Category Archives: BBC

Planet Oil

I recently watched part one of the BBC Scotland documentary Planet Oil, presented by geologist Professor Iain Stewart. The programme considers the story of how oil completely changed our world. It created riches on a previously unimaginable scale. It led to technology that revolutionised our lives. It changed the outcome of wars, and sent the balance of global power into a tailspin. The programme covered so many great stories that I thought I’d share a few.

Up until the mid-19th century the world’s lamps were lit by whale oil. But collapsing whale populations meant the industry, and the whales, were under serious threat. A new source of oil was urgently needed. In 1853 an industrialist named George Bissell took a trip to Pennsylvania. He’d heard stories of the region’s strange oily puddles and wondered if they might provide a solution.

The oily puddles bubbled up from deep underground. Bissell realised he needed to drill down to reach the source. This wasn’t something anyone had attempted before, so new technology was required. He partnered up with a former railway conductor, Colonel Edward Drake, who possessed the necessary engineering skills. By 1859 they were ready, and on 27th August Drake struck oil. Being the first to person to do so, he was taken by surprise when the oil erupted with such ferocity that it sprayed high into the air. Not wanting to waste the precious material he frantically grabbed some old whiskey barrels he had lying around and began filling them with the oil. This chance action is the reason we still trade oil in barrels today.

Bissell and Drake refined the oil into kerosene, which could be used to light lamps. This new type of oil was rapidly adopted, making the men extremely wealthy. Their wealth soon attracted the keen interest of others. Within twelve months over seventy-five drilling rigs were operating in the area. Within another year the area was generating around one million barrels a year. The shocking speed with which this new industry grew couldn’t be better illustrated than by the story of the town Pithole.

The discovery of oil in one particular location resulted in people flocking there to drill it. Within six months a prosperous town had grown from nothing. The town, named Pithole, was replete with ten hotels and numerous saloons, but the oil quickly dried up and the town disappeared. The rise and subsequent demise of Pithole occurred so quickly that it never appeared on the US census. A census is taken every ten years. At the time of the 1860 census the town didn’t exist. Oil was discovered in 1865. But by the time of the next census, 1870, the oil had dried up and the town was deserted.

These rapid changes were owed to the huge wealth this new mineral could bring. And there’s no finer example of this than the story of John T Rockefeller. He’s known as an infamous philanthropist, but he was also a ruthless businessman. He nickname was the anaconda.

Rockefeller originally worked as a greengrocer, but he soon saw the attraction of oil. It was hard not to. Every dollar invested in oil drilling returned a thousand. In 1865 he invested all his savings in an oil refinery. He used the profits to build a second. With so many people drilling for oil there was a risk of oversupply, so Rockefeller decided to distinguish his product by going for quality. To underline this commitment he opted to name his oil Standard.

Rockefeller’s business grew quickly. He soon became the country’s biggest supplier, but he still wasn’t satisfied. To further tighten his grip on the industry he focused upon the supply chain. Oil was transported via the railways. The size of his company afforded him great power, which he used to entice railway operators into extremely biased deals. The deals meant the more oil a supplier shipped, the cheaper the shipping became. As he was the largest shipper, the deal favoured his company. He then went a step further and arranged a deal that actively penalised smaller distributors. This killed off competition allowing him to monopolise the industry. The result? Never before in the course of history had one man become so rich so quickly from a single resource. He became the richest man that had ever lived, amassing a fortune equivalent to ten times that of Bill Gates.

In the 1870s a British military industrialist named Robert Nobel arrived in Baku on the Caspian Sea. He was seeking wood to make rifles. But instead he found a black, barren landscape. Gas would belch from underground vents. Volcanoes of mud spluttered into the air while rivers of oil oozed along the sun-baked sand. In this strange alien landscape he saw rocks on fire. He also saw an opportunity.

With his brother he formed the Nobel Petroleum company. They knew there was a ready waiting market, eastwards. The problem was getting their oil there.

The journey over land was long and arduous. The sea option was quicker, but required access to the newly opened Suez Canal (which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea). But there was a problem, the clipper ships used to transport oil were deemed unsafe by the canal owners. They viewed wooden ships with thousands of oil barrels rolling around a dangerous prospect. The Nobel brothers needed a new design of ship.

The solution was found by the son of an English shell merchant, Marcus Samuel. His design is still in use today. It’s become one of the world’s most recognisable ships: the super tanker. Samuel then created his own oil company, Shell. Its name and logo was inspired by the shells his dad would sell. It soon became one of the world’s most recognisable brands.

