Not in the Media


The movers and shakers of the media live by the word and the image: therefore they attend only to those with a rich word stock or some excited footage. Discuss.


The Lad is in one of his periodic bouts of surly introspection about how the world owes engineering, if not the continuous, close attention that his ego suggests, at least more frequently a proper look.

Today – a random day – triggered this when he noticed some randomly spaced topics in the press.

Eight hundred or so smartly written words are given over to a theatre director and an actor performing a version of Macbeth single handed in Gdansk, Poland. It spoke of how they both got there, the problems of the rehearsals, the highly strung performances and, finally the relief when it was all over. Deeply realistic, technical, and actorly detail there was on the struggles of the actor. The worries of the director radiated from every word.

One thousand words and five full colour images [two being full page] tell us about  a music radio station broadcasting a wide variety of pop and jazz globally from the UK. The pivot of the article is their disc jockey. Oh yes, by the way, the DJ is young ,female with long blonde hair of course.

A review noted that a book had been published of a lost novel by Jack Kerouac, “The Sea is my Brother”. He, at the age of 20, had sailed with the American merchant navy for all of three months. Hallo? The insubstantiality of this miniscule scrap of experience bearing the weight of the title and plot of a first novel claiming realism was accepted without comment.

Trying to avoid being too patronising or obnoxious, these are solemn delineations of the fine detail of transitory matters. The Lad wants to know how we get frequency of media attention devoted to the less transitory engineering.

An easy answer is that the topic is not ‘interesting’ or that such a question “tells us more about the questioner than about the world”. Too slick: we need a more thoughtful answer. It’s not “Culture” you say? But it is or at least should be when the machines and their makers shape our world or fill our field of view in some places or modify our behaviour. Another easy answer is ‘It’s boring.’ Or ‘It’s not interesting.’ This may well be true but why is it not interesting or boring? It needs to be more than an answer of better writing: provide constructive detail.

Real engineers have struggles and triumphs. They are of every technical, personal and gender stripe: there are chemical, civil, mechanical, electrical, stress and production engineers There is an end-product or sometimes a dramatic failure: a true, rich textured creation to end on.

Hell! Is it back to the rich verbosity and the exciting or excited footage?

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.

UK enters Swedish Turf

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering” certainly has a ring to it.

The Lad is glad to see the announcement of a big new prize devoted to Engineering excellence. Its aspiration to be equivalent to a Nobel Prize by being open to engineers across the globe shows admirable boldness and determination.

Was it a problem The Lad wonders, that this global reach made it more or less difficult to raise the money from the financial backers in the engineering industry . Depends if they have a global presence themselves, he supposes. The website says they are BAE Systems, BG Group, BP, GlaxoSmithKline, Jaguar Land Rover, National Grid, Shell, Siemens, Sony, Tata Consultancy Services and Tata Steel Europe. That’s seven UK or UK based companies and four non-UK based companies.

A group of the great and the good have so far have been appointed to be Trustees to manage the endowment fund and thus deliver the Prize. The Lad is reluctant to venture into the political [with a small ‘p’] snake pit but he thought it worth having a quick look from an idiosyncratic standpoint at their engineering antecedents.  They are

Lord Browne of Madingley [Chairman of the Trustees] who seems to have started as a Physics graduate and a BP apprentice forty-four years ago. The plan seems to be that he is there to provide serious gravitas via the enormous chemical and petroleum engineering clout of his BP past.

His fellow trustees are

Sir John Parker, who studied Naval Architecture and Mechanical Engineering at the College of Technology and Queen’s University, Belfast and began as a member of a shipbuilding design team forty-seven years ago. He is chosen as, presumably, the nearest they knew in the London network to an engineering creative;

Sir Paul Nurse is a geneticist [geneticist!?] and cell biologist and won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004 and can only have been chosen to offer, one imagines, judgement on the benchmark to the Nobel standard, and

Mala Gaonkar is a Harvard economics graduate and 1996 MBA presumably will monitor the care of the endowment funds in the maw of the City.

The Government Chief Scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington is a biologist and has accepted an invitation to be an adviser. His is the task of advising the Trustees on how, when required, to screw a response out of the government departments. Sorry! Guess it would be better to say ‘how to press the hot buttons‘.

