The canon of light


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI If it’s daylight look around you, at everything illuminated by the sun. If it’s during the night look out at the starlight, filtering down from so far away. If you’re indoors look at the light bulbs and monitor screens as they pour light out into the room. Now for a moment think about light, just light.

Whether it’s bright hot light from the sun or a cold white buzzing light from an incandescent light bulb or a blinking red light from the LED on your television, it’s all somehow the same. We recognise that it’s the same form of energy emitted, ricocheted, splashed and then absorbed. Some of that energy makes it into our own pupils allowing us to build up our visual picture of the world.

It is clear that the light that enters our pupils is only a tiny fraction of the light that surrounds us. However it is not only the quantity that is tiny but also the type of light that we can see. Our visual domain is just a sliver in the canon of light. Hidden behind names such as radio waves, microwaves, X-rays and gamma rays we find light that our eyes simply can’t see.

So all these are the same as light? Yes, in that red light is the same as blue light. They are both emissions of electromagnetic energy, but with different amounts of energy locked up inside. Being like a wave, the energy locked up is related to the wavelength of light. Shorter wavelengths have higher energies; blue light is more energetic than red light.

So what can we see? We can see light between wavelengths of 390 nanometres and 750 nanometres (a nanometre being a thousandth of a millionth of a metre), in terms of frequency that’s just short of an octave. Outside that range on the lower energies we have infrared, microwaves and radio waves whose wavelengths stretch to hundreds of metres long. Past blue towards the higher energies we have X-rays and gamma rays. The short wavelength and high energies of X-rays allow them to zoom through flesh, only stopping when they hit bones.

Each part of the entire spectrum finds it’s use in our highly technological world. Starting at low energies we find radio waves which carry our television and radio signals. Increasing in energy we next find microwaves which are at the heart of modern day communications, allowing GPS, radar, mobile phones and wireless networks to work; they even find their use heating up your cold food! Before reaching visible light we have infrared light, an important component in greenhouse heating, night-vision cameras and remote controls.

Beyond visible light we find ultraviolet, a light that can be dangerous to our skin but also finds its use in medical and industrial applications. With even higher energies we find X-rays, powerful enough to pierce flesh and diagnose our breaks and fractures. Climbing to higher energies still we have gamma rays, which have wavelengths as small, and smaller, than atoms. With these properties gamma rays can be used for medical applications such as imaging in PET scans and treating cancerous tissue.

From our small window of visible light we can now comprehend the vastness of light as it extends in both directions, past red and blue. And yet there is still much more to know about light that the eye can not see. As well as having a wavelength light can also vibrate in different directions. This polarisation finds its uses from very practical, such as making radar and satellite communications more efficient, to simply entertaining, by making 3D film and television possible.

Imagine your eye’s ability to see was stretched to encompass light from radio waves straight through to gamma rays and even polarisation. What would the world look like?

I imagine seeing a background glow, the leftover of the Big Bang, The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, a uniform glow of microwave light over thirteen billion years old. Layered over this would be stars as we normally see them with an abundance of new additions, such as GPS satellites weaving through the sky. Flashes of gamma rays would be seen arriving from the cosmos. In an urban environment the sky would be ablaze with television and radio signals. All around, pockets, bags and computers would be bright blinking beacons flashing in response to much brighter antennas in the distance.

Our little octave of light that we can see is a much more peaceful place to live than the one depicted above. But by stretching our understanding beyond this range we have gained access to the full canon of light and our world simply wouldn’t be the same without that understanding.

3000 miles and counting


Between October 2005 and April 2009 I ran 3119 miles. This is an average of about 17 miles each week, with a maximum of 54.6 and a minimum of zero. I know this because I am not just a geek but a thorough geek. Every time I ran I would record the distance and time it took. This would only take a few seconds after each run and it soon became habitual. Sometimes it would even give that little extra incentive to go out, to get above a certain mileage for the week.

I’ve resurrected this data as I’ve been thinking about all the racing I used to do. Yesterday I ran the Inverness half marathon for the third time. The weather was pretty grim but I don’t think that’s the reason for my 1 hour 37 minute performance. I can’t be too unhappy at that number; I didn’t feel like I could have run too much faster, maybe a minute, two at the most. However I do think back to that first half marathon, just over five minutes faster, and wonder how I did it on so little training. This possibly hints at how big the mental aspect of running long distances is; the excitement of that being my first half marathon giving me that bit more enthusiasm to dig deeper.

