Flatness is a tricky term to define. Technically, it is the deviation, or lack of deviation, from a plane. However, something that appears flat to human eye often turns out not to be at all flat when looked at closely and measured with a high resolution instrument. It’s a bit like how the ocean might appear flat and smooth to a passenger sitting comfortably in a window seat of an aeroplane and looking down at the surface of the water below but feels like a roller-coaster to a sailor in a small yacht. Of course, if the passenger looks at the horizon instead of down at the yacht below then they will realise the surface of the ocean is curved but this is unlikely to be apparent to the sailor who can only see the next line of waves advancing towards them. Of course, the Earth is not flat and the waves are better described as surface roughness. Some months ago I wrote about our struggles to build a thin flat metallic plate using additive manufacturing [see ‘If you don’t succeed, try and try again…’ on September 29th, 2021]. At the time, we were building our rectangular plates in landscape orientation and using buttresses to support them during the manufacturing process; however, when we removed the plates from the machine and detached the buttresses they deformed into a dome-shape. I am pleased to say that our perseverance has paid off and recently we have been much more successful by building our plates orientated in portrait mode, i.e., with the short side of the rectangle horizontal, and using a more sophisticated design of buttresses. Viewed from the right perspective our recent plates could be considered flat though in reality they deviate from a plane by less than 3% of their in-plane dimensions and also have a surface roughness of several tens of micrometres (that’s the average deviation from the surface). The funding organisations for our research expect us to publish our results in a peer-reviewed journal that will only accept novel unpublished results so I am not going to say anything more about our flat plates. Instead let me return to the ocean analogy and try to make you seasick by recalling an earlier career in which I was on duty on the bridge of an aircraft carrier ploughing through seas so rough, or not flat, that waves were breaking over the flight deck and the ship felt like it was still rolling and pitching when we sailed serenely into port some days later.
Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade. On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities. The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions. On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident. Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.
The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households. One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world. Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060. This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.