Seeing Scarlett

Talking of Scarlett Johansson—which, if you've been paying attention, you'll remember I was—you might have heard that the actress came under considerable flak recently for becoming a ‘brand ambassador’ for SodaStream™: a device that allows people to make their own fizzy drinks. SodaStream™ is an Israeli company that operates in the occupied West Bank. Being associated with the company was seen as being incompatible with Ms Johansson's role as a global ambassador for Oxfam. So she quit her Oxfam role.

This whole sorry SodaStream™ saga has an unexpected bright side, however. In the unlikely event that I should ever find myself at a cocktail party chatting with Scarlett Johansson, I will now be able to explain to her how we have something in common. You see, many years ago, SodaStream™ also landed me in a whole lot of trouble.

It was down to my enquiring mind, you see. Our grandmother had bought my sister and me a SodaStream™ device. We seldom used it. This was partly because you had to buy a special concentrate to covert the fizzy water made in the machine into the flavour of your choice, and this concentrate soon ran out. But it was mostly because we were terrified of the damn contraption. Every time you released the yellow lever to remove the freshly enfizzed bottle of water from the device, the gas pressure made the lever shoot back so violently, it nearly took your arm off. I exaggerate only slightly. So the thing languished pretty much unused in the back of the cupboard.

Until, that is, my mum was enjoying a bottle of white wine one evening, and I decided to find out whether you could use a SodaStream™ to convert cheap plonk into finest Champagne.

The answer to that question turned out to be ‘no’.

What I also learnt that evening was that white wine placed in a SodaStream™ tended to explode in a rather spectacular manner. So spectacular, that only a thimble-full of nasty, fizzy wine remained in the bottle, while the rest was sprayed across all four kitchen walls, as well as the ceiling.

As I say, I don't think it's very likely that I will ever find myself chatting with Scarlett Johansson at a cocktail party—cocktail parties are just not my scene—but, in that unlikely event, at least we'll have something to laugh about together. Perhaps we might even see if it's possible to make fizzy cocktails in a SodaStream™ device. Based on my previous experience in this area, I should imagine the result might look something like this:

Scarlett Johansson exploding

Scarlett Johansson exploding.

Who knows, perhaps Scarlett and I might turn out to be the West's answer to Vyacheslav Molotov.

Through the pinhole

For some time now, I've fancied having a go with a pinhole camera. That's a camera without a lens. You take the photo through a tiny pinhole, which, due to its tiny, pinholish nature, focuses the image for you. It works on exactly the same principle as my legendary hatescope. The tinier the pinhole, the better.

So, yesterday I gave it a shot:

Self-portrait taken with a pinhole camera

Yours truly yesterday.

I used my super-duper digital SLR camera, removing the lens and replacing it with the body-cap intended to protect the camera when the lens is off. I had a spare body-cap, so (before I put it on the camera, obviously) I drilled a smallish hole though it, then stuck a small piece of black plastic with a pinhole pushed through it over the hole. The plastic was cut from an old flowerpot.

This is a bit like having the world's best hi-fi and using it to play Another Day in Paradise by Phil Collins.

More soft-focus (not blurry) pinhole photos here.

Sound science

This week, I finally managed to carry out a little experiment I've been planning for some time. The delay was because I needed access to a military jet-fighter.

You must have noticed how, when a jet-fighter flies past, the noise it makes appears to come from behind the aircraft. When I was a kid, I mistakenly believed that this was because the jet was flying faster than the speed of sound. The real reason is that the light arriving at your eyes from the jet is travelling at approximately 300,000,000 metres per second, whereas the sound arriving at your ears from the jet is travelling at around 330 metres per second—roughly a million times slower. This means that the light arrives at your eyes pretty much instantaneously, whereas the sound arrives at your ears slightly later, depending on the distance of the jet. By the time the sound arrives, the jet has moved several fusilage lengths further along its flightpath, meaning that you are seeing the jet where it is now, but you are hearing the jet where it was a short while ago.