Looking at the mileage I ran over the course of four years it’s interesting to see how writing my thesis and starting a job affected my running habits. Not only does the data end in April 2009, but the mileage does too. I wouldn’t run for months at a time. I did get enough miles in my legs to run the Glasgow half marathon in 2009, but only just. The mileage died again after that. I then entered the UK half Ironman, giving me a surge of effort for three or four months until the event itself in June 2010. Since then again, the mileage dropped to near nothing. Revving up this latest race I’ve joined a local club and been trying to attend the twice weekly training sessions. It’s been going well, which is why I thought I’d post a better time yesterday than I did. I just need to keep at it. Better than quality training sessions, better than really long runs, is just plain old regular runs and I’ve not being doing enough of them.

Nepal, here I come

So I’m off to Nepal in a few days. The excitement has been building ever since I got my tickets. I’ve never been to that corner of the world before. Having read a fair bit about Nepal now, I know it’s going to be like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Sure going to France or Germany, or even the USA, is experiencing something different to the UK, but in terms of how people live, they are all pretty similar when compared to a country like Nepal.

As I’m a geek and like numbers I’ll mention a few about the the terrain and weather.  The country is 124 miles wide and 500 miles long. The altitude varies from sea level to over 7000 metres. In  a 10 mile range the altitude can rise from 1000m to 7500m (in the Pokhara region).  The country experiences five seasons – the ‘extra’ one being the monsoon, with some places (again Pokhara) reaching 400mm of rain a month.

Aside from the geography and meteorology there are some economic numbers that stand out. Nepal is ranked 144th in the world by it’s Human Development Index. In contrast to that, the lowest HDI country I’ve visited so far is Greece at 25th (the UK was 21st – 2009 values). The GDP per capita is $1025 when corrected for purchasing power, the absolute value is $452. However, this value does not tell the story of the asymmetry between poor and rich.

All these numbers open a little window into a place very different from where I live and have visited before. However, I want more than just numbers! So I’m off in a few days to experience it all, the weather, the geography, the food and most importantly, the people.

UK ironman 70.3, Wimbleball

I woke up before my Alarm sounded, about 4:50am. Despite the very warm day ahead, it was quite cold in the early morning. I managed to get myself a cup of tea and a granola bar for my breakfast. Doesn’t seem like much but I knew my stomach would be unhappy during the swim if I had more.

As all the transition kit had been checked in yesterday all that was left for me to check was my tyre pressure and chain. Leaving my bike, sure that I could do no more than worry about it, I headed back to the tent to suit up. Once the wetsuit was zipped up I dropped off my after-race clothes in the transition tent and headed down to the start line.

Getting into the water was a relief – it was considerably warmer than standing by the lakeside! The scenery was stunning, a rolling landscape stretching out to the rising sun. The atmosphere was brilliant. Here we were, fifteen hundred participants, bobbing up and down in the water, quietly, with our own thoughts about what lay ahead. The crowd started to sing God Save The Queen, which at first seemed quite odd, but as more and more people joined in it sounded great and the excitement in the atmosphere rose. The singing ended and a horn signaled the start of the race.


I had unintentionally ended up near the front line. My first time in a triathlon, my first time in a mass start open-water race, and I was right in the thick of it. The first few tens of seconds were okay; then the columns and rows of swimmers closed in. Arms were scrabbling at my back whilst legs and feet were kicking my arms and sides. Luckily I only got slapped in the face once! After the first buoy things calmed down a little, the water all around me was dense with swimmers but we seemed to all have our own little plot.

I could feel the extra speed resulting from such a large body of people swimming in unison. On the whole, my first experience of a triathlon swim was exhilarating, the time passed very quickly and before you could say ‘Tee One’ I was out of the water. I surprised myself, 1.2 miles in 39 mins 34 seconds!

1.9km swim complete!The first transition (T1) involved running 400m to a tent to collect my blue (for bike) bag. An event volunteer helped collect the bits and pieces out my bag whilst I got my wetsuit off. Equipped with my glasses, gloves, pump, helmet and shoes I grabbed my bike and was quickly climbing the first three miles out onto the main bike loop.

I could describe the bike course in two words: very hilly. I can also describe it in three words: very very hilly. It apparently contains no less than fifty-two hills. Yikes. At first my fears were not confirmed, as after initially climbing for a few miles, the course seems to undulate mildly. almost half way round the loop there is a steep descent with a ‘no overtaking zone’. Coming down this hill drives home the altitude you’re going to have to climb to get back up and do it again.

