I have been visiting the Airbus site at Filton near Bristol since the mid-1990s. It is where the wings for new designs of aircraft are developed and tested. My involvement has been in the developing of techniques for measuring strain in aircraft structures during static and fatigue tests. At the moment, we are working on methods to integrate fields of measurements with computational predictions of stress and strain [see ‘Jigsaw puzzling without a picture‘ on October 27th, 2021]. I frequently travel by train to Bristol Parkway Station and walk past the church in the photograph without even noticing it despite it being next to the station. To be fair, the view of it from the station entrance is obscured by a billboard. However, last week as I walked back to the station with a half-hour to spare, I noticed a gate leading into a churchyard. I slipped through the gate thinking that perhaps there might be an interesting old church to explore but it was locked and I had to be satisfied with a stroll around the churchyard. I was slightly shocked to realise the church, and the village green beyond it, had been hidden in full view for more than thirty years of walking within a few tens of metres of it perhaps once a month. I had always been too focussed on the research that I was heading to Airbus to discuss, or too tired at the end of a day, to notice the things around me. Our senses flood our brains with information most of which is ignored by our conscious minds that are busy time traveling through past memories or looking into the future [see ‘Time travel and writing history‘ on March 23rd, 2022]. However, there is pleasure to be gained by dwelling in the present and exploring the sensory experience flooding into our brains. As Amy Liptrot commented in her book ‘The Outrun‘, “the more I take the time to look at things, the more rewards and complexity I find”.
The French novelist Michel Houellebecq has written of the power of literature to separate yourself from your existence. It is something that I experience when reading an absorbing novel or occasionally when reading an outstanding scientific paper on a subject that interests me. However, it happens more often when I am writing and perhaps is a reason why I write regularly and frequently. Houellebecq has also written that ‘only literature can give you the sensation of contact with another human mind’ [in Submission, 2015]. Is it only literature that can produce this sensation? Or, does it occur when you listen to an in-depth interview or even when you read posts regularly from a blogger? Perhaps after 500 posts [see ‘500th post‘ on February 2nd, 2022] you have a sensation of contact with some part of my mind.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post inspired by reading ‘This is happiness‘ by Niall Williams [see ‘Are these the laws of engineering?’ onJuly 14th 2021]. On a more personal note, I enjoyed another description in the same book: ‘he was over sixty years…the moving bits of him could no longer be taken for granted, and twinges, pulls and strains in the elasticated parts were matched by aches, clunks and creaks in the skeletal.’ This description could apply to me but fortunately only on a bad day at the moment. I am going on a deep vacation [see ‘Digital detox with a deep vacation‘ on August 10th, 2016] for a few weeks in order to rejuvenate my mind and body by walking some sections of the South-West Coast Path [see ‘The Salt Path‘ on August 14th, 2019]. Regular posts will resume when I return in August.
About four years ago I wrote about living in bubbles and rarely coming into contact with people outside of our bubble [see ‘You’re all weird‘ on February 8th, 2017]. This was in the context of our experience of the media and our surprise when electorates make apparently irrational decisions. Since early this year we have been encouraged to live in more literal bubbles in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19; so, for example, we have created bubbles of researchers using our research labs in shifts to avoid a total shutdown of research when someone tests positive for coronavirus. For many people, the pandemic has isolated them in a bubble of one that has created concerns about the well-being and happiness of individuals living and working alone. When asked about the place he is happiest, the artist Ai Weiwei responded ‘Every place is equal for me. Even in detention I could still find joyful moments’. He finds ways to connect to other people and their emotions by reflecting on who he is, which leads to moments of joy. He believes that success in life is about finding yourself in way that ‘doesn’t need ambition or talent. It just needs a functioning mind, emotion and simple judgment.’ During lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it has become more important to maintain the life of mind through reading and discovering new ideas. As Jarvis Cocker said in a recent interview: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same things, rechewing the same thing. I find that really boring.’ I hope that these posts have brought you new ideas and ways of thinking during 2020; writing them has certainly kept my mind active and stimulated. So, I plan to continue in 2021 and hope that you will continue to read them. Best wishes for a happy New Year!