Month: June 2016

Innovation out of chaos

Picture1‘We are managing in chaos…our competition never knows what we are going to come up with next.  The fact is neither do we.’  This a quote from the 1996 UK Innovation Lecture given by William Coyne who was VP for Research at 3M at the time.  I used it a couple of months ago at a technical conference, where I was invited to be a panel member for discussion on innovation.  This state of chaos from which innovation arises is characteristic of ‘organic’ organizations that lack formal job definitions, encourage lateral interactions and greater responsibility for individuals.  Conversely, innovation is stifled in ‘mechanistic’ organizations that are characterized by specialisms, powerful functional roles, vertical management interactions, a command hierarchy and a complex organizational chart.

So, I suggested that innovation can be stimulated by removing or loosening organizational and intellectual constraints.  The latter means allowing people to think differently and not hiring people who look or think like you.  Of course, this is not easy – it requires a subtle balance of sustainable orderliness! However, as a member of the audience remarked ‘innovative organizations have fun!’.  And maybe this gets to the heart of the issue, too much order leads to boring predictability while too much disorder is scary but the right level of disorder or entropy is exciting and stimulates creativity.


Handscombe RD & Patterson EA, The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business, Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2004.


Subtle balance of sustainable orderliness

129-2910_IMGI wrote this short essay a couple of weeks for another purpose and then changed my mind about using it.  So I thought I would share it on this blog.

Whenever we do something, some of our useful resource gets converted into productive activity but some is always lost in useless waste.  In other words, 100% efficiency is impossible – we can’t convert all of our resource into productive activity.  Engineers call this the second law of thermodynamics.  Thermodynamics is about energy transitions, for instance converting chemical energy in fossil fuels into electrical energy in a power station, and in these circumstances, the useless waste is called entropy.  At the time of the industrial revolution, Rudolf Clausius recognised that entropy can be related to the heat losses which occur whenever we do something useful, such as generating electricity in a power station, cleaning the house with an electric vacuum cleaner or running to catch the bus.

Clausius’s definition of entropy was really useful for designers of 19th century steam engines but it is difficult to use in other walks of life.  Fortunately Ludwig Boltzmann gave us a more valuable description.  He equated entropy to the number of states in which something could be arranged, or its lack of orderliness.  In other words, the more ways you can arrange something, the less ordered it is likely to be and the higher its entropy.  So a box of children’s building blocks has a low entropy when the blocks are packed in their box because there is a relatively small number of ways of arranging them to fit in the box.  When the box is emptied onto your living room floor, there are very many more possible arrangements and so the blocks have a high entropy.  The chance of knowing the whereabouts of a particular block is small. Whoops!  Now we’ve wondered into information theory.

Let’s get back to the second law, which using Boltzmann’s description of entropy, we can express as the level of orderliness should always decrease.  Stephen Hawking describes this as the arrow of time.  Because, if someone shows you a video clip in which steam gathers itself together and returns into a cup of coffee, or that box of children’s blocks repacks itself, then we know the video is being run backwards because these processes involve decreasing entropy and this can only happen spontaneously if we reverse the direction of time.  If this is true then why do we exist as highly ordered structures?

Erwin Schrödinger in his book, ‘What is Life’ says that organisms suck orderliness out of the environment in order to exist, so that the orderliness of the universe, that’s the organism and its environment, decreases.  Humans digest highly-ordered food to sustain life and food, in the form of plants, is brought into existence by metabolising energy from the sun and releasing entropy in the form of heat.  When we die these processes cease and the orderliness is sucked out of us to sustain insects, maggots and bacteria.

We are organisms, known as Sapiens, that organise ourselves into cultures and societies.  Organisation implies an increase in the level of orderliness in apparent contradiction of the second law.  So, we would expect to find a corresponding increase in disorder somewhere to counterbalance the order in society.  The more regimented society becomes the greater the requirement for counterbalancing disorder to occur somewhere in order to satisfy the second law, which might happen unexpectedly and explosively if the level of constraint or regulation is too great.  This is not an argument for anarchy or total deregulation, the financial sector has already demonstrated the risks associated with this path, but for an optimum and sustainable level of orderliness.  This requires subtle judgment just like in elegant engineering design and living a healthy life, both physically and psychologically.

Popping balloons

Balloons ready for popping

Balloons ripe for popping!

Each year in my thermodynamics class I have some fun popping balloons and talking about irreversibilities that occur in order to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics.  The popping balloon represents the unconstrained expansion of a gas and is one form of irreversibility.  Other irreversibilities, including friction and heat transfer, are discussed in the video clip on Entropy in our MOOC on Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life which will rerun from October 3rd, 2016.

Last week I was in Florida at the Annual Conference of the Society for Experimental Mechanics (SEM) and Clive Siviour, in his JSA Young Investigator Lecture, used balloon popping to illustrate something completely different.  He was talking about the way high-speed photography allows us to see events that are invisible to the naked eye.  This is similar to the way a microscope reveals the form and structure of objects that are also invisible to the naked eye.  In other words, a high-speed camera allows us to observe events in the temporal domain and a microscope enables us to observe structure in the spatial domain.  Of course you can combine the two technologies together to observe the very small moving very fast, for instance blood flow in capillaries.

Clive’s lecture was on ‘Techniques for High Rate Properties of Polymers’ and of course balloons are polymers and experience high rates of deformation when popped.  He went on to talk about measuring properties of polymers and their application in objects as diverse as cycle helmets and mobile phones.

A big question for engineers

galleyhead lightThe proportion of women graduating with engineering degrees in the UK and US has remained around a sixth for at least the last thirty years despite many campaigns to achieve gender equality.  One of my colleagues, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, writing in the New Statesmen asked whether it will take another world war to get more women into engineering.  I think that the sort of seismic shift in attitude caused by such events will be required.  Many in the engineering profession claim that problem-solving is a unifying skill, which is common to all branches of engineering, and yet we have been unable to solve the problem that our profession is one of the least gender diverse.  Does this mean that we have not really been trying to solve the problem, or that we are not the problem-solvers we claim to be?


Landivar LC, Disparities in STEM employment by sex, race and Hispanic origin, US Census Bureau, September 2013


Entropy in poetry

WIN_20140716_190901 (2)Few weeks ago I mentioned about reading undergraduate dissertations [see my post entitled ‘A Startling Result‘ on May 18th, 2016] and about a year ago I wrote about the low quality of prose produced by engineers [see my post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader‘ on April 15th, 2015 ].  Coleridge described prose as words in the best order and poetry as the best words in the best order. So today I’d like to direct you to a poem entitled ‘Entropy‘ by Neil Rollinson from his anthology ‘Spanish Fly’.  Here are a few lines from it:

“I open the window, the sky is dark
and the house is also cooling, the garden,
the summer lawn, all of it finding an equilibrium.”

I came across it while reading an anthology called ‘A Quark for Mister Mark: 101 Poems about Science‘ edited by Maurice Riordan and Jon Turney.  I was dipping into it while enjoying a pint in our backyard after a personal battle with entropy: painting rusting railings in our yard.

I was reviewing ‘A Quark for Mister Mark’ as potential reading material for a module on Technical Writing as part of our new CPD programme on Advanced Technical Skills.