Dr Hugh Hunt, from the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, looks at the engineering challenges of Barnes Wallace in his design of the bouncing bomb and the PoW's who never flew the glider they built in the roof of Colditz. Can this ‘Blitz Spirit’ help us tackle climate change? What would a modern-day Barnes Wallis dream up?
Dr Hunt will be giving a talk at this year’s Festival – Dambusters, Colditz and climate change: the Blitz spirit.
CSF: Why did you choose these events in history to base your Science Festival event on?
HH: Having made a few films on these events it makes sense to talk about them. Working with Windfall Films and Channel Four has been amazing – they have a real interest in the great engineering achievements of WW2 and WW1 – it was as if we were brought together by lucky coincidence.
CSF: In your view, how might the ‘Blitz Spirit’ help us tackle climate change?
HH: I wish I knew! My feeling is that it is probably too late to make changes to the way we live, just as it was too late in 1939 to change the nature of Hitler and the Third Reich. From where we are, I think we need urgent actions to halt our use of fossil fuels and perhaps to intervene in the climate systems using geoengineering.
CSF: Which current engineering invention could be part of the solution to climate change?
HH: We must do the easy things – solar power where it's sunny (Australia, Africa, California), wind power where it's windy, wave, tidal, hydro in all the right places. Electric cars, reduce flying, don't use gas for home heating. But the big challenge is what to do when all this is not enough.
Can we find ways to extract carbon dioxide from the air and to sequester it deep in the earth's crust? Or can we find ways to reflect sunlight from the earth, or to increase the capacity of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide?
CSF: Who could be a modern-day Barnes Wallis and why?
HH: Anyone who is good at sums and who is imaginative, willing to think through whacky ideas even if they are knocked back time and time again. But it's so important to be good at maths and science because the scale of things is so big – trial and error won't work.
CSF: What do you think is the most outlandish and amazing engineering feat in history?
HH: Well, the bouncing bomb was pretty amazing! Zeppelins were a crazy idea, so advanced for 1900. Going back over 2,000 years the Pyramids are hard to beat.
CSF: In terms of ideas, what has been your most unusual?
HH: I rather liked the clip-on wheels I made for our strimmer to turn it into a lawnmower – felt more like I was hoovering the lawn. Perfect for a small garden!
CSF: What are you currently working on?
HH: I've been very excited about how we can cool the earth if we fail to meet our carbon dioxide emissions targets. We will want to refreeze the North Pole once it melts, which will probably be in the next few years. One idea is to pump titanium dioxide particles into the stratosphere – just like a terrestrial sunscreen because titanium dioxide is the active ingredient in suntan lotion. To get the stuff up there – 20km above the ground – we can use a big helium balloon (the size of Wembley Stadium), a 20km long hose and a hefty pump to spray a fine mist of titanium dioxide into the thin atmosphere. It'll reflect a bit of sun just like volcanic eruptions do. All crazy, but we're heading into a scary unknown future.
CSF: Why is there such a worrying shortfall in the number of engineers needed to ensure this country doesn't fall behind other advanced countries?
HH: It feels to me as if we have ceased to value science and maths at school so that other countries where maths and science is strong have been able to capitalise on invention and manufacturing. We are quite creative though. It's a shame to see good ideas go overseas for development. Things are getting better with increasing emphasis on maths and science at schools and more girls taking an interest.
CSF: What kind of person do you think makes a good engineer?
HH: If you're good at maths and science then it's a no brainer – even if you're not very practical. There's lots of design work that is very mathematical. Of course, if you like taking things apart even if they are not broken then you are a natural. Curiosity and enthusiasm are great attributes. On the whole, engineers don't just stand by and watch – they get involved and try to change the world around them.
Image copyright: Cambridge University