Lacking creativity

detail tl from abstract painting by Zahrah RI feel that I am moving to the next level of experience with online meetings but I am unsure that it will address the slow down in productivity and a loss of creativity being reported by most leaders of research groups to whom I have spoken recently.  About a month ago, we organised an ‘Away Day’ for all staff in the School of Engineering with plenary presentations, breakout groups and a Q&A session.  Of course, the restrictions induced by the pandemic meant that we were only ‘away’ in the sense of putting aside our usual work routine and it only lasted for half a day because we felt a whole day in an online conference would be counter productive; nevertheless, the feedback was positive from the slightly more than one hundred staff who participated.  On a smaller scale, we have experimented with randomly allocating members of my research team to breakout sessions during research group meetings in an attempt to give everyone a chance to contribute and to stimulate those serendipitous conversations that lead to breakthroughs, or least alternative solutions to explore.  We have also invited external speakers to join our group meetings – last month we had a talk from a researcher in Canada.  We are trying to recreate the environment in which new ideas bubble to the surface during casual conversations at conferences or visits to laboratories; however, I doubt we are succeeding.  The importance of those conversations to creativity and innovation in science is highlighted by the story of how Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna met for the first time at a conference in Puerto Rico.   While wandering around San Juan on a warm Caribbean evening in 2011 discussing the way bacteria protect themselves against viruses by chopping up the DNA of the virus, they realised that it could be turned into molecular scissors for cutting and editing the genes of any living creature.  They went home after the conference to their labs in Umea University, Sweden and UC Berkeley respectively and collaborated round the clock to implement their idea for which they won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  Maybe the story is apocryphal; however, based on my own experience of conversations on the fringes of scientific meetings, they are more productive than the meeting itself and their loss is a significant casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are people who point to the reduction in the carbon footprint of science research caused by the cancellation of conferences and who argue that, in order to contribute to UN Goals for Sustainable Development, we should not return to gatherings of researchers in locations around the world.  I agree that we should consider our carbon footprint more carefully when once again we can travel to scientific meetings; however, I think the innovations required to achieve the UN Goals will emerge very slowly, or perhaps not all, if researchers are limited to meeting online only.

Source:

Clive Cookson, A dynamic Nobel duo with natural chemistry, FT Weekend, 10/11 October 2020.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.

Democratizing education

One motivation for developing Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) has been to democratize education by giving everyone access to knowledge often presented by leading professors.  It was certainly one reason why I developed and delivered two MOOCs on ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ in 2015/16 and ‘Understanding Super Structures’ in 2017.  The workload involved in supporting thousands of learners around the global is not insignificant and was unsustainable for me so I gave up after running them for a couple of years despite the intangible rewards [see ‘Knowledge spheres‘ on March 9th, 2016 and ‘A liberal engineering education‘ on March 2nd, 2016] . However, I incorporated the MOOC on energy into my undergraduate module on thermodynamics to create a blended approach to learning [see ‘Blended learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018].  This paid dividends for me when the pandemic forced our campus into lock-down in the middle of semester last March and I already had a large number of bite-sized activities available online for our students.  Most universities have had to move their teaching online due to the pandemic; but not all students are able to access the online materials as easily others.  The Booker shortlisted novelist, Tsitsi Dangarembga has reported how one of her neighbours has struggled to access resources recommended to him by lecturers at his college in Bulawayo due to the cost and unreliability of Wi-Fi in Zimbabwe.  She tried to help him by registering him for her hotspot package but, in common with many students, he studies mainly at night when hotspot venues are closed.  The maps shows the global distribution of learners in one of the Energy MOOCs that I delivered and you can see the holes in Africa and South America which, at the time, we thought might be due to a lack of computer and internet access and Dangarembga’s account seems to support this hypothesis.  So, we designed our second MOOC on Structures to be accessible via a mobile phone by using fewer videos and more audio clips that could be quickly downloaded and listened to offline.  Unfortunately, we ran out of resources to complete the research on whether it was accessed more successfully in those grey areas on the map; however, the audio recordings were unpopular with the more traditional audience in the USA and UK who gave us immediate and vocal feedback!

Source:

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Protest and prizes, FT Weekend, 26/27 September 2020.

