Prof. Marcus du Sautoy said "Mathematics can often appear arcane, esoteric, unworldly and irrelevant."   In that New Statesman article Prof. du Sautoy then went on to counter that and outline his views on relevance and importance of mathematics.  (Aside - [If you're into mathematics/physics/Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - you may also enjoy Prof. du Sautoy's thoughts on why 42 is in the fact the "Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything" published here.)

Like Prof. du Sautoy I believe mathematics offers us tremendous insight into the way the world works.  In the work we do in the Department of Engineering Science we describe the process of using mathematics to understand the world as "mathematical modelling".   So what is mathematical modelling? Wikipedia gives a definition of  "A mathematical model is a description of a system using mathematical concepts and language."   While I agree that's a valid definition - if we met at a cocktail party and I told you that was what I do, you may be politely looking for ways to break off the conversation (depending on your level of interest in mathematics).

The word "language" in the Wikipedia definition is however very important to me.  When I was at school I loved learning languages (and still do).  I studied French to 7th form (now called Year 13) and Latin to Year 12.  I frequently comment that for me mathematics is in many ways just another language.   The mathematical modelling process involves a translation of a problem that arises from a community, industry, science, government etc. into a set of mathematical statements that capture the relevant details.

Once translated into mathematical language do I end up with a set of mathematical equations that I can solve by hand (on paper)?  Not usually!  I sometimes say in jest that while I am a reasonable mathematician, I specalise in writing down equations I can't solve.   This means the modelling process typically includes a phase of translating the mathematics involved into a form that can be solved by a computer.  All going to plan the computer-based version of the model then becomes a "crystal ball" where the modeller can ask "what if?" questions to explore uncertainty (e.g. in a traffic flow model what happens if 50% more cars per hour travel on a certain road due to a special event in the area?)  To make meaningful predictions of the future behaviour of a system the model must be validated against previous observations of that system (e.g. if I want to predict future flow rates and temperatures in a geothermal well, my model should ideally be able to retroactively recover previous flow behaviour).

Finally modellers need to be able to address the "Why?" question ... why was the model constructed?  Does it provide a robust answer to that question?  Through the modelling process having an appreciation of the topic being addressed is very helpful.  Within the Engineering Science degree we allow students to build their understanding of various domains where modelling may be applied (from financial markets to environmental engineering) by having the flexibility to include electives from outside the Department throughout the degree.  We hope that makes them better mathematical modellers!







Like many New Zealanders I was (till July last year) the owner of an older car (I won't say how old!) that had a lot of kilometres on the clock.  When it came time to change vehicles I decided to "walk the talk" and buy an electric car.  I took the plunge and bought a second hand Nissan Leaf - and it was "love at first drive".  The car is very quiet, accelerates beautifully and is generally fun to drive. There's no petrol engine in the car, and it charges overnight (in about 6 hours) from a household plug (with a higher current "caravan" socket).  So does "driving electric" make sense?  There were about 1,250 electric vehicles registered in NZ when I bought mine - today there are more like 2,250 (see for current stats).  That means more and more NZers think it does make sense.

Nissan Leaf vehicles charging at a Vector charging station in Takanini. Mine was headed on a day trip further south that day.

I was pleased to see research published by EECA in New Zealand that confirmed the environmental benefits of electric cars.  They state:

"Across the lifecycle, pure EVs have around 60% fewer CO2 emissions than petrol vehicles. When we just look at the CO2 emissions from use, New Zealand’s high proportion of renewable electricity generation means EVs have around 80% fewer CO2 emissions when driven in New Zealand.  As the renewable proportion of New Zealand’s electricity continues to grow, the CO2 emissions from an EV will reduce further."

EECA's research also dispels concerns re net environmental impacts associated with lithium production for electric vehicle batteries.

So what's the catch?  The typically advertised range of my model of Nissan Leaf, with its 24 kWh battery capacity, is 125 km on a full charge.  That assumes driving on the flat on smooth roads etc. - so in reality I get less commuting range than that since we live at the top of a long winding hill.  I have a fairly significant commute so I charge the car every night at home.  What happened to my power bill?  I opened the first one with bated breath!  However the car's energy demands are relatively modest - so I traded filling up on a full tank of petrol every week, for an increase of $20 to $30 on my monthly power bill (I have a discounted rated for night rate electricity, and also have solar panels on the roof of my home that help charge the car when it's home at the weekends).

Colleagues in the Department are interested in supporting NZ's transition to more electric vehicles.  We've had a student project building web-based mapping tools that assess the viability of the use of an electric vehicle in Auckland for commuting taking into account speed limits and terrain (note that driving downhill regenerates charge in the car battery).  The tool is not quite ready for public use but I looked forward to seeing it deployed.

