Everyone who attends a certain type of English school is given a nickname. Mine was Floyd Patterson. In 1956, Floyd Patterson was the youngest boxer to become the world heavyweight champion. I was certainly not a heavyweight but perhaps I was pugnacious in defending myself against larger and older boys. Floyd Patterson had a maxim that drove his career: ‘you try the impossible to achieve the unusual’. I have used this approach in various leadership roles and in guiding my research students for many years by encouraging them to throw away caution in planning their PhD programmes. I only made the connection with Floyd Patterson recently when reading Edward O. Wilson‘s book, ‘Letters to a Young Scientist‘. Previously, I had associated it with Edmund Hillary’s biography that is titled ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, which is peculiar corruption of a quote, often attributed to Benjamin Franklin but that probably originated much earlier, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’. I read Hillary’s book as a young student and was influenced by his statement that ‘even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve’.
Edmund Hillary, ‘Nothing Venture, Nothing Win’, The Travel Book Club, London, 1976.
Last month when I was in Taiwan [see ‘Ancient Standards‘ on January 29th, 2020] , I visited Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant which has a pair of boiling water reactors that each generate 986 MWe, or between them about 7% of Taiwan’s electricity. The power station is approaching the end of its licensed life in around 2023 after being constructed in 1978 and delivering electricity commercially for about 40 years, since the early 1980’s. There is an excellent exhibition centre at the power station that includes the life-size mock-up of the reinforcement rods in the concrete of the reactors shown in the photograph. I am used to seeing reinforcing bar, or rebar as it is known, between 6 to 12mm in diameter on building site, but I had never seen any of this diameter (about 40 to 50mm diameter) or in such a dense grid. On the other hand, we are not building any nuclear power stations in the UK at the moment so there aren’t many opportunities to see closeup the scale of structure required.
‘I believe that energy can’t be destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another. There’s more to life than we can conceive of.’ The quote is from the singer and songwriter, Corinne Bailey Rae’s answer to the question: do you believe in an afterlife? [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, October 26/27 2019]. However, the first part of her answer is the first law of thermodynamics while the second part resonates with Erwin Schrödinger’s view on life and consciousness [see ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016]. The garden writer and broadcaster, Monty Don gave a similar answer to the same question: ‘Absolutely. I believe that the energy lives on and is connected to place. I do have this idea of re-joining all of my past dogs and family on a summer’s day, like a Stanley Spencer painting.’ [see Inventory in the FT Magazine, January 18/19 2020]. The boundary between energy and mass is blurry because matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy [see ‘More uncertainty about matter and energy‘ on August 3rd 2016]. Hence, the concept that after death our body reverts to a cloud of energy as the complex molecules of our anatomy are broken down into elemental particles is completely consistent with modern physics. However, I suspect Rae and Don were going further and suggesting that our consciousness lives on in some form. Perhaps through some kind of unified mind that Schrödinger thought might exist as a consequence of our individual minds networking together to create emergent behaviour. Schrödinger found it utterly impossible to form an idea about how this might happen and it seems unlikely that an individual mind could ever do so; however, perhaps the more percipient amongst us occasionally gets a hint of the existence of something beyond our individual consciousness.
Is a coconut an isolated thermodynamic system? This is a question that I have been thinking about this week. A coconut appears to be impermeable to matter since its milk does not leak out and it might be insulated against heat transfer because its husk is used for insulation in some building products. If you are wondering why I am pondering such matters, then it is because, once again, I am teaching thermodynamics to our first year students (see ‘Pluralistic Ignorance‘ on May 1st, 2019). It is a class of more than 200 students and I am using a blended learning environment (post on 14th November 2018) that combines lectures with the units of the massive open online course (MOOC) that I developed some years ago (see ‘Engaging learners on-line‘ on May 25th, 2016). However, before devotees of MOOCs get excited, I should add that the online course is neither massive nor open because we have restricted it to our university students. In my first lecture, I talked about the concept of defining the system of interest for thermodynamic analysis by drawing boundaries (see ‘Drawing boundaries‘ on December 19th, 2012). The choice of the system boundary has a strong influence on the answers we will obtain and the simplicity of the analysis we will need to perform. For instance, drawing the system boundary around an electric car makes it appear carbon neutral and very efficient but including the fossil fuel power station that provides the electricity reveals substantial carbon emissions and significant reductions in efficiency. I also talked about different types of system, for example: open systems across whose boundaries both matter and energy can move; closed systems that do not allow matter to flow across their boundaries but allow energy transfers; and, isolated systems that do not permit energy or matter to transfer across their boundaries. It is difficult to identify closed systems in nature (see ‘Revisiting closed systems in nature‘ on October 5th, 2016); and so, once again I asked the students to suggest candidates but then I started to think about examples of isolated systems. I suspect that completely isolated systems do not exist; however, some systems can be approximated to the concept and considering them to be so, simplifies their analysis. However, I am happy to be corrected if anyone can think of one!