Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Antikythera Mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient, intricate machine found in a shipwreck near Greece that dates back to about 100 BC. The Antikythera mechanism contains gears and structures that were not found in devices again for 1000 years. No one can agree on where the Antikythera mechanism was made or who designed it. Popular belief was that it was made by the Greeks due to its instructions all being in Greek but research suggests it may have come from Sicily.

The mechanism seems to be designed to work out astronomical positions, however at the time of construction laws of gravity or how heavenly bodies moved had not been discovered. This would suggest that the Antikythera mechanism has a purpose that no one alive at the time would have understood. It cannot have had a mechanical purpose (such as navigating ships) because there were no machines of the era that would benefit from the multiple functions and settings the machine has.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher

Former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher has died "peacefully" at the age of 87 after suffering a stroke while staying at the Ritz hotel in central London. In memory of her I have decided to do a short beginner's guide to who Thatcher was and what she did. 

Margaret Thatcher, born in 1952 in a Grantham, small market town in eastern England. She was the younger of two daughters and daughter to a grocer, who was also involved in local politics. She attended an all-girls grammar school, studied chemistry at Oxford University and then trained as a barrister, specialising in tax. She later married divorced millionaire businessman Denis Thatcher, whome she had two children with; twins, Carol and Mark.

Margaret Thatcher was the longest-serving British prime minister in modern times and the first woman to lead a major Western democracy. She won three successive general elections and spent a total of 11 years in Downing Street, from May 1979 to November 1990. Whilst Thatcher was prime minister British society went through some of it's biggest changes to date; heavy industry closed and new free market economy was born. She established a political philosophy that still exists today. Thatcher is not without her critics, who say the changes she made destroyed traditional working-class communities and caused divisions in society. 

Margaret Thatcher joined forces with US president Ronald Reagan to pioneer a new form of dynamic free-market conservatism, which has since taken root around the world. It could also be argued that she brought a quicker end to the Cold War through her support for Soviet President  Mikhael Gorbachev, and that she helped spread democracy to former Eastern Bloc states.

Her father, Alfred, was on the local council in Grantham and helped her develop her lifelong love for politics. Whilst at Oxford she became the first female president of the university's Conservative association. In 1959, aged 34, she was elected MP for Finchley, north London. In 1970 she became education secretary, however she was soon nicknamed "Thatcher the milk snatcher" due to her decision to end free milk for older primary school pupils. After the Tories lost the second 1974 general election Thatcher defeated then the leader, Ted Heath, in a 1975 leadership election. In 1979 she was elected prime minister with a Commons majority of 43.

Mrs Thatcher was faced with failing British economy, so she decided to squeeze inflation and clamp down on public spending and borrowing. However this led to far worse results than expected, and unemployment rose to above three million as large sectors of Britain's manufacturing and heavy industries closed down. This leader to inner city riots in 1981. However Mrs Thatcher stood her ground, refusing to do a U-turn. She won the second election partly due to her decision to retake the Falklands during the Falkland War and Labour's leftward lurch. 

After being re-elected by a landslide in 1983 Mrs Thatcher saw one of the longest and most bitter industrial disputes in British history; the 1984 miner's strike. The IRA also attempted to kill her in October of that year, however towards the end of her second term the economy improved as free mark reforms and the sale of state assets gathered pace.

A second landslide followed in the 1987 general election, with Mrs Thatcher returning to Downing Street with a 102 seat majority, becoming the longest continually serving prime minister since Lord Liverpool in the early 19th Century. Her third term was marked by an increasingly hard line on Europe, and the continuation of economic reforms with privatisation and the further growth of home and share ownership.

In one of the most dramatic episodes in political history, Margaret Thatcher was ejected by her own MPs three years after her 1987 election victory amid public anger over a new tax system for local government, dubbed the poll tax. Senior Conservatives told her she would lose the leadership election.The loyal Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe resigned over her increasingly sceptical stance on Europe, which triggered her downfall.

Britain would probably be a very different place today without Margaret Thatcher. Her bold free market reforms and curbs on union power - that caused so much controversy in the 1980s - are now accepted as conventional wisdom by all mainstream British political parties. The centre ground of British politics shifted to the right as a result of her time in power. She is, furthermore, a global icon and role model for female politicians and, with Ronald Reagan, one of the towering figures of the political right.

Sunday, 7 April 2013


I recently visited Stonehenge with my family (see my sister above) and thought I would share some of it's fascinating history with you all.

