on August 6th, 2008

Dear Colleagues

Thanks so much for the stack of mail last week and great enthusiasm for downloading the videos we have been collecting. I get responses from people living far and wide - from the middle of the Kalahari (where is that you might exclaim) to the city slick environs of New York City. Thank you. 

Next week, I am going to talk a bit about engineering burn-out which I have come across with a few buddies. Something we all need to watch out for - it can quickly destroy us and our careers. If you have any experiences here, please let me know. Naturally, I will respect your confidentiality.

Two fascinating engineering items today which will, undoubtedly, impact on our lives as engineers and technicians.

1. In two day’s time, the first protons will spin their way into the Large Hadron Collider (circumference of 27kms) after a decade of work and $10billion – certainly the world’s largest machine. Some of you will no doubt mutter about more mumbo jumbo physics, irrelevant to us as engineers, but this is indeed investigating the fabric of our universe from which we derive all our wonderful engineering designs. The collider is especially looking for the Higgs Boson which carries the force of gravity in the graviton. As some of you may dimly recall from your first year physics, the first few particles have already been found: Gluons (strong nuclear force), W and Z bosons (weak nuclear force) and photons for the more familiar electromagnetic force (doing everything from pointing the compass north to preventing objects from collapsing). What is the practical application of all this stuff? A detailed understanding should enable us to rapidly move to the pioneering edge of engineering with everything from better communications systems to better materials. (Remember that “odd little thing” which most of us engineers were a little bit uncertain about, many years ago, called the World Wide Web - the coding system? It originated from these labs). Interestingly enough, the collider will also create tiny black holes (hence the recent legal action to prevent it going ahead – there was fear that the world was liable to be consumed by this – we will find out on the 8th August). These black holes will evaporate in a puff of radiation (Hawking Radiation) named after that absolutely inspirational physicist, Stephen Hawking, and will give him his richly deserved Nobel Physics prize (a practical demonstration, to support the theory, is required before it is awarded).

2. Scaled Composites, headed up by Bert Rutan, is about to launch White Knight Two - the first stages of a spaceship for the inimitable (Sir) Richard Branson – the largest carbon composite plane yet built with a single wing of 43m (with the rather boringly named SpaceShipTwo slung in the middle). This will be lifted to an altitude of 15kms and then released. It will make its way to the edge of outer space with its six, fare-paying passengers (at $200k a pop). The possibilities with this technology are superb:
• Launching small satellites into space at a fraction of the current costs
• Providing very low cost zero-gravity flights
• Studying atmospheric physics on a smaller budget (at a level above a planes’ reach, but which is too low for satellites) 
One of the more intriguing aspects of this project is the carefully worded comment by Rutan. He remarked that building the aircraft has demonstrated something “very significant” about the main structural support on a wing - it will permit the construction of an aircraft of “any size”. From what I know about Rutan, he isn’t known for making outrageous claims. So there may be something here.

What do we need to do:

• Watch these new technologies unfold and see how we can apply them to our businesses – no matter how trivial we think we (and they) are
• Use them to market a technology-driven career – surely these activities are infinitely more interesting than being slumped at a desk doing accountancy and law?
• Take a deep breath and look at how we can apply them in completely unrelated, but critical fields such as; medicine, mining and renewable energy

With these incredible jaunts to the limits of current technology, John Muir is so right when he remarked: “The power of imagination makes us infinite”

Yours in engineering learning


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