Tuesday 23 October 2018

Appliance of science is key for Laurie

Dundalk scientist Laurie Winkless has written a book about how cities work. From drains to trains, she explains to Anne Campbell how it all comes together in the world's metropolises

Laurie Winkless
Laurie Winkless

Laurie Winkless is full of curiosity, which is a good trait to have if you want to make your way in the world of science. From a young age, she was asking questions of her engineer dad, Jackie, and mum Rosemary.

Finding out how things work, why things work and how they can work better has led the former Astrophysics student to writing a book about cities and how they operate.

'Science and the City', published by Bloomsbury, was launched last week and combines Laurie's passion for science and engineering and her ability to make these topics relevant, explainable and interesting to the public.

Living in London and working as a freelance science writer with well-known publications such as Forbes, Laurie is excited about the launch of the book and hopes it will help satisfy other people's natural curiosity about the world around them.

Laurie (33) said: 'My love of cities first appeared when I arrived in London, just after my BSc in Physics with Astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.

'While studying for my MSc in University College London, I realised I was a fully-fledged transport nerd. I spent seven happy years in the materials team at the National Physical Laboratory, where I became fascinated by the role of materials science in the real world. Since taking a break from research, I've dived into writing, and my first book, 'Science and the City: the Mechanics Behind the Metropolis' has been published by Bloomsbury'.

The book covers everything you can imagine needing to know about cities. Topics include skyscrapers and how they are built, understanding the role of electricity and how the grid works, water and its treatment, the science of traffic jams, tunnels, networks such as food and goods and communication and money.

In addition, Laurie, from St Malachy's Villas takes readers into the future with a vision of how cities can develop, based, of course, on science fact, not science fiction. Research was the key to Laurie getting the book together, which she initially slotted in to her free time while she was working at the National Physical Laboratory before she left to become a freelance science writer this time last year.

She is passionate about bringing the science of every day to the masses, appealing to people who may have struggled at school with it but are nonetheless curious about what happens when we push a button at a pedestrian crossing, what happens when we flush the loo, where the water in our taps comes from and what happens to our rubbish when the bins are collected.

'Communicating science to the public is something I really care about', she says. 'There is a difference between simplifying something and dumbing it down. I wanted to explain things in everyday language and I'm delighted to say there is only one equation in the whole book!

'It means that people can join the debate about engineering and science and share their views on how things are done and what can be done better in the future. I believe that everyone can benefit from knowing learning some science and while it would be great if far more people decided to make careers in science and engineering because the world is short of these people, I think everyone has a role to play and I want people to know that they're opinion is just as valued.

'Essentially, critical thinking is at the heart of science and engineering and I want people to think more critically, especially about the 'science' they read in the media so that they can argue with it. For instance, on the subject of climate change, the vast majority of data and scientists believe it's real and happening, but too often the media 'balances' or 'weights' the argument with one of the small minority who don't believe'.

Asking questions, finding solutions, and not taking everything at face value are the ideals that Laurie and her colleagues advocate. She says: 'We don't know all the answers because if we did, we wouldn't have science. But we need to get more of those who are good communicators out where. Scientists are humans first and they live in the real world. People think that once we are in the lab we are not interested in the application of our work to the real world, but the vast majority want to answer questions, change thing, invent things.

'When you look at children, you can see they are curious, they are natural-born scientists, trying to find out about the world around them, experimenting with new things. But we often 'educate' the science out of them and that can disengage people from science'.

It's people like Laurie Winkless that will help make science interesting, engaging and even cool. She gave a talk at the Wilderness Festival in Oxford earlier this month and had the opportunity to introduce the audience to some of the themes in the book.

'It really boiled down to tunnels of various descriptions and I talked about lifts, which operate in a tunnel, sewers and transport tunnels. Keeping water away from waste is the biggest problem facing cities as they grow and the sewer systems are life-savers in that regard'.

As part of her research, Laurie had the opportunity of visiting the Cross Rail project in London, the biggest infrastructure development in the British capital and was fascinated to see how the 42kms of tunnel needed for the new light rail system was being constructed millimetres around the existing sewers and Tube tunnels.

She said: 'Those involved in Cross Rail were really supportive of what I was doing and opened up a lot of opportunities for me to speak to some of the best engineers in the world'. On a less glamorous note, she's also learned that London produces 1.25 billion kilos of poo every year - no wonder they are investing in the city's sewer system!

Having spent time in a lot of the world's cities, Laurie thinks that London, which has been her home for the past 11 years, is the best in the world. Not that it doesn't have its problems, it does, but she remains fascinated with it. 'There's no one ideal city in the world - each does things really well but falls down in other areas - but the fact is that people are going to keep moving to the cities and how they develop in the future is something that everyone should have a stake in'.

Water systems, energy formats, sustainability, air pollution, community integration and moving huge numbers of people to where they need to are the big issues that continue to face city planners and governments as cities grow to a size their founders couldn't even have dreamt about. And Laurie Winkless will remain curious about it all.

Book explores what lies beneath cities

Cities are a big deal. More people now live in them than don't, and with a growing world population, the urban jungle is only going to get busier in the coming decades.

But how often do we stop to think about what makes our cities work? Cities are built using some of the most creative and revolutionary science and engineering ideas - from steel structures that scrape the sky to glass cables that help us communicate at the speed of light - but most of us are too busy to notice. Science and the City is your guidebook to that hidden world, helping you to uncover some of the remarkable technologies that keep the world's great metropolises moving.

Laurie Winkless takes readers around cities in six continents to find out how they're dealing with the challenges of feeding, housing, powering and connecting more people than ever before.

In this book, you'll meet urban pioneers from history, along with today's experts in everything from roads to time, and you will uncover the vital role science has played in shaping the city around you.

But more than that, by exploring cutting-edge research from labs across the world, you'll build your own vision of the megacity of tomorrow, based on science fact rather than science fiction.

Science and the City is the perfect read for anyone curious about the world they live in.

And it is already receiving great reviews from her peers. Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials at UCL, UK, and author of Stuff Matters said: 'If you are looking for a guide to the city, look no further than this book. Its got attitude and humour delightfully balanced by Winkless' insight and clarity'.

Dame Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College, University of Cambridge said: 'This book is an engaging read, opening our eyes to the extraordinary science underpinning the urban world that is all too easy to take for granted.

'Looking both back, to how the cities have developed, and forward with a bit of informed crystal-ball gazing, the author conveys the challenges we face and the technology we have and need to develop to continue to thrive'.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Visiting Professor of Astrophysics, University of Oxford said: 'This book is a wonderful source of fascinating information. It is future-looking also, describing the technology that will change the world we live in. A very readable book, for all inquisitive folk!'

And John O'Farrell, comedy scriptwriter and author of The Man Who Forgot His Wife says: 'Fascinating, lucid and entertaining; her infectious enthusiasm for the subject lights up every page'.



Irish Independent