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Science, Maths & Technology

Mike Bullivant's diary: Timepiece

Updated Monday, 28th January 2008

Mike Bullivant's Time and Transmitters diary, from the BBC/OU series Rough Science 2

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Day 1

Coming back to filming after a ten day break, I thought we might all be a little less than enthusiastic but it seems that everyone's returned to work with a vengeance. As for myself, I can't wait to get going but what will the challenges for Programme 3 be? My heart sinks as Kate tells us what they are. Mike L and I are to make a timing device so that we'll be able to tell what the local time is. We're also charged with producing some sort of portable timepiece that the other three can take on their travels in this programme.

As for the other challenges, Kathy and Jonathan have to build a transmitter, a project that lends itself well to getting some science across but there's not a lot of science in clocks or so it seems to Mike L and me. Disappointed, we have a word with Sarah, who's directing us in Programme 3, to see if we can introduce a bit of humour into the challenge. Like the other Mike, I've always felt that an effective way of getting a message across is through humour. The four programmes in the first Rough Science series bear this out, with viewers registering strongly that they liked the fusion of science and fun. Sarah agrees that Jonathan and Kathy are sure to wring as much science out of their transmitter project as they can and she appears to give us free rein to lighten our clock-making act up a bit. That should make it a bit more fun: not only for us but for the viewers too.

We must first decide exactly what kind of clock we can make with our limited resources. We opt for a water clock as there aren't many feasible alternative options - a huge egg timer was one idea we had - see what I mean? The principle of a water clock is simple enough: water's fed at a constant rate from one reservoir into another, thereby raising a float at a fixed, pre-determined rate. Sure, we'll need to calibrate the clock using a sundial but that should be easy enough.

Encouraged by Sarah's enthusiasm for having a laugh, we decide to make use of the biggest thing in the lime factory - the Zeus machine, as it's become known. The Zeus machine is the large outdoor, metal construction that was used to distil the limes. It's 5-6 metres tall and about 10 metres long. It hasn't been used for years and is a little rusty but it'd be great if we could incorporate it into our clock design in some way. It would look so silly! The 'World's Biggest Bong'. Mike L and I cast an eye over it to see how best we can come up with the most outrageous timepiece possible. It's not long before we work out that the large, hollow, metal distillation chambers of the Zeus machine will produce a lovely deep 'bong' if you throw calabash (or even better, coconuts) at them. If we can construct a simple trigger device that's set off by the rising water in our water clock, thereby releasing the coconuts to roll down a ramp of some sort on to the distillation chambers, we're away. (Believe me, the tortured syntax of the last sentence is nothing compared to the extravagance of our bong's ultimate design!) The more we think about the design, the sillier things get and the more outrageous our plans become.


Day 2

We know that there's bamboo on the island and we ask Ellen to bring some back when she scuttles off to High North to film a kite-flying sequence as part of her contribution to Programme 3 (seems that, like us, she's got little to no science this time round. Poor Ellen. Who decides on these challenges? Kite flying for God's sake! What a waste of her time!!)

Anyway, what Mike L and I plan to do is build a set of bamboo tracks running down to each of the three large, metallic chambers on the Zeus machine. The different lengths of bamboo track will ensure that the bongs go off at different times, provided the coconuts are all released at about the same time.

Perhaps the hardest part of this challenge for Mike L and me is filling the upper reservoir with water. For this, we decide to use a 36-gallon barrel because its bulkiness fits in with the rather large scale of the rest of our clock. Mike is scared of heights and it's me who has to scramble over the Zeus machine building the tracking, while Mike sets about constructing the flotation device in the lower reservoir.

Day 3

Before we know it, we've built the biggest timepiece on the island...but will it work? The mechanism that triggers the release of our coconuts is a bit on the sensitive side, as we find out when we come to record it on camera at the appointed hour of 3pm (as determined by Mike L and me).

Our huge timepiece is not all that accurate it seems but at some time around mid-afternoon the water level in the lower reservoir has raised the float enough to trip the release mechanism. By our reckoning, it must be three o'clock. The three coconuts set off down their separate bamboo tracks. Unfortunately, two of them come off the roughly built tracking and smash on the concrete below, so we only actually manage to get one 'bong' out of the clock. Perhaps we've messed around too much over the last three days. Maybe we should have spent more time smoothing down the bamboo tracks so that the coconuts would be less likely to be derailed. There are lots of improvements that we could have made to our timing device but, frankly, I don't think either of us could be bothered. We'd have been hard-pushed to get any more science out of this particular challenge.





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