engineering soapbox

Getting it wrong

Filming for the MOOC Energy: Thermodynamics in Everyday Life

Last week’s post was stimulated by my realisation that I had made a mistake in a lecture [see ‘Amply sufficiency of solar energy?‘ on October 25th, 2017]. During the lecture, something triggered a doubt about a piece of information that I used in talking about the world as a thermodynamic system. It caused me to do some more research on the topic afterwards which led to the blog post.  The students know this already, because I sent an email to them as the post was published.  It was not an error that impacted on the fundamental understanding of the thermodynamic principles, which is fortunate because we are at a point in the course where students are struggling to understand and apply the principles to problems.  This is a normal process from my perspective but rather challenging and uncomfortable for many students.  They are developing creative problem-solving skills – becoming comfortable with the slow and uncertain process of creating representations and exploring the space of possible solutions [Martin & Schwartz, 2009 & 2014].  This takes extensive practice and most students want a quick fix: usually looking at a worked solution, which might induce the feeling that some thermodynamics has been understood but does nothing for problem-solving skills [see my post on ‘Meta-representational competence‘ on May 13th, 2015].

Engineers don’t like to be wrong [see my post on ‘Engineers are slow, error-prone‘ on April 29th, 2014].  The reliability of our solutions and designs is a critical ingredient in the social trust of engineering [Madhaven, 2016].  So, not getting it wrong is deeply embedded in the psyche of most engineers.  It is difficult to persuade most engineers to appear in front of a camera because we worry, not just about not getting it wrong, but about telling the whole truth.  The whole truth is often inconvenient for those that want to sensationalize issues for their own purposes, such as to sell news or gain votes, and this approach is anathema to many engineers.  The truth is also often complicated and nuanced, which can render an engineer’s explanation cognitively less attractive than a simple myth, or in other words less interesting and boring.  Unfortunately, people mainly pass on information that will cause an emotional response in the recipient, which is perhaps why engineering blogs are not as widely read as many others! [Lewandowsky et al 2012].


This week’s lecture was about energy flows, and heat transfer in particular; so, the following posts from the archive might be interest: ‘On the beach‘ on July 24th, 2013, ‘Noise transfer‘ on April 3rd, 2013, and ‘Stimulating students with caffeine‘ on December 17th, 2014


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

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

Madhaven G, Think like an engineer, London: One World Publications, 2016.

Lewandowsky S, Ecker UKH, Seifert CM, Schwarz N & Cook J, Misinformation and its correction: continued influence and successful debiasing, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3):106-131, 2012.


Red to blue

Some research has a very long incubation time.  Last month, we published a short paper that describes the initial results of research that started just after I arrived in Liverpool in 2011.  There are various reasons for our slow progress, including our caution about the validity of the original idea and the challenges of working across discipline boundaries.  However, we were induced to rush to publication by the realization that others were catching up with us [see blog post and conference paper].  Our title does not give much away: ‘Characterisation of metal fatigue by optical second harmonic generation‘.

Second harmonic generation or frequency doubling occurs when photons interact with a non-linear material and are combined to produce new photons with twice the energy, and hence, twice the frequency and half the wavelength of the original photons.  Photons are discrete packets of energy that, in our case, are supplied in pulses of 2 picoseconds from a laser operating at a wavelength of 800 nanometres (nm).  The photons strike the surface, are reflected, and then collected in a spectrograph to allow us to evaluate the wavelength of the reflected photons.  We look for ones at 400 nm, i.e. a shift from red to blue.

The key finding of our research is that the second harmonic generation from material in the plastic zone ahead of a propagating fatigue crack is different to virgin material that has experienced no plastic deformation.  This is significant because the shape and size of the crack tip plastic zone determines the rate and direction of crack propagation; so, information about the plastic zone can be used to predict the life of a component.  At first sight, this capability appears similar to thermoelastic stress analysis that I have described in Instructive Update on October 4th, 2017; however, the significant potential advantage of second harmonic generation is that the component does not have to be subject to a cyclic load during the measurement, which implies we could study behaviour during a load cycle as well as conduct forensic investigations.  We have some work to do to realise this potential including developing an instrument for routine measurements in an engineering laboratory, rather than an optics lab.

Last week, I promised weekly links to posts on relevant Thermodynamics topics for students following my undergraduate module; so here are three: ‘Emergent properties‘, ‘Problem-solving in Thermodynamics‘, and ‘Running away from tigers‘.


