If you want to experience some old world English charm abroad, then Ooty in India is the place for you. High up in the hills of Tamil Nadu, Ooty (or Snooty as it’s known by the Indians) was the summer holiday home of many of us Brits back in the days of the Raj.
Surrounded by rolling Tea Plantations, Ooty might be considered a retro getaway as it has a very 1920’s tea party charm about it. You’ll stay in an old colonial house with maybe only 6 or 7 other guests. The decor will be Art Deco which bookshelves brimming full of novels by F.Scott Fitzgerald and his wayward friends. The weather is sunny but fresh, much like a glorious English Summer. And there are plenty of relaxing ways to while away your days or if you’re feeling adventurous perhaps go on a day trip or two.
Ooty is also quite hilarious. The Botanical Gardens set up by experts at Kew are beautiful, although long gone are the days when hedges have been meticulously sculpted into strutting Peacocks. They are now perhaps dogs, but not as we know them. This English inspired Indian charm is an absolute delight to visit and a must see for those with a touch of humour.
Perhaps the most striking place to visit in Ooty is Fernhill Palace about a 20 minute TukTuk ride from the centre of town. It is the closest experience to owning a Tardis you are likely to experience. The furniture is genuine and immaculate 1920’s British rosewood, upholstered perfection. As soon as perch on one of the many loveseats you are thrown back to bygone era of flappers dancing the Charleston into the small hours. The walls of the bar are thick with ageing photographs of British huntsmen proudly showing off their exotic kills. It is a little gory perhaps but a fascinating insight into our colonial history.
The UNESCO Heritage train is a very pleasurable way to spend the day. The train itself is a marvel of antique British Engineering and it teeters along the top of the Tamil Nadu hilltops stopping at Wellington and Coonor.
Coonor has some of the best views India has to offer. Vast expanses of forest with thunderous waterfalls can be seen from the viewing stations. And when you have had enough of all the beautiful views, you can visit the Tea Plantations and have a cup of delicious Masala tea while you are taken on a journey of tea from the plant to your cup.
For the animal lovers among you, the best way to spend a few days is to drive down to Mudulamai National Park and stay at Jungle Retreat. If you are feeling particularly brave, the tree house is an exhilarating and liberating experience. High up in the tree’s you get to sleep with the sounds of the jungle growling and chirping around you. If you just want to relax, the pool is lovely and fresh with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.
The best way to spend your day in Mudulamai might be to wake up early to go and bathe the elephants in the cool and crisp river. Followed by a day of jungle safari in the jeep where you can spot Leopards, Bison, Wild Boar and if you’re particularly lucky Tigers.
Ooty and the surrounding national parks offer the perfect combination of culture, relaxation and adventure set in stunning scenery. It is a must see and those who have been are still sharing snippets of their adventures and discoveries at parties for months later. It is a truly magnificent experience.
By 2012 the planet will see the largest and most futuristic arch bridge ever to be built. Dubai’s 6th bridge crossing is designed to improve transport links to the centre of the city and is vital to support the growing needs of a booming city.
What you may not know is that this incredibly ambitious design would never have been possible without the Grand-daddy of engineering, Isambard Kingdom Brunel - the man who inspired me to become an engineer.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel is the father of engineering in the UK today. He is responsible for many of our great engineering achievement including the Sounding Arch Bridge at Maidenhead, as well as the entire Great Western Railway Line. He revolutionised public transport and modern engineering. I am constantly inspired by his flair for design and his courage for pushing physics to the limit. In fact, in a moment of geeky admiration I even called my dog Isambard or Bardy for short, after the great man himself.
Sounding Arch Bridge, Maidenhead
I am absolutely passionate about bridges because to me, they are the perfect combination of beauty and technology. They have been fundamental in the social, cultural and economic development of Britain. They have created trade links and increased social interaction leading to a melting pot of cultures by connecting our docks and ports with the rest of the Country.
Bridges are part of an infrastructure that allowed all of us Brits to expand our horizons; see the world around us and have that world come to our very doorsteps. Brunel’s vision was that a person could buy one ticket in London, travel by train to Bristol and step aboard the Great Eastern Steamship to New York.
In 1839, Brunel’s Sounding Arch Bridge was seen as a novel and daring engineering design. In fact, it was so controversial that the structural formwork used to build the bridge was never allowed to be taken down. It was not until it was washed away by floodwaters than Brunel’s bridge was proved to be an engineering marvel. In fact, it is still carrying trains today that are 10 times the weight that Brunel ever imagined.
The Sounding Arch Bridge may look pretty normal to you and me but actually Brunel’s brief was quite tricky. In order to carry a train the bridge had to be as flat as possible. Not a problem you say, make it a beam bridge. But it was also asked that no part of the structure be built in the Thames itself to allow good access for boats. Hmmm….. that makes it more tricky as without enough columns for support, beam bridges are very weak and would crumble under the weight of a train. How about an arch bridge? This would be perfect strength wise but with too much of a hump to be at all practical for trains. So Brunel took a huge risk and built the flattest masonry arch bridge the world had ever seen – it teeters on the edge of acceptable physics.
