Welcome to GeoVerse!

This is a collection of original poems which began with some about geology, which is why it’s called Geoverse; but there are now poems on all sorts of things – life, the universe, and (almost) everything. Click ‘About the author’ (above) to find out who wrote them . . .
To meet all the poems, most recent first, scroll down this page. When you reach the bottom, just click the ‘Older posts’ arrow to see more, and so on.
To find a list of poems on a particular subject, use the Index tab (above), or enter a term in the Search box (below right) , or click a Topic (on the right).
I  hope you find something you like! Gordon Judge

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In the brickpits of Sussex and Surrey

Amateur geologists have found a remarkable array of fossils from quarries used to extract the Weald Clay for brickmaking.

In the brickpits of Sussex and Surrey
Are fossils of life that’s long dead:
There’s an arthropod trackway, teleost1 fish,
Amber, and a Plant Debris Bed;

There are earwigs, weevils and beetles,
Crickets and old termite poo,
Snakeflies and lacewings, clam shrimps and wasps,
Crocodile teeth, and frogs, too!
Egg cases of sharks, a small fish jaw,
Fishy otoliths2, palates and more,
What was almost the world’s first flowering plant3,
Cycads, and molluscs galore.
On this land, in the Lower Cretaceous,
Dinosaurs roamed far and near:
Baryonyx, Iguanodon, Horshamosaurus,
All died and were fossilised here.

From the Weald Clay of Sussex and Surrey
These fossils of life that’s long dead
Have been saved from the heat of the brickmakers’ ovens
And preserved in collections, instead.

1. Ray-finned
2. Ear-stones, which helped the fish to orientate and balance
3. Called
Bevhalstia, but new finds from China might prove to be earlier

Image of Smokejacks quarry: Peter Austen (with permission)
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Gone missing

I bet this has happened to most blokes.

A sock of mine’s gone missing. Where can the rascal be?
If you are out there, somewhere, please come back home to me.
I won’t be cross, I promise; I understand your plight:
You’re trodden underfoot all day, abandoned every night.

Your other half is lonely without you. She’s bereft:
She hasn’t left the wardrobe since the moment that you left.
I’ve emptied drawers and cupboards, I’ve probed the washing machine,
I’ve searched in every single nook and the crannies in between.

Perhaps my sock has passed away and gone to socky heaven;
Or maybe it has hitched a lift to John o’ Groats or Devon.
Perhaps there’s a Society of which my sock’s a member;
Or maybe socks have Socky Games, and my sock’s a contender;

Or else he’s done a runner with a lady sock. If so,
He is a silly sock; but then socks will be socks, you know . . .
Well, I’ve got other things to do and, looking at the clock,
There’s really nothing else to say but “fare thee well, old sock”.

[Image: .sock101.com]
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Look up!

Technology often seems to take over: you often see people in the street, head-down, intent on interacting with a glowing screen, oblivious of life around them.

What is this life if, full of care,
You walk with bowed-down heads and stare
At smartphone screens, all unaware
Of who you’re passing in the street?

You check your emails, Facebook, Twitter,
Fed by a 4G transmitter,
Unaware you nearly hit a
Lamppost as you made that tweet.

Look up, look up! There’s lots to see:
The chap in front of you (it’s me),
The path ahead (just mind that tree . . .),
And all the people you could greet,

The sky, the clouds, the birds and bees,
The buildings, plants – it’s things like these
That make life good and fun. So please
Give yourself a phone-free treat.

You don’t agree. Oh, I can tell –
Life without a phone is hell,”
You think. I’ve done my best; oh well,
Hash-tag “I admit defeat”.

[Image: 2.bp.blogspot.com]
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Assertions are “confident and forceful statements of fact or belief”, says the dictionary. But how can you tell if the confidence is justified? The answer defines a key difference between religion and science (see also ‘Science and religion’).

“Assertions aren’t for testing,”
Religious folk declare.
“Oh yes, they are,” says science, that’s
Precisely why they’re there!”

“Words written long ago,” religious folk protest,
“Came from prophets, and allow no questioning or test.
They say an entity called ‘God’ exists in mystic form,
Which made and rules the universe, and we must all conform.”

“What use are such assertions,” the science people shout,
“You cannot claim that they are right unless you’ve checked them out!
Science’s assertions aren’t meant to be dogmatic:
They’re ‘right’ until they’re proven wrong – you could say they’re pragmatic . . .”

There’s one assertion that is true,
And has been throughout history:
It’s that our brains are not equipped
For understanding mystery.

[Image: myocn.net]
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On Swanage Pier

The sign at the entrance to the Grade II Listed Swanage Pier demanded payment for a particular gait.

“Strolling – 90p” declared the sign on Swanage Pier.
A price I didn’t want to pay, so I stepped up a gear:
I briskly walked straight past the sign. “Oi, can’t you read? It’s clear
Enough,” the pay-booth boomed, “This is a strolling Pier.

“Just look at all those other folk: they’re strolling. Why can’t you?
If you don’t want to stroll, that’s fine, but I won’t let you through.”
I speeded up, ignoring him, and broke into a run.
I reached the pierhead, then turned round and saw he had a gun . . .

Then I woke up. And I resolved that I would, on the whole, in
Swanage do as others do when on the Pier: go strollin’.
(That 90p’s a millionth of what the Pier must raise*
To make the structure strong again, as in its glory days.)

*Over £1m has already been raised but, according to the town’s Daily Echo in June 2016, a further £900,000 is needed to renovate the structure. See the Swanage Pier Trust website.

[Image: Daily Echo]
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Muddled millipede

Muscular coordination doesn’t always come easily.

I am a muddled millipede;
Which leg is next to go?
With a hundred* legs on either side,
It’s really hard to know.

It’s easy for your humans,
I see you’ve got just four:
One to stand on, one to move,
And two don’t touch the floor!

It takes a lot of practice
In leg coordination
So we can run away from prey
And avoid extermination.

I’ve got a long way still to go,
But I’ll get there in the end,
And then I’ll help clear up your garden,
For millipedes are your friend**.

So please be kind to millipedes.
Remember, if you see
A millipede not moving,
It’s muddled, just like me!

* Roughly – most are in pairs. Certainly not a thousand!
** Well, sometimes, anyway. They feed on rotting vegetation, but if it dries out they’ll go for living plant material instead.

[Image (of a giant millipede): vivarium.wiki.com]
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Silicates rule, OK?

Interweb sources seem, by and large, to agree that at least 90% of the Earth’s crust is made of silicates. Starting in a molten magma, silicon  atoms join up with oxygen atoms to create the basic building block of all silicate minerals, the tetrahedral molecule SiO4. On behalf of his brothers, a silicon atom explains:

We’re the kings of our castles: four oxygens surround us,
Each bound by strong covalent bonds  we radiate around us.
Each O is like a turret that is negatively charged –
And that’s the way our empire is easily enlarged:

Our tetrahedral structures can stick themselves to others!
And in the spaces in between reside our cation brothers:
For olivine, magnesium and iron together blend
In relative proportions that on the magma’s mix depend:

(Red spheres represent iron ions, yellow ones magnesium)

That’s where we atoms started – all runny , hot and jumbled;
But as we neared Earth’s surface, into these shapes we tumbled.
We silicates are common, for in diverse array
We make up most of Earth’s thin crust – so silicates rule, OK?

[Images: http://wps.prenhall.com and www.theimage.com]
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June drop

You’d think a fruit tree, like our Bramley apple, would hang on to as much of its crop as possible, but around June each year, it gets brutal.

It is that time of year again
When apples start to drop
From trees that seem determined
To devastate their crop.

Along each branch, within each cluster
Without the slightest sound,
The strongest send the weakest apples
Tumbling to the ground.

It’s wasteful Nature yet again –
Or is it? Maybe not,
For what’s left on the tree are just
The biggest of the lot!

They taste delicious in a crumble,
Or cored and used for baking.
And all those drop-offs? They’ll end up
As compost in the making.

[Image: theapplefarm.com]
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Dino dusters

A researcher at the Natural History Museum insisted that folk like him were not ‘just dinosaur dusters’. But dinosaurs do have to be dusted, and as I pondered over who did such important work, this possible answer wafted through the aether (to the tunes of “We are the Ovaltineys” and “The Ovaltineys say Good-bye”). It might explain why you never seem to see them in action . . .

1. We are the Dino Dusters
We are the Dino Dusters, little girls and boys.
If you should see us, please don’t poke us
When you’re near the Diplodocus:
We clean its bones up every day
And don’t make any noise.
The reason that we can’t be seen
While dusting dinos nice and clean
Is ’cos we all drank Ovaltine,
Which shrank* us girls and boys!

2. The Dino Dusters say Good-bye
So we’re not happy Dino Dusters:
We feel sad and blue.
The ads said “Drink your Ovaltine!” –
Who knew what it would do?
But we’ll be here again next Monday
To make things look like new;
And so until we meet again
The Dino Dusters bid you all adieu.

* As far as I know, there is no evidence to support this outrageous assertion.

[Image of theLeague of Ovaltineys’ Official Rule Book: Wikipedia] Sheet music and lyrics can be seen at http://www.sterlingtimes.co.uk/ovaltineys_music1.htm and http://www.sterlingtimes.co.uk/ovaltineys_music2.htm
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Granddad freezing

Somehow, a discussion with a grandson got round to this subject.

If you freeze a Granddad, you must take especial care
To freeze him very quickly, so he doesn’t lose his hair.
(Some Granddads in the past, I’ve heard, were frozen much too slow:
Their hair fell out as icicles were given time to grow.)

And if you freeze a Granddad, I should warn you from the start,
Make sure you’ve got some sticky tape ’cos his legs might fall apart.
His ears will fall off anyway, and his nose might do so too,
And the rest of him will turn a quite disgusting shade of blue.

But if you freeze a Granddad, you’d best let Granny know,
In case she doesn’t spot the difference (well, you never know . . .).
The trouble is that Granddads don’t stay frozen long and, when their bodies melt,
The house will reek of odours that you’d wish you’d never smelt.

So if you freeze a Granddad, please do it out of doors.
Invite your friends to come and watch, then wait for their applause.
Then they can try it out on other Granddads they have chosen,
And very soon all Granddads will be absolutely frozen.

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Do butterflies ever ponder their origins? I listened in to one:

(Flitter-flutter-flitter-flutter) I’m a butterfly!
I like to look down at the Earth as I flop around the sky,
But what I see is puzzling: I can’t help wondering why
I see no baby butterflies, however hard I try.

(Flitter-flutter-flitter-flutter) What I want to know
Is what are all those squidgy things a-wriggling down below?
All they seem to do is eat, and then they grow and grow!
Where do they all come from, and where do they all go?

(Flitter-flutter-flitter-flutter – there I go again!)
I sometimes wish I could have had a rather bigger brain
So I could work things out while I am sheltering from the rain.
But the answers all elude me, and my thinking’s all in vain.

(Flitter-flutter-flitter-flutter) A thought from out the blue:
If I was never a baby, then from what was it I grew?
Oh, surely not those wriggly things? No! How could that be true?
It really is a puzzle. Oh, how I wish I knew . . .

For the view from both sides, see Metamorphosis.

[Image: National Geographic Kids]
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The Mekon rides again!

According to a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, the absorption of UV light emitted by Venus peaks in two regions of the spectrum, either side of 320 nm. The presence of sulphur dioxide in the Venusian atmosphere explains the shorter-wavelength peak; but the other ‘usual suspects’ for UV absorption, iron compounds  and nitrogen dioxide, don’t have properties that would make them candidates for the other, longer-wavelength, absorption peak. Chlorine gas would fit the bill if it were present at around one part per million, but it’s not known whether this amount could be generated by the action of sunlight on molecules of hydrogen chloride. So the cause of the second absorber in the atmosphere of Venus remains a mystery. Could it be some form of life?

