It is about 35 years since I graduated with my PhD. It was not ground-breaking although, together with my supervisor, I did publish about half a dozen technical papers based on it and some of those papers are still being cited, including one this month which surprises me. I performed experiments and computer modelling on the load and stress distribution in threaded fasteners, or nuts and bolts. There were no digital cameras and no computer tomography; so, the experiments involved making and sectioning models of nuts and bolts in transparent plastic using three-dimensional photoelasticity [see ‘Art and Experimental Mechanics‘ on July 17th, 2012]. I took hundreds of photographs of the sections and scanned the negatives in a microdensitometer. The computer modelling was equally slow and laborious because there were no graphical user interfaces (GUI); instead, I had to type strings of numbers into a terminal, wait overnight while the calculations were performed, and then study reams of numbers printed out on long rolls of paper. The tedium of the experimental work inspired me to work on utilising digital technology to revolutionise the field of experimental mechanics over the following 15 to 20 years. In the past 15 to 20 years, I have moved back towards computer modelling and focused on transforming the way in which measurement data are used to improve the fidelity of computer models and to establish confidence in their predictions [see ‘Establishing fidelity and credibility in tests and simulations‘ on July 25th, 2018]. Since completing my PhD, I have supervised 32 students to successful completion of their PhDs. You might think that was a straightforward process of an initial three years for the first one to complete their research and write their thesis, followed by one graduating every year. But that is not how it worked out, instead I have had fallow years as well as productive years. At the moment, I am in a productive period, having graduated two PhD students per year since 2017 – that’s a lot of reading and I have spent much of the last two weekends reviewing a thesis which is why PhD theses are the topic of this post!
When I was younger, I often had dreams when I was asleep in which I raised my arms and flew effortlessly across the landscape. I had the opportunity to have a similar experience while awake when I was in Taiwan earlier this year. I am fairly frequent visitor to Taiwan [see ‘‘Crash’ in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue‘ on November 19th, 2014 and ‘Citizens of the world‘ on November 27th, 2019]. I often go with colleagues from the UK who have not been before and almost without fail we visit the amazing National Palace Museum. On my last visit in January [see: ‘Ancient standards‘ on January 29th, 2020] there was an exciting blend of art and technology in an exhibit that allowed the visitor to fly through the landscape of a painting. I stood in front of a projection of the picture on a large screen and lifted my arms for a moment to allow the computer system to register my position before starting to fly into the picture, tilting left or right to turn, and lowering and raising my arms to slow down or speed up. Although there was no mask or headphones to wear, the experience was absorbing and realistic. You can watch me flying with my ‘jetpack’ in this video.
One of the benefits of supervising research students is that you can read a large number of scientific papers by proxy. In other words, my research students read more papers than I would ever have time to read and then they write reviews of the scientific literature that allow me to quickly gain an understanding of research in a particular field. Every now and again, a student refers to a paper that raises my curiosity to read it for myself. One of these was a paper published by Waldo Tobler in 1970 in which he describes the computational modelling of urban growth in Detroit, Michigan. Although, I used to live in Michigan, it was not the geographical connection that interested me but his invocation of the first law of geography: ‘everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things’. Professor Tobler was writing from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor which he used in an example by highlighting that the population growth in Ann Arbor from 1930 to 1940 depended not only on the 1930 population of Ann Arbor, but also on the 1930 population of Vancouver, Singapore, Cape Town, Berlin and so on. Perhaps if he had been writing in 2020 he would have suggested that the rate of infection from coronavirus in Ann Arbor depends not only on the number of cases in Ann Arbor, but also on the number of cases Taipei, Milan, Toulouse, Dublin and so on.