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Dead things.

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Valencia fell to the Nationalists in the last days of the war. Advancing from the north and west, the various armies of the fascists pushed through a beaten Republican force. Passing through the ancient city of Saguntum on the 29th of March, on the 30th troops entered Valencia. The British navy stood back as the Nationalists rounded up somewhere between 10 000 and 30 000 soldiers and civilians from the Alicante ports. By the end of the next day the war was over, and the decades of dictatorship had begun.

In 2006 Antony Beevor updated his estimates of the calamity of the time : 38 000 killed by the Red terror, 200 000 in Franco’s response. Estimates for the province of Valencia were around 3000 on each side.

You would learn none of this by visiting Valencia today – there are no memorials to the fallen, no understated monuments to a divisive conflict. But that’s not to say that Valencia isn’t a city at easy with death, that the Valencians don’t understand the inevitable. (Beyond the traditional Municipal Bulldeathring.)

Ghosting its way through the centre of the city is what used to be the river Turia. After a particularly unpleasant flood in the 50s it was exterminated. Banished from the city. It lives now only in the memories of the populace (also in some fields about 10 km south of town). It takes a special kind of “popular will” to remove the river from the middle of a city. A different kind of decision making process to replace it with giant corpses.

But this is what the good Burgueses of Valencia chose to do.

For example, this.

The Valencians claim it is a representation of a Lilli-prisoned Gulliver. A genuinely fascinating assertion given the (in) action of the British navy half a century earlier. It is, alas, unmistakeably, a dead swordsman. Possibly executed. Resolutely ex.

An oversize corpse for children to play inside.

Not a dead body.

Further down the ex-river is a more contemporary satire. A home-grown version. The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias was to be Valencia’s beating cultural heart. Oddly, a heart is one of the few things the Cuidad doesn’t manage to contain an architectural representation of. They did manage an extracted eye. Two, in fact : one open, one closed. There are also some ribs and an assortment of what might be blood cells.

It is up to the reader to decide which body part this best describes.


The science museum is designed to look like a rotting whale carcass.


One thing they all are – apart from a grotesque representation of a society consuming itself – is empty. A ghost town, hidden inside a skeleton at the bottom of a dead river. The Turia has been dry since the 60s, but the city of arts and sciences is a product of the last decade. The more optimistic half of the last decade.

The Victorians (and also Albert Speer) were inclined to judge past civilisations on the quality of the ruins that they left. Think pyramids, think Haverhill. As such, both the Victorians and the Nazis wanted their buildings to not only look good for the living, but also for the not-yet-living. Famously John Soane went as far as to commission an image of his new Bank of England a millennium hence.

What to make of a city that built its ruins only ten years ago ?


Written by alexconnor

July 19, 2013 at 20:23

There are insufficient data to warrant a discussion of this problem.

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Fig 2.

So ends Margaret Thatcher’s one and only published scientific paper. Many people have contributed less to science. But not many of those became Fellows of the Royal Society.

‘The saponification of α-monostearin in a monolayer’ was published in 1951 in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture (not open access…) and describes the results of a series of some somewhat fiddly-sounding temperature- and pressure-dependence studies of the saponification of a glyceride.

Paul Nurse railed a couple of years ago against the modern style of paper writing, preferring the simpler times and terms of his youth. This paper reads as though it should have an list of apparatus at the beginning. Instead it opens with a cursory overview of the context of the experiments – the monostearins studied have found use as emulsifying agents, and their properties in this context are not well understood. The young Margaret Roberts was seemingly tasked with elucidating these for J. Lyons, the food manufacturer. A contemporary in the company recalled that Roberts had the job of “improving the over-run [air content] of ice cream”, which ties in well with the emulsifier work she published (in ice cream, emulsifiers can act as both stabilisers and aerating agents). It ends as all good science should : “The reason why equation (3) is not obeyed at higher temperatures is obscure. … no satisfactory explanation was found and it is felt that there are insufficient data to warrant a discussion of this problem.”

So, no, as everyone knows, she didn’t invent Mr Whippy. Not least because soft-scoop ice cream was already well-established in the US by this time, also because it seems unlikely that any one person could invent such a thing. But it is likely that she worked in the ice cream group and undertook research relevant to the product. And so went Thatcher the Chemist.

But what of the co-author, Hans Helmut Gunter Jellinek ? Much more interesting, if less well documented.

Jellinek was born in 1917. His wife Ruth was born in Stuttgart n 1918, and the two were married in England in 1948.

Hans Jellinek’s career began in England, possibly at Lyons itself, and at some point over the new twenty years he and his wife moved to the USA where he took up a post at Clarkson College of Technology in upstate New York. While holding down a job at what is now Clarkson University, he went to Japan and also seems have gained some local notoriety, and an excellent local-paper headline in the Schenectady Gazette.

He published over 160 articles and books over a 40-year career that ranged from the kind of food research he did at Lyons, to studies of the degradation of plastics, to the interfacial properties of ice and snow.

He retired a professor in 1982, seemingly so that he could spend more time with his work. At this point he received a lovely note from his co-author of 1951. Maybe it is just formality, properness, but I do wonder if, in all the time from joining him as a junior colleague to writing to him as a Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher had ever called him by his first name.

Jellinek letter

Written by alexconnor

April 17, 2013 at 23:09

The mouth of the river Effra.

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Engineering and science.

Alfred Drury’s bronzes on the downstream side of Vauxhall Bridge recognise the great pillars of the national culture : science (seen here), fine art, education and, er, local government.

Written by alexconnor

August 11, 2012 at 20:11

Posted in Science, Sculpture, Sunburn

The Wheatstone Bridge.

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Q corridor

One thing I missed when noting the passing of my dear old research group was the disappearance of something with a bit more history : with the retirement of the doyen of diamond science Alan Collins, went the last vestiges of the venerable Wheatstone Physics Laboratory.

Named for, as you might suspect, Charles Wheatstone, it was the home of Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, also of Maurice Wilkins’s co-authors on his coincidental paper. It was the home address of an awful lot of academics for at least 60 years.

To be honest, I don’t know very much about it, other than that it was also my academic address. I assume that it used to be a physical place, rather than just a slightly fancy name. Most of my colleagues used the more prosaic ‘Department of Physics’.

It may well have come into being when they rebuilt after the war. It might have been what ended up as the old teaching lab. Or they might have just re-used the door signs.

That’s gone now too, a lovely old wooden lab replaced by a gleaming white plastic one.

Written by alexconnor

September 2, 2011 at 20:52


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1st generation caesium fountain atomic clock
(A caesium fountain atomic clock, from NPL’s flickr. I would bet money that they don’t need all of those mirrors on days when the photographer isn’t there.)

Simple, elegant things. Yet somehow very hard to explain. (Also prone to wonderfully spurious precision — less than a second in 138 million years !?) Getting from frequency to time is not necessarily an intuitive thing (also, frequency is a Bad Word). Many years ago, after writing the thing in the first link above, I spent an hour trying to explain it to someone. Working from analogy, getting time from distance travelled a car, was the best I could manage. Pretty sure it didn’t work.

Written by alexconnor

August 27, 2011 at 21:31

Posted in Physics, Pie, Science

Tagged with , ,

Things to do in Dublin when you’re done with meetings.

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Had a bit of ‘downtime’ in Dublin this morning, so had a quick wander round the Human+ exhibition on “augmented abilities and authored evolution” hidden at the back of Trinity College.

(Conditions not the best for phone photography.)

Conversational robots!
Talking robots!
Very polite, quite funny. Need to work on their timing. Video here.

Steampunk tamagotchi.
Steampunk tamagotchi
Now with new living microorganism.

Stelarc had a Bluetooth cell-cultivated ear implanted in his arm.
Extra ear
(It didn’t last long.)

The Euthanasia Roller Coaster (n.b. needs a friendlier, ‘carrousel’-like name), kills participants with prolonged exposure to extreme g-forces.

“Die with elegance and euphoria”.  Also screaming.

Written by alexconnor

June 15, 2011 at 19:53

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