Author Archives: Eann Patterson

Intelligent aliens?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about cuttlefish [see ‘Wearing your heart on your sleeve‘ on January 16th, 2019]  based on a wonderful book, that I was given for Christmas, called ‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life‘ by Peter Godfrey-Smith.  Cuttlefish and octopuses are cephalopods that Peter Godfrey-Smith describes as ‘an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals’.  The most recent common ancestor of cephalopods and humans is so distant and was so simple that cephalopods represent an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behaviour.  An octopus has about 500 million neurons, which is not as many as humans, we have about 100 billion; but still a large number and connectivity is probably more important than absolute size [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  Whereas we have a central nervous system, an octopus has a distributed system with neurons located in its arms which appears to give each arm a high-level of autonomy.  In addition to tactile sensory information from its suckers, each arm receives visual information from its skin which is sensitive to light.  The extent to which information and control is shared between the neurons in the brain and the network of neurons in its body is unknown.  It is difficult for us to imagine our fingers as being able to respond independently to visual as well as tactile stimuli, even more so to think of them as independent problem-solvers.  Peter Godfrey-Smith suggests that cephalopods are the closest that we are likely to come to meeting intelligent aliens – their thought processes and capabilities appear so different to ours that our scientific studies and experiments are unlikely to fully reveal their intelligence or level of consciousness.  A first step would be to stop eating them!

Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, London: William Collins, 2018.

INSTRUCTIVE final reckoning

Our EU project, INSTRUCTIVE came to an end with the closing of 2018.  We have achieved all of our milestones and deliverables; and, now have 51 (=60-9) days to submit our final reports.  We have already presented the technical contents of those reports to representatives of our sponsors in a final review meeting just before the Christmas break.  I think that they were pleased with our progress; our findings certainly stimulated debate about how to move forward and implement the new technologies – lots of new questions that we did not know we should be asking when we started the project.

We are also disseminating the key results more publicly because this is an obligation inherent with receiving public funding for our research; but also, because I see no purpose in advancing knowledge without sharing it. During the course of the project we have given research updates at three conferences and the papers/abstracts for these are available via the University of Liverpool Repository [#1, #2 & #3].  And, we are in the process of producing three papers for publication in archived journals.

However, the real tangible benefit of the project is the move to next stage of development for the technology supported by a new project, called DIMES, that started on January 1st, 2019.  The aim of the DIMES project is to develop and demonstrate systems with the capability to detect a crack or delamination in a metallic or composite structure, and the potential to be deployed as part of an on-board structural health monitoring system for passenger aircraft.  In other words, the INSTRUCTIVE project has successfully demonstrated that a new philosophy for monitoring damage in aerospace structures, using disturbances to the strain field caused by the damage, is at least as effective as traditional non-destructive evaluation (NDE) techniques and in some circumstances provides much more sensitivity about the initiation and propagation of damage.  This has been sufficiently successful in the laboratory and on aircraft components in an industrial environment that is worth exploring its deployment for on-board monitoring and the first step is to use it in ground-based tests.

There will be more on DIMES as the project gets underway and updates on its progress will replace the twice-yearly ones on INSTRUCTIVE.

The series of posts on the INSTRUCTIVE project can be found at

instructive acknowledgement

Wearing your heart on your sleeve

Many people are increasingly using their mobile phones as mental prostheses to extend the capacity of their brains [see ‘Science fiction becomes reality‘ on October 12th, 2016].  This does not just include tracking their appointments in a calender app or using a search engine to track down a piece of information that they have temporarily forgotten; but also recording their activities and preferences via social media apps.  Many of us are happy to share our thoughts with those close to us but we take it for granted that we are in complete control of what is shared and with whom.  So, unexpected or unauthorised sharing of our personal information via these mental prostheses can cause shock and embarrassment.  Now, spare a thought for the giant cuttlefish whose neurons are directly connected to about ten million chromatophores in its skin.  Each chromatophore is sack of pigment that can be shrunk or expanded to show its particular colour.  In giant cuttlefish the chromatophores are red, yellow and black/brown.  Beneath the chromatophores is a layer of iridophores, which manipulate the wavelengths of light using layers of plates to produce blues and greens and below these cells are leucophores that reflect light outwards through the iridophores and chromatophores.  In effect, the cuttlefish is wearing an Ultra-High Definition TV screen with about 10 million pixels directly connected to its brain.  Even when resting calmly, a cuttlefish’s skin can be pulsing with complex patterns of colour; perhaps this is similar to the way our minds can be teeming with activity even when we are sitting quietly apparently doing nothing.  Imagine what it would be like if all of those thoughts were displayed on a giant television screen.  It would give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘to wear your heart on your sleeve’.


Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life, London: William Collins, 2018.


Two for one

I wrote this short annual report in anticipation of being on vacation this week.  However, as my editor commented, it is ‘a bit of a non-blog’ and so I have written a second post for today that will be published a few minutes later.

The painting in the thumbnail is by Peter Curran and shows a view of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral that is almost the same as the view from the seat at which I usually sit to write this blog.  The blog is read world-wide as shown by the distribution of visitors to the blog during 2018 in the temperature map in the graphic below.  The weekly readership dropped by 60% at the beginning of April 2018 after I deleted my Facebook page and cut the link between Facebook and this blog (see ‘Some changes to Realize Engineering‘ on March 28th, 2018).  However, I am pleased say that the visitor numbers have recovered; and last month’s visitor numbers were only 4% lower than the corresponding month in 2017.  So many thanks to those readers that stayed with me, or found the blog again without using Facebook.  While, I enjoy writing ‘to make life more fruitful’ to quote Sylvain Tesson (see ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘), it is also encouraging to know that people are reading the blog.

For those of you that enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing, there have been more than 330 posts since the first one in July 2012 – that’s a huge archive for you to browse, if you have nothing else to do.  Happy New Year!


Sylvain Tesson, Consolations of the forest: alone in a cabin in the middle Taiga, London: Penguin Books, 2014.