Curiositwitty New Flashes!

Friday, 15 May 2009

Show 2. Rooms 61-63: The Donations

Words by Emma-Lee Moss, Illustrations by Katie Scott

Kelvin Helmholtz Cloud
Kindly Donated by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
Located in the room with the very high ceilings

“In my mind a blue sky with no clouds in it is a two-dimensional thing. The clouds bring a sense of architecture and shape to the sky,” says Gavin.

Gavin brought in the Kelvin Helmholtz cloud because it is ephemeral and rare, and it forces us to pause what we are doing and contemplate the serendipity in spotting such a thing. He also chose it because it is an indication of the currents of the air, reminding us that ‘the atmosphere is an ocean, just like the oceans down below us, an ocean that contains waves in it, and we are creatures of this ocean.”

The Kelvin Helmholtz clouds are named for Lord Kelvin and Hermann von Helmholtz, who studied the dynamics of two fluids of different densities when a small disturbance like a wave is introduced where the two fluids meet. They look like a series of breaking waves, being formed of cloud that has broken in the same way that waves do; their crests are pushed ahead of their troughs by the difference in air currents. To put it another way, when two different layers of air are moving at different speeds, in different directions in the atmosphere, a wave structure can form; the upper layers of air move at higher speeds and scoop the top of the cloud layer into wave-like rolling structures. The clouds form on windy days where there is a difference in densities of the air. The clouds form all over the world but are very rare.

KH clouds are also known as billow clouds, shear-gravity clouds, KHI clouds, or Kelvin-Helmholtz billows. They are often good indicators of atmospheric instability and the presence of turbulence for aircraft.

The wave clouds do not last very long because the upper layer of air is usually drier than the lower layer, which results in evaporation of the cloud.
It is the cloud that earns the highest score (55 points) in Gavin’s I-Spy-style Cloud Collectors Handbook. He says no collection of clouds is complete without one.

Whose Cloud is it Anyway?

“One of the few things you know you have in common with everyone you meet,” says Sean, “is what it’s like out on Earth today,” and according to Gavin, this is true for clouds as well.
“The clouds are the same generally the world over,” he says, “save for some regions. For example, the North Pole doesn’t get heated enough for Cumulo-Nimbus to rise in thermals. But aside from a few things like that, they are universal and they pay no attention to political or cultural boundaries, so they are a great unifying force.”

“You mean those aren’t British clouds?” exclaims Sean

But seriously folks, these disputes do happen. For example, two Midwestern states in America recently had a serious disagreement over the ownership of certain clouds. Says Gavin, “they were putting chemicals in clouds to try and make it rain to solve drought problems, and people on one side of the border were seeding the clouds and it was raining on the other side, so they had a legal dispute.”

The Holmdel Horn Antenna (a telescope)
Kindly donated by Simon Singh
Located in the Telescope Room

Simon brought a telescope in the honour of the 400th anniversary of Galileo using a telescope for the first time. He chose the radio telescope over a normal optical telescope, and in particular he chose the Horn Antennae telescope, situated in New Jersey, for having contributed to possibly the greatest discovery so far in our understanding of the universe.

In the early 60s, two astronomers called Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias were working on a radio telescope - again at Bell Labs. Again they were troubled by background radiation, the same "noise" as makes your radio fuzzy when you don't get a good signal. It was coming from all directions; and it was only at an astronomy seminar when they met a pair of cosmologists called Dicke and Peebles who had posited that the remnants of the big bang should be detectable as electromagnetic waves, that they put two and two together.

At the very start of the universe's life, there was a massive flash of primordial light. This light carried on outwards thanks to the original expansion, and is still moving. We can't see it, however, as over the billions of years, as space-time has stretched, so has the light - so now it has a much greater wavelength - turning it into radio waves.

Wilson and Penzias won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery. The Smithsonian Museum struggled to illustrate the discovery, so exhibited the Cointreau bottle that Gamov and Alpher (two of the men who originally came up with the idea of background radiation - their theory was lost for 20 years before Dicke & Peebles independently came up with the idea) used to celebrate, as well as the pigeon cage used by Wilson & Penzias to capture a couple of birds whose guano was originally thought to be causing the interference.

Bell Labs/ Serendipity

Bell Labs are mainly an industrial lab that deals with communications, says Simon, but somehow they’ve won something like ten Nobel Prizes. He cites as a reason for this serendipity. “This Horn Antenna telescope was developed for the purpose of satellite communications,” he says, “for bouncing waves off a giant balloon.” Yet it ended up making possibly the most significant discovery that cosmologists have ever made.

“Serendipity is a big part of science,” says Simon, “Penzias and Wilson got a Nobel prize for it, and people sometimes dismiss that, saying, ‘oh they got a Nobel Prize by accident’, but in fact, other people had detected it previously, but they ignored it. As Churchill said, ‘any idiot can stumble across the truth, but it takes a genius to recognise that they have.’

Simon’s favourite interpretation of serendipity is ‘searching for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter’.

Our favourite interpretation of serendipity is Serendipity, starring John Cusack.

Universe Ideas

What happened before the big bang? As Simon implies on the show, you’re almost asking for punishment even thinking about it, but people do, and here are some theories to make your mind bleed.

1. The ‘Yo-Yo Universe’ – in this theory the Universe will eventually expand to its full extent and then gravity will cause it to retract, causing something along the lines of a ‘Big Crunch’. The Universe continues to expand and retract and expand and retract, in an infinite series of Big Bangs and Big Crunches.

2. The Big Bang created not only Space, but Time. So, if Time was created in the Big Bang, the concept of what came before it is meaningless.

