Tag Archives: knowledge

Citizens of the world

Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade.  On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.  The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions.  On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident.  Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.

The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households.  One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world.  Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060.  This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.

 

Engineering correspondents needed

Society’s perception  of scientists and engineers is not well-balanced; scientists tend to get the headlines when they make new discoveries while engineers are only in the headlines when things go wrong.  Even worse, when I was a student, the successes of the NASA’s space shuttle were usually reported as scientific achievements while its problems were engineering failures; when the whole programme was an enormous feat of engineering!  Perhaps this is because news organisations tend to have science correspondents and editors but no engineering correspondents.  When you search for engineering journalism jobs most of the results relate to roles associated with the technology of journalism; whereas a search for science journalism jobs results in dozens of vacancies for science writers, correspondents and editors.  The lack of engineering correspondents has been evident in the UK during the past week in reporting about the potential bursting of the dam at Toddbrock Reservoir and flooding of the town of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire UK.  A 188 year old dam has been damaged by the turbulent flow of water over its spillway following unprecedented levels of rainfall (e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-49222956). There is little discussion of the significant achievement of the Victorian engineers who designed and built a dam in the 1831 that has lasted 188 years or that climate change is causing shifts in weather patterns which have altered the design specifications for engineering infrastructure including dams, bridges and sea defences.  We need more journalists to write about engineering and preferable more journalists who have been educated as engineers particularly as society starts to face the potential existential threat caused by climate change and over-population.

For more on the nature of engineering, and its relationship to science, see ‘Making things happen‘ on September 26th, 2018; ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 and ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd 2015.

And on the communication skills of engineers: ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015 and ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018.

Meta-knowledge: knowledge about knowledge

As engineers, we like to draw simple diagrams of the systems that we are attempting to analyse because most of us are pictorial problem-solvers and recording the key elements of a problem in a sketch helps us to identify the important issues and select an appropriate solution procedure [see ‘Meta-representational competence’ on May 13th, 2015].  Of course, these simple representations can be misleading if we omit parameters or features that dominate the behaviour of the system; so, there is considerable skill in idealising a system so that the analysis is tractable, i.e. can be solved.  Students find it especially difficult to acquire these skills [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] and many appear to avoid drawing a meaningful sketch even when examinations marks are allocated to it [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018].  Of course, in thermodynamics it is complicated by the entropy of the system being reduced when we omit parameters in order to idealise the system; because with fewer parameters to describe the system there are fewer microstates in which the system can exist and, hence according to Boltzmann, the entropy will be lower [see ‘Entropy on the brain‘ on November 29th, 2017].  Perhaps this is the inverse of realising that we understand less as we know more.  In other words, as our knowledge grows it reveals to us that there is more to know and understand than we can ever hope to comprehend [see ‘Expanding universe‘ on February 7th, 2018]. Is that the second law of thermodynamics at work again, creating more disorder to counter the small amount of order achieved in your brain?

Image: Sketch made during an example class

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.