Category Archives: Soapbox

Celebrating engineering success

Today is National Engineering Day [see ‘My Engineering Day’ on November 4th, 2021] whose purpose is to highlight to society how engineers improve lives.  I would like to celebrate the success of two engineers who are amongst the seventy-two engineers elected to the fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering this year.  Chris Waldon is leading the design and delivery of a prototype fusion energy plant, targeting 2040, and a path to the commercial viability of fusion.  This is a hugely ambitious undertaking that has the potential to transform our energy supply.  He is the first chief engineer to move the delivery date to within twenty years rather than pushing it further into the future.  My other featured engineer is Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, a leading advocate of innovations in engineering education that focus on encouraging enterprising and socially-conscious approaches to designing and delivering engineering solutions.  These are important developments because we urgently need a more holistic, sustainable and liberal engineering education that produces engineers equipped to tackle the complex challenges facing society.  Of course I am biased having worked and published with both of them.  However, I am not alone in my regard for them and will be joining other Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering at a dinner in London next week to celebrate their achievements.

The world is not our oyster

We think it is all about us. The world is our oyster. We developed the current global economic structure in which the costs of environmental damage, labour exploitation, and socio-political disruption are ignored, or perhaps even celebrated, as the price of doing business. Our philosophy stumbles over the word ‘equal’ because it maintains that we have dominion over all that is nature. We struggle to imagine that others might know something we don’t, or that fish and trees have languages of their own. If such understanding was possible for us, life on earth would not becoming to an end.

The words are mine but I have borrowed very heavily from Geetanjali Shree in ‘The Tomb of Sand‘ for the first two and last two sentences. She is describing white people and the West. Also from Chandran Nair in ‘Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a post-Western World‘ in the third sentence and from Suzanne Simard in ‘Finding the Mother Tree‘.


Chandran Nair, Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a post-Western World, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, 2022

Geetanjali Shree, The Tomb of Sand, Tilted Axis Press, 2021.

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree, Penguin, 2021.


Are we in a simulation?

Decorative photograph of trains at terminusThe concept of digital twins is gaining acceptance and our ability to generate them is advancing [see ‘Digital twins that thrive in the real-world’ on June 9th, 2021].  It is conceivable that we will be able to simulate many real-world systems in the not-too-distant future.  Perhaps not in my life-time but possibly in this century we will be able to connect these simulations together to create a computer-generated world.  This raises the possibility that other forms of life might have already reached this stage of technology development and that we are living in one of their simulations.  We cannot know for certain that we are not in a simulation but equally we cannot know for certain that we are in a simulation.  If some other life form had reached the stage of being able to simulate the universe then there is a possibility that they would do it for entertainment, so we might exist inside the equivalent of a teenager’s smart phone, or for scientific exploration in which case we might be inside one of thousands of simulations being performed simultaneously in a lab computer to gather statistical evidence on the development of universes.  It seems probable that there would be many more simulations performed for scientific research than for entertainment, so if we are in a simulation then it is more likely that the creator of the simulation is a scientist who is uninterested in this particular one in which we exist.  Of course, an alternative scenario is that humans become extinct before reaching the stage of being able to simulate the world or the universe.  If extinction occurs as a result of our inability to manage the technological advances, which would allow us to simulate the world, then it seems less likely that other life forms would have avoided this fate and so the probability that we are in a simulation should be reduced.  You could also question whether other life forms would have the same motivations or desires to create computer simulations of evolutionary history.  There are lots of reasons for doubting that we are in a computer simulation but it does not seem possible to be certain about it.

David J Chalmers explains the probability that we are in a simulation much more elegantly and comprehensively than me in his book Reality+; virtual worlds and the problems of philosophy, published by Penguin in 2022.

The rest of the planet has been waiting patiently for us to figure it out

Research in British Columbia has found evidence of nitrogen from fish in tree rings.  The salmon that swim in the local rivers provide food for predators, such as bears and eagles, who leave the remains of the salmon lying around on the floor of the forest where it decomposes allowing the trees to absorb the nitrogen embedded in the bones of the salmon.  In some cases, up to three-quarters of a tree’s nitrogen is from salmon.  This implies that interfering in the life cycle of the salmon, for instance by commercial fishing, will impact on its predators, the forest and everything that is dependent on or interacts with the trees.  The complex nature of these interconnections have been apparent to the aboriginal peoples of the world for a very long time [see ‘Blinded by reductionism‘ on August 24th, 2022].  To quote Suzanne Simard, ‘Mistreatment of one species is mistreatment of all.  The rest of the planet has been waiting patiently for us to figure that out’.

Source: Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree, Penguin, 2021.

Image: photograph of an original painting bought by the author in Beijing