Monday, 20 March 2017

Tsunamis and sunsets: how natural disasters can inspire creativity

Just as war is seen as a boost to developments in military technology, so major disasters can lead to fruitful outbursts in creativity. The word disaster, literally meaning 'bad star' in Ancient Greek, might seem more appropriate to meterorite impacts or portents associated with comets, but there are plenty of terrestrial events worthy of the name. One interesting geophysical example appears to have had an obvious effect on Western art and literature: the eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815.

This Indonesian volcano exploded with such force that ash fell in a cloud over 2,500 km in diameter, with the initial flows and tsunami causing over 10,000 deaths. The subsequent death toll may have been ten times that number, primarily due to starvation and disease. The short-term changes in climate are thought to have accelerated the spread of a cholera strain, leading eventually to millions of deaths during the next few decades.

Although volcanic aerosols lasted for some months after the eruption, the effects were still being felt the following year. Indeed, 1816 earned such delightful nicknames as 'The Year Without a Summer' and 'Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death', with global temperatures dropping just over half a degree Celsius. This might not sound like much, but as an example of the freak conditions the northern USA received snow in June. Thanks to the recording of weather data at the time, it seems that the climate didn't return to normal for that period until 1819.

The terrible weather and its resulting famines and spread of disease led to riots in many nations, with the short-term appearance of vivid sunsets - due to the fine volcanic dust - failing to make up for the deprivations of food shortages and very cold conditions. One artist who was probably inspired by the former effect was J.M.W. Turner, whose paintings of evening skies appear extremely garish. As a child, I thought this seemingly unnatural colouration was due to artifice, not realising that Turner was depicting reality.

The post-Tambora aerosols contributed to Turner's stylistic change towards depicting the atmospheric effects of light at the expense of form. His radiant skies and translucent ambience inspired the Impressionist school of painting, so perhaps modern art can be said to have its roots in this two hundred year-old disaster.

Literature also owes a debt to Tambora's aftermath: during their famous Swiss holiday in June 1816, Lord Byron produced the outline of the first modern vampire story whilst Mary Shelley started writing Frankenstein. It's easy to suggest that the food riots and wintry weather then current in Switzerland could have contributed towards her tale, in which mankind's best efforts to control nature are doomed to failure.

However, it isn't just the arts that were affected by the aftermath of the volcanic eruption: several key technologies had their roots in the widespread food shortages generated by Tambora. In 1817 the German inventor Karl Drais, aware of the lack of fodder then available to feed horses, developed the earliest steerable - if pedal-less - bicycle. Although its use was short-lived, the velocipede or hobby horse was the first link in the chain (go on, spot the pun) that led to the modern bicycle.

If that doesn't appear too convincing, then the work of another German, the chemist Justus von Liebig, might do. Having as a child been a victim of the post-Tambora famine, von Liebig is known as the 'father of the fertiliser industry' for his work in the 1840s to increase crop yields via nitrogen-based fertilisers.

There is still a widespread perception that scientists' thought processes differ from the rest of humanity's, utilising thought methods that lack any emotion. However, the after effects of Tambora imply that creativity in response to surroundings can be just as important for scientific advance, in the same way that artists respond to their immediate environment. Hopefully, recognition of this will be another nail in the coffin for the harmful idea of C.P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' and lead more people to respect the values of science, upon which our civilisation so heavily relies. Perhaps that way we'll be rather better prepared for the next great natural disaster; after all, it's only a question of time...

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Wrangling robots: encouraging engineers of the next generation

On hearing my daughters' regaling some of their activities and technology at school, I frequently lament 'I wish we had that when I was their age'. I was lucky enough as it was for the early 1980s; for example, my school year was the first to actually get computers in the computer science classroom!

But enough of the trip down memory lane. The British Government has recently announced that it is pledging over £17 million towards robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) research in universities. Of course the drive behind this is as much economic as a love of STEM: Accenture's 2016 report Why Artificial Intelligence is the Future of Growth states that AI could contribute up to £654 billion to the UK economy by 2035, if comprehensively integrated into industry and society. Sectors utilising cutting-edge technology such as pharmaceuticals and aerospace will be able to grow markedly thanks to AI and robotics, so now is indeed a great time for children to learn the necessary core skills.

New Zealand too is determined not to be left behind in the development of such technology, which it is hoped will create new jobs whilst stimulating economic growth. One such programme aimed in this direction is Kiwibots, home to New Zealand's contenders for the annual Vex Robotics World Championship. The largest international robotics competition, over thirty nations are taking part this year. New Zealand's national finals recently took place at Massey University in Albany, north of Auckland. The winning teams have been announced and among those qualifying for the World Championship in Kentucky next month is one from an all-girls school, which is great news.

My daughters attend another all-girls school that competed in the national championships, giving me the opportunity to examine one of their robots in person. Vex EDR primarily consists of metal components including perforated strips reminiscent of the Meccano toy building system I had as a child - and indeed their construction techniques are not dissimilar - although EDR incorporates battery-driven motors and elastic band 'muscles'. EDR is aimed at senior/high school students, but primary/elementary and intermediate schools are not left out, thanks to the mostly plastic-built Vex IQ system which is closer to the Lego Mindstorms/Technic ranges.

Vex EDR robot

Vex EDR robots can either be wheeled or tracked and include towers and arms with manipulators. They can be remote controlled or programmed using ROBOTC, a C-based programming language: not only do the students get to be engineers but computer programmers too. Younger roboteers can use a drag-and-drop interface to assemble code whilst older ones may write and test code using an editor. In order to aid code writing, Robot Virtual Worlds is, as the name suggests, a simulated environment for testing virtual robots, even including an underwater scenario (which is obviously not achievable with the real thing)!

To encourage more girls to participate in the traditionally male world of engineering, the Robotics Education and Competition Foundation has created Girl Powered, a series of challenges for EDR and IQ systems.

In addition to learning specific technical skills, the experience can generate enthusiasm for STEM subjects - after all, it's rather more exciting than most school lessons - whilst providing useful experience in general skills such as collaboration and problem-solving. The creativity and teamwork involved in Vex robotics shows that some elements of science and engineering are not overtly difficult, abstractly mathematical or plain boring. When I was an onlooker at the national finals, the looks of tension and joy on the roboteers' faces said it all.

As Vex themselves state: Think. Create. Build. Amaze.

What better way could there be to encourage children towards STEM careers, especially when AI and robotics will undoubtedly play an ever more important role in the coming decades?