Month: September 2014

Love an engineer


Photo credit: Tom

Some weeks ago I wrote about the benefits being completely disconnected from the ‘grid’ while on vacation [see my post entitled ‘Mind-wandering‘ on September 3rd, 2014].  What one of my colleagues has called going on a ‘deep vacation’.  For most of us our vacation, deep or otherwise, is a distant memory by now and, for many, the demands on our time far exceed the available time.  The temptation to work continuously is huge, particularly with smart phones delivering messages from our co-workers and bosses at all hours of the day and night.  Recent research has shown that if we want to be happy and productive then we should resist this temptation.  A survey of nearly 12,000 white-collar workers found that people feel worse and become less engaged when they work continuously and especially when they work more than 40 hours per week. By contrast workers who take a break every 90 minutes were more focussed (reportedly 30% more) and more able to think creatively (50% more).  The survey also found that being encouraged by your supervisor to take a break increases by 100% the likelihood that you will stay with an employer and also doubles your sense of well-being and health. Perhaps this is why Daimler encourage the equivalent of ‘deep weekends’ by automatically returning and then deleting emails sent to employees while they are off-duty.

These findings tie in with research in psychology reported by Oppezzo and Schwartz that suggests creativity is implicated in workplace success, healthy psychological functioning and the maintenance of loving relationships.  While Martin and Schwartz assert that creativity is ‘an important cognitive dimension of both mundane and specialized  forms of problem-solving’.

Engineers are creative problem-solvers so make sure yours stays successful, healthy and loving by encouraging them to take breaks and work less than 40 hours per week.


Why you hate work! By Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath in the New York Times on May 30, 2014:

Oppezo, M., & Schwartz, D.L., 2014, ‘Give your ideas some legs: the positive effect of walking on creative thinking’, J. Experimental Psychology, Learning, Memory & Cognition, 40(3):1142-1152.

Martin, L., & Schwartz, D.,  2014, ‘A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking’, Visual Studies, 29(1):80-93.

End the tyranny of 24/7 email. By Clive Thompson in the New York Times on August 28th, 2014


Tidal energy

Photo credit: Tom

Photo credit: Tom

The world is slowing down! According to Max Tegmark, in his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’, the rotational velocity of the Earth is being reduced as some of its kinetic energy is dissipated as tidal energy. It is possible to estimate the age of planet from the rate of slow down by assuming that at its birth it was spinning as fast as possible without the centrifugal forces pulling it apart. The answer turns out to be about 4 to 5 billion years which roughly agrees with radioactive dating of the oldest rocks in Western Australia and bits of meteorites that imply the solar system came into being about 4.5 billion years ago.

So does this imply that tidal energy is not really a renewable energy source? I think it is just an issue of timescale. Fossil fuels are seen as non-renewable because the formation of coal and oil substrates happens on geological timescales. Biomass is a bit quicker because we skip the fossilisation process and renewal is measured in months. Fossil fuels and biomass are both ways of storing solar energy in chemical bonds. Nature is much better at converting and storing solar energy than mankind. But, solar energy would appear to be the ultimate renewable energy source. Every morning its there, though often hidden by cloud where I live. The sun will eventually die but again this won’t happen anytime soon but on a long geological timescale.

Tessellating bikes


Photo credit: Isobel

Whoosh!  The unexpectedly exhilarating experience of standing on the kerb as more than a hundred cyclists raced past less than an arm’s length away during Stage 1 of the Tour of Britain on a beautifully hot sunny day.  We had walked from our house down to the finish line adjacent to Liverpool’s waterfront and watched from behind crowd-control barriers as the riders raced past on a couple of the eight laps of the course around the city.  The crowds, big screens and team buses at the finish line created a party atmosphere; however it was much more exciting being close enough to feel the riders’ slipstream when we watched in the quieter street next to Cain’s Brewery where there were no barriers and fewer spectators. It was thrilling on the last lap when the pelaton caught up with break away leaders and they all sped downhill in a single charge.

Of course the bikes are marvels of light-weight engineering and make excellent everyday engineering examples for students but we were more fascinated by how the teams tessellated eight or more spare bikes onto the roof of their support cars that cruised along behind them!tesselated

For Everyday Engineering Examples in Dynamics see lesson plans D6, D7 and D11; and in Mechanics of Solids see S2, S3, S7 and S8 for a unicyclist!

Mind wandering

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Photo credit: Tom

Most of us have returned from vacation by now but I wonder how refreshed you are feeling.  Was you vacation like the character in the cartoon published recently in the New York Times (INYT Friday, August 8th, 2014), i.e. still connected to the grid?  Or did you follow my advice in the posts entitled ‘Gadget stress‘ (April 9th, 2014) and ‘Reading offline‘ (March 19th, 2014) by engrossing yourself in reading a few good books with all gadgets switched off.  I know some of my colleagues did not because I have received automatic vacation replies to my emails followed by detailed email responses a few hours later or even a minute or two later in one case, often including a reminder that they are on vacation!   David Levitin writing in the NYT (on August 9th, 2014) asserts that a ‘vacation isn’t a luxury’ and I agree with him.  We went to an undisclosed location with no telephone, no internet and no mobile phone signal and even then we thought that two weeks was not long enough!

David Levitin goes on to say that we should not skimp on daydreaming.  He describes how our brains have two modes of operation: central executive mode and mind-wandering mode.  We tend to operate in one mode or the other and the switching between them is controlled by the insula, which is located in our brain about 25mm below the top surface of your skull.  Tasks requiring focussed attention, such as learning and problem-solving are performed in central executive mode while day-dreaming and surfing from one idea to another is undertaking in mind-wandering mode.  Scientists believe that switching too frequently between the modes makes you feel tired.  Central executive mode functions better without distractions and in sustained periods spent on single tasks as recommended in my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ [January 14, 2014].  Creativity tends arise from mind-wandering, which can be stimulated by listening to music or taking a walk in nature [see my post entitled ‘The Charismatic Engineer‘ on June 4th, 2014], and allowing ideas to shuffle into perspective or the great breakthrough to emerge, apparently miraculously.

So the recipe for intellectual productivity and creativity seems to be to focus on tasks for sustained periods of times, Levitin suggests 30 to 50 minutes with email closed and phones muted.  Take short breaks and go for a stroll, eight minutes is sufficient according Stanford researchers, Marily Oppezzo and Dan Schwartz.  Set aside specific time to deal with email each day and also time for mind-wandering.

For more, see: