The emergence of Civilisation

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race.

You may have noticed this sentence newly in the previous post on the ‘Steam Navvy’. Perhaps you even exploded with fury at the arrogance of it.

The Lad decided that the blog needed a footer to go with each post to express the blog philosophy as concisely as possible

He struggled to express in the few sentences at the end of each Blog as much as possible of what is important. Guiding and offering teaching discussion points and also informing non-engineers are obvious target audiences. But the other question is ‘Why?’.

He concluded that it was because engineering is one of the three primary endeavours. The primary endeavours, in The Lad’s definition, are those that have most benefited the human race from the very beginning. They began their influence as early as when Lucy [Australopithecus afarensis] roamed the savannahs and they remain influential still. What are they?

Agriculture, Medicine, and Engineering.

Engineering deserves a lot of media exposure and this blog is a small contribution. By Engineering, perforce in the earliest days, The Lad means Mechanical Engineering and Civil Engineering

As every engineer knows, there is an optimum number of legs supporting a structure so that it is firm however uneven the ground. The structure of civilisation grew steadily on the basis of Agriculture, Medicine, and Engineering. That is why The Lad calls those specialities the Tripod of Civilisation. He hopes that he has avoided bathos.

The Engineers put The Navigators on track(s)

The Lad went to the National Space Centre at Leicester It was a superb exhibition. Go there and take any of your juvenile connections and they will be entranced. Everything there is from the science and space engineering of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Centuries. There is hardware ranging in size from a full-size, Russian space-ship and Blue Streak rocket to a tiny lump of genuine Moon rock. The Planetarium at the Centre is a cinema unlike almost any other. Each of its many different programmes is a jaw-dropping cinematic experience that beats 3D any day. Games and hands-on and even ‘body-on’ experiences are everywhere. It is good for any weather too.

This post, though, is not about something in the Space Centre: not this time anyway. The Abbey Pumping Station Museum is next door to the Space Centre.

The Museum has much more engineering dating more from the Victorian era rather than the last half of the Twentieth Century. The Lad’s eye was caught this time by an outdoor exhibit. An old digger: it was a gigantic machine. Here it is.


The Old Digger
The Old Digger at Abbey Pumping Station Museum

The museum tells us that the sleeping giant is a Ruston-Bucyrus 52B Quarry Shovel built in 1935 as one of the last of this type of excavator built in Britain. It weighs 81 tons and was able to lift a load of 18 tons with its bucket while working until 1967 . (There is a better picture in www.Flicker  by the way)

The picture, below left, shows it just before it was retired where it used to work in an Oxfordshire quarry. The standing figures give a scale to the size of the machine as does the lorry in the picture, below right, of another similar digger in its natural habitat, a quarry.

The Old Digger just before it retired
The Old Digger just before it retired
Another Old Digger at work in the US
Another Old Digger at work in the US



A building to envelope it would be at least as big as a good-size modern house. The cab and machinery enclosure, a large black shed, is the size of the largest room in that house. Extending from one side of the enclosure, pointing out and upwards, is the main boom. Part way along this main boom, and pivoting more or less at right angles is the dipper which is a bucket mounted on the end of its own smaller jib. Like a dinosaur heavily settled down, it is supported by large continuous  (caterpillar) tracks.

As the  drinking song of the young engineers has it about an entirely different type of machine.

                                “And the whole [expletive deleted] issue was driven by steam.”

This song, by the way, was already of ancient pedigree when The Lad, still nobbut a youth, roared it with his mates. Perhaps they still do. Anyway, let our attention not wander or get distracted by beer.

Being driven by steam, the ‘Steam Navvy’ needed not one but three engines. One drove the tracks to move the giant about the quarry and also to lift the main jib and the bucket. Another had the task of slewing the excavator through 360° on the tracks. The third was mounted at the junction of the jib and dipper to control the dipper bucket.

The image below shows the skeleton and heart of the beast

Inside view of Old Digger
The heart and lungs


Now let’s look at one example of a modern successor, pictured below. Such a one is the JCB JS210 being built in England, in 2011, driven by a single, 4 cylinder, 172 hp, diesel engine. It weighs 21 tons and can lift 15 tons (15320 kg) maximum.


The Modern Digger
JCB - JS210 - The Modern Digger

What are the fundamental, engineering differences between the dinosaur and a modern tracked shovel such as this JCB machine? The differences lie in the prime mover and the power transmission technology

Machines such as grabs and cranes are more effective and less costly to operate when they have fewer large parts and a simpler modular construction.

For the prime mover, those early steam engines are nests of parts; each part oscillating in different directions whilst, at the same time, sliding and spinning. All this while immersed in a dusty and dirty atmosphere. It must be inefficient with all those moving parts soaking up power quite independent of the power output. In addition all the seals and slides are sweeping up the quarry dust and grit that grinds metal and absorbs more energy in friction.

For the power transmission, only cable systems could be used for large forces over a long distance. With a cable you can only pull; you cannot push. So, where gravity cannot be persuaded to do half your job for you (see the dipper in this machine), the design of the cable system has to extend a long distance to the far side of the load and back to it again: then instead of push, you make do with a pull in both directions.

When we come to the modern excavator, for the prime mover we have the high pressure, high speed modern diesel engine developing great power. Driving only a hydraulic pump, the whole is more easily enclosed to protect against the harsh environment than is possible with the steam engine.

For the modern power transmission, the change is, in some ways, even greater with use of hydraulic rams. Their predecessor was the Bramah press patented in 1795 by Joseph Bramah. Since then, the press has been refined into the simplicity and sophistication of the hydraulic ram.

See and .

Their secret is that hydraulic cylinders have a relatively small number of parts and, compared to a steam engine, are simpler to make. Fundamentally, each is just an accurately ground cylinder and a similarly accurate shaft sliding through a single seal in the same directions as the power output. It is so simple and efficient: at least it became simple to make and operationally efficient when the design principles became fully understood. That happened only after engineers had expended extensive development effort, money and time

Its operational advantages stem from the rigidity of the ram. This rigidity ensures that, with a supply of fluid, as required, to both sides of the piston, a ram can both pull AND, without buckling, push. That simple phrase ‘a supply of fluid’, though, conceals a mass of engineering. The ram performs its simple but marvellous feat provided that it is under the influence of the of high pressure hydraulic fluid. That fluid has to be carefully controlled, metered, supplied through high tech flexible hoses or rigid tubing, monitored and guided by valves, driven by a relatively small internal combustion engine and pump both of which can easily be carefully shielded from the ravages of the site atmosphere.

These two major developments in prime mover and power transmission bring the design engineers and operators, finally, high power density, high power to weight ratio and, not least, high thermodynamic efficiency.


Sitting in the sunshine and looking at the old machine at the museum The Lad’s eyes narrowed and another picture emerged. The outline of the old machine faded and he saw a navvy with his shovel: the old machine’s even older predecessor. The dipper of the old machine is the shovel handle and blade of a navvy wielding his shovel. The jib is the man himself leaning into his shovelling task. That was, he imagined, the starting point for the original Victorian-era designer of the digger. Crucially, the navvy usually pushes the shovel AWAY from himself – as does the old machine.

This leads rapidly to another aspect of the design. The jib, dipper and the general support structure of the bucket itself is radically different in the modern machine from the old machine. The modern machine pulls the shovel TOWARDS itself. This, The Lad suspects is the way that the designers of the modern machine achieve its enormous reach arc (see the picture below).

The subject of linkage design is worthy of discussion as it is the meat and drink of many a mechanical engineer designer and of many books in itself. Some practising engineers use this as a resource, . Worthy, yes; but too big a subject for this post.

But, just to get an idea, look at this diagram of the astonishing reach arc of the bucket movement of this modern engineering masterpiece.


The vast area that a modern digger can be reach.


You will find more detail at .

Finally, The Lad indulged himself in just a little blue-sky musing. Maybe they used a coal fired excavator up until so late as 1967 because coal can be stacked at a quarry in a pile whereas oil fuel needs to be much more carefully handled. Besides, is it possible that the quarry master preferred to support his brother in arms – the coal miner? But, even before the old digger was de-commissioned, it was all changing. Even quarries and mines would never be the same. Far north of that quarry in the moorland and hills of the remotest part of Cumbria, thundered rockets engines on test. Then, high into the same sky arching over that quarry but half a world away in Australia, the rockets thrust the UK’s own Blue Streak ballistic missile.

One of those rockets has also retired standing in the Space Museum not two hundred metres away from the retired digger. Both were potent Engines in their time.


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.

An Engineer’s must-have

It was years ago when The Lad first reached for the spanner for the usual 3/8 UN nut. It wasn’t there.

