I have been visiting the Airbus site at Filton near Bristol since the mid-1990s. It is where the wings for new designs of aircraft are developed and tested. My involvement has been in the developing of techniques for measuring strain in aircraft structures during static and fatigue tests. At the moment, we are working on methods to integrate fields of measurements with computational predictions of stress and strain [see ‘Jigsaw puzzling without a picture‘ on October 27th, 2021]. I frequently travel by train to Bristol Parkway Station and walk past the church in the photograph without even noticing it despite it being next to the station. To be fair, the view of it from the station entrance is obscured by a billboard. However, last week as I walked back to the station with a half-hour to spare, I noticed a gate leading into a churchyard. I slipped through the gate thinking that perhaps there might be an interesting old church to explore but it was locked and I had to be satisfied with a stroll around the churchyard. I was slightly shocked to realise the church, and the village green beyond it, had been hidden in full view for more than thirty years of walking within a few tens of metres of it perhaps once a month. I had always been too focussed on the research that I was heading to Airbus to discuss, or too tired at the end of a day, to notice the things around me. Our senses flood our brains with information most of which is ignored by our conscious minds that are busy time traveling through past memories or looking into the future [see ‘Time travel and writing history‘ on March 23rd, 2022]. However, there is pleasure to be gained by dwelling in the present and exploring the sensory experience flooding into our brains. As Amy Liptrot commented in her book ‘The Outrun‘, “the more I take the time to look at things, the more rewards and complexity I find”.
Term has started, and our students are preparing for end-of-semester examinations; so, I suspect that they would welcome the opportunity to deploy the sleeping-learning that Aldous Huxley envisaged in his ‘Brave New World’ of 2540. In the brave new world of digital engineering, some engineers are attempting to conceive of a world in which experiments have become obsolete because we can rely on computational modelling to simulate engineering systems. This ambitious goal is a driver for the MOTIVATE project [see my post entitled ‘Getting smarter‘ on June 21st, 2017]; an EU-project that kicked-off about six months ago and was the subject of a brainstorming session in the Red Deer in Sheffield last September [see my post entitled ‘Anything other than lager, stout or porter!‘ on September 6th, 2017. The project has its own website now at www.engineeringvalidation.org
A world without experiments is almost unimaginable for engineers whose education and training is deeply rooted in empiricism, which is the philosophical approach that requires assumptions, models and theories to be tested against observations from the real-world before they can be accepted. In the MOTIVATE project, we are thinking about ways in which fewer experiments can provide more and better measured data for the validation of computational models of engineering systems. In December, under the auspices of the project, experts from academia, industry and national labs from across Europe met near Bristol and debated how to reshape the traditional flow-chart used in the validation of engineering models, which places equal weight on experiments and computational models [see ASME V&V 10-2006 Figure 2]. In a smaller follow-up meeting in Zurich, just before Christmas [see my post ‘A reflection of existentialism‘ on December 20th, 2017], we blended the ideas from the Bristol session into a new flow-chart that could lead to the validation of some engineering systems without conducting experiments in parallel. This is not perhaps as radical as it sounds because this happens already for some evolutionary designs, especially if they are not safety-critical. Nevertheless, if we are to achieve the paradigm shift towards the new digital world, then we will have to convince the wider engineering community about our novel approach through demonstrations of its successful application, which sounds like empiricism again! More on that in future updates.
Image by Erwin Hack: Coffee and pastries awaiting technical experts debating behind the closed door.
It’s not often that someone presents you with a completely new way of looking at the world around us but that’s what Dr Gregory Sutton did a few weeks ago at a Royal Society Regional Networking Event in Bristol where he is a University Research Fellow funded by the Royal Society. He told us that every flower is a conductor sticking out of the ground which on a sunny day has an electric field around it of the order of 100 volts per metre. Bees can identify the type of flower that they are approaching based on the interaction between this field and the electrostatic field generated around them as they fly. Bees are covered in tiny hairs and he believes that they use these to sense the electric field around them. The next research question that he is tackling is how bees are affected by the anthropogenic electric fields from power lines, mobile phones etc.
The plots of the electric field around a flower really caught my attention. You can see one in the thumbnail photo. I walked across Brandon Hill in Bristol after the talk to meet a former PhD student for dinner. I kept stopping on the way to try to detect this field with the hairs on the back of my hand. It was a beautiful sunny day but I was not sensitive enough to feel anything. Or maybe I was sensing it but my brain is not programmed to recognise the sensation. We discussed it over dinner and marvelled at the bees’ ability to process the information from its multiple sensors in the light of our knowledge of the computing power required to handle what it is fashionable to call ‘Big Data’ from man-made sensors.
Once again Nature humbles us with its ingenuity and makes our efforts look clumsy if not feeble. Dr Sutton’s insights have given me a whole new way to attempt to connect with Nature while I am on deep vacation.
Sorry about the pun in the title. I couldn’t resist it.
Clarke D, Whitney H, Sutton G & Robert D, Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebee, Science, 5 April 2013: 66-69. [DOI:10.1126/science.1230883].