Number of the Month

January 2012

Green Ink

We like to keep track of the progress of our Numby Laureates, so it is interesting to note a further contribution to atmospheric physics and chemistry from our most recent Laureate Steve Jones , promoter of the new physics.

To begin at the beginning

Last year was the second warmest in Britain since records began and CO2 levels have gone up by almost a fifth in the past five decades; but, as every well-briefed journalist knows, global warming is a myth put out by charlatans, so there can be no cause for concern.

A remarkable opening sentence! A nice conceit and, of course, intended to be heavy irony, relying on acceptance of the alleged “consensus,” but is in fact the view that has been formed by thousands of scientists all over the world have, after looking at the evidence. The following is from Ten facts about global warming THEY don’t want you to know (2001):

The really big lie about man-made global warming is that almost all scientists accept it. More than 4,000 scientists from 106 countries, including 72 Nobel prize winners, signed the Heidelberg Appeal (1992), calling for a rational scientific approach to environmental problems. Many senior scientists have also supported The Statement by Atmospheric Scientists on Greenhouse Warming (1992), The Leipzig Declaration (1997) and finally the Oregon Petition (1998) which received the signatures of over 19,000 scientists.

And that does not include the thousands of sceptics who found it politic to keep their heads below the parapet.

The unattributed claim about “the second warmest” comes from the Met Office about the UK, hardly an unbiased report from a disinterested party, but it rang round the media world. They have been among the most indefatigable promoters of warmist propaganda in tandem with the notorious CRU, home of climategate and its even more egregious whitewash. They were obliged to withdraw from issuing long term weather forecasts after their warming predictions became a national joke. A look at their provisional figures shows that only one of the four countries of the UK exceeds the “normal” by more than a degree and this is England, one of the most populous and urbanised areas in the world. It is one tiny spot on the oblate spheroid and you can guarantee that one spot somewhere will provide a record of some sort every year.

Then there is the “well-briefed journalist” who pops up twice in this missive. Are we to assume that it is journalists who are driving the opposition to the warmist scaremongers, or is it that they are ignoring their brief and imposing self-censorship in order to further the cause?

The crux of this article, however, turns on the dreaded name of nitrogen. Nitrophobia is now old hat, but it has long been one of the basic creeds among the eco-archy. One of the techniques used by promoters of the chemophobic branches of eco-religion is to cite abuses of chemicals by the few to impose a blanket ban on the many. Thus Rachel Carson triggered the global ban on DDT that resulted in the deaths of millions in Africa and elsewhere. Another trick is to ignore the little matter of concentration (here, for example). Modern instrumentation allows us to measure concentrations of less than one part per billion, which is a boon to scaremongers, though such concentrations of non-living pollutants never constitute a hazard. There are many molecules that exceed the capacity of carbon dioxide to give us a welcome bit of warmth, but to all intents and purposes they are absent from the atmosphere. Furthermore, their emission/absorption spectra overlap those of carbon dioxide and more importantly water vapour, and are therefore largely spoken for. Chemophobia is one of the most potent weapons that the enemy within use to undermine the well-being of human society in the west: the mercury scare, for example, has been disinterred in the latest attack by the EPA on the US energy supply.

It is a myth propagated by the establishment that people in positions of influence hold their beliefs because of their positions. On the contrary, they hold their positions because of their beliefs. This principle applies right down to being a regular science correspondent in the New Green Daily Telegraph.

For the record, anticipating the usual retaliation, we remarked in April 2004 that “Excessive nitrate fertilizer use is an abomination.” This was slightly more forceful than an earlier comment in Sorry wrong number (2000):

Another worry I have about water is that, living as I do near the world's most famous fly fishing river, I have noticed that the clarity of the water has continuously deteriorated over the last couple of decades. This is probably due to leeching out of excessive nitrogenous fertilisers from agricultural land and the proliferation of trout farms. Bad news for fly fishers like me, but it isn't going to kill anybody.

