Simon Waldman Oceans and energy Sun, 30 Jun 2024 17:36:26 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 Simon Waldman 32 32 SmartSTEMs, and excellent questions Sun, 30 Jun 2024 17:32:52 +0000 Last week I took part in a day run by SmartSTEMs at one of the local schools. About two hundred primary and middle school aged kids spent the day hearing from myself and lots of other sciencey people about what we do, and doing activities that we provided. I had them playing a computer game about managing a power grid, in small groups, and then thinking about the functions of different power sources.

Three tweenage boys gathered around a laptop, playing a game that involves some graphs. A teacher watches from behind.

Some of the kids were really engaged and interested. Some weren’t, which is perhaps inevitable. The organisers had a nice system set up to encourage questions: if you asked a sensible, non-silly, question, you got a raffle ticket. At the end of the day there was a raffle draw for an iPad. There were a couple of very happy winners, but it also worked well as encouragement for the students not only to ask questions, but to ask some with a bit of thought behind them. A few did this in class or in other exposed spaces, but most waited and found me at lunchtime. Either way it takes a lot of courage… it’s an approach that I might think about using myself.

One girl came up to me after one of my workshops and very timidly asked me, “Before you started your job, how did you know that you could do it?”. It was perhaps the best question that I had all day, and I suspect represents not just her worries but those of many of her peers. I gave a fairly straightforward answer about how I had got feedback about my teaching, and I’d done some research before so I knew that I enjoyed that aspect, and so forth, and none of that was wrong – but it wasn’t the answer that she really deserved.

When I thought about it some more, later, I realised that what I should have said is,
“I didn’t. We can do things to try to find out if a job is right for us, but we can never be sure; at some point the only way to find out whether we can a do job — and whether we want to do that job — is to try it and see. And if it turns out to be the wrong thing for you, that’s not the end of the world, because you can change and do something different.”

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“Profits” cartoon Sun, 02 Jun 2024 09:37:05 +0000 This “comic” (the word hardly fits) from Rosemary Mosco hit me hard. I don’t have anything to say about it that isn’t said better by the strip itself. Except, perhaps, that if you want more context, this recent US congressional report might be a good place to start.

Original at The rest of her “climate” series is well worth reading too. Most of them are funnier than this.

Examining Mon, 13 May 2024 20:05:51 +0000 Today has been the fourth viva that I’ve been a part of, including my own. It was the first as the external examiner, which feels like a bit of a milestone. This involved travelling from Orkney down to England, spending half the day in the exam, then a few more hours with the internal examiner having lunch and doing paperwork…. it’s been nice. It’s always rewarding to examine a good student, but more than that, it’s been delightful to spend a day thinking and talking about science rather than answering emails.

It’s quite a time-consuming activity: 1.5-2 days to read the thesis carefully and think on it. And a minimum of a 3-day trip to do the exam (one day here, one day travelling each way). And that isn’t something that workload models allow for, so one can’t do too many. But the occasional one is not only essential for the system, it’s also good for the soul 🙂

Feeling useful Tue, 13 Feb 2024 22:47:16 +0000 This week brought a professional milestone of sorts: it’s the first time that I’ve been called up and asked to share my expertise to feed into policy. I’ve been approached once before by a company who were interested in some research I’d done, which was also nice, but this was the first time for “We’re revising x, and we’re reaching out to people who have published on the topic to have conversations…”

It felt good. It helped me feel that what I do can make a difference; that it’s worthwhile, on the research side as well as the teaching. Maybe it will lead to future things – there is talk of a possible working group – but if it doesn’t, that’s OK too. It’s given a positive glow to the last couple of days.

Record of a Spaceborn Few : on stories Mon, 03 Jul 2023 11:37:55 +0000 A few days ago I finished reading Becky Chambers’s novel “Record of a spaceborn few“. I already mentioned this book in my last post, because of something she wrote in the first few pages that struck me. But it turned out to have more that belonged on this blog. I’m not going to get into the plot here, but the setting is the Exodus Fleet: a series of generation ships on which part of humanity embarked when Earth became unable to support us. Here’s a lengthy quote:

“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one. When our planet started dying, our species was so caught up in stories. We had thousands of stories about ourselves…but not enough of us were looking at the reality of things. Once reality caught up with us and we started changing our stories to acknowledge it, it was too late.

It is easy to remember that story here, in the Fleet. Every time you touch a bulkhead, every time you tend a garden, every time you watch the water in your hex’s cistern dip a little lower, you remember. You know what the story is here.”

Humans run on stories, not reality. We can see this by looking around us; it’s something that populists and propagandists understand well. But I hadn’t thought about it quite like this before.

There’s optimistic SF out there that shows what a sustainable civilization on Earth could look like. Becky Chambers wrote some of it. This is important. But there’s not much that gives us stories of getting from here to there. That feels like something we’re missing. It’s probably very hard to write those, because it’s not obvious how to do that. Star Trek does offer one narrative if one gets into the backstory, but it involves WW3, so it’s hardly aspirational… perhaps until we have popular / folk narratives that people can relate to that show the sort of change that we need – systemic, disruptive, society-wide change – actually happening, rather than having happened, it’ll continue to be very hard for most of us to really engage on a path of sustainability and transition at more than an intellectual level. We need a story to follow. We need to change our stories to acknowledge reality.

Of course, none of this is new or groundbreaking thought. Humanities folk, and any storytellers and folklorists in particular, who read this will no doubt be saying “duh, obviously”. But it’s some new thinking for me, at least in the sustainability domain.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that a lot of the stories we have about dealing with shorter timescale threats are either historical, or grounded in things that have happened. It’s a challenge to do this with climate change. Science fiction can help us, perhaps. While history doesn’t give much that’s comparable at global scale, it’s hardly the first time that a civilization has been threatened by a self-inflicted change in its environment. But we remember those that fell, not those that successfully changed their behaviour and survived.

“Make sure people don’t forget. Make sure people remember that a closed system is a closed system even when you can’t see the edges”

Overview effect Sat, 17 Jun 2023 22:47:52 +0000

Overview effect” is the name given to something experienced by some, but not all, astronauts, when they see the Earth from space. The view of the whole planet, and hence the whole human race, from a distance can bring about a marked shift in perspective, in attitudes, in thinking, that favours peace and cooperation and values the environment 1. It’s probably more common in those who have seen Earth from a great distance – most famously the Apollo astronauts – than those who have only been to low earth orbit, although it certainly happens there too.

View of the Earth rising over the lunar surface, taken by William Anders on board Apollo 8.
Image: Earthrise, William Anders / NASA, 1968. Public domain. Taken on board Apollo 8.

The famous “Earthrise” photo of 1968 probably helped some people feel the same, although looking at a picture is hardly the same as being there and knowing that the rest of humanity is beneath you.

Carl Sagan’s “Pale blue dot” photo and the powerful accompanying speech were (among other things) presumably an attempt to bring some overview effect to the masses. More recently, some wealthy space tourists have spoken about seeking out the effect.

I mention this now because I’ve recently started reading Becky Chambers’s novel, “Record of a spaceborn few“. In it much of humanity lives, and has lived for generations, on a fleet of huge spaceships. This speech is something like liturgy:

“We destroyed our world, and left it for the skies.
Our numbers were few. Our species had scattered.
We were the last to leave.
We left the ground behind. We left the oceans. We left the air
We watched these things grow small. We watched them shrink into a point of light.
As we watched, we understood. We understood what we were. We understood what we had lost. We understood what we would need to do to survive. We abandoned more than our ancestors’ world. We abandoned our short sight. We abandoned our bloody ways. We made ourselves anew.”

This version of humanity experienced the overview effect en masse, as a species, far too late. Let’s not do the same as them.

[1] As I’m currently between jobs, I don’t have journal access. So these two links have been included on the basis of their abstracts.

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Moving on : New job news! Tue, 06 Jun 2023 12:08:54 +0000
Cartoon of a penguin carrying a bindel

The Friday after next will be my last day with the University of Hull; after a bit over 3.5 years, I’m moving on and fulfilling the ambition that I’ve had for a while to move back to Scotland.

