During January and February of 1987 the mm-wave research work being done at St Andrews carried on expanding. The boost provided by having two Ph D students – Graham Smith and Andy Harvey – join me in September 1985 had meant we could carry out experimental work much more effectively. This was aided by the money that had began to flow in from the National Physical Laboratory and from industry. Initially, the industrial support was mainly from EEV. (This was originally known as the ‘English Electric Valve’ company, but by the 1980s they had shortened the name to ‘EEV’. Later on this changed again, to ‘E2V’ – presumably because people felt the old ‘valve’ reference was now archaic and didn’t reflect what they actually did!)
EEV ‘bought up’ the items which the University’s ‘Stardel’ had initially paid for in addition to giving us extra funding. EEV were far more business-like in terms of understanding how to invest in research and development. As a result of these changes, in practical terms the St Andrews MM-Wave Group had become a reality by 1987. The restrictions which had previously got in the way were now removed.
During January we were able to buy in more commercial diodes and build improved working mm-wave oscillators using them. In addition we were getting experimental Quantum Well diodes via Clivia Sotomayor-Torres, and ‘noise diodes’ from John Duff at EEV to test. This gave us more devices to learn about. We were then able to provide useful feedback for Clivia’s work on Quantum Wells, and for EEV to make better devices. On the 5th of January ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper ran a feature article on Clivia.
The Scotsman newspaper article on Clivia.
In February, EEV also paid Richard Wylde to make two corrugated feed horns for us. This was very useful because although we could make our own lenses, mirrors, and polarisers, we had not been able at that point to make our own corrugated feed horns. During the first week of February I had flu and was stuck at home. But was well again when John Duff visited us on the 24th. During that month we looked at making some gunn oscillators for Glenn White who was still developing his mm-wave heterodyne receivers at QMC. However these really needed to be able to oscillate at about 115GHz which was rather high for the diodes we had at the time. As a result most of the oscillators either could not be tuned that high, or produced too little power.
Given that we could now make working oscillators that could be tuned to provide useful output from about 75 - 105 GHz various other people were now taking an interest in our work. Sometimes because they wanted an oscillator, sometimes because they realised we could perform tests for them on mm-wave electronic devices like gunn diodes, etc. As a result of this, we got into contact with various organisations and people. For example, having formed a positive relationship with EEV I began talking to people from other GEC companies which were linked to EEV.
Having Andy Harvey as an NPL CASE research student also magnified the work we could do for the NPL. Andy’s initial work was concentrated on measurements related to the Joint European Torus. But this began to expand and drift into other areas. I had also been set thinking by Prof. Derek Martin of QMC having won an NPL National Metrology Prize...
At this point were already wanting to be able to measure the mm-wave electrical properties of various kinds of device. But as things stood about all we could do was to put diodes or other devices into a waveguide mount/block and see if they oscillated or generated mm-wave ‘noise’. What people really lacked was a way to accurately measure the mm-wave impedances of the devices. Similarly, it would be very useful to know the detailed impedance behaviour of the blocks being used to house the devices.
Measuring impedances (resistance, capacitance, etc) is relatively easy at low frequencies. An electronics engineer or enthusiast can buy a cheap digital meter to do it. But making equivalent measurements across the entire 50 - 500 GHz range was considerably harder. Some very costly systems could be bought and used, but even they tended to rather limited in the maximum frequency they could reach, and calibrating the results they gave to ensure accuracy was very difficult.
During late 1986 and early 1987 two general ideas came together in my mind. One was that the optical arrangements we had been making could be seen as examples of ‘quasi-optical circuits’. Until this time people tended to think of something like a polarising two-beam interferometer as an ‘instrument’ – i.e. as a specific arrangement, not as an example of a more general class of possibly useful ways to process signals or information. However we can assemble various arrangements of capacitors, transistors, resistors, etc, to make circuits which perform a wide variety of functions. And we can make anything from a digital clock to a supercomputer using a few types of digital ‘gate’. Hence in electronics and the microwave region we were accustomed to the idea of being able to build some arrangement of ‘standard types of component’ to make a ‘circuit’ to carry out almost any kind of process.
