The Kate Middleton topless photos are the grossest invasion of privacy

If you buy into the worst kind of paparazzi antics, you are throwing away your own privacy too.

The royal boobs have apparently been seen. It might seem comical, or silly, or daft, a discussion that prompts sniggering and adolescent chortles. But with every fresh photo set there's a testing of boundaries going on and a new stripping away of privacy - not just of celebrities, but of all of us.

I haven't seen the photos. Why would I want to? Many media commentators have begun their discussion with a sadfaced confession: Yes, I have seen the royal breasts, I forced myself through professional necessity to look at them, like a surgeon inspecting a bundle of diseased organs.

Well no, not me. I have no interest in seeing sneaked photos of someone in private - the photographs of Kate were apparently taken while she and William were on holiday at Viscount Linley's chateau in France. Now, I don't go round on Weston Beach, say, gawping at other people's bodies, so why should I do so at home? If someone wants to walk around in their pants, so what? It's no business of mine. Let them live their lives.

Imagine walking around with a normal pocket camera, asking to take photos of someone on the beach. You wouldn't. Because you'd feel like a pervert. Because you would be. Add on a long lens and a hide, though, and suddenly this behaviour somehow becomes acceptable - acceptable enough for a magazine to pay for your dirty photos.

It's a slightly different situation from the Prince Harry pictures. He, the dozy fool, was mucking about in a Las Vegas suite the size of Blackpool, and got snapped by an onlooker. He, the buffoon (sorry, I mean the Brave Boy Battling the Taliban, having entirely coincidentally gone on a PR-boosting tour of duty since) may have been in a private space, but wasn't exactly acting in a way that didn't attract attention.

Kate, on the other hand, is not being drunk, not partying, not mucking about, but just standing there, I'm led to believe. What justification can there be for that? We all know human beings have holidays. This Kate incident has all the nasty hallmarks of the worst excesses of the paparazzi: the sneaking in bushes, the enormous long lenses, the grainy photos, the popular trashy press lapping it up.

Lapped up in France, at least. Closer magazine proudly declared that William and Kate were alone on a romantic holiday: "Well, almost. Closer was there!" Can you imagine a British magazine using such a jolly tone, post Diana?

In Britain, the dead-tree press have voluntarily agreed not to print photos of Kate other than at public engagements - not as a sop to the chilling effects of nasty Brian Leveson, by the way, but to keep things sweet with Buckingham Palace. So this is another example of national borders and old media being pretty meaningless when it comes to breaking stories.

For once, our press will be doing the right thing, though not just because it's the right thing to do. There's no public interest. There is no value other than curiosity and prurience. There is no reason for anyone to see those photos, which are a huge violation of privacy.

But how many of us are going to have a sneaky look at the photos? That's the telling factor. Searches for "Kate Middleton t*pless photos" are probably soaring into the stratosphere as I write this. People want to see. How soon before the lines get blurred again between "things people want to see" and "things which are genuinely in the public interest"? We may all claim the moral high ground, but how many of us can resist the temptation?

Royal flesh makes money. From Prince Charles's cock to Harry's bum and Kate's boobs, it seems we think we're entitled to a piece of them. I've written before about the expectations placed upon Kate, as the uterus on legs, with the maiden-aunt nation demanding she become pregnant immediately.

I don't think we are, because they're just people. Massively wealthy, privileged people, but people. So what if they have bodies, like every other person in the world? They don't belong to us.

One day it's Kate, the next it might be you with a lens hidden half a mile away taking pictures of what you're up to. If you buy into the celebrity photos, you're throwing away your own privacy.

A nice, non-invasive, picture of the Duchess of Cambridge. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.