Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Fuels for life found on moon of Saturn – an annotated infographic

April 18, 2017

Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered hydrogen and carbon dioxide erupting in plumes of vapour from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. These are the critical organic chemical ingredients that sustain microbial life in extreme environments on Earth.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.


Seven-planet extrasolar system discovered – an annotated infographic

February 24, 2017

We are not alone. Possibly.

Astronomers have discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a star just 40 light-years away. At least three of them could harbour oceans of water, increasing the possibility they could host life.

This system has the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found, making it a key object for future study.

Click on the graphic for an expanded view.


Book review and giveaway: Measurement A Very Short Introduction – David J. Hand

September 16, 2016

By Jade Fell 

Here at E&T we want to make it easier for you to expand your knowledge of engineering and technology-specific matter. That’s why we have once again teamed up with Oxford University Press and are giving the chance for 10 lucky readers to win the latest in the Very Short Introduction series.


Measurement may not sound like the most exciting topic to sink your teeth into as it takes a certain type of person to become excited by a ruler. Yet this book has much more to offer than just a history of centimetres (cm) and inches. Rather, it serves as a brief, but comprehensive glimpse into a social construct that boasts a history that is inextricably bound with the many great leaps forward of civilisation. In Measurement A very Short Introduction, author David Hand traces the origins of measurement back to the beginning of civilised human society, with the birth of agricultural production.

Original units – which relied largely on basic physical objects to quantify length and weight – were of course hugely variable, depending as they did on physical objects. Of course, if there is nothing fundamental leading to the choice of object, other systems of measurement can be adopted. It’s hardly surprising then that a huge number of different systems have been adopted – today we have grams and kilos, pounds and ounces and the dreaded American ‘cup’.

When you take into account the history of units of measurements, measurement itself seems like a fairly vague thing – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. What is a cm? You could say that it is 10mm, or 1/100th of a metre, but how can it be defined on its own? The history is complicated and points toward the need for a unified method of measurement. This became especially important with the rise of scientific experimentation in the 20th century. It’s been a long time coming, but with the birth of the metric system we are getting close, although there are a few stubborn nations who insist on holding on to their outdated ways.

Of course, measurement is not a purely scientific thing, but can also be used to understand social aspects of society. Far from a scientific concept, it spans the entire range of human society, from the purely physical to the wholly abstract. Economic progress can be measured, but it requires a much different system measuring milk or grain – it is something that cannot be conceived with a basic unit of inflation. This, Hand says, is the difference between representative measurement and pragmatic measurement, a wholly different and complex school of thought which is becoming more important to our understanding of society.

Measurement A Very Short Introduction offers the reader a wonderfully accessible route into a hugely complex subject that spans the fields of science, sociology, history and anthropology. From the simple grains and fathoms of old, to GDP, GNI and the modern-day World Happiness Index – the history of measurement has a lot to say about the development of society. Hand has taken a topic that spans almost the whole of human existence and condensed it into a book which the avid reader could easily conquer in an afternoon.

If you want to be in with the chance of winning a copy of Measurement A Very Short Introduction all you have to do is comment on this post by next Friday (23rd) at midday. Ten winners will then be selected at random. Good luck!

Term and conditions
This giveaway is open to UK entrants only and runs until 23/09/2016 at midday. There are tene books available. There is no cash alternative and the prize is not transferable. Employees of the IET and their families may not enter.
A winner will be picked at random and contacted via email. If they do not respond within 3 days, another winner will be picked. Entrants’ details will be used only in connection with this competition and not retained or passed to any third parties.
E&T, as the promoter, reserves the right to cancel or amend the giveaway and these terms and conditions without notice.

Book review: Dear Data – Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

September 2, 2016

By Jade Fell 

Dear Data UK jacket

Particular Books, September 2016, 291 pp, ISBN 978-1-846-14906-1, £20, Flexibound

When they first met at an arts festival, Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec realised that they had been living oddly parallel lives:. Both were residing in a foreign country – Giorgia had moved from her native Italy to New York and Stefanie, originally from Colorado, was living in London.  They were the same age were both only children and, most importantly, they were both obsessed by data.

Stefanie and Giorgia have spent their lives collecting and organising information from the world around them. As a child, Stefanie delighted in filling in scorecards with her father at baseball games, while Giorgia collected and organised anything she could get her hands on, from buttons to small stones. As they got older, they both realised that they were collecting data and went on into careers as visual designers, creating data illustrations.

