Role of Hydrogen in Transport – A Seminar Report

The energy for the vast majority of transport, and certainly personal transport, still comes from burning fossil fuel in vehicles. Delivering that energy as electricity poses technological challenges with few solutions that promise a complete replacement for what we have now:
1.Catenary or underground inductive cables delivering electricity to every point along a restricted set of transport routes. This is fine for railways and trams but it difficult and expensive to for all transport routes.
2.Portable batteries in the vehicles can store and deliver electricity on demand. This is the focus of most technical R&D today, but the energy density of current batteries means that long distance transport vehicles are heavy and difficult to charge quickly, cheaply and safely – particularly at locations remote from the power grid.
3.A new portable fuel, with energy density comparable to fossil fuel but derived from renewable sources would be ideal. It could in principle be stored and distributed in much the same way as fossil fuels are today. It could then be burned directly in an internal combustion engine or used to produce electricity to power an electric motor. The most promising candidate for this new fuel, in the eyes of many, is compressed hydrogen.

We attended the Advanced Propulsion’s Centre’s recent seminar ‘Hydrogen – Time to Put our Foot on the Gas?’ in Cardiff.  Attached is our report of the main lessons learned from the panel of speakers.

Posted in Technology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A Psychologist journeying with Artists

For the past few years, I have been collaborating with two socially engaged, visual artists, Pip Woolf and Kirsty Claxton. We call ourselves The Larks and Ravens for reasons that I can’t remember but probably don’t matter!   As a life long cognitive psychologist, I am challenged, inspired and having a lot of fun.

So far, the 3 of us have created work engaging members of the public in exploring climate change, value and money.

And this is what I’m learning as we go….

Art is a different way of exploring and understanding the world….

Art is about DOING stuff. Not necessarily talking about it, not necessarily thinking about it, not even being able to explain why you are doing what you’re doing.

For me it still feels like an act of faith – learning to park my busy, over-analytical brain for short periods and use my hands instead – to draw, to  paint or pick up materials and make stuff and see what emerges from your hands and where that takes you. It’s wonderfully irrational – a challenge to the logic of everything making sense.

My natural inclination would be to talk, think and analyse a topic before turning to art to express that thinking, insight or concept in some visual or material form. As a trained scientist, I initially found the ‘doing’ way of working threatening, embarrassing even. Could I really just start with my hands – making marks on paper or manipulating materials without figuring out what I planned to do or why and how to set about it? It still feels uncomfortable but I have now been rewarded enough times by the novel and completely different insights which emerge when you start with physically doing.

The first ever drawing class I attended years ago taught us how important it was to learn to draw what your eyes actually see in the world rather than what your brain has already decided something looks like. The process I am going through now feels a bit like that only on another level. Having a thought or idea and then trying to express it in material form is entirely different from starting with the materials, ‘leaving the conscious brain out of it’ and seeing what your hands or body create and what new thinking and ideas that ‘tells’ the brain. What you get is much more surprising. It doesn’t always work – nothing does – but it’s an intriguing and excitingly different way of understanding a topic. It also links with the psychology of cognitive embodiment where what we do with our bodies can affect how we think.

I’ve also experienced what I call  ‘material imagination’ – playfully manipulating physical materials as a means to imagine new possibilities – letting the physical objects or images themselves suggest other uses or arrangements or meanings and thereby other ways the world could be. Things can be different from how they are.

Even the fact that it feels ‘crazy’ when you are doing it might be the point – i.e. it’s breaking you free from a familiar rational framework which has been constraining your imagination only to things you know are possible. Again there is a psychological basis for this – J.J. Gibson’s theory of Affordance – where the physical appearance or feel of an object suggests possibilities for what can be done with it. ‘Material imagination’ is taking affordance one step further beyond the bounds of rational action.

And what’s difficult about this kind of art approach?