Anji Hunter, who was an history graduate 23 years ago and sometime advisor and Director of Government Relations to Tony Blair, has been appointed Director of the Prize. Because ‘administrator’ is no sort of term for an engineering outfit, can The Lad suggest that she takes to herself the title of ‘Clerk of the Works’. Now this has a good engineering flavour and a long pedigree. Nay! An ancient pedigree it has; far older than that of ‘Prime Minister’ for example. As a job, it dates back to the reign of Edward the First when such a Clerk was the vital organiser of the building of those mammoth civil engineering feats: the Castles in North Wales around 1285.

A fine group. All the men have lately spent many more long years at the stellar managerial, coal face than at the engineering design scheme. They will appoint a judging panel next year who will include additional members presumably. It will be interesting to see who they turn out to be.

He notes that all, or at least the head office, has not ventured to far from the warmth of Westminster. Carlton House Terrace,SW1, darling!

Well, even if the current staff, sorry – Trustees, do not clearly have ‘engineer‘ running right through them like seaside rock, The Lad wants to give them the benefit of any doubt and wishes them success in making the Prize a glittering success and all engineers proud of them. He will be watching them.

How will the MacRobert Award fare now?

Don’t come in from the cold.


There was an item in the Sunday Times gossip column-cum-Diary on Sunday 6 February 2011 that caught the eye of The Lad. He cannot give you a hyperlink to it because the website of the newspaper seems to be subscription only. He does not subscribe and probably nor do you.

A man in the UK Lakeland was boasting that he had a refrigerator that was 55 years old and still going strong and he hoped to pass it on in his family. It crystallised a feature that, as an engineer, The Lad has often noted: the longevity, usually without any maintenance, of the domestic fridge.

In his view this is simply because most fridge’s components are lowly loaded and the loads and temperatures are almost constant. The electric motor and its pump are very quiet which indicates that they are not running highly loaded and at their limits. The rest of the components such as the radiator at the back and chilling coils inside pretty well stay warm and cool respectively throughout the day and, indeed, its life. High loads and big temperature swings are frequently the cause of failures in engineering.

Contrast this with the domestic washing machine and spin drier. The Lad makes the point that these machines tend to be less reliable than the fridge. This, he says, is due to the different duty imposed on their components. The washer drier does not operate, like the fridge, continuously. It is always being switched on and off. The drum and motors are frequently powered up and down and operate at quite high loads. The drum and the bearings are spun up and down to high speeds under high, frequently off balance, forces. The systems within the machine frequently see high temperature spikes due to the heating of the washing water which is rather corrosive due to the detergent loads. The rubbery seals are pushed to their limit during every wash cycle. On top of all this, every component of an increasingly complex machine design is packed tightly in a hot, vibrating environment.

Unless somebody out there can disagree with The Lad.

The Mighty Hunter felled by the Coalition

The gripping intro to the written BBC report begins

In a distant corner of a fenced-off site in Cheshire a fleet of Nimrod MRA4 warplanes which cost taxpayers more than £4bn are being turned into scrap.


The video footage on the main News bulletin that night certainly made The Lad wince. It was shot from a helicopter and showed an area surrounded by high tarpaulin and steel screens between two hangars. Within are the tattered chunks of a fuselage heaped beside another Nimrod that is clearly to be the next victim of the advancing dinosaur of a demolition machine. Both the remnants and the more-or-less complete aircraft shell have the matt, olive sheen of the treated aluminium skin of a part-finished aircraft. The RR engines have already been removed and they will at least have been saved for use in some other aircraft.

Was it wanton mindless destruction, or, as Unite’s John Fussey described it, the dismantling as ‘barbaric vandalism’?

It is fortunate that engineering design is not a function like entropy that can only be degraded by use. If it had been, then the destruction of these planes without going into service [that is some sort of use] would be more painful still. But bring the attentions of these engineers that worked on the Nimrod to another project and they will fire up other ideas into reality.

This report says that the project was 10 years in the making. The Lad has read somewhere else rather that they were 10 years late in delivery. The Wikipedia story, , is very detailed and seems to confirm his memory. This and £4 billion of sunk costs and £2 billion to operate are eye watering and show that this is not a good engineering project. Whether it is the MoD or BAe that is to blame for beginning and sustaining this project is an entirely different question.

The eternal question: Can you answer for it?

[This post was triggered by a particular picture that I planned to include in this post. I found though that the license to show it was too expensive. It can be viewed at the link below or via any search engine under the terms ‘image Concorde accident’. See note at the end of the post]

The Lad knows of few photographs (of Concorde aflame at takeoff) that show so clearly the threat that hangs over engineers as they seek to do their job. There is a harsh graininess in the image that is common to the records of tragedies.  

