Skip to main content

Storm in a teacup

The recent solar storm was a classic example of the way the impact of scientific information on our everyday lives can be misrepresented with the best of intentions (in this case to get a story noticed) but can result in more harm than good.

I happened to be appearing on our local BBC radio station on Saturday with the excellent Mark O'Donnell and inevitably the solar storm was a big talking point. There was much fun had with audience suggesting things that could be blamed on the storm (e.g. The crisps were all crushed in someone's packet, Swindon Town losing to Oxford) and that's not surprising as some of the coverage suggested we could expect the end of life as we know it, where in practice no one noticed anything.

The problem is that the media is terrified of using probabilities, so tends not to paint a good picture of an event which we can only predict the impact of in statistical terms. Instead we got dire warnings of the worst possible outcome, which given the reality made the reports look like scientists were crying wolf.

Although this one was a false alarm we do have to face up to the distinct possibility that at some point we will get a repeat of the great solar storm of 1859. This caused sparks to fly from telegraph poles, gave telegraph operators electric shocks and set recording paper on fire. The aurora boreal is visible throughout the UK and as far south as Rome.

There's no doubt such a zapping would damage some of our ground-based electronics, but the biggest impact would be on satellites which could be uniformly and permanently knocked out because they have less protection from the Earth's magnetic field.

Just think - no GPS, devastated weather forecasting, loss of satellite communications for TV, telephone and Internet. We wouldn't lose all our electronic world, but it would be severely restricted for at least a decade before satellite capability could be restored.

Oh and no Sky TV. Not all bad, then. (Sorry, Sky, you'd be missed really, I'm sure. I just couldn't resist the tradition of Murdoch bashing.)

Image from Wikipedia

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope