How can we be sure old books were ever read?

University of Glasgow Library Blog

My Library, by Tom Gauld. Used with kind permission of Tom GauldMy Library, by Tom Gauld. Used with kind permission of Tom Gauld

The 'bookfool' by Albrecht Dürer in Sebastian Brant's 'Das Narrenschiff' (Sp Coll BD16-e.4) The ‘book fool’ by Albrecht Dürer in Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff (Sp Coll BD16-e.4)

Owning a book isn’t the same as reading it; we need only look at our own bloated bookshelves for confirmation. You may remember this great cartoon by Tom Gauld doing the rounds on social media a year or two ago. We love it because, in it, we can clearly see our own bookshelves and our own absurd relationship with books: unread, partially read and never-to-be-read books battling it out for space with those we’ve successfully tackled. With our busy lives and competing demands on our leisure time, the ever-growing pile of unread books can even sometimes feel like a monument to our failure as readers! Although this is surely a more common anxiety in a time of relatively cheap books and one-click online shopping…

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Publishing an ebook (Part 2)

Having got Flag Fen: a concise Archæoguide successfully published for Kindle (see Part 1) I wanted to get it published to other platforms as an epub file (and other formats). Not least, I wouldn’t be comfortable with Amazon having a monopoly on it. I spent several evenings using a well-known search engine trying to find out what would be the best route to get the book onto iTunes and other epub sellers. The more I looked at it, the more similar the structure seemed to selling second-hand books.

Selling used books for me started on the Advanced Book Exchange. It was a friendly affair and there was little attempt by ABE to get between the seller and buyer, and ABE let the seller have most of the sale price. There were other websites which accounted for a small percentage of sales, but ABE was the main player. Things have changed somewhat, commission and card-handling fees are now hefty, and my second-hand book sales are now probably c.75% through Amazon, 23% through Abebooks (as it is now called, and owned by Amazon), with the other 2% or so through smaller sites like Biblio, AntiQbook, and my own website; there are and have been a plethora of ‘others’ which I have long since given up on.

From what I could gather by reading around, the majority of ebook sales are through Amazon, with a smaller number of iTunes sales, and a very few through Kobo, Nook, plus a plethora of ‘others’ which return none. I therefore decided to concentrate initially on the three sites Apple, Kobo, and Barnes and Noble, and not worry too much about the others. How to get the book into epub format? I discovered it’s not actually that hard to produce an epub file. Use the right software and load it with a properly formatted Word document and an epub file pops out the other end. I’m not sure why paying one of the many services available to convert your file is so expensive.

From my research it became apparent that I would probably use an aggregator. Apart from anything else, not using an aggregator can make it necessary to have a US bank account, and to be VAT registered. For those who don’t know, an aggregator is like a distributor, a company that, for a percentage or your royalties, will make your book available through a number of sites; they can also turn your document into an epub file for you.

The old boy of aggregators appears to be Smashwords, and they distribute to a long list. A newer company is Draft2Digital, who were then only distributing to iTunes, Kobo and Nook, as well as making the book available to download on their own website in various formats. For a number of reasons I decided to try D2D first.

Registering with them was straightforward, I supplied them with my EIN (see Part 1) and I already had the book as a Word file which I duly uploaded.

Pricing is an odd question. How much is an ebook worth? As a dyed-in-the-wool physical book junkie my gut feeling is ‘not a lot’, it’s too ephemeral. But the author has still put a lot of work into it, and after all, it’s the intellectual property that’s important, regardless of how it’s delivered. But it’s a balancing act – price it too high and sales will be low, price it too low and there’s hardly any royalties. Pricing on some sites is based on a US dollar price, so the UK (GBP) price can annoyingly appear as an odd amount as the exchange rate fluctuates.

Once the formalities are done and the ‘publish’ button clicked on, nothing happens for quite a while. The book is submitted to the relevant platforms and eventually gets accepted, and is therefore ‘published’.

