Author Archives: Eann Patterson

The Salt Path

Some readers might have recognised that the photographs in recent posts were taken in Cornwall (UK) and deduced we were in Cornwall for our holiday last month (see ‘Relieving stress‘ on July 17th, 2019).  If so, you would have been correct.  One of our pastimes is walking along sections of the South West Coast Path which is a 630 mile long distance path that follows the coast from Minehead in North Somerset to Poole on the south coast in Dorset.  Our efforts are a leisurely stroll when compared alongside those of Raynor Winn and her husband whose struggle to complete the whole 630 miles is described in her book The Salt Path.  The book is not just account of a walk but of their encounter with homelessness and coming to terms with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, which might lead you to expect a depressing read; however, it is the reverse.  It is a witty and up-lifting account of how Raynor and her husband overcame these adversities and her insight on homelessness should be compulsory reading for all us who enjoy the comforts of modern living.

I connected with the book because we were walking along the Salt Path, as the South West Coast Path is known; but nevertheless, I would rate it amongst the best books that I have read this year.

Engineering correspondents needed

Society’s perception  of scientists and engineers is not well-balanced; scientists tend to get the headlines when they make new discoveries while engineers are only in the headlines when things go wrong.  Even worse, when I was a student, the successes of the NASA’s space shuttle were usually reported as scientific achievements while its problems were engineering failures; when the whole programme was an enormous feat of engineering!  Perhaps this is because news organisations tend to have science correspondents and editors but no engineering correspondents.  When you search for engineering journalism jobs most of the results relate to roles associated with the technology of journalism; whereas a search for science journalism jobs results in dozens of vacancies for science writers, correspondents and editors.  The lack of engineering correspondents has been evident in the UK during the past week in reporting about the potential bursting of the dam at Toddbrock Reservoir and flooding of the town of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire UK.  A 188 year old dam has been damaged by the turbulent flow of water over its spillway following unprecedented levels of rainfall (e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-49222956). There is little discussion of the significant achievement of the Victorian engineers who designed and built a dam in the 1831 that has lasted 188 years or that climate change is causing shifts in weather patterns which have altered the design specifications for engineering infrastructure including dams, bridges and sea defences.  We need more journalists to write about engineering and preferable more journalists who have been educated as engineers particularly as society starts to face the potential existential threat caused by climate change and over-population.

For more on the nature of engineering, and its relationship to science, see ‘Making things happen‘ on September 26th, 2018; ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 and ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd 2015.

And on the communication skills of engineers: ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015 and ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018.

Destruction of society as a complex system?

Sadly my vacation is finished [see ‘Relieving stress‘ on July 17th, 2019] and I have reconnected to the digital world, including the news media.  Despite the sensational headlines and plenty of rhetoric from politicians, nothing very much appears to have really changed in the world.  Yes, we have a new prime minister in the UK, who has a different agenda to the previous incumbent; however, the impact of actions by politicians on society and the economy seems rather limited unless the action represents a step change and is accompanied by appropriate resources.  In addition, the consequences of such changes are often different to those anticipated by our leaders.  Perhaps, this is because society is a global network with simple operating rules, some of which we know intuitively, and without a central control because governments exert only limited and local control.  It is well-known in the scientific community that large networks, without central control but with simple operating rules, usually exhibit self-organising and non-trivial emergent behaviour. The emergent behaviour of a complex system cannot be predicted from the behaviour of its constituent components or sub-systems, i.e., the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  The mathematical approach to describing such systems is to use non-linear dynamics with solutions lying in phase space.  Modelling complex systems is difficult and interpreting the predictions is challenging; so, it is not surprising that when the actions of government have an impact then the outcomes are often unexpected and unintended.  However, if global society can be considered as a complex system, then it would appear that its self-organising behaviour tends to blunt the effectiveness of many of the actions of government.  This seems be a fortuitous regulatory mechanism that helps maintain the status quo.   In addition, we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds our powers of explanation, or we use over-simplified explanations [see ‘Is the world incomprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017 and Blind to complexity‘ on December 19th, 2018].  And, politicians are no exception to this tendency; so, they usually legislate based on simple ideology rather than rational consideration of the likely outcomes of change on the complex system we call society. And, this is probably a further regulatory mechanism.

However, all of this is evolving rapidly because a small number of tech companies have created a central control by grabbing the flow of data between us and they are using it to manipulate those simple operating rules.  This appears to be weakening the self-organising and emergent characteristics of society so that the system can be controlled more easily without the influence of its constituent parts, i.e. us.

For a more straightforward explanation listen to Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk on ‘Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy‘ or if you have more time on your hands then watch the new documentary movie ‘The Great Hack‘.  My thanks to Gillian Tett in the FT last weekend who alerted me to the scale of the issue: ‘Data brokers: from poachers to gamekeepers?

 

We inhabit time as fish live in water

A couple of weeks ago (‘Only the name of the airport changes’ on June 12th, 2019) I wrote about the stretching and compression of time while I waited for my much delayed flight to Reno. I mentioned Aristotle’s view of time as the measurement of change; however, Newton believed that time passes even when nothing changes. Einstein resolved the conundrum, represented by these different views, using the concept of a space-time domain forming a gravitational field containing waves. My title is a quote from Carlo Rovelli’s book, ‘The Order of Time‘. And, according to Rovelli, ‘mass slows down time around itself’, which I think will cause waves in the space-time domain .  Conservation of energy implies that the movement of an object will tend towards space where time passes more slowly, i.e. in the vicinity of large masses. Hence, things fall downwards because time runs more slowly close to the Earth. This implies that time passes more slowly at the airport than on the plane in flight; but, of course, the differences are too small for us to measure or perceive.

Image: Art work ‘Gaia’ by Luke Jerram in Liverpool Cathedral

Source:

Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Penguin, 2019.