Stonehenge is probably the most famous henge in the world. A prehistoric World Heritage Site two miles north of Salisbury in Wiltshire, England, it was built over 4000 years ago and remains one of Britain's greatest mysteries.

There were three main building phases between about 3100 BC and 1950 BC. The first circle, ~3000 BC, was made of timber. The post holes for the timber have been found. Around 2600 BC, the builders gave up timber in favour of stone. Most of the construction took place between 2640 and 2480 BC.

The first stone circle was a set of 'bluestones', made of dolerite. The holes held up to 80 standing stones, only 43 of which can be traced today. What is interesting about this is that the stones are absolutely massive and in those times there would have been no way to transport such rocks. People used to think that the stones had been brought from the Preseli Hills, 160 miles away in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Another theory is that they were brought much nearer to the site as glacial erratics by the Irish Sea Glacier. Recently a group of people from Wales tried to re-enact one of the theories of how the stones were moved. They attempted to move a bluestone from Wales to Wiltshire, but the attemot failed when they tried to transport the stone by sea and it ended up at the bottome of the Bristol Channel.

Stonehenge trilathons

Later, ~2400 BC, 30 huge grey sarsen stones were brought to the site. They were erected in a circle 33 metres in diameter, with lintels on top of the standing stones. The remaining blue circles were placed as an inner circle. The site remained in use until the Bronze Age. The Stonehenge that exists today is made of all the original stones, however some of the stones have been moved into an upright position.

There are also several passage tombs and many tumuli nearby.

No one knows who built Stonehenge or why they built it. During the summer solstice, the sunrise lines up with some of the stones in a particular way, which has led a popular theory to be that the stones may have been a calendar in ancient times. In Egypt and South America similar ancient buildings that show the time of the solstice have been discovered. Stonehenge is also known as the 'Giant's Dance' and the some people believed the stones were erected by Devil, while in the C18th people believed scrapings from stones could heal wounds.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

40 Years of Mobile Phones

On April 3rd 1973, Martin Cooper made the first mobile call on the 23 cm, one kilogram Motorola DynaTAC in New York. The device contained 30 circuit boards, had a talk-time of 35 minutes and took 10 hours to recharge.

Mobile phones had been used in cars since 1946 in the US, with the technology becoming more common in the 50s and 60s. However it was not until the 70s that mobiles became portable devices.

In the last 40 years the industry has grown to be worth an estimated £800 billion, a figure former president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology Mike Short expects to increase as mobile innovations continue.

He said: “With close to 7 billion customers today, we already expect this year globally more mobile devices (or subscriptions) than people. Since its first use 40 years ago, the mobile phone has completely changed our lives. The first decade was a research or a ‘demonstrator’ phase, rapidly followed by analogue networks deployed over 10 years from the early 1980′s largely based on car phones and used in business in the developed world. This soon led to the digital decade, mainly between 1993 and 2003, when consumerisation and globalisation of mobile really took off. This led to a further data adoption phase with the arrival of 3G and during 2003 – 2013 access to the internet and the wider use of smartphones became a reality.”

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

6 Of The Best April Fools Jokes Ever

April Fools has origins as far back as the 16th century. Many believe that the moving of the Gregorian calendar from April 1 to January 1 in 1562 is where the tradition began. Today April Fools Day is celebrated world wide, and I am going to look back at some of the biggest and best pranks there have been.

1957 Spaghetti Trees
In 1957 BBC Panorama showed Swiss farmers dealing with an 'exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop'. They were shown pulling spaghetti strands from plants, before laying them out on the floor to dry.
Hundreds called the BBC asking where they could get a spaghetti bush to grow their own crop. The prank even fooled BBC staff, including the Corporation's then-director Ian Jacobs, who later confessed to looking up 'spaghetti' in his encyclopedia.

1974 Mount Edgecumbe 'erupts'
The volcano of Mount Edgecumbe had been dormant for 9,000 years when residents in Sitka, Alaska, saw plumes of black smoke rising from its crater in 1974. Fearing an apocalyptic volcanic eruption, people fled their homes in terror and the authorities were sent in to investigate.

When a helicopter flew towards the volcano and looked in, officials saw that the smoke was in fact caused by hundreds of burning tyres. Furthermore, the words 'April Fool' had been spray painted in 50ft letters around the rim of the volcano. The prank was the work of Oliver Bickar, who had been planning the stunt for four years.

