A cloud of grey-black smoke erupts over a brown field, likely the result of an explosion of some sort.

Disastrous hype

This is one of the worst press releases accompanying a study I’ve seen:

The headline and the body appear to have nothing to do with the study itself, which explores the creative properties of an explosion with certain attributes. However, the press office of the University of Central Florida has drafted a popular version that claims researchers – who are engineers more than physicists – have “detailed the mechanisms that could cause the [Big Bang] explosion, which is key for the models that scientists use to understand the origin of the universe.” I checked with a physicist, who agreed: “I don’t see how this is relevant to the Big Bang at all. Considering the paper is coming out of the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, I highly doubt the authors intended for it to be reported on this way.”

Press releases that hype results are often the product of an overzealous university press office working without inputs from the researchers that obtained those results, and this is probably the case here as well. The paper’s abstract and some quotes by one of the researchers, Kareem Ahmed from the University of Central Florida, indicate the study isn’t about the Big Bang but about similarities between “massive thermonuclear explosions in space and small chemical explosions on Earth”. However, the press release’s author slipped in a reference to the Big Bang because, hey, it was an explosion too.

The Big Bang was like no other stellar explosion; its material constituents were vastly different from anything that goes boom today – whether on Earth or in space – and physicists have various ideas about what could have motivated the bang to happen in the first place. The first supernovas are also thought to have occurred a few billion years after the Big Bang. This said, Ahmed was quoted saying something that could have used more clarification in the press release:

We explore these supersonic reactions for propulsion, and as a result of that, we came across this mechanism that looked very interesting. When we started to dig deeper, we realized that this is relatable to something as profound as the origin of the universe.

Err…

Wonder Woman. Credit: wonderwomanfilm.com

Why Wonder Woman's breastplate isn't disappointing

The Wonder Woman armour piece of June 19 is already among the most-read pieces on this blog that were published in the last year, and quite a few people have stepped forward to give me their take on Twitter and over email. Thanks for all the responses – it’s been an unexpectedly wonderful learning experience. 🙂 This said, one of those who replied, my friend Ishita Roy, also told me why – the logic in my piece notwithstanding – she isn’t actually disappointed by Wonder Woman’s garb in the film. I’ve reproduced her complete response below (from her Facebook comment). –VM

Your analysis of Wonder Woman armour is technically and logically sound. It should be disappointing to see her in such impractical (dangerous, as you pointed out) and male-gaze oriented “armour”. However, allow me to suggest a few reasons for the lack of disappointment here.

1. The origins: William Marston, who co-created the character with his wife, based her design on bondage (BDSM) gear. This is actually in line with the origin of Superman, whose original artist also was inspired by BDSM.

The idea here was not to cater to the male gaze, but to strike the same chord as the image of a dominatrix.
Indeed, Marston’s credentials and intentions were rather impeccable – he was a psychologist and a feminist, and in a polyamorous relationship with two other queer feminists, both of whom had heavy inputs in the making of Wonder Woman.

2. The “armour” is not actually accompanied by the male gaze.

There is not a single shot in the movie which tracks the bodies of any of the amazons. Not a single shot. The attire of the amazons is treated with superb nonchalance in the movie. Of particular note are two scenes: Diana is catcalled when she first appears in London, hidden under a cloak, and later in her green outfit – both of which would be perceived as modest by most folks. But when she appears in her armour, and starts kicking ass, she not even ogled at.

That’s a huge message to send audiences: that women’s clothing is not meant for consumption by an audience. I think giving them actual armour would have subtracted from that message – that women deserve respect regardless of whatever they wear. That even as warriors, modesty is not a requirement.
The whole amazon attire is thoroughly divorced from the concept of objectification by the cinematography, script and the very suggestive fact that amazons of all ages wear it.

3. That attire may not have been meant as armour.

The fighting style choreographed for the amazons is actively incompatible with plate-mail. It depends on ranged attacks, acrobatics and is more coordinated than single combat. Freedom of movement, along with coverage of vitals seems to be the aim here.

Now note that Diana’s attire is more revealing than the standard issue Amazonian garb. Also note that it has been depicted as a museum piece in-story, and is meant to be more ceremonial than actual armour.
Indeed the prevailing fan theory is that it is completely ceremonial, meant to be an appropriate superhero costume for the (wielder of) god-killers rather than a bulletproof vest.

