Tag Archives: slowness

Time at the heart of our problems

This week I started teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students for the first time in twelve months.  I have had a break for a year because my course, which is only delivered once per year, was moved from first to second semester.  Although I have continued to teach postgraduate courses, it’s been like a sabbatical enforced by timetable changes.  Sadly, it’s over and I am back in the large lecture theatre in front of a couple of hundred of students – that makes it sound as if I don’t enjoy it which is not true but it does increase the intensity of the job because all of the other aspects of the role continue unabated.  So, for me time appears to accelerate as I attempt to jam more activities into a week.

Time lies at the heart of much of thermodynamics although we tend not to deal with it explicitly; however, it is implicit in our use of changes in the state of a system to understand it.  Quote Anaximander, the pre-Socratic philosopher & pupil of Thales of Miletus: ‘We understand the world by studying change, not by studying things’.  Time also lies at the centre of the tangle of problems found at the intersection of the theories of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.  As Carlo Rovelli has remarked we are still in the dark about this tangle of problems; so, I will touch on it in my thermodynamics course but just to show students the limits of our knowledge and perhaps inspire one or two of them to think about tackling them in postgraduate studies.

Meanwhile, I plan tackle my challenges with time by slowing it down once a week with a walk in the Clwydian Hills where the landscape appears unchanging so that time stands still allowing me to relax.

Sources:

Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.

Wohllerben P, The hidden life of trees, London, William Collins, 2017.

Slow-motion multi-tasking leads to productive research

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!

Sources:

Tim Harford, Holidays hold the secret to unleashing creativity, FT Weekend, Opinion 25/26 August 2018.

Root‐Bernstein RS, Bernstein M, Gamier H. Identification of scientists making long‐term, high‐impact contributions, with notes on their methods of working. Creativity Research Journal.  6(4):329-43, 1993.

Nauseous blogging?

In his novel ‘Nausea’, Jean-Paul Sartre suggests that at around forty, experienced professionals ‘christen their small obstinacies and a few proverbs with the name of experience, they begin to simulate slot machines: put in a coin in the left hand slot and you get tales wrapped in silver paper, put a coin in the slot on the right and you get precious bits of advice that stick to your teeth like caramels’.  When I first read this passage a few weeks ago, it seemed like an apt description of a not-so-young professor writing a weekly blog.

I am on vacation combining the positive effects of reading [see ‘Reading offline‘  on March 19th, 2014] and walking [see ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017] with a digital detox [see ‘In digital detox‘ on July 19th, 2017]; but, through the scheduling facilities provided by WordPress, I am still able to dispense my slot machine homily. I will leave you to decide which posts are from the left and right slots.

Source:

Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, translated by Lloyd Alexander, New York: New Directions Pub. Co., 2013.

La Nausée was first published in 1938 by Librairie Gallimard, Paris.

Thinking more clearly by writing weekly

In an echo of Henry Thoreau’s retreat to the woods around Walden pond, Sylvain Tesson escaped the ugliness of modern life and spent six months in a log cabin on the shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia.  He wanted to surround himself with silence in the wilderness.  He kept a diary ‘as a supplement to memory, to stave off forgetting’.  He describes how the act of writing ‘makes life fruitful’; how ‘the daily appointment with the blank page forces one … to listen harder, to think more clearly, to see more intently’.  I have similar feelings about writing a weekly post for this blog and being faced with a blank screen each week.  Sometimes it is a joy to order my thoughts and commit some of them to writing; other times it is a chore and a challenge to dream up something vaguely interesting to tell you.

BTW Teeson’s book was a pleasure to read and easier than Thoreau’s in my view.

References:

Sylvain Tesson, Consolations of the forest: alone in a cabin in the middle Taiga, London: Penguin Books, 2014.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, London: Penguin Classics, 2016.