Alexander Graham Bell – the man behind the inventor

Of course I’ve heard of Alexander Graham Bell. I know that he is credited with inventing the telephone. I know that there is some controversy surrounding this claim and that some people believe that he stole the idea from another inventor called Elisha Gray. I know that despite this, he was the first to patent the telephone and his patent held up in a court case. I know that the first words he is supposed to have spoken over the telephone were, “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

What I didn’t know until recently, was that he was known as more than an inventor. On a trip to the Science Museum in London I was curious to see that the display about Alexander Graham Bell was BSL interpreted – the only exhibit in the whole museum that was as far as I had seen. Intrigued, I approached the display and read that Alexander Graham Bell had supposedly said that of all the things he had done, the achievement he was most proud of was his work with deaf people.

As I have an interest in education for deaf people, using my BSL to work as a supply teacher in a school for deaf children, my curiosity was sparked and I decided to find out more about him.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1847 to Eliza and Alexander Bell, and as his father and grandfather were both elocution teachers, it was probably inevitable that he would become involved in communication.

His interest in deafness began at the age of 12 when his mother started to go deaf. He used to sit by her and spell the conversations into her hand so that she didn’t miss out on what was happening around her. He also realised that if he spoke quite closely to her forehead she could hear him. He worked out that she was actually feeling the vibrations of his voice, and this became useful in his later research.

In 1870 he moved to Canada with his family, and the following year they moved again to the USA, where Bell began teaching deaf people to speak, using a system called “visible speech” which his father had invented.

In 1872 he founded the school in Boston where he taught deaf children and also trained Teachers of the Deaf. His most famous pupil was Helen Keller. His interest in speech led to an interest in transmitting speech, and after much experimentation and a neck-and-neck race with Elisha Gray, he was granted a patent for the telephone in 1876.

In 1880 he was awarded the Volta Prize for his invention and he used the money to continue researching communication and ways to teach the deaf. By this time he had also married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, one of his former pupils, who was profoundly deaf.

With all this work with and for deaf people, at first it seems strange that he isn’t better known for this, and regarded as an important historical figure in the Deaf community. However, attitudes were less enlightened back then. Deafness was seen as something that needed to be cured, and if possible, eradicated. Bell taught deaf people to speak clearly so that they could be understood by hearing people and integrated into the hearing world and he believed that sign language was wrong. Although I have not heard anything that suggests he did as some other teachers did, and tie pupils’ hands behind their backs to prevent them from signing, there is little doubt that he tried to suppress sign language. He had also noticed that there seemed to be a link between deaf parents and deaf children, and even went so far as to suggest that deaf people should not be allowed to marry or to have children, so that deafness could be erased from the population! It is for these reasons that he is understandably not respected by the Deaf community.

It can only be hoped that were he alive today he would have very different views. As it is, perhaps it is for the best that he is only remembered as the inventor of the telephone.

Batty about Bats

Bats often have a bad reputation, with people fearing that they will get bitten or have them fly into their hair – neither of which will happen.

These much maligned creatures are absolutely fascinating. The old English word for a bat – flittermouse, and the German word Fledermaus – suggest that bats are mice with wings and yet they are actually more closely related to humans than they are to mice.

We humans could learn a lot from this cousin of ours. Unlike many animals, some bats have been known to be altruistic. If one of their colony has not eaten well on a feeding excursion, others will feed it by regurgitating a little of their own food into its mouth, even though they have nothing to gain from doing this.

Bats account for a quarter of all mammals in the UK and 20% of mammals worldwide. They are the only mammals which aretruly able to fly – flying squirrels only glide. They are split into two types: megabats, which eat fruit and microbats, which eat insects. There are 18 different species in the UK, all of which are micro bats.

Despite the saying “as blind as a bat”, bats are not blind – they just have limited vision. They mostly navigate by echolocation – emitting sounds and judging the position of things by the way the sound bounces back to them. Imagine bouncing a ball against a wall and catching it. The further from the wall you stand, the longer it takes for the ball to bounce back to you. This system is so sophisticated that bats can detect insects in flight, and catch them to eat. And if it can detect something as small as an insect, there is no way it’s not going to notice you, so it won’t ever get close enough to tangle itself in your hair.

Each species of bat emits their sounds at slightly different frequencies, and bat detectors can be used to pick this up and convert them into a lower frequency sounds that the human ear can hear. By taking the frequency and flight pattern into consideration it is possible to work out what sort of bat you can see.

Why not take a walk along a river, or around a lake after the sun has gone down, and take a few moments to appreciate these not-too-distant relatives of ours?

Thirty (one) days wild

I started 30 days wild a day early.

I was filling in the garden watch survey for Springwatch and one of the questions asked how much of your garden is paved over. I thought about it and decided the answer was rather more than needed to be…so I decided to give our patio area back to nature.