Companies such as Vector are deploying fast chargers that will charge a car like mine in 20 minutes or so.  Their chargers are currently free for public use, but that will change at some point.  The Government, via EECA are also trying to accelerate the transition to  electric vehicles, via the Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund.

So, a longer post than usual, but I have a lot of love for driving electric!





Happy New Year!  Are you happy to be back at work, or looking forward to being back in class in 2017?  Do you know why?

In 2016 I served on various panels and committees (on campus and beyond) in which decisions were made that offered people or organisations opportunities and resources, or that looked to make decisions on process/structure in organisations.  I won't elaborate on the details since it many cases they are confidential.  However when I reflect on the most successful interactions they were normally with people who had clearly answered the "why" question for themselves and let that show.


The "why" that gets me out of bed in the morning is the the belief that engineering mathematics is a toolbox that can offer businesses, government and communities insight and novel solutions to the problems they face - in turn creating value for shareholders and society.  As a Department Head I aim to create an environment where students can develop their expertise with those mathematical tools (and create new tools). Anyone shadowing me in my office would see "what" I do in business hours - meetings, financial approvals, paperwork etc.  Connecting what I do to the underlying reason why I do it ensures I stay energised.

One of my colleagues tells me I have a look in my eye that tips them off I am about to ask "Why .... ?"  That person has learned to be prepared for the fact I may ask a series of questions to try to connect what they asking me for/about to a wider context.  That helps make sure everyone is on the same page and that we are taking action that supports a common purpose (or conversely identifies that taking that a certain action doesn't support that purpose and won't be pursued).

If you're a student looking for an opportunity after graduation (employment, or postgraduate study) I'd encourage you to make sure you not only communicate what you can do, but why using those skills in a particular organisation excites you and aligns with what makes you tick.  If you can join those dots I believe there is a better chance that doors will open.

For anyone who wants to think more about their own "why" a one good place to start may be this page from Forbes.  If you can stay connected to why you do what you do then 2017 will be all the more exciting!




My thoughts this week start from an email a student who has just finished a conjoint degree sent me recently.  The subject line was "Thank you for 5 years of awesome!"  She'd really enjoyed the time she had spent in the Department and acknowledged the culture in the Department that aims to ensure students have an outstanding experience while they are with us.   In turn working with those students means the roles our staff have can offer a lot of job satisfaction.

Thinking about 2017 I want to explore how to use the skills, knowledge and energy of staff and students here to help build New Zealand into a country that is more "awesome" for all concerned.  Once we return from a summer break we'll be moving into a round of bidding for government research funding through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).  The Ministry stated an aim in 2015 "to support an increase in real median household income of 40 per cent by 2025, from $1,300 (in 2012) to $1,800 per week".

Supporting that target MBIE have three objectives:

  • more competitive businesses – doubling labour productivity growth and increasing the real exports to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio to 40 per cent
  • job opportunities for all – achieving an ongoing unemployment rate below 4 per cent
  • affordable housing – a lower ratio of housing cost to income.

MBIE acknowedges these objectives are ambitious, and they challenge any organisation seeking research funding to provide a program of work that supports these objectives.

An example of work being done in Engineering Science to address these challenges is our participation in the Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge.  The Department is engaged in Portfolio 4 of the challenge which "aims to enable organisations to combine analytics techniques and new ICT methods to create value from large quantities of data through better processing, presentation, collaboration and decision-making tools."   Portfolio 4 is led by Professor Andy Philpott.  It has a spearhead project known as R five which is "a collaborative modelling effort looking at the effects on New Zealand businesses of randomness, risk, rivals, remoteness and resource limitations."  The project includes a particular focus on Māori capacity development (led in the Department by Assoc. Professor Andrew Mason).

The Faculty of Engineering has recently signed a new partnership with the Federation of Māori Authorities and looks forward to building closer ties between engineering researchers and Māori enterprises.

So with MBIE bids firmly on my list of "homework" for 2017 I will sign off for 2016.

Best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,


The Department of Engineering Science hosts undergraduate degrees in both Engineering Science and Biomedical Engineering.    I enjoy seeing examples of how the natural world can offer solutions to traditional engineering problems.  Much of my own work is in geothermal energy and one example in that industry is the bioreactor at Contact Energy's Wairakei plant that removes hydrogen sulphide from cooling water used in the plant, before the water is discharged to the Waikato river.  In the bioreactor the cooling water flows through 378km of pipes in which sulphur-oxidising bacteria floursh and remove 80% of the hydrogen sulphide.  The bioreactor is a world first, and was New Zealand Energy Project of the Year in the Deloitte Energy Awards.


At the University I enjoy seeing the developments that come out of the Auckland Biomimetics Lab, hosted in the Auckland Bioengineering Institute, and run by Associate Professor Iain Anderson.  The work done in the lab involves

"drawing inspiration from nature to develop new technologies. Living organisms and natural phenomena have certain behaviours and properties which let them exist in harmony with the surrounding environment. By understanding these natural processes, we are developing technologies to venture into new territories."

One of the lab's projects is building a human powered racing submarine (known as "Project Taniwha") which they race in an international contest each year.  This year the team won the overall trophy, as well as awards for being the most reliable submarine and the best non-propeller powered submarine.  The team are the only Southern Hemisphere team.  Curious how such a vehicle works?  It's pedal-powered, with a diver inside who breathes from a dive tank.

“We also got the reliability trophy because we didn’t abort once in 18 runs around the circuit,” says Iain. “That’s about five kilometres underwater. New Zealand has proven to the world that Taniwha is a top sub with a top team.”

“They were very impressed with our innovative bending tail on the sub that takes the place of a rudder,” says Iain. “The rear section of the Taniwha bends back and forth like a fish and enables the Taniwha to turn without a rudder.”

The Taniwha is a great mix of creativity, determination, and Kiwi enginuity - with some inspiration from nature.  If you're visiting our Department (at Uniservices House, 70 Symonds St) you will see it on display on the ground floor level.  I know there's not a huge market for human power submarines ... however the Biomimetics Lab also applies it's expertise to a range of other ventures with commercial impact, including a spin-out company called Stretchsense which develops wearable technologies.


New Zealand has the dubious honour of having the highest rate of teen suicide in the developed world.  As a New Zealander I am not proud of that.  Overall the number of New Zealanders who take their own lives is normally larger than the number who die in road accidents.  As a community we discuss the road toll freely, but choose not to discuss mental health as openly.  I want to join others who challenge this taboo.

I am very mindful of the stresses and mental health difficulties all University students face. The young people in the Department of Engineering Science are not immune from the difficulties of navigating financial struggles, chronic health problems, bereavement, relationship difficulties, questions of identity and more.  Those challenges seem to be increasing - as is my awareness of the potential for incidents of self-harm.  I have an open door policy with students and over the years have had students disclose some fairly mind-boggling circumstances - naturally confidentiality means I will not expand on the details.   We're one of the smaller Departments in our Faculty and have a strong sense of community.  We aim to proactively check-in with students if we see any signs of mental health issues that go beyond the realms of normal student life. I am grateful for the support of Faculty's student engagement team who help support students in a range of ways.   The University of Auckland also has an excellent health and counselling service.
Mental health

Engineers are problem solvers - and I am pleased that two staff I work with have devoted some energy to the problem of youth mental health.  Dr Mike O'Sullivan Jnr and Associate Professor Cameron Walker have been working with the Adolescent Health Research Group to help analyse data from the Youth 2000 series of surveys.  Recent work conducted a final year research project by an undergraduate student (Jung Shaan Lee) working with Mike and Cameron used modern statistical tools on the Youth 2000 data set and identified three key themes associated with depression in young people - having poor family relationships, feeling unsafe or out of place at school, and experiencing difficulty accessing mental healthcare.  Jung Shaan's work helped shed light on the interconnectedness between multiple factors and has already attracted the interest of mental health professionals working in the Adolescent Health Research Group.  I think that's a great use of some engineering expertise.


In an emergency situation (in New Zealand) please call the Mental Health Crisis Service on (0800) 800 717. This is a free public health service. The crisis teams are part of the Community Mental Health Service and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For free mental health counselling please call Lifeline on (0800) 543 354, 24 hours a day.

It's 28 days until Christmas so those of us who celebrate Christmas are likely to be thinking of gifts for people they are fond of.   Anyone who teaches however gives of themselves year round by offering their time, talent and energy to develop a new generation (of engineers in the case of myself and the staff in our Department).

Meaning of life

My role at the University brings the value of giving and philantrophy into focus.  Recently I have been out and about at school prizegivings - this year Waitakere College, and Whangarei Girls High.  At Waitakere it was my pleasure to present one the inaugural awards of the Clarke Undergraduate Scholarship (on behalf of the University).That award will be truly life-changing for the recipient who receives $22,000 per year for up to 4 years of study in a Bachelor of Arts program.  In Whangarei I presented a runner-up prize in a nationwide contest our Department runs (NZ's Next Top Engineering Scientist - with support from Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and Orion). The depth and breadth of talent among the girls in that team was truly impressive.