“What scruff  [actually, a less repeatable name] has nicked the spanner?”

One of his compatriots had either left it lying around near where he used it last or nicked it for his tool box. In a busy workshop, it cannot be surprising if any tool goes walkabout. It happens even in the best, practical, production engineering school. But then everybody needed to use them so it was worth putting one that you have used back where it came from and everybody else could find it when they needed it. At least that’s what the instructors said – piously.

It was round about that time that The Lad first saw an advert for  tool sets. The big ones with dozens of spanners within a steel tool box that attracted his covetous, young eye. The biggest and most complete ones even had castors as they were too heavy to carry. Have a look at one – product TKU 1014 at   ,
212 pieces and 67 kg! The Lad supposes that you could call it the secret of the engineer’s inner Nerd. But then who does not have such a secret?

Why so many pieces? Well, if the golden path and self-styled foundation of the modern world – Information Technology – can suffer from legacy systems even in its youth; then so can Engineering, that has been around many times longer. As well, the spanner has several forms for different jobs such as open jaw; socket; ring spanner etc.

The spanner is  important to a mechanic. The screw thread has an ancient lineage and so has the regular shape of a nut or bolt head, most often a hexagon, that is required to manipulate it. Both are still ubiquitous in all engineering structures. The ancient lineage means that in its early days many different standard sizes of nut, bolt or screw were used. A major  problem was that interchangeability of fasteners between manufacturers and machines was impossible.The thing about screw threads is that they are likely to be in use in some machines for decades or even longer. If you want to maintain one of those machines, you need a matching spanner.

It’s not just the diameter of the bolt that allows it to fit in a screw hole. Put simply it’s both the shape, usually a triangle, and also the depth of the spiral groove. The screw or bolt will not even begin to do its job if the bolt diameters match but both these features do not.

After an initial push in the early 19th Century when an accepted range screw thread designs that pairing a nominal screw or bolt diameter with a standard angle and depth of grooves was early seen to be useful subject for agreement between even competitive entrepreneurial engineering firms.   A series developed by the great pioneer, Whitworth, and named after him became widely accepted. Around the same time also very widely used was the BA [British Association] series. This latter series had the advantage that the series went to much smaller diameters of screw which made it suitable for small instrument applications. The United States had its own, non-interchangeable series’s known as the US Standard developed by the engineer, Sellars. For pictures of any of these threads without The Lad infringing any copyright consult any engineering handbook.

It was only after the Second World War in the early 1940’s that further significant strides were made to reduce the still remaining variety of ‘standard’ designs. It was the unprecedented explosion of engineering production during  and supporting the recovery after the war that led to the realisation of the  serious inefficiencies and wasted costs were caused by the lack of an even more widely standardised, and interchangeable system of threads. At this the national engineering bodies of the USA and Canada and the UK  came together to design a more rational series which they called the Unified series. Even this series was still restricted to the Imperial units of measurement. The final stage, to date, was to derive the ISO Metric series based upon the metric unit of length; that is the millimetre in the case of the thread. The Lad says the final stage but that will  be completed only when everyone across the world uses the metric screw series. That’s certainly not easy and indeed he can’t say that it has yet happened. The USA still uses its standard AF [Across Flats] series widely.

The Lad has described a simple outline of the field. There’s a lot more to it of course: many professional engineering designers have to move, for good reasons, into much more detail such as fine and coarse thread series and limits and fits and indeed other more specialised thread forms such as ‘buttress’ and ‘knuckle’. Then of course there are the very different components called power screws……

As engineering is the most powerful and essential tool in the advance of human civilisation across the globe and the management of force is at its core; so the screw thread in its principal task of storing force grew to be and remains vital to most engineering structures and power plants. It is a most subtle adaptation of the wedge whose unknown inventor must be saluted as a genius on a par with Isaac Newton and above Leonardo da Vinci.


Engineering Snapshot Header

This post introduces a snapshot of what some engineers work on. You see the header? What is it? If  you cannot guess, see below.

It is the first of a new series of headers aiming to provide a collection of key hole views of her or his engineering world.

Every item that you see in this picture and its position has been defined precisely in many drawings. The definition of each component will be of its material; its dimensions and tolerances; the way that it is manufactured; and how it is protected against its environment. The positions to enable all to fit together will be relative to one or more datums nearby in the picture field or, more likely far away.

