A few weeks ago, I wrote a post inspired by reading ‘This is happiness‘ by Niall Williams [see ‘Are these the laws of engineering?’ onJuly 14th 2021]. On a more personal note, I enjoyed another description in the same book: ‘he was over sixty years…the moving bits of him could no longer be taken for granted, and twinges, pulls and strains in the elasticated parts were matched by aches, clunks and creaks in the skeletal.’ This description could apply to me but fortunately only on a bad day at the moment. I am going on a deep vacation [see ‘Digital detox with a deep vacation‘ on August 10th, 2016] for a few weeks in order to rejuvenate my mind and body by walking some sections of the South-West Coast Path [see ‘The Salt Path‘ on August 14th, 2019]. Regular posts will resume when I return in August.
While shopping on-line for books during a pandemic lockdown allows you to buy new books, I found it difficult browse online and find new authors. Perhaps because the algorithms employed by the booksellers are too busy guessing my interests or promoting the latest book that they want me to buy. So it was a pleasure to be able to walk into a bookshop again in a couple of months ago. One of the new authors that I discovered was Niall Williams. I have just finished reading his 2019 novel ‘This is happiness‘ which weaves together the life of an Irish village in which nothing ever changes until the coming of electricity, a tale of coming of age and another of burying the past. In the middle of this beautifully-told story, a salesman is extolling the virtues of the electrical gadgets that they can install in their new electrified homes and says that ‘the first law of engineering was to make the world a better place’. The narrator quietly tells us the second law, which the salesman doesn’t state, ‘that without exception everything that was engineered would one day break down … usually one day after each machine had become indispensable to living’. This is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics, which is that entropy, or disorder, increases in all real processes. Hence, the localised order, which we create when something is engineered, is constantly being eroded until eventually the disorder leads to a break down. Or, as Murphy’s law states ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong’. However, the definition of the first law of engineering was the one that caught my eye and resonated with a corny introduction that I used in a talk on why we need to change the way we teach engineering. I played a recording of Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful world‘ and then talked about the wonderful world that engineers have created before highlighting the unsustainable environmental costs of our ‘wonderful’ engineered world and that it is inaccessible to a large portion of the world’s population. I gave that talk many times to groups of engineering professors in the USA between about 2006 and 2012; maybe I had some impact but there is still a lot of changes needed to achieve a sustainable society. So, the first law of engineering should be to make the world a better place for everyone.
How is your negative capability? The very term ‘negative capability’ conveys confusion and ambiguity. It means our ability to accept uncertainty, a lack of knowledge or control. It was coined by John Keats to describe the skill of appreciating something without fully understanding it. It implies suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it. This is difficult because we have to move out of a low entropy mindset and consider how it fits in a range of possible mindsets or neuronal assemblies, which raises our psychological entropy and with it our anxiety and mental stress [see ’Psychological entropy increased by effectual leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021]. If we are able to tolerate an optimal level of ambiguity and uncertainty then we might be able to develop an appreciation of a complex system and even an ability to anticipate its behaviour without a full knowledge or understanding of it. Our sub-conscious brain has excellent negative capabilities; for example, most of us can catch a ball without understanding, or even knowing, anything about the mechanics of its flight towards us, or we accept a ride home from a friend with no knowledge of their driving skills and no control over the vehicle. Although, if our conscious brain knows that they crashed their car last week then it might override the sub-conscious and cause us to think again before declining the offer of a ride home. Perhaps this is because our conscious brain tends to have less negative capability and likes to be in control. Engineers like to talk about their intuition which is probably synonymous with their negative capability because it is their ability to appreciate and anticipate the behaviour of an engineering system without a full knowledge and understanding of it. This intuition is usually based on experience and perhaps resides in the subconscious mind because if you ask an engineer to explain a decision or prediction based on their intuition then they will probably struggle to provide a complete and rational explanation. They are comfortable with an optimal level of ambiguity although of course you might not be so comfortable.
Richard Gunderman, ‘John Keats’ concept of ‘negative capability’ – or sitting in uncertainty – is needed now more than ever’. The Conversation, February 21st, 2021.
David Jeffery, Letter: Keats was uneasy about the pursuit of perfection. FT Weekend, April 2nd, 2021.
Caputo JD. Truth: philosophy in transit. London: Penguin, 2013.
Globally, it is clear that the pandemic is far from over. However, government restrictions on movement and meeting people imposed at the start of the year combined with a successful vaccination programme have allowed a gradual return to normality in the UK since late April. I have particularly appreciated this resumption of life over the past fortnight. While most meetings are still conducted online, I have managed to meet most of my research students in person in our lab, in pavement cafes or occasionally in my office with the window open and wearing masks. I have even been to the pub after work on two consecutive Tuesdays. On the first occasion, it was after a progress meeting on a research project when we enjoyed continuing our discussion of a new idea over a couple of beers; and, on the second occasion, t with our faculty management team to celebrate the first anniversary of one of the team joining us, who had only met half the team in person. On both occasions we had all tested negative using the lateral flow test and we sat outside in the sunshine. I have also been to three concerts at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall where we wore masks throughout the concert and both the audience and orchestra were socially-distanced. Last Thursday, I enjoyed Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 ‘Classical’ as well as the world premiere of Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto. The second concert featured works by Astor Piazzola which were a revelation to me. I had never heard of him let alone his music and really enjoyed the concert. However, as I write this post, the number of cases in Liverpool is rising rapidly and we are being advised to be more cautious in our interactions with other people. Not enough people have been vaccinated and are taking regular tests to allow us to return to our previous state of social interactions. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that we can eventually take back control of our lives from the coronavirus. Our global society is a complex system, which like any other complex system, operates without central control but with simple operating rules generating self-organising and emergent behaviour [see ‘Destruction of society as a complex system?‘ on July 31st, 2019] that allows us to find new states to handle changed circumstances regardless of the efforts of politicians.
You can listen last Thursday’s concert on demand at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s website: https://liverpoolphil.com/whats-on/video-on-demand/on-demand-domingo-hindoyan-conducts-stravinsky-howard-ravel-and-prokofiev-with-peter-moore/3926