Samuel’s new design of ship could carry twice as much oil and move it safely through the Suez Canal. This allowed the Nobel brothers to dominate the Asian market, much to Rockefeller’s frustration.

Drawn by the astonishing levels of potential riches many wells opened up across the world. But in their clamour to enrich themselves the new oil barons failed to notice the massive threat looming on the horizon: electricity.

In 1882 Edison flipped a switch. The switch sent electricity through wires which lit a series of streetlights across a London bridge. The world would never be the same again.

Towns and cities across the globe soon embraced this new technology. It wasn’t long before it was busy banishing darkness from inside people’s homes as well. Oil was made redundant almost overnight.

At that time oil only really had one use, and once that use had been supplanted the industry was obsolete. The oil barons needed a new use for their product. Conveniently, a German engineer was working on exactly that. Much like electric lights, his invention also completely revolutionised the world.

Oil reaches the surface in the form of crude oil. This is a mixture of numerous hydrocarbons (compounds of hydrogen and carbon). Only one molecule, kerosene, was used for lamps. By heating the raw oil the various types of hydrocarbons can be separated. This process, called distillation, causes the lighter molecules (such as propane) to evaporate first. As the temperature is increased the heavier molecules (such as kerosene) are separated out. This process generates many different products. One particular molecule was originally thrown away as a waste product. This made it the only fuel the German engineer, Carl Benz, could afford. So he designed his new internal combustion engine to run on it. The product was gasoline. Despite being initially considered worthless, a mere thimble full could perform the work of twenty horses. It wasn’t long before the world embraced Benz’s invention. And it wasn’t long before gasoline became oil’s most prized product.

Often the military is the first to embrace new technology. As was the case for gasoline. In 1911 Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. One of his immediate concerns was the German navy. Their ships ran on oil, whereas the British fleet ran on coal. Coal ships travelled at ten knots; oil ships travelled at twenty-five knots – clearly a massive advantage in a battle situation. Churchill soon set about converting Britain’s ships to oil. Fortunately his work was well underway when war broke out in 1914.

A month after war broke out an event took place that’s largely unknown outside of France. Paris was on the verge of being taken by the Kaiser. His forces were amassed only thirty miles from the city. Many considered the city’s fall inevitable. Most people, including the entire government, had already fled. But the city’s military general, Joseph Gallieni, was determined to save the city. Frontline troops were heavily outnumbered. Reinforcements were available, but stranded in Paris. The story goes that Gallieni was standing on a Parisian street when he saw a taxi go by, then another, then another. A thought occurred to him. What if he used these new, fast, gasoline-powered vehicles to take his troops to the frontline?

The call went out to all Parisian cab drivers to abandon their passengers and come to the army’s aid. What resulted is now referred to as the Taxi Armada. Six hundred taxis answered the call. Within twenty-four hours six thousand troops had been delivered to the frontline. Never in world history had so many people been transported so far so quickly. The Germans were pushed back; the city was saved. The age of motorised warfare had arrived, and the world was in no doubt as to where the future of transportation lay. Although, as an amusing side note, it’s claimed the taxis’ meters were still running during the mass exodus. Well, we’ve all got to earn a living…

Trampling on the Shoulders of Giants

This is my fourth post about my trip to the Isle of Wight. The first can be found here.

It’s quite obvious to anyone that casts a cursory glance around the world today that the future will be dominated by those nations who excel in science and technology. Only the most foolish and short-sighted leaders would fail to invest in such a lucrative field. As for those who invest, succeed, but subsequently abandon that success, for such nations only the most serious of scorn should be reserved. I’m talking, of course, about the UK. As, after all, the UK is the only nation to have successfully developed a satellite launch capability and then idiotically abandoned it.

Hidden from the mainland by the one of the Isle of Wight’s most famous landmarks is an isolated, wind-swept, concrete husk that was once a thriving, ground breaking facility.


It may seem surprising today but during the 1950s the UK’s place in the space race was on par with both the US and the USSR. In fact, by the early 60s the UK was actually ahead of the US. A sobering thought in light of this being the same decade when the first American steps were taken upon the moon.

During the 1950s a rocket testing site was built at High Down on the Isle of Wight (just above the Needles). A rocket named Black Knight was designed, developed and tested there as a means of delivering a nuclear bomb. Despite the incredibly tight budget, Black Knight performed exceptionally well. In fact, it experienced no failures whatsoever. It was this success that led to the decision of adapting the technology into a low-cost satellite launch system. This became known as the Black Arrow satellite launcher. Much like the Black Knight the Black Arrow was chronically under-funded. Also much like the Black Knight project, it was astoundingly successful.

