Saturday, 27 June 2015

Leap Second

Unbeknownst to most of us there are a bunch of clever people out there, many of them at NASA, who carefully look after our time for us. We're all aware, hopefully, that every four years, with some exceptions, we have an extra day added to the year in the form of February 29th. This is because the time it takes the earth to orbit the sun is actually nearer 365.25 days than plain old 365. Nothing too complicated about that.

However, the time it takes the earth to spin around its axis is not precisely 24 hours, or 86,400 seconds; it's more like 86,400.002 seconds. What complicates things, though, is that it isn't always that long, it varies, and no one can predict how long it will be in the future. This is because plate tectonics, the movement of the major landmasses around the surface of the earth, and weather patterns can all have an effect and both of these are inherently unpredictable.

The main reason that days are longer, and generally getting longer still, than they used to be is that the moon is constantly tugging on the earth. Its gravity pulls and drags the oceans over the surface of the planet; this gives us tides but that friction of the water moving over the earth also slows our rotation down. In a very, very, very, very long time the earth will stop rotating with respect to the moon and our lunar companion will only ever be visible from half of the planet. Like I said, though, we're talking a long time until this happens, billions of years, indeed some people say it will never happen as our oceans will have long evaporated away by then and the planet will be all but a dead rock so, y'know, don't panic or anything.

None of this would make a blind bit of difference to our lives if it wasn't for the fact that little things like the internet and the financial sector all run on software in which good time keeping is critical. These systems tend to run on atomic time, the time as measured by the insane accuracy of modern atomic clocks which work by measuring the vibrations of caesium atoms and such. These modern clocks, which look nothing like clocks, are accurate to about 1 second in a billion years or so; the earth itself is not nearly so reliable a time keeper and so atomic time and astronomical time slowly drift apart. When the difference gets to about 0.9 seconds the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service will make a recommendation to the International Telecommunications Union, who's final decision it is, to add an additional second.

Which brings me back to those clever folk at NASA. They are some of the people who, using radio telescopes and quasars, can precisely measure just how long our day has been with a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry. You can see a nice little cartoon from NASA below where they pithily explain exactly how that works. All of which just leaves one question: what to do with that extra second on Tuesday night?

Brick Lane By Night

Last Saturday night I joined up with the people from London Photo Walk to go on an all night solstice walk. We covered about 23km over 11hrs or so. It was a long but extremely rewarding night and I look forward to doing it again next year.

graffiti, street art, east london, brick lane, urban, black and white, colour pop, long exposure, light trail

Given that this took place all through the night exposures were all very long, generally 15-30 seconds. It was also quite difficult to even know exactly what you were pointing your lens at as it was so dark in some of the back alleys and so composition wasn't always straightforward. This meant that over the 11hrs I only took about 100 photos; but there was a definite benefit to this. It was a bit like shooting with film, you were forced to put a lot more thought into what you were doing. If you pressed the shutter at the wrong time then you wasted half a minute of your life, which may not sound like much but it is quite the motivator when the wind is blowing at three in the morning.

graffiti, street art, east london, brick lane, urban, long exposure, fox, neon

As I said, we covered a lot of ground that night but the four photos in this post are all from the ever fascinating Brick Lane; one of my favourite streets in the world. Endlessly interesting and always full of life I have spent countless hours walking it's length, generally in the dead of night, but this was the first time I had ever taken my camera with me. I think it paid dividends. It isn't very difficult to make great art look good and obviously street art lends itself to street photography, something I normally struggle with.

 east london, brick lane, urban, blue, alley, ghost,

Except for the fox, each of the pictures here have undergone quite a lot of post processing to bring out the best in them, or, rather, conceal the worst in them. These pictures were quite busy and messy to start with and mostly what I have done is to crop them down and remove colours to hopefully simplify them and make them easier on the eye. The shot below is a great example of where the original exposure wasn't up to snuff. There was different coloured crap all over the floor, the edges of other artworks to either side and and some unattractive lintels over the top. I cropped out most of all that, made it black and white to remove the distracting colours and then just allowed the reds and yellows to come through to keep it simple. Hopefully the result is a more satisfying picture that allows you to focus on the graffiti. It's a cliche but less is often more.

graffiti, street art, east london, brick lane, urban, black and white, colour pop, long exposure

Monday, 30 March 2015

Magna Carta - what the hell is it?

