Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Of Rationality, Engineering and Faith

On Sunday I joined the audience for “The Big Questions”, a BBC2 debate filmed in York to be broadcast Sun 4th May at 10am. I listened to a range of speakers (including author Alastair McGrath, who was sitting in front of me) on the question, “Is it rational to believe in God?”

This got me thinking that in matters of both faith and engineering, reason can only take you so far, because there are limits to what we can know. Every day I try to apply scientific principles to model how a structure or slope will work, based on the evidence I have been able to obtain. But can we ever truly predict the loads that will be applied to a structure or the worst credible weather event that might occur? And performance will be significantly affected by how people actually use or maintain the structure over its 120 year design life, which might be completely different to what we expect (could the Victorians have predicted the rise of the motor car?)

Monday, 21 April 2014

Learning to see

Having celebrated the joyful hope of new life at Easter with a great feast at my brother's house (thanks Mick!) I have a new challenge for the next seven weeks up to Pentecost: I want to learn to recognise more wildlife.

As an engineer, it's obvious that I notice different things than other people in the landscape because I know what I'm looking for and I'm interested in what things are for. So on train rides, I notice radio masts, retaining walls and rock netting and as a cyclist I know every set of traffic lights on my routes around York. I know which ones are old fashioned and based on a fixed sequence and timing, which are camera controlled (eg PUFFIN crossings which allow elderly and disabled people more time to cross) and which rely on pressure pads in the road to detect traffic wanting to turn (which don't work when you're not as heavy as a car!)

But while I enjoy seeing flowers in gardens and have learned to tell the difference between a courgette and a bean plant by growing them myself, I often don't know the names of the trees, plants, butterflies and birds I see every day when out and about - and I think that's a shame.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Can we engineer an environmentally responsible HS2?

On the HS2 front, I think we should take the position of a "critical friend" - my previous post argues that there is a genuine need to be addressed and therefore I believe we should support the principle of building new rail capacity (it's not a vanity project as some have characterised it), but the detail of where and how we build it needs a lot of careful thought. Route selection for London to Birmingham is slowly getting there, but the preferred route for the sections further north is still under discussion and we can have an influence here (the route will eventually go to Manchester and Leeds and then on to Scotland). 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Should an environmentalist support HS2?

I have promised previously to write about HS2 and this week presented an opportunity as I debated the issue with friends from Christian Ecology Link. The discussion was sparked off by a recent Guardian article which concluded that “areas of irreplaceable natural value along the planned HS2 route, including 48 ancient woodlands that are home to rare bats and butterflies would be damaged by just phase one of the route (London to Birmingham)”. So is it possible to justify such destruction and still call myself an environmentalist?