3. Our Universe gives birth to other Universes. So we have daughter Universes and we may have a mother Universe. Simon calls this a nice theory, “because if we have a family tree of Universes, and we’re all slightly different from our parents, that explains why there’s life. In order to have life you need a series of remarkable coincidences, so if our Universe is one of many, it explains why we lucked out.”

4. The entire Universe is a simulation concocted by an infinitely intelligent computer system that exists at the Omega Point (or, to be dramatic, the end of time). We are all simulated copies of real people who have died, and in some ways this is the afterlife. The thing that came before this Universe is the real Universe.

5. Insert your own Origin Theory here. They’re fun to make up. See point 4.

Quote of the show, for reminding us to be thankful for what we’ve got:

“We live in a very precious time. We’re the first generation of people, after thousands of years of speculation about the origin of the universe, to have a coherent, consistent, elegant model of the universe, and that’s cause we can still see it. In a few tens of billions of years time, everything will have raced so far away we won’t be able to see the rest of the universe, and we won’t know how it works.”

Also wins the prize for most inappropriately nonchalant use of the word ‘few’.
Don Quixote
Kindly donated by Tim FitzHigham
Patrolling the entrance of the Museum guarding all that is noble

Despite living out quite a few Quixotic adventures of his own, including living as Don Quixote in a cave in La Mancha, Tim seems to have chosen this book for its significance in literature.

Written at the same time as Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, it appears to be the first instance of Postmodernism in fiction, about 500 years before Postmodernism was invented. It is professed to be the most widely translated and read piece of writing other than the Bible, and is known to some as ‘the Spanish Bible.”

Between the publication of the first half and the sequel, which is now known as the second half, an imposter published a fake sequel to the book. Cervantes responded to this by including an imposter in the second part, as well as ending in Don Quixote’s death, to avoid any more unofficial sequels.

Cardenio is a lost play probably written by Shakespeare, which is assumed to have been based on Don Quixote.

Quixotic Adventures

Around the time that Don Quixote was written, a man in London set the record for crossing the Thames in a paper boat. The man was a poet mainly, but for 383 years, until Tim came along and broke it, he held the longest standing maritime record in Britain. Tim quotes the final stanza in a poem of his:

“All these are great in names and great in Fames/ but greatest in goodness is the fair river Thames/ What doth it do but serve our hearts contents? / Brings our food and takes our excrements”

It was not until Tim broke this record that someone suggested he read Don Quixote, which he immediately fell in love with.

One more Quixotic attempt made by Tim was to then Prime Minister Tony Blair, during the cash for honours scandal. “At the time,” he says, “people were allegedly paying millions of pounds, allegedly, to become lords, so I wrote him a letter saying ‘Dear Mr. Blair, a million pounds is a lot of money to become a lord, I only want a knighthood, here’s a ten pound book voucher.”
To his great amazement, the PM wrote back. “He was entirely scrupulous. He sent back the ten pound book voucher, with a letter, saying ‘I’m sorry, this is a parliamentary bribe, it infringes the regulations, you must have your ten pound book voucher back, and give it to a charity of your choice.”

Tim has no comment for why he is the Commodore of Sudbury.

Show 2. Rooms 61-63: The Steering Commitee

Words by Emma-Lee Moss

Tim FitzHigham

There is some confusion as to whether or not Tim Fitzhigham was born in a lunatic asylum. “It might have become one after I was born,” he says, cryptically. But there is no question as to whether or not he belongs in one. The Queen has called him the maddest man in her kingdom, Thomas Crapper have designed a toilet in his honour with the words ‘mad in britain’ printed on the basin, he has crossed the channel in a bathtub, and undertaken perhaps the second most Quixotic adventure in history by living as Don Quixote in a cave in La Mancha, so the answer is no. Tim Fitzhigham doesn’t belong in an asylum. He lives out his adventures. What’s crazy about that? In fact, we say he deserves a prize, and many others have agreed. In addition to being a Freeman of the City of London, Tim holds one of the highest rankings in the British Navy, is a Most Puissant Knight de Santa Maria on the West Indian Island of Redondo, and has been appointed Pittancer of Selby Town.

Tim the Freeman

Tim was appointed Freeman of the City of London, after he broke the 383 year-old World Record by paddling an 85% paper boat 160 miles down the River Thames to raise money for Comic Relief.

He says of the title, “You get given something like a little driver’s licence, but it’s a bit older. You also sign a book that’s been signed by all the Freemen before you, so it really is quite a daunting thing. The book is as you’d think it would be, it’s a big book, there’s been a lot of Freemen in the last 700 years, and you open this thing and you see Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Me. It’s quite a weird experience.”

Perks of the job include the right to drive sheep across London Bridge, the right to drive geese down Cheapside, and the right to wear a sword in the city of London, of which Tim says, “it’s brilliant, cause not only can the police not arrest you, but if you draw your sword, they have to follow you, because clearly you’re defending London from attack.”


Tim: “You have to pull out your birth certificate when you become a Freeman, and I gave them mine and the registrar said, ‘were you born in Norfolk in the late 70’s? and I said yes, and he said, ‘nah, this is not a birth certificate’, and I said, ‘what do you mean?’ and he said, ‘the registrar went mad, and had to be removed, this isn’t a birth certificate, it’s an envelope. And it was.”

If this applies to you, you might want to pop down to the local council and see what you can do about becoming an official person.

Other roles

As Pittancer of Selby, Tim has various Medieval rights and privileges, such as the use of a 1,000 year old office, and the right to distribute money on a Maundy Thursday. With great power, though, comes great responsibility, and he is also bound to various Pittance-ing duties. Once a year, he has to provide the priest of Selby with one pound, a sum of money that he describes as ‘very significant’ in times gone by. He also has to inspect the Abby drains, and, every Maundy Thursday, he must provide eggs and cheese to any Benedictine monk that he finds wandering , and his third duty is to give a pittance of eggs and cheese to any stray Benedictine monks who are found wandering the Abby. This is a concern to him, he says, lest ‘a coach trip of Bendictine Monks happen to break down in Selby on Maundy Thursday.’

You can hear about Tim’s roles as Commodore of Sudbury and Knight of the Kingdom of Redondo on the show.

Crossing the Channel

After he broke the World Record, Tim crossed the Channel in a boat made almost entirely of an old English bathtub, arriving at Tower Bridge after a 130-mile row. After this Thomas Crapper and Co released the ‘The Fitzhigham’, a commemorative toilet with a drawing of Tim rowing in a bath-tub inside it.

As a result of this journey, Tim was asked to meet the Queen. During the meeting, a question was raised as to whether or not he could repeat the journey in a shower. Tim answered that he couldn’t because he wouldn’t know what colour curtains to choose, to which the Queen replied, “I think blue, don’t you?”

Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is another man who follows through his dreams. Co-founder of the Idler magazine, he has also taken a lifelong affection for clouds and turned it into an occupation. He is the founder and head of the Cloud Appreciation Society, the publisher of ‘A pig with Six Legs and Other Clouds’, and recently the author of a best-selling book. ‘The Cloudspotter’s Guide’ is stuffed full of facts about clouds and gives each genera of clouds character. For example strato-cumulus is "always in transition" and therefore "not unlike the pop singer Cher at the height of her costume-changing stage routines". It also comes with a handy cloud-spotting chart for your own sky-gazing adventures.

He has a ritual he calls "Contemplating the Heavens Below": lying on your back, dropping your head down, and surveying an inverted sky as if it were a landscape.
He tries to fight blue-sky thinking wherever he finds it. “It is criminal that these travel companies try and persuade us that we can only be happy when we fly somewhere it is a blue sky every day. There is a beauty in the everyday and we would be wise to appreciate it.”

The Idler

The Idler was founded “to return dignity to the art of loafing, to make idling into something to aspire towards rather than reject.”

Says Gavin, “there’s a quite a struggle to achieve an idle life. it’s a noble struggle to find the time to relax, especially now more than ever, and there is a philosophy to the magazine. I’ts not really about doing nothing. The philosophy is that the best ideas, the most creative thoughts, come to you when you’re not straining. We’ve all had times when somethings been on our mind, and we can’t think of an answer, and we think oh forget it, and go to sleep, and we wake up in the morning and somehow it’s been resolved. And that only happens when your mind is idling. I think there’s a really important aspect of our week that we forget about, and that is the time that we are doing nothing, and the Idler is championing that.”
Gavin sees himself as one in a long tradition of Idlers, following in the footsteps of Samuel Johnson, who wrote several essays under the title, and Jerome K Jerome, who did the same.
Gavin would advise Tim to be a little more idle.

“Going across the Channel is not up our street at all,” he says, “it seems like an awful lot of effort. But I do like the way you’re doing it your way.”

“Yes, because most people get the ferry,” says Sean.

Simon Singh

Simon Singh comes from a family who were farmers for generations in Punjab, India. In 1938, his grandfather left his village of Thakarki and settled in Somerset. At the age of nine he had decided that he wanted to be a nuclear physicist, while his elder brother Tom would go on to found "New Look". He studied particle physics at Imperial College, London, Cambridge University and at CERN, Geneva - where he smashed particles into each other looking for quarks. He also spent a couple of months teaching at Doon School in Dehra Dun, one of the best schools in India.

Around 1990, he made the decision to move into science journalism. He says,
"I could see that there were people around me who were on a different planet when it came to understanding and researching physics, and it would be they who would go on to make their names as pioneers. As for me, it was time to change career. I had always enjoyed talking about and explaining science, so I took the decision to move towards a career in journalism"
Since then he has fronted a Bafta-winning television programme and written some truly excellent books, including “Trick or Treatment? Alternative medicine on trial’, ‘the Code Book’, which promised a £10,000 prize for the first person to solve a set of 10 encoded messages (a group of Swedish jugglers, since you ask), and The Big Bang, a history of the key events in mankind’s discovery of cosmology.

Despite all this, he still cites himself as only having ‘the faintest clue’ about science and mathematics, a claim that while fitting in with Lao Tse’s ‘The wise man knows that he knows nothing’, also brings to mind those high-achievers at school who go on about how they’re about to fail the exam, only to come out of them with all A’s and a place at Oxbridge.


“Every great scientific idea starts out as being a blasphemy,” says Simon, “you end up with people with extraordinary ideas that go against the grain, whether they’re Einstein and relativity, or Kant and infinity, all battling against everybody else, and there’s a high level of insanity, especially amongst mathematicians, who get driven
insane by going into this deeply abstract world.”

Charles Babbage

As we learned in the show, Simon once wrote a scientifically accurate version of Katie Melua’s ‘9 million bicycles’, which she gamely recorded.

His inspiration for this was Charles Babbage, the famous statistician and computer pioneer, who saw a poem by Tennyson which read ‘every moment dies a man, and every moment one is born.’ Babbage wrote to Tennyson saying, essentially, that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill, and suggesting that he change the words of the poem to read ‘every moment dies a man, every moment one and 1/16th was born’

Says Simon, “He went on to say that 1.0842 was the actual answer but for poetic licence 1 and 1/16th was fine.”

Charles Babbage was later to go completely bonkers and went round Hackney working out the statistical probability of a house having a broken window, but before this, he built the first mechanical proto-computer, and brought out a law, which is still existence, banning organ grinders from playing on the streets of London, because he found them distracting.

