Tag Archives: computational mechanics

Reduction in usefulness of reductionism

decorative paintingA couple of months ago I wrote about a set of credibility factors for computational models [see ‘Credible predictions for regulatory decision-making‘ on December 9th, 2020] that we designed to inform interactions between researchers, model builders and decision-makers that will establish trust in the predictions from computational models [1].  This is important because computational modelling is becoming ubiquitous in the development of everything from automobiles and power stations to drugs and vaccines which inevitably leads to its use in supporting regulatory applications.  However, there is another motivation underpinning our work which is that the systems being modelled are becoming increasingly complex with the likelihood that they will exhibit emergent behaviour [see ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015] and this makes it increasingly unlikely that a reductionist approach to establishing model credibility will be successful [2].  The reductionist approach to science, which was pioneered by Descartes and Newton, has served science well for hundreds of years and is based on the concept that everything about a complex system can be understood by reducing it to the smallest constituent part.  It is the method of analysis that underpins almost everything you learn as an undergraduate engineer or physicist. However, reductionism loses its power when a system is more than the sum of its parts, i.e., when it exhibits emergent behaviour.  Our approach to establishing model credibility is more holistic than traditional methods.  This seems appropriate when modelling complex systems for which a complete knowledge of the relationships and patterns of behaviour may not be attainable, e.g., when unexpected or unexplainable emergent behaviour occurs [3].  The hegemony of reductionism in science made us nervous about writing about its short-comings four years ago when we first published our ideas about model credibility [2].  So, I was pleased to see a paper published last year [4] that identified five fundamental properties of biology that weaken the power of reductionism, namely (1) biological variation is widespread and persistent, (2) biological systems are relentlessly nonlinear, (3) biological systems contain redundancy, (4) biology consists of multiple systems interacting across different time and spatial scales, and (5) biological properties are emergent.  Many engineered systems possess all five of these fundamental properties – you just to need to look at them from the appropriate perspective, for example, through a microscope to see the variation in microstructure of a mass-produced part.  Hence, in the future, there will need to be an increasing emphasis on holistic approaches and systems thinking in both the education and practices of engineers as well as biologists.

For more on emergence in computational modelling see Manuel Delanda Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason, Continuum, London, 2011. And, for more systems thinking see Fritjof Capra and Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision, Cambridge University Press, 2014.


[1] Patterson EA, Whelan MP & Worth A, The role of validation in establishing the scientific credibility of predictive toxicology approaches intended for regulatory application, Computational Toxicology, 17: 100144, 2021.

[2] Patterson EA &Whelan MP, A framework to establish credibility of computational models in biology. Progress in biophysics and molecular biology, 129: 13-19, 2017.

[3] Patterson EA & Whelan MP, On the validation of variable fidelity multi-physics simulations, J. Sound & Vibration, 448:247-258, 2019.

[4] Pruett WA, Clemmer JS & Hester RL, Physiological Modeling and Simulation—Validation, Credibility, and Application. Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering, 22:185-206, 2020.

My Engineering Day

Photograph of roof tops and chimneys in Liverpool.Today is ‘This is Engineering’ day organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering to showcase what engineers and engineering really look like, celebrate our impact on the world and shift public perception of engineering towards an appreciation that engineers are a varied and diverse group of people who are critical to solving societal challenges.  You can find out more at https://www.raeng.org.uk/events/online-events/this-is-engineering-day-2020.  I have decided to contribute to ‘This is Engineering’ day by describing what I do on a typical working day as an engineer. 

Last Wednesday was like many other working days during the pandemic.  I got up about 7am went downstairs for breakfast in our kitchen and then climbed back upstairs to my home-office in the attic of our house in Liverpool [see ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau’ on April 8th, 2020].  I am lucky in that my home-office is quite separate from the living space in our house and it has a great view over the rooftops.  I arrived there at about 7.45am, opened my laptop, deleted the junk email, and dealt with the emails that were urgent, interesting or could be replied to quickly.  At around 8am, I closed my email and settled down to write the first draft of a proposal for funding to support our research on digital twins [see ‘Tacit hurdle to digital twins’ on August 26th, 2020].  I had organised a meeting earlier in the week with a group of collaborators and now I had the task of converting the ideas from our discussion into a coherent programme of research.  Ninety caffeine-fuelled minutes later, I had to stop for a Google Meet call with a collaborator at Airbus in Toulouse during which we agreed the wording on a statement about the impact our recent research efforts.  At 10am I joined a Skype call for a progress review with a PhD student on our dual PhD programme with National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, so we were joined by his supervisor in Taiwan where it was 6pm [see ‘Citizens of the World’ on November 27th, 2019].  The PhD student presented some very interesting results on evaluating the waviness of fibres in carbon-fibre composite materials using ultrasound measurements which he had performed in our laboratory in Liverpool.  Despite the local lockdown in Liverpool due to the pandemic, research laboratories on our campus are open and operating at reduced occupancy to allow social distancing.

