I’m gutted but I just can’t justify attending Google/O’Reilly Science Foo Camp

I recently received an invitation to Google/O’Reilly’s Science Foo Camp, for 2017 at the Googleplex in Mountain View later this summer. I’d so love to go. But I just can’t bring myself to do it, and this is the letter I sent to them in reply.

Dear Tim, Chris, and Daniel,

Thank you for your invitation to Science Foo Camp 2017. Alas I cannot come. This is a plea that you organize satellite Foo camps in other countries and develop platforms to link them up.

I cannot tell you how sad I am that I cannot join you. It breaks my heart. This is not because I don’t want to – I would LOVE to be there – I have heard so much about the Camps and how creatively energizing they are. Nor is it that I have other commitments. I don’t. My diary is free.

But to come to the Science Foo Camp would requires me to fly half way round the globe. The emissions from that single return flight would be around 2 tonnes CO2e (see the ICAO Carbon Calculator, including the IPCC’s suggested factor of ~2 to account for radiative forcing).

Let me put this into context.

I am married and I have two children. We live in a typical British “terraced” house. Our gas consumption from cooking and keeping the house warm in 2016 amounted to ~750 m3, equivalent to 1500 kg CO2. Although I have solar panels on my roof, I still draw electricity from the grid. The 1700 kWh that we drew in 2016 are equivalent to about 900 kg CO2.
After subtracting what electricity our panels produce and export to the grid, my single flight to Science Foo Camp comes very close to my annual direct domestic energy emissions. To fly to the Camp would negate all the energy saving measures that I have put in at some effort over the years. It would also undermine my position on UCL’s Environmental Sustainability Steering Group which has spent the past few years battling to hold our institutions emissions steady, let alone reduce them.

I cannot tell you how painful it is to find myself in this position. I would dearly love to come to Sci Foo Camp. It is, in fact, the third time that you have invited me and the third time that I have, very reluctantly, felt forced to decline. But having young children my time horizon extends to the end of the century.

Again, some context. I was born when CO2 levels were around 315-318 ppm. We are well past 400 now, not simply the highest in our lifetimes, but the highest level in the entire course of our species’ existence. That CO2 is a key determinant of planetary temperature is uncontroversial – we have known this since the 1850’s. Sea levels are rising steadily and ice is melting. It is now expected that the Arctic will be largely ice-free in the summer by the time my children graduate from high school – the mid 2020’s.

To someone who grew up with the idea of the Inuit hunting seals (“Nanook of the North”), and reading adventure stories about the North West passage, this is a jaw-dropping development. I draw your attention to these two graphs, courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit, and based on NSIDC data, that sit of your own servers:

[A polar plot of Arctic sea ice over the decades from 1980-2017]

A plot of the steady disappearance of Arctic ice in the four decades after 1980. When the line reaches the origin the Artic ocean will be effectively ice free. Image courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit.

[A graph indicating that ice loss is about to be equivalent to the amount of ice remaining]

The trend in annual ice volume loss (in red) versus ice remaining at the end of the summer (in blue) for the Arctic. Image courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit.

Both of these plots are striking indications that our planet is changing at astonishing speed while we continue with a business as usual mindset. The situation in the Antarctic gives little room for comfort.

I know that I am preaching to the converted – you are all aware of the issue and its magnitude. It surprises me, therefore, that Google, with large headquarters in the heart of London and and other cities, and with its dominance of worldwide communications technology, does not organize satellite events across the world in an effort not simply to minimize its CO2 impact, but also to draw attention to the reality of how our world is changing. Could you not devote more effort to find ways to link the Foo camps together virtually through some kind of virtual/augmented reality platform?

Perhaps it is the fact that bringing a few hundred people together seems so insignificant in comparison to the many millions who fly every day. Let me therefore ask you a question. Do you buy your loved ones jewellery made from ivory? You don’t? Surely one little ivory trinket is tiny in comparison to the vast worldwide market that is decimating elephants across Africa… So why do you not buy ivory? Is it a matter of principle?

For the UK, the 3% annual growth in air travel means that by 2050 if the country meets its Paris Agreement commitments, air travel on its own is expected to account for 50% of the UK’s carbon budget, an issue that has enormous implications;  it is something that we need to start to address now, not in 2030, or some other arbitrary date.