Finally: re Thor and Bruce. Both guys spend a substantial amount of time with a naked torso and, in Thor’s case, wearing non-armoured clothing. Make of that what you will.

Wonder Woman. Credit: wonderwomanfilm.com

Why Wonder Woman’s breastplate isn’t disappointing

The Wonder Woman armour piece of June 19 is already among the most-read pieces on this blog that were published in the last year, and quite a few people have stepped forward to give me their take on Twitter and over email. Thanks for all the responses – it’s been an unexpectedly wonderful learning experience. 🙂 This said, one of those who replied, my friend Ishita Roy, also told me why – the logic in my piece notwithstanding – she isn’t actually disappointed by Wonder Woman’s garb in the film. I’ve reproduced her complete response below (from her Facebook comment). –VM

Your analysis of Wonder Woman armour is technically and logically sound. It should be disappointing to see her in such impractical (dangerous, as you pointed out) and male-gaze oriented “armour”. However, allow me to suggest a few reasons for the lack of disappointment here.

1. The origins: William Marston, who co-created the character with his wife, based her design on bondage (BDSM) gear. This is actually in line with the origin of Superman, whose original artist also was inspired by BDSM.

The idea here was not to cater to the male gaze, but to strike the same chord as the image of a dominatrix.
Indeed, Marston’s credentials and intentions were rather impeccable – he was a psychologist and a feminist, and in a polyamorous relationship with two other queer feminists, both of whom had heavy inputs in the making of Wonder Woman.

2. The “armour” is not actually accompanied by the male gaze.

There is not a single shot in the movie which tracks the bodies of any of the amazons. Not a single shot. The attire of the amazons is treated with superb nonchalance in the movie. Of particular note are two scenes: Diana is catcalled when she first appears in London, hidden under a cloak, and later in her green outfit – both of which would be perceived as modest by most folks. But when she appears in her armour, and starts kicking ass, she not even ogled at.

That’s a huge message to send audiences: that women’s clothing is not meant for consumption by an audience. I think giving them actual armour would have subtracted from that message – that women deserve respect regardless of whatever they wear. That even as warriors, modesty is not a requirement.
The whole amazon attire is thoroughly divorced from the concept of objectification by the cinematography, script and the very suggestive fact that amazons of all ages wear it.

3. That attire may not have been meant as armour.

The fighting style choreographed for the amazons is actively incompatible with plate-mail. It depends on ranged attacks, acrobatics and is more coordinated than single combat. Freedom of movement, along with coverage of vitals seems to be the aim here.

Now note that Diana’s attire is more revealing than the standard issue Amazonian garb. Also note that it has been depicted as a museum piece in-story, and is meant to be more ceremonial than actual armour.
Indeed the prevailing fan theory is that it is completely ceremonial, meant to be an appropriate superhero costume for the (wielder of) god-killers rather than a bulletproof vest.

Finally: re Thor and Bruce. Both guys spend a substantial amount of time with a naked torso and, in Thor’s case, wearing non-armoured clothing. Make of that what you will.

Unscientific breastplates

Before I begin, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not obsessed with comic books, and that what follows is based on information gleaned from googling and trawling through internet forums at 1 am. If I’ve got a detail wrong, please point it out nicely and I’m happy to make the necessary corrections.


https://twitter.com/haarleyquin/status/876383140058726401

Wonder Woman the movie was hailed so widely for being what it was but surprisingly few fixated on the protagonist’s clothing – a noticeable departure from reality, where social media commentators often pick on women’s sartorial sensibilities in various circumstances over anything else that might be contextually relevant. I do realise that what Diana Prince chooses to wear is her choice and none of my business. Then again, what about the fact that she happens to be a character created for popular consumption by a man who modelled her after his idea of women: that they feel happy when they are submissive?

There’s more. The reason I’m going to fixate on her clothing now has to do with mechanical engineering (which I studied for my undergraduate degree). Of all the things Prince wears, her breastplate is particularly interesting.

