electrical engineering

Happenstance, not engineering?


A few weeks ago I wrote that ‘engineering is all about ingenuity‘ [post on September 14th, 2016] and pointed out that while some engineers are involved in designing, manufacturing and maintaining engines, most of us are not.  So, besides being ingenious, what do the rest of us do?  Well, most of us contribute in some way to the conception, building and sustaining of networks.  Communication networks, food supply networks, power networks, transport networks, networks of coastal defences, networks of oil rigs, refineries and service stations, or networks of mines, smelting works and factories that make everything from bicycles to xylophones.  The list is endless in our highly networked society.  A network is a group of interconnected things or people.  And, engineers are responsible for all of the nodes in our networks of things and for just about all the connections in our networks of both things and people.

Engineers have been constructing networks by building nodes and connecting them for thousands of years, for instance the ancient Mesopotamians were building aqueducts to connect their towns with distance water supplies more than four millenia ago.

Engineered networks are so ubiquitous that no one notices them until something goes wrong, which means engineers tend to get blamed more than praised.  But apparently that is the fault of the ultimate network: the human brain.  Recent research has shown that blame and praise are assigned by different mechanisms in the brain and that blame can be assigned by every location in the brain responsible for emotion whereas praise comes only from a single location responsible for logical thought.  So, we blame more frequently than we praise and we tend to assume that bad things are deliberate while good things are happenstance.  So reliable networks are happenstance rather than good engineering in the eyes of most people!


Ngo L, Kelly M, Coutlee CG, Carter RM , Sinnott-Armstrong W & Huettel SA, Two distinct moral mechanisms for ascribing and denying intentionality, Scientific Reports, 5:17390, 2015.

Bruek H, Human brains are wired to blame rather than to praise, Fortune, December 4th 2015.


Electron uncertainty

daisyMost of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty.  Michael Faraday’s ability to ‘accept the given – certainties and uncertainties’ [see my post entitled ‘Steadiness and placidity’ on July 18th, 2016] was exceptional and perhaps is one reason he was able to make such outstanding contributions to science and engineering.  It has been said that his ‘Expts. on the production of Electricity from Magnetism, etc. etc.’ [Note 148 from Faraday’s notebooks] on August 29th 1831  began the age of electricity.  Electricity is associated with the flow of electric charge, which is often equated with the flow of electrons and electrons are subatomic particles with a negative elementary charge and a mass that is approximately 1/1836 atomic mass units.  A moving electron, and it is difficult to find a stationary one, has wave-particle duality – that is, it simultaneously has the characteristics of a particle and a wave.  So, there is uncertainty about the nature of an electron and most of us find this concept difficult to handle.

An electron is both matter and energy.  It is a particle in its materialisation as matter but a wave in its incarnation as energy.  However, this is probably too much of a reductionist description of a systemic phenomenon.  Nevertheless let’s stay with it for a moment, because it might help elucidate why the method of measurement employed in experiments with electrons influences whether our measurements reflect the behaviour of a particle or a wave.  Perhaps when we design our experiments from an energy perspective then electrons oblige by behaving as waves of energy and when we design from a matter perspective then electrons materialise as particles.

All of this leads to a pair of questions about what is matter and what is energy?  But, these are enormous questions, and even the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said ‘in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is’, so I’m going to leave them unanswered.  I’ve probably already riled enough physicists with my simplistic discussion.

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


Hamilton, J., A life of discovery: Michael Faraday, giant of the scientific revolution. New York: Random House, 2002.

Pielou EC, The Energy of Nature [the epilogue], Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Super channel system

polina bayvelPerhaps we can be characterized by whether or not we believe we have an acceptable speed of internet access.  At home and work, I’m in the category that’s never satisfied by the speed provided.  Well, now there is a completely new standard: 1.125 Tb/s.  That’s 50,000 times faster than anything commercially available at the moment.  You could download a boxed set of the entire Games of Thrones saga in a second; at least that’s how Professor Polina Bayvel described her latest research in a recent conference that I attended at the Royal Society.  Professor Bayvel is head of the Optical Networks Group at University College London.  I think the UK government should abandon attempting to extend the current internet technology to everyone in the country and instead leap-frog the rest of the world by working on rolling out Prof Bayvel’s new technology.


Maher R, Xu T, Galdino L, Sato M, Alvarado A, Shi K, Savory SJ, Thomsen BC, Killey RI & Bayvel P, Spectrally shaped DP-16QAM super-channel transmission with multi-channel digital back propagation, Scientific Reports, 5:8214, 2015.

Connecting robotic touch and vision

katherine kuchenbeckerSome months ago I wrote about soft robots that could delicately pick up fragile objects [see my post entitled ‘Robots with a delicate touch’ on June 3rd, 2015]. These robots, developed by George Whiteside’s research group, went some way towards mimicking the function of our hands.  However, these robots are numb because they have no sense of touch.  Think about how hard it would be to strike a match or pick up an egg without your sense of touch. Katherine Kuchenbecker from the University of Pennsylvania is working on robots with tactile sensors that detect pressure and vibrations.  This sensitivity transforms their ability to perform delicate tasks such as picking up an egg, or perhaps more significantly perform surgery.  I listened to Professor Kuchenberger speak at a meeting at the Royal Society on ‘Robotics and Autonomous Systems’ where she put us off our lunch with some gory videos on robot-assisted surgery. You can watch them at her website. Her vision is of robots that connect vision and touch, which is of course what we do effortlessly most of the time.

Fields of flowers

It’s not often that someone presents you with a completely new way of looking at the world around us but that’s what Dr Gregory Sutton did a few weeks ago at a Royal Society Regional Networking Event in Bristol where he is a University Research Fellow funded by the Royal Society. He told us that every flower is a conductor sticking out of the ground which on a sunny day has an electric field around it of the order of 100 volts per metre. Bees can identify the type of flower that they are approaching based on the interaction between this field and the electrostatic field generated around them as they fly. Bees are covered in tiny hairs and he believes that they use these to sense the electric field around them. The next research question that he is tackling is how bees are affected by the anthropogenic electric fields from power lines, mobile phones etc.

The plots of the electric field around a flower really caught my attention. You can see one in the thumbnail photo. I walked across Brandon Hill in Bristol after the talk to meet a former PhD student for dinner. I kept stopping on the way to try to detect this field with the hairs on the back of my hand. It was a beautiful sunny day but I was not sensitive enough to feel anything. Or maybe I was sensing it but my brain is not programmed to recognise the sensation. We discussed it over dinner and marvelled at the bees’ ability to process the information from its multiple sensors in the light of our knowledge of the computing power required to handle what it is fashionable to call ‘Big Data’ from man-made sensors.

Once again Nature humbles us with its ingenuity and makes our efforts look clumsy if not feeble. Dr Sutton’s insights have given me a whole new way to attempt to connect with Nature while I am on deep vacation.

Sorry about the pun in the title. I couldn’t resist it.


Clarke D, Whitney H, Sutton G & Robert D, Detection and Learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebee, Science, 5 April 2013: 66-69. [DOI:10.1126/science.1230883].