Patterson EA, Using everyday engineering examples to engage learners on a massive open online courseInternational Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, p.0306419018818551

 

Poleidoscope (=polariscope + kaleidoscope)

A section from a photoelastic model of turbine disc with a single blade viewed in polarised light to reveal the stress distribution.Last month I wrote about the tedium of collecting data 35 years ago without digital instrumentation and how it led me to work on automation and digitalisation in experimental mechanics [see ‘35 years later and still working on a PhD thesis‘ on September 16th, 2020].  Thirty years ago, one of the leading methods for determining stresses in components was photoelasticity, which uses polarised light to generate fringe patterns in transparent components or models that correspond to the distribution of stress.  The photoelastic fringes can be analysed in a polariscope, of which the basic principles are explained in a note at the end of this post.  During my PhD, I took hundreds of black and white photographs in a polariscope using sheets of 4×5 film, which came in boxes of 25 sheets that you can still buy, and then scanned these negatives using a microdensitometer to digitise the position of the fringes.  About 15 years after my PhD, together with my collaborators, I patented the poleidoscope which is a combination of a polariscope and a kaleidoscope [US patents 6441972 & 5978087] that removes all of that tedium.  It uses the concept of the multi-faceted lens in a child’s kaleidoscope to create several polariscopes within a compound lens attached to a digital camera.  Each polariscope has different polarising elements such that photoelastic fringes are phase-shifted between the set of images generated by the multi-faceted lens.  The phase-shifted fringe patterns can be digitally processed to yield maps of stress much faster and more reliably than any other method.  Photoelastic stress analysis is no longer popular in mainstream engineering or experimental mechanics due to the simplicity and power of digital image correlation [see ‘256 shades of grey‘ on January 22nd, 2014]; however, the poleidoscope has found a market as an inspection device that provides real-time information on residual stresses in glass sheets and silicon wafers during their production.  In 2003, I took study leave for the summer to work with Jon Lesniak at Glass Photonics in Madison, Wisconsin on the commercialisation of the poleidoscope.  Subsequently, Glass Photonics have  sold more than 250 instruments worldwide.

For more information on the poleidoscope see: Lesniak JR, Zhang SJ & Patterson EA, The design and evaluation of the poleidoscope: a novel digital polariscope, Experimental Mechanics, 44(2):128-135, 2004

Note on the Basic principles of photoelasticity: At any point in a loaded component there is a stress acting in every direction. The directions in which the stresses have the maximum and minimum values for the point are known as principal directions. The corresponding stresses are known as maximum and minimum principal stresses. When polarised light enters a loaded transparent component, it is split into two beams. Both beams travel along the same path, but each vibrates along a principal direction and travels at a speed proportional to the associated principal stress. Consequently, the light emerges as two beams vibrating out of phase with one another which when combined produce an interference pattern.   The polarised light is produced by the polariser in the polariscope and the analyser performs the combination. The interference pattern is observed in the polariscope, and the fringes are contours of principal stress difference which are known as isochromatics. When plane polarised light is used black fringes known as isoclinics are superimposed on the isochromatic pattern. Isoclinics indicate points at which the principal directions are aligned to the polarising axes of the polariser and analyser.

Image: a section from a photoelastic model of turbine disc with a single blade viewed in polarised light to reveal the stress distribution.

Slow progress replacing 150 year old infrastructure

Photograph of salvaged section of original gas mainThe Liverpool Gas Light Company was formed in 1816, just as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started to rise above the pre-industrial revolution level of 278 ppm. A rival Oil Gas Company was formed in 1823 and became the Liverpool New Gas and Coke Company in 1834. The two rival companies merged in 1848. Last year a piece of cast iron gas main from around this period was salvaged while replacing a gas main on the Dock Road in Liverpool. It was date-stamped 1853. For the last month, works have been underway to replace the original gas main in our street which appears to be of a similar age. The concept of gas-fired central heating using pressurised hot water was developed in the 1830s by Angier March Perkins [1838 US patent], amongst others; but did not become fashionable until the 1850s which coincides approximately with laying of the original gas main in the road outside our house. There is a cavernous coal hole under the pavement (sidewalk) in front of our house which would have been used to store coal that was burned in fireplaces in every room. So, we can deduce that the house, which was built in the early 1830s, did not initially have gas-fired central heating but that it could have been installed sometime in the second half of the 19th century, just as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started its exponential increase towards today’s level of 412 ppm [monthly average at Mauna Loa Global Monitoring Laboratory for August 2020].  Carbon dioxide represents about 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the US EPA, and heating of commercial and residential properties accounts for 12% of these emissions in the US and for 32% in the UK.  Hence, before our house is two hundred years old, it is likely that we will have converted it to electrical heating in order to reduce its carbon footprint.  We have made a start on the process but it is pointless until our power supply is carbon neutral and progress towards carbon neutrality for electricity generation is painfully slow in the UK and elsewhere [see ‘Inconvenient facts‘ on December 18th, 2019].

You can check live carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and consumption using the ElectricityMap.