Yet Another Engineering Marvel

I am late on the bandwagon, but I recently read in greater detail about the new Maglev train technology, and I can safely say that I am simply marvelled.

Maglev (short for magnetic levitation) trains could truly revolutionise transportation of the 21st century, using the basic principles of magnets and electromagnetic propulsion. There are three components to the system: a large electrical power source, metal coils lining a track/guideway, and large guidance magnets attached to the underside of the train. The magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the walls and the track combine to propel the train. (Side note: Japanese engineers are actually developing a technology called an electrodynamic suspension system, which is based on the repelling force of superconducting magnets, therefore eliminating the need for a power supply. It remains expensive as of now, but looks promising.)

A huge advantage of these trains (apart from higher speeds and low maintenance costs)? The positive environmental impact. Indeed, they lack engines, thus eliminate the need/use of fossil fuels.

The first commercial maglev train made its test debut in Shanghai, China, in 2002. The Shanghai Transrapid line currently runs to and from the Longyang Road station at the city’s center and the Pudong airport. Traveling at an average speed of 430 km per hour, the 30 km journey takes less than 10 minutes on the train (as opposed to an hour-long taxi ride!).

Right now, the best maglev train reaches speeds exceeding 400 kilometres per hour. But Deng Zigang, a professor at Southwest Jiaotong University in China believes that these trains can go even faster (as if that wasn’t fast enough already!). Indeed, much of the energy used to propel the train is wasted battling air resistance. Thus, by placing a maglev train inside a vacuum tube, we could virtually eliminate speed’s worst enemy and allow the train to rocket along guideways at 3,000 km per hour.

Just when we feel like we’ve seen/invented it all, new engineering marvels arise. I am exited to see what the future holds for this train technology.

(Source: IEEE Spectrum July 2014 issue)

The Sinking Wonder of the World

Taj Mahal

When given the option to choose any engineering-related topic for my CCOM206 research paper, I was inclined to write about Taj Mahal—one of the Seven Wonders of the World—since it is located in my homeland, India. My trip to Taj Mahal a decade ago changed my life in ways more than I could have imagined. Though I may not be a desi by personal choice, I am still Indian at heart. I want future generations to also have their breath taken away by the beauty of Taj Mahal, just as mine was when I first saw it.

The first thought that crosses one’s mind when thinking of India is likely the well-known Taj Mahal. This marble-clad mausoleum is considered one of the finest example of Mughal architecture in India. It was built to mark the passionate love of Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved queen Mumtaj Mahal, after her sudden and tragic death.There is perhaps no better monument which is solely dedicated to love. Every year, over 3 million people come to visit this sacred symbol of love in search of inspiration, and they leave with a warm feeling of awe and admiration.

“A teardrop on the cheek of time” were the words of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore on Taj Mahal’s flawless symmetry and elegance. In 1983, Taj Mahal achieved the status of an UNESCO World Heritage Site. At that time, it was described as a “universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”; even so, proper care has not been taken to preserve this monument.

Taj Mahal is an engineering marvel of its own kind. The construction of Taj Mahal represented the biggest technical challenge to be overcome by the Mughal builders of that era. As Shah Jahan was adamant about building this monument on the banks of the river Yamuna, the architects and engineers came up with a novel strategy known as “well foundation”. In order to support the considerable load resulting from the mausoleum, the white stone monument was built on hundreds of masonry cylindrical columns sunk into the ground close together. These wells were filled with rubble, iron and mortar—so they essentially acted as augured piles—and were reinforced with ebony wheels at regular intervals along their lengths. Ebony was used, as it is dense enough to sink in water and also has an infinite life-time in water.

Recently, a startling discovery has taken over the front page of all newspapers in India—Taj Mahal, the famous epitome of love, is starting to sink. The news that Taj Mahal is going to collapse in the next five years came during its 350th anniversary celebration. Shah Jahan is not to be blamed because when he commissioned to build Taj Mahal, he got everything right: from the design, to its science. He neither stinted on the ebony which props up the Taj, nor did he anticipate the Yamuna going dry. But even the finest ebony in the world needs a steady stream of moisture to ensure it does not expand or contract, both of which pose a grave threat to the structure.

