Interested In Everything | Dr Dave Tipper's blog

..in fact, I think it’s here, as I can see a few flakes of snow lazily drifting past the window. The snow clouds are drifting over Derbyshire and the freezing, wintry weather the forecasters promised appears to be starting to arrive.  Looking back over the blog, I seem to have completely missed November (sorry about that).  My old grandma used to say that time seemed to go by a lot more quickly as you got older, and I think I’m starting to understand what she meant.  In my defence, since I last posted on here, I’ve been given the job of Course Leader for the part-time Mechanical Engineering degree, so I’ve been a little bit preoccupied, to say the least!

 

Alongside all the work related shenanigans, my shiny (nearly) new Alfa Romeo has spent some time in the car hospital thanks to two completely unrelated faults that rendered the poor thing undriveable and which I’ll expand on later, if anyone is remotely interested.

 

So, then, what have I missed?

 

I managed to completely miss the Leonid meteor shower on 17th/18th November (for about the third year running).  The Leonids originate from the constellation Leo and are caused by debris from the comet Tempel-Tuttle entering the Earth’s atmosphere.  According to NASA, the Leonid meteors are some of the fastest ever recorded, some reaching speeds as high as 44 miles per second.  If you also managed to miss them, don’t worry too much, as we’ve got a couple more meteor showers coming up fairly soon.  If the skies are clear on the 14th December, it should be possible to see the Geminid meteors, which will reach a peak at around 2am, plus, the Ursids are due to put in an appearance on the 23rd December.  Usually, the Ursids peak at around 10 meteors per hour, but have been known to  get as high as 50 per hour, so put on some warm clothing and look skywards.

 

The other thing that managed to pass my by completely was the supermoon that appeared last weekend.  This was the closest and brightest full moon of 2017 and there are some craking photographs from around the world over a t EarthSky:

 

http://earthsky.org/todays-image/best-photos-supermoon-december-2017?mc_cid=e6a8a84f9f&mc_eid=118a3eda2e

 

If you managed to miss it as well, don’t worry, as the first two full moons of 2018 (both in January) will be supermoons.

 

Right.  I’m off to find my winter boots and get the snow shovel out of the shed, just in case.  Oh, and if you hear anyone using the phrase “too cold to snow”, just point them in the direction of my blog post from 2014:

 

http://www.interested-in-everything.com/let-snow/

I have a couple of weeks away from blogging (due to a huge workload) and what do you know?  Autumn arrives, it starts to get colder and darker, yet another new academic year is upon us and somebody goes and crashes a spacecraft into Saturn.

 

September’s ended, so that means I’m in the middle of the annual ritual of making sure everything is ready to go in terms of teaching for the new academic year.  By the time you read this, the students should all have started back and my first lectures should be out of the way, meaning I can get on with blogging again.

 

Of course, the big news since I last posted here back in August (yes, I know – where did the summer go?) is that NASA’s Cassini spacecraft reached the end of its mission.  After almost 20 years, Cassini has sent back the last of its data and, around a fortnight ago, plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, never to return.

 

It’s been a really exciting bit of science – from the data that the probe has sent back to earth, NASA has been able to make detailed maps of Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields, revealing how the planet is arranged internally, and possibly helping to work out exactly how fast Saturn is rotating, something that hasn’t been calculated with much accuracy before.  Its final descent will also improve our knowledge of how much material is contained within the rings, helping us to understand their origins a little better.  Not only that, but the probe’s particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere and its cameras will take some close-up images of the planet’s rings and clouds.  Not a bad day’s work…

 

More information:

 

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/

You may recall me posting some photographs of the moon that I took at some point last year.  Not stunning works of art, I will admit, but not a bad attempt at picking out some interesting lunar features using nought but a Nikon D3100 and a 500mm mirror lens.  Astrophotography is another one of those things that has drawn my attention for a while and I never cease to be impressed when I see a good example of the photographer’s art.  Indeed, I have a calendar pinned to the wall above my desk that displays some particularly fine shots – August is a long exposure showing star trails and the Aurora Borealis over the Banff National Park in Canada.  Needless to say, my own efforts have been somewhat less than impressive so far.  I’m not going to bother posting anything on this blog until I finally manage to get some images that look half decent, so don’t hold your breath.

 

There are, thankfully, quite a few people who are much better at this lark than I am.  Have a look at the shortlist for the Astronomy Photographer of the year over here:

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-40789348

How about that for prompting a government announcement, then?  Less than two days after I wrote my last post on my thoughts about electric cars, the government has announced the proposal to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040.

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uk-petrol-diesel-ban-cars-vehicles-britain-sales-fuels-fossil-government-a7860181.html

 

I’ve not investigated this in great detail yet, but it appears that the plan is to completely outlaw sales of new vehicles that rely solely on an internal combustion engine in 23 years’ time.  I’m not going to join in with the multitude of voices currently passing judgement on the announcement and I’ll try to stay firmly on the proverbial fence at this point, as 2040 is still quite a long way off and I think a few things need to happen before the proposal becomes feasible.  Notice the proposal only mentions the phasing out of vehicles relying solely on petrol or diesel as their power source and it doesn’t actually say, as I’ve heard various people mention, that all our new cars are going to be all-electric.  This makes me think that the ban won’t apply to petrol-electric hybrids, a technology that appears to be gaining more popularity (I must admit I was impressed when I visited one of our industrial contacts a few weeks ago and witnessed him charging his new Mitsubishi from a standard 13A socket!).

 

If we are talking about a push towards a 100% electric vehicle fleet, as some have implied, I will remain a little guarded.  I do like the idea of a clean, quiet, efficient electric car, there are still a number of obstacles to be overcome before we’re all commuting this way.