The lyrics to that Katie Melua song in full…
We are 13.7 billion light-years from
the edge of the observable universe/
That's a good estimate with
well-defined error bars,
Scientists say it's true, but
acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be
with you

listen to the reworked version here:

(you can read the original article by Simon in the Guardian here:

Enigma Machines

Simon is deeply interested in codes, and owns one of the original Enigma machines from WWII, used by the Germans for all encryptions.

“For much of the second world war Churchill knew exactly where the supply lines of the Germans were, what their strategies were and all that, thanks to a group of mathematicians and engineers and scientists at Bletchley Park. When the War ended, all these people went back to their lives and got no credit at all for the part they played. People wonder why this secrecy kept for so long, over thirty years. And the reason was that after the war, the allies swept across Europe and brought all these Enigma machines back to Britain, and rang up all sorts of countries saying ‘look we’ve got these enigma machines, the Germans swear by them, why don’t you use them,’ knowing full well that they could crack them in an instant.’

With a PC today, Simon thinks we could break an Enigma code in a couple of hours or a few days. However, today’s codes are effectively unbreakable. He could send you an email using a simple free encryption, and all the computers in the world would not be able to crack it.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Show 1. Rooms: 44-46, The Donations

Words by: Emma-Lee Moss, Illustrations by: Katie Scott Northeastern Railways Bridge Plate No. 45
Kindly Donated by Chris Donald
Located next to door No. 46

“When I go to a new hospital I like that you can see the numbers on the doors, you can see room number 316 and you can imagine the scale of it. Trainspotters like the railway because it’s quantifiable. They know how many trains there are because they’re all numbered. There’s a book with all the numbers in it, and it’s very controlled and they can understand it because it’s two dimensional. I don’t like buses as much as I like trains. Yes, they’ve got numbers on, but you don’t know where they are. They could have gone on a ferry or anywhere, but with trains they know that metal track on the floor is touching every train you’re looking for. it’s a puzzle that can be solved. That’s why I don’t collect car registration plates, they’re too disorganised.”

Chris Donald is the most articulate person that Sean Lock has ever heard speak about trainspotting and indeed, he manages to inject the listener with a level of sympathy for the hobby you wouldn’t have expected. For him, it’s all about order. “The railways like numbering things,” he says, “and I like things to be numbered.” He developed the love of trainspotting as a child in Newcastle, when his family moved into a house overlooking a railway line. At the time the Railway Children had also just been released, and a curious state of affairs in Newcastle meant that young men were conscripted into the hobby by social mores. Simply put, “In those days, if you were a bloke and you weren’t fishing or trainspotting, you were probably a homosexual. So we used to go trainspotting as a cover.”

Chris now lives in converted railway station in Northumberland. He owns a series of them on the Northeastern railway line, one of which he attempted to turn into ‘the world’s most remote restaurant.’

“It wasn’t very successful,” he says.

Chris makes a point of buying the railway stations in Monopoly, even though you can’t build houses on it, and he’s very unsure what to think of the Channel Tunnel, referring to it as ‘a very grey area’. He also feels rather sorry for the kids of today, saying, “When I was a trainspotter there were about 5000 trains out there. Now there’s about 2000 and they all look the same. Poor kids.”

WAR FACT: According to John Lloyd, some of the most valuable military intelligence of both wars was collected by trainspotters who were sent to Luxembourg to collect information about where the supplies were going. Likewise, enemy planes were told to follow railway lines in England in order to find their targets.

Says Brian, “The town I grew up in was bombed by a zeppelin in the second world war, and the church was hit, as was my uncle’s house. The pilot was caught, and they asked him, ‘why did you bomb Woodbridge?’ He said, ‘I was told to navigate to London, follow the Hailsworth tain and drop it when it terminated,’ but that night it stayed rather longer at Woodbridge, so he bombed Woodbridge.”Grimsvotn: An Icelandic Volcano
Kindly Donated by Brian Eno
Located in the Museum's boiler room, providing heating for the building

“The centre of the Earth is a memory of the creation of the universe.” – Brian Eno

Grimvotn, near the western end of the Vatnojokull ice cap, is Iceland’s most active volcano. At least 60 eruptions have been documented in the Grimsvotn volcanic system during the last 800 years, most of them occurring in the Grimsvotn caldera.

Brian brought Grimsvotn as a springboard to discuss Geothermal energy, a technology in which Iceland is the world leader. About 70% of Iceland’s energy is derived from geothermal energy.

Geothermal energy plants are simple, long-lasting, and cause very little environmental damage. And, contrary to what you might think, you do not need an active volcano to have a Geothermal Energy plant. Southampton is currently meeting 10% of its energy needs by Geothermal Energy, and a city in Italy has been running a very successful energy scheme since 1911. Aside from its simplicity and minimal environmental costs, Geothermal Energy is attractive because of the fathomless quantites of energy beneath the earth’s surface. It’s calculated that there 13000 zetajoules of energy under the surface of the earth. That’s 13 followed by 24 zeroes. Brian thinks that Geothermal Energy could hold the key to some of the major environmental quandaries of our age, and we agree.

If you felt inclined, you could write a letter to your local MP, asking what the government is doing to fund research into Geothermal Energy, to reduce our reliance on unclean methods of power production. You could write something like this:

“Dear ____

*insert niceties*

I am writing to ask what the government is doing about recent research that shows that Geothermal Energy could help to reduce our reliance on unclean and finite energy sources.