Magna Carta are two words that nearly all of us would have heard at some point in our lives, but how many of us actually know what they mean, both literally and figuratively? The literal meaning is easily clarified, it means Great Charter, but what does it stand for? Perhaps at best you'd have a vague idea that it has something to do with law or democracy and that it was a bloody long time ago. That much would be correct; but I think it might be a good idea, with both a general election and the 800th anniversary looming, to become a bit more familiar with what many would call the birth of democracy in what is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I give our state its full title just to contrast with what the situation was in the summer of 1215, we were a long way from being a united kingdom. The ailing King John had been on the throne since 1199 when he had succeeded his elder brother Richard (of Lionheart fame). Richard had been a popular king and John's failed attempt to usurp him whilst he was away on the Third Crusade did not endear him to the masses. The masses had little power, however, so it didn't really matter what they thought. The power in the realm was held by the triumvirate of king, church and barons and John managed to rub both of the other sides of that triangle up the wrong way.

A drawing of the effigy of John's tomb in Worcester cathedral
The barons weren't happy because he charged them high taxes for his wars with France. They were also expected to provide men and supplies for the campaigns, campaigns that many of them, the northern barons in particular, thought did not concern them. A lot of them also owed him money and John had begun to get into the habit of giving the most lucrative positions to his cronies instead of allowing them to proceed by birthright through the baronial lines. A few years earlier John had had a significant falling out with Pope Innocent III who excommunicated him in 1209. John was seen to lack religious conviction and some even suspected him of atheism; almost unthinkable at that time.

The final straw was the complete failure in France of John's efforts to recapture Normandy. Since the time of the Norman conquest the 'King of England' had spoken French and also ruled over substantial parts of northern and western France. Some kings had actually spent rather more time in Normandy and Anjou than they had in England. John was finally defeated by Phillip II of France in 1214 leaving not with the title Count of Anjou but merely a long list of failures and debts. John, then, had long been unpopular and, unbeknownst to him, only had a year or so to live. Things were not going well. To give you a measure of his popularity, in 1235 Matthew Parris, the creator of the wonderful map of Britain from the 1250s, seen below, said this of John: Vile as it is, Hell itself is defiled by the fouler presence of John.

For as long as there had been a king, or queen, of England the ruler had always taken the attitude that they were in that position by divine right, literally appointed by God to rule as they saw fit. Their decisions were completely their own and they could change the law of the land at a stroke without consulting with anyone else; they considered themselves to be outside of and above the law. Magna Carta changed all this. Much of what was written in Magna Carta was a little parochial and dealt very specifically with issues of the time; but there are two points that stand out from all the others, what are now called articles 39 and 40. They read thusly:

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

"To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

Flowery language aside these are two points that are, today, the cornerstone of justice systems around the globe and come June 1215 John was in no position to refuse when the barons presented him with their list of demands. In green and pleasant Runnymede, near Windsor, John conceded to the demands of the barons. Being John, though, he had completely reneged on the Great Charter before the year was out. He had appealed to the Pope to declare it null as it impinged on his holy rights; that was typical of John, always thinking of others before himself. The Pope who, remember, had excommunicated John only 6 years earlier came to his rescue. He recognised the risk to the status quo that this precedent might set and duly declared Magna Carta null and void claiming that it was 'unjust, illegal, harmful to royal rights and shameful to English people'.

In what was probably the best result all round, John died in October of the following year whilst still waging a campaign against the barons. His son, Henry III, was only 9 years old and not considered capable of ruling on his own; William Marshall was appointed as regent to rule in his stead, and he did a pretty good job of it. In conjunction with the young Henry he reissued Magna Carta but with some of the clauses removed, most notably clause 61 which appointed 25 nobles to act as a kind of arbiter of whether the king was doing a good job or not; if not then the clause gave the populace explicit permission to openly rebel against the king. This new charter achieved little in real terms but it did show that the new king and his regent were open to negotiations, at least more open than John had been.

map britain UK matthew parris magna carta
No fan of King John, Matthew Parris produced what was
then one of the most accurate maps of Britain ever made

In 1225, at the age of 20, Henry began ruling in his own right. He once again reissued Magna Carta, importantly he did so completely of his own volition and with his royal seal attached; he promised to honour it so that he could legitimately levy taxes, technically every monarch since has had to ask permission to raise a tax. This 1225 version of Magna Carta is considered the definitive version and it allowed Henry to go on to rule for 56 years, an astonishing feat in the 13th century.

