A Driving Instructor's Blog

Nature

Once upon a time, you could watch a BBC science documentary in the comfortable knowledge that it was written by scientists, and checked by scientists. The dialogue may have been presented by a famous suit, but the words would be kosher and relevant to the subject in question. All the visual stuff would also be relevant – no pointless fillers.BBC nitrogen graphic

Now let’s skip forward a few decades to this article I saw on the BBC website today. And this is the World Service we’re talking about – another thing which was once considered an Oracle throughout the World. The title itself is bad enough:

Nitrogen: The bringer of life and death

This is misleading. Nitrogen itself is not poisonous, although that title would obviously imply that it is to any of the target audience. Humans need oxygen to survive, and it they don’t get it – in other words, breathe ANY pure inert gas that doesn’t have oxygen mixed in with it – they will suffocate and die. Even breathing pure oxygen for long periods is dangerous to most animals on earth.

Then there is the graphic, shown above. The introductory paragraph trumpets:

And yet this colourless, odourless gas, making up 78% of the atmosphere, has a highly explosive nature.

Nitrogen is not explosive – another conclusion the average reader will draw from this nonsense. It is relatively unreactive, though not actually inert, and it is its compounds which are explosive – and even then, only some of them (and not just because of nitrogen, either). The article mentions nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene (TNT). The molecules of these two look like this:Nitroglycerin and TNT molecules

Years ago, this is what they would have shown you on any TV – or online, had it been available – show. But not any more. Nowadays, it’s puerile and inaccurate analogies that are used instead.

It’s worth pointing out that both od these molecules also contain carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. In fact, nitrogen only accounts for about 19% of both in terms of their respective molar masses. Oxygen accounts for much more in nitroglycerin, and both oxygen and carbon account for more in TNT.

It is the extreme stability of nitrogen in its molecular state (N2) which partly accounts for the explosive nature of some of those compounds. In the case of TNT, other by-products include CO and CO2 and both of these are also stable. In the case of nitroglycerin, the -NO2 groups act as powerful oxidisers and by-products of combustion are N2, CO2, CO, H2, and O2 – the stability of all of these contributes to the explosive nature of the material. Going even further, the explosion of nitroglycerin is represented by this equation:

             4 C3H5(ONO2)3(l) —> 12 CO2(g) + 10 H2O(g) + 6 N2(g) + O2(g)

There’s a lot more CO2 and H2 produced than there is N2. The article also refers to both TNT and nitroglycerin as “solids” when nitroglycerin is actually an oily liquid. Furthermore, compounds with nitro (-NO2) groups are rare in nature, but they do exist – and they’re not explosive.

The whole article leaps from one thing to another without properly explaining any of them. It talks as if nitrogen is the limiting element in plant growth, when in fact this role could equally be (and usually is) assigned to phosphorus. It just seems that the whole story begins with a premise and merely sets out to confirm that premise at all costs.

Share

You have to laugh. I heard this on the radio today – and before anyone starts, it’s funny because no one got hurt, and you couldn’t write a better comedy script if you tried.

A woman was driving through the lions’ enclosure at Longleat Safari Park when her car caught fire!

What makes it funnier was that as she tried to get out, rangers were shouting at her to get back in. I suppose it was to give them time to get the lions out of the way, otherwise it could have been a lot worse. According to one witness, the lions watched the entire show from a respectable distance.

Share

You’ve probably seen the news this week about two cases of TB being caught from cats. I suspect that the cleaners at the Daily Mail and The Sun’s headquarters had to clean a lot of urine-soaked carpets this week, as the entire workforce at both establishments probably pissed itself at this brand new opportunity to scaremonger over something.

In fact, The Sun has already started. It managed to dig up a story about dog infecting a human with TB. Since The Sun is no longer free online, I’ll include a link to an alternative version from the Daily Mirror. You will note the wording which allows a timeframe to be surmised:

A child has been diagnosed with tuberculosis after catching it from a family dog.

The pet has now been put down after giving the child the lung disease at a house in Gloucestershire.

The child, aged under ten, has now made a full recovery, according to the Sun.