The first of the steep hills was at approximately 20 miles, and it hurt. Crawling up in my lowest gear, turning a very low cadence, I wondered how I would manage a second time up! Not long after this a second and then third climb hit. At the top of Haddington Hill (I think that’s the name) there was tremendous support from spectators. I felt like I was on a mini Tour de France climb. Once this hill was behind, there were a few more undulating sections, but nothing too steep. Then the first lap was over. Onto number two.

On the second lap I did make it up all the hills without stopping, without walking, so I can confirm that you don’t need a triple to complete this race… but it would make it a lot more comfortable! The second trip up the steepest hills (about 14%) left my legs quite sore which didn’t bode well for the run. The last three miles descended towards Wimbleball lake and over a bridge spanning the reservoir. I crossed the dismount line and headed into the second transition (T2). The cycle took 4 hours and 18 minutes, much longer than I had expected and had left my legs worse than I had hoped.

I spent about seven minutes in T2, applying sun-cream and visiting the bathroom (probably too much information there!) then headed out onto the run course.

The course was composed of three laps. The lap covered varied terrain from single track dirt-tracks, tarmac and grass. Keeping with the theme set by the cycle, it was hilly. there was one decent hill near the start of the lap which then led down to the reservoir dam. The first few miles were terrible. My stomach was complaining loudly, I had to stop and let the feeling pass. Once I hit the second lap I was feeling fresher, getting up to my normal training pace. I was passing people every few seconds, this gave me quite a boost (even if some were a lap ahead of me!). During the third lap I lost the enthusiasm and adrenalin from the second and had to stop briefly on the dam due to a stitch. Telling myself that there was only a few miles left, I got going again with the stitch still burning in my side.

As the temperature continued to increase I made my way towards the finishing line, which I crossed after 1 hour and 54 minutes of running. This is the slowest time I’ve ever run a half marathon by far (my PB is 1hr26mins), but I didn’t care, I was finished, and it was ******* hard.

I raised my arms to the sky celebrating as I crossed the line in 7 hours 7 minutes and 3 seconds. I then ate a pork pie. [How’s that for an anti-climax!]

So… in short: this took much longer than I anticipated but I’m happy with my time as I now know how difficult the Wimbleball ironman 70.3 really is and believe the race organisers when they say if you can do Wimbleball, you can easily do any ironman 70.3.

Swim 0:39:34 (646th)
T1 0:08:27 (887th)
Bike 4:17:53 (1038th!)
T2 0:07:24 (1067th)
Run 1:53:46 (328th)
Overall 7:07:03 (831st) – 114th in the Male 25-29 category.

Next time…

So… the marathon was a disaster. I was unfortunate enough to pick up a mild knee injury two weeks before the big day. It looked bleak until I went for a few sports massages to loosen things up.

On the day my knee was feeling fine(ish) but I was very worried. Standing next to the colosseum, a few dozen rows back from the elite runners, I was thinking, “I’m not ready, I’m not ready”.

The crowd began a countdown from ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Graham and I wished eachother good luck. Four. Three. Oh shit. Go! The crowd moves hurriedly in a solid block. The three hour pace balloons shoot off into the distance as Graham and I keep pace with the 3:15 balloon.

10K goes by in 43:52 with no complaints from my knee. I’m thinking, “Holy crap, I have to keep going for another two and a half hours!”. We head past the Vatican and out towards the northern parts of the City. Graham has left me and went on ahead, I ‘decide’ to keep my pace constant – there’s a long way to go. Towards half way I see a Yellow ‘G’ getting closer and closer to me. It’s Graham! Paying for his earlier speed.

We both cross the half marathon in 1:34:51. I’m feeling okay at this point. A few miles down the road and I’m feeling shit. Lost in the running depression of, “why am I doing this to myself? I could just stop. I feel horrible. I could make it all go away so easily”.

At 25K, while I’m feeling pretty low, my left hip yelps out in pain. I stop and pull over to the side of the road. Graham stops and heads towards me, “keep going Graham, just leave me” I shout out, as if I’m in a war movie. He heads off as I stretch my leg. After a few seconds I get going again, pain-free. Weird, I think. It only took another kilometre to almost put me out the race.

At 26K my knee injury reared its ugly face. I’m passing by a first aid/water station so I stop and ask for an ice pack. Sitting on the pavement watching thousands of runners go past I feel as miserable as I’ve ever felt before (2nd place to break-up of a long relationship I’d say). After 50 minutes (that’s right FIFTY), I thought the Quitters bus would never come and get me so I began to slowly jog down to the next water station 4K away. When I get there my legs have loosened up a bit so I keep going. It’s only a teensy tiny 12.2K left to go! So I kept on going. Even at a jog I was streaming past everyone (later it turned out I’d past nearly 2000 runners on my way to the end).

