On Brian Cox, Accessibility and why we shame those with learning disabilities.

So I watched the first episode of Wonders of life the other night and I really enjoyed it. One of the best things about it was this: I watched it with someone who has done far less science than me, and he ended up pretty chuffed that Cox had explained the acidity thing to him so simply – something he had struggled with before.

It reminded me of echoed opinions of my friends during the last Wonders series. Yes, they said, they found it complex, but they now know some stuff about supernovas. It might be a small win but it’s still a win.

Luckily all I have seen so far on this series are some pretty funny spoof criticisms. But I recall that the last time Brian Cox aired a Wonders series (Wonders of the Universe), the most distasteful criticism I found was the idea that he had made science too simple. He was dumbing it down. And this is apparently bad (as well as being a bit ridiculous, because Cox’s shows had a fair amount of complex ideas in them).

I’m going to have to step up here and say that if it has been presented in more simple terms, it’s a very good thing indeed. Not only does it apply to a vast percentage of the general population who otherwise might not be exposed to such information and might find it interesting, but it’s better for people with learning disabilities. Granted, the language is not quite at the level for a learning disabled person to get the most out of it, but think about it: last Sunday’s programme was entertaining and cinematic, used familiar and comfortable tones that weren’t condescending, was aired at prime time, and catered for various levels of intelligence – Cox talked through more complex things conversationally and then provided simpler definitions afterward, and text appeared on screen with handy facts about animals such as their Latin names (although this itself presents an accessibility issue to people with sight problems as the text was way too small for me to see accurately).

Many people don’t agree with the ‘trying to target too many people at once’ approach and it does have it’s downsides (such as giving people information overload), but I’m not a fan of restricting those with learning disabilities to just the one approach – that cuts them off from taking in more information if they feel they are able to.

So why have I been thinking about this so much recently? Well. I work a day job to fund my degree, and in this job I spend most my time helping people make sites accessible.

From my work with disability I can see two main reasons why this criticism of ‘simpleness’ exists. The first is that the critic  considers ‘simpleness’ to be just a product of laziness or something similar, and the disabled person simply doesn’t exist in the mind of the critic. This doesn’t mean the critic is a bad person or anything, just that they’re not aware enough of disabled people to factor them in.  They probably don’t encounter many disabled people in real life, and disability issues are probably not high on their priority list. You see it all the time in web projects; where a client wonders why the hell someone with autism might get agitated by autoplay features, or why wide margins might help someone with tunnel vision. It’s just a lack of knowledge on their part.

The second reason is more problematic. This is where the person is aware of the ability deficit, but is reticent about the need to change things and include them, even reticent about interacting with them. In psychology, this is called the ‘Othering’ effect (and here’s a handy definition of it). Othering of people with any disability happens naturally in humans, and it’s so persistent that no matter how open-minded you are you can still be stealth struck by it. Coming into contact with the Other can make people uncomfortable. And it’s a lot easier to blame the person that’s making you feel this way rather than address it yourself (I have been blamed a lot for this in the past on account of my wielding a walking stick and a limp). So it becomes the other person’s problem. Why can’t they just learn? How can they be so stupid? And thinking like this soon descends into an idea that we shouldn’t be making shows about complex topics using accessible terms. Why bother, because people who aren’t currently interested in science won’t be interesting in watching it.  Or why bother, because people who can’t learn easily probably won’t learn at all. Well, to me, this sounds rather like Bruce Lawson’s adage of the restaurant owner who refuses to add wheelchair access to his restaurant because ‘nobody disabled ever comes here.’ As Bruce Lawson rightly points out, this is flawed logic.

So the problem with criticisms like this is that they shame people with learning disabilities, no matter how unintentional this is on the part of the critic. There’s a handy fact page from LDPride that shows how people with learning disabilities are most commonly affected by negativity (and it’s backed up by plenty of papers too – hooray references!).

One further point: another idea put forth was that there should be more complex shows with strictly complex language and blackboard equations throughout. Now, complex shows are not a bad idea, and that thought actually quite excites me, but sciencey types like me are already in the game – we already know where to find scientific information and we probably already have access to journals and the like, so this would really just be preaching to the converted. That’s not a crime, but it’d be nice to tackle the potential conversions first (and I’m going to stop using marketing terms now… ick!). People being exposed to science is a good thing, and maybe one of those people will have a learning disability, and maybe all they needed was a simple explanation that sparks the desire to know more, and maybe some time in the future they will pursue a career in science, and contribute some valuable research.

So it’s been quite constructive to look at science broadcasting through the lens of a totally different field – that of web accessibility. And quite fitting as well, since Wonders of Life is essentially looking at biology through the lens of another field – that of physics.

The bottom line is this: Accessible science benefits us all. So Carry on, Coxy.


The madness continues…

DAY 3.

Egbert awoke on an unfamiliar sofa. He was draped in blankets, jumpers, towels; an assemblage of warm fabrics, and none of them were his. He looked to his left and saw a crop of short golden hair sticking out from a blanket. Oh. Jimmy. The looting. The snow. Of course.

It all seemed unrealistic still, and he had to check that the snow chaos had really happened as opposed to the more realistic and also more disturbing scenario that, filled with grief after his girlfriend had died, he had ended up in a strange girl’s bedroom.
Nope. The snow was a legitimate excuse for his situation, he told himself. And besides, they had not even so much as shaken hands let along touched.

He tiptoed over to her meagre kitchen. Surely it would be okay to raid the tea and coffee making facilities? She shouldn’t mind, especially not if she was woken up to a nice hot brew.

Jimmy woke when the kettle started roaring. Egbert made her a strong coffee and then set to making a milky one for himself, watching the anticyclonic spiral action of the liquid as he stirred in the milk. His mind was still up in the clouds.

There had been more banging and shouting in the night. More groups loitering in the streets outside. It was not really safe, he felt, and Jimmy felt so too.

‘I don’t want to spend another night here alone,’ she said, a kind of pout crossing her lips.

‘Well I don’t want to spend another night here at all,’ he replied.

