Thursday, 23 October 2014
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Banish the blues, for a change

We spend far too much time complaining. Although pessimism is the natural state for many in the UK — for example, my family motto is ‘Expect the worst and you’ll never be unpleasantly surprised’ and a Scottish friend of mine has the family emblem of an arm sticking out of a swamp holding a sign saying ‘I told you so’ — it’s true that cynicism is corrosive and being gloomy is bad for you. So let’s change things around a bit. Rather than the usual Wednesday morning moan, let’s look on the bright side.

As it happens, there’s a fair amount to be optimistic about. The ITER project to build a self-sustaining nuclear fusion reactor has entered its construction phase, with the first of the reactor’s million-plus components soon to be delivered to the site at Cadarache in the south of France — many of them from the UK or with UK involvement. Fusion might still be 40 years off, but that 40 years is looking less speculative and more like the finish date of a real project.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is funding a €1m study to establish a business case for the Skylon space plane, following the UK government’s welcome decision to reverse a four-decade-old policy of not investing in launcher technologies. Led by the developer of Skylon and its innovative Sabre engine, Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines, the study will look at how Skylon, equipped with an additional booster stage to take satellites from its cargo bay to a parking orbit, would operate within a commercial satellite launching market in the next decade, based on an operator running two spaceplanes from the Kourou spaceport in Equatorial Guinea.

And the UK’s space industry isn’t the only thing that’s looking up.  The latest report from the Office of National Statistics shows growth in retail sales, a 12.7 per cent rise in new car registrations compared with last year, and a 1.1 per cent increase in industrial production between May and June. Manufacturing output strengthened, although the services sector is also doing well; it’s unclear whether we are seeing a rebalancing of the economy or a rising tide that’s lifting all boats, as the saying goes, but to deploy another cliché, let’s not look a gift horse in the teeth.

Feelgood factors are notoriously difficult to define and frankly often rubbish. We’ve seen speculation that the rise in retail sales is down to anything from Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, Chris Froome winning the Tour de France, the Duchess of Cambridge giving birth and the sunny weather. Or maybe it’s the euphoria induced by Chic’s triumphant set at Glastonbury or the announcement of the casting of the lead role in Doctor Who. The latter might just be me, I admit.

Of course, being realists, we have to inject a note of caution. ITER is behind schedule and still facing technical difficulties. Skylon is many years away from actually flying. The economy still has some way to go even to reach its pre-financial crisis levels, and Peter Capaldi won’t take over the TARDIS until 2014. But engineering is about overcoming problems, and optimism should be the natural state of an engineer. To take ITER as a single example, a project which aims to create a new, clean source of energy which involves people from more than half of the countries in the world working towards a common goal is something to celebrate and an example of what we can do if we put our collective minds to it. Just for a change, let’s look on the bright side.


Readers' comments (9)

  • The comment
    "Fusion might still be 40 years off,but that 40 years is looking less speculative and more like the finish date of a real project"

    If true, probably changes everything with regards to combating global warming and energy production.

    So that just leaves the over population problem to deal with

    "a business case for the Skylon space plane"
    Great, another problem fixed shift the excess population to another planet!

    Yes time to be positive indeed!

    but I will still heed our own family motto

    "He who hesitates gets to laugh at others mistakes and then can do it right!"

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  • Episode 6, Top Gear, the best advert for the British feelgood factor in years.

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  • The last time we Globally collaborated in the scale of the ITER project, in my opinion was the Hadron Collider at Cern, and one of the off shots of that project was the world wide web…What next ? Happy with the Postive, lets just do the growth bit slow and steady. No more Boom and Bust !!

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  • Instead of building a white elephant ITER why not focus efforts to make a cheaper aneutronic fusion reactor? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUrt186pWoA

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  • OK can we now get our so called representative Institutes working to raise the professions profile in the media?
    Where is the Tomorrows World for the 21st Century?
    Top Gear while entertaining is not enough.

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  • We agree about the lack of popular technology and engineering coverage in the media but to be fair to the institutions, they're not responsible for commissioning TV programmes.

  • Isn't the term "boom and bust" a bit "chicken and egg", can we ever remember what was there before the boom?

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  • Feudalism?

  • You start with a cage containing five monkeys and inside the cage, hang a banana on a string from the top and then you place a set of stairs under the banana.

    Before long a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana.

    As soon as he touches the stairs, you spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

    After a while another monkey makes an attempt and all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water.

    Pretty soon when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the remaining monkeys will try to prevent it.

    Now, put the cold water away.

    Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new monkey.

    The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs.

    To his shock, all of the other monkeys beat him up.

    After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

    Next, remove another of the original five monkeys, replacing it with a new monkey.

    The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked.

    The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm, because he is now part of the "team".

    Then, replace a third original monkey with a new one, followed by the fourth, then the fifth.

    Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, the others attack him.

    Now, the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs.

    Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

    Finally, having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water.

    Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the stairway for the banana.

    Why, you ask?

    Because in their minds...that is the way it has always been!

    This, my friends, is how Parliament operates... and this is why from time to time:

    ALL of the monkeys need to be REPLACED AT THE SAME TIME.

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  • Yes, parliament is a nonsense most of the time, PMQ's is an embarrassment, select committee's (and all enquiry's after catastrophes) have 20/20 hindsight but no foresight, party political machinery stifles initiative by individual MPs, the Lords is a perfect example of how to look after the elderly..keep them comfortable and warm, feed them and take little notice of what they say...
    let the adversarial process of settling disputes (political and commercial) give advantage to mercenaries alone...I could go on.
    BUT the alternative is tanks in the street and the John Lewis removal van no longer at Downing Street, yes, it has weaknesses but the alternative is worse!

    We Engineers must simply thank our lucky stars that we manipulate Nature's Laws to the benefit of all mankind, not only man's to the benefit of the RIPs (rich, in place and powerful)

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  • The only problem with allowing government to run the country, is it’s full of self-serving politicians, who are either technically naive, corrupt or both.

    For either reason they shouldn’t be there.

    But look on the bright side … we don’t live in North Korea !!!

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