Wednesday, 18 October 2017

A Big Bang

Some of the world's volcanoes are a little twitchy at the moment and  experts say that the super one at Yellowstone in North America may be sooner than we think. For us that is OK, we will be all long gone.

But if two or three substantial ones were to go up in series in different places in the world the net effect could be substantial. The article below from ten years ago tells us of the major one of 1816, Mount Tambora, which had major effects in Europe.


Michael Sullivan, October 22, 2007.

The biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded in human history took place nearly 200 years ago on Sumbawa, an island in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago.  The volcano is called Tambora, and according to University of Rhode Island volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson, the eruption is one of the most overlooked in recorded history.

Tambora's explosion was 10 times bigger than Krakatoa and more than 100 times bigger than Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens. Approximately 100,000 died in its shadow.  "The eruption went up about 43 kilometers into the atmosphere.

That is about 30 miles — much higher than any airplane flying today — and emitting a volume that is about 100 cubic kilometers of molten rock in the form of ash and pumice," Sigurdsson says. "That volume is by far the largest volume of any volcanic eruption in life on earth."

Global Cooling

But it was the enormous cloud of gas — some 400 million tons of it — released by the eruption that produced the "year without summer."  When the gas reacted with water vapor in the atmosphere, it formed tiny little droplets of sulfuric acid that became suspended in the stratosphere, creating a veil over the Earth, Sigurdsson says.

This veil of gas acted like a mirror, bouncing radiation back into space and decreasing the amount of heat that reached the Earth's surface, causing global cooling, he says.  Of course, no one knew that at the time, and few people know about it even now. It wasn't until the early '80s, Sigurdsson says, that he caught the Tambora bug. In that decade, researchers taking core samples in Greenland's ice made an amazing discovery.

"You drill down through the ice, and you can count the rings just like in a tree. And people started doing research on the layers, and they found there was a whacking great sulfur concentration at one particular layer: 1816," Sigurdsson says.   "That was first evidence that Tambora had global reach … and that it was unstudied," he says, adding, "We needed to get much more info on what really happened here."

The Year Without Summer

The year after Tambora erupted, Europe was trying to cope with the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.  There was a mass demobilization of soldiers flooding into the labor market.

Patrick Webb, a dean at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science, describes the socio-political climate after the wars.  "You had economies disrupted, infrastructure damaged, governments in limbo," Webb says. "And so the conditions were already ripe for something to go wrong."  And something did go wrong in 1816, known as "the year without summer." Temperatures dropped, crops failed and people starved.

"Hundreds of thousands of people died. People were reduced to eating rats and fighting over roots," Webb says. "Most of these people were killed by epidemic disease, [such as] typhus and other things related to starvation. They simply couldn't find enough food."   In America, New Englanders saw snow well into the summer — the average temperature in July and August was 5 to 10 degrees below normal, according to Webb.

A Bad Vintage Year

Even the wine from 1816 was bad.  Alain Vauthier, who owns one of the oldest vineyards in Bordeaux, France, keeps a fair bit of wine from each vintage in the cellar. He has an impressive collection, which stretches back to the beginning of the 19th century, but there are only a few bottles from 1816. Vauthier says that's as it should be.

"It is not a good vintage," Vauthier says. "It is a bad time, bad weather, bad summer."  Daniel Lawton is the owner of Bordeaux's oldest wine brokerage house. His assessment of the 1816 vintage is even less charitable.  "Detestable, you understand? Horrible," Lawton says. "A quarter of the normal crop. Very difficult to make good wine. Just a terrible year." All of this was triggered by a volcanic eruption that happened on the other side of the world.

Reading the Layers of Earth

For more than two decades, Sigurdsson, the volcanologist, has been gathering information from the Indonesian island. His first trip to the volcano, Tambora, was in 1986, and his most recent trip was just a few months ago. His task is made easier, he says, by the scrupulous record keeping done by the earth itself. The layers of the soil on the island are not unlike the layers of ice in faraway Greenland.

"Each layer is like a page in a book. These layers are really a graphic representation of the eruption," Sigurdsson says. "They are drawing out for us, writing down for us, the history of the volcano. And they don't lie." 

While he was digging, Sigurdsson discovered something else: artifacts and remains carbonized when Tambora erupted. He calls his excavation site "The Lost Kingdom of Tambora" — a find he also refers to as "The Pompeii of the East."