‘No offence, your flat’s fine, but the location’s not so good. It’s right next to the markets. It’ll be a magnet for trouble.’

A fresh chorus of voices started up on the streets outside. He heard sirens, for the first time since the snow had begun.

‘What’s going on out there?’ Jimmy strained against the window to see.

‘Looks like the police have finally arrived,’ said Egbert. Then his face fell. Policemen were tackling rioters and looters, but it looked like ordinary people were getting drawn into the mess too. It looked too violent for comfort.

Soon came a knock at the door. Egbert dashed over to pick up the pointy umbrella again, and yelled a barrage of angry curses at whoever was doing the knocking.

‘It’s the police,’ came the responding shout.

‘It’s okay, we’re fine. We don’t need any help,’ Egbert replied. Behind him, Jimmy mouthed the words ‘I don’t trust him.’

‘I don’t care. We’re evacuating the building. This is a danger zone. You have to come with us.’

Egbert and Jimmy were silent.

‘Okay, stand back,’ said the policeman. ‘We’re going to break the door down.’

Egbert looked at Jimmy. ‘Is there any other way out of this flat?’

She pointed to the window. ‘Yes. There’s some stairs outside there.’

‘Okay. Let’s do it.’

They scrambled into their coats. She lifted the window and they squeezed out onto the narrow spiral staircase below. It took minutes but felt like aeons. When the door was finally kicked in and the flat entered, they had just reached the bottom of the staircase. It took Egbert a quick recalculation of streets and back alleys, then he pulled her along. ‘We can hide at mine for now.’

She nodded and followed him numbly.


‘Oh Eggy, you’re okay!’ Mistletoe gave him a big hug the instant he entered the house. ‘Ooh, who’s this?’

‘Name’s Jimmy,’ said Jimmy proudly. ‘I hope you don’t mind if I camp out here for a while? Police broke into my flat and stuff.’

Mistletoe nodded. ‘Wow. Yeah, sure. We have a spare room here and everything. Our last housemate moved out a while back. Is that cool?’

Jimmy nodded, smiled, and a bond of friendship formed between them. Then Mistletoe turned her attention back to Egbert.
‘So, where were you all night?’

‘I had to stay at Jimmy’s,’ he said. ‘We got followed by this gang. It’s murder out there.’

Cider Sy picked that moment to walk in.

‘Murder? Oh yeah, sure. All fifteen centimetres of it.’

‘Quit your snowcasm, Egbert almost died!’ Mistletoe said.

‘Really?’ Cider Sy raised an eyebrow.

‘No, that’s an exaggeration. I almost lost my footing a number of times, though.’ Egbert sighed and automatically ate the crisps Mistletoe passed him.

They got Jimmy settled in to the spare room, then they set to making dinner. The power cut out halfway through so they had to settle for a half-cooked pasta dish, for once thanking their lucky stars that Mistletoe had requested it be veggie food. They ate in the living room, dimly lit by candlelight, and tried to use the remaining battery on their mobiles to gain access to the news.

It was hard to find and maintain a connection. In the end, they managed to ascertain three things. One – that the Mayor of London had shut himself up inside his home and was refusing to come out. Two – that the Royal family had done the same thing. And three – that according to the Prime Minister, this snow situation was ‘unprecedented’ and had led to the mobilisation of all police forces across the country. And that was it, before all connections cut out. The age old question of whether Android phones did internet better than iPhones became obsolete as neither would operate with any degree of efficacy.

‘Well, Cider Sy announced, ‘England seems incapable of handling the two feet of snow it has been dealt, so it’s come to this.’ They waited expectantly. ‘We need some kind of plan,’ he finished.

‘Like what?’ asked Egbert.

‘Like, some way of getting food and drink and that until this is over.’

‘What kind of drink, eh?’ said Mistletoe. ‘You know your pub’s just down the road.’

Egbert groaned. ‘I have visions of spending the rest of this snow fiasco camped out there like a stereotypical British apocalyptic comedy film.’

Cider ignored him. ‘Oh I don’t need a plan for booze. That’s sorted. But – looking at the contents of the kitchen – I fear there is only so much Pot Noodle I can take.’

‘Good point,’ said Mistletoe.

‘The streets will be crawling with cops and robbers,’ Egbert began, and was promptly interrupted by Jimmy.

‘Bet you’ve been itching to say that!’

‘ – so anyway we should get out early, find some shop and if it’s empty, we leave money on the counter and take what we need.’

‘Fair enough,’ said Cider. ‘I was going to say I can just get stuff from work but I guess there’s only so much pork scratchings and scampi fries I can take too.’

Soon they were all in agreement. The following morning would be an early one. They would try to beat the crowds to the shops, and would fill the bath with fresh water in case it were to run out. Cider would pick up some spare drums from work so they could melt water from snow, if it came to it. A plan. Everything would be okay.

Later that night, Egbert reflected. He had not even told anyone about Marcy yet. There would be time enough for that, he was sure. For now things were too hectic, and he did not want to upset anyone.




The second instalment of the tongue-in-cheek snow story I began yesterday.

DAY 2.

‘ARE YOU PREPARED?’ read the headline, emblazoned in offensively thick block capitals across the front of the paper. Egbert sighed and handed the paper back to Cider Sy, determined to get back to his morning coffee. He was sitting in the kitchen, trying to rouse his body from its log-like state induced by the combination of too little sleep and too much cold. He had hazarded a brief glance outside when he had woken up; the world outside was white and powdery.

‘Well, are you prepared?’ Cider Sy asked.

‘Of course.’

‘Okay. The station’s closed.’

‘What, King’s Cross?’


‘King’s Cross is closed?’

‘That’s what I said.’

‘B-but, you can’t close King’s Cross! And St Pancras too?’ He was met with a nod from Cider. ‘That’s – that’s like closing Clapham! It just can’t be done!’ Egbert was angry, and mostly at the fact that he had woken up at six in the morning in the biting cold for nothing.

‘Well, it’s totally snowed in, Egbert,’ said Cider Sy. ‘I just been down to check. It ain’t good.’

