25 March 2012 3 Comments

Hard hats and Trim phones

Hard hats and Trim phones

You’ll have to forgive the murky pictures but I’ve had a fabulous experience this week. One of the real perks of the job.

I was invited to explore the BT Tower, a building that has real resonance for me. As a kid, I watched it being built and was astonished something that shape could stand without toppling over. As a grown up, I still love it. A functional, striking and brave icon of Sixties London and still the hub of live pictures and digital data.

IMG-20120322-00891I joined a group of people who work for BT – they were as excited as I was to explore the parts very few get to see. Even my fear of lifts, heights and ladders couldn’t spoil the experience. For the record, I climbed right to the roof and even scaled the ladder on that spindly lattice tower on the very top.

The building gives up secrets at every turn. The original staircase to the “cocktail bar” viewing deck, wittily altered signs, riggers with deep affection for the building keen to share their memories of working there.

Tower Facts

The building was officially a secret until the mid 1990s and did not appear on official maps.

The QE2 Bridge is the furthest landmark you can see from the Tower

It had to be so tall so that it could beam calls over the Chiltern hills on the north rim of the London basin.

The building moves less than 25 centimetres  in wind speeds of up to 95 mph

I collected a ew of my own factoids as I went along. 99% of live football pictures come through the Tower. The outside of the windows were last cleaned in 1994 but no-one can remember the insides ever being cleaned. (In Bob the Rigger’s office where we collected hard hats, I can vouch for this).

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The building is just as curious inside as out. The service lift might look like a padded cell with protective cladding over the glass walls but shot up the building in 30 seconds.

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The Media Centre on the Second Floor. When 'X Factor" dropped off your screen, these people would have leapt from their desks

IMG-20120322-00906You leave the high tech control room, with banks of people pouring over monitors, to floors that time forgot, hosting wonderful racks of original 60s telecoms bakelite equipment, still there because they’re too costly to remove.It’s Marie Celeste like –  pin boards with references to radio stations and Codex. Seventies trim phones. A geek treasure trove.

Yes, he's looking where the sat dishes used to be but I'm looking at the drop

Yes, he's looking where the sat dishes used to be but I'm looking at the drop

I walked on terrifyingly open balconies looking at the empty “horns ” where the microwave dishes were once bolted. Or rather the others did. I was mesmerised by that flimsy metal balcony.

Then it was down to the very foundations. To the reinforced concrete”pyramid” on which the tower sits and to an eerie quiet. If you have memories or facts about the tower, do share them.

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29 December 2011 Comments Off

The World Tomorrow

The World Tomorrow

I had a great experience just before Christmas. I sat in a studio with a group of enthusiastic young scientists to record an updated radio version of Tomorrow’s World for 5Live. It’s set for transmission tonight at 9.30 pm and will be repeated on New Years day at 9pm. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be involved.

The premise was simple –ask bright research scientists to do a brief report on an area of emerging science and technology – not necessarily their own – and then open up a studio discussion.

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Peter Zeidman, Caroline WilliamsLeo Garcia and Jonathan Webb

I’m not going to give away too much about “The World Tomorrow” but the heartening thing was having the opportunity to do a show that didn’t focus exclusively on consumer technology but offered some insight into some fascinating areas of science. There was room for some discussion about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the story.

I also hope we provided some balanced reporting – with discussion around the possibilities tempered with clear reminders of the current limitations.

One of the real joys of Tomorrow’s World was the wide range of science and technology we covered and at times the fearlessness of tacking subjects that might not seem to have an immediate appeal.

Peter Zeidman, one of the PhD students taking part said he enjoyed opening “a window into research which could one day change our lives” and that there was real joy in “having something explained  in plain English which we might never have been able to comprehend”. He added that he learnt a lot from the show, and would love to do more.

I would certainly echo that. As a reporter , learning more was one of the deep joys of working on Tomorrow’s World. And the chance to learn it first hand from people who were at the height of their research careers.

I’ve just climbed out of a cab after doing a brief promo for the show and the taxi driver was waxing lyrical about Tomorrow’s World and the way it assumed interest and curiosity in its audience and never patronised.

I hope we captured some of that spirit in the show tonight and that you enjoy “The World Tomorrow ” as much as we enjoyed making it. We had to be turfed out of the studio after we’d finished recording but carried on chatting in a cafe round the corner.

It felt like a decent pilot …of course, I’m kicking myself about the questions I could have asked and I would have loved it to have been live …but very selfishly I hope it opens the door for more Science nights on 5Live. There are so many good stories out there …

27 June 2011 2 Comments

The Mini Reith

The Mini Reith

Life is sometimes very surreal.

Aung-San-Suu-Kyi

Aung-San-Suu-Kyi

If you were listening to R4’s Broadcasting House, you’ll know that my name was used as code to protect the identity of pro-democracy leader  Aung San Suu Kyi who is delivering this year’s Reith Lectures. The lectures have run since 1948 and the BBC have recently made the archive of all 240 recordings available. They make for stimulating listening.

Broadcasting House invited me to give my own mini Reith lecture on Sunday morning.You can listen to it here.Mini-Reith Lecture – Who Wants To Be An Engineer? (mp3)

If you want to find out more about the events I’ve set up to help young people understand more about the real opportunities available in science and engineering have a look at the TeenTech website. And if you’d prefer to read the lecture, here it is :

Who wants to be an Engineer?

