Some photos taken during the week. Plus a report.

U3A Science & Technology Seminar 2014

Three Spire members attended this seminar that took place over 4 days at the Harper Adams University.

Muriel Laptain, my wife Sheila and I set off on Monday 11th August to drive to the venue situated near Telford, Shropshire. We arrived in time for the opening session.

We were immediately into a series of 10 talks of a loosely scientific base. The first was about Electricity and how wonderful it is. We simply could not live without it now. The speaker Alex Paterson explained how this came to be. Lots of science in a digestible form here. For instance he told lucidly why to minimize losses along the power cables it is best to have high voltage and then reduce by transformer at the consumer end. Energy loss = VxAxA [where V is voltage and A is current. As V increases A decreases.]

This was followed after a coffee break by Susan Slater from Rugby U3A telling us about the Industrial Revolution and how Britain came to be the first country in the world to do this. The reasons were resources particularly coal. The Netherlands had no coal and shallow ports and they had no tea to drink. Drunkenness made thinking clearly difficult but we had our Empire and hence copious amounts of tea. The canals and then rail provided vital transport around the country.

The next day our only talk was about a forgotten engineer George Croydon Marks. He specialised in cliff railways. Many of his railways still exist such as the Lynton - Lynmouth cliff railway, the Bridgnorth cliff railway [1892], the Saltburn cliff railway [1883] and the Aberystwyth cliff railway [1896]. George had a brilliant reputation and was made Lord Marks of Woolich.

Then we set off by coach to the Wedgwood Museum. This involved a visit to the excellent museum followed by a factory tour and we dropped in to the DIY shop. Here people were making pots and painting ceramic models. The kids had great fun.

Handedness was a talk about the problems of being left handed in a right handed world. Imagine a body of soldiers with rifles and one soldier using his left handed rifle [and this could be a reality by 2020 according to the military]. It could be chaos.

The highlight for us was the next talk given by Dmitri Mendeleev in person no less! I have a photo to prove it [see below]. He told us his life story [not to be confused with Mandel]. Dmitri invented the Periodic Table. This is still a vital aid for chemists. Dmitri showed on his chart that there must be other elements because there were gaps. By the way the table was made chemists could work out the likely properties of these unknown elements and so they had a good idea where to look. Many elements were found by this means. One such chemist was Sir William Ramsay KCB FRS FRSE a Scottish chemist who discovered the noble gases and received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1904 "in recognition of his services in the discovery of the inert gaseous elements in air". These gases were helium, argon, neon, krypton, and xenon all discovered in only three years.

Physics of Colour was our next talk. From this I learned that not only does the eye have rods and cones but that there are three sorts of cones for each of blue, green and red light. To see yellow colour the brain has to sort it out from a mixture of green and red signals. One can hardly believe it. The speaker proved it possible by spinning a disc half green and half red. At high speed you could no longer see red or green but a sort of yellow.

Automation in Agriculture was a talk given by a professor from the Harper Adams university and an assistant who demonstrated a tiny drone that flew over our heads and around the room. Robotics will appear on our farms by 2050. The crucial property is the flexible approach this offers. Laser weeding will happen because it uses a tiny amount of energy compared to any other method. It will use 99.9% less weed killer too.

How Medicines were Discovered was a talk about three everyday medicines namely Morphine, Aspirin and Penicillin. These were found by Chance, Inspiration and Perspiration.

• Morphine is a red flower and morphine is derived from the seed head. It has been known since Hippocrates time at least. It is used as a pain killer. Opium is refined from morphine.

• Aspirin is also a pain killer derived from a plant this time willow and meadow sweet. Bayer converted salicylic acid to acetylsalicylic acid. This was named Aspro and is less of a digestive problem than pure salicylic acid.

• Penicillin was the first anti-biotic and this was derived from a mould in 1928 by Fleming. By now there are many derivatives of this using different moulds. One such is Methicillin developed by Beecham in 1958. MRSA is a strain of bacteria now becoming resistant to Methicillin [the M of MRSA]. This resistance is becoming a worldwide problem. The Sci-Tech programme for the coming season will have a talk on this topic on 18 May 2015 by Diane Newell.

Our penultimate talk was about How They Built The Pyramids. We were informed that the first approach were the mastabas, a type of Ancient Egyptian tomb in the form of a flat-roofed, rectangular structure with outward sloping sides. Inside they were in the form of a normal Egyptian house with the dead person buried deep beneath. They wanted the dead to have all the facilities they had in life.

The early pyramids were stepped. These often collapsed after a period if the steepness of the sides was too great and they were filled with rubble. The optimum angle for stability was found to be 52 degrees. The later pyramids were made of large blocks of stone that could take the pressure of the weight of others above them. There were about 92 pyramids built.

Our final talk was called Aspects of Cosmology and roamed widely from how we measure stars distances using parallax and the Cepheid variable stars, to how Hubble worked out that stars and galaxies are moving away from us from the Doppler effect on the light [red shift], to how spectral lines have enabled us to find which elements exist in individual stars, to the Big Bang versus the Steady State theories of the Universe and to the Cosmic Microwave Background. The talk touched on Dark Matter and Dark Energy and how unknown they still are.

A brilliant week spent in the company of like minded folk from all over the UK. Thoroughly recommended. Next year the dates will be 10 to 13th August 2015 at Harper Adams University.

Peter Read

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