The width of the red sea

September 23, 2013 Leave a comment

We all know of the biblical story of Moses and his band of followers escaping from Egypt and running east, being chased by an army until they reached the Red Sea. This is a strip of water which divides the Arabian Peninsula from the rest of Africa. The story, told in Exodus, describes how God parted the waters, allowed the Israelites to cross, and then when the pursuing army of Egyptians tried to cross, the waters were released, swamped over them, and they all drowned.
As an atheist and budding scientist, I do find this hard to believe. Why? Lets look at the Red Sea itself: its not a wee little river. It’s not even a big river. Its sea of water, around 190 km wide. And its pretty much consistently this wide, for the majority of its length.

Width of the Red Sea

The width of the Red Sea, as measured on Google Earth. The part I’ve measured is shown by the red line.

One hundred and ninety kilometers? Moses and his crew would have been in there for DAYS! Bearing in mind that they were fleeing Egypt and would have had all their worldly belongings with them, the young, the old, cattle, sheep, donkeys carrying Aunt Mable’s dinner set and all the rest of it, they would not have gone at a very fast speed. The Egyptians running after them were an ARMY, and probably had at least a few blokes charging along on horses.
It’s just a bit too unbelievable for my liking. It goes against a fair bit of logic.


A Theory of Finding Mates

I will not pretend that I am what can classically be defined as a lady’s man. Like any bloke I seem to meet, I am perfectly fine around female friends of mine. But when I like a young lass, and want her to like me, I become tongue-tied and awkward. I don’t know what to say, and when I do think of something its usually along the lines of “Do you like jam? I think its brilliant.” I have found, though, that the fantastic invention of alcohol does seem to help the situation – but I would issue a word of warning at this point. Alcohol has been proven to assist in making you more confident and more talkative (although studies also show that people are willing to say whatever researchers want them to say if they are being promised free booze) – two things that a tongue-tied man could do with when trying to chat up a prospective. My word of warning is thus: make sure she’s drinking too. If she isn’t, you need to really keep an eye on yourself, in which case you’re back at square one anyway.

That’s all an aside. The main jist of this post follows:

I have been out on the prowl many times. I usually don’t go out planning to get some action and just see where the night takes me and work things out as a I go along – I find that I cant really get my head around that. I prefer to go out with some specific person in mind, hope to meet them (knowing their friends and having them friended on facebook can help here). Randomly bumping into them is a lot easier if its – strictly speaking – not random. Although, having said that, I have ended up going home empty handed so many times I wrote a song about it – no really – while walking home at 2am.

I won’t reveal my songwriting talents to the world just yet, but I will tell you about this theory I came up with, at around the same time. It basically works on the law of probability of things actually working out in your favour. If you consider that probability against the amount of times you actually go out (to a club or a bar or whatever), and reduced it to a graphical representation, you might come up with something like this:

Graph 1

It’s basically the kind of thing people who are into graphs would call a direct proportionality: the more you go out to your local watering hole, the greater your chances of things going well. However, it might actually be a bit more complicated than that:

Graph 2

In other words, there’s a levelling out effect: eventually you get to a stage where you’ve gone out so much you are now basically gauranteed to meet your lady (or gentlemanly) friend on the night in question. But, of course, the levelling effect might also go the other way:

Graph 3

I think the most likely of these scenarios is number three. After a certain period of time (call it Y), you reach a saturation point (call it X). It doesn’t matter how much you continue to go out to your local locale, you’ve met everyone else there, and have not come away successful. The only way for this to happen would be for a change to occur: either someone new moves into the area and comes down to the pub, or you head out to another joint and keep drinking.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, largely the point of blogging: having a thought, and putting it on THE INTERNET (in big shiny, neon letters) for other people to look at. Maybe even the type of people who like graphs. Who knows.

A Question of Why

January 18, 2013 Leave a comment

This post is a direct attack. I won’t pretend it’s anything less, largely because it isn’t.

The Roman Catholic Church currently ranks as the largest Christian church, with over a billion members world wide. According to its teachings, it is the One True Church, founded by Jesus Christ himself. Currently famous for people crossing themselves (most notably in mobster Chicago New York Italians-Owning-A-Judge type films), their insistence on the man in charge wearing what can only be described as a silly hat, and their resolute and consistent gay-bashing while they shag the choir boys in the cloisters.