Well, it’s awkward generating a credible narrative for friends and colleagues of what the hell you have been doing today and why! They are curious and you don’t have an account which “makes sense”! But that gets easier once one accepts that much of human behaviour is irrational but we are expert at generating post hoc narratives to explain or justify our actions in ways our society recognises and doesn’t question because they ‘fit’ an accepted ‘rationale’.

Applying for grants to help fund this kind of art work is also very difficult. Grant bodies are looking for projects with clearly stated, rational aims, plans and outputs and predicted impact. This is relatively straightforward when you work as a research psychologist – even if it never actually works out the way you stated on the application form! But, if you can’t state your aims, plans and output in advance, grant bodies are nervous you will waste their money (and indeed you might!). Even trying to describe one’s method (see above) sounds far too open-ended and vague. And the Grant officials won’t be comfortable if they can’t explain to others why they are awarding the money to you rather than to a project which reassuringly states its aims, plans, outputs and impact in advance. It’s simply too risky.

It’s therefore not surprising that many artists cannot do the interesting and radical work they would like to do and which would be beneficial to society because they have to find ways to use their time on more ‘rational’ and therefore culturally acceptable ways of supporting themselves financially.

Ironically, historians now believe that Stonehenge may also have been primarily about the act of doing – “experts now believe the construction of the monument was just as important to Neolithic people as worshipping in it” . Taking this further, what if the idea of worshipping was itself an afterthought – a use and meaning which emerged from the co-location of the stones?  Whatever, it’s likely that the Neolithic dreamers might have struggled to complete a Grant application form for that project!

Thank you to my 2 artist friends and collaborators for welcoming me on this journey – the delight of having no idea where it will take us.




Posted in Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Enjoyable, meaningful lives without economic growth or jobs?

As a behavioural psychologist, I am challenged by Tim Jackson’s book “Prosperity without Growth“. Living on a finite planet, how do we find ways to flourish in a world of less economic growth and less material consumption? At the same time, if AI and robotics continue to replace jobs at all levels in society, could a Universal Basic Income paid to every UK citizen enable enjoyable, meaningful lives which contributed to society in other ways than by traditional paid employment?

Asking people how they might behave or feel in an imagined future is tough. They don’t know and nor do we. But we can get clues from studying how people behave now and why that is and use that to understand how those behaviours might either be affected by or themselves affect this rather different future we face.

I conducted an online survey of 325 UK residents roughly matching UK demographic profiles on gender, age and personal income. I invited them to describe recent activities (either in their paid work or leisure time) which they found enjoyable or meaningful or they felt made a difference and why they felt that way. I explored: demographic differences, how much the activities cost them,  environmental impact,  dependence on material consumption and any economic benefit or contribution to social capital. I also asked them whether they had recently engaged in any of the following socio-cultural activities: creating, composing or designing, craft or construction, learning or discovering, collaborating, volunteering or helping and being active outdoors. The list was chosen to reflect the sectors of care, craft, creativity and culture suggested by Tim Jackson as a possible basis for a new kind of sustainable prosperity.   Finally, respondents were asked to rate how much they enjoyed their lives, found them meaningful, felt valued and felt able to make a difference or change things.

The 900 descriptions of enjoyable, meaningful and difference-making activities were diverse but refreshingly simple in nature: walking the dog, gardening, playing with the kids, listening to music, making something, helping a neighbour, attending Church, reading a book, watching TV or singing in a choir. Shopping was rarely mentioned. Most activities involved little or no material consumption, had little or no environmental impact and were mostly free or cost very little.  Levels of personal income had little effect on the choice of activities with the exception of some foreign holidays and major home improvements.

prosper activities

Examples of the kinds of activities described

Only 5% of enjoyable activities, 6% of meaningful activities and 19% of difference making activities happened as part of their paid work. Worryingly, this may reflect the preponderance today of “bullshit jobs” as David Graeber refers to them.  The activities described make a small but steady economic contribution via services such as gyms, instructors and guides, cinemas, entertainment events, restaurants and media generators such as digital content, books, music and films. These are industries which rely heavily on either shared facilities or human creativity or personal interaction.

