Monthly Archives: January 2018

Whales and WW1 – what’s the link?

I have been reading Ranulph Fiennes fascinating book, Cold – somewhat appropriate mid way through a Kazakh winter. Amongst the many parts of his adventures that made me go ‘wow’ there were also many thing I didn’t know about. One of these things was the link between whales and WW1. Ranulph had been talking about the development of the whaling industry over time and the impact it had had on the wildlife and the humans involved.

“During the First World War, when humans turned on themselves the same destructive energies that they had once directed at the whales, the demand for Antarctic whales increased. It was the first ‘modern’ war, and the large-scale use of artillery bombs stoked the world demand for glycerine, the derived primarily from whale oil, to make explosives.”

The glycerine was a by-product of the soap industry – the soap having been made from whale oil. The glycerine was combined with nitric acid creates a liquid explosive that makes a very Big Bang. It was also used in the making of cordite that, in 1889 replaced gunpowder giving a less corrosive bang for guns.

Whale oil also proved a very effective lubricant for rifles and other military machine being non-corrosive and it’s ability to keep liquid even in low temperatures. It was used to allow jute fibres to be spun and then used to make the sandbags for trench warfare. The oil proved an effective treatment for trench foot. It was used as fuel in trench stoves. Whale grease was used by the first pilots to protect their faces.

On the home-front, whale oil was used to make margerine when the supply of fats and butter became in short supply.


How cold is cold?

On this, the coldest day so far this Astana winter I started to wonder about cold, why do we have three different scales to measure it?

Daniel Gabriel Farenheit, created the temperature scale named after him in 1724. The scale is now defined by two fixed points: freezing of water at 32F and boiling water at 212F. Today, in the majority of countries this scale has been replaced by the Celsius scale – except for the US!

Celsius or centigrade? Before being renamed in 1948 to honour Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius who created this temperature scale in 1742, the unit was called centigrade from the Latin centum meaning 100 and gradus, steps. This scale is now based on 0C for the freezing point of water and 100C for the boiling point of water – originally it was the other way round.

The Kelvin scale is named after William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin a Belfast born and Glasgow educated engineer and physician. His search for an ‘infinite cold’ at the end of the 18th century lead to the absolute scale with the kelvin being the unit of temperature measurement in science. ┬áThe Kelvin and Celsius scales are used together in science and engineering – temperatures given in degrees Celsius and intervals given in kelvins. Absolute zero 0K is -273C – where all things freeze!


Toothpaste freezes at -60C…