Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Announcing Norman’s News…

Thank you to everyone who has been reading and following Norman’s Blog here on NISP CONNECT.

Because of its focus on STEM-in-business and generally good news, this has a decent following on web and in the Belfast Newsletter in print. Starting in September, the Park is launching a new blog under the title, Norman’s News.

Along with being the new home for Norman’s Newsletter column, Inside Innovation, this blog is for you, the tenants and stakeholders of the Park, or others, to submit articles in a similar vein for the blog. They can be about science, about Northern Ireland, about anything really but I really think we should all be telling our stories to offset the other ones that make the headlines!

Please send all submissions to and do update your bookmarks!


And the Green Oscar Goes to…

You may remember a few weeks ago I wrote about the opportunities available to Northern Ireland in the Renewable Energy sector and referenced the third annual Action Renewables Association Awards. In true Oscar fashion the awards were held last week in the beautifully redeveloped Ulster Museum, itself an exemplar of best practice now rated BREEAM excellent, retrofitted as it is to high levels of energy efficiency. In fact I have only one complaint about our wonderful museum, that the only reference to Ulster’s scientific and technological past is in the safety announcement; the muster point is at Lord Kelvin’s statue! I expect there’s a plan….


I have great respect for Action Renewables. Founded and funded initially at the behest of the then Secretary of State, Peter Hain, they, like the Science Park, have had to come out from the comfort of grant funding and into the cold commercial world, while staying on Mission. The testament to their success is the quality of companies in their membership as evidenced by the award sponsors, such as technology developers like Dimplex Renewables and RES as well as energy providers and other professionals. So I was delighted to join the judging panel and amazed by the progress already made in cutting our energy requirements through true innovation being adopted through organisations of all shapes and sizes across both the public and private sectors.


Rural Generation based in Londonderry scooped the overall prize for ‘Outstanding Award for Work in the Renewable Energy Sector in NI’ sponsored by Tughans. The company has significantly contributed to the development and establishment of the biomass heating sector in supplying over 8,000 tonnes of wood chip into the biomass heating market annually from Short Crop Rotation Willow. As leading experts in the biomass heating sector they have also already supplied and installed 150 biomass boilers equating to 12MW’s of heating capacity. They continue to innovate and are at the forefront of knowledge transfer in the local biomass market.


Best Carbon Saving Project went to Greiner Packaging Ltd, based in Dungannon, for its aptly named ‘Project Cool’ which involved the design & installation of an innovative cooling and heat recovery system which simultaneously cools the production processes & utilization of the waste heat generated in production. ‘Project Cool’ saved them £400,000/yr or 1490 tonnes CO2/yr, as well as eliminating all heating oil requirements. Savings like this in the current economic climate are not to be sniffed at, especially as we watch the oil price skyrocket.


I was especially pleased that, without bias, I was able to be associated with an award to my home town, Larne, for the ‘Most innovative renewables installation’. They had installed 19 Solar Bins, which should eliminate entirely, the marring of our most beautiful Antrim coast road with over-flowing waste bins. These new bins compact the waste and call in for collection when full, all powered by the sun. 


I’m glad to say that the next generation of innovators were not forgotten and the Renewable Energy Awareness Award (Best School) went to Omagh County Primary School. The school showed overwhelming passion for the subject and they could teach us all a thing or two about the opportunities that exist in Renewable energy.


I have kept the best wine ‘til last. I was amazed, personally, by the results from Oaklee Housing Association and Tyrone Timberframes. They have shown the huge reductions in energy bills that can be achieved in new and old houses with today’s technology. Their projects were in social housing but all of us, whether in cottage or castle, should be paying close attention.


Congratulations to all the winners and to everyone taking part, for showing that renewables have long left the beard and sandals domain and are today an integral part of our society and a vital part of our new economy.

Rare Earth locks out!

