Today is National Engineering Day [see ‘My Engineering Day’ on November 4th, 2021] whose purpose is to highlight to society how engineers improve lives. I would like to celebrate the success of two engineers who are amongst the seventy-two engineers elected to the fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering this year. Chris Waldon is leading the design and delivery of a prototype fusion energy plant, targeting 2040, and a path to the commercial viability of fusion. This is a hugely ambitious undertaking that has the potential to transform our energy supply. He is the first chief engineer to move the delivery date to within twenty years rather than pushing it further into the future. My other featured engineer is Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, a leading advocate of innovations in engineering education that focus on encouraging enterprising and socially-conscious approaches to designing and delivering engineering solutions. These are important developments because we urgently need a more holistic, sustainable and liberal engineering education that produces engineers equipped to tackle the complex challenges facing society. Of course I am biased having worked and published with both of them. However, I am not alone in my regard for them and will be joining other Fellows of the Royal Academy of Engineering at a dinner in London next week to celebrate their achievements.
The new academic year is well and truly underway. It was 2019 when we last welcomed students to campus in person for the start of the academic year. In my role as Dean, I have been touring lecture theatres trying to speak to and welcome students in all of our taught programmes in the School of Engineering. It is exciting to see packed lecture theatres full of students eager to listen and learn. For the first time in a decade, I am not teaching this year so that I can focus on other activities. I have mixed feelings about giving up teaching. I taught my first class thirty-six years ago in Mechanics of Solids. For the last eleven years I have been teaching Thermodynamics to first year students [see, for example ‘From nozzles and diffusers to stars and stripes‘ on March 30th, 2022]. So, teaching has been a substantial part of my working life and its absence will leave a large hole. I will miss the excitement of standing in front of a class of hundreds of students as well as the rewards of interacting with undergraduate students who are encountering and engaging with a new subject. One consequence of my change in focus is likely to be a decline in the frequency of blog posts featuring thermodynamics [you can read them all under ‘Thermodynamics’ in Categories], but perhaps that will be a relief to many readers.
Image: Painting by Sarah Evans owned by the author.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I am teaching thermodynamics at the moment [see ‘Conversations about engineering over dinner and a haircut‘ on February 16th, 2022]. I am using a blended approach [see ‘ Blended learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018] to deliver the module to more than 300 first year undergraduate students with one hour in the lecture theatre each week while the students follow the components of the MOOC I developed some years ago [see ‘Free: Energy! Thermodynamics in Everyday Life‘ on November 11th, 2015, and ‘Engaging learners online‘ on May 25th, 2016]. I have found that first year undergraduates are reluctant to participate in the online discussions that are part of the MOOC and so last year I asked them to discuss each topic in small groups with their academic tutor. I got some very positive feedback from tutors who had interesting and stimulating discussions with their students. We are repeating the process again this year. The first discussion is about energy transformations: noting that energy is always conserved but constantly transformed into different forms, each student is asked to start from an energy state of their choice and to trace the transformations backwards until they can go no further. In the lecture preceding the discussion with their tutor I provide some examples for starting states, including breakfast cereal, a pole vaulter in mid-jump and a bullet train. I also describe the series of transformations from the Big Bang to tectonic plate movement: after the initial expansion caused by the Big Bang, the universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of sub-atomic particles followed by atoms of hydrogen and some helium and lithium that gravity caused to coalesce into clouds which became the early stars, or solar nebula. A crust formed on the solar nebula which broke away to form planets. Our planet has a molten core with temperatures varying from 4,400 to 6000 degrees Celsius, compared to around 5,500 degrees on the surface of the sun. The temperature variation in the Earth’s core cause thermal currents which drive the movement of tectonic plates and so on [see ‘The hills are shadows, and they flow from form to form, and nothing stands‘, on February 9th, 2022]. Most chains of energy transformation lead backwards to the sun and forwards to dissipation of energy into some unusable form which we might call ‘entropy’ [see ‘Life-time battle‘ on January 30th, 2013].
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.
Image shows a colour contour map describing the shape of a facemask produced using fringe projection which could be used as part of the vision system for a robotic barber. For more information on fringe projection see: Ortiz, M. H., & Patterson, E. A. (2005). Location and shape measurement using a portable fringe projection system. Experimental mechanics, 45(3), 197-204 or watch this video from the INDUCE project that was active from 1998 to 2001.