There are bolts and valves and electrical connectors and cables and hoses. See the forged support piece: once upon a time long ago it would have been a solid, machined bar or casting. Now it is more carefully stress analysed resulting in a lighter, more efficient design of component. At the right there is a pressed sheet structure that has been coated with sealant and then that itself has been painted over.

Some engineers wrestle with this type of machine. Other engineers create in a different environment. See pictures in the future headers.

Oh yes! What is it? It is part of a car engine compartment. Yes, but what car?

Can You Stand the Engineering Heat?

Large scale engineering projects often have to be designed to withstand thunderous events: sometimes in reality and sometimed figuratively. The engineers of such projects need the technical knowledge, the professionalism and, yes, the courage to master the challenges. The Lad is talking here to those who may be thinking about an engineering career. For some of those it is just these challenging aspects that will appeal to them and perhaps give meaning to their careers. Do you look to having the opportunity to address and master major challenges? Do you?

More details are slowly emerging of a tragedy that is an example of a, thankfully rare, concomitant of such challenges: a real thunderous event. It is that of the Airbus A330-203 flight AF 447 which, on 1st June 2009 in the dead of night during storms over the Atlantic Ocean, vanished with every one of the 228 souls aboard. The aircraft was an example of the most modern and enormously powerful technology in flight.

There is still much to discover about, and to learn from, the cause of the accident. here we can only allude to a small aspect. There have been some suspicions voiced that the cause of the destruction was an operating failure of a small device for measuring the aircraft speed. This device is called a pitot tube.

This is a device that could hardly be simpler. The idea that its malfunction could be such a catastrophe requires a particularly wide-ranging imagination. Either that or an innate engineering wariness; a wariness founded on the possibility that ANYTHING could lead to problems. The operating principles of the pitot tube can be shown by the simple diagram below.

Pitot Tube Operating Principle

” Pitot Tube Operating Principle [Apologies for the very bad image quality. I must get a decent CAD application.].

This simple device is vital to the control of the even the modern aircraft. Indeed it has been so since the days of the earliest airliners. It and the details of its detailed design are part of the hundred thousand design decisions that are made as every large scale project, in this case the airliner, takes shape.

The pitot really is so simple. How does it work? There are two tubes that face forward into the air flow and are supported by part of the aircraft structure, probably the fuselage or the wing. One of them, called B in the diagram has an opening facing directly into the airflow. The air in that tube is driven in by the impact of the plane’s forward speed. Thus the pressure in the  tube is raised and measured by the pressure gauge at its inner end. This you might think is a good measure of the total speed but it is not. Part of that pressure is that of the static atmospheric pressure. This is the pressure which at sea level is measured by a barometer. The static atmospheric pressure varies greatly for an aircraft as it climbs and descends in its flight. This is part of that pressure which is measured by tube B but which is nothing to do with the plane’s speed. So Tube A is tasked with measurement of the static air pressure throughout the flight and whatever the air speed. This it does because it has no opening pointing forward but only one at the side of the tube. The side opening does not see the impact pressure due to the speed but only the static air pressure that acts in all directions. This pressure is measured in Tube A by its own separate gauge and is subtracted form the pressure measured by Tube B. So there we have it: the resultant modified pressure is due solely to the speed. Simples.

But watch that neither tube or opening is affected by storms or icing during the flight. Closure or even change in area of any of the openings by ice build up will entirely destroy the accuracy of the airspeed measurement. This, in turn can then baffle the computer controls of the aircraft. The design engineers would not have wanted this to happen but, nonetheless, this is what is suspected to have happened.

The engineers, metallurgists, chemists, physicists and all the other professions do not work as lonely individuals in the bringing of such a project to fruition. They all work together, struggle and debate on solving known and predicted problems as men and women in teams from one company and with others from other companies over periods of months and sometimes years. Despite this each one person is a professional, responsible for the accuracy of her or his own work. It is here that any decision may prove to be pivotal in subsequent events. The decision may be small,: indeed so small as to go unremarked and not reviewed by the others in the team or by its leaders. It can be successful or it can be fatal. Each engineer must consider frequently as he or she works, if he or she can stand up in a court and answer for this decision as being a reasonable and proper thing to do.

This is where the heat is in the kitchen. Can you stand it?

