Heads in the clouds1 December 2008
Hints about polymer sheets that ‘swim’ in response to electrical signals
The counterintuitive propositions of modern physics ceased surprising me years ago, when I learnt to accept them without thought because they were out of sight above my head. I realised at last that I was an engineer rather than a scientist and I resigned myself to my lot. I do still nibble at new books that promise to clarify the latest ideas for the likes of me, but I remain mystified, even if in different ways.
One well-esteemed populariser whose successive works I have been drawn to by rave
reviews has nearly always left me marvelling at his ability to further confound my confusion. Imagine, therefore, my unworthy sense of vindication when recently I encountered a critique of his latest exposition (the critique appeared in one of the most reputable of international physics journals) and I found the undoubtedly well qualified critic to be indeed inclined to rave about the author, but in my way. And, well qualified as he is, he goes further. He says at the end that the book (published by a top-tier university press) is well worth reading – so that corrections can then be sent in!
I was particularly taken by this reviewer’s choice of error areas. He is scathing not only about the faulty physics of the author (a one-time educator) but also about his grammar. The critic wonders, for instance, at one of the writer’s sentences because it ‘cannot be
parsed in any language’. I wonder in my turn how many of today’s young physicists (or
engineers), of whatever tongue but perhaps
especially English, are conscious that there
exists anything relevant called parsing.
But no amount of parsing could have helped your less-than-gifted columnist to understand fully a fascinating news item elsewhere in the same issue of that international physics journal. The reporter announced ‘serious research’ on the dynamics of a flexible foil immersed in a fluid and moving near a horizontal surface. Investigators have found ‘regions of parameter space’ where a carpet could be wiggled so that it flew, conceivably even bearing a passenger. Engineering applications are admitted to be
unlikely but hints are archly dropped about Harvard University experiments with polymer sheets (covered with rat muscle cells) that ‘swim’ in response to electrical signals.
I may not understand the physics, but I can
easily fantasise about magic carpets doing
worthwhile things in power stations.*
More data may (or may not) blow the mind
Small wind-turbine-generator installations for rooftops and the like have attracted a variety of buyers for a corresponding variety of
reasons. Quite a few of these differently motivated people may be disappointed to hear that a well esteemed UK research establishment has found the fashionable tokens to be of questionable value as CO2 antidotes. In a large
proportion of built-up neighbourhoods the
performance of such non-fossil-fuelled power accessories is not good enough to net a reduced greenhouse-gas-emission after allowance is made for the extra CO2 put into the atmosphere by making, installing and maintaining the
w t g during its lifetime.
I imagine that working out the true total net CO2 ‘cost’ of even so (relatively) simple a
machine as a rooftop w t g is as fraught a
calculation as working out the net life-cycle economic costs of different kinds of power
generating system (eg coal-fired, nuclear etc), and the difficulties have been demonstrated over the years by attempts to rank systems according to economic criteria. But let us suppose that ranking according to CO2 rating can
validly be done.
Do you share any of my sense of foreboding? The day could come when every purchase of goods is compulsorily accompanied by life-cycle emissions data and assorted health
warnings, gifts not only to environmentalists but also to tax collectors, bureaucrats and other predators. Aux armes, citoyens!