Left to right: Professor Danielle George, Professor Caroline Wilkinson, Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg
This year’s inaugural North West Christmas Research Café sought to highlight the impact of research across the North West region and the three talks did just that. Professor Danielle George spoke about the future possibilities in engineering, Dr. Stuart Wilks-Heeg reflected on changes to the democratic process in the UK, and Professor Caroline Wilkinson discussed faces and identity in an afternoon of fascinating scholarship and discussion.
Professor Danielle George (@EngineerDG) began her talk, Engineered in Your Imagination with two equations:
Physics + Mathematics = Engineering
Why + How = Engineering
Although simple, they go some distance to explain the relevance and prevalence of engineering in all of our lives, whether we know it or not. For example, Professor George explained that Nikola Tesla had inspired her, and that his own work nearly 115 years ago still inspires her as an engineer in the present, for the future. In fact, the world’s population that uses all of the 7.2 billion mobile phones (and counting) in the world are actually benefiting from Tesla’s engineering inspiration.
In fact, things like radio-frequency identification (RFID) have the potential to help society in a myriad of different ways: on land, in the skies, in our built environment and out in space. On land, farmers can embed sensors in their crops and their tractors to capture real-time nutritional and growth information about the needs of what they are growing to immediately detect if they should water more/less, dependent on up-to-date information, resulting in less waste and potentially more growth.
In the sky, wireless sensors have been placed within Rolls-Royce aeroplane engines to attain information regarding their efficiency and locate faults, reducing the amount of CO2 from engines by ensuring efficiency. In our buildings, RFID can help the visually impaired not only locate Braille signs within their built environment but also to navigate more safely.
Finally, Professor George spoke about her work in space exploration, working with telescopes and the pioneering projects she was or is currently working on. She asked for future engineers to be inspired by the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) which will be the world’s largest radio telescope. When finished it will be capable of detecting radio frequencies ten light-years away and will generate data at a rate more than ten times today’s global internet traffic. Certainly, this is an exciting project, one which the future engineers of the world will be inspired by and work on!
Dr. Stuart Wilks-Heeg (@StuartWilksHeeg) asked the audience to consider democracy, How Democratic Is The UK? How Might Universities Collaborate With Citizens To Improve It? By discussing how democracy has changed, what dangers and opportunities this brings, and how/if universities can play a key role in a democratic society.
Although the first English parliament was established in 1236, corruption was rife in many elections. It was not until 1929 that universal suffrage was achieved and 1948 when plural voting was abolished and the system of one person, one vote, was established. (Side note, if you’re like me and had to look up plural voting, it meant depending on your status as a landowner or affiliation with a university meant you could vote more than once!)
As director of the 2012 Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom, Dr. Willks-Heeg identified four different blocks of a democratic society and analysed the UK democracy both at present and over time. What the audit found was that: 1) Formal democratic participation is on the decline and more unequal; 2) Large corporations and wealthy individuals have amassed more political power; and 3) Public faith in politics has declined. Moreover, there has been a general decline in party membership, the voter turnout gap is widening between members of higher/lower social classes and less MPs are from working-class backgrounds.
A potential danger within these trends is that this may lead to an era of ‘anti-politics’ and politicians might cede power or influence because a particular issue is not popular, or that an un-even scrutiny might develop on some aspects of policy, to appease the electorate. The opposite view might counter that democratic values might become more embedded and as a result, give far greater scope to individuals to get involved.
Dr. Wilks-Heeg argues that universities are well placed to help in this era of anti-politics because they are part of civil society. Universities are changing to adapt to more open access of information and opportunity and that although somewhat clichéd the truth is knowledge IS power. He sees universities as uniquely able to be levellers of social capital and in fact, sometimes the final opportunity for people to benefit from this levelling. He also believes the university setting can both recognise and foster active citizenship in its curriculum and also lead by example with providing democratic access to knowledge and challenge misuse in this area.
During questions, he stressed the importance of children both understanding but also being involved in the democratic process and reminded the audience that the pathway to democracy is always difficult.
Professor Caroline Wilkinson discussed the importance of faces, our sense of self and how we are seen by the rest of society in her talk, Your Face, Your Identify. Our faces provide a lot of information to those around us. Within two seconds, we can potentially determine the gender, age, ethnic group, and sometimes the culture or religion of a person by just looking at their face, before we’ve even spoken to them. We use our faces all of the time for verification or identification but what happens when we cannot see the whole face or someone? Or when we need to attempt to determine how someone from the past might have looked?
Professor Wilkinson has always had a keen interest in both art and science, and facial reconstruction combines a lot of both these areas. Redesigning facial structures is not limited to today’s science, however, this practice began in 17th century Italy, where artists did human dissections on cadavers and recorded different states, modelling the outcomes in wax onto bodies. What they found is that there was a direct relationship between anatomical structure and facial structure. In forensic cases, we need this connection because sometimes DNA and/or teeth records are not available or there are no suspects. For example, during the 2002 Asian tsunami, nearly 10% of victims were misidentified by their families, but facial reconstruction can sometimes be the link between uncertainly and recognition.
By building muscle structure onto the skull, Professor Wilkinson is able to predict individual features with a reasonable amount of accuracy. Using blind studies, her team would use a CT scan and other clinical images to reconstruct the face. Then, using CGI, they can wrap textures like skin colour, hair, or disease, as without texture, people are more difficult to recognise. In blind trials, 65% of the cases identified a match.
What makes the process more difficult is that sometimes a 55-year-old doesn’t look like a 55-year old. They might look older or younger, there isn’t necessarily a typical look. We understand how faces age but cannot always predict when this aging process occurs. Also, things like plastic surgery or fixing our teeth means that we become less individualistic and therefore less easily identifiable.
During the discussion, Professor Wilkinson spoke about forensic cases involving missing children. She said that it’s more difficult with children as it is problematic to predict their growth and development and that a two-year gap can result in significant physical changes. Still, it is our 8 or 9 year-old self that most represents our face as adults (go see your old photos and see what you think!)
Each talk demonstrated the idea that knowledge IS powerful and that universities in the North West are supporting innovative thinking and design. Satellites that can gather data ten light-years away; research that analyses the changing dimensions of democracy and political engagement; and facial reconstructions to assist with forensic investigations and the nature of identity. A very special thank you to Professor Danielle George, Dr. Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Professor Caroline Wilkinson for their fantastic talks.