The spirit of giving back is alive and well among the young people we play a role in educating.  One (of the many) examples of that is the tutoring work done by the NCEA campus group.  Many of their tutors and leadership team have come from the Department of Engineering Science of the years.  That group "is a not-for-profit, youth-for-youth organization promoting equality of opportunity in the New Zealand education system, by indiscriminately providing access to quality support for all students tackling external exams." 

Philanthropic projects can be great way to build community.  In 2009 I was part of "Team Well Engineered" who completed the Oxfam Trailwalker event - a 100km walk (i.e. each individual walking the whole distance, not as a relay!) which we finished in 30 hours and 49 minutes - raising over $5000 for Oxfam in the process.  We developed a reputation for "fun"-raising in the Faculty during our "fund"-raising.  Completing a challenge like that takes grit, but that's always useful in other arenas!

My work gives me opportunities to visit many communities - in NZ and beyond.  While travelling I like to do whatever I can to understand those communities.  My work in geothermal energy takes me to Indonesia quite often.  On a trip there last year I went on a guided tour with a small group into the "hidden" Jakarta - down dark alleyways into mazes of shacks where people live in poverty.  The visit was humbling.  I use it as "fuel" to keep working on various projects to support geothermal energy development in Indonesia - in the hope that access to electrcity can become more universal for it's people.

Hidden Jakarta



I had planned to write about other things this week.  But given the earthquakes in NZ recently seismic activity is on my mind!  I have had a long standing interest in the way the earth works - the fluids that flow within and on its crust, and the forces that conspire to shape and continuously remodel the earth's structure.  This interest may go all the way back my birth since the earth shook as  I was preparing to make my entrance into the world.  Four hours before I was born the hospital my mother was in rocked with a 6.6 magnitude earthquake (with an epicentre close to Owhango). A 3.95 magnitude quake happened just as I was delivered.

Fast forward several decades ... and the research my graduate students and I undertake applies a range of mathematical and computational tools to understand the earth.  Micro-seismic activity is one data set of interest.  Micro-seismic events generally have magnitude less than 2.  The Richter scale is a logarithmic one, so a magnitude 3 quake is 10 times larger than a 2,  a magnitude 4 is 100 times larger than 2, ... and a magnitude 7 is 100,000 times larger than a 2.  Such quakes are imperceptible by  humans and need sensitive geophysical equipment deployed in boreholes to detected.  However there are large numbers of these very small events which can make them a rich data set to explore.

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake.One of my PhD students, Jongchan Kim, is working with micro-seismic data from a portion of the Wairakei geothermal field.  He's integrating it into a model that addresses fluid flow, heat flow and changes in mechanical stress in the field.  The micro-seismic data gives us insight into the permeability of the rocks involved, and the faults that exist in the reservoir.

Another PhD student, Jeremy Riffault (working wtih David Dempsey and I) is building numerical modelling approaches to help understand the micro-earthquakes which may occur during the development of enhanced geothermal systems.

Our shaky isles have some significant faults  (geologically speaking!). The recent quake activity shown below is challenging infrastructure, and has sadly caused fatalities.  However further north faults form an important component of the Taupo Volcanic Zone which provides the geological setting for most of the country's geothermal energy production.  That clean energy source produces around 16% of electricity per year.  So our faulted geology has its upsides!

NZ earthquake diagram

Map showing location of the M7.8 epicenter (star), M > 3.0 aftershocks up until 04:20 NZ time on the 18th November (n = 1,782). Credit: Google Earth/ GNS Science, CC BY 3.0 NZ




The last exam for the year took place on campus today.  So school's out for summer!  That does not mean the lyrics of the well known Alice Cooper song are drifting through the corridors.  Nor does it mean my staff and I are about to start a long summer break.

Research and innovation are part of the role academic staff have year round.  However when lectures and exams finish it's a prime opportunity to focus on research.  Summer is often a time to incubate and test new ideas.  Research directions that have promise may then be developed into funding proposals for external funding to support the work we do.  In particular there are deadlines for the Marsden fund during the summer.  That fund plays the very important role is supporting "blue sky research" driven by curiosity of the researchers, on projects where a commercial return is uncertain.  The return on such research can however be immense (for example Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin).


Marsden funding is competitive and highly prestigious.  Only 25% of proposals make it through the first round of evaluation.  Ultimately only around 11% of proposals succeed. The odds of success mean the application process is not for the faint-hearted!

In the latest round the Department of Engineering Science was very pleased to see one of it's senior lecturers (Dr Andrea Raith) awarded a $300,000 "Fast Start" Marsden grant for her work on solving multiobjective optimisation problems (MOPs), integrating ideas of problem decomposition and techniques to more effectively deal with complexity in MOPs.  That might sound abstract - however Andrea's work has significant applications in transportation, for example in deciding how to prioritise cycling infrastructure projects.