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Carriacou Diary: Mike Bullivant

Day 1 — Departure and Arrival

Mmmmm ... I don't know about you, but travelling tires me out. It's such a pity because I love travelling and when it's at someone else's expense, well, that doubles the pleasure. But getting up at 5am to catch the 6.30am train to Gatwick [Airport] kind of takes the edge off things, don't you think? For some reason, I was the last member of the Rough Science team to arrive at the check-in desk — I guess the reason was that I couldn't have caught an earlier train even if I'd wanted to (not without sleeping in an airport terminal anyway).

And I really enjoy the two hours between checking in and departure. What'll it be? Gin or brandy in the duty-free? Then there's the documentary equivalent of "did I turn the gas off before I left?" — you know what it's like — have I got my credit card and passport (even though I must have checked that I have at least 10 times by now)?

Carriacou: a small, beautiful tropical island12 hours later ... and we're in Carriacou and what a magical place it is: a small, beautiful, tropical island to the north of Grenada in the Lesser Antilles. My girlfriend, Cherry, had been here before when she was doing the volcanic field work for her PhD and she'd promised me I'd find it paradise. She was right. But it's very hot — so hot that life takes on (has to take on) a much slower rhythm, a different pace. You have no choice. We have 6 programmes to make — in this heat! Mmm! I like hot weather but — and that's when Kylie came to me — I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky!

I'm anxious about how things are going to go with the filming but at the same time I'm so excited to be with such a vibrant group of people. I'm also feeling a little fraudulent that I'm here, if the truth be told. What makes me so different that I've been chosen for this great adventure in the Caribbean? Time for a little unsettling self-doubt — the side of me that I dislike: the unconfident 'me'. I'm missing Cherry (but then she'll be coming out to join me for the 10-day break in filming in a few weeks' time). Yes, Cherry would tell me "Don't be silly". She'd convince me that the programmes were going to be wonderful and that I shouldn't worry.

I can't wait to get going on the challenges but I want some time to chill out before starting work — we've been talking about this series for so many months, I just want to get on with it now. And that's part of the problem. We've all got a lot riding on it, not to mention the money that the Science Faculty back at the OU have put up to fund the project. What if it all goes horribly wrong? Not that I'm frightened of failing. That's what most science is about — an unsuccessful experiment here, a false piece of logic there. Sure, we're going to fail. Of course we will, somewhere along the way, whatever the challenges are. I just don't want to fail too early on in the series. The words 'faces', 'of', 'lots', 'egg' and 'on' go round and round in my mind. I feel strangely unsettled. Weird.

Anyway, we've two days to relax and prepare and then a comparatively easy first day of filming the intro to [the first episode] and some general views. Who could fail to be happy with that?

Day 3 — First Filming Day

inside the lime factorySo here we are, having completed that first day. A light breakfast then into the van to take us up to the place where we'll be doing the filming — and what a place it is: a disused lime factory (citrus fruits, not the cement variety). Some thought and hard work has gone into preparing this location for us. Thanks to whoever was involved. It's going to be perfect. Set right on the beach, the lime factory's a beautiful site/sight. This to be our Rough Science laboratory for the next seven weeks. And there are cows and donkeys in the field behind us and bats in the roof — could be a useful source of chemicals their droppings! What a place!

We're being directed today (the two directors, David and Sarah, have been planning this for months and it's important we go along with what they want. After all, they have to take control of the opening sequences, in which there's no science. We can't just leave it to chance and freeform in the way that the remaining 18 days of filming will allow. We have to place ourselves in David and Sarah's hands — even if it does mean 20 takes filming our entry to the lime factory while Kate (Humble) opens the programme in the foreground of the shot. This is the one day when their professionalism has to be permitted to interfere with what we're doing. For the rest of the shoot it'll be down to us.... I'm grateful that today they're in the driving seat — tomorrow things will be very, very different.

Day 4 — Paper and Ink

First thing on day one of filming we gather on the beach to record Kate giving out the challenges. Kathy and Mike are to map the northern part of the island. Ellen and I are to make paper and ink, so that their findings can be charted. At the end of day three, we're to produce a map using as many coloured inks as we can squeeze from Carriacou. I like this challenge.

The first task Ellen and I face is to find suitable plant material from which to make the paper. I'm relying completely on Ellen's expertise here. Sure, I've seen paper made before — back in the UK — from stinging nettles. But this is on camera. That's different. Ellen chooses two possible sources of fibre — the silk cotton tree and the milk wood plant. The former is a weird-looking tree with a root system the like of which I've never seen before. The part of the tree we're after are the seeds. These are catkin like, and we need to collect a couple of bucketfuls and then separate the soft fibres from the stalks.

Mike dries his shortsBecause of its sturdy, chain-like molecular structure, cellulose plays a structural role in a plant, supporting its weight. For paper-making, we'll need to break down the long fibrous cellulose molecular structure into shorter chains. These shorter fibres will then more readily be able to form a mesh: what we need for a good paper. To do this, I'll need to produce an alkaline solution of some sort, in which to boil the cellulose fibres. I decide on potash, which is simply made from the ashes from our wood fires dissolved in hot water (boil for 30 minutes) and filtered. The resulting solution turns out to be a surprisingly clear pale yellow liquid with a pH of around 10-11.

