Month: December 2016

Digital detox

Photo by Sarah

Image by Sarah

I’m in digital detox over the Christmas and New Year holidays.  So no post today.  Instead enjoy the picture or if you’re having withdrawal symptoms or want to know more about digital detox then read ‘Digital detox with a deep vacation‘ posted on August 10th, 2016. Otherwise ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ [see my post on December 23rd, 2015].

No snow at Christmas?


Norwegian Arctic (Image by Sarah)

The algae in the Arctic Ocean are blooming earlier every year at the moment because the sea ice melts more quickly each Spring as a consequence of global warming. This observation was made by Kevin Arrigo, a biological oceanographer at Stanford University and confirmed by Mati Kahru, an oceanographer at the University of California, San Diego using satellite imaging. But what’s good for algae is not good for polar bears or us because less ice deprives polar bears of a hunting platform and raises sea levels globally. A 1m rise in sea level would displace 145 million people, or the equivalent of about half the population of the USA. A 2 degree temperature rise would make the Earth as warm as 3 million years ago when sea levels were between 25m and 35m higher – the temperature in the Arctic in last month was 2.22°C above average for the time of year.  The extent of the sea ice in October was 28.5% less than average for the month. So while there will be snow at Christmas in the Arctic, there might not be in the future.

Our current engineering technology is both contributing to climate change and is inadequate to mitigate the consequences. These issues present a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems (quoting John Gardiner), and given the predictions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel, we have less than 40 years to replace the equivalent of 200 years of engineering development (paraphrasing Yoshiyuki Sakaki). So, the generation of students entering engineering at the moment are going to be engaged in race that’s more challenging and more important to society than the race to the moon that preoccupied the generation that preceded mine.


Carl Zimmer, Global warming altering the Arctic food chain, Taipei Times, November 27th, 2016.

Blockstein DE, Weigman L, The Climate Solutions Consensus. Island Press, Washington, 2010.

John Gardiner, founder of Common Cause cited in Friedman, Thomas L., Hot, Flat and CrowdedWhy we need a green revolution and how it can renew America, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2008.

Yoshiyuki Sakaki, President, Toyohashi University of Technology, Japan, Keynote presentation at ICEE/ICEER conference in Seoul, Korea, 25th August 2009.

Consensus is just a coffee break

milk in coffee‘Consensus is just a coffee break’ to quote Caputo. He argued that if consensus was the ultimate aim then eventually we would all stop talking. The goal of conversation would be silence and as he wrote that would be a strange outcome for a species defined by its ability to speak. It is differences that drive everything: innovation, progress and the processes of life.

In thermodynamics, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) observed that heat flows into the random motion of molecules and is never recovered, so that eventually a universe of uniform temperature will be created. When heat flows between matter at different temperatures we can extract work, for instance, using a heat engine. No work could be extracted from a universe of uniform temperature and so nothing would happen. Life would cease and there would be cosmic death [see my posts entitled ‘Will it all be over soon‘ on November 2nd, 2016 and ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ on February 18th, 2015].

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the crew of the Heart of Gold contemplated whether relationships between people were susceptible to the same laws that governed the relationships between atoms and molecules. The answer would appear to be affirmative in terms of dissonance being necessary for action.

So, we should celebrate and respect the differences in our communities. They are essential for a functioning, vibrant and successful society – without them life would not just consist of silent conversations but would cease completely.


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

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London: Picador, 2002.

Out and about

butterfly-with-branched-scrolls-vaseI have been away from Liverpool a lot in the last few weeks. Teaching in Manchester and London but also visiting Taiwan. In the capital, Taipei they have yellow cabs and a succession of black limos pick up visitors from the airport. I even saw a baseball pro shop but despite the strong American influence, the culture is definitely Chinese so ordering meals and buying train tickets is a challenge if you don’t speak or read Mandarin. I am a Visiting Professor at the National Tsing Hua University and was there to meet with some PhD students and participate in a research workshop on computational modelling [see my post on Can you trust your digital twins?on November 22nd, 2016]. It wasn’t my first trip to Taiwan [see my post entitled ‘Crash in Taipei: an engineer’s travelogue?’ on November 19th, 2014] but I visited a high school for the first time. I spent half a day meeting teachers and pupils at the Taipei European School. I gave a talk based on my post entitled ‘Happenstance, not engineering?’ [see my post on November 9th, 2016] to several groups of science pupils in an attempt to explain what engineers do. The reception was enthusiastic and we had some good question and answer sessions. It was a first for me to do this in any school and the first time in the memory of the teachers that a professional engineer had visited the school. A while ago I wrote about nurturing the spirit through the exchange of gifts in the form of knowledge [see my post entitled ‘Knowledge spheres’ on March 9th, 2016]. My spirits were lifted by talking to the pupils and maybe one or two of them will have been persuaded to think about becoming an engineer. We also exchanged material gifts so that I have a beautiful vase to stand on my shelf and remind me of an enjoyable visit and hopefully prompt me to go again. Lots of young people have no idea what engineers do and are looking for a career that will allow them to contribute to society, so they are surprised and excited when they realise engineering offers that opportunity. So, we should get out more and tell them about it.