After the PhD progress meeting, I had a catch-up session with my personal assistant to discuss my schedule for the next couple of weeks before joining a MS-Teams meeting with a couple of colleagues to discuss the implications of our current work on computational modelling and possible future directions.  The remaining hour up to my lunch break was occupied by a conference call with a university in India with whom we are exploring a potential partnership.  I participated in my capacity as Dean of the School of Engineering and joined about twenty colleagues from both institutions discussing possible areas of collaboration in both research and teaching.  Then it was back downstairs for a half-hour lunch break in the kitchen. 

Following lunch, I continued in my role as Dean with a half-hour meeting with Early Career Academics in the School of Engineering followed by internal interviews for the directorship of one of our postgraduate research programmes.  At 3.30pm, I was able to switch back to being a researcher and meet with a collaborator to discuss the prospects for extending our work on tracking synthetic nanoparticles into monitoring the motion of biological entities such as viruses and bacteria [see ‘Modelling from the cell through the individual to the host population’ on May 5th 2020].  Finally, as usual, I spent the last two to three hours of my working day replying to emails, following up on the day’s meetings and preparing for the following day.  One email was a request for help from one of my PhD students working in the laboratory who needed a piece of equipment that had been stored in my office for safekeeping.  So, I made the ten-minute walk to campus to get it for her which gave me the opportunity to talk face-to-face with one of the post-doctoral researchers in my group who is working on the DIMES project [see ‘Condition-monitoring using infra imaging‘ on June 17th, 2020].  After dinner, my wife and I walked down to the Albert Dock and along the river front to Princes Dock and back up to our house.

So that was my Engineering Day last Wednesday!


Logos of Clean Sky 2 and EUThe DIMES 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. 820951.  The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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.

The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

In Einstein’s footprints?

Grand Hall of the Guild of Carpenters, Zurich

During the past week, I have been working with members of my research group on a series of papers for a conference in the USA that a small group of us will be attending in the summer.  Dissemination is an important step in the research process; there is no point in doing the research if we lock the results away in a desk drawer and forget about them.  Nowadays, the funding organisations that support our research expect to see a plan of dissemination as part of our proposals for research; and hence, we have an obligation to present our results to the scientific community as well as to communicate them more widely, for instance through this blog.

That’s all fine; but nevertheless, I don’t find most conferences a worthwhile experience.  Often, there are too many uncoordinated sessions running in parallel that contain presentations describing tiny steps forward in knowledge and understanding which fail to compel your attention [see ‘Compelling presentations‘ on March 21st, 2018].  Of course, they can provide an opportunity to network, especially for those researchers in the early stages of their careers; but, in my experience, they are rarely the location for serious intellectual discussion or debate.  This is more likely to happen in small workshops focussed on a ‘hot-topic’ and with a carefully selected eclectic mix of speakers interspersed with chaired discussion sessions.

I have been involved in organising a number of such workshops in Glasgow, London, Munich and Shanghai over the last decade.  The next one will be in Zurich in November 2019 in Guild Hall of Carpenters (Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten) where Einstein lectured in November 1910 to the Zurich Physical Society ‘On Boltzmann’s principle and some of its direct consequences‘.  Our subject will be different: ‘Validation of Computational Mechanics Models’; but we hope that the debate on credible models, multi-physics simulations and surviving with experimental data will be as lively as in 1910.  If you would like to contribute then download the pdf from this link; and if you just like to attend the one-day workshop then we will be announcing registration soon and there is no charge!

We have published the outcomes from some of our previous workshops:

Advances in Validation of Computational Mechanics Models (from the 2014 workshop in Munich), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 51, no.1, 2016

Strain Measurement in Extreme Environments (from the 2012 workshop in Glasgow), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 49, no. 4, 2014.

Validation of Computational Solid Mechanics Models (from the 2011 workshop in Shanghai), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 48, no.1, 2013.

The workshop is supported by the MOTIVATE project and further details are available at http://www.engineeringvalidation.org/4th-workshop

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.