It is time for Google, O’Reilly and other big digital players to help us to give us alternatives to having to make these difficult choices. The ethical dimensions of this are huge given the enormous percentage of the world’s population that lives within 5 m of sea level and on flood plains. I am thinking of Miami, of New York, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, and London, all cities that will need to be protected in the coming years if we remain as we currently are – myself included – in denial about the severity of the situation.

Please, Google, wake up. You have enormous reach. Enormous power. Don’t talk. Act.

Best regards,

Andrea Sella

Posted in carbon footprint, climate change, public science | 2 Comments

Less water going to waste

A long time ago, I wrote a series of posts here about how I was trying to reduce our Department’s water use. It’s an incredible dull topic but I’d like to present it as an example of how it is possible to make quite substantial changes by being patient, methodical, and persistent.

So this is a little update on what we have achieved – you can look back to see the horror of our water use back in the bad old days – every so often we exceeded 200 tonnes a day.

When I first managed to get data, back in 2010, it was clear that we were haemorrhaging water – on some days 200 tonnes of water were pouring through our pipework. It made no sense, and when I first presented the data, it was met with consternation and surprise by my colleagues. Many even suggested that the water meter might be broken.

It’s taken us a lot of slow, tedious work, to get the water flows down.

Our initial experiment was to turn water off completely every Christmas and sometimes at Easter too, in order to see what the baseline usage was. Then we turned instruments and lab activity back on, one lab at a time, a process that identified cooling water for diffusion pumps as major contributors. This led us to installing inline flow monitors onto water cooling lines. This brought water use down very substantially.

By making both staff and students aware of the progress we were making (water use dropped by almost 50%) the idea that individual action mattered slowly entered my colleagues’ consciousness. Interestingly, as we have replaced X-ray equipment my colleagues have bought compact micro-sources that require little external cooling (a bit of air conditioning which was in place already).

Water data also helped build the argument to (finally!) replace water stills with deionizers.

In late 2015, Thames Water let us into their meter feed, making the process of monitoring things a whole lot easier. So here are plots showing water flow data at the very beginning and more recently where you can see how the flows have gradually decreased.




The point is that we are now running around 30-40 tonnes a day are remarkable 70-ish% below where we were. Many of my colleagues have contributed to this but I’m especially grateful to colleagues from Estates and Facilities like Tony Overbury and Joanna Marshall-Cook who’ve contributed it a million quiet ways behind the scenes to make it all possible.

Water use will rise again once our undergraduates return and their practicals resume in October but we have achieved a lot.

But it’s clear that we can push water demand down even further as we work on the 15 tonne a day baseload and instal more flow restrictors in taps and faucets round our labs. This is coming.

It’s dull, but in a university it makes much-needed savings. But more importantly, this kind of effort and engagement brings goodwill. Our Department is now being looked at closely for ways to improve performance. Our building is now undergoing a massive window-replacement programme that should make quite a difference to both comfort and to energy use. If, as we expect, that brings savings in the coming years, then it will provide further incentives and enthusiasm to reduce our footprint further.

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Going green and saving money

This blog is nothing more than the very occasional rant but it has, it seems, attracted a little attention. Enough anyway that my friends at Chemistry World have just featured our Department and our collaborators at eeCO2 Energy in an article about how to start thinking about saving money while also achieving reductions in environmental impact in labs. The article focuses almost exclusively on electricity and water which are an important start but are just the beginning. The connexions between health and safety practice and our long term environmental impact are something I keep highlighting when I talk about gloves. But chemical inventories will lead us to using chemicals more efficiently.

The important thing that I think all of us should be asking ourselves as we go about our daily business is: “Are the energy, water, chemicals suppliers and the waste disposal companies our charity?” No? Well then let’s be a bit more frugal and spend our money on giving our students more time, more resources, and keeping our equipment in tip top shape.

And then we’ll take a look at academic travel. Those emissions will be interesting…

Thanks to Philip Broadwith for giving me so much rant time.


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More reasons for not wearing disposable gloves in the lab!

Readers of this very occasional blog will remember that I have discussed at some length the reasons why the wearing of gloves in the lab may, counter-intuitively, put us, our students, and our fellow lab workers at greater risk than riding their flasks bearback.

[A photograph of a cardboard box]

A box containing many boxes of a hundred blue or purple disposable nitrile gloves. Look closely at the pictograms at the bottom.

