Size matters

Most of us have a sub-conscious understanding of the forces that control the interaction of objects in the size scale in which we exist, i.e. from millimetres through to metres.  In this size scale gravitational and inertial forces dominate the interactions of bodies.  However, at the size scale that we cannot see, even when we use an optical microscope, the forces that the dominate the behaviour of objects interacting with one another are different.  There was a hint of this change in behaviour observed in our studies of the diffusion of nanoparticles [see ‘Slow moving nanoparticles‘ on December 13th, 2017], when we found that the movement of nanoparticles less than 100 nanometres in diameter was independent of their size.  Last month we published another article in one of the Nature journals, Scientific Reports, on ‘The influence of inter-particle forces on diffusion at the nanoscale‘, in which we have demonstrated by experiment that Van der Waals forces and electrostatic forces are the dominant forces at the nanoscale.  These forces control the diffusion of nanoparticles as well as surface adhesion, friction and colloid stability.  This finding is significant because the ionic strength of the medium in which the particles are moving will influence the strength of these forces and hence the behaviour of the nanopartices.  Since biological fluids contain ions, this will be important in understanding and predicting the behaviour of nanoparticles in biological applications where they might be used for drug delivery, or have a toxicological impact, depending on their composition.

Van der Waals forces are weak attractive forces between uncharged molecules that are distance dependent.  They are named after a Dutch physicist, Johannes Diderik van der Waals (1837-1923).  Electrostatic forces occur between charged particles or molecules and are usually repulsive with the result that van der Waals and electrostatic forces can balance each other, or not depending on the circumstances.


Giorgi F, Coglitore D, Curran JM, Gilliland D, Macko P, Whelan M, Worth A & Patterson EA, The influence of inter-particle forces on diffusion at the nanoscale, Scientific Reports, 9:12689, 2019.

Coglitore D, Edwardson SP, Macko P, Patterson EA, Whelan MP, Transition from fractional to classical Stokes-Einstein behaviour in simple fluids, Royal Society Open Science, 4:170507, 2017. doi: .

Patterson EA & Whelan MP, Tracking nanoparticles in an optical microscope using caustics. Nanotechnology, 19 (10): 105502, 2009.

Image: from Giorgi et al 2019, figure 1 showing a photograph of a caustic (top) generated by a 50 nm gold nanoparticle in water taken with the optical microscope adjusted for Kohler illumination and closing the condenser field aperture to its minimum following method of Patterson and Whelan with its 2d random walk over a period of 3 seconds superimposed and a plot of the same walk (bottom).

Trees are amongst the slowest moving beings with which we share our world

Last month I mentioned that I started reading ‘Overstory’ by Richard Powers on my trip back from the US [see ‘When an upgrading is downgrading‘ on August 21st, 2019].  I only finished it about ten days ago because I have not had much time to read and it is a long book at 629 pages.  It is a well-written book including some quotable passages, but one that I particularly liked which seems relevant in this era of polarised perspectives: ‘The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can is a good story.’  And, Richard Powers tells a good story about the destruction of the ecosystem, on which we are dependent, as a result of large-scale felling of ancient forests.  The emphasis should be on ‘ancient’ because time for trees appears to run at a different speed than for humans.  While we can observe the seasonal changes in an ancient woodland, we are barely conscious on the growth and movement of the woodland.  When we read Shakespeare’s lines in Macbeth about ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come’,  we think of it moving over the landscape at the speed of an army of people, whereas woods move so slowly that we do not live long enough to notice the change.  For instance, there is a spruce tree in Sweden that is 9,500 years old.  Our spatial understanding of a tree also leads to a misconception because we can only see the overstory, i.e. what is happening above ground; so, we think that each trunk is an individual tree, whereas for many types of tree many apparently individual trunks belong to the same organism with an extensive understory below ground which might be thousands of years old.  All trees are involved in a substantial understory communicating with each other in ways that we can barely imagine let alone comprehend.  Most of the ancient forests in Europe were cut down before science revealed the scale and complexity of life in them; yet, we still continue to fell forests as if there was an inexhaustible supply rather than one that could take as long to replicate as humans have been recording our history.

