chris wise engineer

On the coefficient of friction of sheep

The other day I chanced across my copy of that well-known academic paper on “The coefficient of friction of sheep”, which led me to think about the preoccupations of academics today. It would be so nice if some of their research was useful. By that I mean taking a cue from Robert Stephenson, who in 1845 commissioned a fantastic series of 1/6th life size bridge experiments from William Fairbairn in Millwall, a man who was not an academic but an iron-worker, highly opinionated. Of course even then, they could not capture the results of their trial and error experiments without the help of the academic Eaton Hodgkinson, Professor at University College London. But their collective efforts laid the basis not only for the construction of their two Welsh bridges at Conway and across the Menai Straits (one of which is still working today), but paved the way for more than a century’s-worth of box girder bridges leading through the Humber Bridge up to our Infinity Bridge and many others. That was truly useful research.
Whatever their preoccupations, researchers transmit them to their students.

Any one who has tried to mentor thesis students knows that more often than not the biggest impediment to success is not the student but their supervisor who is off on another agenda completely. For example, not so long ago I gave a cross-disciplinary talk at quite a good London architecture school attended by about 200 architectural students and their teachers. One of the key themes revolved around whether or not you could get great architecture without being gratuitously extravagant with the planet’s resources. As examples I used some Olympic projects from Sydney through Beijing to London. Afterwards, I was nobbled by one of the tutors who said “Thanks for a great afternoon, but you really shouldn’t trouble our hard-working architectural students with matters of the environment or embodied energy, as they have far too much to think about already.” Pressed on this, he said they had to study such weighty things as Palladio and the Fibonacci series. And presumably how to wear a cape like Frank Lloyd Wright I said.

A professor from a Scottish engineering school even told me once that he couldn’t get funding if he said it was for specialist civil and building engineering, but could rake in the cash if he was economical with the truth and describing it in terms of biomimetics or nanotechnology, not specialisms in common use by most engineers and architects. The whole approach struck me as just a trifle shallow and disconnected from practice on this planet. Muddled would be too polite.

Then yesterday I met a good, influential, and well-known environmental engineer who mentioned that he had just been turned down for a post as Professor at another well-known building design school. This was apparently because the highly environmentally-aware projects he designed and the energy reduction reports he wrote in his practice did not count as “research”, despite the fact that much of that very same work was used by the very same university in putting forward its environmental academic research credentials for the universities’ bragging table that is the Research Assessment Exercise. I could only console him on what seemed a fine example of double standards, because in the late 90’s I was elected a professor at Imperial College even though to my horror the assessors had asked me for 40 internationally peer-reviewed pieces of written research. Of course I didn’t have any, but amazingly in their enlightenment they allowed me to submit 40 physical building projects instead….which got me the full professorship and several years of disapproval from the professional academic staff who were busy writing and reviewing each others’ papers.

At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but now I see that it was amiss because the nature of educational and research programmes in the built environment are too important to be left to academic fashion, or worse, academic back-scratching or double standards.

Both universities and funding agencies talk about more ‘interdisciplinary’ research and more ‘interdisciplinary’ teams. In “Ingenious Britain” this year, James Dyson called for more technological entrepreneurs, and he gave as much, if not more, weight to the research being done by companies as the research being done by universities…typically of course running across lots of disciplines.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that it would be really good if some of the people who wielded authority in our universities were knowledgeable about cross-disciplinary working. To which they would say, please tell us what you want, and that’s a fair point. To which I would say, give our best practitioners real professorial authority to set the agenda and help them tap into decent research funding streams and we might get somewhere. Visiting professors are all fine and dandy but they don’t carry the same clout.

By the way, the researchers found the coefficient of friction of sheep to be a modest 0.5 on flat wood, but a massive 0.928 on steel mesh. What the sheep said is not recorded.


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