From a chance visit at an arts festival, Stefanie and Giorgia decided to try and get to know each other by sharing data. Having only met once, Stefanie and Giorgia began exchanging postcard-sized letters that described what had happened to them each week, but instead of writing what had happened, they drew it. The resulting project spanned a year, 52 weeks and covered 52 themes, from smiling at strangers to smells and sensations. Each week, Stefanie and Giorgia would collect, collate and share data with one another, often containing information about the most private aspects of their lives such as touch,  envy and desire.

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Dear Data is an amalgamation of the project that unfolded from the chance meeting of two strangers who went on to become intimate friends, revealing oddly personal pictures of each woman’s life. Often, aspects of life that would not necessarily be revealed through the simple act of writing can be seen through data. By looking at each other’s infographics each week, Stefanie and Giorgia got to know each other, noticing themes and patterns in each other’s drawings. The resulting works tell a story about the person behind the data. We learn that Giorgia is a control freak, and Stefanie enjoys more than the occasional drink and apologises far too often.

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Dear Data will make you pause and think about what data can reveal about a person. It makes you realise that you don’t need an app to tell you anything new about yourself. Every one of us is a walking data collection, from the money in our bank account to the calories we consume in any given day. Each time we glance at the clock on our office wall, apologise, or take a walk, we are inadvertently adding to a huge data collection that is our lives. This book is a wonderful illustration of just how data-heavy the average person is. As a project, an exhibition and a book, Dear Data is fascinating, beautiful and a treat for the eyes and mind.

E&T #news weekly – we choose our favourite #engineering and #technology stories from the past week

August 26, 2016

Friday 26 August 2016

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Facial recognition tech to combat terrorism in Germany
Instagram users analysed by algorithm for signs of depression

Some of E&T’s social media followers were uncompromising in their reaction to the news that Germany is even considering using facial-recognition technology to try and prevent terrorist attacks at airports and railway stations. “Facial recognition is the final nail in the coffin to freedom,” commented one. “They can F off if they think they are scanning my face,” a more forthright tweeter agreed. A lot of this is down to an understandable mistrust of machines, whose false positive findings people worry will be hard to argue with. It’s the ‘computer says no’ (or in this case ‘yes’) effect; by the time you’ve been taken to one side, questioned on the basis that a computer thinks you’re a known terrorist and then convinced authorities you’re not, you’ve probably missed the flight and a day’s been ruined. There’s also the suspicion that without resorting to plastic surgery the same thing could happen all over again. We just don’t have the same worries when it’s humans doing the surveillance. London’s Metropolitan Police have employed a team of ‘super recognisers’ for a while who scan CCTV footage for persistent offenders and there’s little fuss made about that. More sinister, to me at least, is the idea that an algorithm thinks it can tell whether I’m depressed by analysing the colours in photographs I post online. Surprise, surprise – researchers have found a correlations between people whose pictures use less vibrant hues and a tendency to be depressed. So next time you consider applying an arty filter that turns your holiday beach snaps into something more Goth-friendly, maybe think again.

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
Edible batteries pave the way for ingestible medical devices

Having watched an excellent BBC 3 documentary “Dirty Secrets of Clean Eating” last night, I wonder whether the new “ingestible” (as opposed to “excretable”) battery could qualify as “clean” nutrition? The news story does not reveal whether the battery is going to be low-calorie, low-carb and gluten-free, or – on the contrary – rich in calories and carbs and stuffed with gluten. I am worried that the latter guess may prove closer to reality, since as all mini-electronic devices (be they embedded or ingested) go, the new battery must contain at least one chip, and chips (whether made of potatoes, or of silicon – no matter), as we know, are not particularly “clean” or nutritious.

Smart window material efficiently blocks heat and light

Just one quick question, based mostly on reading the headline rather than the full news story: if the new “smart” window can “efficiently” prevent light and heat from entering the building (which to me sounds like not a very nice perspective, particularly during European winter), can it be made even “smarter” and start blocking fresh air too? No light, no heat, no air – what an amazingly “smart” window that would be! The only problem it will be impossible to patent, for a very similar product has been in existence for centuries. It is called “a thick stone wall”. Please correct me if I am wrong, which I probably am.