Given that I’d spent some years designing both digital and analogue electronics, I suspect it was inevitable that I’d start thinking along the lines of, “So, why not look at optics in the same way?” Millimetre-wave ‘quasi optics’ had a range of devices - mirrors, roof-mirrors, polarisers, etc. By considering these as the ‘components’, it should be possible to do assemble arrangements – i.e. circuits – to carry out various types of measurement. So I decided it should be possible to design and build high-performance systems to measure mm-wave impedances which – being made as optics – bypassed the difficulties of the existing waveguide based systems.
The other thought in my mind at the time was to realise that it should then be possible to make an instrument that operated in a way which avoided many of the calibration problems which hampered the waveguide-based existing systems. One of the great advantages of the mm-wave power meter that Derek Martin had won his prize for was that it employed a ‘nulling’ technique which made calibration of the results far easier than for other methods. In effect, it allowed the user to make accurate measurements far more easily. I felt this approach could also be used in impedance measurements. Having been pondering the question of how to make better, cheaper, impedance measurements over the entire 50 - 500 GHz range I wrote my own application for a National Metrology Prize and I submitted this to the NPL judges in early 1987.
Despite having left Armstrong Audio many years before I continued to have a keen in interest in Hi Fi and music. As a result I regularly read various audio magazines. During the 1980s (and since!) various articles have appeared in them which seem to describe or claim subtle ‘new effects’ in conventional electronics that – if well founded – might alter the behaviour of audio equipment and thus degrade the resulting sounds produced. A series of this kind had been appearing in Hi Fi News at the time. Alas, many articles of this type – now as well as then – tend to either make mountains out of molehills (a behaviour I’ve come to abbreviate as ‘MOOM’) or misunderstand the physics. Sadly, audio engineers seem to often not fully understand the underlaying physics and thus reach confused conclusions. “Skin effect” seems to have over the years been a common source of MOOM and muddle in consumer magazine articles or the minds of some audio engineers. Having seen some examples I decided to try and write an article of my own that sought to clarify the situation, and sent it off to the then-editor of Hi Fi News magazine.
After a long delay and some prodding, the editor decided not to publish what I submitted, if for no other reason that he felt unable to decide who was right. This was disappointing because I had for some time felt the urge to write articles explaining science and technology for general readers. And felt it was a shame that readers of the magazine weren’t at least alerted to the possibility that the impressive-looking arguments presented in what had been published might, in fact, be mistaken. Fortunately, despite this rejection, in later years I have managed to have items I’ve written published in Hi Fi News, and in various other magazines.
I’m not now quite sure when it happened, but sometime during March or April 1987 I got a phone call from someone at the NPL regarding my ‘MM-Wave Quasi-Optical Impedance Bridge’ proposal for the Metrology Prize. I think the call was from Peter Christmas, but it may have been someone else. He asked me various questions about the proposed design, and how it might be made, etc. Then thanked me and said they would be deciding in due course. After the call I had the feeling that they probably would eliminate my proposal from the competition. But a week or two later I got a letter informing me I had been awarded a Prize!
The publicity photo of my being awarded the 1987 Metrology Prize as it appeared in
the May 22nd issue of the St Andrews Citizen newspaper.
This was wonderful news for various reasons. Firstly it was a significant award as it recognised that my proposal and work was regarded as sufficiently outstanding to be worthy of ‘National’ recognition. A very useful boost for my reputation as a young academic. Secondly, I did get some personal cash awarded to me as a part of the Prize, which was very handy. Although, sadly, on a rather more modest scale than if I’d won the modern National Lottery! The third consequence, however, was much more significant. To accompany the Prize, the NPL set up a contract to have a working system developed and produced by the mm-wave group at St Andrews University. This totalled over £100,000, when salaries, etc, were included. Which was great news for our work, and for employing Andy Harvey as a research worker rather than a research student. Andy went on to be employed to develop the Impedance Bridge, supported by funds connected to the award. The Prizegiving ceremony was held at the NPL on the 12th of May. The following day I visited EEV again to discuss further details of our work on oscillators, etc, for them.
For many years before his death my Mother had largely had to stay at home to care for my Dad who had gradually become incapacitated. Despite being very fit when young he had smoked for decades before people realised it was bad for your health. He’d given up smoking when advised to do so by doctors, but by then the damage had been done. As a result he had serious heart and lung problems. Since the council flat we’d lived in was on the first floor he’d become unable to go out because it was too much effort to climb back up the stairs. So despite being a keen dancer when young, my Mother had stayed in with him, without any complaint.
Having come gradually terms with bereavement, Mum restarted her old interest in socialising. In particular she’d started going to dances for elderly and retired folk. There she’d met Arthur Hunt who was a widower, and they’d got on very well. By mid 1987 Arthur had proposed and she had accepted his proposal. Until around this time I’d actually been helping Mum take care of her money. It may seem strange today, but it was usual for ordinary working people born before World War II to never have a bank account of any kind – or, indeed, much in the way of savings. Neither of my parents had a bank or building society account whilst they were together. I had to set up a bank account for myself when I became an undergraduate because the subsistence grant I got was paid in the form of a cheque for each term. And when I went to work this also was where my salary was paid in.
Because of this we used my bank account to keep money for my parents as well as myself. In effect I kept a set of records of how much of the money in the account was mine, and how much was theirs. I could then also accept cheques or write them for my parents as well as myself. Following Dad’s death I continued to do this for my Mum, despite now living in St Andrews. However by the middle of 1987, and with the Mum and Arthur meeting I sent them the money I’d kept on their behalf. From my POV it was the first real practical sign that Mum would soon be re-marrying.
Meanwhile in St Andrews, despite applying for various apparently suitable jobs during the years since we’d arrived, Chris had been unable to get one. It gradually became clear that despite her qualifications and experience the problem arose as soon as a potential employer heard the word ‘epilepsy’. The discrimination was never overt, but each time, someone else got the job. This was bitterly frustrating for us both. She had by this time started working regularly at the CAB (Citizens Advice Office) in St Andrews as a volunteer, and they were happy for her to do so. It was a job she enjoyed as she has always felt the urge to try and help other people, and loved to talk to everyone. But it was just a few hours per week, and left her unhappy that her technical skills were unused. It also annoyed her that the real problem was that she was seen as ‘disabled’ and then that was equated to ‘a risk’ by other employers.
Many people don’t realise that the symptoms and effects of epilepsy vary a great deal from one person to another. The classic expectation is to take for granted that a ‘fit’ must mean falling down, thrashing about of the arms and legs, foaming at the mouth, etc. Understandably alarming if you encounter it unexpectedly and have no idea what to do. (By the way: if you do encounter such a fit, beware of a dangerously wrong old-wives-tale about what to do. Despite what you may have heard, NEVER put something into the mouth of the person to try and stop them ‘biting their tongue’! Doing this, or even trying, is very likely to make things MUCH WORSE. If you don’t know what to do, follow a simple rule. If the person is on the floor and might doing something like bang their arms or legs on furniture, etc, either move the furniture away or find something soft to cushion any impact. In effect, if you can, remove a danger caused by the object rather than do something to the person. If the person is standing, be prepared to catch them and lower them gently to the floor in case they do start to fall over. But otherwise avoid restraint as it may make things worse unless you have learned what to do. Ideally, find out in advance from a good source of advice – which may be the individual themself. If in doubt, ask them.)
However Chris, like many people with epilepsy, rarely had, or has such a classic major fit. During the 1980s her fits were more like ‘sleepwalking’ episodes. As such they generally weren’t dangerous, and often happened without other people realising what was happening. Perhaps the most memorable example was when she was in town, doing some shopping. At the time we still had a ‘Fine Fare’ supermarket in South St, St Andrews. She had gone in and started shopping. The next thing she knew she was reaching our front door at home and I was letting her in. I noticed that she was carrying one of the wire baskets from the supermarket with some groceries in it. So I asked her why she’d brought that home.
She looked down, saw the basket, and was surprised she was carrying it. She then recalled ‘feeling funny’ when in the shop and realised she must have had a fit. During this she must have simply walked out of the shop, carrying the basket and its contents along with her own shopping bag. It would have taken her about 20 mins to walk home. And she would have crossed some main roads and side roads, avoiding the traffic. But had no real awareness of what was happening beyond being on a ‘going home’ mental autopilot. If someone had spoken to her she probably wouldn’t have noticed or replied, but she safely negotiated the traffic and walked home. She didn’t fall down, or convulse. Many of her fits were – and still are - like this. Next time we went into town we returned the wire basket and paid for the groceries she’d brought home. The staff hadn’t even noticed her walk out! In general, though, the staff in local shops react correctly and helpfully. Perhaps this is an advantage of living in a small town with local shops who can get to know their customers.
Because of this, neither of us at the time worried too much about her actual fits. Typically, Chris would during the 1980s have a ‘burst’ of fits over a period of a few days, about once every 3-4 weeks. This seemed to be phase locked to her menstrual cycle. One result of this was that on most days we knew she was very unlikely to have fit. But we also knew when days would arrive when a fit was likely. These days also were when she tended to have other problems. Along with the fits they became times when she would become very distressed or anxious or depressed or sometimes very angry. A few days later she would apologise for how she’d behaved when angry, and we both assumed this was because she’d felt unwell and very frustrated by the inability to get a full time satisfying job. Understandable when it was combined with the feeling of being ‘stuck at home’ when I had to go out and spend long hours working, away from her.
During the mid-1980s’ Chris and I continued to make occasional trips together to London or elsewhere. So when I went somewhere like the NPL she might go shopping or visit old friends or family. However by 1987 I was starting to become anxious about being away from Chris for more than a a day or two if it might coincide with a period when she was depressed and angry. In part I was worried what she might do, but also felt guilty because this focussed on her being unable to get a job having moved away from QMC. Some trips were fine – particularly if Chris and I could go together – and a trip when she was feeling OK was fine. But otherwise it was becoming a problem for me.
Postcards from Andy and Graham showing how hard and serious
the work was when they went to international conferences!
One example of this can be seen in the cards I got from Andy and Graham when they went, without me, to scientific conferences abroad in 1987. Graham wrote, “Just finished the conference in sunny Rome. Can’t understand why you don’t like them!” By then I’d arranged that the group’s work for EEV, NPL, etc, would include funding which we could use to send group members to international conferences and conventions. But I told Graham and the others that, personally, I wasn’t very interested in going. There was some truth in this. I also felt it was better for them if they presented their work and became known for it, not for me to pop up as if I’d been the brains.
However my real problem was that such arrangements had to be made in advance for a specific series of days abroad. I was worried that this might then coincide with a time when Chris was distressed, and would probably also be upset that I could swan off abroad, working, whilst she was stuck at home, unwell. In short I was starting to become nervous about travelling around. A strange irony given how much I’d enjoyed going on expeditions when at QMC. This also put an end to my participating in observing trips. Some time after I’d moved to St Andrews Glenn White contacted me and invited me to go with him on another observing trip to UKIRT and help him to run his receiver there. Initially I accepted and looked forwards to it.
As the time approached I started to worry about how Chris might be whilst I was away for some time so far from her. This made me so anxious that I finally decided I could not face going. So I eventually phoned Glenn, apologised, and said I’d not be able to go. I was too embarrassed to tell him the real reasons. Instead I’d said I was a bit worried about my Mother. (This was before the time when she got to know Arthur.) I regret this was inconvenient for Glenn, and did miss going again at the time. But I simply felt unable to go. At the time both Chris and I felt her severe bouts of depression and anger were simply due to our circumstances. Later on, however, they grew worse and we eventually found out there was more to it. That’s something I will go into on a later webpage covering the relevant time and events. But even as early as 1987 it was having some effect on us both.
On the 6th of September my Mother re-married. The wedding was held at a church in East Ham. Chris and I were there before we returned for the start of the new University term.
Photos taken for my Mother’s wedding to Arthur Hunt.
The main photo in the above image was taken outside the church after the wedding ceremony. I – in the archaic phrase – “gave my Mother away”. The girl in front of Arthur is his daughter from a previous marriage. The inserted photos show my Mum with Chris and myself at the Forest Gate council flat before the ceremony. I was really pleased when Mum remarried as I’d worried about her being by herself and so far from us. She and Arthur were very happy together in the following years. Sadly, this was the last time I saw most other members of my family.