Our Safety Officer, Ian Watts drew my attention today to a symbol that appears on the boxes of gloves  (as opposed to “gloveboxes” which means something very different). Have a look here at right.

[A pictogram indicating chemical resistance]

A pictogram referring to the chemical permeability of the glove.

Notice that there is a small icon on the bottom right which shows a shield containing a beaker that has a liquid in it. A closeup is shown at right.

The icon is very important. EN374-3: 2003 refers to the European Norm governing the performance of chemically resistant gloves (UKIP and Conservative Party readers please note that the EU does more than regulate the shape of bananas!)

It is defined here in the EU Guide “The Right Glove”. This is what it means:

The ‘Low Chemical resistant’ or ‘Waterproof ’ glove pictogram is to be used for those gloves that do not achieve a breakthrough time of at least 30 minutes against at least three chemicals from the defined list, but which comply with the Penetration test.

In other words these gloves are not designed to protect you against solvents or other “chemicals” that you are likely to encounter in the lab – yes they protect you from aqueous solutions, but not much more than that.

If you wear them when doing chemistry involving organic solvents then you are lulling yourself into an illusion of safety, while at the same time looking very “professional” and competent.

Wake up! Safety is a much bigger issue than simply slipping on a lab coat, some specs and some gloves while keeping your brain switched off.

You can take the gloves off for most operations, making sure that if you spill stuff you wash your hands very thoroughly with soap and water. Above all, by feeling like you’re doing something a little bit dangerous you will probably behave much more carefully.

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Ten Rules to stay safer on a bicycle in London.

With yet another cyclist killed this morning you may be thinking that cycling is London is too dangerous. Not so. Cycling pits your short term risk of falling off/being injured against your long term cardiovascular health as well as your wealth. By cycling you incorporate into your everyday routine low impact aerobic exercise that will be very much to your advantage by the time you get to my age. Yes, there are lots of things that TfL can or should do for us, but it’s critical that we follow these ten rules to stay safer on the roads.

1. Get out there and cycle. The more cyclists we have, the more others aware are of us. Think of it as herd immunity. I’ve cycled in London for 25 years and it’s a totally different, safer world out there.
2. Obey the rules of the road. This isn’t an issue of safety. It’s a question of respect. You cannot expect people to be treat you with respect if you behave like an idiot. Rules work both ways. If we transgress, we can expect to be treated accordingly. Upbraid (!) cyclists who ride on the pavement and go through red lights. It’s your reputation they’re ruining.
3. Make sure your bike is fit. Get it checked out at UCLU’s wonderful Pop Up Bike Workshop in the Quad on a Tuesday. Both your brakes should work and your gears should shift smoothly. Pump up your tyres properly. There’s a great bike pump behind the reception desk.
4. Give large vehicles a wide berth. 4 of the 6 people killed in the last few days were crushed by trucks or buses turning left. It’s the fashionable way to die. Just assume they can’t see you when you’re near them. Stay away. There monsters be!
5. Be seen. Wear bright colours and get lights and reflectors. We cyclists should look like the Christmas version of Dunsinane Wood.
6. It’s not a race. Remember that cycling at a normal pace you will get from A to B in London faster than by almost any other mode of transport. And a lot cheaper too. So don’t sneak through narrow gaps unless you’re dead sure (!) that the vehicles won’t move.
7. Plan ahead. Learn to look behind without wobbling. Watch other road users’ body language. Make eye contact with pedestrians, drivers and other cyclists. Position yourself so you don’t need to cut across lanes when turning.
8. Signal early and clearly. Be theatrical. Your arms should be stretched perpendicular to your body for several seconds. Don’t wobble.
9. Be assertive. You have as much right to be in the middle of a lane as a truck does. Don’t let them squeeze you. But equally, be courteous, and let vehicles past when there’s more space.
10. Ring your bell and smile. Cycling is fun and takes us back to the happy freedom of our childhood. Chill out, pedal, and spread the love.

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Classic Kit Number Seventy Something: Lichtenberg’s Figures

I have to tell you that I’ve been thinking about printers of late. I know. This risks being one of the most boring posts of all time, but humour me and read on.

I’ve been thinking of printers in part because I sit on UCL’s Environmental Sustainability Steering Group. But also because I’m puzzled by the psychology of the printer. Why DO people have printers on their desks? To print documents, of course, you will answer. But if you ask people how much they print a day many report that they print only a dozen pages at most. So while it’s convenient there has to be more to it than that.

