The red crane

The red crane by Weimen He

One of my favourite institutions to visit is the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford.  I have written before about their rotating exhibition in the Treasury of unique books and manuscripts from their collection [see my post entitled ‘Pope and Austen‘ on September 9th, 2015].  A recent visit did not disappoint and included one of John Le Carré’s manuscripts showing his extensive editing as well as early texts written on birch bark.  However, it was in the shop that something really caught my eye.  The fusion of art and engineering in a postcard depicting a painting called ‘The red crane’, by artist in residence, Dr Weimen He, capturing the moments in time during the refurbishment of the library.  This level of fusion is rare in my experience and perhaps the ethos that created it is one of the reasons the Weston Library is such a pleasure to visit.

The Roman architect, Vitruvius identified the three principles of good structural design to be ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas’ or durability, utility and beauty.  Too often utility, including value for money, trumps beauty and shortens horizons for durability; so that little is contributed to our culture and nothing worthwhile will be left for future generations.

BTW there is a very large bookshop next door to the Weston Library and I couldn’t resist buying ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage‘ by Anuk Arudpragasam.  It’s a beautiful novel of consciousness about love and war.

Listening with your eyes shut

I am in the London Underground onboard a train on my way to a conference on ‘New Approaches to Higher Education’ organised by the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Engineering Professors’ Council.  The lady opposite has her eyes closed but she is not asleep because she opens them periodically as we come into stations to check whether it’s her stop.  I wonder if she is trying to reproduce John Hull’s experience of the depth of sounds as a blind person [see my post entitled ‘Rain brings out the contours in everything‘ on February 22, 2017].  For the second time in recent weeks, I close my eyes and try it for myself.  It is surprising how in a crowded train, I can’t hear anyone, just the noise made by the train.  It’s like a wobble board that’s joined by a whole percussion section of an orchestra when we go around a bend or over points.  The first time I closed my eyes was at a concert at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool.  My view of the orchestra was obstructed by the person in front of me so, rather than stare at the back of their head, I closed my eyes and allowed the music to dominate my mind.  Switching off the stream of images seemed to release more of my brain cells to register the depth and richness of Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 5.  I was classified as tone deaf at school when I was kicked out of the choir and I learned no musical instruments, so the additional texture and dimensionality in the music was a revelation to me.

Back to the London Underground – many of my fellow passengers were plugged into their phones or tablets via their ears and eyes.  I wondered if any were following the MOOC on Understanding Super Structures that we launched recently.  Unlikely I know, but it’s a bit different, because it is mainly audio clips and not videos.  We’re trying to tap into some of the time many people spend with earbuds plugged into their ears but also make the MOOC more accessible in countries where internet access is mainly via mobile phones.  My recent experiences of listening with my eyes closed, make me realize that perhaps we should ask people to close their eyes when listening to our audio clips so that they can fully appreciate them.  If they are sitting on the train then that’s fine but not recommended if you are walking across campus or in town!

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.

Science fiction becomes virtual reality

vecI have a new print in my office. It’s called ‘Small Science Fiction Self-Portrait’ and is by Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) [see:]. I am disappointed to admit that I had never heard of her until I went to a special exhibition at the Tate Liverpool a few weeks ago, which featured her work and that of Francis Bacon. I was expecting the works by Bacon to be the main attraction but instead I thought Lassnig ‘stole the show’. Nearly all of her paintings in the exhibition were self-portraits in which she attempts to represent on canvas her ‘body sensation’ or ‘body awareness’. This seems to echo the synaesthesia pursued by Georgia O’Keeffe when she represented her feelings from various senses in her paintings [see my post entitled ‘Engineering Synaesthesia‘ on September 21st, 2016].  Two of Lassnig’s paintings resonanted with me: one, which was on the front of the programme, called Lady with Brain was painted in 1991 and shows the head of a lady with a proportion of her brain outside of her skull – not in a damaged way but as if it had grown there. This reminded me of the ideas on our increasing use of out-of-skull memory and processing power in our mobile devices that I wrote about under the heading ‘Thinking out of Skull’ [see my post of that title on March 18th, 2015]. The second is the print in my office, painted in 1995, that shows the artist wearing a virtual reality headset that looks almost identical to those we use in our Virtual Engineering Centre. I was amazed by Lassnig’s vision.

Art and engineering

Windows of the Soul II [3D video art installation:]

Windows of the Soul II [3D video art installation:

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the meaning of the words ‘engineer’ and ‘engineering’ [see my post entitled ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016] .  And it was clear that most engineers are involved in some sort of creative activity.  One of the common skills that unites the many different types of engineering is creative problem-solving.  But in that case how are engineers different from artists who are also involved in creative acts?  David Blockley summarises it succinctly as engineers produce something useful and artists produce something extraordinary.  Of course, very occasionally we manage to do both and an artist-engineer produces something extraordinary that is also useful.  I say ‘very occasionally’ because extraordinary implies it is exceptional, which eliminates mass-produced artifacts. It is difficult to identify modern creations that fit this description – the Large Hadron Collider is an extraordinary piece of engineering but is it art?  It is a product of the application of human skill and imagination, which is another definition of art.  Or the Solar Impulse – the solar powered plane that flew around the world?

On the other hand, when we visit art galleries we can buy prints and postcards that are copies of the artworks displayed in the gallery. Is the mass-produced, but iconic, engineering artifact equivalent to an art print? Perhaps the original has to be rather less transitory than the latest model of phone or car.  The advent of computer-aided engineering and rapid prototyping means that the original often only exists in virtual space, which is more equivalent to the video installations that are becoming more commonplace in galleries, such as Sonia Falcone’s ‘Best Video Installation Art at the Biennale in Santa Cruz Bolivia‘.