engineering soapbox

Walking through exams

As a student, in the run up to exams, I used to enjoy going out walking in the hills on my own.  This approach to exam preparation probably surprised my fellow students.  While other walkers that I came across probably thought I was mad because, in an age before mobile phones, they would see me talking to myself; because, as I walked, I was reciting material that I needed to learn for the next exam.  This technique worked for me but I have hesitated to recommend such behaviour to my students.  Now, I’ve discovered that psychologists have found that cognitive performance is improved in young adults while walking at a comfortable, relaxed speed.  This is probably connected to the neurogenesis that I wrote about in my post entitled ‘Gone walking’ on April 19th, 2017.

So, as the examination season is underway in many universities, I thought I should pass on my rather eccentric approach to exam revision.  No doubt, I’ll discover that I wasn’t so eccentric after all but none of us dared share such an unconventional approach to exam preparation.

Sources:

Schaefer et al, Cognitive performance is improved while walking: differences in cognitive-sensorimotor couplings between children and young adults, Euro J Developmental Psychology, 7:371-89, 2010.

Susan Greenfield, A Day in the Life of the Brain, London: Allen Lane, 2016.

Gone walking

Background and lock-screen pictures have become a feature of modern life.  Your computer and mobile device were probably delivered with some pre-loaded scenes from nature and some of us personalize our devices by up-loading photographs taken on holiday or a recent excursion into the countryside.  Perhaps, we do this intuitively, because recent research has shown that immersion in nature, even at the superficial level of viewing a picture can improve brain function.  Brisk walking stimulates the production of new neurons and, when you do it in an environment enriched with natural stimuli, the connectivity and stability of connectivity between neurons is increased.  For those us whose biological systems are in terminal decline, the opportunity to retard this decline by walking in the wild is too good to miss.  I have gone to the English Lake District to produce and connect some more neurons.  I’ll be back next week – feeling hopefully creative and empowered, as well as, probably rather damp but what else can be expected from northern England in April!

For those of you who want to immerse themselves vicariously in the damp natural environment of England in the rain could read ‘Rain: Four Walks in English Weather‘ by Melissa Harrison.

Sources:

Susan Greenfield, A Day in the Life of the Brain, London: Allen Lane, 2016.

Atchley RA, Strayer DL & Atchley, Creativity in the wild: improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings, PloS One, 7:e51474, 2012.

Yao S et al, Physical exercise-induced adult neurogenesis: a good strategy to prevent cognitive decline in neurodegenerative diseases? Biomedical Research Intl., 2014, 403120.

Olson KA et al, Environmental enrichment and voluntary exercise massively increase neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus via dissociable pathways, Hippocampus, 16:250-260, 2006.

We are all citizens of the world

A longer post this week because I was invited to write an article for the Citizens of Everywhere project being organised by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool. The article is reproduced below:

Scientists seek to discover and describe knowledge, while engineers seek to apply and deploy the same knowledge by creating technology that supports our global society.  In their quests, both scientists and engineers are dependent on each other and on those that have gone before them.  On each other, because scientists increasingly need technology in order make discoveries, and because engineers need new scientific discoveries to drive innovation; and both groups stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, to mis-quote Isaac Newton who said he was able to see further by standing on the shoulders of his predecessors.  Scientists and engineers have to build on the achievements of their predecessors, otherwise nothing would be achieved in a single lifetime.  This process is enabled by the global dissemination of knowledge and understanding in our society, which does not recognise any boundaries and flows around the world largely unimpeded by the efforts of nation states and private corporations.  As Poincaré is reputed to have said ‘the scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful’.  The feeling of delight is a reward for hours of intense study; but, the realization that you are the first to recognise or discover a new scientific fact generates so much excitement that you want to tell everyone.  Scientists have always met to share their findings and discuss the implications.  As a young researcher, I had a postcard above my desk showing a photograph of the attendees at the 5th Solvay Conference in 1927 at which 29 scientists from around the world met to debate the latest discoveries relating to electrons and photons.  Seventeen of the 29 attendees at this conference went on to receive Nobel prizes.  Not all scientific meetings are as famous, or perhaps as significant, as the Solvay conference; but, today they are happening all around the world involving thousands of researchers from scores of countries.  Besides the bureaucratic burden of obtaining visas, national boundaries have little impact on these exchanges of scientific and technological knowledge and understanding.  If you are a researcher working in the subject with sufficient funding then you can attend; and if your work is sufficiently novel, rigorous and significant, as judged by your peers, then you can present it at one of these meetings.  You can also listen to the world’s leading experts in the field, have a discussion over a coffee, or even a meal, with them before going back to your laboratory or office and attempting to add to society’s knowledge and understanding.  Most scientists and engineers work as part of a global community contributing to, and exploiting, a shared knowledge and understanding of natural and manufactured phenomena; and in this process, as global citizens, we are relatively unaware and uninfluenced by the national boundaries drawn and fought over by politicians and leaders.  Of course, I have described a utopian world to which reality does not conform, because in practice corporations attempt to protect their intellectual property for profit and national governments to classify information in the national interests and sometimes restrict the movement of scientists and technologist to and from states considered to be not playing by the right set of rules.  However, on the timescale of scientific discovery, these actions are relatively short-term and rarely totally effective.  Perhaps this is because the delight in the beauty of discovery overcomes these obstacles, or because the benefits of altruistic sharing outweigh the selfish gain from restrictive practices.  (Of course, the scientific community has its charlatans, fraudsters and free-loaders; but, these counterfeiters tend to operate on a global stage so that even their fake science impacts on the world-wide community of scientists and engineers.)  Participation in this global exchange of ideas and information makes many of us feel part of a world-wide community, or citizens of the world, who are enfranchised by our contributions and interactions with other citizens and international organisations.  Of course, along with everyone else, we are also inhabitants of the world; and these two actions, namely enfranchisement and inhabiting, are key characteristics of a citizen, as defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.  Theresa May in her speech last October, at the Conservative party conference said: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’  If she is right, then she rendered many scientists and engineers as aliens; however, I don’t think she is, because citizenship of the world does not exclude us from also being citizens of other, local communities; even though politicians may want to redraw the boundaries of these communities and larger unions to which they belong.  However, in practice, it is hard to avoid the fact that we are all inhabitants of planet Earth and have a responsibility for ensuring that it remains habitable for our grand-children and great-grandchildren; so, we are all citizens of the world with its associated responsibilities.