Machine gun-toting robots launched by Iraq to fight ISIS

The phrase I want to focus on in this news story is “Russian combat robots” which to me sounds like your average special forces fighters – humans programmed to kill and maim, be they Russian or other. Yet, having spent half of my life in the former Soviet Union, I cannot help associating “Russian combat robots” with the so-called cannon fodder, i.e. young and untrained recruits sent to perish in their thousands by their commanders during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978-1980.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Airlander 10 airship crashes during Bedfordshire test flight

The Airlander 10 airship, the world’s largest aircraft, has crashed at the Cardington Airfield in Bedfordshire on Wednesday during its second test flight after a UK revamp. After pretty much everyone in Britain has spent time finding the concept of the ‘flying bum’ pretty amusing, I actually felt quite sad for the poor aircraft to have had an accident so quickly into its flight. The 92m aircraft, which combines the features of a helicopter and an airship, was damaged during the accident, reportedly in a failed landing where the cockpit took most of the damage. I suppose everything should be tested…including crash landings.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Airlander 10 airship crashes during Bedfordshire test flight

The Flying Buttocks crashed during its second test flight. What a bummer. Get it? Do you think it made weird, farting noises because it was damaged during a so-called ‘failed landing?’ Like a balloon parping when it gets deflated. Just 1,000 times bigger. That’s a lot of wind.

Most drone accidents due to technical faults, not users, study finds

Broken communication links between the pilot and the aircraft have been blamed for drone related accidents. According to the University of Melbourne down under, it’s technical problems that lead to drone crashes, not the operators. Apparently 64 per cent were technical problems. That leaves 46 per cent of hooligans with their flying machines getting into mischief for the past decade.

Lorna Sharpe  Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
Sabotage-proof chip checks against Trojan infection

It’s rare these days for chips to be manufactured by the same companies that design them, so it’s at least theoretically possible for a dodgy foundry to insert a trojan that won’t show up in post-fabrication testing. Researchers in New York have now developed an external unit that could be manufactured separately and would verify the results of the primary chip. Anything that adds another layer of security to healthcare products or equipment used in critical infrastructure has to be a good idea.

Mars rover design unveiled by Chinese space agency

China’s space agency has released the first images of a rover it plans to send to Mars within the next five years to study the Red Planet’s soil, atmosphere, water and ice distribution, and other physical attributes. China hopes to launch the mission in July or August 2020, but the delayed European ExoMars rover is aiming for the same launch window, so we could see an international race to get there first.

Airlander 10 airship crashes during test flight

Those of us who worked on E&T’s predecessor magazine used to joke about ‘the curse of IEE Review’ whenever something failed soon after we had written about it. I remembered that when I read about Airlander’s unfortunate close encounter with a power cable.

Tereza Pultarova  Tereza Pultarova, reporter
Killer robot electrocutes lionfish in Atlantic to save ecosystem

Tuna stocks are low, the population of wild salmon is declining – maybe we all shall eat lionfish instead? They say it’s tasty and there is a lot of it, especially where it should not naturally be (thanks, humans) and it’s messing up coral ecosystems and destroying native fish population. An international research team is now testing an ingenious method of killing lionfish with a remotely controlled robot that takes advantage of the creature’s natural gullibility. “Lionfish are not naturally afraid of anything, so they swam in and around it,” said John Rizzi, director of US-based non-profit RISE, which developed the robot, when describing the first tests. What happens is that the robot places its two electrocuting paddles around the patient lionfish and then strikes. I know that pest is pest, but that reminds me a bit of some Nazi extermination camp practices – just go have a shower, no big deal.

Earthquake-proofing cities with engineered materials

Too late for Italy and the more than 240 people who have died in the 6.2 earthquake this week but this research brings hope that in future people living in tectonically active regions could sleep without fear. Engineers believe that entire cities could be protected from devastating seismic waves using special shields made of the so called metamaterials. These engineered materials have properties not seen in nature. Metamaterials are known from photonics, where they alter optical waves and make objects appear invisible. Similarly they could modify the powerful Earth shakes into harmless vibrations.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Autonomous octobot is first 3D-printed entirely soft robot

The octopus is frequently hailed as a wonder creature, its mysterious agile yet skeleton-less body inspiring all manner of new scientific thinking. The latest brains turned on by the octopus’ unique form have come up with a 3D-printed soft robot – nicknamed the ‘octobot’ – that could herald a new generation of completely soft, untethered autonomous machines. Where previously electric power and control systems, such as batteries and rigid circuit boards, have kept soft-bodied robots either tethered to an off-board system or rigged with hard components, this little octobot could revolutionise how humans interact with machines.

Plastic membrane offers super-fast electric vehicle charging

Electric vehicles are getting a lot of government and private sector attention these days, in tandem with autonomous vehicles. It seems inevitable that the two technologies will converge and rise together, as it’s highly unlikely that by the time autonomous vehicles become commonplace on the world’s roads – within as little as 10 years – that fossil fuels will still be the predominant propulsion system for their engines. The primary movers behind autonomous vehicles are also the types of companies keen to embrace cleaner, greener engine alternatives – e.g. the Google X team’s fleet of electric autonomous vehicles and Tesla cars, with their electric engines and autonomous AutoPilot mode. Battery charging and charge retention are accordingly key areas of research in this field, with new findings coming thick and fast from the world’s laboratories. The latest finding, from Ohio State University (OSU) researchers, concerns a thin plastic membrane that stops rechargeable batteries from discharging when not in use and allows for rapid recharging – two holy battery grails in one. The technology controls the way charge flows inside a battery and was inspired by how living cell membranes transport proteins in the body.

Book review: Telescopes, Test-Tubes and Theories – A Scientific Journey

August 24, 2016

By William Harrop

From the belief that maggots simply sprung from dead flesh to the example of Newton plunging a needle into his eye to see if pressure caused us to see colours, this book perfectly encapsulates the absurdity and eccentricity of scientific history.

The Upright ThinkersIn The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow takes you on an informative, engaging journey through the 200,000 years of human existence, examining the different scientific super-stars and theorems at each milestone between the establishment of the first civilisations in Mesopotamia and the ‘Quantum Revolution’ of the 20th century. Studded with moments of hilarity and light-hearted anecdotes, the author crafts a books that never loses the attention of the reader, no matter the complexities of the subject matter, by refraining from bombarding us with the bravado of jargon, numbers and formulas one would expect from most science books.

Mlodinow paints a detailed picture of each of the scientific greats since the very first sparks of civilisation, from Pythagoras to Hawking, skilfully fleshing out their characters beyond the formulas and achievements for which they are remembered, including the flaws, which are often glossed over by history. Misconceptions of these figures are brushed aside and replaced with equally intriguing truths – for example, the fiction of an apple falling on Newton’s head is replaced with information on his reclusive and obsessive nature, which drove him to prick his own eye with a needle for an experiment.

As an equally fascinating sidetrack to the book’s subject, the writer effortlessly brings in analogies to his life, including his time writing for the cult classic TV show Star Trek and a period spent working with the illustrious Stephen Hawking. Coupled with this, he also grounds the highbrow science the book discusses by talking about his father, and his amusing way of looking at science through the eyes of an orthodox Jew. Moreover, his father also provides a sobering testament to the harrowing struggle the Jewish people endured during the 20th century, as a Warsaw Jew during the Second World War.

Central to the book is the notion that all scientific theories are relatively ephemeral. They exist only until a better one can replace them – Newton has been replaced, Einstein has been replaced, and soon, perhaps even Stephen Hawking’s theories will be replaced, such is the nature of the ever-turning wheel of scientific progress.

Mlodinow translates his fluently in-depth knowledge of all realms of science into addictive narrative, interwoven with poignant, at-times gritty and sometimes comical anecdotal aids. So, if you’re looking for a book on scientific theories that isn’t denser than dark matter or as hard to comprehend as string theory, The Upright Thinkers is the perfect book for you.

‘The Upright Thinkers’ by Leonard Mlodinow is available in paperback from Penguin (£9.99, ISBN 9780141981017).

E&T #news weekly – we choose our favourite #engineering and #technology stories from the past week

August 19, 2016

Friday 19 August 2016

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

IET backs International Baccalaureate to tackle A-level decline

I cannot recommend the International Baccalaureate strongly enough, having witnessed my eldest son Dmitri completing it in Australia some years ago. Our decision for Dmitri to take up the IB at Melbourne’s St Leonard’s College, the only such course available then in Victoria, was dictated by a number of personal circumstances (not all of them favourable). For my son it also meant a certain disruption, for he had to leave his high school a couple of years before he was due to finish it. Yet from the very first days at St Leonard’s he started enjoying it. The course and the students were very different from his previous schools. The range of subjects was impressive, and Dmitri’s class mates were a truly international crowd which included German, Belgian, British, Russian and Australian kids. The IB had a special emphasis on IT and computing, so it came as no surprise when after graduation Dmitri decided to take up computing at his ‘uni’. Fifteen or so years on, he is one of the world’s leading cyber security experts, specialising in cyber security for human rights defenders, director of a non-profit profit company based in Montreal but operating globally. Author of several cyber security manuals, he was recently asked to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York to talk about his work. I am very proud of Dmitri’s achievements and have reason to believe that their foundations were laid by that excellent International Baccalaureate course. From what I know, he is still in touch with his former classmates from all over the world.

Uber users will be able to hail self-driving car before month’s end

My reaction to this news story is rather mixed. First of all, as someone who used to drive an old and suitably sturdy Volvo GL as my very first car after receiving my driving licence in Australia, I find it hard to image a self-driving Volvo. But my main objection to driverless cabs is more social than technical. How about a friendly and always revealing (if at times loaded with extreme opinions) chat with a taxi driver on the way to or from an airport or a train station – part and parcel of most travellers’ introduction to a new country or city? During my recent visit to Kiev, I had to use local cabs often. Not just due to the 9-hour delay of my return flight which made me travel to and from the airport several times, but also because of the fact that taxis there were extraordinarily cheap (by Western standards), and an average trip to or from Zhuliani Airport would cost the hryvnia equivalent of $2 – yes, two US dollars! For those trips, I used a company called Uklon (‘Gradient’) – a local equivalent of Uber. Why would a taxi company be called Gradient? Search me, as they say in the States, but the fact remains: all Uklon’s cabs were clean, punctual and – luckily – not yet driverless, for I had grasped heaps of interesting facts and opinions about life in modern Ukraine from the cabbies. These conversations had helped me a lot in understanding all those complex processes currently underway in my native country, to which it was my first visit after 22 years of absence. Driverless taxis therefore are not for me, and I do hope that with all those astounding new technologies in action, it will still be possible to have a ‘driver-full’ (as opposed to ‘driver-less’) cab, even if only on special demand.

 Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Airlander 10, the largest aircraft in the world, finally flies

Right, so it’s all been pretty cool, what with this hybrid helicopter blimp-thing taking to the skies. It’s got all these potential uses, which could help out a lot of industries. It can be used for things such as spying, delivery aid and transporting really heavy stuff. So why does it have to look like a bum? There was a ruckus on the internet a year ago, when images were released of the Airlander 10 in its preliminary stages. I know I’m not supposed to find this that funny at my age, but it is! They’re trying to take themselves all seriously, like: “We will help you spy so discreetly on the Russian Mafia (do they still exist?) WITH OUR GIANT FLOATING DERRIERE!” It’s even been dubbed ‘The Flying Bum’. Come on, guys. You should have thought about switching the design around a bit, so it didn’t have to look like gas-filled buttocks. Want stuff done? Ask the huge Flying Bum.

 Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Graduate engineers have some of the highest salaries according to new report

IET backs International Baccalaureate to tackle A-level decline

In the same week when it’s become an annual tradition for UK websites to be rammed with photos of delighted young people literally jumping for joy at their amazing A-level exam results, a reminder of the paradox that still exists between the subjects they’re likely to have been studying and what might lead to a successful career once they’ve left university saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt. A survey – and it’s by no means the first – has found that graduate engineers are among the best paid in the country, with salaries approaching £30,000 a year. Actual figures vary between discipline, but it’s clear evidence that a degree in engineering, unlike a lot of other subjects, is something that employers are actively looking for. One of the reasons for this is the simple law of supply and demand. And as the IET’s response to this year’s exam results highlights, it doesn’t look like a horde of new graduates is going to flood the market and suppress salaries any time soon. The depressing trend that sees so many young people making choices at the age of 16 that effectively close the door on science and engineering seems to be continuing, with entries for maths and physics down year on year. The perennial problem is how to convince students who’ve done a wide range of GCSEs and have to narrow down to three or four subjects that science is the way to go. In practice, they’re forced at a relatively young age to make a life-defining choice between that and arts or social sciences. At least there’s one solution in the shape of the International Baccalaureate, which covers a broad range of subjects within a single A-level equivalent qualification, including maths and a science. The IET wants more state schools to consider offering it than the handful where it’s available at present. Unless teenagers and their parents start voting with their feet in response to news about high salaries, this looks like the best way of plugging a skills gap that seriously threatens the UK’s economic prospects.

 Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor

Uber users will be able to hail self-driving car before month’s end

It seems that the age of self-driving cars is taking off from companies other than Tesla. Ride-sharing firm Uber is set to launch a self-driving car service in the next few weeks, and the company’s master plan is to eventually replace all of Uber’s one million drivers. The main element of this plan is to get lots of different car companies working together to gather an uber-fleet of Ubers. I feel sort of bad for the drivers though – I’ve heard some great stories about Uber drivers who have really found their calling. However, what’s safer – getting into a car with a complete stranger or getting into a car with no driver at all?

 Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Airlander 10, the largest aircraft in the world, finally flies

I’ve been following Airlander’s progress with some interest ever since I had a chance to see the craft for myself at an earlier stage of its development, so I’m delighted that it has made its maiden flight at last from the historic airship base at Cardington. Now its developer, Hybrid Air Vehicles, has to continue proving the technology and – just as importantly – convince business backers of the economic case for civilian airships.

IET  backs International Baccalaureate to tackle A-level decline

At school I was a ‘good all-rounder’ with no real idea what I wanted to do later. I chose science and maths A Levels because that option kept more doors open (and I’m still grateful to my chemistry teacher, Ballinda Myers, for making that argument so convincingly), so I would have been very happy if I’d been able to take the broader International Baccalaureate, but I’m not convinced that it would be the right path for all sixth-formers. Forcing calculus on those with no aptitude for it is just going to be counter-productive  – and where are the additional maths and science teachers going to come from? Of far more use are the initiatives to promote engineering careers to students, teachers and parents long before sixth-form choices have to be made – and in that respect there has already been enormous progress since my own schooldays, much of it thanks to the IET and the other professional engineering institutions.

E&T #news weekly – we choose our favourite #engineering and #technology stories from the past week

August 12, 2016

Friday 12 August 2016

 Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

‘Space tour guide’ could be your future career

This news story could not fail but spark off my imagination. I do not share Steve Tooze’s opinion that it is hard to predict what those future jobs will be like. Nothing can be easier, if you ask me. “Space Tour Guide” sounds intriguing of course, but how about such future professions as: “Pokémon Trainer” (as well as “Pokémon Tamer” for the most unruly specimen); “Augmented reality controller”; “Delivery Drone Dispatcher”; “Robot Care Home Carer” (not a robotic carer, but a human carer for elderly and malfunctioning robots!); “Remote VR food taster” and so on?
Among less respected (read punishable by law) occupations for those in search of quick buck, I could envisage “online burglars” and “internet banks robbers”, some of which are already in existence; “online scam operators” and “cryptic password stealers” (not to be confused with “cryptic crossword solvers”) –  these are here already too, but the sheer numbers are bound to grow.

So I would advise the youngsters concerned about future job opportunities to stop worrying. After all, if everything else fails, there’s always likely to be an opening (as I was assured during my visit to the headquarters of Ordnance Survey in Southampton last Monday) of a land surveyor on Mars (for someone will have to make maps for all those “space tour guides” and their tourists). And because ever returning from Mars during one’s lifetime will most probably still be an unlikely perspective, that position could be openly advertised as a “guaranteed job for life”.

China warns Hinkley Point decision could sour UK relations

This story brought back memories of my early school days. Getting to school every day was a trial not because of bad roads and non-existing public transport, albeit all those did, or rather did not, take place. It was an ordeal because every morning the school was surrounded by a flock of child bullies, locally known as “siavki”, who would try to relieve the orderly school-goers of their packed lunches under the threat of a punch in the face. The worst thing to do was to succumb and hand over your jam-and-butter sandwich, lovingly put together by your granny. The following day, the “siavki”, who now had reasons to treat you as a  soft target, would demand not just your sandwich, but  the small change out of your pockets too. A much better alternatives were to either  run away, or – better – push the bullies aside and resolutely walk past them, without waiting to be punched. In the latter scenario, the hoodlums were very likely to leave you alone for good, for bullies are all secret cowards scared of determination and resistance. Coming back to the Hinkley Point scenario and an obvious attempt on the part of the Chinese to bully Britain into submission (or, euphemistically speaking, to “urge a quick decision”) not by depriving it of a nuclear “sandwich”, but, on the contrary, by force-feeding the country with it, the response should be as firm, determined and unconditional as Brexit, even if the big guy (China) threatens that refusal “could impact the future relationships” between the countries. Swallow this dodgy nuclear “sandwich” – and we’ll be fed many more… Refuse it – and a new mutually acceptable solution will eventually be found.

 Jack Loughran, news reporter

China’s robotics sector could fall into a debt-ridden black hole

Revelations that the Chinese robot sector is largely funded by trillions of dollars of government loans suggests a crisis may be on the horizon. Industrial robotics parks are largely funded by a ‘local government finance vehicle’, which is a state-sponsored program that offers money and a raft of other incentives for firms that want to set up there. Some of them are worth hundreds of millions of dollars but analysis of the robotics sector shows that it may be reaching overcapacity; with many Chinese start-ups creating novelty products that will ultimately fail to generate enough money to pay back the vast loans. When the government tried to tighten the rules around its loans in 2014, growth in the country as a whole quickly fell to a 25 year low leading to a quick reversal of this decision. With China currently owing $26.5 trillion in total, the robotics sector could be one of many interesting yet ultimately uneconomical industries that drives the country with the largest population in the world into a debt-ridden black hole. The world’s economy will surely soon follow.

 Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Solar storm radio jamming ‘took US to brink of nuclear war’

Unless Hollywood could draft in a couple of bankable stars to play a pair of romantically entangled 1960s weather scientists, there’s probably not enough in this Cold War tale to sustain a future blockbuster. But though not quite as engaging as Matt Damon’s extraterrestrial science-based adventures in The Martian, it’s a fascinating – if chilling – example of how technology can gently steer the politicians away from plunging us all into Armageddon. When US radar systems went blank one day in 1967, the immediate assumption was that the Soviet Union was up to something and aircraft laden with nuclear weapons were put on standby. According to some new research documenting what happened, it was only when scientists pointed out that unusual events on the surface of the Sun were more likely to be to blame that the military stood down and the nuclear clock moved a few seconds away from midnight. I almost don’t want to know about these things. Not quite old enough for school at the time, I would have been playing with my Lego, doing a jigsaw or just running around the garden, blissfully unaware of what was going on on the global scene. Nice to learn now that the techies, as they continue to do, were working in the background to help world leaders retain a bit of sanity.

Book review: Mainlines and sidetracks mapped in ‘Europe by Rail’

August 8, 2016

E&T features editor and columnist Vitali Vitaliev put the latest version of a guide to Europe’s rail routes to the test on a recent trip to Switzerland.

This Summer sees the long awaited arrival of a completely revised and updated 14th edition of Europe’s most comprehensive railway guide book – the only remaining publication that continues the fine traditions of Thomas Cook, the father of modern tourism whose first travel guide was published in 1873.

Just like the previous edition, ‘Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for Independent Travellers’ (European Rail Timetable Ltd, £15.99, ISBN 9780992907358) has 50 main railway routes at its core, but all of them have been rewritten and re-tested (read re-travelled) by tireless authors Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries.

The main routes cover the bulk of the continent, from northern France to Serbia and western Ukraine. Yet, on top of the main rail thoroughfares, the book contains 26 less well known ‘Sidetracks’ which to me are the Guide’s most admirable feature, for I have always believed that for an inquisitive traveller there is much more to learn in narrow side lanes – both real and proverbial – than in all kinds of high and main streets and their railway equivalents.

It is from one of those fascinating sidetracks that E&T readers will be delighted to learn the story of Georges Nagelmackers, born in Liege in 1845 and the founder of the Companie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, who can be called the engineer and inventor of long-distance rail travel. Nagelmacker took the Pullman principle one step further by adding separate compartments with proper beds to Pullman carriages. He was also the first to introduce railway dining and was the founder of the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express. Champions and staunch supporters of long-distance train travel, Gardner and Kries deplore the gradual demise of sleeper trains now happening all over Europe and note with regret that Nagelmackers is “probably turning in his grave”.

europe_by_rail_14th_edition.jpgI had a chance to test this amazing Guide in action (or should I say traction?) during a recent trip to and around Switzerland, and can testify that it is an indispensable companion, particularly in combination with the same publisher’s European Rail Timetable, to which Gardner and Kries contribute a regular ‘Beyond Europe’ section. A bi-annual Summer edition of the latter, in conjunction with Europe by Rail, was essential in planning my travels in Bernese Oberland. Not once did the Timetable (helped by the extraordinary punctuality of Swiss Railways) let me down, and the Guide never failed to be on top of the case, with its invariably precise and succinct tips and its writers’ admirable ability to sum up the essence of a location in one or two sentences: “Our train runs West from Interlaken to Spiez with fine views over the Thurnersee en route.” And the views were all fine indeed.

Being always meticulous with the facts, Gardner and Kries manage to maintain an extremely high quality of literary description reminiscent of Patrick Leigh Fermour, whose influence I could feel here and there. In his ‘Time of Gifts’, Leigh Fermour talks about entering Rotterdam under a heavy snowfall which made it feel as if he was “slipping into Rotterdam and into Europe through a secret door”. To me, this echoes one of the Guide’s Sidetracks entitled ‘The Back-Door Route to Holland’.

I’m lucky to know Gardner and Kries, a two-women-strong travel and publishing institution that also produces Hidden Europe magazine, and was privileged to visit their Berlin offices last year. They are constantly on the move, and every now and then I receive their emails from the road; from the Balkans one day, from Odessa the next. Before I sat down to write this review, I was able to ask them what makes this year’s ‘Europe by Rail’ special. Here’s what they said: “There is more ‘good writing’ (for want of a more felicitous phrase) in this new edition, most conspicuously in the introductions to the 50 journeys, but also laced through each route. All in all, there’s a stronger sense of history and of Europe’s varied languages and cultures. And more references to historic patterns of train services to communicate a sense of how any particular journey have been tacked 50 or 150 years ago.”

In short, get on board a European train armed with ‘Europe by Rail’ and you’ll be in for a fascinating journey.

Bon Voyage!

Book review: Astrophotography – Rhodri Evans

August 5, 2016

By Jade Fell 


Andre Deutsch, September 2016, 192 pp, ISBN 978-0-233-00501-0, £25, Hardback 

For millennia people have been fascinated by the stars, looking up to the sky at night to search for answers, look for peace, and predict the future. As human beings we often forget our place within the wider universe, and nothing will better remind you of your relative unimportance than looking up at the night sky. It is worth noting however, that the stars above us, while intoxicating to view outside of the city lights, are just a small snippet of world outside our atmosphere. Astrophotography by Rhodri Evans serves as homage to the beauty of the space beyond our atmosphere, presenting some of the most breath-taking astral photos ever taken.

We begin with a reminder of the insignificance of our tiny home planet. Important, because it’s our home, because it is the only known place that possesses life and yet it barely registers as a miniscule blip on the radar when it comes to the wider universe. The billions upon billions of galaxies that exist beyond us got to show just how tiny we really are. This photo, taken from 6 billion kilometres away, sums up everything you have ever known, everyone that you have ever and will ever know, and the whole of human history in less than a pixel in a camera’s array. Do you feel small yet?


A tiny blue dot – Earth seen from 6 billion kilometres away [NASA/JPL]

Part one of this pictorial tour through outer space stays close to home with a summary of our solar system. From our closest neighbour, the moon, round the sun and past the seven other planetary bodies that all call the solar system home, stopping along the way to look at neighbouring moons, and the satellites, shuttles and space craft that made this book possible. Those of you who can remember the golden years between 1930 and 2006 will no doubt rejoice at the inclusion of everyone’s favourite non-planet, Pluto, who was devastatingly demoted to dwarf planet status just ten years ago.

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With each sequential part of the book, Evan travels further into outer space stopping next at the Milky Way, and all those that call the deliciously named galaxy home. The book explores the likes of the Orion Nebula, the Pillars of Creation, and, at the very centre, an elusive super massive black hole. A little further out takes us to the local group, the ‘neighbourhood’ of galaxies of which the Milky Way is part. Enter Andromeda, the large and small Magellanic Clouds, and the distant Pinwheel Galaxy. Further still and we reach the outer galaxies that lie in our immediate neighbourhood – galaxies of many shapes and sizes, distinct from the two spiral galaxies that dominate our local group. Some located 100 of millions light years away, these galaxies take the largest telescopes to explore.

The last stop on our astronomical tour takes us to the every edge of the universe. At which point we are, quite literally, looking back in time. The light from the far reaches of the universe has taken so long, some up to 13 billion years, to reach our tiny earthborn telescopes that we are viewing the stars as they appeared at just a few hundred million years old.

This book is not merely a stunning collection of photographs of the enormous cosmos of which we are just a tiny part, it is a homage to the astronomers, the physicists, and the multiple probes, spacecraft and satellites that are forever pushing further into the realms of unknown. Leaving no astrological stone unturned, from Europa, the ice moon of Jupiter, to the distant Sea Horse Nebula, Evan’s presents the most breath-taking astrophotography available, alongside the physics of the object itself, and the photo encapsulated in the book. Astrophotography interlaces hard science alongside stunning photography to give the reader a glimpse of the science behind the photo.