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Rough Science 2 Carriacou: Mike Leahy's diary: Science of celebration

Updated Monday, 28th January 2008

There's a lot of science involved in making music - even more so when, like Mike Leahy, you're out in the wilds.

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Day 1


OK. I'm good at explosives - even built a 2" mortar once. There is also a perfectly symmetrical black circle on the floor of room F13 in the Institute of Virology in Oxford where I tried some explosives.


Well, I'm crap at music but it seems like that's what I've got. As a kid I played the trumpet, guitar and violin (badly), however, after six years or so of study I failed to reach Grade I. There is no doubt that I am one of the crappiest musicians in the history of music but for this show I'm a musician. Bummer! I wanted explosives. I've even got an old nineteenth century black powder musket. I love big bangs. Perhaps I'll make a drum.

Music stuff is interesting scientifically speaking. The note is dependent on the frequency at which an instrument vibrates - its harmonic frequency - so why does middle C sound different on different instruments? Apparently, instruments 'colour the note' with exact fractions of the frequency of the basic note as well as the one you want. Complex stuff. I wish my sisters were here. They're both great musicians, as is my brother, but I'm crap.

In fact, my sister, Julia, was very good with a Grade 8 in clarinet and top grades in piano and recorder in addition to being a great singer. Yep! The musician gene was lost in me. Mind you I love music. Couldn't do without it. I love contemporary dance music but Jimmy Hendrix, Puccini, Dvorak, and Skunk Anansie are also right up there. Shame I can't do it. I wish I was on explosives.

The conversation goes on - harmonics, octaves, vibrations - oh God!

What music will we play? The Last Post I reckon. It is the last programme of the series after all. I see a speedboat motoring across the waves. It would be great to be on a boat and see how they go. I don't like the English autumn but I still want to go home.

Sparklers - I used to put magnesium strips on the panniers of my Kawasaki GTR 1,000. When I cornered, the panniers touched down first making loads of lovely sparks. Cool! Fireworks. OK, they're explosive but kids generally hurt themselves because they do BIG experiments. Keep it small then you can have fun without singeing your eyebrows.

Secret to explosives is burning something in a confined space. Flour mills could explode because the dust could set fire in a confined space if there was enough oxygen to allow combustion. Gunpowder supplies its own oxygen. That's why it works well in the confined area of a gun barrel.

My Achilles are excrutiating painful. Perhaps it's dehydration. I need to work out bad. I'm looking forward to training again.

We have a brainstorm about music. I'm not over enthusiastic but would like to make something big. David starts by telling us what he would like to cover in the brainstorming but Ellen wanted to do it her way. I elected to go for something big - like an organ. I love requiems - Mozart's Requiem is one of my favourites - so I want to make an organ. I know that metal structures have a resonant frequency. Even crankshafts in car engines do.

To stop them fracturing they have 'dampers' on them to damp down vibrations. We need to make tubes vibrate. In an organ this is done with air. At first, I thought about making an air pump but after the problems I had making the generator I gave that idea up. There just isn't the kit here on the island. I could have blown into the tubes myself, after all I used to play exhaust pipes when I was 'on the tools' (as long as they didn't contain a silencer).

The thing is, I'd like to make it look and play like an organ. The trick is to make the pipe vibrate - we could even hit it but this wouldn't sound right. I have heard that updrafts of air in a pipe can make quite a noise, a bit like some gas flues so I decide to make a sort of wick or big candle to make an updraft. Using some tins I make candles using string and wax. If I made a number of tubes each could have its own candle.

The next thing I consider is how to hold the pipes. If we really secure them to something metal it may work but if we tether them to wood it may damp the sound down. Perhaps we could suspend each pipe from the beams of the lime factory using wire. Either way my first plan is to make an organ.

It's an easy morning - probably 10am and I'm doing my diary - bang up to date. I am keen to get this programme over and I'm looking forward to getting home. Can't wait. In the meantime I'll chill until David's finished with Kathy. Finally started a montage of clips with me making the candles. As we were messing around I noticed a pair of little birds making a nest in my destroyed generator from the last programme.

I'm worried about Mike B. Nearly eight weeks spent filming with a rather disparate group and the accompanying friction must have got to him. He is also feeling rough with muscle aches and kidney pains and is withdrawing to his room a lot. Can't blame him. Hope he's OK.

All the shops are closed so no normal lunch. We return to the hotel for lunch. Can't say that I mind. Fish and chips - nice one. Mind you, they seem to have run out of most things as well. I check out physics with Kathy. Apparently if you blow down a pipe of any diameter the length determines the note. If this is true my first pipe should be middle C. So I need to cut the pipe down. Over lunch we discuss what the other sex find attractive. Derek reckons DIY.

Heard the radio: "Behave yourself better this carnival season - no litter, no painting. Oh, and bananas. Up your banana consumption. Bananas are good for you and there are lots out there".


After the normal messing around I get a long pipe to hang over the big candle I made this morning once the holes were drilled. I had already measured the pipe for the flame organ once but had to do some filming and re-measure it. In the space of half and hour Jonathan had taken my homemade ruler and chopped it up to make his own invention - bugger. I just can't seem to put anything down.

During the last programme I put some wood on the workbench half way through making it into a crank handle. Never saw it again. No surprises who nicked it. J. again. And he's also disappeared with half the tools. He's as bad as my little brother Aidy.

Apparently, according to Kathy, 64.5cm of a pipe will give middle C, so I cut a tube to length, very difficult because the scaffold pipe I was using looked like old 1/4 inch cast iron tubing. They sounded good though, and when the candle went out the 'fire organ' looked very dramatic with smoke pouring out of the end.

Acrimony all night. Sarah, Angie, Drew and Paul got drunk. I stayed in my room chillin'. Mikey B was ill.

Day 2


There had been a big discussion the night before about what music to play and the theme tune of Space Odyssey 2001 was the one decided on. Therefore, I had to work some notes on the flame organ. Following Kathy's length specifications I cut the pipe into five pieces but when I tried to play the organ the notes just didn't make sense. The longer pipes sounded different but not in the way that we would have expected. Time for a re-think. Maybe the 'note' played by each pipe really reflected some quality or characteristic of the flame or air gap, rather than the pipe. Either way, I like the flame organ and because of the flames, sparks and smoke I reckon it's half-firework, half-musical instrument anyway.

A simpler way to hit a C and make a decent musical instrument would be pan pipes. I'm still committed to the flame organ and David is more so. This means that I'll have two instruments (as if one isn't enough).

Kate and David have another row. From what I can see neither are right or wrong but it is over flame organ and I'm caught in the middle like a pawn again. Together with Sarah and to a lesser extent Ellen, they don't miss a change to get at each other - often leading to tears. In the meantime, Paul, Drew, John and Derek muck in by making their own instruments. They're real stars. The thing is, David puts so much more into the programme than anyone else it's no wonder that he likes to get his own way. He lives for Rough Science and can't turn off.

After the pan pipes are assembled I chill out for a while. It's cooler today (30°C) and the humidity is down to 80%. A plastic plate is blown across the floor as the other crew film. It's the Rough Science version of tumbleweed.

Hot air rises

The flame organ is powered by air which is heated so rises. On a global scale this same principle powers the wind, makes rain and allows gliders to fly - all driven by the sun.

Old, open-ended spanners make great wind chimes. I might make some when I get home. The morning drifts away. Sarah's crew has been filming solidly meaning I can do no work. It's nice to relax though. Derek and John's double bass looks really cool. It's going to be the star of the show.

Paul helps us by making instruments. Sarah shouts over "Paul, do you think that you could leave your hobby for one minute and get on with your job". I tell her not to be so bitchy. "Well, he's not in our team any more, he's swapped sides" she replied to which Paul points out that we're all working together. "Not from where I'm standing," retorts Sarah, "From what I can see you've joined the dark side".

A big cheer comes from the other room. Mike B has got something to work. Cool!

More politics. Steve wants Ellen to use the panpipes. At first I'm pissed off because that leaves me with nothing. I was about to build panpipes when the others started arguing and I ended up making a 2m 56cm pipe to shut them up instead. I realised how childish I would sound if I complained but in Rough Science we all try to do our best and tend to be carried along by the challenge. It's easy to forget that we're trying to make a TV programme rather than invent musical instruments.

Mikey B's way better today, thank God. Sounds like he was physically very rough. It's been a hard trip - and very hot again today. Only one and a half days to go. I should really be enjoying it but I am definitely looking forward to home. The feeling's more or less universal.

Ellen's making a mbira. I never knew what these were called but used to play one when I was a kid. They are really popular in Africa and are made from big fruit things and metal strips. Ellen is using a calabash. Sounds nice.

The more I think about music the more I think that I should have a go again. But then again there's little point because it takes ages to get any good and at home I'm pretty busy anyway.

The afternoon drags on with me making drums and farting around. Then there's a very long sequence with David. It should have been fairly simple but became very involved. An extra frustration are all the flies which must have hatched because of the rain or something. Mind you, the long shadows in the late afternoon sun look amazing.

Day 3

I wake up ealry to fix the Jeep because it's not ticking over - a pain with an auto. Sandra says she has seen a weather report which is bad. Tropical depression number 4 looks as if it is going to develop into tropical storm Chantel. The day is going to be stormy in more ways than one.

We are so keen to get to the lime factory that we forget Jonathan - nightmare. And it gets worse. When we arrive the grass is muddy and slippery. I think that there is a risk of Reggie (our driver) sliding down a slippery slope into the Jeep. To avoid this he stops at the top but I still think that we should be there to catch him if the minibus slides. Sarah asks me to help her carry the car battery but just as we start walking down the slope Sarah goes over on her arse. Luckily, I catch the battery before any acid spills. In the meantime, Angie and Kathy run over to help but Angie also slips over and slides down the grass slope on her arse crashing feet first into Sarah who loses her temper and half slaps/half strokes Angie's face with mud. Angie was visibly taken aback.

Somehow I need to make a musical instrument. The drums are proving difficult - no drum skins. We press on with tarpaulin, both canvas and manmade. The barrel we really need for a drum is on top of the Dr Zeus machine but it has been pissing with rain. We've got to get it down but I'm really worried about someone slipping and getting hurt.

The barrel comes down OK and I make the first drum by using a 40 gallon drum. It's the old wooden type, so I tension the skin by hammering a ring from a broken barrel over the top of the canvas.

Time to do the second drum. In the meantime the gunpowder is proving a little difficult. The guys need to dry it but because of the imminent tropical storm the relative humidity has increased from 80% yesterday above the normal 85-90% and is now 98%. It's almost foggy.

The second drum is a pain. I can't really be bothered anyway because we have less than a day left on the island. It sounds very dull becuase there is concrete in the bottom. I turn it over and hit it with a sledgehammer. It's not my day.

The fireworks are not going too smoothly. The bangers are brilliant - very loud and from what I can see fairly reliable but the rocket is causing grief. The electric ignition system isn't working. I go to watch two attempted launches. Nothing! It's all a bit frustrating, especially for Mike B who now reckons that he should have gone to agricultural college.

The sea looks really grim - very sultry and mist rolls up High North obscuring the rocky outcrop near the summit. At least it's fairly cool. I eat my peanut butter sandwich and hear a cheer from outside. The rocket has finally worked. It only went up a metre but looks great on camera. Shame we have to work late, especially as it's our last day.

I hope the tropical storm doesn't mess up my flight home. Mike B and Angie talk fuel rations to make the rocket fly better while Jonathan ruminates over "air gaps". Very technical this rocket stuff.

Over the afternoon David and I set the flame organ up outside and moved the drums. While I was working a couple of rockets went up. Still not very far but they were pretty impressive. Then Mikey B had an idea - burn some methanol around the orchestra and fireworks. He started setting rails up to hold the methanol then put a skull in the middle. The rails were organised in a pentagon - cool! So far no-one in the production team has noticed. We hear that the tropical storm may affect flights out of Barbados. I really want to leave as soon as possible. The idea of not getting back by Saturday morning doesn't appeal at all.

The lime factory is an unusual place, almost like one of Arkwrights' Mills, just dumped in paradise. Smokey chimneys next to palm trees, rotted out Land Rovers under gorgeous red flamboyant trees, old stationary engines amid banana leaves now only useful as climbing frames for the local lizards. The whole place is alive with creatures, even our store cupboard is frequented by more fruit bats than humans. Apart from local people washing their clothes the place will be pretty dead once we've gone. In a way, it's a shame we're flying out because I'd like to leave slowly rather than fly out. Boats are always more satisfactory than planes.

Ralph didn't turn up but at least Piggy didn't die. More to the point I wasn't Piggy.

"Kill the beast, see his blood".





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