When I was a student, thirty years ago, James Lovelock published his famous book, ‘Gaia’ in which he postulated that the world was a unified living system with feedback control that preserved its own stability but not necessarily the conditions for the survival of the human race.  More recently, Max Tegmark, in his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’, has used the analogy of spaceship Earth stocked with large but limited supplies of water, food and fuel, and equipped with both an atmospheric shield and a magnetic field to protect us from life-threatening ultra-violet and cosmic rays, respectively.  Our spaceship has no captain; and we spend next to nothing on maintenance such as avoiding onboard explosions, overheating, ultra-violet shield deterioration or premature depletion of supplies.  Lovelock and Tegmark are part of a movement away from a reductionist approach to science that has dominated since Descartes and Newton, and towards systems thinking, in which it is recognised that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.  It’s hard for most of us to adopt this new thinking, because our education was configured around dividing everything into its smallest constituent parts in order to analyse and understand their function; but, this approach often misses, or even destroys, the emergent behaviour of the complex system – it’s like trying to understand the functioning of the brain by physically dissecting it.  Recently reported statements about citizens of the world and about climate change, suggest that some world leaders and politicians find it easier, or more convenient, to use reductionism to ignore or deny the potential for complex systems, such as our global society and planet Earth, to exhibit emergent behaviour.

Thomas L. Friedmann in his book, ‘The World is Flat’ warned that ‘every young American would be wise to think of themselves competing against every young Chinese, Indian or Brazilian’.  He was right; we cannot turn back the globalisation of knowledge.  The hunger for knowledge and understanding is shared by all and courses provided over the internet are democratizing knowledge to an unprecedented level.  For instance, I recently taught a course on undergraduate thermodynamics – not normally a popular subject; but, it was made available globally as a massive open on-line course (MOOC) and taken by thousands of learners in more than 130 countries.  The citizens of the world are becoming empowered by knowledge and simultaneously more networked.  Large complex networks are systems that exhibit emergent behaviour, which tends to be unexpected and surprising, especially if you only consider their constituents.

 

Inspirational leadership

Leadership is about inspiring people; whereas, management is about organising tasks and resources.  In a organisational context, strategic leadership is about persuading people to move voluntarily, and together, in a direction that benefits the organisation; while, management is about dealing with the complexity of planning and processes.  The boundary between leadership and management is often blurred; though in my experience, people more frequently believe that they are leading when, in reality, they are managing.  Perhaps, this is because they want to make a difference; but, for most of us, leadership is really hard and requires courage.  The courage to be different.  To be selfless.  The courage to do what is right and not just what is easy.

It is easier to get involved in the detail of making things happen, of telling people how to do things; but that’s management and not leadership.  Leadership is about letting go and trusting others to make the right decisions on the details – having the courage to delegate.  There’s something about entropy in there and not over constraining the system, or under constaining it; but, now I ‘ve got to the entropy vector and that’s a whole different story.

Robert D Handscombe & Eann A Patterson, The Entropy Vector: Connecting Science and Business, Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2004.

Is the world incomprehensible?

For hundreds of years, philosophers and scientists have encouraged one another to keep their explanations of the natural world as simple as possible.  Ockham’s razor, attributed to the 14th century Franciscan friar, William of Ockham, is a well-established and much-cited philosophical principle that of two possible explanations, the simpler one is more likely to be correct.  More recently, Albert Einstein is supposed to have said: ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’.  I don’t think that William of Ockham and Albert Einstein were arguing that we should keep everything simple; but rather that we should not make scientific explanations more complicated than necessary.  However, do we have a strong preference for focusing on phenomena whose behaviour is sufficiently uncomplex that it can be explained by relatively simple theories and models?  In other words, to quote William Wimsatt, ‘we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds the capability of our detection apparatus and explanatory models’.  Most of us find science hard; perhaps, this is not just about the language used by the cognoscenti to describe it [see my post on ‘Why is thermodynamics so hard?‘ on February 11th, 2015]; but, more about the complexity of the world around us.  To think about this level of complexity requires us to assemble and synchronize very large collections of neurons (100 million or more) in our brains, which is the very opposite of the repetitive formation of relatively small assemblies of neurons that Susan Greenfield has argued are associated with activities we find pleasurable [see my post entitled ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].  This might imply that thinking about complexity is not pleasurable for most us, or at least requires very significant effort, and that this explains the aesthetic appeal of simplicity.  However, as William Wimsatt has pointed out, ‘simplicity is not reflective of a metaphysical principle of nature’ but a constraint applied by us; and which, if we persist in its application, will render the world incomprehensible to us.

Sources:

William C. Wimsatt, Randomness and perceived randomness in evolutionary biology, Synthese, 43(2):287-329, 1980.

Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, Allen Lane, 2016.