Category: Science and Engineering

(Written July 2015)

Dear All,

In considering what the underlying theme in the teaching of science at school should be, I have taken a great deal of what I present here from, The Visionary Eye: Essays in the Arts, Literature and Science, by J. Bronowski, (MIT Press, 1978). In particular, the inspiration is drawn from the description of a mathematician in the company of scientists, “turning into fact what the imaginative mind conceives”.

For it is the imaginative mind that sets us apart from the animals. Certainly animals use ‘words’ and gestures to communicate, but they do so in a restricted, contextual way; a particular bark or signal is always understood by others in the troop, herd or pack in the same way.  Humans are different in that, in our minds eye we can recreate and reinterpret the past, we can imagine and plan the future, and we can convey ideas through a range of complex symbols – any one of which may allow for more than one sensible interpretation. Most importantly for this discussion, we can express our manifold imaginings by way of extremely abstract representations. But we are not born with these skills, we have to learn them. To communicate and to succeed in a civilised, ordered society, we need to be educated; and from this point of view, all teaching is directed at making it possible for humans to ‘visualise’ their experience in mental models and mental images, and then to turn what was imagined into fact. Incidentally, an appropriate and extremely useful theory of human cognition – in terms of mental models, mental images, and propositional reasoning – was developed by Philip Johnson-Laird in the 1980s (see Mental Models, Cambridge, 1983).

The key idea here is that the ability to create and manipulate images in the mind is the basis of reasoning; and irrespective of whether we are experimenting with logical concepts or with artistic materials, we are engaging in imaginative processes that use the same mental faculties in all cases. Further, if the above is true (which I believe it is), then there is no intrinsic difference in the way in which we use the concepts of ‘energy’ and ‘mass’, as Einstein did in the equation E = mc2, and the way in which we use the words ‘sad height’ and ‘fierce tears’, as Dylan Thomas did in:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Both of these expressions convey a very deep understanding of the world as it may be experienced, but neither is obvious from the outset. A considerable amount of effort may be required to rediscover what these two authors meant, an effort that is well worthwhile; but in the process of doing so it would be a mistake to believe that in order to grasp the meaning of one compared to the other you need to have ‘a different kind of brain’. As Bronowski puts it (p. 21):

We do a great harm to children in their education when we accustom them to separate reason from imagination, simply for the convenience of the school timetable. For imagination is not confined to wild outbursts of fantasy. Imagination is the manipulation inside the mind of absent things, by using in their place images or words or other symbols.

Both science and art are imaginative processes in which we are constantly rediscovering for ourselves what the experimenters, theorists, authors, sculptors, painters and poets have discovered before us; and the point has to be emphasised that it is not possible to appreciate the deep conceptions created by science and art “unless we do something to recreate them for ourselves”. Each of us has to engage in this journey of discovery with whatever idiosyncratic set of imaginative tools we have at our disposal – irrespective of the field of human endeavour. And in every case we do so for the same reasons, viz.: 1) to experience the pleasure of exploring imaginary situations, and 2) to give expression to something that is entirely personal. In short, we do so because we delight in our own creations.

This motivation, that ‘we delight in our own creations’, lies at the heart of whatever we truly learn; and this is as true for a babe in arms, an opsimath, and everyone in-between. It follows that if we are ever to have effective educational institutions then they have to speak directly to this motivation.

Does the phrase ‘our own creations’ imply that there should be a free-for-all approach to the way in which we approach the acquisition of knowledge, an, “I did it my way” approach? Certainly not! In considering the idea of having the freedom to act, we note that “you cannot be certain how to design something well, but you can be certain how to design it badly”. This is true of every human endeavour and so the foundation of every creative ability requires an investigation into the existing body of knowledge in that field. It is only when one understands the underlying structure of whatever it is that is being explored, before setting out on the journey, that one may be found in a position to extend that knowledge. Here also it is necessary to deal with a misconception that has found a place in some quarters; it is the idea that in some way science is constricting, while art is liberating. Quite how this view gained traction is not clear to me, but a little thought will show it to be a bogus notion for we need to recognise that freedoms and limitations have a deep connection and are never separated. With every creative act we are met with liberation on one hand, and simultaneously, limitation on the other. Bronowski again (p. 51)

Each of the great intellectual revolutions has broken through (the boundaries of our contagious anxieties, the rigours of convention and social institutions) at its time, and swum into a new sea of freedom in art, science, and society together. But beyond each isthmus there is another; each sea in turn is landlocked; there are natural limits to action in the new age too. The pride of the best men is to probe for these limits by the adventure of their work. These are the pioneering minds, who press forward in the new freedom and create those works which, in exploring it, discover (because they reach) the new frontiers. Lincoln Cathedral is such a creation, and Albertini’s Rimini, the craft of Dürer and Grinling Gibbons and Wedgewood, the Circus in Bath and the Chrystal Palace. And equally the plays of Christopher Marlow and Newton’s Principia, Coleridge and Cézanne and Rutherford, all stretch out and fill the freedom they themselves created, to its limits. The new age ends only when these limits in their turn become fixed and conventional, and wait to be cracked by another discovery toward the next freedom.

This brings me closer to the question of what I think the underlying theme in the teaching of science at school should be. I think a simple model that shows the interaction of four components in a creative process should be a recurring theme that would be a reminder to both teachers and learners that it is the act of “turning into fact what the imaginative mind conceives” that lies at the heart of the understanding of anything.

Model of creativity

With the imaginative mind at its centre, this simple model illustrates how we combine our experience with what we know of the existing body of knowledge to give expression to our thoughts and conclusions. And in doing so we go through an iterative process whereby we enhance our experience and our understanding to be able to express more clearly what is known, until we reach that limit where new knowledge is created, where freedom comes into its own.

It is my view that it is the task of teachers and the like to bring about educational institutions that forefront the idea that ‘we delight in our creations’; and then to bring about an environment that allows for the imaginings of the creative minds of the youth to be turned into fact.




(Written 28 July 2012)

Dear All,
With the recent news of the confirmation of the finding of a particle that may well be the Higgs boson I thought it would be a fine thing to post a favourite poem (and a joke) for physicists.

Billy Collins – The Centrifuge
(The trouble with poetry, Random House, 2005)

It is difficult to describe what we felt
after we paid the admission,
entered the aluminium dome,
and stood there with our mouths open
before the machine itself,
what we had only read about in papers.

Huge and glistening it was
but bolted down and giving nothing away.

What did it mean?
we all openly wondered.
and did another machine exist somewhere else-
an even mightier one-
that was designed to be the exact opposite?

These were not new questions,
but we asked them earnestly and repeatedly.

Later, when we were home again-
a family of six having tea-
we raised these questions once more,
knowing that it made us part
of a great historical discussion
that included science
as well as literature and the weather
not to mention the lodger downstairs,
who, someone said,
had been seen earlier leaving the house
with a suitcase and a tightly furled umbrella.

And the joke…


(Written 18 March 2012)

Dear All.

What single piece of writing has, more than any another, influenced your thinking? Perhaps even influenced your whole life?

For most this may not be an easy question to answer. You may well have read a number of influential pieces in your time… but for me the choice is simple. It is Chapter 11 of The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973). In 1979 Bronowski’s insightful essay, Knowledge or Certainty, one of the chapters in the 13-part BBC series, came to my attention; and have I revisited it many times, as the picture of my dog-eared 1981 Futura copy may testify.

The Ascent of Man is a series about the intellectual and cultural development of mankind as viewed through the lens of science and in chapter 11 Bronowski considers what we can and cannot know. The piece starts with an explanation of how shorter and shorter wavelengths are required to detect smaller and smaller objects and how the inevitable uncertainty about what we can know from such experiments may be modelled by a Gaussian distribution. Inevitable because we can never know anything with absolute certainty! Then he goes on to talk about the development of ideas in physics in the 1920s and 30s, culminating in the development and use of the atom bomb in 1945. He points to the irony that just as scientists in Göttingen were formulating a precise understanding of tolerance, “all around them tolerance was crashing to the ground (in Nazi Germany).” When speaking about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle he writes:

“(Heisenberg’s) Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science or outside it, we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses. First in the engineering sense. Science has progressed step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word passionately about the real world. All knowledge, all information between human beings can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or even in any form of thought that aspires to dogma” (p. 231).

It is worth remembering that Bronowski was writing at a time when the world lived under the immediate threat of nuclear war and the burgeoning computerisation scenarios of the day sounded like something from Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. While the space race of the 60s had increased the public’s interest in science, there was at the same time a nervous reaction to the notion that somehow science would overtake our humanity. There was a fear that an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-controlling scientific juggernaut would regiment the population in some way, turning souls into “numbers”. Subsequent to reading Knowledge or Certainty, I found out that Bronowski had dealt with the subject of science as a human expression on a number of occasions and almost 60 years after its original publication, I consider his collection of three essays in Science and Human Values (Messner, 1956) to be a great work.