While everyone described something they enjoyed, 11% of people couldn’t think of a meaningful activity. Those that did described helping others, doing things with their family and learning or experiencing new things. Only 1 in 5 of these activities contributed directly to social capital but they were heavily reliant on the social capital generated by others such as local clubs and social or sports events.

25% of people couldn’t think of something they had done recently which they felt made a difference or had an effect- whether in or outside of their paid work. The activities named ranged from helping others to home improvements or doing things together with their family as well as 19% connected to work. The work ones varied from analysing statistical data to managing funerals! Helping others outside of work again relied heavily on the existence of non-profit, social organisations such as local charities, clubs, schools and churches.

When asked about their engagement in socio-cultural activities reflecting creativity, craft, culture and care – around half the respondents had not engaged in 5 out of the 8 listed in recent months. They were least likely to have engaged in creative/composing/designing, craft or construction, learning or developing a new skill, collaborating with others or volunteering. They were most likely to have been active outdoors and to have helped a non family member. Although few had engaged in any of these activities as part of their paid work, those in paid work were much more likely to engage with such activities in their leisure time than those not in paid work or retired (who arguably had more leisure time).  I would like to understand this difference better.

In terms of overall well-being, people rated their lives as slightly higher on enjoyment than meaningfulness and lower on making a difference and feeling valued. Overall ratings increased with personal income up to £51k and then leveled off.

3 factors made a significant difference to people’s ratings on meaningfulness, value and sense of making a difference. These were whether they were graduates, whether they were a member of a social group, club or organisation and whether they had any religious faith or other spiritual practice. And these 3 factors were themselves cross correlated. Other levels of educational attainment (GCSE, A Levels, Diploma) made little difference. Further analysis showed that graduates were much more likely than non-graduates to have engaged in every one of the socio-cultural activities listed (mostly in their leisure time) and the greater the engagement in such activities, the higher their overall well-being ratings.

So, what do the survey findings suggest about our ability to prosper enjoyably and meaningfully in a world of less economic growth, less consumption and less paid work?

People readily engage in day to day activities that they enjoy and find meaningful and which cost them very little, consume very little and have minimal environmental impact. It suggests our individual prosperity may be less tied to our consumerist lifestyles than is sometimes thought and less than our government is relying on to grow the economy. This fits with other findings that the population were happier in the 1950’s than they are now.

What is less clear is how well we would prosper as individuals and as a society if everyone was financially provided for via a Universal Basic Income but few were engaged in paid employment. The enjoyable and meaningful activities which people described are ones they could and would still happily engage in. But few of these could be classed as “occupational” in the sense of purposefully engaging one’s skills and interests throughout each day, generating respect from others and giving people the sense of making a valued contribution to society.

In particular, activities associated with care, craft, creativity and culture weren’t practised with any frequency by half the surveyed population. These are activities which can become “occupations” in their own right in the sense of providing ongoing meaning, skill development and personal fulfillment as well as contributing to social capital and new kinds of economic growth.

The fact that graduates were much more likely than non-graduates to engage in such socio-cultural activities, as well as being more actively involved in clubs and voluntary organisations, does raise questions – especially as care, craft, creativity and culture are certainly not the focus of our current educational systems. My hunch is that it’s less about the academic training of graduates and more about the whole social experience of  attending university with the opportunity to create new social networks, try new interests and even identities. Also one is surrounded by several hundred different societies, clubs and interest groups all run by volunteers like yourself.

Alternatively, it could be that the particular socio-cultural activities we named actually reflect a distorted graduate-centric view of prosperity. This graduate is worried that could be the case and would welcome other views.

Finally, I am uncomfortably aware that the present study was limited to people in the UK who are fortunate to have enough to meet their daily needs of warmth, food and shelter in life and so have arguably the luxury of considering how enjoyable and meaningful their lives are. I am sorry that we live in a wealthy country where that is the case.