Four years ago I asked a class of thirteen year olds if they could name a contemporary scientist, engineer or technologist. The only name they came up with was Einstein. Except for one young boy who suggested  “Charles Cabbage?”

They weren’t proud of that ignorance. They went on to explain that though they enjoyed going to the Science Museum, the visits left them none the wiser about what modern scientists and in particular modern engineers actually did.

They don’t know, their parents don’t know and nor do their teachers.

It’s not surprising because I’m willing to bet that even if you’re a high flying engineer at Google you have only a hazy idea about what’s going on at BMW or Virgin trains.

When I was 13, I wanted to be a vet or a doctor because they were the only options visible to me. It’s been my years as a technology reporter, barrel rolling across the sky in a Hawker Hunker trying out the latest anti-G suit, watching the delicate mesh of a stent expand to clear a blocked artery or demonstrating an electric blanket that knew where your hot bits were  – it’s this which has helped me appreciate the kaleidoscopic technology landscape and the myriad career opportunities available at every level

Like most teenagers,  the ones I interviewed were fascinated by gadgets and one boy suggested it would be helpful to have information on the packaging to tell them more about the inventors and the challenges they’d overcome. After all, as he said, “ Even on adverts, we see footballers but we never see scientists”

This was the reason I’ve set up events where young people get to handle not only the world’s shiniest technology but most importantly meet the engineers who created it.

We cut through the clichés., teenagers can see for themselves that it’s possible to be an engineer and a woman or a scientist and have a decent haircut. As they work on their own designs for the ultimate snowboard or a mobile phone app they see why maths and physics are a passport to creativity and can help you develop very cool ideas.

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An ideas wall gives them the freedom to show off thoughts for the technology they’d like to see at the Olympic Games in 2050

“A drug that takes away all steroids and other drugs so no-one can cheat” suggested Samantha and Fraser,

Ben thought that the events could be made litter free if  “when packaging on food is removed, it’s drawn towards a bin using magnetic particles.

And Adam had a challenging thought “All ball events will be competed with an invisible ball, to make it harder”

The most valuable prizes are experiences. Last week 15 winners spent a day learning about the technology behind 3D cameras and cinemas. They then watched a 3D film. Whenever they watch films in the future it will be with completely different eyes

We talk endlessly about innovation but we have to do more to inspire teenagers with fresh accurate images of the contemporary workplace. The vast majority of jobs, even in the near future will be applications of science, technology, engineering and maths .

But at the moment a generation sit in chains, shackled to the false hope of instant success, and a magical belief that X factor, the lottery or marrying a footballer will transform their lives.

Steve Jobs says that innovation is just about joining the dots. It’s down to all of us to help young people understand how the right knowledge and the right skills will help them recognise those dots . And will give them the power to transform all our lives, not just their own.

17 March 2011 Comments Off

TeenTech

TeenTech

Today I’ll stand up in front of teenagers from 30 schools at the Madejski Stadium in Reading and introduce them to some of the coolest people working in Science, Engineering and Technology. With fabulous support from world class technology companies, TeenTech gives them the  chance to handle the very latest gadgets, carry out experiments and see the reality of the 21st century workplace.

Four years ago, I stood up to deliver a conference keynote and realised I was fed up with talking about the need to help teenagers see opportunities in Science and Technology , the time had come to do something myself.

Cartman_sI went into schools, chatted to thirteen year olds and realised that although they enjoyed going to places like the Science Museum, what they really wanted was to meet real engineers and scientists to see first hand what they did and what they were like as people. When the Open University ran their “Draw a Scientist” as part of their “Invisible Witness” project in 2008, age old stereotypes were very much alive. Although teenagers love using technology, not many understand they could be designing and creating that technology themselves. I wanted to change that.

The result was TeenTech, a unique collaboration between companies, organisations like the IoD, IET, Education Business Partnerships and myself.

picture-74So TeenTech sets out to give young teenagers a chance to meet the brilliant people I feel I was so lucky to meet on on Tomorrow’s World. Inspiring, creative and often working on wild and impossible ideas I never believed would ever see the light of day. They’ll meet engineers from BBC R&D responsible for  HDTV and 3D and now working on surround video and projects like Piero, which will enhance our enjoyment of the Olympic Games. They can find out what it’s like to work at Google, how to come up with ideas for home technology with Sky, JVC or Sony ,what it means to be a BT apprentice or develop new products for Proctor & Gamble.

picture-80This will be the third TeenTech we’ve done at Reading and we’re now going to run the event elsewhere. In July and September there will be TeenTechs in Humberside and Kent. So if you’d like your company to be involved with helping young people understand what they need to do if they want to engineers their own future, do get in touch.

Meanwhile , we are indebted to the time and energy the companies put into the event, thinking carefully about how to bring their science and technology to life. So a huge thanks to the following for their superb support. They’ll all need to lie in a darkened room for a week afterwards but they’ll know they’ve made a difference

3M, AWE, Berkshire College of Agriculture, BT, BBC, British Computer Society, CADline, Foster Wheeler, Google, IET, Intel, Imago, JVC, Oracle, PepsiCo, Proctor&Gamble, RAF,Research in Motion, Scottish& Southern,Sky, Sony, Specsavers, Syngenta, The Smallpiece Trust, University of Reading, UK Timber Foundation