The Anonymous Widower

Something To Bragg About!

A few days ago, someone asked me about the overhead wires of a railway and the pantographs, that pick up the 25,000 Volts AC current.

I can’t remember what their question was, but I said it is a difficult problem, as a train like a Virgin Class 390 Pendelino might be travelling at 125 mph in bad weather, so maintaining contact with a constant pressure between the pantograph and the overhead wire isn’t easy.

I was reading something else and found this article on the Rail Engineer web site. Research has been going on at the City University to develop a sensor that monitors the forces at the pantograph head. As you can imagine it is a particularly harsh environment and the engineers have bean using a technology called a Fibre Bragg Grating (FBG) developed in the 1990s, based on the work by the Nobel Prize-winning scientists William Lawrence Bragg and his  father; William Henry Bragg.

I won’t paraphrase the article, but it is a must read. Where it will all lead to I don’t know, but I will repeat this last paragraph.

In the long term, the FBG sensor system offers the ability to detect contact forces from the entire service fleet if combined with GPS and suitable telemetry. This offers the potential of continuous real-time monitoring of the entire overhead line network. Then the Braggs’ work on X-ray diffraction of crystals a hundred years ago could well have made overhead line dewirements also a thing of the past.

Just imagine what it would mean to the operators of our increasingly electrified rail network, if delays caused by trains bringing down the overhead wires were to be reduced.

I’ve met people at Cambridge University for whom William Lawrence Bragg was their tutor and they have described him as a quiet man, who was superb in getting brilliant work out of the students, he tutored.

This tale illustrates why we must do more and more research and often that the solution to a difficult problem is unexpected, but brilliant.



August 17, 2015 Posted by | World | , , | Leave a comment

Sixty-Eight Today

At the date and time of my birth in 1947, thousands of people were being slaughtered in India and Pakistan. Only the area has moved slightly, but all across the world people are fighting over warped ideologies and religions. In a very long list, I’d include places like Belfast, Ferguson and Johannesburg.

It is so pointless. And one of the reasons, why I have no religious beliefs. The main reason, is probably that two branches of my family felt that coming to England was preferable to staying put and being annihilated, because they were the wrong and more successful religion. I can personally understand, wh we have a migrant problem.

I like to think I try to follow the best humanist principles common to most of the world’s great religions. Or at least those they tend to adhere to, when they are not mistreating those who disagree on the nature of God. She would not be amused!

I also believe in and follow the established rules of mathematics, medicine and science!

In the last few weeks, I  have been meaning to write something critical of the so-called Islamic State or as I prefer the Ultimate Men Behaving Badly Tendency.

Compared to others in the past they are certainly up there with the Nazis on the treatment of their opponents and minorities, but at least the Nazis preserved most art, even if they nicked it for themselves.

I doubt I’ll ever see a totally peaceful world, as in my view the only thing that will stop it, is when people see religion to be the way to exploit them, that I believe it is and science, engineering and medicine solves or mitigates the real problems we all face in this world, like war, poverty, hunger, disease and natural disasters, like floods, extreme weather and and earthquakes.

August 16, 2015 Posted by | World | , , | 1 Comment

Lottery Grants To Museums And Heritage

This article on the BBC web site details the grants to various museums and heritage organisations.

I am pleased that one local to me; the Geffyre Museum is getting a grant.

The Geffrye Museum in London, which specialises in the history of the English domestic interior, is being given £11m.

The funding will allow the development of a new entrance from Hoxton station, accessible spaces for the collections, library and archive, new learning facilities and a new cafe.

The second entrance from Hoxton station is to be welcomed and I hope they make sure that the cafe serves gluten-free offerings.

One thing I feel strongly about is that all lottery-funded attractions, should have good access for those like me, who can’t or don’t drive.

Obviously some on today’s list like the Geffryre and Science Museums and Lincoln Cathedral are accessible by rail, but this isn’t always the case.

Jodrell Bank is a place, I would like to visit, but on looking up travel  information on their web site, it has to be a taxi from the nearest stations. That is just not good enough and a real pity considering that Jodrell Bank lies virtually alongside the rail line between Manchester and Crewe.

Jodrell Bank And The Manchester-Crewe Railway

Jodrell Bank And The Manchester-Crewe Railway

A station would be expensive, but I’m certain that many European countries would have provided something better than expecting visitors to take a taxi, especially as the nearest station at Goostrey is only served by one train an hour. It would be interesting to see what would happen, if the service was twice an hour and there was a free shuttle bus to Jodrell Bank.

In my view anything that makes science more accessible and also puts Jodrell Bank on a sound financial footing is to be welcomed.

May 20, 2015 Posted by | Travel, World | , , , | 2 Comments

Progress Is A Lot Of Small Steps

In Liverpool University’s Insight magazine, there is an article entitled A Surprising New Use For Tofu Ingredient. The details are here on the University’s web site, This is the first paragraph.

The chemical used to make tofu and bath salts could also replace a highly toxic and expensive substance used to make solar cells, a University study published in the journal Nature has revealed.