There’s something in the atmosphere of Venus which is queer,
It soaks up ultraviolet waves: they simply disappear,
Absorbed by who-knows-what in the planet’s upper sky.
Could it be chlorine molecules? Unlikely, and here’s why:

You’d need one part per million, and as far as I can tell
That means a lot of sunlight on a lot of HCl.
I have another theory. In those early Eagle comics,
Dan Dare would often get involved with alien genomics.

The Mekon and the Treens who lived on Venus way back then,
Outsmarted by Dan Dare, kept on coming back again.
I reckon things have got so hot now, on the planet’s surface crust*,
That all these green and evil guys evolved, as all things must.

I bet they have discovered ways to break up HCl
To manufacture hydrogen, and chlorine gas as well.
Sustained by breathing H2 gas, each on a Mekon chair,
They’ve moved their evil empire up into the Venusian air.

But they’ve no use for chlorine, so it just hangs around,
And UV light of certain wavelengths never leave the ground;
And that’s what makes the absorption peak in Venus’s emissions!
(We need Dan Dare to go there now and confirm my suspicions . . .)

* Estimated to be around 460°C.

[Images: http://planetas.an3.es (Venus); www.dandare.org.uk (Mekon & Dan Dare)]
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There it was, gone! A custard tart, from a box of two in a Waitrose refrigerated display. With my extensive nursery-rhyme education, it was clear to me what had happened, but should I tell the staff, or might they think that I had eaten it?

The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day,
And sent them off to Waitrose,
Who put them on display.

The Waitrose tart –
A custard tart,
And not one filled with jam –
Is my favourite tart of all
(It’s just the way I am).

They sold those tarts
From the Queen of Hearts
In boxes, each with two.
But from one box one tart had gone
The culprit? I know who:

The Knave of Hearts,
He stole that tart!
(He’s done such things before:
The King of Hearts sore beat him,
And he vowed he’d steal no more.)

But it can’t be proved
The Knave removed
That pie (and he’d deny it).
Will Waitrose think I stole it?
I think I’ll just keep quiet . . .

[Images: Wikimedia Commons]
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This is a tale of how a great deal of EU activity, aimed at ‘harmonising’ the mains voltage across its member states, ended up changing nothing except the number printed on electrical equipment, from “220” or “240”  to “230”. (It would have been too expensive to change all of Europe’s 220 V electricity supply equipment and all of the UK’s 240 V equivalent). It’s also a cautionary tale about how it’s worth checking the facts before having a good rant.

The UK mains, though nominal,
Was once “240 volt”.
But now it is “230”, so
I’m planning a revolt.

It was th’ accursed EU
That made us Brits conform
To what its bureaucratic club
Thought ought to be the norm.

We want our volts back”, I shall shout
As loud as I am able.
British volts for British folk,
Applied to British cable.

But wait! I’ve read the small print!
“230” means, you see,
Anywhere from two-sixteen*
Right up to two-five-three.

In EU-speak, they’ve ‘harmonised’
That voltage-rating mess
By leaving things just as they were –
A Euro-fudge, I guess.

*Actually, 216.2

[Image: ITV News/PA Wire]
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There’s something wrong with my calendar

The passage of time seems to have speeded up . . .

There’s something wrong with my calendar,
It’s going much too fast.
It says it is my birthday,
But it’s not long since my last.

I reckon it’s those rascals,
The Mechanics of Time. It’s they
Who’ve tinkered with Time’s Arrow
And let it go astray.

They’ve not restored a setting
To what it used to be.
It’s slapdash and it’s sloppy –
Work not done properly.

They need a decent checklist
To note the things they’ve done;
They could then, when they’ve finished,
Restore them one by one.

Their carefree attitude won’t do
In a Universe so vast:
They must reset Time’s passage
So I don’t age so fast.

[Image: clipartsign.com]
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Gravity waves

Way out in space, 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes merged. On September 14 this year, the resulting gravitational waves were detected here on Earth by both of the twin detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), one in Louisiana, the other in Washington, USA. It reminded me of my low-tech dealings with gravity at school.

I measured gravity at school
With a stop watch, weight and string.
Four pi squared L over t squared – well,
It seemed a simple thing.

I was unlucky: no black holes,
Far out in space, collided
At just the right time long ago
To influence what I did.

I might have proved that gravity
Was waves, and moves like light.
And I’d be famous: I’d have shown
That Einstein got it right!

Now it’s too late. Two black holes merged
A billion* years ago,
And rippling spacetime got picked up
By the waiting arms of LIGO.

So well done, LIGO people.
Your findings are a hit,
And luck was on your side, not mine.
(I wish I’d had your kit!)

*Actually, about 1.3 billion. Poetic licence, sorry.

[Image: LIGO/Caltech]
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Leap year

2016 is a leap year. I wondered why . . .

The calendar’s got an extra day
This year, ’cos it’s a leap one.
I Googled what the reason was
And found it’s quite a deep one:

The Solar System doesn’t work,
Or so it would appear,
With seven days in every week
And twelve months in each year.

The Earth takes longer than a year*
To travel round the Sun,
And that’s why, every now and then,
The error must be undone.

Julius Caesar did his best –
A simple rule, for sure:
“Add a Leap Day if the year’s
Divisible by four”.

But things were  much more subtle.
As the years got out of sync,
Pope Gregory piped up and said:
“The answer is, I think,

“To keep old Caesar’s bright idea,
But add a bit more to it.
So here, in 1582,
Is Pope Greg’s way to do it:

“Just test the year: if it divides
By a hundred, then it’s not one,
Unless you can divide it by
Four hundred – then you’ve got one!”

* According to NASA’s ‘Earth Fact Sheet’, it currently takes about 365.256 days for the Earth’s axis to return to the same alignment relative to the sun (the ‘tropical’ orbital period). The period ‘seen’ by the  stars (the ‘sidereal’ period) is a teeny tad longer.

[Images: researchmaniacs.com (calendar), redshift-live.com (orbiting Earth)]
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Mary’s mistake

I thought that everyone knew the famous nursery rhyme, but it seems one person didn’t…

Mary had a little dog,
She’d bought him very cheap;
But something wasn’t right at all –
He bleated like a sheep.

She took him to the vet and said,
“My dog is just not right”.
“Leave him with us,” replied the vet,
“We’ll cure him overnight.”

When Mary fetched him from the vet,
She took him for a walk.
But, by the time they got back home
She found the dog could talk!

“Didn’t you read the nursery rhyme
Before you went and bought
A dog? You should have given
The matter much more thought.

“It says you’re s’posed to have a lamb,”
The dog explained. “But  hey,
A lamb’s not house-trained like I am,
So look at things that way.

“I’m not much good at acting,
But I’ve done my level best
To be as lamb-like as I can,
It’s a shame you’re not impressed.”

“I’ve never read it,” Mary said,
“But it’s all right in the end,
For now I’ve got a talking dog –
A very special friend!”

[Image: www.sparklebox.co.uk]
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I’m history, probably

Memory, it seems, involves the brain having connected its neurons up in a particular way at a particular time, and somehow being able to recover that set-up at a later time.

I’m living in the past, which means
I’m history, because
I can’t know what I am right now,
But only what I was.

And even that depends upon
My memories and reflections;
And that, in turn relies on how
My brain’s made its connections.

Suppose they’ve all got muddled up?
The picture they’d be showing
Could be a fiction. Trouble is,
There is no way of knowing . . .

[Image: scienceblogs.com (from Flickr, by LoreleiRanveig)]
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The snowman’s hat

Our grandchildren’s creation was much appreciated by a visitor.

Did you see our snowman?
We made him for a laugh.
We dressed him in a fleecy hat
And, round his neck, a scarf.

But when we woke this morning,
He looked a proper mess:
His scarf was off, his hat had gone.
Who did it? Can you guess?

We blame the fox: he’s cunning,
But clever, too, and bold.
We think he stole the hat because
His head was feeling cold.

So, neighbours, keep a lookout
For foxes in the snow,
And if you see one in a hat,
Please would you let us know?

[Image: MyCuteGraphics.com]
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HS2 – the groundwork

Jonathan Gammon is Head of Ground Investigations for HS2, the government-funded company responsible for developing and promoting the UK’s new £42-billion high-speed railway network. The complete line is expected to be open by 2032 or 2023. In January 2016, he talked about the scope and depth of the company’s preparatory work needed before any track is actually laid – ‘de-risking’, he called it.

We’re checking it out, we’ve nearly done
All the planning for the groundwork to set up Phase 1.
Over half goes through tunnels or cuttings, and so
We’ve had to think hard where the spoil’s going to go.
Ninety per cent of it we aim to put back
Elsewhere in the route of the HS2 track.
Occupational Health’s a contractual clause
With good Health and Safety, to comply with our laws.

The HS2 Hybrid Bill’s now being debated
And modifications incorporated:
We’ve redesigned things and we’re doing our best
To take account of the views expressed.
We’ll do what we can, too, to mitigate impacts
On nature reserves, ancient woodlands, newts, bats,
Archaeology, SSSIs and much else beside,
While trying to lessen the North-South divide.

With contracts assigned, it’s now our intent
To seek, in December, the Royal Assent.
But there’s still an enormous amount to be done
To make sure the ground’s fit for the first train to run
In sixteen years’ time (or maybe one more) –
‘De-risking’ the project is what’s at our core.
But this is Phase 1, and we’ve still yet to do
All the Ground Investigations to prepare for Phase 2!

[Image: www.railway-technology.com]
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Tim’s tam-tam

Near the end of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathétique’ Symphony, there’s a single, gentle stroke of the tam-tam (a type of gong). It marks the point at which the composer’s despair comes to the fore and the music fades away to its end. The symphony formed the second half of a performance by our local amateur orchestra, whose young percussionist sat quietly at the back through the whole of the first half (Brahms’ Double Concerto) even though he had nothing to play; and after his key contribution in the second half, he remained still. I was impressed by his sensitivity to the mood of the music. I think his name was Tim.

While the orchestra’s playing the Brahms,
The percussionist’s resting his arms.
He has practised his part,
So he knows in his heart
What’s to come will give him no qualms.

Even though he has nothing to do,
He sits the concerto right through;
But he comes to the fore in
Tchaikovsky’s sad scoring,
When a strike of the tam-tam is due.

With the beater in hand, he stands tall
As the crowded and hushed concert hall
Who have waited so long
For the sound of his gong
Hold their communal breath, one and all.

He’s counting the bars, you can tell;
He’ll have just one chance to do well . . .
Now the moment has come
And the job must be done –
There! As clear as a bell!

The band now continues to play;
Reflecting Tchaikovsky’s dismay . . .
But our man remains still
By his tam-tam, until
The music has faded away.

His demeanour was so dignified –
This guy felt the music inside.
Tchaikovsky would’ve said
(If he hadn’t been dead):
“That was cool, man – I’m well satisfied.”

[Image of Tchaikovsky: theGuardian/Lebrecht Music And Arts Photo Library/Alamy]
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Skye news

Multiple trackways of long-necked sauropod dinosaurs who walked through a shallow lagoon some 170 million years ago have been found in Middle Jurassic rocks at Cairidh Ghlumaig on the Isle of Skye. This explanatory message from one of the creatures has since emerged:

I’m a sauropod dino frae Skye,
A quadruped, plant-eating guy.
A great long-necked classic frae the Middle Jurassic
Wi’ legs just like tree-trunks, och aye!

My footprints, ye’ll find, are four-toed
And big, just tae carry ma load,
For I’m ten tons in weight with a narrow-gauge gait –
It’s what evolution bestowed.

Ye’ll see, on each front leg, a claw.
D’ye ken what that digit is for?
(Nor do I, but I use it in case I should lose it –
I doot if I’ll ever grow more . . .)

The climate is humid and hot,
So I have tae put up with a lot;
But when the Sun’s high at noon ye cannae beat a lagoon
For coolin’ the feet of a Scot!

