Putting your money where your mouth is on climate change

Forget football - climate science is well worth a flutter, says Michael Brooks.

Did anyone waste watercooler time on the World Bank’s recent global warming warning? The one that said the planet will probably experience a 4° Celsius rise this century? Of course not. Neither did anyone use work time to talk over the UN Environment Programme report, released ahead of the current international climate negotiations in Qatar. It says the atmosphere now contains onefifth more carbon than in 2000, with no visible fall in emissions to come. Bad news, obviously. But we were busy discussing who might replace Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea.

A report published in August showed that our interest in climate change has declined over the past five years. Only one-third of us even like to read or think about it. But Climate Science, the Public and the News Media does offer one useful pointer. People prefer climate coverage that is simple, bold and to the point. Even academics and broadsheet readers said that they preferred tabloid coverage of climate issues, and it had more immediate impact on their opinions.

We have to get past the idea that the only way we can cover climate science is by using long, balanced, reasoned arguments. So, why not take a leaf out of football’s book? Football has no trouble getting people’s attention. When Di Matteo was given the boot from his position as Chelsea manager, conjectures about his replacement sent the internet into overdrive. You could offer your contribution in online polls, or you could place a bet on Harry Redknapp or Avram Grant to take over at Stamford Bridge.

Every day, swaths of newsprint are dedicated to opinionated discussions of football that cut across divides of class, income or occupation. Season ticketholders for major football teams include politicians, comedians, television presenters, mathematicians, carpenters, journalists, roofers, bankers – every section of society.

But it’s not the movement of a football into a goal that is so interesting. It’s the people who make it happen. It’s the managers and their tactics. It’s the players and their skills and fallibilities. It’s about trajectories of success and failure, predictions that are proved right or wrong. Climate science has all these. And we could even make it worth a flutter.

Some people are already betting on the climate. At intrade.com, for instance, you can bet the average global temperature for 2012 to be the warmest on record. You can bet on the global-temperature anomaly for this month being greater than 0.45°C, or on global average temperatures for 2012 being the warmest on record.

Model behaviour

At the moment, Intrade’s bets are largely taken up by people advocating different climate models: it’s a way of putting your money where your mouth is. But surely there is scope to develop this on a bigger scale, and with endorsement from people in the know. If a Nasa chief started buying shares in a certain prediction, if a geographer saw a climate solution worth investing in, if a forestry researcher bet on a new ecological trend spiralling out of control, that might be more interesting than hearing the raw facts. It might even be a stimulus that made people look up the facts for themselves.

Perhaps it’s horrible to encourage us to place bets on the climate catastrophe, but it might be the thing that finally gets our attention. And at least there’s publicly accessible information to base your decisions on; you stand to make some quick cash by looking up Nasa satellite data before you commit. It’s definitely better than losing your shirt trying to second-guess the whims of a surly Russian billionaire.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Place your bets! Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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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.