Posts Tagged ‘Imperial College London’

Video of British Scientist Eric Laithwaite Explaining Principle of Magnetic Levitation (Maglev)

November 29, 2019

This is a fascinating film from Imperial College London. Shot in 1975, it shows great British scientist/engineer Eric Laithwaite explaining how a maglev train would work. He begins with first principles, simply showing how magnets act upon each other with bar magnets. Magnets with the same poles facing each other repel, and he demonstrates how this can be used to suspend one magnet above another. This can be done with ring magnets, but usually something has to hold them in place, like the solid glass tube in this video. But ordinary magnets don’t generated enough lift to raise heavy objects off the ground. He then moves on to electromagnets and how these can also be made to move aluminium objects along them when using AC current. The electromagnets can be flattened out to produce a kind of river – the ‘Magnetic River’ of the film’s title – along which an aluminium sheet can be propelled at great speed. He then shows how the same principle could be used to drive a train by placing a model on the maglev track.

Laithwaite was working on making maglev trains a reality when the project was cancelled due to the budget cuts of the late 70s. The idea has since been taken up by German and other, foreign engineers. It has been seen by visionary scientists and SF writers like Arthur C. Clarke as the solution to current transport problems through the great speed that these trains could in theory attain without friction from wheels touching the tracks. They would also be clean and green through being powered by electricity, preferably solar power, rather than the burning of coal or other hydrocarbons. See the discussion about them in Clarke’s Profiles of the Future.

Laithwaite is one of the great scientists most people have never heard of. In the 1990s he got caught up in developing anti-gravity based on his experiments with gyroscopes. His claim that he had discovered a new principle of anti-gravity propulsion was not accepted by the scientific community. I’ve got the impression that the furor that aroused has caused his earlier, solid work to be unfairly overlooked.

I realise the video’s long at just over 18 minutes, but it’s worth persevering with if you’re interested in the subject. Before computer graphics came in, this is pretty much what science broadcasting was like when I was a schoolboy. It was simply the scientist, engineer or presenter standing in front of the camera talking with the machine or other object in front of them, and using simple diagrams or illustrations. And I’m really impressed with the way Laithwaite is able to explain a sophisticated piece of engineering in ordinary, non-technical language. As one of the commenters says on the YouTube page for this, he would have been a great science teacher.

He isn’t quite on his own here. Helping him with the equipment is his mysterious assistant, Barry, who helps set the apparatus up and loads the sheets of aluminium and then the model train on the maglev tracks, but who never speaks.

It’s a very basic presentation compared to some of the films on today’s popular science television, and it’s not clear if it was intended for broadcast. But it was experts like Dr. Laithwaite who brought science to ordinary people and inspired a new generation witih its wonder when I was young.

Today the government is concerned about the lack of young people choosing to study STEM subjects. Perhaps if broadcasters were able to find a few more experts with ability to explain science with the simplicity of some of those, who graced our TVs then, people able to convey real enthusiasm for the subject, and weren’t afraid of putting more popular science programmes on TV, there would be more school and university students taking up these subjects.