1998 Burger King's 'left-handed whopper'
In 1998 Burger King advertised their latest fast food snack; their trademark burger, but with all the condiments rotated 180 degrees for the use of the 1.4 million left handed customers they received daily. The burger took out a full-page advert in USA Today proudly announcing 'the left-handed Whopper'. The stunt still fooled thousands of Burger King fans, who went out of their way to get their hands on one. A Burger King spokesperson later revealed the prank with some admirable PR-speak, proclaiming: "Everyone knows that it takes two hands to hold a Whopper!"

2008 Flying Penguins
A more recent April Fools triumph for the BBC, in 2008 TV crews in the Antarctic claimed to have captured shots of Adelie penguins taking flight. In an apparent clip for its natural history show Miracles of Evolution, video footage did indeed show the usually flightless birds soaring up through the skies.

The film was, of course, computer generated, but it fooled thousands of people, quickly going viral. Presenter Terry Jones said the penguins took to the air and flew thousands of miles to South American rainforests, where they would 'spend the winter basking in the tropical sun'.

1992 The Loch Ness Monster discovered? 
The Loch Ness Monster continues to be one of the greatest mysteries of all time, from reported sightings to Hollywood blockbusters, Nessie has captured the imaginations of generations for centuries, with nobody really knowing what, or who, dwells at the bottom of the loch. In 1992 it appeared the mystery had been solved; naturalist David Bellamy announced that giant footprints had been found on the shore of Loch Ness and announced that it proved the existence of the monster.The announcement appeared on a number of children's TV shows and on the front page of a national newspaper. The announcement was actually an April Fools stunt to promote a new chocolate biscuit called Dinosaurs.

1986 BMW’s self-inflating tyres
One of BMW's most famous tricks came in 1986 when they announced the invention of a remote-controlled tyre inflator, that was designed to save time at petrol stations and to make life easier for their customers. No more fiddling with air pumps and dirty tyre caps.The Tyre Pressure Control system was promised to allow the driver to remotely inflate the tyres via a button on the dash which activated air canisters on each wheel. The joke was so popular it was used in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies 11 years later.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Easter Eggs

I hope you have all had a fantastic bank holiday weekend and Easter, despite the cold weather. It is common knowledge that Easter is a Christian celebration of Jesus's resurrection, but this holiday also has pagan origins. However, my question is, where did the tradition of chocolate eggs, rabbits, baby chicks, leg of lamb dinners, and lilies come from? In short, they are all symbols of rebirth and lamb is a traditional religious sacrifice.

Easter falls in the spring, the yearly time of renewal, when the earth renews itself after a long, cold winter. The word Easter is derived from the Norsemen's Eostur, Eastar, Ostara, and Ostar, and the pagan goddess Eostre, all of which involve the season of the growing sun and new birth. The Easter Bunny arose originally as a symbol of fertility, due to the rapid reproduction habits of the hare and rabbit.

The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Phoenicians, and Hindus all believed the world began with an enormous egg, thus the egg as a symbol of new life has been around for thousands of years. Most cultures around the world use the egg as a symbol of new life and rebirth, especially due to it's curvature, meaning there is no beginning or end to an egg. Edward I of England brought 450 fold-leafed and coloured eggs for eighteen pence as Easter gifts.

The first book to mention Easter eggs by name was written five hundred years ago. Yet, a North African tribe that had become Christian hundreds of years before had a custom of colouring eggs at Easter. Long hard winters often meant little food, and a fresh egg for Easter was seen as a reward. Christians also used to abstain from eating meat during Lent, (although nowadays it is more often chocolate and other 'junk' food given up for Lent). Eating a leg of lamb and a chocolate egg on Easter was a Christian way of celebrating after the 40 days of abstinence.

A common European tradition is for children to go from house to house collecting Easter eggs, like trick-or-treating for Halloween. It is often referred to as peace-egging, coming from the old word for Easter, Pasch. Decorating small leaf-barren branches as Easter eggs is also a popular tradition in America since the 1990s.

Many old cultures also believed the egg to have great healing powers. However eggs play almost no role in Easter celebrations in Mexico, South America and Native American Indian cultures. Egg-rolling contests are held, which symbolise the rolling of stones away from Jesus's tomb. Nowadays Easter is not only a time of Christian celebration, but also universal celebration of spring, and has become a huge commercial success (just have a look at the hundreds of different types of Easter eggs on display in Tesco for evidence). Eating Easter eggs, spending time with the family and welcoming in Spring are all an important part of this bank holiday weekend, and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.