I am an habitual user of a fountain pen. It is the only writing implement that I carry with me since I enjoy writing with a fountain pen and because I can keep track of one pen but no more than one. I have used it, and its predecessors, to make notes in a series of forty notebooks that stretch back to when I started as a research assistant forty years ago. I used to record laboratory results in my notebooks but nowadays I have a research team who perform all of the work in the laboratory. I still use my pen and notebook to record meetings, ideas and notes on papers. I find the process of writing notes by hand to be conducive to both remembering detail and connecting fragments of information into new thoughts and ideas. I am not alone in having these experiences. Researchers have found that taking notes by hand improves the performance of students in answering conceptual questions compared to students who use a laptop to take notes. When you write on a laptop, it is easy to delete words and re-start a sentence, whereas to create a coherent set of notes in a book you need to craft a sentence prior to committing pen to paper. Perhaps the latter process allows a more persistent assembly of neurons to be formed in your brain [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from a planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020]; or maybe it is just the irregular spacing between handwritten words which creates a more distinct pattern that can be more readily recalled than the repetitive single spaces in typed text. I certainly feel there is a connection between recalling the image of a page from my notebook and remembering the content even though I cannot usually read the words in my mental image.
Regular readers have probably already realised that I have very broad interests in engineering from aircraft and power stations [see ‘Conversations about engineering over dinner and haircut‘ on February 16th, 2022] to nanoparticles interacting with cells [see ‘Fancy a pint of science‘ on April 27th, 2022]. So, it will come as no surprise to hear that I gave a welcome address to a workshop on ‘Aorta: Structure to Rupture‘ last week. The workshop was organised in Liverpool by one of my colleagues, with sponsorship from the British Heart Foundation, and I was invited to welcome delegates in my capacity as Dean of the School of Engineering. It was exciting on two levels: speaking, for the first time in more than two years, to an audience who had travelled from around the world to discuss research. And because the topic was closely associated with cardiac dynamics, which is a field that I worked in for nearly twenty years until around 2006. I was part of an interdisciplinary team modelling the fluid-structure interaction in the aortic valve as it opens when blood is pumped through it by the heart and then closes to prevent back flow into the heart. The team dispersed after I moved to the USA in 2004. So speaking to the workshop last week was something of a trip down memory lane for me and led me to look up our last publication in the field. I was surprised to find it was cited seven times last year.
The image in the thumbnail is a snapshot from a video showing the predicted time-varying distribution of blood flow through the aortic valve and the resultant distribution of stress in the leaflets of the valve during a heart beat. The simultation is described in our last publication in cardiac dynamics: Carmody, C. J., Burriesci, G., Howard, I. C., & Patterson, E. A., An approach to the simulation of fluid–structure interaction in the aortic valve. J. Biomechanics, 39(1), 158-169, 2006.
Are you a quiet person? Perhaps shy would be an appropriate description. Do you have a clear vision of where you would like to lead your organisation but perhaps you are hesitant about stepping forward into a leadership position because you think that successful leaders are bold, self-confident, large-than-life and enjoy the limelight. You should think again. Research by Jim Collins and his team, published in the Harvard Business Review, has shown that the most powerfully transformative leaders have a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and professional resolve. They found that companies were transformed from a merely good performance to a sustained great performance in terms of their stock value only when led by a CEO who was both self-effacing and fearless. They called these class of people, level 5 leaders. They are ambitious for their organisation not themselves, assign credit for successes to others while accepting the blame for failures and have an unwavering resolve to do whatever is necessary to achieve the best long-term results despite the obstacles. So, if you worry that you lack the charisma to inspire your team then pause and consider whether you might be a level 5 leader with the rare combination of modesty and willfulness that, Jim Collins has suggested, are required to transform the performance of your organisation. Unfortunately, if you think you possess these characteristics then you almost certainly are not a level 5 leader because your humility would never allow you to entertain the thought!
I am worried that engineering has become a mechanism for financial returns in an economic system that values profit above everything with the result that many engineers are unwittingly, or perhaps in a few cases wittingly, supporting the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few capitalists. At the start of the industrial revolution, when engineering innovation started to make a difference to the way we live and work, very few engineers foresaw the impact on the planet of the large scale provision to society of products and services. Nowadays most engineers understand the consequences for the environment of their work; however, many feel powerless to make substantial changes often because they are constrained by the profit-orientated goals of their employer or feel that they play a tiny role in a complex system. Complex systems are often characterised by self-organisation in which order appears without any centralised control or planning and by adaptation to change and experience. Such systems are familiar to many engineers and perhaps they do not, but should, think of the engineering profession as complex system capable of adaptation and self-organisation in which the actions and decisions of individual engineers will cause the emergence of a new order. Our individual impact might be tiny but by acting we influence others to act and the cumulative effect will emerge in ways that no one can predict – that’s emergence for you.