What next for the scaremongers? Are they going to resurrect the  “Chlorine is the enemy” slogan?


A bit late

One of the most frequent topics appearing in these pages was the repeated attacks on HRT by crazed epidemiologists seeking fame. They all failed the most cursory examination (here, for example). As a result of the attacks, the number of women taking this valuable therapy declined by more than half. Now, a whole decade later we have a headline in the Daily Telegraph – HRT link to breast cancer 'flawed'. At last some academics are beginning to question these claims, which we described as Dangerous and destructive nonsense.


Onwards and upwards

Once again we are able to celebrate the progress of one of our Numby Laureates within weeks of the award. Today it is Chris Huhne who is making the headlines. There is nothing we can add to enhance his lustre.


Strange trains of thought

The latest big project, a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham has been designated HS2. When the annals of the descent into insanity by our political and bureaucratic classes come to be written, HS2 will be right up there with the worse-than-useless windmills and other follies.

Bureaucrats like big. Sticking one ostentatious jewel on a leaden crown, rather than gilding the whole thing, is their idea of improvement. The state of Britain’s railways is a disgrace, a running sore at the heart of the economy and an unacceptable infliction of misery on those who are obliged to use them. Putting one very expensive luxury of development in the middle of this morass is a nonsense, but the political and bureaucratic classes cannot resist the grandiose gesture. It is like installing a street paved with gold to link two quagmires. What the system needs is the same sort of expenditure spread over the entire network, but that is all too mundane for the glory seekers. As a result, the network as a whole is condemned to a future of continuing decay, taking the economy with it.

If you play with the simple integral that represents the total time taken on a journey, apart from the glaring law of diminishing returns between time and speed, you will find two things. First, this time is dominated by the low speed parts of the journey and, second, the proportional gain for journeys that are relatively short (as all are on a small island) is derisory. The slow parts of the journey are getting to and from the stations of the high speed line and they are progressively getting slower. Another mathematical observation is that the kinetic energy varies as the square of speed. Not only does this have to be supplied from fuel, it has ominous implications for safety.

We are so inured to the inanities of the political class that it is no surprise that the British Prime Minister has given his enthusiastic support to this project. According to his representative on earth, Matthew d’Ancona, who likes to propagate the theory that Stuntman Dave is endowed with rectal solar luminance, this is a personal masterstroke. It is nothing of the sort. Even the grandest heights of the flatterer’s art cannot successfully portray abject surrender as a triumph. He has just yielded to the pressures applied by the unchanging bureaucracy, just as his predecessors did. The curiosity is the obduracy with which the bureaucracy holds onto such dreams in defiance of all logic. Your bending author recently reread Blott on the landscape by Tom Sharpe and still laughed out loud (an excellent TV adaptation is available on DVD). Among other comic themes it satirises the process by which bureaucrats converge on destructive development plans, uncannily adumbrating the great HS2 fiasco. Oddly enough, the mystery of this bureaucratic solidarity is solved on the penultimate page of the very edition of newspaper that carried d’Ancona’s encomium. It is in a piece by none other than the indefatigable Christopher Booker, which speaks for itself.

Meanwhile, the Chilterns, one of the few remaining relatively unspoiled jewels in the crown of the English countryside, remain under dire threat.


Link to this piece


At the wrong end of life it is a consolation to have enjoyed the company of great human beings. I have lost amiable companions and the world has lost two great men.

Though they were close friends, who shared many interests, such as railways, the supreme quality that linked them was the almost lost knack of creating a happy and productive place of work.

Sir Gordon Higginson

On reading the official biographies, you might think his claim to fame was having his name attached to the “Higginson report”, the product of one of those exercises in political procrastination that so exercise the media, but his greatest achievements were at a much more human level. He was Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton for nine years, retiring in 1994. Visitors often remarked on the happy atmosphere within the University and credit for much of that is down to Gordon.

