Thermodynamic Whoopee

man without a countryThe success of our students in the MyCopter project inspired me a couple of weeks ago to write about the prospect for flying cars [see post on October 2nd, 2014 entitled ‘Origami car-planes‘], which are not good essentially because we don’t know how to manipulate gravity. Everything in the universe is controlled by four forces, i.e. electromagnetic, gravitational, weak nuclear and strong nuclear. Adam Frank, described our understanding and control of electromagnetic forces as god-like because we can manipulate photons, electrons and atoms with enormous precision in flat screen TVs, mobile phones, microwave ovens and much more.

Strong nuclear forces hold protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of atoms and weak nuclear forces control the fusion process in stars. We have managed to take a few tottering steps to control nuclear forces in nuclear power stations but we are blundering apprentices compared to our skills with electromagnetism. However, with gravitational forces we are like toddlers trying to feed ourselves – we have some idea about what we are supposed to be doing but we waste an enormous amount in trying to hit the target. So we use our expertise in electromagnetism to combust fuel in an engine which drives an aerofoil through air faster enough to generate lift. This usually involves burning vast amount of fossil fuel and it gets worse when you want to hover with rotating blades or a vertical jet. Kurt Vonnegut in a ‘A Man without a Country‘ has described our reckless use of fossil fuel as making ‘thermodynamic whoopee’ but if we want fly long distances with significant payloads we don’t have much choice at the moment.

If physicists could work out how to manipulate gravitational forces it would not take engineers long to design and build flying cars that would be as advanced relative to today’s private jet as your tablet computer is relative to an abaqus.


I was promised flying cars‘ by Adam Frank in the New York Times on June 6th, 2014

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