The Vatican

A common rhyme taught in schools: In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two Collumbus Sailed the Ocean Blue. Good on him. But the other thing that happened in that year was that his sponsor, a young Spanish lass called Isabella, issued a royal decree which, simply put, said that anyone not under Papal control (i.e. anyone who wasn’t a Catholic) must convert, or leave. Initially, this tremendous plan worked pretty well – most of the people living in Spain at the time didn’t want to leave, so they jumped the religious fence and stopped preying to their heathen gods, and started obeying the right one. Unfortunately, Pope Sixtus IV wasn’t convinced. He’d issued Papal bulls in the past, which promoted the Portuguese slave trade in West Africa, and has subsequently been reported as a potential… erm… choir boy aficionado. But he reasoned that people might be “converting” to the One True Church, but then quietly continuing on with whatever there prior religious practices had been on the sly. So he stepped up efforts to correct this, and ushered in to play the organisation we know today as the Spanish Inquisition. This basically was done to bring as many people as possible in line with Church teachings. Unfortunately, they did this using imprisonment, torture and the well-remembered classic: tying people to a pole, and setting them on fire. It officially lasted until the 19th century, but some aspects remained in effect until as recently as 1968.

Burning at the stake

A short while after the inception of the Inquisition, a budding Italian astronomer by the name of Galileo built a telescope and had a look at the sky. He proved Copernicus’ suggestion that the Earth goes around the sun – not the other way around. Sadly, this was not what it said in the bible – quite the opposite in fact – and he was tried in 1633 and threatened with torture if he did not “tell the truth”. It took the Church a whopping 359 years for them to admit that they might have been wrong – Pope John Paul II finally apologised for the way the Catholics had treated Galileo in 1992.

The Trial of Galileo in 1633.

The Trial of Galileo in 1633.

Ask someone “what is the worst thing in all of history”, and chances are they’ll put the holocaust pretty close to the top of the list. The head bloke in that regard, a certain A. Hitler, had prayers said for him on his birthday by order or the Vatican every year until he died. According to historian Paul Johnson, 50% of the Waffen SS (Hitlers elite armed wing of the Nazi party) were confessing Catholics. Not one of them was ever even so much as threatened with excommunication for taking part in the holocaust. Interestingly, Hitler’s number 2, Joseph Goebbels, was excommunicated from the Catholic church – for marrying a Protestant. Goodness gracious, what standards. Again, Pope John Paul II did apologise for the silence and inactivity of the Catholic Church when it came to Nazi’s dominating a continent and causing the worst case genocide in the history of ever.

Pope Pius XII meeting Adolf Hitler. His public silence regarding the Final Solution has led history to rename him Pope Gutless Bastard I.

Pope Pius XII meeting Adolf Hitler. His public silence regarding the Final Solution has led history to rename him Pope Gutless Bastard I.

And this finally brings me to my point: The Catholic Church does seem to get embroiled in putting across a point (whether its some nonbelievers in Spain, a naughty man with a telescope or some Bavarian’s in spangly uniforms) which it thinks is a good idea. That then turns out to be a bad idea, so apologies get made – we were wrong, we’re terribly sorry, we won’t do it again, have a biscuit – and they shift their ideas to fit in with popular opinions. So if the biggest Christian faith just goes along with what everyone wants them to go along with, and doesn’t really stand up for things too well, what is it for?

How do you know?

November 28, 2012 1 comment

A few days ago I was doing my standard thing of browsing The Internet, when I came across one of those rather brilliant quotes that makes you sit back and go “Phwoar!” And then you stop and look at it a bit more, and realise that it doesn’t actually say anything much. The kind of quote that people write on dramatic backgrounds and put on their facebook wall, and expect people to be impressed.

At first glance, dearest Samuel looks like he’s on to something. But here comes the rant: how do you know?

Knowing something is such a definitive concept: you either know something or you don’t. At this point I should also point out that a chap called Schrodinger possibly should never have been introduced to the feline species, and that the world would be a much easier place to deal with if he hadn’t.

