Bruce Sterling wrote that our current civilisation would be best described as ‘Man, the Rubbish Maker’ if we were to be judged by our efforts that will best survive the passage of time. Paleontologists have found flint-knapping workshops more than two million years old that have out-lasted any record of the speech, culture or beliefs of the craftsmen that laboured in them. Pollution and waste is not consumed and hence tends to persist while useful things wear out. In a short story called ‘Daughters of the Moon’ published in 1968 as part of his third collection of Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino describes a world in which cars wear out more quickly than the soles of your shoes. He goes on to describe a region where the road petered out in a hilly area created by ‘the layers of things that had been thrown away: everything that the consumerist city expelled once it had quickly used it up so it could immediately enjoy the pleasure of handling new things’. Calvino was imagining a future world but we are rapidly approaching his vision, or perhaps we are already there. Our junk, rubbish, and trash, is a form of entropy – an increase in the level of disorder created by the processes that provide our man-made lifestyle and required as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Unavoidable junk‘ published on January 14th, 2013]. And ‘entropy requires no maintenance’, to quote Sterling, so much of our rubbish will still be here long after we have disappeared.
If we want to avoid Calvino’s vision of cities surrounded by layers of discarded things, then we have to learn to love old but serviceable belongings. They are good enough and will suffice. If they break then we should have them repaired, preferably locally in order to stimulate our economy and reduce our ecological footprint rather than replacing them with something made abroad. This will require engineers to think more about repairs when designing artefacts and consumers to learn to appreciate the patina of age and usage as a virtue, something of beauty.
Today is the mid-point of the MOOC on Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life that I am delivering both for our first-year undergraduate students at the University of Liverpool and anyone anywhere in the world who wants to sign up for free. Not surprisingly, some MOOC learners have been struggling with some of the topics, which include statistical thermodynamics and require some elementary calculus. A few learners have complained and implied that I should not be attempting to cover such challenging material, to which I have responded that my aim is to educate not to entertain. Many more learners have made counter-comments that can be summarised by the words of writer and theologian, John Hull in his Notes on Blindness: ‘Cognition is beautiful. It is beautiful to know.’
I think that these words hold true at many levels, from a child realizing how to match shaped pegs to shaped holes, a student acquiring knowledge and understanding in an engineering science course to a professor discovering new knowledge and understanding in a research programme. For many of us, the beauty of cognition, often associated with a moment of dawning realisation, is the reward for the effort required to truly understand.
I have a new print in my office. It’s called ‘Small Science Fiction Self-Portrait’ and is by Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) [see: http://www.painters-table.com/link/contemporary-art-daily/maria-lassnig]. I am disappointed to admit that I had never heard of her until I went to a special exhibition at the Tate Liverpool a few weeks ago, which featured her work and that of Francis Bacon. I was expecting the works by Bacon to be the main attraction but instead I thought Lassnig ‘stole the show’. Nearly all of her paintings in the exhibition were self-portraits in which she attempts to represent on canvas her ‘body sensation’ or ‘body awareness’. This seems to echo the synaesthesia pursued by Georgia O’Keeffe when she represented her feelings from various senses in her paintings [see my post entitled ‘Engineering Synaesthesia‘ on September 21st, 2016]. Two of Lassnig’s paintings resonanted with me: one, which was on the front of the programme, called Lady with Brain was painted in 1991 and shows the head of a lady with a proportion of her brain outside of her skull – not in a damaged way but as if it had grown there. This reminded me of the ideas on our increasing use of out-of-skull memory and processing power in our mobile devices that I wrote about under the heading ‘Thinking out of Skull’ [see my post of that title on March 18th, 2015]. The second is the print in my office, painted in 1995, that shows the artist wearing a virtual reality headset that looks almost identical to those we use in our Virtual Engineering Centre. I was amazed by Lassnig’s vision.
It is the beginning of the academic year and once again I am teaching introductory thermodynamics to engineering undergraduate students and my MOOC entitled ‘Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ is running in parallel. Last week after my lecture on thermodynamic systems, a student approached me to ask whether the universe is a closed and isolated system. It’s an interesting question and the answer is depends on the definition of universe. In thermodynamics, we usually define a boundary to delineate the system of interest as everything inside the boundary and everything else are the surroundings. The system and surroundings taken together are the universe (see my post ‘No beginning or end‘ on February 24th, 2016). If the universe is defined as the system then there are no surroundings; hence the system cannot exchange energy or matter with anything which is the definition of a closed and isolated system.
Physicists often refer to the observable universe, or define the universe as everything we can observe. We are aware that we cannot observe everything. Hence, it is reasonable to suppose that the observable universe exchanges energy and matter with the unobservable space beyond it, in which case the observable universe is an open system. We could also consider the concept that we are part of multiverse and our universe is only one of many, in which case it seems likely that is not isolated, i.e. it can exchange energy, and perhaps it is open, i.e. it can exchange both energy and matter with other parts of the multiverse.