P&J Column 14.9.17

Don’t shoot! It’s Irma and Ruby.

Professor Hector J Schlenk, Senior lecturer in the Public Engagement With Science at the Bogton Institute

As a scientist, I am often asked searching questions like “Which of these three things is the least ‘offensive’? A big red banner in support of a planning development, a huge, empty concrete and glass office structure, or Aberdeen’s front line against Hearts?” But I try to avoid such questions as I am not an expert in the areas of Town Planning or Association Football; unlike, it would appear, everyone else in the North-East with a twitter account.

Instead, this week, I have been closely following the terrifying progress of Hurricane Irma, which has now left nearly 7 million homes without power in the USA after causing untold devastation across the Caribbean. Hurricanes are naturally occurring storms that form when warm air rises over water, causing huge swirling storm clouds with the rotation of the earth. Think of it like the spin cycle of an un-balanced washing machine; the particularly noisy one that rattles the dishes two rooms away. In this analogy, the Hotpoint front loader is the planet Earth, and any buildings in the storm’s path are represented by a recently assembled Lego model of the Death Star, carelessly placed atop the machine by someone’s wife and which thanks to the violence of it’s environment, reduced once again to it’s constituent 3803 pieces.

In these contentious times, of course, debate is fierce as to whether man-made global warming is increasing the severity and frequency of such conditions. Well, perhaps ‘debate’ isn’t the right word. Given the over whelming scientific consensus, the argument most closely resembles the one between Widow Twanky and the audience of Aladdin in a very large theatre re. the wisdom of exchanging new lamps for old.

Certainly, it is true to say that a hotter atmosphere holds more moisture, as anyone who has staggered damply from the tropical bittie in the Winter Gardens will attest. With waters in the Gulf of Mexico now 1.5 degrees hotter than 10 years ago, the link to ever more powerful and deadlier hurricanes seems empirically confirmed. Sadly of course, the link to sensible thinking is not. In the wake of the USA’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, Americans have been taking the matter into their own hands and dealing with extreme weather in their own, unique manner. By shooting at it.

A combination of the social media event ‘Shoot at Hurricane Irma’ attracting 45 thousand people, and mischievous graphics purporting to show the ‘correct’ way to shoot bullets into a hurricane without them flying out again have lead the Florida police to the point where they felt the need to ask gun owners not to pop a cap in the weather. As if evidence of human intelligence wasn’t already scant, the police used the catchy, but scientifically implausible warning slogan “Bullets come back”.  One rather hopes that, eventually in America, common sense will too.
To distract myself from merciless nature’s uncaring ways, I have, of course, been highly excited by this week’s main scientific discovery. I speak of the Swiss boffins who have invented a brand new flavour of ‘Ruby’ chocolate. It’s the first new natural colour of chocolate in 80 years, which begs the 2 questions just how hard were they trying? And, are their any jobs going at that laboratory? This new pink delight is apparently ‘sweet, sour and fruity’. Which does sound rather like my wife, or ‘Rogue Leader’ as I now call her.

In a world of increasing international tension and extreme weather, there is much to be said for the soothing effects chocolate consumption. The link between cocoa bean flavonoids and the release of endorphins is well established, so to promote public engagement with science, and also general well being I have been attempting to synthesise my own ‘batch’ here at the Bogton Institute. Also, the real stuff won’t be on sale for months and if I’m quick I could get it flogged to Sainsbury’s first.  After a productive evening in with a large bowl of cooking chocolate and several sachets of strawberry flavour angel delight, I believe I have come up with something very close to it. I intend to take a sample of it on the bus to the Bridge of Dee, as if I cant interest the supermarkets, I think I might be able to persuade B&Q to stock it as loft insulation.