Fred Starr recollects: A place of greater safety

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2017

With nuclear armageddon peeping up on the horizon, can I add to your worries a prediction from Dr Bryan Lawton, a friend of mine, and formerly a reader at the Royal Military College, Shrivenham, that statistically, we are due for global war in 2020. Bryan made this prophecy 13 years back, so it’s not just a piece of frivolous, but topical, speculation. It’s in his award-winning book, Various and Ingenious Machines, an engineering analysis of technical developments from the stone age to the industrial revolution. His prediction is in a chapter analysing the frequency at which war breaks out, from 1500 to modern times.

Bryan’s background makes him more aware than most of how war has been the driving force behind human progress. He asserts that man is best described as a weapon-making animal rather than the uplifting, man the toolmaker. So, with three years to go, and with Bryan’s prophecy ringing in my ears, I wonder where I might find a safe haven? Might my own career and credentials, as a metallurgist, point to salvation?

My thoughts turn to Finland, a place I first visited 30 years ago for work. I expected to find it a depressed, quasi-eastern bloc country, although on our side of the Iron Curtain. Not so – Helsinki’s shopping centre was as good as anything in London. New buildings everywhere, and superb highways. All was in telling contrast to the filthy, oil stained, diesel express I saw in Helsinki’s central station, that would take its unfortunate passengers to Leningrad.

Our visit started in Tampere, about 180km north of Helsinki, where the topic was superheaters in biomass incineration plants. 

However, the main event was back in Helsinki, at the laboratories of VTT Oy, the well funded, state-owned, research conglomerate. Instead of flying back, Tom Hughes, of Leeds University, UK, and I were encouraged to take the scenic route, by train, past tiny lakes and forested hills – remnants of Finland’s glaciated past. A visual feast was in prospect. It was not to be.

Soon after, Tom and I settled into the opulent railway compartment, panelled in dark oak and deeply cushioned, we were joined by an extremely smartly dressed, youngish looking man. In immaculate English, he introduced himself as an employee of Nokia, a company we had not heard of, and began to ply us with questions about the British telephone network. We two Englishmen were able to snatch an occasional glance at the wonderful landscape, but most of the time, we were entertainingly grilled. There is not much better fun than telling a foreigner about the technology of one’s own country. However, I now wonder, wasn’t this a setup, helping Nokia to prepare its mobile phone onslaught in Britain? Furthermore, given the close trade links that had developed between the Soviet Union and Nokia, when the company moved into telecommunications in the 1960s, could it have learnt that there is more than one way of extracting information than with a cattle prod? 

VTT, based on the outskirts of Helsinki, was another example of the economy of the Nordic Japan, whereby Finland, had pulled itself up by its bootstraps after the Second World War. Our days were spent in presentations, as VTT’s equipment was in storage, but we were shown where it was scheduled to go.

This turned out to be a vast underground cavern, next to the VTT main building, hewed out of solid granite, 10 times the size of IOM3’s headquarters. It was absolutely empty and would be for another year. We could only stay for a few minutes. Radioactive radon gas was still emanating from the excavation. Ironic, in view of what we were told next. The cavern is dual purpose. In Finland all public buildings must have bomb proof shelters. The country, on the borders of the former USSR could look forward to being in what is called the stop zone in the event of hostilities.  

So, turning to my own future, have VTT, I wonder, an opening for an elderly English metallurgist? And assuming I get the job, but worst comes to worst, and the Finnish shelters are not so effective, is there no finer resting place for my bones than among the creep, stress corrosion and thermal fatigue rigs?