Month: August 2016

WOW projects, TED talks, Cosmicomics and indirect reciprocity

33 finsbury squareWOW projects, TED talks, Cosmicomics and indirect reciprocity.  What do they have in common?  Well, each of them features in a new and rather different education programme that we are launching next month on the University of Liverpool’s campus at 33 Finsbury Square, London.  We are targetting mid-career engineers and scientists, working in research and development organisations, who want to develop their skills and advance their careers. I write ‘we’ because it is a joint effort by the School of Engineering at the University and the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory.  It has been something of an adventure for me putting the modules together and we hope they will form a voyage of discovery and adventure for our delegates.

In case you are wondering about WOW projects, TED talks, Cosmicomics and indirect reciprocity – they will feature in modules on Science Leadership & Ethics, Technical Communication, Technical Writing, and Technical Reputation respectively.  These four five-credit modules plus a work-based project form the programme that leads to a Post-graduate Award.  Each module involves a day on campus in London supported by reading and assignments before and afterwards; and we are running a module per month between now and Christmas.

If you’re curious to find out more then visit our website or watch our Youtube video.

Ideas from a balanced mind

WP_20160714_014I have written about the virtues of mind-wandering on a number of occasions.  A recent article in the Harvard Gazette has stressed the importance of distinguishing between intentional and unintentional mind-wandering.  Unintentional mind-wandering or loss of concentration happens more frequently than we perhaps would like to admit. Some research has shown that office-workers are distracted every three minutes and that it takes about 20 minutes to achieve a high level of engagement in a task.  Obviously, I am not advocating unintentional mind-wandering but the intentional kind that occurs when we achieve the ‘Steadiness and placidity‘ that Michael Faraday found so productive [see my post on July 13th, 2016].  Perhaps this is important to our creativity because, to quote Barbara Hepworth, ‘Ideas are born through a perfect balance of our conscious and unconscious life and they are realized through this same fusion and equilibrium.’  And, creativity contributes to workplace success, healthy psychological functioning and the maintenance of loving relationships according to Oppezzo and Schwartz [see my post: ‘Love an engineer‘ on September 24th, 2014].


Reuell, P., Minding the details of mind wandering, Harvard Gazette, July 20th, 2016 online at

Hepworth, B., ‘Sculpture’, in Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art, JL Martin, B Nicholson & N Gabo (editors), London 1937 reproduced in Bowness, S., (editor), ‘Barbara Hepworth – Writing and Conversations’ London: Tate Publishing, 2015.

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.

Image: photograph taken in the Barbara Hepworth Musuem and Garden in St Ives.

Coping with uncertainty

The first death of driver in a car while using Autopilot has been widely reported with much hyperbole though with a few notable exceptions, for instance Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair on July 7th, 2016 who pointed out that you were safer statistically in a Tesla with its Autopilot functioning than driving normally.  This is based on the fact that worldwide there is a fatality for every 60 million miles driven, or every 94 million miles in the US, whereas Joshua Brown’s tragic death was the first in 130 million miles driven by Teslas with Autopilot activated.  This implies that globally you are twice as likely to survive your next car journey in an autonomously driven Tesla than in a manually driven car.

If you decide to go by plane instead then the probability of arriving safely is extremely good because only one in every 3 million flights last year resulted in fatalities or put another way: 3.3 billion passengers were transported with the loss of 641 lives, which is a one in 5 million.  People worry about these probabilities while at the same time buying lottery tickets with a much lower probability of winning the jackpot, which is about 1 in 14 million in the UK.  In all of these cases, the probability is saying something about the frequency of occurance of these events.  We don’t know whether the plane will crash on the next flight we take so we rationalise this uncertainty by defining the frequency of flights that end in a fatal crash.  The French mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) thought about probability as a measure of our ignorance or uncertainty.  As we have come to realise the extent of our uncertainty about many things in science (see my post: ‘Electron Uncertainty‘ on July 27th, 2016) and life (see my post: ‘Unexpected bad news for turkeys‘ on November 25th, 2015), the more important the concept of probability has become.   Caputo has argued that ‘a post-modern style demands a capacity to sustain uncertainty and instability, to live with the unforeseen and unpredictable as positive conditions of the possibility of an open-ended future’.  Most of us can manage this concept when the open-ended future is a lottery jackpot but struggle with the remaining uncertainties of life, particularly when presented with new ones, such as autonomous cars.


Bilton, N., How the media screwed up the fatal Tesla accident, Vanity Fair, July 7th, 2016

IATA Safety Report 2014

Caputo JD, Truth: Philosophy in Transit, London: Penguin 2013.

Ball, J., How safe is air travel really? The Guardian, July 24th, 2014

Boagey, R., Who’s behind the wheel? Professional Engineering, 29(8):22-26, August 2016.

Digital detox with a deep vacation

beachIt’s official – half of us are addicted to our internet-connected devices and a third of us have attempted to kick the addiction.  A recent study by the UK’s communication regulator, OFCOM found that 59% of internet users considered themselves ‘hooked’ and spending the equivalent of more than a day a week on-line.   They also reported that one in three internet users have attempted a ‘digital detox’ with a third saying they felt more productive afterwards, while slightly more that a quarter found it liberating and another quarter said they enjoyed life more.  So, switch off all of your devices, take a deep vacation,  do some off-line reading (see my post entitled ‘Reading offline‘ on March 19th, 2014), slow down and breathe your own air (see my post entitled ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015).  Now, you won’t find many blogs advising you to stop reading them!

Health warning: OFCOM also found that 16% of ‘digital detoxers’ experienced FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out’ (‘FOMO’), 15% felt lost and 14% ‘cut-off’.

More uncertainty about matter and energy


When I wrote about wave-particle duality and an electron possessing the characteristics of both matter and energy [see my post entitled ‘Electron uncertainty’ on July 27th, 2016], I dodged the issue of what are matter and energy.  As an engineer, I think of matter as being the solids, liquids and gases that are both manufactured and occur in nature.  We should probably add plasmas to this list, as they are created in an increasing number of engineering processes, including power generation using nuclear fission.  But maybe plasmas should be classified as energy, since they are clouds of unbounded charged particles, often electrons.   Matter is constructed from atoms and atoms from sub-atomic particles, such as electrons that can behave as particles or waves of energy.  So clearly, the boundary between matter and energy is blurred or fuzzy.  And, Einstein’s famous equation describes how energy and matter can be equated, i.e. energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared.

Engineers tend to define energy as the capacity to do work, which is fine for manufactured or generated energy, but is inadequate when thinking about the energy of sub-atomic particles, which probably is why Feynman said we don’t really know what energy is.  Most of us think about energy as the stuff that comes down an electricity cable or that we get from eating a banana.  However, Evelyn Pielou points out in her book, The Nature of Energy, that energy in nature surrounds us all of the time, not just in the atmosphere or water flowing in rivers and oceans but locked into the structure of plants and rocks.

Matter and energy are human constructs and nature does not do rigid classifications, so perhaps we should think about a plant as a highly-organised localised zone of high density energy [see my post entitled ‘Fields of flowers‘ on July 8th, 2015].  We will always be uncertain about some things and as our ability to probe the world around us improves we will find that we are no longer certain about things we thought we understood.  For instance, research has shown that Bucky balls, which are spherical fullerene molecules containing sixty carbon atoms with a mass of 720 atomic mass units, and so seem to be quite substantial bits of matter, exhibit wave-particle duality in certain conditions.

We need to learn to accept uncertainty and appreciate the opportunities it presents to us rather than seek unattainable certainty.

Note: an atomic mass unit is also known as a Dalton and is equivalent to 1.66×10-27kg


Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Arndt M, Nairz O, Vos-Andreae J, Keller C, van der Zouw G & Zeilinger A, Wave-particle duality of C60 molecules, Nature 401, 680-682 (14 October 1999).