It never does to get too consumed by your own woes. While we were wrestling with our most abundant resource (water) over Christmas and the New Year, China imposed export restrictions on one of its most precious resources, the rare earth metals. This might just be the signal that the global economy is moving from knowledge based to resource based, at least in equal part. Why?

None of the things we in the west are intending to do to improve our economy is possible without the rare earths and China produces 97% of the world’s supply. There is not a mobile phone, a disc drive, an electric motor, a battery nor a plane that does not contain a rare earth metal as an essential component in some measure.

The physics of the rare earths was a mystery to Mendeleev as he started to put together his famous periodic table of the elements. As every school pupil ought to know, the table has eight columns ranging from the highly reactive but simple alkali metals on the left to the almost totally in active noble gases on the right. Right in the middle are found carbon and silicon whose chemistry we know and rely on but whose abundance and global ubiquity give us no cause for alarm.

As he worked down the table to the heavier elements, he started to have to interrupt the 8 column structure, first after the metal earth family (Calcium, Strontium, Barium etc). This extra group is called the Transition Metals, which include Iron and Copper, Silver and Gold, the keys to man’s progression from the Stone Age. These minerals have caused plenty of conflict in the world and made fortunes for some and misery for others in modern history. This alone should teach us to beware.

Heavier again, it was necessary to break the table after Barium this time, to introduce the Rare Earth family. These materials came into their scientific inheritance in the last few decades and are about to have their economic “day” in the near future.  For example, the price of neodymium, one of the typical rare earths, rose from $19.12 in early 2009 to a recent high of $88.50 a kilogram.  I doubt if we have an engineering company that won’t be affected by such changes.

Of course the new price points will bring new producers into the market and, luckily despite the name, the rare earths are not that rare in the earth’s crust but they are difficult to extract. The Chinese rationale for their export ban included managing the environmental impact of the mining and who could blame them? Our own response must surely include a new and positive attitude to recycling. For example a used air conditioner compressor contains about 30 grams of rare earth metals. Our rechargeable batteries and even our MP3 player headphones all contain worthwhile amounts to a professional recycler.

This is a time to stay alert and not to get too absorbed in ourselves. A world in economic transition can be a dangerous place for the unwary.

Physics can be boon or bane; it’s what you do with it or about it that counts!

So far this New Year, Physics has been unkind to us.


First we had the problems with the anomalous expansion of the oxide of hydrogen (water) as it freezes around zero degrees. This property, which causes ice to float, is one of the principal reasons we have life as we know it. Floating ice insulates the water below and preserves or even enhances the chances for flora and fauna below. But try to constrain it with a mere copper pipe or a rubber seal and you will learn directly and expensively of the tremendous molecular forces that are at play. What you do about it is up to you. Me, I give in and keep the heat on, insulate or drain systems that will be left to their own devices.


The stories surrounding the beleaguered water service and their unfortunate customers “off supply” reminded me of my times with the head of the (then, newly) privatised Severn Trent, the water service of the regions drained by those great rivers. I lived in Malvern, famous among other things for its spring water. Sadly, I hear that business is now at risk but that’s perhaps another story.


Anyway, this chap beside whom I used to sit at the occasional dinner, made a great fuss, even in the most prestigious of restaurants, of insisting on tap water to drink as opposed to bottled. I teased him by saying that he wouldn’t do that if he lived and worked in Malvern, where despite the name, I informed him the tea was undrinkable on a Friday when, according to local rumour, his operatives shovelled another load of chlorine chemicals into the supply.


He smiled and said sorry for that and we went on to discuss the waste of the world’s resources that was involved in transporting bottled water just for the label and also the degree of waste that was involved in rendering water clean, biologically safe and finally potable or drinkable. All because we think of water as free and abundant, whereas of course it is rare and precious in the world at large. Controlling and understanding water has been as vital for the progress of mankind as gaining command of fire. Chastened by a highly memorable conversation, I thought little more about the taste of my Friday cuppa…until the next Monday.


