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Science, Maths & Technology

Mike Bullivant's diary: Part one

Updated Thursday, 27th September 2007

Mike Bullivant's diary of a castaway, from the BBC/OU series Rough Science 1

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Mike Leahy and Mike Bullivant in front of the tent Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

Saturday 10th July - 2 days before the challenge begins

Julie, the Production Assistant, picks me up at home at 0945, on our way to where? I've no idea where we're headed; it's all been kept a secret. All I've been told is that we're going somewhere hot, so pack sunblock and shorts. I suspect from one or two hints that have 'accidentally' been dropped that we're going somewhere in Italy, though I'm not sure at all. We arrive at Gatwick just after midday and the rest of the team is waiting for us. It's good to see them all again, and comforting to know that the other scientists have no idea where we're off to either. The excitement's palpable. We all met for a 'getting-to-know you' day back in June. The day also served as a practice run at the kind of thing we're going to be expected to do on our 'deserted' island, which is now only a few hours away. The only (scientific) team member I know well is Jonathan (Hare), with whom I'd worked on some TV programmes for The VEGA Science Trust and Professor Sir Harry Kroto (the 1996 Chemistry Nobel Prize-winner). I know some of the production team members, but not all of them. Now that we're all together again, it looks like we're going to have a fun time, wherever it is we're off to.

Jonathan's a physicist/chemist I think. The other scientists are Anna (a plant biologist), Mike the younger (a molecular biologist who used to be a car mechanic; I can see that his skills as the former are likely to be less useful to us than his ability to wield an oily rag), and Vanessa (a marine biologist who I'd worked closely with on our 'getting-to-know you' day).

As well as the scientists, there's Kate, the series presenter, two cameramen (Derek and Drew), sound recordist John, Producer and Director (David), Series Producer (Paul), our researcher and scientific adviser Angie, and Julie the PA. Thirteen in all!

Waiting for us, wherever it is we're headed, is the fourteenth member of the team, a 'local' woman called Amy who's role will be to 'fix' things for us. What a crowd; you can sense we're in for a good time. This is going to be special.

After a two-hour flight, we arrive at Pisa, and are whisked off to the Ferry port at Livorno, a few kilometres to the south west. We're told that this is where we'll be staying overnight – in a hotel just across the road from the ferry terminal. We eat well that evening in the hotel's restaurant, and then head off to bed; tired little bunnies one and all. Understandably, everyone's really excited about what lies ahead.

Sunday 11th July - 1 day before the challenge begins

After an early breakfast, it's time to check out and head off for the early-morning ferry. It's really good to have Julie looking after us all; there are none of the usual worries about tickets and passports - Julie handles it all. The relaxing ferry trip takes two and a half hours, but we're still no clearer as to exactly where we're going. Paul lets slip that it's an island called Monte Cristo, but this turns out to be another of his mischievous red herrings. We eventually disembark on a beautiful, but rather barren, little island called Capraia, which is a few kilometres north of Corsica. It's a desolate, volcanic pile rising 1 500 metres out of the sea. David, our Director is waiting for us at the quayside, and he looks pleased to see us. He arrived a few days earlier to set things up so that we can all start work as soon as possible.

As all fourteen of us are driven up towards the island's summit in a convoy of 4WDs, I begin to wish I hadn't eaten so much on the ferry. The tarmac road turns to dirt track, and then to rock-strewn roller coaster! We're in the middle of nowhere. It's a beautiful place to be, the Sun's out, and boy is it hot! I can't help thinking how lucky we are to be here!!

We're thrown around so much in our Land Rover that it's a relief when the five scientists and presenter are 'told' to get out and stand in the glaring early afternoon sun while the film crews go on ahead so that they can position themselves to record our 'arrival' at the place where we'll be doing most of the filming. As with much of the Rough Science material, the Production crew want to capture the spontaneity of the moment. We're not allowed to fake it. As the six of us stand in the sun wondering what awaits us, I can't help feeling that we're the only ones not getting a perverse pleasure from our predicament.

What awaits us round the bend in the 'track'? I wouldn't put it past Paul the Producer to be bluffing yet again. Is this another of his wind-ups? We're given the signal to approach, and as we turn the bend, a derelict, yet quite beautiful, set of buildings hoves into view. What is this place? It's bizarre.