But perhaps the best way to illustrate why this piece has been so meaningful to me is for you to read it for yourself, or to see the last part of it at:

(Please ignore the comments that follow the Youtube video.)



PS: It may not be a coincidence that in the last part of my life I have turned to a formal study of Uncertainty and the epistemology thereof.

Is astrology innocuous nonsense?

Dear All,

The first point I would like to make about astrology is that I agree with Arthur C. Clark who said, “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarius and we’re skeptical.” I should also like to point out that I have friends who are very dear to me who do believe in astrology; and I respect their choice in the matter. But the constant new-year chatter on the radio by people who claim to give the public ‘well-founded and scientific’ advice about how they should live their lives in the coming year calls for comment.

I am well aware that there is no refuting astrology in modern science because astrology has no basis in modern science. It does not matter to an astrologer that it is a simple thing to show that where the obstetrician stood when you were born had a greater effect on you than where Venus was at the time. Nor is it important to show that the precession of the earth over the last two millennia has not been correctly accounted for by modern astrologers; something I watched the late Prof. Anthony Fairall demonstrate in a very entertaining lecture at UCT in 2004. The reason why these explanations do not matter is because astrology is not a science, it is a pseudoscience, developed, as Carl Sagan points out in Cosmos (MacDonald, 1980. p. 49), by a “strange combination of observations, mathematics and careful record-keeping with fuzzy thinking and pious fraud.” There is no structured way to refute fuzzy thinking and fraud.

This does not mean that I am unaware of the role that astrology has played in our history. We have always had a deep longing for explanations for the many inexplicable things in our lives and this is why the interpretation of the heavens by Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy, AD c.90-c,168) almost 2000 years ago, is still with us. It is a marvelously appealing idea that we are in some way intimately connected to the stars and so the effect of astrology has certainly been pervasive in the Western world. We still speak about a disaster (Greek, ‘bad star’) and as I am urging you to consider my point of view, I am reminded that the etymology of consider is the Latin considerare which has the literal connotation ‘to observe the stars’.

But what of the pages and pages of mumbo-jumbo in the Your Stars section of almost every newspaper and magazine sold today? Is it all just an innocuous dalliance? How seriously should I take Tracy Shaw’s advice printed in the Cape Times of 6 January 2012 that I should avoid “grand gestures” today? (Incidentally I see that Shaw, BA Hons; CF Astrol. S, London, is billed as a consulting astrologer, which I interpret to mean that she actually charges for this ‘advice’.) The fact is that it is all claptrap and it takes no more than the simplest research to show it to be nonsense. Choose the output of five or six consulting astrologers from different parts of the world and record what they say over a period of say a year, then see if you can find any correlation in their predictions at all. I leave it to you to work through the exercise but give you the assurance that the outcome is well established.

Finally, I should like to return to the question whether this is merely an innocuous dalliance? Sadly no! I have a sibling who has actually made some real, disastrous decisions as a result of this rubbish. And when I listen to the earnest callers on the radio I get quite angry because they sound as if they are going to do as the astrologer says – not realising that the advice being dispensed is based on a birthdate as a starting point on a bogus look-up table. I do not get angry so much with the people peddling this nonsense, perhaps they actually believe it, but angry because those good callers are so easily hoodwinked. I am reminded of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s comment, “The real threat is that people don’t know enough science to realise they’re being misled.”



 (Written 28 Dec 2011)

Dear All,

From my notes I am reminded that the 29th December 2006, the day I went to Millwall to pay homage to Brunel, was cold and wet. As I stood on the riverbank I could see in my mind’s eye the Great Ship stuck on those timbers exactly 149 years before, with men working feverishly to launch what was then the most ambitious vessel the world had ever seen. It was a failed project in almost every respect, but for me the building of the Leviathan is the embodiment of the confidence Victorian England had in its engineers.

Hang on, I hear you cry? With the British Isles as a dominating power at the centre of the Industrial Revolution it would surely be easy to find an example of confidence that was a success? True, but this particular enterprise has resonance for me; firstly because I worked on ships as a young man, secondly because I know what it is to be a project engineer, and thirdly because I worked with someone who had elements of Brunel about him.