Developments in geothermal technology have meant we have new types of heat exchangers which are much more efficient than the ones we had before, which means we can derive energy even in areas without an active volcano. Southampton has recently joined the Geothermal stable, and is now harvesting 10% of its energy from this source. Iceland is also 70% reliant on it.

This technology because it offers a real alternative to the situation we find ourselves in now. It is clean and virtually infinite (the earth has 13000 zetajoules of untapped energy in it), and can be used, thanks to heat exchangers, both to heat in the winter and to cool in the summer. I cite this report from

“The environmental pollution caused by geothermal installations is small because there are few emissions. Visually a geothermal site need not be offensive because of its construction which only requires a small profile and can easily be screened, by trees for example. Nevertheless, there can be a few problems caused by solids produced where salts carried up in the water must be disposed of and there have been cases of subsidence due to the drillings. Perhaps the worst scenario is when magma has unexpectedly found its way to the surface through the drillings. None of these drawbacks are insuperable…

In summary, internationally the quantity of geothermal energy is virtually infinite and the environmental benefits are beyond reproach. Set against this are the disadvantages that considerable more Research and Development is needed to take advantage of the buried wealth and even when a commercially viable site is identified the initial investment cost can be a serious deterrent. Maybe if some of the multinationals who have the resources to invest in oil exploration could channel them into geothermal exploration, research and development we might see geothermal energy being tapped on a significant scale.”

I hope you will read my comments and agree with me, that the UK need to look into this technology and develop it as soon as possible.

*Some niceties*

Your Name”The Urge To Press Red Buttons That You Shouldn't
Donated By Dave Gorman
Located in the Button Room

On this programme Dave revealed his sympathies for President Obama.

“Part of him must be fantasising about pressing that button,” he says, but it’s harder than the image of the big red button suggests. The nuclear button in fact looks a little like a laptop in a briefcase. To transmit an order to launch missiles, the President must type in a permission code, which is contained in the briefcase, which then allows the keepers of two other cases to send out launch authorisation codes, the unblocking codes and a war plan to missile sites.

So it is a little complicated, but, as we learned on the show, launching a British submarine warhead is a simple case of a right click on a mouse.

BUTTON FACT: A Molly-guard is a shield put around a big important button to stop clumsy people from pressing it. the name comes from an IBM programmer’s toddler daughter, named Molly, who once accidentally pressed a reset button on his PC twice in one day.

APOCALYPSE FACT: On September 26th 1983, lieutenant colonel Stansislaw Petrov averted a nuclear war, when his computer malfunctioned, implying that the US was attacking Moscow.

"Suddenly the screen in front of me turned bright red," said Petrov. "An alarm went off. It was piercing, loud enough to raise a dead man from his grave."

"The computer showed that the Americans had launched a nuclear strike against us."

Instead of telling his superiors of the attack, he reported the computer system as being faulty, however it cost him his job, Petrov took early retirement from the army and later suffered a nervous breakdown.

Show 1. Rooms: 44-46, The Steering Commitee

Words by: Emma-Lee Moss

In this show we had Chris Donald, creator of V
iz, who brought in a number 45 Northeastern Railway bridge plate, the multi-talented Brian Eno, who brought in the Icelandic volcano Grimsvotn, and Dave Gorman, who is Dave Gorman, who brought the urge to press red buttons.

Chris Donald

Chris Donald came up with the idea for Viz in 1970 when he was ten years old. The first issue cost 20 pence and sold just 150 copies, but word of mouth meant that by 1991, sales had reached over one million, with Auberon Waugh comparing Chris and his co-creators to Jonathan Swift.
The original Viz offices were in Chris’s bedroom, a makeshift studio with overflowing bins and bits of scrunched-up paper on the floor. The mess was tolerated in the Donald household only because it was a secret. his parents knew nothing of the comic until Donald first appeared on a BBC2 ‘Yoof’ show. After a considerable increase in the popularity of the comic, Chris’s mum asked to see a copy. Chris made 27 alterations before he had the nerve to show it.

Chris got his inspiration for Viz characters from “watching people, in seedy pubs, on the streets, being sick,” a process that led to such animated greats as Fat Slags, Johnny Fartpants, Sid the Sexist and Buster Gonads. Over the years, Viz has also acted as a starting point for future comic talent, including Charlie Higson, who wrote a strip called Jellyhead, and Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews, who used the money earned from ‘How to Play Golf in the event of a nuclear war’ to buy his first typewriter. This provides a link with other panel guest Brian Eno, who once appeared on an episode of Father Ted, as Father Eno.

Brian Eno: "
The funniest thing about [the day we filmed Father Ted] is that they gave me all the priest garb to wear, and then there was a break in filming, so I went for a walk on the South Bank in my priests gear. There were two ladies sitting in a car, and gave me a very lascivious look, which I realise that ladies can do when they feel totally safe, so I gave them a very lascivious sign back. They were terrified."


Roger’s Profanisaurus started off as a free gift on the cover of the comic, but it’s grown into a best-seller that’s been through half a dozen different editions. Says Chris, “The Internet had just started and we ran it as a page on the web that people could contribute to, and all these rude words and definitions just kept growing and growing. It’s been quite a successful book, and it’s written by the readers.”

The title of the book was very nearly scrapped, after distributors thought that Viz readers would be too stupid to understand the word ‘profanity’. Chris argued that if they didn’t know what a profanity was, they wouldn’t know what a –saurus was either. They would think it was a book about dinosaurs. Chris won the argument, and too this date, no reader has complained about the lack of T-rex photographs. A dinosaur egg, by the way, is a noun described by the Profanisaurus as meaning ‘a stool produced, with some difficulty, after necking too much of the Nigerian lager.'

