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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
I signed off my last column, if you remember, by saying that for medical reasons I couldn’t be sure of meeting Mr Editor’s copy-deadline for this issue [of the Thames Valley Group Newsletter]. Well, here’s a confession: I’m cheating rather, by starting this month’s column while it is still last month! And as my hospital operation is more than a week off, there’s a good chance that I shall fill my two pages in time, as well as finishing off other jobs while I have the energy.
I would like to tie up a few loose column-ends. First let me return to my topic last month, which was the contrast (mostly) between our own human technical innovations, nearly all of which have appeared during just the last few centuries, and the extraordinary ‘technologies’ that slowly evolved in nature over millions of years. I had been reading a fascinating book, Cat’s Paws and Catapults, but what I didn’t have space for in last month’s column was mentioning the various things discussed in the book that we have successfully copied, from what was observed to work in the natural world.
These include: the making of paper from wood, as in wasps’ nests; the early design of earphones and microphones, based on the observation that our eardrums transmit all frequencies at once ; certain features of birds’ wings (not their flapping, though!) in the development of aircraft; the cutting teeth of chain-saws, copied from the jaws of wood-boring beetles; barbed wire derived from thorn hedges; and Velcro imitating the way in which burs cling to clothing (a trick that would have evolved in the presence of animal fur, of course, long before we invented clothes).
But this list is not long, and I haven’t omitted many other examples of our copying usefully from nature. So there must be a general difficulty in doing so, which I would put down to the complexity and the interrelatedness of most biological systems. These are properties that we sometimes fail to appreciate fully, or even at all, until something goes awry (as in my own ailing digestive process...).
In March I described a ‘new’ method of storing electricity from the national grid underground, which prompted a reader to point me to an older one: pumping compressed air into salt-caverns to store the energy, and then releasing it (when needed) through turbines to regenerate electricity. Is this as simple as it sounds? Apparently so! Not only have such caverns have long been used for the safe storage of natural gas, but also two electricity-to-compressed-air plants have been in operation in Germany and the US for 40 and 25 years, respectively, though at lower efficiency than in the systems that are being developed currently. A useful property of the salt in the cavern walls is that it flows when under pressure, to seal any cracks. (A pity this doesn’t extend to dependable flowing when not under pressure, out of the average salt-cellar.)
Previously when I’ve written about self-driving cars (autos in my vocabulary), their future seemed reasonably assured – though still distant, because of all the ‘administrative’ difficulties to be overcome. But then in March came news of a tragic setback: the death of a lady who was hit by an Uber auto (an experimental vehicle, not a taxi) while crossing the road, in Arizona.
Over the following few weeks, the unfortunate combination of circumstances that led to this accident were revealed: it was nighttime, and the onboard dashcam only captured the lady (who was wearing dark clothing) just before the collision. The actual detection-and-control system in the vehicle was aware of her six seconds before, but had been ‘tuned down’, hence it apparently decided there was little or no hazard. This was even though it identified her first as an ‘unknown object’, then as a vehicle, and then as a bicycle (she was in fact wheeling a bicycle across the road).
The auto did slow down slightly, but its emergency braking had been disabled in order to reduce erratic progress, on the assumption that the back-up driver on board would intervene and brake if necessary. However, this (second) lady was not focused on the road at the critical time, and she only saw the victim a second before impact. Naturally it’s too early to know what long-term effect the incident will have on the progress of autos, but we shouldn’t forget that their overall safety record remains good.
I think I ought now to confess something else (in addition to writing this column early, as I said at the start). Over the past year or so I’ve spoken – I mean written – my mind several times on the ubiquitous smartphone. Its tiny screen seems to monopolize the attention of nearly everyone who is not actually driving, almost all the time. This is whether they are crossing a road disregarding the traffic, or riding a bicycle putting anyone in their path at risk, or walking along a footpath ignoring the sights (and/or blocking out the sounds) of nature, or sitting at a meal-table letting their food go cold, or getting near to bedtime and still staring at their phone, even though it’s a well-established fact that doing so will disrupt their body-clock and sleep-pattern.
Worse still is that children are growing up permanently attached and addicted to their phones, and distracted by them. I have read that the very young, when they first encounter a real book, even try to turn the page by ‘swiping’ instead of lifting it! Later, going through school, children risk being bullied via social media, and being taken far beyond their years by what else they may see on the screen.
Also, smartphones can be more of an unsafe distraction than you might realize. I reported a year ago that the subconscious effort of ignoring the presence of your phone beside you – even when you know it’s switched off – can reduce your concentration on the task in hand. And although driving wasn’t mentioned as an example of such a task (in the study I had seen), why should it not be so?
Then there are the basic absurdities: the camera system in a smartphone has an extraordinarily high resolution, yet the resulting photos are displayed on a screen only a few inches across. In spite of its high value, a phone never arrives with a strap to prevent your dropping it or losing it to a snatcher. And only this week (as I write) came the news that The Rill, a long straight picturesque water channel set into the pavement from Tower Bridge to London Bridge Station about 15 years ago, has had to be filled in because of the numbers of walkers who were tripping over or into it while gazing at their electronic soul mates.
But I digress: I said this was going to be a confession! After my first stay in hospital a few weeks ago, when I was reduced to sending and receiving texts on my little old (er, 12 years old) mobile phone, my sister put it to me that not having a smartphone of my own was an inconvenience to everyone in the family who would like to be able to keep in easier contact with me, particularly via something called WhatsApp.
She also gently reminded me of a previous situation we faced, when our late father refused (until only a few months before he died) to acknowledge his deafness and accept a hearing-aid, simply not comprehending the difficulties he was causing for all of us. Well, that persuaded me, and so I have just acquired the largest ‘inexpensive’ Android phone that I could find (the screen is six inches on the diagonal), also a thick folding holder for it – and, in the holder, a convenient slot to which I have attached a strap. The whole thing weighs a ton and fills a pocket, but never mind. Now, what’s this WhatsApp app all about...?
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