This is scaremongering at its most pathetic, and the incident appears completely unconnected with the two cat cases. None of the various stories (this one is in the Mail) says when the dog-child case occurred, though normal TB treatment lasts typically between 6-12 months (in serious cases, for up to 2 years) and if the child in question is “fully recovered”, infection must have occurred at the end of last summer at the latest. However, it does establish the fact – if it wasn’t already widely known – that TB can be transmitted from badgers to dogs (and cattle), and then from dogs (and cattle) to the kind of people who are then most likely to put the dogs (or cattle) in their mouths. Oh, and vice versa, because there are historical documented cases of dogs apparently catching TB from humans. There is no reason to assume that it couldn’t miss out the cattle stage and go straight from badger-to-human, and since almost ANY mammal can carry TB it doesn’t take a giant leap of your imagination to see it being transmitted directly from pets. Vets were warning of it a year ago.Garfield Sneezing (large)

If we look at the recent cat incidents that have resulted in human infection, they are from a cluster of nine cases of feline TB identified last year in Berkshire and Hampshire. To get a full picture of what was going on you really do have to read the the right source – one which sees value in scooping a dramatic chat with the “victims” – because it’s only then that you realise that if someone is as soft as a sack of monkeys they would have the cat up to their face a lot of the time (I like cats, and it’s what I’D do if I still had one, and from what I remember if you forget to rub your face against your cat, the cat will come and rub itself against your face to remind you). The stories attempt to blame cleaning an open wound on one cat as the route of transmission, but I’m not prepared to dismiss the in-your-face route that easily. It’s pretty obvious that if a cat had TB there is no reason why it wouldn’t pass this on to a human who was rubbing it with their nose! The cat involved died from the illness. It was a rescue cat and was already unwell.

Regular TB in humans is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis (abbreviated M. tuberculosis). Mycobacterium bovis (or M. bovis) is the bacterium that causes TB in cattle, and which is carried by badgers and many other mammals – so many mammals, in fact, that the list includes humans. M. Bovis is the type of TB involved in these pet-human cases. According to Public Health England around 6% of TB deaths are attributable to M. bovis.

It is also worth noting that seven of the nine cats found to be positive for M. Bovis had bite and scratch wounds consistent with fighting with badgers, according to Carl Gorman – the vet who alerted authorities to the outbreak in Berkshire. He also said he believed that an outbreak in local herd of cattle was to blame. All nine cats lived within a three-mile radius, and six of them within 250 yards of each other. There’s nothing sinister involved, and it is certainly not “a mystery”, as suggested by one cat owner who had to have her cat put down. It is rare, but around 25 cats are nonetheless found to have contracted TB every year in Britain.

The two cat incidents are the first documented cases of cat-to-human transmission. There’s no reason to assume it hasn’t happened before, or that it won’t happen again. The apparently unrelated dog-to-human case proves that.

Both Public Health England and Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories have assessed the risk to the public as VERY LOW. But I doubt that this will stop our gutter press from pretending otherwise. Remember that almost five years ago to the day we were all going to die of swine flu. A couple of years before that, avian flu was going to kill us all. They never give up, and I wonder how long it will be before some prat starts talking about culling cats.

Share

One of the more popular stories on the blog is the one (well, several) about giant rats. I noticed another surge in hits, and this recent story on the BBC is probably why.Swedish Giant Rat

It would appear that a rat weighing around 1kg chewed through concrete and wood to gain entry into a Stockholm kitchen, whereupon it traumatised the human and feline inhabitants for several days until it was finally caught in a giant mousetrap.

As you can see from the photo, it was bloody huge – and unlike the British examples, it really does look like a proper rat. Mind you, yet again something which is such a scientific curiosity that it should be on display in a museum has been destroyed and cannot therefore be verified.

Note the nonsense at the end of the article. There is no scientific evidence that rats are getting bigger – and yet scientists “believe” that they could eventually grow to the size of sheep and weigh nearly 13 stones.

