Banish the blues, for a change

Features editor

There’s a great deal to be optimistic about, and engineers should look on the bright side. So just for once, let’s stop complaining.

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.