In my time here I’ve kept a programme running, with positive evaluations, through a pandemic and then an overnight tripling of student numbers, as programme director and while teaching three modules. I’m proud of that, but it has come at a cost – both to my research trajectory and to my health.

I’ve learned a lot at Hull, and worked with some great people, many of whom I hope to continue collaborating with. Hopefully this will all help me in my new role, as Assistant Professor of Energy Technology at Heriot-Watt University. More specifically, I’ll be based at their Orkney campus, where I’ll be heading up the MSc Renewable and Sustainable Energy Transition. I have history there, as it’s where I did my PhD, so it’ll be nice to go “home”, and I’m excited to work with my new colleagues – both those I know from before, and those who have arrived there more recently. The intention is that I will also spend a portion of my time at the main campus in Edinburgh, so for central belt people out there I won’t be far away for all of the time!

I don’t have a Heriot-Watt email address yet, but I’m always available by the routes on the Contact page.

Before I leave Hull I’ll be attending Global Offshore Wind on their behalf – so if you’re going to be there next week and would like to meet up, give me a shout!

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Graduation! (not mine) Wed, 18 Jan 2023 20:08:56 +0000 Today was my department’s winter graduation ceremony, and despite three years as a lecturer it was the first one I’ve attended in which I wasn’t receiving a degree (first everybody had Covid and so we had no graduations, and then I had Covid last summer and missed that one).

I went in without too much in the way of expectations – I’d had an unproductive day for mental health reasons (no big deal, it happens sometimes) so I wasn’t in a great mood, and I was anticipating a slightly boring ceremony, but wanted to support the students.

I was wrong. It was a joyous affair. It was wonderful to see my former students cross the stage and stand in front of their friends and families with proud smiles on their faces. Wonderful to see those who had excelled throughout, and those who had struggled a bit along the way. In the reception afterwards I was able to congratulate them in person (sometimes with difficulty – the music was loud!); many of them introduced me to their families, took selfies with me, etc.. Graduation selfies have worse lighting than field trip selfies, but much smarter clothes 😉

I left after some hours with a big happy smile on my face, lifted up by other people’s celebration. So now I shall look forward to future graduations… and if any of today’s students are reading this, congratulations again!

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Viva! (from the other side) Wed, 14 Dec 2022 07:33:27 +0000 Today was the third viva I’ve been in. The first was my own. The second was about a year ago when I was asked to be the independent chair, which most of the time is a very easy and straightforward job. This was my first time as an examiner. Ulp.

When I agreed to be the internal examiner I underestimated how much time it would take.

  • It took me about one and a half days to read the thesis in detail.
  • Probably another half day, spread over a time, to arrange the date and the venue, catering and parking, etc. (catering actually ended up as “I go to B&M and spend a fiver on water and biscuits”. Because although the university should cover it, I gave up on trying to actually get a cost code from anybody)
  • The exam itself took a few hours, but it’s intense and mentally draining so the amount of other stuff I was going to get done that day was limited.
  • And now I have a fair bit of paperwork to do to follow up.
  • Then in a few months time the student will send me his corrections and I’ll have to spend some hours checking that they are satisfactory.

It’s essential work, without which the system would collapse – but there isn’t actually time for it in the diary.

It’s also really enjoyable work, at least with a good candidate who clearly knows their stuff. It was a really rewarding few hours talking about interesting research, and I learned a lot from both the candidate and the more experienced external examiner. Then I spent the evening in the pub with the student, the external examiner, and the supervisor 🙂

I’m glad I did it, but I will be careful of agreeing again during the main teaching semesters.

Mastodon Sat, 12 Nov 2022 12:07:13 +0000 So, Mastodon . I’m on it. After a little wandering I’m currently at That instance feels comfy for now, but I might move in future. Somebody has set up, which is nice, but they have no moderation or federation policies, which makes me think that they haven’t thought through running a social media instance, and that they might not be prepared to respond when (not if) something abusive happens (example here. Content warning for highly offensive language.).

I don’t know yet how much I’ll use it. A lot will depend on how both it and Twitter develop; it’s hard to find time to participate in both. If you are also on Mastodon (or something else in the Fediverse), feel free to give me a follow.

Cute model of an owl, wearing headphones and using a tiny laptop
Photo: Public domain.