Engineers make things happen and no one notices them when everything works reliably and smoothly. You could replace engineers in that sentence by managers. Managers are responsible for people and organisations while engineers are responsible for the systems that underpin modern life. You can pair scientists and leaders in the same way. Scientists discover new knowledge which sets a direction for the future of technology while leaders create a vision for their organisation which also sets the direction for the future. Then engineers and managers turn the imagined futures into reality. Of course the divisions are fuzzy. Some of us would be considered engineering scientists because we work at the interface between science and engineering. And many engineers spend more time managing people and organisations than practising engineering. However, the bottom-line is that engineers and managers are responsible for the functioning of modern society and deserve greater recognition for their successes; if only to ensure a continuous and diverse flow of talented young people into the professions. So, here are two Liverpool engineers that have made the news recently for their contributions to engineering: Chris Sutcliffe who was awarded a prestigious Silver Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering for his role in driving the development of metal 3D printed implants for use in human and veterinary surgery; and Kate Black who was named as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering for her work on the development of novel functional materials, using inkjet printing, for the manufacture of electronic and optoelectronic devices.
See ‘Happenstance, not engineering?‘ on November 9th, 2016 for an explanation of why people are quick to assign blame when things go wrong and slow to praise when things go well – it’s all about the relative number of sites in the brain capable of blame and praise.
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!
Have you ever wondered why Einstein is so frequently quoted on so many topics? I have cited him seven times in the past on this blog [https://realizeengineering.blog/tag/einstein/] and only four occasions relate to his scientific breakthroughs. Robbert Dijkgraaf has suggested that Einstein pretty much invented that concept of a scientist as a public intellectual. Although Einstein may not have been reticient about commenting on world affairs, his remarks and aphorisms were as carefully crafted as his contribution to science which is why they are so frequently quoted.
I have remarked before about the tendency of engineers to hide away and avoid communicating with society, in part because we are trained as problem-solvers and solving problems often requires a degree of solitude and silence that is incompatible with public profile [see ‘The Charismatic Engineer‘ on June 4th, 2014]. However, there are many potenting existential challenges facing society for which the solutions involving engineering or an understanding of technology [see ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015]; engineers have a responsibility to follow Einstein’s example and become public intellectuals taking as much care over their remarks as their engineering.
Naturally, I and my engineering colleagues will worry about making mistakes and will be tempted to use it as reason for keeping quiet; however, even Einstein made mistakes. Carlo Rovelli in his book ‘The Order of Time’ provides a reassuringly long list of six things that Einstein got wrong or about which he changed his mind. On that note, I feel I should end with one of Einstein’s quotes: ‘A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new’.
Typical atom maps of P, Cu, Mn, Ni & Si (clockwise from bottom centre) in 65x65x142 nm sample of steel from Styman et al, 2015.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the opening plenary talk at the NNL Sci-Tec conference [‘The disrupting benefit of innovation’ on May 23rd, 2018]. One of the innovations discussed at the conference was the applications of atom probe tomography for understanding the mechanisms underpinning material behaviour. Atom probe tomography produces three-dimensional maps of the location and type of individual atoms in a sample of material. It is a destructive technique that uses a high energy pulse to induce field evaporation of ions from the tip of a needle-like sample. A detector senses the position of the ions and their chemical identity is found using a mass spectrometer. Only small samples can be examined, typically of the order of 100nm.
A group led by Jonathan Hyde at NNL have been exploring the use of atom probe tomography to understand the post-irradiation annealing of weld material in reactor pressure vessels and to examine the formation of bubbles of rare gases in fuel cladding which trap hydrogen causing material embrittlement. A set of typical three-dimensional maps of atoms is shown in the thumb-nail from a recent paper by the group (follow the link for the original image).
It is amazing that we can map the location of atoms within a material and we are just beginning to appreciate the potential applications of this capability. As another presenter at the conference said: ‘Big journeys begin with Iittle steps’.
BTW it was rewarding to see one of our alumni from our CPD course [see ‘Leadership is like shepherding’ on May 10th, 2017] presenting this work at the conference.