Limits of imagination

What’s it like being a bat?  ‘Seeing’ the world through your ears, or at least a sophisticated echo-location system. Or, what’s it like being an octopus?  With eight semi-autonomous arms that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago [see ‘Intelligent aliens?’ on January 16th, 2019]. For most of us, it’s unimaginable. Perhaps, because we are not bats or octopuses, but that seems to be dodging the issue.  Is it a consequence of our education and how we have been taught to think about science?  Most scientists have been taught to express their knowledge from a third person perspective that omits the personal point of view, i.e. our experience of science.  The philosopher, Julian Baggini has questioned the reason for this mode of expression: is it that we haven’t devised a framework for understanding the world scientifically that captures the first and third person points of view; is it that the mind will always elude scientific explanation; or is that the mind simply isn’t part of the physical world?

Our minds have as many neurons as there are stars in the galaxy, i.e. about a hundred billion, which is sufficient to create complex processes within us that we are never likely to understand or predict.  In this context, Carlo Rovelli has suggested that the ideas and images that we have of ourselves are much cruder and sketchier than the detailed complexity of what is happening within us.  So, if we struggle to describe our own consciousness, then perhaps it is not surprising that we cannot express what it is like to be a bat or an octopus.  Instead we resort to third person descriptions and justify it as being in the interests of objectivity.  But, does your imagination stretch to how much greater our understanding would be if we did know what is like to be a bat or an octopus?  And, how that might change our attitude to the ecosystem?

BTW:  I would answer yes, yes and maybe to Baggini’s three questions, although I remain open-minded on all of them.

Sources:

Baggini J, The pig that wants to be eaten and 99 other thought experiments, London: Granta Publications, 2008.

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Image: https://www.nps.gov/chis/learn/nature/townsends-bats.htm

Finding DIMES

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the ‘INSTRUCTIVE final reckoning’ (see post on January 9th).  INSTRUCTIVE was an EU project, which ended on December 31st, 2018  in which we demonstrated that infra-red cameras could be used to monitor the initiation and propagation of cracks in aircraft structures (see Middleton et al, 2019).  Now, we have seamlessly moved on to a new EU project, called DIMES (Development of Integrated MEasurement Systems), which started on January 1st, 2019.  To quote our EU documentation, the overall aim of DIMES is ‘to develop and demonstrate an automated measurement system that integrates a range of measurement approaches to enable damage and cracks to be detected and monitored as they originate at multi-material interfaces in an aircraft assembly’.  In simpler terms, we are going to take the results from the INSTRUCTIVE project, integrate them with other existing technologies for monitoring the structural health of an aircraft, and produce a system that can be installed in an aircraft fuselage and will provide early warning on the formation of cracks.  We have two years to achieve this target and demonstrate the system in a ground-based test on a real fuselage at an Airbus facility.  This was a scary prospect until we had our kick-off meeting and a follow-up brainstorming session a couple of weeks ago.  Now, it’s a little less scary.  If I have scared you with the prospect of cracks in aircraft, then do not be alarmed; we have been flying aircraft with cracks in them for years.  It is impossible to build an aircraft without cracks appearing, possibly during manufacturing and certainly in service – perfection (i.e. cracklessness) is unattainable and instead the stresses are maintained low enough to ensure undetected cracks will not grow (see ‘Alan Arnold Griffith’ on April 26th, 2017) and that detected ones are repaired before they propagate significantly (see ‘Aircraft inspection’ on October 10th, 2018).

I should explain that the ‘we’ above is the University of Liverpool and Strain Solutions Limited, who were the partners in INSTRUCTIVE, plus EMPA, the Swiss National Materials Laboratory, and Dantec Dynamics GmbH, a producer of scientific instruments in Ulm, Germany.  I am already working with these latter two organisations in the EU project MOTIVATE; so, we are a close-knit team who know and trust each other  – that’s one of the keys to successful collaborations tackling ambitious challenges with game-changing outcomes.

So how might the outcomes of DIMES be game-changing?  Well, at the moment, aircraft are designed using computer models that are comprehensively validated using measurement data from a large number of expensive experiments.  The MOTIVATE project is about reducing the number of experiments and increasing the quality and quantity of information gained from each experiment, i.e. ‘Getting Smarter’ (see post on June 21st 2017).  However, if the measurement system developed in DIMES allowed us to monitor in-flight strain fields in critical locations on-board an aircraft, then we would have high quality data to support future design work, which would allow further reductions in the campaign of experiments required to support new designs; and we would have continuous comprehensive monitoring of the structural integrity of every aircraft in the fleet, which would allow more efficient planning of maintenance as well as increased safety margins, or reductions in structural weight while maintaining safety margins.  This would be a significant step towards digital twins of aircraft (see ‘Fourth industrial revolution’ on July 4th, 2018 and ‘Can you trust your digital twin?’ on November 23rd, 2016).

The INSTRUCTIVE, MOTIVATE and DIMES projects have received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreements No. 685777, No. 754660 and No. 820951 respectively.

The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

Sources:

Middleton CA, Gaio A, Greene RJ & Patterson EA, Towards automated tracking of initiation and propagation of cracks in Aluminium alloy coupons using thermoelastic stress analysis, J. Non-destructive Testing, 38:18, 2019

 

Time at the heart of our problems

This week I started teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students for the first time in twelve months.  I have had a break for a year because my course, which is only delivered once per year, was moved from first to second semester.  Although I have continued to teach postgraduate courses, it’s been like a sabbatical enforced by timetable changes.  Sadly, it’s over and I am back in the large lecture theatre in front of a couple of hundred of students – that makes it sound as if I don’t enjoy it which is not true but it does increase the intensity of the job because all of the other aspects of the role continue unabated.  So, for me time appears to accelerate as I attempt to jam more activities into a week.

Time lies at the heart of much of thermodynamics although we tend not to deal with it explicitly; however, it is implicit in our use of changes in the state of a system to understand it.  Quote Anaximander, the pre-Socratic philosopher & pupil of Thales of Miletus: ‘We understand the world by studying change, not by studying things’.  Time also lies at the centre of the tangle of problems found at the intersection of the theories of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.  As Carlo Rovelli has remarked we are still in the dark about this tangle of problems; so, I will touch on it in my thermodynamics course but just to show students the limits of our knowledge and perhaps inspire one or two of them to think about tackling them in postgraduate studies.

Meanwhile, I plan tackle my challenges with time by slowing it down once a week with a walk in the Clwydian Hills where the landscape appears unchanging so that time stands still allowing me to relax.

Sources:

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Wohllerben P, The hidden life of trees, London, William Collins, 2017.

Nuclear winter school

I spent the first full-week of January 2019 at a Winter School for a pair of Centres for Doctoral Training focussed on Nuclear Energy (see NGN CDT & ICO CDT).  Together the two centres involve eight UK universities and most of the key players in the UK industry.  So, the Winter School offers an opportunity for researchers in nuclear science and engineering, from academia and industry, to gather together for a week and share their knowledge and experience with more than 80 PhD students.  Each student gives a report on the progress of their research to the whole gathering as either a short oral presentation or a poster.  It’s an exhausting but stimulating week for everyone due to both the packed programmme and the range of subjects covered from fundamental science through to large-scale engineering and socio-economic issues.

Here are a few things that caught my eye:

First, the images in the thumbnail above which Paul Cosgrove from the University of Cambridge used to introduce his talk on modelling thermal and neutron fluxes.  They could be from an art gallery but actually they are from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and show the geometry of an advanced test reactor [ATR] (top); the rate of collisions in the ATR (middle); and the neutron density distribution (bottom).

Second, a great app for your phone called electricityMap that shows you a live map of global carbon emissions and when you click on a country it reveals the sources of electricity by type, i.e. nuclear, gas, wind etc, as well as imports and exports of electricity.  Dame Sue Ion told us about it during her key-note lecture.  I think all politicians and journalists need it installed on their phones to check their facts before they start talking about energy policy.

Third, the scale of the concrete infrastructure required in current designs of nuclear power stations compared to the reactor vessel where the energy is generated.  The pictures show the construction site for the Vogtle nuclear power station in Georgia, USA (left) and the reactor pressure vessel being lowered into position (right).  The scale of nuclear power stations was one of the reasons highlighted by Steve Smith from Algometrics for why investors are not showing much interest in them (see ‘Small is beautiful and affordable in nuclear power-stations‘ on January 14th, 2015).  Amongst the other reasons are: too expensive (about £25 billion), too long to build (often decades), too back-end loaded (i.e. no revenue until complete), too complicated (legally, economically & socially), too uncertain politically, too toxic due to poor track record of returns to investors, too opaque in terms of management of industry.  That’s quite a few challenges for the next generation of nuclear scientists and engineers to tackle.  We are making a start by creating design tools that will enable mass-production of nuclear power stations (see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on January 28th, 2015) following the processes used to produce other massive engineering structures, such as the Airbus A380 (see Integrated Digital Nuclear Design Programme); but the nuclear industry has to move fast to catch up with other sectors of the energy business, such as gas-fired powerstations or wind turbines.  If it were to succeed then the energy market would be massively transformed.