03 December 2012

Imagine with me for a moment…

Imagine a device that used a highly volatile known explosive substance, deliberately vaporised it into an oxidant rich mix and then ignited it in a pressurised container.

The explosions are made in a container that will only have been pressure tested or pressure specified once in its lifetime, and this will bemused to propel around a tonne of metal at quite high speeds.

The compression is used to improve the explosive yield of the combustion as it is well known that military shaped charges use this to increase yield.

An electric spark (bared, with little em shielding) will be used to ignite each detonation. The detonations will occur at high speeds with many per minute, and it is likely that multiple chambers will be used both to increase yield and smooth va offsets the power peaks and troughs.

The equipment will be operated by people with little or no training on the use of hazardous, flammable, explosive or volatile substances. They will not be trained on the safe maintenance of pressure vessels. The substance is corrosive, and dangerous to make physical contact with. Spillage of the amounts needed may require serious treatment to avoid loss of life and severe health effects.

The metal that is propelled will be places on wheels with pneumatic tires inflated to explosive pressures to provide a smooth ride. The volatile substance will need ubiquitous storage, distribution and retail units, again without demanding more than simple training for the handlers and maintainers of such infrastructure.

There are known issues with the extraction of this substance, with documented cases of loss of life and health, and severe damage to wildlife and environment.

There have been well known cases of large fires and explosions related to mistakes around the storage and handling of this. Making this substance freely available may make it usable as an explosive or accelerant for arsonists, rioters and terrorism. There are documented cases of its usage as such.

Sound ludicrous?

The Automobile or Car

An icon of Perserverance and Technology

I have been talking about the common combustion engine - used in almost all cars, trucks and buses. It now has a history of over a century, and is probably one of the safer forms of transport, at least in terms of engine failure, although other related accidents are perhaps still a fairly high figure.

The car is, without doubt, a major technological item in our recent history, although it remains to be seen what the future holds for them. It is far from the ideal system, and it’s may flaws are why we must, must be bold and see what the future holds. It is a past to not be ashamed of, but we should fear no attempts to replace it.

Discovering Fire

Fire, tamed and controlled I cannot pretend to know how humanity discovered that we could ourselves use fire and put it work for our needs and wants. I suspect that even some of our greatest historians and archaeologists wouldn’t be able to tell us.

But I have a great suspicion that there was much fear as a man first took a burning branch, or created sparks and made some grass smolder and smoke that he was taking a great risk, and as people learned both to create and use fire, lives were lost, people were hurt. There would have been many voices saying not to do it, not to interfere with forces of the spirits and such, and those great people ignoring such cries have unlocked one of the most fundamental forces of our current world.

We have, through the many years, learned to manage fire very safely, to refine fundamentals things of how it works, or to convert its energy into more controllable forms. We depend so much upon fire in our locomotion, or generation of electricity, or preparation of food, lighting and warming buildings that it would a civilisation destroying event were we suddenly not able to use fire in any form.

Yet in the hands of those who do not understand fire, who misuse it or use it with malicious intent, it is still incredibly harmful.

Scary Science and technology

Some of the most useful inventions in our history have come from incredibly dangerous things done by very brave, or foolhardy men. Sometimes, the extremely clever would send someone brave and foolhardy to perform their insane experiments for them.

The thing is, real people did die or become seriously injured doing them. And yet, they are also celebrated. The risk is not always a reason not to have tried. Perhaps to have done better, perhaps to have thought things out more - but perhaps some lessons can only be learned the hard way. Anybody spending time around people and children learning will know that many lessons and advances can only be learned by seeing the mistakes made. None of these things should scare us into inaction. Take care, do things safely when you can - but still do them!


The Challenger space shuttle is a disaster in the lifetime of a number of readers here. Mistakes were made, and learned from. It is a shame that lives were lost - but it would be sad had we not tried again.

