In digital detox

I am on vacation so I am re-posting something I wrote around this time last year which I still think is relevant.

It’s official – half of us are addicted to our internet-connected devices and a third of us have attempted to kick the addiction.  A recent study by the UK’s communication regulator, OFCOM found that 59% of internet users considered themselves ‘hooked’ and spending the equivalent of more than a day a week on-line.   They also reported that one in three internet users have attempted a ‘digital detox’ with a third saying they felt more productive afterwards, while slightly more that a quarter found it liberating and another quarter said they enjoyed life more.  So, switch off all of your devices, take a deep vacation, do some off-line reading (see my post entitled ‘Reading offline‘ on March 19th, 2014), slow down and breathe your own air (see my post entitled ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015).  Now, you won’t find many blogs advising you to stop reading them!

Health warning: OFCOM also found that 16% of ‘digital detoxers’ experienced FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out’ (‘FOMO’), 15% felt lost and 14% ‘cut-off’.

No snow at Christmas?


Norwegian Arctic (Image by Sarah)

The algae in the Arctic Ocean are blooming earlier every year at the moment because the sea ice melts more quickly each Spring as a consequence of global warming. This observation was made by Kevin Arrigo, a biological oceanographer at Stanford University and confirmed by Mati Kahru, an oceanographer at the University of California, San Diego using satellite imaging. But what’s good for algae is not good for polar bears or us because less ice deprives polar bears of a hunting platform and raises sea levels globally. A 1m rise in sea level would displace 145 million people, or the equivalent of about half the population of the USA. A 2 degree temperature rise would make the Earth as warm as 3 million years ago when sea levels were between 25m and 35m higher – the temperature in the Arctic in last month was 2.22°C above average for the time of year.  The extent of the sea ice in October was 28.5% less than average for the month. So while there will be snow at Christmas in the Arctic, there might not be in the future.

Our current engineering technology is both contributing to climate change and is inadequate to mitigate the consequences. These issues present a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems (quoting John Gardiner), and given the predictions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel, we have less than 40 years to replace the equivalent of 200 years of engineering development (paraphrasing Yoshiyuki Sakaki). So, the generation of students entering engineering at the moment are going to be engaged in race that’s more challenging and more important to society than the race to the moon that preoccupied the generation that preceded mine.


Carl Zimmer, Global warming altering the Arctic food chain, Taipei Times, November 27th, 2016.

Blockstein DE, Weigman L, The Climate Solutions Consensus. Island Press, Washington, 2010.

John Gardiner, founder of Common Cause cited in Friedman, Thomas L., Hot, Flat and CrowdedWhy we need a green revolution and how it can renew America, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2008.

Yoshiyuki Sakaki, President, Toyohashi University of Technology, Japan, Keynote presentation at ICEE/ICEER conference in Seoul, Korea, 25th August 2009.

Subtle balance of sustainable orderliness

129-2910_IMGI wrote this short essay a couple of weeks for another purpose and then changed my mind about using it.  So I thought I would share it on this blog.

Whenever we do something, some of our useful resource gets converted into productive activity but some is always lost in useless waste.  In other words, 100% efficiency is impossible – we can’t convert all of our resource into productive activity.  Engineers call this the second law of thermodynamics.  Thermodynamics is about energy transitions, for instance converting chemical energy in fossil fuels into electrical energy in a power station, and in these circumstances, the useless waste is called entropy.  At the time of the industrial revolution, Rudolf Clausius recognised that entropy can be related to the heat losses which occur whenever we do something useful, such as generating electricity in a power station, cleaning the house with an electric vacuum cleaner or running to catch the bus.

Clausius’s definition of entropy was really useful for designers of 19th century steam engines but it is difficult to use in other walks of life.  Fortunately Ludwig Boltzmann gave us a more valuable description.  He equated entropy to the number of states in which something could be arranged, or its lack of orderliness.  In other words, the more ways you can arrange something, the less ordered it is likely to be and the higher its entropy.  So a box of children’s building blocks has a low entropy when the blocks are packed in their box because there is a relatively small number of ways of arranging them to fit in the box.  When the box is emptied onto your living room floor, there are very many more possible arrangements and so the blocks have a high entropy.  The chance of knowing the whereabouts of a particular block is small. Whoops!  Now we’ve wondered into information theory.

