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’.
Source: Mary Midgley, Beast and Man – the roots of human nature. Abingdon, Oxon. Routledge Classics, 2002.
Image: Cluster #1: simulation along product life cycle from Semeraro C, Lezoche M, Panetto H & Dassisti M, Digital twin paradigm: a systematic literature review, Computers in Industry, 130: 103469, 2021 who found thirty definitions of digital twins and created five such clusters of definitions.
I have written before about the process of writing, both in general and in this blog in particular. While I do not claim to write literature; nevertheless I felt some empathy with a couple of statements in Michel Houllebecq‘s novel ‘Submission‘. The first was ‘…only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, exciting or repugnant.’ And the second was ‘Even in our deepest most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know.’ I know a few people who read this blog but they are a tiny minority of the readers so essentially I am addressing a reader I do not know when I write a post. However, my posts sometimes lead to a conversation that is more open than would have happened without the post. Inevitably, these conversations occur with the small number of readers with whom I am in direct contact. However, I suspect that I reveal my limitations and obsessions to all of my readers, I hope I avoid my pettinesses while enthusing you with what I find moving or exciting, such as Michel Houellebecq’s novel this week or Olga Tokarczuk’s last week.
Source: Michel Houellebecq, Submission, Vintage, 2016.
Image: Barbara Hepworth sculpture in the garden of Hepworth Museum, St Ives
“Inner space and outer space are similar, aren’t they really? You’re never going to get to the edge of the universe in a spaceship. You might as well try going on a bus. You can only go there in your head.” This is a quote from David Hockney in ‘Spring Cannot Be Cancelled‘ by David Hockney and Martin Gayford. It’s a beautiful book. Full of thought-provoking insights and recent artwork by Hockney painted in Normandy mainly during the pandemic. I read it last month while in the Yorkshire Dales [see ‘Walking the hills‘ on April 13th 2022]. Hockney writes about his need to paint. He finds it utterly absorbing and endlessly sustaining. Gayford compares this need and experience to the work of American psychologist, Mihaly Csiksczentmihalyi [see ‘Slow-motion multi-tasking leads to productive research‘ on September 19, 2018] who wrote about concentration so intense that there is no spare capacity to think about anything else, your self-consciousness disappears and you lose your sense of time leading to a deep sense of happiness and well-being. I cannot paint but I can achieve something approaching a similiar state when I am writing.
Martin Gayford and David Hockney, Spring cannot be cancelled – David Hockney in Normandy, London: Thames & Hudson, 2021.
This is the five hundredth post on this blog. The first 21 posts were published randomly between July 11th, 2012, and January 4th, 2013; and the weekly posts only started on January 7th, 2013, so I have another 48 posts to publish before I can claim a decade of weekly posts. Nevertheless, I feel it is worth shouting about 500 posts.
I am a little surprised to realise that I have written five hundred posts and it has made me pause to think about why I write them. A number of answers came to mind, including because I enjoy writing – it empties my mind and allows me to move on to new thoughts or, on other occasions, it allows me to arrange my thoughts into some sort of order. I also write posts to communicate ideas, to disseminate research, to entertain and to fulfill a commitment, initially to funding bodies (I started the blog as part of commitment to Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award) but increasingly to readers of the blog. I am amazed that for the last five years the blog has been read in more 140 countries. While I have a handful of statistics about the readership, beyond the small handful of readers who correspond with me or who I meet in person, I have no idea who reads the blog. Most of time I do not give much thought to who is reading my posts and my intended reader is a rather vague fuzzy figure who barely exists in my mind.
The map shows the distribution of all readers over the 500 posts with the darker colour indicating more readers per country.