There’s Nothing that a Wompom Cannot Do!

Flanders and Swann used to sing an amusing song about the Wompom - an imaginary animal / vegetable hybrid with an amazing range of properties. This song, which is still available on iTunes, often comes to mind when I’m reading about the latest “wonder material”:  Graphene. Graphene was discovered by two researchers at the University of Manchester (Kostya Novoselov and Andre Geim) while attempting to construct a transistor out of graphite. They needed to produce a sheet of graphite that Read more [...]
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Time for Unconventional Thinking

I recently published a white paper describing some unconventional threats to utility infrastructure. In addition to rather unusual (but potentially devastating) threats such as coronal mass ejections from the sun, electromagnetic pulses and space debris, the paper also talks about threats to utility infrastructure from cyber warfare and cyber terrorism. If you think that power grids, water networks, railways and airports are not vulnerable to such threats – then you had better read the white paper! Since Read more [...]
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The Extraordinary Power of Mathematics

Modern physics is increasingly dominated by “big science” projects such as the Large Hadron Collider. However, it is refreshing to know that mathematics can enable a lone genius to make earth-shattering discoveries using nothing more sophisticated than a notepad and pen. Two of the greatest exponents of this art were James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.   James Clerk Maxwell suggested the existence of radio waves as early as the mid-1860’s. Starting from earlier Read more [...]
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Two Cheers for the Smartphone

I recently bought my first smartphone. You might find it surprising that someone who works in the telecommunications industry and has an obvious interest in technology should be such a late adopter of this almost-ubiquitous technology. Let me explain. When I was young, I had a penknife that included a device for removing stones from a horse’s hoof. It also included a saw that could cut small branches off trees and a screwdriver designed for very large screws. I never once used any of these “features”, Read more [...]
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Is Anybody Out There?

I’ve recently been reading a book by John Gribbin about the possibility of life in other parts of our galaxy. The title – Alone in the Universe – makes it pretty clear what the answer is going to be, but the reasoning by which Gribbin arrives at this answer is fascinating.   On the first anniversary of this blog, it seems an appropriate moment to ask a similar question: Is there anybody out there? Of course, I know that there are people out there reading this blog because Read more [...]
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Noises in the Earth

The early telegraph pioneers encountered major problems with cables, so there was a strong incentive for them to minimise the amount of cabling required. Fortunately, the use of an “earth return” meant that one wire (rather than two) was sufficient to carry a telegraph circuit between two locations. A good electrical connection to earth was required at each end of the line to provide the return path for the telegraph circuit, and this could be achieved by connecting to a lump of metal that was Read more [...]
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The Victorians were Rocked to their Socks

Methods of communicating over long distances advanced surprisingly little from the days of the Roman Empire to the start of the nineteenth century. Although beacons and semaphores were occasionally used, the speed at which information could be transmitted was typically limited by the speed at which a horse could gallop or a ship could sail. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that the development of the electric telegraph in the middle of the 19th Century had a massive impact on Victorian Read more [...]
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Concerns about Copper

The high price of copper on world markets has led to a spate of cable thefts, and this has provided telephone companies with a strong incentive to find cost-effective ways of replacing copper telephone wire with optical fibre. However, this is not the first time that telecoms engineers have had to look for alternatives to copper wire. Surprising as it may seem, early telephone wires were made of galvenised iron or steel in spite of the fact that these metals are poor conductors of electricity. Read more [...]
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Computer Bloke stars in Olympics Opening Ceremony

One of the more bizarre moments in the recent opening ceremony for the Olympic Games occurred when the spotlight fell on a bloke sitting at a desk in front of a computer. Commentators on certain American television channels were unable to explain who he was or why he was there. However, viewers with a telecoms or IT background might have recognised him as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. In the early 1990’s, Berners-Lee was working at the CERN atomic research centre near Read more [...]
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The First Mobile Phone?

In 1879, Professor David Hughes noticed that a clicking noise occurred in his home-made telephone whenever he used his induction balance. Hughes eventually found that the induction balance had a loose contact, and that the clicking went away when the contact was fixed. He correctly deduced that radio waves were emanating from sparks at the loose contact. Hughes devised a clockwork device to generate the sparks at regular intervals, thereby producing a regular clicking noise in the telephone handset. When Read more [...]
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