A little while after listing the book with D2D they added Scribd to the list of sites they upload to, and more recently Page Foundry. Neither addition has seen the book flying off the eshelves.

And do the orders come rushing in from anywhere? Not without some publicity, and how to do that? Social media is the most obvious means, and doing some tweeting from Boudicca Books account brought in the odd order.

Next the book went onto a number of other platforms (including library distribution) through Smashwords, where you can also buy the download in various formats. Getting the book into a suitable format for them is more difficult – they are very prescriptive about what their ‘meat grinder’ (what they call their conversion software) will and won’t accept, and it took about two hours to reformat the document. There is a lengthy ‘style guide’ which I followed assiduously – even so, the first upload failed; but it was one very minor problem which I corrected and then it was accepted without a problem. It took several weeks for the book to work through the system and become available (it still doesn’t seem to be on some sites yet, including W H Smith and Waterstones, which should be supplied by Kobo), and sales are now much the same as on other sites – i.e. very low.

I’ve listed the book in the bibliography on Francis’s ‘Author Central’ page at Amazon, which may produce a few sales – Amazon is the only site where there are regular sales.

The next part of the project, which is still in its early stages, is to work with the team at the Flag Fen visitor attraction to enable their visitors to buy the ebook on-site. Not as straightforward as a real book, but it appears to be theoretically feasible. I’ve left the ball in their court at the moment, but I can see that there may be a number of obstacles to overcome; if it does get sorted out it I fear it will be by the autumn when they are ready to close for the winter.

So, has it been worth it? It’s too early to tell, even though it’s been over three months since the Kindle version has been available, much less for the epub – in fact, some of the channels at Smashwords are still awaiting distribution, and some of those that it has distributed to are yet to make the book available. So, perhaps it will be next year before sales speed up. The long timescale so far is why it’s taken a while for this second part of the blog post to appear, I’ve been waiting for things to happen.

One thing I do know: yet another similarity between second-hand bookselling and ebook publishing is that the monetary return on time invested is risibly small.

This post was originally published on the Ibooknet blog.

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Paul Hamilton, Kevin Eldon’s Prefect Cousin

My Prefect CousinI must admit to taking up Kevin Eldon’s My Prefect Cousin: a short biography of Paul Hamilton with some trepidation. Comedians often don’t make good authors – what’s funny in a stand-up routine, when written down, only takes up a page or two. Expanding this to book-length can produce something not very funny, which after a chapter or two can become tiresome and forced.

I didn’t want my admiration for Kevin Eldon, actor, tarnished by reading a disappointing book by Kevin Eldon, author. For those of you who don’t know who Kevin Eldon is, I suggest you almost certainly do. Type his name in to Amazon and see what DVDs appear in the results, or look up his Imdb entry. Once you can recognise him you will find yourself regularly saying ‘It’s Kevin!’ while watching TV or listening to the radio. His appropriately named series, It’s Kevin, was the BBC’s best and most original comedy series of 2013. Look on YouTube for his Punk French Folk Singer, Amish Sex Pistols, or anything else he’s done. His Adolf Hitler/George Martin is exquisite.

At the beginning of the book Eldon explains he had decided not to write a celebrity autobiography as he is fifty (which is much too old) and ineligible due to his ‘ability to write fairly coherent sentences in English all by himself’. His publisher suggested he wrote a book about his cousin, Paul Hamilton, poet; and so he did.

Kevin Eldon is very good at succinctly suggesting genius loci (‘If Kent was the Garden of England, then the Medway Towns were the outdoor privy’; Plymouth…was a depressing place, its drab, grey post-war architecture only slightly overshadowed by its greyer, drabber pre-war architecture’); he is wonderful at evoking the zeitgeist of different periods of Hamilton’s life; but he is at his best at characterisation.

The book takes us through Hamilton’s life both from his own viewpoint and those of others: his parents, school peers, work colleagues, girlfriend, etc. Kevin Eldon is an excellent character comedian, and that is reflected here. Most comic writers write with one voice, their own: I find myself unconsciously reading their words in their voice. Kevin Eldon’s writing’s not like that – he’s a man of many characters and I find myself hearing his characters with different voices (Hamilton’s mother, for example. sounds like Alan Bennett, and Paul Hamilton himself sounds like a pretentious oaf). The characters are caricatures, yet still well-drawn and believable. There are poets like Paul Hamilton out there, or at least one, because I met him once.

So, I needn’t have been concerned about reading this book. My Prefect Cousin is very funny, and occasionally made me laugh out loud. I look forward to a radio adaptation.

Thank you, Kevin Eldon, for the funniest book I’ve read in a long time, and thanks to Penguin and Net Galley for the chance to review it.

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Flag Fen: a Concise Archæoguide

Francis Pryor - In the Long Run

And now for a big digression: I’m moving aside for a guest blogger, my niece Alice Smith, herself an active blogger on the theatre. She has just graduated from Leeds in History and has her finger firmly on the pulse of the past. So here are her thoughts on my latest offering: an ebook, published by Boudicca Books and available from Amazon in the UK and USA, and other platforms (see below).

Take it away, Alice…

Flag Fen Archaeoguide coverFrancis Pryor’s new ebook, Flag Fen: a Concise Archæoguide, is an engaging and informative look into the archaeology of this fascinating site. Having visited Flag Fen shortly after the opening of its new visitor centre in 2001, when I must have been nine or ten, my memories of the site are somewhat hazy – they feature mainly as snapshots of the things that obviously captured my imagination at the time. I…

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Publishing an ebook: a steep learning curve (Part 1)

Flag Fen: a Concise ArchæoguideA couple of years ago Francis Pryor wrote an ebook, Flag Fen: a Concise Archæoguide, but recently the publisher decided his company was moving on to new projects and so the book became unavailable. As Francis is my brother-in-law I offered to see whether it would be possible for me to make it available again, in my innocence thinking it might be a reasonably straightforward process. I had the original files available, but unfortunately the original copy was a Pages document, and I am Macless.

After pondering on how to convert this into a Word document I realised that Francis should have one. After a short hunt he emailed me his original, but unproof-read copy; I then had the task of bringing this text into line with the previously published ebook. Proof-reading is a thankless task: I had to go through the document twice, and then a third time using the function in Word’s Review menu which will compare two versions of a document, before I was happy with it.

Next I had to find out what format the text had to be: there are specific ways to show chapter breaks and titles, sizes of images and how to insert them and their captions, even how paragraph breaks are handled are important to how the book will display.

Once I had all this under my belt, and as I already have an Amazon seller account I decided to start there. The first thing I found was that it’s necessary to set up a separate KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) account. The second thing I discovered was that to set up a KDP account it’s mandatory to complete an online tax interview with the American Internal Revenue Service.

With a little wider research it transpired that I needed a number called an EIN; this involves filling in Form SS4, which isn’t at all difficult, but for some bizarre reason, if you’re outside the US, it is only possible to do this over the phone to the IRS in Philadelphia.

I duly filled in a copy of the form and rang the number. After an initial little speech I was told I was in a queue of between 30 minutes and an hour, so I hung up. On reflection, I decided that ringing at 0905 EST wasn’t sensible, so the following day I tried again at just after 6am EST (mid-morning here) and the call was answered almost immediately. The call took 18 minutes, longer than one might expect to read off the answers on quite a short form, but having to spell out every word to the operator slowed things down a bit – and then at the end she had to read the whole form back to me, spelling out everything (yes, even U-N-I-T-E-D K-I-N-G-D-O-M). Once I had agreed that this was all correct I was issued with my EIN, the magic number that allows withholding of tax to the IRS under the relevant international treaties. I am still waiting for the letter which will include details of when and what sort of returns I will have to make, but I will worry about that (possibly quite a lot) when it arrives.