"I have studied deposits in Pompeii and Herculaneum, from the great destruction of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. It's the same mode of destruction, the same mode of death. But [the] difference here is that the human remains are much more carbonized—almost entirely carbonized," Sigurdsson says.

"The bones are a piece of charcoal," he says. That tells scientists that it was a much bigger explosion — with much higher temperatures.  The explosion was hot enough to melt glass, and it happened so fast, Sigurdsson says, that people living on the island had no chance to escape. The carbonized remains of one woman recovered at the site confirm this.

"She is lying on her back with her hands outstretched. She is holding a machete or a big knife in one hand. There is a sarong over her shoulder. The sarong is totally carbonized, just like her bones," Sigurdsson says. "Her head is resting on the kitchen floor, just caught there instantly and blown over by the flow."

The Lessons of Tambora

All the big volcanic eruptions — Tambora, Krakatau, Pinatubo — have ended up cooling the Earth, causing temperatures to drop. And that, Sigurdsson says, has some people thinking about replicating the Tambora effect in an effort to slow global warming.

"People have proposed that we induce artificial volcanoes by bringing sulfur up into the stratosphere to produce this effect," Sigurdsson says.
But, he warns, "Do you want to counter one pollutant with another one? I don't think so. But that's been proposed."

Still, Sigurdsson thinks that lessons from eruptions like Tambora can be applied to models used to study global climate change. Global warming is viewed by many as the most pressing, most dangerous threat. But Sigurdsson warns that catastrophic climate change might come from an unexpected, yet familiar, direction.

"Somewhere on the Earth, within the next 1,000 years, there will be a comparable eruption. And we'd better be aware of the consequences," he says. He notes that another giant volcanic blast would release large amounts of gases, creating interference in the atmosphere that could cause major disruptions in telecommunications and aviation.


What just went bang?

Monday, 16 October 2017

Einstein Was Right

The big news today is that in the science of gravitational waves out there far away space has been warped by the collision of two  neutron stars.

It has taken 130 million news for the news to get here, so the dinosaurs missed out sadly. Also, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles did not carry the story.

Einstein suggested the possibility as this BBC Science News tells us. There is likely a lot more in the science of space, the deep past on earth and in our DNA to be found which reminds us of what a shoddy lot we are on the whole.

In the meantime the man who was to sort my TV out has gone off the radar. He was approaching the black hole of the Blackwall Tunnel in that strange universe called London when they lost trace of him.

Given that so much TV these days is known to be warped already it was only to be expected.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Colour Me Purple

A major aspect of our debates on many issues are those relating to race and the associated colours of skins. These are discussed often in relatively simple terms and assume differences or aspects that are often assumed or supported by either limited science or other evidence.

In the mean time the geneticists work on in their laboratories etc. trying to unpick the human story and year on year making advances in what is known and is evident in the DNA. This article deals with Africa and the Africans and suggests it may have been more complicated than we think.

There has been a long history of theorising about who humans are, where they came from and how they relate to one another. Our problem today is that we are carrying a lot of baggage from the past in the shape of ideas and assumptions that have not stood up to close DNA investigation.

What is a larger problem is the malign influences of some of these.

The trouble is that politically we are stuck with old ideas and opinions that influence policy and debate. Given the way this is going it could be that the science may be one of the casualties.

Call it the Copernicus Syndrome.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Free Beer For The Workers

The web today has sites saying that the Conservative Party is now the Soft Left while the Labour Party is becoming the Hard Left. Debating this could be complicated and it is either too early or too late in the day, or both.

The essence of these is that promises, promises are made that this, that,  or the other will be provided for all, most, some or a few "free". Which and what are the subjects of some shifty oratory but the idea is that you will get something for nothing.

At least what appears to be nothing to you. It may be that like the added extras which we are familiar with you will be paying but via a different route. As this might involve agencies, government departments or "services" it adds to the real cost, but this unlucky feature is never mentioned.

There is nothing new about this. The picture above is from a tablet of around 5,000 years ago in ancient Sumeria, as in Egypt, and deals with beer rations for the labouring class. Because it is old we might think it good, but I wonder what the beer was like and whether the workers might not have preferred some silver in the hand and a choice of better beers.