It appears that a researcher has found that you can replace expensive and highly toxic cadium chloride in solar cells with cheap and safe magnesium chloride.

Small developments like this make me think that the day when I fit solar panels to my flat roof a bit closer.



December 5, 2014 Posted by | World | , , | Leave a comment

How Chemistry Overcame Politics

I sometimes describe myself as an engineer/scientist, despite the fact that I made most of my money by programming computers.

So this morning, this article entitled Thatcher and Hodgkin: How chemistry overcame politics,  on the BBC’s web site caught my eye. Here’s the introduction.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dorothy Hodgkin’s Nobel Prize, a play – The Chemistry Between Them – has been written, looking at her friendship with Margaret Thatcher. Its creator Adam Ganz describes their ongoing mutual respect.

Whether you love or hate Margaret Thatcher, you must read the article about the relationship between two of the most influential British women of the twentieth century. There is this significant paragraph.

It’s a peculiar fact that the UK’s Margaret Thatcher and Germany’s Angela Merkel both studied science at university, yet no male leader of either country has had a science degree.

Is the lack of scientific knowledge amongst world leaders the reason, why the world is in such a mess?

I shall be listening to the play on Radio 4.

As regards the play, I can’t think of a serious play or film, with the exception of The Killing of Sister George and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, that has two female leads and no significant male parts.

August 19, 2014 Posted by | World | , , , , | Leave a comment

Could This Be The Key To Hydrogen Power?

Jerry Woodall has form as a scientist and inventor as he developed the first commercially-viable red LEDs that we see in car brake lights and traffic signals.

Last night I was searching for something else and came across this video on YouTube. This is the description to go with the video.

The actual process: gallium and aluminum combining, add water. stir – bubbles of hydrogen with only white aluminum oxide. as demonstrated by John Woodall – Jerry M. Woodall, National Medal of Technology Laureate, Distinguished Professor of School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette.

To put it simply, you add water to aluminium doped with gallium and the aluminium combines with the oxygen in the water and the hydrogen is released. The hydrogen can then be used to power a small engine.

There’s more description here on

It’s early days yet, but could this simple process be the key to hydrogen power?

I always remember in the Electrical Engineering Department at Liverpool University in the 1960s, we were shown one of the first lasers.  In some ways then, it was just a scientific curiosity and people were speculating about how they could be used. Now everybody has at least one, if they have a CD player. Many people reading this will be navigating the Internet using a laser mouse, as in fact I am with a Logitech M525.

It may not use Jerry Woodall’s invention, but at some time in the future, you’ll just put water in the fuel tank of your car and just drive away, emitting nothing more than water vapour.

There are many problems to solve, but the internal combustion engine will be here hundreds of years from now.


July 20, 2014 Posted by | World | , , | Leave a comment

The Milan Science Museum

This science museum, made ours in South Kensington seem particularly narrow in scope, very small and boring.

They also had no objections to the taking of pictures, providing you switched the flash off.

It was very busy with families and lots of kids.

One of the great things about a lot of Italian museums, is they seem to open early, unlike in some countries like Denmark.

October 13, 2013 Posted by | World | , , , , | Leave a comment

Voyager Has Boldly Gone

In the past week or so, the Voyager-1 space probe has left the solar system. The story is reported here on the BBC.

The probe is expected to still be transmitting data back to earth until possibly 2025.

Who said that 1960s technology wasn’t any good and thoroughly unreliable?

September 24, 2013 Posted by | World | , , | Leave a comment

Wheatstone Remembered

As I passed Kings College by the Aldwych yesterday, I passed this tribute to Charles Wheatstone.

Wheatstone Remembered

Wheatstone Remembered

He was one of the more unusual scientists this country has ever produced and was a true scientist and inventor.

August 26, 2013 Posted by | World | , , | Leave a comment

Happy Hundredth Birthday To Isotopes

I was having a cup of tea in a cafe, when the geologist I was talking to, said that isotopes, were first discovered a hundred years ago, and that there was a bit of a celebration.

I learned about isotopes in my physics many years ago, but now all that I seem to remember is that two isotopes of the same element, have the same numbers of electrons and protons, but differ in the number of neutrons. Carbon for example has three forms, Carbon 12, Carbon 13 and Carbon 14. The three forms all contain six protons and electrons, but 6, 7 and 8 neutrons respectively. If you ever have heard of the Carbon 14 dating of objects, there is an article here, which describes the process.

I used the different isotopes many years ago, in one of the first pieces of decent software I wrote.  I was trying to analyse the compounds in the output of a mass spectrometer. The samples contained lots of carbon compounds and I was told that the two common isotopes of Carbon 12 and Carbon 13, were in the ratio of ten to one, which meant that if you had a compound with several carbon atoms, you got a particular pattern. Experienced operators could identify the patterns.  So I worked out how to calculate the patterns and match them to the compounds.

So that is how I learned about one of the uses of isotopes in the analysis of compounds.

This was in 1969 and the mechanics of writing the program on a machine with only 4 Kb of memory, were much more difficult than the methods involved.

June 26, 2013 Posted by | Computing, World | , | Leave a comment


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