As the visions of sci-fi and fantasy films have evolved in the last few decades, there has also been a noticeable evolution in the liberties taken with set and costume design. Specifically, they have become less displays of their creators’ being awed by the possibilities of the future as well as to contain their fantasies and artistic overtures – and more humdrum, utilitarian and functional. For example, in a limited sense, filmmakers on average have reduced their attention on the “wow” factor of gadgetry, keeping audiences from getting ‘distracted’ by some outlandish vision of the future. Some of my favourite recent examples of this include Iron Man, Nolan’s Batman and Mad Max: Fury Road. The movies’ script is always such that the “wow” object isn’t introduced in our midst suddenly. Its creation process is exposed to the viewer at every step such that the ultimate effect is for the viewer to be viscerally familiar with the object by the time of its deployment in action – especially with the choices behind its more unique features.

But one area in which filmmakers have broadly seemed reluctant to get functionalist about is the breastplate of female warriors. Or at least they have become functional to the extent that their function is to make female warriors looks sexier instead of afford proper protection. For example, consider the battledress of three characters: one each from Game of Thrones, Man of Steel and Wonder Woman.

Faora from the Superman universe (left) and Brienne of Tarth, from Game of Thrones. Source: YouTube
Faora from the Superman universe (left) and Brienne of Tarth, from Game of Thrones. Source: YouTube

While Faora Hu-Ul and Wonder Woman have breastplates that cup the breasts, Brienne of Tarth wears one that doesn’t. This is important because all of them are warriors and their armours must be able to protect them in a variety of conflict situations. One of them is melee combat, and when the breastplate receives a blow, its duty is to lessen the impact on the torso by absorbing it as well as directing it away from sensitive areas. However, when the breastplate cups over the breasts, striking it on top risks the force becoming directed inwards (especially if the seam is bad), towards the ribs and the sternum. This is what Emily Asher-Perrin wrote about for Tor in May 2013:

Assuming that you are avoiding the blow of a sword, your armor should be designed so that the blade glances off your body, away from your chest. If your armor is breast-shaped, you are in fact increasing the likelihood that a blade blow will slide inward, toward the center of your chest, the very place you are trying to keep safe. But that’s not all! Let’s say you even fall onto your boob-conscious armor. The divet separating each breast will dig into your chest, doing you injury. It might even break your breastbone. With a strong enough blow to the chest, it could fracture your sternum entirely, destroying your heart and lungs, instantly killing you. It is literally a death trap—you are wearing armor that acts as a perpetual spear directed at some of your most vulnerable body parts. It’s just not smart.

This is particularly true of Wonder Woman, whose latest costume appears to feature a metallic lining at the helm with a prow in the middle (the ‘golden eagle’) bending into the centre of her chest as well as sharp tips angling over her breasts. How is this sensible? Imagine what would happen if she fell face-down.

A close-up view of Wonder Woman's breastplate. Source: YouTube
A close-up view of Wonder Woman’s breastplate. Source: YouTube

I suppose you’re wondering how it matters considering it’s Wonder Goddamn Woman, a superhero who can take punches harder than any armour would be able to withstand on her bare skin and not flinch. But the same can be said of Thor, and even Dr Bruce Banner, and it’s not like either of them is walking around wearing an iron maiden or a chastity belt just because he can. In effect, while Batman got full-body armour capable of surviving a Rottweiler attack, Wonder Woman had to make do with gear that wasn’t entirely about ‘her choices’. It actually created new ways to harm her (were it not for her Amazonian outside) because it was trying to preserve other things: her sexiness and her symbols. In a March 2016 interview to Hollywood Reporter, Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer who created Wonder Woman’s armour, said:

We created a costume that looks like metal armor, but of course, in these films the fight scenes are very intense and challenging so I had to come up with a solution that would allow her to move and breathe, but also to have this very iconic, sort of hourglass shape in a modern and interesting way. … Of course there’s all sorts of things she has such as the eagle and WW motif throughout the costume, so I tried to use that WW motif through the belt and the gauntlets and across the breastplate. There’s WW throughout the costume. I think someone tried to count them and they got to 40. (Emphasis added.)

What do either of these things have to do with combat efficiency? Again, for those wondering how any of this matters, let me remind you that my point is only that the sensibilities going into designing male armour and female armour seem to be different.