At half past eight, my normally cool and collected personal assistant came bustling in, very flustered, saying that two water guys were seeking entry on to the site and demanding to know from which tap she drew the kettle for my tea!


Click! I had been hoist on my own petard again!


Suffice to say the two water engineers quickly found an electrical fault, fixed it and so rendered the tap water and the tea to a quality even my mother would have been proud to produce. The next time I saw my friend, I was treated to more of the electro-chemical mysteries of potable water and understood even more the nonsense of making millions of gallons drinkable when only thousands of gallons are actually drunk. The rest is used to flush toilets, wash clothes and cars and many other things essential to daily life.


Think about it!

Tommy Rodgers 1951-2010

Deputy Chair of Northern Ireland Science Park Foundation 2002-2008

Tommy Rodgers Franklin Adair Ian Paisley Alan Clarke at the opening of the Clock Tower

Tommy Rodgers, Franklin Adair, Ian Paisley and Alan Clarke at the official opening of the Titanic’s Dock and Pump-House Clock Tower

I first met Tommy in 2002. He, with Franklin Adair as Chairman, was appointed as the second tranche of Department nominees to the Board to oversee their investment in the Science Park concept. The first phase had been theoretical, if you like, to raise the investment but now, as it was to take solid form, Tommy’s no-nonsense approach to business and his knowledge of the special ways of Belfast Harbour was considered essential for success. How right that was!

From the birth of TR Shipping in 1980, to the present day, Tommy Rodgers was the driving force behind the success of the TR Group which has since become a major force within the freight forwarding world, both locally and internationally. Bringing this extensive business knowledge and experience to the fore, he remained on the Board for 6 years which saw the Park grow to a physical size of 150,000 sq ft.

By April 2003, the Innovation Centre was well on the way to completion but it looked rather stark in a sea of continuing desolation at the north end of Queens Island. The early tenants who had expected to benefit from the project had made other arrangements and, truth be told, there did not seem to the board to be a flurry of interest among new ones.

Tommy took the practical approach and, since the building was by now available for hard-hat visits, together we walked its structures, while I explained what each was for. In particular, I was able to show him why we had left the telecommunications detail to last, because of the high rate of change in that industry and that we had only one-shot at avoiding being left with a burdensome legacy system. So we began to orchestrate a series of one-on-one briefings that launched the Science Park into being, for real tenants by November that year and into its second phase investment shortly after. Tommy had become a top flight ambassador for the Park, a role he retained until the end. Tommy was one of the first to appreciate the value of linking the engineering entrepreneurship that led to Titanic and to the mission of the Science Park on the same site, a century on. Indeed long after his retirement from the Science Park he continue to bring guests down to visit and explore our industrial heritage.

A Science Park that has only tenants is just a gilded property offering. It needs to become the hub of a network which can attract the key people from the different silos of society and create positive interactions between them, in which the single currency is knowledge based entrepreneurship. This can be a slow process and, indeed, many science parks never make it to “third generation” as it has been termed. Our opportunity to accelerate the transition came when Investment Belfast, a special purpose vehicle that had been set up by the City Council to advance its economy, reached the end of its European funding. The Board of that organisation during its orderly winding up of the company, asked the Board of the Science Park to take on two of its key programmes, halo-the fledgling business angel network in Northern Ireland-and Enzyme, a business incubation and mentoring scheme.

Not everyone was immediately enamoured with the idea but Tommy was one of the loudest voices in favour and in consequence it was agreed. Today CONNECT (the successor to Enzyme) and Halo are regarded as key elements of the plan to revitalise our local economy.

Others will undoubtedly write and speak of Tommy’s many other achievements and contributions to the business and social fabric of Northern Ireland, but this one alone should command our respect and thanks. May he rest in peace.

The trolley problem and Asimov’s ‘Laws of Robotics’

The only good thing about a bad sleeping pattern is the hearing of BBC radio gems on the World Service. Last night’s concerned the so called ‘Trolley (or runaway train) Problem’, devised by moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomas in 1967. The ‘Trolley Problem’ presents a hypothetical moral dilemma in which a person must choose whether to kill one person to save five strangers from a fatal trolley collision either by pushing a man in front of the tracks or simply flipping a switch (or point) that would automatically kill an innocent bystander. In both cases, one dies to save five but to the vast majority of people (and courts) the first is morally repugnant, while the second is the right thing to do.

In his programme,,

a once sceptical, Steve Evans explores some of the many variants of this problem, now coined Trolley-ology, and concludes that philosophically aware soldiers, doctors, lawyers and the public are all the better for it. What caught my attention, though, was the reference to the attack drones now favoured by western forces in Afghanistan.

As a youth, much of my reading for pleasure centred on the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. His most famous work, Foundation (originally a trilogy but ended as a quatrilogy), proposed that eventually mathematics and psychology would be good enough to predict the behaviour of human populations. His second most famous set of books is Robot (bearing little relationship to the recent film I Robot, incidentally).  These presume that when Robots become very powerful and widespread, they will have to be programmed deep in their processors and immutably with the three laws:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

I guess most have assumed something of the kind will occur in real life but actually, at least according to the defence expert interviewed by Evans, they are being programmed with Trolley-olgy.

The argument seems to be that however well troops are educated and expert in moral philosophy, the heat and adrenaline of battle can lead to occasional lapses. This should be less so in the case of the drones, as usually they are guided from a pilot well back from the conflict zone and maybe even in his/her home town. Even so, as the news stories testify, tragic accidents happen and the drone is commanded to dispense its lethal cargo, without enough consideration of the ethics. Robots, it is argued, would be able to take account of the big picture, quickly enough to apply the moral philosophy of ‘Trolley-ology’.

I sure hope so!

Credit paid where credit due but beware complacency, China is rising.

We’ve just had the latest Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, for pupils in Northern Ireland and the outcome; not bad and certainly nothing to be ashamed of. The sting, I think, is at the head of the tables.


PISA is a three year cycle of surveys of educational achievement organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It assesses the application of knowledge and skills of pupils aged fifteen, as they near the end of their compulsory schooling. Each round of PISA focuses on one of the three areas of literacy in which the application of knowledge and skills are assessed: reading, mathematics and science. The main focus for the 2009 round was reading, with mathematics and science as minor domains.


And the results are:


  • In reading, NI’s pupils achieved a mean score of 499, not statistically significantly different from the OECD mean of 493.


  • In mathematics, pupils from NI achieved a mean score of 492 for mathematics, again not statistically significantly different from the OECD average of 496.


  • In science, pupils here achieved a mean score of 511 for science, this time significantly above the OECD average of 501; so well done pupils and teachers both!


Now I confess to being the kind of parent who was perhaps a bit more focussed on leading an inquisition into marks lost than cheer leading for those gained, after an exam. In my defence, it was only after the ‘friendlies’, the local exams and tests that should be designed to point out areas for attention, and not the real things, the national exams that once done are gone for ever.


In the same spirit, I would offer a similar response. This is the ‘friendly’ and I would draw our collective attention to the top ten, among which consistently are the Nordic countries, the Chinese of Hong Kong and Shanghai, Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand; in other words, countries where economic growth continues. The near equivalence in results of Eastern and Western styles and cultures, I think, means we can discount some of the old excuses. Basically, parents, teachers and the state in those countries bang home the message, if you want to get ahead, get an education.


My advice is to use some of the time of this mid-winter break and check out the excellent new websites of the ccea, like , the UK version at and the web sites of the learned societies like , , , not to mention and others to see why you should bend to the books as they do in the top ten!