Beam Bridge; poor boat access.
Old Masonry Arch Bridges - no train is getting over that hump!
Brunel changed how engineers think about bridges to this date. Without his foresight, ambition and risk taking it would not be possible to even consider some incredible designs that are being built around the Globe today. Dubai’s 6th Crossing Bridge will be 1 mile long & 670 feet tall. It will have 12 lanes for traffic and carry more than 4000 vehicles per hour PLUS a train running down the middle. It will be another engineering marvel of the modern age. And it would have been impossible without Isamabard Kingdom Brunel, who was brilliant but quite frankly obviously a bit of a Chancer!
How Intuition (or thin-slicing) might be useful in science
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
1. What is “Blink” about?
It’s a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye….You could also say that it’s a book about intuition, except that I don’t like that word. In fact it never appears in “Blink.” Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings—thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking—its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking.” In “Blink” I’m trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?
2. How can thinking that takes place so quickly be at all useful? Don’t we make the best decisions when we take the time to carefully evaluate all available and relevant information?
Certainly that’s what we’ve always been told. We live in a society dedicated to the idea that we’re always better off gathering as much information and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. As children, this lesson is drummed into us again and again: haste makes waste, look before you leap, stop and think. But I don’t think this is true. There are lots of situations—particularly at times of high pressure and stress—when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions offer a much better means of making sense of the world.
One of the stories I tell in “Blink” is about the Emergency Room doctors at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. That’s the big public hospital in Chicago, and a few years ago they changed the way they diagnosed heart attacks. They instructed their doctors to gather less information on their patients: they encouraged them to zero in on just a few critical pieces of information about patients suffering from chest pain—like blood pressure and the ECG—while ignoring everything else, like the patient’s age and weight and medical history. And what happened? Cook County is now one of the best places in the United States at diagnosing chest pain.
Not surprisingly, it was really hard to convince the physicians at Cook County to go along with the plan, because, like all of us, they were committed to the idea that more information is always better….There’s a wonderful phrase in psychology—“the power of thin slicing”—which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience. I have an entire chapter in “Blink” on how unbelievably powerful our thin-slicing skills are.
It is with some trepidation that I put fingers to keyboard to write this blog. I raised the topic with my Literary Agent about a possible book and he said, ‘you can write what you want but make sure you don’t come across as a ranting feminist.’ Oh dear, not a good start! So if I say that it has come to my attention that science and more specifically the process of scientific research is very sexist, it immediately earmarks me as a raging, fundamentalist, feminist and possibly a lesbian to boot. I would like to quickly reassure you that I am happily married to a man who is so masculine he is almost ape-like in his communication skills, I like to collect vintage crockery, my favourite colour is pink and I consider myself to be very feminine.
I was listening to Radio 4 a few months ago and the discussion about gender intelligence lodged in the deeper recesses of my brain unthought-of until recently when I went to see Jocelyn Bell Burnell talking of her ‘Eureka’ moment. She discovered the existence of neutron stars called Pulsar’s in 1967 and I think she can safely be considered one of England’s most pioneering and gifted scientists. I was struck by her comments that she intuitively knew she had discovered these stars months before it was proved. Her colleagues (mostly male) didn’t believe her until she systematically followed due scientific process and offered a logical and evidence based explanation of what she knew to be right.
The part of this I find interesting is the role of male and female intelligence and their role in science. At this point I think I may change my definition of the different types of intelligence. I prefer to use ‘Masculine Intelligence’ to describe a step-by-step, logical approach to problem solving and ‘Feminine Intelligence’ to describe an intuitive approach to problem solving. The distinction being that it is possible for a man to have a more feminine intelligence and vice-versa rather than brain power being defined purely by your private parts. Although I think on the whole the general differences in gender still hold true.
Much like Sheril Kirshenbaum, who recently wrote ‘Under The Microscope: Feminism, Scientists and Sexiness’ I spent much of my youth as a tomboy. I would often be called down for supper from the branches of the tallest tree in my neighbourhood and preferred building blocks to Barbies. This behaviour was to some extent reinforced by my Mother who I think I can safely say is a feminist. She associated being a man with freedom and to be free I was encouraged to compete with men on their playing field. Art was very much frowned upon, only science would do.
So now I am a scientist and an engineer. My Civil Engineering undergraduate course comprised of roughly 60 students, about 7 of which were female. My time spent designing and building roads in Chicago was very enjoyable but slightly marred by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to go on-site because I might ‘distract the construction workers.’
My environmental science PhD, ultimately an achievement I’m very proud of, took an excruciatingly long time to complete. Within a year I felt I knew what needed to be done and then spent and additional four years desperately trying to unpick my own thinking in order to satisfy the requirements of my peers as to what is constituted as adequate scientific research.
I posed a question to Jocelyn during her talk. ‘Do you think that women are more intuitively than logically intelligent and do you think that as scientific research has been designed to only include this logical, evidence based approach, it alienates women?’ Her response was that in order for her to be successful in science she became a ‘Shemale.’ I’ll take that as a yes then.