In the past decade or so, the ‘perennial’ river has been completely drying up in the summer months in Agra, posing a potent threat to India’s most famous monument. Experts say a dry Yamuna could play havoc with the Taj’s foundation, making a solid marble love story wobbly at the base. The pressure of the river flowing by Taj has kept the building erect. But the building is no longer getting enough support due to the evaporating Yamuna River, and cracks have started to appear on Taj’s veneering marble slabs. Also, research shows that the south-west minaret has tilted by about 8.5 inches—this is quite a lot!

Taj Mahal is part and parcel of India’s identity and as such, Taj must be preserved. River restoration projects such as the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) have been implemented but not yet found to be effective. As the situation grows increasingly dire, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should take immediate measures to intervene. Otherwise, we might as well say goodbye to this three–and-a-half centuries-old monument.

The Biggest Transition

Starting undergraduate studies is definitely one of the biggest transitions in anyone’s life. This gets even more significant when you come from a different country. As an international student, I faced a lot of changes as well. The biggest being to stay alone – away from your family. Change is life’s biggest truth, regardless of whether one accepts it or not. But one can only take a certain amount of change at a time.

Change is life’s biggest truth, regardless of whether one accepts it or not.

I arrived at Montreal two days after the beginning of the semester. As with many other international students, I had some delays in getting my visa. Luckily I had my uncle over here with whom I stayed for the first week. I was overwhelmed by the sight, when he dropped me off at the Roddick Gates for the first time. I could see the McGill flag flying at the top of the arts building. I had a feeling that I came to the right place.

Things started to move on pretty fast afterwards. Honestly, you don’t have much time to fit in at McGill. The professors go into full gear, assignments keep on piling up and exams start to knock on your door sooner than you even realize. It’s good in a way that you don’t have time to sit and feel bad for being away from your family. Well, I never did. Friends, in this case are a crucial element. It’s always nice to have people who are in your shoes. We supported each other in our bad times, shared our happiness and learned to overcome obstacles together. This really makes the transition much smoother than one can imagine.

It has been one semester now. In fact, it’s almost the end of my second semester. When I think of the first days, it feels like as if it was just yesterday! I can see myself to be quite a changed person. I can live independently. Never thought of that before; can’t believe it even now. It’s the beginning of a new life. And yes, I accepted the change.

A New Addition to the Blogging Team

I am pleased to introduce Mushfique, the Turret’s newest blogger.  He joins some of his fellow students from this semester’s Communication in Engineering course in contributing to the blog about his experiences as a new student at McGill.  Mushfique is an electrical engineering student from Dhaka, Bangladesh who will be staying on in Montreal this summer to take part in McGill’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering.  Welcome to the Turret Mushfique!  We look forward to hearing about your experiences as an international student in engineering. Mushfique_photo

Saving Electricity at McGill – Saving the Planet?

In 1850, William Gladstone asked the scientist Michael Faraday why electricity was valuable. Faraday answered, “One day, sir, you may tax it.”

Indeed, electricity has become such a fundamental part of modern society. We use it for almost everything we do: from lighting up this classroom, to charging our phones, to sharing this powerpoint presentation with you.

But what many fail to see is that the generation of electricity has become so widespread that its environmental impact is simply not negligible anymore. Most electricity today is generated at power plants that convert some other kind of energy into electrical power. Each system has advantages and disadvantages, but ultimately, many of them pose environmental concerns.

Indeed, the majority of our electricity production is based on burning fossil fuels to produce steam, which is then used to drive a turbine that, in turn, drives an electrical generator.  In addition to being harmful to the environment, these are non-renewable and limited sources of energy on earth, so we must consume electricity in a conscientious and sustainable way in order to ensure our energy supply in the long term – for ourselves but also for future generations. Additionally, as Faraday predicted, electricity, and most importantly energy, is not free. The electricity bills add up, and the longer we leave our lights turned on for nothing, the more money we waste.

Hence, even a small amount of saved electricity can have a large positive impact on our environment, and at McGill in particular.

So what’s the solution? Taking it one step at a time. Starting small. The goal is to promote sustainability at McGill, and we can do so by installing automatic, motion sensor lighting in as many campus buildings as possible. The Schulich Library has already jumped onto the energy-saving bandwagon by installing such automatic lighting, but many buildings have yet to catch up, such as the Birks building.

McGill’s Birks building comprises four floors and is mostly used by the facilities staff and students of McGill University. It consists of classrooms, offices, hallways, staircases, a library and washrooms, as well as a chapel. The lights in the building are kept on for around 10 to 12 hours per day, 5 days a week.

Ultimately, these lights do not need to be turned on consistently for that entire period of time whilst a classroom is not in use, or whilst a staff member is not in his/her office. Similarly, lights in the staircases need not to be switched on when not in use. We have consulted with students and staff of the building and they informed us that the lights remain turned on in between classes, and are only rarely switched off if someone walks by and notices. Likewise, lights in the washrooms are kept on for a stretch of 10 to 12 hours per day even when they are not in use, ultimately resulting in an evident loss of energy.

Moreover, even smaller instances that we look over also have an impact on the consumption of energy. For instance, staff working in their offices may forget to turn off their lights before leaving for lunch. Furthermore, a massive amount is spent on lighting up the library and the staircases alone due to their sheer size.

Therefore, I believe that the installation of motion sensor lighting is the solution to all the problems mentioned above. After using the equation E = P*t, one can calculate that motion sensor automatic lighting can save an estimated 23,351 kWh of electrical energy per year – about 50% of its total energy consumption – as well as over $1,400 per year, assuming that electricity costs 6 cents per kWh.

Perhaps it is worth looking into… saving the planet is ultimately done one step at a time!

Dropleton, A new Quasiparticle!

Just a few weeks ago, a new quasiparticle, known as the ‘dropleton’, was discovered. Scientists in the States and Germany discovered this new liquid-like particle when they were studying excitons and the effects that lasers have on semiconductor elements. Exciton, like dropleton, is another quasiparticle, and is a pair of an electron and a hole bound together by electrostatic forces. (As a sidenote, a quasiparticle is a collective excitation within a material that behaves like a fundamental particle.)

Researchers created this new quantum particle by firing high-speed lasers at gallium-arsenide quantum wells. These dropleton have a lifetime of 25 picoseconds (one-trillionth of a second), long enough to be scientifically studied properly. These quantum droplets are created when the firing lasers excite electrons to form a number of excitions which combine to form one whole quantum droplet system, the dropleton. These quasiparticles are stabilized by Pauli’s Exclusion Principle and have properties relate-able to those of liquids.

Liquid-like dropletons are supposed to reveal invaluable information on how electrons react to different stimuli in solids and eventually lead to a better understanding of the solid state, and better electronic devices.

For more detailed information, do check out the original article, which was published in Nature 506,471–475 (27 February 2014).


Growing up in a small town, I was sure I wanted to go somewhere huge. When I was accepted into McGill, I knew this was the place I wanted to be- it was big, located in a metropolitan city, and totally different from my small town.

When I told my friends – most of whom chose to attend small liberal arts colleges – many were shocked. “Forty-thousand people?!” people told me, and I would just shrug them off like “Yeah, it’s a big place!” I would think about the number, but never actually process it.

But then I actually came here. And I realized something: there is a huge difference between imagining the number 40,000 and living surrounded by it. I knew it was a large amount of people, but being in classes of 1400 students, dealing with lab sections that fill up in a day, and having professors who don’t even know the name of a single student in their class really put it into perspective.

This is a big place.

I wondered why it never occurred to me just how large a number 40,000 was. After some research, I realized the reason this came as such a shock to me is because our brain is just not evolved enough to process large numbers. This idea is called “scalar variability”. It basically says that the larger the number you are processing, the fuzzier the estimate or visual representation you will get.

Try it! Imagine five people standing in a room. Really, it isn’t that hard of a feat. But now imagine a thousand people in a room. Are you really able to picture the magnitude of these people with the same clarity? It becomes much more of a challenge.

Now, try 40,000.

I can honestly say that the first few months of my transition from a small town to a gigantic university, like any first year college student, were very difficult. I was not used to the mass quantities of people in classes, in my residence, in the libraries, or even in the streets. I felt very alone at times.

However, while I was scared of the large numbers at first, I now welcome them. They have encouraged me to build my own community and surround myself with friends who I found through the different clubs I joined. They allow me to meet new people every day. And I know, once the class sizes shrink in upper years, they will give me access to some of the top professors in math and science research in the world.

While I found the huge number of people who go to this university intimidating at first, I realized it has allowed me to become more independent, and to surround myself with people and friends who I can truly say I care about and found on my own. Having that support from a smaller community within this large institution makes it all the more worthwhile. While my brain may never truly know what 40,000 is, the ten or so close friends I surround myself by are much easier for my brain to manage, and I don’t know where I would be without their support. And that is what has helped me deal with the transition to this huge university.