So, back to the KDP website to complete form W-8BEN, having looked up the bank account’s IBAN and BIC codes, and submit the form. I think it was once this was complete I was able to upload the Word document to be converted into a Mobi file.

Once that had uploaded and been accepted by Amazon (there was a short wait for that) the next stage was to decide on pricing and royalty levels. We’d decided to keep it the same price as previously. Amazon offer the choice of two royalty levels – 35% or 70%. Why, I thought, would someone choose to only get 35%? I read the ‘Pricing Page’, or as much as I could before my brain glazed over, and set the royalty rate at 70%. I still didn’t understand what benefit there could be in asking Amazon to give you only half as much money as you might get.

The next step was to set pricing for,, .in, .fr, .de, .es, .it,,, .ca,, and, to be told when that was done that the American, Indian, Japanese, Brazilian and Mexican royalties are only 35% unless the book is enrolled in KDP Select. So on to look at the page explaining what that is, and where the main benefits of KDP Select became apparent. They seem to be threefold – to be able to offer your book for free, to enable people to borrow the book (for free), and to give KDP exclusive right to publish your book.

Deciding not to do enrol in KDP Select was the last step, I think. It took a little while (about twelve hours, or so) for the book to appear online. So that’s that, and now you can buy a mobi copy of Flag Fen: a Concise Archæoguide for your Kindle. If you want to find it in your own country’s Amazon site you can search for B00K6JD1Z6. It’s available on all of them except  for China.

Next was to investigate which platforms to sell the epub version on, and how. But that’s for Part 2.

This post is also published on the iBooknet blog. You can follow the publisher of the ebook on Twitter.

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Tower of London Scaffold Tour

This morning I was lucky enough to be able to join a group of people getting a close-up view of some conservation work currently being undertaken on Bowyer Tower and adjacent walls.

Most visitors to the Tower of London probably don’t have a thought about the maintenance of the fabric that’s needed, not thinking about the deterioration caused by hundreds of years of London’s weather. A sizeable section on the north side was destroyed by a disastrous fire in the Armoury in 1841. The construction techniques used then, as well as repairs made during the 1960s have contributed to damage to the fabric of the building – in parts the walls have become very fragile indeed. When the work is complete it is planned for both the Flint and Bowyer Towers to be opened to the public for the first time, along with the adjoining wall walk.

View to Bowyer Tower

This is the view from Flint Tower along the walkway towards Bowyer Tower.


The 1960s hard cement pointing has been causing problems and here it has been chopped out ready for repointing using more suitable materials.

Rubble centre and rusting iron strips

Behind the stone facing is a rubble centre to the walls. There are iron strips laid between some of the courses, for no apparent structural purpose, they are now rusting and damaging the structure of the walls.


The asphalt roof has been removed and will be replaced with lead.

Top of tower

The top of the tower surrounded by scaffolding. Note the C19 gargoyle and grotesque.

The group just about to descend from the top of the tower.

The group just about to descend from the top of the tower.

Masonry join

This area of the curtain wall clearly shows where the C19 rebuild meets the original medieval stonework (much of this part of the Tower of London was rebuilt following a disastrous fire in 1841).

Roman tiles

Here’s some of the original Roman wall reused in the medieval structure.

Lastly a few general pictures to show the scale of the job being done. There’s an awful lot of scaffolding here!

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Ice Age Art at the British Museum

ice age artThere are a lot of benefits derived from being a member of the Council for British Archaeology, but I think yesterday’s private view of Ice Age Art at the British Museum was, by itself, worth the membership fee. Space …….…….. room …………… loads of it. It’s spoilt me for the future: I shall hate (even more than previously) to find exhibitions are packed so tight they’re like tube trains in the rush hour (e.g. the BM), have people who stand in front of you when you’re looking at something (e.g. the RA), or have the labelling at navel level so only the front row of the scrum can read them (e.g. the V&A). At yesterday’s viewing it was more a case of being able to choose to look at something that had no one else near it.

None of the books about the art of this period prepared me for what is on display here.

The animals are so well-crafted, some anatomically exact, others also bringing our more of the essence of the animal. There are many horses (which are drawn so well it is possible to see whether they are cantering or galloping), bison, mammoths, and the rather famous swimming reindeer (this is better displayed here than when it was showing as one of the Puppet man100 Objects series). Seeing the actual artefact brings home how cleverly the chosen object was suited to the image, and how skilfully the object was manipulated to produce the final image. I am enjoying the accompanying book, the pictures will mean far more to me having seen the objects.

The puppet man was decidedly spooky. I can’t bring myself to imagine it as a doll except in a rather unpleasant nightmare or an episode of Doctor Who, nor can I imagine it being used to entertain small children; more likely a shaman enacting fearsome stories of the Otherworld with the light of a fire casting flickering shadows and frightening the willies out of the watchers. We’ll never know, it was 26000 years ago.

Pregnant womanOne item I found particularly moving. The limestone sculpture of a heavily pregnant woman which was found in a pit in a structure supported by mammoth bones and tusks; before it was buried it had been deliberately smashed with a stone hammer – following the death of the mother, her baby, or both in childbirth? It took a lot of force to smash this item, and possibly a lot of anger too. There is a video about the female figures by Jill Cook, the exhibition curator, on the BM website.

Some of the art is on objects with an everyday use; whether the items were adorned as a way of propitiating the gods or just for decoration (although I see no reason why it couldn’t be both) we’ll never know. The perforated batons made from antlers are a good example of this, and of man’s ingenuity. A multi-purpose tool, they have a hole which was probably used as a gauge to make a straight, well-balanced spear shaft, and thongs were probably threaded onto the baton to make it a spear thrower – experiments have shown that they are very efficient at both activities. They were nicely decorated, to boot.

And Ice Age animation anyone? There are some small discs which have an animal engraved on each side, in a different position, but so skilfully positioned that if the disc is spun the image appears to move, in a way similar to a flick book. A piece of bone has three horses in various positions (rather like an Edweard Muybridge) which can also be visualized as an animation.

Most of the objects were much smaller than I had expected, although as these people were leading a nomadic or seminomadic life, they would want their art to be portable. Some of it was designed to be hung around the neck, the holes are worn to show that they were suspended upside down, presumably so the wearer could look at them the right way up.

At the end there was a Q&A with Jill Cook, after which we were able to handle replicas of some of the objects; what struck me was how they were not only easy to handle, they also felt very comfortable to hold in the hand.

This really is a once in a lifetime chance to see most of these objects which have been assembled from a wide range of collections throughout Europe, some of them never having been seen in western Europe before. If you want to see the limestone pregnant woman after 2nd June you’ll be needing to go to St Petersburg. Or Brno to see the puppet man.

Ice Age Art transcended my expectations. In the afternoon I went to the Courtauld Gallery for Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. His early work is interesting, but I couldn’t help thinking of his later works and how some of that Ice Age art out-Picassoed Picasso.

There is a cliché that the life of ‘savages’ was harsh, brutal and short. Certainly life on the permafrost was very harsh for these people, and survival must have been difficult; but they were not brutes, and they found the resources to support and maintain members of their communities who were producing pieces of art, which, to our way of thinking at least, had no practical use. They were, to a great degree, very like us, with similar needs and desires, but we mustn’t forget that they were also very, very different. The period covered is from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, so their society would have changed dramatically over those 30,000 years, and the geographic spread across Eurasia is wide too. As far as they were concerned, this art may have been integral to the success, or failure, of their activities, and ultimately the survival of their social group. But we will never know.

(the run has been extended to 2nd June, so the date in the video is wrong)

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The Universe Within and Tiktaalik, Neil Shubin at the Royal Institution

Universe WithinPeople who have a great passion for a subject are often the best speakers on it, and Neil Shubin’s enthusiasm for his work was obvious as he spoke earlier this evening at the Royal Institution. He’s a palaeontologist who believes that seeing history helps us see the present, and that deep time is connected to all life and the present.

