Thursday, 9 February 2012

Blue-sky research

The better part of my working life has been spent in the wonderful world of academic research. Over those years I noticed something of a trend: the results of all our investigations seemed to be becoming ever more predictable. It got to the point where, if a project set out to look for something, it was expected to find it, and precisely that. To build something, and it was expected to build just that, and not be diverted by anything else equally fascinating that might be stumbled upon along the way. We applied for our grants, and in doing so we were expected to specify, with more and more precision as the years went by, exactly what the project being paid for was going to "deliver". We had to become more and more "efficient", and this process was leaving ever less room for us to do anything else.

We were, in other words, becoming more and more like an industry. Of course, industry is very useful, but it's not research, and there are already plenty of other people doing it. If you've got customers who want useful widgets (mobile phones, for example), and shareholders who want you to turn a profit, you can't afford to have your development team sitting looking out of the window all day thinking abstract but fascinating thoughts. But looking out of the window has its uses.

We were investigating the effect of the weather on radio waves. I was building a "model" based on past research coupled with what we ourselves were seeing on a long-distance radio link over the sea. The "model" had several parts, and one of these dealt with atmospheric turbulence.

It turns out that anyone who was anyone in the early days of research in atmospheric turbulence, was Russian. Meet Alexander Obukhov, Andrei Kolmogorov, and "V.I." (you only ever saw the initials) Tatarski, for example. I used to wonder what gave Russia the edge in these matters. Then one day when I was sitting number-crunching in the lab, it started to snow. Of course, I looked out of the window. All of a sudden the eddies and waves described by the very equations I was dealing with, could be seen, as the snowflakes traced them out. Suddenly it become easier to understand how the grand sweeps of the larger eddies were being diverted, by instability, into ever-smaller ones, until the gyrations reached the size of a large snowflake, at which point they just dissipate into heat.

In those pre-Gorbachev years it was a truth universally acknowledged that it always snows in Russia. And so, I used to wonder, when it came to understanding the dynamics of the atmosphere, was that part of what gave the Russians their edge? And if that sounds far-fetched, consider that (on the opposite side of the Cold War) the inspiration behind one of the pioneering researchers in the field of Chaos Theory, was noticing the shapes of clouds while looking out of the window.

And who exactly was it who needed to know what all this weather would do to their radio waves? Why, the Telecommunications industry. Including, of course, the people who brought us mobile phones.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Serendipity wine

Like many of the best things in life, it started at a party. Famille Lunchista went along together, because our hosts were former workmates whom everybody, especially Fille and Fils, remembered fondly, and whom we hadn't seen for years.

But when we got there, it transpired we hardly knew anyone else, and there was nobody with whom Fille and Fils could natter about the sort of things you like to natter about when the answer to that universal question "So, what do you do" is very obviously that you're still at school.

So while they went home to write what turned out to be an excellent satirical song about people at parties talking about their professions (and the relative pose-power thereof), I had a chat with my former boss who, it transpired, had lots of spare apples from his garden.

He brought them round to our place the next day, and I started to make purée out of them on the Monday. After using up all the spare space in the freezer, I still had about two dozen apples left, and they weren't eaters so they weren't going anywhere unless I did something with them. On the Tuesday, with my hand now definitely on the mend, I was back on shift at the Erudite Space. A crate of books about food had arrived, and I was detailed to spruce up the relevant shelves. I put out big, decorative books full of healthy recipes that people might find compatible with their new-year resolutions, or budget recipes that might appeal to hungry students. Sandwiched among all these glossy colourful tomes I found a modest little paperback about wine-making, complete with atmospheric thumbnail sketches of all the kit you might need, and whose instructions started from the point of an absolute beginner. To cap it all, the very first recipe in the book was for Apple Wine. Sold, to the woman with the bandaged hand.

Now some people out there have parents, and some of these parents were around in the 1970s when there was a bit of a fashion for home-made wine and beer. I remember my parents wrestling with technology like demijohns, Campden tablets and packets of yeast. Having had the vague notion of wanting to try the same, I had last year acquired two demi-johns and a food-grade bucket. The final push came from realising that wine, not having been cooked at any point, would contain more vitamins than jam. To this day I count a glass of Red as one of my 5-a-day.

But I needed more kit.

There were rumours of a winemakers' supply shop somewhere in the east end of the city. I set out on foot: it took me an hour, but what a place! It was a proper, you know, shop: in other words, an Aladdin's cave of everything you could possibly need for the enterprise, and a chap selling it who really knew his stuff. I came away with rather more than I had intended to buy: as well as Campden tablets, a clean bottle-brush, airlock and yeast, I bought a (reduced price) "kit" for making Rosé wine, and a proper metal corker (not wanting to risk another hand injury from hammering corks into glass bottles!).

Even as I write this, the first "Must" in its clean bucket is giving an interesting aroma to the living-room where Fille practices on her keyboard. She has taken to playing slightly decadent Blues-type music in there, can't think why.

The first dozen bottles of Chateau Lunchista may, with a bit of luck, be ready for drinking for the end of the year. If "the economy" carries on as it has been doing, we might just need them.