Saturday, July 15, 2006

The governor

Currently reading James Lovelock's "The Revenge of Gaia" and came across something that struck me as rather odd. Lovelock mentions how he was fascinated as a child by the steam engine in the Science Museum in Kensington and by its ingenious control mechanism, the governor. A shaft driven by the circular motion that the engine produces has 2 metal balls on levers, that as they accelerate are driven outwards by centrifugal force. They're connected to a lever that controls the flow of steam such that the faster the engine goes, the more the valve is shut down, so that the engine can achieve a fairly constant speed. It's an early example of cybernetics (a thermostat's another such).
What really got me was this quote from James Clerk Maxwell, a few days after seeing it:
"It's a fine invention, but try as I may, it's analysis defies me"
This from the guy who made one of the greatest breakthroughs in science ever, with his work on the maths of electrical and magnetic fields, although he did go on to study the governor, persumably related to his work on thermodynamics.
Lovelock includes it in his book to show the gap between the traditional reductionist approach and systems thinking, which has a role in the inability of our society to combat global warming.
Lovelock's Gaia theory comes in for a lot of stick from supposedly "hard-headed" scientists who seem unable to comprehend a metaphor.
Not very interesting fact: the words 'governor' and 'cybernetics' have the same Greek root.


At 15/7/06 12:50, Blogger Retardo Bot said...

I have heard much about the original book and would be interested in your views on the book - is it worth reading?

At 16/7/06 22:05, Blogger Les the Spaceman said...

Only about a quarter of the way through it. I'll post up more interesting stuff as I find it. Have you read the 1st book (with Lynn Margulis, quite a thinker in her own right)?

At 17/7/06 10:17, Blogger Retardo Bot said...

I haven't read the first book - I will get round to it once I have cleared up my current backlog of reading...

At 1/11/06 15:58, Blogger Julie Bindel said...

Please call me on 07931178230, or email me at re Charlene Downes. I write for the Guardian, and have been investigating her disappearance for over a year.

Best, Julie Bindel


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