Drinking water out of lead pipes

I heard an item on the radio today about old pipes. The journalist was grilling somebody from Irish Water about their plans to put orthophosphates in the water in order to combat the effects of lead.

To be truthful with you, I wasn’t paying much attention till I heard mention of my home town, Limerick, where it seems there have been protests against introducing this chemical and that’s when my ears perked up.

Why? What? Who could possibly be for keeping lead in the drinking water? Who could be against a harmless substance coating the inside  of the pipes of prevent people being poisoned?

I don’t know, but apparently some people are opposed to putting orthophosphates in the water, presumably on the basis that they contain too many syllables. On the basis presumably, that chemical names sound too sinister and you couldn’t have that, now could you?

In other words, on the basis of nothing more than a medieval suspicion of science.

On the basis of being an unlettered idiot.

Never mind that you’d get a hundred times as much orthophosphate in a single fizzy drink as you would in a glass of water. Ignore that sort of fact and instead aim for the factoids that motivate such protests. After all, what fun are facts when we can have chemtrails and vaccination conspiracies?

Naturally, Irish Water is the problem, and not the reality that 180,000 houses have lead piping inside their four walls. The same people  complaining about chemicals like orthophosphates (but who have no problem drinking dihydrogen monoxide or for that matter, psychoactive substances like C2H5OH) seem to think that the public purse is responsible for fixing bad plumbing inside a private house.

It isn’t.

If you have lead pipes inside your house, that’s a problem you have to fix yourself instead of expecting the rest of us to pay for it. It makes no difference who delivers the dihydrogen monoxide to your tap. Irish Water can do it or the local council can do it, but the fact remains that your lead pipes are your problem.

That’s a reality that the anti-paying-for-your-own-problems alliance doesn’t seem to grasp. If you have lead pipes in your house, I’m not paying to fix it, either through Irish Water or through the Council.

How about explaining to those protesting about orthophosphates that they have three choices: continue to be poisoned, pay now to replace your pipes, or in the meantime let this substance coat your pipes with a layer that will protect you from the poisonous heavy metal?

Yes, I know that’s the logical answer, but never underestimate the stupidity of rabble-rousers or the people they stir up. We’ve seen what they can do in far worse circumstances and to be truthful, I think our fools are only practising for darker times when their skills are needed to drum up irrational anger against who knows what?





A killer stalks my garden

Arrogant as a surgeon, surly as a bus driver, aggressive as a junior lawyer, he lands at my feet while I fork my sadly-neglected garden.


He cares nothing for me, nor for any danger I might pose, since he knows full well that I am no threat to him at all.

He’s been watching from a distance as I fork, dig, separate weed from clod. He knows my sole purpose is to take out every last bulb of this beautiful, pungent, delicious yet invasive wild garlic. He knows I’m harmless, though the same can’t be said for the Hound of Satan and so we set up a delicate balance. I’m happy enough with my new, tiny, murderous companion, at least for now.

Get gone, Hound of Satan, lest you feel my wrath! And stop trampling the garlic!

He hops up to my foot and nabs a tiny grub unearthed by my fork. How did he do that? How did he see that? This robin has the eyes of a hawk.

I move slowly so as not to startle this bird, but he doesn’t care. When I stumble on a tuffet, he hops himself sideways a flap or two like a small red crow on a freshly-dug motorway, casual as the Great Blondin winking at Niagara.

I become the bird. He trains me not to worry about sudden movements because he knows I mean him no evil, though the same could not be said for his intentions towards insects, larvae and worms. As I continue to dig and to sift, my murderous visitor gorges himself on earthworms, leatherjackets and centipedes, none of which I noticed writhing in my freshly-turned earth but all on the menu of this little predator.

He batters a worm against a rock until it submits, then disappears with it into the lovely magnolia tree that flowers twice a year, but where is all this earth-meat going? He can’t be eating these things. Is he bringing them to a nest full of voracious mini-killers? I can conclude nothing else.


Eventually, I grow tired of culling this garlic field and begin to clear out a rockery, but of course I’m conflicted. Should I dig out all the dandelions, thus depriving the pollinators of food?  I can’t do it, but I turn to my flexible principles for consolation and I compromise. I’ll remove some that are in the way and I’ll leave the rest for the bees.

The micro-murderer turns up and it’s clear from his body language that he cares nothing for the bees. It’s clear that he’d happily eat a bee if he caught one. It’s clear that he’d eat me given half a chance or drag me to a nest filled with his clamorous murderous offspring. A killer’s children who will end up just like their father and come to a bad end.