Marie Curie perhaps one of the most famous female scientists that ever lived is quoted to have said ‘I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.’ In other words, she preferred to use her intuition rather than examine the evidence.
The question I am really asking here is, is the entire structure of scientific research sexist? Is there no scope to include this more feminine intelligence? And more importantly, is our society significantly losing out as a result? A survey published in the Guardian revealed that only 4% of women want to be engineers (more would prefer to be a housewife) and only 14% would consider science careers. Perhaps the lack of scope for feminine intelligence may explain why such a small proportion of women even consider science careers much less proactively pursue them. The trouble is, in order to find out if there is any truth in this theory we must use science to test it and as it stands, science may be wholly inadequate to do so.
“Women often have a different/uncoventional approach to science that is not always supported by funding agencies with less broad views on how science and research should be approached.”—Dr. Peggy Rismiller
Ever since I started my research in using technology for international development, I’ve had a constant nagging feeling that maybe I shouldn’t interfere in things I don’t fully understand - although I continue to do so.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of my life living in the African bundu. I’ve slept in flea ridden mud huts, hidden from African killer bee’s (yes they do exist), clashed antlers with government officials and occasionally feared for my life as civil war has erupted before my slightly bewildered eyes.
Most sensible people would respond to this combination of doubt and a chronically challenging environment by possibly getting a nice office job, with much better pay, a pension and being able to spend weekends with the kids. I however, still live in hope that my doubts are unfounded, the environment could be worse and plough on regardless. What can I say, I’m obviously an optimist.
The truth however is that over 60% of water and sanitation projects fail. Sub-Saharan Africa is littered with broken hand pumps. The metal carcasses of hope and goodwill left to rust in an unforgiving and brutal sun. I’ve uploaded a little movie clip for you to see. It shows some temporarily pretty chuffed goats and the elation of some aid workers as they finally manage to get the water pump working for the goat herders of Kenya.
The reality I see though is quite different. That hand pump has so many moving parts; nuts, bolts, bits that can break that it has no chance of surviving. I give it 6 months before it is just another derelict western technology cluttering up the landscape of the African desert.
After the engineers have left who is going to look after that hand pump? The African goat herder? The goats themselves perhaps? What about spare parts? Perhaps the goat herder can ride one of the goats to the nearest B&Q. I am being facetious but you get my point.
Or perhaps, and this I suspect might be a likely one – the goat herder is not that interested in the survival of the wilder beasts and at the first sign of trouble with the hand pump will obtain a large stick (or AK47 – slightly oddly, the only technology that really survives in the bundu) and beat off the wilder beast so that his much more important and valuable goats can drink from the waterhole.
The thing is I think Aid can work; I couldn’t possibly do my job without this fundamental underlying belief. However, I also think we westerners need a massive dose of common sense. If there isn’t a B&Q nearby don’t build a technology that needs a B&Q nearby to maintain it. It’s like buying a car when you know that there isn’t a petrol station for a thousand miles. It’s ridiculous. Your mates would laugh at you down the pub as they sensibly leave you behind in your car that doesn’t work and go home to their wives on their infinitely more sensible and appropriate mules.
I have just been asked to audition for an American series that hunts down ancient relics in an Indiana Jones style global adventure. ‘This is not serious science,’ I say to myself with a humph. But after climbing down from my academic high horse, I start to have a bit of a think about it.
Excalibur is a legendary story of a mystical relic. It’s a story from our past with King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It was my favourite story as a child and I had a very dog-eared copy of The Man Who Would Be King and would watch The Sword in the Stone pretty much on repeat.
For those of you not familiar with this mystical tale, it is a ripping adventure of Excalibur, the sword that could only be drawn from its stone by a man destined to be King. Mildly cheesy in tone, the King must have a strong and humble heart who would lead England back to greatness. As with all great stories, he would have to battle the baddies, in this case wizards and witches and eventually be betrayed by his Queen and Sir Lancelot, the most talented and loyal of his Knights. Which rather ruins our fairy tale ending.
I suspect however, that this particular tale is not of the fairy variety. This legend may be grounded in truth or more accurately the magic of technological developments. It has become a myth because the story has been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. Before 1066, there weren’t many scribes and no historical evidence was written down. Cromwell rampaged through ancient religions burning down their houses of worship and crushing their relics. Any evidence about the Sword in the Stone would have been lost.
In the Iron Age, the way they made swords was a very new technology at the time. They would create a stone mould by chiselling out the exact shape they wanted and pour molten iron into the stone. When they split the stone open a perfect(ish) sword would emerge.
This strikes me as something spectacular; Excalibur was the Sword in the Stone. And at the time anybody who saw Excalibur must have been absolutely mystified because it would have been so perfectly made. In comparison to other clunky weapons of the time, Excalibur must have looked like it was made by magic and crafted with supernatural powers. In my version of the story, Merlin was no Wizard but just quite a talented blacksmith.
This technological advancement may have been the birthplace of a legend that has passed down through the centuries and is ingrained in the British culture. Which proves my point exactly that technology is most definitely magic.