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.

Getting smarter

A350 XWB passes Maximum Wing Bending test [from:

Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) is a perennial problem in computational simulations of engineering structures.  If the description of the geometry of the structure, the material behaviour, the loading conditions or the boundary conditions are incorrect (garbage in), then the simulation generates predictions that are wrong (garbage out), or least an unreliable representation of reality.  It is not easy to describe precisely the geometry, material, loading and environment of a complex structure, such as an aircraft or a powerstation; because, the complete description is either unavailable or too complicated.  Hence, modellers make assumptions about the unknown information and, or to simplify the description.  This means the predictions from the simulation have to be tested against reality in order to establish confidence in them – a process known as model validation [see my post entitled ‘Model validation‘ on September 18th, 2012].

It is good practice to design experiments specifically to generate data for model validation but it is expensive, especially when your structure is a huge passenger aircraft.  So naturally, you would like to extract as much information from each experiment as possible and to perform as few experiments as possible, whilst both ensuring predictions are reliable and providing confidence in them.  In other words, you have to be very smart about designing and conducting the experiments as well as performing the validation process.

Together with researchers at Empa in Zurich, the Industrial Systems Institute of the Athena Research Centre in Athens and Dantec Dynamics in Ulm, I am embarking on a new EU Horizon 2020 project to try and make us smarter about experiments and validation.  The project, known as MOTIVATE [Matrix Optimization for Testing by Interaction of Virtual and Test Environments (Grant Nr. 754660)], is funded through the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking with Airbus acting as our topic manager to guide us towards an outcome that will be applicable in industry.  We held our kick-off meeting in Liverpool last week, which is why it is uppermost in my mind at the moment.  We have 36-months to get smarter on an industrial scale and demonstrate it in a full-scale test on an aircraft structure.  So, some sleepness nights ahead…


ASME V&V 10-2006, Guide for verification & validation in computational solid mechanics, American Society of Mech. Engineers, New York, 2006.

European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), Validation of computational solid mechanics models, CEN Workshop Agreement, CWA 16799:2014 E.

Hack E & Lampeas G (Guest Editors) & Patterson EA (Editor), Special issue on advances in validation of computational mechanics models, J. Strain Analysis, 51 (1), 2016.

Happenstance, not engineering?


A few weeks ago I wrote that ‘engineering is all about ingenuity‘ [post on September 14th, 2016] and pointed out that while some engineers are involved in designing, manufacturing and maintaining engines, most of us are not.  So, besides being ingenious, what do the rest of us do?  Well, most of us contribute in some way to the conception, building and sustaining of networks.  Communication networks, food supply networks, power networks, transport networks, networks of coastal defences, networks of oil rigs, refineries and service stations, or networks of mines, smelting works and factories that make everything from bicycles to xylophones.  The list is endless in our highly networked society.  A network is a group of interconnected things or people.  And, engineers are responsible for all of the nodes in our networks of things and for just about all the connections in our networks of both things and people.

Engineers have been constructing networks by building nodes and connecting them for thousands of years, for instance the ancient Mesopotamians were building aqueducts to connect their towns with distance water supplies more than four millenia ago.

Engineered networks are so ubiquitous that no one notices them until something goes wrong, which means engineers tend to get blamed more than praised.  But apparently that is the fault of the ultimate network: the human brain.  Recent research has shown that blame and praise are assigned by different mechanisms in the brain and that blame can be assigned by every location in the brain responsible for emotion whereas praise comes only from a single location responsible for logical thought.  So, we blame more frequently than we praise and we tend to assume that bad things are deliberate while good things are happenstance.  So reliable networks are happenstance rather than good engineering in the eyes of most people!


Ngo L, Kelly M, Coutlee CG, Carter RM , Sinnott-Armstrong W & Huettel SA, Two distinct moral mechanisms for ascribing and denying intentionality, Scientific Reports, 5:17390, 2015.

Bruek H, Human brains are wired to blame rather than to praise, Fortune, December 4th 2015.


Man, the Rubbish Maker

167-6734_IMGBruce Sterling wrote that our current civilisation would be best described as ‘Man, the Rubbish Maker’ if we were to be judged by our efforts that will best survive the passage of time.  Paleontologists have found flint-knapping workshops more than two million years old that have out-lasted any record of the speech, culture or beliefs of the craftsmen that laboured in them.  Pollution and waste is not consumed and hence tends to persist while useful things wear out.  In a short story called ‘Daughters of the Moon’ published in 1968 as part of his third collection of Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino describes a world in which cars wear out more quickly than the soles of your shoes.  He goes on to describe a region where the road petered out in a hilly area created by ‘the layers of things that had been thrown away: everything that the consumerist city expelled once it had quickly used it up so it could immediately enjoy the pleasure of handling new things’.  Calvino was imagining a future world but we are rapidly approaching his vision, or perhaps we are already there.  Our junk, rubbish, and trash, is a form of entropy – an increase in the level of disorder created by the processes that provide our man-made lifestyle and required as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Unavoidable junk‘ published on January 14th, 2013].  And ‘entropy requires no maintenance’, to quote Sterling, so much of our rubbish will still be here long after we have disappeared.

If we want to avoid Calvino’s vision of cities surrounded by layers of discarded things, then we have to learn to love old but serviceable belongings.  They are good enough and will suffice.  If they break then we should have them repaired, preferably locally in order to stimulate our economy and reduce our ecological footprint rather than replacing them with something made abroad.  This will require engineers to think more about repairs when designing artefacts and consumers to learn to appreciate the patina of age and usage as a virtue, something of beauty.


Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things, Boston: MIT Press, 2005.

Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics, London: Penguin Books, 2002.

Edwin Heathcote, Make and Mend, Financial Times, 30/31 March, 2013.

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‘.