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.


  1. "Cervantes respinded to this"


    "avoid anymore unofficial sequels"

    any more?

  2. Thank you Pepsiman. Didn't see those.

  3. A few more:

    "Hermann von Helmhotlz"


    "This horn antennae telescope"

    I think this needs capitals - Horn Antennae.

    "The Holmdel Horn Antenna"
    "chose the Horn Antennae telescope"
    Is it Antenna or Antennae?

  4. Excellent second show, good people.

    Fortunately, the days when we English pronounced Quixote as it is written are long gone. But do we now need to pronounce its adjectival form as Keehotic? I think we should be told...