Here are some other favourite definitions:

Poomerang(n) a turd that returns from the u-bend at twice the velocity with which it was flushed
Nanna Kournikova (n) – a bird who appears to be fit from the back, but on turning round is revealed to be a pensioner
Oldest Toad in the Pond – (n) A particularly low, vociferous, grumbling fart, usually after eight pints of stout and a bar of bournville
Mum-ra – (n) the act of sneaking up behind your mother and shouting ‘RA’
Wanking Chariot(n) a single bed

Says Chris, “I haven’t edited the book for years, but I still use the lavatory ones a lot. I think it’s polite, when you’re in company, to say ‘I’m sitting on an elephant’. Or ‘I’ve got the turtle’s head, I’ve got to hurry off.’”

He also likes the localised definitions that have come on to take a new meaning, “In newcastle there’s this long coastal road that goes to the seaside, the B1058, and if you’re going to Whitley Bay you drive up the coast road very fast, and at the end of this road there’s a roundabout, so you slow down very dramatically and then you’re at the coast. This later became a euphemism for the climactic point of intercourse. That’s been in the book for 13 years so presumably there are people all over the country saying, ‘All right love, I’m approaching the Billy Mill Roundabout.’”


Viz is a high-profile modern media benchmark, so unsurprisingly it has attracted its share of celebrity admirers. It once secured exclusive rights to Johnny Vegas’ wedding for £5, and held a magazine launch where Lionel Blair, Harry Enfield, and an unidentified member of Deep Purple were in attendance. Admittedly, they had to pay these people to show up, and Harry Enfield left as soon as he’d pocketed his £250, but still, they were very famous.

Says Chris, “We were having a launch party, and our publishers said we needed to have some famous people there, so we took out an advert in Variety magazine. Prices ranged from £50 for bottom rung celebrities, to £5000 for a member of the Royal Family. Our publisher John Brown showed up to the party with a suitcase full of £50,000 and we did actually have to hand some of it out. Lot’s of people were trying it on that night, but we gave them £50 anyway. There was some guy from the Christians there, but he wasn’t the bald one, so we weren’t sure if he was telling the truth.”


Over the years Viz has racked up fewer complaints than you would think. However, Chris was once interviewed by the Anti-Terrorism Branch after a magazine top tip that discussed the best time to send bomb hoaxes, oops!

Other offended parties include Liverpool MP Louise Ellman, who attacked the strip Boy Scouse, in which lads won badges for Shop-liftin’, Avoidin’ d’ Bizzies, Multiple Identity Signin’ On and Gerrin’ a Fourteen-Year-Old Baird Preggas; sportswear firm Kappa, who objected to ‘Kappa Slappa’; and the UN, who stepped in to complain about the strip ‘Thieving Gypsy Bastards’.

The only time the magazine was ever issued with a writ was when a black bin bag full of scrap paper was thrown out of a window, forcing a passerby to jump out of the way and put out her back.

Chris has also been cautioned for trespassing on a disused railway line, by a plainclothes policeman dressed as a trainspotter.

Brian Eno

Brian Eno’s biographer once described writing his biography as ‘like packing a skyscraper into a suitcase’. He was originally famous for his role in Roxy Music, but has then worked as a producer for the likes of David Bowie, Talking Heads, James, and U2, and founded the genre of music called Ambient Music. He is an artist, a professor, a film-score composer and an author, and a supporter of various charities. He sits on the board of directors for a found called the Long Now, that aims to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years, and he has been a character both on Father Ted and in a Phillip K. Dick novel.
Eno was born Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno in 1948. Both his grandfather and father were postmen, but his father was also the drummer in a jazz trio, and his grandfather mended organs as a hobby in his house, which was a converted chapel. Over the course of his life grandfather Eno gradually transformed the whole house into a musical instrument, installing all the old organ pipes and fixing them up with ducts so that by the end, says Brian, “he could pretty much play the whole place.”

It was Eno’s uncle that got him into art, bringing him over to this house to look at paintings by Mondrian, whereby Eno decided painting was the ‘closest thing to magic there was.’ While a student at art school that he met Roxy Music saxophonist. Says Eno, “As a result of going into a subway station and meeting Andy, I joined Roxy Music, and as a result of that I have a career in music. If I’d walked ten yards further along the platform, or missed that train, or been in the next carriage, I probably would have been an art teacher now.” Eno says at the first Roxy Music rehearsal, he picked up a sythesiser, because “since nobody else knew how to use it, I pretended I did.”

Despite his modesty, you would think a man with Brian's name was destined to no normal life. Incidentally, while there are 88 Dave Gormans in the UK, there is only one Brian Eno.


Brian still does not view himself as a musician, saying ‘I play the recording studio,” however, he will concede that, “I can use instruments in the studio in such a way as to get them to sound as though I can play them properly.”
Coldplay have said that the only way they could get Eno to produce their next record is if they record it ‘in Syria’.

Generative Art

In 2006, Brian released a DVD-ROM of ’77 million Paintings’, which, played at its fastest speed, would take 9000 years to watch, and at its slowest, several million years. For the piece, a computer programme randomly shuffles layers of pictures to produce a continuum of constantly changing images, of which there are 77 million permutations. He is now looking into the next stage of the idea, which is Generative Music.

“A long time ago, I thought it would be so nice to make pieces of music that existed like paintings, that just stayed in one place for a very long time, that you entered and left as you felt like it. rather than something which has a beginning and a middle and an end, I wanted to make something that has a steady state, that existed for as long as the electricity lasted,” he says, “but I didn’t just want it to be a repeat, so I invented systems whereby the music constantly produced itself differently, and that’s Generative Music. It isn’t yet in the record shops.”

