Eternal non-existence

I was on holiday last week in the Lake District.  The weather was beautiful all week and we spent every day walking the hills around the Duddon Valley before sampling a different real ale each evening in the Manor Arms in Broughton-in-Furness.  I also found time to read a small pile of books in which a recurring theme seemed to be death, perhaps because I was sensitised to it by the most substantial book on the pile: ‘All that remains: a life in death‘ by Sue Black, who is a leading professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology. In her brilliant memoir, she identifies three stages: dying, death and being dead.  She worries most about the first stage, dying, which in common with most people, she would like to skip through as quickly as possible.  However, she is intrigued by the threshold that separates dying from being dead and would like to experience it when the time comes; although that sounds like professional curiosity to me and I would be happy to skip through that too.  As she points out, those fears that we might have about the third stage, being dead, depend on our belief in what happens to us after death.  Not many people write books at the age 99, so I was curious to read a collection of essays by Diana Athill who was born in 1917 and published ‘Alive, Alive Oh!‘ in 2016.  The final essay is entitled ‘Dead right’ and is about her recollection of a contribution to a discussion on a television programme about death made by the photographer, Rankin.  The contributor said ‘that not existing for thousands and thousands of years before his birth had never worried him for a moment, so why should going back into non-existence at his death cause him dismay?’.

Hands-in-pockets

I often have the opportunity to take a ‘hands-in-pockets’ tour of a laboratory or facility during the course of visits to world-class research institutions.  ‘Hands-in-pockets’ means that you can look must but you must not touch anything or take photographs.  Some of these tours are more exciting than others; one very fast computer looks very much like another and one very expensive microscope looks very much like another.  However, a couple of weeks ago, we visited the library of Christ Church Oxford for five minutes and there, to my amazement and delight, lying almost casually on a table were first editions of two of the books that form the foundation of modern science.  Isaac Newton’s ‘Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica’ published in 1687 and Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of the Species’ published in 1859.  Now, we understood why the librarian had been reluctant to let us take a peek.  My hands stayed firmly in my pockets but the temptation to turn the page of the Origin of Species, which was open, or to open Newton’s great work was huge.  Instead, we walked slowly around the room, which besides us and a skeleton of a horse was empty, soaking up the atmosphere.  We left quietly, thanking the librarian at the bottom of the stairs for letting us take a peek.  I didn’t discover why they have a skeleton of horse in the library with their great collection of books – I didn’t feel I could ask the librarian as we left!

Digital twins and seeking consensus

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about our work on a proof-of-concept for a digital twin of a fission nuclear reactor and its extension to fusion energy [‘Digitally-enabled regulatory environment for fusion power plants‘ on March 20th, 2019].  In parallel with this work and together with a colleague in the Dalton Nuclear Institute, I am supervising a PhD student who is studying the potential role of virtual reality and social network analysis in delivering nuclear infrastructure projects.  In a new PhD project, we are aiming to extend this research to consider the potential provided by an integrated nuclear digital environment [1] in planning the disposal of nuclear waste.  We plan to look at how provision of clear, evidence-based information and in the broader adoption of digital twins to enhance public confidence through better engagement and understanding.  This is timely because the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) have launched their new consent-based process for siting a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). The adoption of a digital environment to facilitate a consent-based process represents a new and unprecedented approach to the GDF or any other nuclear project in the UK. So this will be an challenging and exciting research project requiring an innovative and multi-disciplinary approach involving both engineering and social sciences.

The PhD project is fully-funded for UK and EU citizens as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training and will involve a year of specialist training followed by three years of research.  For more information following this link.

Reference:

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

Image: Artist’s impression of geological disposal facility from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/geological-disposal-understanding-our-work

 

Assessing nanoparticle populations in historic nuclear waste

Together with colleagues at the JRC Ispra, my research group has shown that the motion of small nanoparticles at low concentrations is independent of their size, density and material [1], [see ‘Slow moving nanoparticles‘ on December 13th, 2017].  This means that commercially-available instruments for evaluating the size and number of nanoparticles in a solution will give erroneous results under certain conditions.  In a proposed PhD project, we are planning to extend our work to develop an instrument with capability to automatically identify and size nanoparticles, in the range from 1 to 150 nanometres, using the three-dimensional optical signature, or caustic, which particles generate in an optical microscope, that can be several orders of magnitude larger than the particle [2],  [see ‘Toxic nanoparticles?‘ on November 13th, 2013].  The motivation for the work is the need to characterise particles present in solution in legacy ponds at Sellafield.  Legacy ponds at the Sellafield site have been used to store historic radioactive waste for decades and progress is being made in reducing the risks associated with these facilities [3].  Over time, there has been a deterioration in the condition of the ponds and their contents that has resulted in particles being present in solution in the ponds.  It is important to characterise these particles in order to facilitate reductions in the risks associated with the ponds.  We plan to use our existing facilities at the University of Liverpool to develop a novel instrument using simple solutions probably with gold nanoparticles and then to progress to non-radioactive simulants of the pond solutions.  The long-term goal will be to transition the technology to the Sellafield site perhaps with an intermediate step involving a demonstration of  the technology on pond solutions using the facilities of the National Nuclear Laboratory.

The PhD project is fully-funded for UK and EU citizens as part of a Centre for Doctoral Training and will involve a year of specialist training followed by three years of research.  For more information following this link.

References:

[1] Coglitore, D., Edwardson, S.P., Macko, P., Patterson, E.A., & Whelan, M.P., Transition from fractional to classical Stokes-Einstein behaviour in simple fluids, Royal Society Open Science, 4:170507, 2017.

[2] Patterson, E.A., Whelan, P., 2008, ‘Optical signatures of small nanoparticles in a conventional microscopeSmall, 4(10):1703-1706.

[3] Comptroller and Auditor General, The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority: progress with reducing risk at Sellafield, National Audit Office, HC 1126, Session 2017-19, 20 June 2018.