If you would like to arguments about trees then read ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Paul Wohlleben, London: William Collins, 2017 (my title is a quote from this book).  If you are unconvinced then read the ‘Overstory’ by Richard Powers, London: Penguin (Vintage), 2019.

Thought leadership in fusion engineering

The harnessing of fusion energy has become something of a holy grail – sought after by many without much apparent progress.  It is the energy process that ‘powers’ the stars and if we could reproduce it on earth in a controlled environment then it would offer almost unlimited energy with very low environmental costs.  However, understanding the science is an enormous challenge and the engineering task to design, build and operate a fusion-fuelled power station is even greater.  The engineering difficulties originate from the combination of two factors: the emergent behaviour present in the complex system and that it has never been done before.  Engineering has achieved lots of firsts but usually through incremental development; however, with fusion energy it would appear that it will only work when all of the required conditions are present.  In other words, incremental development is not viable and we need everything ready before flicking the switch.  Not surprisingly, engineers are cautious about flicking switches when they are not sure what will happen.  Yet, the potential benefits of getting it right are huge; so, we would really like to do it.  Hence, the holy grail status: much sought after and offering infinite abundance.

Last week I joined the search, or at least offered guidance to those searching, by publishing an article in Royal Society Open Science on ‘An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants‘.  Working with colleagues at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Richard Taylor and I have taken our earlier work on an integrated nuclear digital environment for the nuclear energy using fission [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on january 28th, 2015] and combined it with the hierarchical pyramid of testing and simulation used in the aerospace industry [see ‘Hierarchical modelling in engineering and biology‘ on March 14th, 2018] to create a framework that can be used to guide the exploration of large design domains using computational models within a distributed and collaborative community of engineers and scientists.  We hope it will shorten development times, reduce design and build costs, and improve credibility, operability, reliability and safety.  It is a long list of potential benefits for a relatively simple idea in a relatively short paper (only 12 pages).  Follow the link to find out more – it is an open access paper, so it’s free.


Patterson EA, Taylor RJ & Bankhead M, A framework for an integrated nuclear digital environment, Progress in Nuclear Energy, 87:97-103, 2016.

Patterson EA, Purdie S, Taylor RJ & Waldon C, An integrated digital framework for the design, build and operation of fusion power plants, Royal Society Open Science, 6(10):181847, 2019.

On the trustworthiness of multi-physics models

I stayed in Sheffield city centre a few weeks ago and walked past the standard measures in the photograph on my way to speak at a workshop.  In the past, when the cutlery and tool-making industry in Sheffield was focussed around small workshops, or little mesters, as they were known, these standards would have been used to check the tools being manufactured.  A few hundred years later, the range of standards in existence has extended far beyond the weights and measures where it started, and now includes standards for processes and artefacts as well as for measurements.  The process of validating computational models of engineering infrastructure is moving slowly towards establishing an internationally recognised standard [see two of my earliest posts: ‘Model validation‘ on September 18th, 2012 and ‘Setting standards‘ on January 29th, 2014].  We have guidelines that recommend approaches for different parts of the validation process [see ‘Setting standards‘ on January 29th, 2014]; however, many types of computational model present significant challenges when establishing their reliability [see ‘Spatial-temporal models of protein structures‘ on March 27th, 2019].  Under the auspices of the MOTIVATE project, we are gathering experts in Zurich on November 5th, 2019 to discuss the challenges of validating multi-physics models, establishing credibility and the future use of data from experiments.  It is the fourth in a series of workshops held previously in Shanghai, London and Munich.  For more information and to register follow this link. Come and join our discussions in one of my favourite cities where we will be following ‘In Einstein’s footprints‘ [posted on February 27th, 2019].

The MOTIVATE project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 754660.