Tag Archives: creativity

Mapping atoms

Typical atom maps of P, Cu, Mn, Ni & Si (clockwise from bottom centre) in 65x65x142 nm sample of steel from Styman et al, 2015.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the opening plenary talk at the NNL Sci-Tec conference [‘The disrupting benefit of innovation’ on May 23rd, 2018].  One of the innovations discussed at the conference was the applications of atom probe tomography for understanding the mechanisms underpinning material behaviour.  Atom probe tomography produces three-dimensional maps of the location and type of individual atoms in a sample of material.  It is a destructive technique that uses a high energy pulse to induce field evaporation of ions from the tip of a needle-like sample.  A detector senses the position of the ions and their chemical identity is found using a mass spectrometer.  Only small samples can be examined, typically of the order of 100nm.

A group led by Jonathan Hyde at NNL have been exploring the use of atom probe tomography to understand the post-irradiation annealing of weld material in reactor pressure vessels and to examine the formation of bubbles of rare gases in fuel cladding which trap hydrogen causing material embrittlement.  A set of typical three-dimensional maps of atoms is shown in the thumb-nail from a recent paper by the group (follow the link for the original image).

It is amazing that we can map the location of atoms within a material and we are just beginning to appreciate the potential applications of this capability.  As another presenter at the conference said: ‘Big journeys begin with Iittle steps’.

BTW it was rewarding to see one of our alumni from our CPD course [see ‘Leadership is like shepherding’ on May 10th, 2017] presenting this work at the conference.


Styman PD, Hyde JM, Parfitt D, Wilford K, Burke MG, English CA & Efsing P, Post-irradiation annealing of Ni-Mn-Si-enriched clusters in a neutron-irradiated RPV steel weld using atom probe tomography, J. Nuclear Materials, 459:127-134, 2015.

The disrupting benefit of innovation

Most scientific and technical conferences include plenary speeches that are intended to set the agenda and to inspire conference delegates to think, innovate and collaborate.  Andrew Sherry, the Chief Scientist of the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) delivered a superb example last week at the NNL SciTec 2018 which was held at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool on the waterfront.  With his permission, I have stolen his title and one of his illustrations for this post.  He used a classic 2×2 matrix to illustrate different types of change: creative change in the newspaper industry that has constantly redeveloped its assets from manual type-setting and printing to on-line delivery via your phone or tablet; progressive change in the airline industry that has incrementally tested and adapted so that modern commercial aircraft look superficially the same as the first jet airliner but represent huge advances in economy and reliability; inventive change in Liverpool’s Albert Dock that was made redundant by container ships but has been reinvented as a residential, tourism and business district.  The fourth quadrant, he reserved for the civil nuclear industry in the UK which requires disruptive change because its core assets are threatened by the end-of-life closure of all existing plants and because its core activity, supplying electrical power, is threatened by cheaper alternatives.

At the end of last year, NNL brought together all the prime nuclear organisations in the UK with leaders from other sectors, including aerospace, construction, digital, medical, rail, robotics, satellite and ship building at the Royal Academy of Engineering to discuss the drivers of innovation.  They concluded that innovation is not just about technology, but that successful innovation is driven by five mutually dependent themes that are underpinned by enabling regulation:

  1. innovative technologies;
  2. culture & leadership;
  3. collaboration & supply chain;
  4. programme and risk management; and
  5. financing & commercial models.

SciTec’s focus was ‘Innovation through Collaboration’, i.e. tackling two of these themes, and Andrew tasked delegates to look outside their immediate circle for ideas, input and solutions [to the existential threats facing the nuclear industry] – my words in parentheses.

Innovative technology presents a potentially disruptive threat to all established activities and we ignore it at our peril.  Andrew’s speech was wake up call to an industry that has been innovating at an incremental scale and largely ignoring the disruptive potential of innovation.  Are you part of a similar industry?  Maybe it’s time to check out the threats to your industry’s assets and activities…


Sherry AH, The disruptive benefit of innovation, NNL SciTec 2018 (including the graphic & title).

McGahan AM, How industries change, HBR, October 2004.

Thinking more clearly by writing weekly

In an echo of Henry Thoreau’s retreat to the woods around Walden pond, Sylvain Tesson escaped the ugliness of modern life and spent six months in a log cabin on the shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia.  He wanted to surround himself with silence in the wilderness.  He kept a diary ‘as a supplement to memory, to stave off forgetting’.  He describes how the act of writing ‘makes life fruitful’; how ‘the daily appointment with the blank page forces one … to listen harder, to think more clearly, to see more intently’.  I have similar feelings about writing a weekly post for this blog and being faced with a blank screen each week.  Sometimes it is a joy to order my thoughts and commit some of them to writing; other times it is a chore and a challenge to dream up something vaguely interesting to tell you.

BTW Teeson’s book was a pleasure to read and easier than Thoreau’s in my view.


Sylvain Teeson, Consolations of the forest: alone in a cabin in the middle Taiga, London: Penguin Books, 2014.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, London: Penguin Classics, 2016.

Compelling presentations

It used to be that you only had to compete with the view out of the window when you were talking to a group of people.  Now, you have to compete with the view of the world available through people’s mobile devices.  You know when your audience arrives and sets up their laptops that you have a challenge ahead of you.  A few of them might be planning to take notes using their laptop but most will be distracted by the constant flow of information delivered by email and messaging applications.  Of course, you can use the same technology to embellish your presentation and to hold their attention; but often the result is ‘death by Powerpoint’ and the audience retreats into their own worlds – doing their own thing.

There’s a nice quote from an interview with Eric Clapton in the San Diego Union Tribune (September 4th, 2005): ‘It’s very hard, so I try and make it as engaging as it can be. But you have to face the fact that, no matter how good it is, you can only hold their attention for a little while.  So, you have to plan you talk in small steps and to re-engage your audience at the start of each step.  There needs to be a narrative and the same rules apply as when writing [see post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader’ on April 15th, 2015].  Powerpoint is not a requisite nor a substitute but preparation is essential.  As a group of undergraduate students told me during a recent visit to another university, they can easily spot the lecturers who prepare conscientiously and are worth listening to.

I am at a scientific conference this week where a wide range of speaking skills will be on display and I have my mobile devices with me to provide alternative stimulation.  The real value of the conference is the opportunity to interact with other researchers in a community of knowledge and for that we need shorter talks and more time for discussion.  But the mechanics of modern scientific conferences is a separate issue!


Image: view from lecture theatre on London campus where I taught science and technology leadership last year [see post entitled ‘Leadership is like shepherding‘ on May 10th, 2017].