At the start of September 1987, Andy and Graham’s Ph D studentship grants ended and they each moved onto being employed as Research Assistants. Andy was then employed on the NPL project to develop the Impedance Bridge. Graham was initially paid by income from EEV. We were also joined by Malcolm Robertson as a new postgraduate student on an SERC grant. I was also discussing with EEV and others the possibility of another CASE studentship to further increase the number of people working in the group. Given the NPL Prize, the expansion of mm-wave group activity, and my Mother no longer being alone, it all made the end of the year an enjoyable time. And things continued to improve during the first months of 1988...
Despite the disappointment of not getting an article published by Hi Fi News magazine I remained keen on writing technical articles for magazines the general public would read. Indeed, I felt then and now that this was actually a more interesting and important activity than writing highly specialised ‘papers’ for obscure scientific journals that virtually no-one ever reads, or perhaps bothers to understand! Whereas I’ve always had the feeling that as a University academic it was the great British Public who paid my wages. So I should try at least try to write some articles they would find accessible and interesting.
I had, by chance, got to know Christine Sutton when I was at QMC. This was because she was the partner of Terry Pritchard who was a highly skilled electronics technician who worked on instruments for the people researching particle physics there. Christine worked for New Scientist magazine. So I contacted her and asked if she might be willing to help me to write an article for New Scientist about mm-wave ‘quasi optics’. The aim being that more people would then know about it, and what it could do. She agreed, so during the first months of 1988 I set about writing a draft article, and we exchanged letters and other items. The result appeared in the 21st April 1988 issue of New Scientist under the title, “Microwaves make light of fast circuits”. It outlined the idea that it was now possible to make optical ‘circuits’ for signal frequencies around 100 GHz and higher, and to carry out a variety of tasks. In effect, opening up a wider bandwidth of the electromagnetic spectrum to use for communications, sensing, etc. Barry Fox also contributed a boxed addition on the topic.
Cover and excerpts from the issue of New Scientist which included the first article I wrote for them.
One pleasant coincidence was that on they day when the New Scientist article appeared I was at QMC presenting some talks as part of a mm-wave ‘course’ that Derek Martin had organised. I enjoyed giving the talks, and they were a useful way to ‘spread the word’ about mm Quasi-Optics to various academics and industrial research and development people. I was particularly pleased that I was able to get a photo of Derek Martin and Eddie Pupplett included in the article. Malcolm Robertson was also shown operating our polarising interferometer.
During May I sent Clive Parini a copy of my lecture notes from the talks and we discussed ways to frequency lock the solid state mm-wave oscillators. I also received a letter from the Institute of Physics asking if I might like to write a textbook for them on millimetre-wave optics, etc. Apparently they had noticed the New Scientist article and this prompted them to contact me. When I’d written the magazine article my aim was simply to tell general readers who were interested in science about the mm-wave work being done, and what uses it might have. However, having had the article appear I discovered that New Scientist was read by a much more diverse audience than I’d expected!
The New Scientist readership also included many members of the UK Parliament at Westminster, and people at the Research Councils, etc. Hence that article – and later ones – raised our profile as well as the status of mm-wave systems in more ways than I’d expected. This was despite a common attitude amongst university academics at the time that writing ‘popular’ science articles was somehow below the dignity of serious academics. Fortunately, as with the parallel view that ‘industrial’ research work was somehow inferior to ‘pure’ (sic) research, this attitude has now largely gone the way of the dinosaur!
During the next few months I exchanged letters with Sean Pidgeon and started writing and sending IoP sections of what eventually they published as my first textbook. Around this time I also was invited to join the JCMTUC (James Clerk Maxwell Telescope Users Committee). In fact I wasn’t really a user of the telescope and, sadly, I never did manage to visit it, despite having worked on the optical design when at QMC. My interest at this point was really in the area of considering the development and provision of the common-user instruments that would be available at the telescope for heterodyne astronomy. At the time I was wishing to help develop improved receiving systems in various ways.
One obvious example was to develop and provide improved sold-state oscillators that would replace the older vacuum-state devices which required high voltages. I also wanted to be involved in developing links that would facilitate mm-wave interferometry which could couple telescopes together and obtain much higher angular resolution. In both these aims I was mainly adding a voice to the general wish of other members of the committee and users. However in addition I also started to argue in favour of a more ‘modular’ approach to the development of mm-wave common-user instruments. I wanted to avoid expensively re-inventing existing wheels that worked OK, and allow smaller scale developments of critical parts of the systems.