He explained how palaeontologists can select the right place to look for the fossil they are looking for, using just three criteria – rocks the right age, the right type, and that are at the surface. This took him to the Catskills and then to the Canadian Arctic where after six years of searching his team found Tiktaalik, which was just what they were looking for. He stressed that the discovery wasn’t fortuitous, but found using the tools and expertise of the palaeontologist.

We then moved to even deeper time, and how every cell, gene and organ in our body has been shaped through time by the dynamic universe we live in, from the first subatomic particles and light atoms being created soon after the Big Bang, through nuclear fusion in stars producing heavier nuclei, supernovae heavier elements still. In more recent times the earth’s processes have shaped evolution in dramatic ways. Each of the cells in our body has a clock controlling out diurnal cycle, and the genetic basis of this is common to all life. Ice ages have has an enormous effect on the evolution of life and changing climate produced the savannah grassland which led to our ancestors becoming bipedal.

The message he wanted us to come away with was that although cosmology has inexorably moved us from the centre of the Universe while Darwin removed us from the centre of creation, our place in the Universe is not diminished, science has connected us to it.

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Jim Al-Khalili, Quantum Life (how physics can revolutionise biology); and neeps

I’d thawed out the vegetarian haggis, made sure we had a neep and some tatties, and so was all ready for a Burns Night supper. Neep, incidentally, is the Scots for turnip or swede, and like many Scots words looks a bit like a slang word or contraction; this is, as it often is with Scots, wrong, næp being a fine Old English word deriving from the classical Latin napus, the first OED citation of turnip being 1539.

No haggis for me this evening, though, I had overlooked the coincidence of Burns Night and this month’s Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution. Jim Al-Khalili’s talk on Quantum Life also coincides with quite a storm about the future of the Royal Institution.

Quantum biology is still quite a controversial subject – or to put it another way, a small and speculative field. But it does seem inconceivable to me that there can’t be some role for quantum mechanics in biology at the molecular level.

Jim Al-Khalili is always interesting and entertaining, I’ve seen him speak at the Ri before, and at the British Science Festival; much of my understanding (and perplexity) of quantum mechanics comes from his book Quantum: a Guide for the Perplexed, so I’ve been looking forward to his lecture for some time.

The talk started by discussing the migration of birds and how the European robin senses the angle of inclination of the Earth’s magnetic field, this may be due to a quantum mechanism in pairs of electrons in cryptochrome protein in the photoreceptor neurons in the back of the birds’ retina.

Moving on to the fact that living organisms are the only macroscopic objects whose dynamics are controlled by a single molecule, he suggested the possibility of DNA mutation being caused by proton tunnelling in the hydrogen bonds between base pairs.

We were also treated to a very clear explanation of the double-slit experiment (‘the central mystery of physics’), and were told that superposition + entanglement > Schrödinger’s cat.

There is a possibility that quantum mechanics may be involved in abiogenesis – how inorganic chemistry became biology. Jim is interested in the possibility that quantum tunnelling may be implicated (describing quantum tunnelling as being midway between mundane and outlandish in the quantum world).

Several years ago I read What is Life by Erwin Schrödinger, and I attended a talk at the Ri given by Roger Penrose in which he discussed the possibility of consciousness being due to a quantum process (Jim Al-Khalili doesn’t seem to rate this idea very highly). The idea of quantum biology has been around for fifty years, so it’s good to think it might be about to come of age.

There was a too short but interesting Q&A session, and then before the final round of applause Jim said that he had last given a Friday Evening Discourse in the Faraday Theatre nine years previously, and he was very much hoping that in another nine years he would be able to give another talk, in the very same place. #Savethe Ri.

The talk was filmed and will be available on the Ri Channel shortly, so if you weren’t at the Ri (the talk was a sell-out), you can still watch it.