“I used to have to do it all with tape recorders, sitting them round the rooms and getting loops running and so on, and it was very complicated when it was hardware. Now it’s software and it’s easier; it is possible to imagine types of music that essentially are endless or at least have durations of several million years. The last one was a six million year piece.”

The Long Now

The Long Now foundation was founded 13 years ago by Brian and his friends. The group are dedicated to the problem that, as he puts it, “as we become more powerful as human beings, our horizons get shorter.”

The foundation is currently working on projects to extend the boundaries of our horizons, such as the Clock of the Long Now, a timepiece that will operate with minimum human intervention for ten millennia. It will be constructed of durable and value-less materials, in the hope that it will not be looted or destroyed by future generations. One imagines that Eno will be on hand to protect it anyway, like the charming fellow with whom Indiana Jones rescues the holy grail. Another Long Now project is the Rossetta project, which hopes to preserve all extinct or close-to-extinct languges by inscribing samples of them onto discs of nickel alloy.

Says Eno, “Businesses now think to the next shareholders meeting, and governments to the next election, if your’e lucky. To the next opinion poll more likely. Everyone who should be making big long-term decisions is thinking in increasingly short terms, so we wanted to dignify long-term thinking, taking a frame of ten thousand years, and try and trying ten-thousand years ahead.”

And where will his Generative Music piece be by the time this time scale is up?
“We won’t even be past the intro.”

The Long Now was founded in 01996, and you can’t find out more from, which is, in contrast, a rather short web address.

Marcel Duchamp

Alongside his many, many distinctions, Brian has the honour of having been the only person (presumably) to have pissed in Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, or Font, which was recently voted the most influential piece of art of the 20th century.
“At the time there was a lot of talk in the artwork about this word ‘commodification’, which was kind of a buzzword at the time,” says Brian, “so I though re-commode-ification was what was needed.”
He managed to sneak his urine onto the sculpture using a mechanism very similar to a chemistry lab pipette. “[The piece] was behind two sheets of very thick plate glass,” he says, “but there was a very narrow gap between the two sheets, which was just big enough to get a piece of nylon tube through.”
“I then delivered a talk about it that evening at the Museum of Modern Art, and all the trustees of the museum were in the front row. They all laughed at first, but when I described with diagrams how it was done, they all started to look very serious.”
“Usually when someone urinates on a piece of art,” says Sean, “You’re assuming they don’t like it.”
“Ah,” says Brian, “but in this case it was a urinal.”

Another notable case of art vandalism is this, taken from website the
“John Lennon once damaged a valuable Henri Matisse painting by using it as an ash tray during a wild party at the Playboy mansion in 1974, Hugh Hefner claims. The French artist's works have sold for up to $15 million at auction, but amazingly Hefner forgave the former Beatle for stubbing out his cigarette on the priceless painting - because Lennon was one of his heroes. The 80-year-old says, "He was separated briefly from his wife and was in a very bad mood. He was drinking a great deal. He misbehaved a little bit and a couple of my friends took exception to it. He put a cigarette out on a Matisse and one of my friends was going to kick his butt, but he'd been drinking. He was under tremendous pressure.”
There are no sources to ascertain whether the Matisse, or the Duchamp have gone up in value since being tampered with by rock & roll royalty.

Mistaken Identities:

To avoid attention, Eno has been known to tell people that he is a patents attorney. This led to an unfortunate circumstance on a plane, when the lady who had asked his profession replied, “I’m a patents attorney too!” He then spent an uncomfortable few hours trying to dance around the reason he didn’t want to talk about his job.

Dave Gorman says, “On pain of death do you reveal to a taxi driver that you’re a comedian,” having once been told, “I don’t mind the racism, and the sexism, it’s the bad language I don’t like.”

Chris Donald has a watertight alias, “I did a very useful apprenticeship for the DHSS, I worked for the overseas branch of the Department of Health and Social Security,” he says, “so I tell people I’m a clerical officer in the DHSS. If they go any further than that I say I deal with the National Insurance contributions of people who are working abroad in non-reciprocal countries such as the USA and the United Arab Emirates – people who’s national Insurance numbers end in 43-44-42 C & D.

On revealing this, Chris finds out on that that Sean Locke has also been a clerical officer for the DHSS. He says, “I lasted six months, and I quit because it turned me into an alcoholic. I worked in the one above the Arnsdale centre in Wandsworth, opposite the Youngs Brewery, and it got to the point when I realised having five pints at lunch time meant I wasn’t getting as far in my career as I wanted.”

“There were temptations like the 5 pints at lunch time,” says Chris, “it was a regular part and parcel of working there, as it’s not the most stimulating work. Where you on the contributions side or the benefits side?”


“Yes, the benefits side is the rough end.”

FUN FACT: In the six months that he was a clerical officer for the DHSS, Sean used up his entire year’s worth of sick leave, taking 21 days off in twelve weeks.


Dave Gorman was born in 1971 in Staffordshire, and first came to public attention when he undertook a Quixotic attempt to find as many other Dave Gormans as he could in the world. He has since had himself a Googlewhack adventure, made a documentary in which he attempted to avoid chainstores in America, and lived his life according to the advice of newspaper horoscopes. He also has his own BBC2 show in Genius, where members of the public pitch their ideas to a celebrity guest ‘genius’. The guest then decides whether or not the idea is clever enough to maek them out as a genius. Contestants compete for the honour of the fabled Genius Trophy.
In June of this year Dave is doing a bike ride from London to Brighton for the British Heart Foundation, and in August, he is touring his show ‘Sit down, pedal, pedal, stop and stand up’ on a bike. He will be travelling by bike to the southernmost, easternmost, westernmost and northernmost points on the mainland, playing a gig a night along the way. He says, “interesting fact for you: Britain isn’t quite so vertically aligned as we think. It tilts. Edinburgh is further west than Cardiff. Who knew? I know I didn’t, but I found out when I started trying to find the westernmost part of mainland Britain. Turns out it’s in the Highlands.”


