Tag Archives: research

First law of geography: everything is related to everything else

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.


Tobler WR, A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit Region, Economic Geography, vol. 46, Supplement: Proceedings. Int. Geog. Union. Commission on Quantitative Methods, 234-240, 1970.

Image: Crisco 1492Own work

Devaluing novelty: not all that glitters is gold

My regular readers will have recognised the novel nature of a blog that seeks, in a unique way, to present promising engineering ideas in a favourable and robust manner.  Actually, I hope my regular readers will recognise this opening sentence as completely uncharacteristic.  It was a blatant effort on my part to include the five words, underlined, with positive meanings that are most used in the titles and abstracts of articles published in clinical research and the life sciences.  A recent survey of more than 100,000 articles showed the prevalence of these words, with them being used significantly more in articles in which the first or last authors were male compared to those in which the first and last authors were female.  In other words, female authors are significantly less likely to describe their research findings in these positive terms and this influences the subsequent citations of their work and probably their prospects for research funding and advancement.  Sunday was International Women’s Day and, hence this is an appropriate week for everyone responsible for decisions about research to be conscious of this trend.  They should also be aware that the use of these positive words has increased in clinical and life sciences research by around 150% in the fifteen years to 2017.  In other words, the modesty of researchers has declined and they are more likely to describe their results as ‘novel’; however, I think it is unlikely that the results are any more novel than typical results published 20 years.  Of course, like most researchers, I always think my last breakthrough is the most exciting yet but many of us have been letting that enthusiasm lead us to exaggerate its novelty and value.

Source: Lerchenmueller MJ, Sorensen O & Jena AB, Gender differences in now scientists present the importance of their research: observational study, BMJ, 367:16573, 2019.

The Stone Raft adrift in the Atlantic Ocean

I spent most of last week at the European Union’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy.  I have been collaborating with the scientists in  the European Union Reference Laboratory for alternatives to animal testing [EURL ECVAM].  We have been working together on tracking nanoparticles and, more recently, on the validity and credibility of models.  Last week I was there to participate in a workshop on Validation and Acceptance of Artificial Intelligence Models in Health.  I presented our work on the credibility matrix and on a set of factors that we have developed for establishing trust in a model and its predictions. I left the JRC on Friday evening and slipped back in the UK just before she left the Europe Union.  The departure of the UK from Europe reminds me of a novel by José Saramago called ‘The Stone Raft‘ in which the Iberian penisula breaks off from the Europe mainland and drifts around the Atlantic ocean.  The bureaucrats in Europe have to run around dealing with the ensuing disruption while five people in Spain and Portugal are drawn together by surreal events on the stone raft adrift in the ocean.

When seeing nothing is a success

In November I went to Zurich twice: once for the workshop that I wrote about last week [see ‘Fake facts and untrustworthy predictions’ on December 4th, 2019]; and, a second time for a progress meeting of the DIMES project [see ‘Finding DIMES’ on February 6th, 2019].  The progress meeting went well.  The project is on schedule and within budget. So, everyone is happy and you are wondering why I am writing about it.  It was what our team was doing around the progress meeting that was exciting.  A few months ago, Airbus delivered a section of an A320 wing to the labs of EMPA who are our project partner in Switzerland, and the team at EMPA has been rigging the wing section for a simple bending test so that we can use it to test the integrated measurement system which we are developing in the DIMES project [see ‘Joining the dots’ on July 10th, 2019].  Before and after the meeting, partners from EMPA, Dantec Dynamics GmbH, Strain Solutions Ltd and my group at the University of Liverpool were installing our prototype systems to monitor the condition of the wing when we apply bending loads to it.  There is some pre-existing damage in the wing that we hope will propagate during the test allowing us to track it with our prototype systems using visible and infra-red spectrum cameras as well as electrical and optical sensors.  The data that we collect during the test will allow us to develop our data processing algorithms and, if necessary, refine the system design.  The final stage of the DIMES project will involve installing a series of our systems in a complete wing undergoing a structural test in the new Airbus Wing Integration Centre (AWIC) in Filton, near Bristol in the UK.  The schedule is ambitious because we will need to install the sensors for our systems in the wing in the first quarter of next year, probably before we have finished all of the tests in EMPA.  However, the test in Bristol probably will not start until the middle of 2020, by which time we will have refined our algorithm for data processing and be ready for the deluge of data that we are likely to receive from the test at Airbus.  The difference between the two wing tests besides the level of maturity of our measurement system, is that no damage should be detected in the wing at Airbus whereas there will be detectable damage in the wing section in EMPA.  So, a positive result will be a success at EMPA but a negative result, i.e. no damage detected, will be a success at Airbus.

The DIMES 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. 820951.


The opinions expressed in this blog post reflect only the author’s view and the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.