BBC BLOGS - Gregory's First Law

Archives for September 2010

Boiling a kettle with solar power

David Gregory | 18:18 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

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Stoke solar panels

So on a rainy street in Stoke this morning I did a quick "back of the envelope calculation" trying to work out how many cups of tea we could have using some recently installed solar panels.

I came to the conclusion it was about 900 or so, but I think that might be a bit on the generous side. The solar panels in question had generated 11KWh of electricity since they were installed on Friday. (KWh stands for kilowatt hour and is the unit used by the power companies when charging us for electricity)

Back in the office I've been checking the energy used by various kettles and it's about 0.15KWh to boil a full kettle. So the energy generated by the solar panels would let us boil just over 70 kettles. If we say you get ten cups out of a kettle that gives us more like 700 cups of tea rather than the 900 I mentioned.

Of course all this depends on your kettle!

We can be much more certain about what these 11KWh are worth in terms of solar subsidy. The government will pay 43p for every 1KWh produced. The Council in Stoke hope a house could generate £500 a year in subsidy. That means the solar panels would pay for themselves in 12 years. Since it's claimed they will last for 25 years anything after that is pure (subsidised) profit.

Why such a large subsidy? Well the idea is to kick-start the solar industry in the UK. In Stoke although they import the panels themselves they hope to create work for local companies who will install and maintain them.

Despite some suggestions otherwise electricity company E.ON say if panels are installed now you will "lock-in" this 43p subsidy for the lifetime of the solar panels. For a council like Stoke that's a pretty good return.


11KWh of energy

Badgers and bovine TB

David Gregory | 17:35 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010

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Since we're talking about this story again on tonight's Midlands Today I think it's worth pointing you to this earlier blog which covers the latest science. As ever I'm very interested in what you think about this issue.

Should we save science?

David Gregory | 04:55 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

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Me deep in conversation at JParc

So is science special? Should it face cuts like everything else? Or does it have some sort of special status. We've spent the past few days in Japan looking at the culmination of a decade of work for the University of Warwick. A team there has spent 10 years designing and building a neutrino detector for a huge experiment designed to reveal some fundamental truths about the universe. The Warwick team are part of a collaboration between several UK institutions and many more internationally.

But there's no instant direct benefit to all this research. And compare cuts to this budget to protecting the winter fuel allowance and who wouldn't pick protecting the frail and elderly over finding some esoteric fact about why our reality is like it is?

And yet. Big science has been coping with cuts for quite some time now and not just in the UK. The University of Warwick detector is based here at JParc in Tokai about two hours north of Tokyo. At the moment the team from Warwick are installing their detectors because the entire lab is currently switched off. Partly this is to upgrade some parts of the machine that supplies the neturinos the Warwick experiment needs.

But it's also because turning off the machine saves on the Japanese electricity bill which has currently gone over budget.

And all around here you find examples of designs reused from places like CERN. In fact one of the massive magnets used by the team from Warwick was actually rescued from a car park at CERN. It was covered in snow at the time. This will be the third experiment to use this massive piece of technology.

So despite "big science" having a costly reputation, people are aware there just isn't the cash to go around. Once researcher told me this experiment was budgeted at £20m and in the end they got more like £15m. Which is less than some footballers are worth.

And it's important to say cuts to science budgets aren't new and indeed they aren't something unique to the Coallition Government either.

But Science Minister David Willetts told me last week at the British Science Festival in Birmingham that when he went to CERN he was "very concerned" about the budget overruns there. Now we learn CERN is to shut down completely in 2012 to save money.

The scientists I spoke to here argue they really have cut and chopped at these big projects as much as they can. What will get trimmed next will be people. You save money by letting go of experienced staff. And you just don't employ young scientists in the first place. It's a loss of experience and opportunity.

Because for every great science experiment, answering a question of no apparent relation to the real world, there's also a team of motivated, highly trained people who could go on eventually to improve all our lives in all sorts of ways.

So what do you think? Would you protect the science budget?

Big in Japan

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David Gregory | 13:53 UK time, Wednesday, 22 September 2010

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The nuclear research site at Tokei. Scene of many a Godzilla attack

If you want to reach for the Japanese cliches then they don't come much bigger than Godzilla. And I'm typing this at the Japanese atomic energy laboratory at Tokai which has been the site of a monster rampage or two in the famous movies.

The complex is a couple of hours north of Tokyo and has been home to at least four nuclear reactors. Alongside inspiring the monster movies this laboratory has also seen the growth of a thriving research community.

Today you'll find scientists not just working on atomic power. They are also exploring everything from biology to cutting edge particle physics. And that's why we're here to look at the vital role the University of Warwick plays as it tries to understand that most mysterious of particles, the neutrino. You can read more about that here.

But away from the science what is it like for a research group from the UK trying to work with Japanese research groups at a Japanese laboratory?

Well as we've discovered getting about and even getting yourself fed can be problematic. Together with my cameraman Kevin we were turned away from one restaurant by the owner. He kept shouting "No pizza!" at us and refused to let us through the door.

But for the most part, as that other Japanese cliche goes, people have been polite and helpful as we've struggled in the heat and humidity. Working here is a different matter though. Talking to a number of British scientists, it's apparent the Japanese expect much of them and don't take kindly to delays and problems.

Conversely the Japanese don't always want to admit to embarrassing problems they have had with the massive physics machines they have here. Preserving honour being another Japanese cliche of course.

Although we met some very senior Japanese people here, who would stress how well things were going, we also spent time with "shop floor" physicists. These guys were much more candid about the technical difficulties this lab has faced. For the British scientists in our group this was the first time they had learned some of the details of the problems which are having a knock on effect on their own work.