[Image Steve Brusatte (from sci-news.com)]
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Green Park

The automatic announcements on the London Underground these days are very helpful to travellers. The one at Green Park station made me wonder if it was particularly intended for a Certain Person:

The announcement at Green Park came loud and clear:
For Buckingham Palace, please exit here”.
So I thought: is this Park, so lovely and Green,
The Underground station that’s used by the Queen?

I watched as the passengers got on the train
For a glimpse of Her Majesty – but all in vain.
Disappointed; but maybe I shouldn’t expect One
To travel with me. No, she’ll catch the next one . . .

[Image (yes, it is the Queen!): Daily Mail]
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Testing . . .

Since 1985, I have been part of a long-term health study of (initially) over 10,000 people; thirty years on, only about 6000 are still participating. Every 5 years or so, we get a checkover of our physical and mental health: samples are taken, measurements are made and questions asked . . .

You’re welcome to my blood, height, weight and ecg,
You can take what hair you need (please leave a bit for me!).
You can test my grip strength, finger taps, my walking speed, and more,
How fast my pulse can travel, BP and IQ score.

I do it altruistically in part, but I’ve a hunch
I also like free travel and your slap-up sit-down lunch*.
I’ve used the feedback on my health: my blood pressure’s reduced,
Cholesterol too, and that’s all thanks to the data you produced.

I realise that I’m lucky, that so far I’ve stayed alive
To face the latest testing that your Study can contrive.
I quite enjoy the challenge, it keeps my brainbox agile;
Don’t over-stretch my memory, though – I think it’s getting fragile . . .

* Actually, a sandwich, piece of cake and cup of tea.

[Image: medicalnewstoday.com]
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The Mullard Space Science Laboratory, an outpost of University College London, is housed in a mansion near Holmbury St Mary in the Surrey hills. From 13 projects submitted to a joint venture between the European Space Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, MSSL’s ‘Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer’ (SMILE) mission was chosen for further assessment. It aims to measure how the Sun influences ‘space weather’ and the Earth’s magnetic ‘shield’ and, if preliminary studies are favourable, is currently expected to launch at the end of 2021. Dr Graziella Branduardi-Raymont, UCL’s Professor of Space Astronomy, is joint Principal Investigator of the mission.

At Holmbury St Mary, the atmosphere’s scary –
They dabble in things you can’t see!
To this spooky old place come strange signals from space
That they say could affect you and me . . .

It seems there’s no knowing how the solar wind’s blowing
Or how it might trouble our tech.
Will it cause an aurora, or mess up your aura,
Or leave our poor planet a wreck?

These folk want to know all the answers, and so
They put up ideas and they won
The funding to do a study or two;
But there still remains lots to be done.

They need gear that’s exotic, sort of astro-robotic:
A magnetometer (for the Earth’s field),
X-ray and UV telescopes, so they’ll see
The effect on Earth’s solar wind shield.

Professor Raymont will list what they’ll want
To make such a project worthwhile.
But there is a price; so, to make it sound nice,
They’ve given it a name: it’s called SMILE!

SMILE logo

[Images: MSSL, ESA and the SMILE Proposal document]
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Gastronomic destruction

Have you noticed how ‘good’ restaurants tend to plate up their food these days? It’s either arranged picturesquely on the plate or its ingredients are stacked vertically – sometimes both. Like the meals themselves, each of these two poems seemed to call for a different structure:

1: Edible art

Master chefs are not just cooks,
They’re artists, too; and so
They ‘paint’ their food upon the plate
Like Michaelangelo.

They surely know, these clever folk
Who in their kitchens lurk,
That customers just get stuck in
And desecrate their work?

All the effort, skill and flair
They put into that meal
Is mangled, cut up, squished and mauled.
I wonder how they feel?

I’d like to shower the chef with praise:
“Wow, that looks quite incredible!”
I never do, though. That’s because
Their ‘picture’s’ much too edible.

So when it’s put in front of me
I look at it and say,
“Oh dear, that’s much too good to eat,”
Then eat it anyway.

2: Perpendicular plating

Other chefs do things with food
That make it look seductive,
But how they put it on the plate
Makes me feel destructive.
As a child, I’d pile up towers,
And then I’d knock ’em down;
Now I can do that when I’m in
Posh restaurants in the town.
’Cos now, it’s chefs who build the piles,
With food stacked neat and tall.
I bet they’re proud of it – but pride
Comes right before a fall!

(It has to fall, to get at all
The lovely stuff that’s in it.
A work of art, that I demolish
In less than half a minute.)
It seems to be a current fad,
This perpendicular plating.
Perhaps they do it in the hope
They’ll get a higher rating?
But fashions change. There’ll come a time
They won’t do things like that again;
And Michelin-starred chefs will serve
Their food all laid out flat again.

[Images: cdn.view.co.uk; i.dailymail.co.uk]
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Fossil remains found in 1985 in a brickpit at Rudgwick in Sussex were initially described as those of an iguanodon. Then, after a reassessment by Dr William Blows, they were later attributed to a new dinosaur polacanthid species, Polacanthus rudgwickensis. But, as hinted at in the Postscript to “Old Spiky“, they have now (September 2015) been re-classified by Dr Blows as Horshamosaurus rudgwickensis, recognising the Sussex town in whose museum they now reside. Someone is not happy . . .

They dug me up at Rudgwick some thirty years ago.
Well, exhumation’s one thing, but now this savage blow:
They’ve blooming well re-named me, though I’ve had two names before.
An existential crisis for a Rudgwick dinosaur –
I’m as confused as they are! “An iguanodon” they’d said,
Till Bill Blows put his oar in and turned it on its head:
Polacanthus rudgwickensis, I would say . . . or maybe not . . .”
Well, now he’s made his mind up. I think he’s lost the plot:
Horshamosaurus? Crikey! Perhaps it’s just a phase
He’s going through. At least my rudgwickensis stays . . .

[Image: walkingwith.wikia.com]
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An earworm is a piece of music that you can’t seem to get out of your head. But, if you believe research that was published in 2013, there are ways of dealing with them . . .

How d’you get rid of an earworm?
I’ve got one stuck deep in my head:
It’s there when I rise in the morning,
And it’s there when I get into bed.

It’s gone in much deeper than earwax,
So warm olive oil can’t get through;
An antibiotic won’t touch it,
And surgery just will not do.

MRI, ultrasound and CT
Will fail to pinpoint its position.
(Where earworms hang out is a mystery
To even the greatest physician.)

So, can you get rid of an earworm?
Does anyone know of a way?
Or should I just try to ignore it
Until the thing just fades away?

But then there’ll be room for another
On my endlessly cycling tape!
It’s a chronic condition, earwormery,
Is there any hope of escape?

Oh yes, there is, says a scientist*:
Solve a five-letter anagram, say,
Or read a good novel as brainwork
And the earworm will vanish away!

* Dr Ira Hyman, a music psychologist at Western Washington University, in 2013 (Hyman, I. et al: Applied Cognitive Psychology 27: 204–215)

[Image: ecojazz.com]
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The dam that Jack built

The failure of the 305 ft high Teton dam in 1975 inundated an 80 mile long region of Idaho’s Teton and Snake River valleys, affected over 3500 homes, and killed around 13,000 head of cattle. Perhaps because of early warnings, only eleven people were killed. (It was not, of course, built by ‘Jack’, but by contractors for the US Bureau of Reclamation.)

This is the dam that jack built.

These are the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that jack built.

These are the fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that Jack built.

This is the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that Jack built.

This is the loess which, without doubt,
Soaked up the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that Jack built.

This is ‘hydraulic piping’, formed
Within the loess which, without doubt,
Soaked up the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
That held up the dam that Jack built.

These are the people, driven to shout
As the ‘piping’ got worse, “Look out, look out!
Wet loess is weak and, without doubt,
It’s soaked up the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite
And weakened the dam that Jack built.”

This is the flood, spilled all about,
That killed the people, driven to shout
As the ‘piping’ got worse, “Look out, look out!
(Wet loess is weak and, without doubt,
Soaked up the water that soon sought out
Those pesky fissures, all filled with grout,
That pierced the abutments of rhyolite,
Destroying the dam that Jack built.)

[Image: Wikipedia]
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Wot, no cuckoo?

Most years we’ve heard its call, but not this one. The RSPB says its numbers are declining and has put it on its Red List.

It’s too quiet in the forest.
It’s Spring, and nothing’s stirred.
Something’s missing in the forest –
It’s the Spring-announcing bird.

The females are all rascals.
They are scallywags, and rotters.
They lay their eggs in others’ nests
So, when they hatch, they’re squatters.

And then things get quite nasty:
The squatters take possession,
Evicting other eggs and chicks
With Cuculidae aggression.

So this year there’s no cuckoo –
The forest birds are glad!
But, though the cuckoo’s such a thug,
I feel a little sad . . .

[Image of female cuckoo: RSPB]
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Helpful Helena

René Descartes struggled to find something that he could know for certain was real, and not a deception created by his senses. He never married, but he did have a daughter by a maid in the home where he was staying. I’m sure she must have been aware of his mental turmoil, and would have tried to help. From listening to him, she would have got the hang of deep philosophical reasoning, like “I am alive, therefore I am living”. They say that behind every great man there stands a woman, so I wondered whether this lady had anything to do with his most famous thought. (The maid, Helena Jans van der Strom, was actually Dutch, but I reckon she thought in English . . .)

Poor René Descartes
Had got in a stew
Trying to work out
What things must be true.

But his lady friend liked
To help out her great man,
So she wrote down her thoughts:
I think,” she began.

“But now what?” she thought,
“My mind’s in a jam!”
But after a moment
She wrote, “Therefore I am . . .”

(She’d intended to write:
Therefore I am thinking”,
But her quill had run dry
For she’d not put much ink in.)

That last word had still
To be scribed on her pad
When René came in saying,
“I’m going quite mad!”

But when René read
What his mistress had writ,
He jumped in the air, crying
“Yes! That is it!

“Just because I can think,
Therefore I exist!”
And René went out
And got very drunk.

For the background to another Cartesian concept, see “René’s fly”.

[Image of Descartes: Wikimedia Commons]
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Dear M&S

A till printout at our local Marks & Spencer store asked “how was your M&S today?” So I told them.

Dear M&S, I visited your Horsham store today.

I sought a casual jacket, expecting an array
Of jackets I could choose from, pay for, and take away.
But all I found was a 42, on a rail with shirts and such,
Made of linen, which would crease. I didn’t like it much.

Your website shows a range of jackets that you sell;
So why do you not stock them in your shop as well?
For years you’ve been my tailor, but now you’ve let me down.
“How was your M&S today?” Not good, in Horsham town . . .

[Image: M&S]
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The nocturnal fox

Evidence of transient wildlife appears regularly around our garden. We suspect the local fox . . .

A nocturnal fox, passing through,
Keeps leaving us presents of poo
Which we clear up each day.
But I bet he thinks, “Hey,
I’ve discovered a self-cleaning loo!”

[Image: i.guim.co.uk]
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Levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) in my blood were a tad higher than expected. My GP explained why, and prescribed a remedy.

My thyroid’s underactive,
It’s not up to the job:
In layman’s terms, the thing’s behaving
Like a lazy teenage slob.

It ought to make thyroxine,
To keep my body going;
But its attitude to life of late’s
Been much too easy-going.

My poor pea-sized pituitary
(Which has enough to do)
Stepped up the hormone TSH
To get the message through.

But all to no avail, it seems –
My thyroid is a devil,
Ignoring the pituitary’s pleas
To raise its output level.

Well, now the time has come
To outsource my supply
Of thyroxine by taking pills
That keep its levels high.

So take a rest, pituitary,
And thanks for all you’ve done
To stir my lazy teenage slob –
You never could have won.

[Image: International Thyroid Oncology Group]
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It’s happened again1 . . .

This month, there is no poem.
My muse has gone astray,
Complaining that no royalties
Ever seem to come her way.