Share

When the Somerset Levels got flooded, government response was low-key and sluggish. Now that the “beloved” Thames is brimming over – though not to anything like the extent of rivers down in Somerset – that jackass Cameron is walking around trumpeting that “money is no object”. Funny how it was an object two weeks ago, when Lord Smith said there wasn’t a bottomless purse. But hey, as I said: it’s the Thames, now. So it’s personal.

The media is even publishing photos showing a few centimetres of water in the gardens of multi-million pound properties along the Thames (this one is in Wraysbury).Wraysbury flooding

Meanwhile, in Somerset, many properties are literally waist deep in water (as shown in this picture). Guess where this suggests the money ought to be spent.Somerset flooding

To make matters worse, the Environment Agency has had to withdraw staff from Wraysbury because the local morons with the collective IQ of a tadpole decided to direct abuse and intimidation at EA workers.

It’s not clear what form this abuse took, but it appears to have been of a physical nature.

Let’s get a few things straight, here. I absolutely detest this government, but there is nothing it – or any of its agencies – could have done to avoid these floods.

No amount of dredging would have prevented the Somerset flooding. And the flooding on the Thames has bugger all to do with anything. It’s just shit that happens, as the saying goes. Let’s face it: if you’re going to spend the money you made being a plumber buying a semi-mansion next to a big river to park your white van outside of, you’re partly responsible if it gets flooded out. Floods happen. Especially near rivers.

Apart from the fact that a lot of water has fallen, by far the biggest problem is idiot councils building on flood plains and creating extra run-off. But quite how significant even this is isn’t known.

Share

The reason I ask that is because of this BBC news item about the recent bad weather.

You see, this winter has been really mild, which is in stark contrast to the last two or three, which have been very cold with a lot of snow. Until a couple of years ago, you had to go back to the 1980s to find a winter where snow even settled, let alone hung around for more than a few days, and before that it was the early 1970s. Then there were the summers. A few years ago we had one of the wettest on record, with huge downpours, thunderstorms, and localised flooding. Not long before that we had some very warm summers, but that didn’t stop the “scientists” telling us that that was the end of the sun for the next generation or so as recently as last spring, which started later than usual.

That’s right. We mustn’t forget that only last June the Met Office was telling us that there’d be no summers for at least a decade. Within a few weeks temperatures had soared, and in the end the Met Office statistics showed it to be the “warmest, driest, and sunniest summer since 2006”. In fact, the statistics don’t do it justice, because the warm weather ran all the way from June until at least September. I don’t think I actually slept under blankets for that entire period. Even now – in early 2014 – we’re effectively still experiencing the same heat wave – just turned down a few notches for the winter months.

The Met Office has a history of making highly inaccurate predictions. There was the legendary 1987 forecast, where Michael Fish said there wasn’t a hurricane on the way, but which saw the worst storm for 300 years pounding the South East, with record damage and 19 dead. The Met Office completely failed to predict the severity of that storm. Then there was the infamous “barbecue summer” forecast in 2009, where summer actually turned out to be one of the wettest on record. It was the third summer in succession where the Met Office had got it absolutely wrong, and as a result it no longer issues long range forecasts. And back then, they were blaming the El Nino Effect. No one predicted the late spring last year, nor did they predict the prolonged heat wave or the wet weather experienced so far this year. And don’t forget that as recently as April 2012 we were in a drought which was forecast to “last until Christmas” (it began in 2010).

So it came as a bit of a surprise that the Met Office has someone it refers to as a “chief scientist”, and who – in the face of the examples I gave above – can come out with nonsense like this:

Dame Julia Slingo [the alleged “chief scientist”] said the variable UK climate meant there was “no definitive answer” to what caused the storms.

“But all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change,” she added.

“There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

It’s rubbish! Scientists cannot agree on what’s going on, and when you strip away the hype you’re just left with some weather. And by hype, I mean idiotic numbers like this:

More than 130 severe flood warnings – indicating a threat to life – have been issued since December. In contrast, there were only nine in the whole of 2012.

That is unscientific and meaningless. And in the story, Slingo says that the UK has seen the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years”. Another useless statistic when you consider that the 1987 storm was the “worst for 300 years”.