In 2002, Dave followed the newspaper horoscopes to the letter to see if they would improve his life. He says that it worked on paper but not in a real sense.
“I have a twin brother, who acted as the control experiment,” he says, “and he spent the 30 days ignoring his horoscopes while I rigourously obeyed mine. At the end of the experiment we measured health, wealth and happiness with the help of an audience and an agony aunt. Because I won a lot of money on the final day, it showed that astrology had won. But if we’d had a 29 day experiment, it would have tanked.”

The good result came from a horoscope that told him to travel a long distance, and a chart that told him which days were good days to gamble. He then placed money on people with the same birthday as him, reasoning that if it was a good day for him to gamble, it would be good for them also, and by this token managed to win a lot of money on a top-scoring footballer and Ian Woosam.
The latter bet, being in Dubai where you can’t gamble, was phoned in to England via Mother Gorman.
However, both Dave and Brian Eno are highly suspicious if not downright dismissive of astrology. Gorman citing an astrologer who told him not to bother with the newspaper ones, despite having a newspaper column himself.

Genius Ideas

Other than Tetris: the Movie, which is mentioned in the programme, great Genius ideas include multi-storey bungalows, Bring Your Uncle to Work Day, and the mp3 microwave, which is of particular interest to Brian.
These play a piece of music as long as it takes to cook your food. Says Dave, “Surely there’s going to be a meal that takes 3 minutes and 23 seconds to cook, and instead of the usual ‘mmmm….ding!’ that usually happens, it would find a piece of music from your mp3 player, and play it to you while you wait.”
“I’d be very interested in that,” says Brian.
“The million year stew,” says Sean.
Evil Genius ideas have included marking your postcode with UV pen on unsold goods at department stores, and reporting them stolen some months later.

Where are all the Dave Gormans?

In the year that Dave was looking for the Dave Gormans, there were 144 Dave Gormans on the UK electoral roll. There are now 88, which means that 56 have disappeared.
NB Dave met 53 Dave Gorman’s on his initial journey. You do the maths.

There are 33 Chris Donald’s on the electoral register, but the only other Chris Donaldses that Chris is aware of are an American Footballer, and “a man who, unfortunately, had sex with his car”.
The man, a mechanic, was exposed by a tabloid newspaper of having had sex with his car. He gave an interview to the Sun, in which he admitted, “Some men like boobs and bums, but I much prefer curvy bodywork.”

Peter Cook

You will learn along the course of this series that all roads lead to Peter Cook. This is a fact that uncovered itself as we recorded the episodes, so we won’t spoil it for you. Here is a little piece of the picture so you can start your own One degrees of Separation: Peter Cook Chart.
Chris was once taken to a party at Peter Cook’s house where he met a lot of celebrities, which led to his publisher requesting more celebrities at the next Viz launch.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Bill Bailey talks about the Museum

To BBC's Focus Magazine...


Hello you and welcome to the Museum of Curiosity's new residence.

While undergoes some major renovating, and instead of waiting outside in the cold, we've decided to bunk up on the comfy sofa in the lounge of our good friend

Over the next few weeks we'll be publishing information from the first series, our plans for the future, and general thoughts.

When the new series begins on May 4th we'll be adding additional behind the scenes articles, competitions and new drawings, as well as more general thoughts.

So a lot is going to be happening. We hope you join us for the chats we hope to have on the below comment bars.

Anyway, please say hello and let us know what you're thinking about.


The Complete Gallery 1

How to tie a Sean Lock Neck Knot

Documentation (our papers)

The Professor and his Curator

John Gribbin's scribblings on the Big Bang

A welcome message from the Museum

Dear Friend of the Museum,

The Museum of Curiosity is not only the largest in the universe, it is also only largely in the universe. This is because, although many parts of the Museum - including the Epping Forest Dome, the Hall of Immense Silences, the incalculably enormous Monster Number Wing, and the tiny (but intensely hot and unbelievably heavy) Early Big Bang Podule – are already under construction, the outer limits of the grounds are defined only by the collective human imagination.

Beyond the physical cosmos, the Museum goes on and on, looming interminably out of the future, impinging urgently on the present, and squashing the past into a place where it is almost impossible to get to the bar.

In this yawning void, where only the mind can live, reside the Schreiber Galleries, where both dark matter and tea-towels are for sale; the Clouds of Turner, where undreamt of art makes immense amounts of money for talented elephants and their dung; and the child-friendly Mott ‘N’ Bailey Adventure Playground. Here, you and the son you never wanted can gambol amongst the picturesque fantasies of all the Baileys who have ever lived (34, 577, 304 of them to date) as well as those of the popular glam rock band Mott the Hoople (not recommended for the under Sevens).

In due course, you may want to book a tour of The Hut of Regrets of Mrs Bernard Pune, a searing monument to a single half-life played out in Folkestone, Kent. Or not, as the case may be: the brochure alone is 47, 000 pages long.

Large as it is, the Museum of Curiosity, like the best things in life (apart from caviare, Porsche 911s and long weekends at the Riad Al Fenn in Marrakesh) is free.

I hope you will enjoy this keepsake and tour d’horizon of the minuscule parts of the Museum so far known to science, and join us for our next venture onto the Shores of the Unknown (sensible clothing advised) in 2009.

With warmest and slightly unhinged good wishes,

John Lloyd

Professor of Ignorance and Curiosity, University of Buckingham.