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Jon Cartwright: July 2008 Archives

By Jon Cartwright

Fifty years ago today, US President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation that created the National Aeronautics Space Administration, or NASA.

An important anniversary, you might think. Perhaps some champagne, some fireworks, a speech from NASA boss Michael Griffin? Surprisingly not. With regards to birthday celebrations, the agency has stayed as silent as Beagle 2 over the past few days, with press releases noticeable by their absence.

Yesterday I buzzed press officer Edward Goldstein to see whether anyone was up to anything. “I’ve had a couple of European journalists ask me that,” he said. “But really we’re only recognizing when NASA began operations, on October-first.” Goldstein added that there would be a “big gala” on 24 September (I think he said it would be at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, but my biro skipped over the page at that point).

I asked if anyone might even nip to the pub for a pint or two after work. “You know,” the press officer continued, “maybe I ought to suggest that to the guys.”

Those NASA bods really need to learn how to party.


By Jon Cartwright

The US Department of Energy (DOE), it would seem, is getting a minor headache trying to come up with a new name for SLAC.

What’s wrong with SLAC, you ask. Well, last year the DOE tried to copyright the description of the acronym, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, but was stopped in its tracks by Stanford University, which runs the lab. Apparently the university wanted to hold onto the rights to the word “Stanford”, thus forcing the lab to rename itself.

SLAC isn’t finding it that easy. To help matters, director Persis Drell is pointing imaginative types to a website to suggest acronyms anonymously. Preferably the name should reflect the change in the lab’s mission, she notes.

It is of course customary on these occasions to have an open discussion, so we’ve been racking our brains for ideas. If “Stanford” is out of the question, perhaps just replace the first letter? We could have the Big Linear Accelerator Centre (BLAC), for instance. Or, if synonymy with the original acronym is your game, there’s the Linearly Organised Optimum Science Establishment (LOOSE). (Okay, so that one’s a little contrived.)

As some employees at SLAC have suggested, they could keep the original acronym but change the meaning. How about the Science Lab And Café? (I’ve never been, but I assume there’s somewhere to get a bite to eat.)

Still, the prize for the most cynical must surely go to the author of the blog an American Physics Student in England. He or she has put forward the Fundamental Understanding-of-Nature Discovery MachinE (FUNDMe).

I await your suggestions…


By Matin Durrani

In this age of e-mails, satellite navigation and mobile phones, which allows scientists and everyone else of course to communicate pretty much instantly, sending messages around the world by telegram down underwater cables seems very much old hat.

But for the pioneers of cable telegraphy in the 1860s, the ability to communicate globally in seconds was a huge advance over the standard method of giving a handwritten letter to a ship’s captain. There was no guarantee the letter would arrive and, even if it did, it could take months to get a reply.

A network of undersea cables was soon formed, now dubbed the “Victorian internet” by science popularizers. Sending telegrams was a bit of a faff — and very expensive to the average punter — but soon thousands of messages were being sent and received every day by governments, military officials and even journalists.

As I discovered while on holiday in rain-soaked Cornwall last week, for Britain many of these cables arrived at a remote, secluded beach at Porthcurno in Cornwall in the south-west of the country, almost near Land’s End.

Porthcurno soon became established as the centre of international telecommunications for the UK. The first cable, laid in 1870, stretched from Cornwall to Gibraltar, before linking up with other cables that continued to Malta, Alexandria and Aden before finally reaching Bombay in India.

At each site, the signal — weakened as it travelled down copper fibres coated with a natural rubber-like material called gutta percha — would be amplified and sent back along its way.

I haven’t got space to go into all the details of how the technology worked, but if you’re in Cornwall, as I was, you can get a first-rate understanding by visiting the Porthcurno Museum.

Celebrating its 10th birthday this year, it includes fascinating details of how, in the early 1900s, scientists at Porthcurno grew more and more anxious about the work of the future Nobel-prize-winning physicist Guglielmo Marconi, who was experimenting with trans-Atlantic radio-wave transmissions from a nearby station at Poldhu on the Lizard.

Fearing that Marconi’s wireless transmission could put cable companies out of business, they set up a clandestine operation to check out what he was up to.

Of course the snag with wireless transmissions is that they can be intercepted by anyone with a suitable receiver. Cable telegraphy is much more secure.

In the end, firms using the rival technology merged to form Imperial and International Communications Limited, which later rebranded itself as…Cable and Wireless.

So important was the Porthcurno station deemed to be to the fortunes of the British Empire, that during the Second World War it was hidden in a maze of tunnels to protect it from enemy attack.

Sadly submarine telegraphy was eclipsed by telephone cables and later fibre-optics. Porthcurno role as a telegraph station ended in 1970 after exactly a century as a working station. A Cable and Wireless college at the site continued for some years, but it too shut in 1993 and transferred to Coventry.

Thankfully the story of Porthcurno can be relived in the museum. Partly housed in the war-time tunnels, it of course makes a great break from the rain.