Monthly Archives: 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.