Train Wrecks

Steam Trains changed our landscapes. In England and the United States they made large nations far smaller, shipping freight around the areas and allowing vast wealths of natural resources to be exploited, growing whole new towns and ways of life, allowing people to start to migrate in ways they hadn’t before. They also had catastrophic crashes, boiler explosions and other terribly dangerous accidents - and occasionally still do. However, they were and still are provably a great idea.

Bridge Disasters

There are a number of superbly engineered bridges that many of us use in our daily activities without thought, and yet there have been incredibly devastating accidents involving some of them. Bridges have collapsed, they have swayed violently swaying to wind but they are from ancient times and probably in the foreseeable future the best way to cross an uneven natural landscape. This picture beautifully captures such an incident in its aftermath.

Steam Power

Steam power has lasted even longer than the automobile, and is still the cheif way of converting the power produced by large scale power plants into electricity. Steam powered some of the earliest private cars, has driven trains for many years, as well as all forms of industry and locomotion.

Some of the early Steam engines of the mines were huge devices, with manually driven valves and bore sizes of 100 inches (that is 2.54 meters) or even larger. If they were to be operated in the wrong order the dangers were terrific. Boilers could be caused to blow because of massive overloads in pressure without an outlet, plumes of scalding hot steam could shoot out at valves, and the cylinders themselves could be driven into the ground hard enough to cause large shock waves. Yet they were capable of pumping great amounts of water from mines allow miners to work deeper and more safely than before. There are many examples of these around, including in my neighbourhood at the Kew Bridge Steam Museum.

Is it worth pursuing dangerous science and technology?

So here comes the question. Our modern world is advancing its scientific, technological and engineering understanding like never before. New devices are being created and engineered at some of the highest rates ever, and with the increased knowledge sharing of the internet, the additional power to design from computers in CAD and simulation, this can only accelerate.

We have many avenues to explore, and you can almost guarantee that no matter how obscure, somebody, somewhere is having a look, having a go. Perhaps with support from investments, governments and individuals, they may acheive a great deal too. Sometimes, they do not know where research will end - there may be products which need such a solution, and there are advances without products that yet safely or even at all demonstrate their benefits.

However, should we continue - should the possibility of danger be enough to discourage us from trying?

Should the fear of a dangerous exploration stop us? My own answer is never - we may not always get it right, and we might want to know the consequences. But to be paralysed by fear would be a great waste of human ingenuity. We should keep trying - there should be no discouragement.

The future

We are now entering a future where energy and mind are going to be two of the great forces to shape us. Our boldness may be the difference between an energy rich and an energy poor future – an energy poor future will make other currencies seem meaningless as it would affect our food as well as our direct comfort in heating and lighting.

The mind is where we will be able, given energy, to solve the problems the future holds and preserve our race so they don’t merely survive but thrive. If we were to become fearful, to stop taking risks, we risk a great deal more. Sure – recklessness gets us nowhere – but paralysis seems even worse.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Are you afraid of hydrogen powered cars lining our streets if it was indeed viable to do so? Or does the idea fill you with delight and optimism? Can nuclear fusion power, or solar power, and geothermal on a grand scale maintain the energy richness we have grown used to? Should we abandon it all and return to agriculture, accepting the inevitable shrinking in population, knowledge and comfort that would have to result from such a change?

Inspiration for this writing

The First And Last Men, By Olaf Stapleton

This book, more than anything else, has inspired me to take what I wrote on a train journey home and turn into a full lens, describing what I really meant by it. The First and Last Men by Olaf Stapledon, written in 1930, before the wars that have shaped our current world, describes many epochs of men - as they rise and fall.

The original writing, that makes up the intro was written a short while before, inspired by various conversations, where it seems some people’s main objections to new technologies are “it is dangerous, it might make a small explosion or leak out”. Most of these dangers, while undesirable, are constrained to a few individuals and do not cause world rending damage. With practice, and learning, including the hard way, the dangers will be overcome and the system made safe.