Monthly Archives: November 2014

Thermodynamic Whoopee

man without a countryThe success of our students in the MyCopter project inspired me a couple of weeks ago to write about the prospect for flying cars [see post on October 2nd, 2014 entitled ‘Origami car-planes‘], which are not good essentially because we don’t know how to manipulate gravity. Everything in the universe is controlled by four forces, i.e. electromagnetic, gravitational, weak nuclear and strong nuclear. Adam Frank, described our understanding and control of electromagnetic forces as god-like because we can manipulate photons, electrons and atoms with enormous precision in flat screen TVs, mobile phones, microwave ovens and much more.

Strong nuclear forces hold protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of atoms and weak nuclear forces control the fusion process in stars. We have managed to take a few tottering steps to control nuclear forces in nuclear power stations but we are blundering apprentices compared to our skills with electromagnetism. However, with gravitational forces we are like toddlers trying to feed ourselves – we have some idea about what we are supposed to be doing but we waste an enormous amount in trying to hit the target. So we use our expertise in electromagnetism to combust fuel in an engine which drives an aerofoil through air faster enough to generate lift. This usually involves burning vast amount of fossil fuel and it gets worse when you want to hover with rotating blades or a vertical jet. Kurt Vonnegut in a ‘A Man without a Country‘ has described our reckless use of fossil fuel as making ‘thermodynamic whoopee’ but if we want fly long distances with significant payloads we don’t have much choice at the moment.

If physicists could work out how to manipulate gravitational forces it would not take engineers long to design and build flying cars that would be as advanced relative to today’s private jet as your tablet computer is relative to an abaqus.


I was promised flying cars‘ by Adam Frank in the New York Times on June 6th, 2014


‘Crash’ in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue


Taipeo 101

When you land at Taipei Taoyuan International airport, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have arrived at some as yet unvisited Floridian city. The palm-trees, architecture, layout and feel of the terminal is very reminiscent of a major airport in the USA, though perhaps slightly Ballardian. The yellow cabs collecting passengers from the curb outside the spacious terminal reinforce the impression, except that most of them look like a Toyota Prius. But, once you arrive downtown, overtones of a Mods’ weekend at Brighton takeover as scores of scooters roar away from every traffic light when they turn green leaving. In every other way Taipei is a modern, sophisticated Asian city with its towering skyscrapers, including Taipei 101, designer stores, back streets full of tiny shops and busy traffic.

Beijing residents have wholeheartedly taken to the electric motorbike and you have to be careful crossing the road not to be knocked down by these silent two-wheelers. Whereas Taipei residents seem to love their noisy scooters, but Taipei is largely smog-free so maybe there is less incentive to switch to electric bikes.

I said Ballardian above because the road to Taipei from the airport reminded me of the ‘Crash’ by J.G. Ballard. The freeway has been expanded along almost its entire length by constructing additional elevated carriage-ways on both sides, so that on the original freeway you feel fenced in by concrete pillars and bridge-sections.

Some of you might be wondering why I have been wandering around Asia. Well, I visited Beijing and Tianjin [see last week’s post] to give a series of seminars as the Hsue-Shen Tsien Professor of Engineering Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Mechanics. Then, I went to Taiwan to participate in a bilateral workshop with National Tsing Hua University and to meet with research students on our dual PhD programme.  ‘The World is Flat’ as Thomas Friedman wrote and engineers are a driving force in the global economy, so its not unusual to find engineers abroad either on short trips or living overseas.  Yet, I am constantly surprised by the lack of enthusiasm amongst most UK students to participate in international exchanges, even though such experience increases their employability.