‘What the hell were you doing out so early anyway?’

‘I wanted orange juice.’

Egbert left it there, and not a moment too soon, for Mistletoe bounded in.

‘Hey, look at this!’ She slapped down another piece of paper in front of Egbert – this time it was a computer printout. ‘I’ve been reading some interesting stuff about that whole Mayan doomsday thing – ‘

Oh god, Egbert moaned inside.

‘ – and this guy, Roger Efferington, right, says they miscalculated the whole thing. By like, a few weeks. So the doomsday stuff should actually happen this week! I found a whole blog about it too, look, read.’

Egbert reluctantly read, but had to stop after the first line.

‘“The world’s ultimate awakening”… I’m sorry, Misty, this really isn’t my thing.’

His nose was suddenly filled with the smell of orange juice. Cider Sy was peering over his shoulder, scanning the page with what might have passed for interest to anyone who did not know him better.

‘This week, huh? You actually believe that?’ Cider Sy glanced up at Mistletoe.

Mistletoe shrugged. ‘I dunno. It’d be exciting, though.’

‘Not if you have to go in to work.’ Egbert downed the rest of his coffee and tied his shoelaces, before standing up and reaching for his coat.

‘Are you still going in?’ Mistletoe asked, casting an incredulous eye out the window.

‘Come on guys, I still have to go to work.’

‘Suit yourself.’ Cider Sy slunk into the seat he had just left. ‘See you later. If you don’t lose yourself in the snow, that is.’

‘Not with this carrot top, mate,’ Egbert retorted, pointing to his hair. Sometimes he considered self-deprecation to be his best comeback weapon in an arsenal otherwise full of groan-worthy jokes, and as he watched Cider smile and Mistletoe wish him a safe journey, he knew it had paid off this time.


He should have taken Cider Sy’s warning about the state of things outside more seriously, he thought as he tramped through more than a foot of fresh snow just to get to the gate. Further out in the street the heavily-trampled snow had compacted and turned to ice in the continuing sub-zero temperatures. The sky above was a blank sheet, and all he could glean from that was that there was more snow up there; it just had not fallen yet.

Cider had been right about the trains too. Both the underground and overground stations had been closed. There was a mob of angry people outside, demanding answers from the few staff members on duty.

‘If you’ve already got your ticket,’ said the day-glo-jacketed rail worker, ‘then London buses are accepting them today.’ Egbert did not bother trying to move closer to the front of the crowd – this was news enough and he half-snowploughed, half-ice skated on towards the nearest bus stop.

He sat back against the awkward sloping seat and tried calling his girlfriend. But his phone had lost all signal. He cursed. Then he became absurdly aware that there was someone else at the bus stop too. A girl was sitting next to him. She had short golden hair and one of those pixie-ish faces. She wore skinny jeans, an oversized jumper and a khaki biker coat. And high heels. It was very odd.

‘Hi,’ said the girl.

‘Hi,’ he replied. He met her eyes for a second, then looked back down at the strange clothing coordination. After a while he could not hold his curiosity in any longer. ‘Um, why are you wearing heels? I mean, isn’t that really stupid in this weather?’

‘Are you kidding?’ said the girl. ‘Heels are the best thing for getting through thick ice. It’s the ice pick effect. Better grip.’ She kicked her legs out in display. Egbert thought about it for a second: smaller surface area, more pressure applied. It actually made sense. Then she said, ‘So um, why are you trying to get signal in a whiteout? Isn’t that kind of silly?’

They sat in silence for a long while. Egbert drifted back into his internal world, which seemed frozen in anxiety. When would the bus come? When would he hear from Marcy? When would this anticyclone up and leave?

‘I don’t think the bus is coming,’ said the girl sadly.  ‘We’ve been waiting forty minutes now, you know. My toes are froze.’

‘Yeah, same here,’ he said.

She grinned, shook back the random long bit of hair at her forehead, and decided to strike up more of a conversation.

‘You going far?’

‘Not really. Just across to Baker Street.’

‘Ah. You could probably walk that if it doesn’t come.’

A while later she said, ‘So what’s your name?’


‘Egbert? You don’t look like an egg at all. You’re way too skinny. Oh, I get it. It’s ironic, right?’

He suddenly became very aware that he was talking to a hipster. He took in her clothes once again and recalled a definition from one of the many humour blogs he had seen. A feral sweater girl. Yes. Whatever that was.

‘No, it’s not ironic,’ he replied. ‘It’s just… boring, I guess. My parents were either cruel or unimaginative, I can’t figure out which. So what about you?’

‘I’m Jimmy,’ she said proudly. She noticed his puzzled expression, which led to the retort, ‘Yeah, it’s a dude name, but so what? It’s cool.’

He had a feeling she might have a rather embarrassing first name, but decided against asking.

The bus was not coming. Okay, so they had established that already. There was only one option left. He would have to walk to work.

He stood up, bade Jimmy farewell and good luck, and hiked on, any delusions of intrepid adventuring being impeded by the occasional embarrassing slip on hidden ice.


Not long later his mobile phone rang. He looked at the number – it was Marcy’s. Hastily answering the phone with half-frozen ham-hands, he said; ‘Marcy”! Oh god I’m so glad you called!’

But it was not Marcy who answered the phone.

‘Hi, I’m calling from Heartlands in Birmingham…’ said a nasal female voice.

He caught his breath. That was a hospital near Marcy’s house.

‘… and we’ve had a woman brought in following a car accident. Her name’s Marcy. I’m trying to contact her relatives.’

Egbert felt a muscle he didn’t know he had twitch beneath his eye. ‘You have Marcy there? Oh god, is she okay? I’m Egbert. Her boyfriend. Please, is she all right?’

There was a pause, a sharp intake of breath from the unfamiliar woman on the other end of the line.


‘I… don’t know how to put this, but she was in intensive care all morning. She didn’t make it.’

‘No. No, no, no, that’s not right!’ His shallow mutterings gave way to deep rooted shouting. ‘That can’t be! She was a careful driver. How? How was she hurt? Why didn’t she make it?’

‘She skidded on black ice under a bridge. Two other cars involved. She lost consciousness, she was put on life support and needed surgery. But we were too late. I’m sorry.’ The combination of her genuine voice and the visceral images being generated in his mind made him lose the ability to be mad. He mumbled something incoherent and hung up.

He had no idea what to do. For a good few minutes he stopped dead in a snowdrift in the road, his life crashing to a standstill along with him. The chaos in his head mounted to such an intensity that he ended up blanking it out entirely and his feet started to carry him on in the direction he had been going. To work. His girlfriend had just died and he was carrying on to work like everything was normal, except for the snow.  The slightly detached part of his brain reckoned this was some kind of survival instinct, purposefully made to react to stressful situations, so he just went with it.


It took a full hour to navigate the treacherous roads to his office. What was normally a ten minute tube ride had become a proper mission of – dare he say – epic proportions.

Only Norbert and Albert were in.

‘Where’s everyone else?’ Egbert asked.

‘Dunno,’ said Norbert. ‘Well, Tim, Terry and Todd made it in. Oh, and Cuthbert on fourth floor.’

‘Must be the magnetic Bert field,’ said Albert with a snort.

Egbert ignored this entirely. He fired up his computer and tried to work, and while he was glad that nobody had picked up on his inner distress, he became aware all too quickly that he was unable to concentrate on work. He stared for a long time at the conversion report on his screen until he eventually caved and opened up a browser window, typing in the URL for the Met Office. He had barely gotten to M-E-T when the browser auto-completed the rest of the address, so often it was that he went there.

He gaped. It was a wider gape than the one he had done the previous day, and the blink that followed it was more blinky than the one the previous day too. If the charts were right then this was getting serious. The weather front appeared to have settled and stagnated right over Scandinavia and all of the UK, and for the five day forecast at least, it was not showing any signs of letting up. The Azores high was far out of reach, and even the low pressure cyclones from Iceland were not pushing down or even attempting to dislodge it. Like a last staunch supporter of the Cold War, the anticyclone from Siberia was here to stay.

Plastered across the UK map were amber and red snow warnings. Another blizzard would move in tomorrow, and there was a big red warning over London. How much of that applied to his area? He had just started to enter his postcode to get a more detailed report when the power suddenly cut out. He looked around. The lights were out too. Everything was.

He buried his head in his hands. For god’s sake, was one little weather report too much to ask? Before he had enough time to start thinking about other, more depressing things, he got up and put his coat on. He saw Albert and Norbert had stood up too, in the absence of having working computers, and he caught their attention.

‘Well, let’s go home,’ he said.

‘Oh, we’re not leaving,’ said Norbert.

‘No,’ said Albert. ‘Our trains have been cancelled. And we live outside the city, remember.’

‘How did you get in this morning, then?’ Egbert asked.

‘Oh, we were both at a friend’s party in Euston last night,’ said Norbert. ‘Not too far from your place actually. We walked in.’

Egbert thought it best to leave them to it. They clearly had enough food and drink to last them, what with the kitchen supplies and the vending machine – although they would probably have to break into that last one.

He met Cuthbert in the stairwell on the way out the building. Not that he knew Cuthbert very well anyway, but he thought the man was certainly behaving rather oddly.

‘Our worst fears are being realised,’ mumbled Cuthbert. He was clearly delirious.

‘Cuthbert, what the hell is that in your hand?’ Egbert pointed towards the blue freezer bag that looked like it was full of ice.

‘S-s-alt.’ Cuthbert glanced at him shiftily and yanked the bag out of his reach. ‘It’s for grit! You have to start hoarding grit. If you don’t you might die!’

‘I really don’t think you’re in any danger of that,’ said Egbert.

‘No, you don’t get it. It’s going to get so much worse! It’s like end times. Please believe me! Please believe me!’ Cuthbert’s plaintive wailing reminded him uncomfortably of his own assertions that yes, it would definitely snow, why won’t anyone believe me, uttered only yesterday. He left the man cowering in the stairwell and hurried out the building.

Back out on the streets he went, greeted by a soft flurry of snow which piled down on the existing layers. More people were out and about now, and the mood was one of excitement and… a sort of apprehension, which he did not expect. There was a sense of freedom, and that was both good and bad.

It was primarily bad, he decided, because he got hit by a snowball halfway down the street. He yelled angrily and the young guy who had thrown it merely prepped another one. He hurried on.

It was cold. His gloves were not enough, the cold was biting into them. And speaking of biting… He enviously watched a woman chow down on a sandwich.

Oh god – he was so hungry. Cold and hungry.

He was halfway home when he recognised the person across the street. A khaki jacket pulled up to the neck, a crop of golden hair sticking out from the top – it was Jimmy. He hailed her from over the road and she smiled, stopped and waited. He walked over.

‘Hi,’ said Jimmy.

‘Hi again. What’re you still doing round here?’

‘I could ask the same of you, you know.’

‘We had a power cut at work.’

‘Ah. Well, I work at the falafel shop over there and I know it’s like, only just the afternoon, but the stoves broke down. So nothing to do. Shop’s closed.’ She sighed and kicked at a lump of snow. ‘Guess I’ll go home.’

The youths playing in the streets both behind and ahead of them seemed to have taken on a new element. This element involved a little bit more violence than Egbert was comfortable with. There was no sign of the police – indeed there had been no sign of any kind of authority (save for the two railway staff that morning) since the snowing began, and now people seemed to be realising just how much they could take advantage of this.

He narrowly missed another snowball. The person who threw it shouted and made a rather pathetic comment about his ginger hair. He swore as loudly as he dared and whispered to Jimmy; ‘Let’s go.’

They hurried off down the street in that peculiar half-step half-run that indicated they wanted to be out of there fast, but did not want to draw that much attention to themselves. This technique seldom worked, for it attracted far more attention to them due to the silliness of their steps.

When they turned the corner he realised they had come to the same bus stop from the morning. The street was relatively silent, although they could hear people banging about round the next corner, where Kings Cross St Pancras lay.