Despite coming into office during a period of funding cuts and progressive nationalisation of the university system he fostered the foundation and growth of notable university research facilities in, just for example, optoelectronics and oceanography.

He was genuinely and gloriously ordinary in his way of life and interactions, entirely without vainglory or bombast. His smile, often accompanied by a quip, on passing one in a corridor lifted the spirits. He manfully resisted pressure to build a centralised administration around his own office and it was only after his retirement that his flock came to realise how right he had been. He seemed to see his job as being head of a very large family and his many personal and private kindnesses are now the stuff of legend. When I last returned to the University to perform a final duty of passing on the baton I asked one of my successors what it was now like working at the University. “It’s just like working in a factory really” he replied. That was the inevitable result of the increasing incursions of the political class in the running of higher education, which means that Gordon was one of the last of his kind. The modern vice chancellor is just another overpaid executive at the top of a stifling central management, imposing bad decisions based on low quality information.

Oh, and by the way, Gordon also happened to be a prominent engineer and a leading expert in hydrodynamic lubrication and tribology, who performed great deeds to foster education and research in the UK and the world.

Professor David Barron

David Barron was a staunch supporter of Number Watch and there are many references to his direct contributions in the archive (see, for example, the Number of the Month for July 2001), though there were far more that are unacknowledged.

He was master of his subject and was once disconcerted to be adversely criticised, during an assessment visitation by a lecturer from a former polytechnic, for lecturing without notes. Computer Science as a new university discipline could well have descended into organised charlatanry, as did some other subjects (e.g. sociology and epidemiology) but a small group of international academics kept it on the rails and turned it into a rigorous discipline. David was one of them. He was not a seeker after fame, which heightens the honour in which he is held by those who knew him and of his works.

What made David influential in the combining of the world’s first electronics department (and an acknowledged world leader) with a younger computer science department was his background as a physicist. Not just any old physicist, but one who had co-authored a notable paper on the ionosphere. Subsequently as a head of the new department he was able to talk to the engineers and physicists on equal terms. At Cambridge he had come under the influence of Maurice Wilkes, known as the father of British computing. The realisation then developed that there was a gaping hole in the state of computer technology, which was the non-existence of a science of programming. This could have reduced the inchoate technology to chaos, which is why David became one of that elite and influential international group who saved the day. He was one of a new breed – the software engineer.

He was also a man of principle and could be very stubborn if pressed to compromise those principles. For example, when that disastrous political folly known as the Research Assessment Exercise was launched, he shrugged off all pressure to join the “paper chase” and continued to produce his thoughtful books every few years. His chosen weapon, however, was the e-mail, issued copiously both locally and internationally. This was the medium by which the sound academic discipline of Computer Science was established, from the time when relatively few people knew of its existence, as David’s memoir of Edsger Dijkstra demonstrates. Many of David’s e-mails have become collectors’ items, and I am devastated that I lost my personal collection of these in a recent catastrophic computer crash. They were succinct, witty and, when in attack mode, often acerbically to the point. It was typical of him that, though himself a life-long non-smoker, he fought to the bitter end to preserve a ghetto for the smokers, but this was after the going of Gordon Higginson and the tide of political correctness prevailed. Theirs was a generation for whom that much abused word “liberal” still retained the old meaning, before that definition was turned on its head.

How his contribution is missed in discussion of the most recent foolish proposal to come from the political class, that schools should teach computer programming! I have been programming longer than most, over half a century, and I would not even consider teaching it as a subject, for fear of passing on my bad habits. We engineers and physicists who came under David’s guidance were reluctantly obliged to accept that the computer scientists had a point about the importance of rigour.

It would be a foolish untruth to say that they do not make men like these any more, but perhaps true that they no longer rise to positions of influence


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À la recherche du temps perdu

 Long time ago, in the dark days of the dawn of prehistory, your bending author wrote a PhD thesis with the abstruse title Electrical breakdown in n-hexane; the influence of stress application and purification techniques. In doing so he learned a number of principles, many of which seemed applicable in the subsequent observation of the world, human society in particular. The most basic of these is that if a system is stressed to the point where breakdown is inevitable there is a time delay before it actually happens. Furthermore, that delay can be divided into two parts: the statistical time-lag, waiting for a triggering event to occur, and the formative time-lag, waiting for irreversible breakdown fully to complete.

