Thirty-three months ago (see ‘Finding DIMES‘ on February 6th, 2019) we set off at a gallop ‘to develop and demonstrate an automated measurement system that integrates a range of measurement approaches to enable damage and cracks to be detected and monitored as they originate at multi-material interfaces in an aircraft assembly’. The quotation is taken directly from the aim of the DIMES project which was originally planned and funded as a two-year research programme. Our research, in particular the demonstration element, has been slowed down by the pandemic and we resorted to two no-cost extensions, initially for three months and then for six months to achieve the project aim. Two weeks ago, we held our final review meeting, and this week we will present our latest results in the third of a series of annual workshops hosted by Airbus, the project’s topic manager. The DIMES system combines visual and infrared cameras with resistance strain gauges and fibre Bragg gratings to detect 1 mm cracks in metals and damage indications in composites that are only 6 mm in diameter. We had a concept design by April 2019 (see ‘Joining the dots‘ on July 10th, 2019) and a detailed design by August 2019. Airbus supplied us with a section of A320 wing, and we built a test-bench at Empa in Zurich in which we installed our prototype measurement system in the last quarter of 2019 (see ‘When seeing nothing is a success‘ on December 11th, 2019). Then, the pandemic intervened and we did not finish testing until May 2021 by which time, we had also evaluated it for monitoring damage in composite A350 fuselage panels (see ‘Noisy progressive failure of a composite panel‘ on June 30th, 2021). In parallel, we have installed our ‘DIMES system’ in ground tests on an aircraft wing at Airbus in Filton (see image) and, using a remote installation, in a cockpit at Airbus in Toulouse (see ‘Most valued player performs remote installation‘ on December 2nd, 2020), as well as an aircraft at NRC Aerospace in Ottawa (see ‘An upside to lockdown‘ on April 14th 2021). Our innovative technology allows condition-led monitoring based on automated damage detection and enables ground tests on aircraft structures to be run 24/7 saving about 3 months on each year-long test.
We sense the passage of time by the changes that occur around us (see ‘We inhabit time as fish live in water‘ on July 24th, 2019) and these changes are brought about by processes that generate entropy. Entropy is often referred to as the arrow of time because forwards in time is always the direction in which the entropy of the universe increases, as demanded by the second law of thermodynamics (see for example ‘Subtle balance of sustainable orderliness‘ on June 22nd, 2016). The temperature in a refrigerator is sufficiently low that it slows down the processes of decay in the food stored in it (see’ Life-time battle‘ on January 30th, 2013) which effectively slows down time locally in the fridge. However, there is a price to pay because the process of creating of the cold zone in the fridge increases the entropy in the universe and moves the universe infinitesimally closer to cosmic heat death (see ‘Will it all be over soon?‘ on November 2nd, 2016). So, cooling the food in your fridge slows down time locally but brings the end of the universe a tiny bit closer. Perhaps that’s not worth worrying about until you start thinking about how many fridges there are in the world (about half a billion are sold every year) and how many other devices are generating entropy. The end of the universe might still be billions of years away but all that anthropogenic entropy is contributing to the increase in the temperature of the Earth’s ecosystem.
I recently came across this quote from Paul Virilio, a French philosopher who lived from 1932 to 2018. Actually, it is only the first part of a statement he made during an interview with Philippe Petit in 1996. ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.’ These events have a catastrophic level of negativity; however, there is a more insidious form of negativity induced by every new technology. It arises as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics which demands that the entropy of the universe increases in all real processes. In other words, that the degree of disorder in the universe is increased every time we use technology to do something useful, in fact whenever anything happens the second law ensures some negativity. This implies that the capacity to do something useful, often measured in terms of energy, is decreased not just by doing the useful thing but also by creating disorder. Technology helps us to do more useful things more quickly; but the downside is that faster processes tend to create more entropy and disorder. Most of this negativity is not as obvious as a shipwreck or plane crash but instead often takes the form of pollution that eventually and inexorably disrupts the world making it a less hospitable home for us and the rest of nature. The forthcoming COP26 conference is generating much talk about the need for climate action but very little about the reality that we cannot avoid the demands of the second law and hence need to rethink how, when and what technology we use.
The philosophy of science has oscillated between believing that everything is knowable and that somethings will always be unknowable. In 1872, the German physiologist, Emil du Bois-Reymond declared ‘we do not know and will not know’ implying that there would always be limits to our scientific knowledge. Thirty years later, David Hilbert, a German mathematician stated that nothing is unknowable in the natural sciences. He believed that by considering some things to be unknowable we limited our ability to know. However, Kurt Godel, a Viennese mathematician who moved to Princeton in 1940, demonstrated in his incompleteness theorems that for any finite mathematical system there will always be statements which are true but unprovable and that a finite mathematical system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. I think that this implies some things will remain unknowable or at least uncertain. Godel believed that his theorems implied that the power of the human mind is infinitely more powerful than any finite machine and Roger Penrose has deployed these incompleteness theorems to argue that consciousness transcends the formal logic of computers, which perhaps implies that artificial intelligence will never replace human intelligence [see ‘Four requirements for consciousness‘ on January 22nd, 2020]. At a more mundane level, Godel’s theorems imply that engineers will always have to deal with the unknowable when using mathematical models to predict the behaviour of complex systems and, of course, to avoid meta-ignorance, we have to assume that there are always unknown unknowns [see ‘Deep uncertainty and meta-ignorance‘ on July 21st, 2021].