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The media mangle

by on 2015/12/16

The relationship between research and the media can be a tricky one.  One minute you are in your driving simulator laboratory running experiments on vehicle feedback, the next thing you know it’s a headline about “silent killer cars”.  You run a study funded by Transport Scotland into driver behaviour at roadworks, the handle of the media mangle is cranked, and the next minute an angry caller is phoning the Vice Chancellor wanting you sacked.  This was followed a couple of days later by a mystery caller who had seen my photo in the Dundee Courier and just wanted to say how handsome I was (I know, I know, it was an out of date soft focus photo!).  Surely there must be a better way than this?  I suppose if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and let’s be honest, academic life isn’t all about ivory towers and insular little journal articles read by three people.  My job, basically, is to do cool research and tell people about it.  Maybe the media could help?

The Force Awakens

I have to confess it was a student who gave me the idea.  There we were, in a turgid study group meeting discussing “my favourite piece of civil engineering” when lo and behold the comedian of the class produces a technical readout of the Death Star and starts to regale us on the material properties of Quandanium Steel.  What a brilliant idea.  I’ve long harboured the notion that Star Wars is not merely a film but a theory of life itself(?!), including civil engineering.  And what a great example for communicating some cutting-edge ideas about infrastructure resilience and civil engineering systems.  Out there in the higher echelons of civil engineering much teeth gnashing takes place over the idea that we are too focussed on narrow technical solutions when the problems society looks for us to solve are much, much broader: things like sustainability, future energy sources, infrastructure resilience and so on.  Getting that message across is much harder than it appears.  Civil engineering students turn up in year one with an almost single-minded preoccupation with solving all problems with mathematics and getting the right answer in an exam, when actually, what the profession is demanding is creative thinking, novel solutions, the ability to work in teams and a much more holistic view on what a civil engineering problem really is.  So I had two options, continue with the current state of teaching practice and start from one side of the blackboard and work my way across to the other leaving a slipstream of formulae in my wake, or, we could slowly dim the lights and play the Imperial March over the classroom AV system while proceeding to demonstrate why current civil engineering methods would not have predicted the critical vulnerability which led to the Death Star being blown up in the film.

Real Science

What started as an amusing aside began to gain considerable momentum when I realised I was not alone in using Star Wars in an academic setting.  Researchers have used Star Wars to teach complex topics in psychiatry because it is “well known to students, registrars, and consultants alike”.  It has facilitated an examination of how people interact with political philosophy, it has contributed to a better understanding of the behavioural processes underlying immersion in virtual worlds, and a surgical assessment of Darth Vader’s respiratory difficulties informs learning and teaching in pulmonology (apparently he needs a lung transplant).  If papers in other disciplines are happy to provide a clinical diagnosis of lead character Anakin Skywalker’s borderline personality disorder and to use Jabba the Hutt as a visual metaphor for nuclear migration in cellular biology, then a paper describing how Star Wars can be used to communicate complex ideas about civil engineering systems begins to seem quite sensible.  So that’s what we did.post_2

Myself, two very eminent Professors, and a PhD student who owned not one but two lightsabers, took the fun classroom example and proceeded to undertake a ‘proper’ in depth analysis of the Death Star using civil engineering resilience techniques.  Exactly the sort of thing we would do for a nuclear power station or an air traffic control centre.  This involved everything from buying a Haynes Workshop Manual for the Death Star to a subject matter expert workshop hosted in a hipster café in Edinburgh, and advertised by Edinburgh Comicon and the Evening News.  The findings were a dream.  The methods used to analyse resilience in civil engineering systems that were coincident with the film’s release in 1977, and still in widespread use to this day in high hazard industries, did not detect the vulnerability exploited in the film and also took far longer than the time available for the Rebel Alliance to analyse the plans.  By contrast, a more cutting-edge ‘civil engineering systems’ approach worked perfectly.  By considering the Death Star as an interconnected network of functions the critical vulnerability actually exploited in the film emerged easily and quickly, along with 21 new ways to blow it up.  This idea of fitting methods to problems is quite a profound one in my discipline; it’s variously taken me all the way to Brisbane and Los Angeles to present it, and it has also just been published in the journal Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science.post_3

Mission Accomplished

All the way along the notion this might make for an appealing media story was there.  We thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could pique people’s interest in civil engineering, raise the profile of the research-informed teaching at our institutions, and even hint at something as obtuse sounding as civil engineering systems?”  Rather than have the media fill the vacuum between science and application with a scandalous headline that prompts members of the public to phone the university to call for my resignation, here we had an opportunity to start from a headline and use the science to tell the story we wanted to tell.  Star Wars has universal appeal, its slightly geeky brand fits perfectly with academia (and academics!), and the whole thing was timed to coincide with the eagerly anticipated release of a new Star Wars film in a few days.  As for the headlines, National Geographic called it “The Real Science Inspired By Star Wars”, mentioned ‘Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University’ and the fact that all this was “an example for his civil engineering students of analysing flaws in big engineering projects”.  The Times Educational Supplement called it “A must-read for technology teachers” and the story is travelling the twitter-sphere with a prominent shout-out to my and my colleague’s book (from where the methods derived).  So, in terms of piquing people’s interest in civil engineering and raising the profile of the research informed teaching in my School it is mission accomplished.  On a more personal level, the Times Higher’s headline of “First there was Skywalker: Then there was Guy Walker” means I can now retire a happy man.post_4

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