Let’s get back to the second law, which using Boltzmann’s description of entropy, we can express as the level of orderliness should always decrease.  Stephen Hawking describes this as the arrow of time.  Because, if someone shows you a video clip in which steam gathers itself together and returns into a cup of coffee, or that box of children’s blocks repacks itself, then we know the video is being run backwards because these processes involve decreasing entropy and this can only happen spontaneously if we reverse the direction of time.  If this is true then why do we exist as highly ordered structures?

Erwin Schrödinger in his book, ‘What is Life’ says that organisms suck orderliness out of the environment in order to exist, so that the orderliness of the universe, that’s the organism and its environment, decreases.  Humans digest highly-ordered food to sustain life and food, in the form of plants, is brought into existence by metabolising energy from the sun and releasing entropy in the form of heat.  When we die these processes cease and the orderliness is sucked out of us to sustain insects, maggots and bacteria.

We are organisms, known as Sapiens, that organise ourselves into cultures and societies.  Organisation implies an increase in the level of orderliness in apparent contradiction of the second law.  So, we would expect to find a corresponding increase in disorder somewhere to counterbalance the order in society.  The more regimented society becomes the greater the requirement for counterbalancing disorder to occur somewhere in order to satisfy the second law, which might happen unexpectedly and explosively if the level of constraint or regulation is too great.  This is not an argument for anarchy or total deregulation, the financial sector has already demonstrated the risks associated with this path, but for an optimum and sustainable level of orderliness.  This requires subtle judgment just like in elegant engineering design and living a healthy life, both physically and psychologically.

A startling result

cowIn UK universities this is the season of project report writing for senior undergraduate students and report reading for their professors.   This year one of my students has been monitoring his personal ecological footprint and looking at ways in which he could use technology-based solutions to reduce it and then make recommendations to help others achieve the same [see my postings ‘Are we all free riders‘ on April 6th, 2016  ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014].  He found that his weekly contributions to greenhouse gases (GHG) due to energy consumption in his flat or apartment, transportation and consumption of meat were 12.73, 5.87 & 8.60 kg carbon dioxide equivalents per week.  The total of 27.2 kg carbon dioxide equivalents per week is relatively low compared to the UK average but then he does not own a car and is living on a small budget.  What startled me was the proportion of greenhouse gases generated as a result of eating meat!

He consumed about 1.2kg of meat each week in about equal proportions of beef (12.14 kgCO2e/kg), chicken (2.84 kgCO2e/kg) and pork (4.45 kgCO2e/kg).  The numbers in parentheses are the greenhouse gas emissions from the production of each of these commodities in the UK and they can be compared to green beens or wheat at 1.55 and  0.52 kgCO2e/kg) respectively.  So, you don’t need to become a vegetarian but you could follow the example of my student by dropping beef from your diet in order to  make a significant individual contribution to reducing GHG emissions, or you could become a weekday vegetarian (see Graham Hill’s TED talk).

BTW – the diary cows, like the one in the picture, are lovely calm creatures and milk has a relatively small footprint at 1.19 kgCO2e/kg


How low can we go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system end and the scope to reduce them by 2050. WWF November 2009.

Climate change and tides in Liverpool

image-20141201-20565-1eoo7rhIf you live within sight of the sea, as we do, then your life is probably influenced, to some degree, by the rise and fall of tides.  In Liverpool, we are lucky to have a particularly long historical record of tidal heights and one of my colleagues, an oceanographer, Professor Ric Williams has used this record to discuss climate variability.  The record was started and maintained between 1768 and 1793 by Captain William Hutchinson whose achievement is commemorated with a fountain in Liverpool’s historic docks, which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A few weeks ago I listened to a talk by Prof Williams, in which he described how there is a rather simple relationship between surface warming and the effect of future emissions of greenhouse gases.  If the predictions of surface warming are plotted as a function of how much carbon is emitted to the atmosphere, rather than time, then a simple response emerges: the more carbon we emit, the warmer it will get. Associated with the surface warming, there is an expected sea level rise from the expansion of the water column augmented by the effect of addition of freshwater from melting of land ice. Watch Prof Williams’ Youtube video to find out more.


Woodworth, P.L. 1999. High waters at Liverpool since 1768: the UK’s longest sea level record. Geophysical Research Letters, 26 (11), 1589-1592.

Goodwin, P., Williams, R.G. & Ridgwell, A., Sensitivity of climate to cumulative carbon emissions dues to compensation of ocean heat and carbon uptake, Nature Geoscience, 8,29–34(2015).