The end of this flight came when all forward speed had drained away and so, inescapably, the sealed, metal vessel weighing around one hundred and fifty tons and full of over two hundred sentient human beings careened vertically downwards at about ninety miles per hour. After three and a half minutes, its whole structure and its entombed passengers were destroyed as it hit the sea, belly first. Poignantly, the stalled plane had slowly rotated at intervals as it fell till, at the end, it was facing almost back the way it had come.

The French Aviation Regulatory Authority is Bureau d’Enquetes et dAnalyses pour la securite de l’aviation civile, known more simply as BEA. Its latest technical report can be found in English at

The numbing details above of the horrifying plunge from the stratosphere to the chill depths of the Atlantic Ocean come from that report.

See my posting of “The eternal question: can you answer for it?” on December 9 2010.

What intrigues us?

This week in a motoring supplement to the Sunday Paper, someone was describing a new car coming soon onto the market. It was to be a new higher powered version of an existing sports car. The is was one of the things said in the piece.

“Behind the scenes, the engineers of the AMG division of Mercedes are putting the finishing touches to a test and development programme  ….. But as they worry about such things as noise, vibration, harshness and torsional rigidity, prospective owners  may be more concerned  which colour to order roof in and whether to choose the optional Bang and Olufsen sound system for added serenity.

For those who are concerned with future career paths yet to be chosen either for themselves or others that they may be mentoring, this is a useful snippet to consider, debate or discuss.

What topic catches the fancy?

 What is the correct approach or is there one?

What do the engineering topics mean?

What is the difference between ‘design’ and ‘development’?

[From the Sunday Times, 15 May 2011, ‘ingear’ supplement, page 2, ‘Car of the Week’]

“Engineering Connections” on BBC1

Isambard’s Lad’s not beating about the bush. He was impressed by the first programme of the series, “Engineering Connections” on BBC1 that he saw. It took a single project – in this case the Burj al Arab modern hotel in Dubai – and talked about a wide variety of  the engineering problems that had to be solved in the design of the building. They were real engineering problems; not just fluffy aspects of the dressing of the building.

The presenter was Richard Hamilton of Top Gear fame who is not, apparently, an engineer but whose relaxed, light and downbeat approach combined with clear presentational skills were admirably suited to the programme. A professional engineer who is equally skilled in the art of presentation will be rare, The Lad fears. Present company excepted, of course. The engineers who appeared on screen serving as assistants and advisors to Hammond were however, suitably highly skilled in the technology. Neither, at least, did they have leather patches on the elbows of their jackets. Indeed he cannot remember any of them wearing jackets.

Quite a good range of topics were covered and The Lad noted these down. The modern versions of wave energy absorption were vividly modelled in real life, not in a computer. They showed how they were used to protect the foundation island. The overall structure of the hotel had a steel exo-skeleton and the high Dubai, temperature variations meant that it expanded and contracted and this would have caused problems with dimensional changes during building. A clever but simple bolt hole cam arrangement was shown that was able to deal with this feature.

The way that several hundred thousand tons of building stood firmly in stand was also addressed. The modelling of this was one of the more striking coup de theatre. Skin friction between the sand and the piles is claimed to be the secret. Such friction can build from a tiny effect to a large force with interleaving. Hammond hung with his  feet off the ground from two books with their pages interleaved only. No glue or clamping force.

An entirely different problem was at first seemingly only a fluffy one. How do you get the jets of water in the foyer fountains to look like ballistic, polished, stainless-steel bars and not like water out of a tap. Maybe a fluffy problem but, anyway, it is not a fluffy solution.  The Lad has to confess that he has seen and admired this very effect in a lot of the works of the masters of the Modern Fountain Genre: the Japanese showing just this effect. They make the water flow laminar and not turbulent.  But he never realised before that this was the secret of the fountains. This difference is central in many problems that engineers deal with in fluid flow projects and aircraft design. Fluids flowing at low speed or high viscosity [a measure of fluid ‘thickness’ as between water and, say, syrup] flow in smooth sheets and the sheets do not mix with each other. Turbulent flow, at higher speed on the other hand, has a lot of mixing or churning as it flows. The TV programme showed how laminar flow is ensured by using tubular flow straighteners.