It's likely the University of Warwick and the other international researchers here on the T2K experiment at JParc wouldn't have been here at all if it hadn't been for a lack of cash on the Japanese side of things when this latest neutrino experiment was being set up. They needed to look for overseas partners to cover this shortfall. These days of course there's even less money around for everyone so there will be much more of this global science going on.

And for all the problems and the difficulties it's hard not to be impressed by what everyone has achieved here.

When I cover massive science experiments, people always ask me what the benefits are in our day to day lives? Well the internet as we know it today was a by-product of the research at CERN in Geneva. Here in Japan this experiment could give us better technology for medical scanners and a generation of highly trained scientists who could go on to improve our lives in all sorts of ways.

But it's also science for its own sake. This is what humanity it all about. Answering the very biggest questions about why we are here and why our universe is the way it is.

And of course, the other thing this lab gave us is Godzilla.

UPDATE Kevin and I have just realised this. The chap who shooed us away from his restaurant wasn't saying "no pizza!" he was saying "no picture". Many food places here often have famously lifelike plastic food outside or picture menus. For helpless lost Westerners a lot of smiling, bowing and pointing will get you what you want. But apparently not at this Narita eating place!

Science Festival. Day 3. Smelling something fishy!

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David Gregory | 15:37 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

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Don't forget you can take part in our online experiments by clicking here and find the full programme for the British Science Festival here.


Last night Jon Wood from Aston University unveiled "the world's greatest smell" to an audience at The Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham.

You can read my full report here. As it turns out this wasn't a lecture about smell at all. Instead it was a psychology experiment. Because in fact there was no smell. But despite this about a quarter of the audience still insisted they could sniff something.

The experiment is all about how we humans like to conform. Afterwards one of the audience was pretty dismissive of those people who fell for last night's "smell scam" calling them "sheep". But the truth is throughout human history most of us just don't want to stand out.

There are some classic studies to demonstrate this and perhaps the most famous are the Asch and the Milgram experiments. The Milgram experiment is actually pretty nasty. Subjects were convinced they were giving electric shocks to another person in an adjacent room. In fact there was no second person, instead the scientists were studying how far participants would go in obeying an authority figure. It's pretty unlikely any university ethics committee would allow you to put a volunteer through a similar study today.

So "the world's greatest smell" is a rather elegant experiment to follow on from that earlier research. It might leave people a bit embarrassed at being conned but nothing more.

That said we know at least 24 people in the audience thought they smelled something since they pressed the "yes" button on their voting keypad. But when we talked to people as they left the theatre only three were prepared to admit that they were taken in.

British Science Festival. Day Two. Love!

David Gregory | 16:56 UK time, Wednesday, 15 September 2010

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Heart

Day Two of the British Science Festival at Aston University and love is in the air. But first don't forget you can find our brilliant online science experiments here and you can see the full Festival programme here.

And so to love. Today we learn that the "cost" of falling in love is the loss of "two close friends." According to Professor Robin Dunbar, from Oxford University;

"When people are in a romantic relationship, instead of having the typical five inner circle friends on average they have only four."

Or could it be people with fewer friends are more likely to want to find love?

Tonight is the event so many of us have been looking forward to, Dr Petra Boynton on the (sold out!) "science of pulling" which is actually followed by a real speed dating event.

I met up with the good doctor this afternoon and she had this advice for those that can't make her talk. Especially when it comes to scientific sounding books about dating.


"All of this is explained mathematically or in terms of biology or in terms of evolutionary theory. But most people using these terms have no idea what they are talking about."

Instead of buying dating books she suggests just saying "hello" to a potential partner.

You can follow Dr Boynton on Twitter.

Unfortunately I won't be able to make her talk as I'll be filming another event. And we'll have more about that tomorrow...

British Science Festival. Day One. Blast Off!

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David Gregory | 11:01 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

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It's the first day of the British Science Festival at Aston University. You can find the full list of events here, including which are free and which charge. And also what sort of level each event is aimed at, from children to adults and from non-scientist to expert. And don't forget to click here to take part in our online experiments.

Here's a round up of the big stories coming out of the festival today. Proposals for a cannabis "licence" from Professor Roger Pertwee caught the attention of the tabloids and the broadsheets. According to the Professor;

'We have to have a car licence, we used to have a dog licence, so why not have a cannabis licence so you can only take it if it is medically safe to do so? That would exclude some people who are have a risk of becoming schizophrenic.'

In a blow to the writers of gritty crime dramas occupational psychologist Dr Craig Jackson called for a crack-down on "crackers" saying;

"Offender profiles of killers have never led to a murderer being caught."

Dr Jackson appealed for a more scientific approach with this important work;
"This is an appeal to use better science in this field otherwise it will go the same way as parapsychology, reading tea leaves or Tarot cards."
Finally Professor Gina Rippon who works in the field of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University has caused a huge stir by suggesting that the brains of men and woman just aren't that different. Plenty of interesting articles about this (all illustrated by pictures from Mad Men for some reason). But I'll draw your attention to this one by Cristina Odone in The Telegraph;


"Pity the scientist. Locked up in labs, handling vials full of toxic liquids, surrounded by white mice and white coats - no wonder she sometimes loses her common sense. This seems to be the case with Gina Rippon."

Ouch! Of course as my supervisor never tired of pointing out when I was a researcher "common sense" is just the label we apply to our own prejudices. Scientists work to get to the truth and know to avoid this elementary mistake. Not so journalists.

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