If 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.
We held the kick-off meeting for a new research project this week. It’s a three-way collaboration involving three professors based in Portugal, the UK and USA [Chris Sutcliffe, John Lambros at UIUC and me]; so, our kick-off meeting should have involved at least two of us travelling to the laboratory of the third collaborator and spending some time brainstorming about the challenges that we have agreed to tackle over the next three years. Instead we had a call via Skype and a rather procedural meeting in which we covered all of the issues without really engendering any excitement or sparking any new ideas. It would appear that we need the stimulus of new environments to maximise our creativity and that we use body language as well as facial expressions to help us reach a friendly consensus on which crazy ideas are worth pursuing and which should be quietly forgotten.
Our new research project has a long title: ‘Thermoacoustic response of Additively Manufactured metals: A multi-scale study from grain to component scales‘. In simple terms, we are going to look at whether residual stresses could be designed to be beneficial to the performance of structural parts used in demanding environments such as those found in reusable spacecraft, hypersonic flight vehicles and breeder blankets in fusion reactors. Residual stresses are often induced during the manufacture of parts and are usually detrimental to the performance of the part. Our hypothesis is that in additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, we have sufficient control of the manufacture of the part that we can introduce ‘designer stresses’ which will improve the part’s performance in demanding environments. The research is funded jointly by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK and is supported by The MTC and Renishaw plc; you can find out more at Grants on the Web. The research will be building on our recent research on ‘Potential dynamic buckling in hypersonic vehicle skin‘ [posted July 1st, 2020] and earlier work, see ‘Hot stuff‘ on September 13th, 2012. While the demanding environment is not new to us, we will be using 3D printed parts for the first time instead of components made by conventional (subtractive) machining and taking them to higher temperatures.
Shortly before the pandemic started to have an impact in the UK, I went to our local second-hand bookshop and bought a pile of old paperbacks to read. One of them was ‘Daisy Miller and Other Stories’ by Henry James (published in 1983 as Penguin Modern Classic). The title of this post is a quote from one of the ‘other stories’, ‘The Lesson of the Master’, which was first published in 1888. ‘Success is to have made people wriggle to another tune’ is said by the successful fictional novelist, Henry St George as words of encouragement to the young novelist Paul Ovett. It struck a chord with me because I think it sums up academic life. Success in teaching is to inspire a new level of insight and way of thinking amongst our students; while, success in research is to change the way in which society, or at least a section of it, thinks or operates, i.e. to have made people wriggle to another tune.
I suspect that none of us think in straight lines. We have random ideas that we progressively arrange into some sort of order, or forget them. The Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon thought that three characteristics defined creative thinking: first, the willingness to accept vaguely defined problems and gradually structure them; second, a preoccupation with problems over a considerable period of time; and, third, extensive background knowledge. The first two characteristics seem strongly connected because you need to think about an ill-defined problem over a significant period of time in order to gradually provide a structure that will allow you to create possible solutions. We need to have random thoughts in order to generate new structures and possible solutions that might work better than those we have already tried out; so, thinking in straight lines is unlikely to be productive and instead we need intentional mind-wandering [see ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016]. More complex problems will require the assembling of more components in the structure and, hence are likely to require a larger number of neurons to assemble and to take longer, i.e. to require longer and deeper thought with many random excursions [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020] .
In a university curriculum it is relatively easy to deliver extensive background knowledge and perhaps we can demonstrate techniques to students, such as sketching simple diagrams [see ‘Meta-knowledge: knowledge about knowledge‘ on June 19th, 2019], so that they can gradually define vaguely posed problems; however, it is difficult to persuade students to become preoccupied with a problem since many of them are impatient for answers. I have always found it challenging to teach creative problem-solving to undergraduate students; and, the prospect of continuing limitations on face-to-face teaching has converted this challenge into a problem requiring a creative solution in its own right.