P.S. I forgot to mention that, apart from being a sell-out, the audience for this talk was pleasingly varied, the youngest member was (I believe) nine years old, and there was a large number of younger adults present. A good gender mix, too, just a slight preponderance of males, but I would think only about 60:40 after a rough head-count. This is another good reason to save the Ri in its present building, it’s good at getting science to many different people in iconic surroundings.

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Sean Carroll on the Higgs, and the future of the Royal Institution

Particle at the End of the UniverseThe other night the Royal Institution had one of the best speakers I have seen there for a long time – Sean Carroll on the LHC and his new book, The Particle at the End of the Universe: the hunt for the Higgs and the discovery of a New World. We had a potted history of particle physics from Democritus through Newton to Laplace and then up to the present day, where we were told that the universe is fields; this is why the Higgs boson is so important. Reality is made of fields, particles are what we see; the quantum mechanics of fields gives us particles.

After a short flirt with quantum field theory we got a short history of our understanding of the nature of the atom, and an explanation of why the weak and strong nuclear forces act over such short distances (and the different reasons in each case).

We learned that the Higgs Field is nonzero, even in empty space; that most of the mass of ordinary matter doesn’t have anything to do with the Higgs Field, but instead comes from the protons and neutrons, and therefore from strong interactions; and that there is still measurable sexual discrimination in physics.

Next came an overview of the Large Hadron Collider and the people involved in the project, including the first mention I’ve heard of the archaeology involved (one of the experiments is on the site of a Roman town). The search for the Higgs was like looking for a piece of hay in a haystack, in a timescale involving the word zeptosecond, but they have found something very like it, a particle with a mass of ~126GeV.

Now the LHC is closing down for two years, but when it comes back it will be looking for evidence of supersymmetry. That’s exciting.

This is the stuff the Royal Institution is so good at. I was at one of their Christmas Lectures, this year on chemistry, probably the last one I will go to as my youngest daughter will be too old next year. Peter Wothers had an experiment using a Tesla coil which they had to film out of sequence, at the end, as in rehearsals it knocked out a lot of RI evacuationtheir equipment.  In June 2010 we were repeatedly evacuated from the lecture theatre as a rather (chemically) violent demonstration was setting off the fire alarm – initially with amused, latterly rather more irritated firemen.

Over the years at the Ri I have seen (among many others) Roger Penrose, Jeff Forshaw, Brian Greene, John Barrow, Martin Rees, Michio Kaku, Simon Schaffer, Frank Close, Alice Roberts, Brian Cox, Eric Laithwaite, Jim Al-Khalili, Manjit Kumar, Ben Miller, Terry Pratchett, Jon Butterworth and Steven Pinker, and in the coming months I’m looking forward to (among others) Jeff Forshaw again, Mark Miodownik, Neil Shubin, Jim Al-Khalili again, and Marcus Brigstocke. There are posts about some of them on this blog. Talks have ranged from asthma treatments to quantum mechanics, the science of music to the geopolitics of food, free will to the Antikythera mechanism, grimoires to infinity; I have extracted my own DNA at the Ri (in a non-sexual way); I have watched a play about Darwin, and one about lady researchers in genetics. They do rather a lot of work with schools. Although I wasn’t too sure about their having talks sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. I have been to quite a few talks which I haven’t written about, as for various reasons, including pococurantism and lassitude, this blog has been in desuetude.

The Ri has been in Albemarle Street since 1799, and the lectures were so popular that the road became London’s first one-way street due to the large number of carriages arriving. They have been having severe financial difficulties over the last few years, after some apparently rather ill-advised redevelopments were completed just before the economic downturn. There has, apparently, been some improvement, but it would be a great shame if they have to move out of the building in which Faraday demonstrated the electric motor and Curie radiation. I hope they can stay.

[18/1/13] But see this Guardian article. It would appear that the Ri have put their building up for sale.

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