‘We need to think about how to make cities more sustainable’

8 Sep 2017

Laurie Winkless, author of Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis. Image: Laurie Winkless

Already researching her next book, Irish author Laurie Winkless will talk about sustainable cities today in Dublin. She spoke to Claire O’Connell.

Last year, on the eve of her book launch in London, Laurie Winkless and her family were walking towards Tottenham Court Road tube station when her partner called her attention. Through the window of the Foyles bookshop, he had spotted Winkless’ book, Science and the City: The Mechanics Behind the Metropolis. It was already up in the ‘Recommended’ section ahead of the next day’s business.

“It was a very weird experience,” recalled Winkless, a Dundalk native who had been living in London for several years. “There was a book, written by me, up on the shelf of this iconic bookshop. I just thought, ‘How did this all happen?’”

‘Everyone has an opinion about cities, whether they live in a city or not’

Engaging with cities

It all started when Winkless began musing about the workings of her adopted city. She wondered, among other things, about how long it took traffic lights to change so people could cross the road, and how tall buildings stayed aloft. The result was a book that elegantly delves beyond the facades into the systems, structures and sewers that keep cities habitable. 

The publicity whirl that followed the book’s publication saw Winkless giving talks and doing media interviews, including some pretty high-profile and nerve-racking gigs. “The scariest one was being on Sunday Brunch on Channel 4,” said Winkless of her first ever appearance on live TV.

“I think, in science communication, it’s a bit easier to preach to the converted, to talk to people who are already engaged in the subject, but this was a really popular show with a huge range of viewers so I found it challenging and I was really nervous. But I did get to talk about poo on live TV when talking about London sewers, so that was pretty awesome.”

Winkless took to the airwaves on several other occasions, including the BBC Radio 4 Today programme with Nick Robinson and, one of her favourites, Anton Savage on Today FM, and the book struck a chord with many.

“Everyone has an opinion about cities, whether they live in a city or not, but I was amazed and surprised at just how engaged people became with the subject,” she said.

Hidden forces 

Now living in New Zealand, where she works with organisations including the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, Winkless is getting stuck into researching for her next book – provisionally called Sticky: The untold story of the forces that built civilisation – about the largely hidden forces and interfaces that shape our world. 

She had the idea for the book while thinking about trains. “Yes, I was thinking about trains – story of my life – and how tracks have to be level; they are limited because of friction between the steel wheels and rails,” she said. “That friction is what is limiting, not a lack of smart engineering or engine design. So I started looking into whether friction ever breaks down as a theory, particularly as we start engineering smaller and smaller devices. There is still a question mark about nanoscale friction – there’s lots of debate about how to quantify and understand it.”

From jumping down that particular rabbit hole, Winkless has started to explore the worlds of friction and adhesives, and how scientists and engineers look to nature for inspiration. 

Already, she has been talking to researchers using tricks from The Gecko’s Foot to create adhesive materials for use in space, and for scientists zoning in on the chemistry that makes cells ‘want’ to stick to particular surfaces.

“I am discovering why no one has written about this before – it is really hard!” she said, laughing. “But I am loving it and learning a lot, getting to read phenomenal papers and meeting interesting scientists and engineers.”

Winkless even got the opportunity to talk about Sticky at the invitation-only SciFoo gathering in California earlier this summer.


Laurie Winkless attends SciFoo 2017 at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. Image: Laurie Winkless

Sustainable cities 

Today (8 September), Winkless is back in the realm of her first book, giving a talk as part of the Women Should be Seen and Heard seminar series at Science Gallery Dublin, where she will speak about how to build sustainable cities. 

“I have picked things we need to think about to make cities more sustainable; not the obvious ones, like cleaner electricity, but maybe some of the ones we think less about,” she said.

“For one thing, the population is getting older and, at the moment, cities are not generally built for the elderly, so how will that change how we design our cities? We also need to make our cities more walkable, and rethink how we define and interact with waste.”

Tickets for the talk, which is hosted by Women in Research Ireland with support from Trinity Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership, can be booked here.

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