Wednesday 21 February 2018

Scientific love letter to the world's great cities

Science: Science and the City, Laurie Winkless, Bloomsbury, 298 ­pages, €22.50 hdbk, €16.99 pbk

The world’s tallest structure, the 828m Burj Khalifa in Dubai
The world’s tallest structure, the 828m Burj Khalifa in Dubai
A billboard poem entitled ‘In Praise of Air’ in Sheffield that works as an air purifyer
Author Laurie Winkless's love of her subject shines through in Science and the City
The 509m Taipai 101 Tower in Taiwan, the world’s tallest from 2004 until 2009
Science and the City by Laurie Winkless
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Author Laurie Winkless's first book ­provides a fun and ­engaging insight into how cutting-edge ­technology is shaping our cities.

Author Laurie Winkless claims to be annoying. Ever since she learned to talk, it has been impossible to "stop me from asking questions", she says. It was this innate curiosity which led her to study physics.

"A while ago, I realised that there were countless interesting questions to be asked in the very place where I live; where many of us live," the Dundalk author says in her first book Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis.

In it, the 33-year-old who now lives in London looks under the bonnet of our urban spaces, shows how cutting-edge technology has been used to shape our modern cities and reveals some of the innovations being developed which will utterly transform how we live.

Author Laurie Winkless's love of her subject shines through in Science and the City
Author Laurie Winkless's love of her subject shines through in Science and the City

In 2014, the UN announced that more people live in cities today than in the countryside. We are no longer farmers, we are urbanites, she says, and that presents major challenges.

But most of us don't stop to think about how our buildings are constructed, how our homes are powered, what happens to the contents of the toilet when we flush and the science behind our transport systems.

It's these questions, and more, which Winkless explores across almost 300 fact-filled but never-dreary pages. She begins with the "shiny, towering buildings of steel and glass" which perhaps best exemplify the modern city - skyscrapers - noting that despite their modernity, they aren't a new invention.

High-rise buildings have been found in the heart of cities for 130 years. This is because in areas like Hong Kong or Manhattan there is only a finite amount of land but "plenty of people want it", so city planners had to go up.

An interesting fact to demonstrate the scale of these super-structures: In 2013, the average American home had a footprint of 232 sqm and housed three people. In New York's financial district, each tower of the World Trade Centre had a footprint of 4,000 sqm. Instead of housing 51 people, each tower accommodated 25,000.

Building these massive structures represents a marvellous feat of engineering. Not only must skyscrapers support their own weight and that of everything they house, they must resist wind and sometimes earthquakes, protect occupants from fires and floods, be connected to the power grid, offer a reliable water supply and waste removal and have communications systems.

She takes us through the process of building a skyscraper from its raw ingredients, including steel and concrete (which has "some pretty cool properties"), and highlights how self-building cranes are allowing buildings to become even taller.

There's serious science and engineering involved. Winkless references the 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai, where engineers designed the building to "confuse the wind" and help prevent swaying. The Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan can withstand wind speeds of more than 200kmh.

She tells us the construction material for buildings up to 40 storeys in the future could be, surprisingly, timber, while self-cleaning windows will become the norm and smart glass will allow windows to turn opaque, eliminating the need for blinds.

For cities opposed to high rise, like Dublin, the heliostat at Central Park in Sydney could help eliminate concerns about loss of light. A bank of motorised mirrors which can move to direct sunlight down to surrounding gardens and terraces, the heliostat minimises the building's shadow. At night, it turns into an LED light show.

While Science and the City is awash with technical detail, the sheer enthusiasm of Winkless keeps things moving along. Her love of science and curiosity shine through, and each of the seven chapters is divided into 'today', where the building blocks of our cities are set out, and 'tomorrow' which highlights the possible.

There's never a sense that you're at a lecture - instead, she's like a kid showing you cool stuff which has a practical application. It's clear she has been communicating science for more than a decade.

Many solutions to our urban problems are already here, she notes. While air pollution is not a sexy topic, a 2014 collaboration between a scientist and poet at the University of Sheffield resulted in a billboard of a poem called 'In Praise of Air' being coated with an invisible layer of titanium dioxide.

The pollutant-absorbing material effectively works as an air purifier. Imagine if city roofs were coated with the material?

Self-repairing water pipes, using sensors to help judge when crops are ready for harvest and even using animal waste and cooking oil to power buses are also explained.

And while Winkless is full of praise for those at the cutting edge, she displays a healthy scepticism too. On electric vehicles, she notes that unless the electricity used to generate power is from clean sources, EVs will do little to reduce transport emissions. On the Internet of Things, she cautions against information for information's sake. Do we really need to be told we're running low on milk?

She also addresses the vexed question of sustainable agriculture, something which Ireland Inc will have to grapple with to help prevent dangerous climate change.

But there's plenty of fun too. One scientist is described as being a "bit of a legend", having once named his hamster as co-author on a paper without anyone noticing. She professes to wanting to draw a "big engineering heart" around Nikola Tesla's name, the "young, handsome, ridiculously cool" 19th-century engineer involved in electricity transmission and generation. She also addresses questions like why don't birds get electrocuted on power lines, and why do skyscrapers have revolving doors?

The strength of Science and the City is it makes you think about not only how our cities work, but how they could work better. It helps shape the questions we should all be grappling with. With a dearth of graduates in the fields of science, engineering and technology becoming a concern, Winkless helps demonstrate why studying these fields matters, and how ingenious thinking can help deliver tomorrow's world.

It is her "scientific love letter to the great cities of the world".

The final chapter ends with a look at the city of the future, at how data could be used to help plan the best route to work, to living in self-­sustaining buildings where human and kitchen waste is used to generate ­power and food is grown on the rooftops.

The technology is being developed to allow this vision become a reality, she says, so what's stopping us?

Paul Melia is the Irish Independent Environment Editor

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