At 40K the end was near and I stopped to take on some water. It was hard to get my legs going again and my knee was feeling a bit worse for wear. I revved up with a fast walk and started to run slowly. The Colosseum, at last! I crossed the line and thought, “for fuck’s sake, what was the point in that”. Three and a half months of training to achieve a pear shaped marathon. Brilliant. My final time was 4:19:31. I don’t feel like I’ve run a marathon. I’ve raced 26K, taken a large siesta, then jogged 16K. Two entirely separate runs linked by the fact that I wore the same sweaty gear and did them on the same day.

In the muster/exit area after I’d received my medal and thermal tinfoil blanket I found a flatbed truck to sit on the back of. By ‘sit’ I mean ‘collapse backwards onto’. My legs had ceased to function. After fifteen minutes I shuffled slowly back to my hotel to meet the more successful of my marathon companions. Oh well, next time…

Rat Race

Okay, more racing related material – surprised? On Saturday 15th June Mark, Shona and myself embarked on the prologue of the Rat Race – a three hour run around the streets of Edinburgh dotted with ‘challenges’ – wheelchair rugby, racing bikes with no brakes, carrying sand-bags up chutes etc. We sprinted to the finish line at 10pm having covered around 18 miles. Upon finishing we were awarded with pasta, carrot cake and a map. The map was for the real event. We managed to stay awake until just after mdnight, marking out half of the course for Sunday. After a bowl of Shreddies I crawled into bed for a few hours sleep.

5:30am. Up, shower, race clothes, race number, back-pack, harness, climbing helmet, compas, whistle, head-torch, Shreddies (again) and then into the taxi. By 7am we were standing outisde Edinburgh castle about to begin. Before we could mount our bikes we had to complete a short ‘warm-up’ run down to Princes Street Gardens, back up to the castle, back down then onto the bikes. We did pretty well in the run, getting to the bikes fairly early. Running the bikes out of the gardens, the excitement was building. Out and off with quite some speed we made our way through the streets. The first surprise was a long stair section. Mark made it down with bumpy ease. I made it half way down before chickening out. Realising that we would be out for at least ten hours, we began to slow.

The next task was an abseil into a quarry – in which some ‘locals’ were having an impromptu rave. Once some ratracers were down on the ground it made for an interesting mix of people. One member from each team was to comlpete the abseil. Shona made it look easy as Mark and I scrambled down the side of the quarry.

[From here on in the description is going to get a bit sketchy – it really is too much for me to type it all – but here’s roughly how the rest of it went…]

Back on the bikes and a short cycle later we were hitting golf balls at Braid Hills Golf Club. In order to progress we were required to hit a ball about 100 yards. Mark was over in two, I got lucky and hit that wonderful sweet spot on my first swing and Shona… well… let’s just say that golf is a frustrating game.

The next stage was a long cycle up over and down the Pentland hills. We all found going up hard, we had to walk the majority of it. Coming down was fantastic! I gave my bike a good hammering (and it gave me a few scares in return). After a lot more cycling we arrived at Roslin Chapel for a 10K trail run involving a bit of orienteering. I have to apologise to Mark and Shona for marking one of the bloody checkpoints in wrong grid on the map… sorry guys. Towards the end of the run we donned our climbing gear to traverse the underside of a bridge spanning a gorge.

More running. More cyling. Lots of water. Then Musselburgh for kayaking. I found this very difficult. It may have been that it was now 5:30pm or it may have just been really hard. We had to begin by carrying the kayaks ~100m to the water! They’re certainly not as light as they look. Shona and I jumped in one (with myself getting very wet feet in the process) and Mark took the single. 3K later we were back on land with very sore arms. Carrying the kayaks back took quite some effort. Being too late for some of the checkpoints, we headed to the race finish. I was empty. The final few miles dragged on and on. Hungry and dehydrated I fixed my gaze on Mark and kept pedaling. We walked at slow pace into Princes Street Gardens (compare with how we left) to be confronted with the ‘lard wall’. This was a sloped wall of linoleum pasted in butter and mashed bananas. Beyond this was the finishing line.

I thought, “it can’t be that slippy”. I took a few steps back, launched myself. Flump. Hmmm. Maybe some team effort required here. With me standing on Mark’s shoulders, Shona climbed up. She then pulled me up, Mark following close behind. Running down to the finish was a huge moment of relief. After twelve hours of rat racing it was over. Phew.