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Tales from an expert witness: Lasers, guns and singing Santas

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An unexpected journey

I am sometimes asked how one becomes an Expert Witness and I have to admit that my own reasons may not be typical. What I can say is that it is not something one expects to do nor is it something one can set out to do.

I suppose that there are three interlocking requirements which are: understanding the subject, being able to explain the subject and being known for it. Curiosity and circumstances also played a significant part in my case.

These subjects are interlocking because it is not really possible to understand something without explaining it either in person or in writing. The late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once withdrew one of his theories because he was unable to explain it to a group of students. He would, late in life, be an Expert Witness in the Challenger space shuttle inquiry.

Youtube Video

Richard Feynman refused to sign the Challenger investigation report as a "matter of conscience"

It is not possible to write lucidly about something previously considered impenetrable without achieving a degree of recognition. In contrast, if there is anything worse than a genius who is unable to articulate his knowledge it is the skilled teacher who has nothing to teach.

Obviously then, one cannot be a full-time Expert, because there would be no opportunity to build one's expertise. It’s something you do as well as other things. Circumstances and good fortune led me to a lifestyle that combines doing with teaching and writing and the absence of any one of those would impair the others.

Boundary disputes

I strongly believe that in order to make any progress in one discipline it is necessary to be aware of what is going on in a number of other disciplines, else one becomes blinkered. I could not have got where I am without being a polymath and one of the things that becomes clear is that it is at the boundaries where technologies rub together that the problems arise.

Today, when so many things are electronically or software controlled, just knowing about electronics or software isn’t enough. If a technology interests me, I pursue it, without seeking permission. Invariably I find close parallels between the physics of processes that are widely different.

For instance, the mathematics of the frequency domain allows aliasing in digital audio to be explained, but it is precisely those aliased frequencies from a helicopter rotor that give rise to the destructive phenomenon of ground resonance. And the transfer matrices we use to understand rotor behaviour use the same principles as those we use to compress images in MPEG.

Youtube Video

Sound thinking: the physics behind this helicopter's destruction also apply to digital audio

I also find solutions in other technologies. There is no difference between the requirement for a high ratio between the modulus of stiffness and the density that results in the highest possible speed of sound in a loudspeaker diaphragm and the strength-to-weight ratio demands of aerospace and motorsport. So I get my loudspeaker cones from a company that builds Formula 1 cars.

I further find that the degree of rigour needed to be an Expert Witness rubs off in other areas: we live in a data society and only some of it is information. It’s actually a survival tool to be able sort the reality from the noise.

I have no doubt at all that the success of my other endeavours owes a lot to the fact that everything was challenged and fallacious thinking was weeded out. There can be few conventional jobs that allow that kind of thing, so I suspect one of the ways one becomes an Expert Witness is not to have a conventional job.

Legal writes

It became clear that one of the foundations of technical writing is to tell things in the right order so that one thing leads to the next. In that way the most complex topics can be put across. I regard that as essential in any writing to do with legal or intellectual property matters.

I greatly admire the way Michael Ondaatje tells his stories out of sequence so you have to work it out, but in my line of work that would be as appropriate as a footballer at a Solvay Conference.

There is something satisfying about going beyond merely using language and instead revelling in it. The more dumbed-down society’s communications seem to become, the more pleasure is obtained not just by failing to take part, but by tackling the grunts, monosyllables, colloquialisms, glottal stops and general philistinism with weapons of mass articulation. “Who’s been reading my dictionary”, said Flaubert. ®

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