Category Archives: Soapbox

Season’s greetings in 2020

Zahrah Resh Abstract paintingMy posts at Christmas time in the past have often been pictures of snowy scenes or Christmas trees. This year I have gone for something different. The image above is an abstract painting by Zahrah Resh.  I have used extracts from it as thumbnails in four posts over the last three months and so I thought it was about time to show you the whole painting.  Zahrah Resh is a contemporary American abstract artist based in East Lansing, Michigan who has exhibited at the ArtPrize which takes place over 19 days in Grand Rapids, Michigan attracting around half a million visitors.  ArtPrize started in 2009 and offered the world’s largest art prize of $250,000. We got to know Zahrah when we lived nearby in Okemos, Michigan and we brought a number of her paintings back to England when we moved to Liverpool nearly a decade ago.  They remind me of the people we met and knew during our time in Michigan.  Best wishes for happiness, joy and peace this holiday.

If you are missing the snowy scenes then see  ‘Digital detox‘ on December 27th, 2016 or ‘Season’s greetings‘ on December 24th, 2014; or if you prefer Christmas trees then see ‘Happy Christmas‘ on December 25th, 2019] or ‘Season’s greeting‘ on December 27th, 2017.

And if you missed the posts with the thumbnails that were extracts from the above, or you are just looking for something interesting to read, then see ‘Puzzles and mysteries‘ on November 25th, 2020; ‘Digital twins could put at risk what it means to be human‘ on November 18th, 2020; and ‘Lacking creativity‘ on October 28th, 2020.

Carmen induces happiness but no recall

Philharmonic hall set up for a social-distanced orchestraThe day after England was released from its second national lockdown we went to a concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. It was a socially-distanced event attended by about 400 people in a hall with a capacity of 1700. Even members of orchestra sat two metres apart and wore face coverings until they had taken their seats. Nevertheless, it was an uplifting occasion with the conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko welcoming us back at the start of the concert. We listened to three pieces Variaciones concertantes by Ginastera; Il Tramonto by Respighi; and Carmen Suite for percussion and strings by Bizet and arranged by Shchedrin. I really enjoyed the first piece by Ginastera which I had not heard before; however, while listening to Jennifer Johnston singing Il Tramonto, I realised that I had no recall of the previous piece of music.  As I sit writing, I cannot reproduce any of the sounds from the concert in my head, except for a few fuzzy sequences of Carmen that I had heard many times before, whereas I can ‘see’ the layout of the orchestra with Jennifer Johnston and Vasily Petrenko stood in front of them.  My inability to recall sounds might explain why I struggle to speak any foreign languages or to remember the pronouncation of unfamilar words in English.  Despite the fact that I cannot recall the music, the feelings of enjoyment remain as a memory and made me smile as I wrote this post.


