Month: January 2017

Did cubism inspire engineering analysis?

Bottle and Fishes c.1910-2 Georges Braque 1882-1963 Purchased 1961

Bottle and Fishes c.1910-2 Georges Braque 1882-1963 Purchased 1961

A few weeks ago we went to the Tate Liverpool with some friends who were visiting from out of town. It was my second visit to the gallery in as many months and I was reminded that on the previous visit I had thought about writing a post on a painting called ‘Bottle and Fishes’ by the French artist, Georges Braque.  It’s an early cubist painting – the style was developed by Picasso and Braque at the beginning of the last century.  The art critic, Louis Vauxcelles coined the term ‘cubism’ on seeing some of Braque’s paintings in 1908 and describing them as reducing everything to ‘geometric outlines, to cubes’.  It set me thinking about how long it took the engineering world to catch on to the idea of reducing objects, or components and structures, to geometric outlines and then into cubes.  This is the basis of finite element analysis, which was not invented until about fifty years after cubism, but is now ubiquitous in engineering design as the principal method of calculating deformation and stresses in components and structures.  An engineer can calculate the stresses in a simple cube with a pencil and paper, so dividing a structure into a myriad of cubes renders its analysis relatively straightforward but very tedious.  Of course, a computer removes the tedium and allows us to analyse complex structures relatively quickly and reliably.

So, why did it take engineers fifty years to apply cubism?  Well, we needed computers sufficiently powerful to make it worthwhile and they only became available after the Second War World due to the efforts of Turing and his peers.  At least, that’s our excuse!  Nowadays the application of finite element analysis extends beyond stress fields to many field variables, including heat, fluid flow and magnetic fields.

Technology leadership

zennor head

Some of us have followed compassionate, courageous, transformative leaders and some of us aspire to be this type of leader.  Good leadership results in teams to which people want to belong and can transform an organization.  However, good leaders are remarkably rare, at least in science and engineering.  Is that because leaders are born rather than created?  This is part of the nature versus nurture debate and recent research, reported in Nature Genetics, suggests that the influence of genetics and environment on human traits is pretty much equal, based on a fifty-year study of 1.4 million twin pairs.  This implies that there is opportunity to nurture leaders and as individuals to hone our leadership skills, which is something I have working on recently.

Over the past fifteen months I have been working, with colleagues from one of the UK’s national laboratories, on developing a set of new courses to support aspiring leaders in research and development organizations.  Last semester we offered these courses as credit-bearing continuous professional development (CPD) for the national lab’s employees.  You can enroll on the next offering of the courses next semester if you can get to London one day each month from March to June [].  If you joined us then you would be involved in discussions about: gathering, using and presenting evidence; marrying detailed evidence with a ‘big picture’ perspective; communicating using concise narratives; thinking ‘just’ out-of-the box and challenging the norm; as well as personal integrity and doing the right thing.  To stimulate these discussions, we’ll ask you to read books such as ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team‘  by Patrick Lencioni, ‘The Complete Cosmicomics‘ by Italo Calvino and ‘We Are All Stardust‘ by Stefan Klein.  You will have noticed the influence of the last two books in posts on this blog during 2016 and you can expect a few more in 2017!

Engineers and scientists need to work in teams nowadays and someone needs to lead these teams; however our education as scientists and engineers tends to focus on management without examining the skills associated with successful leadership.  Management is about organising resources and tasks whereas leadership is about inspiring and motivating people.  The analytical skills honed by a technical education equip us well to perform management tasks but prepare us poorly for leadership roles in which nothing is well-defined or easily described.


Polderman TJC, Benyamin B, de Leeuw CA, Sullivan PF, van Bochoven A, Visscher PM, Posthuma D, Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies, Nature Genetics, 47: 702–709 (2015).

Patrick Lencioni, The five dysfunctions of a team, Lafayette, CA: Table Group Inc.,

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

Stefan Klein, We are all stardust, London: Scribe, 2015.


