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David Cameron, Nick Clegg and superconductors… oh and Vivienne Westwood and climate change!

By Marion E Brooks-Bartlett, on 14 June 2012

So this sounds kind of weird to you, right? Well, let me start by explaining what a superconductor is and then we’ll see from there.

Superconducting materials are those that can conduct electricity with no resistance, so electrons just glide through a superconducting wire happily, unlike in a material such as copper where the electrons experience resistance and hence more power is needed to keep electrons flowing.

In magnetic resonance imaging – which is used in radiology to visualise internal structures of the body – superconducting material is arranged as a closed-loop coil. Since another consequence of being superconducting is that the material becomes magnetised – known as the Meissner effect – if you supply power to the material once and it’s in a closed loop, the electrons just keep going round and round, even if you then remove the power supply, and there you have it… a magnet that will stay on for some months.

They’re also using superconductors in the study of nuclear fusion, so they’re very important types of material. The small print to all of this, of course, is that you need to keep the superconducting material at temperatures close to absolute zero (4K with liquid helium), otherwise you will exceed the transition temperature by which this effect works.


Mark Lythgoe speaking at superconductors seminar

So now I guess you’re wondering what this has to do with David Cameron and Nick Clegg?! Well how does theory explain ? as one of the speakers at the talk ‘Superconductors’ explained the superconducting phenomenon is all to do with ‘Cooper pairs’ – pairs of electrons that are bound together by some complicated interaction

So, like the coalition of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, you have the most unlikely pair who normally would repel each other, bound together; but, when the temperature gets too hot, this binding feature wears off and the parties retreat back to their original characteristics!

Mark Lythgoe, Steve Cowley and Stephen Bundell were a brilliant panel and hosted a really informative discussion, as you can probably tell.

As for Vivienne Westwood, the audience was definitely just as entertained; however, they probably didn’t come out much more informed about how fashion can help to mitigate climate change.

What was interesting about this talk was that in comparison to my first blog where I said “schoolchildren were coming from all angles”, this time, it was women with all different types of heels coming from left, right and centre.

It made me wonder how many of these people were scientists? And was this their first and last time of coming to this science festival?! It seems as though Vivienne Westwood attended to almost “bridge the gap” between fashion and scientists.

Vivienne Westwood
Vivienne Westwood at the book signing

Vivienne said that she sees herself as “an ambassador to get everyone involved” in this hot topic. She even wore a dress that she’d designed with a tree on the front to represent the marriage of humanity and mother nature, while on the back, there was a world map, where the countries in red would be uninhabitable while if global temperatures rose by +5°C with only the green ones surviving. From what I saw, only the western world survives (as usual, if you ask me!).

She also said that climate change is a consequence of the economy: the financial crisis has occurred because we have used up all the valuable resources that we have. She also talked on for quite a while about buying fewer clothes and using them more times, and so valuing quality over quantity.

Then the questions kicked in and it was all bomb shells! One in particular was: “You’re a fashion leader and smaller companies follow your trends/copy your work, don’t you think that with this influencing power you could make a stand and only use sustainable material and environmentally friendly manufacturing so that these smaller companies will follow?’ (slightly reworded).

The answer to that question was (and this is the cut version): “I don’t have time, I design. The most I can do is stop a piece of clothing that runs by me and ensure that it’s using better material before it goes through to market, but I don’t have time to ask about every piece of clothing that comes out or find out what material every piece of clothing is made out of.” The answer eventually ended with “Sorry, I just can’t help you.”

What I learned from the talk is her absolute loathing for jeans, that she eats only vegetables and fruit, and loves the human race and James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. And those people who hadn’t angrily walked out of the talk midway (largely scientists), still happily went to her book signing afterwards.

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