‘Can we stop for a sec? I want to try and find out what’s going on,’ Egbert said, pulling his phone from his pocket to check the signal. Jimmy nodded. Since the crowds had started coming out she had gone unusually silent.

So they cowered in a bus shelter and read the latest news on his tiny smartphone screen, Jimmy hanging on to his shoulder closely to get a decent view. It turned out he had a couple bars signal, bu the connection was still wafty.

‘Snowpocalypse starts with a bang!’

‘Crisis as multiple tube stations closed!’

‘Stockpile your food – more snow to come.’

‘Breaking – Supermarket supplies reach all time low due to stockpiling.’

‘Record amount of car crashes in severe icy conditions.’

‘Power cuts across London.’

‘Parts of Birmingham collapse after freak blizzard hits.’

So far so hyperbole, he reckoned. But still, it was scary. What would happen next?

He started to lose signal again, and by the time he had reached the weather reports, it cut out completely. Again. Egbert cursed. His only clue to local forecasting now was the sky itself, and that was as blank and expressionless as porridge.

More people arrived in the street. Further down the street a gang smashed in a shop window, sending three feet of snow thundering into the building. They both looked up and watched, stunned.

‘Can you take me home?’ asked Jimmy.

‘Sure,’ Egbert replied.

‘I wouldn’t normally ask,’ she began, ‘but it’s just that they’re kinda freaking me out.’

‘Hey, I don’t mind. It’s scary. I’m scared too.’

They took their chance when the gang started on a young chap walking down the other end of the street, and they ran as fast as they could in the ice and snow until they had reached the next street. From there, they walked as calmly as possible, sticking to small, narrow spaces.

After ten minutes of walking, Jimmy led him out onto a much broader street. Smithfields market, one of the biggest markets in London, stood proudly opposite him.

‘I’m over there,’ she said, pointing across the marketplace to a tallish building with lots of windows.

‘Wait, you live behind a marketplace?’ Oh great, Egbert thought. Today it would be shoplifting central, if the streets near Kings Cross were anything to go by.

There was a shouting from behind them. The gang from King’s Cross. Egbert’s heart gave a thud. He pushed Jimmy on.

‘Go! Go!’

They pretty much ran from there on, dashing straight through Smithfields and on to the buildings opposite. Down a short alley and up some stairs. The shouts behind them were drawing closer.

‘Get the key, quick!’

She fumbled in her bag, becoming more clumsy the more urgent things became. Eventually she managed to get the key out and open the door. They tumbled inside and Egbert slammed the door behind him, pushing the lock to. And not a moment too soon. A loud hammering on the door. A cry of various obscenities. Lots of foul language usually reserved to describe a woman’s anatomy.

‘You dare come in here and we’ll kill you!’ Egbert yelled in response. He picked up an umbrella leaning by the door. ‘We’re armed!’ His voice had a confidence that completely belied his inner terror.

There was a murmur on the other side. One of the gang saying they were wasting their time; there would be better, easier pickings back down at the market. The hammering stopped, as did the obscenities, and soon footfalls grew quieter as the foul group went off down the stairs.

Egbert relaxed his grip on the umbrella. ‘Ugh. Glad that’s over.’ He glanced around at the flat. It was a small, messy studio setup. A sofa bed, a television, and the basic essentials.

Once he had recovered from the exhaustion, he forced himself to stand upright. ‘Okay, I’d best be off. I don’t want to intrude any further.’

But Jimmy looked out of the window. Snow was falling faster, the sun was getting lower, and the shouting was still going on in the streets below.

‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘You can stay here tonight if you like. It’ll be safer.’ Egbert’s jaw started to drop. Then Jimmy added, ‘You take the sofa bed. I’ll take the floor.’

He was about to protest but she folded her arms and gave him a look that he could not quite describe, but that told him it was better not to argue. And besides, the way things were looking outside, it was safer to stay put for the time being. She was right.

And so he slept that night in a strange bed. He did not like it much. This bed did not know his particular shape, it did not know how to form the correct arrangement of lumps and bumps to fit him. The bed and he had barely met; it felt more rude than anything else to sleep on it so soon. Well, never mind. Sleep on it he must, for what lay ahead would be even more challenging.




Everybody do the Tangaroan!

It’s new, it’s exciting, and while it kind of sounds like a dance move, the Tangaroan style is in fact the newly classified third type of eruption style. We’ve got eruptive and effusive and now this.


It was classified by a team of researchers from the National Oceanography Centre (Southampton, UK) and Victoria University (Wellington, New Zealand) who studied Macauley volcano in the south west Pacific.


The news appeared in this month’s edition of Nature Geoscience. The paper is called ‘Highly vesicular pumice generated by buoyant detachment of magma in subaqueous volcanism‘.

So what’s the deal?

Well, the Tangaroan style is specifically an underwater eruptive style. If it had happened subaerially it would be intermediate – somewhere between effusive and eruptive. And the main defining feature of this style is its foaminess. See, lots of vesicles form in the magma, and as it bubbles up it turns into a kind of foam, which detaches as packets of pumice and rises. Because of the effects of decreasing water pressure, the bubbles continue expanding so you end up with various sized bubbles by the end of it.

Pumice (which is usually a sign of explosive activity in subaerial volcanoes) is quite common in underwater volcanoes, and this new research means that underwater volcanoes currently marked as having explosive eruptions in the past may be reassessed under this new category. Exciting stuff!

Quite interesting:

The style is called Tangaroan after the Maori god of the sea, but it also acts as a homage to the ship used to collect samples, which shares the name. Fun fact: Tangaroa is also part of the Cook Islands’ mythos and has yellow hair, so when Europeans first visited, they were considered the children of Tangaroa.


A story inspired by the insane twitter ramblings of spoof account @DMReporter, and of course, the dramatic-yet-totally-undramatic snow. The forecast for the story includes inclement weather, characters with quite silly names, and a light smattering of meteorological stuffs.

DAY 1.

Egbert looked at the weather report. He blinked. He looked at it again. Indeed, without a shadow of a doubt, it was going to snow that afternoon. There was no mistaking that menacing Siberian high pressure zone moving in.

