Category Archives: Thermodynamics

Meta-knowledge: knowledge about knowledge

As engineers, we like to draw simple diagrams of the systems that we are attempting to analyse because most of us are pictorial problem-solvers and recording the key elements of a problem in a sketch helps us to identify the important issues and select an appropriate solution procedure [see ‘Meta-representational competence’ on May 13th, 2015].  Of course, these simple representations can be misleading if we omit parameters or features that dominate the behaviour of the system; so, there is considerable skill in idealising a system so that the analysis is tractable, i.e. can be solved.  Students find it especially difficult to acquire these skills [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] and many appear to avoid drawing a meaningful sketch even when examinations marks are allocated to it [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  Of course, in thermodynamics it is complicated by the entropy of the system being reduced when we omit parameters in order to idealise the system; because with fewer parameters to describe the system there are fewer microstates in which the system can exist and, hence according to Boltzmann, the entropy will be lower [see ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th, 2017].  Perhaps this is the inverse of realising that we understand less as we know more.  In other words, as our knowledge grows it reveals to us that there is more to know and understand than we can ever hope to comprehend [see ‘Expanding universe‘ on February 7th, 2018]. Is that the second law of thermodynamics at work again, creating more disorder to counter the small amount of order achieved in your brain?

Image: Sketch made during an example class

Pluralistic ignorance

This semester I am teaching an introductory course in Thermodynamics to undergraduate students using a blended learning approach [see ‘Blended learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018].  The blend includes formal lectures, example classes, homework assignments, assessed coursework questions and an on-line course, which I delivered as a MOOC a couple of years ago [see ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016].  It is not unusual in a large class, nearly two hundred students this year, that no one asks questions during the lecture; although, at the end of each lecture and example class, a small group of students with questions always forms.  The on-line course has extensive opportunities for asking questions and discussing issues with the instructor and fellow learners.  These opportunities  were used heavily when the course was offered as a MOOC  with 6600 comments posted or 1 every 7.7 minutes!  However, this year the undergraduates have not made any on-line comments and it was a similar situation last year.  Is this a case of pluralistic ignorance?  The term was coined by psychologists Daniel Katz and Floyd Henry Allport in 1931 to describe students who pretend to understand everything explained in class and don’t ask any questions because they believe everyone else in the class has understood everything and they don’t want to damage their reputation with their peers.  Perhaps we have all done it and been very grateful when someone has asked the question that we wanted to ask but did not dare.  Would be it ethical to pretend to be a student and post questions on-line that I know from the MOOC they are likely to want to ask?

Sources:

Patterson EA, Using everyday engineering examples to engage learners on a massive open online course, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, in press.

Katz D & Allport FH, Students’ attitude, Syracuse, NY: Craftsmann, 1931.

Origgi G, Reputation: what it is and why it matters, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Image: Author speaking at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan

Planetary Emergency

Global energy budget from Trenberth et al 2009

This week’s lecture in my thermodynamics course for first-year undergraduate students was about thermodynamic systems and the energy flows in and out of them. I concluded the lecture by talking about our planet as a thermodynamic system using the classic schematic in the thumbnail [see ‘Ample sufficiency of solar energy‘ on October 25th, 2017 for more discussion on this schematic].  This is usually a popular lecture but this year it had particular resonance because of the widely publicised strikes by students for action on climate change.  I have called before for individuals to take responsibility given the intransigence of governments [see ‘Are we all free riders‘ on June 6th, 2016 or ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014]; so, it is good to see young people making their views and feelings known.

Weather-related events, such as widespread flooding and fires, are reported so frequently in the media that perhaps we have started to ignore them as portents of climate change.  For me, three headlines events have reinforced the gravity of the situation:

  1. The publication earlier this month of a joint report by UNICEF and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health that air pollution in the UK so high that it is infringing the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a clean and safe environment; and, under the Government’s current plans, air pollution in the UK is expected to remain at dangerous levels for at least another 10 years.
  2. The warning earlier this month from the Meteorological Office in London that global warming could exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within five years.  In my lecture, I highlighted that a 2C rise would be equal to the temperature 3 million years ago when sea levels were 25 to 35m high; and, a 1m rise in sea level would displace 145 million people globally [according to Blockstein & Weigmann, 2010].
  3. The suspension of construction of the new nuclear power station on Anglesey by Hitachi, which leaves the UK Government’s energy strategy in disarray with only one of the six planned new power stations under construction.  This leaves the UK unable to switch from fossil-fuelled to electric vehicles and dependent on fossil fuel to meet current electricity demand.

I apologise for my UK focus this week but whereever you are reading this blog you could probably find similar headlines in your region.  For instance, the 2016 UNICEF report states that one in seven children worldwide live in toxic air and air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year.  These three headlines illustrate that there is a planetary emergency because climate change is rapidly and radically altering the ecosystem with likely dire consequences for all living things; that despite a near-existential threat to the next generation as a consequence of air pollution most governments are effectively doing nothing; and that in the UK we are locked into a fossil-fuel dependency for the foreseeable future due to a lack of competent planning and commitment from the government which will compound the air pollution and climate change problems.

Our politicians need to stop arguing about borders and starting worrying about the whole planet.  We are all in this together and no man-made border will protect us from the impact of making the planet a hostile environment for life.

Time at the heart of our problems

This week I started teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students for the first time in twelve months.  I have had a break for a year because my course, which is only delivered once per year, was moved from first to second semester.  Although I have continued to teach postgraduate courses, it’s been like a sabbatical enforced by timetable changes.  Sadly, it’s over and I am back in the large lecture theatre in front of a couple of hundred of students – that makes it sound as if I don’t enjoy it which is not true but it does increase the intensity of the job because all of the other aspects of the role continue unabated.  So, for me time appears to accelerate as I attempt to jam more activities into a week.

Time lies at the heart of much of thermodynamics although we tend not to deal with it explicitly; however, it is implicit in our use of changes in the state of a system to understand it.  Quote Anaximander, the pre-Socratic philosopher & pupil of Thales of Miletus: ‘We understand the world by studying change, not by studying things’.  Time also lies at the centre of the tangle of problems found at the intersection of the theories of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.  As Carlo Rovelli has remarked we are still in the dark about this tangle of problems; so, I will touch on it in my thermodynamics course but just to show students the limits of our knowledge and perhaps inspire one or two of them to think about tackling them in postgraduate studies.

Meanwhile, I plan tackle my challenges with time by slowing it down once a week with a walk in the Clwydian Hills where the landscape appears unchanging so that time stands still allowing me to relax.

Sources:

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Wohllerben P, The hidden life of trees, London, William Collins, 2017.