I recollect at a political meeting during an election in 1951 a local Layabout M.P. was asked the question of why the workers might not have free beer or at least cheap subsidised beer because of all the profits of brewing and the notorious wealth of the brewing families. This was a town then that still had an active Temperance Movement among the various congregations.

He was a barrister of some standing with a gift for words and the authority of a man who had spent quality time in the law courts and in the cabinet and government. More to the point a couple of the brewing families gave valuable financial support to the Labour Party by various means not apparent to the public albeit rather better known at Westminster.

A great deal hung on his answer, especially the size of his majority in a marginal constituency. He went into deep thoughtful mode and agreed with the questioner that is was a subject that needed examination and perhaps action. But then there were many issues and opinions. Perhaps a Royal Commission might consider it and make expert recommendations on which legislation could be made.

One of which was perhaps greater taxes on the brewers, offset by better regulation and allowances for reduced prices for their products. It would be nationalisation but under another name. This kept the party faithful happy. The State would take control of beer for the good of all.

He was lucky, the meeting had run late and the Caretaker was jingling his keys so we departed, some of us in a hurry. After all, it was getting close to closing time at the nearest pub's.

I was gasping for a quart or two of Everard's best.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

John Tusa And Old Memories

There are times when you find yourself in the past in unlikely ways. On Sunday 8th October at 6.45 on Radio 3 I was spooked by John Tusa, a well known person high in standing, see Wikipedia etc., telling a personal tale. Over sixty years ago our paths crossed.

He is a few days older, and did his National Service at the same time as I did before university. We were in the Army in Germany and he was down the road at Celle. We both went to the Hannover State Opera House in this period. I saw "La Boheme" and "The Flying Dutchman" but unlike John was limited by time and cost.

He mentioned during the programme his visit to Kiel and that it was on a military exercise. I recall that one and our crossing the Kiel Canal. Also, there was a brief comment about the countryside adjacent to the River Elbe. He omitted to mention that on the other bank then were the forward units of the Soviet Third Shock Army, ready for the off.

I spent some days there monitoring signals along with others from The Royals, recently Prince Harry's regiment and The Cameronians, Glasgow and The Gorbals own, throwing empty beer bottles at them. There were a lot of bottles.

I doubt that John did that. But below is the programme note of the BBC for the broadcast.


John Tusa revisits the provincial German towns where as a 19-year-old national serviceman he first discovered opera in 1955 and finds out why, 62 years on, it's still thriving there.

Back then, he was based in the centre of the country, at the garrison in Celle. None of his fellow officers seemed to think it at all unusual when John vanished off from time to time to spend an evening in nearby Hanover glorying, for example, in the Verdian climaxes of what was billed as "Die Macht des Schicksals".

Though only when the orchestra struck up the opening bars of The Force of Destiny overture did John realise what he'd booked seats for! From Hanover, it's a 300-mile round trip to Essen, in the much-bombed Ruhr valley, but to enjoy the wonders of Mozart's Idomeneo, or to travel to the far north of the country to have his first ever taste of Wagner, it was worth it...

More than 60 years on, original programme pages in hand, John retraces those journeys to find out what makes German opera, outside the great houses of Berlin and Munich, tick. Because tick it certainly does.

Along the way, John meets the current "Intendants" (directors) of all three houses, their artistic directors and house singers. Today, still, Germany counts its opera houses in the dozens - as many as 80 or 90 of varying sizes - most with an ultra-loyal public who are happy to pay not-many euros to enjoy often world-class singing and playing.

So what's the trick? And - in the Facebook age - is the audience of young people shrinking? And what are the houses doing to counter that? Oh, yes: and at Hanover, John enjoys the latest Forza del Destino, while in Essen, it's still Mozart (Clemenza di Tito in 2017), and in Kiel, he catches up with Wagner - The Valkyrie.


John was lucky having a prosperous family so he was far from typical at that place at that time. Also, a Royal Artillery officer, but was he at Div. HQ, perhaps with the CRA? When by the Elbe did he ever come across a crew of rough types and join them in telling the Soviet's he would be in Berlin within the month?

I think we should be told.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Are There Kippers Still For Tea?

Perhaps only Boris Johnson could do it? On a journey taking in Myanmar, long ago named Burma and looking at a temple he mutters out some half forgotten lines from a Rudyard Kipling poem to the horror of those whose vision of Empire is very different than that of the imperialists of old.

