Sunday, 4 October 2009

Elegant forms and complexity

I am sitting in my van in glorious Autumnal sunshine at Kemble airfield where young Sir comes to race his RC car. Apparently this track is world class and champions come here to practice and race their high spec model cars. I watch them briefly zipping round the smooth tarmac loop, with its chicanes and curves and it strikes me just how fast they go and how beautifully they seem to grip the surface as they traverse the hairpins. They appear to be subject to an additional gravitational force, keeping them held down low and preventing skidding or spinning out of control. Considering the light but powerful batteries these 45cm vehicles carry and the incredible power generated by their relatively tiny motors, they really are rather impressive. The smoothness and speed of them in their straight sprints and negotiatiation of sudden direction changes is quite fascinating to watch, though the level of fascination exhibited by No1 son and his very “focused” peers is something that I will never and don’ t really wish to attain.

Sitting here comfortably at my table in the van, I can hear little but the assertive whine of small electric motors propelling the cars on the track, and the hum of the fan on my inverter which is powering my laptop here.

Being a working airfield, there is the periodic drone of an aeroplane taking off and even the occasional roar of a jet engine, muted by the trees which screen the runway. Once here, I saw a mustang P51 take off and perform some aerial manoeuvers , its Rolls Royce merlin, also used in the later spitfires, making that distinctive throaty sound, causing me to instantly turn my head to look. I felt a rather unexpected ostalgia for a time I have never known which puzzles me to this day.

Along the runway are also a line of Hawker Hunters, some of which are used for some flight school, I believe and others which enthusiasts are renovating, just for the sheer fun of it. They are very sleek, cold-war designs which appear a little dated when compared to the more recent and somewhat more angular Typhoon and F-16 designs. Nevertheless, their beautiful lines are incredibly pleasing to look at and something about their shape resonates with the eye, causing an appreciation of something well-designed yet visually appealing. Indeed, the nature of aerodynamics and fluid mechanics is such that this slippery shape is necessary for correct and efficient function of these machines. Similarly, across the way here, not 50 feet from me is an old Brittania.

Its four propeller driven engines all aligned at 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock. Its shape says more “aeroplane” to me than the jets, being more reminiscent of the forms I was familiar with as a child, from war films and adventure movies so prevalent on BBC2 Sunday afternoon schedules. It has a stately grace which is almost colonial in grandeur and, leaving aside the inherent design flaws that saw several tragedies as a result, I do admire the elegance of it. And this causes me to reflect on the nature of beauty versus form: The two most beautiful machines I have ever seen up close are the Spitfire and Concorde.

I was lucky enough to work near the hanger where the latter was stored in the 1980s and often went to look at it is during lunchtimes in the hangar in FIlton. Also, a spitfire came in regularly for its engine to be services so we had a close up view of it and were often treated to a small and ostentatious display after it had had its routine maintence. Few machines ever devised by humanity will match these for sheer aesthetic appeal. Ok, a few cars are quite pleasing to behold too, but cars don’t really do it for me and I have to take the word of others when they tell me a car is gorgeous. But given that we are not specifically developed to find such advanced workings of man to be visually attractive, I wonder why it is it should be so. There is no survival benefit for a primate to gain pleasure from looking at such an object. And yet we do.

Streamlining it seems, just appeals to the eye – Just not when it’s on a fish. It is at this point that even my huge supply of nouns becomes a little depleted: “grace”, “beauty” and “aesthetic appeal” can only be used so many times and yet, they are so relevant. But this is only one part of the allure for me. Within these machines is hidden huge complexity. For a plane to get airborne, it requires the conversion of fuel into enormous amounts of thrust, if gravity is to be temporarily overruled. In order to do this, people have devised ever more complicated engines from simple ones like in early cars, through rotary and the rather humourously named Wankel engines, to jets and rockets. Though the principles of how these operate are in effect simple, relying as they do in the conversion of a small volume of fuel to a larger volume of exhaust, the implementation of the principles in a controlled manner that doesn’t blow the whole thing to bits, is actually rather complicated. Add to that, huge amounts of instrumentation, safety apparatus, control mechanisms and life-support systems and you have one hell of a complicated beastie.

In fact, these are some of the most sophisticated and intricate machines ever devised. All enclosed in a sleek, streamlined, deceptively simple shape. So, we see these shapes and the bewildering array of systems within are hidden from us. We see merely an aeroplane, miraculously, sometimes hundreds of tons of metal taking off, and even more miraculously in my view, landing on tiny wheels at hundreds of miles an hour. This is, to me, almost magic, or would be if I didn’t understand the physics involved. Nevertheless, travelling, as I do regularly, on large passenger jets, I cannot help but feel a small sense of panic on occasion when we come hurtling out of the clouds to see the ground a mere thousand feet or so below and at 300mph, we have to rejoin that unyielding surface with our extreme momentum. In this case, a knowledge of the physics involved actually does not help and the nerd in me begins to calculate the amount of kinetic energy that is turned to heat in the brakes of the tiny wheels, such as one might see on a bus (only better engineered and more prolific, obviously) So, simplicity of form can hide complexity of function.

And this I find fascinating. I try to picture all the functionality inside as I watch an A340, a 757 or an embraer taking off. But I can only see the form and it movement. And this is probably a good thing. It is easier with a plane with propellers as I can see something moving to push the air backwards, but even here, it is still remarkable and slightly unfeasible that a lump of metal, obviously heavy, manages to get airborne.

Similarly, the human body holds a similar fascination for me.
It is a collection of systems that together make a person. Leaving aside the mind for now, the interconnections of muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments, all fed by tubes supplying that which nourishes and moves it, is all encased in a form which is, on the face of it, rather elegant in its simplicity. Skin stretched over it all makes it hard to see the gooey, squelchy wet contents that makes it all work, and for this, I am actually quite grateful. I am content to look at human bodies and see at most the movement of muscles below the surface, retaining ignorance of the circulation of blood and secretion of bile and all manner of other substances that are needed to sustain our animation. And it has always been my belief that all human bodies are marvels of engineering and development. Even the most obese, corpulent carcasses and whippet-like ectomomorphic waifs do what one expects a body to do functionally, to some greater and occasionally lesser degree. The reliability of this machine is incredible with it mostly working in trouble free operation for decades, sometimes over a century. Ok, whilst some bodies are nicer to look at than others and indeed, I occasionally have to avert my horrified gaze in the sauna or gym changing rooms (and elsewhere avert my eyes for different reasons that are not to do with repulsion!) all of them are incredible machines which are due admiration and wonder. Despite their squishy composition of more than 60% water, most bodies are appreciated by someone, and this is how it should be. So, I do hope I have not caused subsequent undue discomfort or reflection at how these complex systems are regarded. It would pain me to think that after reading this, you now regard human bodies as skins full of rather unpleasant fluids, levers and pulleys, or that you now regard aeroplanes as somehow less mechanically trustworthy as a result of contemplating the mind-boggling intricacy of what comprises the contents of that sleek aluminium skin. Where there is beauty, I believe it is an inexpensive pleasure to gaze upon it and appreciate it without unnecessary or troublesome internal dialogue. But I implore you to take a moment next time, to observe the aerodynamic beauty of that plane or appraise that shapely bottom and make no comment to yourself but “Gosh! Isnt that lovely!”