Then there was the problem of lighting, its dimming and not having the hotel going up in flames. Note though that, typical of the programme’s approach, a real shed went up in real flames. It was the Hammond humour, you know. Light dimmers operate by cutting on and off at high frequency the power supply to the light bulb. This dynamics of this frequent change in current usually causes spikes in the voltage and these could generate significant extra heat compared to steady alternating current.  This is an effect of what is known as an adverse Power Factor. In a building like a hotel and some industrial processes this adverse effect must and can be avoided by installing [usually in the basement!] banks of capacitors and inductors to ‘correct the Power Factor’.

The programme was also respectable and important in that it showed that there are different flavours of engineer involved in all such projects of a normal complexity.

“Engineers change the real world”

The First Law in the Garden Centre

In the Garden Centre The Lad saw a display of a pump for emptying the water from the garden rainwater butt; it takes the place of a tap at the bottom of the butt emptying into a watering can.

Versus the tap it seemed an example of inappropriate technology. This is a subject exercising his mind lately but as it will be a subject of another post shortly, we can move on.

Hozelok Waterbutt pump
Quite a sizeable pump as these things go in the garden.


Anyway, the display had one buzzing and pumping away sitting in the bottom of a water butt covered by only  few centimetres depth of water. The pumped water went up a length of straight garden hose about a meter and a half and poured out of a garden hose gun in a straight stream under gravity down back into the bottom of the water butt. As he walked by, The Lad let the water stream from the tap wet his fingers and he came to an abrupt halt as he noticed that the water was quite warm. Not hot, you understand, but quite warm enough to to make a really comfortable hand wash.

He pondered on where the heat energy came from and thought that there were several phenomena causing it.  He found that they were easy to envisage but were difficult to imagine in the form of the calculation of each contribution to the total heat of the water in the little [almost!] closed system. There would be heating from the shear flow of the leakage round the centrifugal impellor; there would be the friction of the flow against the walls of the hose as it rose up it; then there would be the heat generated as the water jet splashed into the bottom of the butt [the Joule Honeymoon effect according to The Lad – look it up!].

Then he realised that from the point of view of the water in the butt the net sum of velocity and displacement is [apart from the small amount of swirl in the butt] zero. This simple version says that , apart from the bit of swirl in bottom of butt the total power of the pump is changed into net zero velocity and displacement. It only turns into heat. So all the separate sources of heat can be sidelined by this overall calculation.

The summary version of the calculation in its simplicity is enough for us here. It also shows that a suitable insight can simplify estimates. But it is also true that in real engineering, where they have hot oil or hot water coolant flowing in a closed system, there is a need to control the heat flows and to ensure adequate cooling. Then they will have to calculate or experiment or, almost certainly, both to work out what are the contributions of every source of heat generation and sink of heat radiation, convection or conduction. Now that’s what real engineers working on engines or machine tools have to do and do do.

Butt and Pump
"In Memorium. James Prescott Joule 1818 to 1889. 772.55"

“Work is Heat and Heat is Work” is one version of the First Law of Thermodynamics. There it was – in the Garden Centre.

Stress Testing the new Nuclear perceptions

The Lad is not going to give something useful at this stage of the Japanese tragedy. Like all engineers, he is aware of how little is yet known to the world outside the Control Rooms of the Fukushima 1 plant. So he will not be trying to be clever-clever or exagerate, as the media usually do, the catastrophic potential. Just note a couple of things.

Let us not not discount the seriousness of the plant damage to the people of Japan, the operators of the plant and to the nuclear engineering profession. It is gross. But it is not another Chernobyl.

The plants ‘exploding’ approach of the headlines is probably partly due to the exigencies of containing, not nuclear power but headline lengths. It is not put under too much pressure, however, to ensure that this is the exactly correct word. We had to read further in the heavy papers to discover that the outer buildings are destroyed by an explosion and that the power generating circuits are probably not seriously damaged – by the explosions at least. If serious, complete meltdowns cannot be avoided this may change however. Even this though is not certain – with the pumping in of large quantities of sea water that is currently occuring.

The Lad just wants to note that the power generating circuits are built on a Fort Knox design paradigm where the outer buildings are more akin to a B&Q shed. Albeit the shed has a very strong crane and load lifting tracks.

Some commentators have commented with barely concealed disdain that the Stations are built close to the sea. “The sea has tsunamis, you know. What were they thinking about, the fools?” The answer is simple. Most are built near the sea or, at least, large bodies of water for precisely the reason that we see in operation in Japan. When problems arise with pumped internal coolant supplies, give ourselves access to an effectively infinite thermal sink. Tap into an endless source of cold water as a bank of last resort. An inland plant does not have this facility, only a very large river may be suitable and this less so after a long, hot  Summer. That is the vital reason that is immeasurably strengthened by the events in Japan not weakened.