He had graduated from Oxford ten years ago with a degree in atmospheric geophysics, and sadly had lost out on a top-notch research position at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre to a fellow student a tiny bit better than him. And things got worse after that – his parents made him move out, and he went to London – because it seemed like ‘the thing to do’ at the time.

Then there came an office job where he sold insurance to people who didn’t need it in order to fund a marriage that didn’t last. It had been two years since the divorce and while his home address had changed, he was still stuck in the insurance rut. Looking at the weather reports was now his only reprieve from a life of inadvertent monotony, and sometimes this wistful mood caught him completely by surprise.

He only realised he was staring blankly at the screen when someone tapped his shoulder. He jerked upright and aimlessly hit some keys in a sort of automatic attempt to convince himself and whoever had interrupted him that he was indeed still working.

‘Egbert! What’s up, my man?’

No cause for alarm. It was only Norbert.

‘Looking at – what is that, a weather report?’ Norbert’s thick eyebrows raised in a disapproving fashion.

‘Yeah. It’s going to snow this afternoon.’

‘Oh yeah?’ Norbert looked out of the window. ‘Doesn’t really look like it to me.’

Egbert tried not to sigh. ‘Just because you can see the sun right now doesn’t mean it’s not going to be bad later. There’s a cold front moving in from the North, and the high pressure zone…’

It was no use. Norbert’s face had glazed over.

‘Whatever, dude,’ he said. He turned to leave, almost bumping into Albert, who in turn narrowly missed a collision with the pointless decorative cheeseplant in the corridor.

‘Eggy!’ Albert hailed him in that faux-friendly way he always did. Egbert mumbled ‘Hello’ back to him, and pretended to carry on working. He could hear his colleagues behind him, chattering now about the snow with no small amount of mirth.

There were a lot of Berts in that particular office. Nobody knew why. Some people theorised that they just seemed to gravitate to the building, like fine particles of iron filings to a massive magnet. On his floor, there was himself, and Norbert and Albert, who unfortunately took the coincidence as a sign to be overly familiar with each other. There was also a Cuthbert on the fourth floor, but they had never spoken. The last thing Egbert wanted to do was expand the Bert circle.

The news of snow soon started to broadcast on the BBC channel in the staff canteen. A grave-faced news reporter talked of the Met Office’s warning, and told people what in Egbert’s mind was just a reiteration of common sense. Wrap up warm before you go out. Wear sensible shoes. Don’t slip.

‘Maybe ol’ Eggy’s right,’ joked Albert.

Norbert laughed. ‘Wouldn’t bet on it.’


Evening fell. The snow did not.

‘You idiot,’ his girlfriend Marcy said. He had called her not five minutes ago whilst walking towards the tube station, and already she was on the defensive. She was not happy, primarily because he was trying to convince her not to come down from Birmingham. He had been scared about snow, and ice, and her driving in it. She had taken it the wrong way.

‘Marcy, I’m just trying to be sensible about this. Someone’s got to believe me about the bad weather, and I’d like it to be you of all people.’

‘Oh for goodness’ sake,’ said Marcy, ice cold tones cutting their way into his mind as sharp as the wind trying to cut its way through his jacket. ‘It’s not snowing like you said, and we haven’t seen each other for two weeks, and I’ve still got to go to London anyway for that conference! It just… It just feels like you’re trying to get rid of me!’

‘No, no, Marcy, that’s not it at all!’ But Egbert was not going to get out of this easily. Emotion was winning over logic; and a lot of it was his own emotion. He could not deal well with other peoples’ anger. ‘I don’t want to get rid of you. I want to keep you safe…’ His words did not come out in the voice he intended. He ended up sounding horribly condescending and yet highly squeaky at the same time.

‘Safe? God, Egbert, I can take care of myself, you know.’

He managed to somehow string out the awkward conversation against his own will until he reached the station. Marcy exploded in a final torrent of words.

‘I don’t care, Egbert. I’m coming down whether you like it or not. I’ll leave first thing tomorrow. And that’s final!’

She hung up.

Egbert spent the rest of his commute in a glum mood. He picked up a copy of the Mail on the way. He didn’t pay for it – as if! – but rather picked it up from its discarded perch on an empty tube seat.

‘SNOWPOCALYPSE’, proclaimed the headline theatrically. Egbert sighed. What a load of tosh. Yes, it was going to snow, he knew that much. But this kind of reaction? It was either total disbelief or imaginative over-belief that seemed to plague everyone else but him.

He skimmed through the rest of the article.

‘Snow expected to hit…. Up to two centimetres in places… Lorries with grit have been called into action… many rail line already suspended… school called off…’

The tube rattled on to King’s Cross. Egbert alighted, then plodded past the interesting, busy, cultured zone into the back streets where his shared terrace house lay. Above, night had truly set in, and the cloudy sky reflected the light pollution of London with a bright red glow. Night was always tainted red in London.

Inside, Egbert was deeply troubled. The sky was getting heavier, but the snow was late. What on earth was causing it to move so slowly? In his mind, visions of slow-moving anticyclones blocking up huge tracts of land whirled into place and delicate chaos spiralled out from it like ants scattering before the thud of an elephant’s foot. It was scary.

The silly headlines must have been getting to him, he decided. He trudged up the stairs to home, assuring himself it would all be fine.

Indoors, Mistletoe was doing a tarot reading for Cider Sy in the living room. Mistletoe was a big hippy, in the new-school way. No tie-dye but plenty of foresty looking chic clothing and chunky crystal necklaces. She was an artist, and her room in the massive four-roomed terraced house was half-bedroom, half-art studio. As a result, she hardly left the house.

Cider Sy on the other hand, whose real name was Simon and just so happened to have a passion for various types of alcoholic beverage – was always in and out of the house. He worked in a traditional pub a few streets away that sold real ale.

‘So apparently I’m going to meet the girl of my dreams, yeah?’ he said flatly.

‘No, it means you’re going to get a great opportunity and the changes you make at this crucial stage can attract people to your loving core,’ Mistletoe corrected him. Cider Sy stood up and smiled wanly.