Traditionalist tendencies revealed

Thank you for the supportive comments in response to my post on January 4th about to blog or not to blog [see ‘A tiny contribution to culture?‘].  They dispelled any lingering doubts about continuing to write every week.  When I first started writing this blog, I didn’t have an editor.  Then, for a while an English literature graduate, who I know well, acted as my editor.  He didn’t run off with the butler but his enthusiasm waned and I am very grateful to my current editor, who ensures that my narrative threads are not severed or [too] tangled and my sentences are complete.

Feedback is a tricky thing because often it only comes from a small but vocal minority; so, how much notice should one take of it?  We live in a world where the ‘customer’ is always right and a response to feedback is often an expectation.  I felt some pressure to respond to last week’s comments and they were positive – it becomes almost an imperative when the comments are negative, even when expressed by a tiny minority of ‘customers’.  This might be appropriate if you are running a hotel or an automotive service department but seems inappropriate in other settings, such as education.  Engineering students need to develop creative problem-solving skills and research shows that students tend to jump into algebraic manipulation whereas experts experiment to find the best approach.  This means that engineering students need to become comfortable with the slow and uncertain process of creating representations and exploring the space of possibilities, which is achieved through extensive practice, according to Martin and Schwartz. Not surprisingly, most students find this difficult but are uncomplaining; however, for some it is not to their liking and they provide, often vocal, feedback along these lines.  This is fine and to be expected.  However, in the post-truth world of higher education, many administrators and governments appear to value the views of these vocal students more highly than the experts delivering the education – at least so it seems much of the time.

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t evaluate the quality of educational provision but perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask our students after they have had the opportunity to experience the impact of their education on their post-university life as well as considering the impact of our students on society.  Of course, this would be much more difficult for administrators than collating a set of on-line questionnaires each term.  However, it would have a longer time constant which would be more conducive to evolutionary rather than revolutionary changes in curricula and pedagogy.  Now I sound like a traditionalist when I have been trying so hard to be a post-modernist!


Martin L & Schwartz DL, A pragmatic perspective on visual representation and creative thinking, Visual Studies, 29(1):80-93, 2014.

Martin L & Schwartz DL, Prospective adaptation in the use of external representations, Cognition and Instruction, 27(4):370-400, 2009.

A tiny contribution to culture?

img-20161204-wa00031112This year I would like to think more and do a little less. Or, in other words, to make a better job of fewer things.  This resolution has caused me to think about why I write this blog and whether I should continue to do so.  I started writing it in 2012 as part of an outreach effort mandated by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award that I held for five years until February 2016. So, the original motivation for writing a weekly blog has expired but obviously I have continued – why?

Well, a number of reasons come to mind, first: loyalty to my readers – in 2015 visitors to this blog would have filled six New York subway trains [see my post of January 21st, 2016].  The number of visitors more than doubled in 2016 so that now you would fill a small Premier league football stadium.  It’s difficult to disappoint this number of readers.

Second: the annual doubling of the blog’s readership perhaps suggests that I am doing something worthwhile – making a small contribution to our culture and society.  To quote the neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese in conversation with Stefan Klein ‘by passing on just a little bit of knowledge, every human being makes a contribution to that culture’.   Most of the time this is an altruistic motivation but occasionally it is converted into an inner warm glow when I meet someone who says ‘I read your blog and …’

The third reason is purely selfish: the process of writing is therapeutic and provides an opportunity to collect, order and record my thoughts and ideas.  My editor thinks that I focus too much on re-blogging other peoples’ ideas and that more originality would bring a bigger increase in readership. She is probably right about the connection between originality and readership but original thinking is hard to do, especially on a weekly basis, so often the best I can do is to join dots in ways that perhaps you haven’t thought about.

My final reason is more pecuniary. As an academic researcher, I need to apply for funding to support my research group of about a dozen people.  Engagement in enhancing the public understanding of science and technology is an expectation of many funding bodies and so an established blog with a stadium-sized readership is an asset that justifies the investment of time.

The relative importance of these reasons varies with my mood and audience but together they are sufficient to ensure that writing a weekly post will be one of the fewer things that I plan to do better in 2017.  I guess that means fewer introspective posts like this one!

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year to all my readers!

Source: Stefan Klein, We are all stardust, London: Scribe, 2015.