I have written before about the process of writing, both in general and in this blog in particular. While I do not claim to write literature; nevertheless I felt some empathy with a couple of statements in Michel Houllebecq‘s novel ‘Submission‘. The first was ‘…only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, exciting or repugnant.’ And the second was ‘Even in our deepest most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know.’ I know a few people who read this blog but they are a tiny minority of the readers so essentially I am addressing a reader I do not know when I write a post. However, my posts sometimes lead to a conversation that is more open than would have happened without the post. Inevitably, these conversations occur with the small number of readers with whom I am in direct contact. However, I suspect that I reveal my limitations and obsessions to all of my readers, I hope I avoid my pettinesses while enthusing you with what I find moving or exciting, such as Michel Houellebecq’s novel this week or Olga Tokarczuk’s last week.
The recent extreme weather is perhaps leading more people to appreciate the changes in our climate are real and likely to have a serious impact on our way of life [see ‘Climate change and tides in Liverpool‘ on May 11th, 2016]. However, I suspect that most people do not appreciate the likely catastrophic effect of global warming. For example, during the 20th century, the average rise is sea level was 1.7 mm per year; however, since the early 1990s it has been rising at 3 mm per year, and sea levels are currently rising at about 4mm per year according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is difficult to translate statistics of this type into a meaningful format – the graph below helps in recognising the trends but does not convey anything about the impact. However, I am impressed by a new art installation on the Liverpool waterfront by Alicja Biala called ‘Merseyside Totemy’ which illustrates the percentage of each of three high-risk local areas that will be underwater by 2080 if current trends continue: Birkenhead (centre of photograph), Formby (left) and Liverpool City Centre (right behind tree) [see www.biennial.com/collaborations/alicjabiala]. Perhaps using data for 30 years time rather than 60 years would have focussed people’s attention on the need to make changes to alleviate the impact.
Figure 1. Time series of global mean sea level (deviation from the 1980-1999 mean) in the past and as projected for the future. For the period before 1870, global measurements of sea level are not available. The grey shading shows the uncertainty in the estimated long-term rate of sea level change. The red line is a reconstruction of global mean sea level from tide gauges, and the red shading denotes the range of variations from a smooth curve. The green line shows global mean sea level observed from satellite altimetry. The blue shading represents the range of model projections for the SRES A1B scenario for the 21st century, relative to the 1980 to 1999 mean, and has been calculated independently from the observations. Beyond 2100, the projections are increasingly dependent on the emissions scenario. Over many centuries or millennia, sea level could rise by several metres. From https://archive.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/faq-5-1-figure-1.html
“Inner space and outer space are similar, aren’t they really? You’re never going to get to the edge of the universe in a spaceship. You might as well try going on a bus. You can only go there in your head.” This is a quote from David Hockney in ‘Spring Cannot Be Cancelled‘ by David Hockney and Martin Gayford. It’s a beautiful book. Full of thought-provoking insights and recent artwork by Hockney painted in Normandy mainly during the pandemic. I read it last month while in the Yorkshire Dales [see ‘Walking the hills‘ on April 13th 2022]. Hockney writes about his need to paint. He finds it utterly absorbing and endlessly sustaining. Gayford compares this need and experience to the work of American psychologist, Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi [see ‘Slow-motion multi-tasking leads to productive research‘ on September 19, 2018] who wrote about concentration so intense that there is no spare capacity to think about anything else, your self-consciousness disappears and you lose your sense of time leading to a deep sense of happiness and well-being. I cannot paint but I can achieve something approaching a similiar state when I am writing.
Recently, over dinner, someone I had just met asked me what type of engineering I do. I always find this a difficult question to answer because I am sure that they are just being polite and do not want to hear any technical details but I find it hard to give an interesting answer without diving into details. Earlier the same day I had given a lecture on thermodynamics to about 300 undergraduate students so I told my inquisitor about this experience and explained that thermodynamics was the science of energy and its transformation into different forms. Then, I muttered something about being interested in making and using measurements to ensure that computational models of aircraft and nuclear power stations are reliable and the conversation quickly moved on. A week or so earlier, I was having my hair cut when the barber asked me a similar question about what I did and I told him that I was a professor of engineering which led to a conversation about robots. We speculated about whether we would ever lose our jobs to robots and decided that we were both fairly secure against that threat. There is a high degree of creativity in both of our roles – while I always ask for the same haircut, my hair is in a different state every time I visit the barbers’ and I leave looking slightly different every time. I don’t think that I would like the uniformity that a row of robots in the barbers’ shop might produce. And, then there is the conversation during the haircut. A robot would need to pass the Turing test, i.e., to exhibit intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from a human, which no computer has yet achieved or is likely to do so in our lifetime, at least not a cost that would allow them to replace barbers. The same holds for professors – the shift to delivering lectures online during the pandemic might have made some professors worry that their jobs were at risk as recorded lectures replaced live performances; however, student feedback tells us that students have a strong preference for on-campus teaching and the high turnout for my thermodynamics lectures supports that conclusion.
For a new website I was asked to describe my research interests in about 25 words and used the following: ‘the acquisition of information-rich measurement data and its use to develop digital representations of complex systems in the aerospace, biological and energy sectors’. Fine for a website but not dinner conversation!
There have been some attempts to build a robot that cut your hair, for example see this video.