As I hack away at the overgrown, weed-infested rockery, my little killer friend abandons all pretence and launches straight in between my hands, grabbing the grubs I thought were pebbles, battering them into submission and disappearing into the magnolia tree before returning for more slaughter.

It’s carnage. It’s horrible and it’s nature.

Luckily, no Vegans were present to witness the horror.




Breakthrough Starshot: Stephen Hawking announces interstellar travel

Say Russian billionaire and the credibility index slips by fifty points. It’s not fair but it’s true. Say interstellar travel and the needle slips another thirty notches. But then say Stephen Hawking. Then say Harvard Center for Astrophysics. Say Breakthrough Starshot.

Where is this going? Well, it appears this is going to our nearest neighbour, the star Alpha Centauri, because this is precisely what Professor Hawking has in mind, in partnership with Yuri Milner and sponsored by the Harvard astrophysicists.

alpha centauri breakthrough

What is proposed?

A fleet of what are described as nanocraft, tiny vessels propelled and continuously accelerated by a stream of photons until eventually they reach a velocity about a fifth of the speed of light. This is a staggering rate of movement, even though of course everything is relative, but it means that a craft launched from Earth could reach Alpha Centauri in about twenty years and so we could send out a flock of inquisitive starlings to touch the edge of the void long before we thought it might ever be possible.

How does it work?

A spacecraft less than a gram in weight is pulled by an ultra-light sail a few molecules thick. The spacecraft has a tiny computer on a minuscule wafer and if we doubt this, let us just consider what has been achieved in the last thirty years of miniaturisation.

We might actually be able to visit our nearest neighbour, a goal we thought was unattainable, but thanks to the absurd vision of people like Milner becomes closer than we suspected.

And what makes these insane dreams a reality?

Of course, it’s the very same thing that turns the blistering desert around Kuwait city into a garden.


Money from Yuri Milner. Money, we now hear, from Mark Zuckerberg and money in one of its many other forms from Harvard.

I suspect that people thought Elon Musk was mad. For that matter, I suspect myself that he still might be a little insane, but only this week Elon Musk’s SpaceX finally landed a reusable rocket on the deck of a drone ship pitching and heaving in the Pacific, thus revolutionising space travel. Why? Because Elon Musk was prepared to spend, and even burn, money.

Elon Musk thinks we can colonise Mars and until recently we’d all have said he was insane, but so far he’s delivered on everything he predicted he would, including his range of Tesla cars.

Where did Musk make all his money? The internet, an imaginary concept that hardly existed thirty years ago.

Where did Zuckerberg get his fortune? From a ludicrous concept that became Facebook.

How did Yuri Milner get rich? By investing in the internet.

All of them took a bet on a nebulous, ill-defined leap of imagination, which is exactly what they’re doing again today with Breakthrough Starshot, and a little help from Hawking and from Harvard.

When you were a child, did Alpha Centauri captivate your imagination?

It certainly captivated mine, this star so tantalisingly close at only four light-years away. Only four light-years! A star so close that it only takes light from it four years to reach us, unlike the fathomless distances of galaxies so far away that everything we see of them is long dead and we stare not only into the abyss but into a past so remote as to be beyond imagining.

To contemplate the visible universe is to be astonished, staggered by the vastness of it, but also to be aware that we’re looking at nothing more than a tiny slice, that things are out there more ancient than we can conceive and also that events are happening out there right now, trammelled by one overwhelming caveat: we cannot say what “now” means, since time is relative, as Einstein demonstrated. There is no such thing as a single time-line across the entire universe, and therefore to speak of a beginning and an end is to assume something that cannot be demonstrated since nobody can say that time is linear.

It reminds me of the two ants walking on a football, both agreed that it was flat, just as some humans at one time —  perversely enough given the evidence of their eyes — once asserted that the Earth was flat. Given the complexity of the Void, who in their right minds could claim as a fact that time is linear?

And yet, considering how close we are to Alpha Centauri in cosmic terms, we might be able to approximate that curiously flexible concept of Now, even if it takes us four years to receive a signal and another four years to send a reply.

If the Breakthrough Starshot project succeeds, in twenty-four years we might be looking at images of a planet orbiting a star that is not our own star. A sun that is not our sun.

Who is to say what those images will reveal?

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Hawking announces mission

How probes would work

Previously on this site

Curiosity Mars lander’s seven minutes of terror



Gravitational waves confirmed – Einstein was right about everything

The existence of gravitational waves has been confirmed. There really are ripples in the space-time continuum.

Think back on all those sober nights you spent lying on the grass  staring up at the Milky Way and letting your mind boggle, until finally it’s come to this. Einstein was right in everything he said.

Einstein was more right than he himself ever believed.

Einstein wasn’t trying to solve the meaning of the Universe when he started out on the journey that ultimately came close to solving the meaning of the Universe. All he was trying to do was explain a small anomaly in the observed position of Jupiter in the night sky. As one does. Just an average day for your average Nobel laureate. And yet, his final result, his General Relativity theory, was so monumentally insightful, so logical and so internally consistent that it threw out the sort of results Einstein himself would continue to question to his dying day.


Simple. Although he knew that one inevitable implication of his theory was the existence of gravitational waves, Einstein was a true scientist: one who remains constantly sceptical. He knew his logic was as good as he could make it. He knew where it led and yet he doubted himself as every good scientist does. But today he might just take down his violin and play himself a gentle Beethoven sonata for Einstein of all men was one who truly understood the music of the spheres, and he was no mean fiddler. After he played at one benefit event, a critic who didn’t know much about him  wrote, Einstein plays excellently. However, his world-wide fame is undeserved. There are many violinists who are just as good.

albert einstein playing violin

It took a man with such a soul to peer into the heart of our very being and to render it in the crystalline symbolic logic of mathematics: the only possible notation for the music of the spheres.

That was Albert Einstein, a musician, a physicist and a pacifist. A quirky man of great good humour.

Isaac Newton was not such an engaging character. As Master of the Royal Mint, he made it his personal business to secure the execution of twenty-eight countefeiters, his vigour undiminished by his great age. At 75, Newton was older than pretty much everyone else in the England of the times and he didn’t finally fall off the perch until he was 85, but by then he had created a legacy that lives on to this day. It’s by Newtons laws of planetary motion that NASA and the European Space Agency calculate the trajectories of their spacecraft. They use his calculus, developed before he reached 24. Their telescopes are based on the principles of optics he set out. Opticks. His theories of gravitation predict very well the motion of the celestial bodies, apart from a minute, almost indetectable variation — the very anomaly that Albert Einstein was trying to explain when eventually he embarked on his path towards General relativity.

And what an explanation it was. Space can be bent and so can time.

However, before we dismiss Newton once and for all, let’s remember his caveat: I take space to be absolute. In other words, he recognised that his rigid Cartesian frame of reference was no more than a construct for the purpose of keeping the calculations clean. Who’s to say he didn’t also recognise that time might not be as linear as everyone else presumed? After all, Newton was no slave to conformity. Many in the intensely religious atmosphere of his era considered him a heretic for denying that Jesus was divine, and yet he persevered with that view in the face of huge disapproval.

Newton knew that space was not uniform and he also knew that he was in the debt of many other great minds.

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Einstein never had anyone executed, and what’s more he was not religious, despite the various quotes ascribed to him, but he must have known full well that he also was standing on the shoulders of a giant in the shape of Newton. After all, for most practical purposes, the corrections applied by General Relativity to Newtonian mechanics are so small as to be negligible. It wasn’t Einstein who made the rendezvous with Rosetta but Isaac Newton.  The Curiosity Mars lander relied on classical Newtonian physics.

No popular scientist will ever explain how a Brazilian can bend the ball past the keeper by mentioning Einstein whose contribution needs to be explained in an altogether more feeling way.

Newton might have taken the pulse of the universe but Einstein spoke to its soul.  Today, sixty years after he decided that his work here was done, sixty years since he last shook his head and wondered where he went wrong, the scientists of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, in a staggering tour de force of exactitude,  have shown that he was right all along.

And of course he doubted it to the end, as any good scientist should.


How scientists finally found the gravitational waves


Environment Science Technology

Shannon floods at Limerick – the role of Ardnacrusha

As tempers rise to match the River Shannon floods, much anger is focused on the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station and its associated dams, reservoirs and channels. Although many readers will already have a detailed knowledge of its design and layout, for those who don’t I thought it might be useful to provide a quick summary of the scheme and offer a few rough calculations of my own.

Aardnacrusha power station

When the Shannon Scheme began operation in 1929, it was the largest hydroelectric station in the world, but perhaps more significantly for the government of the day, it was a huge statement of intent for a newly-independent country and a great gamble, since it cost more than one fifth of the State’s entire annual budget to construct. What’s more, with an initial generating capacity of 35 megawatts, later increased to 85 megawatts with the addition of a newer and more efficient fourth turbine, according to the project’s detractors Ireland would never need so much power. There were even some who condemned the project on the grounds that it amounted to Communism, much as the same people would later attack the Mother and Child Scheme, but that was Ireland for you.