Habit plays a large role. When you start as an academic you are often given some basic office stuff to get you going – a computer, a screen and a printer. But that doesn’t explain why, in our General Office, where our support staff and the Head of Department, Deputy Head etc. live, there are eleven printers of nine different models. It occurred to me that owning your own printer has nothing to do with convenience and everything to do with status. Putting a printer on someone’s desk allows them to say “I am Master of my own Destiny”. “Look! I don’t even have to stand up to produce an object that would make Gutenberg drool”. It’s a bit like buying yourself a Mercedes. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t get you anywhere faster than the clapped out Trabant next to it. Nor that fact that it spends 95% of its life sitting by the kerbside gathering dust and bird poo. It says “I’ve made it”! And that’s enough. Same with printers.
This made me wonder how many printers there were round the Department, and what kind of energy and support load they impose on us. It turns out we have at least 108 printers spread across five stories, we use about 1 millions sheets of paper a year, and need to keep 35 different models of printer cartridges in our stores. Take a look at the panorama below. As far as I can make out we stock more printer supplies than we stock chemicals. Whoever thought Chemistry was our core business?


It’s madness.  And just in time comes UCL’s Print@UCL scheme for pull printing. We hand over our individual printers and in return get strategically located printers operated on a centrally managed service contract that we don’t have to worry about. If we site them “a la Google” in strategic locations to act as condensation points where people will meet and chat, perhaps ideas will flow. Maybe pairing the printers with a cheap coffee machine would help too. Above all, I expect that thousands of pounds of savings will result from the change. I can say that confidently because that is what has been seen elsewhere in the College. And friends who work in “the private sector” are rather astonished that we even allow individual printers.

The project which is now underway with the first shared printer due for delivery in a couple of weeks time. Will that create a stink? Probably. I fully expect opposition. But I’d be surprised if I don’t win the argument within six months.

But it made me ask the question what is the most important piece of shared equipment in a chemistry lab. It’s nothing to do with science. What all of our scientific tools share is a printer to record our results. Photocopiers and printers – at least those for high volume work – use electrostatics to distribute the toner and the history of electrostatic printing is quite fascinating.

I happened to be on set last summer during the recording of BBC Science Club for which I was Mark Miodownik’s understudy. One of the things they recorded was truly astonishing. I”ll probably get into trouble for uploading this video but until they force me to pull it down here is the snippet:

It is a piece of perspex which has been bombarded with electrons. The stored charge is then discharged using an earthed nail. It’s a spectacular demo and the video barely does it justice. In fact, not only do I dream of being able to do the demo for myself, I want one of those trees (in fact you can buy them on eBay). You’ll find lots of information on the Captured Lightning page (thanks to Andres Tretiakov for the link).

The discoverer of this phenomenon, albeit in a somewhat tamer form was Georg Christof Lichtenberg one of those incredibly romantic polymaths of yesteryear. I only wish my German were better so I could make more of his writings.

So in the latest episode of Classic Kit, I give you Lichtenberg’s Figures.

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The Places of Chemistry – another way of thinking about Chemistry

Several years ago I started playing with Google Maps, tinkering around with how to display, for example, the places that our Department had visited as part of outreach or public engagement events. This led me to start building a Classic Kit map, documenting who had made what and where. Very quickly it turned into a map of chemically significant places, like the postbox that William Ramsay posted the paper on the discovery of argon, where ferrocene was first isolated, and where Joseph Priestley was buried. It seemed like a fun project and I tried to crowdsource interest and failed totally. A couple of people added a spot or two, a few people emailed me, but that was about it. It slowly fizzled out, and then it just sat there. Until I had chat with the RSC’s wonderful Chiara Ceci (@chiara_ceci). We had a cup of tea in Gordon Square one afternoon and as I described what I’d done, good historian of science and enthusiast that she is, the lights came on big time.

The result – and the hard work and persistence in pushing this through is all hers, not mine – is the Places of Chemistry App that you can get on iTunes or for Android devices. Have a play. We really need to fill in more places, not just round London but across the UK, across Europe and everywhere else. It’s kind of fun to see the world through history of chemistry eyes and I hope that one day I’ll be able to find Guyton de Morveau’s grave, or the remains Dr Bender’s school where poor old Ernst Büchner was so unhappy. 

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