At their maximum take-off thrust, several times greater than at any other time in the flight, there is a shouting roaring from the engines . From this surge stems the great lift forces from the wings that impell one hundred tons or more thousands of feet vertically into the air in seconds. The nose is pointing up: concentrating on its race into the blue. That leap has happened a thousand times before. This time it is different: there is a plume of flames larger than the craft itself streaming back from the fuel tank. These flames melt the control surfaces that are part of the wing and the aircraft, within two minutes, turns horrifyingly onto its back and flies into the ground as fast as it rose from it. Those servant forces that make the aircraft fly are now the masters. They reduce the elegant Concorde into fiery wreckage. More than a hundred passengers  and several people on the ground had their lives taken. 

Who would have predicted a loose part from the previous take-off on the runway; the tire hitting it and exploding; the flying tyre fragments puncturing the fuel tank and the fire destroying the machine and its passengers? Think of the hapless mechanic and his boss who were deemed responsible for the loose part not being fitted correctly. That could be any of us. 

The engineer’s job is, as The Lad has said before, is to harness natural forces for the benefit of other human beings. He mostly has success in the task that he sets himself and persuades vast forces to do his bidding: at any time those forces can bite back and do evil commensurate with the good. Like the tiger, a pet for many years, becoming an angered animal suddenly exploding back to its animal nature and destroying its ‘owner’. 

As an engineer, she has to ask herself at all times, “Can I stand up in a Court and justify all my technical choices?”

Running the risk of demeaning a serious topic The Lad has to note a couple of points. The first is about, once more, the bad ways of a reporter. The reference in one report to a titanium part that burst the Concorde tyre was apparently too mundane so it was given an entirely imaginary,  journalistic boost as ‘ the stray strip of super-hard titanium’. Titanium is used in aero-engineering for its high strength and light weight and not for hardness.

The second point is that the Press Association found itself unable to offer to The Lad a one off use of the image without a ‘reasonable intro offer’ fee of nearly £60 [for a year]. As I said above it can be found, and apparently legally viewed, using any search engine.

BP Oil Spill – Last fragment before Jan 2011?

The final words of a BBC TV documentary, Horizon transmitted on 16 November 2010, were  “When BP’s well blew out, there was no plan to fix it“.

The bulk of the programme was excellent giving a clear description of the problems and final success of the spill recovery. I say that stemming the flow from the leaking well was a ‘success’. The problem that is still being worked out is to ameliorate the damage to people and wildlife caused by the previous eighty seven days of the oill flooding into the sea .

To return to the programme, it was excellent in that it concentrated on relaying the words of those, from BP, the US government and other commercial outfits who had been instrumental in the battle. The programme was written and directed by Tristan Quinn and the editor was Aidan Laverty.

They were wrong on at least two levels. The first was that the the footage in the programme showed the large number of vessels and engineering staff that rapidly poured into the area and attacked the immediate task. They were not conjured from nowhere.

There is however another level that is much more fundamental. Preparing to recover from any one of very large number of potential future accidents is very difficult. What one has to do is to take steps to avoid having the accident in the first place. This is the true preparation.

These were there with all the procedures and checks and safety hardware. The significant fact is that they all failed but in ways that could and should have been avoided one way or another. The fact is that as the model in my previous post suggests, the failure of these existing procedures and hardware were together an extremely unlikely event that led to catastrophe. Carry out the necessary actions to reduce these to an even more unlikely event is the only and proper way to go.

The portentious voiceover  “…..there was no plan to fix it” could only appear profound to a TV writer or producer. The statement is not: it is instead the deepest nonsense as is shown by both pictures and facts.

This having been said, The Lad really does not want this blog to get regularly involved in who said what in which medium. That is the preserve of the politicians and those who wander in the halls of hype and mirrors exposing endless conspiracies. So The Lad intends that, as far as he can, this blog will stay grounded in the real world.

Catenary Support Eyesores

The Government has announced recently that £billions will be spent on UK Transport rail infrastructure. I assume that this will include the High Speed 2 plan linking London and Birmingham by electric railway. Those on the ground will always oppose the planned routes due mainly to the damaging effect on their house values.

But many also will cite visual horrors of the railway cutting through the contryside. The Lad, although an engineer, can understand that to some degree. The trains and their sounds are soon passed at any given spot. But the masts, skeletal arms and the wire arcs are permanently on display.

US array of cables
It should be possible to do better.

The Lad is not a catenary support designer but, in the UK, notes that it appears that standard RSJ uprights and other ugly components have been flung together. The idea?? of using standard parts or RSJ material is assumed to be the best way to achieve cost-effective structures. There does not appear to be any thought for the visual effect. See the pictures, which come from the excellent website, with the kind permission of its author Jeff Wood of San Francisco.

