Simon Waldman Fri, 02 Feb 2018 11:03:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Viva!!! Fri, 02 Feb 2018 11:03:51 +0000 Yesterday was my viva, or thesis defence for those used to that terminology. For those not familiar, in the UK system this means an oral exam of unknown length, in private, with the candidate and two examiners – one from my university, one from elsewhere. It’s nerve-wracking in the lead-up, and one hears plenty of horror stories as well as the (far more common) good tales.

Mine was fine 🙂 I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, as some people describe, but it went for three and a bit hours with only a few difficult moments. My examiners were rigorous yet kind, in that when they identified areas of theory that I was clearly a little hazy about they noted that and backed off, rather than continuing to push. They asked for reasonable changes, which will improve the thesis, and one can’t really ask for better than that!

Cartoon of a spider in a viva, using many arms to write in different places and respod to multiple questions at the same time. Caption: "having extra arms helps in a viva, but not as much as an extra brain would".

Comic by, licensed CC-BY-NC.

So the upshot is that I’ve passed, subject to corrections. This is a huge milestone, in that – so long as I do the corrections to the examiner’s satisfaction – I will be awarded the degree. It’s certainly the end of a lot of tension; an evening of relief.

Yet, in some ways it doesn’t feel climatic, and when people ask “how did it go?” it’s a little hard to answer – because the vast majority of candidates who get to this stage pass with corrections (their supervisors would advise them against submitting the thesis if they wouldn’t), and it was very likely that I would as well, and I did! There’s no real surprise, or even a lot of uncertainty, involved – the real question was how significant the corrections would be (mine are not trivial, but are managable). So I’m certainly relieved, and relaxed, compared to this time yesterday, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like I’ve finished, because I haven’t. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that I’ve passed a gate and moved on to the next stage, and there’s still work to be done (and bureaucratic hoops to jump through) before I can be finished and move on.

Thoughts on publishing in The Conversation Sun, 14 Jan 2018 13:45:08 +0000 Last week, as regular readers will know, I had a piece published in The Conversation. Hopefully it will help communicate some of my work to a wider, non-specialist audience, but the process was also interesting.

It’s the first time in many years – since returning to university for my masters – that I’ve tried to write something journalistic. I used to do such articles long ago for the trade press in my old industry, but I never felt very good at it; the writing seemed stilted to me. I wondered whether having trained myself in academic writing would make this more difficult – but to my surprise, the opposite was true.

Small child in a hoodie shouting.

Communication? (Photo: Flickr user mindaugasdanys, licensed CC-BY-2.0)

I did have to consciously avoid some of the usual turns of phrase from journal articles, and try to write more as people speak, but it was much smoother than past experience. I attribute this to three things: part of it is simply that I’ve had more writing experience now. Part will be because this was shorter, so I was concentrating on optimising rather than writing lots. The biggest part was probably the input of the editor.

Unlike the trade magazines that I’ve written for before, which simply use your text verbatim, The Conversation (hereafter TC) assigns a professional editor to each article, as a newspaper might do. However, wheras for a newspaper you’d submit your copy and then be at the editor’s mercy, for TC it’s a two-way process where the researcher gets final approval of everything, including pictures and the headline. We did go back and forth a couple of times where the editor made things a bit too hyperbolic, claiming things that weren’t supported by the study – but she was willing to roll them back when I explained, and she did wonders for improving the readability of the article for the public. It’s a good way of working.

TC provides analytics, and I spent some of last week glued to that page. So far, three days after it appeared, it’s had 1450 readers. This is gratifying, and vastly surpasses both the audience that anything of mine has had before, and the audience that the vast majority of journal articles ever get. For a while I had a response of “eek. So many people. What if it’s controversial, or wrong?”, and I had to remind myself that I do have confidence in my results, and so does a peer reviewer or two.

On Twitter I was gratified to see it retweeted by such accounts as @NERCscience and @BGSScotland, in addition to my own institution. Most of those reads were in the first two days, while it was at the top of the feeds and making its way around social media, and it’s leveled off now; it probably won’t ever get many more. 28% of readers were in the US, which surprised me, 26% in the UK, which didn’t, and 31% in Other, which I wish was broken down more. I hope that a lot of that is Japan, since the article is about the energy situation there.

A dog staring intently at a laptop screen

Readers. (Photo:
Jean Beaufort. Public domain (CC0))

TC also provides analytics that compare your reader numbers to articles published by others from your own institution, and I found myself feeling surprisingly competitive as I watched mine climb from the bottom to… well, quite near the bottom still. The high-flyers there are timely articles that tie in with a news story, or social science based ones that resonate with the zeitgeist and get picked up and republished by The Guardian. That’s fair enough. But having more readers than the articles by two of my former bosses is strangely gratifying!

This wasn’t a major time investment. It probably took two hours to write – which would be less with practice – and maybe an hour after that for editing and correspondence. When considered in the context of the number of hours that go into performing research and getting it into journals, it’s nothing – and it’s a nothing that brings the research to more than a thousand eyes. Good experience, would do again 🙂

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After the tsunami: how tidal energy could help Japan with its nuclear power problem Wed, 10 Jan 2018 22:16:41 +0000

This article originally appeared in The Conversation. It is licensed CC-BY-ND. Click here for original.

File 20180110 46715 xf9b62.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Shutterstock

Japan was the third-largest producer of nuclear power in the world in 2011. Then, on March 11 of that year, an earthquake of magnitude 9 was followed by a catastrophic tsunami, resulting in the first nuclear disaster of the 21st century – at the Fukushima Daiichi power station. The country’s nuclear plants were shut down, and within a year Japan had become the world’s second biggest importer of fossil fuels.

Before the tsunami, nuclear power provided 25% of Japan’s electricity, and a strategic plan was in place to expand this to 50%. Japan has few fossil-fuel resources of its own, so most of the resulting shortfall in electricity was made up by burning imported coal, oil and gas – an unsustainable solution from both environmental and economic perspectives.

But on a group of islands to the west, tidal power may offer part of the solution to the country’s energy needs.

YouTube/Journeyman TV.

A renewable future

By 2030, the Japanese government plans once more for nuclear power to provide around 21% of the nation’s electricity – which is highly controversial – but also stipulates (see page 8) that 22-24% should be delivered by renewable energy sources. At a local scale, two prefectural governments, Fukushima and Nagano, have pledged that all of their electricity will come from renewables by 2050.

Most of the new renewable energy available in 2030 is likely to be solar and wind, along with existing hydropower, but some contribution from the tides is possible. To this end, a zone in the Goto Islands of Nagasaki Prefecture has been designated for tidal energy development, and a cluster of companies plans to install the first turbine in 2019. This project will be of the tidal stream type, where underwater turbines are placed in the free flow without any dam or barrage, similar to the MeyGen project in Scotland.

Installing a tidal stream turbine base at the MeyGen project off the coast of Caithness in northeast Scotland.
MeyGen/Atlantis Resources

When tidal turbines are placed in a channel, they remove energy from the flow. This causes it to slow, and represents a partial blockage of that channel. In turn, that means that the behaviour of the tides in an area after turbines are installed can be different to how it was before. Understanding and predicting this change is important for estimating both how much energy is available and the impacts of removing it; if there are too many turbines, the flow could slow too much and much less power would be generated.

Going with the flow

My recent work, in collaboration with researchers in Scotland and Japan, involved using a computer simulation of tidal flow around the Goto Islands to investigate the effects of installing large numbers of turbines.

We estimated that between 24 and 79 MW of power could be generated from the designated area. The reason for this range is because the number of turbines that are used will ultimately depend on economic considerations. The first few will offer the most benefit, while later ones will suffer from diminishing returns. Tens of megawatts represents a very small contribution to Japan’s overall electricity needs, but a very large chunk of the local demand in these islands.

A number of parallel channels run through the Goto archipelago, of which two are within the tidal energy zone. In situations like this, it is common to find that adding turbines to one channel simply causes the water to flow by a different route. That means that to harvest energy efficiently we need to collect it from all the channels at once – an expensive proposition for a new technology.

In the Goto Islands, all the channels run parallel but separate to each other, never merging or meeting, so they can each be exploited without affecting the others.
Elsevier, Author provided

However, our modelling shows (see sections 4 and 7.2) that the parallel channels in Goto do not behave this way; instead, they are independent of each other. The reason for this unusual behaviour lies in the geometry of the islands.

Partially blocking a channel causes water levels to rise a little behind the blockage. The interactions that we see elsewhere in the world are a result of this extra water “spilling” into other channels. In Goto, because all of the channels run separately from one end to the other without meeting or merging, and because their mouths are spaced well apart, there is no way for this “overspill” to occur. Consequently, any or all of the channels can be exploited without affecting the others, which should make the area more attractive for commercial development.

If the relatively small-scale development in Goto is a success, it could act as a proving ground and a springboard, leading to the use of tidal energy in other locations all over Japan. And for a country ambivalent about its return to dependence on nuclear power, additional contributions from renewable energy will be welcome.