We are able to judge the direction from which a sound is coming because we have two ears. When the sound is coming from the right, say, it arrives at our right ear a split second before it arrives at our left. It is also, thanks to the inverse-square law of acoustic waves, and to the fact that our ears point in opposite directions, louder in our right ear than our left. Our brains use these differences and other subtle cues to calculate the direction of the sound. Amazing, or what?

I finally got to perform my experiment on Monday evening. I was in the garden watering my tomatoes when I spotted a jet-fighter travelling down the valley towards me, low and fast. Its flightpath would take it about 100 metres in front of where I was standing. So I dropped the watering can and hurried to a location on the patio with a better view.

As the jet flew past, the sound appeared to be coming from a few plane-lengths behind the aircraft. Then I took out my other piece of vital experimental apparatus—my right index finger—and inserted it firmly into my right ear. As if by magic, the sound from the jet suddenly appeared to be coming directly from the aircraft. Unable to detect the direction of the sound with data from only one ear, my brain quite sensibly deduced that it must be coming from the plane.

For the remaining few seconds that the jet was in view, I repeatedly removed from and inserted into my ear my index finger, causing the direction of the sound to move repeatedly back and forth.

Give it a go some time. You don't really need a jet-fighter; any noisy, fast-moving aircraft will do.

Previous experiments:

The man who mistook his hat for a telescope

Jen and I were sitting at a Sicilian coffee table last week, drinking (as seemed only appropriate at the time) coffee, when we noticed a whole pile of Italians behaving very strangely. Nothing unusual there, you might think, but this lot kept rushing out of their shops to look into the sky. I deduced (correctly) that we were in the middle of an alien invasion a partial solar eclipse.

What to do? Caught during an eclipse without any dark plastic to view the sun through. So I borrowed Jen's sunglasses and looked through them at right-angles to my own sunglasses, hoping that the polarised filters set at 90° would cut out most of the light. It's a trick I used with polarised camera lens filters to take photographs of another partial solar eclipse in 1986, but the sunglasses' filters were clearly of inferior quality, so the trick didn't work.

Like I said, what to do? Then I had a flash of inspiration and whipped off my rather dapper Akubra hat. Carefully angling the hat so that the sun shone through the ventilation holes, I placed a copy of that morning's Guardian newspaper in the hat's shadow. As if by magic, a near-perfect image of the solar eclipse was projected on to the paper. It was, in effect, a slighly lower-fi version of the trick I used in 2004 to document with great accuracy the transit of Venus.


Step 1: Set hatescope at jaunty angle.

Image of eclipse

Step 2: View image of eclipse.

…I must say, I was rather pleased with myself, re-inventing the telescope in the land of Galileo.

Smoke signals

Scotsman Holy smoke! Why heat was on the cardinals

…The truth behind the confusing smoke signals from the Vatican chimney has been revealed by one of the 115 cardinals who helped choose a successor to Pope John Paul II.

Adrianus Simonis, from Holland, said: "We needed two goes to get the white smoke going because the chimney just wouldn't draw. At one point the entire Sistine Chapel filled with smoke."

Simonis's comments revealed why there had been uncertainty and confusion, when the first puffs of smoke last week appeared to be black. Then, after several minutes, it turned grey and, finally, white.

White smoke

Habemus papam!

It seems to me, what the vatican needs is a simple garden incinerator.

I've been doing some experimenting. Here are my findings:
  • dry paper—white smoke
  • dry garden waste—white smoke
  • damp garden waste—copious white smoke
  • soaking wet garden waste—no smoke
  • smelly old rug—black smoke
  • oily rag—black smoke
  • christmas tree—whooooooosh!
  • petrol—VOOOOOOOOM! No eyebrows

It isn't exactly rocket science.


TransitContrary to all expectations, I managed to view today's Transit of Venus. My improvised pin-hole telescope could see the sun, but didn't have enough resolution to distinguish Venus, so I resorted to a binocular image projected on to white card.

For those of you who didn't manage to see it, here is a scientifically accurate artist's impression of the momentous event. I bet you're kicking yourselves.