Archive for October 11, 2011

Welsh Testament

Posted in Poetry with tags , on October 11, 2011 by telescoper

The video recalls the snows of last winter but the poem, read by the poet R.S. Thomas, is deeper still…

All right, I was Welsh. Does it matter?
I spoke a tongue that was passed on
To me in the place I happened to be,
A place huddled between grey walls
Of cloud for at least half the year.
My word for heaven was not yours.
The word for hell had a sharp edge
Put on it by the hand of the wind
Honing, honing with a shrill sound
Day and night. Nothing that Glyn Dwr
Knew was armour against the rain’s
Missiles. What was descent from him?

Even God had a Welsh name:
We spoke to him in the old language;
He was to have a peculiar care
For the Welsh people. History showed us
He was too big to be nailed to the wall
Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him
Between the boards of a black book.

Yet men sought us despite this.
My high cheek-bones, my length of skull
Drew them as to a rare portrait
By a dead master. I saw them stare
From their long cars, as I passed knee-deep
In ewes and wethers. I saw them stand
By the thorn hedges, watching me string
The far flocks on a shrill whistle.
And always there was their eyes’ strong
Pressure on me: You are Welsh, they said;
Speak to us so; keep your fields free
Of the smell of petrol, the loud roar
Of hot tractors; we must have peace
And quietness.

Is a museum
Peace? I asked. Am I the keeper
Of the heart’s relics, blowing the dust
In my own eyes? I am a man;
I never wanted the drab role
Life assigned me, an actor playing
To the past’s audience upon a stage
Of earth and stone; the absurd label
Of birth, of race hanging askew
About my shoulders. I was in prison
Until you came; your voice was a key
Turning in the enormous lock
Of hopelessness. Did the door open
To let me out or yourselves in?


Einstein and your Gas Bill

Posted in History, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 11, 2011 by telescoper

Taking refuge in my office this lunchtime for a sandwich and a cup of coffee I turned to the latest edition of Physics World and came across an funny little story about a physicist (who is completely new to me) with the splendid name of Fritz Hasenöhrl.

The news story relates to a paper on the arXiv, part of the abstract of which I’ve copied below:

In 1904 Austrian physicist Fritz Hasenohrl (1874-1915) examined blackbody radiation in a reflecting cavity. By calculating the work necessary to keep the cavity moving at a constant velocity against the radiation pressure he concluded that to a moving observer the energy of the radiation would appear to increase by an amount E=(3/8)mc^2, which in early 1905 he corrected to E=(3/4)mc^2

Since I’ve been doing a bit of dimensional analysis with first-year students, I’m a bit surprised that the authors of this paper read so much into the fact that Hasenöhrl’s formula bears a superficial resemblance to Einstein’s most famous formula E=mc^2, probably the best known and at the same time worst understood equation in physics. In fact any physicist worth his or her salt no matter how incorrect their reasoning would have to get something like E =\alpha mc^2, with \alpha some dimensionless number, simply because the answer has to have the correct dimensions to be an energy.

Expressing energy in terms of the basic dimensions mass M, length L and time T is probability easiest to do when you think of mechanical work (force×distance). Since Newton’s laws give a force equal to mass×acceleration, a force has dimensions MLT^{-2}, so work (a form of energy) has dimensions ML^{2}T^{-2}. Now try to make this out of a combination of a mass (M) and a velocity (LT^{-1}) and you’ll find that it has to be mass×velocity2. You can’t get the dimensionless constant this way, but the combination of m and c must be the way it is in Einstein’s formula.

Anyway, all this suddenly reminded me of a day long ago when I appeared on peak-time television in the consumer affairs programme Watchdog, explaining – or, rather, attempting to explain – the physics behind the way gas bills are calculated. Apparently someone had written in to the programme asking why it was that they weren’t just being charged for the volume of gas that had flowed through their meter, but that the cost involved a complicated calculation involving something called the calorific value of the gas.

The answer is fairly obvious, actually. The idea is that to make competition fairer between different forms of energy (particularly gas and electricity) the bills should be for the amount of energy you have used rather than the amount of gas. Since the source of fuel varies from day to day so does its chemical composition and hence the amount of energy that can be extracted from it when it is burned. Gas companies therefore monitor the calorific value, using it to convert the amount of gas you have used into an amount of energy.

On the programme I was confronted by the curmudgeonly Edward Enfield (father of comedian Harry Enfield) who took the line that it was all unnecessarily complicated and that the bill should just be for the amount of gas used, rather in the same way that petrol is sold. When I tried to explain that the way it was done was really fairer, because  it was really the energy that mattered, it quickly became obvious that he didn’t really understand what energy was or how it was defined.  He didn’t even get the difference between energy and power. I suspect that goes for many members of the general public.

It was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I enjoyed the sparring. Eventually he came out with a question about why energy was given by E=mc^2 rather than mc^3 or something else. So I launched into an explanation of dimensional analysis and why mc^3 couldn’t be an energy because it has the wrong dimensions. His eyes glazed over. The shoot ended. My splendidly erudite and logically rigorous exposition of dimensional analysis never made it into the broadcast programme.

My brief career on BBC1 was over.