Shannon scheme Power house
Power house

Ninety years later, Ardnacrusha contributes about 2% of the total ESB output– enough for a town the size of Ennis.

It didn’t come without a social cost either, as I outlined in this post. They were hard days, different times and attitudes to workers were at best callous.

Aradnacrusha works canteen


Thomas McLaughlin, the man behind the scheme, was 29 years old when his project began. A man with little interest in non-academic pursuits, he had achieved a PhD in engineering and a collection of influential friends from his college days who would become instrumental in persuading the government to invest in the scheme.

McLaughlin wasn’t the first to propose using the lower Shannon for power generation. As early as 1844, Robert Kane was pointing out the opportunity for hydro power  presented by the drop in water level between Killaloe and Limerick. Potential energy, quite literally. But it wasn’t until John Chaloner-Smith’s research on river flows was published in 1921 that the hard research became available to design a workable scheme.

McLaughlin’s plan, developed with Siemens, required a dam at Parteen Villa (not to be confused with Parteen), just south of Lough Derg, to impound the lake and turn it into a reservoir.

Shannon scheme

From the dam, a 12-km canal, the head-race, diverts most of the Shannon’s water to the power station at Ardnacrusha where it falls nearly 30 metres  through pipes 6 metres in diameter, the penstocks, to drive the turbines.  The water leaving the power station runs along the tail-race, a 2-kilometre channel blasted out of solid rock until, at Corbally, it rejoins the old River Shannon which was reduced to a trickle by the diversion.

Shannon scheme


parteen weir
Parteen Weir

Before moving on, I have to acknowledge that the scheme is a magnificent engineering achievement by any standards and even today, almost a century later is still deeply impressive. Nothing like it had ever been seen  in Ireland before.

Siemens plant arriving at Limerick docks for Shannon scheme
Unloading at Limerick docks

Revealingly, the main contractor, Siemens-Schuckert, came from a country that was being crushed under punitive war reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, and yet that was the reason why Germany was so active in developing hydro-electricity.: France had control of all the German coal-fields  Ireland’s infrastructure was so primitive that all the construction equipment had to be shipped from Germany because none existed here.

Everyone will have an opinion on the reasons why Ireland was so primitive compared to England, Wales and Scotland, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the London government prior to 1922 had little interest in promoting industrialisation in Ireland, apart from Dublin, Belfast and perhaps Cork.

According to Siemens, they imported the following:

6 Large multiple bucket dredgers on rails each about 220 tons
3 Large bank building machines on rails each about 240 tons
27 Smaller dredgers and shovel excavators on rails and caterpillars
130 Steam locomotives
8 Electric locomotives
31 Portable air compressors
13 Portable concrete mixers
8 Tower cranes
3 Cableways, each 310 m long
1,770 Railway wagons
20 Road trucks
31 Barges, trugs, launches and pontoons
Temporary power station, Ardnacrusha
Temporary power station

In order to construct the power station, it was first necessary for Siemens to build a power station with nine diesel generators producing nearly 3 megawatts. They also built a large engineering shop,  a smithy, a joiner’s department in addition to a tool-making shop and a welding shop.

Only when everything was in place could the project begin.

By law, the ESB is contractually obliged to guarantee a flow of only 10 cubic metres per second along the old course of the river, which is just one-fortieth of the volume it abstracts for the power station, and this has led to many different problems, both hydrological and environmental. With such drastically reduced flows, there has been a great amount of encroachment by alluvial forest, with alder, ash and willow clogging the river and causing major blockage when it floods. On top of that, the scheme killed what was once a world-famous salmon fishery and an eel-fishing industry.

Now, a few figures.

The average annual flow of the Shannon is a little over 200 cumecs (cubic metres per second), so the ESB wouldn’t always get its full 400 cumec flow, nor would it wish to. But in a flood it could take that much while leaving the old river bed untouched. If the flow goes above 410 cumec then the next step is to store the flood in Lough Derg, using the Parteen Weir, and releasing the extra water gradually down the old channel. All well and good until we get flows of 800 cumec and more as we have today. That means 400 cumec down the head-race and the other 400 going somewhere else, but the question is where?

It’s often suggested that the ESB could have created storage by lowering the lake in advance of the storm, and that’s true, but no matter by how much the lake is lowered, eventually it will fill up and after that, any excess flow is going straight over the weir and down the old Shannon channel, because it has nowhere else to go. Therefore, the only hope is that they can create enough capacity to store the excess water until the rain subsides and the water stops concentrating in the river. It’s a relatively slow river, and we don’t see it peaking until several days after the rain has stopped.

The lake’s surface area is 130 million square metres. Its average volume is 887 million cubic metres and its average depth is 7.6 metres. This allows us to make a crude estimate of how much storage can be created by reducing the water level during periods when there is no flooding.

The current flow into the lake is 840 cumec. How much storage do you reckon we’ll need?

A half-metre drop would give enough storage to contain a day and a half of flood, after which the water would need to be released down the old Shannon. But will the flood only last a day and a half?

A metre would give three days storage.

1.5 metres would give protection against a flood lasting four and a half days. That’s a five-foot drop, in the old money. Is that acceptable to the people and businesses who rely on Lough Derg? What if the flood lasts five days? A week? Two weeks?

Furthermore, you don’t just lower the level of a water body like Lough Derg overnight. It takes weeks and you’d be doing it in contemplation of an event like Storm Desmond, which does not provide weeks of warning.

What are the other factors?

With the exponential growth in paved, impervious areas around the country — roads, car-parks, driveways, roofs and all the rest of it — rainfall no longer has so much time to percolate through the soil and gradually make its way to the watercourses.  With uncontrolled development, widely seen as A Good Thing, rainfall now concentrates in a flash, running straight down the gulleys, into the drains, out to the streams and into the rivers. Before you know it, you have a flood.

There’s the neglect of watercourses, as I mentioned. We could be clearing intrusive alluvial forest and replacing it with forestation on land.

Let’s not even mention climate change, but we all know it’s there and we all know it will lead to more of this.

The important thing to bear in mind is that there’s only a given, fixed amount of storage and you can make it as big as you want, but eventually a storm will come along that will fill it up and then the water will go where the water wants to go. Or to put it another way, the ESB can only delay the flood. It can’t prevent it.

Let’s remember something else. Shannon floods are nothing new. The river below Corbally has the same flow now as it did before the power station was built, though perhaps made worse by the factors I just mentioned. Whatever about upstream at Castleconnell, Montpelier or Plassey, Ardnacrusha is not to blame for flooding in Limerick City. In 1850, a fearful flood filled up all the basements of the houses and covered the quays in some places to a depth of three and four feet.  It even threatened to tear the parapets off Mr Nimmo’s fine bridge across the Shannon, which had been replaced at great cost following a similar catastrophe some years earlier.

None of this is intended to get the ESB off the hook, but it seems to me that if we’re to have a rational debate on the issue of flooding, at the very least we should be basing it on some sort of rational facts and figures, and we should be looking at all the factors involved. Of course, I do realise that the figures I have here are very crude, but in the absence of a complete hydrological model, I’m afraid they’re the best I can do for now.

shannon scheme
Excavating the head-race

shannon scheme

shannon scheme
Intake sluice house
shannon scheme
Constructing volutes to produce a tangential flow
shannon scheme
Parteen weir under construction

shannon scheme

shannon scheme
Head-race embankment
shannon scheme
Parteen weir



Old River Shannon

Irish Waterways History



Clare county library

National inventory of architectural heritage

History Ireland






Irish scientist wins Nobel Prize

william campbell nobel prize

An Irish scientist has won the Nobel Prize for Medicine but you might not be aware of it if you depended on the Irish media, who chose to report this fact fifth or sixth in their list of headlines, for reasons one can only speculate on.

Let me repeat.

Today, an Irishman has won the Nobel Prize.




What does this tell us about Irish journalism, or indeed about Irish society as a whole?

I don’t know. It’s too dispiriting.

It means we have journalists who aren’t inclined or equipped to cover stuff they found too hard in school and we have a society in general that doesn’t value real erudition.

Our Nobel laureate, Prof William Campbell, would have got more news coverage if he won X-Factor.

It seems our society has now been dumbed to its deepest.




NASA to make major Mars announcement

Mars NASA scientific discovery

The world is agog as it awaits tomorrow’s news from NASA.  After all, it’s not often that the space agency announces what it calls a major science finding, so you could hardly blame people for being on edge. You could hardly be surprised that every thinking person in the world has made a mental note to watch out for this press conference, not to mention a host of chancers and charlatans who might end up with a lot of explaining to do.

But what precisely will this finding be?

The smart money is on running water, but I’d lay an outside bet on evidence of life, which of course leads to an overwhelming question. What sort of life? Of course it could be microbes but that’s boring so let’s increase the odds on the  bet to astronomical levels and assume they’ve discovered evidence of sentient beings. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what kind of sentient being might have evolved on an entirely different planet?

I’ll guarantee you this: they’ll be completely different to us, and it won’t be because of the forty legs, the three heads or the vaguely pleasant scent of almonds.

It will be because they’re a peace-loving species. They’ll be rational, logical and reasonable. They’ll base their thoughts and beliefs on fact, not on prejudice or on creation-fantasies. Violence will be incomprehensible to them. It will seem obvious to these Martians that their fellow sentient beings should be helped when times are hard, no matter what part of the planet they might come from.

These beings will never try to force religion myths on other Martians, because the notion of religion will be utterly alien to them.  They won’t try to force their political views on others because there will be no such thing as politics in their society. Indeed, the very notion of force will be outside their comprehension.

The Martians will understand that they and the planet they inhabit are a single organism that needs to be protected for their survival.

These Martians will be as different from humans as they could possibly be and yet, now, for the very first time, they need to feel the human emotion of fear, because the organism that is  destroying the planet Earth has reached out and touched their fragile home in the shape of the Phoenix lander.

Perhaps such a kind, gentle and rational race has no way of feeling fear, but if that’s the case, they’re doomed.

We have arrived on Mars.

Biology Horticulture

Smiting Wasps

If this was the European Union, people would be saying the wasps are Greece and I’m Germany, but they’d be wrong.

It’s true I waged a devastating war on them, but the wasps are still just wasps.  Furthermore, they’re the same wasps that gave me twenty or more painful stings even though I did nothing to them except pull up a few weeds.


No sense of humour, these vespidae.  A few years ago, I noticed that a colony of them had set up home in one of the rockeries, so I had a word with a friend who might know things about nature.  A vaguely hippie sort of lad.

What am I going to do about these fucking wasps?

He regarded me with the sort of languid condescension only ageing hippies can muster and placed a patronising hand on my shoulder.

Live in peace with them.

Believe it if you want, but I took him at his word and I let the wasps alone, even though I didn’t like his smug, hippie tone.

You live in peace with them! Bastard.

Oh well.  That’s smug, condescending middle-class hippies for you, and yet, for years after that, I took his advice to heart because in many ways he was right.  I don’t mess with Nature and Nature doesn’t mess with me, unless you assume that I’m just a representation of the human race, in which case Nature is going to mess with me big-time, since our sort have destroyed the planet.

The more I think about it, the more I’m drawn to the conclusion that we, the humans, are no more than a parasitic organism that has attacked the planet Earth. We destroy all that we touch. By our carbon emissions and our poisonous by-products, we threaten to destroy almost every form of life on the face of the planet.

Many years ago, when I was just a lad, I came across a charming little book by the tragic amateur naturalist, Eugene Marais, called The Soul of the White Ant.  In that book, later plagiarised by Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck, Marais set out his understanding of what constitutes a living organism and, from his studies of termite hills, deduced that some  individual insects are  analogous to red and white blood cells, others to liver, kidneys and lungs, and yet more to the central nervous system, with the queen fulfilling the role of the brain.

The ant-hill, according to Marais, is the living animal, not the ant.

Marais developed elegant and simple tests to support these speculations, and his arguments were compelling enough to grab the imagination of my 18-year-old brain.  In all the intervening years, I haven’t heard anything to make me think he was wrong, and therefore, by extension, I can’t avoid the thought that the planet is the living creature and that we, the humans, are no more than the infection that threatens the body of that creature.

If that’s true, sooner or later the Earth’s immune system will wipe us out, as it should.

I learned today that bees are dying off faster than they can be replaced, thanks to human activity, and if that’s accurate we are truly doomed since all human life depends on bees.

And that’s how, by a commodious vicus of recirculation, we arrive back at wasps, the bastards.

You see, I’m not the most observant person ever.  I have difficulty telling the difference between almost anything and almost anything else, thanks to my poor ability to detect colours.  It’s true that I can tell the difference between a horse and a lobster. I can immediately spot that a manhole cover is not the European Space Station. But just as I cannot tell the difference between Noel and Liam Gallagher or between Gary and Phil Nevillle, I also cannot tell the difference between a bee and a wasp.

Shame on me, but there you go.  That’s me. Idiot.

How will I get rid of these invaders? I asked myself.  If they’re bees, I can’t kill them.  And if they’re wasps, I can’t use poison in case it goes into the food chain.  Such are the unending conundrums with which we first-world folk beset ourselves.

I thought and I thought and I thought until finally I had no idea, so I called my bee-keeping friend.

You!  Have you a bee suit?

I have. Why?

Will you come over and dig up a nest of murderous stinging wasps? Take them away in your car?

No. Fuck off.

