This is the five hundredth post on this blog. The first 21 posts were published randomly between July 11th, 2012, and January 4th, 2013; and the weekly posts only started on January 7th, 2013, so I have another 48 posts to publish before I can claim a decade of weekly posts. Nevertheless, I feel it is worth shouting about 500 posts.
I am a little surprised to realise that I have written five hundred posts and it has made me pause to think about why I write them. A number of answers came to mind, including because I enjoy writing – it empties my mind and allows me to move on to new thoughts or, on other occasions, it allows me to arrange my thoughts into some sort of order. I also write posts to communicate ideas, to disseminate research, to entertain and to fulfill a commitment, initially to funding bodies (I started the blog as part of commitment to Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award) but increasingly to readers of the blog. I am amazed that for the last five years the blog has been read in more 140 countries. While I have a handful of statistics about the readership, beyond the small handful of readers who correspond with me or who I meet in person, I have no idea who reads the blog. Most of time I do not give much thought to who is reading my posts and my intended reader is a rather vague fuzzy figure who barely exists in my mind.
The map shows the distribution of all readers over the 500 posts with the darker colour indicating more readers per country.
While shopping on-line for books during a pandemic lockdown allows you to buy new books, I found it difficult browse online and find new authors. Perhaps because the algorithms employed by the booksellers are too busy guessing my interests or promoting the latest book that they want me to buy. So it was a pleasure to be able to walk into a bookshop again in a couple of months ago. One of the new authors that I discovered was Niall Williams. I have just finished reading his 2019 novel ‘This is happiness‘ which weaves together the life of an Irish village in which nothing ever changes until the coming of electricity, a tale of coming of age and another of burying the past. In the middle of this beautifully-told story, a salesman is extolling the virtues of the electrical gadgets that they can install in their new electrified homes and says that ‘the first law of engineering was to make the world a better place’. The narrator quietly tells us the second law, which the salesman doesn’t state, ‘that without exception everything that was engineered would one day break down … usually one day after each machine had become indispensable to living’. This is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics, which is that entropy, or disorder, increases in all real processes. Hence, the localised order, which we create when something is engineered, is constantly being eroded until eventually the disorder leads to a break down. Or, as Murphy’s law states ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong’. However, the definition of the first law of engineering was the one that caught my eye and resonated with a corny introduction that I used in a talk on why we need to change the way we teach engineering. I played a recording of Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful world‘ and then talked about the wonderful world that engineers have created before highlighting the unsustainable environmental costs of our ‘wonderful’ engineered world and that it is inaccessible to a large portion of the world’s population. I gave that talk many times to groups of engineering professors in the USA between about 2006 and 2012; maybe I had some impact but there is still a lot of changes needed to achieve a sustainable society. So, the first law of engineering should be to make the world a better place for everyone.
Last week, the continuation until at least the end of March of the lockdown, which has been in place in England since the start of the year, was announced. Many people are feeling jaded and worn out by the constraints and hardships imposed by the lockdown and are struggling to maintain their well-being and mental health. While others are trying to cope with the direct impact of the coronavirus on themselves and their family and friends. I have written before about the power of writing to transport me away from the pressures of everyday life [see ‘Feeling extraordinary at ease‘ on January 8th, 2020] and to help me order my thoughts [see ‘Thinking more clearly by writing weekly‘ on May 2nd, 2018]. These posts were inspired by reading books by Natalia Ginzburg and Sylvain Tesson. I have just finished reading ‘A Fly Girl’s Guide to University‘ edited by Odelia Younge in which Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan writes about ‘times when my mental health was bad…writing became a solace and a friend’. In the context of institutional pressures, racism and exclusion, she describes writing about her feelings to help her to feel and listening to her own voice when nobody else would. I was reading the book to gain an appreciation of the experiences of woman of colour in a university; however, I think Manzoor-Khan’s words are relevant to everyone, especially when we are locked away and can only meet with much of our support networks via our computers and phones. Tim Hayward, in the FT in January 2021, wrote a deeply moving and insightful account of his experience of fighting coronavirus, including ten days on life support, and concludes by reflecting on how writing the article helped him handle the trauma. Of course, you don’t have to write for a newspaper, a book or a blog; although writing for an audience does focus your mind, you can write for yourself or friend and in doing so you can keep learning, take notice of your surroundings, and connect with people which will hit three out of five of the ways to well-being.
You might have wondered why I used ‘entropy’, and ‘psychological entropy’ in particular, as examples in my post on drowning in information a couple of weeks ago [‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. It was not random. I spent some of the Christmas break catching up on my reading pile of interesting looking scientific papers and one on psychological entropy stimulated my thinking. Psychological entropy is the concept that our brains are self-organising systems in a continual dialogue with the environment which leads to the emergence of a relatively small number of stable low-entropy states. These states could be considered to be assemblies of neurons or patterns of thoughts, perhaps a mindset. When we are presented with a new situation or problem to solve for which the current assembly or mindset is unsuitable then we start to generate new ideas by generating more and different assemblies of neurons in our brains. Our responses become unpredictable as the level of entropy in our minds increases until we identify a new approach that deals effectively with the new situation and we add it to our list of available low-entropy stable states. If the external environment is constantly changing then our brains are likely to be constantly churning through high entropy states which leads to anxiety and psychological stress. Effective leaders can help us cope with changing environments by providing us with a narrative that our brains can use as a blueprint for developing the appropriate low-entropy state. Raising psychological entropy by the right amount is conducive to creativity in the arts, science and leadership but too much leads to mental breakdown.