Deep frozen SQuID

Procrastination, when taken seriously, is as much an art as anything else.  If one sets one’s mind to it in a positive way then you can even take it to a whole new level and procrastinate about procrastinating…  Procrastinating, when you are a writer is never quite as satisfying as for other people, because really you are working – thinking about the next plot point, coming up with an appropriate idiosyncrasy for a character and so on.  Even reading as procrastination comes into this category, because essentially it is research.  That’s what we tell ourselves anyway.  If you want another thought on procrastination, then you should take a look at Isa-Lee Wolfe’s ‘P’ in her April AtoZ postings .

I mention Isa-Lee, because one recent bout of procrastination is entirely her fault, and doubtless she will fail to be ashamed of this.  She is even the cause of multi-level procrastination, because right now I should be working on some other writing, but I have to get this idea out of my head because it is distracting me.  It is, if you will, the Right Write Rite, to exorcise my brain so that I can concentrate on other things.

Why is it Isa-Lee’s fault?  Well, with a lack of consideration that you would expect from a writer, her ‘D’ post in the same AtoZ challenge was a discount on one of her books – yes, she is a true professional writer and has multiple books available for relatively modest sums of money.  As I have been meaning to read her stuff for a while, it seemed foolish not to take advantage of the deal, although perhaps in the end I am a bigger fool, as now her other four books are on the TBR pile (which, frankly, is starting to reach ridiculous proportions).  But the book I read is simply that good you see.

Imagine, if you will, one of the finest of English institutions – the Goon Show.  Whilst Isa-Lee is not one of them (at least not directly), the Goon Show has influenced many writers and comedians since the 1950s.  The show was characterised by an ensemble cast of recurring characters (all voiced mainly by Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, initially with support from Michael Bentine, and with occasional help from Harry Secombe, who was more usually the hero/butt of all the jokes, Neddy Seagoon).  The format of each episode could roughly be described as a series of catchphrases and sound effects, linked together in what could loosely be described as a plot, with a couple of musical pitstops along the way.  The show was pioneering in many respects, including the involvement of announcer Wallace Greenslade, who was really a BBC continuity announcer, but who became a part of the team in his role as Wallace Greenslade, BBC continuity announcer.  He even had his own episode – The Wallace Greenslade Story.  I can’t hope to capture the brilliance of their work, especially in a post that is supposed to be nothing to do with them.  For me, the one flaw in the execution, is that the ‘plot’ – again, please forgive me for using the word in such a loose sense – is frequently extremely flimsy.  The connection between different (plot) elements is tentative and sometimes the story seems to run out of steam and just end, rather than conclude.

I read Isa-Lee’s novel “Aunty Ida’s Full Service Mental Institution* (*By Invitation Only)“, not quite in one gollop (as Roald Dahl might have said), but in as few sittings as I could possibly manage.  The characters really get under your skin and there is the same kind of inspired lunacy that you might get from an episode of the Goons – but here the story comes to a very satisfying conclusion and isn’t just carried by well-beloved characters and their catch phrases.  Oh no.  Everything is meticulously thought through and I can imagine that there have been a lot of readers who have got to the end and enjoyed the comedy aspects and then said “but I don’t like sci-fi!” – and vice versa.

But I digress:  whilst I heartily recommend that you go out and buy this book, read it, and demand further instalments to be written swiftly, I am, in fact on a third level of procrastination.  This post is supposed to be a proper “back of the envelope calculation” albeit one prompted by this book.  I am doing my best not to discuss the plot in too much detail as I do not want to give any of the story away, especially the more than satisfactory twists and revelations.  I do, however, have to introduce Aunty Ida in a little more detail so as to provide the requisite background for the maths involved.

Aunty Ida, who is not, in fact, anyone’s biological aunty (at least not yet), and is not (despite my initial speculation) late middle-aged or Hungarian, is a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, who is at the – let us be kind – extreme fore-front of scientific research in the area.  Her institution is cloaked (hence, by invitation only).  If she has seen further than her colleagues, this is in part because she has stood on the shoulders of giants, and her family and friends, and also because she has risked more.  She has risked more, and consequently had more…not failures, but unexpected outcomes, and she has turned all these to account.  Not only is her institution cloaked but it utilises various perception filters and other technology to make it seem larger than it really is and indeed to make it larger as required.