All right then. Do you know special vespid incantations that will make them all die?

No. Are you taking very serious mind-bending drugs?

Of course not. That ended years ago. How will I do away with these bastards? They might sting a small child, or even worse, my dog.

Have you tried water?

That gave me pause, I must admit.


Yes. Why not try to flood them?  The queen will decide to evacuate and all the rest will follow.

So that’s what I did.  I put on the bee suit and I dragged an ordinary garden hose close to the hole they were using to enter and exit the hive. It’s a strange experience wearing one of these suits, and not one I’ve had before.   You know you’re safe from the stings, and yet, as they buzz around your face you still fear one of them might get in and have a right good go at you.   It’s a very strange feeling.

As the water came on, the wasps went crazy, attacking the hose and even the water itself while I stood still in my white suit, observing. As I said, I wish them no harm, but I don’t want them near my house. I know they form part of the biological net, and I know they take out many of the vile insects I don’t wish to have hanging around my home, but I also don’t want creatures near my home that can kill some people with a single sting.

It’s been a while since I noticed activity near the entrance to the nest, so perhaps the queen has decided to find a new home.

I hope that new home isn’t somewhere else in my garden, or else it gets the hose again.



Oops.  It didn’t work.

They were back again the next morning, so it became time to attack them with heavy artillery in the form of the high-pressure power-washer.  That machine has two attachments and I opted for the maximum-destruction one, the bit that can strip stones out of concrete and turn earth to jelly.

Suiting up isn’t great fun, even if it does make me look nicely ridiculous.  It’s hot and it’s sweaty. It’s cumbersome. But by Jesus it’s necessary if you don’t want these horrible little predators to make a dartboard out of you.

The high-pressure assault seemed to work, though I decided to do a bit of overkill and tear some stones out of the wall just to be on the safe side.  Any survivors buzzing around didn’t seem to be coordinated or even motivated, so I’m feeling optimistic that I finally got them, but let’s not get carried away for a while.  These are resilient little buggers. Resilient and entirely unsentimental.

They’ll kill ya, but at least they don’t hold a grudge.



Cleaning up the garden

Biology Horticulture

Cleaning up the garden and not getting killed by wasps with a bit of music

The old garden has been a bit neglected in recent times.  I can’t deny it.  It’s a disgrace.

It’s a disgraceful disgrace.

A shame.

To my credit, I’ve been trying lately and I have managed to hack a path through the jungle but still, this is a big garden and it won’t be tamed overnight. This is no normal garden with a few flower beds and a hydrangea bush in the corner.  This garden has a full-grown bay tree waving in the breeze and by the way, if anyone would like a branch of said bay tree, they’re more than welcome to take it away.

But as always, I digress.

The area beneath my beloved bay tree has become a little overgrown.  The small stone walls that I so lovingly constructed all those years ago have become occluded with ivy and I thought it might be a nice thing to rediscover them, not only to me but also to my friends.  Small walls.  Footpaths. Potential for sitting down together talking about important emotional things. Sharing a glass of wine. Meetings of souls.


What really happened: I started to drag away at ivy and overgrowth when my hands began to sting and I thought fuck!  Nettles.

And then I thought, Flying nettles. Small yellow flying nettles stinging me on the arm, on the neck, on the face, on the ears.

And then I thought, Run!

And so I found myself in the kitchen, slathering my painful places with vinegar because I’d been told that wasp stings are alkaline and you should apply something acidic to neutralise them.

And they were right.  It did ease the pain.

wasp swarm

Now, I’ve always been blessed with a constitution that doesn’t react much to anything except bigotry, so I didn’t immediately think we’d all be going to A&E.   That wasn’t going to happen, but at the same time, my arm and my ear hurt like fuck.

I can understand why my arm hurt since that’s what I was using to tear their home out of the ground, but my ear? Do they think I’m a closet Barry Manilow fan?

Why did the wasps attack the most inoffensive organ in my body?  That’s what I don’t like about wasps.  Their stupidity.  Could they not understand that we share a  big garden.  I hate Barry Manilow and we could probably all get along just fine if they’d let me know what they like to listen to.

As it happens, I’m currently preparing an alternative playlist for a hostelry I love dearly apart from one thing: the same fucking songs on the stereo day after day after day after fucking day, repeating hour after hour after hour after fucking hour.

Groundhog Pub.

I will happily donate this playlist and all my hours of work drawing it up if only I no longer have to endure this relentless repetition of musical sameness.

For all I know, the wasps that attacked me are the same ones who hang around my local hostelry. For all I know, the only reason they attacked me is rage and frustration at having to listen to the same shit day after day.