The question that The Lad does ask himself, though, is why the back up power supplies apparently failed so soon. Is there a problem that these 40 year old plants did not have a proper Failure Modes and Effects Analysis [FMEA] when they were designed? Or was it simply one single error. The latter seems to The Lad unlikely as he considers all serious accidents are the result of a chain of errors.

He thanks his lucky stars that he is not having to wrestle face to face with the brute forces of the runaway generation of vast quantities of heat in the shut-down Reactors. He will seek, in the months to come, to examine the answers on the causes of the tragedy to the unfortunate Japanese people living near the plants that are put forward.

Watch this space.

TV’s Favourite Physicist comes good

The Lad read a Sunday Paper Colour Supplement piece about Professor Brian Cox; the man and his views. The Lad is not usually struck by Colour Supplement pieces but this time, for a change , liked what he saw [See The Sunday Times magazine 27.2.2011, page 14, “The New Mister Universe”].

As you might expect in the current, media universe, Professor Cox is known and mainly defined apparently by two things: one thing is his being the presenter of both last year’s popular BBC TV programme “Wonders of the Solar System” and also the coming programme on an entirely different Universe and the other thing is – spoken after an indrawn breath – his once being the keyboard player of a famous rock band that wrote a track that became the theme song of a political party. And, by the way would you believe, he is a Prof at some University!

The Lad assumes that he no longer plays in that band – if it still exists. Ow! That’s a sour, irascible, old-mannish crustiness. Don’t be miserable.

He was in the band during his PhD student days in the band, see and the current link is Subsequently,  he has become a professor of Physics at the University of Manchester. Visit , the Particle Physicles Group.

In between he worked at that incredible place CERN, or l’Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire. Start learning about it at . He was working on and with that vast machine called the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which is a circular tunnel many miles in circumference and buried under the soil of France and Switzerland. It is not just a tunnel though. It is filled with gigantic, high accuracy engineering structures and vast electromagnets the size of buildings. Its purpose is to accelerate atomic particles to speeds close to the speed of light and allow the physicists to study the results when they collide with each other.

The Lad was fully expecting the article to describe a newspaper world that is divided only into the meeja, politicos, plebs and boffins (in white coats of course). Indeed an actual quote from the article was that “you can be cool and a scientist” Perleese!

However, even as a trendily dressed whirlwind, Cox soon painted a diferent picture. He outlined poetically imagined narratives of the world of Solar Systems, galaxies in astronomy. But The Lad noted a crucial quote. Cox said that he wanted to get the Prime Minister to want Britain “to be the best place for science and engineering in the world”. The Lad celebrates him and wishes he could be mates with him for simply saying that.

Brian Cox also had a pretty take on life and civilisation that The Lad liked although it is not engineering. Here is a rather drastically shortened extract. 

“…there’s a finite time during the universe’s adolescence when life is possible.   …it’s an instant,   ……….. that time is now.     ………Civilisation is the seventh wonder of the universe. We’re the universe made conscious.”

Very nice idea. Professor Cox then went on to tell very interesting stories about the physiscists and their work at CERN delving into the mysteries of matter and energy in the Universe. But The Lad wants here to praise the vital part played by the engineers who designed and developed the LHC as a machine. The Lad will seek out some information on the engineering of the LHC and, if successful, he will make it the subject of a future post. Perhaps the CERN will let me use some pictures.

The Lad makes distinctions between science and technology. The latter is mostly one form or another of engineering. A simplified version of the distinction, he believes, can start from the fact that the explorers in the fields of science can follow, to a large degree, the paths that interest them; or at least the paths that interest their research supervisors. Any data is worthwhile to support a particular theory, or not. Even apparent lack of, say, a correlation can be useful.

On the other hand, the engineer has to follow the path that can be powered by risk capital and is constrained by the rigid boundaries of what is possible as defined by the forces of the brute world. Circumventing these forces is sometimes possible but denying them is not. The Lad does not disparage the sciences at all; for it is usually a scientist in her research that discovers, defines, measures and sometimes estimates those forces of the brute world. The engineer cannot do anything but make use of her work and that of her colleagues.