Aunty Ida likes her gadgets.  She is constantly tinkering with things and she has built her own magnetoencephalograph (‘Meg’).  Such devices are somewhat similar to EEGs, but instead of measuring electrical currents, they look for subtle changes in magnetic fields.  How subtle?  Well typically we’re talking 0.00000000000001% of the magnetic field generated by a fridge magnet.  Such a device helps researchers look at what is going on inside your head.  In an act of prescience worthy of Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke, Isa-Lee describes a set-up that has actually been trialled in Japan, although Aunty Ida predates this research by several years.  (Aunty Ida is also still achieving significantly better results than the ‘real world’ – the study suggests 60% accuracy: I’ve not done a great deal of investigation, but there is the usual back and forth amongst the people who posts comments.  60% might be optimistic, or it might not; the technology might be capable of improvement, or it might not.  We’ll have to wait and see.

Meg (“Some people might call it M-E-G, but I think Meg sounds friendlier”) relies on the support of ‘Squidy’ or superconducting quantum interference device(s).  This is what first gave me pause for thought.  SQuID.  I’ve heard of these, haven’t I?  Superconducting…doesn’t that mean it needs to be supercoooled?  I did some digging to refresh my memory and, yes, the non-cephalopod version is indeed a supercooled device, traditional versions needing liquid helium to function.  So called ‘high temperature’ versions are available now, which only require liquid nitrogen to cool them.  Whilst high temperature versions can’t achieve the same level of precision as liquid helium cooled versions, they’re pretty good, and besides, liquid helium is a bit harder to come-by even since the US government decided to sell of its surplus a few years ago, and substantially more expensive – liquid helium will set you back of the order of US$5/litre, whilst liquid nitrogen is a snip at about 10 cents for the same amount.  We should note that the helium that comes in a cylinder to fill balloons with is the same element, but not in the same state. Similarly, we can buy gas bottles of nitrogen, but it is not going to cut it in this context.

So, how much liquid nitrogen does Aunty Ida need?  Where does she store it?  (We’ll ignore the fact that her facility is in the middle of no-where, and assume that it gets delivered – perhaps someone else in the nearby town uses some).  Meg requires an array of SQuID, and because this is not my field and because I’m assuming that Ida has a) built her own and b) requires a particular set up, and because it will make the maths a little bit easier, I’m going to assume that Squidy is an array of 50 SQuID.  I found a paper that uses a micro-fluidic channel approach to cool SQuID, and they suggest a flow rate of 0.05 m/s in channels that are 30 mm long and either 100 x 500 um or 100 x 1500 um.  On that basis, it takes a slice of liquid nitrogen a little over half a second to travel the length of the channel.  That slice is around 0.0000002% to 0.0000006% of a square metre.  So the volume of the channel is refreshed almost twice a second, and there are 50 volumes:

50 x (100 x10-6 x 1500 x10-6 x 30 x 10-3) x 1.67 = 3.57 x 10-7 m3/s or 0.000357 litres per second.

That’s not so bad, although it builds up over time.  You’d need nearly a litre and half per hour, and I suspect that this is the sort of device that needs to be kept cool even whilst it’s not running, so you start talking about thirty or so litres a day and over two hundred to run it for a week.  That’s pretty fierce for essentially a private individual, although it comes in at about $22 a week to buy the nitrogen…although then you have to store it.


One of the things that occurred to me whilst I was writing the above is that a) Ida is towards the fruit-loop end of the scale, b) liquid helium probably would work better c) you can actually get disposable bottles of (non-liquid) helium for parties.  This wouldn’t give you loads, but a canister is much more reasonably priced (depending on how you figure the economics of these things and probably easier to get posted out to you when you live in the boondocks.

One of the big concerns that I, and indeed many others have, is that helium is the one exception to what is, generally speaking, Earth’s closed loop system.  Most chemicals don’t go anywhere because of the atmosphere, gravity and various other effects, but helium is both light and inert and therefore is prone to escaping from the atmosphere – we’re losing it faster than it gets topped up by any (minimal) input from the solar wind.  On that basis, you might argue that CERN is irresponsible not so much from the incredibly minor possibility of producing an antimatter explosion, but rather from the point of view of that it is using up a finite resource.  If we can solve fusion, then the problem might be alleviated.  Anyway.

Having gone down the line of argument that Ida uses LN 2 , it does occur to me that she probably has the skill set to create her own liquid helium from party-balloon canister stock.  She is probably also adept enough to recover the helium at a reasonably high rate and recycle it effectively.  That would take a lot of plant, but might explain why she is so stony-broke…


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