Tag Archives: Bristol

Brave New World

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATerm has started, and our students are preparing for end-of-semester examinations; so, I suspect that they would welcome the opportunity to deploy the sleeping-learning that Aldous Huxley envisaged in his ‘Brave New World’ of 2540.  In the brave new world of digital engineering, some engineers are attempting to conceive of a world in which experiments have become obsolete because we can rely on computational modelling to simulate engineering systems.  This ambitious goal is a driver for the MOTIVATE project [see my post entitled ‘Getting smarter‘ on June 21st, 2017]; an EU-project that kicked-off about six months ago and was the subject of a brainstorming session in the Red Deer in Sheffield last September [see my post entitled ‘Anything other than lager, stout or porter!‘ on September 6th, 2017.  The project has its own website now at www.engineeringvalidation.org

A world without experiments is almost unimaginable for engineers whose education and training is deeply rooted in empiricism, which is the philosophical approach that requires assumptions, models and theories to be tested against observations from the real-world before they can be accepted.  In the MOTIVATE project, we are thinking about ways in which fewer experiments can provide more and better measured data for the validation of computational models of engineering systems.   In December, under the auspices of the project, experts from academia, industry and national labs from across Europe met near Bristol and debated how to reshape the traditional flow-chart used in the validation of engineering models, which places equal weight on experiments and computational models [see ASME V&V 10-2006 Figure 2].  In a smaller follow-up meeting in Zurich, just before Christmas [see my post ‘A reflection of existentialism‘ on December 20th, 2017], we blended the ideas from the Bristol session into a new flow-chart that could lead to the validation of some engineering systems without conducting experiments in parallel.  This is not perhaps as radical as it sounds because this happens already for some evolutionary designs, especially if they are not safety-critical.  Nevertheless, if we are to achieve the paradigm shift towards the new digital world, then we will have to convince the wider engineering community about our novel approach through demonstrations of its successful application, which sounds like empiricism again!  More on that in future updates.

Image by Erwin Hack: Coffee and pastries awaiting technical experts debating behind the closed door.

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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.

Source:

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].