In reality (i.e. when we’re not dealing with superhuman abilities), the answer to this is not to exclude bust cups from female body armour, which is feasible to do only in the case of women with small breasts – but to create new designs that don’t bring additional vulnerabilities over the baseline (i.e. male armour), to focus on individual fit and to test it well. According to an article published in Tech Beat, a magazine of the US National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Centre, in December 2014,

Soft body armors designated as female differ from male and gender-neutral vests in that they can incorporate curved or shaped protective panels to accommodate the female bust. Flat male or gender-neutral models may be suitable for female officers with smaller busts. Depending on design and materials, they may not be suitable for those with larger busts, as the busts push the front armor panel forward, enlarging the underarm gap and therefore lessening the area of coverage between the front and rear panels.

Further, according to the US Office of Justice Programs,

Generally speaking, the difference between male and female models is that for the female body armor, most manufacturers cut and stitch the material to create bust cups. … When a female model is tested, the laboratory is instructed to locate the seam that is created by folding and/or stitching the material to make the bust cup, and to place one of the shots on that seam. This is done to ensure the weakest point of the vest (typically a seam) provides the minimum level of ballistic protection required by the standard. … There are many different types and styles of female vests, and ways of fitting vests to accommodate all of the various sizes and shapes needed for female officers. Some manufacturers have developed methods which ‘mold’ the bust cups into the material, negating the need for cutting and stitching to create a bust cup. Other manufacturers simply alter the outside dimensions of the panel (i.e., enlarging the arm hole openings) to accommodate certain types of builds and body types (commonly referred to as a ‘unisex’ vest).

Overall, it seems to be that there can be no single way to verify the strength and integrity of women’s armour as much as subjecting each unit to a single set of tests. Then again, I wonder if there’s any point bringing all these details to bear on Wonder Woman’s armour: how, for starters, are we going to get the Young’s modulus of Amazonian amazongmetal? I’m not sure the movies (including Batman v. Superman) have a scene where Princess Diana falls face down or takes a punch from Superman. In the off chance that such a scene does come to be, I’m going to be interested in her armour’s backface deformation. From a Police One article published in December 2014,

… in ballistic-resistant armor testing, backface deformation (BFD) is the measurement on the indent in a clay backing material when a bullet that does not penetrate a vest makes an impression on the clay. BFD testing of very small panels of armors, as well as whether the amount of allowed deformation should be different for the breast area, could be areas for study. … “The idea is to use a supplemental test technique to ensure that when rounds impact areas of the female anatomy that they have the same level of protection as existing male armors, but when striking the bust area, we want to make sure that we provide a more biofidelic test method that specifically addresses the unique female anatomy,” Otterson says.

Update: Twitter user @shishiqiushi has pointed out that the proper historical comparison for breastplates would be the Roman cuirass. However, I’m not sure where this fits into my narrative because there is no evidence – whether in art or archaeology – that women wore the cuirass into battle, at least not usually. And when they did, they wore versions designed for men. Perhaps I would be able to say that the thinking going into designing men’s armour had some historical basis. For further reading, try this Gizmodo explainer.

The new and large fly the farthest

British Airways and Air France mutually retired the Concorde supersonic jet in 2003. Both companies cited rising maintenance costs as being the reason, which in turn were compounded by falling demand after the Paris crash in 2000 and a general downturn in civil aviation after 9/11. Now, American and French scientists have found that Concorde was in fact an allometric outlier that stood out design-wise at the cost of its feasibility and, presumably, its maintenance. Perhaps it grounded itself.

One thing Adrian Bejan (Duke University), J.D. Charles (Boeing) and Sylvie Lorente (Toulouse University) seem to be in awe of throughout their analysis is that the evolution of commercial airplane allometry seems deterministic (allometry is the study of the relationship between a body’s physical dimensions and its properties and functions). This is awesome because it implies that the laws of physics used to design airplanes are passively guiding the designers toward very specific solutions in spite of creative drift, and that successive models are converging toward a sort of ‘unified model’. This paradigm sounds familiar because it could be said of any engineering design enterprise, but what sets it apart is that the evolution of airplane designs appears to be mimicking the evolution of flying animals despite significant anatomical and physiological differences.

