Author Archives: Matt

About Matt

PhD Student in Materials Chemistry at Imperial College London, Blogs occasionally at mattallinson.com

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The violent history of train-wreck publicity

Sometimes a publicity stunt can be a complete train wreck. The hashtag #susanalbumparty that required re-reading a few times, the Air Force One Photoshoot that nearly evacuated Manhattan, and the decision to spice up a production of Henry VIII with a real cannon which inadvertently burned down the Globe Theatre — history is littered with PR events that have gone off the rails.

But there is a bizarre history of train-wrecks being the publicity stunt. They started off as a morbid, redneck bonanza back in the 19th century but have, in more modern times, morphed into psuedo-scientific pieces of political theatre.  Continue reading

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The Nobel Prize winner at the bottom of the garden

Of all the mind-bendingly expensive streets in Chelsea, The Boltons, pictured above, are probably the most picture-postcard perfect. Homes here will cost you somewhere in the vicinity of £2,500 per square foot which, based on Sigma-Aldrich prices, is nearly 20% the price of an equivalent area in gold.

Houses for the mega-ultra-wealthy need staff to run them, which is why in 1954 one of the well-to-do residents of the elite SW10 neighbourhood employed a well-spoken Australian man in his mid-sixties named Willie to look after her garden for her. Willie was an enthusiastic gardener and did a fantastic job. However, as Francis Crick wrote in his memoirs:1

For several months all went well till one day a visitor, glancing out of the window said to her hostess, “my dear, what is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?”

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Birmingham flushes £9 million down the toilet every year

Not all that glistens is gold. But sometimes gold can be found in glistening materials that you wouldn’t really want to look in.

A recent study1 has shown that the sewage produced by a city of 1 million inhabitants — for example, Birmingham — will contain about £9 million worth of rare metals, such as gold, platinum and silver.

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If IKEA made Sputnik

I’m moving house in a few weeks’ time, which means I’m idly spending my tube journeys to and from work reading the IKEA catalogue, trying to work out which combination of Billy Bookshelf and Klobo Sofa will look best in the small corner of North East London I’ll soon be calling home.

Meanwhile, in low Earth orbit – the patch of sky about 150-600 km above our heads where the International Space Station floats about – flat-pack DIY generic designs called CubeSats are widely and increasingly in use to power space science.

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Norwegian blues: why when you were born used to be bad for your health

And that proud look as though she had gazed into the burning sun,
And all the shapely body no tittle gone astray.
I mourn for that most lonely thing; and yet God’s will be done:
I knew a phoenix in my youth, so let them have their day.

–William Butler Yeats

Before the industrial revolution, between the 17th and 19th centuries, the life expectancy of Norwegian peasants followed an unusual pattern. The records show they would drop every ten or so years, before bouncing back up again three years later. This wasn’t the result of a weird disease affecting the farmers and fishermen of the fjords, nor the consequence of periodic bouts of war. Instead, the answer may have been hovering over them. Continue reading

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Nature’s newest secrets

The academic journal Nature is introducing double-blind peer review. This means that when a paper is being checked for accuracy, the reviewers won’t know who wrote it.

Papers are the main way researchers tell everyone about their work, and peer review is the process by which the journal chooses if the paper should be published. The reviewers are chosen by the journal, and are usually other scientists who do similar work to the stuff in the paper. Continue reading

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Lost tech: things we invented and then forgot

It’s easy to think of technology as an onward march of incremental progress, each development building on what came before. It’s easy to think everything we’ve ever known has been put to use in making something new and everything we use is as advanced as it can get.

It would now seem unimaginable that an archaeological discovery could be more technologically advanced than the society that unearthed it, but that’s not always been the case.

Below, I’ll take you on a brief tour of advanced bits of technology we developed — and then lost.

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It’s October 3rd: The Mathematics of Mean Girls

Mean Girls is arguably the teen movie of my generation.

I’m not sure if this counts as a valid appraisal of a film’s popular impact, but a site-specific Google search of Buzzfeed alone turns up 7,890 results for posts about the 2004 teen rom-com. If this is compared to various other bits of pop culture, we can see that the 28th highest box office film of 2004 has had a phenomenal cultural impact. It rates just behind the 6-film behemoth that is the Star Wars franchise and well ahead of its rival Clueless. Somehow, in the over-saturated high-school drama genre, Mean Girls made its mark.
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If you’ve never seen the film, you’ll be wondering why I’m writing about it today. If you’ve seen the film once or twice, you may also be a little bemused. If, like me, you own multiple DVD copies because you keep one at your parents to have something to watch over Christmas, you’ll know that I’m writing this post today because on October 3rd Aaron Samuels asked Cady what day it was, and today is the tenth October 3rd since the movie’s release.

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Also if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know we like to pick up on mathematics and science in pop culture. In Mean Girls, this isn’t particularly difficult as mathematics is used as the metaphorical weather vane for Cady Heron’s descent-into and subsequent ascent-out-of superficiality.

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The Kilogram turns 125

We all know what a kilogram is, right? It’s the mass of a bag of sugar. Thank goodness for the bag of sugar. Without it we’d be forced to imagine 1/7000th of an African bull elephant or 1/14560th of a double decker bus or God only knows what fraction of the weight of Wales.

Having a clear visualisation of the kilogram is important for all sorts of reasons, not least because it’s one of the seven SI units, the fundamental alphabet of symbols which can be combined in a variety of ways to express any physical quantity. Speed, for instance, is measured in metres per second, whereas force can be expressed in terms of kilogram metres per second squared.

The kilogram was accepted into this metrological pantheon alongside the metre 125 years ago today, when the value of both units was defined at the first General Conference on Weights and Measures organised by the BIPM. As a consequence of that meeting, three identical kilograms were cast by the firm Johnson Matthey out of a mass of platinum-iridium alloy. This alloy was chosen because of its density and chemical stability, meaning that the kilograms would be both small and resistant to rust. One of the kilograms was kept at the BIPM offices in Sevres, and two were sent for safekeeping in America. Rumours that a further three were subsequently distributed to the elven-kings under the sky have no foundation in truth.

One kilo to rule them all

One kilo to rule them all

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