I remember watching a film called K-Pax years ago, although Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t rate is highly I remember being fascinated by a couple of parts. In one particular scene Kevin Spacey’s character refuses to give up the secret of faster than light travel for fear of such a immature race destroying itself with such a powerful technology. However, he does imply that the secret to achieving it is simple. – “you’d be surprised by how much energy is in a beam of light” – Prot
Design and D:Ream
It’s no secret that the best designs often have a profound simplicity to them. This is true of aesthetics and scientific principles. Design wise, plenty of classic products come to mind immediately but there’s a whole realm of elegant design hidden in scientific principles and theories. Virtually every sentient being on the planet is familiar with the classic E = mc2 partly because it’s so easy to remember. At only 6 syllables it perfectly describes the brilliant and revolutionary relationship between energy and mass. I didn’t appreciate quite how elegant this equation was until I read Brian Cox’s Why does E = mc2 and why should we care?. It’s probably the single most eye opening book on physics I’ve read to date. Parts of it can be maths heavy but by the end of the book you have a new found appreciation for the beauty behind this equation. Read it.
Bongos in stripclubs
In between playing bongos in strip clubs, Richard Feyman came up with a theory called Quantum Electrodynamics. It describes how light interacts with matter and is often cited as ‘The Jewel of Physics’. One of the reasons for that name is that it’s virtually perfectly accurate. That doesn’t happen very often, in fact, this is pretty much the single theory in the world of physics that we know we’ve got 100% right. Pretty much every other theory has a margin of error. Though the maths that describes it may look complex, this theory at it’s heart is also incredibly elegant.
If we look at the standard model we find it’s full of uncomfortable arbitrary numbers. Scientists suspect that the standard model is not the real truth, there’s perhaps a deeper level, or something we’re missing. It’s a convenient truth that allows us to make predictions to within acceptable margins. It will do for now. Though now the stress is showing. Integrating gravity is proving tricky if not impossible. It’s a limitation the model we’ve constructed and possibly an indicator that we haven’t got it quite right. Similarly F=MA also worked for a while too. Eventually we get to a point where this fiction reaches it’s limits. In the case of F=MA, this happens at the point you start considering things moving near light speed adding theta gives us a much more accurate prediction.
Mach 10 and beyond
Thought the elegance of these physical laws is clear, it might not feel that tangible. This is where engineering can help, when we start to think about how this elegance can translate in to making machines work. A good example here is jet engines. If you peel back the shielding around a jet engine you’ll find complicated injection manifolds and stressed machinery operating right at the limit of their physical tolerances. It’s clearly an amazing piece of machinery but it does feel like we’re battering the laws of physics in to submission. So then, how could this be made more elegant? There’s a new method of propulsion called scramjets. These are truly incredible in their design and performance. They can power aircraft to Mach 10 and beyond yet have no moving parts! It seems like a bizarre concept which surely is hypothetical, yet these things work and exist. This is the very definition of simple design proving to be incredibly effective.
Harmony rather than hammering
Simple design however does not mean easy. The only reason these incredibly finely tuned machines are possible is thanks to our understanding of physics and the forces involved becoming increasingly refined. Because we now understand the forces involved to a much greater degree we can now create machines that work to maximize the power potential rather than work against it. This increased understanding of the laws governing the universe around us is undoubtedly the future of things like interstellar travel, energy generation and medical technology. Creating technologies that work in harmony with fundamental laws will ultimately deliver more than trying to come up against them. As K-Pax told us, ‘you’d be surprised by how much energy is in a beam of light’.