Thus, when the financial system in the west was overstressed with debt and exposure to dodgy mortgages for years, it was just waiting for a triggering event to occur. There were several precursors (in the electrical case, these are called partial discharges) but, according to a timeline in the Daily Telegraph the trigger event occurred when Bear Stearns, one of the world's biggest investment banks, stopped clients from withdrawing cash from a fund which had lost billions of dollars.  Physical breakdown tends to occur as a cascade of events and so it was here. A full year after that trigger event Lehman Brothers collapsed, which was perhaps the dramatic climax representing irreversible breakdown, but meanwhile minor disasters had been accumulating. This was particularly so in the UK, where the Government had sedulously promoted an illusion of prosperity built on debt, the long drawn out failure of major banks gathered pace leading to a major collapse and an economically disastrous rescue by the taxpayer.

Likewise, the euro was overstressed from birth, being based on the unreasonable assumption that “one size fits all”. The overstress increased as new members were recruited with diminishing regard for their fitness. In human affairs there is a long formative time lag to final breakdown. The reason for this is the phenomenon of persistence of optimism or, as the cod psychologists have it, being in denial.

The most remarkable statistical blunder

People occasionally ask “What was the most startling event precipitated by a wrong number in the twelve year history of Number Watch?” Without question, the answer is – the wholly unjustified use of a statistical result that contributed to the banning of the drug Vioxx, which provided our number of the month for August 2005. It helped make a lot of money for shyster lawyers and deprived sufferers of a valuable pain killer, but it was based on a report from a committee of the FDA, following an expensive trial, including a section that was a farrago of nonsense. It was a fine illustration of the Law of Experiments and particularly its corollaries. The case of human survival statistics is mathematically analogous to the physical case of breakdown statistical time lags. The mathematics of it were laid down by Nobel Laureate von Laue in 1925 in a  study of electric breakdown in gases. To anyone with experience of time to failure curves it stands out like the proverbial sore thumb that the curve representing the control group on the placebo is the wrong shape. Such statistical accidents are unsurprising to those who have seen many such curves and they inevitably turn out to be unrepeatable. What these researchers require us to believe is that, whatever your age, taking a placebo for two years makes you virtually immune to heart disease. Astonishing or what? No real drug could compete with this performance, so would have to be banned. Furthermore, they resorted to the tactic of premature termination, now an established way of achieving meaningless but consequential results, though in this case it was probably prompted by the fact that they were running out of participants, owing to a high rate of attrition.

 Of course many other studies have been invoked, some rather murky (one involving fabricated data) and some observational studies with statistical results of low significance, but this claim stands out as an example of unthinking, uncurious interpretation of  experimental statistics.

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Number of the month – 963,000

This is the value in pounds of the bonus in shares turned down by Stephen Hester the man put in place by the Labour Government to oversee the taxpayers' rescue of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The excessive payments in the banking industry are a problem, but it is an international one and any country going it alone is likely to suffer damage. There is, however, a disturbing political aspect to this particular issue, the ganging up by MPs and the media, like a mob of school bullies, on individuals. Hester has done no wrong and his contract was approved by the government of the time, so the part played by the Labour Party leadership in this is particularly worthy of condemnation. Stuntman Dave, of course, will tell people what he thinks they want to hear. Even Fred the Shred, whose incontinent takeover fever brought down the bank, was one of the courtiers to Gordon Brown and, though the fortune he departed with is rightly viewed with distaste by the public, should not have been forced into the humiliation of having a knighthood abrogated, even though  the merit of the original award might be in doubt. This pursuit of individuals by the ravening mob is a gross symptom of a diseased political system.


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