A quick inspection indicates the presence of rows of cells (a monastery?), but the bars at the windows suggest a more sinister previous use. The complex looks as if it's been deserted for some years, and there's evidence that the local fauna have taken it over as a Winter refuge. Some of the rooms contain odd bits of broken furniture and other artefacts. Most of the ground-floor rooms are strewn with animal droppings of one sort or another. Mmmmm, nice working conditions.

This place is eerie!! It's like something out of a Spaghetti Western. You can almost hear the Ennio Morricone soundtrack. Some of the rooms have been 'prepared' for use as workspaces. The courtyard and surrounding land is littered with all kinds of junk that will come in handy for use as laboratory equipment. For example, there's a bottle dump, containing an assortment of glass bottles of different sizes. There are lengths of rubber tubing lying around, bits and pieces of different metals - just the kind of things we're going to need for our challenges, whatever they're going to be. As the chemist in the group, I'd been worried as to how I was going to get on without the usual hardware that we chemists usually rely on; beakers, flasks, condensers, etc. A quick stroll round the prison yard puts my mind at rest. We have enough here with which to improvise, no problem.

It turns out that until 13 years ago this place was a prison. It has the unsettling ambience of a place of torture and confinement; an altogether strange setting for the Rough Science experience we're all about to embark on.

Monday 12th July - Day 1

We have to get up really early and head down to the harbour to board an inflatable dinghy to take us to film our 'landing' on Capraia. We're shooting things out of sequence, as is usually the case with these projects. This question of continuity is a problem for the production team, not for us, thank god.

When we get to the pre-determined landing place, there's a 2m swell and a rising tide, which is not going to make things easy for our boarding party. With Drew filming our arrival from the cliff-top, and the second film crew in another inflatable alongside, we decide that, for safety's sake, only two of the scientists (and Kate) should attempt the landing.

Drew, the cameraman filming us from the cliff-top, has been up since 4am, poor lamb. He was despatched to film the sun rise just in case we need an early morning shot for use in the editing suite. It's still only about 8am, but it seems like we've been up for hours. God knows what Drew feels like. After several attempts at getting our inflatable close inshore, we at last succeed in shooting some acceptable footage of the landing.

Then it's straight back to the harbour and up to the cliff-top to join Drew, so that he can film us 'clambering up the cliffs on our way to the prison'. Viewers would be surprised at what's involved in filming the shortest of sequences like this. It's taken us 5 hours to shoot something that will be on screen for just a few seconds. While the others head back to the Prison, Vanessa and I set off to find some olives to prepare what's called a 'carrier' oil for our insect repellent.

When we get back to 'the Gulag' (as I'd started to call it), it's obvious that some slight tension has developed between Jonathan and the other Mike. They're no longer working together, and have separated to work on different elements of the same challenge – to locate our position by determining our latitude and longitude. I'm glad I'm not involved with that one. I wouldn't have a clue where to start.

The pair of them seem to be making some kind of progress, despite the difference of opinion I'm told that they'd had earlier. Jonathan's sawn an aluminium saucepan in half and connected it up to a lot of wires, and Mike's constructed a crucifix. Have they really fallen out that badly? Would one of us be in for a troubled time tonight? What exactly is Mike's cross for?

Anna, our plant biologist, has spent much of the afternoon feeling underused. She is, like me, in some awe at what the boys were attempting to do; make a radio and quadrant, in order to calculate our position. A radio of all things! From next to nothing!! That's magic!

The problem for Anna is that her specialism is still to be tested, and the magic she's to work will be magic of a very different, but no less practical, kind. At the moment, she can't see that that is the case, however, and, understandably, she feels a little surplus to requirements. I think I understand why this is. To boost her confidence, she, like me, needs to achieve a positive result, and tomorrow I'm going to help her achieve it.

Tuesday 13th July - Day 2

Today's big challenge - to help Anna isolate the essential oils from some twigs of rosemary that she'd found on her walk round the island yesterday afternoon. This aromatic oil would come in handy when we come to make soap for Programme 4 (another job for the team chemist). Anna also says that rosemary oil's good for helping one's concentration and intellectual powers; something we'll all need over the next few weeks.

To extract the essential oil, I know we'll need to use a standard laboratory technique called steam distillation. Although I've never carried out a steam distillation before, I know the principles behind the process, and am prepared to have a go. We need a means of generating steam over an open fire, and passing it through a container stuffed with the rosemary leaves and twigs.

