Many people take a week’s holiday at this time in the UK because Monday was the Spring Bank Holiday. We went walking in the Clwydian hills which we can see from our house to the south-west across the rivers Mersey and Dee. However, despite the walking on the wild side [see ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on August 26th, 2015], I did not feel particularly creative when I sat down to write this week’s blog post. Together with most of my academic colleagues, I am in the midst of reviewing student dissertations and marking end of year assessments. I have written in the past about the process of marking examinations and the tens of thousands of decisions involved in marking a large pile of scripts [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. However, the constraints imposed by the pandemic have changed this process for students and examiners because the whole exercise is conducted on-line. I have set an open-book examination in thermodynamics which the students completed online in a specified time period and submitted electronically. Their scripts were checked automatically for plagiarism during the submission process and now I have to mark about 250 scripts online. At the moment, marking online is a slower process than for hardcopy scripts but perhaps that’s a lack of skill and experience on my part. However, it seems to have same impact on my creativity by using up my mental bandwidth and impeding my ability to write an interesting blog post [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]!
Traditionally in Easter week, I go to the Lake District for a week of hill-walking with my family and a digital detox [see ‘Eternal non-existence‘ on April 24th, 2019 and ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017]. For the second year in succession, we have had to cancel our trip due to the national restrictions on movement during the pandemic [see ‘Walking and reading during a staycation‘ on April 15th, 2020]. I am still attempting a digital detox but the walking is restricted to a daily circuit of our local park. While Sefton Park is not on the scale of Central Park in New York or Regent’s Park in London, it is sufficiently large that a walk to it, round its perimeter and home again takes us about two hours. It might not be as strenuous as climbing Stickle Pike but it is better than repeatedly climbing the stairs which was the limit of our exercise last year [see ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau‘ on April 8th, 2020]. We might not be allowed to leave our locality but we can switch off all of our devices, do some off-line reading (see ‘Reading offline‘ on March 19th, 2014), slow down, breathe our own air (see ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015) and enjoy the daffodils.
I am on vacation this week though, due to the restrictions on our movement imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it will a be staycation in our house. We usually go to the Lake District at this time of year to walk and read; so, I might make another virtual expedition [see: ‘Virtual ascent of Moel Famau‘ on April 8th, 2020], perhaps to climb Stickle Pike and Great Stickle this time. I was asked recently about books I would recommend prospective science and engineering students to read in preparation for to going to university. It is not the first time that I have been asked the question. This time I thought I should respond via this blog since the disruption brought about by the pandemic probably means that many prospective students will have more time and less preparation prior to starting their university course. So, here are six books that are all available as ebooks, and might be of interest to anyone who is staying home to counter the spread of coronavirus and has time to fill:
 It is hard to find good novels either written by an engineer or about engineering [see ‘Engineering novelist‘ on August 5th, 2015]; however, Nevil Shute’s novel ‘Trustee from the toolroom‘ [Penguin Books, 1960] satisfies all of these criteria.
I have more than 40 years experience of engineering science so I am not the best person to ask about books that will appeal to young people just starting their journey in the field; however two books that have been popular recently are:  ‘Storm in a teacup: the physics of everyday life‘ by Helen Czerski [Penguin Books, 2016] and  ‘Think like an engineer‘ by Guru Madhavan [One World Publications, 2016]
Regular readers of this blog might have spotted some of my favourite science books in the lists of sources at the end of posts. Perhaps my top three at the moment are:
 Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, Penguin Books Ltd, 2014. [see: ‘Converting wealth into knowledge and back to wealth‘ on January 6th, 2016; ‘Trees are made of air‘ on April 1st, 2015; ‘Is the Earth a closed system? Does it matter?‘ on December 10th, 2014 & ‘Tidal energy‘ on September 17th, 2014]
 Susan Greenfield, A Day in the Life of the Brain, London: Allen Lane, 2016 [see: ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016; ‘Gone walking‘ on April 19th, 2017 & ‘Walking through exams‘ on May 17th, 2017].
Of course, I should not omit the books that I ask students to read for my own first year module in thermodynamics:
Peter Atkins, A very short introduction to thermodynamics, Oxford: OUP, 2010.
Manuel Delanda ‘Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason‘, London: Continuum Int. Pub. Group, 2011 [see: ‘More violent storms‘ on March 1st, 2017; ‘Emergent properties‘ on September 16th, 2015 & ‘Emerging inequality‘ on March 5th, 2014].
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.