But life is more than money!
And anyway, can’t she see
She gets her board and lodging
Inside my head for free?

I wonder where she’s gone to –
Has she found a better host?
James Muirden2, Richard Stilgoe3,
Pam Ayres4 – or Cyril’s ghost5?

I’m sure she will return,
Like every other time6,
And help to organise my thoughts
And turn them into rhyme.

She will come back, I’m sure of it.
She’ll realise, before long,
The error of her whingeing ways . . .
But what if I am wrong?

1. Actually, it hadn’t. I’d forgotten that she’d come up with the Aberfan poem.
2. Astronomer and author of The rhyming Bible and A rhyming history of Britain among others.
3. Songwriter, broadcaster and founder of the Orpheus Centre.
4. Entertainer and author of many poem collections.
5. Cyril Fletcher, comedian and actor, famous for his ‘Odd Odes’ (1913–2005)
6. See Writer’s block.

[Image: wikimedia.org]
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Tragedies of Aberfan

Tip No. 7 was one of a number of huge mounds of unwanted material extracted from the Merthyr Vale Colliery in Aberfan, south Wales, and piled up on top of the nearby mountain, Mynydd Merthyr. On 21 October 1966, following several days of rain, it collapsed and slipped downhill. More than a quarter of its 150,000 or more cubic metres smashed into the village below in a slurry 12 metres deep. It killed 116 children and five of their teachers in their school, Pantglas Junior. The final death toll was 144. The risk of such a slide, and the state of the ground beneath the tip, were all known, but were not sufficiently taken into account by the mine’s owners, the UK’s National Coal Board (NCB), which then ran the UK’s nationalised coal mining industry.

There are known risks deep underground
That miners daren’t ignore;
But up above, in Aberfan,
Spoil tips had slipped before
For no-one thought to make such things
The subject of a law.

In Mynydd Merthyr’s porous sand
Rainwater trickled through
And flowed out from its sides as springs,
As everybody knew:
The springs were known, the streams were known,
And mapped in detail, too.

Yet those who said “We’ll tip it here”
Did so quite without knowing
(How could they, when they’d not been trained?)
The sorrow they were sowing.
Tip 7 grew on watery rock,
And one day would start flowing . . .

Some worried it might slide, but kept
Their silence, lest they lose
Their jobs or face their peers’ disdain.
Then came the dreadful news:
A hundred and sixteen children died,
Enveloped in the ooze.

Sir Edmund* blamed the NCB,
Who’d said that all was well
(And hadn’t cared to heed advice
From miners, truth to tell).
So Aberfan was failed by those
Who might have spared such hell.

* Lord Justice Sir Herbert Edmund Davies, respected Welsh barrister, Privy Councillor and Chairman of the Tribunal appointed to inquire into the Aberfan disaster. It reported in August 1967.

[Image: Nuffield College, Oxford]
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Plumber’s mait

I suspect that proper plumbers probably wouldn’t give it houseroom, but it’s a godsend to do-it-yourself amateurs.

If a water leak’s becoming quite a problem in your plumbing
And mending it’s a job you really hate,
Don’t despair, for here’s my point: you can seal that pesky joint
With a generous blob of good old Plumber’s mait.

It’s really quite fantastic, this tub of off-white mastic,
And helps us DIYers extricate
Themselves from tricky spots just by using lots and lots
Of Evo-stick’s amazing Plumber’s mait!

(‘Plumber’s mait’ is Bostik Limited’s registered trade mark UK00000827265.)

[Image: Homebase]
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In January this year (2015), the Natural History Museum announced plans to replace the 26-metre cast of a Diplodocus dinosaur, popularly known as ‘Dippy’, that has stood in its main hall since 1979 with a 25-metre skeleton of a female blue whale. The new exhibit is expected to be hung from the ceiling in 2017. But no-one had consulted Dippy…

Dippy Diplodocus stood her ground:
“I’ll not from here be moved.
I’m a tourist magnet, the star of the show,
And cannot be improved.”

“You’ve been where you are for thirty-six years,”
The curators explained, “And we love you;
But time marches on, and we’ve got this idea
For something to hang just above you.

“There just isn’t room for two creatures your size.
In a couple of years, we’ll unveil
Something we think will still pull in the crowds:
It’s the skeleton of a blue whale.”

“A whale,” thundered Dippy, a-rattling her bones.
“What’s a whale got that I haven’t, pray?
Compared to my Jurassic vintage, your whale
Arrived on the scene yesterday!1

“Well, Dippy old thing,” the curators went on,
“The fact is, you’re only a copy –
Just a century-old2 plaster cast, one of ten.
So calm down, and don’t get so stroppy.

“The good news for you is, you could go on tour –
It’s high time that you had some fresh air;
And we’ll knock up a weatherproof version to stand
In the garden here. Isn’t that fair?”

Dippy’s reaction cannot be reported:
The air in the hall became blue.
Which is fitting, because in a couple of years,
The inhabitant will be blue, too.

1 Whales are thought to have evolved from hoofed land mammals, returning to the sea about 50 million years ago
2 Actually, 110 years old: the cast was donated in 1905 by Andrew Carnegie and is based on an original specimen in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. The other nine are in museums worldwide – there’s one in Paris.

[Image: The Guardian]
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Opening the envelope

The parameters that determine our planet’s climate, including carbon dioxide, have been varying more or less cyclically for at least the last 800,000 years, each within its own ‘envelope of natural variation’. But the Earth’s atmosphere has noticed changes in recent times, and is consulting its doctor.

“And how are we feeling today?”
“Well, I’ve been up and down, truth to tell,
For the last 80,000 decades;
But now I feel really unwell.”

“Hmm. I see your historical records
Have never behaved themselves decently;
But they’ve always stayed nicely within
Certain limits – until fairly recently.

“Take carbon dioxide. It’s varied
(In case you ever have wondered)
Within really quite well-defined limits:
One-seventy up to three hundred1.

“What’s your temperature? Hmm, a bit high now –
And your oceans are slightly inflated.
I’ll call Mauna Loa2, Hawaii,
For your CO2 figures, updated.

“Hello Mauna, I’m calling
On behalf of the Earth’s atmosphere.
What’s the latest on CO2 levels?
Four hundred? You’re certain? Oh dear!

“The news is not good, I’m afraid,
But in hindsight, not really surprising.
Your envelope’s natural limits
Are breached: CO2 is still rising.”

“Oh doctor, then what is the cure?
Is there anything that I can do?”
“No, it isn’t your fault, don’t feel guilty.
It’s what everyone’s doing to you.”

1 – Parts per million (see left-hand graph)
2 – The mid-Pacific mountain-top observatory of the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration which has been continuously monitoring and collecting data related to atmospheric change since the 1950s.

[Graphs: US Environmental Protection Agency]
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On being a circle

Inspired by a granddaughter’s ‘poim’ on the same subject.

Being a circle is boring,
Being a circle is tough.
I’m getting quite browned off with being so round –
Somehow, it’s just not enough.

I could be an elegant oval,
I could be the shape of a pear;
And sometimes I dream of a magical scene
Where a circle turns into a square!

I know that a circle is ‘perfect’,
I know that a circle is ‘pure’,
But I long for some straight bits (oh, they would be great bits!)
And angles. I’d feel more . . . mature.

Okay, so I’d not be a circle
In the strictest sense of the word;
But I’ve thought all along that the strict sense was wrong:
Definitions are better off blurred!

So next time you’re drawing a ‘circle’,
Be inventive, creative, just play!
Allow this old shape from its chains to escape
And throw that darned compass away!

[Image: iconsfind.com]
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Challenged to write a poem about forgetting, I thought I’d better get on with it at once.

My brain is like netting:
It keeps on forgetting
The things that I need to recall.
It’s one of my goals
To sew up the holes,
And then I’ll remember them all . . .

I’ll do it tomorrow.
But first, I must borrow
A needle and big reel of cotton.
(On second thoughts, though,
That might be too slow –
By tomorrow, I shall have forgotten . . .)

[Image: lows.co.uk]
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Time marches on

New Year’s Day marks a rather arbitrary point when planet Earth begins a new circuit of the Solar System and many of its inhabitants put up a new calendar. It’s also a reminder of Time’s unique quality . . .

Welcome to New Year’s Day, twenty-fifteen,
Born from the womb of Deep Time.
How the year will turn out remains to be seen,
Just like the rest of this rhyme!

But while lines in a poem can be dropped, rearranged,
Or replaced if the rhyme’s not spot-on,
What happens in Time stays happened, unchanged.
Time, as they say, marches on.

[Image: ssqq.com]
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Sprat’s eyes

Jack Sprat would eat no fat, and his wife would eat no lean, so their different dietary preferences avoided food waste. Similarly, my two eyes have different visual strengths but cooperate to help navigate the body that carries them.

Mr Sprat and Mrs Sprat
Would go to any lengths
To make good use of what they had –
From differences come strengths!

My right eye’s good for distances,
My left does better nearer;
And so, between them both, you see,
They make the world much clearer!

As Sprats exchanged their bits of meat
Before their tums received them,
So my optic nerves get swopped
Before my brain perceives them.

My brain then does the clever stuff
Of handling what they see
And painting pictures in my head
In glorious 3-D.

The Sprats had food enough to live,
And I’ve got quite good sight.
The moral’s clear: use what you’ve got,
And you’ll get by all right.

[Images: Mama Lisa’s World; Computer Measurement Group]
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Road vehicles currently need a human to be part of their control system, and humans have generally convinced themselves that they enjoy being placed in this demeaning rôle. But things are changing . . .

How I miss things on cars: starting handles,
Grease nipples, prop shafts, a choke,
Carburettors and double de-clutching,
Contact-breakers – all gone up in smoke.

The spare wheel’s now facing extinction:
Will the handbrake be next? Or maybe
The car will be driven by computer,
So the driver’s redundant? We’ll see* . . .

But maybe it’s not such a bad thing
For humans to once more be free
Of being a cog in a system,
Which driving a car’s made them be . . .

* Just before Christmas 2014, Google announced a prototype vehicle capable of “fully autonomous driving”.

[Image: davesdistrictblog.blogspot.co.uk]
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Granddads are always right

In which a Granddad and his granddaughter both learn a painful lesson.

“A nettle will not sting you
If there’s flowers on its stem,”
I told a certain granddaughter,
“So don’t be scared of them.”

“Look, that one has got flowers,
So it’s ok to touch.
There, what d’you think of my advice?”
She jumped and yelled “Not much!

“That nettle went and stung me,
It gave me such a fright.
You touch it too, now, Granddad
And see if I’m not right.”

“Ouch!” I cried, “It stung me!”
Said Granny, “You were right,
Except you didn’t mention
The flowers must be white!”*

Thus, granddaughter discovered
What Granny knew all along:
Granddads they are always right,
Except when they are wrong.

* Dead nettles (Lamium album) have white flowers. The one we touched had green flowers (Urtica dioica, a proper stinging nettle) – see picture.

[Image: Wikimedia]
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Universal expansion

The Belgian priest, astronomer and professor of physics at the French section of the Catholic University of Leuven, Georges Lemaître (1894–1966) was the first known academic to propose the theory of the expansion of the universe. (In 1927, Lemaître was the first to estimate what is now known as the Hubble constant, two years before Edwin Hubble published his.) I thought there might be a conclusion to be drawn from the fact that you and I are as much part of the Universe as are the galaxies.

The Universe is very big;
It seems it’s getting bigger
According to one Georges Lemaître,
An underrated figure.

The journal that he published in
Was Belgian – folk ignored him.
He tried again, in English now,
And soon folk would applaud him.

We’re all part of the Universe
(Well, that’s my understanding),
Does that explains obesity?
Is everyone expanding?

[Image: baen.com]
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’Cos it is!