A few years ago, I was wondering around a little corner of the Karoo – a big semi-desert that takes up most of the middle of South Africa. My reasons for visiting were geological – I was on a fossil hunting trip. I found all the theory behind it extremely interesting, and although fossil hunting can be terrifically rewarding, I found it can also be crushingly demotivational. You can spend days wondering around looking for things, and all you’ll find are a few little pieces of bone or something. You may have walked right past a fantastic whole skeleton, buried just a few centimeters from the surface that will probably be exposed to the elements the next time it rains, and you’ll never know.

Have you met the person of your dreams? The person you want to (or possibly already have, you lucky swine) fall in love with and spend the rest of your life with. What if you walk past someone in the supermarket, or on your way to work, or while getting on to the train, who turns out to be that person. How will you know?

What if you were born to do something? Play an instrument or be really good at a sport? You are just naturally predispositioned to do some little thing better that other people can. Imagine if Jimmy Hendrix had never learnt to play the guitar. Or if Ronnie O’Sullivan had never picked up a snooker que. What if they’d just gone and gotten normal jobs. How would you know what they were supposed to become?

So going back to Mark Twain’s quote: The day you were born and the day you find out why. How do you know when that day is? There’s actually a fairly simple answer: You won’t. Not at the time anyway. Maybe a few years later, you might be able to look back and remember it. But you won’t know at the time. But that’s human nature: we’re born inquisitive. We all want to find out why.

Categories: Human condition?

Unknown and yet Well Known

November 12, 2012 Leave a comment

David Railton was a common or garden army chaplain who served with the British army during the First World War. Hardly anyone knows about him, and yet he came up with one of the most enduring symbols of the Great War. While serving on the Western Front in 1916, he came across the grave of a soldier. The headstone was not a stone at at all, but rather a rough cross made of wood. It bore the legend “an unknown British soldier” written in pencil.

This stirred the idea of taking the body of one such man – and Unknown Warrior – and returning it to Britain, to be given a state funeral with full military honours as a tribute to the unknown multitudes who now lay in unmarked graves across France. That year he wrote to Lord Douglas Haig, the commander of the British forces, describing his idea but received no reply. He refused to let the idea die and in 1920 wrote to the Dean of Westminster making the same suggestion, adding that he felt the most appropriate final resting place for a soldier representing so many was in Westminster Abbey, and that he be buried “amongst the kings”. The Bishop supported the idea, and wrote to King George V, as well as David Lloyd George, who was then prime minister.

Arrangements were made, and on the night of the 7th of November, just a few days before the Armistice anniversary, a body was selected from one of the French battlefields, and placed into a plain coffin. This was later sealed into an oak casket banded in iron. A sword from the royal collection, specially chosen by the king, was fixed to the top. In this manner, the Unknown Warrior was transported across the Channel to England. On the morning of Remembrance Day, six horses of the Royal Horse Artillery drew the gun carriage carrying the casket through the streets of London, past thousands who stood in silence, paying their last respects.

On arrival at the Abbey, the casket was carried into the West Nave, past a guard of honour made up of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross. The guests of honour around one hundred women, each one of whom had lost her husband and all of her sons in the War. The casket was buried in soil brought from the battlefields, and capped with a marble slab that had been engraved in brass from wartime ammunition. Even though people buried in the Abbey range from royals to writers (Dickens, Chaucer…) and scientists (Darwin, Newton…), the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is the only one that it is forbidden to walk on.

In 1923, when Prince Albert (later King George VI) and Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) were married in the Abbey, the new bride lay her bridal wreath on the Tomb. She had lost her brother in the War, and it has now become a tradition that all royal brides follow.
Today, the Tomb is still a great sign of tribute. Even though there are no soldiers alive who remember the trenches, every Remembrance Sunday people mark 11 o’clock – the time the guns fell silent – with two minutes of silence. The first honours those who died in the Great War. The second, those who were left behind.

Categories: Human condition?

The Race for Space

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

At the end of the Second World War, a thirty-three year old German rocket scientist named Werner von Braun surrendered himself and his colleagues into the hands of the victorious Americans. And so began one of the most enduring and exciting pieces of history of the 20th century. With him, he took the vital designs of the German V2 rockets to the United States. The American government quickly cottoned on to the brilliant idea of fusing together two new pieces of military technology – the use of rocket powered missiles, and their own brand new atomic bomb. Putting the two together would produce a weapon of unrivaled power – at that time there were no aircraft which could reliably chase down and destroy a missile, and no bomb that even came close to the power of even a small nuclear weapon.