An outlet from this container needs to lead to an improvised air condenser (a simple glass tube, with a 2.5cm bore), which should be enough to cool the steam and oil vapour mixture back to water and oil, respectively. We also need to be able to see and control the amount of steam generated, and a demijohn found in one of the rooms will be just right for the purpose – or so I thought.

I'm not altogether sure that the glass will stand up to being heated over an open fire, so I consult Jonathan, who agrees with me that it's worth a try using it as our steam generator. At least the glass will allow us to see the rate of boiling, and we can raise or lower it over the fire to control the steam output accordingly.

As in any laboratory, improvised or not, safety is a key issue. Kate has sensibly brought with her several sets of safety spectacles, and everyone in the 'lab' is ordered to put them on before we start work. There's to be no eating in the 'lab', and every precaution will be taken to minimise the possibility of accidents.

An eye has to be kept on everyone's safety and well-being. For example, the room I've chosen to use as the 'lab' has plenty of ventilation, from an open, barred window at one end, and a large hole (open to the beautiful, clear-blue sky) in the ceiling. The resulting through-draught will be ideal, particularly as we'll be creating quite a lot of smoke from the wood fire, not to mention the possibility of noxious fumes.

Our confidence in the glass demijohn proves short-lived. No sooner has the water in it started to boil, than there's an almighty crack, and hissing – the demijohn has shattered, and its contents spilt all over the fire, putting it out. Doh!! Back to the drawing board then! Let's hope they don't use that sequence in Programme 1!

It's already late afternoon, so we'll have to wait till tomorrow, the final day of this challenge, before we can have another crack at the steam distillation. The rest of the day is spent scouring the prison and its grounds for something that we can use to replace our ill-fated demijohn.

Wednesday 14th July - Day 3

Having set it up, our re-designed 'Capraia' mark II steam generator, proves much safer than its predecessor, but because the can in which we're now heating the water is made of metal, rather than glass, there's no way we can accurately tell how vigorously its contents are boiling.

This makes it even more crucial that we build-in some way of literally letting off steam if the water in the can boils too vigorously. Conveniently, a second outlet on the can allows us to release any unwanted pressure build-up. So, out of our initial failure and disappointment comes an improved version of the apparatus. We're ready to rock and roll again!

Vanessa, Anna and I grow more excited as droplets of water condense on the inner surface of our improvised air condenser. After a short while, droplets of oil can also be seen condensing out along with the water.

In five minutes we've collected enough condensed liquid to see that two layers have formed in the collecting vessel; an upper layer comprising the rosemary oil, and a lower layer of water. All we have to do is to decant off the upper layer, and, hey ho, there's our rosemary oil!

Anna had written about the extraction of essential oils using steam distillation in one of the many books she'd authored. However, this is the first time that she's actually seen it done (like me). She seems as pleased as Vanessa and I with the outcome of our first challenge, and it's still only lunchtime on the third day. We've managed to extract a serviceable quantity of rosemary oil from a bundle of dry twigs and leaves. Although there's been little real chemistry involved, this is what chemistry's about – the transformation of one thing into another. Magical.

I feel like some latter-day alchemist. In fact, our 'lab' has already taken on the appearance of an alchemist's den...and the smell. After only one day, we've made our improvised work-space smell like every other chemistry laboratory I've ever been in. Now that's an achievement!

What we have to do now is to find a carrier oil to which we can add our precious rosemary oil extract. We'd noticed on our way up to the prison on the first day, that Capraia was covered in olive trees, so the choice is an obvious one. But how on earth do you extract the oil from olives?

Our first attempt, which involvs Vanessa treading the olives like grapes doesn't work at all; the olives are out of season and far too hard for that method to be effective. My proposed alternative - crushing the olives between two house bricks - isn't much better. In the end, we resort to brute force. Crushing the olives to a pulp in a bucket, using an improvised mallet. Although hard work, it's effective, and before long we've squeezed enough oil out of the olives to serve as a carrier for the essential oil.

Anna, Vanessa and I are so proud when we come to present Kate with the fruits of our three days' labour - an insect repellent produced entirely from the natural resources of our temporary island home.

We've met our first challenge. We can go home comforted by the knowledge that at least we've had some success for the first of the four programmes. But what will the remaining three programmes throw up? Would we be able to meet the remaining challenges as easily as we have this first one? Presented with our initial success, Kate has an unsettling look of mischief about her. What does she know that we don't?




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