Month: August 2015

Take a walk on the wild side

WP_20150714_001 (2)Last month I extolled the virtues of ‘mind-wandering’ (see also the original posting entitled ‘Mind-wandering’ September 3rd, 2014) and I have written in the past about the benefits of taking short walks to improve creative thinking (see my post entitled ‘The Charismatic Engineer‘ on June 4th, 2014).  Recent research by Greg Bateman and his colleagues at Stanford has shown it is better for your mental health to take those walks in the countryside.  Walking in a natural environment reduces rumination more effectively than in an urban environment.  Rumination is repetitive, negative and self-critical thinking that is often damaging to mental health. Of course, this will not be news to many outdoor enthusiasts and ‘pastoral crazes’ are not new.  Helen MacDonald has described how in 1930s people used to enjoy long walks in the countryside, including moonlit rambles.  For instance, in 1932 the Southern Railway Company offered an excursion to a moonlit walk along the South Downs in England.  They expected to sell three or four dozen tickets but one and half thousand people showed up.  This 1930s pastoral craze was described by Jed Esty as ‘one element in a wider movement of national cultural salvage’ following the economic disaster of the Great Depression and the instabilities in Europe.  Maybe it’s time for train companies to offer moonlit excursions again?


Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk, Vintage Books, London 2014

Jed Esty, A shrinking island: Modernism and National Culture in England, Princeton University Press,2003.


Skilled in ingenuity

traininstationIf you look up the word engineering in the dictionary then the first few definitions will probably refer to engines, structures and such like, but the third or fourth definition might describe it as ‘the action of working artfully to bring something about‘.  The origins of the word ‘engineering’ lie in the Latin word ‘ingeniare’, which means to contrive or devise.  Unfortunately, engines have been a phenomenal success and are now synonymous with our profession.  I say unfortunately, because it hides from the general public that we do far more that contrive and devise engines as sources of power.  The vast majority of engineers have nothing to do with engines and instead work artfully to bring about all of the other things in our man-made world.

The Roman poet, Lucretius in his poem De Rerum Natura (On the nature of things) wrote ‘Nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use’.  In other words things did not evolve in nature to meet a demand but instead uses were found for what evolved.  Engineering is the reverse of this: its use is the cause of the existence of everything.  Well, perhaps not quite because people find uses for devices which were not thought of by even the most artful designer.


No closed systems in nature

WP_20150722_008 (2)While I was away on vacation last month, WordPress sent an email congratulating me on the third anniversary of the start of this blog.  This stimulated me to look at the statistics on the most frequently read, or at least viewed, of the approximately 160 postings that I have written.  Top of the list is an early posting which asks the question ‘Are there any closed systems in nature?’ (see post entitled ‘Closed systems in Nature?’ on December 21st, 2012).  Since this question has generated more interest than any of my subsequent postings, it seems appropriate, after 30 months, to attempt an answer.

Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928), and independently Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901-1972), recognized that all living systems are open systems in the thermodynamic sense, which operate far-from equilibrium and require a continual flux of matter and energy to sustain life.  By contrast, closed thermodynamic systems tend to settle into a state of equilibrium, i.e. with no differences in energy, no chemical reactions in progress and no unbalanced forces.

The cybernetist, William Ross Ashby (1903-1972) suggested that living systems are energetically open but operationally closed, i.e. closed to information and control.  In other words, a cell, or any other living organism, needs no information from the environment to be itself. All the information for a bee to be a bee is contained inside a bee (for more on the bee theme see ‘Entropy management for bees and flights‘ on November 5th, 2014 and ‘Fields of flowers’ on July 8th, 2015).  These concepts, of being energetically open and operationally closed, form the essence of the characteristics of biological life as described by Capra and Luisi, whom I have loosely quoted in the previous sentence.

So, to answer my original question, there are no closed living systems in nature.  We can take this a step further: in 1927  Charles Elton defined an ecosystem in terms of the flow of energy and matter from one organism to another. Consequently, the only waste generated by an ecosystem as a whole is the entropy associated with respiration, which allows the system to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics, and the waste is replaced with energy from the sun through photosynthesis.  The sum of all ecosystems is the biosphere.  So, it can be construed that everything on Earth is part of one giant open system – this is essentially the Gaia hypothesis.


Gorelik, G., Principal ideas of Bogdanov’s tektology: the universal science of organisation, General Systems, 20:3-13, 1975.

Bertalanffy, L. von, General Systems Theory, New York: Braziller, 1968.

Ashby, W.R., Design for a Brain, New York: Wiley, 1952.

Capra, F., Luisi, P.L., The Systems View of Life – A unifying vision, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Elton, C.S, Animal Ecology, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1927 (reprinted 2001, University of Chicago Press).

Lovelock, J., Gaia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.



Engineering novelist

Photo credit: Tom

Photo credit: Tom

Reading books is an important aspect of coming to know who we are [see my post entitled ‘Reading offline’ on March 19th, 2014] and it forms a keycomponent of my deep vacation [see last week’s post]. For the last two years, we have read the books shortlisted for Baileys’ Women’s Fiction Prize [see my comment on Field of Flowers posted on July 8th, 2015] during our family vacation. Our holiday rental cottage was stocked with a large collection of second-hand books and so after the shortlist I moved onto some older novels, one of which was the ‘Lonely Road’ by Nevil Shute. Nevil Shute (1899 – 1960) was an aeronautical engineer who also wrote very successful novels, of which the most famous are perhaps are ‘On the Beach‘ and ‘A Town Like Alice’. His engineering background is often evident in his novels, particularly the pair of novels published posthumously under the title ‘Stephen Morris’. I found his novel, ‘Ruined City’ about industrial and urban regeneration, particular poignant in the current economic climate. These novels were as popular with the younger members of my family as with my generation, which leads me to suggest that they are good vehicles for raising awareness at a subliminal level about engineering. What we need are some modern authors to follow the example provided by Nevil Shute. Maybe it could be your books filling the bookshelves or tablets of budding engineers in a few years time? [see my post entitled ‘Good reads for budding engineers‘ on February 25th, 2015].