It was nearly five years before the Soviet Union developed its own atomic weapons, soon after which the Russian Premier, Joseph Stalin, ordered the development of nuclear missiles with intercontinental capabilities. But there was another Russian, called Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, who effectively pulled the Soviet Union into an exploratory race for space with the United States.

Both Korolev and von Braun had ambitions of being the first men to begin to explore space. Both were brilliant designers, but each came from different backgrounds, and lived in political environments that were poles apart. The communists kept Korolev under lock and key – even his name was a state secret, and during his time in the Soviet space program was only officially referred to as “Chief Designer”. Von Braun’s role in building rockets for the American government was public knowledge and he came under attack for his Nazi connections as a result. During the International Geophysical Year of 1957, the idea of launching a satellite into orbit began to appear in the American press. Although of scientific value, it was hard to justify the spending of millions of dollars to the American public in pursuit of such a venture. Korolev, on the other hand, had to only persuade a small number of politicians. As a result, the Soviets won the first race – on the 4th of October 1957, they launched an R7 rocket carrying a small satellite called Sputnik. Although it  contained no scientific instruments, only a radio transmitter, it was the first time a man-made device orbited the planet.

The Sputnik satellite being prepared for its historic flight.

The launch of Sputnik meant that Von Braun suddenly had an easier job in persuading the American public that the exploration of the heavens was a good idea. Just a few months later, on January 31st 1858, a Juno rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral, carrying Explorer 1, the USA’s first satellite, into orbit.

Again, the Soviets won the next race. Before the American’s could even launch Explorer, Sputnik 1 had a sequel – Sputnik 2 was launched less than a month later, and carried a living dog called Laika into orbit. Sadly, the Soviets had not designed Sputnik 2 to be able to return to Earth, and Laika was always going to die in space. It was not until 2002 that details of her death surfaced – she lasted just 6 hours, and died of heat exhaustion.

They also won the greatest race of all: in 1959 the Soviets initiated the Vostok Program, designed to eventually put a man into space. Applicants had to satisfy a wealth of requirements, and all of them volunteered for a program that they knew nothing about. Twenty applicants applied, and only six were chosen to become cosmonauts. These men, Gagarin, Kartashov, Nikolayev, Popovich, Titov and Varlamov, began there training soon after. Kartashov and Varlamov had to be replaced after they were injured in accidents, but by the end of their training regime, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was the clear favorite to be the first man in space.

It must be remembered that while Werner von Braun was appearing on television, and doing all he could to promote Americans in space, the Soviets were keeping everything at the highest level of secrecy. This was maintained so ruthlessly that the American government would typically only learn of the Soviet rocket being launched after it appeared in the press. On the 12th of April 1961, Gagarin blasted off from the launch pad in Baikonur. So secret was the flight kept that only a few men knew it was happening. Even Leonov, one of the other cosmonauts, did not know who had been chosen for the flight until after it had started. Gagarin’s craft was controlled exclusively from the ground, and after 10 minutes, the rockets carrying him had all stopped firing. He became the first person to see the Earth from space, the first to experience weightlessness. As he began to cross the Pacific Ocean, he gradually slipped out of radio range. As a result, he looked down on the United States of America, the enemy of his homeland, he saw the lights of cities and towns, the signs of millions of Americans quietly sleeping the night away, and not one of them – not a single one – had any idea that he was there at all. And because he was completely alone – he had had no radio contact for some time – there was no-one he could tell about it.

Gagarin suddenly went from a man placed under unbreakable secrecy to an international hero. He was thrust suddenly into the limelight, and toured the world, promoting the Soviet accomplishment. He remained in the cosmonaut program until the fatal flight of Soyuz 1. Gagarin had been selected as a backup pilot for the flight, and had warned the engineers that the spacecraft had not been adequately tested. When it crash landed, killing the pilot Vladimir Komarov, Gagarin’s hero status meant that he was to valuable to be allowed into space again. He was indefinitely banned from partaking in any further missions into space. It didn’t help – he was killed on a routine test flight in 1968, less than a year after Komarov’s flight.

