Last week I met with research collaborators in Italy where they have been restricted to their homes for the past four weeks and need written permission to move more than 200 yards from the house; in Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA where they closed down the campus two weeks ago on about the same timescale as here in Liverpool; and in Taiwan where they are able to work on campus wearing masks but they are not delivering undergraduate lectures. Of course, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, all of these meetings happened electronically via a variety of virtual conferencing tools. At the weekend, I climbed the Welsh hill, Moel Famau, that we can see from the upper windows of our house. We climb it most weekends, but last weekend was different because I did it virtually by repeatedly climbing the stairs in our house so that I could abide by the Government’s directions to not visit the countryside. I had talked about it during our first weekend in lock-down and calculated how many repeats were equivalent to the climb from Cilcain to the summit. A report of a virtual ascent of Everest inspired me to go ahead with my own virtual expedition from the basement to the attic thirty-five times. The first stage was like the lower slopes of well-used mountain trail where rangers have installed wooden steps to protect the hillside because we have recently installed a new oak staircase to the basement. The middle stage was a gentler winding ascent with views of hills while the final stage was steep with awkward steps leading to a hidden summit. To my surprise, I got some of the same feelings of mental well-being and renewal induced by walking in real hills [see: ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2014 & ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on August 26th, 2015]. As I write this post, a Government minister is saying on the radio that we might not be allowed our daily hour outside for exercise, so my virtual expedition will likely be repeated next weekend.
Last month when I was in Taiwan [see ‘Ancient Standards‘ on January 29th, 2020] , I visited Kuosheng Nuclear Power Plant which has a pair of boiling water reactors that each generate 986 MWe, or between them about 7% of Taiwan’s electricity. The power station is approaching the end of its licensed life in around 2023 after being constructed in 1978 and delivering electricity commercially for about 40 years, since the early 1980’s. There is an excellent exhibition centre at the power station that includes the life-size mock-up of the reinforcement rods in the concrete of the reactors shown in the photograph. I am used to seeing reinforcing bar, or rebar as it is known, between 6 to 12mm in diameter on building site, but I had never seen any of this diameter (about 40 to 50mm diameter) or in such a dense grid. On the other hand, we are not building any nuclear power stations in the UK at the moment so there aren’t many opportunities to see closeup the scale of structure required.
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.
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.