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.
I have been involved in the creation of a European pre-standard for the validation of computational models used to predict the structural performance of engineering systems [see ‘Setting Standards‘ on January 24th, 2014]; so, an example of a two thousand year old standard in the National Palace Museum in Taipei particularly attracted my interest during a recent visit to Taiwan. A Jia-liang is a standard measure from the Xin Dynasty dated to between 9 and 24 CE. It is an early form of standard weights and measure issued by the Chinese emperor. The main cylinder contains a volume known as a ‘hu’; however, if you flip it over there is a small cylinder that contains a ‘dou’ which is one tenth of a ‘hu’. The object that looks like a handle on the right in the photograph is third cylinder that holds a ‘sheng’ which is one tenth of a ‘dou’ or one hundredth of a ‘hu’; and the handle on the left contains a ‘ge’ when it is as shown in the photograph and a ‘yue’ when the other way up. A ‘ge’ is tenth of ‘sheng’ and a ‘yeu’ is a twentieth. The Jia-liang was made of bronze with all of the information engraved on it and was used to measure grain across the Xin empire.
While we were walking in the Lake District [see my post ‘Gone Walking’ on April 19th, 2017] I read ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ by James Rebank. Rebank describes how his flock is hefted to the land. ‘Heft’ is a word used in Northern England and Scotland, and means to become accustomed and attached to an area of pasture. In our modern society people tend to become accustomed and attached to cities. A few weeks earlier Nilanjana Roy, writing in the FT Weekend on April 8/9, wrote about the growing belief that national identity is an outdated and insufficient concept, whereas cities reflect the common identities of their inhabitants and have been home to peoples of diverse origin and belief for centuries. Many of us who travel frequently have a map in our heads of cities in which we feel comfortable, happy to return, accustomed or ‘hefted’. Roy calls it ‘a map of belonging’ – the cities that your spirit chimes with the most. Mine would probably include Liverpool, Ottawa, Santa Fe and Taipei [see my posts entitled ‘Out and about‘ and ‘Crash in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue‘ on December 7th, 2016 and November 19th, 2o14 respectively]. To which cities do you feel ‘hefted’?
I have been away from Liverpool a lot in the last few weeks. Teaching in Manchester and London but also visiting Taiwan. In the capital, Taipei they have yellow cabs and a succession of black limos pick up visitors from the airport. I even saw a baseball pro shop but despite the strong American influence, the culture is definitely Chinese so ordering meals and buying train tickets is a challenge if you don’t speak or read Mandarin. I am a Visiting Professor at the National Tsing Hua University and was there to meet with some PhD students and participate in a research workshop on computational modelling [see my post on Can you trust your digital twins?on November 22nd, 2016]. It wasn’t my first trip to Taiwan [see my post entitled ‘Crash in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue?’ on November 19th, 2014] but I visited a high school for the first time. I spent half a day meeting teachers and pupils at the Taipei European School. I gave a talk based on my post entitled ‘Happenstance, not engineering?’ [see my post on November 9th, 2016] to several groups of science pupils in an attempt to explain what engineers do. The reception was enthusiastic and we had some good question and answer sessions. It was a first for me to do this in any school and the first time in the memory of the teachers that a professional engineer had visited the school. A while ago I wrote about nurturing the spirit through the exchange of gifts in the form of knowledge [see my post entitled ‘Knowledge spheres’ on March 9th, 2016]. My spirits were lifted by talking to the pupils and maybe one or two of them will have been persuaded to think about becoming an engineer. We also exchanged material gifts so that I have a beautiful vase to stand on my shelf and remind me of an enjoyable visit and hopefully prompt me to go again. Lots of young people have no idea what engineers do and are looking for a career that will allow them to contribute to society, so they are surprised and excited when they realise engineering offers that opportunity. So, we should get out more and tell them about it.