This should be adequate to break down the cellulose structure but just to make sure, I prepare some 'fortified' potash by adding slaked lime to half of the potash. To make the lime, it's enough to place some seashells (almost all calcium carbonate) off the beach in the kiln and heat them for a few hours at high temperature. The calcium carbonate is converted into lime (or calcium oxide), which when added to water produces slated lime (or calcium hydroxide).

When you mix slaked lime and potash (from the wood ashes, which contains potassium carbonate), you get a reaction that produces potassium hydroxide and calcium carbonate — a neat chemical dance, in which partners are swapped. Because the calcium carbonate is not very soluble in water, it falls out of solution and gives the liquid mixture a cloudy appearance (thereby confirming the formation of potassium hydroxide). Potassium hydroxide is a much stronger alkali than the potassium carbonate of the potash, with a pH of around 12. We'll try four different combinations in our attempt to break down the cellulose fibres to give paper — the cotton silk with potash and fortified potash, and milk wood with potash and fortified potash. All we need to do is mix the fibres with the alkaline solution and boil the mixture in the kiln for a few hours.

While the four solutions are bubbling away, Ellen and I try to extract some coloured inks from the various plants that she's found on the island. One of the key ingredients is iron sulfate: this not only reacts with the tannins in certain plants like logwood but it also serves as a mordant — the chemical that fixes the pigment to the paper surface. Iron sulfate is easy enough to make — you just take a few iron nails and dissolve them in sulfuric acid from the car battery. The result is a green solution, from which white crystals of iron sulfate (FeSO4) fall out on cooling. I decide to re-crystallize the iron sulfate in order to purify it. Our afternoon is spent mixing various solutions of plant extract in an attempt to get as many colours as we can. Some of these extracts change colour when you add (battery) acid to them and the brightest of the lot we get from the milk wood plant extract mixed with sulfuric acid — a beautiful red. Isn't Nature wonderful?! We've something like ten different coloured inks, most of them fairly dull, it has to be said. But then, that just shows how dull life must have been before the advent of synthetic dyes.

Day 5 — Paper and Ink

Ellen's having problems separating out the short fibres obtained from our alkaline broth. I get the impression that she thinks we're not going to be able to get a paper that's sufficiently good to draw Mike and Kathy's map. I suggest that we should separate out the fibres by hand from the broth. As if by magic, the whole production crew rolls up its sleeves and two hours later, we've a flocculent mass of (short) cellulose fibres that'll do the trick. Problem is, the fibres are darker than we'd like and my attempt to decolourise them by boiling with animal charcoal (hooves in the kiln!) seem to have no effect. We'll have to run with what we've got — a glutinous mass of light-brown fibres. By the end of day two, we need to have the fibres in the press, so that we can squeeze all the water out overnight. I'm confident that once dried the paper we end up producing will be fine. We leave the lime factory at the end of day two with the prospect of an easy third day ahead of us. We've broken the back of the challenge. Tomorrow, Ellen and I can coast a bit.

Day 6 — Paper and Ink

Sure enough, the next morning, when we release the paper from the press, my optimism is rewarded. The fibres, now virtually colourless, have formed a mesh that'll be fine. In fact, our paper looks quite good — nicely rough. All we need to do is dry it off in the sun. If we had longer, maybe the sun would bleach the paper and make it lighter but it doesn't matter; this'll be good enough as it is.

By the time we come to hand the paper over to Mike and Kathy, it's dried completely. Ellen and I have laid it out on a table and decorated it with the ten or so different coloured inks that we've made — each one in a different small shell off the beach. Our display looks quite beautiful — topped off, as it is, with arrangements of flowers and miscellaneous items we've found on the beach — as if to compensate for what is, after all, a largely drab selection of inks. It's up to Kathy and Mike to draw the map but Mikey chooses not to be too closely involved.

Two hours later and the map's drawn. Kathy and Mike's measurements and trigonometry have produced a fairly accurate map of the north part of the island. They've done well. As for our part of the challenge? Well, I don't know how Ellen feels but I'm really pleased — our paper has worked, as have our natural inks. It would've been nice if Kathy had had a few more hours to colour the map in, but despite this, it still looks good. If only we'd had a little more time...

We leave the lime factory at the end of day three satisfied but very tired. The heat and humidity are getting to me. I usually enjoy hot weather and I've never found it a problem but combined with the tension of filming, I find it enervating. I'm looking forward to that first cold beer in the bar when we get back to the hotel and the two rest days ahead of us before we embark on the next programme. Being out here seems strangely dream-like. There's a really bizarre air of unreality about the whole thing. I wish I could enjoy it more but something — whether it's the tiredness, the heat and humidity or the fact that I've been surrounded by people for the last two weeks (an unusual experience for someone like me who values their own space for much of the time) — something's getting in the way. I think I'll go to bed early tonight. Maybe I'll feel better in the morning.