Building the Great Eastern on the Millwall bank by Willian Parrott

What was extraordinary about the Great Eastern was that it was built by a man overwhelmed by his belief in himself, and in that belief he was supported by a public drunk with his success. Daniel Gooch, Brunel’s right-hand man, wrote of him, “The commercial world thought him extravagant; but although he was so, great things are not done by those who sit down and count the cost of every thought and act”, which is quite true. Whenever people have a great deal of confidence they are not found on the edge, testing the water so-to-speak, they just jump in and do extraordinary and extravagant things.

Of the many innovative ideas and engineering successes that were inspired by the construction of this ship I shall mention only one, the forging of the 40 ton crankshaft for the paddle engine. At the time no foundry in the world was capable of manufacturing so large an item and as Rolt points out in his fine book, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Longmans Green, 1957), compared to the regular work of the day, this crankshaft was ‘a crowbar compared to a bent pin’. The task was finally undertaken at the Lancefield Forge, Glasgow where a special furnace had to be built and a battery of Condie moving cylinder hammers had to be installed (Rolt, p. 322). It epitomised the boldness of the era that even though the facility to manufacture this absolutely key component did not exist when the building of the ship began, there seemed to be no doubt in the mind of the designer that it could, and would, be done.

But from a project engineer’s point of view the whole job was a disaster: The scope of the work was poorly managed; details of the design only came clear as building progressed and many of Brunel’s brilliant ideas could not be implemented. The contacts were poorly framed and the over-runs on the cost-of-works were always out of control. Rolt accuses John Scott Russell of being the villain of the piece and while it is true that Russell was not always honest, he appears on more than one occasion to have been talked into doing what couldn’t be done. Everything was late; on the planned day of the launch, 3 November 1857, the ship was expected to glide gently into the water but she got stuck and it was only after three expensive months of shoving and heaving that she was finally afloat. Worst of all was that the primary design criterion, that she should be able to sail non-stop from the UK to Australia, was obsolete. Even before the building of the ship had begun this requirement, that she should be able to carry all the coal she needed to make such a journey, had been superseded by the fact that there were secure, established coaling stations along the route.

So what kept the project moving when it was clear that Brunel’s Great Ship would cost way more than expected and that it would not live up to expectation? How did Brunel keep raising money for what, to the average investor anyway, must have seemed a sure loss? Confidence I suggest… a confidence that could only have been carried in a society supremely confident in itself. The kind of confidence reflected in the carefully staged photograph of Brunel standing in front of the anchor chains of the Great Eastern.

Brunel at a 'promotional shoot' on the Great Eastern



There is a marvellous iPad ‘app’ called Star Walk which if you have not tried it, it is worth a look. The way in which the stars are presented in a spatially co-ordinated way is no less than a technological marvel. You hold the iPad at arm’s length in any direction and the iPad screen shows you the stars that would be visible if you were to point a telescope into space in that direction; it also gives you the names of the stars, paths of the planets and even the constellation descriptions. As someone with an interest in how our learning is enhanced by spatial orientation and gesticulation, this is a lesson in itself.

Strangely enough, as I found myself zooming in and out and reading the names I was reminded of Walt Whitman and a time in the 1970s when I was a keen ornithologist. Perhaps over-keen is the right description because I was soon immersed in the chasing after names rather than enjoying watching our feathered friends. Field trips turned into frenetic searches for some bird or other and when it was spotted I could be found paging through my copy of Roberts rather than just simply admiring Nature and all its diversity. Fortunately I was saved by Walt Whitman.

One afternoon I came across his poem When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer and ever since, whenever I see a bird (such as that beautiful brownish one presently hopping about on my lawn), I fight the urge to run for the shelf to find out what it is called (Cossypha caffra) and try just to enjoy it for what it is.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) – When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
(written 8 Jan 2011)
Dear All,
Thought you may enjoy Bertrand Russell’s view ‘On the notion of cause’ as recorded in the 1912 Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, XIII, 1-26.
“The reason why physics has ceased to look for causes is that in fact there are not such things. The law of causality, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.”
Jamie Fearon is the first author.

The movies‏

(Written 20 Apr 2011)

Dear All,

If you have the patience to watch this video you will see a demonstration of the cartesian diver.



(Written 26 Apr 2011)
Dear All,
In a recent lecture delivered at UCT (titled Will the World End in 2012?), Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell made the point that public is unnecessarily frightened by the great deal of mumbo-jumbo and pseudo-science in the movies and on the internet.
But “The real threat is that people don’t know enough science to realise that they’re being misled.”
Burnell (with her post-graduate supervisor Antony Hewish) discovered pulsars in the late 1960s.