Use of science-babble in No Highway in the Sky

In No Highway in the Sky some science babble is used to explain the nature of fatigue. The explanation given depends on quantum mechanics and the metal becoming crystallised. It seems this science babble is used to avoid any controversy about the actual mechanism of fatigue. Since the author was an aircraft designer he could easy have become familiar with the contemporaneous explanation. Since the details are a topic of enquiry, inserting something outlandish is probably a very clever thing to do, it prevents inserting information which will mislead specialists and it doesn’t spoil the story for anyone else.

James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky

James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky


The outlandish explanation also fits well with the main characters fascination with topics such as the  mathematics of the ancient pyramids, part of the plot is that those with higher authority attempt to discredit him as a nut. They don’t want to believe there is a problem with the planes.


There is deeper point which is interesting to explore — it’s not necessary for the mechanism of fatigue to be known to have a predictive theory. It would be quite possible to predict the fatigue failure from the assumption that there is some form of damage accumulation. The mention of quantum mechanics probably means the hero was familiar with the statistics of stochastic effects. Another plot point in the story is that the damage to the material cannot be seen by observation, so that inspection of the aircraft puts the main characters explanation into doubt.


The failure of an aircraft by fatigue occurs by nucleation and growth of a crack. Since aluminium can be quite a tough material the size of the crack which can be tolerated before failure can be very large. Modern aircraft can be designed so that cracks can be detected by routine inspection before they reach a size which would cause failure.


No Highway in the Sky

‘No Highway’ is a book dramatising fatigue in metals, the story was made into the movie ‘No Highway in the Sky’ staring Jimmy Stewart. This is the only movie I know which is about metal fatigue. The book was published in 1948, and the movie appeared in 1951.

The author Nevil Shute Norway, was a pioneer aircraft designer. The story centres around Theodore Honey, a middle-aged widower and boffin at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough (site of much fundamental work on aircraft and fatigue).

Theodore is sent to investigate a previous air crash, but he realises that his theory applies to the plane he is travelling on, which he forces to land. After inspection of the aircraft on land, the much annoyed pilot is ready to take-off again, leaving Theodore Honey behind. However, Theodore’s conviction in his theory leads him to ground the plane by retracting the landing-gear. Everyone is left perplexed by his actions, except the air-stewardess and an actress aboard the plane who Theodore had convinced.

Therefore, go forth, companion: when you find
No Highway more, no track, all being blind,
The way to go shall glimmer in the mind.

Interestingly the book, in which a new airliner design being subject to mechanical failure due to metal fatigue, came before the failures of the de Havilland Comet airliner just six years later (1954).

James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky

James Stewart in No Highway in the Sky

As well as the book “No Highway” and the movie, there is also the radio play made by CBS. The radio play also stars Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Tokyo and Fukushima win Olympic prize

Tokyo won out as the “safe option” against Madrid and Istanbul in the competition to host the Olympic games. Also good news Prime Minister Abe gave a promise to clean up the Fukushima plant by 2020.

In Japanese he provided following soundbite:
“We understand that there have been people voicing concerns over the contaminated water issue in Fukushima. What I can say is the government is taking the lead here to completely solve the issue. And to do that we are implementing drastic measures with firm resolve. I will be explaining (to the International Olympic Committee) that in seven years time, in 2020, it will not be a problem at all.”

MOL Comfort shipwreck

On 17th June MOL (Mitsui O.S.K. Lines) Comfort cracked mid-ship and broke into two pieces while carrying 4832 containers from Singapore to Jeddah. The incident occurred 230 miles off the coast of Somalia in a swell of 5-8 m. The ship was built by MHI at Nagasaki and completed in July 2008. It operated as APL (America President Lines) Russia until 1st June 2012. As of 23rd June most of containers are still aboard, and tugs are on route to try to salvage the two sections and remaining cargo.

MOL Comfort is a large post-panamax container ship, one of 12 ships built of similar design, which were the first classified by Nippon Kaiji Kyokai to utilise high strength steel with yield point of 470 MPa in the hull structure.

As pointed out at, the MOL Comfort was built at a top quality shipyard and operated by a tip-top liner company. The things that come to mind immediately are 1) Weather 2) Welding quality 3) Pirates?, gcaptain suggests tehre may also be an effect from the undeclared weight of containers. This is an interesting problem, since surely the total weight of the ship is easy to measure by measuring the displacement in dock? Also easy to weigh each container as the loading cranes can easily be fitted with equipment to weigh the loads (they need this anyway to ensure safety of the crane). It seems common practice to misreport container weights during loading, but are these weight then used to decide the position of the containers on board? Containers need to be placed, and moved, in such a way as to minimise the forces on the hull at all times.

Mol Comfort Shipwreack

Mol Comfort Shipwreack

Lloyd’s Register marine director and chairman of the International Association of Classification Societies Tom Boardley said:

This incident is of great concern and we want to know the cause of this structural failure.

Mol Comfort Breaks in Two

Mol Comfort Breaks in Two

MOL press releases regarding the MOL Comfort can currently be found here:

Ths ships builders MHI have set up a task force to work with MOL to investigate the source of the failure.
MHI press releases regarding the MOL Comfort can currently be found here:

As of 24 June the two halves are still floating and can be found drifting near 15”12N 66’53”E and 13’38”N 64’10”E. Original location was 12’30″N 60’E.

As of 25 June two MHI engineers are in place on one of the tugs sent to salvage the container ship, to investigate the cause(s). There are no statements from the crew, who may also be able to shed light on the incident.


The aft part of the ship eventually sunk with the containers at at 16:48 JST (11:48 Dubai time) on June 27. The fore part is being towed towards the Arabian Gulf.

Although the ships are built following international standards, the sister ships will subsequently be strengthened to at least twice the standard strength.

Aircraft maintenance reports

The FAA publishes alerts regarding aviation maintenance, as a way to share information between those who maintain and operate ‘aviation products’. For metallurgists or materials scientists it may be interesting to see what sort of problems occur and can be remedied during maintenance. Good to see these appear rather than accident reports.