Luckily Ian is used to my impulsive decisions by now so he was happy to go along.

Phase one has been digging up half the area (which included digging up a whole pile of concrete that we didn’t know was under there), replacing the hole where the concrete used to be with a mix of soil and compost, and scattering grass seed to turn it into a lawn area.

When the grass has established itself, phase 2 will be to move the picnic table across to the grassy side, and then to take up the other half of the slabs and to turn that into a wildflower area.

Hopefully the birds will enjoy having this extra area of grass to look for food in and other wildlife will find a welcoming environment below the grass to thrive in.

Patio area with some slabs lifted. Lumps of concrete showing through at the front.
Starting to take the slabs up….
Patio area with all slabs taken up on the rightt hand side. No soil and big lumps of concrete.
All the slabs are up so now to tackle the concrete. Aaaagh – it goes down a long way!
Patio area with table and a pile of slabs on the left and grass-seeded area on the right.
Area filled with a soil/compost mix, levelled off and scattered with grass seed.
Patio area with picnic table on slabs on the left hand side and grass-seeded area on the right.
Paving slabs gone (thank you nice couple who took them off our hands!) and Phase One is complete.

An Astronomy Enthusiast’s Dream Weekend

Recently my husband and I took my Dad away for a couple of days of sheer geekery. On the Saturday we went to Jodrell Nank, and on the Sunday to the National Spaceguard Centre.

At Jodrell Bank we (obviously) made a beeline for the Lovell telescope. It’s impossible to get an idea of how huge it is just from pictures or by seeing it from the road, but when you stand next to it it’s really awe-inspiring. You have to switch off your phones on arrival because they could pick up the signal from your phone if it were on Mars (one of the many geek facts we learned during the day) so having that signal on site really messes up their data.

There’s a hands-on activity centre (supposedly for the little ones, but the “big children” seem to enjoy it just as much!) where you can find out how we detect planets from beyond our solar system and hear the sound of the Big Bang (which is not actually a bang at all)!

Probably my favourite thing there was the infra-red camera. Most people standing in front of it showed up as orange and red. My husband, who is always warm and who wear shorts throughout the winter, showed up as a bright yellow. His image glowed like something supernatural – or for those of you old enough to remember, like the boy in the Ready Brek advert! I’m the opposite. I’m always complaining that I’m cold – even in summer – so when my image showed up as black (nose, cheekbones and fingertips) and purple (everywhere else) I was able to point out that it’s not all in my mind. I don’t just feel colder than everyone else, I really am colder!

With hindsight, I wouldn’t have bothered with the tour as we didn’t find out anything from the guide that we hadn’t already read on the display boards, but for anyone who prefers to have all the information condensed into a 45 minute talk it’s probably well worth it. There are lots of displays ranging from beautiful photos of space, to explanations of how radio telescopes work, how and why telescopes all over the world are linked, and a real-time display of the data being received by the Lovell telescope.

Aside from the astronomy stuff there are gardens to explore – a little chilly in the winter but probably beautiful in the summer – and a hide tucked away from where you can sit and watch the birds come and go.

The Spaceguard Centre was very different. It’s small, it’s in the middle of nowhere and it’s the ultimate in geekery. It’s just a husband and wife team and as it’s a working lab, not a visitor centre, you have to book onto a tour to visit. It’s the only place in the UK that monitors near-Earth objects, so if we are about to be hit by an asteroid, these are the people who will tell us. There were only the three of us who braved the cold that day so we had a very private tour. We got to see samples of asteroids, maps of all the places around the world that have been hit by asteroids, and saw data about near-Earth objects that need to be checked out. We learnt how accurately they can pinpoint where an asteroid will land and the role Jupiter plays (good and bad) when it comes to asteroid activity.

I won’t give away too much because, as they get no funding from the government, they rely on the money made from people visiting. We found it fascinating and for anyone with an interest in science who wants something a bit different to do, it’s a definite recommendation!

A Pint of Science and an Astronaut

Tonight I met the man with the coolest job title in the universe…Space Shuttle Pilot!  I spent the evening at Birmingham University at an event organised by Pint of Science. It was three hours but the time went so fast it felt more like three minutes.

There was a brief talk by two professors, one talking about the search for exoplanets and the other talking about her research into antimatter. And then there was a longer talk / Q&A session by Tony Antonelli – he of the cool job title – and we were entertained and amazed in equal measure.  It was lovely to see such a mix of ages in the auditorium, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.

The wisest words of the evening though came from one of the hosts, who said, “Remember – this man wasn’t born an astronaut.” I think that’s such an important message for our children. No-one is born anything. If you have a dream, and you work hard and you make good choices you can achieve great things.

If the Pint of Science Astronomy Tour is heading your way, I definitely recommend that you go.

me with Tony Antonelli, a NASA astronaut!