A certain young person of my acquaintance is going through a phase of questioning everything. Often, the questions are simple, but a proper answer would take more than their attention span to deliver, even if you knew it. It’s an excellent trait in youngsters, but one that grandparents should ideally be shielded from for at least four years. But I have a remedy for anyone so afflicted.

The use of the question Why?
By children aged four years or less
Should not be allowed, for Why?
Makes their elders show signs of distress.

As parents and grandparents know,
It’s persistently posed by such tots.
The solution is never to show
That it’s got your brain tied up in knots.

If their questioning makes you feel weary,
Don’t admit that you’re all in a tizz,
Just tell them, whatever their query,
The answer is this: “’Cos it is!

[Image: formerfatdudes.com]
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Serial sectioning

What do you do when you can’t extract a 425 million-year-old fossil from the material in which it’s embedded? Mark Sutton, of Imperial College London, grinds away a few tens of microns at a time, taking digital images of each exposed surface. Some clever data manipulation then lets him construct a 3-D virtual image of the creature, which can then be manipulated on a computer screen. The technique has revealed several new organisms from the 425 million-year-old mid-Silurian deposits of the Herefordshire Lagerstätte on the Welsh borders.

Mark Sutton makes serial sections
Of fossils embedded in stone
And, with digital snaps, makes connections
That never before could be shown.

With his digital processing arts
He can image the fossil complete,
Including the creature’s soft parts
An impressive and valuable feat!

Dibasterium, Enalikter, Kulidroplax,
From Herefordshire’s rich Lagerstätte,
Have succumbed to Mark’s gentle attacks,
And now we can see them much better.

He can colour each body division,
Rotate them, and zoom in and out,
Revealing, with 3D precision,
The creature from tail end to snout.

Now others can research his creatures
Without risk of loss, theft or harm,
And examine their new-revealed features
In all of their digital charm.

Is it palaeontological perfection?
Not quite, for one problem persists:
At the end of Mark’s serial sectioning
The fossil no longer exists!

[Image of Enalikter: Derek Siveter and Oxford Today]
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Walk this way

Having just walked up the scarp slope of the South Downs near Chanctonbury Ring, I met a rambler who asked the way to Cissbury Ring. I referred him to a nearby fingerpost, but it wasn’t much help.

When you tread our ancient byways and walk our ancient hills,
You look out for a sign to show the way.
You spot a distant fingerpost and stride in hope towards it
To read what helpful guidance it will say.

But sometimes1, when you reach it, it is no help at all:
Four fingerboards point north, south, east and west,
On one is carved a message: “Walk this way” as all it says.
The trouble is that so do all the rest2.

Where does this footpath go to, is what you want to know.
It puts you in an existential flap –
The only thing’s to toss a coin and see where chance will take you.
Next time, you really ought to take a map . . .

1. Fortunately, many signposts on other paths do offer more useful information. But not this one.
2. Actually, two say “South Downs Way”, one says “Public Bridleway”, and the third says “Restricted Byway” (see photo above).

[Image: thehomeiswheretheheartis.blogspot.co.uk]
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Just so

So . . . it’s what you preface an answer with these days, apparently.

In the old days, when someone was questioned,
And they needed a moment to dwell
On their answer, they’d think for a moment,
Then the first thing they’d say would be “Well . . .”

But now, have you noticed? It’s changing.
Interviewed by John Humphries & Co.*,
When people explain what they’re thinking,
They all start their answer with “So . . .”

I hope it’s a transient fashion,
It’s one I shall strive to repel.
I’ll stick with the old-fashioned version:
If I need time to think, I’ll say “Well . . .”

* On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. And elsewhere, I’m afraid . . .

[Image: hongkiat.com]
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A gentle celebration of some of England’s village names that tell you what they’re in:

There’s Hinton-in-the-Hedges1
And Widecombe-in-the-Moor2.
(And Bustling-in-the-Back-of-Beyond?
There might be – I’m not sure . . .)

Where’s Stanford in the Vale
And Draycott in the Clay?
The first’s in Staffs, the other’s in Berks;
Perhaps I’ll go, one day.

At Ashford in the Water3
And Luddington in the Brook4,
I rather think I might get wet –
But I’ll go and take a look.

There’s Coton in the Elms5,
And here’s a Hole-in-the-Wall6!
But we don’t want Spital in the Street7,
So I won’t go there at all.

1 Northamptonshire
2 Devon
3 Derbyshire
4 Northamptonshire
5 Derbyshire
6 Herefordshire
7 Lincolnshire (‘Spital’, of course, derives from the hospital here which once gave hospitality to poor travellers; and the ‘Street’ is Ermine Street, the Roman road from London to Lincoln)

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Mr Allen’s key

In 1909–10, William G. Allen patented a method of cold-forming screw heads around a hexagonal die. The tool for driving such screws is now known to engineers as an Allen (or hex) key. It comes in different sizes and is easy to use, as a certain grandson has demonstrated.

Our Neolithic ancestors made tools of flint and bone
As they hadn’t worked out how to extract metal out of stone.
The Bronze Age, then the Iron age, came; and then, eventually,
The human race invented the amazing Allen key.

A simple bar of iron, bent one-fourth1 along its length,
Lets you tighten socket screws without excessive manual strength.
And I have seen a one-year-old pick up an Allen key
And put it in a socket head – and do so easily.

The next stage of young Joseph Judge’s Allen-key enlightening
Is: “Long end in for spinning down, and short end in for tightening2”.
In years to come, when fully trained, what wonders might we see
As Joe grows up and wields his own amazing Allen key?

1 It’s roughly a quarter. (If one end becomes rounded with use, grinding a few millimetres off the length produces a fresh new hexagonal end!)
2 At a more advanced level, he’ll learn that the different arm lengths can give you useful access options, too.

[Image: Fitzpatrick Woolmer]
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A riddle

We all have it and know what it is, but can’t define it very well.

What can fly, but has no wings?
It’s on your hands and ages things.
There’s one for bed and some for meals.
It’s often kept, and sometimes heals.

There’s one for everything under the sky*:
One to be born, and one to die;
One to mourn, and one to dance;
And one to speak, given half a chance!

There’s one to weep and one to laugh,
Ones to mend or tear in half,
One to demolish, and one to build.
It leaves a vacuum that cannot be filled.

It’s sometimes troubled, sometimes bad,
And desperate ones will make you sad.
But it has a nick that you can stitch –
Perhaps the good and bad will switch?

It waits for no man, marches on:
Before you know it, it is gone.
It is used up but can’t be stored;
Too much of it and you’ll be bored.

When on your hands, you speak of killing it
Or wasting it, though never spilling it.
And if it’s up, it has run out –
So what it is, you’d best find out!

You’ve spent a little of it reading
What I’ve written. If you’re needing
Help, the clue is in the rhyme:
The word you’re looking for is what stops everything happening at once**.

* Thanks, Ecclesiastes (3:13), though I’ve left out your more violent examples.
** Thanks, Albert Einstein and/or John Archibald Wheeler (Google seems undecided).

 [Image: phillipbrande.files.wordpress.com]
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Launched in March 2004 from Kourou in French Guiana aboard an Ariane-5 rocket, the Rosetta mission took over 10 years to travel more than six billion kilometres and reach Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The European Space Agency say it cost around 1.3 billion euros. The plan is that, in November, a lander called Philae will anchor itself to the surface and deploy a number of on-board experiments, while the (nameless) orbiter will fly round and round the comet taking measurements as it passes close to the Sun. There was restrained jubilation at the Darmstadt mission Control as Rosetta arrived at the comet on 6 August 2014. But not everyone was so happy . . .

So here I am: I have arrived.
Is this the reason I survived
A ten-year trip through empty space:
To reach this god-forsaken place?
Was this the target that they meant
When they pre-programmed my ascent?
Was there an unplanned deflection?
Or did they choose the wrong direction?

Ten years to get here, and for what?
They fired me off, and then forgot –
They left me all alone to roam
The Solar System, far from home.
Half a billion miles from Earth! It
Makes me wonder, was it worth it?
What so special in this lump
Of rock and ice? It’s just a dump.

It seems I’ve got to orbit round
This frozen hunk that I’ve just found,
They’re demanding that I must
Map the ground, inhale some dust,
Taste and smell the strange aroma
They hope is in the comet’s coma.
And they’ve plans for something grander
When I’ve dumped my Philae lander.

It’s been riding on my shoulder;
Soon, it’s got to drill that boulder1.
(Glad to see the back of it
And all its clever techie kit:
Ratios of isotopes2,
Magnetics3, structure4 – even hopes
Of finding signs of life5, and more –
It’s been a thankless, tiresome chore.)

It never was a lot of fun
But phew!, I’m getting near the Sun,
So it will not be too surprising
If I – and it – start vaporising.
And when they’ve finished using me,
What then? As far as I can see
They’ll turn me off, abandoned, lost,
And try to justify the cost.

Experiments on the lander include:
1 SD2
5 COSAC (“detects and identifies complex organic molecules from their elemental and molecular composition”)

[Images: European Space Agency]
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A chicken’s dream

You never know what’s going on in a hen’s head . . .

I wish I were organic,
Free-range – know what I mean?
I know I’d cost a little more,
But a chicken’s got to dream . . .

[Image: Guardian/Alamy]
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Summer pudding

Bread and fresh fruit – what could be better?

I am a summer pudding,
So full of fruit and yummy.
It won’t be very long before
I end up in your tummy.

[Image: BBC Good Food]
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Witch way

Well, this will be my story when my case comes up in court . . .

There is a road in Somerset
Of which you should beware.
It’s like a wicked witch, who lures
Car drivers to her lair.

It looks quite normal on approach,
A two-way traffic scheme;
But once you’re on its carriageway,
It changes its regime.

What was two-way has now become
A one-way street, to boot:
You’re facing angry motorists
Who wave and flash and toot!

“The idiot,” those drivers think,
“He’s going the wrong way!”
“The idiots,” you think, but then
You close your eyes and pray.

But prayer’s no good in Somerset –
Such pleas the gods do spurn.
So wait until the road is clear,
Then do a quick U-turn.

Was it a nightmare? No, it’s real:
Beware the wicked witch
Who lures car drivers to her lair –
Or end up in the ditch.

[Image: blendra.com]
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A principal principle

AAH is a local independent monthly free magazine. It is produced by a two-man editorial-photographic team to a seriously high standard. Lapses are very rare, but this one caught my eye and wouldn’t let it go until I’d written to the editor, Ben M——, about it.

Hi Ben. It’s a matter of principle
That, when two words sound almost the same,
Great care should be taken with spelling:
Precision’s the principal aim.

For words have a history, a story
To tell, of their passage through time;
And the history of ‘principle’ and ‘principal’
Mean their spellings refuse to align.

They both come from variants of princeps,
The Latin for ‘chief’, it appears.
Old French took each variant and tweaked them
To mean different things down the years.

Spell-checking software won’t help you,
It’s happy with ‘principle’ or ‘principal’.
(And my old Rhyming Dictionary’s useless:
It’s got no good rhyme-words for ‘principal’.)

But keep up the good work you’re doing.
AAH is a quality treat – it
Maintains such a very high standard:
There’s nothing around that can beat it.

[Image: all-free-download.com]
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Animals Please Close The Gate

That’s what a sign said, on a gate in Wyle, Somerset. It was clearly intended for the local livestock, who presumably are able to read English. A nearby Animal explained its subversive subtext:

“Animals please close the gate –
Quickly, before it’s too late!
It’s by far the best way to keep humans at bay;
So, animals, please close the gate.”

[Image: fitsnews.com]
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These darkly beautiful fruits of the Solanum melongena plant look too good to eat.

Aubergine, you’re beautiful,
There’s nothing that can beat you.
What colour, curves and silky skin!
Oh, I could almost eat you . . .

[Image: Wikipedia]
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The first line was a request I actually received by telephone; it made me wonder how far the English language could be developed in a similar way.

“Can you do some babysitterage?”
Came the message by transmitterage.
“Mum can bring her wool for knitterage,
While you update your Twitterage.”

This came from one of my lineage,
So I tried some gentle bargainage:
“We’d need a bit of beverage –
Mine’s half a pint of bitterage . . .”

This little extra leverage
Provoked appalling verbiage
Which stretched the English lang-u-age
Beyond its point of breakingage.

But in the end, a settleage:
Both parties made retreaterage.
We did our babysitterage –
A sort of family moonlightage?

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]
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How must a hen feel when her eggs mysteriously vanish?

I laid an egg just yesterday,
But now it’s disappeared!
I’ve looked in every nook and cranny,
But it’s not there. It’s weird.

It wasn’t Fox: he’d leave the eggs
To hatch – then eat the chicks.
It must have been those Human Beans,
Up to their usual tricks . . .

[Image: the Guardian]
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The mathematicians’ friend

The letter x is used in mathematics textbooks for a value that is to be discovered using algebraic equations.

x = ?

I’m x, the unknown quantity,
The mathematicians’ friend:
A mystery when they start their sums,
The solution at the end.

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Ragabo Man

The “raaaaaaaaag-abo” call of the rag-and-bone man still echoes round the remoter cells of my brain. I hardly ever saw him, because people in our road liked to keep their ragabos safely indoors.

Ragabo Man has gone extinct,
He’s vanished without trace.
He, and his plodding horse and cart,
Are in a Better Place.

You’d hear his plaintive call
As he trundled down our road;
But no-one ever answered it
With ragabos for his load.

Ragabo Man recycled,
Like Steptoe and his Son*,
But now the Council takes away
Our ragabos by the tonne.

* Characters in a television comedy series of the 1960s and ‘70s.

[Image: spitalfieldslife.com]
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Going to the Moon

It’s easier for young people to think outside the box because they haven’t yet found the edges of it.

“Mum,” said Joe, I shan’t be long,
I’m going to the Moon.”
“Yes, Joe dear, of course you are.
Make sure you come back soon.”

An hour passed. Then Joe returned.
“My! That was quick,” said Mum.
“I haven’t been there yet,” said Joe.
(Are all grown-ups this dumb?)

“My friends have each agreed to lend
A helium balloon,
Then I’ll tie them all together
And float up to the Moon.

“But if that fails, I won’t give up.
I know it can be done:
Neil Armstrong bounced around up there
And made it look good fun.

“Perhaps a giant catapult?
A ladder of Lego bricks?
And if those don’t get me far enough,
I’ll think up other tricks.”

“It’s good to have ambitions,”
Said Mum to spaceman Joe,
“But have a bite to eat before
You have another go . . .”

[Image: Wikipedia]
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Insects, anyone?

With the world’s population still growing, a 2013 United Nations report proposes alternative sources of nutrition.

Insects, they say, are good for you
And have a lovely crunch;
But I don’t think I’m ready yet
To have them for my lunch.

Insects, they say, are nourishing:
“Just pop them in, they’re yummy!’
But I shall stick to normal food
To put inside my tummy.

[Image: BBC/UN FAO]
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Old Spiky

Bone fragments found in 1985 by Morris Zdzalek and Sylvia Standing in a Sussex brickpit were first thought to be from an Iguanodon, but Dr William T. Blows examined them and in 1996 named them as a new species of Polacanthus, a family of armoured dinosaurs. (However, in 2011, researchers at London’s Natural History Museum, using a cladistic analysis – grouping according to shared characteristics – questioned this. The matter is not yet settled:  see Postscript.)

In 1985, they found
In Rudgwick Brickworks’ quarry
A piece of bone. Iguanodon?
Bill Blows said, “No, I’m sorry,

“It’s Polacanthus. It was hiding
Under false pretences!
It needs a name, though . . . how about
Polacanthus rudgwickensis?

“It’s longer than old foxii,
Found on the Isle of Wight.
(I dug one out in ’79,
That’s how I know I’m right.)

“Your rudgwickensis fossil is
Cretaceous in its Age,
Or, if you want to be precise,
Barremian* in Stage.

Polacanthuses were spiky beasts,
With a hefty sacral shield;
But a fully intact skeleton
Has yet to be revealed.”

Rudgwick Brickworks are no more;
So fossils can’t be found there.
But I wonder if Old Spiky’s mates
Lie dormant underground there . . .

Analysis by cladogram
Suggests this name could fall:
Perhaps Old Spiky might not be
Polacanthus, after all . . .

* Between 129.4 and 125 million years ago

[Image: dinosaufact.net]
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Space racer

All motions are relative, and if you and your surroundings are moving at a constant velocity, your body won’t be overly troubled by them. Just as well, considering how huge some of them are.

They say the Earth is spinning1
And orbiting the Sun2,
And spiralling with the Milky Way3
Which, not to be outdone,

Is moving through the Local Group
Of galaxies nearby4;
And that, itself, is shifting fast
Against the starry sky5.

And yet we do not feel it,
This rocketing through space.
So just sit back, enjoy the ride –
The Ultimate Space Race!

1. At 51°N, your circumferential speed is about 1050 km/h about the Earth’s axis
2. At about 107,000 km/h, relative to the Sun
3. At roughly 825,000 km/h, relative to the galactic centre
4. Towards the Local Group’s centre of mass at about 144,000 km/h
5. (Actually, against the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation), estimated at around 2,200,000 km/h

[Image: universetoday.com]
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Living in the past

I think, therefore I’ve got a brain. I’ve grown up with it. It’s not perfect, but I can live with it (well, I have to, actually).

I’m living in the past, because
The things I hear or see
Or touch or taste or smell take time
To travel here to me.

What’s more, my eyes and ears and nose
Ignore a lot of stuff.
The signals that they register
Are just not good enough.

And once they reach me, they must then
Be processed by my brain,
And made sense of as best it can
(It can be quite a strain).

They paint a picture in my head
Of what the world might be:
A hundred billion neurons’ worth
Of mental imagery!

They’re all I’ve got to go on, but
As data, they’re a sham.
They’re incomplete and late – and yet
They got me where I am!

See also: No time like the present, Brain strain, Noddle models, Ignorance is bliss, Model makers, Confusion

[Image: Michael Alesich (Visual Crash – Iron Oak)]
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It’s everywhere that stuff isn’t (possibly). But can your brain handle that? Mine can’t.

‘Nothing’ is a pronoun (indefinite in kind),
So it must refer to something, and that really hurts my mind.
It’s what the beggar, Porgy, in Charleston’s Catfish Row,
Had plenty of (and sang of, so folks around would know).

It’s inside every atom, the physicists declare,
Which means it’s very nearly every-blooming-where:
The universe, for instance, is pretty full of nowt.
So Porgy was quite right, there’s lots of it about!

Abhorred by Mother Nature, it fills a vacuum’s space;
Life signifies it, Bill said, in quite another place1;
Lord Goring’s favourite subject was nothing, to be sure2;
And it’s what to give a person who has it all, and more.

But how can there be nothing? Why doesn’t space collapse?
Could it be that scientists don’t know it all? Perhaps.
‘Dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ are strange hypotheses,
And ‘nothing’ is another: they’re all still mysteries.

1.William Shakespeare gave this line to Macbeth, in Scene V of the play of that name: “[Life] is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
2. In Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, Act 1: “I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.”]

[Image: www.mccallerickson.com]
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Lancing Clump

Officially ‘Lancing Ring’, the Clump was an ever-green feature on the skyline of my youth, a place to lift oneself above the coastal flatlands and contemplate what might be over the horizon. It was also where The North began.

The Clump had a dew-pond, quite empty of dew;
Its trees draped a shape on the Downs, so you knew
Which way was north; and from it, the view
Put things in perspective: there’s the World, here is You.

You walked up the Clump on a carpet of turf,
Laid thin on the chalk with an inch of good earth,
Whose greening imparted immeasurable worth
To the Downs that spanned Sussex, my county of birth.

Good for kite-flying, sausage-sizzles and fun,
You could stroll through the woods or stretch out in the sun.
Though it wasn’t enormous, when all’s said and done,
The Clump was unique: there could be only one.

To the south was the Channel; and the Judge eye could see
The east-to-west line of the Downs, green and free.
To the north – who could tell? A dark mystery:
My world ended here. That’s the North, this is Me.

[Image: Chris Shaw]
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As I discovered on a behind-the-scenes tour of parts of the Natural History Museum (NHM), the real strength of a museum is in its collection of Really Helpful, Knowledgeable, Committed People, as much as in its collection of artefacts.

Behind the scenes at the NHM
Museums everywhere depend
On people such as these.

They’re Really Helpful, Knowledgeable
And totally Committed
To taking care of all the stuff
That others have submitted.

If you’re researching something special
And need to know its history,
Just ask an RHKCP –
They’ll help you solve the mystery.

They know where every item is,
Who found it, when and where.
They treat each item, large or small,
With parental, nurturing, care.

The strength of a Museum,
Which the public rarely sees,
Is in the folk who work there –

[Image: Wikipedia]
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Begin at the beginning . . .

In chapter 12 of Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland, the King of Hearts offers his Herald, the White Rabbit, such good advice that I thought it deserved expanding a little. So, risking decapitation, I have put a few extra words into the King’s mouth.

Begin,” said the King, “that’s the secret,
For nothing gets done if you don’t, see?
It’ll stay on your really-must-do list,
And finished it certainly won’t be.

“The place to begin’s the Beginning –
Don’t start in the Middle, my friend!
Then worry away at the matter
Until you arrive at the End.

“When you get to the End, my advice
Is to Stop – there’s no more to be said.
(But make sure you keep clear of the Queen,
For she’s sure to screech ‘Off with your head!’)”

[Image: jergames.blogspot.com]
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The Society of Radiator Geeks

A guide showing us round a museum remarked that an earlier visitor had become excited over one of the building’s radiators – apparently, it was a rare example of its type. He’d told the guide he was a member of a ‘radiator club’. My search engine couldn’t locate one, but such an organisation is clearly needed. Here’s my proposal:

The radiator, that thing on the wall,
Gets ignored every day. After all,
It doesn’t need telling to warm up your dwelling
As you hang up your coat in the hall.

I think there should be a Society
To celebrate their endless variety.
So I’ll set up a meeting for fans of space heating
To make rules to ensure its propriety.

My Society of Radiator Geeks
Will meet every couple of weeks
To find out what’s humming in the weird world of plumbing,
And discuss radiator antiques.

They will make it their special vocation
To seek out and record the location
Of rads new and old; then, before long, behold –
A Radiator Map of the nation!

[Image: thisoldhouse.com]
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Something in the air

News reports in February 2014 featured ‘smog’ in Beijing, a problem that used to plague London. Londoners first knew it as the ‘pea-souper’ fog, then mainly a result of emissions from coal fires. Nowadays, it’s also vehicle and industrial emissions that cause it in many of the world’s cities. A timely reminder that, while the air holds the oxygen that lets us live, it has lots of other invisible components, too – some beneficial, others decidedly not.

There is something in the air
Which turns up everywhere
And gets inside your body, uninvited,
Like pollen in the breeze –
The stuff that makes you sneeze.
It has many things with which our lives are blighted:

There’s dust and smoke and fog,
Particulates and smog,
Bacteria and viruses and prions,
In the daylight that we see,
Cosmic rays and all their highest-energy ions.

The air itself, or course,
Is usefully the source
Of oxygen, the stuff that makes blood red;
But most of it’s N2,
With argon, CO2
And hints of other gases, too, it’s said.

There is something in the air –
Lots of it, everywhere;
And most of it, it seems, is out to get us.
We just have to do our best
With the air that’s in our chest,
Doing battle with the problems that beset us.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]
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London underground

Dr Richard Ghail, of Imperial College London, and others have discovered that the structure of the London Clay is not the simple syncline it had been pictured as until around 2004 – the maps of the British Geological Survey (BGS) showed hardly any faulting. But evidence of a continental collision some 300 million years ago, the Variscan orogeny, still shows up today as SE–NW ‘strike-slip’ fault patterns in southern Britain, and Dr Ghail’s research has shown that the London Clay is riddled with them; where this creates voids, groundwater can flow through them. In the Lambeth Group of sediments, which lie below the Clay, he has also found that oxygen-hungry iron compounds – a potential hazard for tunnellers.  He’d like to use his research techniques on data from future missions to Venus, a previous focus of his work. (Note: readers are advised to remind themselves of the tune of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”.)

If you dig into the London Clay, you’re sure of a big surprise –
If you are tunnelling London Clay, it really would be wise
To tap into the specialist knowledge of Richard Ghail of Imperial College
’Cos, underground, the geology is no picnic.

Every geologist who’s been good is sure of a treat today:
There’s lots of marvellous strike-slip faults in the wonderful London Clay:
Beneath the city it’s not very pretty and water flows where nobody knows,
And that’s because the BGS never mapped it.

Picnic time for Richard G
Is finding unknown faults where everyone thought there weren’t any.
Spot them, plot them on the maps, see how they match Variscan orogeny!
See him gaily gad about, for he is mad about tectonic geology.
At six o’clock his ICL students will write up what he’s said,
Because they all want an MSc!

If you dig into the Lambeth Group, you really should beware –
If you disturb the Lambeth Group, you’d better not breathe the air,
For Doctor Ghail has found green rust eats oxygen; and so you must
Be careful, for it certainly is no picnic.

Picnic time for Richard G
Is Venus, which, it seems, has plate tectonics like Earth’s today.
Watch him, catch him unawares, and see his research getting underway.
See him gaily gad about, for he is mad about Venusian geology.
He’d really like to climb on a rocket and do his work in space –
He’d be an orbiting PhD!

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Life is like a ladder

As yet another birthday approaches, I’m trying to pretend it isn’t.

Life is like a ladder
Whose length you cannot measure.
When you’re young, each birthday rung
You greet with childish pleasure:

The next one seems so distant
It’s almost out of sight
As you devour each endless hour
In days of cloudless light.

Then, when you’re part-way up,
You forget you’re on a ladder.
It’s more a race whose frantic pace
Is getting ever madder.

But as you keep on climbing,
The gaps between each stage,
Which once were vast, as each one’s passed
Get smaller as you age.

As birthday rungs approach now,
You look the other way
And, at this stage, deny your age.
“You’re as old as you feel,” you say.

So how long is this ladder
Whose top’s not yet in sight?
Who cares, I say! Enjoy each day –
But keep on holding tight.

[Image: alexfinnarn.com]
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Of course, I never do it

Roads in Britain have a speed limit of 70 miles per hour, though you’d never think it applied on motorways.

I’m cruising down the motorway, at spot-on seventy,
So why is all the other traffic overtaking me?
Where are the traffic cops? Now come on, all you chaps,
And nab those rascally drivers with your radar speeding traps!

I know my speed exactly, thanks to satellite technology.
And, though I am no expert in the field of criminology,
A law’s a law for everyone, with ignorance no defence,
And breaking one so blatantly is clearly an offence.

Of course, I never do it. Well . . . not for very long . . .
And surely just a short time over seventy’s not wrong?
(Oh dear, there goes my argument: duration matters not.
I have no leg to stand on. Arrest me on the spot.)

[Image: driving.co.uk]
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Unnecessary ologies

In a book* about research in teaching there’s a sentence which made the eyes of a certain teacher glaze over: “Ontological assumptions will give rise to epistemological assumptions, which have methodological implications for the choice of particular data-collection techniques”. We had to look up ‘ontology’ (it’s the nature of being) and ‘epistemology’ (it’s the theory of knowledge, with the stress on ‘pis’). I thought it might have been more simply expressed, so I thought of a question to test it:

“Will the Sun rise tomorrow?” It’s easy to ask,
But the answer’s dependent, you see,
On a theory of knowledge: in what way can we know?
(About anything, actually,
Epistemologically speaking.) Now make it
Ontologically perfectly clear
What you mean by “the Sun” and “tomorrow” – there must be
No ambiguity here!

And now what you need is a method, by which
You’ll acquire what you think you can “know”,
Using clever techniques for data collection.
And then, when it’s done, off you go:
Collect all the data and set up a theory,
And test it, to see if it’s “true”.
But still it depends on your theory of knowledge
And what the meaning of things means to you.

So Hitchcock and Hughes could have made things much simpler
If they’d said (as I’m sure you’ll agree),
“Just have an idea, and a way you can prove it;
If it works every time, QED!”

* Graham Hitchcock and David Hughes: Research and the teacher, 2nd edition (Routledge, 1995)

[Image: idahoptv.org]
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What’s the secret of staying young? It’s a secret, but as it’s you, I’ll let you in on it.

The world’s full of tricksters, determined to sell you
The secret of youth, but their schemes have no value.
But I know the answer, and now I shall tell you.

I’ve discovered a method of not getting old,
The knowledge of which is more treasured than gold –
A secret that never before has been told.

Its value in pounds is as much the Earth weighs,
So shower me with cash if you think that it’s worth praise:
The secret is simple: just stop having birthdays!

In case your relations protest in a rage,
Just tell them politely, “If you’ll disengage
From birth anniversaries, then I won’t age!

And, if they agree they will give it the chop,
Say, “But presents are something I don’t want to stop,
So here is a scheme that will do as a swop:

Once a year, in its place, I’ll assign, if I may
A birthday-replacement No-Age Present Day”.
Then everyone’s happy, for ever and ay!

[Image: by Dr Vaggeils Fragiadakis, at isizmile.com]
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Oh! Mister Porter

Two nineteenth-century gentlemen, best friends at Oxford and encouraged by Louis Agassiz, amassed a fine collection of fossil fish, which are now in London’s Natural History Museum (NHM). But 9,658 of them, sent by train to the British Museum (BM), nearly didn’t make it . . . (This should be read, or sung if you must, with the rhythm and unusual rhyming scheme of George Le Brun’s 1893 Music Hall song of the same name.)

Landed gentry, through and through, were William Willoughby Cole1
And Philip de Malpas Grey Egerton2 with his Parliamentary rôle.
They loved to fill their cabinets with curious collections,
And fishes of the fossil sort were their main predilections,
So off they went Grand Touring to see what they could buy.
But William’s later blindness meant that he would then decide
To send the BM all he had. But things turned quickly bad,
For they were stolen from the train, and so aloud he cried:

“Oh! Mister Porter, what shall I do?
I sent my rocks to Euston, but
They all got nicked at Crewe.
Ten thousand fossil fishes all dumped into the Dee,
Oh! Mister Porter, how could you let it be!”

“It’s not my fault, Sir. I did not commit this heinous crime.
But, as you say, your fish are dead, and have been for some time –
They won’t be swimming anywhere! Have patience, and you’ll see
Your goods will be located soon and rescued from the Dee.”
And so they were3, and forwarded to Dear Old London Town.
Egerton’s collection4 too, un-looted, made its way
To Bloomsbury’s Great Russell Street, entire, intact, complete.
They’re now in the NHM, of course, where you’ll see them on display.

“Well, Mister Porter, I s’pose that thanks are due:
I sent my rocks to Euston, but
They all got nicked at Crewe.
Ten thousand fossil fishes all dumped into the Dee,
But you, Mister Porter, have rescued them for me!”

1. William Willoughby Cole, later 3rd Earl of Enniskillen (1807-1886) [left-hand photo]
2. Sir Philip de Malpas Grey Egerton , of Oulton Park, Cheshire (1806-1881) [right-hand photo]
3. Well, most of them, anyway . . .
4. Some 7000 specimens, mostly fossil fish
[Images: Geological Society]
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Noddle models

The human brain evolved to help our ancestors survive all that Nature flung at them. And it’s done it by setting up models of what it perceives, in an attempt to remove the mystery of cause and effect. But it’s not got the bits of brain that would let it grasp with certainty such things as what’s before the beginning of time, or after the end of it; or what’s outside the edge of the universe. I wouldn’t be without mine, but it does have its limitations.

The brain seeks explanations:
It does the best it can
To guess what’s really going on
So it can make a plan.

Scientific man would say:
“For rational explanation,
Experiment, and so obtain
Sufficient information
To set up a hypothesis.
Then, if it tests ok,
Accept your theory. Thus, it seems,
The mystery’s gone away!”

And so it has – till someone else
With better kit, maybe,
Repeats the test and finds there is
A small disparity
Which means ideas must be revised;
New models must be found,
And what was once a ‘natural law’
Is now a tad unsound.
We should, in all humility,
Admit our grey-goo noddles
Can’t grasp reality itself,
However good our models.

Our hunter-gatherer forbears used
The same approach. They sought
A causal link from A to B,
But found a different sort:
Had things they’d done, or said, or thought,
Brought trouble or success?
Was something watching every man –
A ‘spirit’, at a guess?
And could this ‘spirit’ be provoked,
Appeased, or brought on-side
By sacrifice or ritual
Most carefully applied?

“Why yes,” said shamans, chiefs and kings
(Whose stature had been grown
By claiming that the spirit-world
Should deal through them alone.)
And so religious man evolved;
But still, inside their noddles
Was not reality itself
But just imperfect models.

The brain seeks explanations:
It does the best it can
To guess what’s really going on
So it can make a plan.

See also Model makers .

[Image: theguardian.com]
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I will change it

What to do with a duplicated Christmas present (to the tune of the traditional Czech ‘Rocking Carol’):

Here’s a special Christmas gift, it’s from me.
Oh, you’ve got one, I can see!
I will change it, change it, change it,
I will change it, change it, change it:
Take it back to where I bought it
(With receipt) and they will sort it.

[Image: urbanexchange.co.uk]
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There’s a website that  claims to show Santa’s present delivering progress in real time as the world turns on Christmas Eve. A certain bearded reindeer pilot got to hear of it and was Not Amused:

It has come to my attention
From a source I cannot mention
That some children (and some adults, I believe)
Are confused and quite upset
By the wretched Internet
Whose ‘Santa-tracking’ site on Christmas Eve
Puts flags upon a map
(No doubt there is an app)
That claim to point to every place I stop.
They’re puzzled, for they’ve seen
Other ‘Santas’ when they’ve been
Enticed into a ‘grotto’ in a shop.

Let me set the record straight:
I’m in a quantum state,
And the Principle of Heisenberg applies:
You cannot fully know
What I am and where I go
And those who say they can are telling lies!
Kids have known through all of history
My existence is a mystery –
I don’t exist until I am observed,
As Schrödinger declared. It might seem shocking,
But I’m here, and I am there,
It’s like I’m everywhere;
So just keep calm and go hang up your stocking.

[Image: theguardian]
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Jon Richfield

Answers to questions posed by readers of the ‘Last Word’ page in New Scientist regularly appear over the name “Jon Richfield, Somerset West, South Africa”. How can one man know so much?

Who is Jon Richfield? A polymath, he.
And why’s he much cleverer and brainier than me?
No question’s too tricky, no problem’s too tough,
This fount of all knowledge knows all sort of stuff.

I’m getting suspicious: can I dare to suggest
That he taps in to Google from Somerset West?
Or is he New Scientist’s info-net nerd
Who pretends to write in to this journal’s Last Word?

So who is Jon Richfield? I haven’t a clue!
This fount of all knowledge seems too good to be true.
Yet, like Father Christmas,  if he didn’t exist,
I’m tempted to think old JR would  be missed.

[Image: New Scientist]
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Santa’s proof

It’s not just children who wonder about Santa . . .

Poor Santa needs help. Consider his plight:
Traversing the skies in the blackness of night
With only a reindeer’s red nose as a light,
And undeclared goods in a sack, out of sight,
He hasn’t got radar, he’s not wearing white –
It seems the poor fellow just can’t get it right.

