Tag Archives: Einstein

We inhabit time as fish live in water

A couple of weeks ago (‘Only the name of the airport changes’ on June 12th, 2019) I wrote about the stretching and compression of time while I waited for my much delayed flight to Reno. I mentioned Aristotle’s view of time as the measurement of change; however, Newton believed that time passes even when nothing changes. Einstein resolved the conundrum, represented by these different views, using the concept of a space-time domain forming a gravitational field containing waves. My title is a quote from Carlo Rovelli’s book, ‘The Order of Time‘. And, according to Rovelli, ‘mass slows down time around itself’, which I think will cause waves in the space-time domain .  Conservation of energy implies that the movement of an object will tend towards space where time passes more slowly, i.e. in the vicinity of large masses. Hence, things fall downwards because time runs more slowly close to the Earth. This implies that time passes more slowly at the airport than on the plane in flight; but, of course, the differences are too small for us to measure or perceive.

Image: Art work ‘Gaia’ by Luke Jerram in Liverpool Cathedral


Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Penguin, 2019.

In Einstein’s footprints?

Grand Hall of the Guild of Carpenters, Zurich

During the past week, I have been working with members of my research group on a series of papers for a conference in the USA that a small group of us will be attending in the summer.  Dissemination is an important step in the research process; there is no point in doing the research if we lock the results away in a desk drawer and forget about them.  Nowadays, the funding organisations that support our research expect to see a plan of dissemination as part of our proposals for research; and hence, we have an obligation to present our results to the scientific community as well as to communicate them more widely, for instance through this blog.

That’s all fine; but nevertheless, I don’t find most conferences a worthwhile experience.  Often, there are too many uncoordinated sessions running in parallel that contain presentations describing tiny steps forward in knowledge and understanding which fail to compel your attention [see ‘Compelling presentations‘ on March 21st, 2018].  Of course, they can provide an opportunity to network, especially for those researchers in the early stages of their careers; but, in my experience, they are rarely the location for serious intellectual discussion or debate.  This is more likely to happen in small workshops focussed on a ‘hot-topic’ and with a carefully selected eclectic mix of speakers interspersed with chaired discussion sessions.

I have been involved in organising a number of such workshops in Glasgow, London, Munich and Shanghai over the last decade.  The next one will be in Zurich in November 2019 in Guild Hall of Carpenters (Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten) where Einstein lectured in November 1910 to the Zurich Physical Society ‘On Boltzmann’s principle and some of its direct consequences‘.  Our subject will be different: ‘Validation of Computational Mechanics Models’; but we hope that the debate on credible models, multi-physics simulations and surviving with experimental data will be as lively as in 1910.  If you would like to contribute then download the pdf from this link; and if you just like to attend the one-day workshop then we will be announcing registration soon and there is no charge!

We have published the outcomes from some of our previous workshops:

Advances in Validation of Computational Mechanics Models (from the 2014 workshop in Munich), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 51, no.1, 2016

Strain Measurement in Extreme Environments (from the 2012 workshop in Glasgow), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 49, no. 4, 2014.

Validation of Computational Solid Mechanics Models (from the 2011 workshop in Shanghai), Journal of Strain Analysis, vol. 48, no.1, 2013.

The workshop is supported by the MOTIVATE project and further details are available at http://www.engineeringvalidation.org/4th-workshop

The MOTIVATE project has received funding from the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 754660.

Blind to complexity

fruit fly nervous system Albert Cardona HHMI Janelia Research Campus Welcome Image Awards 2015When faced with complexity, we tend to seek order and simplicity.  Most of us respond negatively to the uncertainty associated with complex systems and their apparent unpredictability.  Complex systems can be characterised as large networks operating using simple rules but without central control which results in self-organising behaviour and non-trivial emergent behaviour.  Emergent behaviour is the behaviour of the system that is not apparent or expected from the behaviour of its constituent parts [see ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015].

The philosopher, William Wimsatt observed that we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds our predictive capability and our detection apparatus.  This is problematic because we try to over-simplify our descriptions of complex systems.  Occam’s razor is often mis-interpreted to mean that simple explanations are better ones, whereas in reality ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’, (which is often attributed to Einstein).  This implies that our explanation and any mathematical model of a complex system, such as the nervous system in the image, will need to be complex.  In mathematical terms, this will probably mean a non-linear dynamic model with a solution in the form of a phase portrait.  ‘Non-linear’ because the response of the system not proportional to the stimulus inducing the response; ‘dynamic’ because the system changes with time; and a ‘phase portrait’ because the system can exist in many states, some stable and some unstable, dependent on its prior history; so, for instance for a pendulum, its phase portrait is a plot of all of its possible positions and velocities.

If all this sounds too hard, then you see why people shy away from using complex models to describe a complex system even when it is obvious that the system is complex and extremely unlikely to be adequately described by a linear model, such as for the nervous system in the image.

In other words, if we can’t see it and its too hard to think about it, then we pretend it’s not happening!


The thumbnail shows an image of a fruit-fly’s nervous system taken by Albert Cardona from HHMI Janelia Research Campus.  The image won a Wellcome Image Award in 2015.

William C. Wimsatt, Randomness and perceived randomness in evolutionary biology, Synthese, 43(2):287-329, 1980.

For more on this topic see: ‘Is the world comprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017.