Second view of wire and mast array
Let’s design aesthetically better designs than this.

The Lad advocates a more holistic design. special components, possibly multi-use, could not only look better but also, he is sure, be more structurally and dynamically efficient. The cost of specially designed parts would not be more expensive. Why? Because in the hundreds of miles of line lengths there are multiple tracks and so there would be thousands of each given component. What happens to properly designed, component cost with large quantities? It plummets.

This post is The Lad’s quick response to a problem that has been irritating him in the back of his mind for some years. I will develop a strategy to try and move the idea forward. I will try to find the movers and shakers in this area and see if he can begin any sort of dialogue. The Lad will keep the blog in touch with any progress or none as transpires.

Fingerprints were the answer?

A reporting team wrote an article in the UK Sunday Times, on the satisfyingly weird date of 10/10/10, that ventured into the murky world of realpolitik and espionage. The team and those of us, like The Lad, who were brought up in the world of John Le Carre know that it is a world of uncertainties. However engineering for this team, and many others, is equally uncertain though they may not realise it.

Reporting on the nuclear programme of Iran, they describe damage to a number of the enrichment centrifuges as follows. ” … those assembling the centrifuges did not wear cloth gloves. Beads of sweat were transferred to the rotors that spin inside the centrifuges and put them off balance, causing some to explode.”

Now, it’s true that the rotors rotate at enormously fast rates and they need to be well balanced to run smoothly, but I feel that the unbalancing effect of of the minute mass of beads of sweat will be as likely an effect and as true as the fable of the Princess feeling the pea under the 15 mattresses.

The Lad suggests that acid fingerprints from ungloved hands, yes, was a problem but with a different, less direct outcome. The acidic prints would have started corrosion and cracks in the exquisitely controlled material of the rotor walls. The resultant stresses from the cracks at the high rotation speeds would soon make the rotors explode or distort or leak. The only recourse would be to take them out of service as reported.

BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Oil Spill Two


Part Two –The cause

What, then, did cause the BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Mexican Gulf oil leak? Part One explained what did not. This is what The Lad has learnt about what the engineers involved believe so far in October 2010.

This drilling did not succeed: it failed. This time there were failures on gigantic scale. This cannot and must not be denied. The even bigger job of recovering from the blow out and the vast leakage needed even bigger teams of engineers and took 87 days; but the engineers did, in the end, succeed.

In most of the great engineering undertakings the teams succeed. Not because they make no errors but because of a combination of good practice, planned operational checks and balances and, if and when occasional potential errors still get through, other team members pick them up. There are thousands or hundreds of thousands of such projects at any one time that proceed to a satisfactory completion using the built in checks and balances and the judgements of the engineers.

There is a simple, descriptive model that I think casts some light on the tragedies of real world engineering.

The likelihood of one error in a job occurring has a probability and the checks and balances correct it. Two errors in the same job have a smaller probability and they are also corrected. Likewise, for a job to have a larger and larger number of errors, there is a smaller and smaller [called monotonic] probability. That is, they become less and less likely to occur. In this model, if even just one of the errors are spotted and corrected, the chain of error is broken and problems averted.

Consider venturing even further into very, very unlikely events, that is of very, very low, low probability. We could arrive at a job where there are more errors than there are existing checks and balances or some are not applied or without any team members picking them up. What might happen then? Catastrophe, that’s what.

In a big job there is a possibility everywhere and all the time of one or more errors lurking due to human mistakes or by malign circumstance. It is the enemy that he or she has to fight as part of the engineer’s professional task. That’s one of the things that engineers do.

There are the previous, rare cases where such multiple errors occurred and none are picked up. Take the Piper Alpha, UK, North Sea gas production platform accident; the Flixborough Nypro plant explosion; the West Gate Bridge collapse in Australia or even the horrifying Baby P case. Each one had multiple errors all in the same project and none put right. BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Mexican Gulf oil leak was undoubtedly another such. A chain of uncorrected errors dragged the rig and a group of its engineers into death, flame and pollution.

To repeat, all great disasters that I know of are due, not to one error great or small, but to a chain of mistakes. A chain where one correct decision would have averted a catastrophe or at least resulted in failure made small. It seems to me to be a valid, general rule.


I believe that the general outline of what went wrong is here, as described in the BP early analysis.