In fact, it is quite easy to get hold of the raw data concerning rainfall since 1845 for the UK. And if you plot it on a graph, this is what you get. First of all, the winter rainfall expressed as a percentage of the mean for the entire period:

Winter rainfall since 1845

And this one is the summer rainfall expressed in the same way:Summer rainfall since 1845

For the winter graph, the trend is virtually flat since 1909 (winters appear to have been very slightly drier on average before that). It’s only when you go back as far as 1865 that you can say the average rainfall for winter has increased. For the summer graph, the trend is slightly downwards all the way through (i.e. summers tend to be a bit drier now than they were at the turn of the 20th century).

To listen to Slingo and most other meteorologists, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there was a sharp upward trend. In fact, there is absolutely nothing of the sort. For every peak, there is an earlier and a later trough – but if you just focus on the last peak at any point in time you could fool yourself into arguing that the trend is upwards. I suspect this is what Slingo and other pseudo-scientists are very adept at doing, and they have the media to propagate their myths.

Another thing is that when you look at data by region, in any given year you might find one area (e.g. Wales) which has much more than the average rainfall, and yet in another area (e.g. Scotland or England) the rainfall is at or below the average.  And if you go into even finer detail, and look at individual weather stations, you might find that over any given period one station has recorded a monsoon, whereas one a few tens of miles away has only picked up a fraction of the rainfall. Indeed, this dramatic variation occurs on all scales – town to town, country to country, and continent to continent.

No one is denying that the people in Somerset have got it rough at the moment (though they’d better prepare to slip into the background again, now that the Thames is flooding). But all you have to do is look at historical floods in the UK and you see that in spite of the rhetoric (“the worst in living memory”), there are various examples from the last century or so involving British cities and towns (and those are just the dramatic ones).

All of this convinces me that meteorology isn’t a science, since those who claim to be meteorologists certainly don’t seem to behave scientifically.

Share

I came in from work tonight and switched on the TV. BBC 2 was showing Nature’s Weirdest Events – some stuff about dolphins swimming with whales, cats raising ducks and hedgehogs, walking catfish, weird noises in the sky in Canada, and so on. But the part that really piqued my interest was the trailer for next week. It showed a lobster which was two different colours either side of a perfect line right down the middle of its body.

I just had to look that one up, and I came across this article. You’ll note how this lobster was caught in Felix Cove, Newfoundland and is a distinct blue one side, and reddish brown the other. It is classed as “extremely rare”. Other than explaining that it is a gynandromorph – both male and female – the article is only about 35 words long and not very informative.Bi-coloured Lobsters

To try and get more information, I found another article. This one was caught in Dyer’s Bay, Maine, and is black on one side, and orange on the other. The article says the odds of finding one are 50 million to 1. Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. A local oceanarium said it has only seen three such bi-coloured lobsters in 35 years. No mention is made of it being a gynandromorph – this time it is explained that each half of a lobster develops separately and this specimen is missing blue pigmentation on one side.

The two articles obviously referred to different lobsters (they’re different sizes), so I searched some more. I then found this one which was pulled up in Digby County, off Nova Scotia. It’s a similar colour to the second example, though not the same one if the locations, dates, and names are anything to go by. Nova Scotia isn’t that far from Maine in fishing terms.

Then there was this one – different date, similar colour – pulled up off the New England coast (of which Maine is part). In fact, there are loads of examples. There’s even a 1959 book/research paper which discusses the phenomenon.

So, not quite as rare or unusual as is suggested either by the BBC or some of the finders or article writers.

Share

This post is well past its sell by date now, and its original purpose is long lost. So I’m going to make it a bit more scientific.


Animals which are contenders for having the fastest reactions:

  • The Mantis Shrimp – it can move its front legs so fast and with such power that it can stun small fish and even break into crab shells or damage aquariums.
  • Anna’s Hummingbird – can dive at speeds of 89 feet per second (around 60mph)
  • The Black Marlin – clocked indirectly at 83mph

Speed is relative, though. A small mite in America, Paratarsotomus macropalpis, can run 322 body lengths per second. It’s only 0.7mm long, but it equates to a human running at 1,300mph.

Share