 

Firstly, there’s the generating capacity – if everyone plugs the car in overnight, it’s going to be a huge drain on the national grid.  How many more power stations are we going to need?  If we’re trying to reduce fossil fuel use, what’s going to power the power stations?  Secondly, there’s the infrastructure.  How many charging points are we going to need and where are we going to put them?  I’ll be OK trailing an extension lead out of the kitchen window and across the yard, but what about people who live in flats, for example?  Will I be able to recharge in the middle of Sheffield?  On the back of this comes my third point: standardisation.  It took the mobile ‘phone companies years to get around to making micro-USB (almost) universal, so what if my car has a different charging system and voltage to yours?  Look what happened to British Rail’s Woodhead route because of non-standard electrical equipment.

 

Of course, 2040 is so far in the future, no-one currently in office will have to deliver anything, so it all feels a bit like kicking the problem into the long grass.  I suppose, we’ll just have to wait and see.

 

By the way, after my last post, I did a bit of research and a full electric conversion for the TR7 does actually look quite doable. Now then, where can I get a decent sized motor and some batteries from?

 

Even before I got involved with the solar car project I mentioned a few posts ago, I’ve often pondered on the merits of electric cars.  On the one hand, tailpipe emissions are eliminated completely, but, on the other, if we all went electric overnight, we would need a few more power stations building pretty sharpish to accommodate the increased demand for electricity.  While there are obvious benefits in removing the pollution from the streets, there’s the added problem that you’re essentially just shifting the pollution to a slightly different place. Of course, it is far easier to control the emissions from five power stations than it is from a million hatchbacks, plus, as more renewables come on stream and we get better at dealing with pollutants from the combustion process, it begins to make sense to aim for electric traction, certainly for urban environments.  When I were a lad, we used to have huge fleets of electric vehicles delivering the milk in a morning – why can’t we do something similar now?  I know the range issue will put a lot of people off and I have to agree that it’s not possible for every journey to be replaced by electric cars but, when you consider that a large number of journeys are fairly short commutes, throwing away that petrol engine and putting in an electric motor might start to look more attractive.

 

What would it take to get me to drive an electric car?  I think a combination of cost, range and not looking like it was styled for a bet.  If you read my post last summer about my gripes with modern car design, you’ll already know I have a few opinions about styling and aesthetics, to say the least. Give me an affordable car that has a range of 100+ miles on one charge and doesn’t look like it was designed by someone who has never actually seen a car, but just had one described to him over the telephone and I might consider it.

 

I was reading the news over lunch and it looks like we’re about to get an all new electric MINI.  The new 3-door hatchback is set to begin production at the Cowley plant in 2019:

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-40718892

 

Perhaps, finally, we’re starting to get somewhere.

 

 

Hang on, is anybody out there good at installing electric motors in old British Leyland products? I’ve just looked out of the window at the TR7 and had rather a neat idea…

The other day, my Dad asked me if I’d got a spare memory stick that he could use to put all his music files on so he could listen to them on the sound system in his new car*.  I didn’t have one to hand, so I called in to my local branch of Maplin and bought him a new one.  Less than £20 got me 16GB of memory on something slightly smaller than my thumbnail.  There are sticks available with a lot more memory, but 16GB should suffice for his music collection.  If you’re wondering why I’m waffling on about getting the Old Man a new memory stick, it’s all to do with memory and physical size of the devices themselves.  If you look back over previous posts, I’ve mentioned developments in memory before.  A few years ago, I bought an old Collins Year Book from a charity shop – it was from 1969 and had a whole chapter on recent technological developments.  The line that sticks in my mind was the one that marveled at the fact that it was now possible to fit an entire kilobyte of memory on an area smaller than a playing card! Fast forward 14 years from that to my first experiments in computing with my Dragon 32 (check out earlier posts for more info).  That number 32 meant a whole 32 kilobytes of RAM.  Somewhere, in a box in the loft, I still have a copy of my undergraduate final year project dissertation stored on five 3.5” floppy discs, 1.44MB per disc.  Now, of course, that 16GB stick I bought yesterday is mundane and every day.  There are several orders of magnitude more computing power in my smartphone than was in the Apollo 11 lunar lander and we all take this for granted.

 

You may have happened across Moore’s Law.  Back in the 1960s, one of the founders of Intel, Gordon Moore, observed that the density of integrated circuits was increasing exponentially.  In 1965, he produced a paper describing that the number of transistors on a chip was doubling every year and predicted that this growth would continue.  Ten years later, he revised his original forecast to a doubling every two years, but the idea of exponential growth still held true.  His predictions have proved more-or-less accurate ever since, but it has been said that there must be some kind of limit and that we must be approaching it fairly soon.  I remember having a conversation over a post-conference pint with some academics nearly twenty years ago and the general consensus around the table was that we should surely hit the buffers in terms of the number of transistors you can fit on a chip within the next ten years.  Apparently not, chaps.  Indeed, I read a quote from Intel CEO Brian Krzanich only last year when he said he had witnessed the death of Moore’s Law four times.

 

So, here we are.  It’s 2017 and Moore’s Law still holds.  Our chips are getting smaller and our memory is getting cheaper.  This can’t go on, though, can it?  We must reach a limit soon.  According to an article over at Science News, carbon nanotubes may well take us even further.  Researchers have described a carbon nanotube transistor with an overall width of 40 nanometers – about half the size of a typical silicon transistor:

 

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/incredible-shrinking-transistor-just-got-smaller

 

How long before I can get a 1TB memory stick the size of a postage stamp, I wonder?

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* He’s just taken delivery of a bright red Alfa Romeo Mito Sportivo.  Who says you have to have a beige Triumph Acclaim when you’re over 70?