From my POV this had two advantages. One is that it would make development cheaper and quicker because effort could be better directed to the parts which were most in need of improvement. The other was that this would make it easier for ‘new’ researchers to join in and try out alternative ideas. However there were drawbacks. At the time receiver development was essentially confined to a few people and places where the expertise and equipment had already been built up. Many of those working on the developments had jobs as (temporary) research workers, etc. Allowing more open ‘competition’ as a patchwork of smaller projects risked breaking up or dissipating this. Thus it would be, understandably, potentially unpopular amongst those who might be affected. It also meant equipment needed to be developed so as to have suitably standardised ‘interfaces’ enabling new items to match existing items. e.g. a new heterodyne mixer might have to use an existing local oscillator control system. This meant each part of the system working to a predefined set of interface specifications, rather than being developed and modified as an organic whole. So in the end, what I was suggesting only had limited appeal and success.
During July and August I made visits to the Royal Observatory Edinburgh for the JCMTUC meeting, to GEC Hirst and Marconi (EDL) to discuss Gunn devices, etc, with Nigel Couch, as well as to Sheffield University to discuss Quantum Well devices with Martin Chamberlain who was producing diodes there. The success in having won the NPL Prize for an instrument to make impedance measurements had also set me thinking about another area. The question of how to measure the sideband noise levels produced by solid-state mm-wave oscillators. This mattered because such noise could easily degrade the performance of a signal detector based on using a heterodyne mixer. Unwanted noise from the oscillator could raise the noise level at the signal frequency, making it harder to detect weak signals. But making accurate sideband noise measurements on high-quality mm-wave oscillators was notoriously difficult. The question of noise also had another facet. This is that for some purposes an engineer may want a source of noise.
For many applications an engineer would want an oscillator that essentially produces as close possible to a ‘pure’ sinewave output at a well defined and controlled frequency. But for some other applications a device that emits a wide band of noise is also very useful. In principle, the various kinds of diodes we were testing and using could be used to generate either type of output. Being able to measure the device and mount impedances was important in exploring these possibilities as well as for making high performance heterodyne receivers. But so was being able to make accurate noise measurements on mm-wave signals.
During September I exchanged some letters with Ralph Yell of RSRE (Royal Signals and Radar Establishment) at Malvern. These explored what work we might be able to do for RSRE on producing mm-wave signal sources, etc. This ranged from 70 - 200 GHz local oscillators, to noise sources and impedance or noise measurement systems. Ralph then came to St Andrews on the 4th of October to meet us and discuss funding various work we could do for them. By October the group was drawing in money for externally-funded measurements work, or to supply mm-wave items from a variety of external organisations. This helped to pay to employ Andy and Graham and support our other research interests. It also gave us income we could pass on to the Physics Dept to pay for technicians to make items for us, and for the external clients. We also continued to sell the occasional mm-wave gunn oscillator to other research laboratories and projects.
Andy and Graham had by then got to know some of the technicians very well, and this lead to a very useful step forwards. One particular workshop technician – George Radley - had shown that he could make items like oscillator blocks, HDPE lenses, etc, with great care and precision. He was also adept at working out how to make ‘impossible’ objects. And he preferred working for Andy or Graham than doing the general ‘pool’ jobs which came into the workshop. To put it as mildly as I can, it was also the case that George and the then-head of the mechanical workshop were not exactly ‘best friends’. From our POV this showed up in his determination to show that he could make mechanical items superbly well, and took well-justified pride in his skill. A stark contrast with the attitude I’d encountered from the head of the workshop whose unhelpful behaviour I’ve described experiencing on an earlier webpage.
Over a period of time we moved towards paying to have more and more of George’s time and work allocated to us. In effect, we paid the department to let us take him out of the control of the head of the workshop and give him some independence, working for Andy or Graham. George liked this as a recognition of his skill and at the same time freeing him to raise two fingers to the head of the workshop. Which I suspect he may have done as more than a metaphor! Later on, this reached the point where we simply paid to have him work for the group directly full time. His machining skill and ingenuity became a vital part of the group’s effort for many years.