‘Well, Psychic Sally, I’ve got food waiting for me in the oven, so you’d better move on to your next customer.’ And he winked at Egbert.

‘You want yours done?’ Mistletoe asked hopefully.

‘Nope,’ Egbert said firmly.

‘Apparently it’s going to snow tonight,’ said Cider, to his complete surprise. He got the feeling Cider was not really bothered, however; he was too busy focussing on the chicken drumsticks he was fishing out the oven. ‘Yeah, heard it on the news. Apparently some minister or somebody’s annoyed because they haven’t budgeted enough grit. Dear god, man, not enough grit!’ His funny pronouncements made Mistletoe laugh.

Egbert hung around making his dinner and ended up lounging in the living room with his housemates, watching reruns of Big Brother, commenting and wondering on what it would be like to be trapped in a house with a bunch of people – who would crack first, who would fight who et cetera. They had just determined that Egbert would likely go insane by the end of the first week, and that Cider would win because of his total ambivalence to the rest of humankind, when something completely interrupted them.

There was a sudden flash of blue light that scoured its way across the living room – nobody reacted at first, it was too much like the blue glare of a police siren. But the loud bang that followed made them all stand to attention. It was a humongous crashing noise, a single deep burst, like a whale hitting a steel ship, or something like that.

‘Oh my god, that sounds like a plane crash,’ said Mistletoe.

They ran to the kitchen and opened the back door. From their rather impressive vista across the empty car park, flat warehouses and single storey buildings they saw a huge storm cloud gathering. It was hanging low to the ground, across Central London. The bang had in fact been a thunderclap, and it came again in that single, definite, powerful vibration, preceded by an intense flash of ball lightning, the likes of which he had never seen before, only read about in textbooks.

And the ground was covered in snow. It was a shock to him at first, until Mistletoe said rather dramatically ‘Wow, that’s like, so much snow!’ and he became aware that one centimetre was really not that much at all.

The thundersnow-storm was a bad omen, though. Now the snow was falling thick and fast. It was going to get much, much worse.

But Marcy was still in Birmingham, and the spiral arm of the weather front would not reach her until after morning, he was sure of it. She would be safe.

‘Come on guys, let’s go in before we freeze to death,’ said Cider. Egbert agreed, and followed him in just as the snowflakes started to work themselves into a real blizzard-like frenzy.

The cold was the awful penetrating kind that slaughtered the effect of pithy electric heaters such as the ones at his flat. He fell asleep wearing three pairs of socks and a hoodie beneath the covers. And that was that. He was in no way prepared for the tumultuous events that were to follow…




What Watt is what? An experiment with 27 candles.

27 candles on a coffee table

It’s cold today, and my new house has one of those annoying pay-as-you-go electricity meters with a horribly expensive energy company that I’m pretty much stuck with until I get it all changed to my preferred energy supplier.

It’s all electric heaters here, and loath to guzzle more electricity, I was doing ok in the cold until I realised one of my pet rats had started hibernating. That’s worrying, because rats don’t naturally hibernate. Something had to be done.

Now, I do have enough on the meter to get us through this cold patch, but I also have rather a lot of candles – a whole box full in fact – lying around since the move. And in my realisation that the candles could be placed on the coffee table far closer to my pets’ cage than the electric wall heater, lo and behold, a scientific experiment was born.

It’s a known fact to everyone who has stuck their hands too close to a fire that fires generate heat as well as light. So I wanted to know how much I could heat the room by burning candles. And I want to know the output in terms of Watts, so I can compare it to the power of my electric heater.

To start with, it is helpful to know what a Watt is. It’s a SI unit for power, measured in Joules per second.

Tea lights weight roughly 20 grams and burn for around 5 hours – that’s four grams an hour.
6 inch dinner candles weigh 60 grams and burn for around 6 hours – that’s ten grams an hour.
3 inch high pillar candles weigh roughly 300 grams and burn for around 40 hours – that’s 7.5 grams an hour.

So it seems that the tea lights burns the least grammage per hour and the tapers the most grammage per hour. But how does that convert to heat? Which is better?

I am going to approximate that all my candles are made from paraffin wax. Now, paraffin wax burns at about 43kJ per gram of material, or 43000 J per gram.
For my tealights, at 4 grams an hour, that’s 4 x 4300 = 172,000 J per hour
For my tapers, at 10 grams an hour, that’s 10 x 43000 = 430,000 J per hour
For my pillar candles, at 7.5 grams an hour, that’s 7.5 x 43000 = 322,500 J per hour.

I have 21 tealights, 3 tapers, and 3 pillar candles.
(21 x 172000) + (3 x 430000) + (3 x 322500) = 5 869 500 Joules per hour.

But remember, Watts are Joules per second. So we need to convert this.

There are 3600 seconds in an hour, so we divide our answer by this to get the Joules per second.
5 869 500 / 3600 = 1630.41667
That’s ~ 1630 Watts for my 27 candles.

Now, the average candle emits light at only around 0.05% efficiency. So the most significant part of that wattage output is as heat (infra-red) rather than visible light, and therefore it’s really negligible to try and calculate how much of that total radiative power is emitted under the visible spectrum rather than the infra-red so I’m just going to leave it out.

My electric heater produces 2000W (in other words 2000 Joules per second).
1630W for my 27 candles really isn’t all that bad in comparison. I know that the amount of joules per second will vary as the candles will run out at different times, and I know that this is a very sketchy exercise in a field I’m no expert in, but it’s still a pretty decent amount of energy being emitted.

For now, though, I am going to whack the heater on full blast in addition to burning the candles. And Porkchop, my wee pet that started this entire exercise, is certainly benefiting from this double output of heat.

Fun facts I didn’t know before I started this exercise: The temperature in the centre (blue bit) of a candle can get up to 1000 degrees Celsius! And light is measured in lumens, the SI unit of luminous flux (or the portion of radiative power falling in the spectrum of visible light).

On the Origins of Thundersnow

So today there was a flurry of snow crossing my part of the UK. I say a flurry because it was hardly thick enough to settle, although I hear up north it’s a different story.

