Thursday, 23 February 2017

Let's go Kerbal

This is a spinoff from my last post on Randall Munroe's What if? scientific question-and-answer website and book. I found a link to another person called Scott Manley and his series of YouTube videos, which take up various design challenges, such as how to make a nuclear submarine fly like an aircraft.

Actually, I first looked at Manley's video of a computer simulation showing how an aircraft using controlled nuclear explosions to 'pump' its way through the skies might fare. It's here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwrLR2kv5KA&feature=youtu.be&t=1119.

Then I progressed to the flying nuclear submarine challenge, which is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw8wjOz_Jtc. I found it hilarious. In fact I shrieked with laughter.

More Scott Manley videos await. I expect I'll enjoy those just as much. Which is why I'm mentioning them here, so that any reader can too.

I've always been interested in science, but only in a popular, non-academic way. I'm not mentally equipped to grasp the maths and all the concepts. Which is a great shame really. A scientific career, instead of one with the Inland Revenue, might have been more to my taste. And I'm certain Mum and Dad would have approved. Well before I was ten, I was an avid follower of every space satellite launch (e.g. Sputnik, Telstar) and then, a little later, the first manned space flights. I had a giant map of the Solar System stuck on my bedroom wall. And it wasn't just space exploration. I liked all kinds of science. Mum and Dad noticed this, and around 1960 started to give me money so that I could buy a new monthly magazine called Understanding Science. This grew over the years into twelve bound volumes. Here they all are in my bedroom at home in 1974:


There must have been a good reason why I had them up on the shelf in reverse order, but it escapes me now.

It wasn't a cheap magazine by any means, and those hard green folders were of course extra. But my parents must have thought the investment worth it, although they never actually explained to me why they had so much faith in my capacity to understand such a hard subject. I'm guessing that, even then, I could appear to be intelligent and perceptive without actually having any genuine flair or leaning towards whatever it was.

I was eager to please, which must have been taken as a good sign. And I did enjoy bits of what I read. I just lacked true penetration, and the proper Scientific Mind - which became painfully obvious at grammar school. As with nearly all my subjects, the masters considered me a model pupil, but strangely prone to missing the point; rather a dreamer. A puzzle to all. But, in common with Mum and Dad at home, they all refused to give up on me, and attributed my embarrassing exam results to laziness rather than a limited IQ. I imagine they tut-tutted for show, but clung to a belief that if only I 'snapped out of it', and worked hard, and heeded their advice, then l would show the expected brilliance.

Which to some extent was borne out by my rather decent A-Level exam results - the exam results that mattered - for which I did put in a concentrated spell of hard work during the last few weeks before I sat the papers. At last Mum and Dad could hold their heads high! And I could have done even better, if I'd read all of my set books for English Literature, and hadn't turned my Art still-life into an irreverent cartoon. I positively walked the Geography exam, getting a distinction for almost no effort at all.

None of this should be a surprise, to do so well at all my favourite subjects. It would have been properly a matter for amazement if I'd shone at Physics, Chemistry and Biology. But I was no supernova - just a black dwarf. I failed to get even an O-Level in a science subject. I got a scrape pass in O-Level maths, on my second attempt, and that was only through sheer luck on the day.

After leaving school in 1970, I could have turned my back on science and rational pursuits generally, but I didn't. Instead I grew much more interested, though limited as ever by my low-capacity brain. In the forty-seven years since I have honed my mind sufficiently to enjoy the propositions mentioned in the last post, and the videos mentioned in this one. It's probably Not Good Enough, but hey.

Let me end with Scott Manley's take on in-flight refuelling. What a hoot! Click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cwNTy479F8.

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Lucy Melford