Tag Archives: creativity

Puzzles and mysteries

Detail from abstract by Zahrah ReshPuzzles and mysteries are a pair of words that have taken on a whole new meaning for me since reading John Kay’s and Mervyn King’s book called ‘Radical uncertainty: decision-making for an unknowable future‘ during the summer vacation [see ‘Where is AI on the hype curve?‘ on August 12th, 2020]. They describe puzzles as well-defined problems with knowable solutions; whereas mysteries are ill-defined problems, that have no objectively correct solution and are imbued with vagueness and indeterminacy.  I have written before about engineers being creative problems-solvers [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] which leads to the question of whether we specialise in solving puzzles or mysteries, or perhaps both types of problems.  The problems that I set for students to solve for homework to refine and evaluate their knowledge of thermodynamics [see ‘Problem-solving in thermodynamics‘ on May 6th, 2015] clearly fall into the puzzle category because they are well-defined and there is a worked solution available.  Although for many students these problems might appear to be mysteries, the intention is that with greater knowledge and understanding the mysteries will be transformed into mere puzzles.  It is also true that many real-world mysteries can be transformed into puzzles by research that advances the collective knowledge and understanding of society.  Part of the purpose of an engineering education is to equip students with the skills to make this transformation from mysteries to puzzles.  At an undergraduate level we use problems that are mysteries only to the students so that success is achievable; however, at the post-graduate level we use problems that are perceived as mysteries to both the student and the professor with the intention that the professor can guide the student towards a solution.  Of course, some mysteries are intractable often because we do not know enough to define the problem sufficiently that we can even start to think about possible solutions.  These are tricky to tackle because it is unreasonable to expect a research student to solve them in limited timeframe and it is risky to offer to solve them in exchange for a research grant because you are likely to damage your reputation and prospects of future funding when you fail.  On the other hand, they are what makes research interesting and exciting.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.

Lacking creativity

detail tl from abstract painting by Zahrah RI feel that I am moving to the next level of experience with online meetings but I am unsure that it will address the slow down in productivity and a loss of creativity being reported by most leaders of research groups to whom I have spoken recently.  About a month ago, we organised an ‘Away Day’ for all staff in the School of Engineering with plenary presentations, breakout groups and a Q&A session.  Of course, the restrictions induced by the pandemic meant that we were only ‘away’ in the sense of putting aside our usual work routine and it only lasted for half a day because we felt a whole day in an online conference would be counter productive; nevertheless, the feedback was positive from the slightly more than one hundred staff who participated.  On a smaller scale, we have experimented with randomly allocating members of my research team to breakout sessions during research group meetings in an attempt to give everyone a chance to contribute and to stimulate those serendipitous conversations that lead to breakthroughs, or least alternative solutions to explore.  We have also invited external speakers to join our group meetings – last month we had a talk from a researcher in Canada.  We are trying to recreate the environment in which new ideas bubble to the surface during casual conversations at conferences or visits to laboratories; however, I doubt we are succeeding.  The importance of those conversations to creativity and innovation in science is highlighted by the story of how Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna met for the first time at a conference in Puerto Rico.   While wandering around San Juan on a warm Caribbean evening in 2011 discussing the way bacteria protect themselves against viruses by chopping up the DNA of the virus, they realised that it could be turned into molecular scissors for cutting and editing the genes of any living creature.  They went home after the conference to their labs in Umea University, Sweden and UC Berkeley respectively and collaborated round the clock to implement their idea for which they won this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  Maybe the story is apocryphal; however, based on my own experience of conversations on the fringes of scientific meetings, they are more productive than the meeting itself and their loss is a significant casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are people who point to the reduction in the carbon footprint of science research caused by the cancellation of conferences and who argue that, in order to contribute to UN Goals for Sustainable Development, we should not return to gatherings of researchers in locations around the world.  I agree that we should consider our carbon footprint more carefully when once again we can travel to scientific meetings; however, I think the innovations required to achieve the UN Goals will emerge very slowly, or perhaps not all, if researchers are limited to meeting online only.

Source:

Clive Cookson, A dynamic Nobel duo with natural chemistry, FT Weekend, 10/11 October 2020.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.

Poleidoscope (=polariscope + kaleidoscope)

A section from a photoelastic model of turbine disc with a single blade viewed in polarised light to reveal the stress distribution.Last month I wrote about the tedium of collecting data 35 years ago without digital instrumentation and how it led me to work on automation and digitalisation in experimental mechanics [see ‘35 years later and still working on a PhD thesis‘ on September 16th, 2020].  Thirty years ago, one of the leading methods for determining stresses in components was photoelasticity, which uses polarised light to generate fringe patterns in transparent components or models that correspond to the distribution of stress.  The photoelastic fringes can be analysed in a polariscope, of which the basic principles are explained in a note at the end of this post.  During my PhD, I took hundreds of black and white photographs in a polariscope using sheets of 4×5 film, which came in boxes of 25 sheets that you can still buy, and then scanned these negatives using a microdensitometer to digitise the position of the fringes.  About 15 years after my PhD, together with my collaborators, I patented the poleidoscope which is a combination of a polariscope and a kaleidoscope [US patents 6441972 & 5978087] that removes all of that tedium.  It uses the concept of the multi-faceted lens in a child’s kaleidoscope to create several polariscopes within a compound lens attached to a digital camera.  Each polariscope has different polarising elements such that photoelastic fringes are phase-shifted between the set of images generated by the multi-faceted lens.  The phase-shifted fringe patterns can be digitally processed to yield maps of stress much faster and more reliably than any other method.  Photoelastic stress analysis is no longer popular in mainstream engineering or experimental mechanics due to the simplicity and power of digital image correlation [see ‘256 shades of grey‘ on January 22nd, 2014]; however, the poleidoscope has found a market as an inspection device that provides real-time information on residual stresses in glass sheets and silicon wafers during their production.  In 2003, I took study leave for the summer to work with Jon Lesniak at Glass Photonics in Madison, Wisconsin on the commercialisation of the poleidoscope.  Subsequently, Glass Photonics have  sold more than 250 instruments worldwide.

For more information on the poleidoscope see: Lesniak JR, Zhang SJ & Patterson EA, The design and evaluation of the poleidoscope: a novel digital polariscope, Experimental Mechanics, 44(2):128-135, 2004

Note on the Basic principles of photoelasticity: At any point in a loaded component there is a stress acting in every direction. The directions in which the stresses have the maximum and minimum values for the point are known as principal directions. The corresponding stresses are known as maximum and minimum principal stresses. When polarised light enters a loaded transparent component, it is split into two beams. Both beams travel along the same path, but each vibrates along a principal direction and travels at a speed proportional to the associated principal stress. Consequently, the light emerges as two beams vibrating out of phase with one another which when combined produce an interference pattern.   The polarised light is produced by the polariser in the polariscope and the analyser performs the combination. The interference pattern is observed in the polariscope, and the fringes are contours of principal stress difference which are known as isochromatics. When plane polarised light is used black fringes known as isoclinics are superimposed on the isochromatic pattern. Isoclinics indicate points at which the principal directions are aligned to the polarising axes of the polariser and analyser.

Image: a section from a photoelastic model of turbine disc with a single blade viewed in polarised light to reveal the stress distribution.

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.

Source:

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)