Perhaps this is how I will live in peace with them.  Instead of spraying poison, maybe I should just put new and interesting music on the stereo.








Solar Eclipse 2015

If there’s some primitive tribal chief you need to intimidate, tomorrow morning will be your best chance for a while, because tomorrow morning, at 9:30, there will be an almost total lunar eclipse of the sun.  As a matter of fact, in some places, the eclipse will be complete, but most of those places are in the middle of the ocean, which is great news for anyone who needs to intimidate a tribe living in Waterworld, but probably not for the rest of us.

Solar eclipse

If you don’t need to intimidate a primitive chieftain, but just want to see a total eclipse, you’ll have to hurry, because the only places on land where it’s going to be visible are the Faroe Islands and the Svalbard islands off Norway.  Unless, of course, you happen to live in the Faroe Islands, or Svalbard, in which case you don’t have to hurry at all.  Jut get up  at about 8 am, have a light breakfast of puffin and whale blubber, and wait for the sun to be completely obliterated as the Moon passes it.

It’s not just any old moon, by the way, even though it is, of course, exactly the same lump of rock it always was.  But the many moods of the Moon have many different names: the New Moon, the Harvest Moon, the Blue Moon, Keith Moon.  Bad Moon Rising.

This one is the Supermoon, not strictly a scientific term, when our lunar companion passes closest to Earth, its perigee, making it look bigger.  You might have thought that the Moon goes around the Earth in a circle, and you might be wondering why it should be nearer sometimes and further away at other times, but in fact the answer is very simple.  The Moon’s orbit is not circular. It’s elliptical, like a circle that somebody sat on.  Egg-shaped.  This means that sometimes the Moon is very far away from us, sometimes it passes  very near us, as it’s doing at the moment, and sometimes, it’s neither one nor the other.  Much like the Grand Old Duke of York.

Now, when the Moon is very close to us, it has a far stronger gravitational influence on the tides because gravity obeys the inverse-square law.  What does this mean?  Simple.  The bigger the distance between two bodies, the smaller their gravitational attraction, as you might have guessed.  But if you double the distance, you don’t just halve the pull.   You reduce it to a quarter of what it was.

So when the Moon is at its closest, it exerts a a massive pull on the oceans, about 30% more than it does at its apogee, which is a fancy way of saying when it’s furthest away.  It also exerts a massive pull on the rest of the planet, but only the oceans are fluid enough to respond instantly, though the Earth’s crust also displays tidal motion.  And so it causes extremely high tides.  Remember that.  It will come in handy in a minute or two.

As a matter of interest, most orbits are elliptical, but some are not.   In very unusual circumstances, they can be circular, but they can also be parabolic and even hyperbolic, all of which, you’ll instantly point out, are conic sections, based on slices through a cone.  I must come back to that some time because it’s interesting in a geeky, nerdy sort of way, especially since the Moon doesn’t just go around the Earth.  The Earth also goes around the Moon, like a big fat ice-skating man holding hands with a tiny skating girl.

Now.  The Moon isn’t the only celestial body pulling on the oceans.  The Sun is doing the same, so when you put them in a direct line, the tides are going to be truly savage, and here’s where the primitive tribal chieftain comes in, because you can start your mind-fuck long before the eclipse.

Who might the primitive tribal chief be?  Well, any believer in ignorant superstition, really.  George W Bush, some patron of the Iona Institute, an Islamic State leader,  Bishop Eamon Martin.  Who knows?  Enda Kenny, maybe.  It’s hard to imagine anyone more primitive or tribal.

I think this is what Saint Patrick did.

Start by threatening to cause a flood.  As the water rises, keep threatening to take away the Sun.  Raise your threats to a crescendo as the water laps around their feet until finally, with a close eye on your watch, you can inflict the final punishment.

Enough of your insolence!  I shall take away the day.  Sun, begone!

You need to have their full, undivided attention when the Moon gets about  quarter of the way across the solar disc, but don’t waste this moment.  Scream at them to submit.  Imagine you’re Davey Fitz after your team has just been beaten by Limerick.  That sort of intensity.

You have to grab them by the metaphorical scrotum before Umbra declines into Penumbra once more.   I’m telling you now.  You only have a few minutes, but if you do it right, you will be the new tribal chieftain, while the old one is dragged off to explore the joys of being a shrunken head.

Should you happen to find a Stargate, and a planet full of astonishingly-attractive young ladies, or young men, depending on your inclination, these principles are equally valid, but let me give you one word of advice.

Forget the bit about being Davey Fitz.