Monthly Archives: October 2016

Man, the Rubbish Maker

167-6734_IMGBruce Sterling wrote that our current civilisation would be best described as ‘Man, the Rubbish Maker’ if we were to be judged by our efforts that will best survive the passage of time.  Paleontologists have found flint-knapping workshops more than two million years old that have out-lasted any record of the speech, culture or beliefs of the craftsmen that laboured in them.  Pollution and waste is not consumed and hence tends to persist while useful things wear out.  In a short story called ‘Daughters of the Moon’ published in 1968 as part of his third collection of Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino describes a world in which cars wear out more quickly than the soles of your shoes.  He goes on to describe a region where the road petered out in a hilly area created by ‘the layers of things that had been thrown away: everything that the consumerist city expelled once it had quickly used it up so it could immediately enjoy the pleasure of handling new things’.  Calvino was imagining a future world but we are rapidly approaching his vision, or perhaps we are already there.  Our junk, rubbish, and trash, is a form of entropy – an increase in the level of disorder created by the processes that provide our man-made lifestyle and required as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Unavoidable junk‘ published on January 14th, 2013].  And ‘entropy requires no maintenance’, to quote Sterling, so much of our rubbish will still be here long after we have disappeared.

If we want to avoid Calvino’s vision of cities surrounded by layers of discarded things, then we have to learn to love old but serviceable belongings.  They are good enough and will suffice.  If they break then we should have them repaired, preferably locally in order to stimulate our economy and reduce our ecological footprint rather than replacing them with something made abroad.  This will require engineers to think more about repairs when designing artefacts and consumers to learn to appreciate the patina of age and usage as a virtue, something of beauty.


Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things, Boston: MIT Press, 2005.

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics, London: Penguin Books, 2002.

Edwin Heathcote, Make and Mend, Financial Times, 30/31 March, 2013.


Cognition is beautiful

wp_20150725_031Today is the mid-point of the MOOC on Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life that I am delivering both for our first-year undergraduate students at the University of Liverpool and anyone anywhere in the world who wants to sign up for free.  Not surprisingly, some MOOC learners have been struggling with some of the topics, which include statistical thermodynamics and require some elementary calculus.  A few learners have complained and implied that I should not be attempting to cover such challenging material, to which I have responded that my aim is to educate not to entertain.  Many more learners have made counter-comments that can be summarised by the words of writer and theologian, John Hull in his Notes on Blindness: ‘Cognition is beautiful.  It is beautiful to know.’

I think that these words hold true at many levels, from a child realizing how to match shaped pegs to shaped holes, a student acquiring knowledge and understanding in an engineering science course to a professor discovering new knowledge and understanding in a research programme.  For many of us, the beauty of cognition, often associated with a moment of dawning realisation, is the reward for the effort required to truly understand.

Source: I read about John Hull’s audio diary in ‘Rain: four walks in English weather‘ by Melissa Harrison published by Faber and Faber, London, 2016.