Slowing down time to think [about strain energy]

161-6167_imgLet me take you bungee jumping.  I should declare that I am not qualified to do so, unless you count an instructor’s certificate for rock-climbing and abseiling, obtained about forty years ago.  For our imaginary jump, pick a bridge with a good view and a big drop to the water below and I’ll meet you there with the ropes and safety gear.

It’s a clear early morning and the air is crisp and fresh – ideal for throwing yourself off a bridge attached to a rope.  The rope is the star of this event.  It’s brand new, which is reassuring, and arrived coiled over my shoulder.  A few days ago, I asked you how much you weigh – that’s your real weight fully clothed, at least I hope that’s the number you gave me otherwise my calculations will be wrong and you’ll get wet this morning!  I have calculated how much the rope will stretch when it arrests your free-fall from the bridge parapet; so, now I am measuring out enough rope to give you an exciting fall but to stop you short of the water.  I’m a professor of structural materials and mechanics so I feel confident of getting this bit right; but it’s a long time since I worked as an abseiling instructor so I suggest you check those knots and that harness that we’ve just tightened around you.

You’ve swung yourself over the parapet and you’re standing on the ledge that the civil engineers conveniently left for bridge jumpers.  The rope is loosely coiled ready with its end secured to a solid chunk of parapet.  As you alternate between soaking up the beautiful view and contemplating the chasm at your feet, you wonder why you agreed to come with me.  At this moment, you have a lot of potential energy due to your height above the sparkling water [potential energy is your mass multiplied by your height and gravitational acceleration], but no kinetic energy because you are standing motionless.  The rope is relaxed or undeformed and has zero strain energy.

Finally, you jump and time seems to stand still for you as the fall appears to be happening in slow motion.  The air begins to rush past your ears in a whoosh as you build up speed and gain kinetic energy [equal to one half your mass multiplied by your velocity squared].  The bridge disappeared quickly but the water below seems only to be approaching slowly as you lose height and potential energy.  In reality, your brain is playing tricks on you because you are being accelerated towards the water by gravity [at about 10 metres per second squared] but your total energy is constant [potential plus kinetic energy unchanged].  Suddenly, your speed becomes very apparent.  The water seems very close and you cry out in surprise.  But the rope is beginning to stretch converting your kinetic energy into strain energy stored by stretching its fibres [at a molecular level work is being done to move molecules apart and away from their equilibrium position].  Suddenly, you stop moving downwards and just before you hit the water surface, the rope hurls you upwards – your potential energy reached a minimum and you ran out of kinetic energy to give the rope; so now it’s giving you back that stored strain energy [and the molecules are relaxing to their equilibrium position].  You are gaining height and speed so both your kinetic and potential energy are rising with that squeal that just escaped from you.

Now, you’ve noticed that the rope has gone slack and you’re passing a loop of it as you continue upwards but more slowly.  The rope ran out of strain energy and you’re converting kinetic energy into potential energy.  Just as you work out that’s happening, you run out of kinetic energy and you start to free-fall again.

Time no longer appears to stationary and your brain is working more normally.  You begin to wonder how many times you’ll bounce [quite a lot because the energy losses due to frictional heating in the rope and drag on your body are relatively small] and why you didn’t ask me what happens at the end.  You probably didn’t ask because you were more worried about jumping and were confident that I knew what I was doing, which was foolish because, didn’t I tell you, I’ve never been bungee jumping and I have no idea how to get you back up onto the bridge.  How good were you at rope-climbing in the gym at school?

When eventually you stop oscillating, the rope will still be stretched due to the force on it generated by your weight.  However, we can show mathematically that the strain energy and deformation under this static load will be half the values experienced under the dynamic loading caused by your fall from the bridge parapet.  That means you’ll have a little less distance to climb to the parapet!

Today’s post is a preview for my new MOOC on ‘Understanding Super Structures’, which is scheduled to start on May 22nd, 2017.  This is the script for a step in week 2 of the five-week course, unless the director decides it’s too dangerous.  By the way, don’t try this home or on a bridge anywhere.

Consensus is just a coffee break

milk in coffee‘Consensus is just a coffee break’ to quote Caputo. He argued that if consensus was the ultimate aim then eventually we would all stop talking. The goal of conversation would be silence and as he wrote that would be a strange outcome for a species defined by its ability to speak. It is differences that drive everything: innovation, progress and the processes of life.

In thermodynamics, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) observed that heat flows into the random motion of molecules and is never recovered, so that eventually a universe of uniform temperature will be created. When heat flows between matter at different temperatures we can extract work, for instance, using a heat engine. No work could be extracted from a universe of uniform temperature and so nothing would happen. Life would cease and there would be cosmic death [see my posts entitled ‘Will it all be over soon‘ on November 2nd, 2016 and ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ on February 18th, 2015].

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the crew of the Heart of Gold contemplated whether relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules. The answer would appear to be affirmative in terms of dissonance being necessary for action.

So, we should celebrate and respect the differences in our communities. They are essential for a functioning, vibrant and successful society – without them life would not just consist of silent conversations but would cease completely.


Caputo JD, Truth: Philosophy in Transit, London: Penguin 2013

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London: Picador, 2002.

More on white dwarfs and existentialism

Image by Sarah

Image by Sarah

When I was writing about cosmic heat death a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Will it all be over soon?’ posted on November 2nd, 2016], I implied that our sun would expire on a shorter timescale of about 4 to 5 billion years but without mentioning what we expect to happen.  The gravitational field associated with every piece of matter is proportional to the mass of the piece of matter and inversely proportional to distance from its centre.  The size of the sun implies it should collapse under its own gravitational forces, except that the fusion of hydrogen in its core causes an outwards heat transfer, which prevents this from happening. The sun remains a sphere of hot gases with diameter of about 864,000 miles by ‘burning’ hydrogen.  When the hydrogen runs out, the gravitational field will take over and the sun is expected to collapse to a 30,000 mile diameter ball of atoms and free electrons, or a white dwarf.

These are all spontaneous processes and so the total entropy must increase although there are some local reductions.  The heat dissipated following the fusion of two hydrogen nuclei generates more entropy in the surroundings than the local reduction caused by the fusion.  The collapse to white dwarf would appear to represent a substantial reduction of entropy of the sun because the atomic particles are crushed together. However, this is countered by the release of photons to the surroundings which ensures that the entropy of the surroundings increases sufficiently to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics.


Isaac Asimov, The roving mind: a panoramic view of fringe science, technology, and the society of the future, London: Oxford University Press, 1987.

An extract is available in John Carey (editor), The Faber Book of Science, London: Faber & Faber, 2005.

Will it all be over soon?

milkywayNASAAs you may have gathered from last week’s post [Man, the Rubbish-Maker on October 26th, 2016], I have been reading Italo Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics.  In one story, ‘World Memory’ the director of a project to document the entire world memory in the ‘expectation of the imminent disappearance of life on Earth’ is explaining to his successor that ‘we have all been aware for some time that the Sun is halfway through its lifespan: however well things went, in four or five billion years everything would be over’.  The latter is one of the scientific conclusions around which Calvino weaves these short stories and this one put into perspective the concerns expressed by some of my students on both my undergraduate course and MOOC in thermodynamics the prospect of a cosmic heat death resulting from the inevitable consequences of the second law of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ on February 18th, 2015].  The second law requires ‘entropy of the universe to increase in all spontaneous processes’.   Entropy was defined by Rudolf Clausius about 160 years ago as the heat dissipated in a process divided by the temperature of the process.  The dissipated heat flows into random motion of molecules from which it is never recovered.  So, as William Thomson observed, this must eventually create a universe of uniform temperature – an equilibrium state corresponding to maximum entropy where nothing happens and life cannot exist.   Entropy has been increasing since the Big Bang about 13.5 billion years ago.  And as Calvino writes, the sun is about halfway through its life – it is expected to collapse into a white dwarf in 4 to 5 billion years when its supply of hydrogen runs out.  These are enormous timescales: the first human cultures appeared about 70,000 years ago [see my post ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016]  and history would suggest that our civilization will disappear long before the sun expires or cosmic heat death occurs.  A more immediate existential threat is that our local production of entropy on Earth destroys the delicate balance of conditions that allows us to thrive on Earth.  See my post on Free Riders on April 6th, 2016 for thoughts on avoiding this threat.


Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics, London: Penguin Books, 2002.


Revisiting closed systems in nature


It is the beginning of the academic year and once again I am teaching introductory thermodynamics to engineering undergraduate students and my MOOC entitled ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ is running in parallel.  Last week after my lecture on thermodynamic systems, a student approached me to ask whether the universe is a closed and isolated system.  It’s an interesting question and the answer is depends on the definition of universe.   In thermodynamics, we usually define a boundary to delineate the system of interest as everything inside the boundary and everything else are the surroundings.  The system and surroundings taken together are the universe (see my post ‘No beginning or end‘ on February 24th, 2016).  If the universe is defined as the system then there are no surroundings; hence the system cannot exchange energy or matter with anything which is the definition of a closed and isolated system.

Physicists often refer to the observable universe, or define the universe as everything we can observe.  We are aware that we cannot observe everything.  Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that the observable universe exchanges energy and matter with the unobservable space beyond it, in which case the observable universe is an open system.  We could also consider the concept that we are part of multiverse and our universe is only one of many, in which case it seems likely that is not isolated, i.e. it can exchange energy, and perhaps it is open, i.e. it can exchange both energy and matter with other parts of the multiverse.

This is not really thermodynamics in everyday life.  However, the occurrence of closed systems in nature appears to interest a lot of people to judge from the visits to my previous posts on this topic.  See ‘Closed Systems in Nature?‘ on  December 12th, 2012; Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter? on December 10th, 2014; and ‘No Closed Systems in Nature‘ on August 12th, 2015. For more about system boundaries, see my post entitled ‘Drawing Boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012.