Super Speedo Man–Engineering the World's Fastest Swimsuit. We Can Use the Same Idea to Improve Energy, Economics

Super Speedo Man–Engineering the World's Fastest Swimsuit. We Can Use the Same Idea to Improve Energy, Economics

March 2, 2008 0 Comments

(March 3, 2008) – I have had my best success solving problems using cross-over ideas, by finding a novel approach to a problem in one field, then turning it upside down, or inside out, or applying it in an entirely different field of analysis. Well, meet Super Speedo Man.

Here is another one to think about. Dr Herve Morvan, a lecturer in fluid mechanics in the School of Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Engineering and a University of Nottingham and a team specializing in Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), the computer modelling of fluid flow. The team is working as an advisor to AQUALAB, Speedo’s competition research and development department, have developed a new swimsuit that reduces skin drag, i.e., friction, so much that athletes wearing the new swimsuit broke three world records within a week of its launch. You can read full article from Science Daily by clicking this link.

I know what you’re thinking. If Barry Bonds had worn that suit he would have hit 9 million home runs. And Roger Clemens would have pitched all perfect games.

Translated into geek-speak, here is how Dr. Morvan explains it,

CFD is used to help us gain an idea of the sources of skin and form drag. Skin drag is inherent to the material properties over which a fluid flows and to the local flow conditions (speed in particular) as it is induced by the local velocity gradients (on your body, the water velocity is 0 m/s; away it is faster; the gradient creates a shear due to the viscous property of the fluid).

You can read the details in the article. I am concerned here with potential cross-over applications. Words like drag (friction), gradient, and viscosity are exactly the ones I used in my Chinese Academy of Science lectures on applying the framework of non-equilibrium thermodynamics to economics and finance. You can see the course materials, reading list and the slides from the lectures by clicking here, Course Outline: A Scientific Framework for Economics, Capital Markets, Finance, Investing, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Here are a few of the ways we can use these ideas:

-the obvious one is to reduce energy demand by reducing the drag, or friction, in every physical economic process, from trains, planes and automobiles to machine tools and product packaging. Friction is a force which must first be offset, by applying another force derived from combustion of energy resources, before work can be done. If our goal is to maximize the amount of valuable work (economic activity) at the lowest cost (loss of free energy), this makes a lot of sense.

-In physics and engineering, a gradient is usually a temperature or pressure differential. In economics it is a price, wage, or return on capital differential. Gradients power all change, in physics and in economics. In microeconomics, it is the difference (gradient) between relative market prices and marginal rates of substitution (the internal relative value of one good compared with another) that drives transactions and economic activity. In macroeconomics, it is the impact of tax rate changes, monetary policy and other policy measures on the relative, after-tax, risk-adjusted rates of return on different assets that drives trading and portfolio activities. If policy makers understand the impact of their decisions on the set of gradients they impose on consumers, managers, and investors they will do a better job and create fewer bubbles, like the one we are experiencing now.

Viscosity is the real-world property of fluid flow that makes movement of materials create turbulence, instead of the smooth laminar flow of the friction-free experiments in the textbooks. In economics we would refer to viscosity as transactions costs, brokerage costs, transportation costs, wage and price rigidities, retraining costs, restructuring costs, write-offs, and the reluctance of people to change locations. As I wrote in a recent paper, it is these frictions that translate increased growth to increased frequency and severity of the episodes of turbulence we refer to as protectionism, populism, class-war, social and political unrest, and even political and military aggression. Because turbulence is a side-effect of increased growth (globalization) we don’t want to stop it. Indeed, we can’t stop it–no one has yet found a way to repeal the second law of thermodynamics. But we can design policies to reduce both the viscosity and friction people experience when changes in the global economy force people to change what they do every day.

I’m not going to take the time here to list the specific policy ideas I have in mind–measures to reduce the cost of education, relocation, restructuring and other adaptations to change–but would welcome your ideas. This is the stuff I wish the candidates would actually talk about during the election.


John Rutledge


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