would require meticulous attention to detail and thinking about other alternative things you could’ve done and so on. His scientific interests were also an outgrowth of his piety – a belief that the best way to learn about God was to learn about his creation. Bragg asked a few times if there had been a “scientific conversion” moment to match Boyle’s religious turning point, but either Hunter or Schaffer pointed out that our division between religion and science as separate things with different spheres of relevance is anachronistic when thinking about the 17th Century.

During the 1650s and later Boyle became involved with a group of men who met regularly in Wadham College, Oxford and who would later form the nucleus of the Royal Society. They were mostly university educated, and so Boyle was a bit of an outlier (although I think not the only one) with his lack of formal education past his schooling at Eton. Whilst here he formed a close working partnership with Robert Hooke, who was particularly gifted at building apparatus and the practical side of chemistry & physics experimentation. The work Boyle is remembered for on air and gases was done in collaboration with Hooke. Boyle also corresponded with one of his sisters, Lady Ranelagh, about his work – and in later life he moved to London and lived in her household (which didn’t include her husband, her marriage hadn’t been a happy one).

Boyle was meticulous about writing down his experiments, and also wrote about how one should both carry out and record scientific experiments. Roos pointed out that modern day Materials and Methods sections in scientific papers are the direct descendants of Boyle’s ideas about the scientific method. He said that one should write down exactly what had been done, so that another person could do the same experiment again. He also said that the experimenter should come to the experiment with an open mind, instead of already already decided what they expected to happen. Hunter finished up the discussion by saying that this initial development of the scientific method is Boyle’s greatest legacy.

Boyle turns out to’ve been a much more interesting man than I’d expected from my half memory of his law about the relationship between gas volume & pressure!

The Necessary War; The Pity of War; David Attenborough’s First Life

The Necessary War and The Pity of War were a pair of programmes from the BBC about the First World War that aired a couple of months ago. In The Necessary War Max Hastings put the case for WW1 being, ultimately, necessary despite the loss of life etc. And in The Pity of War Niall Ferguson argued that it was all a terrible and costly (in terms of lives) mistake – this programme finished with a debate. I found myself not entirely agreeing with either position, although I preferred Hastings’s presentation as Ferguson was more than a touch smug and flippant. Both were looking at this from a very British perspective, the question wasn’t so much “was the War worth it?” as “should Britain have gone to war in 1914?”.

Hastings’s main point was that at the time the decision to go to war was made it seemed the least of all possible evils. He argued that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then there was a reasonable chance that Germany would’ve overrun France, and then Britain would later have faced war with a much bigger Germany which would be more capable of disrupting British shipping (and thus the British economy and empire). So he suggested that at the time, and with hindsight, war seemed inevitable the only question was “now or later?”. He also discussed how the atrocities perpetrated by the German army as they rolled over Belgium meant that this was the moral choice as well as the politically sensible one and that a Europe dominated by the Kaiser’s Germany would not be a pleasant place to live. I was somewhat less convinced by his attempt to present the Versailles Treaty as a good thing just because it was better than what the German’s would’ve imposed if they’d won (there’s a lot of room between that and “good” after all).

Ferguson on the other hand thought that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then the world would’ve been a better place both in the short term and in the long run. But I’m afraid he didn’t convince me at all, except that I do agree that with the benefit of hindsight the First World War was an appalling waste of lives and didn’t even produce a lasting peace. His arguments were mostly appeals to emotion and he also used counterfactuals to illustrate what he thought would’ve happened if Britain had stayed out of the war. His key idea was that he thought the conflict would’ve remained European without Britain’s intervention, and that a Germany that had conquered or otherwise overrun France and Belgium wouldn’t have expanded further. There was a strong air of “who cares about the French and Belgians” although he didn’t go as far as to say that – but having recently watched both The Necessary War and the series based on Hew Strachan’s book about WW1 I was struck by his complete lack of mention of the way the Belgian and French civilians were treated by the advancing German army at the beginning of the war. It wouldn’t’ve fit very well with his “playful” suggestion that a Europe “dominated” by the Kaiser’s Germany would’ve been “just like our modern EU” (although he conceded that Angela Merkel is rather nicer than the Kaiser). He didn’t come across as having much more than wishful thinking to back up his idea that peace and harmony would’ve reigned as soon as Germany finished conquering Belgium, breaking the back of France and defanging Russia.

The debate at the end of The Pity of War was both with experts, and with the audience for Ferguson’s lecture (he lectured, Hastings did more of a standard documentary programme). No-one seemed to agree much with Ferguson and he got taken to task for his flippancy about the EU by a rather formidable woman in the audience too 🙂

In the end I think I agree with Hastings that the choice to go to war was the best one that the British leadership could see at the time. And I think without the examples of WW1 and WW2 we wouldn’t all be as wary of global modern warfare – which doesn’t make them good things at all, just sadly inevitable.

David Attenborough’s First Life was a two part series about the origins of animal life on our planet. It goes before his series about the evolution of the vertebrates (which we watched last year), and so only mentioned vertebrates right at the very end. Although it was called “First Life” he really wasn’t interested in anything except animals, and so we didn’t get to see much about the prokaryotes (who were the first life) or even eukaryotes prior to the development of multicellular organisms. And plants were only ever mentioned in passing.

So in episode 1 he covered the evolution of organisms like sponges, and looked at the fossil record of a group of now long extinct animals which had a different body plan to our own. These were all sedentary and had grew by branching with each branch being a smaller version of the whole organism. These died out (Attenborough said “inevitably” but I’m not quite sure why), and the last part of that programme looked at the Cambrian Explosion which is the name given to the sudden rise of diversity of animals with a more familiar body plan. These were generally capable of movement and have head ends and tail ends to their bodies. And even teeth! Episode 2 focussed on arthropods, and in particular the insects and the colonisation of the land. In particular he looked at the way that the development of hard shells to fend off predators lead to being able to leave the water (because their bodies didn’t collapse or dehydrate). And we were shown lots of awesome trilobite fossils from a particularly well preserved fossil bed in Morocco.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 3 of Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

Episode 1 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

Episode 1 of Mud, Sweat and Tractors – series about the history of farming in 20th Century Britain.