Professor Heinz Wolff

Heinz Wolff and the future of technology

After a high-profile career in engineering and science, Professor Heinz Wolff thinks that technical innovation is only part of the solution to the challenges facing 21st-century society.

Walking into Heinz Wolff's office in Brunel University, I can see that there's an engineering crisis of sorts. 'I'm fashioning a new set of spectacles,' the 83-year-old professor informs me with a twinkle in his eye. In fact, he's recycling components from two broken pairs to produce one functioning unit.

It's slightly bizarre to see this variant on the Theseus Paradox performed by the hands of a man more used to solving complex scientific challenges on our television screens. But it's a conundrum he evidently enjoys. He informs me that the original products cost no more than '£1.99 in Boots or something such', as though analysing a critical line in a project build-cost spreadsheet.

Proud of the economies made by the simple use of his hands, Wolff explains that 'all western nations will have to adjust to what is essentially a war economy, where we will need to make things that last longer and repair what is broken.' He tells me that he lectures at the department of Human Centred Design at Brunel, 'where I explain that the future of design will be to make things better – maybe more expensive – but with the potential to have a longer lifecycle and less waste of materials. All this without removing the adventure of having something new'.

Do we use our hands anymore?

We're sitting in Wolff's office surrounded by photographs of several generations of his family, gadgets he's invented (including an early prototype electronic book) and a much-modified moped. I ask him if universities have got it right when it comes to delivering opportunities for young engineers.

'I tend to think of things ten years too early. But I do think that we might teach people the wrong things at university. Of course, we need to produce engineers to maintain the technology systems we already have in place. And we need to produce bright people, and the UK seems to be very good at that. But whether there is a real need to produce a lot of engineers that we are going to notionally employ in production of one form or another, I don't know.'

But that's not the real question, he tells me, because the issue is why schools don't produce people who want to be engineers. 'In the development of a child, when the brain is still elastic, the feature of their education that we neglect is to nurture the ability to manipulate things.'

After the brain, Wolff explains, the 'most marvellous thing we have' is the hand: an actuator that can thread a needle one minute or wield a sledgehammer the next without modification. 'I firmly believe that the continual iteration of hand-eye-brain is how we became Homo sapiens.

'We started to make tools, acquired manual skills and could imagine a tool that would be better. And then there was a very important point in our development, which was that we could imagine a tool that could make a tool, which could then make something. This is a very sophisticated way of thinking.' His obvious implication is that this is the origin of engineering.

His hands flash across a QWERTY keyboard. 'Apart from typing, we don't use our hands. Girls don't embroider; boys don't play with Meccano. With these things you effectively develop an eye at the end of the finger, and you do this when you're seven years old. And it's really very clever. But it's gone.'

Wolff has lectured on the 'death of competence' and he thinks it's brought about by the abandonment of micromanipulation – doing something small and critical with the hand. 'Our engineering students can't make things. They might be able to design things on a computer, but they can't make things. And I don't believe that you can be an engineer properly, in terms of it circulating in your blood and your brain, without having a degree of skill in making things.' He explains that this is why apprenticeships were so good, because 'you actually made things while learning a bit of the theory'.

In neglecting to teach basic manual skills we are producing a generation that carries the seeds of its own impotence. Wolff believes that whilst all teachers agree children should be articulate and use language with precision and skill, 'they don't attach the same values to the use of their hands.'

This is one of the reasons why the UK's engineering capability is less developed than it might be. He knows he's going to upset people when he says it, but 'engineering isn't going to be as important to your future as it has been to our past.' Interest in SET subjects, he tells me, is in inverse proportion to the wealth and comfort of the country. 'So in Japan it is quite low. And so also in Britain. In Botswana it's enormously high. Maybe we're just growing out of it.'

Life after retirement

'I should state that I'm 83 years old and I joined the university late in career terms having worked on the Medical Research Council for 30 years.' He saw the dark clouds of civil science coming under financial pressure gathering on the horizon. It was obvious that he was going to run into 'financial buffers and I thought that if anyone were going to trim my wings I would trim them myself.'

Wolff's response was to head to the nearest university where he offered to found an institute that would be financially self-supporting. The vice chancellor agreed to the proposition and 'I started off in two rather broken down Portakabins that you can still see at the other end of the campus.

'We did quite well financially because I was working a great deal for the European Space Agency where I had a split personality job: I was chairman of a number of policy committees, but I was also a contractor. We made things for astronauts to use to do science in space.'

As the project became more successful Wolff looked for more Portakabins and 'so started a village that we called the Brunel Institute of Bioengineering.' His growing team set up space research programmes and also a project called Tools for Living.

'I'd made a forecast that elderly and disabled people would require technology to assist them and at the time this kind of technical research seemed to be rather downbeat. We formed a company as well as a charity and we became an appreciable-sized institute within this university.'

This burst of activity occurred in Wolff's late 50s and by his mid 60s he retired 'for the first of many times,' and the institute became more absorbed into the university. The modern building that houses the faculty today concentrates on biosciences of 'various kinds'.

The building, he informs me, only bears his name because 'I have a certain degree of notoriety'.

When popular science really was

'If there were to be an epitaph for me and it had to appeal to the public, it would refer to 'The Great Egg Race'. I was on the television screen for the best part of 30 years. I would be remembered for that, and not as the scientist that worked for the Medical Research Council. This is unless I bring Care4Care off.' (see below).

Wolff cheerfully admits that he's a 'TV science boffin', but is critically aware of the serious point that lies behind this: the advocacy of science to the wider public. I put it to him that in a world where the majority of young people have aspirations no higher than becoming a celebrity or a footballer, it's vital that technologists are visible on television.

'Yes, but it doesn't happen any more. I used to get an audience of 2.5 million on BBC2. People interacted with it, some even recorded it and went into their kitchens after the problem had been set.'

Experience taught Wolff that 'you don't have to be a Nobel prize-winning scientist' to be an effective communicator. 'This doesn't impress children or even adults. They have to like you. They don't care two hoots about how famous you are. It's much more about the frequency of exposure and a degree of trust. Of course, you need to have a certain talent for explaining complex concepts in a domestic analogy. But don't have to be a great scientist to do this.'

I put it to Wolff that in the UK at least it is not very conventional to have a TV presenter who is a German Jew with a heavy European accent. With his unconventional hair and spectacles, the bow tie from another era and an apparently distracted manner, Wolff satisfies in the public the desire to be educated by an eccentric. We laugh as we agree that Albert Einstein wouldn't be half so well remembered if he'd had sensible hair. Virtually everyone outside the technology community knows more about the photo of Einstein poking his tongue out than they do the Manhattan Project.

But what of Wolff's appearance? 'Oh I think I'm guilty of being a notorious eccentric. But, I don't get my hair cut that way, if that's what you're asking. And I don't put on my accent. I think in English. Although I might sometimes count in German. There are reasons for this connected with the archaeology of the mind. If you drill down into people's memories you'll come across words that were important when they were young, such as numbers. The memory erodes in a certain way and concepts like this can be important in researching Alzheimer's.' *

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