Its fourth and final launch succeeded in its goal of successfully placing a satellite into orbit – thus proving itself to be viable and low-cost means of launching satellites. It also made the UK one of only six nations to have successfully sent a home-made satellite into orbit.

As the UK had no suitable launching sites the rocket was launched from Woomera in Australia. Sadly, despite the projects ongoing success, short-sighted politicians of the time cancelled the project. The cancellation was confirmed while the team were on their way to Woomera. “Officially” word of the cancellation never reached them, so they continued with the launch, although some believe they were indeed aware of the order but chose to ignore it. I hope that’s true. I like the idea of them shaking their head in disgust at their superior’s foolhardy ignorance but deciding to bloody-mindedly go ahead anyway just to prove a point.

The subsequent successful launch proved a political embarrassment for the UK government. Equally embarrassing are the views of the minister who made the decision. By his own admission, he could see no commercial value to launching satellites. Now there’s a man with some remarkable foresight.

After cancellation the only real means of commercial satellite launch was through the American Scout rocket. To a large extent the Scout held a monopoly on the lucrative market. It went on to launch over a hundred satellites and continued operating until 1996. This included various British satellites. The fact that the Scout was more expensive and arguably less capable than the Black Arrow only adds to the foolishness of the Arrow’s premature cancellation. To add salt to the wound, prior to the cancellation of Black Arrow, NASA had offered to launch British payloads for free. After the cancellation the offer was withdrawn.

According to the National Space Society every $1 spent on basic research today is thought to generate $40 worth of economic growth (ref: Granted, the National Space Society is unlikely to be unbiased, but it still indicates the huge economic benefit of investing in science and technology. It also indicates how dangerous to future prosperity it can be when the political class fails to grasp this concept. The Black Arrow story clearly demonstrates the pitfalls of having a political class possessing a dangerous combination of too much power and too little foresight. Still, I’m sure they’d never do anything that stupid again…

There is perhaps one humorous footnote to this sad tale. The successfully launched satellite was originally meant to be named “Puck” (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). After the cancellation it was renamed by one of the engineers. Its new name, Prospero, was taken from the Shakespeare play The Tempest. The character Prospero was a great wizard who spent many years mastering his mystical art. At the end of the play Prospero abandons magic and loses his abilities. The renaming took place after the cancellation, clearly demonstrating the engineer’s dim view of the cancellation. And the sore reminder of this foolish abandonment will certainly continue for some time. Prospero remains in orbit. It passes over our heads twice every day, and it’s believed that it will continue to do so for the next 220 years. Yep, there’s clearly no future in such technology.

Life on the Ocean Wave

The control room’s atmosphere was suffocatingly tense. The command was sent. The room feel silent. Anxious glances and hopeful smiles were traded as several excruciating minutes slowly passed. The tension was finally broken by a gasp drawing the attention of the room’s nervous eyes. A reading began to scan across the large central screen. The news was good. The submarine’s engines had successfully fired. The room erupted with relieved cheers, whoops of joy and punches of the air.

Hugs were exchanged, and tears were wiped from disbelieving eyes. All those years of gruelling hard work had hinged upon this one moment. And now, the meticulous planning and endless testing, had proved its worth.

A second reading began to appear upon the central screen. Preliminary checks indicated that the submarine had survived its perilous journey. It was ready for its mission. Engine power was increased. The ballast tanks were opened. The hydroplanes were adjusted and the craft began to disappear beneath the icy waves.

Back in the command centre eager eyes studied the murky images sent back by the on-board cameras. The army of eyes stared intently as ghostly shapes and shadows loomed in and out of view.

The images depicted a bizarre, alien world unfamiliar to human eyes. No one could predict what these images might reveal. The submarine’s radar indicated the ocean floor was approaching. If there was life to be found, this was most likely where.

As the ocean floor rose up to greet the craft, the propellers began kicking up mud and silt that had lain undisturbed for millennia. As the clouds dissipated the crowded room stood silent and motionless. From the fading clouds shapes began to emerge. Gasps of shock accompanied sharp intakes of breath. As the image cleared it revealed a field of plant-like creatures attached to the ocean floor. The control room once again erupted into ecstatic cheers and excited screams. The unbridled jubilation was well-placed. The room, and the world watching, had just witnessed the most incredible discovery in human history: life, found by NASA, using a remotely controlled submarine a billion miles from earth exploring the freezing oceans of Saturn’s largest moon: Titan.

It’s astounding to think that the scene described above may actually take place within the next decade or so. There are several locations within our solar system, over than Earth, where liquid oceans exists. Any of these may contain life. These worlds, and their potential exploration, was the focus of the latest episode of the BBC’s flagship science programme, Horizon.