Anyway, the snow did not settle but seemed to gather and bunch up in the sky, bits of flake swirling around in the air, whipping up a treat. Before I knew it there was a massive storm forming! A huge banging sound – it was more like an explosion than a traditional rumbling peal of thunder – tore through the house and outside I witnessed massive blue flashes of ball lightning, originating from within the cloud of snow. It highlighted the snowflakes in a way I’ve never seen before, then minutes later the storm had dissipated and I was left stunned. My neighbours had rushed outside too and were staring up at the sky and chattering excitedly.

Thundersnow is very rare, and usually associated with freak storms in Northern parts of the US. It’s not really something that happens here that often.

thundersnow infographic depicting warm air convecting after contact with cold air
[Washington Post thundersnow infographic – click to go to original WashPost article…]

The reason it’s so rare is that for storm clouds to even form at all you need some kind of convection mechanism, and the heat required for this is not usually present in the kinds of temperatures experienced in snowy weather. But sometimes a mass of cold air can slide in atop a mass of warm air, and if the warm air is very humid, close to the dew point but still cold enough to be icy, a weird kind of instability occurs and it will start to convect.

The nimbus head of the storm won’t usually be as high as your average cumulonimbus because these precise unstable conditions won’t last long enough to let it rise so high. And the energy will probably be dissipated relatively quickly, just as I saw today.

A thundersnow-storm will likely be accompanied by a shower of hailstones (which also happened today). This happens when the convective potential is very high, causing strong updrafts and rapid motion. What was interesting was that the hail hit about ten minutes before the thunder began. And when the thunder did start up, I don’t think I’ve ever seen ball lightning so fierce and blue!

The whole thing was so short and violent but it was an epic experience.

Apophalypse Now!

No, that title is not mis-spelled. It’s a reference to the asteroid Apophis, which will be passing overhead… today in fact. You might recognise the name from Egyptian mythology, or from the popular sci-fi series Stargate. It’s a Near Earth Object, or NEO, a class of object in the solar system that has the greatest chance of coming into close proximity with the Earth.

So today Apophis is set to cross over the Earth a mere 14 million km above our heads. For comparison, the Sun is 152 million km away from us, and the moon is roughly 0.385 million km away, so Apophis will be somewhere in that middle ground. We probably won’t be able to see it passing because of the Sun’s light, but early-evening astronomers may catch a glimpse of it speeding away.

Scientists are very interested in this, because it gives us a chance to gather info about the asteroid and prepare for its return in 2029, where it has a 1 in 300 chance of hitting the Earth. Today’s passing can enable more detailed measurements of its mass and spin, which will give a clearer prediction of its orbital path. And there is even talk of Russia planting a landing beacon on Apophis sometime after 2020.

Apophis has a diameter of 300m, but while the power released by an actual impact would be hundreds of times that of an atom bomb, it still does not come remotely close to the size of the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs – that one was 10km in  diameter. Yikes!

With my love of mythology, I have already had to bite my tongue at articles such as the Daily Mail’s ‘Asteroid named after Egyptian Demon.’ Apophis (or Apep if we don’t want to use the Greek translation) is a god, dear Mail journalists. He may take the form of a snake and rule over darkness, and he may have been cast as a demon by certain monotheistic religions, but that doesn’t make him a demon.

Ah well, my love of mythology can run amok here and I can explain things fully. Apophis is the god of darkness who Ra had to defeat every night by sailing through the underworld and spearing him. The god Seth used to be cast as the one doing the killing for Ra, until Seth became mis-cast as a god of evil and darkness, eventually taking Apophis’ place in much later dynasties.

Apophis wasn’t so much a god of evil as a being of necessity – the Egyptians used him to explain why Ra the sun god mysteriously disappeared for twelve hours every day.

One of the funniest things I came across was finding out that the asteroid Apophis is in the Aten class, and while Apophis is the god of darkness, Aten is the god of light. During the Middle Kingdom, the Aten was the disk of the sun, a kind of holy nimbus to Ra. Later on the Aten got a monotheistic religion of its own, Atenism. So we get the picture that the Aten is a pretty big force for supreme goodness. Which makes it funny that such a dark god is hiding in its midst.

It gets even funnier when you realise that in the cult of Atenism, Aten was the one who killed Apophis. And now up in space Apophis is hanging out like a bro in his old enemy’s gang.

This all gave me a major case of the giggles.

But hang on. Atenism is a monotheistic religion, you will recall. So what is Apophis doing there in that old Atenist myth? Well, followers of Atenism engaged in full-scale deicide of the old gods, which largely involved rewriting myths and defacing temples. Because of the monotheism, Apophis had to be relegated to being a demon. So the Daily Mail kind of got it right – but still, Atenism had a brief 20 year stint as a major religion out of all of Egypt’s 3000 year history. For the greater part of time, Apophis was a god. And most people, when they think of Egyptian mythology are thinking of the traditional pantheon, not a wildcard short-term monotheistic religion.

Thinking about it, if Aten were real he’d probably be highly annoyed about lending his name to a group of pagan gods! Hehe.

I looked a little deeper into Nasa’s reasons for naming Apophis. It turns out that Apophis is going to become an Apollo class asteroid after the close pass in 2029, but up until then it will be in the Aten class, and since it’s traditional to name asteroids from within the same mythos as their class name, they needed an Egyptian name with a Greek flavour. They also wanted to choose something that represented darkness or danger. So Apophis, the Greek spelling of Apep the God of Darkness, fitted the bill perfectly.

I must say I appreciate NASA’s commitment to mythological naming very much.

But what will happen after 2029? I’m kind of hoping Apophis gets renamed to fit in with its Greek fellows. Considering its current situation as the polar opposite god to its named class, and the fact that it will be moving into Apollo – who coincidentally is also the Greek god of light – I propose it gets renamed Erebos, the Greek god of darkness; the Apophis of another culture.

It’s around half past two and I’m looking out my window. Apophis is up there somewhere, right now.

This was meant to be a short post.