Welcome Grace!

AScreenshot_Graces April announced, this semester, the Turret will have a few new bloggers from the CCOM-206 class. The next new blogger I would like to welcome is Grace. She travelled from a small town in Alaska to Montreal. She will soon share with us her experience about this transition.

Women in Engineering – Inspiring the Next Generation

Close your eyes and picture an engineer. What do you see? A man in a suit? A young lad in a hoodie? A train driver?

Or do you picture a woman?

When a female such as myself enrols in college and selects a major such as engineering, the reactions she hears range from “Really? I would never have thought so” to “Wow, you must be REALLY smart!”

Indeed, the persistent bias towards women in male dominated fields can be damaging to one’s self-confidence, and self-confidence is something that one needs in order to tackle the growing responsibility as we advance in our careers. Maintaining confidence is crucial to success. However, finding this inner strength becomes a challenge when anatomy determines whether you are taken seriously. Because I am female, I know that I automatically have to prove my worth in such a field. And this is the core of the problem that we face today.

There is no easy way to explain why more women are not encouraged to follow these career paths. I took physics on a whim in high school out of simple curiosity, but had the sheer luck of falling in love with the subject. The difficulty but ability of physics to explain so many things around me – yet with so much left to discover – left me thirsty for more. However, I was perplexed as to why I had never even considered a career in engineering until then; was it because I had never heard of a female engineer on the news? Was it because there was a total of around 7 girls out of 30 in my physics class?

This feeling of perplexity never left me, but I brushed it off. It was not until an exchange I had during a college interview that this nagging feeling came back in full-force. The alumna (who was a successful businesswoman) hit me with the hardest question I’ve ever had to answer in my entire life: “Why do you suppose there are more men than women in the domains of economics, engineering, and math?” I was left speechless.

So I did some research and I began self-reflecting. I read up on the (lack of) women who had received Nobel Prizes throughout history – how in 2012, apart from the European Union, all of the Nobel laureates were men. How, to date, only 43 women have been awarded a Nobel Prize out of 862 people and organisations who have been named laureates. Why? Because three of the prizes are for science. Women faced endless barriers to entering higher education, with no access to labs, no connections, and few opportunities. That was my first clue – opportunity. So my quest to answering my interviewer’s question continued. Books such as “Who Succeeds In Science? The Gender Dimension” by Gerhard Sonnert have furthered my research, categorising the answer to such a question into two models: the deficit model (women are treated differently in science), and the difference model (women act differently in science).

It wasn’t until I saw this advertisement that I began to connect the dots:

The concept of selling engineering/building toys to girls (with the purpose of increasing their confidence in problem-solving and introducing them to engineering) made it so clear to me that the problem lay in social norms and in a culture that has been created over time. And one way to progress is to educate our daughters differently. When one walks through a girls’ toy aisle, it is pink and full of barbies, princesses and dolls. The legos sold to girls are a feminized spin-off, featuring pink and purple blocks, and characters that do things like sit at home or run a bakery. We are taught implicitly from a very young age that our goal is to become princesses and/or mothers. I myself loved playing with barbies and other typically girly toys, but I equally loved playing with my brother’s train tracks and legos. It was thanks to him that I was exposed to such toys (that were not gifted to me because I was a girl). And the contrary holds true too – he often came to play barbies with me. With the nature vs. nurture debate aside, there is no doubt that advertisers have capitalised on gender preferences, steering each gender to their specified section and ultimately broadcasting a more general message regarding gender roles and expectations in society. Identity becomes ideology.

So maybe there are millions of girls out there who are engineers. They just might not know it yet. Is it time to “disrupt the pink aisle”?

Progress is being made and times are changing – as my grandmother says, “you don’t give us enough credit, we couldn’t even vote a few years ago!” I therefore try to avoid thinking negatively about the male-female ratio, because ultimately, I believe that it’s all about doing what you love.

So if finding what you love depends on the opportunities presented to you, would you buy your daughter legos?

Welcome Pauline!

The Turret is going to see a few new bloggers this semester, undergraduate students taking the Communication in Engineering course here at McGill.


To kick this off, it is my great pleasure to welcome Pauline (and her little brother).

We are all looking forward to hearing what Pauline will share with us on The Turret (no pressure!).