Monthly Archives: November 2015

Unexpected bad news for turkeys is defined as the probability of something happening multiplied by consequences of its occurrence.  Engineers expend considerable time and effort in reducing the consequences of the quite probable such as ensuring the passenger compartment of a car will remain largely intact during a crash.  The installation of automatic breaking systems on some cars is also an attempt to reduce the probability of an impact, i.e. the occurrence of a crash.  It is difficult to anticipate the very low probability event with catastrophic consequences and so cars are not designed to deal with meteors dropping out the sky or even elevated highways collapsing in an earthquake.   These are what Nassim Taleb, labels Black Swan events but would perhaps be better named after another bird, the more humble turkey.  An American turkey is fed daily by a friendly human and has no idea in November that Thanksgiving is about happen with fatal consequences, or substitute December and Christmas for a British turkey.  From the turkey’s perspective everything is fine down on the farm until it isn’t; in other words, the very low probability event with catastrophic consequences occurs.  From the farmer’s perspective, turkey for dinner at Thanksgiving is close to a certainty, i.e. a probability of one.  The problem for engineers designing machines is to have the perspective of the farmer and not the turkey.

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!


Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan – the impact of the highly probable, London: Penguin Books, 2008.


Counting photons to measure stress

TSA pattern around a crack propagating from the left with its tip in the centre.

TSA pattern around a crack propagating from the left with its tip in the centre.

Some might find it strange that I am teaching thermodynamics when my research expertise is in structural materials and mechanics. However, the behaviour of structures is largely controlled by energy and how they absorb, store and release it; while thermodynamics is the study of energy flows and transformations, so there is a connection. In my research group, we exploit this connection in a technique for measuring stress fields in components by monitoring the temperature changes that occur when a component is loaded. In Thermoelastic Stress Analysis (TSA) as it is known, we use very sensitive infrared cameras to monitor the cyclic variations of temperature that occur when cyclic load is applied to a material. The temperature changes are of the order of milli-Kelvin, that’s thousandths of a degree, and are positive with negative, or compressive stress and negative with tensile stress. What we are actually measuring is the rate of change in the release of photons by atoms as they are pushed closer together in compression or pulled further apart in tension; but that’s another story and takes us into physics.

An exciting feature of this technique is that as a crack evolves new surfaces are formed which releases energy as heat. We can detect not only the stress field around the crack but also the heat released during the formation of the crack prior it being visible and its subsequent growth.


Greene, R.J., Patterson, E.A., Rowlands, R.E., 2008, ‘Thermoelastic stress analysis’, in Handbook of Experimental Mechanics edited by W.N. Sharpe Jr., Springer, New York.

Yang, Y., Crimp, M., Tomlinson, R.A., Patterson, E.A., 2012, Quantitative measurement of plastic strain field at a fatigue crack tip, Proc. R. Soc. A., 468(2144):2399-2415.

Patki, A.S., Patterson, E.A., 2010, ‘Thermoelastic stress analysis of fatigue cracks subject to overloads’, Fatigue and Fracture of Engineering Materials and Structures, 33(12):809-821.