During October 1988 I attended a JCMT User Committee meeting. I also presented a talk about heterodyne developments and JCMT in the Physics Department, and met Ralph Yell again to discuss possible development work. During November I was preparing a new CASE PhD studentship proposal to be supported by EEV. In addition to keeping in contact with Christine Sutton at New Scientist I was getting to know some of the other people who worked there or wrote for the magazine. This included Marcus Chown who I had known – and gone observing at UKIRT with - when I worked at QMC. As a result I was planning to write further articles for them.
Readers of New Scientist will know that along with the ‘feature’ articles it has sections for technology and science ‘news’. These items were written by magazine staff, etc, as short reports or explanations of events, reports, and items that appeared in various specialist journals. I exchanged a number of letters and telephone calls with Nina Hall who worked on their ‘news’ items at the time. The writers had a good understanding of science and could write clearly and quickly. But might find that a particular item required specialised knowledge of a field that they didn’t know well enough, and they wanted to check if they’d understood correctly.
Often this was because a publication in a learned journal was written indecipherably to impress other academics. A process exampled by a cartoon I once saw where two people were emerging from a lecture theatre and one is saying to the other, “He must be clever, I didn’t understand a word he said!”. Some other reports they encountered seemed what I can put most politely as ‘surprising’. i.e. it seemed likely that some item made an extraordinary claim that was almost certainly actually mistaken, or – to use the relevant academic technical term – ‘boll…’, erm, ‘twaddle’. If the item involved electronics or electromagnetism they might contact me and ask me to read it and comment.
The Obolensky triangle!
The example I recall best was the case Nina and I dubbed at the time the “Obolensky Triangle” when we discussed it. It stemmed from an article titled “Thirty six nanoseconds faster than light” in the December 1988 issue of Electronics & Wireless World (EWW). This presented a description and some results of an experiment which was claimed to show signal transmission at a velocity faster than the speed of light. Now, I’m a long-time science fiction fan. I’d love to find out how we might be able to transmit signals or even travel at velocities much higher than the speed of light. It would open up travel to the stars as well as being handy for communications here on Earth! I’ve seen many such claims and reports over the years and, sadly, they all seem to be based either on a misunderstanding or an unsatisfactory measurement of some kind. Nina spotted the article and sent me a copy, asking what I made of it.
My approach to what was reported was based on my experience and interest in precision measurement. My personal view is one I can best describe in terms of a comment my Chris’s Father made to me: “Physics is the science of measurement.” By the end of the 1980s I was accustomed to the way people at the NPL approached measurements. This is based on precision and a painstaking search for tiny sources of errors or experimental defects that can subtly alter the results. When making precise measurements even tiny imperfections in the equipment can alter the results, and thus may lead you to draw the wrong conclusions. For example, in the waveguide systems some of the people I knew at the NPL used, they carefully wrapped metal foil around the outside of any join between sections of waveguide. This was to reduce the tiny amounts of leakage that otherwise very slightly altered the measured results. Similarly, a great deal of time and effort went into calibrating experimental systems to eliminate problems.
When I looked at the description in the EWW article I could see a number of ways in which side-effects of the way the equipment was set up and used could cause a signal to essentially ‘take a short cut’ and thus seem to arrive faster than light could travel along the assumed path the experimenters expected it to take. Hence my reaction was “Alas, no cigar!” I then phoned Nina and explained my reasons for being sceptical, and followed it up with a letter to ensure she had on paper the points I’d made about the way the measurement seemed to have been done.
Usually, when she contacted me about a report I could help clarify how it could be explained. But after this I also got sent other examples of where a report seemed too good to be true - and often was. The challenge being to spot the flaw. I know people still continue to argue for the possibility of ‘FTL’ or ‘superluminal velocity’ and I actually hope they are right because it would be so useful. However the bulk of physics observations seem to confirm the limit based on relativity. So apart from trivial special cases, it seems to remain a case of “no cigar”...
Malcolm and Andy
The main image above shows Malcolm Robertson being conscripted into being in a publicity photo for the group. (the one used in the New Scientist feature.) This lets him look like the earnest and sober researcher. However his, and Andy’s, cover is blown by the small inserted photo which was taken at a mm-wave group dinner party... In the main photo he waits for the professional photographer to take a picture. In the insert he and Andy want me to hurry up so they can get back to the serious business of enjoying the party! The small photo gives the best idea of what they were like to work with.
23rd Aug 2018