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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .

(July 2010)

Sometimes the things that I want to think about and discuss here give me the feeling that I ought first to consult professionals with more expertise than I possess in the relevant subjects. But right now I havenít the time, because I must finish this column today before getting ready to head north: Mrs S and I are going to attend the East Neuk Festival ó donít feel ignorant, because no-one else Iíve mentioned this to has heard of the place either!

We only know of it because a friend moved there a while ago: itís the strip of land along the south-east coastline of Fife. As for the festival, this packs 14 irresistible concerts of classical music into village churches, over five days. With great effort we have managed to restrict ourselves to booking for half of the events, in order to leave some time for exploring the countryside.

But to return to my train of thought: perhaps I am risking the scorn of medics and biochemists (and drivers) if I say that I think the news was a bit alarmist last month that youíre in danger of catching Legionnairesí Disease if you donít put screen-wash into the windscreen-washer bottle of your car. The illness comes from breathing in bacteria that flourish in warm water. But only a few hundred cases are notified in the UK each year, of which a sizeable fraction originate abroad, and another fraction are connected with localized outbreaks.

What happened was that researchers interviewed some patients in the remaining Ďunexplainedí category. They now claim to have unearthed two new risk-factors as a result, both associated with vehicle use: travelling through industrial areas, and driving a vehicle without screen-wash in the bottle (you might have thought that the first factor was at least as newsworthy as the second, but it received much less attention). And in a separate investigation, the LD bacterium was indeed found in some untreated bottles ó but never when screen-wash had been added.

Needless to say, Halfords later announced a surge in sales of the stuff. But really, even if the bacteria are all around and coming at us through the air-vents if we spray the windscreen with plain water (or if the driver in front does), the fact that the numbers of unexplained cases across the country are so small does seem to give this the look of a scare-story. Letís at least wait for the more extensive investigation that is being talked about.

In any case, wouldnít you expect just as many LD bugs and similar nasties to be harboured by vehicle air-conditioning systems? Especially when the units start smelling! Yet I havenít been able to find any reports of a link between cases of Legionnairesí Disease and air-con in cars ó even though very often the cause of a localized spread of LD is found to be poorly maintained air-conditioning in a building. This was so in the first recognized outbreak, which occurred at a convention of the American Legion in 1976, following which the bacterium was identified and the disease named.

But just imagine what would have happened to the name and reputation of a car manufacturer if, instead, these bugs had first been discovered in the windscreen-washer bottles (or in the air-con systems) of its own vehicles: we might now be talking about British Leyland Disease...

Another professional I want to consult is an electrochemist. Question: why is the range of a (purely) electric car predicted to remain limited to about 100 miles for years to come, and this largely because of the size and weight of the battery? Is there no prospect at all of improvements in battery design?

In fact there are several more questions in my mind: does the quoted 100 mile range even allow for all the energy that will be drawn from the battery for warming the interior of the vehicle in cold weather ó or (alternatively) powering the air-conditioning in the heat? Is the artificial noise that will need to be generated under the bonnet of the car (so that people can hear the thing coming) really going to be different and specific for each manufacturer, as I have read? And will the efficiency of ... but I had better research all this properly, for another column.

Iíve said before that a study of physics not only teaches you why much of the world around you behaves as it does, but also trains you to think clearly and logically. Now, if I tell you that as Iím writing this, the World Cup knock-out match between England and Germany is being played out on a screen in the next room, you will guess that I havenít a burning interest in football myself, but also that I must have a reason for mentioning it.

Two reasons, in fact. The first one is that I can also hear (through open windows) that the game is being watched in the house next door, where I believe they have a Sky system. And the sounds of their reactions to the play are reaching me several seconds later than those from my own family (viewing a traditional TV). Fortunately I donít think they can hear our reactions, in advance of theirs! Anyway, evidently thereís a delay within the Sky transmission system thatís much longer than the fraction of a second that the signal takes to travel out to the satellite and back. So much for technological progress and ďviewing events as they happenĒ...

The other footballing matter on my mind is that Iím aware that everyoneís fear during any knock-out match is that it will end in a draw and have to be decided by a penalty shoot-out. Two hours (including extra time) of skilled play by 22 men seem to count for nothing, and we ó I mean you ó now have to focus on the tired fumblings of just a few of them. OK, this may be better than just tossing a coin, for the purposes of turning a draw into a win/lose result. But one player usually ends up carrying the can for the loss, very unfairly I feel.

So hereís the result of my logical thinking: hold the penalty shoot-out at the beginning of the game (every knock-out game, I mean), and count the result as half-a-goal. Then play the match. Right through it, that half-goal will put one team or the other ahead, and the players will know that the final result depends on all of them. They canít pass the buck to the hapless penalty-takers and goalies, even though these men did exactly the same job at the beginning as they would be doing at the end, under the present system, in the event of a draw.

Iíve come across a variety of suggestions for alleviating the drawn-game problem, but never this one. Maybe I should have run it past a football professional, or at least a fan, before offering it to you. But as I said, Iím short of time. Meanwhile, in the next room (though not quite yet next door) I think itís all over ó and without a shoot-out: we was robbed!

Peter Soul

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