The Conversation

“My favourite tool” Wed, 03 Jan 2018 00:07:45 +0000

Software Carpentry are running a series of short blog posts where they ask their supporters what their favourite tools are. Most have been software, although a few people have gone for things like “asking for help”. QGIS probably isn’t my favourite tool, but my first few choices had already been mentioned by others…

This post originally appeared at

QGIS (formerly Quantum GIS) is an open source Geographic Information System.

QGIS is capable of advanced analysis and cartography, but I don’t use it for that.

In my research in hydrodynamic modelling, I deal with a lot of spatial data – coastlines, bathymetry, and the like – and this will eventually be processed and plotted using R, MATLAB or Python.

But if I’ve received a file and simply want to take a quick look at it, or if I want to quickly compare two files that use different coordinate systems and see if things line up, most of the time I can throw the file at QGIS and it will show it to me with a few clicks. This approach lacks the reproducibility of a coded solution, but it’s an awful lot quicker for a throwaway visualisation.

Discovering my own over-planning Thu, 02 Nov 2017 08:08:18 +0000 There’s something that I’ve noticed over the course of my PhD studentship: I plan too much.

In my previous, commercial, career, this had worked well for me. When I was feeling bright and creative I would organise all the tasks that I needed to do, and make sure the prerequisites were in place, and then whenever the time was available – regardless of my state of mind – I could sit down and do the work. In the words of an old manager, “You like to line your tasks up, and then knock them down”.

A row of yellow plastic ducks, where the second one is wearing a stormtrooper helmet from Star Wars

Ducks in a row: less useful if ducks hold surprises. Photo: Flickr user jdhancock, licensed CC-BY 2.0.

That worked well then, because a large part of the work was technical rather than creative; I had to do things right, with good attention to detail, but once the overall concept was established the execution did not require me to be at my best. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve had some success in doing academic writing the same way – I produce very detailed outlines, sometimes down to individual paragraph level, which is quite a fast process when I’m at my peak, and then find that I can write from them even when having an “off day”.

But that doesn’t work for research itself because, by definition, with research you don’t know what you will find, and hence you can’t always plan beyond the first set of results. In some recent work I planned out all the tests I’d like to do and the plots that I’d produce from that data… and my supervisor wisely said “see what the first set of data is like first”. That’s a pattern that I’ve repeated a few times in the last few years; I’ve planned far too far ahead, and then some unexpected results have made me throw that planning away.

Lining tasks up to knock them down is a useful technique, at least for me, but it isn’t useful for everything, and I need to develop some more diverse approaches.

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News! Thesis! Job! Tue, 17 Oct 2017 09:36:42 +0000 Hello world. I have two bits of news.

A stack of paper, about 2cm high

And that’s double-sided!

The first one is that a couple of weeks ago I sent a complete draft of my thesis to my supervisors. This isn’t the end of anything as there’s still plenty of work to do, both before and after they get back to me, before it’s ready to be submitted for examination; but it’s a milestone. I’d never printed the whole thing in one go before, and I was surprised by its bulk…

The second piece of news is that I have a new job! I’ve been lucky enough to win a NERC “innovation placement”, which will allow me to spend a year working with the Oceanography team at Marine Scotland Science. From next month I’ll be doing the same type of modelling that I’ve done for most of the last four years, but instead of using it for energy I’ll be working on applications in aquaculture.

This doesn’t mean that I’m leaving energy behind, at least for now – apart from anything else, if time permits there’s at least one more energy-related paper waiting to be written. But it will be valuable for me to diversify my skills and experience in a different area for a year.

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Two new publications Sat, 07 Oct 2017 14:29:53 +0000 I’ve had two publications appear online in the last few weeks, in the opposite order to that in which I actually did the work. They have a lot in common, using similar methods in different locations, so I thought I’d write about them together.

The most recent is my second journal article as lead author, and one that I’m quite proud of. It covers the work that I did in Japan last year, and in the months after returning, on the tidal energy resource of the Goto Islands of Nagasaki Prefecture. We produced estimates of the amount of power that could be obtained – which is mostly of interest for the people planning tidal development in that archipelago – but of more general interest are the findings about inter-channel interactions. The Goto Islands have several parallel channels that could contain turbines.  When this arrangement has been studied in other places, it has usually been found that putting tidal turbines in one channel causes flow to divert into the others, and hence that to reach the full potential for power we would have to put turbines in every channel. Goto doesn’t behave like that – instead, the channels have very little effect on each other – and in the paper we looked a little into why that is. My thanks are due, of course, to my co-authors on this work, both in Scotland and Japan.


Plot showing the mean power produced by different numbers of turbines in the Goto Islands.

Plot showing the mean power available from various numbers of turbines in the channels of the Goto Islands, using simplified M2 tides.

Just a few weeks ago I attended the EWTEC conference in Cork and presented this paper on Lashy Sound, which is a channel with strong tides in the Northern part of Orkney. In this work, I used very similar methods to those that were developed in Japan to look at the tidal resource – in this case, not for realistic turbine developments but in terms of the theoretical maximum available power if we didn’t care about things like environmental impact, or allowing ships through. Unsurprisingly, it looks like achieving this maximum yield would have some significant impacts. I also considered the more plausible scenario of a smaller tidal farm, similar to the 30MW one that has been planned for the area, and was able to show that its effects would be small and confined to Lashy Sound itself – something that’s important when other potential tidal energy sites are just a few km away in neighbouring channels.

Both of these papers are available for free at the links above, or at the publications page on this site.

Thesis deadline approaching. Sun, 17 Sep 2017 15:54:31 +0000 I’m in the final few weeks of writing up my thesis, with my (self-imposed, but then agreed with supervisors) deadline for a complete first draft coming at the end of the month. It’s surprisingly stressful.

It shouldn’t be. Yes, the deadline is soon, but the amount I have left to do is entirely manageable. Yes, it’s longer than anything that I’ve written before, but the chapters are reasonably self-contained, and any given chapter is shorter than plenty of documents that I’ve written in the past. Additionally, most of those chapters are based on papers* that have been through peer review, so I know that they (probably) can’t be awful.

So given all that, why does the thought of “finishing a thesis” have so much weight around it? I think part of it is that, however unlikely, it’s a potential single point of failure which could render the last 4-5 years of work, arguably, wasted. I think another significant part of it is that finishing a thesis is expected to be heavy and stressful, and one internalises that over the years. When everybody who has done one is sympathising with you and saying “you can do it”, you start to agree that it’s hard.

Anyway. Having procrastinated a bit by writing this… Onwards!


* Papers that I wrote, just in case anybody is getting funny ideas 😉

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Conference thoughts Wed, 30 Aug 2017 07:39:45 +0000

decoded conference
, licensed under
CC BY 2.0
. Original.

I haven’t posted for rather a long while. I’ve been writing up my thesis instead; more on that, maybe, at some stage.

This week I’m at an academic conference – in this case the EWTEC one – and reflecting a little about it, and about how I feel at these events. For those who don’t attend such things, it consists of four days of listening to talks on recent research, chatting to people from different universities around the world, having nice dinners with them, etc. It can be socially exhausting, but is well worth the effort, both for hearing about the latest research and for keeping in touch with people from other institutions. For those used to commercial conferences, it’s broadly similar except that the content of the presentations actually matters – it isn’t just an excuse for networking.

I find that listening to conference talks affects me in a few ways. Sometimes it’s simply interesting, and that’s great. Sometimes it sparks ideas – one of my relatively small number of publications was from a research idea that I had while listening to a conference speaker. Sometimes I find that the speaker has solved a problem that makes it easier for my work to proceed. Sometimes the opposite happens: they’re showing the results of something very similar to something that I was already working on, or was planning to work on, and that can be a horrible feeling. More generally, sometimes I sit there admiring the rigour and insight and think “I can never live up to this; what am I doing here? Everybody here is so much better”.

There was a diagram going around the internet some years ago that showed why conferences can be so bad for imposter syndrome. I can’t find it now, and hence can’t attribute it, but I drew my own version:

How it seems: "What I understand" is a small circle, contained within the large circle of "what everybody else understands". The reality: "What I understand" is a small circle surrounded by overlapping circles "What Alice understands", "What Fred understands", etc.

Diagram: Author. Inspired by unknown original.

So sometimes it’s positive, sometimes it’s depressing… but that’s listening. I find that the experience of giving a talk is very different. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking, because I’m always worried that somebody in the room full of frightfully intelligent people will point out a massive flaw in my work, or tell me that it’s been done before – but also, it serves to remind me that what’s dull and obvious to me, after working on it for months or years, isn’t dull or obvious for a slightly wider audience who hasn’t spent so much time thinking about it. Having people congratulate me on a really interesting talk, when I thought it was quite a straightforward thing that everybody already knew, is uplifting, and reassures me that my work is worth doing. It gives me hope for my viva!