I spent several days last week reading drafts of PhD theses from two of my students. I have three PhD students who are scheduled to finish their studies before Easter when they plan to start jobs that they have already been offered. So, there is some urgency to their writing besides the usual desire to finish after three years or more of work on the same topic and the end of their funding. Their relatively undiluted study of their topic can make it difficult for PhD students to see the big picture and write accessible descriptions of their research. I have also encountered this challenge in describing our recent work on integrating digital twins to form an engineering metaverse. There are dozens of published definitions of digital twins whereas the reverse holds for metaverses – no one really knows what they are. Mary Midgley wrote, in her book ‘Beast and Man’, that descriptions should not be an account of everything about an entity or event but just enough to bring to our minds the appropriate conceptual scheme or construct that will tell us everything we need to know. Our challenge as communicators is identifying the conceptual scheme that is needed, in other words selecting what matters and nothing else. I like her example of an inappropriate description: “a section of protoplasm, measuring 1.76 meters vertically, emerged at 2:06 P.M. from hole in building at point x on plan and moved northward, its extremities landing alternately on concrete substratum, finally entering hole in further building, at point y on plan, at 2:09 P.M.” If you need a conceptual scheme to understand this sentence, then try ‘a person walked across the road’.
WOW projects, TED talks, Cosmicomics and indirect reciprocity. What do they have in common? Well, each of them features in a new and rather different education programme that we are launching next month on the University of Liverpool’s campus at 33 Finsbury Square, London. We are targetting mid-career engineers and scientists, working in research and development organisations, who want to develop their skills and advance their careers. I write ‘we’ because it is a joint effort by the School of Engineering at the University and the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory. It has been something of an adventure for me putting the modules together and we hope they will form a voyage of discovery and adventure for our delegates.
In case you are wondering about WOW projects, TED talks, Cosmicomics and indirect reciprocity – they will feature in modules on Science Leadership & Ethics, Technical Communication, Technical Writing, and Technical Reputation respectively. These four five-credit modules plus a work-based project form the programme that leads to a Post-graduate Award. Each module involves a day on campus in London supported by reading and assignments before and afterwards; and we are running a module per month between now and Christmas.
A few weeks ago we spent a long weekend in Dublin. Its a capital city on a small scale but well-endowed with world-class museums, galleries and civic grandeur with good victuals available nearly everywhere. We are frequent visitors to Dublin and, for me, no visit would be complete without half-an-hour or so spent sitting in the National Library listening to recordings of Yeats’ poems being read out loud. You can listen on-line by visiting the ‘Verse and Vision‘ exhibit at the National Library of Ireland website. I find reading poetry really challenging but I enjoy listening to someone else reading it.
Staying with poetry. Engineers appear to have a poor reputation for writing poetry. Hilary Mantel in her short story ‘How shall I know you‘ describes reading clubs founded ‘by master drapers and their shop-girl wives; by poetasting engineers, and uxorious physicians with long winter evenings to pass.‘ Poetasting means writing indifferent verse. Admittedly writing good poetry is not part of the role of an engineer but writing clear and concise prose is an essential skill. Unfortunately most young engineers and many older colleagues are the prose equivalent of poetasters – they write terribly turgid text. Our inability to communicate in sparkling prose means that our profession appears uninspiring to potential recruits and remains hidden and obscure to most of society. Climate change, poor air quality, autonomous machines and ubiquitous big data are amongst the many challenges facing society for which we need engineering and science-literate citizens and lawmakers. The responsibility for educating society lies with engineers who understand the technology and must strive to communicate more effectively [see my post entitled the ‘Charismatic Engineer‘ on June 4th, 2014].
Source: Hilary Mantel, ‘Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ Henry Holt & Co, New York, September 2014.