As mine is the generation that dumped out of Empire following on that of our parents who lived when it was at its peak and then lost most of it, for them Rudyard Kipling, 1865 to 1936, was of their parents and my grandparents generation.

Ian Jack in the Guardian points out that the poem "Mandalay" as well as referring to the Burma of his time also is about an ordinary British soldier. One apparently who would prefer to have been back in Burma with its ladies rather than in say Birmingham whose English females let us say were fat, flabby and filthy.

We should be thankful that Boris did not intone one or other of Kipling's other poems, in this context "The 'eathen" or "The Graveyard Of The Hundred Dead". Worse, he might have recalled the Bransby Williams take on the Kipling genre, "The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God"; the tale of Mad Carew.

Kipling had been born there, son of a Yorkshire artist cum Principal of a new Art College. Kipling, however, was sent to England for his education, returning in 1882. All in all he was in India for around only 20 years of his life, most of it as a journalist and writer.

One irony is that Boris's remarks tell us that some things have not changed since the time of Kipling. Another is that the issues are now with us among the peoples of the sub-continent who have moved here in the last half century. One may be that extensive cultural and ancestral differences and centralised high tax systems of government do not go together.

This would align with Kipling's own thinking. When the Fall of the Rupee was inflicting economic damage in India and the Treasury of India was faced with a serious deficit along with major famine, Auckland Colvin introduced income tax which Kipling satirised.

Upsetting Colvin could have been a sound reason for Kipling to leave India in 1889, returning only for a brief visit in 1891. Kipling, despite being a Nobel Prize Winner, is an author those fame and popularity are now long past. He has become that relative whom we do not care to mention.  Yet at the time his style and ability to tell the tale made him readable by all classes.

His vision of imperialism, "The White Man's Burden" meant imposing peace and sound government for the benefit of all by self sacrifice. But Kaiser Bill in Germany, who Kipling disliked, had his own ideas and World War One saw the beginning of the end for Imperialism, especially with the USA determined to break the British Empire.

After Kipling's death in 1936 it was ironic that the Labour Party had among its intellectual leaders men whose families had been prominent in the Raj and derived their ideas on central control, planning and government from the way it became in India in Kipling's time and after.

This they thought was the vision for ruling the British working class, the command of the economy as well as dismantling the Empire. But we have not forsaken the idea of the Burden and indeed it has been taken up by the USA, who took over much of the Empire.

How many interventions, invasions and other warlike or peaceful forays into other nations and territories have been made in the last half century?

One difficulty is more of a handicap, it is that our rulers who carry The Burden today are not persons of high noble ideals and belief living a dedicated life to benefit us all by their wisdom and abilities.

Our Mad Carew's are in corporate financial services, lobbyists and on the back benches on both sides of the House of Commons.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Three For Free

Just some notes for today.

Promises Promises

The university financial corporate sector has made major advances during the political conference season. Not only are all the parties afraid to say "boo" to these geese but they say they will chuck all the money they want in their direction, albeit much of it via students.

Has nobody realised that in the world of the 21st Century what undergraduates might do now as they set out into the world from school could be radically changed to benefit us all? The universities could revert to being essentially research and connected facilities for key areas.

If all left school at 17 to go into employment with major training and experience elements and this for the year round with just basic holidays, not only might they learn much more, they might become people aware of the realities of life, production, service and the rest.

And they might in fact be a lot happier.

Santa Lost In the Outback

It appears that Sky Sports engaged in a grim struggle for viewing figures want to screen a Premier League football match on Christmas Eve. This has caused protest with the result that Sky may well add a second game.

The main objection is that this shows contempt for the fans of the clubs, the players and many others. I shall be at my prayers.

Not just for Christmas, but for heavy snow earlier in the week.

And Another Thing

Ms. Theresa May had a bad coughing fit when giving her speech at the Conservative Party Conference. It proved to be something of a struggle to complete it. The question is why.

My bet is on Boris Johnson's deodorant. As a big man waist wise I suspect he might make heavy use of one or other of the more powerful products on the market.

Some of these could almost come in to the category of poisons given their contents. The fragrance ingredients do not need to be given. Many people are now affected.

See the new paperback by Kate Grenville, "The Case Against Fragrance", £12.99, Text Publishing Co.

If it helps Theresa, should Bojo be a major sprayer it will disrupt his endocrines.

One could only hope.