Meanwhile, the Americans had been slowly catching up. Project Mercury was their equivalent of the Vostok program. It was the first chance for Americans to get their teeth into the problems associated with manned space flights. The knowledge gained was then applied to the next program: Project Gemini. The purpose of this was simple: take the experience of the Mercury missions, and use it to  train a strong team of astronauts, which could then be used for missions to the Moon. Werner von Braun’s dream was gradually coming true. In the USSR, the race began to slip away from them. They suffered a major blow after Sergei Korolev, the brains behind their rockets, died after routine surgery in 1966. His life had been kept such a secret that his mother only learnt of his activities and achievements after his death. Von Braun also had another ace up his sleeve – the F1 rocket engine. The Soviets were hoping to get cosmonauts to the moon using their N1 rocket. This used a total of 30 NK-15 engines in its first stage in order to get off the ground. Werner von Braun was able to build a rocket with similar capabilities using just five F1 engines in its first stage. The rockets that were made still hold the record for the largest and heaviest vehicles ever to lift off the ground – it was called the Saturn V rocket, and was comparable in size to a medium sized battle cruiser.

Apollo 6 became the first Saturn V to successfully leave the launch pad. Luckily, it was unmanned – during its accent it began to vibrate so violently that any astronaut carried in it would probably have been killed. Incredibly, von Braun fixed the problem, but took a huge short-cut in testing. The next Saturn V to launch not only had astronauts on board, but it carried them to the moon. The crew of Apollo 8 became the first people to see the other side of the moon. Desperately, the Soviets tried to regain control of the Race, but it was not to be. On the 20th of July 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Although he died recently, he will be remembered for taking humanities first Small Step on a world beyond our own. The monument of the Apollo astronauts will remain on the moon – their footprints in the dust will still be there long after humans have disappeared.

Categories: Annus Mirabilis

M & I update – a few new points

July 11, 2012 4 comments

Ive been receiving a few emails from interested parties who’ve been reading my posts on Mallory and Irvine, and their disappearance on Everest in 1924. Most tend to ask questions or offer theories about where and when they were last seen, and what happened to them subsequently. Rather than reply to each person individually, this article goes in to a bit more detail than the others, about some of the more specific areas of that little piece of history.

Odell’s Sighting:

When Odell reached the 1924 site of Camp VI, he found it “in a state of disarray”, with oxygen equipment and food items lying about. This was taken as evidence that Mallory and Irvine had been delayed on their summit day by trouble with their oxygen equipment. On his return to England, Odell stated that he felt he had spotted them on the Second Step. Popular opinion at the time disagreed with him, with people saying that if they had had a late start, the First Step was more likely. Odell amended his views to fit in with this. However, a few years later, it became apparent that he would no longer be selected for any future Everest expeditions (notably the one in 1933). So he felt he no longer had to please anyone, and he changed his mind back to his original stance – that he’d seen them on the Second Step. Is there evidence to show that Mallory and Irvine were above the First Step? Yes, OK, apart from Odell’s sighting, we don’t have anything to go on – nothing left by Mallory or Irvine has ever been discovered above the First Step. But it is actually likely – going on the famous description that Odell later wrote – that he actually saw them climb the Third Step. The time it took, the topography, and the time of day certainly fit.

Oxygen Equipment:

Initially, there was a possible theory that – for reasons unknown to us – Mallory and Irvine decided not to make their final climb with oxygen. We now know that they definitely did – one of their oxygen bottles was retrieved from the summit ridge in 1999 (a short distance from where Irvine’s ice-axe was found). Secondly, the straps that were used to hold the oxygen mask onto ones face were discovered in Mallory’s pocket when his body was found in 1999.

I believe that they ran out of oxygen very high on the mountain – possibly on the summit itself, but more likely on the upper snowfield, just below it. This area is fairly avalanche prone, so its likely the ditched oxygen sets would been swept down the Great Couloir in subsequent years, which is why these relatively large items have not been rediscovered.

Finding Irvine:

Obviously we are now entering the final chapter in the Mallory and Irvine mystery. We know that the expedition leader Edward Norton had leant Mallory his camera for their summit attempt. We know that no camera was found on Mallory’s body, which suggests that at the time of their fatal falling, Irvine was the one carrying it. And now, thanks to the brilliant work of Tom Holzel and others, we have a fairly good idea of where his body is – if the theories turn out to be right. The last bit of the puzzle is to go up there and actually find him. Once that is done, I think we’ll be pretty sure of story of the final climb of these two brave pioneers.

Categories: Mallory & Irvine