A few months I took this series of photographs while waiting to board a trans-Atlantic flight home. First, a small ladder was placed in front of the engine. Then a technician arrived, climbed onto the ladder and spread a blanket on the cowling before kneeling on it and spinning the fan blades slowly. He must have spotted something that concerned him because he climbed in, lay on the blanket and made a closer inspection. Then he climbed down, rolled up the blanket and left. A few minutes later he returned with a colleague, laid out the blanket and they both had a careful look inside the engine, after which they climbed down, rolled up the blanket put it back in a special bag and left. Five or ten minutes later, they were back with a third colleague. The blanket was laid out again, the engine inspected by two of them at once and a three-way discussion ensued. The result was that our flight was postponed while the airline produced a new plane for us.
Throughout this process it appeared that the most sophisticated inspection equipment used was the human eye and a mobile phone. I suspect that the earlier inspections were reported by phone to the supervisor who came to look for himself before making the decision. One of the goals of our current research is to develop easy-to-use instrumentation that could be used to provide more information about the structural integrity of components in this type of situation. In the INSTRUCTIVE project we are investigating the use of low-cost infra-red cameras to identify incipient damage in aerospace structures. Our vision is that the sort of inspection described above could be performed using an infra-red camera that would provide detailed data about the condition of the structure. This data would update a digital twin that, in turn, would provide a prognosis for the structure. The motivation is to improve safety and reduce operating costs by accurate identification of critical damage.
Most of my academic colleagues focus their research activity on a relatively narrow field and many have established international reputations in their chosen field of study. However, my own research profile is broad, including recently-published studies on the motion of nanoparticles, damage propagation in composites and stress analysis in aerospace components as well as current research on the fidelity and credibility simulations and tests (FACTS) in the aerospace, biomedical and nuclear industries. My breadth of interests makes it difficult to categorise me or to answer the inevitable question about what research I do. And, I have always felt the need to excuse or apologise for the breadth and explain by making tenuous connections between my diverse research activities. However, apparently my slow-motion multi-tasking is a characteristic of many high-performing artists and scientists. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has proposed that slowly changing back and forth between different projects is a standard practice amongst people with high levels of originality and creativity. Scientists that work on several problems at once and frequently refocus their research tend to enjoy the longest and most productive careers according to another study by Bernice Eiduson.
So, no more excusing or apologising for my range of research interests. It is merely slow-motion multi-tasking to achieve a long and productive career characterised by original and creative research!
In the UK we are limbering up for the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF 2021) which is the process of expert review of research activity in UK universities that is conducted periodically by the government – the last one was in 2014. The outcome influences the allocation of government funding for research as well as providing accountability for public investment in research and benchmarking information.
Earlier this month I received an email inviting me to contribute to a government consultation on the draft guidance and criteria for REF 2021. It reminded me of a description of Abraham Flexner’s 1910 report for the Carnegie Foundation on medical schools in the US that I read in an essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf. Flexner branded many of the 155 medical schools in the USA as ‘frauds and irresponsible profit machines’. Hopefully that will not the outcome of REF2021!
A month or so ago I gave a lecture entitled ‘Establishing FACTS (Fidelity And Credibility in Tests & Simulations)’ to the local branch of the Institution of Engineering Technology (IET). Of course my title was a play on words because the Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘fact’ as ‘a thing that is known or proved to be true’ or ‘information used as evidence or as part of report’. One of my current research interests is how we establish predictions from simulations as evidence that can be used reliably in decision-making. This is important because simulations based on computational models have become ubiquitous in engineering for, amongst other things, design optimisation and evaluation of structural integrity. These models need to possess the appropriate level of fidelity and to be credible in the eyes of decision-makers, not just their creators. Model credibility is usually provided through validation processes using a small number of physical tests that must yield a large quantity of reliable and relevant data [see ‘Getting smarter‘ on June 21st, 2017]. Reliable and relevant data means making measurements with low levels of uncertainty under real-world conditions which is usually challenging.
These topics recur through much of my research and have found applications in aerospace engineering, nuclear engineering and biology. My lecture to the IET gave an overview of these ideas using applications from each of these fields, some of which I have described in past posts. So, I have now created a new page on this blog with a catalogue of these past posts on the theme of ‘FACTS‘. Feel free to have a browse!