Do you believe in an afterlife?

‘I believe that energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.  There’s more to life than we can conceive of.’ The quote is from the singer and songwriter, Corinne Bailey Rae’s answer to the question: do you believe in an afterlife? [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, October 26/27 2019].  However, the first part of her answer is the first law of thermodynamics while the second part resonates with Erwin Schrödinger’s view on life and consciousness [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. The garden writer and broadcaster, Monty Don gave a similar answer to the same question: ‘Absolutely.  I believe that the energy lives on and is connected to place.  I do have this idea of re-joining all of my past dogs and family on a summer’s day, like a Stanley Spencer painting.’ [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, January 18/19 2020].  The boundary between energy and mass is blurry because matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy [see ‘More uncertainty about matter and energy‘ on August 3rd 2016].  Hence, the concept that after death our body reverts to a cloud of energy as the complex molecules of our anatomy are broken down into elemental particles is completely consistent with modern physics.  However, I suspect Rae and Don were going further and suggesting that our consciousness lives on in some form. Perhaps through some kind of unified mind that Schrödinger thought might exist as a consequence of our individual minds networking together to create emergent behaviour.  Schrödinger found it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen and it seems unlikely that an individual mind could ever do so; however, perhaps the more percipient amongst us occasionally gets a hint of the existence of something beyond our individual consciousness.

Reference: Erwin Schrodinger, What is life? with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Image: ‘Sunflower and dog worship’ by Stanley Spencer, 1937 @

Isolated systems in nature?

Is a coconut an isolated thermodynamic system?  This is a question that I have been thinking about this week.  A coconut appears to be impermeable to matter since its milk does not leak out and it might be insulated against heat transfer because its husk is used for insulation in some building products.  If you are wondering why I am pondering such matters, then it is because, once again, I am teaching thermodynamics to our first year students (see ‘Pluralistic Ignorance‘ on May 1st, 2019).  It is a class of more than 200 students and I am using a blended learning environment (post on 14th November 2018) that combines lectures with the units of the massive open online course (MOOC) that I developed some years ago (see ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016).  However, before devotees of MOOCs get excited, I should add that the online course is neither massive nor open because we have restricted it to our university students.  In my first lecture, I talked about the concept of defining the system of interest for thermodynamic analysis by drawing boundaries (see ‘Drawing boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012).  The choice of the system boundary has a strong influence on the answers we will obtain and the simplicity of the analysis we will need to perform.  For instance, drawing the system boundary around an electric car makes it appear carbon neutral and very efficient but including the fossil fuel power station that provides the electricity reveals substantial carbon emissions and significant reductions in efficiency.  I also talked about different types of system, for example: open systems across whose boundaries both matter and energy can move; closed systems that do not allow matter to flow across their boundaries but allow energy transfers; and, isolated systems that do not permit energy or matter to transfer across their boundaries.  It is difficult to identify closed systems in nature (see ‘Revisiting closed systems in nature‘ on October 5th, 2016); and so, once again I asked the students to suggest candidates but then I started to think about examples of isolated systems.  I suspect that completely isolated systems do not exist; however, some systems can be approximated to the concept and considering them to be so, simplifies their analysis.  However, I am happy to be corrected if anyone can think of one!

Image: CC BY 2.0

The Stone Raft adrift in the Atlantic Ocean

I spent most of last week at the European Union’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy.  I have been collaborating with the scientists in  the European Union Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing [EURL ECVAM].  We have been working together on tracking nanoparticles and, more recently, on the validity and credibility of models.  Last week I was there to participate in a workshop on Validation and Acceptance of Artificial Intelligence Models in Health.  I presented our work on the credibility matrix and on a set of factors that we have developed for establishing trust in a model and its predictions. I left the JRC on Friday evening and slipped back in the UK just before she left the Europe Union.  The departure of the UK from Europe reminds me of a novel by José Saramago called ‘The Stone Raft‘ in which the Iberian penisula breaks off from the Europe mainland and drifts around the Atlantic ocean.  The bureaucrats in Europe have to run around dealing with the ensuing disruption while five people in Spain and Portugal are drawn together by surreal events on the stone raft adrift in the ocean.

Ancient standards

I have been involved in the creation of a European pre-standard for the validation of computational models used to predict the structural performance of engineering systems [see ‘Setting Standards‘ on January 24th, 2014]; so, an example of a two thousand year old standard in the National Palace Museum in Taipei particularly attracted my interest during a recent visit to Taiwan.  A Jia-liang is a standard measure from the Xin Dynasty dated to between 9 and 24 CE.  It is an early form of standard weights and measure issued by the Chinese emperor.  The main cylinder contains a volume known as a ‘hu’; however, if you flip it over there is a small cylinder that contains a ‘dou’ which is one tenth of a ‘hu’.  The object that looks like a handle on the right in the photograph is third cylinder that holds a ‘sheng’ which is one tenth of a ‘dou’ or one hundredth of a ‘hu’; and the handle on the left contains a ‘ge’ when it is as shown in the photograph and a ‘yue’ when the other way up.  A ‘ge’ is tenth of ‘sheng’ and a ‘yeu’ is a twentieth.  The Jia-liang was made of bronze with all of the information engraved on it and was used to measure grain across the Xin empire.