Reprieve comes with Responsibility

Science got a welcome reprieve in the latest and most difficult comprehensive spending round. While other budgets were slashed, Science got off with a flat cash settlement. In addition, at least in England and Wales, a £500m fund (backed by the European Investment Bank) was announced to support growth in Science Parks and the programs they run, as they are accepted as a major force in the translation of science into business.  I do not know yet if the devolved regions are included in this plan but I live in hope as I believe the Northern Ireland Science Park was one of those that influenced the thinking of government and the EIB.

Another welcome innovation was the publication of the first National Infrastructure Plan and its inclusion of support for Intellectual Capital. Of the announced plans some are definitely available to us in Northern Ireland, albeit it on a competitive basis. These include:

• The funding of university research by providing Quality-related (QR) funding with funds allocated for research quality and impact on the economy through the Research Excellence Framework;


• The funding of research in universities via competitive peer reviewed grants through the Research Councils, identifying future pathways to impact of research onthe economy;


• The funding of excellent people directly through the Research Councils and the National

Academies studentships and fellowships programmes;


• Support to the Technology Strategy Board to incentivise business led technology innovation; and


• The establishment of a network of Technology and Innovation Centres.

All of these should encourage our high technology businesses to team up with university colleagues and to sharpen pencils and flex fingers over the keyboards to get writing bids. Right now a new program manager from the Technology Strategy Board is touring Northern Ireland to market his program “Technology Inspired Collaborative Development” and to make contacts.

The last bullet refers to new research centres as advocated by Hermann Hauser (for Gordon Brown) and James Dyson (for David Cameron). Our very own ECIT, QUB’s institute for Electronics, Communications and IT is already such a centre and its Director, John McCanny, is already in the thick of it. In fact alert readers may notice that the themes resonate very strongly with the thinking that has been going on here. I suspect that collectively we in Northern Ireland have inspired quite a few of the ideas behind the government strategy.

But inspiration is not enough; now there is a need for perspiration, for our scientists and for those in GB. The reprieve was granted for one purpose only, the regrowth of the devastated economy. If science and scientists do not rise to the challenge, retribution will be swift and severe. I earnestly believe this is the time to make all our science count.

Corporate research was once about showing off (like Bell Labs), how many big brains you could afford; then it mutated into the servant of the factory which turned out to be a complete failure. The third generation model has stood the test of 20 years and goes something like this. Long term research is important and is sponsored strategically and directly by the board but when the profit centre calls for urgent help any skills and knowledge needed are supplied post haste.

For the national profit centre, that time is now!

Open innovation and the Large Hadron Collider

This year the Hinton lecture of the Royal Academy of Engineering was the story of the Large Hadron Collider, LHC, as told by the project leader, Lyn Evans. In rich Welsh baritone, Dr Evans recounted the purpose of and the challenges set by the 15 year project to build the biggest and most expensive physics experiment in the history of mankind. “Hadron” is the generic name physicists give to heavy nuclear particles like protons and neutrons and “large” means a 28km subterranean ring under the French-Swiss border near Geneva, in which the particles can be smashed together at energies so immense, that they haven’t been “seen” since a million-millionth of a second after the “Big Bang”.

LHC was designed to answer big questions about our universe but that is not what impressed me most about this presentation.

Lyn was absolutely clear. This experiment is one of the most difficult things mankind has ever done, in my terms, greater even than sending a man to the moon. That was something the USA did “not because it was easy but because it was hard”. To achieve the LHC, the project team had to use every piece of known science and technology on an industrial scale. For example, super fluid helium (a quantum condition of that element that is normally only seen in the lab, in thimblefuls) is essential in 100 tonne quantities. LHC is the biggest user of the only recently discovered high temperature superconductors; others are still wondering if they have a value. LHC is also owned in a very real way by the world as a whole. Only the very poorest parts of the world are not represented on the map of suppliers or participants and knowledge can travel freely between them all.

We in Northern Ireland have our own links. Steve Myers is head of beam and James Stirling is a professor of theoretical physics waiting to see if LHC will rewrite his text books. Both came over to Titanic’s Dock and Pump-House last Christmas to talk to our schools and colleges.  Even our 19th century scientists could trace the evolution of their discoveries to the uses that Dr Evans team found for them (change of state (Andrews), electro-mechanics (Larmor), absolute temperature (Kelvin)).

Now the really big question, is it worth it? LHC cost £3B! For comparison that’s about one Trident submarine.

My answer is the same for any scientific endeavour. No, if you ignore it but yes if you pay attention and make it your business to see if they solved problems you also need solving. That is open innovation and science is intrinsically open but only to those who choose to learn its ways.

CERN invented the World Wide Web for its own purposes and the US DOD picked it up because it satisfied their needs; now we all need it. LHC needs distributed computing and has solved the problems to set it up. Novelists and screen-writers have picked it up already for their plots and soon you’ll know it as the “cloud”.

But it’s not just about the big things.

Thankfully the night of the lecture, the Chileans were able successfully to bring back to the surface the 33 miners trapped underground for 69 days. I bet a pound to a penny that some of the technology put to their rescue could trace its roots back to the fifty years of drilling accurate holes in the rock under Geneva to learn the secrets of the universe. Doing hard things always pays dividends!

Long on bad news, short on the good: our news

I dislike the imbalance of news coverage. Bad news outweighs the good and I really have very little time for that.  I do enjoy the little snippets of good news that occasionally light up the ocean of gloom portrayed by our newscasters. I am indebted to Mike McKimm for one of his pieces over the summer.

I hope I’ve got it right. Because I’m so impatient with the other items on the news, I was channel flicking and missed some of it and I can’t find it on the BBC website. I was able to check it out on the weekend of the Portrush Air Show, though.

By the way, well done, that town! I didn’t see the show, as for 20 years I had to attend the Farnborough Air Show and while my schoolboy persona is still alive and well, it’s a bit sated of air shows. I did see a town present itself very well and I did see a great deal of effort early in the morning to clean up the debris; so I hope they made a lot of money. One day I will be at the Show with my grand-daughter when she’s a little older; so I hope it continues to do well.

And back to Mick McKimm’s piece ….to the eastern side of Ramore Head is one of the most important sites in the history of the science of geology but how many of us know about it. Lyme Regis is well known as the capital of the Jurassic coast and fossil hunters galore frequent that shore. Portrush might even be more important! Why, because 55 million year old lava clearly penetrated 200 million year old sedimentary rock containing obvious fossils and not ten feet from the car park! This site clinched the debate over a century ago about the age of the earth and the marvellous processes at work which keeps the Earth viable for us humans. The Ulster of the 19th Century must have been swarming with scientific and creative energy.

Are we doing enough with it? I suggest not!

But then we’ve ignored our great people of more recent times.

The 70 year commemorations of the Blitz and the frequent repetition of Churchill’s best known speech ( “…Never was so much owed by so many to so few …”) reminded me that the few included not only the aircrew and their support people but also the scientists and engineers who made their heroism possible. Radar had evolved from some accidental communications observations by a Scot, Robert Watson Watt and a descendant of my hero of the same name, but had quickly turned into a mainstream programme of the forerunner of my old establishment, TRE.

And just in time too to guide the few on to their targets!

As radar evolved to tackle the Battle of the Atlantic, it needed higher frequencies and Ulsterman, Eric Megaw, stepped up to the plate with the magnetron, now ubiquitous in your microwave oven. Eric is remembered in the Prize of his name at Queen’s but not much known elsewhere, I think.

Such Ulster people are still at work here and elsewhere solving problems to make all our lives better. Some are preparing for 3D television, some have produced the technology by which you get your news over the digital circuits and some are pioneering cures for cancer. Many are working in or with university laboratories and at the international state of the art.

Now they are news! But best keep it secret; Vince Cable might read it and why spoil his good yarn with the facts.