Tag Archives: diversity

Where have all the insects gone?

I remember when our children were younger, and we went on our summer holidays by car, that the car windscreen would be splattered with the remains of dead insects.  This summer my wife and I drove to Cornwall and back for our holidays almost without a single insect hitting our windscreen.  Where have all of the insects gone?  It would appear that we, the human species, have wiped them out as a consequence of the way we exploit the planet for our own comfort and convenience.  Insecticides and monocultures aided by genetically-modified crops make a direct contribution but our consumption of fossil fuels and intensive production of everything from beef [see ‘A startling result‘ on May 18th, 2016] to plastics is changing the environment [see ‘Productive cheating?‘ on November 27th, 2013]. The biologist, Edward O. Wilson observed that ‘If all humankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.’  It looks like we are on the cusp of that collapse.

Cristiana Pașca Palmer, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has highlighted the impact of our actions as a species on the other species with which we share this planet.  We are making the planet uninhabitable for an increasing number of species to the extent that the rate of extinct is perhaps the fastest ever seen and we might be the first species to catalogue its own demise.  Our politicians have demonstrated their inability to act together over climate change even when it leads to national disasters in many countries; so, it seems unlikely that they will agree on significant actions to arrest the loss of bio-diversity.  We need to act as individuals, in whatever way we can, to reduce our ecological footprints – that impact that we have on the environment [see ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014] .  As the Roman poet Horace wrote: ‘You are also affected when your neighbour’s house is on fire’; so, we should not think that none of this affect us.

See also:

Man, the Rubbish Maker

Are we all free-riders?

Consensus is just a coffee break

milk in coffee‘Consensus is just a coffee break’ to quote Caputo. He argued that if consensus was the ultimate aim then eventually we would all stop talking. The goal of conversation would be silence and as he wrote that would be a strange outcome for a species defined by its ability to speak. It is differences that drive everything: innovation, progress and the processes of life.

In thermodynamics, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) observed that heat flows into the random motion of molecules and is never recovered, so that eventually a universe of uniform temperature will be created. When heat flows between matter at different temperatures we can extract work, for instance, using a heat engine. No work could be extracted from a universe of uniform temperature and so nothing would happen. Life would cease and there would be cosmic death [see my posts entitled ‘Will it all be over soon‘ on November 2nd, 2016 and ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ on February 18th, 2015].

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the crew of the Heart of Gold contemplated whether relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules. The answer would appear to be affirmative in terms of dissonance being necessary for action.

So, we should celebrate and respect the differences in our communities. They are essential for a functioning, vibrant and successful society – without them life would not just consist of silent conversations but would cease completely.


Caputo JD, Truth: Philosophy in Transit, London: Penguin 2013

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London: Picador, 2002.

A big question for engineers

galleyhead lightThe proportion of women graduating with engineering degrees in the UK and US has remained around a sixth for at least the last thirty years despite many campaigns to achieve gender equality.  One of my colleagues, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, writing in the New Statesmen asked whether it will take another world war to get more women into engineering.  I think that the sort of seismic shift in attitude caused by such events will be required.  Many in the engineering profession claim that problem-solving is a unifying skill, which is common to all branches of engineering, and yet we have been unable to solve the problem that our profession is one of the least gender diverse.  Does this mean that we have not really been trying to solve the problem, or that we are not the problem-solvers we claim to be?


Landivar LC, Disparities in STEM employment by sex, race and Hispanic origin, US Census Bureau, September 2013


Choosing a career is like going shopping

WIN_20150616_121335When we go shopping many of us like to try things out and think about when we will use them, or wear them if they are clothes.  Susan Scurlock made this analogy at the Annual Congress of the UK Engineering Professors’ Council in April 2015 when she was talking about keeping children connected to engineering from the playroom floor to a career [see last week’s posting entitled ‘Everyone is born an engineer’].  It focusses attention on the important issue that if we want to attract young people into the engineering profession we have to let them try it out and we also have to offer an enticing prospect.

This might be obvious but we need something attractive to offer. And here, we have a problem because our male-dominated profession has created courses that appear boring and uninspiring to many in society.  This was one of the premises of a National Science Foundation project in the USA that I was involved in which looked at options for change in the engineering curriculum at university.   The main problem is not conceiving imaginative effective changes but persuading colleagues to implement these changes. It can work and there are shining examples such as those programmes with a focus on reducing global poverty and inequality at UC Berkeley and other enlightened institutions which were described by Sarah Mazzetti recently in the New York Times.

We have another big selling point that we tend to keep quiet about. Engineering is the happiest job in the world according to analysis by the Guardian newspaper on April 8th, 2015.

For more on the results of that NSF project see:

Busch-Vishniac, I., Kibler, T., Campbell, P.B., Patterson, E.A., Guillaume, D., Jarosz, J., Chassapis, C., Emery, A., Ellis, G., Whitworth, H., Metz, S., Brainard, S., Ray, P., 2011, Deconstructing Engineering Education Programmes: The DEEP Project to reform the mechanical engineering curriculum, European J Engng Education, 36(3):269-283.

Patterson, E.A., Campbell, P.B., Busch-Vishniac, I., Guillaume, D.W., 2011, The effect of context on student engagement in engineering, European J. Engng Education, 36(3):211-224.