A life of patterns

I had left my return travel plans flexible and unplanned so, when the taxi dropped me off, I had 50 minutes to while away before my train left. As the railway station only offered a vending machine by way of refreshment, I went in search of something more substantial. Across the road there was a pleasant café and, being the only person to ‘eat in’, I had my choice of seat. As I waited for my order to be prepared, I sat back and absorbed my surroundings. Radio 2 was playing in the background and Jeremy Vine was asking the question: ‘What makes us human?’ He had invited the historian David Starkey to provide an answer to this question. So, instead of humming along to well known songs from days past, I was being forced to engage my brain and undergo a philosophy class. Having nothing else to do whilst I enjoyed my lunch, I heeded what he had to say.

Having run through some obvious traits that could be identified with humans and dismissing them as not being uniquely so, David Starkey suggested that what sets us apart from other animals is that we are pattern-making and, more importantly, pattern-seeking animals. He acknowledged that insects and birds make patterns, which are complex and beautiful, but that human patterns are infinitely larger and more complex. So, we not only build a house but we go on to build streets, suburbs, cities, railway networks and supply chains.

He went on to say that we use patterns to conquer time and space. We produce patterns that are visual (gardens and sculptors), auditory (music), olfactory (perfumes) and gustatory (food and drink). What is more, we produce patterns of the mind through mathematics and words. And these are not only patterns in their own right but they are ‘be-getters and creators of other patterns’. Word patterns generate novels, history and religion. He finished by saying that these patterns serve our deepest need, which is to see pattern, make sense of it and explain our place in the universe.

Two months ago I wrote about connections. Last month, I started out having made another connection. If you think about it, patterns are composed of connections and sometimes the pattern only reveals itself if we make the correct connection. Here, the adjective is key. It is so easy to make an erroneous connection. Just because two patterns are the same doesn’t mean that there is some other relationship between them. There is a website that shows examples of high correlations between graphs, over time, of two random, unrelated statistics. Two such examples are the matching of the divorce rate in Maine with the per capita consumption of margarine (US) and the inverse correlation of honey-producing bee colonies (US) with juvenile arrests for the possession of marijuana (US). Now, I cannot categorically state that these two pairs of data are totally unconnected but, just based on their similar patterns, it is not possible to state that they are.

Non-destructive testing is based on identifying patterns: patterns in dye; patterns in magnetic ink; dark patterns on radiographs; and ultrasonic echo patterns in A-scans and B-scans. This seeking of patterns, and the consequential deduction of the presence or absence of a flaw, we term data analysis. Analyse comes from the Greek ‘analuein’, which means ‘to unloose’. Hence, the dictionary definition is ‘to examine something in detail so as to explain it or to find out its structure or composition or, alternatively, to separate something into its component parts’. This definition matches my view of analysis.

Then I read a book, not an NDT book by the way, in which the author suggested that analysts impose their perceptions on the world. Again, this resonates with my view of the way we analyse NDT data: we have preconceived patterns that we look for in the data and as soon as we see an expected pattern, or similar, we make our decision.

The author went on to suggest that an alternative approach is through contemplation: a contemplative seeks what the world is telling them, looks at the connections and sees the situation. Contemplate means ‘to look at thoughtfully, think about or think deeply and at length’.

Analyse and contemplate are not mutually exclusive; in fact they are complementary. I would suggest that the best NDT operators, in any method, contemplate before they analyse. However, no one ever mentions the contemplation step and, when we come to produce a procedure, it is the analysis perceptions that hold sway.

Data interpretation will be improved by seeking what the data is telling us, looking at the connections and seeing the actual patterns that are present. Then, the analysis can kick in and those patterns can be matched to known defect patterns. And, if nothing else, at least we know we are doing something intrinsically human!

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of Amec Foster Wheeler or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton NN2 6JB. Fax: 01604 89 3861; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrath@amec.com

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