Titan is fifty percent larger than Earth’s moon. At -180C it’s clearly too cold to host liquid water, but there are still oceans. Oceans of liquid methane.

In 2005 a probe named Huygens descended through the dense, cloudy atmosphere to provide our first ever glimpse of Titan’s landscape. Previously, the moon had been shrouded in a dense, hazy atmosphere. Huygens revealed a landscape more Earth-like than had ever been seen before. The surface was covered in large bodies of open liquid oceans. There were rivers, coastlines, lakes and seas. The revelations inspired speculations that life may well inhabit those frigid oceans.

It would be life completely distinct from that on Earth, with a completely different chemistry. It would be an example of a second genesis, featuring lifeforms occupying branches of a second tree of life.

But it wasn’t just the landscape that revealed tantalising clues to Titan’s potential for life.

Life on Earth produces seasonal changes in carbon dioxide levels. It’s absorbed by plants during the summer and released again during winter. It was predicted that life on Titan might produce a similar seasonal pattern in hydrogen. If so, hydrogen levels would be significantly lower near the surface than higher in the atmosphere.

As Huygens descended it sent back some intriguing readings. Hydrogen levels remained steady until close to the surface, where they dropped abruptly. Could this be owed to the behaviour predicted? Or could there be another, more prosaic, reason?

The intriguing readings convinced NASA to assemble a team tasked with designing a craft capable of exploring Titan’s alien oceans. After much experimentation and exploration of computer models, they settled upon a submarine design capable of plumbing the frozen depths. If ongoing tests are successful, launch may be only a decade or so away. If life exists elsewhere in the Solar System, it’s thought this is our best chance of finding it.

Horizon also discussed Enceladus. Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon. The Cassini craft that carried the Huygens probe captured photographed of giant jets of water spraying out from between large cracks in the moon’s icy crust. We now know that, beneath this thick layer of ice, is a briny, water ocean 10km deep. It would be too dark for photosynthesis to take place. But evidence of geysers raises the possibility of life eking out an existence around hydrothermal vents, just like on Earth. There are several proposals vying for funding to investigate, with a scheduled launch date of 2021. Will they detect the tell-tale chemical signature of life?

Lastly, Horizon considered Ganymede. Ganymede is Jupiter’s, and indeed the Solar System’s, largest moon. Beneath its icy crust exists a vast, salty ocean containing more water than all of Earth’s oceans. Beneath the 150km of ice exists an ocean reaching down 100km. Ten times the depth of Earth’s oceans. A probe tasked with exploring Ganymede is scheduled to launch in 2022.

It’s astounding to consider the very real possibility that life could inhabit these alien worlds, lurking beneath those thick icy crusts or frigid methane seas. And it’s even more awe-inspiring to acknowledge that, if such life exists, it may be discovered within only a decade or so. What a time to live – whether on Earth or elsewhere.

Horizon: Oceans of the Solar System is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

The Right-Wing’s BBC Bias?

Last night I watched an episode of Panorama about the tragic story of the 219 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the Islamic militants Boko Haram. It’s now over a year since they went missing.

While watching the disturbing report I noticed the presenter, Tulip Mazumdar, refer to ISIS as “the so-called Islamic State”. This reminded me of David Cameron’s words on Sunday. He specifically criticised the BBC for referring to the organisation as Islamic State and not “so-called Islamic State”, ISIL or even Daesh. I did find it a little suspect that he’d singled out the BBC for criticism, and yet here was the BBC doing exactly what he’d claimed they weren’t. Being broadcast only the day after his comments, I find it hard to imagine that the Panorama episode was influenced by his words.

I was intrigued as to whether he was justified in singling out the BBC. I decided to do my own unscientific poll of other news organisations to see how they’ve been referring to the group. I looked up articles about the Kurd’s taking of Tal Abyad a couple of weeks ago. Sure enough the Telegraph, Daily Mail, Guardian and the Mirror all referred to them as Islamic State. Only the Independent didn’t. The Sun didn’t’ have an article about it that I could find (it’s only focus appears to be celebrities). The Daily Express also didn’t have an article about it, but published an article today with Islamic State in the headline.

I wonder why Cameron decided to single out the BBC for criticism? Was it simply an off the cuff remark? Or was it something more insidious? Could it be that when he recently said “I’m going to close them down after the election” he wasn’t joking after all? Is this simply the early stages of a campaign to discredit, undermine and ultimately destroy the BBC? I hope that by the time we have a conclusive answer it isn’t too late.