  1. Bad choice of concrete mix
  2. Seals in the bottom-most section leaked
  3. The pressure tests that should have shown that the concrete and seals were inadequate were misinterpreted as showing them to be adequate.
  4. The instrumentation in front of the controller’s seat showed a small whisper reaching the surface which was the quiet first stirring of the fierce, violent power of the hydrocarbons hurtling from the bowels of the earth. Those sitting in that chair should have fastened onto the whisper and recognised it. Then they could probably have acted to at least mitigate the problem. None of the crew Involved in the drilling operation recognised the whisper.
  5. In the last terrifying moments as the catastrophe took its gigantic form on the rig, the team could have sent the gas into one of two directions. One was overboard and the other was into a tank. The choice of an effectively infinite volume overboard could have given time to respond and the consequences lessened. Someone chose the tank. The finite volume tank was soon overwhelmed and gas flooded the rig. A rig power supply engine fed on the flammable gas rather than air went into howling over-speed. The gas entered parts of the rig with unprotected electrics and somewhere here a spark turned the gas cloud into a massive incendiary bomb.
  6. The Blow out Preventer failed entirely to close off the well. Not one of the three independent ways of it doing its job.

As the BP ‘Deepwater Horizon’ Oil Spill ground its way towards catastrophe, there was certainly no one engineer who ran the operation minute to minute and whose word was law. There weren’t even 2 or 3 such engineers. There were several corporate teams of engineers each answerable to their own management with their own team philosophy. There were three principal teams [there were others] working on the drilling.

There was BP as the operator of the lease on this part of the sea bed. It itself had a subsurface team as well as a well engineering team that was presumably based on land.
There was the Transocean team who owned and crewed the floating rig and had been operating and working it for BP for nine years.
Then there was the Halliburton team providing cementing services.

 We will see that each team had or will claim to have had a different view on responsibilities. The drilling task was extremely elaborate and ever-changing hour-by-hour or even minute-by-minute. Despite this the costs involved mean that this argument is almost certain to grind through the courts for years. In the real world it isn’t the end when the engineers agree about the errors. Then; the blame game blossoms. This game features the financial specialists and the lawyers are at point.

We cannot yet be sure that the early analysis has got the details exactly right and one or more may not have occurred at all or in exactly this form. Longer and more detailed investigations that will take place stemming from the expenditure of more money and investigatory manpower will almost certainly fill in the detail. What, by the way will drive this further investigation. It is simple – more money. But why will this be spent and from where will the treasure come from? Why from several players. One is of course an extremely angry government. The others are, of course, the engineering protagonists who are extremely large and very rich. Because they are very rich this means that they can spend a lot to justify their actions and, they hope, show that the actions of the others were to blame. Because they are very rich also means that should they be shown to be at fault then their large treasure houses will be pillaged by fines and damages, Powerful driving forces indeed.

Whilst ever the global consumption of hydrocarbons runs, as it does, at such a febrile rate, men will continue to reach down under the ocean and ever deeper in the rocky strata. The economic pressure is still there so the engineers will work to successfully overcome the problems and, as usual, accommodating the problems.

The US President’s Commission has, at the time of writing November 2010, seemed to consider that the concrete failed to do its job and played a part in the accident. There are also arguments that the depth at which a single concrete plug was set is significant. The Lad recommends that you visit their website [link following] and you will find excellent graphics that explain and clarify the engineering of this and, by extension, other oil wells. For completeness after that, I have added the BP website that leads to the BP report.

All engineers will agree that if they are so responsible for so much of our modern world, then engineers must also bear proper responsibility for when there are failures. …But… Edward Phelps, a lawyer turned diplomat, observed back in 1899 that,

“The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything”

It is as true today as it was then.

Edward John Phelps.The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition. 2008.

In summary, I repeat that there is no sign that the accident was caused by the drill site being in deep water or not on land. Neither was the depth of the drill bore below the sea bed. The cause was a series of errors that occurred in an unbroken chain. These errors could have occurred in drill site on land or an ocean bore that was shallow.

It is the error chain overseen by teams of engineers that needs to be studied. The causes must be discovered and never repeated by future engineers. Engineers seek to make things happen and to bend natural forces to convenience of humanity. This aim must never be allowed to fall victim to hubris or a gung-ho attitude or a cavalier attitude that risks health and safety. That is the lesson that has to be continually re-learnt by BP, its contractors and all engineers everywhere.

[P.S. – I do not work for BP and never have. Nor have I ever had any connection with it or any other organisation in the oil industry.]

[P.P.S. – I do buy petrol for my car though.]