Although these events happened a full eight centuries ago they were the birth of what can be considered our modern system of Government. Committees were established to provide oversight of the monarchs actions, some were lords, some were commoners; and so the first version of parliament was born. Today parliament is not especially popular, with anyone. It is as if it has become the unaccountable despot it was supposed to protect us from. But I don't look at this as a bad thing because everybody thinks this. The left think parliament is rubbish, the right think parliament is rubbish, everyone thinks parliament is rubbish and this is a good thing, because it shows it's working. For a democratic society to work there has to be an enormous amount of compromise, and whist it is better to bend than to break, compromises rarely make people happy.

This isn't to say that there aren't problems, there are, not least the lack of engagement of the populous at large with the political system. Young people in particular seem to think that politics isn't relevant to them, so they don't vote, so politicians don't pay them much attention and so politics actually does become less relevant to them. But the solution to this isn't apathy, it should be a motivation to become even more involved. The days when you could change the system from without are gone, they've been gone from this country since the 1650s. For centuries we've been a stable, prosperous nation and we have our hated bureaucracy to thank for that. If we want something to change we have to engage with the system, compromise and ensure that no one is happy. This is the secret to our happiness.

The Magna Carta was the beginning of this unhappy happiness and it has weathered all challenges. That of Charles I resulted in a brutal civil war and his execution but parliament and the charter persevered. No monarch since has put up any serious resistance to the supremacy of the people and its parliament - at least not on these islands. On July 4th 1776 the British colonies in the fledgling United States, who had been rebelling against what they considered to be a despotic King George, won their independence. They, rightly, didn't want to pay taxes without a say in how they were spent; no taxation without representation. When they wrote the Declaration of Independence the founding fathers were coming up with a new Magna Carta for their newly founded country. Even there, though, it has retained its prominence. Magna Carta has been referenced more than 400 times by the US Supreme Court and in the crypt of the Capital building there is a golden copy of the Magna Carta along with a golden copy of King John's seal.

In about a month there will be a general election in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The result looks finely balanced at this stage. I don't care who you vote for. In the grand scheme of things it doesn't even really matter who wins, over a lifetime, over the centuries, it all balances out. I do think its important that democracy wins, however.

Get out there and vote.

magna carta, british library, old document, law, democracy
This is one of only 4 original copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This one is held at the British Library near Kings Cross
and will be on display through the summer

Friday, 23 January 2015

The First Ever X-Ray

There has been a picture doing the rounds online lately that piqued my interest. The picture is supposedly of the first X-Ray ever taken. This is exactly the sort of thing I love to look at as it ticks several boxes on my What Makes An Awesome Image Checklist (we all have one); it looks cool, it's old, it's of scientific interest. Specifically, the picture is of the bejewelled hand of the wife of Wilhelm Roentgen, Anna Bertha Ludwig. A more German name you couldn't hope to find. You can see the picture on the right here.

As you can see, I wasn't kidding, it is  a cool picture; but then X-rays are inherently cool. It's a shame we only really get to see them when there is something wrong with us. The days of them being a fairground sideshow are long gone which, given how bad for you repeated exposure can be, probably isn't such a bad thing. Even today there is something captivating about seeing 'inside' ourselves, it's like seeing a picture of a nebula from deep space; it's universally captivating, an experience fascinating to all. Indeed, Frau Ludwig is quoted as having said, "I have seen my death!" Considering how interesting we still find these images more than a century later I can't imagine how shocking it must have been in the winter of 1895-1896.

So far so awesome. But a few days after I first saw this picture I came across another photo (at left), very similar but slightly different, also claiming that it is a copy of the first X-Ray ever taken. Well, they can't both be the first so I decided to try and get to the bottom of it.

A quick Google image search revealed that there seems to be a number of these hand X-Rays all saying that they are the first ever taken; so how to go about pinning down the true culprit? Let's start by going over what we know for certain. No one is disputing that Roentgen was the first to use X-Rays to produce images or that his wife regularly helped him out in the lab. They were working at Wuerzburg University in Bavaria where Wilhelm was a Professor of Physics. In late November 1895 he was experimenting with various new pieces of equipment produced by such luminaries as Heinrich Hertz and Nicola Tesla. Specifically he was seeing what happens when you pass a current through vacuum tubes. One of the tubes had a window cut out of it but this was shielded by a little cardboard screen to stop any light escaping. However, even though no light could have been shining out he noticed that a nearby piece of cardboard painted with barium platinocyanide had a dull light upon it. Like all good scientists he set out to test this phenomenon more thoroughly. He set up the experiment again but this time making certain that the hole blocked by cardboard was absolutely light proof beforehand. Seeing the same effect again, and noticing that it only occurred when he passed electricity through the system he concluded that he may have discovered a new type of ray. He called it an X-Ray, X as in the algebraic term for unknown, i.e. an unknown Ray. The moniker stuck in much of the western world although there are still plenty of places where they're still called Roentgen Rays, and the resultant images Roentgenograms. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? The significance of the barium platinocyanide turned out to be that it is impermeable to X-Rays, which is why it glowed when struck by them. This phenomenon has been put to good use to develop the barium swallow technique. This allows you to see real time video of an X-Ray and uses the barium to help highlight internal structure.