Air Traffic Control, in a panic, declare,
“Unidentified objects, high up in the air:
One large one, nine small ones (all but one as a pair) . . .”
The RAF scramble, for though they’re aware
False alarms aren’t uncommon, they need to take care
Lest terrorist groups are behind the affair.

The jets in formation roar into the sky.
As they close on their target, they hear a voice cry:
“I say, chaps, go easy, I don’t want to die!
I’m just Father Christmas, a harmless old guy
Just driving my sleigh through this wintry sky,
Delivering toys until morning is nigh”.

“Can you prove it?”, asked the RAF man, with a sneer.
“Am I supposed to believe those are flying reindeer?”
“Ho ho ho,” said FC, “Come, be of good cheer,
And check out the soot on my jolly red gear
From the chimney descents of a long, long career.
Merry Christmas to all, and a happy New Year!”

[Image: noradsanta.wikia.com (The RAF’s pictures of this event are classified, so you’ll have to make do with this USAF one . . .)]
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Clusters of coprolites (fossilised poo), left in a ‘communal toilet’ by members of a 240-million-year-old dinosaur herd, have been unearthed in Argentina, according to a BBC report. They are said to have served to warn off predators. I wonder . . .

What did dinosaurs do when they needed to poo?
Why, the same thing as you – they went to the loo.
Researchers have found coprolites that abound
In dense clumps on the ground – a Jurassic mound!

To predators about, did the piles say, “Watch out,
You should be in no doubt we’re a herd with some clout”?
Or did dinosaurs choose to get into the news
With their communal loos? Was it simply a ruse?

[Image: BBC News]
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Dinosaur bones are occasionally found in the Wealden clays of Sussex, but on 27 November 2013, an almost complete 17-metre-long diplodocus appeared near Billingshurst in Sussex. Actually, it had been found in a Wyoming quarry by the teenage sons of German palaeontologist Raimund Albersdörfer, reassembled with a supporting structure in Rotterdam and brought to Summers Place as Lot 167 in an auction on 27 November 2013 where the Natural History Museum of Denmark bought ‘Misty’ for £400,000. (Notes for readers: This should ideally be sung to, or at least read to the rhythm of, the song ‘Nellie the elephant’. And it only works if you pronounce ‘Diplodocus’ as ‘Dip-lod-ocus’, with the stress on ‘lod’, like the BBC does.)

To Wyoming,
The Albersdörfers came,
They found a Diplodocus dinosaur, and Misty was her name.
One fine day,
She slipped her earthy chain
And off she went to be restored – a dinosaur again!

Misty Diplodocus checks her bones as she makes her way to the surface:
Limbs and ribs there? Vertebra?
Yes, they are!
Misty Diplodocus checks her bones
As she is exposed in the quarry:
Limbs and ribs there? Vertebra?
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

She’d died in old Wyoming a long time ago
(A hundred and fifty years or more, said people who should know).
So Misty the dino was crated up and ferried over to Holland –
She had never been so far!
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

In Rotterdam,
They wired her bones together
So Misty could be auctioned off and be preserved for ever.
The auctioneer,
With trusty gavel in hand,
Displayed to the punters at Summers Place old Misty, proud and grand.

Misty Diplodocus checks her bones
Are they all in the right order?
Limbs and ribs there? Vertebra?
Yes, they are!
Misty Diplodocus checks them again
When she’s on show at the auction:
Limbs and ribs there? Vertebra
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

The auctioneer addressed the crowd: “What will you pay?
Four hundred thousand, any advance? It’s yours!” (She thought, “Hooray!”)
So Misty the dino discovered her worth, and felt like she was a rock star;
Her bones were all together again,
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!

[Image: BBC]
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Double-bass gymnastics

Some people reckon that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a brilliant composition. But I spotted three double-bass players vigorously exercising their upper extremities in its last movement at a concert by our local amateur orchestra, and thought they might disagree…

The players of the double bass, as they play Beethoven Nine,
Zip up and down their fingerboards so fast they’ll make them shine.
Such acrobatic movements, though, are rare: their repertoire
Is mainly backing up the rhythm in the bass clef, bar by bar.

I wonder if old Ludwig thought, as he penned Op. 125
“Those lazy blokes on double bass – I’ll make them come alive!
I’ll give them notes so widely spaced, so fast, they’ll have to grease
Their fingers with a tub of lard to play my masterpiece!”

Or maybe he was unaware how tricky it would be?
He didn’t play the double bass, so he could not foresee
How scattering notes across the stave was going to appal
Those fine upstanding fellows with their backs against the wall.

But hey, just look at them! They’re coping pretty well
(Although there’s so much going on, it’s difficult to tell).
But their efforts would have pleased him, if he could but have heard,
For deafness meant he scarcely caught a single note or word.

[Image: andrewhugill.com]
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The mineral barite occurs in the Dalradian Supergroup rocks around Aberfeldy in Scotland and is currently being mined at the Foss mine to the north-west of the town. Its most useful characteristics are its density (about 4.5 g/cm3), inertness, ready availability and the fact that it’s non-magnetic. Barite does dirty but useful jobs, as it explains below.

I’m not the brightest mineral when I’m mined –
I’m non-magnetic, dense, inert and cheap.
The oil prospectors reckon I’m designed
For mixing up with mud and pumping deep.

In concrete, I’ll absorb stray radiation
From nuclear and therapeutic plants.
So think of me, in Britain’s northern nation,
As Scotland does its devolution dance.

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]
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Jimmy Smuggles

It’s not widely known that Alfred Longley (1894–1965), from Worthing in Sussex, invented the over-land submarine and the underground kite. He also wrote tales about one “Jimmy Smuggles”, a chap of similar inventiveness and a Treacle Miner of nearby Sompting. Jimmy’s creations and activities are noted in Jacqueline Simpson’s 1973 book The Folklore of Sussex, but deserve a wider audience, so some are detailed below:

If you’re needing a hole lifted over a wall,
Then make Jimmy Smuggles your first port of call.
If the night sky be dark and you’re wanting it bright,
What you need is “Jim Smuggles’ Fresh Bottled Moonlight”.

Is your garden adorned by a fine weeping willow?
Well, don’t let the poor thing weep into its pillow,
Act now, for it’s tragic to witness such grief:
Buy “Jim’s Weeping Willow-tree Handkerchief”.

For breakfast, you’d better be safe than be sorry,
So eat “Smuggles Porridge”, direct from his quarry,
Then stir in some treacle from Jim’s Treacle Mine
For a meal that is nourishing, tasty, divine!

So who’s this Jim Smuggles, and where can he be?
Inventor, philanthropist, friend of the tree,
Provider of food that comes out of the ground –
Jim Smuggles of Sompting is somewhere around . . .

[Image: tansyrr.com]
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Darcy’s secret

Darcy Trinkwon is a brilliant concert organist, a master of his instrument and of an incredibly wide and varied repertoire. I came away from a recent performance at Worth Abbey, where he is currently organist, convinced that he could not possibly have played a Widor Allegro with just the usual human complement of limbs. He was hidden from view behind the console, but occasionally a hand would appear to turn a page. Here’s how he does it:

I’ve sussed the Trinkwon secret,
How he casts his magic spell.
He uses both his feet, of course,
But he’s got four hands as well.

You only see the usual two
When he takes his seat to play,
But then he secretly deploys
A pair he’s hidden away.

As Widor’s music whirls and swirls,
This organist engages
One hand per manual, one for stops
And one to turn the pages.

I reckon lots of practice
(And maybe evolution)
Has acted on the Trinwon frame
To fashion this solution.

[Image (not of Darcy Trinwon!): haamusiikki.info]
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René’s fly

The story goes that, while watching a fly buzzing round the room (or crawling over the ceiling, depending on which version you prefer), the idea occurred to René Descartes that its position in space could be precisely defined by specifying just three mutually orthogonal measurements made from a fixed point. Thanks to that fly, we now have “Cartesian coordinates”.

René Descartes was really quite smart.
When he noticed a fly, René said:
Mon Dieu! Its position
Is described with precision
By coordinates: x, y and z.”

[For American readers: the letter z is pronounced ‘zed’ in Britain.]

There may be an alternative explanation: see “Helpful Helena”.

[Images: Wikimedia Commons; New South Wales Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre]
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Harald Sverdrup and the MOC

The sverdrup, named after oceanographer Harald Sverdrup (1888–1957), is used to measure the volumetric rate of transport of ocean currents. It’s equal to one million cubic metres per second. Researchers have looked at what might happen if fresh-water flow into the Arctic Ocean were to increase by one sverdrup for ten years. They found that it could stop the Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC) which in northern latitudes depends for its motive power on the cooling of an upper layer of saltier water. And that would cut off the transport of warm water to northern Europe from the Gulf of Mexico and drastically affect the UK’s climate.

The sverdrup is a unit
Of ocean volume flow.
It’s used in Arctic modelling
(I thought you’d like to know).

Now Greenland’s massive ice sheet
Is shrinking, and its ice
Could do just what the models do,
Which isn’t very nice:

Fresh water, say researchers,
If dumped at such a rate
Into the Arctic Ocean,
Could change its present state.

Its sea ice and albedo
Would both reduce; and so
The Gulf Stream’s North Atlantic Drift
Would be the first to go.

The globe is getting warmer,
The evidence is clear:
Those sverdrup flows of melted ice
Will not just disappear.

If we don’t cut emissions,
The MOC will die;
And GeoVerse’s readers
Will know the reason why.

[Image: Wikipedia Commons]
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A dog’s tale

Many a dog owner these days has a special sort of sling which helps them to throw a tennis ball for their dog, saving a great deal of muscular action in the arm department. One I saw today even used it to pick the ball up when the well-exercised animal dropped it at her feet. She looked as though she could do with the sort of exercise she was giving her dog. The dog thought the same:

My owner is a chubby lass
Who has a sling she uses
To help her effortlessly throw
My ball to where she chooses.

The exercise I get is great!
I wish she’d get some too,
But biting hands that feed you is,
In doggy lore, taboo.

She’s got herself addicted –
Eats chocolate by the ton.
And such a couch potato!
I’ve never seen her run . . .

But I’ve a plan to make her fit,
A plan that cannot fail:
I’ll make a chocolate launcher
And fit it to my tail.

Next time we’re out for walkies,
I’ll wag my tail with zest
And watch her chase the chocolate –
It’ll all be for the best . . .

She’ll run and puff and pant and grunt,
And work up quite a sweat.
I hope, when she recovers,
She’ll thank her thoughtful pet . . .

[Image: sweetclipart.com]
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Coming apart

Certain sayings have sinister undertones.

Night has fallen;
Morning has broken.
The world is cracking up fast –
It’s all on the blink!
I’m beginning to think
This poem could well be my last . . .

[Image: 1.bp.blogspot.com]
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A name from the 18th century branches of the family tree.

He’s here! He’s arrived!
A brother for Jess,
A grandson for Gordon and Mo.
His name’s really Joseph,
But it won’t be too long
Before we’ll be calling him Joe . . .

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When continents collide

At the Open University, Dr. Clare Warren researches what happens to rocks when continents collide.

Keep a lookout for Clare,
Dice with her if you dare!
Continental collision’s her scene:
What is burial’s relation
To rude exhumation?
(Of rocks metamorphic, I mean.)

The geochronology
Of red-hot geology
Is what’s occupying her brain,
For what turns her on
Is where old rocks have gone
And how they will surface again.

[Photo: Open University]
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An orbital track

I saw the sunlight reflected from the International Space Station as I put out the empty milk bottles last night. Moving from west to east, it eventually disappeared into the Earth’s shadow.

It was twenty past ten one dark night
When I saw a fast-moving bright light.
It went straight as a die
Across the black sky,
Then it suddenly vanished from sight.

Its Earth-circling astronaut crew
Must have had a spectacular vies
Of the Earth, far below.
But there’s one thing I know –
I wouldn’t go up there! Would you?

[Image: NASA]
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