Credible predictions for regulatory decision-making

detail from abstract by Zahrah ReshRegulators are charged with ensuring that manufactured products, from aircraft and nuclear power stations to cosmetics and vaccines, are safe.  The general public seeks certainty that these devices and the materials and chemicals they are made from will not harm them or the environment.  Technologists that design and manufacture these products know that absolute certainty is unattainable and near-certainty in unaffordable.  Hence, they attempt to deliver the service or product that society desires while ensuring that the risks are As Low As Reasonably Practical (ALARP).  The role of regulators is to independently assess the risks, make a judgment on their acceptability and thus decide whether the operation of a power station or distribution of a vaccine can go ahead.  These are difficult decisions with huge potential consequences – just think of the more than three hundred people killed in the two crashes of Boeing 737 Max airplanes or the 10,000 or so people affected by birth defects caused by the drug thalidomide.  Evidence presented to support applications for regulatory approval is largely based on physical tests, for example fatigue tests on an aircraft structure or toxicological tests using animals.  In some cases the physical tests might not be entirely representative of the real-life situation which can make it difficult to make decisions using the data, for instance a ground test on an airplane is not the same as a flight test and in many respects the animals used in toxicity testing are physiologically different to humans.  In addition, physical tests are expensive and time-consuming which both drives up the costs of seeking regulatory approval and slows down the translation of new innovative products to the market.  The almost ubiquitous use of computer-based simulations to support the research, development and design of manufactured products inevitably leads to their use in supporting regulatory applications.  This creates challenges for regulators who must judge the trustworthiness of predictions from these simulations.  [see ‘Fake facts & untrustworthy predictions‘ on December 4th, 2019]. It is standard practice for modellers to demonstrate the validity of their models; however, validation does not automatically lead to acceptance of predictions by decision-makers.  Acceptance is more closely related to scientific credibility.  I have been working across a number of disciplines on the scientific credibility of models including in engineering where multi-physics phenomena are important, such as hypersonic flight and fusion energy [see ‘Thought leadership in fusion energy‘ on October 9th, 2019], and in computational biology and toxicology [see ‘Hierarchical modelling in engineering and biology‘ on March 14th, 2018]. Working together with my collaborators in these disciplines, we have developed a common set of factors which underpin scientific credibility that are based on principles drawn from the literature on the philosophy of science and are designed to be both discipline-independent and method-agnostic [Patterson & Whelan, 2019; Patterson et al, 2021]. We hope that our cross-disciplinary approach will break down the subject-silos that have become established as different scientific communities have developed their own frameworks for validating models.  As mentioned above, the process of validation tends to be undertaken by model developers and, in some sense, belongs to them; whereas, credibility is not exclusive to the developer but is a trust that needs to be shared with a decision-maker who seeks to use the predictions to inform their decision [see ‘Credibility is in the eye of the beholder‘ on April 20th, 2016].  Trust requires a common knowledge base and understanding that is usually built through interactions.  We hope the credibility factors will provide a framework for these interactions as well as a structure for building a portfolio of evidence that demonstrates the reliability of a model. 


Patterson EA & Whelan MP, On the validation of variable fidelity multi-physics simulations, J. Sound & Vibration, 448:247-258, 2019.

Patterson EA, Whelan MP & Worth A, The role of validation in establishing the scientific credibility of predictive toxicology approaches intended for regulatory application, Computational Toxicology, 17: 100144, 2021.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.

Puzzles and mysteries

Detail from abstract by Zahrah ReshPuzzles and mysteries are a pair of words that have taken on a whole new meaning for me since reading John Kay’s and Mervyn King’s book called ‘Radical uncertainty: decision-making for an unknowable future‘ during the summer vacation [see ‘Where is AI on the hype curve?‘ on August 12th, 2020]. They describe puzzles as well-defined problems with knowable solutions; whereas mysteries are ill-defined problems, that have no objectively correct solution and are imbued with vagueness and indeterminacy.  I have written before about engineers being creative problems-solvers [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] which leads to the question of whether we specialise in solving puzzles or mysteries, or perhaps both types of problems.  The problems that I set for students to solve for homework to refine and evaluate their knowledge of thermodynamics [see ‘Problem-solving in thermodynamics‘ on May 6th, 2015] clearly fall into the puzzle category because they are well-defined and there is a worked solution available.  Although for many students these problems might appear to be mysteries, the intention is that with greater knowledge and understanding the mysteries will be transformed into mere puzzles.  It is also true that many real-world mysteries can be transformed into puzzles by research that advances the collective knowledge and understanding of society.  Part of the purpose of an engineering education is to equip students with the skills to make this transformation from mysteries to puzzles.  At an undergraduate level we use problems that are mysteries only to the students so that success is achievable; however, at the post-graduate level we use problems that are perceived as mysteries to both the student and the professor with the intention that the professor can guide the student towards a solution.  Of course, some mysteries are intractable often because we do not know enough to define the problem sufficiently that we can even start to think about possible solutions.  These are tricky to tackle because it is unreasonable to expect a research student to solve them in limited timeframe and it is risky to offer to solve them in exchange for a research grant because you are likely to damage your reputation and prospects of future funding when you fail.  On the other hand, they are what makes research interesting and exciting.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.