Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, virtual fur, rechargeable trains and more: best of the week’s news

E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Josh Loeb, associate editor

The Eccentric Engineer: How Hadrian’s multicultural wall built new communities

Britain may not contain many Roman ruins by comparison with places that were at the heart of that great empire, for example parts of Italy and North Africa, but it is home to the largest single Roman structure anywhere on Earth. I am speaking, of course, about Hadrian’s Wall, which at the time of its construction marked the outer limit of the known world for the leaders of that ancient and influential civilisation.

‘Britannia’, which to the Romans meant, basically, England (save for parts of Cornwall) and part of Wales, was a backwater in those days. Scotland was considered an untamed, barbarous land, but as E&T’s Justin Pollard points out, the wall that was constructed to separate people (the civilised Romans from those ‘barbarous’ Scottish hordes) occasioned what today would be called a multicultural or multi-ethnic melting pot.

Former barbarians from Spain and Gaul, serving out a kind of apprenticeship to gain Roman citizenship, helped build and defend the border. Cutting-edge archaeology and forensic science has revealed there was a significant presence of black Africans in Roman Britain, principally at the garrison at Hadrian’s Wall and in the city of Eboracum (York). Historian David Olusoga writes about this in his excellent book ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’, in which he describes how comparatively colour blind the Romans were (race is a relatively modern concept that would have meant little to them).

Although the UK is not blessed with many Roman sites, I make sure I stop to marvel at the fragments of ancient wall that do still stand at certain points in London (or Londinium) whenever I happen to be passing these. These ruins can be seen near to the Tower of London, inside the Barbican complex and in other parts of the City. The foundations of a Temple of Mithras have also now been made visible, as has part of a Roman bathhouse. Roman engineering, from aqueducts to hypocausts and, of course, walls, has certainly stood the test of time – as evidenced by the fact that some of it is still there, even in a backwater like Britain, despite the passing of so much time.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Virtual animal fur rendered more realistically using neural network

Far be it from me to question the validity of spending hard-won university research money just to figure out new ways to draw even better, ultra-realistic fur for loveable animal characters in future animated films (an aspiration faintly reminiscent of some of Professor Denzil Dexter’s more esoteric university research work), but I did at least learn from this story that the medulla (the soft, innermost cylinder of each strand of hair) is much smaller in humans than it is in animal fur, so there really is a difference to take into consideration if animating either type is your professional bag.

Lasers could offer truly wireless smartphone charging

Another story that had me wondering, “Why?”, whilst simultaneously being reminded of Dr Evil’s simple yearning in the Austin Powers movies “to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!” The University of Washington boffins behind this laser-driven wireless-charging concept are keen to stress the non-deadly nature of the system, whereby the laser stops firing its concentrated beam of energy at your phone across the room if a human happens to break the trajectory of the laser - as opposed to searing a bloody path straight through the errant flesh, which is definitely a relief to hear - but still, why? Why even bother with this? I appreciate that anything with lasers is usually kind of cool, but wireless phone charging is already enough of a sub-par experience as it is, being slower, clunkier and requiring the acquisition of special charging pads or mats. It’s no step up from simply plugging your phone’s adapter into a wall socket. The technology behind this laser-charging prototype is exceptionally clever, but really, why?

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Borders and walls are going up all over the world

Picking up from my thoughts last week, a bit more on the peculiar European borders that I encountered and crossed repeatedly while researching my book ‘Passport to Enclavia’. One such border runs through the German town of Busingen – effectively a leafy suburb of the Swiss city of Schaffhausen, the centre of the eponymous Swiss canton. No, this is not a mistake, for German Busingen is indeed located inside Switzerland and thus constitutes one of the four remaining full-scale geopolitical enclaves of Western Europe. The town has two international dialling codes – German and Swiss; and two post codes - D-78266 (German) and CH-8238 (Swiss). A local resident explained to me that the Swiss code is used when sending a letter to Busingen from Switzerland, the German one when sending a letter from Germany, and either of them from the rest of the world.