I hope the questions and findings described might trigger conversations about untangling economic growth, consumerism and jobs from human prosperity.

A copy of the full research report can be read here.

Posted in Psychology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What’s the value of your home?

newcompass21072_2280284kIsn’t it ironic that if someone happens to ask us the value of our house, we don’t tell them how attractive it is or how warm and comfortable or how much we enjoy the views. We simply give them a £ value and may even mention whether that figure has gone up or down in the time since we purchased it even if the attributes we value day to day in living there haven’t changed at all!

And therein lies a bigger problem for our society going back to when land first started being treated as tradable, private property in the 16th century triggering the birth of modern capitalism.  Land is different from other forms of capital – we all need it to live but it is limited, we can’t create more of it.

As this excellent article explains: “much of the wealth accumulated in recent decades has come from housing. The classical economists would have viewed this as the accumulation of unearned economic rent; a transfer of wealth from the rest of society towards land and property owners. But in Britain, these windfalls are celebrated — house price inflation is hailed by economists and the media alike as a sign of economic strength. The cost this imposes on the rest of society is ignored. As John Stuart Mill wrote back in 1848:

“If some of us grow rich in our sleep, where do we think this wealth is coming from?  It doesn’t materialize out of thin air. It doesn’t come without costing someone, another human being. It comes from the fruits of others’ labours, which they don’t receive.”

As someone of the lucky age group who benefited this way, I am challenged.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Identity and Narrative


Pablo Picasso’s Still Life with Skull, Leeks, and Pitcher

There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.

For anyone who puzzles about how random or intentional our behaviour really is or the power of self narrative to create apparent identity and coherence, then this article by the philosopher, Galen Strawson is a thought provoking read.

As I get older, I’m more comfortable with fragments than coherence. Not sure why.

Posted in Psychology | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Natural energy storage

It’s good to be reminded every now and then how plants do energy storage over long time periods much more effectively than we ever can with batteries. The process is less efficient but the lengthy time shifting is invaluable from summer to winter, say.

A Lapland farmer, for example, is growing enough rapeseed oil in the perpetual summer daylight to provide power for his machinery all year around and he can still export a surplus. “People are shocked when I tell them I grow rapeseed and mustard but because of our geographical position we have an extra growing month. In the summer the 24/7 light means that the rapeseed shoots up by 2cm a day.

But there’s no mention of solar panels because they, coupled with battery storage, wouldn’t make any sense when you have 6 months of daylight and 6 months of night. But 12,000 litres of rapeseed oil grown and harvested in the summer sunshine can store 100MWh of  energy for operating his machinery throughout the entire year.


Posted in Technology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Open eyed or open minded?

Are you open to new experiences and interpretations? Able to see both sides of an argument or imagine a different way the world could be? Do you quickly spot the humour of ambiguous situations?

At one time in my (increasingly) ancient past, I was a visual scientist and remember running experiments on binocular rivalry. Binocular Rivalry occurs when two different images are presented to our two eyes simultaneously. What tends to happen is people’s perception flips between one image and the other as their brain completely suppresses first one image then the other. But occasionally it can result in the two images blending into one.

Binoc Rivalry

Binocular Rivalry stimuli

A fascinating recent study has explored whether people who are high on the personality trait of Openness to Experience (as characterised by more flexible and creative thinking) are more likely to blend the perception of the right and left eye images in binocular rivalry experiments.

And it seems they are!

Presented with red versus green striped images in either eye, people who scored higher on a standard measure of Openness to Experience reported seeing a combined left/right eye image more often than lower scorers.

So, the question which fascinates me is which comes first – the visual system’s facility to combine two competing images into a single percept or one’s wider social and cognitive comfortableness with such unresolved ambiguity?

Read the original study (June 2017) here.


Posted in Psychology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment