Sunday, 30 November 2008

Redbrick Science 7 & 8

THE final two parts of the Redbrick series under my supervision. The series was continued the following year, after I had left Birmingham, by Hannah Murfet, although sadly the section no longer exists. Part 7 is written by my good friend Owen Cain.
First published May 11th, 2007.

The Redbrick section took up a lot of my time in my final year, as I had to organize others to write, and up until their submission I had no real idea how it would all fit together or what the standard of the content would be. Despite lots of initial interest, the problems with relying on busy students, the uncertainty of which issue I would be allowed to publish in, and the need to print a wide variety of topics meant that possibilities were exhausted very quickly. Thus, when I suddenly had one more page to fill at the end of the year, straight after my final year exams, it fell to me to find something good, different and big to send off the series. We decided that I should investigate the use of animals in research with a local perspective.

What followed was a highly stressful experience. The further I delved, the harder it got. The university's legal department insisted on pre-approving the article, although weren't overly happy with my need for them to do so with only 24 hours notice. Redbrick were on standby to pull the plug on the article if I couldn't produce it in time. I interviewed two university researchers, neither of whom I could name and only one of whom I could write about what they had told me. The legal department finally got back to me, and changed only one sentence in my now highly watered-down article. Obviously, I cannot tell you which one.

So, here is the final part of the series, which I rather nervously publish here.

First published June 8th, 2007.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Wish You Were Here?

IN Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, Sara Wheeler flies to Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, on her way to Rothera, the base of the British Antarctic Survey on the Antarctic Peninsula. As they pull up in Stanley, a panel of judges reveal their scores for the landing - Strictly Come Dancing-style marks out of ten on big pieces of cardboard.

Sometimes when I get bored, I go to Opodo, the flight website. It helps me dream about exotic locations while simultaneously wishing I had more money. Opodo doesn't do budget fares. But what it does do is plan routes expertly and unexpectedly. The game is to try and trick the search engine. What airport is too obscure for it? It will get you from London to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in two stops. It can easily get you to Malé, the capital of the Maldives, via Germany or Qatar. It will even get you from Heathrow to Lukla, a tiny airstrip built by Sir Edmund Hillary on the edge of a Nepalese mountain.

Today I got distracted by Opodo. I started by searching for Malé, which got me thinking about island nations. Disappointingly, Opodo cannot find any valid routes to South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands. With a population of about 20 people, I suppose that this is not surprising, but it is included on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website, although the entry for this territory rather amusingly states that "there is a low threat from terrorism".

South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands is just one of several forgotten British colonies, one of those claimed by Captain Cook. But although we hear about Australia frequently, and the recent change in government in New Zealand made the British newspapers, when was the last time you heard about Anguilla, or Caicos?

It turns out that there are 13 remaining British-ruled 'Cook' colonies. You might not have ever heard of some of them.

Anguilla has a population of 10,000. Separated from St Kitts & Nevis in 1980, it is a popular tourist destination. Bermuda, famous for its triangles, has a population of 60,000, and is the oldest British colony. The British Antarctic Territory has no permanent population (except penguins). The British Indian Ocean Territory is a UK and US naval operations centre with a population of 3,000. There's the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falklands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands (rather vaguely "between Panama and New Zealand"), St Helena, South Georgia and the Turks and Caicos Islands, formerly owned by Jamaica. All of these countries are populated by British citizens.

I had never heard of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Also known as the Chagos Islands, this is an archipelago of over 1,000 islands over 6 atolls. The capital, Diego Garcia (see picture), is a joint UK/US naval base, built in 1971 for the mutual benefit of both countries (2,000 native peoples were relocated to Mauritius; by British law they cannot yet come back). It was strategically significant in countering the Soviet threat, and has since been used as a base for operations in the Gulf War of 1991 and subsequent activity in Afghanistan and Iraq (and presumably current efforts to combat piracy in the Indian Ocean). The yanks have to ask for our permission to use the colony, but we have to return the lands to Mauritius once we're done with them.

What really got me excited today (when I should have been doing some work) was Tristan da Cunha. Technically, this is part of St Helena (as is Ascension Island), but Tristan da Cunha is 1,509 miles to the South of St Helena and 1,743 miles from Cape Town, the nearest mainland city. It is the most remote archipelago in the world, and 267 British citizens call it their home.

In truth, I have always been excited about Tristan da Cunha: from early geography lessons when, like the geek that I am, I would study the world map in my spare time. Here was this exotic-sounding island in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and just next to its name, in parentheses, was "U.K.". How exciting for my country to own this mystifying land!

Today, I vowed to myself to go to Tristan da Cunha.

The trouble is, Opodo can't get me there. You have to sail from Cape Town on one of several fishing vessels, which leave on average once a month, or on the annual cruise aboard the SA Agulhas, a South African polar research vessel.

But once there, just imagine! I could pretend that I yearn for solitude and a peaceful way of life because of the stresses of the busyness of life in London - but in truth, I don't need to be in London to feel like that. Tristan da Cunha's capital, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, seems to be essentially a fishing community on the edge of the world, where village life is the name of the game. For some such isolation would be torture, but for me it sounds amazing - life there is surely about the people and their character.

Named after Admiral Tristao da Cunha of the Portuguese Navy, the country was on the 'maritime motorway' used by the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century. It was renamed the Islands of Refreshment by Jonathon Lambert from Salem, Massachusetts, in 1810, but Lambert drowned in a fishing accident three years later. The British have had possession since 1816, claimed for George III.

In 1961, the volcano at the centre of the main island of Tristan (the other islands are called Nightingale Island, Gough Island and, delightfully, Inaccessible Island) began to threaten to erupt. By October the island needed to be evacuated, and all 264 islanders were relocated... to Southampton, England. In 1962 a Royal Society expedition studied the impact of the eruption and found Edinburgh largely untouched. Contrary to the plans of the British government, who had assumed the evacuation to be permanent, 198 islanders decided to return. They escaped the 'swinging sixties' and repopulated their home.

Now Tristan da Cunha is a farming, fishing and stamp-collecting nation, the only overseas island to have its own British postcode (TDCU 1ZZ) and its harbour was recently restored by an emergency MoD Joint Task Force.

Frankly, life in the most remote community in the world seems to be truly exciting. How wonderful that it is a part of Britain.

Sources: BBC News, Wikipedia,,, MoD

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Redbrick Science 4, 5 & 6

First published March 2nd, 2007.

First published March 9th, 2007.

Alas, another complaint. This time, nothing to do with me: by no means do I or anybody else at Redbrick associate the specific Birmingham tanning salon in the picture with the content in the feature. This was a silly picture to include and I apologise on behalf of the features editors and chief photographer. The photo was chosen after my contribution had been submitted.

First published March 23rd, 2007.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Redbrick Science 1, 2 & 3

WITH my laptop giving up the ghost a month or two back, I lost a lot of files and works from past projects. In order that there is a permanent record somewhere, I intend to publish some previous works, including my Redbrick columns/section from my final year in Birmingham - this is the section I created, edited and commissioned for. Any copy editing errors will be happily blamed on the proofreaders.

Here are parts one to three. Click the images to view them at

First published January 26th, 2007.

First published February 2nd, 2007.

Bizarrely, this second report attracted a complaint. So, for the record, polonium can be found naturally in some outcrops of granite. Or peat. Or something.

First published February 16th, 2007.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

30 Pence For The Homeless

EVERY time I walk past a homeless person, either begging or having given up on their luck, I feel guilty. Part of me - the cynical side - thinks that they would misuse any money I might give them: I think everybody has such thoughts from time to time. But the other part of me feels very, truly selfish. It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference what my financial situation is, and it doesn't matter what got that person into the difficult scenario they find themselves in: I can help, and every time I go past and don't help in some way, that makes me a very bad person.

When I was in Boston last year, I got a bit confused with how to use a tram ticket machine and found myself with a pocket full of heavy dollar coins (18 of them, in fact). I ended up giving a lot of them away to homeless people - partly because they were heavy, and partly because Boston is ruddy freezing in December and if in any way I can help somebody survive that, then I was going to try.

Back here though, I became cynical again. Too protective of my loose change. But I still feel guilty, and on Sunday I decided to help a guy I've walked past many times in Birmingham... only to discover that all I had on me was 30 pence.

Instantly I felt guilty for the completely opposite reason. Which is ruder, to ignore a homeless person, or to get their hopes up and then hand them a pile of five pence pieces?

He seemed very friendly, and we had a nice chat about life, London and loneliness. And then I ran away, conscious of the fact that, after all that, I probably hadn't really helped him at all.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

An Anatomy of 'Feel', by Robbie Williams

"NEEEYAAA!" says Dean.
"NeeEEIIiiyaaaa," I repeat.

I should explain.

Last weekend, I led, to a substantial degree, the worship at Fixed, the 5pm youth-orientated service at Christ Church Cockfosters. Aiming to appeal to teenagers and students but by no means excluding adults, this is church with a difference: loud rock band, flashy lights, big-screen videos and everybody comfortable on bean bags. Thing was, I wasn't supposed to lead: I was due to play in the band but only the day before received a phone call saying that Judith, who plays the piano, sings and generally runs the show extremely well, was ill, and would I be able to take the reins?

Part of me was very excited - I've led songs before, having talked my way into becoming a singer and guitarist for the band. But on those previous occasions I've had the full band with me: now I was going to be the principal musician, and co-lead singer, for songs I really didn't know very well.

I was most worried about Feel, by Robbie Williams.

For the easily confused, Feel is not a worship song and, to the best of my knowledge, isn't intended to be Christian. However, Fixed have recently been running a series called It's Not Complicated, in which, among other features, a modern song is used each week to start the service. A line from the lyrics of the song is then used to provide a theme for the week. First they used Coldplay's Vida la Viva; on another occasion they used Oasis' Wonderwall; and on my last band appearance I sang The Fray's How to Save a Life, from which the line "and pray to God He hears you" was used.

"Come on take my hand,
I want to contact the living"

The problem with Feel is that it is piano based, and we had just lost our pianist.

Conveniently for me, my housemate Dean is a guitar teacher and is incredibly talented - within two to three minutes he had the introduction, solo and solo chords converted for the guitar, and within another few minutes he'd corrected the faulty tabulature that I had downloaded and calculated the bass line throughout. Now I had to learn it.

I have never had a singing lesson in my life. Until my good friend Nelly made me, I never knew that I could sing and certainly would never have done in public. Inconveniently, there is a part of Feel that is just beyond my break, and not knowing how to hit those notes, I simply wasn't trying. A 'break' is something Nelly used to talk about when we played in Birmingham and Sidmouth, but she seemed to know how to get around hers, leaving me to sing within my comfortable range. But to stay within my range in Feel sounded rubbish, killing the momentum that I could achieve at the beginning of the chorus. So Dean and I proceeded to anatomically break down the song, to work out how Robbie, not known for difficult vocals, managed to pull it off.

Thus began a study of breathing techniques, stomach movements, nasal tones and the fabled break note of A sharp. The first observation was that Robbie cheats, only marginally hitting the required notes at times (your mind fills in the gaps); second that the lines immediately preceding the problematic lyric are sung with a different breathing pattern - this is obvious in the record, but I had always assumed it to be a deliberate, perhaps computerized patch used for effect. Instead, Robbie is changing from his chest voice to his head voice, becoming deliberately husky in preparation for the next line which, in the absence of any ability to use musical parlance, simply needs to be "belted out". (The lines are: "'Cause I got too much life, running through my veins, going to waste", and the one to belt out is "And I need to feel real love, and a life ever after".)

Knowing all of this, and learning more about my limits, my throat's capabilities, it was simply a matter of practice until I could do it. What followed was about an hour of Dean and I screaming, using head voices (usually horrendously out of tune), first learning what to do with my mouth and throat muscles to stop my natural urge to cough when exerting myself, and running through scales in a Sound of Music fashion, only above my break and in the style of the Bee Gees.

"NEEEYAAA!" says Dean.
"NeeEEIIiiyaaaa," I repeat.
And repeat. Again and again until I could pull off a clean "NEEEYAAA!", at which point Dean will make me go higher, or change to a "WAAAAAA!", which comes out as "WAAAAeeeeEEEEEaaaaa!", as if I'm going through puberty all over again. It is highly embarassing, I'm really not used to making noises like this. I'm usually too reserved. But he got me started, and knowing that nobody was listening, I went for it.

By the end of the evening I could consistently keep above my break for the entire section, without my throat seizing up, without the need to cough. I could keep the momentum. Heck, if I had been in tune I might even say that I could do it.

My throat hurt, though.

And so to 5pm the next day. We've shortened Feel to two verses, two choruses and a bit of instrumental. In the end, I didn't try to hit those notes, as they were still coming out out of tune. The rest of the set seemed to work brilliantly: new song Great is the Lord had been stripped down to make it simpler for the congregation to learn (which meant it was just me and my guitar for the first minute and a half); The Splendour of the King featured a vocal solo from me and an a capella outro duet (co-vocalist Steph doing a much better job than me); and Hallelujah (Worthy of our Praise)*, which I didn't know before I arrived, came out as an extremely exciting funked up piece of pure rock - not quite what the organisers had in mind but we had fun.

My thanks go to Steph, Johnny and Jarrett, who are all extremely talented and were the real talent in the band.

I shall be joining the worship team again in two weeks.

*by Ben Cantelon (our version didn't sound anything like this)