Now, Herr Roentgen was a prudent man and he soon suspected, quite correctly, that these new types of rays could be potentially harmful. It was only the following year that Madame Curie started her work on uranium (which Becquerel had noticed gave off a similar kind of ray as the X-Ray but it did so of it's own volition, it didn't need an external source of power to be produced. He had discovered radioactivity). Therefore it seems unlikely that he immediately ran into the next room and said to his wife, "Here, Anna, stick your hand in there love and lets see what happens." Indeed, it seems that the first deliberately produced image was that of his own hand, but this was just a temporary one that changed as he waved his hand in front of the apparatus. It was in the coming weeks that he had the bright spark of putting photographic film in the way of the rays. Perhaps it was at this stage that he asked the missus to raise her hand for science, we can't be sure.

What is self-evident, though, is that one of the above photos is in perfect sharp focus and the other is a bit of a fuzzy mess. Which of those is more likely to be the first ever deliberate X-Ray? The fuzzy one also has a Wuerzberg University stamp on it. Given this it seems reasonable to say that this one predates the other, and indeed any of the others I can find online. In which case I'm going to put my nickel down and say that this second picture is likely to be the oldest, not necessarily first, X-Ray ever taken.

The rest, as they say, is the history of science. The potential uses of Roentgen's new rays were quickly grasped. Within just a year there was a radiology unit set up in Glasgow and patients have been reaping the rewards ever since, especially once the potential dangers were realised and accounted for. Roentgen never patented his new idea, believing that it was a technology that should be available to all the world at no cost. A noble act that led him to bankruptcy and a Nobel Prize, the first ever one for physics; he donated all the prize money to the university. And, in 2004, element 111 in the periodic table was officially renamed Roentgenium in his honour, a vast improvement on unununium and no mistake.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Milky Way

On my first night of this particular trip to Romania last summer I got excited. As we were driving to my girlfriend's dad's house (personally I'd call it a farm), I looked out of the car window and saw stars. Not just a few like you get in London, but hundreds and hundreds of them; maybe a couple of thousand. And stretching out across the heavens, as clear as day, was the Milky Way. This wasn't the first time I'd seen it; I'd seen the galactic disc in lots of different places around the world and I've even been able to see it in the UK a few times; but this time I knew that I was going to be here for a couple of weeks and there should be plenty of opportunities to get some good pictures. I was excited.

One night when I had a spare hour or two I took the camera out onto the road beside the farm, I knew there wouldn't be traffic any time soon, and started taking a few tester pictures. First of all I decided to try and get a shot of stars with the landscape included for perspective. There were trees and a few farm buildings across the way. It wasn't easy as there was the odd streetlight here and there that made the exposure difficult to get right. The results weren't great but I wasn't too bothered as I knew this was just the preamble to the Milky Way shots I was going to get later.

Having got a fairly mediocre picture I moved round to the side of the farm where it was even darker and there were fewer lampposts. Now I was aiming almost directly up in the air to try and get a picture of just the Milky Way with nothing terrestrial in frame. The first few attempts were promising and not too long later I had the shot I had been waiting for. It looked great. The galaxy was clearly defined arcing right through the middle of the frame, the stars were bright and pin sharp and I knew I had a keeper. I was excited to think how it would look once I'd processed it a little to make it even clearer once I got back to Blighty. You can see the finished result below.

milky way, stars, astronomy, romania

Pardon? What's that you say? You can't see anything? Am I sure I uploaded the right picture? Yes, I'm sure. Hmmmmm.... The problem seems to be that what I saw on the back of my camera that night was not representative of the data the camera captured. I can't really explain what went wrong but it goes without saying that once I got home I was very disappointed to see the result as, as you can see, it's rubbish. There is basically nothing there. I tried to process it every way I knew how but it seemed beyond rescue. I was gutted. I have posted it here anyway mostly just as a warning, I suppose. You can't always trust exactly what you see in camera. My advice would be to make sure you always check the histogram, especially if you're working in extreme light conditions, as this should give an unbiased account of the data you've captured; and keep taking pictures, even if you think you've got 'the one'. I hope you have more luck than I did.