Don't rejoice at Giggs's downfall

Our obsession with the sex lives of the rich and famous is tawdry at best.

Ryan Giggs's spectacular plummet in the public estimation is the perfect example of how our celebrity culture works. A couple of years back, he was Sports Personality of the Year, a shining example for youngsters everywhere; now he's Ryan Giggs, Love Rat.

It's a familiar narrative arc: The young, talented sportsman comes from nowhere to reach the top of his game; he goes on to accumulate an impressive haul of trophies; he has everything that money can buy; but fails to keep his private life as perfect as everything else. Our cheers turn to boos as the secrets are gaudily splashed over the front pages of the red-tops.

"GIGGS IS THE NEW TIGER WOODS" says today's Daily Star. And it's a similar story: the supposedly squeaky-clean bubble punctured by a series of revelations; the kiss-and-tell stories snowballing along as more and more events come to light. Just as with Woods, the tabloids can smell blood - and money.

The Woods stories were dragged out over several weeks, with new affairs coming to light, new people telling their tales of what they got up to, and didn't get up to, with the world's second best ever golfer. The women involved were quickly dehumanised, turned into a series of numbers - or rather holes that Woods had played. Because we didn't really care what they thought, or felt, or did - it was all about the man at the centre of it all. What was he like? What did he say?

The humbling of the alpha-male millionaire was complete; and we could read all about it, and feel a sense of superiority over this super-human ball-hitter, that we hadn't made the mistakes as him - or if we had, that we weren't notable or famous enough to have our mistakes inked onto a million paper pages, peered at on a million shimmering screens. We could enjoy his pain, because it wasn't happening to us; we could revel in his self-inflicted misery, enjoy seeing his hubris turn to shame before our delighted eyes.

So it is with Giggs, although there's another element to all this, a barely disguised stench of triumphalism among our friends at the tabloids. Look, he was doing this all along! And he tried to hide it with that evil injunction! Well now, the floodgates are open. If anything, the huge interest in Giggs brought about by the injunction gave these stories a value they might not have otherwise had - not that they wouldn't have been big stories anyway.

It's hard to find much sympathy for Giggs in all this, and clearly he is the originator of his own downfall through his actions and choices. But I still see these things as very much a private tragedy. No, perhaps we shouldn't be prevented from knowing about these matters, distasteful though that is; but I still feel a bit grubby reading about them - there's a slime that rubs off on your fingers when you put the paper down, or leave the keyboard.

We may like to convince ourselves that we're better than people like Giggs, because we get to see their decline and fall take place in public, but I am not so sure that we are. Our obsession with the sex lives of the rich and famous is a bit mucky, I think; a bit adolescent. Of course, the papers will sell by the palletload on the back of his face being on the front, and so they will have been proved right all along.

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.