Archive for July 2, 2009

Hot in Town

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 2, 2009 by telescoper

After a fun but frantic few days in the big city I’ve now escaped back to the relative cool of Cardiff. The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition appears to be going very well, but my part in it has come to an end. The rest of the team will have the joy of continuing for the rest of the week and then dismantling the exhibit and returning with it at the weekend.

The exhibition proper started on Tuesday and our stand was drawing a lot of visitors right from the word go. That’s partly because we had a very good spot, right near the entrance, but we also had a bit of  coverage on the BBC News which might have helped. Inside the building we attracted quite a lot of people to our stand because we were showing infrared images on a large flatscreen monitor of people as they walked past. That seemed to draw people in large numbers to the other parts of the exhibit which was, after all, the purpose of it.

People look quite strange in the infra-red. Here’s an example:


That’s me. The calibration scale to the right is in Celsius: hot is white (37) or yellow and cold is blue or black (26). Red is in the middle, around 30 Celsius. Different people seem to have different hot spots and cold spots: most  appear to have cooler ears and lips compared to the rest of their faces, but noses vary considerably in temperature.

There was only one potentially embarrassing moment, when a group of teenage lads wandered in front of the camera. Apparently, a certain type of mens’ underwear has very high emissivity around 10 microns. I just happened to glance up at the monitor and noticed a prominent hotspot just in time to tilt the camera up before anyone else noticed. Thereafter we kept it focussed above waist level just in case…

After my shift on Tuesday I had to nip back on the tube to my temporary lodgings, shower, change into my dinner jacket and black tie, and then return to the Royal Society for the much-anticipated Soirée. Taking the tube turned out to be a mistake. The heatwave currently gripping London has turned the underground system into something resembling the inside of an oven, so I decided to walk back rather than melt again when I’d got changed. I drew a few strange looks walking through Soho in my glad rags, but at least it was cooler at street level than on the Underground.

The evening occasion  turned out to be very busy too. To my surprise, it wasn’t just champagne and posh nibbles: a substantial meal was on offer in a marquee at the back of the Royal Society building. However, there were large crowds moving through the exhibition and we only had six people on the exhibit. We therefore staggered our trips to the grub tent making sure there was always someone at the exhibit to deal with the invited guests. By the time my turn came round it was 9.30 and the whole thing closed at 10.00. I still had time for a good nosh-up and a couple of glasses of wine, though, so all was well.

At the exhibit there was a steady supply of champagne and VIP guests. Lots of Lords and Ladies and other bigwigs,  but I hadn’t the faintest idea who most of them were. These are all the kind of people who assume that everyone on the planet (a) knows who they are and (b) is impressed to have the opportunity to meet them. Being surrounded by such a sea of effortless superiority is quite intimidating but, fortunately, there were also some familiar faces who stopped by and appeared interested. The noted biologist Steve Jones dropped by, and had his picture taken in the infrared, as did John Polkinghorne. I had met Polkinghorne before not long ago, but he clearly didn’t remember me at all.

“Medals may be worn” was one of the instructions, but I had neglected to bring  my cycling proficiency badge.