One way to look at their analysis is in terms of the parameters the scientists claim have been guiding airplane design over the years:

  1. Wingspan
  2. Fuselage length
  3. Fuel load
  4. Body size

Among them, fuel load and body size are correlated along the lines of Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation. It says that, for rockets, if two of the following three parameters are set, the third becomes immovably fixed in a proportional way: energy expenditure against gravity, potential energy in the propellant, and the fraction of the rocket’s mass made up by the propellant. According to Bejan et al, there is a corresponding ‘airplane equation’ that shows a similar correlation between engine size, amount of fuel, and mass of the whole vehicle. The NASA explainer finds this association tyrannical because, as Paul Gilster writes,

A … rocket has to carry more and more propellant to carry the propellant it needs to carry more propellant, and so on, up the dizzying sequence of the equation

Next, there is also a correlation between wingspan and fuselage length corresponding to an economy of scale such as what exists in nature. Bejan et al find that despite dissimilarities, airplanes and birds have evolved similar allometric rules on the road to greater efficiency, and that like bigger birds, bigger airplanes are “more efficient vehicles of mass”. Based on how different airplane components have evolved over the years, the scientists were able to distill a scaling relation.

S/L ~ M1/6 g1/2 ρ1/3 σ1/4aV2Cl)-3/4 21/4 Cf7/6

Be not afraid. S/L is the ratio of the wingspan to the fuselage length. It is most strongly influenced by ρa, the density; σ, the allowable stress level in the wing; g, the acceleration due to gravity; and Cf, the fixed skin-friction coefficient. More interestingly, the mass of the entire vehicle has a negligible effect on S/L, which pans out as a fixed S/L value across a range of airplane sizes.

Citation: J. Appl. Phys. 116, 044901 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4886855
Citation: J. Appl. Phys. 116, 044901 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4886855

Similarly, the size of a plane’s engine has also increased proportional to a plane’s mass. This would be common sense if not for there being a fixed, empirically determined correlation here as well: Me = 0.13M0.83, where Me and M are the masses of the engine and airplane, respectively, in tons.

During the evolution of airplanes, the engine sizes have increased almost proportionally with the airplane sizes (the data refer only to jet engine airplanes). J. Appl. Phys. 116, 044901 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4886855
During the evolution of airplanes, the engine sizes have increased almost proportionally with the airplane sizes (the data refer only to jet engine airplanes). J. Appl. Phys. 116, 044901 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4886855

In terms of these findings, the Concorde’s revolutionary design appears to have been a blip on the broader stream of traditional yet successful ones. In the words of the authors,

In chasing an “off the charts” speed rating the Concorde deviated from the evolutionary path traced by successful airplanes that preceded it. It was small, had limited passenger capacity, long fuselage, short wingspan, massive engines, and poor fuel economy relative to the airplanes that preceded it.

That the Concorde failed and that the creative drift it embodied couldn’t achieve what the uninspired rules that preceded it did isn’t to relegate the design of commercial airplanes to algorithms. It only stresses that whatever engineers have toyed with, some parameters have remained constant because they’ve had a big influence on performance. In fact, it is essentially creativity that will disrupt Bejan et al‘s meta-analysis by inventing less dense, stronger, smoother materials to build airplanes and their components with. By the analysts’ own admission, this is a materials era.

Bigger airplanes fly farther and are more efficient, and to maximize fuel efficiency, are becoming the vehicles of choice for airborne travel. And that there is a framework of allometric rules to passively maximize their inherent agency is a tribute to design’s unifying potential. In this regard, the similarity to birds persists (see chart below) as if to say there is only a fixed number of ways in which to fly better.

The characteristic speeds of all the bodies that fly, run, and swim (insects, birds, and mammals). J. Appl. Phys. 116, 044901 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4886855
The characteristic speeds of all the bodies that fly, run, and swim (insects, birds, and mammals). J. Appl. Phys. 116, 044901 (2014); http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.4886855

From the paper:

Equally important is the observation that over time the cloud of fliers has been expanding to the right . In the beginning were the insects, later the birds and the insects, and even later the airplanes, the birds, and the insects. The animal mass that sweeps the globe today is a weave of few large and many small. The new are the few and large. The old are the many and small.


References

The evolution of airplanes, J. Appl. Phys. 116, 044901 (2014); DOI: 10.1063/1.4886855