Ramblings on equality

By David Samuel, User:Hellodavey1902 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I had some time to spare in Oxford last week and visited the Treasury in the Weston Library again (see my post entitled ‘The Red Crane‘ on July 26th, 2017).  I was amazed to be confronted by an eight-hundred year-old copy of the Magna Carta.  No fuss, no fanfare, just sitting there behind a glass screen as close as you are to your screen as you read this blog.  But the Bodleian Library has four copies of the Magna Carta; so, maybe it’s nothing special to them!  This one is slightly dogged-eared, or to be more precise, rodent-nibbled – there were a couple of small holes where an animal had gnawed it while it was folded up and stored at Osney Abbey from its issue following King John’s death in 1217 until the Abbey’s dissolution in 1539.  The equivalent documents in the USA, the declaration of independence, the constitution and the bill of rights, are housed in the grandiose building on the National Mall, shown in the picture.

After the Weston Library Treasury, I went to the bookshop next door and could not resist buying a couple of books: ‘Signs Preceding the End of the World‘ by Yuri Herrara and ‘The Wandering Falcon‘ by Jamil Ahmad.  Hopefully, I will not succumb to tsundoku (see my post on ‘Tsundoku‘ on May 24th, 2017) and will eventually read these novels.  BTW – you can read the Magna Carta here.

It’s October and the start of university term, which also means that once again I am teaching thermodynamics to first-year undergraduate students. I have blogged on thermodynamics frequently; so, I am going to provide links to these posts during the next couple of months.  Primarily for those of my undergraduate students who find their way to this blog, but hopefully these links will also be of interest to regular readers. My opening lecture set thermodynamics in the context of the more familiar sciences as described in my post entitled ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016.  Last week’s lecture started with the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, which I have discussed in two posts entitled ‘All things being equal‘ on December 3rd, 2014 and ‘Lincoln on equality‘ on February 6th, 2013 – now I’ve gone in a full circle, if somewhat shakily!

Instructive Update

Six months ago I wrote about our EU research project, called INSTRUCTIVE, and the likely consequences of Brexit for research [see my post: ‘Instructive report and Brexit‘ on March 29th, 2017].  We seem to be no closer to knowing the repercussions of Brexit on research in the UK and EU – a quarter of EU funding allocated to universities goes to UK universities so the potential impacts will hit both the UK and EU.  Some researchers take every opportunity to highlight these risks and the economic benefits of EU research; for instance the previous EU research programme, Framework Programme 7, is estimated to have created 900,000 jobs in Europe and increased GDP by about 1% in perpetuity.  However, most researchers are quietly getting on with their research and hoping that our political leaders will eventually arrive at a solution that safeguards our prosperity and security.  Our INSTRUCTIVE team is no exception to this approach.  We are about half-way through our project and delivered our first public presentation of our work at the International Conference on Advances in Experimental Mechanics last month.  We described how we are able to identify cracks in metallic structures before they are long enough to be visible to the naked eye, or any other inspection technique commonly used for aircraft structures.  We identify the cracks using an infra-red camera by detecting the energy released during the formation and accumulation of dislocations in the atomic structure that coalesce into voids and eventually into cracks [see my post entitled ‘Alan Arnold Griffith‘ on April 26th, 2017 for more on energy release during crack formation].  We can identify cracks at sub-millimetre lengths and then track them as they propagate through a structure.  At the moment, we are quantifying our ability to detect cracks forming underneath the heads of fasteners [see picture] and other features in real aerospace structures; so that we can move our technology out of the laboratory and into an industrial environment.  We have a big chunk of airplane sitting in the laboratory that we will use for future tests – more on that in later blog posts!

INSTRUCTIVE is an EU Horizon 2020 project funded under the Clean Sky 2 programme [project no. 686777] and involves Strain Solutions Ltd and the University of Liverpool working with Airbus.

Statistics on funding from

For other posts on similar research topics, see ‘Counting photons to measure stress‘ on November 18th, 2015 and ‘Forensic engineering‘ on July 22nd, 2015.

Pebbles – where are yours?

The picture shows a little collection of pebbles and a shell that sits on the desk in my office.  There are similar collections in various locations at home and some of my coats have a pebble permanently in one pocket – there’s even a shell on the dashboard of our car.  They have all been picked up during walks on beaches [see my post entitled ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on 26th August 2015] and serve as reminders of the ‘slowness’ enjoyed on vacation [see my post ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015].  Barbara Hepworth owned a similar collection of stones that you can see in the Hepworth Wakefield.  On the subject of this habit she wrote in 1961: ‘Many people select a stone or a pebble to carry for the day.  The weight and form and texture felt in our hands relates us to the past and gives us a sense of a universal force.  The beautifully shaped stone, washed up by the sea, is a symbol of continuity, a silent image of our desire for survival, peace and security.’  I could not express it better so I didn’t try.

The quote is from a contribution to the film Barbara Hepworth directed by John Read, BBC TV, 1961 and can be found in Barbara Hepworth: Writings and Conversations, edited by Sophie Bowness, London: Tate Publishing, 2015.