Many residents of Busingen, a town that is politically German and economically Swiss, consider themselves hard done by. They have to cope with high German taxes and equally high Swiss retail prices – the worst of both worlds so to speak.

It’s relevant to recall that Switzerland is not part of the European Economic Area, albeit it has a series of bilateral agreements with the EU. And if some local smart alecs decide to do their shopping in the neighbouring Germany, they are (at least in theory) likely to be stopped at the border and – despite being German citizens, which most of them are – asked to pay customs duty on… wait for it… German goods, bought in Germany, which they are trying to take into Germany! This is of course due to the fact that while being German citizens and voting in German elections, the good people of Busingen formally reside on the Swiss economic territory! A bit of a nightmare, it is.

As for the border itself, I remember a stretch of it, marked with a curved green line painted on the ground, that ran through the beer garden of one local restaurant. As a result, all restaurant tables were in Switzerland, but the kitchen and the bar were in Germany. I wondered whether the waiters had to stick to customs quotas while carrying food and booze from the German bar and kitchen to the patrons in Switzerland and back. Quotas or not, the prices of the dishes and drinks at that restaurant were all exorbitantly Swiss, no matter in which country your table was located.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Rechargeable train to run on GB rail network ‘this summer’

Last week I pointed out that our newest transport minister’s enthusiasm for hydrogen trains was possibly a bit premature, but the notion of phasing out diesel makes sense, especially as old fleets reach the end of their lives. Electrification continues to be a good idea, especially on main lines, but there’s no realistic prospect of it reaching every lightly used branch line for a very long time, so Vivarail’s battery train is certainly worth investigating. What’s more, new rolling stock is expensive, so if these re-engineered Underground trains can be a cost-effective alternative to the unloved and ageing Pacers, then passengers will benefit, too. The next step is persuading the Department for Transport to fund comfortable seats instead of the cheapest possible hard and cramped ones that it seems to be favouring for new fleets at the moment.

£8.4m ‘Growth Deal’ brings ESA deep-space project to Goonhilly, Cornwall

The satellite earth station at Goonhilly has a long history - I remember first reading about it in 1977 or thereabouts when I was working for GEC-Marconi and telecoms was still the responsibility of the Post Office - but this story tells us that the site is still at the cutting edge of technology. The European Space Agency is working with the current operator, Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd, to upgrade one of the largest dishes in order to create the world’s first deep-space communications station, capable of tracking future missions to the Moon and Mars. Commercial space activity is the coming thing. It’s good to know that the UK is a part of it.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

UK manufacturers’ leading role in automation ‘revolution’ will be boosted by Brexit, says Liam Fox

Jeremy Corbyn vows to change education to prevent female ‘discrimination’ in engineering

It would be hard to get two politicians further apart on the UK political spectrum than the pair who had the opportunity to set out their stalls to the movers and shakers of British manufacturing at this week’s EEF annual conference in London. Staunch Eurosceptic Liam Fox was there to rally support for Brexit with an upbeat message predicting that leaving the EU and being able to establish new trading relationships with Africa and Asia is nothing but good news for the sector. Corbyn, who continues to accept the principle of exiting is inevitable given the referendum mandate, begged to differ. Claiming that the government’s handling of separation so far has turned a skills crisis into a catastrophe, he called for at least a tariff-free relationship that would make the flow of goods back and forth across the Channel smoother. So no surprises, and at the end of the day nothing the two said is likely to have changed the minds of any conference delegates. The fact that two such high-profile figures were keen to court them, though, is evidence that the political establishment may finally be realising that in a post-Brexit world it won’t just be the headline-grabbing financial and services industries that will be key to the UK economy competing in a global environment.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Borders and walls are going up all over the world

Utopian visions have long included fewer borders and boundaries, whether they are physical ones between countries or virtual ones in cyberspace. Right now, though, the world appears to be going in the other direction, with new walls being thrown up everywhere. For those who haven’t yet seen it, our latest issue looks at the new boundaries around the world, from the border between north and south Korea, and Ireland after Brexit, to the world walled web, and the Pacific Wall in the new blockbuster movie. My introduction has the links to all these features and more.

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