Physicist-turned-writer gets to the heart of cities’ science

5 Aug 2016

Laurie Winkless is lifting the lid on cities, exploring the science of how they work – and the results are fascinating. Claire O’Connell reports.

Have you ever wondered why electricity lines buzz? Have you pondered, as you whizz skywards in a lift, just how that rapid vertical ascent has changed how we live? Or maybe these things have never crossed your mind, but, now you think of it, you wouldn’t be averse to finding out.

Enter Science and the City, a new book out later this month by Laurie Winkless, in which the Dundalk-born physicist-turned-writer takes an intriguing look at the ‘hidden science’ of how cities work.

Transporting thoughts

The idea came from her own curiosity about the little things in cities. For Winkless, who has lived in London for over a decade, getting from A to B over the years prompted several questions about the everyday.

“In London, you get obsessed with transport because it is such a huge part of your life in the city,” she said. “I kept noticing stuff like how windy it was on the Tube, and I would time how long it would take between me pushing the button on a traffic light and getting across the road.”

Combine that curiosity with an interest in engineering and materials and a request for a book idea from a publisher, and Winkless homed in on the science of cities.

“The book idea was for London originally, then it expanded out very rapidly,” recalled Winkless. “Cities are busy, noisy places and you rush from place to place, you hardly ever stop and think [about the science and engineering involved].”

Going up

Yet science and engineering underpin so much of what we take for granted in city life – like tall buildings, which have been rendered practical by the humble lift.

“We think of them as part of the building, but without a lift no-one wants to live on the 10th floor of an apartment block,” explained Winkless. “With the lift, [tall buildings] are desirable and developers get more for their money, they get more people on a small footprint of land.”

The technology of skyscrapers themselves gets a good going over in the book, as does how we move electricity around cities, not to mention water and waste.

“That was my favourite,” said Winkless. “I had no idea how much interest I had in waste.”

From physics to writing

As a student of physics and astrophysics in Trinity College Dublin, Winkless had her sights initially set on space, and moved to the UK to study space science at University College London. Then she got the chance to work on materials science at the National Physical Laboratory and ended up staying for several years.

During that time, Winkless started giving public talks and discovered an interest in science writing, and she eventually went to work with the Nobel Foundation in a communications role.

Out of the blue, a publisher who had seen her Twitter account approached her for book ideas and Science and the City was born.


Winkless was soon in her element, learning about the reasons for the urban everyday. “Lots of my friends asked me questions because they knew I was writing the book – and I had to go find out the answers,” she recalled. “One person asked me why electric lines buzz. I found out that it is because there is an electric field around the wire that effectively assaults the nitrogen in the air, and because AC is transmitted at 60Hz it happens 60 times a second and it is audible.”

Future cities

Winkless asked plenty of questions herself, speaking to scientists and engineers who are researching for future cities. She found out about concrete designed to clad itself in seasonal microorganisms, and she was struck by how smart power delivery will drive connected cities.

“We need to get more clever with the way we use and distribute energy,” she said. “Everything about us as humans and on the Earth and within this universe is about turning energy from one form into another, but so much of what we produce is wasted or produced in forms of energy we can’t readily use.”

Future questions

Now, with Science and the City on the cusp of being released, Winkless has been busy writing for Forbes about the topic and already has the germ of an idea for another book proposal, but she is keeping it under wraps for now. “It is quite different, still quite ‘physics and engineering-y’,” she said. “And I love learning, I love asking questions.”

Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis by Laurie Winkless is available for pre-order now. Winkless will give a free talk at Science Gallery Dublin on 24 August.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication